Cart wheels rattled against rough, uneven ground, and the sound echoed through the thick woods, breaking the unusual silence that penetrated it. Ordinarily, this part of the Tes’sha Forest would be teeming with life, from squirrels to fierce wolverines. There were few of those left, now; the events of the past three days had sent even the bravest of these creatures scurrying away as fast as their legs could carry them. The wheels struck a depression, and the resulting hard thump startled the man driving the cart. He flicked the reins in his hand, urging his horses to continue forward. They whinnied in protest, but picked up their hooves a little faster.
Their pace still wasn’t fast enough for Achek Rakja. With a sigh of frustration, he held the reins between his knees, freeing his hands so he could rub his eyes, which were clouded with fatigue. His haggard beard hadn’t been trimmed in days, and the gray tinge to his skin made him look much older than his twenty-six years.
He had put nearly a full days’ travel between himself and the stone spire that had formerly been his home, but it didn’t feel like enough distance. Then again, he didn’t think any distance would ever be enough between him and the tower. Achek hung his head and tried not to recall what had begun a week ago for a little while; he had thought about it far too much during his journey as it was.
An hour later, as he was beginning to doze off in the carriage seat, his horses slowed to a stop. Achek growled and flicked the reins insistently, hoping desperately that the animals hadn’t tired to the point where he would have to lead them. He heard a sharp whinny, but the horses wouldn’t move any further. Lifting his head, he looked ahead to see what had stopped them.
Ahead of him, the lane widened, and on either side of it lay a tiny, nameless village that had been carved out of the woods. Achek and his master, Giga, had often visited this place for supplies; it was the only town anywhere near the tower in which they had lived. With a sigh of relief, Achek urged the stubborn horses slowly forward toward the little inn located in the middle of town.
The town was practically deserted; almost everyone was in the forest, either hunting or chopping wood for fires or furniture. On one side of town, the trees had been cleared away to make room for an apple orchard, which had been planted in neat rows. In a few days, the fruit that hung from the branches of the short, narrow trees would be ready to be picked. Achek made a mental note to buy some before he left town; fresh fruit would be a welcome snack on the long journey he still had ahead of him. “Never mind that I still don’t know where I’m going...” he murmured in disgust.
As he passed the town’s tavern, Achek noticed eyes watching him from the shady porch that lined the front of the building. Three old men lounged in chairs, sipping ale out of earthenware mugs. As soon as Achek made eye contact, the leftmost man called out to him. “Here, Achek! We have’na seen ya in months, lad! C’mere and tell these ol’ men wha’ that kook ya’s studyin' unda is up ta.”
Achek flinched visibly, and the middle man, who had apparently not had as much to drink as his companions, studied him and his full cart with keen eyes. “What’s happen’d ta ya, boy?” he said after a moment. “Ya look like ya’s packed up and moved out.”
With a sigh, Achek pulled the reins, and his horses slowed to halt with a relieved collective whinny. “I’m not in the mood for any teasing,” he said crossly. “I’ve been riding all night. Haven’t you anything better to do than sit around and drink?”
“We’re retired,” the man on the right put in, emphasizing the word.
“So that’s what they call it these days,” Achek muttered. He turned in his seat in the front of the cart, and placed one foot against the side of it. Resting one arm on his knee, he leaned forward and said, “If you must know, yes, I’m leaving. But there’s nothing of value to any of you in here.” He jerked his thumb at the cart. He was glad he had thought to throw a sheet of canvas over it and cast a spell over the whole thing that would keep anyone from snooping around inside it. Not that anyone would be particularly interested in its contents; it mostly contained his master’s spellbooks, some provisions, and a few of his personal belongings. The important things he kept in the front of the cart next to him. With his foot, he slowly pushed a long, wrapped bundle further under the seat, keeping his gaze carefully fixed on the old men.
“Does this have anythin’ ta do with all tha quakes that rolled through three days hence?” the man on the right asked.
Avoiding the middle man’s sharp gaze, Achek nodded. “The earthquakes you felt were one of many side effects to a magical experiment gone horribly wrong." He narrowed his eyes and added quickly, “And much worse will happen if you or anyone else attempts to get near the tower. I searched through Master’s spellbooks for the strongest curse I could find to guard the place.” And L-Sama knows there’s more than enough power to maintain the spell, he thought, with all the energy that’s being bounced back and forth between the broadsword and magic circle in the tower. That system should maintain the curse I placed for a thousand years, maybe more, if no one powerful enough disturbs it.
“And wha’ of ya teacher?” the man on the left asked, interrupting Achek’s thoughts.
Achek swallowed. “He...passed on...”
The three men exchanged glances, and then the middle one spoke up. “All that magic finally got to ‘im, did’na it? I warn’d him years ago, I did, tha’ it would.” He scrutinized Achek’s cart one more time, then shrugged and placed his mug on the wooden porch. “Well, if’n ya’s say not ta venture near tha tower, no one ‘ere’s arguin’ wit’ ya. We was just wonderin’ if the old kook had anythin’ he wanted to pass on ta tha community, in r’turn for all tha times he disturb’d our peace, wha wit’ all ‘is experiments.” His eyes glittered greedily.
With a deliberate shrug, Achek replied, “Not that I would know of. I was just his apprentice.”
The man on the left guffawed, slapped his hand against his knee, and elbowed the middle man. “Guess’n he told ya!” he chortled.
The middle man glared at his drinking buddy, and turned to Achek with a tense smile. “Well, now that ya’s movin’ on, I guess I can tell ya tha I’ve always d’spised that man. Too arrogant for ‘is own good, he was. An’ when he wasn’t arrogant, he was too crazy.”
“I suppose his reputation won’t be enough to keep you from the tower, just to see if I left anything behind of value,” Achek called back. He shrugged and turned to his horses, gathering the reins in his hands. “Well, suit yourself. Go treasure-hunting,” he threw out, “and see for yourself why Master Giga was more powerful than anyone gave him credit for."
With a calculated glare, the middle man leaned back in his chair, picked up his mug, and took a long draw from it. Achek took that to mean the conversation was over, and flicked the reins, leading the horses further down the road to the little inn two buildings away, shaking his head in disgust. "They'll get themselves killed by the dragon I put at the tower within a week," he muttered. He didn't need magic or prophesies to know that much.
To say the Tes'sha Forest was large was an understatement. It covered almost a quarter of the entire continent, starting below the deserts to the north and stretching almost to the southern tip of the continent in a long ribbon. Its eastern border bulged and receded irregularly, forming sprawling plains where farmers grew grains and cotton, bordered by acres upon acres of teeming woodlands. Achek had blundered his way through two of those plains already in the past two weeks, heading northeast toward an unnamed mountain on his map that seemed like it would be an excellent place to hide the second piece of his master's failed experiment.
Achek was, if nothing else, a man of his word. He had promised a dying Giga to scatter the pieces of his experiment throughout the remotest parts of the world, so that no one person would ever be able to wield them at the same time. Destroying them, Giga told him, was out of the question. Their power was too great for any mere mortal to be able to dispose of them. Giga was an old man of questionable sanity, but he knew what he was talking about when it came to magic, and that was why Achek trusted what he said. Truthfully, he couldn't wait to get rid of the bundles that lay pulsating with power at his feet under his seat in the front of the cart.
Now Achek's two horses were tugging his wooden cart down the faded remains of a path that looked as if no one had traveled it in twenty years. It was a good thing the animals were well trained; they followed the path with barely any direction from him. The young sorcerer had stayed up far too late most nights, pondering what had happened back at the stone tower that had been his home and what he would do now that his master was gone. He was so tired he could barely keep his head upright to watch the path ahead of him.
It wasn't until Achek heard sharp crack and felt an explosion of pain in the side of his head that he awoke with a shout. Startled, his horses neighed and slowed to a halt, snorting and pawing the ground nervously. Flailing his arms, Achek struck the wooden bench he had been sitting on and yelped, and he realized that the world was sideways. Or, rather, that he was sideways--he had fallen asleep on his perch at the front of the cart and slumped to the side until his head struck the wooden side of the cart. Groaning with pain, he put a hand to his head and automatically began muttering a healing spell to bring down the lump that was already forming just above his left temple.
It took a moment for him to realize it, but suddenly he became aware of the fact that he couldn't feel the usual warmth of a healing spell in his hand and that the lump on his head was only getting bigger, not smaller. That thought drove his fatigue away quickly, and Achek shook his head a little to clear it, ignoring the wave of dizziness that washed over him. "Feh, I can't even cast a healing spell right when I'm this tired," he muttered in annoyance. He pulled his hand away from his head and squinted down at his fingers, which came in and out of focus, and cast the healing spell again.
Nothing happened, except that it now looked as if he had seven fingers instead of five. Achek shook his hand and tried the spell once again, but to no avail. The familiar white glow refused to come to his fingers, and the comforting feeling of healing magic being gathered in his hand was conspicuously absent. Wide-eyed and now quite awake, he was just about to try another spell to see if that, too, would not work, when an arrow lodged itself into the side of his cart with a thunk.
His horses reared back in fright, and Achek scrambled for the reins, shouting to the animals to keep them from breaking away from the cart while fighting back waves of dizziness. Glancing around frantically, he suddenly noticed a woman standing fifteen feet to his left amidst the trees, holding a bow fitted with an arrow in her slender hands. Four children--or was it two?--clung to her simple, homespun skirts, their wide eyes fixed curiously at him. She did not shoot at him again, but instead waited until he got his horses under control and jumped down from the cart, a sickeningly dizzy feeling seizing his head as he landed.
"You have a concussion, stranger," the woman called over to him shrewdly, looking him up and down appraisingly as he staggered against the side of the cart, struggling to bring his surroundings into focus. "If you have brought others with you, or if you intend us harm, you will have far more to worry about than a head injury. However, if you're alone, and unarmed, we can treat you."
"We?" Achek repeated weakly. Suddenly, he noticed a boy and a girl of about twelve, each wearing green tunics and brown hose on their three legs--three legs?--hiding in the trees. The girl held a knife in each hand by the blade and one between her teeth, while the boy held a bow fitted with what looked to him like several arrows aimed directly at Achek's heart.
"[He hasn't eaten in days,]" observed one little girl clutching the woman's skirts, peering at Achek knowingly. "[I can sense it--my stomach is cramping up.]" Achek clutched the side of the cart with one hand and squinted at the girl, wondering what kind of language she was speaking. It wasn't any tongue with which he was familiar, but then again it could be he hadn't understood because of the splitting pain that was lancing through his head.
The woman looked down at the little girl with a kind smile. "[Good job, Ijana. Your empathy is getting better,]" she replied in the same throaty, guttural foreign tongue. Looking over at the boy hidden in the trees, she called, "[Kendrik, has the stranger been followed?]"
The sandy-haired boy in the trees closed his eyes, and, after a moment, shook his head. "[I don't think so, miss,]" he replied. "[I can't sense anyone here but us.]"
"[Good,]" the woman replied. Switching back to Achek's language, she said calmly, "Now, sir, if you turn over any weapons you hold and give us your word you won't harm us, we'll--"
Her words fell on deaf ears, however. Right in the middle of her sentence, Achek, weak from hunger, fatigue, and injury, fell to the ground in a dead faint. "[Oh bother,]" the woman huffed. "[Come along, children. Let's get him up to my house.]"
"[He's handsome,]" the girl in the tree observed after she jumped down and spat out her knife on the ground. She sheathed one of the knives in a loop on her belt and grabbed the one she had dropped.
The woman stepped up to the fallen sorcerer with an amused twinkle in her green-blue eyes. "[Then perhaps you should marry him,]" she said teasingly. "[Come on, let's get him into his cart and off this path. Kendrik, Yirikh, erase his tracks all the way back to the stream. We don't want any strangers following him here.]"
"[Yes, miss,]" Kendrik said, and joined another boy who had been standing by the woman's side. They scampered down the path, the dust behind them slowly shifting of its own accord to fill the hoofprints and cart tracks created by Achek's ride.
Looking down at Achek thoughtfully, the woman and one of the girls by her side lifted their hands into the air and slowly his limp form rose off the ground. They deposited Achek on the seat of his cart and the girl took the nervous horses' reins, whispering comforting words to them as she pulled them off the path and through gaps in the trees. The other children walked alongside the cart, the girl with the knives brushing foliage out of their way. The woman walked after the cart slowly, wondering what had brought a lone stranger to this part of the forest when none had ventured this way in months.
When Achek regained consciousness, the sounds of clanging metal, children's laughter, and the scratching of a pen filled his ears. He could feel something soft under him and a tightly wound bandage around his head. He scrunched his brows together and cracked one eye open.
"Ah, so you're awake, Rakja-san," came a feminine voice to his right. Startled at hearing his name, Achek opened both eyes and looked to the source of the voice. The woman who had shot the arrow at his cart was seated on a little wooden chair, turned away from the desk along the wall next to her so she could look at him. She put down her quill pen, smiled slightly, and said, "You've been out for almost an hour and a half. Amica healed your head, and she found a bruise on your arm, so she healed that, too. She couldn't do anything about your hunger, but we’re in luck--Simok and Shiri caught a boar for the village, and they’re outside roasting it. You'll be able to eat soon."
"Mnn..." Achek could only reply noncommittally. The woman was speaking a little too fast for him to understand.
At that, she rose from her seat and crossed the little one-room cabin to Achek's bedside. Scrutinizing his eyes carefully, she muttered, "Perhaps I'll have to call Amica back. She may have missed something..."
Achek studied the woman who was leaning over him. She was probably around his age, twenty-five or twenty-six, although the little lines that creased her brow and branched from the corners of her eyes almost made her look a little older. She had long, blonde hair, but it was tied back messily in a low ponytail, with strands falling out and framing her face. Before he had passed out, he thought she looked slender; up close she almost looked emaciated. Her arms were bone thin and her waist was down right tiny. Still, she carried herself with the kind of quiet strength and confidence that results from hardship. Right now, her face, which was quite pretty, he had to admit, was pinched with concern, and she reached out to run a hand over his forehead.
"I'm-I'm all right," Achek said hoarsely. "Just a little confused, that's all." He tried to smile up at her reassuringly, and she straightened and nodded.
"I understand. You've never been anywhere like here, I can guarantee you that." She brushed some stray strands of hair away from her face and put her hands on her hips. "Are you thirsty?" Achek nodded. He could still feel some pain in the side of his head when he moved, but his vision was clear and the sickening feeling in his stomach was gone, so he ignored the pain. She turned, walked over to her desk, and picked up a pitcher that rested on its surface. Then, out of nowhere, an earthenware mug suddenly appeared in her other hand. Achek blinked in surprise, and wondered if his concussion was truly healed, as she had said.
The woman returned to his side and handed him the mug, and then helped him sit up. He brought the mug to his lips and nodded his thanks to her, then drank the water within it down. When he finished, he passed her the mug and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "What's your name?" he asked as she placed the mug on the desk.
She smiled and said simply, "Erika."
"And how did you know my name?" Achek asked.
"Yes, you called me by my name when I first woke up."
The woman who called herself Erika shrugged her small shoulders and explained, "Once we brought you here, a few of our warriors poked through your cart to make sure there were no weapons. They found a book with a name inscribed on the cover, and brought it to me because they couldn't read it. They also found two bundles, one of which held a short sword within it, but it looked more like an heirloom than anything else; you had obviously never used it, so they left it."
With that, Achek sat bolt upright against the protest of his aching head. "Y-you what?!" he sputtered. "How...You...They..." He shook his head and started over. "How did they get past my guarding spell?" he asked incredulously.
Erika looked confused. "Spell?" She shook her head, and suddenly her face took on a guarded expression. "Such things are of no use here."
Achek sucked in a breath in sudden understanding. He held out a hand and chanted a Lightning spell. Instead of seeing a bright, little ball appear in his palm, nothing happened.
"Was that more of your magic?" Erika asked, looking at his hand with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.
"It was supposed to be," he replied darkly. Waving his hands, he decided to take a gamble; he held both of them out and whispered, "Dill Brando!" Again, nothing happened. He turned and gazed at Erika with a mixture of disbelief and wonderment. "Could this place be somehow...somehow disconnected from the Astral Side?" he breathed. Erika simply shrugged, looking at him carefully. "Yes, that must be it," he said excitedly. That means...that means..." Suddenly, he felt a very urgent need to get to his cart and check on the bundles hidden under his seat, to see if they were still pulsating with power.
"It means?" Erika prompted, her careful expression melting into outright suspicion.
"It means I've found a great hiding place for something that I never want any sorcerer to find!" he answered her, grinning broadly. "I can get rid of the short sword here, and then--are there other places like this, that have no connection to the Astral Side?"
"I wouldn't know," Erika replied noncommittally.
"That's all right, if there's one, there are hopefully others." He chortled and said gleefully, "No one would ever think to look here!"
"What are you babbling about?" Erika said in a low tone, her green-blue eyes narrowed. "I think I should call Amica back. You're obviously not well." With that, over Achek's protests, Erika bustled across the wooden floor to a door that swung open before she touched the handle. "Don't move; I'll be right back," she said just before disappearing outside.
While she was gone, Achek fell back against his pillow and gazed around the little wooden one-room cabin. Erika's desk stood against one wall, and above it a window covered with scraps of cloth sewn together leaked some light. Other than a nightstand to his right, the room was bare except for the bed under him and the cupboards on the walls. As he examined the room, his mind was racing with implications that he had somehow stumbled upon a place in which the Astral Side did not exist. He was too busy planning how he'd get rid of another piece of his master's experiment to ponder the strange things that had happened so far, including the cup that had appeared out of nowhere and the door that had swung open of its own accord.
Five minutes later, Erika appeared through the door, speaking rapidly in the same harsh-sounding language the girl in the forest had used to another young woman, who followed behind her with a confused expression on her face. "[I healed everything I could sense wrong with him, Erika,]" she was saying as she walked in.
"[I know. He just started babbling, though, and I want to make sure the concussion hasn't addled his brain.]" Erika replied.
Achek sat up as the women made their way over to his bedside. The woman with Erika, who he guessed was Amica, looked about as different from Erika as possible. Her dark hair was clipped short, and it clung to her head in ringlets, accenting her slightly sloped, black eyes. She was clad in a white tunic and pants, and her skin was a milky white, in contrast to Erika's tanned complexion. Even though she was probably Erika's age, her face held none of the worry lines Erika's did. She bent over Achek, waving one hand through the air about a foot away from his head. She turned to Erika and shook her head. "[He's fine,]" she pronounced. "[You may want to keep him around for a little while, though--I can't sense illnesses in the mind, remember. That's more your department than mine.]" Amica straightened suddenly, and cocked her head to the side. "[Marhanna is going into labor--real labor this time,]" she said hurriedly. "[Her husband is calling me. I must go.]"
Erika nodded, and Amica vanished from sight.
Achek stared at the place Amica had just occupied, and his mouth dropped in shock. "Did she...did she..." He flicked the fingers on one hand outward and said weakly, "Poof?"
With a scowl, Erika nodded. "She should have been more careful around an outsider," she said. "And if you think you're going to get an explanation right now, Rakja-san, you're wrong. I haven't had the chance to see if you're trustworthy, so you won't find out anything until I take a good look in that mind of yours."
Erika planted a hand firmly on Achek's chest and pushed him down to the pillow. "Amica couldn't find anything wrong with you, but I'm not sure what to do with you yet, so you're staying here for a while. If you try to leave the village, our warriors will assume you have evil intentions and will not hesitate to kill you. Now, I have to go--my duties in the village don't excuse me to look after you and I must conserve my strength. Go to sleep until I bring you some food."
"But I don't want to--"
"Sleep," Erika said firmly, and before he could say another word, Achek's eyes closed and his head rolled back on his pillow. Erika sighed heavily, and, after a moment, disappeared from the room, leaving a gently snoring Achek behind.
The next day, he was allowed to leave Erika’s cabin, since, she reasoned, he had already realized that others in the little village seemed to have powers not unlike Erika's. They wouldn't let him leave town however, apparently afraid that he would return with others. So, he sat in the village square, watching in amazement as the people went about their daily chores using power the likes of which he had never seen before. No one in the village would explain to him where they got their strange abilities. Even the children would simply giggle and avoid his questions when he tried to bribe answers from them with a little bit of candy that he had bought along on his journey. When he asked Erika to explain to him what was going on in the village: how this strange people came to be there, why they had the power they did, and why the area had no connection with the Astral Side, she simply shook her head and said she would tell him more once she looked at his mind, and she would only do that when she had the energy--whatever that meant.
By the time four days passed, Achek was becoming an accepted part of the village--people stopped staring at him as he wandered through town, and small children would sometimes come up to him and ask him to play with them. Erika acted strangely toward him, however; sometimes she was quite friendly, but other times she seemed cold, as if he had wounded her somehow. She wasn't around much during the day, but he had no idea what she was doing while she was gone, nor why she looked so tired when he saw her at dinnertime. Since she seemed to be the one in charge of the village, Achek assumed her solemn attitude was due to stress and fatigue more than dislike for him, although he wondered what it was that upset her about him.
Achek was starting to become almost comfortable in the village, sleeping in a cabin near Erika’s that had belonged to a man who had married and moved into another cabin. It was peaceful there, despite its strangeness, he decided. Perhaps the other villagers noticed this peace in him, because Achek soon found himself making friends with some of the people tending the rough-hewn cabins they lived in or making arrows out of bits of metal and thin twigs. He also talked to some of the young men and women who came back each day from hunting, sometimes victorious, sometimes empty-handed.
Despite the fact that food and clean water seemed scarce, the villagers always made sure he had something to eat each night at dinner in front of a communal fire in the village square. He often ended up secretly passing half his meals to the children, though--too many of them were too thin, like Erika. Another thing he observed about the village was how sparse many of the families were--many of them seemed to be run by an oldest sibling, with parents conspicuously absent. There were very few people above the age of twenty, he noticed, but when he asked someone about it, she simply shuddered and refused to answer his question.
Something else Achek found interesting was that some of the villagers knew his language, while others didn't. Most of them seemed to be able to understand him, though, even when he was speaking a language he knew they didn't speak themselves. Some of them knew other languages with which Achek had a passing familiarity, indicating to him that they were originally from places far to the south of this part of the Tes'sha Forest. After realizing this, and observing how nervously the teenage "warriors", as Erika had put it, guarded the village, he eventually concluded that this was probably a town of refugees who had come together after some great tragedy.
All of these details Achek drank in quietly, biding his time until Erika explained to him what her village was all about. In the meantime, on the morning of his fifth day in the village, he managed to buy a map of the local forest from a man who identified himself as one of the village scribes. He was a few days' journey from the mountain that had been his original destination, and he still intended to bury the short sword that had been part of Giga's experiment within it. But, for now, his cart was parked behind Erika's cabin, and no one had disturbed it since his arrival. He had been mystified as to how someone had slipped past his guarding spell so easily to search it, but after pondering about it for a while he began to form his suspicions that these people neither knew nor used magic as he did.
Finally, a week after he had arrived at the village, Erika called him into her cabin and sat down at her desk wearily, indicating he should take a seat on her bed. Achek complied, and waited for her to speak.
"I'm sorry to have kept you here for so long," she began after a few moments. She raised a hand to keep him from saying anything in reply and continued. "Our village has been struggling to survive for a long time, now, and I must conserve my energy. Certain things..." she said, waving a hand in a vague gesture, "looking into minds and the like, take a lot out of me. You didn't seem to have any malicious intentions, so I felt I could postpone making a decision about you for a little while. If you betrayed us, we could simply kill you, anyway," she said with a shrug that seemed out of character to Achek. She paused, giving him a measuring look, and rose from her seat. "At any rate, hold still and don't be afraid. I won't pry into anything too personal, and you won't feel any pain."
With that, Erika stepped over to him and held a hand over his head, her eyes closed. Fifteen minutes crawled past; finally, her shoulders slumped and she exhaled heavily. She took her hand away and nodded with satisfaction. "Just as I suspected. You had no idea where you were when you found us, and you mean us no harm."
"I could have told you that," Achek said jovially, but the smile on his lips died when Erika's expression remained solemn. "I'm sorry," he murmured.
Waving a hand, she said quickly, "It's all right. I'm just tired, that's all. Like I said, certain things...drain my energies faster than others. Looking into others' minds is one of them." She pulled her chair over to the middle of the room and sank down on it.
Leaning forward, a look of concern crossed Achek's face. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Biting her lip, Erika searched his chocolate-brown eyes and bearded face, and seemed to make up her mind about something. She looked away and murmured, "You remind me so much of my husband," she said softly, a pained look on her face. "You even look a little like him." She sighed and said heavily, "Sometimes I even think you are him, when I look at you out of the corner of my eye. But he's been gone for a year--he was killed, and that's part of the reason this village is here."
This surprised Achek. "I...I'm sorry..." he said quietly, not knowing what else to say. No wonder she had acted so coldly toward him sometimes.
She shook her head. "It's not your fault. He--" she paused, and balled one hand into a fist on her lap, her voice tight with emotion. "He was a great warrior, and he died with honor. He must have wanted our child with him in heaven, though--I lost the baby during the journey here." Her eyes misted over and she quickly brushed at them with one hand.
Achek reached across the distance that separated them and took one of her hands in his own. "I hate to drag bad memories to the surface. If you don't want to say anything more, that's fine."
Erika smiled gratefully and squeezed his hand. "Thank you for your concern. I'll be fine, and I’m sure you’d like an explanation. I wouldn’t ordinarily tell an outsider all this, but..." She trailed off, then whispered, “You just look so much like him...perhaps that is a sign to tell me I can trust you. That's...that's truthfully why I've kept you around for this long.”
Achek searched her eyes for a moment, a little surprised at her admission, then nodded. "All right, I'm listening."
With that, Erika began explaining everything. Many years ago, for no apparent reason, small clusters of children near the Tes'sha Forest somehow found themselves developing unexplained powers once they reached puberty. At first, these powers amounted to nothing more than vague premonitions and sudden, uncontrolled episodes of telepathy between two people. By the time two generations passed, however, young teenagers with these powers were sometimes becoming dangerous. Whole buildings would explode when they were angry or uncontrolled bursts of lightning or fire would shoot out of their hands. Fatally ill people would suddenly be cured in their presence, or objects would spontaneously disappear, only to reappear ten feet away. Some of these teenagers were killed by the fearful townspeople around them, while others were mistaken for budding sorcerers and sent away to magic guilds. The majority, however, began to band together in small clusters within their villages. They learned to control and hide their abnormalities into adulthood, but soon they realized their children had the same kind of strange abilities they did.
The clusters of these exceptional people began to grow large--too large for the normal people around them. Families with abnormal power began leaving their homes and forming farming villages of their own, populated only by people of their own kind. They called themselves Chakar, which meant "people of unusual power" in a dying dialect called Ancient Chorioni they adopted as a sort of code language. Keeping their power mostly a secret from the outside world, they lived peaceful, undisturbed lives for years, Erika said, until a drought struck the Tes'sha area, and the non-Chakar people began blaming their Chakar neighbors for their dying crops and dwindling food supplies.
"There was a drought a year ago in some parts of the world, I heard," Janak said, and Erika nodded grimly.
"I lived in a little Chakar village with my husband--we hadn't been married more than eight months when our village was attacked. Both my husband and my brother fought against the men armed with magic and swords who poured into our town, but I couldn't. A Chakar woman loses her power when she is with child," she explained.
"But...but your kind are so powerful!" Achek protested. "How could those people do anything against you?"
Erika winced and ticked off on her fingers, "First, we had become complacent, depending on our special abilities to get us through anything. We had never thought to place guards at my village, so they were able to take us by surprise. Second, we were attacked at night, and that made things more confusing, of course. Third, there were too many of the attackers, and they were ruthless. They killed children as well as adults without mercy. Fourth, while their magic seems to be directly ineffective against Chakar, earth and fire attacks can still harm us indirectly. They set the village on fire and cause the earth itself to attack us, but those who could escaped into the forest. Almost all of our warriors--most of them the parents of the young women and men who live here--were killed."
Achek looked at her, wide-eyed with shock. "That's terrible!" he gasped. "I figured everyone here was a refugee from something...but I had no idea..."
Nodding with tears in her eyes, Erika continued, "My husband was killed in the fighting--he died so I could get away. My brother Connor somehow managed to escape. He warned the other Chakar villages in the area, and they escaped deep into the forest as well. The mob found some of them, though, and killed them as well. Connor directed us to this place, far from our farms--to this day I don't know how he found it--and told us we'd be safe from magic-users like the people who attacked us. An army of sorcerers would be afraid to venture into a place in which they'd be prevented from using their main weapon, he reasoned. Then, Connor left, saying he was going to help Chakar like us throughout the continent. I haven't heard from him since."
Achek shook his head sadly. "And now you live here, still afraid that someone will attack your village. You don't have enough food and water to live by, do you." It wasn't a question. Erika stammered something about being able to get by, but he held up a hand. "You're too thin--you and the rest of the people here. Can't you get help from the other groups of Chakar refugees?"
Erika hesitated, looking uncomfortable. "Well...some of them won't have contact with us. Since we couldn't hold off the men who attacked us, they've blamed us for the decimation of our people."
"And the rest?" Achek asked, anger flashing across his face. How could anyone blame Erika or her people for such misfortune?
"Many of them can barely get by, themselves. We have no farms, so we must live off the forest, but we're not so adept at that." She shook her head helplessly. "We can't often go into towns to buy supplies, since we're afraid of what would happen if outsiders found out about us. We could be attacked again! The children--young adults--here are skilled, but they are not enough to hold off an attack like the one I survived. And besides, none of them have been trained to think before using their power. They just do it automatically because we need every last ounce of help to stay alive. What if one of them did something suspicious without thinking, and ended up being killed for it? We have no choice but to rely on ourselves for everything."
With that, Achek stood up. "I can't abide by that," he said, walking over to the window over Erika's desk, lifting up the frayed little curtain and looking out at the little houses illuminated by the starlight and the light of the torches a pair of guards carried through the path. Turning to her, he said, "I'm going to help. No, don't look at me that way. You've brought me here and done nothing but take care of me." He shook his head stubbornly. "I'm going to help you. I have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do save one thing. I have to go hide something in the mountains--I'll explain later--but then I'm going to go get you supplies. Anything you need. I can go places without letting things slip since I don't have the power you do. You can make a list, and I'll get everything I can."
"But we have no money!" Erika exclaimed in protest, jumping out of her chair and rushing to his side. "We could never pay for what we need, and even if you could, we'd never be able to pay you back!"
Achek thought of the bundles in his cart, especially of the bundle of gems left over from making the items Giga needed for his experiment stashed in a hidden compartment in his cart. "Don't worry about money," he assured her. "I came into some, you could say, when my teacher passed on."
Erika studied his face, at first shocked, but the shock melted into gratitude. "I--I can't believe you'd do that for us. You don't owe us anything...you're not one of us..."
"You've made me feel like one of you, though," Achek pointed out. He suddenly grinned at her, and said, "As long as you'll meet me when I come back--without shooting an arrow at me this time--I'll be happy to do it."
Erika didn't know what came over her, but she suddenly threw her arms around Achek's broad shoulders and kissed him on the cheek. "I don't know how to thank you," she gasped, and pulled back as quickly as she had hugged him. Her eyes teary with happiness, she dashed out the door. "I have to tell Amica--she's needed medical supplies for months!"
As the door banged shut, Achek grinned after Erika, feeling better than he had since before Giga died. Suddenly, he felt like his life had direction--this village had given him direction. Plus, if he stayed here, he wouldn't run into any more crazy sorcerers with strange prophetic dreams. If he never had to use magic again in his life, he suddenly realized he would never miss it.
A year passed, and in that time Achek was finally able to put what had happened to Giga and his experiment behind him. Giga's death had been sudden and shocking, and his prophesies from the Lord of Nightmares disturbed Achek so much that he never wanted to think about them again. He hid the final two parts of Giga's failed experiment, the short sword within the mountain, and the last bundle in another faraway place disconnected from the Astral Plane , and settled down in Erika's village to begin life anew. The only souvenirs of his time with Giga that were left were his spellbooks. Achek didn't have the heart to destroy them, but he couldn't let them fall into evil hands--Giga had made that much clear. Erika was the one who proposed a solution: Ancient Chorioni was a dying language in other parts of the world because it was so difficult to write, but it was quickly becoming the official language of her people. Since she was a scribe, and was therefore able to write in Ancient Chorioni, she translated Giga's spellbooks and his journal and rewrote them so that Achek could destroy the originals. No sorcerer would ever be able to read about Giga’s experiment and Achek's notes about it again, Erika and Achek reasoned.
Achek enjoyed the peacefulness and simplicity of life in the village once he became accustomed to the villagers' strange abilities. What kept him in the little Chakar town more than anything else, however, was Erika. Once her initial hesitation to get to know him faded, they had become quite a pair, and it was no surprise to anyone when Achek asked her to marry him. The happy couple settled down in Erika's cabin, and, not long after they were wed, Erika discovered with joy that she was pregnant.
The peace and tranquility in the Chakar village didn't last forever, however. Summer was beginning in the Tes'sha Forest, and Achek once again traveled to a town far to the south to buy supplies. While he was in the town's general store, a bundle of bandages for Amica in his arms, he overheard some people talking.
"Looks like war..."
"...elves are banding together even now..."
"The guilds...best sorcerers and sorceresses..."
"...could defeat the dark lord, Shaburanigdo..."
He could barely catch what the men and women clustered near the back counter were saying, so he moved into the next aisle and strained his ears so he could hear better.
"Everyone is joining forces--the elves, humans, dwarves. It's our only hope of keeping the dark lord from destroying everything," a young man with a soldier's uniform and build was saying. "If your town has anyone gifted enough in magic to fight, we desperately need the help."
There was a collective murmur from the people around him, and one woman stepped forward. "I can fight," she said, obviously scared but trying to look brave. "I was trained at one of the guilds in the north, and settled here once I learned all I could there."
The soldier nodded. "I'll be at the inn for another day--if any of the rest of you know someone who is skilled in sorcery, please send them to me. For now, I'm parched, and I need to give you some information about how to join our forces, miss. Where is the local tavern?" he asked, looking around. Several of the people led him out the door, talking in hushed tones among themselves, obviously upset about the soldier's news. As they left, Achek stared at the bandages in his arms, lost in thought, until the shopkeeper interrupted him to ask him if he'd accidentally cast a spell that glued his feet to the floor.
News of the impending war spread like wildfire throughout the town. Achek had planned to stay in the inn that evening anyway, so, while he was eating dinner in the inn's dining room, he couldn't help but overhear the soldier describing what was happening far away to a large crowd of townsfolk. The soldier called it the Kouma Sensou, or War of the Resurrection of the Demon King, because somehow the Mazoku had found a way to restore to life a piece of their lord, Ruby-Eye Shaburanigdo. Mazoku were wreaking havoc all over the continent, in both towns and farms, letting loose hordes of nightmarish beings of all kinds to stir up the fear on which they fed--trolls, werewolves, ogres, and fishmen, to name a few. It sounded to Achek like the situation was getting desperate, and that the Mazoku definitely had the upper hand. But it wasn't until the soldier mentioned something about the wave of forest demons that was slowly spreading throughout the continent into the Tes'sha Forest that Achek was motivated to leave his half-finished meal and go over to talk to him.
"What do you mean, spreading?" Achek asked, eyeing the solider carefully, standing beside his table. The people the soldier had been talking to had mostly dispersed, taking his news back to their families or discussing it among themselves at other tables in the dining room.
The soldier shrugged his brawny shoulders and looked up at Achek. "They've destroyed two logging towns already," he said. "I heard somehow one village was able to hold them off--apparently there were a lot of sorcerers in it--but the other two were decimated. Why?" he asked.
Achek hesitated, reluctant to give out details. No one in this town knew exactly where he lived; they had basically taken him for a hermit who lived alone somewhere in the woods. "I live in the forest, by myself," he replied noncommittally. The soldier lifted an eyebrow skeptically, but Achek ignored that. He took a deep breath and he came to a decision in his heart. It was difficult to imagine himself rejoining the world of sorcery, but to keep his new home safe... "I know some magic," he said slowly, sinking down into a chair across the table from the soldier. "I might be able to help you."
The soldier leaned forward and looked at him with interest. "Go on."
Achek swallowed. "I studied under a man named Giga for a few years. He taught me several different kinds of spells, and said I wasn't half bad at them." He paused, and then said, "I just don't want to see this forest destroyed--it's been my home for a while, now. I'd have to return home to take care of a few things before I joined you, but..." he trailed off, knowing how Erika would react to his decision. If he went off to fight the Mazoku, there was a very real chance he would not return alive. After hearing what the soldier had said, though, he realized that Erika and the entire village were in danger, and he couldn't just stand by and do nothing. He had to help.
The soldier nodded. "Do you know of the valley called Orios, a little to the north of the Tes'sha Forest?" he asked.
Achek nodded. "I've never been there, but I have seen it on maps."
"Go there as soon as you can," the soldier said. "That's where a group of the humans and elves are gathering. Some of the golden dragons are using their magic to take us quickly to the battlegrounds, while the rest are gathering their own army. Hopefully the Mazoku haven't caught wind of that, though..." he trailed off and shuddered. "I'd hate to think what even one Mazoku could do to the dragons if he knew what they were up to."
Achek and the soldier talked for a little while longer, and then Achek went up to his room and began packing his things. He couldn't stay, not even for the night. He had to get on the road as soon as possible--he had to get back to Erika. She wouldn't want him to go, he knew that, but he had to. He had to help stop the Mazoku before they reached his village and before they could destroy the world. Something within him made him feel like he'd been called to help.
An hour later, Achek was on the winding path that would lead him to his village, mulling over his decision in his head. He held a light spell in one hand and the reins of his horses in the other, seated in his cart just like he had been when he first met Erika. The wheels of his cart rattled as they rolled over the uneven path, the sound mingling with the sounds of the Tes'sha Forest teeming with life. He urged the horses forward, and, although they whinnied in protest, they began to move faster.
Their pace wasn't swift enough, however, for an impatient, frustrated, and worried Achek. He brushed a hand over his fatigued eyes and looked up at the starry sky visible through gaps in the treetops. A year ago, he had wandered this very same way, tired, depressed, and feeling quite lost after the cosmic events that had taken place while he was studying under Giga. Now, he had a home and a family, and he hadn't seen a trace of the strange magic with which Giga had experimented since he got rid of the two bundles with which he was entrusted upon his master's death. He had found nothing but happiness and peace--a peace for which he was grateful, a peace he would fight to the death to preserve.
Despite having escaped the prophecies and world-destroying magic that Giga had experienced, Achek still could not escape the feeling that he was still swept up in something of cosmic proportions. A year ago, he had been frightened of such thoughts; now, he approached them with a curious mix of apprehension and anticipation. The fate of humanity was on an uncertain path, and he couldn't help but feel that he, somehow, would influence it. It was a thought that awed him.
The cart wheels struck a depression, and the resulting hard thump startled Achek momentarily. He flicked the reins again absently. Whatever the future held, one thing was clear: he had to protect his family and his adoptive clan. Something within him--perhaps a prophetic tendency of his own--told him that the future of the world would be determined by Erika's little cluster of refugees, and their children, and their children's children.
Notes: I really hope people liked this part of the story, despite the fact that it has no canon-based Slayers characters in it. Trust me, everything that's happened in this prologue has happened for a reason. I found, in writing this, that I really enjoyed writing Erika (prologue Erika, not the Erika in the rest of the story) and Achek. If I have time and an idea, I may write a few little extra stories for them. I think they'd be a cute couple, don't you? ^_^ Officially, however, this is the last that we're going to hear from Achek and Erika--at least directly. That's why I tried to end this section with a bit of a conclusion. It's not really the conclusion of Achek's story, but in a sense it's the conclusion of everything I want you to know about him. Hope you enjoyed it!
"Slayers" is copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi. Original ideas, artwork, and text present on this page are copyright Esther Nairn, unless otherwise noted. No reproduction is allowed without express written or emailed permission. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.