Slayers New by Esther Nairn | Chapter Eight: | Flashback! The Battle's End!
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Strong, seaside winds swept through the streets of Chorion City, carrying a chill and the odors of salt and fish through the capital. The sun made a valiant attempt to break through the dreary clouds that crowded the sky, but eventually lost the battle and retreated, and the buildings that lined the streets remained their usual solemn, stony gray. Sporadic showers drenched the townspeople who were rushing through the streets, clutching packages to themselves while merchants called to them from under wooden awnings. Ordinarily, the merchants would have their wares displayed in carts on the streets, but todayís weather made that completely impractical. It didnít matter, anyway--while the citizens of Chorion City had enough money for food, they had little to spend on much else. The economic slump had taken its toll on everyone.

On a day like this, those who had enough money for alcohol usually spent it in the local taverns. There, people would drink and occasionally throw dice or play a hand of cards, but the major form of entertainment was wondering (not without bitterness) what the king was doing in his lofty castle. Some speculated he was in the middle of a late afternoon feast, oblivious to the concerns of the rest of the country. Others conjectured that he was meeting with Chorionís representatives in the Dimas. Some wondered if he was even in the palace at all.

As it turned out, King Rolard was in the castle, but he didnít plan on being there for much longer. He had finally regained most of his strength after the battle that had taken place at Achekís Tower the day before, and was in the highest spire of Castle Ori, staring out one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed him a view of the roiling Miranda Sea and a storm that was brewing several hundred miles away. His hands held a tattered, leather-bound book, its pages yellowed with age. Turning away from the window, the king closed the book and placed it near the edge of the little wooden table in the center of the room, and stared at the tableís surface. A three-dimensional image slowly swirled into existence above the table, and as it sharpened into focus, he could make out two figures against the background of brown rock.

Lina Inverse stood in front of the base of Achekís Tower, her hands on her slim hips, a thoughtful expression tugging at her brows. She glanced to her left, where her stone-skinned friend Zelgadiss was clearing rubble away from the base, apparently trying to find an entrance to the chambers hidden inside it. The king willed his observation spell to sweep over the entire landscape, taking in the damage the earth had sustained during yesterdayís quake, which had driven all of them from the site. There was quite a bit of damage, indeed; huge cracks split the land, creating deep canyons wide enough for a person to fall through. Rocks that had fallen from the conical surface of the Tower or were left over from the golems the king had created dotted the ground around its base, some of them as tall as a full-grown man. Achekís Tower itself was still standing, however, something the king was grateful for. According to the book on the table, the Tower itself was important, if not essential to the treasureís power. If it had been destroyed, it would have fouled up his plans greatly.

"Speaking of fouling up my plans, where is that lying, upstart brat..." he muttered. With a snarl, King Rolard began looking for his niece. She had almost cost him that which he had been waiting more than seven years to accomplish: the ability to control the minds of everyone in Chorion, and several countries beyond it. If the book was correct, the artifact inside the Tower would make it all possible--if he could just rid himself of the obstacles in his way. After a moment of searching, he spied the princess levitating herself over a patch of rocks piled at the base of Achekís Tower to peer down a crack, apparently hoping to find the entrance. She shook her head and floated off the pile, then disappeared, presumably to rejoin her friends. The holographic image on the table in front of him shifted until it found Lina, Zel, and Erika, who was now approaching them.

"Explain to me again why we canít just blast through these rocks and get to whateverís inside this thing," Lina demanded in a tired tone of voice.

With a groan of frustration, Zel replied, "Because the Tower is unstable enough as it is. Itís still dropping rocks off its face left and right! If we just start blowing things up we could upset this thingís balance, making it topple over. And if that happens, since he obviously wants whateverís inside this thing, King Rolard might kill Ameria and Gourry in retaliation before we can save them."

Lina huffed, equally frustrated, and turned to Erika. "Find anything yet?" she asked.

She shook her head and rubbed her forearm with the other hand nervously. "Unfortunately, no. I have no idea how to get into this place. And, before you ask--again--I cannot teleport us inside because Iíve never been there before."

Zel nodded. "Right. Iím sure that if Lina were in a more rational frame of mind, she would realize that itís too risky to try teleporting to an unfamiliar place, not knowing if weíd end up trying to exist in the same place as, say, a wall, or something equally bad," he said pointedly.

"Donít you think I know that?!" she screeched in reply, her red eyes flashing with anger. "I--"

"Please donít fight!" Erika interrupted, quickly stepping between the two sorcerers. "We wonít get anything accomplished if we waste our time yelling at each other."

Lina held her glare for a few seconds longer, then turned away with a huff. "Fine. Iíll keep looking over there," she said, stomping away toward a pile of stones, each about half as tall as she was, near the base of the Tower.

"Whatever," Zel grumbled, and stalked off in the opposite direction.

Erika sighed. "Iíll be on the other side--back in twenty minutes," she said resignedly.

King Rolard rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and the image before him followed his niece. He watched her while she levitated rocks behind her and away from the Towerís base slowly and carefully, keeping an eye on the rest of the unsteady structure above her. Calling both on his magic and his Chana, her thoughts began to flood his mind.

A few minutes later, the satisfied king broke his connection to her and nodded in understanding. Her plans once they broke into the Tower were heavily guarded, but he at least knew what their initial strategy was. Taking a deep breath, the king rested both palms on the little wooden table and kept watching, a malicious smile crossing his face. He was so close to the fruition of his lifelong plans, he could just taste the power.

Well, he amended, they werenít lifelong plans. They actually hadnít been formed until years after his nineteenth birthday, when he had left Chorion. For the first nineteen years of his life, he had had to silently suffer the burden of being the weakling in his family; he had no Chana affinity that anyone could ascertain. At best, he was perhaps half as powerful as his older brother, who was able to move things telekinetically with ease and see into the future, as well. Shaking his head and scowling with bitterness, the king wiped those thoughts away and instead remembered back to when he first learned magic.

He was nineteen years old when anger and an intense desire to get away from his family drove him out of the palace, using the excuse that he wanted to see more of the country his brother would someday rule. He remembered riding north out of Chorion City on his chestnut horse for days, not paying attention to his surroundings, stewing in his jealousy. At some point, he realized that he was heading out of Chorion, yet he rode on, anxious to put as much distance between himself and his home.

Weeks passed in a blur; he stayed at inns some nights and camped out the rest, and rode north during daylight hours. For the most part, he traveled undisturbed; only rarely did he run into bandits, and those he either outrode or killed with his sword and his feeble telekinetic power. Finally, he found a particularly thick forest and began hacking his way through it. It was so dense that he often had to dismount and lead his horse through, chopping at the underbrush with his sword and stopping frequently to rest. The forest had a strange feeling to it, as well, although it was nothing he could put his finger on, specifically. Finally, he emerged on the other side of the thick woods, and stumbled into a small village.

As he rode through the town, looking for a tavern, he noticed a young boy making a fire in his front yard to cook the vegetables that lay on the ground next to him. He watched as the boy blew fire out of his cupped hands, fascinated. After striking up a conversation with the boy and his mother, Rolard learned two things: first, that he had traveled much farther than he intended--he was now beyond the barrier that had separated one part of the continent from the other for one thousand years; and second, magic was much more advanced here than it was back home. An idea seized him--what if he tried to learn this advanced magic? True, Chakar were supposed to be immune to magic and incapable of learning it...but what if he tried?

Not long after, he found himself traveling to the nearest magic guild, intent on learning something that could make him more powerful than Richard. That tantalizing goal became an obsession for him over the first few months at the local guild, where he found it somehow was possible for him to learn spells like Lightning and Recovery and the basics of Shamanist magic. His constant fatigue, however, became obvious right away to both himself and his instructors. After a year of frustration and experimentation, he discovered a way to combine his Chana with a modified version of a Recovery spell, based on his knowledge of Shamanism and white magic. The effects were thrilling--for the first time in his life, Rolard had the energy to do many of the things Richard could do, and he even discovered two new affinities: teleportation and telepathy.

In the months after that discovery, Rolard quickly learned all the guild could teach him. Drunk on his newfound power, he left the guild and traveled to others, learning what he could from the instructors there as well. Whenever he was asked about his past, he made up stories about an obscure hometown. No one ever suspected he was from a place beyond the Mazoku barrier, and he left each guild before anyone could get to know him long enough to know that he was using another power to supplement his magic. He made good use of the guildsí libraries, like all student sorcerers, and it was in one of these libraries that he discovered an old book written in Ancient Chorioni, the language of the Chakar. He didnít know how a book written by one of his people had found its way beyond the barrier, but he stole it and tucked it away and resolved to someday study it.

Rolardís successes--at some guilds, he was good enough to be considered an advanced student of magic--became almost enough to convince him to stay in the land beyond the barrier indefinitely. But he still visited Castle Ori at times, using Chana to teleport himself there and to keep his presence a secret from anyone he observed. One of those visits changed his mind, however; it was then that he watched from the shadows as his father died peacefully in his sleep and Richard was crowned king of Chorion.

Rolard couldnít bring himself to stick around long enough for the coronation celebration, which would make Richardís succession official in the eyes of the public. No, he couldnít stand to see his brother gain more power than he would ever wield. Undoubtedly, Richard would rule Chorion well, continuing the peace and prosperity the country had enjoyed under his fatherís rule, until he grew old and one of his children succeeded him. After weeks of brooding, Rolard came to realize that he wouldnít--he couldnít--allow Richard that kind of place in history, while his name was lost to obscurity in sands of time. He had to prove himself to be more powerful than his brother.

That epiphany brought a fresh determination to Rolard. He worked harder than he ever had before at refining his Chana-magic combination, honing his skill like a swordsman would his art. It took years, but after meticulous study and countless hours of practice, Rolard finally mastered the combination of Chana and magic into one seamless entity. And, as time passed, he developed plan after plan to defeat his brother.

At first Rolard was torn between simply challenging Richard and killing him, or kidnapping him and holding him in some dark prison until his brother admitted he was the stronger man and abdicated the throne. As years of happy prosperity in Chorion passed, however, he decided that being given the throne would not be enough. The idea of holding his brother in prison permanently was too risky; the people loved him, and surely someone would attempt a rescue. Besides, he wanted to rule over a peaceful country, not one torn apart by a political coup. He realized he would have to get Richard out of the picture--permanently.

By the time Rolard finally returned to Chorion and presented himself in court, Richard had married a powerful Chakar woman he had met in his travels while he was away, and his first child, a daughter, had been born. Rolardís plan did not change, however, except to include killing the queen, Lia, as well. As for the girl, since Chorioni succession passed to the siblings of the king if his firstborn was too young to rule, he had some time to decide what to do about her.

Rolard spent a few years in Castle Ori, quietly building his base of support among the local politicians and the people themselves. All the while, he knew he was watched carefully by his wary brother and his wife, but he kept his actions scrupulous; usually he spent his days studying the book he had found years ago at one of the magic guilds that was written in Ancient Chorioni. Because of this low profile, Rolard didnít think his brother knew what hit him when he finally made his move late one night on a lonely mountain road.

Snapping out of his flashback momentarily, King Rolard took his hands off the little wooden table and turned away, pacing pensively across the diameter of the circular room at the top of Castle Oriís highest spire. His lips curled upward in a faint smile as he remembered the astonishment and horror emanating from the royal guard as they struggled--to the death--to save the king and queen. His brotherís shocked expression when he saw the extent of Rolardís power was permanently etched in his memory. Despite Richardís clairvoyancy, which was so revered in the Chakar clan, he apparently had not foreseen his own death. The king and queen had fought against him well; Richardís telekinesis was a force to be reckoned with, and it seemed that Lia could make good use of any weapon placed in her nimble hands. In the end, however, it was a useless struggle. Rolard used a combination of some heavily-modified Earth-Shamanist spells and Chana to create a landslide which his battle-weary victims couldnít teleport away from. Even now, Rolard laughed at the irony of his brotherís death--the battle had used up all of Richardís and Liaís energy, leaving them powerless before him, as Rolard had been compared to his brother before he learned magic.

Once the news of the royal deaths spread throughout Chorion, Rolard was crowned king. Immediately, he began plotting to get rid of several of the members of the Dimas, Chorionís legislature, who he knew would be against the laws he wanted passed. Meanwhile, he watched his quiet, diminutive nine-year-old niece closely--she was just about the right age to begin developing her own Chana. Yet she never showed signs of power beyond simple tricks like spoon-bending, and those seemed to tire her immensely. Satisfied that she was both powerless and clueless as to his role in her parentsí deaths, he left her alone for the next several years while he ruled Chorion and continued to study the book he had found in the land beyond the barrier.

Two years into his rule, and after careful study, Rolard finally discovered the secret of the book, which had been written one thousand years before by a man named Achek. Ancient Chorioni was an exceedingly difficult language to read, but as far as he could tell, the book seemed to contain a prophesy and detailed descriptions of a set of four magical items which could be used to give their owner vast amounts of power. The only problem, Rolard discovered once he translated the map that was drawn on the inside cover, was that Achekís Tower, the location of the first piece of the set, had been cursed by Achek himself. In order to activate the magic circle located inside the giant rock spire so that it would release the sword trapped within it, he would have to dismiss or defeat the curse that guarded the Tower in the form of a giant white dragon. He was only able to modify the curse--not defeat it--which is why he began to search for someone who would be skilled enough in magic to break it.

Even after he had been crowned king, Rolard still secretly teleported back and forth from Castle Ori to the land within the barrier from time to time. That was how he heard about Lina Inverse, the powerful and deadly Dragon-Spooker who had defeated one piece of Shaburanigdo by herself. Once she crossed over into the New World and defeated Dark Star, Rolard made his move, and invited her and her companion to the palace to take on the job of getting rid of the curse for him.

Again breaking off his concentration, King Rolard turned back to the little table, above which a three-dimensional image of Lina, Zelgadiss, and Erika now floated. Clenching a fist with both nervous excitement and hatred of the people he was observing, he smashed through the image, which disappeared as soon as he touched it. With narrowed eyes and a sinister laugh, King Rolard quickly teleported down to the dungeons to collect his captives. Erika and her friends would find the entrance to Achekís Tower sooner or later, and he had work to do before they reached the antechamber.

* * *

"This is so frustrating," Lina muttered under her breath, and adjusted her footing so she wouldnít slip off the fifteen-foot-tall pile of rock she was standing on. She wrapped her thin arms around a rock about the size of her head and, with a grunt, pulled it away from the rest of the pile. She twisted her shoulders and, without looking behind her, carelessly dropped it down the side of the pile. A surprised yelp made her jump and whirl around, almost losing her balance on the uneven surface. She peered down the incline and immediately burst out laughing.

Below her, Zelgadiss stood on one foot, his other leg raised and his arms thrust out to the side in one of the most comical poses Lina had ever seen. The rock that she had tossed was meanwhile rolling away, having apparently just missed striking him. His wide eyes narrowed as he collected himself. "What do you think you were doing?!" he half-hissed, half-shouted. "Next time, look before you drop rocks from that height!"

Choking with laughter, Lina said, "But you shouldíve seen the look on your face! It was priceless! Besides, your headís hard as a rock--it wouldnít have hurt too badly!" Immediately, she realized her mistake; upon hearing that, Zel rolled up his sleeve with a growl and began chanting. "N-now, now, Zel...letís not get hasty...I didnít mean it..."

"You think that makes it better?!" he exclaimed.

Lina put on her best sweet-and-innocent face. "Iím sor-ry, Zel-ga-diss," she drawled, drawing out the syllables with a perfect pout.

"You two never get off each otherís case, do you?" Erika asked rhetorically as she materialized next to Zel, a sweatdrop already forming over her head.

Zel growled again and called off his spell. "It was her fault," he grumbled.

"My fault? You were the one not looking where you were going!" Lina countered quickly.

"Have you found anything?" Erika asked, hoping to change the subject. "I havenít had any luck--just falling rocks."

Zel glared at Lina for a second longer, then turned away in a huff. "Same here--just rock. Lots and lots of rock. Every time I go back to a place that I cleared, more rocks have fallen from the Towerís surface, and Iím back at square one."

Lina nodded. "Me too," she agreed. "I was so sick of it I took a break from looking for awhile, and just tried to concentrate on whatís inside this thing." She frowned. "Thereís some kind of powerful magic contained within it, that I know. I couldnít tell you what kind of power it is, though--I havenít felt anything like it before."

"Iíve sensed something, too," Erika admitted. "Not magic," she clarified quickly as Zel glanced skeptically at her, "but something else. I think Uncle has been inside before, perhaps when he modified the curse that attacked us yesterday."

"Why would he have waited until now to get at whateverís inside there, though?" Zel mused. "Unless he couldnít use it until the curse was gone..."

"That could be it," Lina said, nodding. "In fact, thatís about the only thing that makes sense." She stepped to the edge of her perch and jumped down from it, steadying her landing with a quick Levitation spell. "I have an idea."

"Iím ready to try anything," Erika said. "Iím as frustrated as you are."

"Letís step back a bit, maybe fifty feet or so, and take a good look at the Tower. Maybe weíre not seeing a way to get in because weíre looking too closely at it," she suggested.

Zel shrugged. "Fine by me. Nothing else seems to be working."

A few minutes later, the three had picked their way through the barren, cracked landscape and around the boulders that dotted its surface, and stood some distance away from the base of the Tower. "Look carefully," Lina said, squinting in the hazy sunlight, which filtered through an oppressive curtain of low, gray clouds.

"Iím looking," Zel murmured, stepping to the side a little to get a view from a different angle.

"Wait," Erika said sharply, her eyes closed and her brow furrowed in concentration. Suddenly, her eyes flew open and she gasped. "Uncleís in there, now!"

"Something inside has changed, too--the magic feels different!" Lina exclaimed.

"So different, it almost seems to want to leak out..." Zel mused, his eyes closed, "...like it wants to leak out from..."

"Right there," all three said simultaneously, pointing to a spot a quarter of the way around the Tower from where they stood.

Lina opened her eyes and nodded at Zel and Erika. "Letís go."

* * *

Over the thousand years since Achek cursed it, the entrance to the Tower had become buried under layers of dirt and rock, which the king had had to tunnel his way through the first time he explored there. Just beyond the end of the tunnel and inside the round-walled antechamber of the Tower, the musty air shifted, and King Rolard materialized, holding an unconscious Ameria around her waist and an equally unconscious Gourry by his collar. They had put up a struggle as he extracted them from their dungeon cell, but they quieted down considerably once he drained the energy from them, just like he did the night before.

A thin stream of light poured in from a hole in the ceiling of the antechamber, throwing a faint light against the rock walls and the ruined entrance before him. Apparently the tunnel had collapsed during the earthquake the night before. The king shrugged. It was just as well--by the time Lina, Zelgadiss, and Erika found it and dug through it, he would be well on his way toward brainwashing every living thing around Chorion, from Orios in the north to Merudia in the south and west, to do whatever he wished. Still...Achekís book had indicated that he would need to cast a complicated spell on the magic circle etched in the floor behind him, and, for the time being, he didnít want anything to break his concentration. Closing his eyes, the king stood before the ruined entrance and muttered something under his breath. The rocks that filled the passageway glowed for a second. He nodded once, and his Chana/magic concoction settled into place.

Stepping carefully around the edge of the magic circle, he stopped when he was directly across from the collapsed entrance, and dropped Gourry and Ameria unceremoniously on the ground. They fell in a heap at his feet, just below a recess in the rock wall that held something that the king had never been able to translate: a tablet upon which several lines of foreign characters had been chipped. Achek had translated it into Ancient Chorioni in his book, calling it a prophecy, but King Rolard still couldnít make sense of it. The king snorted at the hastily-carved tablet and rolled up the sleeves to his brown robe. Prophesies didnít concern him as much as what he had been able to translate in the book, namely, the incantation he would need to use to free the first artifact, a sword whose blade was wedged deep into the clear quartz floor of the antechamber.

Turning, King Rolard studied the sword, which, despite its age, looked pristinely preserved in the faint light that shone down directly on it. It was a broadsword--its blade was probably three inches thick and more than three feet long. The metal of the guard swirled upward to form the hilt, and flared outward again to form a swirled pommel, its intricacy indicating the mastery of whoever forged it. Three small, polished stones were set into the guard around the hilt, forming a triangular shape; one was black obsidian, another was white opal, and the last was a larger gray moonstone. In years past, when the king had slipped past the white dragon guarding the Tower and tried to pull the sword out of the floor, nothing had happened. Now, however, the sword and the magic circle that surrounded it were glowing faintly. The circle was etched into the seamless slab of clear quartz that formed the first layer of flooring in the antechamber. Beneath it, visible through the transparent rock, was a layer of inky black obsidian. Symbols etched within the lines that formed the circle were of the same foreign language in which the prophesy on the tablet was written.

Studying those characters until he found the correct one, as indicated in Achekís book, King Rolard stood at the edge of the circle in front of it and rubbed his hands together. He began murmuring a carefully-memorized chant just barely above his breath, and stepped forward. The etching on the quartz floor flashed for a second, and for a heartbeat, he was half afraid the circle wouldnít let him inside. He willed the spell he had chanted to break the seal the circle had created once the curse of the white dragon had been broken. Finally, the symbols on the floor glowed golden, in sharp contrast to the blackness of the floor several inches beneath them. Satisfied, King Rolard stepped toward the sword. He closed his eyes and held a hand over the sword without touching it, and began chanting the long spell Achek had written out meticulously a thousand years before.

* * *

"Some entrance," Erika snorted as she, Zelgadiss, and Lina stopped in front of a pile of rubble against the base of Achekís Tower.

"It just...feels right..." Zel said, scrutinizing the rocksí surface as if he were looking for a visible marker that the entrance was beneath it.

"I know, but still..."

"Iím gonna blow it away," Lina suddenly announced, a spell already half-prepared in her hands.

"No, wait!"

"Lina!!"

"Befis Bring!" Lina called, and immediately the rock in front of them began to glow. The top layer of rock immediately faded and disappeared, followed by another layer, and another, forming a tunnel through the base of the Tower. Satisfied, Lina dusted her hands and stepped toward the entrance she had made.

Zel and Erika were more hesitant. "Lina, you donít know if that could collapse any minute--" Zel began, but was interrupted by a gasp from Erika.

"Look out--he booby-trapped it!" she cried. She threw her hands up at the same instant as a rumble echoed through the tunnel, followed closely by the roar of an explosion. Rocks flew out of the tunnel toward a shocked Lina, but splattered against an invisible barrier no more than a few inches in front of her. The shock of the explosion proved to be too much for the shield to bear, however, and Lina, Zelgadiss, and Erika were violently thrown backward.

Lina flipped in midair, then landed gracefully on the ground, assisted by a quick Levitation spell. Zelgadiss skidded across the rocky soil, tearing his tunic along the bottom. Erika materialized next to Lina; she had teleported away as soon as the force of the explosion struck her.

"Lina, you owe me a new tunic," Zel grumbled as he picked himself up. "And that reminds me--Erika, you owe me a new cloak, from yesterday."

Lina and Erika both stuck their tongues out at him, then looked upward at the Tower, which, despite the force of the explosion, didnít seem like it would collapse.

"Is it safe to go in there now?" Zel asked Erika quietly, also eyeing the stone structure above them warily.

She bit her lip and waved a hand through the air in front of her. "I think so," she replied.

"Then weíd better hurry. I donít like the look of that light, and thereís a weird power building inside," Lina said, gesturing to the tunnel she had created. And Gourry could be in there, she added mentally. Dazzling golden light spilled out of the tunnel, its brightness a sharp contrast to the deepening sky and brown soil. With a nod, all three ran forward, Lina in the lead.

The golden light became even brighter as they raced through the passageway. Each step sickened Erika with dread; the closer they came to the end of the tunnel, the stronger she felt her uncleís power building. She could hear a low murmur, like a chant, but she couldn't quite make out what he was saying. The air was electric with energy, and it almost seemed to crackle as it touched their skin and clothes. Zelgadiss kept one eye on the ceiling and one eye ahead as he ran. He had tried not to worry about Ameria while she was gone--after all, she was a bright girl and a more than capable sorceress. But the further he ran through Lina's makeshift tunnel, the more concerned he became.

Lina pressed forward despite the blinding light, keeping one hand over her eyes to shade them and the other held out to the side, so that her fingers brushed the rough wall. She suppressed a shudder. The last time she had been involved heavily with power of this color was just before... She shook her head. Now was not the time to remember back to her battle against Fibrizo. Suddenly, her fingers ran out of wall, and she skidded to a halt, and Zel and Erika flattened themselves against the wall. Lina poked her head out of the tunnel, squinting in the light. The low murmur she had heard before was coming from the center of the room, but its source was masked by a cylindrical shimmering golden wall that was about three feet in diameter. Something caught her eye just as she was about to step out--golden light was coming directly from an inscription on the surface of the floor. It wasnít just any inscription, she realized with a gasp as she recognized a pattern.

"What is it?" Erika hissed.

Lina held a finger to her lips. "Look at this. Have you ever seen anything like this before?"

Zel peered around Lina, and his eyes widened in astonishment. "What is that?" he breathed.

"A magic circle--one unlike any Iíve ever seen before," Lina whispered back. "The characters are entirely foreign to me." Before her eyes, the glow of the characters seemed to lessen momentarily, and, at the same time, the golden wall in the middle of the circle began to fade away. She could make out the silhouette of a figure standing in the center of the circle, his hands hovering over what looked to her like the pommel of a long broadsword. The voice of King Rolard filled the antechamber, sending a chill down the intrudersí spines as it resonated throughout the stone room. He was speaking in a harsh, guttural language Lina had never heard before. Golden power swirled around him until it disappeared into the sword.

"I invoke you, I command...release your power and become linked to me..." Erika murmured, her eyes closed.

"You can translate that?" Zel demanded in surprise.

She nodded. "Heís chanting in Ancient Chorioni--the language of the Chakar tribe."

"Why is a spell like this in the language of a tribe that canít use magic?" Lina said quietly.

They didnít have time to ponder it, however. Suddenly, the light from the magic circle flared, blinding the three temporarily. When it died away, Zel, Lina, and Erika blinked, then peered into the antechamber, dreading what they would see.

"Ah, so you made it," King Rolard drawled smugly, his accented voice echoing against the stone walls.

Lina blinked again, then stared at him in surprise. The hilt of a heavy-looking broadsword was now clasped firmly in his bony hand, and he was taking a few practice swings with it. Despite its weight, he wielded it single-handedly as if it were made of feathers. Each time it sliced through the electrified air, it left a sparkling trail of golden power. The light turned his brown robes yellow and cast dark shadows across the hollows of his face.

Quickly regaining her composure, Lina scanned the antechamber for what she cared about most. Now that the light from the magic circle had died down to a mild glow, she could see Gourry and Ameria slumped against each other on the floor just outside the circle, directly across from her.

"Gourry! Ameria!" Erika exclaimed. Lina could feel Zel and Erika start forward, but held out a hand to stop them.

"Donít worry," the king said casually. "Theyíre alive--for now. Why donít you come inside? No doubt youíre curious as to what I was just doing."

After exchanging a glance with her friends, Lina stepped out of the tunnel and to the side, allowing Erika and Zelgadiss to join her, Erika in the middle. "Why arenít they awake?" she asked, her eyes narrowed dangerously.

"Simple," the king replied with derision, eyeing them with gold-flecked brown eyes. "I drained their energy--their life force--until they passed out. Just like my niece did against the white dragon that used to guard this sword. Only she canít do it as well as I can," he said smugly, a smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"Weíre not going to let you get away with this," Erika announced defiantly.

"Oh?" the king replied, still swinging the sword, his smirk becoming a full-fledged grin. Zelgadiss eyed the weapon warily, an uneasy feeling creeping up within him. Golden-colored power should be treated with respect, he had learned. What if the sword used the power of the Lord of Nightmares? Could King Rolard, either knowingly or accidentally, destroy the world with it?

"Erika, I plan to use this sword and its inherent power to gain more power than my brother ever dreamed of. He only ruled Chorion, as I do now. But itís not enough," he said, his grin turning sinister. Dark shadows collected under his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks, giving him a demonic appearance. "I donít just want to rule Chorion anymore," he continued, "I want to control everything I can see and every person alive. I want more power than my brother had, or my father, or his father before him. I want it all."

"And youíre going to use that sword to do it?" Zelgadiss growled. "Youíre insane if you think thatís going to work."

The king laughed and settled into a stance, the sword held in an attack position. "This will let me control everyone, believe me. Just imagine! A country--no, many countries--under my total and complete control. I could disband the Dimas and the governments of all the countries around Chorion, and rule the people directly, controlling their very thoughts. Iíd become god-like in their eyes!"

"Not if we can help it!" Zel replied angrily.

"And what do you plan to do to stop me?" he retorted. "Your magic is useless."

"Maybe, but my power isn't!" Erika yelled, and a white ball formed between her outstretched hands. It burst forth from her hands and sliced through the air toward the king. He was prepared for the attack, however, and, moving impossibly quickly, he swung the sword in a horizontal arc, slashing her ball apart. Erika gasped at the ease with which he had overpowered what should have been a devastating blow.

King Rolard smiled thinly, and resumed his stance. "You see, this sword is very unusual. It acts as a battery of sorts that leeches energy from everything around it. Only someone with a mastery of the ebb and flow of energy can control it."

Lina and Zelgadiss exchanged a glance. As the king talked, Zel slowly began inching his way closer to Ameria and Gourry's unconscious forms, as planned. Since he was the fastest of the three, he would rescue them while Lina and Erika held the king off.

"And don't think I don't know what you're thinking, Greywords-san," King Rolard continued, pointing his sword in Zel's direction. He grinned. "Remember, I am telepathic." With that, the blade of the sword glowed golden, and the magic circle at their feet glowed brighter. He swung the weapon the same way as he had before, and the sparkling trail it created coalesced into a wide, solid, golden arc that flew directly toward them.

Erika instinctively threw up a barrier while Lina yelled, "Windy Shield!" The arc ripped through Lina's spell, but struck Erika's shield so hard she was thrown back against the wall of the antechamber. The king followed his attack quickly, and pointed the sword at the slender girl. A golden beam shot out of it, splitting the remains of her shield and striking Erika squarely in the chest, knocking her into the wall. She screamed and struggled to force the attack back with another shield.

"Erika!" Zel gasped.

"Zel!" Lina yelled. "Go! Get Gourry and Ameria out of here!"

Zelgadiss hesitated for an instant, then dashed around the magic circle, taking care not to step on any of the golden characters. He skidded to a halt in front of his unconscious friends, and stooped down. The sight of them lying in a heap made him want to stay and give the king the thrashing of his life, but common sense restrained him. He wouldnít be helping Ameria if he did that. Quickly scooping the little princess up, he gingerly draped her over his shoulder. Gourry was a lot harder to hold--he was big and his armor got in the way--but finally Zel managed to support his weight, grateful for his super-human strength. He eyed the entrance to the tunnel, which had been thrown into high relief by the light of King Rolard's energy beam. The king appeared to be distracted by his attack; he was too busy pouring power into it and laughing maniacally as he did so. Erika was still pinned against the wall by it, her face contorted with pain. Zelís eyes narrowed, and he readied himself to dash across the quartz floor to safety.

As soon as Zel sprang into action, Lina unsheathed her sword and held it ready. While planning their attack the night before, she had decided that since they would probably need Zel's speed to rescue Ameria and Gourry, and because her magic would be useless, she would be the one to back Erika's attacks up with her sword. Zel was uncomfortable with the idea at first, mostly because they both had known since the second time they met that he was a better swordsman than Lina, but he eventually relented and agreed that he would have to be the one to get Ameria and Gourry out of harm's way if they were hurt. Lina forced herself to ignore Erika's obvious agony, and instead concentrated on her enemy, who was still laughing, his sword and the magic circle glowing brighter and brighter with each passing second. Launching herself forward, the small sorceress felt a sharp jolt as soon as her foot breached the outermost line that formed the magic circle. She gasped and hesitated in her attack for a split second, which gave King Rolard just enough time to bring his golden blade up and parry the blow of her short sword, in the process breaking off his attack on Erika.

Lina reacted quickly, despite the fact that her feet felt slow and her arms like lead. She dodged, thrust and blocked, and spared a glance in Erikaís direction. She was leaning against the wall, breathing heavily and holding a hand to her chest, but physically, she looked unhurt. Lina ducked and shifted her weight to the side, barely dodging the kingís blade, and slashed at his midsection. Her movements were too slow--either that, or his were too fast; she wasnít sure which was true. He dodged easily, and brought his sword down hard, so that Lina had to twist to block it. She felt her arms buckle under the blow, but shoved upward with a yell. The two blades slid so they were locked hilt to hilt, generating golden sparks as metal ground against metal.

Grinning maliciously at her over their crossed blades, the king allowed her to push against his sword while he leaned closer and said quietly, "You see, Inverse-san, energy flows throughout everything and everyone in this world. Some of it can be tapped for magic, as you should well know. The rest of it belongs to people like me--people with Chana. This sword is just like me." He turned the hilt slowly so that his sword ground against hers, sending sparks into her angry face. "It takes, and takes, and takes," he whispered, moving one step forward and forcing Lina to move one step backward with every word, "from every source of power. That includes the rocks and the earth, the air, and even from you and the force of each of your strikes. In other words..." he paused, and violently shoved her away, "youíve only helped me become more powerful since you stepped into the circle!"

Without giving her time to do more than gasp in shock, he swiftly rushed toward her, raining blow after blow upon her until all Lina could do was block desperately. She backed up towards the edge of the circle, trying to step outside it, but each time, he forced her closer to the center. No wonder heís trying to keep me inside--I can feel the circle and his sword leeching energy from me!

Just then, a blur of blue movement to her left caught her eye. Before she or the king could blink, Zelgadiss, with Ameria slung over his shoulder and Gourry draped over his arms, shot toward the tunnel. King Rolard yanked his sword away from hers and whipped it upward, and a golden arc shot toward the sorcerer. Zel heard Lina yell and glanced to his right, just in time to catch a glimpse of the burst of energy headed straight for him. His eyes widened and his feet instinctively skidded against the slick quartz floor, but he couldnít slow down fast enough, he realized with dread.

Just as the beam would have struck him squarely in his side, a white light intercepted it. He glanced toward its source and yelled his thanks to Erika, who knelt on the floor, one hand outstretched and the other supporting her weight. She flashed Zel a weak smile as he sped up and zipped past her into the tunnel to safety. She exhaled in relief, and rose to her feet to meet her uncleís murderous gaze.

"Just for that, youíre next, my dear niece!" he spat, and leveled his sword in her direction for another attack.

"How could you forget about me?! Lina Inverse KICK!!" Linaís right boot connected solidly with the muscle in the middle of King Rolardís right forearm, striking at the exact point that would force his hand open and knock the sword away.

She heard twin gasps from both the king and his niece, and could vaguely distinguish Erikaís voice, which seemed like it was coming from far away, shrieking for her to grab the weapon, but she was already moving. Instinctively, she and the king lunged for the sword, but both fell short. With everything moving in slow motion around her, Lina gritted her teeth, tossed her own sword away, touched down, and then sprang ahead of him. The sword spun through the air, shooting arcs of gold that bounced off her shoulder guards, barely missing her face, until its blade pierced the transparent floor. At the same instant, the golden glow emanating from the magic circle completely disappeared, throwing the antechamber into sudden darkness.

* * *

A few seconds before, Zelgadiss burst through the tunnel, grateful for the brilliant light that illuminated the rocky floor. He couldnít afford to trip, not while he was carrying so much weight. The air crackled around him, and the weird energy coming from the interior of the Tower pressed him to run even faster. He quickly reached the end of the passageway, and his legs didnít stop moving until he had put at least a quarter mile between himself and Achekís Tower. He slowed to a jog, his aqua eyes scanning the cracked and broken landscape for a safe place to treat Ameria and Gourry.

He finally found a wide, flat area in between two large fissures in the ground, and gingerly lay Gourry down. He gently pulled Ameria off his shoulder and placed her next to him. He took her wrist in one hand and probed it with his fingers for her pulse, and lowered his ear close to her mouth to listen for breathing. To his relief, her heart beat steadily, if a bit weakly, and her chest rose and fell rhythmically with breath. He placed her arm on the ground next to her, and scurried over to Gourry. His breastplate moved higher with each breath, and when Zel pressed his fingers into Gourryís wrist, he could feel his heartbeat growing stronger. Heíll probably wake up in a few minutes, Zel thought. But Ameria is going to need some help.

Turning from the swordsman, he hovered over Ameria, and lightly brushed his fingers against her cheek. "Ameria? Can you hear me, Ameria?" There was no response. "All right," he murmured, "Iíll just have to wake you up this way." With that, he lifted Ameriaís hand and clasped it between his own, muttering the chant for Counter-Sleeping under his breath. He watched her face closely, and exhaled in relief when she groggily opened one eye.

"Zelgadiss-san?" she murmured, and opened the other eye.

He nodded. "Are you all right?"

Blinking, she slowly began to sit up. "I--I think so." She looked down at their joined hands, and immediately both of them flushed. "What happened?" she asked quickly.

Zel let go of her hand the second she noticed, and turned away from her to check on Gourry. "Lina and Erika are inside the Tower, with the king." He winced and glanced at her over his shoulder. "The battle isnít going well." Ameria gasped, and her eyes filled with worry, but she made no move to stand. She must really be tired, if that didnít make her jump up and run in there to help, he noted. "As soon as Gourry wakes up, Iím going back in there. Youíll have to take care of him," he said, giving the swordsman a shake.

"R-right..." Ameria murmured distractedly. "Zelgadiss-san, why does the ground feel so strange?" she asked.

"Hmm?"

"Why does everything feel so dead?" Ameria asked, her eyes round and concerned.

Zelgadiss suddenly noticed that, probably a mile behind Ameria, the wheat field that they had crossed to get to the Tower had gone from a healthy gold to a putrid brownish color. Even the rocks around them felt like they were devoid of energy, which was surprising, since he had never considered rocks to hold much power. Of course, they held some, since there were spells to call on that power, but... Zelgadiss broke off that thought and glanced back at the Tower, and recalled what King Rolard had said to Lina. It must be that circle and the sword, he realized. They must have started taking energy from the earth around the Tower once the king used the sword. Ameriaís a shrine maiden, and theyíre more sensitive to these kinds of things--that must be why she noticed it first. He shook his head. "Itís that circle, and the sooner Lina and Erika get away from it, the better. Now, help me wake Gourry up."

"OK," Ameria answered distractedly, eyeing Achekís Tower with trepidation. A bad feeling burrowed in her stomach. As Gourry awoke reluctantly, asking similar questions that Zel tried to explain without confusing him too much, she silently prayed that Lina and Erika would survive.

* * *

For a heartbeat, all Erika could see was a faint beam of light that streamed into the antechamber from a hole in the ceiling. She could easily sense what was happening, however, despite the near-darkness.

Lina scrambled toward the sword, viciously slapping away the hands that fumbled for a hold on her. It felt like someone had removed all the lead from her limbs; she moved so fast that she almost ran past the sword. Frantically, she waved her hands around blindly until they found the hilt, and, with a grunt, she yanked the blade free of the floor.

The effect was instantaneous. The magic circle flared into life again, and the sword responded in kind, their combined light throwing the antechamber into high relief. King Rolard stumbled to his knees and lifted his chin to look up at Lina, his face contorted with anger. Stretching out a hand, he made bolts of energy fly toward Lina, but her arms moved of their own accord to defend her. Without even thinking about it, Lina swung the sword in a wide arc, slashing through the kingís attack and neutralizing it.

"Lina, get away from him!" Erika hollered as her uncle leapt to his feet and pounced. Erikaís eyes narrowed, and King Rolard crashed into an invisible barrier mere inches from the stunned sorceress. The shield shocked every part of him that touched it with electricity, and he cried out in pain.

Lina stumbled backward, the circular room spinning before her now gold-speckled eyes. Her stomach dropped and her insides felt hollow, like she felt just after casting the Giga Slave. Havetogetridofit havetogetridofit havetogetridofit... she thought rapidly, but no matter how much her hands trembled, they wouldnít relinquish their hold on the thick hilt. She gasped when Erikaís strong, slender hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her backward roughly. As soon as her feet reached the perimeter of the magic circle, something within her snapped, and she staggered into Erika, knocking the taller girl into the rough, stone wall. She dropped the fiercely glowing sword, and it clattered to the floor. The light coming from the inscription in the floor immediately lessened.

"Lina! Are you all right?" Erika gasped. She peeled herself from the wall, ignoring the trickles of blood that dripped down her back from the cuts sheíd received from being thrown against sharp rock twice.

Holding a hand to her head, Lina blinked rapidly and tried to bring her surroundings into focus. "I--I think so..." she murmured. She peered at Erika. "Are you all right?"

Erika shook her head. "Uncleís blast took a lot out of me. I donít know if I--"

"Eeeeeeeeriiikaaaaaa!" King Rolard roared. He ripped apart the last of her electrified shield with his hands, his hair now standing on end and his brown robe torn. Whereas before he looked calm but cruel, now he simply looked unhinged. He lurched toward Erika and Lina, but faltered and fell near the center of the magic circle. He looked up at them, and they blinked in surprise--somehow his eyes had lost their pupils and had become golden disks! He hung his head and pounded the circle with one bony fist, struggling to regain control of himself.

"Iím taking you back to Chorion City with me, Uncle," Erika said quietly. "Itís over. We have the sword now." She gestured to the weapon, which lay, useless, by the perimeter of the circle, and Lina shuddered. "Iím taking you back and stand trial for your crimes--for murdering my honored parents, and for trying to kill us."

A rueful laugh escaped him, and the king whispered without looking up, "You can never do that."

"And why not?" Lina demanded, feeling more and more like herself since she dropped the sword. She didnít know why, exactly, but she would think about it later. Now that she had touched the sword, something important was on the very edge of her understanding--so close she could almost reach out and touch it. Itís about something Erika said earlier...

"Because...because my brother deserved to die," he replied between spasms of choking laughter. "I am...I am the more po-powerful one." He tilted his chin so he could see Lina in his peripheral vision. "You do not understand, Inverse-san...but we Chakar...are supposed to have a limited amount of energy at our disposal," he explained haltingly. "I had so little, compared to Richard..." his shoulders moved slightly, "...I was considered weak. But...but Inverse-san, Erika...I..." he pounded both fists against the floor and lifted his head, staring at them with wide, golden eyes, "I was the most powerful after all! I had no...no idea...none...that I was meant to get energy elsewhere, from everything around me--and that I could control it with magic!" he gasped and laughed again. "I didnít need my own life force...I had everyone elseís--a limitless supply, and the magical skill no Chakar is supposed to possess! And then...and then I realized that I hated Richard with every fiber of my being. I wanted nothing more...nothing more...than to surpass him."

Lina winced; King Rolardís speech sounded a little similar to what Kopii Rezo had said to her years before, just before he died. She focused just a little more on the elusive thought that continued to escape her. Almost there...almost...there... Suddenly, she had it; the gold in his eyes, which matched the gold light emanating from the inscription, sparked her memory. "Release your power, and become linked to me..." That was what King Rolard had been chanting when she, Erika, and Zelgadiss first approached him in the antechamber. Linked... Now, his golden eyes made sense. He magically linked himself to the circle so he could pull the sword out of it! Each part, the circle and the sword, must have been the key to what kept the other from sucking the life out of everything in the area, as well as anyone who set foot near the Tower. The two must have been continually draining from each other in a sort of infinite loop, but when the king held the sword, the two were enough to overpower the circle and use the energy it drained out of the land, and out of me. Now that he lost the sword, the circle is trying to leech from him, since heís linked to it, and heís resisting it, therefore upsetting the balance and his control of himself. If he gets his hands on the sword again, though... Lina swallowed hard with the implications of that thought. Then it will only be a matter of time before he overpowers us like he almost overpowered me, and like he overpowered Erikaís parents.

"Youíre a madman, and a murderer. And I will bring you to justice," Erika was saying meanwhile, and a ball of power was already forming in her hand.

King Rolard laughed again, and slowly began picking himself up. "Weíll see--the world will see--about that!" he bellowed, and threw out both hands. One blasted Erika, who hadnít even had a time to create a shield, backward, while the other began telekinetically pulling the sword across the floor toward him.

"Lina!" Erika screeched, and thrust the ball she had created into the stream of her uncleís power, deflecting it to her left, where it struck the wall and threw rock outward. Erika didnít have to say anything, however; Lina had already grabbed the swordís hilt and dug her heels into the floor, fighting against the strong force that was trying to haul it away from her.

"Erika, Iíve got it--hit him with something!" she yelled, already feeling a sickening twist in her mind as the sword slowly began to draw her life force out of her. This time, she was more prepared for it. She gritted her teeth and refused to give the sword any more power. It lurched toward the king, almost breaking her grip, but its effect over her mind lessened.

"Lina, I canít!" Erika yelled, barely managing to deflect Rolardís continuous attack.

"We have to get this sword out of here!" Lina shouted back.

"What?!"

"You heard me!"

Erikaís mind raced. Lina wouldnít say something like that without a good reason, she knew. She glanced in Linaís direction and managed a nod. "Then take it and run! Iíll follow you in a second!"

Lina nodded back and started to drag the stubborn weapon toward the exit. It resisted, but she growled and pulled harder. Magic would make this whole battle a lot easier, she thought resentfully. Agonizingly slowly, she stepped backward along the wall toward the tunnel.

"I wonít allow it!" the king shouted, and an explosion rocked the antechamber. The ceiling of Linaís makeshift entrance tumbled to the ground, rocks spilling in every direction as well as into the antechamber. A cloud of dust billowed outward from the rockslide, temporarily blinding everyone inside.

Erika used this distraction to break away from her uncleís attack and shoot arcs of electricity in his direction to hold him back. As the dust began to clear, she pointed at Lina, and yelled, "Hold still!"

"Erika! You canít--" Lina started to shout, but Erika interrupted her.

"No time. Iíll be out there in a minute, as soon as I subdue him so I can drag him back to Chorion City! Donít come back for me!" With that, Lina, holding the sword in her small hands, vanished into thin air.

As soon as she finished teleporting Lina outside the Tower, Erika turned and peered into the dust that hung thickly in the air, waving her hands to clear it and trying not to cough. A bony hand suddenly shot out and seized her throat, followed closely by a second. King Rolard dragged his niece backward to the center of the circle, holding her by her neck so her feet dangled inches above the floor, and shook her roughly. "Iíll kill you with my bare hands, and then Iíll take that sword back and destroy all of them!" Wide-eyed, Erika clawed at his hands and gasped for breath. He watched her face for a few seconds, then grinned at her sinisterly. "Or, instead, Iíll drain every last bit of your life out of you, and use that power to then take the sword and kill your friends!" The magic circle flared brightly as soon as the king said this, and Erika found herself powerless in his grip.

* * *

The second Zelgadiss told Gourry that Lina was still inside Achekís Tower, fighting against King Rolard, the swordsman leapt to his feet, ready to storm in and help her, ignoring Zelís and Ameriaís protests. He dashed toward the glowing entrance, but lost his footing on the uneven soil when the ground rocked with the force of an explosion, and fell with a startled cry.

"What was that?" Ameria gasped.

Zelgadiss peered at the stone spire, searching for the golden glow that indicated its entrance, but couldnít find it. "Something happened to the tunnel Lina made," he said with dread.

"You mean we canít get in there?!" Ameria exclaimed in disbelief.

Zel opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by Gourry, who gasped when he saw Lina materialize not far away from him. "Lina! Youíre safe!" he yelled, and scrambled to his feet and ran toward her.

"What happened in there? Whereís Erika?" Zel asked quickly as Gourry led a dazed-looking Lina over to where they were standing.

Lina blinked, then dropped the golden sword as if it had burned her, and looked up at Zel. "Erika?" she repeated blankly, then shook her head as if to clear it. "She sent me here--her uncle has gone nuts, and we had to get the sword away from him and the circle. Donít touch it, anybody. As soon as we got the sword away from King Rolard, he started to lose it. Weíve got to destroy that place as soon as Erika gets out of there, or Iím afraid the magic circle is going to go completely out of control."

"Is Erika coming?" Ameria asked.

"She said she was!" Lina replied. I hope...

Just then, the sword at Linaís feet flashed gold, and lifted into the air of its own accord. It sliced past a startled Lina, heading toward the Tower, but Gourry reacted with lightening speed. He lunged toward it, and, just as Lina screeched a warning against touching it, his hands grasped the hilt.

His body jolted and his mind reeled, stunned by the sudden effect of the energy-draining sword, and he skidded to a halt. Despite this, his gloved hands gripped the hilt tighter, and he gritted his teeth. First Lina, then Ameria and Zel, ran up to him, shouting his name. "Gourry, you jellyfish, whyíd you have to do that?!" Lina screeched, panicked. He turned his gaze toward her, but as she looked into his gold-flecked eyes, she realized he wasnít seeing her. "Gourry...?" she said hesitantly, and reached out to lay a hand on his arm.

He jerked away from her, causing Zel and Ameria to back away from him, and squeezed his eyes shut. His heartbeat slowed, and his muscles grew heavier, and he could feel the blood in his veins becoming sluggish. It felt like there were wires running through his body that ran out through his hands and into the sword, and by means of these wires the sword was sucking the very life out of him. His jaw clenched while he fought with the weapon, struggling to cut the wires that ran through him. Every visualization technique he used to control the Sword of Light came back to him, and in his mindís eye Gourry began building a wall between him and the sword, separating it from him and locking away the power that could kill him if left unchecked. The sword slashed through the wall once, twice, three times--but he rebuilt it each time, sweat pouring down his face. He could master any sword placed in his hands, and, no matter what, he would master this one.

"Gou-Gourry?" Lina whispered, staring fearfully into his pinched face.

With a final roar of triumph, Gourry sensed the "wall" between him and the sword solidify, in the process cutting off the wires that connected him to it. Breathing heavily, he blinked and turned to Lina, and flashed her a winning smile. "Donít worry," he assured her. "It just needed someone to get rough with it." Lina simply shook her head and nodded with admiration.

"So..." Zel began.

"What are we going to do now?" Ameria asked.

* * *

King Rolardís grip on Erikaís throat widened slightly, allowing the girl to gulp enough air to scream. "Once youíre gone, there will be nothing to stop me!" he screamed in her face. Still clawing at his hands desperately, her eyes beginning to water with tears, she tried to telekinetically shove him away, but he only drank in the power she intended to use. She felt her body rapidly becoming more and more tired while spots danced before her blurry eyes, and knew it was just a matter of time before she blacked out.

Beneath her dangling feet, the characters that made up the magic circle inscribed on the floor began to pulsate with power irregularly, some more strongly than others. Soon, the circle lost its steady glow, and instead looked as if someone was randomly flipping hundreds of switches, each one either turning a character on or off. She could sense the channels of energy in the room between the king and the circle, and realized that they flowed in both directions, although half the channels were weaker than the other half. Itís starting to go out of control, probably because heís overloading himself with my energy and upsetting the balance between him and the circle. Heís probably trying to leech from the circle, and keep it from leeching from him, so he has enough energy to go get the sword, Erika thought with dread. Desperately, she tried once more to shove him away using her Chana.

King Rolard tightened his grip once again and felt her energy travel into him through his palms. "Itís no use!," he yelled, sensing her resistance to him. "Youíll die, just like my pathetic brother!" he roared, his flat, golden eyes becoming more and more demonic with every passing second. Erika struck out desperately at the king, kicking her legs and throwing around whatever power she could muster. Uncleís right--if I donít stop him, there will be nothing left to keep him from taking that sword back from Lina, and using it to kill all of them! With that thought, she grimly decided to use the last of her own energy before her uncle could get to it. She closed her eyes, and tried to concentrate.

* * *

"We could use a Befis Bring to tunnel through again, and then--"

"No, Zel, we canít do that," Lina insisted.

"Well why not?!" came his exasperated reply.

"Because Erika said not to before she got me out of there," was Linaís simple answer.

"Lina-san," Ameria broke in nervously, "I hate to say this, but since when do you pay attention to what other people say?"

"Ameria has a point," Gourry agreed.

"Listen," Lina said, eyeing the sword in Gourryís hands uncomfortably. Its golden glow had abated, and it now appeared to be a quite ordinary sword with an ordinary-looking blade, except that most blades werenít gold, they were the silver of steel. "First, that thing is going to collapse if we put more holes in it."

Zel snorted. "Since when do you care about property damage?"

Ignoring his sarcasm, Lina held up two fingers. "Secondly, and more importantly, we shouldnít get near that Tower. I donít know why," she said quickly, to head off Zelís protest, "but we canít. And thatís the end of it. Weíll just have to figure out something else."

"Something else like what?" Ameria said forcefully; even her frustration had reached its peak.

"Well, weíve never been able to do much in the first place," Gourry said, rubbing his chin with his hand. "Magic doesnít work on him."

"So letís send Gourry in--oh wait, he would have to use the sword," Ameria said, catching her mistake.

Lina nodded. "Exactly. So--" She abruptly cut off her sentence with a sharp gasp. Her eyes widened, and she held a hand to her head.

"Lina! Whatís wrong?" Gourry demanded, but she ignored him.

Lina! came Erikaís voice inside Linaís mind. Donít...have much time... Lina sank to her knees, clutching her head, her eyes wide and unseeing. She shuddered, her senses becoming numb to what was happening around her, to the point where she didnít even hear Gourryís, Ameriaís, or Zelgadissís shouts of concern. Please...listenhe...got me...nouse, no...use. Have to stop...before...comes foryou. If...leaves...wonít...able to stop...magic. Erikaís voice sounded strained, like she was in immense pain. Lina could only guess that some of her words became garbled because of whatever attack she was enduring. Please...do...I ask. Have to destroy...haveto...Tower, heíllcomeafteryou! That last part was panicked, desperate, and Lina shuddered as Erikaís fear filled her, a companion to her own. Destroy...the Tower...

"I canít..." she whispered, startling her friends as they exchanged confused glances. "I canít, Erika! Youíll be killed!" Lina yelled, standing and running past Gourry a few paces toward the Tower.

Dead...already...canít escape, canít fight back, came Erikaís pain-filled voice once again. Please... Her thoughts were punctuated with choking sobs, and Lina could feel tears beginning to stream down her own cheeks. Her throat hurt terribly, and she could almost feel the kingís grip growing steadily more merciless.

"Erika!" Lina cried, and buried her face in her hands as the psychic connection was broken, and her mind was once again all her own.

"What happened?" Gourry demanded, stooping down next to her.

"Lina-san, are you all right?" Ameria added, kneeling down on Linaís other side.

Lina squeezed her eyes tight, and brushed the wetness from her face. Like it or not, Erika was right. She felt Erikaís life slipping from her, and knew with certainty that if the king came for them, there would be nothing they could do to keep him from fulfilling his plans. And, nothing would satisfy her more at this point than ridding the world of that man, she thought grimly. "We have to destroy it," she said quietly, her voice dead.

A pause. Then, she heard a collective gasp from her friends, and stood up. She faced them, her eyes full of pain and her mouth set into a thin, tight line. "We have to destroy the Tower. Erika isnít going to make it."

All three pummeled her with questions simultaneously. "Wait, wait!" Ameria protested. "What do you mean, she isnít going to make it?"

"You want to blow it up with her still inside?" Zel asked in disbelief.

"Lina, are you all right?" Gourry asked.

The last question gave her pause. "No, Gourry, Iím not all right. Erika just spoke inside my mind using that power of hers, and told me thereís no way for us to survive this without blowing that thing up," she said, jerking her thumb at the stone spire, which looked more and more fragile; medium-sized rocks had began to tumble down its surface the minute King Rolard collapsed Linaís tunnel.

"There has to be another way," Ameria said insistently.

Lina stared at her, an uncharacteristically defeated look in her eyes. "Tell me how weíre supposed to fight someone when we canít use magic--at all--and the minute we step into that antechamber we would be drained like sieves by that magic circle."

"Weíve fought against stronger opponents before--what about Shaburanigdo, Gaav, Fibrizo, DarkStar?!" Zel exclaimed, waving his hands expressively with each name. Lina didnít respond.

Gourry furrowed his brow, his eyes flicking from Lina, to the sword in his hands, to the Tower, and back again. "You know, we could use this sword..."

"Out of the question," Lina said immediately. "That thing is nothing but a great way to get killed."

"Just listen. This sword absorbs stuff, right?" Gourry said patiently, his eyes traveling from Zel to Lina to Ameria. "And I can control it. It works a little like the Sword of Light did," he said thoughtfully.

"What are you saying?" Zel said suspiciously, lifting an eyebrow at both Lina and Gourry for their uncharacteristic behavior.

"Gourry-san, just spit it out, please!" Ameria demanded.

"What if we put spells into the sword--we did that a few times before with the Sword of Light, didnít we? And one of them could be a spell to blow up the Tower, and another could be a spell to protect Erika from the blast. And maybe youíd have to cast that red spell, Zelgadiss, that makes the sword stronger." He shook his head and ran a finger along the golden-colored blade. "I donít know how tough this thing is."

Ameria blinked, and her eyes met a Zelgadissís surprised gaze. In unison, they both turned to Lina. "You know..." Ameria began.

"I think..." Zel started simultaneously.

"That just might work," they said at the same time.

"Itís better than just destroying it and killing Erika-hime in the process," Ameria added.

Lina lowered her head, looking down for a moment before she lifted her chin and managed a small smile. "Remind me never to call you jellyfish again," she said softly to Gourry.

"Awww, if you didnít call me that, what would you say when youíre mad at me?" he joked, grinning at her.

Suddenly feeling some hope, Lina straightened her posture and assumed her most authoritative tone. "All right, everyone line up! Gourry, you stand in the middle. Ameria, you keep to my right and behind me, and cast something to protect her. Zel, you stay back and to his left, and cast Astral Vine. Iíll stand on Gourryís other side and hit the sword with the Dragon Slave. Gourry...oh, you know what to do. Letís go--Erikaís counting on us!"

"Thatís more like the Lina-san we know!" Ameria cried, and assumed her stance next to Lina, holding her hands out and readying her strongest protection spell.

"Right!" Gourry agreed, and held the sword out in front of him.

"Letís get this over with," Zel said with a nod.

"Ready? Start chanting!" Lina cried, and held her hands before her, putting on her most confident expression and hoping that Erika wouldnít be too far gone to save by the time they demolished the fragile-looking stone spire.

* * *

I had hoped it wouldnít end this way, Erika thought as she closed her eyes, blocking out her uncleís insane laughter. Mother, Father...please forgive me for not avenging you. Please...please give Lina strength--help her stop him, she prayed.

By this point, Erikaís body felt heavy while her head felt too light and her ears roared. She was almost grateful for the noise, however--that way she couldnít hear King Rolardís taunts. Iím so tired, so very, very tired...

The king laughed even harder than before when her head rolled to the side. She was so close to unconsciousness, he could feel her slipping away. His bony fingers loosened their iron grip just slightly, hoping to prolong her pain as much as he could.

Erikaís eyes slid open halfway and she slowly and painfully sucked in a breath. My last one, maybe, she thought sadly. She refused to look at her uncle, refused to give him the satisfaction of her helpless gaze.

A pinprick of light among the light coming form the magic circle suddenly caught her attention, and she slid her eyes in its direction. Linaís short sword lay on the ground two feet from her dangling feet. Keeping her thoughts on her pain and praying the king would be too distracted by what he was doing to sense what she intended, she opened her right hand and, calling on some of her very last reserves of power, telekinetically pulled the sword to her.

Laughing loudly, King Rolard shook his captive several times, delighting in the way her almost-limp body trembled bonelessly. She was holding back one last bit of energy--probably what was sill keeping her alive, and he wanted it. He squinted at her tortured face, and her chaotic thoughts flooded into his mind. Pain, pain...it hurts... consisted of most of what he could understand, but there was one tiny spot of concentration that he probed it more. Narrowing his eyes further, he pushed more power into her mind, trying to force his way into that last part of her thoughts.

Countless agonizing seconds later, Erika felt cool metal touch her palm, and she closed her fingers around the hilt of Linaís sword, forcing the kingís probe away from the one spot in her thoughts that contained her plan. She could only hold the sword weakly, but at that close range, it wouldnít matter. Slowly lifting her arm, her eyes glittered in grim satisfaction as she leveled the blade at the kingís stomach.

* * *

As soon as Gourry settled himself into a solid stance, he felt the sword pushing at the barrier between it and his mind. No, he told it firmly. You canít do that to me. Iím stronger than you. Adjusting his grip on the hilt, he concentrated on bending the sword to his will, so that he would control it, not the other way around. Slowly, carefully, he made the blade glow with golden power, a small part of it coming from him and the rest coming from the land around them.

The golden glow quickly became orange once Zelgadiss yelled, "Astral Vine!" A second later, Ameria aimed her protection spell at it, muting the orange into a rusty color.

"Ware to nanji ga chikara mote / Hitoshiku horobi o ataen koto o..." Lina finished, her cape flapping in the wind that had kicked up dramatically. A red ball filled her hands, and red tendrils of magic swirled around it. Please donít let this kill Erika, she added silently. Thrusting her hands forward and to the side, she aimed the spell at the fiercely glowing sword and yelled, "Dragon...SLAVE!!"

Gourry felt a surge of power which the sword tried to suck in and keep to itself. Not this time, he thought grimly. With a roar, Gourry dashed two steps forward and slammed the flat of the blade against the ground.

A red-orange beam of magic shot across a quarter of a mile across the ground, throwing up rock and further cracking the land, until it struck Achekís Tower. The stone spire began to glow from the bottom up to the top. It pulsated with power, and everyone watching took one step back, holding their breath.

* * *

"Iím finished toying with you, Erika," King Rolard said, bringing her bruised face nose-to-nose with his. He strengthened his grip on her neck, and felt the last bits of power begin to slip away from her. "Now," he said, "you will die."

Not yet. With that thought, Erika thrust forward with Linaís sword, and felt it pierce the kingís abdomen. Everything froze.

A second later, King Rolard let out a shocked squawk, and surprise made him release his grip and clutch the sword that was now piercing his chest. Erika fell to the ground and started to scoot away. Her legs felt like jelly and her arms buckled under her weight, but she kept struggling. She couldnít teleport away, not with how weak she was, but with any luck, Lina would destroy the Tower before her uncle could recover.

Erika bit her lip and began to resign herself to her death when a white light flared up around her. The magic circle below her suddenly split roughly in half, and began to crack in other places shooting off from the main crack while rocks in the ceiling of the antechamber began to tumble down. Erikaís shocked eyes met the kingís, and he let out an agonized scream as his skin began to split open like the antechamberís floor. Erika squeezed her eyes shut, and didnít see the rocks that plummeted down to land directly on his head. She could detect the bright light around her even through her eyelids, and knew immediately where it came from. Thank you, Ameria. Maybe, I just might make it through this, she thought with a smile as Achekís Tower collapsed around her.

* * *

"Find her yet?" Lina shouted to Gourry. She stood atop a particularly tall pile of rubble holding a bright Lightning spell high over her head to aid in her search. The sun had gone down a little while ago, leaving them to rely on magical light to find Erika.

Usually, after casting the Dragon Slave, Lina was pleased with the results. This time, however, she couldnít help but worry if she had gone too far. "Naaaah," she murmured to herself under her breath, "you blow up towns at close range every other day, and no one dies there." Of course, in those cases no one has just about every last bit of their lives drained out of them before you cast that spell, a nagging voice in her mind piped up. Resistance or no resistance, no one could survive that big an explosion, with that much rock thrown around.

When Achekís Tower had exploded, it seemed to burst open from a point within its center. It exploded outward, throwing rock and debris in every direction, such that now there was a circle a half a mile in diameter around the site of the Tower that was covered in rubble.

"Havenít found anything yet!" Gourry shouted back, bringing Linaís mind to the present.

"Lina-san!" Ameria called from not far away. "What about you? Is there any sign of Erika-hime or her uncle?"

Lina shook her head and called back, "I havenít found a trace of either of them. Keep looking!"

"Right!"

Lina pursed her lips and stared at the ground while walking slowly, taking care to look under the bigger rocks for a sign of the two people who had been inside Achekís Tower when it exploded. Sighing with frustration, Lina ran a hand through her hair and studied the horizon and the outline of Zelgadiss, who was on the other side of the circle of rubble, looking for Erika by himself. Her foot kicked a large piece of stone, and she stooped down to look around it for any clue as to where Erika was.

Zelgadiss scanned the ruins of Achekís Tower carefully, his sharp eyes searching for any signs of life. Compared to the explosion that had occurred just minutes before, the near silence was deafening. A few small fires blazed quietly, fed by a light breeze that whistled through the desolate plains.

Frustrated, Zel kicked a rock aside and swore. "Stupid, getting herself killed like that," he muttered.

"I heard that," came a weak protest from several yards behind him.

"Erika?" he gasped, and whirled around, his eyes skimming the landscape frantically. He heard a faint cough coming from behind a pile of rock and, in disbelief, rushed to the pile.

He hadnít steeled himself for what he saw, however. The princess of Chorion lay half-buried under heavy-looking rocks, with bloody cuts marring her fair skin. She had a gash on one arm from shoulder to elbow that was bleeding profusely, and her other arm was bent in far more places than an arm should be able to. Her neck was almost black with bruises. Blood was flowing freely from a deep cut in her forehead, just below her hairline. Her head was tilted back, and her eyes were squeezed shut with pain. Her breathing was shallow, in part because of the rock that partially covered her ribcage, but mostly because she was so weak.

Zelgadiss sank to his knees, momentarily stunned with shock. Shaking his head to snap out of it, he swiftly began lifting rocks away from her body. Her eyes cracked open, and she coughed again weakly. As soon as he tossed the boulders away from her legs, revealing that her dress had been partially torn away in the violent explosion, she moved her bleeding but unbroken arm to try to pull it down over her knees. "Donít be silly; save your strength," Zel admonished.

Erikaís hand changed direction, and she held it out in front of her, despite the fact that this made the cut in her arm bleed more. "Take...my hand..." she whispered.

Zel did what he was told, and gingerly clasped her hand with his while brushing stones away from her broken arm. A sudden coughing fit seized her, sending blood spattering across his face and tunic. Zelís eyes widened--if she was bleeding internally, without a healing spell, she would most certainly die. Zel then remembered what Erika had said about Chakar the night before, about their resistance to magic, and instantly all hope vanished.

Erika wriggled her wrist out of Zelís grasp and placed her palm up against his. Zel blinked once, twice, and then caught his breath as the world as they knew it ceased to exist for a few moments.

When he could see again, Zel looked down at Erika and nodded in understanding. She took in a shaky breath and immediately started coughing again. "I think," she whispered once the coughing subsided, "Iím going to go to sleep now."

No sooner were the words out of her mouth that her eyes closed and her body went limp. Her head rolled to the side, a pained but more peaceful expression on her face, which was streaked with blood and dirt. Zel studied her for a moment, then shook his head and carefully continued clearing rubble away from her body.

Just as he was moving the last few rocks away from Erikaís legs, both of which were broken as badly as her arm, he heard a shout from somewhere about forty feet behind him.

"Zelgadiss-san! Find her?" Ameria called.

Zel turned and yelled back, "Yes, I found her--tell Lina and Gourry to stop looking and come over here."

Ameriaís eyes widened when she saw the expression on his face. "O-OK..." She ran to the tallest pile of rocks nearby and started shouting, "Lina-saaaaaaaaaan! Gourry-saaaaaaaaaaaan!" until she saw them climbing over debris to meet her.

"Ameria! Did you find her?" Lina yelled back.

"Zelgadiss-san did!" she replied as they rushed over to her. She gulped and her eyes filled with worry. "He didnít look happy, though."

"Then weíd better hurry," Gourry said.

"Right," Lina acknowledged.

Ameria scrambled over mounds of loose rock with Lina and Gourry close behind her, dread mounting in the pit of her stomach. She had had a bad premonition about this ever since she had awakened, and, to make it worse Zelgadiss had looked upset--as if someone had died.

It was as soon as that thought crossed her mind when Ameria finally reached the spot where she had seen Zelgadiss. She stopped dead in her tracks, almost causing Lina and Gourry to crash into her.

"Ameria!" Lina shouted in protest. "Watch where y--"

"Erika-hime?" Ameria cried. She raced to the fallen girlís side, horrified.

Lina and Gourry stopped where Ameria had. "Oh no," Lina murmured, and put a hand to her mouth, her eyes wide.

"Zel? Is she..." Gourry said quietly, and gulped, "...dead?"

Zelgadiss looked at each of them in term grimly, and simply shook his head. Without a word he scooped Erikaís limp, broken body in his arms and rose. After taking one final cursory look around, he said, "Letís get out of here."


"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.