* Weaver’s Road *
Though her trip into the desert had been fun and adventurous, Ashley only felt anxiety and frustration during the two hours it took to get back to Weaver’s Road. The arid desert heat left her parched as she followed Salov through the winding streets to an impressively large building at the end of one of the main roads.
“What is this place?” she asked even as she stared at the sign above the door that read ‘Warrior Guild’ before entering behind Salov. “I thought we were going to get help from the constables?” Nothing about this place gave her the impression that it was for police officers or any other type of law enforcement.
As they entered the small, nearly vacant lobby, her nose was assaulted with the distinct smell of sweat and body odor. In the distance she heard the sound of yelling, or perhaps cheering; it was hard to tell. Something about the rough sand-colored walls gave the building a look of weathered age, as if it existed long before the town.
Salov’s answer jarred her from her musings. “There’s no way the constable’s office would help us. The desert’s outside their jurisdiction. Besides, most of them would be too afraid to go out there.” He headed for a small desk opposite the entrance where a short, plump man in a blue robe was sitting and reading a book.
“Afraid? Afraid of what?” Ashley asked as she followed him.
Salov didn’t answer. His attention was on the man behind the desk. “I need to speak with Guildmaster Panson. Do you know where he is?”
The balding man looked up with disinterest, clearly sizing-up Salov. “What’s a frag like you want with the GM?”
Though she didn’t understand the meaning, Ashley registered that the man had used the word “frag” as an insult.
Salov scowled and reached in the pocket of his brown pants, pulling out a small, thin, purple card, about the size of a credit card, and throwing it on the desk with disdain. “Nothing a rube like you would understand.”
The man eyed the card suspiciously and then held it up, examining it, though from Ashley’s point of view there was nothing to see on it other than a couple of small golden symbols.
Surprisingly, the man’s attitude seemed to completely change, becoming near deferential. “Sorry, sir; meant no disrespect. You just looked—”
“I just looked like someone who knows you can’t judge quartz by its color,” Salov said disdainfully as he snatched back the card. “A lesson you clearly haven’t learned yet. Now, where is Guildmaster Panson?”
Ashley looked around in awe as she and Salov entered a large room. It had the air of a gym but without any training equipment. Instead, men and women of all shapes and sizes were in small groups, some practicing hand-to-hand combat moves, others sparring with various weapons. The smell was even worse in here and it made her eyes water as they walked around the outer edge toward the back of the room. Ashley tried to avoid the various fights as they walked but she was still intrigued. She winced when she saw a woman slam her male partner into the wall and hold him there while saying calmly, “but with just enough pressure so they can’t escape, understand?”
“Salov, my boy!” came a loud booming voice which made Ashley jump again.
A large, pale-skinned man was striding toward them, his curly red hair bouncing like tiny springs as he walked. He was muscular, perhaps too muscular, Ashley thought. His bulging biceps seemed to strain against the thin fabric of the black short-sleeved shirt he was wearing. The size of the man would have been frightening if it weren’t for the huge smile plastered on his face.
He caught Salov up in a bear hug before releasing him. “I knew you’d come to town, but I didn’t think I’d see you so soon.” He kept a single hand on Salov’s shoulder which almost seemed to weigh the smaller man down. “I’m so sorry for not making it to your father’s funeral.”
“It’s quite all right; the support you sent to the troops in the mountains was a blessing to them and honored his memory,” Salov said with a warm smile. “I heard you had to move back into the old gym building. What happened?”
“Fire in the northeast district last year. It took out a ton of buildings. Been waiting for headquarters and the merchant council to hurry the rebuild along; ‘til then we’re stuck here. It’s cramped but we make do.”
Salov laughed. “You always do.”
“And who have we here?” The man seemed to finally notice Ashley. “Am I to take it that you’re about to marry? If so, I approve.”
Salov laughed, clearly embarrassed. “No, nothing like that. Ashley is a temporary boarder at my manor.” He turned to Ashley, “Ashley, this is Wessmore Panson.”
Panson extended a hand and it engulfed Ashley’s as they shook. “Pleased to meet you, lil’ missy; sorry for the embarrassing assumption.”
Ashley chuckled. “It’s not the worst thing someone’s said to me.”
“So, what brings you here then?” Panson asked again. “Here to dust up on some training? I have to say, it’s good to see you inside the guild, though I heard from a reliable source that you decided to enter the trade full time.”
Salov nodded. “Yes, I know it seems out of nowhere—”
“Well, I wouldn’t say out of nowhere,” Panson gave him a hearty slap on the back, which caused Salov to stagger a bit. “You were always a right-fine tailor, you have the gift, but you were also a skilled fighter; no doubt about it. What made you swing the other way?”
Salov’s look turned somber. “It was my father, actually. He’s the one that told me—practically begged me—before he went off to fight in the mountains. He even went to Uncle Frank behind my back. I didn’t want to at first, I wanted to join my father and his troops, but when he died…I just felt like I should honor his wish, especially after Frank agreed to give me the rights to the family name and let me use the home here in town.”
“Well, he sees greatness in you, just like we all do,” Panson said.
Salov smiled. “I’ll make you all proud; that’s a promise, but that’s not why I’m here, unfortunately. I need your help with a serious situation.”
As Salov explained the circumstances to Panson, Ashley let her mind wander. She stared around at the various fighters, not really interested but more for something to do as she thought about her predicament. She was stuck on a strange world without her best friend. Somehow, the lack of Wayne there to anchor her made the situation much more real than it had been before. At first, it was more of a lighthearted adventure: meeting new people, visiting strange places, solving puzzles. Sure, there were elements of danger, and they needed to find their friends and get back home, but it was so much easier to bear with Wayne at her side. He always knew what to do. He always took care of things. But that was the problem with Wayne: he was such a fixer, and he had an unhealthy savior complex. Now he was off somewhere in the desert on the slight chance he could save Nina and Amber. It annoyed her. She was angry with him for leaving and forcing her to face the reality of her situation for the first time.
God, why am I so weak, she thought angrily to herself. I can survive a few hours without Wayne.
“So let me sum this up,” Panson’s booming voice brought Ashley back to the conversation at hand. “You think you know where the quartz-brained slaver scum that’s been plaguing the sands is currently roosting, and you need a raid party to root them out and save some little ‘uns from a life of misery?”
Salov nodded. “Yes, and we need to get their quickly. Oversun’s about 6 hours away, if not more.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about that; I’ve got a way to get us there a lot quicker,” Panson said with a gleam in his sapphire-blue eyes. “First things first though; let’s round up the troops.” He turned to the room at large, put his fingers to his lips and let out a high-pitched whistle that seemed to stop everyone in their tracks. “All right, ya rubes! Who here wants to put their skills to the test, and as a bonus, earn some centars riddin’ the desert of the slaver scum that’s been plaguing our town for far too long?”
There were a few hoots and grunts from the dozens of people gathered round. Everyone looked intrigued.
“Well, my friend Salov and the little missy here have brought us the details on where to find those dung-heads. Now, the constables might be too scared to go into the desert, but a little quartz isn’t going to scare off real fighters right!”
There was a more enthusiastic response to this proclamation and the crowd was becoming more worked up.
Panson gave a toothy grin. “That’s what I thought. So, if you think you got what it takes to handle some slaver-scum then step forward. Anyone who comes with me is bound to get a bit of glory and prestige for freeing some slaves and a share of the bounty the Fantasmal Government doles out for catchin’ ‘em.”
“I’ll come,” said a tall, dark-skinned man as he stepped through the crowd to stand before Panson. “I don’t need glory or money. This is what I came here to do.”
Ashley’s mouth dropped. She knew the man, though he looked nothing like the boy that she’d left in the cave on Earth. He had a well-honed body, not as muscular as Panson, but clearly in peak condition as if he’d gone through years of training.
“Derrick?” she said, almost not daring to believe it.
He nodded and beamed. “Hey Ashley, it’s been a while.”
Ashley barely noticed what happened as they left the Warrior Guild. She was completely preoccupied with talking to Derrick. Her blonde hair bounced as she practically skipped her way behind the large group that was headed to the edge of town with Panson and Salov in the lead. Derrick patiently listened as she explained everything that happened to her and Wayne over the past two days with vivid detail. She was just finishing as the two climbed into the very back row of a sand ferry along with the guild members that were traveling with them.
“So, you and Wayne arrived here yesterday?” Derrick said when he was sure Ashley had talked herself out. “Now you think that Amber might be with the girl you’re looking for in the desert, and Wayne went off to find her? Well, that’s just like him. He’s gonna get himself killed.”
“I know, I know.” Ashley twisted her hands nervously.
“No,” Derrick said quickly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that. We’ll get to him in time; we always do.” His voice trailed off as the ferry shot forward, pulled speedily along by two giant sand snakes.
“Well, anyway,” Ashley said, trying to change the subject, “what about you? How did you end up here? And wow, you look so different.”
She’d only just gotten a good look at Derrick. He was wearing a pair of black baggy pants and a black sleeveless t-shirt. He also wore a black headband with a white shape that looked like a weirdly drawn number three in the center. Derrick’s odd attire wasn’t the only thing different about him. He had always had darker skin than Wayne, but his normally mocha skin seemed even more of a deep brown, as if he’d spent an entire summer in the sun since the last time she’d seen him. He also seemed more muscular and toned.
Derrick smiled as he noticed her staring at him. “And I don’t think you’ve changed one bit. I don’t understand how this happened.”
“How what happened?”
“Well, you see, I’ve been here a year,” he revealed.
“What? How?” Ashley spluttered, completely taken aback by this.
“Yeah, just a little over a year now; though ironically, I just arrived in Weaver’s Road yesterday, just like you. That crazy old man must’ve known this would happen.”
“What old man? Derrick you’re not making any sense.”
“I know; none of it makes sense.” His expression was serious but had a hint of excitement. “After the monsters attacked us, I woke up in a cave in the mountains west of here. I was completely alone and of course I had no idea where I was. I wandered around for about a half a day until I found a large house in a valley nestled among the mountains. I swear if I’d actually been looking for it, I’d have never found it. The man who lives there is named Hoshaw Zen.”
“Who-saw-what now?” Ashley said confused.
Derrick chuckled. “Hoshaw Zen,” he repeated slowly. “He’s…well it’s hard to explain who he is: prophet, monk, hermit, martial arts master. The man changed my life.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m not sure I a-hundred percent understand either. I know this is going to sound completely weird but…okay here goes.” Derrick sighed deeply. “When I got there, Zen said that he had been waiting for me. He knew my name, He explained that I had come from another world and that the reason I ended up at his mountain home was because I needed to train with him. He told me that my friends were in trouble and that he would teach me what I needed to help them.
“Well, at first I tried to leave, but he told me I had to stay and train with him. I didn’t want to. I wanted to find you guys and help with whatever trouble was going on, but he stopped me. He told me that the only way I could leave his house was if I could beat him in a fight.” Derrick laughed at this. “I wasn’t trying to fight an old man, but I wasn’t going to let him keep me there, so I said I’d fight him if that’s what it took.”
Ashley raised an eyebrow. “And?”
“And I didn’t stand a chance.” Derrick laughed again. “It was over before I could even get a good swing out. I was flat on my back wondering what happened.”
It was Ashley’s turn to laugh. “Some old man beat you up?”
“Not just any old man,” Derrick corrected. “Hoshaw Zen.”
“You keep saying that name like I’m supposed to know what it means.”
“I know, I know. I keep forgetting you’ve only been here a day. I didn’t even really know who he was until one of his servants explained. He’s the gold band of the Zorman fighting style and the Gibano Epouranal Mage.”
Ashley gave him a quizzical look. “Do any of those words mean anything?”
“He’s a holy prophet and a crazy good martial arts expert,” Derrick summarized. “I can’t even describe what it was like being trained by him.”
“You trained with him? For how long?”
“For the entire year I was here, up until a few days ago when I finally beat him.”
“Wait, what?” Ashley was becoming exasperated. “You still haven’t explained how you were here for a year. It’s only been two days.”
“I don’t know,” Derrick admitted. “I really just don’t know. But I’m sure this was all his plan…somehow.”
“Derrick, if you were here for a year, why didn’t you go looking for the others?” Ashley asked, a hint of anger in her voice.
“I couldn’t,” Derrick matched her exasperated tone. “You don’t understand. I tried, but Zen wouldn’t let me. He physically stopped me. Every day I fought him, every day he beat me. He told me that the time wasn’t right. He said that I needed to learn the Zormon fighting style, master it, and only then would I be ready. It took a few weeks, but finally I just started really focusing on learning from him. I still fought him every day, and slowly I was getting better. Until finally a few days ago, I did it, I beat him. That’s when he said that the time had come for me to go.”
“Then what happened?”
“He gave me a pack of supplies and had one of his servants lead me out of the mountains and bring me here to Weaver’s Road. He gave me a letter to give to the guildmaster and told me everything would be explained once I got there. The letter turned out to be a note from Zen telling the guildmaster that I was officially a black band,” he pointed to the headband on his forehead.
Ashley rolled her eyes. “Again, no clue what that means.”
“Well, it’s like a black belt on earth, or maybe a bit better, I haven’t gotten the band system completely down. Anyway, Panson let me sleep in a small room in the guild last night. I was just getting my bearings today when you showed up out of nowhere. And you’ve only been here two days,” he added excitedly, “so that means that I’m not too late to help. I don’t know how, but it’s like somehow I arrived early so I could have enough time to train and be ready for…well whatever’s about to happen.”
“I don’t believe it. A whole year.” Ashley collapsed back in the seat. “Well, I’m glad you’re here now. I hated being alone. Even though I was with Salov, and he’s been super helpful, I just…”
“It must have been really serious for Wayne to leave you behind.” Derrick put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure he was just trying to keep you safe.”
“I know,” Ashley said irritably, “but I’m not a baby. He should’ve let me come with him.”
Derrick could tell how frustrated she was and understood the complicated nature of her friendship with Wayne, so he tried a different approach. “You know how Wayne is; he’s a worrier. Don’t hold it against him.”
Ashley nodded slowly before hitching a grin to her face again. “Anyway, tell me more about the year and Ho-Man-Do, or whatever his name is.”
“Hoshaw Zen,” Derrick corrected with a chuckle before talking in more detail about his time on Mendala.
At the front of the ferry, Salov was staring off into the endless desert. “We’re not headed in the direction of Oversun,” he observed.
“Correct,” Panson said with a hearty chuckle. “We’re headed northeast toward Breakworth.”
“That’s almost three hours out of the way. Why are we going there?”
“You didn’t spend your teen years growing up in the desert, Salov. I know a few secrets you don’t, like where some of the hidden translift caves are.”
“Hidden translifts?” Salov repeated in astonishment.
“Yeah, been there centuries, but they can be a bit hard to find if you don’t know where you’re looking. There’s one near Breakworth that’ll pop us out right by Oversun. I’m willin’ to bet those slavers are using ‘em too; that’s why they’ve been so darn elusive.”
“That’s amazing; that’ll save us at least half the time.” Salov said.
“Yeah, just gotta hope we can find it. Sandstorms will cover up the cave entrances over time, but no worries,” he said with a deep chortle as Salov gave all the signs of looking worried, “I know what I’m doin’. Besides, I promised this lot a good fight, now didn’t I.”
Salov relaxed a bit. “I trust you. You’ve never let me or my family down.” He glanced back at Ashley who was still listening intently to Derrick. “I just hope we get there in time.”