Sheila reached Eric first. She touched his face lightly, but jerked her hand away.
'He's so cold!' she said in a small voice and stepped back, tears in her eyes.
Hank moved forward, trying not to look at the boy's face as he searched for a pulse. The new Ranger's skin was cool, but faintly damp with perspiration. A good sign, perhaps? Hank pushed two fingers gently against Eric's neck, and waited. The next few seconds were the longest of his life. Eventually he felt a faint flutter under his fingers, and hope surged through him.
'There's a pulse,' he told the others, not bothering to disguise the relief he felt. 'But we have to get him down.'
Hank looked closely at the wall, and poked the bands around Eric's wrists. There were raw, red welts where Eric had struggled to free himself. Hank swallowed hard against the sick feeling inside. Venger had gone too far this time. Eric didn't deserve this. An image of the Stone Dragon popped into his head. They could all have been dead, if Hank hadn't woken.
'Those bands aren't just metal,' he said, in an effort to purge the Dragon from his conscious mind, 'I don't know if they'll break.'
Presto reached up, and gave the rings a tug. Eric groaned.
'Eric!' said Sheila. 'Eric, it's us!'
Hank looked again, as Eric stirred slightly. For the first time Hank noticed a large bruise on the new Ranger's right temple.
'What we gonna do, Hank?' asked Presto, who was examining the steel bands. 'Do you think the Club will work?'
'We've gotta hurry,' said Sheila, looking over her shoulder. 'Venger could be here any second.'
Hank hesitated. There was nothing in the plan that covered this eventuality. He had expected Eric to be in better shape and easy to free. Actually, he had expected the ol' Cavalier to be perfectly fine and just sitting around in a cell waiting for them, not helpless, and injured, and in pain. He reached up to the cut on Eric's arm, both dry and fresh blood clearly visible. How long had he been like this?
Hank took a step back, lifting the Club and taking a careful aim at Eric's closest wrist, then took a good, hard swing. The metal made an ugly crunching noise, but didn't break. Eric flinched, and let out a strangled cry. Hank lifted the Club again, but Sheila caught his arm.
'No Hank! It's too much.'
'We can't just leave him here! What else can we do?'
He caught the suspicious look that Diana and Sheila exchanged. An ironic thing to say, since that was precisely what they were going to do, before...
Eric started to lift his head and his eyes opened. He saw them and tried to shake his head, a look of panic in his eyes. He said only two words: Trap and Venger.
'It's OK, Eric,' whispered Presto. 'We've got plans for Venger!'
There was an evil laugh behind them, a laugh they knew so very well. They all turned to face Venger, who was giving them an unbearably smug smile.
'So, Young Ones, you met the Wish Imp. Which one of you was foolish enough to free it, I wonder? When I saw the Cavalier with the Ranger's Bow I just had to see the rest of you for myself.'
Hank tightened his grip on the Club and took a claming breath. Anger wasn't going to help. Venger continued.
'I knew you would return for your Cavalier. You loyalty makes you predictable. Even so, you took longer than I had anticipated. Did you have to think about helping him?'
Presto stirred at Hank's side, his knuckles white around the Javelin. The barbed comment had hit closer to home than they would like to admit.
'Did you bring us here just to talk?' asked Hank, hefting the Club in his hand.
'I would not be so anxious to fight, considering your current state,' Venger replied coldly.
'We are not afraid of you, under any circumstances!' said Hank with as much pride as he could muster while dressed in furry shorts and a Viking helmet.
Venger laughed, sending a chill right through the new Barbarian.
'But it is not me that you should be worried about,' he said.
He stepped aside, to show the Warlock holding the Bow. Hank felt his breath catch in his throat. The Bow, HIS Bow! The Warlock stared at them, his eyes glinting with malicious pleasure. Venger had often looked evil and dangerous, but never before had Hank seen anyone who looked so deadly. The Bow seemed to vibrate in his hand, as if begging to be used, its black surface glinting with magic. What had happened here? And why was Venger just standing there?
'Who are you?' demanded Bobby, unperturbed by the Warlock's Bow.
'I am the new ruler of this Realm, young Magician,' said the Warlock, a wild smile on his face. 'I have subdued Venger, the greatest of the Realm's inhabitants, I am invincible!'
'Bet ya wouldn't say that if Dungeonmaster was here,' said Bobby, reaching for his Hat. Hank caught the quick, wistful glance Bobby made towards the Club and got the distinct feeling that if the Club was still with its proper wielder, the Warlock would have an instant earthquake to contend with.
'Dungeonmaster cannot stop me,' the Warlock said. 'Give me your weapons and go home. I must keep your Ranger here.' The Warlock gave a careless shrug. 'But if you give me your weapons, the rest of you can leave. I have the power!' Hank couldn't stop the memory of the Stone Dragon popping into his mind again, but then he glanced at Eric, barely conscious, and helpless. He looked at the cut on his friend's arm and the bruises. He gritted his teeth.
'No deal, Warlock,' he said. 'We're not gonna give you anything!'
The Warlock was furious, obviously surprised at the refusal.
'Stupid children! With your stupid, misplaced loyalty. I had hoped you might be sensible about this.' He looked at Venger. 'Even your greatest enemy has recognised my superiority and cannot stand against me. I will crush you!'
'Well, if you are so-oo powerful, you can just take the weapons!' said Bobby, his hand already waving over the Hat.
'Yeah, just take them,' repeated Presto, ready to attack.
Hank lifted his Club.
The Warlock's eyes gleamed as he pulled a blood-red arrow.
'It will be my pleasure.'
The arrow flew out of the Bow, filling the room with an angry roar, and looped round them, trying to catch them all with one shot. Hank swung his Club at it. They connected, and the energy loop shattered with a loud crack, but Hank felt his whole body shaking from the rebound. He wasn't going to do that again in a hurry.
Hank's hands were still numb from hitting the first arrow, but swung at the floor and the room shook, giving the others a chance to get under cover. Diana pulled her hood up and vanished, while Presto vaulted over the altar. Bobby and Uni dived under it and Sheila stood by Hank, her Shield up.
The Warlock quickly fired another arrow, this time aiming it at the only person unable to get away: Eric. Lines of red fire coursed up his body, leaving thin welts as they went. The boy arched his back off the wall, his mouth open in a silent scream.
'You are so easy to manipulate!' shouted the Warlock with a smirk, sounding pleased at the cries of horror from the other kids. 'If you care so much for your Ranger, you will not want me to do that again! Give me those weapons. NOW!'
'No!' Hank shouted. He had never felt the loss of his Bow so keenly before. Damn Club! It was useless!
Before the Warlock could release another arrow, Sheila ran in front of Eric, her Shield glowing pale yellow. She braced herself as the Warlock fired. The arrow bounced off, ricocheting into the walls and Sheila staggered back, taken by surprise at the force.
With a snarl, the Warlock fired at her again. This time the ricochet hit the far wall, pulling the heavy drapes down and making a huge crack from floor to ceiling. Bits of masonry fell from above, smashing the flagstone on the floor and wafting billows of dust into the air.
The Warlock fired again and again at Sheila. She began to tire under the constant barrage of arrows, the magic of her Shield was getting weaker.
'We've gotta free him,' called Sheila desperately. 'Hank!'
Hank was looking at the far wall, and the huge crack. It gave him a risky idea. He ran over to Sheila, who was still holding back arrows, and took a swing at the wall beside Eric.
A huge crack spread across it, spawning numerous baby cracks on the way. Eric gave a low moan and grimaced, pulling against the steel bands as hard as he could. With no warning, he pulled free. The bands were still around his wrists, but they were no longer in the wall. He slid to the ground and sat there exhausted, with small bits of stone dust dancing around him.
Moments later, Sheila was knocked to the ground beside him, the magic of her Shield failing.
Hank took an angry swing at the next arrow the Warlock fired at her, the Club vibrating with the shock once more. He managed to deflect the arrow back at the Warlock, who only just jumped out of the way in time.
Before the Warlock could regain his balance, a small white bundle of angry unicorn raced out from her hiding place and rammed him as hard as she could with her horn. The Warlock howled in pain, and stumbled backwards.
Hank started forward again, ready to fight, when he felt a hand on his arm. Eric was next to him, the bruise on his face so much more obvious close-up.
'Free Venger,' Eric whispered. He pointed to the red collar round Venger's neck that Hank hadn't noticed before. 'Break the collar. Free Venger!'
Hank stared at him. What kind of a stupid idea was that? The instant Venger was free he'd be after the weapons himself. And what sort of disaster would happen if Venger got hold of the new, supercharged Bow?
The last thing Hank wanted to do was trust Eric with anything, let alone their lives. Arguments against the Cavalier's plan formed; Venger would be too strong, and besides, could a blow from the Club even dent that magic collar?
In the back of his mind, Hank heard the clear, calm voice of Dungeonmaster. Trust in friendship and in yourselves. That is the only advice I can give.
Venger had been standing motionless since the moment the Warlock had appeared. Now he took a step forward and said:
'Let me destroy them, Master. Let me crush them this time.'
He stepped forward, head held high amid the dust and the turmoil. He looked at Hank contemptuously.
'What can you do to me, Barbarian, now you are no longer the Ranger?'
Hank watched him. Free Venger Eric had said. Hank could see the glowing magic collar, and Venger seemed to be deliberately taunting him, wanting him to attack. Trust in yourselves, trust in friendship. Hank gripped the Club as firmly as he could, swung it back and charged.
He hit Venger with all his strength and the Arch-Mage didn't flinch. Club and collar connected with a discordant clang, and the magic shattered, knocking Venger to the ground and Hank was thrown across the room by the force.
'NO!' screamed the Warlock, firing another arrow at Hank. He would have been hit if Presto hadn't leapt on top of the altar, throwing the Javelin across the room to intercept the arrow. The Javelin fizzed and dropped to the ground, the green glow of its magic blinking on and off. Presto stumbled backwards towards the far wall.
Bobby ran up to Hank, muttering the words of a spell at the Hat.
'Abra-whatever! Just do something clever!'
The Warlock released another arrow at Hank, and Bobby held up the Hat, screwing his eyes tight shut. There was a deep, gulping sound as the Hat swallowed the arrow. Hank and Bobby looked at each other, then down at the Hat, which was slowly starting to shake.
'Take cover!' shouted Hank, diving for the altar. Bobby dropped the vibrating Hat on the floor and followed him.
The Warlock looked at the Hat, seemingly unconcerned, then the Hat gave a violent burp, green and red shards of magic showering the room.
Hank gave a low groan, a nasty buzzing noise in his head. He blinked slowly, looking up. The Warlock was lying on the floor, the Bow a few feet away. Hank stared. The Bow, he had to get to it first! He pulled himself up of the floor.
Venger was faster. He reached it before Hank had taken two steps or the Warlock had time to stand. His black eyes gleamed with desire and excitement, and his hand shook as he held up the Bow.
'Foolish children! Now it is MINE!'
Hank looked angrily at Eric, an I-knew-this-would-happen look on his face. But Eric was watching the Arch-Mage turn to taunt the Warlock.
'I will teach you to try and get the better of me, Warlock!' Venger said with a sneer and reached across the Bow to draw an arrow.
But no arrow came. Venger gave a slight frown and tried again. The Warlock looked up at him and laughed.
'The Bow is mine forever, Venger. I used my magic in its creation! No one else will be strong enough to dare use it!'
Venger lifted his free hand, magic flames forming around his fingers.
'No matter! I can still use my own magic, Warlock. You will not escape me!'
There was a sudden howl from the doorway.
Black-clad Dark Elves started to run in, brandishing scimitars and double-headed axes. They all charged at the Venger, who was taken by surprise and driven back against the wall, in spite of his magic. The Bow was knocked from his hand and skittered away across to the far side of the room.
Venger took one last, longing glance at the Bow, then looked at the sea of Dark Elves, and then finally at the Young Ones. He gave Hank an angry glare and, with a wave of his hand, he vanished.
'He's gone!' exclaimed Bobby. 'What a chicken!'
The Minions turned to face the gang, weapons at the ready. Presto backed away from them, against the wall beside Sheila and Eric. Bobby and Uni stood close to Hank.
'Destroy them!' screamed the Warlock, 'Get that Bow!'
'You mean this?' called a voice. The Bow lifted up into the air on its own. Diana pulled back her hood. 'I think this belongs to us! Hank, catch!'
She threw the Bow across the room to him and he let the Club drop to the ground. It was his again! He looked at it, black and gleaming in his hand. Just having it in his grasp again felt wonderful and he had a sudden surge of confidence. He had the Bow! He could do anything now!
'See how you like it!' Hank called tauntingly.
He reached down to draw an arrow, and a sudden desperation gripped him, an overwhelming desire to feel the Bow's power once more. He concentrated hard, feeling the muscles in his arms straining and sweat suddenly on his forehead. But nothing happened. No arrow, no matter how had he tried. With a gasp of frustration, he let the Bow fall to his side.
Minions were approaching from all directions, and more were coming in through the door, cutting of their escape.
'I think Venger had the right idea,' said Presto, looking down at the damaged Javelin on the floor.
'There were too many of them,' shouted Diana. 'Hank, what'll we do?'
They stood no chance against so many Elves and as soon as the Warlock regained the Bow, they would be done for. Hank still held the Bow, ignoring the Club on the ground beside him.
He looked to Sheila, standing against the Minions, trying to keep them away from Presto. Diana was trying to grab a scimitar from the Dark Elves, but she was heavily outnumbered. Bobby had moved to protect his sister, waving over the Hat, but it seemed to have been damaged by the explosion. It fizzed a little round the edges, but no magic came out. Eric was…
Hank jumped round in surprise. Eric was standing beside him, blood from the cut trickling down his arm, the metal bands still round his wrists and the burn lines from the arrow still clearly visible. There was no doubt what he wanted. He wanted the Bow.
Hank felt a dreadful stab of jealousy, and tightened his grip on the Bow. He could feel the thrum of its magic, and every fibre of his being wanted to use it, to pull an arrow and send it roaring into the Warlock and his Minions. It was HIS weapon, it always had been, and it always would be. Just because Eric was dressed (or half-dressed) as the Ranger, didn't mean he was the true Ranger. the Bow was rightfully HIS!
They looked at each other for several long seconds, Dark Elves approaching. The others were shouting something, but Hank couldn't hear. All he could feel was the power of his Bow as it pulsated in his hand. He would never, ever give it up, especially not to Eric.
The new Ranger held out his hand, looking at Hank with bloodshot eyes.
Hank pulled back.
'You can't have it!' he said, his voice sounding slurred. 'You left us, remember! It's mine!'
A flicker of confusion passed over Eric's face as they looked eye-to-eye.
The new Barbarian glared at their one-time Cavalier with a burning hatred. Eric was a coward and a traitor. Hank was shaking with anger. How dare this piece of filth demand the Bow! It was his, it would always be his!
A memory of the Stone Dragon reappeared, and this time Hank welcomed it. He could remember how he had pictured Eric's face with a nice, shiny black eye, to make him pay for what he'd done, pay for leaving them unprotected. Now as they faced each other, it seemed that his wish had come true. Hank looked at the bruise across Eric's temple with a mix of pleasure and contempt. It served him right! Nothing else mattered now he held the Bow again. He would crush anyone who tried to take it from him!
Then, dimly, he heard Dungeonmaster's words: Trust in friendship. A tiny voice of sanity in the back of his mind told him this was wrong, this was all wrong. He had to protect his friends, but he couldn't even pull an arrow.
His hand began to shake.
Dungeonmaster's words were enough to help him regain control. Deep down, Hank knew that he couldn't help the others this time. The Bow belonged to someone else. And nothing would ever hurt him as much as that bitter realisation.
He raised the weapon very slowly, every inch an effort of will, and held it out.
Eric lifted the Bow out of Hanks hand.
Suddenly, everything seemed to slot back into focus. Hank looked around, free from the Bow's power. The others were surrounded, Presto had fallen beside Sheila and Bobby, their weapons held close as the Dark Elves approached. Diana was trapped against a wall, desperately kicking the Minions that came close enough.
Even more Elves were advancing towards him, their swords glittering. The Warlock had risen from the floor, assisted by two Elves.
Eric took a slow step back, and was looking at the Bow with a glazed, far-away expression.
Hank grabbed the Club once more and took a swing at the advancing Minions, knocking some swords away, but this wouldn't last long. There were far too many and the Warlock was pushing his way through, a furious gleam in his eyes.
Trust in friendship. It was all they had left.
'Eric!' shouted Hank, 'Eric, help us!'
All the pain and worry was swept away the instant Eric took the Bow. Suddenly he was filled with life and power again. And with that came anger, and a desire for revenge that smothered any other emotion. The Bow was in his hand, now, right now. It was waiting. It wanted him to use it. It was his.
Hank's voice was far off and faint 'Eric, help us!'
Eric took a step back, breathless panic rising in his chest at Hank's voice. They needed him. He was the wielder of the Bow now. It was his to use.
The old fears were back. How could he control it? How could he possibly save them all? He could never be the hero Hank was. He just kept on letting them down. How many times had they abandoned a portal just to help him? And he couldn't even keep watch at night without getting into trouble.
That terrible, dark voice rang through his mind: the voice of Venger's Master.
- You caused this to happen. You alone summoned me here. Your friends are doomed to remain in this Realm as long as you stay with them. They don't need you. You hold them back. Together you will never get home. They will leave you here, trapped forever. It is their only way home. You are mine. –
The words hurt to hear and Eric wavered, caught between running and fighting. He desperately wanted to run, and be free from the responsibility of the Bow. He would only make a fool of himself, after all.
But as he paused, a new thought forced its way to the front of his mind.
Venger's Master had been wrong. They hadn't left him! They had come to help him and had even refused the Warlock's offer of an instant portal.
They hadn't left him!
He looked up.
Hank had been grabbed by the Minions and was being dragged towards the Warlock. Diana had been caught too. Uni was already being tied up, and Bobby was getting ready to charge forward to get her, in spite of the large number of Elves that stood in his way. Presto and Sheila were lying on the floor, Dark Elves pinning them down.
Eric suddenly remembered Dungeonmaster's words: Trust in yourselves and in your friendship. That is the only advice I can give.
They had risked everything to help him. Hank had given him the Bow. He had to help, and he had to succeed. There was no one else left.
A rush of determination passed through him. He reached across to pull an arrow, and felt his arms and shoulders shake with the strain. Gritting his teeth, he pulled harder, desperate to control the Bow in spite of everything.
For a few seconds he thought he wouldn't make it. He was going to fail, again. They had lost.
NO! he thought desperately, he had to pull that arrow. This is still my Bow! Somewhere deep inside he found a reserve of willpower he never knew he had.
Slowly, a red arrow formed in his hand. His whole body was filled with the urge to release the fledging arrow, to let it fly and be rid of it. But he pulled it back further, his arms trembling with the effort, and the arrow grew.
Somehow he managed to concentrate on what he wanted the arrow to do, and aimed it directly at the Minions surrounding Hank. Hank's eyes widened in fear as the new Ranger let the arrow go.
There was a low roar, the arrow splitting into a number of baby arrows as it flew, one for each Dark Elf. The Minions were forced away from the new Barbarian, each one knocked down by a shard of red light. They began to get shorter, their squeals increasing in pitch as they shrank. A few seconds later the room was filled with faint popping sounds as the Dark Elves vanished.
Hank was standing, looking around him in surprise, no Minion within five feet of him.
Eric breathed a sigh of relief, a wonderful, light feeling spreading through him. He had done it! He had done it! It had worked!
Near to the altar, he saw the Warlock pause, a look of surprise on his face. The new Ranger gave a grim smile. He had done it once, he could do it again! This wasn't finished!
Eric reached across the Bow again, the second arrow more difficult to hold than the first. He aimed it at Dark Elves holding the other kids. The Minions didn't wait for him to fire. They backed away, then turned and ran for the door as Eric loosed the arrow after them. The Dark Elves were all retreating, letting his friends go.
Finally, Eric pulled a third arrow, his body aching with the effort. He knew that he didn't have the strength to pull another one. He looked at the Warlock and felt a sudden urge for revenge, to make the Warlock pay for the pain and humiliation.
But there was only one thing that could help his friends.
He had eventually figured it out during those long, lonely hours of waiting. At the time, he had hoped the power of an arrow and the Conduit combined would send them home. But the instant he'd pulled the first arrow, he'd realised he simply wasn't strong enough.
Ignoring the others, Eric walked forward, his arms hurting more than they had when he'd been held against the wall, the strain of holding the arrow increasing all the time. He would have to be quick, his strength of purpose wouldn't be much help when his arms gave way. He walked up to the altar and kicked it over, the candles and incense falling to the ground, as did the Conduit.
Eric looked into the glowing purple centre of the Crystal. The magic of the Wish Imp was still working within them all, and magic could be channelled through the Conduit. It was the Conduit of Transference, after all. It had the power to do almost anything. It could undo that stupid wish, and put the Bow back the way to was supposed to be. All it needed was a source of energy, a really, really big source.
He pulled harder on the Bow, making the arrow grow larger and ignoring the burning ache in his arms. He concentrated on what he wanted, trying not to be distracted.
The Warlock screamed as he realised what Eric was about to do, shouting for his Minions to return, and cursing them when they didn't.
Eric stood above the crystal on the floor, and pointed the giant arrow straight down. The muscles in his arms hurt so much he though he would let the arrow loose too soon. The vision had to be clear in his mind. He had to control the Bow.
The image of what he wanted was suddenly perfect.
'Try this!' he shouted and released the arrow.
The Conduit sucked it in greedily. Slowly the crystal turned from purple to red, then from red to yellow. It began to shake, and the vibrations spread round the room. The others staggered but kept standing. Eric let the Bow fall to the floor and he dropped to his knees, unable to look away.
Suddenly, the room was consumed with a blinding flash of light.
Eric was never sure how long the light lasted, maybe microseconds, maybe hours. He heard nothing, he saw nothing but pure white. Then, as suddenly as the light had appeared, it was gone.
He was still on his knees, in the tower room, and the air was filled with sweet-smelling smoke. The Conduit was in front of him, glowing a faint purple. He reached for the Bow, but it had gone. Instead, his hand touched the Shield. He looked down to see his trusty chainmail and breastplate.
There was movement close by, as the others were looking around too. Presto had his robes and Hat back, Bobby had his Club, Diana was the Acrobat again, Sheila had her Cloak and Hank was in his Ranger's clothes, holding his usual, gold-coloured Bow. The Cavalier gave a sigh. It had worked! It had all gone back!
Over by the window, where the Warlock had once stood, were a few scraps of charred, blue robe and a pair of black boots. Uni trotted up and prodded the boots with her horn.
Eric tried to stand, but as soon as he was vertical, his knees gave way again and he was back on the ground. Presto and Hank rushed to his side.
'Wow! Way to go, Eric!' said Presto.
He tried to smile, but his head was spinning and everything kept sliding in and out of focus.
'Th…Thanks, you were…great too.'
'Uh, guys, I think we should save the praising for later' said Diana, pointing to the walls. More dust was pouring out, and bits of stone. A large chunk of ceiling crashed down close by.
'Let's get out of here!' shouted Hank. He reached down and pulled Eric to his feet.
'Let's go, Cavalier!'
They stumbled out, Hank and Presto guiding him along as they dodged the falling masonry. His legs didn't feel like they belonged to him any more, and he could barely focus on where he was going. He saw steps and corridors and doors then suddenly he was outside once more. There was a deafening crash behind him, and they were surrounded by billowing dust as the castle collapsed.
Hank and Presto dragged him onwards, not letting his pause, even when he begged them too.
When they finally stopped running, everyone was panting heavily. Looking back, Eric saw a large pile of rubble where the castle had once stood, a huge cloud of grey dust drifting up and over the valley beneath them.
The Cavalier pulled sluggishly away from Hank and Presto, and sat down with a whump.
'I'm not going any further. I don't care if we're being chased by Minions from Hell, I can't move.' He sat cross-legged on the ground and let his head tilt back to look up at the sky. 'How I hate this stupid world!'
'It's nice to have you back again, Eric,' said Diana with a smirk.
'Hey, you're still bleeding!' said Sheila. Eric looked down at his arm in surprise, a dark red stain visible even through his mail. It didn't feel that sore, but then he could barely feel anything at the moment.
'Let me have a look,' she said, kneeling beside him.
'As long as we don't have to move again for a while,' replied Eric, slowly removing his breastplate and shirt. Grimacing, he pulled his clothes over his head. His shoulders were stiff and sore, and his arms felt like lead.
'I feel like I've been wrestling Tiamat,' he said sullenly. 'Ouch, be careful!' he added as Sheila examined the cut. He saw Bobby staring at the other bruises on his body, and blushed.
'You look like you were wrestling Tiamat, too,' said Diana. 'And you lost.'
'Uh. Very funny.'
'I think it needs stitches,' said Sheila, 'I'll have to bandage it.'
She looked at Presto, who rummaged around in the Hat and pulled out a roll of gauze and a large, green handkerchief. He handed it to Sheila in silence, and she covered the cut with the handkerchief and started to tie it in place with the gauze.
Eric squirmed uncomfortably as the Thief tended his arm, but the pain from his cut wasn't the problem. The others were, well, different. There was something in their attitudes that he didn't recognize. Bobby was now scowling at him fiercely, swinging his Club back and forth, Presto was quietly looking at the ground and Diana stared off into space, her face emotionless. Hank stood back from the group, a slight frown on his face, not looking angry, just hurt or disapproving. Not even Sheila would look him in the eye.
'Say, you guys really had me worried there for a minute,' said Eric, unsure what else to say. 'But I knew you'd come.'
He saw the others exchanging glances that he didn't understand.
'What happened?' asked Sheila. She reached up to touch the huge bruise on the Cavalier's face, but he pulled away.
'I don't remember much. I was just about to waken Diana when I saw something moving. I thought the Imp had come back but, well, it hadn't.' He stopped, having difficultly with the next sentence. Apologies were not his strong point, but he had really messed things up this time. 'I know what you're gonna say, that I should have woken you guys before going to look, but I didn't think the Imp would be any trouble. I'm sorry I messed up another chance to get home.'
The others exchanged strange looks again.
'You mean, you didn't leave us deliberately?' asked Sheila finally, tying the end of the bandage unpleasantly tight. 'You didn't go off on your own?'
'Are you nuts!' said Eric, 'In the middle of the night? What kind of an idiot do you think I am!'
The others remained silent, and this time Eric got the definite feeling that he was missing out on something. He looked round the group.
'Say, what happened to you guys anyway?'
'We had a little trouble,' said Sheila.
'We had a lot of trouble!' corrected Presto, 'A Stone Dragon decided to have us for breakfast!'
'What happened?' the Cavalier asked.
'We got the better of it,' said Presto, 'Eventually.'
'No thanks to you!' muttered Bobby, crossing his arms. The Barbarian narrowed his eyes and glared at the Cavalier.
There was a distinctly uncomfortable pause, as Presto, Sheila and Diana all looked at Hank. Uni lowered her head and gave a subdued whine.
'We couldn't find you,' said Hank slowly. 'We thought… Well, we thought you'd abandoned us and gone home on your own.'
Eric had a cold, sick feeling, with the words of Venger's Master suddenly loud in his mind. Even the Warlock had doubted he friends would come to help him. Had he really been such a jerk?
'Gee, guys, you really thought I'd do that?'
'What did you expect, Eric,' snapped Hank suddenly. 'I mean, the way you've been acting recently. You've done everything possible to drive us away. And then you're gone, with no explanation, in the middle of the night! What were we supposed to think?'
Eric shrank back in shame. He couldn't do anything right.
'You insulted us for no reason,' Hank continued bitterly, 'and ignored us when we tried to help. You said you didn't need us. You said you were better off on your own. You said…'
'Good day, my young Pupils.'
They all turned. Eric rubbed his eyes, hoping that the small man in front of him was just an illusion. It didn't work.
'Well, hello Dungeonmaster,' he said caustically. 'And just when I thought I couldn't feel any worse. What do you have to say for yourself this time?''
The old man smiled sadly.
'You have done well, Cavalier.'
'You can save the praise, Your Shortness,' he said, pointing a finger in Dungeonmaster's face. They looked at each other, but it was Eric that turned away first. He grabbed his chainmail and started to pull it back on, carefully.
The Dungeonmaster looked at the others.
'All of you have done well. The Warlock will not trouble these lands again for a very long time. You are all to be congratulated on your courage, and your cleverness.'
The old man looked at their expressions of confusion in surprise. He turned to Eric.
'Have you not explained?'
The Cavalier waved a hand carelessly.
'You explain,' he said. 'I need a rest!'
He lay back onto the grass, not bothering to push the annoying little unicorn away when she flopped down beside him.
'Explain, Dungeonmaster?' said Bobby, 'What's there to explain?'
'Well, I want to know what that Crystal was,' said Diana.
'And why did the Warlock need Eric?' asked Presto.
'And what happened to my Bow?' added Hank, still looking angrily at the Cavalier.
Dungeonmaster seemed pleased at the opportunity to explain.
'The Crystal was from the Dragon's Graveyard,' he told them. 'It had the ability to transfer magical energy from one source to another. The Warlock used it to combine his own, evil magic with that of the Bow, to make it a more powerful weapon.'
'And Eric?' asked Sheila.
'The source of the Crystal's power to transform was the Cavalier,' explained Dungeonmaster patiently. 'While he was the Ranger, the Bow was his. The Crystal took his life force to power the transformation. The Bow absorbed the Warlock's considerable magic to become the most powerful weapon in the Realm. But with great power comes great responsibility, and great temptation.'
'The Warlock made my Bow the strongest weapon in the Realm?' said Hank. 'So how did we defeat him?'
'The Warlock failed to recognise his own limits,' replied Dungeonmaster. 'He became dangerously overconfident and arrogant, unable to foresee the possibility that anyone could stand against him. That was his weakness. Why else would the Warlock have kept Venger as a slave? And why else would he have listened to Venger's advice?'
'What about Venger?' asked Sheila, 'What was he up to?'
'He recognised what the Warlock could not, that the Bow was affecting his mind, and tried to use it to his own advantage.' Dungeonmaster gave a little smirk. 'He knew he would not be able to break free on his own. He contrived to lure you all to the Warlock's Castle, in the hope you would free him.'
'But how did Eric know what to do?' asked Hank, giving the Cavalier the briefest glance.
'That is simple, Ranger. He was linked to the Bow through the Warlock's spell. While Venger was a slave and the Bow was in the hands of the Warlock, the Cavalier was powerless, but as soon as Venger was free…'
'Venger went after the Bow himself!' said Diana triumphantly.
'There was no chance that you could win if Venger fought by the Warlock's side. But once free, he would not be trapped again and he turned on his former master. Yet he did not know that he could not fire the Bow.'
'So how did we get back to normal?' asked Presto.
Dungeonmaster smiled once more.
'You have your Cavalier to thank for that. He used the Crystal to undo Zilzad's wish and change you back. And I must say I was surprised he managed it.'
'But what about the Warlock?'
Dungeonmaster showed no signs that he had tired of explaining.
'When the Cavalier changed you back, the evil magic in the Bow was transferred back at the Warlock, banishing him from this Plane.'
'So Eric saved the day?' said Presto in surprise, and sniggered at the indignant look that immediately clouded the Cavalier's face. Then Eric shrugged.
'Don't say to like it's never happened before!'
'I am sorry, my young pupils,' said Dungeonmaster. 'The portal in the Lightning Forest closed when the Warlock was banished. But there may be another portal, across the Land of Desolation. It will take many days journey.'
Dungeonmaster looked gravely at the Cavalier and added:
'And there is time enough to tell your companions the truth about Venger's Master. Then his words will have no more power over you.'
Eric sat bolt upright, sending Uni scampering away to Bobby. Fear flooded through the Cavalier once more.
'How did you know?' he whispered.
'Evil is evil, Cavalier. It will win at any cost. I warned you against looking for good reason. And, I think your friends deserve an explanation. Perhaps then they will understand.'
'I really believed what he said, Dungeonmaster,' Eric said quietly, looking down to the ground. 'I thought I was helping them. They should have gone home. I always get in the way.'
'That is not true, Cavalier,' said the Dungeonmaster with a smile. 'Unity is the strongest weapon you have. Never, ever forget that!'
Eric turned to the others, who were staring at him as if he had suddenly grown another head, a collective look that they reserved for times when he'd done something inexplicably dumb.
'Tell me you didn't look at Venger's Master,' said Diana. When Eric just shrugged back at her she added:
'Of all the stupid things to do, Eric!'
'I didn't mean to. It just, sorta, happened.'
'How did you know?' asked Hank, looking back to the place where their guide had been. 'He's gone!'
The surprise disappearance of the Dungeonmaster didn't distract the others for more than a few seconds. They looked back at Eric expectantly. A heavy, sinking feeling hit him, the identical feeling he got every time a teacher had announced a surprise test. There was no way of getting out of this.
Hank was staring at him, the anger so obvious before Dungeonmaster's arrival replaced with a look of genuine concern.
'Tell us then, Eric,' prompted Sheila. 'Venger's Master?'
'Oh, all right then,' he said with a huff. 'But can we have some food first? I haven't eaten since yesterday.'
'You can talk and eat at the same time!' said Presto, pulling off his Hat.
'Hat of power, Hat of magic
We need food that is fantastic!'
The Hat was obviously pleased to be back with Presto, and had decided to be cooperative twice in a row. Before them appeared a wonderful, three-course meal, including a huge plateful of garlic bread, three different kinds of pizza, a large plate of well-cooked cabbage (presumably for Uni), a tub of chocolate ice cream and was complimented by a six bottles of what Eric hoped was beer.
He looked round at his friends, and smiled. They had come to help him, even when they thought he'd abandoned them. Venger's Master was wrong. How could he be so dumb? He should have trusted them long before now, he should have told them sooner. They were the only people he could trust in this crazy place.
Eric took a big mouthful of pepperoni pizza then a quick swig of from the bottle. This was not going to be easy. He took a deep breath and said slowly:
'Well, it was like this…'
What will the Young Ones find in the Plains of Desolation?
Find out in 'The Temple of Love' !