DISCLAIMER: Characters belonging to someone else (you know who you are), consider yourselves thoroughly disclaimed. Thank you.
CREDITS: There are lots, all at the end.
STORY: Set after the events in the story 'Trust in Friendship.'
Events in that story are mentioned, but it is NOT necessary to read Trust in Friendship to understand this story, since it is not a sequel.
THANKS: Goes to the people who were fabulous enough to review my other story.
Tiamat11: my first reviewer, you really made my day!
Karin1: Dragon-sized thanks for your support and praise!
The Temple of Love
There was silence in Venger's Castle, and the vast, dark rooms were utterly still. No Orc dared move, no Shadow dared waver, until their Master called them. The Arch-Mage himself sat motionless on his Dragon-Throne, staring off into the distance, with a thin smile on his lips.
He had surpassed himself this time. Those children might have defeated him thus far, but could they overcome the weakness of their own emotions?
It had been a long time since he had given any thought to the Temple. Its power was totally corrupted and it's Keeper enslaved, he had seen no further use for it. Until now! Dungeonmaster would not fail to send the children there. The old man was so predictable.
'Shadow Demon!' called Venger.
His dark servant materialised out of the shadows and abased himself on the floor.
'Master! What is they bidding?'
'Go out into the Plain of Desolation,' commanded Venger. 'Seek out the Young Ones, and follow them. Tell me when they have found the Temple, that I may go and collect their weapons.'
Shadow Demon bowed, but instead of leaving, it hovered anxiously.
Venger raised an eyebrow.
'Master, what of the Curse? Are you not subject…'
'Silence!' snapped Venger. 'Do not question me, Shadow Demon. Did I not craft the Curse myself?'
Shadow Demon backed away and flew off out of the nearby window. Venger watched him leave then leaned back on his throne, his smile now wide enough to show his pointed teeth. Those accursed children! Their destruction was assured, this time!
Hank the Ranger let his eyes close briefly, and sighed.
Mud stretched ahead of them in all directions, shrouded in a layer of thin mist that reduced the visibility to a few meters. No trees, no grass, no animals, no people and (of course) no portal. It was bad enough that they had gone into this awful place, but now they were well and truly lost.
'Perhaps we took a wrong turn,' he suggested.
He looked round at the others, all looking filthy and depressed. The two girls, the Acrobat and the Thief, sat either side of the Ranger on a thin piece of plastic that Presto the Magician had managed to pull out of his Hat. Both wore identical expressions of despair. Bobby the Barbarian sat on his Club nearby, with his Viking helmet squint on his head and his chin rested on his hands. The baby unicorn was draped over the Club beside him.
'How could we have done that?' snapped Eric the Cavalier. 'There've been no turns to make wrongly!'
He and the Magician were sitting on the Eric's Shield, trying to keep dry. Both the Cavalier's blue and yellow armour and the Magician's green robes were streaked with mud.
'We've been walking through this misty mud-hole for three days and two nights,' the Cavalier continued, 'with next to no sleep, no food, and no sign of any portal. Dungeonmaster was just making it up!'
Eric ran a gauntleted hand through his hair, leaving a thin residue of mud behind. He gave a low grunt.
'This is the worst place in this whole crazy world!' he said.
Bobby the Barbarian stirred for the first time since he had settled down to sit on his Club. He looked up at the Cavalier with narrowed eyes.
'Worse than the Warlock's Castle?' he asked quietly.
Eric glared back at him, and Hank sighed again, sensing the start of another argument. But this time the Cavalier was content just to scowl.
None of the others spoke, a heavy gloom in the air. Hank poked the mud in front of him with the tip of his golden Bow, unsure what to do next. What choice did they have?
'This is awful,' murmured the red haired Thief beside him. She pulled her Cloak more tightly around her. 'Do you remember the Beholder?'
Hank nodded. The land of the Beholder had been just as barren and depressing, but at least it was dry and had some features, even if they were just dead trees and bushes.
'What are we gonna do, Hank?' asked Diana softly. 'Should we turn back?'
'Dungeonmaster said to come this way,' he said, waiting for the smart remark from Eric. None came. Things were worse than he'd thought if Eric had given up complaining about their guide.
'I wonder if this really is the right place, the Plain of Desolation?' murmured Sheila. 'The Plain of Mud would have been better.'
'Looks desolate enough to me,' replied Eric with a snort.
'Yes, Cavalier,' said a voice beside Hank. 'It is a barren land, and filled with sadness.'
'Dungeonmaster!' said Diana in surprise. The old man bowed.
'Greetings, pupils.' Dungeonmaster stood before them, his hands clasped together, immaculately dressed in red robes stood their guide.
'Hey! How come you don't get covered in mud?' demanded Eric.
'Have you come to help us? Are we in the right place?' asked Sheila.
'That's all we need, more riddles!' said Eric.
Dungeonmaster chose to ignore the Cavalier, and was looking at Sheila.
'This is indeed the Plain of Desolation, Thief,' he said. 'Nothing can live within the sphere of the Cursed Temple of Love.'
The gang exchanged glances.
'Cursed Temple?' asked Hank warily.
'The Temple of Love was once a place of great joy and happiness,' replied Dungeonmaster, 'a place where all good people could go to find shelter and hope for the future. But its power has been turned. Instead of giving, now it takes way. The Temple is alive, feeding on the emotions of those to pass nearby. No one dare go there now.' Dungeonmaster looked extraordinarily sad. 'It's great halls lie empty and cold. And there are no others left, who remember.'
'Why do we want to go there then?' asked Eric, crossing his arms. 'No, wait! Let me guess! There's a portal there.'
'There is indeed a way to your home at the Heart of the Temple, if you are willing to take it. You must hold on to hope to live your dreams. But be very careful inside the Temple. Do not tempt the Curse with too much emotion, or you will awaken something much more powerful. And you must all stay together'
Dungeonmaster turned and looked directly at Hank.
'You must not let any of them wander alone.'
'Why?' asked the Ranger, suddenly worried.
'Is it dangerous, Dungeonmaster?' asked Sheila.
'And how do we find it?' added Hank.
'You will lead them, Ranger,' said Dungeonmaster with a bow.
The group looked at each other.
'The Temple of Love,' said Presto. 'That doesn't sound so bad.'
'What do we do when…?' stared Diana. 'He's gone!'
There was an audible sigh from the Cavalier.
'So what's new!' he said, whacking the edge of his Shield, and sending small splats of mud over Presto.
'This place gives me the creeps,' said Sheila. 'Can we go? Hank?'
Hank shrugged awkwardly, not really listening. Dungeonmaster's riddle had made him anxious. Dungeonmaster's riddles always made him anxious, but this time their old guide had been particularly disconcerting. He looked at Sheila as she sat looking up at him, and smiled. What would he do without her?
'C'mon guys,' he said suddenly. 'We'll never find this Temple place if we sit around here.'
Grumbling, the rest of the gang stood up, gathering their few possessions. Bobby and Eric took care to avoid each other. Uni gave a single, miserable bray as she stood up to her tummy in mud. Bobby reached down to pick her up, holding her under one arm.
Presto headed off first. Diana the Acrobat waited for the Cavalier to shake some of the mud off his Shield, and they followed Presto together. Sheila fell into step beside Hank, then suddenly looked round. Bobby hadn't followed them. Sheila watched the Barbarian for a few seconds then stopped to wait, letting Hank walk on alone.
The Ranger sighed inwardly. Cursed Temples were not their only problem in this swamp. Hank had over heard the Barbarian and Sheila talking a few days ago.
Bobby had sounded desperate. He was too young to be separated from his family like this. And his sister had found no way to comfort him.
Their experience with the Warlock had affected Bobby more than the Ranger had guessed. He was still bitter and angry that another portal had closed, needing someone to blame. And their Cavalier had been a convenient scapegoat.
Sheila had started to explain again, but Bobby wasn't interested. There was no excuse, in the Barbarian's mind, for getting them into such trouble in the first place. The Cavalier should have 'wished' them home when he'd had the chance. It was simple.
The bickering and arguments were pulling them apart. If only we could get home quickly, thought the Ranger. We have to get home this time! We have to get home!
The words repeated over and over like a prayer in his mind, lulling Hank into a stupor. The monotony of the mud was beginning to play tricks on his mind. He stumbled, and looked around anxiously, suddenly realising he had lost track of what was happening around him. Where were the others?
Eric was obvious to see, the bright armour stood out from all the mud. Diana was only noticeable by her golden jewellery, her dark skin and brown furs blending into their surroundings. Presto's green robes were got more difficult to see the further he got ahead.
Hank stopped and turned. Bobby, Uni and Sheila were only a few steps behind him.
'What's wrong Hank?'
'I'm not sure.' There was a sudden feeling of dread inside him. 'I think…'
'Hey! Guys!' he called suddenly, waving at the three ahead of him. 'Guys! Stop!'
The Acrobat, Cavalier and Magician all stopped and looked back at him. With no warning, a soft breeze blew up, making the mists swirl. Slowly, directly to their right, a large, dark building took shape. The mist cleared completely within a minute, and the Temple of Love stood before them in all its glory.
Hank was immediately reminded of the City of Darkhaven, they both had the same brooding presence. But he would never have guessed that a single building would take up so much space. It was huge!
Like a caricature of a fairytale castle, its front walls rose steeply for many storeys, turrets visible above the ramparts. There were more towers and battlements that swept off to both sides, the walls continuing round into the mist, almost as if they never stopped. And it was black, darker than the sky at night, with no lights behind any of its thousands of windows.
Right in front of them, about ten meters away, was a single, silver door.
'Looks like we found it then,' said Presto.
'It's a bit difficult to miss!' said Eric.
'You were about to walk straight past it!' said the Barbarian. His sister tugged his arm, and frowned.
'How are we ever going to find a portal in there?' she said with a sigh.
'Relax, Sheila!' replied Eric flippantly. 'All we have to do is hold on to hope, be very careful and stay together. It's easy, right Hank!'
Hank made no reply. Going inside was a bad idea, he could tell. Nothing in this place was ever easy.
The others had started towards the door, and he wanted to shout out, to tell them to stop, but he didn't. A portal was inside, a way home.
We have to get home this time!
That thought drowned his anxiety out and he followed his friends forward.
On the door some words had been etched into the silver, just above the gilt handles:
In the Temple of Love: Shine like lightning.
In the Temple of Love: Cry like rain.
In the Temple of Love: Hear the calling.
In the Temple of Love: Know my name.
Presto looked round at Hank, with one eyebrow raised.
'What do you suppose THAT means?'
'I don't know,' said Hank, the feelings of dread returning more intensely, 'but I don't think we want to find out.'
Eric reached out for the door's handle and pulled gingerly. The silver door swung outward smoothly, without a single creak, and there was no noise from inside. A waft of dusty air floated out.
The gang looked round at the Ranger. He smiled with a confidence he didn't feel.
'Let's go guys!' he said. 'Let's find the portal and blow this place!'
Hank stepped inside first, his hand reaching across the Bow to pull a glowing arrow. Even that didn't shed much light in the suffocating gloom of the Temple. He heard the others follow him. A small puddle of light leaked in from outside, just enough to make out a grey, flagstone floor.
'This is darker than the Tower of Darkness!' said Bobby quietly.
Hank loosed his arrow, sending it up towards the roof. It formed a glowing ball, light filling the room for a few seconds, long enough for Hank to see sheer, grey walls, and a few dark doorways.
'Maybe they forgot to pay the electricity bill?' suggested Eric.
Presto pulled his muddy Hat off and gave the group a big smile.
'No problem guys, I'll have the lights on in no time!'
'Hat of many wondrous items,
give us light, this room to brighten!'
There was the briefest of pauses, then the Hat glowed and spat a small orb the size of an orange into Presto's hand. The light that flickered in its centre was no brighter than a match.
'Give me a break, Presto!' exclaimed Eric. 'That thing wouldn't even light a cigar!'
The Cavalier looked round impatiently.
'I wonder if there's a switch,' he muttered.
The orb in Presto's hand flared into life, so abruptly that he dropped it in surprise. It broke in half, and the bright ooze inside leaked into the cracks in the floor.
'Sorry, Eric,' the Magician began, 'I didn't …'
As the Magician was speaking, all the lanterns in the room flicked on, one by one. They watched in silence as light spread across the entrance hall, bathing the room in a sterile glow.
'Way to go, Presto!' said Diana, giving him a playful thump on the back. Even Eric smiled at the Magician.
Hank looked round cautiously. The hall was relatively narrow, much smaller than he'd thought from the outside. Numerous grey doors lead off, deeper into the Temple. Then he looked up and gave a soft whistle. The dark grey walls stretched upwards, high into a gloom that light could not penetrate, giving the impression that the walls never stopped, and that there was no ceiling. His heart sank. They were never going to find a portal in this place. It was too big.
Eric pulled a sarcastic face.
'Lovely, and just my colour scheme, too! I like the greys.'
'Do you think the lights are on in the rest of this place?' asked Sheila.
'One way to find out!' said Bobby eagerly. 'Let's go!'
They picked a door at random, and Hank pulled it open. Behind the door was a brightly lit passageway, with dark grey walls and a soft carpet, as colourless as the main hall. Hank looked up and gave a quiet sigh of relief. At least this room had a ceiling.
Eric was looked back across the entrance hall and said suddenly:
'Perhaps we should split up. There's a lot of Temple to search. What do you…'
'No!' snapped Hank, much more sharply than he'd meant. 'No. We stick together. Remember what Dungeonmaster said.'
Eric shrugged, looking embarrassed.
Hank felt a twinge of guilt. The Cavalier was having a hard enough time without the Ranger snapping at him too. As Eric walked past, Hank said to him:
'Why don't you pick the next door instead?'
Eric gave a small smile and nodded, 'Just as long as we don't get lost,' said Eric. 'I would hate to end up stuck in here.'
The door swung shut behind them.
Hank's hope that they would find the portal quickly was soon dashed. They explored slowly, each room subtlety different from the ones before, different shapes, different sizes, the occasional broken mosaic on the floor, the odd picture on the wall. In past days they would have been glorious, tastefully coordinated and a pleasure on the eye. But all the colours had faded to different shades of grey. The lack of colour was unnerving. The Ranger kept looking at his friends. Was it his imagination, or was the colour of their clothes fading too?
The hours passed in a grey haze, and they hadn't seen the faintest sign of a portal.
Each room started to look the same to Hank, their subtle differences ignored or forgotten, almost as if his brain had forgotten how to function. The others obviously felt the same. Any sporadic attempts at conversation now petered out within a few words.
Finally, they came to another narrow hallway, darker and greyer than the other rooms, and suddenly Presto sat down on the floor.
'This is hopeless,' he said flatly. 'There's no portal.'
He looked up at Hank, his eyes wide, waiting for comforting words. The others were looking at him too. The Ranger felt a sudden flame of anger. Why was it always him that had to be strong? Why was it always him who never gave up? This time he couldn't think of anything to say. He looked round at his friends, each one with the same expression of despair, the expression he knew he had as well. Only Sheila met his gaze, and his heart gave a tiny lurch.
Dungeonmaster's words suddenly popped into his mind. You must hold on to hope to live your dreams. Dungeonmaster had warned them. It was this place. It was the Curse, sucking out their good, happy emotions, and it had taken their hope: the hope that they would one day get home.
'You must hold on to hope to live your dreams,' he said out loud, the words sounding very distant. But Sheila smiled at him. At that moment, it was the most wonderful sight he had ever seen.
'We have to hope, guys,' she said, her voice growing in strength as she spoke. 'We can't give up.'
The Thief knelt beside Presto, and put her arm round his shoulders.
'You want to go home, don't you?' she asked. 'You don't want to stay here?'
Presto gave a thin smile.
'No way,' he said slowly, as if waking from a deep sleep. 'There's no pizza!'
There was a quiet laugh from Diana.
'No TV either!' she said.
'And the décor's so boring,' added Eric. 'Not your style at all.'
They looked around at each other. Hank gave a grim smile.
'The portal has to be around here somewhere,' he said firmly. 'We have to keep going.'
Eric reached down and helped Presto stand.
'Let's go!' said the Cavalier.
The Magician nodded.
'How hard can it be to find one little portal!' he said.
They opened the door at the far end of the hallway, and went into a huge room. Hank looked around, this place was unpleasantly familiar. Then he saw a thin shaft of daylight coming from a door at the far side. He looked up to the walls that disappeared up into the gloom.
There was a dead silence for a number of seconds.
'I don't believe it,' said Hank finally. 'We're back to the entrance hall!'
There was a collective sigh from the others, but the Ranger wasn't sure if it was relief or disappointment.
'Dungeonmaster said the portal was in the heart of the Temple,' said Diana, 'We must have missed it.'
Hank nodded. They were back at the beginning again. How long could they wander in here before the Curse got to them again? Maybe next time they wouldn't be able to shake off the despair.
'Jeez, what a waste of time!' said Eric, 'I haven't wasted this much time since I last tried Math revision!'
Bobby turned to face the Cavalier, a look of extreme frustration on his face.
'Last time I wasted this much time, we were wandering around a Mushroom Forest, looking for you!'
Hank immediately looked at Eric, hoping that the restraint he'd shown earlier would hold. But this time the Cavalier had had enough.
'Why can't you let it drop, Squirt!' he snapped. 'Go and annoy someone else!'
'Calm down, Eric,' said Hank. The last thing they needed was a fight.
'So, the ol' Cavalier can't take a little joke!' persisted Bobby.
The small unicorn beside him brayed her agreement.
Eric pointed at Uni.
'Stay out of this, you!'
'I can't believe how many times we've had to help you!' continued Bobby. 'How many portals have we missed because of you? And you opened the Box of Balefire in the first place!'
'Bobby, that's enough!' said Hank firmly.
'Get off my back, Barbarian,' replied Eric.
'You gonna make me?' The young boy stepped right up to the Cavalier, the horns on his helmet not even coming up to Eric's shoulders. 'I said, "Are you going to make me?"'
'Bobby!' said Hank in a warning tone.
Eric stared at him for a number of seconds then an angry sneer broke over his face.
'I would be delighted to, short-stuff!'
'Eric!' said Sheila, 'He's just a little boy!'
The Cavalier paused. Hank could see the shake of Eric's balled fists.
'Come on then, Cavalier!' Bobby gave him a quick prod with the Club. 'Or are you chicken?'
Presto grabbed Eric and pulled him back a few steps.
'Let it go, Eric!' said the Magician, glaring at the Barbarian. 'Hank, can't you…?'
'What did the Warlock do to you, anyway?' said Bobby with a taunting smirk. 'Did he hurt the poor little Cavalier?'
'You little b…' started Eric, pulling away from Presto, his eyes full of anger. Hank moved faster, and caught the Cavalier's arm before he had even taken a single step. The other boy struggled, and Hank was surprised at the effort it took to keep Eric from moving forward. Bobby was waving the Club belligerently, and was about to speak, when there was a long, loud hiss from the dark ceiling.
Everyone looked up.
'Something's up there!' said Presto, with an overtone of fear.
The gang all draw together. Eric lifted his Shield, Diana and Sheila standing close to him. Hank pulled an arrow, and held it up. Low, eerie whispers echoed round the halls, hinting at words that he couldn't quite make out.
There was a deep rumble, like distant thunder and a breeze stirred suddenly, growing with every second. Hank saw movement, a glint of light from high about them.
'Get ready!' he said.
A giant Obsidian Dragon swooped lazily down from the ceiling, as black as the castle's walls, with slender silver wings and claws, and huge red eyes that glowed in the gloom. It drew a deep breath, smoke rising from its nostrils.
'Scatter!' ordered Hank, letting the arrow go. The energy arrow hit the Dragon, dissipating harmlessly against its shiny scales. The others started to run and Hank jumped to the side, as a stream of fire erupted in retaliation.
He looked back, seeing the Dragon fly overhead, circling the group and preparing to land between the group and the door. Its long black legs thrust out suddenly and there was a nerve-shredding screech as the silver talons scraped over the flagstones of the hall. Everyone winced.
The Dragon's head darted back and forth, as it looked around at them. Hank fired one arrow after another at it, but they all bounced harmlessly off its scales.
Suddenly, the Barbarian rushed forward, swinging his Club.
'Come and try some of this!' he called. The Club struck the ground and a wave of flooring raced towards the Dragon, but it didn't fall.
Sheila gave a high-pitched squeal of terror as the Dragon reared back, filling its lungs, preparing to spray fire directly at Bobby. Hank fired another volley of arrows, but the Dragon didn't seem to notice.
'BOBBY!' screamed Sheila.
There was a flash of blue and yellow, as Eric ran in front of the Barbarian, just in time. The fire from the black Dragon billowed out around the magic of the Cavalier's Shield.
Hank flinched as the flames rushed past close by, and he lifted his hand to protect his eyes from the heat. After the flames had gone, he looked back and saw Sheila running towards Bobby, the hood of her Cloak down. She was racing forward without watching what the Dragon was doing. He watched in horror as it whipped round, faster than a Dragon that size should have been able to move, and the Thief was knocked towards him by the thrashing tail.
The Ranger sprinted up to her, heedless of the danger. By the time she had hit the ground, he was barely seconds away. The Dragon turned to tower above them.
Hank reached her just as the Dragon lowered its head to bite, not thinking, just reacting. There was no way he couldn't let anything happen to her. He stood up tall between them, offering himself in Sheila's place, and praying it would be quick.
The Dragon stopped mid-lunge and stared back at Hank. Yes, it looked directly at him, its beady eyes gleaming scarlet red.
Seconds passed and the Dragon didn't move.
Hank was shaking. His mouth was dry and his heart thudded in his chest. He had been seconds from death, and now? The Dragon was just looking at him. In spite of all their experience in the Realm, the Ranger had never been so close to a dragon before, and wasn't sure about their expressions, but it looked almost expectant, its head cocked slightly to one side and the red eyes staring.
The others were all statues. Eric was in front of Presto, who was stopped mid-spell, identical expressions of fear and surprise on their faces. Diana was holding the Javelin up high, ready to vault onto the Dragon's back. Bobby had lifted his Club, ready to strike the ground again.
Only the sound of his heart pounding told him that time was not standing still. Then the Dragon blinked once more, sulphurous smoke slowly coiling out of its nostrils.
Tentatively, Hank reached down to grasp the Thief's hand. The Dragon did nothing.
It stood and watched as he helped Sheila up. The Thief clutched Hank tightly, and he could feel her shivering. He put his arm around her, glad to be able to hold her and looked back up into the Dragon's eyes.
It gave a low growl, and Hank's heart skipped a beat. Did it want still want a meal? But instead of attacking, the Obsidian Dragon leaped up into the air, the strong, silver wings sweeping forward. It flapped twice, creating such a strong tornado of air that they were almost knocked to the ground, then soared upwards to the ceiling and was lost in the shadows.
There were a few seconds of stillness, Sheila still holding on to him. Hank could feel the Thief's heart pounding next to his, and her nails digging into his shoulders. She was shaking. Slowly she looked up into his eyes. He didn't need her to speak, to say 'thank you for saving my life', it was all there in that one glance. He smiled.
Abruptly, she pulled away and raced up to Bobby, flinging her arms around him.
'Aw, c'mon sis. I'm fine!' he said, trying in vain to push her away. 'I'm fine!'
Hank turned unsteadily round as the others ran up.
'What was that all about?' asked Presto, 'I thought you were a goner, Hank!'
Hank watched the Thief hold tightly onto her embarrassed brother, his body still adjusting to still being alive. He nodded.
'So did I!' the Ranger replied with a nervous sigh.
'Shee-laa, I'm fine!' said Bobby.
Diana gave the Ranger an enormous hug.
'You were almost lunch for that thing!' she said.
'You're not kidding!' said Eric, with a crazy smile, 'He would have been the hors d'oeuvre.' The Cavalier smacked Hank jovially on the back. 'Way to scare a Dragon of its dinner!'
'Sheila! Let go!' said Bobby, and this time there was a brittle edge to the boy's tone. The others all turned to look. The Barbarian was flushed red, and glared at his staring friends.
'Stop treating me like a baby, sis! Leave me alone!'
The Thief pulled away abruptly, tears in her eyes. She looked Bobby for a few seconds, then stepped back and turned away from her brother.
'Hey, short-stuff,' said Eric, 'She was almost …'
Bobby turned to Eric.
'And I don't need your help either!'
Eric crossed his arms and scowled.
'Don't take it personally, squirt! It's my job!'
Hank stepped up to the young Barbarian. This was all they needed, another fight. He had to put a stop to this, right now.
'You shouldn't do that sort of thing, Bobby,' he said sternly. 'It's dangerous.'
'I can look after myself! I don't need him!' he jerked his thumb at the Cavalier.
'And there's no need to take it out on Sheila,' Hank added, ignoring Bobby's comment.
'Yeah,' said Diana, 'you could have been a bit nicer. She was almost eaten by the Dragon too!'
Bobby opened his mouth to reply, then blushed and hung his head.
'Yeah, I guess,' he said, then looked around quickly. 'Where is Sheila?'
Hank looked round too, suddenly afraid. He couldn't see her anywhere. Dungeonmaster has expressly told them to stick together. He had warned Hank in particular. Damn! Damn! DAMN! He had to find her. She was scared, she had almost been eaten, and he knew how she hated to be alone.
He turned to the others.
'You have to stay here,' he ordered. 'I won't be long. I have to find her!'
They started to argue, but Hank didn't wait, he was too worried to listen, or stop and think about what he was doing. His mind was on Dungeonmaster's words: Do not let any of them wander alone. It was up to him. He ran towards the closest door. The others were standing staring at him in surprise.
'Stay here,' he called out again as he left the hall. Their cries of warning quickly faded.
'Sheila!' he called, hoping she had not gone far. There was no answer. If the Thief had put he hood up, he could walk right past her and not know.
The Ranger ran on, desperately pulling open doors. Part of him couldn't stop thinking about the Dragon. It had almost eaten her, it had almost eaten him. What if it came back for a second try?
'Sheila!' he called, his voice echoing around the rooms.
'Sheila, where are you?'
It was getting darker in the halls, but he ran on. There was still no answer, not a single sound.
Finally, Hank stopped to catch his breath. He was in another stone-floored hall, similar to the entrance hall, but smaller, with faint shadows on walls from the torches. Hank gulped. He didn't remember this room from last time.
He walked forward, looking from side to side for another door. The light from the torches dimmed slowly as he moved, until it was almost total darkness. He was about to pull an arrow for light, when he noticed something flickering ahead.
It was a different kind of light, a rich cobalt blue, and it was coming from an alcove at the end of the hall. After recovering from the surprise of seeing colour again, Hank walked towards it, and the light grew stronger with every step he took.
In the alcove was a small, cosy-looking room, much warmer than the hall. On the floor was a heart-shaped mosaic, probably red at one time, but now as black as the outside walls of the Temple. Flickering above the heart, suspended in mid-air, was a cold, blue flame that cast thick shadows on the walls.
Sheila was standing close to the heart, staring at the flame with her mouth slightly open. Looking at her, his heart was flooded with relief. What would he do if anything happened to her?
As he moved forward, she turned and looked up, her pupils dilated so far that her eyes were almost all black. The instant she gazed into his eyes, he thought his heart would stop.
He knew he had to kiss her.
All this time, the Ranger had kept his control. Every day, seeing her, being close to her had almost broken his heart. Memories of their journey rushed back to him, all the times he had been close to her, all the things they'd shared. It was all perfectly clear.
Specific feeling came back to him; the pain in her voice when she thought he'd betrayed the group and the Cloud Bears to Venger, the relief he'd felt when he'd explained; the jealousy he'd felt when Sir Lawrence had asked for her hand in marriage and the joy when she'd refused.
Hank couldn't help himself. She was so beautiful. Most of his brain knew he had to stop, but he couldn't. She was leaning towards him, her face lit with anticipation.
A fraction of a second before their lips touched, he heard words clearly in his mind.
Shine like lightning.
The flame beside him seemed to shatter, sending out a searing pulse of light and everything was blocked out, everything but the wonderful girl standing in front of him.
He leaned forward, and kissed her.