DISCLAIMER: Characters from the cartoon series belong to someone else, so I have to be nice, and put them back in the box safely. Characters that are new are all mine!
CREDITS: Ideas/quotes/things I have borrowed will be acknowledged at the end.
STORY: Set after the events in the story 'The Temple of Love.'
While not strictly a sequel, it does refer back to the TOL, and if you just accept that Hank and Sheila are uncomfortable around each other at the beginning, it should make sense. (If it doesn't, then tell me!)
And somewhere along the line, this story has grown to twice the usual size. So it has now been split into 2 parts. It's probably best to think of this as a kind of "double episode".
THANKS: As always goes to the lovely people who are pleasant enough to review my stories. Writing is so much easier when you know people are enjoying it!
Only Heroes Make It Home.
-Part I: The Trap-
The suns had just begun to set. The last of their rays laced the tops of the clouds with a rich carnation red that contrasted with the deep purple of the sky behind them. Here and there the first stars of evening had started to appear. High above the mountainside the three moons of the Realm shone brightly, casting dark shadows across the forests below. It was a beautiful evening. It was just the sort of evening to relax, and enjoy the Realm…
Eric the Cavalier gasped for breath once more, and held on to the rock-face tightly. Perspiration was running into his eyes, and he was very hot: not good in the cold, thin air of the mountain. His lungs felt like they were going to explode. He hated climbing, he hated rocks and he hated this crazy place!
The Cavalier looked up. The others were already at the top of the ledge, only a short distance away, having a lovely rest and sipping water from a water bottle. He gave a disgruntled snort. They didn't have to lug pounds of steel and chainmail around, or have a stupid Shield strapped across their backs that made it awkward to climb. It wasn't fair!
They saw him look, and all smiled and waved.
'Yeah…yeah… yeah!' he muttered between gasps.
'C'mon Eric!' called Hank the Ranger. 'We can see the Grove. We're almost there!'
'Stupid …place… for… a flower…anyway!' muttered the Cavalier. He pulled himself over another outcrop, his yellow breastplate scraping across it, making a horrible screeching noise. And how was he gonna get that fixed?
'C'mon, Eric, hurry up!' called Bobby the Barbarian, leaning casually on his Club as he looked down. 'We've got an Orchid to find.'
'Bet… you don't… know …what …an Orchid… looks… like,' puffed Eric. He grabbed the rock above his head, and pulled himself higher once more. Now he was less than ten feet away from the top.
'You're almost there, Cavalier!' said Sheila the Thief helpfully. 'We've left you some water!'
Ah, lovely, cool water! Eric licked his lips, and pulled himself up once more. He was directly underneath them, with just one more outcrop to go.
A hand extended down in front of him: The Ranger's. Eric looked up to Hank gratefully, gripped his friend's wrist and pulled. The Cavalier wriggled up onto the ledge, his breastplate taking another battering. He didn't bother to get up, but slowly rolled over onto his back and lay panting heavily. His Shield dug into him, but he was too breathless to care.
Bobby the Barbarian prodded him with the Club. The unicorn at his side nodded in agreement.
'C'mon! We can't be late!'
'Don't …care,' puffed Eric. 'Need…rest.'
'Aw, the poor Cavalier,' said Diana the Acrobat with a playful smile. 'It wasn't that bad, was it?
'You're…lucky,' said Eric. 'No…armour.' There was nothing heavy or cumbersome about the Acrobat's skimpy outfit, plus she had used her Javelin to help her climb. The Cavalier scowled. It wasn't fair.
He lay still for a few more seconds, his breathing slowing to a sensible rate, even though the burning in his throat hadn't stopped. Then he rolled over onto his side, propping himself up on an elbow, and looked at Hank.
'Tell me again why I agreed… to climb this stupid… mountain?' he asked.
'We find the Rainbow Orchid in the Grove of Moonlight, we take it to Recadia, we go home,' replied the Ranger.
'Oh yeah. That was it.'
He flopped back down with a puff.
'We're on a time limit here, remember,' continued Hank. 'The moonlight will hit the Grove soon. Maybe we've only a few minutes.' The Ranger frowned. 'We could go on ahead,' he suggested with a hopeful tone that Eric was quick to note.
'I'll wait with him,' said Sheila, looking down to the ground.
Hank nodded and stood up.
'When he's recovered more, follow us.'
The Acrobat, Barbarian and Magician all stood too, and followed Hank through the forest. The Cavalier stayed still. The burn in his throat and lungs had gone, but he still didn't want to move. What he wouldn't give for a lovely long rest!
Sheila sat on a rock a short distance off, her lilac Cloak pulled tightly around her. It didn't surprise him that the Thief had stayed. Yes, she was always the one who volunteered for this sort of thing, but she had spent the previous few days avoiding the company of Hank at all opportunities.
The Cavalier looked carefully at her as she watched the others leave. He should say something, but he was bad at this sort of thing; he'd not had a lot of practice. But both Hank and Sheila had been so unbearably miserable that he had to do something. He could just about stand them being 'in love', but he drew the line at miserable and in love. Yuck!
'When you gonna start talking to Hank again?' he asked bluntly.
The Thief turned back not looking surprised. But she didn't smile.
'I don't think that's any of your business, Eric.'
'Aw, c'mon Sheila! We're not stupid! One minute you and Hank are all eyes and looks and everything. Then bam, nothing but sulking!'
She frowned at him.
'You talk a lot for someone who's supposed to be out of breath,' she said calmly.
'Look,' he said, 'I'm sure Hank cares, so…'
Sheila silenced him with a look, one she rarely used. It was the Big-Sister-Look that she reserved for the times when Bobby was being particularly wilful. But Eric didn't give up.
'C'mon Sheila!' he said plaintively. 'Can't you two kiss and make up? For everyone's sake?'
'I don't wanna talk about it,' she said firmly. 'It's private.'
'And even if I did,' she snapped, 'what makes you think I would talk to you?'
Eric stopped, mouth open. They were friends weren't they?
'What do you mean?' he asked in an offended tone. 'I'm just as good as Diana!'
'I wouldn't confide in you if you were the last person on Earth,' she said matter-of-factly.
'Why not!' he demanded, eyes wide with sincerity.
There was silence, but for the first time in a number of days, Sheila smiled.
'You're just not the sort of person to confide in,' she told him.
The Cavalier knew he looked crestfallen, because Sheila smiled again, this time the friendly, consoling smile that she often used after they had missed a portal.
'Oh, Eric! Don't be like that!'
'No, no, it's OK, I know when I'm not appreciated,' he said, his finely honed instinct for melodrama taking over. 'I'm just a dumb Cavalier that everyone considers too immature to confide in, or talk to, or…'
'Eric!' repeated Sheila, with a small giggle. 'Please!'
Now this was getting annoying.
'What's funny?' he snapped. 'And what's wrong with me?'
This got an even larger giggle from Sheila and she tried to hide it behind her hand.
'You know what I mean!' he said.
'Eric, you're not the sort of person who can keep a secret!'
She just looked at him.
'I can when I want to,' he corrected.
She just giggled again. It was nice to hear her laugh again, but not at his expense.
'And if it's just secrets you're worried about…' he said.
But Sheila was shaking her head.
'And you're not a reliable kinda person! Are you? Admit it!'
'I've been reliable on plenty of occasions,' he retorted.
The Cavalier paused. There were plenty of times! Weren't there?
Sheila was now laughing openly.
'I'm trying to choose the best example,' he said with as much dignity as he could muster. 'There are so many to choose from.'
'Give up, Eric! You're the most unreliable person I've ever met. There's no one else I know who can cause such chaos. You can't even go one single day without getting into trouble.'
Eric crossed his arms with an annoyed grunt.
'Bet you can't!'
It was Eric's turn to smile. A challenge! And such an easy one! But… started the voice of reason inside his head. The Cavalier resolutely ignored it.
'I bet I can!' he said confidently. 'In fact, I'll bet first watch for the next week!'
'Done!' said Sheila instantly. She was smiling widely now.
Eric smiled too. This was going to be easy! Unreliable indeed! All he had to do was stay out of trouble. But, then, considering his recent track record, perhaps it wouldn't be so simple after all. His smile was replaced by a frown. This was a bad plan! But it was too late to start listening to his brain now.
Sheila was still smiling as she stood up. At least she wasn't miserable anymore.
'Are you ready yet?' she asked.
The Cavalier nodded and heaved himself slowly off the ground. The Thief glanced up at the moons.
'We'd better hurry!' she said and started off after the others at a run. Eric waited for a few seconds until his legs started to obey his will again, thinking about their bet. What sort of trouble could he get into in the Grove of Moonlight? But then, when had anything ever gone smoothly in the Realm? He immediately thought of Dungeonmaster's stupid riddle:
'You will find others like yourselves, but from across a dark ocean. With them you will find the Rainbow Orchid that grows in the Green Grove of Moonlight at the top of the Realm. Take it to the City of Recadia. Then you all shall see your home.'
It seemed simple enough. But when had the riddles ever lead them into something that wasn't a) dumb or b) dangerous or c) both. And when had the riddles ever led them home?
He sighed. Maybe this time…
Sheila was far ahead of him and he ran fast (well, fast-ish) up the narrow path in the forest to catch her up, but she still reached the Grove before him.
The Green Grove of Moonlight, at the very top of the Realm, was a small, triangular-shaped clearing at the edge of a magic forest. It was surrounded by thick forest on two sides, each with a narrow path at the centre. The other side was an open ledge of overhanging rock, with a view that lasted forever.
Hank noticed the Cavalier first, and he scowled, presumably mad that Eric was late. Eric shrugged.
'Hey, I'm here now, OK.'
Hank turned back to the small, scruffy bundle of twigs he was standing beside without replying. The others stood just behind the Ranger, except Presto. The Magician was crouching down with his back to Eric. He turned briefly and said:
'Hey, Eric! Nice you could make it!'
Eric smiled at his friend's sarcasm.
'Would I miss this!' he replied eagerly. 'Twig-watching, my second favourite pastime!'
No one responded, so Eric stared at the twig too.
Nothing happened immediately and, never one for just waiting around, he wandered away from the path and out onto the overhanging rock to peek over the edge. He could see the tops of the clouds.
'That is a long way down!' he said with feeling. 'We really climbed all that way to look at a twig? Wow, how dumb can you get!'
There was a gasp behind him.
The scruffy twig that the others had been standing beside was changing. New branches were growing, each producing small, almond-shaped leaves. Within a few seconds the plant had almost doubled in height, and a few seconds later it had doubled again. Suddenly the growth stopped, and the branches all pulled themselves up and round to form a green ring round the central bud. It took a few seconds for the petals to unfurl, and it was the most beautiful flower Eric had ever seen. No need for idle boasting about the orchids back home.
The seven long, heart-shaped petals were each a different colour, running through the spectrum from red to green and back to red again. The centre of the flower was a pure, dazzling white flecked with multicoloured splodges, and there were three thin, black stamens with small, red bobbles on their tips. A warm, rich scent wafted towards him, a mix of burning candle wax and ginger.
Carefully, Hank picked the flower from its stem. The bush seemed to shudder and started to wilt away. Within seconds it was a just a dead twig in the ground.
Eric grinned and was about to speak, when…
'That's OURS!' came a female voice.
All the young ones turned. At the top of the other path was a group of four people, one girl and three boys, all teenagers.
The girl stood slightly in front, glaring at the kids. She had long, blonde ponytail down to her waist and was dressed in short, tan-coloured dress, sleeveless and tied over only one shoulder, with short brown boots. At her side was a black Whip.
The tallest boy was in the middle, dressed like Bobby the Barbarian, except with a brown bandana instead of the Viking helmet, and he carrier a tall, grey Trident. The boy on his right was dressed in light green, casual clothes, with a dark green hat. He had a wide, charming smile and across his back was a small Pack. The last boy, who was standing half in shadow, was the shortest and wore thick black robes with a hood that helped to hide his face.
The girl took another step forward.
'I said that was our Orchid! Peter, will you do the honours?'
Eric cocked his head, the different accent had caught his attention. He knew an English accent when he heard it. His Father had done a lot of deals with the folks across the pond. This was the group Dungeonmaster had told them about! A group from across the ocean! They were from Britain!
The boy called Peter took a few steps towards Hank, brandishing his Trident.
'What ever you say, Alison!' he said with a smile. 'It will be my pleasure!'
Suddenly there was another English voice from the path behind them, but this one was soft, and beautiful.
'Have you found it?'
Eric looked, and was confronted by the most stunning girl he had ever seen. His knees almost buckled. Shorter than the other newcomers, she had long, wavy fair hair that cascaded round her shoulders and seemed to sparkle in the moonlight. She was dressed in a diaphanous, blue dress that nestled round her curvaceous body. The gold and silver bangles on each wrist tinkled as she moved.
In her right hand she carried a Staff of rough-hewn wood, almost her own height, with a single sapphire in the centre that glowed softly, highlighting the girl's lovely face. She was so beautiful, even down to the smallest detail, the perfect curve of her hip and the single strand of hair that fell across her eyes.
She smiled at Hank and Eric felt a burning jolt of jealousy. He wanted to stride up to her, and sweep her off her feet. But he couldn't move, not even to raise his hand.
The girl was smiling coyly at Hank.
'Can I take that? Please?'
Hank muttered something indistinct under his breath, and blushed redder than a sunset. She reached out and plucked the Orchid from Hank's limp grasp.
'Who are you?' Hank whispered breathlessly.
She gave a slight bow.
'I am called Lorraine, the Enchantress.' Eric's heart seemed to skip a beat. What a beautiful name…But she glided back to the others, gently taking Peter's arm before turning round to give the young ones a superior smile. Eric gave a silent sigh. Who was he trying to kid anyway?
'Oh, this is too easy!' said Peter, levelling his Trident at Hank. Eric saw faint sparks of electricity glowing at the prongs and felt the sudden urge to run away. Peter then turned to the hooded boy at the back. 'And you said they would cause trouble!'
Lorraine held up her hand.
'What use is there in confrontation?' she said. 'We have the flower, we should go.'
Alison gave a sullen humph, flicking her Whip impatiently.
'We never have any fun,' she said.
'But what do you want with the Orchid?' asked Diana anxiously. 'We need it too, we want to get home!'
The black-robed boy at the rear of the group stepped forward, pulling back his hood. He had short cut, reddish hair, and a round, cheeky face. He couldn't have been much older than Presto. There was a big, red Book tucked under one arm that Eric hadn't noticed earlier.
'Home?' he asked, looking round the group. 'But it won't do that! Well, not yet…'
'And how do you know?' said Presto sarcastically.
'My Book!' replied the other boy, sounding proud.
They glared at each other.
'Let's argue som…' started Peter.
'Aarrgh!' interrupted Presto, pointing desperately towards the path. Everyone turned. Eric's urge to run was quintupled in an instant, panic threatening to overwhelm him. But he still couldn't move.
'Venger!' gasped Hank.
The Arch-Mage was standing at the top of the path, staring back at them, his black wings flexed. Slowly, he lifted his hand then spoke.
'We must go!' he said. 'Orcs!'
Eric stared, surprise overruling the desire to run away. There was something odd about Venger. Perhaps he'd shrunk. And he was usually all 'Give me your weapons, young fools'. He had never said anything like that before. And there was something weird about his voice as well: it was too high.
Surprise gave way to confusion. Now that Eric was looking carefully, the way he was standing wasn't right either, all angles and hips, very feminine. He reminded Eric of Daphne from Scooby-Doo. That wasn't right at all!
'Hey,' he said, pointing. 'You're not Venger.'
The Arch-Mage gave him a terrifyingly wide smile and reached up as if to remove a pair of glasses, and light shimmered around him. Suddenly, a dark haired girl was standing there instead of Venger, dressed in a black bodysuit with four, large, red diamonds on the front. She had a black Mask in her hand that was nothing more than a strip of fabric.
'And the cuddly toy goes to…' she pointed at the Cavalier with a mock flourish. 'And that's why I hate Venger-impressions.' She turned at the girl with the Whip. 'So, we going? The Orcs will figure it out eventually.'
Alison looked back at the new girl with a frown.
'You're late!' she said. 'What were you doing, Gail, organising a war?'
'Can I help it if Orcs want detailed orders!' she replied. 'But we should get out of here.'
'Lorraine, let them go,' she said firmly. Lorraine, the most beautiful creature in the whole Realm, lifted the Orchid to her nose and took a deep breath.
'Very well, but there will be trouble.'
The light from her staff faded, and suddenly Eric could move again. So could his friends, judging by the looks of the aggressive stance they took the instant they were free.
The other group also took a fighting stance, all but Lorraine (who was calmly walking towards the path), and Gail. She had tied the flimsy Mask round her wrist and moved forward towards the edge of the cliff, close by the Cavalier and was leaning forward to look down.
'Let's fight later,' she said in a serious tone. 'We should go, and quickly.'
'What's your rush?' said Eric, full of bravado. 'Scared of heights?'
The girl looked towards the others, and the boy with the Book spoke.
'This Grove only lasts as long as the Orchid does,' he said in surprise. 'Once picked, it's bye-bye Grove!'
Eric glanced round at his friends.
'Let's go!' he said.
'But we want the Orchid!' said Bobby firmly. 'It's ours!'
Alison scowled at him.
'It's ours now, little boy!'
'Who you callin' little!' Bobby moved forward, lifting the Club.
Hank stepped between them.
'It's our Orchid!' he said firmly.
He quickly pulled a golden arrow, aiming it at Alison. Bobby lifted his Club. Alison stepped forward, uncurling the Whip.
'It's ours now,' she hissed, 'so get used to it!'
Peter levelled the Trident and aimed it at Hank and Bobby. It glowed electric blue around the prongs.
'I can hit you before you can release that arrow,' he said threateningly. Lorraine took another nervous step back.
Eric gulped, and was about to suggest that maybe the other group should have the Orchid, when the rock under his feet gave a sharp crack, then another. He felt the stone slip slightly and looked up towards his friends, who were still staring at the new group, weapons drawn.
'Ah… Guys…' he said.
He got no further, as the Orcs suddenly appeared from the left-hand path.
'I'll take care of them,' said Bobby proudly, and lifted his Club.
'No, Bobby!' cried Eric in a panic, 'NO, DON'T!'
But the Barbarian wasn't listening. He swung the Club down with all his strength. The land around them surged forward and the Orcs fell over, and there was an ominous splintering sound from the rocks beneath Eric feet.
He looked down, his eyes wide in fear. That big gap hadn't been there before!
The Orcs were coming up the path in large numbers and no one was listening to him.
Suddenly one of the newcomers shouted:
Eric took an unsteady step forward, and the ground cracked again. This time he definitely felt the stones move. He was about to shout for help when there was a huge crunching sound from below his feet, and shouts from the oncoming Orcs. Then Eric suddenly realised he was falling.
How he managed to grab hold of the rock, he never knew. The Shield was still slung over his back and he was dangling over miles and miles of empty space. The rock he was holding wouldn't last for long. Looking up, the Cavalier could see the edge, but it was too far away to pull himself up on his own and he wasn't secure enough to find a good foothold.
'HELLPPP!' he bellowed.
He could hear the sounds of battle above, and he felt the ground tremble as Bobby struck the ground again with his Club. One or two of the stones close by were knocked out and tumbled off towards the clouds below.
There were more sounds and shouts from above. Then he heard Hank's clear voice.
'Hank, look out!' shouted Diana.
There was another crashing sound, then an unfamiliar, male voice shouted:
'Everybody out! It's going to go!'
In his panic, thinking that they would leave him, he almost let go by accident. Seconds passed, than a female voice called:
'I'll do it, just go!'
There was a sudden scuffing noise directly above him, and the dark haired girl popped her head over the edge looking down at him: Gail. She held out her hand.
Eric didn't move. There was no way she would be strong enough to help him up.
'Come on,' she said desperately. 'The Orcs are almost here!'
He still didn't move. Where were the others?
'No more time!' Gail took a frightened glance off to the side. 'Gimme, gimme, gimme!'
What did he have to loose? The Orcs wouldn't be any help. Eric reached out to grasp her hand. Her face screwed up as she took the strain. The Cavalier tried to get a foothold against the rock, but the rocks slipped out from under him. The girl grunted as she took all of his weight for an instant.
'No …hanging…about…' she gasped.
Eric reached out for the top of the cliff with his free hand, and this time managing to get a foothold that didn't disintegrate at the slightest pressure. He pushed up, the girl pulling at the same time. They landed in a heap on the ground above, and there were dull rumbles from the rocks below. Eric glanced round. Orcs were everywhere, surrounding them in a thick wall. He couldn't see the others. His rescuer was lying on the ground beside him clutching her right shoulder, her face contorted in pain. What were they going to do?
Shaking, he stepped forward and raised his Shield.
A bright, golden arrow exploded in the air above the Orcs making them look round in fear. Then they backed away as a dozen silvery lightning bolts skipped lightly over the ground, snapping at the Orcs like irritated puppies.
Eric could see the path ahead, and the others were waiting for him. Gail whimpered as he pulled her to her feet.
'C'mon!' he said, gripping her hand tightly and dragging her forward. They ran together through the gap in the Orc's wall, hearing more rumbles behind them.
'Don't look back!' shouted Diana, somewhere ahead. 'RUN!'
The rumbling grew louder, and clouds of dust wafted overhead. The girl staggered along beside him. They were getting closer to the others with every step. The Cavalier could feel vibrations through the rocks under his feet.
Looking up, he could see some of the others ahead. Sheila was standing beside the trees, her face pale and her eyes very wide. He saw her clearly. And in those last few metres, all he could think of was: Damn, I've got first watch for a week!
'ERIC, JUMP!' someone screamed.
And that's exactly what he did.