Three adventurers stumbled into the chamber, looking a lot worse for the wear. Diana looked the worst, covered in dirt, bruises and cuts. Eric looked little better, with one particularly bad bruise on his temple and his clothes torn and ripped. Presto looked tired and worn, though not as battered as his friends. He managed to stay on his feet as the other two sank to their knees.
"Guys?" Hank asked gently. "Are you OK? What happened?"
"Orcs..." Eric panted. "So, SO many Orcs..."
"Venger knows about the Ebony Door. He went after the same part of the key that we did." Presto sighed. "We ended up in this underground maze, fighting more Orcs than McDonalds has fries!"
"But you're OK, aren't you?" Sheila worried.
"Thanks to Diana. I never would have thought she could fight like that against so many bad guys..."
Eric nodded. "I particularly liked the way she took down that one guy with a single smack to the head with her staff."
Diana slumped against the wall. "For the last time, Eric, it was dark, and I said I was sorry!"
Bobby chuckled. "So you beat up an entire Orc horde on your own?"
"No, just until Presto came up with something that got us out of there." At this, Diana and Eric both glared at Presto, who looked more than a little embarrassed. The others exchanged confused looks.
"What did he do?"
"You don't want to know. Really. I mean that." Eric reached into his torn tunic and pulled out a mud-splattered object, tossing it to Hank. "Here's our half. Please tell me you got your half too."
Hank caught the talisman half from the air, then pulled a much cleaner half out. "I guess we got lucky. The villagers just handed it over."
"They even gave us a huge meal!" Bobby smirked.
Eric groaned. "Of course. The three of us get beaten from here to the Granite Hills and back, and you guys have a lunch break. Next time, I'M going to the village, and you three can bang skulls with Horn-head!"
"If what Dungeon Master said is true, there may not be a next time." Hank indicated to an impression in a large door that had the same shape as the completed talisman would. "What was he said? 'Once in three lifetimes, the Ebony Door opens to he who bears the completed key. The Door opens to those with a focused direction, but holds both terror and enlightenment to the distracted.'"
"So, as long as we just keep home in our minds and don't think of anything else when we cross, we should get home." Sheila translated.
"And if we get distracted?" Presto asked gloomily.
"Let's not try and find out."
Hank faced the door. "Well, if this thing can lead us home, let's not hang around." The Ranger fitted the two pieces together and slid them into the impression. A moment passed, and then the door slid open with a slight scraping.
"That's a good sign." Diana remarked. "No flashes of light or thunder and lightning. Blasts of magical energy flying about are always a bad sign."
Hank chuckled. "What about when they're our blasts?"
Eric gave a sly grin. "Those are the worst. That means either Presto's got another spell wrong, or Venger's turned up..."
At that moment, the wall on the other side of the chamber exploded. Through the smoke and rubble came an all-too familiar figure in black and red...
"Oh, come on!" Eric wailed. "That wasn't an invitation!"
"There is no escape!" Venger growled. "Surrender your weapons and abandon the Door, or be destroyed!"
To punctuate his demand, Venger threw an energy blast at the friends. Eric immediately raised his shield, deflecting the blast away, but the impact sent waves of pain shooting down his arm.
"My arm!" Eric screamed, dropping the shield. "It's still hurt..."
Hank tightened a fist around his bow. His companions were getting ready to fight, but Eric, Diana and Presto were clearly still suffering from their earlier battle. Their options didn't look good.
"Bobby! We need a few seconds!"
"Right!" The Barbarian slammed his club into the floor, then into the wall next to him. Large pieces of rock and masonry were hurled towards Venger, who paused his advance to deflect the barrage.
"Everyone, back up!"
Bobby picked up Uni and ran for the chamber with the Door. Hank helped Eric grab his shield and follow, noting that Eric's arm was dislocated and slightly burned.
"Are you guys going to be OK?"
Presto shook his head while hurling a magical barrier between them and Venger. "I'm alright, but Diana exhausted herself fighting, and Eric took a lot of blows guarding me. They're out of it."
Hank looked at the Ebony Door, a simple black archway in the centre of the room which glowed dimly. "No choice then. Guys, run for the Door and think of home!"
Hank started to lead the way, but Venger was already through Presto's barrier. "Not so fast, Ranger!"
Venger's blast was almost upon Hank as he let loose an energy arrow to block it. Crying out, he staggered back, clutching his face.
"Damn it! I'm blind!"
"Then I shall end your pain!" Venger laughed. A globe of black energy appeared in his hand, and he made to hurl it at the injured Hank. But at the moment of release, an unseen force ploughed into his side as Sheila threw herself into him to wreck his aim.
The globe, rather than colliding into Hank's chest, impacted the ground just in front of him, sending Hank and several stone slabs flying. Some of the stone flew through the Door...as did the Ranger.
"Hank!" Bobby yelled. Turning his anguish into rage, he slammed his club into a large pillar. The pillar flew through two other pillars, turning into a flying rock swarm. This had two effects. The first was that Venger found himself suddenly buried in broken boulders. The second was that the roof started to come down.
"Hank!" screamed Sheila. The Thief dived through the Door, but rather than disappear from sight as Hank had, she simply hit the floor on the other side. The door was no longer glowing.
"We have to get out of here!" Presto grabbed Sheila's arm. She shook it off.
"We have to get him back!"
"We can't do anything here." Diana said weakly. "And if we stay here and get crushed, we'll never find a way to help him!"
"Dungeon Master will know! But we have to run first!"
A large boulder crashed to the floor right next to them, taking half of the Door with it. Sheila shut her eyes, then nodded.
"Over here!" Bobby yelled. "Uni's found a way out!" The young Unicorn was next to him, bleating frantically at a hole in the wall. On the other side was fresh air...and a very steep mountainside.
"Oh great..." Presto groaned.
"There's no other way out!" Bobby insisted. "We have to go!"
The children slipped out of the hole and started a painful climb down. Unfortunately, the collapse of the small citadel they had just vacated caused a landslide. The adventurers found themselves caught up in the slide...
...and Sheila woke in a sunny glade, aching all over.
"Sis? You're alright!" Bobby grinned.
"Ugh...I think so. Is everyone..?"
Bobby's grin faded. "Well, I'm OK, so's Uni and Presto. But Diana's hurt her head, and Eric's in real bad shape."
Sheila sat up, ignoring the painful protests of her back. She saw Diana with a red-stained bandage on her head, staring at Uni as if she wasn't sure what she was seeing. Presto was tending to Eric, who was still unconscious.
"The Ranger is not here."
The small old man had appeared from out of nowhere. "If you'll forgive me for saying so, you do look quite a little mess."
Presto came over. "Dungeon Master?" he said in a quiet voice. "Diana's acting weirdly - I think it's her head injury. And Eric's a wreck. I can't get him to wake up."
"You are in luck, Magician. Less than an hour's travel to the west is a town called Eagledon. It is home to a school of healers which should be well equipped to aid your fallen comrades."
Sheila grabbed Dungeon Master by the shoulders. "What about Hank? He fell through that Door! Where is he?"
Dungeon Master sighed. "I am sorry. What lies beyond the Ebony door is beyond my sight. Only one who has walked through the Door unfocused has ever returned, a long time ago. He spoke only of terror and enlightenment. Yet his return may provide hope. If one can return from the Door, the Ranger may also."
"But can't we do anything?"
"In Eagledon there lives a Witch skilled in the art of Seeing. If it is possible to see your lost companion, then she would hold the skill. But I fear that even if you can find your friend, you will only be able to watch." The small man walked behind a tree. "Whatever lies in wait for the Ranger, he must face alone..."
Sheila didn't even bother trying to follow the Dungeon Master, knowing he'd be unlikely to still be there. "Come on, then. Let's get Diana and Eric to Eagledon!"
Presto reached into his hat. "Abracadabra, Go Up and Down, We need to get our friends healed in town!"
A moment later, a hospital stretcher was waiting in the glade.
"Er...better than nothing, I guess."
"Fine, fine. Help me get Eric onto it. Bobby, you and Uni lead Diana after us, OK?"
The group began their trek to Eagledon. Sheila's thoughts weren't with the journey, though. She could only think about what had happened to Hank. Where was he? Was he even alive?
Somewhere else, Hank woke up with a horrible taste in his mouth. He sat up and started on a terrible coughing fit to expel a lungful of dust and ash. After recovering enough to breathe easily, he looked around. His eyes still hurt, and his vision was a little blurred, but it was clearing up already. He started to stand up, pausing to pick up his bow which was thankfully lying just next to him, blinked several times, then looked at himself.
He seemed unhurt, but he was filthy. He was covered in mud, dirt and grit. Around him were a few chunks of stone from the Door's citadel, and a ruined village.
The village looked like it had burned, but the buildings were still standing. They showed signs of inflicted damage, but most of the dereliction seemed to have been caused by time and lack of maintenance rather than fire damage. Hank explored for a minute or two, and then found the bodies.
The bodies were stood in a mockery of a crowd in front of an old stage. As far as Hank could tell, they'd all been killed by a single precision blast to the chest. Hank found this odd. Either they'd all been hit at once by something that had been on the stage, or they'd just stood there and waited as someone had done some macabre target practise. Hank reached out and touched one of the corpses on the shoulder. His hand tensed as if hit by a small shock, and as one, the collection of bodies collapsed.
The sight of this collapse hit Hank with a mix of disgust, despair and horror. He backed up and tripped over a large rock, sweat pouring down his face. Several moments passed as he forced himself to get it together. He had to find a safe place to find his bearings, then try to find the others.
As he stood up, he noticed the next bizarre thing. He'd been filthy when he woke up, five minutes before. And now, he was as clean as if he'd just had a bath. Even his clothes felt fresh.
"What's happening? Where am I?!"