"Why couldn't I make them understand? I'm not a traitor!"
"Oh, but you are, Ranger."
The voices echoed with each throb of Hank's head. The pain reminded him that he wasn't truly asleep, but nor was he really awake either. Instead he travelled along the thin grey line between the world of reality and the world of his own dreams.
"Dungeon Master? You think I'm a traitor too?"
At the moment, his dreams seemed to dwell on one of his most painful memories, the time he'd been forced to work for Venger with Bobby's life at stake. His friends called him a traitor, which was horrible but understandable, not knowing his reasons why. But Dungeon Master had known, and had still admonished him, albeit for different reasons.
"Not in the way the others do. You are a traitor to your own courage and insight."
"But Venger has..."
The memory of Dungeon Master's voice was suddenly lost in a wave of mental static. Hank winced, whether physically or just in his mind he didn't know. The memory started again. Except this time, it was different.
"I would have thought you understood, Dungeon Master. I'm not a traitor!"
"Oh, but you are, Ranger."
"You think so too?"
"In just the way the others do, that you've blinded yourself to. You are a traitor to your own courage and insight."
"This is crazy! She was as much a danger as..."
Another burst of mental pain. Through the pain, Hank could just barely make out pieces of conversation. Some voices he thought he recognised, but in his concussed state, he couldn't be sure.
"...maybe you want us to..."
"...shall give an outward reflection of..."
"...please, listen to..."
"...on your head..."
"...you know what will happen. There is an old saying in these parts. 'He who has the answer and doesn't know it is just as lost as he who never knew.' You have the answer, Ranger. It is as close to you as the wind."
The memories settled into the familiar conversation, the only one Hank remembered ever actually happening. The sound of Dungeon Master's voice faded, and Hank painfully opened his eyes.
His vision was blurry, and his head still hurt, and the woman standing in front of him was a couple of years older than how he remembered her. For these reasons, it took him several long moments before he recognised her.
Sheila narrowed her eyes. "That's Shadow Walker to you."
Hank shook his head to shake away his dizziness. As feeling came back to him, he realised he was upright, arms and legs spread and chained to a wall.
"I ought to have killed you and finished this when I had you down, but this world's suffered enough. I need to know for their sake, how did you do it?"
"I don't...I don't understand. What are you talking about?"
"Don't play games with me!" Sheila pointed to Hank's hand. "That's the only part of you covered in the Dirt. The rest of you is clean. How did you manage it?"
"Sheila!" Hank cried. "Don't you recognise me? It's me! Hank! Why are...?"
Hank's desperate cries were halted when Sheila slammed her mace into his ribs.
"Don't give me that! Hank doesn't exist anymore."
"No, that's not true!" Hank gasped, coughing up blood.
"It is. You may have his face and his bow, but you're not him."
"I know what it must have looked like. I fell through the Ebony Door, you probably thought I was killed, but I wasn't! It threw me forward in time to now!"
"The Ebony Door? Forward in time?"
"Yes!" Hank pressed. "I don't know what's happened since then, but from my point of view it's only been a few days. Maybe two weeks at most. I found the graves of Eric and Diana, I ran into this Antithesis person, and then I find out he's killed Dungeon Master, Tiamat, Venger too for all I know! I came looking for the Shadow Walker I heard about, and she turns out to be you! Sheila, what's happened since I've been gone?"
Sheila looked mystified. "You...this...no! You're trying to confuse me! None of this can be true!"
"It's all true!"
The Shadow Walker's face hardened. "Then you won't mind me going inside your head and finding out for myself, will you?"
Sheila shuddered, pulling herself from her trance back to reality. Bobby was hugging her, and she felt Uni's horn prodding her in the leg as if trying to get her attention.
"That's not what...what?"
"Sheila? Are you OK? You're OK, aren't you?"
"I'm not...I mean, yeah, I'm alright."
Rosemary offered a cup to Sheila, which the Thief had to lean to her right a bit for. "Drink this."
The liquid was refreshing and cold, cold enough to make Sheila cough as she swallowed it too fast. "Thanks."
"Just some spring water. I swear by that and the occasional honeyed cake. I think I might have to make myself some after this experience. Tell me, did you recognise that place we saw?"
Sheila nodded. "The Dragon's Graveyard."
Bobby sounded suprised. "The Dragon's Graveyard? Is that where Hank is?"
"That is where all of you were, in the vision," Rosemary corrected. "Yourself and your sister, the Ranger and the Unicorn, three other friends of yours, and Venger. I will admit to being a bit suprised to see you there. It's said that no one may enter the Graveyard freely except for Tiamat herself. And maybe Dungeon Master, and I don't know if even he would risk that journey if Tiamat opposed him."
Bobby nodded. "We went there a while ago. It was actually Tiamat who took us there, to give us a shot at getting rid of Venger."
"Ah, then that is what we saw, your battle with Venger at the Graveyard. Except...no, that can't be right. Venger still lives, doesn't he?"
"Yeah. Hank got the chance do blast him to pieces, but he didn't."
"Damn right, he didn't!" Sheila snapped, causing Bobby and Uni to jump. "He'd never kill someone who couldn't fight back, not even Venger!"
"So, your experience in the Graveyard concluded with the Ranger sparing his foe. Nothing less than what I'd expect from a student of Dungeon Master. But that's not what happened in our vision."
Bobby titlted his head and stared at his sister. "Why? What happened?"
Sheila shut her eyes, and fought an urge to wrap herself up in her cloak. Invisibility could be very comforting, but there were some things even her cloak couldn't hide her from. "He killed Venger. Destroyed him utterly. He was just so cold, shrugging it off as what was needed to do. Rosemary, why did the vision change what happened like that? What does it mean?"
"I don't know. It is quite common for a vision to show moments from a person's past or future, but less so to take a moment from the past and actually change an event. The question here is if we were looking for the location of your friend in the present, why would we get an altered vision of an event from your past?"
Hank looked frantically from Sheila to the two people she had brought in. Sheila had refused to answer any more of his questions, and her friends were both giving him looks of utter hatred. Hank couldn't understand why. It was as if at some point between his present and this future he'd done something awful to Sheila. But even if he could have done something to destroy their friendship so completely, and he couldn't imagine what he might have done to do that, how could he have done it if he'd missed several years after the Ebony Door incident?
Sheila's friends were carrying an item each. The man was holding something Hank recognised - a net. Specifically, the net from the Dragon's Graveyard, the one Dungeon Master had used to cure Uni. The girl was carrying a crown, which Hank assumed would also have come from the Graveyard. The Ranger didn't know what power it held, but he had a nasty suspicion, remembering what the last comment Sheila had made was.
"Sheila, for the last time, what is...?"
Sheila didn't even look at Hank as she swung her mace into his stomach, cutting him off painfully. She nodded ad the girl, who then walked over to Hank and put on the crown. She touched Hank on the forehead, and Hank's world suddenly faded into intense nausea. It was as if someone had plugged a television directly into his brain and was channel hopping with incredible speed. It didn't hurt exactly, but there was a profound sense of vertigo, and Hank felt himself reeling.
With no warning, the experience stopped. Hank groaned, barely lucid. He heard voices, loud, quick and argumentative, but he couldn't make out what they were saying...and suddenly, he was back in the vortex of flashing scenes and pictures. This time was different, though. He kept seeing a certain scene, a familiar one. One of him standing under the night sky, bow raised, Venger restrained in front of him. His bow firing, the flash of light as he chose to set Venger free than to murder in cold blood.
That one moment, freeing Venger. He saw it again. And again. And again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again...
And then back to reality once more. Hank was gasping, and his vision spun. He felt a sharp, unpleasant taste in his mouth, and he realised he had vomited. As his vision stabilised, he glanced down at himself. His tunic was remarkably clean for someone who'd just thrown up on it. Suprise suprise, he mused.
"It's impossible," a voice said. Her voice. Hank raised his head with considerable effort. Sheila was looking at him, with an expression of confusion and disbelief on her face.
"What's...?" Hank took a deep breath and tried again. "What's impossible?"
"I had Chantelle look into your mind. Your memories and your thoughts. They're all wrong."
"Wrong how? Just tell me, what's going on? Why are you doing this?"
Sheila shook her head in amazement. "You were telling the truth. You really aren't him?"
"Aren't him? Who? The Antithesis or som..." Hank froze mid-sentance. A horrible thought had struck his mind. A reason for Sheila's hatred. An explanation for the change in his bow. A reason for the words of this new enemy he faced.
"It's impossible," he said, echoing Sheila's words. Every fiber of his being denied it, rebelled against the idea.
"Sheila, am I the Antithesis? Did I really kill Dungeon Master? And Eric and Diana?"
Sheila's face had grown cold. "Just them? Not asking about what happened to Presto? Or what you did to my brother?"
Hank slumped in his chains. "No...this can't be happening!"
"It happened. I was there. I saw what you did. And I curse myself for not finding a way to stop you." For a moment, Sheila looked like she was going to attack Hank, but she restrained herself. "Except...if what Chantelle saw is true, and she's never been wrong in this before, that wasn't you. She says you have no memory of killing Bobby, or the rest of our friends, Dungeon Master, Tiamat, all those innocent people...but you do remember what happened to Venger at the Dragon's Graveyard, don't you?"
Hank didn't respond for a long moment. When he did, his voice was quiet and cracked. "Yes."
"What do you remember happening?"
"We fought him. I won. I had the chance to stop him for good. I didn't."
"Is that what you remember?"
"Yes. I spared him. And every time he turns up...turned up, I always remember that day, and I always wonder if I made the right choice."
Sheila shook her head. "Sparing Venger was the right choice. It was what a hero would do. What a good man would do. But that's the problem, Hank. I was there that day too. I remember what happened. And that wasn't the choice you made. I remember you murdering Venger. And that's where it all started to go wrong."