DISCLAIMER: Can't think of anything clever at the moment, but you should have guessed by now that none of the characters belong to me, and I just enjoy writing about them.

CHALLENGE: "What if Hank was really a traitor? What if he really did turn traitor against the gang? What would happen? How?" : The Darkhaven Scroll of Challenge.

STORY: Set after the events in the episode 'Winds of Darkness' and is a stand-alone story. It has a harsher interpretation of Hank than the normal "Mr Perfect Leader". He has to have some faults, even if they are well hidden. Perhaps all he needs is a little push in the right direction.

RATING: PG-13.


DARKEST HOUR

When I counted out my Demons,
Saw there was one for every day.
With the good ones on my shoulder,
I drove the other ones away.

So if you ever feel neglected,
If you think that all is lost.
I'll be counting out my demons,
Hoping everything's not lost.

Coldplay: Everything's Not Lost.


Chapter 1

'Aw, c'mon Hank! Tell us what it was like,' said Bobby the Barbarian. 'The Darkling had you in the Grotto for two whole days. Whadidya do?'

Hank the Ranger sighn"center">Chapter 1

'Aw, c'mon Hank! Tell us what it was like,' said Bobby the Barbarian. 'The Darkling had you in the Grotto for two whole days. Whadidya do?'

Hank the Ranger sighed again. Bobby had been pestering him on and off for hours about this. He just wouldn't believe that nothing odd had happened.

'Look,' he said with the faintest hint of a huff, 'there's nothing to tell. I just sat around with the others, thinking.'

'Thinking?' said the Barbarian in a scornful tone. 'Whatya have to think about?'

'C'mon, Bobby, leave him alone for a while!' said his sister, Sheila the Thief. 'He can tell us later!'

Hank smiled at her, grateful she'd interrupted. He'd had a lot to think about; their life in the Realm, their choices, their friendships, all churning around inside his mind in an endless whirl of regret and fear. He shivered slightly. It hadn't been a pleasant wait for rescue.

'Besides,' the Ranger said, 'you haven't finished explaining how you found me.'

He looked round at the others. As well as Sheila and her brother, Presto and Eric were close by, all resting against the rocks. The other member of the group, Diana the Acrobat, was over by the fire with the unicorn, having insisted that she make them all dinner.

'Well, Martha told us where to look, at the Grotto of Darkness,' said Presto the Magician, eagerly taking up the story where they'd left off. 'And Eric came up with this plan, and...'

Hank couldn't help the look of surprise crossing his face.

'Yeah, I know!' said Bobby with a snigger. 'Eric having a plan! That wasn't running away!'

Hank glanced Eric the Cavalier as he sat close by, polishing his Shield. The boy didn't respond to the insult.

'It was going well,' continued Presto. 'Eric and Diana went to distract the Darkling and Sheila went to find you in the Grotto. The Hat worked this time,' Presto smiled more widely when he mentioned his weapon, 'it got some of that fog, but then Martha appeared. She was this light-bearer person Dungeonmaster was on about. She just touched the Darkling and poof!' Presto gestured with his hands, 'he was history!'

'Yeah,' drawled the Cavalier, pretending to be disinterested. 'I was sure glad when Martha showed up!'

The Magician nodded.

'But it was a pretty good plan. Even without Martha showing up, we could have taken the Darkling out, no problem! You should have seen the way Eric stood up to him, Hank!' The Magician put on a bad impression of the Cavalier and said: "Yes, Darkling, Martha sent us to put an end to you!" then looked proudly at his friend. Sheila looked too, and even Bobby had the hint of a grin on his face.

Presto grinned at the Cavalier. 'Hey, Eric, you can be a pretty good leader sometimes, you know.'

The Cavalier smiled self-consciously, a slight blush across his cheekbones, caught off-guard by the compliment.

'Th-thanks, Presto.'

There was a call from Diana, who was over by the fire with Uni gambolling about beside her.

'Hey Presto, can you and the Hat gimme a hand over here?'

He gave the Cavalier a friendly pat on the shoulder as he rose. Eric continued to smile as Presto walked off.

Hank watched Eric for a while, an unusual feeling inside. The Cavalier had been suspiciously quiet since Dungeonmaster had left and the Ranger stared at him in the fading light. Eric was usually the one to cause the problems, like that damn Box of Balefire. Yes, he'd asked permission, but if Eric hadn't been so nosy in the first place, none of that would ever have happened! He was a magnet for trouble!

Hank's glare turned to a scowl, burning anger growing slowly. But that wasn't really the problem this evening. Eric was the one who'd led them while he was gone. He'd stood up to Dungeonmaster and come to get him, not run away like he usually wanted too. And whatever Bobby thought, Eric had done a good job!

Hank shifted uncomfortably.

Yes, he was the leader. Everyone knew that. But sometimes he wondered if they still trusted him. There was that terrible time with the Cloud Bears. Yes, it was coercion, yes, he had a reason, but the looks on their faces still haunted him: and the name of Traitor. Eric had never really let them down. Well, he'd never let them down as badly as that! He might be short on courage, but at least he'd never conspired with the Orcs!

There were times, becoming more and more frequent, that Eric challenged his leadership. And each time, the challenge grew stronger. And now, he'd led them to victory over this Darkling! Eric was getting to be a problem.

Unsettled by his feelings, the Ranger stood up, ignoring the questioning looks from Bobby and Sheila.

No, I mustn't think like that, he thought as he walked towards the edge of the clearing. Eric's a friend, and we've all gotta stick together. How else are we gonna get home?

But the uncomfortable feeling grew. What if he and Eric disagreed again? Presto was more likely that ever to side with the Cavalier. So was the Acrobat, he'd seen the few glances she'd given Eric. She was impressed with the way he'd handled the situation. Hank could tell; he and Diana had a good rapport.

Sheila might side with Eric too. OK, Hank knew that she would have followed him to the ends of the earth (or Realm) but if it was the right issue, and she was pushed, he didn't know which was she'd jump.

Bobby wouldn't willingly side with the Cavalier about anything, but he was only ten. And if Sheila sided with the others, Bobby might go to.

What's got into me tonight? wondered Hank. Why do I feel like this?

He looked at the Cavalier, still silently polishing his Shield, and knew that instead of thinking the worst of Eric, he should be glad that his friend was finally showing signs of growing up.

'Hey, guys!' called Presto. 'I think we've got some food! Come and try it!'

In spite of the sick feeling, the Ranger turned back to his friends.


The next morning they moved off again, heading north as Dungeonmaster had told them. Hank said very little, but watched the others carefully. Presto and Eric walked together for most of the time, joking about something, and the two girls walked just behind. Bobby and his unicorn walked next to Hank at the back, not saying anything.

The Ranger was grateful for the silence. He hadn't gotten a lot of sleep last night. Every time he closed his eyes he couldn't stop the whirl of fear and regret in his mind, remembering the Cloud Bears, or when they had helped Dekkion in the tower of the Celestial Knights, or when they'd destroyed the portal in the Maze of Darkness.

They'd had so many chances to get home. It wasn't fair, they should have been home a hundred times before now. The long, sleepless night had helped harden the resolve inside Hank. The next portal they saw, they were gonna get back home, no matter what! Nothing was gonna stop them!

He should have realised that life in the Realm just doesn't work like that.

It was Eric who found the Orcs as they were resting by one of the streams. He'd gone off to find some wood (after a short argument with Bobby) and, surprisingly, the Cavalier hadn't gone charging in, making a huge fuss and noise and gotten himself captured. Instead, he'd come back and told the group what he'd seen.

At first Hank was reluctant to believe him, after all Eric was not the most reliable of scouts; two Orcs tended to become twelve Orcs, and things like that. But Sheila had volunteered to go and check, and come back with exactly the same story, adding that they'd been talking about going to guard something very secret and very important for Venger.

Now, how could they not follow and find out?

They trailed the Orcs through the forest and across the grasslands to a narrow, closed valley. There, as well as a few more Orcs, they'd found a portal, locked behind a glowing silver gate: A real portal to their home, just waiting for them.

No one had spoken as they retreated to a safe distance. But the Ranger could see the looks of excitement on each of his friends' faces. Hope was in his own heart again. After the disaster with the Darkling, they had another chance to get home. He smiled, and was about to speak. But the Cavalier got there first.

'This is obviously a trap,' said Eric bluntly. 'There are so few Orcs, it can't be this easy!'

The others were looking at him, waiting for a response and Hank opened his mouth to reply. Inside, the Ranger there was a tiny voice of doubt, and for a split second he wavered.

There were only two choices: "Yes. He's right" or "No. He's wrong". Could they be sure? Was Eric actually right for once? But that thought ignited the anger inside him and Hank scowled at the Cavalier, the troubled and distrustful feeling returning at full force. Trust Eric to be so damn negative. This was a chance, a good chance, so why did he have to whine all the time?

'No, you're wrong!' said Hank in a voice that was almost a growl. 'And I have an idea. We'll go in, me and Eric will create a diversion on one side of the valley, and make sure the Orcs all come across. You will all be way across at the other. Presto will magic up some sorta trap for them in the middle, and as they move to get Eric, they'll all be caught. Bobby, you can then get a clear shot at opening that gate.'

'What about us, Hank?' asked Diana, pointing at herself and the Thief. 'What will we do?'

He smiled widely at her, the perfect image of his plan forming in his mind. It wasn't bad for an off-the-cuff idea!

'You'll go with Bobby, as the extra diversion,' he said. 'You can lead them on and jump over the trap. And Sheila can lure them too, then disappear.'

They all began talking excitedly about his plan, and the chance of getting home, all except Eric, who watched the others with a superior sneer. He let them talk for a short while before saying loudly:

'This will never work!' He looked round at his now silent friends. 'You can't possibly think that this is gonna work! Come on!'

'What's wrong, smart guy?' asked Bobby, planting his Club on the ground and looking belligerently up at the Cavalier. 'I don't see you coming up with a better plan!'

Eric pointed a finger in the young boy's face.

'It doesn't matter if I can think of a plan, Shorty! The point is Hank's plan is not gonna work!'

The Ranger saw the two girls exchange worried glances, and Presto was looking up at Hank nervously. The anger inside the Ranger was suddenly at breaking point, as if someone had just turned on a switch. The speed and ferocity of his own fury surprised him, but there was no chance to rationalise the feeling. He glared at the Cavalier as the Barbarian continued.

'You're mad that Hank though of a better plan that you!' said Bobby. 'Admit it!'

'No!' hissed Eric. 'It's just a dumb plan!'

The Ranger couldn't stop a bitter scowl crossing his face as the Cavalier turned from Bobby to face him.

'It's a dumb idea, Hank!' snapped Eric. 'I know a dumb idea when I meet one, and that is as dumb as they get!'

They squared off, the other four and the unicorn standing slightly back, looking anxious. The Ranger glared at Eric, suddenly realising how tall the Cavalier had become. He even looked like a leader now, his head flicked back arrogantly, his shiny yellow Shield on his arm. And for the first time in a long, long, LONG time, Hank felt like giving the Cavalier a good, hard smack in the mouth.

'Your wrong,' said Eric more loudly. 'It's dumb! Ol' Horn-Head would never leave a portal guarded as badly as that! Never in a million years!'

The Ranger tightened his grip on the Bow, his heart beating very fast and the dark anger inside building to a peak. Where had all this anger come from? he wondered for just a second. Then the anger took control.

'I'm the leader, Cavalier,' he spat, using the title as an insult. 'And what I say goes!'

Hank could see Eric thinking. He was weighing up the pros and cons, wondering if he could push any further. The Cavalier glanced at the others.

'I said "I'm the leader",' growled Hank, taking a step closer to the other boy. 'You gotta problem with that, Cavalier?'

Eric was fuming, the Ranger could recognise all the signs by now. But Eric just shook his head tersely.

'No,' he muttered. 'No, I haven't. But it's still a dumb plan!'

'It doesn't matter what you think, you're going anyway!' snarled Hank.

Diana took a tiny step forward.

'Look, Hank,' she said quietly. 'Are you sure?'

There was a cold, sick feeling in his stomach and he looked angrily round at his friends. They didn't trust him any more; Eric had turned the others against him!

'Yes!' he said firmly. 'Yes, very sure! I'm telling you guys, if we all work together, we're gonna get home!'

He looked round at the others, they were all looking worried. He couldn't let them delay. They mustn't have the opportunity to dwell on failure. They had to go. They had to get home.

'More Orcs are probably on their way here,' he said. 'We've go the chance, and we've gotta take it! C'mon guys, don't you trust me?'

The question hung in the air, and every second of silence that past made Hank more furious and frightened.

'Of course we trust you, Hank,' Sheila said, looking round at the group. 'It's just, it's dangerous.'

Eric gave a quiet snort.

'This plan sucks,' he muttered.

'But we're gonna do it,' said the Ranger. 'We do it, and we'll get home!'

He looked round at the others one by one. Sheila nodded immediately, perhaps sensing his insecurity, and Bobby followed. Then Presto nodded, and finally Diana.

Hank looked sternly at Eric, always the last to agree to anything.

'Well? You in?'

The Cavalier crossed his arms sulkily and didn't reply.

The Ranger didn't give them time to wait and gave them orders quickly. So, less than an hour later, he and Eric were crouched at one side of the valley, hidden behind some boulders. They hadn't spoken since they left the others, and Hank was silently cursing his choice of companion. The others were out of sight, waiting further across the valley close to the locked portal.

They had been watching the Orcs mill around in front of the gate. More had already arrived and more tents had been put up. They didn't seem to be doing anything in particular, just waiting.

Beside him, the Cavalier was fiddling with the buckles on the back of his Shield. Hank frowned, knowing Eric was nervous. A few more Orcs had appeared, tired and dusty from the journey. But they were bigger than the others, with thick armour and heavy clubs. Hank heard Eric gulp. They had better get on with it before the Cavalier's nerve gave out altogether.

'You ready?' he asked the boy beside him.

The Cavalier turned, a serious expression on his face; not an expression Hank had seen very often.

'Look, Hank,' said Eric. 'I know you and I don't always agree, but this is bad news. Let's get outta here while we still have the chance!'

Hank grabbed his arm, the same uncontrollable anger inside again. There was something about Eric today that just brought out the worst in him.

'We stay, and we do what we came here to do,' the Ranger said firmly. 'And no arguments.'

Again they looked eye to eye, and Hank could sense the Cavalier's resentment. But Eric looked away first, yanking his arm out of Hank's grip with a surly humph.

'Fine,' he muttered. 'But it's still dumb! When Venger has all our weapons, don't come crying to me!'

Hank ignored him, concentrating the Orc soldiers instead. They were running out of time. They had to get on with it. They had to get home.

'Please, Hank, this isn't gonna work,' said Eric. 'I'm not going down there on my own!'

The Ranger scowled. That was the real reason: cowardice.

'It will work just fine if you just shut up and get on with it,' he snapped. 'I'm sick of everyone questioning me, so stop acting like a goddamn coward and go!'

Eric blanched at the insult. But he suddenly stood up and walked towards the tents.

Hank watched him go with an awful sinking feeling. What a terrible thing to say! He hadn't meant it, not really. He was just angry and unsettled, and sick of Eric arguing with him all the time.

The Ranger rubbed his eyes, overwhelmingly tired of the whole thing. He would apologise when they got home, and Eric would understand when they were safely eating pizza again. But they had to get home, they had to get away from this awful place as fast as they could. The longer they stayed the worse this feeling would get.

Home. How good it would be to get home. To see his Mom and Dad, and his friends from school. To relax, not fight for his life all the time. What he wouldn't give to get home this time. He would do almost anything.

There was a desperate shout from below that roused his from his fantasies. As he looked up, Hank's feelings changed instantly from cosy optimism to utter despair.

Just as Eric had predicted, Venger was expecting them. The tents had been pulled down suddenly, and where there had been fifty Orcs, there was now five hundred at least, all armed with clubs and scimitars.

And the Cavalier was surrounded, hopelessly outnumbered and in serious trouble, even with his Shield to protect him.

The Ranger froze, staring at the scene before him. He watched numbly as the Cavalier tried to retreat. But the Orcs had the strength of numbers and eventually Eric was hit across the shoulders by a club and he stumbled to his knees, letting his guard down. Hank still hadn't moved. The Bow was still in his hand, but there was no arrow. He heard sudden shouts of terror from the others at the other side of the valley, but he couldn't see what was happening. Then Presto called out desperately for help.

The Ranger looked down at Eric as his Shield was torn from his arm. The Orc Captain struck the Cavalier and he fell to the ground, blood coming from his nose.

This isn't supposed to happen, thought Hank as he stood. It's all gone wrong!

Eric saw Hank move and looked up, pleading terror in his eyes. But the Ranger didn't wait. Eric was beyond help. Any fool could see that. But as the leader, Hank had a responsibility; he had to see if the others were alright. And the others came first.

I can't risk capture too, thought Hank. I can't risk it. The others needed me.

The Captain raised his club as Hank turned away, a scream of pain and terror from the boy below ringing in his ears.

He ran.

His friends were waiting for him on the far side of the valley, well away from the Orcs and the portal. They were all silent, bloody and scraped. And without their Cavalier. He tried to focus, telling himself that they were safe, they were still safe for the moment, but it didn't help.

'What happened Hank?' whispered Sheila, after a long silence. 'What went wrong?'

He couldn't stop shaking, and every time he closed his eyes, he could see the look of terror and amazement on Eric's face as the Orc had struck. He could hear the scream as solid wood hit flesh and crushed bone. Dear God, what had he done?

The others were looking at him, eyes wide. He felt a surge of fear. They weren't going to trust him. This fiasco was his fault, and they were never going to trust him again if they knew what he'd done.

Diana put a calming hand on his shoulder.

'It's OK Hank, no one blames you. But you have to tell us what happened. And where's Eric?'

The Ranger shuddered, the sick feeling doubling in intensity at the Acrobat's kind words. He still couldn't speak. What was he going to say to them?

The Barbarian was looking round the group, obviously confused, holding the terrified unicorn close.

'Did Eric blow it?' asked Bobby. 'Again?'

Hank couldn't move for long seconds. His heart was thumping. If his friends knew the truth they'd never trust him and he had to keep them together. Should he lie?

What does it matter now, anyway? whispered a voice in the back of his mind. The Cavalier's gone and they're better not knowing.

Hank couldn't look any of them in the eye, but gave the tiniest of nods.

'Yes,' he whispered. 'Yes. It was Eric's own fault.'