Now I never meant to do you wrong -
That's what I came here to say.
But if I was wrong; and I'm sorry
I don't let it stand in our way.
'Cos my head just aches when I think of
The things that I shouldn't have done.
But life is for living, we all know
And I don't want to live it alone.
Coldplay: Everything's Not Lost.
His head was aching like he had a hangover, and he was curled up under a tree. The light was beginning to fail as the grey afternoon turned to night. Hank pushed himself upright slowly and looked around. How long had he been here? Where was here anyway? Why was he alone? Why had the others abandoned him?
Silence stretched out all around him, he couldn't even hear the sounds of any wildlife. Only when loneliness was at its greatest, did he hear the Voice say:
I'm still here. And I'll never leave.
The Voice had a familiar, soothing tone. He knew it, and he liked it. That Voice knew him so well, it understood what he needed and wanted. It was his friend.
'Where am I?'
Safe, for the moment.
Hank frowned, trying to remember what had happened. It all seemed like a very long time ago, when he was living a different life. What had happened to the others?
The others turned their backs on you, said the Voice. You had to leave them.
Hank still frowned, surprised that he would leave any of them, especially Sheila.
'What had they done?'
The Voice didn't answer immediately. But when it next spoke, its tone was soft and persuasive.It was all the fault of the Cavalier. He was weak, he was a coward, and he paid the price.
A memory flickered on the edge of his mind, seeing the Cavalier crouched fearfully behind a rock as they looked down on the Orc encampment. Behind him, the Portal shone like a beautiful star. The way home, for all of them…
But they weren't at home; they weren't back on Earth. An ugly snarl passed over Hank's face. That Cavalier, he'd caused this.
Yes! said the Voice. This was all that Cavalier's fault!
A shudder passed through the Ranger as he remembered what happened next; the Cavalier's easy capture and the reaction of the others to the news. He could still remember the hurt in Sheila's voice as she asked what had happened. Damn that Cavalier for causing her so much pain.
The anger he'd felt as they'd talked returned. They didn't understand anything. They thought the Cavalier was worth rescuing. How could they think that? How!
They don't understand what happened, agreed the Voice.
But that wasn't quite right, he knew. One of them did, he'd tried to explain, tried to ease the burden of guilt and regret, and…
Why should you feel guilty? the Voice asked suddenly. You were only trying to help them. I wasn't you fault she didn't understand!
Hank couldn't answer. Why did he feel guilty for trying to protect his friends for the Cavalier's incompetence? He closed his eyes and thought back, he had left them talking and sat on his own for who knows how long. Then Diana had appeared.
His heartbeat quickened. He'd told her what had happened, and she'd screamed! He could suddenly remember how it had felt, holding her tightly in his arms as she'd struggled against him.
He'd had to run, he had no choice! They didn't understand what problems the Cavalier had caused! He hadn't wanted to hurt her, but what other option was there? They didn't understand what had happened, and they didn't realise what the Cavalier had done. The Voice was calm in response.
Considering the trouble he's caused, don't you think he should be dead? it asked bluntly.
Dead? Was that what he really wanted? Dead was a big step…
You want to be rid of the Cavalier. Don't you?
Well, yes he did, in a way. Ever since they'd come to this hateful place all the Cavalier had done was cause trouble, and trying to list his faults was futile; there wasn't enough time to go through them all!But…?
But he'd teased Sheila to the point of tears. He'd opened the Box of Balefire, almost bring life in the Realm to an end. That was a big one. It was his mouthy comments that had started their quest for the Dragon's Graveyard and all the problems that entailed. In Darkhaven, he'd screwed up getting them home, even with all that power! He'd been quick to turn on the Ranger in the Cloud Bears' forest; He doubted you first, didn't he? Had he even wanted to go and look for the Nightwalker and find Bobby? He had definitely wanted to leave Uni in the hands of Kelek. He'd been tucked up in a corner with Presto's Spiderman comic in the Prison of Agony, instead of trying to help them escape. He didn't figure out the riddle in time, and was stuck as a dumb Bogbeast, (why did we come back with him? WHY?) And he'd gone off on his own instead of helping Dungeonmaster against Warduke.
It all lead to one, inescapable conclusion.
The Cavalier wasn't worth the trouble!
He's not your friend, said the Voice firmly. If he was, he wouldn't have argued so much. He's not a team player. He was always only looking out for himself.
Hank couldn't agree more this time. That boy just wasn't worth it, he could see that now. The others would…
He stopped. What would the others do now?
Perhaps the others don't appreciate what you did for them, suggested the Voice. Perhaps you should leave them to do what they want.
No, that wasn't right. He was their leader! They weren't safe without him. He had to help them, it was his job to help them, even if they didn't understand.
And deep down he knew what they would do. It was obvious enough from Sheila's initial reaction and the look of disbelief on Diana's face. They still though the Cavalier was their friend, and out of some misguided sense of loyalty and honour, they would go and look for him.Are you sure?
He hesitated. They probably would. Sheila would force them too; she was too kind-hearted for her own good. She would never be able to leave him behind. He should have seen that before. His lovely, trusting Sheila would be helpless without him, they all were. The only reason they'd succeeded at the Grotto was because that "Martha" woman showed up in time!
There wasn't really any doubt about it, the others would got and try to find that stupid Cavalier. They would, because they were good and Pure of Heart and couldn't see what a liability that boy really was.
Rage flared in Hank's chest again. The Cavalier did NOTHING! He didn't help he only hindered. How many times had they pulled him out of trouble? He was selfish, greedy, egotistical…why was he even BOTHERING to think about him at all?
There was a hot anger inside that seemed to overwhelm any other feelings, and Hank found it difficult to think straight. He had never really felt like this before, he'd kept it all bottled up. But now he loved the sense of release he got by venting his fury.
Why hadn't he ever done this before? It felt so Goddamn good to acknowledge the hate and the rage inside. The Voice knew what he wanted.
The others don't understand what you've done for them, the Voice reminded him eventually. Perhaps they should be left to…
A single image was in his mind: Sheila, his beautiful Thief. He cared about her as much as ever, but she was too trusting, and too oblivious to the dangers of the Realm. It was obvious to him what the Orcs would do next. They would use their prisoner as bait, to try and get the rest of the weapons.
And his friends would track the Orcs.
He knew them well enough to know that they wouldn't let the Cavalier go without trying to help. So he had to do something. He couldn't let them throw their freedom away on the Cavalier.
He couldn't let them get captured by the Orcs and dragged off to Venger. He couldn't live with that on his conscience. He might be capable of many things, but he wasn't capable of that. He had to keep them safe.
So, there was only one thing to do, said the Voice. You have to get rid of the Cavalier once and for all.
Your friends will track him. They might even find him. How much do you care about them?
How far would he go? There might only be one way to show them, once and for all. One way only. But could he do it?
After all that he's done; after all that he's put you through; aren't you angry enough to do it?
He might be. The anger inside was still bubbling like a cauldron. The Cavalier had caused this, he'd brought it on himself. And Hank was the leader, he had to keep the others safe.
Your friends need you to act, the Voice whispered. Can you let them down?
'No!' said Hank, pushing himself up. 'I won't let them down.'
He was the leader, the one they looked up to, the one who had to make the hard decisions for the good of the group. He had to save them from themselves, even if that meant killing the Cavalier himself.
It was easy to track the others. And how they managed to find the Orcs without him was a complete mystery. But it was so obviously a trap, and Hank could barely understand what had driven his friends to take such a stupid risk.
The Orcs hadn't gone far from the Portal. They were taking their time and had stopped to rest by a riverbank. The Orc Captain hadn't bothered to set a lookout and was too busy pawing the Cavalier's precious Shield to bother doing it himself.
The Cavalier himself was slumped against a rock, looking like he was asleep. There was blood and bruising across his face, but Hank couldn't help smiling. He looked terrible, and it served him right.
The Ranger hung back, out of sight, but close enough to see and hear what was going on. He could see the others on the far side of the trees, Diana might be able to blend in, but Presto always managed to look out of place, no matter how hard he tried.
After what seemed like a good deal of arguing, his friends finally attacked, and Hank watched as the Orc's were "driven" back by the simple show of force from the Barbarian and the Acrobat. The Captain dropped the Shield in its rush to retreat, and the other Orcs follow their Captain. Within a minute, there were none left.
The others came rushing up, straight to the injured boy's side. Presto pulled a short knife out of the Hat (working first time, it was obviously Presto's lucky day!) and tried to cut through the ropes.
The Cavalier looked up at the others and gave a bloody half-smile that made Hank feel sick with resentment.
'Thank God!' said the Cavalier thickly, letting his head drop onto Diana's shoulder. 'Thank God you're all OK.'
At his other side, Sheila tenderly began dabbing at the cuts along the Cavalier's face, in a concerned and motherly way that made Hank want to fine a Golden Arrow straight at the boy's heart. Presto managed to cut through the ropes and free the Cavalier. The boy groaned as he tried to move his arms. Hank smiled once more.
'You look like a raccoon,' said Bobby, being his usual sympathetic self. Both girls scowled at him, but the Barbarian just shrugged. 'Well, he does!'
'Where's Hank?' asked the Cavalier.
The others exchanged glances, but no one got a chance to reply.
The Orcs were back, as Hank knew they would be, and this time they knew exactly where to strike. Both Diana and Bobby moved to defence, as Sheila and Presto tried to help the Cavalier to stand, but he was in a much worse condition than they'd thought.
As the Orcs closed in and had obviously recognised the weakest link in the group. They made straight for the Cavalier, distracting the Barbarian and the Acrobat with feints and just pushing Presto and Sheila out of the way. The big Captain then grabbed the injured boy, holding him as if it was going to break his neck. The others froze where they were, too far away to help.
It only took Hank a second to decide. If the Cavalier was gonna to die, it WASN'T gonna be at the hand of some Orc!
He raised his Bow and fired in an instant, the golden arrow coiling round the Orc and pulling it back, and the Cavalier staggered, but didn't fall.
The Orcs regrouped, ready to charge at the Ranger, but they failed to notice the Magician speaking to the Hat.
"From somewhere in this great big place,
Bring things that like the way Orcs taste!"
There was an ugly crunching noise and everyone turned to look at Presto. Standing beside the Magician was a huge clawed monster, with five arms and a mouth filled with teeth like icicles. Hank shuddered, terrified that the creature would destroy them all, but it was staring at the Orcs with large dribbles of drool running over its chin.
The Orcs themselves were already running.
Hank let himself smile as he watched the creature chase Venger's servants, but his brief calm was replaced but burning anger as he looked back to his friends.
Sheila was standing close to the injured Cavalier with a look of utmost concern on her face. That sight more than anything else made Hank want to rip the Cavalier's heart out with his bare hands. How dare he even go NEAR her!
'Get away from her!' growled the Ranger, pulling an arrow. 'They're MY friends, not yours!'
The Cavalier's temper had not been mellowed by his time with the Orcs. In spite of his injuries, he was in no mood to back down.
'Why don't you stop being such an asshole, Hank!' he said with a sneer.
That was it! The Cavalier was gonna get it this time. He didn't need any Orc to do it for him.
Hank threw the Bow to the ground and ran forward, past his friends. The Cavalier was standing, but he had no Shield to protect him, and he didn't even try to defend himself.
The Ranger swung out angrily and the other boy just managed to pull back in time to avoid Hank's vicious right hook. Annoyed at having missed, Hank lunged forward, grabbing the Cavalier and forced him to the ground.
His opponent hit with a clunk and a pained groan, but made no move as the Ranger knelt down. The knife Presto had created was lying on the ground beside them and Hank grabbed it without a second thought. He lifted it high and somewhere behind him, someone screamed.
He was going to do it!
It felt so good to let all the pent up anger out at last. The Cavalier deserved it and was in no condition to stop him. All it would take was one thrust…
Get on with it!
The Cavalier was lying beneath him and, now Hank was close up, he could see exactly what the Orcs had done to their prisoner. The Cavalier had taken quite a beating, Bobby hadn't been kidding about the comparison with a raccoon, and judging from the blood, one of the Orc had managed to break the his nose too. He lay there, dazed and having trouble breathing, barely even aware of the last seconds of his life.
Hank faltered. He couldn't take advantage like that. It wasn't a fair fight anyway.
Why does it have to be fair!
He looked at his opponent. He was helpless, badly injured in the fight with the Orcs, a fight that Hank had gotten him into in the first place. He remembered looking down in shock as more Orcs appeared behind his friend. The Cavalier had been completely outnumbered. He'd stood no chance without help…Why didn't I help Eric? He didn't deserve your help!
But he was my friend…Hank stared at the small pool of blood that had formed on the ground beside the Cavalier. He was a friend, he deserved help when he needed it; he...
He deserved NOTHING of the sort, hissed the Voice in his ear. He never thought of anyone but himself!
But… that wasn't really true, now Hank tried to think about it. Ok, so the Cavalier had screwed up a huge number of times, but he did the right thing, eventually.
For the sake of your friends, you have to destroy him!
But I don't want to…
Destroy him! screamed the Voice, suddenly sounding desperate. Get rid of him once and for all and SET ME FREE!
SET ME FREE!! If it weren't for your conscience you, we would be HOME! I've waited for so long for you to listen to me! I'm not going back this time!Waited?
If you weren't so righteous and conceited, you would know what's happened! I deserve to be free! You need me!
You've won before; I came so close at the Dragon's Graveyard, but in the end you ignored me and let Venger live! Don't make the same mistake again!
At those words, Hank remembered the terrible, consuming anger that had driven him to take a stand against Dungeonmaster and try to destroy the Arch-Mage once and for all. He could remember standing in the Graveyard, holding the arrow that would have brought Venger's death. But instead, he set the Mage free. It was the right thing to do.
Inside he could feel anger, but it was far away, and was easy to control. When the Voice next spoke, its tone was pleading.I am the part of you that remembers all the hurt and pain, I am the Darkness in your soul. The Voice grew harsh. And I want to be FREE! So, prove to yourself what you can do, and KILL HIM!
'NO!' he heard himself shout.
This time there was silence. There was no Voice to urge him on, and there was no burning anger and need for revenge. There was only the deep sorrow in his heart as he looked down at the boy who'd become one of his closest friends.
There was no Voice urging him on.
He was alone.
He had won.
And it was like he was waking up from a bad dream.
As the knife fell to the ground, the sound hurt Hank's ears. He was pinning an injured Eric down, more blood was coming from the Cavalier's nose. He saw the bruises, the cuts, the dent in the armour.
'What have I done…' he whispered. Inside his mind there was still the sullen, deafening silence. There was no Voice to provide words of comfort this time.
He looked round at the shocked faces of his friends and was engulfed with the feelings he had tried to deny: shame and regret. What had happened to him? How had he lost control like that? How had that Voice known how he would react? How could he have let himself and his friends down so badly?
He looked at them once again, and then down to the Cavalier on the ground next to him. They all deserved an explanation.
'I-I'm sorry,' he whispered.
The words jolted the others into action. Presto rushed up and grabbed the knife, hastily dumping it back in the Hat. Slowly, the others gathered round, but Hank noticed that neither Diana nor Uni got too close.
In faltering words, Hank told them what he'd done; how he abandoned Eric and turned on Diana. He told them about the Voice in his head, constantly encouraging him. What he didn't tell then was how good it felt letting his anger out and how close he'd come to swinging the knife down.
'By the end, I hated him,' continued Hank, not bothering to disguise the emotion. 'I-I wanted to kill him.'
'But you didn't,' said Sheila with a comforting smile. 'You stopped just in time.'
Just in time, with barely a heartbeat to spare. But he hadn't stopped in time, not really. He'd hurt Diana, he'd scared the hell out of Sheila, Bobby and Presto, and he'd let Eric be captured and beaten by the Orcs. How could he have let them down so badly?
'I don't know what happened to me,' he whispered. The Voice in his head had said it was the Darkness in his Soul, but perhaps it had lied. Was it really part of his own psyche? Was he really as dark and as dangerous as that?
'Perhaps you were possessed?' suggested Diana quietly.
Was that it? Had the Grotto enchanted him somehow? Was he possessed? But it sounded so real, and so familiar. He knew that Voice. He really had heard it before.
It knew how to get to him, how to manipulate him, how to get him to do exactly what it wanted. It had used his simmering resentment and anger, and directed it against the Cavalier. How did it know him so well, if it wasn't part of him already?
The questions were useless. The Voice had gone and it was over.
He looked round at his five friends. He'd caused a rift in the group, he wouldn't be surprised if no one trusted him again. But he couldn't let this continue. Separately, they would be easy targets for Venger. He had to make it up to them, right now.
Abruptly, the Ranger looked at Eric.
'I'm sorry,' he said. 'This was all my fault. Can you forgive me?'
The Cavalier looked at Hank's outstretched hand for almost a minute before finally reaching out and shaking it.
'And you're gonna pay to get my armour repaired,' said Eric.
That seemed fair enough. The Ranger took a slow breath. Perhaps they could all get through this. Perhaps it would be OK.
The night was dark, and Hank was on second watch, until daybreak. He stretched, comfortably snuggled up against the tree. Tomorrow, they were going to the Forest of Dragons, to look for another Portal, just as Dungeonmaster had told them to. It was dangerous, but getting home was the important thing.
The thought of home was dangling in front of him like a golden carrot. He couldn't afford to miss another portal. There was no one he could talk to anymore; none of the others would really understand how he felt now, after all that had happened. He had to get home. He had to.
He closed his eyes.
But I understand, said a tiny voice in the back of his mind. And now you know the others are all safe, it wouldn't hurt to go take a look at this portal on your own…would it?
Getting home, that was the important thing now.It wouldn't hurt just to take a little look…
Hank opened his eyes, and smiled.
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.
You'll never guess which song inspired this…well, maybe you will: Everything's not Lost, by Coldplay.
On Snaffled Lines
The real line from Victor/Victoria is "Hello Richard, you look like a raccoon." And I've always wanted to use it.
Well, as you all might have guessed from the general lack of updates for this story, it has not been as smooth and easy going as I had thought. The main problem was that my original plan for it just didn't work. It took too long, and Hank had to move too far out of character too quickly.
But there is one part that you might enjoy reading – what would have happened when Eric reached Venger's Keep. I've posted it at the same time as this last chapter. It is rated R for violence, and is rated for good reason, so you are all on your honour to abide by the rating system.