DISCLAIMER: Erm, yes, well, I think I might "borrow" one for the time being…
STORY: Set after the story "Interlude", but it is not necessary to read it to understand this, since this is NOT a sequel.
In fact, this time, it's only referenced obliquely. That's the good news. But there are spoilers for the story "Only Heroes Make it Home" at some point, and some of the characters are mentioned in passing. That's the bad news.
THANKS: Yes, ever more thanks to all my friends who keep reading these stories, and a particular thanks to Aly Teima , Rana Kane, Tracey 23 and Sandy G. Thank you all for your comments!
The Hall of the Mountain King.
The Road Goes Ever Upward.
Presto the Magician gave a nice, big yawn and stretched. The suns were heading for the horizon in the west, and some of the brightest stars were out already. He was in no mood to move at the moment; they had been walking uphill for the whole day and it was surprisingly comfortable on the rock he was sitting on. It had a great view across the mountains too.
'Aw, Hank,' he said. 'Can't we take a longer rest?'
Hank the Ranger shook his head. He was sitting close by on a rock of his own, beside Sheila the Thief, his Bow propped up to one side.
'As soon as Eric's caught up, we're going,' he said firmly. 'We have to keep travelling south, there's bound to be a city there. We have a Wizard to find!'
'But doesn't Eric need a rest too, Hank?' replied Presto, leaning back. 'I mean, he's got all the armour to carry and…'
Bobby the Barbarian gave a snort that was quickly echoed by the baby unicorn that was sitting by his side.
'Eric should get more exercise!' said the Barbarian with a cheeky grin. 'All he's done over the past few days is stay in bed!'
The Magician frowned. OK, so that was true, but the poor guy deserved a break, even a short one. The Cavalier always hated uphill walks. He'd complained constantly since they'd left the town and had tried his best to dissuade Hank and the others from coming this way.
Presto looked at Sheila, hoping she would say something. But she was leaning back to gaze up towards the darkening sky, too busy resting to get involved. No one else spoke. They were all enjoying the relative quiet and calm that was inevitable when they walked uphill: Eric was just too far behind.
'There's still daylight left,' said Hank, looking westwards impatiently. 'Perhaps an hour if we're lucky. There's enough time to make camp. But we'll need to get going.'
Sitting on the ground beside him, Diana the Acrobat gave a small sigh.
'He'll get here eventually,' she said, and as if on cue, Eric the Cavalier staggered into sight, a few hundred yards down the mountainside.
The group watched in silence as he walked up to join them and plonked himself down on the ground beside Presto's rock. His cheeks were red and there was a shine of sweat on his forehead.
Presto had noticed Eric finishing his bottle of water off earlier and handed him his own. He took a long, greedy drink.
'Hey, thanks,' said the Cavalier breathlessly, handing it back. He looked at the Ranger, who was already preparing to leave. 'I can't wait 'til we get outta this mountain range,' he said. 'Is a bit of grassland too much to ask?'
'Once we're over this pass, there shouldn't be any more big mountains between us and the valley,' said Hank. 'That good enough?'
Eric glanced warily up at him, an eyebrow raised.
'Depends on how you define "big",' he said. The two boys looked at each other for a few seconds, then Hank stood up.
'The sooner we go, the sooner we'll get this over with.'
'Oh c'mon, guys!' huffed Eric. 'Gimme a couple of minutes. Please?' He glared at the group. 'You've all had a rest.'
Diana gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder.
'Well, you shouldn't be so slow,' she told him with a grin. 'Your just out of practice, Eric!'
'Huh! Very funny!' The Cavalier looked back at Hank. 'We could have gone round, you know.'
Again, Hank and Eric stared at each other, and for a few seconds Presto thought that Eric would say something else. But then the Cavalier shrugged and pulled himself off the ground.
'Fine! Let's get going!' he snapped. 'After all, I would hate to be the one who proved you wrong!'
Hank gave a grudging smile as the Cavalier stomped past.
'C'mon mighty-midget,' Eric said to the Barbarian, who was still resting beside his unicorn. 'No slacking!'
Bobby stuck his tongue out at the Cavalier's back, making his sister Sheila frown in disapproval. But the unicorn beside him just glared, looking at Eric very suspiciously. It was an odd look, and one that Uni had continually used with the Cavalier over the past week. Uni had always been wary of Eric, but these days she hardly went near him. No one else seemed to have noticed.
One by one the others stood. Bobby and his unicorn started after Eric, Hank following just behind with Diana the Acrobat.
Presto stood up too, twisting his Hat nervously in his hands. That little interlude in Mindril had unsettled him. Everything was back to the way it should be, but he could still remember what had happened. And sometimes, when he least expected it, the memories would pop back up. He looked at his Hat, but instead of worrying about it, he noticed a movement at his side. Sheila was standing next to him.
'You OK, Presto?' she asked.
He smiled. Trust the Thief to notice he was feeling a bit off.
'I'll be OK, thanks Sheila,' he said.
'What were you thinking about? Was it about…that?' The last word was just a whisper.
'Well, no, not really,' he admitted. 'I was just thinking about my Hat.' He pulled the weapon onto his head. 'It's nothing.'
Now that was the understatement of the century! His Hat, his wonderful weapon in this Realm; it was the wonderful, dumb weapon that had almost spelled them out of existence, permanently. He hadn't used it since that night, he'd been too nervous to try. But sooner or later, he was gonna have to use it again and that was not something he was looking forward to. Sheila was still watching him carefully.
'You know, I'm sure Dungeonmaster could help you with the Hat,' she said. 'If you asked him.'
'Yeah, but when's he around for long enough to ask?' he replied with a sigh. 'It's not fair. You guys don't need help with your weapons, you all do fine. It's just me and the stupid Hat.'
'Don't say that Presto!' she told him. 'The Hat's really powerful.'
'I know, but…well, it doesn't make it any easier.'
She smiled more widely and made no reply.
They walked on together, and it didn't take long for everyone to overtake the Cavalier. Bobby and Uni walked in front, with Hank and Diana close behind. Presto walked next to Sheila for the rest of the evening, with Eric clinking along at a slow but steady pace a long way behind them.
Neither he nor the Thief had spoken for a while when he smelt it, a cross between rotting meat and vinegar only worse. It hit like a truck, stinging the back of his nose and throat. He could remember creating some impressive smells from his chemistry set back home, but even stink-bombs paled when compared to this. Around him, the others were all pulling faces.
'Ew,' said Bobby, holding his nose. 'Dis place sdinks!'
Beside him, Uni had her nose close to the ground and was swinging her head back as forward. Her eyes were watering and she was giving little coughs.
'What is it?' asked Diana. 'It smells like dead animals.'
Hank was looking round, a frown on his face.
'Dunno, but we outta make a camp soon,' he said. 'It's getting late.'
'We can't stay here!' said Diana. 'It's horrible!'
Hank nodded tersely. He pointed up the hillside.
'Let's climb some more, and see if it goes away.'
'You got another gas mask?' asked Sheila with a smile and the Magician grinned back. It was much worse that the smell of the skunk-chicken-thing that had sprayed Eric the day they'd found Zandora's Box. But Presto made no move to try and magic up anything and if Sheila noticed, then she made no comment.
The smell slowly lifted, but Presto's nose still hurt from the afterburn. After another ten minutes, and well above the smell, Hank finally decided they had found a good place to stay the night and they stopped. Everyone was tired, they had been climbing for most of the day; not hard mountaineering, but tough hill-walking and no one was in the mood for much chatting.
Eric hadn't joined them, but they started to get ready for the night. They had all started on the berries and nuts that was dinner by the time the Cavalier appeared. He flopped down between Presto and Sheila.
'Ah, sweet rest,' he murmured.
They started to eat again, but Presto noticed Hank watching the Cavalier, looking like he thought the other boy was going to start another argument. Sure enough, Eric took a few mouthfuls of food and more water, then scowled back at the Ranger.
'Tell me again why we went this way?' he asked.
Presto sighed. He should have known it would never last. They were back to this, again! How many times had they been through it? Six? Seven? A hundred? A thousand?
'It's faster,' said Hank in a tone that brooked no contradictions.
Presto watched Eric, and so did everyone else, expecting him to snap back. Instead the Cavalier just gave a short sigh.
'So you keep saying,' he said, being only mildly sarcastic. 'But it doesn't feel like that to me.'
'So YOU keep saying,' said Hank. He didn't make any more of a reply, but the Cavalier didn't look happy with the answer.
The Ranger just looked at Eric, waiting. Presto gave Hank a supportive smile, not that he needed one at the moment. He'd seemed to grow in confidence after his stay in the Grotto of Darkness. For a few days Hank had been trapped by the Darkling, and Eric had led the group. But now Hank was back in charge, and he was not going to let Eric undermine his authority, not over something as trivial as this.
'What else do you want me to say?' asked Eric. 'I think we came the wrong way!'
'And don't we all know about it!' chimed in the Barbarian
'Keep out of this, Bobby,' said Eric, not looking away from the Ranger. 'You didn't even bother to ask what we thought, Hank!'
'It's not open for discussion,' said Hank firmly.
'Well, it should be!'
'Why?' demanded the Ranger.
'Because…because it should. We're all part of the team!'
Presto was beginning to feel uncomfortable. Eric had never been much of a team player. In fact, there was a time when the Cavalier had been more than willing to go off on his own, not to mention that time with the Dragon, the Wish and the Warlock. They were skirting very dangerous ground.
'Yes,' said Hank carefully, probably thinking the same as Presto. 'And the team agreed to go over. Not round.'
That was certainly true. It was a good twenty or thirty miles extra going round, and everyone had agreed with Hank's suggestion that they take the mountain pass instead. Well, everyone except Eric. While it was in the Cavalier's nature to be uncooperative, even Presto thought he'd gone too far this time. He just wouldn't give it a rest.
Eric pursed his lips, but couldn't find a good answer, and was obviously disturbed by that fact.
'I'm too tired to think straight,' said the Cavalier eventually. 'How about we argue tomorrow? If that's OK by you!'
Eric took one more mouthful of berries then leaned back against a tree with his arms crossed and his eyes closed, not bothering to wait for an answer. Hank scowled at him, obviously not liking to go to sleep with this unresolved, but the show was over.
Disconcerted by the tension, they all finished off the remains of the food in silence then settled down to rest, with Diana taking the first watch.
Presto curled up on the ground between Eric and Bobby, and he watched the Acrobat as she gazed up at the sky. It was another beautiful evening, the moons were low and the stars shone out clearly. Beside him, Eric was breathing heavily, already sound asleep. The Magician smiled. The Cavalier had had a difficult day.
Sleepily, Presto settled back and yawned, his eyes starting to close. Maybe he should have tried to get some blankets out of the Hat, but he didn't feel like using his weapon tonight. Besides, it was warm enough, he was tired, and wasn't his turn on watch. He was really looking forward to a good rest.
Tomorrow night they should be near another city, hopefully one with a Wizard in it: Krin. What was it Dungeonmaster had said? "I have heard of a great magician, by the name of Krin, who might be able to send you home."
Their Guide had given them no more information than that, and they hadn't seen Dungeonmaster since leaving the Grotto of Darkness. Almost asleep, Presto still shivered at the name. He hated Darkness.
His hand tightened around the Hat. He was gonna have to face up to it sometime, but not tonight. Tonight, he was going to sleep…
He couldn't be sure if he dreamed it.
There was something.
He could sense something wasn't right. (Wake up, Presto!)
It was a feeling he'd had before.
Like magical indigestion and it wouldn't let up.
Something wasn't right. (Wake up!)
Presto woke with a start, his heart thumping in his chest, and jumped to his feet, noticing the dim glow of dawn to the east. He'd slept for a long time and the others were still resting except Sheila, who was on watch. He was groggy and disorientated, and it was very quiet. But there was still that strange feeling of danger close by. It was still too dark to see more than a couple of feet ahead.
He waited, but nothing happened. Perhaps, he was imagining it. Perhaps he should just settle down and go back to sleep. (Presto, I don't think that's…)
Then there was a shrill scream.
'Hank!' Sheila shouted. 'HANK!'
Everything seemed to happen at once. Spears started embedding themselves in the ground close by, thrown by unseen assailants. The Ranger was up in a second, firing arrows all around, making Presto's eyes hurt with the sudden change in brightness. Diana was up too, batting the spears away from her friends with the Javelin.
Beside him, there was a distinctive, pained cry that the Magician recognised as coming from the Cavalier. He caught a quick image of Sheila flicking her hood up, and of Bobby swinging at the ground.
'Presto! Move!' shouted Hank. 'Get outta there! GO!'
There was a hissing noise behind him and he ducked just as another spear whistled past his arm.
'Everyone, this way!' shouted Hank, firing arrows all around. 'Keep together!'
Presto moved quickly, grabbing the startled unicorn as he went. He could see Diana and the Barbarian just ahead, and as soon as he was close enough, the Barbarian grabbed Uni and hugged her.
Hank had run on moving to a better-defended position, before turning to wait for his friends. They gathered round the Ranger, Hank holding up his Bow, ready to let it fly at the first sign of trouble. But there was an unnatural silence behind them. They stayed very still for a few minutes. There was no sign of anyone else, but Presto still felt uneasy.
'I think I scared them off,' said the Ranger at last. 'But keep your eyes open.'
'What happened? Who were those guys?' whispered Bobby.
'I didn't really see. I'm not sure,' replied Hank. But Presto thought that the Ranger at least had some idea and he looked pretty unhappy about it, whoever they were.
'I-I'm sorry Hank,' said Sheila shakily, as she pulled back her Cloak, 'they just came outta nowhere!'
The Ranger put his arm round her shoulders, and gave them a quick squeeze.
'It's OK, Sheila. We didn't even see them when they attacked, you have no chance to spot them in the low light. Don't worry about it.'
She gave his a small smile.
'Thanks, Hank.' She looked around, confused. 'But where's Eric?'
Hank swore, not a very bad word, but bad enough for Sheila to blush and Bobby to snigger.
'This is getting ridiculous!' growled Hank. 'Why can't that Cavalier stay out of trouble!'
Hank was glaring in the direction of their old camp when Presto felt his heart lurch. Something else was wrong, very wrong. He glanced round too, and could just make out the faintest glint of metal ahead. The attackers were still there!
'LOOK OUT!' he shouted, pulling Hank back. There was another whoosh of spears. One nicked Presto's sleeve, another imbedded itself in the ground nearby. Hank staggered then turned, but the Magician slipped and was barely able to stay upright.
Sheila pulled up her Cloak again, disappearing in an instant and Diana raised her glowing Javelin to deflect the spears as she backed away. Beside him, Bobby swung his Club at the ground then followed after the Acrobat.
There were shouts all around them and the Magician turned to go after Bobby. But something growled behind him and, before he could move, the dawn turned to dark again.
'This way!' shouted Hank. 'Quick!'
The spears were flying at them, and he pulled an arrow. Their attackers were recognisable this time. His first guess had been correct: they were indeed Troglodytes. Nasty, dangerous, lizard-like things, not the sort of creatures that they should have met here, the other group had said they met the Trogs miles away!
Hank cursed their bad luck. They had no choice but to make a run for it, there were too many to fight. Sheila had already gone. Bobby had knocked a few to the ground and Diana was making short work of the two that were attacking her. He looked for Presto, but there was no sign of the Magician. More spears flew out from the shadows, making it impossible to go back and search. Hank swore for the second time that night, thinking belatedly that it was a good job the others were out of earshot.
They ran on, until the sounds of pursuit had stopped. But he didn't drop his guard; that was how they'd gotten to Presto. Only when the dawn had become full morning did he let them risk a short rest.
They slumped exhausted to the ground. They had covered a good number of miles on a very short time. Even the fit and tireless Diana was looking the worse for wear. Sheila was sitting on the ground beside the other girl and, for the first time Hank noticed the cut down her arm. He was by her side in an instant.
'It's just a scrape. I'm fine, Hank.' She gave him a warm smile, the kind that made his heart stop for a few seconds. She was beautiful and he loved her. He smiled back, forgetting everything else.
'What were those things?' asked Bobby, bringing Hank back to reality with a nasty bump.
'They're Troglodytes,' he replied, forcing himself to look away from Sheila's mesmerising eyes. 'I don't understand why they're here, they shouldn't be any where near us!'
He'd heard about those creatures from the other group of adventures that they'd met, a couple of weeks ago. And while Alison the Amazon hadn't been forthcoming with details, he knew enough to realise they were in deep, deep trouble.
'But they must have a Lair close by,' he said. 'We'll have to find it.'
'That would be a wise plan, Ranger,' said a soft, calm voice beside him.
'Dungeonmaster!' chorused his friends, but Hank didn't feel like greeting their Guide. The others were all looking much happier now the old man was here, but it didn't make him feel any better this time. The expression on Dungeonmaster's face filled the Ranger with worry.
'Where are Presto and Eric?' asked Sheila.
'They are prisoners of the Troglodytes,' replied Dungeonmaster.
'But what are Troglodytes?' asked Diana.
Their Guide turned to look expectantly at Hank. The Ranger gulped; he could remember clearly what the Amazon had told him.
'Alison said…' Hank hesitated, unwilling to voice his true worries in front of the girls and Bobby. 'She said they were dangerous.' Actually, she'd said: "they're the worst sort of evil, vicious carnivores that it's been my misfortune to meet in this crappy place." But repeating THAT didn't seem like a good idea just now.
'Dungeonmaster, what were they doing here?' asked the Ranger. 'They should have been miles away!'
The old man looked sadly down at the ground.
'This was only a small scouting group, and they would not have attacked if they had not seen the Cavalier.'
Hank snorted. Bloody Eric! AGAIN! He was getting so goddamn sick of Eric causing trouble! Dungeonmaster smiled thinly at Hank, slowly shaking his head.
'No, Ranger. They covet what he carried. They love only steel, and prize it above all other things.'
'Steel?' said Bobby incredulously.
'Of course!' interrupted Diana, 'Eric's armour and Shield!'
'In their eyes, the Cavalier carried an immeasurable fortune.'
'Like a walking bank vault?' asked Bobby. Dungeonmaster nodded once again, in a calm and reassuring way. But anger flashed through Hank.
'Why didn't you warn us?' he demanded. 'Why did you let us come this way?'
Dungeonmaster looked at him sternly.
'You are responsible for your own path, Ranger. No one can choose it for you.'
Hank sighed, knowing the old man was right. It was no use blaming Dungeonmaster for this. It had been his choice, his call. And in spite of Eric's objections about the climb, he'd led them this way.
'I'm sorry, Dungeonmaster,' he said. 'But what are we gonna do?'
'Whatever you decide, you must be quick,' said the old man. 'You're friends are in mortal danger as long as they are held captive.'
'M-mortal danger?' asked Sheila, her voice shaking.
Dungeonmaster nodded again.
'You will find no allies in this fight against these creatures. Help those who are unable to help themselves. Find the key to their trust!'
'What are we gonna do?' asked Diana, turning to look at Hank. 'How are we gonna find them?'
'You will only have one chance,' said Dungeonmaster. 'They will take an offering to their King.'
'Presto and Eric are going to be "offerings"?' said the Thief, looking dismayed.
'If it was at any other time of year, your friends would have been eaten already!' said Dungeonmaster. Hank looked abruptly at the old man, but he was deadly serious. 'It may give you an opportunity.'
The others looked round at each other, talking in low voices. The Ranger was almost too busy thinking to hear what Dungeonmaster said next.
'Yet… I fear you will only have time to help one.'
Hank whirled round.
'Dungeonmaster!' he called desperately.
But their Guide had gone.