Presto had no nightmares, a strange kind of peace filled him. He slept the whole night and woke to the cold blue light of dawn feeling better than he had in weeks, and the nightmares of the past were only a memory.
He knew what had caused the change; talking to Hank was the hardest thing he had ever done, and he hadn't even told him anything important! The Creature was aware of what had happened but seemed unconcerned. He could feel it coiling around his insides, its thoughts and power spilling out into his mind and body.
But Presto wasn't going to give in that easily, they were no longer unequal partners.
The way Hank had spoken to him, and the desperate and caring way Hank had looked at him, had done more for his resolve than any words ever could. They had lost Eric, they had lost Diana and Sheila and Uni. He was not going to lose Hank or Bobby, or be lost himself. He and Hank were going to see this through to the end together. Hank had given him hope when he'd thought everything was gone.
Though the morning was cold, Presto lay still with his eyes closed, savouring the sensation of rest and privacy and peace. Then the Creature shifted, as if trying to attract his attention. Rather than fighting the sensation, or ignoring it, he acknowledged its presence for the first time, suppressing his fear. And when he closed his eyes and his body felt light and all the aching pain gone.
He felt of the thunderous sounds of war reverberating though his body; he knew the massive Orc army was near. More than that, Orcs themselves were close by, prowling and sniffing and hunting through the trees and the scrubland, always looking, always searching, always moving, like the unstoppable force of the rising tide.
Presto's eyes flicked open, looking at the two sleeping forms of Hank and Bobby.
Orcs were very near. They might burst through the line of bushes at any moment. The Orcs felt so close Presto could almost smell them and every whisper of the breeze was like a cry of attack.
And though the Creature struggled, Presto forced himself to move.
They couldn't wait and rest any longer. They had to go! And they had to go right now!
Sheila travelled with Lorne, walking as fast as they could over the uneven ground, rarely stopping to rest, night or day. Uni was too frail to move on her own, and had to be carried. But she was wary, only occasionally consenting to let Lorne take her, and even then only for a short time.
With every day that passed, Sheila felt her strength seeping away into the earth, though she had been used to physical exercise in the Realm. Not all of the exhaustion could be explained by Uni's extra weight, or the intangible weight of the fear in her heart. But she didn't let Lorne know how much effort it took to keep putting one foot down in front of the other.
Mostly, they stayed silent, saving they energy for the journey. When they did talk, Sheila asked only a few questions and Lorne didn't give her much in the way of answers. He seemed different than she remembered. When they had last seen each other, Lorne had been happy and safe with a new family and looking forward to a new life. She didn't dare ask him what had happened.
For his part, Lorne never asked about the others and she didn't tell him. It was too painful to talk about, or try and put into words and she didn't want to think about any of it for too long. Diana, her best friend, had vanished with no explanation. Eric was gone too and the thought of what might have happened to him weighed heavily on her mind. She dreaded having to tell Lorne about his disappearance, so she continually avoided the topic as best she could.
After a day of travel through the valley, they came to the lower foothills of a sprawling mountain range. Travelling over rocky, undulating ground, going downhill was just as hard work as climbing uphill and Sheila grew increasingly weary. There was more cover to shield them from unwelcome eyes, but not even that simple fact appeared to please Lorne, who remained as uncommunicative as before.
'Orcs will track us,' he told her when she asked to rest. 'You don't want to get caught by Orcs these days, they're…' Lorne paused, a look of dread on his face, unable to get the right words out. 'They'll hurt you,' he said at last.
An icy shiver raced up her spine.
'I don't understand,' said Sheila, unwillingly thinking back to the last time she had encountered Orcs, when she'd saved Lorne from their camp. She had tried not to dwell on that experience.
'They changed,' said Lorne, 'like they grew tried of their game and stopped pretending. It happened suddenly. One day, they just turned on everyone, killing and… worse.'
The last word was whispered and Sheila shuddered, repulsed as much by the words as the tone of his voice. She was going to ask him what had happened, and how he knew all of this, but decided against it. Now was not a good time to find out about this. Not at the moment.
In her arms, Uni looked up at Lorne and gave a very soft bray, her pink eyes wide and bright.
'Then let's keep going,' she said, with a small, comforting smile. For once, Lorne gave her a slight smile in return.
Lorne led them ever onwards and upwards and as they travelled, Sheila slowly became aware of a constant and growing noise, like far-away thunder. Uni was aware of it as well, her ears half-pricked as Sheila carried her.
Eventually, just before the last of the suns set, they reached a ridge and instead of more mountains, there was a steep cliff and a wide grassy valley below. A few miles from the base of the cliff there was a great gathering of men and beasts, Sheila could hardly guess at the true size of it, as the light was fading. But it was larger than the camp of the Orcs, she was certain of that. It was a great army of men and she could hear the steady rumbling noise from the encampment clearly.
Lorne looked happier than she had seen in days. But Sheila looked down at the army in amazement.
'What is this?' she asked at last.
'The Army of all Good Men,' replied Lorne, the pride and strength back in his voice. 'At last, we're safe.'
'It's huge,' she said. 'I've never seen anything like it.'
'It has grown bigger since I left,' he said. 'Men gather to the banners, more every day.'
Sheila continued to look down at the Army, a frown on her face in spite of the lightness in her heart.
'But who could summon such a powerful Army?' she asked. 'Dungeonmaster?'
Lorne shook his head.
'No. The King!'
For the next few days all Hank, Bobby and Presto did was dodge Orcs. They found evidence of Orcs everywhere they went, they heard them and saw the devastation they caused. They rested only for short periods, whether during the day or the night, and always with someone on watch.
If it hadn't been for Presto, Hank was certain that they would have been captured several times over, and though he didn't understand how Presto knew where the Orcs were, he was grateful that Presto was feeling better and was able to help them.
Other than guidance, Presto said very little to Hank or Bobby, and kept his distance from them both. Hank struggled to find any way to start a conversation. It was as if Presto had already said too much and was sulking at him for asking difficult questions. And somehow, unbelievably, Bobby didn't pick up on the strain between them. The Barbarian kept trudging onwards, just like before.
Their progress back to the village was far too slow for Hank's liking. They had to double back on themselves, and cross water as often as they could, in an effort to throw the trailing Orcs off their scent. It took them days longer than it should have, but at last they returned to a place in the mountains that Hank recognised, and he knew they were close, less than a day away from some sort of shelter and some hot food.
He forced them to keep going and, though Presto was still easily tired, he struggled on.
As the afternoon grew cold and turned to twilight, they finally arrived back at the edge of the village, but even in the low light, Hank could see that something was very different about the place. Before, there had been many lights and the warm smell of wood smoke and cooking. But there was nothing like that now.
'Hank?' asked Bobby, sounding tired and anxious. 'What's going on?'
He looked to where the Inn was, and was relieved to see a light glowing in the windows and a line of blue-tinted smoke rising up into the air.
'Let's go and find out at the Inn,' Hank said.
One by one, the three of them moved forward in a straggly line.
'Something's happened,' murmured Presto, peering around. 'Maybe something terrible.'
'I'm not sure,' replied Hank. Most buildings they passed were boarded up, the doors and the windows shut and barred. There was much less activity in the village than before, and they saw almost no people on the streets. Even a small village in the hills had some sort of nightlife, even if it was just gathering at the Inn for a drink at the end of the day.
But much to Hank's relief, the Inn door was unlocked and they went inside.
Again, there was a change from last time they had been here. There was no smell of beer or cooking meats, only the rich aroma of wood from the fire. The Innkeeper looked up in surprise as they entered and he watched in silence as the moved towards him. Judging by the courteous nod he gave Hank, the Innkeeper at least recognised them.
'You want a room?' he asked, holding Hank's gaze.
Hank nodded, acutely aware of how bedraggled they must look. And though he wanted to ask questions, he didn't. They needed a roof over their heads more than answers at that moment.
There was a long silence as the Innkeeper looked around at the three boys. Then he gave a heavy sigh.
'I suppose you can stay until we leave,' the Innkeeper told them without a smile. 'Still got no gold?'
Again, Hank nodded. He hated having to rely on charity. The Innkeeper gave a huff, and scowled, making Hank feel even less welcome than before.
'Well, I suppose,' he replied. 'You can just help us pack the carts when they come.'
With that, he stomped off, leaving Hank, Presto and Bobby looking at each other in confusion.