There was no mistaking her. Tiamat the Dragon Queen soared overhead and rose higher, circling slowly round the dragon-filled encampment. Eric and Sheila watched as she flew, surveying the scene from a safe altitude for a few minutes, then she retreated, flying back the way she'd come.
The Cavalier looked at the Thief, then the Golden Dragon and back to the sky.
'Tiamat's not gonna be away for long? Is she?'
His female companions both shook their heads. They were looking at him, and seemed to expect him to say something else. 'What are we gonna do?'
'Those Druids will want Tiamat too,' said Sheila. 'I mean, they've got almost every other Dragon in the Realm, why not her.'
Eric nodded, a deep frown across his face.
'It's gonna take some pretty amazing magic to capture her,' he said slowly. 'Venger could never do it.'
'Dragons,' the young Dragon hissed at him. 'Take. Magic.'
She was looking anxious, and kept pawing at the ground impatiently with that act-now-think-later look on her face that reminded him of the Barbarian. She was obviously desperate to do something.
'You mean they'll have taken the magic of the Dragons?' he asked, already fearing the answer. 'All of them?' The Dragon nodded, and seemed pleased he understood her. 'And that's bad, isn't it?'
She nodded once more.
He was afraid of this. Whoever they were up against had much, much more power and strength than they did; maybe if they had Presto and the Hat, they could have done something. But as it was, it seemed hopeless. There was no way they could do anything.
'But Eric,' said Sheila in a small voice, 'if they do manage to capture Tiamat, they'll take her magic too, and they'll be… they'll be…' The Thief couldn't continue, so Eric helped her out.
'The word you want is "unstoppable",' he said with a cold smile.
The Dragon gave a sharp, angry hiss, like a cornered cat, to show her displeasure at that suggestion.
'We've gotta do something!' said Sheila. 'Tiamat could be back any second. We've gotta help!'
They were both looking at him, expecting him to know what to do. C'mon, Eric! he thought. Think of something! What would Hank do?
An image flashed through his mind, of the Ranger standing in the same position, giving orders like an old pro, with the two females looking adoringly up at him. He scowled and looked out across the plane below, only one thought on his mind. It didn't really matter that he had no idea what to do: They were too far away to help.
He snapped round to look at the Thief. Her face was pale and she had that familiar look of worry. Beside her, the Dragon had begun to pace.
'We've gotta go and help,' said Sheila decisively. 'C'mon Eric!'
'And just how are we gonna get there?' he snapped at her. 'Even if we ran, it would still take us an hour to get down the cliff! What do you suggest? Ask them for a time-out!'
Sheila had no reply.
The Dragon was looking up to the sky, sensing the imminent arrival of the Queen of the Dragons. She had pulled away from them and was obviously going to leave, regardless of the danger. If he left her on her own, she would probably end up as barbequed Dragon! Or worse!
Suddenly, Eric knew what they had to do. It was completely crazy, it was possibly the craziest thing he'd ever thought up, and if he delayed he would never have the guts to carry it through. Grabbing Sheila by the hand, he ran up to the Golden Dragon.
'We need a lift!' he said to her.
The Dragon looked doubtfully at him. Sheila seemed to be of the same mind.
'She can't fly with both of us,' she said. 'We're too heavy.'
Eric moved to the Dragon's side, pushed himself up and swung his leg over her back.
The Dragon staggered.
'Oh! Don't hurt her!' said Sheila, sounding genuinely worried. But the Dragon gave a light hiss, like laughter.
'Funny!' said Eric shortly, trying to get comfortable. 'Come on!'
With a little help, Sheila clambered up behind him.
'But we still can't fly!'
'We're not gonna be flying,' said Eric, trying to sound calm. 'With a little luck those Druid bozos will be so concerned about Tiamat they won't see us.'
'"See us" do what?' whispered Sheila.
The Dragon turned round to look at him, the fear he felt mirrored in the young creature's eyes. There were only Dungeonmaster's words – A test of strength and a trial of weakness…He still didn't understand what it mean; he'd never been that good at figuring out the riddles. He'd just have to hope he was doing the right thing.
'Like I said, we need a lift!' he told the Thief. 'But just remember, it's not falling, it's gliding!'
Sheila gulped, her eyes wide, and she grabbed on to his waist tightly.
'And what are we gonna do when we get to the ground?'
He flashed a smile at her, and turned back to face the front, completely ignored the question. They could worry about that later.
If there was a later…
'She was overhead, then she retreated, Mistress,' gasped the Guard. 'When she returns…'
The man left the sentence hanging deliberately.
'Tiamat.' The Elfwoman's voice was a whisper of promise and relief. 'Finally, she has come to me, to face her doom.'
Hank stared at the Elf, confusion and worry mingled together. He'd never have though Elves were given to gloating, but the look on that woman's face was as close to gleeful relief as he'd ever seen. Beside him, the others were looking round at each other, confused as well. Diana looked up at him, her expression summing up exactly how he felt.
The Elf was looking purposefully out of the tent door, ignoring them, but still he had to ask, even if there was only a very slim chance she would reply.
'What do you mean?' he asked.
The Elf continued to stare forward, as if enchanted. When she replied, her voice was still a whisper.
'She will be destroyed. Once and for all time. She will be gone.'
A strange feeling of fear filled the Ranger. Destroying Tiamat, well, she was the Queen of Dragons, and Evil… or at least not Good… or maybe just Neutral… but there was something more important than that. With Tiamat gone, there would be nothing to stop Venger! The Dragon Queen was the one and only thing in the Realm the Arch-Mage was afraid of; with her destruction, Venger would be free to rule the Realm.
The cold chill inside got worse. Surely, the Elf must know this, so why…
At that instant, she turned, her eyes blazing.
'The Dragon is Evil, and cruel, and an enemy of all that is good. She will be destroyed! And when there is nothing left by charred bones, we will have had our revenge!'
Hank continued to stare at the Elf in horror. She really was going to kill the Dragon Queen, regardless of the consequences.
The question was more to himself than anything else, yet she still answered.
'There are only eleven of us left,' she said, her voice shaking. 'Eleven Elves out of all the vast kingdoms, survived: by chance, or cunning, or skill. And so, I must avenge the fallen. I MUST!'
The pain in her voice brought a lump to his throat. Who knows what Evil had been done before they reached the Realm, and maybe killing the Dragon Queen was justified, but what about Venger! He hadn't shown himself for weeks, but he'd been banished, not destroyed. He was still out there, waiting for his chance; and with Tiamat gone he would get his chance, very, very quickly!
Beside him, Diana grasped his arm and he turned to look at her, seeing tears in here eyes. She understood too well what was in store. Behind, Presto and Bobby were looking pale and shocked, and Uni let out a quiet whine. Of all things, this was not what he'd expected.
The woman turned to face them, no sign of emotion showing on her face.
'But now I see that it is only fitting that you should witness her destruction,' said the Elf. 'You keep seeing her, yes?' Hank had to nod. So many people knew so much about them; it was starting to get really annoying. 'Have you never wondered why? There are people in this Realm who live well over 200 years and will never see the Queen of Dragons once. But you and your friends have seen her, how many times? Six? Ten? More?'
Hank nodded slowly. He'd never really thought about it.
'She is attracted to the power of your weapons, Ranger,' explained the Elf. 'Though they are your weapons; though they are part of your very being, they are still Dragon-Borne. With those in my possession, the balance tipped in my favour and the compulsion was too strong to ignore.'
That managed to make him feel worse. With their weapons as the lure for the Dragon Queen, her death would be on their conscience. And when Venger discovered what had happened…
He couldn't continue that train of thought; he didn't dare.
The Elf had turned to the Guards.
'Escort them to the altar, that they may observe her destruction.'
What were they going to do?
Eric had his eyes tightly closed. The cliff edge was only a metre away, one step and they were going to drop all the way down.
He wished he didn't have to wait.
He wished he could just get it over with; right now, not this terrible waiting. His nerve just wasn't going to hold. He should be running for dear life, not sitting here waiting to be a Cavalier pancake. He should…
He tightened his grip round the neck of the Dragon, making sure the Shield on his arm wasn't digging into her and trying to believe he was doing the right thing. Behind, he could hear the Thief's short, shallow breaths.
He was insane for suggesting it.
And if by some miracle they survived, Hank was gonna killing him for endangering Sheila like this. Perhaps he should leave her behind; but she'd never agree to that, so maybe he'd have to trick her into getting back to the ground. Perhaps…
There was no chance to think, as the sound of rushing wings caught his attention and he had to open his eyes and look up.
Tiamat, the Dragon Queen soared through the light grey clouds, descending towards the camp at high speed.
The Golden Dragon moved too, and he got a sudden, sick vision of the vertiginous drop they faced. He heard Sheila's muffled cry of terror but, in the final second before they moved, instead of the usual fear, he felt overwhelmingly relieved that he didn't have to face this alone.
The Ranger and the others had been hustled past cages apon cages of immobilised Dragons, he'd given up trying to count them, or even keep track of all the different kinds. He could feel the deep, crushing anger of these creatures, and sense the weight of their baleful stares.
Now, the four of them and the unicorn were standing together, almost forgotten, at the centre of the whole complex; an area of wide, open space ringed by the cages of the largest and most powerful Dragons. Close by, the Elf was standing alone, before her was a large, red crystal set in an ornate mount of grey stone. Inside the crystal there were swirls of light, and the more Hank watched it, the more it seemed to be winking at him.
'I guess that's where all the magic is,' Diana whispered to him, nodding her head towards the crystal. 'How are we gonna get it out and back into our weapons, where it belongs?'
Hank turned to look at Presto, who stood on his other side. The Magician shrugged.
'I dunno what to do,' he said glumly. 'If we could break it, or something, then maybe the magic could escape.'
That didn't sound like much of a plan, but Hank didn't say so in front of Presto, sensing the Magician's insecurity.
'But I don't have my Club,' added Bobby in an overloud whisper. 'We've got no weapons!'
'Could we do it without the weapons?' asked the Acrobat.
Hank hesitated then shook his head.
'I don't think she would have been that careless,' he said. 'Besides, it's full of magic.'
'If only I had my Javelin,' murmured Diana.
'Or if I had my Club,' said Bobby with a sigh.
Hank opened his mouth, but he didn't speak. Something at the back of his mind was starting to make sense. The Elf: Something the Elf had said was vitally important, and he'd not recognised it at the time. It was something about the weapons.
Get the Shield away from the Cavalier…what else had she said? Part of you, part of your very being… She was only worried about the kids and the weapons together; like the Cavalier AND the Shield. Maybe that was why she'd stripped them of their power so quickly, and all that "tipping the balance" talk had been a lie. He didn't really believe that just the magic of the weapons had changed things so much. After all, the power of these Dragons was immense compared to the Javelin or his Bow.
My Bow, he thought. My weapon. It's mine.
He looked at the red crystal, staring into its depths as the light flickered inside it, then glanced toward his Bow. Maybe just getting the weapons back would be enough to reverse whatever she'd done to them. The weapons belonged to them, they were the rightful owners and if they took them back, they could make her give the stolen magic back too. He wasn't sure about the way magic worked, but he knew the magic of the Dragons and the magic of the weapons were connected. And he knew his friends and their weapons were connected too.
A test of strength…
Perhaps that was what their Guide had meant. If he was strong enough, he could do it. It seemed so deceptively simple: If he was strong enough, then he could take his weapon back. And it was only an assumption, and a very dangerous assumption at that. If he failed, he had no doubt the Elf would make very sure he never had the chance to try it again. While I keep them, the magic belongs to me, to do with what I will! That was what she'd told him. Well, if she didn't have the weapons, she wouldn't have their magic, that was the inescapable conclusion!
A heart-rending cry came from the clouds, and everyone, bar Hank, looked up expecting to see Tiamat.
His mind filled with purpose, Hank stayed watching the Druids.
Not far away from the Elfwoman, on the other side of the clearing, the Druid attendant stood holding their weapons. Just seeing at his Bow helped to make up his mind. He was going to get his Bow back!
All he needed now was the chance to try.
He had gone to the amusement park that fateful day for the thrill of the new rollercoaster ride; but nothing in his life, before or after, would ever match those few seconds of freefall.
Behind him, Sheila gave a high-pitch wail of terror, but Eric said nothing; his vocal chords were frozen with shock. The world whirled past in a slew of blurred colours, and it was all he could do not to be sick.
Then the Dragon turned slightly, and gravity snapped back on. His arms suddenly ached as they pulled out of the dive and he struggled to keep hold of the Dragon's neck. Sheila tightened her grip round his waist, but he could feel her tip to one side. He didn't dare move to help her or they would both fall for sure.
'ERIC! I'm slipping!'
The Golden Dragon had started to list to the right, and they were losing height quickly. He could feel the young Dragon straining to breathe, and the wing beats were definitely slowing. He didn't dare move his grip, though Sheila was sliding further, pulling him off as well.
His arms ached; he was being torn in two. He wasn't strong enough to hold on.
The Dragon pulled to the left, in a desperate effort to correct herself and stop them slamming sideways into the ground. For a couple of seconds, the weight was taken off his arms, and he grabbed Sheila's wrist and tried to pull her back to safety.
But the ground was coming up very, very fast.
As Tiamat appeared through the clouds, a frightened silence descended on the camp. The Dragons in their cages cowered to the ground, and all the Druids seemed to take a simultaneous step back; all except the Elf.
She looked up to the sky and raised her hand to the crystal.
The Dragon swooped down in a slow, almost lazy fashion, much to Hank's astonishment. She circled over the camp and landed right in front of the crystal, her huge wings flapping slowly.
'What have you ssss-done, Elf-ff,' she hissed. 'Ssss-Free them!'
Instead of replying, the woman raised her hand, pointing at the Dragon Queen, and a sharp burst of red light coalesced round her hand. A fraction later, Tiamat was struggling to remain where she was as the magic burned around her.
The Dragon Queen fought, clawing at the red light that was enveloping her, ripping it away to the ground. But it took time, and obviously a lot of her own strength to do.
And now the Elfwoman was smiling.
'What have you done, Elf-ff?' spat the Dragon once she was free. 'What ssss-have you DONE?'
Hank watched in fear as the Elf's façade of calm broke.
'Your death is what I want, spawn of Nergal!' she cried. 'Death and Vengeance!'
Magic light poured out of the crystal again, but this time Tiamat struggled more obviously; the clawing became much more frantic. It took almost a minute for her to free herself.
Hank's heart was thumping. If he was going to carry out his plan, it would have to be very soon. He leaned towards Diana.
'When I make a move, get your weapon,' he whispered. 'Do what you have to, but get it.'
She looked back, confused, but he only smiled. A test of strength…
The Acrobat nodded, a new look of confident determination on her face. The look comforted Hank; he could always rely on Diana to get the job done.
As the last shreds of magic fell from the Dragon and she gave a furious roar. But she was exhausted, now too weak to flee or fight. Hank tensed himself for the last, and probably terminal blast of magic from the crystal. But instead, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something moving.
It wasn't really what he could call a landing, but at least they didn't hit the ground with any real force. The Thief was knocked off, but somehow Eric managed to keep a hold as the Dragon slid to a halt.
He turned to see Sheila, covered in dust, pushing herself up slowly.
Thank God she's ok! Hank would have killed me!
Then he realised where they were. They were surrounded by Dragons! Fortunately, the Dragons were in cages, but still! He caught sight of a huge, ancient Red Dragon glaring furiously at them, and a small Bronze Dragon in the cage next to it.
We made it all the way to the camp! he thought in surprise. Wow, what a flight!
There was a sudden roar of anger and he glanced round to see Tiamat ahead of them, with wisps of red magic falling away from her.
He never got the chance to do anything, as the Dragon reacted first. With a howl, she sprang forward, taking Eric with her.
The Elf saw it too, something shiny yellow hurtling towards them.
It was a Golden Dragon!
The woman lifted her hand and sent a blast of magic towards the incoming Dragon, but instead of enveloping it, it merely bounced off.
Hank didn't watch the rest. It was just the chance he needed. As the Elf concentrated on the Dragon and everyone else was watching, the Ranger sprinted forward.
The blast of magic almost knocked him off, and made his arm go numb. But the Golden Dragon didn't stop. Well, he wasn't sure if it was "didn't" or "couldn't" at that point. He wasn't actually sure of anything.
Ahead he saw some people, some Dragons and something that glowed a bright red. He could also see Tiamat, the Queen of all the Dragons and she was looking at him with five identical expressions that might have been haughty amusement; but that was possibly just his paranoia!
The Golden Dragon was heading straight of the source of the magic; the strange, glowing crystal, and it was clear to Eric that that was a hugely bad idea. But there was nothing he could do to stop her, it was almost like she couldn't help herself.
There was another blast of cold, red magic, and again, it bounced harmlessly off his Shield. It was much more powerful than the last one, and Eric realised that he couldn't keep this up forever. He caught sight of a dark-clad woman, with fire round her hands, pointing at them. Yet the Dragon still didn't slow down.
But behind her was the most wonderful sight he'd ever seen. His heart leaped as he saw Hank and Diana sprinting towards their own weapons, ignored by everyone else.
Then the third blast of magic hit.
The Druid guard realised what was happening only fraction of a second before they reached him. He tried to jump back, get out of their way, but Diana tackled him to the ground before he could step back. Hank grabbed his Bow as Presto, Bobby and Uni ran up to take their own weapons.
Once it was in his hand, Hank had instant doubts. It felt cold, and empty, and his brilliant plan seemed dumb. No matter how strong he thought he was, this was ridiculous!
Suddenly there was an almighty whumping noise from behind him, and he turned to see the Golden Dragon lying limply in front of the crystal, red tongues of magic flicking over its body. But even more surprising that than, he saw the Cavalier lying next to it, sluggishly pushing himself off the ground.
Hank had to do a double take, but then he smiled. Trust the ol' Cavalier to show up, just in time to get himself into deep, deep trouble! There was something reassuring in the way Eric managed to get himself into these situations.
'You?' hissed the Elf 'You dare to try and stop me?'
Eric was looking at her as if he hadn't the faintest idea what she was talking about, a look Hank was very familiar with.
'Very well!' the Elf continued. 'I will take your Shield and finish this!'
Hank acted almost on instinct. The doubts were gone. All he had to do was claim the weapon. It was his Bow, after all and it was in his hand, ready to use.
'This is MY Bow!' he said clearly. His hand tightened round it, and he looked down at its familiar surface. He knew ever line and scratch. He knew its shape and its form, and the magic that powered it; the magic of Heroes. 'This is my Bow.'
He watched, holding his breath, as a thin line of magic streamed out of the crystal and wrapped itself round the Bow. It was working! Their trial of strength; it was gonna work!
Following his lead, Diana echoes his words for her own weapon. Then Presto. Then Bobby.
The Elf had turned and was staring at them and the four streams of magic, her mouth open in total shock. On the ground, Eric had the same look on his face too.
It only took a few seconds, and it was done. The Bow had its magic back, he didn't need to test it, he just knew. And the Elf knew too, judging by the look on her face.
So, before she could turn the remaining magic against them, he drew an arrow, and fired.
But the crystal just absorbed the energy, and didn't break. Damn it! What is it that we've gotta do!
Bobby ran forward, but the Club bounced off the crystal. The Elf started to laugh.
Impotent anger surged through the Ranger. They'd done all they could, but even that wasn't enough! What else was there?
'Presto…' said someone. Eric.
The Cavalier was looking straight past Hank, directly at the Magician.
'Do something!' he said. 'Presto…!'
Presto hesitated, looking down at his friend with an expression of confusion and fear. But only for a second. He lifted the Hat and said:
'Abraca-dabra; my re-powered old Hat: We need some help, for Tiamat!'
As the last word left his lips, there was total silence. Slowly, as if from a great distance, there came a roar, like the sound of a huge, high waterfall. It grew, becoming deeper and more resonant with every passing second. Hank could feel it through his chest, making it hard to breathe. What ever Presto had summoned, it was huge!
The wind picked up, growing as the noise increased, but no one moved. He was starting to think no one could move, when he saw a hint of lilac racing towards them. She was looking shaken and dirty, but Sheila was running straight to him; straight into his arms.
She was breathless, and gulped down air and he tried not to hold her too tightly. But as much as he wanted to hold her forever, something was happening behind Tiamat.
The Dragon Queen was slumped on the ground, her red head drooping downwards. Behind her, something was materialising.
It was indeed gigantic. Tiamat had looked huge, but this was at least twice her size. It was blue, with cobalt coloured wings that covered the camp in shadow. Hank knew, even before he'd counted the three heads, who this was. He recognised him from the Statue in Dragorlin. It was Apsu, the King of the Dragons!
The mighty Dragon King lowered his middle head, opened his mouth and roared.
A blast of sound came out so deep and loud that Hank was knocked off his feet, landing in a heap with Sheila beside him. No one stayed standing, including the Dragons.
The sound continued and Hank saw the crystal starting to vibrate, and the Elf desperately trying to claw her way upright to get to it.
But she was too slow.
The noise stopped abruptly and the crystal shattered. Hank covered his eyes as a wave of magic swept past.
When he looked up, Apsu was gone.
The crystal was in pieces on the ground, and the Elf was sitting, tears streaming down her face just beside it. All round there was no magic, only some very, very, VERY annoyed Dragons, suddenly freed and suddenly very close by! All Hell was about to break loose!
'RUN!' he bellowed above the noise of roars and fire. 'GET OUTTA HERE!'
Hank pulled Sheila upright and, seeing the others following suit, ran as fast as he could.
He didn't dare look back.
Much to Eric's surprise, it was Presto that had yanked him to his feet. Even more of a surprise was the pace the Magician set, as if the whole of Venger's Orc army was on their tail.
He had a very confused memory of the next short while. He was running, the smell of fire and magic was strong all around him and there was the harsh shriek of duelling Dragons. Somehow, they managed to avoid any confrontations, but Hank didn't let them stop until they were as far away from the camp as they could manage.
Under the eves of a nearby forest, they staggered to a halt. Eric collapsed against a tree, Presto, Bobby, Sheila and Uni all slumped to the ground. Diana rested nearby (unsurprisingly, less out of breath that the others). Hank was the only one who stayed standing, doubled over and panting too, but still standing up. A long way behind him was the smoking remains of the camp, there were sporadic bursts of fire, lightning and magic. He could see Dragons as they flew here and there, but none flew in their direction.
'Can't … ever… move… again…' Eric gasped. The others were in no condition to reply, but someone did.
'Safe,' said a voice behind him. 'Rest.'
He looked round in surprise to see the young Golden Dragon watching him with a smirk. Can Dragons smirk? Eric wondered. He gave a sigh, and rubbed the tip of its snout. And why did you follow us?
'Hi!' was all he could manage.
The Golden Dragon snuffled into him, resting its muzzle on his shoulder as he rested against the tree. It was looking at him again, those big red eyes glinting with happiness.
'Like,' it said, rubbing its snout slowly over his shoulder and blowing warm air into his hair. 'Friend.'
Some of the others sniggered and he knew they were gonna tease him. Fortunately, they were all too out of breath to say anything for a number of minutes. But eventually Bobby piped up.
'Seems you've finally found yourself a girlfriend, Er-ic!' said Bobby. The Cavalier pulled a face, but didn't bother to reply. The Dragon looked at the Barbarian and blew a small puff of smoke in his direction.
'Greetings, my young Adventurers.'
'Dungeonmaster!' said Diana.
The old man gave them a small bow, and a wide smile. The Golden Dragon moved to tower over him, looking excited. Dungeonmaster petted her on the nose.
'Congratulations,' he said, looking at the exhausted kids on the ground. 'Your strength, together, has thwarted this plan.'
'And I though you meant running strength,' murmured Eric facetiously.
'No,' replied Dungeonmaster in a serious tone. 'That wasn't the strength I referred to.'
Eric glared at him, daring him to say more, but the old man was looking at Hank.
'Well, perhaps you can explain what was that giant blue dragon doing there,' he asked, faintly annoyed at Dungeonmaster's attitude. But to his surprise, Diana answered instead.
'That was Apsu, the King of the Dragons,' she said, implying that it was perfectly obvious.
'How do you know?' he replied.
'We saw his statue in the town,' she explained. 'But why him?'
'The Magician's spell called one who could help Tiamat,' said Dungeonmaster. 'The Great Dragon can no longer live on this plane, yet he came to his mate's side when called.'
'Ironic,' said Diana. 'That Elf was a Priest of Apsu!'
Elf? thought Eric. What have I missed!
Dungeonmaster gave a slow smile. 'Ironic, indeed, Acrobat.'
'Seems like the Hat has a sense of humour,' said Presto, looking at the weapons with a smile.
The Dungeonmaster turned to the young Dragon.
'You should return to your mother,' he said gently. 'These Young Ones are safe for now.'
The Dragon nodded, then turned to look at Eric, holding eye-contact for a few seconds before suddenly leaping into the sky. With two powerful sweeps of her wings, she was gone. Eric watched her fly off, feeling both happy and sad. He'd never even had a chance to say thanks.
'Well, okay then, Dungeonmaster, fount of all knowledge, what about "our trial of weakness"?' asked Eric. The old man arched an eyebrow, in a manner very similar to Eric's own, and the Cavalier shivered; why had he asked? Hadn't he shown enough weaknesses recently?
'Everybody has a weakness, Cavalier,' Dungeonmaster replied, 'and there is no shame in admitting it. But that you care for your friends, and those you have befriended in this Realm; that is not a weakness.'
The old man flicked a glance in the direction of the Ranger, that annoyingly knowing expression on his face. Eric looked too, and saw the cuts and bruises that Hank had over his face. A terrible, cold sinking feeling crept through him. But by the time he looked back, the Dungeonmaster was gone.
'Well, of course you disappear NOW!' muttered the Cavalier. 'That's just typical!'
There was an odd kind of silence now their Guide had gone. Diana was giving him one of her subtle "do something" looks, and the others were glancing anxiously between him and Hank. The Ranger himself didn't look at anyone but Sheila.
Presto tactfully suggested that they needed some food. Diana volunteered to go with him, and Bobby and his sister suddenly decided that they needed water too.
Within the minute, he and Hank were alone.
He'd had to apologise before, that time with the Cloud Bears when he'd called Hank a traitor. He hadn't even had the guts to look the other boy in the eye. This time, Hank deserved a proper apology.
'I want to say I'm sorry,' said Eric, forcing himself to look directly at the Ranger. 'I deliberately picked a fight, and I shouldn't have such a jerk about going into the town. I'm sorry you got hurt.'
Hank gave a small smile and looked up at him. Eric just stopped himself from wincing.
'Yeah, well, I guess it's not much fun to be on the receiving end of all the trouble,' Hank said. 'If this sorta thing kept happening to me, I'd be pretty pissed off too.'
Eric was too surprised to reply, and not just because Hank actually used a swear word in a normal conversation.
'Look, Eric,' continued Hank. 'Just so you know, you can tell us anything. We're your friends. These past few weeks couldn't have been easy on you.'
Eric looked at Hank suspiciously. This wasn't supposed to happen. He was supposed to apologise to Hank; Hank would accept and give him that disapproving look that he was so good at, and they would go back to normal (or what passed for normal these days). Why was Hank trying to be nice?
The initial urge was to quip and walk off, but he didn't. The Ranger looked like he really wanted to listen. All the bitterness and frustration welled up inside Eric.
'I just wanna be treated like one of the team again,' said Eric thickly. He held up his hand as Hank started to argue. 'I'm not dumb! I know what you guys are thinking, the Box of Balefire, the Warlock, the Troglodytes, Kilan. If you didn't have me with you, then I guess your lives would be a whole lot easier.'
Hank had the grace not to deny it. There was no point anyway, he could tell.
'You've been acting really strange, since we met that other group…' said the Ranger. Inside, Eric cringed. Why did Hank have to bring HER into this! He didn't want to think about her!
The anger must have shown on his face, as Hank said:
'Sheila told me what happened…' Eric flushed red, and bit back the sarcastic comment. 'I know she didn't mean to hurt your feelings.'
The Cavalier still didn't say anything, slowly realising that Hank didn't have a clue about what really happened.
'I know you think,' he said. 'That I'm some sort of spoilt little brat intent on getting things his own way all the time, but…' For once in his life, he couldn't find the right words to express himself. 'I just wanna… get home and…'
'Forget this place even existed!' interrupted the Ranger. 'Don't we all!'
Eric shook his head.
'No,' he said, ignoring the look on Hank's face. 'I wanna get home, and get on with my life. Stop waiting for things to happen, stop coasting along waiting for my trust fund to mature, stop waiting for my Dad to forg…' He stopped abruptly. There was no point in talking about that. That was NOT going to help, and he'd said too much already.
He looked at the Ranger keenly. There had never really been any doubt that Hank didn't like him, there were just too different. And though the Ranger might tolerate him, they would never be friends. Not real friends. Not good friends. Not friends enough to trust with anything… important.
'Is there something else?' asked Hank.
Eric hesitated. It had been going so well, and they seemed to have made up. Was he really gonna go back to being laughed at. Besides, it was over anyway, so…
'No,' he said firmly. 'No, there's nothing.'
Hank nodded, but Eric wasn't quite sure the Ranger believed him. Hank held out his hand.
Eric took his hand, and shook it.
'So, you gonna tell me how you managed to find a Dragon to ride?' asked Hank with an amused smile.
'Only if you tell me what the heck ol' Dm was talking about. Elves… Dragon Kings… I mean, I was only out of the game for a couple of hours! And you're a mess, you know that?' Eric added bluntly. 'But lucky for you, Presto's good with magical first aid kit. He's had enough practice recently!'
'You know what I'd love right now?'
A number of cutting quips popped into his mind, but instead Eric answered: 'A burger and an ice-cream sundae?'
Hank shook his head.
'A nice, cool swim!'
Tiamat flew slowly homewards, gliding through the narrow cave entrance with ease. Mountains of gold, both coin and cast, were still there in the safety of the cave, and glinted in the low light, as did tens of thousands of jewels.
Exhausted, the Great Dragon flew slowly down to her precious nest, gathered up the gold and jewels around her, closed her eyes and rested. She would be busy soon.
After all, the Eggs would need a lot of looking after.
Next: The Point of No Return. Venger's back!
Next in the sequence would be "The Cave of the Faerie Dragons".
"How could love cause this much trouble" is from a poster Rummi made for the fic "Temple of Love.
"Aesthetics" – is indeed from H2G2. All praise to the late and very great Douglas Adams!
On Any Other Pertinent Business.
Erm, sorry it took so long, but I kept being ill and I'd decided to give The Virtual Realm a bit of a facelift too!
Thanks to all for your reviews, conversations and support!
You, know, I'm sure I've forgotten something this time…