The Point of No Return
How odd, mused Thom. How odd to have seen both the beginning and the ending.
That long-past but glorious day, as the Great City of Ur had sunk beneath the sands for the first time, he had taken the decision to stay. He had never regretted it. He had been clever. Though they had called him a parasite, he had had the last laugh. After all the effort, not to mention power and magic, that the Kings, Queens and Magicians had put into this City, it was he who had survived! To Thom, it was a source of great pride.
Now it was his City.
He had come there over a thousand years before, drawn to its power and magic in the days when people still walked its streets. They Kings had thought the magic was never ending.
Though the thousands of years it had stood as a bulwark against evil, the power and the majesty had seeped into its very stonework. And all the great and good passed through here, leaving in their wake wisps of knowledge and power that fed off each other, and grew.
But when the Demon was banished and the City passed into myth, its magic slowly faded. But he was still the same, and his senses were not blinded by the receding power for long. He could sense the movement of others around his City, he could feel the ebb and flow of life everywhere within it. And when anyone new arrived, he could sense that too.
Mostly parties of Adventurers came to loot as much as they could. Within a few centuries, the Ratmen had come from the North, lycanthropes cursed with the urge to destroy. Why they stayed in the destroyed city was a mystery to Thom. But stay they did, and they multiplied every time more treasure hunters came to visit Ur. Few escaped their packs.
They never bothered Thom. They didn't dare.
He flitted around the abandoned City as he pleased, always searching for more. More books, more magic, or just more…
But there was always one thing he could never find.
He had spent hours in front of the pictures and statues that Marduk had made, admiring them, decoding them. He knew where the pieces were, but he could never get them, no matter how he tried. The Key. He wanted the Key. He wanted the Portal open. That the Demon would emerge from its imprisonment was of no importance.
The Portal was all he cared about. All the knowledge he had accrued over the centuries was as nothing to what he could have, if he managed to open the Portal.
The first time he'd tried, he had miscalculated. The Demon he had invited had been stupid; and Thom had missed the chance to get to the Portal. Worse, that loathsome Knight had bisected the Key, and it had been hidden where only the good or the pure could get too. And Thom was neither.
But he was prepared to wait. The Portal was worth waiting a thousand years for. It was worth waiting a lifetime for.
Each time the City reappeared there were always a few vagabonds desperate enough to enter, though the number had been fewer these past times.
He had barely noticed as those children had entered the Gate, but Venger was different. Of all who had dared to pass Ur's Front Gate, Venger was by far the most powerful and he lit up Thom's senses. He had been drawn to the Arch-Mage, as a moth to a roaring fire.
Thom had watched him for a while, and noted how the Arch-Mage had followed the young humans from an inconspicuous distance. Intrigued, Thom had been stunned to discover what they were. They were Pure of Heart, each and every one of them!
Pure of Heart. After all these years…
Thom had watched them too, noting their weapons of power. They smelt of the old Dungeonmaster; Thom was not surprised that the old man had remembered about the City. He still had an old score to settle with the Dungeonmaster, too, and tricking his pupils would be a good start to his revenge.
More than that, it was obvious what the old man was up to. Children, Pure of Heart; there could only be one reason for their presence. The Cenotaph… and what lay inside.
Knowing that, how could he not go to meet them?
It had been painfully obvious that the youngsters had no idea who he was; or they wouldn't have let him "help"! But then, even his own reputation had passed into legend and there were few who knew him now. That didn't matter.
For a short while, they had provided ample amusement; he enjoyed watching them struggle along, bravely facing all the petty trials that the other Knights had put in place.
And as time went on, and they were successful in their quest, Thom realised that this was going to be his chance. His only chance. Never again would those so pure, with such a destiny before them come to the City of Ur! It was a struggle not to reveal too much, so as they began to suspect. He could smell their doubt growing with every step forward, but their desire to complete their quest was strong enough to overcome it.
He had always planned on deserting them; it was merely a question of when.
In the end, they were all too easy to out-pace on the stairs, and he waited for them in his favourite alcove, the one when he had sat, staring at the Locked Portal for decades.
This time, as he looked at the huge stone arch and the wrought gates, he could barely contain his excitement. It was finally going to be open.
The showdown with the Arch-Mage had been fascinating, but was just a delay. It was the Portal they had all come for and he could barely contain himself as the squabble between Venger and the children played out. It was stupid, and a waste of time; they could do no harm to each other and neither could win that game. Though the children may not know their destiny, surely Venger had begun to suspect!
Finally, after what seemed like an endless wait, Venger used the Key and released the Demon.
Thom had wisely kept out of sight. Though he had let the Demon into Ur initially, it owed him no allegiance. Besides, it was more than likely to have been driven mad by its captivity and not know friend from foe!
The speed at which the Demon defeated the Arch-Mage was surprising; Venger had underestimated the Portal's creator. The Portal was never meant to be reopened.
Suffused with the power of the Void, the Demon was so much stronger than before.
And it seemed that Venger had met his destruction; and there would be no need of redemption after all!
But then those children stepped in. In spite of himself, he was fascinated by the conflict.
What was it that he found so unnerving about the six of them?
No! It didn't matter. The Demon was moving from the Portal.
It would soon be his chance.
Eric tried not to think about what had happened to Hank.
He didn't dare turn round, in case his resolve failed. He could barely even think straight.
How could they hope to defeat this Demon? It had taken out Venger in less time than it took him to eat a hot dog! He wasn't even sure what he was doing. Well, he was running; he has holding up the Shield, but other than that…What am I gonna do? I need a plan, at least an idea! Hank would have known.
But Hank was in very deep trouble. He had to help, somehow.
As Eric ran forward, he discovered he was heading straight towards the Demon, and straight towards the sparkling, glowing surge of green magic.
Was he really gonna do what he thought he was gonna do?Oh, crap…
Yes he was.
At first, Diana couldn't believe what she was seeing!
Eric rushed forward without hesitation, and all the Acrobat could do was stand there with her mouth open in shock.
It took her a few second to recover and realise that she had to move too.
She wasn't gonna let him fight that thing all on his own! She had to help him! She couldn't just let him run out there all alone, he would be an easy target for that Demon. And besides, life would be unbearable if he didn't get himself killed and actually saved Hank! They would never hear the end of it.
She actually smiled as she ran forward too, seeing the image of the boastful Cavalier clearly in her mind.
The Acrobat suspected that Eric didn't have a clue what to do; neither did she, but she was gonna help him, and help Hank, any way she could. If Eric could make up a plan as he went along, then so could she!
Her Javelin was glowing brightly as she raced to catch up with Eric. But for all her speed she was too slow. The Cavalier reached the magic that was engulfing Hank first.
The Shield caught the green magic and pushed it aside, away from the stricken Ranger, but Eric buckled under the sudden strain. It was obvious much more difficult than he'd anticipated. Her heart leaped in a wrenching, but familiar way. She wasn't gonna let him go down, not alone anyway!
With all her strength, she hurled he Javelin directly into the green magic, towards the Demon's face. It crackled as it entered the flames, but wasn't deflected from its course. Obviously, a single Javelin strike wasn't going to help that much, but it was just enough to buy Eric a little time.
The Demon hissed in pain, and the magic wavered for a moment. As Diana rushed past to collect her falling Javelin, Eric straightened, lifting his Shield up higher.
Behind him, Hank stirred slightly, now free of the life-draining magic and safe under the protection of the Shield, and the Acrobat mentally gave a sigh of relief. He was gonna be ok… Well, assuming they survived all this!
Still running at top speed, she took a fleeting glance round.
Whatever her and Eric did, it was just a temporary measure. They needed help! Surely one of the others could think up something!
Nearby, the Demon shifted. It gave a loud, ferocious rumble and turned towards her. She almost missed her step as the huge creature glared at her with an intense hatred.
Now she was the one in trouble. Eric, the closest one to her, was still protecting Hank but struggling against more magic. For a moment, she though she saw him grin at her.
She looked round at the others.
Whatever they were gonna do, there had better do it quickly!
Sheila was the first one to reach Hank, now he was free of that terrible magic. He looked awful, almost white and he was shaking. The emotions that were bottled tightly up inside her threatened to burst out, and she knew they would if she spoke. She couldn't let herself break down. Not now.
Though she didn't take off her Cloak, the Ranger definitely knew she was there, as he looked up towards her. Unable to stop herself, she touched his sweat-mated hair gently.
'Por… tal…' he croaked. 'Destr… roy…'
His eyelids flickered slightly, showing what great strain it was to speak.
She smiled at him, even though he couldn't see her, not needing any more to be said. She didn't ask his for explanations, and she didn't need to be told any more information. She trusted him with her life.
As much as she would have given her soul to stay with him, he'd told her what to do. The Thief glanced up from the stricken Ranger and caught sight of what she was looking for: Her brother, and the Club!
Presto knew that, for all their efforts and bravado, there was no way Eric and Diana could stand up to that Demon-thing for longer than a few seconds.
He had never seen magic like that before, not even from Venger. It was thick and menacing and nasty!
It was like liquid oil, the way it coiled around Hank; it seemed to be seeping into him in a way that made Presto squirm. Magic like that was powerful, and dangerous, and almost impossible to defeat.
His Hat was already in his hand, his fingers poise to wave over it, but he wasn't quite sure what to do. How do you combat something so powerful? (Something clever. Something powerful! Something… quickly!)
The Hat would probably know what to do, or do something, anyway. His hit rate was getting better, but there were still an alarming number of times that it went wrong. If it went wrong now…
That's not the point! he reminded himself. I have to help Diana and Eric! (Better do it quickly!)
But instead of making magic then and there, something attracted his attention. The Barbarian was fairly close beside him, and the young boy suddenly whipped round, as if something had jumped out at him.
Then Bobby tapped the Club on the ground and it glowed brightly. He was looking at the Portal. Presto was about to step forward when suddenly, a massive burst of red magic exploded past him.
The was only one person it could have dome from… Venger!
It was clear to the Arch-Mage that the children would not give up, and had no fear of their own destruction.
True, he had hesitated, but that was just for effect. If they had guessed how close he was to total defeat, maybe they would not have been so honourable!
Even so, he didn't use all his power, but just enough to get the Demon's attention and cause it the maximum amount of pain. It roared in fury, and staggered towards him, magic flailing out behind it, stepping even further away from the Portal.
At the distraction, Venger saw the young Barbarian race forward.
He smiled. They were so predictable!
Bobby didn't stop to ask dumb questions. Sheila had told him what to do.
He was gonna get some payback for Hank!
He was gonna show that Demon what sort of damage a kid with a magic Club could really do!
And he would enjoy it!
Presto recoiled from the magical blast the slammed into the Demon. He caught a glimpse of Bobby hurtling towards the Portal with his Club glowing ferociously.
But whatever the Barbarian did was gonna be too late for Diana and Eric.
The Demon, furious and seemingly in pain, lashed out at whatever was nearest. Diana dived out of the way, but Eric was still protecting Hank (who was being helped up by some invisible "force"), and the Cavalier didn't dare move. Instead he raised his Shield higher, as the Demon brought its armoured fist crashing down.
The Hat was in his hand, Presto wasn't sure exactly what to do, but he knew he had to do something!
He closed his eyes, lifted the Hat and hoped.
Eric braced himself for the end.
There was no escape, even if he could get up off the ground, his legs were shaking so much that he'd never be able to run.
Then something swept round him, like the rush of floodwater. It was iridescent white mist, insubstantial, pointless, just a shroud to hide his fate.
The Demon's fist smashed against the mist, but the came to a shuddering halt a few feet about the Shield. The Demon roared again, this time it was pure anger.
Shocked and relieved, Eric managed to glance round, and the sight behind him almost made him drop his weapon.
Presto was holding the Hat in one hand and magic was pouring out of it in torrents, sending waves of magical mist out over the room. It seemed almost as it it were alive.
Eric couldn't take his eyes off Presto. The power he was generating was phenomenal! He'd never seen anything like it! And, most amazingly, Presto looked like he was in complete control. He had his eyes closed, it was almost as though he was sleeping; so peaceful and serene. Uni was hiding behind him, looking up at the Magician with adoration on her face.
The Cavalier had no idea how long he stood watching his friend. He would probably have stared all day, but suddenly, the floor collapsed underneath him.
Diana managed to move fast enough. She had seen Eric stare at Presto, she had seen (almost) everyone stare as well. But she had noticed Bobby still running unheeded towards the Portal, swinging his Club with all his might.
At the weapon struck the Portal, the whole room seemed to quiver in shock, and everyone else was knocked off their feet.
But Diana used the Javelin and her natural agility to help her jump, and regain her footing near a wall, where the tremors seemed to be less severe.
The Demon cried out again, but this time it was filled with fear.
Behind it, the huge Portal was rocking slowly back and forwards, the stream of green magic coiling in loops on the floor. The stone archway began to crack.
It's gonna fall! she thought in panic.
The Demon seemed to reel backwards. The Portal was gonna collapse on top of it!
But that wasn't the only thing the falling Portal was gonna get: Eric and Hank were in the way too!
She made a split second decision, and ran back towards her friends.
Sheila had Hank under his arms when the Club-induced earthquake hit. They both fell to their knees and Hank slid out of her grip, back to the floor.
As she looked round, she saw the Demon fall backwards, and the Portal teetering above them. It was gonna fall and they would be caught in the rubble.
In a dead panic, she yanked Hank to his feet, finding a strength in her fear that she never knew she had. Slipping under Hank's arm, she pulled him forward. She could hear the Portal beginning to crumble.
The cracking noise was growing, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.
It was gonna fall… it was gonna be close…
Exhausted, and gasping for breath, Presto lowered the Hat and opened his eyes, just in time to see the Portal tip forward.
There's nothing I can do (I'm so tired. I'm empty). I feel terrible.
Hank was being dragged forward by Sheila, who's Cloak had been pulled back. Diana had the Cavalier by one arm and was helping him out of the way. Hank and Sheila were closest to him, but moving more slowly than Diana and Eric. Bobby, his work done, had already dived out of the way.
Presto watched the Portal collapse, hoping that he could stay upright for long enough. For him, it happened in slow motion.
The Portal finally overbalanced, and the stones started to crumble as it slid forward. The raging maelstrom of magic that was the Gateway to the Void beyond came down virtually on top of the Demon, sucking it back into its prison with a satisfying slurp. There was a flash of blinding magic and suddenly, the Portal was gone.
Then there came the rain of stone. Presto realised it wasn't just the arch that was collapsing, it was the whole of the back wall.
'Look out!' he heard someone cry.
But he didn't run, though he felt like he should. He just stood still and watched the stones thunder to the ground, burying the Locked Portal under a huge mountain of stone. It's gone. (We're never gonna get out of here now). It's gone.
The dust settled, and Presto looked round to his friends.
They were all ok. Battered, bruise, exhausted and covered in dust, but all ok.
They had won, but they had lost.
They'd defeated the Demon, but they'd lost their only way out. It was nearly dawn, and there was no way to out of Ur in time.
He sighed. They were never gonna get home, they were…
Then he saw Venger.
The Arch-Mage was standing at the edge of the destruction. And in his hand was a bright glowing red fireball!
The disorientating fog around Hank was lifting, and the room was sliding back into focus. He wasn't lost; not yet anyway.
The Portal was gone, and with it their chance to get out. Sheila was beside him. His friends were all close by and they still had their weapons. He looked back to the where the Portal had been, a cold, sinking feeling in his heart. They were trapped.
But Venger was looking at them; or specifically he was looking at the Bow, a mixture of lust and rage and longing on his face. Venger wanted the weapons badly. He had tasted their power, he knew what they could do, and what he could accomplish with them in his control.
But both Hank and Venger also knew he couldn't win, not at the moment. The greater parts of his powers had been used against the Demon. The kids may be exhausted as well, but they could still put up a decent fight.
They stared at each other. The Arch-Mage gave a slow, sly smile.
Suddenly, magic still playing at his fingertips, Venger stepped forward and the Ranger realised what he intended to do. He wasn't gonna destroy them. He was going to save them!
Hank's jaw dropped in surprise, just as the wailing, mournful ringing spread through the chamber. It was dawn. There was no more time, as Ur was going to sink back into the sand.
The Arch-Mage sent his magic towards them. It was harsher than Dungeonmaster's, or Presto's, but Hank could feel the raw power coursing over his body dragging him out of Ur and away into the red light of the dawn.
For Venger, the decision had been easy.
If he had wanted the weapons, he would have to fight for them, and Venger had no intention of waiting for another sixty-seven years until Ur returned. He wanted the Realm, and he wanted it quickly. So his only chance was to save the lives of his young enemies.
Yes, it was an easy decision.
He left them surprised and extremely disorientated by the Gatestone as the broken, grey city of Ur shimmered and faded back from whence it came. Glancing down at the Young Ones, the Arch Mage allowed himself the luxury of a gloating smile, knowing how they would hate to be in his debt, and he looked at the Ranger's shocked expression with glee.
Then he sent the red, crackling fire around himself, and vanished.
The kids just looked round at each other, and Hank looked at each of his friends, recognising the looks. From the brink of defeat, they had been saved. The relief within the group was almost physical. Once more they had lost the chance to get home, but at least they were till alive. Thanks to Venger.
But they were free, that was all that really mattered.
They were silent for a long, long time.
But it was the Cavalier, predictably enough, that spoke first.
'Be careful who you help!' mimicked Eric sourly. 'Huh! Lost and found and neither! I suppose that's his kind of sick joke! We were lost, Venger was found and…'
'And who'd have thought we'd help Venger!' interrupted Diana.
Hank shuddered, remembering the look Venger had given him.
It wasn't as if they hadn't done it before, after all Venger would have been history if Demodragon had been allowed to continue its rampage. But this time it felt different. They didn't just help Venger, they'd had to help him to get out alive. It was difficult to put into words. It just felt weird. And questions echoed at the back of Hank's mind: was that what Dungeonmaster had wanted? And if so, why…?
'What about Thom?' asked Presto.
The other kids seemed disinterested in their one-time guide through the city or Ur. Hank himself had barely given a second thought to the creature. It was impossible to guess what it wanted, and it had last been seen skulking in the shadows by the Portal.
'But' said Sheila suddenly, 'he must have still been in there.'
The Cavalier snorted.
'Good riddance!' he said sourly. 'That little creature was nothing but trouble!'
'Meah!' echoed Uni.
The Cavalier turned on his heel, heading East towards the rising suns and a brand new day in the Realm.
'But we couldn't have found the Portal without him,' Sheila reminded him.
'So what! A fat lot of good it did us! Hank almost got barbequed!' Eric called back over his shoulder.
And that seemed to be the end of it, except…
'I wonder what happened to him,' Sheila murmured.
Hank had no answer, and no one else seemed to hear her.
It had all been for nothing!
His plans, his careful schemes were all for nothing, nothing, NOTHING!
Thom was weak and disorientated from his hurried escape, almost unable to believe what had happened.
The City, once so full of life, had ached to be released. It had called out to those who passed, luring them inside with the faint hope that one day the curse would be gone and it could be free. Now its call had been heard.
As the Portal collapsed the City itself gave an audible sigh of release.
He had not waited to see the Demon's destruction. When the children had started to fight back, Thom had known all was lost. He had fled; he had run from the City that had been his personal playground for the best part of one thousand years without a second thought, though he was as close to despair as he had ever been.
The Portal was gone.
The Key was gone.
The Demon was gone.
The Portal was gone.
Outside the Gate, he paused, looking back at Ur as it began to crumble, its towers and arches and builds started to slide towards one another. Then its magic took over and the whole City drifted away, as a sandstorm covers the sky. Within a few moments it was gone.
Slowly, he took a deep breath. He had seen the beginning and the end. The Portal was completely destroyed. There was nothing he could do to change that.
So now it was time to do something new. He would adapt. There would be new Demons to serve, new knowledge to seek out in this changed and volatile Realm.
As he looked out across the sand to the mountains beyond, the age-old anger grew inside him. The Dungeonmaster had waited so very long for these children, and there was no doubt now that they would succeed in the task they were brought here for. But the old man had made a grave error in sending them to Ur. With the portal gone, Thom had no reason to stay within the confines of the city.
And now he would make it his personal business to ensure that, whatever fate eventually befell those young children, they would pay for his defeat today.
Yes, the children would pay dearly.
And so would Venger!
On Bits Belonging To Someone Else.
I can't remember them all at the moment, but the main ones are -
The real city of Ur is the capital of ancient Assyria, in the middle-east.
Thom is named after a character in the Fighting Fantasy Gamebook "Deathtrap Dungeon".
The Rocks Of Resonance appear with the permission of Rana Kane.
So many reviews! So much attention! I thank each and every one of you because it has been wonderful getting so much feedback.
In the Shadow Mountains, Dungeonmaster sends the Kids to find the Orion Lance which can "point the way home". But someone else is after the lance, and Presto soon discovers that looks can be deceiving.
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I have put up an Alternative Version of the episode "The Traitor", where Hank isn't the one with all the problems!