In the end, Eric cried for over eight hours, and then slept for another fifteen. He was barely aware of the Bandits leaving the camp shortly after noon, despite the great roar of Grey's machine, nor did he notice his friends taking shifts with him until long after each swap had taken place. Sheila stayed with him long into the morning, crying intermittently herself, but after a while Eric felt that the arms around him were different, and that the slim, pale hands stroking his hair gently were male. For a short time a soft, equine snout nuzzled at him before he was enveloped entirely in a strong, tight Bobby Hug. He never looked up for all that time, and so he never saw Diana sitting in the doorway of the cave, always watching him, always wondering whether she should take her turn to hold him or not. As the suns began to dip once more he did a thing he didn't believe he'd ever do, as if sobbing for hours on end in front of his peers wasn't enough. He cried himself to the edge of his exhaustion, and fell asleep in the young Barbarian's arms. He never knew that Bobby then picked his comatose form up with Diana's help, and carried him to a mattress within the shelter of the hideout cave. He slept peacefully then, free from nightmares and screaming fits. Not free from dreams, however. He dreamt of the past. He dreamt of Her.
'There we go. Isn't that much better?'
He opened his eyes blearily into the harsh white light of the hospital suite.
His eyes found two dark, slim forms standing by his bed. One of them appeared to have silver hair and outsize sunglasses. He tried to sit up, but was hit by dual walls of dizziness and hot pain.
The larger of the shapes moved, and leaned into him. His eyes continued to focus.
Diana smiled at him.
'Don't try to move, honey. Not yet.'
He looked at the drip in his arm, and followed the tube up to the second figure. The drip stand. It was covered in crap and, frankly, starting to look utterly ridiculous.
'I brought some hair for Marvin,' grinned Diana.
He squinted at her again. 'Marvin...?'
'Your drip.' Diana sat back and started to rummage in her knapsack. 'We decided on the name yesterday when Bobby brought the glasses. Don't you remember?'
He frowned in confusion. His memory wasn't too good. His brain had become all fuzzy. It didn't help that his true memories of the last couple of years were so fantastical that he could barely distinguish them from dreams. And the white modernity of the hospital, his bed, the nurses, the flickering, colourful box in the corner of his room, was all so alien to him now. What with the Morphine, keeping him a permanent drowsy, floaty state, he might has well have been in a dream.
Dream. Bed. Warm. Soft. Clean. Diana. Mmm, perfect...
'Marvin?' he asked, at last, 'as in The Martian?'
Diana tutted. 'As in Gaye.'
He snorted a little laugh. 'Heh heh. "Gay".'
'Which brings me,' she added, finding what she had been searching for in her bag, 'to my second present.'
'...presents...?' he smacked his lips, still bewildered, 'hey, it's not our birthday, is it? Cos I haven't got you anything...'
She gave him a wide, lovely smile. 'Eric, what month are you in? That's not til September.' She brandished a personal stereo at him by way of explanation. 'The stereo's just a loan, Rich Boy. It's the mix tape that's the gift. I figured you'd be pretty sick of hospital radio by now.'
He delighted inside, but pulled a face anyway. 'It's not Your People's Music, is it?'
'It's Stevie Wonder.' She narrowed her eyes at him. 'Don't worry, Eric. If you could catch Blackness by listening to a little Soul Music, you'd be in a very Low Risk Group, along with Mr Wendley, my Dad's boss and all the other uptight toffee nosed White Folk stuffing up this beautiful, multicoloured world.'
He smiled at her, and shrugged with his good shoulder.
'OK. I guess if I feel myself getting any kind of natural rhythm I can counter it with some Wagner or somethin'.'
'I'm so glad.'
She leaned over him, pressing play as she did so and putting the headphones over his ears.
That was the moment. That moment when every one of his senses were full of her. He saw nothing before him but her soft brown skin, skin that brushed him lightly, hotly, skin that smelled distinctly of vanilla - a perfume that was naturally hers, that she'd always hinted of despite weeks on end without so much as soap in the Realm. At the same moment, his ears were suddenly injected with sweet song - her music, music of her heart and her spirit, a song he'd heard her hum several times before. His world was filled with her and it was at that moment that his fuzzy brain was able to put together the words that had been playing disjointedly about his mind for so long, like a simple jigsaw that for some reason he had been unable to complete. But the words were there now, three monosyllabic words glued together into a tiny little sentence. A fact. A cold, hard, indisputable, unalterable fact.
I Love You.
And despite the fact that he knew she was heartbroken, and that she could never completely be his, he found such a great comfort in just knowing those words, and wanted that moment to last forever, that one moment of clarity in the sea of confusion that he sailed on for the many Morphine filled months.
He listened to that first song on the tape over and over and over again. He learned it off by heart, and sometimes, when they were alone, quietly sang it to her, until it had become, if they were to have one, Their Song.
It filled his head now, in his dreams, and covered him with that soft, warm, vanilla scented moment once again.
He was finally awoken by a terrible itching at sunsup the next day. He blinked about himself, scratching his shoulder.
'Don't scratch it.'
Besides Hank's still sleeping form at the other side of the cave, Eric had believed himself to be the only other person about. Now, all of a sudden, a slim, bespectacled youth was sitting beside him with a friendly smile and a steaming cup of sweet, black coffee.
He accepted the cup but pulled an expression of long suffering at his friend.
'Popping up out of nowhere, Presto?' He took a sip. 'You're learning the old man's tricks pretty fast, aren'tcha?'
Presto shook his head with a small laugh.
'I've been here five minutes waiting for you to wake up. You just didn't notice.'
He pulled a toothpaste-slathered toothbrush from his hat and began to clean his teeth.
'And I don't think I have to tell you,' he added through the foam, 'the DM thing is strictly between you, me, The Big V and Uni.'
Eric tutted. 'You told The Maniac Pony before you told me?'
Presto spat. 'Who's she gonna tell?'
'Hmm.' Eric sighed, scratching his shoulder again. 'I think the bed bugs bit. Damn Bandito Hideout Mattresses...'
Presto shook his head. 'It's the scar. It's starting to heal.'
'Really?' Eric looked disappointed.
'How did you sleep?' asked Presto.
Presto nodded. He already knew, of course. He'd occasionally even seen glimpses of his friend's peaceful dreams. The art of asking questions to steer an individual towards a certain way of thinking was still quite new to him. Making Eric feel good about letting Venger heal him was going to be the first big test for his Powers of Persuasion.
'I dreamt about home,' added Eric, 'in the past. Between our little visits to this Fun Filled World O'Wonders.'
Presto smiled stoically, waiting for Eric to wax lyrical.
But Eric just sat back, watching him.
'What happens now, Presto?'
Presto blinked. 'Oh. Um, we'll gather the others, then we're gonna head East to the great river and...'
'No.' Eric gave Presto a small, sad smile. 'What happens to you?'
'I know what it feels like,' continued Eric. 'The powers bind you to this world, like the roots of a tree. And your assignment isn't just for a day, is it?'
Presto still didn't answer.
'It's for life.'
Presto looked at his feet.
'Don't think I haven't noticed you've stopped needing to shave. And your hair hasn't grown either. You've stopped aging, haven't you?'
Presto tutted in irritation. 'How can somebody so superficially shallow be so perceptive underneath?'
Eric grinned. 'It's a gift. Besides, like I said, I've been through this too. Sure, it was a watered down version, but I still know what it tastes like.'
There was a pause. Eric fought back the urge to scratch the scar again.
'I know you have to stay,' he said eventually.
Presto nodded, solemnly. 'If I survive to be given the option, yes.'
'Think Furnus'll come after you?' asked Eric.
Presto didn't reply.
'Do you really trust Venger?' added Eric, his voice dropping to a low growl.
Presto blinked at his feet again. 'I have to. I need all the help I can get. There's still so much I can't do, so much I don't know. It's not like you get any kind of training for this thing...'
Eric thought for a moment, then set his coffee cup down and put an arm around his friend. 'Just don't go wandering off into the sunsets yet, old buddy, OK? I've had it up to here with losing people for the time being.'
Presto smiled, leaning into the uncommon hug. 'Whatever you say.'
The green swathed figure at the other side of the cave sat upright, noting the pair before they had chance to come out of the hug.
'Forget it, Presto, he's on the rebound.' Hank flashed a quick, cold grin at them as he got to his feet. 'It'll never last.'
Eric retrieved his arm, meeting Hank's smile with a bright sarcasm.
'Hank! I didn't recognise you there without a Bandit attached to you.'
Hank turned his face from the Cavalier's, hiding his expression. 'Finished crying yet, Eric?'
'Yes. Thankyou.' Eric got to his feet, watching Hank's back. 'Has Sheila?'
'Eric...' hissed Presto.
Hank stopped, but still didn't turn to the other young man.
'That's none of your business, Eric.'
'She's my friend, Ha...'
Hank span around to face Eric, furiously.
'Did I meddle with you and Diana? Hmm? Even though any idiot could see it was a recipe for disaster, did I tell you not to get involved with her?'
'Don't bring Diana into th...'
'Right!' spat Hank, 'because friendship or no friendship, you don't start interfering in another couple's affairs, OK? It's just not...' he floundered for the right word '...polite.' He sighed, squeezing the bridge of his nose in exasperation. 'Look. Sorry, OK? Just don't... it's too early in the morning for all this.'
Eric and Presto exchanged glances.
'You OK, Hank?' asked the Wizard.
'Sure.' Hank opened his eyes again. 'No. Not really.'
It wasn't anything that Presto had seen - more felt. A flash in the Ranger's eyes of something younger and purer, less weary but more frightened than the youth he knew now. The old Hank. For the briefest moment the old Hank was there before he was swallowed up again by the cold cynic that had replaced him.
'Haven't been sleeping too good since we found the bodies,' admitted the blond youth. 'I guess on top of everything...' Hank leaned against a wall of the cave, miserably. 'No hot showers, no clean clothes, precious little to eat, no privacy, no sex - for me, anyway - and yes, Eric, I did like Nym...' he frowned, forcing himself to change the subject. 'No smokes...'
Presto rolled his eyes grudgingly, reaching into his hat.
'Oh for God's sake. Here.' He tossed Hank a pack of magically produced cigarettes. The archer caught them in mid air with a quickness of hand that he had not displayed in many years.
'You sure?' asked Hank, making fast work of the packet.
'It's been a stressful few days,' replied the Wizard. 'Just make 'em last and be sure you put them out properly.'
'Thanks.' A cigarette flew into Hank's mouth with amazing speed. He proffered the pack towards the Cavalier. 'Eric..?'
Eric shook his head, turning towards the cave's doorway. 'I'm quitting.'
'Aw, you're always quitting,' replied the Ranger with a mouthful of filter.
'Yeah, well, I mean it this time,' answered Eric. 'You think I wanna rely on Presto for charitable nicotine handouts for the next Who Knows How Long?'
Eric turned in the doorway as Hank let the packet hang by his side, twisting his mouth strangely around the still unlit cigarette.
'You enjoy 'em yourself.'
Hank still didn't light the cigarette as he watched the two friends walk out into the sunshine together, leaving him in the dank cave, alone. Just him and his filthy secrets and his filthy habits.
Despite being alone in the cave, he said the word clearly, letting the thin, stinking paper tube fall from his lips. He watched it bounce and roll down his tunic and leggings, and once it was on the floor, slowly, purposefully reached out a boot and ground the thing underfoot. All nineteen of its packmates joined it, tumbling to the cave's dusty floor only to be squashed into an unsmokable mess.
And then, he walked out into the morning sunlight.
There were few provisions left - enough for a meagre, stale breakfast. Eric was the only one amongst the seven to appear even vaguely cheerful, and even he grew quiet once Diana joined the group, late, to nibble on an end of bread, and fill her canteen with water. Nobody asked her where she had been all night. They didn't have to - her necklace had been fixed the day before, and a few feathers yet had to shrink back into her arms. They left to journey Eastward soon after, falling, as usual into a line of ones and twos. Presto led the way, as he often did, never hesitating or doubling back or stopping to find his bearings as the young Ranger had often been forced to do when he had taken the lead all those years ago. Half the time the Wizard didn't even look where he was going, but let his feet guide him. Throughout this particular journey he was embroiled in a long, indepth conversation with the Cavalier walking by his side. The two friends spoke in hushed voices for several hours, satisfied that the others were all too caught up in their own affairs to try to listen in on their secretive mumblings.
Diana would still have preferred solitude. The need to be alone that had propelled her to spend the night aimlessly wheeling around the dark, starless sky, her head filled with simpler, birdlike thoughts, still called out to her, but Sheila had taken her arm as they'd left the hideout, and had not yet released it. Neither of them had breathed a word all morning. It was a relief to Diana that all the tired, pale redhead seemed to want from her was some female company, and not to talk. Any Girlie Chats between the two friends would always come to the subject of Guys sooner or later, which would then inevitably lead on to two specific Guys, and Diana really didn't want to talk about either of them any more. She held her friend's arm, and pitied her distress at that one display of interest which the now single Ranger had shown that alluring, confident little Bandit Girl. Hank had only needed to gently flirt with Nym for a couple of days, and it had devastated Sheila. Diana wondered what would happen to her friend were she to know the real consequence of Hank's taste for forbidden women. If she were to discover the true depths of the betrayals of her sweet, innocent trust. Not a stranger, but her closest friend. Not laughing and flirting, but raw fucking, passionate and aggressive, and then to go back to her, and smile at her and kiss and hug her and all laugh together as though nothing had happened...
Diana said nothing, but looked ahead and held Sheila's arm.
Hank walked at the rear as usual, alone again now without the little Bandit, his funny little sparrow, all mouth and no morals, twittering away in her silly English accent, getting up everybody's noses. It was too quiet without her. He reached behind himself, making sure that Big Sally was securely strapped to his back for the Umpteenth time. It was a strange parting gift from a romantic entanglement - a huge, pump action crossbow that he had already stolen from her - but theirs had hardly been a conventional romance. Big Sally was probably the most practical, helpful gift he could have asked for. It would always remind him of her.
Bobby found himself traipsing with his unicorn between Hank and the girls. He also found himself opening his mouth occasionally to speak to Pistol and then remembering that the half Ogre wasn't there any more. He wondered why, while everybody seemed so keen to remember Nym for reasons both good and bad, nobody yet had mentioned her gentle giant of a brother. But Bobby missed him. He and Pistol had become strangely drawn together during the time the Ex Bounty Hunters had spent with the gang. He supposed at first that Pistol had found some comfort in walking next to somebody that, for once, he didn't dwarf, but soon they had discovered, to their considerable surprise, that their similarities went far beyond size. Pistol had revealed himself to be, incredibly, only a year older than Bobby. They both loved animals despite being forbidden pets of their own when growing up. They had both been easily frustrated into violence as children, but had been forced to control their anger as their physical strength had grown, for fear of seriously hurting somebody. They were both still, however, almost fanatically protective of their little big sisters. True, Bobby was no poet, but he enjoyed listening to Pistol's many ballads and laments, which he'd mumble to the Barbarian shyly, memorised by heart. And it had become clear to Bobby early on that the half Ogre had a special interest in the same sex, although the spark of attraction was obviously not there for him. Pistol had admitted timidly that his taste was for slighter, darker men than the well built, fair Barbarian. Bobby had enjoyed pretending to be upset that the young Ogre found him unattractive, and had found it more amusing still when Pistol had repeatedly asked him whether he was really sure both Eric and Presto were absolutely straight, as though if he quizzed him often enough it would somehow change the answer.
The night they'd spent in the desert, the same night that Nym had seen the firelight that would lead them to that terrible mortuary, he and Pistol had taken the first watch together, looking up at the stars and talking about their very different experiences of love. Pistol was still a virgin, he'd disclosed, although he'd spent most of his adolescence with the most heart wrenching of crushes on an older boy in the orphanage, a slim, mahogany haired youth, sickly but cheerful. One day the boy, who Pistol could never bring himself to name, had ventured out into the swamps for a dare. He hadn't come back until after dusk, trembling, drenched and with a small, Z shaped cut on his cheek. Pistol never saw him again. He had died of typhoid three days later, caught from swallowing swamp water. Bobby, after apologising that his story would come as quite an anticlimax after Pistol's, told him about Terri.
Terri... Bobby's thoughts moved from Pistol, delved further into the past. So many stolen moments... they had been so young. Too young, according to their parents, to the law, to pretty much everybody except each other. He remembered that first time. He had expected it to be more awkward, more problematic than it ended up actually being. It didn't help that he had learned so much about sex from magazines stolen from his sister's room. Both his father and Hank had attempted to have The Talk with him, but both had got a little embarrassed when it came down to the finer details, considering that the boy knew they were regularly doing those things with his mother and sister respectively. Bobby had worried about blood and tears from his girlfriend as they gave their virginities to one another, but there had been neither. He worked out later, as he came to know more about the actions that they performed purely by instinct, that he had already broken her during a rushed, wordless fumble a few weeks previously. Those had been wonderful, exhilarating times, virginal innocence and sensual awakening in the same breath, their breath. Her hair on his pillow, the golden locket still shining on her white chest, the smell of her on his sheets long after he'd walked her home. The whispered conversation.
'Of course I am.'
'You... are you glad we did that?'
'It felt right. Didn't it? Do you think we should've waited?'
'Bob. I was ready. You were ready. And we were careful. That's all that we should care about.'
'There's something else.'
'I love you.'
She had laughed, and held him close, kissing the side of his neck.
'I should think so too, O'Brian!'
His sister grabbed his arm and forced him to turn. They were at the bank of the river. And there were Orcs. Hundreds of them, on Boarback, spears, swords and knives raised, galloping towards them.
'Orcs?' He forced himself out of his daydreams 'What happened?'
'Ambush,' explained Sheila, briefly as she dragged him along the riverbank.
'Another one?' he gasped, 'aww...'
And suddenly, everyone was about him. He recalled vaguely that the Wizard couldn't run as fast as the rest of them, and so scooped the unwilling youth up in his arms as he ran. Eric, heavily armoured as he was, was doing fine - Diana was dragging him along by both hands. They began to slow. The Ranger was trying to run backwards, firing behind them with his giant crossbow as he did. He only hit a couple of pursuing Orcs, however, and there were so many more. The unicorn was way ahead of them, but, Dammit, Hank was running too slow.
What to do, what to do... the Orcs were closing in fast and they were slowing down, close against the river's edge. He was just wondering whether to set Presto down and turn with his club to fight when the miracle occurred.
There it was. A great, white, shining column of marble, sailing down the river, taking up the vast majority of the water's width. It had windows, and spires. It shouldn't have been able to float at all, but then precious few laws of physics tended to apply in the Realm. And just because castles shouldn't be able to sail down rivers it didn't necessarily mean that they'd never see one do so.
Still they ran. Still the Orcs' boars ran faster.
Spears and arrows whistled past their ears. Bobby thanked his lucky stars that Orcs were so poorly trained.
A white door in the bottom of the floating castle opened. Out of it flew a torrent of silver arrows, whizzing over the river to down several of the Orcs. Bobby turned slightly as the castle drew level with them. The archers in the doorway - all female, it appeared - reloaded their bows and fired again, aiming back at the still pursuing Orcs. Without so much as checking to see how many they had hit, the archers then turned, as one, and fled back into the interior of the castle.
'Come back!' it was Sheila, still clutching him, still running, who had cried out. 'Help us!'
More arrows began to fly from the castle's lower windows.
Sheila and Bobby frowned at the doorway as they ran. There was a figure, standing alone in the open doorway, a great glowing angel, all in white, beckoning them in.
'How do you know my name...?'
The glowing woman's voice had been oddly recognisable, although Bobby couldn't place it. It sounded sweet and seductive, like chocolate. Bobby didn't have time to ponder this for long, however, because it was at the moment that the voice had spoken that both Hank and Eric stopped.
Diana's scream alerted them. They turned to see her desperately trying to pull the unmoving Cavalier onwards, but the young man wouldn't budge. Both he and Hank stood transfixed, gazing in wonder at the figure in the doorway, suddenly oblivious to the approaching Orcs.
'What are you doing?' chorused both girls and Bobby in simultaneous horror.
'Come,' said the woman.
Still Hank and Eric remained at a standstill. Cursing, Bobby turned and began to run back to them, the Wizard still in his arms.
'Presto. Presto, they're under some sort of spell. Do something.'
'It can't be,' murmured the young Wizard, softly, 'it can't be...'
Presto was not looking at his transfixed friends, or at the Orcs, or even at the floating castle. He was gazing intently at the woman in white, a strange light in his eyes. Bobby could feel that Presto's arms had grown limp and lifeless. He imagined that if he were to try to set the Wizard on his feet, he would merely slump like a rag doll to the ground.
'What is it, Presto?' Both Sheila and Uni began trying to tug Hank onwards, to no avail. 'What Can't Be?'
'It can't...' muttered Presto, still hypnotised by the figure in the doorway, '...but it is.'
'Come in,' said the woman.
A small Orcish knife flew past, missing Presto's head by centimetres. The Wizard, oblivious to it, split his face into a wide, childlike grin. He pushed himself free of Bobby's grasp, hitting the ground at a jog. At his example, the two older boys suddenly broke themselves free from their spots and followed him towards the gangway being pushed out by two more women from the door.
'Guys?' Bobby, Uni and the girls began to give chase. 'Guys? Do we know this is safe...?'
'Welcome,' beamed the shining woman. 'My good friends, welcome!'
The young men began to climb onto the gangway with seeming little regard for their own safety.
'What are they doing?' Diana clambered onto the precarious walkway over the water and turned to help Sheila up. 'I haven't seen them act like this since... Oh.' A spark of realisation lit up her eyes. She turned, with Sheila, to look at the woman.
The woman was still barely recognisable, even closer up. Her long, chestnut hair was now tied back, and they were unused to seeing her in shimmering finery. She had also put on an awful lot of weight, and the bloating of her face hid the shape of her cheekbones and dwarfed her once dazzling hazel eyes. Apart from that the fat did seem, irritatingly, to suit her. It rounded her hips and breasts, and plumped her pouting, cherry lips. It served to make her even curvier, even softer than before. The three young men reached her, and bundled into her together. It was easier for them all to find a bit of her to hug now. There was just more of her to love.
The gangway, still bearing the girls, Bobby and Uni, was pulled away from the riverbank just in time to stop two fast riding Orcs climbing onto it. Sheila's face darkened into a scowl as they helped Uni cross to the open door.
'I thought she said she was getting cured.'
The woman in white gasped happily as the three youths pressed themselves to her.
'Mmm...' came a three man strong sigh from within the folds of sweet smelling flesh and fabric. 'Janapurrrnaaahhh...'