A Dungeons & Dragons story by Tina Price. Eleven years have passed and things have not fared well in the Realm. The Children have long since disbanded, after having abandoned Dungeon Master and his manipulations. During the years that followed, good has slowly been consumed by evil...
Disclaimer: Venger, Sheila and all characters therein are the property of the Walt Disney Company.
She felt warm and protected as she snuggled down deeper beneath the covers, sighing contentedly. Then she encountered something with her foot; it felt like a leg, definitely a leg. With a start she felt an arm come around her and pull her back against a long, sturdy form. She inhaled and began to tense up, but then she felt a warm breath on her ear and a nuzzle, followed by lips kissing a trail down the side of her neck.
With a sigh, she relaxed and turned in her lover's arms, to be greeted by sleepy blue eyes and a lopsided grin.
"Good morning," she whispered, wrapping her arms around him in turn.
He kissed her passionately, only breaking off when they were both breathless. "It is now," he agreed.
Sheila laughed and awoke to find sleepy crimson eyes staring back at her. She was wrapped in Venger's arms and he had his left wing snaked around her under the covers as well.
"Good morning," he rumbled.
She froze, trying to remember how she'd ended up in his bed. She found herself confused, then upset, as memories of her last conversation with Presto returned, yet despite that, she was glad; very glad that Venger was alive and apparently none the worse for wear.
She squinted at him. "Aren't you supposed to be dead?"
One of his fine, arched eyebrows quirked upward. "Close enough; it turns out that I'm married!" he exclaimed.
His response made her chuckle at the same time that it brought tears to her eyes and she reached up to dash them away, angry that he should see just how much she really cared.
"Is it really morning?" She sniffed, changing the subject. She'd looked around and noted that the room was still lit only by a single torch.
"Very early in the morning," he answered, then became serious. "Sheila... I know that you're distraught about being duped into marriage; you have a right to be, but I hope you understand that you've saved my life and so much more... "
"You're welcome," she managed to say, finding that it was becoming harder not to cry.
He took one of her hands and brought it to his mouth, then kissed it. "I, on the other hand, cannot say that I regret being bound to you. I've waited in limbo for over a thousand years, secretly hoping that you would return to me. I am all amazement that you did, and that you saved me. Trust in me; I'm not about to make the same mistakes I made before."
That did it; she started bawling like a baby as he rocked her gently and murmured comfort in her ear. "I'm sorry..." she finally managed to sob brokenly. "But this has been almost too much and it all happened so fast!"
"Shhhh..." he quieted her. "You need say no more."
"But I do!" she protested with a hiccup, lifting her head so she could look at him. "I've even been having dreams; about our lives... before..."
He tensed. "Before or after I changed?"
Venger grew even paler than normal. "There is nothing I can say to excuse the way I treated you. How I wish I did not retain my memories of those days; they torment me! Only remember that I had no soul and that I was cursed. I could not help but act like a fiend; I had little will and was the puppet of he whose name is not for your ears."
"I know," she whispered. "But knowing still doesn't make it any easier to come to terms with." She sighed and freed the hand he still held near his mouth. "Still, I am so very grateful to Presto for saving your life, regardless of what he had to do in order to accomplish it. Because of what we once were to one another, I cannot help but care, yet..."
"Sheila?" he prompted, when she didn't continue.
She searched his eyes. "You frighten me. You truly scare me. When you are near, I keep remembering how you hurt me back then."
"But I did not frighten you when I was Nate?" he asked.
"Then it is my form that frightens you, for inside I am still that man you came to care for," he said, hoisting himself up on an elbow and searching her eyes. "The only cure for it is trust and new memories to keep the old at bay."
Before she could react, he leaned over and kissed her, cupping her head with a hand and gently teasing her lips with his own. He moved very slowly, very patiently and gave her the opportunity to explore him as well; his lips, his sharp teeth, his smell...
After long minutes of such teasing affection on his part, she couldn't help but melt against him, her fears vaporized and replaced with a growing passion.
He sighed when he felt the change in her and pressed her closer against him as his kiss became more demanding.
When he finally lifted his head away, they were both flushed and breathless.
"This is me," he rumbled, pressing her hand over his heart, then pressing his body against hers so that she could feel his arousal. "And this is the form I must take. Try to remember that it is just me in here." He kissed her nose, making her wrinkle it up and then continued, "You are my wife and henceforth you will share my bed and my living spaces, but I will not claim you with this form unless you beg me to do so." He smiled, showing his many sharp teeth and added, "And I must warn you that am too old and have seen too much to be easily impressed or won by one whose heart is lukewarm, regardless of her beauty. You will have to want me as your husband and work at convincing me that it is so, regardless of the form I wear."
She stared at him. "Are you serious?"
He nodded. "Very."
In truth, her fear had melted away with his kisses; they alone had been enough to convince her that she had nothing to fear from the fiend who'd been haunting her dreams. And, fiend or man, Venger always kept his word, so his promise meant that she never need fear him, unless of course, he reverted back...
"So, you really are Natharius?" she asked suddenly.
"I am he who once was Natharius, but a part of me will always be Venger as well. I have lived too many years in darkness to ever fully return to the light," he explained. "And you must publicly address me as Venger, although as my wife you need never use honorific terms. We must take care that my master does not learn of my freedom and therefore I must still represent an evil presence in the Realm. If the master should discover the truth and arrive before I am ready..."
She felt her fear returning. "He can change you back, can't he? He can take your soul now that you have it back and make you his again."
He shook his head. "No, my pretty little thief; this time, unlike the last, when we meet in battle, I will have my soul."
"The worst he can do is kill me."
It was just before dawn when Presto was startled awake by the sound of someone calling out his name.
Sitting up abruptly, he could just make out two glowing eyes in the darkness and fell off the bed in his mad scramble to get away from them.
It was only as the floor finished waking him up that he realized two things; first, that the eyes belonged to Venger's shadow demon and secondly that he was heaped on the floor because he wasn't wearing his prosthetic leg.
"Apprentice; are you well?" came the demon's sibilant voice.
"What do you want?" he asked gruffly, ignoring its question.
"The master has asked me to extend an invitation to breakfast on his balcony."
Standing, he retrieved his glasses from the bedside table. "You woke me up in the dead of night to invite me to breakfast?" he asked.
"But, it is nearly dawn and they are eating now," came the demon's explanation.
He thought it over. "Tell them I'll be right there."
The shadow demon fizzed out.
Hobbling to the chair, Presto began putting on his leg. He'd rather sleep and recover from his long journey, but it was important that he stay on top of things and he therefore could not afford to miss an invitation to dine.
Besides, his master was Venger; it might not have been an invitation so much as a politely phrased command!
He staggered into the bathing room to try to make himself presentable; fortunately he'd bathed and washed his hair before tumbling into bed. He took time to scrub his teeth and comb his hair before dressing. The castle servants had brought him new robes, all of them black and he had little choice but to wear one now as his filthy clothing had been taken away.
Within five minutes of being awakened, he deemed himself presentable and exited the room to make the trip down the hallway to Venger's chambers. Once there, he let himself in and quickly joined his master and Sheila on the balcony.
He had to admit that he'd been worried about his friend of old and he was relieved to see her sitting at the table, looking relaxed. As for Venger; he seemed greatly changed! The oppressive air of dread that had always seemed to accompany his appearance was gone and the fiend actually wasn't for once, frowning. In fact, he seemed both energetic and in a good humor, immediately greeting him and gesturing towards a chair.
The table was laid out with an incredible breakfast, reminding Presto suddenly that he'd been too tired the night before to do more than nibble at the cold platter he'd been brought before retiring. His stomach rumbled loudly, causing Sheila to laugh and pass him a tray full of scrambled eggs.
"Scrambled?" he asked, helping himself and passing the dish along.
"I showed the kitchen staff how to make them shortly after arriving here," she explained.
"Indeed, everyone has developed a taste for them as well as hash browns," Venger replied, as he loaded up his own plate.
Presto tasted the hash browns and had to give Sheila a nod of approval. Although potatoes did not exist in this world, she had apparently found a very close substitute. It was wonderful and he found it comforting to such eat things that reminded him of home.
They all ate in silence for a time before Venger spoke, "I thought you might be curious to see how Sheila was doing. I also surmised that you'd be very hungry and so I hope you'll understand why it was that I had you awakened."
At Presto's nod, he continued. "We will conduct your first lesson this morning at ten in my reflection room. You'll find that it's located near the top of the front castle turret."
"I'll be there, master," he replied and then added. "May I ask you something?"
At Venger's nod, he continued, "Why must I wear black robes? I understand that I must learn what you choose to teach, but I am no dark mage."
"It is all about keeping up perceptions," the wizard replied. "No one must guess that I am free and my acceptance and training of a good magician would be a giveaway."
Presto nodded and then turned to Sheila. "I hope that you can forgive me for not giving you a choice..."
She held up a hand, stopping him. "You did what had to be done. And in the end, I believe that all will turn out for the better."
Venger looked at her curiously as she said so and Presto could see his eyes narrow as he pondered her words. He couldn't even begin to comprehend what life must have been like for the cursed mage and now, for him to have regained both his soul and his love..."
He cleared his throat. "Master? How is it that you came to place your soul within the Ring of the Heart?"
Venger put down his fork and pushed back his chair so that he could lean back. His fingers tapped sharply on the arm, as he seemed to look inward. Finally he looked at both of them in turn and sighed. "It was my father who suggested that I safeguard my soul, just as it was his suggestion as how best to do so. I was clearly duped, for I now believe that had I my soul, I never would have been cursed."
"But you'd be dead instead!" Sheila protested. "So in the end he saved your life!"
"Only to condemn me to a millennium of living death," he protested.
"Sheesh! What kind of father would do something like that?" Presto asked, suddenly angry all over again with the Dungeon Master.
"A father who knew it was neither the time nor place for his son to win the fight," came a voice from behind them.
Turning, they were all shocked to see Dungeon Master himself standing in the doorway.
Venger immediately came to his feet, his face darkening with anger. "You are brave to show your face before us, old man!" he snarled, instantly reminding them all that he was still, when all was said and done, a fiend.
"I beg your pardon for disturbing you," the gnomish little man apologized, "However, I did wish to see you, my son and explain myself."
To Presto's surprise, the larger mage managed to control his temper, although he crossed his arms over his chest and sneered down at his father. "Not that there is any way you could possibly justify your actions, but if it makes you feel any better, then be my guest."
Dungeon Master looked at each of them in turn, but Venger quickly snapped, "You may say what you need to say in front of them; after all, you've wronged each of them as well."
"Very well." The most powerful force for good in the Realm hung his head and actually managed to look crushed. "It is not an easy thing being Dungeon Master," he began. "For, the only thing that matters is the Realm and the collective good of all creatures living within it; I am not able to play favorites or lighten the burden of a hard life if others would suffer for it. And so it was with you, Natharius."
"I am Venger; the creature you made and you will address me as such," Presto's master replied. "Continue; I am curious as to why you felt the need to dupe me into servitude to the dark one; an event which was detrimental to many of the Realm's creatures you profess to champion!"
"If I had told you beforehand that your fate was such, would you have still shed your soul and rode forth that day? You who so despise what you are; could you have done so knowing that you would become the very thing you hate and be doomed to remain as such for an unforeseeable length of time? Would you have done so, knowing what it would do to the one you loved most?"
Dungeon Master shook his head as tears beaded up in his tourmaline colored eyes. "I think not! I know you well enough to know that you would still have ridden out that day, but that you would have kept your soul and chosen death instead."
Presto looked back at Venger and saw that Sheila was also awaiting his reply, but the mage seemed temporarily speechless.
"The future is not a clear picture, even for those of us with the ability to foresee it," the little man continued. "It is like a puzzle in which one may properly arrange several pieces, but never all of them. The full picture can only be inferred from what is reconstructed. And I can only take action or give advice based upon what I know absolutely; not upon what might happen."
Dungeon Master walked forward until he stood directly before Venger. "I knew that you would not win that day so very long ago, my son, but I also know that you are destined to lead the final battle against he-whose-name-is-not-for-our-ears. For this to occur, you had to survive your first battle with him. I did what had to be done in order to ensure it, but there hasn't been a day that I have not wept over your fate."
Venger stepped back a pace, then another, but slowly his face hardened, his mouth twisting unpleasantly. "How very comforting to know that it grieved you," he hissed. "But tell me, old man; why is that you never visited your own daughter as she lay dying? You let Kareena fade away without so much as a word to her; without ever telling her you would miss or morn her passing. Was this also a part of your grand scheme?" he sneered.
Dungeon Master turned and headed for the balcony doors, but not before they all saw that he was weeping. "It was," he replied, then disappeared from sight.
An ominous creaking was heard and with a start, Presto realized that Venger was gripping the back of his chair hard enough to break it.
Before he could decide what to do, Sheila had left her seat and moved to stand beside her unlikely husband.
"Let's finish eating," she said, laying a hand on his arm. "We can talk about this later if you'd like."
He let out a breath and folded his wings atop his shoulders as he covered her hand with his own. "As you wish," he rumbled, pulling out her chair for her and seating her before returning to his own seat.
They ate in silence after that. Presto, still famished, ate with relish, making up for time and Sheila picked at her plate, while Venger didn't eat a bite, and only sipped his tea from time to time.
Finally, when Presto's plate was empty, Venger stood, with Presto and Sheila following suit. "I will see you at the appointed time, until then you are free to do as you please. You may go."
With a small bow of respect, he took his leave of his master and made his way back to his chamber, intent upon sleeping a few hours more.
After Presto was gone and the servants had cleaned off the table and fled their chambers, Venger guided Sheila to the bathing room, which opened into his bedroom. She'd been in it before, upon awakening, to use the very modern toilet he had somehow installed, but this time she was surprised to see that the very large sunken tile pool was filled with steaming water.
"There's no way the servants filled it that quickly! Did you have something to do with it?" she asked. "Did you use magic?"
He smiled toothily and pointed at an old antique-looking tap on the far side of the pool. "The servants made certain it was filled while we ate."
"The servants always filled the one in my chambers by hand," she commented, then suddenly added, "Wait a minute! You have modern plumbing as well as toilets in your castle; you had to have gotten this from my world!"
He nodded. "I have brought many things through the ether between our worlds, but plumbing has proven to be one of the few things that is both indispensable and safe."
He sighed. "You should be wondering why, when I can capture the most dangerous of your jets, I would chose to return it to your world rather than keep it to destroy my enemies here."
She remembered Joseph Mueller, the world war II Luftwaffe pilot that Venger had brought through from the past and equipped with a modern day jet. He'd planned on sending the pilot back in time to win the war for Hitler and change her world forever; quite possibly even preventing her and her friends from ever being born.
Venger's words now brought home something that she and her friends had indeed wondered at the time: why hadn't he simply kept the weapon and used it to defeat Tiamat and his enemies? She looked at him now and saw that he was waiting patiently for her.
"I did wonder it, back when that happened, but it never crossed my mind that you would actually be able to cross back and forth between our worlds. You can, though; can't you?" she asked.
"Yes." Then he did something that floored her; he stepped in front of her and lifted her chin with one finger, a sly smile appearing on his face.
Sheila almost burst into tears; it was the same exact thing he'd done all those years ago when she was a gangly child and he'd explained to her how history would be rewritten and her life undone. It was something she'd never forgotten; the huge wizard actually touching her and making her meet his eyes. She'd relived that moment many times in her dreams, first as childish nightmares and then years later part of some very murky, erotic dreams.
"I… I didn't think you would remember doing that," she finally choked out.
"I have a… how do you say… photographic memory? Most of the truly powerful mages do... and I have never forgotten the moment I first touched you. I knew, even then, even without the Ring of the Heart on your finger, that you were different. You had a hold over me even then. You drew me, though I could never see why." He lowered his finger and walked to a wall shelf that held an assortment of small, stoppered flasks and selected one filled with a murky blue gel. "In answer to your question; yes, I can and do visit your world from time to time. However, I do not do so lightly or often, for it is dangerous to meddle with such portals. There is no telling what might enter or exit with you."
She looked down and then shook her head ever so slightly. "So, why is it that you haven't brought back such things as tanks, guns or bombs?" she asked before looking back up at him.
He raised an eyebrow. "Can you not guess?" Before she could answer, he said, "Think on it and we can discuss it later. The bath will need heating if we speak of it now." Then he handed her the flask.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Something to cleanse your hair with. Enjoy the water. There are towels in the sideboard, there," he added, pointing to the marble-topped table that held the wash bowls. Then he turned and began to exit the room.
"What will you be doing?" she asked nervously, aware that there was no door separating the room from his bedroom.
He grinned at her over one shoulder. "I shall be in my sitting room making my plans against 'you-know-who'."
When he'd gone, she placed the flask next to the pool with two towels and then decided that the best thing to do would be to strip quickly and get in the water before Venger could return.
She did so and sighed as the very warm water surrounded her. The pool was deeper than it looked and when she sat on the built-in ledge the water completely covered her shoulders.
There was a bar of brown soap on the side of the pool near her towels and the flask, that she used to scrub herself with. After rinsing off, she uncovered the flask, took a sniff and was pleased to discover that the gel within smelled like green plants and wildflowers. She wet her hair and scrubbed it clean before holding her nose and sinking below the water to rinse it out.
Then she played with the faucet for a bit, letting more hot water into the pool so that it steamed like a hot tub. It wasn't long before she found herself leaning back against the tile wall in utter relaxation. How she had missed being able to bathe! In this world such things were impossible unless you had a huge tub and were willing to boil and haul water.
She didn't know how long she lay there, blissfully zoned out in the steamy water when the slap of bare feet on tile startled her into opening her eyes. She was shocked to see Venger striding towards her; his legs bare below his wings, which he kept wrapped about him like a cloak.
He was quite obviously naked and intent upon sharing the bath!
Flushing with embarrassment, she slid down further into the water and crossed her arms over her chest, causing him to laugh.
"How very coy, my dear!" he rumbled.
"What do you think you're doing?" she hissed.
He stopped at the edge of the pool opposite her and turned off the hot water faucet she'd left running. "I thought it was obvious; I am planning to bathe."
"I thought you were busy making plans!" she protested. "Can't you wait until I'm done?"
Again he laughed. "You are my wife! There is nothing wrong in us bathing together! Besides, the view is much better when you are here." He took a moment to look her over. "Come now; you are very pleasing to the eye. There is no reason for you to be embarrassed."
"That's easy for you to say when you're hiding behind your wings!" she spat.
He shrugged and she had a second in which to think, 'Oh good God, no!' before he did indeed unwrap himself with a flourish, holding his wings aloft.
"That better?" he asked with a smirk.
She couldn't help but stare as he slowly stepped down into the bath.
His broad shoulders and powerful chest tapered to a lean, well-defined abdomen, which in turn led to lean flanks and hips. His skin; a pale, flawless blue-gray and hairless as well, gave way to a darker blue at his groin. As for his genitals; Sheila felt herself flush with arousal rather than embarrassment at the sight; a fine growth of silky black hair framed some very impressive male attributes. To make matters worse, he seemed to be growing under her gaze.
When her eyes skimmed back upward to his face, she saw that his face, neck and chest were beginning to flush a darker blue. More interestingly than that; the red markings on the inner membranes of his wings seemed to be glowing a much brighter crimson.
I'll have to keep an eye out for that, she thought, realizing that it might be the single best visual indication of his mood she was likely to get when he was dressed.
Thankfully, he finished entering the water and sat down opposite her before her thoughts could stray further or another part of him could finish displaying itself more graphically.
"So," he said, somewhat unsteadily. "We both like what we see. It should make bathing together something to look forward to each day."
She gulped as he stretched his legs out lazily before him and lowered his wings into the water. There was silence for a time as they continued to glance at each other.
Finally she took a stab at some chitchat. "It must take you a while to get those wings scrubbed down, huh?"
"Not as long as you might think." His grin turned positively evil as one such appendage sneaked beneath the water and across the pool to hook and drag her to him. She squealed with surprise as he continued, "They are simply two modified arms and hands. Cleaning them is as easy for me as rubbing my hands together."
He grasped her with an arm as his wing released her and pulled her against him to sit by his side before kissing her soundly. "Better..." he mumbled, lifting his head.
Sheila stared at him mutely as he unexpectedly handed her the soap and turned his back towards her.
"Do you mind?"
"I thought you said that cleaning your wings was easy?" she huffed.
"Yes, but cleaning my back is next to impossible," he countered, then groaned deeply as she began running her lathered hands over the area in question.
She started at the mid line of his back and then moved up to his shoulders, the joints of his wings and then out towards the sides. The groans and sighs coming from him made it evident that he was greatly enjoying the attention... and so was she. Under her hands, the muscles that helped drive those wings felt like coiled steel yet the skin of the membranes themselves felt like elastic silk.
She had a sudden thought. "Your wings; will you miss them?" she asked. "If you become human again?"
He went very still for a moment before answering. "Yes," he growled. "It will not be pleasant, yet I've no doubt that I will adjust."
She continued working, reaching under the wing membranes to get the rest of his back and shoulders as he melted under her touch. "Hmmm," she eventually muttered. "A halo in exchange for the ability to fly; the price of being a fallen angel, I suppose."
He turned to face her and gave her an enigmatic look before reclaiming the soap. "Now then; what will it be?" he asked.
She turned her back towards him. "My back," she said.
He went to work, rubbing and gently scrubbing her down as she melted and sighed, understanding the bliss he'd felt just moments ago when their roles had been reversed. It had been far to long since she'd been touched like this. How much longer had it been for him?
After a while, he grew bolder; his hands beginning to explore the outer edges of her back as his fingers curled around her sides to graze her chest. Again, he bent low to nibble her neck, already having learned her weakness and as she moaned and leaned back against him, he took advantage of her distraction to begin stroking the sides of her breasts.
This time, when she moaned, he groaned in counterpoint. The soap was quickly discarded in the water as one arm snaked around her middle and pulled her closer to him, placing her squarely between his legs while the other moved to lather her upper chest.
When she moaned, his mouth truly began suckling the side of her neck, causing her to squirm with delight... and come right up against is erection. She froze and then extracted herself from his embrace.
"Sheila?" he rumbled.
She refused to answer; if she stayed in here with him even a few more minutes…
Moving to the other side of the pool, she grabbed her towel and wrapped it around herself as she climbed out. Then she retreated towards the bedroom as quickly as decorum would allow while his knowing laughter boomed out behind her.
Venger was waiting for Presto in the upper turret room when he arrived, which made him nervous even though he knew he wasn't late.
His new master was seated in a large chair in the corner, reading a large tome that he cradled in his arms. He was dressed in the outfit those in the Realm knew him instantly by and even his one-horned helmet was in place.
It made him far less approachable and far more intimidating, but then again, he'd know that, Presto thought.
Rising to his feet, the fiendish mage placed the tome on a stand in the corner near the chair and then turned to face him.
This day, I'll not keep you overly long," he announced. "However, I will be testing you and exploring which avenues we may or may not take with regard to your learning."
He raised a hand and blue flame sprang up from his fingertips. "There are those who can command only that magic drawn from light, otherwise known as goodness." He raised his other hand and a red, glowing ball of energy appeared in his palm. "There are those who can only command magic drawn from the darkness, from evil." He stared hard at Presto. "And then there are those who are capable of drawing upon both, although most of those mages prove to be more adept at one than the other and the balance between the two varies. This is the most common situation. Very few can only call upon one type of magic, but those who do specialize in only one or the other are very powerful indeed!"
He waved his hands and both the flame and the energy ball dissipated. He walked over to the tome he'd positioned on the stand and gestured for Presto to approach; something he did eagerly.
"Let us see how good you are at reading and memorizing spells," Venger said, then pointed to a spell on the page. "Read this and be prepared to cast it when I tell you to."
He walked to the window and seemed to study the horizon as Presto quickly went through the spell. It was a short one, but far more complex than any he'd already attempted. He also new somehow that it was drawn from light.
"Enough!" his master boomed, turning back to face him. "Cast the spell."
Holding his hands out before him, he spoke the ancient words of power and gestured, instantly feeling magical forces drawn into his body from his surroundings. It brought him a short-lived rush; an indescribable moment of bliss and the feeling that all was right in the world.
He forced the energy to gather before him, between his upraised hands and instantly understood the spell completely.
"I am your target, apprentice," Venger yelled.
Presto flung the pale, glowing sphere he'd produced at his instructor, who quickly cast a spell to counter it and then roared with outrage as the sphere hit him.
Still euphoric, it took him a minute to understand that something was not quite right; Venger was standing stock still, his hands over his eyes. "Master?" he called, suddenly getting a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Did I do something wrong?"
"You executed the spell flawlessly," Venger replied, rubbing his eyes. "And far more effectively that I have ever seen it used. You have impressive potential!" He lowered his hands, revealing eyes of a pale, turbid pink color. "Your sphere of blindness was more powerful than my counter spell, as you can see."
Presto gasped in shock and took a step backwards.
"And where do you think you are going?" came his master's amused voice. "Undo the spell; I've no wish to wait for it to dissipate on its own!"
"But, Master, I don't know how!"
Venger sighed. "The knowledge sits right before you, on the next page of the tome. I suggest you take care to get this next spell correct."
Presto did as he was told and a moment later felt that same power gather within him. When he released it, the fiendish mage blinked, his eyes again turning their usual crimson color.
"Well done, " he commented. "My vision is restored." He raised an eyebrow and gave Presto a strange look, as he walked to the book stand and began turning the Tome's pages. Eventually he stopped and pointed at the current page. "Let us see how you do with this one."
Venger returned to the window, again giving his apprentice a limited amount of time in which to study and memorize the spell.
This time Presto felt a sense of unease as her realized that unlike the defense spell that came before it, the new spell was drawn from darkness and was an offensive spell.
"You've had time enough; cast your spell," Venger prompted.
He stared at his master, who nodded and added," Yes, I am your target once more."
Again, Presto felt the power rise up within him as he chanted the words, but something seemed to be wrong; he felt a twisting inside him and pain rather than the usual exhilaration. He felt powerful and wild; as though no one could ever touch him! Then the spell began to drain him, while pulling power through the castle around him... and it did so as it pleased.
He fought it, but soon realized that he'd lost control of the spell.
Quickly reaching peak power, the energy erupted from him in a line of crimson, as he screamed in pain, "Master, look out!"
He saw the look on Venger's face; a sudden expression of both fear and comprehension as the mage cast a spell of protection and leaped out of the way.
Thankfully the blast just missed him, instead hitting the stone wall and destroying it in an explosion of heat and a rain of falling stone. As the last rumbles of settling rubble faded, he could hear his master bellow in pain and he started forward through the dusty room in search of him.
"Venger!" he cried out, fearfully, finding the mage crouched on the floor amid the rubble. Then the dust settled enough for him to see the reason his master was rocking back and forth in agony; part of his left wing was missing!
"I will live," he groaned, clutching the bleeding and mangled bones above the gory wound. "My fault; I should have realized sooner that the spell had taken you over…"
Horrified, Presto realized that Venger's wing had extended beyond his sphere of protection and that it had also been the last thing to clear the blast area when the mage dove for cover. In other words; every part of it that had been outside the sphere had been vaporized! Half of the first two wing digits were gone, along with a large portion of the connecting wing membrane and despite his grip on the largest bone; Venger was losing a lot of blood.
Without even thinking twice, Presto quickly spoke words of healing that he'd learned from an old master he'd met in the southern marshlands and passed his hands over the damaged tissues.
Almost immediately, Venger stopped gasping and took a deep breath, his color changing from a sickly gray to his natural pale blue tint. Before the startled eyes of the fiendish wizard, his wing began to regenerate, becoming whole once more.
He stood and dusted himself off, then flexed the wing and fixed Presto with a piercing stare. "Where did you learn that spell?" he asked.
Presto told him and found himself cringing when Venger began to laugh. "What... what is it?" he finally got up the courage to ask.
His master shook his head. "Only that I know the master who taught you that. All I know is that I am grateful that he did, and that you are so adept at using it! I could have healed myself, but such an injury would have taken me days.." Then he rubbed his chin and looked pensive. "Now then, the big question is what to do with you..."
"Master, I'm sorry!" Presto apologized. "I don't know what happened; I've never had anything go wrong like that before!"
Venger shrugged. "No doubt because you've never attempted a dark spell before." He turned to look at the huge hole in the stone wall. "Hmmm, I shall have to get the Orcs working on this. It should take them several days, but they could use something to keep them occupied, therefore your little accident has had unforeseen positive results."
As he said it, the mage froze as though something significant had suddenly occurred to him and then gave Presto a very strange look indeed.
"I've learned what I needed to learn," he announced. "Now I have only to decide how best to hone your particular talents. I can see that it has taken something out of you, so return to your chambers and rest. I'll have your meal served to you there."
"Thank-you," he replied, bowing in deference.
"Later," Venger continued, "After I hold my audiences for the day, I will summon you so that I may show you first hand what is happening in the Realm these days. Now be off with you."
In truth, Presto was feeling very drained; the last two spells having taken a lot out of him, so he was grateful for the chance to catch up on his rest. He left the room and quickly headed down the stairs, all the while worrying over what his strange failure had meant.
Sheila jumped almost a foot at the shadow demon's unexpected appearance, then turned to confront him. "Don't ever sneak up on me!" she chastised it.
For its part, the demon instantly appeared to be contrite, bowing and wringing its hands before it. "I am sorry mistress," it said, sounding cowed. "But the master is very busy and extends an invitation for you to take the afternoon meal with him in the library if you wish. Otherwise, you are welcome to dine here or with your friend, if he has finished resting."
She was very curious to hear from Presto about how his first day learning had gone, for she realized that Venger was unlikely to speak of it, yet she also wished to see her new husband again; the morning bath having greatly increased her interest in him.
"Tell him that I would prefer his company," she said.
With a nod, the demon blipped out, only to reappear moments later. "He says that you may come when you are ready," he said, relaying the message before again disappearing.
Smiling in anticipation, she changed from her simple peasant's dress to a more elegant gown and then made her way towards the main audience chamber.
She'd spent the rest of the morning snooping through Venger's chamber; after all, it was now hers as well! What she'd found had been interesting to say the least.
Everything from his books to his clothing to the strange items she could not place, were all very neatly arranged. Everything was orderly; the sign of a highly organized mind. In addition, everything was tasteful and clean. He had items that seemed to be mementos as well; shells, trinkets, pressed leaves and colorful stones. Obviously, despite the curse and his heretofore evil nature, he had still retained some passion for life and an appreciation of beauty.
She was brought up short in her musings by her arrival in the audience chamber and she quickly made her way to the secret door behind the throne, which opened by itself as she approached.
Stepping through, she spotted Venger seated at a heavy oak table, where he was apparently studying a book. His helmet was off and resting on the table near him.
He looked up at her as she entered.
"Did you do that?" she asked, indicating the door.
He stood and nodded. "Who else?" he replied.
"So then; you can tell when I'm nearby?" she asked, not certain that she liked the idea.
He glided forward to greet her with a hug and a quick kiss. "I can now that we are bound to each other," he confessed.
She would have questioned him further, but then noticed that his armor was dented and his clothing dusty. "Are you alright?" she asked, suddenly anxious. "Is Presto?"
He smiled, but it was a grim one. "Yes, we are both alright," was all he said, before changing the subject. "Please help yourself." He indicated the smaller table on the side of the room, where a lovely meal had been laid out.
She frowned, as he moved back towards his book. "Won't you be joining me?"
"Soon. I have something which urgently requires my attention." He sat and immediately was again engrossed with his book.
Realizing that it wouldn't be wise to distract him, she sat and picked at the food that had been laid out, all the while surreptitiously watching him. After a time, he grunted and closed the book, but rather than joining her, he stood and began pacing.
She continued to nibble and watched him, suddenly fascinated by this glimpse at the more mundane side of the great Venger.
He would pace, then stop and stare off at something only he could see, before resuming his pacing. Still, it wasn't until he reached up to grasp and lean on the high, heavy fireplace mantle and cup his chin with his other hand, that she risked speaking.
"What is troubling you?" she asked.
He looked up as though only just remembering that she was there and then straightened and moved to take the seat opposite her. "Tell me; If I were to say that the Realm was in conflict, how would you describe that conflict?"
She blinked. "I'd say that it's a battle between good and evil for control of this world," she replied.
He smiled toothily and nodded his head. "You've answered as would nearly anyone asked that question," he breathed. "And like them, you too are making a major error in your assumption." He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers before him. "The battle is not between good and evil, for they are forces that are in balance. Good can only be good; it can only see good and act in a manner that is good. Evil can only be evil; it cannot see anything but evil, evil intentions, evil thoughts, evil deeds and it knows that true good can never be turned to evil. No, Sheila, the battle that rages in the Realm, and indeed everywhere, is the battle of those in between. Only those of us in both evil and good exist, can be swayed one way or the other. Only we can fight each other in the hopes of shifting the balance."
Sheila sat bolt upright, instantly recognizing what he said as the truth. "In my world, they say that there is no black or white, but only shades of gray," she offered.
He nodded. "What most people do not comprehend is that the balance is almost always just that; balanced. Neither good nor evil may triumph unless that balance is shifted radically by some event or events. Even then, the natural order seems to kick in and provide some catastrophe or event that will quickly restore the balance."
She felt her hair starting to stand on end. "What are you saying without saying it?" she asked.
He looked pensive for a moment. "I am not certain, but this I do know; there have been two sudden, major shifts in favor of good which the main champion of evil remains ignorant of. On the other hand, the champion of good is, I am quite certain, aware of the change. This seems to mean that a major shift back to balance is about to occur. The question is; what will happen if it comes to pass?"
"But, Venger," she protested. "How do you know that we aren't already out of equilibrium and that what you see happening isn't actually the massive shift back to true balance?"
He sat upright and gaped at her for a second before smirking. "Mmmm, a woman of such intelligence is one I could easily lose my heart to," he murmured, reaching for her hand and kissing it.
She blushed furiously.
He stood and helped her to her feet. "I'm afraid that I have much to attend to and must therefore ask you to depart. If at all possible, I will join you for the evening meal. If I do not, then do not wait up for me."
"OK," she replied, suddenly disappointed.
He lifted her chin and chuckled as he gazed down at her. "Miss me already, hmmm? I find that even more satisfying than teasing you in the bath earlier this morning. Just remember, little thief, that it will make our reunion that much sweeter."
Venger kissed her hard, then turned her around and gave her a shove in the direction of the door.
She took one more look over her shoulder at him just before the door closed behind her, leaving her flushed and strangely exhilarated despite the disturbing conversation they'd had.
"I take it that you were listening?" Venger said, seemingly speaking to the air.
Dungeon Master slowly faded into view, standing near the fireplace. "I was," he admitted. "I must say that I am surprised by your understanding of the situation, and hers."
"It is amazing how well one may think when not enslaved to an evil entity," he hissed, turning to finally face his father. "Tell me; did you disguise yourself as an old master and teach my apprentice that spell of healing because you knew I would need it this day?"
Dungeon Master smiled. "It was the least I can do for you and no; I did not know for certain that it would aid you, though I did hope that we would be standing where we are today. Besides, the boy has great, almost unlimited potential. It would have been a crime not to make a healer of him."
So saying, the little man moved towards the table and ran his hand over the book Venger had been reading. "A History of the Dungeon Master," he read. "The very book written by my predecessor and given to me when I assumed the role, with the understanding that I would know when to reveal it."
"I had wondered at its sudden appearance in my library," Venger replied. "But I quickly realized why you had placed it here and why you did so now."
"I do not envy you your task," the dungeon master said, with a shake of his head.
"And I do not envy my apprentice his," Venger replied. "I greatly fear for him and his future. Nothing is absolutely written and he may easily perish during his training."
"Indeed," Dungeon Master replied.
Venger spent the next few hours in his audience chamber listening to first hand accounts of the happenings of the Realm. Once or twice he'd had to chastise an public official or military leader and he'd done so quickly and painfully as was his habit, but inside he'd been cringing.
He was very glad when the chore was over and the castle's visitors had gone. It was something he used to relish but which now left him sweaty and ill. Still, it was necessary; he had a duty to his world and he could not rule if he did not have all the facts. In the past these audiences were a means to conquering the Realm's last free societies, now they were the means of saving them.
Making his way down to the first level, he crossed the courtyard, pausing to glare at the Orcs repairing the top of the front turret. They quickly noticed him and redoubled their efforts while those among them that head been slacking now worked the hardest.
Throwing them one last sneer, he exited the portcullis and made for the stables while bellowing for his shadow demon.
It was approaching four in the afternoon when Presto was summoned via the shadow demon. He'd been instructed to wear his riding breeches and a new, gray tunic and red boots that the servants provided for him.
Apparently his master had changed his mind about dressing him in black.
A short time later, he joined Venger in the stables, as he'd been instructed and found his master stroking the head and neck of his Nightmare.
Venger raised his head and looked at him when he entered. "Good! Let's be off; I've much to show you before nightfall," he said, then led his steed outside while Presto trailed behind.
Once out of the building, the fiendish wizard mounted up easily and then extended a hand to him. He took it and was hoisted up behind his master. Then, almost before he'd settled into the saddle, the Nightmare sprang skywards and he had to clutch at Venger to keep from falling. Only when the demon steed had leveled off in flight, did he realized just how tightly he was gripping Venger's waist and let go in embarrassment.
Venger laughed; a deep resonant sound. "The first time riding a steed such as mine is a real lesson in balance," he said. "You are my apprentice, and as such you are allowed to touch my person, for I am now responsible for you. I suggest that you hold on to me; just to be on the safe side."
"Yes master," he mumbled, as he gingerly took hold.
Five hours later, he was too tired to care if he even leaned against his master for support; which he did. He'd become an accomplished horseman over the years, but flying on a Nightmare was much more difficult than riding a mortal steed. For one thing, they could drop a hundred feet unexpectedly or the wind could whip up furiously and unbalance you.
Then there was the never ending cold when they were at higher altitudes; it froze you to the marrow and sapped your strength. Thank goodness that Venger seemed to have a shield of some sort around him. If Presto remained in close proximity; as he'd quickly learned to do, then he at least kept from freezing.
They'd made the rounds of an enormous portion of the Realm, the Nightmare flying at impossible speeds while Venger quickly scanned the lands below with his sharp eyes and commented upon the major issues in each area. Several were beset with famine, several others with plague, while yet others were completely decimated by war.
To his credit, Venger did not seek to hide his involvement in the current ills; if he'd brought some evil about, he told Presto so and explained why and how he had done so. He'd appeared quite distraught as they witnessed an old lady dying in a ditch far below; her lips stained green from trying to eat the grass. "Would that it were not too late for her," he'd lamented.
"But master; is there nothing you can do?" Presto had asked.
"No. Nothing for her. Yet, others may be saved, but not by my hand; I must not do anything that would tip off my master."
"Then who will save them?" he'd asked. "Dungeon Master?"
Venger had shaken his head and half turned in the saddle to look at him. "Don't you think he would have done so by now? No my apprentice; this is to be your burden."
Venger had nodded, his face grim. "You may study hard and work at it for many long years before you master what you need to fix this, but fix it you must. It will be a great trial for you; only remember who and what you are, even when the situation seems hopeless and you will succeed."
Venger faced front again. "Hold on; the hour is late and we must return. I daresay you've seen enough for one day."
They landed many hours after their departure; atop the castle tower.
Presto was so tired that his legs collapsed on him as soon as Venger swung him down to the ground. Only his master's grip on his forearm held him aloft until he could get his feet under him.
Then Venger dismounted and swatted his steed on the rump. It made a bee-line for the stable as he swung to face him. "Retire for the night; eat, drink, soak in the bath and sleep. Your lessons tomorrow shall begin two hours after dawn in my reflection room. Do not be late!"
So saying, the fiendish mage leaped from the tower and glided around towards the enclosed garden.
Presto did as he was told and fell asleep twice in the bath before finally dragging himself to bed.
Sheila had only just returned to to their chambers after her evening stroll through the garden, when Venger called her name from the balcony. She quickly rounded the sitting room doorway into the bedroom just as he entered from the other doorway and they ended up colliding with each other.
His arms reached out to steady her and then she felt herself being pulled into a hug even as they both began laughing.
"Have you already eaten?" he eventually asked, after they'd grown self conscious of staring at each other.
"No," she replied. "I was waiting a little longer to see if you would be able to join me."
It earned her a kiss and then he turned her loose and headed for the bathing room. "I must wash up," he said over his shoulder. "I smell like the sulfur pits themselves. The servants will be in shortly with our meal and I will join you then."
"OK." She stood in the bedroom as he disappeared and couldn't help but imagine him undressing in the next room. The thought made her flush with warmth and she quickly retreated into the sitting room to put a bit more space between them.
Ten minutes later, Venger emerged to join her on the balcony before an elaborately laid out dinner table.
He looked far more handsome than any fiend had a right to, she thought. His hair was clean, though still wet and hung down his back in a black, shiny curtain. He was wearing clean black breeches, plain black boots and a turquoise colored tunic with elaborate silver embroidery.
"Did you mentally request all this?" she asked, indicating the table when she could think straight again.
He moved to stand in front of her and tipped her chin up with a finger so that he could bend and kiss her lips. "I did..." he murmured against her mouth. "My appetite is strong this night."
She shivered deliciously at the implied meaning behind his words and knew he'd felt her reaction at the sight of the grin that appeared on his face.
He gave her one more kiss, then straightened and led her to her chair, which he pulled out for her. "Come; let's eat and talk. It is a beautiful night after all and I have missed your company." As she sat, he pushed her chair in for her.
Only one day spent married and Venger found himself completely captivated by his new wife, despite the worries of the day. He also felt himself feeling something he hadn't felt in several centuries; the beginnings of a hormonal shift that would soon have him in fiendish equivalent of a rut.
It was natures way of ensuring that such selfish creatures reproduced and while in such a state, even fiends became affectionate and willing to do nearly anything for the opportunity to mate. It was also the reason that so many fiendish half breeds existed in this world; they weren't very discriminating when it came to the choice of a partner.
Fortunately for him. it wasn't something he couldn't control, for he was at least partly human where his soul was concerned, but it would make things very difficult for him soon enough.
He could only hope that he would win her heart and her trust before he found himself in a very frustrated state.
And it had been during just such a state that he'd taken his betrothed, his Suhailah's, virginity and kept her abed for much of her waking hours and for weeks on end. He would not do such a thing to Sheila again... unless she expressly wished it. As for the other times over the centuries that this had occurred; he would make certain that Sheila never learned of them or how he'd satisfied himself...
"Are you all right?" she suddenly asked.
He realized that he was sitting there, a platter of food held in his unmoving hand.
"Yes," he replied with a shake of his head as he helped himself to the meat. "It is only that it has been a trying day."
Sheila finished chewing some bread. "Want to talk about it?"
He smiled at her. "No. It is enough that I lived it." Placing the tray on the table, he leaned towards her. "I would like to hear something of your life, though."
She looked at him warily. "Like what?"
"Tell me what happened to your brother."
She looked at him anxiously, as though she were about to refuse, but then put down her fork and began hesitantly talking.
"It was shortly after Hank left me," she began. "I was still devastated and too ill to work. We had very little left to eat and Bobby, seeing himself as the male provider, was adamant about finding a better job. He felt that he wasn't able to bring home enough money to take proper care of me, especially since Hank was no longer there to supplement our food with fresh meat."
"I was too wrapped up in my own misery to realize what he was planning. It was only when I awoke one morning to find a note on the table and a bag of coins that I knew; he'd indentured himself into a local army platoon under the command of Warduke. Worse yet; they'd left early the night before and I was too weak to catch up with them on foot."
"Just like that; he was gone from my life and Uni as well, although I never did know what happened to her or where she went. I could easily see her trying to follow him and being made to leave, but I had so hoped that if that were the case she would have returned to me." Sheila wiped tears from her eyes and stared down at the table before her, clearly on the verge of a breakdown.
"How did you discover that he'd died?" Venger asked gently, taking her hand in his own.
She sniffed and managed to continue. "I spent the next several years trying to track that platoon, trying to find him. I'd heard rumors about them fighting in this or that battle and sometimes a villager would lose kin who were in his platoon and I'd find out where they'd been when they died."
"One day a villager, who had joined at the same time as Bobby, returned alive having served out his allotted term. He made his way to my door and delivered Bobby's helmet with news that he'd died in a raid a few months earlier." Sheila started crying loudly and sobbed out, "He would soon have been a free man!"
Rising, Venger quickly moved around the table and gathered her up in his arms as a sense of protectiveness unlike any he'd felt before rose up within him. Wrapping his wings about her as well, he rocked her gently, whispering words of endearment and comfort as she clung to him, balling up his tunic in her hands.
When her crying began to abate, he spoke, "I have the means to determine your brother's fate once and for all and remove all doubts from your mind. Would you wish me to do so?"
She looked up at him then, her eyes red, her cheeks flushed and wet with tears. "Please? I've been tormented with dreams and imaginings about what happened. And far too often I find myself hoping that maybe he's still alive after all."
"Are you prepared to accept and live with the truth?" he cautioned.
She nodded and he kissed her gently before releasing her from his embrace. Taking her hand, he led her to the bed and sat her down there before retrieving an ornate, hand held mirror from the sitting room. Sitting beside her, he held it up in front of them and spoke the required words of power as he passed his hand over the mirror's face.
Sheila pressed up against him and stared avidly at the mirror's surface, which was fogging up and becoming opaque.
An instant later, he was very surprised to see that no image had formed. "How strange," he commented. "I am unable to scry his past!"
She looked at him with anxious eyes. "What does it mean?" she asked.
He felt himself frowning. "Magic," he replied. "Either involved with his demise or in keeping the truth from us... But wait! Something is coming through!"
The mirror suddenly cleared to reveal a beautiful grassy plane where a unicorn lifted her head into the frame and stared directly at them as though seeing them in the mirror. She let out a joyous bleat just before the mirror again became nothing more than a reflection of the two of them.
"Uni..." Sheila breathed. "That was Uni; I'd recognize her anywhere!"
"Unicorn magic is powerful indeed," he said thoughtfully. "She was bound to your brother while he lived, yet I am not certain why my attempt to scry his past was intercepted by her. It could be that she is hiding some truth from us."
"She may be doing so because she thinks you're still evil," Sheila said.
"No, my dear," he corrected her as he put an arm around her shoulders. "Unicorns are masters of discerning good from evil. Even at this distance and through an enchanted mirror, she would know that I have been released from my servitude."
Searching her face, he could see her disappointment and heartbreak at once again being denied closure. "We will try again each day," he promised. "In the meantime, it has been a very long day and it would do you good to get some sleep."
"What about you?" she asked nervously.
He smiled at her. "I sleep only every third night," he explained. "It is part of my fiendish makeup. But I could easily change my mind and join you if you wish me to?"
She blushed a brilliant red and stuttered, "Uh... uh... I should be alright. What will you do while I'm sleeping?"
He shrugged. "I'll read and study." At the look she gave him, he added, "In the sitting room or on the balcony." Giving her shoulder a squeeze, he stood up, bid her good-night and moved back out to the living area, where he tried with limited success to keep his mind on his studies.
It was difficult at best.
He couldn't help but be distracted by the sound of her in the bathing room, getting ready for bed. Even after she'd retired, he could occasionally hear her sigh or toss beneath the sheets.
Finally standing, book in hand, he moved to the bedroom doorway and quickly saw that she was still awake.
"Unable to sleep?" he asked, softly.
"Strange surroundings," came her frustrated reply.
Without thinking twice and feeling an electric jolt of anticipation, he moved to the bed and climbed under the covers, then propped himself in a sitting position. Reaching out with one arm, he pulled her up against him, gently guided her head to rest on his abdomen and began playing with her hair as he resumed reading his book.
It was all an act, of course; he was unable to concentrate on the pages while his mind was completely focused on her.
Still, it proved mutually beneficial; she was sound asleep in minutes and he got to hold her for a time before extricating himself and returning to the sitting room to work on matters of the Realm.
It was very early in the morning when Sheila awoke to find Venger sitting out on the balcony, waiting for her. When she staggered out, rubbing her eyes against the glare of the rising suns, he held out an arm to her and without thinking she moved over to him and let him pull her into a quick hug.
"Morning," she mumbled as he released her.
It made him smile.
"What did you do with yourself while I was dead to the world?" she asked, taking a seat.
Somehow Venger's blind servant instantly made an appearance with breakfast and began laying out the table.
"I read, I studied, I made plans; the usual things for me," he replied. "But this time I had the pleasure of occasionally wandering into the bedroom to check on you."
She felt herself blush, but he continued, unaffected.
"When you would sigh and shift in your sleep, it was all I could do to keep from climbing back into the bed with you. Oh how I long to be able to sleep like that once more..."
"Do you mean that you don't sleep well, even when you do sleep?" she asked.
He nodded. "I awaken many times each night and I suspect that I am tormented by bad dreams, although I can never remember them when I've awakened."
"Isn't there some potion you could make to help you sleep?"
He shook his head. "Best not to meddle with such things when it can be avoided."
She nodded her understanding and they began eating, neither feeling the need to talk, yet each stealing glances at each other all through the meal.
When he saw that she was done, Venger pushed away his own plate and stood, then captured her hand and led her into the bedroom. Once there, he let go of her and began stripping away his tunic.
"What are you doing?" she asked, alarmed.
"Preparing for our bath," he replied, pausing with his hands on the closure of his breeches. Suddenly becoming aware of her stricken look, he smirked. "Would you feel better if I undressed and entered the bath first?"
"Yeah..." she breathed.
"Very well." He turned and stalked towards the bathing room, but then shrugged a wing aside and glanced back over a shoulder at her. "Do not be too long," he cautioned. "...Lest I come back to fetch you."
Again she only managed to nod, but once he was gone she felt her paralysis fade away to be replaced with both anticipation and a sense of panic. She hadn't believed that he would really insist on making this a daily ritual and she didn't know how long she could endure it before making a fool of herself; she was finding him far too attractive already!
"Sheila!" he boomed from the other room. "What takes you so long?"
"Uh... Just a minute!" she yelled back, as she stripped off her shift and wrapped herself in a towel that was hanging near the bedroom washbowl. Then with a deep breath, she slowly made her way to the other room. At the doorway, she saw that he was positioned directly opposite her in the bathing pool so as to easily view her approach and the thought made her stomach flip-flop.
Dammit! She thought to herself. I have to stop being so childish around him. I am the woman; the one with the power here. I should act it! Forcing herself to act before she lost her nerve, she pulled off her towel and threw it over one of the chairs that stood near the doorway.
Then she held her head high and walked directly towards him, moving her hips a bit more than usual. He stared at her dumbfounded as she approached and then walked around the pool to stand right over him. "See something you like?" she asked as he looked up at her.
From the way his chest flushed and his wings glowed she knew he did indeed like what he saw, but it was still satisfying to see him nod and hear him rumble, "Come here, woman!"
His arm shot up and grasped her own as a wing swept behind her and she found herself quickly propelled forward into the bath and made to sit beside him.
Sheila wasn't quite done, though. The success of her brazen approach left her confident enough for one more payback; Rather than sitting beside him, she slid into his lap, straddling him as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down for a deep kiss. She couldn't help but feel the full length of his hardness as he slid down into a slouch so that she was pressing intimately down upon it.
This time it was he who broke off the kiss and had to come up for air. Indeed, his breath was coming in ragged heaves, as his fingers gripped her hips and lifted her away from him.
"You play a dangerous game..." he rumbled, turning to face her as he placed her on the ledge beside him and watched her with heavily lidded eyes.
"It is no game," she husked back, "But if it is, then it is the one you chose to play; after all you are the one who insists on taunting me with this daily ritual."
Venger nodded, his pupils dilated with passion. "It seemed like a good way in which to get you over your fear of my form," he admitted. "Fortunately, it seems to have worked, although perhaps too well, for now I am the one who is off guard."
She laughed. "In my world we have a saying; If you play with fire, you're going to get burned!"
"Indeed!" He gathered her close for one more kiss, albeit a less passionate one and then handed her the soap as he turned his back to her. "And now, would you mind?" he asked.
She smiled and went to work on his back.
Days passed, then weeks, as a routine was set: rising, a breakfast shared between the three of them, bathing with her new husband, Venger teaching Presto, time out for the afternoon meal, formal audiences with subordinates, touring the lands and her favorite; a moonlit dinner for two filled with good conversation and as ever, Venger's wooing of her followed by bed.
And with each passing day Sheila found herself more in awe of her husband. His intellect, patience and tenacity, combined with his obvious affection for her, left her constantly yearning for his company and craving more. Each time they bathed together, she grew bolder, running her hands over more of him and making no secret of the fact that she liked it. She was beginning to crave him, his company, his approval... Was she falling in love with him? She hoped that she was; that it wasn't just a strange infatuation or curiosity about him. More than anything, she feared mistaking her own motives and feelings.
As for Venger; he seemed to be suppressing a smoldering passion. It was evident in the way she caught him looking at her, in the way he touched her and kissed her whenever he could and sometimes those kisses nearly burned her with their intensity.
He never pressured her, but his wooing of her was masterful and impossible to resist. He could have had her at any time and she never would have made the slightest protest, yet, to her disappointment, he always backed off, slowed down and withdrew.
She'd noticed something else as well; Venger looked different.
It wasn't a big change, but it seemed very apparent to her; the black patches beneath his eyes were larger and even darker. The crimson of his inner wings was so brilliant it seemed to glow. Even his complexion had changed, turning a deeper blue and his voice had become even deeper, something she hadn't thought possible.
Rather than finding the changes in him strange, she found them very attractive, but she was curious about it as well. Still, she couldn't bring herself to ask him about it for fear that his answer prove to be of a sexual nature.
"My God," she finally said aloud to herself four weeks after his curse had been broken. "I've fallen in love with my husband!"
By then she knew it to be the truth of the matter. She loved him; this wasn't merely lust, this wasn't merely familiarity from their previous life together, this wasn't just curiosity.
She knew it to be true because she wished him well in a true and unselfish way.
Now she need only be certain of him and his own motives.
One afternoon, while Venger and Presto were away from the castle on business, depriving her even of the nightmare's company, Sheila began perusing some of the books that Venger kept in his sitting room.
One of them seemed to have been very well read; it had been rebound numerous times and even had more than one cover over the original, worn and unreadable one. It must have been one of his favorites and that alone was enough to pike her curiosity.
Getting herself comfortable on the couch, she psyched herself up for the inevitable tedious translation she would need to do to read it, then opened it to the cover page. To her surprise it was written in English!
"This can't be right," she breathed and looked again. Sure enough, it said, "Basic Principles of Magic and Sorcery."
She shook her head. The book must have a spell on it, making it readable to anyone capable of reading, regardless of their language. That made it the first book she would really be able to read since coming to this world.
With a sigh of contentment she dove into it.
She was therefore startled and extremely distraught when she looked up a short time later to find Kareena sitting on the couch near her feet. The book slipped through her nerveless fingers as she froze in fright.
"Oh, Sheila!" Kareena laughed. "You should see your face!"
"You're dead!" she gasped, drawing her feet up under her and refusing to take her eyes off the ghost for a second.
Kareena sighed. "You have me there; apparently I am no longer living."
"It's simple, Sheila; I am just a manifestation of Kareena's personality that was left behind in the your ring," she explained. "I have something I want you to know, something you must know now that you have married my brother."
"How could you know that if you died before it happened?" Sheila asked, even more confused.
The apparition laughed. "This information would never be released to you if you were not married to him and his soul restored as I had so hoped would happen. Now listen, Sheila, I haven't much time in which to tell you of our lineage, so you must just be quiet and pay attention."
"Have you never wondered why it is that I have wings? If Venger was cursed; changed to a fiend, then why do I also have fiendish features?"
"Oh, the Ring of the Heart did indeed affect me; linking me to my twin in such a way that his evil spilled over into my being. That is why I became cruel and ambitious... until you freed me by taking the ring, but the ring did not change my physical self. I appeared as a human to you when first we met, but that was never my true form; the form you later came to know me in is the true me."
"Then Venger was never human..." Sheila breathed.
Kareena's ghost smiled. "Neither of us ever were fully human; only half human, the offspring of a human man and a female fiend. It is too long a story for me to tell you, but perhaps Venger will, once he knows you know the truth."
"We spent most of our lives before the curse, hiding what we were. For him the disguise soon became imperative for no one would trust a hero who was half fiend and he had a fiancée who did not know... who he could not bring himself to confide in."
"And so he lived in fear that you would discover his secret and leave him. Because of this he never allowed himself to lower his guard with anyone but me. He lived his life with a wall between himself and those he cared for. Unlike me, he actually grew ashamed of what he was."
"Sheila, sooner or later he will make the attempt to destroy his master. If he succeeds, he will be changed back to his true form. Don't you see; he cannot go into that battle fearing the consequences of victory! He must fully embrace the possibility of his restoration. He must know that you love him as he is! Whatever you do, you must accept him fully."
Before Sheila could speak, Kareena vanished.
The four suns were setting and lighting the land a fiery color when Venger landed his Nightmare atop the castle's front turret. Once again gripping his master's forearm, Presto dismounted, but these days he managed to make it look easy as he swung gracefully down to his feet.
It was then that he noticed that the mage was staring into the distance behind him and turning he spied something cresting the horizon of the road. The surprised look on his master's face made it evident that his inhumanly sharp eyes could discern exactly what was heading their way.
"What is it?" he asked, still squinting into the distance. "And why would it be headed this way?"
Venger looked down at him and then suddenly dismounted, slapping the demon horse's rump so that it would return to the stables. Then he spoke, "I must find Sheila. This is a creature that both you and she would wish to greet! I suggest that you await us before the portcullis."
With a clap of displaced air, the mage vanished.
"Oh how I hate it when he does that..." Presto gulped, after having been badly startled. Taking one more squinting look at the approaching guest and still unable to discern what it might be, he descended the stairs and did as his master suggested.
Venger reappeared on his chamber balcony in the hopes of not frightening his spouse and then made his way into the sitting room to find her dozing on the couch. Stooping, he retrieved the book that had fallen out of her limp hands and landed on the floor beside her and then glanced at the title.
He smiled, both amused and pleased to see that she'd been investigating the principles of magic. The book she'd been reading was one that one of his own instructors had written and which he had spent many hours studying in his youth.
Placing it on a nearby table, he stood silently for a time, regarding her and wondering at the perversities of fate. Sheila was Suhailah, yet not, for she'd lived so different a life this time around. Still, all those major elements of character that were the basis of personality had remained unchanged. It was like looking at his past love through a foggy looking glass; he could still recognize her, but the image was distorted. And it wasn't as though he were disturbed or disappointed in her current incarnation; on the contrary, he found her to have grown well beyond the capabilities of her former self. Her soul was older and despite the relative naivety of her youthful new self, she was more deeply grounded, more complex and far more attractive to him than she'd ever been before.
He could only hope that in time she would accept him as fully as he accepted her.
Kneeling before her, he leaned in slowly and breathed out on her neck, pleased when she sighed in her sleep. He next nuzzled his cheek against her own, barely breathing her name near her ear.
She stirred and when she jumped in surprise, he wrapped her in his arms and kissed her on the lips.
"Did you have a pleasant nap?" he husked.
She'd calmed as soon as she realized it was him and now lay passively in his embrace. "I was, until you scared me awake," she protested.
He chuckled. "Then I shall have to make it up to you by stating my reason for doing so." Releasing her, he came to his feet and offered her his hand. As she took it, he pulled her to her feet and placed his hands on her shoulders. "My apprentice awaits us before the castle gates, for an acquaintance of yours approaches. I thought I might fetch you to be there when she arrives."
"Someone I know? Really?" she asked, her eyes wide. At his nod, she added. "Who?"
He took her hand and began to lead her to the balcony. "Come along and see!"
"Aren't we going the wrong way?"
He couldn't help but smile; she still had so much to learn about him! Reaching his destination, he scooped her up and jumped.
Sheila screamed and latched onto him tightly even as he snapped his wings open and landed lightly in the garden below. She was whimpering from reaction, but he found himself delighted by her fierce embrace.
"All is well," he whispered, taking advantage of the moment by holding her tightly in return, but her fear quickly gave way to anger and she let go, shoving at him.
"Put me down!"
He did no such thing and teleported them instead.
When they reappeared, she was trembling in his arms, her eyes wide in fright.
"There you are!" Presto chided, pushing his glasses up his nose. "I was beginning to think I might have to greet our guest by myself."
Venger released Sheila, who glared at him murderously, but then turned to view their approaching visitor with curiosity and excitement.
"Whatever it is, it has four legs," Presto remarked.
Sheila squinted, shielding her eyes with a hand and then yelled with glee, "Uni!"
Before Presto could react, she was racing towards the approaching unicorn.
"Uni?" His apprentice was stunned and Venger took a moment to explain.
"I scried her some weeks ago and it would seem that being a creature of magic, she saw Sheila as well. I would guess that she's been traveling to met us ever since."
Presto gaped at him and then also broke into a frenzied run, heading toward the unicorn, who was now bleating excitedly.
With a sigh, Venger set out to follow, but chose to merely walk. There was no sense in him disrupting the happy reunion, so he watched from afar as he slowly made his way to them.
Sheila found herself sobbing with joy as she reached the unicorn and flung her arms around her neck. Uni nuzzled her, producing sounds of joy as well.
The little unicorn she'd once known was all grown up now; at least four feet at the shoulder, but still recognizable by her strange pink eyes and red main and tail.
"Uni! I thought I might never see you again!" she sobbed, stroking the unicorn. "I was so glad to see you in the mirror and know that you were all right, but I never dreamed that you would come all this way to see me!"
Uni lifted her head and snorted, then attempted to communicate by making human-like sounds, as she often had tried to do when young. It sounded like she said, "Umm-Hmmm!"
In the next second, Presto arrived and likewise gathered the unicorn in an embrace. "Uni! I'd know you anywhere!" he exclaimed. "I can't believe that you came to see us!"
Uni licked his face, then stepped back and looked at the approaching mage.
She and Presto turned to watch as he cautioned her, "This might not go over very well..."
"She's a unicorn, Presto," she whispered back. "She can sense evil, bit also good. Don't you see; its the perfect chance to find out for certain where Venger ranks on the scale!"
Venger came to a stop three feet from the unicorn in question, then nodded his head and greeted her, "Welcome. You are my guest and free to come or go as you choose."
Then Uni did something that made the two of them gasp in absolute shock; she got down on both front knees and bowed to Venger!
Presto's hand took a death grip on Sheila's upper arm as he froze.
"Presto?" she asked apprehensively. "What's happening?"
"Uni has just placed herself in his service," the magician gasped, too shocked to even continue.
It was very late when Sheila left Presto's room and made her way down the corridor to her new chambers; hers and Venger's.
Uni had opted to stay with Presto rather than in the stables and she and the two of them had spent the evening together in his rooms, Venger having dismissed himself after their large, shared dinner with the excuse that they had much to catch up on and he would do better applying himself to finding the solution to several of the Realm's current problems.
Even now, Sheila's head was so full of unanswered questions and her heart so happy at having Uni staying with them that she could barely even think. She felt a connection with her long gone brother whenever she was near the magical creature he had so loved. It was both wonderful and bittersweet.
And although she knew that she should be happy with this wonderful turn of events, still she yearned for more. Uni's appearance had reawakened her curiosity and yearning for her other lost friends. What was Diana and Eric doing with their lives? And Hank, especially Hank; where was he? Was he well? Was there any chance of seeing him again?
But no; that was not possible!
She was a married woman and, after all, he'd left her when she'd most needed him. Not to mention how horrified he would be to find out who her new husband was! Wouldn't that be one incredible meeting?
She entered their chambers and quickly located Venger out on the balcony. He was dressed only in his breeches, and leaning on the stone wall while looking out over the garden. The warm night air ruffled his hair even as it did her own and carried the scent of blooms from below.
It was a beautiful, romantic night; the kind that lovers always succumbed to, the kind that made her yearn to do so as well and yes; with Venger.
She didn't know then why she did it, why she had to ruin the moment, but she did. As soon as he turned to look at her, she asked him, "Will you scry Hank for me?"
"Why torture yourself by revisiting a past that can never be again?" he asked, with narrowed eyes.
"Because then my questions will all be answered and I will be able to put the past to rest," she replied.
He let go the wall and straightened to his full height. "Very well," he sighed. "Bring me the mirror."
She lay there in the dark, on his side of the bed, and stared out at the courtyard trees swaying in the breeze. She was glad that the angle from the bed prevented her from seeing the stars twinkling in the midnight sky; she couldn't deal with too much beauty after the shock she'd received.
Venger had done as she'd asked and scried the one-time ranger for her and the mirror had shown her something very unexpected; He was married and had two very young sons.
Hank apparently hadn't wasted much time pining for her after he'd left and he and his new family had seemed to be very happy.
It had been a blow; she'd quite literally reeled from it and had been steered to a chair by one of Venger's strong arms. There she'd sat a good long while, coming to terms with the shocking new information while Venger had moved a little way away to the balcony, where he could keep an eye on her, yet give her some breathing space.
She had no idea what he thought she was thinking, but in truth, it probably wasn't anything he might imagine. Her heart had leaped with joy at seeing Hank again, but even before his new family had been revealed, she'd realized that she no longer yearned for him as she had for so long. After that, she'd been terribly hurt to find that she'd been the only one to carry a torch for any length of time and she'd been crushed to see him with two children when their own child hadn't survived. It made her feel as though she'd failed him terribly, as though she just didn't measure up to his new wife.
She barely remembered having stood up. As if in a fog, she'd retreated to the bathing room, stripped down to her shift and performed her nightly toiletries. Then she'd retreated back to the bedroom and climbed upon the bed to take up Venger's usual spot.
He'd watched her from the balcony and then stripped down to his breeches and joined her, settling behind her with a soft sigh. The night was warm, despite the breezed through the open doorways and she hadn't bothered to crawl beneath the covers. She hadn't had to; as expected, Venger extended his right wing over her. It provided all the warmth she really needed.
Neither of them had spoken since the mirror went dark and here she lay, with him beside her, although it was not his scheduled night to sleep. She only knew he was awake by the intermittent movement of his fingers where they rested on her stomach. He hadn't mentioned Hank or even that she'd taken his side in their bed.
It was then she realized that whether it bothered Venger or not that she still had feelings for her ex, he'd put her ahead of himself and opted to simply offer her his silent support. Even now he moved his arm and she felt his fingers start combing through her hair as he attempted to ease her into sleep.
She rolled over to face him, surprising him with her unexpected motion. In the dim light of the room she could see him watching her warily.
"What is it my dear?" he asked.
She reached up to brush his hair back and noted how his eyes closed and he seemed to melt at her touch. He wasn't as unaffected by her as he sometimes pretended.
It amazed her at how clear some things suddenly became. He loved her.
Venger loved her.
He hadn't proved it with words or empty gestures; he'd proved it by putting her needs ahead of his own whenever he could... and by patiently waiting for her to realize it for herself.
And she loved him as well. Somehow, seeing Hank, she'd felt how completely he'd been replaced in her heart by her once and future mate.
"I want you," she stated.
He audibly caught his breath as his wing clung to her more tightly. Seconds ticked by while he searched her eyes. "Why now?" he finally asked.
"Because I realize that I love you," came her honest answer.
He rose up over her, tucking her beneath him and kissing her until her head swam and she was dizzy with desire. Although heavy enough to smother her should he collapse, he held his weight on his arms so that she remained comfortably wedged beneath him.
When he lifted his head, she opened her eyes to find him watching her intently, his breath ragged.
"Tell me this has nothing to do with the ranger," he rumbled.
"Tell me that you do not seek to even things with him by mating with me," he clarified.
Sheila froze. In a way she supposed it was a matter of moving forward to prove to herself that she didn't care about Hank and his new wife. As she thought it through, Venger continued to study her, everything about him tense, as he awaited her answer.
Finally she shook her head. "No, it isn't that. I just finally feel free to move on with my life. He was my past, but you're my present and my future."
With a growl, he rolled onto his back, taking her with him so that she found herself sprawled over him as he pulled her down to kiss him, then rumbled near her ear, "Yes, I am your future; of that neither of us can have any doubts. As to your statement that you love and want me; convince me."
She tensed up, suddenly anxious in the face of so intimate a challenge. Staring down into those strange, ancient eyes, she felt foolish, stupid and far too young. How was she, who knew so little, supposed to impress someone with many lifetimes experience?
He reached up to stroke her hair and surprised her by whispering, "It's all right; we will wait a while. Sheila, you're clearly not ready yet, but you should know that you could never disappoint me."
Venger tried to pull her down for another kiss, but she stopped him.
"You're wrong," she said quietly. "I am ready and I can prove it to you with words if not with actions." He looked at her quizzically as she continued, "I know the truth about you. I know that you were never more than half human; that your mother was a fiend."
"How can you know this?" he asked, looking stricken.
"The part of Kareena that lives on within my ring told me," she answered. "And because of that, I know that you've never been comfortable with what you are, yet that should not be so! I've seen who you really are; who the man trapped within this form is and once was, long ago, before he lost his soul and was cursed. You will never be fully human; when the curse is lifted, you will appear to me in your true form, but you need not fear that. When that day comes, I will rejoice because it will be you; no more, no less. I don't want illusions. I do not want lies. All I want is you... as you truly are."
His stricken look was replaced with one of amazement. "Can this be?" he asked.
She nodded. "Everything that has happened in the last few weeks has pointed me towards the truth; that you are again yourself, that you love me and that you are unselfish in your love. Besides, I find the wings very attractive, so what's not to like about a half fiend husband?"
His eyes actually seemed to well up as he watched her and then he had her in a vice-like hug and was kissing her desperately.
"Venger?" she asked when he let her up for air.
"I love you," he confessed. "How could I not, when you show such faith in me? I am not and never will be one who bares his soul or speaks often of what is on his mind, but for you I will try to be less secretive. Can you live with me as I am?"
She nodded and then husked, "Now, show me how much you love me... please?"
"Are you begging?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I suppose that I am."
With a growl, he rolled them over once more, his sharp nails quickly shredding and stripping off her shift as he ravished her neck with his mouth.
Sheila found herself arching against him and panting under the onslaught of his passion. He seemed barely in control of himself as he quickly moved to suckle and tease her nipples, one hand already exploring her sex.
As she moaned and squirmed beneath him, trying to reach more of him with her own hands, he held her fast beneath the weight of his upper torso and kept his hips out of her reach. After a time, to her surprise, he broke off his attentions to bring one finger up to his mouth, quickly biting off his claw and spitting it across the room. Then he was kissing her as he used his denuded finger to stroke and tease her cleft.
Shortly after, that same finger slipped inside her, plumbing her depths as she bucked and cried out, wanting more. She was so close, yet he seemed to intentionally be holding back; making her wait though it cost him as well. His breath was ragged and he groaned each time she cried out her pleasure.
"Venger! Please! Please, let me touch you!" she nearly sobbed.
His grin was brilliant, even in the darkened room, as he relented, rolling slightly away from her and pulling her along with him so that they were on their sides facing one another.
She wasted little time in running her hands over the huge chest muscles that helped power his wings and from there down his belly. She loosened the ties to his breeches, caressing his erection the moment it was released. He shuddered and let out a long, drawn-out rumble. He grew even harder as she explored him, her other hand snaking down to cup and play his large testicles.
All the while, she became more desperate for him as flashes of memory beleaguered her. She remembered him holding her up in the air after she'd accepted his proposal, and she remembered the first time they'd loved. She remembered so many important moments in their previous lives together, yet it was as though she were watching them on film, not living them, not feeling them. She was aching to make a real memory with him, to feel him...
Suddenly very bold, she rose to her knees, pushed him onto his back and stripped off his breeches, but before she could climb upon him as she so badly wished to, he had her beneath him again, his wings tenting around them and blocking out even the moonlight.
In the dark warmth of his embrace, his breath was hot on her shoulder as he parted her legs. She felt him press against her, ready to complete their union and she moaned impatiently.
He gripped her hair, though not roughly as his hips tilted in readiness. "You are mine, little thief! No matter where you go, I will find you and not even death shall part us or keep me from you this time!" he vowed passionately, tugging her hair. "Swear yourself to me!"
"I am yours!" she gasped, arching up against him in her desire.
Will a growl he took her; sliding into her until she pressed her hands against his hips to stop him, gasping with the shock of his size.
For a moment fear surged, as she remembered what he'd done to her previous self, but he stopped immediately and kissed her tenderly, waiting for her to adjust before moving gently against her. Almost immediately, she relaxed and soon began moving with him as her pleasure built.
He felt the change in her and changed his rhythm and angle, providing more friction, more pressure and driving her to the very edge of bliss. All it took to push her over was him calling her name and the knowledge that he was pleading; he was so close himself.
She opened her mouth to scream as she spasmed, but he stifled her cries and his own with a desperate kiss as he thrust one last time and spilled himself within her.
Seconds passed as he alternately groaned and kissed her and as she sighed and stroked his cheek, his shoulders, his lower back.
Many minutes later, he withdrew from her, rolled over and tucked her against him, wrapping her in his warm wings.
She'd finally caught her breath and suddenly she began giggling, drawing a raised eyebrow and a puzzled look from him.
"Did I do something amusing?" he groused.
She shook her head. "I was just wondering if you still think that being married is only slightly better than being dead?"
To her surprise, he roared with laughter until he finally wiped tears from his eyes and managed to compose himself. "Not at all, my wife," he replied. "On the contrary; I believe that I shall have no objections to being at your beck and call."
"Oh, so you think I might turn into a nag?" she hissed, pretending to be angry.
"Do so and I will change you into an old mare so that your exterior matches your disposition," he warned, his smirk and the quick peck he gave her the only signs at all that he might be joking.
She hugged him tightly and kissed his chest and then was almost instantly asleep.
To be continued...