DISCLAIMER: Characters belonging to someone else (you know who you are), consider yourselves thoroughly disclaimed. Thank you.
STORY: Set after the events in the story 'The Point of No Return.'
Events in that story are alluded to, but it is NOT necessary to read The Point of No Return to understand this story, since it is not a sequel.
THANKS: Goes to all the people who were fabulous enough to review my other storys :)
They had been in the forest clearing for four days.
It was a peaceful place, and Presto was content. The fierce, bright light from the four suns was muted through the green of the leaves from tall trees. The wind danced through the branches and round the trunks, leaving a gentle, subtle murmur of delight in its wake.
He wasn't sure why they had stopped and stayed here, but they all seemed glad of the rest. Visiting Ur had taken a lot out of them, physically and emotionally, though some were loath to admit it!
The Magician was under a make-shift canopy, nibbling on the remains of last night's feast; as well as the standard nuts and berries, they had sweet fruit as well, and a few fish from the stream close by. It was good not have to produce food from the Hat for once. Even with his new-found confidence with the Hat, for some reason most food he produced was either very securely "pre-packaged" and needed a hacksaw to get into, or well past its sell-by date (Except the hotdogs, but everyone was sick of those).
At one end of the clearing, Hank was sitting beside Sheila, under the shade of a large fir tree. They were close together, rubbing shoulders occasionally, but not staying so close as to arouse too much "suspicion". To a casual onlooker who didn't know them, they looked like friends sitting together having a friendly conversation. But Presto knew better. Actually, all the kids knew better, even Bobby, but no one mentioned it to Hank or Sheila. It seemed nicer to leave them in peace and not tease them. Eric had managed to keep his mouth shut as well.
The Cavalier himself was with Diana, standing together at the far end of the clearing, just out of earshot, fortunately. The Magician wasn't sure what they were supposed to be doing, and he suspected that the Cavalier didn't either, but they were having the usual exchange of put-downs and come-backs from a seemingly inexhaustible supply, and seemed happy enough doing whatever they were doing.
Not far the other way, Bobby was playing fetch with Uni (who was putting a brave face on the situation).
Part of the reason for the calm of the group was undoubtedly the fact that they hadn't seen Dungeonmaster for a couple of weeks, since before entering the City of Ur. Presto himself was quite relieved. It wasn't that they didn't want to find a way home, it was just that they wanted a rest from the constant fighting and chasing and watching a portal disappear just when it was within their grasp.
Each time before they had picked themselves up and bounced right back. It was different with the Locked Portal, but Presto didn't know why.
Not far away, there was the sound of raised voices, and Presto glanced round. The Cavalier and the Acrobat were heading towards him, Eric in a stony silence and Diana seemed to be teasing him about something.
Looks like he lost the argument. (Again) Yes, again. (Wonder if he'll ever learn?) Dunno. Don't think so.
But by the time she reached Presto, Diana had obviously decided that Eric had had enough, so she flopped down to the ground beside Presto, and smiled at him. Eric kept standing, but he was looking away, across the clearing to the mountains beyond. There was no need to speak. It was peaceful. Presto gave a small, contented sigh.
It was perfect.
'Greetings, my Young Pupils!'
There was a slight, shocked pause. Damn it, Presto! You should have known better than to tempt fate like that!
'Dungeonmaster!' said Diana and Presto together in surprise. Eric just looked at him with a bored, aloof expression on his face, and his arms crossed.
Their Guide bowed. He looked pleased to see them.
The other three heard the cry and looked round. Bobby and Uni quickly came running up, Hank and Sheila followed at a more leisurely pace.
Their Guide waited until all the children had gathered round. He gave them all a good long stare before speaking.
'I come with news of a way home,' he said.
'Well, it's about time!' retorted Eric, putting his hands on his hips. 'What took you so long, anyway?'
Dungeonmaster gave a small shrug.
'I was not sure that the object you need is nearby,' he replied. There was something in Dungeonmaster's tone that made Presto frown. I don't like the sound of this! (Me neither!). It took him a couple of seconds to realise why he was uneasy; it was one of the few times Dungeonmaster hadn't known everything, instantly.
The Cavalier seemed to have picked up on that fact as well.
'The Force not working for you today?'
Dungeonmaster chose to ignore him.
'The object you need is called the Orion Lance.'
'Lance?' said Bobby. 'What's a lance?'
'It's a kinda weapon,' said Eric quickly, with an edge of sarcasm.
'And it will show you the way home,' added their guide.
'Where do we find it, Dungeonmaster?' asked Hank.
'It will be difficult to locate,' he replied slowly.
'I expected nothing else,' murmured Eric in a surly tone.
'The Lance was lost, centuries ago. Once, it was carried by a great king. He fought in many wars, and defeated many foes, and he was greatly feared. Then, finally, he was defeated in a great battle of Orcs versus men, one of the greatest and fiercest ever fought in the Realm.'
Presto shivered. All this talk of war and fighting made him uncomfortable.
'Though the King's army was overcome he himself was not killed and he retreated, leading the remnant of his men to this forest.'
'What happened to him?' asked Sheila.
'It is not known for sure,' said their Guide. 'The warriors took refuge from the Orcs in the Caves of the Shadow Mountains,' he gestured to the mountains to in the north, 'and none but four ever came out. The Lance must still be in there, its power sleeping. You must seek it out, and use it.'
They looked round at each other. This was something they had never really done before. Almost all of the portals they had tried to find were in a specific place; they got to the place and they found the Portal. It might be as straightforward as the Golden Grimoire from Darkhaven, you read the book and the portal opened there and then. But , somehow, judging from Dungeonmaster's expression, Presto didn't think it would be that simple.
'But if it's a weapon, how do we use it to get home?' asked Bobby.
'It has great power, Barbarian,' replied Dungeonmaster in a sombre tone.
Bobby looked satisfied with the information, but Eric obviously wasn't. He gave a humph.
'That's not much of an answer!' he snapped. 'How do we get home!'
'Used correctly, it will show you the way home. But beware! For not every one, or everything within the caves is as it seems. Do not wander, or stray far from your friends!'
'Yes, but what do you mean!' the Cavalier repeated plaintively.
'What he says!' retorted Diana quickly.
'I know that, I'm not completely dumb! But Dungeonmaster…' Eric stopped suddenly. Presto knew without looking that the guide had gone, it was there in the tone of the Cavalier's voice. Then Eric sighed.
'He's gone,' said Bobby.
'He's really skimping on the information this time!' said Eric. 'It will show you the way home. That's no help at all! We all live in hope that Dungeonmaster will do the same sometime!'
There was an uncomfortable pause.
'Well,' said Hank at last, 'at least it's another chance to get home. Let's go!'
The Ranger was smiling, and Presto didn't know how he kept his spirits up like this.
'Hank's right,' added Diana with a broad grin. 'C'mon guys! It's a way home!'
The enthusiasm was infectious, and everyone smiled except Eric. At last, under the stares of his friends, the Cavalier grinned too.
'Well, I was getting bored hanging around here anyway!'
Diana snorted, but before she could get a quip in, the Ranger moved off, probably eager to avoid any arguments while he was in such a good mood.
The walk to the foot of the mountains was quiet and uneventful. Sheila and Hank walked in front together, Eric and Diana just behind. Presto was content to walk on his own at the back. He liked it here in the forest and some small part of him was sad to leave the cover of the trees and go out from the muted light and into the sunshine.
It took them the whole morning to get out of the woods, and it was well past lunchtime before they reached the base of the mountains. In front of them was their fist obstacle, there was a sheer cliff about 100 feet tall, and above that, the jagged peaks of rock rose up higher and higher, like rows and rows of vicious, sharp teeth. As last, they ground to a halt near the base. Everyone looked up.
'Well, I for one am not gonna be going over those,' said Eric, voicing the thought that was going through everyone's mind. 'That's unclimbable!'
'Bet Diana could climb it,' chipped in Sheila, with a playful smile.
'Maybe I could if I wanted to,' said Diana, 'But we've gotta find a cave. So I vote with the "no climbing" too!'
'Ok, no climbing,' said Hank, grinning at her. 'Let's see what we can find!'
The group moved to the base of the cliff and walked along in its shadow, all the time looking for any sign of a cave entrance.
'Doesn't seem to be any caves around here!' said Bobby at last. 'You want me to make us a way in?'
Presto saw Hank grimace.
'No, Bobby,' the Ranger said quickly. 'But thanks for the offer!'
'Yeah,' added Eric, 'we don't wanna spend the rest of the day digging ourselves out of a rockfall!'
'Not again,' muttered Diana, with an evil grin. 'But I bet you'd love another chance to save us all, Eric!'
'Ha ha!' snapped the Cavalier. 'You still haven't explained what took you all so long to get me out last time! Hmm?'
The last time was in the Hidden Valley of the Unicorns, and moving the hundreds of tonnes of rock off the Cavalier had been tricky. The Hat had been very useful, and positively cooperative that day. Even so, Eric had spent a long while trapped under the Shield, and he was still annoyed about it. He suspected that the others had been off enjoying themselves instead of helping, which was only partly true!
The Cavalier glared round at his friends, but the look didn't have any real annoyance in it.
'Oh, I don't care!' he said with a sigh. 'Just as long as you don't expect me to do it every day!'
Beside him, Sheila giggled.
'But you did it so well, Eric!'
'We'd better hurry up and find the Caves before I loose my sense of humour. Again!'
'Well, that could be a little cave,' said Diana, pointing. 'There, before that outcrop.'
Presto peered in the direction Diana had shown. (Doesn't look much like a cave) Looks more like a shadow. (Looks more like a ravine!)
'I'm not so sure,' said Hank. 'But it's the best potential cave we've seen.'
They all climbed up for a short way, over the loose stone towards the cliff base. There was a very narrow cleft, barely wider bigger than the Hat's length, just before the outcrop that Diana had pointed to.
'It is an opening,' said Hank. He leaned inside and pulled an arrow.
(This is another bad idea) Everything around here is a bad idea (There's no way that's gonna take us inside) That's just wishful thinking!
'It's dark in here,' the Ranger called. 'There's nothing but grey walls and more shadows. I cant' see the back.' There was a pause as he looked around, then he let the arrow fizzle out and stood up once more. 'I think Diana was right. I think it's a way into the caves.'
Diana gave the Cavalier a smug, knowing smile.
'So, you're gonna to be auditioning for the role as Dungeonmaster next?' Eric asked her and the Acrobat grinned even more widely.
'Well,' said Eric, his grin now tinged with malice, 'In that case, you can go first!'
That suggestion didn't seem to bother Diana as much as Eric had obviously hoped, and the Acrobat wriggled easily through the gap and into the recess beyond.
One by one, they all followed, with Eric predictably getting stuck and scratching his armour.
'Maybe you're not gonna need it anymore,' said Bobby jokingly, as Eric was complaining. 'Maybe we'll get home!'
But Presto caught what everyone else seemed to miss at that statement. The Cavalier suddenly looked empty, but just for a fleeting moment, as if he knew what he was about to say was a lie.
'Yeah, maybe we'll get home.'
'Maybe you should just get yourself some new armour,' Diana said, and the momentary gloom of the Cavalier vanished in a puff of annoyance.
'I keep telling you, there's nothing wrong with my armour!' he snapped.
Diana just sniggered, and walked off into the cave. Everyone followed.
At every moment, Presto expected to find the back wall of the cave, but it seemed like they were in some sort of tunnel. The ground crunched loudly underfoot; the floor was covered in a thick layer of gravel and loose stones. It was difficult to keep their balance, and almost impossible to run.
At first they used the light from Hank's Bow, but Presto soon realised there was another glow in the caves, one with a distinctly greenish tinge, unlike the fiery yellow glow from the arrows.
There were crystals in the walls that weren't reflecting light; they were generating it themselves! Carefully, Presto walked over to the walls for a closer look. Sure enough, the crystals gave off a pale, green light, and Presto pulled on out of the surrounding stone. It was the size of a grapefruit, and quite heavy, but once he'd cleaned it up and removed some of the dirt and lichen, the glow was enough to see by.
The others came up beside him.
'Well done, Presto!' said Hank with a grin. He let the light from the arrow die out, and the light from Presto's stone seemed to grow brighter.
'Al-right! Our own torches!' said Bobby, and pulled a stone out of the wall, too and the others followed suit.
The light for the crystals was bright enough, but it seemed to cast eerie shadows all around them, not helped by the rough and jagged nature of the walls themselves, so it looked as if they were surrounded but dark monsters. Uni whined as she looked around, and pressed herself close to Bobby for protection.
'What's the plan now?' asked Diana 'Shall we split up?'
Hank frowned. It was glaringly obvious to Presto that the Ranger would have loved a chance to go off with Sheila on his own. But there was Dungeonmaster's warning to consider as well, he didn't usually tell them not to wander off! Finally, Hank shook his head.
'No, we should stick together in the caves,' he said. 'We can spread out, though. But don't go too far!'
The last statement was directed at Eric, who gave Hank a blank stare in return.
The tunnel widened out not far ahead into a vast cathedral of stone. Here and there were thick pillars of rock, thicker than the trunks of any tree he'd ever seen, that reached up into the shadows above them.
The sound of their crunching footsteps echoed round so loudly that everyone started to talk in whispers. Walking didn't become any easier as there were still loose stone and pebbles, but they managed well enough.
There was something odd about the caves, and Presto wasn't sure what it was. He didn't like the caves, not that he actually "liked" many places in the Realm, but these caves were claustrophobic, even with the vast space all around him. (Remember the mountains above) And the cliff (And the cliff. It's above us) All the time. (All the time) Let's not think about it. Presto glanced up. The roof of the cave was a long way up, he imagined he could just make out some stalactites above him. He shivered, still thinking about the impossibly huge amount of rock sitting directly on top of them.
There were deep shadows and variegated patterns on the walls around them and it was difficult to see what is what and to keep an eye on all of the others. Hank and Sheila mostly walked at the back, and everyone spread out. Bobby and Uni played hide and seek in the shadows for a few minutes but quickly tired of it and instead the Barbarian amused himself by pestering Eric. Diana joined in, and Presto was tempted as well. After all, Eric seemed to be in a pretty good mood, and that was always the best time to go and annoy him.
But the Magician just kept on walking, content to be lost in his own thoughts for a while, all the time looking around at the shadows. Everyone was subdued in this place; it was eerie, and quiet (too quiet) Even with our footsteps. They'd been forced to travel through any number of caves before, but there was something about this place that felt nasty.
The stones underfoot got thicker, and it was getting increasingly difficult to walk in a straight line. Even the sure-footed Acrobat was having trouble.
Slowly the floor began to rise, and soon they were walking on the edge of the stony ridge of a huge miniature mountain of pebbles, and constantly sinking ankle-deep into the scree. It was hard work, and in the still, moist air of the caves, Presto was getting uncomfortably warm.
He was a away ahead of the others, still lost in his own thoughts, wondering where they were going and pondering Dungeonmaster's riddle when there was a soft noise behind him that made him jump. He whipped round as fast as he could, thinking there was something unpleasant creeping up behind him and lost his footing on the loose stones. As he twisted round, trying to regain his balance, he slipped again and fell backward, sliding down the slope into the darkness as the base.
'Presto!' shouted Diana.
He had no chance to stop himself. In a rush of crunching stones, he slid out of sight of the others. The crystal was knocked from his hand and his glasses were torn from his face. For about twenty seconds he tumbled down the scree slope, unable to stop himself and unable to see where he was going. At last he ground to a halt, his momentum spent, at the very bottom of the pebble-mountain. Under his hands he could feel smooth, hard rock, rather than loose stone.
The Magician rubbed his head slowly, and tried to brush some of the dirt off his robes. He could hear voices above him, but he was dizzy and disorientated, and annoyed about loosing his glasses, yet again! The shadows were much thicker here, as if they had embraced darkness to eat away any source of light.
The others were calling for him, and he was able to shout back a quick "I'm ok".
'Don't worry, we'll get you back up!' called Hank.
The Magician frowned, not really sure he wanted to go all the way back up to the top, it had been a long fall, after all. He could make out a squidgy glow from nearby that was presumably his light-crystal. Before he could go and get it, he had to make sure he could see properly, and he couldn't decided what to do next without knowing where he was. He needed his glasses, so he pulled out the Hat to cast a quick spell.Abraca-dum, Abraca-dee, I'd like some glasses, to help me see!
The Hat gave a slight glow, and for a brief moment Presto had the familiar sinking feeling that it wasn't gonna work, and he was going to get a set of champagne flutes, so something. But before the glow grew too bright, it suddenly stopped.
Just at that moment, a familiar voice in the darkness spoke out to him and his glasses were pushed into his hand.
'I am glad it is you, Magician! I am glad to see you!'
The voice was so quiet, and Presto was so surprised, that he didn't reply. Of course, he recognised their Guide immediately. It wasn't so much the voice, as the magic. It felt like Dungeonmaster.
Through the low gloom a small figure stepped out of the shadows. It was indeed Dungeonmaster, but he was looking very grave and concerned. (He looks afraid as well!).
'I come with a warning for you, Magician,' the old man continued. 'All is not well above. It is as I feared, that in spite of my warning one of your number has already been captured. But even I cannot be sure which one without proof.'
Above, he heard all his friends shouting his name. He recognised them all; Hank, Sheila, Eric, Diana and Bobby. He could even hear Uni's frantic bray. What was Dungeonmaster talking about?
'Captured? But Dungeonmaster…?'
There was a dim glow of light from above, probably from one of Hank's arrow, and it illuminated the old man's face. Presto gasped. It looked to old and haggard, and the eyes were filled with sadness.
The old man put a hand on his shoulder, Presto could feel the power of all Dungeonmaster's magic in that one gesture.
'Beware, Magician! And, until you are sure, trust no one!'
But Dungeonmaster had gone.