Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and ideas that are owned by others. Written for fun, not profit.

Rating: PG

Summary: An alternate version of the episode "The Box" -- When the kids try to lead Venger back to the Realm, they find the portal is closed.

Author's Notes: This was originally written for the 2006 D&D Christmas Challenge, hosted by Sealgirl at her marvelous website, The Virtual Realm. Updates will be posted there first before making their way to this site. However if you feel like wandering over here to leave a review it would certainly make my little heart happy.

This story is set in Season One, which means only the action prior to "The Box" has taken place. (I've used the widely accepted episode guide at The Realm as a reference: www (dot) zaksrealm (dot) net (backslash) EpisodeGuide (dot) html) However, some references (both vague and obvious) will be made to future episodes as a means of keeping the action and the details consistent. Hope you enjoy!

Acknowledgements: To Sealgirl for organizing the Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon Christmas Challenge. Thank you for all your hard work! I had a lot of fun participating!

And a shout-out to my friend Chance Saver, since I made a brief reference to "Loonyland," the name with which he dubbed the amusement park in his wonderful story Zeitgeist.

Balance of Power

by Rummi

Chapter 1

It didn't take long for Hank to realize something was wrong. Somewhere along the line, the ride had made more turns than he remembered; they'd passed more animatronic monsters than he recalled seeing the last time. And still nothing was happening.

There was no otherworldly tug; there was no illuminated tunnel. No portal, no stairway leading back to Xandora's box . . . There was nothing – except the ride.

The roller coaster car rounded the last corner and a thin outline of the light beyond the double exit doors loomed into view. Out of the corner of his eye, Hank could see Sheila lean forward against her safety bar. Her eyes were very wide and her expression was worried. She turned to meet his gaze and she blinked nervously.

Diana also turned to face Hank, just as the coaster made a dramatic slam through the exit and back into the night air of the park. "Do you think Xandora closed the box?" she asked.

Suddenly everyone was looking at him. Hank could feel the weight of their stares, but he had no answers for them. He was just as dumbfounded.

There were a few things he did know, however: The car was slowing to a halt, Venger had followed them back into the ride, their weapons didn't work here at home, and if they stayed here, they were sitting ducks.

"Everybody out!" Hank ordered as the coaster skidded to a squealing halt along the break run. "Run for it!"

The Young Ones scrambled out of the car as quickly as they could and made a dash for one of the clusters of bushes that landscaped the Fantasy Land section of the amusement park. They hunched down and glued their eyes to the Dungeons & Dragons ride, barely daring to breathe.

An eternal time seemed to pass while they watched and waited, although it was probably only a few short moments. Hank gripped his bow tightly – even though he knew it wouldn't be able to help him here – and fixed his eyes on the ride.

Soon Sheila's voice broke the silence. Her quiet whisper seemed too loud in the anxious quiet that had settled over the group. "Hank?" she asked. "Where is he?"

Hank shook his head. It took a moment before he could force himself to speak. "I don't know," he said.

"Maybe we tricked him," Bobby offered. The boy wasn't as cautious with his volume and it caused Hank to reflexively check the skies, as though they would be spotted and attacked at any moment.

"Bobby! Shh!" Sheila scolded in a fretful hush. She must have had the same idea.

"But maybe we did," Bobby insisted, more quietly this time. "Maybe he thought we really did go back to the Realm, so he followed us there."

Diana flashed Hank a look that was both hopeful and skeptical at the same time. "But if Xandora closed the box," she said, "how could he? Wouldn't he be trapped here?"

"Um, hello?" Eric interjected, although he too kept his voice low. "He's Venger! Since when did he need a stupid box to pop up wherever he wanted?"

The Young Ones exchanged meaningful looks at that. Hank knew they were all thinking the same thing he was: If Venger had, indeed, transported himself back to the Realm – with or without the box – it meant that it was over.

They were home, and they were safe. For good.

A smile tugged insistently at a corner of Hank's mouth, but he was stubborn in his effort to keep it from spreading. Because if Venger was able to transport himself back to the Realm, that meant something else as well . . .

Hank silently rose to his feet.

"Where are you going?" Sheila asked. She quickly got up as well and stood beside him.

"To make sure," Hank replied. "If Xandora really did close the box and Venger can return to the Realm without it, then he can teleport himself back here just as easily when he learns we're not there."

"You're nuts!" Eric was on his feet now too, making no further effort to keep his voice down. "If he was going to do that, don't you think he would have done it by now?" Eric swept his arm outward, indicating the quiet emptiness of the park.

"There's only one way to be sure, Eric," Hank said.

"And just what do you plan on doing if you see him?" Eric snapped. "Wave your broken bow menacingly at him, or politely ask him to leave?" He stood toe-to-toe with Hank as the rest of the Young Ones gathered around them.

"Whatever I have to," Hank replied. "Venger only came here because of us. If there's a chance he might come back, we have to take care of it." He turned to run back toward the ride, but Eric caught his arm, jerking him back.

Hank was surprised for a moment. He looked down to where the Cavalier was tightly gripping his elbow.

"Get real!" Eric countered. "We probably just missed the portal that led back to the box, that's all. When Venger gets back to the Realm, Dungeon Master's pint-sized partner will close the lid, and by the time Venger realizes he's been Wile-E.-Coyoted into taking a wrong turn, we'll be home free."

"And what if he doesn't?" Diana stepped in. "What if he comes back here and decides he's going to destroy our world?"

"I still say if he was going to do that, he would have done it already," Eric shot back. "I also say we don't look a gift unicorn in the mouth. We're home. It's what we deserve after so long. Let somebody else worry about Venger for a change."

"And if he does find a way back here?" Hank pressed in a low voice. He looked from Eric's hand, which was still gripping his arm, up into Eric's face. The Cavalier looked angrier than usual.

"Then, O fearless leader, these dummies will probably follow you in there to take care of it," Eric replied, jerking his head toward the ride. His voice was also low, and uncharacteristically serious. "The weapons don't work here, and if you want to get everybody killed, then that's your business. But you can count me out." With that, Eric released Hank's elbow.

Hank was about to respond, when a sound in the distance cut off his train of thought. It was something none of them had heard for a very long time, but it was unmistakable. Each of the Young Ones looked around as the noise grew louder and closer.

"Sirens," Presto said. "I think it's the cops."

"And fire trucks, too, I think," added Bobby, listening.

"Oh, no," Eric groaned.

"But that's good, isn't it?" Sheila said to him. "Didn't you want the police here a few minutes ago?"

"That was when the eight-foot tall, one-horned maniac was on a rampage!" Eric wailed in reply. "I don't know about you, but I don't want to be the only ones here now – when the cops start wondering who vaporized the phone booth, and blew up the hot dog stand, and knocked over the ferris wheel . . ."

"For as much as I hate to say it," Diana grumbled, "Eric has a point. There's no way we'd be able to explain what happened. We should probably get out of here." She shared a significant look with Hank, who hesitated, then slowly nodded his head.

They made their way toward the exit quickly and quietly. By the time they reached it, several policemen and firefighters had already entered the park. A night security guard with a large ring of keys walked swiftly in front of them as they headed for Fantasy Land.

Hank made a motion for the group to duck into one of the restrooms to keep out of sight. As he watched the police and firemen pass by their hiding spot, Hank was reminded of how many times he and his friends had been forced to find cover from packs of lizard men, or sneak quietly past troops of orcs. They must have gotten pretty good at it after so long – and now they were using their skills to hide from the cops in their own world. The irony of it wasn't lost on the Ranger.

When it looked as though the coast was clear, Hank signaled to the others behind him. The Young Ones headed toward the open gate of the park. Hank paused for a moment to check for guards—

No, not guards, he reminded himself. We're home – not escaping Venger's fortress. Hank was unsettled by how foreign that felt.

The group then moved through the exit and out into the night, leaving the park – and the ride – far behind them.

Sneaking back to his own home was easier than Hank would have thought. He hadn't known what to expect, but it certainly hadn't been what he found when he arrived.

The windows were all lit with a soft, reassuring glow and his parents' car was in the driveway. It was strange, but until that moment the Ranger hadn't even thought about his own car, which he now distinctly remembered driving to the park on the day they were transported to the Realm. In fact, it hadn't even crossed his mind – probably because he and his friends had spent so long walking wherever they went.

However, now that he remembered it, Hank was surprised to see an empty spot in the driveway beside his parents' car – where his own vehicle had once stood. Surely, since he and his friends had been missing for so long, his car would have been found and returned to the house by now.

But as he approached his home, Hank knew he had a bigger problem to face: What was he going to say to his parents after disappearing for what had to have been months? How would they react? How could he even begin to explain what had happened? They would never believe him. No one would . . . not about this.

Hank steeled himself, took a deep breath, and reached for the doorknob.

As he entered the house, Hank was greeted by the sound of the television. And his mother's voice.

"Is that you, Hank honey?"

Hank felt just as he had the time he and his friends had been frozen by Kelek's magic: Suddenly, he couldn't move, he couldn't speak, and he could barely breathe.

"Hank?" The voice came from around the corner in the living room – the spot where Hank always remembered his parents sitting when they were watching TV together.

"Yeah," he finally answered. His voice cracked slightly. It sounded strange and surreal in his own ears. "Yeah, it's me."

"About time." This time it was his father's voice he heard. "That must have been some opening day celebration at the park. We expected you earlier than this, especially with school tomorrow."

Hank suddenly felt a little wobbly on his feet. School. Tomorrow. But it couldn't be . . . it just couldn't be the same day they had left! They'd been trapped in the Realm for months!

Hadn't they?

Hank's mind was a whirl of questions for which there was no other possible explanation: Even though so much time had gone by in the Realm, apparently no one in their own world had even noticed they were missing for more than a few hours.

"You okay, son?" There was a telltale sound of his father rising from the sofa around the corner.

Hank glanced quickly down at his clothes and the bow in his hand and he started. His own disbelief was quickly put on hold. How many questions would he be forced to answer if they saw him like this? In a flash he had crossed the hall in front of the living room door and reached the stairway.

"Fine," he called behind him as he went. "Just tired . . . and a little grimy from the park. I'm going to take a quick shower and then I'll be back down."

"All right," his father said, but Hank was barely listening as he took the stairs two at a time. He paused at the top and looked around. Everything felt like a dream. Hank could only hope the others had had similar luck.

The shower that Hank took was much longer than he had originally planned. He had simply forgotten how good it felt to bathe in hot water. By the time he was finished, his skin was pink and tender from the heat of it. It felt as though thousands of tiny needles were pinching his flesh. Hank had to admit: it felt wonderful.

When he was finished, and his uniform and bow were tucked safely beneath his bed, he went downstairs. As he turned the corner that led into the living room, he met the eyes of both his parents. They were sitting in their usual spot in front of the television, looking at him and smiling easily – as though nothing was different.

Hank opened his mouth to say something but found that he couldn't force the words past the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. He honestly hadn't realized just how much he had missed them.

His mother looked at him strangely, but still with an affectionate smile. "Are you sure you're all right?" she asked.

"Yeah, I'm good," Hank replied. The words started to come a bit more easily, though he still had to work to keep some of the overwhelming emotion out of them. He didn't want his parents to think that anything was wrong, when quite the opposite was true. "I'm just tired," he added. "I'm going to go to bed, so I just wanted to say goodnight."

He walked over to his parents as they rose off the sofa and hugged each one of them in turn – probably a bit longer and tighter than he would have prior to being in the Realm.

"Goodnight," he said, fighting the lump again. "I love you."

"Sleep well, honey," said his mother. "See you in the morning."

Hank nodded and smiled and began walking back toward the stairs – and the first real bed he'd slept in for months.

A shrill, piercing noise stopped him in the doorway, and, for an instant, the Ranger returned. Hank spun on the balls of his feet, his right fist automatically gripping a phantom bow that was no longer in his hand. When the sound came again, Hank realized it was only the telephone.

The tenseness didn't leave his shoulders right away, though his parents didn't seem to notice anything was wrong. Hank still felt embarrassed. He scratched at his damp hair self-depreciatingly and mumbled, "I'll get it."

He picked up the handset from its cradle and cleared his throat before muttering, "Um, hello?"

"Hank?" Diana's voice rang clearly through the earpiece.

"Yeah," he replied with a sigh of relief. For some reason, just hearing the voice of one of his friends helped him to relax a bit. It reminded him that he wasn't alone. "How did everything go?"

"Uh," Diana stammered, "it was weird. I had no idea it was going to be . . . you know."

"The same day, yeah." Hank turned his back to his parents and tried to keep his voice conversationally nonchalant, as though he and Diana might have been discussing a school project. "Were you able to . . . um, . . . get everything okay?" Hank winced at the ridiculousness of the question.

"You mean was I able to get into my house without too many questions after we all left each other?" Diana clarified. She was obviously not within earshot of anyone. "Yes. It was almost too easy. And as far as I can tell, it went all right for the others too. But, Hank . . . that's really not the reason I'm calling."

Hank felt his shoulders tense up again. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"I thought maybe you would have seen it by now," she replied. "I was in the shower for, like, an hour so Sheila had to call me twice before she was able to get through."

"Seen what?" Hank's heart felt as though it had dropped down into his stomach.

"Just turn on the news."

The hand holding the telephone dropped to Hank's chest as he hurried toward the television. He was certain that Diana could probably hear his heart hammering through the earpiece. With trembling fingers, he grabbed the dial and twisted it to the local news station.

"Hey," his father exclaimed from behind him, but Hank could only mutter a distracted apology as he straightened to his full height in front of the screen.

The image was hauntingly familiar. It was the same backdrop he and his friends had witnessed in portal after portal back in the Realm – the amusement park. But this time there were several additions: police, fire trucks, an ambulance, and dozens of reporters. Hank felt his stomach clench even more as one of them addressed the camera in a businesslike voice:

" . . . have gotten much of the damage cleared away by this point, but many questions still remain as to how the perpetrator was able to get into the park after closing hours. Police on the scene tell Newswatch 7 that there was no sign of forced entry, and members of park security have claimed to have witnessed nothing unusual throughout the early evening. Just how the vandal entered the park is still uncertain at this hour.

"Most of the damage was found here: in and around the Dungeons & Dragons ride, a classic attraction located in the Fantasy Land section of the Loonyland Amusement Park. A spokesman for the local police told Newswatch 7 that they were responding to a report of an explosion called in by a neighbor in the downtown area. Upon arriving on the scene, officials found that the park's oldest ferris wheel and several booths had been either damaged or destroyed.

"One arrest has been made so far."

Hank slid involuntarily onto a chair as he listened, and the scene on the television changed from a live feed to a taped broadcast. The camera closed in on a truck with a large livestock trailer attached to it. Hank's mouth dropped open as he saw an enormous jet-black animal being loaded into it. The creature was snorting and struggling against the several men who had it tethered. Hank recognized it immediately.

"This was the scene earlier this evening," the reporter continued,"when, in an interesting twist to this story, Animal Control was called in to deal with a horse that the perpetrator allegedly brought with him to the park. The man believed to have caused the damage was discovered with the horse inside the Dungeons & Dragons ride, where, police tell me, even more damage has been found. Authorities have given no details as to the status of the animal at this time – only that it will be held at the Animal Control Center until further details as to its ownership can be determined.

"As for the man, police on the scene have offered little information as to his possible motives, and have learned little about him. Purportedly, he has refused to give his real name, calling himself only 'Venger' and making terroristic threats to authorities on the scene. In a statement issued by police chief Carl Dunlavey, due to the mannerisms and dress of the perpetrator, connections between this crime and possible cult activity is not being ruled out. Due to the amount of damage found in the park, police also believe he was not working alone. The man is currently being held tonight at the Citywide County Prison. We will continue to follow this story as it unfolds.

"I'm Whitney Williams, reporting live for Newswatch 7. Back to you, Brian."

Hank didn't know how long he sat there staring at the television after the report had ended. Nor did he know how long his parents had been asking him questions about whether or not he had witnessed any of this before he and his friends had left the park. All he did know was that he wouldn't be sleeping tonight – even if it was the first real bed he'd been in for months.

To be continued . . .