Author's Notes: This is the final chapter of Balance of Power. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it!
Some final credits will be listed at the end.
Balance of Power
Hank couldn't speak. He could barely breathe as he and Presto slowly made their way to the main vestibule of the police station. He stared unblinkingly at Eric until they reached the spot where he was standing on the other side of the counter.
Eric looked serious. Even, Hank thought, a little hostile. He returned their gazes wordlessly until they reached him, then he turned his attention toward several sheets of paper piled on top of the counter in front of him. He leafed through them and applied his signature to a few with a sharp and aggressive hand.
Hank watched the motion in stunned silence. Then he finally cleared his throat and spoke. "What are you doing here?" he asked in a thick voice.
"Making sure I only have to pay one bail instead of five," Eric muttered without looking up. He signed the last page as though he were slicing into it, then finally straightened to meet Hank's eyes. "You guys didn't actually think your little prison break scheme was going to work, did you?"
A corner of Hank's mouth quirked involuntarily. "Foolishly optimistic, I guess," he said.
"Seriously stupid is more like it," Eric replied. But his voice lacked any bite and his feet were shuffling awkwardly on the floor. He rolled his eyes evasively and cast them downward. Hank had a feeling that every remark, every action, was simply Eric's attempt at a disguised apology. And he appreciated it more than the other boy knew.
Hank placed his hand on his friend's shoulder and Eric looked up again. "Thanks," Hank said.
Eric shrugged. "It's not a big deal."
But it was, and Hank knew it. Eric's gesture had been a simple one, but in doing it he had risked just as much – if not more – than the rest of them. Perhaps he hadn't risked a criminal record, but in signing his name to those papers, he openly and willingly affiliated not only himself, but also his family with someone who was an alleged criminal – a man who Eric rightly despised and to whom he owed nothing. To free someone his family didn't even know – and would never have associated with if they did – Eric had risked the tarnish of that family name, something that Hank knew Eric always held in such high regard. If they made it home again after this, Eric's family wouldn't be happy, but Hank and the others would not be in any trouble with the law. Eric had, for all intents and purposes, taken the proverbial bullet for them.
It was most certainly a big deal.
Hank squeezed Eric's shoulder once more before allowing his hand to drop. Eric managed a small, sad smile and shrugged again as though to reaffirm his air of indifference.
"What changed your mind?" Hank asked.
Eric looked at him seriously. His lips set into a grim line. "The shield," he said. "It's mine."
"Huh?" Presto muttered.
"The shield," Eric retorted with a roll of his eyes. "I want it back, by the way," he added in an aside to Hank.
Hank held up his hands in an "it's all yours" gesture.
"Anyway," Eric continued, "Dungeon Master gave me that shield and I guess I realized . . . it's because that's my job: I'm the one who's supposed to save everybody." He made a sharp huffing noise and added, "Even if it is from your own stupidity."
Hank looked at Presto and they shared a knowing grin.
"Besides," Eric said, "while we weren't talking to each other I guess I had some time to think. And I remembered something Dungeon Master said . . . you know, about lessons we had previously learned." Eric's feet shifted on the floor again, and he stared intently at his toes. "I realized you guys could have left me there too – during that whole bogbeast thing. You had the chance to stay at home, but you didn't. You came back for me." He met their eyes again with another ineffectual shrug. "I guess it wouldn't have felt right if I didn't do the same for you."
Hank smiled and clapped his hand on Eric's shoulder again. "Welcome back, buddy," he said.
Eric grinned. "Yeah," he said. "Thanks."
Presto glanced back toward the lockup anxiously. "Wasn't that officer suspicious, though?" he asked Eric in a hushed voice. "I mean, we're all just teenagers. Didn't he wonder why someone like you would be springing a guy like Venger from jail?"
Eric glanced up thoughtfully. "Probably," he answered. "But if there's one thing I know about this world, it's that the wheels of beaurocracy are greased a lot more easily when cold, hard cash is involved. Besides, bail money's easy – it's just supposed to ensure that the 'accused' shows up for his hearing."
Presto chewed his lip. "Somehow I don't see that happening," he said.
"Yeah," Eric replied with a grim chuckle. Then his face suddenly blanched with a fearful expression. "Oh man, my dad's seriously going to kill me."
Hank heard a noise coming from the lockup. "Don't worry," he said quickly to Eric. "We'll think of some way to handle that when the time comes. For now, let's finish this."
Eric nodded stiffly, and some of the color returned to his face. He squared his shoulders in time for the three boys to see the policeman reemerge from the lockup area, towing a furious looking Venger alongside him. The dark mage was once again dressed in his familiar robes, but he carried his horned helmet sanctimoniously at his side. The cop gripped the elbow of his other arm and led him toward the desk where Hank and the others waited.
"Unhand me, foolish one," Venger sneered viscously, "or suffer the consequences!"
"Oh, for crying out loud!" Eric bellowed, drawing Venger's attention to him. "Knock that off, Ven— er, . . . Uncle Vern. I don't have a problem telling him to lock you right back up again. No one else in the family even cares that you're here."
Venger's eyes flashed violently at Eric. "You dare, Cavalier?"
"You're the one being too . . . uh, cavalier, if you ask me," Eric countered. "I don't want to talk about it. I'm only here because I'm sick of hearing about you from the kids at school." He turned a pleading gaze toward the cop. "Can we just get this over with?" he asked. "Please?"
"Sure, son," he replied. His eyes fell on Presto and Hank. "You boys know each other?"
"Unfortunately," Eric grumbled as he signed the last form the policeman slid in front of him. "From school. Don't think I won't be hearing about this endlessly tomorrow."
The cop stacked the papers neatly on the countertop. Then he turned and walked to the rear wall of the office to file them in the cabinet there.
After the policeman had turned away, Venger stepped threateningly toward Eric, who drew back with a tiny squeak. Hank, however, stepped between them almost immediately, followed half a second later by an extremely nervous looking Presto.
"Back off, Venger," Hank warned. "I mean it."
Venger snarled at them. "Explain your impudence, Cavalier," he rumbled lowly.
Hank could feel Eric trembling against his back. But when the Cavalier spoke, his voice held a confidence belied by his frightened body. "The explanation is: you're in my kingdom now, Horn-Head," he said. "If you want out, you do what we say. Got it?"
Venger emitted a noncommittal growl, but stood still and said nothing further. His eyes, however, glinted with fury.
The cop returned and addressed Eric. "That should be everything, son," he said. "There were no personal effects other than that getup he's wearing. And the animal that was confiscated."
Eric nodded. "That's been taken care of," he said.
Hank and Presto shared a wide-eyed look.
The cop seemed sympathetic. "Good luck, son," he said.
"Yeah," Eric muttered, putting on his best look of long-suffering embarrassment. "Thanks."
He turned and started walking toward the door. Venger glared at Hank who jerked his head, indicating that the archmage should follow. He did, and Hank and Presto brought up the rear.
As they reached the sidewalk, their steps quickened. Darkness had fallen while they had been inside and Hank had to strain his eyes to catch sight of the others. Sheila and Bobby had, apparently, been looking for them since they appeared almost immediately. The Thief looked breathless with worry.
"You made it!" she exclaimed. "I tried to keep him on the phone long enough to buy you some time, but he kept trying to transfer me. What happened?"
Before Hank could answer, the sound of running footsteps behind them caused the group to turn quickly. Diana had come racing from her car. She looked as ready for action as she had ever been in the Realm. Her eyes were fierce, and in her hand was the short length of her javelin. Working or not, she looked ready to use it if necessary.
"Easy, Diana," Hank said. "We're okay."
Diana glared at Venger suspiciously, still gripping her staff tightly. Suddenly her eyes fell on the person directly to the archmage's right and her scowl melted into shock. "Eric?" she said. "What are you doing here?"
Eric shifted uncomfortably and Hank saw a flash of embarrassment cross his face. He wasn't sure the Cavalier would want to delve into the entire explanation a second time. Hank was about to step in with an abbreviated version when Eric spoke for himself.
"Well," he grumbled to Diana, "I guess it's like you said: We always stuck together before, right?"
Diana's features softened. She placed her hand on Eric's shoulder and drew him down, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. Eric visibly swallowed and rubbed his fingers against the spot.
Diana grinned broadly. "You bet," she said.
"Okay, everyone," Hank said. "We're not out of the woods yet. We need to find a way to get ourselves back to the Realm."
"Let's start by getting ourselves out of sight," Diana suggested as she started walking toward the shadowy end of the street where her car was parked. The others fell into step behind her.
Venger emitted a low growl as he prowled alongside the children. He had donned his helmet since leaving the police station and now looked more like the force of evil they had come to know.
"You have not yet explained to me why you have released me, Ranger," he said dubiously to Hank.
Hank shot an angry glare at him as they trudged through the darkness. "Let's just say I'm doing this as a favor to someone who deserves it a lot more than you, Venger," he replied. "The Realm is falling into ruin because you're not there to keep a hold on all the evil you had under your control while you were there. You need to go back to put things into balance again."
"And why must you accompany me?" Venger grated.
Hank scowled again. "Because the weapons need to go back too," he said. "And if you think we'd just send them back with you, you're crazy."
"Dungeon Master would have you return to a world you despise just to keep your weapons away from me?" Venger asked. There was a cruel taunt in his voice. "Perhaps you should reconsider what he is asking of you. Think, Ranger, of all you would stand to lose in consenting to his request."
Hank rounded on Venger. "First of all," he retorted darkly, "Dungeon Master didn't 'request' that we do anything. This was our decision. Secondly, Dungeon Master has given us more reason to trust him than you ever have, Venger. We don't owe you anything."
"And yet you are helping me," Venger said with a scornful grin on his lips.
"Yes, we are," agreed Hank. "Maybe you should be the one to remember that."
Hank fell into step with the others as they reached Diana's car.
"So how are we going to do this?" Presto asked.
"Eventually, we're going to have to get into the park," Hank said. "That's not going to be easy."
"Yes, it will," Eric replied.
Hank shot him a surprised look.
"I told you," the Cavalier said, "grease a few palms and things get a lot easier. We don't have a lot of time, though. And someone is eventually going to notice the animal trailer parked outside the gate." He shook his head and grumbled absently, "I've never paid so much for a horse that's not even mine in my life."
Everyone stared at him. Even Venger's expression ranked somewhere between disdain and astonishment. Eric did not waste the opportunity and smirked smugly at him. "Like I said," he droned, "my kingdom, my way."
"Speaking of which," Sheila said, "Dungeon Master said we carry our way back to the Realm with us. He was probably talking about what we would have to do once we got back to the ride."
"But it doesn't make any sense," Bobby interjected. "We never carried anything with us – except our weapons."
"Maybe that was what he meant," Diana offered.
"But our weapons don't work here," Bobby said.
"If only we had a way to recharge them," Sheila added. "Like we did at the Hall of Bones."
Presto gasped and Hank spun around to face him. The Magician's eyes were wide. He stood frozen there for a moment, then in a swift motion he grabbed Diana's wrist.
"What is it, Presto," she asked.
He looked at all of them and Hank saw a small smile blooming on the corner of his mouth. "I think I have an idea," he said. He turned to Diana. "Can you give me a ride?"
She nodded mutely for a moment, then said, "Where?"
"My house," he answered. "I need to get something."
"Okay," Hank announced. "We don't need a getaway car now anyway. If you two do that, the rest of us will head over to the park on foot and make sure we've got a way in."
"We'll meet you there," Diana said as she and Presto jumped into her car. Everyone else retrieved the items they had placed in her trunk, including their weapons, clothing, and supplies. Then Diana started the engine and sped off in the direction of Presto's house.
Hank and the others made their way to the amusement park, which was not a far distance from the police station. It didn't take long before they spotted the sleek black trailer that Eric had said contained Venger's imposing nightmare. Occasionally, the trailer would rattle as the beast inside expressed its displeasure with being confined.
The group of Young Ones and Venger approached it and the nightmare stilled immediately, almost as though it could sense the presence of its master. Eric swallowed, unlocked the rear doors, and lowered the ramp. The animal stepped down and regarded the young humans with a snort. A billow of smoke escaped its nostrils. Eric uttered a nervous chuckle and backed away from the creature.
"Eric," Hank said, "what kind of excuse did you give for why we needed to get into the park tonight?"
"I didn't," Eric explained, collecting himself as he put some distance between him and the nightmare. "I just paid some low-wage security guard to be away from the gates for a little while. No muss, no fuss, no unnecessary questions." He looked around. "But there will be if we have to wait much longer."
At almost that moment, the sound of running feet could be heard behind them. Hank turned to see Diana and Presto hurrying across the parking lot. The latter was struggling under the weight of a bulky looking box with what appeared to be a set of mirrors on top. Diana carried a pair of rucksacks and both their weapons.
"Sorry," she said. She was not even out of breath. "I didn't want to park in the lot. A car might look suspicious, sitting there this late after hours. I left it out on the street instead."
"Let's go," Presto added, not nearly as composed as Diana. His words were nearly lost as he sucked great gulps of air into his lungs.
"What's that?" Eric asked, indicating the box.
"I'll explain later," Presto replied. He shifted its weight in his arms. "Come on."
The Young Ones made their way quietly through the main gates of the amusement park. Venger walked in their midst, the nightmare striding obediently at his side. As they neared the Fantasy Land area of the park, Hank kept an eye out for flashlight beams or any other signs of park security. There was no way of knowing how much longer they could go without being spotted.
They walked in complete silence for several more minutes, until Bobby stopped and pointed to an area ahead of them. "There it is, you guys," he said. "The Dungeons & Dragons ride."
Hank took in the sight before them. Everything looked very much the same as it had been two nights ago. Much of the debris from the ferris wheel had been cleared away, however, and the scene was now marked with yellow strips of tape bearing the word "CAUTION." A few other areas were sectioned off by orange pylons and A-frame barricades. The ride itself looked untouched on the exterior, but it did bear a sign just outside the grinning mouth of the dragon:
Ride Closed for Repairs
We are sorry for the inconvenience.
Hank approached the coaster's break run and gazed down the track into the gaping tunnel of the entrance. He made another perfunctory scan of the area around them and jumped down.
"Looks like we're going to have to do this one on foot," he said. He offered his hand to Sheila and helped her to step down onto the track beside him. The rest of his friends clambered to join them. Venger mounted his nightmare and the creature leapt effortlessly onto the runway.
"Follow me," Hank said in a low voice. He hefted the backpack on his shoulder and gripped the weapon he held in his other hand. Everyone walked at a steady pace into the gullet of the dragon.
Once inside, everything looked even stranger than it had when the ride had been functioning. The fire-breathing dragons and menacing monsters looked shadowy and eerie as they sat stationary in the inky darkness. Hank dug a flashlight out of his bag and clicked it on. A haze of dust motes hung trapped in the beam of light it created.
Deeper into the ride, many of the mechanical creatures began to look distorted. Several were scorched and broken. Melted plastic created an ooze of deformity down the entire length of one, while limbs and torsos bent at odd angles in others. Hank had to sidestep a gaping section of track, which had been completely obliterated into a wide hole. He signaled for the others to move around it.
This must be the damage Venger did, Hank thought. Before he lost his powers.
Somewhere around what Hank guessed to be the middle of the ride, he stopped. He turned to face the others and shone his flashlight into several dark corners above their heads, making sure the area was safe and not in danger of collapsing. After all, who knew the extent of the damage Venger had done.
"This seems like as good a place as any," he said. "Presto, what have you got?"
Presto finally set down the oversized box he had been carrying. Hank noticed that it was actually more like a large wooden crate. One side of it was open, giving it the look of a crude display case. From it, Presto pulled a clunky-looking metal switch with two thin, curly wires. He attached them to a pair of metal rods on top of the crate.
Presto reached into the crate again and pulled out a few more items: random pieces of metal, wires, what looked to be a miniature radio, even a handful of small plants. With an unhappy grumble, Presto simply tossed these things into the shadows behind him.
"So much for my submission to the Junior Academy of Science competition," he muttered as he finished hollowing out the box.
"You going to let us in on the plan, pal?" Hank coaxed and Presto sat back on his heels.
"Okay," he said, looking up at them, "this is a kind of enclosed exhibit. I built it to work as a fully-functional environment powered completely by solar energy. These right here . . ." He indicated the objects on top of the box, which Hank had originally thought were mirrors. ". . . are photovoltaic panels. They're used to convert solar energy into electricity. I was going to use it to power this entire display box like a miniature house. Run the electronics, grow plants, even cook with it—"
Eric pressed the flat of his hand into his skull and groaned. "You realize we're not at the science fair right now, don't you, Presto? Get to the point."
"Yeah . . . right," Presto said, a little flustered. "So solar power can be used to generate anything from light to heat to an electrical current. And I just thought, maybe that's what we need to solve our problem."
Hank knew that Presto had honed in on something, he just couldn't figure out what it was. Everyone else's face must have looked as blank as Hank's felt because Presto sighed a little and got to his feet.
"Look," he said, "when Sheila said before that she wished there was a way to recharge our weapons like we did in the Hall of Bones, it just clicked. Like when Bobby said something yesterday about dead batteries. This is it, guys." He motioned toward the crate at his feet. "That's what solar energy does. Our weapons don't work here. But maybe all they really need is another good, healthy charge."
Everyone looked at each other. Hank could see the hope, but also the uncertainty on their faces. He couldn't help but feel extremely doubtful himself. After all, this was Earth, not the Realm. And their weapons were magic, not electronic.
No one said anything, however, until Eric piped up again. "Um," he said, "not to rain on the parade of nerd-dom here, but did it occur to you that we're standing in the pitch-black tunnel of Dante's roller coaster in the middle of the night? There's no sunlight here!"
"Ah!" Presto said airily. "We don't need it. That is the point. If it's harnessed properly, solar power is completely storable, just like any other source of energy. And before we went to the Realm, I had been working on this for weeks. I have enough juice in here to power my enclosed environment for at least a few hours. There should be enough for what we need."
Hank wanted to believe Presto. Eric, however, didn't bother to hide the fact that he remained clearly unconvinced. "What makes you think it's even going to work?" he asked.
Presto bobbed his head from side to side, as though weighing the question. "I think it will work, Eric," he said finally, "because I remembered the same thing you did about what Dungeon Master told us. You know: recall a lesson we had previously learned. And I remembered what he said the last time we needed the weapons recharged." He placed his hand on the clunky transformer that was attached by wires to the top of the box. "When in darkness, look to the light."
Presto flipped the switch with his thumb and the inside of the box blazed with a blinding white light. After so long in the darkness of the ride, Hank had to shield his eyes from the brightness of it. He also felt a definite warmth radiating from within the box.
Venger's nightmare reared and screeched at the sight of it. Presto quickly flipped the switch off and the animal snorted and stomped the ground in agitation. From astride his steed, Venger raised a hand toward the now-dormant box. "What magic is this?" he snarled.
Presto stood frozen for a moment with his hand still on the switch. The nightmare's reaction must have startled him. Then he shook his head. "Uh, it's not actually magic. It's science," he replied. "But," he added with a shrug, "you know what they say: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.'"
"You actually think that shining an oversized flashlight on the weapons is going to get them working again?" Eric asked.
"It's not just light," Presto said. "It's power. Light, heat, and electrical."
"It's also all we've got," added Hank. "So unless you've got a better idea, I say we give it a try."
"You are a fool, Magician," Venger sneered. The group of Young Ones turned to face him. "You are all fools. Your world does not have the magic necessary to empower your weapons. We shall all be trapped here."
Diana glared at him. "Trapped?" she said, crossing her arms. "Speak for yourself, big guy."
"We have magic," Presto replied to Venger. "Sort of. We probably just don't have the kind of magic you or the weapons are used to. Besides," he added, "if you want to get technical, solar energy doesn't come from this world. Not specifically, anyway."
"It's at least worth a try," Sheila said encouragingly. "Even if it just works long enough for us to do what we came for."
The crate was big, but still not an ideal fit for all the weapons. The bow and the club needed to be slanted in diagonally, and they still hung out on one end. Diana's staff fit better – since it was stuck at one of its shorter lengths – but not by much. The cloak and the hat folded much more easily and were stuffed in the back to make room for Eric's shield, which was carefully balanced at the very mouth of the crate.
Presto took a deep breath and picked up the transformer from on top of the box. He placed his thumb on the switch. "Cross your fingers, everybody," he said. "Here goes nothing."
He flipped the switch and the light blazed forth from inside the box once more. Each of the weapons were blanketed in it, and Hank could again feel the steady warmth pulsing from inside. They watched and waited as the weapons sat within the box of captured sunlight.
Bobby shifted at Hank's side. "How do we know if it's even working?" he asked.
Just then, a popping noise sounded from inside the box. It was followed by another, and an even brighter flash. A shower of sparks shot into the air. Venger's nightmare reared again and shrieked as an erratic explosion of lights flashed throughout the box like a roman candle.
There was a crack and another small explosion as one of the solar panels on top of the box shattered into pieces. Presto made a strangled noise of protest at the destruction of his project. There was an electrical buzzing in the air like a swarm of motorized wasps and Hank could actually see an energized current race up the length of the wires that attached the box to the switch in Presto's hands.
"Argh!" Presto cried out as the metal transformer sparked in his grip. He dropped the switch and fell back. It continued to send small showers of light into the air from where it lay in the dust.
"Presto!" Diana exclaimed as she dropped to his side. The Magician was shaking out his singed fingers.
Hank reached for the switch but drew his hand back immediately as it sent another shower of sparks into the air. Instead, Hank kicked at it with his foot until he managed to hit the button and shut the power down.
"Well, that was terrifying," Eric grumbled. He scanned the walls around them. "Lucky you didn't burn the place down. This whole ride is probably one big fire hazard . . . "
It was then that Hank noticed the light. The power to Presto's machine had been shut off, but a steady glow remained in the shadowy darkness of the tunnel. Hank turned to the box and saw that it was still emitting a light from the inside. But it wasn't from the solar device.
"The weapons," Sheila breathed. "I think it worked."
"It worked?" Presto asked as he staggered up off the ground with a little help from Diana. He sounded almost surprised. "It worked!" he exclaimed with an explosion of jubilant laughter. "I can't believe it!"
"You can't believe it?" Eric cried. "This was your plan!"
Presto grinned excitedly. "So now what?" he asked.
"Now what?" Eric countered with even more bewilderment. "Hey, Mr. Wizard, I thought you were running this show!"
Hank reached into the crate and drew out his bow. His friends collected their own weapons as well. Instantly he felt the familiar surge of energy that told him the bow was working. He also knew they didn't have long to figure out what to do, because it was only a matter of time before the weapons lost their powers again.
Look to yourselves – for you carry your way with you.
A sharp tug on his arm forced Hank to look down. The bow quivered in his grip of its own volition. It wasn't the first time the weapon had done this and Hank watched it with interest. A moment later the weapon yanked harder in his grip, drawing his arm more and more toward shoulder-height – to the firing position.
The last time his weapon had been so insistent, firing it had led Hank and the others exactly where they had needed to go at the time – and eventually to a way home, even if they had decided not to stay. It seemed only logical to go along with it now. They didn't have a lot of time or options.
"We carry our way with us," Hank mused aloud. "I guess we should let our weapons do the navigating, then." He reached for the invisible bowstring.
"Uh, Hank!" Eric said with obvious alarm. He ducked behind his shield, which was also glowing with the power it had held in the Realm. "Enclosed space! Close quarters! I'm not so sure firing that thing in here is such a great—"
But the bow was clearly adamant. The fiery string had appeared even before Hank's fingers closed around it. The weapon jerked one last time and directed Hank's aim toward a corner of the ceiling. He drew a flaming arrow all the way back to his cheek and loosed.
The arrow sailed up to the ceiling and lit the entire tunnel brightly. The moment he released it, Hank noticed a definite difference in the bow in his hand. It felt dull and powerless again, almost as though he could feel the energy leave it as the arrow cleared the handle. The airborne projectile was now all that was left of the weapon's magic.
It hit the ceiling and swiftly changed direction, slamming into the wall and glancing off again. Eric let out a panicked yelp as the arrow continued to ricochet dangerously throughout the entire area just above their heads. Everyone ducked and the arrow moved faster. Its tail blurred behind it, creating a star-like design as the arrow zoomed and rebounded from wall to wall.
"What's it doing?" Presto called over the hum of charged energy in the air. He turned to Hank with a worried look.
It was as though his words had somehow caught the arrow's attention. Immediately after Presto spoke, the golden dart ricocheted one last time and headed toward the ground, straight for him.
"Presto!" Sheila cried in warning and Presto glanced up to see it bearing down on him.
"AHHH!" he screamed, thrusting his arms out instinctively to protect himself. And along with them, his hat.
The arrow disappeared as the hat swallowed it. The force of it sent Presto toppling backward again into Diana. "Whoa!" he gasped. "Sorry."
But Hank saw that Diana was looking elsewhere and his eyes followed her gaze. In Presto's hands was the hat, glowing with the magical light that had been so familiar in the Realm. He was holding the mouth of the weapon closed, and inside Hank could see evidence of the arrow – still ricocheting off the walls of its new conical prison.
"Presto," he said. "Your hat."
Presto gasped and got back to his feet. He looked uncertain for a moment. Then, probably with the same instinct that had caused Hank to fire his weapon in the first place, he opened the mouth of the hat. From it, the arrow emerged again – now in the shape of a small glowing sphere. Its color had changed slightly from the gold of the arrow to a pale green. Hank noticed that as soon as the sphere had cleared the brim of Presto's hat, the weapon lost its glow. It looked as dull and powerless as Hank's bow now felt.
The sphere continued to move – a slow-motion version of the wild rebounding the arrow had instigated. This time, however, instead of hitting the walls, it seemed drawn toward the power of the Young Ones' weapons. It headed next toward Eric, who was standing opposite Presto. He took a step back, looking nervous. But regardless he raised his shield and allowed the sphere to bump against it. Immediately the shield lost its glow as the magic left it, and the sphere changed from pale green to a brighter orange. It also grew in size.
Diana stood ready for it as it neared her. Her face said that she seemed to be gaining some understanding of what they were supposed to do. She brandished her staff and it increased in length. As the sphere approached her, she spun the weapon in her hands. It glowed brightly as the sphere glanced off it, then it shrank again and dimmed as the magic transferred itself. The hovering orb was now colored the same subtle jade as the staff. It was also bigger.
Sheila unfolded the cloak in her hands and approached the sphere as it floated away from Diana. She looked at Hank uncertainly, and he understood why: Her weapon was not exactly offensive. It was difficult to guess how she should use it in this situation. She must have come to a decision, however, because, in the same way Hank and the others had seemed to know what to do with their weapons, she tossed her cloak fully over the hovering orb. Again, the sphere grew in size and Hank could see a glow of violet emanating from beneath Sheila's cloak. She removed the cape and fitted it to her shoulders.
The sphere continued the final leg of its journey as it slowly approached Bobby. The boy got an impish grin on his face as he struck a batter's stance and drew his club all the way back. The tip of his tongue poked playfully out of the corner of his mouth and he squinted with concentration.
A collective gasp went up and Eric ducked behind his now-powerless shield.
"Careful, Bobby!" Sheila warned.
Bobby reared back and swung, coming full-stop just shy of the hovering sphere. Hank and the others let out a shared sigh of relief. "Just kidding, sis," the boy said with a wink, and followed through with a gentle bunt against the side of the sphere.
The orb grew one final time and turned a brilliant white with the combined magic of all the weapons. It stopped moving and hovered in the middle of the circle the Young Ones had formed around it. Hank eyed it curiously and, after a few moments, he approached it. He reached out his hand.
"Don't touch it!" Eric wailed. But Hank didn't know how else they were supposed to discover what to do next. He offered Eric – as well as the others – a calming glance, them pressed his palm against the surface of the sphere.
It wasn't as hot as it looked; in fact, it felt only slightly warm, but very soothing. Hank could sense the same hum of power that he usually felt when he used his bow. But still it wasn't doing anything. The Ranger had thought it would give them another sign . . . perhaps form a portal . . . something.
It was then that he remembered . . . they weren't the only ones trying to get back.
With his hand still pressed to the sphere, Hank looked up to where Venger stood. The archmage had dismounted his nightmare and was now glaring at all of them with a stony expression. The others turned to follow Hank's eyes.
A million thoughts ran through Hank's head at once, but they all came down to one thing: To return to the Realm, they were going to have to give Venger the power from their weapons. That was the final piece to the puzzle – although none of them had thought to consider it earlier.
The weapons had been briefly recharged, and the product of that was now floating in their midst as a ball of pure magic. Who else was left to use it besides Venger? But an even more dangerous thought was: What would he do with it?
Destroying all of them and taking their weapons for himself had been the desire that had driven Venger since the Young Ones had first entered the Realm. There was no reason for that to be any different now. It had been his entire purpose in following them to their world in the first place. What was worse, they would be completely helpless to stop him.
He could destroy them all – right here, right now – then take their weapons back to the Realm with him and conquer that world as well.
Would it matter that they had helped him earlier that night? They had saved him from a fate that was, as Hank had said, probably worse than anything Venger could have imagined: to be imprisoned and powerless in an alien, insignificant world. But a lot hinged upon trusting Venger's sense of honor and fair play, and Hank didn't have a great deal of hope for that. There was no guarantee Venger wouldn't double-cross them . . . not when he was faced with the opportunity to simply use them to get exactly what he wanted.
There was very little time to consider the options. The magical sphere would probably only last for a short while in this world. They wouldn't get another chance. And they had already come this far . . .
Hank scowled and met Venger's eyes. "We carry our way with us," he said. "I guess that means all of us."
Venger stepped forward as though he had been waiting for that. The Young Ones broke open their circle to let him through – stepping back apprehensively and clutching weapons that didn't work. They crowded behind Hank as Venger came to stand before him.
The archmage glared at the Ranger, and Hank met his eyes with stony defiance. There was nothing to say; any words of warning would be futile. Either Venger would remember they had helped him or he wouldn't. He would either care or he wouldn't. He would either destroy them or he wouldn't.
Eric whimpered nervously from somewhere behind Hank.
The Ranger gripped his bow tightly, lowered his hand from the sphere, and stepped away.
Venger raised both his hands and placed them against the side of the glowing orb. Suddenly an even brighter light filled the cavernous tunnel of the Dungeons & Dragons ride as the sphere reacted to Venger's touch. Hank watched as the sphere divided in two. Each half became transparent and barely substantial as Venger's hands began to absorb them. The magic flowed swiftly up the length of his arms.
Venger's hands started to glow with the energy which had become dangerously familiar to Hank and his friends by now. The archmage flexed his fingers into fists, visibly reveling in the power that had just been reawakened in him. He looked down at the Young Ones as though remembering they were there. A smile curled a corner of his mouth.
Hank took a deep breath and unflinchingly met Venger's eyes. He gripped his weapon, even as he knew it would not save him. Venger raised his hands and an explosion of scarlet light filled Hank's vision. He heard his friends scream.
Then everything went dark.
When Hank became aware of his surroundings, he realized he was lying prone on the ground. He also knew he was outside. It was still dark, but a cool wind stirred the air. It created a whistling sound, like breeze over a bottle. Hank raised his face with a groan and saw the high walls of a familiar canyon. He had to blink and rub his eyes to be sure, but when they refocused he could definitely make out canyon cliffs in the moonlight.
The combined light of three moons.
All around him, Hank heard the groans of his friends as they struggled to get to their feet. As Hank did the same, he noticed that each of them was now dressed in the clothing they had worn during their time in the Realm. He looked down at his own clothes and saw that, although it had been previously packed in his bag, he was also wearing his studded leather armor. His eyes settled on his right hand – where his golden bow was still gripped tightly in his fist.
His ears caught a deep huffing sound, and Hank looked up quickly. Several yards away from him and his friends, Venger sat astride his nightmare. The bat-like wings of his cape spread imposingly over his head as he glared impassively down at the Young Ones. Hank felt a thrum of energy in his hand as his weapon responded to his feeling of unease. He wondered how it was possible that he was still holding the weapon at all.
Still, he kept his fingers poised to draw the string if needed.
Venger tilted his head upward slightly and stared down at them. "You have given me my freedom," he said. Then he pointed at the weapons they each still held in their possession. "I leave you with yours. The next time we meet, do not expect the same."
He turned his nightmare and began to walk slowly away.
"You're welcome!" Bobby shouted snidely after him. Eric jumped and wrapped his arm around the boy's head and shoulders, clamping a hand over his mouth.
Venger turned and regarded them malignantly. "You have aided me," he acknowledged. "And you have done your part to restore balance to this world. If the Realm is to be destroyed, it will be because I wish it. Now go your way, for we shall meet again."
"Count on it," Hank replied and Venger nodded. He turned away again and spurred his nightmare forward. After only a few steps, they both vanished in a swirl of smoke.
"I don't believe it," Presto breathed. "H-He could have killed us . . . but he didn't."
"And he actually left our weapons," Sheila added.
Hank released a deep breath and felt a tenseness in his shoulders that had been coiling there ever since he realized they would have to trust Venger in order to get back to the Realm. And now . . . they were back. And home felt so very far away again.
"Of course, he dropped us off in the middle of nowhere," Eric remarked bitterly, glaring at the canyon walls with distaste.
"Way to be Mr. Brightside, Cavalier," Diana retorted.
Hank and the others began to turn away from the spot where they had last seen Venger. Wherever they were headed, going in the opposite direction as the archmage seemed the best option for now. The moment they turned, they saw Dungeon Master standing in the path before them.
"Oh, no," Eric groaned. "Not you already!"
Dungeon Master regarded the Young Ones with a smile that was both sad and grateful. "Greetings, my friends," he said, ignoring Eric's outburst as usual.
Hank had the same feeling of déjà vu that he'd felt upon first recognizing the canyon they'd appeared in – the place they had first met the Dungeon Master when they had originally come to the Realm.
"My dear pupils," Dungeon Master continued, "there are not words enough to thank you for what you have done."
Sheila took a step toward him. "Will everything be all right here now, Dungeon Master?" she asked.
He gave her a low nod. "Although there is still much danger and evil ahead, you have saved us all from a terrible fate," he said. "One far worse than even I could have foreseen. Thanks to you, my children, balance will soon return to the Realm."
"Dungeon Master," Hank said, his voice thick with more emotion than he realized had been building, "what do we do now?" It was not a question from a brave leader looking for his next quest, but from a young man who was really still a boy, seeking reassurance.
"Rest for now, my friends," Dungeon Master said. "I know of a place where you can stay in some comfort for a time before you continue your journey. Your unicorn friend will be waiting for you there."
Bobby's eyes lit up with joy. "Uni!" he exclaimed eagerly to Sheila.
Dungeon Master finally turned to Hank. "I feel your pain, Ranger," he said. "Not to mention the acuteness of your loss and your uncertainty as to the difficult choice you have made. But I make you a promise today . . ." He regarded each of them and raised his hands. They glowed brightly with the power he would use to transport them to a place of safety. ". . . You have saved this world, my friends. Know that I shall help you until you have finally returned to yours."
The group vanished together, leaving nothing behind but the soft moan of the wind in the moonlight.
(But the adventures in the Realm continue!)
Final Credits & Acknowledgements:
1) This story, and this chapter especially, made several direct references to the cartoon series (even though certain references were to episodes which aired chronologically after "The Box"). The most noteworthy were the following:
-- The weapons as a means of magical transportation was established in the episode "The Dragon's Graveyard" by Michael Reaves. As was the method by which the kids could "release" that power. The details were borrowed from that episode, and adapted slightly for this story. (Why mess with canon, after all?)
-- Hank's "insistent" bow was borrowed from "Beauty and the Bogbeast" by Jeffrey Scott. Another detail that had already been established by the cartoon itself.
-- An assortment of other direct references were made to "The Hall of Bones" by Paul Dini.
2) "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." – Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
3) My thanks again to Sealgirl, not only for hosting this challenge, but also for being so lovely as to look over each chapter for me before posting. I had a blast writing this, dear! Thanks again!
4) Thanks also to Xenutia, who came up with the original suggestion that fed this story!
5) Finally, thank you to everyone who read! It's been a while since I've completed a D&DC story, but I had a great time with it. Once I realized this would not be the satire I'd originally intended, I had a feeling there would be a bittersweet ending in store. I hope it felt authentic for you, and that you enjoyed yourself as much as I did.
Until next time!