Legal Stuff: I do not own the characters presented in this story. They are the property of Marvel Productions and TSR, Inc. (and their successors) and no copyright infringement is intended. I only own the events of this story.
Author's Note 1: This story begins immediately following the events occurring in City at the Edge of Midnight. It was originally based on a piece of fan art by drawn by a very talented fandom artist, Wendy Gao. Sadly, I'm not sure if the piece is available online any longer, but I still offer my thanks to Wendy, even though she didn't know she helped, for creating such a striking image of Eric and Venger.
Author's Note 2: Readers beware – This fic is old! (Circa 1998, if I'm not mistaken!) It is one of the first I had published for any fandom, and while I feel many of the stories I've written since are of better quality in many ways, I still have a nostalgic soft spot for this one. It was available only at Darkhaven for years, but has finally undergone a re-write and made the jump here in 2011. I hope it is still enjoyed!
Rating: Stronger PG to mild PG-13
Sins of the Father
"Kutr-r-r-ash!" Eric cried, then yelped as the hairy, elephant-like beast lunged forward, running toward the other two. Eric could hear Presto's uncontrollable laughter behind him.
"Hang on! I know what I'm doing!" The Cavalier gripped and twisted at the reigns, but the boys' huge mount did not stop running until it reached the others, falling finally into step with the creatures ridden by the rest of the Young Ones. Once Eric and Presto had caught up, they all turned around to wave a final goodbye to Rahmoud and his daughter Ayesha, who were disappearing over the horizon.
"I'm really sorry to be going," Presto said after a brief pause, a hint of laughter still in his voice. "It was nice to have somebody treat us like kids again."
"Oh, yeah," scoffed Eric, "fighting demons, killing Nightwalkers and saving a bunch of other kids – including one snot-nosed, ungrateful little punk named Jimmy Whitaker. Just another day at the playground."
"Come on, Eric. You know what I mean," the Magician said. "I'm talking about Rahmoud. You know, how he called us his children. It made me realize how much I miss my family – my mom and dad."
"Yeah, I guess," shrugged Eric in agreement. "There's a lot about this stupid world that I wouldn't miss, but I would definitely miss him."
"Do you think there's a chance Jimmy might mention this to somebody?" Presto asked. "Especially when he doesn't see us in school." Presto cocked his head toward Eric hopefully. "Maybe he'll realize it wasn't a dream. Maybe he will tell someone. And then maybe our folks would—"
"Would do what, exactly?" Eric interrupted. "Don't get your hopes up, Presto. Who's going to believe Whitaker anyway? Would your folks buy the fact that their only son is currently living in the Twilight Zone? Because mine certainly wouldn't." He snorted gruffly and stared straight ahead. "Come to think of it, I'd be surprised if my old man even noticed I'm gone."
"How's everybody doing?" a voice called from the lead beast. Hank leaned over the side of the canopied howdah where he and Sheila sat to catch sight of the others.
"A-Okay!" Diana called from the second animal, which carried her, Bobby, and Uni.
"This is great!" the young Barbarian shouted.
"All fine here!" Presto waved to Hank before turning his attention back to Eric.
"You know, Eric," he said, "Nightwalkers aside, we had a great time with Rahmoud. And I don't want to spoil anything by making you mad, but for someone who hates everything about being in this world, you sure don't have a lot of positive stuff to say about the things you left behind at home."
"It's a question of preference, Presto," Eric said matter-of-factly. "For instance, I would prefer to be served breakfast every morning rather than hunt it myself. I would prefer to face my algebra teacher's wrath than Venger's any day. And I would prefer to go back to my father just ignoring me than to have to listen to another one of Dungeon Master's stupid riddles."
"But you do miss your parents, don't you?" Presto asked with a twinge of sympathy in his voice. "I mean, I've met your dad. He's a pretty good guy, and he gives you anything you want."
"I don't know. I guess," Eric admitted. "But you've only ever seen my dad's 'company face.' He puts it on when we have people over – and then he's Mister Hospitality. But when we're alone . . . Or, you know what? Scratch that." Eric chuckled mirthlessly. "What am I talking about? I hardly ever see him. Work doesn't get itself done, you know." He sounded as though he was intoning something he'd heard numerous times before.
Eric shifted uncomfortably in his seat and adjusted the reigns in his grip. He would never consciously admit it, but he knew Presto was wrong: His father didn't give Eric anything he wanted. Meeting Rahmoud had only served to reinforce that fact. In the brief time the Young Ones had known the King of Khadish, his simple attention and approval had already overshadowed any that Eric had ever experienced with his own father. Attention, approval, even the man's simple presence – deep down, the Cavalier knew these were the only "things" he really wanted. Eric grumbled inwardly. Sure, they may get home eventually. But whether they did or not, and whether his father noticed the changes Eric had undergone or not, those "things" would probably remain elusive to him.
Eric sniffed disdainfully. "The only time I ever saw him get all worked up and worried was the time I tried to take his 1931 Alfa Romeo without asking. He never drove it, and I didn't know the stupid thing had no oil in it. Man, was he furious with me. Never mind the fact that I could have been killed! That thing started smoking like a chimney!"
I don't think he could have cared less about me getting asphyxiated. Just as long as I didn't scuff the paint job, Eric added bitterly to himself, remembering his father's terrible reaction.
Thinking of it made him irritated that they were leaving Rahmoud so soon. In the short period they had known each other, the boy-who-had-(almost)-everything finally knew what it felt like to have a loving, attentive father. It wasn't something he was happy about giving up, regardless of how much he wanted to keep looking for a way out of this crazy world.
"Sorry, Eric," Presto sighed. "I didn't mean to get all serious on you." The Magician then piped up in a much more cheerful voice, "People can surprise you sometimes! I'll bet when we finally get home your dad will show you that he really missed you!"
"Sure, maybe," Eric shrugged, but in his heart, he doubted it. He could just imagine the happy homecoming now . . .
Hey, Dad, I just got back from saving the world! Did ya miss me?
What are you babbling about? Can't you see that I'm busy?
Yup, Eric thought. Just another warm, fuzzy bonding-moment at the old Cavalier's house.
"Hey, Hank!" Bobby's voice called out. "When are we gonna stop to eat? Uni and I are starving!" The little unicorn bleated her agreement.
Presto and Eric looked at each other and nodded. Eric's stomach twisted and gurgled. For once, he couldn't argue with the twerp.
The suns began to hang low in the sky, casting long shadows that stretched far behind the journeying Young Ones. Presto reached for one of the water-skins that hung on the side of their wooly transportation. He lifted the pouch to his lips, never noticing that its shadow remained behind. A moment later, it oozed down the leg of their mount. As the elephant-beast stepped forward with the same leg, the shadow attached itself to the ground. Only when the Young Ones were several more paces away did it begin to rise and take the form of a winged specter.
Glaring at the Young Ones through glowing, hollow eyes, Shadow Demon took to the air, flying East.
"Report, Shadow Demon," a voice echoed through the castle's throne room with a sinister reverberation. The dark specter alighted from the ceiling and came to rest at the right hand of his Master.
"The Young Ones have destroyed the Nightwalker, my Lord," Shadow Demon announced, his smoky head hung low.
"What?" The imposing single-horned figure in the throne room spun around to face his minion. His red eyes flashed brightly with anger and he spread his jagged wings. Venger stepped toward the living shadow, whose ethereal hands were instinctively raised to cower against his lord's apparent displeasure.
"They had help, Master," Shadow Demon fearfully reported, "from King Rahmoud of Khadish."
"I see," Venger replied. His massive wings settled once again upon his shoulders like a cape. His eyes still flashed red angrily, heightening the corpselike pallor of his skin. "I will find a way to make him pay for his interference. With those accursed children trapped in the City at the Edge of Midnight, I may have been rid of them once and for all." He paused, then repeated again with determination, "I will make them all pay."
"Perhaps . . . ," began Shadow Demon.
"What is it?" Venger's voice rumbled impatiently.
"King Rahmoud called the Young Ones his 'children' upon their departure. They seemed to share a special bond. I even learned that, for some of them, the bond was closer than with their natural fathers. Perhaps if there was a way to turn them on each other . . ."
Venger paused. "Perhaps," he repeated with icy satisfaction. "I have waited a very long time to conquer the kingdom of Khadish. Rahmoud has defied my plans for the last time. And Dungeon Master's accursed Young Ones may just be the key to my revenge." He regarded Shadow Demon once more. "Prepare the Nightmare," he said. "We shall intercept our young friends. They will receive no aid from their 'father' this time."
"Yes, Master," Shadow Demon hissed and flew off to prepare for Venger's departure.
The Dark Lord glared out the window of his fortress to the desolate plains that extended far into the horizon. "You will soon be at my mercy, young fools," he sneered. "The Weapons of Power and the kingdom of Khadish will finally be mine."
"Hey! What's the big idea?" As Eric shoved one of the large animal's two trunks out of his face, the other one reached over his opposite shoulder and grabbed the bread that he was eating. "What do you think I am, your personal lunch box? Hank!" he complained. "How much longer are we going to have to keep these walking carpets around?"
The young caravan had stopped in a grassy clearing a short distance from a forest after finally emerging from the seemingly endless desert where they had encountered Rahmoud. They had set up camp and begun to eat the rich food supplied by their new friend. For the second time in what felt like many months, they looked forward to going to sleep completely satisfied.
"I say the next town we get to, we sell these mangy pachyderms. We could always use the money to buy more food," Eric said as the offensive beast attempted to steal yet another morsel from his grip.
"Oh, that's just great, Eric. Fantastic plan!" Diana interjected sarcastically. "That will work for about an hour and then guess who will be the first to complain when his feet are hurting and we don't have any transportation."
Hank smiled and shook his head. "Besides, we have enough food right now. Rahmoud gave us enough to last many weeks, remember?"
"Us, yes," Eric grumbled. "What he failed to mention was that these things could eat about half of it in one night. Don't you think we have enough mouths to feed with the six of us and that dumb unicorn?"
"Watch it, Eric!" Bobby warned as Uni whined at the insult.
Not wanting to solve such monumental issues that night, the other Young Ones simply laughed.
Eric grumbled under his breath and climbed to his feet. He shoved the elephant's trunks away again as they prodded him for more food. "Fine," he said. "You guys try playing 'keep-away' with Dumbo here for a while. Then we'll see how satisfied your stomachs feel." He strode away from them to find a suitable spot in which to sleep.
He curled up in a patch of soft moss and brought his cape around him like a blanket. He had not closed his eyes for more than a few moments when he was roused by the sound of a snort inches from his face. Eric opened his eyes again to see the double snouts of one of the elephant-beasts sniffing around him. His startled cry provoked even more wild laughter from his comrades.
"I'm glad you guys think this is so funny!" he retorted. Then he turned to the animal in front of him. "And you," he said accusingly, "why can't you leave me alone? I just want to go five minutes without something bothering me!"
Eric rolled over onto his other side and froze. He groaned loudly and tugged his cape over his head, his prone form visibly deflating. In turning to avoid the beast that was taunting him, Eric had come face-to-face with another source of his annoyance: Dungeon Master.
"Greetings once again, my Young Ones," the tiny old man said warmly. He flashed a brief smile at the Cavalier. Eric's head peeked out from beneath his cape and his eyes rolled skyward long-sufferingly. Dungeon Master passed him and strolled closer to where the others were sitting.
"Dungeon Master," Hank said with surprise, "we didn't expect to see you again so soon."
"I have come to warn you, Ranger. A great trial lies ahead." Dungeon Master touched his fingertips together and gazed upward as his pupils rose and gathered around him.
"Unless it's a trial that can send us home, I'm not interested," Eric muttered. Nevertheless, he stood up and joined the others.
"It is not a mission to find a portal to your home world, no, Cavalier. However, it is a trial that you must face if you ever truly wish to see your home again."
"What's that supposed to mean, Dungeon Master?" Bobby asked.
"Very soon, my pupils, you will all have to trust someone who has betrayed you. For it is the one who has made the most mistakes that will set you free." The old man smiled again at his young friends and began to walk in the direction of some distant shrubs.
"Please, Dungeon Master," Sheila called to his retreating form, "we don't understand. Who's betrayed us?"
"Yeah," Bobby added. "And where are we supposed to go?"
"You need not go looking for this trial, my Young Ones." Dungeon Master's voice became more distant as he continued to walk. "It will find you. Good Luck, my friends." In the blink of an eye, the old sage vanished into the night air.
"He's gone again." Presto gave an exasperated sigh. "I don't get it. What are we supposed to do?"
"Simple," Eric announced. "We have to let somebody find us, so they can betray us, so we can trust them, so they can make a bunch of mistakes and we can all feel really good about it. Then we have to face a trial that we can't get home without, even though, technically, it's not really a way that can get us home. In short, we'll still be stuck here when it's all over, but at least we'll be feeling good about ourselves at the end. See? Piece of cake! Gee, where do I sign up? I don't know about you guys, but I can't wait to start."
Diana rolled her eyes. "Brilliant analysis, doctor."
"And so enthusiastic, too," Presto added.
"Well, come on, guys," Hank said, "if this trial is really going to find us soon, we should probably get some sleep. Bed down along the tree-line for some cover. I'll take the first watch from here in the clearing."
A yell and an explosion startled them all out of their peaceful sleep. Diana was the first on her feet. Clutching her staff, she ran in the direction of Hank's shouting. She reached his side in the clearing just as Venger sent another bolt of energy toward him. The Ranger loosed a magic arrow to block it, causing another explosion. As the Nightmare reared, Diana pushed Hank toward the trees – toward more cover from Venger's attacks.
"Can't Tall-Pale-and-Gruesome leave us alone for one night?" Presto yelled, ducking behind a fallen tree.
"I don't think leaving us alone is in his job description," Eric yelled back from beside Presto while motioning for Diana and Hank to run faster. The two teens burst through the opening of the woods and vaulted over the downed tree, landing beside their friends just as another bolt from Venger crashed to the ground behind them.
"Whoa! Close one!" Bobby cried. He shielded Uni from flying debris.
"We can't stay in here forever, guys," Diana called out over the noise of yet another assault from the Archmage. It hit the ground to their right. "One of these times his aim is bound to improve!"
"Either that, or he'll have destroyed enough of the forest around us so that we're out in the open again!" Presto answered back.
Another shot landing close behind them sent Eric, screaming, to his feet. He turned to see the dry tinder of the forest floor burst into flame. "We've gotta get out of here!" he yelled. "That flying freak is trying to burn us alive!"
He took off toward the clearing, followed by the others. Everyone coughed from the thick smoke emitted by the burning kindling. Hank had his bow ready to fire at any more energy bolts coming from Venger. To his surprise, none came. He stopped running and called to his friends. "Wait, you guys! Stop! I don't think he was trying to hit us. He was trying to flush us out!"
The warning came too late.
Eric was the first to burst through the trees. He saw the creatures that Rahmoud had given them stampeding away.
Terrific! No transportation and no money for food either!
He looked up to see the Archmage directly overhead, hand glowing with fiery energy aimed right at him. Too panicked to raise his shield, the Cavalier only looked up in terror for the split second it took for the energy to begin careening toward him.
The blow he felt wasn't from the front, however, but from behind. In an instant, Eric was facedown on the ground. A moment later, someone's knee was digging into his back as whoever had plowed into him began to quickly get up.
"Move it, Cavalier," Diana's voice carried over the din. Eric glanced behind him to a scorched patch on the ground just beyond his feet. Venger's bolt must have missed them both by only inches.
"Thanks," he said, spitting out a mouthful of dirt. "I think."
Diana shot him a hasty smile, then grabbed the scruff of his cape and dragged him to his feet. They took off running again.
Hank ran out from the cover of the trees. He pointed his arrow toward the sky and searched for Venger. He knew there was nowhere for them to run. If they stayed in the forest, they risked burning, or even suffocating, from the flames. Out in the open, however, they faced the Dark Lord himself, with no cover. The thick black smoke billowing up into the sky hid Venger from the Ranger's view. His eyes watered as the smoke stung them, but he continued to search for his enemy.
"Young fools," Venger's disembodied voice boomed from above their heads, although he and the Nightmare were still well hidden by the thick smoke. "Surrender your weapons to me now, or suffer the consequences!"
"Keep dreamin', Horn-Head!" Bobby yelled as he swung wildly at the air around him, hoping to make contact with the Archmage through the smoke. A bolt of light shot through the darkness directly toward the young Barbarian. Uni bleated out a panicked warning. Bobby jumped back, but the force of the energy still managed to knock him off his feet.
Sheila materialized directly behind him and knelt beside her dazed brother. She wrapped them both up in her cloak, rendering them invisible just as the next bolt came crashing to the ground. They reappeared a few feet away, and Sheila released Bobby.
"Thanks, Sis," the boy said.
"Maybe I can conjure up a wind to blow that smoke away!" Presto called to anyone within earshot. "Abracadabra, this ain't no joke, we need a wind to get rid of that smoke!"
The young Magician's hat glowed with a hazy purple light, then spit out a small hand-held fan. Presto examined it in frustration and put the hat back on. "Not what I had in mind," he grumbled.
Suddenly, the fan sprang to life and blew Presto's hat right off his head. "Hey!" he shouted and leapt after it just as an energy bolt struck the spot where he had been standing. Presto stared at the charred black earth behind him and blinked in disbelief. "Whoa," he breathed, and he grinned at the little fan with a new appreciation.
Eric and Diana were running left and right, dodging the attacks Venger fired in their direction. Eric, admittedly not the athletic type, would have gladly stopped running and used his shield to ward off the energy bolts. But with no other cover in sight, who knew how long he would be forced to keep that up.
Diana, the far superior runner, sped ahead of Eric, hoping to draw Venger's fire away from the others. She heard a noise – an abrupt grunt – behind her. It forced her to stop and turn. The Cavalier had fallen forward onto the ground and his shield had gone skidding across the clearing. Diana immediately changed course. She extended her staff and pole-vaulted to intercept the fallen weapon. She picked it up, holding it like an oversized discus, and spun around to toss it back in Eric's direction.
She was too late. No sooner had Eric struggled to his feet when a burst of light exploded directly in front of him. The Cavalier yelped in horror and crossed his arms defensively in front of his face to shield it from the blast. Diana only managed to take two running steps toward him when a column of light shot skyward between them.
The Acrobat staggered backward from the blast for a moment. Then she refocused her vision on the shaft of light which hid the Cavalier from view. "Eric!" she cried and ran toward it again. An instant later, it was gone, vanishing almost as quickly as it had appeared, and taking the Cavalier with it. Diana gasped as she reached the vacant spot where her friend had been standing.
Looking around, the Young Ones saw that there was no longer any sign of Venger. In fact, the fire started by his magic had also been extinguished and the stars began to peek through the dissipating smoke.
"It-It's gone," exclaimed Presto. "It's all gone."
"So is Venger," Sheila added, searching the skies.
"Eric's gone too," Diana said gravely as she approached, displaying the Cavalier's shield for the others to see.
Hank stared at it for a moment, then looked Diana in the eyes. "What happened?" he asked.
"It happened so fast," Diana muttered. Her fingers tightened along the rims of the shield. "I couldn't get back to him quick enough."
Sheila put a hand on Diana's shoulder.
Hank's eyes turned from Diana toward the offending skies that had swallowed his friend. "We'll find him," he said. "Venger took Eric, but he didn't hurt him . . . for now. That means he wants something."
"But that's just it," Presto said quietly. "I thought our weapons are what Venger wants. I mean, he left so fast, and he didn't even try to steal Eric's shield."
"The whole attack was a diversion for something," Hank pondered aloud. "And I intend to get Eric back before Venger follows through on whatever it is."
"But," Presto asked, "what could he possibly want with just one of us?"
Eric groaned as he regained consciousness. He could feel that he was lying on his back on hard stone.
Fantastic, he thought. Leave it to Hank to find the most comfortable places to camp.
He began to open his eyes and was rewarded with a rush of throbbing pain in his skull. He immediately squeezed them shut again.
Eric froze. His voice sounded strange – almost . . . echo-y.
Eric peeked his eyes open again and tried to focus on his surroundings. He wasn't outside at all. There was no campsite around him; it was some kind of dark room. He tried to lift his hand to grip his aching head, but immediately felt a pull on his wrist that prevented him from raising his arms more than a few inches. The rattling of chains rang in his ears. Trying to move, Eric realized that his legs and waist were bound as well. He felt an immediate stab of panic, and his eyes flew open wide. He ignored the throbbing in his skull and strained to see his surroundings in the darkness of the room. His mind raced as he tried to remember what had happened.
. . . Venger . . . Right, I remember . . . Venger was attacking us . . . There was a bright flash . . . And now my head feels like one of Rahmoud's pets sat on it . . . Wait . . . My shield! Where's my shield?
As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he noticed something else. His panic suddenly doubled.
Why am I alone?
After a few minutes, Eric heard voices. He turned his head to one side and saw the illuminated outline of a doorframe. The voices were coming from just outside. The fact that Eric recognized them all too well made his limbs go numb.
"We were only able to capture one, Master."
"Indeed, but the Cavalier will do for now."
"Shall I deploy the orc army to hunt for the others?"
"Yes, but give me some time with this one first. I must get acquainted with my guest."
With that, the door flew open. Eric tried unsuccessfully to stifle a frightened yell as Venger appeared before him, silhouetted in the doorway by torchlight.
"Welcome, Cavalier," Venger's steely voice echoed through the small room.
Eric summoned all of his concentration to try to keep himself from trembling. Based on the sound of the jingling chains, he wasn't being very successful. He made an effort to mask his obvious shudders by tugging hard on the chains that bound him.
"H-Hi there," he croaked out, raising himself as high as the chains would allow. "This your . . . um, dungeon?" He gulped. "It's really nice. Really. The cobwebs, the torchlight. I can't remember the last time I was in a dungeon so, um . . . so—"
"Silence!" Venger's rumbling voice echoed through the small room.
"—nice," Eric squeaked.
Venger took a step closer and Eric's body instinctively pulled back. The shackles holding him down didn't let him move much, but he still tried to squirm as far away from Venger as they would allow. The light from the hallway illuminated part of the Dark Lord's face and Eric could see a suspicious smile curling a corner of his lips. The unsettling sight forced a petrified noise from the Cavalier, which he tried to mask with laughter. The result was a weak, panicked chuckling sound. It sounded pitiful, even to Eric's ears.
Get a grip, get a grip, get a grip, Eric barked a mental order at himself. Think, Stupid! What would Hank do?
Eric gulped hard as Venger began to circle the stone slab on which he lay.
Forget Hank! he thought. You're Eric Alexander Montgomery! Your dad eats armies of corporate bulldogs for breakfast! You can handle one . . . measly . . . eight-foot . . . demon . . . thing.
Venger leaned closer and Eric bit back a frightened yelp.
"You have nothing to fear from me, Cavalier," Venger said. His voice was surprisingly calm. The strange sound sent chills down Eric's spine.
"Oh, yeah," Eric retorted, trying desperately for something that could pass for brave. It came out sounding more like sarcasm. He cleared his throat. "Sure, right! This must be how you make all your guests feel right at home." Eric acknowledged the dank cell around him, looking at the ceiling, the walls, the door – anywhere but at the fiery embers in the Archmage's eyes.
Venger's sinister smile widened and Eric could feel the precariousness of his situation getting worse. He continued to look anywhere but at Venger.
"You will not be here for long, boy. I have a special task for you," Venger sneered, drawing closer to Eric's helpless body. "There is something I wish to know, and you are going to help me."
Eric stiffened. He did meet Venger's gaze then. "Help you?"
From somewhere inside him, and very much against his better judgment, Eric's defiant side took over. "No way." The words were out before he could stop himself. A little voice in the back of his mind pleaded with him to shut up, but the sudden spontaneous boldness momentarily boosted his bravery. "Not on your life, you one-horned wacko."
The Dark Lord's eyes bore through him and Eric was gripped by an intense desire to turn away.
Eye contact with Venger – bad idea, bad idea!
However, he was even more afraid of revealing just how scared he really was. So, Eric the Cavalier continued his standoff with the most evil being in the Realm, his chest rising and falling quickly with every panicked breath.
Venger broke the gaze first and eased away. For a breathless instant, Eric was shocked. Had he actually stared down Venger and won? He felt a flutter of pride in his chest.
"So be it," Venger said and Eric's brief flutter of pride instantly turned into a churn of abject panic. Venger's low, dangerous tone scared Eric even more than their staring contest.
Venger raised his hand, aglow with a fiery light. The sight of it caused Eric to stiffen in fear.
"Wait!" Eric protested. "Hold on!" He squirmed backward, pulling against his chains. They held him fast. "What are you—?"
The Archmage suddenly projected the light at Eric. It struck him in the head and the Cavalier's entire body convulsed in blinding pain. His head whipped back and struck the slab on which he lay. His teeth and fists clenched as every muscle spasmed violently. He couldn't breathe; he couldn't scream. Every inch of him was on fire.
After what felt like an eternity, Venger finally withdrew his power. Eric sank bonelessly onto the slab. His muscles continued to ripple with miniature tremors that brought a fresh stab of pain with every twitch. He lay on the cold, stone table gasping for air, a movement which brought its own pangs of agony. A cracked grunt escaped his lips and Eric squeezed his eyes shut.
"This is your last chance to help me willingly, boy," he could hear the Dark Lord's voice say. "You will give me what I seek, or I shall take it from you."
Eric turned weakly to meet Venger's eyes again.
. . . You are Eric Alexander Montgomery. Your dad eats armies of corporate bulldogs for breakfast . . .
Eric set his jaw. He knew what would be coming after this. "Bite me. Okay?" he growled through clenched teeth.
Venger straightened to his full height. "Very well," he said. "We shall do this the hard way."
Eric turned away, still breathing heavily. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Venger's hand flare up again with the flaming light. Eric groaned and shut his eyes.
"I will have the information I seek about the man you have come to call 'Father,'" Venger hissed at him.
Huh? Eric's eyes opened again in confusion. Had he heard that right? You want to know about my—?
The Cavalier couldn't finish the thought. The blinding pain filled his head once again. This time, however, it almost seemed as though Venger was trying to pull Eric's thoughts right from his head. Again, he couldn't even scream as the feeling of a psychic dagger tore his brain in two.
. . . The door to the garage burst open and the man charged inside. He furiously swiped his hand through the billowing smoke and grabbed the collar of the boy's shirt, dragging him back outside.
"What did I tell you about this? What the hell did you think you were doing?"
"I didn't mean to hurt anything!" the boy cried out, struggling against the man's grip and coughing from what was left of the smoke. "I just wanted to try it!"
It was only going to be once around the block. How was he supposed to know this would happen?
"I warned you to stay away from this, didn't I? How many times have I told you?"
The boy finally succeeded in prying himself from the man's angry grasp. He overbalanced and stumbled hard onto the driveway. He felt small pebbles bite into the skin on his hands. He struggled to fight his tears back with anger.
"I'm sorry, okay? I didn't know!"
"You didn't think! Do you have any idea what could have happened? If I ever catch you—"
"I said I was sorry!"
"When I tell you something, Eric, you listen! I'm your father, damn it!" He turned from the boy and marched back into the garage to deal with the problem.
The boy rose to his feet in the middle of the driveway and glared balefully after the man. He scrubbed an arm over his eyes once and clenched his fists.
Yeah, well, I wish you weren't! he thought angrily. Anyone but you! . . .
Eric once again crumbled as the energy released him. This time he couldn't move. He could barely breathe.
"Interesting," Venger mused at the motionless boy.
Shadow Demon returned to the room, unfazed by the scene before him. "The troops are ready, my lord. The foolish Young Ones have been sighted coming in this direction."
"As expected," grinned Venger. "They are making it too easy."
"I have sent one band of orcs to intercept them," Shadow Demon continued. "The other is awaiting your order to head toward Khadish. Did the boy tell you what you wished to know about King Rahmoud?"
"It seems a new opportunity has presented itself, Shadow Demon," Venger said. He did not remove his eyes from the Cavalier. In his search for a way to use the Young Ones against the King of Khadish, Venger had found something different – something quite unexpected. Something that would make his victory much more satisfying. His crimson eyes flashed as his lips curled over his fanged teeth. "Plans have changed. Send both orc armies to bring the children and their weapons here. I have something much more interesting in mind for them . . . and for Rahmoud."
Shadow Demon bowed his head in compliance.
"Leave us now," Venger said as he took a step closer to the stone table. "My guest and I have much more to learn from each other." A light glowed brightly upon his sinister face as he sent yet another surge into the body of his prisoner.
The shield completed the illusion. As the Young Ones journeyed East toward Venger's castle, Hank led the way, newly outfitted. In his right hand, he gripped his golden bow, a natural fixture. On his left arm, swung the golden shield of the Cavalier. With the addition of the new weapon, the young man now looked fully equipped for any battle. Inside, however, the boy felt hollow. Although the shield completed his guise of a warrior, its presence on his arm created a chasm of incompleteness, since it meant the absence of one of their own.
Diana strode beside him with a high head, but a heavy heart. Her feelings of guilt over not reaching Eric in time to help him still ate through her. She put her hand on Hank's shoulder in a comforting gesture, although more for herself than for him.
"How much farther is it to Venger's castle, Hank?" Bobby asked. He tried carefully not to sound as though he was asking out of impatience.
"I don't think it will be much longer, Bobby," Hank answered, looking around at the barrenness of the landscape. "I think we're entering the borders of his land now."
"Yep," Presto added. "Any place crawling with orcs has got to be Venger's place."
"Crawling with . . . ?" Diana questioned.
"Orcs!" yelled Sheila pointing to the advancing green army that was bearing down upon them.
"Everyone, take cover!" Hank shouted. He began to fire arrows into the horde of stampeding orcs. He even managed to deflect some of their incoming attacks with Eric's shield. Handling the unfamiliar weapon felt awkward and foreign to him.
The Young Ones ran toward a large cluster of enormous rocks jutting out of the desolate ground.
"We can get away from them in there!" Sheila shouted back to the others. But as she turned back to the rocks she screamed. Another army of orcs emerged from behind the boulders toward which the Young Ones were headed.
Sheila skidded to a halt and gripped the hood of her cloak as a burly orc soldier lunged for her. The brute landed on his face where the Thief had just been standing. Sheila's bodiless giggle taunted him as she ran around his prone form. A moment later she reappeared beside Bobby, and the young Barbarian struck the earth with his club, knocking even more orc soldiers off their feet.
"Other way!" Hank shouted as he motioned toward the far side of the rocks. The others followed him with the orcs closing in behind them.
One orc lifted what looked like a shoulder cannon and took aim at the group of retreating teenagers. He fired, and the projectile the weapon emitted spread out into a net, taking down the person at the rear of the group. It was Presto.
"Yaaahh!" the Magician cried out as he hit the ground hard. The thick ropes of the net wrapped tightly around him. He struggled in the mesh, which only caused him to become more entangled in it. His hat lay on the ground just out of reach. He stretched for it, but his fingers didn't even brush the fabric. "Hank! You guys!" he shouted. "Help!"
"Presto!" the Ranger cried over his shoulder.
"I'll get him!" Diana skidded as she changed direction, catching herself one-handed in the dust and racing back toward Presto. She extended her javelin as she ran. Diana planted one end of it into the earth and vaulted back to help the fallen Magician.
It wasn't until she was in mid-flight that she saw the orc with the net cannon fire again. "Oh!" she gasped, but it was too late to change course. The net caught her in mid-air and brought her crashing to the ground. She grunted as she hit the earth and rolled, also trapped in the tight webbing.
"Oh no!" Sheila yelled. She also turned back toward the orcs.
Hank caught her elbow. "Wait!" he cried. "We can't let them capture all of us. Everybody, up on those rocks. We'll find another way to get our friends back."
Hank fired an arrow to the top of the highest boulder. It grappled into the rock and its tail extended downward to form a climbing rope. The three remaining Young Ones and Uni, carried by Bobby, scrambled up to the top, out of the orcs' reach. They huddled together among the jagged stones and watched as the orcs dragged their comrades away. Hank pursed his lips tightly and clutched the two weapons in his hands.
Hang in there, guys, he thought hotly. We'll get you out of this!
. . . You've got a lot of nerve showing your face here, boy . . .
. . . What do you mean? What did I do? . . .
. . . The day you walked out that door, you should have kept walking . . . How dare you? . . .
. . . But . . .
. . . How dare you return now. After all this time . . .
. . . Let me explain! . . .
. . . Do you have any idea how much misery you've caused? To your mother? To me? . . .
. . . But I didn't . . .
. . . Not just during the months you've been gone . . . but throughout your entire life . . .
. . . No . . . Please . . .
. . . You've been nothing but a bitter disappointment. Spineless and weak . . . You always have been . . .
. . . No! It wasn't my fault! . . .
. . . It never is, is it? I never want to see your pathetic face again . . .
. . . But I . . .
. . . You're no son of mine . . .
. . . But, Dad! . . .
"I can make it all go away, Cavalier," a new voice rang out. It was odd and soft, yet somehow drowned out the other noise.
. . . Dad! . . .
"All of this can go away. I promise."
. . . Please . . .
"Hey! Watch it, you big bully!" Presto grumbled at the orc who was manhandling him and Diana.
"Yeah, easy!" the Acrobat added.
The two teens were shoved to their knees in the middle of the floor in a very large chamber in Venger's castle. The room was strangely empty for its size, with the exception of a glowing throne at the far end. Presto and Diana glanced around as their orc captor hovered over them. Another orc, holding their weapons, stood back by the door through which they had come. Diana glared at him angrily and wondered what would happen if she made a move to retrieve her staff from the ugly brute.
Her thoughts halted at the sound of a booming voice coming from straight ahead. "Welcome, Young Ones." Venger had appeared in front of his throne and had begun to advance towards them.
Presto gasped in fright, but Diana climbed to her feet. "Where's Eric, Venger?" she demanded, pointing an accusing finger at the Dark Lord.
Presto watched as she planted her feet firmly into the floor, a scowl of determination on her face. He marveled at her courage in the face of Venger, even without the presence of her magic staff. Her movements prompted the Magician to stand up as well, his hands rooted defiantly to his hips.
Venger looked at them with amusement. "The Cavalier is in no danger," he answered in his icy tone. "Neither are you, if I have your cooperation."
"Keep dreaming!" Diana scoffed.
That caused Presto to fidget nervously. For as much as he admired her bravery, a part of him wished she would keep herself from saying things they would probably both regret.
With a wave of his hand, Venger dismissed the orc who was holding the teens' weapons. He turned back to the Young Ones. "If you insist, Acrobat. Take them away," he commanded the remaining orc. "For your sake, young fools, I hope you change your mind."
Presto and Diana were led into the dungeons of Venger's castle. They walked side-by-side, subjected to the occasional shove from the orc behind them.
"Presto," whispered Diana, "we've gotta get out of this and find Eric and our weapons."
"But how?" the Magician whispered back, eyeing the orc cautiously. They were led to an empty cell. The guard began to unlock the door.
"When I tell you to, run as fast as you can."
Presto felt his stomach flip-flop. "But, Diana—"
In an instant, the Acrobat leapt into a crouched position. She swung her leg to the side, sweeping the orc's feet out from under him. As his green body crashed to the floor, Diana hollered to Presto, "Go! Now!"
The Magician wasn't ready for it, but he forced his legs to move anyway. He took off down the hallway, not even thinking about where he was headed.
Gotta find a place to hide! Then look for Eric and the weapons!
He skidded to a stop alongside an open floor vent, dropped to his hands and knees, and squeezed himself inside, glad that orcs were too big to come after him there.
Diana had been following close behind him down the hallway. When she saw Presto drop to wriggle into the vent, she broke away and rounded a corner. She heard the clamor of even more guards pursuing them.
Follow me, you big uglies!
If she could distract the orcs long enough, Presto might have a chance to escape and find Eric and their weapons. She skidded to a halt briefly and glanced back. The shadows of the guards were rounding the corner behind her. Good. She bent down quickly and snatched up a handful of small stones from the dusty dungeon floor. She tossed them ahead of her down the hallway and listened to them scuttle noisily along the cobblestone. Diana quickly slid into a dark crevice to her left and held her breath as the orc soldiers passed her, following the sound of the scattering pebbles. She breathed a sigh of relief, and hoped that Presto was just as lucky.
"The two new prisoners have escaped, Master," Shadow Demon reported to Venger.
An evil smile spread over Venger's face. "In that case, they will need to be retrieved."
He turned to two guards in matching full body armor and helmets who were standing to his right. The guards stiffened to attention: One was tall and stout, the other was shorter, thinner, but with a stiff obedience matching that of his larger counterpart.
"Find them," Venger commanded the guards. "And take care to bring them to me alive."
The guards bowed low and strode out of the throne room.
Presto inched his way through the vent. Free from the orcs or not, he knew Venger's fortress was not the place to go poking around. He only prayed that Diana had gotten away as well.
If she didn't, it's up to me to find Eric and the weapons.
He gulped at the thought.
"Man," he whispered as he cringed away from a spider web that had appeared in front of his face, "even though it's pretty temperamental, what I wouldn't give to have my—"
A familiar color caught his eye as he passed by a grate that led into another room.
On a table in the center of the room, the Magician could make out not only his hat, but also Diana's staff. They couldn't have been more than ten feet away.
Presto carefully pushed at the grating. He braced himself for whatever noise it might make. Instead, he was surprised by how easily it opened. Maybe too easy? he thought. And why aren't there any guards?
He cautiously emerged halfway through the opening and looked around. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a suit of armor stationed adjacent to the vent from which he was exiting. He tentatively crept farther out of the hole.
A sudden creak of metal caused his spine to stiffen. Presto caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye and he floundered backwards again. The suit was lunging for him.
"Yahhh!" Presto screamed as he ducked back inside the vent and quickly tried to turn around. The space was too narrow, so he started to crawl backwards down the shaft as fast as he could. In his haste, his knee caught on his robes and tugged his neck downward, staggering him.
The armored guard glared into the shaft after him. Presto looked up just as a massive arm stretched forward and grabbed him by the collar. The Magician struggled futilely against its grip as he felt himself being dragged out of his hiding place.
When she felt the coast was clear, Diana eased out of the crevice and peeked around the corner.
They're gone, she thought and slipped quietly down the hallway.
As long as she was already in the dungeon, she decided to search for Eric first. If he actually was all right, she knew she had to find him fast so they could all get out of there. She slid along the dank wall, hoping the dungeons were big enough to keep Venger's brainless guards busy for a while. As she approached another turn she tentatively poked her head around first. Seeing no orc soldiers, she slipped around the corner.
Diana was startled by the sudden sensation of cold steel poking her between her shoulder blades. She bit back a curse and rebuked herself for not being more careful. She braced herself for a fight and whirled around to face the sword of one of Venger's armored guards.
The instant she faced him, she froze. Her brain did a quick double-take. The guard threatening her was not the immense, brawny orc she was expecting. In fact, this one was only a bit larger than she was. Though this guard probably would have given Diana less trouble, her moment of hesitation cost her the advantage. He lifted his sword higher and Diana knew her opportunity to escape had been lost. Raising her hands in surrender, she allowed herself to be led around the corner and down the hall.
Diana cast a scowling look behind her at the guard. "Kind of scrawny for an orc, aren't you?" she asked mockingly. The orc said nothing. He shoved her roughly from behind.
Sensitive too, the Acrobat thought with a sly smile.
"What were you, the runt of the litter?" she provoked the guard again. This time when he went to push her, she was ready. She deftly side-stepped the assault, sending him face-first onto the floor of the dungeon. "Have a nice trip, ugly?" she called as she began to run past his prone form.
The guard reached out and grabbed Diana's ankle as she passed. He was faster than she'd anticipated. She, too, went sprawling to the floor. She was momentarily dazed, but she managed to lift herself up on her forearms as the guard behind her got to his feet. He stood over her briefly and Diana turned her head up to him. A moment later, he raised his sword high and swung it downward. With a grunt, Diana shoved herself to one side and rolled out of the way just as the blade made contact with the floor. The sound of metal clashing with stone resonated through the halls of the dungeon. Diana jumped to her feet and crouched, ready to move when he did. This orc was a lot more dangerous than she had initially thought.
Without her weapon, Diana knew her only way out was to run. The orc was blocking the door at the end of the hall, so Diana would have to be fast. She faked a maneuver for him to follow, then abruptly changed course. She made a break for the door ahead of her.
Before she could get clear, the guard shot his hand out again and caught her by the wrist. Diana kept running, but he wouldn't let go. The motion sent them both turnstile-ing through the hallway and into the wall. The guard twisted back and down on Diana's wrist, and she gave a sharp cry. She stopped and turned to face him again. Bracing her foot against his breastplate, she shoved with all her might to pry her arm free of his grip. He released her, stumbling back, but the Acrobat also lost her balance and tumbled to the cobblestone.
The orc got his balance first and had his sword on her again. Diana crabwalked a few steps down the hall, regaining her bearings. From her sitting position, she glanced back to see the door behind her. Diana moved toward it slowly and the guard took wide strides to reach her. She had one last chance for escape. She paused and waited, letting him get close. She inhaled sharply through her teeth as the blade of the sword settled beneath the hollow of her throat.
She glanced down at the sword, then to the guard's darkened face hidden beneath his helm. A sardonic smirk curled a corner of her lips. "Oops," she murmured innocently. Then she kicked as hard as she could into his shin.
The guard cried out in pain and sank to one knee. Diana was up and running the same instant. She didn't get more than two feet toward the door when her insides clenched and she froze mid-step. Something suddenly registered . . . something awful . . . something that wrenched her back from her escape with a force stronger than any physical restraint.
That cry of pain . . . it wasn't the sound of an orc.
It was human.
What was worse, it was familiar.
Diana couldn't take another step. Her power to move forward was suddenly gone. Her heart began to hammer in her chest as she turned back, slowly.
He had raised himself to a standing position, but he was still hunched forward, favoring his leg and leaning heavily on his sword. His shoulders rose and fell in an angry pant. After a brief moment he lifted his head to face her and Diana was immobilized by what she couldn't see beneath the darkened helm. She stood slack in the middle of the hallway, staring at him. She couldn't hear anything over the sudden roar of blood in her ears.
When she spoke, her voice was small, frightened.
He straightened, though he continued to support himself on the sword. He took a step toward her – his posture tall, but his muscles still quivering in rage. Diana couldn't move; she stood frozen to the spot as he approached. He stopped about an arm's length away. His dark helm tilted sideways, regarding her. Then he reached up and tore his helmet from his head and Diana's heart nearly stopped. Although she had been expecting it, her eyes still widened in horrified disbelief.
"Eric!" she repeated in a shuddering whisper. "Eric, it's me."
Eric, however, didn't move. He didn't speak. He simply stared at her with steely eyes – eyes that seemed to bore right through her, without a hint of recognition. He didn't really see her. He didn't know her.
After an eternal moment, Diana managed to shake herself out of her stunned paralysis. Whatever had happened, this was Eric. He was her friend, and she had to help him. To do that, she needed to get through to him.
Diana steeled her voice. "Eric," she said firmly, "I don't know what happened, but listen to me." She took a step forward and reached a reassuring hand out toward him.
She hadn't expected him to rush her.
In an instant, the Acrobat's back was slammed into the stone wall of the hallway and her breath was forced from her lungs with a pained grunt. When the world stopped spinning she looked up to see Eric's face hovering a few inches away from hers, and felt the icy steel of his sword pressed beneath her throat. His expression was cold, his eyes were storming, and his usually-unsteady hands were suddenly fixed and determined.
Diana's brain urged her to shove him back, but her limbs wouldn't cooperate. She could only blink at him in shock. "What did he do to you?" she asked.
A shadowy figure appeared behind Eric. Diana recognized Venger's presence before she even saw him.
"Venger," she demanded, her voice a mixture of rage and fear, "what did you do to him?"
The Dark Lord only smiled wickedly, first at Diana then at Eric, whose expression never changed and sword never faltered until two orc soldiers gripped Diana's arms to lead her away. Only then did he lower the blade and stand straight and tall beside Venger.
When the Archmage finally spoke, his voice had a ring of horrific triumph. "You have done well, my young friend."
The orc soldiers roughly turned Diana around and began to drag her down the hallway. She kept looking back to catch glimpses of Eric, who stood still as stone, the same vacant expression on his face. She saw Venger raise his hand and place it possessively on Eric's shoulder.
Diana began to struggle. "Eric!" she cried. "Eric, it's me! Come on, Cavalier, snap out of it! ERIC!"
The Acrobat was shoved forcefully into a dark cell. As she struggled to get her balance, she could hear the tumbler in the lock slide loudly into place. She charged back toward the door and stared though the bars into the empty hallway. After a moment, she slammed both hands against the heavy wooden barrier, letting loose an angry cry of rage and helplessness.
"Whoa, whoa! Diana!"
A pair of gentle hands touched her arm and she turned her face to see Presto standing beside her.
"They got you too, huh?" he asked. "What happened?" When she didn't answer right away his brow furrowed and he cocked his head, regarding her with concern. "Are you all right?"
Diana didn't know how to reply to that. She took a deep breath. "It's Eric," she said.
Presto visibly stiffened. Diana could see the worry in her friend's face, and she wasn't sure how to tell him what had happened.
"Is he okay?" Presto asked.
Diana pursed her lips grimly. She couldn't lie to him. She shook her head.
Presto stared at her without blinking. Then he swallowed hard. "Is he . . . I mean, he's not, um . . . dead?" he finally managed quietly. "Is he?"
Diana's features softened a little. "No," she replied firmly. She saw the Magician's body sag with at least some relief. "Nothing like that."
"Then what?" demanded Presto.
Diana stared hard at her friend. Silence hung heavy in the air of the cell.
"There it is," Sheila said, pointing to Venger's fortress.
"What are we going to do once we get there, Hank?" Bobby asked, cautiously stroking Uni's mane.
The Ranger did not respond. He stared at the dark castle looming over their heads. They had seen no further sign of the orcs or any of Venger's other forces since coming down from their hiding place – a fact which made Hank extremely uneasy.
"Maybe I should go in alone," Sheila suggested, gripping the hood of her cloak. "If I were invisible, I could scout ahead and see what we're up against."
"No," Hank finally said. "Venger's already managed to separate us too much. I won't risk anyone else's capture. We need to stick together."
"Hank, if they're setting a trap and we're walking into it, there won't be anyone left to save the others," Sheila insisted.
"And if you walk into it alone," Hank told her firmly, "any information you discover won't do Bobby or me any good. All we'll have is fewer people."
Sheila did not concede, but she didn't argue. She looked silently toward Venger's castle.
"One thing's for sure," Bobby said, "if Venger really is expecting us, he'll probably let us in somehow."
Hank and Sheila nodded in agreement and, sticking close together, the three of them and Uni advanced toward the castle.
Venger sneered at the approaching Young Ones from one of the tallest towers of his fortress. "How right you are, Barbarian," he said. "Shadow Demon!" He turned to his minion. "See that our new guests are welcomed properly. Then prepare the others. We shall test the loyalty of our new ally. If he obeys, as he should, we shall then use him to exact my revenge upon King Rahmoud."
Shadow Demon bowed his head and breezed out of the throne room.
Venger smiled wickedly after him. The Weapons of Power were within his grasp. Soon, the Kingdom of Khadish would follow. Complete domination of the Realm would finally be his, and Dungeon Master's own pupils were going to help him.
He couldn't shut the voice out. The barrage was constant, inexorable, and unending. The sound pressed in suffocatingly close, like a physical presence. No matter how tightly he squeezed his hands to both ears, he couldn't shut it out. The words were cold and merciless, and even worse, the boy felt with every fiber of his being that they were somehow true . . .
. . . You're not worthy to be called my son . . .
. . . Please don't say that! . . .
. . . Nothing but a disappointment . . .
. . . No! . . .
. . . Spineless . . .
. . . Stop! . . .
. . . Weak . . .
. . . I said stop! . . .
. . . But you already know all this don't you, boy? You already know you're a failure . . .
The only thing that eased the relentless torment was the undertone of another voice. It was low and dangerous, but at the same time, calm and hypnotic. It started out soft, then began to swell.
"I can help you, Cavalier," it said. "You are not a failure. You can prove it. Now is the time to show your strength."
He welcomed the new sound, since it meant relief from the acerbic taunts of the other voice. He couldn't take that any more. He just couldn't.
"Your torment will end," it promised. "Prove your strength to me."
Listening to the second voice was so much easier than struggling against the first. He relaxed, and let it in.
. . . Yes. I will . . .
"Careful, Sheila," Hank said as he raised his arm to prevent her from stepping forward. Several orcs marched in single file directly in front of the nook in which they were hiding. "Venger probably knows we're here, so we need to keep a sharp eye out."
"Thanks," the Thief whispered back. She proceeded with more caution the second time and glanced out into the hall. "Hank," she said, "there's really only one way we're going to be able to do this, and you know it." She reached for her hood again, just as she had outside.
"Sheila," the Ranger protested.
"I have to," she insisted. "I know you want to stick together, but if it's within my power to find our friends and their weapons, I have to try. Please."
Hank opened his mouth to say something else, but stopped. Instead he sighed heavily. Taking Sheila's hand and squeezing it he simply whispered, "Okay. Just be careful."
Flashing a quick smile to him and then to Bobby, Sheila raised her hood and stepped unseen into the hall.
"Good luck, Sis!" Bobby called softly after her.
When she was gone, the Barbarian looked at the Ranger. "What about us, Hank?" the boy asked. "Where do we—?"
Hank raised a warning hand, and Bobby silenced himself quickly. Another troop of orcs marched past their hiding place. Both boys and Uni kept perfectly still. In a moment, Shadow Demon also appeared.
"Hurry up, all of you," the flying specter hissed at the band of orcs. "The Master will be displeased if anyone is late for the ceremony." Upon hearing this, the orcs double-timed it down the hall. When they had gone, Hank poked his head around the corner.
"We go there," he said.
When Hank, Bobby, and Uni had made their way down the hallway, Shadow Demon reemerged. He materialized from the darkness between two torches and watched the Young Ones go. His eyes squinted into the mockery of a smile.
Sheila stepped lightly. Although she was wrapped in invisibility, she was still mindful of the sounds of her feet and any rustle of her clothing. She was certain she could not be seen, but the idea that Venger had allowed them easy access to the castle still had her very nervous. He wanted something from them, and they had to get out of here before he got it.
She crept through the halls, not completely certain where she was going. She wished, not for the first time, she didn't always have to do this alone. She didn't even know where to begin in a castle this size. Still, she persevered – guided by her own hope and instinct. After all, as she told Hank, she might be the only one with the ability to find their friends.
A door in front of her swung open. Even though she knew she couldn't be seen, Sheila reflexively ducked around the nearest corner. She was grateful for having done so, because in the next moment two orcs appeared through the door dragging behind them Presto and Diana, whose hands were bound together. When the orcs passed her, Sheila removed her hood and attempted to catch the eye of one of her friends.
"Psst," she whispered and Presto turned his head. His eyes widened, but he didn't acknowledge her presence otherwise. He smiled and quickly nudged Diana. Sheila lifted her hood once again and began to follow them down the hall.
"Boy, it's too bad I was never able to get to our weapons downstairs in the dungeon," Presto announced, a bit louder than necessary.
"Quiet, you!" snorted one of the orcs as he tugged on the shackles that bound Presto's hands.
The Magician stumbled over his own feet but still continued speaking as he righted himself. "Yep," he said, "they were just sitting there on a table in that room down the stairs and at the end of the hall and I couldn't even get to them. Some all-powerful sorcerer I am!"
"Me warning you, human," the orc growled again.
"Warning us, nothing!" Diana chimed in. "What are you going to do, Porky? You know Venger's got some big plan. You do something to us before he's ready, and it'll be Bacon-City for you!"
"That's right. Horn-Head's capable of all kinds of things," Presto mused.
"He even brainwashed Eric somehow." Diana turned her head and spoke these last words directly to Sheila. Her eyes searched the empty space beside her, trying to locate her friend's invisible form.
Sheila froze. Diana's worried glare and her words sent a chill through her.
The orcs turned to drag their prisoners through another door and Diana took the opportunity to whisper, "Be careful," to Sheila before they were forced to part.
The Thief stood dumbfounded in the hallway. She began to understand why Venger had allowed them into the fortress so easily. If what Diana said about Eric was true, Hank and Bobby had to be warned before they got caught in a trap. Sheila also knew that she needed to get her friends' weapons back as quickly as possible.
She decided to go for the hat and the javelin first since, thanks to Presto's poor acting, she knew where they were. She only hoped she could get back to the others in time for the weapons to be of any use.
Sheila doubled-back to the end of the hall where she had first encountered Diana and Presto. She passed through the door and down a set of stairs. She found the dungeons as Presto had described. At the end of the hallway was the door to the room containing the javelin and the magic hat. It was partially open and she slipped cautiously inside.
A snort to her right startled her. Sheila gripped her hood to keep it from moving as she jumped back in alarm. She relaxed a moment later when she saw one orc guard asleep in a chair. She shook her head bemusedly at Venger's lazy minion.
Where does he get these guys?
She strode quietly over to the table and picked up Diana's staff and Presto's hat. She enveloped everything in her cloak and tip-toed back to the door. She glanced at the snoring brute one more time and rolled her eyes. Then Sheila began swiftly making her way back to the place from which she had originally come.
Hank, Bobby, and Uni surveyed the scene from above. They crouched low on a balcony overlooking a large room. If this had been any other castle, the area below them could have been a ballroom. In Venger's grim surroundings, however, it looked more like a public torture chamber. The boys saw two of their captured comrades being led into the room and chained to the right wall. Their arms were bound high above their heads.
"Only Presto and Diana," Hank mused, getting his bow ready. He craned his neck to get a better look at the floor below. "I don't see Eric."
Venger entered the room through a door at the far end, and Hank ducked back further into his hiding place. The Dark Lord strode to the center of the floor below. He glared first at his two prisoners, then at his orc subjects around him. Finally, with an evil, knowing smile, he glanced up toward the balcony.
"Seize them," he commanded.
Orcs closed in from behind and tackled Hank and Bobby. Hank struggled under one guard's crushing grip as its massive arms encircled him and pinned his own arms to his sides. His bow, Eric's shield, and Bobby's club all clattered to the floor, useless. Uni whined in panic as she struggled to free herself from another orc's grasp. Hank could hear the young Barbarian shouting for the orc to leave her alone. The boys were hoisted to their feet and shoved toward the balcony railing. Venger smiled and Hank could tell that this is what the evil one had planned all along.
He knew where we were, Hank thought. He wanted us here! The Ranger desperately scanned the floor below. He felt some relief that there was no sign of Sheila, but significantly unsettled that he still hadn't spotted Eric.
"Welcome, Ranger," Venger said. His icy voice resonated through the large chamber. "How fortunate that you and the young Barbarian are now joining us." His eyes moved from Diana and Presto at the far wall, back to Hank and Bobby on the balcony. "It seems your little family will soon be complete."
The noise of a heavy door opening echoed from across the floor below. Hank looked toward the sound as another figure entered the room. He was dressed in unfamiliar armor, but there was no mistaking him. He strode forward with purpose, completely on his own power, and stood beside Venger. He turned his eyes toward the balcony. His strange, cold stare settled on Hank. The Ranger returned the gaze with his own hardened eyes, even as his stomach turned over and his heart hammered in his chest at the sight of his friend beside Venger.
"Eric," he said.
Venger smiled coldly and laid a claiming hand on the Cavalier's shoulder. Hank shifted his stare from Eric to the real source of his hostility. He jerked in the grip of the orc that held him as he glared angrily at the Dark Lord. "Eric would never betray us willingly, Venger," he said. "What did you do to him?"
"You will all find out soon enough, Ranger," Venger sneered. "I now have nearly all the Weapons of Power in my possession. Very shortly, I shall also have control over the kingdom of Khadish. And in that, Young Ones—" His cold eyes slanted at Hank and his evil grin widened. "—you will help me."
Hank jerked again, but the crushing grip of the orc held him fast. He could do nothing but stare hatefully at his enemy. "No way," he hissed.
"King Rahmoud will never suspect treachery from the young children whom he cares for as his own," Venger continued. "By the time he realizes his error, it will be too late for his kingdom. And I shall be one step closer to complete domination of the Realm."
"That'll never happen," Hank said hotly.
Venger continued to smile viciously. "That was the Cavalier's sentiment as well, I believe," he replied as he removed his hand from Eric's shoulder and began to circle behind the boy. Eric didn't move from where he was. "As you can see, that has changed. It is often a mere matter of finding weakness. The Cavalier's was most interesting. Pity how some children never know the true love of a father."
"That's not true!" Presto interrupted suddenly from across the room. "Eric, don't listen to him! Your dad—"
The Magician was cut off sharply by the backhand of a nearby orc.
"Presto!" Diana shouted from beside him.
Presto hung from his chains, briefly dazed and slack. Then he managed to straighten his legs again. He stood quietly for a moment, his tongue nursing a small split in his lip.
Satisfied, Venger turned back to Hank. "You will all have the same choice, Ranger," he said. "You will surrender to me, or be destroyed."
Hank did not answer. He glared defiantly at Venger and the Dark Lord smiled wickedly in response. "So be it," he hissed. "Bring them," he commanded the orcs holding Hank and Bobby. "I have no need for all of Dungeon Master's Young Ones to defeat King Rahmoud. The Cavalier will do. And perhaps," he added with a vicious sneer, "with the proper guidance, this one will come to view me as the father he always lacked."
The outburst came from Presto again. He stood in his chains with a fearful expression, shaking his head pleadingly.
"No, he'll never do that!"
"Stop," Venger commanded the orcs on the balcony again. "Keep them there. They may enjoy watching this instead." His attention then turned to Presto, who trembled visibly under the Dark Lord's glare. "The foolish young Magician seems unable to hold his tongue. Very well." Venger turned to Eric. "The time has come to truly prove your loyalty to me. Perhaps then your young friends will reconsider." His eyes turned one final time toward Presto and an evil smile curled his lips. "Destroy him."
As if in a trance, Eric finally moved. He unsheathed his sword, strode past a triumphant Venger and advanced toward Presto. Diana struggled in her chains and cried out to him, trying to pull his attention toward her instead. Hank and Bobby watched helplessly from above. Presto pressed his back into the rock wall behind him. He shuddered and met the fiery glare of his best friend. Eric continued forward, gripping his sword tightly.
Presto didn't know what to do. Eric glared at him as though he didn't know him at all – the same way Diana had described back in the cell. He felt a cold panic clench his heart. He tore his eyes away from the approaching Cavalier and looked around him for something – anything – that might be able to help. But there was nothing. His hands were bound, he didn't have his hat . . . and even if he did, he wouldn't know the first thing about casting a spell to undo whatever brainwashing Venger had done. Presto closed his eyes and his mind raced.
. . . You will have to trust someone who has betrayed you. For it is the one who has made the most mistakes that will set you free . . .
Dungeon Master's riddle suddenly rang in Presto's head. The Magician opened his eyes and raised them to Eric. I do trust him, he thought. He's my friend – he always has been.
"Eric," Presto said, "I don't know what Venger did to convince you that your father didn't care about you, but you have to try and remember how he really was."
Eric did not stop advancing.
"You said your dad's a jerk," Presto continued. "And, okay, maybe he is. If that's true, then remember him that way – in all his 'jerky' glory. But he is not evil! He had to have done something right. He raised you, didn't he?"
(The voice – that awful, biting voice was still drumming insistently through the boy's head. . . . Nothing but a failure . . . A complete disappointment . . .)
The Cavalier stopped walking as he reached Presto.
"You may not believe me," Presto said with a nervous chuckle, "but you're one of the best friends I've ever had, Eric. I mean, you were one of the only ones who even talked to me back home. Remember? There were a few times I even tried to give you excuses to stop hanging out with me – you know, so people wouldn't start giving you a hard time too – but you wouldn't take them. You were always there."
Eric cocked his head to the side, regarding Presto with empty eyes.
"And here!" the Magician said. "You've saved all of us so many times. Your father had to have had a hand in how stubborn you are. And loyal."
The other Young Ones implored Eric to listen. He didn't flinch; he merely glared down at the Magician. Presto backed up into the wall as far as he could. Beads of sweat rolled down his temples.
"Remember your dad how he really was, Eric! Not whatever lies Venger created for you! You have to remember! Please!"
(. . . You are no son of mine . . . )
("Only I can make this all go away, boy. You are mine!")
Eric suddenly squeezed his eyes shut and grimaced.
The voice was still there – saying things, terrible things, things no one should ever hear from a father. And that other voice too – calmer, but more dangerous – telling him he could trust no one. But now, a new voice – a pleading, imploring, voice. A friend's voice? He couldn't tell. But it was familiar somehow. All three of them were in his head. He couldn't shut them out.
Suddenly, with the new voice came a new thought – a more familiar conversation. It was the first thought in nearly two days that had not been created for him. A real memory:
. . . The boy tentatively peeked through the door into the home office. That door had always made him nervous. It was almost always shut – uninviting and forbidding. And beyond the door, the mahogany-accented interior was pristine and unwelcoming. So was the man who normally occupied the room. But if the boy wished to speak with him, this is where he would find him.
"Dad?" he asked.
The man behind the desk was indeed working again. He was always working.
"What is it?" was the gruff response.
"Mom told me you were in here. Look, I'm sorry – about what happened with the car today." The young man frowned at the lack of reaction his words received. The other man wasn't even looking at him. The boy bounced impatiently on the balls of his feet, anxious to leave the room again.
"It's a valuable classic."
"I-I know. I'm sorry." Apparently the man behind the desk was more interested in being left alone than an apology. The boy hurried to end the conversation. "Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that." He turned to leave.
"I am too, son."
"Huh?" The words stopped him at the door.
"I am too – sorry." The man put his pen down and removed his glasses, rubbing tiredly at his eyes. Finally he looked up. "I just don't think you realized what could have happened, Eric."
"I know," the boy replied. "It could have been ruined. I really am sorr—"
"No," the man interrupted, more softly than was his nature. "You could have been hurt. There's no oil in the engine. If you had gotten that car any farther than the garage . . ." He trailed off. "I know I yelled earlier. But when I tell you something, you need to understand it's for your safety, son."
The boy blinked, dumbfounded. "Oh."
The man put his glasses back on, picked up his pen, and turned his attention back toward the desk in front of him. "Now let me finish here, all right?"
The young man backed out of the room, closing the door softly behind him . . .
Trembling, Eric opened his eyes, blinking several times. He then straightened to his full height and stood tall before Presto. The Magician searched his friend's face, but still saw nothing but fire burning in his friend's vacant expression.
"Do it," Venger growled.
Eric raised his sword without hesitation. Presto turned his head and squeezed his eyes tightly shut.
"I trust you, Eric," he said. "I do."
The other Young Ones averted their eyes as the blade came down.
Presto's arms dropped. The residual clang of metal against metal echoed through the chamber as Eric's sword shattered Presto's chains. The Magician looked first at the severed manacles still hanging from his wrists, then up at his friend. Eric's face was still hardened and angry, but his eyes had regained some flicker – some spark – that Presto finally recognized.
He smiled. "Eric?"
The Cavalier looked at Presto. "Get out of here," he said hoarsely. His voice was low and serious. It was an unfamiliar and strange sound coming from Eric, but it was a welcome one – especially after his seemingly endless eerie silence.
Presto breathed a sigh of relief as Eric set his jaw angrily and turned to face Venger.
"All right!" Bobby cried.
The Dark Lord was raging at the Cavalier's betrayal. "Traitor!" he roared. His hand began to glow with a violent flame.
Eric glared at the Archmage and gripped the sword. He seemed to hold it much more awkwardly now that he had returned to his senses. Still, he stood protectively in front of Presto, even without the aid of his shield. "Did you hear me, dummy?" he directed his voice back at his friend behind him. "I said get out of here! Now!"
Presto didn't argue. He ran to Diana just as Venger released the energy from his glowing hand. With Presto out of range, and him without his shield, Eric threw himself to the floor to avoid the blast. He cried out and covered his head as the energy surged above him.
Presto tugged at Diana's chains. "It's no good!" he groaned.
"Looks like you'll need this, then!" a bodiless voice said from beside him. In an instant, Presto's magic hat was floating before him.
"Thanks, Sheila!" he cried and he grinned.
The hat began to glow the minute Presto's fingers touched it.
"Fee-fi-fo-fat, conjure me something to knock them all flat!" he chanted. "Oh, and something to get Diana's hands out of that!" he quickly added. A bolt of light came shooting out of the hat, knocking Presto off balance. It sliced through Diana's shackles, ricocheted off the wall above them, and headed for the balcony.
The orcs' grip on Hank, Bobby, and Uni loosened in their attempt to avoid the energy bolt. The young Barbarian managed to wriggle free. He retrieved his club and swung at the green soldiers. The orcs lost their balance as they tried to avoid the club and tumbled off the balcony.
Gripping a tattered nearby curtain, Hank slid down to the floor below, where the others were waiting. Bobby, with Uni, followed close behind. Sheila reappeared and gave Diana back her staff.
"Great job, Presto!" she said.
The Magician beamed at his success.
Eric raised himself up off the floor and met the furious gaze of Venger. His hand was glowing again as he prepared another attack. "Crossing me was the worst mistake of your life, boy." He took a step toward Eric. "I will destroy you for your treachery."
Eric, still reeling from being released from the spell, rose shakily to his feet. He leaned on the sword Venger had given him. "I told you I wasn't going to help you," he said, looking up. Some of the fire still burned within Eric, only now it was directed at his true enemy. He glared at the Archmage. "I'm Eric Alexander Montgomery," he hissed through clenched teeth. "And my dad eats armies of corporate bulldogs for breakfast. So let's see you're made of, Horn-Head."
"Eric!" Hank shouted, tossing him his shield.
The Cavalier dropped the sword and caught it in time to deflect Venger's attack, but the force of the blow threw Eric back. His familiar wail was cut off by an abrupt grunt as he hit the wall.
"Eric!" Diana cried, and ran to help him. She reached the Cavalier's side and started to help him up. Her staff was at the ready, pointed at Venger. Eric kept his eyes on the Dark Lord and he gripped his shield tightly.
Venger raised both arms, invoking all of his evil magic to deliver a final strike. He looked at the Young Ones. "Farewell to you all," he spat. "You will never leave this fortress."
Eric's head was still swimming, but he tried to concentrate on summoning the full power of his shield as the Dark Lord's energy grew. The others gathered closely around him.
A dull hum filled the air. For a moment, it seemed as though it were merely the sound of Venger's deadly energy collecting over his head. The sound grew, however, becoming less of a hum and more of a song – like a tuning fork.
The children looked up to see a funnel-shaped cone of energy ripple the air and head straight for Venger. The Archmage was blindsided by the blow. When his focus broke, his attack exploded over his own head.
"Come, my children! Hurry!"
They all turned to see Rahmoud, wielding his magical scimitar. He was joined by a band of even more desert soldiers. Their foster-father's warriors began to fight off the orcs that stood between the Young Ones and freedom. Diana and Hank supported Eric with their shoulders, and the children ran to their royal friend.
As they fled with Rahmoud, the Young Ones could hear Venger let out a vicious yell. He was consumed by the energy of his own spell, and the entire fortress burst into chaos. Beams of light shot everywhere as the castle began to implode. Everyone raced toward the exit. They dove under the closing portcullis, and didn't stop until they, Rahmoud, and the desert soldiers were a safe distance from the destruction of Venger's fortress. The castle seemed to crumble in upon itself and soon all that remained was a cloud of smoke rising up out of the rubble. The Young Ones watched as the smoke briefly took the shape of their enemy. It reached for them, then dissipated and vanished in the night air.
"Something tells me that he's gonna have that fortress rebuilt in no time," Presto guessed.
"Rahmoud!" Now that everyone was safe, Sheila was finally able to embrace their savior.
"Ah, my children, thank the heavens you are all right," Rahmoud sighed, gathering as many of them into his arms as possible.
"How did you know we were in trouble?" Bobby asked, puzzled. "And how did you know where to find us?"
"It was them," Rahmoud said with a smile. He motioned toward three hairy elephant-beasts standing a short distance away. "I knew something was wrong when they returned so quickly without you. My people were able to pick up your trail once we left the desert."
Eric, who had been lying on the ground propped up on his elbow, rolled over onto his back with a relieved sigh. "I always knew I loved those mangy things."
Diana touched his arm gently and he looked up at the circle of faces over him. He sat up slowly. His head was still swimming. "I guess I have, like, a million apologies to start handing out," he said.
"Sometimes, Cavalier, a great knowledge comes at a great price," a gentle voice said.
Everyone turned to see the Dungeon Master, who had appeared behind them. Eric didn't seem surprised to see the little man.
"So what did we learn?" he asked bitterly. "That I'm capable of hurting my friends?" Eric stiffened as the reality of what could have happened gripped him. His gaze shifted between Diana and Presto. "I could have killed you both." He averted his eyes, unable to look at anyone. "I'm really sorry, guys."
"Actually, Eric," Presto said, placing a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder, "you proved to us that we can trust you no matter what."
Diana knelt on his other side. Eric searched for contempt in her eyes, but found none there – only a caring smile.
"That's right," Hank said. "Dungeon Master told us we could trust you and you came through."
"That was not all I said, Ranger," Dungeon Master added. "I said that you would all have to trust someone who you felt had betrayed you. The Cavalier, too."
"Yeah," Bobby said, "And you also told us that it would be something we would have to face if we wanted to go home."
"I told the Cavalier that it was a trial he would have to face if he ever truly wished to see home again," Dungeon Master corrected.
Everyone turned to Eric and he shrugged.
"I guess it's no secret that I never really got along with my dad," he began. He let out a sour laugh. "'The one who has made the most mistakes will set you free.' Yeah, that's my old man all over. Venger tried to put it into my head that I was one of those mistakes. He almost did, too." Eric's voice was very quiet. "But I guess the guy did have his moments. They were few and far between but . . . ," his voice trailed off briefly. "Sometimes he was able to get through to me that he really did care about me – in his own way. I tend to forget that a lot, though, 'cause I'm usually too busy feeling sorry for myself. But today, I had to trust that he loves me." Eric looked at Presto. "Thanks," he said.
The Magician smiled in response.
"And now, Cavalier?" Dungeon Master coaxed.
"And now . . . I still think he's an overbearing, self-centered jerk. But for some reason, I-I really want to see him," Eric admitted and, to his surprise, he really meant it. "I want to talk to him. I hope I can tell him someday how much he really helped me here. I hope I can make him understand."
"You will, Cavalier," Dungeon Master said. "You should be most proud today, for when you finally do find the portal home, you will be truly ready to go through it."
Eric smiled silently. Although his guilt still overwhelmed him, there was a feeling of contentment mingled with it.
It was Bobby who picked up on the Cavalier's usual line. "So what are we waiting for?" he said. "Let's find ourselves a portal!"
Uni whinnied in agreement.
Rahmoud gathered the Young Ones around him again. "My children, please do me the honor of accompanying me to Khadish. You can spend the night among my people and begin your search from there."
Hank clasped hands with Rahmoud in a gesture of acceptance, and the Young Ones made their way to the hairy mounts that were waiting several yards away.
"Did I mention how much I loved those walking carpets?" Eric asked again as Diana and Presto helped him to his feet. They smiled and nodded as the three of them walked toward their rides.
Eric stopped, suddenly serious again.
"Guys," he said quietly to the other two. "I really am sorry. I don't know how to . . . I mean, I can't . . ."
The Cavalier pressed the heal of his hand into his head. He couldn't bring himself to look directly at his two friends who, he felt, he'd betrayed the most. Diana stepped toward him and gave him a firm hug. After a moment, Eric allowed himself to hug her in return, almost reluctant to let go.
Presto simply stood back and grinned. "Just glad to have you back, Cavalier," he said.
They then mounted their rides and followed Rahmoud toward Khadish, more trials, and a promise of home.