Better the Devil You Know
Chapter 1 – The Fruit of Deneia
Sheila was leaning against a tree with her eyes closed marvelling, not for the first time, at how quickly everything had returned to normal; or at least what passed as normal in the Realm. While all was peaceful now, it had only been a few short hours ago when they had been fighting for their lives.
She was excused from the evening chores, as it was her turn for second watch that night, so she had nothing to distract her from mentally reviewing the day's events. It had all started when Dungeon Master had appeared that morning and Sheila began replaying the scene in her head.
"Greetings, my pupils."
"Dungeon Master!" Bobby exclaimed.
The Thief smiled indulgently at her brother's reaction, the only one of their group who still showed any surprise at his sudden appearances, and joined the Barbarian and her friends at the wizard's side. Dungeon Master waited for them to approach before continuing.
"I bring you news of a possible way home."
"Oh right, and what do we have to do this time?" the Cavalier sneered. "Save a village, fight a dragon, rescue a princess?"
The Cavalier had been in a terrible mood all morning, not helped by the fact he had been up three hours earlier than everyone else and it was becoming annoying.
"Eric!" Sheila snapped, glaring at him and earning her surprised looks from all of her friends.
She was normally the most tolerant of the group but she had had enough. Eric's persistent moaning and complaining had hit a nerve and she had run out of patience but she soon blushed when she realised everyone was staring at her.
"Nothing so challenging," Dungeon Master stated, ignoring Eric's rudeness and the Thief's embarrassment. "You must seek out the Guardian of Deneia. He has knowledge of many things and may be willing to tell you where to find the Kellia portal."
"Don't you know where the Kellia portal is?" Diana queried.
Dungeon Master smiled at the Acrobat.
"There are many things I do not know, the Kellia portal's exact whereabouts being one of them," he replied.
Eric opened his mouth, no doubt about to utter another scathing comment but seemed to think better of it and closed it again when Sheila shot him the 'don't mess with me' look that was normally reserved for her brother. She had still not forgiven him for making her lose her temper.
"So where do we find this Guardian?" Hank asked.
"He lives in the . . ."
He stopped abruptly and stood almost motionless, his vivid blue eyes glazed over and he appeared troubled. The Thief stared at him, as did everyone else, not sure what to do by his unexpected pause.
"Dungeon Master, is everything OK?" Sheila asked, moving forward and kneeling beside him.
"Something has changed, the balance has shifted," he murmured, his voice so low that the Thief could barely hear him.
Then, just as suddenly, he seemed to recover as he then continued.
"The wood druid is the Guardian of the fruit from the Uccello Calce tree and lives in the Deneia Forest," he stated, pointing towards some trees that looked to be no more than an hours walk from their current location.
"And now, forgive me my children, I am needed elsewhere," he added.
At that he was gone; no getting them to momentarily look away, no walking behind a convenient rock, he just vanished as they watched.
It was a few seconds before any of them spoke and Sheila guessed that they were all equally surprised by Dungeons Master's unusual behaviour and the way he had suddenly disappeared. It was Presto who finally broke the silence.
"What was that all about?" he asked.
"Not sure," Hank replied. "It was odd though."
"The old man's losing it," Eric commented.
They all ignored him and continued as though the Cavalier had not spoken.
"Something must have happened to upset him," Presto stated.
"I think something distracted him rather than upset him," Sheila commented.
"Whatever it was, it's the first time he hasn't answered our questions with a riddle," Diana pointed out.
"Yeah, I noticed that too," Hank replied. "And I agree with Sheila, something distracted him. I just hope it wasn't anything to do with this druid we need to find."
No one responded to this remark. Sheila thought that Dungeon Master would have said something if whatever had bothered him was linked to the wood druid, but at the same time she couldn't shake the feeling that there might be a link. She had spent enough time in the Realm to know that nothing happened without a reason and that seemingly random events had a nasty habit of being connected.
"Come on, we should get moving," Hank stated.
There was a murmur of agreement and they began walking towards the Deneia Forest.
The Thief sighed sadly and toyed with something that resembled a miniature coconut hanging around her neck. It wasn't much to look at but the juice within would give the drinker unimaginable power, which was the reason the druid had given it to Sheila. He had asked her to take the fruit back to her home world, a place where its magical properties would be useless and where the wizard seeking it would never find it.
It had been his last request. Shortly after placing it in her hand he had breathed his last and his body had crumbled to dust and drift away in the gentle breeze.
Sheila remembered the way he had thanked them for his freedom; thanked them for destroying the tree that had been his mission in life to guard but had ultimately been his prison. He had welcomed death with a joyful expression on his face and she smiled wistfully as she thought about their brief encounter.
Finding the wood druid had been easy enough. In fact, he would have been very difficult to miss given the circumstances. Before they had even set foot inside the Deneia Forest they had heard the commotion and had raced towards it, weapons ready. The druid had been under attack from a wizard they had never seen before, although Sheila had at first glance mistaken him for Venger with his similar clothes and immense height.
While obviously attempting to defend himself the wood druid was losing the fight and she'd watched in horror as he was sent flying backwards several meters from a blast of energy to his chest. Hank, Diana and Bobby had jumped straight into the battle while she, along with Eric and Presto had rushed towards the figure lying on the ground.
The Thief had reached the druid first and knelt at his side and found him, much to her surprise, dazed but otherwise unhurt. She'd then looked up and watched the Ranger firing a multitude of arrows at the attacking wizard but he'd blocked them easily and had still managing to retaliate. More than once she had been glad of the protection from the Cavalier's shield as he had stood over her, Presto, the druid and a cowering Uni.
It was at that point that the wood druid had told her they needed to destroy the Uccello Calce tree. She had then pulled up her hood and rushed over to Hank to pass on the message. He had yelled for Bobby to smash his club onto the ground and used the distraction to aim at the tree.
One arrow was all it took and the tree had glowed brightly before shattering, sending a ray of light straight at the mystery wizard. However, while she and Hank had managed to stay standing from the shock wave caused by the Barbarian's club, the explosion knocked them both off their feet.
Hank had immediately sat up and called out to make sure she had not been hurt, unable to see exactly where she had landed due to her hood still being in place. She had not had a chance to answer as when she'd looked up she had seen the unknown wizard aiming a final shot straight at the Ranger. Diving at him, she had pushed him flat and had narrowly missed being hit herself, but the resulting hole beside them was evidence enough of how close it had been for the two of them.
And then it had been over. They had the fruit of Deneia, the aggressive wizard seeking it had believe it gone forever, cursing them for its destruction as he had vanished, and the druid had been freed from his lifelong service. However, before his death the wood druid had been able to give them the information they needed regarding the location of the Kellia portal which they hoped to reach within a day or two.
"About time," Eric shouted, snapping Sheila's attention back to the present.
She looked up to see Hank had just returned to the camp with the Barbarian and Uni and they were handing over their fish to Diana and Presto, the nominated cooks for the evening. From the grin on her brothers face, Sheila knew he had caught something but guessed that the Ranger was responsible for the majority of their catch. Bobby did not have the patience to sit still long enough to make a good fisherman.
She moved her gaze from the Barbarian to Hank and he smiled, holding up one finger and confirming her suspicion regarding who had been the more successful of the two. Having handed the last of the fish to the Magician, Hank headed towards the Thief and flopped down beside her.
"You were looking very serious," he remarked.
"I was thinking about the druid," she revealed with a sigh.
She leaned towards him and he reached up to stoke the side of her face.
"Ugh, you stink," she commented, moving back with a jerk.
"Thanks!" he replied, sounding a little surprised but did not appear offended.
"Sorry," she said with a laugh, "but you have just been cleaning fish."
"It's not that bad," he claimed as he sniffed his hand and wrinkled his nose.
"Maybe not," she alleged, insincerely. "I guess it depends on whether you plan on sleeping anywhere near me or not tonight?"
"You wouldn't?" Hank challenged, raising his eyebrows.
Sheila laughed again. The two of them had been a couple for a number of months which meant they now spent their nights lying side by side and more often than not curled up together; something Sheila was not willing to give up, even for one night.
"No I wouldn't, I'd miss you too much," she admitted. "But I would prefer it if you washed."
"For you, anything," he replied, getting to his feet.
Sheila giggled and stood up herself.
"I should probably get cleaned up for dinner myself," she stated.
Hank looked at her and grinned.
"Hey, don't get any ideas," she retorted.
"What kind of ideas?" Hank asked with fake innocence.
The Thief smiled and looped her arm through his.
"Come on, let's go," she said, "or we'll only be gone five minutes before the others come looking for us."
The Ranger didn't need any more prompting and they quickly disappeared together, heading for the river where Hank had been fishing a short while earlier.