"Really, I'm fine." Hank swung his arms from side to side, trying to loosen up the new leather armor that Presto had managed to whip up. He wondered briefly how many other items had been pulled out of the hat before the armor had finally shown up, then grinned to himself. I should just be glad he managed to get usable armor out of it at all.
"You only got out of bed last week," Sheila said. She was sitting on the bed, picking restlessly at the edge of the blanket. "You've just got to be careful not to overdo it."
"Almost two weeks ago," he corrected. "And every day I lie around here doing nothing is another day lost from trying to find the way home." Hank sat down next to her. "I know it's tough whenever one of us gets hurt, but you guys are all treating me like I'm made of glass."
"Hank, you were hurt pretty bad. We just want to be sure that you're really okay."
"I understand that, but I still think it's time we got going. If we wait much longer, it'll just be harder to get used to being on the road again." And harder to force ourselves to keep moving at all, he thought. The temple didn't have the same attraction as being invited into Rahmoud's welcoming home, but it was quiet and peaceful, two qualities that had been sorely lacking from their lives for a long time. He knew that none of them would ever directly give up the search to go home, but it would be all too easy to slip into doing just that.
"I guess you're right." Sheila got up, wrapping her arms around herself as she walked to the window. "It's just-- Bobby and Uni were playing tag yesterday. I don't think I've seen him just run and play since we got here."
He walked up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. "I know," he said. "And I hate that. But the sooner we get home, the sooner he can go back to being a kid again -- full-time, not just in between fights with Venger."
"I know, I know." She turned around and smiled at him, the obvious bravery in it making his heart ache. "But thanks for the reminder. So, when do we leave?"
* * *
Eric's bare shoulders and arms still ached despite more than a week's worth of practice, but at least he'd found a rhythm to swinging the axe. Bizarrely enough, it kind of fit the beat to "You May Be Right, I May Be Crazy," and now the damn song was stuck in his head. If this is supposed to be a sign or something, I think I'm getting the message, he thought sourly, pausing to wipe sweat off his forehead. The formerly-low woodpile was now on a level with the building's roof, and he was almost done chopping up the last of the dead trees that Bobby had knocked down for the temple.
He looked up to see Diana staring at him. "Yeah?"
The acrobat looked from him, to the remnant of the treetrunk, to the huge, looming woodpile, then opened her mouth and closed it without saying anything. At Eric's raised eyebrows, she said, "Uh, Hank says he's ready to go. He wants us to leave this afternoon."
"Yes! No more logs!" Eric turned his face up to the sky. "Thank you, Lord!"
"Why are you chopping up trees?" she finally asked.
"The temple was running low on wood and the trees were lying around?"
"Look, we owe them, okay? This is just a little payback."
"Okay, okay!" Diana held her hands up, grinning. "It's just a little weird to see you actually putting yourself out for somebody else. With no complaining, even!"
"Ask the logs, there's been plenty of complaining," Eric said, smirking. He waved a hand at the last chunk of tree. "I'll just finish this part and wash up. I'll be ready." She nodded and left the clearing. The smile dropped from his face the minute she'd gone, and he pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, trying to let go of the sick feeling of shame that had hit him with her offhand comment. She didn't mean it that way, he told himself. She was just kidding. But another part of him silently replied, Yeah, but she's right anyway.
He shook his head like a dog throwing off water and grabbed the axe up, slamming strokes into the trunk hard enough to send shocks vibrating through his whole body. When the last piece splintered away, he was wobbly and dripping with sweat, but the rush of pain had faded. The determination to do better hadn't, though, and as he stacked the wood, he silently promised himself that he wasn't going to backslide into his old habits.
* * *
The last gleam of the temple's walls was lost from sight among the trees in only a few minutes of walking. "So where are we going, fearless leader?" Eric said, after a last look backwards.
Hank glanced at him and shrugged a little sheepishly. "Straight ahead for now, I guess, unless any of you have a better idea."
"North might prove more productive, Ranger." They all stopped in their tracks and turned to see Dungeon Master smiling at them from a perch on a fallen tree.
"What's in the north?" Diana asked.
Let me guess -- danger and horrible things, not necessarily in that order. Eric opened his mouth, then closed it again, swallowing the comment unvoiced.
"The Silver Pool," Dungeon Master said.
"What good is a pool going to do us?" Presto asked.
"Yeah, can we swim our way home in it?" Eric couldn't resist.
"The Silver Pool is not a lake, Cavalier. It is a portal, which may indeed take you all home. But be warned--"
Here it comes, Eric thought cynically.
"--the road ahead is filled with danger, and before you even reach the lands of the Silver Pool, you may have to choose between what is best for you, and what is best for others." He jumped down from his perch and strolled towards a large tree.
"Wait -- Dungeon Master, where is the Silver Pool?" Hank asked.
The small man paused by the side of the tree. "Seek the Silver Pool in the gateway to the Silent Mountains. You will find it there -- although it may not be where you expect it." He walked behind the tree.
Hank ran forward. "But what does it look like?" He stopped. "Oh dammit, he's gone again."
"Typical," Eric muttered.
"So now what?" Diana asked.
"Hey, I know!" Bobby put down his club and ran over to the tallest tree near them, reaching for the lowest branches that were just out of his reach. "Gimme a boost up," he said. "I can climb up to the top -- maybe I can see those mountains from there."
"Just be careful," Sheila said.
Hank stepped forward to toss Bobby up. Eric eyed the kid's boots, filthy with who-knows-what from tramping around the Realm, and made a face. Then he reached forward and tapped Hank on the shoulder. "Let me. The gauntlets'll protect my hands."
Hank blinked at him. "Okay," he said, straightening up.
Eric knelt down and laced his fingers together, then heaved up as Bobby stepped into his cupped hands, boosting the kid to the lower branches. He backed away to watch, rubbing his gauntlets off with the corner of his cloak.
Bobby scrambled up the tree with a lack of caution that had Sheila wincing and saying "oh!" with every other movement. In a few minutes, they could barely see him anymore, although leaves and twigs came raining down on them to mark his continued progress. Finally, they heard his voice from above, "Wow! This is so cool!"
Yeah, until you fall and break your neck, Eric thought.
Hank cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, "Can you see the mountains?"
There was a moment of rustling tree branches, then Bobby called down, "Yeah." He didn't say anything for a long moment, then added, "They look like they're kinda far away."
They all groaned. "Okay, come on down," Hank called back.
Bobby came down even faster than he'd gone up, jumping the last three feet to the ground. "They've gotta be miles from here," he complained. "I can tell they're big 'cause they've got snow all over 'em, but they looked so small."
"Maybe it's just an optical illusion," Presto suggested.
"Well, either way, we won't get there any quicker by sitting around here," Hank said. "Let's get moving."
* * *
Eric jerked awake to the approaching sound of cracking branches and heavy, uneven footsteps. "Hank!" he hissed, grabbing for his shield.
"I hear it." Hank was already awake and watching, one fire-arrow glowing on his bow.
The others all came awake quickly. Sheila swung her cloak over her shoulders and pointed silently towards the noise, telling them she was going to see what was happening. Hank nodded once, and she vanished into the trees. The noise kept approaching, with occasional breaks, then suddenly stopped. The clearing lit with the soft light from their weapons as they tensed.
"It's okay, guys!" Sheila's voice called faintly through the trees. "We'll be there in a second." A few moments later, she came into the clearing, helping an old man with disheveled white hair. "Here, sit down and catch your breath." She guided him to a seat at the base of one of the trees.
The man sagged against the tree, putting a shaky hand to his forehead. They could see that his clothing was of fine leather, edged with fraying braids of gold thread. "Thank you," he said hoarsely. "But I can only rest a moment. Please, tell me -- do you know the way to the forest temple?"
"It's about a day's journey that way," Hank said, pointing. "Who are you?"
But the old man had gone pale at Hank's words. "So far? I must go. I must go," he repeated, struggling to rise.
"Hey, take it easy," Diana said, catching his shoulder. "You're not going to get there any faster if you have a heart attack on the way."
He pushed her hand away. "Perhaps you are wrong about the distance. I must reach them before dawn." He tried again to stand, but his legs shook visibly and dumped him on the ground.
"You're not going to make it by then," Hank said, crouching down in front of him. "We left there yesterday around noon, and it's only a few hours until dawn. Why don't you tell us what's going on, and maybe we can help you."
"You?" He stared at them, his face sagging into wrinkles. "You are only children."
"We may be kids, but we can handle Venger, and we can handle your problem too." Bobby swung his club around a couple of times, resting it on his shoulder.
Oh yeah, like we do such a great job of handling Venger. Eric rubbed his forehead. Why are we trying to convince this guy to let us help him? We could be on our way home! He stood up to ask just that, then bent over sharply. "Ow!"
Everyone stared at him. "Are you okay?" Sheila asked.
"Yeah, just a leg cramp," he gritted, digging his fingers into his calf to loosen the muscle, suddenly glad for the interruption that had prevented him from speaking. I'm not going to whine anymore, he swore silently. If the others want to help this guy, I'll just deal. The pain gradually eased, and he looked up to find the old man telling the others his story.
"I'm Carlus, gatekeeper for Baron Rimeni. Our whole village is gone mad. There's been troubles this last season, and they won't have anything but that my lord must go as the Hunter's sacrifice to end them." The old man wiped tears from his seamed face. "They stormed the manor and took him yesterday evening, and my lord's brother sent me for a priest to put a stop to it."
"Sacrifice? You mean, like...human sacrifice?" Presto shuddered as the old man nodded. "That's nuts!"
"I don't get it -- why do they think that will help? What kind of troubles have you been having?" Diana asked.
"I can't deny that they've been strange troubles," Carlus admitted. "Crops growing well one day, found dead the next, as dry as though they'd been in a month's drought. Near all the wells have gone bad, and we've found things in them -- unnatural things. Snakes with wings, armless frogs, birds with lizard tongues -- makes a man shudder to look at them. And since the summer, we've had sickness strike the cattle." His shoulders slumped forward, and he added in a low voice, "This week two children took ill too. The villagers started calling for the baron to go to the Hunter then."
"Sounds like magic to me," Bobby said.
"Me too. Presto, do you think you could find a way to stop it?" Hank asked.
"I could try..."
* * *
His chain mail jingling, Eric nearly bumped into Hank as the Ranger stopped short in the middle of the path.
"Shhh!" Hank hissed.
"Hey, let's see you stay quiet when you're wearing high fashion from the Dark Ages," Eric shot back in a whisper, pointing to his breastplate.
"Just move slow. We're getting close, these footprints are fresh."
"How can you tell?" Eric stared down at the path, unable to distinguish any footprints at all on the trampled grass in the pale predawn glimmer.
Hank just waved him to silence and started creeping forward. Eric shrugged and beckoned to Presto, who was behind him, then followed as quietly as he could. He could hear the faint sound of chanting as they went around another curve in the trail. Another turn, and suddenly the orange-red glow of torches was visible almost straight ahead of them.
"That's them," Hank whispered. "Remember, I'll distract them while you two get to the baron. Then Eric, you cover Presto while he pulls something impressive out of the hat. Hopefully that'll get them to listen to us."
"And if it doesn't?" Eric asked pointedly.
"Then we grab the baron and run." Hank swung the bow off his shoulder. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be," Presto whispered back, taking off his hat.
"Yeah, let's get this over with before my brain figures out just how dumb an idea this is," Eric muttered.
Hank broke into a run, firing three arrows ahead. They blazed an arc through the trees and exploded into golden bursts that hung over the clearing. Shading his eyes with one hand, Eric ran into the clearing and made a bee-line for the flat stone in the middle. He grabbed the man lying on the stone by his bound wrists and hauled him up.
"Quick, over to that tree," Presto gasped, coming up behind him. The two of them managed to drag the tied-up baron over to the large tree and put their backs against it.
"This would be a good time to pull something a lot more impressive than a rabbit out of that hat, Presto!" Eric swung around and raised his shield as Hank came running over. The firebursts were fading, and the men filling the clearing were not looking happy at the interruption of their ceremony.
"Give me a second!" Presto waved a hand over the mouth of the hat. "Abracadabra, abracazoom, give me something that will go boom!" The hat trembled and six rockets shot out. Everyone dived for the ground as they whizzed back and forth, around and around, then finally blasted straight up into the air and vanished.
"We're dead," Eric said under his breath.
The villagers lifted their heads cautiously, then, seeing the rockets gone, got to their feet and approached again, raising unpleasantly sharp-looking knives. One of them, wearing a long brown robe, stepped forward. "I don't know who you may be, but you'll not stop the sacrifice," he said, gesturing to the others. "Take the baron."
"Not so fast," Presto shouted, pointing upwards. At that moment, a sudden explosion of sound rocked through the clearing, and fountains of color erupted over the sky. The men squinted upwards, throwing up hands and arms to shield their eyes as the fireworks rained red and purple sparks down on them.
"Don't just stand there," Eric hissed. "Say something else!"
"Like what?" Presto hissed back.
Hank stepped forward. "Killing the baron isn't the answer to your problems," he said loudly, his voice drawing the villagers' attention. He pointed at Presto. "This man is a powerful wizard. We've come to find out what's causing the problems in your village."
The brown-robed man shook his head. "It's the lord's place to go to the gods in evil times," he said. "Wizard or no, if they want a sacrifice, it must be made, or else more plagues will come on us!" Low rumbles of agreement sounded around the clearing.
"Oh yeah? Well, how do you know they want a sacrifice?" Eric shouted back. "Maybe they'll just get angry at you for committing murder." Uncertain looks were traded among the villagers. Seeing the brown-robed man about to speak again, Eric hurried on. "Look, give us three days. Three days isn't going to make things much worse, right? And isn't it worth it if we can find the real problem? I mean, what are you going to do if this sacrifice doesn't work?"
"In three days, you'll have the baron thirty leagues from here," someone shouted out of the crowd.
The baron stepped up next to him then, the gag pulled out of his mouth and hanging around his neck. "Who here calls me a coward?" he demanded, working his wrists out of the ropes around them. "I've never failed in my duty, and I won't now. If they don't find an answer in three days, I'll go to the Hunter myself, on my own blade, so that no revenge falls on any other man."
Eric nearly choked and barely restrained himself from smacking his forehead. Except what I should really do is smack the baron, he thought. In three days we could have gotten him away from here!
But murmurs of approval were coming from the men, and the brown-robed man's objection was put down by another. "We'll give you your three days," he said. "We've stood things this many months, we can stand it a that much longer."
* * *
"What are we even looking for?" Eric asked Presto, waving his hand in front of his face to try and clear the air. The two of them were walking down the main street of the village, really nothing more than a dirt road, and he was trying not to think what kind of garbage could be making the rotten-sweet odor clogging his nose. They were almost at the border of the village, marked by an enormous tree that split the road, its roots sprawling over the ground possessively.
"How should I know?" Presto kicked at a stone in their way. "I wish that Carlus had mentioned that the baron's brother was a mage before we even got involved. If a real magician couldn't find out what was going on, I'm sure not going to be able to."
"Hey, even he said he's not much of a magician," Eric said. "Just an amateur. And you've got the hat...what the hell is that smell?" He looked around, making a face.
"What smell?" Presto asked. "And he may be an amateur, but at least he knows what he's doing. I just make the stuff up as I go along and hope the hat cooperates." He sighed.
A faint breeze blew in their faces, and Eric clapped a hand over his mouth and nose. "Oh yuck, it's getting worse," he complained nasally. "Why'd you have to pick this part of town for us?"
Presto stared at him. "What are you talking about?"
"That smell! It's totally disgusting!"
"I don't smell anything." Presto inhaled deeply. "Okay, yeah, it's a little manurey, but it's not that horrible."
"Ugh, how can you breathe it like that? And it's not manure. Come on, let's get past the last row of houses. Maybe it'll get better."
Presto shrugged and walked along with him to the tree at the edge of the village. "Is it any better here?"
Eric sniffed tentatively and felt his stomach flip over. He gagged and coughed. "No," he croaked. "It's coming from here!"
"Okay, I think you're seriously whacked, Eric," Presto said. "I don't even smell the manure over here."
The smell was strongest near the base of the tree. Eric ignored Presto's comment and poked around the tree roots until he found a pile of leaves buried between two gnarled roots. "Come over here," he demanded, grabbing up a branch and stirring the leaves. "You're telling me you can't smell that?"
Presto sighed and climbed over another root, bending towards the pile. "I don't--Ack! Gross!" He backed away, falling over a root and sitting down hard. "What is that?" he asked through his nose.
"I told you!" Eric said, prodding into the heap. The branch was catching on something beneath the leaves. "Come on, help me get these leaves off it."
They scraped the leaves away with branches, neither one of them suggesting using their hands. "Now how do we get it out?" Presto asked, peering down into the hole.
"Can you get a crane out of that thing?" Eric asked, pointing at the hat.
"What are you doing?" They turned to find the brown-robed man from the night before glaring at them. "Get away from the heart-tree!"
"What's the matter, pal, got something to hide?" Eric asked, standing up.
"I am Gothal, the Servant of the Tree," the man said angrily. "And I will not allow you to defile the heart-tree as you defiled the sacrifice." He climbed over the tree roots towards them, raising the wooden staff he carried. Eric braced himself and raised his shield, but then the man touched the tree trunk and jerked to a stop, his face going suddenly white.
"Uh, are you okay?" Presto asked warily.
The man pulled his hand away from the tree and stared at them for a moment, his jaw hanging slack. Then he rushed forward, pushing Eric aside and dropping to his knees beside the hollow they'd cleared out. "How did you find this--this filth?" he asked, almost inaudibly, his fingers touching the tree roots with odd gentleness.
"Don't ask me, Eric found it," Presto said.
"It wasn't all that hard, considering I could smell it from halfway down the road," Eric said, waving a hand towards the village as he crouched down next to Gothal. "What is it?"
Gothal reached up to the tree. A branch suddenly lowered itself, and a couple of large leaves floated down into his hands. "Move back," he said grimly. When they had obeyed, he reached into the hollow, the leaves tucked into the palms of his hands, and lifted out a strange, misshapen lump of fur and sticks and bones. A vile wave of rottenness floated out with it.
Eric retched, just managing to keep down his breakfast, and backed away even further. "What is that thing?"
"A curse-fetch," the man said, his voice sick. "We must take it to the altar at once."
* * *
"That's been causing the problems?" The baron stared down at it. The ugly clump of material was lying on the flat stone in the same clearing where the sacrifice had almost taken place. "But it doesn't seem to do anything. Is it magical?"
"Dark magic." The baron's brother, Robyl, was frowning down at it. "There are marks of it all over the thing. But I've never seen something like this." He turned to look at the robed man, who was coming back into the clearing, carrying an armful of leafy branches. "Have you, Gothal?"
"Yes," Gothal said shortly, kneeling by the altar and putting the branches around the lump, making sure to keep the branches overlapping one another. "A curse-fetch does little on its own, but it attracts corruption and sickness, and dark things." He finished and rose.
"The more important question is who put it there," Hank said, "and why."
"That will be difficult to learn," Robyl said. "It must have been lying there for months. You didn't notice anything strange around the tree in all this time, Gothal? You are supposed to tend it, aren't you?"
"You were pretty eager to sacrifice the baron, too," Eric said, his earlier suspicions returning.
Gothal's fists clenched whitely, and he glared furiously at both Robyl and Eric. "You dare!" he spat. "You dare accuse me of putting this...this perversion at the heart-tree?" Veins popped out along the man's temples as his face reddened.
"That's enough!" the baron interrupted. "No one accuses you of anything. Robyl, you know that a Servant of the Tree would never do anything to harm the heart-tree." He turned to Gothal. "Will the troubles stop now that this thing has been removed?"
Still red-faced, the robed man nodded, his fists slowly relaxing. "I have bound it with oak and ash. It will fall apart on its own in a few days, although no one should disturb the altar until it has."
"Then we have time to find whoever was responsible for this. I'll put guards around the heart-tree so that they can't try again," the baron said. Gothal bowed his head, then scowled at the rest of them before stalking off into the woods without another word.
"Nice guy," Diana commented. "Where'd the chip on his shoulder come from?"
"Our grandfather persecuted those who worshipped with the Servants of the Tree," Robyl said. "They've never forgiven our family for that, or for converting most of the villagers to the worship of the High Lord." He shook his head. "Not that they seem to be very thoroughly converted! I still think you ought to get rid of Gothal and his followers, Varod. I'm sure they were the ones behind the call to sacrifice you to the Hunter."
"If I did that, the whole village would rise up," the baron answered. "Even if they don't follow the Servants anymore, they still respect them. And you have to admit, we were glad to have Gothal's help during that bad winter three years back. Even this time, he was just acting as he thought right."
"You're being very generous to someone who wanted to slit your throat last night," Robyl said. "I just hope we don't all end up regretting it."
"Don't worry so much, Robyl. Now that we know we have an enemy, we won't be so easy to trick." The baron clapped his brother on the back and spoke to all of them. "Come on, let's get back to the manor. This clearing has never been my favorite place, and it hasn't gotten any closer to my heart thanks to yesterday night."
"Actually, Baron Varod, now that the problem is solved, I think we need to get going," Hank said. "We've got a long journey ahead of us to the Silent Mountains."
"Well, you won't leave today, will you? It's already growing late. Let us see you off with a proper feast, and you'll make better time tomorrow for the rest."
Hank hesitated and looked at the others. "What do you think, guys?"
"Are you kidding? What a choice, between trudging through this weird forest in the dark or dinner and a bed." Eric said. "How are we ever going to decide?"
"For once, I'm with Eric," Diana said. "We didn't get a full night's sleep last night anyway." The others nodded their agreement.
Hank grinned. "Well, I guess we accept your offer, Baron. Thanks."
* * *
Yawning, Eric draped his chainmail shirt over the back of a chair and turned to the bed eagerly, his whole body aching for the chance to sink into the soft featherbed. He glared at the door accusingly when the soft knock came. "Hank, that had better not be you coming to say we're leaving now," he muttered, going to throw the door open. "Uh, hi, Robyl," he said, finding the baron's brother waiting.
"Did I wake you?"
"No, I hadn't gone to bed yet. Come on in," Eric reluctantly invited.
Robyl entered and sat down by the fire. "Forgive me for disturbing you, but I needed to speak with you privately."
"It's no problem. What's up?" Seeing the confused expression on Robyl's face, Eric clarified. "What's on your mind?"
"It is thanks to you and your friends that the curse-fetch was found, and my brother's life saved," Robyl said. "I wanted to give you some better reward than just our thanks."
A reward sounds good, Eric thought hopefully. "Like what?"
"My greatest gifts are in the art of scrying," Robyl said. "So I thought to look into the future, to see how you might all reach your home."
"Are you serious? Did you see something? Is it the Silver Pool?"
"I'm afraid I didn't recognize the portal. But that isn't why I wished to speak to you. You see..." He hesitated. "Forgive me. I don't wish to offend you."
Hope fading, Eric eyed him suspiciously. "Why don't you just spill it?"
"I did see a vision of your friends returning home. But..."
"But...?" Eric prompted.
"You were not with them. They returned to your homeworld without you."
"I'm sorry," Robyl said. "I don't mean to suggest that they would abandon you--"
"Good," Eric interrupted. "Because they wouldn't. They got home once, and they came back just because I couldn't come. They'd never ditch me."
"As I said, I didn't mean to imply that they would," Robyl said. "There might be other reasons why they would return without you."
"You might have been killed before they reached the portal."
"Oh," Eric said, gulping. On second thought, maybe being abandoned wouldn't be that bad. "Well, thanks for the information. I guess."
"It would be a poor reward if all I had come for was to give you bad news. I'm only telling you this because I also have something else for you," Robyl said. He opened a small pouch he had carried in and shook out a small medallion on a silver chain. "This."
"Uh, thanks. It's nice," Eric said lamely, accepting it. He gave it a quick once-over. Yeah, really great. This thing's not even sterling.
Robyl smiled. "It will take you back to your home," he explained. "You have only to put it on, and a portal will open for you."
"What?!" Eric looked back at the medallion. "Are you kidding me? This thing can get us home?"
"Ahh...no, I'm afraid it can't do that."
"But you just said--"
"It can take you home. Only one person can use the portal," Robyl explained. He paused briefly, waiting for a response that Eric didn't make, then added, "I think you can see why I wanted to tell you about this privately."
Eric couldn't breathe for a moment, the cool silver metal digging into his clenched hand. Then he jerked his hand forward and dropped the medallion into Robyl's lap. "No thanks," he forced out.
"Eric, I can understand your feelings, but please reconsider -- my scrying has never been mistaken. This may be the only opportunity you have to return home." Robyl rose from the chair, holding the medallion out.
Eric backed away, closing his hands into fists, trying not to even let himself think about taking it. "I said no," he said harshly. He turned and went to the door, yanking it open. "If you don't mind, I need to get some sleep."
"Of course." Robyl paused at the door and added, "I'm sorry if I've upset you."
"Don't worry about it," Eric heard himself say, the polite words having no connection to his brain, which was alternating between screaming at him to take the medallion and run, and wanting desperately to punch Robyl out for offering him the damn thing. He shut the door hard after the mage had left and leaned back against it, closing his eyes. Robyl's footsteps faded away down the hall until he couldn't hear them over the crackling of the fire, and he tried to tell himself he was glad.
* * *
Eric stared at the ground, trying not to think of anything beyond the next step as he trudged along behind his friends. He hadn't gotten much sleep, but his mind was relentlessly unfogged. I could be home right now. The thought drummed against his mind. He looked up and caught Hank's eyes -- the Ranger was looking over at him, frowning a little. Eric waved a hand. "Just tired," he muttered, answering the look. Hank nodded and picked up the pace, moving out ahead of the group once again.
Eric watched him for a while, really noticing for the first time how Hank kept glancing from side to side, head barely turning, how he pushed the low-hanging branches and trailing roots off the path or called back a low warning to the others when one couldn't be avoided. He wouldn't even have thought about it, Eric thought, his throat tightening with fresh guilt. He wouldn't even regret turning it down. Why the fuck can't I be like that? It's not like I've even got such a great life to go back to. He kicked an inoffensive pebble in the road.
The thought occurred to him then that going back wouldn't have just meant abandoning his friends. It would have meant going back alone. He glanced over at Diana and Sheila, chatting quietly as they walked along together, let his eyes slide over Presto and Bobby, then back to Hank, finding that he couldn't even imagine being alone now. "Alone" now meant being with only these five people. The idea of walking down a school hallway without Hank a few lockers down, without Diana's voice calling out a sarcastic comment back to him, even the idea of sleeping in his own room, with no one else's breath soft and rhythmic just a few feet away -- it was alien.
The knot of tangled regret and guilt started to loosen as he let those feelings sink in. I don't want to go back without them, he realized. I'd rather stay in this wacko place with them than be back home alone. A grin started to edge its way over his face. Man, I must be nuts.
Diana poked him in the side. "What's got you so happy all of a sudden?"
He shrugged, unable to get the grin off his face. "Nothing. Can't a guy smile once in a while?" He called up to Hank, "Hey, fearless leader, how about we stop for lunch? Whatever the baron gave us in that picnic basket is making my mouth water."
Hank turned, looking a little surprised, then suddenly grinned back. "Me too, actually. Let's do it."
They all set up a little campfire in a slight widening of the trail -- not big enough to be called a clearing -- and brought out the bundled dishes, still warm. Lastly, Presto pulled out a large bottle and managed to wrestle the cork out of it. He inhaled over the neck and promptly held it away from his face. "Whoa. Strong stuff there."
"Wine?" Hank said, sounding dubious.
"I don't think we should be drinking alcohol," Sheila said.
Eric didn't really think drinking the stuff was a good idea, but he couldn't resist retorting. "Why not? It's not like there's a drinking age here."
"Can I try?" Bobby asked.
"No, you can NOT," Sheila said with finality, taking the bottle away from Presto and upending it at the side of the trail. The red liquid splashed into a puddle, sending alcoholic fumes drifting over the campsite. "Yuck. It doesn't even smell good."
"We'll make do with water," Hank said, lifting off the canteen he carried as they all dug in.
None of them made a move to get going even after the meal was devoured. Eric sighed contentedly and leaned back against the tree trunk. "Man, if we could eat like that every day, I'd stop wishing for a Burger King to show up around here."
"If we ate like that every day, we'd all gain so much weight we couldn't even move," Diana said, tossing the crumbs from her plate out to the edge of the trail, where a few dozen tiny birds had gathered, and they all watched the birds cluster around the crumbs, their chirping filling the clearing.
"Maybe that's not such a good idea," Hank said. "If there are any predators around here, they might hear the birds and come looking."
Eric groaned. "I thought I was supposed to be the voice of doom and gloom."
"We won't be staying long," Sheila said. "We can leave the rest of the crumbs for them when we go."
They fell silent for a little while, most of them half-dozing in the warm afternoon air while the birds cleaned up the crumbs Diana had thrown and occasionally dared to make forays to the other plates.
"Thing that bothers me is," Presto said abruptly, "whoever was behind that whole plot had to have known a lot about the village." They all looked over at him, and he sat up, gesturing widely. "Think about it. He had to know about the heart-tree, right? And he had to know that whatshisname, Gothal, would come up with that sacrifice idea, and that the villagers would go along with it."
"Yeah," Hank said slowly. "It almost has to be someone from the village. But who besides Gothal would have a motive?"
"Maybe Gothal was the one behind it after all," Diana said. "Anyone could fake being insulted the way he did."
A rock dug uncomfortably into Eric's back, and he shifted forward to get away from it, waking up enough to think about the situation. "What would happen if the baron got killed?" he wondered aloud.
The others didn't say anything for a moment. "I guess...I guess the baron's brother would inherit," Sheila said finally. "But he seemed really nice."
"Yeah, he was real nice," Eric muttered, a touch of anger returning. He looked up and saw the others staring at him questioningly. He swallowed. "He, um...he kind of tried to talk me into ditching you guys last night."
"You mean going off alone?" Bobby asked. "But that's nuts. Why would you do that?"
Eric shrugged, not wanting to tell them about the medallion. "He claimed he looked into the future and saw you guys without me around," he improvised. Well, that's at least the truth, he excused himself. And if I told them about the medallion...they'd guess that I thought about taking it.
"You're the one who found that curse thing," Presto said. "Maybe he was worried that you'd be able to stop whatever else he was planning to do."
"Guys, don't you think that's going a little far?" Sheila protested. "I mean, he's the baron's brother! Do you really think he'd actually be out to kill his own brother?"
"Maaah!" Uni's bleat drew their attention. The small unicorn was nudging the huddled forms of three of the tiny birds with her horn. The little figures didn't stir, even when she touched them directly.
Sheila shifted closer and picked up one feathery bundle, cupping it in her hands. "I--I think it's dead," she said unsteadily, putting it back down.
Their eyes went as one to the spot where the crumbs had lain...the spot that was still crimsoned with the spilled wine. "Still think he's a nice guy?" Eric said grimly.
"What do we do now?" Diana said. "You think the baron's going to believe us if we march in and tell him his brother's trying to kill him?"
"We'll need some proof," Hank said. "And I think I know how to get it."
* * *
The stench of the curse-fetch roiled Eric's stomach before he could even see the clearing, and he had to repress a groan of disgust. Staking out the clearing doesn't seem like such a good idea anymore, he thought sourly. Why would Robyl come back for that thing, anyway?
Hank suddenly raised a hand and gestured for them all to duck down. Crouching uncomfortably, the edge of his greaves digging into the back of his knees, Eric crept after Hank as the Ranger led them slowly towards the clearing. In a moment, he heard the noise that he assumed had alerted Hank -- heavy, panting breathing and the meaty crack of wood hitting flesh. A soft incomprehensible word hissed out in Robyl's voice, and Eric felt his stomach turn over completely, his vision fading into sickening white-violet splashes against the hot red black behind his eyes.
He was on his feet before he really thought about it, staggering forward into the clearing over Hank's protests. Still blinded, he tripped over something and fell to his knees just in time to take a sizzling crack of lightning on his instinctively-raised shield. He blinked away the dazzle and saw Robyl backing away from Hank and Bobby, a short rod smoking in his hand. Scrambling up, he glanced back to see Gothal struggling to get up behind him. What the hell is going on? he wondered.
A fire-arrow crackled through the air from Hank's bow, wrapping itself around Robyl's torso and pinning the man's arms to his body. Already off-balance, Robyl toppled to the ground as Bobby slammed his club down. "Got him!" Bobby said smugly, leaning his club back against his shoulder.
Watching them, Eric was startled as Gothal suddenly caught his shoulder, leaning against him. "Hey, take it easy," he said, then automatically braced himself to take some of the big man's weight. "Are you okay?"
"It will take more than that rotten-souled bastard to do me in," Gothal said, the shakiness of his voice belying his strong words. "Help me over there."
When Eric had obliged, the Servant of the Tree performed a strange ritual over the cursing Robyl, finished by waving an oak branch over the mage's head -- and suddenly the curses fell silent, even though Robyl's lips kept moving. "There...his speech's bound..." Gothal said, his speech slurring as he sagged.
Hank jumped forward to help Eric support him. "He doesn't look too good. We'd better get him back to the village and tell the baron about this."
"I have a feeling this isn't going to be fun," Sheila sighed.
* * *
Hank glanced around the campsite at the sleeping bodies of his friends as the last of the moons started to sink beneath the treeline, leaving them in nearly complete darkness. None of them had had any complaints when he'd led them back onto the road toward the Silent Mountains, even though night was already descending. The baron hadn't taken the news about his treacherous brother well, and although he'd offered them hospitality again, there hadn't been much heart in it. He sighed and settled against the tree trunk behind him, closing his eyes to let them adjust to the darkness more quickly.
A jingle drew his attention, and he opened his eyes to see Eric step out of the clearing for a few minutes, probably to answer the call of nature. Eric crossed over to him when he returned, sitting down next to him. "Hey," the Cavalier said. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Hank said. "Just wondering whether we're going to run into even more trouble on the way."
"Oh man. What do you mean? You don't think we got the 'danger on the road ahead' out of the way with this little adventure?"
Hank shook his head. "I don't see how we had to choose what was better for others than for ourselves. We stayed around there to help the baron, but it wasn't like we were choosing to give up anything but a day's worth of travel."
Eric's voice wasn't the one that responded. "Choices must sometimes be made by one, Ranger."
Hank jerked straight and stared at Dungeon Master, who had appeared literally out of nowhere in front of him. "I don't understand -- you told us that we'd have to..." He let his words trail off as he realized that the old man was shaking his head.
"I did not tell you, Ranger. I told the Cavalier," Dungeon Master corrected.
Hank glanced over at Eric, who was silent, his eyes fixed on the small form of Dungeon Master. "Eric?" he prompted, confused.
"That was a pretty rotten thing to dump on a guy," Eric said to Dungeon Master, his voice low and tight.
"I do not choose these things, Cavalier," Dungeon Master said quietly. "I merely foretell."
"Yeah, well, funny how you can foretell all sorts of things but not a way that's really going to get us home," Eric snapped. "When some two-bit jerk like Robyl can hand out portals, you'd think that you could do as much--" He stopped abruptly.
"'Hand out portals?'" Hank repeated, disbelieving. "Robyl offered to send us home? And you turned him down?"
"You don't get it." Eric didn't meet his eyes. "He only offered me one ticket, not six."
Hank stared at Eric's bowed head, remembering how frantic Eric had always been to get home, and couldn't say anything.
"You have faced a great temptation, Cavalier, and overcome it," Dungeon Master said. Hank looked over at him and saw that he was -- frowning? at Eric, the tense expression strange on the amiable roundness of his face. "The choice may have been difficult--"
"Look, no offense, but you don't know what you're talking about, so why don't you just stuff it, okay?" Eric snapped, jerking to his feet sharply. "You haven't been running around this crazy world for what feels like years, trying to get home, with every lead panning out to nothing--"
Hank jumped up and caught Eric's shoulder with one hand, breaking into the tirade before Eric could wake the others. "Hey, take it easy," he said softly. He could feel Eric's body trembling under the armor.
Dungeon Master sighed, but the half-frown had faded from his face. "Cavalier, I understand your frustration. But even I cannot foretell the future perfectly. If I knew of a portal that would certainly send you all home, do you think I would not tell you of it?"
Eric only shrugged and turned away, the clenched muscles at the side of his jaw visible even in the dim starlight. Hank kept his hand on Eric's shoulder and answered for him, "Dungeon Master, we know you're trying to help us. It's just been a long time already, and sometimes it feels like we're never going to get home."
"I know, Ranger. But take heart -- there may be a greater purpose in the trials that you all face, and you may find that the greatest rewards come at the highest price."
"Yeah, that's really comforting," Eric muttered.
"You should both rest, my young friends," Dungeon Master concluded. "I will leave you now."
"Wait, Dungeon Master--" Hank stepped towards him. "Do you have any more advice for us on how to reach the Silver Pool?"
Pausing beside a large boulder, the small mage half-turned and spoke over his shoulder, "Only this, Ranger -- go swiftly. Venger's army approaches the city of Mirunor, which lies ahead of you, and if you do not reach the city before it arrives, you will never be able to reach the Silver Pool."
"Oh, that's great," Eric's groan was no less disgusted for being quiet. "We're on a direct intercept course with Venger's army."
Hank closed his eyes, trying not to let his own frustration show. "Is there a better way to--"
"Don't bother," Eric interrupted.
"He's gone?" Hank asked, knowing the answer before he even opened his eyes. "You know, I really hate when he does that."
"Tell me about it," Eric said. Then he fell silent, staring down at his gauntlets, a gilt-edged shadow to Hank's night vision. The revelation lay heavily between them, a line that Eric had suddenly and unexpectedly crossed, and Hank felt adrift for a minute.
"Are you okay?" he finally asked.
Eric looked up. "Yeah, I'm fine. Sorry for losing it like that," he said with a half-shrug. "It just--it pisses me off sometimes, how he seems to have all the answers except the one we really need."
"I meant about what Robyl did."
"It wasn't that big a deal," Eric said, a little too quickly. "He was probably just making it up, anyway. His 'portal' would've probably zapped me right into a pit or something."
"I think it was a pretty big deal. I know how much you hate this world--"
"Come on, give me a break. Like you don't want to get home just as bad. I've just been whining about it more."
"You haven't been whining," Hank said automatically.
"Right. Like hell I haven't." Eric sat down again, leaning back against a tree trunk. "I've been whining, complaining, and just generally being a pain in the neck since the minute we got here."
Hank rubbed his forehead and sat down next to him. He hated it when Eric got mad at himself. He knew how to deal with Eric being insufferably smug or snotty or even whiny. But Eric being depressed and putting himself down was so rare that he just had no clue how to deal with it. "It's not like you haven't had cause to complain. We've all been dealing with being stuck here in different ways. I mean, just look at Bobby -- he's trying to act like he's grown-up and not scared of anything when the only thing he should be worrying about is his next Little League practice."
"Thanks," Eric said dryly. "It really helps to be reminded that a ten-year-old kid is handling the situation better than I am."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know, I know." Eric raised a hand to stop him. "Look, I don't need you -- you, of all people -- to tell me that feeling sorry for myself and being a jerk and taking it out on you guys ten million times a day is okay. 'Cause it's not, and you know it."
"Well, beating yourself up over a few complaints isn't okay either," Hank said lamely.
"It's not just the complaints." Eric shook his head. "I'm just--I'm not going to do that kind of thing anymore," he said, sounding defiant.
Hank opened his mouth and closed it a couple of times, even more at sea. "You don't need to change. We're your friends -- you haven't got anything to prove to us."
"Maybe I've got something to prove to myself, then," Eric said quietly. They sat together in silence for a few more minutes.
"We'd better get some sleep," Hank finally suggested.
"Yeah," Eric agreed. "Especially if we're heading straight for Venger." He got up, armor jingling, and paused. "Listen -- do me a favor and don't mention the thing with Robyl to the others, okay?" he asked.
"I won't if you don't want me to."
Eric nodded thanks, then crossed back to his spot and curled up on the ground, tucking his cape around himself. After a moment, Hank lowered himself to the ground as well, pillowed his head on his arm, and let sleep take him beyond questions and fears, leaving them for the sunrise.
* The End *