Eric met the descending blade with his own, and his steed lunged forward at the touch of a knee to add its weight to his, forcing the black-armored swordsman and his weaker mount back. The other man's arm slipped, and with a speed gained over long months of fighting, Eric's sword slid into the gap that appeared at the shoulder of his enemy's armor. Wiping sweat out of his eyes, Eric reined back as his opponent fell from the saddle and disappeared into the cloud of sand beneath the thrashing hooves, taking a quick look around at the battlefield in the instant before another enemy pressed forward to take the dead one's place.
He caught the fresh blows almost automatically, letting the opponent wear himself out against the magic shield before counterattacking, checking to see if the tribesmen on either side of him needed help against their own opponents. The glimpse he'd had was enough to tell him that this battle was going well for Rahmoud's army, but an urgent alarm was building in his gut, and he wasn't sure what to do about it.
A stinging crack of metal against his left leg pulled his attention back to the fight, and he feinted towards his opponent's eyes abruptly, sending him flinching back in surprise. The surprised look remained on the warrior's face even as he toppled off Eric's sword. The stallion reared and lashed out, its hooves taking down the next opponent in line, then Eric pulled back, letting the fighters to either side of him close ranks in front of him. Taking the moment to gulp a few swallows of warm water from his flask, he looked around for Rahmoud and saw the king just a few paces away, scimitar raised as he shouted an exhortation to his warriors.
Eric drew up next to Rahmoud, who turned and grinned broadly at him. "Well, my son," he shouted over the din of the battle, "Things go well for us! God willing, this day will see Venger's army put to flight at last!"
Hesitating, Eric turned and looked around the battlefield yet again, hoping for some guidance. A haze of sand and dust hung in the air, obscuring the glaring suns, but through the tumult, he caught sight of a raised dune just past the left flank of Venger's army. The urgency redoubled, and he found himself turning to Rahmoud and pointing towards the hill. "We've got to take that dune!" he yelled.
Rahmoud's gaze followed his pointing arm, then returned, bewildered, to his face. "Eric, you have not led us wrong so far, but are you certain? We cannot shift to take that hill without leaving ourselves open."
Eric shook his head, fiercely certain. "This is more important than winning the battle, Rahmoud. We've got to take it, now!"
The king nodded, then stood in his stirrups and shouted out a command. Eric nudged the stallion around and felt his light come without asking as he set heels to its sides. The Khadish warriors fell in behind him as he charged forward, sweeping around the edge of Venger's army to swirl around the dune, sand spilling away from the hooves of their horses. The enemy ranks milled in confusion for a moment, then shifted to meet the new position, which left the Khadish army in a worse situation.
Eric found himself fighting two enemies at once. His light still blazed, but he was facing hardened mercenaries, not orcs, and the men squinted but didn't turn away. Skillfully, they rained blows down as fast as he could parry, and only the black stallion's whirling quickness saved him from taking a spear in the shoulder as a foot soldier came up on him between them. He leaned out of the saddle and grabbed the end of the spear with his shield arm, using it to reel in the soldier, who stumbled into one of the horsemen he was fighting. In the brief confusion, his sword found the other horseman's heart. The other two straightened themselves out, but the black horse reared, its hooves making ruin of the foot soldier's head, and Eric took off the other man's hand with a quick swing, then slashed across his throat on the return pass.
"Khadish! Khadish!" The battle-cry rang out around him, and he saw a shadow fall over the ranks as Venger's nightmare descended from the sky, arrowing down towards Rahmoud's personal guard, which was ringing the very summit of the hill.
The warhorse didn't even wait for his command, leaping forward to join the circle of warriors protecting the king. Venger raised a hand and lightning cracked down from the sky into the midst of the guards, raising shrieks of agony from horse and man alike. Eric managed to shield Rahmoud from the blast, but the enemy warriors poured into the gap left by the lightning strike, and in a moment the two of them and the half-dozen guards who had survived the bolt were nearly surrounded. A solid wall of enemies stood between them and the rest of the army, and although the Khadish horsemen were attacking with new fervor, he could see that the king's defenders would be overwhelmed before their allies reached them.
Eric closed his eyes and reached, and a surge of fresh strength flowed into him with a cool ripple like water. He raised his sword and felt his light intensify, flaring up around the blade and expanding into a sphere of radiance that shone out over the entire hilltop. He opened his eyes and watched the light thin out, growing translucent, then transparent, until the only way he knew the barrier was still there was because the enemy troops were beating against it fruitlessly. He grinned, seeing their efforts, even though he felt weak from the effort of maintaining the protection.
But Venger laughed coldly, bringing his steed around to face Eric with magical fire crackling around his hands. "You can only hold the barrier for so long, Paladin. And when you let it fall, you and Rahmoud will both suffer for your defiance."
Eric felt the truth of Venger's words in the strain that lanced through his neck as the archmage hurled green fire against the protective sphere. But he set his teeth and kept his mind on the defense, trusting the instincts that had brought him here. His skin was prickling with a strange energy that was not his own, and he saw some magical illumination from behind him suddenly streak Venger's pallid face with reflected color. He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw the source, a swirling speck of light that was growing in the very center of Rahmoud's defenders.
"Whatever trickery you have arranged this time, it will do you no good," Venger snarled, and Eric's stallion staggered back a few paces from the force of the blow that the archmage hurled against him. Eric struggled to keep his seat and maintain the protective sphere both, both he and the warhorse fighting for balance as Venger rained firebolts against them. Suddenly, a streak of yellow-gold fire blazed past him to strike at Venger, knocking the archmage back.
He'd never thought to hear that voice again, and he nearly lost the barrier as he whirled in shock. The light had widened into an oval almost six feet high, its border iridescent with colors. Hank was standing in front of it, golden bow in hand, and firing off arrows at Venger and his troops alike. In the next moment, Diana came vaulting through the portal, landing by Hank's side with her javelin already growing to full-length in her hands.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Eric yelled, bewildered.
"Looks like we're saving your tail to me!" Diana yelled back, a grin bright on her face.
He pushed aside confusion as a warning began ringing in his ears like a clarion call. With an apologetic pat to the warhorse's neck, Eric slid off and ran towards the portal, his heart pounding. Presto jumped through, then stumbled, his green robes tangling around his legs, and Eric spared just a minute to help him stand before turning back to the gateway just as Sheila stepped through, carrying a bundle in her arms.
Obeying his instincts, Eric grabbed her hand as she came through, calling the protective force to him. The barrier around Rahmoud's defenders fell as he did, but Hank and Diana took its place, pressing the enemy soldiers back, and he could see Presto already muttering the words of some spell over his hat.
"You come in good time, my children!" Rahmoud shouted, his great laughter ringing out over the field as his warhorse strode out to Hank's side. "Come, let us rout the enemy!" The king swept up his scimitar and the Khadish troops cheered, pressing forward against the black-clad troops, who shifted into a tighter formation to meet the new attack. But Venger himself, strangely, did nothing, staring across the sand towards Sheila, his face unreadable.
"Eric, what are you doing?" Sheila tried to pull her arm loose, giving him a questioning look as he tightened his grip on her hand.
"Don't leave the protection," Eric told her.
"Look, just trust me and don't move! What is that?" He pointed at the blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms, then gawked at it in surprise as she folded back a corner to reveal a blue-eyed infant with a fuzzy cap of red hair. "That--that's yours? You had a baby?" His voice squawked inelegantly, carrying over the clamor around them, but his reaction was mild compared to Venger's response to his words.
Raising his hands into the air, the archmage bellowed a command, and the enemy soldiers fell back almost instantly, leaving the Khadish warriors standing with swords ready and confusion plain. Then the nightmare leaped forward, going over the heads of Rahmoud's defenders, and landed in their midst. "Go back!" Venger shouted at Sheila as he dismounted. "Quickly! It is not yet too late--" But a growling rumble of distant thunder interrupted his words. If possible, his ashen face paled even further as he turned to look to the horizon.
His blood gone chill with premonition, Eric followed the direction of Venger's gaze to see a thin black line appear against the eastern horizon, like a finger reaching down from the sky. In the next moment, a horrible pressure stroked obscenely along the surface of his protection. His nails dug into the palms of his hands as he fought to keep that probing malevolence from finding Sheila--or rather, he mentally amended, from finding the baby, knowing somehow that the child was the target of the search.
"Don't move, Venger!" Hank had Venger dead in his sights, and a grim expression in his blue eyes hinted that an excuse to fire wouldn't be passed up.
Straightening, the archmage barely spared him a disdainful glance as his face settled into its stern, expressionless lines. "Your posturing is meaningless, Ranger. It is too late. He has returned." He turned to look at Sheila, who put a hand up to push her hair back as an acrid wind began to pick up, whipping the copper strands around her face. "You should not have come back," he said, and there was a grim resignation in his voice.
Eric steeled himself again as the pressure swept over them once more, seeking. "Why has he shown up again?" he asked Venger after it had gone again.
"Forget why for a minute--who shown up again?" Presto interrupted to ask.
"He whose name cannot be spoken," Venger said, his eyes never shifting from their lock on Sheila's face. "My master. He has come for the child."
Sheila cradled the baby close, her eyes widening so far that a thin rim of white showed all around the irises. "What?!" She looked over towards the portal, which was shrinking steadily, now scarcely larger than a foot wide. "But if we go back--"
"It is useless," Venger said. "He learned of the child's existence almost in the very moment you set foot on this world with him in your arms. Now he would follow wherever you fled, even to your own world."
Wondering what was going on, Eric glanced behind himself as a faint crackle drew his attention, just in time to see the last gleam of the portal wink out of existence. "Okay, can someone clue me in here? Why is he after the baby?"
"I assume because Venger's the dad," Presto said.
Eric stared at him, then slowly turned and stared at Sheila. A flush was creeping over her cheeks. He ran an eye over Venger, then looked back at her again. By now, she was brick red. "I don't want to know," he said, raising his hands. "I really don't."
"We'll explain later," Hank said. "Right now, we've got to get out of here."
"And where do you propose to run?" Venger said, his voice caustic. "You cannot hide from him, not for long. Indeed, if the paladin were not shielding the child from him now, he would have already come upon us."
"A paladin? Shielding Keith?" Sheila broke in. "What do you mean?"
"Cthulhu's cousin out there is looking for the baby," Eric said. "He doesn't seem to be able to find you through the protection I've got up around you, at least not exactly." He looked back out towards the east, where the column had grown noticeably larger.
"Paladin?" Diana repeated, staring at Eric.
"It's a long story," Eric said, privately hoping he'd have the chance to tell them about it. "We've got other things to worry about now--like what the hell to do about No-Name." He turned to Rahmoud, who had dismounted and was standing on Sheila's other side. "Rahmoud, you'd better get your people out of here."
"Is it a demon that comes?" Rahmoud asked.
"Something that makes demons look like kindergarteners," Eric told him.
Shaking his head, Rahmoud said, "Then I will not leave you here, my children. Shemuel!" he called to one of his guards. "Take the army and go to the west, to the oasis of Jehral. God willing, I will join you there. If not, still it will be as God wills."
"As you command, Majesty," Shemuel answered, saluting Rahmoud with a quick flick of his hand before riding down from the hill.
Eric watched as the Khadish forces withdrew, glad to see the cloud of dust their horses raised moving rapidly into the west. By then, the dark presence in the east was close enough that he could see it for what it was, a pillar of fire that flared with sickly green and mottled drab. Venger's army milled uneasily as the pillar swayed and came ever closer, the sky darkening to a jaundiced black ahead of it.
A woman in battered armor rode up the hill to Venger's side on a piebald mount. "Lord, do we give pursuit?" she asked.
Venger took his gaze away from the approaching column long enough to glance at her. "No, Commander. Take the army and retreat to the west, as far as you can manage. There is no sense in losing the entire force." He turned back without another word.
The woman hesitated, glancing over at all of them. Eric met her dark eyes for a moment, and she gave him a slight nod of respect. Then she turned her horse around and rode back down, and in only a few moments the black-garbed ranks of Venger's army began to stream away towards the west, following the trail of churned-up sand that the Khadish forces had left behind them.
Presto was the first to turn away from the spectacle of the two armies speeding away from the battlefield. "So, um, now that everyone else is gone, what are we going to do?" he asked. "Just sit here and wait for him to show up?"
Without turning, Venger said, "If you wish to flee, do so. He will most likely not pursue you so long as the child remains behind."
"I'm not leaving Keith for that thing!" Sheila said, anger sharpening her voice. "You may not care what happens to him--"
Venger whirled on her, his face contorted with unmistakeable agony. "What would you have me do?" he shouted at her. "No act of mine or yours can save him now. He is already doomed."
"Why would he want to destroy Keith? What possible threat can a child be to him if even you and Dungeon Master can't hurt him?" Hank demanded.
"I made a bargain with him, do you understand, you fool?" Venger snarled at him. "Dominion over me and thus my bloodline--the only blood that can carry the power of the Realm--in exchange for my magic. That is how he gained access to the Realm, and that is how he intends to rule it." He pointed at Keith. "But my son carries that same blood, free of any taint. Dungeon Master could hand down the power of the Realm straight to him. And my master will not permit that to happen!"
Sheila curled her arms more closely around Keith. "Do you mean that he thinks Dungeon Master would pass the power of the Realm to you if Keith wasn't around?"
Venger's face settled into a carven mask. "Dungeon Master would have no choice in the matter if he dies," he said. "The power would descend to me upon his death."
"Why?" Eric asked, feeling as though he already knew the answer.
Venger didn't answer for a long moment, then bit out the words when he finally did. "The power is passed along the bloodline from father to son."
"Dungeon Master is--he's your father?" Sheila stammered.
"To my misfortune," Venger said bitterly. "And now my son's."
While the others murmured in surprise, the pressure of his call suddenly forced Eric to action. "What exactly was the bargain you made?" he asked.
Venger turned to stare at him, his mouth twisting slightly. "In exchange for power enough to destroy Dungeon Master, I accepted him as my overlord," Venger said. "I swore that my soul would be his, and through it, the entire Realm would come under his dominion when I inherited the power."
"But you haven't," Eric said, feeling his way. "He doesn't have a hold on this world yet."
"He will," Venger said flatly. "Do you imagine you can free me from my bargain, Paladin? Give up that vain hope. What he has taken, he does not again loose."
"No," Eric said, suddenly sure. "I can't free you from it. Only you can do that." The others drew back from him a little, sudden wonder on the faces of his friends, and he knew his light had come again, its brightness reflected in their faces despite the growing darkness of the sky.
Hands clenched, Venger stood alone, looking at him with a strange yearning mingled with dread on his face. "What do you mean?"
"Your bargain isn't finished. He hasn't claimed your soul yet. He can't do that until you inherit the power -- not and still gain control over the Realm." Eric didn't entirely know where he was getting all of this from, but his bedrock certainty didn't waver, so he simply let the words come. "You can still call the deal off."
"Indeed? How? By renouncing my magic?" Venger said sarcastically.
"Yes," Eric said quietly.
Venger actually laughed, a mirthless sound. "And you expect me to do that? To sacrifice my power?"
The shadow was deepening, long trailers of black cloud stretching overhead, polluting the clear blue of the sky and swallowing up the sunlight. Eric looked to the distance, seeing the hideous pillar of flame wavering, growing larger as it approached, and knew without question that his power wouldn't hide them for much longer. He looked back at the archmage. "It's your choice," he said. "You can keep your power, and take your revenge, all of it--if you make your son pay for it."
Venger stiffened, his eyes burning coals.
"There's got to be something else we can do!" Hank looked at Eric, his hands clenched. "We can't just let that thing kill Keith!"
"I get the feeling death would be a lot kinder than what that thing has in mind for him," Eric said grimly, his eyes fixed on the approaching monstrosity.
"Damn you to the deepest pits of the ninth hell," Venger said, low and vicious. "Damn you."
They all turned to look at him as the archmage turned away and raised his hand. Light split the air. When the dazzle had faded, a tightly furled scroll had appeared in Venger's hand, its parchment an ashen grey, wrapped with thin black cords that seemed to writhe and slither. Stripping the bindings away, Venger held the scroll above his head and shouted, a sound that split the air, unbearable as agony and hatred given a single shattering voice. Wincing away, Eric felt his mind reject the words that were trying to shape themselves out of the hideous noise.
Venger shouted the agony of that name again, then a third time, and suddenly the scroll in his hands erupted into flame. He screamed aloud as the fire spilled out of his hands, wrapping him in tendrils of angry red that lashed around his body. For a moment, he was enveloped in flames--then it was gone, and he crumpled to his knees in the sand, curling over hands that were blistered and charred, the ashes of the parchment drifting down around him. On the horizon, the pillar of fire jerked and shuddered.
None of them moved for a moment, then Sheila scrambled forward and dropped to the sand beside him, reaching out. He jerked away from her touch, his lips set into hardness. "The bargain is unmade," he said, bitterly. "Are you satisfied, Paladin?"
"Yeah, actually, I am," Eric said, a joy that wasn't entirely his own ringing through him.
"Well, I hate to disappoint you guys," Diana said nervously, "but Mr. Nameless has not left the building." They followed her pointing arm. The towering column of fire and smoke had ceased to waver and was still coming on, faster now, and the ripping electricity that traveled with it began to crackle around the edges of their hearing.
Venger stared, then staggered up from the sand and whirled on Eric, rage twisting his features. "You said that if I renounced my powers, the bargain would be dissolved!"
But another voice answered before Eric could. "The bargain is unmade, my son, but once Darkness has been let into the world, it can not so easily be cast out." Dungeon Master stepped out from behind one of the horses, his face graven with deep lines of sorrow and weariness.
"Not easily," Eric said, his hand tightening on his swordhilt. "But it can be cast out, now--for good, not just temporarily."
"But even with all our weapons and Dungeon Master's power, we couldn't beat him last time," Presto said, casting a nervous eye towards the approaching conflagration. "And Venger doesn't have his power anymore."
"I know," Eric said slowly. "But I think he could." He turned to face Dungeon Master, and the wizened old man took a step back when he met Eric's gaze. "Couldn't he?"
"Paladin," Dungeon Master said, "you do not understand. I bound Venger's powers long ago, that is true--but I cannot release them."
"Can't, or won't?" Eric pressed him.
"I must not. When my son came of age, I went to the High Lord's Oracle, hoping to hear a prophecy of his future. The Oracle spoke to me, and revealed that he would become my worst enemy and bring Darkness into the Realm. That was why I tried to bind your powers," he said, turning to look up at Venger, whose face remained set in cold, angry lines. Dungeon Master sighed and turned away before continuing. "I did not entirely succeed--enough power was left him to summon he whose name cannot be spoken. But if I had not bound his powers at all, he would have been stronger than I, and I could not have saved the Realm from his dominion."
"Lies and excuses," Venger said. "I never desired dominion before you betrayed me--betrayed me, and murdered my mother when she would have stopped you. Since that day, all that I have done, I have done for one purpose alone--revenge."
"I was wrong to act without revealing my purpose to you, and to Lianat," Dungeon Master said sadly. "I will regret that I did not until the end of my days. But her death was an accident, not my intention. She interrupted the spell I was binding your powers with, and the magical forces gone awry destroyed her even as they distorted your form."
"The fault was still yours," Venger said bitterly. "You had no right to bind my powers--I had done no wrong, nor misused them."
"My son, you know as well as I that the Oracle does not give self-fulfilling prophecies. If I had not heard the prophecy, still it would have come true. I do not know why you would have turned to evil--but you would have," Dungeon Master said. "I had the right of necessity."
"That's not a right at all," Eric said flatly. "People don't just turn evil because they're bored some afternoon, and you can't punish them for it beforehand." He stopped short as understanding suddenly came to him, clear as daybreak. "The Oracle wouldn't have told you that Venger was going to turn evil if it wasn't going to happen," he said slowly, staring at Dungeon Master. "And she was right, because you were going to bind his powers anyway, whatever she told you, weren't you?"
Dungeon Master stared back, shock lying pale over his amiable features. "No," he whispered. "No, surely not. I merely feared--" he stopped short.
"Feared what?" Eric said. "Why go to the Oracle at all, if you weren't expecting to hear something bad?"
With eyes closed, Dungeon Master bowed his head. "May the High Lord forgive me," he said softly, his voice an open wound. "I went to the Oracle because I feared that my son was irresponsible--that he required time to mature into the use of his powers. I--I might indeed have decided to bind his powers, even if she had not spoken." He was silent for long minutes, while the wind howled ever louder. When he finally raised his head, tears made thin tracks down his lined face. "All these years, I have told myself I acted for the good of the Realm--and now I see that my mistake was greater than ever I believed."
Eric nodded. "Venger may have brought darkness into the Realm, but you opened the door," he said, his voice ringing out clear over the shrieking edge that filled the air as the pillar of fire approached. "He's made his choice--he turned away from evil. Now it's up to you."
"Yes, Paladin," Dungeon Master said. "I will let fear rule me no longer." He lifted off the teardrop-shaped jewel that hung around his neck and turned towards Venger. "I do not ask you to forgive me, my son. All the Realm has suffered for my lack of wisdom, and you most of all." He held out the jewel. "Take your birthright, and may you serve the Realm better than I have."
Venger reached out for the faceted stone. It lay quiescent for a moment in the palm of his hand, then began to send thin trailers of light groping across the grey pallor of his skin. His fist closed around the pendant as the quicksilver glow spread, and a breath caught in his throat. He staggered a short distance away and fell to his knees, pulling his helmet off with shaking hands. It rolled to the ground, an empty shell, and his silver-white hair hung loose around his face like an extension of the radiance that now limned his body.
Suddenly two arcs of light lanced out from his back, sending the black bat-winged cloak to the ground in torn pieces. Eric and the others backed away as the aura expanded beyond the confines of Venger's frame, the humanoid outline shifting to one that was distinctly not. The rest of his clothing scattered in fluttering remnants as his body grew, stretching into an impossibly sinuous length as the two arcs curved outwards, sprouting hooked talons and a parchment-pale webbing. And as quickly as it had spread, the light submerged once more beneath the surface of his skin, leaving stray traces behind to shimmer over the sleek platinum hide of the great dragon that he had become.
But they barely had a moment to gawk before the first wave of heat from the fiery column rolled over them, whipping up the sand into a stinging cloud around their faces. Venger flung back his head, wings spreading wide, then the arrow-shaped head curved towards them. "Use the Weapons of Power," he said, his voice still the familiar gravelly rumble. "I will fight him in the air." With a ripple of muscle, he launched himself into the air.
Eric flung down his shield and shouted, "Pile up the weapons!"
The others followed suit, even Rahmoud, who lay his gleaming scimitar on top of Sheila's cloak. By unspoken agreement, they all gathered together in a cluster behind the the weapons, and Dungeon Master raised his hands over the faintly glowing heap as the pillar of fire grew to encompass all of their horizon. With a crack like thunder, the pillar split open, and Eric found himself looking once more into the unspeakable formlessness of that evil face.
Power leapt from the weapons to Dungeon Master's hands, then continued higher to strike at the pinnacle of the flames. Above, Eric heard a defiant roar break from a gleaming shape, looking as tiny as one of the faerie dragons next to the vastness of the column, as a blast of silver fire exploded from the dragon's jaws. But still the dark power remained, wavering only slightly beneath the onslaught.
A call reached Eric then, as clear as if spoken. He paused and glanced at his friends for just a moment, locking their faces in his mind, then he stepped forward, away from the protection of the magical weapons. The heat scorched his face as he let his sword fall and lifted his empty hand to the sky. He thought he heard a faint echo of music, and then a shining power was pouring through him, beyond his light, beyond even the greater strength he'd held during the day's battle, and he was nothing but a too-fragile vessel directing it against the dark force.
His sight dimmed, and he could feel his heart straining. Still the power rushed on. It was more than a man was meant to bear, he knew, and the agony of its passage was nothing next to the agony of knowing he couldn't last very long and the fear of leaving his friends behind to face the evil alone. But he pushed aside the threatening despair and let himself sink to his knees to ease the strain on his body, hoping to gain a few more moments. His breath labored in his chest as though his lungs were wrapped in iron bands.
Then, faintly, he heard a discord of roaring overhead, as though the dragon's voice had divided itself. Eyes streaming, he looked up and saw the serpentine hulk of Tiamat's body hovering beside the platinum dragon just as all five of the dragon queen's heads spat at the towering shaft.
The ground swelled beneath him like an ocean wave as a shrieking cry battered the air, going on and on until his eardrums burst in a shock of pain, blood trickling wet down his neck in the sudden complete silence. Then the heat and lashing winds vanished just as abruptly as the noise, and he gratefully let himself fall into cool, welcoming darkness as the pressure of the evil presence faded from his mind.
* * *
A light breeze stirred the sun-warmed air, and Sheila paused in the archway that led into the royal gardens to enjoy the nutmeg fragance of the rhilia blossoms that it carried. The short-bladed grass was soft under her bare feet as she walked into the garden. Low bushes thick with green leaves bordered the grassy path, and thickets of reedlike plants stood behind them, violet blooms bursting out at every joint. She followed the dappled sound of falling water until the path led her to a many-tiered fountain set in the marble wall that surrounded the gardens.
Eric was sitting on the fountain's edge, looking up at the sunlit cascade with smiling eyes that seemed to see something more than falling water. He turned when she came towards him. "Hey there."
"Hey yourself." She sat down next to him, studying his face. There was a dusting of silver at his temples now, but otherwise he looked pretty much the same, even if his mouth seemed more inclined to smile than she remembered. But there was a new serenity about him, lapping outwards into a pool of quiet peacefulness that seemed to surround him. Even just sitting across from him, she felt that peace touch her, and it seemed almost a shame to speak. She finally shook off the reluctance after a few moments of companionable silence. "I hear you're taking off?"
He nodded. "Tomorrow morning." He grinned. "I'm going to get spoiled--this is the first time I've had a call give me more than ten minutes warning. Last time I got hauled out of a party and sent off in the middle of the night."
"And this is the guy who used to complain if Hank wanted us to get up before noon?" She laughed as she said it, but she knew that the boy she remembered was gone, and that knowledge was a little bittersweet. "I don't understand, though--why are you being sent? Now that 'he whose name cannot be spoken' is gone, what is there for you to do?"
"Casting him out saved the Realm from being completely overwhelmed by his evil," Eric said. "It didn't get rid of all the evil in the Realm--there's still plenty of that left." He blew out a sigh. " I don't think I need to worry about job security."
Sheila picked up a stray leaf and trailed it in the water of the lowest basin, setting off little ripples that fought brief but valiant battles before being overwhelmed by the more vigorous ripples spreading out from the waterfall's frothy demise. "Do you know where you're going?"
"Not really--just that it's somewhere to the east. I kind of figure it out as I go." Eric shrugged, then looked at her intently. "How about you?"
She blinked. "Huh?"
"Do you know where you're going?"
She hesitated for a moment, shaking droplets from her fingers. "Venger wants me and Keith to go with him. I've been thinking about it." But even as she said the words, she realized that her decision had somehow gotten made. "I think--I think I'm going to say yes."
"Really?" Sheila couldn't help sounding surprised. "I would've thought you would be--not mad, exactly, but not happy about it."
"Are you kidding? It's great. You're going to have the world's weirdest family. Dungeon Master as a father-in-law, Tiamat as an aunt--think she'll babysit for you?"
"Right," she said dryly. "I don't think their new truce extends quite that far, even if his mother was related to her."
He grinned, then added more seriously, "I really am glad, though--for the Realm as much as for you. He's got a thousand years of evil under his belt, and two weeks of good. I think he needs all the help he can get if he's not going to backslide."
"I get the feeling it's going to be an uphill battle," she said ruefully.
"For what it's worth, I think you'll be happy anyway. You two already sound like an old married couple, the way you fight all the time."
She laughed. "Well, I don't think I'll ever be bored, that's for sure."
They fell silent briefly. Eric shifted his weight, bringing one knee up to rest his foot on the fountain's ledge, and asked, "Do you know what the others have decided?"
"Actually, I do have it on good authority that Hank's not leaving anytime soon."
Eric raised an eyebrow. "Who's the good authority?"
Sheila smirked. "Aiysha."
"Man, everybody's dropping like flies. Please don't tell me Presto or Diana are planning to set up house too."
"Um, Presto was saying something about going to find Varla to ask her to move down here..."
Eric groaned and shook his head. "Next thing you know, you guys are all going to start having more kids, and then the world is doomed."
"You'll just have to come back and save it, then," Sheila said, trying to hang on to her smile even while part of her was silently asking, Will you come back? Will you ever come back?
He looked at her with eyes gone gentle and still. "I'll try," he said softly, and she knew he was answering the unspoken question.
A bell rang, not far off, and he rose and offered her a hand. "We'd better go inside."
"Yes," she said. "I'm ready."
* * * The End * * *
Sheila O'Brien did indeed marry Lord Venger. By his power, her parents and brother were brought to the Realm for a short time, that they might attend her wedding. It is said that for love of her he turned wholly from darkness and served the Realm faithfully as Dungeon Master, freeing all those whom he had enslaved and returning the lands he had conquered to the dominion of their own lords. And when the span of her days came to its appointed end, he chose to leave the world and follow her into death, as those of dragonblood may do, leaving their son Keith to take up the duties of Dungeon Master under the tutelage of his grandfather.
Hank Grayson became consort to Aiysha, princess of the house of Khadish, who followed her father Rahmoud to the throne. He ruled justly by her side, and his son and his son's daughter after him.
Preston Sydney remained at the court of Rahmoud and became a scholar of great renown. It is from his hands that we have a record of these days. His wife, Varla, was a powerful illusionist, and their daughter Imrain also became an adept of the arts of magic, second in power in her lifetime only to her husband, Lord Keith.
Diana Curry also remained at the court of Rahmoud for some time, but left in search of Kosar after several years. Legend has it that the two were reunited, but whether or not this is true, she never returned.
Robert O'Brien returned to the Realm but once, for his sister's marriage, and passed the rest of his life on Earth.
If Eric Montgomery ever returned to the Western Lands, it is not recorded, but he served the cause of good all the days of his life, and the record of his deeds yet remains in the High Temple at Tiruvel.
Here ends The Trial By Existence.