by the lady of shalott

* * *
Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking downhill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and day was past.
Somber clouds in the west were massed.
Out in the porch's sagging floor
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.

Robert Frost

* * *

The chanting of two hundred voices reverberated against the marble-sheathed walls of the Ceremonial Chamber of the Temple of the High Lord. Eric was impressed despite himself by the swelling chorus, and the few other people in the room seemed equally so, their eyes fixed on the ranks of black-robed men and women who were singing. Every few minutes or so, a new monk would arrive and step into the chorus without missing a beat, while another one stepped down from the dais and left the chamber.

"It is marvelous, isn't it?" Brother Corwin, the young monk who had been given the task of showing them around the Temple, was staring at the chorus with shining eyes. "The hymn to the High Lord is always being sung here--but I still never get tired of it." He sighed happily as the voices rose together to a climax and the hymn ended, only to begin again a few moments later. "But wonderful as it is," he said, "this is only one of the wonders of the Temple. Come, my friends, I'll show you the rest," he said, beckoning them along.

Pulling his attention away from the chorus, Eric slowly followed the others, rubbing his left arm. They'd all left their weapons back in the small quarters the Temple had provided for them, and while in some way it was nice to be unencumbered, he felt oddly naked without the weight of the shield. Maybe I should go back and get it, he thought, then dismissed the thought. It's not like anything can get to us here. Corwin said even Venger wouldn't dare attack the Temple. He walked a little faster to catch up to the others as Corwin led them through the enormous double doors at the far end of the chamber and into the central hall of the Temple.

Unlike the Ceremonial Chamber, the great hall was almost crowded. Small groups of people clustered around small altars set at regular intervals along the wall, and the rich, heavy scent of incense and smoky candles hung in the air. A few children were even playing tag among the columns that supported the high-vaulted ceiling, and a little girl played with a tinkling golden-colored ball in one corner.

Brother Corwin led them to a nondescript wooden door set in an alcove and unlocked it with one of his keys. "Most people don't come to this part of the Temple," he said over his shoulder, "but I think you may find it interesting...ah, there we go." The door creaked open, the hinges loudly proclaiming their lack of use. A narrow, dark stairway spiraled down from the doorway, and he started down it. "Careful going down--the steps are narrow."

The stairway ended in a low-ceilinged hall. An arched door of heavy wood, barred with cast-iron, sealed off one end of it, while the other opened into a small grotto-like chamber. Curious, Eric wandered over to the barred door while the others followed Brother Corwin into the chamber. He poked at the heavy bar and noticed that there were five separate locks set into the iron. Talk about overkill, he thought. I guess that's where they keep the silver. He turned and rejoined the group, ducking under the low arch as he stepped into the chamber.

"And here," Corwin was saying, "is where the paladins of old would make their vows." Eric cast a jaundiced glance around the small room. Its low ceiling was barely a foot above his head, dingy with smoke stains and hung with tarry stalactites. The altar was little more than a rock covered with a threadbare cloth, and the only light was provided by squat candles set in gaps in the brickwork along the walls.

"It's kind of dark," Diana said, keeping one hand on top of her curly hair and eyeing the moisture-beaded ceiling.

The monk chuckled. "This is the oldest chamber of the temple," he explained. "It has not been altered since the first days of the High Lord's worship."

And it shows, Eric thought snidely.

"Come, let us go back up. It is really too crowded here for more than one," Corwin said, gesturing for them to go out ahead of him.

"So how did the paladins all fit?" Bobby asked as they climbed the stairs back up to the main hall of the Temple.

"This Realm would be a brighter place if paladins were common enough for that to be a problem, Barbarian." Corwin sounded wistful. "But to be entirely honest, I don't know how the ceremonies in that room were performed. There hasn't been a paladin in centuries."

"What about the Celestial Knights? Weren't they paladins?" Bobby asked. "We met one of them once. His name was Dekion."

Corwin shook his head. "No, no. The Celestial Knights were merely an order of knights--a noble one, true, and dedicated to the service of good, but certainly not paladins. But I thought they were all gone as well--you say you met one?"

"Brother Corwin," Sheila interrupted, speaking for the first time since they'd begun the tour, "do you think the Oracle will help us?"

"I--I can't really say, my dear," he said apologetically. "If she does choose to speak to you, she will certainly give you true advice, but I don't know if she will. No one knows why the Oracle chooses to speak, or why she chooses to remain silent." He shook his head. "She has turned away kings who have come from over the sea and called in a charwoman washing the temple steps."

Sounds kind of cracked to me, Eric thought to himself.

"However," Corwin added a little sheepishly, "it's true that most of the time she will talk to figures of importance who come to the Temple, and after your heroic deeds, that certainly includes you."

"I hope so," Presto said. "If she really can tell us how to get home..." he let the words trail off.

As they walked away from the alcove, a tinkling musical sound caught Eric's attention, and he glanced back to see the jingling ball roll down the dark stairway, chased by the little girl. Oh great--no one closed the door. Somebody better stop her before she gets lost down there. He turned to say something to the monk, but the rest of the group was already partway down the Hall, and he couldn't bring himself to break the hushed atmosphere with a yell. It'll just take a second to get her, he thought, hurrying down after her.

"Hey! Kid, where are you?" he called, keeping one hand on the wall for balance as he hurried down the steps. "You definitely don't want to be down here." I can't believe someone just let a little kid like that run around on her own. She didn't respond to his calls, but the jingling echoed up the stairwell to him. "You know, there are probably spiders the size of your arm in this place!" he yelled.

He came out into the dark hallway and stared with dismay--the heavy, barred wooden door hung open, and he could clearly hear the chiming ball ahead down the dark passageway beyond. "How the hell--" he said out loud, then shook his head and just went after her.

After the first turn in the passageway, the tunnel walls changed, the mortared bricks giving way to natural stone as the passage sloped downward. There were no torches here, but the walls themselves glowed with patches of violet phosphorescence that gave him just enough light to make out the next turn ahead of him, and puddles of brackish water littered the floor. "This place is creepy," he muttered, wishing for his shield and hoping his luck would hold out and the tunnel wouldn't branch before he found the girl.

Unfortunately, luck seemed to have deserted him, as the passageway forked at the very next turning. Groaning, he looked for something to mark the tunnel with, then settled for using a loose pebble to scratch a faint "X" into the wall. He couldn't hear the chiming of the ball anymore, only a distant clicking noise down the left passageway, but he could just make out a few small splotches on the floor of the right tunnel that might have been drying footprints. Turning that way, he started running down the passage, determined not to get any deeper into the tunnels.

He finally caught up to her at the next fork and managed to grab her shoulder before she could go skipping down yet another passage. "What are you doing?" Eric demanded, panting. "You want to get stuck down here for the rest of your life?"

Sticking a finger in her mouth, she just stared up at him with innocent blue eyes, then silently offered him the shiny ball she'd chased down here.

"No thanks," Eric said, taking her hand. "Come on, time to get outta here. And I really want to know how you got that locked door open." He turned to lead her out and only then realized that the clicking noise he'd heard at the previous fork had gotten louder--and was rapidly approaching. "Oh, man." I have a bad feeling about this... The little girl clutched his cloak with her free hand, and obeying some half-formed instinct, he bent down and picked her up. "Uh, don't worry," he told her, trying to reassure himself as well. "It's probably just some weird bug or something." But he didn't make a move to head down the passageway.

The clicking began to resolve into the sound of individual footsteps, clattering together as if marching, and Eric started backing away down the left fork as an eerie greenish glow started shining from around the corner. What kind of thing makes footsteps like that? His question was answered in the next moment, as two skeletons, their limbs clacking hideously together, marched around the corner...followed by another two...and another two, all of them carrying swords.

He didn't stop to see how many more of them would appear, but hitched the little girl closer to his chest and ran like hell. Shit, shit, shit! he chanted silently, saving his breath for running. The girl's weight dragged on him, and he could feel a stich starting in his side, but the clicking of the skeletal footsteps kept following, coming faster now as if the skeletons were running as well, coming louder as if they were gaining on him, and he blindly swerved to the left again as they came to another fork, ran around the next corner--and nearly crashed into the wall that ended the passageway.

Panting, he stared at it for a minute in disbelief, then turned to see the green glow of the skeletons flaring in the hallway behind him, the footsteps slowing just a little as if they knew they had him trapped, still coming inexorably on. He looked around wildly, then caught sight of a narrow crevice in the wall, about shoulder height on him. The little girl was crying and shaking with fright, and he had a moment's struggle to detach her. "Come on, kid, you'll be safer in here," he coaxed frantically, glancing over his shoulder at the brightening glow. She finally let him squeeze her into the crack, which was just barely large enough to hold her.

And then he turned and set his back to the wall as the first of the skeletons rounded the corner.

* * *

Diana looked up as Hank came back into the room. "No luck?"

"No sign of him anywhere!" Hank dropped into a chair and ran his hands into his hair, frustrated. "I don't get it. Where could he have gone?"

"Ah, you know Eric," Bobby said dismissively. "He probably went off to get something to eat."

"I don't know." Presto shook his head. "I can't see him taking off without a word to any of us, not when the Oracle could call us up at any minute."

"If he were going to do something dangerous, he'd have taken his shield," Sheila pointed out absently, gesturing over to where the golden shield leaned against the wall next to Hank's bow. "Maybe he's just gotten lost somewhere in the Temple. I'm sure he'll find us eventually, and if we all go out to look for him, we might miss the Oracle's summons."

Hank studied her face for a moment. Her eyes still held that odd preoccupied look she'd had ever since returning from her failed attempt to steal the Amulet of the Moon from Venger's castle with the information about the Oracle. I wonder why she's so sure this is going to work? he wondered. "I don't want to just wait around," he said finally. "I don't think Eric would have just wandered off, and for all we know, Venger might still be after us. He might not attack the Temple openly, but snatching one of us while we think we're safe would be just his style." He stood. "Diana, why don't you and I split up and look for him. The rest of you can wait here in case--" The opening of the door interrupted him.

Corwin came in, his eyes bright with excitement. "My friends, the Oracle summons you!"

* * *

Sweat stung in his eyes and in the long gash on his left arm where one of the swords had bitten through his armor. The skeletons were fragile--a good punch could make one of them fall apart--and he'd managed to grab a sword away from one of them. But there were so many of them. The horror at their appearance had long since faded from his mind in the dulling monotony of parry and strike. His arm ached as he hacked at the grinning skull in front of him and the shock of hitting bone jarred through him. The skull listed to one side and toppled to the floor with a crack as the spine snapped, the arms and legs going limp as a marionette with cut strings.

Panting, Eric raised the sword and held it ready for a good half-minute before realizing that there was nothing left of the skeletons but a brittle heap of bones, the sickly green aura fading like mist. He stood numbly, swaying a little, and let the sword drop from his hand. Only the harsh sound of his own breathing and the hiccuping sobs of the little girl remained, echoing queerly against the rough dampness of the stone walls. He stumbled over to the nook and held up his arms. "Come on out, kiddo," he said. "You're safe. Those things are gone now." After a few more minutes of coaxing, she finally uncurled and crawled out enough for him to swing her down, but she wrapped her arms around his neck and clung ferociously when he would have set her down.

"Okay, okay, I won't put you down, just loosen up a little," he managed to strangle out. She relaxed a little and he settled her in his arms as comfortably he could. He glanced longingly at the sword. I really don't want to walk around this place without some kind of weapon. But without a swordbelt, he couldn't manage the sword and the child both, so he left the blade on the floor and began trying to retrace his steps.

* * *

Hank paced impatiently outside the Oracle's chamber while the others sat on the comfortable chairs set outside the door. Corwin came hurrying in alone and crossed over to him, his helpless shrug telling Hank that the monk hadn't found Eric.

"I'm afraid no one seems to remember seeing the young Cavalier anywhere," Corwin said apologetically. "And we can't keep the Oracle waiting much longer. When you've spoken to her, we can search for him more thoroughly."

"Come on, Hank," Diana said. "Let's talk to the Oracle--I'm sure that Eric would be the last one to want us to miss hearing her advice."

"All right," Hank said finally, although he was getting even more worried now. "Let's go. The sooner we finish talking to her, the sooner we can start looking."

Corwin opened the door into the Oracle's room and gestured them in. The room was surprisingly ordinary--unlike the other chambers of the Temple, this one looked as if it was intended to be lived in. Bookshelves lined the walls, and a fire crackled on the hearth. A dark-haired young woman sat in a chair by the window, smiling at them as they came into the room. "Come on in," she said.

Bobby stopped short and stared at her. "You're the Oracle?" he asked in obvious disbelief. "Ow!" He eyed Sheila reproachfully as she poked him.

She grinned. "Call me Tamris," she said. "I'm only the Oracle when I'm true-speaking." She gestured at the chairs scattered around the room. "Please, pull up a chair and get comfortable. I've heard so much about all of you."

"No offense," Diana said, tugging a chair over and sitting down near Tamris, "but I kind of got the impression that the Oracle was--" she hesitated.

"An old crone, stirring a bubbling cauldron and muttering to herself?" Tamris finished for her, laughing. "I may get there yet. I've only been the Oracle for five years or so. We pass on the gift to our successors when we die," she explained.

"How do you know that you're interpreting your visions correctly?" Hank asked, feeling a little worried about her reliability.

"I don't. I don't have visions," she said simply. "I just speak the words I'm given. It's up to the listener to interpret. Sometimes I have no idea what I'm talking about."

"Then you don't know why we're here?" Sheila asked, pulling her own chair up next to Diana.

"Not a clue," Tamris agreed. "I just know that I'm going to have something to tell you."

"You will?" They all spoke nearly simultaneously.

She nodded. "I can tell when I'm going to true-speak." She glanced out of the window, where the suns were gradually slipping below the horizon. "It won't be much longer," she said softly, her voice suddenly gone remote and strange. "When the second sun has set."

* * *

Eric stumbled on through the tunnels, his back aching and the scratch like a burning brand on his arm. He'd gone through six forks so far and knew they were well and truly lost at this point, but he couldn't think of anything to do but keep going, even though all the tunnels he'd found seemed to be sloping down, leading them even further into the dark underworld. Wrapped in the tattered remnants of his cloak, the child was drowsing trustingly against his shoulder, her small arms still wound around his neck. The passage widened suddenly ahead of him, and he cautiously slowed down as he found himself in what looked like the bottom of a deep shaft.

He could see a small circle of light above and rungs going up the wall, and a faint current of fresh air stirred past his face. "Yes!" he sighed in relief and hurried over to the first rung. "Hey, kid, wake up." She stirred and blinked at him sleepily. "We've got a way outta here. Come on, up you go." He set her on the first rung and only then realized the problem--the rungs were too far apart for her to reach.

Fuck. He closed his eyes and swallowed the curse. "Okay, okay. Here, just hang on to me." He picked her up again and set her arms around his neck. She obediently hung on, and he started climbing. But after a few rungs, her arms started slipping loose, and he had to let go with one arm and grab her to keep her from falling. He steadied her and managed to get back down to the ground, but he could tell there was no way he could climb up and keep her on at the same time.

Setting her down, he looked up and tried to guess how far away the opening was. I could climb up and get a rope or something, he thought, then looked at the little girl. What am I thinking? There's no way I can leave her here. Even if she stayed put, some of those skeletons might come back, and even if they didn't, she'd be scared out of her mind down here all alone. He took a deep breath. "Looks like we'll have to find another way out," he told her, holding out his hand.

This time, at least, she didn't object to walking along with him instead of being carried. The fresh air from the shaft faded quickly into the dankness of the tunnels as they walked onwards and ever downwards. Water dripped somewhere ahead of them, a faintly echoing staccato, and occasionally he heard other noises that he tried not to pay too much attention to.

And then, after a sharp right turn, the tunnel abruptly began to climb. A little light-headed with relief, Eric thought that he'd never felt anything as wonderful as the strain on his calf muscles. He swung the child up into his arms again and started to go faster. The tunnel ended abruptly in a heavy wooden door, barred with iron, and Eric felt with queasy certainty that something unpleasant was behind the door--and so was the way out. Come on, get a grip, you're just imagining things, he told himself.

But nevertheless, he set the little girl down several paces away from the door before he unbarred it. When nothing immediately flung open the door from the other side, he relaxed a little. "We'll be back in the temple before you know it," he told the kid jauntily, and threw the door open.

His heart nearly stopped. What looked like an army of the walking dead filled a vast crypt-like chamber. Ranged around a dozen marble tombs, hundreds of skeletons stood quiescent in neat rows, the strange auras surrounding them pulsating unpleasantly in his vision. None of them moved towards him, but the nearest skeletons turned their heads to gaze at him and the little girl ominously. At the far end of the hall, he could see a small opening in the wall, as though a block of bricks had been removed. Through it came the sound of chanting voices, and he recognized the chant as the hymn from the Ceremonial Chamber. The hole in the wall--this must be the walled-up crypt Corwin told us about before.

The skeletons nearest them were starting to shift, as if they were gradually starting up. Eric swallowed and realized that even if he could run through the room and push the little girl out the opening, he wouldn't be able to fit through himself--and the skeletons would get him before he could make it back out. I should close this door and get us the hell outta here.

But he couldn't shake the certainty that this was the only way out--at least for the child. He glanced back at her. She was already drooping with tiredness, her head leaning against the rough stone wall. She hadn't even noticed the skeletal army in the next room. She won't be able to keep going much longer. She's just a kid. Another part of his mind complained, I'm a kid too, goddammit. There's no way I can not get killed doing this--if I went back to the shaft, at least we'd both have a chance...

But the time was past when he could have believed his own rationalizations. He walked back to the little girl and looked down at her. "Well, I guess it's you or me, kid," he muttered. He picked her up again and turned back to the crypt entrance. Cold fear crawled up his spine as he saw the skeletons start to move, taking the first jerky steps towards them, and for a moment he was paralyzed.

He squeezed his eyes shut and forced his legs to move. The first step took an eternity, then he was running, his heart trying to pound its way out of his chest, with the rasp and clatter of metal and bone chasing him as he raced across the stone floor towards the single square of light.

Then he was there, jumping onto the tomb beneath the opening and lifting her desperately upwards to the hole. She crawled in without fighting him, and he spared a moment of gratitude for that as she vanished through the opening. And then he had no more time to think as a forest of swords sprouted up around him, rising from skeletal arms, and the first blows fell on his armor.

He kicked one of the skeletons and grabbed its sword as it toppled, then gave a yell and leaped down, hoping to smash a way out between them. But even though a dozen of them crumbled to pieces, there was still a solid wall in front of him, and more of the skeletons were crowding forward. He managed to fight his way over to one of the walls of the crypt and put his back to it, but that only made it more obvious how completely hopeless the fight was with the hundreds of skeletal warriors lined up around him.

His swings were wild at first, then he gradually found a way to whack at the skeletons that had the best chance of knocking them apart. By then, he'd already picked up five or six shallow cuts, and one painfully throbbing deeper one on his leg. His mind was strangely clear now, with death staring him in the face on all sides, and he wasn't afraid anymore. I hope the others make it home, he thought as he smashed yet another skeleton to bits and managed to parry a stroke with his gauntlet, wondering idly what they would tell his dad. Somehow I don't think 'Eric got killed fighting an army of dead guys' would fly too well with him.

Breathing was getting harder now, and his arm felt heavier every time he took another swing. He wiped sweat from his forehead with a rag torn from his tunic and tried to give his sword arm a break by punching out a few of the skeletons with his left. They cracked apart satisfyingly, but the shorter range let them get closer, and he took a raking blow across his chest that knocked him back against the wall. He swung the sword in a broad sweep, clearing himself a little breathing room when they would have fallen on him. But now his vision was starting to waver as his lungs and muscles clamored for more oxygen.

As the skeletons pressed in on him, he could almost hear an internal voice asking, Aren't you sorry? Don't you wish you'd never come down here in the first place?

He took down another two with a fierce swing and edged a little further along the wall. No, he answered himself, a little surprised to find that it was true. I'm not sorry. She made it out because of me. Otherwise, she'd have died alone down here.

Like you're going to, the voice pointed out.

I'm not going down without a fight. And I'm not going down for nothing. That meant something to him now, he realized.

Yeah, right. Dying to save somebody else's kid who was stupid enough to come running down here after a ball. And just when you were all about to get home, too. That seems pretty pointless.

No, Eric told himself, knocking away an outthrust blade with his own sword before taking off the attacking skeleton's head. I didn't come down here to save a kid, even though that would be worth it, too. I came down here because I stopped being a jerk. And I'm not going to regret that. No matter what happens.

He never found out what the voice would say to that, because at that moment one of the skeletons got through his guard, its sword driving through his armor and deep into his chest, and the world exploded into white-hot agony--then disappeared into all-encompassing darkness.

* * *

Conversation had died ten minutes ago, when even Hank's good manners had collapsed under the weight of anticipation. Their eyes were all glued to the window, squinting at the horizon to catch the moment when the last slice of orange-red sunlight vanished, when Tamris suddenly spoke.

"Ranger," she said, her voice resonating oddly. They all turned to look at her. She was staring into the fire, her eyes eerily blank. "The Estron Trail leads north through the Seven Hills. Follow it from the town of Dormeth for two days and two nights, then take the game trail that leads to the east. You will find the lost city of Karmek, wherein lies the Well of Worlds, through which you will return to your homes."

She suddenly turned and looked straight at Hank, her gaze suddenly piercing. "But know this. Six came from your world, and six shall return, but one must remain behind, else the circle shall never be broken and this world lie under the Shadow forever."

Hank wondered blankly how the six of them could go back and leave one behind at the same time, then suddenly looked down at Uni, who was curled up at Bobby's feet. She must mean Uni has to stay, he realized. Damn, that's going to be hard on Bobby. "I understand, Oracle," he said anyway. "We'll follow your instructions."

She nodded, then turned towards the window again. "Leave me now, young ones, and go to your quarters," she said. "Stay there until the morning."

"We need to look for our friend," Hank began.

"No. Remain in your quarters. He will be returned to you before dawn."

Hank exchanged a baffled glance with Diana, then shrugged. "Okay," he said uncertainly. "And, um, thank you."

She turned a strange gaze on them, wise and weary and sad and joyful all at once. "Do not thank me," she said quietly. "For you will leave that in this Realm which you did not intend to lose, and take that which you did not intend to gain. This world and others shall be richer thereby, but your own hearts poorer, and you may not be glad for the choices that another has made."

* * *

His cheek was cold.

And wet.

For that matter, so was the rest of his face.

Eric jerked up out of the puddle, looking around wildly and groping around for the sword before he realized that he wasn't in the crypt. Climbing to his feet, he recognized the narrow hallway at the base of the stairs from the great hall. He turned slowly and stared. The heavy wooden door was shut tight, all five locks sealed, and there was no trace that it had ever stood open. "What the hell..."

He looked down at himself. His armor was whole, unmarked by any blade, and his wounds had all vanished. This is crazy! I remember getting hit. I remember--dying? His hand involuntarily went to his chest, and he shuddered. He could still feel the blade sliding between his ribs. "What is going on?" he demanded out loud.

As if in answer, light suddenly bloomed behind him. He froze for a moment, then slowly turned around. The light was coming from the tiny grotto, brilliant and stark white, chasing all the darkness from the room. Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, he thought irreverently.

And then the voice spoke from the grotto, calling him inside.

* * *

"Where have you been?" Hank demanded, torn between relief and anger as Eric walked into their rooms.

Eric stared at him, looking a little dazed. "I was downstairs," he said. "I got kind of lost." He laughed suddenly, the purely joyful sound so unlike him that Hank was almost alarmed. "Or found, actually."

"Are you coming down with something?" Diana asked, standing up and confronting him with hands on hips. "Or did you just forget that we were here to do something--like see the Oracle?"

Eric seemed to throw off the daze finally. "Wait--did you guys already get to see her?"

"Yes, you dork!" Diana smacked his shoulder. "And she told us how to get home!"

"And with no riddles," Presto added.

"Wow, what a concept," Eric said, grinning. "That's great, guys! Finally!"

And lost in their own enthusiasm, none of them noticed that Eric's wasn't as wholehearted as they would have expected.

* * *

Uni bleated unhappily as Bobby finally let go, tears streaming down his face. "You'll take care of her?" he asked Brother Corwin for the tenth time.

"She will be loved and honored here, Bobby," Corwin promised. "And should she wish to return to the valley you have told me of, an escort of knights will take her there."

The Barbarian sniffled and wiped his nose on his wristlet. "Bye, Uni," he whispered. "I wish you could come with us..."

"I'm sorry, Bobby," Sheila said gently, squeezing his shoulders. "But she belongs here. She'd be turned into a carnival attraction back home."

"I know!" But Bobby wrenched himself away and ran out of the gates, still crying.

Hank watched him go regretfully, but he turned back to Brother Corwin. "Thanks again, for everything," he said. "And please tell the Oracle thanks for us, too."

Corwin nodded. "I will, Ranger. The High Lord's light on your way, and may you reach your homes in safety and in peace."

Turning to his friends, Hank looked at their eager faces, knowing that their smiles were mirrored on his own. "Well, gang--let's get going!"

* * *

Three days later, as the first sun was just rising over the Seven Hills, Hank helped Bobby over the edge of the well. "Careful," he said.

"Yeah, I know, I know!" Bobby said, then promptly ignored the order by practically sliding down the rope ladder after Sheila, who had already vanished into the swirling light far below in the depths of the well.

Hank shook his head in amusement and turned to Eric, who held out a hand. "It's been a pretty wild ride," the Cavalier said.

"You can say that again." Hank grinned and gripped Eric's hand in his own briefly. "I don't think I've told you this," he added, "but--well, I'm pretty damn impressed with you. How you've changed."

"I had a good example to learn from," Eric said quietly.

Hank gripped Eric's shoulder. "Come on--let's get out of here!"

"After you," Eric said.

Hank didn't need any more encouragement, swinging himself over the lip of the well and climbing down the ladder hastily. He was almost at the waiting whirlpool of light, just a few rungs away...

"Hank." Eric's voice echoed down into the shaft.

Hank paused on the ladder and looked up to see Eric's face silhouetted dark against the sky. "Come on, Eric. What are you waiting for?"

"I can't--" Eric's voice cracked briefly, "I can't come."

"What?" Hank nearly lost his grip on the rope handles in shock. "What are you talking about?"

"I've got a job to do here."

Hank stifled the urge to scream. "Why didn't you say something? This portal wasn't about to close on us! We would've waited!"

"Yeah, I know you would've," Eric said, "and you'd have been waiting a pretty long time. That's why I'm springing this on you. I knew you guys would never leave if I said I wasn't going."

"You're damn right we're not leaving!" Hank grabbed the rung above him and starting climbing upwards. "Not until we find out what's going on with you."

"Sorry, but I've got exclusive rights to heroic deeds today. Watch your head," Eric warned.

Hank felt the rope ladder sway and looked up to see Eric untying the knot that held it to the top. "No! Eric, stop!" He kept climbing, struggling with the wavering ladder.

"Take care of yourself, pal," Eric said quietly, his hand on the knot. "And give my love to the others."

Hank opened his mouth to yell another protest, and suddenly he was falling, ropes loose around him. The last thing he saw before the swirling lights swallowed him was Eric's hand, raised in farewell.

* * *

Eric watched until the last flicker of light down in the shaft's depths had died. He picked up the lid and closed the Well once more, sliding the locking bar back into place. His hand rested on top of the wooden surface for a moment longer. Then he turned away and settled the shield back on his arm. Wind rattled through the empty streets of the abandoned city, snapping at his cloak and whirling dust around his footsteps as he walked slowly back towards the gate.

He paused at the gate, his hands flat on the wood. He knew he could just walk back to the Well, lift the cover, and jump. In a moment he'd be home, with his friends, his family. He could even try to fulfill his vows there. With his father's millions, there was no telling how much good he could do. He closed his eyes, struggling with temptation. Help me, he thought desperately. Help me to know what's right.

It came to him like a gentle hand nudging him between the shoulderblades. Nudging him forward. He took a deep breath and let go of all thoughts of going home. Approval, unmistakable and comforting, warmed through him as he severed the final ties, filling the aching void of loneliness with light.

"Well, I'm ready," he said aloud, and pushed the gate open.

* * *

Sheila ran forward towards the light, Bobby's hand tight in hers, coughing from the smoke that was everywhere around her. They burst out of the tunnel into noise and confusion, people crowding all around them and yelling questions over the blaring sound of the fairground music. Her eyes tearing, Sheila turned around to look for the others. Diana was there, helping Presto, who had lost his glasses somewhere and was squinting helplessly. "Diana! We're here! We made it!" Sheila saw people frown at her with concern in their eyes and belatedly heard the faintly hysterical tone to her voice.

"Are you okay?" Diana called back, guiding Presto over to the two of them. "That turned into a wilder ride than we were expecting!" Her voice also sounded frayed and tense.

A loud rumble drew their eyes back to the tunnel as a fresh wave of smoke came billowing out. A single figure came stumbling out of the ride, hair black with soot. "Hank!" Sheila cried, and hurried over to him as he crumpled to his knees outside the ride, shoulders heaving as he gulped for air. "Relax, take deep breaths," she said, patting his back. "Does anyone have some water?" she asked, looking around. Bottles of Evian were thrust at her almost immediately, members of the gathered crowd evidently eager to do something. She cracked open a bottle and gave it to Hank.

A security guard pushed his way through the crowd. "Was anyone else in there?" he demanded, kneeling down next to her and gripping Hank's shoulder. "Can you breathe, son?"

Sheila looked up from Hank, who was gulping the water. "Are we all here?"

Diana's face went pale. "Where's Eric?" she asked.

"Got to go back," Hank suddenly croaked out, his voice a shattered husk from the smoke. He pushed the guard's restraining hand away and wobbled to his feet. "A car--" He pointed towards the ride's entrance, where the red cars stood, halted now because of the fire.

"He's IN there?" Sheila didn't recognize her own voice, shrill with panic.

"No! THERE!" Their faces must have looked blank, because he waved his hands and explained again. "Didn't come down!"

"Eric didn't come down?" Diana sounded unbelieving, her eyes confused. "Why?"

"Forget why!" Presto said. "We can't leave him there alone. We've got to go back."

"No one is going back in there right now--the fire department'll be here in just a minute." The security guard was at Hank's elbow. "You kids just settle down and try not to get too excited. If your friend's in there, we'll get him out."

"No!" Bobby's yell turned their eyes back to the ride. Sheila screamed in wordless horror as she watched the roof of the ride slowly, gracefully fold down the middle and smash itself to the ground in a final paroxym of dust.

The next hours passed in a blur. EMTs checked them over and whisked Hank away to a hospital despite every protest he could croak out. The rest of them were wrapped in blankets and tucked into a quiet office on the grounds, people speaking to them in the low, gentle voices they used with the sick and bereaved and giving them cups of hot tea. Sheila kept one arm around Bobby's shoulders and held him close against her side, trying not to think, her eyes dry and burning.

When the door opened, she stared at the couple standing there for nearly a minute before she said, stupidly, "Mom? Dad?" In another moment, she and Bobby were enveloped in their arms, in their love, and she could finally cry.

* * *


Sheila stood at the top of the stairs, her hand tight on the banister. She could hear Hank and Diana's voices coming from his room, raised in a friendly argument about the World Series, then Presto groaning and asking them to talk about anything instead of sports. For a moment she was so terrified that she nearly turned around and left—would have, if there had been anywhere to go. Closing her eyes, she forced her fingers to unwrap themselves from the railing and walked down the hall.

The conversation stopped the moment she came into the doorway, and she could see her own stiff pallor reflected in sudden frightened concern on three faces. She took a deep breath and said it flatly.

"I'm pregnant."

End of Book I of The Trial By Existence