Hank stared past the campfire and past his sleeping friends, looking toward the horizon. It gave off a dull blue glow. Let this be the one, he silently prayed.
They’d been through a lot in recent weeks, more than usual. They had the usual monsters to fight and unfortunate souls to rescue from some tyrant or other—typically Venger. But in recent days they’d run through a series of other shocks, shocks that hit a lot closer to home, and that no mere magic weapon could put right.
First there was Terry, another child captured from their world. She was only with them for a few days, but when she left, with another portal closed for good behind her, it left Bobby without a friend his own age. Maybe more than a friend. For a while after she left, Bobby was sullen and withdrawn, not really responding to anything anybody said. Then, he claimed to have spoken to DungeonMaster (although none of the older kids were around), and his spirits went back up; he seemed more impatient than ever to get home.
Then there was Diana. Overthrowing the alien queen Sirith and liberating the kingdom of Turadh would have been all in a day’s work for them months before, but this time something else happened. Diana had fallen for Kosar, the prophesied child of the stargazer. When he ascended into the heavens during Starfall, the Acrobat—normally cool and utterly unflappable—moped around for days. She didn’t let her feelings sour the celebrations heaped on her by the people of Turadh, but once they were outside the gates she fell silent, and stayed silent for the better part of a week. Not a battle with a platoon of orcs, nor Eric’s attempts to draw her out with his usual snide remarks, got more than a few words out of her. She clearly was not her old self.
Neither was I for a while, Hank considered. In the land of the Cloud Bears, the six friends came as close as they ever had to splitting down the middle, over what was perceived as Hank’s treasonous alliance with Venger. He had his reasons for staying silent, but those reasons cost him some of the trust of the group. He assumed that he had since won back that trust, but some deeply-buried part of him felt he could never be sure of the others again. Is this how the Realm finally gets to us: attacking our hearts instead of our weapons? He shook the thought out of his head. There may be cracks in their unity, but they still were united by a single purpose: find the way home.
Except perhaps for Presto. For the first time in—well, it had seemed like a whole year—someone in the group had come within a hair of wanting to stay in the Realm for good. Presto had wanted to stay behind one earlier time to become apprentice to Merlin; but later, it turned out, he wanted to stay only long enough to figure out a spell to get them all home. This time, though, Presto was more serious. He’d met and rescued Varla, the beautiful spinner of illusions, and all were surprised at the intensity of Presto’s feelings toward her—including Presto himself. The day before, when they’d parted from Varla and her village, there had been real sadness on both sides. Presto was pretty much worthless for the rest of that day and most of the next, and, when they made camp for the night, and were cooking what little food they could find in the Bottomless Swamp around a fire, Presto became the first one to say it:
"Hank, everybody, what would you think if I—if I stayed here in the Realm?"
"Not go home?" You don’t mean that, do you?" Sheila blurted out.
"Well, I—I don’t know. I want to get back and all, but Varla’s so nice and everything, and…"
Hank ran his fingers through his hair. "And you really think you won’t find anyone like her back home? Is that it?"
"Oh, I know there’s nobody like her back home. We don’t do magic back on Earth, remember? And let’s face it: I’m a nerd. I can’t do magic; I can barely do card tricks. This is the only place in the universe I’d ever get to rescue a damsel in distress."
"Maybe not," Diana said. "I mean, you did it here, right? So it’s not impossible."
"No, just a bazillion-to-one odds against doing it again."
"Hey, remember me? Still trying to figure out how to get over Kosar? I kinda know how you feel right now." Diana moved around the fire to sit next to Presto. As she did so, Presto fleetingly thought back to life before they ended up in the Realm. Any girl sitting this close to him would have made him so nervous, his glasses would have fogged up. It certainly would have happened if any girl—let alone one as pretty and talented and popular as Diana—had taken one of his hands in hers, as Diana did now.
As she spoke, her voice was low, so that not everyone could hear, but it was earnest and sincere. "A lot of stuff has happened since we got here," she was saying, "but I refuse to believe that we have to go through all this just to feel miserable at the end. I know it’s all going to work out, for all of us."
Presto seemed close to tears, even as he smiled and nodded at Diana. He no longer felt hungry, just tired. He turned away from the others, then spoke up. "Guys, I know we don’t talk about it much, but we’ve been away for a long time, and mostly we’ve had to get by just helping each other. And I just wanted to say, well, I wouldn’t want to get stuck with anyone else. You’re the best."
"BOOO-RING!" came a voice from the other side of the fire.
"ER-RIC!!" the others piped up. As soon as they did, Eric turned to face them, with a wide grin on his face.
This broke the Barbarian up completely. He dropped his club and just started laughing. His laughter spread like the flu in winter—even to Uni—and soon their laughter echoed across the Bottomless Swamp, with Presto’s high-pitched giggling soaring over all the others.
They barely slept through the night, so anxious were they to find the Land of Blue Fire. By the time the first sun rose, they had packed away their equipment and were heading through the last of the Bottomless Swamp.
Just the sight of higher ground, after three days of wet and smelly swampland, lifted their spirits. Still, the improved terrain was only the icing; the way home was the cake. They followed the blue glow toward the horizon, going up gently rising foothills.
In the afternoon they abruptly crested a rise, and looked out onto a landscape none of them could have imagined. The foothills sloped back down into a valley even deeper than the swamp they had just labored through. However, there was nothing in this valley but craters; holes opening out of the ground, slightly bigger than a manhole cover back home. As they descended the side of the valley, they could see that the craters, which stretched for over a mile in both directions up and down the valley, were lit from below by some kind of blue light.
As they got closer, they saw it was more than just a glow. The blue light was being generated by some unguessable power source. The only thing they could be sure of was that it was strong. Whatever the power was that created the blue light, it hung in the air of the valley like ozone after a lightning-strike. When they reached the edge of the field of blue-lit craters, they glanced at each other, just to see if they were getting some sort of blue suntan.
"You don’t think it’s dangerous, do you?" Presto asked nervously.
"Of course it is," Eric replied. "Everything in this nutty world is dangerous."
Uni bleated out a warning. One of the holes near them had suddenly started venting some kind of gas, which shot as a blue jet into the air. And out of the jet walked a blue being. Its overall shape was human—head and torso, arms and legs—but didn’t seem to have a body as such, and so didn’t need to wear clothes. The translucent blue glow walked toward them.
"I am called Armot. What is your business here?" it asked in a voice that seemed to echo from several locations at once.
"Excuse us," Hank stepped forward, "but we’re from another world and we’re lost here. DungeonMaster told us that we might get home through the Land of Blue Fire."
"You will wait." The blue figure stepped backwards into the nearest hole, which flared up with a loud, harsh jet of blue gas just before the figure stepped into it. More and more holes started flaring, until the children realized what was happening:
"They’re having a conversation!" Diana said. "They’re talking about us!"
Whatever the conversation was, it seemed to tilt between two different points of view, since the noise of the gas jets almost sounded two distinct musical chords. Finally, almost all of the holes vented off together in massive blue geysers that sent everyone behind Eric’s shield. Armot alone stood above the otherwise flat land of the valley.
"We have heard reports of your coming to the Realm," he seemed to say, "but we never knew if we would meet you. So, we have yet to decide whether to offer you our help. First, you must prove that you are worthy."
"You want our resumés?" Eric blurted out. "We’ve fought Orcs, we’ve fought bulliwogs, we’ve fought lizardmen; we’ve fought a half dozen different dragons, including Tiamat, and we’ve got a weekly tag-team match going against Venger. What have YOU got?!"
"That’s enough, Eric!" Hank warned.
Still, Eric muttered under his breath, "Are we worthy? SHEESH!"
"Your point is well taken," Armot said calmly, as if Eric had never had his outburst, "but this request is practical.
"Behold the Valley of the Blue Fire!" he gestured up and down the valley. "I am one of the Dwellers in this valley, a living embodiment of the power beneath our feet. This power is itself the gathering-point of the universe. Each hole connects to a different part of the universe, and surely one will lead to your home."
"But how do we do it?" asked Presto. "And why do we have to be worthy?"
"We Dwellers are part of the power of the Blue Flames, and can travel with them to other worlds at will. As you are not one of us, the only way for you to use the Blue Flames as portals is with the Crystal Glaive. It acts as a kind of key for those who are not born among the Dwellers. And only those who have the courage and skill to climb to the aerie, and whose hearts pass the vision of Rohannon, can wield the Glaive as a key."
"Could you explain that last part?" Sheila asked. "What does Rohannan have to do with it?"
"Rohannon was a sorceress, esteemed to be a great beauty among humans. She became so adept at her art that she shifted her being from human into a Cloud Elemental. She lives eternally upon a stone platform levitating a thousand feet above the earth, for to remain immortal she can never touch the ground again. Few know her, but rumor has her both as a friend and a foe of the DungeonMaster; I’m sure that you shall know the truth of it soon enough", Armot added.
"How do we find this Rohannan?" Presto asked.
Armot turned and pointed up the trail to where they had started their descent into the valley. "Go back to the trail, then follow it for a day. You will see the aerie surely enough. We will allot you one day to travel there, one day to convince Rohannan, and one day to return to us. If you are not here with the Crystal Glaive by the setting of the suns on the third day, you will have failed—one way or another."
"Hey, we never fail!" Bobby piped up. "We’re batting a thousand!"
Sheila tried to shush her brother, but Armot raised his hand to silence her.
"I believe you," Armot said, and his immobile face seemed to shift a little bit into something like a smile, "and if anyone can accomplish this quest, I believe that you can. Still, as we would risk the universe should you return to this valley, so you must risk more than your lives between now and the third setting of the suns."
Eric stage-whispered to Presto: "What, is DM writing riddles for this guy now?"
"Thanks, Armot." Hank turned to the others. "Looks like we’d better go find Rohannan."
"Right now?" Presto whined. "We’ve been traveling all day."
"Armot," Diana spoke up, "can’t some of us stay here? Do we all have to go see Rohannan?"
"I am sorry. Several times in the past seemingly innocent people have asked us, even begged us, for the use of the portals, or even for food or shelter. So many of these turned out to be agents of Venger, if not Venger himself in disguise. So we Dwellers are now a suspicious people. All of you must submit your hearts to the vision of Rohannan."
"That’s just great," Sheila muttered. "Venger messed this up for us before we even got here."
"Come on," Eric sighed, "we’ve got more walking to do."
As they made their way out of the valley, ShadowDemon, as ever tracking their movements, watched from a high rock. When they turned down the path, he flew back to Venger. ShadowDemon found him in a laboratory, trying to refine old alchemical spells to use against…
"The young ones, Master. They have found the Valley of Blue Fire, and they go now to seek Rohannan."
Silence. Venger set down the vial of herbs he had held in one hand, and the wand carved from an Orc’s leg-bone he had held in the other.
"Master?" ShadowDemon tried again, more timidly.
If he expected an outburst, none came. "I heard you," he said simply. "And I will have nothing to do with that accursed aerie. You know that." As he turned to leave, ShadowDemon was surprised to see a smile on Venger’s thin, cruel mouth. "But surely the young ones will have no problems when they meet her. I will wait, for this is one battle I can win by letting the young ones have their way."
"Hank," Bobby asked, "does this mean we’re running behind?"
"I don’t think so. If we find Rohannan in the morning, we should still be alright. Diana, it’s your turn to keep first watch."
So the Ranger settled down while the Acrobat scanned the horizons, gazing first back at the blue glow that promised a way home, then into the foothills and the next day’s test with Rohannan.
Again, they were all stirring before sunup, so certain were they that this time the way home was within reach. They followed the path until it ended against the flat of a cliff-face.
"What now?" Presto asked. "Left or right?"
"Up." Hank pointed out the well-worn hand and foot holds chiseled into the rock.
"Don’t worry, Uni," Bobby said, "we’ll be right back."
"I wish," Eric said, trying to see straight up the rock face and failing. He climbed up behind the others.
The climb took the better part of an hour, and it wasn’t until they had reached the top of the cliff, with nowhere to go, that they realized they were a thousand feet in the air. They gathered on top of a wind-whipped platform that barely held the six of them.
"Now what?" Eric yelled above the wind. "Do we ring the doorbell?"
"Rohannan probably knows we’re here. We just have to wait,"
"On the contrary," came a voice that carried on the very wind that surrounded them. "I have been waiting. Step onto the aerie."
They looked around, noticing a platform of solid stone which levitated near to them. They all stepped carefully onto the platform, even though it was twice the size of the top of the cliff they had just scaled.
"Forgive us, Rohannan," Hank began, "but we’ve been sent to ask for the Glaive."
"I know what you wish and why you wish it." Armot had said that Rohannan used to be a beautiful sorceress. Their imaginations may not have matched, but the voice alone inspired all of them to imagine the most beautiful woman they knew.
Eric muttered to Presto, "How are we supposed to stay out here? We’re sitting ducks for Venger."
The voice of Rohannan answered: "Venger has nothing to do with me. In this aerie the heart has no secrets. He could not bear such honesty. In this place, your hearts will show me the faces of those you left behind, to whom you wish to return. Your hearts will show me the faces of those you met here, from whom you will be sad to part."
Eric was the first to step forward into the mist. "Okay, let’s get show-and-tell over with so we can get outta here."
The mist around Eric became a kind of traveling projection screen. Images flickered onto it, were gone maybe a second later. There appeared Varla’s mother Marinda (Eric was especially fond of her cooking); the desert king Rahmoud, the other children from his world and even—
"What, ME miss THAT? You think I’m gonna miss that walking hypodermic when I go back? I’ve got news for you, lady…"
"Eric," Diana warned, "tell the truth."
"Well; okay, Uni is kinda cute." After a moment: "And she’d make a great little can-opener, if we had any cans."
"Sis, that reminds me. I’m gonna check on Uni."
"It’ll just take a second." Before Sheila could stop him, Bobby raced to the edge of the stone platform. He only looked down for a second before—
and he jumped over the side.
"BOBBY!" Rohannan and their quest forgotten, Sheila raced to the edge where Bobby went over. He was in free-fall, not even thinking about his thousand-foot descent or whether he’d survive it.
He had seen Uni being chased by a pack of a half-dozen Vraths: venomous winged serpents that disabled their kill, then ate it still living.
Sheila turned to see that Hank and the others were just a step behind here. "Bobby…"
"Jump! I’ll take care of the rest."
Without doubting Hank, Sheila jumped after her brother. Hank immediately shot off an arrow of light that raced past the two and exploded between Uni and the Vraths. That stunned the serpents and bought them all some time.
Two more arrows followed, creating platforms for Sheila and Bobby that carried them to the ground, swiftly but safely. Hank created another platform and gestured to Diana, Presto and Eric. "You three next! I’ll catch up in a minute." As they floated swiftly to the ground, Hank shot another arrow, spinning out a golden line. It held in the air as Hank put his bow on top of the light and grabbed the ends, hanging from below. I think this is how they did it in that movie, he said to himself as he stepped off the aerie.
By the time Bobby landed, the Vraths had recovered their senses and were pursuing Uni again. She couldn’t see a hiding-place. Besides, even though she was small, the Vraths were smaller. They could follow her into any hole. All she could do was try to outrun them.
Until Bobby landed. He took a quick look at the terrain where Uni was running, and gave the rocky ground one well-delivered blow. The rock rose up, catapulting Uni yards ahead of the Vraths and into Bobby’s arms. It would have been a perfect catch, if Uni hadn’t knocked Bobby off his feet.
"BOBBY!" Sheila landed at that moment. "What were you thinking?!"
"But the snakes were gonna get her!"
"They still can!" Diana yelled, as she, Eric and Presto arrived. "Get behind the shield!"
"What about you?"
"I think I can draw some of them off."
"Don’t!" Hank said as he landed. "There’s too many of them." Without another word he pulled back again on the bow. This time the fire arrow scattered and expanded until it was a golden net that trapped the Vraths.
"That won’t hold them long. Can the hat help us out, Presto?"
"Let’s try this one:
Snakes with wings are halfway there;
Turn them to birds that fly through the air!"
The hat gave off a flash of purple light; a similar flash burst among the Vraths. When things cleared, running around on the ground were a half-dozen flightless dodos.
It took only a few more minutes to chase them off. These dodos lived up to their names; they milled about the kids’ legs like sheep and didn’t quite understand that they were supposed to run away. Finally, Uni had to charge into them, breaking up their flock
"Well, I hope you guys had fun," Eric glowered, "because we’re wasting valuable time. Let’s climb back up to Rohannan and…"
"There is no need."
They had not even noticed the aerie descending until they turned and saw it hovering a few inches above the ground. Now all of them, even Uni, could simply step onto the platform.
"What you did spoke to me more clearly than anything my magic can read in your hearts. But I still must be sure. Stand together, my children."
They stood in a group, Sheila’s hands instinctively holding onto Bobby’s shoulders; for once, he didn’t object. A pale fog seemed to creep around them.
Rohannan’s voice seemed to come from a great distance. "Your hearts are indeed tired, my children, but, oh, your hearts are strong; so very strong. And your greatest strength is when you stand together."
A harsh light seemed to come from nowhere and burned at the center of the platform, dissolving the mist. It faded to reveal a magnificent two-handed broadsword made entirely of glass: the Crystal Glaive.
"You may take the Glaive; may it speed you home to the ones you love."
Hank stepped forward and picked up the Glaive.
"I wish there was some way we could repay you, Rohannan," Diana called out to the empty air.
"You have already let me see the strength and compassion in your hearts. That sustains me. Farewell."
They stepped off of the platform, and watched it rise back among the
It was the afternoon of the third day when then again descended to the Valley of Blue Fire. Armot was waiting for them at the edge of the field of blue craters.
"I see that Rohannan has found you worthy. We bow to her judgment in this matter. Are you ready for your journey?"
"Ready as we’ll ever be," Eric spoke up. "Let’s get going!"
"One matter must be attended to before you can go. The weapons which DungeonMaster gave you; you may not take them to your world."
"We’ve been told that before," Sheila said as she removed her cloak.
"Yeah, but that means something else has to stay behind," Diana added, looking at Bobby and Uni.
A few yards away, Hank was trying to talk to Bobby. "I’m sure she knows we’re going home," Hank was saying, "and she wouldn’t want you to be miserable by staying behind."
"Yeah, but I’ll be miserable if she stays here. You sure she can’t come along?"
Armot stepped forward. "The Dwellers insist that nothing go through to connect your world to ours."
"Well, we’ve got the Glaive thingy," Presto put in, "but how do we use it?"
"Follow me," Armot said. They walked among the craters, Bobby looking back at the sadly bleating Uni. Armot pointed to the vast field of blue craters. "The gateway to your homeworld lies…"
Explosions rocked the ground in front of them, then behind them. They saw nothing in the valley, until Presto glanced up at the sky.
There he was, flying over the Valley on his gruesome black horse.
"Listen to me, Dweller! I will destroy this valley and all in it, unless you agree to my terms."
"You know that you cannot have the Glaive, Venger!" Armot called out. "The power of Rohannan still lives within it, and we know you cannot stand against her. And we have no claim over these outworlders."
"I wish them no harm; I would gladly see them leave for their birth-world."
"Did he just say he wants us to go?" Sheila whispered.
"That stinks like a dead fish," Eric whispered back. "He’s got something up his wing."
"They must be allowed to travel back to their world in peace."
"I agree, Dweller. And when they are gone, you may keep the Glaive. Only give me their weapons."
"Bingo," Eric muttered.
"What now, guys?" Diana asked.
"Only one thing to do," Hank replied. "SCATTER!"
The six took off in all directions, weaving at first through the blue craters, but then converging on their weapons.
"STOP!" Venger roared, firing energy bolts at Eric and Sheila, the two closest to the weapons. Sheila dove to the ground, seemingly unconscious. Eric rolled behind Uni, hiding as best he could. "STAY BACK, ALL OF YOU!"
Venger circled in the air, trying to keep an eye on the weapons and the children at the same time. Unfortunately, he shifted his field of vision for a second and—the weapons were gone.
"This is your doing, Dweller, and you will suffer the consequences!"
"No he won’t!" Sheila’s voice piped up. She uncloaked just as she was handing Eric his shield back. All the others already had their weapons.
"LET HIM HAVE IT!" Hank called out, loosing a volley of energy arrows at Venger. He dodged those, only to step into the path of a dozen real arrows fired from Presto’s hat.
"My turn!" Bobby called, swinging at a boulder on the floor of the valley and launching it straight at Venger.
He dodged the boulder, then threw another burst of magic at the Glaive. However, Diana threw herself at the Glaive, grabbed it and somersaulted out of the way with a hair’s breadth to spare.
Another explosion sounded somehwere in the valley. Eric rushed to put his sheild between Venger and his friends. "So this is home, huh? Looks a little different."
Armot came up behind the children. He took the Glaive from Diana and pointed it at Venger. "Do you wish to feel the power of Rohannan?!"
The black horse started skittering nervously in the sky. Venger could barely keep it under control. "We will meet again soon," he threatened as he rode off.
"That’s what you think!" Eric called out. "Quick, Armot, point us to the way home."
"Forgive me, but I cannot."
"The one crater which would have carried you to your world is destroyed."
"But how?" Sheila interrupted. "How did Venger know which crater to destroy?"
"He did not. The elders told me to destroy it."
"I don’t get it," Presto said. "What was the point?"
"Rohannan may have been correct in judging your hearts, but—whether or not it was your intent—you brought destruction to this valley. We decided not to risk further contact with your world."
Eric was in agony. "Couldn’t you have shoved us through and THEN busted it?"
Armot’s eyes were still expressionless. "We had thought about that. Our elders feared that you might find a way to reopen the portal from the other side. This way, you will never know where on Earth is our ... was our Portal."
"You make it sound like it’s our fault, but haven’t you ever wanted to visit Earth?" Diana asked.
"Look around." Armot’s eyes closed for a moment. The children could now see further across the Land of Blue Fire. Hundreds of blue craters shone, stretched out to the horizon. "These portals run to worlds beyond number, and to creatures beyond naming. To you I am sure your world is glorious, yet I can go to a hundred other worlds, each more glorious than the next."
"Forget it, Diana," Bobby piped up. "He’ll never understand."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I think I see what Bobby means," Sheila continued. "Your people could use the Blue Fire to go wherever you want. But you never want to go anywhere, so you never do. Your people are really missing out."
"Yeah," Presto added. "It’s like you live here, but you don’t have a home."
"Speaking of home," Eric muttered as they climbed out of the Valley, "we’re right back where we started."
"What do we do now," Sheila asked, "look for DungeonMaster?"
"There is no need." The voice came from right behind Eric; in spinning to face DungeonMaster, he ended up tripping over his own boots. "Was there not a way home in the Valley of Blue Fire?"
"Yeah, until about ten minutes ago," Presto grunted as he helped Eric to his feet.
"DungeonMaster," Sheila asked, "how many ways home are there? I’m afraid we’re running out."
"Like the stars in the sky, the paths to your world are numerous, but not easily traveled. Let me tell you of another portal which you might be able to open…"
"HEY UNI!!" Bobby interrupted. He’d noticed that the baby unicorn had dallied beside an apple tree ten yards back.
"Relax, Bobby," Eric said, "I’ll get the little furball."
"What’d you call her!?"
The Cavalier sauntered back to the tree. The branches were full of apples but out of reach to Uni. Eric plucked one and gave it to her. "Of course you realize," he said, "if you ever tell anyone I did something nice for you, I’ll have to send you to the nearest glue factory."
"MNH?" Uni asked, her mouth full of apple.
Eric scratched behind Uni’s ears. "Never mind," he smiled; "let’s catch up with the others."
Coming in May:
"Fire in the Ice"