Feel like Saturday morning cartoons? Try some Dungeons & Dragons (1983-1985). I recommend...
"The Good Life" by Evidence (gen; PG-13; 19,202 words)
This powerful "reaching an epiphany" story starts where the unaired final script ends: our castaways have just made it back home from the Realm after redeeming Venger, and now they get to live happily ever after... right?
Of course not. While life in middle America in the 1980s was pretty sweet compared with most of human history — indoor plumbing! central heating! pizza delivery! — it had its burdens, too. (I say "middle America," but this story does depict Eric as being quite as rich as his boasts claimed, and hint that Hank's family may be poor by comparison, with the others on a spectrum between.)
This story takes the passage of time fascinatingly seriously, as the symbol and embodiment of the biggest challenge of all: without being quite able to track time in the Realm, the kids nevertheless grew up there for about three years, physically and psychologically, and now those grown minds are back in their younger bodies. Their minds lived those hard years, but now are back under the eyes of parents, teachers, coaches. Bullied, Presto fights back; what's a high-schooler compared to orcs? Going somewhere, Eric walks; who can be really comfortable in a chauffeured limousine?
Eric starts to contact each of the others, at first hardly knowing why. We get only the briefest glimpses of Diana, Sheila, and Bobby, safe with their families, but the detailed portrait of Presto at home feels delightfully spot-on, and the clues about Hank are both compelling and troubling. I could only have wanted to read more of each character.
In the end, spurred on by an enigmatic Dungeon Master dream, Eric achieves insight about what the question is, what his own answer is, and even that the answer may or may not be the same for each of the others.
"The Trial by Existence" by Astolat (mostly gen + m/f; R; 54,415 words across 8 stories)
This dynamic series touches on many of the characters in many ways, across eight stories that I'd call episode-like for their individual adventures and pacing, except that the level of internal continuity far exceeds anything canon ever dreamed. Most of all, this series parallels Sheila and Eric each growing up and growing into themselves, in their different ways and different directions. Hank and Venger are the next most explored characters. I would have loved more of Presto and Diana!
(You can't avoid it in the tags, so I won't consider it a spoiler to warn that "The Trial by Existence" includes Venger/Sheila. If you can deal with that — it gave me pause! but it does pay off in plot — then everything else is a treat. I assume that Sheila is 18+ after years in the Realm.)
For me, personally, the epic heart and blinding insight of this story is Eric's progress from cavalier to paladin, from ordinary knight to holy knight. (Oh, yes, that pushes my buttons!)
This story showed me Eric as I had never seen him before. It works with how much more canon reveals of Eric than any of the others, and how much of that is pain, and what it all costs him to become better than Earth would ever have asked of him. Eric is the least wanted, the least trusted, but in many ways the most powerful, the most needed... he has the most potential. His is the redemption.
I imagine — I have no idea! I only imagine — that Astolat first thought of this scenario as a teenager, an alternate ending in a spiral notebook when the series failed to animate the final script, and there wasn't yet an Internet to tell us that there even was a final script. I imagine that she later dug it out and polished it up...
Cavalier to paladin...
However this story came to be, I'm grateful for the insight it granted me into beloved characters.
(Aside: Astolat used this approach to Eric again in a ~3K Eric/Hank erotica story, "The Desecrated Temple." While that's a nice story and I do enjoy it, I personally think it's kind of sad that it seems to get more attention, as measured in hits, kudos, comments and bookmarks, than all of "The Trial by Existence.")
"Shadows of the Past" by Meltha (mostly gen + m/f; PG-13; 27,169 words)
This brisk story sends our six castaways safely home to Earth, surveys their families' reactions and their own adjustments, and then whisks them all (plus Terri) back to the Realm (where they meet up with Varla, Ramoud and Venger), to save it from a new and even darker evil that has risen in Venger's wake. Naturally, they triumph in the end. But triumph comes only after struggle, bickering, loss, growth and exciting adventure. The author packs so much into this space that it's reminiscent of the show itself, which I always found to be so much bigger on the inside.
Told from Eric's perspective (as so many D&DC stories are), "Shadows of the Past" also makes noteworthy space for Diana. I think that this may well be the only story I've read that treats us to serious scenes of Diana's life on the Earth side of the portal. And there's even a heroic, tragic storyline for Uni! You don't see that every day. Presto/Varla is a thing, and just about every character plays her or his role (even Karena contributes from off-stage).
The climactic battle and confrontation is deliciously metaphoric, as only fantasy can be: quite literally, the shadow of despair versus the light of love! The adventure's apogee is exciting and its tag satisfying.
On reflection, I did wonder about the story's choice to seemingly have romantic love — rather than the love of friends, family, faith, humanity, justice — tilt the balance. (And there's an extra concern to that when all canon's couples, meticulously assembled, are m/f.) But, chewing over that scene, I realized that while all the loves contributed, the straw that finally broke the camel's back was Venger's refusal to return to evil. His choice to cling to good in the face of temptation isn't an easy love to classify, tinged by guilt, but love it nevertheless is — self-respect? — and that's what saves them.
Got any favorite D&DC recommendations for me? :-)
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