DISCLAIMER: I know I put one in here somewhere, um, just a sec… and I'll go see if I can find it.
STORY: Set after the story 'Hall of the Mountain King' but it is not necessary to read that story first as this is NOT a sequel.
THANKS: Goes, as always, to all who reviewed my other stories, also to those fun people who have some of my stories tucked away in their favourite stories folders. And I tug my forelock in the direction of one Mistress R Scribbles: "For in this fic, thy challenge is met!"
A City that Never Sleeps
It was a relief to be out of the mountains and approaching real civilization again, and Hank the Ranger couldn't help a small buzz of anticipation, in spite of everything. They were well away from the hills and were walking down a very well-worn road towards a big city, that the signposts all said was Kilan.
It was the largest settlement they'd seen in a very long time, but it was difficult to make out any details from far away, as it was hidden behind tall, thick walls; only a few slender spires poked up high enough to be seen.
'It shouldn't take us long to get to the city gates,' he said, as brightly as he could. There were murmurs of agreement from his friends, but no one said anything specific in reply. That none of his friends bothered to reply didn't surprise the Ranger in the least. He'd been hard pushed to have a conversation with any of them since they'd left the mountain pass.
Ever since they had last seen Venger, it had been one thing after another: The Darkling (how had he managed to get himself captured in the first place?), Presto's little "incident" in Mindril, and those damn Troglodytes. Group moral was at its lowest ever, and they hadn't even missed a portal for weeks!
But in truth, one of the major problems was that they had no real idea what to do next. They had been told about a Wizard, Krin, but they had no clue where he was. But, considering the current situation, they would do well to find Krin as quickly as possible…and maybe even home this time. But there wasn't the usual surge of hope though him this time. This will probably go wrong…it usually does.
His confidence had taken a severe battering since the Grotto of Darkness. It was his decision to cross the mountains rather than go round, and look what had happened. Since then, Presto and Eric had hardly spoken to each other. OK, so the Cavalier hadn't really spoken to anyone, but it was worrying; those two were best friends. And Sheila, too, seemed distant. She had walked next to her brother in silence over the past few days. Only Diana seemed cooperative, but she spent a great deal of her either time deep in conversation with Presto, or trying to coax a response out of the unusually taciturn Eric.
He looked round at his friends. They were all walking along the road in single file after him. Diana the Acrobat walked in front beside the Magician, Bobby the Barbarian was next, with his pet unicorn trailing morosely after, her nose almost scraping along on the ground. Sheila the Thief followed her younger brother closely. Finally, Eric the Cavalier was at the back, well out of the way. In an uncharacteristic bout of self-restraint, Eric had said very little about the Trogs, and they'd still had no explanation. Even when Hank had finally asked about it, the Cavalier just mimicked his own answer at the time, 'I thought you could tell without a description' and had walked off. His silence had only heightened the tension within the group and the others mostly just kept out of his way.
But the Ranger knew that, sooner or later, something had to happen. He just wished it would be sooner, so everything could go back to normal.
He smiled to himself: Normal? Here? In a strange world, so far from home? He was thinking as though tramping round this place, fighting Venger and missing portals was normal!
This time, they had another chance to get home. Days ago now, way back at the Grotto of Darkness, Dungeonmaster had told them that the Wizard Krin might be able to help them. I hope he can, thought Hank. We need to get home, if we can. He looked round once more at his morose friends. Each was locked in their own thoughts and it was obvious what they were thinking about: Home. Yes, they needed to find another portal soon, before they gave up all together.
If only there was something more I could do, he thought. I'm the Leader, but I don't know how…
'Greetings, my young Pupils,' said a voice by the road. It was a sad testament to their collective mood than they didn't even say his name.
'Hi,' managed Bobby after a few seconds. No one else spoke as they waited for the Cavalier to catch up. The old man waited patiently, ignoring the strained silence.
'Before you is the Cityport of Kilan,' said Dungeonmaster eventually. 'And in it resides the wizard Krin.'
Hank gave a heartfelt sigh. They were on the right track at last!
'Finally,' muttered Presto. 'Some good news!'
'Yes indeed, Magician,' said Dungeonmaster. 'It is good news. But you still have much to do, you must search the city for the Wizard, for he keeps himself to himself.'
'Don't you know where to find him?' asked Diana. 'That place looks huge!'
'Do not worry, Acrobat,' said their Guide. 'There are those in the city who pride themselves on their knowledge.'
'What do you mean?' asked Bobby.
The Dungeonmaster just smiled at the Barbarian.
'You must all be careful in Kilan, for it is a wild and dangerous place; a place ruled by those with power, and pride. And a place where trust is in very short supply.'
Hank was thinking that trust was in pretty short supply out here too, but chose not to say anything. Instead he glanced at the Cavalier, who was standing mutely at the back of the group. Maybe Eric would feel better with a city full of people to distract him.
'But how do we find Krin?' persisted Presto.
Dungeonmaster smiled at him.
'Ask someone who knows!'
This made the Ranger frown. These riddles were getting tiresome. Why couldn't they get some straight answers for once!
'Remember,' continued Dungeonmaster, 'in this City everything has its price. Everything!'
And with that, the old man disappeared.
No one spoke, and so Hank looked round at the others, forcing a smile onto his face.
'At least we know we're on the right track!' he said.
There was a brief, sullen silence, and Hank couldn't help noticing the look of worry across Sheila's face. A wave of despair hit him. He didn't know what to do this time, he couldn't do this all on his own. How was he going to keep them together and get them home, like this?
Then, suddenly, Diana spoke.
'Hank's right,' said the Acrobat, smiling up at their leader. 'We're on the right track. Finding Krin shouldn't be too hard, and then we can go home.'
She tugged Presto's arm and gave the young Barbarian a big grin. Hank grinned at her too, grateful that she had spoken.
'C'mon!' she continued ' When was the last time we got to go out on the town! I bet they have food there; good, hot food, not Eric's cooking!' Everyone (bar the Cavalier) smiled. 'And they'll have shops and inns and good places to sleep, and…'
'But we don't have any money!' Bobby reminded her.
Diana flicked her hand carelessly at him.
'You don't need money to enjoy yourself,' she said. 'It'll be fun!'
'We won't get a decent bed without money!' retorted Bobby.
'Oh, Presto'll come up with something!' said Diana. 'Won't you?'
The Magician looked worried at the prospect of using he Hat again, something which Hank found surprising. There had been a time when Presto had been eager to use the Hat at any and all opportunities. But since Mindril, he'd been extremely wary of it, and there was no sight that this was just a passing phase.
'Well,' started the Magician, 'I suppose I could see what the Hat can…'
'There you are,' said the Acrobat firmly. 'It's all taken care of! What are we waiting for!'
'Diana's right,' said Hank, grinning at the others. 'It's just what we need!'
Inside, he was beginning to feel much better, Diana's enthusiasm was infectious. She was right: this was a new place to explore, one that promised to be much more like his hometown. Home…this was another chance to get back. They couldn't give up yet!
'And don't forget,' he added, 'There's a Wizard in there that can send us home!'
This time, even Sheila smiled. She looked up into his eyes, and Hank smiled back, the ache in his heart easing slightly. He'd hated seeing her as miserable as she'd been over the past few days. They looked at each other intently, but before he could speak, she looked away.
'Mea-heh?' said the unicorn at Bobby's side. 'Bleah!'
Her master reached down to pet her main.
'It's OK, Uni,' the Barbarian told her. 'We'll take good care of you in the City!'
Uni pushed her head back against Bobby's hand, a big, unicorn smile on her face. The unicorn had never been keen on large, busy places and would undoubtedly stay very close to Bobby.
Diana walked over to Eric and carefully took his arm.
'C'mon, Cavalier, aren't you just a teeny bit excited too?'
He didn't reply, but made no move to pull away from her. The others turned too.
'A teeny-weeny bit?'
Again there was no reply, but Eric was turning slightly pink at all the attention.
'They'll have shops,' she said, 'and real food, and a nice, comfy bed…'
Eric finally gave a rueful smile.
'Well, I suppose…'
The Acrobat gave his arm a quick pull.
'Then let's get on with it! We have a Wizard to find!'
Following the Acrobat's lead, the group moved forward together, much more enthusiastic and animated than before; even the Cavalier tolerated a short conversation with Diana. So it was quite a while before Hank managed to talk to her on her own.
With Bobby and Presto walking ahead, and Hank fell into step beside her. She turned to give him a smile.
'A owe you one, Diana,' he whispered. 'Thanks!'
She nodded, and gave him a knowing smile.
'It's OK,' she replied. 'The past few days have been tough on us all.' She glanced to Sheila, then added. 'If you need to talk…'
He pursed his lips, desperately wanting to tell to her about his worries and fears, but unsure how to begin. She was always the one he could talk to; in many ways, she understood him better than Sheila did, and knew how seriously he took the responsibility of being the leader. Even though they hadn't had the chance to talk since leaving the Troglodyte's domain, she obviously understood how difficult he'd found the past few days, and how difficult he'd found making the decisions that had affected them all.
But this wasn't the right time. He didn't want the others, especially Bobby, overhearing how worried he'd been, and how he'd doubted himself; the Barbarian looked up to him so much, and he couldn't let him down. Besides, there would be time enough soon.
So they walked on side-by-side, and it took them almost the whole morning to get to Kilan. Buoyed up by Diana's enthusiasm, Hank was looking forward to the opportunity to explore a new city. It was one of the things he missed most about his home world. Mindril was OK, but it was small compared to what they had been used to on Earth. Kilan was a huge place, possibly bigger than Darkhaven.
But as they came closer to the City walls, the Ranger slowly grew more uneasy. He could see the thick, imposing city-wall almost like it was a dam, holding back the people inside that were ready to burst out at any moment. None of the others were affected by the Ranger's uneasiness, and he didn't want to spoil the relative good mood by mentioning it to anyone. Then, he noticed Diana and the almost hidden look of worry across her face. She could feel it too.
'What's up?' he asked. 'Is there something wrong?'
She gave a small frown.
'I know what I said, that it would be fun,' she replied, 'But now, so close… I'm not so sure.'
He smiled at the irony; the ones who'd encouraged the others were now having second thoughts! Diana smiled back.
'I know, I know!' she said. 'But that place looks creepy!'
As they approached, the others started to look nervous too. Each one of them was casting looks at him that asked: Do you know what you're doing? Hank would have expected someone to say it out loud, and he looked at the Cavalier. But Eric just avoided meeting his eye.
They made their way round to the main gate, where there was a short queue of peasants waiting, each laden with wares for sale in the City Markets, and the Guards questioned everyone who approached.
Eager to see what awaited them inside, Hank looked past the Guards to the street beyond. It was full of the bustle of city life, people with baskets and bags, people always on the move. Apart from the clothes, it wasn't so very different from home, but Hank noticed the bars on the windows, and the spikes on the wall. He shivered, thinking about what Dungeonmaster had said: "Trust is in very short supply". Why couldn't they get something easy to do? Why can we never get home?
Then it was their turn. The Guard took one look at their clothes (and lack of sacks, bundles or any other means of carrying goods for sale) and scowled.
'Adventurer's Tax' said the Guard loudly, holding his hand out and looking at the Acrobat with a suspicious smile.
'But we don't have anything,' said Diana.
The Guard gave a crude laugh.
'You sure about that, darlin'?'
Hank stepped between them.
The Guard gave him a dark look.
'You gonna sell them weapons, then?' the Guard asked.
'Of course we're not,' said Sheila. 'Wh…'
'Adventurer's tax!' he shouted, holding out his hand.
They weren't going to stoop so low as bribery, were they? Hank frowned, not liking the implications.
'Bribes?' said Sheila, with an accusing tone. 'We're gonna use bribes?'
'Adventurer's tax!' said the Guard, a lot more firmly. 'Either pay up or push off!'
'Yes, but we were told to…'
'No exceptions! Not for the likes of you!'
The situation was getting out of control. That Guard wasn't gonna let them in at all, and then how would they find Krin? He had to do something and, in desperation, Hank turned to Presto.
'See what you can do,' he said, even though the Magician was not looking happy about the request.
Presto slowly lifted the Hat, a deep frown on his face. Behind them, there was a murmur of interest, as others in the line stopped talking and moved to watch what was happening.
Hank looked back at the group of hard, inquisitive faces behind them, and was suddenly reminded of the people from Varla's home village. They had turned on them all so quickly. One moment it was calm, then they'd changed into an angry mob in an instant. The same could easily happen here.
Pausing for a few seconds, Presto furrowed his brow then said slowly:
'We need something for the guard…'
The Hat glowed, and Hank noticed Presto screw up his eyes, either in concentration or in pain. But he didn't get a chance to worry about the Magician. That Guard was giving Presto a very worrying look; a mix of fear and suspicion, and it was a look that made Hank even more anxious.
'You a… wizard… then?' asked the Guard.
Presto didn't reply, just handed a small lump of copper to the Ranger with a soft sigh. The Guard looked at the nugget as Hank held it out, then suddenly grabbed it and gave it a good, hard bite. There was a moment of tense silence, and Hank was sure they were about to get themselves thrown out.
'What you lot waitin' for? Invitations?' The Guard jerked his head to the side 'Push off!'
Bobby lifted his Club, a scowl on his face, but Hank and Sheila urged him on. The last thing they need was to draw more attention to themselves.
The group move forward as quickly as they could, just in case the Guard changed his mind and only stopped to have a look around once they were out of sight of the gate.
Last time they had been in a City of such size was Darkhaven, and they'd had that place all to themselves. The street they were in was teeming with people, always on the move. Down each side were lines of traders, each displaying their wares; everything they could imagine from simple breads to exotic and dangerous pets. In the middle was a steady stream of potential customers, and the competition for their attention was fierce.
Hank glanced around, the anxiety of earlier back at full force, compounded by the whisper of Dungeonmaster's warning: You must all be careful in the Kilan, for it is a wild and dangerous place. And a place where trust is in very short supply.
How were they even gonna start looking for Krin? There must be tens of thousands of people in the city, maybe more. How were they just gonna find one out of so many?
'Where do we start?' said Sheila, turning round to gaze up at him. 'Don't they have a map or something?'
Hank had to shrug.
'I… I'm not sure.'
No one said anything, and the Ranger had that familiar, despairing feeling that he'd had so often since the Grotto of Darkness. He was the leader, he was supposed to know what he was doing, he was supposed to take charge and, well, lead!
'I'm not sure,' he repeated, 'but we should try and get further into the city.'
'But where are we goin'?' asked the Barbarian.
Hank pointed, up the road the way most people seemed to be heading.
No one argued, not even the Cavalier, and that was something Hank found disturbing. He would have brooded on it longer, but he soon discovered that he needed all his concentration just to push his way through the milling crowd.
As they moved up the street, it became worse; hot, crowded and suffocating. He'd thought he could cope with any City, but he'd only been here a short while and already he couldn't wait to leave. Also difficult was trying to keep track of all his friends. At the start they were all together. But slowly, they became separated and the random movements of people dispersed them.
Down the sides of the street, street vendors tried to attract the attention of the hundreds of potential customers that moved past. It was almost impossible to get past them all, but it helped that he had no money!
Finally, Hank moved over to a narrow lane, signalling for the others to follow. Bobby had picked up Uni, and was holding her tightly under his arm. The unicorn cuddled into Bobby, looking around in fear. She hated being in this place, Hank could tell, and she wasn't the only one. Sheila wasn't looked happy either.
'Hey, guys!'' said Bobby anxiously. 'Someone wanted to buy Uni, they were gonna give me five gold coins for her!'
Again, Hank expected a caustic comeback from the Cavalier, but Sheila spoke instead.
'Don't worry Bobby, we'll all be looking after her!'
'Meeey' said the unicorn softy, her pink eyes wide.
Hank gave Uni a reassuring pat too and smiled at the Barbarian.
'Yes, we'll all keep a close eye on her!' he said.
'Well,' said Diana. 'What will we do now?'
That was getting to be a question Hank dreaded. He didn't have all the answers.
'Dungeonmaster said to ask people who would know,' said Presto. 'But who would know who to ask?'
'This is getting confusing,' said Bobby with a sigh. 'What are we gonna do?'
'Should we split up, Hank?' asked the Acrobat. 'It might be better, and we might have more chance of finding Krin.'
The Ranger shook his head. The last thing he wanted to do was let any of his friends out of his sight. This place felt, well… creepy was an understatement. And the last time they'd had to split up was a disaster! His friends needed him to take control and find a way out of this maze of people.
'No,' he said firmly. 'We all stick together.'
On the opposite side of the street, the Ranger noticed a small tavern that was just opening for the afternoon and the Innkeeper was by the door. Outside it, a couple of the regulars already had their noses in the first mug of the day.
Hank flashed a grin at his friends. After all, they had to ask someone sometime!
'Wait here,' he told them, and started to make his way over, trying not to wonder if this was a good idea.
At first the two men ignored his approach, and the Ranger felt compelled to speak first.
'Hello,' said Hank with a smile. 'I as wondering if you could help me.' The one on the left gave a sniff that the Ranger ignored. 'I'm looking for a wizard…'
The other, older one sniffed too then replied:
'New around here, are you?'
'What you doin', looking for a wizard, then?'
Hank looked from one to another, aware of their amusement at his question and now wishing he'd never come over. He hated being treated like this.
'Me and my friends,' he nodded towards the others, 'were told to find a wizard here.'
The two men exchanged knowing looks and Hank's annoyance went up once more.
'Find a wizard? Whatever makes you think you'll find one o' them 'ere?'
The Ranger struggled to keep his temper at the condescending smiles.
'We're looking for a specific wizard, he's call…'
The older man held up his hand.
'Look, son, it's obvious you're new, so I'll tell you this for free. Go to the Guild!'
He jerked his head to the left, towards an even busier street.
Hank was confused, but the two men looked away, indicating that the conversation was now finished. The Ranger mumbled his thanks, but neither looked back at him.
'What was THAT about?' asked Sheila as Hank walked back over. 'Did they help?'
'I don't know,' replied Hank. 'They told me to find the Guild. That way.' He pointed.
'Guild?' echoed Presto. 'Did they say anything else, like where it was?'
Hank shook his head. But thinking back, there had been something else about that conversation. Again, it was the reaction to the word "wizard". Perhaps there was more going on in this city that they'd thought.
'Are we gonna take their advice?' asked Diana. 'Dungeonmaster did say that everything had a price…'
'I think they've been paid,' said Presto, motioning to the men, who were now having a good laugh, most likely at Hank's expense
The Ranger paid it no attention, he was looking around the streets again, trying to make some sort of sense of what was going on. He thought back to what Dungeonmaster had said about the city: It is a wild and dangerous place; a place ruled by those with power, and pride.
Wild and dangerous; ruled by those with power and pride: Perhaps, ruled by the Guild? It made some sort of sense, but a Guild of what?
His gaze fell on the Hat. Magic…
'What if it's a Guild of Wizards,' he said suddenly.
'Well… I suppose,' said Diana warily. 'It might.'
But Hank was certain. Everything tied together; the Guard's attitude, the reaction of the old men, and Dungeonmaster's riddle.
'I must be,' insisted Hank. 'And Krin must be one of the wizards there!'
'So,' said Bobby, 'we find the Guild and we find Krin?'
'And we find a way home!' finished Diana.
'But aren't Guilds supposed to be secret?' asked Sheila.
Hank shook his head.
'If those men know about it, it must be common knowledge.'
'But that still doesn't get us any closer to finding it!' insisted Sheila.
'Well, it's gotta be around here somewhere!' said Hank. 'We'll just have to keep on looking. So let's go!'
At least they had something to look for now, and they all moved off again, in the direction the men had told him. They kept much closer together, and Bobby kept Uni under his arm and stayed close to the Ranger.
This new street was busier, but there were less tradesmen down the sides. Instead, real shops had taken their place, and Hank had to resist the temptation to stop and look in the windows. Both girls cast long glances around the street, but they kept up with the others.
They seemed to walk up the same road for an age. It slowly curved round, and eventually Hank started to wonder if they'd just gone in one big circle.
Then Presto suddenly pointed.
'Look over there!' he said.
Hank and the others stopped and looked across the road. There was a narrow lane, where nobody seemed to go. Hank tried to call them back, but the Magician had already started towards it, and the others followed.
The Ranger immediately felt uneasy as they started down the lane. This was a place of calm, so different from the harsh bustle of the city. But there was also something else, something that he couldn't quite put his finger on.
Then he turned the corner at the end, and stopped dead, staring, as did all the others.
'Wow!' whispered Bobby. 'That's… just… Wow!'