DISCLAIMER: The D&D lot aren't mine. But what they do, and the other bits are!
STORY: Set after the episode "Cave of the Faerie Dragons." And there are no references to other writings AT ALL! Well, only teeny tiny ones…
And this is the Series 3 Finale in the Sealgirl D&D-verse. Season 4 (the last) will start on the first of November, after a 4 month break.
CREDITS: A few quotes from "The Magic Roundabout" have crept in, and perhaps some refs to the Fighting Fantasy books, if you can spot them.
THANKS: Many thanks to Whiteveils for the feedback and taking an interest in these stories, and to Kryschenn for the museum ref!
The Point of No Return
Why long had it taken so long, this time?
Venger, the great Arch-Mage of the Realm, listened to Shadow Demon's report with growing rage. Everything he had worked so hard to create all these years was slowly being destroyed. Those children… he could not understand how these six, insignificant, little children had managed to accomplish so much. So much had changed, so many of his allies were gone, even the Darkling! These favoured six, the star pupils of the old man, had still not been defeated!
In the silence, Venger slowly realised that Shadow Demon had stopped talking, and was watching him. Though that creature had no face with which to form an expression, Venger knew it well enough to recognise when it was being insolent!
He glared at it.
'And what of Varen?'
'King Varen has fled, master,' hissed Shadow Demon. 'Without the gold of the Fairie Dragons, he could no longer afford to stay.'
Venger nodded, sensing an opportunity for gain.
'Very well. Tell the Orc Captain to occupy the castle. Remove any who dare stay.'
Shadow Demon nodded.
'You do not go… yourself?'
Again, Venger glared at Shadow Demon. There was something about that creature, something different that he couldn't pinpoint. It had gained an air of superiority since he'd been trapped in the Banished Lands, and it was something that the Arch-Mage did not like in the least. That creature should know its place: as his slave.
'Do not be foolish, Shadow Demon,' he said, standing up so as to tower over it. 'Occupying an enemy castle is for the Orcs.'
'Perhaps… you have not yet fully recovered. Perhaps, you are still weak…'
One more look silenced the Demon, and this time it grovelled on the floor. But in a sense, it was right. It had taken him so mush longer to recover from his last defeat at the hands of those accursed children. Not even the full power and might of the Heroes' Tomb at the Hall of Bones had been able to keep him from the Realm for so long.
There was silence once more, and his thoughts lingering on the Six. They fought hard and well, even without the lure of a portal to drive them onwards. Why? Why did they keep going? Even in the face of all their recent misfortunes, they still did not give up. He did not understand. For all the time and energy he had spent to think apon this matter, he still did not understand.
Yet he knew that one thing was certain: Considering their location, and the time of year, it was obvious what the old man would ask of them next.
The city of Ur would reappear within days, and the children would take the challenge and enter it. And so, he must follow, and ensure they did not use the Key.
He had no other choice.
But for once, the Arch-Mage did not feel the fickle pride or rash elation from their potential defeat. Ur was dangerous. Even Venger wasn't foolish enough to think it would be easy in that city. The Thing that slept within its walls even he did not dare face unprepared.
For a moment, he wondered if the old man would warn them.
But of course he wouldn't; that was not the way he played the game, not the way at all. He would let his young Pupils enter the city with only a riddle to guide them, relying on their intellect and their luck to get them through.
Well, that was not going to be enough. Not in Ur.
Venger gave a thin, malevolent smile. They must know of his return, before he defeated them. They must know that he is still the master of the Realm and, in spite of their best efforts, that he cannot be banished forever! They must see him gain the power of Ur and take their weapons!
This time, they would fail. And he would be there to watch!
'I bet you can't get us another burger, Presto,' said Bobby the Barbarian with a smile. 'Bet you anything!'
'You've had too many burgers already, Bobby,' Sheila told him. The Thief waggled her finger at Presto. 'Don't you dare give him any more!'
'Aww, sis! C'mon, when have we ever had a feast like this before. It'll never happen again!'
The Magician pulled a face at Bobby.
'Oh, okay,' said the Barbarian. 'How about a hotdog?'
'Bob-beee!' said Sheila, but she couldn't help smiling.
Hank couldn't help grinning too. In the few days since they'd helped Amber and the Fairie Dragons find their new home, life had been good. He would almost have gone as far as saying life was wonderful, but for the fact they still weren't home.
They were well fed; the Hat seemed to be working almost perfectly (except for the occasional lapse into irony or cruel humour); and they were all friends again.
He caught the quick, tender glance that Sheila flicked in his direction, and his smile grew wider. Yes, they were definitely all friends again.
They'd left the caves where the Fairie Dragons had taken shelter, and gone as quickly as they could out of King Varen's domain. None of them wanted to be around when the effects of Presto's magic wore off. So now, they were all walking along an old, disused road through a narrow valley. Once, it must have been of some importance, judging by the statues and occasional milestone, but now there were long grasses growing over the track, and many different wild flowers sprouted through the gaps in the stones. It didn't look like anyone had been that way for years. Diana had said as much when they'd found it.
But he was sure this was the way to go. The Dungeonmaster had told them to head this way, hinting that he would see them again soon.
Someone nudged his arm. The Cavalier was holding out a plain hotdog (with no ketchup), and smirking.
'This'll be yours, then,' he said. 'No trimmings.'
Hank took the food with a careful frown. The others were all watching as he stopped to take a bite. Eric was in such a good mood that he wouldn't have put it past him to play a practical joke. Even the innocent gaze of the small, white unicorn seemed suddenly suspicious.
Slowly, he lifted the hotdog. It didn't smell any different from what he remembered hotdogs smelt of before, in those long ago days before the enforced nut-and-berries diet. Reassured, he took a bite.
He was hit by the taste, so rich and juicy and full of memories. He'd never known a hotdog could taste SO good. It was close to heaven.
'Wow,' he muttered, his mouth still full. 'These are amazing!'
'I think they're made of chicken,' said Presto, looking down in consternation at his own half-eaten hotdog. 'They're not supposed to be made of chicken.'
'Presto, stop being such a perfectionist, will ya,' said the Cavalier. 'A hotdog is a hotdog.'
'Well, I don't care,' said Hank, taking another large bite, 'these taste great! Well done!'
He clapped the Magician on the back, and was rewarded with a grin.
'You know, guys, it was nothing…'
As modest as always, Presto trailed off.
'Well, if it was nothing, I'll have another one!' said Eric, holding out his hand. 'This walk certainly makes ya hungry! And we haven't seen any signs of food all day. Unless you count grass,' he added derisively, looking at Uni.
'So where do you think we are, Hank?' Diana asked. 'Do you think we're going the right way?'
'There IS no right way in this crazy place,' Eric replied for him. 'Except the way home.'
There were murmurs of agreement from the others.
Home… they had been away for such a long time. What date was it when they left? What had the weather been like? What had they been studying at school? He was starting to forget other things as well: Was the bookcase on the left hand side or the right as on the upstairs landing? Did his Dad have toast for breakfast in the morning, or did he just have orange juice? Did his mom like tea with one sugar or two? These were real things, important things, not if that toadstool was ok to eat, or was it safe to spend the night in the forest, or is that creature friendly.
He had been getting too used to the Realm. At the back of his mind, some part of him whispered it would be easier, and less painful, just to give up and stay. But that part was very small, and he never listened to it anyway.
'I think this is the right way to go,' he said starting to walk on once more. 'Dungeonmaster said to keep heading north. We're bound to find someplace soon.'
'Not soon enough for my liking,' said Eric. 'Wouldn't it be great to find somewhere nice to spend the night. The Ritz would be nice.'
'Dream on, Cavalier!' said Diana. 'Bet you've never even been to the Ritz!'
Eric just looked at her, a smug expression on his face.
'Are you kidding, Diana,' said Presto, 'he's there all the time, as the cleaning staff!'
They laughed, even Eric giving a grudging smile.
'Well then,' said the Cavalier as the laughter died down, 'since you guys are just so clever, you can answer me this: Why do I hear music?'
'Don't be a dummy,' said Diana, 'there's no music.'
He gave her that look, and waited.
Faintly, Hank heard it. Just audible above the sound of insects was a mournful chord.
'Wow,' whispered Sheila. 'You're right. But where's it coming from?'
'Um, over there,' said Presto, pointing off towards the road in front of them. 'I think it's somewhere up ahead.'
The kids walked on, and all the time the noise grew louder.
It wasn't really music, in the sense that Hank would have defined it. It undulated in volume, sometime quiet, sometimes loud and it slowly changed from major to minor and back again as they approached. It had a deep, sonorous feel, quite unlike anything he'd ever heard before. And he had no idea what could be making it.
The valley grew more shallow, and opened out to a dusty floodplain, with a river winding it's way across further to the west. But to the east, there was another small hill, and that seemed to be where the sound was coming from.
Hank lead the group up, not sure what to expect. The top of the hill had been levelled off, and there were a number of stones, some at least twice Hank's height, and other stones were lying on the ground, half covered in moss. As the wind blew harder, the strength of the sound grew with it, filling the air with soft wailing.
'It sounds like it's… crying,' said Sheila in a whisper.
Hank moved forward for a closer look, and the others followed. The stones had once been carved, but the details were worn away, leaving only random lines and a few small holes. Then the wind dropped suddenly, and there was no music only a deathly quiet. Out of the corner of his eye, Hank saw something red, and out of instinct, his hand moved to the Bow.
'Greetings, my young adventurers!'
'Dungeonmaster!' said Hank in relief. 'It's only you!'
'Indeed, Ranger,' replied the old man. He was sitting on a rock near the centre, leaning back as if he'd been waiting there for some time.
'What is this place?' asked Diana.
'These stones are the Call,' their guide replied. 'They stand near the entrance gate to what was once the most famous place in the Realm. The City of Ur.'
Dungeonmaster pointed to the east, with a sad, melancholic look on his face 'It is abandoned now, and what was once great and good has decayed away.'
Bobby was looking the way Dungeonmaster had pointed.
'I don't see a city,' he said.
'No Barbarian. For the city only appears every sixty seven years. One thousand years ago this was a great city, strong in wealth and power…' Dungeonmaster hesitated.
'What happened to it, Dungeonmaster?' asked Presto.
'I do not know for sure,' replied their old Guide. 'But something came to that city and destroyed it. From within.' He looked sadly round at the children.
'Um, not that I don't already know,' started Eric, 'but why are you telling us this?'
'Somewhere, within the walls of the city, is the Locket Portal, and the Key that opens it.'
Hank's heart gave a sudden and familiar lurch, just as Eric gave a loud huff.
'Why do portals always have to be somewhere dangerous?' said the Cavalier petulantly. 'Why can't they just appear!'
Dungeonmaster looked at the boy with an expression of approval, as if he'd finally asked a good question. But he didn't give an answer.
'What do we have to do, Dungeonmaster?' asked Hank.
The Dungeonmaster hesitated once more, and Hank had the impression that their guide was worried. It was strange to see him like that, he'd always had a strong and confident air about him. Well, except that time against You Know Who…
'Ur will reappear in a few hours,' Dungeonmaster said. 'It will remain here from the moment the sun sets to the moment it rises once more. Then it will sink into the sand from whence it came. Those who are inside the city when it departs will not be able to leave until another sixty seven years have passed. However, there is enough time to search for the Key, which will open the portal and allow you to return to your homeworld.'
The others looked round at each other, quiet. Each one then looked at Hank. Dungeonmaster was watching him too.
'I do not tell you to go,' their guide added, 'you must decide for yourselves. But if you do venture within its walls, you must be very careful not to disturb that which sleeps there. There will be those who are lost, and those who are found, and those who are neither.'
The rest of his friends were silent. They had never done anything like this before and it would be very dangerous. One mistake and they would be trapped.
'Well, whaddya think, Hank?' said Eric eventually. Hank looked at the Cavalier, mildly surprised that Eric had deferred to him. Take advantage of the peace while you still can, he thought. It'll never last!
He looked round at his friends. He trusted them, and he trusted Dungeonmaster. Their guide wouldn't tell them about a portal if he thought they didn't have a chance of getting home. He couldn't pass up the opportunity; as small as the chances were, they had to try.
'We'll go,' he said.
'Very well, Ranger,' said Dungeonmaster. It was difficult to tell if he was pleased or not, the expression on his face was the same as before. He pointed east. 'Go to the Gate Stone and wait for the city to surface. And be careful who you help!'
'Well, thanks!' said Eric sourly. 'That's not much of a riddle! And I don't suppose you could tell us where the Key is, just to help us out?'
'He's gone,' said Presto.
'Of course he has! He's got more sense than to stick around when those stupid riddles make even less sense than usual!'
The Cavalier marched off eastwards, ignoring everyone else.
'Are we really gonna go?' asked Sheila.
Hank was sorely tempted to put his arm round her shoulder and hold her close, but the others were watching.
'It'll be ok, Sheila. We'll find the Key and the portal and go home, you'll see!'
'I hope your right, Hank,' she said.
For a long while, Venger was certain that the children were not going to appear. He stood in the long grass close to the Gate Stone, waiting patiently. Close by, Shadow Demon hovered at a respectful distance, the arrogance it had shown previously now gone from its demeanour. It kept silent.
The Arch-Mage knew about the city, he knew the legends and the rumours, and understood that the Evil that roamed this place owed him no allegiance. It would see him as a rival to power, and try to destroy him if is got the chance. But even a battalion of Orcs wouldn't be able to help him. He would have to match power with power. It was ironic that he must face this creature so soon after his return.
If only he could get the weapons from those accursed children. That would be enough to ensure victory. That would be enough…
The suns had turned the western sky blood red and the children still had not appeared, and Venger waited with a growing sense of surprise. Surely the Ranger would not let the opportunity pass; surely the arrogant Cavalier would talk them into it. Surely they wanted to go home?
Then he heard their voices.
'Gate Stone, huh! Bet Dungeonmaster wouldn't know a Gate Stone from a… um, from… any other kind of stone!'
Venger recognised the voice of the Cavalier the instant he had started talking. In a way, the Arch-Mage was relieved that they were here at last; he would have hated to be wrong about them, and it would merely have strengthened Shadow Demon's conceit.
But now, once they entered the city, there would be no going back. Either they would win and get home, or he would and they would be left, weaponless, in the city to try and survive.
The other children were laughing, and Venger took a step back, deeper into the shadows of dusk as they appeared in view. He watched was they walked up to the Stone, talking and laughing and at ease. Of course, they did not know what was ahead of them; they would never have dared set foot in Ur if they had known what lay in wait there. That would give him a significant advantage.
The children stopped by the Stone, and looked around.
'The sun is almost down,' said the Ranger. 'Ur will be here soon.'
'You make it sound like the school bus,' said the Cavalier.
'You wouldn't know what a school bus looked like!' replied the Acrobat, looking pleased with the retort. Though Venger did not understand the sniggering laughter that the comment got, it was clear that the Cavalier was the victim of a joke. The Arch-Mage had often wondered how the others stood that Cavalier's company for any length of time. Or he stood theirs.
'Whatdya reckon these symbols mean,' said the Barbarian, pointing at the Gate Stone. 'It looks kinda funny.'
'I don't recognise it,' said the Ranger, leaning forward to take a closer look.
'It's cuniform, dummy!' The rest of the group turned to stare at the Cavalier. 'What's wrong? You never been to the Museum of Natural History?'
'I didn't know you know what a museum was!' replied the Acrobat.
'For your information, I went with my Mom, so just because you…'
He stopped talking abruptly. The Arch-Mage felt it too. The last rays of the sun had just dipped below the horizon. Ur was almost here.
Behind them, the undulating call of the Rocks of Resonance grew louder as the wind picked up. The dust from the road started to swirl. The children gathered closer together, and even Shadow Demon seemed uneasy. But the Arch-Mage had no need to flinch or fear. He watched as the air by the Stone shimmered and the great City of Ur, seat of Kings, and Capital of the Realm, appeared through the dust.
It was just as he remembered it. The high, broad walls, the towers and turrets behind, all the same dusty grey colour they had always been. Even the tattered banner on the Palace Tower, that fluttered in the wind, was as he remembered.
The black gates were open, just in front of the children, and they hesitated.
'Well, guys, this is it,' said the Ranger. Venger tried to discern some fear or worry in the child's voice, but there was none, only the confidence borne of ignorance. He had the suspicion that they had no idea where to go, or where to start looking for the Key. But that wasn't going to stop them, it seemed. They too had grown more arrogant and conceited in his absence.
'Let's get it over with,' said the Cavalier with a sigh. 'Standing around out here won't help.'
The Arch-Mage watched as one by one they followed their Ranger past the Stone and through the gate. Then he turned to Shadow Demon. There would be no need for the Demon to accompany him, in fact it would be more of a hindrance inside. There would be too many distractions.
'Await my return,' he told it.
'Yes, Master,' it replied, 'if you are sure you wish to enter Ur…'
The glare it got in response made the Demon shrink down into the grasses. Angry, the Arch-Mage swept off towards the gate. He would not let them get away this time. If they could brave the terrors of the city, then so could he.
His robes billowing out behind him in the wind, he followed them though the gate.