DISCLAIMER: The characters and the series itself are not mine, but belong to someone else.
STORY: Set after the story 'Double Trouble' but it is NOT necessary to read that story, since it is not a sequel.
THANKS: Again goes to everyone who is kind enough to take the time to leave a review. Thank-you :)
The Lair of the Lich King
Chapter 1 - I Spy
'It's your turn, Hank!' said Bobby the Barbarian eagerly. 'C'mon!'
The Ranger gave a long sigh.
The mountains and their last adventure were many days behind them. Once they had descended into the valley, they had had a relatively easy and straightforward walk through the strange grasslands, heading south all the time.
Normally walking through the wilds wasn't such a trial, but today everything seemed to be getting on his nerves. They had been walking since sunrise, he was still hungry and still sore and tired from the long march of yesterday. The others are all subdued as well, except the Barbarian and his pet unicorn. Bobby was young, he was also unfailingly cheerful, except in the more serious situation, and today Hank could really have done without it. Bobby had insisted on walking next to Hank, with Uni in tow, and playing some games to help pass the time; the Ranger thought that "I Spy" was getting very dull, but Bobby didn't seem to mind at all, even though they had been playing it for most of the day.
Hank took another deep breath, trying to think of something easy for the Barbarian to guess, just to get him to stop bugging them all about it.
'I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with…' he looked around. Ahead of him were just unending grasslands in the base of the valley (it was still grass, even though it was purple), with the occasional dull grey of a rock poking through. The sides of the valley were very steep and craggy and dark black, and he had had no desire to try and climb them. Fortunately, neither had any of the others, even Diana the Acrobat, they were content to walk quietly along behind Hank and Bobby; even Eric the Cavalier was quiet, which was a pleasant change.
Up above, the suns had passed overhead and the sky was turning from rich, clear blue to the red tinged violet of the afternoon. And it wouldn't be too long before the suns dipped below the line of the high hills and they would have to make camp. Then they would have to worry about food. Hank sighed again.
'Hank!' said Bobby loudly, prodding the Ranger with his Club. 'Beginning with what!'
'Um… Beginning with…' Hank looked around trying to think of something quickly. 'Beginning with G!' Grass seemed to be a good one, and he hadn't had that for a while. Bobby should get that pretty easily and then maybe they would be able to walk in peace.
'Hmm,' said the Barbarian. 'G!'
Bobby looked around, and the little, white unicorn by his side copied his movements.
'Um… great big rocks!'
'Oh. You sure?'
'Yes, Bobby! C'mon, it's not that hard!'
Hank gave a little laugh, amused in spite of his negative mood.
'But you can't see any gulls!'
'Those are gulls!' said the Barbarian, pointing to the south. 'And huge ones too!'
Hank looked at the three great birds circling ahead. As he watched the birds flew closer.
'Um, those aren't just gulls,' he said with a grin. 'Those are E-gulls!'
'That's not fair!' snapped Bobby. 'That doesn't begin with G!'
'It's not the answer!' replied Hank. He pointed 'Eagles! And their coming this way!'
The others in front of them heard as well, and they stopped to look up.
'Those are really big eagles,' said Presto the Magician nervously. 'They have to be the size of a seven-four-seven!'
From low down on the ground, their Unicorn gave a whine. She looked up to the Barbarian, her big, pink eyes full of fear.
'It's ok, Uni,' said Bobby protectively. 'They won't get you, I'll make sure of that!'
He brandished the Club, just to show her he meant it. Hank looked at the birds and thought that the Unicorn wouldn't be of much interest to creatures that size, little more than a very small snack! Even the kids themselves wouldn't be that much better. Maybe we're too small for them to bother with, he thought.
The gang of seven stopped as the giant birds flew closer, and looked up. They had seen a few giants before, the war-bird that Dekkion had ridden, and the bird that they had hitched a lift on while trying to get to Darkhaven; but neither of those were like these. They seemed to be pure white from head to tail, and almost seemed to shine in the glare of the three suns. Even from so far away, Hank could see the slow and majestic sweep of their wings up and down. They were huge!
'Um, Hank,' said Sheila the Thief, fiddling nervously with the hood of her Cloak, 'Look, do you really think we should just stand here and watch them. Well, I mean, we don't really know what they are, after all!'
Hank was very tempted to agree with her, but there was something about them that didn't feel "evil". Besides, they were probably too small to be of much interest.
'What do you suggest?' came a voice from beside Sheila. It was Eric, standing with his hands planted defiantly on his hips, and facing the oncoming birds. 'We could hide, but there's not exactly a lot of cover around here, is there!'
He ached his eyebrows and wiggled his arm, the one with the Shield on it, and everyone knew what he was hinting at!
'You know, I think they've seen us,' said Diana the Acrobat, pointing at the birds. 'They seem to be heading straight for us!'
'We'd better take cover, somehow,' said Hank. He looked at Eric, but the Cavalier had already lifted his Shield sending a glow of yellow energy around them.
The group crouched low to the ground, Uni sheltering right beside Eric and directly under the raised Shield, Bobby was by Uni's side. Diana and Presto were just behind, looking up past the other to the oncoming birds. Lastly, Sheila the Thief was next to the Cavalier and Hank knelt down beside her, slipping his arm around her waist protectively as they watched the birds approaching.
They waited, and the waited a long time and Hank suddenly realised he'd been wrong. These weren't huge birds at all; they were enormous, almost too large to be real. The mismatch in size had made them look closer than they actually were.
He exchanged nervous glances with the Thief.
'What are those things,' she whispered.
'Don't know,' he whispered back. As he tightened his grip around her waist, she turn to him and smiled.
The birds came nearer and the gang waited, huddled together on the ground.
There was the thunderous swish of beating wings and the three giant birds flew majestically overhead. Hank risked looking up. Even though they were still a few hundred feet up in the air, they seemed close enough to touch. He could make out the steel-tipped claws on the end of their talons, and see the slight ruffle of their feathers and the air whistled past.
One of them swooped very low, and Hank was tempted to pull an arrow, but they didn't appear to be trying to attack, they had made no secret of their approach and the bird seemed to be more curious than hungry. Ahead of him, Uni whined and pressed herself closer to Eric's Shield.
The air around them whipped up to almost gale force, and they were buffeted from both sides by small vortices and eddies whirling by. Hank was forced to look away and cover his eyes, even though the sight of the three majestic birds was quite compelling.
Fortunately, almost as soon as the winds had started they faded away, leaving only slight gusts and waving grass in its wake. The group slowly stood up, one by one.
'Wow!' breathed Bobby. 'That was great!'
'What were those things!' asked Diana.
Hank turned to face Diana as he answered, but saw a small, red robed figure standing just behind them. It was their Guide.
'Dungeonmaster!' he said. The old man gave him a slight bow.
'Nah,' replied Eric, still watching the retreating birds, 'those were too big to be Dungeonmaster!'
But Diana had turned, and had seen their Guide too.
Eric finally turned around as well, and he regarded the old man with fake surprise.
'Oh, you mean that's Dungeonmaster! I see!'
'What were those things, Dungeonmaster?' asked Bobby eagerly. 'They were great! I've never seen anything so humongous, ever!'
'Those were White Rocs,' the old man replied. 'The largest bird in the entire Realm.'
'Wow!' said Presto.
'Neat!' said Bobby.
'They were beautiful!' said Sheila.
'And it was a good job they weren't hunting!' said Eric. 'Don't look at me like that! It was!'
Hank wasn't paying much attention to the Cavalier, he was still looking at Dungeonmaster.
'You are fortunate, in some ways,' said the old man. 'Very few people in the Realm have seen these magnificent birds.'
'…and survived!' added Eric, quietly.
Their Guide was looking odd; Hank would have said "unhappy" was a better description. And the elation at meeting the old man vanished under a wave of worry.
'What's wrong, Dungeonmaster?' he asked.
'In these parts, the sight of a White Roc is considered an ill omen,' said Dungeonmaster sombrely.
'But we saw three,' Diana pointed out. Hank wished she hadn't, as Dungeonmaster's face grew darker.
'Yes, Acrobat,' he said. 'You have seen the only three White Rocs left in the Realm. And that is a very bad omen indeed.'
'Why?' asked Eric bluntly. 'C'mon dm, old buddy, why don't ya tell us the really bad news!'
Dungeonmaster flicked an annoyed glance at the Cavalier, but didn't ignore the question.
'These Rocs was the guardians of the mountains, and something has frightened them away,' he said.
Hank looked in the direction the Rocs had flown off in, trying to imagine what kind of creature could frighten something as huge and powerful as that.
'What could frighten a thing that size?' asked Bobby.
'It must be huge!' said Presto.
'Or terrifying,' said Sheila.
'Or evil,' said Diana.
'Or all three,' added Eric, unnecessarily Hank thought. They all got the picture!
'Thanks, Er-ic!' said the Acrobat curtly. 'We had that figured out too! There's no need to state the obvious.'
'But then "obvious" is the only thing you're good at!'
Bobby gave a little snigger, but the Cavalier gave her a hurt look, then stuck his tongue out at her.
'Nice retort,' said Presto. 'They get better every day!'
'Can we concentrate on the problem at hand?' Eric asked, looking down to Dungeonmaster. 'We were discussing those birds!'
The Guide nodded.
'Indeed Cavalier, those birds have fled from this valley and many other creatures, both good and evil, will be doing the same.'
'What about us?' said Sheila. 'Shouldn't we be joining them?'
Dungeonmaster didn't answer her directly, but instead looked to Hank.
'Ahead is the ruined Citadel of Kish,' he said. 'It is a place steeped in magic, where powerful forces bend the world to their will. It was a necropolis, and within its wall many heroes lie at rest. But I know of no portal with in its walls…'
'Well, that's that!' chipped in Eric, turning around and looking back the way they came. 'What are we waiting for, a written invitation? Let's go!'
'… but,' continued Dungeonmaster, not bothering to look round at the Cavalier. 'But the next portal you seek is located in the lands beyond.'
'Can't we just go around?' asked Diana.
'To do so would take many, many days of walking and climbing, and then you would have to pass through the Valley of Fire and the Scorched lands. Both are very dangerous!'
'And so this Kish place isn't?' demanded Eric facetiously. 'A necropolis! Steeped in magic! As fun places to visit in the Realm go, it sounds like a blast!'
'Er-ic!' said Diana and Bobby in chorus.
'Yes, Kish is dangerous,' admitted Dungeonmaster, finally facing Eric. 'But only if you stray from the safe path. If you were quick, and quiet, you may be able to pass safely through.'
'Well, that's never gonna happen!' muttered Eric. 'Not with our luck. You might as well be sending us to that place with little "Attack Me!" stickers pinned on our backs!'
Dungeonmaster gave him a harsh stare, and turned back to face Hank.
'However, Ranger, time is running out,' said Dungeonmaster. 'Whatever has scared away the White Rocs will most likely be there already. If you are to travel through Kish, it must be soon.'
He was looking at Hank, and waiting for his answer. The Ranger hesitated for a second, but the thought of having to travel many, many days didn't appeal, especially not through places like the Valley of Fire, or the Scorched Lands. If there was a short cut, they should try it. They had managed to overcome almost everything the Realm had thrown at them so far, and he was confident that Dungeonmaster wouldn't send them into anything they couldn't cope with.
'Ok, we'll go through Kish,' he said.
'Gee, thanks for checking with us, first!' muttered Eric.
Both Hank and Dungeonmaster ignored him, but Diana gave him a good, hard poke in the arm and a scowl.
'Very well,' said their Guide. 'To find the Citadel you must first find cross over the Entrance Stone. And to travel through, you must stay on the safe path through the citadel. Do not stray away, even for a moment, or you will loose yourselves in the ruins. Such is its power over the unwary.'
'What about the Rocs?' he asked. 'What about the thing that scared them?'
'Whatever it is, you must avoid it.'
'Don't you know what it is?' asked Sheila.
Dungeonmaster shook his head slowly.
'As I have told you, Kish is steeped in magic. My powers are of no use there. There are few things in this Realm that would frighten such a powerful beast as a White Roc, and there were none that I knew of within the Citadel of Kish. My magic cannot penetrate its walls. What has risen there, I cannot say for certain.'
For a second, Hank wondered if their Guide had actually told them all that he knew, or feared. But he also knew Dungeonmaster well enough to know that they weren't going to get much more help.
'Don't you have any more information to help us, Dungeonmaster?' asked Diana. 'Please?'
'Whatever has risen in Kish, it is driving all living things away from the Citadel. It will not be expecting anyone to pass through. But you must be quick, my Pupils. And remember, if you stay on the safe path, then you will not come to harm.'
'But how do we know which path is safe,' asked Eric, the usual sarcasm in his tone surprisingly missing. 'Do we get any hints or have to make it up as we go along?'
Dungeonmaster looked at him approvingly.
'You will know which way is right,' he said. 'And you must always choose.'
'Huh? Always choose… what?' asked the Cavalier.
Eric looked round at the others in despair.
'Is this making sense to anyone?' he asked. 'Or is it just me that thinks the ol' Dungeonmaster has a page missing in his riddle book!'
'He's gone!' said Bobby.
Eric stared at the spot where Dungeonmaster had been a moment earlier.
'I know I should be surprised,' he said, waving his hands in the air. 'But I'm not. Dungeonmaster and his amazing vanishing act are just old hat now! Especially when it's just done to avoid answering real questions with real answers! Always choose! That makes no sense!'
'Well, I guess that's why they call it a riddle, Eric,' said Diana.
'That wasn't a riddle, that was a statement!' he retorted. 'I know the difference between a riddle and a statement, you know!'
Hank had to agree that Dungeonmaster's latest riddle did seem less riddly than some of his others, but at least they knew where they were going next.
'C'mon guy's,' he said. 'Let's get going.'
Everyone but the still grumbling Eric agreed, but the Cavalier followed on anyway when all the others moved off. The rough path they had been following eventually disappeared into the sea of long, purple grass and they just had to wander forward, hoping they were going the correct way.
They walked for another half an hour without seeing anything unusual, except all that purple grass, but eventually they found some large stones half hidden in the ground. Other than these it had all been perfectly flat and grassy. More than that, the stones seemed to have been part of a sculpture at some point. They were rounded and edged in a way that was just not natural. Uni sniffed it and screwed up her nose with an annoyed bleat.
'We must be getting closer to Kish,' Hank said as they examined the stones. He looked ahead, but couldn't see any sign of a city. 'I suppose! At least it's a sign of civilisation.'
They walked on again and found some more stones, along with the occasional stunted blue tree poking out of the waving grass.
'This place is weird,' said Sheila, as she walked by his side.
'Weirder than usual?'
'Yeah!' she said with a laugh. 'So that's saying something!'
'It feels funny too,' added Bobby, who was walking just behind. 'Kinda creepy.'
'This whole damn Realm is weird and creepy,' said Eric firmly. 'The sooner we get outta here the better.'
'Hey guys!' called Presto from a way up ahead. 'Come see this!'
The Magician had stopped by a large boulder.
'That is what we humans call a boulder,' said Eric helpfully. 'You know, a very large rock. They have them in these parts.'
'Ha ha ha,' replied the Magician. 'That wasn't what I meant! Just come here!'
'I'm overwhelmed with relief!' said the Cavalier with a smug grin.
'Knock it off, Eric!' Hank could see that Presto was getting annoyed himself, and that he had something important to say. 'What is it Presto?'
But it wasn't a boulder, it was part of a column. And the other parts were scattered around in the grass nearby, lying as if something had just pushed it over. The statue that was at the top was sitting on its side in the grass just ahead. And it was the statue that Presto was pointing at.
'Tell me that isn't who I think it is,' he said. 'Please!'
Hank walked up to the overturned statue, treading carefully as he went, and Sheila followed behind him.
There was no mistaking it, even though it was lying on one side, half covered under the waving grass.
'That's Venger!' she said in surprise. 'With one horn and everything!'
'That's what I thought!' said Presto. 'Darn it!'
'But what's a statue of ol' horn-head doing here?' asked Diana.
'Maybe the people who lived here, you know, worshipped him,' suggested Presto. 'Or maybe he was some sort of king.'
'Whatever it was,' said Sheila, 'It doesn't look like he holds much in the way of subjects around here now. This statue has been lying here for ages, it's covered in moss and grass and stuff.'
Bobby gave the fallen statue a gentle shove with the end of his Club, but nothing untoward happened. The Young Ones all stared at it for a short while, not sure what it meant. Eric grew bored first and when he walked off and the others all followed.
They hadn't gone very far before there was a loud growling noise coming from somewhere ahead.
'What was that?' asked Presto. 'You did hear it, didn't you?'
'Eric's stomach?' suggested Bobby with a grin.
'Shh!' Hank ordered. 'Stay still and keep your eyes open.'
They formed a defensive line, their weapons drawn. Sheila stood right next to Hank with her hand on the hood of her Cloak, ready to vanish. The Ranger slowly pulled an arrow.
There was another noise ahead, more of a hissing than a growl, and the grass ahead
'Something's coming!' whispered Bobby raising the Club. Beside him, Uni was cowering on the ground.
The wave of moving grass came closer forward, and a great, black cat, the size of a lynx or a jaguar, came prowling out, staring at the six kids (and the Unicorn) with shining silver eyes. It hissed, and crouched low to the ground as if preparing to pounce.
He was about to let his arrow go, but the cat didn't attack, it just stayed where it was, staring at them.
'Stay still!' Hank ordered as the cat hissed again, its long thick tail writhing on the ground behind it. 'No one move!'
They stayed as motionless as statues for a minute, the cat doing the same. Then very, very slowly, it lifted its head and sulked off to their left, within a few seconds it had disappeared back under the cover of the grass leaving no trace that it had even been there.
'That was weird!' said Presto. 'I've never see a big cat do that before!'
'I've never seen a big cat that close!' said Diana. 'Why didn't it attack?'
'My guess would be that it's running scared. It didn't want to waste time on us!'
'That's not good,' said Sheila. 'Is it?'
Hank shook his head.
'We'll probably meet more creatures, the closer we get to the Citadel.'
'Everyone stay on your guard,' said Hank. 'And keep a good watch out for more animals!'
For the next fifteen minutes they walked in more slowly, everyone expecting another cat or something worse to jump out at them. But they saw nothing but more stones and broken statues, and the occasional patch of stunted, blackened grass and dusty grey sand.
Everyone was quiet and wary, keeping a close eye out for more animals. Though they heard noises every so often, they saw no more creatures for some time.
Eventually, they came to what looked like an old archway, though half of it had toppled over into the grass. It was wide enough for all of them to walk through side but side, but it was low, or would have been had it still been standing. It had parts of a wall on either side, though they was mostly demolished as well, and there were the occasional statues of cats carved into the alcoves.
In the centre of the archway was a large flat stone, about 10 feet long and five feet wide, set into the ground and very slightly raised up, like a step. Hank paused and knelt down beside it.
There was no writing on it, only pictures that had been immaculately carved into the stone. There was a picture of a high tower in front of a shining star (that could have been a sun, Hank wasn't sure), and below it figures of people, again carefully carved into the stone, each with their own individual features in miniature.
'Well,' he said at last, 'I'm not sure but this could be the Entrance Stone that Dungeonmaster told us about.'
'That would mean that Kish is just in front of us,' said Diana.
'Where!' asked Eric, pointing to the sea of purple grass ahead of them. 'I don't see a city anywhere!'
'Dungeonmaster told us "To find the Citadel you must first find cross over the Entrance Stone",' Hank reminded them. 'We haven't crossed over yet!'
The Cavalier rolled his eyes in a theatrical manner as Hank walked across the stone. He looked out over the grasses, and suddenly understood what Dungeonmaster had meant.
'Hey Hank! What do you see?' asked Eric. 'Has Kish miraculously appeared out of the grass?'
'Um, well, no, not exactly.'
'See!' Eric said loudly. 'I told you! It's not like there could be a whole city here and we couldn't see it!'
The Cavalier was the last one to cross, and he came to a halt just beside Hank.
'Oh,' was all he said.
They were standing at the edge of a cliff, a man-made one, that looked down over a great city carved into the ground itself, but still not underground. The tops of the various buildings were covered in grass and they blended in extremely well with the surrounding countryside.
The streets were set down into the ground, and were relatively narrow compared to the buildings, but wide enough not to be able to jump over the gaps from rooftop to rooftop. From a few feet back there was no way to see any of the fissures, and it had seemed as though there was nothing but plain purple grassland in front of them.
On either side of the city the hill rose up as sheer rock-faces along the sides of the valley, ensuring that the only way to continue was to pass through the citadel.
As he looked around, Hank noticed that, carved into the stones just to their right, was a wide set of steps leading down to the level below.
He glanced down nervously, but the street that he could see seemed to be empty. The kids all looked round at each other.
'Well,' said the Cavalier lightly. 'What are we waiting for?'