DISCLAIMER: The D&D Cartoon belongs to someone else, and this is written because it seemed like good fun and I enjoy it, not for financial gain.
STORY: Set after the story "The Lair of the Lich King". I would like to say it's not a sequel, but it is, just not to "The Lair of the Lich King". Most of the previous stories get a mention somewhere, there are a few loose ends to tie up, and some get mentioned more than others. There are some special guest star appearances. Not only that, but it's another "double episode" type story!
CREDITS: The Sentience Hall appears with the kind permission of Fayzalmoonbeam. And I have shamelessly plundered various aspects of Sumerian Mythology as well.
PROMPT: Written for the LJ ff100 prompt #86 Choices.
THANKS: Especially large and seal-shaped thanks to Bluetiger, ForeverJetrisLPL, Polgara of Erat, Jan Lee, the Super-Scribbles and the Excellent-Elektralyte for your reviews of my other stories. Thank you for taking the time to let me know you enjoyed it :)
Part I – The Party
An Open Invitation
Everything in the Realm could sense it.
There was a whisper on the wind: the whisper of change. It crept through the cracks in the stones, it leaked through the thick walls of the houses and cities, it rose like fog from the rivers and ocean, it rushed like the winds of darkness through the forests.
It was the time for change. It was time for the Feast and everything knew what that meant.
Fate and Destiny. These were such powerful words, and the ultimate source of change in the Realm. These were the words that governed the Realm, not the machinations of the old Dungeonmaster or the irrelevant evils of Venger.
Many who sought their way through the Realm gave no thought to either of these powers. Many believed that Fate could not be altered and many believed that their Destiny was set the moment they set foot upon the soil of the Realm.
But that is not so.
The Dungeonmaster knows; he understands that for every action there are consequences that none can foresee, and none would dare to guess.
And Venger knows; he understands the quality of each deed, the quality that prohibits control within the limiting views of narrow-minded mortals.
They know also of the Keepers of Fate, who tend the power and help it thrive, these Keepers that guide both Fate and Destiny to their goals.
And yet, even with the Keepers ever watching, both the Dungeonmaster and Venger know that almost anything is possible within the Realm, if only the correct events occur in the correct places. They know how small a change is necessary.
Beneath them, all the small lives carry on, safe under the care of those they think know about such matters.
But neither Fate nor Destiny are carved in stone. Not yet. Not until after the Feast.
For Hank the Ranger, it seemed almost like a normal Realm-like day, the same as all the others.
It had started with a sudden wake-up call from Presto's Hat, and then a short but conclusive argument about who's turn it was to find breakfast; an argument that Eric had lost. Then there had been a short walk though some grasslands towards the flanking side of the mountains.
They were all in a good mood as they walked, happy and relaxed, and indulged their favourite pastime of Cavalier-teasing. Eric, needless to say was happy enough to be walked straight into it.
All it had needed was the mention of Dungeonmaster, and Presto was eager to oblige.
'But Dungeonmaster told us…' said Presto.
'I keep telling you,' said Eric shortly. 'Dungeonmaster knows zip about what's going on! If he did, would he have sent us this way? There's nothing this way. Not even a portal.'
'But it's such a nice way,' said Diana, coming up beside Presto and grinning. 'If we hadn't gone this way, we would have missed the chance to have this conversation.'
'Besides,' added Presto, grinning just like Diana, 'we did choose to come this way.'
'That's not the point,' said Eric. 'Dungeonmaster knows…'
'Dungeonmaster doesn't know everything,' chipped in Bobby. 'He said so.'
'And you're gonna believe a bald midget in a dress?' snapped Eric.
The Barbarian sniggered.
'You've believed him before,' said Diana.
'Yes, but that was different.'
That question flummoxed the Cavalier for a few seconds.
'If you can't tell the difference, then I'm not going to waste my time explaining it to you,' he said hotly, glaring at the grinning faces. 'Besides, you are missing my point.'
'You have point?' asked Sheila, with an innocent smile. 'Where? I must have missed it.'
The group around Eric dissolved into fits of laughter, and Hank joined in, amused more by the righteous and indignant look on Eric's face than what the others were saying.
'All I'm trying to say is that this is a dumb idea,' said Eric with mock calm. 'This has to be the stupidest thing we've done since…'
'I can think of a funny thing that's happened recently,' interrupted Diana loudly. 'But not silly!'
She was looking at him, deliberately trying to copy the Cavalier's own "incredulous" expression and under her stare, Eric faltered.
'Yeah, Diana, what was that, again?' asked Presto. 'Wasn't it something to do with clothes?'
Diana had sidled up Eric, smirking like a Cheshire cat. The Cavalier turned red.
'That wasn't my fault,' he muttered.
'How is your armour, anyway?' added Diana. 'Still comfy? You still happy enough to be wearing it?'
The scarlet shade of Eric's face seemed to get deeper.
'Oh, leave him alone,' said Sheila with a suppressed giggle. 'It's obvious he can't defend himself…'
'Hey! Cut it out!' cried Eric indignantly, suddenly stopping, and putting his hands on his hips so he could give them a proper scowl. The others ground to a halt around the Cavalier, who stood at glared at them.
'That's not fair,' he said crossly. 'It's not like I did it deliberately. And just because I happen to be the one who ended up first on the slab doesn't mean that you can…'
The Cavalier continued talking, but Hank had stopped listening, and not just because he had heard it all before. Something distracted his attention away for a moment. Someone else was there. Or something. And it was green.
'Quiet!' said Hank. Everyone, bar Eric, obeyed.
'…all you lot do is sit around while I am the one who has to…' Eric looked round at The Ranger, a few seconds after everyone else. 'What did I miss?'
Hank put his fingers to his lips.
'Oh,' said Eric.
Hank pointed towards the rocks ahead where he thought he had seen something. He could take a good guess at what was hiding there: Orcs. It hadn't come as much of a surprise. They had known Venger was close by for a few days; they had seen him on the Nightmare from a distance, and they had all seen and heard the Orcs at some point as well.
The others didn't need Hank to tell them what to do and they moved into a defensive formation without any need for instruction. The landscape was slightly different from their campsite; it had slowly changed as they walked, from an almost perfectly flat floodplain covered in purple grass, to rocky and uneven ground with plenty of dips and hillocks. This was a perfect place for an ambush of some sort.
What surprised Hank was the ease with which he saw it coming. Ahead, there was a small hill, covered with large boulders that formed a perfect cover. It was quiet as well, there was no noise at all, unlike earlier when there had been the soft trill of birds and the buzz of insects. Now there was nothing at all.
Beside Hank, Sheila began to fidget with the hood of her Cloak, and one by one the others all looked round at each other, and the Ranger. They all looked at Hank, to see his reaction.
The Ranger knew it was a troop of Orcs. He could virtually smell them!
The kids were at an obvious disadvantage; the Orcs had the higher ground, and he had no idea how many there were. A retreat would seem to be straightforward enough, but they would be vulnerable for a few minutes and they would still have to find a way round. And besides, it was only Orcs!
He nodded, and they all raised their weapons, and Sheila vanished beneath her Cloak.
Hank took a couple of steps forward, his Bow raised and an energy arrow already drawn, watching for any sign of movement.
With a shout, a large Orc Captain appeared from behind a nearby rock and lunged at him.
Hank was faster. The arrow flew out of his hand knocking the Orc over and pinning it to the ground. There were more shouts.
The Acrobat suddenly appeared at his side, swinging the Javelin round at another two Orcs that were running towards them. Then he heard Presto mumbling into the Hat, and there was a low booming noise and a chorus of coughing. The charging Orcs stumbled to a halt in confusion.
'Presto!' shrieked Eric 'How many times I have got to tell you! Don't do that when I'm so close!'
Hank risked a quick look round behind him. The Cavalier was standing with his arms on his hips, looking cross and covered in greyish black dust, except for a Shield-shaped clean patch on his right side. Eric was glaring at the Magician.
'And how did that help our situation?' the Cavalier asked Presto. 'Please explain! I'm all ears!'
There was some sniggering from the baby unicorn and Bobby, who was swinging his Club wildly at the nearest Orc.
'Save it!' Hank called. 'Orcs first, arguments later!'
The Barbarian didn't need to be told twice, and with a smooth movement he swung his Club hard at the ground sending a minor earthquake across the surrounding countryside. Everyone staggered, even Hank who had been expecting it. All of his friends managed to stay upright, though it seemed like a close call with Eric, and all of the Orcs toppled over, at least all the Orcs that he could see.
Hank fired again, pinning the prone Orcs down.
There was another loud bang from the direction of Presto and the Hat, and another screech for anger from the Cavalier. The rest of the Orcs scattered.
For a second, Hank watched them run, making sure that their attackers really had gone. Then he looked round at the others. Eric, still covered in the fine grey dust, was glaring at his friends.
'You look like a statue!' said Diana with a snigger.
'Just a moment!' cried Sheila with a playful grin. 'Stand still!'
The Thief moved forward and started the write a little bit of graffiti on Eric breastplate. Diana took one look and collapsed in a fit of laughter that spread round the group. Eric looked round at the others, unable to read what she had written, looking furious.
'That's very amusing,' said Eric, without betraying the smallest hint of amusement. 'Hilarious in every single way! But now we've finished making fun of the hapless Cavalier can we please get out of here! Before we meet more Orcs?'
'Why?' asked Diana, still giggling, 'You could scare them away as a walking rock!'
'Or if you clapped your hands, you could threaten them with a cloud of dust!' suggested Bobby.
'You find amusement in the most childish of things!' Eric said sourly. It was a sign of how desperate Eric was getting that he turned to Hank.
'Can you please do something about them?' he asked.
Now Hank looked more closely, he could see why everyone was having a good laugh at the Cavalier's expense, the fine grey dust seemed to streak slightly, giving him a stripy, unnatural look, especially around his face. He did look totally ridiculous and the more indignant he became, the more silly and ridiculous he looked. And he had seen what Sheila had written; unable to help himself, Hank started to laugh as well.
'Ok,' said Eric, eventually. 'Fine. Very funny. You've had your little joke, will you tell me what it says?'
Presto obliged, or at least tried to.
'It says…' he gasped. 'It… says "Also available in yellow."'
Eric's stony expression didn't change in the slightest, and that made it all the funnier.
But suddenly a smug, slightly cruel smile spread across his face. With a huff and a cloud of grey dust, Eric crossed his arms.
'Now we're gonna see who's laughing!' he said, pointing directly behind Hank.
The Ranger turned round, the laughter vanishing in a moment, and a cold certainty filled his chest. Sure enough, he saw what he was afraid he would see: Venger on the Nightmare coming close behind them, together with more Orcs.
'That's not funny, Eric!' growled Bobby. 'Why didn't you tell us?'
'And spoil all your fun?' hissed the Cavalier. 'Why would I do that?'
Hank cast a furious scowl at the other boy, surprised that he would have done such a dangerous thing. But Eric scowled back.
'Hey! I was kidding,' said Eric indignantly. 'I didn't see them until just a moment ago!'
With their weapons held up defensively, they waiting for Venger to approach and Eric continued muttering under his breath.
The Arch-Mage let his Nightmare walked slowly forward. To Hank, their enemy seemed much more interested in them and their surroundings than usual. It was odd, and Venger seemed to be looking for something, and when he didn't see whatever it was, he smiled with a distinctive malicious pleasure that was typically Venger.
'I see you have defeated the Orcs that I sent to attack you,' he said in a smug tone. 'It is fortunate then, that I kept some back as reinforcements.'
'We'll just defeat them as well,' said Bobby angrily, waving the Club.
'Yeah!' said Diana. 'Why don't you just let us try!'
Venger gave a snort of laughter.
'So eager to hasten your own defeat!' he replied. 'But how arrogant you have become! I wonder what Dungeonmaster would say if he could hear you?'
No one replied, and Hank suddenly became worried. It wasn't so much the words of Venger, but the way he said them, it sent alarm bells ringing in his mind, as loud as the Hat's wake-up calls.
The Ranger raised up his Bow, holding an arrow steady, directed at Venger's face.
'What do you want, Venger?' he asked.
In reply, red magic flared in Venger's right hand, and behind him, his Orcs started to shuffle nervously.
'Give me your weapons and then, perhaps, I will not destroy you,' the Arch-Mage replied.
Hank opened his mouth to give Venger their answer, but before he could speak there was a noise from their left. It wasn't a cry, but a musical note, high and piercing and as pure as light itself.
As the note echoed round the hills, time almost seemed to stop, and on Venger's face there was a look of undisguised fury. Behind him, the Orcs covered their ears, and flinched as if in pain. Hank looked at his friends, but they were just standing there, looking in wonder round at each other.
Before the last echo had died away, the note sounded again, closer this time, and the sound seemed to pass straight into his heart, sending a wave of hope and joy through him.
Venger, however, looked even more furious than before. There was a snarl on his face and his eyes were narrowed.
'So be it,' hissed Venger to the Young Ones. 'We shall meet again before long.'
With that, he pulled hard on the Nightmare, and it wheeled round in a blur of black and red, then leapt into the air. The Orcs on the ground took their cue and turned to run back the way they had come. Within a minute, they were already a good distance away.
'Hmm,' said Eric, with a mock thoughtfulness. 'That's a brilliant way to chase of Venger! C Sharp! Now why didn't I think of that!'
'I would have thought you were more B flat kind of guy!' retorted Diana.
'And if I were you, I would be careful just how you use the word flat, Diana,' Eric replied, arching his eyebrows in a superior way. A smug grin spread across his face as they looked at each other, and Diana seemed to turn red under her dark skin. Just for a moment, she looked so insulted that she might have slapped him.
'Stop it!' Hank ordered. 'This isn't a good time for an insult match!'
Eric murmured a sort of apology, but Diana was still a shade of scarlet and didn't look like she was going to forgive him any time soon.
'But what was that sound?' asked Sheila. 'I've never heard anything like it before ever. It was so beautiful.'
'And who would have thought a sound would have chased off Venger,' said Bobby, coming up to Hank and his sister.
'Whatever it was,' said Sheila, 'it was a good job it showed up when it did!'
'Yeah,' added Presto. 'But it's kinda weird, though.'
A smile twitched at Hank's mouth as he waited for the inevitable retort from the Cavalier. Sure enough, after only a moment, Eric spoke.
'This whole place is kinda weird, remember,' he said.
There was a pause as they all looked around.
'Still doesn't explain what it was,' said Presto.
There was another, more anxious silence.
From the left there came the sense of movement, Hank couldn't explain it any better; as if something was on its way. Then there was a flurry of colours, and the soft sound of the most beautiful song that he had ever heard. Later, when he tried to remember the actual notes; that was impossible. All that lingered in his memory was the feeling of joy and hope that was woven into the tone.
No one spoke as the song floated around them, each one of them stood with their mouths open enjoying the music. Hank looked up, not sure what he expected to see.
There was movement in the sky above, and something small and blue came fluttering downwards on the light breeze.
It was a tiny iridescent-blue bird that reminded Hank of a hummingbird, except the bill was much, much shorter. It wafted gracefully about his head as he watched it, as if it was inspecting him. After almost a minute of flitting round the group, it seemed to be satisfied and swooped low, dropping a small piece of paper in front if him. Then, with one final clear note, it vanished, and the beautiful melody disappearing too.
Hank looked down at the folder paper in front of him, and reached down to open it. Then he read it with growing disbelief; that didn't say what he thought it said, did it? It seemed so unlikely that Hank couldn't take the message seriously. Did this sort of thing even happen in the Realm?
Bored by the momentary inactivity, Bobby took the paper from Hank's hand, then gave a loud whoop.
'Guess what guys!' he said joyfully. 'We're goin' to a party!'
There was a short pause as all but one of his friends stood speechless as the Barbarian's announcement. Then the still-grey Cavalier gave a snort that sent a small plume of grey dust up in front of him.
'Give me that thing!' he said sharply, snatching the paper out of Bobby's hand. 'It's obvious you can't read!'
'Ranger, Barbarian, Magician, Thief, Cavalier and Acrobat of the Realm,' Eric read. 'You are all to be welcomed at the Great Feast of Zagmuk in the Sentience Hall, two days hence in the Sacred Monastery of Esagil, for the reading of Fate, and the defining of Destiny. Bring your own beer.'
'What!' said Sheila, clearly shocked. 'Bring your own beer?'
'I think he made that bit up!' said Diana. The Cavalier was grinning at Sheila's outraged reaction.
'Er-ic!' said Sheila crossly. 'That's not funny!'
But even Hank found the idea amusing, and he couldn't help a smile. He was fortunately saved from an irate Thief by a familiar voice.
'Greetings, my young Pupils!'
'Dungeonmaster,' they chorused. Uni brayed her welcome too.
'Whaddya think of this!' said Bobby excitedly, before Dungeonmaster could say any more. He grabbed the piece of paper out of Eric's hand and waved it in front of the old man's nose. 'We're goin' to a party!'
Dungeonmaster gave the excited boy a smile.
'Indeed, Barbarian,' he said with a nod.
'And I take it Venger isn't invited,' said Hank. 'If the messenger managed to scare him off!'
Dungeonmaster nodded once more.
'You are correct, Ranger. There are certain rules, and certain powers, that even Venger would not dare to defy, at least not without great provocation,' Dungeonmaster explained. 'This is one of them. The Monastery at Esagil is a Sanctuary for Good, and a place where all may rest and find their way. All Evil is forbidden to enter.'
'Where is it?' demanded Bobby. 'Is there gonna be lots of food too?'
Everyone smiled at the Barbarian's questions. Hank even heard Eric mutter something like "always thinking with his stomach", but the Cavalier, fortunately, didn't say it loud enough for Bobby to hear.
'Esagil lies to the East,' Dungeonmaster said, pointing towards the low hills. 'You should reach it before nightfall.'
'A Monastery seems to be a strange place for a party!' said Eric. 'Are you sure you're not just making all this up?'
'Er-ic!' came the chorus, but Dungeonmaster politely ignored him.
'And what can you tell us about Esagil?' asked Diana. 'Why is there a Feast?'
'It is the place of Destiny,' said Dungeonmaster sagely. ' And you go to celebrate Fate. What is more, within Esagil there are the Halls of Sentience, the most sacred place in the Realm.'
At that, even Eric managed to look suitably impressed.
'You will meet many, many people at the Sentience Hall,' the Guide continued. 'It is the highest honour in the Realm to be invited.'
Eric gave a smug grin, and even Sheila smiled with a certain pride.
'So are you going too, Dungeonmaster?' she asked.
Much to everyone's surprise, their Guide shook his head.
'I do not go to the Sentience Hall.'
They waited for him to say something else, and when he didn't, Eric asked:
'Are you gonna tell us why?'
'No,' replied Dungeonmaster simply.
Uneasy silence, then Hank asked:
'So, where is it?'
The old man pointed towards the mountains.
'You must journey to the East for the rest of the day, then follow the road towards the Citadel in the hills,' he said. 'Just before the Citadel gate is the Esagil Monastery.'
'And what do we do when we get there?' asked Diana.
Dungeonmaster smiled but shook his head.
'I have no riddles to help you, my pupils. No magic except that of Fate is capable of working within the halls of the Monastery. And what awaits you there, I cannot see.' He looked around at them, finally looking at the Ranger. 'But if you do not succeed in your allotted task, you will never get home!'
The others looked round at each other, and Sheila took a small step closer to Hank. He had to resist the temptation to put his arm around her, but he shivered, as if someone were walking over his grave.
'That's just great, Dungeonmaster!' said Eric. 'Why can't you…aw!'
'He's gone!' said Sheila.
'I'm not even surprised anymore,' said the Cavalier with a huff. 'There's only a finite number of times I can do it.'
His posturing was spoiled by an outburst from the Barbarian, and everyone forgot about the Cavalier.
'But we're gonna go to a party!' said Bobby happily.
'Meeh, Mart-tmeee!' echoed Uni.
Eric turned to Presto.
'Can you and that useless Hat at least get me a towel before we get there? So I don't have to go looking like this!'
Presto was about to reply, but the acrobat got their first.
'He's got a point,' said Diana with a malicious gleam in her eye. 'We wouldn't want anyone to think Eric looks this stupid all the time!'
'I don't want to go to a party dressed like this,' said Sheila, looking down at her clothes in mock despair. 'Any chance of getting something a bit more… appropriate, Presto?'
The Magician opened his mouth, perhaps to say something inappropriate, but he closed it again quickly. Instead he started to mutter into the Hat, desperately searching for a good rhyme for towel. Second time, he got a small, green hand-towel, and dutifully handed it over to the Cavalier who started dusting himself down.
They all watched Eric flick dust off his armour.
Suddenly, Sheila looked round at he Ranger, a questioning look on her face.
'I mean, we are going to Esagil?' she asked. 'Aren't we, Hank?'
It seemed so straightforward, that the Ranger felt bad for hesitating. But it seemed as if this were more dangerous and important that the others thought.
Everyone was looking at him expectantly, Eric with a particularly deriding expression on his face.
'Yeah,' Hank said stiffly. 'Yeah, of course we are!'
That was the response they were all looking for, and there was a cheer, especially from Bobby.
They turned to the East and started to walk. At first they all talked excitedly about what was going to happen, and what they might expect.
Hank walked at the back, on his own, listening to the chatter. For all the enthusiasm of the others, there was something different about travelling this time, as if there were a dark cloud over him. Before, after one of Dungeonmaster's visits, they had known roughly what to expect, or rather they had a riddle to help them. This time, not even Dungeonmaster could tell them what was going to happen, or why, and their own fate in the Realm seemed to hinge on what they did. If they didn't do what they had to do, they would never get home. That thought did nothing to lift his mood.
The ground started to slope upwards as they walked, but by early afternoon and before they reached the edge of the mountains, they came across a long, straight road that stretched away to the North.
Hank raised his hand to his eyes, shielding his gaze from the sun. Nestled in the curve of the landscape he could just about make out the line of some buildings, and maybe a city wall.
'Guess that way's the way to go,' he said, pointing. 'We should be there before sundown.'
'We should be there before dinner,' said Eric hopefully.
'Now who's thinking with their stomach?' asked Diana.
Eric screwed up his nose at her, with a look that bordered on a sneer, and the ignored her and walked off on his own, leading the way forward.
The others all fell into a rough line behind him, with Hank and Sheila strategically placed at the back so they could have some peace and quiet away from the others.
The road itself started off dusty and overgrown with weeds and strange flowers, as if it wasn't used anymore. But as early evening, the road became clearer and the stones more worn. Other roads joined from both left and right, and the main road grew wider. But they still didn't see anyone else as they approached the hills.
Then, as the suns were down below the mountains, and the sky had turned to violet, they turned a slow curve in the road, and ahead they could see their ultimate goal: the Monastery at Esagil.
The road split in to a short way ahead. The road to the right, the one with smooth, well-worn stones, led to a tall gate that seemed to dwarf everything else. Behind the gate, Hank could make out the outline of houses and high towers. He guessed this was the Citadel that Dungeonmaster had mentioned.
The road to the left led to a low-walled building that seemed to sprawl over the land like an unruly weed. It was difficult to tell how large it was, as they drew closer, more parts of the building seemed to appear from out of the shadows. Nevertheless, there was a powerful, positive feeling coming from the Monastery; everyone could feel it. They had all stopped talking, and were walking forward at a good pace, as if eager to get to their destination now they had seen it.
In the looming presence of their goal, Hank felt more relaxed than he had felt in months, maybe even years. He allowed himself to slip his arm round Sheila's waist as they walked, and was pleased to see the happy smile that she gave him in return.
'Do you hear that?' said Presto suddenly.
'The sound of your voice?' asked Eric.
'No! That song again?'
Hank saw Eric open his mouth to reply, but then his expression changed. A moment later, Hank heard it too, that same beautiful song that seemed to flow right through him. It was coming from inside the Monastery.
They hurried on, and quickly came to the end of the road. Before them, place in the wall, was a small wooden door with a narrow brass handle. Not the sort of door Hank had expected.
They all stopped and looked at it, but nothing happened.
'Guess we had better knock,' said Eric. He looked at Hank. 'On you go.'
Hank looked round at the eager faces of his friends, and nodded. It seemed silly to be unnerved by something as straightforward as a door. They were here now. They had been invited. There was no reason to delay.
He stepped up to the door rapped twice, directly in the centre.
And then they waited.
The noise echoed through the wood and stone, then down; deep, deep down into the earth below to the place where the Storm-Bird lay in an uneasy sleep.
This was the sound it had been waiting for.