' All hail!'
All around Eric the words rang out in echoed response to the Herald's command. The sound of so many voices, raised up as one, sent a shiver through the Cavalier. And the silence that followed was like a cold pool of water, so tranquil and all-encompassing that Eric could hardly hear his own breathing.
No one moved. For a few seconds, Eric was as still as the stones of the Monastery themselves, drowning in the silence that surrounded him. The weight of where he was, the great pressure of what he was there to witness sank onto his shoulders. Here in the Monastery of Esagil, here in the Sentience Hall was the heart of Good in the Realm; Dungeonmaster had told them so. Around him were old friends, powerful and important people, and for once in his life Eric felt genuinely insignificant in the crowd, insignificant compared to his five friends as well, even the diminutive Barbarian.
Slowly, the silence shifted in focus and Eric instinctively looked up. Ahead, standing on the top step of the Hall, his head still bowed as if carrying a great weight, was the High Priest Mumo'on. His hand was raised, his blue robe taking on the sheen of flowing water in the bright light. Then he tilted his head up to look around at the people gathered there.
'Greetings to you all, the Great and Good of the Realm,' he said.
His voice was not what Eric had expected. His accent was thick and different from any Eric had heard before. His tone was in contrast to the Herald, who carried his authority and power in his voice; this man sounded weak and frail, as if he was whispering to everyone. Quite how Mumo'on had managed to speak loud enough to be heard across the whole hall, Eric didn't know and he glanced to his left, expecting someone to tell the old man to repeat himself. But no one did. Everyone was staring at the High Priest with total and undivided attention. Everyone, that was, but Eric. The Cavalier looked back at the man dressed in blue with the acute and uncomfortable feeling that the extended pause was for his benefit.
'You have all been summoned here to celebrate the Good of the Realm,' Mumo'on continued. 'You are called to give life to the Magic of Fate, and lead the way forward.'
Eric frowned slightly. Lead the way forward? The words echoed in Eric's mind as if someone had said them before, and the High Priest was just quoting.
'And yet you must remember. Tonight is the night of Fate,' the way Mumo'on said that word made
Eric shiver. 'You all have your parts to play.'
Mumo'on stepped forward and walked carefully down the steps to be lost in the red ocean of people. Eric blinked for a few seconds, disarmed by the anti-climax. He had expected
something more that just a few sentences; the speeches at the parties he'd been to before usually went on for a good ten minutes, maybe even twenty if his Dad had opened the champagne early. On the other hand, at least his Dad had usually made some sort of sense.
Eric frowned more deeply. There had been something vaguely ominous about the way Mumo'on had said that last sentence. You all have your parts to play. The old Dungeonmaster had occasionally hinted at something along the same lines, that they were there for a specific reason and that reason didn't involve a Portal home. Did that mean they had to do something, and not just enjoy a night free from danger, for once?
The Cavalier didn't get a chance to ponder the idea for longer than a moment as suddenly someone clapped him hard on the shoulder and he jumped around, a cold spike of fear going straight through him.
'We were wondering where you had gotten to,' Hank said with a grin. Eric gulped, as the panic faded as suddenly as it had arrived as he looked at his friends. The five of them were standing there, grinning at his anxiety. Annoyed at being teased, even very slightly, in such a public and important place, Eric scowled at them.
'Why so jumpy, Cavalier?' said Diana with a smirk. 'Were you expecting someone else?'
With a disinterested sniff, Eric ignored her as best he could, which was difficult considering how elegant she looked in her sweeping, sandstone-red dress. Sheila had tucked herself right up beside Hank and, though Eric couldn't be sure from where he was standing, it looked as if they were holding hands. In public! And what with Presto not wearing a dress, and the lack of annoying, whiny-Unicorn noises, Eric was left feeling disconcerted more than annoyed.
'Um... where s Uni?' Eric asked Bobby, grasping at any small, half-chance at normality.
'She didn't want to come along,' the Barbarian replied with a shrug.
Eric wasn't certain, but Bobby sounded like he was just pretending to sound unconcerned.
'Too many other people, I think,' said Sheila, filling in the slightly awkward silence. 'She'd get lost in such a big crowd, Bobby. She's happier in your room.'
The Barbarian accepted that statement with a nod, but didn't appear to be convinced. Sheila sensed it too, and looked up to Hank for help. Hank, to his credit didn't miss a beat, but started questioning the others about what they had been up to for the previous day, and what they had found out about the Monastery.
Eric listened as the others talked. Though Hank pretended otherwise, he only had eyes for Sheila and vice versa. A giant Dragon could show up and neither of them would have given it a second glance. Diana had noticed, judging by the knowing look on her face and the way she kept smiling at Eric. Bobby was concentrating on finding food.
Eric kept silent even as the conversation turned to the guests and who else might be there that they hadn't seen. In spite of feeling better now they were all together, Eric couldn't shake the feeling that something was going to happen.
After a few minutes, Eric noticed that Presto wasn't saying much either, and the Magician was looking around at the other guests, a concerned look on his face.
'Hey, Presto, you ok?' the Cavalier asked quietly.
Presto nodded, but his heart wasn't in it.
'Re-ally?' Eric asked, stretching out the vowel sound as much as he could and giving Presto his best, most-incredulous look. The Magician glanced from left to right, then shrugged.
'I' m ok. I suppose.' For once, Eric kept his mouth shut, looking at Presto and knowing that his friend had more to say. 'This place feels weird, that's all.'
Eric didn't voice his surprise at Presto's words; not at the words themselves, but the suspiciously clear way he summarised exactly what Eric himself had been feeling about this place.
'Yeah, I know,' Eric said with a nod. 'It's more weird than most places and this whole Realm is chock full or weird!'
Presto stared at him.
'What?' demanded Eric.
'No, no, nothing!' said Presto quickly. He sighed again. 'It's just... I kind of... I miss the Hat.'
Eric's self-control crumbled and he gave a short snort of laughter. Presto didn't look pleased, but fortunately Eric was saved an argument.
'Greetings, Young Ones,' said a quiet voice behind them. For a moment, Eric was confused, Dungeonmaster wasn't here, but someone was using his favourite phrase. Still, Eric recognised the voice as that of Mumo'on, but he didn't really believe that the High Priest would bother talking to them when there were so many other important people in the Sentience Hall. But a quick glance in the direction of Hank told Eric that those assumptions were wrong, and Mumo'on was indeed standing right behind him, so Eric turned around, trying not to seem as nervous or stupid as he felt.
Face to face, Mumo'on was different again from the fleeting impression Eric had formed earlier. His face was narrow and stern and he looked around the group with the kind of unfeeling glare that Venger often used. At Eric's side, Presto took a tiny step back.
For a few seconds, no one spoke.
'I welcome the Six of you to my Monastery!'
Eric had been wrong; here was one thing that managed to tear Hank's attention away from Sheila. The Ranger looked startled and struggled to find an appropriate reply.
'Th-Thanks,' he said after a moment.
Mumo'on looked at the Ranger intently and after another second or two, Hank gave a stiff bow. In response, Mumo'on gave a gracious and affected nod of his head and said:
'And it is a great honour to receive Dungeonmaster's star pupils in my Monastery.'
Hank's face grew slightly red at the complement.
But Eric didn't like it. Star pupils? Well, they were pretty good at wandering around the Realm making an impression. But why was it so important that they were the ones singled out like this? It wasn't as if Eric didn't enjoy attention, he was wise enough to recognise that, but this wasn't the sort of attention that he liked. He much preferred to get attention on his own terms rather than have it foisted upon him when he was ill equipped to deal with it. He didn't want to be the centre of the party, not tonight and certainly not here. Eric glanced at Hank, hoping for some sort of reassurance. But, other than the tinge of red around his cheek bones, Hank looked quite relaxed. Almost too relaxed. In fact, Hank was being very un-Hank-like in his relaxed attitude tonight. But then, he finally had a night off, he wasn't the leader at the moment; they were just a group of close friends hanging around together and enjoying each others company. That was all.
Eric inadvertently caught Diana's eye, and he smiled. She smiled back, much more warmly than Eric had expected. She kept on looking at him.
A familiar fear crept up his spine. This was going to go wrong. This was just a joke at his expense and there was a sign pinned to his back saying "kick me". This was... The maudlin thoughts were interrupted when Mumo'on spoke again.
'I have something that you might find... Mumo'on leaned forward to towards Hank, his dark eyes gleaming with what Eric took to be anticipation. '...interesting.'
The word hung in the silence, and the Cavalier watched as Hank and the other man stared at each other.
'Very well,' said Mumo'on suddenly.
He turned without another word and walked off. With a start, Hank followed, and after a moments hesitation, the others did the same.
The great Mumo'on led them purposefully through the crowd of people, ignoring anyone else and any attempt they made to speak to him. Eric felt uncomfortable to be singled out like this, but in general the other people barely gave him or the others a second glance. Once again, he had the sensation of being the one left out and everyone else knew what was going one except him.
As they walked, he didn't recognise anyone he knew, and all the time, in the back of his mind he was wondering if Gail was here somewhere, maybe watching him out of the corner of her eye. He hoped she was. And he hoped she wasn't. He couldn't make up his mind. Somehow, after meeting Jamie and Paul, he had assumed he'd get to speak to Gail as well, and even though part of him dreaded that conversation, he didn't want to leave without saying something.
But within a few minutes, the six of them and Mumo'on reached the edge of the Sentience Hall. Close up, the decorations on the wall were even more impressive, with an unparalleled level of detail in the mural. It was almost as if he was looking at a photograph. But Eric didn't stop long to admire the skill, he didn't get the chance. Mumo'on opened the large double doors in a brusque manner and was out into the darkness beyond as fast as an orc on fire.
Eric glanced around at his friends, who were all looking as confused, nervous (and out of breath) as he felt.
Hank followed first, Sheila at his side, closely followed by Bobby then Diana. Presto and Eric were left looking at each other. If Eric had to hazard a guess, he would have guessed that Presto thought this was not a good idea. But rather than agree out loud with the Magician, Eric shrugged and stepped forward through the doorway.
'When in Loony-land...' he muttered.
'...do as the Loonies do,' finished Presto.
Side-by-side, they left the hall and walked down a dark corridor. After the bright light of the Sentience Hall Eric found it difficult to see any of the details of the decoration. Mumo'on s blue robe was still shimmering even in the muted light, and it was simple to follow the others onwards. As they walked onwards Eric felt the sense of magic building inside his chest. Just like that disastrous day as the Dungeonmaster, he could feel magic everywhere, the subtle nuances coiling in spirals through the floor and the wall, the carpet and the decoration, even through himself. But this wasn't the same kind of magic as the Dungeonmaster had had. This was altogether more intense and focused, almost as if the magic itself knew what it was doing and he was only a small piece in its vast purpose.
Beside him, Presto trailed forward too, a good few steps behind the other four, dragging his feet in that distinctive way that Eric recognised perfectly. Presto wasn't happy.
Ahead, Hank and Sheila were walking along side by side, their arms inadvertently touching all the time. At the sight, Eric rolled his eyes. How long were those two going to pretend? And how long was it going to be until he could get down to some proper making fun of their being in love? Were they going to make him wait forever? He had a whole suite of perfect one-liners already worked out for exactly this occasion! He couldn't waste them.
Just in front of the two lovebirds Bobby strutted along, his head held high, not looking with any apparent interest at his surroundings.
But Diana was a different matter. She was looking around, her head constantly turned by what she saw, and every so often Eric would catch her looking at him with an expression that made him uncomfortable. He wasn't usually uncomfortable around Diana, but tonight, every second glance seemed to be back at him and it was making him feel as if he'd done something wrong. Was he wearing his shirt back to front? Was he covered in red ink again and no one had the heart to tell him? It wasn't as if he disliked the constant attention from such a stunning girl; it was just that it made him feel so uncomfortable. He was going to ask her to stop it, but in the end he just lifted his head up and looked away, promising himself that he wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of knowing she'd got to him.
They continued down one deserted corridor after another, following the High Priest. They turned one way then the other until Eric was well and truly lost. Just when he though the walk was going to go on all night, they turned down one more corridor to a dead end.
Directly ahead was a set of ornate and massive double doors that gleamed like polished granite. It was clearly a door, but there were no handles on the outside and no sign of any hinges. Just before it, Mumo'on paused.
'What are we waiting for?' Bobby asked Sheila in a fake whisper.
Mumo'on turned around and gave the Barbarian a little smile.
'You may try to enter, if you wish.'
The young boy tilted his head up, the same way he did every time he was challenged, but Hank caught him by the shoulder before he moved.
'Not so fast, Bobby,' Hank said.
Mumo'on gave Hank a slight tilt of his head.
'A wise decision, Ranger of the Realm,' he said. 'No one may pass without permission.'
'Permission from who?' demanded Bobby.
'Me,' came the reply from the High Priest. He looked steadily at the young boy, and Bobby stared back, but only for a few seconds then he looked to the ground.
At Eric's shoulder, Presto leaned forward.
'Wonder what could be so important that it's kept behind those doors,' he said quietly.
The exact same thought had crossed Eric's mind as well.
'Must be something expensive,' he replied. 'This is built like a bank vault!'
'But I wonder why we are being shown it,' whispered Presto, and even in such a low volume, Eric could make out the worried overtones. Eric was about to reply with something either comforting or sarcastic, he couldn't quite decide, but the High Priest suddenly turned and Eric suddenly felt a powerful wave of magic, aggressive and protective both at the same time. He looked away from Mumo'on as quickly as he could.
'You may enter,' said Mumo'on, breaking the uncomfortable silence. 'The doors will open. You may all enter now.'
The group looked at each other, and inevitably Hank took the lead. One at a time, they moved forward again and as they did so the huge double doors slowly swung open with a low grating noise.
The room beyond reminded Eric of Darkhaven in every respect, except size. There was the dim, flickering light of flames and the familiar smell of an old room, little used, the lingering smell of dust and old paper. As he'd expected, the walls and the floor were virtually undecorated, continuing the austere style of the other parts of the Monastery except the Hall. A short way ahead was a long black table, and just behind that was a lectern, with an open book resting on it. Eric couldn't make out exactly what size the book was, or much about it at all. But he did know it was Magic, with a capital M.
As Presto came to stand beside him, he staggered slightly, rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand. Eric caught his arm.
'You ok, Presto?'
The Magician nodded, blinking a few times in quick succession.
'This place is weird,' he whispered.
The Cavalier nodded, unsure of what else to say as Mumo'on softly padded round the line of six, standing between them and the rest of the room.
Mumo'on gazed round the group, his eyes shining as blue as his robe.
'You are here,' he said in a hushed voice. 'This is the most sacred place in the Realm, the magical centre-point, the home of powers unimaginable to mortals such as yourself. This is the home of Fate itself.'
A quip about the decor formed on Eric's lips, but for once he managed to control himself. He was in enough bad books at the moment without adding Fate to the list as well!
'Come closer, Young Ones,' Mumo'on said, beckoning them with a narrow, knobbly finger. Hank stepped forward, still holding Sheila's hand, so Eric followed, coming to stand shoulder to shoulder with Diana. Neither Presto nor Bobby moved.
'I know of your apprenticeship under the guidance of the Dungeonmaster,' Mumo'on said. 'And I know of your long search for a way back to your home. And I know of all your sacrifices.'
Mumo'on gave Eric a hard look that made his skin crawl. There was no possible way that the High Priest could know about that? Was there? He d not told anyone about Amoran, and the memory was fading. He didn't want to think about that again. Then Mumo'on s gaze shifted, flitting over Bobby and Sheila, to Presto and Diana, giving them hard stares as well. Finally, Mumo'on looked at Hank.
'Yes,' said the High Priest. 'To survive in this Realm you have all sacrificed something.'
Eric saw Hank scowl but he made no reply.
'And thanks to those good deeds you now stand at the very edge of Fate itself on the night when Fate is decided!' Mumo'on s voice was low when he next spoke. 'Only the power of Fate is at work in this place, and in this time.'
Eric glanced at the others, but no one returned his gaze.
'Why?' asked Presto eventually, a frown on his face. 'And how?'
Mumo'on quickly replied.
'Only Fate's magic may work,' said the High Priest. 'That is the way it has been for a thousand years. That is the way it shall always be within the Monastery of Esagil.'
Presto shifted uncomfortably.
'Yeah, but, um, how do you know?'
'It is the way of the Magic of the Monastery,' Mumo'on told him. 'This is how the Magic works, all other magic is forbidden. The power of Fate has threaded itself though the very fabric of the Realm, each plant and animal and creature and rock and mote of dust. Fate is everywhere! It is power, absolute! And it is used to guide those to good deeds. But...' The High Priest stopped speaking abruptly and took a slow breath in, 'But the Prophecy has long spoken of your arrival.'
The others looked at each other once again. Prophecy? They all knew enough about the Realm to know that prophecies weren't good.
'Prophecy?' asked Hank. The tone in the Ranger s voice had changed, and there was a twist across his shoulders that Eric instantly recognised. The Ranger that he knew so well was back in charge.
'The presence of those who would free the Realm from the yoke of Evil has long been foretold,' said Mumo'on, not looking away from Hank, who looked back at him with a slight frown. 'For a thousand years, the various aspects of the prophecy had been read and debated by minds of the highest worth. And now you are finally here. You are finally here!'
Eric felt a glow of pride in his chest. They were Dungeonmaster s star pupils, after all.
'For a thousand years?' asked Presto. If Eric hadn't known better he would have said Presto sounded suspicious. Nevertheless, Mumo'on nodded.
'Yes, Magician of the Realm. One thousand years ago the Great Prophet saw your arrival, and saw the great deeds you would do. Your presence at this place at this time was foreseen by the greatest man who ever lived!'
For the first time in the whole conversation, and since Eric had first seen him, Mumo'on smiled, his eyes wide and his whole face shining with excitement and awe.
'What do we do?' asked Presto. 'What is there for us to do? Do you know?'
Mumo'on's excited smile vanished, and the atmosphere in the room suddenly became colder. Eric looked at Presto and was surprised to see that he his head was held steady, and he met the High Priest's gaze with the same confidence that Hank had shown.
'The book before you may hold the answers, if you dare to read... if you dare to even look! Who can know what you would see?'
'Don't you know?'
Mumo'on didn't answer, just looked at Presto with a fixed expression.
No one else moved.
'So, I could go and look at the book,' said Presto slowly.
'You may look, if you so desire. But the events of your lives are not set or fixed. There is no certainty, there is no way to be absolutely sure. Magic does not work in that fashion. You, of all people should know that.' Mumo'on looked more fiercely at Presto, his voice suddenly rising in volume and power. 'And knowing what it is that you do, you may yet fail, and bring the life of the Realm down with you, letting all that is Good be defeated and all that is unending Evil rise to full power. Do you dare to contemplate the consequences, young Magician?'
At Mumo'on s words, Eric felt his chest tighten and his heartbeat grow faster. What were they getting themselves into? Prophecy? The fall of the Realm? The defeat of Good, the rise of unending Evil... it was all down to them?
The fall of the Realm...?
No one spoke.
Author's Note - The inevitable has finally happened. An update!