Ald looked around at his teammates. Some had tears in their eyes at seeing him as flesh and blood again., but all of them had smiles on their faces. “So, you mounted your own rescue mission,” he said, grinning broadly.
“We figured it was only appropriate for us to return the favor,” Kobai replied.
“Well, thank you. Truly. All of you. Because of you, I’m better than I have ever been.” Ald flexed his fingers, looking at the fur on his hands.
“How exactly did that happen, Ald?” Fuzzy asked in a snort.
Ald shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “I wish I knew, Fuzz.”
Healpimp cleared his throat, and the team turned towards him. “This is only a theory,” he said. “But I think it has to do with sacrifice. You atoned for your sins, not for yourself like most who come through Revendreth, but for us.”
Ironic, Ald thought to himself, given that my sin was pride. “That’s as good a guess as any,” he said aloud, clapping one paw on Healpimp’s shoulder. “I trust it wasn’t too difficult to get here? Did you come in through the sewers?”
Cald’s mouth dropped open for a moment, and he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I honestly never even considered that. We just came in through the front door.”
“The front door?” Ald echoed. “Why have we never done that before?”
“Habit?” Cald responded.
“Ald, you should have seen this giant bat we had to face,” Emma said. Ald watched as Bastian shivered at the word bat. “And then we fought off a bunch of hounds. And then-”
“Okay, okay,” Cald interrupted. “Let’s catch up once we get out of here. The front door is just down that spiral staircase,” he said, pointing near the front of the torture chamber.
Ald shook his head. “No, wait. We shouldn’t leave. We need to finish this and hit Denathrius before he can ready his troops. You guys took him off his guard. His plans just evaporated into thin air. I say we head to his lair and take him out before he can recover.” Ald looked over at Keb, their recent discussion seared into his brain. “That is, if you all want to. This decision is not mine alone.”
Cald looked unsure but shrugged. “A vote, then. Those in favor of storming the rest of Castle Nathria?”
Every single voice rang out in approval.
The Heroes ran down the spiral staircase and turned towards a large balcony that overlooked an enormous ballroom. The ballroom was ornately decorated in deep reds and gleaming golds. Gargoyles and dredgers holding trays of food lined the sides of the room, and Venthyr were filing in through a passageway down below. It was impossible not to notice the similarities between the gathering below and the party from which Ald had been abducted.
Out of sight on the balcony above were Renathal and Draven. The team ran up to them. Draven’s face remained stony and severe, but Prince Renathal’s face split into a grin.
“Ah, heroes. You return with your leader intact. And just in time. The Master is hosting a court party. We can make our escape before all of the guests arrive,” he said, relief washing over him. The thought of a Court of Vampires who did not support the rebellion must have made Renathal uneasy.
“Change of plans, Prince Renathal,” Cald said. “We’re taking Denathrius down. Tonight.”
For the first time, General Draven’s face split into a grin.
Renathal did not look as thrilled. “But, heroes, the party is going to begin soon. This would be the best time to escape. These Venthyr do not support our cause. You would need to fight each and every one. An entire room of my kind is not something with which to trifle. My suggestion is to leave.”
“Prince,” Ald said, grabbing Renathal’s attention. “You taught me that to gain new members for the rebellion, we had to respect the Venthyr traditions. Every member of the Court below should have one final chance to join our cause. I say we do it in the traditional way.”
Renathal opened his mouth to reply, but no words came out. He closed it again, nodded, and murmured, “Well, I cannot argue with that. Let me impress one thing upon you all before you descend to the ballroom. You may be able to convince a number of partygoers, but you will never convince the guests of honor. Frieda, Stavros, and Niklaus have always been loyal supporters of the Master. They are the ones who helped banish me to Torghast.”
“So noted,” said Ald. “Everyone, let’s head down.”
The Humpday Heroes returned to the spiral staircase and went down to the ground floor. At the bottom was a short hallway where a number of Venthyr were streaming into the ballroom. They all looked sideways at the large group of raiders, but they didn’t say anything to the group. They continued their passage into the ballroom.
At the entrance gate, a large gargoyle bouncer gave them eyes and held a hand up at their approach. “You’re not on the guest list,” he growled menacingly.
“On the contrary,” Ald replied, a smile on his lips. “Sire Denathrius invited me into his castle days ago. And he greeted the members of my team upon their arrival as well. We are as welcome as any other guest to his party.”
The gargoyle growled deep in his chest and took one step towards the group when a slender, long-fingered hand rested upon his shoulder.
“My dear Stoneborn,” came the silky voice of a female Venthyr. “As a guest of honor, I implore you to let these people through as my personal guests. Consider them my entourage.” Ald looked up into the wicked face of the Venthyr, her eyes clouded with deceit and cunning. Perhaps crashing this party had not been the best idea.
“But Baroness-,” the gargoyle began to reply, but the Venthyr turned her palm and slapped him across the face with a wicked backhand. Even though he was made of stone, the gargoyle reeled from the blow. He staggered towards the ground, and bits of rock fell from his face where the rings on her fingers had connected. Instead of verbally replying again, he simply nodded and gestured for the group to enter the ballroom.
While some of the team seemed shocked from the sudden violence, Ald was not at all surprised at the quick move, having been tortured by a Venthyr for the last few days. “Baroness Frieda, I presume?” he asked of the female Venthyr.
“The one and only, Maw Walker,” she replied, her beady eyes watching every hair on his body. “I must admit you are much more attractive now that you’re not just a soul,” she said, as the tip of her tongue brushed a single fang. “I assume that as my guests, you will adhere to our traditions? Tonight, we drink and dance.”
“But of course, Baroness,” Cald replied as he took a step forward in line with Ald. “We shall not engage in violence unless threatened ourselves.”
Frieda’s eyes never left Ald, and she merely nodded at Cald’s words. “I’ll hold you to that personally, Maw Walker. It would be a shame to disrespect Venthyr traditions while Prince Renathal is still attempting to gain support from our people. It could put your whole rebellion into jeopardy.” She smiled evilly and turned back towards the ballroom, sweeping her cape behind her.
“Well, it’s pretty obvious she wants us to mess up in here,” said Opie in a whisper.
“So, let’s not cause a scene, folks,” Ald replied quietly to the group. “Mingle with the guests. Convince them to join the rebellion. Do not fight unless they throw the first punch.”
Fuzzy raised a paw. “Um, did you see what happened to that gargoyle’s face from a little slap? Imagine a closed-fist punch. We wouldn’t have time to retaliate. Our heads would be rolling around the dance floor.”
“Actually,” interrupted Decebul, her nose in a book. “According to ancient tradition, all of the guests are held to this standard by pain of death. No one can start any kind of violence, or the guards will immediately swoop in and behead them.” She hesitated. “Well, almost no one.”
“Let me guess,” said Ald, his heart dropping into the bottom of his stomach. “The guests of honor.”
“Alright. Keb, go and distract Niklaus. Nia, you take Stavros. Both of you disengage from any fight from them until the whole team can retaliate. I’ll go and have a nice healthy discussion with Frieda. Everyone else, mingle with the Venthyr nobles.” Ald turned, and the team entered the ballroom.
Keb and Nia disappeared together towards the main table set at the head of the hall where both Niklaus and Stavros were seated. The rest of the team spread out around the room, sitting with lone Venthyr or engaging with small groups of them. As the team members infiltrated the room, several Venthyr eyes darted to the center of the room where Frieda stood as she greeted other Venthyr aristocrats. Ald headed straight in her direction.
The other Venthyr around her saw him coming. They turned on the spot and left mid-conversation. Frieda set her eyes upon the Pandaren and smiled at his approach. “I guess I need to keep you around, Maw Walker,” she said. “You are an excellent repellent for boorish nobility.”
“I live to serve,” he replied, stationing himself with his back to the head table so that Frieda had to turn away from the rest of his team. If there was one thing Ald understood, it was distraction.
Frieda took the bait and turned towards Ald. Her smile widened and both of her fangs became visible points of light. “Indeed. Funny you should mention living. As I said before, your physical presence is rather unexpected. How have you managed to attain a true body while a guest of the Master? Surely, he is less than satisfied.”
“You could say that, Baroness. I’m fairly certain there was a look of fear on his face when we last parted. Surely the tides are turning for this rebellion. Wouldn’t you say?”
Frieda tilted her head back and laughed. “Oh, Maw Walker,” she said once her momentary glee was finished. “You are going to have to do better than that. Surely you can learn to be a bit more subtle in your approach.”
“I was never one for subtlety,” Ald replied. He noted a few members of his team escorting Venthyr from the room. Had they been able to convince some of them already? “Tell me, Baroness. How would you let someone know that they should turn away from the side that will ultimately fail in this campaign?”
Frieda flicked her tongue over her fang again, relishing the banter. “You may not be subtle, but I do so enjoy your forthright nature. Let’s see,” she said, a hand caressing her own chin. “I would start with a dance. It really gets the…juices flowing,” she added. She raised her hands to the height of her head and gave a sudden, deafening clap. At once, an orchestra that Ald had not yet seen materialized and began to play waltz-like music.
Around the room, Venthyr couples joined hands and began twirling in time to the music. Members of the team who had been having one-on-one discussions with Venthyr were forced to join hands and take up the dance. Ald noticed that Tommy had to stuff an eclair into his pocket as the female Venthyr near him grasped his chocolatey hands.
The wicked grin still plastered to her face, Baroness Frieda held out her own hands. Against his deepest desires, Ald took them. He placed one paw behind her back and held her hand with the other. The two began to waltz in a circle around the center of the ballroom, earning wide-eyed stares from other dancing couples.
A spotlight illuminated the dancing pair as they circled around the room.
“Let me see,” Frieda continued. “Next, I would whisper sweet nothings into the ear of my dance partner.” She leaned in close and Ald could feel her icy breath upon his furry neck. “Like how if you oppose the Master any longer, you will likely die again.”
A shiver ran down Ald’s spine, and he hoped that she didn’t feel it.
“It’s not too late, Baroness. If you defect now, Renathal will likely let you keep your title. Even if you did betray him before. He is a noble and just Venthyr.”
She laughed again. “Betray? It is he who betrayed the Master. There is no point in joining the fight against him, Maw Walker. The Master is all powerful. He created this land and all of the Venthyr in it in his own image.”
“And then he stole the anima from those people, causing them to suffer. They are wasting away in Revendreth while he funnels all of it to the Jailer in the Maw.” His speech distracted him, and Ald mistakenly stepped on Frieda’s right foot. She didn’t seem to notice.
“Such passion. You are quite fun, Maw Walker. Let’s see. What would I do next?” She pretended to think deeply. “Ah, yes. I would really sweep them off their feet.”
Without warning, Ald’s feet left the ground. In a panic, he looked down and saw that he and Frieda were now hovering in midair, still spinning about the room. Other Venthyr couples around them were doing the same. Soon, Ald was twenty feet off the ground, his heart in his throat as he clung tightly to his dance partner, squeezing her hard around the back.
Frieda let out another peal of laughter. “Holding on for dear life, Maw Walker? I’d have thought you were accustomed to being close to death by this point.”
Ald would have responded, but he was afraid of what else would come out of his mouth.
“So, tell me, Maw Walker. What was your plan exactly? Surely, you’re aware that you cannot attack me even if I attack you? What did you hope to accomplish by waltzing into a Venthyr party while you’re being hunted by the Master?”
“Hunted?” Ald gasped, forgetting the fact that he was being held at a height that, were he to fall, would break both of his legs. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
Frieda’s dark eyes bored into Ald’s. “Of course you are aware that you and your friends have a bounty on your heads? Dead or alive, as it were. And still you come here attempting to convince Venthyr to join your cause. I must admit that seems rather foolish.”
Ald had not counted on being wanted, especially so soon after their recent encounter in the torture chamber. How had Denathrius had time to place bounties on every member of the team? Unless…
“Unless he knew we would come here?” Ald finished aloud.
Frieda’s laugh echoed around the ballroom. “The Master sees everything as a game of chess, Maw Walker. He is always a few moves ahead of the competition. Of course, you and your pawns would enter the hall and try to convince other Venthyr to join your pitiful rebellion. How could you resist?”
“Call me Ald,” said the Pandaren, his temper beginning to rise.
“And, of course, the Master trusted me to quell your attempts,” she continued, choosing not to hear Ald’s request. “To send your pawns scurrying back and to capture their King. It’s a shame really. You’ve been a fantastic dance partner. And the banter,” she said, chuckling. “I wish we had more time to cross swords. Metaphorically, of course.”
Ald saw it coming. Frieda’s hand turned sideways with her sharp fingernails pointed outwards. Ald released her hand and her back just as she began her swing. He fell quickly. She followed through with the swipe, her fingernails scything the air above Ald’s head, taking a few black hairs from his muted mohawk.
“Tommy!” he screamed as he fell to the ground below.
The Demon Hunter leapt into the air and thrust out his wings, catching the falling Pandaren just inches from the stone floor. They landed with a thud, Ald still in Tommy’s arms. “Tommy, is that an eclair in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
Stony faced, Tommy dropped Ald on his behind. He then took out his squished eclair from the pocket of his leggings and stuffed it unceremoniously into his mouth. “Now, we fight?” he asked, spitting pastry out the side of his mouth.
Ald nodded. “Now, we fight.”
He looked up at Frieda as she floated down to the ground, using her dress as a parachute. Her face was twisted into a cruel smile, and she gave a subtle wink before feigning shock and pain. “Guards!” she cried. “This guest has attacked me! He has broken tradition. Behead him! And his friends!”
Ald wasn’t sure whether any of the Venthyr guests had been convinced to join the rebel cause. But they sure weren’t supporting Denathrius. Every single one of them besides the three guests of honor and the orchestra players ran screaming from the ballroom, heading towards the spiral staircase. The orchestra continued to play, but the tempo of their music increased greatly.
Large stone gargoyles landed in the ballroom, upending tables and facing the group of Heroes who were huddling closer and closer.
“Uh, Anda?” Ald asked, nudging her arm.
“No can do. I can’t convoke the spirits again for some time,” she replied.
“Alrighty, then,” he said. “The old fashioned way.”