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The Maze of Solitude

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One big, merry band--that was the order of things, wasn't it? Eric kicked a stone but didn't hurry to catch up with the rest of the group. They just didn't get it. It wasn't that he hadn't learned better-how could anyone ignore the lessons being banged into their heads about following the rules and how Sheila and Hank were always right? And that he was always wrong.

It was just...he was so tired of it all. Tired of the never ending quest to try to get home, tired of the fact that the rest of them just tuned him out now, even when he had something to say. Not that he had anything better waiting for him at home. But at least at home, he could go off and do things by himself without falling into a trap and having to be rescued or complain without turning into a hideous monster. It was enough to give anyone a complex.

He noticed that the others had stopped at the lake edge and it wasn't hard to guess that Dungeon Master had appeared. Eric considered the merits of a pratfall into the lake, but it was on the chilly side, and he didn't much like pneumonia. Instead he quite carefully skidded to a stop inches from the water's edge.

"To reach the end of the Maze of Solitude together, you must each travel alone, and in the end, the truth will set you free." Dungeon Master was proclaiming as he arrived. He let one of the others note that this didn't make any sense, as though DM ever said anything that did make sense.

Once Bobby had performed the ritual of "Oh, no, he's disappeared!", Eric shouldered his pack, waved to the group and headed along the faint path towards the crevasse in the rocks to his left. He was unsurprised when Hank called out to him.

Eric turned to look at him. "You heard DM, we're supposed to travel alone on this one," Eric said carelessly. He was probably misinterpreting everything, but if he got into trouble, the others would save him, and he really wanted to be alone with his own thoughts right now.

"Oh, let him go, Hank," he heard Sheila say as he walked off. "You know Eric."

He ignored the conversation behind him. It would just be the same old nonsense. The enforced togetherness was really getting to him, and it was either walk away or whine and make himself even less welcome.

"They're probably glad to see the back of me," he said out loud to the wall in front of him, though he knew deep down it wasn't true. Laying his left hand on the wall, he followed it until he came to an entrance. Taking a deep, if unnecessary breath, he turned and entered the maze.

It wasn't a bad maze, as these things went. There was daylight to see by, the paths were smooth, and the dead ends didn't seem to contain monsters. On the minus side, the walls were too slick to climb, and if he hadn't managed to get his shield up in time, that wall would have crushed him as it slid into place.

But despite the occasional sliding wall, easily deflected by his shield, he quickly found his way to the center of the maze, and was unsurprised when the door he'd come through snapped shut behind him. Here the smooth paths turned grassy and pastoral, surrounding an apple tree, a fountain and a picnic table. Eric absently plucked an apple from the tree and settled down to eat. There was no way out at the moment, and he suspected he wouldn't see one until the others arrived.

Uni appeared without fanfare, teleporting in right under the apple tree. At least the young unicorn had the sense the others lacked.

From time to time, he could hear screams or yells coming from the maze, but Eric figured they wouldn't thank him if he went after them, even if he could. Besides, considering the narrow pathways, he couldn't help but wonder if they were getting in each other's way.

Time passed. Eric counted the black slab walls that enclosed him (16), estimated height and width, and combed the area for a way to open one of the doors. He tested the depth of the water in the fountain (shallow), checked the carvings for hidden switches and buttons, stood on the table to see what he could see of the maze, and even investigated the apple tree for tricks. He didn't think DM would leave him here if the others didn't make it through, but one never knew.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been there when Diana arrived. None of the walls shifted, instead she jumped over one using her pole.

"You had the right idea, Eric," were the first words out of her mouth.

Eric nearly choked. Admittedly the others were quick enough to acknowledge that he was right on the rare occasions he was, but usually it came with a snide comment about not getting a big head over it. To cover his reaction, he pulled an apple off the tree and passed it to her. "What happened?"

"It was horrible. We kept getting in each other's way, and the maze kept throwing traps at us." Diana gave him a rueful grin as she took a bite. "Everyone had the best idea of how to get through and they were all centered on our own magical objects. Once I realized that none of the traps were geared to your shield's power, I turned away from the group, and suddenly it was just facing traps that my pole could easily handle. When I left they were still arguing, though."

"Figures." Eric was almost sorry he'd missed that.

Daylight was starting to fade when a wall disappeared to reveal Presto.

"Are they still arguing?" Diana asked.

"Nope, but they are still going around in circles." Presto plopped down on the bench. "I don't think the maze will let a group through.

"Sometimes it's good to go your own way," Eric found himself saying as he passed the other boy an apple. "Even if it leads you into trouble. Reminds you that you're you and all that." He waved a hand absently, to cover his inability to find the right words.

To his surprise they both nodded in agreement.

"Even if you're wrong most of the time, Diana started. Eric gave her a hurt look, but she continued quickly, "Hank needs someone to ask the questions he doesn't. Even if he is only wrong one time in a hundred."

Eric was both startled and pleased at this assessment. "I don't mean to be so contrary, but sometimes if I say the stuff out loud it makes it easier."

"And if you say it, we don't have to," Presto blurted out, then flushed in embarrassment as he realized he'd spoken out loud.

But any awkwardness was forgotten when Bobby crashed through one of the wall. "Oh, here you are, Uni." He plopped down on the grass by the fountain and the unicorn wandered over to nuzzle him. "I got tired of Sheila and Hank arguing so I told them they weren't my parents and ran off."

Eric absently picked another apple off the tree. Was it the apples or the maze that was having this effect on them? After a moment he passed Bobby the apple. It didn't seem to be hurting any of them, and he was curious.

"Yum. I s'pose you've all had dinner already," Bobby said through a mouthful of apple.

"Just the apples. We should probably eat something else. We don't know how long the others will be," Diana said.

"At they rate they're going, we could be here forever," Eric replied gloomily, despite himself. He leaned against one of the walls. It was full dark now, but the moons were shining bright enough that he could see the others well. "Right, food and then sleep." Someone needed to make a decision. "If they show up tonight they'll wake us and we can figure out how to get out of here then."

He woke once, near dawn, and opened his eyes to see a wall sliding shut and Sheila pulling down her hood. Taking care not to wake the others, he made his way over to her. "You finally made it."

"Finally,"Sheila said with a sigh. "It kept getting easier, as people left, so we thought--" she broke off. "They're all here."

"Except Hank." Eric paused a moment. "I think it adjusted to the powers of the each weapon, so when you were together--"

"We were getting hit with attacks against all of our weapons. At the same time. And there was no room to maneuver. So the only way to get through was to do it alone."

"Exactly."

Sheila yawned.

"Why don't you go to sleep, Sheila? I'll wake you when Hank shows up," Eric promised. He was too tired to think of a joke.

He watched sleepily as she laid out her blanket roll, before climbing into his. The good thing about being a light sleeper, was that he had learned to sleep anywhere, if only for a few minutes.

When he woke again, it was full daylight and the others were stirring. Hank still hadn't arrived. He absently folded his bedroll as the others discussed what to do.

"We could hear you guys yelling in the distance," Presto offered. "Maybe we could call out to him and tell him how to get here."

"That's a great idea," Bobby said. "I bet I can yell the loudest." He proceeded to demonstrate, causing Eric to cover his ears in mock pain.

Eric didn't argue as the others chimed in about what a great idea this was. If this place worked the way he thought it did, they'd have their answer soon enough, and for once he wouldn't be the one learning the lesson. He was willing to sacrifice a chance to get home for that.

"Hank, over here," Sheila called.

"It's okay, Hank, the path is easier when you're alone," Diana added.

The others quickly contributed their two cents, except for Eric, who stayed silent, even as one of Hank's arrows landed nearby, and the group watched him climb over the wall. Nor did he speak when the fountain resolved itself into a portal.

"Come on, guys, we've got a way home," Hank said, as though he hadn't spent the night trapped in the maze."

They followed him, as they always would, through the portal. Eric threw up his hands as if to say "why do I even bother?" and entered the portal last of all.

He wasn't at all surprised when they came out at the lake where they started, and this time he made a point of slipping on the damp grass and careening into the lake. Mostly because there wasn't a nearby wall to bang his head against.

Predictably, this move got a lot of laughter, and he did his best to look and sound peeved. "What are you staring at? Hey, get me out of here."

"Dungeon Master," Bobby yelped.

Noting that their attention was no longer on him, Eric pulled himself out of the lake and started trying to wring out his clothing.

"I don't understand, Dungeon Master," Hank said.

"That's not surprising," Eric thought but didn't say out loud. There were limits to what even he would say.

"You said that if we reached the center, we'd be able to get home through the portal," Hank continued, oblivious to Eric's thoughts.

"You didn't solve the maze alone, Ranger, you had help. The portal would only have worked if you'd all got to the center on your own. Following the group is all well and good, but sometimes you have to be true to yourself."

Eric could tell that Hank still didn't get it, so he decided to give DM a little help. "And sometimes you need to find a towel." He punctuated his words by shaking himself off all over Hank.

Hank swung around to glare at the distraction and Eric could have sworn he saw Dungeon Master wink as he disappeared, leaving Eric to deal with Hank.

Which he was more than able to do. "That's it, we're spending tonight in an inn."

"Can we afford it?" Diana asked.

"I don't care. I want clean sheets. And a hot bath. And maybe even a meal that doesn't involve dried fruit or meat." Eric continued on in this vein as the group made it's way down the twisting trail. Just being right about one thing had restored his equilibrium. It didn't even matter that no one acknowledged it. One big, merry band, but he'd do his best to make sure they didn't get too complacent.