Nothing like this had ever happened to them in the Realm.
They had been in plenty of dangerous and unpleasant situations – bridges that fell while they were crossing them, getting stuck in a demon spider’s web over a bottomless pit, wandering through horrible swamps, stuck in a tower funhouse that used their own fears against them – but they had always faced those dangers together.
And no one had ever really been hurt – maybe a little banged up and a lot scared, but somehow they had always managed to escape mostly unscathed.
And they usually managed to stay together.
Now he was alone.
Eric had no idea what had happened to the others.
Dungeon Master’s latest little errand had taken them into a town that was being held hostage by a power-hungry prince in league with Venger. As usual, their advisor had been less than clear about exactly what he wanted them to do, saying that when they found the door they would be able to guess where the key was. So the six of them had set out on the quest, ready to tackle whatever came their way.
They had found the door, all right, and plenty of trouble to go with it. Eric had been attacked while standing guard so the others could search for the key, and he had been outnumbered. His shield was like an extension of himself now, but a shield was not much good against five huge guys with shields of their own.
He had given his friends enough warning, at least – the big guys had come back empty-handed. They had not been happy about it either, and they had taken it out on him. Eric had been in a fight or two in his life, and had taken a punch to the face, but he had never been seriously beat up.
These guys had definitely worked him over, beating him in a pretty systematic fashion. He had passed out at some point. When he came back to consciousness, his first thought was that everything hurt.
His second was the realization that he was chained in a dungeon, with unyielding stone walls against his back and legs. It was cold and damp, and they had secured his arms above his head, and they felt disturbingly numb. It took him a few attempts to get up on his feet, which took some of the pressure off his arms. His shield sat in the corner, taunting him with its uselessness.
Yet he thought he would feel better if he could just hold it.
Eric had no idea how long he had been there in the dark. There was a sort of dim, flickering light in what he supposed was the hallway, and he could hear sounds that were not comforting in the least. When the door opened, he instinctively moved to shield his eyes against the sudden bright light of a lantern, and winced when the chains stopped him.
His first thought was that the guy looked like a weasel. A richly dressed one with jewels glinting in the lantern light, but still a weasel. It was something about the face, the weak chin and shifty eyes, and those way they gleamed at the sight of Eric in his chains. If he had to guess, this was the power-hungry prince. They met all the best people in the Realm, Eric thought.
“So Dungeon Master’s young pet is still here,” he said in a soft and unpleasant voice. “Excellent.”
“Not exactly a five-star joint, but I thought I’d hang around awhile.” As jokes went, it was pretty weak, but Eric knew it was a matter of either laughing or screaming. He did not want to scream.
“You will tell me the secret of summoning Dungeon Master, and spare yourself the suffering,” the prince continued, as if Eric had not spoken at all.
“Look, I wouldn’t mind giving him a call,” Eric shot back, “but I’m afraid Dungeon Master has a bad habit of screening his calls.”
The prince frowned again. “You will tell me the secret of summoning Dungeon Master, and spare yourself the suffering.”
There was a strange tone to the man’s voice, as if he was attempting to cast some sort of spell on Eric. The mental image of the this guy swinging a pendant on a chain in front of him flashed into Eric’s mind for a moment, and he almost laughed aloud. Almost, because he could see that the prince was becoming irritated and confused as to why his spell wasn’t working.
“There’s no secret,” Eric said. “He shows up when he feels like it.” Eric was wishing that Dungeon Master would put in an appearance, or that he would wake up by the campfire and discover all of this had been a dream.
Even better, that he would wake up in his own bed, and this would all have been a dream.
“You will tell me the secret of summoning Dungeon Master, and spare yourself the suffering.” Eric repressed the urge to quip that the third time was obviously not this guy’s charm, because he had gone from irritation to anger.
“There is no secret,” he repeated louder, as if that might penetrate this guy’s skull.
Then he watched as the prince pulled a knife from a sheath on his belt. It looked wickedly sharp, and it glowed a disconcerting red. The prince’s hand shot out, and suddenly a shooting, searing, horrible pain cut across his bicep. Eric was dimly aware of blood flowing, of sudden sharp pain.
The prince raised the knife, which was still glowing underneath the blood staining the blade.
“You will tell me the secret of summoning Dungeon Master, or you will suffer. Imagine how this blade will feel when it cuts into your face.”
“There’s no secret!” Eric yelled. He wished there was a secret, but there was none. Dungeon Master came and went as he pleased. Why wouldn’t this guy believe him?
It seemed to happen in slow motion. Eric watched as the prince raised his arm, clearly intending to make good on his promise… and then watched him topple forward, the horrible knife falling from his limp hand and sliding across the floor.
Sheila lifted the hood of her cloak, and tossed aside the heavy rock she had used. She looked at Eric with dismay. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I didn’t realize what he was going to do.”
“Please tell me you have the keys,” Eric said through gritted teeth. His arm was really hurting, with a strange burning sensation that made him wonder what sort of spell or poison had been on the blade.
Sheila nodded, and moved to unlock him. “Hank and the others are providing a distraction, but finding the keys took longer than I planned on. We need to get going!”
“No argument from me,” Eric answered, gripping his arm where he had been cut. What he wouldn’t give for a first aid kit, he thought. Maybe Presto could pull one out of his hat.
Eric jolted awake, sweat dripping off his face from the nightmare. He had been back in the dungeon, only no one had been coming for him. No pretty redhead had been there to save the day. No one had been there to stop Prince Weasel from cutting him, again and again, wanting an answer Eric didn’t have. The sound of his own pleas echoed in his ears as the dream faded, and he shivered, despite the warm night.
He went to prop himself up, and remembered his injured arm too late. The act of putting weight on it made it feel as if it were splitting open, and Eric bit into his lip.
They had escaped from the town without any more trouble. Dungeon Master had appeared when the group had stopped for the night, and had studied Eric’s wound with a grave face. Sheila had done the best she could with some spare cloth, but they didn’t have anything like antibiotics, or Bactine, or even a bandaid.
Before giving the group his usual vague pep talk and vanishing, Dungeon Master had given Eric a salve for the wound. But he had not apologized to Eric for sending them into the situation. Not that he ever did, but this time it made Eric mad.
It hadn’t just been the fact that he’d been knifed by a power-hungry creep, or that the experience of sensation coming back into his arms – not pins and needles, but the feeling of a thousand ants crawling on his skin and biting him – was currently in the running for “worst pain ever”. Or that he had been chained in a dungeon, or beaten like a stubborn piñata that wouldn’t give up its candy.
It was that Dungeon Master hadn’t warned them.
It was bad enough that the guy had somehow jerked them out of their comfortable – normal – lives, but that he couldn’t even play it straight with them. Instead, he teased them with the possibility of getting home if they just did this one thing right.
Eric had chosen to sleep a little apart from the others. Presto had been able to conjure up some ice packs, which had given Eric a little relief. But it had been an uncomfortable evening for all of them, with no one knowing what to say or where to look, except away from him.
“Are you okay?” Eric turned slightly to see Sheila standing there, a look of concern on her face.
He shrugged. “It’s better than being in the dungeon with old Weasel Face.”
“That’s not what I asked,” she replied with a frown, and sat down next to him. “Is that salve helping?”
“The wound isn’t hurting so badly, anymore,” Eric admitted. “But I’m not okay. I’m tired of playing Dungeon Master’s game.”
“We all are,” Sheila said softly.
“You weren’t the one in chains, or getting beat up!” Eric exploded. Then he shook his head. He knew he wasn’t the only one who was tired, and he knew it wasn’t Sheila’s fault. They had been desperate enough a while ago to try and take on Venger personally – to get rid of him. Thankfully, Hank had come to his senses at the last moment – and Dungeon Master had told them it was their first step on the road home. He had neglected to mention how many steps that road had, however.
Sheila said nothing, and Eric knew he should apologize. “I didn’t mean that like it sounded. I was really happy to see you.”
“I snuck in behind him under my cloak,” Sheila said, “I just didn’t realize he was going to attack you when he did.”
“We’ve faced plenty of big talkers,” Eric agreed.
“I’m sure we’ll face a few more,” Sheila said with a sigh. “Hank wants to move tomorrow, to get a little further away. Will you be all right?”
Eric nodded. “I think I should be.” He thought of the moment she had pulled her hood back, and how he had thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, an angel coming to his rescue.
“I’ll keep watch while you go back to sleep,” Sheila offered after a moment.
“That would be nice,” Eric said softly.
It was nice, knowing that someone was looking out for him.