DISCLAIMER: OK, you're disclaimed. Next!
STORY: Set after the story 'Wild Ride'. And much to my dismay, it really does help if you read the precceding stories first, but only for this one. Promise that the next one will start afresh!
THANKS: Large amounts of Virtual Thanks to both RK and RS.
Dragon Hunting Season.
The Long Wait
High in the mountains, in the deepest and most secure fissure she could find on this Mortal Plane, the Great Dragon was deep in sleep, tired from the day's exertions. Under her vast body, the stockpile of gold and jewels that had been gathered over the millennia were heaped into a priceless bed, and she had nestled into a shallow hollow.
But even as she slept, the Dragon was uncomfortable. Something was calling her. She could feel the familiar thrum of magic, yes, but there was something else as well.
Beyond proper understanding, in the realm of intuition and instinct, she could hear her brethren calling out to her; not the usual whisper of prayer and worship, but the harsh cry of desperation and fear.
She slept on, but the call became stronger as the sky changed from night to day, and the sun rose far enough to send a thin shaft of light across her body.
Finally, she could stand it no longer. Tiamat slowly opened one eye of her great, red head, then the other. The eyes on the other four heads opened too and she pushed herself upright.
She was their Queen, and their god. And her acolytes needed her.
It's just another one of those days in the Realm, Hank the Ranger reminded himself. It's just another day… He took a deep breath, frowning at the two boys. How many times had they been through this already?
'I don't see why you think you're right, Er-ic,' snapped Bobby the Barbarian. 'What do YOU know about it!'
'I know plenty!' said Eric the Cavalier.
'Bet ya can't prove it!'
'I don't HAVE to prove it, short-stuff! I'm right!'
'Ya don't have a clue!'
'Of course I do. I'm not stupid!'
'You're the one that keeps on getting' into trouble!'
'That has nothing to do with it,' he snapped. 'I still know more about it than you!' Bobby gave a surly humph, but Eric continued regardless. 'Any way you look at it, we shouldn't be standing around here doing nothing!'
'But Dungeonmaster TOLD us to wait, Er-ic!'
'We've done the waiting!' said Eric. 'He's never here when we need him! And I don't see why we have to wait any more!'
This was how it started; this was how it always started. And round they went again.
Hank sighed, and closed his eyes, hoping to filter the sound of the argument out.
They were waiting in a clearing. The same clearing that they'd been in for three days now. Dungeonmaster had appeared just outside the City Gates and told them specifically to wait for him there, but the time he'd set was long since gone. And that was the real source of their problems.
Sheila the Thief was sitting next to Hank looking as annoyed as he felt, the bored unicorn lying at the other side of her pretending to be asleep. But Sheila was obviously not going to get involved in the argument, which was a very wise decision. Her brother Bobby was not going to give up.
Both he and the Cavalier were frustrated and fed up. After Eric's unnatural silence during their trip to the city of Kilan, he'd become more talkative again, but, unfortunately, not more sociable.
Intent on making something happen, the two boys had been at each other's throats all day yesterday, and since they'd woken today, four hours ago. It had mostly been light bickering, but the argument had gradually grown more intense, and more unpleasant.Hank had the funny feeling that this was going to get worse.
Is this what you meant by our test of strength, Dungeonmaster? thought the Ranger as he watched his two companions from a safe distance. Under other circumstances Hank would have put his foot down long before now. Instead, he let them argue, hoping that this would blow over. But in his heart, he knew it was only a matter of time before Eric eventually became angry enough to say something dumb, then he would storm off and everyone could get some peace.
Hank would be more than happy with that, because the few times the Cavalier spoke to him directly, every third sentence was usually a dig at his leadership skills. Who was the one to get captured by the Darkling…who was the one who led them over not round the mountains…who let them get captured by Venger…it was never-ending.
And everyone was getting sick of it. He could usually just about stand the Cavalier blowing a bit of steam every so often, but this was a non-stop barrage of insults and it was slowly but surely alienating him from the others. If it continued this way for much too longer, Hank knew the group would find themselves permanently lacking a Cavalier.
That was an unexpectedly attractive thought, as over the past few days there had been the growing and unsettling sense that no one liked the Cavalier any more.
They all thought it, even if they didn't say it openly: Eric was more trouble than he was worth. Diana now glared at him all day, as if trying to work out what he was thinking. Bobby was openly cheeky, the only one to really show his feelings. Sheila was uncomfortable every time Eric went within ten feet of her and Presto, well, it was more difficult to tell with Presto. On the surface, everything seemed fine, but… something wasn't right.
Hank had always found Eric the most difficult to get along with. They had never been the best of friends. In fact, if they hadn't all been stuck in this place, he would never have viewed Eric even as an acquaintance. But they had reached some sort of truce for a while. They'd had a few blips on the way; Warduke, the Cloud Bears, the Box of Balefire, but Eric seemed to have been starting to grow up and take a bit of responsibility. Then something had changed. He couldn't be quite sure when it was, and maybe there wasn't one specific thing.
Having long since stopped bothering to listen to the argument close by, the Ranger turned to give Sheila a small smile, content to sit beside her. She smiled back, looking up into his eyes and making his heart give a little lurch. Sometimes, there was nothing anyone could do to spoil his happiness at finding such a wonderful girl.
Then the argument escalated again, the voices slightly more raised, the words slight more unpleasant. Even the reappearance of Presto and Diana the Acrobat didn't make them stop.
Diana sat down on the other side of Hank with a resigned shrug. Both the Acrobat and the Magician had spent the morning looking for more food. It was obvious from the look on her face that they hadn't found any.
She nodded towards the Cavalier, who was gesturing forcefully towards the road behind them, the condescending scowl back on his face.
'They not given up yet?' she asked in a low tone. Hank shook his head. There was no pointing trying to explain. Diana understood. She understood all to well, since she was the last one to try and get them to shut up.
Hank closed his eyes, trying to block out any sounds. But, inevitably, the subject of the argument turned back to their current situation. This time, Bobby seemed determined to gather support, and he turned to his sister.
'You think we should go look too, don't ya, Sheila?' asked the Barbarian. The Thief looked uncomfortable for a few seconds, then murmured:
'Well, I don't know.' She looked at the Ranger for help getting out of answering her brother. Bobby followed her gaze.
'You think we should look, Hank?'
So far, Hank had refused. Dungeonmaster had told them to wait here, and that's what they were gonna do, period. Both Eric and Bobby had skirted around the subject already this morning, but neither had pushed the point. Until now, and Hank was almost going to…
'Hank agrees with me!' said Eric suddenly, making the Ranger instantly fuming at being dragged into the argument. He'd resolutely stayed on the fence, and that tactic had worked so far. But the Ranger had underestimated how annoyed Eric really was. 'Why do we have to look for Dungeonmaster at all?' continued the Cavalier. 'There's no Sprite fluttering around to tell us he's in trouble. But there's a portal around here somewhere and I say we should go find it!' He looked at Presto. 'Well?'
The Magician looked awkward at the directness of the question.
'C'mon, whadya say, Presto,' said Eric. 'You get that Hat up and running and we'll go find it ourselves!'
Presto didn't reply, and Hank suddenly stared at him, forgetting about the Cavalier. The Magician had been in a very strange mood since they'd left Kilan, and that Hat had something to do with it. He'd been struggling with it since Mindril, but there was more…
'You're the one with more power,' said Presto, the sarcasm in his voice almost hidden. 'Why don't you find it yourself!'
There it was, and Hank cursed himself for not seeing it before. The Magician was jealous! It was hard to believe that anyone could be jealous of the way Eric trampled through life with his mind shut and his mouth open, but Presto was. Presto the Magician, with a Hat he couldn't get to work, who didn't even get to be Dungeonmaster when the opportunity arose and who's own power was mild in comparison to Eric's, according to the Wizard they had encountered at Kilan.
Eric was looking shocked at Presto's reply. It wasn't like the Magician to say that sort of thing, and the Cavalier was struggling for something to say in response. Sheila tactfully stepped in.
'We can't find the portal our own,' she said. 'We have to find Dungeonmaster!'
'Dungeonmaster can just fu…be damned!' the Cavalier said, hurriedly changing his turn of phrase when Sheila scowled at him. 'I've had it with this dumb place. And the next portal I see, I'm going through it! No matter what!'
'Oh, c'mon, Eric,' said Diana, standing up. 'We all wanna get home!'
'Don't "c'mon, Eric" me!' he snapped, his voice rising. 'It's OK for you! You haven't had your blood used in an evil-power ritual! You haven't been immobilised by a stillness powder! You haven't had THAT stuff forced down you while your friends were off getting lost in tunnels!'
Bobby the Barbarian swung his Club over his shoulder, staring at the Cavalier with a sulky expression.
'Oh yeah?' he said. 'What about Hank and the Grotto of Darkness? What about Presto and the Underworld? And you didn't do much at Amoran either!'
Eric narrowed his eyes, looking furious. For some reason, he got very tetchy whenever that place was mentioned, something the Barbarian had obviously noticed, and decided to use to his advantage.
'What about them?' demanded the Cavalier, his voice suddenly shaking. 'Just what do you want me to say?'
The Barbarian paused, and Hank suddenly looked up, sensing something was wrong.
'Well…' started Bobby uncertainly.
'I'm SICK of it!' Eric snarled, slamming his Shield to the ground. 'I'm sick of this whole goddamn place!' Everyone stared at him. Hank looked at the other boy in alarm. This wasn't one of the Cavalier's normal, petulant tantrums. This was serious.
Sheila made as if to stand, but he turned to glare at her.
'Why are we still here?' he asked her, struggling with his temper. 'Dungeonmaster says "go here" and we do. Dungeonmaster says "do this" and we do. Dungeonmaster says "wait" and we do.' The Cavalier turned to scowl at Hank. 'When are we gonna do something for ourselves? When are we gonna stop giving and start taking?'
'Dungeonmaster told us to wait here for a reason, Eric,' said Hank, trying to keep a hold of his own temper. Matching Eric's anger was only going to make things worse.
The other boy came right up to Hank and poked a gauntleted finger at his chest. From close up, Hank could see the anger in Eric's eyes. He'd only seen the Cavalier like this before once before, and he didn't like it then either.
'I'm not gonna stay in this place for any longer than I have to!' hissed the Cavalier.
They looked each other in the eye, but it was Hank that looked away first, unsettled by the conviction in Eric's expression.
'What's gotten into you, Eric?' he asked.
'I'm sick of being Dungeonmaster's whipping boy!' said the Cavalier through gritted teeth, 'I've had enough and I want out!'
'But you can't just leave…' started Sheila.
'Oh, can't I?'
Sheila looked confused at his reply, as did everybody else.
'C'mon, Eric,' said Diana, 'Quit kidding…'
The Cavalier rounded on her, more angry than Hank had ever seen him.
'What if I'm not kidding,' he said. 'What if I'm…' his voice was shaking much more obviously now and he couldn't continue. As Eric glanced away his face still flushed, the two girls both turned to Hank, trying to get him to say something to help.
What else could he do? It would seem like he'd given in to Eric, just to get some peace, but really, what choice did they have? As tempting as it was to let the Cavalier sulk off, it was the safety of the group that was paramount. They had to stick together, and it was up to Hank to make sure they were all OK.
The Ranger sighed.
'Alright guys, we're all going to the town to look for him.'
Eric shook his head.
'Nope! No way! I'm not going trailing around the countryside looking for him! I'm staying RIGHT here!'
Hank scowled at him, suddenly sick of the whole argument. Why did Eric always have to do this? A few minutes ago, the last thing the Cavalier had wanted to do was wait here like Dungeonmaster had told them. And now, just because it was what everyone else wanted to do, he had changed his mind! He was being deliberately provocative.
The Ranger was in no mood to put up with it anymore. The constant sniping and sarcasm had frayed the nerves of the group to within breaking point. OK, so Eric had every right to be angry after everything that'd happened, but taking it out on his friends wasn't gonna help.
But Hank still had one final trick up his sleeve.
'Fine!' he snapped at the Cavalier. 'Find the portal! Or stay here! But it'll be on your own!'
It was always the same. Eric would whinge and complain about doing anything, until he realised he'd have to be left on his own, then come slinking after them with his tail between his legs, pretending that that was exactly what he'd intended all along.
But much to the Ranger's (and everyone else's) surprise, Eric gave a terse nod.
'That will suit me just fine!' said Eric, sitting down beside a rock and crossing his arms. 'I am not going ANYWHERE until Dungeonmaster appears and tells us where a dumb portal is!'
Hank glared at Eric, ignoring the panicked looks from the two girls. That two-faced, hypocritical… The Ranger bit down on the last descriptive word, trying to control his own temper. Over the past few days, all Eric had done was criticise every decision he could. This was the last straw! The Ranger abruptly stood up.
'Well, lets go then, and leave the Cavalier to his waiting!'
With that, the Ranger stormed off.
And one by one, the others followed. All except Eric.