The Shield crashed to the floor, and Zinn turned back to the golden bowl of dust.
In those few seconds, Eric knew there was nothing he could do to stop what was happening. There was nothing he could do to stop her changing him, or even killing him. But the anger and the fear all washed away, leaving an eerie peace that he didn't understand. What was done couldn't be undone. If he hadn't been such a jerk to his friends, this might have been different.
He had expected to feel regret, for everything. For coming to the Realm, for trying to tag on to the group in the first place back at the Amusement Park; and for helping out Sheila and Bobby when they needed it. He knew he could have backed out at the ceremony, but he hadn't. It was his on choice, and his own decision. He found it hard to regret. He was beyond regret.
He closed his eyes. There was nothing left to do.
Suddenly there was the sound of stomping feet from the top of the stairs, and Eric saw Zinn look round in confusion. Two Guards appeared, red faced and out of breath.
'What is the meaning of this!' bellowed Zinn at the worried Guards.
'It's… It's Lawrence, my Queen,' said one of them. 'He's here! Right now!'
'WHAT!' she screeched.
'He is here, with Dungeonmaster's Pupils! We cannot stop them!'
Eric's heart seemed to miss a beat and he gave a sudden start. They were here! They'd come to help! He wasn't as alone as he'd thought!
But Zinn glared at Eric, smothering the fleeting feeling of joy he'd felt.
'How? How did you summon them?' she demanded.
Eric opened and closed his mouth a few times. He had no idea how they had known what was going on, and he had no idea how he was going to try and explain it to Zinn, either!
'Go!' she said to the Guards. 'Find them. Stop them. Kill them if you have to, and get me those weapons!'
The door opened and the Guards ran out and Zinn whipped round to glare venomously at Eric.
'How did you do it!' she hissed. 'How did you call them so quickly?'
He tried to shrug, but it was difficult to do while pinned down. She looked furious.
'It is of no matter,' she said. 'They will not get the chance to rescue you. They are not going to ruin my chance!'
She moved to the spellbook and began to read in an unknown language. At her words, the sand in the bowl started to shift, as if moved by unseen winds. Eric gulped. If that sand touched him, the pain would be unbearable.
Zinn was concentrating on the words, not look at anything else, and all Eric could see was the shifting sand and his wife, intent on turning him into…
A Stalker, thought Eric. That's what she is doing. She's turning me into a stalker, to be her slave.
But even as he stared in terror, he noticed something moving behind Zinn. He wasn't absolutely certain what it was, but that didn't matter. A second later there was a thud and Zinn staggered, then sank to the ground.
Even as the Queen disappeared from view, there was a shimmer of light and the swish of a Cloak.
Eric had never been so pleased to see anyone in all his life, in spite of being naked and tied to a table. Sheila, careful to keep looking at his face, moved forward, beside him.
'Sheila, thank God it's you!' he gasped.
She looked at him with a smile, or maybe even a smirk, but the expression changed the instant she saw the red marks.
'What's been going on?' she asked. 'What the hell did she do to you!'
'You don't wanna know,' he muttered.
Carefully, Sheila fumbled with the ropes on his wrists, then moved awkwardly to untie his ankles. She looked away for a moment as Eric struggled to sit up. Even though his head didn't hurt, the room still seemed to spin and lurch wildly each time he moved. But at last he sat perched on the edge of the table, able to shield most of his nakedness. Sheila still didn't look directly at him, and her cheeks were tinged with red.
'We should go right now,' said Sheila. 'We can't waste too much time.'
Moving again was the last thing on Eric's agenda just them. He needed a moment to gather his thoughts and steel himself to move again.
'What are you doing here?' he asked. 'How did you know what had happened?'
Fidgeting with the hood of her Cloak, the Thief smiled.
'Someone came from the Palace to find Solarz, you know, Zinn's brother, he's really called Lawrence. He was under a spell.' Eric nodded. 'Anyway, this man was loyal to Lawrence, and came to warn him about what Zinn was planning.'
'Who was it?'
'I don't know his name. I think he was a gardener, though.'
Rayner? thought Eric, smiling properly for the first time in many hours. He went to get my friends!
'We got here just a short while ago. The others distracted the Guards while Lawrence showed me the way to the Dungeons. He said that was where you and Zinn would probably be.'
At the mention of his wife's name, Eric felt a pang of fear. However sore he was going to be, he shouldn't really just sit around and wait for her to wake up! He moved forward slightly, edging towards vertical.
Sheila paused, and looked away from Eric, her cheeks turning a deeper red. His embarrassment at his nakedness had evaporated under the pain from the marks on his skin, and when he tried to stand, he found it next to impossible. What little of his ego that was left standing was going to be ripped to shreds when the others heard about this!
'I'll help you get out of here,' said Sheila, managing to compose herself. 'But we've gotta go quickly.'
'No,' he said firmly.
'Not without a promise.'
He had to do this now, before any of the others appeared and before his resolved weakened any more.
'Eric, this is hardly the time.'
It was bad enough that she should have seen him like that, and seen what his "wife" had done to him. He couldn't risk anyone else finding out.
'Promise me you won't tell the others,' he said, gripping her arm. 'You've got to promise on your life! Please, please don't tell them anything!' Especially not Diana, he added to himself. Please, please, please, never tell Diana!
'But…' stammered Sheila. 'They're gonna want to know what happened, and what that bitch did to you! They won't make fun.'
'Promise!' he said again. 'No one else will ever know.'
'Eric, this isn't a good…'
Sheila frowned in consternation, but nodded.
'Oh, ok, if it means that much to you! I promise.'
Eric still scowled at her.
'I promise on my life, cross my heart and hope to die,' Sheila amended, making a little crossing motion on he chest.
'Thanks,' said Eric.
Zinn hadn't even twitched, so the Cavalier also insisted on putting his armour back on, even though trying to pull on that mail shirt hurt like Hell. He picked up the Shield from where it had landed by the wall, now with a slightly different bend to it.
His whole body ached, he could barely stand up, but that didn't matter. He looked down at his "wife" as she lay on the floor beside the table and scowled. She looked peaceful, as if she was asleep, with her black hair fanned out over the floor and her face, just like that time a few nights ago, after they had…
He took a sudden, sharp breath, and turned to look Sheila directly in the eye.
'Right,' he said. 'Let's get the fuck out of here!'
The battle was over. The Kindom of Zinn was safe; Lawrence was King and everyone seemed content to live happily ever after.
But the Young Ones had taken their leave quickly of the castle. Eric had tried to find the gardener to say thanks, but the man seemed to have vanished off the face of the Realm.
Even so, Eric hadn't wanted to stay and Hank had agreed with him, overruling the Barbarian's protests and Lawrence's vocal desire to "honour" them for their help and support.
Instead, they had walked for a few hours into the forest away from the castle, and away from everything else. And when they'd stopped, Eric had claimed to be too tired to do anything but sleep.
But Eric only pretended to sleep. It wasn't that he wasn't tired, but he just couldn't seem to rest.
He could still hear them talking, everyone except Bobby. He was off with Uni finding water and firewood, and Eric was grateful for that. At least the had had the decency to wait for that before taking the piss out of him.
The others had been sniggering about his predicament for a while, trying to get Sheila to tell them more details.
'Oh, c'mon Sheila! Tell us what happened,' Diana asked at last. 'Surely you can tell. We want details.'
There was a silence, longer than the other silences from the Thief and Eric began to wonder if Sheila would keep her word.
'Sheila,' prompted Diana with undisguised amusement. 'Come on, tell us something! He looked as if he had the measles! What on Earth did his wife do to him?'
There was more sniggering.
'Look,' snapped Sheila in an exasperated tone. 'It's not funny, ok.'
'Only Eric could be captured by his own wife!' said Presto with a snigger. Eric heard a thud and an ouch, as if Sheila had just whacked the Magician on the arm.
'It's not funny,' Sheila said, a lot more sternly this time. 'He got himself into that to help Bobby.'
The sniggering subsided.
'She hurt him,' said Sheila in a very low tone, almost too quiet for Eric to hear. 'She really hurt him. I heard his screams of pain. She was going to turn him into a Stalker and make him a mindless slave too. It might have killed him! And he was only trying to help save Bobby, don't you go forgetting that, Arthur Preston!'
There was a grunt followed by a sombre silence. Eric could guess what the others, especially Diana, were thinking. But he was grateful no one said it.
'Do you think he'll recover?' asked Hank at last. 'Dungeonmaster said that unusual things happen to the Royal House at Zinn. Do you think he'll be ok?'
'He'll be fine, just as long as we don't tease him about it,' Sheila said firmly. 'And that means you too, Diana. It's not fair to tease him about that.'
'Yeah, well, ok, I won't' said the Acrobat grudgingly. 'But it's a good job he didn't sleep with her, or he'd really have something to be teased about!'
There was a soft chorus of laughter.
He winced at the memory. It doesn't matter, he told himself. It was over. He didn't have to go back, and Zinn could rot in hell for all he cared.
Eric closed his eyes tighter and willed himself to go to sleep.
The winds rustled softly through the Gardens of Zinn, sending the sweet waft of exotic plants up into the air. Two people stood side by side at the edge of the Gardens, close to the gates, looking to the moons.
'It was a very good try, Zinn,' said King Lawrence.
Trapped in a changing-spell, the small, wizened woman next to him snorted and didn't answer.
'Yes, you were very close that time,' he continued. 'But you failed. It's my turn in charge now!'
The old woman turned to scowled at the King.
'I doubt you have the resolve to try!' she said, as loudly as her croaking voice could manage.
'Try I will, and then the Kingdom will be mine.'
There was a pause.
'Your Consort did not really seem to be fitting for such an important position,' said Lawrence. 'I was most surprised that you chose him over the Ranger.'
The old woman suddenly laughed, a light, girlish laugh that seemed incongruous with her infirm frame.
'Oh Lawrence! He was so delightfully innocent and naïve!' she said with a sigh. 'You can't imagine how much fun I could have had with him.'
'Well, it wouldn't have worked, anyway,' said Lawrence. 'Dungeonmaster would still have got in your way, somehow! He always does.'
The old woman looked keenly at her brother.
'So bitter, so angry, I wonder, I wonder…' she said. Lawrence glared back at her. Zinn laughed again.
'You asked her, didn't you,' she said through the laughter. 'That pretty little red-haired girl. And she said no! Even after all you had done for her!'
Lawrence looked furious for a moment at her gloating, but he nodded.
'Better luck next time,' Zinn said with a smirk. 'At least I actually managed to get married! And what's the best you've done?'
'One of these days, sister,' said Lawrence coldly. 'One of these days one of us is going to win, once and for all! And then the Realm shall tremble at our feet.'
'Indeed, brother,' she said. Then Zinn turned to the gate of the Gardens, and started the long walk out into the forest.
Lawrence watched her for a few moments, until she was out of sight, engulfed in the gloom of the evening.
'Indeed, sister,' he murmured. 'Let the games begin again!'