His breath came in short, ragged gasps and his heart felt as if it would fly from his chest.
But still, he ran.
He'd lost count of the number of patrols he'd shaken, the number of laser bolts he'd dodged, the number of times he'd ducked into shadows and blended in.
He prayed once more --- prayed earnestly for someone to help him out of this nightmare.
A slight laugh escaped him as he allowed himself one moment of humour. Was it only yesterday he'd been the one helping people, instead of needing it so badly?
It seemed like an entire lifetime ago. Was it truly only yesterday he'd had a job, a home, friends...family?
Was it truly only yesterday that his name had been Roy DeSoto?
With grateful thanks to a dear friend for her help in envisioning Roy and her kind permission for his use.
John Gage was half-lying on his couch, very involved in kissing the brunette in his arms. Behind him, the phone started to ring. He fumbled behind him and grabbed it, only half paying attention. "M-hm?"
Suddenly he jerked upright, nearly toppling the brunette off the couch. "Calm down, Joanne -- just calm down!"
The brunette looked up at him with frosty blue eyes. "Who's Joanne?" she demanded.
"Shh!" he hissed at her, sitting fully up and buttoning his shirt. "Okay, Jo," he said into the phone. "I'm on my way."
The brunette folded her arms and glared at him. "John Gage, you are not gonna walk out on me to go see another woman!"
He met her glare with one of his own. "For your information, not that it's any of your business, that 'other woman' happens to be my partner's wife! Something happened and she needs to talk!" He stood up and grabbed his keys. "Lock the door when you leave. With that, he spun on his heel and quitted his apartment, not even registering her enraged yell or the crash of a crystal paperweight making forcible contact with the door.
John used his key and ran into the DeSoto's house. Joanne was crying on the couch. He dropped beside her and gathered her into his arms. After dropping a brotherly kiss on top of her head, he looked up at Captains Stanley and Hookraker. "What's happened?"
Stanley stepped forward and sat on Joanne's other side. "Well, you know Roy was filling in for Brice today?"
John nodded. "So he could compete in the Fireman's Games in Atlanta."
"Right," Hookraker said. "DeSoto and Bellingham were answering a call when ---"
"When?" John asked, eyes huge with fear. "When what?"
Hookraker sighed. "When DeSoto just.....vanished."
The next day, John was pacing his apartment like a caged animal. No leads, no answers kept running through his head.
He truly felt as if he were going crazy.
The rap on his door nearly made him jump out of his skin. Expecting it to be either Cap or the police with word on Roy, he threw the door open -- and his jaw dropped. "What're you doin' here?"
"Captain Stanley telephoned me," Brice said, pushing up his glasses. "He told me about DeSoto. I too lost a partner --- even though there is no confirmation DeSoto is deceased -- I..." He sighed. "I came to see if I could render you assistance."
John blinked. Hard. Then he sighed and stepped aside, allowing Brice to come in. "They're not tellin' me a thing."
"That's not unusual. Normally details are kept from the family and friends of a missing person until some tangible evidence is uncovered."
"Yeah, but I wanna know now!"
"Understandable. But for right now, all we can do is pray."
John stopped. He looked at Brice as a slow smile spread across his face. "Brice --- you have many skills, right?"
It was Brice's turn to blink. "Yes.... but...."
"Do any o'them run toward pickin' locks?"
Brice cocked an eyebrow as he looked at John.
Five hours later, Brice sighed as he worked on the warehouse lock. "This is highly illegal," he said for about the fiftieth time. "Not to mention illogical -- what can two paramedics find that trained detectives have missed?"
"I don't know," John admitted ina whisper. "But honestly --- it's better than waiting around."
Brice sighed. "This day will probably go down in history, Gage."
Bespectacled turquoise eyes met mahogany ones. "Because we are in agreement."
Five minutes later, they were making their way through the warehouse where Roy had vanished. John shone his flashlight around the building, then froze the light in place with a gasp.
Alerted by the gasp, Brice shone his in the same direction --- and mirrored John's gasp as the light beam seemed to be swallowed up by .....
Licking his lips, John stepped forward, only to be stopped by Brice's hand on his arm. "No....let's go report this..."
"Not yet," John said. "I think this is what happened to Roy! If we follow the light beams, maybe we'll find him!"
"And perhaps we will be killed!" Brice shot back.
John shook his hand off and reached out. His eyes widened as his hand and wrist seemed to vanish into thin air.
"Gage!" Brice cried out.
"It....doesn't hurt," John gasped. "And I can feel and move my fingers!" He smiled.
Suddenly, his other hand shot out, dropping the flashlight as it did so, and grabbed Brice's collar.
Brice screamed as John jumped into what looked like nothingness, dragging him in as well.
John's flashlight beam went out as it bounced on the floor of the suddenly empty warehouse.
Somewhere in the portal, John lost his grip on Brice's collar. Suddenly, he was out of the portal and in free-fall! Without really thinking about it, he hit the ground with his hands, somersaulting to ease momentum. Finally, he stood up and began to look around.
Something hit him on the shoulders and knees, sending him unceremoniously to the ground with a "WHOOF!"
A second "WHOOF!" came from the thing that had hit him - -a very familiar sound....
"Brice?" John yelped. "Get off me!"
Brice did, but struck John on the shoulder indignantly. "You let go of me!" he snapped.
"It wasn't by choice!" John snapped back. "I got buffeted so hard I couldn't hold on to you!"
Brice looked steadily at him, then sighed and squinted, looking around. "Where are we?"
"On the outskirts of some kind of village --" He turned his head and looked at Brice. "Hey...where are your glasses?"
The blonde shook his head. "Back there." He jerked his thumb toward the closing portal. As it winked out of existence, he sighed, "They fell off about the same time you let go!"
"Great -- strange place, trying to find Roy -- and stuck with a blind man to boot."
"Half-blind, thank you very much!" Brice snapped. "I can see, just not very well!"
John sighed. "Well, I can tell you one thing -- we've got to find where we are and where Roy is!"
Brice nodded. "So we start in the town."
"Right. It's below us in the valley." He sighed. "What's the best way to guide you?"
Brice crooked John's arm and lay his own hand in the bend. "Like this."
"Let's go then."
"Don't let go this time!"
The pair walked into town and walked over to a fountain. John drank deeply and guided Brice's hands to the water. He, too, drank deeply.
A woman walked up to them. "Travelers?" she asked them. "You have come seeing Self-Truth?"
John and Brice frowned, then John said, "No -- we've come seeking a lost friend."
It was her turn to frown. "But you have drunk from the Waters of Truth."
"From the what?" John gasped. Brice's frown seemed to deepen as the conversation went on, but he didn't say anything. "What's that?"
Her dark eyes grew round with surprise. "The Fountain --- its waters will bring knowledge of yourself. It is why people flock to our village!"
John put on his most charming smile. "We're looking for a dear friend -- perhaps you can help us?"
"Perhaps." She pointed. "Come to the Inn. I'll give you food and lodging." John nodded and put Brice's hand on his arm again. Her eyes widened again. "He cannot see?"
John waited, but Brice didn't answer -- he only frowned. John finally said, "Yeah, he can ... just not very well. He needs help."
Her hand shot out and grabbed Brice's chin, tilting it up. She looked deep into his eyes. "Yes... I can help. Bring him to the Inn. Ask for Brianda." She then turned and walked away.
John shook Brice's shoulder. "What in the world was that all about?"
"What are you talking about?" Brice hissed.
"She asked you a question about your eyes --- and you just stood there!"
Brice sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Gage -- I couldn't understand a word she said!"
John's jaw slowly unhinged.
With John asking directions and navigating, the pair found the Inn swiftly. John sat Brice at a table in the attached tavern, then smiled at the barmaid. "Hi," he said in his most charming voice. "Brianda sent us here."
She nodded, her eyes growing huge. "Brianda. I see." She turned slightly, making a hand motion toward them. "Follow me."
As they walked, John leaned in and whispered, "Can you understand her?"
Brice shook his head. "Not one word. No, wait...I'm mistaken. I do recognise the word 'Brianda'. But other than that...." He shook his head once more. "I can't even understand you when you talk with them!"
John stopped and gaped. "You --- can't?"
"No," Brice sighed. "And please keep up -- we can't afford to be separated from our guide!"
Breathing a curse, John bolted to catch up, dragging Brice along.
A few moments later, they were in a large room with two sleeping pallets. "I will bring you food," the barmaid said as she turned toward the door.
"Wait," John called. "I thought Brianda was here!"
She turned to face him. "Brianda goes where she goes. If she sent you, she's coming for you." With that, she left, closing the door behind her.
"Well, wasn't that cryptic," John sighed. Brice opened his mouth to ask what she'd said, and John translated before he could.
The golden brows drew together. "Huh. Gage, I don't think I'm liking this at all."
"Yeah, well, that makes two of us," John sighed. "And I don't see how this gets us any closer to findin' Roy."
A heavy sigh as Brice lay down on the pallet was his reply. "How do you know he's even here? How do you know you'll find him?"
"I don't," John admitted, sitting on his own pallet. "I only know I've got to try. It's no less than he'd do for me."
"---he'd do for me." John's voice carried through the glassless window to the ears of the man listening under it. He hadn't believed his eyes when he saw them enter the town. John he could almost believe ----
But Craig Brice?
He'd followed them, always hiding, always sticking to the shadows -- as had become his way of life. He was now a creature of silence, of shadow , of cunning and stealth.
He'd had to become that, to survive.
They were looking for him -- to take him back? How could he go back now? After what he'd seen, done -- become?
He leaned his head back against the wall and sighed softly. John and Brice were innocents in this world -- they'd need watching over.
In that moment he vowed he'd be the one watching over them. But it would have to be from his shadow world. A lone tear slid from a green, slit-pupilled eye and trickled down into a strawberry-blonde beard.
It would, indeed, have to be from the shadows. Because one thing out of all this was certain ---
Roy could not let John or Brice see him like this.
John and Brice fell into an uneasy sleep. John was awakened by a soft touch on his shoulder. He yelped and opened his eyes. "Brianda!" he cried, seeing familiar features.
She smiled. "Sorry it took me so long. I had trouble finding some of the herbs."
"Brice...wake up!" John shook him. "C'mon, Brice!"
Bleary blue eyes struggled open. "Wha...who else is.... in here? I .. I can see another shape..."
"It's Brianda. She's here."
Brice sat up. "Bri...."
The mysterious woman smiled. "Your friend cannot understand me yet."
John blinked. "What do you mean, 'yet'?" he asked.
She handed him a mug. "Have him drink this. It will heal his eyes. Then I will point you where to go to learn to understand."
When John translated, Brice frowned. "Heal my eyes? My eyes can't be healed -- they're naturally nearsighted! There's nothing to heal!"
"Trust me?" John asked him, touching the mug to his hands. "If nothing else -- cause I'm stuck with you?"
A golden eyebrow raised. "Your infamous charm, Gage?" But he drank the liquid.
A few moments later, Brice was keeled over on the pallet, howling as his hands flew to his eyes. John was instantly by his side, trying to pry his hands away. "Brice! Bri---Craig! Craig, let me see!" Then he snarled over his shoulders, "What the hell did you do?"
"It will ease," Brianda said.
With a growl, John turned back. "Craig, she said you're gonna be okay. It'll pass... just hold on!"
With a gasp, Craig opened his eyes. "No...more...pain..." He blinked again and again. Then his eyes, wide with shock, swiveled to look at John, focusing on his face. "Good...G-d!" he gasped out.
"What is it, Craig?" John asked, alarmed at how pale his friend was becoming. He lay a hand on Craig's arm, trying to steady him. "Craig?" he repeated when no answer seemed forthcoming.
Craig's mouth worked, but no sound came out. His eyes were roaming now, as if he were trying to take everything in at once. "....dear G-d....I can see!"
"Yeah, you told me... you can see light...movement..."
"No! No!" He grabbed John's arms and met his eyes. "John!" A wide, bedimpled grin began to spread. "I mean I can see! Perfectly!"
John's eyes widened. "....what?" He whirled to face Brianda. "How?"
She smiled. "Are you ready to find understanding for him?"
John's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"I will leave directions for the place where he will find understanding of speech."
Relaxing, John translated. Craig nodded. "Thank you for me -- I want to be able to understand. To help."
When John translated for Craig, Brianda nodded as well. "Very well. Instructions will be left." She nodded and left.
Craig blinked. "Blunt, isn't she?"
"Very." He smiled. "Let's go eat now that you can see the food!"
Laughing, they both exited.
Brianda exited the Inn and smiled as she walked away. Suddenly her smile vanished as the hackles on the back of her neck rose. She turned around. "Show yourself!"
"No," came a rough voice, more of a growl than human speech. "Take heed, Sorceress."
"Heed? of you?" she laughed. "Not hardly! All this time, and you do not trust me?"
"You made me this way."
"Forget not who saved your life!"
The growl returned, and this time there was a pause before the rough voice snarled, "Yes, Brianda. You saved my life.... and made me a monster in the process."
"But you live."
A resigned sigh. "I know what you're trying to do. You are trying to help them acclimate. But be warned -- if any harm comes to either of them ---"
She laughed. "As if you can do anything to me!"
"Have a care, Sorceress, or I may forget we are on the same side!"
"Oh?" Brianda chuckled. "And what side would that be?"
"The side that protects them."
Her smile grew tender. "Aye. And I'll continue to do so."
"As will I."
"Then we have no problem, do we?"
Silence. Then the rough growl, "I still do not trust you."
"I'm not asking you to."
"You hurt them, I'll hurt you."
She barked a laugh. "Is that a threat?"
"No." He stepped into the light shadows, his slitted eyes gleaming and the fangs prominent as he hissed, "That's a promise."