John couldn't help but smile at Craig as they ate. Craig would keep turning his head as they ate, looking around. At last, he tapped Craig's knee. "What's so fascinating?"
"Huh?" Craig's eyes were huge as they turned to face John. Then he smiled. "This is a fascinating place. Medaeval, almost." He laughed. "And I can see it!"
He was rewarded with John's wide, crooked grin.
Craig pushed the last piece of fruit around his plate as his face and voice grew serious. "What next, John?" he asked softly.
"You speak the language. I don't. I don't know what to do, where to go..." He hung his head. "I feel....bereft. Lost."
John lay a hand on his arm. "That's why we're heading out -- to find a way for you to speak the lingo."
"I hope so. It'll be nice to be in the loop again."
An hour later, they set out on a journey that followed a map Brianda had left for them. They'd gone barely five miles out of the village and into the wilderness when John held up a hand. He looked behind them, then frowned.
"What is it?" Craig asked.
"I'm not sure," John said softly. "But I think we're being followed."
The blond sighed and rubbed one of his eyes. "Great. What next?"
"Feel up to running?"
"Do I have a choice?"
John smiled ruefully. "Not really."
John silently counted off, holding up fingers to show Craig where he was, and the two high-school track stars broke into a full-throttle sprint.
When they reached the treeline, by unspoken signal, both shinned up a tree and watched in silence.
A group of men on horseback rode into the clearing they had just vacated. John caught Craig's eye and put a finger to his lips. Craig nodded. Though he couldn't understand the men's speech, he knew John could. He also knew, from John's expression, things were not good.
"Where'd they go?" one called.
"The forest -- they must be there!" another cried.
"You four -- check the forest!" a man in purple called. "You four backtrack to the village! The rest, to the river with me!"
The men rode off, each to their destinations.
John bit his lower lip, his action unconsciously mirroring Craig's, as they watched the four horsemen gallop toward their arboreal hiding places. They fanned out, moving slowly through the dense woods.
And whatever imp had bedeviled John back in Carson had apparently followed him to this new world. The branch he was sitting on decided to crack and give. Loudly.
One of the hunters stopped his horse and listened. Craig and John's eyes met, their expressions betraying their thoughts. Please....no.....
For long afterward, neither Craig nor John would be able to adequately explain how Craig was able to move so fast. But he lunged over just as the branch broke completely away and grabbed John's arm and belt, hauling his dark-haired friend up to share his perch.
His actions saved John, but also served to betray their position. The rider saw them and raised a strange kind of gun, taking aim even as he called for his fellows. John and Craig sat frozen as the other three rode up and took aim as the one who had found them began a countdown.
A low growl split the air, drawing the riders' attention. The counter shook his head and resumed --
And a golden blur of a man shot from the shadows and knocked him from his horse.
John and Craig sat, transfixed, as the other three shot laser beams at the man. The low growls still sounded, punctuated by high-pitched catlike screams as he struck over and over.
The battle was short but furious. When it was over, the man who had discovered John and Craig lay dead. The other three, wounded into insensibility, were tied to the horses and sent on their way. Silent now, their rescuer tied the dead man to his horse and sent it galloping away.
Then, slowly, pain-filled slit-pupiled azure eyes raised to the tree. A fanged, sheepish smile appeared. The voice was a growly rumble as four soft words were spoken.
"Hello, Brice. .... Hey, Junior."
John gasped and gave such a violent start that Craig had to hold onto his belt to keep him in the tree. "....Roy?!?" John managed to get out.
The grin grew, fully exposing the fangs. "Fraid so. Come on down, you look like a pair of mismatched birds."
Slowly, John came down the tree, Craig close behind. He gaped at Roy, eyes scanning him up and down.
Roy was the same height as ever, but now he was a bit broader in the chest and shoulders; more muscular in arms and legs. He wore only a pair of cutoff pants, and his chest, stomach and arms were covered with golden ---- fur. His strawberry blond hair was braided down his back and was held in check by a strip of light blue cloth. He had a thick golden beard, though it was neatly trimmed.
John stared at the blue eyes, watching the slitted pupils narrow slightly in the light. The voice was rough, the words pushed through a mouth with fangs. "Yeah, Junior....I've been changed."
"But....how?" John ran a finger down one furred, muscular forearm. "Roy..."
"I know, Junior. I'm not fully human anymore. I'm more cat than man."
"Roy," Craig asked softly. "How did this happen to you?"
Roy's lip curled and his eyes narrowed. A low, rumbling sound bubbled from his chest. "Brianda," he half-spat.
"Brianda?" John and Craig gasped in stunned unison.
Roy nodded grimly. He raised his head and his nostrils twitched. "Rain's coming. Follow me, let's find shelter."
They walked down the path a ways, then Roy held up a hand. A fanged smile appeared and he pointed ahead of them. "Keep going. There's a cave about two miles that way. It's just off the path." He stepped off the path.
"Where are you goin'?" John asked.
Roy grinned over his shoulder. "To get supper." And he was gone -- swiftly and silently.
John and Craig locked eyes for a moment, then the pair resumed their silent walk, each alone with his own thoughts.
Craig broke the silence. "John... Brianda changed my eyes. She was adamant we go to this other place to change me more. You don't think she was trying to ----"
"I think she might have been, buddy," John sighed. "But we're wise to her now."
Craig nodded. After a few moments, he asked. "But how can we stop her? She's some kind of magician..."
"Together," John said, taking his friend's hand.
A dimpled smile spread and Craig squeezed his hand, accepting the friendship without question. "Let's find the cave, talk to Roy and find out exactly what's going on here." He raised their joined hands and added, "Together."
The first raindrops then began to fall. With John's cry of "Aw, man!" they dropped hands and sprinted for the cave.
There, John built a fire while Craig kept watch -- waiting for their third friend to arrive with food.
And with answers.
By the time Roy returned, John was on watch while Craig slept. His eyes widened as he saw what Roy had caught. "That is a lot of meat, Roy!"
The fangs flashed as Roy smiled. "Three of us, Junior. No side- dishes -- just this." He lay the deer-like creature down and began to skin it. "How is he?"
"Tired," John sighed. "And he's been complaining that his eyes hurt."
"I'd imagine so, without his glasses."
John rubbed the back of his neck. "See, that's what's got me bugged. Brianda said she fixed his eyes. And Craig's had 20/20 vision all day --- I just can't understand why they're hurting."
Roy dropped the knife and entered the cave. He knelt down by Craig and shook him gently. "Craig," he said. "Craig, wake up."
Craig let out a muffled groan and rolled over. His eyes fluttered open. "...Roy?"
Roy let out a sighed curse and moved to the wall, leaning heavily against it and muttering dire curses against Brianda. Startled, John came over and gasped, "Craig! Your eyes!"
"What?" Craig frowned. "What about them? They're still 20/20..."
"Brianda lied to you," Roy snarled. "She gave you 20/20 vision, all right --- and your eyes are like mine!"
"What?" Craig sat straight up.
"He's right, buddy," John said, holding his arm. "They're slit-pupiled, and nearly green-coloured."
Craig raised a shaky hand to his face. "That....that-that....." he ground out, too angry to even say it.
Roy moved back to his side and lay a hand on his other arm. Looking into his catlike eyes, he asked, "How did you get hooked up with Brianda, anyway?"
"She... was the first to talk with us after we arrived," Craig replied, still trembling.
"We drank from a fountain, and she contacted us immediately after. That's when we found out I could speak the lingo here, but Craig couldn't," John finished.
Roy frowned. "Okay, you've officially confused me. You both are speaking the lingo just fine."
They openly gaped at him, trying to process that. "Then why can't I understand anyone but John and you?" Craig gasped out.
"You've obviously been enspelled," Roy sighed. "The tricky part is gonna be finding out which spell and how to lift it."
"Where do we start?" John and Craig chorused.
"Where did this start?" Roy asked. "Where were you when you started not to be able to understand?"
After a moment, Craig asked John, "The fountain? We both drank...."
John nodded. "I held your hands while you did."
"What fountain?" Roy asked. "There are several in town."
"Brianda called it the Waters of Truth," John explained. "Said it would show us the truth about ourselves."
"And all we cared about was it was water" Craig gritted out. "But after we drank -- I couldn't understand anybody but you."
Roy nodded grimly. "Where exactly was this fountain?"
They looked at each other, then Craig said, "It was right when you enter the town from the hills."
Roy growled and leaned forward. "Three-tiered fountan? With a statue of a man kneeling at another man's feet on the top?" At John's nod, he swore. "That lying trollop! That isn't the Waters of Truth!"
"What is it, then?" Craig asked, feeling more helpless by the minute.
"What you described," Roy said slowly, "is the Servant's Fountain. Everyone will now see Craig as your slave -- and that explains why he can't understand!"
Craig choked on his meat. After John's back-pounding, he choked out, "...slave?"
"I don't get it," John sighed. "Why can't he understand?"
Roy pointed at John. "A slave is keyed to his master's voice. You held his hands."
With a groan, John keeled backwards onto the furs. "Well, this is just wonderful. So, how do we break this spell?"
"Yeah, please!" Craig burst out. "I can't live my life as a slave!"
Roy nodded. "We have to find the river. Somewhere along there's a mage who might be able to help."
Craig frowned at him. "Somewhere?"
"Yeah, I'm not sure exactly where." The fangs were revealed in a sheepish grin. "I was on my way to find him myself when I saw you two in town."
John nodded. "To have him break your spell so you can go home."
Roy looked grimly at him. "I can never go home, Junior.
There was silence for a moment or two, then John's gasp of "What?!?"
Craig shook his head. "Roy... if-if this mage can break your spells....?"
Roy shook his head. "Brianda said this was done to me by science, not sorcery. Knowing her, she's lied and it is a spell...." He sighed. "But still, after what all I've done...." He shook his head, then nodded toward Craig. "You got a low-level dose of whatever transformed me. It just altered your eyes. You can go home, resume your normal life." He shrugged. "Contact lenses or something. But me...."
Silence stretched again as they studied their transformed friend.
He was the same height, but all of his slight flab had been transformed to muscle. His chest was broader, his waist thinner. Everywhere Roy had possessed hair, now he sported reddish-golden fur. His forearms and waist and thighs each sported sheathes for knives -- and all of them were loaded. His hair now reached to nearly the middle of his back, and was in a thick red-gold braid.
Roy smiled, revealing a mouthful of wickedly sharp teeth and fangs. "See?" he asked, spreading his powerful arms. "I can't go home."
John licked his lips. "But...Roy... what about Joanne?"
He lowered his hands and his eyes. "Joanne will be fine," he said, his voice tight. "So will the kids. Tell them... tell them I died or something."
"Can't do that, Pally."
Roy's head raised in confusion. "Why not?"
John smiled humourlessly. "Because if you stay, so do I."
Craig nodded, climbing to his feet. "So am I. There's really nothing back there for me."
"Crazy!" Roy erupted, glaring at them both. "Both of you-- crazy!"
They both grinned back at him, and Roy let out a sigh. "Okay, fine. Sleep now -- we've got a lot of ground to cover tomorrow."
Craig nodded and slid into the furs on the pallet. John walked over to Roy. "Roy?"
"Sleep, Junior. I mean it."
John worried his lip, then slid into the makeshift bed.
But sleep was very slow to come.
Roy stood first watch over his sleeping companions. He hadn't wanted to tell them the rest of his news -- that Brianda had done this to him to enslave him.
Though troubled by his whirling thoughts, Roy's feline-enhanced instincts and senses were on full alert. So when the small, soft glow enveloped the mouth of the cave, he was ready for it.
"What do you want?" he growled at it.
The glow coalesced into Brianda -- one John and Craig would not have recognised. This one had four parallel scars running across her face, marring her beauty -- a souvenir from Roy. "Why do you ask me that? Must I want something to visit you?"
"You're not welcome here, sorceress."
She clucked her tongue. "Now, now -- is that any way to speak to your mistress?"
He drew a knife. "You are not my mistress!"
"Wrong, DeSoto. I made you as you are -- you are bound to me by the magic!"
Her reply to that was a musical laugh that might have seemed warm and friendly -- if it had come from anyone else. From her, it sounded like a challenge.
Roy's lip curled and he dropped into a fighting crouch.
"Oh, you are so amusing!" Brianda laughed. "You forget, Warrior, that I am a creature of magic!"
"So?" he growled.
She blinked, clearly not expecting that response.
His fangs showed in a genuine smile -- he enjoyed having the advantage! "You may be magic, but you still have a heart."
"Do I, Fel?" she snarled.
"Oh, you have," he shot back, knife turning in slow, menacing circles. "I've felt it beating under my fingertips, remember? And a heart that beats --" he moved forward sightly, leading with the knife -- "is a heart that can be cut out!"
Brianda's eyes narrowed.
"So I repeat, Sorceress -- you are not welcome here."
"You have gall, Fel. You think physical prowess can defeat magic?"
Roy laughed. "Now it's your turn to forget, Brianda -- your spells can not harm me!"
"Perhaps not you, Fel," she growled, "but your companions are a different story!"
"They are none of your affair, Sorceress."
A terrible smile spread across Brianda's marred features. "Oh, but they are. They have both been touched by magic."
Roy snarled. "I'm in no mood for wordplay."
"Nor am I," she shot back, holding up a hand. "I leave -- but you have not won."
"I have beaten you at last, Fel. They are both enspelled!" Her laugh rang out as she became the ball of light again and vanished.
Roy let out savage curses in three languages as he flung the point of his knife into the dirt. Bending to pick it up, his senses prickled with awareness of something... something....
Behind him! Rolling, Roy grabbed his knife and came up in a fighting stance, facing behind where he had faced before.
He breathed a soft curse in English as he lowered the knife, his eyes softening to grieved anguish.
John stood at the mouth of the cave, his dark eyes wide with naked horror.
Roy sheathed his knife and took a hesitant step forward. "How much did you hear?"
"All of it," John admitted in a soft voice. "The -- the light woke me."
With a sigh from the depths of his soul, Roy ran his hands over his face. "...Craig?"
John looked over his shoulder and reported, "Still asleep."
He held up a hand. "No, Roy... no, don't."
"You don't even know what I was going to say!"
"If I know you, you were gonna apologise. Please... don't. It's not your fault."
Roy let out a heavy sigh and ran his hand over his forehead as he trudged toward the cave.
"Roy... what-what did she mean that we both were enspelled?"
"I don't know." His slit-pupiled eyes narrowed and he looked toward where Brianda had been. "But I'm gonna find out."
"Just what is your connection to her?"
"I told you. She changed me."
Something he'd said in his rant to her preyed on John's mind. "Roy... how did you feel her heart under your fingers?"
Roy lowered his eyes and gave yet another sigh.
John's eyes widened in disbelieving shock. "Roy... you slept with her?!"
"I was enspelled," he growled, bitterness tinging his voice. "I wasn't in my right mind."
"Aw, man...." John ran his hands through his hair. "What a mess... how'd you break those spells?"
"You don't wanna know," Roy sighed and walked into the cave to wake Craig.
"Yes, I do!" John followed and knelt beside Roy. "If I'm enspelled, then I've got to learn how to break it!"
Roy glared at him. "Every spell takes a different breakage. We don't even know what spell you're under yet -- or even if you are truly enspelled. It may be that Brianda is lying through her teeth!"
"She has no reason to --"
"She has every reason to!" Roy hissed back. "She is evil incarnate on this world! She is hate, she is uncontrolled power, she is pain, she is cruelty! She is the Mistress of Lies herself!"
John's eyes widened. "Roy... are-are you telling me she's the ... the devil?"
Roy looked steadily at him. "Junior, if she isn't, she's an extremely close relative."
As Roy turned away, John's body shuddered involountarily.
Breakfast was a strained affair. Finally, Craig asked, "Okay, you two -- spill it! What's going on?"
Both of them sighed, then Roy put down the knife he was using to carve the meat and met his eyes. "Brianda visited last night. Delivered some unwelcome news."
Craig swallowed. "What... news...."
"She claims you both are enspelled."
Craig leaned against the cave wall. "Aw, hell... what next...."
Roy buried the animal's bones, and dusted his palms. "You two ready to move?"
Craig scanned the terrain. "You think this mage can help us?"
"I think, right now, he's our best hope," Roy said honestly, sheathing his knives after cleaning them.
John scanned the sky intently, silently.
"What are you doing?" Craig asked.
"Looking for a cyclone."
Roy frowned. "A cyclone? What ever for?"
John looked at him and grinned his cocky grin. "Cause this is starting to sound like a real-life Wizard of Oz!"
That earned him a glare from Roy and a fit of laughter from Craig that was so hard, he landed on his back in the dirt.
Roy crouched down beside him and waited. When Craig's hilarity had died down to occasional whimpering giggles and swipes at his tearing eyes while he held his stomach, Roy growled softly, "Now I know you're under a slave-bonding spell. His joke wasn't nearly that funny."
Craig frowned up at him as he fought to catch his breath. "...y- you....you're right," he gasped out. "What's ha-ha-happening to me?"
"I told you," Roy said curtly as he stood up. "You're under a slave- bond spell."
John stepped forward. "And this -- what'd you call him, mage? -- this mage can help us."
"I hope," Roy sighed, looking toward the rising sun. "I don't even want to consider his not helping us."
Craig held out his hands to John, who pulled him to his feet. "Brother, is that ever the truth! No offense, John -- but I do not relish living the rest of my natural life as your slave!"
"None taken, trust me," John moaned, with an exaggerated shudder.
Instantly Craig's face went blank. "Oh, John," he whispered as if stunned, "I do trust you. How could I not?"
John's jaw slowly lowered. "Craig," he said firmly. "Did you just hear yourself?"
Craig blinked. He mentally replayed the scene, and his hands flew to his mouth as his eyes widened in horror.
Roy let out a low growl.
John turned wide eyes onto him. "It's getting worse."
Grimly, Roy nodded. "And it's going to just worsen until we get it broken." He sheathed his last knife. "Let's go."
They set off walking. A few steps down the road, Craig's hand crept into John's -- seeking reassurance like a frightened child.
Somehow sensing the nuances behind that action, John squeezed his hand, then released it. Not a word was said.
But Craig began to smile broadly. He was no longer frightened. Things were going to be all right. They were going to find this mystery mage, and he was going to help them.
Everything was going to be all right.
Master John had all but said so.