"Justin Case"

Author's Note: Sorry it's been so long since I last updated. Most of my time is occupied with school these days, but I fully intend to finish this and "Darien". As for my other stories-on-hold...well, we'll have to see how things go, but it's not looking good, unfortunately. Just a warning, this chapter gets a bit violent, but hopefully I didn't go overboard. Enjoy!

"Chapter 4: Young Dreamer, Bad Luck"

Justin yawned, stretching his forelegs out in front of him to ease the stiffness that had crept into his joints overnight. His current burrow was a shallow one, and he hadn't yet had the time to make it deeper. Cold air seeped in around the edges of the trapdoor, penetrating the cocoon of body heat that he had been trying (with limited success) to build up. The spider hadn't slept well at all, and he was feeling rather cantankerous this morning.

Meeting one of the strange two-legged beings face to face had shaken him badly, and he didn't really know what he should do yet. It was alarming enough to know that they were aware of his presence, but now he was faced with the uncertainty of whether or not Patient Heart's invitation was sincerely meant...or if it was a trap. It was true that Pace could have detained him, but Justin wondered if maybe the liger was toying with him, drawing it out. Playing 'cat-and-mouse'. As uncharitable as the thought was, it wasn't in his nature to give a stranger the benefit of the doubt. Even though he half-trusted Pace already, and had grudgingly taken a liking to him, he was wary.

He shook his head and dug through the sack of food that Pace had given him the night before, coming up with a small loaf of bread. He broke it in half, and returned one of the halves to the bag before nibbling at the other half. 'Even if he was being truthful, there's no guarantee that the others won't turn me away.' he thought. 'Or worse.'

He jumped as a gust of wind caught the edge of the trapdoor and blew it wide open. "Oh, blast..." he grumbled, clutching his bread in one 'paw' as he moved forward and reached up to catch the door as it flapped in the breeze. He supposed he must have been careless in his haste to dig a new burrow for it to seal so badly, and as he emerged to mend the damage he saw something that made him stop dead in his tracks.

A small white creature with brown stripes and a very surprised expression on her face was sitting not three feet away from the burrow, loosely holding a worn and yellowed novel in one trembling paw. When she didn't scream or run away, he wondered if she was trembling out of fear or cold. His first thought was to run, and his second thought was to try to scare her away. He discarded both thoughts, and waited to see what she would do.

Without taking her eyes off him for a moment, she marked her page with a blade of grass, adjusted the lapels of her pink jacket, and raised one paw in a tentative wave. "Um...hi?"

He forgot about his bread, and it fell from his nerveless 'paw' to tumble back into the recesses of his burrow. He flung the trapdoor all the way back, and stood blocking the entrance. "You are...a liger?"

She nodded. "Yes..."

"Are you not afraid of me?" he asked.

"Not yet." she replied, cautious but friendly.

He smiled in spite of himself, but the expression was gone in a flash. "How did you find my house?"

"By accident." she told him, getting to her feet, an action that caused him to take a step back. "I come here all the time."
"Ah." he nodded slowly, then his face took on an irritated frown. "You do realize what trouble you've caused me, don't you? Now I shall have to move...again."

"Oh, I can keep a secret. No one will know where you live unless you tell them. My brother told us about you today. You know, you met him last night?" she asked him. When she received a single nod, she went on, "The leaders want to meet you."

Justin folded one foreleg over the other and settled himself down, having decided that this one, at least, was harmless. "Did your brother also tell them that I haven't made my decision yet?" he inquired.


"Well, know this..." he told her, "I am a very suspicious individual. I will not trust without good reason, and certainly not implicitly. I've nearly met my death several times over at the hands of your brethren. This does not encourage me to trust you. You seem like a nice young lady, but how can I be sure? How can you be sure of me? After all, I am a stranger, and a strange one at that..."

She shrugged and replied, "I guess we can't know. We can only believe. Or not." she smiled, "I trust you, though. Justin, isn't it? I'm Faith."

Justin was, to say the least, nonplussed. He had hoped that she would clear off and leave him in peace so that he could move to another location, but she showed no signs of fear or the inclination to leave. He sighed, nodding. "Yes, that is my name. What do you want from me, young Faith?"

She regarded him as if she thought his question a very silly one. "Nothing, I just want to be friends."

He raised an eyebrow. "With a big grouchy spider like me?"

He was only feeling grumpy because it was early, but she had no way of knowing that. She shrugged, looking uncertain now. "I thought, since you made friends with Pace..."

Justin closed his eight eyes and shook his head, his stand-offish facade coming down. "Child, I know what you are trying to do, but I think you must be living in a dream world. I am not naive enough to expect all of you to accept me as easily as you and your brother have. Nor can I forget having to run for my life on several occasions. I said I would consider it, and I will. But...I simply don't know what it is that I wish to do yet. Do you understand me?"

Faith looked down, saddened by his tone of gentle finality, and nodded. "I guess so...But you don't have to move. I promise, I won't tell anyone I saw you."

Justin smiled a little. "I believe you. Goodbye, young dreamer."

Faith looked up and smiled sadly, realizing that she was being dismissed. "Bye."

Justin watched her go, and it occurred to him that he had seen her before. 'Of course...Before I changed, I saw her when she was but a child...'

He was about to return to the dark recesses of his burrow when a shrill, terrified scream cut a swath through the chill autumn air. Justin went rigid with shock, recognizing the voice as belonging to Faith, and he gasped when he heard the answering shriek of some kind of predatory bird. He had heard hawks and eagles before, but it was as if someone had recorded a scream from one of those birds before blasting it across the clouds with super sized speakers. But of course that wasn't what it was. And this bird must certainly be massive

"Faith..." Justin whispered, standing in an agony of indecision before abandoning his burrow and scurrying as only spiders can in the direction of the sounds.

On a whim, No Heart had decided to cause some trouble in the Kingdom of Caring. Things had been far too quiet lately, and quite frankly the sorcerer was bored. He had left his castle with no definite plan of attack, but striking fear into the heart of one of those annoying Ligers seemed to be as good a plan as any. This one had showed no signs of possessing any sort of special abilities, and according to Beastly she was a notorious dreamer. Not that Beastly had used those particular words, of course. She had tried frequently to change Beastly for the better when she was a cub. On one such occasion, Beastly had gone along with it and fooled the child into thinking he was her friend, only to turn on her at the last minute and brag about the horrible things his master would do to her.

Even after that she was far too trusting, and No Heart intended to have the fun of exhausting her before moving in for the kill. He circled high overhead before swooping down to clack his talons by her ear, drawing yet another scream from her as she dove to avoid it.

If she could only reach the others in time! There was no way she could hold him off on her own, and what made it worse was that she knew he was toying with her. She could do nothing but unwillingly play her part in his little game, running for her life and panting in rasps as she wondered if the next swoop would bring her death, or would the one after that...

No Heart could see the rooftops in the distance, and he realized they were nearing Care-a-Lot. This was perfect! The others would witness this, but would be able to do nothing! He flew on ahead of her and landed to block her path, adjusting his wings before reverting to his humanoid form. "This is as far as you go, little pest!"

Faith skidded to a stop and sent a Call at him in desperation, but No Heart had steeled himself against it. One Care Bear Cousin couldn't cause him any lasting harm, and he laughed mockingly through the searing pain of her Call.

"Now you will feel the sting of my hatred!"he raised one blue, claw-like hand.

Tender Heart and several others had spotted them, and they were racing towards them as fast as they could go, but it was painfully clear that they wouldn't make it in time. Stellar was among them, and he looked positively ferocious as he rushed to his daughter's aid, but No Heart paid them no mind. He had her right where he wanted her, and there wasn't a thing they could do about it.

Faith felt dizziness closing in on her as flashes of red lightning began to sizzle around No Heart's fist. Part of her mind had detached from reality, and was incredulously wondering just how was it that he wasn't being shocked by his own energy...

No Heart abruptly lowered his hand and pointed one long, bony finger at her. There was a loud 'BOOM!', and just as she closed her eyes she heard a vaguely familiar voice yell out the word 'NO!'. At the moment when she should have been struck by No Heart's lightning bolt, she instead heard a shrill cry of absolute agony. She opened her eyes to find Justin sprawled on the clouds before her, thrashing as he tried to regain his feet and rubbing at his face.

"Meddling creature!" No Heart grumbled, preparing for a second attack that would finish them both. Unfortunately for him, Brave Heart and the others had just gotten within Staring range.

"STARE!" bellowed Brave Heart Lion, and the group of ten lost no time in launching their attack.

"Nooooooooo!" yelled No Heart, warding off the light and heat with one hand and clutching his medallion with the other. He had no choice but to leave, and taking on the form of a vulture he made good his escape.

Faith rubbed her eyes as she became a little more steady on her feet, when she opened them she could barely make out an orange-and-black blur coming straight at her. Stellar pulled her close, holding her too tightly, and her nerve finally snapped. She buried her face in his shoulder, shaking with reaction and crying. There was a skittering sound, and she heard Pace call out 'come back', and then 'we have to stop him'.

Justin had finally regained his feet and fled instinctively for his burrow, leaving a trail of tiny scarlet droplets in his wake.

No Heart's attack had hurt, but it was nothing compared to the pain Justin was in now. The shock of impact had worn off and, unable to really see where he was going, Justin ran blindly in the general direction of his burrow. The left side of his face felt like meat, and he kept his 'paw' pressed firmly over the damage as he felt his way home. Three of his eyes were damaged and the other five were fine, but when he tried to open the undamaged ones he found that he couldn't. They seemed to be glued shut with the tears that reflexively welled up and ran down his face, tears that had absolutely nothing to do with emotion. Adrenaline and fear were the only things that kept him going, and he somehow made it back to his burrow without the use of his eyes. 'My feet knew the way...' his mind told him.

He backed into his burrow and pulled the trapdoor tightly shut, holding on to it because it didn't have a latch, and hyperventilating as he tried to assess the damage that was done to his face. He couldn't open three of his eyes because of the swelling, and his face...

The entire left side of his face from the eyes down was a mass of matted fur and blood, which still trickled from at least two gashes in his left cheek. 'I left a trail...tracks and blood...they'll follow me here...'

He didn't care. His grip loosened on the edge of his trapdoor, and he lowered his globular body to the floor of his shallow den. The sudden burst of energy that had enabled him to flee was ebbing, and he rested his injured cheek on the floor. His last thought before losing consciousness was that he was grateful for the coolness that radiated through the silk-lined clouds.

Even if Justin hadn't left behind a trail that even a novice tracker could follow, Faith knew where to find him. It had only taken her a moment or two to regain her composure, and her father was impressed at how calmly she directed them as they drove deeper into the Forest of Feelings.

"We should be coming up on his house pretty soon. Has anyone called Take Care yet?" she glanced around at the others. Brave Heart, who had a cell phone to his ear, gave her a wink and the 'thumbs-up' sign. Faith sighed. "Good...What does she say?"

Brave Heart held up a finger. "Just a minute, hun." then he rolled his eyes. "No, not you, Take Care, Faith wanted to ask me somethin'. Yep. Uh-huh...Will do. Okay, bye." he pressed a button before putting his cell away, and said, "She says if he was strong enough to bolt like he did, it's fine to move him. She'll get things ready for when he gets there."

Faith nodded, then pointed. "Stop here!"

They got out of their Cloudmobiles, and Stellar put his paws on his daughter's shoulders, gently holding her back as Pace stooped to lift the trapdoor. It came up easily, but from Faith's vantage point she couldn't see anything.

Pace squinted, trying to see into the burrow. "Justin? How badly are you hurt?" He waited for a reply, and when he saw the tiny scarlet speckles that led into the burrow like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs, his stomach did a clenching flip-flop. "I know you're in there, Justin. Can you hear me?"

No answer. 'I hope he's only unconscious...' Pace thought as he stood up. "I need a flashlight."

Stellar turned back to his Cloudmobile and fished one out of the glove compartment. He passed it on to Faith, but instead of giving it to her brother, she knelt at the mouth of the burrow and turned it on with a click. She gasped and covered her mouth when the beam of light revealed what was inside. "His...My stars, his poor face..." she whispered as the flashlight slipped from her loosening grasp and into the burrow.

Justin shuddered a bit as the flashlight rolled in and knocked lightly against his foreleg, and it took him a moment to realize that his name was being called over and over, by many voices. He covered the injured half of his face and slowly pulled himself into the light before collapsing, half in and half out of his burrow, his head swimming. He felt himself being lifted all the way out, and he heard their exclamations of horror and pity at his state. He heard a female voice beginning to cry, and he oriented on it and remembered who it belonged to. "Young dreamer..."

To Be Continued...