User:Eirik/Stranger in a Foreign Land

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Stranger in a Foreign Land

Author: Eirik

"Another round for everyone!" he yelled, his pewter mug held high in the air.

The barkeep looked suspicious of the stranger and over the cheers of the crowded tavern he leaned forward, "Not until I see your..."

The pudgy man interrupted him by throwing a small leather pouch, spilling a few gold and silver coins across the bar. "That should keep everyone well lubricated all night," he said cheerfully.

"Sir?" asked the tavern owner as he swept the pouch off the bar.

Oscar winced inwardly. He sometimes forgot that certain words didn't translate well. "Just give people beer until the money runs out," he yelled over the roaring laughter in the tavern as people swarmed him to pat him on the back for his generosity.

Oscar took it all in greedily, not caring a whit for the golds he just tossed down the hole. These folks were drinking on the coin of the Baron of Lipink tonight, and the Baron had a lot more coin to spend. Of course, the Baron and Oscar were far from the same person. The humorless old codger would probably not appreciate his money being spent that way.

Feeling slightly drunk from his own indulgence and engrossed in a bawdy conversation about the local brothel, it took Oscar several minutes to notice the small hand pulling at his sleeve. He finally looked down, "Kit! What are you doing here? Why aren't you drinking?"

Kit looked uncharacteristically worried. Oscar had come to know his personal servant well these last few weeks but had never seen the expression of fear in his young eyes. "Sir! I must speak to you." The look told Oscar that it wasn't good news.

Casually, he took his leave of the conversation and slipped up to the room he had been using his three weeks in Lipink. "What is it?" he asked slightly annoyed once they had gotten far enough from the noise downstairs.

"The Baron knows," he said in a harsh whisper. "The royal guard has been looking for Therol and me since midday!" he said panicked.

With an appropriately worried expression, Oscar shook his head. He'd known that this day would come, of course. No matter how easy it was for him to raid the treasuries of this world, eventually someone noticed the missing gold. Besides, he'd taken too many risks. He'd been getting reckless lately. "Then I'll take my leave of this place," he said with a shake of the head. "Pity, too. I was going to go in tonight and get another bundle.."

"Sir!" the boy said, shocked, "You promised that we'd be protected! My brother and I..."

"Of course, of course," said Oscar with a sly smile, "Bring your brother to the stable where my horse is kept as fast as you can. You will leave town with me."

The boy looked confused and worried, "But the gate! We'll never get past..."

"Leave that to me," he said with total confidence, "Leave that to me."

Kit looked wary, but he had no reason to doubt Oscar. Ever since the mysterious stranger had come into town he'd seen more coin than in his life. The man was nothing if not generous. He took his leave, promising to meet at the stables by midnight.

Oscar sighed when the boy had left and started packing. He wasn't worried that deeply about the royal guard: The Baron would only be looking for the boys at the moment. That's the best his mage would be able to do right now. Eventually, he could track down the coins themselves, but that would take time and old fashioned detective work. Unless he was turned in by someone, he was safe.

He took his leather sack and tossed in what he had in the room. No matter how many times he did this, he was shocked by how few possessions he had. He could remember a time, in another life on another world, when he'd owned a houseful of things. When he'd owned an apartment in the heart of the greatest city in the world.

Oscar shook his head wistfully. He wasn't always a nomadic thief. Time was, he was a young lawyer in New York City just doing his thing day after day. He'd only been out of school a few years and was angling to make partner at the firm in near record time. Oscar Finny, esquire, was going places.

During a hunting trip with the boss, though, he discovered just where he was going. To this day, Oscar had no idea what happened exactly. He had the impression that he was out during the trip from his world to this one. He remembered walking into a small cave to look around, and the next he woke in a clearing with only the clothes on his back. Within days, he discovered that he was no longer on Earth, or at least the Earth that he knew. He was in a world trapped in the dark ages when pig iron was considered the pinnacle of technology and steel wasn't even thought of. He was trapped in a land of magic where dragon hunts were the favorite sport of kings and unicorns still looked for virginal maidens.

A land where all the latest magics were used to protect the great wealth of the nobility.

Oscar had sought an old mage to try and get him home as fast as he could.

The doddering old fool had been fascinated by Oscar and his story.  He'd 

tried a few spells, then told him was immune to the magics of this world.

There was something about his body, about the land that he was born in, 

that prevented it from working. Oscar could drink the most powerful potions, walk through the most potent spells and come unscathed. It also prevented him from getting home unless he could find a portal. The old mage had told him about the portal in the land of Thorith, across the grand divide and on the other side of a distant sea. It was there, he was told, he had to go.

Oscar had been slowly working his way across the continent, from town to city to town, toward the coast where he planned on picking up a ship to Thorith. He had financed this little adventure with theft, of course. He had no skills that were useful in this world, and it was the fastest way to get money.

When he realized that many manors weren't even physically locked, it became too simple. In this world, nobility relied almost exclusively on the mastery of their mages. It was a status symbol of sorts that they didn't have to lock their doors to the peasants. Magic was so much a part of their lives that someone who wasn't effected by it was a totally foreign concept. Oscar had used that very much to his advantage.

He sealed the leather sack and left the room, slipping out of the tavern by the back way. He usually liked to get out of town before the local law had wind of anything amiss, but it couldn't be helped. He only hoped that the two brothers would meet him in the stable as planned and not try and escape on their own. They alone knew his secret, or at least enough to get him locked in a nice, sturdy dungeon for the rest of his life.

"Sir!" he heard Kit whisper from the alley outside the stable. "We're over here."

Oscar turned down the darkened alley and found them hunkered behind some crates. The two boys were only about twelve and eleven, alone on the streets (they claimed) most of their lives. "What are we going to do?"

With a wink, Oscar nodded toward the stable. "Lets get my horse ready and I'll explain." They followed him into the dimly lit barn to his horses stable. He had the boys tack him up while he dealt with the stable owner. He gave the man more than enough coin for the boarding and returned to his horse. The two boys were standing off to the side, looking worried. Both knew they had no life here anymore if the Baron was looking for them. It was only a matter of time, and the Baron was famously nasty to his prisoners.

They seemed a bit more relaxed at the casual attitude of their boss of the last few weeks. He motioned for them to sit while he rummaged through his sack. "I know that you two are worried, but believe me I've never allowed anyone who helped me as you two have to be subject to the local police."

"Police?" asked Kit.

Oscar sighed, "Royal guard," he corrected. He pulled a small flask out of the sack and took a small swig. The sweet brandy burned as it went down. He handed it to Kit, "A final drink to celebrate our take. By morning, we'll be far from the gates of the city."

Kit still looked confused, but took a drink and handed it to Therol. The boy took his own hit and handed it back to Oscar. He turned, put it back in the sack, then turned around. He heard Therol gasp behind him. Where the two boys had been sitting there were two white sheep looking very deeply confused. Oscar knelt down beside them. "Don't worry," he said gently, "I just need to get you past the guards at the gate and out of town. They'll be stopping any children, but they aren't looking for ewes."

Oscar knew from experience that he had a few days before the minds of the two boys would be so intermingled with the sheep that they would be inseparable. After that, while they would always remember being human, they would be unable to act as anything but sheep. He tied a length of rope between the two ewes and then one from Kit to this saddlebag. He left the stable with two meek sheep in tow.

He got to the gate, and as he suspected the guards barely paid him any attention. They only asked why he would venture out at so late an hour.

"I've got pressing business in Gouling," he explained, "I must get there 

with all speed." They accepted that easily enough, Gouling was the largest port within a months travel. Trips there by merchants were very common.

By the time midnight fell and the buzz from the strong beer started to wear, he turned and looked back at his two sheep. "Keep moving, fellows," he said in a whisper, "I'll take care of you once we're beyond the reach of the baron."

They chuffed weakly, but kept pace with the horse.

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Night was falling rapidly when Oscar brought his horse to the door of a small farmstead. He had been traveling for three days now, and was far beyond the protection of the Baron, but not yet in the protection of the outposts of Gouling. The farmers cottage, he hoped, could offer protection from highwaymen who still used knives and swords rather than magic. He tied his horse to a tree and let him and the two sheep graze while he walked to the door. "Anyone home?" he asked.

A middle aged man opened the door warily, a dagger in his hand. "What do you want?"

Oscar smiled winningly, "I come only to ask shelter from the night. I am a traveler going to Gouling and fear I will not make it to the outpost by nightfall."

The farmer considered that, nodding slightly. "Aye, the outpost is still a half days travel," he agreed, but said no more.

"I can offer payment, of course." He pointed back to where his horse was tied, "Two healthy ewes."

Kit, who still retained more of his mind and control than Therol, looked up in shock when he heard that. He tried to scream out a protest, but all that issued from his throat was a loud "Baa!"

The farmer considered it seriously. It was a large payment for a single nights stay and a meal. "Okay, I'll do it. I can always use another couple ewes."

Oscar went back to the horse and untied the two sheep. "Don't worry," he whispered, "I'll reclaim you in the morning. When have I lied to you?"

Therol didn't even notice the words, the younger boy was deep inside the sheeps mind. Kit didn't seem to trust him that much anymore, but had little choice. Even if he escaped, he'd be wolf food. Oscar led them to a pen with about twenty ewes. He winked, "Socialize. By tomorrow noon you'll be people again." He patted Kit on the head and walked into the house.

It was the last time the two boys ever saw him.

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He didn't even think about the two boys as he entered the outpost. It wasn't anything that he hadn't done before, after all. The flask had been the single most valuable item he had ever stolen, part of a haul he'd taken from the study of a stuffy Mage three years ago. A single swig would turn anyone into a sheep and it magically refilled itself. More than once, a suspicious drinker had noticed the feel of magic on the pewter, which was simply explained by the bottomless nature of the flask.

Oscar had used it to eliminate, guards, constables and even a nosy 

prince who had tracked down the thief of the royal treasury. Oscar sold the former crown prince as fast as he could, and the last time he saw the nosy brat he was being led away by a butcher and pulling hard on the rope.

The flask had been most useful, though, for getting rid of accomplishes. He usually hired local street kids who wouldn't be missed if they just vanished. If no body ever turned up, no one would think twice about it.

Murder was too messy, too easy to track, transformation left no messy 

crime scene and was so unusual even here that no one suspected it.

Oscar declared his business to the guards at the outpost and hit the road again. By noon that day, he was at the main gates of Gouling. He stepped through and looked around, unsure where to go.

"Mister!" he heard shouted a few times. He looked warily as the gaggle of street kids that came at him, staying a little distant from his horse.

They were all street worn and hungry for work.  It was the same in just 

about every town, kids that hired themselves to travelers as local guides and servants. It was a well accepted way for them to make money and the good ones were often able to get hired on as grooms, servants and squires with travelers leaving for points unknown.

Oscar wanted one for far different reasons. "I want someone who knows the waterfront," he said loudly. A couple of kids wandered off, but the rest stayed, begging for work. Oscar looked them over, finding one that just looked right. "You there, come forward."

The boy, not much older than ten, came forward as the small crowd broke up. "Yes, mister? You want me to take you to the waterfront? Stable for your horse?"

Oscar nodded, "The waterfront first. Lead the way. I need to find a place to stay and hire a ship."

The boy nodded and started down the street quickly with Oscar in tow. "Is there anything else that you need?" he asked quickly. "I can get anything you want, anything!"

"Maybe tonight," he said cautiously. On a public street he didn't want to start asking too many questions. "Just get me to an inn and we'll talk about it."

The boy took him straight to an inn that was close enough to the water that the smell of rotting fish and salt filled the air. He got a room and led the boy up. "Okay son, I need some help. Can you tell me where the wealthy neighborhoods are?"

The boy nodded vigorously. "I know where everything is!"

"Good, good," he said, thinking. "I want you to wake me in the morning at dawn and show me where they are. Then, I want you to find out where I can hire a ship to Thorith for myself and some sheep."

The boy left the room with a silver in his hand, far more than normally he would have been paid by now. If the pattern held, he'd have a few guides tomorrow.

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"That's the Countess of Druy," whispered one of the boys as the ancient woman walked out of her home. "Everyone says that she's got a lot of money, but she never spends it. Not even on servants. "

The house was dark as the woman left. He looked at the four kids that had led him around town most of the day. The boy he had hired had brought them along, claiming that they were all family. They didn't look related, but it didn't bother Oscar. He didn't have any intention of paying them anyway. "Wait here," he said. "If you see anyone try to get into the house, distract them for me. Make some noise so I can get out."

The boys nodded silently. They were certainly no strangers to crime, though they were a bit bewildered by his bravado. Even a skinflint like the Countess would have more than basic magical protection on her home. He stepped from the alleyway and walked down the dark street right to the front door and pushed it open. He saw the dim red flash of the magic pulse at the doorframe, probably designed to kill him. Since all but the most powerful mage was stopped by such spells, the door lacked more than a basic latch.

It was almost the easiest job that he'd ever pulled, the most difficult part was finding the money. There were a lot of valuables here, but they were too easy to track. Oscar had no way of fencing gold candles or silverware, nor any means to melt them down. He was after coins or gems, things that could be traded easily on the streets or stores. It took nearly an hour to hit pay dirt.

The woman had a small chest in her third floor room that was loaded with coins, most of the gold. A second spell fired here, casting a dim blue glow around the dark room. A canary in a cage across the room squawked, then fell to the floor of its cage with a wisp of smoke. The thief it was designed to kill, however, was unharmed. Wasting no time, Oscar filled his bag as much as he dared. He closed the chest and walked back out the front door though the first spell again. No problem. There was enough to come back later and get more if he dared. The canary would probably tip the old bat off, and the guard would be looking for anyone who knew anything.

The four kids were wide eyed at his bravery. He tossed them a few coins with a smile. "Why don't you come with me, guys. We can celebrate." He pulled his flask out and took a swig, feeling the brandy trickle down his throat. He looked at the kids and smiled, "I've got enough for everyone."

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"Thorin?" asked the Captain. "It'll cost you, Thorin is pretty far away." He looked the man over. "The ship, twenty men, provisions... not a cheap trip."

Oscar grinned. "That's okay, I've got the money. I just need transport for myself and my livestock, ten sheep." Seven of the sheep were former street urchins he'd used as guides over the last three months, two were guards he'd bribed with a shot of brandy, and the last was a thug who tried to steal his flask in an alley. He didn't dare risk leaving them in town for fear they might find a way to communicate, but by any stretch it was time to go. He'd never transformed this many in a single town before and even though no one had yet missed any of the urchins or the nameless thug, he'd heard rumblings about the two missing guards. It was time to make tracks.

The man shrugged, "Awfully expensive way to move such cheap livestock, but that's your business." He shrugged, "It'll take three days to get the ship ready." He paused a moment, seeming to connect something in his head, "Your not looking to go to Cirlin, are you?"

Oscar blinked, "Cirlin? What's that?"

The captain shook his head quickly, "Never mind, just an old legend. You can bring your livestock tomorrow if you'd like, and the ship will be ready in three days."

Oscar nodded suspiciously, wondering what the old Captain was talking about but recognizing that he wouldn't be able to get much out of the man now. He spent some time on the waterfront, taking in the place in his last day on land. He struck up conversations about Cirlin, but got mostly blank stares. The few who seemed to know something just laughed it off.

When he got a little hungry, he walked back to the inn. As he stepped through the door to the tavern on the first floor, he realized that he had access to the best source of information in any universe, the local barkeep. He'd formed a bit of a relationship with the barkeep here, enough that he'd be able to ask him anything and get a straight answer. Enough that Oscar had met a few of the kids he'd used through him.

Enough that Oscar planned on offering him a drink before he left.

For now, he bellied up to the bar, nearly alone given the early hour. Millin set aside his sweeping and stepped over. "Oscar, my generous friend. What can I get for you? A bit of breakfast perhaps? We have some teas from Finch off the ship today."

"That'll be fine, Millin," he said. He waited for Millin to give his order to the cook and return, "I wouldn't mind a bit of information, though you may think me dense for asking."

Millin chuckled. He'd grown used to odd questions from this man, but the coin was worth it. "Of course, what is it?"

"I just hired a ship..."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that you're leaving! Thorin?"

Oscar nodded, "Yeah, in a few days. Anyway, the Captain mentioned something about Cirlin. Seemed rather hush hush about it, embarrassed that he'd mentioned it when I played dumb..."

Millin laughed out loud. "Cirlin? Oh, it's an island between here and Thorin, about halfway in fact. It's something of a local legend, not well known to those who don't travel between here and Thorin. Most Captains give it a wide berth."

Oscar was intrigued. "Oh? What is it? Some kind of dangerous beast live there? An evil king?"

"Oh, nothing like that at all! It's an island of absolute paradise!" he said cheerfully. "It is peopled entirely of women, beautiful women, and kept that way by magical means." He shrugged, "Not a man on the place, either."

"No men? How?" asked Oscar, intrigued and confused.

Millin shrugged, "Any man that steps foot on that island is treated to a period of absolute debauchery, all the women that he can handle, all the food he can eat, all the rest he can take. It's how they propagate their race. When they are done with him, though, he is not longer a man." The barkeep shrugged, "Legend is that they are transformed into beasts."

Oscar could tell the barkeep wasn't putting him on, at least intentionally. "How do they survive? Wouldn't men just stop coming?" he asked. "Why doesn't someone just invade and put a stop to it?"

"Like Regent Jor did fifty years ago?" he asked with a smile. "It was said that the Regent lost a son or a nephew or something to the island and became enraged. Led five ships and over three hundred men to wipe them out. A few months later, a letter was sent to the young King that the Regent made a fine goat. None of the invading army returned."

Oscar chuckled, "You're putting me on. How could they survive like that?" he asked. "Once the word got out, who would go there?"

"Shipwrecked sailors and fishermen end up there all the time," he said with the confidence of a barkeep repeating what he'd been told a hundred times, "and they come here and to Thorin for supplies in their own ships. The island is rumored to be a source of incredible wealth, gold and emeralds. They often lure unsuspecting travelers aboard with promises and take them back never to return."

"What if there are no takers? They knock them over the heads and drag them aboard?" he asked bemused.

"Oh, no no!" said the barkeep seriously. "They do not believe in violence of any sort. They'd never kill a human." He shrugged, "But they aren't vegetarians. I'm sure they've killed many a man turned into a pig or goat or cow."

Oscar bit his tongue there. He didn't exactly have a high moral ground to take repugnance of that. He let the conversation die out as Millin went back to work.

The thoughts of women and gold, though, stayed far to the front of his mind.

For the next few days while he prepared for his trip, Oscar asked around a bit about Cirlin. It took some time, but he discovered that the barkeep had been largely telling the truth, or at least repeating the local legend. Everyone that was aware of the legend really did think that any men, as well as women who wouldn't join them, were turned into farm stock.

A fanciful story, but hadn't Oscar done as much to at least twenty men and boys just in the last year?

The day before he left, he was actually prepared to drop the whole thing.

He was so close to the end of his trip that it seemed absurd to risk it 

on a final score. An island of beauty where they would have no punishment for him, and by the time they realized it he could have fulfilled a lifetime of dreams. But the notion was too fanciful, and the simple fact was that he didn't believe the story fully.

That was, until that dawn.

He was leaving the tavern by the back door, pulling a struggling sheep along with him. Millin was not at all pleased by his new lot in life and was making his displeasure show. Oscar tightened the rope, cutting off the ewes air, "I'll turn you back when I'm safely across the sea," he lied glibly. "I can't risk you telling anyone about me, not yet." The words didn't calm the former barkeep much, but he stopped struggling.

Oscar stood and took a step, bumping heavily into the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was enchanting, her skin smooth and the color of milk, her eyes deep green, her figure shockingly perfect and only barely covered in a gauzy, green gown. "I-I-I..." He stammered, at a rare loss for words.

The woman smiled winningly and caressed his hand. "That is perfectly alright, good sir. I should have noticed you were distracted by your beast."

He dumbly looked at the sheep, it's eyes white with terror and still pulling hard on the rope, "Yeah, she's a terror," he said weakly. He simply couldn't figure out what to say without just blurting out something obscene.

"Yirlin!" he heard a musical voice call out, "Yirlin, we have to go to the cobbler!" Oscar looked toward the voice only to see another beauty, this one raven haired, calling out to her companion.

Yirlin turned back to Oscar, "I'm sure. I must go, but I would love to talk more. You can find me on the Sea Wind this evening." She left before Oscar could respond. He stared after her stupidly, almost feeling a need to be with her. Her beauty was absolute and even her voice was perfect. She was the epitome of perfection.

Once she was gone, a pull from Millin brought him back to reality. He tugged harder on the rope, "If you don't want to end up as mutton tonight, then calm down." Millin was still noticeably scared and angry, but he followed Oscar as he was led to the ship. Oscar handed the rope to one of the two cabin boys that Captain Ernst employed, "Put her with the rest of my flock. I'll be back before the ship sails tomorrow."

He turned away from the bleating animal as she was led away. Oscar almost felt sorry for the young barkeep. Assuming that she didn't end up as food on the trip, he was going to sell the lot of them as soon as they were off the boat in Thorin. Sometimes he wondered why he kept the sheep around so long. It would be so easy to get rid of them, after all. He could have dragged Millin to the marketplace just as easily as the ship.

Why did a serial killer keep trophies?

Oscar pushed the odd thought out of his head and walked down the gangplank. He still had some things to buy before the trip. He was woefully unprepared for the crossing. He walked to the marketplace, his meticulous thoughts of travel planning interrupted by memories of the stunning woman he had seen. He kept an eye open for her and anyone who looked remotely like her, but it was for naught.

He bought a tar coat, essentially a two later canvas coat with tar smeared between the layers. It smelled like a refinery, but it was the best waterproof coat he could find. He also found some heavy woolen clothes and a few other items of value, having them all sent to his ship.

When he was done, he walked back to the waterfront and looked at the ships, or rather, one specific ship. The ship stood out, it was the only one with a name etched on its prow. It almost seemed odd to Oscar, but that concept didn't seem to catch on here as it had on his world where people named their canoes. Here, even the mightiest ship bore no name. A naval vessel might have a number, but no more.

He walked toward the Sea Wind and stepped on the plank. A few women were milling about on the deck, taking care of their own obvious departure plans. He didn't have to say anything when one looked warily at his stare. "Can I help you?" she asked in a musical voice that still told him he wasn't entirely welcome.

"I'm here to see Yirlin," he explained.

The woman brightened a little and motioned for him to go through a hatch.

He climbed down a deck and saw her there stowing some packages for their 

sailing. She turned and looked at him with a bemused glint. "I see you took me up on my offer," she said.

"I'm not sure what offer it even was," he replied evenly. In truth, he really had perfect clarity about why he was here: he wanted a quick roll in the sack before he left and she seemed a willing partner. "How about if you explain it over dinner?"

She laughed, "I'm afraid that dinner is out of the question. The ship leaves before dusk. You're perfectly welcome to stay as our guest, of course." She wrapped her delicate hands around he waist and her breasts pressed against his body, "It isn't a long trip, and you'll be able to return in a few weeks."

Oscar felt his blood quicken, and if not for the ship to Thorin he'd probably have taken the offer in a minute, as strange as it was. By the time he returned to Gouling, though, he'd almost certainly be a wanted man. "I'm sorry," he said genuinely, "I can't stay. I've got a ship of my own to take tomorrow."

She kissed him on the lips and pulled his shirt away from his neck, "Are you sure?" she asked in a whisper.

"I'm sure," he said pushing her away with every fiber of his willpower. He had to get off this ship fast or he knew he'd never leave. He paused only to kiss her once more, then turned and scooted up the hatch. He was off the ship and down the plank before he could have second thoughts.

He almost turned around and went back, but stopped himself. With a heavy sigh, he turned and headed down the pier toward his ship. Millin would be missed too soon, he knew, and he would rather be out of the harbor before anyone asked any questions. The captain was standing against the railing, looking at him with a strange eye. "She nearly bewitched you."

He blinked, "I'm sorry?"

"The woman on the pier, that's who. The one you just saw on her ship." He looked at Oscar with a strange eye, "You didn't know she was Cirlin?"

Oscar felt his jaw drop. That was a Cirlin? If he'd known how beautiful they were... "Wow," was all he could say. Captain Ernst gently led him to the chart room to have a seat while he made the final preparations. They'd leave just before dawn the next morning.

Oscar sat in the chart room for hours, running over his options in his head. The woman was so wonderful, how could he be passing up something so perfect? He didn't leave that seat until he felt the ship gently slip out of the harbor.

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"I won't. Not for all the gold in the Five Kingdoms, not for all the Dragon Silver in the sea. I stay clear of that island, and so should you," yelled the Captain drunkenly.

Oscar stared angrily at Ernst, feeling his blood boil. They had spent the better part of a week together on the small sloop with little company. The Captain was the only one aboard who was even partly educated, but he spent a fair portion of his time drinking. Oscar discovered early that most of the crew weren't even experienced. Many were young men from the farms looking for a new life. Even the first mate seemed like more of a rube than a sailor and had only been to sea a handful of times. Between the Captains love of the drink and the crews lack of experience, Oscar wondered if the ship was ever going to make land at all.

Ever since his chance encounter with the Cirlin woman on the pier, he'd been working on the Captain to allow him to land on the island. "You wouldn't have to come close," he said. "Give me a longboat and a few days. I assure you that I'll return. If I don't you keep all my money and possessions. What have you to lose?"

The Captain rejected the offer again. "I can lose my humanity. I don't relish the idea of being a cow or a chicken, and that's the fate of all who approach that island!"

Still angry, Oscar jumped up and stalked off, going below decks for some privacy. He desperately wanted to get to that island, to make one final huge score here. If the rest of the women were like the ones he had seen on the ship, it would be worth it.

And the money they might have! There was a chance, he'd been told by the mage, that he'd be able to bring a few things back with him. A sack of gold and gems would go a long way to easing the pain of this time of his life spent in this bizarre place.

He found himself on the lower deck by the time he calmed down. In the dim light that filtered through the decks above, he could see the sheep, his sheep, wobbling back and forth sickly from the motion of the sea. Two ran forward, nearly bowling him over. Oscar recognized them as Millin and one of the royal guards. Their simpering only meant they still had most of their minds. Oscar rolled his eyes, "You're both idiots, you know." He grabbed them both by the ears and pulled forward, "Your lot in life is to bear lambs, make wool and eventually be served on a platter with mint jelly. The faster you both realize that, the easier your life is going to be."

He released the pair and climbed back up the stairs, hearing their panicked baa's. He stopped at the top rung and looked down, an idea forming. Quickly now, he climbed the last couple rungs and went topside.

He found the first mate at the wheel.  " Hirlid!  I wish to speak to 

you."

The man looked at him dumbly, "Sir? What about?"

"Your promotion," he said with a whisper, "Your promotion."

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Subject: Brian Coe's Stranger in a Foreign Land (2/2)

The word quietly spread through the crew. The passenger, they said, had a flask of Bedintine brandy secreted in his cabin. It did little of them any good to know it, though. The passenger was rumored to be a mage of some power traveling anonymously. There were no spells on the door, but to force entry into his cabin would do nothing but bring his wrath.

The captain, of course, had a key.

Oscar stayed topside most of the day, watching the watch change hands at midday. It was about halfway through the afternoon watch that someone noticed for the first time that Ernst was nowhere to be seen. Hardly an unusual position for the man, the captain was a known drinker, but still something to note.

When Oscar felt sufficient time had passed, he walked back to his tiny cabin and opened the door. "What the hell?!" he shouted for all to hear.

Several crewmembers ran forward to see what the fuss was about, and 

found a sheep standing meekly against the wall, trembling. "What have you done, you fool?" shouted Oscar in his best lawyerly voice.

The sheep simply trembled.

Even through he knew who it was, Oscar turned angrily to the crew. "Who is missing? Who!" Everyone murmured, but finally the name Ernst floated about. Oscar turned dramatically back to the sheep. "Ernst! Is that you!"

The sheep weakly baa'ed.

In an angry motion, Oscar grabbed the sheep by the wool and tossed it bodily out of the cabin. "This is the fate of those that would anger me!" he said for the benefit of the crew. Only Hirlid looked marginally unperturbed. "He dared to drink of my flask, and for that he pays!" He looked at the youngest cabin boy. "You! Take this animal to the cook! We dine on mutton tonight!" When the boy just stood there, he leaned closer, "Do we dine on it tomorrow as well?" The boy squeaked, but grabbed the still trembling animal and took him away.

"What will become of us?" asked the first mate, his tone flat.

Oscar felt like rolling his eyes Hirlid was no actor. "Nothing. For now. Go back to your stations!" He pointed at the first mate. "You come with me to the chart room!"

Oscar didn't even bother to close his cabin door, he was sure that the crew would go out of their way to avoid it now. Angrily, he climbed the ladder to the top deck and stomped through the door of the chart room, the first mate in tow. He slammed the door and collapsed into a chair.

The pair looked at each other and had to stifle a belly laugh.

They turned red trying to prevent their voices from carring beyond the thin walls of the room. "That was just perfect," said Oscar. "The perfect crime, one no one knows was committed."

Hirlid leaned back in his chair, "I can't wait to suck the marrow from his bones, the cranky bastard." He looked down at the chart, "I guess I owe you, now. You did as you promised and got me the ship. We can't dock in Thorin now you realize, or even back to Gouling. We need to go somewhere Ernst wasn't known to alter the ship."

Oscar nodded sagely. "That's fine. I only want to make one stop first. You can all even stay aboard, if you wish." He reached over and pointed to a dot on the map, "I just want to go to Cirlin island."

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The island seemed to rise only slightly above the sea, the top of a small volcano that had been battered by the sea for a millennia. Tropical trees grew in the highly fertile soil, and the scents of flowers carried even this far on the faint breeze.

"How long?" asked Oscar.

Hirlid shrugged. "Hard to say. We've got to tack into this breeze, so it'll take some time. It the weather holds like this, then tomorrow afternoon at the earliest."

Oscar nodded and went back to staring at the island. In many ways, it was his most daring, and his most stupid, plan. He knew nothing about these women other than their beauty and their reputation. Once he was on the island, there would be nowhere to hide. He could blend into an city of size, where the guy next to you on the street was likely to be a stranger anyway. On an island with no men, he was going to stick out like a sore thumb.

But if the rumors were right, then he'd be leaving that island in a few days a rich and satisfied man. A few weeks from now, when he was back in his apartment in New York, it would be the memories of that he would want to live with.

Assuming he wanted to leave at all. Perhaps he could be the islands only permanent male. The thought of spending the rest of his life in paradise was definitely appealing. If the women here were half as good a lay as he expected, then he could certainly die here.

The wind shifted a little and the ship started to turn into the wind. The scent of flowers faded and the island started to grow larger all the faster as the wind shifted.. Oscar spent the next hour there, realizing quickly that they would be there by nightfall if the wind kept like this.


He walked from the railing and back to the rain barrel, taking his ration of water. The crew, he saw, were looking at the island enraptured. He imagined that many of the young men, most of the crew were not older than twenty, had never seen such a jewel in their lives.

In truth, neither had he. He had been to Hawaii before he ended up on this world and even that island paradise couldn't hold a candle to this place even from this distance. It was a completely unspoiled island. No grand hotels on the beach or skyscrapers to mar the lines of the extinct volcano. Oscar took his position back at the railing again and watched the island get larger. It wasn't long before he was able to make out the forms of individual trees, black sand beaches, and shipwrecks.

Lots of shipwrecks.

Oscar was pondering this when he saw the sails fill as a strong wind blew from behind. The ship lurched in the water, pulling Oscar from the railing and sending him back a few feet as the water sprayed up the sides. The small sloop was very suddenly going much faster. He looked at the what had been a cloudless sky only a few minutes ago and was shocked to see a gathering storm.

He walked up to the wheel where Hirlid was holding the wheel tightly, "We're making much better time now, sir," he said wryly.

"Storm coming?" he asked simply.

Hirlid nodded, "Coming on us pretty fast, too. I haven't seen anything like this. I'm not going to try and get closer to the island right now. I'd rather have room to steer. You may have to wait to get on shore."

Oscar nodded and turned away. This sloop was his primary escape plan, so he wasn't interested in seeing it crushed on shore either. He walked back to the rail even as the waves started to get closer to the level of the top deck and looked out over the island again. He began to feel a pit in his stomach as he kept counting the wrecked ships on shore. He looked back at Hirlid desperately trying to hold the ship on course and suddenly knew that there would be no escape.

The sudden spinning of the wheel in the new Captains hand was almost anticlimactic. "Flaming Gods! The rudders snapped!" he shouted over the roar of the wind. The uncontrolled ship lurched in the sea as the crew struggled to get the mainsail down. The Captain tried desperately to steer the ship with just the jib, keeping the bow pointed away from the island, but it was no use. None of them were experienced enough to pull it off. The black sand of the island kept getting closer and closer.

Oscar took only enough time to race below decks and grab his leather bag.

He was almost on the top deck when he felt the ship slow unnaturally 

fast. He braced himself on the ladder as the hull lurched on a sandbar. A huge wave heaved the small vessel up and landed it squarely on the shore. The sounds of snapping timber and collapsing masts filled the air for a few seconds before it all went silent. Dead silent.

Oscar carefully took the last few steps up onto the heavily sloping deck and discovered that the storm was almost over. The wind had suddenly died down and the skies were already beginning to lighten. It was a freak storm that lasted only long enough to shipwreck them.

Of course, when it had served its purpose, it ended.

He found the rest of the crew struggling to slid off the deck to the beach below. The water wasn't all that far from the ship, with a lot of work it might even have been possible to refloat the ship at high tide, but the hull was cracked badly. The sloop would never sail again.

He slid down the deck and joined the crew. "Is everyone okay?" he asked Hirlid.

Hirlid looked a bit shocky, but shook his head. "We lost Barthos overboard. Hopefully he'll come ashore, but..." he shrugged.

Oscar nodded. He had a strong feeling that it wouldn't matter. The rest of them would probably wish they were drowned in a few days. He looked back at the tilting ship and saw the sea lapping at the shattered rudder.

"I suggest, Captain, that you get some men and get what you can off the 

ship. It's libel to be broken up if high tide comes in. Lord knows what supplies are on this place."

Hirlid nodded and gathered his crew together. All but a couple with minor injuries climbed back into the ship to clear out supplies. Oscar tended to the few men and waited. He didn't wait long.

As the sun peaked out of the clouds and the moist air warmed, the form of absolute beauty stepped from the trees. She was followed by three others, all stunning. The women were blond or raven haired with lightly tanned skin and perfect figures. They wore clothing that was purely functional, sandals and light wraps to protect from the sun, and nothing else.

Oscar could feel his body heat rise as they approached, looks of genuine concern on their features. "Hello!" called the one in the lead, a raven haired woman with eyes so intently blue they could be seen from afar, "Are you all that survived?" she asked.

"No, there are others," he called back as they approached. "They are on the ship salvaging what they can. Where are we? And who are you?" he asked dumbly.

She smiled, "I'm Fie, and this is Cirlin. You are welcome here until you can arrange passage to other shores."

"Do you have vessels that come here?" he asked curiously.

She shook her head, "Few traders come to our island. We are a small religious sect with little to trade but our livestock. We do send a ship every few moons to the Gouling ports for supplies. They only returned a day or so ago, so it will be some time."

The injured men around Oscar were staring at the women with mouths agape.

Oscar was sure that none of them had any problem with a long stay, or 

any inkling of the nature of this place. "What if we choose to stay?" asked one, his eyes staring unblinking at her chest.

Fie shook her head, "That is not possible. Our religion forbids men from staying here as residents. As survivors of a disaster, however, we are required to give you every aid and comfort." The sentence went from businesslike to sultry by the last word, and the injured men were clearly enjoying the prospect of what that meant. Fie motioned for her three companions, "Take the injured to the village and have Torin look at them.

I'll stay and guide the rest."

The three women each took an injured man around the shoulder and led them into the trees. Fie turned and looked at the ship, "It is a sorry sight to see such a nice vessel destroyed." She motioned to the nearest old wreck, lying on its side at the edge of sight, "As you can see, we have all too many ships land badly here."

"You do seem to have a way with the sailors," said Oscar evenly. He was convinced that the storm had been a setup by someone on this island, and a poor one at that.

"We have much experience, as I said," she replied, seemingly oblivious to Oscars knowledge of this place.

He looked back at the ship where the other crewmembers were unloading the supplies that they could. The two cabin boys were lowering the sheep out off the deck while the others threw rope, food and any other sundries that they could find onto the beach. Only a few had noticed Fie, but they would stop often to stare openly at her. "We should lead your men back to the village before long. Night will fall soon and the island can be dangerous to the uninitiated."

"You have predators?" asked Oscar in surprise.

She shook her head, "Not at all, but we do have bogs and a portion of the trail back to the village is steep."

Oscar climbed aboard and spoke quickly to Hirlid. He was careful to only repeat what Fie said. Since he had already written off the sailors as lost he didn't want to tip his hand yet. The prospect of spending time, as much as several months, on an island of women was all that the hot blooded crew needed to hear. They climbed down to the beach, gathered up what they could carry, and started to follow Fie into the jungle.

Oscar paid attention to the path that they took, watching for signs of the danger of which Fie spoke. The trail was well worn and easy to follow even in the lengthening shadows of dusk, but even a few feet off the trail it was covered in a thick layer of detritus. Oscar had no way of knowing if it was safe to walk off the trails or not. If he had time, he would have to find out. They traveled up a small hill and over the crest of what had once been the rim of the volcano, but was now a sheltered valley.

Oscar didn't stop to look at the scenery, but tried to take in what he could. The usable portion of the island was fairly large. Many of the trees had been long cut down and farm fields were clearly visible in the distance. A few small buildings made of local logs and thatch as well as a few pastures were also clear. By the time they passed below the level of the trees again, Oscar felt he had a reasonable idea of the layout.

He wasn't disappointed in what he found in the village, either. The town was setup generally in a circle around a large pit made of volcanic rock.

It had the look of a ceremonial area, but was clearly multi-purpose 

because several women in protective leather, the heaviest clothes he'd seen yet, were cooking three large hogs.

The nineteen survivors of the shipwreck were all directed to sit near the fire while some of the women went to get pitchers of water for them. Oscar looked around, trying to take in what he could. He couldn't get a handle on how many women were on the island as he had a hard time telling them apart (not without trying to get a good look, of course.) He had a feeling that there were around fifty, perhaps as many as a hundred, but certainly no more than that.

It seemed for all the world like a hippie commune gone horribly right. There seemed to be no bitterness between the women at all, they worked together like a well oiled machine getting the evening meal prepared for themselves and their sudden influx of guests. A few had led the sheep, only one had apparently not survived, to their own pens.

After a short time, a new woman walked over. "Good evening," she said formally. She was clearly older than the rest of the women, but it was damned hard to tell. Her body was as perfect as the rest, only a few streaks of gray gave in her chestnut hair gave any indication of her age.

"I am Cir, the leader of these people."  She sat before the men, "You 

are all welcome here as long as you must be. My children will care for you. While you are here, you shall want for nothing. All that we ask is that you all leave on the first ship that comes, or leave with our trading vessel when it goes."

"When will that be?" asked Hirlid, his eyes still following a particular redheaded woman near the fire.

She shrugged, a motion that Hirlid didn't see. "Our ship is only just recently back for Gouling, so it will not leave again for at least three moons. If no trade vessels come before that, then you will go back with them."

Oscar folded his arms, his face screwed up in consternation. They were really playing this up. If the legends were true, he thought, then why bother to make such a big deal about getting off the island? Within hours, days at most, wouldn't they all be farm animals? He guessed it was to give hope to the ones, for whatever reason, who wanted to actually leave.

"You stood me up," he heard from behind him as a gentle hand caressed his neck.

He turned and saw a familiar face. "Yirlin!" he blurted out in surprise.

"I'm sorry, but I had to get on my ship..."

She looked slightly confused, "That's okay. It's just the first time it's happened." She caressed his cheek. "After we eat, let me show you around the village."

"Won't it be dark?" he asked, his eyes squarely on her cleavage.

She laughed lightly, "Full moon tonight, plenty of light to see by."

They ate together, talking lightly about the island. Oscar tried to steer the conversation away from his own past. He'd been on this world for five years, but didn't want them to know that. Through the meal, he noticed that all of the survivors were getting paired off. That is, everyone but the two cabin boys. Like most cabin boys, they were just children hired to do scutt work for the captain and crew. If it turned out that the promiscuous nature of this place was true, then they weren't even nearly old enough to take part in it.

The meal had no real ending. A few of the lone women wandered out of the firelight while one by one the couples took their leave. Oscar noted only idly that the two boys were led away by Cir herself. As he took the last mouthful of pork, Yirlin took his hand. "Come on, let me show you around a little."

He followed her gladly, and she took him past the small huts to the farm fields. The walked slowly, arm in arm, around the farm fields and pens of animals, then up a small hill that overlooked it all. They sat on the short grass and looked down at the village bathed in the silvery light of the moon. He leaned over and kissed her gently on the cheek. "Thank you," he whispered.

"For what?" she asked.

"For the tour. You have a lovely home here," he said honestly. He almost envied the sailors who would live in this paradise for the rest of their lives. Almost. "I'm surprised that you don't get more visitors, though." She shrugged, but said nothing.

They sat in silence the rest of the evening, watching the flickering lights of the village wink out. They retired to Yirlins hut, where Oscar learned that that portion of the legend, at least, was true.

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It was noon before he realized it, but he couldn't find the cabin boys anywhere.

The men learned at the morning meal that there was a cost to their stay, they would have to work in the farms and stables. The women were more than capable of fending for themselves, but it was a waste for the men to just sit around. Not one said a word in protest. Oscar was sure that they all had as wonderful a night as he had. They spread out, some toward the livestock and others toward the farm fields.

Oscar spent his morning learning how to tack and drive a couple of donkeys to plow a small field they planned on planting soon. It turned out that these were the only large animals they had on the island at the moment to do such work. "We sold most of the foals for a while," explained Yirlin, "to get money for supplies. Then a disease wiped out a lot of our stock last summer." Oscar mentally cursed. It sounded like there was no wealth to be had here.

He spent the first few hours with Yirlin before she went off to do other chores. Once she was gone, the two old donkeys, both jacks, kept looking back at him and sighing. Oscar had a feeling that they remembered being humans on some level.

He was just finishing the first few rows when the thought had hit him: Neither of the two children had shown up at breakfast. For that matter he hadn't seen any children at all. He left the donkeys for the midday meal and took a few minutes to look at the livestock. The island had a wide variety of animals, just about anything that you'd find on a moderately sized farm. When he was fairly sure he wasn't being watched, he ducked thought the tree line and walked around the farm unobserved.

The island had several large barns and it was by chance that he found one that was nestled off the beaten path. It wasn't deserted, a couple of women were chopping wood in front of it, but it was isolated. Oscar slipped into the back and poked through the stalls not really sure what he was looking for. Most of them were empty, the cows that normally stayed here at night were grazing, but he checked anyway. About halfway down the row, he stopped. He stood there a few moments, shock etched on his features. He realized with a start that he had found the cabin boys.

They weren't boys any longer. At least, not completely.

The pair of them were slumped against the back wall of the stall, staring off into space. Neither seemed to notice Oscar at all. Their bodies were still mostly human, but their heads were those of small calves, and their feet and hands were hooved. He noticed in passing that they were being made into a cow and bull. He could almost see the brown fur growing on their skin. By dawn tomorrow, they would be nothing but animals.

He heard the sound of wood chopping stop outside, and Oscar took that as his cue to get away. He slipped out the back way and through the trees. As fast as he could, he went back to the fields and went back to plowing.

Any doubt that he had about the island was dashed.  The legends were 

true so far.

He didn't fear transformation in the slightest, but he wasn't sure what they would do when they found out he was immune. He had his doubts that they would simply let him go.

That night at dinner, the leader Cir took the ships cook to her hut, and Fie took Oscar to hers.

The next morning, the cook was missing.

So far, none of the other crewmen seemed to notice, or care. They probably suspected that the cook was just sleeping late with the leader, who was also nowhere to be seen. Oscar wasn't so sure, though.

He walked back to the barn and tacked up the donkeys. He slipped the collars over their shoulders and tied the leather straps tight, then drove them back and forth down the rows. He paused after a couple hours to give them water, and leaned in, "You remember, don't you?" They both stopped drinking and looked at him, their eyes wide, one even tried to nod. Oscar waved a hand low back to the water, "Keep drinking!" he said through clenched teeth. "I know what's going on here," he said, "I'm going to try and get off the island and get help," he lied. If he got off this island, he wasn't sending anyone back. "I just need to know if you know where the gold is. I'll need it to hire a ship back."

The two donkeys looked at each other then back at Oscar blankly, their expressions confused.

Oscar sighed, "Okay, back to the fields. I'll try and find more out from you both later, maybe tonight."

The two donkeys, he could tell, were aching for human contact. They kept looking back at him while they plowed, so often that Oscar was sure that he was arousing suspicion. He slipped away from them again at lunch and made his way back to the isolated barn. He had a strong feeling that he'd find the missing cook there.

Outside it again, a pair of women were chopping wood. Under different circumstances, Oscar could have sat among the bushes and watched them do that for hours, but he had a mission. Even as he entered the barn, he wasn't sure why he was doing it. It was some kind of morbid curiosity, what kind of horror would he find?

He wasn't disappointed.

The young man was nearly completely lost by the time Oscar found him, his rugged good looks smoothing into the bristly skin of a boar. Unlike the two cabin boys, though, the cook wasn't in shock, he was mad. He took one look at Oscar and started to squeal bloody murder.

In a panic, he turned on his heels and raced out the door, hoping that he made it to the trees before the two woodchoppers made it in behind him. He raced through the trees and back to the donkeys as the rest of the men and women finished their own midday meals. Sweating, he nervously picked up the reigns and started driving the two jacks up and down the rows. By the time the sky started to darken, he knew that he would have to slip away from the village tonight and get away.

A plan formed in his mind. He still had the magic flask in his satchel. He hadn't used it here yet, but it could come in handy assuming that none of the men had talked about it. Once the village was quiet, he'd turn whoever he was with into a sheep and dump her into the pen. The animals occasionally made noises at night so it wasn't likely to be noticed. He didn't think there were any sentries, but he could deal with them the same way, or simply overpower them. He'd make his way back to the longboat from the sloop and use it to get away. He hoped he could remember enough about the summers he spent sailing as a teenager to get to the shipping lanes.

He stripped that tack off the donkeys and put them back in their stalls to be fed. He patted one on the nose and winked. "I'll be seeing ya," he whispered. The donkey looked at him curiously, but didn't do anything else. Stopping only briefly at Yirlins hut, where he had left his bag the first night, he went to the dinner pit and settled down waiting with the others for their evening meal and companion.

Somehow, he was not surprised to find Cir taking his hand. "Dine with me this evening," she said in an even voice. Oscar didn't have to be drawn a map, she knew he'd been to the barn.

"Of course," he said. He sat with her on a log and ate mutton with carrots. The greasy meat turned slightly sour in his mouth when he suddenly realized that it was probably one of the men or boys that he'd transformed himself. He set the plate down suddenly, feeling sick.

"Are you okay?" asked Cir, "You look a little green."

Oscar shook his head. "Just something I ate, it'll pass."

She smiled in a motherly way, then stood and took him by the shoulder, gently pulling him to his feet. "Why don't you come with me?" He was led to her hut, larger and more sturdy than those of her followers. She sat on a crude chair and chuckled, "You're calm for a man who knows what you know." She motioned at the bag, "You have a weapon in there?"

"Not at all," he said with a small grin, "do I need one?"

She reached into a small chest, obviously salvaged from some long lost ship on the beach, and pulled out a golden amulet and a small leather bag. She rolled it between her fingers, the light from the lantern reflecting off of it. "It wouldn't do you much good. I'm only surprised that you didn't already run. Most men who have seen what you do try and make the beach."

"I was worried about the bogs," he said, "I thought I'd wait until morning."

She laughed and knelt beside him, "A good plan, if Forthy hadn't seen you leaving," she kissed him. "A pity, too. I don't think I can take the time to even get a good lay out of you."

Oscar sighed, still supremely confident. "Does the condemned man get a last request?" he asked.

She looked bemused at the notion, "Like what? A boat? A cavalry charge?"

"A drink," he replied. "A flask in my bag. Has some wonderful brandy in it."

She cocked her head and smiled, "I'm nothing if not benevolent. You'll have little chance for drink later."

He reached into the bag and pulled out the flask, unscrewing the cap, "If I might ask," he said as he took a swig, "what am I to become?" He took another couple of sips and then handed her the flask, "Drink?"

She smiled and took it from him, running her other fingers across his chest. "You are a strange one. If you must know, I thought I'd make you the new jenny. We lost ours several months ago to disease you understand, and the two jacks have been without one for far too long." She smiled, "You seem to have such a good rapport with them." She let the amulet fall from her fingers and land on his bare stomach.

Oscar just laid there and waited.

She cocked her head strangely. "Odd. The amulet usually puts men to sleep right away." She looked at him strangely as she took a sip from the flask.

Oscar resisted the urge to smile too knowingly. "It won't work, Cir, because I'm not from around here." He laid back and waited for her to transform into a confused sheep.

Instead, she looked at him strangely, then smiled in a strange and sultry way. "What a coincidence," she said seductively as she reached into the small leather pouch, "Neither am I." Oscar had no time to react before the stainless steel syringe was plunged into his hip.