by Michael Olson

Andrea Sumerin walked into the Deaf Mule looking like a dray horse that had been given one straw too many to bear. He made his way to the bar and sat down. Looking around, a small measure of gloom was dispelled by the sight of the brighter, unworn wood here and there as repairs continued on the pub. Other things revealed, though, that there was still a ways to go. The furniture was a patchwork affair that looked one moment away from falling apart, and the bar was still just a long board supported by empty barrels. Char stained everything that hadn't been replaced.

Donny seemed in better shape than his business, the man thought as the bull wandered over. Perhaps a little worn from all the extra hours he was putting into reconstruction, but it was nothing a little sleep wouldn't cure. By Akkala, Andrea thought, how long would it be before she could sleep an untroubled sleep again? Well some nepenthe was what she had come here for, might as well get started.

"Give me something hard and cathartic, Donny," Andrea said.

The bovine raised an eyebrow at the request, but soon produced a bottle of hard liquor. "Do you even want a glass?" he asked.

Andrea gave an empty smile and replied, "Sure, the better to fool myself about how much I plan on drinking tonight."

"Feel like talking about it?" the bartender asked as he placed a small glass full of yellowish liquid in front of the man.

"Actually, yeah. It might do me some good. Or at least slow down the rate at which I go through this stuff," Andrea said before downing the contents of the shot glass. He blanched slightly at the taste and added, "I don't envy the hangover I'm going to give myself."

The troubled Watch leader settled into a more comfortable position in his seat. There was no sense in having both a splitting headache and a stiff back when he woke up. "I am going to ramble a bit so bear with me."

Donny replied, "What? You think I'm here to sell drinks?"

The man smiled a bit more genuinely this time, "Ok. I should start a little over a week ago."

Mid-April 707

It was happening again, Jacob thought to himself. The gecko sat at his table watching Anton and Martie begin to pick a fight with each other.

The cafeteria was filled with members of the Watch who were eating breakfast, lunch, or supper depending on the demands of their schedule. It was a room full of the routine aspects of life. Tall tales were told alongside jokes of every degree of acceptability, mild griping was listened to with mock interest, and Martie and Anton looking for a way to reach each other’s throats.

Jacob had noticed that while all the Watch trackers enjoyed engaging in a little professional competition, the group's two youngest members managed to take it to an entirely new degree. With Martin that was no surprise, he managed to sew chaos in his footsteps just by drawing breath. The gecko was certain that nine out of ten prayers at the Keep were probably dedicated toward the ex-thief not getting struck by the age regression curse.

Anton was slightly different. Not half as mischievous as a rule, he had this air of self-confidence about him that he used to be almost as annoying. The grey fox morph was generally competent in work and responsible in life, but he seemed to have an instinctual need to nettle Martin.

The two together often reminded Jacob of a pair of wild animals that would trade a few blows, decide their opponent was just a little too much trouble to bother actually fighting, and then wander back to their own territories.

Martin was currently making angry, exaggerated gestures at the vulpine. Jacob couldn't hear the words accompanying them, but they didn't really matter. Few others were paying attention to the performance yet. Then Martie began to poke Anton in the chest, apparently driving home some point. Physical contact was a line usually left uncrossed by the two.

Benlin noticed Jacob lean forward a little to watch the scene more carefully. "Show day?" the magic user asked, turning in his chair to be able to see.

"Show day," Jacob affirmed. Whether Anton had overstepped his bounds earlier in the conflict, or whether Martin simply wanted to demonstrate what happened to those who crossed him, the engagement had just moved to a public level.

Suddenly, the reason for the touch became obvious as Martin made a show of probing his opponent’s shirt again and then deftly fishing out a flap of parchment hide. Jacob knew it to be a plant; the few others watching knew it was a plant; and poor, surprised, and suddenly wary Anton knew it was a plant. It didn't matter though; such a ploy was well within the rules of the game. Martin examined the item for several moments and then announced that it looked to be a collection of love poems Anton had written. The ex-thief proceeded to recite some particularly awful poetry that cast his fox foe in a humorous light.

More and more people were paying attention now, and Anton tried to snatch the writing from Martie's hand, but the nimble youth danced out of reach. Anton lunged again and Martin took off into a run, dodging around benches, between people, and over tables, reciting sonnets all the way. Anton was following close in his wake, and aside from those who had their plates and mugs spilled on them, the entire hall was laughing and craning their necks for a view of the chase.

Jacob smiled a little. Anton was going to have a heck of a time over the next few days explaining why he'd tried so hard to get the writings back if they weren’t real. The true story would eventually trickle its way out from those who had been watching, or who were familiar with Martin and Anton's exploits, but authenticity of the poems wasn't really the point. The point was that the vulpine would be the subject of ridiculing limericks and other jibes for the better part of a week at least. The point was that someone had gone up against Martin and lost, and that was the important one.

"Have you finished your meal?" Benlin asked. As the lizard's plate was empty, the mage was really inquiring whether or not he was done watching their tracker's triumph.

"Yeah. Let's get out of here before we get blamed for any of this by association," Jacob said. The prospect was unlikely, but not impossible. The amount of disorder seeded in the room right now was sure to attract a more authoratative and less receptive audience soon, though, and there was no sense waiting around to see if that person was in a foul mood today.

Benlin nodded his consensus with the plan of action and the two grabbed their belongings and made for the exit. Not a moment too soon, really. As they were exiting, Jacob spotted Sam and the Chief entering from the opposite end of the room. The former saw him and the gecko simply smiled and shrugged in response before making good his escape.

2 days later...

It had simply been one of those nights, and everyone in Jacob's squad was feeling the effects by the time they got off duty. The weariness and bruises were evident in their steps as they entered the mess hall to get supper. Anton normally would have sensed the atmosphere and kept his distance, but tonight he did not. Perhaps the past two days of mocking had eroded his common sense.

The grey fox sauntered up to the table just as Jacob's squad was settling in, and leaned casually against the edge of the table. Martin's glare alone should have convinced the morph to alter his plan of action. It did not, and instead Anton commented, "I hear you lost your mark today." Martin's companions winced; none were in the mood for this, and all sensed somehow that it wouldn't end well. Sam took the opportunity to go and get drinks for everyone and to get away from the headache the ensuing tempest was sure to bring.

"Yeah, a few more and I might catch up to you, Anton. Now get out of here," Martin replied. His opponent dismissed the retort as trivial and cliche, ignoring the obvious warning in the second part of the sentence.

"There is nothing to be ashamed about, no one expects a kid to be able to keep up with his elders... and betters," Anton said with a growing smile of self-pleasure. Then the fox upped the ante. "Though, judging by that fur, we won't be able to think of you as a child much longer," he said with a nod toward the boy. Martin's eyes widened in horror for a brief moment and his hands almost reached up to feel for oncoming signs of the Curse. After the briefest of seconds the expression was replaced with anger for having let Anton get the better of him. The second was enough, though, and the vulpine laughed genuinely and loudly. Martin had lost this round, and they both knew it.

The encounter should have ended right then and there, but Sam returned and set Martin's mug down in front of him. Anton had turned around and was departing victorious, but apparently couldn't resist giving a mocking flick of his tail in the boy's direction. The result was that the fox's bushy appendage inadvertently struck the cup, sending the contents flying onto the ex-thief in a great splash.

Martin stood on his seat in a heartbeat, rage practically rolling off him. "You flea-bitten, sorry excuse for..." What followed was the longest and most furiously delivered, continuous strain of derogatory remarks toward a victim of Nasoj's animal curse that Jacob had ever witnessed. Anton's face started in shock and then anger, his lips pulling away from fangs in a snarl, with a low growl emanating from his throat. Jacob looked around, and saw that many other morphs in the crowd were reacting with similar displeasure.

Someone needs to stop Martin before he gets himself lynched, Jacob thought to himself. With no other volunteers handy, he stood to restrain the boy. That's when Anton began to rally the assailed, and counterattacked. He matched insult for insult in an attempt to assert the cause of morph pride, and inadvertently superiority. Humans that had previously been glancing nervously at their animal companions began to feel an indignation of their own.

Jacob walked up behind Martin, clapped a hand over his mouth and dragged him down off the chair, in an attempt to end the tirades. In retrospect, the gecko had to admit this had been a mistake. The motion was misconstrued as an attack and three gender-swap victims leapt to the boy's aid. Jacob soon found himself dragged off of Martin and shoved onto the ground with his arms pinned behind him, his protests lost in the escalating ruckus.

In retaliation a horse, two canines, and a bear began throwing punches in the reptile's defense. The sparks fell on dry tinder and the brawl spread like flame throughout the cafeteria. Jacob came to his feet quickly, uneager to have his head crushed like a melon beneath someone’s foot amidst the swirling melee. He dodged a series of punches from a random man that emerged from the crowd tripped him, and slipped away into another pocket of calm while his would-be foe was distracted with keeping his balance.

It became hard to track reality after that. Thought ceased to have any survival value; everything was reduced to the sensation of reflexes. Fists from this direction, flying objects from that. At one point someone bumped into his back and he whipped around, arm drawn back to throw a punch, only to find a surprised Sam in a similar position. Their attention was then drawn by Benlin tapping on their feet from beneath one of the few round tables yet to be overturned.

"Under here," the mage shouted over the clamor of battle cries and assorted animal sounds from those Keepers who had shifted forms for the fight. The woman and the reptile dropped to their knees and joined their comrade under the shelter.

"I'll kill him," Sam reported to the others with no need to define the identity of 'him'.

The table shuddered under the impact of a man who had been thrown by a full-morph rhino some distance away. Benlin chanted a short refrain and gestured at some chairs, which leapt up from the ground and assembled into a barrier around the table.

A small figure dove and rolled into the tiny fort just before the seats finished wedging themselves in place. "Some fight, eh?" Martin asked his companions while righting himself. Sam whipped a chocolate chip muffin at him and the others simply glared. "What?" the youth protested as if he had done nothing wrong.

"One more word and we are tossing you right back out," the female leader of the squad warned. Martin displayed uncharacteristic wisdom in keeping his mouth shut. The squad waited out the brawl without saying another word, their habitat disturbed only by the periodic creak or rattle of wood as combatants rolled over or struck the roof, and the occasional rodent or other small morph in animal form arriving to share the sanctuary.

The fight wound down as it ran out of participants to feed upon. People limped out the exits or simply lay where they had been knocked out. The casualty list for Jacob's squad consisted of a black eye for its leader, a gecko tail that felt pulped by the many feet and hooves that had landed on it, and a leopard's pattern of bruises for Martin, half of which were inflicted by Sam.

Everyone evacuated as soon as they'd had their fill. No one wanted to be around for the unavoidable discovery of the mess that had been made of the cafeteria. However, a reckoning always came in those situations, and when a general assembly of the Watch was called a few hours later, none that knew about the fight were naive enough to think it coincidence.

The entirety of the Watch stood in the commons. The assorted mass of beings writhed and pulsed as the fearful shifted from foot to foot, the foolish exhibited animated bravado, and those roused from sleep swayed back and forth while trying to stay on their feet. None but the last group managed to long keep their eyes from drifting to the ominous wooden platform that had been set up.

The murmured conversations died as Chief Andrea Sumerin arrived and ascended the podium. "Understanding, patience, and the ability to forgive," he started calmly, “These are things one cannot do without if they are a parent, teacher, or clergymen. Make no fact clearer in your minds than that I have taken up none of those professions." Andrea now allowed his anger to be realized fully on his face and in his tone. "Let me first say that if anyone present ever does anything to indicate that one's fellow Metamorians are somehow less than adult human beings, I will personally hunt you down like the dogs they aren’t. Afterwards, if by some miracle you haven’t begged an execution out of me, I'll probably fire what's left of you." The audience quailed. The Chief was many things, but seldom angry.

The Chief stood there for a few moments, letting everyone appreciate the fury in his eyes before letting it evaporate into his normal easy going demeanor. He continued, "Now to attend to the matter at hand, which is namely what to do about this morning's mishap in the cafeteria, where you all behaved like an embarrassment to everything that contributes to your existence. The Keep has already seen to the clean up of the mess. If it wouldn't be a waste of supplies, I would be very tempted to demand that you all wreck the place again just so I could make you fix it."

The tall man smiled at everyone benignly, "Since that is not an option, you will all be spending your free time for a few weeks doing more productive manual labor."

Andrea paused and poured another cupful of the flaxen alcohol, suddenly feeling a strong need for it. He threw the tonic down with more force that it's predecessor, trying to wash away the guilt and grief.

Donny filled the empty air saying, “I appreciate the extra help you sent over. The place wouldn't be in nearly the shape it is without it."

A smile struggled to Sumerin's face as he said, with a gesture at the liquor, "Well, I can't say my motives were entirely selfless." Then the hand drifted toward the bottle again.

Donny asked, "So you let your infamous temper out over a few words, but didn't let a Watch-wide brawl phase you?"

The fingers stopped their approach as the man turned around and leaned against the board, looking out over the room. "I save my anger for the important things. Too easy to become lost in it otherwise," Andrea said, the sound of past conflicts in his words. "Anyway," he said running a hand through his hair, "where was I?"

"Threatening Hell and brimstone to the troops," Donny informed the man.

"Right. I should have known better than to think that Martin and Anton had gotten the message," Andrea said wryly. "The two of them got into three fights in about as many days. Neither showed any sign of giving up, so I figured I should do something."

The two Watch members made a ragged-looking pair. Martin's skin was a mass of bruises and abrasions. Not surprising, Sumerin thought, given the five years of age Anton had on him. As for the fox, at a glance Andrea counted at least seven distinct colors in his exposed fur, and the morph looked like he hadn't slept well for a few nights running. Both attributes were probably the result of midnight revenge.

"I am not going to punish you," Andrea said, sitting casually behind his desk, “because, I don't think it would fix the problem. You are already doing a pretty good job of making each other miserable."

The Watch officer stood up and began to pace slowly, "This is all about pride, if I am right." He looked at them for signs of disagreement and then continued, “Neither of you can stop this conflict because that would be admitting defeat, and neither of you is willing to stomach that. You'd rather limp to duty and walk around looking like something the alchemist practiced on."

Sumerin saw the fire dim a bit in the eyes of the two reprimanded trackers, but it didn't go out. There were still embers there just waiting for the right breeze to fan them back into life. He couldn't do anything about two individuals being as combustible as Martin and Anton, but he was going to make sure that this particular blaze was smothered.

"I want you two to stay away from each other for the next week," the Chief said, ceasing to walk, “In fact I am ordering it. I'm going to go so far as order others to enforce it." The gleam of rebellion wrapped around Martin's eyes, and frustration entered Anton's. "And," Sumerin added after a pause, "at the end of that time we will hold a small contest to settle this matter once and for all."

The insubordinance vanished in the face of the unexpected, and both of the young trackers began to blurt out questions.

6 days before the contest

"...and all we have to do is catch them faster than they can catch us," Martin explained with enthusiasm. The squad was making its way slowly through the midnight streets of town while the youth tried to sell the other members on the upcoming event.

"And what makes you think we are going to help you with this?" Sam asked. Everyone knew she was just griping rhetorically as sure as they knew the answer to the question.

*Because we're family* Jacob thought, answering the question silently. Each of them might just as well be blood to each other. It was the same reason that Martin had asked them even though the rules of the contest allowed him to bring any three people willing to participate. The heavens knew he could have come up with candidates that would have given him a better shot at winning.

Jacob found the entire thing pleasantly ironic; Martie and Anton were acting like children, so the Chief had ordered an elaborate game of hide and seek to get them to stop. "When during the day is this going to take place again?" the gecko asked. Anton's group worked mornings, while he and his friends worked nights. The setting could end up giving a heavy advantage to one side or the other.

"Sunset," the boy chirped. Neutral ground.

3 days before the contest

"This might be a good place to run to," Martin said, scrutinizing the street. "There are lots of turn offs and alleys to bolt down." His two keepers, Jacob and Sam, hardly paid attention anymore. The boy had been leading them around on tactical tours of Euper for the past three days. They'd have long since found a way to avoid the ex-thief if they weren’t under standing orders to enforce the Chief's separation edict.

Their charge had fallen silent for a full minute before the lack of chatter pulled them out of their daze. Jacob spotted the cause quickly. The mouth of one of the alleys was being blocked by a canine morph and a man in Watch uniforms. He recognized them as the two members from Anton's squad in charge of watching the fox.

The hound caught his eye and waved him off with her paw. He nodded in return to signify that the message was understood. "Time for us to turn around, guys," he told his companions. Martin's attention was focused on something else though. Jacob strained his senses and found nothing, at first, but then he heard it. The sound was coming from further within the alley, the sound of something cutting into something, like a knife into fruit. If his lobeless ears were hearing correctly, he'd have to guess that the thing being attacked was made of wood.

"He's up to something," Martin announced, an unhealthy fervor in his voice.

The gecko was inclined to agree, and, frankly, was at a loss as to what Anton could be doing back there. The hound gestured toward him again, more emphatically. "We really need to be going, Martie," Jacob said again.

"Just give me a few minutes," the boy said, his face still set in concentration.

From the look of Anton's guardian, they weren’t going to get those minutes. In fact, at that moment she began to walk in their direction. Jacob forestalled her with an upraised hand. "Sam?" he said.

"Yep," the woman replied happily. Without need for further words they each grabbed one their companion's arms and dragged him away.

Martin immediately protested, "Hey, guys! Put me down! This is important!” but it fell on deaf ears and he wasn't released until they were several streets away. Even after that, it was a few hours before he was able to give his guards the slip and return to the area.

Back in the alley, he couldn't find much of interest aside from a few wooden splinters. A quick survey matched them to an external support beam running up the side of a building. Few of Euper's buildings were built with any more, he noted absently. The narrow column bore several puncture wounds, which must have bled the splinters. What? Was Anton venting some frustration? What had he even used to do damage like this?

The boy unsheathed his dagger and took an angry swing at the object. No... The other holes hadn't been made that way; the angle and shape didn't quite match up. He'd have to sleep on this mystery. Martin tucked his blade away again, and then went to find Jacob and Sam so that they could stop searching for him and get some rest too.

Just before sunset, 1 day before the contest

Andrea was finishing his 'morning' shave at his desk when the door opened swiftly. He looked up to see Martin standing in the doorway. The boy looked pale and a bit unnerved, his hair was coated with drying sweat, and something lurked in back of his eyes. Was that terror? Something had given the youth a scare.

Sumerin stood up immediately, letting his razor clatter to the desk, forgotten. "What's wrong, Martin?" he asked, voice full of concern. Had someone been killed? More than one person?

"Nothing," the boy replied with a nervous grin, trying to put up a farce of normalcy.

"Then why do you look like you've just been invited to spend a weekend at Calephas's castle?" Andrea asked.

The boy flashed another false-smile and asked, "Do I look that bad?" He reached up a hand to run through his hair, but stopped, looking at the appendage as if afraid it might betray him. He quickly returned to holding it gingerly at his side and explained, "I had a pretty bad nightmare." He looked into the unconvinced face of his superior and then hesitantly began, "I-I need some time off." Then he seemed to gather the scrap of courage he was looking for and blurted out, "Actually, I'm quitting, and I'd like to collect my wages for the week."

The Watch officer laughed at what appeared to be an unfolding scam. "What are you up to, Martie? What do you need the money for?" he asked mirthfully.

"I need to get out of here!" Martin said insistently.

Andrea hypothesized, "Does this have something to do with tomorrow? I'm not letting you out of this just because you're getting cold fee-"

Emotion broke through the dams of self-control in a great flood as anger and frustration coursed throughout the boy's body. In a few rapid steps he was toe to toe with his superior, pulling himself up face to face by wrapping his hands in the taller man's shirt. "This has nothing to do with that damn contest! Now I need my..." The berserker fires bled clean away before Sumerin's cold as ice, hard as stone expression.

Martin dropped his gaze from the frozen visage to his hands bunched up in the cloth of the Chief's shirt. His face contorted indefinably as he battled something inside before finally unclenching the fists.

"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to, I'm sorry!" he kept saying over and over again, looking at his hands like they were stained in the blood of a fresh murder. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

"Martin!" the Chief snapped loudly, without moving, watching the boy warily. It seemed to work, bringing the youth somewhat to his senses. He stopped apologizing at least and let his weight fall on the desk as he silently collected himself.

A few moments later the ex-thief said, his voice still a little choked, "I'm sorry. I guess the nightmare spooked me more than I thought. Between that and the thing with Anton tomorrow..." he trailed off waiting for Sumerin to say something.

Andrea, for his part, didn't know what to say. There were many things that needed to be addressed, but none of them appropriate until he was sure Martin was stable enough to handle it. After a few minutes of silence he said, "Martin, I want you to take tonight off. Go to your quarters and stay there until you are feeling better."

The tracker gave a slack-faced nod and shuffled numbly out of the room, muttering something to himself that sounded like, "It's just one more day; it won't make a difference..."

In the aftermath of the encounter, it took Sumerin two hours to notice that his razor was missing. At the time all he could think was *If Anton shows up tomorrow looking like a Sumerian poodle, I am going to throw that boy in the dungeon until I retire.*

"Damn!" Andrea swore. "I've never been so blind in my life as in that moment." He took another swig of the amber liquid in search of relief from the demons of self-reproach, or perhaps in penitence to them.

"Happens to all of us at one time or another," the bartender pointed out.

"I'll be the first to admit that I'm not perfect, Donny," Sumerin said morosely, "but something churns something in my stomach when others get hurt because of it."

"That's the price of friendship," the bull said sympathetically.

Next Part »