by Michael Olson

Evening, the day of the contest

The sun was a sullen red, and already well on its way below the mountains. A small crowd of off-duty Watch members had assembled to behold the clash of fools. The two squads stood at the gate to Metamor Keep, waiting for the Chief to decree the beginning of the event.

Jacob shifted positions frequently, trying to keep stiffness at bay. He looked over to where Anton's group was huddled, bearing the manacles and lanterns of pursuers. Accompanying the fox were the hound and raven that he patrolled with, but the transgender victim who normally completed the squad did not stand with them. He stood near the front of the spectators, and taking his place on the team was a large bear-morph.

He pointed out the swap to Sam, who nodded and said, "Doesn't surprise me. I think Anton is still feeling a little bit of a sting from the comments Martin was throwing around. He's trying to prove a point."

"So what does that make you guys, the champions of the other two Gates? And where does that leave me?" the gecko asked.

"As one of us. Don't sweat it, Jake," Sam said, "Anton is probably the only one here thinking of the contest in that way."

Benlin, who had been listening to the conversation, explained, "Metamor as a whole worked out these issues years ago, when the Curses first struck. Aside from a few isolated incidents, the problem hasn't resurfaced since."

Jacob let the words to allay his newfound anxiety. Anton might see it as more, but the competition was still just a convenient way for the Chief to buy peace. He wondered how Martin was viewing it.

The lizard was a bit puzzled over the ex-thief. His squadmate had seemed enthusiastic to have the opportunity to best Anton once and for all; had driven everyone crazy in his attempts to prepare for it. Now, though, on the day of the contest, the young tracker seemed to be buckling beneath something. Minutes from the beginning of the event, his pale face seemed focused on something else entirely.

Jacob also thought he spied even more of strange cuts on the boy's face and arms than yesterday. Martin looked like he'd spent his spare time running through a thorn bush, or as if he had been in a losing war with a cat.

The sun completed its obscurement by the snow-capped peaks, and all that was left was a tinge of orange on the bottom of the sky; dusk was officially upon the world of Metamor Keep. The chief gave a nod to Anton, who took the lantern from his belt and unhooded it. The light of the freed flame bounced off a shiny metal plate to signal the observer that had been posted on the towers of the Keep. An avian cry echoed back to them from the volunteer, signaling he was ready to mark the time of the captures.

"Are both squads ready?" the Chief asked. Upon receiving affirmations, he simply said, "May everyone consider this contest fair and final. The fleeing squad will have a thirty second head start. Each tar wound adds five minutes to the capture time. A capture is to be signaled only after manacles are secured. At that point all resistance will cease. Go."

Jacob took off at a run alongside his friends. They needed to put some distance between themselves and the starting location quickly. As the end of the avenue approached, Jacob heard Sam remind everyone, "Maple Street" before the four split off in their own directions.

Jacob found himself going west along a fair sized road. He drew strange looks from those he rushed by, but that wasn't important right now. He opted for speed over subtlety for the moment, merely running down the most open routes. Every time he rounded a corner he would toss a glimpse backward for signs of pursuit, but each time there was nothing.

It could be that they were simply slow, but he suspected it more likely that they had gone after one of his companions instead. He slowed to a more maintainable pace, but continued to move swiftly. He needed to reach the gathering place in time to make their temporary stand.

He came shortly to the open area through which Maple Street ran. A statue of some metal that stood in the center seemed to be the only thing that prevented the buildings from encroaching upon the remaining open ground. They structures stood shoulder to shoulder, leaving only two ways in and out. Aside from the coppery guardian, the courtyard seemed empty.

Then, a finger landed on Jacob's shoulder, causing a jolt of adrenaline to start his heart racing. "Sheesh, you nearly jumped out of your skin," Martin chided when the gecko whipped around to face him. "The others aren’t here yet," he reported.

Jacob felt like rapping the boy with his spear, but it was good to see his friend's spirits returned in some portion. "You see any of Anton's group on the way here?" he asked.

Martin shook his head, "You?"

"No. Guess that means Sam and Ben are having some fun."

"She'll blame that on me somehow. I -" whatever Martin had been about to say was cut off by a distant bird's cry, a twin of the one that had been heard from the observer at the beginning of the match.

"Dang it!" Martin exclaimed. Jacob silently agreed with the assessment. The sound was confirmation of receiving a capture signal from Anton's group.

It was amazing what a change that single noise had wrought. The air lost its jovial quality, and the dimming light seemed less friendly as the two withdrew to the shadows and waited out silent minutes, fearful of a second crow's call, or the appearance of shadows unfamiliar. Each noise was suspicious, and required a battery of furtive looks around the area.

"How much longer should we wait?" Jacob asked.

"Not long," Martin said.

How much time before one of the morphs scented their trail and followed it to where they were hiding? Jacob thought maybe fifteen to twenty minutes at most; depending on how much distance their now captured companion had covered. Time continued to ooze by, the light growing dimmer by the eternal minute.

Then, a figure appeared around the bend; it was Sam. Her chest heaved as the lungs within filled and emptied, grasping at the air required to pay for her run. She looked around for a few moments, her face touched by despair until Jacob called her attention to where he and Martin stood within the shadows. She staggered over, still trying to regain control of her body.

"What took you?" Martin whispered.

Sam let a weak glare substitute for her fist as she leaned forward, resting on her legs. Between slowing gulps of breath, she said, "Lost... them I think... So, they... got Benlin?"

"Looks like it," Jacob admitted.

"So much for... our magic advantage," the recovering Watchwoman said.

"How many did you see after you?" Martin asked.

"At first it was only the bear," Sam reported, hesitating only briefly before continuing, "but the others joined in pretty quick after I heard Ben's capture."

"We should probably get moving," Jacob suggested. "Got your second wind yet?" He asked of the squad's usual leader.

"Just another minute," she replied. No sooner had the words left her mouth than the croak of a raven echoed close overhead.

Martie tossed a tar-covered stick in the direction of the sound, only to be rewarded by avian laughter as the projectile missed completely. Sam groaned as she forced herself to straighten up once more, and Jacob unslung his spear from his back. The question now was whether to flee or fight.

The answer was provided for them when Anton and the hound showed up at the south end of the courtyard, and the bear appeared at the north. The raven morphed while landing to stand with the grizzly. It was a neatly executed trap. Whatever dramatic words Anton was about to deliver regarding the impending conclusion of round one were transformed into a yelp as one of Martin's tar 'daggers' struck the top of his open muzzle. It was all the signal anyone needed, and the battle was joined.

"Let's try to break through the north," Jacob advised and took off in that direction. The others were close on his heels, rapidly closing the distance with the two opponents standing there. The lizard jabbed with his spear forcing the Raven to dance back a few steps. Sam waved her wooden sword menacingly at the grizzly. The ursine seemed unconcerned and held forth his set of manacles in both defense and promise.

Both of the hunters remained on the defense, content to keep the escape route blocked while waiting for the odds to shift in their favor. Martin tossed a dagger high at the bear's head. The target moved to dodge the projectile and then had to shift quickly to prevent Sam from making good her getaway. The block came at the cost of the ex-thief's escape, the large morph being unable to stop the nimble youth from his new stance.

At least that’s one of us who made it out, Jacob thought, continuing to keep his rival moving. The raven danced gracefully around the area, avoiding the attacks, but never getting so far out of position that he couldn't trip up an attempt at running. Sam was making a similar lack of progress. If nothing else, they were giving Martie a good shot at putting another hour on the clock.

"Shall we put a high price on our lives?" Jacob asked his comrade as a glance back told him that they were out of time.

"Sounds like a plan," Sam replied.

The gecko slid into the woman's place as she fell back, using his weapons far reach to counter the bear's long arm. Sam took up position behind him, and braced herself against the oncoming assaults of Anton and the hound.

15 seconds later

"I only wish they sold beer at the price of your lives," the bear said, laughing after the manacles were secured. Jacob couldn't help but laugh himself at the situation, and Sam cracked an embarrassed grin. The ursine flashed his lantern twice and received the confirmations. He couldn't suppress a final chuckle as he hurried to catch up with the others, who had already taken up pursuit of Martin.

The two defeated Watch members picked themselves off the ground and begin to walk back to the gate. Sam griped, "You are not the best person to fight back to back with, Jake."

The reptile smiled and said, "I'm not going to argue with that. I still trip over the thing too," referring to the tail that had caused his partner to stumble and knock both of them over.

Tales had been swapped with Benlin, and idle chitchat had long since been exhausted by the time the capture cry sounded again. It was a much diminished crowd of spectators that viewed the triumphant return of Martin, some three hours later. He marched with a semblance of pride up to the Chief to receive the key that would unlock his chains.

Anton's group presented itself for inspection, and the tar marks were tallied and added to the raw totals on a piece of hide. There weren’t many. The Chief announced an adjusted time of just over five hours. The chains and lanterns were given over to Martin's team, and the previous owners departed to coat their weapons with the sticky, black goo.

It was all but night by the time the second round started. The Chief barked an abrupt "Go!" and the morphic team took off like a loosed arrow. They parted ways at the end of the street much as their opponents had done.

Then, the thirty second interval was up, and Benlin released the spell he had prepared. A quartet of witchlights sped from his fingertips and into the night along the paths taken by the fugitives.

Unable to risk losing any of the leads, the four companions each ran after one of the glowing balls of light.

Jacob pushed himself hard to keep up with the racing sphere of illumination. He could feel exhilaration of running come upon him and promise that he could run forever. The rational part of his brain pointed out the slowly growing burn in lung and leg muscle, and was willing to settle for lasting throughout this chase. The glowing guide continued on, heedless of the gecko trailing it.

Sam came to a stop at the mouth of the alley. Had the witchlight vanished in here or down the next street? She unhooded her lantern, careful not to turn the beam up and give a false signal. The area was filled with debris: broken furniture, refuse, and even a small overturned, wagon that was missing both wheels.

She approached the decrepit vehicle and warily walked its perimeter, but found nothing amiss. She was about to walk away when she locked gazes with a single amber eye staring out at her from the wreckage. Her hands reached for her mock sword when the wagon exploded in a spray of rotting splinters and light, unable to accommodate the increased bulk of its occupant's new form.

A large paw from the fully shifted grizzly swatted the Watchwoman from the alley. Sam landed with a grunt and put her hand to her chest; it came away sticky. The bear lumbered forward under the illumination of the spell freed at the same time as him, small globs of tar falling from his claw tips.

Sam came to her feet and tossed her useless wooden weapon away. "For the love of... How the heck am I supposed use these on you like that?" She asked, taking out the far too small manacles.

The ursine responded with a midnight grin. Sam's face fell at the sight of the black painted teeth. "You've got to be kidding me....,” she said.

Benlin concentrated on his witchlight and the globe sped even faster through the night. It traced a series of brilliant loops as it tailed its now airborne target. The raven croaked in protest as the magic settled into a comfortable position between his shoulder blades. With a target now visible, Benlin began to chant.

He closed his hand, as if grabbing the distant bird, and froze it in mid-flight. The black-feathered form plummeted toward the earth, its wings no longer able to flap. Benlin used another cantrip to arrest the downward motion and draw the prisoner to his location.

With the bird physically in hand, he released his magical hold. "It appears I've managed to redeem my early failing in the previous round," Benlin informed his captive pleasantly while his free hand tried to work the signal lantern.

The raven opened his beak and closed it forcefully on something, a loud crack resonating outward. A faint green mist filtered out of the avian's mouth, and both he and Benlin were asleep within a few moments.

Martin grinned as he came out of the back door of the tavern he had just dashed through to find himself only ten feet behind his quarry this time. He had managed to outguess Anton again. He couldn't run down the fox in a straight up race, but the ex-thief was getting closer and closer with each shortcut. The fact that a wrong guess could cause him to lose the vulpine entirely did not concern the young tracker. The puffed up idiot always was too predictable.

*And a good thing too* Martin thought to himself as a sudden wave of nausea caused him to miss a step and almost fall. One day was making more of a difference than he had thought, and he didn't have much time to spare, even for a cause like the humiliation of Anton. He recovered his stride and came around a corner to find Anton gone. Martin only got halfway through the profanity he started to utter before he remembered the mutilated wooden beam. He grinned again, as he set off to where he knew he would find the fox.

Jacob crawled up the wall after the witchlight, frankly baffled by how his opponent had made the same climb. That it was a building in the same alley they had caught Anton fooling around in struck him as no coincidence. The witchlight crested the roof and disappeared from immediate view, but it's radiance still bled into the area, revealing it hadn't gone far. That meant... the reptile's suspicion was confirmed moments later by a wooden blade that narrowly missed his fingers.

He yanked his hand back and looked to see the hound perched atop the edge of the roof, her weapon drawn back for another a blow. The hovering witchlight formed a halo behind her head, making her look like an archangel smiting down the wicked as they tried to claw their way into Heaven. He let go with his other hand and fell backward out of harm's way until his foot grips stopped him. He saw his adversary keep a wary eye on him as he made his way back to the ground. She seemed pretty determined to make this the most difficult part of the capture.

He drew his spear and resigned himself to a difficult ascent. He started up the wall again, having to move his climbing hand quickly to the new positions to avoid being grabbed by gravity.

When he had entered its reach, the sword again went after his hands. This time it rattled off the shaft of his upraised spear. The blows continued to descend upon him relentlessly, and his arm ached from the stress of wielding the weapon one handed against an opponent who held the high ground.

He had to earn each and every of the precious inches to the rooftop, but eventually they were all his. He propelled himself onto the horizontal surface with as much speed as he could manage, but still felt the rap of a 'wound' in the process.

Jacob felt the five minutes lost to the tar were well spent, though. He was finally on equal ground with his opponent. He managed to get to his feet without further injury and now he and the hound watched each other warily.

Using his left hand, he whipped his cloak off with the sound of rippling cloth. He made a feeble swing with his spear, inviting attack, but the canine was unwilling to take such obvious bait. He swung the weapon again, leaving himself even more vulnerable. The temptation to put more time on the enemy score flitted visibly within his opponent's eyes.

A third time he made the invitation, this time letting his grip on the shaft slip and then feigning as if unbalanced in an attempt to prevent the weapon from getting away completely. It proved too much for the swordswoman. Her resolve failed and the wooden blade jumped toward the gecko's stomach.

Waiting for just such an occasion, Jacob let the spear go and smothered the stab with the black cloth in his off hand. He turned the twist that spared him a tar mark into a spin that placed him between the woman and her weapon. Using both hands and a position of superior leverage, he had little difficulty in parting the 'blade' from the paw that gripped it.

He suddenly found the world sliding out from under him as his enemy swept his legs out of contact with the roof. He landed painfully on his back, the impact driving the breath from his lungs. The discomfort was shunted into a tense hiss as he rolled over and picked himself up. He quickly located his quarry attempting to climb back down to the street.

The second of her pad-covered hands was just about to disappear over the edge in search of a lower position when Jacob closed the band of iron around her wrist. He leaned back hard putting tension in the chain and forcing her back up onto the roof. She was struggling for every second.

He grabbed her unshackled arm and tried to hold it steady even as he fought the tug of the other on the manacles. The muscles in both their arms twitched as they each struggled to control the movement of the open metal bracelet.

Only millimeters separated the hound’s arm from the cuff, now. Then the unexpected happened, resistance on the chain ceased, and at the same time the targeted arm jerked back forcefully. The motions were too quick for the gecko to counter, and the result was that his own limb was suddenly encircled in an iron ring. The click of the lock carried the weight of finality to the situation.

"You did that on purpose," he observed.

"Obviously" she replied.

Jacob let the light out of his lantern and signaled the first capture. He received confirmation and then said, "I guess this means you'll have to come with me for the rest of this. Maybe we can stop by the gate and get a key from the Chief." He started to walk toward the edge of the roof, only to find the chain come up taut.

"I don't know about you, but I am planning on staying right here until the end of the contest," the Watchwoman informed Jacob.

The reptile managed to convey an expression of surprise followed by a disapproving frown. "You're not supposed to keep resisting after you've been captured," he reminded her.

"I'm not resisting. I'm just not cooperating either," she clarified with a mischievous smile.

Jacob knew that effectively she won, no matter what he did. He certainly couldn't give effective chase without her cooperation, and any attempt to get her to a key would likely take so long that the contest would end before he was able to get back into it.

He smiled back at her and then pulled against the chain, the canine tried to counter by leaning her weight in the other direction. When she was committed, he stopped pulling and ran in her direction. Without the support she stumbled backward, arms flailing for balance, surprise on her face. She took one step to far and found herself tipping backward even as her clawed toes clenched at the rooftop for some purchase.

The plummet was, of course, prevented by Jacob at the other end of the manacles. He waited until she regained some control and then advanced, letting her progress through the fall gradually. He then started down after her.

Just because the efforts would likely come to naught was no reason not to try and get out of this bind. As he began scaling down the wall it occurred to him to ask, "Just how did you make this climb anyway?"

Benlin struggled free of the confines of slumber, but his mind still felt wrapped in fog. He looked over to find the raven still sound asleep. The bird's small body must be taking longer to shake the unnatural rest, or maybe it had simply inhaled a larger portion of that green mist.

Suddenly, like a beam of light cutting through haze, he heard a confirmation cry from the observer. He hadn't signaled his capture yet! The boy grabbed his avian adversary and then fumbled frantically with the lantern, but the shutter seemed jammed. How long had he been out? There might not be a second to spare, he mentally yelled at unusually clumsy fingers.

Finally, the thin sheet of metal slid along its rail, and the light of flame on mirror leaped out onto the street. He tilted the device back and skewered the clouds with the radiant lance. He clutched the lantern at that angle for a few agonizing moments before the clarion call of official recognition reached his ears once more.

Benlin released the breath he hadn't remembered holding and allowed himself to calm down. Now all he had to do was figure out how many of the other captures had occurred already.

Sam arched out of the way of another swipe of the massive paws. Time was running short, and all she had accumulated for her efforts so far were more stripes of pitch on her clothes.

How was she supposed to subdue a grizzly bear, though? If this wasn't a danged game, she would probably wound him enough take the fight out first, or maybe try to knock him out with a blow to the head. But it was a game, and she wasn't prepared to do those things to win it.

Then it clicked. It was a game, and that was a double-edged fact. When the furry column of claw tipped muscle swung past again, she leaped on it and clutched tightly her arms and legs.

She ignored the obsidian fangs descending to nibble on her shoulder and clamped one end of the manacle around her own wrist and then threw the entire chain around the colossal limb. She completed her victory by closing the second end of the manacle on the metal links and then pulling the loop tight.

"Stop!" she shouted forcefully. When the bear relented in his attack she announced with a wicked grin, "You're caught."

The bear looked blankly at the giant bracelet for a moment, and then gave the best approximation of a laugh his current form would allow. He fell unceremoniously to the ground; defeated, but not dispirited.

Martin slid into the shadows and waited. Breath silent, limbs unmoving, he was a ghost to this world. Thrice he heard the cry of capture, and still he waited. Across the street was a tall shell of a building. Its blackened bones stood starkly in the light of rising moon. The emptied windows watched him like hollowed sockets, even as he watched them.

How soon before the living interrupted these phantom gazes? Not long. The ex-thief's ears soon heard the scratch of pads sliding through the layer of travellers' dirt on the cobblestones. And then he saw his mark.

The fox-morph was looking everywhere, as if expecting assault at any moment. How futile; one cannot see a ghost, and, in fact, the orbs slid right over the boy's position, detecting nothing. Anton's ears stood alert, and the fur at the tips betrayed a quiver from the strain of how hard he was listening, but true hunters are not to be heard.

The fox moved closer to the husk of the building, unaware of the small form that departed from the ink and began to pad silently toward him. But then that nose, oh that twice-danged, cold, wet snout! sniffed the air and laid all stealth to waste.

The vulpine took off running toward the ruined structure. Martin followed, knowing the race was lost as soon as it was begun. The distance between the two grew and the fox had more than enough of a head start to pull off his plan.

The morph reached the first of the external support beams and started up awkwardly, but fast enough. Spikes strapped to his ankles bit into the fire scorched wood with muffled thunks, propelling him upward. The pair on his hands allowed him to cling to the beam without fear of falling.

Martin leaped at the rising foot, but caught only a splinter for his efforts. He fished out the haft of the wooden barb, but the point broke away, remaining buried in his flesh. He raised his head, only to have something fall into his eye.

He stepped away from the wall quickly to escape the rain of ash that Anton's climb was producing. He looked up from the new position and one eye beheld his chances of victory evaporating, while the other writhed in the socket like an impaled creature in its death throes.

The youth ran around to the door of the building to find his fears confirmed. The stairs had long since collapsed into ruin, and most of the floor on the upper levels was no more intact than moth eaten cloth. There was no way up.

He went back outside and threw himself at the beam Anton had climbed. His hands and feet frantically searched for the holes left behind. He was unable to get so much as a foot off the ground; the puncture wounds simply weren’t big enough. Then he heard the laughing.

The fox was kneeling at the edge watching him, muzzle open with malicious mirth. After regaining control, Anton said, "It's over, Martin. Even if you had days instead of fractions of an hour you couldn't get me now. You've lost."

Martin pounded his fist against the beam in frustration, prompting a new round of chuckles as more ash was dislodged from the charred surface to fall upon him.

Anton walked away from the edge to preserve his feeling of victory. He wasn't heartless, and looking at the broken boy down there for long would soon drain the satisfaction from any conquest. He thought back to the words Martin had said in the cafeteria, and felt a little bit better. The kid had needed to be humbled a bit.

He stepped to the other edge of the roof and looked out over the city of Euper, frequent host to merchants who were only here because their greed outweighed their hate of the Animal demons. The fox swept the thought away before it could breed anger and instead focused on the positive.

Soon the contest would be over and he'd be able to share the triumph with his teammates. His tail swayed happily at the thought of blow he had struck for the morphs of Metamor Keep this day.

He leaned his head back and yowled his victory into the night, letting the feelings of glory have full reign for the moment. So it was that he did not hear the splintering of wood behind him; but he most certainly did feel the impact of a something against his head before blacking out.

The fourth and final cry of the observer sounded clearly across the night air. Benlin made it back first, followed soon after by Sam. Jacob arrived fifteen minutes later pushing a wheelbarrow in which was sprawled the canine. Sam wordlessly passed the coins of a lost wager to the bear at the sight.

The gecko brought the vehicle to a rest where the Chief was standing, and held his hand out unceremoniously for a key. The hound got out and Jacob unlocked the manacles. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek and then laughed at the surprised and embarrassed look he assumed.

Everyone batted a few jibes back and forth, and exaggerated stories of success or bad luck. Then they settled down to the business of genuine waiting. And waiting.

To pass the time, the Chief began tallying the tar wounds the hunters already present had suffered. Benlin was unscathed, and Jacob bore only a single mark, while Sam looked like she had been mauled by a bear. From the looks of things the timing would be close, and highly dependant on how badly Martin had been roughed up before stopping Anton.

Still time wore on with no sign of the ex-thief or his vulpine prisoner. When a full hour had crawled by, the Chief called for a search to begin. He had the crane that had served as observer lead them to where the flash of Martin's signal lantern had been seen.

It didn't take them long to locate Anton on top of the ruined building. The naked fox was found bound, gagged, and blindfolded with chains and pieces of cloth.

"Naked?" Donny asked, surprised.

Andrea waved the fact away as trivial and explained, "Turns out Martin used his own clothes to tie Anton up, so we would be able to finish judging the contest. He took the others to replace his." The man paused thoughtfully, and then added, "Though I am sure the final humiliation to Anton had its appeal to him when he carried out the plan."

"Where was the boy?" Donny asked.

"We don't know. I ordered a full search of Metamor and Euper. I personally checked with all of those who had been manning the walls and gates. The closest I got was a report of some shadow they lost sight of against the woods." Andrea said, running a finger around the inside of his currently empty glass. "I haven’t been able to sleep well since, and that is why I am here trying to drink myself into a stupor."

"You can't be this upset over him skipping out on his sentence," the bull morph stated.

"No," Andrea said quietly, "but I can't help but think the worst must end up happening to him."

"From what you've told me the kid knows how to look out for himself," Donny offered.

The Watch officer looked up from his glass at the bartender in bafflement, and then narrowed his eyes for a moment as he made sense of the comment. "You didn't pick up on it, did you?" The man laughed bitterly, "Why should I have expected you to? I was involved in the whole mess and didn't get it until the very end."

He sobered up for a moment and looked at the bovine with dead eyes, "Nothing human could have made the climb necessary to jump Anton up where we found him. The boy hasn't run away from the Watch. He's trying to run from the Curse." The walls of composure Andrea had in place started to crumble. "Damn it!" he said, "I can't keep the images out of my mind of what they'll do to him if he gets far enough South before realizing it's hopeless. All because I couldn't see! The signs were all there when he walked into my office that day!" He looked away as tears escaped, and ran down his face in growing number.

Donny said nothing, letting the healing run its course. When a fair amount of time had passed, the bartender reached below for another glass and put it next to Sumerin's. He filled each from the bottle the man had ordered.

The bull wrapped the man's hand around the old glass, prompting the tear-streaked face to look back in his direction. The bovine tapped his glass against the Watch officer's in a solemn clink. "A pox on Nasoj," he said quietly and then downed the shot. Andrea's soul-wounded expression became clouded with confusion for a moment. "A pox on Nasoj," he then concurred, and sealed the toast by tipping back his head and emptying the contents of his own glass. A measure of sanity had returned to his eyes by the time he set the container down on the wooden board again. "Thank you, Donny," he said with sincerity born of the heart.

The man reached into his money pouch and put down a few coins. "I'll see you around," Andrea said. The bovine bartender just nodded as the man stood and made his way toward the exit. Donny noted that the coins covered the cost of the entire bottle. He put the coins away and marked the extra as a credit on the Watchman's tab before putting the remaining liquor away.

One of the waitresses came up to the bar and said, "Two beers." Then in a whisper she asked, "How'd it go?" with a nod of her head toward the Watch officer as he opened the door and left.

Donny pulled out two more mismatched glasses from his haphazard selection of siege survivors. "Pretty well, I think. Kept him down to four glasses."

"Might be better for business if you'd have left him alone, he looked prepared to down three times that," the employee observed while the drinks were poured from a tap behind the bar.

After handing over the cups, the owner of the Deaf Mule took out a washcloth with which he proceeded to wipe away alcohol and tears. He asked for the second time that night, "What? You think I'm here to sell drinks?"

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