A Shoving Match

by Chris O'kane

"If you mess up this ambush I'll see that you're chopped up into little pieces and fed to the wolves," Varnal said to the group of lutins standing in front of him. They were the finest hunters and ambushers in all of Nasoj's army. The human mage had personally selected every one of them just for this job. He had spent months setting this ambush up, choosing and training just the right soldiers. Now the time had come to spring it.

For years those damn Long Scouts had been causing all sorts of problems; killing, burning, stealing, terrorizing. The ultimate insult had been the assassination of Furlin. A very well executed ambush had killed the mage and his entire bodyguard. Not that Varnal was particularly upset that his chief rival had been killed. It was just that if these Long Scouts could kill Furlin they certainly could certainly get Varnal too.

It hadn't been too hard to identify who had killed Furlin, only one person used a great axe like that; Misha Brightleaf. That fox had already killed countless lutins, and now one of Nasoj's chief lieutenants.

The mage stared coldly at his soldiers for a moment before speaking. "You know your positions and your tasks. Do this right and we'll all be wealthy. Make a mistake and you'll all die painfully. Do you all understand?" he asked menacingly.

As a group the lutins nodded. "Yes, Lord Varnal."

"Good, go to your positions and DON'T fall asleep." He watched as the lutins dispersed into the woods.

The mage carefully pronounced the words of a spell and felt the magic flow through his body. In a moment he was invisible to the naked eye. Then he settled into the position that he had chosen for himself.

Now there was nothing to do but wait and see what his trackers forced this way. If it was the fox, good, if not, the death or capture of any Long Scout would be rewarding too. All the Scouts had a price on their heads, they just weren't as big as Brightleaf's.

Nervous, Varnal checked his greatest weapon to be sure it was fine. The black stone was about the size of his hand and felt cold to the touch. This was the key to defeating one of those Metamor killers. All of the inhabitants of Metamor Keep were affected by Nasoj's great spells. At the Battle of the Three Gates when they had been unleashed all of the defenders were changed. They should have become one of three things, an infant, a sex freak of the opposite gender or a mindless animal. For a moment it had worked, but then the mages of the keep had countered them. They managed to dilute the effects, but not remove them. The three spells were still in effect, but not as Nasoj had wanted. Misha was now half-human, half-fox but he was far from mindless. As a matter of fact it seemed to make him an even better fighter, since it mixed an animal's keen senses with human intellect.

This stone was the key to changing that. All he had to do was touch it to the skin or fur of a Metamoran and pronounce the command word. Then the full effect of the curse would envelop them. In the scouts case he would be left a mindless fox. Nasoj would pay a high price for having that small animal brought to him alive. He smiled at the thought of the big reward he would get.

Suddenly off to his right he heard the sounds of fighting and shouting. The mage swore under his breath as he got up from his hiding place. Something had gone wrong. Hustling through the undergrowth he came to the fight in a moment.

In the middle of the woods far from the trail was a scene of chaos. A dozen lutins were fighting an otter morph and a fox morph. A rush of joy ran through Varnal, the fox was wielding a great axe. It was Misha himself!

Varnal didn't get involved, but calmly watched the fight from a discrete distance, waiting for the right moment. He watched as the fox swung the axe with great skill in loops and swipes and even short chops. Every time that axe moved it seemed to kill a lutin. The otter was doing just as well with her long sword.

After a few moments the human saw his chance. Misha had killed the last lutin attacking him and looked around for more. For a brief moment the fox's back was to him. Varnal jumped forward and rushed for the axe wielder.

Misha must have heard him coming because he turned around and raised that deadly axe, but Varnal was already too close. The morph dropped the axe and reached for a sword on his belt. It was too late.

Varnal pressed the stone against his enemies bare hand and pronounced the command word. He felt the magic in the stone reach out for the spell in the fox morph. They were both the same spell and the stone would amplify and reinforce the original magic of the curse. With his mind he felt the two magic spells meet. Then Varnal felt something he hadn't expected; resistance.

He realized in a heartbeat that someone had changed the curse. Not diluted it like he had expected, but fundamentally altered it, and blocked any change. Varnal concentrated and threw his own magic against the block, to overwhelm it and remold the spell back to it's original form.

The audience hall was filled today. At least two hundred people were crowded into the room to listen to Baron Alexander Mallory give his weekly address to the king. There was silence in the room as he spoke.

Exactly ten feet to King Williams's right stood a black haired man. He was dressed in a long blue and gold silk robe whose edges were decorated with the finest silk lace. Numerous gold rings decorated his fingers and a long sword in a gold scabbard hung from his belt. The large gold and silver torc around his neck marked him as a magic user. His expression was one of intent interest as he listened to the baron. But in reality he was far from interested in what was being said.

In fact Lord High Mage Sir Brian Archer, Hamilton, Brightleaf, count of Fairbourgh, Marquis of Dalany, protector of the crown, hero of Tarnum and royal high mage, was bored silly. Mallory was terribly long-winded and his speeches were always phenomenally boring. Worse yet they were useless, the man never said anything important. The Mage's sole reason for even being here was political. If he wanted to stay in the king's good graces he had to appear at all court functions, no matter how boring they were.

Baron Mallory had just reached the part about his annual harvest yields when the mage felt it. In his mind he felt an old spell flair to life and a cold shiver ran down his spine. Brian closed his eyes and concentrated on the magic. He recognized it instantly, someone was trying to undo work that he had done six years before. The Lord Mage screamed out loud as five hundred miles away Varnal attacked his spell.

Brian was vaguely aware of people shouting and a soldier grabbing his arm to keep him from falling. He braced himself as his new enemy pushed hard against him with even more powerful magic.

In his rise to power Lord Brian had fought many duels of magic, Some duels were long subtle dances with move and counter move going back and forth. The winner being decided by vote of judges. Others had been fast battles of blasting power, the winner being the one left standing at the end. But Brian had found that sometimes they were simple shoving matches, power against power, the winner being the one who shoved hardest. The mage mustered all of his magic and threw one tremendous blow at his assailant. "DAMN YOU!" he screamed out loud, "LEAVE MY BROTHER ALONE!"

The Lord Mage felt his magic blast completely through his attacker. He could feel the original spell of change itself change and flare, threatening to envelope all of them. With quick work he cut his own hold on it and broke the connection.

Andre walked quickly down the corridor, the boy mage Wessex had to had hustle to keep up with the wolverine. "Andre, slow down please," the mage asked. He grabbed the morph by the arm and the two halted.

"Andre, you and Misha are old friends. What exactly happened to him," Wessex asked.

The wolverine shrugged, "I don't know. All I do know is that Caroline reported that they tried that fetish trick again. Like they did with Christopher the librarian, and he'd been changed."

Wessex shook his head, "That's not what I'm talking about and you know it. What happened to him six years ago. He went to see his brother about a cure for the curse. The last time I asked him he threw me into a wall."

Andre looked down at the floor for a moment before answering. "It started about six months after the Battle of the three gates. He said that his brother Brian had a cure for the curse. So he left the Keep and headed for his brother's home."

"When Misha came back about a month later he was battered, worn and he had a bloody wound on his wrist. Mentally he was almost homicidal and lashed out at everything. He stayed barely an hour. Misha picked up his axe, armor, and a few supplies and walked out the gate headed north." Andre shook his head and his ears drooped in sadness. "I remember that moment like it was yesterday. Standing there in the rain, watching him walk off."

"We didn't see him for almost a year. It was around Christmas time that he came back. One of my patrols was ambushed and about to be wiped out, when this dirty, ragged, monster appeared wielding a giant axe. In a matter of a few moments it slew close to a dozen lutins and the rest fled, terrified. It was Misha of course. The patrol brought him back home. We were all excited by the message the soldiers sent ahead. Everyone thought that Misha was dead, even me."

"When I saw him I was shocked. He looked like death warmed over, dirty, ragged, and thin as a rail. I cleaned him up and put him to bed. He slept for three days straight non-stop. When he woke up, the old Misha was back like nothing had happened."

The boy mage nodded, "Did you ever ask him what happened?"

"No. I figured when he was ready to tell me, he would. All I know is that he's permanently stuck in his morph form. He can't change shape. As to what exactly happened he didn't say. He did thank me for not asking."

"So his brother managed to alter the curse. Impressive, not many mages could do that," Wessex said.

"Oh Brian could, he's a very powerful mage. Some say he's among the the most powerful in the world," came the reply.

"I didn't know that!" Wessex said, impressed. "I wonder what happened to Misha. Bending and changing magic that powerful can have some very strange results."

The wolverine shrugged, "Carol's message was pretty vague."

"Well, we'll find out shortly. They should have reached the Lower Keep by now." With that the two headed down the corridor towards the courtyard.

The two were greeted by utter chaos when they reached the courtyard. There were at least a hundred people crowded around the mounted patrol. Everyone was talking, yelling and or just milling around making noise.

Andre tugged on Wessex's sleeve and pointed to the center of the crowd, "There's Caroline."

The boy was too short to see what his companion was pointing at. All he could see was the backs of other people. "I can't see through this crowd."

"MAKE ROOM!" Andre shouted, and the crowd opened up as if by magic.

Wessex could finally see what Andre was pointing at. Caroline was standing next to a horse, talking to Raven. "I don't know what happened. I heard Misha shout but by the time I turned around it was all over," the otter was explaining.

As they moved up to the pair, the mage noticed that a fox was slung behind the saddle of the horse. Its legs were tied together and its muzzle was bound shut with a leather thong.

Andre ran up to the fox and tenderly patted it on the head. "Misha?" he asked in a voice filled with emotion.

"Yes?" a voice asked from the other side of the horse.

The wolverine looked around in confusion. "Misha?" he asked again.

A familiar head and shoulders popped up on the opposite side of the horse. "Andre! It's good to see you again," Misha said with delight.

"Misha, if that's you than who is this?" Andre asked pointing to the bound animal.

Caroline shrugged, "We don't know, but it must be the mage who attacked Misha."

"It seems his spell didn't work as planned," Misha said.

Wessex ignored the conversation. His short stature allowed him to notice something curious. He looked between the horse's legs. "Misha, why do you have four legs?"

Andre followed the boy's line of sight and found himself looking at four equine legs and four vulpine legs. "What happened to you?"

"That's for you to explain Wessex. You're the magic user," came the reply. With those words Misha walked around the horse and came into full view.

From the waist up he looked the same as always, chain mail shirt and all. Below the waist he had the body of a large, pony sized fox. Aside from the size, it was the body of a male red fox, complete with four legs and a long bushy tail.

"You're a centaur," Andre said with mild surprise.

"More like a foxtaur," Raven corrected.

"Fascinating! The curse seems to have taken an interesting turn," the mage said, examining Misha.

"Interesting? I'm stuck like this and you think it's interesting," the foxtaur said in exasperation.

Caroline squeezed Misha's hand and kissed him on the muzzle. "Relax honey, we'll get this all straightened out. Besides I've always wanted a lover who was hung like a horse."

Everyone broke up in laughter, except Raven, who just smiled. He glared at the otter in displeasure. Caroline kissed him again, and the scowl disappeared from his face.

"Have you tried changing your shape?" Wessex asked.

"Yes, but nothing happened. I'm stuck this way," Misha replied.

"Well, between the Lightbringer and myself we should be able to figure out an answer. Your message mentioned a fetish stone?" Wessex asked.

"Yes, Caroline said. "It's still attached to the fox's right, front paw."

Both Mage and Lightbringer carefully examined the bound animal and found the stone stuck just like the otter had said.

"That's the exact same type of stone that was used on Christopher," Raven said.

"A very dangerous little item," Wessex added. "Have you touched it?"

"Of course not. We were careful not to come near it," Caroline answered.

Why don't we get you and this other fox up to my workshop and see what can be done," Wessex said.

The small group made its way through the myriad halls of the Keep. Wessex was leading, Andre came next with the bound fox slung over his shoulders. Next to him was the Lightbringer, who was keeping a close eye on the fox who seemed confused by all the goings on. Caroline and Misha brought up the rear. Misha's looks brought all sorts of stares and questions from passerby's. At one intersection they passed Rickkter, who did a double take when he saw Misha.

"Do I want to know?" Rickkter asked as Misha passed.

"Probably not," The foxtaur answered.

"I didn't think so," came the words from Rickkter as they turned a corner and left him behind.

Soon the small party made its way to Wessex's lab and workshop. The fox was placed, still bound, on an empty table. Misha stood in the center of the room, pacing nervously.

Wessex took a moment to be sure the fox was still securely bound before turning to Misha. "Before we begin, I'd like some information. Can you tell about the spell your brother used on you originally six years ago."

Misha stopped pacing and his whole body stiffened. "No," he said in a surprisingly cold voice.

Raven moved towards him, "Misha..." she started to say, but he turned to her and let out a deep guttural growl.

"What part of no don't you understand," he said in a low voice.

Caroline gingerly touched him on the arm, "Honey, they only want to help."

When he turned to her he started to cry, and shake. "I can't," he said in a voice filled with pain. Caroline hugged him tightly and he started sob uncontrollably. "I can't. I just can't."

She didn't know what to say, or do, so she just held him.

Raven put her hand on his shoulder, "We'll be in the other room. When you're ready to continue just knock on the door."

Wessex, Andre, and Raven stayed silent for several moments after the mage closed the door to his workshop. Andre spoke first, "I wish I could say something to help him."

You've already helped him immensely just by being his friend," the Lightbringer said.

Wessex shook his head, "What could have happened to have given him such pain?"

"I don't know. I do know that we can't force him to tell us. When he is ready to tell someone, he will," the Lightbringer said.

"Can you change him back?" Andre asked. "That will help him a lot."

"My guess is that when he was unable to remove the spell his brother modified it instead. He might have tried to give Misha the ability to become human in addition to his morph and animal forms," Wessex commented.

"Like a werewolf, or a werefox," Andre suggested.

"Brian succeeded in changing the spell but not the way he wanted," Raven added.

"The fetish that Misha was attacked with just reinforces the original spell as cast by Nasoj." Wessex explained. "The problem was when Brian altered the spell it stopped being Nasoj's spell and became his. So when that mage tried to change it back he was facing hostile magic. It became a duel for control of the spell."

"A duel that Brian won, and the fetish magic rebounded onto it's caster."

The boy nodded, "Sounds about right."

"But what happened to Misha, and the spell on him?" Raven asked.

Wessex shrugged. "Hard to say, but it might have reset back to the original spell as cast by Nasoj. Or it might have changed into something else entirely, only time will tell. Perhaps here in the quiet and safety of the keep we'll have better luck. Being in a wilderness surrounded by several hundred lutins is not really a good environment for experimenting with magic."

There came a knock at the door, it opened and Caroline stuck her head inside the room. "We're ready to continue."

"Carol, did he tell you what happened?" Andre asked.

The otter stood in the doorway a moment before speaking. "Yes he did," she replied and left the room without uttering another word.

Misha watched as the three of them filed back into the room. He felt calmer and more confident than before. Caroline squeezed his hand to reassure him. He was glad he'd told her the whole brutal story, it felt like a great weight had been lifted from him.

Wessex walked up to Misha. "I want you to try and change back to your regular two legged form," the mage asked.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Misha asked.

"No need to worry. I believe that you can change shape again. It's just that after being without the ability for so long your body needed time to get reacquainted with it," Wessex said.

"I hope your right," Misha replied.

Misha closed his eyes and tried to picture in his mind his morph form, but the image of a regular animal came to him instead. It had been many years since he could change and run and hunt as a fox. He sorely missed the experience, it had been a lot of fun. He felt a great excitement build in him, but he didn't know why.

He heard Caroline gasp and he opened his eyes. All the colors seemed to be gone, and everything seemed to be a lot bigger than before. Andre's red shirt was now a dirty gray and he looked to be about twenty feet tall. "He's not taller, I'm shorter," Misha thought to himself.

Caroline knelt next to him and slowly extended her hand. "Honey, can you understand me?" she asked.

He tried to say "Of course," but all that came out was a yap. Surprised, Misha tried to put a hand to his muzzle but found a paw there instead. Looking himself over he realized that he changed into a full fox. Not his normal fox morph form but a real fox, complete with four legs and no arms.

Misha let out a yowl of delight and did a complete back flip. "This is fantastic," he thought to himself, and ran circles around Caroline.

"Misha!" she said in panic.

"Relax child. He's merely excited about getting his animal form back," Raven explained.

He stopped and nodded to the Priestess. A mischievous thought occurred to him, and he looked at Caroline, who was still kneeling. Misha walked up to her and licked her face. He placed both of his forepaws on her shoulders and pushed. With a shout she fell backwards onto the floor.

Misha climbed onto her stomach and kept on licking her face. He imagined himself back in his morph body. The change came in a heartbeat, and a lick turned into a long passionate kiss.

When their lips finally separated she looked him in the eye, "That's what I love about you, you're such an animal sometimes."

Misha and Caroline followed Raven into an open courtyard lined with trees. In the middle beside a beautiful fountain, a girl was seated next to a small metal cage. As they approached the girl stood up and bowed, "Good morning," she said.

Raven bowed in return, "How fares your patient today, Sheleen?"

The girl smiled, "He's doing fine. He slept very soundly last night, and he ate quite a bit this morning."

Misha knelt next to the cage, and looked at it's occupant. A red fox, curled up in the corner, stared back at him. "Is he still biting people?" he asked.

"Yes, but he has stopped snarling at everyone," the girl replied.

"That's a good start," Raven said.

Caroline looked into the cage, "I see you finally got the stone off of his paw."

"Yes, we had no real problem with that," Raven answered. "Christopher's enchantment was cast under the power of our enemy to the north. This spell was crafted by a mortal mage - and one of rather meager skills, I would add. Breaking this spell was child's play by comparison."

" Meager skills, phooey," A voice spoke from the cage.

"Now Varnal, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," Sheleen said to the caged animal.

"When did he regain his mind?" Misha asked.

"Shortly after we removed the stone," the Lightbringer answered.

"What a way for a great mage like me to end up, an animal in a cage," Varnal said.

"You really should be grateful for all we've done for you," Misha said.

"Grateful? For what?" the caged fox asked sarcastically.

"We could have left the stone attached to you, so at least you still have your mind," Misha countered.

Varnal didn't answer but just glared at him. "When will the Duke let me out of this tiny cage? I'm getting claustrophobic in here."

Sheleen waged her finger at the caged mage, "I had you out of that cage not half an hour ago."

The fox shook his head, "I mean WITHOUT a leash."

Everyone found that funny, even Raven who showed a small smile as every one else laughed. The only one who didn't seem to find it funny was Varnal.

"You know that Lord Thomas sentenced you to be imprisoned for three years," Misha replied through laughs.

"Three years, phooey, " Varnal replied.

"Think of it as having three years free room and board," Caroline suggested.

The whole group broke up in laughter again, all except Varnal. He buried his head under the blanket in his cage and shook his head. "Three years!" came the faint words from under the blanket, "Three years."