Lars sprang through the woods, his impala body a blur in and out of the trees.
He was naked, of course. His parents shunned magic and, even if he didn't believe magic was inherently evil, it also made him uneasy. Beside, he really could not afford armor or clothing that could magically fit both his near human morph form and his full impala form. There was no avoiding the curse, however, so Lars was intent on enjoying as much of it as he could.
He was safe enough in the woods on this side of the Keep. Wicker and his dad had patroled this area yesterday so he knew that the Lutins inactive, but the woods were thick with his friends.
A huge orange and black blur appeared out of nowhere and Lars' heart stopped, but he managed to turn himself at a right angle and leap over the tiger gracefully. Lars zig zagged with a laugh and left the tiger cursing behind him.
Lar transformed back as closely to human form as he could and leaned against a tree to catch his breathe. "Can't get me!" It would be nice to be able to be fully human someday, to leave the Keep and see the world, but it wasn't to be. He tried to concentrate on the fun he was having.
Of course, he was supposed to have outgrown the need for playing, too, according to his father. The paper mill was a terribly boring place; bad enough to be cursed to live out the rest of his life hiding from the world, did he have to spend his life making sure that bits of wood and cloth were pulped finely enough to go thru the mangler. He hated the mangler. He hated the paper mill. He hated his parents.
He blamed his parents for coming to Metamor Keep. Of course, there was no curse on the place then, but couldn't they see what a target the mountain community was to the very forces they opposed. They were just plain stupid. Lars was only 16 and he could see that this was no place to raise children, curse or no curse. Sure, maybe the library was impressive and, maybe, some of the finest minds did live here, but they were all mages. Stupid!
And they wondered why he had no respect for them.
Thank god for friends like Custard, Carnage, and Wicker, otherwise he'd have gone crazy. They understood him.
Hearing the brush rattle, Lars morphed back into his admittedly impressive impala form and darted off. He loved the way it felt, but sometimes he wished he'd become something else. The only other impala was his father and that old man couldn't be dragged away from the paper mill short of a life or death situation. Be nice if there was a girl impala. Or even a boy impala to play talk to. Maybe, if he'd become a wolf or some other canine... certainly, Wicked would have more respect for him.
Wicked was younger, but so much bigger than any of the other boys. He was a tiger morph and Lars suspected that he only hung around with them because he was a bit of a rough houser and kids his own age were too fragile. Lars had trouble looking at Wicked and seeing a 14 yr. old.
Clay, the tiger morph's older brother, was like that, too, before he got all moody and withdrawn. When Clay got "artistic," as the gang liked to call it. Too bad, really, Lars kind of liked rough housing with Clay. Clay was still mostly unchanged and there was something about feeling the fur-less arms grab him roughly in a tackle that made him feel good... Not that he ever let Clay tackle him. That would be stupid. He was just a good sport, that was all.
The best thing about having Wicked, as they called the tiger-morph, hanging out with the group was that Lars was no longer the youngest. Lars was still the designated "prey" in most of their predator and prey games, but he was all right with that. After all, he was a herbivore and that put him in a certain place within the food chain. Not that really mattered to any of the Keepers, but for the game it did. And, it wasn't like the others didn't sometimes take his place, but Lars actually found stalking someone to be a bit boring. And the first time someone had said, "Oh, no, save me from the wild, man-eating gazelle!" he had felt incredibly silly.
Wicked won at least half the games and was getting better all the time. Sometimes Lars won, escaping the designated hunting area, but that was getting rarer, too. Which was good; Lars always felt he was cheating them if one of the hunters didn't win. He liked to see the other guys happy.
This time the orange and black blur nailed him, dragging him to the ground. This tackle was different, harder than even Wicked had ever hit him before: something was wrong. Wicked morphed from animal to his "normal" fuzzy form before the impala was down and cupped a hand over Lar's muzzle. "Shhhhhh," the tiger morph growled quietly, urgently. "We found Lutins."
Lars gasped. He morphed back to his normal, almost human, form and grabbed at Wicked's loose fur. "We have to get back to the Keep! We have no weapons! We don't even have clothes, for Eli's sake!"
"We have claws and teeth, Meat!" Wicked had his own nickname for the guys. Thankfully, he never used them in front of the grown-ups or the faux kids. Who knew what they'd make of that. There were already rumors that Clay was funny that way.
"You do! Not me!"
Wicked smiled evilly. "Listen to me, Meat, we won. WE WON. We killed the Lutins."
Wicked helped him up as Lars sputtered questions. He could see that Wicked was covered in blood now and his heart raced as he wondered just how close he had come to leaping in a group of the little green nasty creatures. "Sweet Yahshua! Look at you." The white apron of fur that covered his chest and stomach were matted with blood so thickly no wonder he hadn't seen the tiger coming.
"You should see the other guys." Wicked was so solid and proud of himself, yet Lars could barely keep his knees from shaking. "Custard ran right into them! A group of ten, gathering bones it looked like, probably for some magic spell." Wicked's eyes glittered with delight as he would tell a bit of the tale, take a few steps and then tell some more. "Custard called out for the others, Meat, and then Carnage and Evil were there and then I got there in time to rip into some of them. It was glorious. It was what I was made for, Meat. Ripping, tearing, I was lightning and thunder!"
Wicked roared with delight, "I WAS DEATH!"
The impala morph had never seen the young tiger like this. Amused. Angry. Bored. Aggravated. Yes. Now, for the first time, Wicked was truly happy and it scared Lars on levels he couldn't comprehend. His instinct was to run, but that was just the animal in him talking. Wicked was a friend. "I'm... I'm sorry I missed that."
Wicked smiled and hugged Lars, without embarrassment. Lars was shocked! Their stomachs touched and he had to quickly turn his hip to make sure nothing else did. But as quickly as it happened, his brute friend held him at arm's length and smiled a grin that could have swallowed him whole. "That's the best part, Meat. We saved one for you!"
Wicked's eyes glittered like diamonds as he led Lars back to the others. When they got close, Wicked called out that he had Lars with him and the other three guys started chanting, "Fresh meat! Fresh meat!" Fresh Meat had always been the name of the newest kid, but Lars had been the newest and youngest member of the gang for such a long time, that the name had stuck Lars didn't mind. In fact, he kind of liked it; it was not only a little suggestive but it was the last thing his parents would ever want him to be called.
When he walked into the clearing he found the three young Keepers guarding a young -not full grown, at all - Lutin male. He was crying in the middle of a circle drawn into the ground... the bodies of about a dozen different Lutins littered the ground around him in plain view for the goblin kid to see. The three other guys, all of who had their fur covered in Lutin blood, growled at him whenever the poor kid moved.
Lars felt incredibly sorry for the little monster. "Wicked, he's just a kid!"
Wicked smiled and shrugged. "Work your way up, Meat."
Lars felt sick to his stomach. "I can't."
"You have to," Wicked turned Lars so that he could avoid the tiger-morphs eyes. It wasn't fair that such pretty eyes should be in such a nasty cat. "Look, Lars, for all you know, we saved you from these things. Ok? Do your part. Be a good sport."
Lars opened his mouth but nothing came out. What could he say? Wicked was right. "All right. What do I do?"
Wicked clapped him on the back and then pushed him towards the circle. "Kick him to death. You've got hooves. Use them."
Lars could feel all of them looking at him. Custard - a young coyote morph who had just joined the civil guard. Evil - a demonic-looking dragon morph who probably hated his parents more than Lars did (they had come here on purpose after the curse). Carnage - a white bear morph that wanted to be a writer was hot for Wicked's sister, Tina. They were all chanting his name. Meat. Meat. Meat. And then he heard Wicked's voice take up the chant and he knew he was going to have to do it.
They had saved the Lutin for him, after all.
He entered the ring and the young Lutin wouldn't even look at him. It simply stared at the fallen members of it's kin and sobbed pitifully. The gang cheered at him to kick, but Lars could not bring himself to simply put his hoof through a defenseless creature. He pushed him, instead.
Custard booed and then so did Evil. Wicked just yelled, "Harder, get his attention!"
So, that was exactly what Lars did. He pushed the kid nearly out of the circle before he got the damn thing to really notice him. It just cried at him and continued to back up as if Lars was still pushing it. It wasn't even aware that there was a two horned monster in the circle with it. Lars was a bit insulted.
The kid stepped out of the circle and suddenly Carnage's bear form was nipping at the young Lutin's bloodied feet. It hopped back in, eyes wide, and then stopped and then stared at Lars as if seeing the bipedal impala for the first time. Carnage growled a laugh as the Lutin emptied his bladder onto the floor of the battle circle. Lars swore and then felt himself blush under his fur.
He kicked at the thing in disgust and then it just lay on the ground sobbing hysterically. Lars screamed in frustration and then turned to Wicked. "I can't do this. It acts like a real person too much!"
Wicked did not look too happy about that and marched over to the circle. He shoved Lars gently back into place and grabbed a long knife from one of the dead Lutins. For a moment, Lars was afraid Wicked was going to slit the little things throat as it laid belly up on the ground. Instead, the tiger morph roughly grabbed the creature by its head and jerked it upright. He bounced it a few times until it got the idea Wicked wanted it to stand.
"Now, listen up," the tiger morphed growled. "If you kill him, you get to go free. Understand? You kill him... you go free." Wicked wrapped the knife handle in the young Lutin's right hand and then pointed it at Lars and then hooked his thumbs together and flapped his finger claws in unison. It was the most absurd thing to hear and see, that Lars was certain he couldn't possibly be giving the little green creature permission to kill him. "Free? Understand?"
Wicked smiled at him as the message sunk into the little monster's skull. "You see, I bet you can kill him now."
Suddenly, it was Lars' bladder that needed release. "Wicked!"
Wicked stepped out of the circle. "Aw, c'mon. Kill him. He'd kill you." He spread his paws almost comically. "He WILL kill you."
As if on cue, the little Lutin sprang forward with the knife. Lars' training kept him from being cut too badly. He felt the blade bounce roughly off upper arm and then catch a bit of skin on his forearm as he dodged. He spun and kicked, letting himself slip a little further into the impala within, so that his leg - his hind leg - carried more force than it would have otherwise. The Lutin was flung nearly completely out of the dirt circle.
All Keepers underwent some form of combat training as all Keepers were expected to defend the Keep and even go out on patrol, but Lars hadn't been sure if he could count on his own training to surface when he needed it. It was... satisfying... knowing it was there when he needed it, just as Jack deMule said it would be.
Lars morphed back into his humanoid form just as Custard and Evil threw the half conscious Lutin teen back into the circle. It was child's play to snap the knife from its hand. In fact, the impala heard bone snap as his hoof struck its forearm. It shrieked in pain and terror and Lars couldn't bear it any longer. And he knew Wicked and the others would never let him walk away from this... not when they had saved this Lutin for him to kill.
So he screamed in frustration and forced himself to wade into the tiny monster. He struck with his fists and with his hooves and he no longer saw a green, scared child.
He saw his father's face, his human face before the battle, self-righteous, and too stubborn to see when he's failed.
He saw his mother's face, her jaw distending into a beak even as she huddled with her children and promised the Eli would protect them... even as her own prayers failed.
He saw Clay's peeking out onto the street the day the curse had changed Lars into something less than human, as they all knew it would someday... everyone changed eventually, except Clay Potter who looked away and shut a door between them, forever.
But then it was over and Lars stood over the broken Lutin, his fury spent. It wasn't dead, not yet. It would only take a little force to end its suffering. That would be the humane thing to do. But even that rationale could not move Lars to do further violence. "I can't, Wicker." The impala morph said softly, "I just can't..."
"That's all right," the tiger morph said as he brushed past Lars. "I knew you couldn't do it, Meat." Then with a casualness that shocked Lars, Wicker Potter - brother to Lars' one-time best friend - leaned over as if picking up a rock and speared the claws of his left paw into the throat of the little Lutin and then flung it into the underbrush ten feet away. Custard laughed like a hyena as the body fell rag doll limp into the bushes.
Wicked turned around and Lars was vaguely aware that he was alone in the circle with Wicked, not that there was any circle left. The scuffle with the little green monster had completely obliterated the line in the dirt. Lars had a panicky thought that the missing boundaries meant something symbolic, and he wanted to ask Carnage what that might mean... but a glance in the polar bear's direction didn't encourage any questions.
"You're covered in blood, Lars." Whicker remarked softly.
"I couldn't do it. I wanted to, Wicked, but I couldn't!"
Wicked stood inches from Lars. While the impala morph was slightly taller and much older than the tiger morph, Wicked's presence was overpowering. Naked, the two young men faced each other as Lars begin to feel the heady effect of the adrenaline wear off. He began to shake. He wanted to sit down, but Wicked's eyes held him fast. He could not read them... or he did not want to.
"In life," the tiger morph said, "you have to choose between being prey and being predator. I gave you that choice. You made it."
"I wanted to..."
"The evil... vile creatures that infest this forest for leagues in every direction... Creatures responsible for making us outcasts amongst our own kind."
"I wanted to..."
"I know." Wicked clasped Lars on both shoulders and held him. The tiger's eyes burnt into his and Lars could not believe how weak he'd been. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the other three slink off. He'd disappointed all of them. None of them were Followers, none of them understood. "You tried, but none of us can overcome our natures, can we?"
"No," Lars said miserably. "No, we are wh-wh... what we are."
"I just want you to know, I'm not mad at you, Meat," The tiger said and then leaned forward and began licking Lars' blood covered chest.
The impala gasped as a dozen odd and unwanted sensations filled him and he was filled with a sinful shame that buried his other shame instantly. It felt good. It felt wrong, evil, and, in front of the other guys... what was Wicked thinking!? Lars tried pushing his naked body away but Wicked held him in an iron grip, his claws digging into the impala morph's shoulders with just enough force to hold him there.
"Lutin blood tastes like crap," the tiger morph mumbled as his rough tongue moved to Lars' injured shoulder. Lars mouth moved and he started hitting Wicked on his shoulders, as he could feel as body begin to react. This wasn't right! Not at all! It wasn't supposed to be like this, not in front of everyone!
Lars' mind was overwhelmed as he tried to make sense of what was happening. As Wicked's claws dug painfully into him, he began to cry. Somehow, the guys had gotten drunk and then the Lutins found them. Or maybe the Lutins tried defending themselves with magic... everyone knew how they had changed Christopher into a full bear. Maybe they were acting like animals because of that. But whatever the reason, it was wrong! It was so damn wrong! And in front of the guys!
Wicked found the slash and began licking that with is rough tongue. At first, it felt pleasant and Wicked made a mewling sound as he cleaned the wound of fur and dirt with his tongue. Lars whimpered, "Wicked, please don't!"
Wicked pulled him in tighter, crossing his arms across Lar's furry back, claws sinking into the meat under his shoulder blades. Lars bit his lips so as not to cry out in pain. It was bad enough that he had to beg, that he wasn't strong enough to make Wicked stop. He could feel his body reacting sinfully to the younger boy's pressure. He balled his fists up and shoved them in his eyes and whimpered, No. No. No. No. The tongue now lapped painfully at his would and Lars knew he'd have to scream or all would be lost.
And then Wicked said something strange. Something that erased everything out of his mind and made him forget the Lutins and the other guys. Something that even made the pain vanish in the very second Wicked spoke to him.
Wicked said, softly, almost lovingly, "Change. It'll be easier that way, Meat."
In all his time playing with Wicked, Lars had never guessed how truly evil the tiger-morph was until that moment. Not just bad. Not misunderstood, and certainly not just another rebellious teenager, but evil. In that one second of clarity, Lars did the only thing he could do. He prayed.
When Wicked sank his fangs into Lars' neck, it was too late to scream. The windpipe crushed slowly in the tiger's vice like grip. As he felt another set of jaws clamp painfully around his leg, Lars had just enough time to thank Eli for sparing him from his own sinful desires before he vanished into everlasting darkness.
Henrik and Josie Potter brought the long scouts to the place they had found the children. Lars was where they had left him. Craig was annoyed that they hadn't bothered to try to bring the body of the boy back or at least cover him. The wild animals of the forest hadn't left much for the prairie dog morph to bring back to the parents and what was left was covered in a thick cloud of black flies. Thank god he had decided against bringing the young man's folks.
"There shouldn't have been any Lutins here," Henrik growled. "Wicker and I scouted this area this morning. I don't see how we could have missed these smelly creatures." Henrik was a white tiger morph but he wasn't exactly the stealthy type, Craig knew.
"It's not your fault, Henrik," Josie said. "The boys should not have been this far away from the Keep, playing Predator and Prey of all things."
"I'm just wish I had found them sooner."
Craig just glared at the civilians with a mild dose of disgust. "What exactly happened here? Where's Wicker, now?"
"He went to get Lar's clothes." Josie spoke up quickly with a glance at the ruined, naked body of the impala morph. "He didn't want the boy's parents seeing him like this... naked and..."
Craig held up a paw, the last thing he needed was a crying she-wolf. "Ok, but I'll need to make a report to George, so I'll have to talk to him."
"When I found him, he was holding Lars and trying to lick the boy's wounds clean. But it was too late." The white tiger looked down and bit his lower lip. He spoke to the ground, "I'd never seen him like that."
Craig nodded. "What about the other boys?"
"They were just sitting there, in shock. They had defended themselves well, but, they couldn't save Lars."
Craig nodded. There were a dozen Lutin corpses, one that hadn't been mauled too badly had distinctive hoof marks on it's body. With only claws and teeth to defend themselves with and so little real training, Craig was admittedly impressed. He made a mental note to ask to have Custard transferred from the civil guard to the long scouts when he was ready, maybe even Carnegie and Elvis, too, if that was what they wanted. There was something about the tiger morph he did not like. He reminded Craig of a young Misha or Rickkter but without the honor or conscience of either.
A little reptilian long scout who'd been looking at the dead Keeper's body trotted over to Craig. "He's covered in Lutin blood on what's left of his belly. You can smell it on him, but, Craig..." Craig motioned the scout to spit the rest of it out. "They took his tail."
Craig rolled his eyes. Lutin trophy hunters! He did not need that. "Look for that tail," he called out to the other scouts. Josie buried her face in Henrik's chest with a wet gasp. The tiger glared at him as it comforted his wife. Civilians.
The tiger started speaking again, uncomfortable with comforting his wife. "Lars won, Wicker said. He got out of the hunting area before any of them had been able to bring him down. That's when the boy ran full tilt into the Lutins."
Josie looked up, her white canine eyes thick with tears. "Wicker said he scratched up Lars, drew blood. He thinks the scent of blood might have drawn them to Lars. He thinks it's his fault."
It could be. It probably was. Craig only shrugged.
"They found Lars surrounded by them. He was in some kind of circle they had drawn, battling a knife wielding Lutin child. Their idea of sport, I suppose. Wicker just ripped right into them but Lars was too tired to properly defend himself."
Craig nodded and spit on the ground. "As soon as Wicker gets back here with those clothes, I want to move back to the Keep as quickly as possible. If we can't find that tail, we can assume a Lutin escaped with it, and as much I like killing the damn goblin things, our job right now is to get the body back to the Keep in one piece. Can't do that if we have to fight off scores of Lutins out for revenge."
Wicked stopped when he came to the rock where they had put their clothes and scooped up Lar's clothes, careful not to get his blood on them, just as a regretful friend would be careful about such things.
Ba'al must be very proud of him, he thought. He had not only managed to kill his prey and eat of its flesh, but he had shamed it almost every way the herbivore could be shamed. There was one more thing he could have done, but it would have diminished him in his eyes of the others, and that would have not done at all. Ba'al understood pragmatism.
He'd only stop to wash his paws, arms and muzzle at the nearby stream and then, in a last minute inspiration, took out his prey's tail and forced his eyes wide open. He poked himself in the eyes several times until they felt scratchy and red, and he could feel the tears rolling down his eyes.
Wicker hid the tail under the rock, knowing he'd be back for it. He had to go through the motions now and pretend to be upset and miserable that a stupid gazelle was dead. But that was ok.
If that was the price to be paid, he could be a good sport about it.