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This Game We Play

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Sometimes the world feels like a game. Like all of humanity is meant for cheap entertainment and its countless shortcomings are just child’s play. Every single desperate action and vapid love confession is merely a part of an elaborate ruse.

One that won’t end until the final move or the players simply become bored.

However, not everyone agreed with such an unchanging line of thought and one that was decidedly depressing. Nor was everyone part of this so-called ‘humanity.’

Because for each game there are the pieces that no one gives a second thought to, and might as well not exist. But unlike in a play with understudies, in this game there are those whose real existence is known only to them selves and those like them.

And in that hidden unknown was where the fun began.

Ka-thud!

Two men crumpled as their heads were bashed together, joining others who already lay unconscious and bleeding on the ground. A couple appeared to have ceased breathing.

Meanwhile, the cause of their states brushed off his hands after he let go of the last two. If the darkness of night hadn’t masked his features, they would’ve been contorted in a mask of distaste.

He shrugged his shoulders back and bent his neck until he heard a satisfying crack. With a shadowed smirk, he continued on his way, leaving the heap of the defeated in his wake.

The one-sided fight had been invigorating if nothing else.

For Tay, walking among the dangers of backwards alleys and unpredictable strangers was no different from usual. Only… the faces just now hadn’t been strange.

In fact, Tay had had the indisputable pleasure of having them chase him all the way to this town and its own share of twisted streets. He had noticed them tailing him for the past four days and finally one of them slipped up.

They got a little too close to their quarry, and once the unfortunate fellow was in Tay’s reach he grabbed his chance and the man’s comrades turned it into fuel for an impromptu ambush. Which, obviously didn’t end too well on their end.

Even assassins made mistakes.

Although, Tay wasn’t sure what to call them exactly, because servants of the Council went by many names; dogs, mercenaries, spies, soldiers, code-crackers and an odd assortment of rather nasty slang. Basically, they were a jack-of-all-trades sort, and they were everywhere. And Tay was well aware that the men he’d just left in an alley could’ve easily been other people altogether.

When someone’s head went to market there was usually more than one potential buyer.

Tay shook his head and sighed as he reached a light up ahead. Of course, his head had ended up being a lot more popular than most and his kind were more tenacious as well.

He stared ahead at the building he’d paused at and his eyebrow lifted. It was impressive, with spiraling roof attachments, flashing neon lights and a giant, blinking red sign that proclaimed that everything else wasn’t just an exterior decorator gone wild- this was indeed a casino.

Damn, there was even a bar.

Tay decided right then that he could use a drink and as he walked through the open doors, he ignored the pallid grays of many of the buildings around the casino, the parts of the casino sign that no longer glowed red, and the general disrepair of everything.

Outside, it started to rain.


Inside, it was like any other casino. The bright lights reflecting off tilted crystal chandeliers burned Tay’s eyes, the clink of glasses, chatter of guests and cacophony of chips and cards being shuffled made him wince and the stench of cigarette smoke, mildew and unwashed bodies wrinkled his nose.
For a while now, he had been living in a world of grays and blacks, which cloaked sound in a suffocating blanket and only allowed for the smell of freshly spilled blood.
Tay welcomed the change.
He strode towards the bar, standing straight, but without hurry. His throat cried out in thirst, yet his eyes followed the actions of the gamblers and drinkers warily. Even among humans and longing for a drink, Tay could not let down his guard.
Nothing caught his eye in particular and he reached the bar without incident. But, when the bartender finally bustled his way, Tay ordered their hardest stuff without looking and waved him away.
He would take back his earlier observation. Even here, in a ramshackle casino in the slums of a nondescript town, there was a sight to behold.
Sitting at the edge of his bar stool, Tay situated himself so he could view the game tables in all their inflated glory. But they held nothing of interest. No. The interesting part was a poker table that had attracted quite a crowd.
Tay counted at least a dozen men and a few painted and clingy women among the onlookers. But what type of poker were they watching so intently? He craned his neck until he saw through the throng of bodies as they shifted to reveal a boy sitting down with several other men and playing poker.
The sight was surprising enough that Tay did not notice when the bartender slammed his drink on the counter with a grumble.
The boy couldn’t have been older than fifteen. He was clad in worn traveling clothes and his face was smudged and pale. But the part of his appearance that was most unusual was his gray eyes and, even more so, his spiky and disheveled silver hair. As Tay stared as unobtrusively as he could, he had to wonder if it was dyed.

While the game progressed however, Tay’s fascination switched to the boy’s playing and quickly transformed to awe. And, as he slowly sipped his drink, it became apparent that he knew precisely what he was doing.

“Full house!” he crowed and slid his hand onto the table. A wide grin spread across his face, accentuating the lean, hungry look he had about him. Tay wasn’t sure he liked it.

Though, he did smirk a little as the other players, grown men and women at that, craned forward with cynical expressions, which swiftly became filled with dismay. One man finished ogling the cards and threw down his own hand.
“Impossible! You couldn’t have gotten those cards!” he growled through a tangled black beard. “He must be cheating!”
Those words got the crowd to murmuring.
“He is just a boy…”
“And he’s already won three rounds!”
“How can he be so good?”
Another player injected his own: “I dealt the cards myself, but I don’t see how he could have done it…”
Despite the suspicion of his opponents and the gossip of the spectators, the silver-haired boy merely raked in his winnings to an already rather large pile at his right, grinning like the devil.
Tay couldn’t resist a chuckle. This boy was playing them like fools and he knew it, but the malice brimming around him didn’t seem to faze him in the least. It brought a laugh to his lips at the entertaining spectacle when it was cut short with a new development over yonder.
The bearded man who had accused the boy of cheating had grabbed his hand, preventing him from collecting the chips. And, as Tay watched, he leaned, practically nose-to-nose with the boy, and ground out, “You may have been lucky so far, boy, but let’s see how you fare in the next round.”
He sat back, arms crossed over his chest and a satisfied smirk on his lips. Did he expect the boy to be intimidated and admit to cheating? If so… Tay and the others couldn’t tear their eyes away. Tay hadn’t seen any sign of the silver-haired boy cheating, but he gambled like a pro, so there was no way of telling.
Instead of fessing up like expected, however, the boy’s eyes lit up with a strange fire and he grabbed a stack of cards and began to shuffle them.
“You want to play another round?” he questioned with wide eyes that would have been innocent if not for their strange color and stranger light. Tay could feel the eagerness coming off him in waves even if all the humans perceived was an exuberant, if young, poker player.
Though obviously taken aback, the bearded man nodded.
The boy smiled. “Sure thing!”
Then a new, and much more dangerous, game begun.

Only ten minutes into the round Tay began to notice the crowd swell with new faces. From his barstool perch, he watched, intrigued, as men in long trench coats, soaked from the rain and with gaunt appearances slipped within the ranks of the casino- goers. No one else appeared to see them, since all eyes were on the silver-haired boy’s performance.
Even Tay didn’t think too much of the strange men… until one of them sidled up to the side of the bearded man and whispered something in his ear. Tay strained to hear what was said and might have picked out the words if not for a sudden crow of triumph.
The bearded man slammed his hand on the table with a giant smirk, and the other man melted back into the crowd as if he’d never been there.
“Let’s see how you like this, boy! Straight flush!” his expression radiated so much confidence in his victory that, everyone, including Tay, merely waited for the boy to accept defeat.
Tay felt a twinge of regret. He would’ve enjoyed seeing this odd-looking kid shove this stupid human’s words back up his a-- where they belonged.
Meanwhile, the boy let out a long sigh and leaned back in his chair, clasping his cards in one hand.
“Man… You got me there…”
Everyone leaned forward in anticipation, and Beard Guy’s grin grew to Cheshire cat standards.
The boy looked out at the people watching, an assortment of the rich, desperate and addicted, from underneath lidded eyes. Finally he shook his head and said, “It’s been a while since someone made me resort to this, but…”
“Royal straight flush, “ he lowered his voice to practically a whisper when he spoke the final words, but Tay heard it loud and clear.
He couldn’t believe it. This cocky son of the b****… he couldn’t stop himself from grinning.
The others couldn’t seem to comprehend this turn of events any better and the bearded man practically bit off his own tongue just to splutter, “W-what?! What are you talking about boy!?”
Shrugging nonchalantly, the boy flicked his wrist and allowed his cards to flutter down onto the table, “Royal straight flush… haven’t you heard of it?”
Later on, Tay wasn’t sure what set off the spark that caused everything to dissolve into chaos. It could’ve been any number of things, yet the silver-haired kid’s amused smile was right up there.
In moments, the bearded man had let out an inarticulate cry of rage and leapt to his feet, kicking the chair out from under him. And, as if given a signal, the strange men that had intermingled with the crowd burst forth.
Tay found it hard to contain his surprise. His suspicion had grown after the exchange between the man playing poker and the man in the trench coat. It was likely that these men were like him- not human. Yet, he had never thought they would stage an attack amidst so many humans.
He tossed back the last of his drink and set it down with a thud. No… there was definitely something wrong here.
As Tay worked furiously through the scattered puzzle pieces that’s when he saw it.
The unmistakable shimmer and blur as the silver-haired boy’s shape changed. It was just for a second, but Tay didn’t even need to glimpse fur in the place of skin to make the connection. He was one of them; not human, a shape shifter.
And as soon as Tay realized this he also knew why the boy had switched back so quickly. These gaunt men and their poker buddy they obviously worked with had planned this well. Among all these humans, the kid couldn’t shift and fight, or even escape- not without being seen for what he truly was. He was trapped.
But not for long if Tay could help it.
He was on his feet and striding to the scene of the quickly escalating fray before he had even decided.
Slipping into the throng of bodies, he caught sight of one of the trench coat men, grabbed his collar and drew back his fist to let it fly.
Damn, what people will do for money, he thought as he heard the satisfying crunch of the man’s nose breaking and giving way beneath his punch. In some ways, we really aren’t that different from humans…
Tay watched the man fall back with a shriek with a face devoid of any emotion, yet as soon as he was gone another took his place. He could see where this was going.
The men were attacking indiscriminately now, throwing kicks and punches whenever someone got in their way. Tay could see their target was the boy- specifically his winnings- and the man he’d humiliated so thoroughly was whaling on him. Or, at least, trying to. Beard Guy was itching to lay his hands on the silver-haired kid and his hands twitched as if to grasp his neck, but his furious attacks never seemed to land.
Another man dropped to the ground bleeding before Tay, and he glanced at the boy with grudging admiration. He knew how to dodge and defend well… but how far would that go? Tay found his question answered all too soon.
When the bearded man’s punch missed once again by a mere inch, the boy ducked and ended up behind him. Yet, as he straightened out of a crouch and turned to face his opponent, another man appeared and dealt a crippling blow to the stomach. The boy doubled over and, seeing his chance, the bearded man strode up and Tay glimpsed the flicker of cold steel.
His blood went cold and, bowling over the few remaining men, and an unfortunate bejeweled woman, Tay raced to reach the trio before it was too late.
The trench coat clad man held the boy’s arms behind his back as his accomplice drew nearer. The knife caught the light dancing off the tilted chandelier right before it descended, then with a cruel chuckle, the man plunged it down- aiming right for the kid’s heart.
Clang!
Seeing death arcing towards him, the boy had shut his eyes, but, when he didn’t feel the expected pain he looked up to see another blade locked with the knife. It had halted its descent centimeters from flesh.
Tay only waited to see the confusion on the man’s face transform into horrified realization as the tables were turned on him. Smiling grimly, he pushed back the knife with his own dagger and crouched, his muscles bunched before he lunged forward.
Blood spurted from Beard Guy’s jugular and his neck was painted red, droplets spraying onto Tay’s own face. He turned from the body and he must’ve looked intimidating enough because the gaunt man turned tail and ran- without the money.
He glanced at the inside of the casino and beheld a mass of overturned card tables and broken glass courtesy of the skirmish and the fleeing humans. Crimson stained parts of the carpet, but it was already a reddish orange so Tay didn’t feel too bad about that. Satisfied there was no one left besides the boy and himself, he slid his weapon back into its sheath hidden in his jacket.
Not even the moody bartender and dealers remained, and that was the way he liked it. He would be long gone by the time the police came to investigate.
Picking his way through the shards of glass, he came to one of the few standing tables where the boy sat, head bowed, absently thumbing a deck of cards that looked different from the other sets Tay had seen, and blatantly ignoring the money he’d won earlier.
Inwardly, Tay bemoaned his fate as he settled into a chair across from him. How was he supposed to deal with this kid now?
“Yo.”
The kid didn’t say anything, didn’t even bother to look up in fact. Tay gritted his teeth and tried again.
“You know, usually when someone saves your a-- you have the decency to thank them.”
Tay couldn’t keep the severe edge his voice had gained over the years away and was becoming too irritated to even try. When silence greeted him again, he got ready to ditch the joint.
He was rising to his feet, when a small, surprisingly strong voice spoke.
“Thanks… for helping me…” the kid had raised his head, but avoided Tay’s gaze and looked pointedly away. He hesitated, seemed to mull over what to say and then tried again. “I… I’m not using to people having the decency to do anything like… that.”
Smirking a little at the boy’s sudden shyness, Tay sat back down. “No problem. I don’t mind helping out my own.”
Tay watched expectantly for a reaction, and when the boy stiffened he knew he had one. Slowly, he turned his head and looked straight at Tay with wide, childish eyes, startlingly gray up close.
“You… you don’t mean…?” he started to ask, and then lowered his voice to a wondering whisper. “You’re a shape shifter?”
Tay nodded, his black hair tied back in a slick ponytail bobbing slightly.
The boy’s face brightened for an instant, before he frowned. “Wait. But, how did you know I was one? I’ve been hiding among humans for ages and no one’s ever guessed…?”
“You shifted, or tried to,” Tay pointed out.
“Oh yeah…” he scratched his head, looking embarrassed.
Taking pity, Tay remarked, “We’ve all done it before. Don’t worry.”
He nodded mutely and for several minutes they were content to sit in silence.
Then, the silver-haired boy abruptly glanced up and blurted,” I’m Arel, by the way.”
The other boy blinked away his surprise.
“Tay.”
At these introductions, the boy named Arel broke out into his first genuine smile since Tay witnessed his notorious poker skills.
So, the next question was inevitable, “How’d you do it?”
Arel cocked his head curiously, “Do what?”
“You know…” Tay gestured at the deck of cards the boy was still holding.
He glanced down and understanding passed over his face.
“Oh… Practice I guess,” he shrugged nonchalantly.
But Tay knew better, and he leaned forward with a feral grin on his face, “I can read it on your face. You were cheating weren’t you?”
“If you can read it on my face, why are you still asking?” Arel shot back challengingly.
His eyes flashed with a defiance that was so childlike that Tay threw back his head and laughed. Now, here was someone who had no respect for authority. It was a good thing he didn’t plan on being such a figure.
Crossing his arms, Arel sat back and glared, “You shouldn’t be laughing.”
Once again, Tay couldn’t take him seriously and only managed to quell the rising chuckles by phrasing a new sentence.
“You’re good. Extremely good. I would be surprised you’d managed to live on your own with humans, but it’s obvious you know how to work the streets- and people’s heavy pockets.”
Arel seemed to reel from the unanticipated praise for several heartbeats, but it didn’t suit his nature.
He grinned and shuffled his deck of cards. “Then, how about we play a game?”
“If you promise not to cheat.”
“And if you promise not to kill me.”
“Deal, “ they agreed.
Once more, the cards were dealt.



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