Alex Reynard

The Library

Alex Reynard's Online Books


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One possibly Toby hadn't considered was that he might not dream at all. Or rather, that his dream and his reality would be exactly the same. All night long, he simply saw a sleeping mouse, sitting up in bed and slightly snoring. It wasn't like he was present enough to try to help himself lie down or put the pamphlets on the dresser. He was merely aware. The heavy warmth and clean smell of his blankets, the paper in his paw, the room's air on his ears. There was no sense of time passing. Hours melted into one another and Toby only experienced a floating, comfortable 'now'-ness.

He was content. He felt at home. This was familiar, normal. Dozing away in a cozy bed. He would have been perfectly fine with staying here all-


Toby woke up screaming and flung pamphlets everywhere.

As Junella had predicted someone would, George was so startled by the tidal wave of noise that he kicked at his sheets, fell straight up, pinged off Toby's dresser and landed in Zinc's pants.

Piffle was alarmed as well, but being a flyer, managed to keep herself on the ceiling. Junella, an old pro, merely smacked her lips as she hauled herself vertical.

Zinc yawned so wide it looked like his upper jaw was going to fold back and fall off.

Toby had his hand over his heart, trying to convince it not to go into cardiac arrest. What Was That Noise!? It was like a thousand cannons being shot off! He looked out the window, expecting sunshine, but it was somehow still night. He could see the moon and the stars and...

He groaned. Obviously. The Coryzan walls clanged when they closed, and whanged when they opened up again in the morning. He bet almost everyone in town all woke up at exactly the same time every day. He wondered how many years you'd have to spend here before sleeping through it was possible.

Toby very much wished he could ask the others to just go about their business and let him sleep another twelve or thirteen hours. His eyes were gummy and blurry. The shock of being blasted awake had already worn off, but he couldn't imagine anything feeling better than returning to the warm cocoon of his blankets.

The others were the opposite. Zinc reassembled himself in less time than seemed possible and darted to the bathroom for a refreshing piss. Junella stood up to stretch, then started brushing bedfuzz from her grooves (resulting in such amusing phrases as, "you don't flowerpot", "my pistol's drunk again", and "I can't stop eating your tail".) Piffle was buzzing around the center of the room, greatly entertained by how the gravity would change with each parabola she made.

Junella got a firm grip on her bedpost and vaulted off, through the center of Piffle's flightpath, landing perfectly on the carpet above her. She advised Toby and Piffle to hurry up, since the breakfast buffet would be open in a few minutes and the best chunks of imaginite would go quickly, leaving just pebbles for stragglers. Piffle somehow managed to change back into her sailor suit in mid-flight. She was standing by Junella with Doll under her arm in seconds.

Toby was definitely more sleepy than hungry. He asked Junella if they could go on ahead, save him a plate, and let him rest another fifteen minutes. He saw the skunk readying for a snarl, but then it turned into an evil smirk. "Fifteen minutes?" she asked. "You sure?" He didn't like the way she was asking, but the bed was simply too seductive.

On the wall was a metal speaker with two buttons below it. Junella walked over, whispered into it a bit, then smiled with great schadenfreude.

Soon the room was peacefully empty again. The sounds of the city coming awake outside were like a lullaby to Toby, and he was soon blissfully back in slumberland.

Fifteen minutes passed.

Toby did not get a good look at the thing that materialized at the foot of his bed, but he knew it had a lot of eyes and drool and it was shrieking like thirty-five cats getting microwaved. He was up and down the hall in two seconds.

He was very glad to be in a land where no one minded him wearing just pajamas. He was also very glad the pants were self-cleaning...


Breakfast was good. The others hadn't teased him too much about the alarm clock, and they had indeed saved a plate of imaginite for him. Toby knew he could have transformed it into any food on Earth or beyond, but his brain was still a little fuzzy for adventurous thinking. He made himself a plateful of scrambled eggs, toast, and white grape juice. By contrast, Piffle made herself a miniature merry-go-round where the horsies were all made of meats, cheeses or fruits. (George investigated and Piffle nearly swallowed him by accident.)

Over the meal, plans for the day were made. Junella decreed that they should split up to run some errands first, then meet back at the hotel for some sightseeing and general wandering about. The skunk said she knew damn well Zinc wanted to drop in on Dorster again, so he should take Toby with him and get the mouse something better for defensive combat than a rusty hammer. Zinc lit up like a pinball table at this suggestion. Junella also said that she and Piffle would be taking Doll to the town hospital. As she explained to Toby, in a place where death is impermanent, hospitals have rather a different function. Mostly, they kill their patients. If someone came in with a grievous injury or some excruciating disease, the doctors would perform a painless coup de grace and the patient would reform in a new body, happy and healthy again. There were other tasks hospitals attended to though, and one of the main ones was reversing transformations. If Doll couldn't get back to her real self on her own, there were procedures designed to forcibly revert her. When Piffle heard about this, she lit up like a pinball table. The ladies decided to resize George and ride him, since their destination was all the way across town. The lads' however, was just down the street.

So now Toby found himself walking along Bustamante Avenue with Zinc at his side, helpfully pointing out all the interesting businesses along the way. Which ones had real good junk and which ones would stick you with overpriced crapola.

The canine had avoided filling Toby in on the exact specifics of their destination until just the right moment.

"Allright, Toby. You curious yet where we're headed?"

"Junella said it was something about weapons."

He put his arm around the mouse. "Ah! But of what particular kind are we concernin' ourselves with today, my fine pajama-clad chum? In a place as safety-conscious as Coryza, you can buy pointy kaka to kill people with at the grocery store. But that's cheap stuff. Rube stuff. If you want something you can rest easy bettin' your life on, there's three main places to go. If you want guns, you go to Red Velvet. If you want blades, that's Oliver St. Street's department. But if you want something a little more interesting..."

Zinc had timed his speech perfectly, so that when he flourished his wrenchhand to direct Toby's attention, it was drawn to a hanging sign which read simply, "DORSTER'S"

It was a white, square building. Or rather, it was a white, square section of one of Corzya's many block-sized buildings. There were bars on the windows. Toby couldn't see anything through the greasy glass. The place actually looked dingy and plain compared to most of the other baroque storefronts.

Zinc's eyes were swirling with the manic energy of a kid about to be cut loose in a candy store. "I can't even tell you how much I love this place. Honestly, it's like goin' to a whorehouse for me. We are gonna load you up with some serious armament, m'boy." With that, the canine pushed his way into the shop.

Toby blinked. The lights came on as soon as the bells above the door tinkled, revealing walls absolutely encrusted with wares.

Toby had watched a lot of action movies, and seen some documentaries on weaponry throughout the ages, but he only had the faintest idea what a third of this stuff was. Practically everything that anyone had ever used to send someone else to Hades was displayed here. Toby saw spears, axes, warhammers, halberds, chakrams, throwing knives, shurikens, morningstars, tridents, naginatas, urumis and more. There was a pair of gauntlets with horseshoes welded to the front like brass knuckles. A glaive ripsaw. A dragon beard hook. A battle aspergillum. A pair of blade boots. A war razor. A flying guillotine. There were other unguessable things that didn't seem physically possible. This was a collection of weaponry that spanned cultures, centuries, and worlds. The only common traits amongst the items was that they were all constructed of metal and wood (mostly), and there was nothing here that looked nonlethal. This place was a museum of murder. Toby could practically hear the dinky little hammer in his waistband whimpering.

Zinc tapped his wrenchtips together in glee, letting his gaze caress all the wonderful spiky things around him. "If I had all the will in the world, Toby," he breathed. "I'd come in here and buy these walls bare."

Toby noticed there was no one around. There were tables and glass display cases and a cash register, but no shopkeep. "Is it even open?"

"Sure. The door was unlocked, right? Dorster's probly fartin' around in the back." He cupped his wrenchhands to his mouth and shouted, "Hey!! A little service here!?"

At the back of the store was a doorway covered by curtains. Toby heard the squeak of a chair being pushed out, then the rustles of someone large moving through a narrow hallway.

Out from the doorway came a booming voice nearly as loud as Coryza's walls closing. "YOU FILTHY STREET PUNK!! I THOUGHT I TOLD YOU IF YOU EVER SET FOOT IN THIS STORE AGAIN, I'D GIVE YOU FANTASTIC DEALS!!!"

Toby was so terrified for a moment he would've turned white if he wasn't already. But that last part befuddled him.

From behind the curtain came a black-feathered bird, with another one on his shoulder. The nonev crow fluttered away to a nearby perch while the anthro approached his two customers. His width was nearly his height. He was stocky as a tank made of beef. He was wearing a leather apron, a kilt, and a bandana around his head; nothing else. Every inch of his body bore a scar or a burn. He looked like he'd been rolled back and forth through an iron forge a few times.

"HEYYY!!" Zinc and Dorster both shouted, meeting in the middle of the shop to embrace one another. They gave each other manly back-pats. "Come to steal more of my best stuff, you peaky bugger?"

Zinc stepped back to introduce Toby. "Nope. Brought you a new customer, you ungrateful blimp fulla birdshit."

The corvid cawed loud with laughter, then noticed the scrawny mouse's clear bewilderment at their colorful banter. "Ah. Didn't see him there. Might've put on my professional demeanor otherwise."

Zinc jostled Toby. "Nah. We're all palsy-walsy here, right?"

Toby had seen this type of male insult-affection before but had never personally participated in it. He put his hand out for a shake. "I'm Toby. Pleased to meet you. You, uh, large asshole."

Dorster laughed so hard he could barely see enough to take Toby's hand. "Now that's just fuckin' adorable!"

A handshake from someone with wings felt rather interesting, Toby thought.

"Client, I'm guessin'?" Dorster asked.

Zinc nodded. "He's wanting to get home. We're gonna try to get him all the way up the mountain to see Aldridge."

Toby had not thought someone without lips could whistle. "Jesus! What's he payin' you?"

"I'mma hafta show you sometime. There's no way in blazes you'll believe me otherwise."

Dorster looked Toby up and down appraisingly. Normally he would have taken one glance at this obvious tenderfoot walking around in his jammies and politely suggested this wasn't the place for the squirt. But Zinc seemed to like him, and that was worth something. And if the mouse could somehow pay to get Z&J to attempt the most dangerous journey in all the land, then maybe there was more to him than his appearance belied.

From the corner, the perched bird squawked.

"Nice raven," Toby said.

Dorster's eyes seemed to glow red. "You racist! He's a crow; I'M a raven!!"

Toby practically evaporated into his pajamas. "I didn't mean anything!"

The bird's belly jiggled as he burst again into laughter. "Sorry! Sorry! I just can't resist fuckin' with people!" He gave Toby a swat. "Fact is, I can't even tell corvids apart myself. You could be a jackdaw, call yourself my long-lost cousin, and I'd take you out for a steak."

"Oh. Okay then."

Dorster pointed a wingfinger to his pet. "His name's Nipple."

Toby got the feeling Dorster wanted him to ask why. "Why's that?"

"'Cause he keeps tryin' to bite 'em off every damn customer who comes in here!" he yelled at the bird. "You pervert! Don't I feed you enough!?"

Nipple skrawked back.

"Keep your shirt on, kid," Dorster warned Toby. Then he clapped his winghands together in a 'let's get down to business' way. "Allright gentlemen. What deadly needs can I satisfy for you this fine morning?"

Zinc said, "Junebug thinks Toby needs a better weapon than what's he's got if we're gonna be tacklin' the wild wilderness."

Toby sheepishly held up his hammer. "I was alone, I saw it lying there, I picked it up. I hit some rats with it."

Dorster plucked it from the mouse's hand and held it to the light. He was just about to giggle at it, then stopped himself. He brought it to his beak and nibbled the metal. "You know, either your friend's got good luck or a good eye," he said to Zinc. To Toby he asked, "Where exactly'd you find this?"

Toby rustled around in his memory for the name. His previous life was fading but events in Phobiopolis still seemed sharp. "Trapforest Path, I think it's called?"

Dorster nodded as if that made perfect sense. He tapped the hammer on the counter. "This isn't imaginite we've got here. This is nightmare-borne. Meaning, no one dreamed this thing up. This is something Phobiopolis self-created from its own essence."

Zinc added, "Translation: a hell of a lot stronger than what you can make with imaginite. Nice find!"

Dorster licked his beak. "If you wanted to sell me this, I'd knock a pretty good discount off of whatever you buy today. I can't get my hands on enough of this stuff. It's not like you can just go mine for it. And it's the whole head and handle too! Maybe two full pounds of real, actual steel."

As Toby watched the hammer being turned this way and that in the shopkeeper's wings, a sudden strange emotion came over him. The idea of his hammer being melted down and turned into something else gave his heart a pang of sadness. In that moment, Toby felt a kinship with it. Lost, abandoned to the elements, found by chance by someone who could maybe restore it.

"Is there... any way you could make it better?" he shyly asked.

Zinc waved his arms around. "Are you buggin'? Hundreds of bitchin' weapons you could choose from here! And you wanna keep something that coulda come out of my grandpa's toolbox!?"

Dorster held up a wing. "Cool it, Zinc. If he wants to, he wants to. Certain weapons just feel right to their owners, I understand that." He handed the hammer back to Toby. "And while I gotta admit I'm disappointed at missing out on the material, it's not a bad choice you're making. Like I said, it's the strongest metal you'll find anywhere, and the handle's not wooden, so no worries about it snapping. It is a small striking area though. Not much use against anything bigger than me. But a same-size opponent? Yeah, this thing'll break bone. Get in a good headshot and you'll leave a helluva sting."

Toby ran his finger along the rusty edge and smiled.

"What I can do for it is, I can polish that rust gone in a snap. I should also be able to scrape the remains of that grip off; it's definitely useless. I can make a new one that'll contour perfectly to your hand. No offense, but you look you need all the help you can get swingin' it."

"You're not wrong," Toby admitted. He handed the hammer back over.

"Allright then. I'll get started on this and I'll holler you over when I need your help makin' the grip. 'Till then, let Zinc lead you around the shop. You need more than just this: yes I'm trying to get paid, but no I'm not lying. Even if you've got two of the best bodyguards you could hope for, it's always a good idea to be more prepared than you think you need to be."

Zinc sparkled a bit at the compliment. "Even if we can't settle on anything for him, you know I can't leave here without filling your willwell."

The canine and corvid nodded to one another, and soon the shop was filled with grinding sounds as Dorster went to work polishing the hammer. Zinc took Toby on a tour of Dorster's wonderful world of bashing, gutting, and impalement. Toby got the feeling Zinc was mostly showing off things he hoped to buy someday.

It was decided that, due to Toby's thin frame and lack of fighting experience, he probably wouldn't do well with anything that required brute strength to wield. Toby tried just holding a mace and could barely bend his elbow with it. So that crossed off clubs, flails and axes. Zinc asked how Toby's aim was. Using a small mechanical crossbow and the shop's dartboard, they soon realized archery was not for Toby either. (Zinc skootched a spiked frying pan over to cover the hole in the wall, hoping Dorster wouldn't notice.) Toby pointed out that, back on Earth, he'd gotten pretty good at tossing things into his wastebasket from his bed. So Zinc suggested he try out some small throwing weapons. The mouse was actually able to hit the bullseye with a shuriken on his first try. Zinc congratulated him with a backslap that nearly sent him facefirst into a display case.

Zinc picked out a handful of various little pointy things and cautioned that they weren't really meant to deal damage unless you had a damn good line of sight at a fleshy target. Their main purpose was distraction. Toby said he was perfectly fine with providing support while Junella and Zinc handled the direct action. Zinc agreed that was a wise decision. He also heavily suggested that Toby purchase an enchanted pouch which his throwing weapons could be 'taught' to return to. "It's a pain in the ass not havin' one. Either you wait till after the battle and go around picking 'em up, or you buy new ones whenever you're in town."

Lastly, Zinc held up a pair of silvery oval objects. Bracers, he said. He didn't expect Toby to be able to walk in a full suit of armor or carry a heavy shield, but these would at least give him something to block with in a fight. He strapped them to the mouse's forearms. They were so cold they made Toby shiver, but were surprisingly light for their size. To demonstrate their effectiveness, Zinc nonchalantly pulled a morningstar down from the wall and swung it directly at Toby's head. Toby instinctively held up his arms. There was a 'whunk', Toby scooted back a few steps from the impact, but the heavy spiked club hadn't left so much as a scratch on the bracers. "Now all you need to worry about is your arms breaking," Zinc said blithely.

Dorster kept an eye on the pair, chuckling at Zinc's attempts at tutoring, and noticing when the pair began to run out of things to look at. "Boys! Come on over!" he hollered.

Toby stumbled when he tried to obey. With the bracers on, his arms felt like two grandfather clock pendulums. The metal was light, but not feather-light. Toby thought he'd get good exercise just wearing them.

He saw his hammer on Dorster's workbench and gasped. It looked brand new! The grody rubber grip was gone and the whole thing gleamed. It looked like it'd just been born at the factory.

Dorster cocked his head. "Ya like it?"

"It's... beautiful, actually."

Dorster was amused seeing someone so impressed by what was for him mere child's play. "It was easy, really. You do realize I made everything here, right? Well, I mean, I traded for a few things here and there. But eighty percent's mine. Even the tables!"

Toby nodded. "I figured. And it's all amazing craftsmanship. Still, it's cool seeing the change in this. I brought in this rusty, dirty thing, and you totally transformed it! I'll bet I'd be sitting there dumbstruck if I could watch you make anything really complicated."

Dorster reached out and patted the kid's head. "You give credit where it's due. I like that. I get people come in here, act like weapons just come outta the ground somewhere."

"Mine did," Toby blurted.

Dorster laughed. "Ha! We'll make a smartass outta you yet! Anyway, come on back here with me and stick your fightin' hand in this shit." He held out a tub of what looked like mayonnaise.

Toby flinched and stuck his paw in. It felt like mayonnaise too. "Is this to make a mold of my hand with?"

"Nope. This is to keep your hand from turning into burnt sludge when you grab the molten tonguerubber," Dorster said cheerfully.

Toby did not look happy about that.

Zinc had been fiddling with an iron boomerang that had some kind of gear mechanism coming out of it, but looked over his shoulder to reassure Toby. "There's a certain type of nightmare we call a licking cave, 'cuz it's basically all mouth and teeth. If you can kill one of those long enough to cut its tongue off, you can boil it down and make all sortsa nifty junk out of it."

"Perfect for custom handles," Dorster explained as he put on heavy gloves. There was a machine in the corner that looked like a cross between a stove and a pipe organ. Dorster retrieved a canister from it that hissed when it touched air. "You gotta keep it hot!" he yelled. "If it cools down for even a moment, it'll stick like that permanently! That's why I'm gonna have Zinc dip your hammer in, and then when I tell you to, you grab it like you're rubbin' one out, got me?"

Toby, hand dripping with gook, tried to convince himself that these people knew what they were doing. "Is it gonna hurt?"

"Yeah, a whole bunch," Dorster told him straight. "But it'll only be for a second if you don't fuck it up. You ready?"

Toby's tail was twitching. He took off his bracers and set them on the bench. "No, but I'll do what you tell me anyway."

"That's the spirit!" The raven popped the lid of the canister and noxious-smelling smoke poured out. It smelled like burning fat and asphalt. "Zinc! Dip the hammer!"

It took the mutt a few tries to pinch the hammer head up off the flat desk, but he eventually succeeded. Slow and steady, he lowered it into the tonguerubber.

Dorster made sure he had the mouse's attention. "Toby, right? I'm gonna start counting. On three, Zinc's gonna lift up the hammer, you're gonna look at where it's pointing and make damn sure that's how you wanna grip it from now on. Then squeeze that handle like your momma's tit. Afterwards you'll thank me, guaranteed. One!"

Toby took in a deep breath, readying himself for agony. He hoped he wouldn't sweat all the mayo off his palm.


He made careful note of which direction the striking surface was being held, not wanting to be forever holding his weapon backwards or sideways.


Toby acted without thinking as soon as he saw Zinc move. His hand sunk into the tonguerubber. Instantly, his whole arm up to his shoulder lit up with red hot pain. He nearly bit a hole in his cheek to keep from screaming.

"That's enough! Let go, let go!"

Toby literally did not need to be told twice. He jerked his hand away and plunged it back into the mayo tub, then exhaled in relief.

Zinc had been through way worse many times, but he could still recognize that his client had handled that better than expected. "Way to go! Just like clockwork. How was the pain?"

Toby took another deep breath. "Actually... not that bad. At least it was only for a second. I get nerve aches sometimes that're like that for hours."

Zinc winced in sympathy.

"Take a look. It's cooled already," Dorster said.

The black tonguerubber grip looked perfect, needing only a bit of sanding on the bottom. Toby took his hand out of the mayo, wiped it off and dared to touch it. Still warm, but not dangerous. It had a kind of pebbly texture. 'Like taste buds.' Ew.

When Zinc let go and Toby took hold of the hammer, he was genuinely impressed. It felt like his hand was sitting in a comfortable armchair. The rubber had a bit of a spongy give to it. It felt pleasant to hold, and seemed to be gripping him right back. Like the hammer was giving him a handshake. "Wow. Thank you," he told Dorster.

"Guaranteed," the raven said with a wink. He walked around the workbench towards a counter piled high with boxes of odds and ends. "Now, that hammer's fine on its own right now, but I'm gonna make you two offers that'll make it even better. Take one or both, your choice. The first is, I can affix a diamond tip to the head, right in the center. Doing that will concentrate the force of your swing into a single point. It'll be a devastating attack. You'll fuck skulls right open like cracking an egg."

Toby grimaced. "I'm not too comfortable with that. If I have to bonk somebody, I'd rather not get their brains all over me."

Zinc grinned. "Hey! 'Bonky'! That's its new name!"

Toby ignored him.

"I figured you wouldn't be too much into bloodshed," Dorster said with an understanding pat on Toby's shoulder. "My second offer is a sheath for it. Best one money can buy."

"That sounds much better," Toby said. "Keeping it in my waistband means I have to keep hoisting my pants up." Plus, it seemed somehow more official for a personal weapon to have its own holster.

"Allright then. Lemme find it..." Dorster shoved some boxes around, muttering under his breath, calling out like an owner to his dog. Eventually he slapped his forehead and crossed the shop to where the cash register was. "Found 'em!" He plopped a small cardboard box onto the glass and his two customers came over for a peek.

They did not look like sheaths. Sheaths were long, tubelike things made out of wood or leather. These were... weird. They were grape-sized purple pebbles with rings of energy zipping around them. Like the common depiction of an atom encircled by orbiting electrons. Dorster held one up and it made a fizzy little whine.

Toby narrowed his eyes. "How do I fit my hammer in that?"

"Ha! You don't! It goes in you!"

Toby looked to Zinc. Zinc's face said, 'I've never heard of this either.'

Dorster regarded the energetic little nubbin as if he still had no idea how it worked. "Somethin' my kid's been messing around with. You know Alfonzo, right Zinc?"

The canine nodded. "We've met a few times. He didn't seem too, uh, enthusiastic about carrying on the family business though."

Dorster nodded solemnly, hinting at many long conversations on exactly that topic. But then he brightened. "He wasn't. At least, not until I stopped being a stubborn, clogged-up old fogey and let him start doing things his way. I'm living in the past; I know it. I'm good at what I do, but it's all I know. He's on a different plane of thinking. All this sciencey stuff I can't even begin to understand. But finally he got through to my stupid head to let him try selling some of his experiments.

"You know me! I'm all about making sure my customers come back satisfied! He's asking me to unleash this science fair stuff on an unsuspecting populace!" Dorster mimed a heart attack. "But... I relented. And people started snapping his stuff up faster than mine." He chuckled proudly. "No complaints yet."

He held the purple pebble out to Toby. "So I can't tell you how this works, but I can tell you what it does. If you decide you want it, then you're gonna hafta rub it all over that hammer of yours. Let it get the scent. Then swallow it."

"...The hammer?" Toby asked.

"The pill."

"Just checking."

Dorster grinned. "Once that li'l guy's inside you, it's gonna rearrange your geometry a bit and put a portal in your palm. Your arm is gonna hold your weapon from now on. Always there, ready with a single thought."

Zinc briefly wished he had arms. "Far out!"

Toby felt a bit of unease at the thought of essentially agreeing to reconstructive surgery. But from deep within him, a masculine thirst for coolness began to emerge. The part of a man that drinks in the sight of swords clashing, the sound of cars being crushed, and the invigorating stench of a thundering engine. Toby felt his heart speed up as he stared at the purple thing in his palm. Part of him wanted to gobble it down that very instant.

But practicality prevailed. "Um, no offense, but can I get some kind of reassurance that it works first?"

Dorster leaned in closer to him. Looming, actually. Then his smile stretched his face in half. "You wanna demonstration?" he purred.

Toby gulped. "If that's allright."

Dorster suddenly let out a mighty roar of wrath and held his arms skyward. There was a flash of lightning from the center of his winghands and instantly, two leather-wrapped, celtic-carved war axes unfolded into his grip. The burly bird smashed them together, spraying sparks in Toby's direction.

Then, with a mere gesture, the axes retracted and were gone.

Toby looked at Dorster, looked at Dorster's empty winghands, and looked at the pill in his own. He'd taken so many in his lifetime... Probably a pile that would fill a bucket...

So what was one more?

"May I ask for a glass of water?"

Dorster and Zinc both cheered Toby's choice. The mouse started rubbing the hammer with the pill like he was soaping up in the shower. Dorster darted to the back of the shop and came back a moment later, plopping a frosty can down in front of Toby.

Toby thought it was beer at first and was about to protest, but then he read the label: Anisocoria Rain. It showed a picture of a man holding out a bottle towards a mighty thunderstorm. 'Allright. Looks okay.' Toby popped the top and gave a sniff. It actually smelled like tornado weather. He took a sip and his eyebrows went up. "That's really good!"

He looked at the pill in his hand. He watched the little energy rings whizz around it. He took a hard swig of rain and gulped it down.

He didn't feel anything at first.

Dorster suddenly panicked. "Oh shit, I forgot! Not on the merch!!" He grabbed Toby's arm and slammed it down flat on the glass counter. Toby didn't have time to ask what this was about before the pain struck.

It made grabbing the tonguerubber feel like petting a kitten. It felt like someone had tied fishing line to all his nerve endings and yanked as hard as they could. He went deaf and blind for half a second.

Then a four-foot-long geyser of blood punched its way out of his palm. The sound of it was obscene. It left a quarter-sized hole in his hand and a trail like a dripping red tail all across Dorster's display cases.

"Fuckety hell," Dorster said. "I shoulda had you do that over a bucket."

Zinc was holding Toby up to keep him from crumpling to the floor like a washrag. "Toby! You okay!? That was a heckuva fire hydrant impression you just did!"

The mouse blinked as the spots in his vision started to dissipate. His arm felt heavy as lead, then weightless, then like it had turned into flowing ice water. Then it was suffused with a kind of warm electric tingle. When he dared to look at it, there was a crystalline white light emerging from his palm. He felt his hammer tug towards it.

The experience had rattled him to the core, but fascination trumped fear with surprising ease. Toby wondered if he was going into shock again. After the pain ebbed away, his arm now felt something close to pleasant. It throbbed like it had just been deeply massaged. He guessed the pill must have somehow made room inside it for the hammer, but he could still move everything like normal. 'Maybe it's like the doorway to Junella and Zinc's junkyard,' he thought. The glowing wound in his hand was positioned directly between the ends of his fibula and tibia, and was pulling needfully towards his hammer. So, Toby brought it a little closer.

His eyes slammed closed as a rush of sensation tore through him. Pain was only one ingredient of it; there were many more. It felt like his flesh and bone were being rearranged, then sewn back together with thread woven from raw electricity.

But when he looked and saw the hammer was completely gone, he moved his arm, turned his wrist, rubbed his fingers together... and it felt whole. There was no extra weight. Just a slight feeling of 'fullness'. He knew the hammer was there.

He willed it to come back out.

It was so sudden he nearly dropped it. His hand disgorged the hammer with a smaller flash than Dorster's axes, but it still made for a cool mini-lightshow. Toby felt the tonguerubber grip slide under his fingers like slipping on a silk glove. The renewed hammer gleamed regally under the shop lights, looking somehow proud of itself.

This weapon... felt like a part of his body now.

Toby stared at it. The mirror-polished head. The sheer weight of the steel. Static shivers spiraled down the length of his arm. He was breathing hard.

For possibly the first time in his life, Toby deLeon felt powerful.


It took Zinc a moment to wrangle Toby back to reality. The mouse had stared enraptured at his new hardware for close to thirty seconds without speaking. From his face, he looked almost like he was tripping. Zinc waved his wrenches around until Toby's pupils refocused, and told him it was time to pay.

Dorster was swearing a blue streak as he went through half a roll of paper towels getting all the red streaks off his display case and his feathers. A small wad of mouseflesh, like a champagne cork, had stuck to a shelf all the way at the end of the counter. Zinc encouraged Toby to finish up the rest of his Anisocoria Rain until Dorster was ready.

Zinc chortled at the look of awe on Toby's face that seemed permanently etched on. The mouse kept turning the hammer this way and that, watching the light gleam off it, taking small, careful practice swings. He let Toby know there was an area out back where they could go practice smashin' stuff afterwards. Toby nodded aggressively at this idea.

Dorster waddled back, shaking soapy water from his wings, and stood with a sigh by his cash register. It looked more like some kind of steampunk piano (Toby presumed that Dorster might have to deal in many different kinds of currency). Dorster totaled up Toby's hammer repair, the throwing weapons, the pouch, the bracers, and the sheath-pill. The number that resulted had so many digits Toby nearly shat bricks.

Zinc reassured Toby that he considered all of these new toys a business expense. He'd cover the lot, but encouraged Toby to have a go at the willwell nonetheless. Toby's cheeks flushed as he realized he'd forgotten to practice on his watch since last night at dinner. Dorster punched some keys and a dial lit up. The red line snapped back to the starting position. Toby readied his construction crew of mini-selves and shoved as hard as he could.

Zinc and Dorster tried very hard to be polite and not laugh at him. Not even when sweat beaded up on the mouse's forehead and he started grunting with strain.

Toby had moved the red line about a tenth of the way across the dial when he gave up, panting, and asked for another rainwater.

Zinc stepped in to take over. Toby watched as the canine braced himself, then planted his wrenches flat on the floor and stared hard at the red line. It moved exponentially faster than Toby's try. Zinc gnashed his teeth but otherwise didn't make a sound. His face was a stone carving of concentration. By the time Toby had half-finished his second can, the bill was paid. Zinc let out a whoosh of breath when the dial finally dinged. He snatched Toby's water away and drained it in a gulp.

Dorster began bagging their items. Toby decided he'd better start getting used to the bracers and strapped them back on. The metal seemed to naturally emanate a slight chill. It felt nice now after the heat of his arm's transformation and his exertion trying to pay for it.

Toby and Dorster shook hands and the raven expressed his hope to see the mouse back in his shop again some day. Toby regretfully said that if his quest was successful, that could never happen. Dorster remembered, and wished the mouse good luck and a safe journey nonetheless.

Just as Toby was turning towards the door, Zinc turned to Dorster. He looked like he was straining to hold in a bodily function. "Before we go, old pal... um... I know they aren't, but I gotta ask, since it'd be a really big damn help to me on this job." He whimpered, "...are they done yet?"

The bird sighed and leaned on the counter. "Fraid not. They won't be ready until, uh..." He looked up at the calendar. " least thirty more seconds."

Zinc blinked.

Then the very air seemed to rumble in anticipation of the grin that was about to explode onto the canine's face.

He rushed over and clamped his hands on the counter, cracking the glass. His tail was a brown blur. "Where!? How!?"

Dorster held up his wings in a 'calm down before you wreck something' gesture. But he was likewise grinning at the sheer anticipation Zinc was gushing out, and at having managed to keep a lid on the surprise for so long. "Remember all the excuses I gave you? How I kept trying this and that and the other thing, and I still couldn't get 'em to move right?"

Zinc's head waggled up and down. Oh how his heart had been crushed each one of those times!

"You can't believe all the stupid shit I tried! So many gear ratios and pulleys and crap like that. Every time I got it to move right, it was too heavy and too bulky to carry around. Every time I got the weight down, the torque ended up shitty. Every time I tried to up the torque, the thing'd rip itself apart!"

The raven sighed and scratched under his bandana. "It got to the point where I was skipping meals to work on the damn things. It was my white whale. Like, if I couldn't make this work, that proved I was a failure, y'know? And finally, I dunno what kinda Good Sense Fairy rapped me on the head, but I decided to stop killin' myself over it and just handed it to my son. I said, "Here. I can't make this work. But you can."

Zinc's eyebrows went up. "Alfonzo cracked it? Seriously!? Where's the little peeper at? Lemme congratulate him!"

Dorster indicated the curtains. "He's in the back right now. Junella's entrance last night got attention, and you 'n her are joined at the hip, so I told him he'd better get it ready. I bet him a candy bar you'd be our first customer this morning."

"Awww, you know me too well." Zinc turned to Toby, "This guy's like Santy Claus!"

Dorster walked around the counter to lock the front door and put up the 'On Break' sign. "C'mon, let's get you all dressed up to go dancing."

Zinc clamped Toby's hand and practically bounced the whole way.


The back room looked like shop class merged with a heavy metal album cover. 'This place has entirely too many skulls in its decoration,' Toby thought. Workbenches as burnt and scarred as Dorster himself were piled with machines for tooling, sculpting and carving metal. Curly shavings littered the floor. There were all sorts of looming machines that Toby flinched away from. Stuff that looked like it'd incinerate him, flay him, crush him flat, or all three if they suddenly turned on and came after him.

Speaking of crushing, he yanked his paw out of Zinc's excitable grip and tried to caress the zigzag ridges out of it.

Standing on a high metal stool to give him access to a tableful of frighteningly-complicated-looking parts and implements, was a boy who looked no more than eight. Not a corvid though, so he was possibly adopted. He appeared to be a kingfisher: long beak, long wings, short, round body. Fluffy black feathers encircled his face like a cartoon bomb had just gone off in it. He had on a lab coat that hung down almost to the top of the stool, and a set of jeweler's loupes that might have been permanently affixed to his eyes. 'Or maybe they are his eyes,' Toby thought.

The bird boy looked up at the approaching footsteps and flipped through the interchangeable lenses in his loupes for far vision. "Ah, Zinc! Dad was right!" He reached in his pocket for a Suet Cashew Delight and handed it over.

Zinc held out his wrench for the young bird to shake, careful not to damage those talented little wingfingers. "And he was just tellin' me you've finally got my little project road-ready, yeah?"

Alfonzo nodded proudly. "The fix was obvious to me, but I'm not surprised Dad never hit on it. He's stuck in the clockwork age."

Dorster, standing off to the side, 'hmph'ed but didn't dispute this. He unwrapped the candy bar and started munching.

Zinc said, "Before you get all technical, I'd like to introduce my pal Toby. He just got a dose of your handiwork." He literally picked the mouse up from where he'd been staring at a drophammer and positioned him in front of Alfonzo.

"Yipes! Uh, hello," Toby shook hands as well. "Yeah, that pill I just took was yours, right? Whew! It felt like a rhino charging through my arm, but I like the end result."

Alfonzo was glad to see the small, faint glowing line at the bottom of the mouse's palm. "Good, good! D'ya mind showing me? They're just past the prototype stage and it does my mind a world of good to see them behaving properly."

Toby was more than happy to. He made sure he wouldn't bonk anything in its path, then willed the hammer into his hand again. A flash and there it was. Easy as winking, and taking about as long.

Alfonzo clapped and danced, making the stool wobble. "Marvelous! It does work just as well with shapes I hadn't planned around! I'd tested all the common hand weapons extensively, like Dad's axes, but realized too late I'd forgotten to anticipate other choices. Oh!! This means it could work for wallets as well! Money at your fingertips!" The fledgeling turned around and scribbled his idea down directly on the table so he wouldn't forget it. "We can double our business, Dad!"

Dorster's belly shook and he chuckled crumbs all over the floor. "That's the kinda thing I like to hear! Keep thinkin' like that and I can retire before I start balding!"

Alfonzo reached out to feel all along Toby's arm, not even noticing the mouse flinching back at this sudden invasion of personal space. "Make it go back in, then out again. As fast as you can, please."

Well, he did say please. The bird was concentrating entirely on Toby's musculature; the rest of the world didn't exist. Toby let the hammer suck itself in, then popped it back out. He did this six more times. It actually felt good! The hammer slid in and out as easily as a hotdog down a waterslide.

"Keep doin' that and you'll go blind," Zinc muttered, and giggled sophomorically.

Alfonzo squeezed in different places, checking to make sure the internal portal was keeping out of the way of bone and muscle like it should. He was delighted by the results and wrote some more numbers on the table.

Zinc unsubtly cleared his throat. "Not to, uh, impede scientific progress, but... I've been a good boy all year and I'm kinda juiced up to unwrap my Christmas present, dig?"

"Right, right! Let me apologize. I got so caught up in a research opportunity I forgot why you're here!" Alfonzo started shuffling things around on the cluttered table. "It's all prepped and ready, I assure you. Just gotta... find all the pieces..."

Toby poked Zinc. "So uh, what is this wonderful thing you're so excited about?"

Before the canine could answer, Dorster held up a wingfinger. "Since I'm just standin' here feelin' useless and fat, how 'bout I explain it? That way Zinc 'n the kiddo can concentrate on getting it all hooked up."

Toby walked around the table and Dorster literally took him under his wing. "Allright. So, Zinc comes in a few months ago and tells me he's got this idea. He wants me to dream up a weapon he can attach to his wrenches. Something to give combat a bit more 'oomph', y'know? And I really puzzled over that, because how do you improve a big goddam wrench? You can already smash with it, crush with it, block with it, etcetera."

Zinc had his shirt and jacket off and Alfonzo was taking measurements across his shoulders and down the length of his arms.

Dorster went on. "But then I thought, 'What if he could clamp down on some poor bastard with both wrenches, yet still be able to give them an unholy beating? I thought of something attached to the shoulders. A pair of spiked clubs at first. But nah, that's too specific a range. For flexibility, what you really want is a flail." He pointed to the table and Toby saw two softball-sized black metal spheres on chains. Unlike most flails, each had only one spike. A big, fat, expertly-placed point that looked perfectly capable of tearing through a tree. Or a truck. Flesh, certainly.

Toby shivered at such a gruesome thought, but also grinned slightly.

"I dreamed up the stupidest, most desperate mechanisms you can imagine trying to get those things to work!" Dorster said. "Making the balls and forging the chains was the easy part; I could do that sleepwalking. But getting them to swing! Gah! Like I said, I drove myself nuts with it 'till I decided to let junior give it a go."

Alfonzo had been keeping up with his dad's descriptions. "Once Dad gave me the project and told me about Zinc's physiology, the answer was obvious: bloodpower."

"Bloodpower?" Toby repeated.

"Haven't you wondered how your friend can move inanimate metal and feel with it like real flesh? Tiny grooves, drilled by trained grubs, run all throughout his wrenches, like veins. When Zinc puts them on, his blood flows in. I've applied the same principle to these." Alfonzo held up two small fez-shaped metal objects. They had clear windows at two points, and a channel where the chain would snap onto them via a carabiner. They also had a six-inch syringe coming out of the base, each needle a centimeter in diameter.

Toby felt all the blood drain out of his face when he realized where those would be going.

Zinc looked stoked. "Cool."

"Some things you need to know first," Alfonzo said, making sure he had the canine's full attention. "One, I've worked out the chemistry to write new instincts for you. You'll adjust the chain-lengths subconsciously, so hopefully you'll never dent your own wrenches or knock yourself unconscious. The balls can retract snug against the base, or extend approximately two feet beyond your wrenchtips.

"Two, and I gotta give credit to Dad for this, he worked out the problem of losing momentum when they impact. He forged a lump of paradox-locked imaginite at each sphere's core. They're forever in flux, never able to coalesce into a solid form. This means their physical properties are determined entirely by your will; except for the base weight of the iron they're encased in, of course. They can change as fast as you can think. In combat, you'll want to make the cores into something like tiny neutron stars."

Zinc cocked his head and 'erf'ed, uncomprehending.

Alfonzo 'grrr'ed. "Really, really, really dense. Do it right and they'll melt through almost any material. The only things I can imagine that might stop them are nightmare-essence items or a stronger will."

The canine nodded approvingly. He looked over at Toby. "I guess I'll hafta test 'em against your hammer and Junella's tantrums."

Toby hoped he was joking, because he did not want his nice shiny hammer to shatter before he'd gotten the chance to whack something with it.

"Three, when you're done injuring people and objects, your flails will store conveniently in your flesh. It's a variation on the sheath I designed. Just swing them over your shoulders and they'll be absorbed into your back. I have faith the effect will work through clothing so you won't have to keep buying new jackets." Alfonzo noticed the canine's gaze was wandering and snapped his wingfingers. "Focus! Did you get all that, Mr. Zinc? Will you remember it?"

"Sure, sure! Just because I don't have a brain doesn't mean I don't have a brain!"

The bird groaned at that. "Allright then. Are you ready for me to begin the procedure?" He picked up a power drill with a terrifyingly long, thin bit. Zinc's wrenches were mounted on thick metal bolts sunk into his flesh, so Alfonzo touched the drilltip to the center of Zinc's left shoulder mount.

Zinc turned his head to stare at nothing. He breathed in and out, filling his lungs, flexing his muscles, getting the adrenaline flowing. Toby saw his eyes practically glow with lustful eagerness as he psyched himself up. "I'm ready, 'Fonz. If all your calculations line up and all the screws are tight, then bring it on!"

"There may be a bit of stinging," Alfonzo understated.

Zinc cackled. "DRILL ME, BABY!!! YEAH!!!"


The noise was like having your ears ripped in half. The drill whined and growled and sent flecks of metal flying all around the shop as it sunk into Zinc's shoulder like a vampire's tooth. Dorster produced a pair of safety glasses and plopped them onto Toby's face. Alfonzo's expression was one of concentration mixed with semisadistic glee: the mad scientist at play.

Zinc was howling and hooting and barking like a mad dog. From the visible tension of his neck muscles, Toby could tell the pain must have been excruciating. But the mutt was doing everything he could to embrace it, to ride it like a mechanical bull. His drooling grin was a mile wide, his eyes rolled loose like dice.

The drill's sound changed to a throaty gurgle as it sank through the last of the metal and entered bone and blood. The debris spraying around the workshop changed from silver to red. Toby kept his mouth covered.

And then Alfonzo repeated the whole thing again on the other side.

Zinc's vocalizations were unholy. Yips and growls and frenzied laughter. The workshop floor was splattered in a wide diameter with silvery shavings, bone chips, and blood drops.

Finally the drill's scream turned into a passive purr. Alfonzo unplugged it and set it aside. He held up his devices. "Mr. Zinc, are you ready for phase two?"

"Ready, Teddy. Let's go steady," he gurgled.

Alfonzo lined up the tips of the needles with the edges of the drilled holes. Then he suddenly shoved them both in until the trapezoidal machines clicked into place.

This time, the sound Zinc made was a strangled shriek of pure agony. He hyperventilated for a moment, but then an eerie giggle bubbled up from the depths of him. Saliva rolled down his teeth and made little grey dots on the floor.

"Turn 'em on," he rumbled.

"You'd better get up on the table first," Alfonzo advised. "Don't step on anything!" He helped guide the canine up onto the wooden surface, scooting tools and spare parts away.

Toby held Dorster's winghand unashamedly. The look in Zinc's eyes... It was the unhinged stare of a berserker on the verge of being unleashed. He now knew for sure: whatever Zinc's species happened to be, his soul was that of a werewolf.

Alfonzo worked swiftly to attach the ends of the heavy chains to the slots in his devices. "Try not to swing these," he said. "I'd leave them off for safety, but the 'juice' has to flow through them when I give you the catalyst pill." He blinked. "The pill!" He started patting his pockets. "Just give me a moment, it's around here somewhere!"

Zinc's voice was not normal. It was a sound half-buried in graveyard dirt. "Don't keep me waitin' too long, doc. I feel like I could chew a hole through an atom bomb right about now."

Toby couldn't see the bird's eyes, but there was probably a bit of panic in them. The mouse looked up to gauge Dorster's expression. The raven's gaze was steady. He was keeping out of his son's work. Letting the boy handle it. Toby got the feeling Dorster would not step in unless absolutely necessary, but if he had to, would swoop in like the wind itself.

The younger bird found the pill, lying in plain sight amidst the table's other doodads. This one was as big as a golf ball. Bright red with black thorns all over and orange rings of fire whizzing around its surface. "Think you could swallow this?" he asked as he held it up to Zinc.

The canine leaned in and licked it off the kingfisher's palm, gulping it while never breaking eye contact. He grunted as it hit his stomach. "Better'n Thai food."

Toby's eyes widened, remembering what had happened when he'd taken one of those. He hid behind Dorster. "Oh geez! Is he gonna explode?"

Alfonzo hopped down off the table and backed away. "I'm counting on it."

Zinc stood there breathing in the center of the table, shoulders hunching up and down, feeling the spiky thing inside him revolve.

The shop was dead silent as they waited for it to work.

Then they all heard a watery 'BOOM' and Zinc's whole torso lit up from inside.

A split second later he screamed and heaved as he could feel the pill twisting and tearing at his insides, forcing them into new configurations. Blood was rerouted. Electricity crackled along the edges of Alfonzo's devices and down the length of the flails.

Then Zinc roared his throat raw as twin strips of flesh ripped themselves off of his back. They went flying across the shop like a pair of unreturning boomerangs.

The blood erupted out of him in slow-motion, or so it seemed to the three dumbstruck onlookers. Zinc's mouth was wide, cheeks flapping, as a howl of pure feral power blasted out. His backblood hung suspended in the air like a great red Japanese fan, then reality seemed to reverse. The blood sucked in. Every drop rewound itself back into Zinc's body and surged into his new anatomical additions. The clear windows on each device filled up with crimson. They surged with power, glowing like sunlight, and the glow snaked its way down each link of the chain, finally turning the iron spiked balls into jack-o-lanterns.

Every ounce of metal in Zinc's body turned white hot. His eyelids boiled his eyeballs. Smoke poured out of his ears. His wrenches burnt sizzling ruts into the tabletop.

And then it all simply ended. The glow, the blood: it all went away. Zinc's roar fizzled to a choke. The remains of his eyes dripped down his cheeks like runny eggs. Steam trailed from his cooked flesh.

He fell backwards off the table in a clattering heap.

Toby was too stunned to walk over and check to see if his friend was still anywhere close to living. But then he heard a scrape, and a shuffle, and a weak voice husked out:

"That was fun. I ain't ever doin' that again in my life."

The two birds and a mouse crowded around to help the canine stand up. He coughed, snorted, and puked up a teacup of blood, but managed to keep himself vertical.

Alfonzo flitted around him, checking the shoulder-mounts. "We'd better get you outside quick. After a surge like that, I'm guessing you'd like to test them out."

Zinc dragged his blurry head to point in the kingfisher's direction. His eyes were starting to reform, looking like two wads of wet cauliflower. "You betcher ass I do," he slurred.

Alfonzo nodded. He ran ahead to get the door while Dorster grunted and heaved his customer towards it. Toby followed behind.

Outside it was still night, but in the square courtyard at the center of the block, a series of angled mirrors trapped and reflected the moonlight to make it about as bright as an overcast afternoon. The courtyard itself could have been called with more accuracy a junkyard. There were scrapped cars, trucks and other assorted heavy machinery piled around. Everything, especially the ground and the walls, was full of holes. This was definitely Dorster's practice area.

Zinc just stood there, looking at all the lovely junk he had free rein to demolish. He giggled like a ghoul.

"Go for it!" Alfonzo shouted. He clutched a clipboard, ready to write down all results.

Toby kept his safety goggles on, and was glad for that decision when Zinc started his new motors up.

It sounded like lawnmowers in stereo. Zinc held his wrenches out in front of him and the devices on each shoulder started vibrating. A normal engine gives off exhaust, and these did too: a fine mist of burnt blood. Zinc was a walking can of brownish-pink spraypaint.

"How come they ain't turnin'!?" Zinc yelled over the din.

"You're already up to speed! Engage the flails manually!" Alfonzo yelled back.

Zinc could feel his new additions like parts of his own flesh. He suddenly knew just what to shift to get the gears within the devices to lock on. And when he did, there was a K-CHONK and the metal whirled to life. Zinc screeched a mighty "YEEEEHAW!!!" as his shoulders became two silver rotating death fans.

He took a step, then another. Having a wrecking ball rotating insanely fast on either side of your head takes a second to get used to. But he could feel Alfonzo's pill giving instructions to his body. His muscles tensed and twitched, learning how to move to keep the motors spinning in sync and preventing them from flinging him around (or turning him into an accidental helicopter). Zinc became aware of each spiked orb's placement at all times. Keeping them out of his way was now as easy as not tripping over his feet. He broke into a run towards the trash.

At that moment, Dorster helpfully flipped a switch and all four speakers around the perimeter of the courtyard started pounding out psychobilly guitars. Zinc somehow managed to grin wider. Toby watched without breathing as Zinc pounced like a junkyard dog towards a family sedan that had seen its last road trip. He added his own percussion to the music around him by biting into the roof with one wrenchclaw, and Alfonzo's motors did the rest. The heavy spiked iron came crashing down into the hapless car at four times a second, chewing through it with all the effort of eating a banana. Zinc dug in with his other wrench. It too was followed up by a volley of flail-blows. The combination of his new armaments, the strength of his wrenches, and his own crazed joy soon had the whole car mangled into a spaghetti-like state in about two minutes.

Toby was rendered speechless by this blood-spraying fusion of animal and machine before him. Zinc's savage giggles were like a hyena on amphetamines. Truly, a scene like the one he was witnessing could only take place within a nightmare.

The brainstem-level emotion Toby was feeling was a prey's terror, imagining what such a combination of crushing power and spinning kinetic force could do to his soft tissues. But was there another primal emotion mixed in somewhere in there? Almost... jealousy?

Dorster patted the mouse on the back. "G'wan. Try yours out too. Backstage passes are free with any purchase."

Toby tore his eyes away from Zinc's maniac playtime long enough to give Dorster a "Huh?"

"Your nice shiny hammer! Go dirty it up! That's what it's for!"

Toby had almost forgotten about his own upgrade. His hammer seemed just as pathetic as before in comparison to Zinc's unstoppable weaponry. But as he felt it slide out of his arm again and the grip pour itself around his hand, he felt that spark of power again. He squeezed the handle.

Maybe it didn't matter that Zinc was stronger. Maybe it only mattered that Toby was stronger than his earlier self.

The mouse's features darkened. He tensed his muscles. With a warcry that was barely audible above the din of Zinc's rampage and the blaring rock 'n roll, he charged towards a rusted old stove.

His first swing sent a burner tiddly-winking out of sight. Then he screamed and bashed, turning rust and paint flakes into confetti. His strikes were awkward. Anyone watching could tell he'd never had any practice at this. But what they couldn't see was the inner satisfaction that pulsed through Toby's veins every time he watched a dent appear in the metal. This, what he was seeing, was a physical manifestation of his will upon the world. Yes, he was just a mouse in a junkyard wailing on a stove with a fancy hammer. But it felt like more. With every hit, Toby let himself feel the panic, the nausea, the anguish, the dread, the hopelessness, and the pain Phobiopolis had put him through. This was his moment to give it all back. His lips were stretched in a rictus. His hammer reflected the shine of his gritted teeth.

Toby lost himself. For a moment, he left behind everything he was and became rage. It was not an emotion he had ever really explored before. There had been despair, frustration, and annoyance before. But Toby had never needed nor practiced anger. When it finally blossomed in his heart, it overgrew everything else with frightening speed.

Toby's arm did not end in a hand, it ended in a hammer. Toby's body and mind existed only to move that hammer up and down. Toby's body did not exist: he was the hammer. His eyes watched the hopeless metal beneath him change shape with every blow. His ears heard nothing but white noise.

Toby experienced what some might call a moment of transcendence.


Meanwhile, Alfonzo stood by scribbling furiously as he watched his most complex project to date meet and exceed his expectations.

Dorster patted his shoulder. "Nice work."

"You too, pop."

"I want you to look out there and remember that." The proud raven pointed towards the two screaming guys destroying everything they could get their hands on. "That, son, is what a returning customer looks like."

Nipple, meanwhile, was enjoying a king's feast of canine backflesh.


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