“You’re not fooling me, Kobuchi,” Genma said to the Kobold as they stood together in the main greeting hall. Genma had set the machine to its final stage of preparation, and in three days’ time, his niece would be transformed into his bride. He had grown bored, however, since the machine took care of itself now, and with Telroke outside of the tower, making final adjustments to his battle plan for his son, he had nobody left to talk to. As a result, he had called for his Kobold servant to play a game of chess with him, but the Kobold was acting rather out of character.

 

When fully in Genma’s grip, Kobuchi played brilliant and aggressive strategies that always failed in the end. Here, however, he was being slightly conservative. Although he was left a few opportunities to the Alchemist, they were clearly left on purpose.

 

“The Site is losing potency again, more rapidly than before,” Genma said, much to Kobuchi’s relief.

 

He hadn’t been found out just yet. The ivory mask wearing man hadn’t figured out that Kobuchi had had help resisting the effects of the controlling Focus Site burned into his chest. For that, he was wholly grateful.

 

“How did you know,” he said, making a move on the board.

 

“Firstly, the way you’re playing. Secondly, you forgot to iron my cloak,” Genma said, though this second bit only annoyed him slightly, not really an issue of importance. “You’re speaking somewhat more fluidly than you do in full control. But I must admit,” Genma said as he made a defensive play. “You’re better company when you’ve got a measure of your free will. Perhaps I shall leave you where you’re at right now. You’re more intellectually stimulating this way.”

 

Kobuchi’s blood boiled, rampaging through his body with a rush of adrenaline as he felt a newfound resentment for this cretin who had stripped him of his good life.

 

“I could be downright fascinating if you hadn’t done this to me at all,” Kobuchi shouted as he made his move. “Checkmate,” he hollered, getting to his feet and flipping the chess board to the floor, scattering the pieces everywhere.

 

Genma sat in shocked silence, appalled at Kobuchi’s outburst as much as he was surprised.

 

“Kobuchi, you forget yourself,” he squeaked as the Kobold hurled a bolt of magical lightning past his head, blowing apart a section of stone in the wall behind Genma. “Take the rest of the day off, Kobuchi,” Genma said, adjusting his ruffled white shirt, particularly the collar. “Get your head on straight, and we’ll discuss what to do about your, erm, outburst, later.”

 

“Go sod yourself,” Kobuchi grumbled under his breath as he left the room.

 

Genma’s spine iced over as he realized the potential damage that Kobuchi could have wrought upon him. The Kobold was very willful, and a very powerful magic user. The tower’s magical energy conversion equipment couldn’t handle the high-power spells that the Kobold used.

 

Genma felt he had suddenly trod on very dangerous ground: only traps set for tigers in the jungle consisted of such rough soil.

 

His panic quickly faded and before long, Genma felt a bit of a fool. He had managed to get the Kobold under his control in the first place, and Alchemy’s power was far greater than anything that Kobuchi could throw at him. All he had to do was find his reference manual for the use of control Sites again in one of his libraries, and reapply the power to the Kobold.

 

Resetting the pieces on his board, Genma drifted out of the meeting hall and up several stories into one of the packed libraries.

 

Literally hundreds of volumes of reference material sat on the shelves, many of them retrieved from libraries and private owners throughout Tamalaria who either couldn’t read them, or had no idea how valuable they were to the proper reader. Most of them were ancient texts that referred to the art of Focus, and many of them were guides to the old world’s technologies. A handful of tomes were cultural studies of the peoples who had lived in the time before the Fall of Mecha. They apparently marked their time by centuries, as did some of the ancient texts, the ones falling apart mostly, had clearly marked dates. Many read something like, ‘Second Age of the Empire, Century of the Sword, Fifteenth Year,’ or other similar date marks.

 

Genma spent a good half an hour looking for the specific volume he needed, which he found on a low shelf. It appeared to have been taken off of the shelf recently, he thought, because it was not back in its proper place. It was supposed to be on the left of ‘Accelerated Mutation in Alchemical Compounds,’ not the right of it. Who else had access to his libraries?

 

He had insisted that the Alchemical beast he had named Foxtrot cease reading his books because the fox-bull-lion hybrid could get the books down, but couldn’t manage getting any back up. Although he only read the history books, it still had annoyed Genma to constantly clean up after Foxtrot.

 

The only other people in the tower, then, who had access, were Telroke, who didn’t seem the bookish type, and Kobuchi.

 

Had the Kobold been so bold because he knew how to stop the effects of the Focus Site burned into his chest? Genma wondered worriedly.

 

No, that couldn’t be it. Kobuchi couldn’t use Alchemy, because his power was derived from magic and spiritual energies, not the pure power of science. Mages of lesser knowledge or power could use Alchemy because they didn’t fully comprehend the power of magic. Such wisdom generally made the use of science impossible, because mages had the insane notion that not everything had a scientific and concrete explanation.

 

Fools, Genma thought. Everything can be explained with science. At least, he hoped so, because if he was wrong, there were an awful lot of Gods and Goddesses who’d want a shot at him when he died.

 

Genma rifled through the pages of the tome as he took a seat on one of the comfortable leather recliners in the library, searching for the exact Focus Site he had used on Kobuchi.

 

He found it mostly because the entry was dog-eared.

 

Strange, he thought, I don’t remember marking the page. I use bookmarks. Clearly Kobuchi had been reading through the book, but thankfully the Kobold hadn’t destroyed the entry. He had, in point of fact, highlighted and underlined a number of passages.

 

“How helpful,” Genma remarked as he re-read the entry.

 

Nothing seemed too out of place, and the noted passages that Kobuchi had marked seemed to be the most essential bits. Near the end of the section, however, Genma got a cold chill in his spine again, much as he had back in the meeting hall. It leeched into his brain after a few minutes, and he realized as he read the last marked passage what had gotten into him. ‘The most essential thing to remember is that this particular Focus Site has a tenuous hold on any magic-using creatures,’ the entry read. ‘Although one of the more powerful Sites known to us Alchemists, a magic wielding individual can break the Site’s hold on them with a highly concentrated expenditure of magic directed at the Site. This is why it is recommended that the Site be somehow permanently marked into their flesh, so that the use of magic on the Site may result in injury or incapacitation, including death, of the target. Again, this Focus art should only be used in times of war, and only as a last result. We Alchemists do not condone the abuse of science’s power’, it read in the final passage.

 

Although allowing Kobuchi to kill himself with his own magic was tempting, Genma knew that he would live through anything he threw at himself, and for good reason. Genma had many hundreds of artifacts scattered throughout the tower, many of which could keep Kobuchi alive if he blasted himself with even his most powerful spell. And if he used that spell, he might destroy a good amount of the tower itself. Genma had to stop him, and that was that.

 

He tossed the tome aside hastily, and gave Foxtrot, who was peering around the doorway of the library, a withering glare. “Look, I’ve got a good excuse,” he rumbled at the Alchemy beast, who raised his eyebrows. “Out of the way you damned idiot,” Genma shouted as Foxtrot blocked the door with his massive frame. “Oh, fine! Go ahead and read to your heart’s content, I’ll deal with it later.”

 

“My thanks,” the creature said as it pushed its way past the Alchemist.

 

Genma rushed through the halls of his tower, seeking out the Kobold. Everything was now flying out of control. The girl had hurt herself, delaying the recreation of his wife. Telroke hadn’t recalled any weakness in the Bounty Hunter who was most likely on his way to the tower at this very moment. His nephew hadn’t been completely brainwashed and hadn’t killed his companions when Genma gave him the order through the mirror. The mercenary Wren had been slain. The Sidalis hadn’t reported back. And now, his most dependable servant, the only thing he had always been so sure of, was about to go and break the hold he had on him. What else could go wrong today? he mentally shouted at himself.

 

This was when the cloak got caught under his foot, and he tumbled to the floor in a heap. “Grrrauuuugggghhh!”

 

* * * *

 

It was always something, Portenda thought as someone nudged him out of his slumber. He rolled over, and found himself looking through sleep-blurred eyes at Jonah and Nareena. “What?” he growled, his teeth barred.

 

“The rain’s stopped.” Jonah took a step away from the bed. “We thought you’d want to know, so we can head out.”

 

Portenda swung his legs over the side of the bed, and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

 

“Sorry about the attitude,” Portenda mumbled. “I feel like I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in the longest time,” he said, which was mostly true. He hadn’t had a full night’s rest since before Jonah had run into him at the Flaming Tongue. Or rather, since the Human Alchemist had run into trouble with a half-Orc.

 

Portenda sprang from the bed to his feet, strapping his weapons back in place. “There’ll be plenty of time for rest when this job’s done.”

 

He opted not to comment on the subtle change that swept through Jonah’s eyes. “So, Jonah, when this is all said and done, do you still want to be a Bounty Hunter?”

 

Jonah guffawed. “After seeing what you put up with, no, not really.”

 

He put an arm around Nareena’s shoulders, and the Elven girl blushed brightly. “I’ve got everything I want waiting for me in Desanadron. Present girlfriend excluded,” he said.

 

“Duly noted and thoroughly envious,” Portenda grumbled as he led the way out of the sleeping chamber.

 

Colin Caulkins waited by the entrance as they made their way up the tunnel staircase and outside. Blink rode shotgun on Portenda’s shoulder, ready for the shape change that Portenda would go through when they were all prepared to leave.

 

“Colin, it was good seeing you again.”

 

“Likewise.” The Draconus made a complicated bowing gesture with his hands and some footwork. At least, it appeared complicated to Jonah and Nareena. Colin looked from Portenda to the Alchemists, and then back at the steeds. “The warrior and the scholar,” he said quietly, the fresh sunlight illuminating his tattoos brilliantly. One of them, Jonah noted, was a yin-yang on his leg, with two red arrows around it. On his bare left foot, flames had been inked onto the thick, protective scales. There were almost a dozen other tattoos visible, but those two caught Jonah’s attention the most. They must have hurt like Hells.

 

“Indeed. Jonah is a fine scholar, as is Miss Nareena,” Portenda said.

 

“A good thing, too, because you clearly fill the only warrior position.” Colin laughed at his own good humor. “Well, until next time. Take care of yourself.”

 

“We will.” Portenda reared his head up as his body began the morphing process.

 

Minutes later, the trio from Ja-Wen was once again speeding across the land, now heading almost directly north, but still skirting the Allenian Hills.

 

They sped on this way until well past noon, encountering only wild animals here and there, and avoiding the other traveling parties they spotted well before they were spotted in return.

 

Portenda’s sleek, animal form raced on ahead of the Alchemists and their mounts, the fresh sunlight giving him an extra measure of vitality.

 

As mid-afternoon approached, the trio came to a halt to take a brief, late lunch.

 

Portenda kept his wits about him, and his nose twitched continuously.

 

“What’s the matter,” Nareena asked, since Jonah’s mouth was presently full of dried strips of beef.

 

Portenda simply held his hand up, indicating to them what they already suspected: he was keeping his senses sharp, in case they got too close to the Allenians. They were, technically, in the region, but not yet up in the hills themselves. A mere fifteen minute ride would bring them into the hills proper, but both Alchemists knew that Portenda had to avoid doing so, even if it would have shaved time off of their travel. They couldn’t risk being ambushed by a patrol of Khan or, worse for Portenda, Simpa.

 

As the trio cleaned up their temporary campsite, Portenda’s ears stood on end, and his nostrils flared wide. “Hellfire,” he muttered, drawing his pistol from its holster and taking aim to the west. “Get ready.”

 

“We should get out of here,” Jonah shouted, moving towards his mount.

 

The horse, however, had other ideas. It reared away from him, as did Elhaym from Nareena. They trotted a short way to the east, and remained where they stood. They weren’t abandoning their owners, it seemed, but if their owners became corpses, they would be prepared to save themselves from the same fate.

 

“We haven’t got time in any case,” Portenda growled as Simpa warriors popped out of hiding on all sides of the party. “They were wearing Soga powder,” Portenda said quietly. “It masks anyone’s scent temporarily. They must have taken advantage of our distraction. Lunch, that is.”

 

Three Simpa on each side of them approached with weapons raised.

 

Portenda aimed his pistol directly towards the sky, and pulled the trigger, just once.

 

The resounding echo of the mecha weapon filled the area, and all of the patrolmen stopped dead in their tracks. Eyes wide with recognition and fear, they took two or three more hesitant steps forward.

 

One of them, clearly the leader of the patrol, approached to within a few yards of the trio, who now stood in a ring.

 

Jonah was preparing Focus Sites over his arms and torso, and a few on Nareena. She, in turn, was handing him pouches of powder that would turn into a poisonous mist when blown on.

 

The leader of the patrol was a lumbering fellow, even larger than the Bounty Hunter exile. He was a strapping creature, wearing a brace of short swords that had been sharpened rather recently, from the gleam of them.

 

“You are Portenda, the Exiled One, aren’t you,” the Simpa rumbled, his deep, earthen voice causing ripples in the air.

 

“I am,” Portenda replied, his voice colder than the breath of an Ice Dragon.

 

“Then you know the penalty for entering the Allenian Hills.” The patrol leader’s voice held a hint of a tremble.

 

Was the man afraid, Jonah wondered, even with all of this backup? Then again, the patrol leader stood within striking distance of the Bounty Hunter, while everyone else was being careful not to get too close.

 

“I am aware of the penalty. If, in fact, we were in the hills, which, you may note, Karsh, we are not,” Portenda said flatly.

 

The larger Simpa took a step back.

 

“Firstly, exile, how do you know my name? And secondly, you are in the Allenian Hills.” A short sword appeared almost without hesitation in the leader’s left hand, but it quavered slightly.

 

“You are Karsh Anasi of the Folard Tribe,” Portenda replied, his tone still flat and emotionless as he leveled the barrel of his pistol at Karsh’s forehead. “Your people were my neighbors before my, unfortunate incident with my father,” he said, fairly spitting the word ‘father’. “You were the Folard Tribe’s patrolling second-in-command. I assume you have gained a promotion. The challenge was honorable, I assume?”

 

Karsh Anasi growled deep in his throat, insulted that a filthy exile would question his honor.

 

“Yes, I thought it was. Your family is heralded for its honor. Despite how I personally feel about you, you are an honorable man. As for the second part of your statement, we are not, in fact, in the hills themselves. You are out of your patrol jurisdiction. I believe we are still in the eastern flats, by way of there being no hill under our feet.”

 

Much to Jonah’s relief, Karsh Anasi put his weapon away and smiled the smile of the damned.

 

“Your argument is persuasive, Exiled One.” Karsh made a hand motion for the others to stand down and return to their duties.

 

They walked past the trio, keeping well away on either side.

 

“You know,” Karsh said, “I understand your Tribe held a council recently. Last I had heard, they had decided to extend a welcome hand to you, to lift your exile. But they hadn’t heard back from your father yet. What was your response?”

 

“I refused.” Portenda lowered his gun and holstering it. “I will not aid in your pointless war against the Khan Tribes.”

 

“No, of course you wouldn’t,” Karsh said with overwhelming disapproval. “Still, even refusal grants you a single request. You can make it to me, I’ll make it official among the councils. What is your request, in lieu of returning to your people?”

 

Portenda didn’t need to think about this question at all. He already knew his response.

 

“You know of the Khan Soldier, Tiberious Amon?” Karsh nodded, though he raised an eyebrow. “He is my uncle. He wants nothing to do with your war. You and the tribes shall allow him free passage, if you should spot him.”

 

“And how exactly are we to know if it’s him we spot? Accidents and misjudged identification tend to happen, after all.”

 

“You’ll know it’s him. He has a wooden leg. Never saw a priest to regenerate the one he lost many years ago, in the War of Vandross. You are to leave him be, understood?”

 

Karsh seemed to mull this idea over, but at last he nodded his agreement.

 

“Very well. But mind your footsteps, Exiled One,” Karsh said, pointing at Portenda’s chest. “If and when you do next step on our sacred hills, you will be slain on the spot.”

 

“You’re very welcome to try,” Portenda said with a smile.

 

Karsh Anasi made his way back towards the Allenians proper.

 

Portenda, Jonah and Nareena waited for all of the Simpa patrolmen to disappear from view, and then set out again to the north. The horses had returned to them when they sensed that there was no more immediate threat to their well-being, and Jonah and Nareena were quick to remount. Portenda shifted back to his animal form and led the way once again, making certain to stay a little ways to the east of the hills.

 

The trio from Ja-Wen traveled in this fashion until early evening, when they had begun to turn their course westward again. They had gone north of the Allenian Hills, and would soon be at their final destination. At least, Portenda thought,according to the little one we will be. But I still don’t see any sign of a tower, anywhere.

 

As the Alchemists dismounted once more to prepare a camp for the night, Portenda prowled the area in his animal form, keeping a sharp eye and nose out for anything out of the ordinary.

 

For a short while, he didn’t think he would come across anything. As he shifted from his animal form to his man-beast shape, his armor and the rest of his equipment returning through the spirit realm to his body, he noted something that seemed, well, out of place.

 

The big Bounty Hunter looked over his shoulder to check on Jonah and Nareena, who were in the process of setting up the campsite and a fire for preparation of their meal. Perhaps two hundred yards away, north and west of his current position, the air shimmered in a high and wide sheet. It was a barely perceivable disturbance in the air, and would have surely gone unnoticed, had he not been silent in his animal form for so many hours. However, thanks to his inability to communicate while in lion form, his powers of perception were many times amplified, and he could just make out the waves of disturbance energy.

 

Portenda undid the button on his holster, drawing the ancient mecha weapon slowly as he approached the wall of energy. The closer he got, the higher pitched the whine of energy got in his ears—again, something that few others would have noticed.

 

When he got to within ten feet of the wall, he thought he could vaguely smell something, familiar, on the other side.

 

“Hey, Portenda,” he heard from behind him. Jonah was hailing him, and Portenda put his weapon away as he turned to look at the Alchemist.

 

“We’ve got the fire going and we’re ready to make dinner over here,” Jonah called.

 

Portenda returned to the camp, and looked once more over his shoulder.

 

Blink had told him everything he needed to know when he had caught that sniff near the wall of force.

 

They had found Genma’s tower.

 

* * * *

 

Telroke was still assigning patrols to the Alchemy beasts on the outer perimeter of the tower when he felt a disturbance near the wall of force hiding the tower. He tried to look to the wall itself, but unfortunately, the barrier concealed the outside world from view just as much as it did the tower from the outside world.

 

But something had come close: he could smell it. It was unsettlingly familiar, and sent a chill racing up his spine faster than a light chases cockroaches into hiding.

 

Still, without leaving the area around the tower, he couldn’t be absolutely certain what lay in wait outside of the barrier. It likely wasn’t an animal of any sort, or any normal patrol of guild members or lawmen; they wouldn’t have noticed the wall of force, and would have stumbled directly into harm’s way.

 

The nearly two dozen Alchemical beasts on guard outside of the tower could tear anything that came within reach apart, and a few of them had been created with Semdragons, miniature Dragon-like creatures that had the same potency of magic and breath weapon attacks as their larger progenitors.

 

With these Alchemical creations around, few men or women that might be likely to pass through the area would ever be heard from again.

 

“But they aren’t the boy,” Telroke muttered to himself. No, of course he didn’t expect any of these monstrosities to kill his son, Portenda the Quiet.

 

They might wound him, but none of them could kill him, even if the entire assembly of them attacked at one time.

 

The Alchemists, the ones that Genma had mentioned, might be wounded by the Alchemy beasts; perhaps, if the ivory-masked man was lucky, they would be killed. For some reason, Genma was more worried about those two than he was about the Bounty Hunter. Why? Portenda was the one with the big metal weapons, the firearm, and the skills to use them.

 

Telroke decided that he couldn’t concern himself with what was going on outside at the moment. He had to get inside the tower because Genma had some plans that apparently needed Telroke’s help to execute. There would be, he was certain, a level of physical work involved, which he was not strictly looking forward to. However, it would kill time, and he needed something to occupy his time since the strange Alchemist had cut off his liquor supply.

 

When Telroke had been preparing to go out and assign the Alchemical beasts their patrols and duties, he had scoured his entire chambers, and many other rooms, of the floor he was staying on.

 

Genma left a note under his pillow, where Telroke had been keeping his personal flask—the flask hadn’t, of course, been there. Just a snide little note, stating that the Simpa had to be ‘at the top of his game’, lest Portenda prove too much for him upon his arrival.

 

Now, heading back into the tower for Genma’s task, he wondered if perhaps the boy wouldn’t come at all. After all, how would he find out where the tower was? It wasn’t as if they had anything to use as a form of reference. And even if they did, they couldn’t possibly find the tower before Genma completed whatever dark ritual it was he intended to perform. Yet still, something primal, dark, vicious and brooding clung to his heart. The boy would come, and the boy would not lift a finger, unless Telroke did first.

 

Seeing as he wanted to, and this was a once in a lifetime chance to get the boy while he was weakened by the guard beasts. He would attack Portenda. There would be no hesitation, no questions asked, and no quarter given. Father or son would be slain.

 

Telroke shortly bumped his forehead against the wall of the entry room as he walked into it, completely lost in his own thoughts of the battle to come. He hadn’t even noticed that Genma was standing in the antechamber, staring at him through the eye slits in that horrible little mask of his.

 

“Everything all right, Telroke,” Genma asked derisively.

 

“Fine, just thinking about the boy,” Telroke offered feebly as he rubbed his forehead. “So, what is it you need me to do for you right this second?”

 

Genma rubbed his hands together and giggled softly, neither of which Telroke regarded as a good sign of things to come.

 

“I need you to aid me with some, ah, final calibrations to my equipment. There are a few adjustments that I have to make, and the devices are a tad on the heavy side. I’d normally just create a golem for the task, but I am afraid that too much energy would be expended in the effort. I have a great deal of work to do before the night is over. I want to be able to relax tomorrow, for it shall be the eve of a great and final process. I shall even grant you access to my alcohol reserves again if you do this for me,” he added.

 

Telroke’s heart skipped a beat. “Lead the way.” His blood churned at the chance to absorb more of what he had come to rely on for so much of his daily living. Somewhere back in the dark recesses of his mind, his sense of self rebelled. How did we come to this? it bellowed from the darkness. Are we really such slaves to our own feeble desires? But he couldn’t argue the point, even with himself; his own physical, chemical dependence now ruled him, and he would do just about anything for a drink. He had gone almost an entire day without, and his hands had begun to shake.

 

He followed Genma up through the tower. The Alchemist didn’t so much walk as lurk now, his own thoughts twisted up into mental images of what he would do with his newly reborn bride. Ah, there would be such sweet times, such rapture and pleasure.

 

But one mustn’t celebrate too soon, Genma thought, bringing himself under control. If one, slight error were to be made, all could end for him in defeat and loss. The girl could wind up disfigured, maimed, or worse still, dead, as the result of a single element of the process going wrong. That was why he needed the help of the Simpa so desperately.

 

The chamber device in which Eileen Staples would be secured and enclosed had three individual levers, each controlling the influx of certain elements that would be used in her rebirth as Genma’s late wife. Primary among these elements were water, oxygen, and liquid calcium. The three largest levers on the device were massive indeed and Genma hadn’t thought about how he was going to get them moved without a golem. He truly didn’t want to use the energy that would be necessary for such a creation. It would severely drain the energy stored in the tower’s collection tanks and hoarded for the transformation. Might as well make the drunkard earn his keep while he’s here.

 

Genma led the way, while Telroke struggled with his temporary sobriety.

 

* * * *

 

In many places, in many Realities, on the stroke of midnight, a sacred time is noted in the hearts of mortal men and women everywhere: it is commonly referred to as, the ‘witching hour’. This phrase, however, loses a great deal of meaning when the only two magic wielding creatures within a ten-mile radius are completely unconscious.

 

Nevertheless, a sort of magic ebbed and flowed along Portenda the Quiet’s aura as he prepared himself for the night’s watch. His own connection to the occult had been, until very recently, uncertain. Questions about his strange powers of perception and the ability to sense and affect the spiritual beings around him had risen and fallen in swelling tides. However, upon learning that he had a third side to his family, one which only went back a single generation, things had begun to clear. Even the unending loneliness had an explanation, though knowing the why didn’t make him feel any better.

 

His ears twitched, and his nostrils flared as something moved a ways off, behind that shimmering rift in the air he had detected earlier.

 

With Jonah Staples and Nareena both asleep, he had nobody to talk to, no reason to be distracted. More importantly, he wasn’t prone to speaking to himself. His senses had become highly sharpened through three hours of dead silence. He hadn’t so much as cleared his throat, which he did now, risking the loss of a fraction of his power.

 

Much to his delight, there was no apparent loss in his hearing, sight, smell, taste or touch. Everything fairly hummed to a slow, dense vibration around him: even colors appeared more crisply, and possessed their own unique scent just barely noticeable to his keen nose.

 

When something moved in his vicinity, like the grasshopper that just flew past, he took notice. The barrier merely dampened, his perceptions.

 

Patience, he told himself. In another half an hour or so, and his senses would be so highly tuned they could be played like a harp.

 

Blink slept atop Nareena’s softly rising and falling chest, his stinger occasionally waggling on its own accord. Portenda smiled to himself: nice little critter, he thought. Maybe I’ll ask to keep him when everything’s said and done. Well, done, in any event, he amended.

 

A small breeze blew through the Allenian Hills to the west, flowing eastward over Portenda and his companions, who took little notice in their slumber.

 

Shadows pooled around the edges of the campsite, despite there not being any fire to throw light and cast shadows other than those created by the lunar light upon the land. Images of violence flashed through Portenda’s mind, blades and claws flying, cones of flame and frost eating through the air like it was fuel for the destructive force streaming at him.

 

These images, he gathered, spoke not of experiences past, but rather, of trials soon to be faced. There would be carnage: that much was certain. But the imagery flashed through his mind’s eye so fast that he could not clearly discern one moment of conflict from the next. He couldn’t say for certain who or what would be slain or injured, mauled or spared.

 

The images continued on through his mind’s eye, spinning faster and faster before his mental view. After a solid twenty minutes of this torture, his head ached terribly, as though several very small Fairy-folk had decided to take turns smashing his temples with stake-driving mallets.

 

Portenda focused himself, purging his mind and heart of all images, of all emotions, as he had trained himself to do many years ago. He sat upon the grass, his legs crossed over one another, his palms pressed together in a silent prayer. Finally, his mind cleared, and the long series of moving, flashing images ceased. All Portenda could sense now was movement: movement from beyond the barrier.

 

The assorted scents of various animals, including foxes, bulls, horses, and other such wild creatures mixed together in a strange mesh.

 

More Alchemical beasts, he thought silently to himself. Keeping his eyes shut, Portenda pricked up his ears, and tried to listen in for any more clues he might gather.

 

Growls, unnatural and unfriendly to say the least, echoed through the vast silence.

 

Must be twenty or so of them, Portenda thought, moving closer to the barrier. He took one more look over his shoulder, and saw that the Alchemist couple remained silently asleep.

 

The Bounty Hunter decided to risk a closer look at the barrier, perhaps even passing partly through it for a quick glance at the waiting threat.

 

Portenda the Quiet drew his broadsword, keeping it at the ready in case he had to pass completely through the barrier for any period of time. He would most certainly be set upon if he found himself amongst the Alchemical beasts standing guard, and at least one of them would be willing to pursue him beyond the barrier’s walls.

 

He drew to within ten yards of the shimmering wall of force.

 

His nostrils flared at the strange scent of the animals beyond the wall, and the barrier itself, at this proximity, smelled of blood and brimstone. It was almost a familiar scent: at least, the blood was.

 

No more time to hesitate. He brought the broadsword to his side, then Portenda stepped into, and, a moment later, through, the barrier.

 

On the other side, close to two dozen creatures milled about, their obscene bodies moving somewhat sluggishly until one or two of them let out a hissing growl at the sight of him.

 

Great, Portenda thought, bringing the blade up in front of him and taking a defensive posture. More of them than I had thought.

 

Despite the fact that he was about to be set upon, the scent and presence of the Alchemical beasts was not foremost in his mind. His father’s scent clung to the air, like an offensive body gesture, prodding at his nose.

 

Before any of the guard creatures could attack him, Portenda back-flipped through the barrier, landing in a crouch on the other side.

 

Though nothing came through after him, Portenda had stirred quite a ruckus from within the tower’s perimeter.

 

* * * *

 

Genma stared, wide-eyed and silent, at the monitor screen. The Bounty Hunter had come through for just a few moments, sniffed the air, and disappeared rather acrobatically before any of the guard creatures could move on him. They were already here!

 

The ivory-masked menace stormed out of the screening room at full tilt, speeding through the hallways to where he knew Telroke would be.

 

As suspected, Telroke was in the dining hall, a rather large collection of emptied bottles on the table before him. His eyes were so blood-shot they were almost entirely red.

 

He faced the Alchemist, who stood not five feet away now, rifling through one of the various compartments on his belt.

 

Genma produced a slim gray pill from one of the pouches and dropped it into Telroke’s current victim, a long-necked, glass specimen of a green tint. This particular breed was known as ‘drunkus maximus,’ not because of its contents, but because it would be victim number fifteen.

 

“Wha’ chyou think yer doin, buddy,” Telroke slurred as he grabbed Genma by the wrist.

 

“I’m just helping bring out the full flavor of your beverage,” Genma lied, slipping out of the Simpa’s grasp. “Trust me, and drink.”

 

Telroke smiled and gave a harsh bark that might have passed for a laugh, and then tipped the bottle back, draining it in its entirety.

 

He shook his head, and a moment later, stared wild-eyed at Genma with clear eyes.

 

“Yes, I lied,” Genma admitted, trying to convey his sense of urgency. “But trust me, we both need you sober right now. Your boy has just been spotted breaching the perimeter.”

 

Chemical sobriety aside, knowing that the boy was so close to his position brought Telroke around like nothing else could.

 

“He’s here? Already?”

 

“He popped in to take a look around at the level of security.” Genma led the fuming Simpa through the hallways.

 

“Did any of the beasts give pursuit?”

 

“Of course not,” Genma said, as if this was obvious. “They’re programmed not to leave my sphere of influence, which only extends to the barrier of force.”

 

“Programmed?” Telroke raised an eyebrow as he ducked into his personal chambers to retrieve the battle-axe that Genma had made for him to use against his son.

 

“They were created with certain, restrictions,” Genma said in explanation as the Simpa returned to the hallway. “If they roam outside of the barrier, they will cease to function properly. It’s something I do with all of my successful experiments, except for a few items or creatures of interest,” he said, hinting at Telroke’s weapon. “Now, you have your battle plan to execute, I’m sure. Be certain they do not gain access to the upper tower levels, Telroke,” he said, moving into the doorway of a stairwell.

 

“Where’s your servant?” Telroke asked, looking around as he tested the weight of the axe.

 

The Alchemist had neglected to tell him what was so special about it, and Telroke had no knowledge of weapon enchantments of any sort. A weapon made with Alchemy might have any number of special qualities, none of which he could readily identify. Telroke grumbled mentally as he thought, I like to know about my weaponry.

 

“Kobuchi cannot be counted on to aid us any further,” Genma said flatly, furling his cloak around him. “I believe he may have found a way to break my control over him. If this is so, I have to work quickly. And you need to keep an eye out,” Genma said. “I didn’t just see your memories of your son when I had you in the chamber of recollections. I know you had a hostile encounter with our Kobold friend. I also know you didn’t come out on top of things.” He was irritated that Kobuchi would soon be free from him. Still, if he had to deal with the Kobold himself, Kobuchi wouldn’t stand a chance.

 

Up the stairwell he went, haste propelling him faster than he had gone in some long time. He had to take the girl to the transformation device now, before the Bounty Hunter and his nephew had a chance to get into the tower.

 

He had created a weapon for Telroke to use on his son with the aid of several Focus Sites, but he knew it would only give him a marginal edge on Portenda the Quiet. It would lend Telroke more strength and speed the longer he held it, but Telroke was now stone sober, and Genma wondered if he would be a better fighter for such a condition.

 

The axe couldn’t be broken, or removed from his grasp unless he dropped it himself. In addition to these traits, the weapon was made with mythril, and so was extremely lightweight. Telroke may have been a drunkard, but he was a pack leader, and an accomplished warrior. He could handle himself in a fight, and the axe would aid him in his battle with his son and the Alchemist couple. But Telroke’s fate was the least of Genma’s worries at the moment.

 

Genma made his way steadily toward his niece, who he would soon transform into his bride. He hated to rush things, because doing so brought with it risks of failure. Then again, if he didn’t hurry, he might not be alive to try later on. After the transformation, he would use a Teleportation Site to take himself and his newly reborn wife to a safe location, far from the tower. He didn’t care for the idea of abandoning his abode, but he could build another if he survived.

 

Finally, he arrived at his destination, the floor on which his quarry was most likely resting.

 

Genma took a single step into the hallway, and was nearly flattened by a fireball coming from the left of the intersecting corridor.

 

He had sensed the searing heat coming at him, a high velocity ball of fire intended to wound or kill the target, who had been him. Because he ducked, bits of stone showered him as the wall exploded.

 

His cloak pulled before him, stiffer than slate rock, Genma peered over the edge at Kobuchi. The Kobold had his hands before him, his fingers hooked as he prepared another spell.

 

“How dare you, you ungrateful little shit,” Genma howled as he slowly and stealthily reached into his belt, his movements shielded by his hardened cloak. “I own you. I have kept you fed and sheltered for years.”

 

“Yes,” Kobuchi said, fairly growling as he shifted his feet into a wide, splay-legged stance. “You have kept me fed and sheltered. And under your total control. Well, I shall be your slave no more.

 

Vakras durodenum,” he shouted.

 

A swirl of air surrounded his out thrust hands, tinting the air a vague shade of green, like old grass. A whirlwind of magic flowed around his hands, and he pressed them forward further, firing a cone of white wind at the ivory-masked Alchemist.

 

The force slammed into Genma’s cloak, forcing him back across the stone floor and down the corridor.

 

After the whirlwind dissipated, Genma found himself standing twenty or so yards away from the intersection of the corridors on this floor. The stairwell doorway on his left side of the hallway stood at the center of the intersection, and if Kobuchi hadn’t interfered, he would have had a straight shot to Eileen’s chamber.

 

Genma had hoped that Kobuchi would wind up being Telroke’s problem, not his own. If he used too much of his Focus art power, he would be left unable to complete the transformation process on Eileen. But Kobuchi was already preparing another spell, and potions, tinctures, powders and poisoned throwing darts weren’t enough to bring the Kobold mage down.

 

But he would have to use them for now, until he knew for certain a Focus could be used to secure victory in one fell swoop.

 

“Hrrauugh,” Genma screamed as he tossed a vial at Kobuchi.

 

The blue liquid inside shimmered as the vial shattered against the floor at Kobuchi’s feet, spraying him with sharpened shards of ice.

 

Lacerations bled on the Kobold’s arms and legs, but the wounds were rather insignificant.

 

The vial bought Genma time, however, and he dashed forward, drawing out a dart and tossing it at Kobuchi, who rolled to his left into the wall to avoid being struck.

 

Makarus esta,” Kobuchi muttered, pointing a single finger on his left hand in Genma’s direction.

 

The air sizzled with crackling ozone, and the scent filled Genma’s lungs, cramping his chest as a thin ray of lightning struck him squarely in the chest.

 

He was thrown far down the hallway, landing in a heap and writhing in agony as electrical power surged through his already maimed body. But the spell had been cast in haste, and thankfully for Genma, wasn’t lethal. It did, however, hurt like all Hells, and left him temporarily stunned.

 

He heard Kobuchi approaching, and managed to get one of his powders out of a pouch at his hip and into his hand.

 

As Kobuchi took a new stance, his body low to the ground, Genma sat up and blew the powder at him.

 

The powdery cloud turned into a wave of water that slammed into the Kobold and washed him all the way down the corridor to its opposite end, striking him against the far wall.

 

Genma smiled to himself as Kobuchi slumped against the wall, incapacitated.

 

“That takes care of that,” he whispered to himself. He thought for a moment of making certain that his former slave was dead, but he didn’t have the luxury of time. He had to get to the girl, and now.

 

Genma made his way to the intersection, and turned right, heading for Eileen Staples. Her door hung open, and he saw that she was sitting at the simple table, eating a small meal and smiling faintly to herself.

 

She looked up at him, and her smile broadened.

 

“What are you smiling at, girl,” he rasped, suspicious of her.

 

“Oh, nothing much,” she said, holding up one of his journals. “Fascinating stuff in here, uncle Allen.”

 

Genma’s hands clenched into fists of rage.

 

“Especially the parts about how you trapped Kobuchi into your service. Oh, and I don’t think he’s too happy about that part.”

 

“It doesn’t matter what he’s happy about, Eileen,” Genma said, taking a step forward and rebounding off a barrier spell. “What the Hells is this? This spell isn’t in your arsenal, girl.”

 

“But it is in his,” Eileen said with a wicked smile as a disk of stone slammed into Genma’s side, breaking several ribs as it threw him aside.

 

Once more he landed in a heap, this time on his stomach, clutching his broken side. He rolled onto his uninjured side, and looked through the eye slits in his mask at the Kobold, who was on his knees down the corridor.

 

“We’re not finished yet, Genma,” Kobuchi said, wheezing still from the impact of the water rush. “Not by, a long shot!”

 

* * * *

 

“What is it,” Jonah mumbled as he was roughly shoved awake.

 

Portenda said nothing, simply hovering over him as he reached across Jonah and shoved Nareena roughly.

 

Both Alchemists woke groggily, climbing up out of their shared bedroll.

 

The Bounty Hunter shoved piece of yellow paper under Jonah’s nose, and he took, quickly reading the hasty scrawl.

 

‘We’re here’ was written on the page.

 

Jonah came wide-awake very suddenly, scanning the area with his bleary eyes. “I don’t see anything,” he said while Nareena set about packing up the camp as quickly as possible.

 

Portenda wrote something more on another piece of paper, and thrust this under Jonah’s nose.

 

“Could you not do that,” the Human Alchemist complained as he snatched the sheet away.

 

‘You aren’t supposed to’, it said. ‘Follow me’ was written just beneath this.

 

Portenda, still silent as the shadow of Death led Jonah and Nareena to the barrier, which now flickering strangely.

 

Even Jonah could see the barrier as it rippled.

 

“An Alchemical barrier of force,” Nareena said in awe. “It’s huge. This sort of thing requires a whole lot of Focus Sites, evenly placed around a building or area.”

 

Jonah eyeballed her.

 

“What? It’s in your forth volume, you know,” she said in her own defense.

 

Portenda drew his broadsword once again, and led the way for the trio straight through the barrier.

 

Jonah and Nareena stopped dead in their tracks when they saw the dozens of guard beasts gathered around the perimeter of the tower that loomed high overhead.

 

Like a fist upraised against the Gods, the stone structure stood solid in the plains, and its guardians were milling about now, ready and fully aware that intruders had come into their territory. Even those three or four that had no apparent eyes on their faces were pointed toward the trio.

 

Jonah was mesmerized by the horror of the creatures for only a moment before his hands started flying around him.

 

He drew Focus Sites hastily into the dirt, onto his clothes, and he withdrew a few prepared Sites on pieces of parchment from his trouser pockets.

 

“Haah!” Jonah shouted as he activated the Focus on the ground in front of him.

 

Portenda dashed ahead of the Alchemists, his sword catching the moonlight, glinting as he began his assault.

 

Jonah had constructed a full sized golem with his first Site, and the stone giant grumbled from an ill-shaped mouth as Jonah prepared its first command. “Golem, defend Nareena and your master!”

 

Nareena had prepared a single Focus Site on a parchment, her first Focus Art attempt. She clapped her hands together with the sheet in her hands, and kept her hands together on the parchment as the flash of light took hold.

 

A moment later, she held a short sword that glimmered along its edge. She stood her position as a griffin-like creature approached her and Jonah, her posture firm and defensive, ready to strike back.

 

The beast began a head-first charge at them, but came up short as the golem raised its hands over its crudely-shaped head, and brought them down in a double axe handle smash along the creature’s spine.

 

There was a sharp snap, followed immediately by a death throe and a howl of agony as the Alchemical beast spewed blood from its beak and twitched on the ground, dying almost instantly.

 

Jonah kept track of the positions of the guard beasts, and noted that Portenda had already cut down nearly half a dozen of the creatures.

 

But he was now using his spear to keep a pair of them at bay, dodging and ducking away from cones of frost and black smog.

 

His assailants’ heads appeared to be almost exactly like those of Dragons, but Jonah knew that Dragons couldn’t be manipulated by the Alchemical process of Beast Fusion. Their smaller, lesser cousins, however, were often used in such experiments. The spear gave Portenda the reach he needed to strike at them and keep himself at a safe distance from their short-distance breath weapons.

 

However, Jonah saw that he wasn’t making much progress against them, because the creatures had the low, sleek bodies of a lynx, and their movements kept them well out of harm’s way from the Bounty Hunter.

 

More attackers were preparing to take Portenda from the sides.

 

Jonah activated another Focus Site, this one summoning up a set of spear launching tubes.

 

He ran behind the launchers and fired two of the five spears, which hit their marks in the breath-weapon-bearing creatures’ sides.

 

The minor injuries were enough to take them off balance, allowing Portenda to stab them each through the heart two times a piece before whirling on his new assailants and tearing them apart with his long handled weapon with ease.

 

Nareena took a few steps back as a hulking, bipedal bull-like beast crashed through Jonah’s golem as though it were so much dry clay.

 

The golem shattered into small fragments as the beast got to within a few yards of the Elven Alchemist.

 

Oh Gods, she thought, panic setting in.

 

“I hope this sword can handle this,” she muttered to herself. The specifications of the weapon she had created included the crippling of whatever it struck.

 

As the guard beast raised its right hand to smash her apart, she stabbed forward into its leg.

 

The end result wasn’t quite what she had been expecting.

 

The blade of her weapon shook and glowed, and her target quivered uncontrollably as she drew the bloodied tip out of the creature’s leg.

 

The stab wound began to split and widen, reaching up the leg and onto its hairy abdomen. Blood sprayed from the fresh wounds, and a hundred small incisions erupted all over the creature’s body. Crimson arterial blood showered Nareena as the bull-beast was torn apart from the inside.

 

It unleashed a primal roar of pain and rage as bits and pieces of its body fell to the ground.

 

Weapons, Focus Sites and Nareena’s poisonous powders flew about the battlefield. Together, Nareena, Jonah, and Portenda destroyed the guard beasts, one after the other

 

After about twenty minutes, the trio stood in pools of blood.

 

Portenda had taken only a few minor blows, his ribs bruised slightly and a fresh gash across his left leg, bleeding slowly. Jonah had taken the full brunt of a creature’s barbed tail across the chest, and was in a half-seated position, Nareena applying one of her healing salves to the wound.

 

“Not exactly as quick as a potion, but you know I’ve never been good with healing potions,” she said he grimaced at the burning sensation of the gooey syrup entered his wounds and began its slow but steady work.

 

“Don’t celebrate yet,” a low, rumbling voice called out from the direction of the tower.

 

Jonah and Nareena looked over at a Simpa with a large battle-axe, a sloppy grin on his face, and a striking resemblance to Portenda, who growling a ferocious, malice-tainted sound low in his throat.

 

“Who is he?” Jonah wheezed, though he was fairly certain he knew the answer already.

 

“It’s my father,” Portenda rumbled, the first words he had spoken since the sun was still in the sky. “You two get into that tower and get Eileen away from Genma.” Portenda put his spear away and set an offensive martial arts stance. “I’ll deal with this vagabond.”

 

He barred his teeth at his birth father.

 

Telroke swung his axe lazily up to his shoulder, setting it to rest against his collarbone.

 

Nareena helped Jonah to his feet, but neither made a move toward the tower.

 

“Oh, by all means, go ahead,” Telroke said with a wicked smile. It was the sort of expression that says, very quietly, you can do what you like. I’ll come for you when I’m done here.

 

Jonah shivered to his core, but felt obligated to stay and help the Bounty Hunter in any way he could.

 

“I’m not going to stop you,” the older Simpa said. “My business is with my boy, here, anyway. Genma said nothing about dealing with you two, aside from what the guards could manage.” He looked at the dozens of slain creatures. “Which apparently wasn’t much. Besides, I’m sure he’ll have more surprises for you two inside.”

 

Though he didn’t want to, Jonah started to move away, side stepping around Telroke.

 

“Portenda,” he said, starting to apologize.

 

“Don’t,” the burly Bounty Hunter said, his voice still as cold as ice. “We’ll meet up after I’m done here. But understand me, Jonah,” Portenda set his legs slightly farther apart in readiness. “I have to deal with this on my own. I’ve got you this far, haven’t I? Just trust me and leave this to me.”

 

Telroke barked out harsh laughter. “What’s so goddamned funny?”

 

Portenda’s question was rife with malice and contempt, a strange loss of temper for the Simpa Bounty Hunter.

 

“Oh, nothing, dear boy,” Telroke said, wiping his eyes clear. “I’m just amazed and a little surprised that you care about anything other than money. Or are these your contractors?”

 

Telroke set himself into a fighting stance with his axe. “I thought you didn’t bring clients along, Bounty Hunter? Ha ha ha ha haaaa.”

 

“They aren’t my clients,” Portenda grumbled, struggling to keep his composure. “They, are my friends.”

 

Once more Telroke burst into laughter.

 

Nareena and Jonah started towards the tower, looking over their shoulders as they went.

 

“Did he just say—?” Nareena began as they hurried along into the tower itself.

 

“Yes, he did.” Jonah smiled the most genuine smile he’d had in a long time. “Yes he did.”

 

* * * *

 

Magical and scientific energy collided in a flash of opposing forces. Harsh crackling noises ripped through the air as the combined arts pressed incessantly against one another.

 

The sound nearly deafening Eileen, who watched, filled with tension and apprehension from her chamber doorway. It had been quite a gamble on her and Kobuchi’s part, but they had agreed that something was up when Kobuchi saw that the guard beasts were almost all taken from the tower and set around the perimeter of the inside of the barrier.

 

They knew that Genma’s powers were vast, and most likely amplified by the equipment in the higher levels of the tower. In order to counteract this, Kobuchi had destroyed the magical energy converter with a concentrated blast of lightning from his palm. Genma had been distracted, and hadn’t bothered to check the equipment that wasn’t essential to the operation of the transformation machine.

 

But this part of the plan had been more loosely assembled. Kobuchi had said that he would distract the ivory-masked Alchemist while she kept herself safe and ready to escape. It had turned into more than a distraction; Kobuchi was going for the kill. And she could do nothing to help Kobuchi so long as he kept the barrier erected in her doorway; the only way to get through it would be for the Kobold to be incapacitated or for Eileen to use a spell to dissipate the barrier.

 

If she did that, however, she would be in the middle of the conflict, and she might very well be more of a hindrance to Kobuchi than help.

 

The Kobold mage tucked and rolled out of the way of a blast from Genma’s out thrust palm.

 

A single stream of Focus-created lightning crashed into the stone wall, throwing splinters around the hall.

 

Kobuchi countered with a swift wave of rippling air currents, sweeping Genma down the hall away from him. Just hold out for time, Kobuchi thought. Focus arts take more energy out of him than magic does out of me. If I just continue to use distraction spells, make him expend all of his energy before I run out, I can go for the kill. No more controls, no more commands.

 

Baraka Duzava.” He waved his hands up and down, creating a series of ripples and waves in the stone floor.

 

The entire tower trembled as the floor raised up and slammed down in a wave that struck full force into a thin barrier the Alchemist erected at the last second.

 

The barrier was the only thing that kept him from being crushed against the back wall of the corridor. The force of the blow still managed to completely throw his concentration, as well as damage something in his leg.

 

“Face it, Genma,” Kobuchi screamed as he summoned up more manna for use. “You can’t beat me in a head-on battle! Your Focus arts are as nothing compared to true magic.”

 

Beneath the ivory mask, the man formerly known as Allen Staples smiled broadly. He had expected the Kobold to be good, though admittedly, he had underestimated his talent. Still, he had the overall advantage, because Kobuchi wasn’t entirely out of his control.

 

“Oh, aren’t they? Alchemy is about more than just Focus arts, my friend.” Genma straighten up and deepened his voice. “Kobuchi, execute command number thirty-five.”

 

Kobuchi felt his left hand clench involuntarily in response to the Alchemist’s words. His hand balled into a fist and he punched himself squarely in the jaw, throwing himself to the floor in a firestorm of pain.

 

“What the Hells have you done to me,” Kobuchi screamed as he pulled himself up off of the floor. The blow had disrupted the flow of his manna, and he had to square himself away before attempting another spell.

 

Genma laughed derisively, the sound of it echoing strangely off of the walls like a death knell.

 

“It was all part of your first few weeks with me in the tower, Kobuchi,” Genma said as he took a few steps back in the direction of the Kobold. “Kobuchi, execute command number twenty-four.”

 

Kobuchi tried to stop himself, but the ivory-masked Alchemist’s brainwashing methods too thorough to resist. He moved his hands up and down in front of himself, and tried to stop the words from coming.

 

Magara Musdaga,” he croaked, trying to clamp his jaws shut.

 

A sheet of fire, stretching from the floor to the ceiling of the corridor, glimmered radiantly before him, and washed over his own body, burning him horribly and setting his clothes on fire.

 

Screaming and thrashing around uncontrollably, Kobuchi tried to stop the progress of the spell, but couldn’t utter the counter-spell for it.

 

Bastard! Total freak, maimed, pathetic freak, Kobuchi thought as he tried to get to his feet for one last stand against the man who had enslaved him for so long.

 

“You couldn’t possibly resist the order commands right now,” Genma said, moving confidently down the corridor toward the Kobold mage, both men’s breath starting to rattle in their chests. “You probably don’t have much manna left, either, do you? It’s all being collected by the converters, so you’re having to put an awful lot of effort into your spells, hmm?”

 

So smug, Kobuchi thought, as he got up on one knee and one foot, his hands pressed hard on his raised knee so that he might get up for one or two more shots of magic. Come on, he screamed at his own body. Get up.

 

“And without your magic,” Genma continued, “you are nothing, Kobuchi. Nothing but a scrawny, mangy, half-naked Kobold with none of your precious free will. Ha ha ha ha haaaa!”

 

Genma threw his arms back and cackled like a demon, waves of malice pouring from him like a geyser’s final, and fatal, eruption.

 

When he brought his head back down, the ivory mask reflected a hint of moonlight through one of the large, open windows in the corridor wall. Scar tissue revealed itself around the maddened orbs in his eye sockets, a visage that Kobuchi had gazed upon twice in his entire time under Genma’s control.

 

Timing, Kobuchi thought, it’s all about timing. The girl will be okay, as long as I’m alive and Genma can’t figure out a way around the barrier. It’s time for plan ‘b’.

 

“This ends now, Kobuchi,” the mad Alchemist said, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Kobuchi, execute command num—”

 

Veras, Silencio!” Kobuchi cut off Genma’s words with a spell.

 

A flash of blinding light flared up from the air around Genma.

 

He shielded his eyes with his cloak, throwing it wide open to finish giving the compulsion order to Kobuchi. But when he tried to speak, no words came from him. He clutched at his throat, felt the vibration of the air and words passing out of his lungs and into his mouth, where they were inexplicably stopped short. What had the Kobold done to him?

 

Enraged, the Alchemist drew one of the daggers from his back, but too late. Kobuchi used a non-verbal spell on himself, crouched on a window ledge. No time, he thought, no time. As he released the knife in Kobuchi’s direction, the Kobold waved and fell forward out of the window, into the world beyond the tower.

 

A Silence spell, Genma thought as he sagged against the stone wall next to the window. He peered out and watching the Kobold drift easily towards the earth below. A damned Silence spell saved the little ingrate. His conversion devices had been keyed to absorb the entirety of such spells cast in the tower, so how had he managed it?

 

Then Genma realized, as he let loose the quietest roar a man could, that he hadn’t checked the equipment. Kobuchi’s betrayal had included quite a lot of sabotage. If it took until the end of days, Genma would have his revenge on the Kobold.

 

For Genma, things had not gone from bad to worse. They had actually gone from bad to potentially fatal.

 

* * * *

 

Air rushed past Portenda’s head as Telroke swung the enhanced battle-axe, missing over and over again.

 

The Bounty Hunter worried because the consistently missing swings were getting closer every time his father brought the weapon around at him. Soon enough, Portenda would actually have to block the attacks with his own broadsword, which had rested idle in his hand since Jonah and Nareena had raced into the tower beyond his present confrontation.

 

“Come on, boy! Attack me why don’t you?” Sweat soaked through Telroke’s thick golden fur. His mane was completely matted to his neck and head, but he felt more powerful, more alive, with each hack and slash he attempted.

 

The ivory-masked freak had spoken truly to him of the axe’s special properties. He had merely to attack, and keep on the offensive. In time, even his accursed offspring would fall to the onslaught he brought.

 

“You’ve been waiting for this opportunity for years,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘years’ as he spun round to his left, swinging at Portenda’s right flank.

 

Too fast, Portenda thought as the tip of the axe head left a thin, bloody mark on his body. It cut through his protector vest without effort, giving him a small laceration. Nothing major. He  squared himself to his father’s movements. Just have to focus, predict the next attack.

 

He had barely finished this thought when Telroke swung again. When Portenda brought his sword up to block the attack, Telroke launched a vicious sidekick into Portenda’s chest, sending him skidding, heels tearing up the ground.

 

Flashes of pain blurred Portenda’s vision for a moment after the blow, and he tucked and rolled to his right out of sheer instinct when he heard a breakage of air around a massive body; his father landed several feet away, where Portenda had been standing. The axe was embedded to the second head in the dirt, but Telroke smiled sideways at Portenda, pulling the weapon out without effort.

 

Wait a minute, Portenda thought, pricking up his ears.Something, there, rhythmic, over and over. He hadn’t spared many words for Jonah and Nareena, or for his father, and his heightened senses continued to report to him regularly. The rapid, earthen beating noise, as on a tribal drum, continued and accelerated a little more.

 

Finally, he recognized the source of the sound as he avoided another heavy blow from Telroke—it was the older Simpa’s heart. If it continued to accelerate on its present course, it would soon explode.

 

“What’s the matter with you, boy,” Telroke screamed as he set himself in a defensive posture. “Why don’t you come at me? Afraid of your old man, eh?”

 

Telroke held the axe up to his face. “It’s only natural, you know. Sons are supposed to fear their fathers.” He paced in a circle, matching footsteps with his son. “Sure, they can love them, even respect them, but there’s always and forever that trace of primal fear.”

 

He took a moment to study Portenda’s movements.

 

The boy wasn’t going to attack him, he realized. He was waiting for something, the perfect moment to counterattack, Telroke thought. When I attack, I can’t let up, not for anything. “I can smell it on you, Portenda. The fear is calling out to me, from your very soul!”

 

Timing, Portenda thought. The world is based almost entirely on timing. The slow and steady increase of blood production in his father’s body as the battle continued had introduced a problem unique to his Race. When in the heat of battle, Simpa produce a chemical most notably present in Humans, called adrenaline. Portenda had studied up on this, and found that almost all of the Races of Tamalaria had a gland in their body that produced this chemical, usually in correlation to outward stress, such as combat.

 

In Simpa, the overproduction of this chemical makes them extremely strong and fast, but makes them inaccurate and somewhat clumsy as well. And predictable, Portenda thought lastly, bringing his head down and parrying the axe blow with the long spear on his back.

 

Using his own balanced body weight, Portenda shifted the attack to the side, and dashed forward, holding his own broadsword out at his side. The tip of the blade tore a streak through Telroke’s lower abdomen, spewing thick, crimson blood all over the grass.

 

Not a fatal blow, Portenda thought as he spun round to face his wounded father, but it will hurt, and slow him down.

 

Telroke himself had gone wide-eyed the moment his son had ducked his head and come forward, into the blow.Madness, he thought, sheer madness! How had he been so easily turned aside?

 

More troubling than this was the sharp sting in his stomach, and the sight of his own blood all over the ground. He turned slowly, holding his hand up to show him his own blood, and faced Portenda the Quiet.

 

I’ve brought this fate on myself, he thought.

 

“How? How could you do this? I have an enchanted weapon! Years of fighting experience.” He took a stumbling step forward.

 

Too much blood loss, he thought. Have to stall, buy some time for my regeneration to kick in.

 

“Throw down the weapon,” Portenda said, his tone as frosted as ocean-bound icebergs. “It’s causing your heart to accelerate dangerously, Telroke.  In a few minutes, you will have a heart attack, and you will be beyond my aid. I don’t know enough about medicine to help you if that happens.”

 

No inflection, show no emotion, he thought.

 

This time, in the face of the man he had grown to so loathe, he had mastery of himself. Perhaps the current circumstances helped him in this respect, he thought.

 

“Help me? You, help me,” Telroke asked. “Oh, that’s rich! Like you would even consider the idea.”

 

“I would,” Portenda said, his tone the same as before. “You are not my target. You are just an inconvenient obstacle. If you can be neutralized without coming to lethal harm, I shall endeavor to do so. A Bounty Hunter does not waste life unnecessarily. That is, unprofessional.”

 

“Ha! Unprofessional you say,” Telroke said, mocking his son. “Fine! Be unprofessional then! I have no qualms with that.”

 

He growled as he struck at Portenda again. The blows flew fast and hard, but Portenda read every one of Telroke’s motions, blocked and dodged, rolled away and lashed back with martial arts kicks and punches, keeping Telroke at bay.

 

After a few minutes of this, going back and forth, Telroke began to feel a cramping in his chest. When he brought the axe up for one more strike, he collapsed to his knees, one hand on his chest, one on the ground, supporting his weight and holding the axe.

 

“I tried to warn you,” Telroke heard Portenda say, as fire burned through his chest. It felt like a Phoenix had been born inside of his ribcage, and presently stretched its legendary wings around inside of his body, pressing for free space.

 

His vision blurred, and sweat, salty and slick, stung his eyes as it flowed into his face.

 

Telroke felt his left arm going numb: ye Gods, he thought,the boy was right! I’m going to die if I don’t let go of this axe! But also, it’s the only thing I have to use against him.

 

“Not much good to you if you’re dead.” Portenda knelt next to his father.

 

“What, are you a Psychic now too?”

 

“I can read your face, even from a lower vantage and from the profile,” Portenda said flatly. “I also know that my blocks and counterstrikes should have dislodged the axe from your grasp. It’s locked onto your palm, isn’t it? You have to let go of it for yourself, Telroke.” A hint of compassion snaked into his voice. “Just let it go, and I shall let you leave here, alive.”

 

Telroke heard the soft click of the hammer on Portenda’s ancient mecha weapon as it drew back. The cold steel of the muzzle pressed gently against his temple. “Try to swing that thing at me one more time, though, and you’ll either have a heart attack, or I’ll spread your brains all over the dirt and rocks. Your choice.”

 

Telroke didn’t dare so much as turn his head to look the boy in the eyes, try to make out whether or not Portenda was just bluffing. He relinquished his grip on the axe, slowly, carefully, and dropped immediately to the ground, huffing and wheezing.

 

He lay on his back, staring up at his own flesh and blood as Portenda holstered the pistol.

 

Portenda stepped gingerly over him, planted his left heel down on Telroke’s wrist, and reached down for the axe. When he had it in hand, he stepped off of his father’s arm, twirled about a few rotations, and hurled the axe into the air.

 

It quickly became little more than a speck on the horizon, thanks to the barrier’s visual illusions.

 

“When you manage to get up, go home,” Portenda glared down at his father with eyes boiling over with hatred. As he turned his back on Telroke to stalk away, the older Simpa clutched at his ankle weakly.

 

“Wait! I have one question for you,” Telroke said, his heart now heavy not with labor, but with guilt and self-pity. “I know we’ve never gotten on very well, and I know I’m partially to blame for that.”

 

“Entirely,” Portenda retorted hotly. So much for that self-control, he thought.

 

“All right, I’ll give you that one,” Telroke wheezed, knowing full well that he would soon be passing out. “Just, tell me something. Why don’t you ever just call me, dad?”

 

Portenda had been waiting for this question each and every time the two men met, and he finally had the opportunity to tell the bastard why he felt the way he did. And now, he had a better understanding of why. Portenda the Quiet turned back to his father, knelt down next to him, and sighed heavily.

 

“Because, Telroke, that moniker would denote affection, love, and a connection that, well, we don’t have, you and I,” he said, gesturing vaguely with his hands. “You aren’t my dad. You’re barely my father,” he said, leaning in close, his breath filling Telroke’s tiny, private little world. “You just happened to be there when I was conceived.”

 

On this note, Portenda bared his teeth, exposing a full set of ready-to-kill daggers in his mouth. “If you ever come at me like that again, I won’t hesitate, I won’t be so nice. I’ve spared you out of familial duty. And because she wouldn’t have wanted me to do it.” He stood and once again turning his back on his father. “Go home, Telroke of the Allenian Hills. Go home, and never again cross my path.”

 

With these words ringing in his head, Telroke passed out of consciousness, and into the sweet release of dreams.

 

Dreams haunted by the image of a gun barrel pressed against his head.

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