The group sat around the campfire, looking at the ruins of Genma’s tower.

 

Blink rested peacefully in Portenda’s lap, where he had taken up residence since the Simpa Bounty Hunter sat down in front of the fire that Jonah provided with a pinch of one of his powders.

 

“So,” Jonah muttered, “Uncle Allen just kind of, lost it, I guess.”

 

“He couldn’t handle the stress of it, Jonah, that’s all.” Nareena put her arm around his waist.

 

Eileen remembered the Elven girl and gave her the iciest stare she had available.

 

“He lost everything in the blink of an eye. All he had left was his science,” Nareena said.

 

“He could have come to us.” Eileen was still too disgusted with her uncle’s actions as Genma to feel any measure of pity. “He didn’t have to put Jonah through that brainwashing, or me through my ordeal. He didn’t have to make Kobuchi a slave.”

 

Silence followed her fury, a void of conversation broken only when Portenda stood up and moved toward the tower’s rubble.

 

“In his own way, he did come to you,” the hulking Bounty Hunter said, his back still to the rest of the party. “He knew the extent of Jonah’s ability. He therefore knew that Jonah could handle the brainwashing, and be completely efficient. And he came to you, Eileen, because he knew your home, from the interior layout, to the daily routines everyone had. He already knew you were a near perfect match for your aunt. Only his family could provide him with what he needed. In the end,” Portenda said, his voice dropping a few audible levels. “Isn’t that what family is?”

 

Each member of the company spent the remainder of the evening and night relating the events of the last few weeks to one another from their own point of view.

 

Jonah had intended to hire the Bounty Hunter to train him in his art; he hadn’t assumed he would have to ask Portenda for his services, or fight alongside him.

 

Eileen and Kobuchi’s stories gave Portenda, Jonah and Nareena a better sense at what it was like being Genma’s captors. Portenda conveniently left out the parts involving his father.

 

Jonah understood: not all family affairs should be aired out in the open.

 

The company went peacefully to sleep, assured that Portenda’s keen senses would keep them safe from ambush through the night. They would be on their way to Desanadron come morning, sped along thanks by Jonah’s Focus Sites.

 

* * * *

 

I TOLD YOU HE’D MAKE IT OUT, Death said.

 

Byron of Sidius had smiled as a Dread Knight, and the effect had always been eerie because of the skull and his very nature. When Death smiled, the lesser Gods and Goddesses felt it in their core being, and all of them shuddered as one. And this smile could be said to come close to splitting his skull in half.

 

“Indeed, you did.” Fate peered at the orb in his chamber. “How did you know? There were no guarantees.”

 

Death reached into his robes and drew out Portenda’s life timer. An immeasurable amount of sand filled the top bulb.

 

“Ah, so that’s it. I suppose we each have our own ways of predicting such things. I wonder whose is more accurate?”

 

THAT DOESN’T MUCH MATTER NOW, DOES IT? I’M JUST GLAD THAT HIS BEING BORN HASN’T CAUSED A RIP IN REALITY. AND SINCE HE’S IN THE HISTORIES NOW, HE CAN’T JUST BE RUBBED OUT.

 

“Indeed. But he’ll have to be spoken for. Who will be his deity? I don’t think anyone is going to want to take the task.”

 

HMPH. I KNOW SOMEONE WHO’S PERFECT FOR IT, Death moved toward the door leading out of Fate’s room and back to the labyrinth that served as the home of the Gods. I’LL GO SPEAK WITH HIM NOW. AND DON’T WORRY, Death said as he opened the door. IF HE ASKS ANY QUESTIONS, I’LL TAKE THE FULL BLAME FOR THE BOY.

 

“So, who are you going to talk to?”

 

WHO ELSE? Death asked in his funeral bell tone. THE GOD OF WAR IS ALWAYS LOOKING FOR WORTHY CANDIDATES. WELL, I’M OFF, FRIEND. WE’LL TALK AGAIN.

 

“Yes, I believe we shall,” Fate said. He looked over at his bed longingly. He so seldom ceased his tireless, endless study of the Histories. Maybe, just for a little while, he would rest. Of course, he had to do one more thing before he took that rest. “Um, Grim?”

 

YES?

 

“Is there any way I could convince you to clean up your dog’s mess? He went on my pillow.”

 

* * * *

 

Portenda’s blood sped along the long and narrow racetrack of his arteries and veins, pressed on by the dual nature of his Simpa and Khan blood. As the sun’s first warming rays of light touched his furry flesh, his mother’s lineage awoke in his body, alive and alert.

 

His eyes snapped open, and to his surprise, he found the others of the small company already moving about the campsite to prepare their morning meals.

 

The Bounty Hunter tried to rise to a sitting position, but his entire muscular system shouted rather loudly at him in protest.

 

Gods, I hurt all over, he thought.

 

Still, he managed to get himself into a seated position, with his left arm stretched out to the side for additional support.

 

A slender shadow was soon cast down over him, and Portenda looked up into Jonah Staples’s gentle smile.

 

“So, you’re finally up big guy,” Jonah said amiably.

 

“How long was I asleep,” Portenda asked.

 

“Probably about ten hours.” Jonah took a seat and stretched out his legs in front of him a few feet away from Portenda. “That’s a good three times longer than I’ve known you to sleep any given night. You’ve endured a lot over the last month. You’ve earned it.”

 

Jonah passed Portenda a water skin.

 

The Simpa Bounty Hunter accepted it with little hesitation, breathing the crisp morning air before taking in much-needed liquid.

 

His physical condition had seemed solid before he passed out the previous night, but then, he didn’t usually fall asleep so early.

 

“Did I miss anything when I fell asleep?”

 

“Not much,” Jonah said. “I agreed to move back in with my sister and parents for a while, and Nareena’s going to set up an Alchemy shop in Desanadron. I’ll probably move in with her after a couple of months, if all goes well.”

 

“You talked to her about that after Eileen was asleep, didn’t you?” Portenda asked, already aware of the answer.

 

Jonah smiled wanly at him, comforted that the Bounty Hunter’s powers of observation and deduction hadn’t faded with his strength.

 

“Still not sure your family would approve of your seeing the woman who, apparently, tried to kill you a few years back. Smart move on your part.” Portenda took another swig of the water before passing it back to Jonah.

 

A wisp of smoke plumed up into the air, a sure sign that the ladies and Kobuchi had started the early meal.

 

A deep, awkward silence settled between the thin, frail-bodied Human boy, whose favorite activities included scientific research, and the huge, thickly built half Simpa, whose favorite activity happened to be, in actuality, enjoying a spot of cuppa with a friend. But he did rather enjoy the thrill of the hunt nearly as much.

 

Portenda sniffed the air, and made a note of how close to being finished the meal was. He sensed that Jonah had something on his mind, but the boy seemed tense, expectant. He wanted to say something, or ask something of the Bounty Hunter.

 

“Out with it, boy,” Portenda said flatly.

 

“Oh.” Jonah jumped a little at the sound of that familiar, droning bark. “Well, I was sort of wondering, Portenda. What’s next for you? I mean,” he looked over his shoulder at his sister, the woman he had fallen in love with again, and the odd but clearly talented Kobuchi. “What do you do now? The mission’s over.”

 

Portenda looked Jonah in the eyes, boring as deep as he dared do so without gaining the boy’s attention.

 

Observation, he always called it when somebody got an inkling of what was going on.

 

“The mission isn’t over, Jonah.”

 

Jonah simply raised an eyebrow.

 

“Not until Eileen is home, which should be in a little while. You’ve got your Focus Sites prepared?”

 

“Yes, actually, I have.”

 

“Good,” the Bounty Hunter said as he rose to his feet, ambling over to the rest of the company. “I’m going to need to get back to Ja-Wen quickly, in order to take care of some business matters. But I have to make a stop over in your hometown first, after we drop you all off.”

 

“Business matters?”

 

“Yes,” Portenda said evenly. “I have to purchase that apartment building our Kobold friends are in. I did say I was thinking about it.”

 

Portenda sat down to the prepared meal before him.

 

“I’ll be keeping the building in Ja-Wen, of course,” he said to Jonah as he started eating the mildly prepared sweet meats and eggs that Nareena kept in her rations. “And I’ll need your help to get back and forth a few times, Jonah. Your Focus Sites are a good deal less costly than Teleportation scrolls, eh?”

 

He gave the boy a gentle smile across the breakfast fire and Jonah saw for the first time just how natural and relaxed the hulking Bounty Hunter could be. Without a contract or mission, Portenda could possibly even be an easygoing sort of fellow, he thought.

 

“So, what are you going to do, Kobuchi?” Eileen asked the Kobold mage.

 

Kobuchi had seemed quite content since the fall of the tower, and hadn’t bothered much with idle conversation. Conversation didn’t come naturally to him after so much Alchemy had been used to suppress his free will. But he managed to respond in any event. After all, he reasoned, this Human girl was the only friend he’d had in years.

 

“I couldn’t say for certain, but I think I may head for Palen. It’s a city after my own heart, just drowning in magic. I can start looking for a new pack to join with when I arrive.”

 

“Lots of Kobolds in Palen, are there?” Eileen asked.

 

“Not as such, but the ones that live there are all students of magic or science in some field. It’ll be good for me, I think.”

 

Portenda finished his meal, giving the few remains to Blink, who had been waiting patiently in his lap.

 

Eileen, quietly enjoying her meal and the company of her brother and friends, felt a little bad about the innocent creatures that had most likely died during the destruction of the tower.

 

“Well, I’ll help clean up,” Jonah said.

 

Jonah, Nareena and Eileen went about cleaning up the campsite while Portenda and Kobuchi rested around the dying fire.

 

“I see you’ve made a friend. What’s his name,” Kobuchi said to Portenda as the Bounty Hunter pet the Alchemy beast lightly on its small, canine head.

 

“Eileen named him Blink. He’s taken to it quite well,” Portenda said, carrying on an inner conversation with the rather intelligent animal. “As you know, he came from one of Genma’s labs. She managed to send him to us for help when she tried to escape from the tower. Are you sure you’re going to be able to make it all the way back east to Palen on your own?” Portenda asked.

 

Kobuchi waved a hand to dismiss the Bounty Hunter’s concerns. “Trust me, I’m quite capable of doing so. We’re closer to Palen than where you’re headed, in any event. Of course, you do have Jonah’s Focus arts to help get you to Desanadron. But don’t worry.” Kobuchi summoned a dagger of ice into his hand. “I’ve got a very handy arsenal of spells at my disposal. You shouldn’t worry about me.”

 

“Maybe not, but now I’m worried about the folks in Palen.” Portenda gave the Kobold a sly grin. “They don’t take kindly to newcomers who are better at magic than the local city guards right away.”

 

Kobuchi chuckled lightly, and got up from his seat, hitching up the spare rucksack that the Simpa had given him.

 

“Well, I’ve got to say goodbye to Eileen,” Kobuchi said. “She’s a very special young woman, you know. With practice, she’ll become a very powerful Q Mage. And Jonah, well, he seems very talented at what he does. Well,” he said, offering his tiny, four-fingered hand to Portenda, who accepted and shook amiably. “Best of fortune to you, Mister Portenda the Quiet. May the Gods smile upon you.”

 

He was quite unaware that one particular God was presently listening to a very important being make a case for the Bounty Hunter.

 

“And may they smile upon you as well,” Portenda said with an easy smile.

 

Kobuchi walked away, pulling Eileen aside to talk briefly with her and thank her for her help.

 

They embraced one another briefly, and then Kobuchi was off, heading to Palen. The city would welcome him with open arms, and much would be accomplished thanks to his help. But that tale can be told later.

 

After the company from Ja-Wen and Eileen Staples could no longer see Kobuchi in the distance, Jonah set about making a large Focus Site in the barren dirt near the remains of the tower. When it was finished, everyone stood in the middle of it, and he clapped his hands together, bringing out the power of Alchemy.

 

A minute later, when he pressed his hands to the Site, the entire group disappeared from the region. Only one set of eyes watched them vanish from sight. Those eyes slightly misted over, and then turned their attention to the Allenian Hills to the southwest.

 

For a long moment, they stared at the label of a bottle of alcohol, before the hand holding it reared back and hurled the bottle into the distance.

 

“Never again,” the Bounty Hunter’s father whispered to himself. “Never again.”

 

* * * *

 

“I’m impressed,” the God of War said as he viewed the Keeper’s record orb.

 

Death regretted that he had slipped the astral being out of Portenda’s soul during such a peaceful period in the Bounty Hunter’s days. But, it really was the best way to present his case. Portenda’s Keeper, as with all Keepers, took on the shape and form best suited to the current host. This one named itself Talim, and took the form of a lion-tiger hybrid creature, adorned in blue fur, and golden riding armor. Its entire body appeared to be wound tighter than a clock spring, ready to pounce on anything.

 

I THOUGHT YOU WOULD BE, Death said.

 

“And you say he’s partly related to you?” The God of War’s raised eyebrows were barely visible behind the visor of his war helmet. “He shows more promise than most of my own loyal worshippers.”

 

The orb wafted through the air back to the Keeper Talim, who swallowed the orb whole back into its body before disappearing back to its host’s soul. “Very useful creatures, those Keepers. Fate’s creations, right?”

 

INDEED. AND VERY HELPFUL WHEN I GUIDE SOULS TO THEIR FINAL DESTINATION. SO, WILL YOU ACCEPT HIM AS ONE OF YOUR OWN?

 

“Yes, Honorable Guest,” said the God of War. “You seem in a bit of a rush, Grim. Something on your mind?”

 

OH, NOTHING MUCH. I’VE GOT TO GET HOME AND FEED THE DOG. Death opened a rift leading to his personal abode.

 

“Since when did you get a pet? Not that it’s a bad thing,” the God of War said with a grin. A pair of gray wolf hounds lay resting on either side of a hearth set in the wall of the God of War’s main chamber, dressed in animal battle armor. “A lot of us have been saying for years that you need something to make you a little less, well, serious. And besides, dogs are great animals to have around, you know. Very loyal. What made you get him?”

 

I HAPPENED TO BE IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME, Death lied. It was a handy skill he had picked up from mortals over the ages.

 

Some mortals, the ones known to the world as Rogues, made an entire career out of lying. Death didn’t care much for it, though, and reserved it for special occasions.

 

BESIDES, he said. EVERYBODY NEEDS SOMEBODY TO, UH. WHAT’S THE WORD I’M LOOKING FOR, he asked, perhaps directing the question to the God least suited to answering it.

 

“Love, Honorable Guest. I believe they call it, love.”

 

YES, THAT’S THE TERM. WELL, I MUST BE GOING. KEEP AN EYE ON MY BOY, MARIKESH. I’LL BE RATHER SORE IF YOU DON’T.

 

Death left the God of War vaguely quivering as he disappeared through the rift.

 

As soon as he arrived on the other side, Maxi pounced on him, knocking him to the ground with a heavy HOOMPH!

 

He managed to get out from under the dog by rolling himself out, and brushed his robe off. COME ON, BOY. LET’S GO INSIDE AND GET YOU SOME FOOD.

 

* * * *

 

Jacob Staples pulled the last of the encroaching weeds from his carrot patch, and wiped the sweat from his brow. “Well, that’s the last of them,” he said to himself as a flash of light and crackling, lightning-like noises burst from the air behind him.

 

His entire body stiffened, and when he turned around, he was looking at the Bounty Hunter, his son, his son’s girlfriend, and, no, his eyes did not deceive him, his daughter!

 

He threw the gardening tools aside and dashed to embrace her, hoisting her into the air, giggling like a schoolgirl.

 

“Oh daddy! It’s good to see you again,” she cried out, the tears spilling freely now.

 

“Good, but you’re crushing me,” she gasped after a minute, and soon found her mother doing the same as her father.

 

The three of them turned quickly into a trio of smiling, crying heaps, kneeling together in the back yard and holding one another.

 

Jonah rubbed the back of his head, thoroughly embarrassed, but happy to see his family back together. Nareena gave him a peck on the cheek and put her arm around his waist.

 

“I’ll be by later,” she whispered in his ear. “I’m going to go see about renting out that shop.”

 

Giving her a long kiss, Jonah felt warmth glowing out from his very core. He was home, his family was together, and he had a loving girlfriend. And his knowledge of Alchemy was growing daily. But one thing remained to be done, he thought.

 

“Mom, dad,” Jonah said, and his family stood beaming at him, their eyes still glistening. “I’ll be sticking around for a while, if that’s okay.”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous, boy,” Jacob said, smiling at his son. “Of course it is. And you, Mister Portenda,” he said, taking on a more serious tone of voice as he stepped forward, putting a hand out. “We can’t thank you enough for bringing her home to us.”

 

“I had a good deal of help from your son,” Portenda said, taking the offered hand.

 

Before he could react, he was pulled forward and embraced by the old Human Soldier, and before he had time to feel strange about that, Mrs. Staples was also on him.

 

“Um, you’re welcome,” he said as they pulled away. “I need to be going soon, to take care of some business. I’ll need to borrow your son for a short while longer.”

 

“Of course, Mister Portenda,” Jacob Staples said with a smile. “You’ll be back in time for dinner, right?”

 

Oh boy, Portenda thought. How can I say no to that smile?

 

Simple. You don’t, Blink thought to him from his perch on his shoulder.

 

Humph, thought Portenda. I wasn’t talking to you, but thanks.

 

“Of course we will.” Portenda took Jonah aside. “Get the Sites ready, and we’ll be as quick as possible.”

 

“Don’t forget that we should probably go get Talonz. Besides, what’s the rush,” Jonah said as he drew a new Site in the yard with his foot, setting the destination for Ja-Wen.

 

“I don’t know about you,” Portenda said with a smile. “But I’m rather looking forward to a home-cooked meal.”

 

With that, the Bounty Hunter and young Alchemist disappeared.

 

Epilogue

Sergeant Thompson of the Desanadron Police Department, 16th precinct, got up from his studies of a recent robbery when the knock came at his door.

He wasn’t expecting company, but remembered when he looked at the calendar that the rent was due today.

Thankfully, the landlord didn’t charge a great deal. In truth, this building had the lowest rent prices almost anywhere in the entire city. Moving in had given the sergeant the opportunity to afford better equipment for his job.

The landlord seemed a bit on the quiet side, but had a certain air of authority about him. And if the stories the Kobold tenants in the lower apartments told were true, he was a Bounty Hunter.

The sergeant opened the door, and found himself looking into the neutral glare of the landlord, a large, heavily armed Simpa with strange gray stripes on his arms, reminiscent of a Khan, the were-lions’ natural enemy. He gave the hulking Mister Portenda a winning smile as he handed him a small leather pouch. “How’s business going, sir?”

“Just fine, officer,” Portenda said in that familiar, arctic tone. This alone unnerved Sergeant Thompson more than anything else about the landlord: it was as if the man constantly held his emotions in check.

“I won’t be by on the normal day next month, officer Thompson,” he said. “So I’ll be by the next day for the rent. Any problems with the apartment?”

“No, not that I can think of,” Thompson said.

“Good.”

“Hey, is it true that you’re the Bounty Hunter,” Thompson asked before he could stop himself.

Portenda had been turning to move on to the next apartment, where he would be stopping in for a brief visit. He turned back to Officer Thompson, his gray eyes half closed. Thompson had come to notice that when the landlord looked like that, he was thinking carefully about his response. A good policeman notices these things, he thought.

“Yes, I am Portenda the Quiet,” the Simpa said evenly. “Does the department require outside consultation?”

It wasn’t uncommon for him now to get requests from the Desanadron police department for aid in apprehending a criminal. He’d been in the city for two months, and had already taken five jobs for the department.

“No, no, I just figured that’s why you won’t be by next month on the usual day,” Thompson said.

At this, the landlord smiled, an expression that the Human officer hadn’t yet witnessed on his leonine face.

Well, that’s good to see, he thought. He’s not totally devoid of feeling.

That would explain the strange pet he carried with him from time to time, too.

“No. Actually, my next stop to your neighbors across the hall is the reason. It’s their wedding date, and I’m the guest of honor,” Portenda said, audibly pleased.

“Oh, the Staples boy and the Elven girl,” Thompson asked. “Well, good for them,” Thompson said. “How’s it feel to be the honored guest?”

“Pretty good,” Portenda said, moving down the hall to Jonah’s door.

As Thompson closed his apartment, silence wrapped around Portenda like a familiar blanket. “IT SORT OF RUNS IN THE FAMILY.”

 

THE END

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