Telroke hadn’t slept well after taking a beating from, of all things, a creature less than a quarter of his total mass.

 

Genma hadn’t warned him that some of the servant staff was less than cooperative and he had paid for it with a series of burns and scrapes. The impact from running into Kobuchi’s magical barrier had also dislocated his shoulder. All in all, the Simpa was not having a good time.

 

He decided it was time to ask the ivory mask-wearing Alchemist why he was here.

 

After a short nap, which he took mostly in order to regenerate his burns and his shoulder, the alcoholic Simpa got up, changed his clothes so as not to let Genma know there had been trouble, and set off to find the Alchemist.

 

The hallways of the lower floors of Genma’s tower were draped in a veil of silence as he made his way through, scouring the tower in search of the Alchemist.

 

Finally, he saw an oak door cracked slightly open, with flashes of light from within.

 

Too curious to help himself, Telroke pushed the door open, and was immediately shocked to find the Alchemist seated in a lush, leather swivel chair, watching several shimmering, flat objects. “They’re called monitors,” the Alchemist said without turning to see that he had a visitor.

 

As soon as Telroke had crossed the threshold, a thin wire had been pulled, which had been attached to a small metal box in front of Genma. A dim green light flared to life, telling Genma that the Simpa had arrived.

 

Without any monitor cameras on the first three floors, Genma wanted to ensure that he could remain prepared, and so he had set up several such devices in the rooms he most frequented. Without another moment of hesitation, he turned in his swivel chair, facing the Simpa with his hands folded together. “They’re mecha, Telroke, nothing you’d be very interested in.”

 

“No, I’m probably not.” Telroke crossed his arms over his barrel-like chest. He had always been a large specimen, though he knew he wasn’t as capable as his own son. In terms of pure strength, he felt certain he could outlast the boy; but Portenda was faster than any being he knew and possessed a keen level of intelligence and perception that the older, pureblood Simpa simply couldn’t meet. On the field of battle, Portenda had the advantage.

 

“But that isn’t why I’m here, Genma. I want to know what your intentions are for me. I want to know why you brought me here, aside from learning what little I can tell you about, uh, Portenda.”

 

“That’s simple, really,” Genma said, smiling behind his ivory mask. “I want you to kill him when he gets here.” The Alchemist had sadly given up on the hope that his nephew and the Bounty Hunter might not reach his tower.

 

He’d had no further contact with the Sidalis in his employ, so he assumed the mutant had been found out and destroyed.

 

Telroke stared at the Alchemist, as if the man had sprouted two extra heads.

 

“How the Hells exactly do you suppose I’m going to pull that off? Maybe you haven’t noticed, or bothered to do your research, but that little freak can’t be stopped.”

 

Genma got to his feet and stalked towards Telroke, brushing past him with his long, black leather cloak. His cloaks, he mused for a moment, had been brilliantly constructed, made to perform various offensive and defensive duties. The one he currently employed was among the best. When the cloak brushed against a sentient being, it tore away at the mental and physical barriers in place. Telroke found himself following after Genma without question, without pause.

 

The overall effect wore off as soon as he passed over the threshold of yet another strangely equipped laboratory.

 

Mecha devices glimmered and buzzed all around him in the small lab, the walls lined with tables upon which large sheets of paper were spat from softly humming apparatus. “What is all of this,” he asked in a low whisper, impressed by the ancient technology.

 

“This is the chamber of recollection.” Genma walked to a sturdy metal chair bolted into the far wall. Several straps had been attached to its arms and legs, and an orb of vibrant emerald had been fashioned and set into a sort of headset. “I sometimes use it to gain information from the guests I keep here, Telroke. Surely in your long years apart from your, son,” he emphasized this word in order to get a rise out of the alcoholic Simpa. “You have bumped into him on occasion. I’d like to use the chair here to delve into your memory, see if perhaps you have some hidden knowledge of the boy’s weaknesses.”

 

Telroke shrugged his shoulders noncommittally, not agreeing, disagreeing, nor understanding a word of what he was being asked to do.

 

“So, how does it work, exactly?”

 

“You’ll sit in the chair, and I’ll just operate a few levers and switches, here,” Genma said, waving his hand over a set of controls for the chair.

 

Telroke had an instant dislike, and more importantly, distrust of the apparatus.

 

“It’ll be painless, I assure you,” Genma cooed, playing on the Simpa’s pride and ego.

 

It worked. “A little discomfort never killed anybody.” He seated himself in Genma’s device.

 

The Alchemist touched a button, and the straps secured themselves around Telroke’s wrists and ankles, holding him fast to the chair.

 

Almost without a care, Genma lowered the helmet segment onto the Simpa’s head, throwing another switch as he returned to the panel of controls.

 

A blank monitor screen fizzed into view, revealing a soft, white fog.

 

As soon as Genma turned on the main control, Telroke wondered how wise he’d been to scoff at pain. Fissures of nerves opened throughout his body, making the very circulation of air in the room over his flesh feel like a thousand razor blades whirring and buzzing just beneath the surface of his skin.

 

Hunched over the monitor screen, snickering like a little boy who has just deposited a frog in his sister’s hair, Genma watched Telroke’s life flash before his eyes.

 

* * * *

 

By the time the trio from Ja-Wen made their way out of the woods, evening was swooping down over the land, a jet-black raven that hunted the light of the day until it scurried beneath the horizon. The raven’s wings were a deep gray, forming overhead clouds that shielded the lands of Tamalaria from lunar light.

 

Portenda felt the sun’s naturally lent strength leave his body, but he was good enough to deal with this dreary nocturnal environment.

 

Regardless of his self-confidence, he knew the woods had been a harrowing experience for the Alchemists. Monsters like the froggrip didn’t usually show themselves in broad daylight, but the canopy of the treetops had seemed good enough to the slain amphibian beast. It had been a judgment call that the monster wouldn’t have the opportunity to foul up again.

 

“Let’s set up camp for the night.” Portenda stopped in his tracks when the company had moved perhaps a hundred yards away from the woods.

 

Neither Jonah nor Nareena put up any complaint, letting the horses go to a nearby stream to water themselves, and flopping on the ground soon after setting out their bedrolls. Without a word to each other or Portenda, they both quaffed some strange, sky blue liquid from a pair of Jonah’s vials, and fell instantly asleep.

 

Portenda leaned over and plucked one of the vials from the ground, giving it a good sniff.  “Hmm,” he said to himself. “Sleeping potion.”

 

Blink had remained fairly quiet since their encounter in the woods, not even giving Portenda directions to follow. On his way out, the Alchemical beast had made his way through the woods without incident. Now he couldn’t cope with the fact that such a monster had been there the whole time he had scuttled through.

 

Sometimes, Blink thought, it pays to be small.

 

“You’ve got that right,” Portenda said aloud, and Blink gave the Bounty Hunter a small, canine smile.

 

Sorry, it thought to Portenda. Didn’t mean for you to hear that.

 

“Hard not to.” He plucked Blink from his perch and set him on the ground. “That should make things a bit easier for your privacy.”

 

Blink darted off towards the stream.

 

Alone with his thoughts, as usual, Portenda heaved a heavy sigh.

 

Jonah and Nareena had grown quite close since the company joined together, but he had grown slightly apart from the boy. He enjoyed their company, as he rarely had any of his own. What was this feeling he had toward the Elven girl? Jealousy, he thought in response to his own question. The ethereal wings of night withdrew slightly, letting some little precious moonlight onto the fields and plains around the company. They hadn’t lit a fire for warmth, because their bedrolls had been altered by Jonah’s Alchemy, using the power of Focus to retain heat. With no light other than what was available, Portenda sat down near his companions, took out a small piece of wood, and began carving.

 

He rarely thought about what he was going to carve out in the pieces of wood. Most times he wound up making animals and creatures that he had seen in his travels of Tamalaria. But on occasion, he couldn’t identify, readily at least, the end product. In a few instances, he wound up carving replicas of his contract targets. They always had that deer-in-headlights look of panic, a look their faces actually gained when they discovered that they couldn’t get away from the Simpa Bounty Hunter. He didn’t intend for their faces to have that horrified or confused expression, but it was always the first thing that stuck in his mind when he thought back on the jobs.

 

Tamalaria’s plains, forests, mountains and hills were dangerous when one didn’t follow the main trade routes. With no patrols or guards around, many pilgrims succumbed to the creatures and thugs that inhabited the less traveled regions. But Portenda had long realized that few of the things he came in contact with in the wild were much of a threat to him. It was difficult for anyone in his line of work to stay on government-regulated roads. Checkpoint guards tended to like making a lot of paperwork and jailing ‘suspicious sorts’ overnight. And his targets tended to stay well clear.

 

Having traveled mostly away from such routes, it came as a bit of a surprise when Portenda looked up from his finished miniature, a Desanadron military guard of the Elven Race, to see a group of torches heading in the company’s general direction. A patrol? he wondered. Out here?

 

Portenda rose, but opted not to awaken the Alchemists: they had enough on their plates to deal with as it was.

 

As the torches drew closer, Portenda made out the scents of each of the four armored silhouettes. A Human, likely male, in steel plate armor. An Elf, also male, dressed in light mythril chain mail. He took a deeper sniff of the air—probably a mage of some sort. The third and forth forms, large and lumbering, were Minotaurs, wearing thick, steel, full plate armor.

 

The Human stood at the front of the group as they came to a hesitant halt twenty feet away. He held his torch aloft, his face concealed by the close-faced helmet on his head. “Who be there?”

 

The Bounty Hunter sighed once more. He put his hands out at his sides and took a few steps forward.

 

Although his posture was both defensive and cooperative, the Minotaurs drew war axes from their backs and crouched in preparation for combat.

 

“I am Portenda, and with me are Jonah Staples and the Elven girl Nareena,” he said loudly to the Human, clearly the leader of this patrol.

 

The head of the patrol made a few whispered remarks to his companions, which Portenda opted not to hone in on with his sense of hearing.

 

“I am Brian Force,” said the Human, opening the visor of his helmet and revealing a face that surely might have once been handsome. Over the years it had accumulated so many broken bones, cuts, scrapes and bruises, that it looked more like a mound of healed flesh than a face, per se. “We are with the Order of Hegrate, citizen,” said Brian Force. “Are you familiar with us?”

 

“Indeed, I am.” Portenda relaxed a bit. The Order of Hegrate was a guild of Soldiers, Knights, Paladins and elemental mages that roamed the dangerous regions of Tamalaria, protecting those who needed protection against the dangers of the wild and bandits. “While I thank you for your services and concern, we are hardly in need of protection.”

 

Brian Force returned Portenda’s smile, but only barely.

 

“Are you certain, citizen?” He gave his men a hand signal to stay their position and keep an eye out. “These regions are home to creatures that few can handle on their own, and your companions,” Force said, pointing around the Bounty Hunter to the slumbering forms of the Alchemists. “Well, they don’t look like they could handle much of anything.” His lackeys laughed viciously behind him.

 

Portenda’s eyes narrowed as he tried to figure out the Human’s intentions. Members of the Order of Hegrate were known for being a tad, fanatical. They may even resort to extortion, he thought. None of these men was a Knight, he realized, taking in their behavior and Mr. Force’s attitude.

 

“Believe me, Brian Force, you’d be surprised what they’re capable of.” Portenda took a few defensive steps back. “We don’t want any trouble with your guild, so if you’d be so kind as to report back to the nearest Knight in command of your patrol, we’d appreciate it.”

 

Brian Force seemed to consider this as rubbed his chin; Portenda really didn’t want a confrontation with these men although he knew he could trounce them without much effort. At least, he would trash the Minotaurs and the Elven mage. Force had the air of an experienced veteran about him, and he might provide a few minutes’ entertainment.

 

“If you’re capable, then you won’t mind giving us some assurance of that.” Force signaled his men to draw their weapons.

 

Undisciplined Soldiers, Portenda thought as he drew his spear, are the worst kind.

 

“This isn’t necessary, or wise,” Portenda said, strafing around Force and his men as they regrouped and prepared for combat.

 

“Aren’t you going to wake up your little friends, Mister, Portenda, was it,” growled one of the Minotaurs with a grin. The others in the group chuckled in response.

 

As the second Minotaur dashed forward, weapon at his side, Portenda ducked and rolled under the sword swipe, throwing his elbow into the Minotaur’s abdomen.

 

A sound like a balloon deflating wheezed out of the Minotaur Soldier as he dropped to the ground, clutching his side.

 

Portenda brought his spear up over his head, blocking the downward hack from behind him.

 

The second Minotaur stuttered in shock as his attack was thrust aside, and Portenda spun about, bringing the blunt end of his spear hard against the side of the Minotaur’s head. The lumbering Soldier was down for the count before he hit the ground.

 

Brian Force took a few cautious steps towards the sleeping Alchemists. If he could get a hold of one of them, he could force a standoff with the Simpa. Force had been with the Order of Hegrate for seven years, and had forced dozens of travelers to accept his unit’s aid. Someone like this Simpa rarely came across his path, and he knew that he couldn’t handle Portenda even if his Minotaurs hadn’t been disabled.

 

He turned away as Palco, the Elven Aquamancer, began casting defensive spells to protect himself from the skill and wrath of the Bounty Hunter.

 

When he looked back to the Alchemists, he found that the boy had just drawn an occult symbol in the dirt.

 

“What the Hells–”

 

Thorny vines lashed out from the ground around him as the boy pressed his palms to the symbol. They whipped around his ankles to hold him in place, and several of them squirmed their way into the connection spaces in his armor. Thorns no larger than his fingernails scraped at his exposed flesh beneath the armor, and Force could feel his lifeblood drain away.

 

“Jonah, don’t kill him,” he heard the Bounty Hunter say.

 

Portenda stepped up next to him, dragging the unconscious Aquamancer by his ankle. The Simpa faced Brain Force as Jonah cancelled out his Focus Site, his teeth bared and glinting in the pale moonlight. “

 

I tried to tell you, Mr. Force, that we are hardly in need of protection. Rest assured that as soon as I have the opportunity, I am going to report your activities to your nearest guild Commander.”

 

Force broke out in a cold sweat. His commanding officers in the Order had been so impressed by his record of service that they hadn’t bothered to find out how he got so many purchases of service. If word got back to a Commander, he was in for a good deal of suspension, and perhaps incarceration.

 

“Look, perhaps we can work something out here.” Force feigned a smile as he bled on himself slowly. The wounds weren’t terribly serious, and would clot soon, but he was presently at the trio’s mercy. Though the Elf girl hadn’t moved the whole time, the Simpa was clearly a threat to his life, and the boy hadn’t proven to be so vulnerable. His strange magic had been able to immobilize and wound the Human Soldier with relative ease, a task few mages in his travels had managed.

 

“We’re listening,” Portenda growled, sheathing his spear on his back next to his broadsword. “What’s your offer?”

 

“Well, you folks let me collect up my chums, provided you haven’t, er,” Brian Force stammered.

 

“Do not worry,” Portenda said flatly, his tone arctic, and his cold, professional aura spreading through the air around him.

 

Force almost lost control of his nerves in the sudden chill, but he held on.

 

“I do not kill when it is not necessary. But they are heavily concussed,” Portenda added.

 

Force heard one of the Minotaurs groan as it got to its feet.

 

“Ah, very good, then,” said the Human Soldier. “Well, if you let us go on about our business, we’ll give you some coin. What do you say?”

 

Portenda looked back to Jonah.

 

The Human Alchemist shook his head, and came up to the Bounty Hunter, whispering something in his ear.

 

“Are you sure about that,” Portenda whispered back, but Jonah smiled and nodded.

 

Portenda turned his frosted gaze back to Brian, who had taken a few defensive steps back towards his comrades. “My friends are Alchemists, Mr. Force. Jonah would like some samples for use in his experiments from you and your friends,” he said flatly.

 

“Samples?” Brian Force had only a moment to think it over before Jonah Staples had a pair of scissors and a straight razor in his hands, along with a few sample collection dishes and vials.

 

Jonah pressed one open dish against Force’s forehead, collecting some of the blood that dripped down. He closed the dish and tucked it away, producing another as he clipped part of Force’s bangs into it. “Oh, I see! He’s one of those Scientist types, eh?”

 

Force was feeling better about this arrangement already. It wouldn’t cost him a single coin, and he wouldn’t be reported to command. All in all, a moral victory, since physical victory was clearly not an option with these three.

 

Jonah moved to each of the Soldier’s allies in turn, collecting samples of hair, blood, and in the case of the unconscious Minotaur, a tooth. He had used a pair of pliers to remove the offending incisor, but the Minotaur hadn’t budged, despite the cringing of Force and the conscious Minotaur. As the skinny Alchemist returned to Portenda, smiling broadly at the tooth in its vial, he nodded to the Bounty Hunter and moved over towards his bedroll.

 

Portenda moved in close to Force, his snout almost touching against Force’s forehead. “Your other little friends will be waking up soon. As soon as they do, get yourselves together and get your gold bricking, extorting asses out of my sight.”

 

Five minutes later, the trio from Ja-Wen was alone again, enjoying the crisp night air.

 

“That could have gone better,” Jonah said from his bedroll, trying to roll over and get back to sleep.

 

“Yes,” Portenda said evenly, his tone like the Void. “He could have tried something stupid. Then we could have just killed them all.”

 

* * * *

 

Genma sat in a thick leather chair in the chamber of recollection, musing over the images he had seen on the mental monitor device on the right hand wall.

 

He had watched a capsulated review of every major moment or event that Telroke shared in common with his son, Portenda the Quiet.

 

Telroke himself was asleep in his personal quarters, taken there by one of the Focus Sites Genma had committed to memory.

 

After the chair device had extracted the necessary information from the Simpa, Telroke had slumped forward as the harnesses loosed themselves and the helmet unit swung back into its original position.

 

Now, the ivory-masked Alchemist watched the video feed for a third time, enhancing the audio playback as much as possible. The equipment was ancient and, although he took very good care of it, he wasn’t as familiar with it as an Engineer or Tinker might be. Gnome Tinkers and Dwarven Engineers tended to be the best acquainted and suited for working with the mecha of the old world. But Genma viewed such Races with disdain and a trace of the sort of superiority that the very rich usually reserve for those who paid rent a month behind schedule.

 

But the equipment was simple enough to operate that he could control the feed, and watch the displayed imagery in slower or faster motion. He watched yet another time as Telroke’s memory of a hunt in the Allenians played itself over on the screen that hung down from the ceiling. From the vantage of Telroke’s eyes, he saw the Simpa aim an arrow on a small deer about a hundred yards away. The scene turned out of focus, except for the tip of the arrow and the intended target, both as clear as crystal light.

 

But then the boy was there. Young Portenda dropped down out of a tree near the deer and landing silently next to it. The Simpa half-breed lunged upward, his claws tearing effortlessly through the deer’s throat as the arrow was released in shock.

 

“No,” Genma heard Telroke’s voice rasp.

 

The boy flicked his right hand, and came stalking back toward his father with the arrow in one hand, and the deer being dragged in the other.

 

Portenda held the arrow up to his father, a half smile curling his lips.

 

Telroke stared at the arrow and then proceeded to strike the boy about the head with his open hand, calling him a “little freak,” and an “interloping little bastard.”

 

But that single word, that utterance of ‘no’ had shown Genma that Telroke hadn’t always hated Portenda. As the years passed and the boy grew even more capable and deadly, Telroke had distanced himself and let the hatred brew.

 

The final straw had come when Telroke had taken his son to the fields outside of the village, intent on destroying the abomination. Telroke had been bested by a child, and had used the law of exile to save himself and banish the boy from his life.

 

Despite his avowed hatred, Telroke had repeatedly visited his son, starting when Portenda had just moved out of adolescence, when he had been a Bounty Hunter for only a few years.

 

Telroke had found him through a series of contacts in the major cities, and found the boy living in the Port of Arcade, a thug-infested port city on the northeastern shore of Tamalaria.

 

Portenda had been squatting in an abandoned apartment building when Telroke found him. The boy had become a man, and a rather large and quiet one at that.

 

Genma found this scene the most intriguing, because it certainly cemented the sort of relationship that father and son now harbored. He decided to watch it again.

 

* * * *

 

835 A.F., the Port of Arcade. The city was overrun by gangs, as usual. Packs of marauding bandits scoured the streets by day and night, but none of these thugs bothered the city’s only Simpa resident. They have seen what he is capable of, and none of them wished to be torn limb from limb. Besides, the man was a known Bounty Hunter, and many of the streetwise goons who inhabit the city had rather large price tags on their heads. Some joined Lord Viper’s military forces to avoid detection, but only as a last resort.

 

Telroke took in the scene and realized that he was being left alone, because the thugs feared his sons Many of Portenda’s physical features aped his own father’s, and most of the townsfolk of Arcade suspected that there was a connection between the two. They gave Telroke a wide berth, which he enjoyed as he asked the few brave souls willing to pass close by where his son was staying.

 

All of them pointed him in the right direction, and finally, he stood in the muddy streets as rain washed over him, looking up at an apartment building that appeared to be in shambles.

 

A sign out front stated that the building was condemned, but the boy was an abomination, Telroke thought, his thoughts transmitted clearly through Genma’s audio apparatus. He’s likely to stay anywhere he can.

 

Telroke moved up to the front of the building, tearing the restricting boards off of the front door. Nobody tried to stop him as he ripped the boards away and tossed them aside, working steadily to gain access to the inside.

 

As the last of the boards came away, he threw the doors open, and was immediately slammed in the chest by a short log attached to several swing arms, set to spring when the doors were opened.

 

Telroke’s view of the world turned into a blurring spiral as he flailed through the air, landing in a heap in the street.

 

Thick, derisive laughter was cut short by the presence of Portenda, who leaped out of the building and onto his father’s limp, recovering body.

 

A long knife was braced against his throat as he heard the boy’s voice, no longer a boy’s, but a man’s. “What in the name of the Heavens above are you doing here?”

 

“Just came to see my son,” Telroke growled.

 

The knife and body lifted away. Telroke got steadily to his feet, his long years of alcohol consumption already begun. He brushed himself off, and followed Portenda inside.

 

Telroke’s eyes focused on the metallic object on his son’s left hip, but he largely ignored it in favor of noting the arrangement of other weaponry strapped to the Bounty Hunter.

 

Inside the front door, Portenda closed the building off, and Telroke took a seat in the lobby of the old apartment building.

 

Portenda reset the trap, and whirled on his father. “I want to know what you’re doing here, father.” His mastery over his own emotions was still a fragile art that he had not yet honed. And in his father’s presence, all pretense of having that control was gone. “Perhaps you’ve decided to let me finish what I started all that time ago.” The Bounty Hunter’s right hand moved slowly towards the hilt of his broadsword.

 

“That’s not why I’ve come,” Telroke said with a grin of his own. “Besides, so long as you are under my exile by me, you cannot personally harm me, unless I attempt to harm you first. Those are the rules of our people, you know.”

 

The long knife that had been pressed against his throat flew through the space between himself and his son in the blink of an eye, jamming itself firmly in the couch just between his legs.

 

Your people,” Portenda said. Disdain stained his voice darker than a moonless night. “I abide by the rules of Mother, which in the case of exile alone are the same as yours. What have you come for?”

 

“Well,” Telroke said, his mind almost blanking out for a moment in pure rage as the boy referred to his mother. “Your old dad’s having a bit of hard luck, lately.” He swallowed a good amount of pride in preparation for what he was about to ask, and propose. “Some deals have been made lately among our tribe, as a result of a sudden increase in population. I need someplace to stay for a few days while things get sorted out. And I’ll need some money for expenses while I’m in town.”

 

“For booze, from the smell of you.” Portenda could not, even now, deny his father’s wishes. Among the Khan tribes, even an exile must respect the wishes of his or her parents, and must aid them in any way they can. Simpa, on the other hand, owed their tribe nothing whatsoever, not even their parents, if they were in exile. However, they too could not raise a hand against the one who exiled them, except in self-defense. He was screwed in every instance.

 

None of these emotions or explanations were conveyed to the Alchemist as he watched the strange scene play itself out. Telroke stayed with his son for three days, and the time slipped away mostly in a haze of drunken blurs. Genma could access only small amounts of that time, but what he saw wasn’t so important as how he could analyze Telroke’s thoughts and observations and the Bounty Hunter’s mannerisms. On the third day that was played back, Genma watched as Telroke’s vision cleared for a couple of minutes.

 

This, Genma realized, was important.

 

The point of view, as always, was Telroke’s. However, the surroundings were different. Instead of being drunk at Portenda’s place, Telroke had decided to visit a bar.

 

Apparently, someone had tried to threaten Portenda, because the boy moved almost faster than Telroke’s eyes could register.

 

Blood sprayed in all directions, splashing on the wooden tavern floor like gutters that were previously clogged suddenly bursting open. Bodies flew, cut, broken and bruised in unlikely fashions.

 

Gradually Genma realized that Telroke’s alcohol-induced state of blurred vision wasn’t the only thing hampering observation of the fight: Portenda was simply moving too fast. “By the Gods,” Genma breathed under his mask.

 

The playback fizzled, and Telroke’s memories faded away. Genma, still sitting alone in the chamber of recollection, sipped at his tea and began the playback one final time, this time starting from the beginning of the fight. Something still bothered him, something that was nearly off screen every time, but just barely noticeable.

 

He watched in standard playtime, and again saw the small, grayish blip in the upper right-hand edge of the screen.

 

He used a dial to rewind the imagery, and played it again. Once more, the little blip appeared, as Portenda gouged a half-Orc’s eyes out of his face.

 

Genma used the dial, rewound, and this time, played the imagery back one half second at a time.

 

As soon as the gray blip solidified, he stopped the playback, and used a number of other buttons and levers to enhance the blip’s image.

 

After a full minute of silent, stunned observation, Genma was struck with the sensation that his time rather rapidly sprinted away from him now.

 

“To Hells with the precautions,” he muttered to himself, setting the control device down and blanking out the monitor. He had only until the Bounty Hunter arrived to do what he had to with the girl and get as far away from the tower as possible. A tarantula named Mortal Fear had scuttled across his heart and laid eggs, sinking its venomous fangs in to let the Alchemist’s will become soft and edible for its soon-to-come children, often referred to as Dread, Loathing, and a host of other such titles.

 

The gray blip had been a creature dressed in a long, black cloak, looking intently at the Bounty Hunter. A creature holding a scythe.

 

* * * *

 

Jonah stood watch for the second shift of the night, rubbing his eyes clear of crusty mucous. Next to him, Nareena continued to sleep peacefully while Jonah used his calcinator as a coffee brewer, heating himself up a nice fresh cup of steaming sludge.

 

He never could manage to make coffee that didn’t have to be chewed near the bottom of the pot, he thought.

 

An hour into his shift, Jonah set his coffee down and took the sight scope off of the rifle, using it separately to scan the surrounding area for anything that might be amiss.

 

He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but heard a high-pitched whine from somewhere off to his right. When he turned his scope that way, he saw no likely source of the noise.

 

When he spun fully around, pulling the scope down and resetting it on the rifle, the sound got louder, and seemed to be coming from both sides of him. “Oh, no,” he muttered, clutching the sides of his head.

 

Another headache, he thought as his head swelled and pulsed with the onset of more waves of high frequency screeching.

 

When they had first started, a few years back, they had been almost crippling, and occurred almost every day. Now, these episodes were more spaced out, and of a much lesser severity. This one seemed almost as powerful as the old ones. Now, however, he had a feeling he knew what caused the headaches—the procedure that his uncle, no, that Genma, had put him through. The mad Alchemist had tried to program him, and the whole operation had ended in overall failure. But traces of it still remained, such as the commands that he could execute without a second’s thought.

 

Perhaps, he thought to himself as the whining decreased in volume and intensity, that’s why I’m so good with Focus Sites. He had only read through each of the tomes, and could remember their entire contents without much effort. Only one of the six volumes remained unopened, but he had a pretty good idea of what its text would entail. Had Genma already taught him Focus during the brainwashing treatments? It was possible, certainly, though even Genma couldn’t have taught him everything.

 

The whining passed completely, leaving Jonah sitting in the middle of the company with his coffee cooling on the ground, and his companions softly snoring on either side of him.

 

He quickly looked around: no intruders, he thought with a mental sigh of relief. It would have been very bad for him had anything happened in his temporary absence of mind. The only other thing stirring nearby was the Alchemical beast, Blink.

 

The arachnid hybrid stared at him, its canine eyes wide open and its stinger waggling back and forth like a tail.

 

“Sorry, little guy,” Jonah whispered to the eight-legged creature as he sipped at his coffee again. “I’m not much of a conversationalist at times like this.”

 

The Alchemical beast scurried over faster than the wind. It crawled up onto Jonah’s lap, and in his mind, Jonah heard a response. It’s okay, the voice in his mind said. Can’t be much worse than the big guy.

 

“How, how do you do that? How come I can hear you in my mind, little Blink?”

 

The contact, Blink thought directly into Jonah’s mind. So long as I maintain contact, I can talk to anyone this way.

 

“Were you created with intelligence, or did it rub off from your creator?”

 

Mostly from my Creator, Blink thought. Jonah noticed the emphasis on the word ‘creator’, and mentally capitalized it. Or perhaps Blink sent the word that way. He couldn’t be entirely certain. Your sister is waiting for you, you know? Blink said.

 

“I know, Portenda told me so.” Jonah sighed. “Any idea how much time we have left to get there and stop Genma?”

 

I’m not entirely sure, Blink said. The Creator, Genma, as you call him, works in strange ways. He’ll be expecting you, I’m sure, and will have ramped up the timetable for his project.

 

“His project,” Jonah said, softly. “What project, exactly,” he asked Blink. “And how is my sister involved?”

 

I’m not supposed to say, Blink replied nervously.

 

“And why not,” Jonah asked, reaching for the Alchemical beast, who was poised to spring away.

 

The big guy said not to say anything, Blink said as he bound away from Jonah’s grasp.

 

Damnation, Jonah thought. So that’s how it is. Portenda knew something, and clearly wanted to keep it from Jonah. More and more he disliked the Bounty Hunter’s secretive nature, but he respected the Simpa a great deal, and chose not to question his judgment. He would find out everything soon enough. He had many questions, and he would wring them out of Genma’s throat when the time came.

 

For now, he would simply have to settle for watching the scenery.

 

* * * *

 

Death, it should be said, is a very patient man. He had memories that stretched back before Time had been honed and instated in the first Reality. He remembered just about everything, because Time had no meaning for him. In all of the span of his unique existence, he had never been so confused and infuriated.

 

The crimson lights in his cowl were mostly directed at himself as he scoured through his home in the time-space vortex.

 

GRRRRAAAAAAAUUGGHHH! The unearthly scream of rage echoed through every Reality over which this particular Death reigned.

 

Small earthquakes, tsunamis, and thunderstorms broke out as a result, and Death’s entire body went stiff as he realized the amount of work he might have just created for himself.

 

He heaved a deep sigh, and Maxi tried to nuzzle up to him nervously.

 

NOT NOW, MAXI, Death said as he stood.

 

He had been reaching under his bed, looking for Portenda’s timer, because it was one of the last places he thought to look. Surely the man had a timer, because everyone, even the Gods and Goddesses, with four exceptions, had a timer. I APPRECIATE THE GESTURE, BUT I HAVEN’T GOT TIME TO PLAY WITH YOU.

 

Death stalked out of his bedroom, leaving the bed he never used behind him.

 

THE CELLAR, he said to himself. I HAVEN’T CHECKED THE CELLAR.

 

Death made his way as calmly as he could to the center of the bedroom he hardly used, and grabbed the iron ring in the middle of the floor. He hauled up on it, and revealed a set of aging wooden steps that creaked as he descended. They didn’t have to creak—it was a minor detail he’d had put in a long time ago. Now, it merely got on his nerves instead of creating atmosphere.

 

At the bottom of the steps, Death stood before a long, low-ceilinged cellar with a few wine racks against the wall behind the steps themselves, and many, many sets of wooden shelving units and bookcases lining the walls for hundreds of yards in front of him. Everything he’d ever gotten from mortals during his existence, and a few things he had simply acquired as the eons passed, rested on the sets of shelves. Back in the earliest ages of mortal kind, some of the smaller clans of primitive species worshipped him. He had known then what the Histories said they would become, and on a lark decided to keep many of the offerings they brought to their fire circles.

 

He kept most of the animal organs in jars and tanks filled with formaldehyde, and the crudely made crafts and pieces of art he kept in chronological order from oldest closer to the stairs, to the most recent further along the hall that was the cellar. These shelves only pertained to the gifts he had received in Portenda’s Reality. This was, admittedly, due mostly to the fact that none of the other Realities much cared for him, at any time in their Histories.

 

Death stalked down the cellar towards the end opposite the stairs. Against the far wall, at the other end of the cellar, there stood a single set of white tiles, which rather stood out from the all-black tiling in the rest of the cellar.

 

No doorknob or handle of any sort was on it, but Death knew it was a door because he had put it in himself. It was much like the door to Fate’s room: if Death didn’t want you going back there, you’d never find a way in.

 

Death approached the white tiles and tapped them with the end of his right index finger. A brilliant flash of whitest light poured from the right hand side of the door.

 

Without a sound, the door swung open, and Death gazed into a perfectly organized office. Only a few items sat on shelves on opposite sides of the perfectly polished white wooden desk.

 

IT HAS BEEN A WHILE, he said to no one in particular.

 

The objects on the shelves here, in the corners, and in the desk, had mostly been his own, personal creations. Those that he had created were the only things he had ever made that worked or made any sort of sense to outside observers. If anyone had ever observed them.

 

Death set his scythe against the wall next to the open door, and swung himself into a large, comfortable swivel chair given to him by Truth, the sister of the Holy Trio.

 

It had been made of real leather, actual cow’s hide, unlike the chair he had made for himself in his primary office upstairs, in the main house. It had a sense of former life to it, even in the metal springs, because metals came from ores, which came from the earth, which was, itself, a living entity.

 

The chair had essence, which put Death at ease. He almost forgot what he was doing here, because he became thoroughly relaxed in the chair.

 

RIGHT, he said, shaking his skull and opening one of the ivory drawers. Inside of the first one he checked was a handful of maps and papers, each map depicting the main continents of his primary charges, or worlds he presided over. Seven Realities he watched over, and all of the most densely populated continents were mapped out in that drawer, but he wasn’t looking for a map. He closed this drawer, and opened the one below it.

 

In this one, there was a small collection of children’s toys.

 

If Death could weep, he would have at the memory of these trinkets’ collections. He didn’t care much for taking children, because for the most part, they were innocent and devoid of blame for what had happened to them. It pained him to have to cut an entry in the Histories so short, especially when they had so much potential, but it was part of the job. A job he was really beginning to hate.

 

Finally, on the other side of the desk, in the bottom drawer, he found them, in the one locked drawer of the desk.

 

Two sand timers rested inside this drawer, almost identical in design. Thick, black iron frames, hewed with strange, occult designs, held in them the glass sand receptacles. However, one had no sand at all, and was labeled on the little brass plaque at the bottom, ‘Death’. This one he left where it was. The other one, nearly the same, had more sand in it than many of the Gods’ own timers. It had a single name on it as well.

 

‘Portenda’.

 

* * * *

 

Two Alchemists rode on great steeds while a lion with gray stripes along its body ran just ahead of them.

 

Blink rode with Jonah that morning, enjoying the shifting, changing appearance of the sky above.

 

Thick, gray and black storm clouds loomed overhead, and Jonah was afraid that the company wouldn’t make much progress before the rains and thunder hit.

 

His fears were confirmed when, at perhaps nine o’clock in the morning, the first crack of lightning lit the sky and land with yellow, electric flares, and the first drops of rain splashed down on his head.

 

“Jonah, when do you think he’ll have us stop?” Nareena shouted as rolling thunder cracked and rumbled through the atmosphere.

 

Jonah looked ahead to Portenda, who seemed to be leading the way on pure instinct or, perhaps, directions already given to him by Blink. He was taking them more directly west now, according to Jonah’s compass, straight at the Allenian Hills. They would reach the outskirts of the region by nightfall, if they were somehow able to continue throughout the storm.

 

“I’m not certain, but I hope it’s soon,” Jonah replied. The rain began coming down in earnest, obscuring his view ahead. “I don’t think it would be any good for the horses to keep on in this weather!”

 

“Or for us,” Nareena responded with a wry smile.

 

Jonah returned the gesture, and looked ahead once again.

 

The streamlined Simpa had taken another turn, and they followed him towards a small hill.

 

In the side of the hill, stood a wooden door.

 

As he got to within fifty yards of it, Portenda changed to his man-beast state, and finished the jaunt on foot.

 

Jonah and Nareena dismounted a few feet away as Portenda pounded on the door, his fur already matted to his body, revealing the scars on his body more prominently than before.

 

There are so many of them, Jonah thought.

 

After another round of hard pounding on the door, a small, bandana-wearing head popped out, and a Human of a rather scruffy appearance eyeballed the trio and their horses. He smiled up at Portenda, revealing a mouth of teeth that had seen better days. “Oi there Portenda,” the man said cheerily. “’ave them take the ‘orses round the back,” the head said before disappearing again.

 

“Around what back,” Nareena asked as she looked around, rain spattering against her. Without a proper rain slicker, she was already soaked to the bone, her thin clothes so wet that her figure and measurements were revealed to anyone who bothered to look for more than a few seconds.

 

Portenda led them around the side of the hill, and pointed to where three more men, all dressed like pirates, stood waiting for them.

 

“You can trust them,” Portenda said calmly.

 

Jonah and Nareena shrugged their shoulders at one another before taking the horses to the trio on the hill.

 

The men said nothing, simply taking the reins and guiding the horses swiftly away.

 

The trio from Ja-Wen returned to the door in the front of the hill, and the same ratty looking man poked his head out.

 

“The horses are taken care of, Leonard. Now let us in,” Portenda said, his tone still cold and flat, but with a hint of familiarity.

 

“Roit you are then, mate.” The man named Leonard swung the door wide open, revealing an earthen tunnel that led down into the ground. “Mind yerself this time, Portenda,” the Human Rogue said. “No more of that stuff that went on last toim, or big boss’ll have a conniption fit, roit?”

 

Portenda gave the little man a brief, unsettling smile, and Jonah and Nareena walked in behind him out of the rain, staying close and holding hands.

 

As the trio passed, they heard from behind them, “Wot’s this then? Escorting a couple of lovers now, are you? Getting hard up for work or what, mate?”

 

Portenda stopped dead in his tracks, his shoulders were bunched, tense. He spun on his heels and brushed past Jonah and Nareena, hauling the Rogue up by the front of his white sailor’s shirt.

 

“Why I’m with these two is my business, Leonard,” he growled at the man, snout to nose with him.

 

Leonard’s entire world became those strange, alien gray eyes. Somewhere in that tiny world, the potential for high volumes of pain pressed its way in.

 

“You leave questions for big boss, right?”

 

Leonard squirmed, but nodded feverishly.

 

Jonah squeezed Nareena’s hand for a moment. “Glad we’re with him and not against him.”

 

“No kidding,” she whispered back, giving him a quick peck on the cheek as Portenda unhanded Leonard and led the way down into the stronghold.

 

After a minute of descent, their way lit by torches evenly spaced down the tunnel, Jonah had to ask the question forming in his mind.

 

“Portenda? Who are these people?”

 

“Oh, these men and women are the Assembly of Jaded Hunters. Sort of a gang of Bounty Hunters that are mostly out of work,” Portenda said.

 

Jonah realized why Leonard had seemed so smug. It appeared that Portenda had a contract, and Leonard probably hadn’t had an assignment in years. “They take odd job contracts whenever they can, and resort to highway robbery when they’re too low on funds. They don’t have a code of ethics,” Portenda grumbled with clear disdain. “They’re wholly unprofessional.”

 

“Then why are we here?” Jonah felt a bit nervous now. Animosity stirred in the air around them as they passed by a handful of guards, until at last they stood before a steel door.

 

“Because,” Portenda said with a wicked grin. “I send them money every year to ensure that I have a place to crash when I’m this close to the Allenians. Someplace where there are few questions of a legal nature, and where few will think to look for me in case I don’t want any work. Believe it or not,” he said, throwing the door open and blocking a kick that came his way with a deft sweep block, throwing the attacker to the floor. “I do like to take some time off.”

 

Jonah and Nareena stared as three armed Werewolves of various fur colors attacked Portenda and Portenda, unarmed, defended himself and knocked each of them aside and away.

 

“Stop,” shouted a rough, grating voice from within the huge meeting hall the trio now stepped into.

 

A Red Draconus, one of the Dragon-men that had descended from the Dragons’ collective fascination with Humans, sat on a high-backed wicker chair, smiling rather wickedly. “There’s no need to be hostile towards one of our own, gentlemen.”

 

Portenda gave him a brief smile.

 

Tattoos covered almost all of the visible portions of his body, as the Draconus wore simple jeans cut off at the knees and an adamantite protector vest with no sleeves, much like Portenda’s, but made of a much more durable and expensive material. “Good to see you again, my friend,” the Draconus said, standing and walking towards the Bounty Hunter through a pack of Bounty Hunters who had parted like the Red Sea for his passage.

 

“It’s good to see you too, Colin.” Portenda grasped the offered red claw and shook it hard. The previous air of animosity quickly evaporated, and most of the men and women present wore grins and laughed at one another.

 

Jonah and Nareena both felt their hearts slow back down to normal, and Portenda shrugged his shoulders at them. “Sorry, you two. We do this whenever someone brings a newcomer into the hovel.

 

Colin, the Red Draconus Bounty Hunter, clapped him on the shoulder roughly. Jonah almost collapsed to see that someone could actually move Portenda with such a friendly strike.

 

“Come on in, folks, tell me what’s on your minds. By the way,” he said, extending that horrible, gnarled claw to Jonah in greeting. “Colin Caulkins, former Bounty Hunter.”

 

“Former?” Jonah asked as he shook the offered claw. Caulkins had a firm, but not overpowering grip.

 

“Yes,” Caulkins said as he gave Nareena a gentlemanly kiss on the back of her hand. “I’m a Monk by trade, little man. A martial artist.” He walked towards a table on which several containers of refreshments sat, most of them completely drained and in need of refilling. “I’m out of the bounty business, but I take odd-jobs now and again, until I’ve got enough of my own money to start an academy for martial arts instruction. You look like you could use some training yourself.”

 

“Thanks no, I’ll stick with my science.” Jonah used a Focus Site on his arm to make his forearm completely steel.

 

“Ah, the path of the scholar.” Colin Caulkins nodded as he took a sip of his coffee. “Please, have some Portenda,” he said to the hulking Simpa. “You and I are the only ones who drink the stuff anymore.”

 

“What about your brother, Newt?” Portenda asked in a familiar tone.

 

He had clearly spent a good amount of time with the Draconus, Jonah thought, because here they were, talking as if they had lived together for years.

 

“Ah, he was never very big into it. Besides, he’s moved to Flagstone, down south. Taken a job writing scripts for those Gnome ‘moving pictures’ he loves so much.” Colin smiled that reptilian smile that Jonah and Nareena had come to associate with Lizardmen, but this was far different in that there was little malice or menace behind it: just a smile. “He’s doing really well with it. Good pay, he gets to flex that creative mind of his, and he doesn’t have any complaints.”

 

“Or a girlfriend, if I recall correctly,” Portenda said flatly, to which Colin spurted out his coffee.

 

Jonah and Nareena were offered drinks, which they took, and seats, which again they accepted. These folks didn’t really seem so bad, now that they had taken down the facade of tension. So, it was all a practical joke, Jonah thought. Good to see that the big guy knows what one of those is.

 

“What about your younger brother,” Portenda asked. “What was his name?”

 

“Oh, yeah, him.” Colin looked down into his coffee. “Nobody’s heard from him in a long time. Must be, six months now.”

 

He and Portenda moved away from the Alchemists, who had started talking about the events that would probably take place in the next few days.

 

“He was looking for something on the Isle of the Unknown,” Colin whispered to Portenda. “That was the last we knew, anyway. He’d written a letter to mom and dad, you know how they worry, even though they don’t say as much.”

 

The big Simpa nodded. “What exactly was he looking for?”

 

“Some sort of doorway, he said.” Colin looked around at the former Bounty Hunters gathering. Many of them had become little more than mercenaries and assassins now, but the money came in, and nobody asked questions so long as one man’s business didn’t cross with another’s. “A way to get to another Reality. He went on and on about that sort of thing for as far back as I can remember. Always wanted to see what else is out there.” Colin took a long pull of his drink. “Space case,” he muttered. “Anyway, what brings you around again?”

 

“I’ve got an assignment, Colin. I’m taking this one sort of personal.” Portenda took a pull on his own coffee.

 

“Personal? You? That’s a bit of a surprise and a relief.” Colin smiled. “You’ve always been sort of clean, clinical about the business, Portenda. A lot of the guys still don’t like that you’re so, distant. It’s like you don’t feel anything.”

 

Colin Caulkins gazed over at the Alchemists sitting in the far corner of the room, being slightly lovey-dovey. “So, which one of them did it for you?”

 

“Did what?” Portenda let his defenses down for a little while longer. It felt good to unwind and unload, and he was glad he had someone like Colin to talk to about the business he was currently involved in.

 

“Which one of them managed to get through that wall you’re always putting up?” Colin’s Dragon-inherited tail flickered back and forth on the floor behind the chair, and he brought it up around the chair and into his lap, where he kept it pinned with one hand. “Damn thing has a mind of its own, I swear.”

 

“To tell you the truth, it was a combination of things, mostly the boy and his folks. His sister’s been abducted, and—,” Portenda cut off when he noticed the shifting in the plates on Colin’s face. “What?”

 

“What’s that thing on your shoulder?”

 

Portenda hadn’t even noticed Blink climbing up along his back, settling in for a nice nap on his shoulder.

 

“Oh, this is Blink,” Portenda said in introduction. “He’s an Alchemical beast. Not created by Jonah or Nareena, though. He was created by the man who took Jonah’s sister.”

 

“How do you know that for certain, Portenda? That thing could have come from anywhere, and it doesn’t look much like it can talk.”

 

“He speaks through one’s mind.” The Bounty Hunter explained that the Alchemical beast could communicate only with a person he made physical contact with.

 

The Draconus Monk sat in studied silence for a short while, occasionally glancing over at the Alchemists.

 

“Jonah, have you thought any more about what’s going to happen to him when we get your sister back?” Nareena asked her lover in a low whisper. The Simpa was checking them on, and they didn’t want him to overhear their conversation, which wasn’t difficult to ensure. After all, they were whispering, and all around them men and women of different Races and, now, different trades, were being half drunk and rowdy around them.

 

“Well, he did seem interested in buying the apartment building in Desanadron where those Kobolds were staying,” Jonah said, pulling the sixth and final volume of Focus Art knowledge from his rucksack. “But that’s just wishful thinking. He’s very rooted in Ja-Wen, after all. I don’t think he could just up and leave those people behind.”

 

Jonah didn’t like where Nareena was taking this conversation; at first, she had simply been after him about nipping off to a dark storage closet somewhere in this group’s hideout. Jonah had flushed, but was more than happy to entertain the idea. Now, however, she was being serious, and right at the moment, he only had room in his heart for the business of saving his sister. Her time, he knew somehow, was about to run out.

 

“No, he probably couldn’t,” the Elven Alchemist said, holding his hand tightly. “But maybe he could keep both.”

 

“I don’t think so, Nareena.” Jonah sighed as he opened the Alchemy book. “Desanadron and Ja-Wen are at almost complete opposite ends of the continent. He’d have to keep himself in good supply with Teleportation Scrolls, and I don’t think he cares much for that form of transportation. Besides,” he added, somewhat mournfully. “I don’t think he’s going to want to see much of us after this mission. He isn’t making a copper piece off of this job, and I’m sure he’s thought of that. He is a businessman, after all.”

 

“Maybe so,” Nareena said with a smile. She gave Jonah a quick peck on the cheek. “But thanks to him, we’re closer than we ever were before.”

 

Jonah looked longingly into those deep, sea green eyes of hers. Gods he was in love with her, Jonah thought. He had always been, but things had blinded him to that fact: things that shouldn’t have stopped them.

 

“That’s true. I suppose we owe him something, but that’s just the problem. We haven’t got nearly enough money to pay him for everything he’s done for us, and still has yet to. So, when the job’s done, that he’ll most likely just up and take off. He’s a Bounty Hunter, and in case you haven’t noticed. He’s not prone to bouts of emotional judgment.”

 

“We’ll see, dear. We’ll see.” Nareena stroked Jonah’s hair distractedly. The big Simpa approached them, ducking and dodging through the bodies around him as someone struck up a chord on their guitar. “What’s up?” she asked as he stood before them.

 

“We’re going to rest up here until the rain ceases,” Portenda said, mostly to Jonah. “Come with me, I’ll show you two to a room. They’ve always got a few unoccupied guest chambers, and Colin has a couple of men checking on the weather for us. We’ve got at least a couple of hours. You two could use some time alone, I think.” He didn’t have time for any further comment as Nareena dragged Jonah by the wrist towards the only other open door in the large meeting hall.

 

They were gone from sight before Portenda could even reach the corridor that held the sleeping chambers. “Ah, to be young again,” Portenda said, moving off down the hall for a quick catnap. “Lucky dog,” he whispered as he passed by the door through which the Alchemists were already making primal noises of mating. “Hope Jonah’s up to a lot of this in the coming years.”

 

Portenda found one of the other free rooms after a few tries, apologizing a couple of times to folks who were playing cards, charting maps, and on the next to last try, ducking out of the occupied room before the other romantic couple present knew he’d seen them.

 

He shuddered violently. “Werewolves,” he muttered as he made his way into a free room. Well, mostly free: a black robe with an opaque cowl sat on the edge of the only bed in the room. Despite the darkness under the hood, Portenda felt Death’s cold smile.

 

HELLO, PORTENDA. Death patted the bed next to him. COME, HAVE A SEAT.

 

“I’ll stand, thank you Grim.” Portenda closed the door behind him.

 

Blink hadn’t moved from his spot on the Bounty Hunter’s shoulder, but now Portenda felt all eight legs grapple for a better purchase on his fur.

 

“You can see him, can’t you little one?” He patted Blink on the head.

 

Blink couldn’t even answer: he just clutched at Portenda for comfort and protection.

 

“You’re not here for the little one, are you Grim?”

 

Death shook his head, an imperceptible motion, if not for the opening in the hood. Twinkling blue lights flared to life in the darkness of his robe.

 

NO, I’M NOT HERE TO COLLECT ANYONE. I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW THAT I FOUND THIS. Death produced Portenda’s life timer. YOU DO KNOW WHAT THIS IS, RIGHT?

 

Portenda said nothing, just nodding as he continued to pat Blink on the head.

 

Death put the timer in his robe, tucking it away in the infinite space therein. VERY GOOD. MOST FOLKS DON’T CARE MUCH FOR SEEING HOW MUCH TIME THEY HAVE LEFT, BUT AS YOU SAW, YOU HAVE LITTLE NEED TO WORRY.

 

“Not entirely true, Grim. You told me that certain events can cause the sand to flow much faster, or the timer to shatter entirely,” Portenda said. “Why else are you here? It couldn’t be that simple.”

 

YOU’RE RIGHT. Death  stood. AS YOU USUALLY ARE. LOOK, SOMEONE HAS BEEN NAGGING ME TO TELL YOU ABOUT YOURSELF, AND I’M SURE YOU’VE HAD A FEELING THAT YOU AREN’T EXACTLY, WELL, NORMAL.

 

“Of course I’m not normal,” Portenda fairly shouted. “I’m not even supposed to be alive, according to the rules of nature.” He walked past Death and sat heavily on the edge of the bed. “I should never have been conceived, much less carried to full term.”

 

ATTEMPTS WERE MADE TO KEEP THINGS NICE AND ORDERLY, Death said cryptically.

 

Portenda wasn’t sure he liked where this conversation was heading.

 

BUT A PAIR OF INTERLOPERS, ONE IN PARTICULAR, WERE VERY FASCINATED BY THE IDEA. ONE MORE THAN THE OTHER, MAINLY BECAUSE HE HAD NEVER HAD A PART IN HELPING A LIFE ALONG.

 

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Portenda said suddenly, cutting Death off at the pass.

 

If Death had a heart, it would have skipped a beat, because here the boy had figured him out. NOW THAT I THINK ABOUT IT, I WASN’T BEING ENTIRELY CLEVER ABOUT MY CHOICE OF WORDS, WAS I?

 

“Not really. So, you and someone else took a hand in letting me come into being. I imagine the Gods weren’t exactly pleased with the idea.”

 

TO TELL THE TRUTH, FOR THE MOST PART THEY DIDN’T KNOW WHAT WAS GOING ON. MYSELF AND MY ACCOMPLICE MADE CERTAIN THAT THEY WERE KEPT BLIND TO WHAT WE WERE DOING. OF COURSE, AFTER YOUR BIRTH, QUESTIONS WERE ASKED, BUT THEY LEARNED NOTHING. THEY STILL HAVE NO IDEA.

 

“But someone suspects, I assume. So, who else was involved? I imagine it was Fate, wasn’t it?” Portenda hazarded a guess based on his prior conversations with the Grim Reaper.

 

Death nodded, remaining silent.

 

“You’re worried the Gods will try to put a stop to me when they find out, aren’t you?”

 

FATE AND I ARE TRYING TO HOLD THEM OFF UNTIL YOU APPEAR IN THE HISTORIES. ONCE YOU’RE IN THE PAGES, NOT EVEN THE GODS ARE ALLOWED TO DIRECTLY INTERFERE WITH YOU, UNLESS YOU DO SOMETHING TO WARRANT THEIR WRATH.

 

Portenda’s fears and suspicions were now confirmed. He was the son of a drunken Simpa, a harmless Khan, and two astral beings who had never before, that he knew of, anyway, directly involved themselves in mortal affairs.

 

“I just have one more question for you, Grim,” Portenda said quietly.

 

Death turned his attention to the Simpa as he tore a rift in time-space with his scythe, having done what he set out to do after leaving Fate’s chambers.

 

SURE THING. I SUPPOSE I OWE YOU THAT MUCH, AFTER ALL THESE YEARS OF KEEPING SECRETS FROM YOU. FIRE AWAY/ Death kept his tone level despite the strange feeling he was experiencing. He thought mortals referred to it as, regret. Yes, that was the word, regret.

 

“Why did you do it? My whole life, I haven’t felt quite right. I’ve been different, more capable. My senses enhance with more time spent in silence, and my roar has the ability to damage spirit creatures, or at least solidify them, pull them into the material plane. And that, I realize now, is because of the nature of my birth.”

 

Death slowly nodded. YOUR STATEMENTS ARE ASTUTE, AND CORRECT. WITHIN YOU RESIDES SOME OF MY AND FATE’S ASTRAL POWERS. FATE PERCEIVES EVERYTHING, YOU SEE. HE CAN SEE, HEAR, TASTE, SMELL, AND FEEL ANYTHING, ANYWHERE. IT’S JUST PART OF WHO HE IS. HE DOES, AFTER ALL, HAVE TO MAINTAIN THE ACCURACY OF THE HISTORIES. Death put one skeletal foot through the rift to keep it open. AS FOR YOUR PROFICIENCY IN COMBAT AND THAT ROAR OF YOURS, YOU GET THOSE FROM ME.

 

“Funny, I wouldn’t imagine you as much of a fighter,” Portenda chided. “Being a robe with bones inside, you know.”

 

YOU’D BE SURPRISED HOW MANY SOULS TRY TO PUT UP A FIGHT WHEN I COME TO COLLECT, MY BOY, Death said. AND FOR THE MOST PART, THEY’RE ALLOWED TO STRUGGLE. THEIR POWERS ARE SIMILAR IN THE AFTERLIFE TO THOSE THEY HAD IN LIFE, AND SOME OF THEM PUT UP ONE HELL OF A FIGHT. I’VE BEEN DEALING WITH IT SINCE THE DAWN OF TIME.

 

“Don’t you have to collect the Gods that lose their followers,” Portenda asked, suddenly aware of just how much of a fight Death must have had on his hands at times.

 

YES. AND TRUST ME, THEY DON’T GO QUIETLY. NOW, AS FOR YOUR ACTUAL QUESTION, PORTENDA. WHY DID I DO IT?

 

Death waved his hands noncommittally, sort of a shrug. MORTALS, OVER TIME, HAVE GROWN ON ME. I FEEL AS THOUGH YOU FOLKS SOMETIMES DON’T GET A FAIR SHAKE, YOU KNOW?

 

Portenda shook his head, and patted Blink, who had loosened his grip on him.

 

BASICALLY, I WAS CURIOUS. AND, WELL, Death said, rubbing the back of his hood awkwardly, a gesture Portenda had come to associate deeply with Jonah, who was constantly doing this.

 

I’VE GROWN A LITTLE TIRED OF ALWAYS BEING THERE AT THE END OF ONE’S LIFE. FOR ONCE, JUST ONCE, I WANTED TO HAVE A HAND IN THE CREATION OF A LIFE. THANKFULLY, Death said with what could have been called a grin, if his face weren’t a flat skull. YOU’VE DONE ME PROUD, THUS FAR. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK.

 

With that said, Death disappeared through the rift.

 

“You too, old man.” Portenda set Blink down on a pillow on the floor. “You too,” he said again, laying down for that nap on the simple bed before him.

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