Their sheets mercifully covered Jonah and Nareena when Portenda’s foot thrust open the door to their hotel room.

 

Jonah shot up in bed like a bolt of lightning, and he clapped his hands together, setting off the Focus Site he had put up over the doorframe before finally going to sleep.

 

Portenda narrowly dodged the sledgehammer that swung down at his face, tucking and rolling carefully, keeping Blink in his left hand. As he got to his feet, he gave the naked Alchemist an approving smile as he looked back at the spent Focus Site.

 

“Good, you’re learning.”

 

The little Alchemical beast squeaked and jumped from Portenda’s hand to the floor, skittering up to Jonah’s foot and waggling his stinger like a puppy who has found a new owner.

 

“What the Hells is this thing?” Jonah pulled on a pair of trousers.

 

Nareena rolled over, looking at Portenda and quickly pulling up the sheets to cover an exposed breast.

 

Portenda smiled broadly once more.

 

“That thing, as you put it, is our messenger.” Portenda kept an eye on the Alchemical beast as Jonah finished dressing.

 

Nareena had wrapped herself in their bedsheet and dashed to the bathroom to take a shower and get dressed while Portenda shook his head. “Or had you forgotten we were getting one when you and she hit the sheets?”

 

Jonah blushed a brilliant shade of crimson, unable to hide his embarrassment or his pride in being Nareena’s bedmate.

 

“How do you know it’s the right creature?”

 

The Alchemical beast raced up his right arm and settled onto his shoulder, using the same communication technique it had now used successfully on Raja and Portenda.

 

Jonah marveled as he saw the mental image of his sister issue from Blink’s body into his own mind. “Oh my Gods.” He plucked Blink from his shoulder, and held him in his left hand as he patted him on the furry little head. “You’ve done a good job. Do you want to be free now, um, what’s your name anyway?”

 

Blink, he heard whispered into his mind. That is the name my savior gave me.

 

“Blink, eh? Do you want to go free now?”

 

No, Jonah heard in his mind in a high-pitched, boyish voice. It reminded him of his own voice when he was five or six years old. I want to return to her, make sure she’s okay. I’ll ride with the big fellow.

 

Jonah watched as Blink launched himself through the air and landed on top of Portenda’s head.

 

“Jonah, would you be so kind as to grab one of those pastries you’ve been saving from Granny’s place.”

 

Blink moved off of the Simpa’s head and onto his left shoulder, a natural perch for the Alchemical beast it seemed while Jonah rummaged through his packages, and produced a Danish for the little creature, who took it with his front forelegs and nibbled appreciatively on the offered food.

 

Nareena came out of the bathroom, dressed once again jeans and a cardigan sweater over a plain white tank top.

 

“Is this what we’ve been waiting for?” Nareena brushed her hair hurriedly, checking through her own rucksack to make sure she was properly packed to leave.

 

“Indeed, it is,” replied Portenda flatly, regaining his professional demeanor. “Meet me out front in ten minutes. I have to get my things, and we’ll head out on foot. Blink will guide us. Correct, little one?”

 

Portenda’s eyes grew ashen and glossy as his calm, icy persona resurfaced after so many days of being set aside.

 

The Alchemy beast could detect that this was the big man’s usual state of being, and he decided not to interfere with the transition, though he could have. It might be best to let the Simpa do what he had to in order to save his liberator.

 

Blink nodded, and pressed his underbelly against Portenda’s skin.

 

I shall give you directions. In his head, Portenda heard a voice like a young Human boy.

 

“Ten minutes,” he repeated to the Alchemists, who were already busying themselves with final preparations.

 

Jonah tossed Nareena the first two tomes on Focus.

 

The Elven beauty gave him a questioning glare. “I’ve already memorized them,” Jonah explained, shoving the rest of his equipment into the appropriate pocket, thinking on his spare clothing and tapping the snap on the enchanted rucksack. He stuffed the three towels from the hotel room’s bathroom into the spare clothing, smiling slightly to himself.

 

“Jonah, why do you need those towels?”

 

“You never know when you’ll need one,” Jonah said, quoting his mother. “Now come on, we’ve got the break we’ve been waiting for.”

 

Nareena didn’t move for a moment though, and her face had a crestfallen look about it.

 

“Honey, what’s wrong,” Jonah asked, moving slowly to her side.

 

She put her hand over top of his on her shoulder, and gave him a wan smile.

 

“He’s never going to be the same, is he?” she asked.

 

Jonah knew exactly what she meant. He lowered his chin, and shook his head. “No, he isn’t. Actually, to be fair, he hasn’t been himself since we arrived in Palen. This city did something to him, made him a little more relaxed. And we’ve all become close, as people often do in times of stress. What’s important, though, is that when we get Eileen back, we make sure he doesn’t just dash off into the horizon. He has the capacity to be friendly, even warm at times. You’ve seen that.”

 

“Yes, I have, Jonah.” Nareena followed him to the door, giving him a peck on the cheek as the entered the hallway. “But I’ve also seen how cold he can be, how distant. And I want you to know that I fully expect him to take off once we have Eileen back safe.”

 

The young man looked heartbroken at the idea, but he nodded, accepting that it was most likely the truth of the matter.

 

“Come on.” He looked at his wrist timepiece. “We’ve only got a couple of minutes to check out and get out there. You know how much he hates being late.”

 

* * * *

 

Kobuchi had copied the entirety of the journals after reading through them, and his tiny Kobold heart swelled with hope as he thought about his eventual freedom from this oppressive tower and its twisted master. Kobuchi had even managed to stop using that term mentally with a capital ‘m’, deciding that he had to disagree with Genma’s methods at last. Genma’s Alchemy had manipulated, controlled him for several years, it seemed. One of the handwritten journals had described the exact process through which Genma had selected Kobuchi and ensured his devotion.

 

Kobuchi had been traveling with his family pack of Kobolds, a group that called themselves the Orga Family. The pack numbered six, and was comprised by some of the most intelligent and educated Kobolds in all of Tamalaria.

 

Reading through the notes that Genma had kept on them, Kobuchi remembered his friends, his traveling companions for nearly eight years. All of them had been skilled mages, studying several schools of magic instead of dedicating themselves entirely to one school or other. One of the members, the youngest of the group, he recalled now, had been an Engineer, using the ancient sciences to craft mecha devices to aid the group in their travels and studies.

 

Genma had selected Kobuchi because, according to the research he had written down and copied out in the journal, Kobuchi showed the most promise as a wielder of multiple magics.

 

As the group had traveled through the vast desert in the southeast known as the Desperation to study a set of ancient ruins, Genma had come upon the family. He had offered them water skins that were enchanted to not run dry, and the pack had eagerly purchased them. After another day of traveling, they had all fallen asleep hard after taking some of the water from their ‘enchanted’ skins.

 

“’The gullible little saps fell for it, hard,’” Kobuchi read aloud once again, anger seething out from his heart. He had to regain control of himself, though. He had been in his personal quarters, which had one wall of video monitors connected to several of the surveillance cameras throughout the tower. Genma was stalking the halls at this late hour, and would most likely visit him soon.

 

Kobuchi hid the journals and his own notes in his dresser, and lay on the bed, getting under the covers and pretending to be fast asleep.

 

The master of the tower would likely be checking in on him soon.

 

A few minutes later, Kobuchi heard the door to his room creak open.

 

Genma peered in at his servant, and noted the slow, deep rise and fall of the bed sheets. Hmm, he thought. Asleep. He’d hoped that the Kobold would be awake and able to provide him a little bit of company. The ivory-masked Alchemist couldn’t himself get any rest at the moment. Though the conversation with Telroke had been taxing, he felt wide awake now, especially knowing just how much of a threat the Bounty Hunter posed if he should find his way to the tower.

 

Genma had been able to take a little comfort in one of Telroke’s statements, though. Portenda had named himself an exile from the Allenian Hills. He would place himself at risk by coming to the tower, which fronted the Allenian Hills on the eastern border of the region. Should Portenda be spotted near the tower, he would be in breach of his exile, and could come under attack from any number of Khan or Simpa tribes. If what Telroke had told Genma were true, then perhaps the Bounty Hunter could be dealt with before even getting inside of the perimeter of the tower.

 

Genma already intended to use the Bounty Hunter’s father against him, pitting the old drunkard against his son in mortal combat. If a few more lycanthropes from the Allenians wanted to join in, all the better. He would speak to Telroke about it in the morning. He felt assured that the man’s hatred for his own flesh and blood would win him over, and he would agree quickly to the idea of fighting Portenda.

 

He had fought the boy once and survived. But that had been many years ago, when Portenda had been a whelp. Now, the Bounty Hunter had years of training and experience. Adding a few more Simpa to the mix could even the odds. Perhaps the tiger-men could be convinced to help their hated enemies if the exiled freak of nature showed up.

 

Genma heaved a heavy sigh, though. He understood why the boy had chosen exile—he hadn’t wanted to kill his own father. Genma knew that part of Telroke’s story had been inaccurate, though the older Simpa had himself thoroughly convinced. But Genma had seen the truth of that battle in his own mind; it had been Portenda who had disarmed his father, and it had been Telroke who had used the law of exile to save his own life.

 

But the old man had years of watching his son from afar. And clearly he had some sort of power that might cause Portenda the Quiet to falter. If Telroke could shatter Genma’s calm so easily, then surely the freak was no exception, right?

 

The ivory-masked Alchemist realized finally that he had been so lost in thought that he had unwittingly descended down his private stairwell into the basement of the tower. Why, he wondered, did he always wind up down here when his mind wandered and he lost track of himself?

 

Painted portraits of his family hung about the dingy basement chamber, and the tables, makeshift creations at best, were littered with his old personal affects. Stacks of research papers, reviews of his latest theories in Alchemy written by other scientists, lay strewn about the tables and floor. Genma felt his heart slow to a near stop when he looked across the room to the single device that he had placed down here once he had left the life of Allen Staples behind.

 

The machine stood like a silent, permanent accusation, its levers all pointed at Genma like the fingers of disapproval.

 

Genma looked away from the device and sprinted from the basement, away from the machine he had used in an attempt to brainwash his nephew. The machine had failed near the end, unable to deal with the boy’s free will as it had been designed to do. It was another in a long line of failed experiments.

 

A failure, he thought, that might lead to his demise. After all, the boy and the Bounty Hunter were partners in their mission to retrieve Eileen Staples. And between the two of them, they had enough power and skill to stop Genma in his tracks, save the girl, and destroy the tower.

 

“They have the power to make the Gods tremble,” Genma whispered to himself as he returned to his personal chambers, and lay down to sleep.

 

Though he hadn’t meant to, Kobuchi, two floors above, had also nodded off.

 

* * * *

 

SO YOU’RE SAYING THAT NOBODY HERE REPRESENTS HIM? Death asked of the astral being known only as Fate.

 

Fate took the form of a man in a blue cloak and robes, wearing a flat, plain mask of gold, in which a thin slit had been crafted to grant him a field of vision. Shioten, the God-Father, had given up omnipotence and the Great Book of Histories, claiming that no being should have such knowledge, lest they be parted from emotion and judgment.

 

Fate could not judge, and for the most part, could not feel. Even as an astral being created by the hand of the Almighty, he had limits on how much he could interfere or intervene in the mortal realm. And he shared his knowledge with only three other beings; Shioten, Truth, and Death.

 

“No, Honorable Guest.” Fate’s booming voice echoed through the Halls of Eternity.

 

The home of the Holy Triad, Fate, Truth, and Power, the Halls of Eternity served as the holding place of the Great Book of Histories. It also played host to conversations between the astral beings that currently stalked its marble hallways. “No single God or Goddess lays claim to him. You know full well why that is,” Fate added matter-of-factly.

 

WE AGREED NOT TO TALK ABOUT THAT, Death rasped.

 

“And why not?” Fate asked as they approached Fate’s personal quarters. The Heavens have their own dimensions, though most are ethereal and have no meaning. To the astral beings themselves, however, a certain degree of solidity was reassuring. They had that much in common with their mortal counterparts. “Haven’t you ever questioned our judgment, our decision? I am not supposed to intervene, but that once, I did. And so did you.”

 

Death gripped the shaft of his scythe hard, leaving a slight imprint on it.

 

Maxi barked happily as he followed behind the astral beings, and Death produced a dog treat, tossing over his shoulder to silence his pet.

 

Fate opened the door to his room, waving his hand in front of it. No knob or handle was present to grip, and as his hand finished its motion, the door swung open.

 

WHY DO YOU NOT PUT A DOORKNOB ON THERE?

 

“It’s mostly so nobody but you or I can enter without my permission. Nobody else is supposed to see the Histories, though I occasionally relate their contents to Truth,” Fate said flatly.

 

I SEE NOW WHERE HE GETS IT, Death mused, referring to Portenda’s cold demeanor.

 

“He gets it from you too, you know,” Fate said bluntly as he and Death entered his private chambers. “Now, let us discuss why you’ve come to visit me.”

 

WILL TRUTH BE JOINING US?

 

“Yes, in a few minutes. She is presently taking council with a few of the Lesser Gods. Apparently, one of them has only three believers left, and they are slated to die of a local disease soon. He’s petitioning for more faithful, so that you won’t have to collect.”

 

Death grinned deep in his hood. He enjoyed it dearly when one of the self-righteous Lesser Gods lost their believers. They put up one hell of a struggle and it was always fun to stomp them flat in front of the other Gods and Goddesses, to remind them of who alone had that power among them.

 

A rap came on the door a minute later, and Fate waved his hand to allow a white winged woman into the room.

 

Her golden skin reflected the astral light in the room, almost blinding both her brother Fate, and Death, despite his lack of eyes to blind.

 

“I am here, brother, Honorable Guest,” she said, giving them a brief curtsy.

 

Death bowed deeply. Truth’s beauty affected even him to some degree.

 

THANK YOU FOR COMING, TRUTH. WE DO NOT MEAN TO KEEP YOU FROM YOUR OTHER AFFAIRS.

 

“What is that thing?” Truth pointed to Maxi.

 

OH, YES. I MADE HIM. TO HAVE SOME COMPANY. Death patted the skeletal hound on the head, which set his tail flapping.

 

“It is good to see you’ve finally come to your senses about having a friend,” Truth said. “As always, your actions outside of your duty elude my eyes and ears. Now, I understand that you have some questions for me, Grim. As do you, brother. I do not understand why you are so reluctant to simply look up any question you have in the Histories.”

 

“The Histories relate facts alone, sister,” Fate said. “And our questions, I fear, are not covered by them.”

 

Truth gave Fate a skeptical look through her vibrant, ocean-blue eyes. “I have checked,” the golden-masked entity admitted.

 

“This must be a grave matter. Does Father know of our meeting here?”

 

I INFORMED HIM MYSELF. Death patted his cloak front, gripping Maxi’s front paws and walking with him a few feet on his hind legs. He set his pet down and retrieved his scythe, which he had set against the wall. HE HAS APPROVED, SO DO NOT WORRY. I WISH TO ASK YOU THE FIRST QUESTION, Death said, looking to Fate for his approval.

 

Fate nodded, and so Death continued, his hood shifting back towards Truth. THERE IS A MAN IN THE REALITY OVER WHICH YOU PRESIDE. Death wasn’t sure what Truth looked like in the other realities, because he seldom visited the Heavens in the other realities that he watched over. The Gods and Goddesses were all different, depending on which reality one crossed over in to. This one happened to be Death’s favorite, and was the only one in which he had ever become very personally involved.

 

“There are millions of men in this reality,” Truth said. “To which do you refer?”

 

PORTENDA THE QUIET, Death said flatly. Irritation at Truth’s mockery tainted Death’s tone. DOES HE HAVE A SOUL?

 

Truth stood still, the light from her flesh shining brighter for a moment as she crossed her arms over her chest, touching her hands to their opposing shoulders, and tucked her chin down, accessing her wealth of information. After a minute of this activity, she looked up at her brother and Death.

 

“Yes, he does. Why do you ask? Does he not have a timer, like all other mortals?”

 

NO, HE DOESN’T, Death said irritably. I HAVE SEARCHED MY ENTIRE INVENTORY, AND I CAN’T FIND A THING. Death shifted his weight onto one foot, uneasy at having to admit that he couldn’t find the timer for a mortal under his watch. Especially considering his connection to the man.

 

“That is most unusual,” was Truth’s reply to this fact. “Now, brother, what was your question?”

 

Fate stepped forward, standing next to his closest contact, Death. “Does he know why he exists? Does he know why he was allowed to be born?”

 

Truth raised an inquisitive eyebrow again at her brother, but said nothing, instead going through the motions of her use of power again.

 

“No, he does not,” she said. “Though, he has his suspicions, and they are close to the truth.” She looked from her brother to Death and back again. “I know that the two of you are responsible for his birth.”

 

Fate and Death looked away, ashamed by the tone Truth took with them. “Father does not know, does he?”

 

Fate shook his head miserably, and Truth crossed her arms.

 

NOT THAT WE ARE AWARE OF, IN ANY EVENT, Death said, pointing to the floor for Maxi to sit.

 

The skeletal canine did as he was silently asked, and waggled his tongue up and down, panting despite not having any lungs.

 

IT IS DIFFICULT TO TELL JUST WHAT YOUR FATHER IS AWARE OF. AFTER ALL, HE DOES HAVE CONNECTIONS TO YOU TWO AND YOUR OTHER BROTHER, Death waved his hand vaguely. HE COULD BE WATCHING THIS CONVERSATION THROUGH YOUR EYES AND LISTENING THROUGH FATE’S EARS FOR ALL WE KNOW.

 

“We would be aware of any such connection being made,” Fate offered. “Father’s touch can’t be missed. We would know if He were watching, and trust me, we wouldn’t be having this pleasant conversation.”

 

SO, WHAT DO WE DO FROM HERE? HE’S BOUND TO NOTICE WHEN THE HISTORIES ARE ALTERED.

 

“Well, you don’t have to worry much about it, do you,” Truth fairly hissed at Death. “He can’t touch you, after all, though none of us knows why.” None of the Gods, Goddesses, or Triad members knew that this incarnation of Death resided over more than their own reality. And being a force outside of the Triad’s influence allowed Death to keep this fact a secret, even from Truth and Fate, his only regular contacts in the Heavens.

 

AND HOPEFULLY, YOU NEVER WILL, Death countered. The scent of jasmine incense filled the air, and Death shifted his stance, pointing one bone finger at Truth. DON’T EVEN TRY YOUR TRICKS ON ME, TRUTH! THEY WON’T WORK, AND I’M A LITTLE OFFENDED THAT YOU WOULD TRY!

 

Truth used the scent to pry information from the Lesser Gods, and even the Greater Gods when they resisted her attempts to collect information on their faithful. It always worked on them, so she reasoned that it would work on Death. She gasped as Death ignored her charm technique, and the scent of jasmine left as quickly as it had cropped up.

 

Furious, she stormed from her brother’s chambers, letting herself out as normally as if the door were made of common wood and iron hinges.

 

“That could have gone better,” Fate said, shaking his head and rubbing the mask where his temples should have been.

 

LET US HOPE SHE DOESN’T RUN TO YOUR FATHER, Death hissed as the crimson lights in his hood dimmed down. DESPITE WHAT SHE THINKS, SHIOTEN CAN HAVE A VERY PROFOUND EFFECT ON MY WORK. LIKE MAKING A LOT MORE OF IT. I DON’T CARE FOR THAT POSSIBILITY.

 

Death swiped at the air with his scythe, and Maxi bound through the tear and disappeared from Fate’s room.

 

“So, he has a soul, but no timer. He has no Gods or Goddesses willing to claim him. Why?”

 

MOST LIKELY BECAUSE THEY AREN’T AWARE OF HIM. OR, THEY’RE AFRAID OF WHAT HE REPRESENTS. SURELY YOUR SISTER’S CLOSEST FRIENDS AMONG THE GODS WILL SOON BE MADE AWARE OF HIS NATURE—AND WHERE HE COMES FROM.

 

“And then we’ll both be sitting in front of a panel.” Fate sighed heavily. “I don’t want to deal with that. Perhaps we should find that timer and undo him.”

 

Death’s eyes flared and he wheeled on Fate, his scythe raised to hip-level, held ready to strike.

 

I WILL NOT TAKE SOMEONE WHOSE TIME HAS NOT COME, FRIEND. IF WE MUST ANSWER FOR OUR ACTIONS THOSE MANY YEARS AGO, SO BE IT! BUT I WILL NOT SIMPLY GIVE UP ON HIM! CHECK THOSE HISTORIES AGAIN, FATE. I GUARANTEE HE’LL BE SHOWING UP SOON. Death lowered his scythe, and he passed through the rift in the Heavens, disappearing as Maxi had a minute earlier.

 

Fate tried to stop his trembling legs, but he found that he was rooted in place. He and Death had together decided to see what might become of such a creature, a crossbreed of two Races that were never meant to bear children. They had imposed their wills on reality, bending it around the mother’s womb and the child itself.

 

Portenda the Quiet had been that child.

 

* * * *

 

Portenda led the way with Blink on his shoulder. The trio from Ja-Wen made their way out of Palen and into the high grasslands due west of the city. The moon was in its full phase, providing plenty of lunar light by which to navigate, and Jonah and Nareena had little trouble keeping pace, spurred on by Blink’s arrival and what that meant.

 

The Simpa did not seem to be in much of a hurry, it seemed to Jonah. Perhaps he’s distracted, or perhaps he’s just communicating with the Alchemical beast.

 

This was a correct assumption, as Portenda listened to Blink through their mental communication. Blink had one scorpion leg pressed against Portenda’s neck, as the protector vest didn’t allow Blink to hunker down against his flesh to maintain contact. Portenda had learned a great deal about Blink and Eileen’s situation through the mental communication. Thanks to Blink’s gradual retrieval of Genma’s memories, Blink was able to inform Portenda of his intentions for Eileen.

 

Portenda had never felt such immense disgust at an idea, but this one nearly made him step aside to vomit. Allen Staples intended to transform his own niece, through Alchemy and other sciences, into his late wife. The Gods should not have permitted such acts, but sometimes, he realized, the Gods and Goddesses could do little to influence the mortal realm.

 

Portenda considered how to tell Jonah what he had learned from the beast. The boy would panic and then he would start asking questions. Questions that Portenda didn’t want to answer. He decided to remain silent, and further his observations. He had no idea what sort of traps or pitfalls lie ahead of him, but he had an idea of where they were heading.

 

He didn’t like the idea, but he would have to pass dangerously close to the Allenian Hills. Exiled from the Hills by his father, he would be subject to attack from both Simpa and Khan. He would have to protect both himself and the Alchemists, though they had already proven themselves capable of the task.

 

“So, how long are we going to go tonight?” Nareena’s body was still sluggish from lack of sleep.

 

“Only a couple of hours,” Portenda said. “But we need to make the trip without using any Teleportation techniques or scrolls. If we can find mounts to carry the two of you, I can take on my animal form and run with them,. There’s a village not far from Palen, and I think they may have a stable that can provide.”

 

“We could have got horses back in Palen,” Jonah said.

 

“Those were all taken,” Portenda said. “I checked on that the first day we were there. We can make it to the village in a couple of hours. We’ll camp outside of their borders, and in the morning, we’ll purchase a couple of mounts for the two of you. That way we’ll be able to make good time to Genma’s tower,” he said.

 

“How do you know it’s a tower,” Jonah asked suspiciously.

 

“This little guy is speaking to me through my mind.” Portenda pointed a furry finger to the Alchemical beast on his shoulder. “He’s told me everything he knows. We’re heading towards the Allenians.”

 

Jonah felt his heart sink. The Allenians were no place for a Human to wander, even if he was in Portenda’s company. Patrols of Khan and Simpa warriors would crush anyone who intruded on their territory flatter than an insect.

 

“Towards them, but not into them, right?” Jonah asked squeamishly.

 

“I hope not,” Portenda said quietly. “After all, I’m an exile. Exiles are allowed no quarter. From anybody.”

 

As the night sky shone lunar light across the open plains, the trio from Ja-Wen marched along at a steady clip, careful not to travel too slowly or too quickly.

 

As they passed through fields and meadows, their feet springing lightly off of the soft soil of the region, a sense of unity came over Jonah, who found that the silence between them had grown comfortable. It reminded him a little of the quiet dinners he had shared with his parents and his sister in the weeks before his departure from home.

 

But with night travel came the risks of highwaymen, nocturnal predators, and creatures that showed themselves only to feed. The northeastern flatlands of Tamalaria were well known for harboring hermit Necromancers, who resided in ramshackle dwellings of primitive design, made with little thought to permanency. They would raise undead minions from the surrounding area, and lurk near the roadways, waiting for victims to have slaughtered and turned into more minions. Jonah had no desire to see any such individuals.

 

After an hour of walking, Portenda slowed to nearly half of his set pace, and Jonah and Nareena almost walked into his broad, weapon-riddled back.

 

Portenda held an open hand up, swiveling his head slightly to the left. His eye was barely visible to the Alchemists, but Jonah could see the gleam of anticipation in that gray orb.

 

“Stand very still,” Portenda whispered.

 

Blink scurried from Portenda’s back to the ground, where he curled up into a defensive ball, his stinger poised to strike anything that came too close for his comfort.

 

Jonah listened for any sounds that might be out of the ordinary, but his own Human senses weren’t as well developed as the Simpa’s. Nor did he have Portenda’s gifts of observation. His limitations frustrated him, but before he could mull the problem over, he finally heard something moving.

 

Nothing came into view as Jonah looked straight ahead.

 

Portenda hadn’t moved since raising his hand, but in the span of a split second, the Simpa Bounty Hunter leapt into the air, drew his broadsword and swung it down in a flash of steel, the arc of lunar light reflecting brightly as it slashed through the body of a translucent creature.

 

A primal roar of fury and agony erupted from the throat of a long, black-furred beast, its body appearing to be that of a wolf with several snake-like protrusions flailing about its bleeding body.

 

Portenda landed in a three-point stance several yards on the beast’s left flank, his muscles bulging and tensed for further combat.

 

“A rashum,” Jonah breathed as the supernatural creature turned its blood-soaked body towards the Bounty Hunter. Rashums were a mix of spirit beast and flesh-and-bone creatures created when both came into existence in the same general location, though on two separate planes of existence. Their semi-magical abilities often reflected the nature of the spirit beast, while their physical behavior was governed by whatever animal they had merged with during birth. With so many such creatures lurking the lands of Tamalaria, scholars had agreed on an umbrella term for these beasts: rashums. This creature had approached the trio wrapped in an aura of near-invisibility, but Portenda had noticed it: either by sound alone, or, as Jonah suspected, by smell.

 

Thick arterial blood spewed from the long gash across its back, and the Alchemist felt certain that the danger the rashum presented had decreased by degrees. The two combatants stayed their position, however, neither making a move.

 

Portenda realized he had been quicker than the creature by only a fraction of a second, jumping out of the way of one of its flesh whips a moment before impact. His strike had made its mark, but skill alone hadn’t given him the first strike—an element of surprise and luck lent a hand.

 

Even bleeding as this rashum was, Portenda knew that it could still deliver a lethal attack. It retained enough intelligence to stay where it was, to wait on him to make a move. Perhaps it’ll bleed to death, the Bounty Hunter thought hopefully.

 

But that option washed away like debris in a flood as the wound on the creature’s back healed at a rate of regeneration not even heard of in Jafts. Blood dripped through its thick fur and over its carapace, leaking onto the ground, but no new fluid joined it.

 

The rashum bared its teeth at the Simpa and growled, the fur of its back standing on end.

 

This could be a problem. As Portenda readied himself for a fresh onslaught, a crack of thunder tore the air and the rashum’s head exploded in a shower of soft brain and magma-colored blood.

 

Portenda turned his gaze over to Jonah and Nareena and saw smoke billowing from the end of the sniper rifle’s barrel, with Jonah in a crouched aiming position. The boy had a smile on his face that could have stretched into the stars themselves.

 

“Very good shot, Jonah.” Portenda sheathed his broadsword. “Aim a little more to the right next time, though.” He wiped gray matter off of his proud, feline snout. “That way you might not spray blood and brain on me.”

 

Jonah blushed a bit and then slung the rifle back in place across his back.

 

Portenda stepped around the area, sniffing the air to test it for signs of other, more material hostile forces, catching himself in time to sidestep Blink as the Alchemical beast skittered up his leg and onto his back, moving immediately to his right shoulder.

 

“Hmm. I think we should get moving again. Won’t take us long to reach the village.” Once again, his tone was flat and devoid of inflection.

 

As the trio from Ja-Wen made their way through the night, they noticed traces of natural animals having passed through the area.

 

Here and there, the smaller, less fortunate among them lay in pools of their own blood, having been broken in the powerful jaws of the rashum.

 

Their necks had been snapped, and their stomachs torn open, their innards taken as nourishment for the half spirit creature.

 

Nareena gripped Jonah’s arm, her natural Elven empathy towards such victimized creatures hitting her hard.

 

After another hour, Portenda called a halt to their march. They had come to the crest of a hill overlooking the low grassy plain on which the village rested. “I’ll keep the first watch,” the Bounty Hunter proclaimed. “I’ll wake you up in a few hours, Nareena. Jonah’s been taking most of my opposite shifts.”

 

The Alchemists prepared their bedroll, tucked themselves inside, and were asleep before Portenda could ask them if they wanted anything to eat before knocking off.

 

The lumbering Simpa Bounty Hunter stalked around the perimeter in a slow, cautious circle, keeping his senses on end.

 

He wondered what could be making him feel so cold despite his fur when he realized that the sensation was coming from behind him. VERY HANDY LITTLE TRICK OF MINE, Death said.

 

“So, you put them to sleep,” Portenda said evenly.

 

DO YOU THINK ANYONE COULD FALL ASLEEP THAT QUICKLY WITHOUT A GOOD DEAL OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY?

 

“Bark Bark,” came another nearby voice.

 

Portenda turned and saw Death standing beside his new pet, Maxi.

 

“What brings you around, again,” Portenda asked, walking around the perimeter once more.

 

WE NEED TO TALK. Death took a seat on a nearby felled log. I FIGURED WE SHOULD GET SOME THINGS OUT OF THE WAY. YOU PROBABLY WONDER SOMETIMES WHY I SHOW UP SO OFTEN AROUND YOU.

 

To Portenda’s surprise, he hadn’t been thinking about it until the astral being mentioned it. He stopped midway through his route, turned and faced Death.

 

“I never really thought too much about it, until you just mentioned it now.” Portenda took one last look around him, and realized that in the presence of the Honorable Guest, he probably didn’t have to worry too much about Jonah and Nareena’s welfare. He shuffled towards the embodiment of most mortals’ fears, and sat down, cross-legged, in front of him. “So, start explaining.”

 

STRAIGHT TO THE POINT, EH? Death raised an impossible eyebrow. I USED TO BE IMPATIENT LIKE THAT TOO, ONCE UPON A TIME. WHEN I WAS YOUNGER.

 

“Younger? Does that concept even apply to you?”

 

Death scratched his head with a single finger of bone. WELL, NOT REALLY. TIME ITSELF HAS LITTLE OR NO HOLD OVER ME. IT’S A CONCEPT THAT CAME INTO BEING AFTER ME, I THINK. I CAN’T REALLY RECALL.

 

“Sort of like which came first, the chicken or the egg,” Portenda muttered, shifting his weight to make himself more comfortable for what he was becoming aware was going to be a rather momentous conversation.

 

THAT’S SIMPLE. I WAS THERE FOR THAT.

 

“So, which was it?”

 

I REALLY SHOULDN’T TELL YOU. Death grinned. IT’S ONE OF THOSE THINGS THAT SHOULD JUST BE LEFT ALONE. LOOK, WE HAVE TO DISCUSS SOMETHING FAR MORE IMPORTANT THAN THAT. PORTENDA, YOU ARE AWARE THAT YOU ARE A HALF-BREED, CORRECT?

 

“I know what I am, Grim.” Portenda instinctively looked around the area one more time.

 

DON’T WORRY. I WON’T LET ANYTHING HAPPEN TO YOUR FRIENDS—FOR NOW. Death pulled a small, hard biscuit from his robes and tossed it over his shoulder.

 

Maxi barked his strange bark as he darted off after the doggy treat, dust kicking up into the air around him.

 

BESIDES, THEY’VE BOTH GOT PLENTY OF TIME LEFT. Death drew two sand timers from his robes. Nareena’s, being as she was an Elf, was much larger than Jonah’s, and her sand flowed more slowly. For a Human, though, Jonah had a great deal of sand left.

 

Portenda smiled to himself softly, and looked over at his companions.

 

BUT DON’T FORGET THAT THESE TIMERS CAN BE MADE TO FLOW MUCH FASTER, GIVEN EXIGENT CIRCUMSTANCES.

 

“What do you mean?” Portenda stretched his arms and legs.

 

IF THEY ARE SET UPON BY OUTSIDE FORCES, THE SAND MAY MOVE TO THE BOTTOM FASTER THAN EVEN YOU COULD SEE, Death intoned meaningfully. YOU LEAD THEM INTO DANGER, PORTENDA. BUT I UNDERSTAND WHY YOU MUST DO IT. ANOTHER LIFE HANGS IN THE BALANCE. YOU MORTALS HIGHLY VALUE EACH OTHER. NOT AT ALL LIKE SOME OF THE COMPANY I KEEP. The Gods tended to get on his nerves, or would, if he had any.

 

“So you’ve mentioned before. Look, this isn’t what you wanted to tell me.” Portenda stared up at the moon. “You’re stalling. You don’t really want to tell me what you came here to tell me, do you?”

 

Death rubbed Maxi’s head as the skeletal canine wagged its bone tail.

 

“You don’t think I can handle it.”

 

Death got to his own feet, and tore a rift in the air with his scythe.

 

IT’S ABOUT YOUR TIMER, PORTENDA. Death faced the rift, his back to the Bounty Hunter, who was now looking at him with keen interest. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO TELL YOU THIS. Death put one foot through the portal. He looked back at Portenda, his eyes flashing in his eternal skull. For a fraction of time, their eyes met, and Portenda saw a sense of duty so immense, so vast, that he felt overwhelmed and lost. No mortal ever could hope to take on such responsibilities as Death’s. But there was also a personal connection there, something unspoken between them.

 

“So, just spill it.” Unable to maintain the eye contact any further, Portenda looked away. It was the only time in his many years that he had broken eye contact first.

 

I CAN’T FIND IT, PORTENDA. IN ESSENCE, YOU DON’T HAVE A TIMER.

 

Portenda’s entire body went stiff at these words, because they could mean any number of things to him.

 

BUT REMEMBER, YOU WERE NEVER EVEN SUPPOSED TO COME INTO BEING. I SUPPOSE YOU CAN BLAME BOTH OF THOSE FACTS ON ME, Death offered as he stepped through the rift.

 

Portenda spent the remainder of his shift turning these words over in his mind and his heart. Even after he awoke the Elven Alchemist to take her shift, he lay staring at the night sky, unable to fully deal with what he had just been told.

 

“What am I,” he asked the night sky as he slipped off into slumber land.

 

* * * *

 

When morning came, Portenda decided to leave behind his thoughts of the night before. If he kept brooding about his encounter with Death, he might never get the energy up to continue forward.

 

Nareena had used a long stick to poke the Bounty Hunter in the foot several times, until he shot upright like a bolt of lightning, snatching the stick away and bit it in half before getting groggily to his feet.

 

The fresh scent of morning dew clung to everything, from the grass to his bedroll. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, but it came, it seemed, far too early in the morning.

 

With his eyes still half closed, Portenda opened his water skin and poured a small portion on his face. “Hrprrrrbbbbb! Gah,” he muttered as he rubbed his eyes, clearing his vision for another day’s work.

 

“Good morning to you too,” Jonah called, stretching his own limbs for the long day ahead. “Hey, where’s the little guy?”

 

Portenda sniffed the air, and detected the sulfuric scent of the Alchemical beast’s flesh.

 

“He’s around.”

 

The trio watched as Blink skittered from a nearby shrub, a field mouse in his mouth.

 

First, he dropped it in front of Portenda and Jonah, while Nareena shrugged away from the sight.

 

Blink smiled happily and wagged his stinger like a dog seeking approval from his master.

 

“Go ahead, little one,” Portenda said, crouching down and patting Blink on the head as the little beast tore into the field mouse. “Good boy, eat up.”

 

He hitched up his rucksack. “All right, let’s go people.”

 

Moments later, the village came into sight.

 

A long, low building at the outskirts of the village indicated to the Bounty Hunter that this was the stable, as did the scent of horse manure and the braying of stallions inside.

 

The sun shone brilliantly in a sky devoid of cloud cover, and Portenda’s Khan blood surged with the power its pure rays lent him. Khan took strength from the sunlight, and in higher elevations, a single hour standing in the light could easily grant a full day’s energy.

 

Portenda, however, was only half-Khan, and was walking across lowlands in Tamalaria’s countryside. He didn’t take the same strength from the day’s light as his uncle Amon might, but it was nourishing nonetheless.

 

Before the company even reached the side of the stable, he felt fully renewed, ready to take on the day proper.

 

Piles of hay surrounded the stable building and crunched loudly underfoot as Portenda, Jonah and Nareena trampled to the front of the building.

 

As the Bounty Hunter cleared the side of the building, he almost stepped right on an Elven male attendant’s foot.

 

At the last second, Portenda shuffled to his left, and avoided crushing the poor little man.

 

The Elf looked up at Portenda’s proud face and half-hearted smile, complete with teeth.

 

The Simpa didn’t like using intimidation tactics, but sometimes, in his experience, Elves had a hard time selling their mounts, even if they were for sale. A little show of potential force might hurry things along.

 

“Can I, ah, help you folks,” the Elf squeaked.

 

“Actually, yes.” Jonah stepped between the giant warrior and the diminutive horsekeeper. “My lady friend and I need to acquire a pair of horses. Moderate size, we’re not that big.”

 

“And, ah, your big friend,” the Elf asked, taking a step backward, into the stable proper.

 

Portenda shook his head.

 

“Well, come inside and I’ll show you what we have, folks. The name’s Jean-Vierre.” The Elf extended a hand to Jonah, who shook amiably. The horse tender gave Nareena a familiar smile, one he probably reserved for members of his Race.

 

The trio followed him into the dimly lit stable, taking in the overpowering smells of horse manure and sweat, and listened to the braying, neighing, and the compliments that the Elven and Human attendants showered the animals with.

 

Portenda raised an eyebrow when his eyes fell on a single Lizardman in beige robes holding one horse’s head in its hands.

 

The reptilian humanoid pressed his forehead gently against the animal’s, clearly communicating with it in the manner of a Beastmaster.

 

Strange, Portenda thought as Jean-Vierre lead them to a stall near the back of the stable. Only this particular Class of Lizardman didn’t engage in the arts of warfare. With their kinsmen, they had little in common.

 

“This is Buck,” the Elven attendant said.

 

Jonah looked up into the middle-aged face of a bronco that easily stood six and a half feet high at the back.

 

“Buck’s been around for a while.” Jean-Vierre opened the stall door and stepping inside, stroking the horse with a sense of familiarity. “He used to be a racing animal, even won a few big events in Desanadron.” He grabbed a brush from a nearby shelf and ran it over the black bronco’s coat. “He’s still got plenty of stamina, and understands the basic commands of a rider. Perfect for you, sir,” he indicated Jonah, who had taken a step closer to pat the side of the creature’s neck.

 

Buck seemed to take to Jonah immediately, and even nudged him with his big head.

 

“I’ll take him,” Jonah said, patting the bronco and offering him an apple from a closed bucket inside the stall. The horse took the fruit whole into its mouth, and began crunching.

 

“Very good! I’ll leave you to get acquainted.” Jean-Vierre led Nareena away from the stall with Buck and Jonah.

 

“Say, where’s your big friend?” the Elven attendant asked the Alchemist, who looked around the stable.

 

Nareena couldn’t see Portenda anywhere, and worried that the attendant might ask her or Jonah for the money to pay for the animals. But as Jean-Vierre led her to a smaller horse with a shimmering bronze coat, she spotted Portenda standing by another Elven man, this one so old that he had actually begun to grow a beard.

 

Elves couldn’t grow facial hair until they passed their one-thousandth year of age, which made the stable owner an experienced dealer of animals.

 

“This is Elhaym.” Jean-Vierre regained Nareena’s attention as he opened the door to the bronze female horse’s stall. He stroked and brushed this horse much as he had Buck, with a familiar set of motions that Elhaym moved in sync with. “She’s been a strong runner her whole life, and was mostly used back home as a labor animal on the farms near Palen. She hasn’t gone very far from this region in all of her short life.” He knew these strangers would be going far away, and that Elhaym might be scared when she left familiar grounds.

 

Elves were very in tune with animals and nature, and Nareena envied this man his empathy. Her courses of study were almost purely scientific and fact-based, so her own innate Elven senses had dulled over time. She couldn’t tell much about Elhaym’s mood, despite the fact that the horse had brushed against her with its face.

 

“She likes you. A very good fit,” Jean-Vierre said as he moved away to let them get acquainted.

 

Meanwhile, Portenda had been speaking with the stable owner, an aged Elven man with a slew of years of experience training and tending to horses.

 

“I’m sorry, mister Portenda, but you’ll have to pay for these horses now, in full. I know about your little escapades, boy,” the elderly Elf said, waggling a long, bony finger at the Simpa. “I’m grateful you were able to help us with those Orcs a few years back, but you were paid for that and I need to be paid for these.”

 

Portenda reached into one of his vest pockets, and withdrew a yellow pad of paper, flipping back through the pages one by one, scanning the notes he had jotted down there.

 

“Ah, here we are,” he said after a minute, handing the pad over to the old man, who scanned the writing there. “I believe that’s your signature at the bottom, mister Horton,” he said, grinning broadly.

 

The old Elf, Eric Horton, looked at what Portenda had written and he had signed off on. It read as follows:

 

For the ensured safety and return of my stock, I, Eric Horton, do agree to

 

pay the sum of five thousand gold pieces, as well as agree to one favor,

 

to be collected on at a later, unspecified time. –Eric Horton

 

The old Elf gnashed his teeth together, furious that he could have forgotten something like this after only a few years. He remembered so much: eleven hundred years of memories. How could he forget an unspecified favor to a Bounty Hunter like Portenda the Quiet? He had to know, even then, that it might cost him dearly. Then again, the Orcs had stolen all of his beasts, and had even kidnapped Jean-Vierre, who had described Portenda’s slaughter of his Orc captors with vivid detail.

 

“All right, Bounty Hunter,” Horton fairly groaned. “You can take the horses and the equipment you’ll need for them. But now you can tear that paper apart.”

 

Portenda slowly, agonizingly ripped the paper free from the pad, meaningfully tearing it apart and scattering the pieces on the hay-covered floor.

 

“Good. Now take your little cohorts, the horses, and get out of my stable.”

 

Portenda marched over to Jonah, who had the saddle attached to Buck and was already preparing to mount up. But the horse was still far too tall for him to get up on, and the Human Alchemist had little experience with equine creatures. Portenda crept up behind him unnoticed, and hefted Jonah up on the horse’s back.

 

The boy gasped in shock as the Bounty Hunter’s huge hands thrust up under his arms and planted him on Buck’s back, but when he looked down, he gave Portenda a smile and a nod of thanks.

 

“Well, shall we be off, then,” Nareena asked from Elhaym’s back.

 

Portenda looked up at her astride the bronze nag, and nodded.

 

Blink was on his shoulder, and he set the Alchemical beast on the floor as he straightened his back and began to change his shape.

 

Muscles tore free of his bones, which also rearranged themselves in his body. A flash of light from the center of his chest shone brilliantly as his equipment disappeared into a spiritual space. A primal roar ripped through the air of the stable and the village outside, and in the small, one room schoolhouse in the center of town, the Human teacher nearly lost control of his bladder as he ducked under his oak desk.

 

Jonah and Nareena were amazed that the horses maintained their composure. A tiger-striped lion, too massive to be real, stood before them.

 

Portenda the Quiet, in his animal form, padded out of the stable and into the light of morning. Nareena and Jonah followed, and Blink hopped up on Portenda’s back, clutching a few tufts of fur to keep himself securely on the Bounty Hunter’s animal back.

 

Without a word, since he couldn’t speak in this form, Portenda darted off at a modest pace.

 

Nareena and Jonah looked at one another for a moment before shrugging their shoulders and following into the west.

 

* * * *

 

“You didn’t exactly tell him,” the gold-masked being said as Death came into his chambers through the rift in space-time.

 

NOT EXACTLY. Death searched the room for Maxi, who had arrived before him and was currently snoozing on Fate’s unused bed.

 

Fate never slept, never even rested for a moment. A waste of time, he had said.

 

BUT TRUST ME, I GOT THE PROPER WHEELS TURNING IN HIS HEAD. HE’LL THINK IT THROUGH, WHEN HE’S GOT THE CHANCE. I THINK HE’S A BIT BUSY RIGHT NOW, THOUGH. Death moved to Fate’s bed and took a seat next to his pet.

 

“Indeed.” Fate looked in on the world through a sphere on one of his desks. “He’s a strange one, that’s for certain. His mixed nature is highly apparent in his animal form.”

 

Far below, Portenda the Quiet ran along on all fours over the plains of northeastern Tamalaria towards the Allenian Hills.

 

DID YOU HAVE ANY LUCK FINDING HIM IN THE HISTORIES?

 

“Actually, yes.” Fate looked away from the sphere and at the door that closed off the Chamber of Histories. “While you were gone, I perused through them again. He has begun to appear. The Histories are changing again. But now they hold not just his life, Death.” Fate looked at the Grim Reaper as he ran a skeletal hand along Maxi’s spine.

 

The dead dog wagged its tail affectionately as it slept in response to the attention.

 

“They tell now of how he came into being.”

 

Death stopped his stroking, and got to his ethereal feet.

 

THEN, IF TRUTH ASKS AGAIN, YOU’LL HAVE TO ANSWER HER, Death intoned. I MUST RETURN TO MY DUTY FOR A WHILE. I’LL VISIT AGAIN, FRIEND. BUT BEFORE I DO, I’M GOING TO MAKE SURE HE SEES THROUGH WHAT HE’S DOING. THEN WE’LL HAVE A LONG TALK, ALL THREE OF US.

 

“You know he can’t come here,” said Fate. “And I’m loath to go down there, you know.”

 

SOMETIMES THE RIGHT THING TO DO ISN’T THE THING WE WANT TO DO, Death said. I BELIEVE I’M QUOTING YOU ON THAT ONE. He tore a rift in space-time and carried Maxi and himself through.

 

“You have me there,” Fate said to the empty room.

 

* * * *

 

“So, you’re healing up nicely,” Kobuchi said as Eileen removed her arm from the sling.

 

“Yes I am, thank you.” She wiggled her fingers and winced slightly. “Not completely up to par, but I think I can manage. I’ve read through the journals.”

 

Eileen took the teacup from its saucer and sipped a little of the relaxing liquid. “I can’t believe he did that to you and your family. I know that Kobold family packs are very close-knit. I’m very sorry, Kobuchi.” She patted his hand across the table.

 

“Thank you, Eileen. It’s not your fault, though. In a way, it isn’t his, either.” He slid off of his seat. “I was foolish, and didn’t see the trap for what it was. Had I been a bit more careful, I could have avoided this mess.” He waved his arms to indicate the entire tower and its inhabitants. “Well, I must be going. When last I checked on him, he was asleep but Genma doesn’t rest for very long. Neither do I, of course.

 

“Well, I’ve got to check on him. If he’s still asleep, or he’s busy, I’ll get started on getting myself free of this, this curse.” He touched the scar-seal on his bare chest. “Maybe even put on a shirt,” he added to Eileen’s amusement before leaving her to her thoughts.

 

Eileen had felt confident that Jonah would come for her, and this confidence had been bolstered by a dream the night before. In her dream, she and Jonah had watched the tower crumble from within while seated on the back of a black steed. She sometimes had premonitions, her mother had called them. Since her fifteenth birthday, she had experienced four of them, and each had come true. With past experience to guide her hopes, she waited patiently for her brother and whatever help he brought with him to arrive.

 

She didn’t hear or notice the drunken Simpa enter her chambers.

 

* * * *

 

Drown it out, Telroke thought. Drown the pain, drown the sorrow, drown the regrets. That’s the only way. He drained yet another bottle of brandy, his stomach and head both on fire with alcohol.

 

Genma’s forced conversation had surfaced memories he preferred to keep suppressed, locked away behind a barrier of liquid courage.

 

“Rapist,” he had muttered, tossing the bottle against a far wall and listening with rapt satisfaction to the sound of glass shattering. “That’s all I was. Brute. Ravager.” The images had become a part of his nervous system, and he could once again feel the flailing of the Khan girl’s limbs against him, her claws raking through his back to try and pry him off. He felt the impact of his closed fist against the side of her head, the way her body went limp and offered no more resistance. The smell of sweat and blood as he tore into her with animal ferocity and hunger, with unnatural need.

 

And finally, the straw that broke his will’s spine, he saw the empty, vacant look in the girl’s eyes as he finished with her. She had, in the end, given in to him. She had given birth to his only child months later, a freak of nature that should have never been. He had defied the will and laws of the Gods and Goddesses by allowing the child to live.

 

“Raping her was not the worst of my sins,” he said as he opened the last bottle of booze in his chambers. “And I’ll rectify that last one. I’ll fix that right,” he slurred, emptying the bottle and throwing it too against the wall.

 

His judgment was thoroughly clouded, and his thoughts turned to the good points of his heinous acts. In his stupor, he memory of  pure physical pleasure was among the best feelings he had ever experienced. He wanted it again. Of course, he had been sober when he had done it. In his current state, he might not be able to deal with a fighter.

 

But the girl upstairs, higher in the tower, was no fighter.

 

Genma had warned him about going near her, sure, but plenty of people had warned him against courses of action that he took anyway. Why not one more, for old times’ sake?

 

Telroke smiled his slovenly smile, his breath reeking of liquor and his shuffling gait showing anyone who might be watching that he wasn’t to be interrupted.

 

At the foot of the stairs, a large Alchemical beast stood guard. Telroke’s mind was a blur, but his eyes were still working just fine. The creature had the body of a wolf, the head of a hawk, and the wings of a giant bat. It stood at eye-level to Telroke, but the mass of its body must have outweighed him by at least three hundred pounds.

 

“You can go no farther,” the creature said, moving its beak open and closed with a sort of animated gesture that resembled Human lips. “The Master does not want you going upstairs if you are in your, er, current state of mind.”

 

That voice, Telroke thought, annoyed by the grating tone of superiority it held.

 

“Please, turn around and return to your chambers.”

 

“I don’t think so, bub.” Telroke launched a balled fist into the Alchemical beast’s face.

 

Despite his drunken state, Telroke’s strength allowed his fist to pass through the creature’s fragile, avian skull.

 

Shards of bone tore through Telroke’s arm as he drew his arm back through the dying beast’s head.

 

His wounds closed over almost immediately, and thick, black clouds of smoke poured from the Alchemy beast’s open head as it dissolved in a flash of steam and bubbling fluids.

 

“Pathetic,” Telroke murmured as he made his way into the stairwell.

 

Upward he climbed, his footsteps uneasy and loud as he used the outer wall to balance himself.

 

He approached the floor on which the Human girl was being kept, and stepped out into the hallway.

 

Looking up and down the hall, he thought for a moment that he could make out an unfamiliar scent, but decided that it wasn’t unfamiliar at all. It was simply that he hadn’t met an owner of that smell for long. He’d found a female.

 

“Heh, this should be easy,” he stammered, thinking of a new piece of ass after so long a drought.

 

Teetering slightly, he made his way towards Eileen Staples’ room.

 

He slipped into her room almost completely unnoticed.

 

Almost, he realized, wasn’t enough as the Q Mage spun in her seat and leveled a Raybolt spell at his chest.

 

The force of the magical strike hurled him out into the hall and against the opposing wall of stone, slamming the air out of his lungs.

 

He sat in a heap against the wall, rubbing his scorched pectoral muscles and growling deep in his throat. Crimson hatred blurred his vision, and his lips twisted into a wicked grin as he thought of the ways in which he would violate this little witch.

 

“Bad move, girl.” He pushed away from the wall.

 

Eileen backed against the far wall of her room.

 

“When I’m done with you, you’ll wish I had just killed you instead,” he shouted. He had taken two steps forward when a raging fireball slammed into his left side.

 

He was thrown down the hall, his fur and clothing set ablaze by Kobuchi spell.

 

The Kobold had checked in on his master, who had in fact been in the basement, staring absently at the device he kept stored down there. Genma had told Kobuchi that he needed some time to think, and sent him away without another thought.

 

Kobuchi had then gone to the viewing room and witnessed Telroke destroy the Alchemical beast guarding the stairwell. The Kobold had made a mad dash to catch up with the Simpa and ensure Eileen’s safety.

 

He was taking a monumental risk, because if Genma took himself away from the basement, he would surely notice Kobuchi’s magic and question his control over the Kobold. But he’d had to do it. He owed the Human girl for her help, and taking this risk was as nothing compared to the hope she had given him.

 

Telroke’s wails of flaming agony reverberated through the hall, and Kobuchi flexed his magical energy, taking the flames away from Telroke’s smoking body. “You’re the one who’s made a mistake, fool,” the Kobold rasped as he darted to the doorway of Eileen’s room. She had slumped down against the floor to rest herself. “Eileen, are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” she breathed, her voice barely audible. “I, didn’t have the spell properly prepared.” She stayed on the floor to conserve her strength.

 

Kobuchi moved towards Telroke, who had gotten to his hands and knees.

 

He raised his lion-like head, and glared at the Kobold with murder in his eyes.

 

“You! I’ll rip you apart with my bare hands.” He set himself into a three-point stance, ready to charge Kobuchi.

 

The Kobold held his left hand out, palm forward, chanting in an indecipherable tongue.

 

Telroke took off, dashing forward with his shoulder aimed squarely at Kobuchi’s head.

 

The bull-like tackle would have crushed his skull had Kobuchi not put up a PhysBarrier spell to protect himself.

 

As it was, the Simpa bounced off of the barrier and fell flat on his back, growling at his inability to take down such a small nuisance.

 

He sat up like a bolt of lightning, much as his son did when woken from a light sleep. He grinned menacingly at the Kobold, and cracked his neck with the help of his hand under his chin.

 

“You will cease this foolishness at once,” Kobuchi proclaimed, puffing out his chest proudly. “The master didn’t want you up here when you’ve been drinking,” he said, taking a whiff of the air. “Clearly, you have come anyway, intoxicated. I’ll let this barrier down, but I’m going to put it in the girl’s doorway. Try anything further and I shall destroy you, regardless of the master’s intentions.” He moved the PhysBarrier over the doorframe to Eileen’s quarters.

 

Growling and cursing, Telroke strode right past Kobuchi, towards the stairwell.

 

“I won’t soon forget this, little man,” the Simpa called over his shoulder. “When you least expect it, I’ll have my claws in your eye sockets.”

 

Kobuchi waited a few minutes before letting the barrier down. He crossed the chamber to Eileen, who smiled at him fondly.

 

“Thank you,” she said, throwing her arms around the Kobold, who stood stiff, flabbergasted.

 

“Um, ah, you’re welcome.” He put his hand on her back and patted her awkwardly. “Um, you’re crushing me.”

 

“Perhaps I should get going,” he said when Eileen let him go. He walked out of the chamber. “I’ll try to get a Mage’s Eye set on your brother so you can see where he is, at least.”

 

“I already know where he is,” Eileen said, moving toward her bed. “He’s on his way.”

 

* * * *

 

The trio moved over the fields and towards a small woodland, staying their course. As the sun came down from its noon position of an hour earlier, Portenda transformed himself back into his man-beast form.

 

He stood silently, looking into the wood line with interest. The long morning hours spent in silence had honed his senses to a high degree, and he could hear the distant clack-clack-clack of a large spider climbing a tree about fifty yards away. There were many forms of life lingering in the woods, both natural and otherwise.

 

His eyes narrowed as he peered into the woods, and he heard Jonah and Nareena both drop to the ground behind him, dismounting and taking their horses by the reins.

 

“What are you looking for?” Jonah asked as he approached.

 

Portenda held up a single finger to quiet him, and Nareena rummaged through her bag for something.

 

Jonah looked over at his lover as she produced a pad of paper and a quill pen she had purchased in Palen. It never ran dry, and she thought it would be much more reliable than those Gnome contraptions called ‘ball-point pens.’

 

Jonah took them from her, gave her a peck on the cheek, and walked around in front of Portenda, pushing the pad and quill to the Bounty Hunter.

 

The Simpa nodded, took them, and jotted something hastily.

 

“He says he’s scanning for trouble,” Jonah read Portenda’s written message.

 

Portenda narrowed his eyes again, searching for any signs that they might encounter hostility once inside the woodland. Here and there were traces of yellow ectoplasm, presumably left behind by spirit creatures of some sort. But the ectoplasm was dried, and barely visible even to his heightened sense of sight. Whatever had left the trails and drops was nocturnal by nature, and they would be through these woods before nightfall.

 

“What’s he saying now?” Nareena asked as Portenda scribbled something more on the pad.

 

“Pretty obvious, isn’t it?” The Alchemists took their horses’ reins and fell into step behind Portenda, who led them single-file into the woodland.

 

The sounds of animal life flourished around them, the calls of birds to one another, the chittering of squirrels accusing one another of stealing from their stash of nuts and berries flowing seamlessly.

 

Nareena felt at home here within the confines of the woods, more so than she had in any city thus far. She could almost understand what the plants and animals were saying to one another, but years of exposure to science and hard fact, to city life, blocked her ears from effectively translating the nature speech.

 

Portenda could understand every little cheep and chirp, however. The trees stood like silent sentries all around them, but their message was clear as he led the Alchemists through the forest; ‘Beware,’ they were saying.

 

Portenda sniffed the air once more, and caught a whiff of something far off, to the south, on their left. Whatever it was, it was approaching slowly, stealthily.

 

Why can’t I ever go anywhere without a fight, he thought miserably to himself.

 

Whatever it was, it was large and nearly silent despite its size.

 

The Bounty Hunter mentally shuffled through the mental images of creatures he had encountered in this region over the years but came up empty. He generally stayed out of wooded areas and forests, because he could not be in the sunlight during the cloudless days. Though it only gave him a small boost of power, his Khan blood gave him an extra advantage in the direct sunlight.

 

He halted in the middle of the path, and held up his fist.

 

Jonah and Nareena stopped dead behind him and watched the Bounty Hunter write something on the pad.

 

He tossed the pad over his shoulder without a backward glance, the pages fluttering like a bird of stationary.

 

Jonah caught the pad, thinking, hmm, he’s always accurate. He hadn’t had to adjust to catch the pad, which he now read.

 

Portenda had only written two words down; ‘Ride, NOW’.

 

Jonah glared wide-eyed at Nareena and she seemed to get the message as he tucked the pad away and leaped with super-human agility atop his mount. Panic did wonders for the adrenaline flow, he thought as Nareena mounted her own horse.

 

Trees began falling to their left as the creature that had been stalking them realized that they were aware of its presence. But the Alchemists couldn’t prepare themselves, or their panicking horses, for the sight of the monstrosity that emerged from the woods.

 

Two huge, blue-scaled hands gripped the trees on the immediate left of the path, then tossed them aside with no apparent effort, the wooden sentinels completely uprooted.

 

The creature’s face extended on a neck far too muscular to be natural. It reminded Jonah of a frog he had once dissected for its organs, each used in a different potion.

 

Round, bulbous eyes spiraled around on the sides of the monster’s face, focusing on nothing. A fat, fleshy body, spherical but slightly obscured by the huge, flaring nostrils of a nose on the chest, appeared as it stepped onto the path. The monster towered over Portenda and the horses, standing at least thirteen feet in height. Jonah’s mind reeled in the presence of such a monster.

 

Had Portenda not moved as quickly as he had, he might have been crushed underfoot by the amphibian biped. But as the creature stepped down, the Simpa dashed backward with a single leap, his pistol held loosely in his right hand, his spear in his left.

 

A froggrip, he thought, finally recognizing this creature. He had encountered one before, in the marshlands of the southwestern regions, but it had been smaller, less aggressive. He certainly hadn’t had to kill it, as he most likely would have to with this adult of the species.

 

The creature brought a club-like arm down towards the Bounty Hunter, who rolled through the nearby high brush to avoid being crushed.

 

Jonah and Nareena tried to calm their mounts before they were thrown from their backs, and managed to get them lucid enough to scamper away from the battle between monster and mortal.

 

As Portenda shot himself upright, he fired a single round at the froggrip.

 

The concussion of the impact turned the large blue amphibian to the right as brackish fluid sprayed from its wounded right arm.

 

Portenda holstered the ancient mecha firearm, and gripped his spear with both hands, crouching in preparation for a defensive maneuver.

 

The froggrip shambled a few hulking steps back, bringing its webbed hands to its sides. Despite the bullet wound, the creature threw its unnatural force into a single thunderclap as it slammed its hands together towards the Bounty Hunter.

 

Ripples of shock wave force tore through the air, throwing Portenda nearly three dozen yards away, his body twisting in mid-air.

 

He landed against a tree trunk, his feet touching the bark as his legs bent at the knees to help him bear the brunt of the attack. He hadn’t been ready for such a strike from the froggrip, but he knew what was coming when the blue amphibian brought its hands together.

 

With superior agility, he sprang from the tree and rolled end over end, landing on his feet as he hurled the spear at the froggrip.

 

The creature dodged to the side as its tongue flailed out of its mouth, knocking the weapon out of the air and to the ground, useless. Jonah and Nareena watched from a hundred yards away, spyglasses up to Jonah’s eyes. “This doesn’t look good,” he said aloud, though he hadn’t meant to.

 

“Let me see those.” Nareena snatched the spyglasses from Jonah’s hands. “Why not just pull out that firearm of yours?”

 

“Because Portenda only got enough ammo to fill the clip.  I don’t want to use it all up too fast.  Who knows when we might need it again?”

 

The Human Alchemist began rifling through his rucksack for a particular potion or powder, but realized that he hadn’t prepared any of the smog-producing liquid or its powder form. He had to do something to help the Simpa, but when he took the spyglasses away again from his Elven mate, he saw that Portenda had things pretty well in hand.

 

The Bounty Hunter had dashed forward, avoiding yet another crushing blow by the froggrip. Closing into melee range, Portenda hacked at the froggrip with his bare claws, tearing open the flesh and muscle tissue beneath as the monstrous amphibian screamed a high-pitched whine.

 

“Look out,” Jonah shouted, too late.

 

The blue-scaled creature wrapped its muscular arms around Portenda’s body and hauled him upward, pressing the Simpa’s body against its torn and gashed torso.

 

Portenda felt his muscles and bones press out against the crushing force being applied to his body, which now seemed more frail than he recalled. He clamped his eyes shut and planted his hands against the creature’s chest and tried to push away, but the froggrip’s strength was immense. Pressure built in his back as the creature grabbed its own forearms for support, applying all of its strength to its attempt to crush the life from Portenda’s body.

 

Only on a few occasions had the Bounty Hunter been so imperiled. His vision, he realized, was growing dark around the edges. Like Jonah, he was afraid that he might be in serious danger.

 

His consciousness wavering, Portenda felt an unknown force building behind his eyes, a force with its origin in his very soul.

 

The froggrip smiled devilishly, thinking that he already had secured a meal for a week, when the Simpa’s claws sank into its shoulders.

 

Its face fell to dust as Portenda smiled from ear to ear, his eyes gleaming with a strange, crimson light. TIME TO DIE, Portenda said in an otherworldly tone.

 

The Bounty Hunter opened his mouth wide, and the terrible roar he had used to solidify the specter in Palen issued forth from his throat.

 

Waves of force tore through the froggrip and it dropped Portenda and tried to cover its ears.

 

The force dropped it to its knees, flailing its head around as it tried to block out the noise.

 

It managed to bring its head up and look at Portenda just as the Simpa regained his senses.

 

That was too close, he thought. And what had happened to his voice back there in the grip of the monstrous amphibian?

 

Portenda charged the fallen froggrip. Bringing forth a flurry of martial arts hook kicks and hard-line punches, he battering the monster backward.

 

The froggrip tried to shield its head from the crushing blows, but its arms had been broken by the first few kicks. Portenda easily knocked them aside as he punched the froggrip in the chest, knocking it to its back.

 

The Bounty Hunter jumped on the fallen froggrip’s stomach, reaching down and grabbing the creature by the right arm. He hauled on the appendage, and listened with a madman’s delight as the muscles and bone snapped and tore, the arm pulling free of the froggrip’s body, blood and bile gushing from its open shoulder.

 

Still, the creature thrashed about, swiping at Portenda, who ducked, dodged and crouched to avoid the monster’s attempts to displace him.

 

With a Godly effort, Portenda wrenched the creature’s mouth open and stuffed its own arm down its throat, choking it on its own detached limb.

 

The Bounty Hunter back-flipped away from the dying behemoth, landing in his classic three-point stance.

 

The froggrip flailed, thrashing its final death throes as Jonah and Nareena watched with mixed triumph and horror.

 

Portenda had proven to be far more deadly than they had even previously known. Sure, they had seen him destroy other mortal men of the known, civilized Races, but sometimes, the creatures of the land proved far more dangerous, as this creature nearly had.

 

As Portenda retrieved his spear from the ground, he grinned at them.

 

“Not a problem,” he said as he stalked past their stunned mounts. “Barely broke a sweat,” he added.

 

Jonah laughed.

 

Nareena looked at him with a queer expression as he continued to chuckle.

 

“Hey, I’m just glad he’s okay and back to normal,” he said, urging his horse onward.

 

As they continued through the woods, the Alchemists kept a slightly larger distance between themselves and their lycanthrope companion.

 

“Did you notice his voice, back there?” Jonah asked Nareena, who had very clearly noted the momentary change in the Simpa Bounty Hunter, both in his voice and his presence. For a moment, he had become something entirely out of this realm.

 

“No,” she lied, carrying on behind Jonah.

 

But Jonah heard the hesitation in her voice, and saw through her deception. Only Portenda, it seemed remained unaware of what had happened.

 

Ahead of them on the beaten trail, Portenda shuddered inwardly. He had a feeling he knew what had happened to him in that moment. He would ask about it after his mission was over.

 

He would have some answers, because he was afraid of what his own heart was suggesting. For now, it was back to business.

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