Chapter Six

 

Evasion

 

Robert Saffis and Paul Stockton headed down Aberwood Street toward the entrance to the city’s junkyard, Paul having convinced Robert that there might be some valuable scrap laying about.  Had he been able to convince Robert of this idea eleven or so minutes earlier, they might have spotted Mr. Twitch and Wayne Traedo leaving the junkyard, but such was not in the cards dealt by Fate.  Thus it was with some degree of confusion that they looked at the cloud of roiling black smoke rising up into the sky, visible over the wooden fencing surrounding the massive lot that had become the city’s official dump.

 

“Whossat, you figure,” Paul asked, keeping his feet moving him along.

 

“Couldn’t say,” offered Robert.  “Doesn’t look good, though.”  The two men continued on until they were at the open gates of the junkyard.  Paul led the way straight to the caretaker’s hutch, just inside and to the left of the open gates leading onto the property.  The front door, slightly ajar, appeared to have been kicked in, the wood splintered recently.  Robert drew out his short sword and pushed Paul behind him, not wanting his boss walking into a rough situation with the Games still on and a shop to run back home in Whistlie.

 

When Robert pushed the door all the way open, the stench of blood slammed him full force, making him want to vomit.  The caretaker’s front office looked to be in shambles, the desk rifled through, the cabinets and tool chests thrown across the floor.  Had someone come to loot the junkyard’s caretaker? That didn’t make much sense to Robert, but then again, this sort of thing might not be too uncommon in a big city like Ja-Wen or Desanadron.  “Stay there, sir,” he said over his shoulder to Paul, who leaned against the front door frame.

 

Moving carefully over the debris, Robert made his way to the furthest door branching off from the main office, and found himself looking at the flayed corpse of the caretaker, a Wererat in blue overalls.  His face appeared to have been stabbed repeatedly, and a long knife remained plunged hilt-deep in his neck.  In his blood across the walls, the killer had scrawled, ‘DEATH TO ALL RODENTS!’  Robert headed back to Paul, who was staring off into the dump, toward the source of the smoke.

 

“It’s a mess in there, sir,” Robert said.  “Looks like some sort of racist group came and did the guy.  May explain the smoke over that way, if they wanted to burn the place to ashes.  Should we go check it out?”

 

“Yeah, but as soon as we do, we go to the nearest police station,” Paul said.  The two of them headed off through the paths into the junkyard, finally arriving at the smoldering remains of the dumpster bin that was still releasing gouts of smoke into the air.  Paul searched around quickly, pointing out a long metal bar that Robert used to pry the lid open from the dumpster with a few sharp thrusts.  The stench of burned fur and flesh escaped, and the two men backed off to let it clear out.

 

When it had finally stopped smoking about ten minutes later, Robert Saffis approached the dumpster and peered down in at what looked like a pile of ashes, in amidst was the charred, almost skeletal remains of another Wererat.  A single item, worn around the neck of the victim, told Robert that this was definitely going to be a spot of trouble for all of them.  “Sir, you know that group from Arcade, the Pack of Liars?”

 

“Yeah, decent bunch they seems,” said Paul.  Robert reached down into the bin, having to hoist himself bodily inside for a moment before he jumped back out.  In his hand he dangled a thin mythril necklace with a star-shaped pendant on it.

 

“One of them was wearing this last night when he went off to compete in the Diggero event, sir.  I think we just found Seth Logan.”

 

Flint hadn’t been able to find Anna anywhere to tell her about the bad bit of news his cousin Jefe had just received from Paul Stockton of the Tacha Forus.  He’d been hoping to talk to somebody about it, because even though he hadn’t known Seth all that well, he felt as though someone had just stabbed him in the kidneys.  Gabe and Esmerelda, usually stoic and able to control their emotions, had been helpless as they wept for their brother.  Jefe and Stephanie had stayed with them at the morgue to try and console them, which left Flint out of the loop.

 

So he padded along the dirt streets of the west side of the city, his head down, his hands in his pockets.  When he heard the ‘thup’ of someone landing lightly behind him, his short swords were already drawn and at the ready when he turned and found Akimaru Tendo staring blankly at him, his purple eyes wide.  “I am not your enemy, Flint-san,” the white clad Ninja said.  Flint sighed, sheathing his weapons.

 

“Sorry,” he said, deflated.  “Feeling a bit jumpy.”

 

“And fer good reason,” said Rage, coming down the street to catch up to his much swifter, smaller friend Aki.  “S’kind of creepy, knowin’ a bunch of racist ijits is goin’ around and makin’ things rough on your family.”  When the lumbering Orc came level with Akimaru, he put a light hand on Akimaru’s shoulder.  “You okay dere, pal?”

 

“Quite fine, Rage-sama.  Flint-san, may we speak for a few minutes, the three of us?”  Flint said nothing, but motioned for the two Midnight Suns agents to follow him.  Six minutes later, they were seated in a corner booth at a small diner, sipping coffee and waiting for their waitress to come take their orders.  Rage took up most of his side of the booth, but Akimaru didn’t complain or show any discomfort at having no budging room on either side. Seated across from them, Flint tried catching the waitress’s attention by waggling his whiskers at her.

 

“Geez, you’d think an Elf chick would catch subtlety,” Rage said when Flint failed to garner the young Elven woman’s attention.  He half turned in the booth seat, nearly knocking Akimaru to the floor, but the Ninja regained his posture quickly.  “Hey, lady!   A little service over here,” Rage bellowed, gettingeverybody’s attention in the diner, including the cooks in the kitchen.  When the girl got over to them, her knees wobbling nervously, Rage chuckled a little and let his face soften.  “Take it easy, girlie.  I ain’t gonna eat you.  I’m not a Troll.”

 

“Oh, right,” she stammered, taking out her pad and pen.  The three men ordered their meals (Rage, of course, taking a little more time, since he needed to eat three times as much as the other two combined), and then started drinking their coffee again.  Flint noted that Rage didn’t stink like sweat for a change, and he was even wearing different clothes than he had the night before.  Doing better than I am, he thought dismally.

 

“Flint-san, Rage and I went to the junkyard after the police had been there,” Akimaru said in a low whisper.  “We are not convinced that all is as it seems with your cousin’s demise.”

 

“How do you mean,” Flint asked.  His eyes darted left and right, taking in the other customers in the diner.  All civilians, good.

 

“I myself watched the constables performing the investigation on the scene, though they did not see me,” Akimaru said.  As if he needs to say such a thing, Flint thought.  Even I couldn’t catch this guy if he didn’t want to be caught.  He’s sneakier than even Fly.  “They did not conduct a thorough investigation at all.  As a matter of fact, they appeared to be going through the paces when the officer in charge cut them short.”

 

“Dirty cop?”

 

“Most likely,” said Rage, tearing open another sugar packet and dumping it into his mug before having any more of his drink.  “He’s obviously in somebody’s pocket, because he didn’t even let the techs collect any evidence. He just had them take some of dose pitchers, you know, like with that little yellow box?”

 

“Crime scene pictures,” Flint said.

 

“Yes,” said Akimaru.  “All of this I have already relayed to Rage-sama.  If you will forgive my vulgarity, Flint, anyone expecting me to believe a band of racist punks could capture and kill your cousin in such a manner is full of shit.” Flint nodded, because he didn’t think any such thing either.

 

“So what did you find out,” Flint asked.

 

“Not much, not as yet,” said Akimaru.  “I was able to go over the scene again, primarily with the junkyard’s caretaker.  The man had been slaughtered, quite frankly.  His body was in no condition to be searched, and the weapon had been removed from his body.  However, whoever killed him left footprints on the carpeting of the bed chamber he was killed in.  I was able to take a picture or two myself,” he said, pulling out one of the little yellow devices.

 

Their meals came, and the three men kept their conversation on hold as they ate ravenously.  Rage, to his credit, was able to finish all five of his plates before the other two had been able to eat their single meals, but he paid for it afterwards with a lengthy trip to the bathroom.  “He’s as bad as Stocky,” Flint commented while the Orc was indisposed.

 

“And how is Mr. Stockholm?”

 

“Oh, his birthday’s tomorrow,” said Flint with a smile.  “I’ve arranged a little treat for him.  I think he’ll like it.”

 

“You’d better hope he does.  He does not seem the forgiving type.”

 

“Tell me about it,” Flint grumbled.  “Anyhow, was there anything else you were able to recover?”

 

“Nothing more than some impressions,” said Akimaru.  “Also, there were only two sets of tracks moving away from the bin your cousin was found in, because the constables did not bother to actually approach it completely.  I followed them for a little while, but they ended in a gaming hall, and nobody there was being very helpful.”

 

“Sounds pretty typical,” Flint said, shaking his head.  “Well, thanks for the information and for looking out, Akimaru.  Does Fly know you’re talking to me?”

 

“It was his idea,” said the white clad Ninja.  “He, like you, Rage and myself, is highly suspicious.  We may find out more at tonight’s event.”  Flint agreed and left the diner then, leaving Akimaru and Rage to pay the bill. Typical of you, Flint-san, Akimaru thought, very typical.

 

Once again the groups were assembled at Hyde Park, but an air of tension wavered through them all.  News of Seth Logan’s death had spread quickly, and everybody was eyeballing their competitors with heavy suspicion. Much of it fell on Amanda Setine, of the Sisters of Night.  Her reputation for being disagreeable with the Wererat Race was well known among the underworld.

 

Lester Joelly of the Koikara Group, however, did not suspect her in the least, thanks to Sally’s analysis of the woman’s upper level thoughts.  “She’s just as nervous as the rest of us, but she’s confused like us too,” Sally confided when they arrived at the park.  “And there’s a dead zone here.”

 

“A dead zone, ma’am,” Lester asked as they joined the other three members of their squad.

 

“Yes,” she said, looking around at the assembled brigands.  “Not just one, either.  There’s at least three people here I can’t read.”  She pointed out Mr. Twitch and his butler, Traedo.  “But the third one, I don’t know here it is.” The judges arrived then, taking their place in the middle of the ringed contestants.  Lee Toren once more did the honors of speaking.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention?  Tonight, and on through until tomorrow night, myself and these other two fine gentlemen shall be staying over there,” he said pointing to a tall hotel on the edge of the park. “The Verusci Hotel, room 218.  We will be there until dawn on the day after tomorrow, because by then, the event will be declared over.  Tonight, we begin the Timed Evasion event.

 

“An agreeable bounty hunter contact of mine has agreed to hunt down one member of each of your groups, and return them to us in that room. Whoever stays free the longest, clearly, is the winner, and second and third place should also be easy enough to figure out based on time.  One representative from each group, please step forward.  After we have our competitors, I will introduce our hunter.”

 

Anna decided that this would be the event for her, because she was sneaky enough to stay hidden and she’d become quite familiar in a short time with Ja-Wen’s layout.  She stepped forward for the Hoods.  Clarissa Weeks took up the task for the Midnight Suns.  From the Shades, Wayne Traedo stepped forward.  From the Koikara Group, Turpin, the Ninja.  Though their morale was crippled, the Pack of Liars agreed that Esmerelda Logan should take up the test.  Amanda Setine volunteered from the Sisters of Night, followed by Kimichi Kazuya, the Lizardman Ronin of the Lenak Petara.  Lastly, Kenneth O’Toole, the foolhardy and carefree Q Mage Cuyotai of the Tacha Forus stepped up.

 

“Very well,” said Lee.  “And now, ladies and gentlemen, your hunter.  If you please, sir?”  From behind a dense oak tree stepped a wide, heavily armed Simpa, one whom all of the contestants had become familiar with over the years, because none of them ever wanted a contract on their heads taken up by this particular bounty hunter.  “Folks, I present to you, Mr. Portenda the Quiet.”

 

Silence deafens, they say, and they would be quite right.  As the formidable Simpa bounty hunter stepped up to Lee Toren through the crowd and shook his hand, several knees trembled around the ring of contestants, and more than one agent thought about backing out of the Games entirely.

 

“He’s the other dead zone, isn’t he,” Lester Joelly whispered to Sally, who nodded.  Portenda cleared his throat, and turned to address the competitors who had volunteered to partake of this event.  They stood in a line before him, and he folded his arms over his massive chest, looking at each of them intently, getting a good smell of them.  At William Deus, however, he paused, grinning to himself.  This woman, he thought.  Who does she think she’s fooling?  Then again, it’s worked for her for years thus far, and who am I to rock the boat?  He leaned in toward them, and said a single word to kick off the event.

 

“Run,” he rumbled, and the contestants did just that, scattering like leaves in the wind.  When they were all out of sight and earshot, Portenda addressed those agents who were still standing about, shocked at his appearance in the Games.  “As for the rest of you, I don’t have any qualms with you, or contracts on your heads, so you’ve no reason to fear me.  For now,” he added, giving Mr. Twitch a meaningful dart of his eyes.  “I’ll give your fellows one hour to start out,” he said, laying down on the grass nonchalantly.  “As for the rest of you, there’s still the other ongoing event to take care of, isn’t there?”

 

Even Lee Toren and the other two judges dispersed when he asked that question.

 

This is bad, this is really bad, how the hell am I supposed to hide fromhim, Kazuya thought, running through the back alleys and narrow passages of the streets in the eighteenth precinct on the east side of the city.  The Lizardman Ronin would have been willing to test himself against any other bounty hunter of some notoriety, but to bring somebody like the Quiet into the Games seemed like madness.  Then again, it might be for the best, he thought. After all, how many other hunters could catch all eight contestants in two days?

 

He’d been out of the park for a little over an hour now, and as he eased himself down the steps of an unregistered gaming hall, Kazuya coughed harshly at the invasion of thick cigar and cigarette smoke into his lungs.  The lighting in the place was a dull red, and it made his eyes water and throb in their sockets. Still, if he was going to lay low, he would have to put up with a little discomfort.  It seemed worth it, if just to put off the inevitable.

 

Then again, they hadn’t been told they couldn’t resist capture.  Thinking on that, Kazuya located the restroom, and sat on the floor against the back wall, his katana held in his lap at the ready.  Let him come, he thought.  I’llmake him let me go.

 

The real trouble with the Ninjas, Portenda thought, was that they all thought they were so clever, laying traps and hiding in the darkness of rooftops.  And they never stop to think that a big guy like myself might be able to track them and move just as silently as they can.  Already he had disarmed the four traps that Turpin had set for him on his way up to the roof, doing so with no fuss and no noise whatsoever, utilizing a small tool kit he kept in his rucksack.  They had been child’s play compared to some of the gadgetry he’d been up against in the past.

 

Thus it came as no surprise to him that when he reached the roof of the hotel where the judges were holing up for the event, Turpin was fast asleep. The trip cords tied to his belt, which would have gone slack had Portenda tripped any of the traps, remained taught.  He sauntered on cat’s feet (no pun intended) up to the slumbering Ninja, and withdrew the small black device from his ankle.  He aimed it down at Turpin’s chest, and then nudged him with his bare foot.

 

“Hmm?”  That was all Turpin said before his eyes opened, and Portenda pressed the red button on his device.  Two small prongs shot from the head of the device, piercing shallowly into Turpin’s unarmored chest and sending several thousand volts of electricity through his body.  When he went limp after the first discharge, Portenda hit a smaller blue button on the device to retract the cords, and hefted the Ninja up onto his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

 

From the end of the hour before he started the hunt, it had taken only twenty-six minutes to locate and capture his first target.  Not very impressive, he thought.

 

Esmerelda Logan wobbled slightly on her stool in the tavern, checking the clock every few minutes.  The bounty hunter could be anywhere in the city, and the real danger lay in trying to be too clever, she knew.  Portenda the Quiet had a reputation, and it spoke of legends made in blood and bruises.  She wasn’t in a rush to test the legends.

 

But she was also in no rush to give up her grieving for her little brother Seth.  Thus, she had already downed eight shots of gurumek, a strong Dwarven-brewed whiskey that the barkeep had cut her off from after the shot he’d just poured her.  She’d been out of the park now for two and a half hours.  Morning lay yet another six or seven hours ahead of her.  Would she be willing to partake of this contest for that long?  She thought not.

 

Esmerelda quaffed her drink, and then headed out into the benighted streets of Ja-Wen, avoiding being found by the bounty hunter by perhaps two minutes, give or take a few seconds.

 

Wayne Traedo didn’t discuss his mutant nature with anybody except his master, Mr. Twitch.  Likewise, he didn’t explain his unique fighting style.  And when Mr. Twitch gave him an order, he didn’t question it.  Wayne was good for that.  But he didn’t like the idea of using the whole ‘radical racist group’ cover more than once.  If they didn’t have the constable in their pockets, one of the technicians on the scene might start asking some hard questions.

 

Still, orders were orders, and as he held Koby Nellis’s face in the toilet of his rented hotel room with one expensive loafer, he gave himself over to the unshakable bindings of his duty to his master.  Nellis thrashed and struggled, but all to no avail.  If Wayne didn’t want anybody to know about his current activities, they wouldn’t.  They wouldn’t think twice.

 

The mutant had to admit, however, that the primary point of his nervousness in undertaking this course of action (which was almost over; the rat’s resistance thrashing was becoming less and less spirited every second) was that he could well be caught in the act by Portenda the Quiet.  If the bounty hunter chose this time to be tracking him, Wayne would be found out, and the scapegoat plan he and the master had agreed to would take effect.  That, of course, would throw off their plans a little, and the master would be most displeased, so Wayne took special pains to ensure that he was not caught doing anything illicit.

 

Finally, Koby Nellis stopped moving altogether, his body going slack under Wayne’s foot.  Careful to keep his gloves on, Wayne proceeded to spray paint the same phrase on the walls of Koby’s room as he had on the bed chamber of the unfortunate junkyard caretaker.  ‘DEATH TO ALL RODENTS!’ it read in bold print.  Satisfied with his work, he tossed the can to the floor, and made his escape out the window and onto the streets.

 

The only person to see him in the area was Norman Adwar, and the Gnome Engineer didn’t think twice about the sight of the butler fellow as he left the sandwich shop across the street from that particular hotel.

 

“This is rather awkward,” said Amanda Setine as the cold steel barrel of a revolver was pressed into the back of her head.  She had opted to hide among high society at one of the city’s opera halls.  In the middle of the night’s performance, Portenda had slipped into the building, paid for a first class ticket, and proceeded swiftly up to Setine’s private seating box.

 

“Could be even worse if you try to resist,” replied the Simpa bounty hunter.  In the darkness of the seating box, his bright golden fur stood out in stark relief, showing him the gray stripes on his forearms even more than usual.  “Which, of course, you are welcome to try.”

 

“Are you sure we couldn’t work out some sort of agreement,” she asked, moving her hands up toward the buttons of her blouse, her back still to him as she remained seated.  “I could make you a very happy man, and I’m sure Helen wouldn’t mind helping.”

 

“Don’t try to bullshit me, lady,” Portenda replied.  “I’ve read your file. The two of you aren’t into men, except to rob, murder, extort or blackmail them.  Now put your hands behind your back and stand up nice and slow,” he said.  When Setine slowly began pulling a poisoned hairpin from the right side of her head, Portenda pistol-whipped her in the back of the head, dropping her to the floor with a grunt.  Too easy, he thought, hefting her body up.  On his way out of the building, he showed his bounty hunter’s credentials to the shocked staff and security guards, and was well on his way to a solid performance.

 

It was only midnight.

 

“You are aware that this might not be a good time to be having this conversation, right,” Anna asked the Black Draconus, Thaddeus Fly, as they walked up the steps of an apartment building stairwell.

 

“Quite aware, Deus, and trust me, I’m no more eager to run into that menace than you are,” Fly retorted.  “But Akimaru was right to ask me to check things out.  Something is fishy, not quite right.  I didn’t trust Twitch and his people before, and I probably never will, but it might not even be them.”

 

“How do you mean,” Anna asked, picking the lock on an abandoned apartment door.

 

“I mean, what if this isn’t about guilds and status and reputation.  What if there’s some mercenary hired by one of our own victims after us,” he asked.

 

“You mean an operation target looking for a little revenge on all of thief-kind,” asked Anna, pushing the door open.  The two of them stepped inside, Anna locking the door again behind her and heading into the empty apartment’s hallway.  It smelled like a dead animal inside the place, but it would serve her purposes for the time being.  She had some food and water in her bag, and she could hold still for long hours at a time.  She might even be able to catch some sleep when morning came.

 

“Think about it,” Fly said reasonably.  “Your people, my people, and all of the folks who the other guilds here have robbed over the last few years, they’d be pretty angry by now.  And think about what they might do if they discovered the Games.  Some of our rejects and toss-aside agents wind up becoming mercenaries, Deus, you know that.”  Anna didn’t like to listen to this sort of thing, but the damnation of it was in the near certainty of it.

 

“So what should we do?  They can’t just call off the Games.  It’s tradition.”

 

“No, but we’ll have to keep tabs on everybody, have everybody on their guard.”  Anna could agree to that, but not to Fly staying around.  “I’ll get going. You’re getting antsy, I can tell.  Oh, and Deus?”

 

“For the gods’ sakes, what,” she asked, trying to get comfortable on the hallway floor.

 

“Do you suppose the bounty hunter can tell you’re a woman,” Fly asked, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

 

“It’s Portenda.  I don’t suppose anything.  I know he knows.”  With that said, Thaddeus saw himself out a window, careful to shut it behind him.

 

Ridley Poe kept the rail-thin woman pinned against the wall of his office, frankly flabbergasted that she would have the audacity to come snooping around the Headmaster’s manor in the first place.  Yet there she was, held in place by a constant but non-damaging wind issuing forth from Poe’s extended left palm.  “I will only ask you this once.  How did you get in here?”

 

“The window was open,” Clarissa Weeks said with an attempted shrug of her shoulders.  She managed to turn her hands palms-out, showing the hooked grapnels of her climbing gloves.  “I figured it’d be the last place the guy would think to come looking for me, and your butler dude wouldn’t risk coming back to home turn with this kind of event.  Seemed pretty logical, actually.”  Poe, nonplussed by her explanation, let her go from the torrent of his wind.  Weeks let out a surprised squeak as she dropped the six feet to the floor, landing awkwardly in a heap.  “Owww,” she complained, getting up and fixing her hair.

 

“Ridley, I was hoping we could discuss,” said a third person, stepping into the office of the Illeck Aeromancer.  Twitch stopped short at the sight of Clarissa Weeks standing there, already retrieving a brush from her handbag to fix her mussed hair.  “Oh my, an uninvited guest,” he said.  He kept his tone friendly, however, because advantages should be taken where they can be. “Welcome to my humble home, Ms. Weeks.”

 

“Hey there,” she said casually, brushing her hair.  “Nice place you got here,” she said, looking around the office at the dozens of fine and expensive decorations that Poe had collected over the years in service to the Shades. “Mind if I lay low here for a while?”  Poe was about to ejaculate a firm negative when his Headmaster began laughing in that high society way he had practiced so many times.  Poe knew immediately what his boss was thinking; why not recruit this one, too?  And she’s from the Midnight Suns, very prestigious thieves’ guild there in Desanadron, even branched out a few times.

 

“Certainly not, we don’t mind a bit,” said Twitch, crossing the floor space toward the charming young Rogue woman.  “And I, my dear woman, have an offer to make you,” he said, putting a companionable arm over her shoulder.

 

“I’m listening,” she replied, putting her brush away and following Twitch out of the room.  Ridley Poe stamped over to the open window of his office, slammed it shut, and retrieved the bottle of wine he’d come into the office for in the first place.

 

When Kenneth O’Toole spotted the bounty hunter, he decided that perhaps the best approach to his imminent capture was to do what was not expected of a Cuyotai Q Mage.  Instead of running and trying to hide, he prepared a spell and came around the corner of the alley out into the street, launching a beam of white force at Portenda’s back.  When the spell struck, he heard the Simpa grunt as he was thrown forward into the street, several civilians nearby shouting before taking cover in their homes and taverns. Kenneth chuckled to himself, but not for long.  The Raybolt spell hadn’t done much more than knock the man down, and now that he was up, Portenda was glaring daggers into Ken’s soul.

 

“That, was not appreciated,” Portenda snarled, drawing his spear and hurling it at the Cuyotai.  Ken managed to dodge to one side, ducking back down the alley he’d come from to sneak attack the bounty hunter.  On the other side, he hopped on the back of a passing carriage, it’s driver unnoticing of the sudden extra weight jostling along back there.  Portenda raced out of the end of the alley, looked both ways, and spotted Kenneth waving at him from down the street.  It was a four-horse team pulling that carriage, and they had some speed going for them.

 

Portenda smiled despite the pain in his back.  This one could be interesting, he thought, taking flight after O’Toole.  He watched the carriage go around a corner up ahead about three hundred yards, and heard the whinny and screech of horses being ground to a halt on cobblestone.  Kenneth was a firm believer in luck, both good and bad.  The driver of the carriage had nearly choked the horses to a stop when a Wererat woman, weaving and wobbling on her drunken feet, crossed the street directly ahead of his carriage.  When they stopped, Kenneth was thrown from the wagon, landing hard on his snout behind the vehicle.

 

When he was able to look up from the ground, Ken saw nothing but a pair of golden furred feet with long claws and some sort of black metal device strapped to one ankle. He looked up, and found himself at the tip of the bounty hunter’s spear.  “No tricks.”

 

“Aw, but they’re so much fun,” Ken said, readying a spell.  Portenda brought the blunt end of the spear down on the back of his head before he could cast a single simple spell, though, and he dragged the unconscious Cuyotai by his ankles all the way to the judges’ hotel room.  A little back pain tradeoff, he thought as he tossed O’Toole into Lee’s rented room.  Dawn was still three hours off.

 

“You could have been killed,” said Calvin Licht as he dragged the struggling Wererat woman away from the enraged driver of the carriage.  The Jaft Thug, having little else to do with his spare time in the city, had been out taking a stroll when he spotted Esmerelda Logan, drunk as a lord, bumbling in front of the wagon.  He’d dragged her away and into a small coffee shop nearby which was, thankfully, open all hours of the day except for Sundays.

 

“At least I’d be able to see Seth again,” she muttered.

 

“Hey, don’t go thinking like that,” said Calvin, offering her a handkerchief for her runny nose.  “Done is done.  There is no taking back,” he said.

 

“I like that.  Where’s that from?”

 

“Oh,” Calvin said, taken aback by the woman’s interest.  He scratched the back of his bald blue head awkwardly, leaning back in his seat.  “It’s from this series of books I read a little while back.  Really good stuff.”

 

“Hmm.  I wasn’t aware there were literate Jafts,” Esmerelda teased, giving him a lopsided smirk.  Calvin frowned, but decided not to take any offense.  The woman was clearly still drunk, even after three cups of coffee.

 

“We’re not exactly in the business of advertising the fact, Ms. Logan.  We like to encourage the ‘big dumb brute’ image most Jafts like to hold true to.  By the way, is it true that you’re all cousins of Mr. Ananham?”

 

“Oh, Flint,” she asked, waving her hand as if to dismiss the question. “Yes, we’re cousins of his, except for Stephanie.  She’s no relation to him, and I think that’s good.  He could use a girlfriend.”

 

“Seems like that would be rough, seeing as they live on opposite ends of the continent,” said Calvin.

 

“You’d be surprised how well it can work,” said Esmerelda.  “I was once with a Human man for six years, and he lived here in Ja-Wen while I was in Arcade most of the time.  It worked out well for a while.”

 

“So what happened?”

 

“I came to visit and found him fucking some other woman,” said Esmerelda bluntly.  Calvin almost choked on his coffee, but kept his composure.

 

“Oh.  So what did you do then?”

 

“Oh, that.  Well, I don’t like to talk about it,” she said, looking away from him.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because to my knowledge, the police are still looking for the last few pieces of them.”  Calvin sprayed coffee on the table, himself, and Esmerelda, gagging and trying not to laugh or be appalled at the same time.  “Could you give me some of those napkins?  I think we should clean up before we leave.”

 

Clarissa left the manor of Mr. Twitch at an hour before dawn’s sunlight breached the darkness of Ja-Wen’s night time, swishing this way and that through the cobblestone streets in the more affluent parts of the city.  She had not a care in the world, because the offer the Shades were making her was too good to be refused if a person had a brain in their head.  Economically speaking, it was just the most sensible thing to do.

 

The fact that the man was quite skilled in the bedroom turned out to be a nice bonus, as far as she was concerned.

 

But with her thoughts focused on her good fortune, Clarissa didn’t even detect the massive presence coming up behind her along Passings Street, near a school house that would be opening in just a couple of hours for Thursday’s classes.  She took a look at the simple building, stopping herself along the sidewalk fronting it.  She thought back to her own childhood momentarily, and gave a weary sigh.  Clarissa had never finished her formal education, one of the few things she regretted in all of life.

 

When Portenda the Quiet delivered a ridge-handed blow to the back of her head a few seconds later, Clarissa had just enough time to remain conscious to add another item to that short list of things regretted.  The werelion bounty hunter tossed her over his shoulder, and checked his wrist watch.  Four down and four to go, he thought, and it isn’t even dawn.  I have a whole day yet to capture the last four, but who do I go after next?  He only wondered about this because whoever went down next would be the last competitor not earning points for their group.  He didn’t want to show any kind of prejudice or favoritism, after all.  Neutrality was a valuable resource for such as he.

 

Perhaps the Deus woman, he thought, unless something else presents itself.

 

As the sun broke over the horizon in the distance, Esmerelda Logan popped a small white pill in her mouth, crunching it and swallowing the bitter powder.  Seated next to her on the park bench, Calvin Licht gave her a sour frown.  “What,” she asked.

 

“Drugs?  I wouldn’t figure you for the type,” he said.  His distaste for chemicals was clear in his tone.

 

“It’s just an upper.  I can’t afford to get sleepy,” the Wererat Ninja woman said, looking away from the Jaft.  She hadn’t expected that she would become so chummy with a rival, but then thought, well, he’s with cousin Flint. He can’t be that bad a guy.  “If the hunter comes around, I have to be on my toes.”

 

“Then you might want to start by standing up,” said a low, raspy voice behind her.  Esmerelda’s entire body went rigid for a second before she leaped and rolled forward off of the bench, shocked at the sudden presence of Portenda the Quiet behind her in Hyde Park.  Calvin remained seated where he was, half turning on the bench to look at the ominous Simpa.  Portenda’s hands hung empty at his sides, but he radiated an aura of oncoming violence, his potential palpable to Calvin.  “You, sir, should probably stand aside,” the bounty hunter said to the blue fleshed Thug.

 

“And if I don’t,” Calvin said, standing up and facing Portenda.  Hmm, though the Simpa, I hadn’t calculated for this sort of problem.  His heart rate is perfectly normal, but hers just skipped a few beats.  She’s as surprised by this as I am.  Isn’t this guy one of the Hoods?  Why would he help her?  Crick in his left knee, possibly an old injury that never healed properly.  His stance is squared.  Muscles are binding up in his left arm, that’s probably his power hand.  All of this Portenda thought in a short two-second span as he slowly drew the nunchaku from their place behind his neck.

 

“Then I will have no choice but to remove you from the equation,” Portenda said, moving inexorably toward the Jaft.  Calvin pulled one of his one-handed battle hammers from his left hip, putting one hand behind him.

 

“You should probably try to get out of here,” he said over his shoulder to Esmerelda.

 

“Are you insane,” she retorted, drawing out a kunei into each furry hand.  “This man can take both of us down, Mr. Licht.  Besides, you have no obligation to help me,” she pointed out.

 

“Obligation and wanting to do something are often two different things,” Calvin said.  He charged Portenda then, the small gap between them quickly closing as he came at the Simpa with a hard overhead blow.  Portenda sidestepped and flicked his wrist, whipping one of the redwood lengths of the nunchaku into Calvin’s exposed inner forearm.  The Jaft grunted in pain, but didn’t slow his next attack.  Impressive, Portenda thought.  That should have dropped him.  As Calvin swung again, Portenda stepped toward his assailant, his left arm coming up to block the blow as he whipped the nunchaku down at Calvin’s weak knee.

 

That did for him, and in a hurry.  Blaring pain shot through Calvin’s leg, a scream torn from his throat as he dropped to the ground clutching his knee. Portenda could smell the sweat breaking out of Esmerelda’s skin as she came up behind him, her knives cutting through empty space as he side rolled away from her back attack.  He came up weaving and dodging as she stabbed and slashed at his face.  Hmm, the Simpa thought, she seems pretty upset about my taking down her little friend.  But emotions cloud one’s battle judgment.

 

When she missed a hard whirling downward stab to his stomach area, Portenda lifted his knee directly into her midsection, pressing all of the air out of Esmerelda’s body.  Had the bounty hunter not opted to pass through Hyde Park on his way toward the Deus woman, he would not have encountered the Wererat, and she might have been able to place points for her team.  Portenda waited until she got stunned to her hands and knees, and then brought the nunchaku down on the back of her neck, knocking her out clean.

 

“You’re a, freak,” Calvin managed to wheeze as Portenda bound Esmerelda’s hands and feet.  He ceased mid-job, glaring over at the Jaft, his own fury rising at hearing that term used on him again.

 

“YOU WILL REFRAIN FROM CALLING ME THAT AGAIN, MR. LICHT,” Portenda intoned, his voice ephemeral, phantasmal in quality.  “NOW, SLEEP.” And Calvin did, falling directly into slumber on the spot.  Portenda hauled the woman up, and took her toward the judges’ hotel room for deposit.  Three left, he thought.

 

Kazuya couldn’t stand just sitting in the bathroom of the underground nightclub, not all day.  He needed food, drink, and some sort of rest.  The Lizardman ronin had kept himself awake through the night by pure force of will, the katana resting in his lap a deterrent from anyone using the restroom giving him any trouble.  But as his internal clock told him morning had come around, he decided he had to leave.  The squalor just wasn’t helping his mood any, either.

 

He wondered momentarily as he made his way up the stairs and into the alley leading down to the nightclub how many of the other competitors had already been captured.  At least three, he decided, if not more.  Portenda the Quiet was a legend among bounty hunters, even in the Fiefdom of Lemago.  His cone-like straw hat on his head, Kazuya headed out of the alley, and into a morning market that was just starting to set up along the street.

 

The smells of sweet treats and breakfast rolls being prepared in a nearby diner caught his attention, and he headed over to the diner just in time for the front doors to open to the public.  When he bumped into someone jostling to get inside, he glared at the man, and was pleasantly surprised to find himself looking at Jake Zero, his Sidalis second-in-command.  Jake gave his boss a nervous bow, and Kazuya led him silently to a table to wait for a server girl to come take their order.  When she walked away, Zero delivered the dreadful news he had learned of in the middle of the wee morning hours.

 

“It’s Koby, sir,” Zero said, stirring his coffee.  “Somebody killed him last night, in his hotel room.”

 

“What?  When,” Kazuya rasped.

 

“We’re not sure, sir, but it looks like whoever did it was some sort of racist.  They scrawled an epithet on the walls of his room.  I think it’s the same punks who did for the Pack of Liars kid, Seth Logan.  Same words spray painted in Koby’s room.”  Kazuya grumbled, shaking his head.  Such punks were usually left to their own devices back in Ricco, but this was not that town.  Back there, if such a thing occurred, it was because Kazuya kept the Lenak Petara from intervening.  Here, in Ja-Wen, things were different.

 

“After we’re done here, Jake, I want you to find these punks, these racists,” Kazuya said, taking a sip of his coffee.  “Take Watari and Nobuo with you, and once you’ve cornered them, deal with them.  Permanently,” he added meaningfully.

 

“Understood, sir.”

 

Wayne Traedo brought his right leg around in a hard roundhouse kick, but Portenda just blocked the blow with a hard outer block and followed with a punch to the mutant’s face.  Wayne flailed back, but kept on his feet, staying a short distance away.  The hucksters and potential customers along Trappers Lane in the city’s fourth district scattered, and town guards gathered to watch this particular battle play out.  They all knew Portenda, either personally or from reputation.  A few of them were even tenants of his.  According to regional law, they would not interfere in this conflict unless a weapon was drawn, or one of the combatants got another citizen or one of their uniformed brothers involved.

 

Portenda stalked toward the butler fellow, ducking under a jumping kick and standing up, catching Wayne bodily under the legs and back.  With a grunt and a downward thrust, he slammed the mutant to the pavement, Traedo shouting painfully as he bounced off of the ground.  But he rolled backward and was on his feet again almost instantly, and Portenda had to admire the littler man’s tenacity.  The monocle, he noted, hadn’t budged an inch throughout the entire fight.

 

“This is pointless,” Portenda said.  “You can’t win,” he said, his tone flat, devoid of emotion.  Traedo stood up straight, offering Portenda a simple but elegant bow.

 

“Perhaps you are correct.  I cannot defeat you single-handedly.  That,” he said, looking around at the gathered audience, “is why I will hereby offer one hundred coin to anyone who gives me a helping hand.”  He held up a small leather pouch, shaking it to let the crowd hear the coins rattling around inside. Oh shit, Portenda thought, seeing the immediate greed shining in the eyes of everybody gathered around, including one or two of the guards.  “One hundred coin, and you can come to the Publican’s Head Tavern tomorrow morning to collect it. I have a good memory for faces, so nobody be shy.”

 

And so the crowd started cutting off the space between Portenda and his target, who was already making a hasty retreat.  “Gods damn it,” Portenda said as a grocer swung a bag full of onions toward him.

 

Half an hour later, sitting in the Lancington Memorial Art Museum, Wayne Traedo looked critically at the newest exhibit piece by one of his newfound favorite painters in the city.  It was a majestic oil painting of a dragon guarding its hoard, the details of its scaled body wonderfully portrayed in vibrant coloring and angular strokes.  The overall mood was vaguely threatening, and yet somehow humble.  He quite enjoyed it.

 

A soft ‘click’ came from his left, and Wayne looked over, curious, to find the Simpa bounty hunter standing in the entryway to the chamber.  His long barreled revolver was aimed directly at Traedo’s head, and he had several dozen gashes, scrapes and bruises welling up and bleeding over his bare chest and arms, as well as a dagger protruding from his right thigh.  Wayne swallowed hard, thinking he might be dead in a few seconds.  “I did not appreciate that little bit of trickery,” the Simpa growled.

 

“Look, it’s all part of the Games,” said Wayne, rising slowly, trying to ready himself for an escape.  “No hard feelings,” he said.  That was when Portenda lowered the barrel of the gun and fired a single round through Wayne’s left shin, shattering the bone and rending the air with the explosive crack of the firearm’s discharge.  The mutant stumbled back and fell to the ground, the sheer shock of having been shot keeping the pain at bay for the moment.

 

Portenda stomped over to him as Wayne tried crawling away on his belly.  The Simpa lifted the mutant by his good leg, bringing the handle of the gun down into the target’s crotch.  Wayne yelped like a kicked dog, and holding his battered groin, whimpered all the way back to the judges’ hotel room.  Two left, Portenda thought.

 

It had just turned nine in the morning.

 

Anna couldn’t say why she felt so giddy, but perhaps the sheer cleverness of her current hiding place gave her something to feel triumphant enough to giggle.  After wakening an hour before dawn, she had left the abandoned apartment, certain that by that time Portenda would have rounded up a fair number of the competitors.  On that score she was correct, though she could not imagine how much so.

 

After leaving the apartment, she had spotted Calvin Licht sitting with Esmerelda Logan in an all-hours café.  Opting to leave questions for her agent about his involvement with the woman for later, she spotted a constable and asked him where the city’s ironworks foundry might be located.  “Over on Ports Road, up north in the eleventh precinct.  Why you ask, sir,” the Elven constable asked.

 

“Oh, just looking for work is all,” she’d lied.

 

“Well, you’ll have to wait for morning.  The foundry does not open for operations until the sun rises, good man,” the constable said, but found he was talking to nobody at all, because the slight young man had already hoofed it. Breaking into the foundry had proven child’s play for Anna.  The locks were models so old she could defeat them with a hair clip if she’d been inclined to do so.  Once inside, Anna used a small flashlight to navigate through the various large chambers where the city’s metal workers made their living.

 

When she found the storage chambers, Anna immediately took herself to the storeroom marked ‘Silver’, stepped inside, and put down her bedroll. Thus it was that she was soundly asleep as Wayne Traedo was being tossed unceremoniously at the foot of Lee Toren’s rented bed.

 

Two blades clashed, the ring of steel echoing out through the theater district as Kazuya met his katana with the Simpa’s heavier broadsword.  “You appear only recently healed over,” the Lizardman said, noting the white patches of fur and scar tissue standing out on the bounty hunter’s body.  He had led Portenda on a foot chase through half the city, taking almost an hour before finally deciding it was time to stop and physically resist capture.

 

It was already late afternoon when the Simpa chanced upon his scent, following him into a potion shop in the city’s south end.  But Kazuya had been a step ahead of him, prepared at every moment for the bounty hunter’s appearance.  He’d used a smoke bomb in the middle of the shop, and while Portenda was gagging on the heavy oil-based smoke, Kazuya had crashed through a window to make his escape.

 

Now the two men were locked in heated battle, neither man giving or budging as they crossed swords.  Portenda had seen Kazuya’s style of sword fighting before, but the Lizardman had implemented several unique twists and designs into the form, throwing Portenda’s timing based attacks and counters slightly off.  But I’m learning, he thought, and that’s always worth something. The two stepped away from one another, circling around.

 

“Recently healed, but don’t let that stop you,” Portenda said.  Kazuya came at him with a feint, sliding the tip of his blade down and into Portenda’s lower right abdomen as the Simpa blocked the initial blow.  A shallow stab, but Portenda still grimaced, cursing himself for his slowed reflexes.

 

“Trust me, it won’t,” Kazuya said.  He ripped and slashed at Portenda, closing on him once again.  As the Simpa blocked a wide horizontal slash from the left, Kazuya delivered a roundhouse kick right to the fresh stab wound area, bright flares of agony trying to tell Portenda he was wounded again.  He ignored the flares, of course, and continued his defensive against Kazuya.

 

The Lizardman brought his blade round and round in sweeping arcs then, steel flashing as it was met with Portenda’s blade.  But though he was wounded, the Simpa was not flagging or slowing down any more, and Kazuya, conversely, was beginning to loosen his attack patterns and stabs.  Portenda parried, dodged and blocked for a few more exchanges, rolling away to put more distance between the two of them.  As Kazuya pursued, the Simpa used his free hand to reach back onto his belt and drop a small red bulb to the concrete.

 

Kazuya, unheeding of the device’s presence, stepped right onto it.  As he did, a swirl of light blasted up around him from the device, and the air temperature in the area dropped nearly to freezing.  When the smoke settled, Portenda sheathed his broadsword, staring mutely at his target.  Kazuya stood encased in a thin film of bluish ice, his sword the only part of him that had not become frozen.  Portenda grabbed Kazuya’s frozen wrist, broke it with a quick twist, and listened with satisfaction as, unmoving in the encasing ice, the Lizardman wailed.

 

Portenda scooped up the dropped katana, picked up the frozen man, and took him to Lee Toren.  As he left the hotel room, Lee instructed him to find Flint Ananham, so that the Wererat could contact William Deus and tell him that the Hoods had won the contest.  “No,” the Simpa said flatly.  “I’ll get Deus myself, and before the deadline.”

 

As evening drew near, however, Portenda found that he could not catch a trace of her scent or presence.  At least, nothing recent, he thought, standing in the abandoned apartment where she’d bedded down the night before. “Where are you, woman,” he asked the silence around him, holding a single hair from her head between his fingers.  For once, he had to concede that perhaps Lee was right.  Perhaps Flint would know best.

 

Finding Ananham did not turn out to be nearly as difficult.  Portenda would not forget or miss such a scent as his, and when he strolled into the Chattering Pixies diner on Fourteenth Avenue, he pushed the host out of his way and made directly for Flint’s table.  There was a Wererat woman seated across from him, and the Simpa stopped himself short of their table, surveying the scene before him.

 

Flint was dressed almost exactly like Lester Joelly, with a nice suit and tie on, his hair slicked back, his weapons nowhere to be seen.  Likewise the young Wererat woman wore an evening dress of matte black, matching naturally well with the color of her fur and hair, and a set of gold wrist bracelets.  A date?  I should make this quick then, he thought.  The bounty hunter approached the table more gently than he had been intending, and when he stood next to Flint, the Hoods’ Prime became aware of the presence of a large, potentially violent man right at his side.

 

“Um, can we help you,” asked Stephanie Claudis.  Flint looked up and tried to give Portenda a winning smile, but found himself, for the nonce, unable to.  Stocky does this to me too, Flint noted.

 

“I need a few words with this man in private, miss,” Portenda said.  I’ve heard machines with more warmth of character, thought both Wererats. “Please excuse yourself to the powder room.”  Needing no second hints, Stephanie darted off to the ladies’ room while Portenda remained looming over Flint.  “Where would she be,” Portenda asked.

 

“Who do you mean?”

 

“Your boss.  ‘William’, as you call her,” he whispered.  Flint’s eyes widened, but then again, he thought, I shouldn’t be surprised.  This guy sees everything.  “And if you’re smart, you’ll either tell me where she is, or go and tell her she’s won the competition yourself.  If you’re stupid, you can go ahead and finish drawing that poisoned needle from your sleeve.  But I should warn you, I’m just as immune to sleep-inducing drugs as you, Mr. Ananham, and I am in no mood right now for your antics.”  Flint put the needle back in its slot in his coat sleeve and cleared his throat.

 

“You’re good,” Flint admitted.

 

“I’m the best.  Where is she?”

 

“Well, mate, you’re allergic to silver, yes,” Flint asked, finally feeling a smile coming over his snout.  “I’d think about checking around abouts where there might be plenty of that stuff available.  That way I can finish my evening here, and you can have the satisfaction of nabbing her yourself.  Squares?”

 

“Squares,” said Portenda.  He started to turn away, then felt an obligation creeping up on him.  “And by the way, I apologize for interrupting your date, Mr. Ananham.  I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.”  Flint took a sip of his wine, and held it aloft in a toast to the bounty hunter.

 

“Same to you, good man.”

 

Let it never be said that sometimes a plan goes too well, because in truth, it happens more often than one might think.  This is not to say that the result is always disastrous.  On the contrary, what usually happens is that the person whose plan is going so well becomes bored and restless.  For Anna Deus, the moment of sheer, mind-numbing dullness was about to settle upon her like a black blanket.

 

The only problem she had come across since waking up had been relieving herself, and even that obstacle had been quickly overcome when she located an employee restroom just down the hall from the silver storage chamber.  Ducking in when nobody else was about, she’d been able to use the facilities and then stash herself away again.  But that had been nearly an hour ago, and now she stared at the piles of scrap and mined silver, her mind doing circuits in a futile attempt to keep herself from going mad from drollery.

 

Anna packed her belongings away in her rucksack, checked the time on her wrist watch, and marveled that she had only six hours remaining until the official end of the event.  Unless, of course, she’d already won.  Was that possible?  She thought it might be, but the other competitors were a clever bunch, and even a man like Portenda the Quiet could not have captured them all already.

 

As she contemplated this in a seated position, she heard several muffled voices coming down the hallway towards the silver storage chamber.  Thinking quick, Anna clambered into one of the shallow piles, concealing herself as best as she could.  With no line of sight to the door, she had to rely on her ears, which picked up the sound of someone opening the door.  “Can hardly believe this sort of order, but you know what the foreman says,” said an unseen man with a gruff voice.  “The client gets what they pay for.  Any idea what this fellow is all about, then?”

 

“Probably just testing his new toy,” said another voice.  “Anyways, it looks like it’s clear.  I’ll go get him.”  There was the unmistakable sound of receding footsteps, and then a couple of minutes later, though Anna could not hear the second set of steps following the foundry worker, she could sense the sheer violence brimming in the air.  “Well, here you are, sir.  Now, what is that fancy device you’re wanting to test?”

 

“It’s called a flamethrower,” intoned an all-too-familiar voice in a toneless drone.  “The heat from the flames it produces is supposed to be intense enough to melt copper, bronze, steel and silver in a minute, if constant pressure is supplied.”

 

“Hoo-whee,” said the worker who’d brought the bounty hunter into the chamber with Anna.  “I’d hate to think what that might do to a person.”

 

“So would I,” said Portenda.  “If you gentlemen would be so kind,” he asked politely.  Anna heard the workers shuffling away, and then the ‘clink’ of a flip-top lighter opening.  “Miss Deus, I know you’re in here.  I’m not comfortable with the idea of rifling through all of this silver and scalding myself all over the place.  I could have worn gloves, but I believe this will be a much more efficient use of my time and efforts.”

 

Wasting no more time, Anna erupted from her hiding place in a shower of small bits and pieces of metal, her hands in the air over her head.  Her forehead shone in a cold sweat, but she blinked rapidly at the sight of Portenda the Quiet.  The Simpa, who normally wore a sleeveless protector vest, was garbed in a protective long-sleeved duster, with thick leather gloves on his hands.  In his left hand he held a flip-top lighter.  In his right hand, he held a tape recorder.  His thumb pushed down on the ‘play’ button, and the deafening roar of blowing flames came from the speaker in the device.  She put her hands on her hips and gave him a frown.

 

“Well played,” she admitted.

 

“I do try.  Now please, let’s not have any unpleasantness, miss.”

 

“Actually, since you obviously know I’m really a woman, it’s Missus,” she offered, stepping out of the room into the corridor ahead of him.  She wasn’t stupid; she would not put up a fight or try to escape at this juncture.  “My husband Harold has no idea, so if you’d be so kind as to try and keep this quiet.”

“Being quiet is a specialty of mine, most times,” Portenda replied.

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