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Warhammer: Shadows of Empire - The Hunter's City


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Diarmuir slipped through the alleys and streets, a tiger through long grass. Though he had become more at home in the wilderness during his last year or so of existence as an itinerant hunter of men, his first home would always be the City. Not any city in particular, but the abstract ideas and concepts that went along with the word and all it's connotations. Places where the natural laws of black and white were blurred by the presence of Men, Dwarves, Elves and Halflings, leaving them in the grey realm of moral twilight. Here, on the terminator line between law and lawbreaker, justice and corruption, good and evil were the shadows in which the man once known as Felix of Altdorf and others like him were spawned.

Though he had grown used to the company of the others, particularly the easy-on-the-eyes Elfmaid, whose coldly murderous demeanour the wry soul found attractive, there was something relieving for the hunter in this solitary prowl through his new territory. He spent a little money and a lot of time in various inns, taverns, and drinking houses, working his way down the ratline with the expert assurance of one who was born to streets every bit as rough and dangerous as Talabheim's. Unlike many who fell into the vocation of mantracker Diarmuir had started in places like these, a thief amongst thieves whose skill, talent and nerve had propelled him to the top of Altdorf's underworld. He regarded himself as a criminal still, uncaring where the money came from as long as it flowed into his pockets, so he didn't possess the unthinking contempt for those who made their living on the fringe that some bounty hunters did.

By the time evening fell on the streets, the sun setting behind the western rim of the crater, Diarmuir believed he was well-enough informed to begin.

====================

Nobbler Crumbuckle was working late that day. It was that time again, the loathsome day that came once a week when the Halfling needed to go over his books for the entire afternoon and well past suppertime, balancing his accounts with the various people that owed him money as well as the various merchants with whom he had copious investments. It dimly occured to the Halfling that he might perhaps be well served paying someone to do this for him, but that would mean trusting another soul with all the secrets of his wealth.

Not a chance in Hell.

Grunting ill-humoredly, the portly moneylender leaned over his leather bound tome of those he considered to be 'mid-level' debtors. These were people whom had borrowed from him to start a business, or to keep one afloat in these troubled times. They were a two-edged sword - unlike the nobility and upper priesthood, these people had no real reputations to lose whilst being of slightly too much local importance to be casually beaten or killed for defaulting. So they could abandon everything and try to flee, which a noble would rather die than attempt, and they had at least the partial protection of the law. Nobles presented their own problems of course. Well connected and haughty even to their creditors, they could make all sorts of trouble for Nobbler if he didn't handle their prickly egos with kid gloves. He wished he had some way to bring some of the puffed-up popinjays to heel. After all, some owed him sums approaching thousands of crowns, but always deferred payment and treated it of little import when he reminded them. Yes, something would have to be done alright.

He had become distracted, a fact which only became apparent to him when he noticed the breeze tickling the ends of his toes, coming from outside the room he used as an office and strongroom. Grumbling once more, Nobbler jumped down from his high seat and trotted across the floor, unbolting the door and heading out into the front of his establishment.

"Drat the lazy girl. She's left the window ajar again." Crumbuckle cursed the waif who he paid 4 pennies a day to clean his counting room at the close of the day's business. Absently he closed and latched the window, making a note to dock the girl 1 penny for the foolishness. He didn't fear being robbed overmuch - some of the most notorious and dangerous men and women in Talabheim used him as a banker, trusting their wealth to his care with the understanding that it would grow under that care, as steadily and fruitfully as an apple tree in a Jade wizard's orchard. It would be a rare rogue that dared to rob him, for in doing so they would attract the ire of men such as Johann Hauser, known as "Wings" to the underworld for his propensity for having those that offended him heaved out screaming into space from the Taalbaston wall. His organisation, the Enterprise, had some of the most dangerous and ruthless killers in Talabheim in their ranks. Just the thought of that dizzying drop was enough to make Nobbler Crumbuckle's stomach rise. He hated heights anyway, but that drop was a terrible one.

He paced back into his strongroom and locked the door once more before retaking his seat and bending over his accounts once more, grumbling further at the prolonging of this evil day. "Perhaps I should halve the wretched girl's pay." he muttered as he started to tot up the figures once more. He looked up, startled as he felt the air move ever so slightly in front of his desk beyond the candlelight. As he did so, the Halfling fought back a squeak of dismayed fear.

A man was sitting there, perched on the front corner edge of his desk, watching him. Not a large man, he was dressed in dark-stained black leathers, a shapeless brown floppy hat hanging back from a cord around his neck and a brown oilskin cloak swept back over his right shoulder. His arms were folded over a black leather baldric that carried an abundance of black hilted throwing daggers. Nobbler's fear-widened eyes did not miss the darkly gleaming black steel of the crossbow that hung from the bottom edge of the baldric. A weapon of curious design, by the runes it was Dwarven if he was any judge. It was a double-bowed weapon, smaller and more compact than a regular crossbow, but the moneylender was very certain it lacked none of their power. It was the bow of a killer, and a highly paid one. Nobbler jerked his eyes up to the candlelit gaze regarding him calmly and tried not to pale. The man's eyes were odd-matched: one was the pale grey of a wolf's gaze, the other a red-stained fiery copper only found in the most ill-omened of sunsets. Reddish-brown hair was gathered behind the man's head in a short ponytail, and his cheeks were smooth-shaven, a hint of darker growth barely visible against the tanned skin.

"Wha-what do you wa-want!" Crumbuckle hated the squeak in his voice, but couldn't help it. The Human was inside his office, within arms reach, with the locked and barred door behind him and no other exits! "I-I'm a well connected per-person." He summoned up some courage. "You will find nothing but trouble in Talabheim if you harm or rob-"

"Hush." The Man said impatiently. "Your twittering is giving me a headache, by Ulric's Balls. If I wanted you dead I wouldn't be standing in front of you, and wouldn't care two damns who you think your friends are." He sighed and dropped a pouch of coin on the desk in front of Nobbler. "I'm here on business, moneylender. I am making Talabheim my home for the forseeable future, and need somewhere to keep my coin safe and growing. Word is that you never tolerate bad debts and that you are connected with the merchants here." The Man leaned over him slightly. "Word also says you're reliable. I hope that's true." A gloved hand gestured towards the pouch. Nobbler noticed that the thin leather glove was perfectly tailored, fitting the hand like a second skin. "Fifty crowns. Not much by some standards, but it is a token of trust. If I like what I see I shall deposit more with you."

Crumbuckle reached for the pouch and began to count it, the prospect of a customer allaying his initial panic. "Hmm... forty-seven... fifty exactly. Very well." He reached for his quill and started to make a new entry, his professional aplomb returning. "Who shall I say is my new customer?" Silence greeted him, and when he looked up the Man was staring at him as though those weird eyes could read his soul. He was being weighed and measured, the Halfling realised, and wondered what that meant.

"Diarmuir." the Man said at length. Nobbler nodded and wrote 'D' in his ledger. Of course it was Diarmuir. The crossbow and the eyes confirmed it. He relaxed a little more, smiling and nodding again as he finished entering the amount.

"Naturally, your full name won't be here, sir. But rest assured my books are the safest in Talabheim regardless. Few are the priests or justices that actually want ALL my customers exposed to the light of day." He grinned a happy little grin. "Will that be all?" he asked, noting that the Man wasn't moving.

"I was wondering if you had any work, actually." Diarmuir said with a sly smile of his own. "I'm new here, and require coin. Word is you always pay for chasing down debtors, and that there are some higher class pigs who are beyond the reach of most thugs." The smile became an unsettling grin.

"I've yet to find anyone that is beyond MY reach, friend Crumbuckle. So have you any expensive problems you wish resolved?"

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You study a man to see what he has. You talk to a man to get to know who he is. That flowed both ways.

"I think I might have a position for you, but I want to know how far are you willing to go?"

Diarmuir didn't respond, but his body language spoke volumes. His declared god was the Klank, the Karl, the gold crown. Nobbler nodded. If he lost the man, well he could try again later. Too bad none of his men felt like facing the hell that would come down if this went badly.

"The family name is von Kritzer. Yes, they are one of the baronial families of the city and they are in to me for a tidy sum. After studying the problem, I have decided the best course of action is to kidnap the families daughter. They have a son too, but he is harder to get at and his disappearance woudl be noticed sooner. That would amount to a deplorable situation. This really can't go public for a variety of reasons."

"Steal the daughter. Hold her in a safe place until I call for you. If they pay, you will arrange for her safe delivery. If they don't pay ... I will need you to drop her off with some compatriots, bagged, bound, and gagged - they aren't to know who she is - and they will deal with her."

"This is a well connected family. If you are discovered in this, it could go badly for you ... though I know a man who has a safe way out of the city, for the right price."

"I will pay 100gc for the safe completion of his mission. I have their address ..."

"How much are they into you for?" whispered the man, his one blue eye frosty in the candlelight.

Nobbler thought it over for three sedonds. Somehow he realized that decieving this man was unwise? Unhealthy? Unfortunate.

"The borrowed 500 and now they are in for 1000. You are getting ten percent."

"Fifteen."

Again, Nobbler gave it about three seconds. He really wanted this old bastard to pay. Too often nobls welched on lesser dues. Maybe this would wake some of them up when the word slowly got around.

"Fifteen," Crumbuckle agreed. "The address is 36 Champion's Way, but the daughter has a carriage take her to the University four times a week. Her name is Hanna."

Before Diarmuir left, Nobbler cleared his throat.

"You downpayment will go on my prefered account. That's a twenty-five percent return every six months."

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"Fine." The soft-spoken man stood, slipping his shapeless hat onto his head once more. "I want everything except ten crowns of what you pay me for this and future jobs to go into that account too. I'll come and see you up to a week after each job to collect my payment and review the books." He stepped towards the door, opening it quietly. "You won't know when or where I'll appear, so make sure you keep the money and the ledger nearby. Appointments are for daylight folk."

The Halfling nodded in understanding, and those strange eyes regarded him for a moment across the room before two fingers touched the brim of the hat in wordless salute and the Man was gone, so quickly and silently he might as well not even have been there. Only the open doorway remained.

==============

Four Days Later

Annalise Von Kritzer descended from the carriage, her guard holding a cloak over his charge's head to protect it from the rain, though the young noblewoman had a well-made cloak herself, which she wrapped around herself as she tugged the hood up. It was a cold, gusty, drizzly twilight in Talabheim, but at least she would have the house more or less to herself. The girl's father, mother and brother would all be at a social function tonight, which meant Anna would be able to relax in the large, warm study without being pestered about preparing for her society debut this coming summer. She didn't want to think about that: as soon as she was formally presented to Talabheim society, her parents would marry her off to some lesser noble who would, if she was lucky, be only roughly ten years older than her, but be wealthier by far than her family. The scholarly girl sighed to herself as she considered her father's reckless 'investments'. She suspected that they were probably gambling debts, but whenever asked her father would get a stoney look in his eye and ask acidly if she perhaps had something better to do with her time than prattle at him so.

It was just unfair, the young noblewoman considered as she allowed her guard to carry her satchel of study materials. If her father wasn't so useless with money, she wouldn't have to marry an overpromoted merchant who sought entrance to the inner aristocracy. She would be able to go to study in Altdorf where (away from her parents immediate oversight) she would be able to study medicine as she wished to, rather than being indulged to study until she was safely married into a dull life such as her mother lived where, she bitterly mused, she might at least be allowed some books to read if her husband wasn't dead set against a woman with a mind. She mulled over the injustice of her life as the housekeeper clucked over her and removed the cloak, shooing her upstairs to get warm, dry and changed like a kindly mother hen. Annalise brightened: at least tonight she would be able to eat in the study. The housekeeper thought that it was darling to see her devour all those words, even though the elderly woman couldn't read much herself. Such a shame the girl wouldn't be allowed to study properly, she told the cook on at least half a dozen occasions a week. But then, such was the burden of position.

==============

He watched from across the street, his stoop at the entrance to an alleyway sufficiently out of the way that the watch didn't seek to move him on from the muddy patch he sprawled in. His face was muddied and bloody and a gauzy rag was tied around his head at an angle, covering his molten eye from casual sight whilst allowing him a fair degree of vision. One leg sprawled out to the side in front of him, a filthy stinking bandage crusted with blood and some best-unknown greenish mold wrapped around the knee. A tattered, filthy blanket was wrapped around him, and a crutch leaned against the wall beside where he sat.

Hearing footsteps coming towards him, he thrust his hand out to his 'blind' side, holding a rude wooden bowl in front of young man with the appearance of a minor noble, or perhaps a merchant's son, and the young lady he was escorting.

"Please sir! Spare a couple pennies for a man who came back from the war. I cannot work until I can pay a physic to tend my leg!" There was a pathetic catch in his voice, the sound of a man beaten by the world and desperately relying on the charity of others. He heard a whispered plea from the woman to "Help the poor unfortunate!" and concealed a smile as the young man bent and dropped a few coins into his bowl.

"There you are, good fellow. Get that leg cleaned up." The mark said with a false jollity, smiling like he thought a righteous hero of old might smile. As well he might, the rogue thought. The tart's eyes were shining like her beau was the second coming of Sigmar.

"Good master, noble lady! Thank you! Blessings of Shallya on you both!" Diarmuir dissolved into false tears as the two hurried past, murmuring to each other about how wretched it was that the gods permitted a brave man to suffer so. Diarmuir smirked to himself as he looked over his day's haul: five schillings and about twenty copper pennies. Not bad for a day's begging. But now it was time to go.

He grunted and moaned as he got to his feet, grabbing the rickety crutch and limping off down the alleyway. It was slow going and the hunter took his time. The girl would be in her room for about an hour, bathing and getting changed. Then she would be in the big study until after midnight, when she would retire to her room to sleep. Diarmuir had plenty of time to get into position. Three blocks away, he pulled the bundle containing his belongings from the disused drain where he had stashed it and changed, stripping off the beggar's rags from his lean, scarred body before donning his armour and weapons. He wrapped the begging gear (minus the coin) into the oilcloth bundle and returned it to the hiding place.

As darkness fell, he slipped silently over walls and through the gardens of 36 Champions Way, a shadow quiet as the night breeze. The rain was still drizzling down, which was good and bad news. It would make climbing a touch more difficult, but would persuade wandering guards to keep close to their shelter and warmth. After all, what madman would be up to something nefarious on a night like this?

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After all his careful planning, after all his experience, and after all his skill at putting himself in the perfect place at the perfect time, Diarmuir was brought down by something with which he had no experience - a girl's love of reading.

He penetrated the security on the outside as if it was child's play. The guards had studiously kept to their rounds, but they did so rapidly and with no great desire to find anything that would keep them out in this wet night. He climbed the tressel as if it was a custom set of stairs made just for him. He sat oustide her window, cloaked in the night's veil and he waited.

And he waited. Anna ate her dinner in her room, pouring over the pages of a dusty old tome. From what Diarmuir could make out though the rain spattered window it didn't even have pictures. She read and she read and she read. Diarmuir, who was far more familiar with tavern wenches and whores, didn't know what to make of it. What a silly twit.

After a serving girl came in and helped her change into her nightclothes, he figured his long ordeal was coming to an end. It wasn't. No sooner had the serving girl went out of the room, she hopped out of bed and went back to the book. Diarmuir began wondering if he had ever had a lover so loyal as she was to that book. He rubbed his tired thighs that were cramping up in the cold. He waited. He grew weary.

Diarmuir nodded off, but caught himself. He realized the light in the room had dimmed. Anna had fallen asleep on her book. Now was his chance. Carefully he slipped the lock and moved to step into the room, his eyes serpent still on this target. He put one foot down and had the other sleekly following when Anna popped up and stared right at him.

She took up he book, held it in front of her then her surprised exression turned to one of horror. She slipped the book behind her while she backed up, shield the tome with her body. Diarmuir was waiting for her lungs to fill and her lips to scream, but that didn't come.

Diarmuir could see that brain churning behind Anna's eyes. At the same time, he was subtly moving toward her without visibly moving. As I said, serpent-like.

"Don't kill me and I won't scream," she said in a surprisingly calm voice. There was no immediate response.

"If you came to kill me, you would have shot me with the crossbow by now, or you would have put a knife in your hand. You are far faster than me."

He was almost on her.

"Let me change and get a cloak and I'll go with you. Please, you don't have to hurt me."

Then, she added,

"May I take my books?"

Diarmuir had to think about that one.

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"Your... books?" he murmured incredulously. The girl had wit, at least. She had quickly reasoned that he wouldn't kill her. Damn, but Diarmuir could have sworn the little cow was asleep. He'd been careless, should have made certain. But his arms and legs had been cramping up, by the gods. He shook his head slightly in disbelief. "How many books?" Damnation, but this was a mess. She had seen his damn face, and maybe even his eyes under the brim of his hat. It was a strange experience to be discussing the manner of a kidnap with the kidnappee. The gods must be pissing themselves laughing, he thought sourly.

She gave him a faintly hopeful look. "Only two. These ones?" She pointed at the heavy bound leather tomes on her nightstand. Diarmuir suppressed a groan with a supreme effort of will and cursed under his breath.

"Sigmar's prick, I'm not a travelling library!" He took in the suddenly mutinous set of her jaw and gritted his teeth. "Fine then, get yourself ready. Quietly!" He told her in a low tone. Curiously, the girl obeyed, spending a moment or two choosing which books to take before wrapping them and stowing them in her satchel before slipping behind a screen with a whispered "No peeking!"

Rolling his eyes, Diarmuir padded over to the door and listened. He heard the steady tread of the guard outside, doing his rounds, and listened intently until he was gone. Annalise emerged from behind the screen garbed in a riding dress with boots and stout trousers underneath. She grabbed her cloak and swung it around her shoulders, eyes bright with excitement as she picked up her satchel. "What now?" she said a little breathlessly.

He moved over to the window, checking to make sure the coast was clear, and beckoned to her a touch impatiently. "Secure that satchel and climb onto my back. Hold tight now, and don't look down. And by all that's holy, don't scream." Annalise climbed onto the man's back, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. He wasn't a large man, only a few inches taller than she, but there was no mistaking his lean catlike muscle under the leather clothing. She took a deep breath, then another as the rakish mystery man with the strange eyes (yes, she had seen them glinting out from under that hat) swung out of the window and with slow but sure movements began his descent.

Diarmuir's arms ached and his legs burned, but he resisted the urge to speed his descent. It would make more noise, and lack of caution was the hallmark of a swining amateur. He paused every so often to look around and listen, just to be sure that no guards were coming around early. Eventually, they reached the ground and the slipped from his shoulders, her own arms aching a little by the way she was grimacing. Diarmuir flexed his hands and arms and stretched his legs before taking her hand.

"Follow me, and move as I move. Let's go." Checking to make sure the glows of guards lanterns were absent, he led her to the rear wall of the garden. A short climb up and down later, and the two of them were slipping away through the city streets.

An hour later saw them in an upper room of a tavern in the Tallows, the worst most run-down area of Talabheim. Diarmuir had already slipped a message under Crumbuckle's door saying that the deed was done and giving the location of a drop-off for any messages. Naturally, the tavern was nowhere near that drop-off. Diarmuir had booked the room in advance, and had made Annalise wait outside the window while he entered, then thrown down a rope and hauled her up. No one had seen her come in, and with any luck no-one would ever know she had been here.

"Sit, get warm by the fire." He told her, not unkindly as he took off his cloak. She obeyed, her eyes wide as he divested himself of his weapons belt and hung it on the bedpost. He scooped up a blanket and tossed it to her. "Here, get out of your wet things under that. I didn't go through all that to let you freeze to death." She blinked, then set the satchel and het cloak to one side and wrapped the blanket around her as she unfastened the woollen dress. A movement from the strange man caught her eye, and her cheeks flamed as she realised he was stripping off, peeling away the soaked leather armour along with the linen shirt and the woollen trousers underneath. At least he was facing away from her, though as she closed her eyes tight and looked the other way she could still vividly see the lean muscles she had felt earlier laid bare to her gaze.

"Gods, I'm drenched." Diarmuir said as he wrapped a dry blanket around his naked form before sitting on the bed. He checked his weapons first, then placed his armour and clothes near the fire to dry. He looked at Annalise. "You want your dress to dry?" the noble girl's eyes widened and she reddened further as she realised he expected her to disrobe as well, as though she were some common trollop.

"No! It's not very wet." She hastily explained, being glad that her cloak had indeed kept most of the weather off her. Being dressed in only a shift around this man suddenly seemed a strangely attractive but totally improper idea. Strange that earlier she had been more concerned with the tomes. But that was before she had seen his... um... anatomy.

"Suit yourself." He told her uncaringly as he huddled near the fire, the flames dancing in his coppery eye. "By Ulric's beard, girl. I thought you'd never go to bloody sleep. My bones are as cold as his own breath."

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She thought about her answer with some care. She didn't mean to insult, but such might have been the case with hastily chosen words.

"The tome I was studying is a treatise on the law in Talabheim written just two decades ago. I am studying law at the university ... or did you know that?"

"Anyway, as I am sure you know, you need to understand you subject if you are going to accomplish anything constructive with it. You can't go in partially prepared. With this book, some information is hinted, or alluded to in earlier encounters, but it only makes sense with later re-readings. I was searching for that later period of understanding."

She paused and looked around.

"You must be quite intelligent, as well as have some trust issues. You already realize, of course, that the more people know of a criminal enterprise the greater chance of ending up in the Hollows. I am making the assumption that the only people you have told are your employer - no note left on my bed - yourself, and anyone else he had told as a guaruntee of your proper behavior."

She looks intently at Diarmuir, defending her statement,

"It is the logical thing to do. Your distrust is due to the untrustworthy nature of your endeavor. You must suspect others of acting in the same, none trusting, measure."

"I see also that you don't see to know how to read. Do you care if I teach you? I think we are going to be here for a long time. My father does not currently have a great deal of money lying around, though he is very, very connected. I don't see my ransom being paid very soon. Some other action may be attempted though. My brother, Roger, works directly with, or really for, the Countess Elise Kreiglitz-Untern. The woman, barring catastrophe, will be the next Count-Elector and she is not someone to be trifled with."

She sighs and looks down at her hands intertwined before her.

"I'm afraid things will not go well - poor political climate and my parent's disposition toward me. Ummm ... you may need to buy a small dog. It will explain the noise and stop people from investigating your lodgings while you are away. It may also explain the extra food you will require."

She tried to smile but it came out as a very sad grin.

"Maybe I'm tired and need to lie down. May I have the bed tonight? I'll take the floor tomorrow night."

She waited patiently for his reply.

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"Smart girl." Diarmuir said with a good-humored smirk. "You're off on three points. One, this is the area of town where people don't investigate the lodgings of a man who's made it plain he doesn't want interruptions. The innkeeper doesn't ask, doesn't care what's going on in here as long as he's paid. It's safest for him that way. And I wouldn't make a long term lodging here if I was a pox-stricken wharf rat." He stretched with insolent grace, the blanket falling to his waist but fortunately no further as he let the firelight warm his skin. He flashed her a razor grin as she averted her eyes once more, but not before noting the few scars on his torso.

"Second, your father doesn't have a choice. He pays what he owes my employer, or some Estalian brothel gets a higher class of whore than it's used to. Maybe you'll fetch a thousand, maybe you won't. It's better than nothing though. If he attempts anything stupid, he'll lose more than a daughter." The words were spoken with quiet resolve as he ticked off points on his hands. "He'll lose face, as my employer releases details of exactly how far in debt he is. It'll get out that he let his own flesh and blood face death or worse for the sake of money. He'll lose any influence he has at the Countess's court, and your brother if he's got an ounce of swining brain will distance himself from the whole sorry affair." Diarmuir watched the girl carefully out of the corner of his eye as he stood and crossed the room, letting the blanket fall as he dug clean dry clothing from his bag and donning it swiftly. His weapons belt followed, and though currently unarmoured Diarmuir was prepared for trouble once more. "Better hope your father isn't that much of a fool, girl."

"Take the bed. I'll be sleeping against the door." He told her as he gathered some blankets for himself. "I'm leaving you unbound and trusting you won't try anything stupid. I sleep lightly and with a knife and bow near to hand. I'm to keep you alive, but you'd be amazed what some people can live through." He told her with dreadful calm. She forced herself to meet that mismatched gaze.

"I understand." She whispered. As she settled onto the bed, the events of the night kept her from sleep. This strange man seemed to have no fear of her father, or the law, or anything for that matter. He'd swung himself out over a thirty foot drop with her on his shoulders without any sign of fear or hesitation. Even her father's bodyguards, brave soldiers tested in battle, would have balked at that. Even they would have been worried at the prospect of official wrath or hirelings of her father tracking them down. Was he, then, right in his assessment of the situation?

Probably, she mused. There was too much at stake for her father here. It might take time, but her ransom would be paid, she was almost certain. Something occured to her, and she lifted her head and turned away from the fire towards the door where her captor apparently slept. She watched him for a moment, the slow rise and fall of his chest, the way his hand rested a hair's breadth from the hilt of a dagger. When he spoke, she somehow wasn't surprised.

"What is it, girl?"

"The third point." She said. The rogue's eyes opened and turned towards her, narrowing. "You said there were three points I was wrong on," she persisted "but I only counted two. What was the third?" The man shook his head and closed his eyes again, his head returning to its previous position. "Please tell me." she quietly implored him. He sighed.

"I can read." he said simply.

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As she lay back to sleep, Annalise thought of more than one thing. His body, scared but so finaly muscled was at the top. That was probably the reason she was a bit off on putting some of the other clues to the puzzle together. She accounted for her father easily, he was a hard man. Would he tell the world she had run away? Mother would be of now help. She had given in to Father long ago. Roger? Roger loved her but what could he do? If only she hadn't been so tired. If only she hadn't been so ... distracted. She was alone, in a room, with a strange, and strangely handsome man, she didn't know.

She went to sleep with the thoughts of two different yet burning eyes invading her dreams.

Diarmuir woke up early with a phlegmy cough and the sniffles. He slipped out while she still slept to check his drop location. Sure enough there was a message and a purse. The pures was 15gc, a down payment on his commission. The message read, in Cipher,

Received - message passed along to concerned parties - not seeing you soon, I think.

When he came back to his Inn, he saw a young boy standing around, suspiciously. Diarmuir snuck past him and found the girl had made the bed and cleaned up (as much as she could) the room. She was now lying on the bed, on he stomack, feet up in the air waving back and forth, barely refealing the end of her stockings. Of course, her head was propped up by her arms and she was reading a book, a candle besider her.

Diarmuir tried to come in stealthfully, but the candle flicker betrayed him.

"Oh, your back. Did you bring breakfast? I was doing some homework in case I'm released in time for exams."

She moved around so that she was sitting up.

"Oh, someone knocked on the door earlier. I felt it was wise to remain quiet. He had foul breath and walked with a rolling gate. From his accent I would say he has bad teeth."

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"That was the innkeeper." Diarmuir told her with a faint cough, his mood clearly not the best. The blasted rain and cold hanging around outside the blasted girl's blasted window had given him a chill. "Just keep the door locked and don't answer. If he gets persistent I'll have a word with the ugly whoreson." He took off his cloak and hat, hanging them by the fire before pulling a small knapsack off his shoulders and dropping it on the bed.

"Black bread, cheese, and ham." He said shortly, passing her a small paring knife to eat with. "I'll be taking the knife back when you're done." He sat on the bed on the other side of the knapsack and uncorked a wineskin, taking a swallow of the fiery Tilean liquor within to warm his throat before drawing another knife and cutting himself some food. He chewed silently, his eyes on the fire despite keeping an awareness of the girl in case she made any sudden moves. At least the drop had gone well, and a downpayment too. And the cursed rain had stopped as well. He briefly pondered his next moves. The problem was he was forced into a reactive position: not the ideal situation. His moves depended on the moves of others. Worst case, he'd drop the girl off with Crumbuckle's hirelings, bagged, gagged and blindfolded. If the girl disappeared and he fulfilled his end of the deal, Crumbuckle would pay him anyway, Diarmuir was sure. He became aware of her eyes on him as she ate, and looked over, his molten eye looking only slightly more baleful than his pale one.

"What?" he demanded, a harsh note in his voice.

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She blushed slighly and brushed a stray strand of hair out of her face ... which promptly returned. To her credit she didn't bend away from his curtness.

"I ... umm ... noticed your eyes and you look a bit ... palish. Can I examine you?"

She blushed furiously.

"I mean, can I feel your ... ummm ... forehead," she was stammering. "Your eyes ... ahhh ... they look beautiful (and how!) but they are blood shot. I would like to test your blood flow and if you can get me a glass, I would like to listen to your heart and your lungs."

She was getting he steam and confidence back.

"I've never done this with a real person, but I've read about it in books. I know what I'm doing."

I think. I hope. If he dies ... well, I'm not getting out of here intact at the very least. Don't die on me exotic, strange, exciting man.

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He regarded her for a long moment, giving her the unpleasant sensation that he could tell what she was thinking. Finally he nodded and left the room for a brief moment, coming back with a small glass. Locking and bolting the door once again, he came over to sit down beside her, handing her the glass and deftly taking back the knife she had in her other hand.

She reflected once more that this was not a trusting man. What made a man thus? Hardened and tempered to a razor's edge, like a living weapon, suspicious of everyone and everything. Did he have friends or family? A wife? Did he love? How could anyone live being so alone? She felt a tinge of sympathy for him, as well as a warm sense of fellow-feeling. Was she really any less alone than he? She armoured herself in her studies, he in his silent and dangerous craft.

"You'd better not be a quack, girl." He said calmly as he slipped off the weapons belt and set it behind him, then pulled off his woollen jerkin and linen shirt. Annalise tried not to stare at the mix of old and new scars. There was a couple that looked like burns: one from a fire and another from maybe a poker or hot iron. A few arrow wounds. A sword thrust through the muscle over one hip. A few old, faded scar lines peeked over his shoulders from the flesh of his back, and she knew that they indicated a lash of some kind.

She started to reach for his forehead, then hesitated as he calmly drew a dagger from the belt behind him and kept it low at his side, his gaze level with hers. She didn't doubt that he would use it in an eyeblink if she gave him cause. Taking a deep breath, she leaned in and began her examination.

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He hands were precise, if a bit boney and cold. Inwardly Diarmuir noted that her slender finger were much like his own. She gasped slightly seeing some of the wounds on his body. She couldn't bring herself to touch the burns, or lashs. She touched around them. She showed no such timidness around the weapon wounds and she could hear her catagorizing them.

She moved behind him and Diarmuir was betting money she was getting ready to brain him with the cup, or maybe come up with some far fetched story to make him panic, the Girl from the High Tower getting it over on the Guttersnipe. No, she was up to something else. She prodded him and she could make out a dull ache were she pressed hard. His breathing betrayed his pain and Diarmuir hated that weakness. It confused him. He had had much worse.

Annalise came around to his front and her face was more white than normal. The hand holding the glass was shaking ever so slightly, though she was (or so it appeared) trying to hide it.

"Let me listen to your heart," she said near tears. By the time she leaned in close to him, she was visibly shaking all over.

"Cough for me, please."

Diarmuir complied. He found it compartively easy and did some again, coughing up some phegm. He spat it into the fire. Despite being close to the fire, he was feeling the chill.

She moved the glass around and was very still. He held herself when she stood back up. Her eyes were rimmed with tears.

"I need to do something that might hurt a bit (*whispers* but I pray to Shayalla it doesn't). I need to put my hands under your arms."

Diarmuir suspected something now. Might hurt him? He had a knife for that.

Gently she pushed her cold hands under his arms and felt around gently. It kind of tickled. Diarmuir kept his head about him and caught her intake of breath. He readied himself for such and obvious ploy. She was going to pull the hair ...

And a searing pain shot up his body and down his arms. The knife dropped limply from his hands. Vaguely he heard it hit the ground. The pain shot through his throat, chocking him and shot through his skull, blinding him. This was the moment. This when she would make her move.

The pain dulled almost as soon as it had begun. Diarmuir caught himsel from falling out of the chair and scooped up the knife to ... see her sobbing and going,

"No, No!"

She paced around in a small circle, rubbing her hands desperately on her dress and tears going down her face. Then she ran past him. The Hunter rose up but found himself groggy from standing so quickly. Anna leaned down and began using the poker to push ashes out of the flames. She dug her hand into the hot ashes and furiously washed her hands.

In a studious and calm voice he really didn't feel, Diarmuir spoke,

"Woman, what is your problem?"

She looked up with a tear-streaked face.

"You have the Plague."

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For the first time, Annalise Von Kritzer saw her captor lose his deadly composure. His tanned face turned an even more sickly shade of pale and he collapsed to the floor on his backside as though the news had cut the strength from him like nothing else he had faced ever could. He was staring at her dumbly for a moment, and she looked away from that shocked stare. A sound made her look up in surprise

The man was laughing.

It wasn't a pleasant, jolly laugh. It was the hoarse, bitter whispery laugh of a cynic who realised that the joke was on him. It cut the soul to hear, causing chills to run down her spine. He is laughing at his own death! she realised with a mounting mixture of horror, admiration... and pity. Finally his laughter died away into a brief coughing fit, and as he looked up from that his eyes glinted brightly with dark humor.

"So it comes to this." He grinned mirthlessly, looking from her into the fire. "What type of plague is it?"

"I don't know." Annalise said, her voice steady as she watched his eyes. "There are many types, and I am no true physician. But we need help. We cannot stay here and allow the plague to break out into the city. You might already have spread it to me, and it's only a matter of time before I become a spreader myself." He nodded at that, his mind working over the problem for less than a minute before he reached a decision. He gestured at his bags on the table.

"You'll find clean trousers, shirt and jerkin in there. I'm not much larger than you. Change into them and burn your clothing. Tie your hair back in a man's braid and wear my hat and cloak." He picked himself up off the floor and eased onto the bed as she stared at him. "Get your arse to the temple of Ulric and ask for Brother Wolfgang. He..." the man broke off in a coughing fit for a moment. "He will know what must be done. Avoid everyone on the street. Cover your mouth so you don't breath on anyone. If you're not spreading it yet, he might be able to cure you. Taal's balls, I don't know. But he'll need to burn this inn and make sure the innkeeper isn't sick." He had been speaking with his eyes on the ceiling, a resigned air about him now as he contemplated his death. He turned his head to Annalise, both eyes piercing her: one hot, one cold.

"Tell Wolfgang that Diarmuir sent you to him. Now go!"

Somewhat in shock, she changed into his clothing (huddling under a blanket to do so), and braided her hair back in one short braid before slipping his hat and cloak on. Looking in the polished metal mirror, she realised she'd be unrecognisable as a girl dressed thus. She turned to toss her clothing in the fire and looked at Diarmuir for a long moment. She realised he was setting her free. Sure, she might die of the plague, but she had a better chance now than she would have otherwise, whereas he seemed resigned to his death. He gave her a grimly cynical smile and uncorked the Tilean liquor, taking a drink before speaking.

"What, never seen a dying man before? Get going, and don't forget your books. Take a dagger too: make sure to show steel to any whoreson who tries to slow you down." She hesitated, regarding him with a long slow look.

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She put her hands on her hip looking very much like Nayobee ... okay, she looked nothing like Nayobee, but she was desperately trying to look fierce.

"What? Is this it? Did you go through all this trouble and use of hard earned skills to just surrender now? You are a craftsman ... whoever you are! You would not surrender to some mutant in the Great Woods, so why are you throwing into the towel to a bad skin rash?"

She leaned forward.

"Come with me. We can visit my old anatomy professor and he can recommend an expert in the field. It is worth the fight, isn't it?"

She futilely tries to pull Diarmuir up and nearly falls over onto him.

"What have you got to lose, You? If I turn you over, I'm turning myself in as well. If we find a cure for you, we find a cure for me too. I'm saving my own life (and why is saving yours so much more important)."

She pulled him up this time and nearly spilled his alcohol. After all, what did he have to lose?

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"Damn it, girl! Leave me be and go!" He sat up reluctantly so as not to spill the drink, glaring at her with a stare that had promised painful death to hardened warriors before, but the skinny chit was undaunted. Her cheeks were flushed from her ire as she stared right back.

"Listen to me, you... you!" She panted a little from the effort of dragging him upright as she sat back on the bed. "Diarmuir: and don't try to fool me that's your real name! I know an Elven curse when I hear one. You're not 'Lost' yet! I don't know you, but I will wager you've been through worse things than I can imagine. You're a fighter! Where's your damn courage!" He glowered at her, his pale eye snapping with frosty anger while his copper eye burned like the fires of a smithy. She met his stare, paling a little as she wondered how far she had pushed him, but not flinching, until finally he slammed the cork into his wineskin.

"Fine!" he spat out, his ague forgotten in his irritation. "Let's go and see this professor. Anything to stop your yammering making my headache worse!" He stood and stalked over to his clothing, pulling on a fresh shirt and jerkin before picking up his weapons belt and fastening it about himself. His anger gave him strength and certainty, and the watching girl realised that she'd stirred him out of the apathy he'd fallen to when confronted with what he thought was an unbeatable enemy. When he turned back to her, he seemed almost like the man who'd taken her out of her bed chamber last night. She started to pass him back his hat, but he gestured for her to keep it.

"You're still too pretty to pass as a man without your face in shadow. Keep the brim down low. I'll take my cloak though: wear yours." Anna obeyed, glad of the hat's brim as it hid her blush. He thought she was pretty! Well, too pretty to pass as a boy, at least, she corrected herself. She watched as he strung two bolts to his bow and safed it before hanging it once more from his belt, then took the cloak and fastened it around his shoulders as Annalise pulled on her own cloak and looked at him expectantly. Diarmuir gestured towards the door. "Lead the way, girl."

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She led the way. He directed her out of the Tallows, whose streets were totally alien to her. Diarmuir saw a boy at the door run off upon sighting him, but was too tired to bother to shoot him. After they left the slum district, they walked right past two Dogfaces. They didn't give them a moment's notice.

Several more times, Annalise passed up several golden opportunities to blow their cover. He, in turn, showed her the finer points of walking unseen in a crowded street. They walked boldly and openly as if they had not a care in the world. They were brought up short when the saw a large bulletin with a rendering of Annalise on it offering a reward of 50gc. What bothered Diarmuir, it hadn't been posted by the Baron, but by the Government. This was troubling.

As they moved through the Law District, the air became clearer and Diarmuir's breathing becomes less labored. The freshness of the environment was rolling back some of his contitions. At least the sunlight didn't hurt as much. At the end of the District was the Royal Academy of Talabecland, and the first obstacle.

This was Annalise's first experience at being a non-person. It took a hefty bribe to get past the gate guards and another bribe to get one Professor Albrecht's assistant to get them into the room. There, she revealed herself to her old mentor. The old man had to be convinced that Diarmuir wan't holding her prisoner. Revealing the dagger was her way to temporarily assauge those fears.

"Professor, I have come down with a sickness best not handled at home with my family," she lied. "Can you tell us the name of a discreet expert in the field."

"Darling, what is wrong with you?"

"I can not say. Please dont' ask me. I am sure once I know what this expert has to say, he will tell you as well."

The old scholar studied them both for about a minute. He wrote a few lines down on a lose piece of paper. Anna stepped forward and took it. Before releasing it, Professor Albrecht said,

"I'll give you two days before I report this encounter to the authorities young lady and I pray to Taal that I am not waiting two days too long."

"Thank you, Professor. I'd kiss you but ... We must be going."

Getting out was much easier than getting in. It was usually like that. Outside the gates, Annalise read the address to Diarmuir and had him repeat it to her.

"In case we get seperated," she said.

Apothecary Uthvas Daubler

Rusty Remedies

Iron Lane

Nordgate

When they arrived in Nordgate, walking past a whole squad of guards, they found the store with very little effort. It had a beautiful stain glass window of a Rose in the front and was doing a brisk business. They had to sit for about ten minutes before Daubler ushered them in.

"Okay, what is the problem," he said eyeing them.

"I have these conditions; grey skin, white blotches, fever, wet coughing, and headache. There is an intense pains in the bulbous beneath the arms. No sinus disc ..."

"Wait!" the physician commanded. "These are the symptoms of your companion, not yourself Miss von Kritzer."

Seeing her eyes grow large,

"Your picture is up all over town. Anyway, I need to examine you, Mr. ...?"

"Gudsmitter. Helmut Gudsmitter."

"Yes ... quite. Anyhow, I need to examine you. Strip down to your waist and I'll examine you."

While he was stripping down, the Doctor was busy putting on a wool half-mask and doe-skin gloves. The following examination was professonal and lacking in Anna's personal touch and emotion. He made him cough and scratched some scabs from on his back. This underarms remained untouched this time.

"Well," he said when he was done, "I have some good news, some more good news, and some bad news."

He was putting his protective gear asside.

"Good news," he ticked off a finger. "I know what is wrong with you. It's the Grey Ague."

"More good news," he doesn't take off a finger. "It doesn't seem to be contacted in the normal ways. You can't get it from having someone cough on you, or bathe you."

"The Bad News is that I don't know a cure. I can recommoned some herbs that will help and supply you with a five days supply. I also recommend four warm bathes a day to help with what is to come."

He gets up and gathers some supplies from behind him. He puts them into a burlap bag. The Doctor hands the bag to Annalise then looks to Diarmuir.

"That will be twelve shillings."

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He handed over the money without complaint. The day was bad enough already: both people had recognised the girl, both would be sure to mentioned the odd-eyed man she had been with. Diarmuir's career in Talabheim was done: if he was lucky, he'd be able to recover in seclusion and slip out of this cursed city before the Dogfaces decided to boot his door down. At least he had the better part of the fifteen crowns downpayment to add to his wealth... Though if he had to run the fucking Halfling was richer by fifty! It made him want to grind his teeth down to the gums, he was so furious.

Gods be poxed, along with Crumbuckle, the girl's father, whoever is behind the fifty crown reward notice, and whoever is having me watched! he silently cursed as they left the apothecary's shop. He marked where it was for future reference: the man seemed competent. As they walked down the street together, blending with the crowds as best they could, Diarmuir looked out of the corner of his eye at the girl, considering his options. His mind was working with less than it's customary speed and clarity, but he was still Diarmuir, by Khaine! The most ruthless and cunning rogue ever to tread the Thieves Highway in Altdorf, a city where ruthless and cunning was the only way for a rogue to stay out of the noose or the gaol. If he could not find his way through this problem, he'd be damned and in Hell. He had made his decisions by the time they reached the crossroads that would lead them into the Tallows once more. He took her arm, not roughly but firmly, and pulled her into a nearby alley. She looked at him curiously.

"Change of plan. First, I'm going to a different inn. One where they have baths. We have all our belongings, so there's no need to go back there. Someone's snoop saw me, and I'm not going to put my head in a snare." He told Annalise quietly, then looked her in the eye. "In about a day or two, I'll be too sick to piss without someone holding it for me." She blushed at the colorful phrase, but he continued as though he hadn't noticed. "Someone at the government wants you back: your father must have gone straight to them. He's an idiot, and under normal circumstances would have gotten you killed or worse." She flinched at his matter-of-fact tone and started to speak, but he held up his hand. "These herbs, and the warm baths... They might save my life. They might not - it's a fighting chance, and that's all I ever need. Either way, I've changed my plans regarding you." He pointed up the street, away from the Tallows.

"Walk away." He told her simply. "Walk up to the Taalbaston, or go home. That street will take you to both places. You don't have the Ague, so you're not stuck with me. You can go." He shrugged, wincing as the motion set off a jangling of pain. "I'm a bastard in all senses of the word, but I don't forget a debt any more than I forgive a slight. You could have set me up at any point so far this morning. You didn't. Thank you" His face was impassive as he nodded to her respectfully, then gave her a little push towards the road.

"Now go." He turned to go himself, intending to slip down this alleyway and emerge on another street.

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Hands on he hips, it was lecture time again. Momentarily, he considered slitting her throat and having done with this mess.

"For a bright man, you are making some stupid choices. I'm your only bargaining chip with whomever has employed you. How are they going to take it if I just reappear?"

"Also, in the height of this illness," she hushed her tone, "you are going to need someone to care for you. You will risk dehydration. You will be sweating profusely and delusional. You won't be able to feed yourself. You need me."

Then, caught up in the revelation, she repeated herself, eyes somewhat distant,

"You need me."

Annalise snapped back to reality.

"Let us find an inn. We need seven days for this thing to run it's course (she hoped) then you should be fine. Now let's go."

She snaked an arm through his arm and started walking away from the alleyway and up the street.

From Diarmuir's point of view, he was crossing Nobbler and that was a whole barrel of trouble. It probably meant the Tallows was off limits. Besides, that boy had been on the lookout for him - more bad news. As if that wasn't bad enough, Diarmuir began to have the shakes. If this was just the beginning, he dreaded deep down in his soul how helpless he would be when it was at it's height.

Him going in alone was no good, because people were looking for him. Doubly so for the girl. The only option was to go in together ... as a couple. The girl over-acted her role (of course) and the Hunter was able to keep his shakes down to a minimum as he signed for the room and deposited the princely sum of 10 gold crowns for the week. With that level of gouging, Diarmuir was in the wrong business.

Once in their room, Annalise ordered the house boy to bring up a tub and plenty of hot waters. The Bounty Hunter turned Kidnapper would learn to live in that tub, dagger below the water line and crossbow just outside. He would get worse, much worse.

At one point and time, he became sure the girl was out to kill him, but his hands were too shaky to stab her. An hour later he asked her to marry him then sobbed in her arms. He slept with extra blankets on the bed while she took a spot by the fireplace propped up in a chair. This went on for a foggy eternity.

On the fourth day the fever was at it's worth. He wasn't holding down anything, even his soup. Annalise was doggedly hanging in there, hoping that his time-hardened physique could battle throw this, which must be the end.

In his fever-fueld clarity, Diarmuir heard a commotion down stairs different from the normal mumbles he was used to hearing. Footsteps came pounding up the stairs. Something bounced off the door. Annalise had kept it locked all the time. A shoulder was put to the door again and the wood cracked. Diarmuir's shaky hands reached for his crossbow, but he dropped it. Anna drew her dagger and stood between her charge and the door.

{I need to catch some people up!}

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Diarmuir's world was pain, his mind hazy as to what was going on as the girl helped him from the bath and, towelling him off, slipped him into bed. His teeth chattered as sweat broke out all over his body under the sheets. He felt a cool bony hand touch his brow gently, then a damp cloth wiped his face. He cried out as cramps shot through his muscles, feeling ashamed. A female voice murmured comfort to him.

"Shh... do not cry so loud! It is alright... I know it must hurt." Annalise's cultured voice was full of sympathy: he wanted to curse her but was stopped by another wave of pain. But worse than the pain was having someone see this and offer him false pity. He grit his teeth, his narrowed eyes seeing not the concerned features of his caretaker but mocking handsome faces hovering in the night gloom above him. His rage blackened his mind and he scrabbled for his knife hilt, spitting dark curses.

"Don't patronise me, you whoresons. I'll kill you. I'll kill all of you...!"

Click to reveal..

"Don't patronise me, you whoresons. I'll kill you. I'll kill all of you...!" He voice was higher pitched, but still tempered with boiling fury that would give caution to more experienced fellows than his current tormentors.

Laughter met his words as the young noblemen stepped back out of reach of their sport as he staggered to his feet, brandishing a skinning knife. The laughter was high and shrill from these boys only a little older than their ten summers old prey as he swiped at the air between them, teeth bared under his bloodied nose.

"Watch out, fellows! The rat has teeth!" Cried the eldest, a pimple-faced youth of sixteen summers. Giggles met his mock-alarmed tone.

"A tooth, certainly. Which is more than his mother has, I don't doubt." sneered another. "Fancy this trash calling US whoresons."

More laughter as they spread out, some drawing cudgels from under their rich cloaks. Felix put his back to the wall, mismatched eyes narrowing as he regarded them with hatred.

"We told you to stay off our street, rat." The eldest told him earnestly, a wicked grin accompanying the swish of his stout club. "We don't care how you earn your measely copper, but we don't want you running messages through where decent folk live."

"Decent? You dung-tics? I've met more decent lice in a waterfront whore's knickers, you back-stair bastards." Felix hawked and spat, blood and saliva splatting onto the eldest boy's doublet. The boy cried out in disgusted rage, looking at the red-tinged mess, then looked at the ten-year old urchin with death in his eyes.

"You will pay for that, you slattern's bastard." The last came in a half-hiss, half scream as he raised his club and lunged at Felix, meaning to dash his brains out. The street-smart boy stepped forward, lifting his left arm and taking the blow on his forearm before it could gather real crushing momentum. The thwack of the club on flesh still made him cry out, but he stifled the pain and thrust hard with his small knife, right into the noble child's face.

The elder boy squalled, falling over backwards and dropping his club as he tried to push Felix back. The street rat was not so easily shaken off, though, and fell over on top of his tormentor, drawing back the knife and stabbing again. And again. And again...

Anna was more cautious after that episode, realising that if it hadn't been for the palsied quavering of his muscles his first thrust would have sliced her cheek open rather than going wide by half a foot. She made sure she always knew where his knife was and to move away when he started to reach for it. There was something deadly in him she saw in these moments, and it chilled her.

When he finally slept, albeit uneasily, she would draw up a chair nearby and read, now and then looking over at her patient. He would occasionally half-awaken, his fever-bright gaze fixing on her as though she was all he ever loved. Even though she knew he was seeing someone else when he started mumbling, she treasured those moments, wondering if any man would look at her so and envying the woman he saw sitting in her place...

Click to reveal..

"Felix! Stop that!" Lissa giggled musically as she glared at him in the mirror, trying to fasten up her hair. The eighteen year old tradesman's daughter was endeavoring to undertake a tricky new hairstyle based on Elven styles, and contrary to his protestations was not being 'helped' by the dashing young rogue standing behind her. She shivered as his fingertips tickled her ears, then stamped a foot as her involuntary movement let auburn tresses escape. She shot him a mostly mock-angry look. "Don't you have some noble's house to 'case'?" The well-brought up girl loved using criminal argot, feeling it added to the illicit nature of their affair. Felix was SO much more exciting than her boring fiance. All Rutger could talk about was what he would do once he took over her father's shop! Not only did Felix woo her with trinkets that once graced the bodies of baronesses, but he wasn't at all hesitant about stealing kisses... and more. Hard to believe that he was only sixteen summers of age. Two years her junior, and so worldly. Still, he was totally unsuitable for marriage, which was a pity. Soon she'd have to break it off with him. She repressed a sad sigh. It would be hard: the young man adored her so...

"...no... Don't say that! I love you! Marry me instead! I have money! I can apprentice myself to an artisan and change! I'd do it for you, don't you see?" Annalise hated these moments more than the knife-bearing ones. There was a heartwrenching grief in the man's voice that would not be quieted. "Marry me, Lissa. Please? I love you..." the pitch of his voice would raise to dangerous levels, and then the girl would have to act, crossing the room and sitting by him on the bed, cool cloth in hand.

"Shhh! It's alright. I will stay with you. I'll not leave." She would bathe his brow and he would smile, his weird eyes not seeing her but this 'Lissa' who in these moments Annalise despised for leaving him. He'd grab her hand and kiss it fervently, and she'd have to work hard not to cry at the adoration in his eyes, knowing it wasn't for her.

So it went, with him fighting battles, weeping, cursing, laughing and singing lewd songs. On more than one occasion he slapped her backside like she was a tavern maid and commanded her to 'bring me another beer, and there'll be a penny in it for yourself'. Other times he propositioned her for a 'tumble in the hayloft' and acted offended when she pulled away. It was as exhausting for her to tend him as it was for him to fight the illness, to be sure.

But now footsteps came pounding up the stairs. Something bounced off the door. Annalise had kept it locked all the time. A shoulder was put to the door again and the wood cracked. Diarmuir's shaky hands reached for his crossbow, but he dropped it. Anna drew her dagger and stood between her charge and the door...

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Micha gave her the first sign something was wrong. Heln was cutting a hot potato into smaller pieces when her lunch companion paled and dropped his eyes. Quickly, Heln licked her knife clean and turned it, using it as a mirror to see what was happening behind her. A group of armed thugs made for the stairs. Heln's jaw tightened. She'd seen this before. This wasn't someone looking for owed money or even to shake out some information. Someone was going to die.

"Micha," she said, rising and picking up her ever-present hammer, "Get the Watch."

"Wait, where are you going?" Micha asked, his eyes going wide.

"I don't like to let people die," she said, not looking at him. "Now go, or I'll be one of the dead. Hurry!" Without waiting, she followed the men up the stairs.

Just goes to show, you can get the girl out of the pit, but she never leaves it entirely behind.

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The stairs went up into a t-intersection were one side of the hall had a railing and looked out over the Inn's common room. The thugs went up the stairs and took the left toward the room at the front of the building. The Innkeeper was ducking below the bar and a few patrons in her this early in the after noon were only now realizing something was terribly wrong.

Two thugs stood on the bottom steps and were looking around. Seeing Heln come toward them, hammer in hand, they grinned, an ugly, rotten tooth grimace. They both drew low quality blades and the one on the lower step moved back down on the floor. The other one watched.

At the top of the stairs, the leader directed the first two thugs to break down the door while two other at the top readied crossbows. The last one was at the top of the stairs waiting his turn at the room.

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Mica made his way at a run out the back. He flew like the Hounds of Khorne were on his heels. Heln rose up, cursed inwardly to whatever Human God that had wished her to be the one at this spot at this time.

"Not in my neighborhood she murmured as she approached the oncoming thug. She stopped and held her ground. Her hammer felt light in her hand, but she knew that was deceptive. The ruffian struck but Heln met his blow halfway. Sparks flew and the sword went flying from the goons hand. He stood still for a second watching this strange woman and shaking his numb hand.

"Run the 'ell out of 'ere, or I'll stuff this up your arse!" she shouted, branishing her hammer in his face. Showing uncharacteristic wisdom, the thug turned and ran out the front door.

The second thug was made of sterner stuf and come down the stairs at the ready, blade drawn. He danced forward and Heln matched him. They manuevered back and forth, weapons flying but finding no purchase. Heln was totally focussed on the fight, so she wasn't sure what else was happening. Then the man messed up and Heln caught him overextended. The hammer loomed large as she brought death from on high. The blow caught him on the crown of his skul and it shattered into several broken pieces. An eyeball, forced loose by the impact, shot by Heln's ear. Somewhere close by a merchant was in the process of losing his lunch.

Two bastards down, Heln looked to the stairs, praying her individual fight hadn't taken too long.

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They heard some shouting from the Inn of the Three Pears, a pause then some sounds of combat. A man holding his reddened hand came running out of the inn, glancing back fearfully. Nayobee drew her sword and the two apprentices with her readied themselves for a fight. Thaddeus drew some darts and Brandt wiped the sweat from his palms on his trouser legs.

Seeing that the thug was intent on ignoring them, Nayobee tripped him. When the poor bastard turned over, she held a blade to his throat and began questioning him.

“Why the hurry?” she asked.

“Crazy woman … hammer … no guy’s worth that.”

“Names,” she demanded.

He blinks for a moment. “My name? Kord.”

The hauntingly beautiful elf sticks him with the sword, drawing blood, not pleased with his answer. From inside, they can all hear wood splintering.

“Oh, I don’t know HIS name, only that he has two different colored yes, like some freak – blue and copper.”

“Were is he?!” she implored the gutter trash.

“I dunna …” he starts then thinks better of it “The bedroom up there,” he says pointing to the front bedroom of the Inn.

Nayobee narrowed her eyes and waves over Thaddeus, the elder apprentice, to take care of Kord. She then runs inside trailed by Brandt. Thaddeus doesn’t want to stand watch over a man stronger, older, and more brutal than himself, but comes up with a plan. He hurls a dart at the man, watching it transform into a blue-white lance of energy and hits the rogue in the arm.

“You’ve been magically marked,” the boy sorcerer declares. “Wait for the Watch or the arm will rot off!” He then runs to catch up with the ‘action.’

Nayobee comes inside just in time to see a tall blonde woman, powerfully built, shatter some unfortunate soul’s head into so much mush, effectively decapitating him with a hammer. A man close by and covered in grey matter starts to lose his lunch. Closer to her, a crossbow zips past her head. Another one comes close to hitting the blonde woman.

Nayobee sees two crossbowman at the top of the landing. There is one goon on the stairs, and one rather brutal one turning away from the broken door to face you and the blonde woman. He is rather brutal looking. A fifth man can be seen to enter the room.

“Anders, kill the elf-bitch. I’ll deal with the blonde hero.”

Nayobee does the quick calculations – broken door – men hunting Diarmuir – no more men in the room. In a fluid motion Heln has learned to appreciate from the elven kind, the elf huntress swings her bow around off her back, notches an arrow and let’s fly at the man entering the room. Even as the first one hits the man under his arm, the second one takes him in the leg, severing an artery and causing him to slip and fall in a rain of his own blood.

The big brute comes down the stairs and rushes Heln.

“I’m going to kill you, Blonde and take that Hammer for my own!” He challenges. He has two blades drawn and weaves a pattern of death with them. Heln chuckles softly. She has heard such bravado often in her youth.

“Two blades are flashy, but can you use them.”

The big man comes on in a rush. He swings wide then in close, causing Heln to jump back, he own counterattack drives him back and wraps him across his knuckles drawing blood. Suddenly he doesn’t look so sure of himself. Before the fear can reach his eyes, he vomits a small amount of blood and smoke rises from his backside. One of the mages, Thaddeus, has lanced him with a perfectly placed bolt. Now he really is afraid. The mage doesn’t have much time to enjoy his triumph.

In another quick, fluid motion, Nayobee meets the oncoming thug, he delicate fingers drawing her blade and meeting him blade stroke to blade stroke. He is no were approaching her as an equal and a series of sharp cuts drop him to the floor. The crossbowmen fire at the mages, missing Brandt, but dropping Thaddeus with a wicked blow to the abdomen. The boy looks stunned to see so much of his own blood. Brandt’s arcane trickery causes one of the crossbowmen to drop his weapon over the railing too late.

The big brute back-pedals way from Heln, truly afraid now. She launches a blow at his shoulder, but he meets it with crossed blades. That leaves him open to her patented counterblow to the head. She crushes the whole side of his face in, grinding the left eye into so much paste. If he lives, he’ll be horribly scarred and definitely blind in one eye. He drops to the ground with gurgling screams of agony. Heln doesn’t bother with the downed opponent, going for the stairs.

Nayobee beats her there. The former crossbowman draws his blade and meets he half way … only to drops his sword right in front of the Elf. Brandt’s magic has worked again. She quickly stabs the guy across the arm for his troubles, which are just beginning. Before he can make his escape over the railing, the Ghost Strider’s cross cut finishes him off. He collapses in shock. The remaining crossbowman raises up his weapon in a desperate act of defiance … and is vaporized in a hail of Magical Darts, as Thaddeus (returned to the fight) and Brandt coordinate their fire.

Nayobee with Heln coming right behind her runs up to the shattered door. Heln saw eight goons come inside the Inn and now all but two are accounted for. ‘Who,’ she wonders, ‘is the man who requires this much killing?’ The door is a wreck and inside they find … (continued in our next installment)

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{the fight's finale}

The door stood up to the pounding and stood and stood and … gave way. It had brought them precious time they did not know yet. Anna didn’t scream out, she gave a soft little grunt as she throw herself at her opponent, dagger held high. She stabbed down and took the lead murderer in the arm. The lack of strength in her arms, plus the protection of the mail shirt meant the blow was largely meaningless. She had tried … for nothing.

The man backhanded her across the cheek, sending her sprawling across the bed. He barely got a grin out when the top bolt from Diarmuir’s signature double crossbow hit him in the chest. The brute grunted, so the Hunter shot him once more, this time in the arm. The human tank bore down on the naked, dripping plague-patient. Another man was on his heels while a third stood inside waiting his turn.

In a moment of alacrity, Diarmuir deft snatched up a bolt and loaded it as the man closed on him. The Bounty Hunter got the shot off before the sword could come down. He pinned the man through the hip, shattering the bone, and killing his victim in a dizzying wave of pain. The other man kept coming. He slashed at Diarmuir but caught the tub in his swing. A dagger came out in the Hunter’s hand (he had bathed in his belt) and he slashed back, missing.

The third man made to enter the room, but was suddenly impaled with two arrows and had the good sense to die. Diarmuir sneered, “Looks like you die alone, pig,” which would have been nicer had he not been stuffed up and hacking up a lung. The killer was not impressed and used the superior reach of his blade to force Diarmuir stumbling back.

Before they got too far, Anna returned to the fight. She leapt off bed and dropped the canopy down on the killer’s head. The man flailed about as both his assailants slashed at him. Fatigue and illness spoiled Diarmuir’s aim, but once again, Anna found herself thwarted by the goon’s mail. The man threw the covering aside and lashed out around him.

Once more, the killer pushed his advantages and Diarmuir felt his world collapsing down to these final moments. Then he heard that arrogant, purring, predatory tone,

“Get out of my way Girl, or die.”

Nayobee was here – he was never going to live this down. Worse, he had brought this strange blonde-haired woman with her.

The man turned to face the elvish sword-mistress, but even by their stances you could tell he was hopelessly mismatched. He managed to dodge out of the way of one blow only to be taken by a slash across the face. Bleeding badly as head wounds are want to do, he began to give up. If she noticed his intentions, Nayobee gave no note of it. She rammed her sword into his mouth, drowning him in his own blood. He fell kicking and gurgling in his death throes.

Nayobee looked around. Diarmuir was standing there naked save for a belt. He was picking up his crossbow, but gently with two hands as opposed to his normal, stronger grip. He was shaking too, and not from the cold. His pallor was grey and his body was wrinkled (from too much bathing). He was definitely not well – poisoned perhaps?

There was also a girl in the room, dagger in hand (one of Diarmuir’s) and in his clothes, synched up for her lighter frame. She looked familiar. In fact, she looked like the ones on the wanted posters all over town. This was a predicament.

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The last thug fell, Heln saw a shortish man, his skin sallow and his mismatched eyes blazing despite the fact he seems barely able to hold the dagger he was using to defend himself. The fight over, he slumps, to be caught and steered onto the bed by a girl dressed as a boy.

"Which one of you were they after?" Heln asked, arching a wheat-pale eyebrow.

The small man, wearing only a weapons belt, is fumbling to load two bolts into a beautifully-made double crossbow. Dwarven craft at its finest, you're certain. The girl gently tries to take it from him, only for him to snarl slightly as he forces his shaking hands to obey him. He glances up at Heln, his voice hoarse. "Who's asking?"

"The person-" She stopped and glanced at Nayobee. "One of the people who rescued you. My name is Heln." She set the head of her very bloody hammer on the floor. "Now. Which one of you were they trying to kill?"

The man smiles wryly as he slots the second bolt into place and allows himself to relax somewhat, his eyes steady on Heln's face as the girl fusses a little, covering him up. "Probably me they were after." he admits, his voice weak.

Heln eyed him, not embarrassed by any flesh that might be showing. "Why would they be after a half-dead human like you?" she asked bluntly. A bit of gray matter slipped from her hammer and plopped to the floor.

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Nayobee raised her blade and watched the red crimson blood slowly drip to the floor. Raising an eyebrow at the blonde woman she ignored her question and addressed her with the same cold blooded purr in her voice. "Who wants to know?"

The elven Ghost Strider stepped between the Blonde berserker and Diarmuir ready to defend him if she was just another killer who was after him.

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Heln quirked an eyebrow and said in Eltharin, "You need to have your ears cleaned, honored elf." Switching back to a more common tongue, she said, "As I told this man, I am called Heln. I am best known with the following surname, Ironwright. I have put myself in no small danger in helping you, as the Watch takes a dim view on citizens joining their job. Also, the... vigor with which I acted will likely not help." She tilted her head, her eyes moving from one to the other. "So a bit of information would be appreciated."

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The Elven Ghost Strider narrowed her eyes giving Heln a long scrutinizing look.

<Who taught you our tongue? Answer me!>, Nayobee was getting angry. Then realization swept over her face giving her a surprised look for a matter of seconds before she resumed her mask of death. She must be a blacksmith - Yavandir!

<Are you Yavandir's apprentice?>, her blade was still drawn and ready to strike if she didn't like the answer.

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"Once, I was," Heln said, inclining her head, again in Eltharin. "Now, I am a smith in my own right." Or damned well better be, after the rest of the loafs made me Guildmaster.

She allowed a momentary beat, in which Heln took a second look at her armor and weapons. They were made for the woodlands, and her blade was perfectly made - master-made. "Now," she said in the common tongue, "I have answered three of your questions, yet mine has no reply. Will somebody answer me, before I have to tell the Watch I do not know you? I do not wish to do so, as I put much effort into keeping someone alive. And I hate wasted effort." Her temper was holding, with effort.

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Nayobee swiftly wiped off the blood from her blade before she sheathed it then she nodded briefly to the female blacksmith.

"Granted I owe you an answer. My name is Nayobee I'm the Bodyguard of the Jade Wizard Master Mikhail Petrovich who has just recently arrived in this city.", she put every ounce of disgust she had in the word 'city'.

Without facing Diarmuir she continued calmly, "This man is a fellow companion of mine. He helped us defend Untergrad from the forces of Chaos just a week ago.", Nayobee still looked determined to kill anyone that came to close to Diarmuir.

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"I thank you for the answer, but I must respectfully point out it is incomplete," Heln said, feeling muscles in her jaw tighten. "I asked whose life I saved and why they were after him or her. Is this information that you will not share?" Heln's grip shifted on her hammer's shaft, ready to raise it as needed. While it may have seemed a bit threatening, she would also have to pick it up to leave, so it wasn't only an offensive gesture.

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Anna nearly walked into the blade, it swung around so quickly. She gave out a muted squeek.

"I've got to get him dressed," she implored. "If the watch catch us here, its going to go very badly."

Her eyes, very intelligent eyes, bore into Nayobee.

"Unless you want to fight the whole watch, Lady Elf, get out of my way."

For a moment, she made as if to slowly push the blade away, but then thought better of it. Instead she stood there, eyes going from Nayobee's face to the door and back again.

It was when she was looking away and was in partial profile that Nayobee and Heln suddenly recongnized her. It was Annalise Von Kritzer, the girl whos picture was up all over town, the girl who the Countess Kreiglitz-Untern herself ahd put a fifty crown bounty on her safe return.

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Recognizing the girl Nayobee half grinned at Heln and flatly stated, "This man is known by the name Diarmuir and he is the best bounty hunter you can find. His survival is very important to me.", there was not much of an emotional attachement to her statement. Whether Diarmuir was just a friend or more was impossible to tell.

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Nayobee didn't answer but her actions spoke for herself. She quickly grabbed the personal possessions and wrapped them up as good as she could. Assuming the blonde woman had a plan she waited impatiently for her to move.

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Anna picked up the hammer, which is to say she brought both hands to bear on it and lifted it up tightly to her chest so as to keep from dropping it, or falling over.

"What now?" she said to Heln then,

"Oh, his name really is Diarmuir," she followed up in a whisper.

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Diarmuir started to curse as the large blonde woman hoisted him up in the bedding, but the stream of gutter profanity was cut short by an extended coughing fit that left him gasping for breath like a landed fish. When he finally recovered, still clutching his crossbow, he fixed his rescuer with a dully curious stare, all his vitriol seeming to have taken whatever last reserves of his fire were left after the desperate fight.

"The girl asks a good question." He said in a voice that was more whisper than speech, so weak did it sound. "What now?"

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"We move," she said, looking to Nayobee. "Can you find the path out of here? Preferably the way that the Watch won't be coming. We're going to my house; there we can figure out what to do with the half-dead sack here, and the girl."

She sighed and looked at the girl. "And you cover that fifty-crown face before you get us all killed."

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Anna snatched up Diarmuir's wide-brimmed hat expertly and pulled it on so that her face was barely visable and cloaked in shadow.

"Will this do?" she inquired.

Even as she asked, Micah stuck his head into the room tentatively.

"Hel ... Guildmaster, what's going on here. Do you need the watch? One of the men went to get his captian, but we have two strong lads here.

Nayobee waited to see who he was before gutting him there on the spot. Micah spent most of his time looking at the dead bodies lying on the floor.

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"By the gods, no. Micha, keep them occupied downstairs," Heln gasped, getting a better grip on the man in her arm. "Nayobee, out the back. Micha... tell them that I've taken my injured friend to the physician. Give them whatever... incentive it takes for them to forget that there was anyone up here. I'll pay you back, and then some."

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