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The Untold Story: Four
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Author:mattzarella
IP:19.181.2XXXX
Date: 06/03/07 08:06
Game Type: Other
Labels:Image Heavy(1), Famous Reporter(2), Rare game(2), Great Writing(1), Text Only(1), Fan Fiction(2), Series(2)
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Not Quiet on the Dorter Front

FOREWARN

I won't lie to you; I don't really know why I continued to write about this. I figured that I was done, what with the year hiatus, yet every now and then I considered at least finishing this part which was already halfway done around August of 2006. At the very minimum, I thought I would let anyone read it who wanted to, for whatever despicable pleasures they would commit on themselves or others with a half-finished piece of "work." However, with the summer in full swing and some occasional free time, I decided that I would try to write some more for those three of you still out there reading.

What is really funny is that I didn't even remember the file names or the folder that I stashed the contents of the report in - not even what computer it was on. It didn't take long, but it was a depressing few minutes as I did searches and narrowed it down to "tactics4.html." I'm not sure how much if at all my writing style has changed now that I am a more educationally seasoned man (though I suspect not much) and I hope that the plot is still consistent with what you have already perused. I strongly urge you to reread or read the first three installments in the series, as I admittedly did before I started up again. If you think you remember what happened, think again. It's almost been a year, pal.

So, here it is. I hope it's not too long or short, boring or action-packed, verbose or drab and plain, confusing or not nearly complex enough. I hope this finds a happy medium, though I suspect that it will lie on the side of too much action. Well, what do I know? It's my child. I think it's good even if it's expelled from school for pot or gets a girl knocked up when she's fourteen. May my story impregnate you, good readers.

1

The unconscious man didn't wake for three hours.

They had been sitting in the foyer of the bar, listening to the fat raindrops fall on the roof and entertaining themselves in whatever way possible. Dick and Matt were playing another game of Scratch, but this time the former got the upper hand and beat his opponent twice in a row. Chamberlain was chatting softly in a corner with Bruce who held a small glass of rum in his hand and was listening with casual interest. They were only making conversation to pass the time, and in truth, it was not very interesting.

Delita was admiring the large stock of liquor, the likes of which he had only seen once before in his lifetime; Igros castle had a magnificent wine cellar filled with the most delicious and flavorful liquors, some of them dating back hundreds of years when his grandparents were little more than possibilities on the horizon. Those bottles ranged in colors and shapes from languid blues in skinny necks to pugnacious deep greens in fat crystal jars. The extensive variety in Igros was accumulated in various ways, most being either royal barter with other nations or conquest during wars long forgotten. One usual complaint of the castle bar was that none of the more valuable liquors were to be bought and especially not drunk. This particular collection here was quite impressive, though, especially for a bar in Dorter (even in comparison to the other), and he was admiring a bottle of pearly-colored champagne in his hand when there was a loud thudding noise from upstairs. He almost dropped the bottle, which was probably worth at least three thousand gold pieces, and managed to regain his grip before it could slip and shatter on the floor.

Ramza had already been upstairs, but he was snoozing lightly when the thud snapped him out of his nap. He was supposed to be watching the man (it was the third shift; Dick and Matt had already done their parts) but it was getting towards the later hours and he was tired from a long and exhausting day. His heart had stopped in his chest - he feared that the gray-haired man had perhaps rolled out of his bed and fallen onto the floor, but that wasn't the case. He was laying just where he was, perfectly still and still breathing those shallow breaths. Ramza decided that the sound must have been caused by the storm, and went to a window to look out.

There didn't appear to be anything that caused the noise, though - even though a thick blanket of rain covered the window and blew nearly sideways across his field of vision, Ramza didn't spot any damage or hazardous flying objects which could cause it. Before he could turn, a clear voice demanded from behind him.

Voice: Where am I?

Ramza turned to see that the man had finally regained consciousness and had propped himself up on one elbow in order to look around. His eyes were lucid and clear, and his voice sounded as if he had been awake for hours, instead of just coming out of a three-hour state of unconsciousness. In fact, he looked perfectly healthy, except that he massaged the spot where his head must have hurt, and quickly removed his hand, wincing in pain.

Ramza: You took quite a blow to your head back there. I'd suggest leaving it alone for a while. How do you feel?

It was a perfunctory question and he knew the answer before he had even asked it, but he didn't wish╩to seem insensitive regarding the man's condition.

Man: I feel fine, except for this lump on my head. Where am I, and who are you?

He was being very cautious, and certainly for good reason. To be knocked unconscious by presumed strangers and then to wake up in a howling storm in a foreign bed is not something that happens daily. Ramza sympathized, and answered his questions.

Ramza: My name is Ramza Beoulve, and you were assaulted by two armed men. I believe they were trying to kill you, from what my companions said. Two men in my group killed your pursuers and their bodies are downstairs.. we kept them in case you could identify them. You're on the second floor of a bar right now, in the bed of the man who is currently overseeing the place. You've been out for about. . . three hours now.

Ramza had decided during the man's slumber - if it could be called that, given the circumstances - that the best course of action to take when the man woke up was to tell him absolutely everything. It was a frightening situation to be in, and they didn't need any more trouble on their hands. They were already beginning to get behind their schedule of finding the Marquis, even though they hadn't been given a time slot. . . hell, they hadn't even actually been given an official command to come here. Ramza still didn't like tarrying around while an innocent man was being held by the Death Corps, staying true to his noble blood and honorable nature.

He was ready for more questions, but none came. The man simply nodded at all of this and seemed undisturbed by the fact that two men had come within seconds of ending his life just three hours ago. Ramza was about to question this fact when the man spoke again with a haste that suggested that there was no nonsense and no time to waste.

Man: My name is William. William Mashein, originally from Zaland, and I thank you deeply for watching over me these past three hours. I would like to talk to you as well as these companions of yours who have come to my aid to explain what you've been dragged into. Although I am indebted to you for my rescue, I fear that in time you may regret your intervention.

Ramza: Dragged into? Why would we regr -

William: There isn't any time to waste, I'm afraid. I would do something about that, but it appears that I'm not in the best of conditions. . . Would you please help me up and assist me down the stairs?

Ramza did as he was asked; there were questions on his mind, but certain situations leave some inquiries best unspoken. He surmised, as he held William's arm steady as he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, that by killing those two men they had probably earned themselves more than a fair share of explanation to the guards. They slowly crossed the long room (which now had the mattresses laid evenly spaced across it) and carefully went down the stairs.

2

The group of companions were sitting in a loose circle when Ramza and William entered from the second floor. They had been silent for the most part, and Delita had been ready to go up the stairs when he heard voices from above - nothing angry, just gentle, muted tones, and he went back to his seat. As the two descended from above, the group collectively turned their heads to meet a weary, pale man╩who had just regained consciousness, but instead they faced a lively and lucid fellow who had already regained some of his lost energy and looked very much awake.

He was taller than most in their party, though by no means the tallest they had ever encountered. The shock of unkempt gray hair above his head was a vicious contrast to the youthful and unmarred face inches below it without any obvious signs of aging. None in the room could immediately place an age to him, although from his mannerisms and speech as well as his height they inferred that his face betrayed his true age, and that it was older than one would assume at a glance.

William: Good evening, everyone. My name is William Mashein of Zaland, and I implore you to listen while I tell you a brief story. There may be time for the longer version, in the future, but I'm afraid right now we don't have any time to waste. Like I told this man here, I would do something about that, but...

He trailed off and waved his hand as if it were something of no importance, at least not in the present circumstance. His eyes suggested something of regret at this, but he did not dwell on the subject. Dick and Matt shared a glance, then focused on William.

William: I am what some people may call a "mutant". Other labels I have retained are "freak", "monster", and even "madman". When it comes down to it, to the well bottom as some might say, those labels are correct, however rude they might be. I am a time magician, by the fairest of definitions; this essentially means that I can control the processes of time itself. I can speed things up or slow things down, or even stop some things at my discretion should I have the power to do so. The clock is at my command, as well as the foot of a man or the arc of a sword. However impressive as this talent may seem, I cannot "skip ahead" or "go back" and thus I cannot alter events long gone, or those to come.

He spoke in a clear but soft voice which was without any grain or gravel to it, each word neatly articulated and each consonant perfectly emphasized to show the particular importance or decided meaning held with his verbage. The words were engineered from his mouth as a master craftsman would sculpt clay, deftly and to the point; all excess was shaved away to reveal a product of importance that could speak volumes of text or a single word, depending on how one interpreted the full work. After a brief look to ensure that his audience was captive to this impromptu autobiography - even Algus was giving at least his outward attention - he went on.

Three months ago, to my ultimate chagrin, I unwittingly performed a magical act in a public place and was seen by several citizens of a nearby city. They reported to the proper authorities, which in this country is the church and none else; I was immediately deemed unfit for civilization and a warrant for my arrest was placed across the country. For those past three months I have been fleeing the church - at first, they only wished to "bring me in to keep me safe off of the streets."

He emphasized the quotation around this phrase as if it were too ludicrous to be taken seriously, and continued.

After I refused, they began sending hired men after me to quell any opposition that I may present. So far, as you may have noticed, I have avoided these attempts on my life without so much as a scratch or mark on my exterior. I have exerted an incredible amount of mental strength, though, due to my excursions in the field of time altering, and if I do not rest after each one it is likely that I will fall unconscious just by the simple exertion required when, say, walking. This is a downfall of the power that I have grown accustomed to, and it requires an inordinate amount of rest to be used with any frequency or potency. None have been able to do so much as lay a hand on me, but I have paid the price.

To make a long story very short, due to time constraints, I ended up in Dorter with several church assassins on my trail. Three days ago, with no other choice, I killed six of them in the street. Altering time, my friends, is not easy, but committing murder through magic is even more difficult a task.

He spoke this last line with a nearly rehearsed enthusiasm, as if one day he expected to be in front of an audience, retelling his life as a monologue. The flare of gray hair on his head and the cape he wore illustrated the stage presence which he possessed, and he continued with his story.

William: After that excursion, I was dead tired, pardon the pun. If I hadn't found an inn when I did, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be lying in a gutter somewhere, stone-cold and without a visible cause to my death. Exhaustion, good men; that is what would have caused it. But we may thank the all-knowing God in the heavens for preventing my obscure and untimely end, as the next block over from my where my pursuers were halted I found an inn with a vacancy. Naturally, I took it, and all was well for two days. However, upon waking this very morning, I noticed that my innkeeper was acting strangely indeed - he was sweating profusely, stuttering, and casting his eyes away whenever I looked. I deduced that something was awry and fled, vacancy or no vacancy, and that is when those two particular men caught up with me.

His hand fluttered from under his cloak and he cast a finger to where the two bodies lay, in a far corner away from the other tables. Under them was a heavy sheet which was used to soak up the blood (it had been Alan's suggestion, so the wood did not stain) and they rested peacefully on top of each other as if they had died a lover's death in the arms of another. The arrow still in the one man's eye did quite a bit to disturb this image.

William: They chased hard and fast, and I was still very exhausted. It appeared that they would close the gap soon and throw me off this mortal coil when I blacked out, presumably in the same spot where you found me. Before I lost consciousness, there was a blinding pain in the back of my head and my last coherent thought was that I had finally burst the part of my brain to which I can attribute my anomalous magical abilities. I woke up here, and that is the rather abrupt end of my story.

As of right now, it is very possible that a group of men are coming to finish off the job and to kill two birds with one stone. They are after me, that is certain, but there are two more that they have been pursuing frequently. It so happens that if they enter this building and slay all of us, they will have eliminated their first and foremost problems and will continue to dominate this country with the iron fist of God. There is no time for semantics, though - we must bring the fight to them, and I know just the location.

3

The location that William had presented to the group, however, was outside - a realm in which they were not quite ready to tread. To this sturdy wooden building it lacked the threat and theatrics of a disastrous storm, but there were windows that the cadets looked out of which confirmed the true strength of the ripping winds and torrents of rain. Thankfully, none of these windows had been shattered or even so much as scratched - if they had, Alan would have had quite a problem keeping the water out.

William scoffed at their complaints, as if the rain and wind were paltry forces of weather, and it wouldn't be surprising to the other cadets if that were indeed the case. After one could control the very fabric of time, it only made sense that wind and rain were seen as weak attempts of Mother Nature to throw herself at a more powerful and in-control species. The cadets did not relent in their arguments, no matter what the magician said.

Bruce: If we go outside now, there's a good chance we'll either all catch sick or get our heads taken off by some flying piece of machinery. Those don't look like good choices to me.

William: If we don't take the fight to them, they will surround us in this little bar and it will soon become a casket for you and your friends. We must meet them in the streets where it is open, and where we can fight freely.

Josephine: How do you expect us to fight, though? The rain is so hard and the wind is so fast that it will be hard to even see what they're doing, or even what we're doing ourselves! If we fight here, we can at least measure our chances and take them one by one as they come in.

William: They won't come in one by one, though. They will come in through the windows upstairs, and through the door in the rear, and they'll burst that pane of glass in the front of this establishment and come in three and four at a time. They will surround us, because they aren't amateurs - they've been doing this sort of thing since you were toddlers in diapers.

Matt thought that this was an odd air of arrogance to have, seeing as William didn't look a day older than he was. Then again, that face could have been twenty years his elder and he would not have considered it strange. This was a pretty shitty situation to be in, all told, and both parties were right about their arguments - if they waited here, it would be a futile effort. There were enough windows in this place that they couldn't even put a single person at all of them, and that was bad enough. If they went out there, though... Matt doubted that they would even see the assassins coming, let alone fight and kill all of them.

At that moment in time, while all the bickering and arguing continued over how they should handle their untimely deaths, a miracle occurred. It could be called such if one was a believer in God and St. Ajora, but most likely it was a simple act of the pagan Mother Nature, doing her routine duties in order to clean the scum off of her earth. The howling sound which came through the cracks in the wood and under the doorjamb faltered - the wind had stopped.

Initially, nobody noticed this relatively insignificant change in the rising sounds of the room. Dick, however, was sitting in a chair facing parallel to the large pane of glass which made up the storefront window, and he noticed it immediately. He wasn't going to waste his time arguing oranges versus oranges; death was all the same to him, so he sat and concentrated for whatever battle might soon come. Either way, he wasn't going down without taking one of those miserable fuckers with him. If they had trailed him this far, and put so much god damned effort into the chase, they probably expected to lose a few good men before the hunt was up. Dick wasn't one to disappoint.

However, while Dick was concentrating on his own thoughts, he was also trying to put the other voices out of his head. Those of Bruce, and Josephine, and William, incessantly arguing their points and none more right or wrong than the last. It was because of this that he noticed the eerie howling sounds which came and went through the slits in the wood had completely ceased. He sat upright in his chair, swinging his feet down from a table, and looked out of the window.

It was much easier to see, now. The rain which had previously spattered the window horizontally was now falling straight down from the clouds without any forces to alter its path to the ground. It was still coming down quite heavily, but the difference in visibility was so great that for a minute Dick couldn't tear his eyes off of the window in order to tell the others. A torrent of thoughts ran through his head just as the torrent of rain came down from the sky outside - how long would this last? Would it be long enough to find their pursuers, let alone kill them? Should he even bother telling everyone else?

Before Dick could even give this last question a second chance to enter his head, he was facing the others. When he was a teenager he had learned a trick from a traveling salesman - how to whistle at a frequency which will make your eyes explode in your head if you keep it up for too long. Dick vaguely supposed that this was an old wives' tale meant to keep the children from doing it too often, but all the same it did the job. He placed his forefinger and ring finger in the corners of his mouth and hooked them upwards, something he hadn't mastered without a bit of practice, and blew as hard as he could. The sound that came out made Matt shoot him a glance that said Do you mind? I need my fucking eardrums, but the others appeared too surprised to be angry at the piercing sound.

Dick: The wind stopped. We need to leave now or we'll miss the chance to do whatever it is you want to do, Billy boy. It's a hell of a lot easier to see out there, and I don't think there's time for any more argument.

Unsurprisingly, after that whistle, there was none.

1

The cadets did not waste any time in their preparations for an upcoming battle. Nobody doubted that there would be a fight - the two bloodied and dead men in the corner of David's bar were a testament to that - and they were all very thankful that this weather had finally slowed enough to actually see what was going on outside.

As cadets traded decks of cards or Scratch boards with short swords and broad blades, the room began to electrify with the adrenaline of the impending bloodshed. They all felt it, and it was as if they shared a single adrenal system which pumped their bodies full of energy and heightened their senses tenfold. Even William, a three-hour member of this party, understood that they were all born soldiers, men destined to fight and probably die on the field of battle. While they were in action one could not possibly come to know any braver men or wiser philosophers.

They soon crossed the threshold of the bar, saying scant goodbyes to Alan, and promising that they would return by midday for some warm food and a place to finally sleep. The fact that they hadn't done so much as dozed since the previous night didn't affect them now and most likely wouldn't do so until the battle was fought and won - if the battle was lost, rest of a different type would certainly come, and without any say on their parts. It was very late at night, now, and it would be coming up on dawn soon.

The cadets marched out of the door in single file, something they did not want to do with the probability of assassins lurking outside but they had to do nonetheless. It would be a waste of time to carefully send some of their party through the door in the back, and they could not fit two at a time through the narrow doorway, so their best option would be to rush outside in a line. Dick headed the line - he was waiting at the doorway when he whistled for their attention, and he stood in the same place when they had finished gathering their battle gear. His crossbow was out and an arrow was notched in place, his hand ready to pull the trigger and send the simple firing mechanism into motion should something move out of the shadows. Nothing did, though, and the cadets all exited the bar into the unknown streets of Dorter.

2

If any residents of the city had taken their time to peer out of their windows, what they would have seen may have been comical - a group of young men, surely barely out of their teenage years, walking down the street in a tight formation with their various weapons drawn. Their hair and clothes were matted to their bodies like shaggy, wet dogs, and droplets of water coursed rivers down their faces as their keen eyes appraised the rooftops and alleyways for any possible attackers. It surely was a funny sight to any onlookers, but not to those young men whose duty was to deliver death and uphold peace.

Once they had exited the bar, William took charge of the group. He knew exactly where he wanted to meet the assassins, and he wasted no time to lead them there, urging them along with the yells and calls of a cattle driver. Everyone else had fallen into a triangular formation behind him without truly being aware of it - Dick held the tip of the configuration, his crossbow out and ready. Ramza, Delita, and Bruce were on the left, while Josephine, Matt, and Algus were on the right. Chamberlain did not hold his dagger to the ready, but his eyes darted from rooftop to rooftop as he searched for potential killers. A sack of potions was slung over his shoulder, and he looked like a merry but battle-ready Santa Claus, ready to dish out toys of death to those who might have taken a slip to the naughty list.

Their plan had been to draw their assassins outside of Dorter and engage them in the relatively flat area outside of the main gates. William presumed that their numbers would be greater than those of their attackers, and they must go to an area where stealth was not an option.

Unfortunately, William's plan went wrong because of a single man.

3

Algus: Why do I have to be stuck with this piece of shit?

To the right of Matt, just inside his peripheral vision, the blonde boy walked and complained incessantly about his weapon. Ramza had made an executive decision for the group not to give him any weapons, since he was clearly unstable, so they had put the few remaining daggers in Chamberlain's sack where Algus wouldn't look for him. A broken table leg was all that was left, Ramza had told the infuriated blonde, and that he would have to make do with it or simply go barehanded. Not one to be caught without some sort of physical protection, Algus accepted the impromptu wooden club and would not stop reminding Matt that he had done so.

Other than his nagging tenor voice, the group traveled in silence. They had only traveled a few city blocks but Matt was already chilled to the bone, completely drenched from head to toe and wishing that he had brought some heavier layer of clothing along on this short expedition. It was too late now, though, and as Matt shook off the thoughts of warm clothing in order to concentrate, Algus began to speak, louder this time.

Algus: I hope you know what you're doing up there. I'm freezing to death, and all I have to keep me warm is this fucking TABLE LEG!

He yelled the last two words with a tone of hatred and violence so frightening that a chill (which wasn't from the weather) ran down Matt's back. William stopped in his tracks and turned to face the group trailing behind him, his eyes blazing with a determination and something else behind it - presumably, a feeling of hatred towards those who would try and disrupt that determination. He approached the back of the group and was meeting Algus's furious gaze with his own before any of the cadets could stop him or warn him of what the blonde boy could and most likely would do. Their eyes briefly met, and William spoke in a clear, calm tone.

William: I'm only going to ask you one time to be quiet. Even in this rain, if you yell they will certainly be able to hear us if they can't see us. Now I want you to -

But that was as far as William's reprimand got. The rapid pitter-patter of water was not enough to dim the gray-haired man's hearing, and he picked up quite well on the sound of the string of a longbow being released followed by an arrow cutting the air apart as it soared to strike its target. The owner of that shot was irrelevant, at the moment, and the cadets saw an amazing thing happen.

4

The others saw the arrow coming, but failed to do more than make soft noises with their tongues in order to halt its progress. It was fired from a rooftop to their immediate left - they were still in their triangular formation, and they had entered a relatively narrow avenue with a large wooden building to the side from which the arrow came, as well as another smaller building to their right. Directly ahead, the road continued, but it branched off to the left about twenty yards ahead and made an intersection with another, larger street.

As the arrow flew from the rooftop and prepared to settle itself in the head of an unsuspecting victim, William acted swiftly and surely, as if he had done this thousands of times before in some sort of rehearsal. He held one hand out towards the soaring projectile and it gradually slowed down, still retaining its course but ultimately losing the killer velocity. The time mage allowed the arrow to follow to where it would have struck, and a dumbfounded Algus found himself too dazed and amazed to move out of the way. It was slow enough not to cause any actual harm, and it pressed its point softly into the bridge of the blonde's nose before being plucked away by Dick. A drop of blood trickled down from the shallow wound (if it could even be called that) and Algus wiped it away with one red sleeve.

There was no more time for showmanship, though, as two more arrows were fired from the rooftop. William went through the same motions that he had with the previous projectile, but even an untrained eye could tell that the arrows weren't losing speed as rapidly as the previous one.

William: I can't do this for much longer. You need to move, now!

The command was not needed, though, as the cadets pressed themselves into the relative safety of the side of the building from which the arrows were being fired. They were in the midst of their assassins and they hadn't been able to reach their projected battleground - it would be a far more difficult fight now, with the archers already on the rooftops and God knows who else waiting in the shadows. It was a bad situation, and Dick would have liked to blame this all on Algus when everything was said and done. Of course, it wasn't the blonde boy's fault - birth defects couldn't be helped - and Dick laughed at his own joke. Matt punched him in the arm and made a "shushing" gesture.

The eight of them pressed their bodies flat against the side of the wooden building and watched helplessly as more and more arrows began to rain down on William. The fired weapons looked as if they were caught in a gelatinous airflow, unable to reach their target but trying damned hard to get there. In a few more minutes, there wouldn't be any more opposition for those projectiles - the cadets could see very clearly that William was losing his strength as far as time control went. However, it is not like a Hokuten knight to sit idly by and watch an innocent man in need be shot down by arrows in the middle of a muddy street. Ramza glanced around at his companions, and spoke clearly.

Ramza: There is only one archer on this roof, but there are two more climbing up the side of the other building to the north of this one. I don't know who else is out there, but you can guarantee that there are more than archers waiting for us in the shadows. Be calm, and concise in your strikes. Move in pairs, a good distance apart from each other. Make sure that you can see your partner at all times, and that he can see you should a problem arise. Go quickly!

With that brief speech, he and Delita were gone down the side of the building. They disappeared around the corner, heading left, still with their bodies pressed against the wooden planks like men who are treading the side of a very high rooftop. The remaining six looked at each other, their eyes blazing and their adrenaline pumping furiously in preparation for the attack. Dick looked at Matt, and winked.

Dick: You only live once, buddy.

Matt: That's the problem.

1

". . . May God in the Heavens shelter and protect us from all evils, both in our Earthly lives and after, and may those who do not follow the path of the Lord be brought to know Him. All will see the glory of God. Amen."

The small group of patrons currently in the church absently finished the group prayer which concluded this early-morning ceremony which begun at nearly the same time the first arrow instigating the battle raging at Dorter had left its position on the rooftops. A weary and bleak-eyed group of still faithful parishioners mumbled scant goodbyes to those that they knew, then hurriedly exited the building to begin their morning duties and chores.

It had been an uninspiring and hasty sermon delivered to an equally uninterested group of barely twenty. On any Sunday at a decent time the high ceilings would be ringing with song and praise for the Lord, but it was not a Sunday nor was it a time for exuberant worship. Although zealotry in the name of God was not frowned upon, it had a time and a place, considered the priest who had doled out today's sermon. While he was a man of God, other events captured his interest during the rushed processions.

A well-concealed figure in the right section of pews, third row back, made up the rest of today's agenda. If the good Lord himself had chosen this moment to speak to him, he may have had to put Him on hold until the meeting with the hooded and robed figure was over. It was just that important, and that profitable. The man had contacted him before the sermon had started with a hastily written but still well-penned message tacked to the inside of the rectory door. The note said no more than to stay after and a man would contact him with further instructions. There was no need to decipher who it would be, though; no other parishioner would come to church disguised so heavily.

As the last of the patrons left the building, the priest stepped down the brief set of stairs to the floor of the church, but the man in the pews snapped at him with a vehemence that instilled a small tinge of fear in the holy man.

Man: Stop! Sit in the first pew, and do not turn to speak to me.

The priest hurriedly took a seat and was silent, waiting for further instruction. There was a pause that seemed to crawl as the hooded man apparently collected his thoughts, though there was no sign that suggested this. Perhaps he paused simply for the theatrics of it.

Man: It appears that we have a. . . common goal, Father.

The priest, a squat and pale man who was gaining some gray around his temples upheld the silence. He had many goals, among which were planting tomatoes in his garden and combing his hair every morning.

Man: I am looking for two men who have strayed from the path of salvation, Father. They have appeared to stray far, and I am afraid that there is no hope for them. We must intervene and bring them to the justice of God.

This made the priest's heart skip a beat, perhaps two. Spoken nearly verbatim before him was the phrase that preceded meetings of "Justice", the small organization that carried out certain meaningful acts of retribution for previous sins. It issued from the hooded man's mouth in a whisper that sounded a guttural growl to the Father's ears, and he shuddered behind his own robe.

Priest: Who, my son? How may I help?

The hooded man leaned forward, as close as he could get to the priest's ear with a pew still between them, and again growled two names. With the breath hot on his neck from such a distance and the voice so penetrating into his soul, he felt as if he had made a deal with the Damned himself once the brief meeting was over. The priest sat in his seat for a while, pondering the cooperation between the two parties; whoever the other man represented wanted those two dead and in a gutter without any form of remorse. He had seemed a holy enough man, but there was something derisively wrong with the meeting that the priest could not put his finger on.

2

As the hooded man exited the church and stalked down the streets in the rising morning sun, thoughts of vengeance and fury clouded all other rational thought. He would not let any other matter hold precedence - could not, given that his mind was so muddled with rage - until the two men were either hanging from a rope at the hand of a jury or stabbed discreetly in an alleyway at the doing of hired men. He did not care which fate befell them, loathsome traitors and goddamned vagrants that they were, but he especially cared for the slower and more painful methods.

More painful to his mental cohesiveness was the persistently nagging thought that this was an oversight of his own. One side of the argument said that there was no possible way of knowing they would defect and fail the job, but the other side held its place firmly that he should have seen it when they came to him. They held heavy reputations, true; he could have turned them over to the church, for he knew what they had done and the price he would receive for their capture, yet money was not an objective for him any more than women were. He was a man of power, influence, and strength, and all that possibly interested him in the world was more of the three.

The nagging thought's prime reasoning stemmed from the fact that they had failed to their job once before in a strikingly similar fashion. The two had grown weak, faltered under the pressure of their duties, and had fled west to the refuge and discretion of mercenary work. It was a shame for them that they had decided to pull this foolish stunt again for a man as powerful as he, and as this ran through his mind hot anger seized his thoughts once more. Who were they to do this to him, of all people? They did not know who he was, but it was all irrelevant at this point. They would pay dearly for their mistake.

1

During his cadet training in Gariland, Ramza reflected that his mentors seemed keen on instilling into their subjects a sense of otherworldly clarity when fighting. Although the example his teachers gave was one that a child born into nobility would not recognize, they were not a dull bunch and understood the point that was being made.

It is as if, Ramza recalled a gray-haired and wrinkled yet agile instructor saying, you are siphoning water from a barrel. Your mind is that barrel, filled to the brim with thoughts of women, drink, yesterday's excursions, your family troubles, how much you despise your senile teacher . . . He remembered that they had chuckled amiably at that, a tight-knit group of six (or was it seven?) men and one woman who had been close enough indeed to be familiar with each other's personal dilemmas and adventures, as well as their own. The manner in which these thoughts are siphoned is entirely up to you. You can imagine a closet behind which you will store all thought or perhaps you will picture a hungry wolf devouring what your lady has been nagging you about recently. More laughter at this.

Ramza's method was of some vague importance to him. As a young child of five he had been exploring the castle grounds of Igros when he had fallen through a well-concealed badger's den, deep enough to get his foot stuck in but shallow enough so that he did not break anything in the fall. It was more embarrassing than painful, but somehow it had stuck with him; it was into this hole that he pushed inconsequential thoughts which did not pertain to what mattered in the moment, which was the fight and nothing else. Although the hole was now larger in Ramza's mind and a trapdoor came slamming on top complete with a lock and key once his thoughts were secure inside, the vision was very much the same it had been from when he was but a young boy.

It was this that he pictured, not only shutting out excess thoughts but destroying them altogether, an act that came with a startling ease when he practiced it. In the moment, Ramza thought of nothing but the sword he held and the battle he was fighting, but at the same time he was supernaturally aware of his surroundings. He knew how deep the puddles would be in the street, and that they were too shallow to cause any real harm. He was aware the second it stopped raining and understood that he would have a clear shot at the archer who had fired at them before they had disappeared around the corner of this building if he only had a bow of some sort. He did not, and this situation was pushed into the badger hole as quickly as it sprung up.

In another situation, it may have been permissible to speak with Delita on their course of action; since it had stopped raining, though, the silence was eerily encompassing and the archers or others could hear what they had to say. Fortunately, their time spent together had rendered the two as aware as twins and they did not need words to communicate, merely hand gestures and looks of an eye. Ramza motioned to his friend that the two archers who had begun climbing the building they now moved stealthily around would have reached the pinnacle by now. Three sets of simultaneous arrows would rain from the skies instead of just one should they step out from their relative comfort, and because of this the streets were off limits.

No sooner had the communication passed than a well-armored knight made himself visible at the far side of the building they were currently shimmying along. He was flanked by a single mage, swaddled in a robe and wearing a traditional pointed hat upon his head. His eyes were barely visible behind this strange garb but they reflected his true deathly intent well enough. Ramza and Delita wasted no time with evasive maneuvers as they saw the robed man reach to the skies, calling to the heavens for some destructive spell, the manner of which the two friends did not wish to discover.

2

He was not a well-built man by any means, in order to deliver punches of such force as he did with frequency during the course of the fight. At a diminutive five feet and five inches, his height gave him advantages in some cases and hindered him in others. Catlike movements through the shadows and into shadowy crevices would be an example of such an advantageous circumstance, although stealth was certainly not his forte.

His face, too, gave the impression of a less violent and potent man; it was smooth and unmarked by stubble as if he had shaved that very morning, even though it had truly not been since the hours before they had encountered Ramza in the recruitment office. No scars or battle wounds marked his face either, yet this was more a testament to Dick's careful execution of plans that had been worked around the element of surprise rather than brute force, and for this he was grateful. His hair, too, suggested a different profession other than his current one (vagrant traveler? leech? after his recent defection, it was hard to put a name to what exactly he did in the present); its trim and neatly parted look reflected that of a priest or perhaps a library attendant, spending hours poring over volumes of encyclopedias for filing rather than delivering blows so hard that they rattled brains in their thin meninges.

The most surprising physical aspect of Matt was his build, at least to one who was familiar with the manner in which he carried out the "job" (as Dick liked to plainly put it). His arms were thin and wiry, suntanned only due to the recent days spent walking through Mandalia Plains, a coloring that would surely disappear within days if not maintained. There were only hints of muscle on those arms, triceps carrying with them the implications only being used when absolutely necessary and even then sparingly. Biceps that did not appear to be malnourished with unfrequent use, but rather did not give their owner a particularly mean appearance to captivate his prey. . . or his pursuers. His chest was skin pulled taut over a slightly visible set of ribs, protruding easily through a thin layer of muscle and practically no fat by any means. Even some men can be considered "scrappy" in regards to the fiery manner in which they fight, no matter how thin or resigned from strength they appear. However, Matt's fighting manner was subdued and often dull - it was without any showmanship and delivered in a matter-of-fact style - and it was for these combined reasons that those who chose to fight him or Dick often found themselves vastly underestimating the thin, neat, and proper fighter in front of them.

It was the knight who had shown himself to Delita and Ramza just minutes earlier who made this untimely and fatal mistake. He himself was well-built, of average height but stocky and able to wear upon his back the heavy chain-link armor that went with his trade. His shield was composed of wood with two painted stripes running vertically and horizontally, a cross which was not intended to be a sign of who they worked for (God? St. Ajora? their vile "employers"?) yet came across that way to those they currently pursued. The knight did not show any visible muscle under his cloak and robe, both donned for the rain, yet Matt knew upon a wary glance that the man was easily half again his weight with the combined mass of the armors and weapons he carried. Matt, having quickly discarded his outer protective garments into a knapsack which was currently slung around Dick's waist, wore nothing more than a hastily tied bandana and a pair of baggy pants held up to his meager waist by a length of cord.

Regardless of Ramza's insistence on staying in pairs, Dick had gone inside the warehouse upon which the archers stood in order to discover if the means to get on top of the roof had been blocked off. Matt stood outside the vast entrance door, alone with the knight and tensed in a fighting position. Had he known that there was a black magician with him mere minutes ago, he would surely have fled inside to retrieve Dick and make the fight a slightly more even one. However, no such mage presented himself at the moment, and Matt would face the knight himself if need be.

He quickly surveyed the situation as well as his surroundings, discarding irrelevant details as soon as they sprung into his line of sight. It was a narrow alleyway by Dorter's standards, one in which three men could walk abreast, though barely. Damp puddles stagnated in the cool air, possibly presenting a hazard to Matt's bare feet should one of them hide a pothole. The alley was not blocked off at one end but rather led into another adjacent street, so escape was a possibility if necessary, though he would sooner go inside the building than flee into the open where others could find him. No, Matt reflected, the best thing to do given the circumstances was to fight.

The knight seemed to think so as well, and he cautiously advanced on his surmised victim, his longsword already having been drawn upon seeing Ramza and his friend. The blade was dull and grey in reflected cloud cover but Matt could tell just by taking in the knight's polished armor and relatively spotless boots that such a person would not let his blade out of its sheath without a fine razor edge to it. The knight appeared to catch on to Matt's defensive position and advanced further, treading faster and unwary of the puddles that spotted the pavement. As his pursuer strode closer, Matt made the muscles in his body ease and relax to give him a more sunken and gaunt appearance.

The ploy - or the body type itself - worked. The knight, upon reaching a distance of a mere thirty feet from Matt, realized how skinny and frail this man (boy?) appeared to be in front of him. Such a fight would be child's play, and the boy wore no armor or even a shirt to protect him from even a scrape to his bare skin. It was with a furious overconfidence that the armored knight swung his sword, attempting a killing blow rather than a glancing one, and Matt tucked his body under to tumble to the other side of his attacker. The knight spun, agile for his weighted and soggy gear, but quick enough only to raise his shield as Matt's fist snapped in for a ferocious hit. The hand connected with a quadrant of wood and splintered off at the corner to fall uselessly to the damn ground below.

The knight's surprise bought the thin man enough time for a sidestep to the arm that held the worthless three-quarter shield that would soon be a mess of splinters if the knight allowed it. Matt did not swing his fist in but it rather popped in, a movement suggesting a rattlesnake snapping its head at an unwary target. The side of the knight's helmet, also of steel, crunched into itself and the knight gave a groan, staggering into the opposite side of the alley. The helmet had saved the knight from a felling blow, but he did not revel in this small victory. The knight cast aside the wooden shield and now held his longsword in both hands, a more effective stance should one wish to deliver a killing strike.

Now that the first overestimation had been made and the armor-clad man had seen the true force of the punches at his face and shield, he did not wish to make the same mistake again. The two danced to the sides of each other - as well as the alley would allow - with Matt testing jabs and the knight cautiously thrusting his sword. A fatal mistake, however, occurred to the knight; a once more overzealous thrust caught the knight with one hand grasped by the thin man and a powerful uppercut to the soft spot in his chin where his helmet did not quite meet the metal coif that guarded his neck. His jaw moved with a pitiful sound while his head snapped backwards and to one side, lolling at his shoulder as he collapsed in a heap on the ground. His neck had snapped from the force of the punch, and his body landed in a useless pile on the soggy cobblestone street.

3

Dick later reflected that, yes, it had been rather easy to take them once they believed they were to be undisturbed. The archers had erected a makeshift blockade of three crates and two barrels which were wedged tenaciously between the trapdoor leading to the roof and the floor of the attic in the warehouse. Perhaps their pursuers had not been as permanently perched as he once thought; the crates and barrels were arranged in a position that suggested a rushed and frail wall rather than an impenetrable barrier.

A quick shoulder planted to one of the crates that held the other four wooden structures in place was all that was necessary to move the blockade. Dick prayed that they hadn't heard the commotion of the fall - he paused, motionless, crouched behind a cobwebbed horse trough - and slipped quietly through the trapdoor onto the roof when nothing stirred. He made a revolution with his eyes upon his exit, realizing that the roof was quite a bit larger than he imagined it to be while he was inside the warehouse.

The closest archer was kneeling, a quiver of bows slung hastily across his shoulder and a longbow with an arrow knocked in his hands. He was peering to the street below, oblivious to Dick's confident movement until it was almost too late. The archer heard a footstep from his right, acute ears picking up on a concealed sound and he spun to aim the arrow at whatever threatened.

Dick had nearly been within striking distance, barely six feet's length from being able to slit the archer's throat neatly and quickly. His quarry released the arrow and it sailed wide of Dick's chest (the intended target) and plummeted uselessly to the warehouse roof. The archer cried out, a strangled cry that was sonorous to begin with but soon gurgled and then fell silent. Dick had stabbed instead of slit, a messier maneuver yet one that had to be done in the circumstances. Aware that there was at least one more archer on the rooftop, he swung around with lightning fast hands to grip the crossbow and fire a bolt into his next target.

There was a fatal second in which his hands gripped empty air. The crossbow had shifted during his movement, now laying sideways in the sack instead of handle upwards as was expected. He bent his back to get to the sack, desperately groping, and saw a second archer pulling back his bowstring, an arrow aimed at his chest for a debilitating blow. Finally his hands found what he wanted and he rolled out of the way, bruising his shoulder on the paved roof but finding the crossbow in his hands when he returned to a kneeling position. An arrow had soared through where he crouched and Dick fired a single bolt from his awkward position, clipping the attacker's neck with its tip and drawing a slight enough amount of blood to tell him that his rapid aim had not found a vein.

Standing, Dick rushed to engage the archer - he had no time for another bolt and his knife was still lodged in a different fellow. The attacker's surprise was apparent and he dropped his bow and attempted to flee, grasping his neck with one hand as a makeshift tourniquet to stop the meager bleeding that he clearly thought was more serious. Dick easily caught up to him and grabbed the back of his robe, spinning the man to face him and slamming a clenched fist into his stomach. The archer doubled over with the sudden loss of wind and Dick planted a kick to his chest, wishing he had worn boots with stronger toes and regretting the move later. The man fell to his back, but he was not to find mercy yet.

As a much stronger man than his frail counterpart, he flipped the archer face down and pinned his arms behind his back. He was met with a struggle but quelled it with an elbow to the back of the man's neck, earning a pained howl. Dick lifted the man to his feet and led him forcefully to the edge of the rooftop, then pushed him to his knees just inches from falling over forty feet. Dick grasped the back of the man's hair and made him look to face his certain demise should he make any missteps, either physical or verbal.

Dick: Who are you here for?

He had pondered this ever since William had told them of his pursuers. If they had followed a man who could control the flow of time this far and this hard to the west, they more than likely knew that he and Matt were in the area as well. The answer that he wanted to drag from the archer was whether or not their "warrant" still held strong and if Justice still demanded reparations for their defection. Since he or Matt had not seen any signs of pursuit for themselves in the past week, they had started to ease their tension and stopped looking over their shoulder with frequency. The man he held, however, seemed to have strong instructions to tell no one of his purpose here. He spat at Dick's feet and stared him in the eyes, a trembling body gaining some confidence and eyes that burned with hatred.

Dick: Come on, now. You know I'm not above killing you. That fall should do it, it looks -

As he started to show the man of his possible demise once more, however, an arrow struck into the upper, meatiest part of Dick's shoulder. It pierced deep into his muscle and he howled in pain, tightening the arm not pierced and its grip on the archer's hair. He spun to face his assailant as another arrow whizzed just past his ear. Another archer stood not fifty feet down the long rooftop, notching an arrow in his bow and pulling the string back to release it. Thinking frantically, his mind still whirling in pain, he raised the kneeling man to his feet and held him as a knight would a solid kite shield. Both of them reacted only after it was too late; the shooter's eyes widened once the arrow was released but could do nothing, the tip of the arrowhead plunging into the other man's open mouth, an 'O' of surprise until the very end. The shaft exited out the back of the archer's neck, spraying Dick with a small amount of blood and stopping its flight inches from the end of his nose.

The body of the man who would surely die soon convulsed as the arrow hit its unintended mark, flailing wildly with a hand gripping the shaft as if to pull it out. Dick swatted the hand away and once more pinned the arms behind the archer's back and still held him firmly as a human shield. He backed away with the violently struggling man, the tip of the arrowhead dancing back and forth and Dick avoiding it as one would the head of a snake ready to pounce. Although he could not see the still healthy archer, another arrow soaring far wide told him that he was safe for the time being. As dead as the archer he held would be in minutes, the other man had no intention of plunging more arrows into the protective block of meat that once may have been a companion.

Dick backed up to the trapdoor, judged the distance and the length of the wriggling man's body, and jumped down into the blackness below. He still held on to the pinned arms, but the man was too tall to fit laying down and his head smacked one side of the pavement, his legs the other. The human kite shield now had turned into the human door, and Dick did not spare a look back to see if it would hold. As he slipped off into the dark warehouse, the only sounds were the cries of pain and anger from above.

4

As Josephine, Chamberlain, and Bruce darted around the corner of the building, William sighed heavily and turned to face Algus. He supposed that he would be stuck with the blonde boy until the fight was over, and William had already determined that he would be a nuisance; the only hope was that he didn't get in the way. Already holding the table leg in two hands as if it were a menacing longsword, Algus fearfully peered around in a circle to see if any danger currently presented itself. Even when he saw that the streets were empty, he clutched the piece of wood tighter in his hands as if more fearful of the danger that was not readily apparent.

William had a fleeting thought to tell the boy to just run and hide, that he could handle himself, but all in all he truly could not. His rest at the inn was inadequate and light because of the throbbing pain that still lightly tinged the back of his head, and because of this he did not think he could slow down two men in the least bit. Perhaps he could indeed hold his own against a lone man, but it would be unwise of anyone to appear alone when potentially facing a group of eight. It would have been better had they stayed in a larger group rather than split into pairs of two, at least for William personally; he performed much better when given muscle or at least someone with a small knowledge of magic other than his own. If he had been traveling with a knight, perhaps he would be more confident, but with this bumbling and trembling boy he felt as insecure as he would if the assailants were already upon him. Besides this point, he was the target, and he alone; if anything the hired men would attack him and leave the others to their business unless they got in the way. He sighed, and spoke to the blonde boy without taking his eyes from the street.

William: We will not fare well if we are attacked. It would do much better to find a place and lay low until the battle is over. I can barely -

Algus: Are you serious? I didn't have you pegged for a coward, knave.

Now William's surprise almost surmounted his insecurity regarding the boy. He kept his face blank and cool as it usually was, indifferent to Algus's scornful words, but he deeply considered leaving him to fend for himself. It would not take much, truth be told. The others would understand, and William would not be surprised if they loathed Algus enough to not bother sending out a search if he did not return when the battle was over. As he was pondering the fate of his unfortunate companion, Ramza and Delita burst back around the corner they had went around with weapons drawn and eyes ablaze. They approached William and Algus at a run, then halted in front of them and turned to face the corner. Delita spoke, his voice exhilarated not from running but from the adrenaline rush of battle.

Delita: Two that way. A mage and a knight, possibly more. We can take them together, the four of us.

William had a brief moment to wonder why they had not gone about it this way in the first place, but he did not dwell on it. Still wary of the archers on the rooftop, the four of them made a single-file line that they did not wish to form but found necessary nonetheless. Had they cut a swath through the street four wide, at least one of them surely would have gotten an arrow in the back. As they approached the corner of the warehouse, a lone mage peered around the corner and quickly darted his head away when he saw that his quarry had increased from two to four. Ramza, forming the head of the line, pursued him with sword in hand and the other three followed.

William considered the energy that he would have to exert, and decided it a risk he could take rather than letting the mage get away. They rounded the corner and he focused his thoughts on the fleeing man, his hand outstretched and his palm facing out to his object of concentration. This gesture was not necessary to the spell but it served as a channeling aid, merely a tool that allowed him to feel the power of the spell run through his arm and become focused at the ends of his hand. It had become second nature, doing this, and it did not hurt that it was a highly dramatic effect.

The air around the mage became increasingly tense, almost as if the storm which had quickly ravaged through Dorter was building again. The running man, still hotly pursued, tried to increase his pace but found that he could not; rather, the air seemed to liquefy around him as if he were running through a pool of water. His thoughts became frantic, his motions those of a drowning man with leaden shoes, and he thrashed at the insanely solidifying air around him. It did not stop him but slowed him to a walking pace, even though his legs still felt as if they could run for miles and then some.

William did not intend to stop the mage; there was no need for that. Even if his spell had only worked a fraction as well of what it did, Ramza's pace and foot were sure and he would have caught quickly regardless of the spell. His sword drove home through its target's back, the blade running through to the hilt and exiting through the man's stomach, a killing blow to the last. The mage collapsed as if in slow motion, falling to his knees before the rest of his body followed suit. Ramza felt some resistance as if the sword had also fallen under William's odd spell, then he yanked it out with a determined vehemence.

At that moment, Matt's head peered around the corner from the direction that the mage had been running to. William mused that it would not have mattered even if Ramza had not caught the man, and allowed himself a small smile. Seeing friendly faces, he motioned behind him and Dick soon appeared, an arrow still lodged deep in his arm. He frowned as if musing over a difficult puzzle rather than in the pain of an arrowhead driving to his bone, and he did wince slightly as he stepped in stride with his companion. Other than those emotions, though, he was outwardly stoic, and Ramza silently praised the man for his heroism. . . even though it was truly idiotic if he tried to convince the others that it did not hurt. Chamberlain, Josephine, and Bruce rounded the corner as well, panting as if pursued.

Ramza: Do more of them follow you?

Ramza was a picture of alertness, poised on the balls of his feet with his still-dripping sword in two hands, but the three of them shook their heads simultaneously. Bruce was the one to speak.

Bruce: We saw. . . a knight. . . well, it may have been a knight, he was dressed like one. . .

He paused to catch his breath and wipe cold sweat from his forehead, even though they were all still soaked to their underclothes. The heat of battle and pursuit did strange things to the temperature, though some of them may catch sick afterwards. Josephine continued for the panting Bruce.

Josephine: He was talking to another man, and it looked like it was going to get violent. We didn't want to rush into anything outnumbered, so we came to get the rest of the group. Let's go before they disappear!

She was nowhere near as exhausted as Bruce appeared to be, and before the others had time to respond she bounded out of sight. The others had finally noticed Dick's wound, and Chamberlain insisted that he should tend it now rather than waiting for when the battle was over, if it was ending anytime soon. Bruce was appointed to stand guard and he agreed, still doubled over in a squat to catch his breath, but before he had time to nod his head, the others were gone down the alley and around the corner in hot pursuit of Josephine, and the strange knight. Although Dick still winced in pain as the chemist prepared his arm with a salve to remove it, he managed a pale smile.

Dick: Be gentle, please. This is my first arrow.

5

While there were no casualties on the streets of Dorter this early morning in Ramza's party, one of their acquaintances lay still in a congealing pool of blood, his matted hair a shade darker than its usual color and thicker with the addition of the viscous liquid that had been violently extracted from his scalp. He had attended to this building and its authentic Sweegy wood construction for several years now, and it may or may not be fitting that a chunk of the bannister (authentic to the splinter) was the weapon that caused his untimely end.

A man stood over the pool of blood even as Alan's death was fifteen minutes in the past, trying to grasp some form of comprehension of his deed and finding that his atrophied mind was largely useless in the matter. His pudgy, repulsively clammy hands clenched the splintered weapon as if afraid to lose the grip on the one connection between him and his atrocity; as if it would wake from its inanimate reverie and speak to him to tell why the assault had been done. Fat beads of sweat eroded away a thin layer of dust that had accumulated on an equally obese face, carving pathways on a forehead that contained a mind which desperately wanted to understand and reason out the situation.

He had been waiting in the attic for what seemed to him an innumerable amount of time, having arrived there only hours after the party he pursued. He had crept mindlessly to the rooftop of an abandoned adjacent building and had flung himself gracelessly to the inn's ceramic shingles; even as cushioned as his awkward flop was from years of putting away half-eaten scraps into his gluttonous mouth from those customers (foolish, wasteful people) who did not completely finish their meals, he still had managed to bruise one of his ribs upon landing and causing a deafening thud to boot. His eyes had squinted into the lamplight of the second-story room but it had been empty, and he eased a window open with sausage-like fingers and slipped inside as stealthily as a man of his girth could. He had been stuck in the window for a few fear-inducing moments, but eventually his middle section popped its way through and he sought out the relative safety of a musty closet.

His mind had been racing with thoughts that seemed foreign to his own, taunting and insulting him with childhood remarks yet still somehow compelling him to follow those two bastards and sinners, chastising him to do what was right and seek out those thieves who had made a mockery of him in his own establishment in Gariland. One voice that did not quite sound familiar had spewed vile and filthy insults at his weight and cowardly demeanor while another caressed his mind of his worries - that was the voice of his mother, and she eased his pain by telling him that everything would be just fine. . . that is, once he found those two and did to them tenfold what he did to the man over which he now stood. They had raged inside his head and mumbled meek suggestions all at the same time, and he could not grasp a single thought that was purely and distinctly his own.

He had crawled, trembling and weeping, out of the dusty closet once he thought that they might have settled down to sleep; he no longer heard any voices from downstairs. He had been so shocked to see someone climbing the stairs as he descended them that he reacted without thinking, or what would have resembled thinking, and he grabbed the man's equally surprised head with a sweaty fist and pounded it into the bannister. A piece splintered off and fell to his feet, and a fat hand shot out to grab it even before a slimy voice in his head could tell him to do so. He bludgeoned his victim in the back of the head as he knelt from the first blow - once, twice, three times. The splinters at the end of the weapon dimly glistened with dewdrops of blood but the voices insisted, urged, pleaded that he continue until the bludgeon was unrecognizable as a part of the bannister.

Albert Runnigan now stood over the man's corpse, the gouge in the back of the man's head as wide as two fists and peppered with thin wooden splinters embedded in exposed gray matter as well as in flaps of scalp that still hung in a vague semblance of their former purpose. He knew what he did and he felt no regret or remorse, but what remained of his feeble mind still insisted that this was not his true target. He would find his true targets, though, even though they were gone - their gear was still here, and they would come back for it. A voice in Albert's head spoke softly and persistently, telling him gently to return to his hiding place but not before earning himself a treat. Albert did as he was told, and waited.

Well, I honestly hope that you enjoyed it. I wrote and rewrote quite a few sections of it until they were perfect, or as near to it as my feeble self could get (the priest scene, for instance, took a few different forms, though I don't know if I am satisfied yet with the end product). I am particularly pleased with the descriptions of Matt and William, for some reason, as well as the very last scene. Try not to expect these cranked out with a fierce velocity, since I am working more than I did the previous summer, but I don't think it should stagnate on my hard drive anytime soon.

I would like to thank Decay for his help with proofreading this jazz. I would also like to thank him for his absence over these last few months; it has been refreshing, to say the least. I'd like to thank betterphoto.com once again for their amazing technical quality work - all credit for every chapter header as well as the title and special thanks images goes to those excellent photographers who work so that I may steal it.

Until next time!

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