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After the encounter with the blue brothers, Arnog and Ranog, Astrada could not sleep, or even relax. She couldn’t keep this up forever and eventually had to leave the Stade and go to her room for a rest. Dante sent Astrada to her apartment with an escort of four warriors. He would be along a few minutes later after he finished drilling his last group of recruits. Dante’s trackers were monitoring the twin bounty hunters, and he was continuously receiving information about their movements. At any moment he expected an update, and then he would make his way to Astrada’s home and join the other guards.

The expected information did not come, so he made his way to Astrada’s place. As he neared her home, he could see a dark heap in a shady corner between two buildings. This was unusual. It hadn’t been there the last time he passed. He had to look.

Earlier, a pair of the warriors Dante had sent to follow the twins saw they were making their way toward Astrada’s place. One was to return to Dante to tell him where the two were going. The other would continue to follow. As he followed, the twins turned a corner and briefly disappeared from sight. He raced up to the corner to improve his vantage point, only to step right into the blade of Arnog’s double-edged sword. As he stumbled backward, the bounty hunter withdrew the sword from the wound and slashed him across the face. The warrior fell to the ground, writhing in his death throes.

The other warrior had not gotten far when he was grabbed from behind and a razor sharp dagger slashed his throat, severing the jugular. It was Ranog, dagger in hand, he held on to the dying warrior long enough to drag him to a picket fence and forcibly impale him on it.

The heap Dante had seen was the first warrior, lying in a pool of blood. This warrior and his companion would, each on his own, be reanimating, in some unknown area of earth’s purgatory, to the need for atonement with only sketchy memories of what had happened to them.

On recognizing the dead warrior, Dante wasted no time staying with the body, but raced as fast as he could toward Astrada’s home, sword drawn. Reaching the front door, he nearly tripped over the body of one of her guards. Another was on the stairs to her rooms. The dying warrior on the stairway wheezed the words, “not them,” as Dante sprinted by. The door to Astrada’s room had been flung wide, but the window shades were all drawn, making it hard to see.

Dante darted through the living room towards Astrada’s sleeping quarters, calling out her name as he went. Inside the room, there was little light to let him see. He stepped to the nearest window and with his free hand pulled the shades from it. Whirling to face the bed, he saw someone was there, but it wasn’t Astrada. It was one twin, lying on the pallet as a pool of blue blood, as pale as the blue of his skin soaked into the covers. There was no sign of Astrada.

From behind him, an agonized voice shouted, “You killed him! Die!”

Dante spun towards the sound, sword at the ready. Simultaneously, he reached with his free hand for the dagger at his waist. It was the second twin, eyes wide, sword ready to drive into Dante’s chest. Astrada had trained Dante well. Even before he was fully facing the enraged Ranog, he parried his thrust, stepped past the outstretched blade and swept his sword in a horizontal slash. The battle honed blade separated the bounty hunter’s head cleanly. He had only a beat to register his surprise before his head toppled from his body and he collapsed to the floor. It happened so fast; Dante didn’t have time to register what he had done. He leapt past the crumbling Ranog to the stairs.

The dying warrior on the stairs reached out as Dante was passing. Dante stopped to look down at him. The warrior grabbed Dante’s ankle, “Those eyes,” he groaned, “Those eyes, so big, so fast,” he coughed and his hand slipped free of Dante, and his eyes were suddenly flat and staring. Another loss to Tauren’s expeditionary force. He might come back as an atoner but could only defend within the boundaries of earth’s purgatorial domain.

In the forest, just beyond the boundary of the enormous urban area of that part of earth’s purgatory, Ozolio had made camp, and he was angry. He hadn’t expected to meet the blue twins. He was forced to fight one of them; he didn’t know which, but during the fight, the twin had slashed Ozolio’s favorite leather jacket through to the skin. The wound the twin’s blade inflicted on him wasn’t deep but needed to be patched. He was more upset about the jacket. It was cut beyond repair and the lining destroyed by the blood from his wound. He was angry, too, that despite everything he had done to subdue her, Astrada was a vicious fighter and it had taken him way longer than he wanted to get her under control and tied up. The hasty get away was the only reason the girl was still alive.

Ozolio decided he would dispatch her after he took care of the business of cleaning up. While Ozolio was closing his wound with a heated knife, putting on a bandage, and rinsing his jacket in the small nearby stream, hoping to make it passable for the journey back to Fluglaz, Astrada was busy, too. One trick she had learned was to fasten a small bit of metal to her first and middle fingernails. Invisible under the paint she had put on all her nails, a tiny razor-sharp edge projected ever so slightly past the end of her actual nail. While her captor was fussing over his jacket, Astrada was using the sharp edges attached to her nail to cut and free herself from her bonds.

The lizard man came over and sat beside her. She had freed her hands but was still feigning unconsciousness. “Well, little missy, I expect you hear me. I am about to prepare for a very long and arduous journey back to Grand Duke Fluglaz. You will be less of a burden if I dispatch you now. So, if you’ll just continue to hold still, I will make it quick.”

Squinting, she could see the dagger in his hand reaching out to her. She was about to roll away from the blade when she saw her capture suddenly start and then to look away from her. He jerked again, and the dagger flew from his hand and landed where she could easily grab it. She opened her eyes to see what had happened. Two small darts protruded from his body. One had penetrated his side; the other was near his temple. There was a dazed expression on his face, his enormous eyes staring off in the direction the darts had come from. A third dart caught him in the face and he rolled forward.

Astrada, who was familiar with many different looking creatures from her travels through purgatory and the world where she was turned into a concubine for many species, was now looking at the most horrific being she had ever seen. The unnamable insectile bounty hunter was reloading her dart gun when Astrada leapt to her feet, dagger in hand. The creature stopped working on the gun and reached with one of her four hands for a sword on her bandolier. Astrada flung her dagger and dove for the crumpled body of Ozolio and his sword. As the hunter grasped its sword, pulling it free from the bandolier, the spinning dagger caught its arm just above the caliper-like talons, severing it. The creature’s sword fell to the ground. With another of its hands, it reached for its second sword. Astrada was on it.

The bounty hunter was tough, but thanks to Davlos and her training program with Dante, Astrada was a finely tuned killing machine. She knew right away that the bizarre anatomy of the creature might limit her killing strokes. Instantly she decided her assailant would be at a real disadvantage without eyes, and so she went for the head. The bounty hunter was slow. It did most of its battling with the dart gun. Its sword work was rough and aggressive, and the extra hands with their deadly looking talons were no more than an inconvenience. Slashing, Astrada severed another arm. She then leaped to the hunter’s side, avoiding a sweeping blow that would have cut her in half had it landed. She paid no mind to think about what might have been and focused on the head area of the creature. Jumping as high as she could, holding the sword in both her hands, she swung it with all her might. There was a crunching sound as it bit into the carapace. The insectile bounty hunter’s head lolled to one side, held on by a single piece of ligament.

The headless hunter continued to slash with its blade, but Astrada had moved out of reach. She watched as the creature continued to flail around, unseeing. After some time, it slowed and sat down hard on the ground. Its thoughts in that moment were on who would be the next provider for the family back home. It wouldn’t be it.

As Astrada checked the lizard man’s body to make sure he was dead and to relieve him of any other weapons, he might have on him, the insectile bounty hunter rose from the ground and walked back the way it had come. Astrada would never know nor care that it eventually ended up sucked into quicksand in the swamp that separated earth’s domain from its neighbors. It would eventually find its family, but as a domain locked atonement seeker, not as a provider.

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