❯ Ghost Story – Ghost Story ( Chapter 1 )

[ P - Pre-Teen ]

Disclaimer: I don’t own Arc the Lad 3, or any of its characters. It all belongs to Working Designs.
To any outsider, it appeared to be just another quiet night, certainly nothing out of the ordinary. But the old woman sitting tensely by the window knew better. It was just a matter of time before it happened. There was no way to predict it. Sometimes it happened before the sun was finished setting, and other times not until it was starting to get light. Sometimes it even happened in the afternoon. Occasionally a day passed without it happening at all, but those were the worst because she knew it was coming. Waiting was the worst part. She couldn’t even think about sleeping, because it –
A truly horrifying, unearthly shriek pierced the air, followed by an agonized wail. The woman jumped out of her chair. Even after a month of this, she still hadn’t gotten used to it. But instead of crying out herself, she just scowled. Whatever was causing this nightly disturbance was ruining her livelihood. Five tenants leaving in the past week! And now nobody wanted to move in. She heard them all gossiping among themselves that her apartment building was haunted, and the people who remained complained at least seven times a day about the noise and demanded that she do something about it.
Well, she was! This had gone on long enough. She didn’t care who -or what – it was making that racket, it had to end now. She didn’t even wait until it got light that morning before she threw on her coat and marched right down to the Hunter’s Guild to put in a request.
She returned to her apartment, feeling immensely relieved, like some huge burden had just been lifted off her shoulders, and waited for the knock at the door. Those Hunters were supposed to be a crafty bunch. Surely one of them could solve this.
« I can’t believe he got us tickets! » Lutz said for the tenth time that morning, staring at the huge crowd in the streets. Paltos was always a busy city, the world’s major center for business, but this time of year, the streets became clogged with people from around the world, some from as far as Itio and Forestamore. Every summer, hundreds of warriors from around the world flocked to Paltos to participate in the annual tournament, and twice as many tourists arrived to watch the matches. Anyone wishing to be a spectator had to buy his tickets months in advance, and the mad rush to get them usually began the day after the tournament was over.
Cheryl rolled her eyes. « He’s a celebrity in these parts, remember? Of course he could wrangle a few tickets for his friends. »
« Alec, I told you we should have left her behind! We could’ve sold her ticket on the black market and made a bundle! »
« And there I was, thinking this would be a relaxing break, » Alec said. He still remembered the joy and disbelief he felt when he opened Velhart’s letter, back at his kitchen table in Sasha village, and five tickets for the upcoming event fell to the floor. He and Lutz hurried to make their way to Paltos in time, stopping at Lieza’s monster ranch to pick up Theo, then Gislem to catch Cheryl, and finally Paysus to meet with Marsia. Lutz and Cheryl fought the whole trip, and Alec wasn’t sure if he would have liked it any other way. If they suddenly started getting along, he’d be more than a little worried.
« They do remind me of my students, » Marsia said thoughtfully. Alec hadn’t been sure if she would come with them, since she was now the youngest professor at the Rusaht Spell Institute, but she leapt at the chance to leave the classroom for a few weeks. « So, where are we headed? Shouldn’t we stop by the Arena and thank Velhart before we do anything else? »
« We should get a room first, » Cheryl corrected her. Lutz shook his head.
« Didn’t your parents teach you anything? Just because you never learned any manners doesn’t mean we didn’t! »
« Who are you calling rude, you –  »
« Not in the street, you two! » Alec broke in quickly. « Cheryl’s right. »
« I thought you were my friend! » Lutz cried, looking wounded. « Whose side are you on, anyway? »
« Is it my fault if you’re always wrong? » Cheryl asked. « We have to hurry, or there won’t be any rooms left. »
Lutz sulked the whole way to the inn, where the innkeeper regretfully told them that there were no vacancies. Outside, Cheryl turned on Lutz.
« If you didn’t start arguing with me, we might’ve gotten there in time! » she snapped. « Now look what you did! »
« How is it my fault? Why do you always blame me? »
« Maybe we can come back later and see if anyone has left by then, » Marsia suggested, ignoring them. The Hunter nodded.
« Before we do anything else, I’m going to check in with the Guild, » he said. She and Theo followed him, leaving the other two behind. They quickly got the idea and ran to catch up. Alec was used to their behavior by now. He wasn’t surprised to see that the guild office was packed, and he had to push his way to the desk. The office at Paltos served as headquarters for the entire Hunter’s Guild, and whenever there was this many people gathered in one place, there was bound to be more problems. The other Hunters milling around nodded respectfully to him as he passed. While he chatted with the man behind the counter, Theo and the others stopped to look at the wanted posters on the wall.
« Well? » Marsia asked, when he rejoined them.
« You took on another job, right? » Lutz guessed. « Come on, this is supposed to be a vacation! How can you even think of working at a time like this? »
« Just because you never think of working –  »
« This one will be fun. » Alec said. « Something about a haunted house. Here’s the address… »

Since none of them were exactly familiar with the city outside the shopping districts, it took over an hour before Alec finally found his client’s house.
« It looks like a nice enough place, » he said, admiring the neatly kept yard and the well-trimmed bushes. There wasn’t a weed in sight.
« That’s why the ghost must like it! » Lutz said. « Wouldn’t you rather haunt a place like this instead of some dingy attic full of cobwebs? »
« Then why are most ghosts found in places like that? » Cheryl demanded. « This is nonsense, anyway! Ghosts don’t exist! »
« Of course they do! » Lutz told her. « They just choose not to show themselves to unworthy people like you. »
« Unworthy? Why, you –  »
« I don’t like this, » Theo said suddenly, stopping midway up the stairs leading to the front door. Marsia gave him a surprised look.
« It’s just too quiet, » the Cardist explained. « Like Alec said, the place seems all right. So why don’t we hear anybody? Why aren’t there people coming in and out? »
« Well, let’s find out! » Alec said, and they entered. The building was just as tidy inside. But now it was Marsia who looked uneasy.
« I see what you mean, » she told Theo a bit nervously. « Is the place deserted or something? Which door are we supposed to knock on? »
« Room two-twelve, » Alec replied, looking at the sheet of paper the guild attendant gave him. « Looks like it’s on the next floor. »
They looked around for the staircase, and found it at the other end of the hall. Their footsteps echoed eerily on the polished wooden floors. They didn’t encounter anyone else as they walked, and when they did hear a sound from inside one of the rooms it made them all jump, even Cheryl.
« I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts, » Lutz couldn’t resist pointing out, but even he quickly fell silent when he realized how strange their voices sounded in the empty building. When they finally found the door with a plaque reading 212, Alec nerved himself and knocked three times. Then he stepped back and waited. Nobody came.
« Maybe they gave you the wrong number, » Theo suggested. « It wouldn’t be the first time the Guild’s given you misinformation before. »
« I don’t think that’s it, » Alec said, although he would have loved to have an excuse to head back outside and come back later. But with his luck, by the time he returned, it would be dark. He didn’t want that. « This is the sheet the client filled out herself, and I doubt she’d get her own address wrong. »
So they waited, and there still wasn’t an answer. After a few more minutes, Alec finally gave up and turned to leave the way he came, but then there was a loud creak as the door swung open. He whirled around, hand on his sword hilt, and did a double take when he saw the kindly old woman standing there.
« Are you the Hunter I hired this morning? » she asked, and invited them inside for a snack while she told them about her request. She sat them down in a spotless parlor, and Alec instinctively knew that she must own the building.
« Hey, are you sure these are safe to eat? » Lutz hissed in his ear, picking up a gooey chocolate chip cookie. « What if – oww! » he cried, when Cheryl stomped on his foot.
« Don’t mind him, » she told their hostess sweetly. « He’s just a little… you know…  »
« I do know, » the lady said bitterly, pouring Theo some milk. « Everyone thinks this place is haunted, and so my tenants are all moving out, and people coming in see how quiet it is and think the rumors are true. It’s a vicious cycle. »
« I can understand that, » Theo said, thanking her. « When we first came in here, I felt the same way. »
« But something must’ve started it all, » Lutz said, scratching his head. « No smoke without fire. »
« It’s the screaming, » the woman said matter-of-factly, and smiled wryly at the looks on their faces. « No, I’m not a senile old bat imagining things. Spend the night here and you’ll see. It happens every day. »
« Oh, we believe you, » Marsia said soothingly. « It sounds horrible. »
« I’ll say it does! Just like some poor soul getting murdered. I don’t blame my tenants for leaving, » the woman added, in an attempt at fairness. « At first, I thought it was some kind of sick prank, but when it continued for a week straight… » She sighed.
« You say it’s making you lose business, right? »Cheryl asked. « Maybe it’s some rival who wants to knock you out of the competition. »
« Only you could reduce such a mystery into something so practical, » Lutz said. « And boring! Talk about having no imagination! »
« I don’t hear you making any brilliant suggestions, » Cheryl snapped. « And what else could it be? There’s no such thing as ghosts! »
« So you’ll help me? » the woman asked. Alec nodded.
« Sure, » he said. « You’ve gotten my interest, and it’ll give us something to do while we wait for the tournament. That reminds me – we still don’t have a place to stay. »
« Maybe we can ask Velhart if he’ll let us stay with him for a while, » Theo said. « You know, in the cabin he used to share with Leshalt. It’s a bit small, but it’ll do in a pinch. »
« No, that wouldn’t be right. » Marsia told him. « We was night enough to give us tickets. I don’t want to impose on him more. »
« You young folks don’t have lodging? » the old woman asked shrewdly. « I can help with that. »
« Uh, I think I’ll pass. » Lutz said. « Right, Alec? Right? »
« Stop being such a wuss, » Cheryl said, rolling her eyes. « This place isn’t haunted. What doesn’t exist can’t hurt you. »
« Don’t your eyes ever get tired of doing that? » Lutz asked. Alec cleared his throat.
« Okay, ma’am, » he said, seeing the glint of a gold ring on one of the woman’s fingers. « We’ll be happy to accept your kind offer. »
« Nothing kind about it, my boy. I told you I’m hard up for money. »
« You’ve got to be kidding, » Lutz said, trying unsuccessfully to sound upset. « Well, come on, Alec! That’s that! Let’s go! Maybe the inn has a vacancy now. »
« It’s okay, » Alec said. « While I was at the guild, I finally collected my pay for those jobs we did in Testa. Tosh sure was generous. »
« Besides, now we can be on the scene! » Theo chipped in.
« Glad that’s settled, then. » the woman said. « As you saw when you came up here, there’s plenty of apartments available. Pick any one you’d like. »
« Where does this screaming take place at night? » Cheryl asked. « One of the rooms? »
The woman nodded. « Yes, in three-eighteen. It’s right at the end of this hall. »
« I see then, » the weapons expert said. « Alec, let’s take the room next to it. »
« The girl’s crazy, » Lutz said, shaking his head in despair.
« How many times do I have to tell you? There’s no such thing as ghosts! Get it through your thick skull! »
« Really, Lutz, » Alec said, handing over a thousand Goz to the landlady. « There’s nothing to be worried about. If we could defeat the Dark One, a ghost won’t be any problem at all. »
« I still think this is a bad idea, » Lutz said, as they thanked the woman for the repast and headed for the door. Marsia suddenly thought of something, and turned back to the woman.
« You said the screaming comes from one of your rooms, correct? Is it any empty one? I mean… well, of course the person living in it must have left when this all started. But did he or she see anything? »
« It’s quite the opposite, » the lady said. « The man living in that apartment denies that there’s even a problem. He says he doesn’t have a clue what I’m talking about, that he doesn’t hear a thing at night. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. And it might interest you to know he moved in shortly before this whole mess started. »
« Is that so? » Alec said sharply, an expression that never made much sense to him. Would the woman have said it if it wasn’t true? And if it was a lie, would she tell them? Lutz suddenly grinned.
« Really? Hey, you all know what that means! »
« No, what? » Theo asked.
« It means he’s a PRIME SUSPECT! » Lutz replied triumphantly.
« Oh, not that again! » Cheryl said. She still couldn’t even walk past a library without remembering Lutz’s obnoxious behavior during that particular incident in Paysus.
« Well, we’d better get set up. » Alec said, and they left.

By then, it was already early afternoon, and by the time Alec and his friends finally settled in their new quarters, it was almost dark. it didn’t take long to unpack their suitcases, but figuring out who was going to sleep where did.
« I’m taking the bed, » Lutz said immediately, throwing himself down on it face first.
« That’s not fair! » Theo protested, quickly flipping through a stack of monster cards to make sure none were missing. « Alec’s our leader, so he should get the bed.
« That’s okay, » the Hunter said. « I’ll take the couch. »
« What kind of leader gives in like that? » Cheryl demanded.
« A wonderful one! » Lutz replied.
« I guess that leaves the floor, » Marsia said, disappointed.
« No, there’s another sofa in the bathroom, » Theo reported, carefully putting his deck back in its bag, since every card was present and accounted for.
« In the bathroom? »
« Don’t ask me! »
« Marsia can have it, » Cheryl said. « Somebody has to stay here and be ready to toss a cup of water on Lutz when he starts to snore. »
« Hey! » Lutz cried, sounding a little muffled. « I do NOT snore! Velhart’s the one who snores! »
« Sure, pick on the one of our number who isn’t here to defend himself, » Cheryl said.
« I only said that because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, » Lutz shot back, more clearly because he sat up and took his face out of the pillow. « You’re the one who snores! You put a chainsaw to shame! You –  »
« Can you two wait until morning? » Alec asked, not bothering to stifle a yawn. « I don’t know about you, but all this traveling and running around today left me exhausted. I’m going to bed. »
The others followed his example, and soon everyone was settled down for the night. There was a brief scuffle when Lutz insisted on leaving on a few lights and Cheryl mocked him, but within half an hour, the room was quiet expect for the sound of the occasional snuffle and even breathing.
« Aaagh! »
Alec sat up on the couch, heart racing. « Lutz, what was that? » he cried, forgetting to whisper.
« Huh? » Lutz asked groggily, rubbing at his eyes. « What was what? »
« That! » Alec said, just as Marsia came running out of the bathroom in her fuzzy bathrobe, looking severely shaken.
« Did you hear that? » she asked in a small voice.
« Kind of hard not to, » Lutz pointed out.
« How horrible, » Theo said. « Should we run next door and see? »
« Not yet, » Cheryl said. She tried not to sound startled, but she couldn’t keep the tremor out of her voice. « We need to know more about it first. Besides, the landlady said this happens a lot and the guy next door is okay. »
« We’re going to have a talk with him tomorrow, » Alec said decisively. « I want to know just what he was to say for himself. »
« We should ask the landlady more about him first, » Marsia cautioned. « We don’t want to offend him. »
« Anybody making noise like that deserves to be offended, » Lutz said. « What a racket! »
« If making noise was a crime, we all know you’d be serving a life sentence, » Cheryl said.
« We don’t want to set him on his guard, » Marsia clarified. « Well, that can wait until morning, right? »
Everyone tried to go back to sleep, but with no success. That night’s episode left them all too anxious to rest.

« So you heard it, eh? » the old woman asked, when Alec and his party arrived at her door later on, dressed but bleary-eyed. « Terrible, isn’t it? »
« Ma’am, I never want to hear a sound like that again as long as I live, » Theo told her.
« Neither do I, » the woman said. « That’s why I hired you. You want to hear more about the tenant in room three-eighteen? » she asked thoughtfully, after Alec told her about their night. « I figured it would come to that. He’s rather a suspicious sort of man. Keeps to himself. I only see him when he pays his rent, and even then he prefers to just stuff it under my door. »
« Doesn’t sound like a nice person, » Marsia said. « What does he do all day, then? Just stay locked in his apartment? »
« Oh, no! Of course not. He’s a Hunter. »
« A Hunter! » Theo repeated. « What kind of Hunter would do a thing like this? »
« Not all Hunters are good, » Lutz reminded him. « Think of Alba. »
« Point taken, » the Cardist said, but as usual, Lutz didn’t know when to let well enough alone.
« Or that creep we met in Testa who stole the Water Sphere, » he said. « You know, the scary-looking one in black. »
« How dare you talk about Shu like that! » Cheryl cried hotly. « He was only doing that to spy on the Academy, remember? We never would’ve gotten the Sphere back without his help! »
« He was still a creep, » Lutz said. « Besides, look at all the pain he caused Tosh. »
« He and Tosh are best friends, you nimrod! And Tosh doesn’t choose his friends lightly. »
Lutz looked at Cheryl, who was glaring daggers at him, her faced flushed, and he smirked. « Ha! I know all that! I just wanted to prove a point. »
« And what might that be? » the girl asked dangerously.
« That you’re got a crush on the poor guy, » Lutz said, making a kissy face and puckering his lips. « Ratchetface in love! Ooh, boy! »
« Excuse me for breaking into your lovers’ quarrel, » Alec said. « But we’ve got work to do, remember? »
« But he called me Ratchetface! »
« Well, you are a ratchetface! »
« Yes, » Alec told the landlady, before she could ask. « They’re always like this. »
« How did you know what I was about to say? »
« That’s what everybody says when they meet those two. » Theo said. « Well, let’s get moving! »
They headed down the hall to apartment number three-eighteen.

When they arrived there, the others made sure that Alec was in front.
« Gee, thanks, guys, » he said, and listened for a moment to see if he could hear anything going on inside. It was quiet. He nerved himself and rapped on the door. To his surprise, it opened immediately.
All thoughts of the lines he rehearsed to confront the man disappeared as Alec stared at him. He’d expected someone older, gruff, unshaven and perhaps even reeking of beer. Instead, the man who answered the door was young, and dressed neatly in a red cape, with a bandanna to keep his hair out of his eyes. He grinned when he saw Alec.
« Hey, come in! » Elc exclaimed, moving aside to let them pass. « I heard you were in town. You entered the tournament? »
« No, » Alec said, and quickly explained the circumstances with Velhart. « But, uh, Elc… »
« You don’t need to explain, » the other Hunter said. « You’re here to investigate the ‘ghost,’ right? »
Alec nodded. « Are you? » he asked hopefully.
« No, I just live here. » Elc drew the blinds to let some light in, and cleared a pile of books off a bench so his guests could sit. « I thought of accepting that request myself, just to drive that woman crazy, but that wouldn’t be right. »
« You’re not here much at night, though. » Theo said. « Don’t you work then? »
« We’re not all like Shu. » Elc said. « No wonder people used to ask me what it’s like living with a vampire when I was younger. »
Lutz looked over at Cheryl, who just scowled.
« Were you home last night? » Alec asked. « Didn’t you hear that horrendous wail? »
Elc shook his head. « Man, that woman really poisoned you people against me, didn’t she? I came back a little after ten. How does that fit in? »
« The scream happened at ten-thirty, » Marsia said. « When I woke, I glanced at the clock. »
« You really didn’t hear anything? » Theo asked.
« No. I must’ve slept through it. »
« You must sleep like a zombie, » Marsia said. « That cry went right through me. »
« I’m sorry I can’t be more help, » the older Hunter said regretfully. « You’re really sure it comes from in here? »
« We’re in the room next door. » Cheryl explained. « So we know it. »
« What’s your plan? »
« We actually didn’t make one past confronting you, » Alec admitted.
« Well, why don’t you spend the night in here, and see for yourselves what happens? » Elc suggested.
« But what about you? »
« I’ll help you keep watch. Come back around eight, and we’ll figure things out further then. »
Alec thanked his colleague and left, feeling rather confused.

« What now? » Lutz demanded, jumping up and down on the bed. Having Cheryl be too mad to even speak to him wasn’t so bad, he decided. It meant she didn’t make those cutting remarks, either. He resolved to make her this angry more often.
« We can go visit Velhart now, » Theo said. « I wonder if he can tell us anything juicy about the other opponents. »
« I didn’t know you were a betting man, » Lutz said in mid-jump. « Aren’t you too young for that? »
« Who said anything about gambling? I’m just curious! »
« I hope we don’t interrupt his training, » Marsia said doubtfully.
« Don’t worry about that, » Alec said. « I’m sure he’s taking plenty of breaks anyway. We’ll catch him during one of them. »
« Knowing him, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’s wearing all black and training in that desert at noon, » Lutz said. Cheryl started to say something, but shut her mouth with a snap.
« Isn’t life wonderful? » Lutz said happily, as they walked to the arena. Alec was glad to see Gruga again. The warrior wasn’t participating in this year’s tournament either, but he was kept busy with all the paperwork and red tape that went along with it. When asked where Velhart was, he directed them to the waiting room. When Alec reached to turn the knob, the door swung open from the other side and almost hit him in the face.
« Sorry, » Velhart said civilly enough, but firmly, in the tone of someone becoming used to refusing to give autographs. Then he realized who he bumped into.
« Alec! » he exclaimed. « So you managed to come here after all. And the rest of you, too. »
« Of course, » Marsia said. « When I told my students where I was going, they were so jealous! But… what happened to your arm? »
Alec glanced at Velhart’s arm, which was wrapped tightly in bandages. The fighter started to shrug, then winced.
« It’s nothing, » he said. « Just a scratch. I’ll still be able to participate. »
« But how did you get hurt? » Marsia asked, concerned. « Training? Your sparring partner hit you too hard? »
Velhart laughed. « You wouldn’t believe the number of people getting injured by opponents who claim it was an accident this year. But that’s not what happened to me. I was attacked in the street. »
Marsia gasped. « When? Last night? »
« No, this morning. I was on my way here. It was just starting to get light. »
« Was anything taken? » Theo asked. To him, that was a perfectly logical assumption.
« You think I was robbed? » Velhart shook his head. « Nothing’s missing. But any thief trying to prey on me would be disappointed. I don’t carry anything valuable but my sword. »
« Did you at least get a glimpse of your attacker? » Alec demanded.
« No, I just saw a black shadow. Whoever did it knew what he was doing. »
« Hey, you don’t think –  » Lutz began, but Cheryl shook her head fiercely.
« All thugs and goons wear black when they work at night! » she cried. « I’m from Gislem! I would know! »
« I was just making a suggestion, » Lutz said. « Don’t bite my head off for it. »
« I am not biting your head off! »
« Alec, save me from the crazy girl! » Lutz cried, hiding behind Alec.
« First ghosts, and now assassins. » Marsia sighed. « I guess Paltos isn’t such a safe place anymore. »
« Assassins? » Alec asked, but then he answered his own question. « Of course! Velhart, you’re famous now. Do you know anybody who would want you out of the competition to improve their own chances? »
« The list would be too long to count, » Velhart told him, but his mind was already on something else. « Ghosts, Marsia? »
The magician explained Alec’s newest job. « It’s what we’re working on while we wait for the tournament to finally start. » she finished. « We have a week left, so we should be able to solve it. »
« Sounds interesting, » Velhart said regretfully. « Too bad I can’t join you. I’ll catch up with you later – I need to tell Gruga what happened. »
« I think he already knows, » Alec said. After they left the arena, the group decided to split up before they took Elc up on his offer at eight. Theo wanted to visit the Monster Society to drop off his card deck and see if there were any good trades to be had. Lutz and Cheryl headed for the Item and Weapon Societies, each swearing that they could out-synthesize the other by the end of the afternoon. Marsia wanted to go shopping, and Alec decided to stop by the Hunter’s Guild to see if there were any old acquaintances he could chat with.

When they were done with their various errands, the party met in front of the apartment building. When they walked in, Alec was a bit surprised to find the landlady waiting for them. He was even more startled to see that she was angry, arms crossed and feet tapping impatiently.
« I’ve been waiting for you people to get back here! » she cried. « Didn’t I commission you to solve my problem? »
« Yes, and we’re working on it, » Marsia said, but then the woman cut her off.
« Well, it happened again while you were out, » she said. « If you’re not going to do your job, I’ll just go right back to the Guild and ask for another Hunter who will. »
« Wait a minute! » Alec exclaimed. « You’re saying you heard that scream after we left? I thought it only happened at night! »
« Mostly, » the woman admitted, and she calmed down a bit when she realized that the fault mostly lay with her for not explaining the situation properly. « But sometimes it happens during the day. Not too often, though. And some days, it doesn’t happen at all. »
« Elc must know something, » Cheryl said, as they headed up the stairs. « I don’t buy it that he’s as clueless as he seems to be. »
« Anything but clueless, » Alec agreed. « But if he does know something, why won’t he tell us? »
He stopped and knocked on Elc’s door, but this time a few minutes passed before it was answered.
« You don’t look so well, » Marsia remarked, staring at the older Hunter. « Did something happen while we were away? »
« Maybe he got possessed by the evil spirit! » Lutz suggested. Cheryl rolled her eyes, but Elc didn’t seem to mind.
« Not that I know of, » he said, yawning and blinking at the light coming in from the hallway. « I just woke up. »
« Why were you sleeping at this hour? » Theo asked curiously. Elc gave him an incredulous look.
« Weren’t you doing the same thing? » he asked. « We are going to stay up all night waiting for a ghost that doesn’t exist, after all. »
« Uh, we probably should’ve done that, » Alec admitted, realizing that it was going to be a long night indeed since they were already exhausted from the ordeal the night before.
« So you slept all afternoon? » Marsia asked. « Nothing woke you at all? »
« Sure, I woke up a few times. » Elc replied, puzzled. « I had a couple of nightmares. But I didn’t hear anything like a shriek. I’m positive. »
« I have lots of bad dreams, too! » Lutz exclaimed. « Whenever I open my eyes and see Cheryl, it always ruins my night. »
Theo quickly stepped between the two before anything violent happened. While everyone talked, Alec took a moment to look around the apartment. It was almost identical to theirs, with hardly any personal belongings lying around. The bed was a mess, the sheets heaped on the floor, which proved that Elc was telling the truth about how he spent his day. Alec couldn’t figure out any reason why the Hunter would lie, and he didn’t hesitate at all when he answered their questions. It make Alec nervous.
The night passed completely uneventfully, and the scream they were all waiting for never came.
« See? » Elc demanded. « What have I been telling you all along? This was a waste of time. »
« How strange, » Marsia said, frowning. « We definitely heard it the night before. »
« It’s not such a big deal, » Theo argued. « The landlady told us that some nights it just doesn’t happen. This must’ve been one of them. Maybe it didn’t happen because there already was a scream in the afternoon. »
« So you’re not going to give up this case? » Elc asked.
« Of course not! » Alec said. « It’s not finished yet! » He wasn’t a perfectionist, but he did prefer to complete what he started, and he hated letting people down. Elc thought hard for a moment.
« Then you’re more than welcome to spend tonight here, too. » he said. « I’m not going to be here – I’ve got a big job of my own. »
« Okay! » Lutz cried. « Leave it to us! We’ll hold down the fort! By the way, you really have to restock your fridge. »
« He wants to come back and find his apartment in one piece, » Cheryl said. « Not as a burnt-out shell with broken windows. »
« You’re the one who can’t cook to save her life! I’m an excellent cook! Right, Alec? Don’t you love my omelettes? »
« Last time I ate one, I threw up for an entire week, » his friend replied, wincing at the memory. Theo grinned.
« I’m sure glad I ordered my breakfast at the inn that morning! » he said. « But what did you expect, Lutz, using stolen eggs? It was sure to come back to you somehow. »
« Then why was I the one to suffer? » Alec wanted to know.
« I didn’t steal a thing! » Lutz protested righteously. « I asked the chickens, and they said it was perfectly all right! So there! »
« Lieza’s the only one who could do that, » Marsia said. « But I have a feeling she puts her gift to better use. »
« Lieza? » Elc asked. « The Beasttalker? »
Alec nodded. « You know her, too? »
« Of course! She’s a… great lady. » The pause made Alec wonder if there was something between them. He shot a look at Lutz to make sure his friend didn’t say anything inappropriate, but Lutz had something else in mind.
« She always scorns me! » Lutz said. « I just can’t figure out why! »
« Face it, Lutz. » Cheryl said. « Spicy has a better chance of landing a date than you. »
« Oh, now that’s a bit too harsh! » Marsia said with a laugh. « Besides, there’s still hope for Lutz yet. Velhart doesn’t exactly have the best social skills in the world, either, but now he attracts women like a magnet. »
« Or how about Archmonk Iga? » Theo asked. « Everybody knows he took a vow of celibacy, but from Goose told me, the girls still swoon whenever he leaves the temple. »
« You mean Goose actually talks about something besides Arty? » Cheryl asked, surprised.
« Well, it took some doing, but I managed it. » the Cardist replied.
« And he’s right, » Marsia said dreamily. « Iga is rather cute, don’t you think? »
« I don’t think I’m supposed to answer that question, » Lutz said.
« He used to have a crush on Sania, » Elc said. They all turned to stare at him. « Hey, what can I say? Times change, and so do people. Well, I’m off. If you need me for anything, just stop by the Guild. »
That said, he left. When we was gone, the others decided to catch up on their sleep before staying up for another night. Alec thought this was an excellent idea, not only because they were quite exhausted, but because Cheryl was an absolute monster when she was cranky. He didn’t want Lutz to get injured.

It was early afternoon when they returned to Elc’s apartment. « He’s gone! » Lutz cried, running over to the desk, flinging open a drawer, and rummaging through its contents. Some pens, several dried herbs, and a spool of thread fell to the floor. Lutz threw some more junk out and held up a black book triumphantly.
« What’s that? » Theo asked, looking up from his monster cards, which he was arranging in reverse alphabetical order, just for the sake of having something to do.
« His diary! » Lutz replied. « Let’s take a look! »
« You beast! » Cheryl exclaimed. « Don’t you have any shame at all? Is this how you’re going to repay him for being kind enough to let us stay here? »
« There might be some clues about the ghost, » Lutz protested, when she snatched the book out of his hands. « You know, something he didn’t think was important at the time, but will all but solve the case for us now. We’ll have to look through it veeerry thoroughly, right? »
« Don’t waste your breath, » Cheryl snapped. « It’s locked. »
« Then let’s break in! » Lutz said, picking up one of the pens, which leaked over his hands and dripped on the carpet.
« No! » Alec shouted, in a sudden panic. « Then he’ll know you snooped! »
Cheryl rolled her eyes. « Relax. Elc must have been smart enough to expect this, or else he never would’ve invited strangers into his living space while he wasn’t home. »
« But now he’ll think he had no honor! »
« Okay, okay. » Lutz surrendered and went to sulk on the sofa. « You win. »
« Did you see any stamps in there? » Marsia inquired, looking up from a notepad she’d been busily jotting in while they bickered. « I want to post this letter to Tikva. »
« Shouldn’t you wait until after the tournament’s over? » Alec suggested, but Theo spoke at the same time.
« The Archmonk lets him get mail? I thought novices weren’t allowed to have any contact with the outside world. »
« From what Tikva tells me, Iga is much more lenient than his predecessors. » Marsia said. « And since he’s still not completely sure he wants to be a monk… »
« Iga? » Lutz demanded. « Isn’t it a little late for him to change his mind now? »
« Not him, you dolt! » Cheryl said. « She’s referring to Tikva now. If you paid attention, you’d know that. »
« Well, was I talking to you? No, I didn’t think so! Mind your own business! »
The rest of the day passed in the same fashion, since they were afraid to leave in case the scream happened before nightfall. Perhaps Lutz put it best when he said, « Leave and make that lady mad? No way! She looks like she’d be a real devil. »
« And you’d know all about making women mad, » Cheryl grumbled, trying to pick out the paper shavings he dumped in her hair.
By the time it was dark, Alec was starting to feel disappointed with this job. It was curious, but certainly not very exciting. He wished he didn’t accept it, and wondered how Velhart was doing. He stiffened and realized with a shock that, when they talked the day before, they should have offered to protect him in case his unknown attacker tried to strike again. Alec tried to console himself by saying that Velhart would probably be too proud and stubborn to accept their help anyway. Since Velhart talked to Gruga, maybe the veteran warrior came to the same conclusion as Alec and had the situation taken care of.
Then he froze in mid-thought. Did the window just creak, or was he imagining things? None of them were sitting near it. Theo and Marsia were on the couch, and Lutz was sorting through the small refrigerator for the fifth time with a disgusted look on his face. Cheryl was in the bathroom, and Alec himself was on Elc’s bed, sitting up against the headboard. The others went about their business, and didn’t seem to hear anything, so he decided it was nothing.
« What was that? » Theo cried, dropping his cards. Waiting for a ghost already had him edgy.
« Let’s find out, » Alec said grimly. He got up and swiftly yanked the curtains back. It was a clear night, and he felt a refreshing breeze waft in from the half-open window, but there didn’t seem to be any trace of the creature that moved it. It wasn’t until he turned around to go back to his spot that he noticed the pair of gloved hands clutching the windowsill.
Before he could slam the window down on them, there was a blur as the person who’d been hanging jumped inside the room. The newcomer straightened and dusted himself off, seeming completely unconcerned. He was tall and slender, completely dressed in black, with long blue hair. He cast an irritated glance back at the window.
« Dammit! Why didn’t that flaming idiot oil the hinges like I told him to? » he demanded of nobody in particular.
« Shu? » Alec asked cautiously. « Why were you trying to break into Elc’s apartment? »
« Certainly not for a robbery, » Lutz said. « We got in here through perfectly legal means, and let me tell you – there’s nothing in here that even tempts me. »
Normally, Cheryl would never have let that remark pass. She’d probably say something like, « Well, maybe that’s just because you finally got a conscience! » But she was too busy looking at Shu to answer. Lutz noticed, and started to mention it, but Alec silenced him with a severe glance.
« He’s not here? » Shu asked, ignoring Alec’s question. Theo shook his head.
« Afraid not, » he said. « He should be at the Hunter’s Guild. »
« Figures, » Shu said, and turned to depart the way he came. « Thanks, » he called as an afterthought, over his shoulder.
« Wait a minute! » Cheryl exclaimed. « What did you want to see him for? Anything we can do? »
« We’re already doing a job here, remember? » Lutz reminded her, but she wasn’t listening.
« It’s nothing, really. » Shu replied. « We’re working on an assignment together, and agreed to meet here. Looks like he went ahead without me. »
« But why didn’t you knock on the front door like any person? » Lutz asked. « Wanted to show off your awesome ninja skills? »
« I want to know that myself. I gather he’s got some sort of problem with the landlord of this place and doesn’t want him to see me skulking around here, because he’ll get suspicious. Can’t say I’m surprised – the kid always did have a problem with authority. Now, if you’ll excuse me – it is rather awkward hanging here like this. »
Without another word, he vanished. Alec moved to close the window, but decided to leave it open. The wind did feel good.
« Okay, now that was weird, » Lutz said, breaking the silence that followed. « Think he might have anything to do with this ghost business? »
« No! » Cheryl almost shouted. « He’s above that kind of stuff! It’s childish. »
« But you’ve got to admit breaking and entering is pretty suspicious, » Theo said, bemused.
« He told us why. »
« It’s not like you to trust people readily, » Marsia said, sounding concerned. Alec answered for Cheryl.
« I agree it was kind of odd, but I don’t think he’d lie. » he said firmly. As a young Hunter, he always looked up to those of the higher ranks as role models, such as Leegle. When he said he wanted to be like them one day, he’d been surprised to hear Tengaron, the Hunter who ridiculed him and Lutz when they first started out, tell him that he already was. Then Alec thought about Elc’s strange behavior lately and frowned.
There was no scream that night.

Elc returned early the next morning with Shu. « How’d things go? » the former asked curiously.
« So he caught up with you after all, » Marsia said, looking up from her breakfast, a bowl of oat bran. She didn’t understand why Lutz kepr saying the cabinets were empty. « That’s a relief. »
« I take it there was no scream, then? » Elc pressed. Alec reluctantly nodded.
« Well, how about this, » Elc said. « If it doesn’t happen tonight, that’ll make three, right? »
« What about the afternoon one? » Theo wanted to know.
« I forgot about that one, » Elc admitted. « But if it doesn’t happen tonight, I really think you should give up. The tournament’s starting soon, and you can’t do both things at once. »
« You’re right, » Alec said, feeling like a failure. « I thought –  »
« Hey, don’t feel bad! » Lutz cried. « I made you an omelette! »
« Ugh, I wondered what that smell was. » Theo said. « I thought it was familiar. »
« Who asked you? » Lutz asked. « It does need to cook some more, though. »
« It’s not your fault, » Cheryl told Alec earnestly. « Besides, who calls a Hunter to get rid of ghosts, anyway? That’s not in your job description! »
« Actually, it is. » Elc said. « Shu and I’ve taken on cases with spooks before. »
« Stop it, » Shu said. « You’re starting to sound like Tosh. »
« Don’t be so modest, » Elc replied, reaching up and lightly slapping the other Hunter’s shoulder. « And feel free to eat something – it won’t bite back. Well, the omelette might. »
« So what did you guys do last night? » Theo asked, before Lutz could say something suitably indignant. « You look awfully tired. »
« We are, » Elc said, getting up to look in the fridge. « And which one of you finished the orange juice and put the empty container back? »
« Not me, » Marsia said, crunching.
« Or me, » Theo added.
« Me neither, » Lutz said, struggling to keep an angelic, innocent expression.
« The job, » Alec reminded.
« Oh, that! Nothing special, just tournament security. » Elc said. « You know how there’s always so much betting behind the scenes? Looks like some people want to win so badly they’ve resorted to hiring hitmen. »
« That must be what happened to Velhart! » Marsia cried. « Did something happen to him last night? »
« No, he just got a threatening note. » Elc said. « You know, one of the nice ones where somebody took the time to cut the individual letters out of magazines. The type that always begins with something like, ‘if you ever want to see your precious -blank- again…' »
« That won’t keep him down, » Theo said. « He already lost the thing most dear to him in last year’s tournament. »
« So Gruga’s keeping an eye on him, » Shu finished.
« What happened to you? » Cheryl asked pointing to his left hand, which was neatly bandaged.
« This? I slipped when I left here last night. Some old lady opened her window and started screeching, so I lost my grip and fell. »
« Awfully klutzy of you, » Lutz observed, putting a plate with the omelette in front of Alec.
« You’re one to talk, » Cheryl scolded.
« My housebreaking skills are getting rusty, » Shu said regretfully. It’s lockpicking that’s in demand these days. »
« I’ll remember to put a wedge under my door, » Marsia said.
« The best way to protect your house is to get some big animal like Paundit, » Theo told her. « You know, one that starts barking and yapping the minute it hears someone a mile off, but loves children. »
« Sounds like Arty, » Lutz said. « He’ll latch onto your ankle, and not let go for anything! » He unconsciously rubbed his ankle as he spoke.
Alec poked his « omelette » with a fork. « What’s this grey stuff? »
« Oat bran! » Lutz said, without hesitation. « Fiber! It’s good for you! So eat it! »
« I guess we should leave, » Marsia said, when she realized that Elc left and was now lying on the bed.
« That’s all right, » Elc said. « I sleep better when there’s a racket. »
« Then do you want to borrow Lutz? » Cheryl asked.
« Ha, very funny. » Lutz said. « Come on, Alec! Aren’t you hungry? It’s getting cold! It just won’t taste as good cold! »
Alec looked alarmed. He couldn’t imagine it being any worse than it already was.
Half an hour passed. Alec couldn’t bear to see the mournful look on his friend’s face, so he forced himself to eat half of the omelette. Within minutes, it was all he could do to get himself to the sink. Marsia finished her letter to Tikva and filled out an envelope. Theo jumped up to assist Alec. Cheryl tried to start a conversation with Shu, but couldn’t get away from small talk.

Then the screaming broke out, all the more startling because it came from the far side of the room.
« Elc! » Shu shouted, swiftly grabbing a glass pitcher resting next to the sink and spilling the contents on Elc’s head. « Get a hold on yourself! »
Alec turned away from the bed, where Elc thrashed like a fish out of water, obviously in the throes of some nightmare. Shu’s actions had some effect, and the screaming stopped, but he still didn’t wake up. Shu went back to the kitchen, filled the empty pitcher with ice water, and threw it over him. Elc sat up and blinked.
« What are you all staring at? » he demanded.
« The ghost! » Theo said.
« What about it? » Elc asked. Then he realized that he was dripping.
« Pink lemonade, » Shu said apologetically.
« Don’t you see? » Marsia asked Alec. « The ‘ghost’ didn’t exist all along! It was really Elc! That explains why we didn’t hear anything the past two nights, and why he never heard anything. »
« I understand all that, » Alec said. « But why? »
« Just when you think you know somebody, » Lutz said, with a big, theatrical sigh. « But really, Elc – you scream like a girl! »
« Now how are we going to explain this to the landlady? » Alec asked.
« Leave that to me, » Elc said, realizing what must have happened and flushing. « Since I’ll be moving on soon anyway. »
« You’d better go wash before the lemonade dries and gets sticky, » Shu suggested. After Elc left, the others were still struggling to believe what happened, except for Shu. He didn’t seem fazed at all, after the initial shock of a sudden shriek at close range.
« He’ll be fine, » Shu said. « Don’t worry about him. »
« This happened before? » Cheryl asked, seeming disappointed. « He always seemed to have it all so together! »
« He was like this when he was a kid, » Shu said sadly. « Guess he never got over it. »
« You knew him then? » Theo asked.
« Sure I did. I practically raised him, and taught him everything I knew about being a Hunter. »
« That explains it, » Lutz said with a nod. « I’d be a little off in the upper story too. »
« I’m not too good with kids, » Shu admitted, before Cheryl could tell Lutz off.
« You’d better tell Tosh that before he gets any ideas, » Lutz said.
« Lutz! » Alec and Cheryl shouted at the same time.
« I’m really sorry about him, » Cheryl said. Shu shrugged.
« Its doesn’t bother me, » he said truthfully. « After traveling with Tosh when he was younger, I’m used to it. Lutz here is nothing, compared to the way he used to be. »
« So there! » Lutz cried, sticking his tongue out at her. This time, it was Alec who rolled his eyes.
« Now that that’s settled, let’s go see how Velhart’s doing! » Marsia said. « He’ll want to know how everything worked out. »
« Sounds good to me, » Alec said. He’d be glad to be away from this apartment for awhile. « But is this job really a success? »
« We discovered the ‘ghost,' » Theo said. « And Elc said he’s moving, which means he won’t bother the tenants here anymore. So why wouldn’t it be a success? »
« Because we didn’t solve the problem! » Alec insisted. « He might be gone from here, but he’ll still be like this. »
« He should become an Amaidar monk, » Lutz said facetiously. « That always seems to cure everybody’s troubles. »
« Someone should’ve suggested that to Spicy, » Cheryl said. « Then he wouldn’t have to worry about what the ladies thought. Amaidar monks are so attractive because they’re forbidden, anyway. »
« Hey, you didn’t yell at me for making a joke! » Lutz exclaimed. « We’re finally making progress here! »
« I think you just lose all the points you made, » Theo said, when Cheryl stormed out of the room. Before Lutz could reply, Elc returned, looking perfectly sane and normal, with only a slight touch of embarrassment.
« You said you want to visit Velhart? » he asked, and Marsia nodded. « Then you might as well come with Shu and me, since we have to see him, too. »
« What for? » Marsia asked, as they left the apartment building and stepped outside. « He’s not in any danger, right? You two solved that last night. »
« As best we were able to, » Elc said. « Who knows if something else came up since then? And… Alec? »
« Yes? »
« When you report your job as a success, do me a favor and play down my involvement, okay? I really don’t need the other Hunters ragging me about this. »
Alec nodded. In the final days before the tournament began, the arena was packed, a constant flurry of activity as officials ran around trying to get the last of the filing done, and a crowd of hopeful contestants tried to register late, and the usual few begged and bribed for tickets given up at the last minute. Gruga was in the middle of this maelstrom, but he quickly pulled away and met them at the door.
« Is Velhart here? » Marsia asked, once the greetings were over. « We want to wish him luck. »
« He’s in the waiting room, » Gruga said, and he glanced at the clock. « I have to meet Shante and Elena at noon, » he explained, when he saw that the Gaia magician noticed. « They both get rather testy when I’m late. »
« What do you expect? » Lutz asked. « They’re women. »
« Excuse me? » Cheryl demanded, and even Marsia turned to give him a dirty look.
« Let me guess, » a voice said from behind Alec. « What did Lutz say now? »
Velhart walked over and joined them, followed by a musician in full marching uniform, complete with a hat, his horn tucked under one arm. He smiled at the startled looks Elc and Shu gave him.
« I always keep my word! » he said. « I just finished filling out the registration papers and everything! »
« Poco! » Marsia cried, recognizing the cheery musician. « What are you doing here? »
« Participating, of course! » Poco replied. Cheryl stared.
« Do you have a death wish or something? » she demanded. « The other contestants will tear you apart from limb to limb! »
« Don’t be so sure about that, » the musician said, with a secretive smile. « You might be surprised what I can do. »
« Do they sell blindfolds at the gift shop? » Lutz asked. Alec sighed.
« Velhart and I just finished talking to Catch Mamaman about our introductions, » Poco went on, apparently oblivious to their doubt towards his abilities. « I told him I want to be announced as the Musical Menace. »
« Are you ready for tomorrow? » Marsia inquired, turning to Velhart, whose arm was no longer bandaged. The warrior nodded.
« Ready as ever, » he said. « To be honest, I don’t think it’ll be much of a challenge. I’d better go rest up. »
He left, but not before Elc and Shu told him there was something they wanted to discuss.
« In private, » Elc said sternly, when Lutz tried to follow them. Gruga realized it was almost noon, and rushed out to meet his daughter and friend. Alec went to the Hunter’s Guild to report his success, and the others went with him. Afterwards, they decided to rest, since they knew they’d have to wake up early to get good seats at the arena in the morning.

Alec, Lutz, Cheryl, Theo and Marsia all rose early, with minimal squabbling for once because they were so excited about the tournament, even Marsia and Theo, who didn’t normally care for carnage and bloodshed. It was partly due to the atmosphere of the whole city. They hurried to the arena, hoping to run into Velhart so they could wish him luck, but he was nowhere in sight.
« I wonder –  » Marsia began. Theo shook his head firmly.
« Don’t worry so much, Marsia! He’s just busy getting ready! Let’s find a place. »
Since the arena was already filling up at an alarming rate, Alec decided that would be a good idea. They pushed and shoved their way to some decent seats in the fifth row. Alec was satisfied with them, but he could feel Lutz squirm next to him.
« It must be great being in the front, » he remarked wistfully. « Being so close you get spattered with blood and other body fluids and have to change between matches… »
« Beast, » Cheryl muttered, at the same time as Marsia said, « I’ll pass. »
« Shh, » Theo said, standing up to see over the people in front of them. « It’s about to begin! »
Like usual, the tournament started off with the qualifying matches, where the utterly hopeless were weeded out and the promising contestants moved to the next round. As expected, Velhart cut through his opponents with ease. There was some guffawing when Poco stepped out on the floor, but everyone quickly sobered when they saw the musician in action.
« Ooh! » Marsia cried, clapping. « I didn’t know a harmonica could do that! »
« Ouch, » Theo added, wincing when Poco caught his opponent’s head between his cymbals.
After the first ten matches, there was a short break, for both participants and fans to relax, stretch their muscles and perhaps even grab a bite to eat. Alec and his friends stayed put, not wanting to miss the next round. After ten minutes passed, Catch Mamaman came out and did his usual introduction. Alec didn’t pay attention, and only caught the end of it.
« …and the returning champion, Velhart! » Mamaman gestured grandly to the door the contestants stepped out of. Everyone, Alec and company included, held their breath and leaned forward, hoping to get a glimpse of the year’s undeniable favorite.
Nothing happened. A minute passed and there was still no sign. Catch became flustered, and the spectators shifted restlessly.
« Oh, this is horrible! » Marsia said, wringing her hands. « They must have gotten him after all! »
Alec was about to reply when everyone broke out in shouts and cheers, because Velhart appeared. Alec could see him stroll out nonchalantly, as if the delay never happened, and could imagine him saying, « Sorry I’m late, » in his cockiest voice. Alec sighed in relief and sat back to enjoy the rest of the tournament. He looked up a few minutes later to see Elc and Shu forcing their way through the crowd. The two Hunters sat in two empty chairs behind Alec, who wondered just what they’d been doing.
Velhart won the tournament, which didn’t come as a surprise to Alec and his friends, but it was almost midnight before they were able to break through the crowds and get close enough to congratulate him. Poco, who almost made it to the finals, joined in the praise.
« So, what did you win? » Lutz demanded eagerly, cutting right to the point. « Come on, let us see! Whatever it is, it must be spectacular! It –  »
« Maybe if you’re quiet he can show it to us, » Cheryl snapped. Velhart took out a beautiful gold necklace adorned with emeralds and rubies.
« Another present from the Rocheforts, » he explained, as they oohed and aahed over his prize, especially Marsia. « Worth about fifty thousand Goz. It’s no Goddess Statue, but it’ll do. »
« Can I try it on? » the Gaia magician asked, whipping out a hand mirror. Velhart nodded, and turned away from them for a moment.
« What’s wrong? » Cheryl asked. « Aren’t you happy? »
« Of course, » Velhart said. « I was just thinking… »
He didn’t have to finish his sentence, because they all knew that Velhart was referring to what happened when he won the tournament the year before.
« Don’t worry, » Theo said. « Leshalt is looking down on us right now, and he’s proud of you. »
« No, Lutz! » Alec snapped warningly, when Lutz opened his mouth.
« What? » Lutz asked. « I was just going to say Theo’s right! Anyway, let’s hit the pub and celebrate Velhart’s victory! »
Even though Alec and his friends (except Poco, Elc and Shu) were underage and would end up drinking milk, apple juice and cola, they agreed with him wholeheartedly. Pandemonium broke out in the tavern when Velhart walked in, but the bartender was only to happy to serve them immediately. They ended the night with a rousing toast to Velhart, and all of the other patrons joined in.
« Don’t you just love a happy ending? » Lutz asked Cheryl, when it was over. For once, the weapons expert smiled and agreed.
The End.

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