"Galf," Rune Walsh said succinctly, "you look like hell."

The old hunter laughed, his voice rasping hoarsely.

"You're a real diplomat, aren't you, kid?"

Something in his tone, not just the rattle of phlegm but the way he said it made Rune take another, much longer look. Galf wasn't young, somewhere between fifty and sixty, but he'd always been strong and fit. He was, after all, the "Thunder Sword," preeminent member of the Hunter's Guild of Aiedo. For the last three years Rune had traveled on and off with Galf and his student Alys, and the hunter had always been in top condition.

Not any more.

More than anything it was in his posture. Galf was slumped in the broad-backed armchair as if he needed it to support him. Rune had seen the man wounded and exhausted but never so completely drained of energy across his whole system. It surprised him enough that he opened his mind's eye and took a look with his other senses, the ones that made him an Esper.

What he saw must have shown on his face, because the old man nodded once, solemnly.

"You can tell, can't you."

There was no point in lying to him.

"You're dying. I'm surprised you can tell."

Galf laughed harshly.

"Rune, I've been fighting for my life since I was in my teens. I've been cut, slashed, bitten, stabbed, and broken bones more times than I can count. A handful of times I've been so close to the grave someone had to Rever me to haul my backside back. And that ain't counting how many times I've been on the side holding the sword. Death, I know. This body's running down."

He was right. The life energy was ebbing low in him. There was nothing mystical about it, nothing supernatural, just the natural process of a lung disease taking its toll on a system weakened by age.

"I guess you do. I'd say you've got about a week."

"You really are a diplomat, aren't you?"

Rune smiled, not widely, just a delicate curving of lips.

"I figured that if I beat around the bush, you'd have to get out of the chair to slap me upside the head, and you need your strength."

"You're right about that."

Silence reigned for a few minutes before Rune spoke again.

"Does Alys know?"

Galf shook his head.

"Nah. Too young."

Rune understood. Alys had lost her parents, so she'd felt the death of loved ones, and she'd killed in battle, so she'd felt the death of enemies. Intellectually, even emotionally at eighteen she understood death in a way that many her age did not, but she was not intimate with it. Only life, years of living, gave that kind of knowledge.

He glanced around the house.

"Where is she, anyway? I'd expect her to be fussing like a mother hen with you this sick."

"I sent her off on a job in my place. Little thing, pest extermination in Arno's cellars. I'd told him we'd get to it by the end of the month, so there was no rush, but it'll keep her out from underfoot while we talk. Sit down; I hurt enough without giving myself a crick in the neck."

Rune sat down in a plain wooden chair.

"It's Alys I want to talk to you about."

"I thought that's where you were going with this."

"You got kids, Rune?"

Rune looked at him in surprise. Rune Walsh's body appeared to be in its early twenties at most, and most people would put it at less because of the delicate, almost effeminate cast of his features.

"Don't give me that look," Galf said, reading him again. "I know another old codger when I talk to him, even if I call you kid 'cause of how you look. I figure it's some Esper trick you got for staying pretty, but if you ain't got at least four decades on you I'll eat my hat."

It was, Rune reflected, closer to two hundred and four decades. Rune was the fourth vessel in which the will and memories of the ancient wizard Lutz had taken root. Lutz was a repository of sorts of supernatural knowledge, his quest to protect the Algo system against the incursions of demonic evil that regularly threatened it.

He supposed "codger" wasn't so far off at that. Though to be fair, the sarcastic wit and cantankerous attitude had been his since he really had been the age he looked rather than a function of centuries of "crabby geezer" status.

"No, no kids. Though," he added, thinking of the Espers gathered on Dezolis over whom he was the chief, "I do have people that I'm responsible for."

"Then maybe you'll get this."

"What?"

Galf sat quietly for a minute. Gathering his thoughts? Or maybe steeling himself to face an unpleasant task.

"You want me to look after Alys?" Rune prompted at last. It drew a heavy sigh from Galf, and the hunter shook his head.

"Nah. Well, not directly. It's kind of the opposite, really."

"The opposite?" Rune didn't quite understand.

"When Alys gets back tonight...nah, maybe tomorrow would be better; don't want her thinking we spent a while talking so she doesn't get wise. I want you to tell her that you're leaving. Secret Esper business. Something like that, anyhow. It's gotta be fast, though, so you're gone before she knows I'm dying."

"Why?"

"So she doesn't blame you for running out on her. Wish you could go back in time and do it a month ago so there's a decent spread of days, but at least we can keep cause and effect separate in her mind. No point in making her hate you for something that ain't your fault."

"I appreciate that, but I still don't really see where you're actually going with this. Why do you want me to leave?"

Galf sighed.

"'Cause it's time for Alys to grow up."

"Walk me through it."

"Look, most of the time, a kid gets older, becomes an adult, and sets off on their own life, right? A job, or marriage, or whatever as their life brings them, but some kind of adult responsibility. Alys is about that age now. She's ready. She's got the smarts and the heart to be her own person. You can see it in how we do our job together; she doesn't just defer to me like she used to, but is starting to be a full-fledged partner in reality, not just name."

"Yes, I agree," Rune said. It was harder for him to see those changes, he thought--what was three years next to two thousand?--but he usually could.

"Losing me, though...I figure that's gonna be a kick in the guts to her. Might just be patting myself on the back, but that's how I see it, 'specially since she lost her mom and dad four years back. When that happened she latched onto me like a new dad."

"There's nothing wrong about that."

"'Course not. She was a great kid and it's been a pleasure to see her grow up into a fine woman. But that's it, you see? She ain't a kid now, not really."

Rune thought he was starting to see Galf's point, but he wanted the hunter to spell it out for him, not only so there were no mistakes but so Rune could put the argument to the test.

"Granted," he said. "At eighteen, most people are starting a trade, done with their apprenticeship. Some have families. Alys herself is a full-fledged member of the Hunter's Guild, not a trainee."

"Right. But when I die, she ain't gonna be thinking like a grown-up. She's gonna be thinking like a girl who's lost her dad--again. Grief's natural. She'll turn to family for support. Only, she ain't got family. She's got you."

"And you don't trust me?" Rune probed.

"No, no; of course I trust you. Wouldn't have spent three years working with you if I didn't. But that's it. You aren't just a friend, but you work with her, too. You see? You'll be taking over for me, stepping right into my shoes, as it were."

"But you don't want me to do that."

Galf sighed heavily, his breath gurgling in his throat again.

"If it was a couple of years ago, I would, 'cause she'd need it. If it was a couple, three years in the future it wouldn't matter, you could stick as a friend to give a shoulder to cry on. But right now...now ain't the time."

The dying man's gaze fixed on Rune.

"Alys, she's about ready to leave the nest, you see. Grow up and spread her wings and all that rot. If she turns to you when I'm gone, that ain't gonna happen. Losing a loved one is hard, and at her age she'll be looking for someone to support her, care for her. And that'll be twice in her life, a pattern. People repeat patterns. That's how we catch criminals most of the time on bounty jobs, because they follow their habits."

"You're afraid, then, that if Alys gets stuck in a rut of relying on others, she won't learn to rely on herself?"

"Yeah. Look, it sounds crazy, but when she lost her parents she had to learn how to trust me as a mentor before she could trust herself to start growing up again. If she has to go through that all over again...Am I crazy here, Rune? Am I just a sick old man getting delirious?"

"Maybe. Alys is a tough girl, mentally. You mean a lot to her, Galf, and having you gone is going to hit her hard. But...I know what you mean, too. I've known people like you talk about."

Galf let his head loll back against the chair.

"She could be one of the great ones," he said. "She's got it in her. I could tell right from the first." Another sigh. "I feel so damn guilty for leaving her like this."

"Alys won't blame you," Rune said. "She'll miss you, but she won't blame you."

"Never blamed her parents, either. Tough kid, to miss that trap. It's a bad one that gets a lot of us."

"You don't want her to blame me for actually abandoning her, though. That's why the cover story."

"That, yeah. Plus getting kicked by people hurts different than getting kicked by life, 'for your own good' or not. I don't want her to lean on people all her life, but I don't want her to hate them, either."

"I'd wondered if that had occurred to you."

Unease crept onto Galf's expression.

"Then you think I'm going too far?"

"No," Rune said. "No, I don't think so. I just wondered if you'd looked at the problem from all sides."

Yet another sigh issued from the slumped form of the hunter, this one of relief.

"I wish...I wish that I could be there a couple more years. Just long enough to see her grow up. I wish she didn't have to do it alone."

"So do I," Rune agreed.

Maybe, someday, he'd see Alys again, and settle the question of whether or not they were right.