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Hildebrandt had not yet spoken when the slam split the air on the far side of the room.

Someone screamed.

Almost as one, Winterhawk, Ocelot, and Hildebrandt spun to face the sound. "Shit!" Ocelot whispered harshly under his breath.

The figures who were pouring in through the kitchen door did not appear to be looking for a hot meal and a place to rest their feet. Dressed identically in matte-black helmets that obscured their features and long black armored coats, each of them carried a wicked-looking assault rifle with near-military precision. "Nobody move!" the first one in commanded, quickly slipping behind the counter and moving to the end, waving the rifle for emphasis. A second figure moved down on the opposite side of the counter.

Winterhawk and Ocelot traded glances grimly. They had to be content to wait for the moment, despite the fact that these men were clearly after them and Hildebrandt. They both knew that one wrong move here could get the unarmored ork scientist dead in a hurry.

Not to mention them.

The elf maintained a facade of calm, although he was anything but. Trying to will his racing heart to slow, he assessed his options. At least three of them, and more shadows in the kitchen. Obviously they had figured out where he had stopped; he knew it had been a mistake. But it was too late for regrets now. If he wasn't very careful, he wasn't going to make it out of here alive. The odds weren't that good even if he was careful.

His thoughts raced faster than his heart, considering and discarding plans. If he moved now, chances were good that his speed would be sufficient to get him out of the restaurant before they could get their rifles trained on him. Good, but not great. And then there were the threesome at the far table: whose side were they on? Were they plants for this group, scoping out the restaurant and reporting back to the strike force? Were they simply here to have a late meal? Or were they possibly members of a different faction out to kill him? Lacking concrete information, the elf chose to believe that they were hostile for the moment. It always paid, he had discovered long ago, to err on the side of paranoia.

He certainly couldn't make a break for the kitchen; he didn't know how many more of them were in there. For that matter, he didn't know if there were more outside the main entrance, just waiting for him to run into their trap like a bolting rabbit. And, he reminded himself, making things even worse was the fact that he had no transportation. He didn't think the assailants were going to give him time to run out to the parking lot and hot-wire a car, even if he was completely sure he could do such a thing. In the end, he did the only thing he could do: he held his Browning hidden and ready beneath the table, and he waited.

A third man came through the kitchen door. He started toward the far side of the restaurant, but stopped when he noticed the elf. His military trot slowed to a cocky swagger. "Hey," he drawled, fingering the rifle. "It's a dandelion eater!" His voice was young; early twenties at most, full of confidence and the bravado of the captor. Almost languidly, he brought the assault rifle's barrel around until it was trained on the elf. "Fraggin' pointy-eared pixies--oughtta kill `em all. Maybe I won't kill ya if ya beg for mercy. How `bout it, pixie? You beg, and I maybe won' kill ya." He laughed, a hollow sound beneath his helmet.

His laughter turned to a scream of agony as the elf, his face a mask of impassivity, fired the Browning, shattering the man's kneecap and dropping him in a heap. Before the gunman hit the ground, the elf snatched up his briefcase, leaped from his seat and took off across the tops of the booths, moving in a blur of wired reflexes toward the door and, he hoped, freedom.

Everything happened at once. This was the moment Ocelot had been waiting for; never let it be said that he didn't take his opportunities where he could get them. As the sound of the first scream died out, he shot to his feet, snatched up one of the chairs from the table next to the booth, and made for the counter, sure that Winterhawk could drop the other man with a spell before he could get a shot off.

All around the room, customers were diving for cover beneath tables. The sullen waitress, moving faster than she had ever moved in her life, dived under one of the center tables and huddled there.

On the other side, two more black-coated assailants came in through the kitchen door. One headed toward the front of the restaurant, while the other took quick stock of the situation and leveled his assault rifle at the swiftly-moving figure darting across the tables. He fired, hitting the elf in the leg and dropping him down between the table and the seat. "Get the fraggin' ork, you idiots!" he roared at his compatriots.

Ocelot, still moving at top speed, vaulted over the counter and brought the chair down on the gunman who stood there trying to get a bead on him. As Ocelot expected, the chair wouldn't hurt someone that well armored very much, but it functioned admirably at slamming him back against the wall and messing up his aim. The man grunted, frantically trying to disentangle himself from the chair, as Ocelot dropped down below counter level and, with any luck at all, out of the line of fire.

Winterhawk spared a brief moment to take in the situation, noting the downed black-coat, the downed elf, and Ocelot's attack. Why were they wasting time shooting the elf? Not that he was complaining--every shot aimed at someone else wasn't aimed at him or his friends. Time enough to be compassionate later, but that was reality.

Something else was reality: his job was to protect Hildebrandt. The ork wore no armor, had no enhancements. He was a sitting duck there in the booth. Almost before Winterhawk realized it, he had made a decision. Consciously turning away from the man pointing a gun at him, he flung a spell at Hildebrandt, lifting him a few inches out of his seat and carrying him across the restaurant and toward the restroom door before the gunman could react. "Get in the bathroom!" he yelled at the ork. He had to take the gamble that there were no more of these guys lurking in there; he couldn't leave Hildebrandt out here, or he was dead for sure. At least in there he'd have some chance.

The gunman recovered his bearings quickly, but not before Hildebrandt, spurred now by terror, scrambled through the door into the restroom area. Yelling in rage, the gunman spun his rifle back around and blew off a burst at Winterhawk. Two of the rounds ripped into the seatback, but the third found its mark, tearing into the mage's shoulder with a bright spray of blood. Winterhawk was thrown back into the corner as he clamped his teeth together to avoid crying out in pain, desperately fighting not to black out. If he did that, he was dead and he knew it.

The elf lay in the space between the table and the seat, struggling to remain conscious. His leg was on fire, bleeding heavily and reluctant to move. He could feel the warm sticky blood pooling on the plastic seat beneath him. With great effort, he lay very still, hoping that the assailants would think they had killed him. At least he had managed to hang onto his Browning as he went down, though the briefcase now lay on the floor beneath the table, out of reach.

He was confused. As two of the black-coats had come in from the kitchen, he had distinctly heard one of them yell, "Get the fraggin' ork!" Ork? In his leather jacket, he might--might--be mistaken at a distance for a very tall, slim human--but an ork? These gunmen were after him; they had followed him somehow and ambushed him here at this restaurant. But the only ork in here was the one sitting with the Brit and the blond man--and now the gunmen seemed to be more interested in that ork than in him.

Two of the gunmen, the ones who had been at the back of the restaurant, were now running past. They both ignored the elf. Curiouser and curiouser. Either his ploy of playing dead had worked better than he'd expected it to, or else they really weren't after him.

Slowly, carefully, he labored to reach a more upright position.

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