Well this is just a short story I did for a contest my family holds every month. The challenge is to come up with a story, in about a day's time, strictly following the rules laid down in advance. Each story is supposed to follow those rules, and it's really a test to see what each writer can come up with using the same basic criteria. I'll list the requirements for this little challenge at the bottom, so as not to spoil any surprises. I hope you enjoy it, and please, your feedback is welcome! Though I should note that there may be some typos here and there; I didn't have long to write it after all and my own personal spellcheck (the one in my head) often messes me up.

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Of Criminal Descent, by J. Nelson.

The city of Tamburtha was always the same; hot, smelly, and filed with plenty of individuals waiting to get their pockets picked. Most were thieves themselves, or rogues of some nature. If it was illegal then it could be bought, traded, or stolen here in Tamburtha. Slaves, gems, or even some of the more sundry plants most often ingested by smoking were only a fraction of the items that were offered on the streets. And the city's pathetic guard service could do nothing about it.

And that's exactly the way Camiline Ro'hoth wanted it. It made her job so much easier.

"Hey, watch it harpy!" Snapped a rotund man in desertman garb as he pushed past her in the crowded city street. Casually, Camiline slammed her elbow into the back of the man's head, sending him sprawling on his belly in the marketplace, much to the laughter and derision of the other citizens.

"Why you..." The man got to his feet angrily brushing himself off. His anger faded quickly as Camiline stepped up to him and slipped her dagger under his throat, just brushing it lightly.

"Let's not start anything you aren't prepared to finish, hm?" Camiline said softly. The man nodded rapidly, but carefully. "Good man," Camiline said, patting him on the cheek before turning and walking away, returning her dagger to its proper position along her right forearm.

The harpy woman walked briskly down the crowded streets of the city, ignoring the few stares she received from people who had never laid eyes on a woman with leathery wings folded up around her shoulders or feathers instead of hair. It didn't bother her anymore. Let them stare all they want; she still had the upper hand when it came time to survive.

Most people wouldn't have made it two days alone on these hellish streets, but with shrewd inventiveness and the right contacts, Camiline had been doing for seven years, ever since her flock had been destroyed by some boldly stupid knights thinking they were doing the world a service. Instead, they'd killed a harmless flock of women and children, as most of the males were off on the hunt. When they came back, finding only Camiline and two others alive, they had vowed bloody revenge; and when they flew out against the knights of Gormant all they got was a speedy demise. Camiline had left then, deciding to try and make a living for herself in the world of human and elves.

Thieving had just come naturally. And now, she was going to a small tavern on the west edge of the city called Briar's Roost. There she would meet with one of her fences, Petey the Claw, and see what he'd give her for a blood ruby she swiped from Tellos Hall the other night. It may have only been late afternoon, and on a Svesday no less, but Camiline was sure she'd find Petey there. He was always there.

And this time was no exception.

The inside of the tavern was dark and sullen, with a few humans sitting at the bar and drowning their sorrows in cheap ale. Elves wouldn't even go near a place like this; heck, she rarely saw any of the pointy-eared buggers drink anything stronger than owlsberry juice anyways. Petey was sitting where he always sat; at the east window, staring out into the garden of the house to that side and playing himself at a game of ten-stones. He glanced up though his green-lensed fish glasses as Camiline seated herself across from him.

"This had better be good," he said with a sigh. "I don't like interrupting my game unless it will make me a lot of money."

Camiline smiled and reached into her belt pouch. "I think this'll be worth your while," she said, tossing the blood ruby onto the scarred tabletop.

Petey gasped, reaching out with his one good hand to stroke the gem. "By Serion's Beard, how did you get one of these?" He shook his head. "Wait, forget I asked. How much do you want for it?"

"Oh I think seventy Kracks or twenty Savins will do nicely." Camiline smiled and sat back, waiting for the protests to begin.

Petey seemed to consider for a moment and then he nodded. "Okay, I think that's a bit steep, but I can't let anyone else get the credit for selling a blood ruby on the open market. The business this could bring in is worth half the cost right there."

"Then maybe I should raise the price."

Petey's head shot up and he glared at Camiline through his glasses. "No you won't," he said sharply. "We had a deal-- correction, we have a deal. How do you, uh, oh dear." Petey's gaze went to the door and his face immediately dropped. "I think you're in trouble."

"Why?" Camiline asked, turning to see who had just walked in. It was only a pair of humans, dressed in some strange tabard that certainly didn't belong to any of the local houses. They spotted the harpy and human and heading toward them.

"Hello boys," Camiline said cheerily as they stopped in front of the table. "If you're from the thieves guild don't bother; I've already paid my tab for the month. Come back next Gatsday and we'll set something up."

"We aren't from the thieves guild," the human who appeared to be the leader said gruffly.

"Oh? Then what are a pair of city guards doing wearing clothes like that?" She pointed to the green and blue tabards they wore. "I thought uniform regulations said that you had to wear plate or leather armor, and with one of those nice hats with the bird plumage sticking up."

"We are from Illich Vantius, and we are here to put a stop to your thieving ways."

"Now, to do that, you would have to kill me." Camiline smiled coldly. "And you don't want to do that, now do you?"

The two men drew their swords. "That is exactly what we have planned."

"That is your biggest mistake." Camiline pushed her chair back and rose smoothly to her feet, her thick wings spreading out like a fan. "And potentially your last."

With a cry of rage, one of the humans charged at Camiline, his short sword swinging towards her skull. She casually kicked backwards, her foot connecting with his stomach and sending him flying into a table, which promptly shattered under his weight.

The next thug was more challenging to dispatch. He approached the harpy warily, only attacking occasionally and with great caution, trying to find a weakness in her defense. Just as warily, Camiline backed away. She had no weapon of her own; only her wits and claw-like fingernails. She wasn't scared in the least.

The human sliced towards her middle, pulling back quickly when he saw her dart to the side, ready to bash him across the face. There were a few tense moments as each fighter studied the other, looking for the strengths and weakness that were obvious to any experienced warrior.

"I'm getting bored of this," Camiline said after some time of strafing slowly around her opponent. With a lighting fast movement, she grabbed a full tankard of ale from a nearby table and threw it at the human.

"Argh!" He screamed, dropping his sword as the liquid stung his eyes. "I can't see!" He stumbled around blindly, knocking over tables and chairs and making other patrons, far less inclined to join the fight, move to the other end of the room with their drinks in hand.

"That was kind of the point," Camiline said, swiftly kicking the human in the belly. Once he doubled over in pain, she chopped him at the back of the neck and tossed him halfway across the room. He landed beside his unconscious friend and joined him in a deep sleep.

Brushing off her hands calmly, Camiline went back to Petey's table. "So," she said sitting across from him. "How about that payment?"

Shaking nervously, Petey counted out twenty Savins and handed them over. "And here's a bit of free advice: get out of the city. Go on a vacation, anything to get away. Otherwise this will probably be the last time we do business." Petey sounded serious, dead serious.

"Oh come on," Camiline said with a light chuckle. "Do you think those knuckleheads scare me?"

"No, but I think Illich Vantius should."

"Who is he?"

"You don't know?" Petey said in astonishment. "He's the biggest underworld player in the whole of Fardun. Even the thieves guild treads softly around him. If he wants you dead, then you end up dead."

"How come I've never heard of him before?" Camiline asked curiously.

"Because he probably didn't care what you were doing before; but now you must have stepped on his toes somehow." Petey shook his head. "And I wouldn't want to be in your boots; not for all the riches in Tamerlak."

"Well," Camiline said after considering her situation for a moment. "I suppose my only course of action is to sort out my differences with this Vantius, and the quicker the better."

Petey's eyes widened. "It was nice knowing you," he said, picking up his wooden stones board and collecting the shiny stones into a small pouch. "I'll send some nice flowers for your funeral. Goodbye." He slipped the blood ruby into his pocket and exited the tavern.

---

What a pathetic coward, Camiline thought smugly to herself. But a tinge of fear had entered her body and was making its way along her spine. She had no idea if Petey was exaggerating or not, but if he wasn't...then this might be a mess she couldn't get out of.

Shaking her head, Camiline got to her feet and left the tavern as well, walking carefully around the still-unconscious bodies of the two men sent by Vantius.

"I don't know nothing!" Squealed Jimmy Sandburner as Camiline held him with one hand and shoved him against the wall of the dank alley behind Rosemary's Used Mystical Items. "I swear!"

"Make me believe you, Jimmy," Camiline said harshly. "You're one of the top Sihorn breeders in the entire country; if the guards found out about you, you'd not only be out of business, but you'd probably be rather dead right about now, or at least rotting in some prison cell."

"So? Tell me something I don't know," Jimmy said with a sneer that turned to another squeal as Camiline put her other hand around his throat and began squeezing-- hard.

"No, Jimmy, you have it all wrong; you tell me what I want to know and I let you live, okay?" She waited until the weaselly human nodded before easing up the pressure on his throat. "Good, now how could you possibly stay in business without the thieves guild taking it upon themselves to end your little Sihorn farm by calling in the guards? They are, after all, your most dangerous competitors. I bet you get that fellow by the name of...what was it?...oh yes, Illich Vantius, to get them off your back. Am I right? Tell me I'm right, Jimmy."

"Yeah, fine, alright, you got me." Jimmy tried to hold his hands up in a gesture of surrender, but Camiline kept him from doing that. "But I don't know where he keeps his headquarters. Heck, I'm just a small fish in a big pond. I don't even know what the guy looks like."

"Then tell me who does."

Jimmy didn't even need a moment to think. "That creepy Squires guy, uh, Machlom was his first name, I think. He was the guy I was sent to as a contact between me and Vantius. That's all I know, I swear."

Camiline dropped the puny man to the ground. "I'd better not find out you lied, Jimmy. Or I might get angry and do something you'd regret." She turned and left the alleyway, heading back into the warm, fetid summer night in Tamburtha.

"Stupid woman," Jimmy snarled, climbing to his feet and massaging his throat. "He'll kill you! You know that, don't you?" He shouted to Camiline's retreating back. "Yeah," he muttered to himself, "yeah, he'll kill you alright. Kill you dead!"

---

Machlom Squires was not the sort of man one trifled with often or foolishly. Camiline knew he worked as an enforcer for most of the criminal element in Tamburtha, never picking a side, but always willing to do the dirty work if the pay was good. Even the city guards and the large houses used him from time-to-time, and he always came through 100. He was a man feared by all and respected by many. N one dared to upset him or in any way bother him. Except for Camiline.

Whereas most people were afraid of Machlom Squires, Camiline had done something to subdue her fear. She had dug and dug, taking weeks of slow, boring work, until she found the one thing he wished to keep hidden from everyone. And then it was a simple matter of blackmail to keep him off her back. Careful blackmail. She always made sure he had reason to keep on his toes, to be unsure if she had the information sealed away, to be revealed if something were to happen to her, but she also knew better than to press her luck. If she made him too angry, he would turn on her regardless of the consequences. So Camiline had only used her power over Squires to keep him off her back, never to gain information.

Well, there was a first time for everything.

"Hello Machlom," Camiline said cheerfully as she entered the Bard's Tear and found the bulky human sitting at his usual table on a Svesday, clad in his usual chainmail and drinking something that smelled vaguely like horse manure. He looked up with his melancholy brown eyes and then stared back into his tankard.

"Somehow I don't think this is a social visit," he said in his deep, gloomy voice. "What can I do for you, child?" Camiline barely hid the scowl she got whenever he called her that; she wasn't that much younger than him.

"Well, since I was in the neighborhood, I figured you could help me with a problem I have." Camiline sat across from him and watch the jugglers on the stage behind the bar preform quite admirably.

"Who is he?" Squires asked, sipping his drink. "And do you want him dead or just bruised?"

"Neither," Camiline said, nodding to the skinny waitress that came up to serve. "I'll definitely not have what he's having. Why don't you get me a Alteran Fizzer?" The serving girl walked off to the bar. "Now, on to business. I don't need you to hurt anyone," she said, leaning on her elbows, "all I need is an address."

"Whose?"

Camiline picked up her blue drink as the girl handed it to her and took a sip. It was cold and bubbling, just as she liked it. "A man called Illich Vantius."

Squires had been in the process of slugging down most of his drink when she spoke and he suddenly spit it back up again in a dark spray. "WHAT!" He exclaimed, loudly enough for several people to glare angrily for a moment before returning to the spectacle of the jugglers. "You want me to... Please tell me you're joking."

"Nope, I'm dead serious."

"Yeah, dead is the right word to use; do you even know who Illich Vantius is?"

Camiline shrugged. "He's a guy who's been giving me trouble lately, that's all I know. I figure I'll just sort it out without needing to resort to violence. I am a decent diplomat you know."

Squires looked as though he found that fact very hard to believe. "Cami," he said, using the nickname he had given her, "this man doesn't play games. He also doesn't negotiate. If he wants you dead, he'll make you dead. Unless you run as far away as possible."

"Have you even seen him?" Camiline asked skeptically.

"Well...no, not exactly." Squires sounded a little sheepish. "The way he stays holed up in Hillsfar Keep, I don't think anybody has ever seen him. But we have all seen the effects he can bring about. Remember the famine that hit Dulath a couple years back?" Squires nodded sagely. "That was his doing. How could you hope to confront a man with power like that?"

"So he lives in Hillsfar Keep?" Camiline said with a smirk. Squires paled immediately.

"Did I say that?" The human's face drooped more so than usual. "Listen to me, Cami, don't bother. I can get you out of the city, out of the country. If you did something to upset him, then just lie low; he's too big to take on by yourself."

Camiline dropped a couple of Kracks on the table to pay for both hers and his drinks, thanked him once more, and then left.

With a morose sigh, Machlom Squires ordered another drink, silently wished Camiline luck, and cheered loudest of all when the tavern's resident bard, Eadwin took the place of the juggler and began a slow love song.

---

Hillsfar Keep was a giant old fortress built into the white cliffs by the seaport of Tamburtha. It had been abandoned for many years, after the former occupant, an old merchant with more than a mild eccentric streak, died without an heir. Now it was apparently owned by Illich Vantius, criminal mastermind.

This keep had been constructed directly into the rock wall of the cliff, above the surging waves and below the city itself. There was only one way in: through a pass between the cliffs that led right up to the gate. This would surely be guarding, and with the encompassing walls of stone on either side, it could also be defended by an army of three armed with crossbows. The keep was strong and easily protected...except from an air assault.

Camiline was able to fly over the ramparts of the keep as the moon began its rise over the ocean beyond. Below, she saw men dressed in the same tabards the two who had attacked her had worn. They were all armed with pikes and swords, and several had bows slung across their backs. But Camiline didn't have to fight them, much to her relief. She just soared silently over their heads on her leather wings. Being a harpy had paid off for a change.

It was easy for the thief to find the room she wanted in the keep itself. She perched outside the windows on the top floor, listening carefully. When she heard nothing, she moved downward, to the windows below her. Now, she heard voices. Pressing her ear to the glass carefully, she was able to make out what was being said.

"...as you say, Vantius, my Liege. I shall see to the two incompetents' punishment myself."

"Good," returned a rasping voice, like an old man on his deathbed. This Vantius couldn't be that old, could he? Well, there was only one way to find out. After the other human had left the room, Camiline opened the window, pleased to find it unlocked, and slipped inside.

Vantius was behind a curtain separating him from the rest of what appeared to be a dimly lit throne room. A throne for the King of Crime, Camiline thought with amusement. Touching the dagger at her belt and making sure the one up her sleeve was prepared, just in case, she ripped aside the curtain and faced the wide throne...and Vantius, the man who had tried to have her killed.

Or, more accurately, the lobster that had ordered her killed.

"You have got to be kidding me," Camiline said, raising one eyebrow at the crustacean sitting before her in a small tub of water on the throne.

"Ah, you must be Camiline." The lobster spoke!

"Maybe...and you are?" Camiline found it impossible to believe that this...this creature could be what she was searching for!

"Illich Vantius, not exactly at your service, but if if there is anything I, or my men can do, please don't hesitate to ask."

"Illich Vantius?" Camiline frowned. "But I thought you were..."

"A human?" The lobster chuckled dryly. "Yes, I suppose you would have. It's a lengthy story, but one I'm sure you'll find fascinating. You see, my father, many years ago, stole an important artifact from a wizard in the northern kingdoms. Unfortunately, the wizard didn't take too kindly to this, and my father stabbed him in a struggle. With his dying breath, the wizard cursed my father and any of his kin.

"'If any of your flesh and blood, if any of your children, descend upon the path of thievery and violence, then they shall be cursed to a fate worse than death.'"

"And then the wizard died and my father grew fearful; he had only wanted to provide for his young family, and had made one too many mistakes. After that, he took on a job as a blacksmith's apprentice and never again broke the law. My brother and sister, they too found careers in law-abiding trades, but I was too arrogant. I didn't believe my father when he warned us about the curse; I thought it was his way of teaching his children to listen to him. So I embarked on my first thieving job, and the next morning I awoke to this!" The lobster shook its claws furiously. "And so I learned the hard way that the curse is real, very real."

Camiline didn't exactly know what to say to a story like that. Actually, she didn't seem able to think straight. The whole room was getting fuzzy around the edges and swirling madly like a clipper ship in a whirlpool. Spots appeared before her vision and a ringing grew in her ears. For some reason, the lobster's eyes seemed to glow with an unnatural blue light. What was going on?

Realization his Camiline like a bolt of lightning. "Ow," she said, closing her eyes and rubbing at them. The lobster had been trying to control her mind.

"Impressive magic trick you got there," Camiline said, looking up through bloodshot eyes. "But you should know that harpies are naturally resistant to wizards."

"I...I don't know what you're talking about." The lobster sounded nervous. "I only learned magic in an attempt to cure myself; I wouldn't know how to control anyone's mind."

"Sure, whatever," Camiline smiled mirthlessly as she plucked the helpless lobster out of his tank. She began walking to the open window.

"Wait, wait, wait! I can give you wealth beyond your wildest dreams! Power, fame, fortune, anything! Just put me back and leave me alone!" The lobster's voice grew painfully high as it neared the window. "C'mon, I'll help you! I'll help you! Nooo waaaittt!" Then his voice became even more shrill as Camiline threw him out the window, where he was dashed to death on the rocks below.

"All's well that ends well," Camiline said, whistling a cheery tune as she spread her wings and took flight, sailing over the water and heading for the coast. She had no idea if any of that creature's story was true or not, but it didn't matter anymore. He had tried to have her killed and she had returned the favor, and she had won. Now it was back to normal. Or whatever state her life had been in before.

Hmm, she pondered as she skimmed over the moonlit beach. I think I'm in the mood for a little seafood.

THE END

Copyright: 6-9-2007-- 6-10-2007.

This story required me to use a fantasy setting, a harpy as the main character, and a villain who was a talking lobster. As you can see, I did my best with what strange material I was given. Hope you liked it!