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PostPosted: March 18th, 2009, 10:55 pm 
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Lord Yulhe intercepted The Messenger outside The Boy's bedchamber. Ten paces separated The Messenger from the door. A tug halted him midstep. Another tug lengthened ten paces to twenty.

The Messenger was scowling.

"Does it not cross your mind," Lord Yulhe inquired, "that the hour might be a bit late? A bit too late to be disturbing His Eminence, Lord Je'id?"

"None of your business," The Messenger said. His voice carried abnormal modulation. A perspicuous emphasis on the "your." None of your business. Interesting.

"Rival Falls is my business," Lord Yulhe said.

Silence. Lord Yulhe didn't need to tug The Messenger's mind to hear the sullen curses. Lighter than feathers they were, and more d.amning than spoiled wine. The Messenger was at least two heads taller than the small-statured Lord Yulhe, but Lord Yulhe knew that, then and there, it was The Messenger who felt like a child. Insecurity made boys of men.

"I bear a message," The Messenger said. The naked stone of the corridor lent uncanny power to his baritone. He seemed to muster some confidence. "My lord, I ask you to stand aside. Merrin Dragonrider has... pleaded Lord Je'id's audience."

"His Eminence is reposing."

The Messenger glared. Je'id never slept at this hour, and both of them knew it.

Lord Yulhe smiled. "You are relieved. Have a beer. Rest. Your message is safe with me."

The Messenger hesitated.

This time, the slightest of tugs was sufficient. Not even a tug, really. A poke. A dream of a mug, foaming spicy and warm beside a mattress of goose down. Sweet, beautiful temptation.

"You dog," The Messenger whispered. "You mind-bender."

He succumbed, all the same. They always did.

Lord Yulhe watched him leave. Armor shiny in the torchlight. Sword wagging on his hip. Then he was gone, leaving Yulhe only with the cold. There was always the cold. The hunger. The fatigue. And always... always... the vision of flaming eyes, of scales like steel. The voice of The Master. Remember, Yulhe. The Boy has two weaknesses. The first is power. The second is flesh. Power and flesh. Your path into his heart.

Haha, said The Master. Haha.

Lord Yulhe smoothed his doublet, smoothed his cloak, then paused outside The Boy's door. As expected, he heard the slithering susurration of voices. There were a pair of them. One of them belonged to The Boy. The other belonged to a woman. A familiar woman, he noted. The vixen had slipped into Rival Falls a week ago, and The Boy had kept her ever since. Quite an accomplishment.

"Haha," Lord Yulhe said, and raised his hand to knock.

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PostPosted: March 20th, 2009, 1:33 pm 
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Adeila suspected that she had just as much reason to be charged with something as Merrin did. If they could arrest Merrin for being the Chosen of the gods, surely they could arrest any of the others for assisting the Chosen. Merrin's attempt at reassurance was appreciated, but the truth was that Adeila had knowingly aligned herself with these people. She was not a victim of circumstances, an innocent bystander caught up in the whirlwind of activity. She had chosen.

Would she have chosen differently, had she known everything? The trials of the temple, the Citadel, the difficult traveling, the imprisonment now? She would have considered it more carefully, no doubt, but she couldn't say that it would have changed her mind.

"I cannot claim to have known exactly what I was getting myself into at the start," she said. "But once I knew, I didn't exactly change my decision, did I? I knew, and I still went through with it. I can be held accountable for my own actions."

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PostPosted: March 20th, 2009, 2:56 pm 
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Wine swirled in the crystal decanter, crimson sloshing into his glass. Je'id Regaelian, Lord of Vryngard, High Seat of the Council, picked up his goblet and stopped by one narrow window to gaze over his domain.

It stopped at the lip of the valley. Roofs pitted from age and the ravages of attacking dragonfire sagged. Whole districts were silent. The Seiren sliced Rival Falls in two down the center of the valley. Unused bridges had broken into jagged teeth jutting out over the river's headlong rush.

He turned around. "This place disgusts me."

The woman who lounged, opposite, on a settee of faded indigo velvet, reached for her own wine. "They have fallen far," she said. "That does not please you a little?"

"They have not fallen yet," said Je'id. His own seat was an ornate, thronelike chair, in which he sprawled to put booted feet on the low table between them.

She gazed at him over the rim of her glass. Her fingertips, where she rested an arm on the back of the settee, twitched in time with a rhythm to which he was deaf. Her long nails were gilded many colors, bright against brown skin. A long pull emptied the glass and she set it down. It made her lips a brighter crimson. "They will," she said merely. "They will."

"Aye, but when? Have you had word?" He leaned forward eagerly. "One attack would wipe the Renegades from existence. One attack, Zenaida!"

"I have had no word." Her face, exquisitely shaped, was smooth as polished mahogany, telling nothing.

Bounding from the chair, he paced back and forth, gesticulating. "It would be so easy! Rival Falls disintegrates by the day. Why does no one put the Renegades out of their misery?" Wine threatened to spill, and when he set it down - too violently - it did. The red leaked onto parchment, a drawing he'd done himself. The charcoal had not allowed for blue eyes. Je'id stared down at it.

Zenaida cocked her head. "The one called Yulhe knocks," she said, and a moment later he had. Suddenly she smiled. "I think he may have knowledge that will sate you, a little."

Je'id blinked. He forgot the wine, which now blurred the words on the parchment. Heresy, blasphemy, treason... "Enter," he said.

---

"You have done nothing to be held accountable for," said Merrin. Her hands were cold. She flexed her fingers, curled them into fists. "Nothing." The dragonrider, his beast a vague dark bulk behind him, was still watching her. He toyed with something in his hands.

She took a long, deep breath. Her head could have been a vibrating drum. She wondered if a bruise was forming on her cheekbone, where the rider had hit her. "Adeila, pray there is justice left, somewhere. If I die here, there is no one else."

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PostPosted: March 20th, 2009, 5:39 pm 
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"You've done nothing worse than I have," Adeila pointed out. "And quite a bit better. There will be no grounds for a conviction."

She sat down next to Merrin, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself. "They've overcome larger obstacles than a few false charges," she said more quietly. "I do not think that they would go to the trouble of bringing you back, only to abandon you here."

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PostPosted: March 29th, 2009, 11:03 pm 
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Frustration. Arrogance. Impatience.

Such was The Boy.

Ignorance. Ignorance. Ignorance.

Such was the woman.

Filthy harlot. Fresh from The Master's favor. Had The Master no faith in Yulhe's faculties? Ichi, achi, yanni. These were the words of The Sooth. Lord Yulhe breathed deeply, pulling the air into his lungs, toying with the warmth of thyme, and his irritation evaporated.

He smiled.

"Your Eminence," he said, and bowed low, the perfect servant. "The girl Merrin awaits you in the courtyard."

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PostPosted: March 30th, 2009, 2:34 pm 
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"What's your name?"

"Merrin." She looked up from her plate.

Je'id Regaelian, seventeen, third son of Lord Kater Regaelian, slid closer. He offered a congenial smile. "Merrin what?"

Readily she smiled back. "Merrin Tanner."

Ah, so the rumors were not adolescent jealousy. She
was a peasant. Je'id planted a casual elbow on the table, aware of sidelong glances from the pages down its length and pitching his voice the merest fraction louder over the buzz of the hall. "And what brings you here, Merrin Tanner?"

Fork halfway to her mouth, she blinked, surprised. "I want to be a dragonrider. Don't you?"

That was never it. It was family connections. It was a grab for power. It was exile for disgraced offspring. It was a purpose for a purposeless third son. What had a peasant girl to gain? "Of course I do," he said, following it with another smile. He noted her long lashes sweep shyly down when she looked back at her food. "To - ah - serve the gods," he added. "In...the gods' own army, like Thorone's always saying." He barely managed sincerity. A snicker or two could be distinguished through the murmur of conversation behind him.

Oddly, her face lit. "Oh, yes," she said. "Isn't it exciting? I don't think I can wait - how long do you think before we'll have...
dragons?" Reverently, as though the beasts were deities themselves!

He met that intense blue-eyed gaze with a perfectly rehearsed grin. She had no way of knowing, like the tittering young nobles behind him, that his next words were a perfect parrot of the Wing Commander. "Work hard," he said, "and learn what you can and try what you can't, and you'll be the finest of Vryngard."

Maybe there was a flicker of indigo uncertainty. Je'id didn't care. He winked elaborately down the table and turned his back, already forgetting.


Five years ago, that would have been. The hem of Je'id's cloak brushed the cobblestones, and he chuckled low in his throat, shaking his head. He wondered if this was what she'd wanted. That kind of idealism had plastered her face over half the continent already.

For a price, he'd offered to teach her what being a dragonrider really was. He still wasn't sure whether she'd objected to his interpretation or his price.

Probably the price. Peasants had such strange morals.

Je'id smiled thinly and paused, the pair of guards flanking him - dragonriders themselves - coming to a stumbled halt as well. Cool detachment. Superiority. That was what he wanted. It would help to smother the dangerous intoxication of victory at his fingertips. He took a long breath of the humid night air, and swept forward.

---

Merrin just nodded. The fire crackled. The eyes of the single dragon in the courtyard gleamed silently.

She didn't see him until he was well across the cobblestones. He slowed at her sudden start to her feet. For a moment, both were silent. Merrin's hands tightened to fists. "So this is how Vryngard treats its dragonriders."

"This is not Vryngard, Merrin, and I see no dragon."

"Neither do I," she flashed.

Child, said his tolerant, sardonic smile. Little girl.

Merrin took a long breath. "I am not a heretic," she said. "I have never blasphemed, and if there is a traitor to the House of Vryngard, he is standing in front of me."

"Oh? Have you proof?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Save it for the Council. Who are they going to believe - you? Oh, of course, but you have a convicted assassin and, what, another peasant" - he indicated Adeila - "for witnesses. Charming. Quaint. Tell your little story then."

Her fingers trembled with the urge to make fire split the night and show him just what kind of proof she had. Merrin took a step closer. "And your witnesses are liars," she said. "They must be liars. I've done nothing!"

"They are respected citizens. They will swear they speak truth. A priest says you defiled his temple. Two lords say you have been preaching heresy from Darkmoon Bay to Dey'tarn. No one doubts."

Perhaps it was only the headache that made her feel sick. Merrin's nails were gouging into her palms. "How can you call yourself a Renegade," she said softly. "You're a lying *beep*! I saw you! I saw you there, with Ironlegs, I saw you watching as Vryngard smoked with Meiltha dragonfire!" Only now, she saw the two who flanked him. Desperately, she found their eyes and stared into them. Nothing. Not a flicker of recognition. She was alone. Merrin's attention jerked back to Je'id as he stepped forward.

"Tell them that," he said, with perfect cool poise. "Let them weigh the accounts. Merrin the peasant girl and Je'id of the ruling house of Vryngard. Who do you think is more trustworthy?"

The sky and the walls were moving, closing in. Merrin tried to breathe long and deep, stepping away.

Without another glance he turned to go. He left the two riders behind, and the one with his dragon stood up.

Merrin opened her fists. Closed them. Opened them. "Je'id!"

He turned, seconds before a column of fire flamed so bright he flung a forearm over his eyes.

"Let them deny the power of the gods!" shouted Merrin over the roar of it. "Let them! I'll show them! Them and you!" Her vision blurred. Her knees wobbled. She held it, poured the strength she had left into the pillar of fire between her hands. White glory stabbed up at the sky. Through it, she tried to watch his face. It was like stone.

Her stomach roiled and Merrin let the fire go, stumbling before she regained her footing. The world spun dizzily. She gasped and straightened, finding his face. "Deny that. Try!" she flung at him.

She missed his nod to the rider called Javier. It was a surprise when pain exploded in her head for the second time that night. "Damn you," gasped Merrin, falling to hands and knees, fighting for a moment more of consciousness. "Damn -"

The world - night sky and courtyard - dissolved.

---

"Let her burn her way through stone." He nodded the order. "And the other as well."

He paused to look at her when one of the riders slung the limp Chosen of the Gods over one shoulder. Still pretty. He'd been informed that the assassin was here, too.

This one, though, was new. Je'id regarded Adeila. "What's she promised you for following her?"

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PostPosted: March 30th, 2009, 10:19 pm 
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It was the worst headache Kendath had ever had, worse still than Svit. Yes. Svit. This headache by far put the scaly skulk to shame.

The skull continued to stare. Citadel. No. Flames... dragons... mandrake. Mandrake - wasn't that a poison? Beware the demon of nine fangs. Leaf of serrations is death, death, death. But no, he wasn't dead. Unless this was hell? Cold. Cold. Sweet and profuse. The last lover you'll feel before the noose feels you. Something was missing. His headache was waxing. And through it all the skull stared and stared, its eyes like glabrous moons in the darkness. Its fingers stroked Kendath's cloak, a constant movement of up and down. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up -

"Mine," Kendath said. He lurched toward the skeleton, who skuttled into the wall with a dry cackle and... some sort of command. An obscenity. One of the more skillful feats of masturbation. Kendath shook himself, lunged again. "That's mine!"

The other inmates were rousing now, and Kendath tracked them by the glittering of their teeth as they shuffled forth. Some of the skeletons failed to move, fixed as they were in awkward positions against the floor. He squinted at them. A chill dribbled down his spine.

Kendath dragged sweaty palms across his tunic, then stopped to hold up his hand. The bandage was gone. Naked torchlight dripped upon the black talon, upon scars serpentine in contortion.

The inmates hesitated.

Something was missing - something was wrong - and it wasn't just his lack of Merrin or lack of weapons or lack of cloak. He felt exposed, he felt vulnerable. He should have felt something. He should have carried something.

"Really, gentlemen," Kendath said, and, remembering the corpses, repressed another chill. "I'm not an appetizer."

The skull was cackling. The inmates were advancing. Kendath was scrambling backward, head hammering, hoping beyond hope that this was some kind of crude joke from the gods -

It hit him, then. The Shard.

He'd had it. Where was it?

Curse it curse it curse it curseitcurseitcurse -

The inmates looked very, very hungry.

-----

"Food, my lord?" The harlot was smiling. "Wine? It's the best, you know. Shipped all the way from Port - "

"I will have the truth," Lord Yulhe said. He strode forth to the settee - filigree, damask, red velvet - and seized her by the neck. How delicate his fingers were, and how delightful, as they curled about her dusky throat. "Who are you," he hissed, "and how be you in the High General's favor?"

Wait. Wait not for her answer, but for her mind, for that beautiful alluvion of sentiments and imagery and -

Wait.

He stared at her.

Candlelight caressed the silk of her cheek, the perfection of her mahogany chin. Her lips were crimson not only from the wine but also from the flush of her passions. Her neck was warm beneath Yulhe's hand. Yulhe convulsively tightened his grip, and she uttered a tiny gasp of pain. This woman was very beautiful, very desirable. Yet every Meiltha and Meiltha's enemy knew that The Master suffered no weaknesses of the flesh.

"You know the way of The Sooth?" he said, his inflections level from concealing his shock. The wait had yielded nothing. How could this be? He was the best - chosen by the best, trained by the best...

"Your Sooth," the woman replied, "is pathetic."

With these words, she tore Yulhe apart.

The invasion was complete. The agony was exquisite. Yulhe crumpled to the floor - stone, wool, tapestry of fire - and clutched his head, squeezing it, wanting nothing more than death. His mind was massacred, his defenses ripped to deposit him, naked and puling, a newborn into this world. One and all they surfaced, wrenched forever from his brain - memories - murder - madness - Ichi achi yanni - control, he gasped for control, control - Ichi achi yanni ichi achi yanni -

"Where is the Shard?"

Terror.

"Show me the Shard."

This woman was very beautiful, very desirable.

Haha? Yulhe wondered, and moved to obey.

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PostPosted: March 31st, 2009, 9:06 pm 
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Were they trying to kill their prisoner before any sort of trial could even take place? Mandrake was a powerful sedative, yes, but it was highly dangerous even in trained hands. The dose on the darts was enough to render someone unconscious fairly quickly, which made it precariously close to an unhealthy amount. Fatality aside, the psychological impacts of such a substance could be devastating.

As the Renegade carried Merrin away, Adeila performed a quick check. No serious damage yet, apart from a piercing headache. It didn't help that the young woman had already pushed herself past the point of exhaustion, but she was well enough for the time being.

"It was my own idea to accompany them," she finally said in response to Je'id's question, trying to match his detached tone. "There has been no talk of compensation."

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PostPosted: March 31st, 2009, 11:42 pm 
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He wasn't listening.

He'd heard of the white fire. Thought it a rumor. Thought there was no real power there, only a few cheap tricks. If it were real... perhaps that was the fascination. Perhaps that was the proof that gained her a following even as meager as this.

All the proof these sheep needed.

His own long stride had quickened their pace through dark streets to the base of Rival Falls' sole citadel. A rusting iron gate squealed open and closed. A dark patch in the wall, which was crumbling from the plucking fingers of ivy, was revealed as a gated passageway by the light of a torch. Down into the rotten depths. Once more his lip began to curl.

"Wait." The one with the limp girl slung over his shoulder had began to move forward. Je'id stabbed a finger at one of the other two riders. "You. House Eldri." He didn't care what the man's name was. "I want guard duty tripled, and I want you down here until she wakes. Then I want to know about it."

He pulled a slender sabre from her sheath and took the belt pouch too. A check for pulse revealed it slow, if regular.

"Right. And where's the assassin?" He straightened and looked at the one with the darts. As sullen and silent as the rest.

"Back corner of the block."

"Didn't I say triple the guards? Go!" The one disappeared beyond the circle of torchlight.

Je'id rattled the bars. "Open up!"

Clank. Clank. Clank. Guard duty in the bowels of this cesspool was not a post to be celebrated. But the man's footsteps quickened when he saw who was knocking.

"M-My Lord, what brings you down here..." He tried four keys before one fit the lock. The Lord of Vryngard caught a whiff of ale. Again, his lip was curling.

"Drunk," he said, and the moment the lock gave her yanked the man out by the collar to send him sprawling. "You're dismissed."

It smelled dank, like mildew, on their trip down the slippery stairs to the dungeon. Torches guttered in wall sockets. He halted before the first set of bars that loomed - nothing behind them, of course. "Both of them, in here. Stay until you're relieved. You, healer - I don't care what you do. Bear in mind that I will know when she wakes up."

Past that first aisle, there were no torches. He borrowed one and started down the corridor.

The smell grew worse, and somewhere there was water dripping. Cracks spiderwebbed beneath his feet. A lesser man, Je'id Regaelian flattered himself, would have felt shivers down his spine at distant sounds of skittering on stone.

Screeeeee... a sound to set teeth on edge sounded and faded.

Ah! A voice, distant but distinct. "...not an appetizer."

Je'id thrust the torch around the corner. He had an impression of spiders retreating into their lairs and shook it off. Illusion. "You!" His voice rebounded off the walls. Youyouyouyouyou... "The Meiltha. Kendath, if I recall." There he was. Frozen in half a crouch. "I want to know about this Chosen. About the white fire."

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PostPosted: April 1st, 2009, 4:58 pm 
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Kendath cringed, as did every other inmate in the cell. The bent figures retreated to follow the rats into corners far from the torchlight. The fire was painful. Only by tossing a hand over his eyes could Kendath make out the head of brown curls, the hem of golden stitches. His relief was drowned, quite simply, by a fever of heat in his chest.

So this was Je'id.

"I want to know about this Chosen. About the white fire."

This Chosen. It slapped Kendath in the face. I want to know about this Chosen. His voice was a drawl, an ornamentation of hauteur. Je'id was standing before the mirror. He was polishing his gilded buttons, running fingers through his snickering hair. He was crooning to himself. Practicing to get it just right. I want to know about this Chosen.

Kendath looked at him. Squinted, really, past the burn in his eyes and the anvil in his head. "Go fall on your dagger," he said.

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PostPosted: April 2nd, 2009, 1:40 pm 
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"I will give you a moment to consider," said Je'id. He put the torch in a decrepit wall sconce and drew the dagger Kendath suggested, only to begin twirling it between his fingers. "I am the Lord of Vryngard. You are a Meiltha dog. I can order your death within the hour, and you may join your host of companions." A flourish indicated the collection of pitted skulls. "No one will object, except perhaps the Chosen herself."

The dagger spun to a halt. "And that brings us back to the white fire. She will go on trial tomorrow. I am likely to bypass a trial altogether if I suspect she may set my Council ablaze. What," and he jammed the dagger back into its sheath, folding his arms, "is she capable of?"

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PostPosted: April 2nd, 2009, 8:21 pm 
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For the longest time, there was only silence. The thinnest of hisses hung in the air. It could have been the echoes of Je'id's dagger. It could have been the spats of the prisoners. It could have just as harmlessly been the scurries of rats, their tiny nails scratching the bare stone.

Kendath broke the silence. A drawl, a study in satire of Je'id's own, dripped upon the gloom. "You're that traitor, aren't you. The one Merrin keeps talking about."

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PostPosted: April 3rd, 2009, 2:02 am 
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"What I am," said Je'id Regaelian, "is the justice in Rival Falls." He leaned forward, open hands against the bite of corroded iron. "And what you are is nothing. Nothing. Tomorrow, you might be one of those corpses. Let me be very clear, Meiltha. Beyond that, what I am does not matter to you. What matters to you is your life, and the life of the peasant chit who calls herself the Chosen of the Gods." Had the acerbity in his voice exceeded prudence? He imagined the opaque tones of the mahogany-skinned woman who waited for him. Withdrew, arms folded. "You have not answered my question."

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PostPosted: April 3rd, 2009, 7:07 pm 
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"Ah," Kendath said, as though all the ills of the universe had just been solved. He regarded Je'id with an equanimity that would have put Sage to shame. "Then you consider yourself an acquaintance... a trusted ally, perhaps... of our scaly-legged friend?"

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PostPosted: April 3rd, 2009, 10:22 pm 
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A beat, in which distant drips of water ticked the time past. Je'id leaned against the wall and regarded Kendath. Drip. Drip. Drip.

"Ask her," he said, and slid the sabre from his belt to twist it until it was a shimmering stripe of reflected torchlight. Pretty weapon. "Why trust my word, if I am such a traitor? And while we talk of traitors - there is hardly a price of ten thousand gold on my head."

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PostPosted: April 3rd, 2009, 10:27 pm 
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"Interesting," Kendath said. "You're right. Your head isn't worth a price." He released the slightest of chuckles. "And yet you expect to escape from this... alliance... with your head still sitting on your shoulders."

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