Open Chronicles The Unlikely Pair

Discussion in 'The Chronicles' started by Uhfred, Apr 20, 2019.

  1. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    Just great. An abduction. Perfect. If there was anything he hated more than anything, it was a kidnapping. It made his bloom boil, and no better way to let it out than a good slaughter.

    He was hired to rescue a local baron's young son who had been kidnapped for ransom. His price wasn't very high for such things, and he tended to do a good job with them.

    So there he was just outside of the exchange point, bow in hand and arrow ready to fly when he saw the child
     
  2. Anima

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    Anima A Shadow

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    Anima had passed through Iron Lake only twice before. A small town in the Allir Reach. Quiet. Little to offer. A gorgeous view of the secluded lake that was half the town's namesake. She'd stopped and watched a sunset over the waters with the local townsfolk before, on her first time through. As had some other travelers. The setting sun, shimmering over the trees, igniting the lake in a passion of orange and yellow and red. Like the eye of creation. The antithesis to the coming night. Each day's final farewell. Beautiful. Thrilling, to be part of the group, one pair of many eyes simply beholding such a wonder. But it could not sustain her. And the men and women of Iron Lake lived ordinary, workaday lives. A pocket of peace in the world. And so Anima had moved on.

    Nothing changed on her second time passing through. The same miners and their families, living the same lives. And she spent the night, and was on her way.

    But, just two days ago on her third time through, something had changed. A tangible feel of dismay and loss hung over the townsfolk. And a bulletin, nailed to a post outside the town's one and only tavern, referred to simply as Pete's by the locals. The bulletin read like a desperate plea. Derrin Dorn, the son of Regis Dorn, baron of the town and its iron mine, had been kidnapped. A ransom, hanging over the young boy's head. A price, placed on love and life.

    Anima smiled when she read the bulletin. The people of Iron Lake had been hiding. Cowering low and scared in the blossom of peace and beauty that was their small slice of the world. But the dark was a patient hunter. It could always find you, and when it did, you would be forced to look at it. And it would see you.

    Welcome, people of Iron Lake, to your twilight of days.

    The bulletin piqued her curiosity, and she decided to stay. To see the rise, or the fall. And so she entered the tavern, and asked Peter the barkeep if she could work to pay for her stay. And Peter agreed. What luck. Seemed the tragedy of the baron's beloved boy had driven more men than normal to the frothing mug and glass. Like a ritualized drowning of despair.

    Two days tending the bar at Pete's. Peter himself was a kind but quiet man, not one for talking. To her, at least. He liked his work and his friends, not strangers. Her tiny, infrequent interactions with him and the other men and women of the tavern satiated her well enough. Better a friend of few words than a lonesome tundra.

    Two days. And then he came in. Michael Dorn, brother of Derrin, elder son of Regis. A boy on the cusp of being a man, though quite tall for his age. He looked around the tavern in a hurry. Clearly agitated. It was mid-afternoon, and most of the miners were at work in the mine. Only a couple local farmers, a few other shopkeeps, the baron's assistant, and a pair of old retired miners were in the tavern.

    Michael stormed up to Peter and said, "Has no one taken the contract yet?"

    Anima set down the mug she was cleaning. Eyed Michael. She could almost feel the fire in him. The burning need. The quivering yet restrained tensing of his muscles, like a warhorse before a charge or a hound on the verge of release. She let his dedication to his brother wash over her. Hot and tangy. Like a red spice.

    Peter held up his hands in a calming manner. "Someone has, m'lord. A right and proper sellsword by the name of Udalof. I've no doubt--"

    "What if it's not enough?" Michael said. "What if there are more captors than a single mercenary can handle? I refuse to stand idle any longer!" A plea to the rest of the tavern patrons. "Will no one come with me? Will no one take up one of my father's swords and come with me? It's Derrin, for gods' sake. You know him!"

    The farmers looked down, the shopkeeps glanced at one another, the baron's assistant appeared worried but said nothing, and one of the retired miners shifted in his seat and said, "My Lord, a pickaxe needs no skill. Even if you took the most able men from the mines, they'd only swing those swords like brutes. And be quickly cut down."

    Michael turned his gaze to Anima. "You there. You have a sword. Surely you know how to use it. Will you, stranger, accompany me in search for my brother? I beg of you. I would be in your debt."

    Anima smiled. "Yes. And you are eager. What you've been waiting for has come. Rise, or fall. You will see, won't you?"

    Michael narrowed his eyes. Glanced at Peter. And Peter shrugged, said, "She has an odd manner of speaking, m'lord."

    "'Tis fine. I need only guts and heart," Michael said. "What's your name, stranger?"

    Anima came around the counter. Laid a hand to his cheek and raised herself to the tips of her toes and leaned into his ear and said, "A voice whispers in your ear: Anima..."

    * * * * *​

    They set out immediately. Up the road heading north. Michael, armed with one of his father's crossbows. Anima, blackened shortsword in her right hand, her left free.

    She had convinced him to speak of his brother as they walked. He was reluctant at first. And then it all came pouring out. His memory of being a little boy and seeing his baby brother for the first time. Of being lost in the woods and scaring their mother half to death. Of trying to swim around the whole of Iron Lake and failing, but getting better with each attempt. Of kicking that hornet's nest and running like hell as they got stung. Of visiting Alliria for the first time. Derrin had no interest in the mine or inheriting father's property, Michael said. Those trips to Alliria truly stuck with him. That sense of a grander world out there. He wished to join the Cartographer's Guild of Alliria when he came of age.

    And Anima listened. Stole glances at his tears before he had a chance to wipe them away. She let his words sink into her. Internalized them. Made them her own. Michael's loyalty. Love. Longing. He was a good soul. And he was marching toward the black. Willing to sully his hands forever for the sake of his brother. To kill. To taste the death of his own innocence to save his brother from such a fate.

    A bittersweet tragedy.

    And as they walked and the sun dropped low in the sky and surely set Iron Lake ablaze with its breathtaking inferno of color, they saw him. But he wasn't the mercenary.

    Michael recognized the man instantly. Jerked his crossbow up and aimed. And the man snapped his crossbow up and aimed in response. Anima lit an orb of Bale fire in her left palm. Readied herself. Angled spears of dying sunlight through the leaves of the trees lining the road.

    "Yorick!" Michael yelled at him. "You son of a bitch!"

    "You're a long way from home, boy," Yorick said.

    Both of them kept their crossbows aimed. Tensing.

    "Where is he?" Michael said.

    Yorick eyed Anima. "Now, now, we clearly said Crowns. Whores weren't part of your brother's ransom. 'Course, I wouldn't turn her down. That'd just be rude."

    "You've seen him, haven't you?" Anima said. "Derrin Dorn."

    "I dunno. Maybe those fuckin' Crowns would jog my memory, eh?"

    "Tell us where my brother is and you live to see another day!" Michael said.

    "Easy now, boy. You even know how to use that thing?"

    "That's a lovely face you're wearing," Anima said. A spreading grin.

    "Heh. You too, beautiful. Go ahead. Hit me with that magic shit. See if I don't pop the boy first."

    The crossbow shook in Michael's hands. Yorick smirked and ran his tongue across his teeth.

    "Where's my brother!?" Michael said.

    "Funny. Thought you were comin' with that ransom. Thought you gave a shit."

    "Where's my brother!?"

    "Maybe we oughta go talk to your Da, before someone loses--"

    Impossible to tell who fired first. Twin twangs of the crossbows. Bolts flew through the air. Yorick staggered back and collapsed, a bolt in his neck and a vicious gargling from his throat. And Michael spun around to his right, tumbling and falling to the road, the crossbow slipping from his grasp and bouncing away.

    Anima extinguished the Bale fire in her palm and dropped down next to Michael. He was breathing fast and groaning in pain. The bolt pierced his upper arm through and through. Bright red blood gushing out.

    "Gods above," Michael said. "It's bad, isn't it? I...aaaaaahhhh, fuck! I know it's bad."

    Anima snapped off the back of the bolt and reached behind his arm and grabbed the front, just above the pointed head. Slick and wet with his blood. "This will hurt," she said as she yanked the bolt down and out of his arm.

    Michael cried out as a spurt of blood splashed Anima's face. She sliced off a large portion of Michael's fine traveling cloak and wrapped the cloth around his arm several times and pressed both of her hands down hard on the wound. Applying pressure. Blood soaked her fingers and gauntlets.

    The color was draining from his face. He clenched his teeth and his eyes almost rolled up into the back of his head. And he said between labored breaths, "I couldn't do it. I couldn't."

    "You had it in you, Michael," she said. "All along."

    A tiny smile of victory. "Yeah. Fuck him. Fuck Yorick and his bandit--" Michael cried out again. His breaths becoming ragged. "Please. I beg. Now more than ever. Find him. Find my brother. Bring him home."

    Anima glanced over at Yorick's still twitching body. Then back down to Michael. "You may rest, knowing that Derrin will be found. May you find your peace."

    "Th...thank you."

    And she stayed with him. Until the darkness took him.

    * * * * *​

    She wore Yorick's face.

    Her body had become his. His voice, his height, his hair, his smell, all of it. Hers now. She was him.

    She had dumped out the contents of Yorick's traveling pack and placed her own clothes and armor pieces and weapons inside. She wore the armor and tattered clothes of the brigand. Carried the same crossbow that had killed Michael hours ago. She owned Yorick now. And it was no honor to don his skin, to carry on his spirit. It was a thing of possession. Of domination. A thing her Mother would do. She would use him to find the boy. And then discard his face like refuse.

    She had Masqueraded before. Many times. But in this instance, she felt she had willingly sullied her hands. And now, she was marching toward the black.

    A bittersweet tragedy.

    She followed the trail of Yorick's emotion backward. It flowed from the northward road. A pungent reluctance. He didn't want to be the one going to Iron Lake to demand the ransom. A white-hot flash of anger; he'd gotten unlucky, somehow. Drew the short straw or lost a coin toss. And it was him, and he had grudgingly went. And she was retracing his steps.

    The stars and the moon lit her way.
     
  3. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    (Hooooly fuuudge that's a long post. Colour me impressed.)

    Udalof watched as the event unfolded, his first instinct was to let the arrow fly when the crossbow was raised. Let the pig of a man bleed. But there was no child, a dead man could cost the child his life, so he stayed the arrow from its flight. He observed as the two men shot each other, how one choked on sharp steel, and the other bled unjustly.

    However, when the mage took the form of the ransid smelling man who died first, he was intrigued. He followed the woman turned man in the hopes that she knew where the boy was being kept. His bow was always out, ready to fire upon anyone who threatened the boy's safety.
     
  4. Anima

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    And she walked.

    There was a smug satisfaction that she slowly became aware of. A sickly taste, like an overripe fruit. Hard to tell about what exactly without further context. Perhaps one of Yorick's schemes had failed in the past. Or he had once been a citizen of Iron Lake and was driven out of town for some transgression. Or he had been slighted by the Baron Regis Dorn. Doubtless something concerning revenge.

    The call of an owl. Somewhere in the trees. Far but seemingly all around. One of the many low and haunting sounds of the night.

    She stopped. The trail of Yorick's reluctance diverged from the northward road. Off to her right. The black silhouette of a sign greeted her. And she grabbed hold of the sign and used the strength of Yorick's muscles to twist the wooden post in the ground. The dirt gave way, and the sign turned to an angle that caught the moonlight.

    Kessel Mine. The words scratched at with a knife, barely legible. But below them, a pristine word. ABANDONED.

    Peter and some of the retired miners had spoken of Kessel Mine. The older and less lucrative source of iron before the current mine had been found and properly built up. This one had even suffered a cave-in deeper inside, claiming the lives of two miners many years ago.

    A firm sense of familiarity from the sign. Yorick's eyes recognized it. He had at least spent some time here. Perhaps Derrin would be held within.

    And she stepped off the road and onto the thin, twisting dirt trail. The grass on either side brushing against Yorick's trousers.

    She walked. Until she heard it. Liquid. Splattering to the ground in a stream.

    She glanced in that direction. A man, standing by a tree. Some distance away. His back to her. Blackened by the night but with a sheen of moonlight on his left side.

    "Hey," she said. Yorick's voice.

    The man started. Fixed his pants and whipped around. Shifting his head around in the dark. "Yorick? That you?"

    "Yeah. I'm back."

    "Fuckin' hell, did you run there and back?"

    She shrugged. "I ain't lazy."

    The man let out a hearty laugh. Stepped up closer to her. "Bulllll~shit! You want that damn money, that's what. Else you'd be snoozin' your ass off right about now."

    And she saw the man's face. And his name flowed from Yorick's mouth, "Payoff like this, you'd've run too, Messer. Could use it. Work off that gut."

    Messer clapped a hand to Yorick's shoulder. "But the dice love me, don't they? Come on. The boys should have that stew goin' hot by now. And you can tell us all what the ol' Baron's answer was."

    It was effortless. Speaking as Yorick. His speech and mannerisms came to her as fluidly and potently as his emotions. The ghosts of his former self, given a brief reprieve past the expiration of his body proper. The last vestiges of the bandit, acting through Anima. She was him. For a time. But that time would, with some luck, be more than enough to find the kidnapped boy.

    Messer led her to the door of the shack that marked the entrance to Kessel Mine. Opened it. A wide pit with a wooden railing around it, two dilapidated pulley systems on either side for lifting the ore out, and a ladder leading straight down the shaft. The orange glow of fire down there.

    And Messer started down the ladder first.
     
  5. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    Udalof watched as the skin-wearer and the new bandit descended into the mine. He knew that now was the time to strike, but he had to act fast and he had to be quiet. There were five criminals outside to keep watch.

    He crept forward, bow in hand. He gave the two inside a few moments to delve in deeper before firing his first shot. The first went into the throat of the one closest to the shack, a few seconds later another fell to an arrow in the chest. That was when the three remaining men reacted, drawing their weapons. A third fell, then he put his bow away and drew his sword to engage them. There was no sound of ringing metal, he wasn't careless, one the sound of flesh being cut and bodies dropping. Then he too entered the mine, dagger in hand and silent.
     
  6. Anima

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    And she climbed down the ladder next, unaware that the men standing guard outside the shack were all dead before she reached the bottom.

    * * * * *​

    As her feet touched dirt and rock and she turned to face the small campfire, Messer held his arms out wide as if he were rousing a theatre full of people. It was only four other men around the fire, but they all bellowed their greetings to Messer and what they thought was Yorick. The stale air of the mine smelled of burning wood and fermented sweat and, faintly, of the stew bubbling in the pot one of the men held over the flame. Shadows played along the walls of the mine. Watchful spectres.

    But no Derrin. Not that she could see or hear.

    And she and Messer stepped forward, toward the light and the fire.

    "Well goddamn, Yorick, what the hell happened to you?" said one of them.

    The blood. Yorick's blood, from the wound in his neck. Like a ragged red wreath about the collar of his shirt and worn leather breastplate.

    A smirk. "You know Baron Dorn hired a mercenary?" she said. Yorick's gruff voice. "One guy. Udalof was his name. Had to take care of him."

    Another of the bandits laughed. "One fuckin' guy? Now that's just disrespectful."

    And yet another said, "I'm gonna be so glad when we torch that town. Teach that piece of shit Baron something."

    The words. Torch that town. They sparked a memory. A flickering of emotion. That smug satisfaction. And something else. Hatred. A near blinding hatred that made her arms quiver with a toxic rage. Rage that led to indiscriminate slaughter.

    Something else was in play. Something other than just the boy. Grievous injury to insult. First humiliation. Then decimation.

    She was in the heart of darkness. And, somehow, it had fallen to her. To witness the rise or fall of Iron Lake and its people. It was in her hands. This moment. This singular moment. She could choose which side she wanted to shadow.

    Savior. Or doombringer. Such intense emotion on either side. A veritable feast.

    It was almost too much to bear.

    "Hey, Yorick," said Messer. "Why're you smilin' like that?"
     
  7. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    She didn't have the opportunity to choose. Two arrows were fired in quick succession, each felling a man around the fire. His bow was dropped and his sword drawn. He came in past the skin wearer and brought his seosw down on the shoulder of the third, who had been too slow to react. Both remaining enemies were on his left. The fourth who had been in the mine when the skin wearer and her guide came in.

    The scumbag brought his twin axes down to cut into Udalof's shoulder. Blocking up and catchers both axes he pommelled the man across the face and brought his sword around to gut him. The skin wearer's guide he intended to eh...... interrogate.
     
  8. Anima

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    She stood. Stood as two arrows flew past her from behind and found home inside the chest and head of two the men. Arrows that very well could have been aimed for her back. Yorick's back. A back dressed in the same manner as Messer and the rest of the rough men circling the campfire. Curious. That.

    Messer's jaw dropped. As did the man who became the third to fall, as a blur with a sword slipped past her and ended him. The dance of death replayed on the mine walls in shadow. Somehow larger than the act itself. Darker.

    A glimpse of the reaper. A young man. Armored. His skin tanned. His hair long and black as a crow. His eyes, a glinting green in the firelight. Built powerfully for his height. Like an orc, made man.

    The final bandit, armed with twin axes hastily unholstered from his belt, made his last stand. It lasted seconds.

    Messer stumbled back against the mine wall, bumping into a wooden support pillar. Funny, she noticed, that he seemed to forget his weapon. Left it, perhaps, by the fire while he had gone up to relieve himself.

    And Messer, his hands up in a pitiful surrender, looked from her smile to the reaper and back and forth and back again. And his eyes widened.

    "Yorick," he said, the word barely escaping his throat. Utter disbelief. "You bastard. You fuckin' bastard. You...you sold out? This him? This Udalof? He pay you?"

    And she shook her head. Yorick's head. The body of the man who had once been Messer's friend, confronting him now. As if his corpse had risen and come to claim Messer for the grave too.

    Messer's chubby legs gave out, and he slid down the pillar into a seated position. His hands still up.

    "Listen," Messer said, turning his frightened gaze back to Udalof, "You guys don't have to kill me. I can help. Yeah, I can help. Whatever you need. You don't even have to pay me. Yeah, for free. I-I-I'll do whatever you want. For free."
     
  9. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    Yorick? He thought to himself regarding the disguised woman. So that is who's face you wear skin-changer.

    He approached the cowering man and said to him, "I hope so for your sake. Now, if you wish to live, tell me where they are keeping the boy."

    "He's in the lower shafts, n-near the collapsed area." The coward replied.

    Udalof grabbed him roughly by the arm and pulled him to his feet. "Take us. Of you scream for help, warn your friends or lie to me, I'll gut you alive."

    His voice was gruff and had a subtle hint of raspiness. His sword stood at the ready to kill him or anything else that dared to show its face. But as they walked he called back to her.

    "I'm impressed skin-changer. Your infiltration was flawless. I'd thank you to join us for the rest of what they have in store."
     
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  10. Anima

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    "Skin-changer?" A look of horror consuming Messer's features. "Good gods..."

    She relaxed. Changing her demeanor. Precisely, Yorick's was falling away. Gone were the sweeping and brutish and masculine motions and stance of Yorick's body. Replaced by flowing and refined and feminine ones. A considerable change, and surely a strange one. To see a man of the late Yorick's size composing himself and moving as he was now.

    Arms stretched out and fingers interlocked behind Yorick's back, she walked after them. The grace in which she moved a far cry from Yorick's heavy and imposing stomping. Messer's face twisting as he strained to make sense of it. She didn't often slide the mask from her face just so. Just enough for those who were unaware to peek at the truth behind her Masquerade. A seldom delight, if not ideal.

    "And you are Udalof, aren't you?" Her words. Yorick's voice. A second juxtaposition. "You seek the boy. Derrin Dorn. Brother of Michael Dorn. And you bring death in your wake."

    A sly narrowing of the eyes. "You have a desire, don't you? A desire you've known for a long time. And you are good at what you do. Proficient." A quiet hmm. "A reaper's hands."

    Messer glanced at Udalof and stumbled a bit on a rock and steadied himself in the mercenary's grasp. And he gave a slight shrug. Somehow more glad that he was in his hands than in the skin-changer's.

    And as the orange light of the campfire behind them faded with distance, another, a sibling speck of orange further down the darkened tunnel, became apparent. And it was light reflected upward from another vertical shaft, with a similar railing, ladder, and pulley setup as the first. The entrance to the lower tunnels. The site of the deadly cave-in below.

    "Down there," Messer whispered. "Watch this ladder though. Rickety piece of shit, it is."
     
  11. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    "Thank you for your assistance." He replied before striking him over the head with the pommel of his sword. The disgusting man was very suddenly unconscious and in for a very bad headache upon wakening.

    Udalof mounted the ladder, but instead of putting his feet on the rugs, he gripped the sides with his feet and hands then slid down quickly but in a controlled manner. He reached the bottom within moments and when he had he drew his sword again.

    The reason why he didn't draw his bow was becoming he could draw his bow to hit someone far away, however if someone randomly rounded the corner into his face it would take much longer to react if he had his bow in hand.
     
  12. Anima

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    She watched Messer fall. She knew the man for some ten minutes, and she could taste his cowardice clearly. Sharp and pungent, like an onion. A selective indulgence, much like an actual onion. Some favored them. Some did not. This time, she savored the man's cowardice. Delicious.

    And she watched the manner in which Udalof went down the ladder. Quick. Efficient. She'd never had occasion to think of doing it like that. And so she lined herself up with the ladder just as he had, copied his motions, and slid down in the same fashion as he had. And Yorick's big body came to a stop next to him down below.

    A wide landing down in the lower level, but the shaft was a dead end, the fallen rocks from the old cave-in blocking the way deeper inside. A lit torch sat in an sconce on the wall, a fair distance from the wooden support pillars and trusses. A single man sat in a wooden chair by the torch, roused from his nodding slumber by the sound of Yorick's heavy boots. And Derrin Dorn, unconscious, near the rocks of the cave-in. A small table with a pouch of dark green herbs and a mortar and pestle, the bowl full of crushed herbs, near to the boy.

    The sleeping man rubbed his eyes. And she knew him instantly as Jergen. Because of that damn mustache. A strong memory of Yorick's.

    "'Bout time somebody came to--"

    She ignited an orb of Bale fire in Yorick's palm, and threw it at him. The ball of sorcerous flame exploded directly in the man's face, flecks and flashes of the fire burrowing into the man's flesh, leaving his clothes unscathed. Jergen fell out of the chair and held his face and thrashed about on the floor violently, banging his knees and elbows into the ground and walls, and scraping the exposed skin of his arms bloody in his struggle. He screamed a high-pitched scream into the palms of his hands, a bloodcurdling thing, as the torturous flame burned his body from the inside out, yet left no lasting damage.

    The mild and tingling pain in her hand, her arm, the cost of casting the spell, was nothing in comparison to the sheer agony consuming Jergen.

    And still, despite the ear-splitting cries of the man, Derrin didn't wake.

    "Will you take the boy now and claim your crowns?" she asked Udalof. A smile. Even if it was Yorick's own and not hers. "Will you seek your desire elsewhere? Now that your sword has little else to go but back into its sheath?"
     
  13. Uhfred

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    Before she could say those words he threw her to the wall in an angry whisper. "What the hell are you thinking?! If there are more of them then they know that we're here! Do you not understand the meaning of subtlety?! Swift and silent is our best bet down here! Perhaps you aren't as clever as I first thought."

    As he finished he went around the room silently, checking for enemies and tunnels that they could potentially come out of, because they would if they heard the shrieking sounded by the skin-changer's victim. The idiot.

    Still, that could not be helped now, he had to make the best of the situation at hand and get ready for hostile company. She could very well have jeopardised the mission.

    He didn't much care about the money. He cared about the child's life. He intended to return him home, reward or no.
     
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  14. Anima

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    His slam. Sudden and vicious. His anger, made manifest, and transferred through his touch. A shame, that she was wearing Yorick's skin. And a rarity, that she found herself intrigued more by Udalof's anger than Yorick's, rising to the physical provocation, despite feeling the latter more acutely. The former had more potential.

    Her smile, Yorick's smile, unbroken as the blunt pain of the wall-slam reverberated throughout the body she inhabited. Blunt pain was much like an unseasoned meal. Enjoyable if starving, but hardly anything to be excited about. Still, this time it came with a slight reveal of the face behind Udalof's own mask.

    "There you are," she said to Udalof, as Jergen continued to writhe and loose his muffled screams into his hands.

    There were men who cloaked themselves in their work. Who all but killed themselves to give their chosen profession life. Udalof seemed such a man. Some of these men were utterly boring, because their work was the same or they had succeeded in strangling themselves upon the altar of their profession and were left a hollow shell; the miners of Iron Wake firmly in the former. But some. Some of these men hid under guise of their profession because they harbored a secret. Some terrible tragedy, some shameful act, some unspeakable horror. She had yet to crack one of these men open, only gotten so far as to partake in sparse and vague hints and details. A conspicuous aversion here, a curious mannerism there, an odd word here, and the like.

    Udalof had deigned not to answer the questions asked of him. He simply proceeded on, or swelled with anger when he perceived undue peril affecting his mission.

    She knew not whether to follow Michael's dying wish, or Udalof and his mission. A subtle distinction, even if the two seemed one in the same. It still remained to be seen which manner of man Udalof truly was. The deciding factor between the two. But nothing would come of further probing, further questioning. These men of profession and veiled secrets revealed themselves at their own pace, if ever. That much she knew.

    And so, when released, she walked to the writhing Jergen as Udalof went about the chamber. She crouched, placed Yorick's hand upon the agonized man's head, thick fingers in his hair, and said softly, "Ssshhh..."

    She unshouldered the traveling pack and set it down and away from Jergen's flailing legs.

    There were two things that she did know for certain.

    That she wanted to end the Masquerade as Yorick soon. Another rarity, but the taste of overripe fruit had become tiring, and men like Yorick were all too common.

    And that the trek up from Iron Lake had left her famished.
     
  15. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    Udalof found no enemies and no real threat to the mission after a thorough search. He went to the boy and cut his bonds.

    "Are you hurr?" He asks him immediately.

    If he was hurt, then he might have to carry him out. If not, then he only needed to escort him home.
     
  16. Anima

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    Anima A Shadow

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    No response from Derrin. Tiny flecks and pieces of the dark green herb around his mouth.

    She glanced over at them, the mercenary and the boy. Yorick's anger, bent more on the side of frustration, at the sight of the boy. But a washing over of relief at the sight of the table with the herbs and mortar and pestle. Annoyance, dispelled, with a feather's weight of vengeance. She didn't know the name of the herb, or what it did. And though she couldn't think it, Yorick's lips could say it.

    And the words found release. "Hyka plant," she said.

    She knew the name, but couldn't articulate the precise effects. The Masquerade provided no insight on matters too complex, but the chain of emotion and Derrin's current state seemed clear enough. Yorick and likely the other bandits had little patience for the boy, and had shut him up. Hard to tell how much they had forced Derrin to consume.

    No matter. Udalof was a man of profession. And possible secrets, but certainly a man of profession. He would see to the boy as best he could.

    And she turned her attention back to Jergen. The man had gone almost completely limp. Many did. Thrashing and flailing about with all their strength, they were left with none in short time. And the Bale fire still burned inside them as they could only lay still and suffer for minutes more. Helpless.

    His chest rising and falling dramatically. Large, desperate gulps of air.

    She reached into her traveling pack. Found the left bracer of her normal armor. Unsheathed the underwrist knife. Held it in both hands in her lap. Looked down at Jergen and smiled.

    "Answer these questions, and your pain will fade," she said.

    "You sick fuck." Saliva ran down from his lips.

    "What is your name?"

    He clenched his eyes shut. Grit his teeth. Barely managed to say, "Jergen."

    "Why are you here?"

    "Crowns."

    "Why do you need crowns?"

    "Because I want them."

    "Why do you want them?"

    He panted. Struggled with the words. "My brother..."

    "What about your brother?"

    "Gonna...hire a crew...break him out...of jail."

    "And you love your brother, don't you?"

    Hesitation.

    "Jergen."

    "What do you...want from me? Huh!?"

    "And you love your brother, don't you?"

    "Yes! He's my brother!"

    She raised her eyes from Jergen to Udalof. Her smile becoming a grin. And how could it not? This tale of brothers, set amidst another tale of brothers. Michael and Derrin. Jergen and the unnamed. Fascinating. How lives could be so different, yet clearly echo others.

    And she looked back to Jergen. Then closed Yorick's eyes.

    And brought the knife up to the side of Yorick's face. Near the bottom of the left ear. The tip of the blade sinking into the skin.
     
  17. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    Udalof didn't care what she was doing to the man, he simply looked at the boy and helped him up.

    "Don't worry young one. I will see you home. Follow me."

    Udalf lead the boy back up the ladder, helping him as needed. Once they reached the top he lead the boy out of the mine and into the fresh air. Once outside he stayed on guard and set out for the little town, making sure that the boy stayed with him.
     
  18. Anima

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    The knife. Down and over and up and back around again. Carving a crimson line along the outline of Yorick's face. As she pinched the flap of skin under the chin, she caught a glimpse of Udalof. Taking Derrin and ascending the ladder. The mercenary and his mission. Perhaps if Michael hadn't been so worried, so dedicated to his brother, he would still be alive. But of course it ended as it had. Goodness dies young. Darkness survives.

    And she tore off Yorick's skin, revealing her face underneath.

    Jergen's horror. Magnificent. Overwhelming her tongue. The taste, atrocious and guilty. Like burnt meat and ash.

    But she couldn't risk him regaining his strength as she changed back. So she brought the knife down upon his neck and slit his throat. Ear-to-ear. The wound always needed to be deep. So that the victim would choke on their own gushing blood.

    And Jergen's pain did fade, as he looked at her and beyond her and then at nothing and his eyes closed for the final time with a mechanical shuddering and twitching of his body.

    Alone. The crackling of the torch's fire on the sconce above. And, moment by moment, her body slowly shifted and morphed back into her own. Until she sat there, her form restored, the only remaining trace of Yorick the shriveled skin of his face on the floor and his over-sized clothes on her body. And Anima stripped out of them. Tossing and discarding each scrap until she was naked, the dead man her sole company. A slight smile. And she reached into her traveling pack and took out all her garments and clothed and armored herself.

    Anima looked at her hands. Her slender fingers. Jergen's blood coating them. The first sin.

    "It welcomes you."

    And she crouched and leaned toward the dead man. Her teeth gracing the skin of his arm. Sinking in. Enamel parting flesh. Jergen and his brother. A lovely bite.

    The second sin.

    * * * * *​

    Anima climbed up the rickety ladder and back into the dim first shaft. Satiated. Messer, still lying there. She kneeled and touched his neck. Alive. Udalof had spared him. How odd. But in this lay opportunity.

    She slapped him. He stirred. And she slapped him again, harder. And he shook and jerked awake, scrambling up into a seated position supported by his thick arms.

    "Who the hell are you?"

    "Yorick's spectre."

    Messer's eyes narrowed. Mouth ajar. "That was...you? The-the skin-changer? Oh gods. Oh gods, are you going to do that to me now? Please. Don't. I beg you."

    "You have nothing to fear."

    He glanced around nervously. "Where's the mercenary?"

    "Gone. With the boy."

    "Then what...?" He couldn't finish his sentence.

    "This is not your home, is it?"

    He shook his head. Still unsure of her.

    "And there are others, aren't there?" she said. "Waiting for you. Waiting to torch that town."

    "How do you know?"

    She leaned in. He edged back. "Yorick said many things," she whispered.

    "So...what do you want with me?"

    A grin. Her eyes stabbing into his. "Tell them. Tell them what happened here. Tell them to torch that town."

    * * * * *​

    Anima stepped out of the Kessel Mine shack and into the night-covered woods, a hand caked in Jergen's dried blood holding onto the strap of her traveling pack. Messer, still unsure and weary, stepped out a moment later. She glanced back at him, pale moonlight illuminating her face. Made a gesture with her head for him to go. And he wasted no time sprinting off, crunching leaves and sticks marking his departure through the dark.

    She smiled, and walked back to the road. Heading back the way she had come. Back toward town.

    Rise. Or fall. Good people of Iron Lake, your hearts will be tested. Pray. Pray that more men like Michael are among your number.

    And she walked down the road.
     
  19. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    Udalof stood still, looking down on the boy with pity as he wept over the body of his elder brother. The boy was so young, and yet he just had two traumatized experiences, something he would never want a child to experience. His hand rested gently on the boy's shoulder.

    "I can carry him back to be buried, but we must keep going."

    The boy didn't reply, he just nodded through his tears and stepped back to let Udalof pick up the body. It was then that the skin-changer caught up with them.
     
  20. Anima

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    Two figures in the dark. One shorter than the other. Hints offered by the moonlight filtering through the leaves of the trees on either side of the road. Hard to tell, from the distance, if they were Udalof and Derrin. But she need not guess. Even in the dark, the particular twists and undulations of the road whispered familiarity. She was here, earlier, when the sun cast blood across the sky and the bolt from Yorick cast blood across the road. Yes, she saw the dark mass of his body at the feet of the two figures. That was where Michael had died.

    A moment's passing, and she came close to them. A few paces away. And stopped.

    The moonlight revealed them. Udalof and Derrin, as she had thought. The mercenary, bending down to pick up Michael's body, and the boy, who had been roused from his unconsciousness and whose face was slick with tears.

    She said nothing. Just looked at them.

    First, at Derrin. A shame. That his brother's sacrifice meant nothing. A beautiful tragedy. But it was merely the death of the body. An eventuality for all. A few more years made little difference in the ever-reaching stretch of an infinity. And true, that his death achieved nothing by worldly measures. It achieved no effect that directly led to Derrin's rescue. Udalof, capable as he was and complacent as the bandits were, would have seen to it. That was the tragedy of it. But where Michael's body had perished, his spirit had flourished. His act was one of dedication and love, born of a good heart. That was the beauty of it. Like a religious immolation of sin, his very life had been purged the moment his hands became impure, the moment the forever-stain of another's blood darkened them. An act of preserving what goodness he had left. Perhaps he had always known he was capable of murder, and had subconsciously sought his own death. A redemption, of sorts.

    A glance at her own hands. Jergen's dried blood. It was far too late for her. She had long since given in.

    And her eyes drifted back up. To Udalof. He was young. Perhaps younger than Michael himself. And yet, his heart was much like hers. Blackened. Corrupted. Like her, he had long since given in. And they were made brother and sister by the shared darkness in their hearts, weren't they? They each had lived long enough to see the crumbling of their respective souls. The wasting away. The accumulation of sin after sin. What mercy had he truly brought to Derrin by rescuing him? Would it not have been a sweeter thing, a kinder thing, to allow the boy to perish with his good soul intact? But perhaps mercy had not been Udalof's intention. Perhaps, as Mother often intimated it did, this was simply darkness spreading. Propagating itself. Much like a plague. After all, darkness needed the pure to corrupt, just as death needed the living to kill. Perhaps Udalof had, wittingly or unwittingly, spared the boy a quick and young death so that he might suffer a longer, older, dirtier one. Perhaps Derrin might one day become much like the mercenary who had 'saved' him.

    And Anima smiled to Udalof. Said, "Well done."

    And continued walking.
     
  21. Neonitus

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    i stumble through the Forrest running as fast as my speed potion would allow. the sounds of roaring becoming ever more distant. note to self do not con lionmen. they may be stupid beasts but man are they smart.

    before i am able to stop i come barreling into a man and a boy walking on a road. i of course trip over the young boy and face plant into the dirt road.

    "ouch" i wince as i i check for damages i jump to my feet and stretch a hand to the crying boy.

    "sorry lad, i did not see you there. note to self adjust speed potion parameters, less eroca root more swamp water"

    i say the last part to no one in particular as if there were an invisible note book in my head. the boy is hesitant to take my hand and i lose patience and use it to take a flask from my coat pocket. im dressed in rather fancy cloths for a random blood elf that just bolted from the woods going faster than hell's bats. granted my coat was a little dirty one would think id be in a blood elf thrown room getting it cleaned rather than out here.

    i take a swig of the only potion i care about mmmm rum!!!
     
  22. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    He didn't acknowledge her with more than a grunt. He didn't like her much, the cold, seemingly heartless woman seemed like someone he'd kill for the sake of ridding the world of an evil being. Yes he killed, yes he had gone to the darker side of living, but he was still human. He remembered the faces of each man he killed, and he made sure to hold on to his regret, because once he stopped regretting, he ceased being human.
     
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  23. Anima

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    Anima A Shadow

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    #23 Anima, May 5, 2019
    Last edited: May 5, 2019
    It would be another couple hours' walk back to Iron Lake. She, and incidentally Udalof and Derrin, would arrive some time past midnight but before the dawn at such a pace.

    They weren't traveling together, Anima and Udalof with the boy. More so walking in the same direction. She had only said the two words to him, and he replied with only a grunt. And that was that. They did reveal themselves at their own pace, didn't they? The men of Udalof's ilk. And it was likely that he would be another to slip through her inquisitive grasp, avert her curious gaze. A pity, but what was she to do? Whenever she tried to get closer to these men, they pulled away in equal measure. It was a puzzle she'd yet to solve. Perhaps only sheer luck and circumstance would produce the necessary conditions for one of these men to open up and invite her in. Allow her to indulge in their secrets. To bask in the trauma they so desperately masked from the world. Sample its flavor.

    No. Not today, it would seem.

    It was likely that Udalof would simply arrive back in town, wake the baron's assistant who would in turn wake the baron with the good news, claim his reward, and seek his fortune elsewhere. Men of profession and veiled secrets seldom stopped, lest the horror of their past catch up to them. A kinship there, with these men. In being hunted in such a manner.

    But perhaps not all would be lost. Perhaps Messer and the rest of his fellows lurking in their true hideout would have the courage of their convictions. And whatever spurred them on, whether it was pure malice or revenge for some sort of grievance, would be strong enough for them to follow through on their plan, despite the setback in Kessel Mine. And they would come to burn the town. And the men of Iron Lake, hiding behind the drudgery of their profession, would have their true characters revealed, their hearts laid bare. What heroes would bloody their hands and scar their souls for the sake of defending their home and family? And who would allow themselves death without a single stain besmearing their purity? Whose innocence would be saved? Whose lost?

    And, perhaps, might Derrin join his brother?

    Mercy, for the poor boy.

    If he should be so lucky.

    And she walked. The moon arcing its way through the black sky.

    * * * * *​

    Night still, as she crossed the threshold into town.

    A man with a torch stood on watch by the road. One of the miners, sleep clawing at his eyes, Anima recognized. And there was another glow of orange in the distance across town, watching the other end of the road and the only other proper entrance. The miner on watch nodded to Anima, recognizing her as the odd woman who had been helping Peter at the tavern. The kidnapping of Derrin had certainly set everyone on edge, for them to have night watchmen where once they had none.

    And she let Udalof go about his business. Her commitment to Michael fulfilled. Even if it wasn't by her own hands.

    She went instead over to Pete's. Iron Lake had no proper inn; the town was too small and specialized and travelers who actually chose to stay a night too infrequent. Most often, travelers would simply find lodging in Peter's tavern, as Anima had. Still, the upstairs of the tavern only had four small beds next one another, and then Peter's own room. Not much. Normally, the tavern wasn't locked at night, much like the rest of town. But the kidnapping. The uncertainty. The relative peace of Iron Lake was broken. And where trust retreated, locks and barriers stepped forward.

    She knocked on the door. Leaned the side of her head against it. Called out, "Peter."

    A moment's passing. And then she heard the telltale sound of movement from above. The man had a keen ear. Enough to rouse him from deep slumber. The interior sound of steps coming down stairs, muffled by the door. A thump as the metal bolt slid back. And the door opened.

    Peter looked at her. And she smiled. Moonlight on one side of her face. The other shrouded in night.

    "What of Derrin?"

    "He is safe," she said. "The mercenary found him."

    Peter nodded. "And Michael?"

    "Michael is dead." A statement of fact.

    A glint of surprise from him in the sparse light. Momentary. Followed by a kind of grim understanding. "I see."

    "Do you?"

    Peter sighed. "Yes. I feared it might happen. Michael was a fine lad, but he should of let his father handle this. Baron Dorn will not be pleased."

    A quiet moment between them.

    And she said, "May you stay a few nights more? You wish not to leave yet."

    Peter shrugged. "Stay as long as you like. So long as you have the coin or the work to put in."

    She reached up. Slowly ran the back of her hand down the side of his face. The touch of her skin to his cheek. Small flecks of Jergen's blood falling from her hand and fluttering down. Another smile. "You are appreciated, Peter."

    He didn't react. Not even to the dried blood. Stoic, as was his nature. He was used to her by now.

    And she yearned to see what would become of him, if and when Messer and his bandits showed.

    Would Peter rise? Or fall?
     
  24. Uhfred

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    Uhfred Well-Known Member

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    Udalof returned the child to his home, and the body of his brother. He walked in and asked to be brought to the baron. The house staff obliged his request and took him into the baron's study. He stood up and hugged his youngest in joy at seeing him safe. But his mood turned sour upon seeing the body of his eldest.

    "How did this happen?" He asked in a shaky voice.

    "The collector of the ransom shot him, I couldn't save him. I'm sorry."

    "You brought both of my sons back to me, you have nothing to be sorry for. Thank you, your pay..."

    "I couldn't possibly take your money at a time like this, consider it a favour, you owe me nothing."

    Udalof got lodging in the small barracks of the barons household for the night, and he would stay for another three days to attend the funeral of Michael.
     
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  25. Anima

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    Anima walked upstairs with Peter. Sat down on the bed she'd used over the previous few days, moonlight spilling in through the window on the opposite wall.

    "Goodnight, Anima," Peter said as he entered his own room.

    "Goodnight, Peter."

    And his door closed. She took off her boots, her bracers, her thigh guards, her leather cuirass. Laid down on the bed in her undershirt, pants, and sockfeet. Entwined her hands together and placed them on her stomach. Stared at the ceiling above.

    She would need to take a bath tomorrow morning. Wash her clothes along with the bedsheets. Her hands.

    If only it was as simple to cleanse the spirit as it was the body.

    And she slept, but she did not dream, for she had no company.

    * * * * *​

    Anima woke just after dawn and before Peter. She had not moved at all in her slumber. With no dreams, the experience was akin to blinking the night away.

    She put her boots on, leaving the rest of her armor, walking downstairs in her black cloth pants and long-sleeved undershirt. She went into a sideroom of the tavern and grabbed a bucket and went to the door and unlatched the lock and stepped outside.

    Clear skies above. Long, early morning shadows cast on the ground. Birds singing their songs. Only a handful of Iron Lake residents up and about yet. And she walked down the tavern's front steps and onto the single dirt road running through town.

    And as she walked toward and eventually down the path to the Lake, she thought she had seen Udalof among the sparse townsfolk. Hard to tell. Her gaze didn't linger. Interesting, if he did decide to stay. An indication that something more than a hollow search for coin--as it was for most mercenaries--drove him. If it truly was him she had seen, perhaps the drive of his profession and the drive of his ulterior motive might clash, if Messer followed through. A lust for gold in stark opposition to...what? A thirst for blood and violence? A need for atonement? Forgiveness? These men and their secrets. A shared experience, between Anima and the patient cat which sat outside its owner's home waiting for the front door to open, when observing such men.

    And Anima reached the water's edge. The vast expanse of the lake before her. The trees of the far shore tiny things.

    She took off her boots and her pants and her shirt and her underwear and let herself sink into the water up to her neck. Cold. Colder than she would have liked. A deep shudder, reverberating in her bones. But she washed. Cleansed Jergen from her body, even if a piece of him would remain bonded within her soul. His blood washed off of her hands. Her neck. Under her chin. Even from the tips of her hair. Remnants of him. The love he held for his brother. Drifting out into the lake.

    Once finished, she dressed, filled the bucket with water, and walked back to Pete's. He was awake, and replacing empty casks of wine and beer with fresh ones from his backroom. Anima went upstairs and gathered the bedsheets off of both her bed and Peter's and took them downstairs and into the sideroom where she had left the bucket with water. And she grabbed the washboard and began washing.

    And it wasn't even an hour later when the door to the tavern burst open.

    "Peter!" One of his friends. A mustached, burly miner.

    "What is it?" Peter said, setting down the little cask he was carrying on the counter.

    "Baron Dorn wants everybody out in front of his manor." Peter's friend swallowed anxiously. "It's happening again."

    Peter glanced over to Anima, and she just looked back. Curiosity piqued.

    Peter grimaced. "You don't have to come if you don't want to, Anima."

    And she smiled. "But you are still going, aren't you?"

    * * * * *​

    Iron Lake had no proper town square. But the front of the Baron's manor was the widest part of the road through town, bowing out to make a crude dirt circle. The knot in the rope of the road, as some of the townsfolk referred to it.

    Anima followed Peter to the front of the Baron's manor, her weapons and armor save for her boots still beside her bed back at the tavern. They were among the first to arrive. Others were coming. Men. Their wives. Their children. All gathering around. Slowly filing in from their homes and ringing the circle of dirt.

    And the Baron's front door opened. Two of the miners stepped out, carrying something. And they brought it out to the center of the makeshift town 'square'. Set it down.

    It was a headsman's block. A thing of dark and solid wood.

    Peter leaned toward Anima. Said in a low voice, "Only the second time I've ever seen the Baron bring it out."

    "May you say what the occasion was for the first time?" she said.

    A moment of reluctance. Then he said, "After Kessel Mine. The collapse. And the revolt that followed."
     

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