The ride to the ruins of Kallen was long and tiresome, especially considering the level of distrust between the travelers. For the past couple of days Grim and Veil kept their distance from each other entirely to avoid fighting. Prism was growing tired of playing peacekeeper for the two of them, but at least there was now silence when they made camp.
By the end, there had been several more additions to their group. Wayar had chosen several representatives from among his commanders to accompany him, saying they would bolster the strength of the honor guard for Veil. Among those were two Elroks—including Morga, who had recently been named Chief of Lions—three Gor from the Southern tribes, and a Fedain scientist who had recently become attached to Wayar.
Prism and Grim kept mainly to themselves, though they occasionally conversed with Morga about the battle lines at the northern and western coasts. For the past year, Prism and Grim had lent their talents mainly to the east, with a special focus on the southeastern pass leading to the peninsula. The fighting there was reduced to the bottleneck of the pass, and required a smaller, elite force to defend it. Prism and Grim were right at home there, but it meant that they rarely saw any of the other friends they'd made during the war.
It had been well over a year since Prism had seen Kaeral, and that made Morga an even more refreshing sight. It seemed Kaeral hadn't taken well to command, and still spent most of his time on the front lines. His son was well, and was kept far away from the fighting. Prism knew as well as anyone that there could easily come a day when Kaeral's son would be orphaned, and that made the news of Kaeral's continued survival all the sweeter.
Prism and Grim both avoided Wayar's Fedain scientist as much as possible. She didn't like Grim at all, and hated Prism even more for being involved with a Fedain. Sylvaire was a traditionalist, and still believed the Fedain were superior to Humans, despite the way she clung to Wayar as if he was her savior. In fact, in a way he was, as he had personally rescued her from execution from a mob of angry Humans claiming she was a witch.
The Gor kept mainly to themselves. They insisted on being part of this company, as soon as they'd heard of it. Prism hadn't even bothered to learn their proper names, an activity he generally took great pride in. It simply wasn't worth the effort, considering everything else weighing on his mind.
Despite the nanites and Grim's healing, Prism was still sore from his tattoos. He wasn't convinced that the enchantment had been pure enough to prevent the metal fragments from tearing apart his system on a constant basis, though it was just as likely that the hard riding had torn open the wounds again and again. It seemed they barely ever took any rest.
But then the day came that they crested the hills just east of Kallen and saw the magnificent sight of the Everbright City in the sky before them. It was unlike anything Prism had ever seen. While none of the structures in the city towered as high over the floating platform as the great buildings of Kobinaru once had over the seashore, by hovering in the sky, they were far more imposing.
Beneath the city were the ruins of Kallen. Some of the structures of this once magnificent city had rivaled those of Kobinaru, but nearly all of these buildings were burned-out husks now. Kallen had been an ancient city compared to most in Ultaka, and most of its streets were still paved with the old cobblestones favored in centuries past. The streets had recently been cleared of rubble and teemed with life. Thousands upon thousands of people crowded the city, and many more manned barricades that had been erected on the outskirts of the ruins.
Prism and the others had ridden up to within a half-mile of that barricade, keeping to the last remnants of hills for some shelter in case the current inhabitants of Kallen viewed them as enemies. It was morning, and the sun rising behind the Everbright City projected its long shadows across the group. In that ominous shade, they could feel the eyes of the watchmen manning the barricades.
"Should we go up there, or just wait here?" Wayar asked Veil, riding to the front of the line and placing his horse next to hers.
"I don't know . . ." Veil said, shaking her head slightly. It was clear to Prism that the gesture wasn't intended to be observed, but Veil was too lost in thought to control her body language. "We could send a message, perhaps through some sort of magical means?"
"What if one of us just rides up there? They wouldn't attack a lone rider, would they?" Morga offered.
"This discussion is a waste of time," Grim said, then booted his horse into action. He galloped down the hill toward the city, not bothering to look behind him.
"Grim!" Prism shouted. "Blood!"
"Watch your tone. Some of us still have our religion," said Sylvaire, riding up next to Wayar. She glared at Prism. It was one of the most aggressive stares he had ever seen from a Fedain.
"You keep your religion. My lover is riding off into danger without me, and I'll say what I want," Prism growled.
Wayar quickly interjected, riding forward just enough to put his body physically between Sylvaire and Prism. "Sylv, Prism's not one to make into your enemy. He has killed more demons than anyone other than Grimfaeth, you know."
"Wayar, I can fight my own battles, thank you," Prism said.
"Yes, I know," Wayar said pleasantly, smiling at Prism, in that nonchalant way that never touched his eyes. "That was the point, my friend."
"We're not friends, Wayar. We're soldiers in the same army, nothing more," Prism said icily. He glanced toward the city, seeing that Grim had crossed nearly half the distance already. As much as he didn't like making rash decisions, Grim had been correct. Discussion was pointless without current information, and if Grim needed help, he would need it sooner rather than later. "Now, if you'll excuse me . . ." Prism kicked his horse into a gallop as he followed his lover.
"Prism!" Veil shouted, but Prism ignored her.
He did not ride all the way to the city. He stopped halfway, watching from this closer vantage point as Grim rode directly up to the barricades. The conversation was brief, but none of the soldiers made any aggressive moves against Grim, and soon the Fedain came riding back toward Prism.
Grim seemed pleased that Prism had ridden after him, a wave of positive emotion filling the bond between them as soon as he turned around. As Grim approached, Prism returned the huge grin on his lover's face.
"What did they say?" Prism asked as Grim reined in.
"They said that Neredos will see us, and we're allowed to bring everyone inside, as long as we turn over our weapons and accept a full escort," Grim reported.
"That was easy," Prism said, glancing toward the Everbright City with surprise.
Grim shrugged. "They didn't seem like enemies. Neredos was working on an alliance with Ultaka just before the revolution, so I saw little reason to tiptoe around the issue."
"Yes, but did you have to ride out without any protection at all?" Prism asked sourly.
"Even if they attacked me, do you really think they'd be able to kill me?" Grim asked, chuckling. "I've been dancing with demons for two years now, and these are just normal soldiers. Not even well-trained ones, by the looks of them." He glanced back at the barricades, where several of the soldiers almost seemed to be asleep at their posts.
Prism sighed and said, "I suppose I can't deny that the risk was minimal, but I'm still not happy about it."
"Then you should've ridden out to protect me," Grim replied, grinning. "Oh wait, you did."
Prism blinked at the sudden wave of erotic emotion coming through their bond. "When I get you in bed tonight, you're going to be punished for that one . . ." he growled.
"I sure hope so," Grim replied, snickering. "Now, how about you and I return to the others. I'm sure they're waiting to find out what we're talking about."
"Maybe we should leave out the part about our sex lives?" Prism suggested.
"And miss the chance to watch Sylv blush?" Grim replied.
Laughing, they turned their horses toward the hills and rode back to the group. They wisely concealed their smiles as they drew near, noting the disdainful looks on the faces of the others.
"Could you to not be so hasty next time?" Veil asked as Prism and Grim drew rein.
"Was that a request or an order, Veil?" Grim replied sharply.
Veil sighed and replied, "A request. Now, would you mind telling us what they said?"
Grim quickly relayed all the details he'd received from the Oligani soldiers. He added a few more that he'd left out with Prism, such as implying that Neredos had expected them and left these instructions in anticipation of their arrival.
Of course, considering the resourcefulness Neredos and his group had shown so far, this was hardly a surprise to anyone in the Ultakan group. They accepted this news with little more than thoughtful frowns, with Sylvaire frowning most of all.
Wayar was not far behind, however, as he said, "I suppose it's as good as we could expect. I don't know that I'm comfortable leaving behind all of our weapons, though."
"We still have Grim, Prism, and myself," Veil said. "We're hardly defenseless. And we'll leave most of the troops out here in case we're in need of a rescue."
"And I thought you were a better judge of martial prowess, Wayar," Morga said. "If you don't think an Elrok can hold his own in battle, why do you always put us on the front lines?"
"Fair enough point, I suppose," Wayar conceded, and his trademark emotionless grin returned. "Very well, if we're all in agreement, then I suppose we can enter at any time."
"Let's get this over with," Grim said, turning his horse back toward the city. "The sooner we see Neredos, the sooner we can get back to this war."
With that, he galloped toward the city once more. This time, Prism didn't hesitate to follow. The others would come when they were ready, but Grim and Prism always led the way these days.
"The representatives from Ultaka have arrived, as you expected."
Neredos looked up to see Odiran standing before him. How the young man had managed to enter without making a sound, Neredos didn't know, but he hoped he'd find out soon. He was sick of finding people in places he shouldn't. That was happening far too often for his tastes.
"They are a few days later than I expected, actually," Neredos replied. "I was certain meeting with us would be their immediate concern."
Odiran appeared bored by Neredos' musings. He waved them aside and said, "Yes, but they are here, nonetheless. According to our forward scouts, Lady Veil herself has come."
Neredos rose to his feet on creaking limbs that hadn't creaked like that before. "Ah . . ." he said, hoping the expression of enlightenment would cover his groan of pain. "Then that explains the delay. I expected to see a diplomat come in her stead. As the leader of Ultakan resistance against the demons, it makes sense that it would take longer to assemble her honor guard, and to put matters of state on hold."
"They are crossing the edge of Kallen now, Neredos," Odiran said. "Regardless of the factors bringing them to us, we must deal with them in our immediacy."
Neredos nodded. He appreciated this orderly aspect of Odiran's, though he still betrayed his youth by using such phrases as 'in our immediacy' instead of realizing that most adults simply said 'now'. Odiran had a desire to appear older than he was, and he took every opportunity to fulfill that desire. Sometimes this showed in positive ways, fortunately. Odiran did not dwell on the past, as he considered it childish to do so. The present was the only thing that mattered to him.
"Did the soldiers relay the instructions?" Neredos asked.
"Yes, they're bringing Veil inside now," Odiran replied as if it was already obvious.
"Then I suppose you and I had best get down to the city, don't you think, Odiran?" Neredos said, rising to his feet and clapping Odiran on the arm. Odiran stiffened immediately. After feeling Odiran's reaction, Neredos extended the gesture, resting his hand gently on Odiran's shoulder.
"Indeed," Odiran replied stiffly, then started to turn but paused until Neredos released his grip.
Together they made their way to the edge of the Everbright City. At several points along that edge, temporary pully systems had been built to create elevators to the ruins below. It had been a simple feat for Neredos' engineers, especially with the labor force they currently had available. Now it was easy for people to travel to and from the city or to transport supplies.
Neredos and Odiran had a dedicated elevator waiting for them. They'd had one on standby for nearly two weeks, ever since Neredos first declared that the Ultakans—though not Veil—would be arriving soon. He'd allowed room for error, knowing that his own prediction could be off, though not by much. He had only been off by a few days, but there were factors he'd not expected.
But Veil herself had come. What a surprise! Neredos had wondered for nearly two years about the mysterious noblewoman who had managed to gain control of Ultaka. She had to be a formidable woman indeed, and Neredos would have to be at the top of his game to obtain the result he wanted from this encounter.
What he hoped for was a shared vision with Veil about how they would win this war. Neredos didn't plan on asking for much in return but would settle for nothing less than allowing his residents to stay in Ultaka, if they desired. But that thought only increased his anxiety.
They'd planned ceremony and pomp, as if these were normal times with normal rules of diplomacy. Neredos didn't have any real desire to impress Veil; he only wanted her cooperation. But still Neredos walked straight for the one building still standing in Kallen that had an intact roof.
There were several holes in the walls, however. Odiran had ordered that these walls be repaired as soon as possible once Neredos was certain an Ultakan representative would be coming. They had been patched together with rubble and mortar, and now the building was whole again.
It would have to suffice for their grand hall. Though there were many such places available in the Everbright City, until Neredos and Odiran were certain that Veil and her company could be trusted, they would not be allowed entrance to the city above. No, Kallen would have to do. But did they really need all the ceremony?
The thought continued to weigh on Neredos' mind as they entered the building and assumed their spots in the throne room. That was what Odiran had called it anyway. It was the second-largest room in the building, and once cleared of rubble the beams holding the ceiling had been decorated with two banners.
One bore a sunburst of golden yellow on red. It was supposed to signify the Everbright City and Neredos himself, or so Odiran said. The other was a black banner with white trim. Odiran had mentioned that he preferred simplicity, and there was little reason to adorn his with any symbol at all.
As soon as they were both seated—Neredos in his red-cushioned and dark wood armchair and Odiran in his ornately carved wooden chair beside it—Neredos leaned over to Odiran and asked, "Don't you think the titles we selected are a bit too pompous?"
Odiran stared at Neredos like he was an idiot. "We discussed this, Neredos. At length. If we want to make sure that Ultaka respects us, we can't come here as refugees. We are a colony, here to ally ourselves to the native power."
"Still, I'm not fond of the title," Neredos grumbled.
"You'll grow into it, I'm sure," Odiran replied. "Those who reside within your city already look to you as their one and only leader. You've already done so much for them, so who else would lead them?"
"I notice you keep using the word 'them'. I trust that means that you don't afford me the same respect?" Neredos asked.
Odiran offered Neredos a rare genuine smile. "Would you believe me if I told such a lie?"
Neredos chuckled and replied, "Definitely not."
"Titles can be inspiring," Odiran said, turning to face forward again.
"I was never particularly inspired by them," Neredos replied.
"Well, you're not one of the simple ones, are you?" Odiran stated, more than asked. "You've always tended toward complex things. But trust me, in times of crisis, the people need a leader. And it's a lot easier to respect a leader if he has a proper title."
Neredos snorted and said, "But titles don't solve anything."
"Inspiration alone can be a solution," Odiran countered.
Neredos chewed on that thought for a moment, wondering at the truth of it. On the one hand, he had seen many intelligent people give their lives for patriotism, which was something he could not understand for himself. Why people would die for a nation was beyond him.
But they must have been inspired to do so. Perhaps that was why people liked reading about heroes of war or watching newscasts of politicians' speeches. They felt inspired to action, or inspired to perpetuate the actions of others, anyway.
Foolish thoughts, as far as Neredos was concerned. In his mind, the individual had to decide for themselves which way they wanted to act. They had to decide what king of world they wanted to create. That was the only way forward.
But if the people didn't want to choose their actions, perhaps it was better if those actions were chosen for them. Perhaps. He glanced at Odiran and found the young man sitting confidently and facing the door. Calm and collected, as always. Odiran was always three steps ahead of everyone else. Did that make him better or worse for deciding the fate of others?
The door at the far side of the room opened. An older woman, to whom Neredos had assigned the office of herald, walked through it and immediately bowed once inside. After straightening, she proclaimed, "To the Shining King Neredos of the Everbright City and Underking Odiran thulu'Khant of Oligan, I present the Lady Veillynn of Ultaka, and her entourage. Lord Grimfaeth of Ultaka, Grandmaster Prism of the Order of the Mountain, General Wayar Fashalmanis of Ultaka, Chief Morga of the Lion Clan, and Edrar Valihkrabin of the Southern Gor."
The second-most beautiful woman Neredos had ever seen walked through the door. Veil's skin glittered like diamonds beneath her white-blonde hair. Even though she was dressed in riding clothes, they had been kept as clean as the road would allow. In her case, the road had apparently bent to her will and thrown little dust at her at all. She had eyes as sharp as daggers, but they were sheathed. Neredos was left without any doubt as to how quickly she could draw them, however.
Both men following immediately behind her were just as impressive in their own ways. A human wrapped in cloth and leather, obscuring his form where his stance did not. This must be Prism, the Grandmaster of the Order of the Mountain. A formidable man, certainly, but he walked as if the ceremony mattered little to him at all. He was here to defend the mission, not to deal with Neredos.
As Neredos turned his attention to Grimfaeth, he felt his first moment of indecision. He didn't know what to make of the man who was so clearly Veil's brother. He had all the same features, the same beauty and resonance, but he was somehow . . . different. Detached almost. Neredos decided Grim would bear watching, to determine if he was a threat or not.
The Elrok was a man of quiet dignity. Circumstance had led Neredos to study various aspects of Elrok culture since the war began. The engraved tattoos on Morga's body indicated that he was not only Chief of Lions but had been a Sub-Fletcher before. That marked Morga to be a powerful warrior indeed, and likely more than capable of killing most everyone in this room.
Neither of the others gained Neredos' attention. The Gor Chief was an old veteran, for certain, but lacking his weapons he would be easy enough to handle. The other Human, General Wayar, gave Neredos pause for only a moment. Just long enough for Neredos to figure out that the reason he didn't like the man was that he smiled as often as Odiran didn't. Too much.
"Thank you for receiving us so warmly, King Neredos," Veil said, presenting herself to Neredos directly and bowing slightly. "I was pleased to find you so open to diplomacy. Thank you for offering to feed the rest of my soldiers."
Neredos stood and stepped forward, with Odiran following smoothly behind. Stopping after walking forward several feet, Neredos said, "You are welcome to our halls, though sparse they may be in this age. We've prepared a small feast to welcome you. It is a humble affair, given the state of the world, but it will hopefully be enough to sate you after your long journey."
"Diplomacy would suit me better than food," Veil replied, looking up to meet Neredos' gaze. She'd drawn the blades in her eyes just enough to show their steel, then sheathed them again. "But in the interest of getting to know one another, we will accept your gracious offer."
"Then, if you'll please join me in the next room," Neredos said, gesturing to a door. It led to the largest room, where a long table had been set for the occasion. The cooks and servants had been on standby during the past two weeks as well, ready to throw a feast together at a moment's notice.
Guards stepped forward to form an escort for the party. With Veil taking the lead again, they left for the dining hall.
"Accept . . ." Odiran muttered so only Neredos could hear. "Who does she think she is?"
"A visiting dignitary, with a title," Neredos said, "and a far more legitimate one than ours. She knows it, too, and that is where your ploy backfires, Odiran. We're dealing with an actual noblewoman, not some peasant who would be King like we are."
"I don't trust her, Neredos," Odiran said.
"I do. I see more reason to trust her than anyone I've seen in a long time. She knows who she is, she knows who we are, and she doesn't care. She's here to talk, and that's exactly what I want to do," Neredos replied.
They followed the group after everyone else had been directed to their seats. As Neredos and Odiran entered, each of their visitors were standing before their chairs. Only after Neredos and Odiran took their seats at the head of the table did the others take theirs.
Before the meal was served, a lit candle was passed around the table, each person directed to place their hand over the flame to prove they were not one of the Vhor. Only Wayar originally declined, saying that he'd been afraid of fire ever since he was a boy. After Neredos and Odiran insisted, however, he stuck his gloved hand over the flame and held it there for several seconds. This was enough to satisfy Neredos, although Odiran still seemed unconvinced.
Neredos wanted to scream at the absurdity of it all, but instead he began talking about the soup course. It was the proper thing to do.
Eventually, conversation started to move away from benign platitudes and small talk. It was shortly into this period that Veil asked, "So, tell me, Neredos, how was your voyage across the ocean?"
"It went surprisingly well, albeit slow," Neredos said. "I'm sure it is a matter of our numbers. Our numbers protected us from demons and made us take much longer to arrive. We barely made it here in time for the planting season, but at least we managed to make use of some of the land."
"We have only recently been able to return some attention to farming ourselves, and we ask that for the time being you do not interfere with our farmers. We are open to trade negotiations, however, should you need anything," Veil replied.
"How generous," Odiran muttered. This time he did not make an effort to conceal his words, and Veil glanced at him with surprise.
"Underking Odiran is skeptical about your willingness to ally yourselves with us," Neredos explained, resisting the urge to glare at his associate. He was sick of this farce, and it was time to shatter it as he had every other illusion in his life. Meeting Veil's eyes, he continued. "I have never borne the misfortune of being labeled a diplomat, and I don't intend to play this by traditional political maneuverings. We have come to your land because we believe we are stronger together, and I don't wish to waste our time talking about such foolish things as trade agreements. Of course, we're willing to make trade agreements if necessary, but more importantly, are you willing to work with us to defeat the demons?"
"Yes," Veil replied immediately, and her face showed her complete relief. "And I appreciate you speaking your mind. I am so tired of politics, and I do not mind saying so in this company. We have all fought long and hard over these years, and that's what has earned us this right to be in the room together. But every single citizen still living has earned that right as well. This is not about politics anymore, is it? No, it's about survival. For all of us."
Neredos chuckled softly and replied, "Well said, Lady Veil. I think we can all agree then to push our doubts aside and figure out how to win this war."
"I couldn't agree more," Grim and Morga said at once. They looked at each other in surprise, forgetting everyone else around them. Neredos put them out of his mind, his attention on Veil.
"For the first time in three years, I actually have hope that this war might be winnable," Veil said. "And I cannot thank you enough for giving me that gift, King Neredos."
That relaxed the tension in the room like ice melting away in Spring. They moved through the courses of the meal, everyone engaging in conversation, having moved past the rigid small talk from before. All was going well until a commotion sounded from the other room.
"Odiran, did you ask for refreshments?" Neredos asked.
Odiran shook his head, staring toward the door with equal confusion. "I did not."
One of the eagle riders entered the room, bowing immediately to Neredos and Odiran before relaying her message. "My Kings, I come bearing unfortunate news. Khadrun is under siege. It was attacked shortly after the Lady Veil's party left the city."
Veil rose to her feet, addressing the woman directly. "By the Blood, what happened?"
"It seems the demons broke through the lines on the southwest; a huge wave of them," the eagle rider applied. "The scout reported that they are sweeping over the walls with a frenzy unlike anything we've yet seen."
"We'll martial our forces immediately. We will go to their defense," Neredos said. Turning to the eagle rider, he said, "Relay my orders to the Everbright City, and get as many soldiers on their way south as soon as possible."
"It's nearly a week's hard ride away," Wayar said, shaking his head. "The city is already doomed. We will have to stop the demons elsewhere. Hopefully we can rendezvous with whatever survivors may have escaped."
"We're faster than horsemen, General. We will send eagles first, and the rest of us will travel on foot. We'll adjust our battle plan as we go," Neredos said, walking toward the edge of the room.
"Do you think it's wise for you to leave the city at this time, Neredos?" Odiran asked.
"People are in trouble, Odiran," Neredos said. "The war is all that matters right now. I leave our people in your capable hands, but for now I go to battle."
New scouting reports halted the advance of Neredos' forces, and they returned to the Kallen the same day they left it. Khadrun was taken, and razed to the ground like so many other cities had been. But Ultakan forces had managed to regroup to the northeast, led by Yatha and her cavalry. They were holding steady now, having defeated the tremendous force that had come against the city.
Little of the news was good. Many had died in the attack, including most of Veil's bureaucratic leadership. Despite what that meant for the war, there was one other death which affected Veil even more.
She didn't bother looking up from her room in the Everbright City when the door opened. She knew it was Grim, just from his presence. He might've changed over the past few years, but enough of him remained that he still brought the same feeling to a room when he entered it.
"Tellen is dead," Veil said softly. She was up against the wall, staring at the floor, numb and uncertain about what to do next.
"I heard," Grim said, approaching her. He stopped several feet in front of her. Veil did not look up. "I'm sorry," Grim went on, "Khadrun is just a smoking ruin now, but he died defending it. I'm sorry I called him 'just a bureaucrat'. He was clearly an honorable man."
"He was more than that," Veil whispered.
"I know that too."
"Why are you here, Grim?" Veil asked, still staring at the floor.
Grim settled next to her and handed her a bottle. It was a label she recognized well. "This was father's favorite wine," Grim said. "I thought you might like to share a bottle. Since Kallen was destroyed by rebels, not by demons, apparently they're still scrounging stuff up from storage rooms buried in rubble. Seems there's still some of the old Ultaka left."
Veil stared at the bottle without taking it. "I've lost so many people, Grim."
"Consider one no longer lost," Grim replied, uncorking the bottle and taking a sip.
She finally looked up at him, finding his eyes unreadable in her current state. "Does that mean you forgive me? Is this a matter of pity?"
Grim gestured with a bottle, and after Veil took it, he said, "No. But it is a matter of you understanding loss. You want to know why I killed someone. I did it for the love of my life. What would you do to bring Tellen back?"
"Anything. Anything at all," Veil said, taking a sip of the wine. It was a good vintage, and she followed it with a much heartier gulp.
"There is one thing a Fedain is completely incapable of doing. We can't bring anyone back from the dead, not if they've been dead too long, anyway," Grim replied, taking the wine back and drinking from the bottle before handing it to Veil again. "When I killed that man back at the Temple, I was presented with a choice. I chose to save the life of the man I loved, because I knew I couldn't bring him back if I failed to save him."
Veil nodded slightly. "I understand, Grim. I only wish . . ." Her stomach was tied in knots with her emotions. Hands shaking, she lifted the bottle to her lips again, taking a long drink from it.
"What?" Grim asked.
"I only wish I'd been ready to be a mother," Veil replied. Overcome by the emptiness she felt inside of her soul, heart, and womb, she collapsed against Grim's shoulder, wetting it with tears. He wrapped his arm around her, and both cried until their hearts were as empty as the bottle they finished between them.
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