Old men make no war

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Old men make no war

Post by drowking » Tue Aug 08, 2023 4:59 pm

I - Enter Empyrean

Magnus woke up abruptly, dripping sweat, hands fisted, eyes wide, teeth gritted. He was instantly awake, a trick he learned (or had to) during his time at the civil war. He quickly scanned the room and realized it was his own. No soldiers, no weapons drawn, no screams of agony, no corpses - nothing. It was only a dream; just another dream of war.

And Magnus... Sitting on his bed, Magnus sighed. It was not a sigh of relief, but disappointment. His heart was racing, pounding inside his chest, a testimony of life itself, pumping blood, adrenaline and courage into his muscles. Damn. He felt alive. That sensation... It had been a while.

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.

He got up and walked to the basin, washed his face and peered into the cracked mirror on the wall. His fragmented image stared right back. He grimmaced at his reflection. At the gray hair and gray beard. At the wrinkles masking the scars. To think he used to be so proud of them in the past, showing them off like a badge of honor, a memento, a reminder that he survived and came on top. What happened to those times, to that pride?

- Fuck - he uttered at the mirror. - I'm a ruin.

As always, he fought those nostalgic thoughts and replaced them with the matters of the day. The farm, the fence in need of repairs, the livestock, the locusts devouring his crops... These were his problems now. This was his life.

Everything ensued in a mechanical flow, almost automatic. He did his morning exercise routine, got dressed, ate his breakfast, put on the strawhat and, before heading out, said his prayers to the Father.

"One more day", he thought. "One day less."

Truth be told, secretly Magnus longed for life. Not this one, of course. This, which he was living now... This modest and tedious, monastic life... This was worse than death. To Magnus, this was a disgraceful way for a Warlord to end his days: in poverty and anonymity. A fucking farmer. A peasant.

He missed his old life. He missed the Brotherhood.

* * *

II - Potency

- Mr. Empyrean! Mr. Empyrean! - the boy called out, shouting at the top of his lungs.

It was Lil' Thomas, the son of the butcher. Magnus wiped his forehead and looked over, leaning against the rusty hoe. The people from the village didn't disturb him much here, unless they needed his help, usually in a matter that required brute strength. Nowadays those were all the uses Magnus got for any potency left in his veins.

- Oi! Slow down, boyo, catch your breath - he said. - What is the problem?

- Mr. Empyrean, there are some men in the village. They're asking about you.

- For me specifically? What do they want?

- I don't know, sir. I think they want to talk to you.

- What did they look like?

- I don't know, Mr. Empyrean, they're all hooded.

- Hmm. What is the color of their hoods?

- Red, sir. A deep red.

Magnus expression sombered and he released the hoe, which fell against the dirt. He knew this day would come. It took them long enough.

- Listen to me, boyo. Listen very closely - he said. - I want you to run back home and tell everyone you see on your way to go inside and stay inside. Do you understand?

- But...

- No. No buts. Just go.

- Look, sir! It's them! - Lil' Thomas said, pointing. - They're coming!

Magnus turned to look. Four hooded riders were approaching, riding armored stallions. The former Warlord gritted his teeth. "That ain't a deep red", he thought. "That's crimson".

- Thomas, get inside my house. Now.

- But, sir, I...

- Don't make me toss you through the window; I just fixed it. Go. I'll handle this.

- Are they dangerous, sir?

- We'll see.

Lil' Thomas ran in, but stayed by the half closed door, watching. Magnus observed the boy go inside, picked up his hoe, walked towards the farm gates and waited. As the four riders approached, Magnus started to assess the situation: chainmails, two crossbows, a longsword and a spear. The horses seemed strong, but looked tired; these riders must have been on the road for a while. He did not wait for them to start. "Take initiative, to take control", he thought to himself.

- 'Lo there, friends! Good day! - he greeted them. - Strange place to see Crimson Dawn soldiers. I was told you were looking for me. Well, you found me. How may this humble farmer serve you today?

The two rangers took aim with their crossbows, but the one wielding the spear raised a hand to halt them. Magnus assumed he was the leader and turned to face him. In doing so, he took a good look at the spear; he fucking knew that spear.

- Lucretius? - Magnus inquired, quirking a brow.

What the hell was Lucretius doing wearing crimson? Magnus hadn't seen him in twenty years.

- For fuck's sake, Magnus, you're a hard man to find - Lucretius said, lowering his hood, revealing a face as old as Magnus'.

Seeing that gesture, the others also lowered their hoods: two men and a woman, all young, likely inexperienced. Pawns.

- Perhaps I didn't want to be found. Have you considered that? - Magnus said. - What brings you here? Don't tell me you joined the crimson dogs?

A bolt was shot. To the soldiers and Lil Thomas' susprise, Magnus tilted his head to the side, dodging the shot. Lucretius was not surprised at all; he knew Magnus well.

That shot caused something, however. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. It caused his heart to race, faster and faster, as he felt it once again: life. The only way Magnus felt alive was defying death head on. For a time, he was addicted to it. Old times, right? He had changed, right?


- That was not very polite of you, lad - Magnus said, shaking his head, then, turning to his old comrade, asked again: - Did you join them?

- I did. Of course I did. What did you expect me to do? Spend the rest of my days lamenting the end of the Red Brotherhood? Or worse, pretend those days never happened, pretend to live a regular life? As a bloody farmer, Magnus? This is beneath you.

- I retired. Have you seen my corns, though? You lot can take as many as you like, for the trip back. These three skinny fellows here look like they could eat some.

The soldier with the sword looked at Lucretius and said:

- Give the order, sir. I'll take his head for you.

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.

- Sir? Fuck me, you're a commander, Luc? Coming for my head, tsk tsk tsk. And here I was thinking you missed my unrelenting charisma - Magnus provoked, trying to squeeze any information from them.

- The day would come, Empyrean. The Reds should have remained a subsidiary of the Dawn.

- Too bad we didn't want to work for the pig wearing a crown - Magnus replied. - You were one of us, Luc. You were Red once. Why turn Crimson? And why now?

Two more shots fired. A step to the side and a turn, and again he avoided them, but the second one nearly got him. He was getting rusty. Getting old.

- Conscription or death. That is the fate of the red Warlords. I chose the less painful option when they caught me and now is your turn - Lucretius stated, pointing his spear at Magnus. - Decide now, old friend.

- Has any other joined? - Magnus inquired, and he couldn't resist the urge to ask about her: - Meli?

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.

- No, you're the first we sought. Getting rid of the harder tasks first and all that.

- Ah, good, good. Very well. It seems like an easy choice to make - Magnus continued, stepping closer. - I'd rather my corpse feed the worms of this farm, than my potency be used to fatten that pig on the fancy chair. Now, if you'd be so kind, get off my property. I've seeds to plant.

- You'll regret this! - the swordsman shouted, riding forward. - Let's get him while he's unarmed!

Magnus smirked. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.

- Wait, you moron! He's never unar--! - Lucretius tried to warn him, but it was too late.

From behind the door, Lil' Thomas couldn't believe what he saw. He knew Mr. Empyrean was strong, but not that strong. And he did something... Something Lil' Thomas couldn't quite comprehend. Magic? He witnessed Magnus' body glowing red for a moment, as the former Warlord stopped witholding his ki, or potency, as he referred to it. Spreading his legs, he took on a stance and, when the horse got close enough, with a swift spin the hoe hit the side of the animal's head, dropping it to the ground, along with its rider.

Magnus then emited a very loud scream. He wasn't sure that would work, it had been some time and he was out of practice. To unleash one's potency in the voice, a stance technique known as Forceful Shout.

But it worked. It fucking worked.

The shout sent both crossbowmen flying off their saddles before they could load another shot. Their horses panicked, running about. Glowing red again, Magnus' speed seemed to nearly double as he leaped through the air and fell with a knee on the fallen swordsman's chest, sinking it deep. Even from that distance, Lil' Thomas could hear the ribcage breaking in.

- I am never unarmed - Magnus finished Lucretius' sentence for him and began reciting a passage: - "And I shall strike down His foes with all my wrath, armed with nothing but the weapons the Father bestowed upon me at birth".

- What are you waiting for, you idiots?! - Lucretius yelled at the dazed crossbowmen. - Kill him!

- All you have are sticks and stones - Magnus said, standing up from the dead soldier and turning to the other two. - If I take your sticks and stones from you, all that is left is a rag doll!

The crossbowmen reloaded their bowguns quickly. Marching at them, Magnus dodged the first shot. He felt confident, perhaps too confident, and attempted to grab the second one in the air. To show off, to break their will. That was a mistake. This time, it didn't work. He was still strong, sure, but twenty years is a long time. The bolt pierced through his left shoulder; were the soldier's aim any better and it could have cost him a lot more than a new scar.

The pain almost felt like something new. Or rather, like an old acquaintance you meet by chance walking down the street, a bitter-sweet encounter, in which you both don't exactly know what to say to one another.

Right now, even if the pain could speak, Magnus would not listen. He only heard one sound: thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. The sound of life.

He got to the crossbowmen before they could reload. With two quick stabs of his hands, he held and pulled both crossbows from their grasps, disarming them, and threw the weapons several feet away.

- "'Lo and behold, the thousand souls forming a line to enter His realm and receive His judgement, for the Father sees no title, race or age, only volition. In death, we are equals" - Magnus continued, as he punched at their necks, right on the apple, tearing their pharynx and robbing them of the ability to breath. - "That... is the law of Kinurugi".

As Magnus completed the sentence, the rangers collapsed, grasping for air. He turned to face Lucretius, grabbed and broke the bolt off his shoulder. His old friend had a mix of anger and terror in his eyes, not because he was losing, but because Magnus was grinning. The fucker was grinning.

- These deaths are on you, Luc. You killed these kids - Magnus affirmed. - And I should thank you. This event was eye opening, old pal. You are damn right. We can't pretend to be anything other than what we are. And we are killers, aren't we, Luc? Come on, then, may the best old fart win.

Lil' Thomas couldn't watch anymore. He was trembling inside and closed the door. Mr. Empyrean was a monster! The boy tried to cover his ears with his hands, but he couldn't prevent himself from listening to the fight outside.

Suddenly, silence. He peeked through a small opening, to find Magnus holding his side and bleeding profusely. Lucretius was on the ground, his spear splintered, breathing heavily, his face beaten into a red unrecognizable mass.

- You fight like a younger man; nothing held back. Admirable, but mistaken - Magnus said, leaning on his knees to catch his breath. - I almost had forgotten how war tastes like iron.

- That is your own blood, you fucking maniac - babbled Lucretius, through bloodied teeth.

- Precisely. I envy you, old friend. You'll meet the Father before me, after all.

With that said, Magnus leaned down and closed his hands around Lucretius' neck. Lil' Thomas shut the door again and sat on the ground. After a moment, he heard steps and the door opened.

- 'Tis me, boyo, fear not - Magnus said, coming inside, spilling blood everywhere.

- Mr. Empyrean, you... you're hurt!

- I am... out of practice. But don't worry, the Father bestowed me with a restorative miracle, this potency of mine - Magnus said, and upon realizing the boy's confusion, he added: - I heal fast.

Magnus started taking some things out of a chest and stuffing them hurriedly into a leather backpack.

- Are they dead, Mr. Empyrean? - the boy asked. - I didn't know you could fight like that!

- If I may be honest, boyo, I had forgotten I could - Magnus replied. - And they are very dead, yes. Listen, I need a favor from you and yours. Take the keys in that bowel, give them to your parents. The farm is yours, take good care of it, that is the favor. The fence needs repairs, by the way, tell them that too.

- What? Why, sir? Are you leaving?

- I've some old acquaintances to visit and warn. Besides, staying here would only endanger the good people of the village.

Magnus silenced the real reason: the truth was he was bored as fuck. He never truly wanted this. This retirement, this fake life... He never wanted to give up on what they had built together - he, Lucretius, Melissa and Pharlax - but things got complicated, so complicated...

- Sir, can I ask... That man mentioned a Brotherhood. A Red Brotherhood. What is it?

- It was mercenary company. Extinct nowadays.

He carried the backpack over his good shoulder; the wound on the left one was already closing. Not as fast as in his golden years, but it was comforting to reckon this old body of his still had some energy left to spend.

- Will you return? - Lil' Thomas asked.

- Probably not. Good-bye, boyo.

Going out, Magnus grabbed the reigns of his old friends' stallion, climbed onto the saddle and rode off into the keltish pradarie without ever looking back.

* * *

III - Scars

It had been a while since the old Warlord had travelled the countryside. Nothing quite depicts that war better than the countryside of Kelt. He thought he had gotten far enough, but he was wrong.

All the ruined farms. The burnt crops still coughing fumes up into the airs. The heads on pikes decorating the roadside. He wanted to say he still felt something; anything. But he was hollow, there was nothing left; the civil war had taken it from him, twenty years ago. Back when they were still a family - a brotherhood.

He managed to avoid most crimson dogs searching the farmlands. He wondered to himself how Pharlax would be doing, living in that huge ass tower. Of course, Pharlax had the advantage of being an elven wizard of immense power.

At first, Magnus was surprised to climb the hill and find it bare; no mage tower to be seen. But he realized something was off with the light. He stepped forward and touched ahead. He couldn't see the stone, but he could touch it. The tower, it was there. But invisible.

- Fuck's sake - Magnus uttered, finding the door after and knocking. - Open the door, Pharlax! It's me!

No response from within the unseen tower. Magnus started to force the handle and to beat on the door.

- C'mon, old mage! I need to speak to you! The Crimson Dawn is after our asses!

The door unlocked suddenly. Magnus fell inside. He dropped next to a wheelchair, whereupon was sitting his old friend, Pharlax Eigil, the Warlock. Magnus noticed in shock his friend was missing both his legs.

- Yes, Empyrean - said Pharlax. - I know.

* * *

The wizard told him everything. The crimson dogs had found him first, even before they found Lucretius. They couldn't capture or destroy him, but they took something of him. Now Pharlax, an elf, was trapped for all eternity in that broken body...

- Perhaps you should put on the armor - said Magnus, at the end of the story. - It sure helped the old man keep his vigor, even after he lost an arm. He could still move the armor arm and gauntlet. Damnest thing.

- I know, Empyrean. I crafted it - said Pharlax. - Let me remind you, that thing is cursed. It's the reason old man Jed died. I don't know why he wanted the alloy mixed with demon blood and bone, but the end result was disastrous. I'd never touch that thing, unless to destroy it.

- Where is it, anyways?

- Stored away in the old headquarters. Unless the agents of the crown found it first - answered Pharlax, then sighed. - No, I'd never put on that armor... That is just another form of pain. Slower, perhaps.

- Perhaps... Have you any news about Meli?

- Ahh, I was wondering when you would ask about her...

Magnus smirked.

- Is it that obvious? - he inquired.

The old wizard stared into his eyes, then turned his chair around; magically, most likely. He was a master artificer, after all.

- I have none. I am sorry, Empyrean, I cannot help you with that.

- Do you think the Crimson Dawn got to her already?

- I would not know. Perhaps. There is always a chance.

- Why do you have to be so rational sometimes... I still can't believe Luc turned sides.

- I can believe anything coming from you, humans.

- Well, that's harsh - said Magnus, grinning. - Do you still think about it, mate?

- About...?

- The war.

Pharlax sighed and shook his head.

- I know from your perspective the war looks like a life-changing event, where you found new meaning - the elf said. - But to me... How old do you think I am, Magnus? This was hardly my first war. I joined it because... Because I was bored, I must admit, and because I needed specimens to test my spells, my inventions... The Reds were perfect candidates. I didn't think it would matter in the greater scheme of things. Some day, the exploits, the victories and the defeats from this war will be forgotten, like so many others before it. And when the last veteran dies and no one else remembers, it will be like it never happened. Do you have any idea how many human affairs I have witnessed, that "never happened"? After a while, you stop caring.

Magnus looked at him seriously.

- Fucker. I know you're lying. I know, deep down, you cared.

- ...

- You fucking cared about the Brotherhood. Damn, Pharlax. Don't you miss those days?

- No. I am glad they're gone, Magnus. And so should you.

* * *

It turned out his friend didn't need his warning. Magnus wanted to leave, but Pharlax convinced him to stay for the night, if only to recover from the trip and let the horse rest longer. The Warlord knew the elf was lonely. He also knew Pharlax was far too proud and stubborn to admit it.

By the morning, Magnus packed his things and prepared to leave. The wizard had a last favor to ask of his former brother in arms, however.

- Well. I guess this is good-bye, then - said the old Warlord.

- Empyrean - the elf called, as Magnus turned to leave. - I need... I need your help.

Magnus stopped and turned around, an eyebrow quirked. This was unusual. This wasn't Pharlax; the Warlock would never ask for assistance. Something was off. Or maybe...

- I cannot take it - Pharlax continued. - I cannot go on like this. It is torture. I am not brave enough to end it myself. Help me, Empyrean. End this agony. Set me free from this prison, this carcass...

Magnus halted. It pained him to see his friend in that state. The war hadn't taken this from him. This, he could still feel.

- "And you shall not raise arms against your brothers and sisters, for only the Father knows when the time comes, for He is Death and none escape His judgement" - Magnus recited from memory. - I'm sorry, Pharlax. I can't. My faith prohibits me.

- You killed Lucretius. You are a killer.

- I am. And I did. Luc wasn't a brother anymore, though. He joined the Crimson. He betrayed us.

- Betrayed... us? What is there to betray, Magnus? The Brotherhood is over, it is done. It is past now - Pharlax spat at him, his tone filled with disdain. - And brothers? I am not a sibling of yours. I am an elf! I am not your brother! Never was. Never will be. The Brotherhood was but an experience to me. A failed experiment. A grain of sand in the hourglass of the cosmos. And it is over, buried under thousands equally meaningless other grains. And you will soon follow along, you decrepit idiot!

The old Warlord stared into the elf's eyes. He could feel his hands fisting, his potency coursing through his muscles. He could feel the anger, that old comrade of his; he knew it well. Twenty years ago, Magnus would have thrusted a punch through Pharlax' ribcage and tore his heart around, and he'd regret it deeply afterwards. Things were different now. Control comes with maturity... with age. His hands slowly relaxed, his potency dormant once again. The old Warlord sighed.

- You almost got me, old friend. Almost got me angry enough to give in and grant you the freedom you seek - Magnus uttered. - There is only one way you can get it from me: if you attack me first and we both know you won't. Because, deep down, you are still Red to the bone. And that, Pharlax, is what makes us brothers.

The elf clasped the arms of the wheelchair, forcefully, breathing loudly. Not out of anger, but despair; his chance was just there, and now it was lost... perhaps forever.

- Good-bye, old friend - Magnus said, turning to leave.

- Fuck you, Empyrean! - Pharlax shouted behind him. - I meant every word! Every word! Curse you, humans! I have seen your pathetic civilization rise in these lands and I will be here when your kind disappears without a trace!

- Yes, you will. Sitting on that very chair - Magnus said, exiting.

He left the invisible tower. Upon closing the door, it disappeared on the background, as if it was never there. As if it was nothing but a scar long forgotten about.

* * *

IV - Weakness

The closer to the coast he got, the more civilized the land became. The world passed fast under the hooves of Luc's stallion. He passed many cities, some fallen, some still standing. He passed battlefields, now cold and empty. If he focused long enough, he could still hear them; the dead, the chaos. The war. Few traces of it laying around: a rusty sword stabbing the ground, a rotten hand still clasping a shield that failed to protect the wielder when it mattered the most, a dismantled catapult, the skull of a horse still covered by barding.

Those were somewhat recent. No doubt any vestige from twenty years ago were gone now. A memory few still kept and even fewer clinged to. Pharlax was right. It would all be forgotten eventually, consumed by time and oblivion. He... would be forgotten.

Did she forget him already...?

He spent months searching the countryside, inquiring former contacts, searching villages on the borders of the kingdom, retracing their steps from twenty years ago. It cost him most of his savings and nearly cost him his sanity, but he managed to locate her somehow. But to the old warlord that was just destiny working in its mysterious ways.

He tied the horse outside and approached the gates on foot. It was nice house; Meli deserved it. With a sudden leap, Magnus stepped up against the wall and propelled himself over it, landing on his feet on the other side. It had its own field, and a garden.

And she was there, tending the field. Magnus couldn't believe his eyes. She was there. After twenty years.

- 'Lo, Meli - he greeted, approaching her. - 'Tis been a while.

At first, she turned around wielding the scythe and ready to strike, but then she realized who it was. But how...? How could it be...?

- Magnus...? - she asked.

- 'Tis me, Meli.

- Mag...? What are you doing here? - she continued. - How did you get in?

- I jumped over the wall. Can we talk for a bit?

- Magnus, what the fuck? You can't reapear out of nowhere, jumping over my wall, like this. What gives you the right?

He looked around the field. She had all kinds of crops there. Perhaps too many for a single person to manage.

- You living on your own out here? - he asked.

She hit on the side of his arm with the pole of the scythe.

- I don't have to tell you anything, Magnus - she replied. - Twenty years. Twenty fucking years.

- I know.

- Not a single word, or letter, or anything. Nothing. Twenty years.

- I know...

- And now you come back like this? Like nothing happened? What gives you the right?

- Listen, I'm not looking for an excuse, I was looking for you - he said.

- Why?

- The Crimson Dawn are hunting down former Reds, it seems. Luc sold us.

- The rat. The fucking rat. I should have known.

- Don't worry. Something tells me Lucretius won't last long in his new line of work - said the old warlord. - You doing good out here?

Her hair had turned to grey, like his, in those twenty years. She conserved much of her beauty, but like him she was a product of the war. The scars mixed with the wrinkles, in her angry expression staring straight at him.

- I suppose - she said. - Magnus, you better go.

- C'mon, Melissa, didn't you miss me? - he asked, trying to grab her waist and pull her close, but the woman agily dodged aside.

As she did, Magnus heard steps approaching from behind. He turned quickly to find a pair of children, a girl and a boy, running from the house to the garden, calling for Meli, calling for mom.

- A lot has changed, Magnus - she said, wrapping her arms around the kids, protectively, as they surrounded her.

- You.. You're a mother.

- And a wife - Melli added. - As I said, a lot has changed, Magnus, while you were away.

- I'll be damned. Luc dead. Pharlax a cripple. And you married. Fuck me, it is truly the end of the Red Brotherhood - he said, turning around. - I'm sorry for barging in, Melli. I'll be taking my leave now.

She didn't say a word. She didn't try to prevent him or anything; she just stood there and watched him go for the second time. Deep down, Magnus acknowledged his mistake and that's what angered him the most. The old Warlord still conserved some of his former pride, for better or worse.

He climbed the wall and fell on his feet on the other side. As he meant to leave, he heard her voice behind him.

- Magnus, wait - Melli called out.

He stopped, but didn't turn.

- Listen - she said, from behind the gates. - Life is complicated. I'm sorry, okay? Twenty years is a fucking long time. I moved on. And you should too. I know the sacrifices you've made for me, for us, but that was before. I hope, some day, we can still be friends.

- I'm leaving Kelt - he announced. - You're never gonna see me again.

* * *

V - Red to the bone

The headquarters were still untouched. It was a miracle that the Crimson Dogs hadn't found it yet. The underground bunker with all their stuff. Melli's adamantite daggers were here, on display. Some of Pharlax's wands, the ones he left behind, at least. Lucretius' spear collection. And old man Jed's sanguine armor. All gathering dust, all forgotten to the ages.

He said fuck it. Fuck it all. To hell with it all. He grabbed those items, knowing far too well he could make a sum out of them. He got all of them, only the armor was left.

Magnus stared at the darkness in the void sockets of the skull helmet and frowned. That armor gave him the creeps in the past. Jed would never take it off, ever. Some say he was obsessed with it. Magnus never quite understood it, but fuck it also.

"Let's find out", he thought to himself.

That's when it happened. He heard a voice, a sweet, inviting voice, call his name.


It never happened again. Through the years he woud always return to that moment, asking himself if he had imagined that or if the armor really spoke to him. The fact is, for whatever reason, Magnus Empyrean, a man who hated armor, decided to put it on out of his own volition.

And it fit like a glove.

Something had changed. He felt young again, in that armor. Stronger, faster, smarter... What in the nine hells was that? What did Pharlax create? The thoughts of war visited him once again and he felt his heart pounding on his chest.

He knew it then: he needed war. He needed it as much as he needed air. It was his office, where he existed. And if he couldn't fight in this civil war anymore, he'd find another or create a war of his own making. He was getting too old, at the very least he wanted to fight one last time, in one last great war.

Perhaps as the chapter of the Red Brotherhood closes in Kelt, it reopens somewhere else. Images of the mainland flooded Magnus' thoughts, still within the sanguine armor, as he finds Jed's old documents and ship ticket to Mercadia, land of opportunity...

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