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Tales of the Elder Scrolls: Chapter Three

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The Hunt

Nobody came to the tiny town of Thurnlim for pleasure. Sporting a single street of filthy brown buildings and surrounded by deadly and unexplored swamplands, it wasn’t the sort of place that invited tourism. Travelers would pass through every so often, but always for reasons of blood or gold. Sometimes both.

Thurnlim had been established many years ago as a trading post between Morrowind and Black Marsh. Dunmer merchants had first settled the relatively dry patch of swamp, hoping to tame the largely unexplored wilderness and perhaps tap into the fabled ancient magicks of the swamp. The lucky ones had left months later without a septim to their name. The unlucky ones…well, best not to dwell on them.

The sinking ruins had been discovered not long after by a tribe of indigenous Argonians. They had repaired the shops and saloon, building them in the manner of their people so that they wouldn’t be torn apart by the shifting earth, and reopened the settlement for business. It had since become a last refuge and neutral ground for the refuse of Morrowind and Nibenay. If you needed to disappear, the lizards of Thurnlim would help you. If you wanted a neutral ground to negotiate a tough slave trade, Thurnlim was the place for you. If you wanted someone found, you could be sure a guy knew a guy in Thurnlim.

Dour-Gleam, the barkeeper, had seen all sorts pass through the little town in his time. He was one of the Argonians who had been there since the beginning. Over the years he’d served slavers and murderers and haunted men. Sometimes he’d find a tenant dead in the morning, and he'd drag the body down to the swamps. It was just part of the job. What the outsiders did to each other didn’t bother him too much. Bar fights were an infrequent nuisance, now that word had got around that if you smashed up the Mangy Greyskin saloon you might just wake up the next morning with a raging headache somewhere in the trackless wilderness of the marsh with the Naga closing in. It just wasn't good business to irritate the guy serving your drinks.

It didn’t pay to antagonize the bartender, but even so, you didn’t survive a dozen years in the roughest town this side of Elsweyr without developing a nose for trouble, and recently the stink had been hanging over the town like a dense fog. Something was up. Dour-Gleam wasn't an easy lizard to phase, but there was something terribly wrong about the cloaked traveler who had passed through a few days earlier. Maybe it was the package he had been carrying. Maybe it was the unusual iconography on his faded robes. Maybe it was the slow, sonorous voice with which he had ordered a room and nothing more. Maybe it was just an old Argonian's instinct. Anyway, ever since he had passed on into the deeper marsh, Dour-Gleam could feel the tension building. It was the feeling you got just before a terrible storm, the sort that could wipe entire tribes away before it was through.

When he saw the first stranger pass through the double swinging doors that morning, he knew that storm was about to break.

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Aurelius Vindictus was not surprised by the lack of excitement in the bar when he walked in. He didn't care for excitement anyway, as long as a bar served its purpose, excitement was not needed. The barkeep had, from what he could tell, a good hold on what went on in his bar.

Aurelius examined the saloon closely, there was the typical things one would find in a bar, there were gamblers hoping to leave with more septims than they came in with, which is often not the case. Lonely men flirting with the saloon maids, hoping to get a little kiss on the cheek if not a little more. And there were those who just wish to drink away their sins and sorrows in as many bottles of mazte as possible. Nothing different from every other saloon he's been in on this venture.

He then pulled his cloak tighter around him and pulled his wide-brimmed hat down a little and proceeded to the bar, being sure to keep an eye out for anyone looking to cause him trouble.

"Glass of sujamma barkeep, mixed with half a shot of brandy." Aurelius stated, somewhat gruffly, and sat down on the barstool between an old man and a young kid that's been eyeing the pretty showgirl dealing cards.

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Sujamma and brandy. Dour-Gleam noted the stranger's choice, as well as his Cyrodiilic features, his quick eyes and the way he pulled his hat down to shadow his face. The barkeep's expression remained impassive as only an Argonian's could as he reached over to a tap beneath the counter and mixed the stranger his drink, but already his cold, reptilian mind was constructing a rough idea of who his customer was.

"Glass of sujamma with a half shot of brandy, right here." He placed the glass neatly on the counter, then leaned forward in what mannish races usually saw as a friendly manner, his arms folded and resting on the surface of the bar. He thought he probably already knew the answer, but he asked anyway. Protocol was important, even among thieves and cutthroats. "Is there anything else I can help you with?" He'll be looking for someone, thought the lizard, or else something.

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Aurelius took hold of the glass in his hand and pulled it up to his face, sniffing the alcoholic mix discreetly before taking a sip.

"You can help me by providing me with your name. It is typically considered good manners to introduce oneself before starting idle chat with another." Aurelius took another swig of his drink and scratched the beard that's beginning to grow from one ear, across his mouth to the other.

"You can call me Aurelius."

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Dour-Gleam's expression didn't change. Instead he said "Something you'll pick up about Thurnlim, stranger." He placed the slightest of inflection on the last word. "Names don't count for much here. But mine's Dour-Gleam, since you ask. Now, something tells me you're looking for something. Part of my job is keeping track of everyone and everything that passes through this little town. Maybe I can help you out, but it'll cost you. Ten drakes for the drink, to start."

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"Well that suits me just fine," Aurelius said,"It's a good thing I come prepared for this." Aurelius then removed 700 drakes from his coin pouch and laid them on the bar, discreetly so as not to raise any eyebrows. "That should pay for the drink, a room if you have one, and whatever information you have." Aurelius put a particular emphasis on the last bit stated. "All you need to know about me is that I'm a tracker by trade and my employer wants me to find someone. And I have good reason to believe he passed through here recently." He then took another sip of his drink. "So what do you have for me Dour-Gleam?"

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The Argonian casually swept the money into a pocket on his apron and leaned back. "Lots of people come through Thurnlim. A lot of them are looking for a new name, maybe a new face. Some of them are just hiding out from the law. But something tells me you're not looking for them." Dour-Gleam allowed his eyes to pass casually over the crowded room. "A strange man passed through a few days ago. He wore some very unusual robes with runes all down the sides. Couldn't tell you much about his face, but his voice was deep as the marsh. He didn't talk to anyone, just ordered a room and was gone before dawn." Dour-Gleam looked back at his customer. "He had a small wooden chest that he didn't want anyone to see."

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After tracking him for hundreds of miles Aurelius had finally found him. It was, admittedly, difficult. When his employer had told him what the target was and what he was carrying with him Aurelius was a little skeptical and assumed it an easy contract. He was quickly proven wrong.

His target was skilled in covering his tracks. For once, Aurelius was impressed at the level of difficulty this hunt had jumped to. And with the reward his employer was offering he could retire comfortably in the mountains of Skyrim like he always wanted to.

Taking another drink he looked back at the Argonian, "Where did he go?" Aurelius asked, his voice serious to the point of being stern.

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Dour-Gleam paused before answering, examining the visitor's face and weighing his words. Finally, he answered "He didn't say, but I've heard some tell they saw a cloaked figure heading south by southeast the next morning. A handful of cutthroats tried to follow him, as it happens, but they haven't come back." He turned back to his work behind the counter. "Will there be anything else?"

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"South by southeast?" said the Imperial, "there's nothing of importance that I know of in that direction besides swamp that's denser than Hircine's hide." Aurelius then looked down at his near empty glass and pondered his options. He could walk out of the bar now and catch up to his target before he gets too far into the swamp.

Conversely, it was getting late and traveling through thick swamp at night is suicide, especially with the Naga about in the swamplands. Plus he had his . . . condition to think about.

"I'll take a room for the night. No need getting myself killed in the swamp when I'm so close to him, in the morning I'll hear about what might interest anyone like him in that direction."

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Dour-Gleam shrugged and untied his apron. "Sure," he said, hanging it on a peg. "I'll show you to your room. Follow me." The lizard led his Cyrodiilic guest up the stairs and down a gallery that overlooked the main floor. "I wouldn't hold out too much hope that you'll learn anything new, but a word to the wise..." They stopped in front of a grimy bedroom with a broken door-hinge. "Black Marsh isn't good for you people. If you go in there unprepared, you'll die. You make sure that you know exactly what you're getting into. Bring weapons. Bring armor. Bring potions. Bring scrolls. Bring every last little thing that might give you an edge. Then..." Another shrug. "Well, I wouldn't favor your odds, but you might at least have a chance. Enjoy your stay."

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"What gave you the impression that I came wearing only the clothes on my back?" Aurelius asked after examining the room Dour-Gleam led him to. It wasn't the worst place he slept in, but it wasn't the best either. The bedframe was in the back left corner and looked like it was about to fall apart, the window was in the back right corner. It was cracked, lacked anyany form of locking mechanism and had one window shade hanging loosely from one nail while the other was on the floor underneath. There was a chest of drawers there as well, though it was half rotten. Aurelius then turned around, walked back down the stairs and out the front door.

The Imperial then looked around the surrounding area. Slightly left of the entrance to the bar he noticed that there were a number of Argonians unconscious around his horse. Poor girl, while in Morrowind she contracted some disease that rendered her mute. But, she was a good horse, no matter how quiet something was, she would be able to kick it into unconciousness before it could lay a hand or claw on her. Walking over to her he ran his hand down her neck and grabbed his sword, crossbow, and saddlebags, throwing the latter over his shoulder. "Good girl." He spoke as he patted his horse again, "We're going to stay the night here alright. So stay safe." Aurelius then walked back to the bar, being sure to tell Dour-Gleam about the out-cold Argonians outside the bar, headed upstairs and set his sword and crossbow next to the bed and shut the door as best he could given the state of it.

Then the tremors started. He ran to the bed and reached his trembling hand into one if the pockets and grabbed a phial. He quickly ripped the cork off the top and gulped down the elixer within. The next minute the trembling subsided, though it had left him winded. He then shoved the cork back into the phial and relpaced it into the saddlebag, placeing the saddlebags alongside his sword and crossbow, and crawled into the bed, turning himself so he could easily defend himself if needed, and went to sleep.

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Dour-Gleam had just finished dragging the would-be horse thieves away from the door when he saw the trio of bandits walk into town. Their eyes darted everywhere, but always returned to the Mangy Greyskin. The Argonian calmly walked back into his establishment, taking care not to indicate that he had seen their interest. A few minutes later they entered and began questioning patrons. Dour-Gleam carried on with his business, for all appearances oblivious to their occasional glances in his direction. Eventually the three met up in one corner, where they held a muted conversation, nodded and left.

Dour-Gleam considered advising his tenants and decided against it. As it happened, the night passed without unusual incident anyway.

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Aurelius awoke from his slumber with renewed energy. Stretching his limbs he reached into his saddlebag, grabbed a cloth rag and began his morning ritual of cleaning his gear. After the daily wipedown he grabbed his stuff and went to the window. There he saw three bandits giving the occasional glance towards him without so much as an effort to make it look sneaky. His nose twitched involuntarily and he proceeded downstairs to the bar.

He set his stuff down next to him and knocked on the bar for Dour-Gleam. "Slept like a dog," Aurelius spoke, with a yawn managing to sneak out mid-sentence,"I'd like to order some breakfast if you offer it. Plus some more information on the surrounding swamp."

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Dour-Gleam nodded. As a servant set to work warming some fatty strips of suspicious meat, the bartender turned to his guest and said "Mostly there's mud and water. A lot of trees. You won't see any Hist, mind, so don't go looking for them. You don't want to meet one anyway. Keep your eyes open for the were-crocodiles, the regular crocodiles, the Naga, the swamp leviathans, pretty much all the snakes, the hackwings, the slimes, the molds, the lizardbeasts, the tanglevines, the rats, the rootworms..." The Argonian paused. "Well, you probably just want to...generally be careful. Thing is, most of your problems live in the mud or under water or don't look like problems until half your face is missing. Don't trust anything just because its not moving, don't eat or drink anything you find and never venture into any deeper water than is absolutely necessary." Dour-Gleam glanced toward the door, where the bandits had been loitering since their arrival. Hopefully they were more interested in his customer than whoever might have been feeding him information. "You'll probably stay alive a little longer with an Argonian guide. You can probably find a few in town, but I can't guarantee they won't bolt once they reach the wilderness."

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Aurelius' nose twitched again. Those bandits were starting to irritate him. He then turned and looked Dour-Gleam square in the eyes and said, "How about I do you a service. I'll take care of the little bandit problem we have and in exchange you point me in the direction of a guide that is trust-worthy and won't leave me for dead in the swamp." He then reached his hand toward the hilt of his sword. "Do we have an agreement?"

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Dour-Gleam considered for a moment. He had already been identified as a problem with these particular three. Chances were good that even if they disappeared, their friends would come to settle the score. But then again he could hardly make things worse. He'd already chosen a side, fool that he was. "Very well." The bartender turned to a servant and hissed something in Jel. The young Argonian nodded and ducked out the back door. "A contact will meet you on the way out of town. He'll be wearing a Telvanni insignia. Now, understand." The lizard pointed at his customer. "There are no guarantees here. He'll try to stop you killing yourself, nothing more." He glanced toward the door again. "Do we have an agreement?"

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"That suits me perfectly. I don't want him to get in my way when the time comes." Aurelius told the Argonian barkeep just before he turned to the door, unsheathing his sword in the process. He targeted the bandits at the other side of the door and started to walk towards them. Realizing they didn't notcie that he had gotten up, Aurelius lowered himself to a low stance and quickened his pace until he was beside the door. There he opened the door, slowly so as not to create any unwanted noise. He then dashed out the door and thrusted the his sword towards the neck of the bandit closest to entrance.

The ambush worked! The tip of Aurelius' blade struck square in the center of his throat, nearly decapitating the bandit. The surprising attack also worked in stunning the other two, giving Aurelius enough time to remove his sword from the dead body and move into the street. The smell of fresh blood in the air made the hair on his neck stand up. The other two bandits followed him into the street, one drawing a war axe and the other drawing a shortsword. The Imperial put his blade up in a defensive stance and readied himself for a retaliatory strike from either bandit over the loss of their friend. Though they would look menacing to anyone untrained in the arts of combat, Aurelius could tell from the way they held their weapons he was superior to them.

The axe bandit swung his weapon overhead toward Aurelius, but he easily blocked the attack by holding his sword up and locking it in the beard of the blunt weapon. The bandit with the shortsword ran towards him, seeing an opportunity to land a critical blow, but a swift kick in the gut knocked the would-be attacker down into the half dirt. In the same motion Aurelius pulled the bandit trying to pry the axe out of lock his sword put it in towards him. Slamming his head against that of the bandit's he staggered his opponent backwards and got ahold on his axe. With the bandit off balance he swung the axe back at the bandit and planted it in its skull. Letting go of the axe he watched as the second bandit fell backwards. Aurelius' nostrels flared and his sense of smell jumped at the sudden burst of adrenaline the fight had given him so far. He turned toward the last bandit on the ground next to him. He was paralized with fear. And Aurelius could smell it. Walking toward the bandit he kicked the shortsword away from him.

"You will carry a message for me," Aurelius told the still paralized bandit. "Tell whoever it is you work for that if he gets in my way, I will not hesitate to kill him in the worst possible way imaginable in this world or in the realms of Oblivion. I know you will remember this message because I know you will remember this." Aurelius took the tip of his index finger and placed it on the cheek of the terrified bandit, pressing down slightly. He then flicked it towards himself and resulting action was enough to leave a scar and make the bandit howl in pain. "Deliver the message." Aurelius shouted to the bandit as he ran with a speed only Kynareth knows. Walking toward the bandit with the axe sprouting from his head he wiped the blood off his blade and walked back into the bar.

Reaching into the pouch of his saddlebag he removed another phial of his elixer and took a small drink of it. Feeling calmed down he put it back into the pouch it came from and sheathed his sword. Seeing that the food Dour-Gleam's servant was making was finished he downed it in one breath. "Fighting aways did make me hungry." He said. Reaching into his coinpurse he pulled out 2,000 septims and placed them on the bar. "That's for the meal, and anything you might need to do incase that bandit comes back with more of his friends." Aurelius then grabbed the rest of his stuff next to the barstool he was sitting in. "I'm leaving my horse here. She can take care of herself for the most part. All you need to do is feed her and she'll be alright. I'll be back for her once I get what I'm after." He paused. "And if you need to get out of town in a hurry, she'll get you out safely." Aurelius then turned and headed for the door.

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The man smelled wrong. Very wrong. He could smell it from all the way across the street. But you got all sorts in Thurnlim, and Dura'Jah knew enough to keep such observations to himself. He waited patiently, leaning casually against a stack of barrels as he surveyed his charge.

He looked serious, but then, they always did. A killer's eyes, though, Dura'Jah thought. Well, it's something. His bearing spoke of considerable martial experience, possibly in the military. The tilt of his head and strength of his tread told the guide that this one wasn't used to failure. Not so good.

Dura'Jah preferred the cowards, the fools, the travelers who knew how worthless they were. They were inclined to listen to instructions and were less likely to trust their instincts. Soldiers and adventurers, trained and seasoned in the Tamrielic wilderness, they think they're invincible. He'd seen more times than he could count a sneering bravo fresh from Skyrim or Hammerfell charge straight into a nest of stem-worms only to die before they even realized what they'd done.

The bounty hunter approached and the lizard shelved his doubts. Extending a hand, he greeted warmly "Howdy, friend. My old pal Dour-Gleam sent word you might be looking for some help on a trek through the wild. My name's Dura'Jah, but you can call me Dura if it's easier on your tongue."

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"Howdy Dura'Jah," Aurelius greeted the Argonian, extending his hand and meeting that of his guide's. He examined his guide carefully, from the strength of his hand he could tell that he could hold his own in a fight if needed. Dura'Jah also looked liked he knew his way around the wilderness, but appearances could be decieving, he knew that all too well.

"I'm looking for someone, Dura'Jah," Aurelius spoke after taking his quick examinantion, "Our mutual friend Dour-Gleam told me he went south by southeast. I want you to tell me what is in that direction, lead me there, and make sure I don't get killed before I get there." Aurelius then reached toward his coinpurse. "I'll pay well. But if you cross me," speaking more sternly now, "well I have no doubt you've seen the bodies over there." He then moved his head toward the entrance to the bar where he fought the bandits.

"Keep in mind they just irritated me." Aurelius softened his voice now, "Do we have a deal?"

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"Hey, now." Dura'Jah grinned. "There's no need for that kind of talk." The hands felt wrong as well. Too rough to be natural. "I'm on your side! Of course we have a deal." The Argonian stood back and turned toward the forest. "Can't imagine what you're friend'd be interested in over yonder. That's the deep marsh down there. Deadwood and water far as the eye can see." The lizard chuckled. "Which ain't too far when you're staring through underbrush thicker than troll's fur." He scratched the base of a brightly colored head-fin. "Could you tell me something about this guy you're looking for? Any reason you know of why he'd want to hit the marsh? And are we talking some drylander or a deep-roots Argonian?"

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"My apologies Dura." Aurelius returned the grin. "I'm still a little worked up over the bandits. I've also forgotten my manners, my name's Aurelius Vindictus. I'm what people call a bounty hunter, but I prefer to be called a professional tracker." He looked off in the direction that Dura'Jah was looking in. "As far as the one I'm looking for, he's not Argonian, I wasn't told which of the other races he was. Mainly because neither my employer nor the men or mer who serve him have seen him close enough to tell. All that they do know is that he wears faded robes trimmed with some unknown iconography, which would lead me to believe that he is some sort of magic-user or scholar of magicka. But he isn't what my employer wants me to get. My employer is interested in what he carries with him. A box, more specifically the contents of the box. That is all I'm willing to tell you right now. Once I believe we are deep enough in the wilderness I'll tell you more if it's safe."

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"Fair enough. Now, I'll be honest with you: this isn't gonna be easy. You ever hunted a man through the marsh before? It's a tricky business. You won't find any tracks, and everything's always so stirred up anyway that he won't likely have agitated any of the wildlife enough to notice. Then you've got to consider the possibility he's already dead. On the chance that he's not, here's my plan." Dura'Jah pointed into the jungle. "There's a band of Hingali tribesmen that I'm friendly with makes its home a few miles in over there. They're pretty peaceable, as the tribes go, and it may be that a hunter's seen some sign of our friend. We'll make for their village and see what we can find. How's that sound?"

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"It's as good a place as any to start." Aurelius replied. "Hopefully one of them has seen the person I'm looking for." He paused to adjust the saddlebag on his shoulder. "Let's get moving, we're wasting daylight just staring out there. Lead the way Dura'Jah."

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Dura'Jah nodded and gestured. The two travelers walked up to the forest's edge. The road dissolved at the treeline, fading into a wandering path that wove drunkenly through writhing roots and vines. "This here trail won't last much longer. It's mostly just used by determined outsiders like yourself who want to get into the Marsh but don't want to go through any more wilderness than is necessary. It should take us far enough in that we can meet up with the Hingali without too much worry. Come on, follow me."

The lizard strode into the shadows, head swiveling occasionally as he made note of any unusual branches or vines. Sometimes he would direct Aurelius to skirt around apparently arbitrarily defined patches of earth, and twice he signaled a halt, staring intently into the underbrush for entire minutes before carrying on. Otherwise, the first two hours passed without major incident, though the road grew fainter and more fragmented the further they went.

It was difficult to judge the time through the tangled canopy, but it might have been past noon when Dura crouched and pointed into the undergrowth. "Hey, hold up. There's someone on the track up ahead."

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Aurelius crouched low to keep his silhouette from being noticable. Creeping up next to Dura he readied his crossbow, laying it across his sword-arm to keep it steady. Taking careful aim at the figure ahead of them, but keeping his finger off the trigger, he didn't want to waste a bolt on the wrong man. He sat there for minutes waiting for the figure to come into better view. Then he thought he heard something, something that sounded like . . . the wheels of a cart.

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The wagon ambled through the muck and mire, at least one of its wheels squealing for grease. A lump of soiled rags sat in the driver's seat, the little pile of a figure topped with a horn-tipped helm. In the back of the cart sat a large, blocky object wrapped in a dirty canvas sheet.

Abruptly, the wagon jolted to a halt, and like its driver, sat in the darkness silent and unmoving.

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Aurelius relaxed himself for a moment. Replacing the crossbow on his back he leaned closer to his Argonian guide.

"It's not my target." He whispered, "My quarry didn't travel by wagon, and I see no indecipherable symbols on his clothes. Should we reveal ourselves Dura?"

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Dura'Jah shrugged. "Probably doesn't matter. He's already seen us."