Spirit of Fire - 22. Deception
Second part of the finale -- two more left to come!
The day began like any other.
It was a Friday, the end of the week.
Until the afternoon arrived, and what we had been preparing for was set into motion.
For my family, and those I knew, it was the beginning of something else entirely.
Saying goodbye was tough, but those I said it to, I reminded myself, and them, that this wasn't forever.
It wasn't an ending, because we were going to win.
We had to.
I kissed him. I told him I loved him. I told him I believed in him. Then we parted, and Sebby flew with him to Brookstone, to the special location where Darren was being held.
It was the same with her.
She didn't say much else, except to tell Sebby that he had to make sure I would return.
She made him swear it.
He promised her that we would.
All of us.
Our meeting with the assigned strike team took place near the target building itself. The Kepler Planetarium was a few miles in the country, on the other side of Mirrorvale away from where we lived. I had never visited it, though I had heard of it because of Mom's familiarity through her work. Although it was sometimes open for public tours, it was privately owned and most often rented for hosting functions. As well as possessing a basic observatory for stargazing, there was an attached gift shop, a ballroom and a café, and a managerial block.
The tactics plan that Agent Hoates showed us was straightforward. The Seventh House would not have unnecessary civilians at the four sites, so any non-dragons had to be Scourge and could be killed on contact. Of the six buildings, their assessment suggested the lens was either in the planetarium itself or the ballroom. Apart from an overhead map, there wasn't much more information about what to expect at the location.
We were the first of the four teams, designated Alpha, and apart from myself, Sebby, and the agent, there were six regular personnel with us. Though the Order was basically an organisation of human supernatural experts, the 'military' side of it was disciplined. Once we got going, they didn't talk outside of communicating for the mission, they all used numerical squad identifications -- A1 through to A6 -- instead of real names, and they obeyed the agent's orders to the letter. Wearing combat visors and close-fitting brown-and-grey camo fatigues, they carried custom weapons that were some kind of fusion of magic and technology.
All in all, very professional.
Hoates himself was tall and burly. A buzz-cut, with a squashed nose and square jaw, the agent wasn't a pretty picture. Though blunt and straight shooting, he wasn't unkind and his mind was on the job. My presence went without question, and it wasn't until we were a couple of hundred feet from the planetarium, still under forest cover, that Sebby pulled him and me aside and told it to him directly.
"Agent," he said, "I know Torsten's placement on this team may not make immediate sense to you, but I ask that you trust what he says. If he offers any advice or urgent directions, please listen and do not question it. He is here for a reason."
"Got special skills, huh?" He gave an emotionless nod. "I'll take it. Don't care why, if it helps us win."
That attitude works for me.
"Good." The air dragon glanced across to the buildings nearby, half-visible through the trees in the late afternoon light. "This is the best approach I could devise. I need to check it for sensors and traps before we try to enter."
"Roger." Hoates agreed. "Do your thing. We'll wait for a safe infiltration."
Sebby was away, darting through the greenery like a silver shadow. We had approached the complex from the far corner, well away from the carpark and normal entrance. The nearest buildings were the managerial block and the adjoining planetarium dome. There were no clear ground entrances from where we were, and all we could do is wait for him to return.
About two minutes later, he faded into view, his aura including us, and in his hands were a half dozen orange spiked devices, each the size of a golf ball.
"Proximity explosives." Sebby chucked them onto the grass. "Disabled now. Annoying for me, but lethal for any of you. This side of the grounds is clear, but the front may be mined also, so if you are forced to leave the building, take care on that side."
"Mmm." Hoates grunted in agreement. He tapped his watch, the tactical plan present on the tiny display and pointed to the slightly more distant observatory. "This seems like it has window access on the ground floor. Entry there?"
"Yes." The air dragon nodded. "Come."
We broke out from the cover, moving quickly, the team trailing us, and crossed to the corner of the managerial block. To the right, on an angle, was the planetarium dome. To the left, also on an angle, past the managerial block, was the observatory.
The tension in me was rising.
We're really doing this.
Right at that moment, a vision.
In a flash, the entire layout of the managerial block. Supply closet, offices on the first floor. A stairwell, the next floor, offices to the left and right. A dragon standing guard at the manager's office, the final door on the second floor. Inside that room ...
Just feet away.
"Sebby." I gasped, and the others turned together to look at me. "He's here." A finger above, to the shuttered window on the second floor, the same room. "In there. It's Michael."
"Here? You're sure?" The agent asked. "He's at this site? One in four chance, y'know."
"Yeah. I- ... yeah." Can't really say too much. "It's him. Just one dragon outside, watching the door."
"Alright." Then to Sebby. "That's an objective. What's our play?"
His eyes met mine for a moment, before jumping up to the window above, then back to Hoates, and there was determination to it. He pulled his dagger with a flick of the wrist, and a crackle of electricity ran up the edge of the blade.
"Wait here for my signal," he murmured, his eyes lighting in a silvery glow, "because I am going to kill Michael."
There were no Scourge on the first floor of the managerial block, and the dragon Sebakâli reached the stairwell with no issues. Ascending slowly, he glimpsed the layout of the next floor. A single long straight corridor, doors branching into offices. At the far end, a single Conclave dragon, vigilant where he stood, the entire corridor within his view.
Guarding the sire of the Seventh House, in preparation for the ritual.
Patient and ready, with the same measured composure of a raptor lying in wait for prey, he was doing his duty.
A job too important for a mere Scourge.
Yet, not too much trouble for the Sword of the Heavens.
His illusion was pitch perfect. Striding up the stairs, with just the right amount of deference, the Scourge garb in place, the phantom of a second human companion next to him, Sebby approached the sentinel at his post. The dragon watched the 'pair' get closer, remaining wordless. The strength of the deception was such that it became ineffective only when he was five feet away. A moment before he was about to speak, the fire dragon realised, and without time to draw any weapon, his right fist raised instead.
The air dragon darted forward, catching the blow in his left. Without a second's pause, the larger opponent head-butted him, a defence to buy time. Momentarily staggered, Sebby reacted instinctively, making sure to not let the surprise advantage go unused. His right hand stabbed the dagger upward before the head could properly withdraw, and the blade pierced through the underside of the jaw all the way through into the skull.
He eased the body to the floor as the last gasp of fire left it, pulling the weapon free. Wiping the blade clean, the corpse began to ignite in death, and Sebby focused the dampening effect of his magic. His movements became next to silent, his footfalls almost without vibration, and he steeled himself for the coming confrontation. With great care, he grasped the door handle, turned it, and stepped into the room.
Brown carpet, cream wallpaper, mid-quality landscape paintings on the walls, a filing cabinet in the corner. A desk, old, heavy, with a Chippendale-style dining chair behind it, in which sat a dragon. He was tinkering with a magical orb, red light pulsing from his fingertips as the magic within it was tweaked, fine-tuned. A few other trinkets of magical construction lay on the desk also, along with a pressed-glass decanter and three empty tumblers.
The lord of the Seventh House looked up at the intrusion, and when he saw who it was, he did not blink an eyelid out of any concern. His physical appearance was more lean than Nero, but more solid than Darren, a comfortable midway. Like Darren, his hair was a red-brown, only a touch longer, and his features clean and handsome, but harder, tempered by age. The oldest of the siblings, the maturity was clear in his face and his eyes. Hazel with flecks of orange, the latent power was undeniable, and there was a recognition of calculating intelligence that surpassed the others. The suggestion of magical and psychic potential was all too clear, and Sebby knew he could not act rashly.
Not with this one.
"Ah, here you are." Michael spoke in accented Celestial, though it was an unfamiliar one; a hint of Terrestrial to it, but more something else. He placed the orb onto the desk's surface, but he did not stand, did not make any move to initiate combat. If he was surprised, there was no sign. "What a treat, to have attracted this exalted slayer."
Sebby walked to the room's centre to properly face the other dragon, the desk a dozen feet away between them, his dagger easily visible in hand. "Erezuur." He used the true name, the knowledge of it sharpening his estimation of what he faced, adding a structure to the depth. "I am not here for pleasantries."
"Oh!" The eyes widened, and if anything, the response became joyful. His voice was rich, urbane; a polished sophistication that his brothers lacked. "You are prepared for me! Please, allow a chance to express my admiration." Heedless of the situation, Michael took the decanter and unstoppered it to pour a draught of whiskey each into two of the tumblers. Sliding one across the table with a push that sent it to sit artfully by the edge, he raised the other glass in a brief toast, watching Sebby as he did, and took a small mouthful. "If you enjoy the vice, you may share in it. I mean no jest when I say I am flattered, but you should know you are being lied to."
Sebby did not move to take the glass, not trusting the gesture at all, nor did he respond in the pause left open for reply.
No foolish mistakes.
The sire continued. "This war gave us strife everywhere. It was painful to have the sons of the earth turned against us. They are our cousins and none are more deserving of our love, but even your kind -- you were never our enemy. Air may feed the flame or it may starve it; we are not foes but when fate demands." He swilled the liquid in the glass, then took another sip. "Your mother produces assassins of speed and skill that outdo our own. She keeps her counsel close, she has honour, and she breeds strong children."
"Do you intend to surrender yourself to me?" He deliberately chose to emphasise the air dialect pronunciation, accentuating the lighter tone, the toying poetry of Celestial speech. "Such words are a sonnet to the midnight stars, and what is a love letter without a beauteous gift to match the prose?"
Michael snorted in amusement, then he shook his head. "No. Understand that I say this because there is only a single adversary for us. Not our cousins of the air, and not those of the earth. Just her. The great deceiver."
"Your father is not guiltless. He is no victim. He is a conqueror."
"Everything you know of him," Michael paused a moment to drain the remainder of the tumbler before placing it on the desk, giving a soft hrm of satisfaction, "comes from her side, the teachings of her priests. Those writings of history speak of an insane god who has no care but death and havoc. In truth, she tried to kill him because she was afraid of his power. Her weakness led to corruption, and she sacrificed him to it in order to free herself." The sire stood, pulling the fine cut of his suit jacket closed, latching the middle button so it held, before he placed his hands on the table, a businesslike pose, his eyes lighting up in a dim red glow. "She fed his immortal spirit to a nightmare of shadows that would break anything else. For thousands of years, he has endured a hell you cannot imagine, because she betrayed him to an eternity of darkness."
"He wants to burn this world! He wants to destroy it!"
"He wants JUSTICE!" The word was ferocious and heavy. "He will NOT be denied his due! Any child of the gods that forbids this will meet with death!"
In a single motion of supernatural strength, the desk was flipped over and thrown across the room. Sebby dived down to the right, his reflexes pushed to maximum, the heavy wooden object barely missing to slam into the far wall with an almighty splintering crack, the glasses and baubles on it sent flying. Rolling and then onto his feet, he only had time to reverse course back the same way, evading an attack that was entirely new to his knowledge. Michael's left hand shot out, and a shield of transparent red light projected from his fingers, sweeping through the just-vacated space in a solid wall of bludgeoning force.
His unique power.
At the same time, with perfect ambidextrous coordination, the sire's right hand burst aflame, his fire-weaving skill that of a master. A jet of it shot forth, aimed at where Sebby would arrive. The air dragon's dagger-arm was up just quickly enough, a momentary block that was enough to deflect the searing blast, before a follow-up projected shield struck him. The impact was heavy and disruptive, and he was thrown into the side wall at an angle, bouncing off to the floor. Michael didn't hesitate, and the rapid pounding of his approaching footsteps was ringing in Sebby's ears as he shrugged off the shield's stun and, yet again, tried to stand, to right himself and dodge, but ... it was too late.
Michael was faster than he expected.
A powerful backhanded blow clipped his cheek before he could escape, and the sire's burning right fist shot out, grabbing his neck. Michael's left hand blasted a mini-projection at close range, a burst of red light that was like a disarming cudgel aimed at his wrist. The dagger was forced from his fingers and pushed away, skating a few feet over the carpet.
"You interfere in our business." The fire dragon growled. "Return to your mother!"
The flames flared and began to crawl across his skin, the heat intensifying, the chokehold tightening. The grip was iron, and his opponent was physically stronger than him; fast enough, too aware, firmly resolute.
Air was speed, the combat style suited for surprise, finesse, diversion.
Fire was raw power and brute strength, and in a direct challenge, it would win.
Not this way.
Dropping it from his sleeve into his free left hand, he jerked his arm up and smashed the hidden shock orb into the side of Michael's head. The orb's point blank detonation was the intervention needed, and it broke them apart; the fire dragon was launched back a dozen feet to where the desk had been, the concussive hit enough to slow him, while Sebby's natural shock resistance meant he was not at all fazed. Steadying his stance, he reached out, air-weaving skill at play, and focused on the light fittings in the ceiling and walls. The filaments all burst simultaneously, sparks showering from the overwrought metal, bulbs shattering, and with a flourish, he pulled their contents down, drawing a concentrated quantity of current into himself.
Humans and their love of the artificial.
Bottled lightning was still lightning.
Arm thrust out, the borrowed power flowed through his fingers into a salvo of electricity, fed with everything his goddess had given him. A crackling shifting arc of energy struck Michael square in the chest, and the fire dragon grunted at the pain, writhing on the spot, immobilised as it surged through him, limbs shuddering. In five seconds, the barrage was over, the bulk of it spent, and in the moments while the sire recovered, smoke rising from his battered form, Sebby skipped to the side. Snatching up his dagger on the way, with an acrobatic leap to the door, his foot landed on the handle and he rappeled off it to gain height, springing back across the room. Twisting in the air, he angled into a dive aimed for Michael, dagger raised in an overhead stabbing thrust.
The fire dragon staggered back a step in delayed avoidance, his battered reaction just enough, the blow missing by a fraction, the blade penetrating into the floor. Sebby was all speed and elegance, moving as fast as he could, and he ripped the dagger out and up. Spinning it deftly in his fingers for a second attack on the still-impeded foe, he was hit with a counter blast of Michael's unique skill. A quick defensive thrust of red light smacked him front on, not sufficient to stun, but shunting him back six feet and out of immediate strike range.
Gathering momentum again, having shrugged off the last of the electric shock debilitation, the sire slammed his hands together, and then threw them three feet apart. Between, a bead of summoned fire appeared that bloomed to basketball size in a blink. Reversing course, both arms swiped into an X formation, the gesture directing the magic to disperse. Obeying, the balled fire burst apart, multiplying as it did into a spreading conflagration that launched to spray everywhere in the room.
Nowhere was safe.
Sebby had only a split second to make a decision.
Michael was too dangerous.
He dashed to the left, and launched through the shuttered window. Glass smashed, spraying into the afternoon air, and Sebby flipped about, falling gracefully to the ground, before he was away, darting along the side of the managerial block and out of sight.
Above, the sire of the Seventh House glared down at the fleeing silver shadow. He held out a hand, and all the flame eating at the walls, carpet, and broken items of the room; it leapt to his fingers, summoned at his beck. Condensing into a ball, the fire drew to a single point before fading entirely, extinguished from the scene of battle.
He gazed a few moments longer at where the assassin had vanished, straightening his suit, the material repairing itself with a thought, smoke fading, before he turned away from the window.
The air dragon was a herald for the expected incoming Order intervention, but it didn't matter.
There were more pressing affairs to attend to, and the waiting was done with.
It was time to begin.
Agent Crawley was not familiar with the area in which Southern Metallurgy's industrial complex was located. It was on the opposite side from the residential zone where Celeste and the Wilde family lived, and also not near the planetarium, the other Mirrovale team's designated site. Southeast of the town, off a byway that was used mainly by logging and mining trucks, the foundry was setup for producing iron and steel, though the fluctuating material supply and economic uncertainty of recent years meant the facility often had production scaled back and frequently was not anywhere near full capacity.
Given that the company was owned by the Seventh House through human proxies, the viability of it as a money-maker was a secondary concern to what it could do for the dragon owners.
According to Agent Poe, that was a lot.
The preliminary scouting, done by B3 and B4, was conclusive: no visible exterior defences, but there was evidence the foundry had been extensively rearranged for another purpose, presumably related to the ritual. The pine-colonised evergreen surroundings gave way to a chain-link fence, and within was the carpark, empty, and a single cavernous building, several hundred feet long, and well over a hundred wide. Around three stories high, it had a sloped roof like an aircraft hangar, with wide industrial glass panel windows on the upper half of the walls, and catwalks just visible inside. Outside, a cooling tower and pumping station were detached from the structure, and the front section, comprising the inquiry and accountancy offices, was sealed from entry. Similarly, the rolling doors for trucks to deliver ore directly into the main building were blocked by a shipping container. There was only one entry point remaining, and that was the staff access, a single door near the building's front right corner.
"Dead quiet." Tall and gangly, Poe was a scarecrow of a man. He spoke into the shared comms links, his voice a flighty whisper. "Five, you got anything? They gotta know we're here."
"No movement." B5 was looking down her scope at an angle to the door, scanning what little of the interior could be seen through the glass. She was off to the side from the group near the fence, the rest of the team crouched in the lee of an inactive generator substation, fifty feet back. "There's a partition just inside the door, parallel to the front wall and roller door. Looks like it blocks quick access to the foundry floor. Detector says there's a magical field in place in the zone. Pattern looks a bit like blast or hybrid-energy suppression."
"Smells like an ambush." Poe nudged Crawley. "What d'you reckon?"
"I think yer right." The agent holstered the pulse-burst stunner, an Order designed weapon, and drew his Colt instead. It was already loaded and he cocked the hammer. "Five, ya said no movement, but do yer spot 'ny variations in uniformity on that partition? Like, imperfect gradient shading that don't match the light conditions?"
It was verging on early evening, the dimness of fading sunlight already starting to set in.
"Yeah, actually. It's brighter than it should be, but not by much."
"Huh." Poe muttered. "No shit -- an illusion. False wall?"
Crawley nodded grimly. "Yep, 's a kill zone. We walk in, follow the path. They jump out, let loose, we all die. Good thing we can counter."
The taller agent pulled out a little blue orb. "Way ahead of ya." He addressed the rest of the team, who were simply waiting, attentive. "Two, launch a 'nade through the 'partition'. One, Three, Four; throw freeze after it." He brandished the orb. "Five, Six; breach. Everyone follows. Use ballistics. We'll take the rear. Past the entry zone, choose weapons for the conditions and shoot remaining Scourge. Explosive and suppression for any dragons." He glanced to his comrade. "That work for you?"
"Roger, that'll do. Ya heard him. Get it rollin'." The team began to move, and Crawley shot the girl beside him a harsh look. "Remember what I said. Stay behind, and stick to me like yer my goddamned shadow. It's about to get messy, so keep yer head, and only use that thing if ya gotta. Capisce?"
Lucy didn't say anything, her nerves too on-edge, and just gave a quick nod.
They stood, following the team members across, waiting for everyone to be in position.
Once they were, Poe did a countdown with signals, and then ...
The plan was executed.
B2 aimed the grenade launcher at the window, lining up the shot, and with a hollow thoonk, accompanied by the musical smashing of glass, the grenade arced through to the target.
Following it, three handfuls of freeze orbs soared through the gap.
The team advanced, quick and close, moving at a pace into the supposed kill zone, Poe and Crawley trailing a few feet back. The muted staccato of gunfire popped in the building's interior, the illusion of the metal partition wavering mirage-like as wounded and bloodied Scourge stumbled through it and were shot by the Order personnel. Stunned and overwhelmed, the last of the would-be ambushers were taken down, the team keeping a tight formation.
"Front clear!" B3 called it. "Moving through!"
There was a heavy thump from next to the inside of the blockaded rolling door, and a figure landed on the ground, having dropped from on high. A human form male dragon, hands ablaze in two fists of intense flame, eyes glowing an angry red, robes wrapped about his muscular form.
A torrent of fire blasted forth, the attack sudden and on an exposed flank. At the rear, Crawley had more time to do something, and he jumped forward through the illusory partition, hauling Lucy with him by her wrist. Poe reacted similarly, and even though he was at a poor angle for evasion, he twisted, almost tripping as he fell forward in an awkward dive out of sight through the illusory partition. The only other team member to react on instinct was Beta-5, and she followed Poe through, lurching sideways after him.
The rest of the team wore fire resistant uniforms, made for deflecting heat.
What they faced was too much.
In seconds, they were all ash.
Scrambling to his feet, Crawley tossed a couple of orbs through, aimed in approximation at the dragon's location, but before they landed the partition faded, the magical creation of their attacker now dismissed. Nimble, the dragon batted the frost grenades out of the air, sending both away to explode in a chill nova on empty floor. Next to Crawley, Poe was raising the heavier ordinance he had brought with him; a bolt launcher, the weapon a specialised mini-ballista the size of a medium crossbow.
"Drop it. You've lost." The compulsion hung on the words, a yoke of command that forced its will on the agent's mind. "That isn't enough. You aren't enough."
"Yeah, I am," Poe aimed it properly, the blue-stoned ring on his finger pulsing as it resisted the psychic interference, protecting his mind, "and yeah, this is, you lizard fuck."
He squeezed the trigger.
The enchanted diamond-tipped projectile leaped across the couple of dozen feet. It pierced the dragon through the chest, the bolt impaling him with an oddly metallic shplik. For a moment he stood, blinking, confused at what had just happened, before he toppled over backwards, jerking a couple of times on the floor before becoming still.
There wasn't even a chance to move, before they heard a new sound, ringing through the cavernous interior of the foundry.
A slow rhythmic clapping of mocking applause, followed by a voice, raised in merry greeting.
Departing Mirrorvale was difficult to bear.
Two of the four sites were near the town and the critical actions taking place were a strong incentive to stay. Even stronger because Torsten would be there, and he would not.
Still, Araziah could not regret it.
He had chosen this, and he would see it through.
The flight to Brookstone was not far, and they had arrived in short order at the place. It was a private four-story office block in suburbia, the town being slightly smaller than its neighbour in both population and area. Leading him into what appeared to be a closed-up reception area for an apparently defunct property, Sebby had contacted the Order security detail through an audio link he carried, and was promised a guard was on the way down to escort Araziah properly inside.
Then, before Sebby made to leave that darkened lobby for his return to Mirrorvale, he came close.
His regard for personal space had all but vanished, though to Araziah there was no longer any challenge to it, nor a threat, nor an insult. Those days were gone, evaporated with the circumstances that had brought them. Instead, there were new emotions in place. They were not as pervasive and not so thoroughly permeated as what he felt for Torsten. No perfect imitation of that bond existed, but the feelings were building into a semblance of something much more than fraternal draconic kinship. Between them, a new and unique thing had formed, and it was exciting in a way that was otherwise inadmissible to another soul. The air dragon had freely given his body, his heart, and it was done without duress. The more Araziah bore witness to this pacifying honesty, the more the power of it gripped his ego and his desires for the future.
Secretly, the strange attraction between them, born from Torsten's evenhanded love, was beginning to please him.
Not merely in any physical sense, but emotionally.
It surprised him to admit it, even to himself.
His instincts were subconsciously accepting what his rational mind had already agreed to embrace as a necessity.
A second mate.
"I will keep him safe, and he will guide me. Do not worry for us." Sebby's hands were on his biceps, the silvery eyes apprehensive, the lip bitten in a consideration that was equal parts practicality and yearning. "Come if we need you. I trust that you will know." His voice became a whisper. "Do not let Darren confuse you. Do not let ... him ... lead you astray. You are stronger than them."
"When this is done, we will meet to celebrate their defeat. I have no fear of them. They should fear me. I have Torsten. I have- ... you." Araziah paused a moment, the morphing nature of their relationship sometimes too odd to quickly parse into speech. This one he had once wanted to kill, but now the hints of what they could be together, what all of them might become; it was supremely alluring and it had changed him, in such a short time. It had allowed an impossible thing to become probable; a miracle to emerge from the love of another. "You. You are ... different. Sebby-"
"No. You do not need to give as I do, to prove yourself. There is nothing to prove." The glow of his countenance seemed to dance in a moment of levity, though the mood remained serious. "I am air, and you are flame. You will be all that you need to be." His eyes sparkled, a glimmer of pale light, and his neck was craned, the height difference irrelevant next to the clear craving of an intimate moment. "Just know that you are never alone, and ... call me Sebakâli."
The true name.
He had never felt more honoured by another dragon.
"Sebakâli." He whispered, leaning down, their foreheads touching. "Until we meet again."
"Araziah." The air dragon kissed him, his lips beautifully soft and smooth; quick and light, but with a quiet tenderness that did not want to draw away. "Until we meet again."
Then, in a blink he was moving across the building, a subtle supernatural blur of ashen white, and in another breath, he was gone.
Behind, there was the sound of an automated door opening.
"Hey, it's Araziah, right?" The Order security officer poked his head out from the elevator, and beckoned him in. "We're on the top floor."
"Yes." He entered, and the man punched the button, the door sliding shut, a jolt of movement after.
"Nice ta meet ya. I'm Charlie." He nodded, his workaday attitude to the rather important assignment making him seem very complacent, as if it were all standard procedure. "We know your situation and why you're here. The countess asked for off-the-record permission and the Grand Secretary approved it. So, we'll be leaving you in the control suite with the prisoner. There's a workstation with full contact to all the teams through their field equipment, so you'll have sight and sound from every operative. Two way communications available if needed. We'll be down the hall if ya need anything, 'cause Crawley let us know to stay outta that guy's way and let you deal with him. He's properly restrained and all that, but a real cunning son of a bitch. We know what dragons can do to humans even with their wings clipped, so to speak, so he's all yours." The officer gave him a visual once over, and nodded approvingly, Araziah's appearance instilling confidence. "Never thought I'd say this, but I'm glad we got one of you fire types on our side. Happy to see any stereotype broken."
"Mmm," he agreed, a minimalist response, cool, not having any questions. "Thank you."
"No problem." The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. Charlie pointed at a door a dozen feet away, indicating the room, before departing in the opposite direction down the hallway to his own post. "Good luck!"
With nothing else left, Araziah walked to the door and opened it, entering the room.
It was a modest former-office space, with short scuffed carpet, bare walls, and long tube ceiling lights. A pair of windows looked out over Brookstone, and a desk sat central, with six large curved panel monitors on it, arranged in a concave bracket shape. A wheeled office chair was next to it, and a second regular chair to the side, out of direct view of the control station's monitors.
There sat Darren.
On his ankles, wrists, and neck, there were glowing manacles, the magic in them similar to what Araziah had worn at the sanctuary. His appearance was unchanged from the previous time they had met, but for a hint of raggedness at the stress of being imprisoned. Despite the restraints and his immobility, when he saw who had arrived, he began to smile. His attention followed Araziah every step of the way as the newcomer rounded the desk, wheeled the chair closer, and sat down directly in front.
"You agreed." Darren was studying him, his attitude anticipation mixed with excitement. "I almost thought my stratagem was a failure and you would not show, but, well ... clearly not."
"I am here," he said, "but you will not gain anything from me. I will take what I need from you, instead." Sliding the chair even closer, he reached out, grasping Darren's neck with his left hand. "Serve me."
"Hrrrrgh." The captive dragon grunted, the psychic force bursting into him, an intense thrust of mental power, brash and severe. Shuddering, he struggled against the invasive onslaught, an assault unlike anything he'd experienced before. Araziah's focus was an enormous weight striking his will, and even though it was undoubtedly a match for the Conclave's best psychics, his constitution held it off. "Hrrrn. Enough!" He snapped. "Stop it!"
Realising his target was resilient enough to maintain resistance, even with the added power of true-name knowledge, Araziah let go, pushing his chair back a foot. Darren breathed heavily, blinking as he gathered his wits, and then he chuckled softly. "That was ... impressive, but dragons cannot dominate one another. Too taxing to take and keep control like that."
"Are all the Conclave this incapable? I have done it." He shrugged, flippant. "Some soldier from one of your other houses dared to try me. Two or three centuries old, perhaps. I beat him, he broke and I forced him to speak, though there was little worth hearing. Then I burned him."
"You ... did that?" Darren stared at him, surprised, but the smile returned, the unsettling news not stopping it. Fascinated, his eyes explored every inch of Araziah's face, admiring him. "I saw your talent when we first met, but I underestimated how significant it was. Mordred told me of your claims, the suggestion of your potential, and I did not believe him then, either. I thought it an embellishment, but you continue to prove it. At the sanctuary, when you bested our own, when you burned the fortress. Over and over, you prove your growing strength, and it delights me." He leaned forward slightly, his restraints preventing much real movement, his eyes flaring in a faint dim glow. "You will be everything we need. You will be what our line has striven for; the re-embodiment of Xajarkith's magnificent virtue and glory. The perfect hand of our god when he returns."
"Did you think coming here would change anything? My allegiance is no longer for sale." His own eyes burst into a red glow, the anger within closely controlled. "You must know there is no escape for you. When I deduce what your purpose here is, I will kill you."
"I came aware I would not leave. I may not have the blessing of foresight, but I do know one thing about my death: it will occur out of your fury when you know you have lost, though in truth, you were never going to win. All your intentions, from the moment of your birth, were irrelevant. You were always destined for this future."
"My will remains my own, and I am not about to become a puppet." Araziah leaned forward too, in a mirror imitation of Darren's pose. "What is it you want, Darricus? You should speak plainly before I grow bored and decide to rip out your innards for my own amusement."
The prisoner blinked, a flicker of surprise at the use of his true name, before he sat back, relaxing to a more casual stance in the chair, his language adopting a similar feel. "Oh, you shall know soon enough. This entire process -- all the fighting elsewhere over the Fear, and the avatar, and our magic-accumulation equipment -- will only take a few minutes, so I will get to that, but first, I want to ask you something. Allow me at least to satisfy my curiosity."
"What?" Araziah glared, impatient.
"The humans. A variety of primate that evolved enough intelligence to uplift itself. In all other manners, a weak, fragile species, blind and deaf to the truth of reality. My brother, the one you killed -- he was obsessed in the same way as you." Darren shook his head. "Through some anomaly of existence, our magic allows us to effortlessly assume their form, a literal second skin. They are compatible with us in so many ways, and they are ideal subservients, but ... nothing more. Yet, you do -- and he did -- feel something else for these wretched creatures. Attraction, perhaps? That is understandable, the pleasures of their flesh are, whilst a little aberrant, still exciting enough, but more than that? Pity? Sympathy? Remorse for their short pointless lives?" His brow furrowed, unable to grasp why. "What is there to have feelings for? They are not us. There is nothing to fear. Nothing to love."
It was a question Araziah did not have an easy answer to. His original thinking had been little different from Darren's, and while he still had no particular care for most of humanity, he had stopped thinking of them as innately without value. It was not because he believed they had any real exceptional worth, but because, like his own kind, there was a spectrum of good and bad within them. They were capable of both, in equal measure. It was impossible to think of them as wholly disposable because the entirety could not be judged based upon the actions of the least, the worst, among them.
Ironically, it was a single human who had made him see this.
A single human and a single dragon.
Torsten and Sebby.
Both of them had shown him, in different ways, that he could change and he could choose.
Just like them.
He could be something other than what 'destiny' said he should.
The fact that he had come to love a human had made his convictions that much stronger, his determination that much greater. The concept would seem vapid and flimsy to the Conclave's dragons, because their understanding was no longer malleable, robbed of this property by ancient racial imperatives and hardened into inflexibility by the zealotry of the war.
For Araziah, it was the opposite, and the belief and the trust of those two had taken on a power of titanic proportions in his core.
"Even if I were to say, you would not understand." He gestured to the outside, the town. "They do not deserve to die because of a war they never asked for."
"Hrmh." Darren grunted. "And the other dragons you are forced to associate with? I have nothing to say about the disgust I hold for water, but air? I met the Celestial Mother's advocate, once. We had a brief encounter not long after I first saw you. He was as all their kind are: capricious, frivolous, unreadable. Wont to talk in circles, and then vanish when an explanation is required. We have an ancient proverb regarding this, and it follows: when in need of help, rely on Fire before others; if you ask Earth, he will say 'yes' but slow and sure; if you ask Water, he will say 'no' but quick and cruel; if you ask Air, he will say 'yes' and 'no', counsel both, but prove neither. A master of illusion makes for a dangerous and unreliable ally."
"That 'advocate' may be difficult to predict, but I would trust him beyond any fire dragon. If you attempt to drive me apart from them merely because we are all different," his hand curled into a fist, and his hair swished lightly, "then it will not go well for you. Enough of this. If you know something about my lineage, as you have claimed, then speak."
"Oh, but that is the hook, and now you are on it." Darren's subtle smile split into a wider grin, and it took on a sharper edge. "You want to know what is so important? Well, I shall tell you, and once I do, your surety, your certainty, will fade and you will want ... something else."
The water treatment plant near Temperance was a couple of miles north of the state capital, taking advantage of the tributary waterways that connected from the more distant Appalachians. Like the other locations chosen for the ritual, it was nominally a business venture in the hands of American citizens, but in actuality was managed, usually in an indirect fashion, by the Seventh House.
From the intake pipes at the river's side, the facility buildings curved in an S shape, turning one way then back on itself again. There had been a token Scourge resistance inside the initial pumping station and preliminary treatment, and none at all in the coagulation and flocculation treatment; the rooms were humming with the slow mechanical grind of automation. The next part was the sedimentation basins, all of which were outside, and the adjacent filtration tank, a big squat cylinder of metal that needed no supervision. It was connected to a small disinfectant injector substation, which in turn, led to the final part of the snaking facility's progression.
Due to archaic state regulations and Temperance's city ordinance regarding water purification and safety, the law required full foot access to the water storage post-chlorination and fluoridation, for inspection and sanitation purposes. In Municipal Filtration's case, this meant two enormous rectangular buildings, end to end. According to the schematic, they were approximately two stories in height. Most of the interior was the storage itself, a concrete-lined reservoir similar to a gigantic swimming pool, filled with water. Along either side was enough room for two people to walk abreast, and at either end was spare space, forty feet from wall to water's edge. The two storage spaces were identical, and while they were designated as separate buildings, in practice there was no gap between. Just a dividing wall, and a single door in the centre, leading from the first to the second.
Agent Kennedy had been the one to spot the problem first, and Master Lautone was quick to verify it. The ground was liberally strewn with hidden magical proximity mines along the exterior of both buildings. They were also being watched, and after Gamma-4 did a quick scan of the walls, it was confirmed. Any attempt to disarm the explosives would set them off.
"They've railroaded us." Celeste tapped at the screen, indicating the door that was two dozen feet away in front of them, but on the digital view of the schematic. They were outside the entrance to the first storage building, talking softly in the lee of the piping running from the injector substation, the rest of the team listening on. "To gain access we need to enter right here."
"Yes." The water dragon pointed to the second storage on the mini display. "It is likely the lens is located there. My personal detector is not picking up more than latent magic closer to us. They mean for us to suffer attrition going in, and fail at the latter stage."
"So we have to push through the first to reach the second?" Kennedy frowned. "Even if it's just their cannon fodder, it's high risk to break into their setup, don't you think? They know we're out here, right now."
"Perhaps," Celeste murmured, before snapping the device closed, and turning to Lautone, "but we have you, and this is your element. We just need a beachhead, and you can turn the tables once we're inside."
"Easily, countess." He nodded. "Though if it's more than just Scourge to begin with, I may not be able to do it all."
"You won't have to." Kennedy shrugged, gruff. The agent was thickset, with matted dark hair and a surly demeanour. "It's a big room, we'll do plenty of ranged suppression."
"Then that's the plan of action. Breach, form a defensive line. Suppression. Dragon magic to do the damage, then we push to the other end." She flashed a look to the team, nudging her spectacles up her nose. "You all got that?"
A chorus of affirmative beeps chimed in her comms, indicating all of their non-verbal agreements.
"Perfect." She tightened the strap on her left arm, the cartridge launcher firmly in place, and glared at the door. "Let's do this."
The Scourge were waiting patiently within the Municipal Treatment's storage room. The proctor appointed by their lord had kept close monitor on the approaching Order fools. They had not been stupid enough to touch the mines, and had opted for a direct assault. This was ideal, because according to the doctrine of precedence, protection of the draconic masters was more important than anything. The Scourge's layers of preventative sacrifice were positioned just so, to make sure the intruders could not advance without bleeding themselves.
Along either side of the expanse of water, reminiscent of a longer, narrower, deeper Olympic competition pool, there was a man every ten feet. The moment the door burst inwards off its hinges from an explosive charge, the dozens of Scourge present dropped to their knees. Fixed emplacement shields sprang up, temporary mottled barriers of orange-red plasma three and a half feet high.
As soon as the Order team was in sight, every single one opened fire.
The first volley of burst shot hit the formation, but the Order team was moving quickly in formation to the water's edge, their movements coordinated, in unison. Spreading in a horizontal line, the six soldiers absorbed the hit with a single-use ablative shield worn on the forearm, each shattering on impact. Behind came the two commanding officers, a large man and a short old woman.
As the second volley was loosed from the entrenched Scourge, with a flick of her wrist, the old lady shot a line of cartridges along the edge of the water. In a blink, they too had activated, bursting upwards into projected shields, wide ovoids of dark blue light with space enough for a person to stand behind. Just in time, they rose to guard from the incoming salvo, except for the end most individual. Caught out by a fraction of a second, she was hit in the face by a blast, which sent her flying backwards, dead instantly.
At the same time, the man lobbed something out over the water. The shrapnel grenade exploded in the air, the shell fragments pummelling the nearest Scourge on both sides. Four were killed or badly wounded, but the proctor did not care. From the rear of their ranks, everyone could hear him, urging them on.
"Kill them! Do not let up!" His voice filled the air, even above the staccato of real gunfire, as the Order switched to ballistic weaponry. "Our lords demand they be stopped here! Who are they to challenge the ascension of Fire?!"
A third volley was followed by a quicker fourth, and the crackle of dispersing energy, broken by the makeshift defence, was met with the response of bullets pinging away, deflected.
Then, through the sizzling exchange of energy and metal, a shape came rushing in.
A dashing blur ran through the entrance at high speed, between the two middle Order defensive shields. Not breaking motion, he dived into the war, and travelling with supernatural speed, zipped along at three times the speed a human could swim. In seconds, he was more than a third of the way down, and a moment later he crested, erupting through the surface into his true form.
The water dragon Lautone was an average sized adult, covered in dark navy blue scales, with a set of branching horns that wove behind his head. His tail swept up, swiping across the line of Scourge on the right side, half of them slammed solidly into the wall, hard enough to pulp bone, bodies pierced by dragon spines, or simply stunned. His head veered to the left and in a broad arc, he let loose his breath.
The spray of ice and blasting air crystalised and shattered nearly the entire left-hand line. As his neck turned, the pure glacial magic scything down the defenders before they could even properly turn their weapons on him, each Scourge burst from the force, smashing to fragments, the shields with them shorting and dying. The last was the proctor, just out of reach from the initial attack, and he rallied, stepping out from his shield and aiming a Conclave device at the emergent dragon.
Once, twice, thrice, he fired it. Each time sent a cluster of fire orbs flying; an elemental mortar launching its payload. The first struck Lautone on the snout, a blossoming flower of fire, the second a moment after on the neck, causing him to recoil in pain, a blast of heat and scorching pain across his front, the third struck his chest, and the water dragon sank back to the soothing of the water, momentarily rebuffed. The man was reloading swiftly, shoving more stored orbs into the chamber, heedless now of the Order shooting the exposed Scourge on the right flank and their impending defeat, intent on at least killing the blasphemous water creature and finishing the largest threat to his lord's charge; the defence of the lens.
He raised the weapon again, steadying it as Lautone recovered, rising fully out of the water, prepared to launch all three bundles at once in a grievous fatal bombardment, when ...
A loud echoing crack rang out, twice.
The proctor's right eye ruptured from the shot, and his skull exploded at the top of his head, the man collapsing onto his back.
Agent Kennedy pulled his eye away from the scope, satisfied the job was done, and Celeste began to round the water, moving at a swift march down the left side. The rest of the team was finishing up the last of the Scourge, and Lautone returned to human form, swimming along the surface, letting the water wash over the wounds he had sustained. With Kennedy following the rest of the team, Celeste reached the door into the second storage room, and checked it was secure, before she came across to the proctor's corpse. Curious, she scooped up a couple of the incendiary orbs and examined them.
They were just like the contained water magic used by the Order through the Tempest's allies, and contained air magic she had seen Sebby utilise. It was curious to think that all dragons made use of the same innovation, and that it had sprung from the 'visionary genius' of Merendî's invention.
"Pause for a breather." Kennedy and the five remaining members had arrived, and Lautone was climbing out of the water. "Get ourselves ready for the bastard in the next room. I knew Gamma-2," he nodded down the way, to her body near the entrance, "and we're gonna come back for her after this."
"Yes, take a moment everyone. Get your equipment and minds ready for the next part." Celeste agreed. She strode over to Lautone, gaze sweeping the taller human-form. He had burn marks on his face and upper neck, corresponding to the strikes, though it didn't seem to bother him. "You took a couple of hits. Are you hurt?"
"No." A subtle shake of the head. "This is inconsequential. It will heal." He raised a hand, blue light playing over his fingers, and brushed them over the skin. With even that small gesture, Celeste could see the beginnings of regeneration, and she was reminded again that reparative magic was a part of the water domain. The Tempest's children were better at healing than any other type.
"Celeste?" Through her earpiece, she heard a voice over the satellite comms connection, and she took a step away from the dragon and the team, just so she could hear the transmission without the low burble of Agent Kennedy speaking with the others. "Are you there?"
Before she could reply, he kept on, and his words were rushed, but quiet, secretive, the volume toned down.
"Are you alone? If you aren't, do NOT act any different. I- ... I need to tell you something, and then you need to move. Fast."
While we waited for Sebby to return, Hoates and I talked over the plan, our backs against the managerial block's wall, with care to keep our voices low. Out of the six buildings, the front two -- the café and gift shop -- were mostly irrelevant. The other four were arranged in a rough square shape, each one being connected directly to two of the others. Hoates believed, with good reason, that the planetarium itself was where the lens was. Given that Michael was in the building we were right next to, and considering that A3's magical detector seemed to indicate it was enchanted with some kind of trap, that seemed the wrong way to enter.
We were in agreement that the best idea was to enter through the observatory, cross into the ballroom, and through the other entrance into the planetarium. The detectors verified the observatory was clear, being that the mines were the deterrent against infiltration from that side. Though, it was still likely that there would be some opposition in the ballroom, and definitely something in the planetarium.
Our discussion was interrupted by a muted thump from above, Michael's room, and then seconds later the barely audible sounds smashing glass, and the erratic flickering of electricity creeping out through the slats above.
I didn't have much chance to be worried for his safety because the window above splintered in a mess of wood and glass, the sound jarringly loud versus what was happening within. Sebby came flying through it, and like a gymnast dismounting from a pommel horse, he flipped about in the air, landing seamlessly and speeding along the building's side to meet us, pulling me back from the corner as he passed by.
"Don't let him see you." He caught his breath properly, his eyes on us. "Couldn't do it like that. One on one, with no distractions, he is too strong." Sebby's hair was mussed and there were traces of singed skin around his neck, though he didn't seem injured otherwise. Glancing around the corner, up at the window, he stared a few seconds to make sure Michael was not watching, then beckoned me, Agent Hoates, and the rest of the team. "They will start the ritual shortly. We need to make haste."
Hoates nodded. "Roger. Observatory. Let's move."
Nothing else was said. Sebby reversed course and following him, quick and quiet, we rushed along the building side round the next corner, and then across a few feet of grass to the observatory. Sebby was up first, silently jimmying the window until the corroded latch popped free, then A1 and A5 began to boost us in, one after the other, in rapid succession. It was a circular building, the optical telescope on a rotunda in the centre, the dome above slotted and able to rotate with the interior as needed. The air dragon had already secured the interior, with no others around, and when the last of the team was inside, we moved again as a group to the exit door, and through the short enclosed connecting passage to the ballroom.
Sebby took the lead, deliberately. If there were human foes inside, he would have an immediate advantage.
If there were dragons?
It wouldn't matter either way.
Pushing the door open, careful, slow, I could see the dampening aura about him, my magic vision activated.
Inside, the ballroom.
Dozens of feet per side, it was nothing but open floor, clear of any obstacles. Lavish landscape paintings on the walls, four chandeliers, one over each quadrant. Plush carpet, stained oak panels, side tables with ornate glass vases on them. The far end had the door out, into the gift shop. On the right, relative to where we were, more than thirty feet away, was the double-door entrance through to the adjoining planetarium.
Yet, in the middle, filling most of the floor, were Scourge.
At least four dozen.
All of them were standing motionless, in matching black and white formal robes for both men and women, and they wore masks, of the same kind you'd find at a masquerade ball. They didn't so much as blink, and the sight was creepy, like a bunch of human mannikins.
The first step Sebby took inside the room, simultaneously, a twitch ran through the crowd. I felt the blink of a magical 'tripwire' being triggered, and the pulse of a psychic command being activated within the latent host. As one, synchronised, they pulled short blades with the right hand, slapping the left wrist. A series of pings rippled through the crowd, a faint transparent red bubble popping up around each individual in a temporary projectile shield.
That's far too many for Sebby to mind control, or kill outright.
Wordless, they began to spread out and advance.
We have to get through this?!
Then, I knew.
I could do that.
I can go through it.
Precognition will get me there, and he can follow me.
"The doors!" I blurted, and not even needing to think, I activated the ring's enchantment with a brush of my finger, the lightning blade engulfing my right hand in a second. "Hoates! Cover us! Sebby, let's go!"
"You heard him! Lock this down!" Hoates snapped. "Shock defence!" Whipping out a short baton, he flicked it down, and it doubled in length, the sharpened triple-pronged end giving off a zap as it switched on. "No quarter!"
We were forward, already moving, the sound of another half dozen batons being readied behind us.
In front, was a shifting wall of approaching bodies, pale red light, blades, and hollow lifeless faces, beneath hollow lifeless masks.
Blood was pounding in my ears, my eyes were wide, my body hot with the fear of possible death, and the horrible shaking adrenaline of the situation.
But, all I could think about was ... precognition.
Through the incoming mass, I could see the shifting blue silhouettes, the ghosts of their intentions yet-to-be. It was a pattern that overlapped, the shapes sometimes running through one another, but between it all, I could see a path. A series of empty spaces that was clean.
Free of the mesmerised Scourge.
Not quite big enough for me, but, I could make it big enough.
The first two Scourge came in swinging, their blades longer than the normal dagger-size ones I had seen elsewhere. It felt almost like slow-motion, and dodging the first swipe, I bumped him to the side, swerving past the second.
Yet, there were so many more, and even with the team behind us, drawing them away, it was a lot.
Doubt that I could do it, with so little to work with, but then ...
In a dash that blitzed through the space on my left, he was in front of me, in close to the next Scourge, perilously so. Without a break in his movement, he was a painter splashing colour across a palette, his arm sweeping across the woman's body with an artistic flourish. Blood sprayed from the split throat, her body pivoting to the side as it fell.
It was then I realised -- I could see his movements too.
He can read me, and I ... can read him.
We had to do it together.
Taking the initiative, I imitated him, bolting forward to his right. Another Scourge was moving in for a downward swing, and I parried it, the metal sliding along the guard in a useless szzzt of non-contact. Sparks burst from the grinding blade, before I knocked it away and slashed through his collarbone.
Sebby understood perfectly.
He was forward into the gap to take the next two. Like ballet, first he was down and forward, in a quick spin, the flanking woman tripped and knocked back, and rising, his arm flashed again in a zig-zag, the first hit deflecting the incoming blade to air, the second slashing the wrist, before he hit the man with a kick to the stomach.
Again, I evaded, following the guide of precognitive possibility. Dodge left, feint right, forward and an upward slice that took off half the man's jaw, the brilliant plasma scalpel cauterising through flesh and bone like it was paper.
Into the blank space, a flash of ghostly illusion, two phantoms springing away in diverging attack angles, the real thing fading momentarily. The Scourge's eyes darted both ways, locked with undecided confusion, and then Sebby was in his face, the dagger spinning around his fingers before plunging into the chest with two rapid jabs.
The procession kept coming, and the next was quicker. My pulse was thundering, and his blade flashed, his blows precise and aggressive. It was lethal fencing, and one-handed I parried the first, second, third, but the fourth was predictable. Lunging into him, his weapon swishing by my right side, while mine stabbed into his ribcage, and then out, ripping through his back in a gruesome slice that sent him crumpling.
Behind him -- the doors.
Yet again, the air dragon was flitting ahead. He slammed on the handles, shoving them open. I stumbled through, down the planetarium's entrance steps. Sebby was right behind me, and as he turned to immediately slam them back closed, he flicked a handful of shock orbs through the narrowing gap, into the mindless Scourge mob that was in close pursuit over the bodies of their dead and dying comrades.
We were inside.
Scores of feet away, at the centre of the concentric rings of amphitheatre seating, the projector had been replaced with a dais.
On it sat a ceremonial pedestal, which carried a strange device of draconic construction, the magic fluctuating within it as I watched.
At the very same moment, from the staff entrance to the managerial block, there was a sound.
Sebby pulled me down, and we fell behind the back row of seats, only just making it out of sight before three figures appeared.
He was flanked by two other dragons; one male, one female.
Before anything else could happen, at that very moment I was struck by a vision.
What flashed before me was brief, but completely horrifying.
Oh ... god no.
Are they really going to ... ?
No fucking way. Not like ... THIS.
I slapped the comms button on my earpiece, opening a private channel to her receiver only. "Celeste?" I muttered. "Are you there?"
Air, fire, water -- the action has begun! Darren knows something about Araziah's origins, Michael is not an easy target even for Sebby, Celeste's team is 'making waves' and Torsten is getting mileage out of his abilities! Yet, there's something about to happen, and it does not sound good ...
Two more chapters to follow this, dear readers.
Please feel free to like and comment, and thanks for reading!
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