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And Miles to Go Before I Sleep

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[[ -222.04.05 12:14:47 ]]

 

This story begins with the blood moon hanging low in the sky. At the edge of the forest, where frozen ground yields to deathless evergreens, a young boy gapes as the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen removes her veil. Her eyes sparkle with laughter and promise him eternity.

 

 

wouldYouLikeToMakeAWish

 

 

[[ -228.04.05 20:32:07 ]]

 

No -- perhaps this story truly begins six winters ago, four days after the solstice, when the Nikiforov clan welcomes a baby boy.

“Viktor,” his mother gasps out when they ask her for a name. That the stars might smile on his path, and the earth might bow to his will.

Later, the midwife hands her the baby swaddled in a blanket, and comments, “His eyes are like water.”

“All of our eyes are like water.”

“Not like this.”

She is right. They look nothing like the signature pale, icy blue this family is blessed with -- his father, his mother, all five of his sisters -- evoking images of frost, and of the morning sky at winter. Viktor’s eyes are warm, kissed with green, and remind her of the open ocean: vast, fathomless, and free.

“What do you suppose it means?”

She holds the child close to her chest, hiding his face into her shoulder. Like other magical clans all over the world, the Nikiforovs’ history has always been steeped in equal parts certainty and superstition. “It means nothing.”

“It always means something,” the midwife insists. “Water is destructive and unpredictable. Because of the way it flows, it knows no master.” She pauses, considering her words carefully. “My lady would be wise not to ignore so clear a sign.”

“Hmmm.” She holds him closer, until she can feel the beat from his tiny heart through the layers of wool. She doesn’t say: water also gives life, does it not? “Be that as it may, he will achieve greatness. I promise you that.”

 

 

[[ -224.10.00 01:17:52 ]]

 

Viktor’s earliest clear memory is of him playing in the grass near the line of giant Siberian pines that marks the end of the Nikiforov estate, because he loves the smell of the air here. Summers don’t last for very long where his family lives, he’s learned by then, but what summer they do have is magnificent, with nights that seem like endless day.

This was one of those nights. His mother watched him from close by while he collected interesting-looking pine cones from the ground. He would hold each one up for her approval, and depending on which way her lips turned, he would then either place it in his bag, or toss it back into the forest.

He was in the middle of appraising a particularly large cone when he felt water tickling him from above. “Mama, look!” he gasped. “Rain!” But the sky was so clear! He laughed and danced and dropped his pine cones, spreading his arms to catch more of the rainfall.

Mama grabbed his wrist. He’ll never forget how pale she looked as her gaze darted to the forest. She switched places with him, almost violently, pushing him behind her so that he could no longer see the trees. “Go inside the house, Vitya.”

“But Mama - ”

Now, Vitya. Inside.” She never raised her voice to him before that day. She must have realized it, because soon she was smoothing down her skirts and forcing a smile. “Come on, don’t delay. I’ll be right behind you. Okay?”

Later that night, long after the rain had stopped -- and indeed, it hadn’t lasted for very long at all, because he was dry by the time he reached the house -- Mama sat him down in the middle of her bed, muted all of the flames from the candles in the room, and told him about the Wanderers: powerful beings that walked the earth who knew neither how to age nor how to die. They were ‘blighted’, she said, because although magic could bend the laws of nature to its caster’s will, there were still lines that you were not supposed to cross, and Wanderers were those who willfully did so. They could only be sensed by humans with magical abilities, or at least, a latent affinity for magic, and they always came heralded by something uncanny: strangely-shaped clouds that would appear out of nowhere and vanish in a blink; bursts of aurorae in the skies too close to the center of the world; sudden, short-lived showers of rain on a bright, clear day.

“They will offer to make a contract with you,” she murmured. “That is what they do: they wander the earth offering to grant whatever it is that people wish for the most.”

“Anything I wish for? Anything?” Viktor bounced in excitement, jostling the hand she was using to run a comb through his hair. One hundred strokes in three hundred seconds, every night: that was their little ritual, Mama with the comb and her gentle hands, Viktor with her golden watch and its chain that Viktor liked to wind around his wrist, so he would never drop it. “They must be so powerful then!”

“Only the Goddess herself has more power. But these creatures are abominations; they are accidents in Her perfect creation. They cannot be trusted.”

Viktor tilted his head. “Hmmm? But you said a while ago that they’re not evil.”

“I did say that. You are such a bright child.” She put the comb away, ignored Viktor’s protest that they still had seventy-eight seconds to go, and wrapped her arms around him. “Promise me that if you ever cross paths with one of them, you will be careful. And remember what we talked about today.”

He nodded. Mama’s embrace cocooned him in warmth, and he could smell the rose oil in her hair. “How will I know, though? That it’s one of them.”

“You will know. And then, you must make the more difficult choice: to walk away.”

 

 

[[ -222.04.05 12:03:14 ]]

 

Viktor isn’t as much of a natural talent in magic as his family wishes he could be. Where his sisters can already freeze the surface of the pond on their property with a single glance, Viktor can barely get tendrils of frost to manifest with his hand submerged in the water. He tries hard, he really does. But work and willpower don’t prove potent enough to overcome whatever keeps blocking him from actually casting the spells he’s memorized thrice over.

“You might be focusing too much on the theory.” His mother has the patience of a true saint. “There is more to magic than just that.” But whenever he asks her what, she can never seem to put it into words either.

Near the end of his sixth year, rumors abound of a war that might be brewing among Russia’s magical families. Viktor learns about this completely by accident; he’s been studying by candlelight late into the night to compensate without telling anyone, and that’s why all of the adults probably think he’s sleeping when they discuss this in the other room.

“...If the worst comes to pass, you need to take the children… the girls are not to be caught in the front lines, that was the agreement.”

“But what about Viktor? He is far too young -- ”

“It does not matter. Even if he were older, he…”

He hates being a disappointment. It cuts into his heart more than he will ever admit, and what kills him the most is that he’s powerless to do anything about it. When your biggest problem is that you lack power and talent, how can you hope to fix that?

All he’s ever wanted is to make his family happy, to win their approval and earn their pride. So when he sees the moon outside his window dripping red on the night of his sixth birthday, he considers it a gift from the universe. He takes Mama’s watch from the table and stuffs it into his pocket, because he might need something to ground himself, and time is one of the few constants there is. Then he slips out the bedroom window, casts a floating spell that sets him down gently onto the grass below, and runs to the boundary of the forest.

He doesn’t know what to do when he gets there; no-one ever mentioned any spell to cast, or an incantation meant to summon a Wanderer, and nothing comes to mind. When he’s older, he will learn that it’s because no such spell exists -- Wanderers cannot be summoned; they come to you, which is exactly what happens tonight.

“Hello there, pretty child. Would you like to make a wish?”

Viktor swallows hard. Words fail him for what feels like an eternity. “Are… are you one of them? A Wanderer?”

Her laughter reminds him of a ringing bell. “I did just offer to grant you your heart’s desire, did I not?”

“You’re not…” Viktor squints. “You’re not how I imagined Wanderers would look like.”

“Oho? And what did you imagine Wanderers would look like?”

“Hmmmm… I thought you would look scarier.” Her hair is as red as the blood moon, and flows to her shoulders in wild waves. The dark robes she’s wearing aren’t marked by any family crest, at least none that he can see, and he almost wants to ask how long she’s been alive. And also: is it true, everything Mama said? He can’t see any blight on her face or hands. “Can you really do it? Grant a wish for me, no matter what it is?”

She nods. “Anything you desire. I only ask for one tiny thing in return.”

Viktor is old enough to understand the implied condition there. “What if I can’t give it to you? You’re not going to grant my wish then?”

“Oh, not to worry. I always honor my end of the bargain.”

Huh? That doesn’t make sense to him at all. If she’s going to give him what he wants either way, what incentive is there for him to grant her wish?

She reaches down and ruffles his hair, which pulls apart his tangled trains of thought and releases them into the wind. “You are such a pretty child! Well, go on, then.” She crouches down so that she can face him. Her eyes glitter with something that looks like starlight. “Tell me. What do you wish for?”

“I wish…” He thinks about his failures in his studies, spells that are too slow to start and drain too much energy, the increasingly strained smiles on his teachers’ faces when they tell him to try again. He thinks of portents of war, and how so much can change in two years. “I wish I could become as powerful as you!”

She pauses, before letting out another laugh, incredulous this time. “You want to become a Wanderer like me?”

Viktor nods vigorously. “I want to be able to grant everybody’s wishes!” He imagines all the people -- so many people, not just his family, but everyone -- who might stand to have their deepest wishes granted. And if that happens, his naive, childish mind reasons, wouldn’t that be perfect? Wouldn’t that mean no more conflict, no more sadness?

“So precious.” The Wanderer’s hand finds his cheek; her touch is so cold, he realizes now. Colder than winter itself. He reaches up to close a small hand around her wrist, almost instinctively, and realizes she doesn’t seem to have a pulse. “Do you know what will be asked of you? To walk the path of the Wanderer is to set out to make the Universe tremble.”

Viktor has felt sure of many things in his short life thus far, not all of which proved to be right. Still, the longer he stands here, at the edge of the forest which has always smelled of pine and frost and felt like the gateway to another world, the surer he feels. This is it, his heart’s desire. With the blood moon as their only witness, he doesn’t even have to say anything.

“Then this contract is sealed.” For a moment, just a moment as she shakes his hand, he feels something burning into his palm -- and then, all of a sudden, it’s over. “In return, Viktor Nikiforov, all I ask is that you live.”

 

 

[[ -222.04.05 11:22:53 ]]

 

It does not take very long at all for Viktor’s contract to be discovered. He can’t have been gone even an hour; the sky outside is still dark, although the blood moon has given way to its usual bright, holy white. Still, by the time he sneaks back into the house, Mama is already waiting for him.

“Oh, Vitya…” Her eyes are pools that glimmer in the soft yellow glow of the candles’ flames. “I warned you.”

It’s Papa who grabs him by the shoulder, tugs down his collar, and pulls his hair back to expose the skin on his face and neck, demanding to ‘see’. His large hand grips like a vise around Viktor’s wrist, but Papa stops before he can tear off the sleeve.

Because he doesn’t have to: the crescent moon etched into Viktor’s palm is the same dark, bloody shade of red as the Wanderer’s hair, but it looks almost black by candlelight. “You have brought damnation into this house,” his father spits out, throwing him to the floor. Mama shrieks. When Viktor opens his eyes, he sees his sisters in their nightgowns, huddled in the doorway.

“But nothing even happened!” he cries. “I don’t even feel any different, I swear! I - I’ll never go out there again!”

Viktor tries to pick himself up off the floor, only to yield when an invisible force slams him back down. He gasps and tries again, but this time he can’t even move: his body feels as though it’s anchored to the floorboards, and when he dares to look, he sees a circle of bluish-white light under each of his ankles and wrists.

Bluish-white circles circumscribing a twelve-sided snowflake, the Nikiforov family crest.

A binding spell.

“P-Papa?” he chokes out. The temperature of the air around him plunges, and he feels his heart hammering in his chest.

“To bring such disgrace into our house when we are about to go to war… you are a stupid, stupid child!”

In the end, his life is spared, but it still takes his sisters’ screams and all of Mama’s tears. Which is the best he could have hoped for, he eventually learns -- he’s ‘tainted’ the pristine Nikiforov name with his foolishness, and for that crime, abandonment is the closest thing to mercy.

It doesn’t feel that way. Not even a little bit.

 

 

[[ -222.03.29 01:14:17 ]]

 

This is what the elders always say:

Once upon a time, long, long ago, no magic existed in the world. Man had to strive for whatever he desired by either the sweat of his brow or the machinations of his mind. But most of the universe was beyond his reach. All of man’s effort and cunning could do little to move mountains, or guide the winds and the tides. The anguish and hopelessness that this caused lent wings to a prayer, and the Goddess of this universe, taking pity on Man, shared with him a portion of her power.

Viktor wonders now if She ever regrets that, what with humans taking that precious gift and twisting it into something ugly, by using magic to hurt and kill one another.

When the war finally starts, he’s shivering, curled up into himself in the tiny space under an upturned tree, while a blizzard howls all around him. Mama, Papa, his sisters and the rest of the Nikiforov household -- they all just left him here, alone. He hasn’t eaten in days. Near death, and stranded in the cold, he finds himself thinking of how prayers aren’t different from wishes, and how man’s request to the Goddess long ago was somewhat like his contract with that Wanderer.

He wants to laugh, but that seems like it would be too much effort.

Viktor doesn’t notice when the blizzard eventually dies down. Though he clutches Mama’s watch to his chest, the numbers and hands stopped making sense to him a few sunsets and sunrises ago. So he doesn’t realize how much time has passed when he hears rustling in the trees, yips and barks and a gruff voice giving an order to ‘calm down’. More seconds and minutes tick by, uncounted in his head, before a skulk of white foxes comes into view -- they’ve sniffed and all but circled him when a man appears in the corner of Viktor’s eye, dressed in heavy furs and carrying a walking staff.

“My name is Yakov Feltsman,” the man says. “What is yours, boy?”

Viktor’s too weak to respond. He feels so at peace right now, like he could just…let go.

He barely notices the magic seal underneath him before he drifts off.

 

 

[[ -222.03.28 20:02:25 ]]

 

Viktor wakes up on a warm wooden floor, over a ratty wool blanket that has seen better days. He’s been placed in the center of a circle of white light that shines brightly through the weave. A candle and a chalice sit on either side of him; a cluster of pebbles at his feet, a bundle of dried white sage at his head. In his hands, he’s clutching a small globe of glass, enclosing a tiny butterfly.

A healing spell.

“Do not leave the circle just yet, Viktor.” The man called Yakov is sitting at a desk in a darkened corner of the room, and hasn’t even turned to face him. “How are you feeling?”

“Better. Thank you.” Viktor tightens his grip on the glass. He stares at the butterfly as it flutters its wings. “How do you know my name?”

“Two days ago, the Nikiforov estate was attacked in the middle of the night. But when raiders entered the property to gather the spoils, none of the family was in sight.”

“Ah.” Viktor tries to decode the strange ache in his chest that feels too much like a twisted mix of betrayal and relief. “They escaped.”

“Most of them. They seem to be missing one member.”

Yakov shifts in his seat to pet one of the foxes curled up at his feet, which gives Viktor a glimpse of what’s on the man’s desk: an active crystal ball, watching several figures cross a snowy mountain pass. He can’t make out their faces from here, but he doesn’t have to: he recognizes the long, silvery white of Mama’s hair, and the family crest proudly embroidered on the back of Papa’s cloak.

“Do you want to see?” Yakov asks him in a gruff voice.

“No.” Swallowing hard, he tears his eyes away. “If you're thinking of using me as ransom, it won't work.”

“You misunderstand me,” Yakov snorts. “I have no interest in tossing my hat into a war, or any of this nonsense which is about to break.”

“Then why?” Viktor sets the globe with the butterfly down and wraps his arms around himself. “I'm grateful, but… I don't have anything to give you in return. I don't have anything at all.”

“You have your life, do you not?”

Life, indeed. He thinks about the wish he made, so childish in just a few days’ hindsight, so naïve. He remembers the Wanderer standing at the border of the forest, the turn of her lips when she ordered -- no, requested -- that he ‘live’. Is that all that’s left for him now?

Yakov rises to his feet. The crystal ball is now dead. “Are you hungry?”

 

 

[[ -222.01.14 06:33:10 ]]

 

After being nursed back to health, Viktor convinces Yakov to take him on as an apprentice. It doesn’t take much, to his surprise; he just tells Yakov in short, blunt words that he has nowhere else to go, and that if Yakov were to turn him away now he’d surely die… but, if Yakov could find it in his heart to let Viktor stay, Viktor would want to at least be of use to him.

Come to think of it, Viktor isn’t sure which part of his little spiel worked in the end. But Yakov opens up his home to him, and after ascertaining that he’s back to full strength, he starts teaching Viktor what he can.They start off simple: healing spells, location spells, augmentation. He learns how to talk to the foxes, and very soon Yakov puts him in charge of taking care of them, which he loves.

He feels much less love for their sparring sessions, of which Yakov insists on having many. “Your clan’s magical signature is domain over ice and snow,” Yakov says after a fifth disastrous attempt at redirecting an ice spell. “Yet you seem to have no desire to take advantage of it.”

Viktor shrugs. He traces out a pattern that leaves trails of frost curling along the aged bark of the old tree beside him. He’s always been told to take pride in it, his family’s specialty -- but he’s only ever seen this magic be used to hurt others, so he’s not that interested.

He tells Yakov this much today, which makes him switch tactics during their next lesson, and try to teach Viktor how to make barriers instead.

“The concept is not complicated. You define the two spaces first, and then use your will to force their separation. Later you will learn the nuances of it, and even later you will learn how to summon multiple barriers at once, but for now, let us start small.”

Yakov shows him a simple, straight barrier that cuts a line through the snow on the ground; a large, curved barrier hanging over their heads like a giant umbrella; a spherical barrier that he casts over a mound of snow, shrinking it until a snowball is formed.

Viktor frantically tries to throw up a barrier of his own when the snowball comes flying his way. He fails horribly.

“Again.”

Yakov is not very forgiving during these sparring sessions, because ‘you cannot expect real enemies to be forgiving’ and so, especially in this time of war, he has to train for this cruel reality. He throws ice spells at Viktor with a careless flick of his wrist, and while they lack the power and bravado of Papa’s hailstorms, they come at him fast and unrelenting, and shatter through all of his barriers.

“Your self-preservation is appalling!”

He grits his teeth. He’s soaking wet and freezing, and he can’t feel his fingers and toes. “I can’t… I can’t see it.”

“See what? The spaces?”

“I’m sorry.” He’s so tired. He just wants to take a long, hot bath, and then curl up in his bed, preferably against two or more of the foxes, and sleep.

Yakov finally lets up on his assault, the glow of bluish light from half-formed spells on his hands dissolving into the air. Stepping back, he regards Viktor for what feels like an eternity.

“What did you wish for, when you made your contract with that Wanderer?”

Viktor gapes at him. “What?”

“I know you heard me. That said, it is none of my business, so do not think that you have to answer.”

It’s fine; how long has it been, anyway? How long since the night he ran into that forest, and made a foolish choice that doomed himself to exile from his own family? He doesn’t really know. He can’t sense Mama’s magic from here anymore, which means she’s either very far away, or… he doesn’t want to consider the other, worse option. “It was stupid. I wished I could be as powerful as her.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t want to be weak anymore. And I didn’t want anyone from my family to have to go to war. I thought, if I could give everyone their heart’s desire, then…”

He trails off because Yakov is no longer looking at him, but staring at something on the ground a few feet or so away from where Viktor is standing. When Viktor follows his gaze, he almost misses the tiny white rabbit against the endless expanse of snow.

A blue glow surrounds Yakov’s hands again. Wait… is he -- ?

“No!”

Viktor throws up a barrier at the last second. He doesn’t even realize that he’s done it until he already sees it, huge and bright, and almost blinding -- a perfect circle of light tracing out the familiar twelve-sided snowflake in the air in front of the rabbit. All of the spells he’d fired dissolve upon contact, but Yakov simply smiles with a satisfied nod.

“I think I am starting to understand you a little bit more.”

 

 

[[ -220.02.23 10:40:00 ]]

 

The Nikiforov family does not make it through the war, which is something to lament.

When the dust clears and all of the blood has dried, miles and miles away, Yakov knocks on Viktor’s door just before midnight, and says a few short words. He asks if Viktor needs time, then takes back his question completely. He tells Viktor to take all the time he needs, instead.

In the morning, after the sun rises, he finds Viktor waiting at the table with breakfast ready, just as always.

 

 

[[ -207.11.28 09:38:17 ]]

 

Viktor flourishes under Yakov’s tutelage, which he credits to the man’s boundless patience and his own dogged determination. But all good things must come to an end, and so when Viktor comes of age, he tells Yakov that he can no longer in good conscience keep being a burden on him.

This doesn’t surprise Yakov. What does surprise him is what Viktor says next, when he answers the obvious question that follows. “A mercenary? You?”

It’s snowing. Viktor waves his hand, bends the flow of the falling snow near him and lets the snowflakes dance until they form the shape of a fox, before releasing it. “I’m going to need a way to support myself somehow. Magic is all I know.”

“What about your contract?”

“I don’t know.” Viktor stares at the mark of the moon, still visible on his palm. Truth be told, he hasn’t given it much thought for quite some time now. “What happens to a contract if it’s left unfulfilled?”

“I would imagine it remains open,” Yakov muses, “but I do not possess any firsthand knowledge of how these things are supposed to work.”

“Right. Well, I suppose I’ll just have to figure it out then.” Viktor stuffs his hands into his coat pockets, flashing him a cheerful smile. As far as he knows, there is no magical law or mandate which demands that all goodbyes have to be sad. “Thank you for everything. I mean it, really. You were the best teacher I ever knew.”

“Stop talking like I’m already dead!”

Viktor laughs. “I didn’t mean that. I just… you are the best teacher I’ve ever had, and I need you to know that now.” Because fifteen years ago, an ignorant and wide-eyed young child lost his family in a single night; who knows if he and Yakov will ever see each other again?

“Vitya. If there is one final gift of wisdom that I can leave you, it is this: never forget that the universe is always smaller than we imagine it to be.”

 

 

[[ -201.08.23 15:46:02 ]]

 

Life as a mercenary is… comfortable, if he had to put it in a word. It’s easier than he expects to detach himself from people’s motivations and, to an extent, the consequences of those motivations when he abstracts them away as ‘clients’, and every spell to be cast is just another job to be done. He thinks nothing of charms and love potions, of loading crucial dice rolls and enchanting swords with indestructibility. He thinks nothing of bringing forth rain over a parched field just as he thinks nothing of summoning pestilence to that very same field halfway through the season -- different clients, different payouts.

He thinks nothing of it all when, in the middle of a darkened, empty bar in a sleepy town close to the Equator, a witch makes him an offer that seems too good to be true.

“Say that again? You’re offering how much?”

The witch names her figure again, a ridiculous price. Viktor laughs and pays for his drink, ready to make a quick exit and call it a night, but as he gets up, she stops him by yanking on his sleeve. Her hand finds his, and a second later he feels the weight of a very heavy purse pressing into his palm.

“Half now. Half when the job is done.”

He needs to use a bit of enchantment to count it quickly, and without having to pour the contents of the purse out onto the bar counter for everyone to see. But it really is all there, just like she said. “And all you want is an augmentation?”

“Yes.”

Augmentation is one of the first spells Mama taught to him. All it really is is a channeling of one’s energy to another party. It’s a way to share one’s power with another mage, either to cast a spell so complicated that it requires more energy than one person can handle, or to double the potency of a simpler one. “Are you going to tell me what the main spell is going to be?”

The witch turns over his hand in hers, and inspects the mark of the moon on his palm with a detached sort of curiosity. “If the money is good, then what does that matter?”

Viktor finds himself considering that. What does it matter, really? It would be easy money, likely the easiest he’ll ever have for a simple, relatively boring job. If she makes good on her promise, by the time this is over he won’t have to work for the rest of the year. It might be nice to have a vacation for once.

His acceptance finds them travelling for three weeks, to a seaside town on the southern coast of the southernmost state of Brazil. From there, they waste no time in finding a boat, and immediately set sail that very night. The witch has coordinates written down on a scrap of paper with some complex-looking calculations, and she obsessively checks and rechecks a worn map that she keeps in her sleeve every hour, even though there’s nothing but open ocean for miles.

When they finally stop, it’s been a little over sixty-two hours by Viktor’s count, as there hasn’t been much to do besides tracking the time on Mama’s watch -- although now it’s really his watch, he supposes. The witch waves away all of his offers to help as she sets up her summoning circle on the main deck: sulfur, ash, and black candles; sprigs of barberry and asafoetida; an iron knife whose blade drinks the blood from her arm, before it is painstakingly placed in the center of the circle.

“You’re not conjuring up a storm, are you?” he asks, half-joking.

She shares none of his mirth. “Are you familiar with antipodes, mercenary?”

Viktor nods. “Opposite ends of the world.”

“You have been taught well.” She checks her measurements, which were already perfect from the very start, one last time. “Some spells, as you must know, can have their potency magnified a hundredfold by adjusting simple parameters. Distance is one of the simplest of them.”

He remembers as much, from his lessons with Yakov. But what she described only works if the caster and the target are already linked in some way. And he can imagine very few cases where the potency scales with distance, not against it.

In fact, given this knowledge, and all of the materials she’s laid out on the deck, he can imagine only one. “This is a curse… isn’t it?”

On the exact opposite side of the world, he learns, stands a castle built on a plane, home to the feudal lord of the Hasetsu domain. The locals call it Maizuru-jō -- ‘Dancing Crane Castle’ -- in part because of the maidens who protect it: priestesses of a revered local clan who channel their unique brand of magic almost exclusively through the use of sacred ceremonial dance. The entire family is the target of her curse: for the next boy born from this bloodline to be born ‘with tragedy as his shadow’, and bring nothing but misfortune to those close to him.

Just the way she describes it makes Viktor start to feel sick. “A curse like this,” he breathes, “would require a tremendous amount of magic.”

The witch nods. “More than a single person can provide. Hence my need for your augmentation.” She seems to pick up on his sudden change of temperament. “Are you going to insult us both by asking for my motivations, mercenary?”

Viktor sets his lips into a thin line. “I have been a consummate professional until now, have I not?”

It looks like that satisfies her, because she lets the conversation die and continues with her preparations. She lights the candles all at once, and squeezes around her wrist to give a little more blood. She pulls the tiny receptacle she wears as a pendant around her neck over the summoning circle, letting a single drop of mercury slide down to make its way around and through the summoning circle, until it shines silver.

He’s not going to ask her. It is far too late for that, and it’s not his place. Still, he can’t help but wonder: what happened? What cracked and broke and festered, and for how long, to give birth to such hatred?

It doesn’t matter, he ends up telling himself. He was hired to do a job, that’s all. That his client’s plans happen to be… a lot less than benevolent… should be inconsequential, cold as it might feel, at least to him. At least in the long term. At the end of the day, he will walk away from this, and life will go on.

“A curse of this kind requires an exit clause,” she announces as though by afterthought. “A limitation imposed in the very fabric of the spell itself. But there’s nothing stopping us from designing the clause so that it’s something that will never happen.” She pauses to think. “What is impossible to happen to a boy who brings nothing but misfortune, I wonder.”

Viktor is still too stunned by what she is about to do that he doesn’t even think of how to reply; he just lets go of the words that are already sitting on the tip of his tongue. “It must be ‘love’ then,” he says weakly.

“Love,” she echoes. “Of course. That is excellent.”

With another iron dagger, more ash, and a very careful hand, Viktor draws out a line tangent to the summoning circle, going the opposite way from where the sun is starting to set in the horizon. It was Mama who taught him the theory, and the short incantation he mutters under his breath, unheard against the wind. But it was Yakov who taught him control, Yakov who showed him how to steady every fiber of his being -- this is the only reason, Viktor is convinced, that his hand doesn’t shake when he crouches down and presses it flat against the end of the line, and the entire intricate path sketched in ash begins to glow.

He isn’t sure how much time passes before the glow turns blinding. The sea roils, and waves crash into the side of their boat, spraying over onto the deck, washing away the ash and sulfur and everything else.

Viktor doesn’t know what any of this means. Did it work? Did it fail? Which is it?

When he dares to look, he’s shocked to find that the Goddess Herself has appeared in a burst of light, the tips of her toes barely skimming the surface. The robes that cloak her form are of seafoam and spray, her eyes the ominous green of the sky before a tornado.

He stares, unable to look away.

This does not feel like a victory at all.

“We did it, mercenary!” The witch breaks the silence with a shout, and joyous laughter that sounds too loud, far too loud against the eerie calmness that has overtaken the ocean. Saltwater from the wave pushed her hair down over her face, but between the drenched strands clinging to her cheeks, he can see the crazed look in her eyes. “It is done! The hour of my reckoning has come, so swift, so furious. But this is just another sign that it is done.”

“Reckoning?” he echoes.

“You really don’t know? Silly boy.” Her lips curl up into something crooked. “For the sin of cursing an entire bloodline, there is only one fitting price.”

No. He can’t have heard that right. No. “You… you knew about this?” Viktor staggers backwards, slipping on the soaked deck, until his back is pressed against the mast. “But… but why? This wasn’t worth it!!”

“You know nothing! I would do it a thousand times again, and die a thousand times more.” When the witch raises her head again, she meets the Goddess’ eyes with something that might have resembled dignity, if only it were not so cruel. “Death is the fastest and least of punishments. Goodbye, mercenary. I am sorry I deceived you.”

For all of the ceremony required for humans to cast even the easiest spells, the root of all magic executes with simplicity: the Goddess strikes her dead with a single look, a bolt of lighting that tears a hole into the boat and leaves not a single trace of the caster’s existence behind.

And when it’s over, and his ears have stopped ringing and the spots have cleared from eyes, Viktor forgets to feel fear when the Goddess turns to him.

“I… I will accept whatever punishment You see fit,” he whispers. It might as well be death, he thinks, since this rapidly-sinking boat means the ocean will swallow him in minutes anyway, and by then it will matter little if what it finds is already a corpse. Oddly enough, as the water rises in the boat, he remembers -- oh, he must be the last living member of the Nikiforov clan by now, isn’t he? Perhaps this is the only tragedy, then: that a once proud, formidable bloodline die with him. Pity there’s not much of a legacy left behind with the name besides wars and curses… but in two, three generations, will any of it really matter?

He only wishes he could have said goodbye to Yakov.

“You have sold your magic for profit and spat upon the pride of the honorable mages who walked before you.” The Goddess’ lips do not move, but he hears her voice everywhere at once. “You did not seek to do evil, but you did nothing to stop it and without your aid, an innocent would not have been cursed on this day.”

Viktor presses his back further against the mast as she floats onto the boat, approaching him. He squeezes his eyes shut when she reaches out a hand, but by the time he feels the pain blooming from his chest, he wonders if it would have made a difference; if he would have been able to see anything anyway, when it feels like a thousand daggers gutting him all at once.

“Your punishment, then, is this: you shall roam and repent, and roam and repent. The only people who can walk this earth without a shred of dignity are those who are willing to be reborn as many times as necessary, in order to regain it.”

 

 

[[ -201.08.21 02:09:13 ]]

 

The blue sky takes a while to come into focus. Waves lap up against his legs; the tide comes in to his waist. An apology?

No. Viktor lurches to a sitting position, only to double over. He vomits seawater onto the sand, and it never seems to end. He can hear the cries of birds soaring overhead. Seagulls. Or -- he tries to remember where he is -- ring-billed gulls, perhaps.

He glances around him: nothing but beach and water. There’s no longer any sign of the Goddess, or of the boat She sank with Her righteous fury.

Viktor has no idea what day it is -- after the first dozen or so, he lost count of how many times he drowned, only to revive and drown again, and revive and drown yet again. And again, until the current brought him to shore.

He pushes himself up off the sand, and blinks when he catches sight of his left hand, the one he used for the augmentation; it’s all blighted now, splotches of black and purple marring the pale skin. Gingerly, he places it over his chest.

His heart isn’t beating anymore.

This is when he realizes the truth behind his mother’s old words: being a Wanderer is not a gift. It is a curse. So this is the price for those who make the Universe tremble, he thinks, recalling the words from that beautiful, wild-haired stranger he met under the blood moon twenty-one years ago. How vexing -- that it took all this time, and a winding, convoluted path of choice and circumstance, but she wound up fulfilling her end of the contract anyway.

Death is the fastest and least of punishments. Those were the witch’s last words. Indeed -- if he had only known.

 

 

[[ -200.11.03 17:29:10 ]]

 

Older versions of the creation myth claim that the very first dance was the one the Goddess performed at the beginning of time. The pure magic flowing from her hands and feet created matter: the stars, galaxies, universes, and beyond.

This is what the priestesses of the Okukawa clan believe, and this is why most of the magic they cast is through dance. Healing, purification, prayers for good fortune and safe-keeping -- all of these are wishes that can be channeled through dance.

The clan practices other forms of magic, though not as frequently. The magical wards placed in certain arteries of the city are their handiwork, as are divination rituals during important milestones of the citizens’ lives.

But they are not strangers to other lands’ magic as well. As proof of this, when the High Priestess senses a surge of dark magic in the vicinity of the castle, it doesn’t take very long at all for some of the more experienced clan members to trace back not only the source of the magic, but the actual contents of the spell.

None of the knowledge that they gain is of any comfort to those concerned.

“Who among you,” the High Priestess demands, “has taken upon herself such contempt that she allowed this scourge to enter our house?!”

The women gathered around the table lower their gazes. Nobody knows, or nobody admits to it.

“Is there no way at all to break this curse?” one of the younger priestesses asks her. “Perhaps, with a powerful enough purification ritual -- ”

“This is a curse for which the caster paid with their life,” she snaps. “Make no mistake about it. The only chance we have of breaking it is if someone is willing to match that price.”

There is another way, of course, to handle this. It is something that the High Priestess would normally be loath to even consider -- and she still is, to some extent. When she looks around at the faces of the women around her, she sees shock and despair, a hopeless dread that settles over the room.

This angers her. If they give in, then that mage who cursed their family will have won. To let them have that victory, when they carried out an act so heinous and unspeakable against these women, some of them mere girls, who deserve none of it… this, the High Priestess can not allow.

If only on principle, then… “But we should not have to.”

 

 

[[ -198.05.28 16:38:04 ]]

 

Because there are spells that can foretell the sex of a baby while it is still in the womb, and there are other spells that can verify those predictions.

Because there are other spells still: spells that exist long before mankind will eventually come up with medicines and procedures -- and countless debates about those same medicines and procedures -- to end a life before it can fully begin.

Because the family must be protected, above all else, and its members who are alive today deserve to be shielded from this curse through whatever means necessary.

“We are damned. We are damned.” A young attendant clutches at a blood-soaked rag, her eyes wide but dry. She is too numb for tears. “Surely, there must be some other way?”

The High Priestess says nothing, simply smoothing out the pleats in her skirt as she stands. The red that slips beneath her fingers looks the same as the blood on the attendant’s rag, and the blood now seeping into the mat in the center of the room. The would-be mother wails and wails.

It is all over.

 

 

[[ -196.10.02 20:17:38 ]]

 

It is all over until the next boy is conceived. And the next.

And --

 

 

[[ -195.05.11 07:21:32 ]]

 

The intricacies of being a Wanderer need to be learned on the fly. But it’s alright. Viktor has all the time in the world.  

He learns, for example, that being deathless does not actually stop him from dying; rather, he simply keeps being reborn, again and again, ‘as many times as necessary’ as the Goddess said, but as time goes on he starts to think that there really might be no end at all. Being deathless also does not spare him from pain, as he learns when, in the middle of his travels, he’s caught practicing a healing spell in a country of people fearful of magical folk, and is promptly burned at the stake as a ‘witch’. He learns this repeatedly, when the blight on his hand throbs on bad days, and when he tries to end it all himself on worse days.

He learns this when a reclusive alchemist promises he can ‘cure’ him, and Viktor is stupid enough to believe him. What follows is the longest winter he’s ever known, chained by his wrists and ankles to the basement floor, over a permanent seal that drains him of his magic -- but it’s alright, the alchemist says, because ‘your life force is infinite, so you will survive anything!’

(And: ‘you are so beautiful’. Indeed, Viktor finds, he can survive anything.)

It’s tragedy that eventually saves him, when the alchemist’s own hubris and carelessness lead to an experiment gone wrong, and a gruesome end. The same spilled, corrosive byproduct of yet another failed attempt to create gold eats through the iron of his shackles just as well as it eats through bone; Viktor watches his arm painstakingly recreate itself, from an almost-cellular level, and that is when he gives up, and stops fighting. This is his lot, then. This is forever.

When he finally gets out of that place, he cuts his hair, finds a respectable-looking suit that paints him as a man of repute, and keeps nothing save for Mama’s watch that he wears on a chain. Not long after, he meets a woman ready to hang herself from a tree branch; through tears, she tells him that she’s been given an ultimatum, to either marry a wizard to whom she was promised from the womb, or bring death and damnation to her mother who made that promise.

But perhaps there’s another option: “Would you like to make a wish?”

 

 

[[ -102.09.08 14:39:25 ]]

 

For all that Wanderers and their ilk are supposedly ‘despised’, Viktor sees no shortage of mages eager to make contracts with him. They wish for many things in equally many words, but at the end of the day, he finds he can distill most wishes into the same things: more knowledge, more wealth, more time.

His one wish is unchanging. If I am cursed to live forever, then: show me something that will make life worth living.

A hundred contracts lead to a hundred disappointments.   

Viktor eventually gets tired of granting all of the same, mostly selfish treaties without a whit of creativity. He figures, if he’s going to be walking around for all of eternity to ‘atone’, well, he might as well try saving people, no?

So he learns, with time, to focus his presence and hone in on only the most desperate of contractees, thinking perhaps he can do the most good this way. He learns that, much like the augmentation that left his hand blighted, every contract he forges leaves a mark too. He doesn’t know if it’s the same for each Wanderer, but for him it’s roses: blue roses, sprouting along his back, one for each contract he’s ever made. Their hue is too bright for bruises, but somehow not bright enough for life.

Lastly -- and this is the most important part -- he learns that all of the great and limitless magic supposedly available to his kind can only be tapped into when making a contract. At the moment a contract is forged, he sees the threads: hundreds, sometimes thousands of them, criss-crossing and tangling and extending to forever. These are the threads that hold the universe together and keep it all from decaying into chaos, and by pulling on one he can shift the fabric of space and time itself. It’s a brief shift, to be sure, but the reach is vast.

(“How boring,” Christophe Giacometti tells him, as he gently coaxes a climbing vine to wind around his finger. They meet in a Swiss meadow on a sleepy summer day, when Chris has just forged a contract with a young shepherd for… something, Viktor doesn’t actually ask. Nor does Viktor ever learn what the other Wanderer’s eternal wish is, as it seems rude to pry. What he does learn is that while he sees threads, Chris sees butterflies: tiny little projections of light in the shape of them, suspended in the air around him, their wings frozen in space and time. And where Viktor would pull a thread, Chris touches a butterfly to send it flying, off to alter the course of destiny. Threads of fate, butterflies and cyclones; all the same in the end.)

He sees the threads when, in the midst of global tensions threatening to boil over, and the threat of a much larger war hanging in the air, someone makes an unusual wish. A man who is not a mage has been marked for death, and yet through a series of mishaps that are starting to look less and less like coincidences, has survived. The wish is simple: just let the plan succeed.

Viktor opens his eyes to see the threads glistening in the sunlight. He has to squint to spot the thread that’s tinged gold, and when he gives it the slightest tug, an archduke’s motorcade abruptly makes a wrong turn off the Appel Quay, and stops in front of a food shop where a man with a pistol is waiting.

 

 

[[ -71.08.06 12:59:13 ]]

 

And the next time Viktor sees that same thread again, still gleaming gold as a testament to his contract, it cuts right across the center of the mushroom cloud that explodes over Hiroshima.

That’s not fair, he wants to say. He’s nowhere near the blast zone when it goes off, but he might as well have been. Because death is the fastest and least of punishments, and that’s not fucking fair.

 

 

[[ -71.08.03 23:31:01 ]]

 

But Viktor accepts it anyway. And he keeps wandering.

 

 

[[ -25.08.22 04:11:27 ]]

 

Two magical bloodlines start their paths to convergence when, one stormy night, a traveling mage from the Katsuki clan seeks refuge in Hasetsu Castle.

What follows after is not necessarily earth-shattering, but it is something to celebrate. Toshiya and Hiroko exchange wedding vows beneath a shower of sakura petals, and young Okukawa priestesses-in-training dance in a circle around the happy couple to bind them for eternity.

But eternity is not stagnant; it flows and bends and twists, in constant flux that sometimes dips into the deeper end of chaos. And so it comes to pass that in the deep of winter, Katsuki Hiroko falls unexpectedly pregnant with twins: a baby boy and a baby girl.

“You know what needs to be done,” they all tell her. “Get it over with as soon as you can, before you grow attached.”

She stalls. She takes her time weighing the choice between her heart and her head, because she can’t simply rush into this. And when she does make her decision -- with only days to spare before it becomes too late -- it’s not what the clan would have liked to hear.

“What about the curse?” They turn to her older sister, the highest of this generation’s priestesses. “Tell her, talk some sense into her!”

But the graceful lift of Minako’s shoulders tells them she won’t be following the clan’s charted course either. “They are not my children to bear.”

Hiroko turns to her husband, who only offers her a wordless, comforting smile. His grasp on her hand makes her feel grounded. The Katsuki clan’s magical strengths lie in the earth, in sand and mountains and the rich, enchanted soil of their homeland, and Toshiya has always been a solid presence by her side. His magic makes her feel protected, and he himself always feels like home.

You are safe, she reads in the warmth of his gaze. Perhaps this, in the end, is what pushes her: to defy 200 years of tradition, and let the boy live.

 

 

[[ -24.06.14 18:38:39 ]]

 

But the curse is relentless, and wastes no time. A healthy baby boy is born to the world heralded by a snowstorm in November, but his sister comes out stillborn.

“His eyes…” The mood of the house is somber, one of mourning, and the baby’s grandfather doesn’t dare disturb the silence too much when he passes the boy back to her. “Have a look.”

Hiroko does. Unlike the brown eyes she and her husband share, the boy’s irises have a slightly reddish tint to them. “They look like wine,” she whispers.

“Or like blood.”

Into the skin just above his heart, his father carves a tiny character: 禍, for calamity. Toshiya uses the pure silver in the knife’s blade as a catalyst for his healing magic, so that by the time he’s finished, there’s no blood left behind.

Not just that -- there’s something more. “Will this really help him?” Hiroko asks.

“If nothing else, it will be his reminder that his fate, and the fates of those around him, were decided long before his time.” Toshiya shakes his head sadly. “But whether it helps him or not… that is up to him, in the end.”

They name him Yuuri. A life in which one’s only destiny is to cause misfortune is likely to have few victories, and he will need to draw all of his courage to pursue them all.

 

 

[[ -16.08.22 05:09:13 ]]

 

Okaasan … is it true, what they say? That I’m cursed for as long as I live?”

The older Yuuri gets, the harder it becomes to shield him from the truth. Hiroko smooths out the creases on his robes and softly murmurs something that’s meant to be comforting, but only ends up ringing hollow in her ears.

“But why? I thought that curses only happen to evil people.”

“A long, long time ago,” she tells him, “one of our ancestors angered a witch of another magical clan, from the Northwest.”

Yuuri tilts his head. His face scrunches up as he tries to remember the name of that island. “Tsushima?”

“No, further than that. Further still.”

“Ohh.” Yuuri’s shoulders sag. He's still so young, and he doesn’t know much about the world outside of Japan just yet. “Do -- do you know what happened?”

“They say that the witch was envious. The Okukawa family has always felt that we were close to the Goddess, since the universe was created from a dance. She hated our family for that, so…”

After she trails off, Yuuri sits quiet, mulling it over. Then, he hesitates. “Is that the truth?”

Perhaps in some respects, he's not too young after all. “I suppose we will never know for sure.” The mood has shifted. She injects some cheer into her tone. “Come now, let’s go inside, Okaasan needs to start making dinner. How do you feel about katsudon tonight?”

“...It would have been better,” he whispers,  “if I was never born.”

Hiroko stands up so fast that Yuuri winces, as though almost expecting a strike that never comes. Not that she’s ever hurt him; she’s always been gentle and kind, patient in both her actions and her words. It's the least she can do, for the life to which she's doomed him. She pulls him into a hug, so tight and desperate, and hopes that Yuuri can feel her love pouring out of her.

“Never say that, Yuuri. Please… never say that again.”

 

 

[[ -09.01.06 06:46:00 ]]

 

In the summer, Yuuri meets a boy. His skin is like bronze because he hails from across the ocean. Or maybe, it's the other way around? He has hamsters that he hides in his wide sleeves -- he was born in the Year of the Rat, you see, and so it's always been easy for him to communicate with them, and with other animals of the same family. He introduces them by name, but Yuuri finds them hard to pronounce, and so he forgets them, and he's too embarrassed to ask again.

The boy carries around a small digital camera that's got scuffs and scratches from where it's been dropped -- too many times to count, his mentor laments, complete with frantic arm gestures -- but it's otherwise well-loved. He takes pictures of everything: temples, flowers, waterfalls (but also: insects, onigiri, cracks in the old sidewalks, stray cats, and Yuuri).

His presence is the warmth of the sun; his laughter makes the mountain sing. Yuuri is older now: old enough to have been burnt before, old enough to warn him to stay away. But how is he supposed to do that? Say, for example, ‘My name is Katsuki Yuuri, I’m a dime-a-dozen mage who was cursed to live with calamity as my shadow’?

“Don’t worry about it!” Phichit grins, after Yuuri ends up going with something along those lines. He's composing a shot of a knot in the wood of one of the floorboards in Yuuri’s room, because it ‘looks like a face, doesn't it??’ “You’re not even close to being the scariest person I know, honestly. And besides, we're friends! You won’t hurt me.”

 

 

[[ -08.04.11 08:05:56 ]]

 

But he does, in the end. Friendship is its own brand of magic, pure and, with luck, everlasting… but even it cannot hope to overcome a curse purchased with blood.

“Hey.” Phichit’s smile has not changed; it can still light up this dreary hospital room effortlessly. “You know what this means, though? This means I’m immune to your curse now, doesn’t it? So you don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

Yuuri lowers his gaze. He can't bear to look, because Phichit has bandages wrapped all around the top half of his face, and he'll never take another picture again. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Phichit, I never wanted -- ”

“I know.” He laughs softly. “I’m not mad at you or anything… you know that, right? You warned me, but I was the one who didn’t stay away.”

Yuuri clenches his hands into fists over his lap, fighting back tears. Why is he not being punished? This isn't fair! Why did the freak accident that took Phichit’s eyes spare Yuuri, and leave him unscathed?

The scar left by the character carved into his skin at birth burns. He knows why.

He hates it.  

Later, when Phichit is healed and has to go back to Thailand, he reaches for Yuuri’s hand across the table after breakfast. Outside, a horn honks; a loud voice yells that Mr. Cialdini’s taxi is waiting. “We’ll always be friends, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Yuuri looks at the blindfold Phichit will have to wear for life, and forces a smile into his voice. “Always be friends.”

 

 

[[ -06.11.03 07:05:50 ]]

 

From that day on, he makes a conscious effort to push people away. If he ends up coming off as standoffish, or mean, to his peers, that's fine. If they think he's a loner, or that his shyness is crippling or borders on some sort of personality disorder, that's fine. If it saves people, and if it spares them from the calamity he wears like a shroud, let them believe whatever they want.

But in the end, it’s not enough. There are classmates and teachers and regular guests at the inn, and his father's students -- any of those can turn into friends, which is where it always starts to take a turn for the worst.

“It’s because of me… it’s all because of me.” Yuuri grips at his phone so hard he imagines the screen might crack, but he doesn't care. Hell, let it happen, if that means it will take away the words in the message on his screen, reverse the wretched events that just came to pass. “Yuuko-san probably hates me now. And those girls -- ”

“Will grow up in a safe, loving environment, with the Okukawa clan’s full protection.” Minako-sensei pries the phone out of his hands and forces him to look at her. “You should not try to shoulder the misfortunes of the world alone, Yuuri. Not everything is your fault.”

“But this is.” Surely, nobody believes this is just a coincidence too, right? What are the odds, anyway? For all three of Yuuko and Takeshi’s daughters to be born with a defect that none of their spells or any of the doctors’ ultrasounds managed to catch? One deaf, one blind, one mute -- the whole damn set, he thinks bitterly, a mockery of the ancient icon of wisdom sitting on top of Yuuri’s desk at home: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It was a graduation gift from the Nishigoris themselves.

He never should have let himself step into the orbit of their lives.

“Does it hurt today?” Yuuri doesn't realize he's been pressing the flat of his hands into his mark until she points it out. He stops. “Come on, let’s take you to the beach. We’ll run a purification, just like last time.”

“‘W-we’?”

Minako-sensei nods, and does a cheerful little twirl. “None of my other siblings have any children, and your mother has you. Who else am I going to pass my secrets to?”

Yuuri gapes at her. “B-but… the Okukawa clan has never had a male priest before.”

“Who said anything about making you a priest?” She laughs like he's just being silly, so silly. “Learning a few dances won’t kill you. Just try it, and if you end up hating it, I’ll take you out for ramen. Okay?”

 

 

[[ -00.00.00 04:47:18 ]]

 

She doesn’t make it seven years before she ends up paying the price of showing him kindness.

Yuuri isn’t with her when it happens, but when he learns about it, he imagines it just the same: a screech of brakes, the frantic blare of a car horn, all of it useless in the end. The universe has many measurables independent of magic that can be ruthless in their own regard, and inertia is one of them.

Minako-sensei’s car was just half the size of the other party’s van, and so.

“With time, they say… she might be capable of standing on her own again. Maybe walk, too.”

“But will she be able to dance?”

Yuuri doesn’t need to see the faces of the doctors and the priestesses to know that no answer is the same as a bad one. And he doesn’t need to wait for her to wake up from her surgery, to lie to him like everyone else has and say it’s ‘not your fault, not your sin’ to understand.

Understand: that there is really only one way to end this after all.

 


 

  


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