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The Lost Desert Dagger: Part One


by scarrift

--------

Liberation

The steady dripping sound reverberated throughout the dark chamber, one of the few sensory stimulants that existed in these musty depths. The dripping was calming and maddening all at once; to hear but neither feel nor see the very thing that so soothed one's self a form of torture in itself, worse still than the darkness and humidity that permeated the solid stone cell.

     I had lost track of the time I spent being held captive in the dungeons far beneath the sands of the Lost Desert. A month? A year? A decade? I had stopped counting in the end. It was pointless, utterly pointless. As pointless as the short row of scratch marks on my cell walls to mark the number of days spent in this burning hole; or the shallow hole in the far corner, dug in the early days of my incarceration with nought but a wooden spoon; or the small pile of bricks I had removed in the faint hope of one day escaping through the desert sands.

     As pointless as the crime I had committed.

     I was a fool, foolish to even consider carrying out such a plan. How could my judgement have been so flawed? Yes, kidnapping Princess Sankara was the most ridiculous thing I had ever done - had ever considered. I was young, that I now admit freely, but I also knew that had I not been so vain as to accept that challenge, made on my honour, I would not be here today. Was it my lieutenants' fallacious assessment that made me embark on such a foolish undertaking?

     And had I not been so brash, that Grarrl - the warden of this very same dungeon ironically - would not have, and oh so easily, caught me. How could I have underestimated his intelligence? Was I caught off guard by his plain, dense expression? No. Foolish pride and arrogance proved to be my downfall, both in the latter and the former cases.

     I was once the greatest of the Desert Daggers, the most feared band of thieves ever to roam the seas of sand. A rogue of many talents, my name was feared by all, the tales of my tenacity, daring and cunning reaching the farthest reaches of the seemingly endless sands. I was known by many names: The Usul Assassin; The Black Paw; The Desert Fang. Now I am reduced to but a mere mortal; a shadow of my former self, caged within the confines of my cell and - I fear - my very own mind. I can feel my sanity stretch, growing thinner and tauter like aged, stretched leather with each tiny drop of dank water, as if it were a weathered rock on the verge of breaking.

     A sudden noise startled me, a small, screeching sound that nearly deafened me in its intensity. I opened both my eyes, something I rarely did, and squinted through the jet-black darkness. Perhaps it was the warden, and then again perhaps it wasn't. Isolation in the gloom had sharpened my other senses; hearing, smell and touch. That sound was definitely the squeal of pitted metal against rock. A smell a lot like that of burnt cinnamon wafted in from an indiscernible point far above. A faint draft swept one strand of my long, dirty, oily brown hair.

     A rock clattered to the cell floor, followed by another and then a third one, the latter followed instantly by the hissing of falling sand, some of the fine particles landing at my feet, coarse and clammy to the touch. I looked up and saw some faint light filtering into my cell ten feet up. Shielding my eyes against the dim light - comparable to the midday sun to my sensitive, light-deprived eyes - with my chained paws, I stayed dead still as the scratching sounds increased in volume, deafening ears already long accustomed to the soft drip of water. I slowly raised my head and squinted towards the source of the disturbance.

     "Maladgar."

     The softly spoken query drummed in my ear, causing me to instinctively put my paws to the sides of my head, the chains about my wrists clinking loudly. I opened an eye slowly, the piercing white glare gradually giving way to reveal the outline of a Desert Grarrl standing in the frame of my cell door; a rusted, pitted lamp held in his clenched claws coming into view with the opening of the other eye.

     "Maladgar," the warden repeated as he descended the short, steep flight of steps to the floor of my cell. "It is time." I opened my mouth to speak, my voice coming slowly to my throat, raspy and cracked due to lack of use and water.

     "Time … for what, warden?" I croaked, getting shakily to my feet, the chains rattling about. The warden approached, let the lamp rest on a narrow ledge at chest height and reached inside his flowing robes, showing not a trace of caution.

     "You are free to go. It's been five years and you've been granted an early release," the warden replied, extricating a ring of heavy iron keys. The Grarrl bent down and one click after another echoed through the small chamber as the locks, their rusty tumblers shrieking in agony with every turn, of the chains restraining me opened, clattering loudly to the stone floor. When the Grarrl was done he stepped back carefully, leaving me to stretch my legs and rub my raw wrists.

     "You really … mean it?" I asked hoarsely, not meeting his gaze. "This is no joke?"

     "I would never lie bout such things, Maladgar." The Grarrl motioned for me to follow. "Come." Obediently, I took one painful step after another, on limbs long unaccustomed to movement, up the steep steps, trying desperately to keep from falling over backwards. A guard was already waiting patiently as I stepped gingerly from the dank cell, ready to close the door behind me. I hesitated for a moment, flinching slightly as the heavy cell door slammed shut behind me, before breathing a sigh and trailing behind the warden.

     As I walked down the torch-lit tunnel I reminisced about my previous trip down this same path, many, many moons ago. The memories came on strongly from the recesses of my mind - me biting my jailors, struggling to break my chains and threatening them with instant death - as if they had happened only a day ago. Now it was different. I felt no ill will towards the warden or the guards, the years having taken away any bitter resentment. They were just doing their jobs, punishing me for what I truly deserved.

     Looking around I could see that nothing about the Sakhmetian dungeon had changed; down to the small red mark I had left on one corner in case anyone wanted to find me. I believed someone, perhaps one of the Desert Daggers, would break me out in those days, that I may once again roam the dunes of sand. The foolishness of youth.

     "Maladgar?" I was jerked back to reality by the Grarrl's sonorous voice. Unnoticed by me, I was now at a very familiar room. I turned my head to a door that I knew led to the outside world, a world I had longed to see for five years. Was this real? Could I really leave? The warden seemed to read my mind for when I turned back he handed me my old hooked staff and nodded. "You know the way out, Maladgar."

     "I give my thanks," I said, bowing respectfully. A guard, the same one that had escorted me through the dungeon, stood beside the door and opened it as I approached. The warm desert breeze hit me like a rushing wall, as warm and welcoming as I had remembered from all those years before. Had it really been five years?

     The Grarrl patted me on the back, like a father would to a son. "Know the straight path and follow it," he said. "I do not wish to see you here again." I nodded without looking at him, took up my staff and walked out the door.

     Oh how I had taken for granted the warmth of the desert sun, the smell of sweet, fresh air! Standing upon the short flight of steps of the dungeon, I couldn't help but close my eyes and smile as the sultry desert breeze danced through my brown hair. Stepping off the threshold of the dungeon, I felt my spirit soar, lifted by the singular thought racing through my mind.

     I was free, oh so free! Free of all the shackles that bound me! Free to walk where I want, to start anew without the shadows of the past haunting me! I now knew where to go. With new purpose, I strode in the direction of one of Sahkmet's grand archways and headed out into the desert.

     A few days later, I stood atop a sand dune overlooking the oasis town of Khelset, my travel worn robes billowing behind me as I leaned upon my trusty staff. The sight of the simple yellowed, clay buildings clustered in concentric circles around the aquamarine-blue oasis would have hardly warranted my attention five years ago but now it was as much my hometown as any other tiny village in the realm. With a tired smile, I descended the dune and headed in the direction of the largest building next to the oasis.

     Malmud's Tavern hadn't changed the least in the years since last I saw it. As I stood at the doorway of the tavern, I reminisced about what little memories remained of my youth; remembering the times when, before the Desert Daggers were formed, I used to drink the famous local brew, Ummagine Shine, with the rest of the would-be Daggers, dreaming up outlandish heists and bragging of one day striking it rich and living like kings. I shook my head. How those dreams now seemed like fleeting mirages, like so many false, overdue promises. I pushed open the creaky wooden door and stepped into the empty tavern.

     Old Malmud seemed to have gained more weight since I last set eyes upon him - his girth noticeably wider, wrinkles even more pronounced - but the Desert Tuskaninny's moustache remained just as finely trimmed despite his waning years; twirled ever so diligently into their characteristic sharp points. I pulled my hood lower over my head, keeping my face carefully hidden, for I didn't want to attract too much attention, as I moved towards the wooden counter and took a seat.

     "A drink, traveller?" the Tuskaninny asked in his rich baritone, leaning against the dusty counter with an elbow. It was all so familiar.

     "Nothing, thanks," I replied slowly, just happy to soak in the warmth and familiarity of the inn and its trappings. The Tuskaninny twirled his moustache and looked at the top of my bowed, hooded head with an appraising look.

     "You do not have any coin, yes?" Malmud asked. I nodded, well aware of the lightness of my money pouch. "Come now, this one is on me. Just order anything you desire," Malmud continued amiably, making a wide sweeping gesture.

     A small smile spread across my face; Malmud was still as trusting as ever, even to strangers whom he knew nothing about.

     "Ummagine Shine," I muttered nonchalantly, naming the first drink that came to mind and one I'd come to miss. Malmud raised an eyebrow, shrugged and turned to grab a wooden mug.

     "Haven't had anyone order that one in ages," the Tuskaninny said conversationally, pouring amber fluid from a tiny flask. "Not since those Desert Daggers roamed these parts."

     "The Desert Daggers?" I asked, knowing full well what he was talking about but baiting the ever-knowledgeable Tuskaninny for more details. It had been a long time since I heard of my former comrades, I realized wistfully.

     "Yes, the Desert Daggers," Malmud growled, shaking the small mug vigourously. "A pox on their rotten hides."

     "What did they do?" I asked before I could stop myself. Why would Malmud, an old acquaintance of the Daggers, raise his voice against them?

     "What did they do? Where have you been hiding all this time, under a dune?" Malmud started, taken aback.

     "I'm new to these parts," I lied quickly, keeping my head low. Malmud stared a moment longer before he shrugged and continued mixing my drink.

     "Then you're lucky indeed. Those of us who lived in this area would know of and perhaps even experienced the atrocities those scoundrels committed." The Tuskaninny took a deep breath and began. "Years ago there was a band of thieves. A very opportunistic and cunning bunch they were, always slipping in and out of the grasp of the local guards, just as a Selket burrows into the deserts sands to escape a Horus some people say. And they were incredibly successful too, once robbing three rich Sahkmetian nobles in a night.

     "They were from around here, you know," Malmud went on, turning to face me. "I still remember them." My eyes followed his paw as the Tuskaninny pointed to a dusty corner table. "They always sat there, a mug of Ummagine Shine in each of their grubby paws, their leader hatching up some plot or another. Very good-natured, for a band of thieves that is, never once harmed any of us here in Khelset back then, always keeping their business outside our walls. They were admired once, especially the little ones. Everyone wanted to be a Desert Dagger back then." The Tuskaninny shook his head sombrely, as if the thought of children wanting to be thieves greatly disturbed him.

     "If they were admired then why do you hate them now?" I asked as casually as possible, my composure slipping. Malmud coughed once and again shook his head.

     "It was their leader."

     "Their leader?" A tendril of worry crept over me.

     "Yes, an Usul by the name of Maladgar, curse his name. I heard he and his band tried to kidnap our Princess Sankara. But they failed and the guards managed to capture Maladgar while the rest of his comrades fled like cowards into the night. Word says that he was thrown in a deep, dark dungeon and left to rot. Serves that vile Usul right, kidnapping a princess." The Tuskaninny shook his head. I pulled my hood lower and cleared my throat.

     "And what happened to the rest of the Desert Daggers?" I solicited, dreading the answer to come.

     Malamud bent down closer to face me. "Word is that, before their leader got caught, he ordered his band to seek vengeance in the event of his capture. And vengeance they got. Pursuant to Maladgar's orders, they became bolder in their attacks, raiding and pillaging whole villages and terrorizing the wandering merchants. They even tried to raze our Khelset to the ground! We couldn't do anything about it until King Coltzan - bless his soul - sent the Royal Guard from their outpost in Kievmed to sort them out half a year later. None could withstand the might of the army. I heard the survivors scattered into the desert like scared Anubises faced with cold water, hiding themselves into whatever hole would permit their black hearts."

     The Tuskaninny's face darkened as he handed me my drink. "Tales say that they now band together in small, secretive groups, gathering their forces and awaiting their leader's return. And when he does they will return even worse than before to punish those who dared to cross them and imprison their leader."

     What lies were these? Or were they lies? Years and years of imprisonment hardly dulled my memory and I knew that I did not issue such a command. Never … or did I? Could I have ordered my former partners to attack my own hometown? I shook my head. Nothing could come out of thinking about something that happened years ago.

     "Your Ummagine Shine, traveller." I was snapped out of my stupor by Malmud's voice.

     With a curt nod I took my mug, slowly stirring the contents with a small piece of Ummagine before popping it into my mouth and lifting the mug to my mouth. As I raised my head my hood fell back, revealing fully my surprised face. I hurriedly threw it back up again but the look of recognition on Malmud's face was plain to all.

     "You … you're Maladgar," the Tuskaninny stammered, pointing one fat finger shakily at me, his face turning red.

     "You're mistaken, sahib," I said quickly, removing myself from my chair and slowly moving back. "I am not who -"

     "Get out of my establishment!" the Tuskaninny shouted, his face crimson with anger. "GET OUT!!" He picked up a mug and threw it at me. I dodged it easily and immediately ran out of the tavern, the shouts of the enraged Tuskaninny following me out onto the street. A few blocks later, I stopped in an empty alleyway gasping for breath and wiping the sweat from my brow.

     I was stunned at the extent of damage that had been done by the rest of the thieves. I could not believe what Malmud had said. The Desert Daggers I knew would never stoop so low. No, I was only fooling myself. The Desert Daggers I knew would stoop to that level. It was I who taught them to be shrewd and merciless. Only fitting that they'd commit all those crimes in my name. I was to blame for their actions.

     But I did not govern their actions. It was their choice to commit all those atrocities, not mine. I was rotting in that Sakhmetian dungeon and all they could think of was filling their own coffers. Anger welled up inside me. I would have nothing to do with such rogues. I vowed to make a new life, free from the past, and that's exactly what I was going to do.

     If only it were that simple.

     ~*~*~*~*~

     One week had passed and things were still not improving. I had moved into a house I had spent my childhood in at the edge of town, which, somewhat to my surprise, remained in a liveable condition. It had been abandoned for a long time though, testament of the previous inhabitant's neglect for order, and had fallen into disrepair, but I eventually fitted it out with the basic amenities. My money pouch was as skinny as a Cobrall, having not been fed any coin in days.

     The reason was obvious; as obvious as the stares I attracted whenever I entered a store, as the whispers of the townsfolk whenever I passed them in the street, as obvious as the blatant denials of any form of legitimate work in every establishment in Khelset.

     News spreads quickly in Khelset, I reminisced dryly, just like in every small town.

     I could understand their resentment towards me. I was the infamous leader of the Desert Daggers, a Desert Usul who would just as likely, given the chance, rob them as do honest work. Yet I did what I could to survive. Hiding my face from the world with my hood, I did odd jobs here and there: moving heavy crates, fetching groceries from the stores for some old lady, hanging out the washing. But the neighbours talked and eventually I'd receive the usual speech that I wasn't needed anymore.

     "I'm sorry, Mister Maladgar, but my mistress doesn't require your assistance any more," a female yellow Lupe, a maid working for a local merchant, had told me apologetically. Another job gone like dust in a breeze.

     Eventually they'd learn to accept me, I usually told myself. If I worked hard enough they'd forget about my past. If I proved my worth to Khelset they would eventually forgive me. Hopefully.

     But as I sat in my plain wooden chair in my sparsely furnished living room, watching the Spyders running about the ceiling near a hole in the flat roof, I suddenly remembered what Malmud had told me about the rest of the Desert Daggers.

     Tales say that they now band together in small, secretive groups, gathering their forces and awaiting their leader's return. Only then will they return even worse than before to punish those who dared to cross them and imprison their leader.

     No, they would never forget. The threat of the Desert Daggers returning to full strength and enacting their vengeance on the surrounding villages haunted them every day. There was no security, no assurance that they would never return in the near future. And now with the thieves' notorious leader in their midst, walking the very same streets as they did, they feared that the return of the Desert Daggers would come frighteningly soon. News would spread quickly throughout the desert and the longer I remained in Khelset the closer the prospect of the Daggers' return would become a reality.

     I had to give the townsfolk some form of guarantee. If I, Maladgar the Desert Fang, leader of the Desert Daggers, were to tell them myself that I would never, ever bring harm against Khelset then I was sure they'd believe me. They had to believe me. My word was all I had. I made up my mind. I'd go to the town square tomorrow and declare what my real intentions were.

     Retreating to my straw bed in the corner of the room, I put my staff on the floor beside me and lay upon the straw, curling myself up and falling slowly into an uneasy sleep.

     The next morning, I awoke to find dark clouds hanging in the normally clear sky, marching quickly past the gap in the roof. The occasional rainstorms were refreshing breaks from the continuous heat but with the roof of my home unfixed it could prove to be a problem. Nevertheless, I had a task to perform and after eating some Tchea Fruit for breakfast I headed out of my door in the direction of the town square. I wasn't exactly keeping to the shadows as I walked, like I would on normal occasions to avoid prying eyes. Why should I be? There was no reason for me to keep hiding. I wanted to come clean about my intentions so why would I skulk?

     As I strolled down the dusty slope to the oasis I saw that a large crowd had gathered around the large boulder normally used as a podium for the more vocal Khelsetians. Curious, I ran quickly towards the crowd and, being small, squeezed my way towards the front. As I neared the front the loud voice of Malmud rang out clearly over the din of many voices. I strained my neck and saw the Tuskaninny standing atop the flat boulder.

     "Haven't I told you that that Usul was going to bring us trouble?" he shouted, shaking his fists in the air. I gaped at the Tuskaninny and instinctively raised the hood of my robes.

     "Down with the Usul! Down with the Usul!" chanted some of the gathered townsfolk around me.

     "But he's done us no harm!" shouted a female voice, whom I recognized as the Lupe maid I had helped yesterday.

     "Don't you know what happened last night?" Malmud growled waving his arms impatiently. "My fine establishment was robbed! The first robbery in four long years! Everything I owned was stolen in the dark of the night! It was that Maladgar! He held a grudge against me for chasing him out of my tavern the other day and last night he robbed me blind!"

     "Down with the Maladgar! Down with Maladgar!"

     "What proof do you have?" demanded the female Lupe again.

     "I found this on the floor; the mark of the Desert Daggers!" Malmud roared dramatically, holding a large disc high in the air. I gasped in surprise. Two jagged daggers crossed over a Gebmid, the symbol of the Desert Daggers, were emblazoned clearly on its surface for all to see. I retreated slowly through the crowd, my eyes fixed incredulously on the disc.

     It had been five long years since I saw the symbol, the mark of a successful Desert Daggers raid, and it was not one I welcomed now. How could this be? I had tried so hard to hide from my past only to have it find me instead. How could I have robbed Malmud? Could I have walked in my sleep? No, never! I refused to believe it! I was innocent!

     "This is only the beginning. We must find that vile Maladgar!" Malmud bellowed, punching his fist into the air. Thunder rumbled in the sky behind the Tuskaninny. "We must find him before he brings more trouble upon us and put an end to his existence!" The crowd roared and jeered, stirred up by the prospect of finding and exterminating the figurehead of the Desert Daggers: Me!

     A sudden flash of lightning in the distance startled me. I stumbled and tripped over a rock, falling backwards with a yelp.

     "He's here!" shrieked a nearby Desert Wocky. My hood had fallen back, revealing my terrified face. Without wasting any more time, I rolled deftly out of the reaching grasps of many paws before leaping to my feet and breaking into a run. Malmud howled in anger, his face livid.

     "GET HIM! DON'T LET HIM GET AWAY!"

     The mob rushed helter-skelter in a mad dash behind me. I heard the yelling and shouting directly behind. I felt the ground shake with their frenzied footsteps. I could feel their anger emanating from behind me. I had to lose them. I didn't dare think of what would happen if they caught up with me.

     Then, in that moment of panic, something inside me surfaced. It was as if a torch had flared to life inside me, invigorating me to my soul. My old thief instincts, long buried and forgotten, kicked in at that moment and I felt more alive than the weeks since my release.

     Memories of the Khelset streets came back to me, memories of stealth and cunning. My eyes darted wildly from left to right, mind racing to work out a plan of escape. Spotting a familiar street, I turned and sprinted full out down the narrow way. Confident that I had left them behind, I turned into a smaller alleyway. A dead-end alleyway.

     Precisely as I had planned. Bending down, I launched myself up a wall and caught one of the nearest handholds, deftly scaled the side of the small building with my sharp claws before flipping over the top deftly. Landing on all fours atop the roof, I proceeded to splay myself flat across the clay roof and listened to my satisfaction as the sounds of the angry mob rumbling under and past my hiding place, continuing up the tangled web of streets. I slowly rolled onto my back and stared up at the cloudy sky, the feeling of exhilaration and roguish freedom fading just as quickly as it had come.

     I was safe - for the time being - but I knew that they'd eventually start searching the roofs. A single drop of rain fell to my face and I was suddenly reminded of my humble home with its leaking roof. Returning there would be out of the question, no doubt about it. I clenched my fists and closed my eyes. How could I have been so naïve! I realized now that I would never be accepted within Khelset's community, no matter what I did. I was not welcome even in my hometown. The decision was a hard one to make: I had to leave.

     Seeing that most of the town was still preoccupied with searching this particular area I decided that returning home for a while to collect the rest of my travel equipment would be a safe gamble. Getting quickly to my feet, I glanced around briefly before doing a running jump and leaping to another roof, then another, and another in the direction of my home, the thunder rumbling ominously directly above me.

     ~*~*~*~*~

     The rain drizzled gloomily outside the window, some drops trickling down the pane to the sill below. A brief flash of lightning illuminated the small, bare room as a solitary yellow Lupe moved towards a shelf to take a jug. Suddenly her keen ears picked up a small sound from the next room. Taking the jug in her right paw, the Lupe moved cautiously through an open door to the adjacent kitchen.

     Another flash of lightning lit up the small kitchen, throwing everything into sharp relief. The Lupe moved through the room, checking everything methodically. Seeing that nothing was amiss, the Lupe turned - and dropped the jug in surprise. The clay jug shattered loudly as it hit the floor, complementing the rumble of thunder that followed soon after.

     Standing beside the door to the previous room was a very familiar Desert Usul who had cleaned the attic just a day ago.

     I put a finger to my pursed mouth and begged her silently to remain quiet. I felt more footsteps coming from the other room and soon a shadow lengthened across the kitchen floor.

     "Ariella, is everything all right?" came a voice directly beside me. Screened by the wooden door, I looked at the Lupe in desperation. She stared at me incredulously for a moment longer before turning to face the other person.

     "It's nothing, it must have slipped my grasp," the Lupe maid said with an apologetic smile. "I'll get it cleaned right away, my mistress." The shadow retreated into the next room and I breathed a sigh of relief. The young Lupe moved quickly to close the door before she turned and stared at me in shock. "What are you doing here?" she whispered anxiously.

     "My apologies, miss, but I only wanted to gather some supplies," I whispered, looking down at the floor. "I left some money as payment," I added, motioning to a nearby table where my money pouch now lay. "It's not much but it's all I can offer." I picked up my staff and supply bag on my way towards the door. "I'll be leaving now. Sorry if I frightened you."

     As I reached for the door handle, I felt something tugging at the trailing end of my cloak. I turned around and saw that she had picked up my pouch, offering it to me.

     "Here, you'll need this more than me," she said quietly. "And don't believe you would steal from old Malmud; I know you're not that kind of person any more." I looked at her, taken aback at her reaction, and gave her a warm smile.

     "Thank you, miss. I'll never forget this," I said, taking the pouch and stuffing it inside the folds of my robes. With a respectful nod, I walked out the back door from which I entered and walked down the back street.

     The gentle drizzle created a curtain of mist, helping to mask my movements, and by nightfall I was standing on the very same sand dune I stood on only a week ago. This time the circumstances were different.

     I was leaving and with no direction to go, no true calling. Lost. My hometown was foreign to me, their inhabitants like Jetsams ready to pounce on unwitting prey. Their prejudice and hatred towards me has made me forever an outcast from Khelset. But I did not hate them. I knew that it was only natural to fear that which one does not understand or trust.

     But not all was lost. There were others out there who were willing to give me a chance to prove myself, others who were not burdened with the memories of my past deeds. The Lupe maid made me realize that there was still hope for someone like me. I just had to find a place with people like her, who would accept me with an open mind, willing to look past my previous deeds and instead dwell on my present ones. Only then could I start anew.

     But not now.

     I turned away from Khelset for the last time and started walking over the cool, barely wet sands. I did not know where I was going and neither did I care. I was all too happy to put some distance between Khelset and myself.

     Someday I would find it. A place where I was neither Maladgar the Desert Fang nor the infamous leader of the Desert Daggers. A place where I was simply Maladgar the Desert Usul.

To be continued...

Author's note: Poor Maladgar. Will he ever find forgiveness? Perhaps, but you'll have to wait till the next part to find out.

 
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