Twin Peaks Part Two

He awoke in the morning sore all over with his eyes still burning. The first rays of the morning sun were beginning to peek out from behind the neighboring peak, casting a bright halo around its pointed top. Dak was sick with hunger. He tried to recall the last time he ate. Dinner, the night before last, he was pretty sure. He groaned as he tried to sit up. His pack was still slung over his shoulder, untouched from the day before. At least the cheating thief hadn’t snuck out and rummaged through his belongings overnight. Dak took a small bar of dried food from inside the pack to help his stomach. Slowly he got to his feet and looked around. Memories from the day before flooded his mind. In a matter of seconds he was flung through a ferocious fury and into a pitch black despair, back to being furious, and then to deep desperation. He had never felt such disillusion, such intense disappointment. His emotional state continued to swing back and forth between depression and anger. At times his wrathful disdain for the man calling himself Rhoj could have driven him to murder. Other times his anguish and misery tempted him to take his own life. Was there truly no hope for him? Was he destined to be unhappy for the rest of his life?

Writhing with fury inside he glanced back at the Teacher’s door one final time, growing sick to his stomach again. He snorted scornfully and started back toward the path, clenching his jaw. As he began to sink below the summit along the path he heard the crook call out to him. “Don’t forget the contract! On pains of death you’ve agreed to never share what we talked about here! We have people all over the village. You so much as whisper a word of it and we’ll bring you back up here. Your family will be told you wished to make the trek a second time, but this time you won’t return home!” Dak nearly turned around to respond, but thought it best to return home. That man had nothing more to offer him. Even revenge wouldn’t appease him in any way at this point.

He had more food than he had anticipated having for the return journey. Once the path started curving around the mountain again he looked down to his right where a straight path could take him directly home. Some parts of the decent that way would be quite dangerous, but what did he have to lose? He wasn’t even sure there was much point in living anymore.

For some of the descent he was sliding, tumbling, and falling his way down. Other times he took a more cautious approach, moving slowly and taking each step deliberately. Sometimes the tears in his eyes forced him to sit for a while and cry. Other times he got so angry he’d punch a tree and spend the next few minutes tending to his bleeding fist.

A day ago he had originally thought to return to the inn to see if he could learn the young woman’s name, but no such thought crossed his mind as he pushed his way through the thicket near the inn on his way to the base of the mountain. He could see the river now and the wretched toll house far below. That toll bridge should have been his first clue, he realized. He hated himself now for not seeing the signs. Of course the man at the fork in the road must be in on the scam as well. Had he not encouraged Dak to take the path to the left?

His cheeks flushed and he tensed the muscles in his body. He wasn’t just angry at those who had lied to him, he was angry at himself for failing to realize he was being swindled. Not only had he failed to see the con, he had convinced himself that he was being clever: That it was his own intelligent will that had guided him through the ploy. His stomach churned and he felt dizzy. How could he have been such a fool? He gathered himself and prepared to cross the bridge again. This time he wouldn’t pay, even if she tried to stop him. He made his way across the wooden bridge as quietly as he could, until he was just outside the entrance to the gatehouse. Then, as quickly as he could, he sprinted through without even glancing at the woman inside.

He continued to run well past the river but slowed a bit when he started down the final leg of the climb. He knew it wouldn’t be long now before he was home. Home. Did he really want to go home? Did he need to go home? He considered a life away from home. He could use the little money he had left to start a new life somewhere. Sure, the funds would barely cover the cost of a room for a couple of nights, but it might be enough time to find a job and… What was he thinking? He needed his family now more than ever. Now that he had been to the peak perhaps people would listen to him and try to help him. He needed warm, loving family and friends to lean on.

Dak reached his home just a couple hours past sundown. He crashed through the front door and went straight to his own bed. The pack dangled off the side of the bed still hanging from his arm when he fell asleep. That first night his parents stood in his doorway full of pride in their son, now a man in their eyes. However, when he did not get out of bed all the next day they began to worry. His mother sat by his side for several long hours, feeling his forehead and fighting back tears. The following morning when he didn’t get out of bed again his father sent for the town doctor.

Somewhere lost in the fog of his own mind, Dak could make out some of the words his parents shared with the doctor.

“How long has he been like this?” the doctor began.

“Well, he came home two nights ago and has not left the bed since.” He could hear the concern in his mother’s voice.

“Has he ever spent this much time in bed before?”

“No,” his father replied. “He usually rises early and works with me or with his school mates.”

“You said he came home two nights ago. Where from?”

“He went to see one of the great Teachers,” his father said, full of pride.

“Interesting.” The doctor paused a moment. Then asked, carefully, “Has he spoken to you at all since returning?”

“No,” his mother said. He could hear her voice waver now.

“What can we do?” his father asked, desperately.

“Well, I haven’t ever seen this happen before, but my father told me of a similar case that he saw once. There was a young man, very much like your son Dak, who returned from the mountain with bandages wrapped around his fists. He came home at night, got in bed, and didn’t get out of bed for three days. My dad was at their house when the boy got out of bed and started uttering nonsense. Eventually the boy left to visit the mountain again, but the dangers there overcame him and he was never seen again.”

Dak could hear his mother gasp before she started sobbing. The fog was starting to clear. He willed himself to leave the bed, but he could not. He needed to get out of bed and prove to them that he wasn’t like that. He wouldn’t speak nonsense. He wouldn’t be taken back to the mountain to die. He tried to shift around a bit. His limbs wouldn’t respond. He felt trapped. He was in a dark place in his mind, surrounded by pure sadness and sorrow.

He managed to start opening his eyes. It was a slow and painful process. As more light flooded inside he found that he could budge his hands and arms a bit. It wasn’t much, but it made a sound. His mother and father poured into the room with the doctor at their heels. With his parents smothering him in hugs he slowly regained his strength. Eventually he could sit up in bed, but he was still too weak to speak. Their questions made his head spin. He couldn’t focus on them. He focused on his father’s face, watching his lips move but not being able to separate one voice from the next. Dak turned his head to face his mother. The look of concern in her face was full of love, but her words were no more clear to him than his father’s were.

Even the doctor was speaking, but his word were just as buried as the others. Slowly, though, a word or two came into focus. He made out, “What happened?” Then, “feeling.” He thought he heard his father asking about money. Dak dropped his gaze to the floor and saw that, at some point, his parents must have gone through his pack trying to discover the source of his apparent illness.

He gave up on trying to understand them. His thoughts were clear enough though. Rhoj had not been there, but perhaps if he were to climb the other peak… Perhaps then he could meet one of the great Teachers. Clearly nobody had even tried in, what did the liar say? Over a hundred years? Dak didn’t think the imposter was lying about the other peak going unvisited while their business operated. But to what lengths would their cooperative go in order to prevent people from climbing the eastern peak? Surely the man at the fork in the road wasn’t the only obstacle. Did they have men guarding the base of the mountain, ready to kill anyone who tried to climb it? Were they trying to hide something? Was Tahl still up there? Was that their true secret?

Dak decided he couldn’t go on in life without learning whether Tahl was at the top of the other peak. He vowed to himself that the next thing he did with himself would be to scale the second peak and look for Tahl.

What if there really were guards though? Then Dak would need to be armed. He would need some kind of weapon both for defense and to advocate his cause.

His attention wandered back to the voices in the room. He furled his brow and looked down at his bandage-bound hands. “What happened,” was the question he would try to answer. He moved his mouth, but no words came. He pushed air through his windpipe and made a sound. It was barely a grunt, but it was enough to quiet the room as his parents and the doctor listened intently.

What would he tell them? He couldn’t tell them the truth. Not only would it but completely unhelpful, it would put them all in danger. No, he had to lie to them. Hardly managing to whisper, he started, “I… I…” Their ears were turned to him. “Never…”

“You never?” his mother repeated. “You never what?”

“Made it. Never made it.”

“You never made it,” his father repeated. “What do you mean?”

“To the top. Didn’t reach the top.” He was quiet, and his speech was labored and slow.

“What happened to your hands then?” His mother put her hand gingerly on one of the bandaged fists.

He thought a moment, realizing this was an opportunity. “Beasts…” he said. “I was attacked.” Each word was followed by a short pause. “Fended them off.”

“Oh son,” his father said, putting a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “I’m so glad you made it home safely. You could have been killed. Why didn’t you go with a group, like everyone else?”

He was gaining strength, still whispering he found that he could get more than a few words to string together without pausing. “Wanted to go alone, so it would mean more.”

“Mean more to whom though?” his mother asked. “You don’t need to impress us.”

“For me,” Dak said.

“Well,” his father started, “there’s another group leaving tomorrow morning. You should go with them. You tried on your own, and you made it home alive. That’s quite an accomplishment, and nothing to be ashamed of.”

“No,” Dak said. “I go alone.”

His father’s countenance fell a little. “Oh son,” he started.

Mother interrupted though. “Well, if he wants to go alone I think he should go alone. We should help him prepare so that he won’t have to turn back next time.”

Dak looked lovingly at his mother. “Thank you,” he said.

Dak noticed that the doctor had quietly slipped from the room at some point. He wasn’t sure what the man had heard, but he was sure he couldn’t trust anyone. Would the doctor report to the business that he is claiming to have never reached the top? Would there be a penalty or punishment for that lie? Hadn’t the criminal at the peak asked him to lie? So what if Dak changed the lie a bit.

His father broke the silence. “Well, what do you need, then, son?”

“Rest,” he said. Accordingly, his parents brushed their hands over his head lovingly and bid him to rest well. Dak knew that even if they would come after him for the lie he had a couple days. There was no way to get information up or down that mountain very quickly, not that he knew of anyhow. He knew that he needed to rest up, to eat well and exercise a bit to make sure he was fit, and he would need a weapon. He figured he would wait until later that day to get out of bed and go for a jog.

Sure enough, later that afternoon he felt rested enough to get out of bed and eat. His mother let him eat as much as he felt he needed. He would need his strength, she said, when father protested. Then as the sun was setting, Dak went for a jog through town for an hour or so. He was glad to see that he was still strong and healthy. Once back at home his father must have had a change of heart, because he was sitting on the floor cradling a sword in his lap.

“Come sit with me,” he said. Dak sat with his legs crossed, facing his father, who lifted the sword and regarded it. “This was my father’s sword, and now I’m giving it to you. It served him well, but hasn’t done much for me. I feel that it will be of great assistance to you in your quest.”

Dak looked the sword over from the hilt to the tip of the blade. It wasn’t particularly ornate, but it had been well cared for. The hilt was wrapped in worn but sturdy leather. The blade and hilt metal were clean and shiny. The sword’s edge appeared to be sharp and had clean lines all along the length of the blade. It was a simple tool, a cutting tool. His father extended his arms to pass the blade to his son.

Dak hesitated. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” father replied. “I want you to have it. Take it with you to fend off the beasts. When my father ascended one of the peaks he took it with him and told countless tales of how it saved his life from many a deadly obstacle. You and I must take different paths, but it seems your path is in the steps of my father. Take the blade and return with honor.”

They spent the rest of the evening replenishing Dak’s pack with supplies. They fitted the sword’s scabbard to the pack and made sure he had everything he’d need. When they finished it was clear to Dak that he should set out that very night. He said goodnight to his parents, and without a sound he slipped out the front door into the night instead of returning to his bed.

His gut wrenched a little as he approached the fork in the road, seeing a light flickering at the booth. He decided to leave the road and take a wide arc around the booth to the right, hopefully avoiding talking to whoever was manning it tonight. Despite the cover of darkness, the stars and the moon provided enough light for him to see a man get up from the booth and start walking out to meet him. Dak widened his arc a little and picked up his pace. The shadowy figure picked up pace as well, still heading directly for him. Dak didn’t want to have to draw his sword, but he had a bad feeling that the meeting wouldn’t be as cordial as the last time.

As the two grew closer he could see clearly that it was the same wiry old man as before. The man called out, “Dak? Is that you? Where are you going so late?”

Dak slowed his pace to avoid looking more suspicious than he already did. “I never reached the top on my first go. That path was too difficult for me, so I’m going to take the path to the right here.”

“But you’re not on the path,” the old man remarked, cautiously.

“I didn’t want to disturb you this late at night, and I was ashamed to have to tell you that I’ve chosen the easier path.”

“I can help you with the more difficult path. Perhaps you did not meet my friend Jur who has a goat cart. He can help you reach the top.”

“I wish to reach the top on my own. Very kind though.”

“Speaking of which,” the old man started, “why are you traveling at night? That is quite dangerous.”

“After my experience on the western peak I decided it might be better to travel at night on the first day.” Dak really had no good explanation, and he knew that one wouldn’t hold water. “But really, I must be on my way. Good night.” He politely begged his pardon and began to walk around the old man.

“Dak, I can’t in good conscience let you go that way at night. It’s not safe.” He took some steps back, keeping in front of Dak.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine. It’s the easier path, and I’m over-prepared.” Dak kept walking.

The old man shuffled quickly to get back in front of Dak. “Your father will never forgive me if I let you go now and something happens to you. Really, I must insist that you turn back now.”

“Thank you for your concern. I have my father’s blessing to go though, so don’t trouble yourself.”

The old man reached out and grabbed Dak by the arm. His grip was firm. It hurt a little. Dak looked down at the old man’s bony knuckles and back up at the man’s face. Their gaze met and they both stopped. Dak’s face wore a look of surprise, but the old man’s face was stern and cold. “You cannot go that way.”

Dak struggled a bit against the grip, but it was like a vice. He realized that he had no choice but to meet the physical restraint with physical resistance. In one motion he yanked his arm free, kicked the man back with his foot, and reached back and drew his sword from the side of his pack. He watched the old man stumble backward with a look of shock on his face, then Dak took off sprinting down the path.

“You’re making a horrible mistake!” the man howled after him. “You won’t survive the night!”

Dak ignored him and kept running. Eventually he met back up with the deep groove of dirt that ran through the grass. However, that path eventually disappeared altogether. It was immediately apparent that the worn path was maintained to look worn, but there was no actual path up the mountain on the east. If there had ever been a path it was long gone. Still jogging along, he glanced over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. He couldn’t see any pursuer.

Dak slowed and came to a stop, sheathing the sword and gazing at the mountain. He could hear owls and other night creatures active ahead of him. He wondered how many of them would be dangerous. He started to reach for his sword again, but stopped and chuckled to himself. Out loud he told himself, “Dak, don’t be foolish.” But what was foolish? Beginning his ascent at night, doing it without his sword drawn? What did it matter at this point? He knew that the ascent would be too dangerous if he went straight up the side of the mountain, so he roughly estimated a path around the base that led gently upwards, marking several visual landmarks along what he could see of his makeshift path.

He took a deep breath and started toward the first landmark, a break in the trees far off in the distance. As he walked he listened to the sounds of the creatures around him. Howls, hoots, rustling grass, snapping twigs. In the plains he felt he was safe enough. The grass offered little cover for anything large enough to threaten him. But he knew he’d be among trees soon, and there he was sure he’d fear for his life.

The moon was still high in the sky when he met his first landmark. Thankfully he guessed he had happened upon the remains of an old path. There was a clearing in the trees that stretched out far into the distance, gently curving around to the left and up the mountain. He looked around to see if there were any dangers that he could make out before entering the dense forest, but he saw nothing.

In he went, looking over his shoulder at the grasslands behind him. As he walked along the old trail he noticed how overgrown the path had become. There was a thick growth of plants and bushes that he had to navigate, and in some places trees were beginning to grow into the hard, beaten ground. Most of the trees along the path were still relatively young, telling him that either the path had fallen into disuse more recently than the liar had suggested, or the ground had only recently become suitable for the roots to take hold.

As he pondered the growth and what it might tell him about the path, he began to hear a distant rushing water. The sound grew louder as he approached the same roaring river that cut across the path on the other mountain. At this elevation the two peaks were still joined at the hip, and the river cut across the southward face of both mountains.

Where the path met the river Dak could tell there was once a bridge, but it had long since collapsed and been carried away by the rapids. He looked up and down the river for anything that might help. Perhaps a tree had fallen or there was another bridge. But he had no such luck.

Stopping to think, he sat at the edge of the water on the bank and filled his water pouches. Again, the water was crystal clear and sweet to the taste. It was cool, probably runoff from a glacier somewhere. He idly opened his pack and rummaged around inside, looking for anything that might help him cross. The rope seemed a hopeful prospect. He took it out and peered back inside, but nothing else of use stood out to him.

He had about a hundred feet of rope, a length that took up more than half of the volume of his pack, but he knew could come in handy. It was a sturdy and heavy rope. He guessed that the river at the path was only about thirty feet across, so his rope should provide plenty of length.

He looked around again, wishing he had an axe. Bringing one tall tree down over the river would provide a useful bridge. He sighed. Nearby he found a heavy stick that wasn’t much larger than his arm. He tied one end of the rope to it and tied the other end to a tree right on the bank of the river. He threw the stick as hard as he could, but it fell short of the opposite bank. He pulled it back in to himself and tried again, bouncing it off the muddy ground on the other side. After a few minutes he managed to get the stick to fly over the branch of a tree on the far side of the river, but he couldn’t get it to secure itself to the branch. When he pulled on the rope the stick came back over the edge of the branch and fell onto the ground.

He reeled the stick back to himself again, frustrated. Again and again he threw the stick over the branch and tried different things to get it to attach itself sufficiently. He just needed to be able to pull on it and have it hold fast so he could cling to it as he forded the river.

After another fifteen or twenty minutes he got the stick to wrap the rope around the branch on the far side several times. He pulled gently at first, tightening the rope to the branch. The stick had twisted the rope a few times as well, creating a fairly strong hold. Tentatively Dak tested the hold. He pulled harder and harder until he was leaning his full weight on the rope, his feet slipping in the grass. He tugged and yanked on it, and his heart gained courage. Finally, he tied his end of the rope to his waist, securing his pack and water pouches to his body as well. Taking up the slack of the rope in his hands, he started pulling himself across the cold river.

Immediately his knees went stiff in the cold water. The water wasn’t deep near the edge of the bank, but as he waded farther out he started to wonder if he would be able to swim with all of the weight of his pack on him. He kept pulling in the slack on the rope and pulling himself forward. His muscles were aching and sore. His hands could barely grip the rope.

Some of the larger rocks in the bottom of the river provided him with platforms to hop between in order to avoid the need to swim. Carefully he aimed and leaped, taking care to account for the flow of the water. The first hop went well enough, but he slipped and nearly lost his balance. He took up the slack on the rope quickly and steadied himself. The next rock was a little farther, but he was sure he could make it. Again, he stumbled, but stayed above water. The third hope did not go so well. He slipped and plunged under the water, losing his grip on the rope and sucking in a bunch of water. The river quickly swept him away, turning and wheeling him about.

Dak felt a sharp pain, a blow to his head. Choking on water and stiff in the cold water, he grasped all around him, trying to get ahold of the rope, but even when his hand brushed against it he couldn’t grip it. With a crack, his head smashed against another rock on the bottom of the river and he felt himself fade to sleep.

When he finally opened his eyes again he was looking up at the moon. Not much time had passed, but he had no way of knowing how long he had been out. The rope had held, thankfully, and swung him around to rest on the shore of the opposite bank, nearly a hundred feet downriver. He coughed up water. His breathing was painful and labored. His chest was sore. His head burned and ached. Once he had scrambled away from the river a bit he reached up to feel around his head and his hand came back covered in blood. He took out a length of bandage from his pack and wrapped his head. He untied the rope from his waist and tried to stand up. The cold had made his whole body numb. The parts of him that he could feel were hurting. He used a nearby tree to stand himself upright. He felt uneasy on his feet, but knew he needed to keep himself moving for a while to warm up. His muscles refused to cooperate. He nearly fell back to the ground.

He wished he had stayed home. There would have been no shame in living the same stupid lie as everyone else. He was going to get himself killed out here and then he would never experience happiness anyway.

Dak vigorously rubbed his sick, white hands on his chest and sides. He leaned against the tree and lifted a leg, trying to shake it and move it. Eventually it moved a little. He tried the other. After several long minutes he took his first steps away from the support of the tree.

It took a few more minutes of pacing around in circles before he could bend over and pick up the rope. He began slowly taking it up in his arms and wrapping it back up as he traveled up the river toward his starting place at the path. The ninety feet or so that he had to cover took far longer than it should have. After only fifty feet he had given up wrapping the rope nicely and began stuffing it in his bag as he walked. At the base of the tree whose branch held the other end of the rope he set his bag down with the rest of the rope inside and peered up at the stick, wondering how he might get the whole length of rope back.

He didn’t want to cut the rope down. Ever last inch of the rope could come in handy later. He pondered climbing the tree, but in his current state he thought it unwise. After several moments of brainstorming he decided to set up camp. A fire would help warm him back up. He could eat. He could rest a bit until day break, which only looked to be a couple hours away, then he could try climbing the tree in the morning.

Of course he wasn’t doing it all just for the last fifteen feet of rope, it was an excuse to build a fire and eat and rest. Had the rope been easier to retrieve he might have keep walking until morning, but he knew it would be better to warm up and rest a little.

As he got the fire going, a task that he found remarkably difficult with numb fingers, he remembered learning in school that it was dangerous to close your eyes and sleep after a hard hit to the head. He heard stories of people taking blows to the head, going to sleep, and never waking back up. The thought worried him. He ate some food and felt the feeling coming back to his limbs. His fingers and toes were still numb, but the rest of his flesh felt as though it was being ripped from his bones. It tingled and burned with a sharp intensity that he had never experienced before.

He wanted to go home, but crossing the river again was not an option. It was far too late for that. He was going up the mountain or he would die trying.

Ultimately he decided that he could rest his eyes if he were sitting up, so he leaned against a tree in a way that he hoped would cause him to fall over and wake up if he started to drift off to sleep. However, the warmth of the fire, his full belly, and the lateness of the hour all combined their forces and overpowered him. He fell asleep sitting up.

It was nearly noonday when he awoke. A wave of relief washed over him. He was relieved that he had woken up at all. He was relieved that nothing had eaten him while he slept. He was relieved that he had survived his fall in the river. He was relieved that he hadn’t turned back and gone home, as his dreams had suggested.

Still stiff and sore, but otherwise feeling good, he packed up camp and looked back up at the rope. He would climb up and retrieve it, he decided.

It didn’t take him long to get the rope, and he only nearly fell once. He watched in satisfaction as the stick dropped to the ground. He made his way back down, ignoring the scrapes and bruises from his climb.

Packed up and ready to go, Dak put his sights forward along the path again. The rise seemed gentler than that of the other mountain’s path. All the rest of the day he walked, without stopping again until nightfall. As the sun began to set he could hear the night wildlife stirring. He could hear far more beasts now. He looked down the hill and turned to face up the mountain. He guessed he was no more than a quarter of the way up. He became somewhat frustrated as his apparent lack of progress, but he did not wish to risk traveling at night now. There were far too many dangers this high up. He was far from civilization. Whatever organization was running the scam on the other mountain had obviously scared off or killed off any wildlife that had once inhabited the other mountain, but this peak was teeming with life.

Before the sun finished setting he found a tiny clearing where he could set up his tent. He used the rope and sticks to form a fence around the clearing, attaching the rope to the trees when possible. He hoped it would be enough to ward off dangerous animals. He also build a fire, hoping it would act as a deterrent as well.

That evening Dak ate in silence, listening to the sounds of hordes of wild animals hunting and prowling around him. When he looked off into the blackness around his clearing he swore he could see eyes peering back at him from all around. He broke a branch off one of the live trees at his perimeter and fashioned it into a torch, taking advantage of the sap seeping out. At the edge of his fence he leaned the torch out into the darkness to see what he might see. Sure enough, some kind of large predatory cat was poised to attack. When it saw the flames it backed off a little, then lunged out, hissing. Dak whirled around and scrambled back to his pack to draw the sword, just as the big cat leaped over the fence and began bounding toward him.

He spun around with the sword outstretched in defense. He slashed at the sprinting cat, who was leaping at him. Dak fell to the ground as the cat hurled over him, howling in pain. It rolled on the ground behind him as he struggled back to his feet. The cat, more cautious now, slashed out at him. Dak swung the blade defensively and the cat backed away from it, but didn’t turn to retreat yet.

Dak yelled as ferociously as he could, swinging the sword and still brandishing the torch. Though the torch didn’t burn strong, it flared up when he swung it at his attacker.

The big cat gave one last growling hiss before giving up and turning to leap out of the enclosure. The predator left a trail of dripping blood. Dak hoped the amount of blood indicated a light wound the cat could recover from on its own. He didn’t want to be a murderer.

He nearly collapsed to the ground out of relief, wiping the sweat from his forehead. A good deal of sweat was dripping from beneath the bandages he still wore on his head. The sweat stung his wounds.

Dak spent the next hour making more torches from sappy branches and attaching them around the perimeter of his fence. “Maybe that cat will go warn his friends about the dangerous fire-wielding monster,” he mused to himself out loud.

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