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“Mummy, tell me a story please,” wheedled the russet haired lad tucked deep within his covers.
A crumpled pair of ears peeked out revealing nothing more of the teddy bear that lurked beneath with a concerned expression on its face.
The boy’s mother arched an eyebrow: “A story? Why, did I not just read one last night?” she teased.
“Yes you did. Please, mummy. I want to hear a holiday story, a special holiday story!”
Mother smiled softly waving her hand at the lamp causing it to dim. The room dipped into a gentle glow. The night sky appeared on the ceiling complete with all of the stars and moons. She lowered herself onto the edge of the bed and stroked the silky brown hair.
“Most assuredly I have a tale to tell. It may not be quite what you had in mind, but I think it will suffice. Is Teddy ready?”
The boy nodded his head.
“And are you ready?”
More vigorous nodding.
“Then let us begin. Our tale starts one Christhankstide Eve, on Mount Grimm, under the prime moon…”
Saint Olafinski sat
astride Philbert, his triple horned boar, gazing down from Mount Grimm.
Below, inside a glittering pool of light, was the town of
"HOHO Philbert. Truly, our work is cut out for us this night. Such a den of unbridled joy shall not go unrewarded. Most of all the children! Their bright young eyes shining with the new light of morning will be celebration enough for us," he shouted joyfully.
There was a sharp ‘CRACK’ in the air followed by a parchment drifting down on the wind like a leaf. St. Olafinski plucked it out, donned his reading spectacles and held the paper at arms length.
"Hrrm...It seems that a young lady wants a new Pretty Pink Princess Fantasy Realm set. And by MY BEARD SHE SHALL HAVE IT!" declared the leather and satin covered giant of a man. He paused in rapt contemplation. "Yet where would I acquire such an obvious object of unimaginable joy?"
There was another ‘CRACK’ which tore the very fabric of the inky sky. A smaller note dropped neatly into St. Olafinski's hand. On it in clear black text was a name and address.
"HOHO, WE RIDE, PHILBERT!"
St. Olafinski dug his boot heels into Philbert's sides urging the tan and gray striped boar downhill. Headlong they plunged into the night air. A gibbous moon lit their path and trees were black pillars rising from the hillside, rocks formed shadowy fingers curling up from the ground. Philbert's fetid breath steamed in the winter's air and his trotters clattered against the earth with the sound of thunder. The heaving mass of man and beast vanished into the nighttime’s shroud.
The snow dusted streets of Sahlter bustled with shoppers, vendors and members of the thieves’ guild. Festive candles and lamps lit shops brightly with their luminescence. Patrons moved in and out bearing packages and bundles. Round faces with rosy cheeks smiled and nodded to each other in passing. Except of course for the thieves; they kept their faces hidden in shadows and brushed against people, relieving them of their valuables and then vanishing into the crowds.
A light snow continued to coat the townsfolk as the evening progressed. The bent roofs leaned out over the street in some places, offering a modicum of respite from the snow. Scarcely anyone noticed when a dark purple mist began drifting in amongst the bustling ankles of the people.
At the same time everyone, save for perhaps two or three hardened murderers, gave a collective shudder as a feeling of impending dread took hold of them. Several small children began to wail in high keening voices. Parents clutched them closer wheeling away from the shops. Inexplicably they started to make their way toward home. Shopping and merriment fell off abandoned like outdoor tables in a sudden downpour. The fog grew thicker, more intense in its effect. It spread throughout the streets in a matter of a few moments.
The lanes were still in the way that thoroughfares tend to get late at night in winter. Frost decorated window sills, curbs and cobblestones. A slapping, shuffling sound interrupted the quiet. A creature moved through the now deserted streets staying within the dark corners. Long feet with tough leathery pads made a smacking noise against the ground followed by the clicking of many claw tips rattling against the cobblestones. ‘Thwap-clickety-clicktey-click’ they went. The legs were short in proportion to both feet and torso, but bandy and covered with wire-like muscles. Fine gray hair and a serviceable leather vest that had many pockets covered its chest and abdomen.
Atop a long neck perched a diamond shaped head. Needle sharp fangs protruded out of a tiny mouth below a squared off snout. A lightning blue and black Mohawk decorated the crown of the creature's head, splitting a pair of horns that jutted out in different directions. Oversized cat ears jutted out horizontally from the side of its head, pierced multiple times by heavy lead earrings.
Luminous yellow eyes peered into the murky clouds of fog, seeking the least lit path. A belt rode across the creature's hips containing several implements such as a hooked knife and a morning star. On the other side was a fat pouch full of softly clinking coins. From its neck hung an amulet containing a polished white and purple marbled stone which radiated a gentle light.
Thunder drifted across the night air, a long distant rumble that oppressed other sounds. The supernatural fog wafted out into the air three inches behind the creature. Occasionally a claw-tipped finger would tap the stone in the necklace causing more clouds to gush out. It halted before a cheery storefront. In whimsical letters 'Fantasy Realm Toy Shop' formed an arc over a frosted image of a castle. A grimace crawled across its mouth as though an unpleasant relative just arrived unannounced, but the long fingered hand grasped the door handle and pulled it open.
Light and warmth poured out of the shop washing over the creature. It hissed out through its nose in disgust forcing itself to cross the threshold. Blinking his huge eyes against the well-lit shop he rubbed both sockets to ease the sting. Shelves on either side of the entrance lay devoid of items for sale. Paper and ribbon in tattered bits covered the floor. The creature shook out its long Mohawk flinging droplets of melted snow in a splendid arc. A broad counter ran from side to side at the back of the shop. A shelf behind it bore a single pearlescent pink box emblazoned with the words: 'Pretty Pink Princess Fantasy Realm Play Set' along with several Princess Patsy dolls and their accessories. A cruel smirk, or perhaps another grimace, stretched across the small mouth.
The creature strode to the counter, its large feet smacking wetly against the wood floor. Reaching the counter, it swept the store with its yellow gaze, drumming its fingers against the wood counter top. Rows of multi-tiered shelves that bore all manner of toys for boys or girls filled the other half of the room. A minute passed and the creature grew more agitated, the pace of its claws became staccato. It blinked and looked across the counter spying a gleaming silver bell which bore the label: 'Please Ring for Service.'
Gingerly, it reached out with a slender finger and just barely pressed down with the tip of the nail. A soft chime rang through the shop. The creature flattened its ears against its skull, hissing through its nose. Still it waited. Several more minutes wandered past with no assistance showing up. The creature realized that it would have to ring the bell again. A second muscial 'ding' rang out.
No one came to help. The amber eyes narrowed malevolently at the bell, sitting oh-so smugly on the counter. Without warning a morning star flashed up overhead and descended in a blur of spiked fury, decimating the bell. The creature gave the remnants several more solid hits before stopping hastily as part of the rich wood fell away from the head sized depression the weapon had left. Quickly the morning star vanished and narrow lips not normally meant for whistling tried to affect an innocent tune.
A thick green curtain behind the counter parted revealing an average sized human wearing an off-white smock with a patch that read: 'Bob.' The man was bald save for the pair of bushy mutton chops that decorated his cheeks. He winked at a group of female shoppers stroking the facial hair: “Ladies,” he said in an alluring voice.
The group of women tittered before moving further into the store in search of gifts for giving. The shopkeeper wore a welcoming smile, which twitched and wavered when he spotted his damaged counter. Bob took in the sole customer remaining in the vicinity, who just barely rose above the edge. The merchant took in the needle-like teeth, chromatic eyes and gray fur.
"May I, um...help you?" inquired the shopkeeper.
"Yesss, that," said the creature pointing at the box on the shelf.
"Ah, the number one seller this holiday season. I am ‘Salacious’ Bob McKenna by the way, at your service. That particular model is not for sale, it is already purchased and awaiting pickup. Baron Von Woofen Schmooley himself is scheduled to pick it up," Bob whispered conspiratorially.
"Roderick,” hissed the creature pointing at itself. “I wantsss it.”
"You're a minion if I am not mistaken. Is that correct?" Bob guessed.
"Yesss...Want pink box," spat the minion. It was as though the mere mention of the color hurt his mouth.
"The 'Pretty Pink Princess Fantasy Realm Play Set'? You are most fortunate in that I am having several more sets to put out on the floor momentarily."
"Must have… The master's daughter."
“Yes of course,” Bob’s face was bland. “I would suggest you get in line over there in order to have a go at getting a set.”
Bob waved in the direction of a velvet rope labyrinth where a crowd waited impatiently. With a trademark glower the minion took a step toward the crowd with the morning star once again dangling from his hand and a wicked gleam in his eyes. Bob cleared his throat pointing a sign that read: “No Weapons, No Magic, No Foolin’!”
On cue a pair of massive Ogres shouldered their way from the backroom into the shop. They crossed their thick arms athwart unimaginably broad chests and scowled. Roderick considered his own scowl to be top notch. However here was a pair that boded an unpleasant and certainly sticky end. With great caution Roderick placed his weapon on the countertop. Then he went through the rest of his pockets divesting himself of his remaining potions, favorite black jack and a few booby-traps.
Feeling almost weightless Roderick sulked over to the line and stepped in behind a pair of older women clutching coupon books and brightly color pieces of paper. Roderick took in his surroundings. Checking to see if the Ogres were paying attention he slipped through narrow openings between shoppers in the line like smoke through a forest.
The line was not as long as it had first appeared to be. Only three patrons now stood ahead of him. He smiled at them showing off rows of pointy teeth. They paled slightly. Roderick hitched his thumbs into his belt and rocked back on his heels. An elderly Dwarf stood at the head of the line before him. She (or perhaps he) arched a bushy eyebrow then returned to stoic contemplation of the aisle ahead.
From behind him came a tapping sound. It was wood against wood, object hitting floor, the thudding drew closer. It stopped. A long wheezing cough sprayed unidentified wet bits across the nape of Roderick’s neck. He twitched involuntarily and spun around with narrow slits for nostrils and eyes. A shambling, phlegmy mass stood huddled mere inches from the minion. It took Roderick a few seconds to realize that the mass was a human woman wearing a hat and very tattered cloak upon which lichen grew and that pulsed with a strange reddish inner light. Beady eyes peeked out from under the brim of the felt hat flicking up and down Roderick’s frame.
"Oo, aintcha a narrah one,” rasped the newcomer.
She shuffled forward closing the last few inches between them. The brim of her hat tipped up as she gazed into Roderick’s eyes. He in turn looked down his nose at her. The eyes that met his gaze were close-set and sunk into many folds of wrinkled skin. He took a step backwards while the dorsal hair on his neck stood upright.
“Wotcher lookin’ for in here muh wee furry lackey?” she asked with a voice as dry as old parchment. “A bit o’ joy fer the master mebee.”
“On a quessst,” affirmed Roderick.
"Mmm, to be sure an' its’ a doozy. Mean pun’shment waitin’ if you fail?”
“Tricky bidness Minioning,” the woman said slyly.
Roderick nodded slowly in agreement then took a sideways step away from the woman, who he believed was probably a witch from the southern swamps. Resolutely he turned his gaze back to the aisle where the cardboard and cellophane prize awaited him. A few sad squishy noises from the witch made his ears spasm uncontrollably.
Another noise distracted him from his glowering. It was that of sniffling. Turning his head Roderick discovered a young man standing next to him. The youth was dressed completely in black pajamas with a cowl draped around his neck. A delicate tendril of mucus dangled from the right nostril, stretching and defying gravity. A weak smile flickered in Roderick’s direction. Roderick blinked once, but when his eyes opened the kid was gone. A slight scuffling sound drew his attention to his right. There was the youth again.
“Hi. IlikealltheFantasyRealmPlay Sets. They’retotallyboss. Idon’thavethePrettyPinkPricesssetyetbutwhenIdoit’llcompletemycollection.”
Roderick winced. The youthful vigor oozed literally and figuratively from every orifice and pore. He sidled away from the raven garbed boy. His barefoot squelched down into a puddle of something cold, viscous, and sticky.
“mmmm, now yer innit ain’tcha?” the witch cackled.
Roderick scanned the crowd that was gathering behind the witch and kid. The crowd began to look like a swelling mass of water about to burst over a dam. Roderick considered fleeing, briefly. However the vision of his master’s torture chamber along with all of the recently sharpened pointy things sent a chill down Roderick’s elongated spine.
Grumbling even more the minion pivoted again to face the red velvet rope blocking his passage into the aisle where three pink boxes shone in magnificent light, sparkling like gems in the underground vaults of the master’s holdings.
“It’sjustspeciallightingtocreatetheillusionofglitteringjewels. WhenImoveoutofmyparentshouse, I’mgonnasetupalightingrigthatwillbejustasspectacularasPhilbertssilvertippedtusks!” enthused the young man.
A store clerk wearing a suit of plate mail clanked up to the rope sparing Roderick from further dealings with the boy for the time being. Blonde pigtails stuck out from the helmet. Lifting the visor a young woman smiled broadly at the entire group with pearly white teeth. As she talked her magically enhanced dimples radiated cuteness. Roderick shielded his eyes from the overpowering adorableness.
“Hiyee everyone! We’re just so super thrilled that you’ve chosen to shop with us tonight. We know that in a last ditch effort to please the children who control every aspect of your waking lives you have limited choices. Wisely you came here to Salacious Bob’s Fantasy Realm Toy Shop! SQUEEE! Anyhoodle. There are some rules we have to obey, otherwise Mr. Frowny comes out, and you don’t want Mr. Frowny to come out. Do you?” she burbled fixing a cold gaze on Roderick.
Cautiously he shook his head negatively. It felt strange to shake his head for it was not often that he got to answer anyone in the negative. Call it an occupational hazard waiting to happen if you will.
"Righty-o! Here we go. Just a few of the tiniest rules, okayee? No weapons, no wands, no potions, no curses, no charms, no scrolls and no traps. No telekinesis, no teleportation, no hypnosis, no poisoning, no tripping, no poking and no turning to stone. No fireballs, no chain lightning, no prismatic sprays, no cursing (not to be confused with curses), no illusions. No refunds, no rebates, no kidding. Any complaints may register them with Mr. Frowny. Okayee?”
The clerk paused and snapped a bubble with her gum. She looked over at ‘Salacious’ Bob, who had an eye on the large clock, the other pinned on a buxom patron. As the hands lined up on Midnight he gave a sharp nod of his head. The clerk clapped down her visor and deftly unhooked the rope and flung it aside.
Roderick moving quickly leapt over the rope the exact instant that the clerk unhooked it. A howl of anger rose up from the crowd behind him. The pounding of his feet and heart drowned out the trailing sound of many aggravated holiday shoppers in pursuit. His claws extended grasping for the nearest box that was his prize, just millimeters away from contact. A black shadow materialized in front of Roderick. Unable to stop himself, the minion ran straight into a thick wooden plank that swung into his path.
“IGOTONEIGOTONEIGOTONE!!!!” shrieked the boy dropping the shelf and plucking one of the boxes from its place. In a burst of hyperkinetic speed he vanished up the aisle making for the checkout counter. Roderick pulled himself up off the floor disoriented and angry while shaking his head to clear it.
Snarling he reached for the next box. This time a wizened hand jutted in and slapped his away forcefully. Pain flared across his knuckles. Blinking in surprise he stared at the shambling mound of a witch. A silver ruler disappeared into the tatty folds of the cloak. On his hand a red line cut down through the fur to the hide beneath. Cackling naughtily the witch scooped up the second box, shuffling back down the row of shelves.
Roderick shook his hand several times to test its responsiveness. It hurt but still functioned. Thankfully it was only one blow from the silver implement. A quick hit at that. Prolonged exposure could be fatal to minions of his kind. Out of the corner of his eye the last box waited. A tentative smile broke out. Roderick looked in both directions before grabbing the play set. He hugged it tightly to his chest.
A dull thump concussed the air around Roderick. Curling smoke followed the blast. It was like moonlight and talons and feathers bursting forth with shimmering sparkles of gold and jazz hands. Out of the cloud emerged a massive figure.
“HOHO, err I mean: Greetings, fellow shopper. It is I…uh..Thorgensson…uhm…Smith.”
The enormous gentleman standing before Roderick had an unkempt shock of white hair and comical black glasses without any lenses. A rubber nose decorated the man’s face. A leather gauntleted hand reached down and tried to pry the box out of the minion’s thin arms.
“Please my good man, I need this item.”
"Itsss mine!" Roderick protested.
Thorgensson poked Roderick in the chest with a finger almost as thick as one of Roderick’s arms thrusting him back against the toy shelves.
"Listen to me you vile little miscreant, there is a deserving child out there somewhere in dire need of this toy. I’ve dealt with work stoppages, supply chain strikes and a pair of Panty Pixies who refuse to believe that my workshop isn’t part of something called: ‘Ale Pong Golf.’ No two bit sawed off boot licking minion is going to deny me!” yelled the mountain of a man at the mote of a minion.
A ham-like hand seized Roderick by the throat and hoisted him clear of the floor. Cold blue eyes bore into his golden ones. Roderick gave a little snort through his nostrils. Far scarier beings than this had done worse than this. A deep throat clearing operation began next to the pair. They each rotated an eye to examine the girth of an Ogre. A cracked tusk jutted brusquely from its lower jaw.
“’ere now, there’s no cause for wot you doin. Put der little feller down, gentle like,” the Ogre told Thorgensson.
“I insist that this foul creature relinquish the play set,” demanded Thorgensson.
“For the master…” Roderick insisted.
“I don’ care wat choo are fightin ‘boot. No violence is to be per’petrated on these here premises…” The Ogre took a beat, savoring the bit of gristle wedged between two molars and the moment as well. “…’less me or Alice is doin’ it.”
“You may wish to strongly reconsider your position of mirth concerning the naming of me brother see’n as how he’s the one which busted me tusker.”
“Oh,” said the slightly mollified gentleman. “Well, never you mind about that. I have work that needs done. Noble righteous work. Where may I get another Pretty Pink Princess Fantasy Realm Play Set?”
“The little feller has the last one. Deal wit it,” said the Ogre turning his back on them and lumbering away.
Thorgensson lowered Roderick until his feet again touched the ground. Thorgensson backed up a step and raised his hands in capitulation. Suddenly the massive man’s face went wide with surprise. Pointing a trembling finger he shouted: “It’s the master!”
Roderick snapped his head around wondering what the master was doing down in the town. It was unlike him to leave his lair.
“YOINK!” Thorgensson yelped as he swiped the parcel out of Roderick’s claws.
Roderick slapped his hand over his eyes pulling it down over his face, gaping at the retreating figure sprinting up the aisle toward the check out counter. That man just duped him with a ‘shocked face head fake.’ If the Creeping Cruds down on level 3 of the Proving Grounds got wind of this he’d never hear the end of it. Roderick surveyed the store. Thorgensson was at the counter stingily counting out coins from a small fringe covered coin purse, unaware shoppers meandered around like so many sheep (thinking of such made Roderick smack his thin lips in hunger.) Moving swiftly Roderick approached the two Ogres.
“Wheresss back exit?”
The Ogres peered down at Roderick then exchanged a knowing glance.
“That white haired prat
done made a fool of you, didn’t he fella?” asked
“Yesss,” admitted Roderick.
“Can you see yer way o’ mebbe greasin’ a few palms for such intelligence?” inquired the Not Alice Ogre.
Roderick hefted a coin
purse of his own. What it lacked for in fringe, it made up with weight. Without
hesitating, he dropped it into the Ogre’s hand. A pair of smiles stretched
across their faces.
“Well sir, it’s been a great pleasure it has. Mind your step, through those curtains; take a right, last door in the dark hallway. Tonight’s passcode is ‘Turtle Brownies.’ And I ain’t talking about no baked goods neither. Hey-o!”
“’Cor Alice, don’ be like that. Not in front o’ the customers,” admonished his brother. “Best o’ luck to ye. I tink yer quarry parked in the alley outside the exit, so if you move sharpish…”
Roderick nodded and jogged through the curtain while stuffing his supplies back into their normal places on his belt. He turned right once through the curtain and entered a dark hallway. His eyes made the gloom appear as midday. The exit door loomed ahead. Arriving in front of it Roderick hissed: “Turtle Browniesss.”
A sighing sort of sound came from the door. Two bars retracted into unseen recesses allowing the door to swing open. Snow dusted the door’s stoop. A chill blast of wind ripped into the hall ruffling Roderick’s fur. The air smelled clean, crisp and like unwashed bacon. Swinging the exit wide open Roderick took in the scene in the alley.
A tan boar with gray stripes and triple silver tipped horns stood majestically in the cramped alley. Oily black hair made up its mane and tiny red coals glowed where eyes normally were. It looked in Roderick’s direction and squealed loudly. One cloven hoof pawed at the cobblestones launching sparks with each blow. Roderick rubbed his hands together out of sheer glee.
“Nicesss piggy,” cooed Roderick.
He looked over the threshold into the alley. To his right was the main thoroughfare, to the left the corridor dog legged to the right. Fluffy glistening flakes of snow drifted out of the inky sky. The boar shook its great shoulders flinging melted snow drops in all directions. At the mouth of the alley rapid footsteps drew Roderick’s attention. The huge figure from the shop came into view. The pink box reflected weakly some of the light from a lamp on the street.
Roderick twined his fingers together and cracked his joints. The bear of a man stole another glance in the direction he had come from and darted toward the boar.
"Philbert! Prepare yourself, we ride immediately,” he clamored in a high pitched tone.
Thorgensson slid to a halt in the wet snow next to the boar. He gave the beast a quick scratch between the triad of horns that protruded from its snout. Roderick hissed with all of his might. The noise startled the large man into dropping the Pretty Pink Princess Fantasy set. He whirled around and found himself belly to face with the glimmering yellow eyes of Roderick.
“Err, hello little fellow. Nice to uhm, see you again. I say, this is awkward isn’t it?” mumbled Thorgensson.
“Wantsss the box. For the master!” insisted Roderick pointing a talon tipped finger at the package.
“Yes well, too bad you can’t use any of your weapons or potions in the store. Because there is nothing you can do to prevent me from completing my task.”
The enormous man stooped down and picked up the play set. Shaking snow off of the box he said over his shoulder: “A very special child, one who is kind and deserving, is going to receive this gift under her Christhankstide Mule.”
“No. For the master’s child. You are thief!”
“I most certainly am not. I am Saint Olafinski, the Patron Saint of Christhankstide, the beloved icon for thousands of children across the realm. Surely you know of me.”
“Thief! Nasty robber. Jussst like the adventurersss in the master’s Proving Groundsss.”
“Whatever. Point is, you cannot stop me.”
“Can too,” Roderick disagreed shaking out his favorite morning star.
St. Olafinski eyed the mauling weapon and snorted derisively. “You can’t use that, you’re in the store and the guards won’t let you.”
Roderick smiled a broad and wicked smile. He took one exaggerated step over the threshold.
“Not in store now…”
With a flick of his wrist Roderick threw a handful of black power with gold flecks at St Olafinski. The self-confessed holiday symbol drew a deep breath since the attack startled him. The sudden intake of air brought the powder into his body freezing him stiff as a statue. Only his eyes could move. He blinked in surprise. Roderick stalked the few short feet between them.
He did several very violent and indescribable things to the hapless Saint Olafinski, leaving him reduced to a painful heap. Philbert eyed the small creature that just laid out his owner and oinked more than a little nervously. Roderick took the Pretty Pink Princess Fantasy set from St. Olafinski’s unconscious hands. Moving to the entrance of the alley Roderick peered out. The streets were empty. Better to be wary though. He was about to touch the gemstone around his neck when he had a second thought. Turning to look back down the alley at Philbert another evil smile crossed his lips.
“Piggy tasty? I thinksss so. The Minions holiday bonusss, nice tasty ham.”
Roderick tapped the gem issuing great billowing clouds of the fog. From within the depths of the mist there came a terrible squeal, followed by silence and a grave sense of paranoia and dread. A familiar sound of slapping feet against wet cobblestones echoed up the alley joined this time by the sounds of something very heavy being dragged.
“And that my dear was the year Saint Olafinski did not complete his journey.”
“Oh mummy, that’s just dreadful,” whispered the boy.
“In a way it is. In another way it is even worse. You see, history did not forget the little girl who wanted that play set just as badly as Roderick’s master’s daughter. Devastated by disappointment that awful Christhankstide morning, the young lady never fully recovered from her perceived loss. She allowed a seed of anger to fester deep within her soul.”
“What happened then?” the young lad asked.
“She was a young witch. She had cast a spell to deliver the information to Saint Olafinski regarding the gift she desired. From the day she was so bitterly disappointed she focused her energy into the study of dark magic, eventually conquering the Fantasy Realm by the time she was twenty three.”
The mother paused and rubbed the boy’s back reassuringly. “Eventually your great-great-grandfather Thews of Barbaria slew the unhappy wretch and freed the kingdom. The lesson you should take from this is: It is not necessarily the disappointments in life but rather how we handle them that defines our character.”
The boy lay silent in his bed for a moment contemplating the starry sky above him.
|A Felony of Birds|
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