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Alinore Valmont. Lunday, Virgo 26th, 2353 AA. 1:36 PM. Westridge Terrace (Arroyo Athenaeum – Sorcerium).

Lin spent her Solday in study groups, elective seminars, and prepping for the coming week’s lessons. There was still no sign of the cat Pensey had brought into their dorm room, but fortunately, she seemed to have gotten over it fairly quickly. I do wonder what the hell happened to it.

After lunch on Lunday, Lin retrieved the anima crates and target dummies she had requisitioned for the A class she was proctoring and carted them to the sorcerium. Her students had already assembled in the room, which vaguely resembled a large, brown cave, completely covered in ceramic tile. The hexagonal tiles were all inscribed with wards to help ground stray magic, and the ceiling gave off a semi luminescent glow. Her students helped her set up the targets in a row of three, and then Lin began her brief lecture:

“Last week, I introduced you to optical contracts. This week, we are kicking things up a notch and diving into lasers. The fun, scary kind.”

Lin extended her right hand at the plastic training dummy and channeled her wyrd into the optical animus in her vambrace. Negotiations went smoothly. The animus was agreeable and Lin had practiced this contract until her nose bled. Within an eighth of a second, the spell was ready. She unleashed an eye-searing beam of green light that instantly ignited the central dummy and began to bore through its plastic. Lin relented just before the beam could punch through the torso. She couldn’t help but grin. That never gets old.

The sixth-years exchanged excited glances.

“Now, the principles behind it are pretty advanced. You have to understand polarization techniques to shoot it raw, so you’ll be practicing with a focus for this lesson. If things go well, we can attempt it unassisted next week. Obviously, with this much power, miscasts carry a lot of risks. So to warm up, you will be creating your own foci with transmutation.”

Lin gestured at a wooden crate of depleted anima beside her.

“Anima vessels are hollow and spherical, which is a less than ideal-shape for clearly directing light,” She gestured to the box of physick anima on her other side. “I want you to use these physick anima to transform the glass into proper prisms, which you will then use to cast Abidache’s Verdant Razor.”

Then came the groans. This group was struggling a bit with transmutation.

“Come on, now. You can’t have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat,” Lin chided.

Admittedly, it was a hard lesson. Dealing with the intensely physical and concrete principles required for transmutation right before working with something as ephemeral as light was a bastard of a one-two punch. Nothing to help it though. This class barely squeaked by on their last physical magic exam and I want them properly motivated to get the finer details right.

One of the students, Nyka Simonson, raised his hand. Lin nodded at him.

“Simonson. What’s up?”

“What makes a good prism for focusing light?”

“A polarized lens is the best, but that is also the trickiest to accomplish. Solid pyramids or diamonds will also work. It really depends on how you, personally, like to deal with light magic. In all likelihood, you will need to adjust the shape of your focus in between casts.”

“Wait, so we have to switch between optics and transmutation?” Vima Cole asked in anguish.

Lin smiled wickedly.

“That’s the idea. Hop to it.”

The students came up to the crate of depleted anima vessels and the adjacent crate of physick orbs. Somebody complained that the latter anima weren’t configured specifically for glass. Lin scoffed and said:

“Do you think you’ll have bespoke transmutation anima in the field? C’mon. Make do.”

The class started reshaping the glass orbs with transmutation spells. Most people liquified the glass and shaped it with their wyrds, while others gave it a more clay-like consistency and sculpted them with their hands. Vima tried to combine both steps, and her orb cracked in half, making her swear. Lin gave her some pointers and handed her another empty vessel.

After about ten minutes, Lin walked the class through the pertinent arcane symbols, syllables, and gestures that would help them negotiate a contract for Abidache’s Verdant Razor, as well as some general tips on the physics of lasers; the narrower they could get their beams, the more powerful they would be. When she finished, the students retrieved optical anima from the third crate and formed three lines in front of the three targets.

Lin walked out of the firing line, then told them to begin. As she expected, the first salvo of beams went all over the place, blasting charred tracks into the tiled roof, ceiling, and wall. Nyka’s first contract miscast, causing his prism to explode in a shower of molten glass. Fortunately, he managed to shield himself from the crystal shrapnel with his wyrd, but she was familiar with the frustrated expression on his face.

“Slow and steady, Simonson. Funnel the energy in gradually, then release the beam when you reach a saturation point. We can work on speed after you have the basics down.”

He bobbed his head, but she could tell he was still pissed. He was a promising aspirant. Good wyrd. Good work ethic. But he was impatient in every respect of the word. He rushed his spells. He pushed himself to master concepts quickly, and was always eager to jump to the next step even though he had yet to solidify his grasp on the preceding principles.

I’ll give them another two turns of shooting before I make them adjust their prisms. The second salvo was better. Most of the beams were broad, more like heat lamps than razors made of light, but their accuracy was much better.

“Good!” Lin said.

She watched Nyka as he rotated to the front of the line again with a fresh prism in hand.

He began to inhale etheric energy into his wyrd. Then the momentum of the influx increased sharply. It was like he lost his rhythm while jogging downhill, and it was all he could do to avoid tumbling over himself.

“Easy, Simonson,” Lin cautioned.

But the influx of energy spiked so hard that it created a ‘reverse ripple’ that tugged at Lin’s wyrd. The students in the other two lines took note, and delayed their own spells, lest he throw their own negotiations off balance.

“Nyka, ground,” Lin commanded, and reached out to him with her wyrd.

But Nyka couldn’t hear her. His eyes had started glowing. Is he entering exus? We’ve barely started casting yet. Lin’s eyes widened. No. I’ve seen this before. It’s a stimulant overdose. I know what’s coming!

“Get clear!” Lin commanded the other lines.

Nyka’s negotiation came to a head. The massive reservoir of energy in his wyrd went surging into his prism, releasing a green stream of energy that he could barely control. There was so much etheric energy behind the spell that it had physical recoil comparable to a fire hose. As his hands bucked, he slashed the beam across all three targets. It sliced the left target off its post, bisected the middle target at the waist, and decapited the final target. The other students cried out and gathered their wyrds to protect themselves from friendly fire.

Lin rushed forward and hugged Nyka from behind. She channeled her wyrd into his, simultaneously trying to calm his mind and leech the excess energy. With a final surge of power, his glass orb exploded again, knocking them both onto their backs. Lin felt a sick, rubber-band snapping sensation come from Nyka’s wyrd. Shit. That’s a tear.

She rolled out from under Nyka and scrambled to take stock of his injuries. The glass and heat from the explosion had shredded his uniform. The palms of his hands were already starting to blister where they weren’t bleeding from the glass. He had fallen unconscious.

Lin put her hand against his neck. His pulse was wild, but gradually began to stabilize. She looked at the rest of her class, worried that somebody else may have been caught in the cross fire. They stared back at her, collectively scared shitless, but seemingly unharmed.

“Everyone okay?” Lin asked.

They nodded silently. She exhaled, getting her own breathing and wyrd under control.

“That’s enough lasers for today. Jones, Wright. Help me get him onto a stretcher. I’m going to get him to the infirmary. Everybody else, practice transmutation until the bell.”

—2:03 PM| Arroyo Athenaeum (Infirmary)—

Lin waited by Nyka’s bedside. She would have done the same for any of her students, but she was particularly fond of him. He was so hungry to know magic. Desperate to be a Keeper at any cost. His eagerness to excel, as opposed to merely passing, reminded her of herself in many ways.

And so did today’s performance.

She had not told the medisoph her suspicions. No. I know what happened. But she also knew why it happened. And what the consequences would be if the administration found out. At best, Nyka would be written up. At worst, he would be suspended and have any scholarships or stipends revoked. And he doesn’t deserve that.

Lin had struggled a bit in her seventh year. At her lowest point, she had doubled up on the dose of Focaline that Pensey shared with her. She was struggling with realistic glamour magic, and she had convinced herself that her dysviria was the problem, rather than her own technique. The same morning after she doubled up, when they were practicing cryomancy, her wyrd went into overdrive immediately. Rather than freezing her intended target, Lin unleashed a ray of frost that encased an entire wall of the training room in six inches of ice—and put herself into hypothermic shock in the process.

Her instructor assumed that the anima had witched her; something had happened to the spirit within that made it far more potent than intended. And Lin had gone along with the excuse. But I knew the truth. I tried to cheat. Power will only destroy you if you don’t know how to use it.

For the rest of the week, Lin had to use her wyrd at a quarter power to avoid blasting herself, and her classmates to high hell. In the end, she ended up faking an illness to avoid practical courses. It was simply too risky.

The only people who knew the truth were Pensey and Carroll. They both made excuses for her. Talked about the stresses of the Athenaeum. Carroll even said that he was waiting for her to ‘experiment,’ and was pleased to find that she had scared herself sober. But it still ached like a bullet lodged in her ribs.

I was so desperate to get ahead, I… She shook her head. The Athenaeum was brutal, not only because of the stresses it subjected you, mentally, magically, and physically, but because it implicitly encouraged you to succeed at any cost. She understood the appeal of cutting corners all too well. And she didn’t want Nyka’s future ruined over a single lapse in judgment.

“Miss Valmont?”

Lin snapped back to the present, and stared at Nyka, who was still lying in bed, dazed.

“Hey Simonson,” Lin said, smirking slightly. “How are you feeling?”

“I… I’m okay, I think.” He said, though she could tell that even moving his fingers was painful, so she was surprised when he clenched his fists.

 “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think… I mean…”

“Did you borrow somebody’s Focaline or take boost juice?” Lin asked.

Nyka’s face went white and his wyrd receded in a tight layer around his skin. He looked up at her in horror. Lin shook her head dismissively and emanated reassurance.

“I’m not telling anybody. I just want to know. What kind of stims did you take?”

He hesitated and took a deep breath before asking.

“You really won’t tell?”

Lin nodded.

“I… bought some juice. We have a bindings exam today. Kinetic stress tests. And I just… I needed…”

Again, Lin nodded.

“Have you learned your lesson?” she asked.

“Yes,” Nyka said and nodded emphatically. “I had no idea it would… My wyrd just went into overdrive. I actually thought the anima was witched at first, but then I felt it… in my blood. And I just knew it was the drug.” He shook his head then looked at Lin. “How did you—”

“I’ve seen it happen before,” Lin said quickly, hoping to kill the conversation there.

But Nyka gulped, and asked:

“Have you ever—”

Lin shook her head on reflex. That truth is too tender. Too dangerous to trust anybody with. Again, only Pensey and Carroll knew.She hadn’t even told her brother, or Azmuir, nor did she ever intend to. Nyka emanated sincere apologies, and gestured that he didn’t mean to offend her. Lin felt like shit.

“Everybody makes mistakes, Simonson. The important thing is that we use them to become better.” Lin bowed her head. “Look, I’m not the best at speeches. But if I had one piece of advice for you, it would be to appreciate your mistakes more. You want to win. You want to be good at it. And making mistakes hurts. It’s embarrassing. It’s frustrating. But the way you get good is by making earnest attempts, fucking up, and making more earnest attempts until your successes outweigh your mistakes.”

Nyka nodded seriously.

“I told the nurse you were witched,” Lin said. “They’re going to hold you overnight. Good news is that boost juice should wear off by tomorrow. And since you didn’t already have a heart attack, this is probably the worst you will suffer.”

Nyka gestured gratitude and emanated relief. Lin didn’t know how to end the conversation, so she gestured for him to take care and stood to leave. But before she could open the door, a question occurred to her. She turned and asked:

“Where’d you get the juice?”

“North Arroyo,” Nyka said. “I don’t know the exact address but I can show you—”

Lin shook her head and gestured ‘no need.’ She just wanted to make sure the drugs weren’t coming from within the Athenaeum. To Lin, the difference between dealing illegal drugs and taking a stim was night and day.

As she walked down the hallway though, a chill shuddered through her. Am I a fraud? She stopped walking and was surprised to find that she was crying. No. You have a disability. But you are a coward.

Lin was twenty-one. Three years into legal adulthood in the PSE. Yet she still took her Focaline from Pensey. All because she was afraid of the Athenaeum’s medical records reaching her father’s ears. What would happen if he found out? The tears kept coming. If he knew, he would disown me. She told herself that she would deal with it once she graduated.

But until then, you are a coward, Alinore Valmont.

—5:46 PM | Arroyo Athenaeum (Underground Quad)—

Lin sat in the underground quad at the heart of the Athenaeum, surrounded by the soothing rush of the gravity-defying water that coated the domed ceiling and concave walls. They had rebuilt the quad three times since she started at the Athenaeum. In her second year, they demolished the old student union above it, in favor of its new location on the west edge of campus, overlooking the Grand Arroyo. Then they had to rebuild the entire Quad after it was destroyed in the Unbranded Terror Attack of 2348. And when the western tunnel collapsed during the Compton Quake of 2351, the underground quad and terraced gardens underwent extensive renovations for safety’s sake. 

She had always liked the space, and its resilience deepened her affection. But she was often assaulted by recurring flashbacks to an incredibly vivid dream of an apocalyptic battle. She imagined a djinn doing battle with some kind of winged being—possibly an angel—some kind of super-human, and a pair of teachers she didn’t know that well. The entire brawl played out as she and Pensey spectated.

 This afternoon though her studies were sidelined by different distractions.

Nyka’s attack had annihilated Lin’s rhythm. She missed Expert Principles of Binding Sorcery entirely, and she was five minutes late to her Intermediate Runic Data Structures exam despite sprinting with sorcery. Her brain was mush afterwards, and she was too tired to review what she had missed in lecture. Instead, she scrolled her phone, reading every article and social post she could find about the urdic collapse incidents.

Now she started to consolidate and organize her earlier findings about the victims. Different ages. Most—but not all—are unmarried. Some lived alone. A wide spread of occupations and socio-economic income. The youngest victim was fifteen. No pre-pubescent victims. Implies that it might be health related. Sexual activity maybe? She studied the list and shook her head.

“What’s the common thread? Think, Lin.”

The only other theory she had developed on her own was fairly obvious one. Amagia have stronger wyrds. We are trained to deal with urdic stress. Even if our wyrds fail us, we know how to partially ground the physical backlash. That’s why only the asfalis victims died.

Lin tsked at her list. She sat there petulantly for a few seconds. No pre-pubescent victims… health related…what kind of health issues could contribute to urdic collapse?

Then her phone rang. And her heart plunged when she read the caller ID:


“Fuck!” she snapped.

On the third ring, she snatched the phone off her desk. Before she could think of a greeting that was both diplomatic and adequately cutting, her mother spoke:

“Alinore. You need to come home. Immediately.”

Lin scoffed and began, haughtily:

“Kind of busy tonight m—”

Mirian Valmont raised her voice.

“Lin. Listen to me. Your brother has gone missing.”

Lin’s heart stopped. The world seemed to pulse in negative around her. She must have emanated something powerfully, because other people in the quad turned to look at her abruptly. Lin barely registered their annoyance.

“What?” she croaked.

“Athren has gone missing,” her mother said, choking up.

For the thin edge of a second, Lin’s lip trembled. Then she grit her teeth and started packing.

“I’m on my way. Tell me what we know.”

“That’s why you need to come,” her mother explained, once again composed. “The details of his mission are still classified, but enough time has passed that we are owed… notice,” she broke down completely this time.

Hearing her mother weep brought the tears to her own eyes. What would Athren do if it were me? What would Pensey do? The answer for each came immediately. She slowed down, took a shuddering breath, exhaled, and then resumed walking at a more measured pace.

“Mom? He’s going to be fine,” Lin said.

And Lin felt better, knowing that it was likely true. Athren had been appointed to the PSE’s Amagiate Regional Chapter earlier that year. Less than five years after his graduation. The average promotion rate to ARC was fifteen years.

People called it nepotism. That’s undoubtedly a valid consideration. And at the beginning of his career, Lin was skeptical herself. But his clearance and conviction rate said otherwise. He set records in San Francisco’s Central Chapter. After being promoted to Monstrum and Malefaction—which, admittedly, was a bit obvious—he launched an investigation that directly resulted in the capture of three of four members of Will Speare’s inner circle. He nearly hacked off the head of the Unbranded only two years into the job. On top of that, he had a tremendous gift for hunting monsters. His wyrd seemed to smell mimics, born-vampires, chimeras, and egregores. Athren is a living legend. He is going to be fine.

“Yes,” Mirian said, sniffing. “Yes, you’re right. We can’t start the brief until you arrive.”

“I’m coming, Mom,” Lin assured her. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Thank you, Lin,” her mother said.

—5:36 PM | Brookside Terrace (Valmont Estate)—

Gerone Starling answered the door and hugged her as soon as she entered. Gerone was the family butler and the Valmont Estate’s head of staff. Prior to her enrolling in the Athenaeum, Gerone had been responsible for her and her brother’s protection, education, and company. He was a retired Judge, who had earned an asfalis degree in education, specifically to tutor Athren and Lin. He was closer to them than an uncle, and their father’s sworn brother. Even Mirian adored and confided in him. He was arguably the only thing that kept Lin and her mother from tearing each other apart.

“I’m so sorry to see you under these circumstances, Ali,” he whispered.

Ger was the only person she would accept that name from. Everybody else made it sound like a diminutive, or an outright taunt, or some kind of superfluous over-feminization. He said it respectfully.

“He’s alive, Ger,” Lin insisted and pecked his cheek. “It’s good to see you.”

“Your parents are in your father’s office.”

“Aren’t you coming?” Lin asked, then followed his gaze to a collection of ARC officers standing at the far end of the entry hall.

“I’m just the butler,” he said, shrugging.

Lin smiled at him and snickered. The phrase was code for “You can fill me in when we’re in private.”

“I will escort you, Miss Valmont,” one of the ARC officers said.

Lin nodded and followed, but didn’t recognize the woman until she saw the back of her head. As per regulation she was wearing her dress uniform, which included a pointed cap that obscured her red hair.

“Ezel?” Lin said.

She paused and turned to smile at Lin. Ezel MacClare was one of Athren’s subordinates. The two of them had gone on holiday together before, but he remained cagey about the nature of their relationship—Lin suspected because Mirian didn’t approve. Of course, they would have her deliver the news. Looking around, Lin realized that some of the other ARC officers present were also Athren’s subordinates.

They continued to her father’s office, where both her parents waited, pacing the room. Mirian rose from her seat and immediately hugged Lin, standing on her toes to kiss her cheek. Athenon took her into his arms next and kissed her forehead.

“Let me know when you would like me to begin the brief,” Ezel said.

Athenon inquired if Lin needed anything with a gesture. She shook her head.

“Go ahead,” Athenon said.

Ezel nodded and held up a paper and read at a practiced, perfectly composed cadence:

“Following clues recovered in our raid on the Unbranded leader, Special Officer Athren Valmont and Special Officer Siphan Morris of the Pacific States Amagiate Regional Chapter, and Senior Detective Helstadd Cane of the New Amsterdam’s Keeping Force’s Central Chapter participated in an assault on a location where it was believed Willion Speare had an outpost.”

“Why was Cane there?” Lin interrupted.

Ezel’s composure flickered, then she looked at Lin with a shaky smile.

“He’s an akrasiac. The operation called for a sudden assault on the perimeter of Speare’s suspected location. Unfortunately, we never received word from the strike team. Upon investigating the location, an hour after losing contact, we discovered Special Officer Morris’s body. Special Officer Valmont and Senior Detective Cane are still missing in action.”

“How long has it been?” Lin asked. “Since he left?”

“The strike team was dispatched approximately three weeks ago,” Ezel said.

“Do we have any idea of what happened?” Athenon asked.

“Officer Morris was fatally shot in the head,” Ezel said. “Forensics found his body buried beneath the burnt down structure that was believed to house Speare.”

“Did they recover any other physical evidence?” Lin asked.

Ezel held her expression completely neutral.

“The fire made it difficult to identify any physical evidence beyond Siphan’s body, which we were only able to identify based on his Licenses.”

“What about dental records?” Lin asked.

Ezel opened her mouth, hesitated, then said:

“He appeared to be shot in the back of the head with a 0.408 razor-net.”

Lin’s eyes widened. Razor nets—also known as ‘Pixie Shredders’—were specialized, monster hunting shotgun shells that required sorcery to fire properly. Weighted leads would stretch a net of razor-thin metal wire to essentially carve large holes into targets with potential regenerative abilities. The shooter needed to use their wyrd to stretch and force magnify the fibers of the wire. To get shot by one at point blank range… Lin shuddered.

“We’ve only recovered fragments of his teeth and jaw. His body was reduced to ash by the fire. That’s all I am at liberty to tell you. More, in fact. That is all that I personally know, so far.”

If she was lying, she was good enough to have persuaded Lin. Athenon gestured thanks, and bowed his head. Mirian’s eyes were red, but she was done crying for the moment, already numbing herself to the situation. After a few seconds, she spoke:

“How confident are we that the body wearing Officer Morris’s licenses is really Officer Morris?”

Lin winced at her mother’s golemic question. But it had been her question too. Fire was the worst thing imaginable for physical evidence, and the second-worst thing for magical evidence after being struck by a downpour.

“There is a possibility that Morris is alive, and that his licenses were left behind to obfuscate his survival. But we currently have no reason to believe that is the case.”

Ezel waited a beat for the family to digest what she had said, then continued:

“The ARC is looking into this matter without the utmost urgency and discretion. And at this time, I am obligated to inform you that if you are aware of Special Officer Valmont’s current where—”

“We are not,” Lin and her mother said simultaneously.

Ezel looked between Lin and her parents and gestured apologies.

“Again. ‘Obligated,’” she said. “I am further obligated to inform you that interference—however well-meaning—in an ARC investigation is both a Regional Amagiate Offense, and a Federal Crime. Please. For Athren’s sake. For all of our sakes, please do not attempt to help the ARC’s investigation. This includes calling in favors, hiring a third-party to investigate, or conducting personal investigations of any kind.”

Ezel recoiled slightly after finishing. You’ve got a lot of nerve. The collective fury of the Valmont family blazed silently at her, like an icy, undead star. Lin caught herself, realizing that she was unfairly judging Athren’s partner. But she was late. Ezel scoffed at them, and threw up her hands with exaggerated, exasperated surrender.

“I’m not on the team either. Okay? ARC doesn’t allow that. They want an ‘impartial perspective,’” she said, quoting, and then gestured broadly: “This is how I get to contribute. I thought his family, of all people, would understand that.”

“Thank you, Special Officer MacClare. You are dismiss—You are free to leave now.” Athenon said, with an icy voice he had probably used to dispatch Judges to warzones when he had been Regional Archon. “Given the clearly… sterling resources available to the ARC, we shall expect an expedient update.”

—Marday, Virgo 27th, 7:52 AM | Arroyo Athenaeum (East Dining Hall)—

In the morning, Lin only remembered bits and pieces of her evening with her parents. They had mostly avoided talking about Athren, trying to put on brave faces for each other, though her father retired from dinner early to “make some calls,” despite Ezel’s warning. Mirian had asked about Pensey and Azmuir, though she pretended she couldn’t remember his name. That, and a few other passive-aggressive slights aside, they were remarkably civil with each other.

Lin jogged to campus instead of driving, oversaw the fifth-year keeper’s physical training regimen, and went to breakfast. She found herself re-reading each page of the paper, even though it was a relatively slow news day, because her mind kept wandering back to Athren.

He must be in the Faed. If something happened to the akrasiac he was with, he could get stranded on the other side. She tried not to think about what three weeks of exposure to faen energies could do to somebody.


She looked up to see Azmuir and instantly knew something was wrong. He often looked melancholy, or moody, but his expression rarely seemed serious or concerned. Instead of its usual anxious energy, his wyrd was uniform, and his emanations were deliberate. Did he hear about Athren? No. That’s impossible. I haven’t told anyone.

“Hey, Az. What’s up?” Lin asked.

He sat and hesitated a second before speaking up.

“Nyka Simonson suffered from urdic collapse this morning.”


Azmuir nodded solemnly.

“I just overheard the sixth years talking about it outside. Figured you would want to know.”

Yesterday evening, she and Azmuir had had dinner together, and Lin told him that she was looking into the string of collapses throughout Arroyo.

“Yeah. Thanks. He… he injured himself in my class yesterday,” Lin said absently as her brain went into overdrive. “I wonder if this is related. Do you know what condition he’s in?”

Azmuir shook his head.

“I don’t know any of the details myself, but the sixth years are probably still chatting about it.”

Lin nodded and knit her brow. The boost juice! Her eyes widened. Drugs. That’s the connection between the victims. It has to be. Vices are one of the only things that rich, poor, old, and young people have in common. Only children haven’t been affected because they have no interest or ability to acquire drugs. And due to transumation, the drugs wouldn’t appear in a toxicology screen. She gave Az a kiss on the cheek and emanated thanks, then gathered her belongings and tray and stood up.

“Sorry. I’ll catch up with you later,” she said. “I’m going to go see him.”

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