Steam

by Tybalt Maxwell

_

You’ll have to understand that times were different back then. This happened in a time of prosperity, before the Ellepsa mines went dry, and the Ellepsa family was still quite powerful among New Green aristocracy. That’s the old name, of course. This city wasn’t known as Greena until Charleston to the south became a super-power, having wrest control over the coal industry. Because the people of this country always want to be seen as independent from Charleston, we changed the name of our capital from the name of their new one.

I was a lad then, almost seventy years ago I think it was. Back then, I was much more spry than I am now, and not so grey around the whiskers. Back then, if you could believe it after seeing the ashen look of me now, my fur was full and brown, shiny and sleek. Some days I look in the mirror and think back of youthful times. It’s sad how time takes its toll on us like that… But I digress.

The day was the fourth in the month of Quilmoon. The leaves were just starting to crisp and turn gold, matching the brass buildings surrounding their trees. The trees were a little short then because Natura plots had only recently been installed. I shook hands with the man who thought those up, by the way. Did you know that? He said, “With the amount of artificial scenery in the city, we should allot small plots of land to planting natural vegetation, so as to make the city cleaner”, and I agreed with him! The Natura plots cleaned up the city quite a bit—and made the air fresher too! None of us knew at the time that trees took pollutants out of the air, but still the man was a genius, and I got to shake his paw! It was quite an honor, I’ll tell you.

Anyway, the year was the three hundred and first after the invention of the steam engine and, as usual, I was skipping spryly along the main thoroughfare, which at the time was more bustling. Nowadays that area’s just driven through with no one stopping, but back then that area was a large market district, with both sides completely covered in stalls. That stopped, of course, when Mayor Scrim had that street turned into a highway in order to account for the rising population or summat, I can’t remember. I still don’t know how a rat became mayor in a primarily cat town anyways. Sorry, mouse. I mix those two up all the time. All look the same anyways…

On my way to work at the mines, I’d always buy a fresh apple from the Robinsons. That’s the stand I miss the most these days, the Robinson’s stand with their local Macintosh or imported Gala apples, given to me in a brown bag by the cute wolf behind the counter… Emmy, I think her name was. I eat apples every day from the supermarket, and I’ll tell you they have nothing on the fresh, handpicked fruit from the Robbionson orchard. It really is a pity they were decimated during the arrival.

That day I gave a short “How ye do” and a wink (to which I like to think she had blushed), then I went by the bakery to check on what they had to offer on that day. The Blacks ran that, baking different kinds of bread daily so as to add variety (although I think it had more to do with their ingredients in stock). That day was no different from the others. I walked in, asked how old man Black was doing (he was bedridden, you see), and then made a note to come later to pick up some fresh croissants. The smell of the butter wafted out and followed me most of the way to work, and I was glad I had bought that apple ’cause that smell always made me hungry.

You might be surprised by the lack of otter names I mentioned there, given that the area is mostly dominated by them now. They didn’t move in until Gorae to the north had the “Great” revolution, and they came here to escape the destruction (although our lax immigration policy might have had a part in that as well).  No, back then it was mostly cats, wolves, and foxes in New Green, with a few lizards from the far south. It’s good they came here though, because after the Arrival, we needed all the help we could get in rebuilding. It’s painful, seeing young cats from rich families driving down to that district and causing trouble. What with their slurs and their violent outbursts… The Otters were such a big help back then; metalworking was a popular profession for them back in Gorae, so they were quite adept with repairing the city. If not for their help, we probably still wouldn’t have finished rebuilding.

The mine wasn’t as clean then as it is now, now that nature has taken it back. It was a dirty and grimy place. There’s a stream running through it now that’s washed away all the pollution, but imagine a place where it’s so dirty, that there’s a layer of black grime coating everything, and the smoke is so thick you couldn’t breathe without wearing a mask. That’s how bad the mine was. The Ellepsas didn’t care for the aesthetic; they just cared about how much money they could pump out of the place while spending as little as possible.

The sky above the mine was always black. The refinery belched smog into the sky at an almost constant rate, so much that it stung your eyes if you weren’t inside a digger or wearing protective goggles.

Most of us working there were lads, all under the age of 18. See, smaller people meant smaller diggers which meant smaller shafts and more money for the Ellepsas to save. I was in charge of extracting coal from shaft D4, and business was as usual until I got radioed to take Joel’s place on the Causeway.

The Causeway was a large metal walkway that hung over the mines. It served the purposes of overseeing the workers, connecting the mines to the refinery, and holding the gears and pipes which powered the two areas. The pipes carried precious steam into the refinery, and the gears ran the synchronized clocks, as well as the many drills that littered the landscape. Joel’s job as the oldest lad there was to navigate the labyrinthine series of metal walkways and make sure everything was running smoothly. One crack in a pipe, and we’d be leaking from the entire power grid. If a gear was breaking, machinery connected to the control tower would cease to function properly. The whole operation needed these things to run smoothly, which is why there was always someone stationed up there to keep things in order.

The problem, however, is that the walkways were so thin that it was easy to get your tail caught between gears, which is exactly what happened to Joel. I was to take his place up there while he got himself bandaged up, and that’s why I was up there to witness the Arrival.

What happened is this: the sky tore. It was like the sky was being ripped apart. A jagged line bulged and then split, like how a burlap sack would if you took a knife to it from inside. Above me, the sky just ripped, and out of the tear there appeared a beast that looked straight from hell.

It emerged slowly until it couldn’t go through any farther. Its head took up the entirety of the huge rip in the seams of whatever it broke up there, and it looked like there was more to it. The sides of the round tear were crawling with short tentacles trying to break through, probing the sky around it. In the middle of this mass of flailing appendages was a face.

It had four eyes, huge and glaring, with no pupils. Most people say that all they were was four black pits that seemed bottomless, but I still go by what I saw: deep green and unfocussed eyes, blinking and tearing from the smoke.

It had a beak as well, white like the rest of its body, and from it dropped a long black tongue, licking the air as if it could taste the foul acrid coal dust that choked the sky.

I stared at it for the longest time, and it stared back at me. I didn’t realize what I was doing until Thadeus came around and snapped me back to reality. I recall it being strangely comforting, staring into that thing’s eyes. Thad said I looked scared when he approached me, but inside I felt almost at peace.

As it turned out, the Forman had gathered everyone together almost immediately and had ordered Thad to retrieve arms from the supply tower for them to shoot it down with. “I’m not letting anything else get in the way of this operation” he had said, angrily. “Neither the gods nor the most foul demons are going to get in our way after the amount we’ve already lost this third”.

So all of us boys went right into the refinery, climbing and climbing stairs for the longest time until finally we got to the upper balcony. We looked down, hand cannons at the ready, and saw the strangest thing: as the monster came through the hole or whatever it was, we saw its insides. We saw the circles that we assumed were its organs growing and shrinking as it slowly inched its way forward. And, most disturbing of all, we saw its tentacles come around and probe at its own insides.

Most of us looked away almost immediately. I got a headache from just a few seconds of watching. So many different colours, some I hadn’t seen before, organs that did god knows what surrounded by what I assumed was black blood. The only thing I can tell you for sure about the inside of that thing is that it had an open-type circulatory system, like a lobster.

When I looked up, I saw that Ceol was still staring at it. I watched as he leaned over the rail, almost drooling while he gazed hypnotically at the monster creeping forward. When he brought his leg up onto the rail, I ran up and pulled him back, both of us tumbling onto the hard wooden floor.

“What’re you thinking?!” I shouted at him, trying to shake some sense into him. All he did though was stare back at me with those sad blue eyes and mumble an apology, saying he didn’t know what had come over him.

After that, we didn’t want to shoot at the monster from above, so we trekked down to the middle terrace and poised to aim from there. Most of the stone pellets got lost in the mass of tentacles with some of them arcing above and hitting it from behind. None of it was very effective, so Thad ran to retrieve the metal ammunition.

The next round of fire went the same as the last, but this time someone’s shot aimed true, and the little metal ball pierced the side of a tentacle instead of going between them. The flow of blood was immediate. It started as a small pinprick of thick purple, almost black, then a trickle, spilling down into the mine. If you go to that spot today, you’ll see the plants there are all large and discoloured.

Its response to the wound was to scream. It was loud. Very loud.

It didn’t seem like we were hearing the scream with our ears. It felt more like we heard it with our minds, a psychic scream that filled our brains with shards of glass and ripped at our heads from the inside. When it stopped, after excruciating seconds that seemed to last for hours, we heard the crazed howl as Seth ripped his own eyes out.

It took five of us to restrain him. Thad and I had to use both our hands to pry the 2 inch claws out of the lizard’s sockets. Long nails were painted red with globs of white hanging upon them. The monster hummed as we ran Seth to the infirmary, me and four other boys restraining his appendages, and another trying to make bandages with a torn shirt. Thankfully, the trip to the infirmary wasn’t far. The architects were smart enough to place it near the mines.

The nurse was the only staff there, standing lonely beside a bed-ridden tabby. After the initial shock of seeing the mutilated lizard, she helped us get him into a bed, strapping down his arms, legs, and tail with our belts.

He was still screaming, writhing in his bondage. He begged us to release him and let him go home. I couldn’t even understand half of it, as his English was spliced with bits of his native tongue. I was so relieved when the nurse put a block of wood in his mouth to shut him up. It didn’t work as well as intended, but the muffled screaming was much more tolerable.

Thad started towards the phone. He was a real leader, Thadeus, always taking charge in these kinds of situations. I kind of envied him for it at that point, his ability to remain calm while the rest of us panicked. It’s too bad he’s not around anymore because I’m sure you’d rather hear his version of the story. But alas, I’m the only one left. I guess that’s an honor, being the last survivor of the Arrival.

He called the local militia, who told him they were already on their way. Afterwards there was nothing left for us to do, so we left. We didn’t know what to do. We were mostly terrible marksmen, with the obvious exception of Thad. None of us could do anything to help.   We just went back to our homes with our tails between our legs.

Before I left, though, Cain approached me, worried. “Giac, I’m going to head back to the refinery. Everything has to be shut down or else it’ll start a fire.”

I offered to help him, but he said he had it all covered. “Only a few levers and switches” he said, brushing me off and hurrying back towards the mines. I didn’t mind that much because I terribly wanted to leave.

On the way I remembered to pick up the croissants but forgot to pick up meat to go with it. I was in such a hurry to return, see. All I wanted was to go home and into my mother’s embrace. I was quite shaken up by what was happening, especially what happened with Seth. All I wanted was to be held and told that everything was all right.

It’s funny how people deny that feeling, how people deny that they want to be held, even though we all crave it. I think on the inside we all want someone to just hold us tight and tell us everything is okay. It persists in all of us, this feeling, never leaving. Even in old age, even now that I’m all alone, I still want to be held and told everything’s going to be okay.

People in the street were already in a stir over the foreign creature just distinguishable in the thick smog over the Ellepsan mines. As the refinery’s many machines individually shut down, more and more of it became visible. Most began to scurry about, gathering their families and possessions, trying to get out of town as quickly as possible.

Mother was home. She only ever left the house to go on short walks in the park ever since Father died in the Great War. I did all the shopping and all the errands she needed running. Her day mostly consisted of napping or cleaning the house.

She came into the main room, black nightgown billowing around her.  She held me, asking what was wrong. I looked like I’d seen a ghost, she said. I said to her, I’d seen worse. I told her a nicer version of the events that transpired, leaving out the bit where Seth ripped his eyes out. And of course, it was my shot that pierced the beast.

She just held me tight and didn’t say a word after, wrapped her arms around me and pet behind my ears. “The world is changing”, she said, trying to be soothing by speaking in a hushed tone, but the words kept their power. “It doesn’t surprise me that the gods’d send a divine to tell us off.”

I was about to ask her what she meant, but we were interrupted by a loud rumbling, then the scream of twisting metal.

We looked out the window and saw that the beast had released a long tentacle, which wrapped around the east tower of the Refinery and tore it off. It flailed the building around, dropping bits of machinery everywhere. I saw a large hunk of metal fall into a group of militia who were firing their muskets at the beast. I saw the splatter as they were all flattened, a red stain that spread around the broken metal.

I saw that, and it felt like darkness had closed in around me.

It felt like I was trapped in a closet with some dark creature standing just behind me, breathing down my neck, and I was pounding at the door, trying to get out but someone was holding the knob still so it wouldn’t turn.

And then I threw up. That’s when I ran out of the house.

I didn’t have a plan of action. I just felt I needed to get to the refinery. I guess it was instinct that took me there because Cain’d probably need help getting out, but at the time I had no idea what I was doing besides running to the Refinery as fast as I could.

People were already screaming doom, but I paid them no heed. I climbed the pipes on the side of my house, clambered across the roof, and hopped the short distance between my home and my neighbor’s. A quick climb up a gear and a scamper across a bundle of pipes, and then I was at Crossman’s bridge.

Crossman’s bridge isn’t around anymore; it was torn down and replaced about 20 or so years ago. It was named after old man Crossman, who went mad and jumped into the murky depths below and drowned. When I was young, there was many a tale of his haunting that very bridge, cursing the refinery for polluting the waters below.

The only person there was Yvet. She was a vixen, a wealthy merchant’s daughter. We grew up in the same area but didn’t talk much. We knew each other’s names, though.

“Giacomo!” she called, hurrying over to me. “You work at the mines.  What’s going on?” I told her I didn’t know, and she sighed. “That’s so typical of you to be clueless,” she said, shaking her head.

I just started on my way when the monster raised its voice once more. The sound was sharp again, a sharp hum that pierced the mind. Yvet covered her ears and screamed.

“What is that? Why is it making that noise?” She shouted, wincing and jamming her paws into her ears, crouching a little as if she was trying to get under the wave of sound.

At first I thought she was exaggerating the pain which seemed minor to me, but then I heard that same scream come from others in the distance and knew her pain was genuine. I couldn’t do much but pat her back, trying to soothe her out of the pain. She looked up at me, tears streaking her face.

Without warning she turned and vomited over the railing, adding further pollution to the murk bellow. When she looked back at me, I noticed her tears were darker. They were streaked with a dark purple, almost black, which seeped into her crimson fur and stained it. The substance started to seep out of her mouth too. She kept crying, too focused on the pain to notice.

She did take notice, however, when it poured out her ears and nose. Then came the loudest screams of all as the cold realization swept over her.

At first, I thought it was something wrong with her head, that maybe it was making her brain bleed or her throat to cough up some weird kind of phlegm. I wasn’t very good at anatomy, so forgive me for not knowing.  The realization didn’t come to me until I noticed the dark stain in her skirt. She was bleeding the stuff out of every orifice.

This was just too much for me. So I ran.

She screamed at me to stop, to come back and help her, but I kept going. There was nothing I could do for her anyways. I still have nightmares about it. They’ve become less frequent over time, but I still wake in the night after dreaming about bleeding that stuff. How much it must hurt for your blood to thicken and turn into black sludge, and then for it to bleed out every orifice, and eventually tear through the pores of your skin.

In the dreams, I hear her scream, “Giac, come back!  You can’t leave me like this!” and I keep running and running, only to find myself turning into her, watching me run away. I regret so much that I did nothing to help her.

When I finally got to the refinery, I was wretching and heaving from exhaustion after sprinting all the way there.

I slowly made my way to the closest supply barrel, where I swiped a canteen and rested as quickly as I could before making my way through the mines and to the refinery. I took the long way, shielding my eyes so I wouldn’t see what had become of the militia.

The refinery was on fire. Cain had failed to shut down all the machinery before the jostling set one aflame. Although most buildings were made completely of metal (with a preference for brass), the refinery was too big at the time of building to completely make of metal. About half the floors were wooden as well as most of the support beams.

I wouldn’t have gone in if I couldn’t hear Cain screaming for help inside. I kicked myself for not going with him and ran in, shielding my eyes from the acrid smoke that burned them.

The refinery’s water system was on, but it didn’t help to put out the flames. The refinery’s safety system was designed for a fire in the case that we had 20 tons of coal within the building. We hadn’t had less than double that since the last inspection from our safety union.

I climbed the stairs, running after the fading sound of his screams. I didn’t want to lose a friend. Not today, I kept telling myself. Not after all that’s happened. I couldn’t let it get worse.

I found him on the third floor. A gear had fallen and trapped him, his leg caught between the teeth. He was crying, and I could tell he couldn’t take the smoke anymore. If I didn’t get him out of there soon, he would die.

“Giac” he said, coughing up the black smog, “You gotta get me out of here.” It took all the strength in my body, and some weak effort from him, but we managed to lift the gear just enough for him to crawl out and break free.

It took us a bit to escape the building. We had our arms around each other, and I helped him walk out. Gears and support beams fell around us, threatening to smother the fragile life from our bodies, but eventually we saw the light and coughed the black grime from our lungs.

Avoiding the beast’s tentacles (it had freed a second one by this point, you see, and the thing was thrashing the ground wickedly), we made our way down through the mines. There was loud banging as the creature thrashed at the refinery behind us. We could hear people screaming as the beast struck them down. Militia men were on the ground, letting out guttural howls as they succumbed to their wounds. I kept telling Cain, “It’s alright, everything’s going to be okay”, trying to calm him down, but I think he was too focused on his pain to notice anyways.

We limped our way toward the infirmary so as to get Cain’s leg looked at. When we were almost out of the mines, I heard Ceol.

“Hey Giac!” He shouted, and I turned around as fast as I could. He was standing atop the upper balcony, staring down at me and the monster’s insides.  “I’m going home now, Giac!”

And then he jumped.

I screamed for him to stop, but it was too late. He was already descending at terminal velocity. His arms were spread out, like he planned to fly, but his they didn’t flap. He just descended through the black, an upside down cross redeeming god knows who.

I can picture it, tears from his cloudy blue eyes as the ground approached. No regrets, but many at the same time. I can see those eyes as he descends through the abyss. I can see the dark tears welling up as he takes the easy way out. He answered the call, but knew the sacrifice he’d have to make. I like to think his last thought was of me, the witness to his home-coming. I like to think he hoped I wouldn’t have to go with him as he descended through the dark smog, arms splayed like a fallen angel.

And then he hit the ground.

I…

Sorry. This part always tears me up. Just let me grab my handkerchief…

I ran for where he was, or at least started to, but Cain stopped me. “He’s dead, Giac.”

As if to cement the statement, or to be cruel, the middle tower fell. Debris crashed down in a heap, covering my friend in a pyre of black stained wood and twisted metal. I cried then. I fell on my knees and cried.

Before it was like I was in a closet, but now it felt like someone had opened the door and punched me in the gut. I just witnessed my friend die. Ceol, my friend since childhood. We went to school together. Played games together as kids. I remember we made jokes that one day we’d lose him in a mine shaft because of his jet black fur, dark as night. That day we lost Ceol. The black dust surrounded him.

I thought of all that as I broke down. Only with Cain’s prodding did I get back up. If not for the need to walk him to the infirmary, I would have stayed there and cried until my death caught me.

We trudged to the infirmary sullenly, not speaking a word.

The place was a mess. The first thing we noticed was that the nurse’s eyes were missing. Then we noticed deep cuts running up her body, down the inside of her arms and legs. It didn’t take us long to figure out how she died.

The tabby’s corpse was slumped in the corner. Her uniform was splattered in red blood streaked with darkness. In one paw, she still gripped a bloodied scalpel. In the other, the syringe she had killed herself with. Her claws were covered in globs of white.

I threw up again. So did Cain.

We both noted streaks of purple in our vomit silently, communicating through look the mutual knowledge of it.

What remained of Seth was on the other side of the room. The Lizard was covered in the dark sludge. His mouth was wide open, held in an eternal scream. By the looks of it, he seemed to have leaked the dark oil until he suffocated on it. I shivered violently, hands shaking, and Cain gave my paw a squeeze.

I wanted to stay in there and weather the storm out. Cain wanted to go home. We argued a little, me begging him to stay because it was death out there. “It’s death in here too,” he said, “and we should go far away, to safety.”

He got some crutches from the cupboard, and bandaged up his leg. I sat on an empty bed in silence. I watched him leave and envied his bravery.

I couldn’t leave, though. Instead I sat in the corner, curled up in a ball, waiting until what seemed like an eternity passed, and then the rumbling started again. I looked out the window to see that the monster had opened its beak, and in its mouth was a glowing ball of light. And then a flash.

When my vision returned, there was a huge trench where solid ground used to be. A fissure had opened up, or been made, and it tore the city in two. Buildings fell over, and people were screaming.

The city was on fire. I found out later that this fire had started when a woman fell onto the open flame of her stove while bleeding the darkness. The fire caught on her fur, and she just didn’t have the energy or will to put it out.

I accepted, then, the fact that it was going to kill me. All my friends were dying or dead. Everyone I knew. I was all alone in that room with the dead, and I accepted too that I would soon be one of them. I was going to die alone.

I couldn’t leave through the front door. Debris had fallen and blocked it from opening. Out the back was a residential street. It was utter chaos.

People were running everywhere, either for their lives or to their deaths. Bodies were everywhere. Sludge poured out over them, making them almost unrecognizable. Wolves, Cats, Dogs, Foxes, Lizards, the monster didn’t discriminate.

Leaning up against a post, a vixen laid coughing and screaming for help from an apathetic crowd.  The ooze was clogging her throat, and she couldn’t breathe. I walked up to her, ran almost, and without thinking I reached deep into her muzzle and pulled the goop out with my bare paws.

I didn’t notice how it stung. I was completely emotionless, pulling the burning liquid from her. It’s not until later that I realized it burned me badly. I still carry the scars on my hands to this day, where the fur isn’t ashen, but burned completely white.

She sputtered a “thank you,” and I told her to run to the river. I specified the clean one and told her to try to clear the goop away with that. She looked like she was going to cry, frowning at me through blinded eyes.

I guided her two blocks west and walked her down the steps to the pier. Here the water was cleaner because the refinery was downstream. I got her into the water and she drank, washing her face. To our surprise, the ooze dissolved in the water. She thanked me graciously, even tried to kiss me, but more black came up through her throat, and she was forced back into the water.

I left her quickly, shouting at the crowds to go to the water as I returned to the refinery. They all ignored me. I kept trying to get them in until the monster screamed again, knocking most of them over. I didn’t feel that punch feeling anymore; I didn’t even acknowledge their passing. I went completely emotionless, void of thought, just marching towards the refinery.

Before I knew it, I was in the center of the mines, clutching a musket tightly in my hand, staring up at the beast not 40 feet from me. At any time, it could have swatted me with a tentacle, and I could have shot it in the eye, but neither of us made a move. You may think that’s stupid, but you have to remember: cats don’t attack anything that’s staring them in the eye. That’s just our nature.

A lot of newspapers claimed I shouted “I’m not afraid of you” at this point. Allow me to go on record and state that I said no such thing; we both just stared at each other, unmoving, like stone.

I could feel the darkness oozing out through my ears, drooling out my mouth and nose, burning my face. I stood there staring, not even flinching at the pain as the blood poured from me.

And then, as suddenly as the monster came, it left. It wasn’t a big thing. Nothing drove it back, nothing scared it away.

It just left.

It crawled backwards through its portal and sealed it up. There was still a scar in the sky where the rip was, but otherwise it was as if the hole was never there. When the monster disappeared completely, I fainted.

I awoke in the infirmary, a proper one, this time. It was large and full of doctors. The destruction kept it busy. Every bed in my room was full. Cain was there by my bed; he had waited for me to wake up. It had been four days.

I asked him where everyone else was, and he said they were all either dead or in a bed like me. Thadeus and my mother were in critical condition. Thad’s heart stopped hours later. My mother recovered, thankfully, but then she died of an aneurism four years later. Aneurysms were common among survivors in the next few years after the Arrival.

Cain remained a good friend of mine. He was my only friend left, and I his. We were both treated well by the amount of aid the other countries sent. The ones that believed us, of course.

The vixen had survived although she had lost her sight permanently. We stayed in touch. Her name was Victoria. We courted shortly after the event, but it didn’t work out. We lost touch after that.

Cain and I stayed close friends though. That coyote and I were as thick as thieves. We had to be.  We were the only survivors left, at least amongst our peers. I was the best man at his wedding. I stood next to him at her funeral. I was always the person he went to for comfort, and he was the same for me. We were best friends until he died just a few months ago.

And now I’m all alone, but I don’t feel it. Sometimes when I’m at a low point, I’ll feel that familiar squeeze on my paw and a faint voice telling me everything is going to be alright, and that I don’t have to be afraid anymore.

My time is soon, though. I know it. I can feel it.

I hear its whispering in the night. “Euno, Mateus, Valigarmanda!” It’s maddening, calling me to death’s embrace, and it’s going to happen any day now.

I’m going to go home and into its warm embrace.

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2 responses to “Steam

  1. I enjoyed this. Exciting and bewildering. It does a good job making the reader feel part of a larger-than-life catastrophe.

    • Thank you!

      That was my main struggle with writing this piece; effectively channeling the characters feelings whilst using him as a window for that world’s society

      I am very glad you think I did a good job!

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