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Tale the Second

Tales of the Seekers
Part 1: Ikmos
Tale the Second: Break in the Clouds

Seeker Wari was running, nimble as a deer even in the dark, over the rocks of the Tappuan hills. He heard the yells of the shepherds behind him as they fought the blaze consuming their fold. He carried his sword in his hand, unwilling to take time to strap it on.

The raiders fled before him, driving the stolen sheep. They knew he was following, and didn't care. He perceived no fear in them, only malicious glee and . . . something else . . .

A copse of trees, in a relatively deep valley between the hills. The thieves seemed to be heading for it, but Wari couldn't be sure. The something else was growing stronger . . . pleasure in their cunning . . .

Wari realized he was passing under a precariously tilted pile of boulders and threw himself backward. Ambush! They had expected pursuit, and planned for it, leaving one man here to deal with followers. He was not prepared for such cleverness from these backcountry bullies.

The Seeker's instinctive action saved him from the worst of the deadly landslide, but a few rocks found their marks, battering his head and body. He went down, only half feigning, and Riannan bounced away. Darkness thrust thick black fingers into his sight, obscuring the brilliant stars.

Wari pushed it back forcibly, his eyes half open. He kept his body still as the stocky silhouette bent over him. A flash of starlight on metal, a knife raised to kill.

"Atheos above, grant light!" Wari bellowed.

The crystal he carried in a pouch on his weapon-belt, a gift from Seeker Geru, burst through the leather that bound it in blinding blue-white light from where it lay on the ground a few paces away. The assassin cried out, throwing an arm over his eyes, but not before Wari caught a glimpse of his face. The knife faltered and fell with a ringing crash upon the stones.

Wari leaped to his feet to grab the man, but his leg gave way beneath him, numbed by a falling rock. He fell back, managing to get his arms under himself in time to cushion the shock of impact. He could not rise immediately. The Seeker could only watch in frustration as the raider turned and stumbled away, rubbing his eyes.

By the time he had massaged some feeling back into his leg, the thieves were long gone. Wari ground his teeth helplessly, then gathered his sword and the abandoned knife. He picked up the shining crystal and stared for a moment at the single zadron leaf buried in its matrix. Once again, he could only thank the Maker for sparing his life.

He extinguished the light with a whispered word of gratitude, then turned back toward where the orange glow brightened the sky. Strapping on Riannan and placing the leaf-light in another pouch, he hurried back to help fight the fire.


Sunrise shed pastel colors over the smoldering sheepfold and hay shelter. The outbuildings would take several days to repair, but it could have been much worse. Though the sheep had been stolen, none were killed, so there was a chance to retrieve them. No hay had been lost, the shelter empty at this time of year. And the cottage itself was untouched except for the smoke stains on its walls.

"Ash is wonderful fertilizer," Vemáley said cheerfully, kicking at a charred chunk of wood that burst into black and gray flakes. "The garden has been needing a bit of help."

"That's the spirit, Mama." Thanas nodded encouragingly and swiped a hand over his face, smearing soot in a long dark streak.

They all had similar streaks on their faces, and dark blotches under their eyes after half a night of strenuous activity. They had all worked hard, even little Neuma, who looked ready to drop where she stood. But their filthy faces only accented their grins--it was going to be well, each member of the shepherd family was certain.

The greatest reason for their optimism, Seeker Wari, pressed his apprentice's shoulder and stood thoughtful, a little apart from the family. Mateo noticed his introspection, but held his peace.

Ranof bundled Neuma up in his arms and the little girl fell asleep almost instantly, head cradled on her father's shoulder. Joqirl leaned on her mother, yawning, and Vemáley motioned for them all to come inside.

"Come, we'll all feel better after some toast and hot cider. I'll prepare it, Ranof, while you get our little one into bed. Thanas, fetch the mulling herbs in the far corner of the attic. Joqirl, stoke up the fire while I slice the bread."

They each nodded, dispersing to their tasks.

The Seeker and his apprentice lingered for a moment, standing by the well. "Are you well?" Mateo asked. His concern for the man seemed to have overriden his usual diffidence. "Your face looks like you fell headfirst into a gravel pit. What happened when you chased the collectors?"

Wari smiled wearily and told him. "I'll be well enough--a little sore, perhaps. I'm concerned about the ambusher's eagerness to kill me, though. These so-called 'collectors' are more dangerous than I expected. And you, young one? This lost night's rest can't have been good for your convalescence."

Mateo picked at some ash under a thumbnail. He still wasn't used to his guardian's kindness. "I'm tired, of course, but no more than Joqirl. I think my leg is better, too." He peeked shyly at the Seeker. "Forgive me for disobeying your command to stay inside the cottage. When I saw that the collectors were gone, and Thanas and Ranof needed help fighting the fire, I thought you wouldn't mind me going out."

"You did right, apprentice. I'm glad you stood by the well and hauled buckets, though, instead of walking around and straining your leg."

Mateo flexed his biceps and grinned, striking a comical pose. "'Strong of arm am I,'" he quoted, adding, "but not of leg." He dropped the pose and looked earnestly at the Seeker. "What will you do? I can tell you don't intend to stay here."

Wari smiled. This was the first time Mateo had jested with him. It was a good sign. "I will walk to Ikmos and see if I can recognize anyone. I only saw the man's face for an instant, but it was enough."

"This is a good day for it. In Tappuah, third-day is when most village constables have their weekly meeting for group training."

"Truly? That will make my task much easier."

Joqirl came to the door of the cottage and called them in, saying that morning meal was almost ready. Wari raised a hand and acknowledged the invitation, then turned back to his apprentice, his expression serious.

"I want you to stay here today, young one. I'm sure they'll be glad to have you. Your leg is not ready for such a long walk, and I plan to leave Xakor here as well. Fear has driven him to frenzy, and he needs the rest as much as you do."

"Of course we'll be glad to keep him!" Joqirl declared from the doorway. The girl had not gone back inside, as they had assumed.

She smiled at Mateo, and the boy looked desperately at Wari.

"Oh, Seeker, do you have any idea what trouble you've gotten me into?"

The Seeker laughed and patted his shoulder. "No fear, young one. We will fight much more fearsome enemies in future travels together, I assure you."

Mateo did not seem comforted.


Wari passed only one fellow traveler on the way into Ikmos. He nodded courteously, but returned the other's greeting absently and did not stop to chat, as he might have on a less troubled day. The man paused to follow him with curious blue eyes, then shrugged and went on his way.

The Seeker caught himself looking up as if to check on his apprentice and shook his head, amazed at how quickly he had grown used to the boy's company.

And you said you would never take another apprentice, you stubborn fool.

He remembered that first day, finding Mateo bloody and broken, beaten almost to death. Despite years of grisly experience, Wari had been shocked. And when he had looked into the boy's forest-hazel eyes, dark with agony, he had been shocked anew.

The mistreated youngster had the Seeker's gift.

Another time Wari had looked into a child's eyes and seen the same. Then he had been eager, excited to show the young person the great world Second Sight revealed, the soaring heights and dark chasms of the Spirit Dimension. He was not so self-assured a second time.

But Mateo needed him so much, more than almost any other hurting victim Wari had encountered in all his wanderings. The Seeker could not ignore his need, could not allow the slightest glimmer of his own hesitation be revealed to the timid boy, who was already beaten down by years of cruelty. And when Mateo touched Kóa, that first day, and the call of a Seeker brightened eyes dull with pain, Wari's inhibitions melted away.

If only Mateo's would do the same . . .

The clash of arms drew the Seeker from his reflections, and he raised his head to look around. The hills flattened here, and he could see the sloping roofs of Ikmos, the Place of Water. To Wari's right lay the green common area, grass cropped short by the villagers' animals.

There were no cows and goats here, now, but a different kind of beast. The village constables were in the middle of their weekly training, and several mock-duels were being fought. Grunts and yells interspersed with the clang of metal on metal, along with more than a few curses.

Wari crossed to a scraggly tree sucking sparse nourishment from the rocky soil and leaned against it on one shoulder. Had the expressions of the fighters not been so deadly serious, even murderous, it would have been humorous. None of them knew what they were doing.

Bullies and daylight drunkards, that was all they were, pleased to leech their livelihoods from hardworking farmers and villagers. One dueler got his fingers smashed by his opponent's ky staff and yelled in fury, defaming the other's ancestry, sisters, and personal hygiene. Another man moved backward to avoid a foil and tripped over his own feet, landing flat on his back. Yet another felled his opponent with a dirty move Wari wouldn't have deigned to spit on and started laughing so hard he could not remain standing, but fell to the ground in tears.

The Seeker refrained from shaking his head sadly. Not a one of these rascals would have been a decent fight for him on the worst day of his life. Not a single one.

Not even together would they . . .wait. There was one, alone, off to the side, flashing through a routine with long knives. Arcs of sunlight spun from the metal spikes like sparrows on the wing, dazzling the watcher. The wielder was good, very good.

Long, rich dark hair--a woman, the only one on the field. Wari studied her more closely. She wore the garments favored by female constables all over Tappuah and Maychoria--short skirt over trousers, knee boots, tunic belted at the waist and a half-cloak currently lying out of the way on the ground--with the significant addition of two long knife sheaths strapped across her back. The hilts would protrude above her shoulders for easy reach.

She also wore a rapier, and a bolo hung from the back of her weapon belt. Wari's heart started doing strange things to him. He told it to stop.

He made his way over to her, careful to keep his hands in the open and empty. His Seeker's sense told him that she was uncorrupted, probably the only good constable left in Ikmos. But he would be cautious--his emotions had deceived him before.

The woman halted her routine, long knives held in an aggressive guard position, deep brown eyes studying the Seeker sharply. Her face bore the honorable lines of middle age, but so lightly that every aspect of her spoke of youth and strength.

"Greetings," Wari began. "I am--"

"You are Seeker Wari. I heard you were in the region." In one smooth motion she sheathed both knives and held out a hand for a shake, not a kiss. "I am Tyat Morelo."

He clasped her hand firmly. " Morelo . . .I'm not familiar with that term. Is it Elvish?"

Her smile was as sharp as her knife. "It's a Tappuan hill dialect. It means acid-tongue. Do you know what acid is, Seeker? It's what makes a sour cherry sour and gives the persimmon its tang."

"You chose your surname well." His tone was neutral, but he knew his face was not.

Tyat Morelo's smile lost its bitter edge. He had passed her test. "You're a good man. Unlike this load of chraks." She gestured with disgust at the other constables still practicing on the common, pointedly ignoring them. "I don't even bother to duel with them anymore. It's too easy. And I've refused again and again to teach them any of my techniques."

"You're a good woman, Constable Morelo," he echoed, and gestured also at the field. "Unlike your corrupted colleagues. How did you come by your position?"

"It was an accident. And call me Tyat." She scowled at Ikmos, and Wari saw that her ire was aimed at one particular person. "Servant Hyran named me as constable when I first came into town, before he knew anything about me. Several komis had come into town at the same time, drawn by the underworld reports that this was rich feeding ground for lazy thieves. I was simply one of many he named that day."

Komi was an adulterated Elvish phrase meaning, roughly, 'small illegitimate child.' Wari wasn't sure what a chrak was, but he doubted it was any more complimentary. He had to fight down a grin.

Tyat turned back to him, her eyes assessing. "Why are you here, Seeker?"

"I have a knife to return." He tilted his head toward the dueling constables. "Last night raiders attacked a shepherd family I was staying with. They set fire to the outbuildings and took the sheep. I followed and was ambushed. When he fled, my attacker dropped this." He showed her the knife that had so nearly taken his life.

Her eyes sparkled with appreciation. "And you will let them know you are watching, hey? Long have I yearned for a way to frighten these bullyboys. I've done my best to protect those I can, but I am only one."

"Now two. Three if you count my apprentice. He's a peerless archer."

"All the better." Tyat clapped his arm and turned to face the constables. Her shout was loud enough to shake birds from their nests. "Ho, comrades! The Seeker has something to say to you!"

Grudgingly, the constables put down their weapons and faced the Seeker. By law he and his peers could demand the ears of the people. This didn't mean the people had to like it, of course.

Wari stepped forward and held out the knife, laid across his palms as if in offering to some Prince or liege. "The Golden Eagle has led me here," he proclaimed, not yelling, though his voice rolled clearly through the field. "I will do as His will commands. I know Servant Hyran will not recall you from your offices on my word. But what will happen to you when the truth reaches your ruler, Princess Elladia?"

He moved down the slight rise to the constables and began walking among them, looking intently into each face, still holding the knife in both hands. "Perhaps you have not heard, but Princess Elladia and Prince Tirzah are traveling through Tappuah." To visit the new garrison, he added silently.

"Even without my presence, your days here would be numbered. But now that I am here, there will be no harm done to the people. You will perform your duties well, and there will be no more raids by night."

The Seeker stopped before a certain man and held up the knife. "Here, friend," he said companionably. "I believe this belongs to you."

"We're not thieves," the man stuttered, reddening. "There's a band that attacks from the hills, but we've been doing our best to find them. Servant Hyran knows how hard we've been working."

"I'm certain he does." Wari's voice was soothing, as if speaking to a child caught in a painfully obvious lie. "It's a very good story. But whose word will Princess Elladia be more likely to believe, mine and that of every decent person within a day's journey, or that of you and your Servant?"

Anger tempered the man's embarrassment. He shifted from foot to foot, his hand clenching around his swordhilt.

Wari thrust the knife at him. "If there are thieves, perhaps you can use this to fight them."

The red-faced constable was head and shoulders shorter than the Seeker. He took the knife.

Wari turned around and walked out of the crowd. They glowered at him, but did nothing. Overcome with joy, Tyat grinned like a small child on a feast-day, beaming light all over the common.


Mateo spent some time grooming Xakor. The stallion had broken his tether and run out of the shelter at the first sign of fire, but returned at Wari's whistled signal, hysterical but unharmed. This morning he was skittish and nervous, prancing and rolling his eyes wildly, but he gentled almost immediately under the boy's hands.

Joqirl sat on the edge of the well as Mateo washed and brushed the horse, swinging her legs and chatting non-stop. For once, the apprentice Seeker was too preoccupied to feel embarrassed by the attention. He combed Xakor's tangled mane and listened to her chatter, nodding or saying something empty whenever she paused, expecting a response. She always took this as encouragement and kept going.

Before long, though, she ran out of things to say about herself and began asking questions. This was much more uncomfortable.

"I'm sorry," she began. "I've been blathering on and on just like Neuma. We don't get many visitors, you know, and since the collectors started coming around so often, I haven't gotten a chance to visit my friends. You're just my age, aren't you?"

Mateo looked around in search of rescue, but there was no one. Vemáley was in the garden, weeding and spreading ash, having given Joqirl leave to keep their young guest company. Neuma was still asleep. Ranof and Thanas had gone to a neighbor's holding to borrow their cart, for hauling materials to repair the damaged outbuildings. Confident of Wari's ability to find the thieves and compel them to make restitution, no one seemed a bit worried about the lost sheep.

"Yes," Mateo answered at last, seeing no help in sight. "This is my fourteenth summer."

"And my thirteenth." She giggled. "It's so funny to hear you say 'yes' in the Maychorian way, instead of 'aye,' when your accent is so normal. Is it because you've been with Wari for so long?"

"Yes, aye," Mateo faltered. "I don't know."

"How long has it been? The Seeker mentioned several weeks, but wasn't very exact in his numbers."

"I don't know exactly." He kicked at the ash-flecked ground. "I don't remember some of it." Xakor nuzzled his shoulder, as if urging him to say it all, and Mateo sighed. "I had a very bad fever."

Joqirl sat forward, interested. "Does it have anything to do with why your leg was hurt, and you were so weary yesterday?"

"Yes--aye. Aye."

There was more understanding in Joqirl's dark eyes than Mateo had expected. Mercifully, she changed the subject.

"It must be wonderful, traveling around with Seeker Wari and having adventures. Much more exciting than shepherding."

Mateo smiled, the first time he had done so in her presence. She seemed to like it. "I wouldn't know," he said honestly. "This is the first real 'adventure' I've shared with Wari. I never really thought about it that way, though. A Seeker's path is more darkness than light. Though I wouldn't want another, it more chose me than I chose it."

"Aye, our Teacher has spoken of the call of the High King, how we will all feel it eventually. He chooses some for mothers and fathers, and some for Ministers and Teachers, and constables and Servants. In Maychoria the Prince is so chosen, too, though here the Princeship passes from parent to oldest child. When did you feel the call to be a Seeker?"

Mateo's eyes grew far away, his voice soft. "I don't know exactly when I first heard it . . . But that first day, when I met Seeker Wari and looked into his eyes, I saw something of myself, something I thought no one else had. I had been . . .I was badly injured. Seeker Wari tended my wounds and eased me as well as he could, but I couldn't rest for the pain. The Seeker began talking, about himself, about the Seekers, about Second Sight. He said I had it, and held up the marcellia jewel, Kóa, for me to see. I touched it, and I knew. It was like I had known for a long time, but only then did the call come clearly. Seeker Wari smiled and told me not to be afraid, that when he left, I would go with him."

He broke out of the reverie and looked at Joqirl, eyes clear and lucent. "He told many tales to take my mind off the pain, and eventually I fell asleep. By the next morning I was lost in fever. He cared for me then, and for many days after, as I wandered in dreams and half-visions. I owe my life to Seeker Wari, and much more."

It was the most Mateo had said in a single burst since he was a child. Astonished at his ability to speak of what he couldn't push past his lips only moments earlier, he broke off and buried his face in Xakor's mane. The stallion nosed his cheek comfortingly, but nudged him away so he was forced to look at Joqirl.

The girl was smiling, tenderness in her young face, and Mateo realized he no longer felt uncomfortable in her presence. "Thank you for telling me," she murmured. "I know it's hard for you to talk."

Surprised, Mateo blinked back tears. The last friend he had had, at the age of six, had been bitten by a snake in his presence and died within a few minutes while Mateo stood there helpless. And here was a girl who chose him for a friend, for no reason that he could see expect pure warmth and caring. She liked him, incredible as it was to the boy.

"Hello the house!"

Joqirl looked up at the voice, and delight lit her face. She jumped up and ran to greet the new visitor. "Teacher Arandfel!"

Alerted by the shout, Vemáley rounded the cottage, her hands white with ash. "Arandfel! What a pleasant surprise! But you shouldn't be here."

The man smiled. He was tall, as tall as Wari, and his face was creased with wisdom and age. Blue eyes twinkled like stars caught in the folds of his skin. "I've had enough of Constable Gordath and his conceit. They can't keep me in Ikmos when so many of my students don't dare journey in for lessons." He smoothed Joqirl's hair, love warm in his smile. "So I've gone a-traveling."

"Won't you come in?" Vemáley swept a hand toward the door. "I can prepare a quick meal for you. The walk from Ikmos must have been difficult."

"Thank you, Mistress Vemáley, but nay. I'll just rest my old bones under the tree for awhile. I have more visits to make this day."

The aged Teacher settled under the tree while Joqirl and her mother went inside to rouse Neuma, saying the child would never forgive them if she found out that her Teacher had visited and they had not wakened her. Arandfel noticed Mateo staring at him and smiled.

"Greetings, my young friend. Who might you be?"

Xakor snorted and stamped a foot, and Mateo started, then flushed. "For-forgive me," he stammered. "I, I am Mateo, Seeker Wari's apprentice."

"Come sit by me. I'd like to talk with you."

Mateo obeyed, leaving the stallion to wander as he willed. There was something compelling about the old one, and a deep kindness that made obedience no chore.

"You're staring again, Mateo. What has caught your attention?"

Mateo blushed again and bit his lip, then said bluntly, "You're an elf."

Arandfel laughed. "What gave it away? My pointed ears? The delicacy of my bones? Perhaps my angled eyebrows?" His eyes twinkled merrily. If he mocked, it was in gentle fun, not malice.

"No, none of that," Mateo said earnestly, and looked away for a moment, unsure of how to put it into words. "I, I have the gift of, of seeing. It's almost a burden sometimes. If I look hard, as if squinting into the distance, I can see what a person is. There is gold radiance in Seeker Wari, fainter gold in Ranof and Vemáley and their children. And I have seen blackness in . . .others."

Never had Mateo been so verbose, using so many words in so short a time, first with Joqirl and now with Arandfel. But the aged elf's eyes bade him continue, and he could only comply, finding his voice as he went.

"In you there is no battle between blackness and gold, nor neutrality like the beasts and the sprites of the Mingled Forest. But there is, there is, un-darkness, almost like the Elinromi, but possessing, possessing will, also. You are Unshadowed. I do not know how it is I know this."

Mateo had run out of words. He bent over to study his toes, knees drawn up to his chest in the circle of his arms.

The Teacher placed a gentle hand on his back. "You have great gifts, Mateo. Wari was right to take you as an apprentice. You are right--elves and dwarves are Unshadowed, while men must fight their entire lives to suppress the darkness within them. No matter how good the man, the capability for evil remains until the soul enters Hosiotos."

The boy looked up at him, eyes eager as he drank in the answers to questions he had long been asking himself. "Yes. That is what I see, even in the gold fire in Seeker Wari's heart. There is still the capability for darkness, however bright the gold burns."

"But you must know that Wari would never surrender to that capability. Neither would Ranof or Vemáley or even Thanas, young and naive as he is. That is where trust enters."

Mateo looked away again. He was afraid. He had trusted his father, once, and had it thrown back in his face like spittle.

The elf's hand pressed his back. "I understand. I do not see as a Seeker sees, but I have lived nigh on nine centuries in this world, and I understand. I saw your limp, and I feel the scars under my hand. Don't worry, my young friend. It will take some time, but I am confident you will not always feel this way."

"Teacher Arandfel!" That was Neuma, hurling herself into the elf's arms. Arandfel removed his hand to return the embrace, and Mateo scooted back a little to let the girls visit with their Teacher. They all but ignored the boy, which was just fine with him. He needed some time to think.


Wari returned to the shepherd family's home in time to meet the elf-Teacher, who was just preparing to set out again. He recognized him as the man he had passed earlier and apologized for any discourtesy he might have been guilty of.

Arandfel smiled. "No trouble. I know you have come to protect the people hereabouts, and I honor you for it."

"Won't you stay for midday meal, Arandfel?" Vemáley asked. "We'd be so glad to have you."

"Again, thank you, Mistress. But nay. I must go on."

"Let me walk with you," the Seeker offered instantly. "I need to meet the other families and establish my presence here, and I would not have you treading these hills alone."

Arandfel accepted graciously, and Wari turned to his hostess. "If it please you, Mistress, I will return for evening meal."

"Oh, aye!" Vemáley cried. "And do stay here for as long as you remain in Ikmos."

Wari bowed. "How can I refuse such hospitality?" He turned to Mateo, who seemed much more at ease than he had only hours before. "I'll tell you later what I learned, young one. Rest as much as you can, and stay off your leg."

"Yes, Seeker. Aye." The boy smiled at his blundering tongue. "That is, I will."

They walked at an easy pace, the Teacher leaning on a staff, the Seeker taking in everything he could perceive of the area. It would be well for him to know all he could. His task would only get harder.


Mateo was sitting under the tree checking through his supply of arrows when Thanas returned, whistling cheerily, free as a bird of the Bluewood.

"Ho, Mateo," the shepherd youth called when he saw the younger boy. "What are you doing?"

Mateo sighted down the length of a shaft, looking one-eyed at his friend. Yes, he realized suddenly, Thanas was his friend, as close as any he'd ever had. He felt at ease with the young man, able to talk and laugh, perhaps even jest a little. This new confidence surprised Mateo, but it felt good, after so much uncertainty and fear.

"My arrows were wrapped up in a pack for the trip here," Mateo said in answer to the shepherd youth's question. "Some of them got damaged when Xakor went for a roll before we unpacked him one night, and I'm repairing what I can."

Thanas plopped down next to him and picked up an arrow, playing idly. "A number of neighbors are helping Papa gather supplies for repairing the outbuildings. Tomorrow they will help us rebuild. There is new hope among the people now, with the coming of the Seeker." He ran a finger along the arrowhead and pricked himself. "Ouch!"

Mateo took the arrow away. "Be more careful. They're deadly."

The young man shrugged. "Aye, whatever you say. Papa told me to come on home for midday meal and help Mama with whatever needs done this afternoon. Not much to do though, is there?"

Mateo refrained a sigh. It was a whole family of chatterers. He wasn't used to such talkative company. Even Seeker Wari was content to just be silent at times.

At least his leg didn't hurt at the moment.

Then something else caught Mateo's attention and he paused, staring into the distance. He squinted, and it almost came into focus. It couldn't be, could it?

"Mateo?" Thanas sounded worried. "Mateo! Come back, friend!"

Mateo blinked and looked at the youth, then scrambled to his feet. "Thanas, I'm going to need your help. Will you help me?"

Thanas rose, confusion on his face. "Of course I will. What do you plan to do?"

"I want to get the sheep. They're right over there."

--end tale the second

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