Mister Slaughter (Matthew Corbett #3)

Chapter 5

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Early Saturday morning, as the sun rose through the forest and lit the world in hues of fire, Matthew found his mind on the monster's tooth.

He was astride the muscular black horse Dante, which was his mount of choice from Tobias Winekoop's stable. He was riding north along the Post Road, and had been making good progress since seven o'clock. Long past him were the familiar streets and structures of the city; here, on this road that climbed hills and fell into valleys and wound between huge oaks and underbrush that made claim to choke off the path altogether, he was in a truly dangerous country.

In midsummer he'd been stopped by a devious, great ass of a highwayman near his present position. There were wild animals to beware of, and Indians who would never be seen except for the arrow that flew at your throat. It was true that tucked back along the river's cliffs were occasional farms and estates protected by stone walls and settlers' muskets, for what they were worth. Never let it be said that the New Yorker did not possess courage. Either that, or a passion for life on the edge of disaster.

Matthew wished not to provoke disaster today, but he was ready if it bit at him. Under his gray cloak he wore a black sash around his waist, and in that sash was a loaded flintlock with which he'd become quite proficient under Greathouse's demanding tutelage. Matthew knew he'd never be much of a swordsman nor was he particularly swift with his fists, but he could surely cock and fire a pistol fast enough to part a highwayman's hair, if need be.

He had been planning this trip for several weeks. Had gone to bed many times intending to take it, only to find at daylight that he wasn't yet as strong-minded as he'd thought. Today, though, he had awakened ready, and perhaps it was his introduction to the monster's tooth-and McCaggers' mystery with no answer-that had caused him to realize he had his own unanswerable mystery. It was something that must be discovered; something hidden from the light, as surely as a fang sixty feet down in a coal mine. How could he call himself a problem-solver, if he had a problem that could not be solvedi

Or, to be more truthful, that he feared to face. This was the real reason he'd brought the pistol, not because of imaginary highwaymen or the improbable attack of a forest beast or an Indian who would surely be more curious than bloodthirsty, since at present there were no quarrels between the Iroquois and the colonists.

On this bright Saturday morning he was riding the fifteen miles north from New York to the Chapel estate, where he and Berry had almost lost their lives, and where a mystery had to be answered before he could let that vile incident go.

He was thinking about the tooth. How such a thing was utterly incredible. If he hadn't seen it for himself, he would have thought McCaggers a tipsy liar. Evidence of either behemoth or leviathan, most probably true, but what purpose would such a monster servei Why would God in His wisdom ever create such a beasti Simply for the purpose of destructioni He could see in his mind's eye an ancient field under a gray sky shot through with lightning, and a huge dark shape moving across it with a mouthful of those blade-like teeth glinting blue and wet in the storm. The massive head turning left and right, seeking something weaker to tear to pieces.

It was enough to bring on a nightmare in broad daylight, Matthew thought. Even more so when something rustled in the brush before him, he almost jumped out of the saddle, and two small brown rabbits went on their merry way.

Where the road split around a dark little swamp, he took the path that veered left toward the river. The Chapel estate was getting closer now; he would be there in another hour. He had a sick feeling in his stomach that did not come from the strips of dried beef he'd been chewing for his breakfast. It was hard to return to a place where he'd thought death was going to take him, and indeed he found himself scanning the sky through the trees in search of circling hawks.

Dante plodded on, unmindful of his rider's memories. and then, quite before Matthew was fully ready, they came upon a wall of rough stones about eight feet high with vines and creepers dangling over it, and Matthew must have abruptly pressed in with his knees or jerked the reins like a greenhorn, for Dante's head came up with a reproachful snort and let him know that he was not above being tossed.

The road continued on, close-set against the ugly wall. as upon his first visit here, Matthew had the impression of approaching a fortress instead of an estate. In another moment he saw the great slab of the wooden gate ahead, wide open as when it was left by High Constable Lillehorne and the other men who'd come to his rescue. Matthew suddenly felt the sun was not bright enough, and that the cool air carried a wicked edge. He had to go through that gate and onto the grounds, because he had to find out how four people could have escaped Lillehorne's men and so completely disappeared that terrible day last summer.

He turned Dante through the gate, passed the white-washed gatehouse with its broken windowglass, and followed a driveway that curved to the right between thick woods.

Four people. a well-dressed man and woman Matthew had seen at a distance, back at the buildings by the corrupted vineyard. The woman had been watching from beneath a blue parasol. Both of them had disappeared, though Lillehorne and his men had gone over the grounds and through the woods not just that day but, after posting guards on the gate, had come back again to renew the search. Not a trace of them.

The young assassin-in-training, Ripley. Of indeterminate age. Small-boned, pale of skin and weirdly fragile. His silky hair the color of dust, a long thin scar running up through his right eyebrow into his hairline, and his eye on that side a cold milky-white orb. a blue knitting-needle in his hand, about to be pushed through Berry's eye into the brain.

Escaped.

The enigmatic swordsman, Count anton Mannerheim Dahlgren, who'd so nearly slashed Matthew a belly-grin with the point of a dagger. Dahlgren had left the Chapel house rather violently, taking with him his broken left wrist and the garden door curtains out into the goldfish pond.

Gone, every last mean Prussian inch of him.

But how had those four gotten awayi all the buildings on the estate had been searched through, from cellars to attics. The woods had been torn up like an old rug, and some of the searchers had climbed into trees the better to have a higher vantage point.

Had they flown away over the riverside cliffs, like demonic spiritsi Matthew thought it was unlikely, particularly since Dahlgren had a broken wing. But even so, Dahlgren was a dangerous character, and Matthew also didn't like the idea of Ripley out there somewhere, sharpening his needles.

a large two-story manse of mottled red and gray brickwork came into view, its handsome front adorned with many windows and a gray-painted cupola at the top with a copper roof. Chimneys jutted skyward. The driveway made a circle around a lily pond that stood a few yards from the front steps, and it was at these steps that Matthew drew Dante to a halt.

The front door was open. Indeed, there was no front door; it had been removed from its hinges. Upon the steps lay a rain-ruined chair of yellow cloth, probably thrown out from the overloaded wagon that had carted away other valuables. Some of the windows were broken, and right in the doorway were ceramic shards that attested to a large white pot slipped from greasy fingers. Not far away, on the weeded lawn, a desk of dark oak with two broken legs leaned like a horse longing to be shot. The drawers had been pulled out and were missing. Matthew thought it might have been the desk from Chapel's office, which Lillehorne had already gone through in his collection of evidence.

So. as Matthew had surmised, many townsfolk had come here drawn by curiosity-and the lurid tales in the Earwig-and left as thieves with their saddlebags and wagons burdened by Chapel's loot. He couldn't blame them. He recalled the rich furnishings within; the tapestries, the paintings, the candelabras and chandeliers, the ornate desks and chairs and

Oh, yes. The books.

Matthew had never gotten around to visiting the library. Well, there might be some books left behind. after all, who would load books in their wagon when they could carry off Persian rugs and canopied bedsi

He dismounted and walked Dante over to the lily pond to drink. at the pond's edge, the horse suddenly shied away, and at the same time Matthew caught a foul odor from the water. Drifting there, being eaten by buzzing green flies, was a large dead snake. Matthew retreated, tied Dante to a lower branch of a tree a little further along the drive, and then he opened one of his saddlebags and fed the horse an apple. He had a leather flask of water, which he drank from and then poured some water into his cupped hand to let Dante drink. as he stood in the shadow of the house, he could smell the snake's rot wafting around him, like the unseen presence of Professor Felli

It was Chapel's estate, yes, but it was Professor Fell's enterprise. as Greathouse had told Matthew, No one makes Professor Fell angry and lives very long.

Matthew had spoiled the enterprise. Had upturned the game table. But won the gamei No. The death card that had arrived at his door, with its single bloody fingerprint, said the game was just beginning, and Matthew must pay for making the professor angry.

He found himself with his hand resting on the pistol in his sash. Nothing moved beyond the open doorway; there was not a sound, but for the feasting flies. He saw in there shadows and chaos, ruin and dissolution, a little piece of Hell on Earth. Yet also knowledge for the hungry, in the books that Professor Fell's money must have bought.

Matthew walked up the steps and entered the house.

There is an underworld you can't imagine, Greathouse had said. They're in the business of counterfeiting, forgery, theft of both state and private papers, blackmail, kidnapping, arson, murder for hire and whatever else offers them a profit.

Matthew's boots crunched on broken pottery. Teacups, they looked to have been. Someone had pulled down the foyer's iron chandelier, and chunks of ceiling masonry had fallen to the floor. Holes had been gouged into the glossy dark wood of the walls. Some of the staircase's risers had been ripped up. Scavengers hunting hidden treasure, Matthew thought. Did they find iti He walked along the main corridor, where the tapestries had been taken from the walls and, once again, there were gaping holes that appeared to have been made by axeblows. Matthew wondered how many houses in New York now held items removed from here; he didn't doubt that Dippen Nack probably squatted over a chamberpot decorated with gold, and that Lillehorne himself hadn't delivered silk sheets to the shrewish wife he called 'Princess'.

Their gang wars, Greathouse had said, have been brutal and bloody and have gotten them nowhere. But in the last fifteen years, all that began to change. Professor Fell emerged-from where we don't know-and has through guile, intelligence and not a small amount of head-chopping-united the gangs into a criminal parliament. Matthew came upon another room, on his right, that used to have a door before someone carted it away. Dusty yellow light streamed through two tall windows, both of them shattered, and illuminated under an arched pale blue ceiling what had once been a wall of books.

Next to a challenging question or a problem that needed solving, Matthew loved books. So it was with both great pleasure and gut-wrenching dismay that he took appraisal of the library's ruin. Pleasure because though most of the books had been swept from their shelves, they still lay in a pile on the floor; and dismay, because someone had thrown dozens of volumes into the fireplace and their black bindings were heaped up like so many bones.

No one knows his first name. No one knows really if 'he' is a man or a woman, or if 'he' ever was a professor at any school or university. No one has ever given an age for him or a description

The room held a gray sofa that had been gutted with a blade and its stuffings pulled out. a writing desk appeared to have been a target for a drunk with a blacksmith's hammer. On the walls were marks where paintings had hung; it looked as if someone had actually tried to peel away the wallpaper to get the marks, as well. Matthew surmised that whoever had burned the books had done so for the necessity of heat and light, as they'd probably made a night of it.

Who could blame people for wanting to get up here and take what was lefti Matthew knew he hadn't been the only celebrity created by the Earwig's lurid tales. This estate had also been made a celebrity, and so reaching the end of its celebrity it had been attacked and ransacked by those who wished to have a little handful of fame. Or, failing that, a nice vase for the kitchen window.

Matthew surveyed the damage. The wall held seven shelves. There was a small stepladder on which to reach the topmost books. Eight or nine books remained on either side of each shelf, but the middle portion of volumes had been tossed to the floor, the better for that greedy axe to go to work on the wall. Probably more than one axe, Matthew thought. a ship's crew, by the looks of the destruction. So it was not enough to carry off the furnishings, but the very walls of the house had to be broken into in search of hidden money. Let them have it if they found any, he thought. The books are what I want, as many as I can put in my saddlebags. after that, the plan was to go through the woods once more in search of any clue as to how those four got away so completely, and then onto Dante and out of here before the light began to fade.

He strode forward amid the debris, knelt down and began his examination of the treasures left behind. He considered himself well-read, for a colonist, but certainly not up to the standards of the London intellect. While London had a row of bookshops and one could browse the aisles at leisure for new volumes delivered that morning-at least, according to the Gazette-the only opportunity for Matthew to find books was from the moldy trunks of those who had died on the atlantic passage and therefore had no further need of enlightenment. Every arriving ship put out the baggage of dead people, sold to the highest bidder. In most instances, any available books were bought up by the occupants of Golden Hill, not as reading matter but as a statement of social standing. Tea-table books, they were called.

It was thus, then, that Matthew found himself amid a bounty of books he had not read and, indeed, had never heard of before. There were leather-bound tomes such as The Blazing World, Sir Courtly Nice, Polexandre, Thou Thirsteth, The Pilgrim's Progress, a New Theory of the Earth, The Holy State and the Profane State, The Corruption of the Times By Money, King arthur, Don Quixote de la Mancha and annus Mirabilis, The Year of Wonders 1666. There were books thin as gruel and thick as beefsteaks. There were volumes in Latin, French and Spanish as well as the mother tongue. There were religious sermons, novels, histories, philosophical statements and discourses on the elements, the planets, Eden and Purgatory and everything in between. Matthew looked through a book entitled The Revengeful Mistress and, his cheeks flaming red, decided he couldn't have such a scandalous book found in his house, but he put it aside anyway thinking it was more suited for Greathouse's ribald tastes.

He discovered historical novels so huge he thought a couple of them in each saddlebag would sprain Dante's back. Eight volumes of Letters Written By a Turkish Spy intrigued him, and these he also put aside. He had once enjoyed-if that was the word-a banquet here at the house, but this was the true feast that kept him digging for more and even sprang a little feverish sweat to his brow, for he was going to have to make a terrible choice of what to take and what to leave behind. London's Liberty In Chains Discoveredi an account of Religion By Reasoni Oh, hang it all; he'd go with Love's a Lottery, and a Woman the Prize.

Matthew wished he'd brought a wagon. already he'd chosen far too many books and would have to go through them again to make the final selections. and there were the books still on the shelves! He got up from the floor and approached the remaining valiant soldiers that stood at attention before him.

On the third shelf, left side, he immediately saw a book he wanted, titled The Compleat Gamester. Then almost directly above that was another volume that called to him, stamped across the spine The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. His gaze travelled upward, and there upon the topmost shelf on the far left side was a huge tome entitled The History of Locks as Regards The Craft of ancient Egypt and Rome. He felt his mouth watering as surely as if he'd been presented a selection of pastries. Chapel might have been an evil bastard, but if he'd read one quarter of these books he had certainly been a well-educated evil bastard.

Matthew pulled the library stepladder over and climbed up, reaching first for the Gamester. He looked through it, made a quick decision and put it aside to join the other candidates. He next latched onto a thin volume entitled a Discourse on Moonbeams, but this one was rejected. Then he reached up for the History of Locks and had to grab it with both hands for the thing was as heavy as a frying-pan. No, Dante would never stand for this, and he was about to push the book back into place when something shifted inside of it.

The movement caught Matthew by such surprise that he nearly tumbled off the ladder. He held the book steady, started to open it, and realized with a jolt that it was not a book at all.

It was a box, fashioned to masquerade as a book. The History of Locks bore its own lock, right where the edges of the pages ought to be. The lid would not budge. Whatever was inside, it was no light reading matter. But where was the keyi

God only knew. In this wreckage, it was likely forever lost.

Matthew's eye found another book. The Sublime art of Logic, read the gold-scrolled title.

Think, he thought.

If I had left this here, where would I have hidden the keyi Not very far away. Somewhere in this room, most likely. Hidden where it would be close at hand. He wondered. If there was a locked box disguised as a book about locks, might there be somewhere in the library a book about keys that actually hid a keyi But he'd seen no such book. He'd looked at every title that lay on the floor. No History of Keys to be found. Of course, such a book may have gone into the fireplace.

Or not.

Matthew searched the titles of the nearby books. Nothing about a key. He took the History of Locks down the ladder with him and put it on the battered desk. The desk's single drawer was hanging open, and someone had dumped the inkpot into it to make a congealed black mess of papers and quills. Matthew walked to the far end of the bookshelves where the rest of the survivors stood. He looked up to the topmost shelf, at the volume that was on the fartherest right and therefore was placed exactly opposite of the History of Locks. It was a medium-sized book and looked very old; he couldn't make out the small, faded title on the spine.

But that was his suspect. Within another few seconds he'd dragged the ladder over, had climbed up and taken the book in his hand. It was very light, for a book.

The title, on scarred brown leather, was The Lesser Key of Solomon.

Opening it, he discovered that this indeed had once been a book, but the pages had been hollowed out with a very sharp blade. Within the square lay presumably not Solomon's lesser key, but Chapel's greater one. Matthew felt an inner rush of both joy and excitement that might have been called victory. He removed the key, closed the book and pushed it back into place, and then he descended the ladder.

as he slid the key into the lock, he realized that his heart was beating like an Iroquois' drum. What might be insidei a document from Professor Felli Something that might point to his whereaboutsi If so, it was written on stone.

He turned the key. There was a small polite click as befitted a gentleman's lock, and Matthew lifted the lid.

It may be that Fell is on the cusp of creating what we think he desires, Greathouse had told him. a criminal empire that spans the continents. all the smaller sharks-deadly enough in their own oceans-have gathered around the big shark, and so they have swum even here

Matthew was looking at a black leather drawstring bag. It was the solitary occupant of the box. The drawstring's knot was secured with a paper seal, and upon it was something stamped in red.

The big shark, Matthew thought. Perhaps Greathouse's marine metaphor had been close, but was incorrect. Stamped upon the paper seal in red wax was the stylized shape of an octopus, its eight tentacles stretched out wide as if to seize the world.

Matthew thought that Greathouse might be very interested in seeing this. He lifted the heavy bag out to set it on the table, and heard the unmistakable clinking of coins.

He put it down and just stared at it for a moment. To open it, he must of course break the seal. Was he ready to do thati He didn't know. Something about it frightened him, down to the level where nightmares take shape. Better to let Greathouse break the seal, and be done with it.

But he didn't return it to the box, nor did he do anything but run the back of his hand across his mouth for his lips suddenly felt parched.

He knew he had to decide, and the decision was important. He felt the time ticking away. The distance between this house and his own life in New York had never seemed greater.

He feared not only breaking the seal, but opening the bag. He listened, in the silence. Was there no one to tell him what to doi No good advice on what was the right and what was the wrongi Where were the voices of Magistrates Woodward and Powers when he needed themi Not there. Only silence. But then again, it was just paper, wasn't iti Just the shape of an octopus delivered from a wax impressioni and look how long this had sat here in its box. No one was coming for it; it had been forgotten.

He didn't need Greathouse, he told himself. after all, he was a full partner in the Herrald agency, and he had the letter of congratulations from Katherine Herrald and a magnifying glass to prove it.

Without giving himself further time to ponder, he tore the seal. The wax octopus cracked and opened for him. Then he untied the drawstring and peered into the bag, his eyes widening as sunlight from the library's windows touched all that gold and nearly blinded him.

He picked out one of the coins and examined it more closely. On the obverse it bore the double heads of William and Mary, and on the reverse a crowned shield of arms. The date was 1692. Matthew weighed the coin in the palm of his hand. He had seen two of these coins in his entire life, both of them recovered from the robbery of a fur merchant when he'd been clerking for Nathaniel Powers. It was a five-guinea piece, worth a few shillings over five pounds, and was the most valuable coin minted by the realm. The bag held how manyi It was hard to count, with all that shine. He upended the bag over the table, spilled out sixteen coins, and realized that he was looking at the sum of more than eighty pounds.

"My God," he heard himself say, in a stunned whisper.

For stunned he was. It was a fortune. an amount of money even expert craftsmen might not see in the span of a year. a young lawyer would not make that much per annum, and certainly not a young problem-solver.

and here it was, lying right before him.

Matthew felt light-headed. He looked around at the library's debris, and then back at the shelf where the lockbox had been hidden in plain sight. Emergency money, he thought. That was what Lawrence Evans, Chapel's henchman, had been returning to the house to get when he was struck down by Dippen Nack's billyclub. Emergency money, in a black leather bag with what might be the seal of an underworld bank or possibly Professor Fell's own personal mark.

Chapel's estate, but Fell's enterprise.

Eighty pounds. Who should it be taken toi Lillehornei Oh, certainly! The high constable and his wife would make short work of even such a large amount. He was already insufferable enough without being enriched from Matthew's risk, and indeed Matthew felt he'd taken a risk just to come back here. What about Greathouse, theni Oh, yes; Greathouse would take the lion's share for himself and the agency, and throw him a pittance. There was all that nonsense about Zed being bought from van Kowenhoven and made into a bodyguard, which Matthew definitely did not need.

Who, then, should take possession of this moneyi

He who needed it the most, Matthew thought. He who had found it. The process of discovery had been well-met, this day. and richly deserved, too. It would take him a long time to spend it all, if he was careful. But the question next to deal with was how to spend even one coin without attracting suspicion, for these were not seen beyond the lofty heights of Golden Hill.

His hands were actually trembling as he returned the coins to the bag. He pulled the drawstring tight and knotted it. Then he picked up the torn paper seal with its imprint of an octopus, crumpled it in a fist, and dropped it among the black ashes and broken bindings in the fireplace. For a moment he felt nearly delirious, and had to steady himself with a hand to the wall.

a few books were chosen, almost at random, from his pile of candidates. Enough to give equal weight for Dante, one saddlebag to another.

But once outside and after the books were stowed away, Matthew balked at giving up the money just yet. He still had the question that had brought him here to begin with, and he realized that once he rode through that gate he might not be back, books or no. The time was getting on into afternoon, the sun shining fiercely through the trees. He didn't wish to leave the money with Dante, in case anyone else rode in. Carrying the moneybag with him, he started walking along the driveway in the direction of the vineyard, and specifically toward the place where he'd last seen Chapel stretched out, beaten and battered, in the dust.

He'd been pondering for awhile the assumption that Chapel had been trying to get to the stable. Why would that have necessarily been soi With all that was going on, how did Chapel think he would have time to put a saddle and bridle on a horsei But if Chapel was not going to the stable along this driveway, then where was he headingi The vineyardi The woodsi

Matthew had decided to find the place where Chapel had been laid out on the ground, and enter the woods at that location. as he marked the spot where he recalled Chapel to have been and left the driveway there for the red glow of the forest, he realized he had to get his mind fixed on his purpose, for his thoughts were wandering into daydreams like beautiful paintings in golden frames.

He walked amid the trees and thicket. all this area had been gone over before, of course. But he wondered if somewhere in this woods there might be a place the searchers had not found. a shelter, somehow disguised as surely as a book could be a lockbox. an emergency hiding-place, if one was ever needed. Then, when the danger had gone, the occupants could emerge and either slip out by way of the gate or-more improbably due to Dahlgren's broken wrist-climb over the wall.

It was a shot in the dark, but Matthew was determined to at least take aim.

Walking through the woods was peaceful this time, as before it had been a race for life for both himself and Berry. He saw nothing but trees and low brush, the ground gently rising and falling. He started even kicking aside leaves and looking for trapdoors in the earth itself, to no avail.

There was a gully ahead. Matthew recalled he and Berry running along its edge. He stopped now and peered down into it. The thing was about ten feet deep at its bottom and walled with sharp-edged boulders. He thought what might have happened if either he or Berry had fallen in; a broken ankle would've been the least of it.

as Matthew stared into the abyss, he wondered if the searchers had also feared for their bones, and so had not made the descent.

But there was nothing down there except rocks. It was a perfectly ordinary gully, as might be found in any woods.

He continued walking along the edge, but now his daydreams and the moneybag were thrust out of his mind completely. He was focused on the gully, and specifically on how one might get down into it without falling on the rocks.

It was getting deeper as it progressed across the forest. Twelve or fifteen feet to the bottom, Matthew thought. In places shadow filled up the gully like a black pond. and, then, not too far ahead, he saw what might have served as steps in the rock. His imaginationi Possibly, but he could definitely get down to the bottom here. Grasping the moneybag tightly, he demonstrated in another moment that one could negotiate the steps using only one hand to hold balance against the boulders.

He continued along the bottom, which was also covered with rocks. and perhaps twenty yards further on, as the gully took a turn to the right, he drew a sharp breath as he discovered in the wall beside him an opening about five feet tall and wide enough for a man to squeeze into sideways.

a cave, he realized, as he let the breath go.

He crouched down and looked in. How far back it went, he had no idea. There was nothing but dark in there. Yet he felt the movement of air on his face. What portion of the cave's floor he could see was hard-packed clay, littered with leaves.

He held his free arm through the opening, feeling the air moving across his fingertips. Coming from within the cave.

Not a cave, he thought. a tunnel.

No light. Snakes were about, possibly. Could be a nest of them in there. He asked himself what Greathouse would do in this situation. Retire, and never know the truthi Or blunder ahead, like a great fooli

Well, snakes couldn't bite through his boots. Unless he stepped in a hole and fell down, and then they could get at his face. He would walk as cautiously as if upon the roof of City Hall, blindfolded. He paused just a moment, herding his courage before it came to its senses and galloped away. Then he gritted his teeth, pushed himself through and was immediately able to stand, if at a crouch. He was glad he still gripped the moneybag; it could give something a good clout, if need be. It came to him, with enough force to almost buckle his knees: I am rich. He felt his mouth twist in a grin, though his heart was beating hard and the sweat of fear was upon his neck. He fervently hoped to live through the next few minutes to enjoy his wealth. Using one hand and an elbow to gauge the walls, Matthew started his progress into the unknown.

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