The title of this post comes from Fringe, the excellent sci-fi show about parallel universes. I used it because this post concerns parallel universes of a sort: the kind that come about in different drafts of a novel.
Things can change drastically from one draft to the next, and I believe the draft below demonstrates this very well.
In the final drafts of The Endless Circle (in those days unimaginatively titled Banac and Balor), I completely restructured the second half of the book, right from the point when Banac takes that walk down to the city. The restructuring created an entirely different sequence of events, changed characters’ motivations, and deleted certain characters entirely (specifically, a young man called Falen — see here for more on that). In effect, creating a new universe.
It’s interesting to go back to those universes and see what could or would have happened differently. In this case, I originally drafted that when Banac went down to the city (with Falen) he became lost and wound up inside the city, where he was locked in at dusk when the gates closed.
In the next chapter we followed Balor, Haemel and Falen down to the Untouchtables’ camp, into the cellars and the trap, and left them there to come back to Banac.
What followed became redundant when I had Banac captured and thrown in the cellar on his first foray (thus moving the plot along, which the original draft did not). But I ended up giving most of this draft to Balor, as he was in need of some character time and an obstacle to build up his courage and independence.
Thus the chapter that was originally entitled ‘Banac Alone’ became ‘Balor Alone’. And here it is.
(P.S. You will also here read one of my favourite sequences which never made it to the final cut. As always, this was because it added nothing useful to either character or plot — an important lesson for all writers to learn.)
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When Banac came round it was already dark. He shivered and lifted his head, wincing as the muscles in his neck protested. His back was just as sore, as were his arms, his legs, and any other part of him that had been in contact with the ground.
He lay still, waiting for the pain to go away. He did not bother looking around. He knew where he was. The alleyway was just the same as it had been when he had lain down in it, just as narrow, just as filthy.
It soon became clear that the pain was not going anywhere. He rose gingerly to his feet, sucking air between his teeth as his body complained. He looked up. The narrow strip of sky between the tall buildings was black and speckled with white stars. Bitterly he realised that the gates to the city would have been locked hours ago. Getting back to the others was not an option. The only thing he could do now was to find his way back to the gates and wait for them to open in the morning.
He stretched one last time, feeling his joints crack as he arched his back, then he staggered down to the end of the alley and peered out into the street.
It was dark, and still. The houses on either side of the street were shuttered and unlit. Nothing moved. The city was sleeping.
The pit of his stomach tingled, but he told himself it was not fear. He was just nervous, that was all. He was in an unfamiliar place at night, and his nerves had got the better of him.
A shout came from nearby, making him jump. A second later there was a bang as something heavy fell to the ground, then the sound of running footsteps receding into the night, leaving still, hot silence.
All right, he admitted as the silence descended again. Maybe he was a bit afraid. But it was natural. Nothing to be ashamed of.
He ventured out into the street, trying to get his bearings, looking round at the shadowed buildings. Had he passed these houses before? It was impossible to tell. They all looked the same, with their cracked-plaster walls and their uniform wooden shutters.
He closed his eyes, trying to remember what the streets had looked like as he ran down them, but his memory was just a blur. He had been concentrating on getting away from the soldiers.
Fine then. He opened his eyes. His memory would not be any good, so he would have to rely on his wits. The city was built on a slope, wasn’t it? So if he went downhill he was bound to come to the wall, and from there it would be easy to find the gate.
He looked both ways along the street, picked a direction, and started walking.
As he walked he could not help looking around. Dark buildings loomed over his head, blocking out most of the sky. Behind the buildings, rising like a black, baleful giant, was the ever-present mountain. Banac made his slow way away from it, hoping that he would find a main road soon. He wandered down empty streets with his head turned upwards, gawping like the simple country boy he was, wondering how men could build things so tall, and why they would want to in the first place.
His hopes were rewarded. After barely ten minutes he emerged from a side-street and found himself back on the same wide road he had run down the day before, on a corner where it turned back on itself on its zig-zag path up the valley. The shops and house-fronts were not those he recognised, but the road itself was familiar: the large, flat paving-stones and the gutter that ran down either side, stinking of human waste. And now that night had fallen there was something new, something else Banac had never seen before. Set at regular intervals on both sides were tall wooden posts, on top of which burned bright lamps that cast pools of flickering light here and there; between the lamps were patches of deep shadow where nothing could be seen.
He looked both ways up and down the road. On his left hand it ascended, making its way towards the upper city, and on his right hand it ran down in the direction of the gate. He took the right-hand way, scurrying from lamp to lamp, finding comfort in those warm pools of light. Now that he was out of the back-streets he was reluctant to go back, for they seemed darker than ever, the alley-ways gaping blackly like wide mouths ready to swallow him. For the first time in his life he was afraid of the dark.
When he had gone half-way down the road he saw a dark figure of a man standing in a doorway three buildings away from him and he quickly ducked into a nearby street, unwilling to be seen. He peered around the corner, waiting for the man to move on.
Five minutes went by. Still the man had not moved. Banac began to grow impatient. He was not keen to meet anyone on his own in the city — there was no knowing what someone out at this time would want, though Banac was sure it would not be pleasant.
He was just thinking of going back and finding another way around when the man stirred and looked at something hanging in the shadows near his shoulder. He reached out and adjusted whatever it was with a slight clink that sounded loud in the still night, then he stepped out of his doorway and pulled from his belt a small bell, which he began to ring.
“Foredawn in the city!” the watchman shouted as the bell clanged up and down the empty streets. “Foredawn, and all’s well!”
Just as he spoke, however, there was another shout from further down the street. Banac looked. A group of young men had emerged from one of the side-streets and were running up the road with thick pieces of wood clutched in their hands. The watchman saw them coming and turned to run, but they were already upon him, battering him to the floor before he could raise his hands to defend himself.
Banac jerked his head back and stood in the darkness, his hands trembling and his heart hammering, waiting until the thuds had stopped and the gang had run off, whooping and hollering into the night.
When it was quiet again he risked a glance around the corner. The man was lying in the middle of the road, a dark stain slowly spreading around his head. There was no-one else around.
Banac crept out of his hiding-place and scurried past the prone figure, trying not to look, and when it was behind him he broke into a run, and was glad when he rounded the next bend in the road and did not have to think about it lying there in the darkness.
He ran faster now, his heart hammering with what he had just witnessed. Getting to the gate, and out of the city as soon as possible, was the only thought in his mind. Padascel was no longer a place of wonder for him — it was a dark and dangerous animal, a predator with no mercy.
The pools of light from the street-lamps marked his progress. When he had passed through fifty of them he came to the next bend, which he hurtled round without caring what might lie beyond. To his intense relief he saw before him the last stretch of road, running down to the open square that lay before the gates. The square was still a long way away, but it was brightly-lit, and he could see its amber glow from where he was.
Even so, he kept running — there was no knowing what might happen if he slowed down — and in a few minutes he was near enough to hear the strains of music drifting over the night air from one of the buildings off the square.
He slowed to a walk, panting and shivering. Cold sweat bathed his skin. For a moment he felt a stab of pity for the watchman, and guilt that he had not done more to help, but he pushed it away. What could he have done? He was only a boy.
He tried to forget about the watchman, and turned his attention to the square instead. It was wide, wider than he remembered, but it was night-time after all, and the stalls and traders that had been there that afternoon had packed up and moved away. All around the edge of the square tall street-lamps threw their warm, flickering light on to the cobbled stones. As Banac edged forwards the space opened out, and he could get a good look round.
Over to his right was the city wall, rising three times higher than any of the surrounding buildings, and the great city gate, shut fast. Three massive oak bars had been slotted into iron cradles on either side of it, and great torches burned on either side of it in brackets big enough for him to stand in. In their light he saw six soldiers standing around in pairs, their manner relaxed and easy but with long swords strapped tightly at their waists.
Facing him across the square was the only building that had so far shown any sign of life: in fact, it more than made up for the rest of the dead, silent city. From every one of its many windows, rising four storeys above the square, light and music spilled out in abundance. Banac could see silhouetted figures sitting on window-sills, men and women with their arms around each other and tankards of ale in their hands. Loud chattering voices mingled with the music, punctuated now and again by an excited shriek or a round of raucous laughter, or else an angry shout and a brief scuffle that was soon ejected from the main door. Over the open door hung a wooden sign, painted with a crude sheaf of wheat and what Banac supposed might be the grotesquely made-up face of a woman.
He looked away over to his left, to where the biggest building of all stood quietly over the square. He remembered this building. It was the first one he had seen when he entered the city, and it was just as imposing now as it had been then, just as stern and grim. The facade was clad with pale stone, inlaid with gentle lines of rosy pink and dark green. High above him was a great coloured circle, behind which he could see faintly flickering light. Banac had never seen glass before, so he could not understand what it was, but he knew it was beautiful.
Below the round window was a high doorway, around which clustered carved forms of men and women swathed in long robes. All the men were old and had great beards, and the women were young and gazed adoringly up at them. They were crudely painted in garish colours, and here and there the paint had flaked away to reveal pale marble underneath. The wooden doors were wide open, allowing free entry into the gloomy interior.
Banac shivered. The night was old, and the warmth of the sun was leeching away. He desperately wanted somewhere comfortable to lay his head. He glanced between the two buildings — the loud, bright tavern and the sombre, quiet structure across from it — and after a few minutes he made a decision.
As he passed through the high doorway into the quiet building Banac shivered again, this time with nerves. He did not like the look of the other building, with its shrieking crowds and loud music, but this place was really the lesser of two evils. It was too quiet, too sombre. It was like the long-hall when no-one was in it — exciting at first but too full of shadows and corners where hidden things could be waiting.
But he was tired. He needed somewhere, anywhere, just to put his head for an hour or so.
He edged further into the building, his eyes adjusting to the gloom. The sounds of music from outside grew fainter, muffled by thick stone walls. The silence settled comfortingly.
As Banac’s eyes adjusted his first impression was of empty space, reaching out above him and on every side. He came up against the base of a thick pillar set on the cold stone floor and put his hands on it, his eyes wide as he looked around in the musty darkness. Was anyone in here? If not, why had the doors been left open?
He blinked and peered ahead. There was light here, though it was faint and feeble in the huge space. It came from far away, down at the other end of the building: a candle maybe, or a small fire, leaping and dancing, casting crazy shadows across the polished floor.
Banac edged closer to the light, making his way from pillar to pillar. As he came closer he slowed, his eyes widening as he saw what it was the light illuminated.
The entire far wall of the building was covered with carved figures like those he had seen outside. They emerged from the stone in twisted forms, frozen with their blank eyes staring sightlessly: men and women swathed in long robes, some with swords in their hands, others with crowns upon their heads, and others …
They reminded Banac of the adanen, the servants of Cafan in grandfather’s stories. They were winged, as the adanen were, but their wings were broader and emerged from their shoulders instead of their feet. They were not armed as the adanen were, though one or two wore a breastplate and a helmet; and whereas the adanen had the feet of lions or of eagles, swift and deadly, these other figures looked just like men from head to foot.
But these were not the most remarkable. The eyes of all the figures were turned towards a point half-way up the wall and in the very centre, where a woman sat with a child cradled in her arms. Over their heads was a bearded king on a great throne suspended by the winged beings, with rays of sunlight shining down upon them; and everything — mother, child, king and throne — was overlaid with pure gold that shone brightly in the firelight.
Banac’s eyes were wide with wonder as they ran over the scene. For a moment he forgot everything else: Father, Mother, Balor, Haemel, the torc, and the Scholar faded away in the golden light that washed over him.
In particular he was drawn to the Mother and child. They looked so peaceful, as if they were unaware of the great crowd gazing at them. Something in the back of Banac’s memory stirred, a story he had once heard about a woman and a baby, something that had been important to the person who had told him. There had been … a stable? And a king. But a bad king, not like the one who sat on his golden throne above Banac’s head. He struggled with the vague memory for a while, but in the end he could not remember, and quickly forgot it again.
He did not know how long he crouched staring at the figures. The next thing he knew was the sound of a great bell tolling in the darkness high above him, bringing him out of his daze.
He looked around, wondering if he had dozed off. His legs were stiff again, and he groaned under his breath as he straightened them and stood up, casting around for somewhere to lie down for a few minutes. There were rows of wooden benches with high backs that he had not noticed before, filling the dark spaces beyond the pillars. He crawled under one of them and lay his head on a handy cushion he found there, then closed his eyes and let his mind wander away into dreams of adanen, and knew no more for a long time.
A sudden, sickening blow to his stomach jerked him back to the waking world with a start. He thrashed awake, gasping for breath where there was suddenly none. Someone was shouting, a powerful voice filled with rage. He choked and struggled to breathe. His stomach felt as though someone had kicked it, and just as he managed to gasp for air someone did, again, and he gave a strangled cry of pain.
“Get out! Get out!” the voice bellowed. Rough hands grasped his smock and dragged him out from under the bench. He hit out with his fists, still half in sleep, not knowing what he was fighting against, but his blows fell short. The hands shook him like a rag until his teeth rattled and his head felt like it would burst.
“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing, boy?” The voice was still shouting at him. “This is a house of prayer, and you desecrate it with your vile presence! Out! Out!”
A bright red face loomed up at him, white eyes staring out of fat sockets. The hands hauled Banac up. His feet left the floor, and he was carried backwards, still kicking and writhing, past tall pillars and rows of wooden benches. There were people staring at him, bearded men in long brown robes, their faces shocked at the disturbance. He barely had time to register them, for in the next instant the arms that held him heaved, and his stomach turned as he was thrown through a high doorway and out into pale daylight. There was a strange moment of weightlessness, a sensation of flight, then a horrible second of plummeting before cobblestones rushed up to meet his face and bright lights exploded inside his head followed a thunderclap of pain that shook his whole body.
As he lay groaning on the ground he heard people laughing nearby. He opened his eyes. He was lying on the cobblestones outside the big stone building, looking up at its tall spire and lifeless carvings. In the doorway stood a fat man dressed in a long white robe with a scarlet surplus draped over his shoulders. Embroidered on the surplus was a golden cross, the bottom stroke longer than the others. The man’s face was pudgy and red, and he was sweating as if he had been working hard. When he saw Banac looking at him, he raised a finger to the sky with an imperious expression on his face.
“Let that be a lesson to you!” he cried. “The house of Iescwd is not for your kind! Did not our Lord Himself cast the sinners out of the temple in Iescelan, saying, ‘You have made my Father’s house a den of thieves’? Surely then there is no place in the Kingdom of God for those who prey upon the toil of others, reaping what they did not sow! Get out, and consider your immortal soul, and consider the One Who made you and formed you from your mother’s womb! Return when you have more grace, and ears to hear what our Lord hath said to this sinful realm!”
As the man spoke Banac realised the speech was not just for his benefit. The man was looking over his head at a crowd of people who had gathered behind him. It was they who had been laughing, but now they started muttering and spitting in the man’s direction, telling him to get back into his house and pray to his God. One or two turned and walked away, but others stayed, raising their voices against the fat man’s tirade. The confrontation continued for another few minutes until the fat man ran out of breath and courage and turned and swept back inside, keeping his blunt nose in the air.
In the absence of anyone to harass the crowd slowly dispersed, going back to whatever they had been doing before they had been distracted. They did not take any more notice of Banac — after all, hardly a day went by when the priest did not find someone to throw out of his precious chapel — and soon he was allowed to fade into the background as they got on with their work.
Banac was glad for their loss of interest. He took the opportunity to scramble to his feet, still hurting, and limp over to an empty doorway across the square, where he sat and nursed his aching stomach and looked around him.
It was morning, though he could not tell exactly what time it was. During the night a blanket of cloud had come over the city, blotting out the morning sun and making the sky a flat plane of leaden-grey light that sapped the colour from everything. Across the square the stallholders who had been laughing at him were once again busy erecting their tables and awnings for the day, the sound of their jokes and snatches of song echoing off the buildings. The tavern’s doors and windows were locked and bolted, its patrons sleeping off their revelries in its filthy, lice-ridden beds. The rest of the city slept with them, waiting for the bell that would signal the opening of the gate and the start of the day.
Banac shivered despite the mugginess of the air. He had had enough of the city, he decided. Nowhere was safe, and the buildings crowding along every street made him feel claustrophobic. He longed for the open Sea, and to be able to see the horizon in every direction he looked; not the pitiful glimpses of sky he had here, crowded with the smoke and haze of a thousand bodies all living within the thick, imprisoning walls. He wished he could forget all about it, and live in ignorance again. He wished he could be happy knowing that his little village by the Sea was all the world he knew and wanted.
He stared across the cobbles, imagining Father suddenly appearing at the end of the street over on the other side of the square. He imagined the surprise on his face when he saw Banac waiting for him. He would open his arms, Banac decided, and Banac would run into them, and together they would leave the city and find Balor and the others, and go back to the village and never worry about the city, the Scholar, or the galac-men ever again.
But he could not hold the image in his mind for very long. Father’s face faded, and he was left with the dull grey square, and the dull grey sky, and his unwelcome collection of aches and pains.
The sky grew lighter. More stallholders came and set up their tables, calling coarsely to each other as they laid out their wares. The guard changed over. There was some discussion between the soldiers, and furtive exchanges when they thought no-one was looking. People began streaming into the square, yawning and rubbing their faces, and congregated around the gate, waiting for it to open.
Someone began cooking sausages on a small fire, the smell wafting over to Banac and making his stomach growl. He thought about the last meal he had eaten — the greasy strips of cold rabbit shared between them up on the hills. When had it been? Yesterday morning? With a start he realised just how hungry he was. He was suddenly dizzy with it, aching for something, anything to put into his mouth.
He stood up, lifting his head to see where the smell was coming from. There, on the far edge of the square, in the shadow of the walls, a thin stream of smoke was rising from a tiny fire beside a lonely stall. The commuters were gathered loosely around it, some of them munching mouthfuls of dripping meat. Banac could not stand it. He had to eat.
Hardly knowing what he was doing he stumbled across the square, weaving between the tables, his eyes fixed on the stream of smoke. He could taste the sausages in his mouth now. He could feel the texture of the meat, thick and rich between his teeth and tongue, the way the blackened skin would break when he bit down on to it, the way the burning juices would spurt down his chin. He did not know how he was going to get one. He had no money, and nothing to trade. He just knew that he had to eat something or go crazy.
From somewhere in the city behind him a bell began to toll, its long notes echoing grandly between the buildings and the low grey sky. At that signal the guards finished their secretive business and disappeared into two narrow doorways on either side of the gate. A moment later there was a thudding detonation that echoed sharply around the square, followed by a low, incessant grinding as if of huge machinery working somewhere deep inside the walls. Inch by inch the massive gates began to swing open.
Banac hardly noticed. His eyes were fixed on the sausage-seller’s stall. As he neared it he slowed his pace, weaving his way between the crowded bodies. As usual no-one took any notice of him — after all, he was just one more person in a city of thousands. He took advantage of their indifference to sneak his way up beside the stall. The smell was stronger than ever now, making his mouth water in anticipation.
The stall was backed up against the dirty stones of the wall. Beside it stood a squat brazier filled with glowing coals, topped with a grease-blackened wire rack on to which the stallholder was slapping his thick tubes of meat. A long queue had already formed; the stallholder worked quickly, turning the sausages with a pair of tongs even as he took money from his customers and handed them the finished product. Once the commuters had made their purchase they hurried away to join the crowd which was now surging through the open gates, on their way out to whatever work was theirs in the fields and orchards that supplied the tables of Padascel.
Banac tried to look inconspicuous, as if he was just waiting for someone, while he sidled along the wall closer and closer to the brazier. A part of him was looking on in detached wonder, hardly able to believe what he was doing. Was he about to steal something? And not just in the way he normally did, for a short time and with every intention of giving it back or at the very least expressing appropriate remorse. No — this was for real. Once he did it he would not be able to undo it.
Have you really come to this? the detached part said. You’ve never needed to steal anything in your life before. Why start now?
But there was another part of him, a part that sat closer to his stomach and said, But I’ve never felt this hungry before. If the man I’m stealing from knew how I felt he wouldn’t mind, would he? It’s practically charity.
And all the while he was edging closer and closer, until finally he was within arm’s reach of the brazier. Then he was reaching out, slowly and nonchalantly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, his fingers feeling the heat of the coals …
The sausage was hotter than he expected. He gave a shout of pain and jerked his hand back. But luck was not on his side. The hem of his sleeve caught on the edge of the wire rack, wrenching it from its precarious position over the coals and sending it flying up in the air.
For the briefest second there was silence as the wire rack and its load of sausages hung motionless against the flat light of the sky. Then it came clattering down on the cobblestones, sausages pattering around it, and the spell was broken.
“Oi!” shouted the open-mouthed stallholder. “What’s this, then?”
His words went straight from Banac’s ears to his legs, and like a frightened deer he sprang away, pausing only to grab a handful of sausages from the dirty cobblestones. Then he was away, running from an angry stallholder for the second time in two days, except this time he knew where he was going and how to evade capture.
He ducked into the crowd, barging through the clustered bodies, making as much of a disturbance as he could. Angry shouts followed him and hands darted out to grab at his smock, but he squirmed like an eel and wriggled away from them, plunging deeper into the throng, heading for the gate.
“Stop ‘im!” someone shouted. “E’s a thief! Oi! Guard! Stop ‘im!”
But there was too much confusion now for the guards to know what was happening. The men Banac had barged on his way through the crowd were turning on those who followed behind, not knowing whom they were supposed to stop, and more than one angry scuffle broke out in the middle of the jostling bodies, creating even more disorder.
Beneath this cover of shouts and blows Banac ran with his head down and the precious sausages clutched in hot, greasy fists. His mind was a whirl of panic and excitement. He hardly knew what he was doing any more — but it did not matter. In the next moment he was thrusting his way through the crowd beneath the shadow of the massive gates, and the echoing sounds and acrid stench of the archway through the wall were all around him. Still he moved forward, though it had become like wading through treacle as the crush of people crowded even closer. He could see the outer gate just ahead of him, a bright light at the end of the tunnel. It grew as he neared it … and suddenly he was through it, and the crowds were melting away on either side, and he picked up his pace and ran along the road as fast as his legs would carry him.
Banac ran until the shouts of pursuit had faded, which did not take long. The time it would take for the stallholder to find Banac was not worth the customers he could have in the mean-time; so he soon gave up the chase and went back to the ridiculing of his friends and colleagues. As for Banac, as soon as things became quiet around him he slowed to a walk, conscious now of the attention a running boy could draw, especially one as dirty and ragged as he must be now.
He was on the road where it passed through the shanty-town. Nothing had changed since the day before, except perhaps Banac’s perspective on what lay all around him. Now he understood in some small way the hopelessness that overshadowed the inhabitants of that place; why they would chose a life of slavery to the haeg over a life of slavery to the city that rose over their heads. It was one or the other for them, and now they had chosen there was no going back.
He opened his fists. The sausages had been reduced to mashed pulps of sticky meat, but he did not care. He licked at his dirty palms like a dog. The warm mess soothed his throat, and the stabbing pain in his belly subsided. It was not enough, not by a long way, but it was something.
He licked at his palms until he could no longer taste the meat, then wiped them on his smock and turned left off the road, scrambling down the embankment on to the no-man’s land between the road and the slums and scurrying quickly over to the dilapidated buildings, where he slipped into the shadows and out of sight.
No-one paid him any attention here. He walked quickly, looking straight ahead, only flinching now and again when the occasional skeletal figure pawed at his arm and mumbled some half-hearted plea for help, and soon he had passed through the buildings and was in the open again, making his way up the side of the valley towards the copse where he and Falen had left the others yesterday.
As he approached the copse a wave of relief washed over him. The last few hours had been like a waking nightmare, but it was over now. Haemel would be there, and Balor. He tried not to think how worried Balor must have been. He could see him now — tearful, red-eyed, scared — but for once the thought did not make him frustrated or annoyed. He wanted nothing more than to comfort his brother and tell him it was all right; that he was there, and there was nothing for Balor to worry about.
And Falen would be there. A hot shard of anger thrust into Banac’s thoughts as he thought of the other boy. Why had he left him alone like that? He had better have a good excuse for what he had done. Banac’s hands balled into fists again, and he set his face and marched on up to the copse.
As he came near the trees he slowed his pace, and for some reason the feeling of relief began to ebb away, replaced by a sense of unease. The copse was quiet: too quiet. There were no voices, no sounds of anyone moving around, and no smoke rose from any fire. He told himself not to be stupid — they were probably all still asleep — but all the same he could not help feeling apprehensive as he pushed his way past the low-hanging branches and peered into the clearing.
His stomach dropped, and suddenly he felt dizzy. There were the remains of the fire, blackened and burt; there was the tree he had sat against, the the root he had rested his elbow on the day before. Everything was exactly as it had been, but for one unmistakeable, sickening fact.
The clearing was empty.
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Hope this was interesting. More chapters to come!