Secret Gods

 

Author: Elektra

 

Disclaimer: You all know that Joss and company own everything.  I own nothing and let's keep it that way.

 

Archivists: Please email me if you are going to put this somewhere

 

Dedication: To Fox (you know who you are..)  It is your fault I spent my 7 hour drive back to MD thinking this up instead of working on my novel!

 

Part 1: Prologue

 

The distance echoed still.  Something died in the darkness, was swallowed by the depths of the night.  Light became a prayer to an ancient myth and he began to believe in monsters, in demons, in the lesser aspect of humans. He knew of walls, of tiny rooms, of hiding places, of locked doors.  He understood the rawness of fear, how it ripped into a child's belly and tore away belief and hope.

 

And the crying remained, the sobs small and close.

 

It seemed he fought their legacy.  Daily pulled himself from the bed linens, tugged away the shadows and, as he slipped on his glasses, clothed himself in the visage he wished to show the world.  Yet the persistent weeping washed away the image he wished to portray as if the tears were a great flood breaking through his constructed dam. The moaning whispered in his ears and mocked him.

 

How long?

 

How long before they realized? Nothing stood between the truth and the fiction.  And after all, he was only just a fiction.

 

The door opened and words were spoken.  He listened to the priest express sympathy, relate the events that led up to the discovery.  Wesley watched as the priest detailed the desecration of the cathedral, followed the old priest's shaking hand as he picked up a broken chalice.  Nodding, Wesley said all the right things, the proper things.  Condolences, apologies.

 

Cordelia and Gunn trailed behind them.  He felt Cordelia drag her feet as she entered the church as if Angel's demon somehow lurked within her.  He hurried her along with a quick gesture and she only scowled at him as she eyed the crucifix.  Her focus drifted back to him and she seemed to plead with him, but he said nothing to ease her fears.

 

They had been summons here.  By a priest.  To a cathedral.

 

Cordelia stumbled and Gunn caught her elbow.  Pausing, she glared at Wesley but he refused to listen to her silent wishes, her silent fears.  He knew the silence of fear, it weighed deep down in the pit of your stomach.  A heavy constant gnawing that mimicked hunger but made it impossible to eat. 

 

He went to her side and whispered, "Best get this over with as quickly as possible."

 

Her lips parted as if she might speak, but instead she said nothing and only agreed with him.  Together they walked the length of the church to the confessional where the priest stood, waiting.

 

Waiting.

 

They had been summons.  To a church.  At dawn.

 

And Angel had gone missing two days ago.

 

A church.

 

Cordelia clawed at Wesley's arm but he only grimaced in response as they stepped toward the open door.  She gasped as they peered into the small cubicle of a room.  Shredded velvet lined the walls on the room, blackening blood stains smeared over the consecrated pews near the confessional.  Burnt flesh and scorched oil mixed to gag him.

 

As they approached the room, Cordelia cupped her hand to her mouth and dropped to her knees.  She turned to Wesley and the glistening of tears lingered in her eyes.

 

"Good Lord," Wesley said, his own hand shaking as he tried to reach out to the balled figure in the room.

 

"I found him this morning," the Priest reported. "I called Charles.  I thought he might know who or what he is."  Coughing the priest stepped back and folded his hands as if in prayer.

 

Wesley turned back to the confessional.  Lying curled into a tight ball, Angel shivered and rocked.  Etched over his bare back and into his forehead crosses had been cut or burnt into his flesh.  His feet and hands were bloodied and bruised. As Cordelia reached out to touch the vampire, Angel jumped and attempted to squeeze himself into the tiny room. 

 

A room, small and narrow, reverberated in Wesley's head as he looked down at Angel. A room under the stairs, a closet.  A safe and warm place.  The tears threatened, stung the inner corners of his eyes but he shoved them away.  The memory clouded his senses, blinded him as he knelt beside Cordelia.

 

The memory of his father.  Of the room beneath the stairs.  Of the distance, the number of stairs his father would descend to find him.  Thirteen.  Wesley knew.  He'd counted them, listened to the creak on the fourth step as his father came down to punish him. He remembered, understood how one would curl into a ball hoping only to make oneself as small as possible.  He prayed then.

 

He didn't now.

 

"Angel?"

 

A groan suffered from his cracked and bleeding lips.  His focus skipped and jumped from face to face without recognition.

 

"Angel, can you hear me?"  Gently, he stretched out a hand then slowly placed it on Angel's arm.  "Angel, can you tell me what happened?"

 

The vampire's shoulders began to tremble in great heaves.  A hoarse noise broke forth and Wesley realized Angel was laughing   a fractured moaning sound as if he was an animal caught in a trap.

 

"What Angel?  What is it?"

With the broken rhythm of the laughter, Angel rocked and mumbled over and again, "It's coming.  It's coming.  It's coming."

 

 

Part 2:

 

The moon   full, round, bloated   dropped out of the sky. The pale blue ball seared the night leaving a trail of blue fire scarring the blackened sky.  Raising his face to the twilight, he shielded his eyes for the scorching light burned an after image.  He would remember it forever.  A winged figure juxtaposed against the flame of the dying moon. Long black legs stretched out, a slithering tail whipped the air, broad enveloping wings inked out the anemic rays.  The harsh beat of the wings blasted his face, caused him to stagger and fall to the pavement below. 

 

Deep throated laughter answered him and he shivered as the last of the waning light flickered and died. The canopy of the sky collapsed around him and he crumpled into a ball as he felt its breath upon his cheek.  It smelt of sulfur, oil and decaying flesh.  Choking back his bile, he hid his face and turned away from the thing. 

 

The winged serpent.

 

It laughed again.  Peering from his hiding place, its eyes pierced him, ran him through as if a hot sword cut deep into the soft tissue of his abdomen. Its features blurred, melted into the dark night.  Its silhouette cut the stars with two horns and spikes. A black skeletal hand reached out to him, the nail trailing along his cheek.

 

"My childe," it cooed. "Do not despair, my childe.  It's coming."

 

He longed to run, to move away from the winged creature yet its voice   the smoothness, the subtleness, the sensuality   paralyzed and mesmerized him all at once. 

 

As it caressed his cheek, his flesh opened and his blood smeared across the black oil of the creature's skin.  The colorless, pupiless eyes glimmered in the dark and smiled.  Lifting its finger to its lips, it tasted his blood and promised, "It's coming for you."

 

Gasping, Angel jolted awake and screamed out. "It's coming.  It's coming."

 

Figures moved toward him but he batted them away.  The thing had touched him, burnt his flesh, devoured his flesh.  He struggled against the hands holding, growled at the voices trying to comfort him.  Shifting, he let his hidden beast take over his features and bit down clenching his jaw like a rabid dog.

 

A voice called out, called to him, called his name.  The voice wrapped around his name and bathed it with a sweet melody.  He relaxed a degree, the tension breaking from his shoulders and he slumped in surrender, shuddering against the edge of pain.

 

"Angel, can you hear me?" 

 

As he focused his eyes, he tasted blood in his mouth and wretched against the lingering need. Someone's arms cradled him and he leaned into the warmth, a fragrance drifted to him and he inhaled.  A spiced caress. Fumbling, he clutched and held on.

 

"Shh, shh."  He was rocked slowly, tenderly as a hand stroked his hair, his neck. "It's okay.  Quiet, quiet.  You're with us now.  No one is going to hurt you."

 

"Cordelia," he murmured and realized the remnants of her blood still stained his tongue, realized his vampire form still scarred his face. "Oh God, Cordelia."  He looked up and saw the tear in her shoulder.  "I'm sorry."  He reached toward her but she only shook her head.

 

"It's okay, quiet."  She helped him to lay back down in his bed as he transformed to his human face. 

 

Wesley stood over the bed, a swath of clothe in his hand.  He bent down and cleaned the wound on Cordelia's shoulder and softly spoke to Angel. "Do you remember anything, anything at all, Angel."

 

"It's night."

 

Pausing, Wesley glanced to the window and agreed, "Yes, you've been asleep for a good fifteen hours."  He continued his work, patting the wound but Cordelia only gripped Angel's hand.  "We worried you might not awake."  He stopped and asked, "Angel, can you remember the church?"

 

"Church?"  Angel shifted his attention to Wesley for a moment, then turned back to the window. "It's night."

 

"Angel, you must try to focus."  Wesley sat on the opposite side of the bed from Cordelia. "What exactly happened to you?  You were missing for two days and found tortured in a church."

 

Again, Angel looked at Wesley and, gazing at him, confessed, "I don't like the night." He laughed a mirthless sound. "Two days.  It felt like a thousand. It'll come in the night."

 

"What?" 

 

"The moon."

 

"The moon?" Wesley took off his glasses and pinched his nose. "I'm afraid, you aren't making much sense Angel.  I need you to concentrate. I need to understand what happened to you otherwise we might not be able to prevent it from happening again."

 

"Help me," Angel said and faced the window. "It's coming."

 

Sighing Wesley started to speak again but Cordelia raised a finger and asked, "Angel, what's coming?"

 

He reached up to her, touched the line of her cheek and said, "I can't fight it. It wants me.  It already has me."  A shiver ran down the length of his body.

 

"What Angel?"

 

He opened his mouth as if to respond but a stabbing pain streaked through his face and he grabbed the cut slicing his cheek.  He shook his head and sank down.

 

Standing, Wesley slid his hands in his pockets and said, "We dispatched Gunn and Winifred to speak with the parish priest again.  I hoped to reconstruct what happened to you, to figure out what we are up against."

 

Angel laughed and closed his eyes. "The parish priest."  He slung an arm over his face and murmured, "The priest doesn't know.  The priest can't know." He clenched his jaw, the pain bolting into his face, throbbing into his brain. "It's unholy. It loves the night."

 

He felt Cordelia's weight shift and grabbed her. "Don't.  Don't leave please."  He looked out the window. "It's night.  I don't want to be alone."

 

Wesley rounded the bed and, in a quiet whisper, said, "We'll try to help you Angel.  But we can't unless you tell us what exactly we are up against."

 

He pulled his arm down and stared at Wesley. "Godlessness."

 

 

Part 3:

 

Water flowed, flooded her senses.  It cascaded like a broken river, split and divided by a barrier of rocks.  The flow swam up over her shoulders, to her chin and she gulped back the oncoming sensation.  Yet she knew, understood she was drowning.  The light around her faded as if it never existed at all.  In that moment she comprehended that she had always suffered, would always drown in the depths of the swollen river of truth. 

 

Opening her mouth for one last breath, she failed and instead drank into her lungs a liquid death. To fight pressed against her, enslaved her with too many burdens, too many pains.  Surrendering, she sank, let her body fall, drift in the tide.  Purposefully she inhaled the frigid water as her lungs rebelled and screamed in silent agony. 

 

It would be this way.  To die.  In the water, silent, cold, and endless.

 

"Endless," she whispered and came to herself.  The water from the bathroom sink still gushed over her hands as she stood leaning against the basin.  Glancing toward the quiet figure in the bed, Cordelia repeated, "Endless." 

 

His life was endless, an eternity to repent and to apologize for past wrongs.  She wondered how it would be.  A demon with soul.  She smiled, recalling how she reacted when she first learned of Angel's fate. She distinctly remembered the words, the callousness of her reaction. She said the words again, "Suck much?"  It didn't sound funny anymore.

 

Reaching to the facet, she twisted the knob and turned off the water.  She returned to Angel's bedroom.  He still lay in a deep slumber.  They'd been unable to discern anything he tried to tell them.  Wesley pushed him but she couldn't see the point and ordered him out of the room.  Ordered all of them out of the room.  And she began her vigil. 

 

Watching him.  The twitch of fear shuddered through him and she sat on the edge of his bed.  His hand cradled in hers.  She understood fear, she understood loneliness.  She didn't want him to suffer through it alone.  During her sentinel duty, Wesley had called her to the hallway to discuss matters.  Reluctantly, she dragged herself from Angel's side and congregated with her adopted family in the corridor of the empty hotel.

 

In a whisper, Wesley urged, "We must move forward with the investigation.  It's been over twenty four hours and we've still no idea what happened to Angel."

 

"He ain't no better than when we first got him back," Gunn stated. "Can't see it being any use trying to ask him anything, he's gone all homeless in the head."

 

Frowning, Cordelia said, "He hasn't gone homeless in the head.  He's just been tortured or something.  Go get tortured and see how right in the head you would be, dumb ass."

 

"Now is not the time."  Wesley placed a hand on her shoulder. "We don't have any idea what kind of danger Angel could be in or we could be in."

 

"Well maybe, maybe," Fred stuttered, looking everywhere but at the ex-Watcher. "Maybe whoever or whatever did this to him is done with him.  You know like they couldn't find what they were looking for."

 

"Sounds reasonable," Gunn agreed.  "He was pretty much discarded in the church."

 

"Or maybe he just don't want to tell you all 'cause he thinks you'll judge him."  Fred smiled and, pushing up her glasses, nodded at Cordelia.

 

"I don't judge my friends.  Well, not anymore."  A flame of heat flushed her cheeks as she glared at the girl they'd rescued from Pylea.  If they could only find her family and get rid of her. "And anyway, who made you an expert on Angel, Winnie."

 

Putting her hands on her hips, Fred replied, "It's Fred not Winnie."

 

"Yeah like Fred is anymore feminine."

 

"Claws girls, claws."

 

"Oh shut up Gunn."  Cordelia and Fred said in unison.  She turned to Fred and, clearing her thoughts, said, "Fred, okay Fred.  I think your first theory is the one we should go with."

 

"I heartily agree, let's not bring up Pylea again."  Wesley folded his arms and directed, "We should go back and retraced Angel's steps.  Try to find out where and how Angel was abducted."

 

"I'm staying."  They faced her but she was resolute.  "I'm staying with Angel.  He might need someone when he wakes up.  I don't think he should be alone."  Wrapping her arms around herself, Cordelia fended off the chill creeping through her like frozen water in the marrow of her bones.

 

Wesley considered her for a moment then, nodding, said, "Agreed." As she turned to leave, Wesley called to her.  "Be careful, Cordelia.  No unnecessary risks, we don't know what we are up against."

 

"You too."  She paused before twisting the door knob and stared at her family. "Be careful," she whispered and entered the room.

 

She noticed her shoes barely made any noise on the soft threads of the carpet.  Raising her eyes to the sleeping form in the bed, she wondered if he could hear her still.  If in the depths of slumber, the beat of a human heart disturbed him.

 

She regarded him from a distance.  The cuts and bruises, the burns had faded except for the vicious cut along his cheek.  It seemed to pulse with an unnatural blue purple color.  Easing herself to the bed she slipped onto the mattress.  In the death of his repose he did not move, did not react.  And for the first time she realized, she had no idea if he was in fact still undead. 

 

She stretched a hand to stroke his cheek, to lend comfort to the throbbing slice in his flesh.  Yet as she moved to touch it, it slithered.

 

Crawled. 

 

Wormed about the bone of his cheek and then settled again.  Gulping for air, she covered her mouth with her hand. 

 

"Calm, Cor.  You haven't had any sleep.  You're imagining things."  She closed her eyes, took a cleansing breath, then released it as she opened her eyes. "That's it.  Imagining it."  Biting the inside of her cheek, she steadied her nerves and said, "Only one way to find out."

 

Again she reached for Angel.

 

Hiss.

 

She jumped from the bed, gasping and quaking as she stared at the thing on Angel's face.  The thing that Angel became.

 

Dark like oil. 

 

Its eyes pupiless, moteless pinpoints.

 

Long bone like fingers curled to entice her closer like a wicked wolf-grandmother in a macabre fairy tale. She felt her feet move, stepped toward the thing in Angel's bed.

 

Wings unfurled and encompassed her.

 

In the dark folds, she heard the winged serpent promise, "I'm coming for you.  I'm coming."

 

"Angel, no!" she cried out and realized her eyes were closed and arms were holding her.

 

"I'm here."  A hand supported her head and she looked up to see Angel grasping her.  The wound still scarring his cheek.

 

"You're here?"

 

"You didn't leave," he murmured into her hair.  The breath he didn't need escaped his lips and stole down her back.

 

"No," she whispered, trying to ignore the image still haunting her.  She must have fallen asleep.  Right?  She was asleep.  That was it.  "I'm right here."

 

"I thought you would leave."  A quaver ran over his broad shoulders and she tightened her grip of him. "I hate the night."

 

"It's dawn, Angel."

 

"It doesn't feel like it."  He gave a small laugh. "I should have known.  Why didn't I know?  You won't leave now, will you?"

 

"No, I'm here."  And his head dropped onto her shoulder.  She eased him back to the pillows and curled her body around him.  "You don't have to be afraid.  I'm not going to leave."

 

"I thought you would."

 

"Why?"

 

He didn't answer but swallowed hard.

 

"I'm here, Angel."  She fingered his hand, then shifted her position so that his head lay upon her breast.  So he could hear her heart.  She wanted to share it with him, the beating.  "I'm not leaving."

 

"It's coming Cordy."  The tone of his voice ripped at her and she tensed herself against reacting to it. "I can't stop it.  But you'll stay, won't you?"

 

"I'll stay."

 

"You'll stay until it comes."

 

The fear crept up her skin, sent shooting cold spears through her heart. She grappled for air as if she truly did sink beneath the rapids of a river.

 

She chanced to ask, "What's coming Angel?"

 

"Them, no, It."

 

"It?"  His whole body jittered and she soothed him.  And the crash of the water, the weight of the water threatened and she asked him not to tell her. "You don't have to answer.  Quiet."

 

He shielded his eyes with his hand and shook his head as if he fought something, some inner pain.  Clasping the wound on his face, he said through clenched teeth.  "It.  From Hell. I remember it.  It's coming.  It's coming to finish it."

 

 

Part 4:

 

He remembered the shadows, the thickness of their cloak, the security of their veil.  He recalled the irregularities of their forms, the amorphous shapes and twisted knots of shade. Yet in his memories, he saw the shadows as a sanctuary.  The closet beneath the stairs, the shadowy corners of the attic, these were his havens.  His legs always fractured, broke beneath him as he scrabbled to get away from his father, from the booming voice, the heavy hand. 

 

Wesley hated not the memory of his father, but the memory of himself.  Hiding.  Afraid.  Begging for his father's approval.  He hated still that he yearned for it, that he sought it with every phone call. He came to know a contorted worship of his father as if in some dementia his father was his secret god.

 

Easing back against the lobby counter, Wesley gave a glance at the approaching night, the shadows it threw and focused instead on Angel.  Angel sat on the sofa, his one hand extended to clutch Cordelia's as she knelt at his side. Sipping a cup of tea, he cringed as he tasted the liquid but said nothing.  Wesley noted the cup of blood remained untouched on the coffee table.

 

He began.  "It's good, good that you are feeling better.  We can finally get to the bottom of this."  He paced in front of the counter as he spoke. "Do you remember your attackers?"

 

Angel looked instead to Cordelia, he handed her the cup of tea and settled back on the sofa.  His large frame wasted into the fabric, deflated of its brawn and vitality.  Someone or something had done this to Angel and he was going to find out. He refused to permit anyone in his family to feel so vulnerable and forsaken.

 

Placing a hand on the ugly wound that slashed his face, Angel closed his eyes as if recalling some event, some specific torture as he grimaced.  He looked up at Wesley and only commented, "It's almost night."

 

Though frustration threatened, Wesley calmed when he chanced to see Cordelia's stricken expression.  She was frightened for Angel, more so than Wesley could have imagined.  He should consider talking directly to her, questioning her.  Perhaps Angel had confessed something of use to her. 

 

"I recall," Angel started and Wesley's thoughts vanished.  The vampire's words were soft as if he spoke a lullaby to a child. "I recall the coming of night.  It wasn't like here."  As he explained he glanced to the doors.  "Night was something more there.  Or it wasn't at all."  He paused and shook his head. "I can't explain it."

 

"It?"

 

"Hell." 

 

Angel squeezed his eyes closed again and Cordelia shifted to sit next to him on the sofa.  She whispered something to him and he nodded. Reaching to the mug of blood, she held it for him as he drank. He didn't finish it, didn't even drink half of it before he gagged and asked her to take it away.

 

He cupped his hands over his face and said, "I thought when Cordy got sucked into Pylea she was there."  His hands dropped and he grasped her again. "I thought you were there, in Hell."

He smiled.  "But you were a Princess."

 

She bowed her head and a red flush heightened the color of her cheeks.

 

"I'm glad, glad you weren't there."  Angel pushed himself to sit. "Nights are different there.  The air. It isn't air.  It's like a viscous liquid.  It clings to you.  Goes down your throat and fills you but empties you.  It's fear, it's hostility."  He growled. "I'm not explaining this right, not at all."  He shook his head as he peered at Wesley. "I'm sorry."

 

"It isn't a necessity for you to explain your experiences in Hell," Wesley stated. "What we need to discern is your believe that some manifestation from Hell is coming.  How is this happening and why now?"

 

A cough interrupted them. Gunn and Fred entered the room, the three books from Pylea clutched in her arms. "I think, yep, I think I know why.  But it's probably just a guess since I don't know any of the back story since no one found fit to fill me in on anything."

 

Gunn interrupted, "Welcome to my world."

 

She rolled her eyes and continued, "Had to kinda figure it out on my own with all the little hints everyone drops.  But anyway, I think I know."

 

Wesley let out a slow breath and asked, "Would you like to fill us in Winifred?"

 

She frowned at him but then said, "Yeah, sure sir."  She smiled at Angel but he never glanced at her.  His gaze fell to Cordelia's hand clasped within his own.  Fred cleared her throat and started, "Well the way I see it is, Angel went to Hell before.  That's what I gather anyway.  How he got out and why, I don't think I could explain except for possibly writing out a transference equation."  Pushing up her glasses, she shrugged her shoulders. "I don't think you'd be wanting that anyway.  Going through the portal to Pylea shifted the balance of the equation."

 

"But he came back."

 

Fred lifted a finger, her eyes sparkled as she explained. "True but this ain't like no other mathematical equation.  This one's got loads and loads of unknowns.  He went through the portal and it did something to make the equation out of balance. In other words, it pissed someone or something off.  They found out you got out."

 

Angel shook his head. "No, it can't be."  He was tightening his grip of Cordelia as he spoke and she stroked the length of his arm. "They knew. The First Evil tried to drive me mad before.  No this is different, this is something different."

 

"How?"

 

Angel fingered the gash on his face. "It isn't any evil, it's something less."  Wesley witnessed him gather his strength. "It's primordial.  It flays away at every bit of flesh."  He shivered. "It doesn't know evil.  It doesn't know good.  It eats souls, devours them. It feeds. It just needs."

 

"But that's it, don't you see?" Fred jumped up from her reclining position at the pillar. "You got out once and now it wants you again because something about you changed. The equation has changed and it wants what you got."  She giggled. "You have something it wants."

 

"Something has changed about your soul. Something it hungers for," Wesley finished as he stared at the clasped hands of Cordelia and Angel.  "Good Lord."

 

Angel had closed his eyes as if in capitulation to the conclusion, as if he already understood.  "That's why."  His voice quaked as he confessed. "I went to the church. It came to me, it tried to get me to give her over to it. It wants us. It wants her."  His voice was ragged, ruined. "It came from nowhere, it was there in my head.  I went to the church."

 

"The church?"

 

"To burn it out of my head."

 

"Man, you did that to yourself?" Gunn whispered.

 

"Yes."  His shoulders collapsed as he admitted the truth.  "And I failed.  It wants Cordelia."

 

Cordelia gripped Angel's hand with both of hers. "Because of my link to the Powers?"

 

Angel couldn't look at them, only stared at the floor. "No, because of your link to me. It told me," He stumbled in his words. "It told me and I knew it was true." He was begging Cordelia for forgiveness. "You have to understand.  I never intended to get this close, feel so much for you.  I never intended this to happen.  I didn't understand." 

 

"How much you feel for me?"  Her voice was light as if Cordelia feared she might shatter him.

 

But Wesley answered for Angel, took the weight pressing down on the vampire's shoulders and stated, "He loves you."

 

"Even more than that," Angel whispered. He wasn't looking at her.  "My soul is more with you in my life.  More than it ever was before. More.  I'm more, a better man.  A man, not a vampire. A Man."

 

Cordelia moved, slowly, purposefully embraced him.  In low tones so not to disturb the moment, she answered, "I love you, Angel. I love you."

 

Tears ran over his face yet he denied them. His tone was desperate, pleading. "The night is ugly, is painful.  I didn't want you to suffer it.  I tried to burn it away.  But God doesn't want me, doesn't listen to the prayers of a vampire.  I wanted to burn it from me."

 

"Burn what, Angel?" Wesley sank to his knees by the couch.  The shadows of the lobby seemed to broach the perimeter, seemed to ooze toward them.  And suddenly their veil no longer offered safety to him but instead threatened him with the power of their separate secret gods.

 

"Cordelia's link to me, to my soul."  Angel peered outside. "Oh God, it's night."

 

 

Part 5:

 

On the rising wind, he smelled it, the soft tinge of night descending upon the city. For all the nights he lived and walked this Earth, for all the ages of time swept by, the night always carried the fragrance, the pulse of life. There was a time he luxuriated in its safety. With the fall of night, he found a certain serenity.  In the past, he hid within the folds of its darkness and wrapped it around him like a lover's arms.  He sought it out, slipped into it and hibernated in its warmth, its obscurity, its fine thin edge.  He called it that, in his head.  Night gave him what sanity he still possessed, allowed him to walk the fine thin edge of light and dark, of sanity and insanity.

 

Yet as the wind stole through the cracks of the door frame, he shuddered in remorse for all the deadly things that rose, that crawled, that awoke upon its coming. It was no longer a mask to hide behind, but an entity itself to hide from.

 

They spoke around him, he heard only snippets of what they discussed.  He needed to disappear, to slip away from them.  But his legs rebelled and he curled into the cushions of the sofa.  Cordelia's fingers stroked his forehead, lingered at the line of his jaw.  She sat a part from the conversation and instead wordlessly communicated with him, all that he desired.  Her smallest gesture became his lifeline. 

 

His existence.

 

He raised his eyes to meet hers for the first time since the confession of love had been made. Every pain, every pleasure was there mirrored within her own.  Her mouth opened slightly as she gazed at him.  Reaching for her, he grazed her lips with his fingers but did not dare to touch her further as if he feared he might fracture a glass blown sculpture of her. Her own hand grasped his and she leaned toward him. 

 

Her kiss, her lips barely brushed his own and he felt for an absurd moment as if he were a sleeping prince in some fairy tale and she was his warrior princess come to rescue him.  The lightness of the kiss breathed life and she pressed forward, advancing.  Her hand left his and glided around his jaw, up through his hair. And his hand found the ridge of her collar bone, the smooth silk of her skin as he stroked the line of her neck.  There was no right or wrong to it.  It was acceptance, it was peace, it was love.

 

As they parted, a smile rose upon her lips and he steadied his own need, his rising hunger for her.  They stared for a moment, for a minute, for an hour.  This existed for Angel, just this moment.  But the weight, the driving fear shattered their encapsulated moment.

 

With hands in his pockets, Wesley stood over them and spoke as they broke away. "If what you say is true, Angel, we've no time to lose.  The night is here and something dreadful is coming."

 

Angel glanced up at the former watcher, his friend and nodded.

 

"Maybe we scramble from here.  You know, go into hiding or something," Gunn suggested. "Might be better to find out what we're up against before we try to go into battle with it."

 

"But the question is where?" Wesley frowned. He glanced at the darkened doors, the shadows of the lobby.

 

"The church," Gunn suggested. "Ain't no place for a vampire I know but it ain't no place for the spawn of Hell either, right?"

 

"No, it won't work."  Angel shifted and sat up. "It came into the church before. I couldn't get rid of it."

 

"Then where is it now?  'Cause I don't seem to see it anywhere, but maybe you got it hidden."   Fred shrugged as they glared at her. "Well, he musta gotten away from it, 'cause here he is."

 

Shaking his head, Angel said, "No, I don't think I got away from it."  A pain streaked through his face and he instinctively cradled the gash.  It seemed to dig into the bone.  He groaned against the growing pain.

 

Cordelia tilted her head and caught his eye. "That still hurts?" 

 

The pain burnt tears in his eyes. Cringing, he answered, "A little”."Let me get something for it," Cordelia stood, but before leaving him, she bent down and kissed the crown of his head. "It'll be okay."  She asked Fred to accompany her and wildeyed the woman did.

 

"Gunn," Wesley addressed the street warrior. "While I do agree that knowing our enemy is best in other scenarios, I also have to consider what Angel has detailed for us.  This thing has followed Angel everywhere even broached our sacred temples and churches.  Somehow, something has changed.  The barriers we as men have constructed against such beasts have broken down."

 

"All this 'cause Angel and Cordy have the hots for one another?"

 

Wesley raised an eyebrow and, pursing his lips, said, "In short, yes."  Turning back to Angel he said, "We'll make our stand here."

 

"I don't want you to get hurt."

 

"No one is going to get hurt," Wesley stated.  And for the first time Angel believed him.  The strength behind those words seemed built on something other than book know-how, seemed built on something more visceral. "Gunn get the weapons out.  Everything, including incantation powders."

 

Gunn paused before he followed the orders given to him but a firm glance from Wesley and the street warrior left.  Wesley raised his index finger as if he might speak, stopped himself, then rounded the sofa and sat next to Angel.

 

"This thing is from Hell."

 

Grimacing as the pulsating slash on his face dug deeper, Angel nodded.

 

"You remember it?"

 

He nodded again.  He didn't want to remember it, wanted always to forget it.  Every memory he forged he hoped would someday cut away at the horror of Hell like a sword slicing his enemy in two.

 

"You fear it?"

 

Swallowing, Angel said, "Yes."

 

"It knows you fear it."  Wesley leaned toward Angel, his forehead nearly touching Angel's. "It understands your fear.  It feeds on it.  Becomes more powerful because of it."

 

"How, how?"  Angel stammered. "How do you know?"

 

Wesley bowed his head but after a moment's pause looked up at Angel. "I know."

 

Angel asked no more.

 

"Don't let yourself fear it Angel," Wesley gripped his fisted hand. "It wants you to fear it so it can control you.  If it controls you then you become subservient to it.  You give it what it wants."

 

"It wants my link to Cordelia."  The pain throbbing in his head deafened him so that the words sounded muffled, worlds away. "It wants Cordelia."

 

Wesley cleared his throat and in low tones said, "Fear controls Angel.  You know that.  You imparted that into your victims for one hundred and fifty years.  Absolute fear controls absolutely."  He paused then after a breath said, "If you fear it, you worship it.  It becomes your secret god.  Don't.  You have to overcome the fear."

 

Angel shook his head as Cordelia walked back into the room. "I can't.  I can't not fear for her, for all of you."

 

"Then we've already lost."

 

Angel hung his head and folded his hands.  In a whisper he said, "It can find me where ever I am.  It haunts me not hunts me."  Cleansing himself with an unneeded breath, he added, "If it comes the only way to defeat it will be to sever its link to me."

 

Cordelia knelt at his feet again and reached up with a cool clothe to his face.

 

"Kill me."

 

She snapped back her hand and said, "Oh no, no!  Can we say martyr much?"  She grabbed his chin and stared into his eyes. "You are not going to throw yourself to the wolves again.  We *will* find a way out of this."

 

"You better listen to her," Gunn said as he entered the room with an axe in hand. "She's using her important voice."

 

"'Cause you know, *she's* a princess and all," Fred mumbled from behind the lobby counter.

 

"Focus, people, focus!" Wesley said. "I agree with Cordelia, we will find a way out of this. I will hit the books."

 

Cordelia slipped onto the couch next to Angel and raised the clothe to his face as she said under her breath to Fred, "Jealous much."

 

"No," Angel stated simply.

 

His words stopped them.  He lowered Cordelia's hand and in turn glared at each of them.  "There isn't going to be any other way.  You have to kill me."

 

"No!"  Cordelia stood.  Her shoulders were shaking.  Her fists clenched as the heat of anger reddened her cheeks. "No, we are not going to promise you that.  I am not going to kill you!"

 

He heard her speaking, understood the words, but his attention drifted, fell, and landed. Whispers, murmurs ruptured in his head.  Its whispers, its words.  "I'm coming childe.  I coming for her." It said it like a chant, a prayer. "I'll take her, devour her and you can have her."

 

Angel jumped up, pushed himself away from Cordelia, away from Wesley. "No, no."

 

"What Angel?"  Wesley followed him.  "What's happening?"

 

"It's coming, coming.  Promise me to kill me, promise me!"  He turned as the voices screamed louder in his head. He mumbled the words outloud. "Her soul, so succulent, so alive."  He stumbled, staggered around the divan. "It's coming, Wesley."

 

As if a thousand fingers raced over piano keys, the noise grew in his head and drowned out their calls to him.  Before him the world warped and contorted.  It seemed the world plunged into the waters, the depths of a river. Their words grabbled and their forms wavered and misted. Something touched him and he screamed.  But the flood of night overtook him, streamed down his throat. The shadows crept over him as a multitude of spiders danced over his flesh. With his last conscious thought he shrieked, "It's here."

 

He released his hold and recalled only the cold cackling as *It* emerged.

 

 

Part 6:

 

She remembered it only in segments.  The kiss.  Xander leaning close to Willow. Their lips touching.  The shadows of the factory thrown off kilter as she ran.  A creaking.  A crash and she plunged.  She knew the bar jutted up through her abdomen like she was a prized butterfly forever pinned on display.  The horror of her despair etched over her broken wings exhibited for everyone to witness. 

 

Her world closed around her that day, collapsed in an avalanche as the pain grew outward. Her belief in herself spiraled down and was impaled by the bar, stabbed through and splintered apart.  The dissolution of Cordelia Chase began on an autumn night in Sunnydale during her senior year.

 

She perished that night.  But like a phoenix she rose up from the ashes, from the dust to rebuild her image, rebuild herself.  It surprised her still, that she was loved, could love. Yet the foundation she built upon crumbled as she watched and only wished to remember the events in segments.  Or not to remember it at all.

 

Angel stumbled backward, his arms outstretched as if trying to gain purchase, as if trying to grasp his last hold of this world.  He screamed, a shriek more of a dying terrified animal than of a man in pain.  Gasping, she raced around the sofa if only to be at his side.  It was Wesley that caught her arm, pulled her back.  It was Wesley that ordered weapons be aimed. 

 

She heard them readying for battle yet her eyes never left him.  Her foundation, her Angel.

 

He fumbled to his knees, his hand clasping the wound on his face.  His shoulders shuddered, jittered.  His begging dug a hole in her chest, squeezed the breath from her lungs.  He begged for them to stop it, to kill it.  He begged for her to leave. 

 

It's coming.  It's coming.  It's coming.  He chanted as if he heralded in the twilight of the world, of the anti-Christ.

 

She moved to go to his side, but Wesley jumped and shoved her behind him.  "We stand.  We stand together as a family."

 

Tugging at his hand, she growled, "Angel is family."  She yanked away from him and rushed to Angel's side. 

 

She stopped, paused.

 

It oozed, bled outward.  The gash on his face gushed a blue black fluid.  It did not flow as if commanded by gravity but spread over his hand, crept over his face.

 

"It's alive, Cordelia," Wesley hissed and jerked her back to him.

 

As it expanded like a plaque of flesh eating bacteria, Angel glanced up at her one last time.  His eyes flickered to amber and he fell forward.  Holding himself up with only one hand, he murmured her name, then succumbed to It.

 

With the last breath of her name still on his lips, the fluid rivered down his throat.  It muffled the last of his cries and he balled up against the pain.

 

"Stop it Wesley, stop it!" She glared at him, wanting so much for her anger, her frustration to force him to act.  Looking up at him, she knew though the terror throbbing her heart, pounding at her temples afflicted him as well.  He paled as he watched the transformation,  stuttered and stammered to answer her.

 

"Yo English, what you want me to do?"  Gunn yelled as he shoved Fred beneath the lobby counter.  "You want me to wack it with something?"

 

Before Wesley answered, a moan shifted their attention back to the writhing figure in the  middle of the lobby.  He was covered in the dark liquid as it wormed its way into his flesh, bore down into the bones.  Skin flayed away, and the white of bones dripped with its ooze.

 

In one movement as the remnants of Angel crawled and reached out a hand to them, his body arched, quaked and wings broke through his back.  The blue black fluid whirled about his body and long boney claws were formed, a tail slithered and slapped the floor.  Horns crowned his skull.

 

"Angel," she whispered and knew he no longer existed.

 

"All in all, that'd be worse than Pylea," Fred commented before Gunn pushed her below the counter again.

 

A low throaty growl issue forth as it moved, slid toward them. "I've come for you."  It stared only at her; its eyes mesmerized with their shallow depths.  Like a mirrored lake.

 

Its wings spread outward and it slithered.  "His soul fed me for a hundred years.  Now your link to his soul will feed me for a thousand more."

 

Wesley raised the crossbow and stepped in front of her. "You have no power here."

 

A corner of its mouth turned upward as if it smiled and it looked down at Wesley like a parent considered a child. "I've always had power here. In each and everyone of you, I reside.  I already have her, I already have you." It cackled. "How's the closet?"

 

"Bastard," Wesley said and added, "You won't take her, you won't hold Angel."

"You can't kill me."  Its voice wrapped around the words in slow sensual whispers. "You kill me, you kill him." 

 

It leapt. Crashing into Wesley, it grappled with him as she rolled away.  Gunn swung his axe, cutting at the expanse of wings.  It snarled at Gunn and, leaving Wesley, seized the street warrior, ripped the axe from his hand and bit into his neck in one movement. A book flew through the air, knocking the winged serpent in the head.  It tore away from its feast to glower at the girl behind the lobby counter.  Fred whined and ducked again as it dropped Gunn and jumped toward her. Cordelia grabbed Gunn's forgotten axe and, pulling her arms all the way back, slashed at it with a brutal slice.  It screamed and averted its attention to her.  Its wings spread, it encompassed everything, the world darkened as it closed in on her.

 

"You will be my nourishment, my amusement, my lover for a thousand centuries."  It leaned to her, its breath hot and acidic. Swinging, she hit it with the axe.  It grabbed the weapon from her wrist, twisting her joint until it shatter.  She toppled to her knees, cradling her wrist. A bolt from a crossbow stabbed it in the leg and it turned from her to Wesley.

 

"Get out, Cordelia, go!"  Wesley yelled.

 

She stumbled to get up, the pain in her wrist causing the room to spin. Before she could make it to the door it was upon her again and blocking the exit.  She kicked and punched, not protecting her injured wrist. Its hands moved over her body, touching, feeling, exploring. She quelled a scream and bit down into its velvet skin. It growled at her and lifted its lips to bare its fanged teeth.  She kneed it in the groin and twisted around to escape up the stairs.

           

Rounding the mezzanine pillar she raced to the landing of the second floor of the hotel.  It glimpsed her and, pausing, smiled.  "My lover." 

 

It launched and flew to her on the mezzanine.  The beat of its wings took the air from her lungs, knocked the strength from her legs and she dropped to the floor. 

 

Settling over her, it gathered her to its chest and held her.  Its wings enfolded her and, as it stared down at her, she knew the purity of darkness, the purity of pain, the purity of fear. She could not fight, she would not fight.  It leaned down to consume her.

 

"Bastard," Wesley said as he mounted the landing with crossbow in hand. "I told you to leave my family alone." 

 

The arrow left the bow before she could protest. It struck the winged serpent.  In the chest.  In the heart.

 

The heart.

 

It burst into dust.  And the dust fluttered about her, sprinkling her with its death throes as she heard it whisper in Angel's voice, "Cordelia."

 

And it was gone.  Dead.

 

And there was only silence.

 

As they stood there, looking at the ashes, realizing Angel was dead.

 

Wesley shuddered as the crossbow dropped to the floor.  His whole body heaved and he began to weep.  She pulled herself up from the ashes, her mind numb and frozen. She wanted only to remember this day in segments.  Or not at all.  Yet she knew she would remember every detail, every nuance, every fragrance.  Wesley fell into her arms and they crumpled to the floor on their knees. 

 

She couldn't blink, couldn't cry.  There was something dead inside her.  Dead forever.  She saw Fred help Gunn to a chair, saw the rain start to pour outside.  Yet nothing seemed a part of her anymore.  She was dead, pinned to a wall, for all to see.

           

 

Part 7:

 

A certain separation shielded her, kept her safe from the motion, the world around her.  She'd heard of people that lived in plastic bubbles isolated from disease and she knew now that in a way she too had lived in a bubble.  Yet it had not been plastic, but glass.  As she stood perched on the top step of the landing to the mezzanine in the Hyperion, Cordelia Chase realized the moment the glass around her shattered.

 

Even now, she could picture it fracturing and the shards splintering her world apart. It was the moment he had walked into their office, unwelcome and strident.  Marching past the wheelchair bound Wesley, he swept past her and went to the book shelf.  She blocked his way, preventing him from stealing the book.  His stare.  The energy vibrated and she felt as if cold fire sizzled over her skin.  Glaring down at her, he threatened her, told her not to make him move her.  In that paralyzed moment, she wanted him to try, to grab her, to reach across the chasm that divided them.

 

The world cracked as the heat of his gaze burned into her, as she fought not to inhale. And the flames within his stare burst the glass around her, melting it as it exploded.  She needed him away from her, needed to escape him.  She shoved the book at his chest, not because of Wesley's insistence but because she felt Angel inside.  Felt a sensation brush over her skin, glide through her blood.  She felt him.

 

Stepping forward, Cordelia looked down at the ashes, the dust of his soul.

 

In those first few days after he died, there was a fury about them, a storm.  Wesley buried himself in books, tried incantations, called every resource.  He worked until his shoulders sagged and his body moved with guilt ridden jerks.  He promised her everyday and when he failed, he disappeared into the night without a word.  She finally told him to stop.

 

"Stop, Wesley, just stop." She doubled over on the sofa as if a vision plagued her.  Gunn crouched by her side, his rough hand on hers. They peered at her expectantly as if they wished she had been struck with a vision.  "No, no vision."  She struggled away from their touches, their condolences. She held back the tears as she pronounced it.  "Just stop trying Wesley.  He's," she paused, the thought choked her and seemed to blast in her head.  She bit her lip to stop the tears. "He's dead.  He's gone.  The visions are gone.  Every."  Her voice broke. "--Everything is over."

 

"If I try one more resource, there's a bookstore I've come to hear about," Wesley ignored her. "It isn't in LA.  Seems to be in New York, not the city but the state. A city near Niagara Falls, you might like a trip there. I heard there are books there, quite rare."

 

"No, no Niagara Falls, no rare book stores."  She fisted her hands until she felt her nails puncture the flesh of her palms. "It's over.  He's gone."

 

"I still ain't gripping reality much myself.  But," Gunn caught himself, clenched his jaw and forced out. "But it's over, Cordy's," he cleared his throat and the continued, "Cordy's right."

 

Slamming the book down, Wesley grimaced as he round the lobby counter.  His finger shaking as he pointed at them, he said, "No, we are not quitters.  We do not quit.  Even when Angel fired us.  We fought the good fight.  We persevered."

 

Gunn stood and went to his side, clasping a hand on his shoulder.  "The good fight's over English.  They won."

 

Wesley yanked away from Gunn, glaring at him. "I cannot believe you would give up so easily.  You would just abandon all hope.  We have a job to do and I am going to do it."  He regarded her then went back to his sentinel duty over the dusty books at the desk. "Even if you won't."

 

Taking in a breath, she rose and walked past Gunn.  He moved to speak but she just shook her head and went to Wesley.  She reached over to the book he studied and closed it.  Her hand drifted to his and she grasped it. "It's over."

 

"No, I will not accept that."  His words were barely audible.

 

"You did what you thought was right, what you had to do," Cordelia whispered, never looking at his face, knowing if she raised her head the tears would fall.

 

"I acted in anger, in hatred."  He stiffened his shoulders but she understood it was only a facade, a fiction. 

 

"It isn't your fault."  She didn't blink for fear of the weeping.

 

"No, it is."  He stepped away from her, their clasped hands outstretched to hold on to one another.  Slowly, he untangled his fingers.

 

"You saved me, Wes."  She gaze up at him, finally letting the tears stain her cheeks. "It had nothing to do with anger.  You saved us all."

 

He nodded. "And yet somehow I feel as if I failed again."  He retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket, refolded it and handed it to her.  He gave her a weak smile and said, "Goodnight."

 

She nodded and he left. 

 

The storm over them cleared and settled then.  Glancing around the hotel, she glimpsed only mire traces of her friends, her family.  The days had lengthened to weeks.  And life moved on, as it does.  There was no memorial for Angel, nothing, no place for her to weep, to mourn.  She came to this place.  This hotel.  The empty rooms seemed to echo her heart, her soul.

 

Bending down, she glanced at the dust still patterned after him.  It amazed her that the outline was of Angel and not of the Hellbeast. She wanted to give him something, some small gift.  Opening her purse, she dug in the bag until she found it.  She carefully unwrapped it.  The glint of the razor's edge was barely visible in the moonlight.  The blade flickered as she held it.

 

Tear began to flow, dropped over the razor and onto her hands.  The glass bubble was broken.  She wasn't planning on death, she wasn't planning anything at all when she put the razor in her bag. 

 

Curling into the dust, she laid upon the soft carpet and pushed the razor into her wrist. It wasn't supposed to hurt, not if you were really intending on killing yourself.  That's what she heard.  Suicides victims are numb to the pain.  Victims.  And she understood the paradox of a suicide victim.  She sliced into her flesh and cried out.  The pain jarred her.  She only made a small jagged cut and let the blood leak out.  It was slow.  It was not a killing slice.

 

She wanted to give him something in her grief.  Some memorial.  The fire he put in her veins, the fire that burst the glass bubble, she wanted to give back to him.  She wanted to give him her soul.  But she only had this to give   her blood.

 

And so with tender small cuts, she bled herself for him.

 

Gave his memory, her blood.

 

Gave his soul, her soul.

 

As night descended, she knew she had no secret god.  No, no secret god at all.

 

 

Part 8:

 

He stayed hunched over, his back bent, his shoulders crooked from the pain. His mind wandered now, spiraling with the pain as it speared into him.  He was one of the lucky ones, he'd found a corner to hide in, to curl up against, to find refuge in. As he leaned his head against the cold amorphous wall, he closed his eyes and for a moment felt her. 

                                                                                               

He imagined in the rare silences that she came to him, that her hands covered the swelling wounds, that she tended to his scarred skin.  He went over it once and again in his mind, focusing on every memory of her.  The grace of her touch as she cleaned his wounds, the warmth of her smile as she whispered he should rest.  It was the little things that he remembered, that he focused on. 

 

It came to him. The Hellbeast. It survived within the womb of Hell.  It could not perish for it thrived on the weaknesses of human souls. It licked his wounds but ripped away at his sanity.  It seared his flesh, slowly, methodically. 

 

It used his despair.

 

It broached the fragile memories within his mind and wove them into figments.  The Hellbeast robbed the last fragments of Cordelia from him, used them to fool him, used them to taunt him. 

 

He would plead.  Beg.

 

And she would come to him.  Aglow in a wash of life and tend to his injuries, to the pain gripping him.  She would soothe back his hair, caress his shivering form. As she eased his pain, she would offer her blood and the ache in his belly was so acute, he would take it without question. 

 

But it wasn't Cordelia.

 

It was the Hellbeast.

 

With every taste, he would lose more of himself, lose more of her. She dissipated, with each passing moment, she moved farther away.  He struggled to hang on, to recall the brush of her.  But there came a time when he could not.  When he remember nothing but the pain, the torture about him.  His mind filled up with the screams, his screams. It tore away his memories, the last images to which he clung.  There was only the coming of night. 

 

He saw nothing as the rain began to fall.  It started that way, the night in Hell.  He forced himself to remain still, forced himself into a smaller ball.  Yet a distant fragrance called to him, pulled at him.  He opened his eyes to the blackness that seemed to absorb his skin.  The smell intoxicated and a dizziness overwhelmed him as the power of it consumed him.  He reached out, caught the drops and brought them to his lips.

 

Warm, viscous.

 

He lifted the drops to his mouth, tasted it.  Sensual, thick.  Blood, her blood.  The need clenched his muscles, tightened in his throat.  He cupped his hands and collected it. 

 

Blood.

 

He drank.  And drank again.

 

It filled him, quenched the ache that plagued him. It streamed over his hands, over his wrists.  In his excitement, he bit down upon his own wrist. 

 

But the blood continued to flow, her blood washed over his mouth, his tongue.  He drank.

Not caring that it wasn't her.  Not caring it was the Hellbeast reborn in Hell itself.  He smelled her, he tasted her.

 

He heard a name.  An echo of a past life.  A name. 

 

"Angel," the voice murmured in his head. 

 

He only bit down harder, not waiting to be revived from this dream.

 

"Angel."  The tone became more desperate, more urgent. "Angel!"

 

His teeth ripped flesh.

 

"Angel, stop!  God, stop Angel, stop!"  A hand clawed his hair, pulled his head up from the wrist he fed upon.  She was still there, more real than any dream he'd had.  The air around him seemed to change, lighten and breathe. His surroundings twisted and structure formed out of the abyss.  Columns grew, color spread over ground, reds, yellows, greens.  A memory, he told himself. 

 

He snarled at the ghost image of her, smiled at the open wound on her wrist.  "Angel, stop."  He bent to feed again, yet she yanked his head from her wrist. "Angel, Angelus, whoever you are I said stop!"  She jerked back her free hand, balled it.

 

Her fist collided with his jaw and he staggered, paused, then fell to the carpeted floor. He only heard her whisper as he lost consciousness, "You're back, oh God, you're back."

 

           

 

           

 

PART 2

 



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