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The Secret Mathematic
A novel-in-progress from Cheeseburger Brown
The Secret Mathematic, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 16

In old Saint Medard they rent rooms by the hour. When the young become unruly its alleys choke with burning cars. It's a place to be mugged, to get stabbed, to make a deal. It's a place for running away, for hiding your shame, for feeling better about your lot when you eavesdrop on your neighbours.

The streets run with piss.

Drago trudges up the stairs from the metro, his crutch clicking on the pavement. He skirts a man swathed in newspapers grumbling in a wet corner, then steps carefully around a pile of vomit. Once on the sidewalk he takes a map out of his pocket and studies it, then looks up and squints at the tightly crowded building fronts, searching for numbers. A few of the passersby take notice.

It's a cloudy afternoon. Drago steps back from the curb as passing cars kick up spray from the puddles. A dented green Peugeot slows and the driver cranks down his window. "You want a rock, friend?" he asks.

Drago shakes his head and the Peugeot moves on. Drago wonders what sort of a person sells rocks out of his car. A freelance landscaper?

Someone touches his elbow. Drago turns. A boy about his age wearing a black leather coat says, "You look lost, mec."

Drago nods. "Yes, yes -- I am trying for to find this address," he explains, unfolding his map again and showing it to the youth.

The youth nods pensively. "I know where that is," he says. "I can give you directions. How much you got?"

"How much what?"

"It's going to cost you twenty francs. You got twenty?"

Drago withdraws his wallet and spreads the billfold, counting through the notes. He untucks a twenty and holds it out. The youth takes it and smiles. Drago smiles back, then frowns as he bumps into someone from behind. He looks to see two more youths flanking him. They're all smiling in a very friendly way. "You can give to me these directions?" he asks.

The youth nods. "Sure. We have to cut through this alley here. You just stick with me, mec."

"Okay," says Drago. "Thank you so much."

When Drago emerges from the alley again he's dabbing at his bleeding nose with the hem of his T-shirt. The pants pocket from which his wallet has been ripped is a loose flap hanging down from his bum. He still has his map, however, so he resumes walking slowly up the sidewalk while scanning the building fronts.

He stops in front of No. 21 and a half, a rickety iron staircase leading up to the second storey of a sad, sagging apartment house with papered-up windows and profane graffiti on the walls. Drago folds his map away, takes a shuddering breath, and then proceeds to climb the metal steps, his crutch clanging on every other riser.

The front door is unlocked. The hall is dank. He finds the flat and, after a brief but tense hesitation, knocks.

The knocking is very loud in the old apartment house.

He is about to knock again when he hears latches disengaging. A deadbolt bangs aside and then a narrow crack opens between the worn door and the filthy jamb. Drago sees something glisten from the shadows within, and guesses it might be an eyeball. It is accompanied by a quiet, dog-like snuffling sound. He clears his throat. "Hello?"

A harsh grumble: "What do you want?"

Drago straightens. "My name is Drago Tesla Zoranovic," he says, "and I'm looking for my father."

The eye opens wider. A man sniffs, then wheezes. "World, world," he whispers. "It's really you. After all these years now, it's finally you on my stoop. World, world -- my Drago...my boy."

Drago's breath catches in his throat. "F-Father?"

The next thing he knows he's been drawn into a tight, somewhat malodourous embrace. He's burned by stubble as he's kissed on each cheek, then pressed into another squeezing hug. "My boy," mumbles Ratko, "oh my boy, my boy."

The flat is squalid.

Drago is invited to sit on the bed. He blindly finds a place amid the stained bedclothes while he looks around the cramped room. As he does so his mouth slowly drops open until his jaw hangs agog. Ratko is watching him. He smirks. "Yes," he says. "It's you."

The flat is a shrine. The sloping walls are matted with papers: a faded purple mimeograph of Drago's WISC-R results; third generation photocopies of his every report card; out of date transit passes featuring Drago's dumbstruck flash photograph; ticket stubs; scrawled notes; blurry, yellowing Polaroids of a black-haired baby on a picnic cloth; an officially embossed Xerox of each of his degrees; a lock of hair tied with twine; inoculation records; shop receipts; and even a grainy blow-up of Dragana's sweet, succulent face behind glass.

"I have followed you your whole life," says Ratko. "I never really left you. I have always been there for you, in whatever small ways I was able."

On the dresser is a chess set, ready to play, covered in an inch of dust. Leaned against the wall is a hunting rifle with an odd, wire-hanger based contraption attached to the trigger. On the back of the door is a chalkboard of scrawls detailing Drago's regular comings and goings each week: class, cafe, laundromat, class, market, class, hardware store, class, home. Certain intersections, lecture halls and corners of the Bibliotheque Sorbonne are underscored, circled, or connected by arrows.

Drago looks to his father. He had always imagined him to be his mother's age, but he isn't. He's older. His face is like a thinner, sagging version of Drago's own -- more pallid, perhaps, and unshaven. Unrested. Tested, maybe. "I never knew," says Drago quietly. "I wasn't even sure you were alive."

"I swore to your mother," says Ratko simply. He gestures at a hot-plate. "You'll take coffee?"

"Yes please." He shifts on the bed. "I don't know why I found you. I don't...I'm not asking anything from you. I only wanted to meet you."

Ratko fusses with a can of instant coffee, his narrow shoulders hunched. As he peels back the lid Drago notices that he has six fingers on each hand, the diminutive extra pinky curled into habitual obscurity against the palm. With his back to his son Ratko says, "You may have nothing to ask, but I have something to tell you. You may not want to hear it -- at least, not all of it. But wants don't matter now, for either of us." He looks over his shoulder. His eyes are bloodshot but steady. "This meeting between us, Drago, is the culmination of a long fate. This isn't an accident. It is our moment." He pauses, then squints and wipes his eye. "These are tears of happiness. Don't worry. Today I get to serve my purpose in this world." He snuffles, then smiles. "I've never felt more whole."

Drago shakes his head. "I don't understand you."

Ratko crosses his wiry arms, nodding with his chin at the dusty chessboard on the dresser. "You still play chess?"

Drago gives him a solemn nod. "All the time," he says. "Even when I'm not, I am."

"I taught you!" croons Ratko with sudden vigour, startling his son. "Before you could speak, we played, you and me and your sister! We lived in chess, didn't we, my boy? I can see it in your eyes: you remember!" He does a little dance in place.

"Father?"

"And there," he continues, nodding over at the chessboard again, "is a game that has been waiting for you for twenty years. I knew one day you would find me, and we would play together again." He looks away and wipes at his nose. "I always kept it ready."

Drago smiles uncertainly. "Shall we play?"

"We shall," agrees Ratko. He holds up a single finger, quivering with tension. "But not now. The game is the last thing. The game is dessert. We have yet to tend to the meal, yes."

Drago straightens seriously. "You have something to tell me, father."

Ratko's eyes widen and he draws his gaunt face into a wide grin, lending him a distinctly maniacal air. "No, my son," he hisses between his teeth. "I have everything to tell you."

Before Drago can reply Ratko lurches over to a nearby shelf with a surprisingly rapid, springy jaunt. He begins prying books from the packed line, assembling them into a rude pile in his skinny arms. It is only as he leans aside to open a cupboard with his foot that Drago notices his father wears no shoes. His naked toes are almost as long as his strange fingers, and he uses them as such to pluck a ratty album from the cupboard which he then deftly tosses with his foot and catches on top of the pile. He glances over at his son. "Two hands are not enough for a busy man," he explains. "I am gifted with long toes, so why not use them?"

Drago is wide-eyed. "You could be in a circus."

"I have been, my boy, I have been. Let me say this: not nearly so exotic and exciting as a younger man might hope. World, world! Those were dark days, yes." He scampers over to the bed and gently lets the pile slide onto the floor beside it, then drops to his haunches. "Do you like mythology?" he asks, looking up at Drago.

Drago shrugs. "I don't study much in the humanities."

"A mistake," says Ratko seriously, stroking his somewhat pointed chin, fingers rasping on stubble. "The truth of science is illuminated by the lies of men." He climbs up on the bed with a discomfiting, insectile scuttle that takes equal advantage of all four of his limbs, sweeping up a book seemingly at random and spreading it open at a marked page: it is a journal, crowded with dense, crisply-drawn notes -- the language is Serbian, the hand the filigree tradition of yesteryear. He smooths out the page. "Tell me, my boy: what do you know of feathered snakes?"

Drago blinks. "Feathered snakes? Is there such an animal?"

Ratko smiles mischievously. "We're speaking of mythology -- no place for is there and isn't there here, my boy. We care only what is told. And much has been told about the feathered serpent, by peoples in every quarter of the world. Is it allegory? Yes, certainly. It is fancy? Perhaps, but not purely." He narrows his eyes, boring into Drago. "I have studied. I have seen the connections. There is too much to be coincidence."

"Studied?" echoes Drago vaguely. "You are with a university?"

"Pah!" cries Ratko, shaking his head. "Universities are full of idiots. Not you, my boy, but others. I tried to make them see, yes, but instead they called me crazy."

Drago swallows. Looking into his father's wild eyes, this is not difficult to fathom. "Feathered snakes..." he prompts.

"You know the tale of Zmaj Gorynych, of course."

Drago can offer only a blank look. "No, father."

"No?" replies Ratko, raising his brow with indignation. "What kind of a Serb doesn't know Zmaj Gorynych?" He sags slightly, shaking his head. "It's a tale a mother should tell at the bedside, but you'll forgive me for forgetting who your mother is, my boy. Of course she wouldn't have you hear it."

"It was Dragana who tucked me into bed," says Drago quietly. "She told me stories of gingerbread people who lived in fear of being eaten by trolls."

Ratko nods, then blots his nose crudely on his stained sleeve. He turns the pages in his notebook, arriving at a high-contrast photocopy of a stained-glass window depicting a Solar eclipse where the moon's progress is represented as a horde of bats with forked tails. "The old country people still speak of ale, daemons of weather and ruin -- black things, riding on the wind, bringing hail in their wake while they struggle to fly up to the sky to devour the Sun." He taps the image of the eclipse, then turns the page to reveal a wood-carved print of peasant farmers fleeing a tempest, lightning forks igniting the fields behind them. "The ale are insatiable, gluttonous, unkillable, narcissistic. They use the form of men when it suits their wiles."

"Possession?"

Ratko considers this, mouth pinched. "Possession is a Catholic misunderstanding. The ale do not inhabit men, they imitate them. They grow penises from their brows and stab mortal women in their wombs, planting an unholy seed. These offspring are servants of the ale, indistinguishable from humanity except by a characteristic odour that can only be detected by zduhaci crop guardians."

Drago sits up. "That -- that is a story I know, yes! The zduhaci are born with the caul, with an invisible strand of umbilicus tied to the Ghost World. They have..." He trails off, eyes flicking down to his father's hands. "They have six fingers on each hand and each foot."

He looks up to meet his father's eye. Ratko nods solemnly. "Do not be afraid," he says.

"The zduhaci can smell evil," Drago concludes, his voice a whisper.

"Not evil," Ratko corrects, head cocked. "Disorder. Vandalism. Errors." He blinks, then slinks suddenly off the bed and returns with two cups of coffee. Drago accepts his wordlessly. Ratko picks up a new book, flipping through pages of photocopied text, heavily annotated.

"In legend," he says, eyes flitting back and forth, "the zduhaci were agents of Zmaj Gorynych, toiling alongside him in his battle to rescue the Sun from ala daemons and their foul queen, who would consume it and thereby unmake the world." He reaches out with his left foot and picks up another book, passing it to his hands to flip through the pages, nose twitching. He presents Drago with a colour photograph of a faded mural: a great, snake-headed beast rears up over the clouds, its tail dangling in the crops below, quill-like spines rising in a feathery halo. "Zmaj Gorynych himself," Ratko pronounces heavily; "Lord Dragon, feathered serpent and guardian of mankind, saviour to the Sun and cock of the stars."

Drago stares at the image, transfixed. One head rises above spike-plated shoulders from which erupt eight smaller heads on either side. Their fanged mouths hang open and they exhale fire. "A terrible creature," notes Drago.

Ratko raises his brow. "Oh no," he says quickly. "World, world -- not at all, my boy, no. Fierce? Yes. Strong? Yes. Clever? Oh yes, most certainly that. But more fleeting qualities aside, Zmaj Gorynych is above all else and beyond any other consideration, a force for good." He flips backward to another image: a chipped and washed out mosaic depicting armed ranks battling around a black, fire-wreathed Sun. A knight in armour lies below, stricken. A feathered snake at his feet rears up against an advancing line of wraiths.

Ratko taps the page urgently. "Zmaj Gorynych keeps the world's death at bay by preserving the Sun from ala appetites. Zmaj Gorynych is the hero of a war so old history has no coherent telling -- a war not between saints and sinners, but between being and unbeing."

"I don't understand. If this dragon is a guardian, why is it depicted as a monster?"

"Because his powers cannot be understood, and secret knowledge is frightening. And..." He pauses, looking at his son keenly again; "because the legend is written by his enemies."

"Then at the end the Sun is eaten and the world dies?"

Ratko sighs, his expression suddenly tired. "No," he whispers. "Not yet."

"But I thought you said this war was ancient. How can the end be unknown?"

Ratko's mouth tightens. He puts a long, six-fingered hand on Drago's thigh and squeezes it gently. "My boy, history is not a line," he says. "It is a knot." He closes his eyes, face grim. "It has convolutions and braids. It twists back upon itself -- yes, even intersecting. Time's flow is neither simple nor sensible, at least not to senses such as we have."

Drago swallows, shifting on the bed. "It is a colourful myth, father."

Ratko opens his eyes, nods, indelicately snarfs the spine of the book and then places it aside. His foot brings him another, drawing it open to a marked spot. Drago obediently looks at the presented image: a crone in rags stands before a cabin raised upon living legs, clawed and reptilian. Drago looks over at Ratko. "It's the witch, Baba Yaga."

"Yes," confirms Ratko. "Queen of the ale, enemy of history, bitch-matron of the reaper."

"I know this fable. She builds a fence of skulls, and punishes curiosity."

"Yes," says Ratko again. "And she is the mortal enemy of Zmaj Gorynych, her every ambition doomed to frustration because he will not give up his treasure to her."

"Treasure?"

"Of course, my boy. Have you ever heard of a dragon without treasure?" Ratko tosses the book aside careless and it comes apart when it hits the floor. He brings another book up from the pile, rapidly flipping the pages until he comes to a reproduction of a three-panel frieze depicting a winged serpent lying guard over a hoard of coins. "Were Baba Yaga to capture his treasure, she would have command over all nature, and thus be armed to unwind the world and rebuild it anew with herself at the godhead."

Drago blinks, eyes lingering on the frieze. "Why can't she take the treasure? Is it cursed?"

"No," says Ratko. "It is hidden."

"And no one knows where?"

He shakes his head. "All players know its location, but that knowledge gains them nothing. The treasure of Zmaj Gorynych is clutched within the jaws of his sixteen lesser heads, clamped firmly shut, perfect and incorruptible guardians." He turns the page, which features a grainy blow-up of a painting: one of the smaller dragon heads, a wink of golden coins just barely visible behind the fume of its fiery breath.

"And so it must be Zmaj Gorynych himself who is hidden, in an impregnable lair."

Ratko shakes his head more emphatically. "All players know where he is. He lives openly. They watch him, and wait."

"What are they waiting for?"

Ratko closes the book and puts it aside. He turns to his son and takes his hands in his own, six long fingers wrapping firmly and tightly. "Zmaj Gorynych's treasure is hidden where no man can reach, even if they know its place perfectly. It is a cache that cannot be uncovered by any sleuth, nor any army, nor any weapon or force of coercion." He takes a deep breath, his long nose twitching, bloodshot eyes flashing dramatically. "Can you guess it?"

"No, tell me. Where is the dragon's treasure, Father?"

Ratko's face flexes with a sick passion, nostrils flaring. "It is hidden," he says, "in the future."

Drago blinks. "What?"

His father grins widely, exposing yellow teeth. "Legend holds that there will come a moment of opportunity for Baba Yaga -- a brief window of vulnerability during which Zmaj Gorynych's treasure will be naked before it can be enclosed behind protective jaws. And so she waits. Her minions wait. The envious wait. All players bide their time, so that they may range themselves around that moment and then, when it comes, be the first to seize upon it."

Drago whistles, hugging his own arms. "It is indeed a strange story, yes. A Serbian yarn, you say?"

Ratko snorts. "What I recount is a composite narrative, stitched from a hundred sources," he snaps. "I have seen the connections, and I cannot ignore them. If you look you'll see them, too -- in the Pentateuch, in the Bhagavad Gita, in recovered fragments of the Jamijama. It is peppered throughout lore, torn into fleeting pieces of nonsense but, with effort, it can be reconstructed and made whole again, leaving us free to put aside the veil of childish allegory and reveal the truth."

Drago feels heavy. He stares at the pile of books on the floor. "What truth?" he asks.

"There is no such thing as a dragon," says Ratko simply. "Zmaj Gorynych is a symbol."

"Of what?"

"Of you."

Drago looks up sharply, forehead creased. "What did you say?"

Ratko spreads his lank arms, six-fingered hands open. "Why do you think I named you and your sister as I did, my boy?" He nods to himself, then brings his hands together on Drago's shoulders. "Because I knew. Because I can smell it. Because it is fate." He sighs, his pink eyes watering again. "You, Drago -- you are Zmaj Gorynych. Lord Dragon, Itinerer of the Invisible Calendar."

Drago stares at his father. He is able to recognize dispassionately that the old man is mad. He understands why his mother wanted Ratko to stay away. A corner of Drago aches with pity: there is nobody to care enough about Ratko to push him into seeking psychiatric attention. "I...don't know what to say," he says lamely.

Ratko doesn't respond. Instead, he flies off the bed and scuttles across the floor on all fours, jamming his face at the base of the door to snuffle all along its edge. He looks back at Drago, face pinched, and declares, "We're running short on time. They're getting too confident."

Drago stares at him. Ratko springs back over to the bookshelf and pulls down two fat albums, presenting them reverently to his son.

"What are these?"

"Guide books," grunts Ratko. "They'll tell you who your friends are, how to recognize those who plot against you, what signs to mark your progress by. Hold them dear, yes. I've spent years preparing them. They represent the culmination of all my studies, and they contain everything you'll need to know to survive."

"To survive?" echoes Drago, clutching the albums numbly.

"You don't understand the stakes, my boy. World, world -- bless your innocence! But that luxury is no longer yours. The moment of fruition is coming closer every day. Listen!" He scoops up another book from the pile and cracks it open. Ratko clears his throat. "Quote, And new days shall come, in which the objects in a man's purse and the elements of his hall shall have eyes to hear and voices to speak; and the whole world shall quiver as a living thing so that the very stones sing songs and chariots will remember their every journey. Hark, for close draws the undoing of Babel's curse; pay heed, for the dragon will lay his golden egg on the morrow. Unquote."

Drago blinks. "What should that mean to me?"

Ratko leans in close. His breath smells like hazel nuts and wine. "Open your eyes, my boy. Let yourself see the signs: this passage -- more than two thousand years old -- describes our modern life. This is the age of the awakened world, Drago. This is the age in which the treasure comes to be. You have its seeds within you already, whether you know it or not...and I see from your look, you do know it." He pauses, his sneer unfolding into a smile. "You know it already."

Drago says nothing, eyes locked on his father's.

"Your instinct to stay mum is apt," Ratko whispers quietly, backing off. "After today, you are well-served to be miserly with your candour, yes. This is a curse I lay on your shoulders with every regret a father can have for making his son's life worse: you can never trust again."

Drago frowns. "Because weather daemons from peasant fables stalk me?"

Ratko snorts again, waving dismissively. "I can already hear the defensive doubt in your voice, urging you to swallow an easier lie -- that your life will be normal and that I am insane. Forget it now. It gains you nothing, though your mother would approve of that cowardice."

Drago rises suddenly from the bed, eyes hard. "You will not speak against my mother."

"Your mother called me a fool. She called my father a fool -- my father, who was a friend to Einstein -- a fool!" He sneers, rubbing his nose aggressively. "She is myopic. She is ignorant. She is afraid and stupid, always holding back my efforts --"

"Stop!" cries Drago. "Stop saying these horrible things!"

"How I wish the gods of old had conspired to strike her down instead of our dear Dragana --"

Ratko stumbles back from Drago's punch. He topples over the pile of books and hits the floor awkwardly, six-toed feet in the air. A few droplets of blood freed from his lip seem to hang in the air suspended for a moment before giving in to gravity and sprinkling down: pit, pat, pit. Ratko groans. Drago is frozen in place, his fist extended, breathless.

He gasps. "Father -- Father, I'm sorry!"

Ratko wheezes, then coughs, then snickers. He gets to his feet slowly, rubbing a banged elbow. He looks up. He's grinning, his lower lip split. "That was a nice hit, my boy," he says, flexing his mouth experimentally. "You're a natural boxer, yes."

"I've never hit anybody before," murmurs Drago, still frozen. He looks at his upraised arm and drops it, furrowing his brow. "My hand hurts."

Ratko snickers again. "My face, too." He takes out a filthy handkerchief and dabs at his mouth. "All I can smell is blood. We're as good as naked. You have to leave."

Drago feels suddenly panicked. "What? No, Father -- I can stay awhile. We still haven't played our game. Why don't we go out for supper together?"

Ratko shakes his head. "No, no, no. I cannot smell them. They could be getting too close -- close enough to make out what we say. It's too dangerous."

"Who, Father? Who is getting too close?"

"The players. Those who would seize the treasure. Those who would rape time for their glory."

"They're coming here? How can you be sure?"

Ratko rushes up into his son's face, index finger wagging insistently, spittle flying from his lips. "Because they follow you, my boy. They are always with you. You haven't noticed them, because you didn't even know you were supposed to be looking. But you'll notice them now. More every day: the apparent strangers who are never more than a few paces behind you in the market, never more than a few doors away in any apartment you let, their breath and clicks intruding on your telephone conservations and the crumbs of their sandwiches in the folds of your mail."

Despite his growing certainty that Ratko is delusional, Drago feels afraid. "What do they want from me?" he asks, mouth dry.

"They want to protect you and preserve you, so that you will finish your work. And then, on the day it is complete, they will slaughter you and wield your science to bring about their own greatness."

"How can I get away?"

"You can't. They would follow you to the moon. Your only hope lies in theatre: in misdirection and subterfuge, in manipulation and distraction. They will always be watching, which gives you the power to decide what they see. Your every action is an act, from today on, designed to sow confusion so that their image of your progress is never undistorted." He sighs, closing his eyes. "This is how I have lived every day of every year of every decade."

"Because they follow you, too?"

Ratko's eyes snap open. "Oh yes," he says, smirking. "But not for very much longer, no. They know you're here now, and they'll be burning to know what's been said. They will never find out, however. They won't risk exposing themselves to you, so it's me they'll go after -- and they'll learn nothing from me. I've made arrangements to ensure it."

"What arrangements?"

Ratko shakes his head and waves it off. "Never let the guide books out of your sight. Promise me." He then grins, claps his hands together, and nods with his chin at the chessboard on the dresser once more. "Will you take white or black, my boy?"

"We're going to play now?"

Ratko's eyes twinkle. "I've been looking forward to this for a very long time. In some ways it feels unreal that it has finally come to pass. World, world! I feel like I'm dreaming."

"Me too," admits Drago. He nods. "We'll take white."

Ratko rises and carefully picks up the board, motes tumbling from its edges in puffs and streamers. "Of course you will. And now we play, and we will say nothing more." He blows a void in the dust before his face, then sniffs at the air. "I'm still clouded by iron -- even whispers aren't safe."

Drago swallows. His hands shake. He blushes, and looks down and then up. "Father," he offers, "I love you."

Ratko lays the board gingerly on the bed between them. His gaze is downcast. His shoulders tremble. He sniffs again, his Adam's apple bobbing. "Make your move, Drago," he says hoarsely. He stares at the board, waiting.

Drago obeys.

When he steps out of the apartment house the sky is twilit. The street is busy. He carries his crutch, two thick albums, and enough loose change to buy a fare home. Through gaps in the parade of pedestrians he catches glimpses of the glowing metro sign, the stairway ringed by beggars. He shivers, then begins picking his way down the metal risers to the sidewalk. Clang, shuffle, clang.

His nerves buzz. He doesn't know what to feel, so he disappears inside a pocket of chess.

So absorbed, he doesn't even notice when the passersby are collectively startled by a loud bang sounding out from the old apartment house he's just left. He descends oblivious down the stairs to the subway tunnels while others spot ribbons of smoke curling into the burnished sky and pull out their telephones to call for firefighters. While he loiters on the platform sirens warble up above, drowned out as the train arrives. Warm tunnel-breath, flying grit and dissociated newspaper folds whoosh over him in a wave.

The doors part. Drago steps in and is whisked away.


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