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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Under a Sky of Knives

Michelle Muenzler's goal in life is to bring forth the bunny apocalypse and bury the earth with furry-soft goodness. When not working toward this goal, she experiments on her husband with new recipes and builds blockades around her NetBook to protect it from her cats. Her fiction leans toward dark fantasy with a twist of new weird, and if nobody dies in a story, then it probably wasn't written by her.

"I'll kill him," Helene says. "I'll rip out his heart and throw it to the crows." Autumn winds tear at her hair, lashing her face with black tendrils.
We stand, my sister and I, simultaneously together and apart, her hands clenching the cold stone of the public garden's only bridge and mine worming deeper into the protective pockets of my woolen dress. She, of course, still wears silk, even as our breaths cloud white in the early chill.
Just below us, one of the garden's many paths curves through a stand of black alder. But it is not the path's curve we are watching. A woman strains against an alder just off the path, bark tearing at her blue silk dress as she writhes and moans. Pressing into her, the subject of my sister's talk of murder thrusts his hips harder. Willem--glorious, golden-haired Willem. Willem, grunting in the alders loud enough we can hear him from here.
Willem, my sister's husband.
"If I don't kill him," Helene says, "I'll kill myself."
My chest squeezes so tight that every word I want to utter compacts against the others choking my throat. I want her to shut up, to let me suffer in silence watching Willem.
"Don't be an idiot," I finally say, my voice croaking from the effort. "Why kill yourself when you can kill her, instead?"
"Stop," Helene hisses. "Don't you dare pretend to care about me. You're just as bad as she is." She jabs a finger in the direction of the woman in blue, who gasps as Willem lifts her up, his grip firm beneath her bunched up skirts.
I force my gaze to the empty stretch of green behind Willem, and the pressure in my chest lessens. "Your words are sharp." I slide my right hand from my pocket and bare the long scar racing across its palm. "See how they cut?"
The puckered edges of my scar are red and worried, just the way I want her to see them. Her hands clench tighter on the bridge's railing, but that is her only acknowledgement of the wound she gave me months ago.
"I will do it," she finally says. "I'll climb to Anafeal and give myself to her. I'll spend the last of my life to curse the remainder of his. See if I don't."
I force a laugh from my throat. "Suicide doesn't become you, sister. And Anafeal is just as likely to do nothing at all as she is to curse him. Either way, you'll be dead and never know the difference."
"Better death than watching this again and again."
Yet still her gaze remains stuck on Willem and the woman in blue. Our life spins in circles, the same conversation repeated with every new discovery of Willem's infidelity.
I'm sick of it.
"If you're going to do it," I say, "then just do it. I don't care what happens to you anymore."
Her hand snaps against my cheek. So hard my jaw trembles. So hard I grit my teeth to keep from crying out. I want to weep--for her, for Willem, for the words that just left my tongue--but if I do, she'll never forgive me.
"I think I'm done strolling today," I say instead.
Helene doesn't even nod in acknowledgement as I abandon her at the bridge, but I know what she's thinking. If anyone should climb to Anafeal to die, it's me. That's the only truth between us, anymore.
Before I fall asleep that night, I lay on the creaking servant's bed my sister decided two months ago would be mine, under sheets so threadbare they are near worthless, and I tug at the edges of my scar. I pick until tears sting my eyes, until my palm burns and starbursts of pain stab outward from it. I pick until the edges ripple red.
Someday, Helene will see this scar and weep. Only then will I know she's forgiven me. Only then will I be able to forgive myself.
Come morning, I knock at Helene's door. "Wake up."
This should be a servant's job, but my sister trusts no one in the house anymore. I'm only tolerated because I'm family and have nowhere else to go. I make a poor servant, but Helene argues I'm a better servant than I am a sister. I think I'm bad at both.
She doesn't answer her door, so I knock again.
Still no response.
Cautiously, I toe down the hallway to Willem's door and ponder whether to wake him. She wouldn't be here--not after yesterday. It'll be days before she forgives him.
The only other possibility is unthinkable, though.
I knock on his door and swallow back the trembling in my chest.
By the time he answers, I'm ready to run. But then he opens the door, a loose robe tossed casually over his shoulders, leaving most of him exposed. He leans into the doorframe, not bothering to hide anything, and smiles.
"A bit early for a visit, don't you think?"
If Helene is in here, I'll hate her forever for making me see this, for making me speak with him. I focus just past his head, at an empty space of wall above the rumpled sheets of his bed.
"I'm looking for Helene."
"Did you want to come in and search?"
My traitorous heart thumps faster at the offer, but my mind remains set on my sister. Even from here I can tell the bed has seen only him this past night. "No. I just wanted to know if you'd seen her since yesterday."
"Ah, yesterday."
He jerks me into his arms and presses me back against the doorframe, a near perfect mimicry of yesterday's position in the alders. His one hand pins my shoulder against the frame while the other slides down the curve of my waist and tugs my skirt up several inches.
"Are you angry with me?" he whispers. His lips graze my ear. "Do you want me to apologize?"
It's all I can do to keep from crying. I can't make this same mistake again--my sister has yet to forgive me for the first time. She'll never forgive me a second.
"I have to find Helene," I say, struggling against his weight.
"You can find her later."
"No, I have to find her now." But even as I push against him, I know I'm not trying hard enough.
His grip tightens, and I squeeze my eyes shut knowing there's no leaving now. Then I'm thrust free into the hall and he's leaning once more against the doorframe as though nothing happened between us.
"You came to my door this time," he says with a laugh. "Remember that before you decide to go confessing to my wife again."
He shuts his door, and I'm left alone in the hall, sucking down deep breaths until my flesh stops twitching.
Helene has no friends--not since marrying Willem. If she's not here, there's only one place she can be. I shouldn't have goaded her yesterday. She may be slow to act, but when she does, it's with complete dedication. The scar on my hand is testament to that.
I wish she'd stabbed me in the heart instead.
The stone road to Anafeal is as worn as the centuries of feet that have tread upon it. At every rise, I hope to see Helene stomping toward me, her face screwed in anger. Anafeal's three gatekeepers don't allow everyone to climb, and of those that are allowed, not all choose to pay the price required.
But though Anafeal's mountain looms ever larger, my sister doesn't appear. And the longer she fails to show, the faster my step becomes until the road jars my bones and my eyes become focused only on the intent of moving forward.
As the path breaks around the mountain, my head tilts upward from the jolt of stones beneath my feet and I notice the smoke. A great plume of gray and white, thrashed by the wind against the mountain's side.
My left hand clenches in the pocket of my woolen dress while my scarred right strains to match. I walk faster.
Atop the final ridge, the valley of the first gatekeeper's house stretches before me. Here, the road ends, trickling away into a thin line of stone, then nothing.
I don't pause, not like the first time I was here a few months ago, but run as fast as my legs can bear.
Across the valley of scrub and rock, of brown lichens smudged in orange, of purpled mountain buds streaked with dots of red, smoke wreathes the ruins of the first gatekeeper's house.
The fire is at least half the day old, more a smolder now than anything. The house, with its low stone walls and once-green door, is now nothing more than a tumble of scorched stone and thatch cinders, the reek of it so bitter it curls my tongue.
The gatekeeper--a knob-faced old woman who reminded me months ago of nothing more than a bundle of sticks barely strung together--sprawls in the gray grasses at the foot of a crumbling arch. She giggles as ashes rain on her face.
There is no sign of Helene.
I drop into the ash-strewn grass beside the gatekeeper and shake her. "Where's my sister?"
The gatekeeper cackles and squirms in my grip. "Your sister? Is that who she was, that wench, that wastrel, that gutterbug who burned down my house? A curse on your sister and a curse on you!"
She spits at me, then falls back to giggling. The gatekeeper is smoke-mad. Useless.
"Helene," I call out as I push to my feet. "Helene!"
Beneath me, the gatekeeper's stick-body wracks itself as her giggling turns to violent coughing. Her face turns red beneath the ash, her eyes tear-filled and yellow.
Between coughs, she manages to speak. "She won't be coming. She's climbing. I told her no, but she said--she said, 'Burn you, old woman, I'll climb if I want. Just try and stop me.'" At that the gatekeeper breaks into giggles again. "'Burn me,' she said! Can you believe it? Burn me!"
Lies. Helene couldn't have done this. Stab me in a fit of anger, yes, but set fire to the first gatekeeper's house? Never.
"I'm going after her," I say, and start toward the path that snakes up the mountain's side.
"Not without passing through the arch, you're not. Anafeal will dress her altar with your guts. She'll wring you inside out as a lesson to those who dare offend her. The same as she'll be doing to your sister. You'll make a merry pair of innards to swing on. I'll climb to Anafeal myself just to dance in them."
I remember the arch well when I stood here just a few months back, my hand dripping blood through the swath of bandages wrapped around it, and the gatekeeper naming the price of my admittance through the arch. If Helene is climbing to Anafeal without the gatekeeper's permission, then she is as doomed as the mad gatekeeper says. All the stories agree on that, if nothing else.
If I'm to bring her back, I can't do so by incurring Anafeal's wrath as well.
"Pass me through the arch," I say.
The gatekeeper's giggling stops. She shoves herself upright, her face suddenly serious. "No."
"I'm not going all the way to Anafeal," I say, "just far enough to grab my sister and drag her home."
"Those who climb always climb to Anafeal. It cannot be helped."
"Not me. Not this time."
She stares at me, her yellow eyes narrowing, then bursts into giggles once more. "I have it then, your price!"
When last I stood here, the price was my mother's gold ring dangling from the chain around my neck. I chose not to pay it then and to return home instead. Soon after I gave the ring to Helene in hopes it would soften her heart toward me.
I own less now than I did then, but whatever the price is, I'll pay it this time.
"Your sister climbs with no price paid. For that, you will pay double." She snags my sleeve with her twig-thin fingers. "It's good wool, this dress. You'll leave it here."
I sputter. "I can't climb a mountain in my shift. I'll freeze."
"Your boots as well." She cackles and grins as if daring me to protest again.
I swallow my words but can't bring myself to disrobe. It's madness to climb a mountain in only my underclothing, but the only other option is to bypass the arch.
Or give up on Helene.
"If you love her," the gatekeeper says, "you'll pay the price and rejoice at how cheap it is."
I barely hold back the temptation to slap her. Instead, I unbutton my dress and pull it overhead. My boots follow, more quickly.
"Pass me through."
I shiver while the gatekeeper gathers my clothing. With the bundle stuffed in her arms, she looks to the arch, and the yellow cast of her eyes drops and turns to a blue so vivid the sky seems pale in comparison.
And then she speaks.
"Unfettered, climb to Anafeal;
the world stops at her feet.
Nothing climbs to Anafeal
that does not stop also."
I step through the arch and begin my climb upward through the black pines jutting from the mountain's skin. Behind me, the gatekeeper falls to giggling once more.
When night falls, I curse the gatekeeper with every step I take. The temperature plummets, and my feet turn to icy blocks. I only know that stones lacerate my soles by the black hint of blood on the ground behind me. Whenever I pull my hands free from the warmth of my armpits to make sure they're still there, the scar on my right hand shines vivid purple, like a dark eye glaring back at me.
It's not yet cold enough to freeze the angry tears on my cheeks, but it's close. I should be thinking of Helene, of how to calm her rage when I no longer know how to talk to her, but the wind bites my flesh like a hungry mouth.
Instead, all I can think of is Willem, and the tears break faster.
But I climb. And I keep climbing until I'm not even sure if I'm climbing or simply dreaming of climbing. There is no path anymore, just breaks in the pines and the endless trudge between them. Always upward.
Halfway through the night, the scent of woodsmoke fills my nostrils. My tongue loosens at the thought of bacon and toasted biscuits and a warm fire to sit beside.
Then, higher up, the mountainside blooms orange against the sky's darkness, only an hour or two away. The taste on my tongue turns to ash.
The second gatekeeper's house is burning, and with it, my hopes of catching Helene before the snowline.
Flames wreathe the second house, bright tongues licking the night sky. One side has collapsed already, tumbled into the arch that once stood beside it. The arch is gone, a pile of stone with embers dancing across its corpse.
Nearby, the second gatekeeper weeps.
She doesn't look old enough to be a gatekeeper, her hair still faintly blonde beneath the ashes, her face wide and barely lined by age and worry. But she weeps near the arch's base as though her entire life is done.
"I've come for my sister," I say, caught between shiver and sweat as the wind bites my back and the heat scorches my front.
Snot runs from her nose. "Go home." She sniffles and wipes her hand across her bleary eyes. It only smudges the ashes further. "Go home to where you came from. No more will rise to Anafeal today."
"I'm not here for Anafeal. I'm here for my sister."
"No one climbs unless they climb for Anafeal."
I cannot keep the mockery from my voice at the repetition of the first gatekeeper's claim. "Yet here I am, climbing."
She stops mid-sniffle, and her eyes harden. In that moment, she reminds me painfully of Helene.
I shove back the urge to apologize--I finished with apologies the day Helene accepted my mother's ring without a word in return--and motion at my shift and my stockinged feet. "I paid the price to climb. For both myself and my sister. You have no right to stop me now."
"Fool." She looks much older now than when I first arrived, her face creased with anger as she hobbles to her feet. "Your sister is not worth Anafeal's price. Her actions here are unforgivable."
My right hand squeezes until I can feel the blood throbbing against my scar. "Nothing is unforgivable."
I want to believe these words. I want to speak them until my tongue bleeds and my sister cannot deny the truth behind them.
The gatekeeper glares at me, her gaze boring through my flesh. Then she laughs sharply. "You're climbing for Anafeal after all, aren't you? Your sister is just an excuse, a noble lie to justify your climb. I can see the guilt in your eyes, like worms at a corpse."
The urge to smack the gatekeeper's smirking face is strong. "I'm climbing for my sister," I say. I cross my arms and try to return her glare, but my gaze keeps sliding to the burning walls just past her shoulder instead. Anything but her eyes and the judgment I know is in them. Less sure this time, I repeat, "I'm climbing for my sister."
"Twice the fool, then. A waste of breath and blood."
She spits in my direction, then wraps the hem of her robes around her hands and reaches into the pile of smoking stones that once comprised the arch.
She cries out once, then grits her teeth. Tears fill her eyes, turn them bright green. And she speaks.
"Emptied, climb to Anafeal;
the heart stops at her breast.
Nothing climbs to Anafeal
that does not stop also."
The acrid stench of burning flesh cuts through the cold.
"Go," she hisses, straining to hold the stone up high. The glow of her eyes wavers.
I shuffle beneath the stone. Once I'm past, she snarls and drops it behind me. Red blisters bubble her palms, and her robes smoke and singe where they wrapped the stone.
"You forgot to ask your price," I say. "I've paid nothing for your pain." Every gatekeeper has a price.
A spiteful grin creases her face, and I swallow back the threads of pity creeping up my throat.
"You paid my price already. You paid the moment your sister stepped foot on Anafeal's slopes unbidden. And you'll pay again when her guts spill steaming into the snow at Anafeal's feet. Now go. Go and join your sister's fate."
I'm beginning to understand why my sister chose to burn her way up the mountain.
Dawn streaks the horizon, and everything turns crystalline and sharp, a sky of knives and a blinding trail of ice and rocks and snow. Only my sister's boot prints break the snow's brightness, filling it with clean-cut shadows carved step by purposeful step. My own footprints crumble behind me, taking hers with them.
I climb, my ears thrumming with cold and my eyes bleeding warmth like open wounds. My feet drag the mountain's weight with each step.
I climb, the last gatekeeper's words grinding in my gut like so many stones. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps some actions are unforgivable and all this climbing is a waste of breath and blood. I thought I could save my sister before when I confessed what Willem did to me. What I let him do to me.
And look how that turned out.
Yet still I climb, Helene's name on the tip of my tongue, ready to be called out the moment I spot her.
And all I know for sure with all this climbing is the nearer I get to catching her, the further away from her I feel.
When I reach the third house, I'm ready for the warmth of its flames. Every bone feels brittle; my face is ready to crack.
Unfortunately, the house isn't burning.
The gatekeeper, more bear than woman with her thick limbs and coarse hair, stands in the snow, her feet planted wide and a cudgel resting in her grip. Blood smears the broken mess of snow before her and trails the boot prints leading up the mountain.
It is Helene's blood. I know it.
I drag myself to the arch and glare at the gatekeeper who dared to strike my sister. "Pass me through. Now. I don't have time to waste." My eyes follow the bloody trail as far up as possible, until it winds out of sight. There is not much mountain left, so Helene can't be far ahead. Nor Anafeal.
The gatekeeper's grip tightens on her cudgel. "Or what? You'll burn down my house?"
"If I must." I thought what my sister had done was a horror down below. All I care about now is reaching her in time. I'll do whatever it takes to save her, even if it means giving myself to Anafeal.
The gatekeeper makes me twitch beneath her gaze before answering. "If you pass through my arch," she says, "you will belong to Anafeal. There is no returning from that."
"Once I have my sister," I say, "I don't care. Anafeal can turn my skull into a soup bowl, for all it matters."
The words leave my mouth, bitter and sharp and full of truth. I've come here to die, after all, and in dying, I will finally have a chance to make everything right again.
The gatekeeper's face is inscrutable, but she approaches the arch. Once there, she drags her blood-tipped cudgel across the snow. Her eyes spark red, and she speaks.
"Broken, climb to Anafeal,
For nothing weighs that does not break.
Weeping, climb to Anafeal,
For nothing wants that does not weep.
Dying, climb to Anafeal,
For nothing lives that does not stop,
and all things stop at Anafeal.
Climb to Anafeal, and end all climbing."
My feet are frozen before the arch. There is a vast gulf between accepting your death and actually stepping to it. Then I picture Willem--glorious, golden-haired Willem--and his hands beneath the woman in blue's dress. Willem thrusting into the woman, his teeth grazing her neck. Willem thrusting into me.
And Helene. Sobbing when she thinks the house is empty, not knowing I've only hid in the wardrobe to keep from facing her again because I can't bear the look in her eyes anymore when she stares at me.
I step through the arch, only stumbling a bit because I can no longer feel my toes, and follow my sister's bloody trail upward.
The sun has moved at least an hour by the time I reach the trail's end.
Ahead, the mountain opens into a rock-rimmed basin, with one final arch leading inside. Something glistens beyond the arch, but I cannot see it well.
My gaze is locked on the woman standing before the arch.
Her chestnut hair whips in the wind as if in mockery of my sister atop the garden bridge. Blood seeps from her scalp and drips onto the snow at her feet. My gut twists.
I've made a horrible mistake.
"Helene?" I know it's not her, but I can't help but call out.
The woman turns, her face a snarl streaked with tears.
She is definitely not Helene.
My legs shake. Helene is home. Weeping still. Or already in Willem's bed, unable to fathom her life without him at the center of her orbit.
It doesn't matter.
I try to step backward, but the wind roars behind me, and no matter how hard I push, it pushes back harder until I fall to my knees in the snow.
I belong to Anafeal now. There is no undoing that.
Oh, how I hate Helene for this moment. And myself for thinking again that somehow I could save her.
The woman ahead clenches a knife in her hand. "Leave me," she says, her voice raw as though she'd spent her entire climb weeping. "Anafeal will have no more victims."
She thinks to break Anafeal, but it is Anafeal who will break her. Even now I can feel the wind stirring louder ahead as the loose snow circles in the basin beyond the arch.
I don't know what to hold onto anymore. Like my sister, I've orbited too long around a single moment, and now everything is torn adrift. I've climbed for Helene, however mistaken, yet I know she is not behind me doing the same. I've climbed for nothing.
No, that's wrong.
I've climbed for this stranger. I've frozen for her. I've passed through all three arches for her. I've given myself to death. For her.
I stagger forward. "Don't be an idiot. I'm bound to Anafeal by the arches, but you can still turn back." If she leaves now, perhaps Anafeal will let her go. There is always a first time for mercy.
The woman laughs, and through the arch, the snow wheels harder. Anafeal is near. We have no time.
"Anafeal stole my sister," she says. "Lured her up the mountain over a petty squabble. There is no forgiving that. Anafeal will bleed for what she's taken from me."
I don't know whether to join her laughter or to cry. My world has become circles, sisters chasing sisters, and none of us catching our prey.
As she turns back to the arch, the snow rises within the basin, a great swirling mass. I lurch forward to grab her before she can pass through, but she jerks aside at the last moment. Her knife slices into my path, so slow I have time to count the notches in the blade. I'm both flying and falling, the air around me thick as clotted cream, my path unavoidable. The knife skims my arm and catches my chest. For a moment, we simply stare at each other, then I crumple into the snow. Hot blood spews between my fingers, and when I raise my hands up to the sky to look at them, they are painted red.
Above me, she looks horrified. Her lips form words I can't hear. I think she's saying she's sorry, and I want to tell her it's okay, the wound is not so deep. Just another scar to bear, like my hand.
But the snow swirling around us now is so bright, so bright I'm nearly blinded. A million words fill my head, and I can't remember how to speak them. And the arch, the final arch, looms over us both.
The sun is a sliver when I awaken on my stomach in the middle of the rock-rimmed basin. Snow numbs my cheek, my chest, my splayed arms and legs. The thought of moving is almost insurmountable. Beside me, a spray of red blood stains the snow, fanning out from the corpse of the woman I tried to save. Her dead eyes stare back at me, wide with fear.
I choke back the bile in my throat and struggle to my knees.
Behind me, a voice speaks. "We gave her what she wanted," it says. The voice echoes itself, each note circling another. No beginning, no end.
It takes me a moment to realize what the voice said. Fighting against the terror welling in my chest, I work my way around to face the speaker. To face Anafeal.
She is so thin, like spun glass, her fingers drawn out until they nearly touch the ground. Frost speckles the translucence of her skin. I can see the arch through her chest, distorted by the angles of her flesh.
"We gave her what she wanted," Anafeal repeats, echo folded within echo, "but she is not happy."
I struggle with her words, bending my mind around their shape until they make sense. "She wanted you dead."
It's then I notice the spider cracks webbed out from where Anafeal's heart would be, were she human. At her feet, the dead woman's knife juts from the snow.
"No," Anafeal says. "If she wanted us dead, we would be so." The voices almost sound... sorry.
"Then what did she want?"
"To suffer. To be punished. So many who come to us want this. We are to complete what they cannot. Suffering, and an end to suffering."
Breathing is difficult. Anafeal speaks of the dead woman, but in the multitude of her voices, I can hear her speaking of me as well. Every voice pricks, a hundred needles stabbing my chest. Carving away at the scarred flesh of my hand until I'm sure the snow is drowning in my blood.
"Stop!" I fall into the snow, unable to support myself. The jabbing stops.
"But this is what you want. We can feel your yearning for pain."
"No," I say, tears breaking through the ice cornering my eyes. "I want... I want..." I want Helene to forgive me, but I don't deserve forgiveness for what I did, for the deep hurt I gave her.
"Yes," Anafeal says.
The pinpricks start up on my flesh again, stronger. Carving my soul to shreds in an avalanche of jabs. My mind jerks to Willem. He deserves this pain, more than I. For what he's done to Helene. For what he did to me.
But no. Beneath the jabs and the desire to hurt Willem, I know it's my fault Helene cries alone, not his. I'm the one whose betrayal stabbed deepest. The one who abandoned her when she most needed someone to hold on to.
At this thought, the jabs shoot fire into my veins. I open my mouth to scream, and in that moment I know what it is I want.
Beneath me, the snow flashes white, and I feel my flesh ripping away.
"I'll kill him," Helene says. "I'll rip out his heart and throw it to the crows." Autumn winds tear at her hair, lashing her face with black tendrils.
I've seen this before. I've been here.
We stand atop the public garden's bridge, our hands inches apart, as always. Below us, deep in the alders, Willem grunts, and all I can think about is how like a pig he sounds. It still hurts, watching him, but not as much as I expected. Not anymore.
"If I don't kill him," Helene says, "I'll kill myself."
My chest squeezes tight at her words, and I struggle to respond.
"Don't be an idiot," I finally say, and I can't keep the tears from my eyes or the smile from my lips. I set my scarred hand atop hers, and for once she doesn't jerk away. "If you were dead, then I wouldn't get to tell you every day how much I love you."
Her hand trembles beneath mine, but remains. Long after Willem is gone, we still stand on the bridge, dead leaves dancing in circles around us. We stand together.
It doesn't hurt near as much as I thought it would.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 30th, 2012

Author Comments

Some stories come to me easily, their endings made inevitable by the nature of the characters within. This was not one of those stories. I struggled heavily with the relationship between the two sisters, their connection to Willem, and with understanding Anafeal and the self-inflicted doom of those who climbed to see her. But I think it was worth the struggle in the end, and I thank my writing group, The Future Classics, for their judicious nose-swatting that inspired me to dig a bit deeper into a story that would have been much less without their influence.

- Michelle Muenzler
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