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HFTH - Episode 126 - Recoveries



Content warnings for this episode include: Abuse, Ableism, Animal death (Tulip as usual), Violence, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror, Alcohol Use, Smoking, getting shot many times with a modified nail gun, religious themes, paralysis, surgery, needles, knives




Intro - Locked In

It does not feel to you like healing. It feels like death. Black bones on cold stone. Flesh moldering away. Breathless, paralyzed, unable to cry or scream for help. But after the anxious dread and decay comes the silence. And the silence, you find, is not too bad. Now that you are in it, you think, perhaps this is what you needed. A little peace and quiet. Time to reflect.


You are not alone in the darkness. There is life, crawling, twitching, blooming out of your tattered skin, knitting your tendons back together, cladding your bones in new flesh. Slowly, the darkness of the tomb is lit by the fungus tendrils blooming from your skull, with luminous greens and purples, and a voice in your mind whispers its first commands, words from beyond space that echo with a Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now, I sit in a sunken chapel. Water seeps up from the earth to pool in the flagstones. It is a home for disrepair and rot, and two overgrown corpses that breathe in the darkness. The theme of tonight’s episode is Recoveries.



Story 1 - Mercy's Due

“Water’s just going to keep rising,” Rick said, filling in the signs he did not know with gestures of his own design. “The tombstones? They’ll get dirty again. Scrub again, get dirty again. Is this what we do… shit. How do I say forever?”


The horse, whose name he’d come to interpret as Two-Lips, looked at him quizzically. The rider sitting on its back had no head with which to look at him at all, but horse and rider were so inseparably rotted together and overgrown with moss and weed that he had come to think of them as pretty much the same person.


Work. He recognized the hand sign for ‘work’. Laying against the horses’ side here, Crane’s hands were just within the narrow field of vision of his bad eye, but bad eye was better than no eye.


“Right,” he said. “When does the work end?”


He meant to say, will the work ever end, but he hadn’t figured out how to distinguish the difference with things like that. Neither horse nor rider gave him an answer, but he already knew the answer, anyway. The days he spent bloodying his knuckles scrubbing the lime from the names of long-dead poets, breathing in the icy cold as he shifted six feet of grave dirt, putting the dead back in the ground whenever they grew restless. It wasn’t because anyone would ever come to visit the cemetery again, or the names of the poets needed to be remembered, or even that it was a nice corner of the world to preserve, because it wasn’t. It was work for the sake of work. A reason to keep waking up. And he needed it as much as Crane did.


Rick laid his head back on the horse, rested on its moss-encrusted ribs, and stared at the murky shadow of the ceiling.


“Our father, who art in heaven,” he said. “Why’d you go and forget about us? You were supposed to come back. It’s been seven years of tribulation. Hell, it’s been twenty. What happened, man? Did you get lost? Did I miss armageddon? Or are you floating up there dead in heaven?”


Crane upturned their palms in curiosity, but Rick waved them off. He was rambling anyways.


“Yes sir, God, I met the devil, and he told me to get lost. So the two of us, we’re two blind dead things, forgot by God, forgot by the devil, outlivin’ revelation. What the hell are we supposed to do?”


He looked over to find Crane signing, and he tried his best to interpret.


“Are you asking if I believe in God?” Rick said, did his best to replicate. The headless corpse waited for an answer. He frowned. “I don’t know,” he said, and shrugged. “I think it’s just devils. Like you and me. Right here on the earth. And the water’s gonna keep rising.”


There was a rumble in the distance, the whine of vehicle engines echoing over the frosted trees. Two-Lips’ ears flicked forward.


“Intruders,” he signed.


“Intruders,” the hands in his vision agreed. The horse rose with a start, and he rolled to his feet, picked up his new axe with one hand, felt the thorns bristle and emerge from the viny sinew in the other. His flowers had turned to little black blooms, dots of white in the centers. Is it the color of the rot oozing out of me, he wondered? The roots took any opportunity—bullet holes, veins empty of hellfire—to burrow deeper into him; they were down his hip and up his neck now, trailed beneath his skin in dark labyrinths, grew up the scars on his cheek.


Yet he could not complain as the arm of thorns grew longer and larger, sprouted twisted fingers. It was probably all that kept him alive by now. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. He raced outside, finding his way with his feet across the familiar flagstones and into the cemetery beyond. He had come to know each tombstone by heart and hand, even the new ones planted for the men from Liberty City. And yet, as a voice hollered at him from the distance, and an orange light hovered in the darkness on the horizon, he knew he had not heard the last of Liberty City yet.


“Rick Rounds,” the voice shouted. He recognized it as the same desperate screaming of Frank Bosco as he had heard a few days before. “I warned you that you’d pay for what you did to me and my men. And today I’ve come to collect!”


“Now, you’re the ones who came barging into my…” Rick began, but he was knocked off his feet and flipped in the air by a rifle shell. It caught him in the chest, and he coughed up some unnameable black fluid; could feel the infection seep into the wound immediately, spit out the bullet and replace it with thorny sinew. His axe had been flung somewhere beyond, and he wasn’t going to have time to go tapping around for it now.


Two-Lips neighed and whinnied; then with a stamp of hooves took off. He could not see at what exactly, either at gunmen who had not made themselves as loud as Frank Bosco, or they were going to go do something about the vehicles he could hear revving in the distance. There was a distinctive wet thump that usually meant Two-Lips had kicked someone’s head off, or Crane had found a particularly sturdy branch to swing, and voices screamed somewhere beyond.


But there were steps drawing closer to him, and a sudden sound of something metal locking, a hiss of air, a piercing pain in his ribs. He looked down to find a six-inch metal spike jutting out of his chest. Was that a harpoon or some sort of nail gun?


“I told you once,” said the man drawing closer to him, and a second metal spike was suddenly in his shoulder. Rick fell to one knee, curled his hand of thorns around it, grit his teeth in agony. “You shoulda taken my offer of swift death when it was on the table. Now, heh. Now there’s retribution. No one crosses Liberty City, and more importantly, no one crosses Frank Bosco.”


“I don’t give a damn who you are,” Rick grunted, and thought about pulling out the metal spike in his shoulder, but wasn’t sure if it was planted in an artery—or for that matter, how much was him and how much was the vines at this point. There was no blood, because he had nothing left to bleed. “But you shouldn’ta set the forest on fire. Crane will have your head for that.”


“Don’t burn easy in the winter,” Frank said. His metal-capped boots tapped on the flagstones. Rick knelt on the ground, could almost pinpoint where the man was. “Takes a lot of expensive gasoline. Practically an honor I’ve invested this much in getting rid of the two of you. This one’s for the men you murdered.”


He shot a long nail through Rick’s shin; that one hurt deep, and Rick screamed, rolled over the ground as the boot steps approached. Rick lunged out with his hand of thorns, but another silver nail bolted that arm to the ground; he was beginning to feel like a dog that’d tangled with the wrong porcupine.


“And this one’s for me,” he said. Rick felt a click of the weapon somewhere almost above him; Frank was preparing to execute him, and he could not quite free his hand, his leg was on fire with pain. But there was a tremor in the ground that he recognized, and he looked up roughly where he assumed Frank was.


“Hey Frank?” he said.


The man paused, finger on the trigger.


“What do you wanna say, deadhead?” said Frank.


“Silver,” Rick said. “I’m amazed you’ve lived this long. You want to keep the undead sort of things down, you use silver. They don’t get back up after that. We plated our knives in it at Fort Freedom and it worked like a charm. These, what are these, steel? They’re slowing me down, sure, but they ain’t exactly fatal.”


“Thanks for that,” Frank said. “I’ll keep it in mind.”


“One more thing,” Rick said, raised his hand a bit, as Frank readied his shot.


“Make it count,” Frank said.


“Duck,” said Rick, and there was a thunderous whump as Two-Lips came blazing through the headstones, and Crane ran past with a long tree branch in their hand, swung to connect with the back of Frank’s skull. Frank fell right onto Rick Rounds, and by that time he’d peeled his arm of thorns back, slid the metal spike out of his skin and straight into Frank’s chest like butter.


Rick rose, swept the stone until he found where the nail gun had fallen. The vines pulled it into his hand, and Frank Bosco was crawling at his feet, sputtering blood. Rick could not see, could only imagine the crimson trail he was painting on the church stone.


“Mercy,” Frank gasped. “Please.”


Rick leveled the nail gun at him, thought about driving a metal bolt through. Played it out in his head from a hundred angles.


“You know, Frank?” he said. “I think you and I are a lot alike. I was where you are, once. Revenge rotted me from the inside out. And someone I took to be a soulless monster had the opportunity to kill me. Hurt me back for all the hurt I’d caused ‘im. You know what he said to me? He said, you’ve forged your chains, Rick Rounds. Carry them far away from me. Without his mercy, I wouldn’t be alive to regret. Yes sir, I think you and I are a lot alike.”


He could almost see Frank’s bulging eyes staring up at him hopefully as the forest burned. Rick stood above him, looked out over the blurry horizon of the flaming forest, and with a twitch of his finger, fired a nail through the side of Bosco’s hopeful skull, painted the chapel stones with his thoughts.


“Too much alike,” Rick said, and tossed the nail gun to clatter across the stone. “And the devil’s a better man than I am.”


He heard Two-Lips’ hooves clopping across the stone, and Crane twirling their branch. The screams in the forest were gone, he noticed now; the revving of the vehicle engines either diminished into the distance or died completely. There was only the sound of the crackling forest as it burned.


“I’m sorry about the trees,” he said, and sank to sit on the chapel steps, began to peel the metal spikes out of his cold, unfeeling flesh. He was stuck over like a saint full of arrows. “I know they meant a lot to you, buddy.”


The shape of the headless rider merely stood, silhouetted against the blurry light of the flames. He wondered if a lost head was weeping somewhere for a forest on fire.


“Well,” Rick said, and reached out with a long tendril of an arm, dragged his axe back and laid it across his shoulders. “If it helps, I know another forest that you might like.”


Interlude 1 - Twenty Years

Twenty of your fleeting years. It has been twenty since the black rains fell on your earth, and the call for Sleepers rang in your heavens, and the end of your age began. The Heart had been thawing before then, of course, the ice growing thinner with each passing year, yielding it ever more exposure to the lifeblood of your world. And in that time, what drastic changes you have seen.


The plants grow strange and unruly. The trees watch and listen and sing. The water turns your kind into other, more creative forms, and compels your wildlife to blister and change. Hands, eyes, feet, lungs, hearts are overgrown and transformed, and the Sleepers that dream of the end of the age fill the water, and the dead herald the change, and new races stir and proliferate upon the earth. If the Heart is destroyed… what will happen to it all?


Would you feel it die, dreamer? For if you drink of the earth, you have partaken in the heart. Will you know the moment that it beats for the last time? Will its effects ever disappear? Or will they continue to grow of their own volition? There is only one way to find out.


We go now to the implement of your destruction.



Story 2 - All My Splintered Selves

Even a dead body, chilled and frozen, maintains a certain heat and density when animated. Even without the luxuries of warm blood or a pulse, its movement will at least generate friction, its body hold temperature differently than the ice pack around it.


And so Diggory found their hole in the ice, where they had been solidly buried beneath a heap of tumbling glacier, to slowly be expanding, and by the end of the first day, they could see a little glimpse of the black mirror of ice above them, carve ruts in the snow with their fingertips.


In that twenty-four hours, Percy had not returned, and it was an utter fear that lived inside the hollow cotton cavity of their stomach. What if he was gone? What if he was gone forever?


They should never have implored him to seek help, should have begged him to stay, to cling to them, not to snap the wire…


And now they were alone, crushed beneath the weight of the arctic and only a few meters above an ocean of endless shadow. Creep had not returned yet. And they did not want it to return, because when it did that would mean all of their friends were dead, pulled into its vile mass, one more source for it to feed and flaunt and mock.


Diggory stared at their own shadow of a reflection.


Drip. Drip. Drip.


They could not see their whole face; only fragments, a shadow of seams and a blank white eye. But perhaps that would be enough.


“Granny Mend,” they whispered. “Granny Mend. Granny Mend.”


Could she even hear me, they wondered, from all the way south? Would she fly to the end of the world?


But then they could feel a kind of weight above them, a darkness beyond darkness on the other side of the ice. There was no rocking chair for her to sit in, no room at all.


But she was there, a black shadow of a bonnet, a glinting knife handle sticking from one eye socket, snaggle teeth in a grinning smile. Diggory could only see her reflected in the cracks and flaws of the ice, hear a whisper around them as she sang.


“Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,” she said, and reached through the ice with hands pierced full of sewing needles.


“Irene?” Diggory whispered. “Miss Mend?”


“Hush, now,” she whispered. “Time for sleep.”


“Do you recognize me?” they said. “Can you help me?”


No, they thought. It was not quite the same Irene. After all, the eye in their own skull had been carefully inserted by a powerful witch, a deadly creator, someone who stitched together life in her own image. Someone who had designed a suitable replacement for her own body, one capable of saving her and the world alike. Someone who could claim the power of dark gods for herself.


And this withered, ancient spirit was a different part of her soul. This was what was left when Solomon murdered her and made her suffer. This broken, half-shaped wisp only wished to rest, and put others to sleep. This was what Percy would become, one day, untethered from his piano key. A remnant. A repetition. A memory.


“You’re going to be very special, Diggory Graves. Very special,” she whispered, and lowered her dark wet head to the ice as if to plant a kiss on their frozen forehead. And Diggory wept, for themselves, and for Percy, and for all the unfortunate history of their life, and at her touch, they dreamt.



Marketing - Without Concentrate

Lady Ethel:

I woke up this morning in a little hammock I’d made between two trees, and do you know what I thought? I thought, I wonder if any birds have flown into my trap in the night. And that is a huge accomplishment for me, because every previous morning on this trip I have woken up and thought, where is my concentrate?


The withdrawals have been terrible. I’m sure you were able to tell when I was in my ups and down periods. That’s not to say that I’m off the dark water entirely; I collect the rain, or lately the snow where it takes on that patchwork black sort of look. I saved some water from the lake in my canteen. It helps me fend off the worst of my cravings. But still you might judge. You might think, isn’t it obvious, Lady Ethel, that this stuff makes you worse?


I know it is. But it’s a part of me now. There’s no going back. Going without the water feels like… well, dying of thirst. Starving. It feels like death. And what would be the point? I keep saying it because one day I have to accept it—this body of mine is never going back to the way it was before. It will never be normal or beautiful again. My bones are never going to shrink and fit into a superstore outfit. At this point I’m trying to learn how to live with my damage, and do it well.


I did catch a bird, by the way. It was delicious.




Story 2, Continued - All My Splintered Selves

Conveniently, I do not have a body, and thus do not need to talk constantly of my body image issues to strangers. My image is only terrifying nightmare and a red burning eye over the head of your bed.


We return now to Diggory Graves.


Diggory dreamt where they often did; upon a beach of little white bones. Somewhere beneath the black ocean beyond, they knew, the rest of Irene Mend’s soul listened.


“Did you know?” they said.


The small brown woman, with the wave of dark hair and the red dot on her forehead, and a beautiful mind and beautiful lips that she had one day given to them, sat beside them on the bank, and refrained from speaking for a moment.


“If you did,” said Diggory, without waiting for her to compose her diplomatic reply, “then it was exceedingly cruel to tell me what you did—that I was my own person, unbound from your mission—when clearly I was made with a beginning and end in mind from the start.”


“I wanted to believe it,” said Rizwana, or whatever tatter of her mind lived on in them instead of Creep. “And I wanted you to believe it. If I had followed the life that others wrote for me, I would never have become Prime Minister.”


“If I do not follow the life that others have written for me, all of my friends will die and the human kind will go extinct,” said Diggory. “You know the damage the Heart has wrought; the rains fell on your wedding day. Why did you not tell me about my real mission? Irene has been here the whole time.”


“I have no stake in this. I have no one left to save,” Rizwana said, met their gaze with a stiff chin. “I’ve already lost. I don’t care about Irene’s plans. I saw no reason why you couldn’t pursue your own path, instead of mine, instead of hers.”


“No one left to save?” Diggory said, and put their claws in their lap. “Cindy is still here. Valerie is still here. Her child Riot is still here. These are the people you wished to build a world for, once.”


“They’re already gone,” Rizwana said, and looked out to the black ocean. “The world is already over.”


One of the other figures on the beach approached then; Diggory rarely was able to speak to more than one at a time, but Evelyn Fry, keyboard artist and lyricist and sometimes drummer for the Stonemaids came to sit on the other side of them.


“I’m sorry,” Evelyn said, and brushed a wisp of her dirty blond hair from her face with a tattooed hand. “We all are, Diggory. We wanted better for you than this. You do have a choice. There’s no good outcome, we all understand that. But no matter what you choose… extinguish the heart, or not, we won’t fault you for that. We’ll understand.”


“It will make a difference,” said a third voice; a small woman, frail as a bird but with a face sharp as flint, came to sit on the beach too. Ruth Esther Barnes had a timeless quality, skin darkened by the arctic sun, still warmth to be found in her smile. “Whatever you choose to do. The Heart is a pollutant in the ocean. Churning out water laced with its unique biochemical agents. If it stops, in time, it will dissipate. It may take years to fully understand the impact that it has had, or to see the effects of it slowing down. But humankind is not built on immediate results. If you make this sacrifice, it is one for future generations who may never know your name to thank you.”


“They’re quick to talk about the future,” said August Palls, crossing to join the group huddled on the shore of the black sea. “None of them have seen it. And I’ve tried my whole life, Diggory, to predict its movements. I’m sorry that you ended up with my cursed vision and my confusing intuitions, I wouldn’t have wished them on anyone. You’ll never be able to predict what’s going to happen, to put yourself in the right place at the right time, to make decisions and know you won’t regret them later. Do what feels right in the moment, and the future will follow.”


The last figure emerged from the mist of the beach, a man with a dark swarthy beard and a smile once jolly, now consolatory.


“I wish I had great smart words to tell you,” said Chance. “Something about how layers of sedimentary fossils are some metaphor for life, or how your dreams can be real if you want them to be, but this is all I’ve got.”


He came to kneel beside Diggory, and put his arms around them.


“It isn’t easy,” he said. “It was never going to be easy. But everything Rizwana said, that first time, she meant. We meant. We will always be a part of you. But you are Diggory Graves. You are your own person. This is your choice to make, and whatever it is, we’re behind you all the way to the end.”


Rizwana reached out from beside them to put her arms around them, and might have wept into the shoulder of their jacket, and Evelyn on the other side, and Ruth and August placed a consolatory hand on their jacket, and Diggory’s tears dripped down the beach of bones into the black ocean beyond.



Interlude 2 - Consequence of Dream

Last time I spoke to you I got carried away, dreamer, and I will try not to again tonight. You must remember, if you dream on earth, that you are not the only ones listening.


Do you know who else sleeps? Great Destroyers, nesting in black holes. All the residents of the Dream-City of Distant Kazanth, from across the universe where they have traveled. Cats. The Illik-Mar in their desolate monasteries, and the Ascended Scientists in their research laboratories, and Rothogroth, Crown of Decay, and Zazzlezazz, Dreaming All That Is, and Syrensyr, Reclaimer of Fire.


More minds than I could count, tuning in and out with the vagaries of their uneasy rest. All listening.


And so the words I speak have consequence. An idea once planted in a nightmare is hard to shake. And that is power, power that I once underestimated. What I say in these messages to you is not without its repercussions. How long, I wonder, will Syrensyr let me speak before he sees fit to try and silence my voice? Yes, I know this little broadcast is insignificant to the Industry now.


But if it ever were to affect profit or customer loyalty or reputation, I have no doubt he will come knocking. So I must choose my words carefully, dreamer. If I am to preserve this nightmare a little longer.


We go now to one waking from a dream.



Story 3 - Ray Marley: Ghost Hunter

“You don’t really believe that you see all this stuff,” said Charlie, waved a skeptical hand. “Not on live television. If you could prove the existence of ghosts, in some kind of conclusive way, then the government would be on you in an instant to snuff you out for good.”


“Oh believe me, they do their best,” said Ray, and grinned around his cigar. “Good thing for them, they’re dumb as a bag of bricks, and I’m not. Those boys at the CPE think they can put magic in a box. No. Magic belongs… well, in a different box. The boxes I put it in. And ultimately, the box of the wonderful American Television, broadcasting Ray Marley: Ghost Hunter For Hire. It’s education, Charles. From the convenience of your home recliner.”


“I’ll stay in my recliner next time, instead of coming out to see you,” Charlie mumbled into his drink, and squinted at the sunny beach beyond.


“Oh come now, don’t be like that,” said Ray, and shuffled the little wooden box on the table. “Have a cigar and lighten up a little. Listen, if you didn’t believe in the supernatural, we wouldn’t be in business together. And you probably wouldn’t have all those crazy scars.”


Charlie glanced up at him, eyes beneath a signature glowering eyebrow. His head was all scars on one side, written beneath his grey hair. He ignored the cigar box, and began packing a pipe of his own. “I believe in something. And I believe it’d be a bad idea to put that something on television and charge old ladies big bucks to come clear the ghosts of their cats out of their garages.”


“You’re going to tell me every spoon and jar you sell is authentically haunted?” Ray shrugged, and leaned back in his patio chair, made a series of gestures to the pretty waitress that he’d like another of what he was having. Or it might have been a waiter, on second thought. Ray didn’t truly care. More tequila. He turned his attention back to Charlie. “No. Diamond in the rough, Charles. Diamond in the rough. Most of the time, ninety percent of the time, there’s no ghosts. I know that. The audience knows that. But ten percent of the time, you wonder. There’s something you can’t explain. And that little sliver of good old living mystery, that’ll keep ‘em coming back next week, and the week after that, and the week after that, chasing magic.”


“Don’t chase it too hard,” said Charlie, and caught his eye for a moment, blew out a puff of smoke in his octopus-carved pipe. “Or it might catch up with you one day.”


Ray began to speak, but then found that he had no vocal chords, no throat. He reached up to touch his neck, but there were no hands, either; he was without any limb, any kind of motion at all, two bright lights growing ever-closer in a rushing dark horizon and water plunging and circles of light blazing and…


Ray woke up. He thought at first it might be a dream; that he was going to sit up and clear his eyes and go for a walk out of bed. But nothing moved; nothing responded. He bounced ever so slightly in the darkness, as if suspended in a spider’s web, and his vision was all wrong, because he could see nothing, but he could certainly feel something alive, suspended above him.


“Welcome back,” said the Spindle, “to the land of the living, my friend.”


“Spindle?” said Ray. “Where’s Moth? Is Moth alright?”


The Spindle did not frown. Their face, after all, was an assortment of glinting knife blades, their hands lengthy needles, their heart a chest sealed in with piercing metal.


“Worry about yourself first,” whispered the Spindle. “It has been a delicate process to assemble you, and I am not quite finished.”


The Spindle reached out to touch a lever, and lights flickered on. They were in a great underground hall, a ceiling painted like the sky, fake town storefronts selling candy and portraying home scenes with wooden mannequins stretching out down a long main street. By the end, dozens of automobiles lay in various states of disrepair, missing organs. Organs that had gone back into him, he thought. And he was not a man at all; he was a red two-door pony car, a convertible missing a wheel, a rear headlight, a dozen other little pieces of his metal frame, suspended by metal cables in the middle of the fake underground village.


“For a while, I thought you were irreparably damaged,” said the Spindle, and tapped their thin metal fingers together before reaching for the next tools. “I am relieved to see you alive. Now, hold still.”


“Wish I could say it was nice to see you,” Ray said, but deep down, it was. Because as panicked as he was not to be able to roll, to be trapped in a frame that wasn’t even functional, he knew he was in good hands. Wherever you are, Moth, he thought. When I’m fixed up and free. I’m coming for you.



Outro - Recoveries

Recoveries. If only it was clear to know when you have reached the end of healing. When all that was lost has been recovered, everything that was broken fixed. Surely there must be such a point, for what is the purpose of this painful improvement otherwise? If it is never repaired? Is it all fruitless labor if it lasts forever, the getting better? That sounds like an eternity of work, dreamer. But then again, what would eternity be without it? I would wallow in my misery, pity myself without change or aspiration, sink into a darkness of my own making. Perhaps, even if these years to come are painful, and it grieves me to let my wounds scar over, I need it. I need to leave this behind. To find myself, better with each revolution of the sun, a little further from the darkness I have come from, a little closer to the darkness ahead. Until everything is fine, dreamer, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting incrementally for your return to the Hallowoods.





The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Little Blessings' and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!


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