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Firsts among servants (Vatican City) [Closed]
#1
Vatican City, ~5 years ago



A month into his Papacy, and Patricus I continued to familiarize himself with the upper church culture. The organizational structure was known to anyone with a desire to read about it – seminary required an entire class on the subject – but learning about and living the life were different experiences. It was said that the Holy Father was part spiritual guide and part CEO; a tongue and cheek analogy that Philip came to appreciate. He was currently hard at work in the Papal office, reviewing updates from every numerous divisions of the church administration. This was a larger scale, certainly, then what Philip experienced as a Bishop. As Bishop of Baltimore, the diocese was quite large, and Philip presided over a number of auxileries and vicars, each with their own deanery or governance. Upon his appointment as Archbishop of the same, he was more or less removed from the daily administrative affairs, something that upon reflection, he was quite saddened to abandon. However, it seemed that God planned this sabbatical from the mundane in order to orient his spirit for what was to come. Which was why he found it odd, as his mind filed through proposals in Canon Law, financial documents, and other lay functions, that he was somewhat reinvigorated by what others may find to be menial. The Holy Father should be oriented upon God only, himself last, and the church somewhere in between. Perhaps this was Philip’s connection to the humble parishioners of the world, even if only through paperwork. It wasn’t his place to intervene in the workings of the hundreds of dioceses; nor did he desire to.

The vacancy left by his predecessor’s death, Holy Mother bless him, halted the entire church. It had taken Philip a month of 18-hour days to catch up. When his staff suggested he sleep more, he would smile and thank them for their concern, but that an advantage of his youth was the vigor of a long workday. Of course, he knew for certain that he was not as young as he once was, but as far as the Holy See was concerned, Patricus I was the youngest pope in history. He intended to devote every moment of himself to God and divine responsibilities.

As was the function of such a diligent schedule, Philip reviewed the itinerary for the day’s meetings. Following this review of administrative affairs and other activities typically concerning the Secretariat of State, he would meet personally with a number of individuals until the sweep of night brushed the sky. It was then that he would devote himself to writing, study, prayer and penance.

Custody officials were on a daily agenda it seemed. Well, that was why he was supposedly elected, or so he was told the first day of his Papacy. Patricus I was swift to provide fatherly correction. The parade continued to this day. As Philip leaned into his seat, his gaze lowered to tense concentration. Across the wide expanse of an otherwise empty room, two staff clergy, priests, exchanged worried glances.

When Philip looked up, he quietly decreed, “No more meetings with Custody officials. Ever.”

“That’s impossible, Your Holiness,” another voice replied. It was the Cardinal Secretary of State. Some said that the man occupying the doorway was frontrunner for Philip’s seat until the sudden, inexplicable election supplanted him.

Philip’s head tilted with patient curiosity. The Secretary continued, “Your Holiness comes from a land far from the Custody. Here, we are nestled in their shirt pocket. Your Holiness must continue negotiations before they—”

Philip lifted a finger and the Secretary promptly paused his speech.

He stood with one gentle, sweeping motion. His hands clasped into a soft fold, “I do not come from a land far from the world’s greatest power,” he corrected. The Secretariat appeared confused. Philip assumed he was speaking about the United States. “The Holy Father comes from the seat of God’s throne. Nobody is closest to the mightiest of all powers than the Holy Father.” He turned and looked the Secretariat in the eye, “And I am the Holy Father,” he said, holding out his hand, Papal ring glinting in the afternoon sunlight.

***

With the freed afternoon, an unexpected opportunity arose. He was meeting with a layman administrator, one who served the church as the head of the Vatican archives. The man was relatively unknown by most except by respectable reputation. Truth be told, Philip was relatively intrigued.
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#2
Armande stood silent, impassive, black cassock hanging down to his feet, motionless. The opulence of the Vatican, its soaring vaulted ceilings designed to make man feel small and penitent as he entered the house of God had been his home for far too long for it to intimidate him. It was a distant memory, that first time he visited. When he was in seminary training as a Jesuit.

There was a tinge of pain that he carefully folded away. Gregorio and his dazzling smile below eyes that danced with life. His bloated blackened face, smile twisted into a rictus below eyes that bulged with death. Yes, fold it away. Because the throughline would take him to Jova...and from there- green eyes flashed before him and he quivered. The walls thickened, the light hidden away as he sought the Chong Rann, finding himself in the middle of the desert, a sea of dunes surrounding him, scouring wind scourging him of emotion until quiet suffused him once more.

He let the meditation drift away and came to himself, standing before the ornate guarded doors. Behind them, he could imagine, was Patricus I. A ghost of a smile touched his lips. Prophetia Sancti Malachiae Archiepiscopi, de Summis Pontificibus- The Prophecy of the Popes- spoke of the the final Pope before the destruction of Rome. Petrus Romanus- Peter the Roman. Patricus. Not exactly the same. Still, curious.

It didn't matter. Armande knew why he had pushed for this man. The fact that he was an American was certainly part of it, given their attitude to the CCD. This man would not naturally want to cede any power to that all engulfing body. But there were other things Armande had noted. There was an arrogance- not in itself a bad trait. The man would have to be to stand firm against the pack of weaklings ready to lick Brandon's feet.

He detected a sense of the firebrand, an iconoclast, in him. His people had watched him and reported. Armande had observed him. There were threads Armande had already tied to him, levers to pull and push. Arrogance and strength of will did not mean you were uncontrollable. Only that you had to think the decisions you made were of your own volition.

Satisfied, he spoke to the Secretary of State his decision. The man's face had quailed in shock. Such a young inexperienced man? A man who did not know the game, the players? A man he would have to chafe under every single day?

It took no little reminding before the man acquiesced. He knew the role of the Regus of the Atharim in selecting the pope, that ancient tradition and pact going back centuries. Just as the Pope had a hand in selecting the next Regus.

It was time for the man to meet his benefactor. And to learn of the compact of so long ago.

The brotherhood of the Vicar of Christ with the Vicar of Iscariot.
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#3
Blessed mother of untouched birth, what darkness circles this place I find myself in? Is this the fate you have granted to me? That I dwell in a tomb enclosed by these of little mind? They focus only upon the moment. Yet I see that I am likewise broken by my own temporal platitudes. Be with me in this moment. Help me endure. I am the sun to burn away their shade.

Heavy eyes slid to slits as the brightness of his own light illuminated the surroundings.

A middle-aged man of gray-flecked hair and sculpted cheekbones sat before him. The robes of a Jesuit draped his broad shoulders. Philip rested his head briefly against his chair with the prayer for endurance perched on the tip of his tongue.

“You don’t look like someone of importance but you must be to gain an audience with the Holy Father,” Philip mused. Most found his humor offensive, which was the point.  He waited a moment before frustration flickered his otherwise angelic expression. “Well? Who are you?”

Man is like God: he never changes.

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#4
A ghost of a smile played on Armande's lips as he observed the man lounging on the Throne of St. Peter, somewhat bored. Calculated, he was sure, to provoke a reaction. Normally, this kind of arrogance would trigger in him a desire to teach humility.

But in this case, it was merely humorous. Or so he told himself anyway. His clenched fists, hidden in the sleeves of his cassock relaxed slightly after a moment.

He had made the decision knowing the cost, knowing what sort of man Patricus was. What kind of Pope he would be. The Vatican could not crumble to the Dominion. The man would have to be strong, prideful enough even, to be able to stand up to the pressure Brandon would bring to bear.

And yet he would have to be an ally to Armande. A partner- as far as anyone could be his partner, anyway. His arrogance would be a useful tool to exploit. Indeed, that was what he was about to do. The final gift had needed to have been procured before this meeting could occur. The man would know how privileged he was.

The ceremony, the transfer of power from Pope to Regus and Regus to Pope, what his predecessor had called "the dance", had gone on for over 1600 years. Back to the days of Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester I. The Atharim, though not scattered, were not powerful. While he did believe they would have survived a pogrom if the Church had sought to eradicate them, they would have been decimated and hunted and weak.

How would they carry out their mission of millenia if that were the case. And so the Regus, Barnabas of Alexandria, had made the decision. A more fragmented Atharim, but allied within the Holy Church. Over the centuries, the Atharim infiltrated, a worm, a seed, growing into a vine that permeated the structure.

It had been the right decision. The Atharim, still truly a remnant, had been placed at the center of power. And from Mother Church, they had spread their influence to government. Pope Leo might have crowned Charlemagne as Emperor of the Holy Roman empire. But Charlemagne would never have come to power without Atharim machinations working to see it so. A united empire, one to bring order to Europe after the fall of Rome, was necessary.

Only in order could aberration be seen clearly- the signs of drainaka or wefuke or d'jinn.

But it was Armande who had begun to draw the Atharin together, slowly and in the dark. To undo the fractioning of their ancient pact.

More importantly, the ceremony was done with. No longer would there be wasteful and unnecessary executions to seal the brotherhood.

No. He had different ideas for that. Blood was required to seal a covenant, after all. That was a universal truth.

He went to one knee and kissed the ringed hand of Patricus.

"Your Holiness." He swept back so that they were some distance apart. His voice was sonorous, though not loud. "I am Armande Nicodemus, Head of the Historical and Ecclesiastical Archives of the Holy See of St.Peter."

He looked at the Cardinal Secretary behind him and nodded. The man, scarlet robes and pointed cap nodded and turned to leave, passing the Swiss Guards in their bright orange and blue striped uniforms. They would stay. He did not want to cause alarm, though he knew they would leave also at his command. They were Atharim, after all.

He paused, sure that his actions quite likely seemed...inappropriate to Patricus. Pride. He needed to feed his pride. "Your predecessor, Pope Pious XIII, and I were brothers. As were their predecessors before them. And theirs before them. All the way back to Sylvester I and Barnabus of Alexandria. Pious initiated me into this holy pact eight years ago."

He wondered how Patricus would have handled seeing him strangle the witnesses to their covenant if he kept to the old way.

"And now, as has been the custom for 1600 years, it is my duty to initiate you into it."

He paused, searching for signs of the man's thoughts. Here Patricus had believed he had pierced to the center of power, the heart of all the secrets. Had ascended to the pinnacle. To find out there was more to go...

"You are the Bishop of Rome, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, and Servant of the Servants of God. You are the Vicar of Christ."

And now..."I am Regus of the Atharim
Guardian of The Remnant, The Oroboros. I am the Vicar of Iscariot.
"

He let the words hang. Just words, true. It was quite possible the man would laugh. Anyone could claim titles. But the pride. The arrogance. He was counting on that. The hint to deeper stores of knowledge and power. Not a kidnapping as had happened to him. A revelation.
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#5
Philip’s expression evolved. From the moment Armande kissed the ring, Philip was staring at the window as the apostle Paul may have stared at the tantalizing sight of freedom. The first inkling that something bizarre was breaking was the platitudinous allusion to brotherhood, including his predecessor in the fold. The second was the thunderous laughter erupting from within.

With tears glistening the corners of his eyes, the smile that pasted the papal lips was disingenuous. With his first words, the breath was stolen from the room, a grim reaper of joyless beauty. “The vicar of Iscariot,” he began, eyes continue to twinkle, “My predecessor, Pius IX would have you sent to guillotine.” The head of the Vatican histories was presumably aware of the famous fall of the Papal States as well as the infamous beheadings ordered by the man who was imprisoned within the very walls Patricus I now inhabited.

He let the reminder of Papal execution hang on the air like cigarette smoke, the kind that clung to the skin, and meanwhile toyed with the word atharim on the tongue, dissecting it for interpretation.

Amusement faded swiftly, however, and the humorous twinkling of an eye was dimmed with disinterest once more. He should pray for endurance but enduring the plea itself was already laboring. He'd only been here a month.

When he took to his feet, the white cassock slipped to his ankles like the feathers of angel wings. He cut a slim, handsome figure as he poured himself a scotch, neat. None was offered to share. In fact, Patricus I forbid any alcoholic indulgence in his presence. The flavor was not particularly pleasant, but he sipped regularly. Silence stretched for several minutes while he consumed the beverage and absently oscillated between Armande and the ever-continual obsession with the window. The thoughts contained within the sharpness of his mind were obscured as Paul’s freedom.

Finally, he abandoned the pretty cup to its table and regarded the Regus of the archives, “Is that it? Or is there more?”

Man is like God: he never changes.

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#6
The dismissive attitude washed over Armande like a warm breeze. Or rather, a pathetic gust. Inwardly he sighed. It wasn't that he had an issue with breaking a man. Never.

But there had been some hope, here. That things might be different. His hand went behind his back, spine rigid, as he watched the man contemptuously drink before him, as if he were a dog. Only once before had he seen a man treat another worse. A man, from the toilet, speaking to another, flushing but not washing himself, only to reemerge, hand stretched forward to shake. Contempt.

The ice blue of his eyes turned glacial. Pope and Regus were equals in position. This man would know it.

Fingers behind his back signaled and the guards responded. The hidden panic buttons had already been disabled at his order by the Cardinal Secretary.

Armande's  laugh was feigned. "Pious IX did not know his limitation, your Holiness. It was against the advice of the Regus Pierre de Maurepas that he embarked on his futile endeavors...and suffered as a consequence."

He walked to one of the walls of Patricus' throne room and touched the various indentations with ease. In a moment, a passageway appeared. The guards closed on Patricus. Armande looked at the hidden emergency button the man would no doubt go for.

The look on his face held an element of smugness he knew. "You can press your panic button all you like, your Holiness. It will do you no good. I had hoped you would come willingly." A small shake of his head and a sardonic smile. "Then again, I wouldn't have. I suppose there's a reason tradition has relied on kidnapping." He shrugged. One could not expect a person as arrogant and self assured to attain the position of Pope-elect or Regus-elect to acquiesce to someone else. It was a lesson he noted.

The guards crowded the Pope. "You will come with me."
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#7
His first thought: I have a panic button? I should have used it yesterday when Cardinal Giannis wouldn’t shut up.

It was with a small measure of thrill that the Swiss Guards flanked him. They were emboldened by their master Regus of the Archives, but something in Philip’s radiant blue stare gave each a momentary pause. His stoic holiness was calm as the waters tamed by divine order. The very thought of kidnapping His Holiness the Pope from his own palace was something of fiction yet here the threat was unfurled plainly before him. Intimidation and threats were useless methods against Patricus I. As he stepped forward, hands folded gently at the waist, a fatherly, forgiving smile painted his lips with sadness even as the color flushed his cheeks rosy.

“Before we continue, and I very much would like to see what it is you have to show me given the enormity of arrangements it has taken to corner me vulnerable, I want to remind the Vicar of Iscariot something important.”

His steps were silent as he padded the floor. Velvety red slippers peeked like the blood of Christ from the hem of his robe as he walked. The swiss guards seemed unsure who was escorting who, and after a moment’s consideration, followed him to this newly discovered passageway. Philip examined its edge curiously. Older cathedrals were renown for obscured doors, ugly things as they were. Wallpapered over were most. Others were decorative illusions. All were common, seeming to enhance to the ethereal entrance and exit of the priests that occupied them. That one existed within the Papal Palace undiscovered was not at all disconcerting. He assumed there were many more.

He turned to his guest, the one who summoned enough show to kiss the ring previously. “I am not intimidated because I fear nothing. I am not threatened because I am tormented only by the haunts of a sinless soul condemning itself. I am not provoked because I am called only by God, and where God commands others, he asks of me.” He nodded as though explaining the most obvious, plainest concept in the world. “As should the Regus of the Archives follow in the Lord’s example: he has but to ask.”

He passed first through the threshold, speaking into the darkness plunging before him. “And thus is the reminder; for I am not a man. I am a priest,” he said, wondering what was in store.

Man is like God: he never changes.

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#8
In that moment, Armande knew he liked the man. And that he had chosen correctly. This man would not bend to the CCD. None of this showed on Armande's face. But he was cautiously optimistic about their working together, that it would be collegial and productive. Pius had been difficult. Reactive rather than analytical. Needlessly antagonistic.

His face did relax as he strode forward into the tunnel alongside Patricus. The contrast between the two could not be more different. Armande, cloacked in black cassock robes broadshouldered and standing a head taller than the slender man with a swimmers body in blindingly white robes. Opposites in many ways. Both, though, shared blazing blue eyes.

"It is understandable, your Holiness, to be skeptical of my words. It will help you to grasp the enormity of my claims by seeing for yourself the evidence of our two bodies and their relationship."

Of course at this juncture, Armande could drop it all on him in one go. He remembered his own introduction into the Atharim- his kidnapping and then the people who had mentored him in his life. While he hadn't known what it was for, he had been shaped from the beginning for this. Not so, for Patricus. So small doses would do.

"To begin with, the Atharim date back millenia. Their sole purpose is to keep mankind safe from dangers that would quail most people's hearts. Creatures out of nightmare. When we came to the attention of the Church, Sylvester wanted us to go on with this work, but tied and allied to her. What I will show you now are artifacts of that relationship." And one thing more, he did not say.

They were at another doorway. The air pressure was different down here, his underground offices. He opened the door. Lining the stone walls were shelves filled to bursting with books, and folders and manuscripts. The rarest sat in glass cases, sealed and air and temperature controlled. He didnt need their physical copies to read them, of course. They had all be photographed or scanned, available to his terminal that sat at his large mahogany desk.

A few pictures and paintings adorned his wall. St. Ignatious of Loyola hung behind and above his chair. Though he had been released from his vows after Gregorio's death, he would always be a Jesuit in his heart. It formed the lens through which he viewed the world. Erasamus, of course, Prince of the Humanists.

Then too, there were pictures out of legend. An Aztec rendering of a Queztecoatl. An Aborignal Australian rock painting of a rakshasa. An Hungarian depiction of Vlad Dracul, a forest of spikes with impaled bodies dotting the hillside.

A few ancient artifacts stood on plinths and tables. What made them curious was that despite their apparent age, they remained indestructible. One looked to be a simple delicate earthenware cup. And yet heavy analysis could not say with specificity what it was made from. The molecular structure seemed akin to that of porcelain. And yet there were...irregularities. He had been worried that the testing process would damage it, as one way to determine what a substance was was to hit it with a high intensity laser and then analyze the gases. A spectrascope would also be used. The latter worked, but the former failed to burn off anything. Sound waves passing through it actually seemed to move more slowly during those moments, as though the density had increased.

A palimpsest recovered from an ancient manuscript, the lettering alien to most. He, as Atharim had recognized it. Proto Indo European. Almost 8000 years old though clearly this had been copied many times over, as the original materials had rotted away over such a large period of time. There were tantalizing clues here that he was still puzzling over, pointing to an Atharim trove.

A secondary room was their destination though. "It may help to see before I explain." In here was where he kept the carefully preserved remains of some of the creatures they hunted. A chupacabra skeleton. A Queztecoatl about the size of a bird. Of course there could be no wefuke or d'Jinn or Bainaka. They were ethereal. As were Ijiraq. The number of people who successfully killed ijiraq were minuscule. They mostly had to be driven away.

But the one that commanded the room was the large hulking Oni, standing over 3 meters, blue leather skin still intact, tusks protruding from its mouth, tiny black eyes hidden. He had had it stuffed after he killed it.

He said nothing. Just watched Patricus as he took it all in.
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#9
“Evidence of God leaves the faithful wasted of faith. It supports the findings of fact, which is a distant lens from that of reality. Only emotion creates reality; one that needs no evidence.” Evidence of God did not define Philip’s faith. His own emotion dictated the decision to believe in an entity purposefully obscured. Philip would be gravely disappointed if God proved himself on demand. What evidence Regus intended to share would do little to sway his belief as little as his faith in God.

The subterranean air was stagnant and musty: a sharp contrast to the temperature-controlled archives that swallowed the twin vicars of light and dark. Philip was American. He was not impressed by old things. The room was full of it. He paused when Regus specifically highlighted some trinket or another, but the calmness of his expression was neither impressed nor underwhelmed. While a finnicky dresser who reinstated numerous medieval habits, the priest who banished electric lights after sunset was not drawn to the basement treasures. He lingered not at all upon the evidence collecting dust like bones buried in the earth.

Little was known of the man that was Sylvester I despite the legendary gains of his Papacy on behalf of the church. He was the son of a Roman and occupied the position during the reign of Constantine the Great, with whom he was supposedly close. Apocryphal accounts steeped Sylvester I with legendary stories, but the curiosity of the present prince successor was stirred enough to ponder these tales with new angle. 

The second chamber was a place of haunting memorialization. He was drawn to a case displaying the articulated remains of something he thought first to be that of a child. The faintest pinch lined his eyes as he perched a pair of reading glasses upon his nose. He himself presided over more funeral masses than he could remember. Tears were for the faithless, he usually said. Grief denied evidence of God. He was hardly scandalized by viewing the remains of something formerly alive. This was no human child, he quickly surmised: the eye sockets were wider than they ought; the breastbone curved in a way that suggested deformity. It was the hands, though, that drew his gaze. His own reached out to touch the fingers: the Ring of the Fisherman glinting fearlessly in the arc. The claws remained. Still sharp, he thought, withdrawing his hand.

A more ominous shadow stretched from a place of proud display like a hunter who anchored the head of a stag above the fireplace: a preserved beastly thing of blue pallor and glassy eyes. It was in that moment that the air was disturbed by death clinging to their walls, but the intrusion of the Holy Father was its undoing. Be banished, he spoke to the darkness that watched between the bricks that held up the ceiling. The prayers of his demands intensified in his own mind. He demanded no proof. Emotion was the need; to sway belief by emotion. Some minutes passed in silence as Philip challenged the creator. Let emotion prove evidence. Let emotion define me. Reality is as I say it is. My reality. My heart.

When he returned his attention to the world of the flesh, it was without any emotion at all. A penetrant gaze found the host of the archives. “The past is a funny place, Regus, full of all sorts of things. The present is merely a narrow opening, full of only one pair of eyes. Mine. Here, God does not illume me. I illume only myself, and I await enlightenment.”

Man is like God: he never changes.

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#10
Armande couldn't help the small chuckle that formed as Patricus passed into the inner chambers. There was no...vibrancy. Immediacy. Life. The man's response was muted.

Both of them together looked at the Oni. He felt the lack of appreciation and yet...he sensed the drawing within of the other man. His lips moved almost imperceptibly. What he was saying was too faint to hear. Fascinated, Armande watched, the man's eyes seeming to go somewhere else, looking through the Oni.

In moments he seemed to return. Armande's lips quirked. The man was trying too hard. "The balance will come, Holy Father. A role can sometimes be like a tight pair of clothes. The man inside must be able to move about freely."

He looked at the Oni and curiously felt nothing. He had killed it, of course. The fight had been fierce. He remembered, and yet...the thrill and fear was gone. He looked at the claws, touched them. "He took a good swipe at me. We are fortunate to have anti-biotics. In the old days, such wounds killed." He pulled his robe back to expose his chest, pinkish white marks that matched the width of the claws. Other scars criss crossed his skin- a lifetime of battles playing across his body- but this was the deepest. "And yet...here, seeing it, I feel nothing." He gave Patricus a knowing look. "Emotion teaches the deepest lessons."

With that he turned, a signal to the guards that they should leave, before he headed further down. The final piece. The heavy wooden door was balanced and oiled and silently swung open.

A light switch was flicked. Armande watched Patricus curiously. The creature was bound to a chair by hands and feet. A sturdy one, of course. Dreyken were deceptively strong. Pale skin, almost translucent, black eyes above sharp cheek bones, long black hair flowing over narrow shoulders, it might have been mistaken for human. Many had made that error, to their painful regret.

It was the eyes that gave it away. And the teeth. And its claws. The hunger wafted from it. When released, it would be a viper, striking with inhuman speed and ferocity, seeking a prey to play with and feed on. Always cruel and always sadistic, they were the cat to humanity's mice.

Except that Armande was the tiger. He felt the weight of the telescoping blade on his hip. What might happen next would be fast. And yet, he couldn't help but watch Patricus for his reaction.
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