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The other apprentices slowed their pace. Mare and Georg were looking around at the towering stalagmites left in place for this den’s security. Even Georg’s dark cowlick was shivering from something other than the cold mountain air.
Steph felt it too: it slipped under his leather jacket and covered his pale skin in goosebumps. It mocked him with a thought that a horrible surprise lay in wait for them, something worse than the dragons.
The three entered the tunnels, soon meeting the first intersection. Its right chamber was blocked by a barricade of translucent green light that bathed the walls. Its luminescence made the gems and metals in the murals gleam, and it revealed the intruders more distinctly in all their dirty, leather-clad glory to any dragons that may have been resting nearby.
Mare stepped closer to Georg, letting her wavy, black hair obscure her face as she leaned toward his ear. “What is that?” she asked, whisper carrying to Steph’s ears.
Her hand entwined with Georg’s as her fellow mage held her close. “My sword-fighting friends sent a new boy here as a test of courage. He made it back alive to tell us that a magically-trained Poison Dragon lives in there.”
Steph rolled his eyes. He knew what really lived in the cavern, just as he knew the truth about the ominous barrier beside them.
It wasn’t really even a single, green shield. Rather, it was two hair-thin screens of blue and gold. The barrier held another illusion as well: it fooled humans’ innate intuition by making the tunnel an unknown. It transformed the cavern inside into the most dangerous part of the dragons’ den.
In reality, that cavern was the safest.
This was as far as Steph would go that night, but Mare and Georg were headed for the main lair. There, they’d be sure to wake Ulrin during this slave raid of theirs.
“You sure about this?” Steph asked. He still struggled with the Mekwekan language’s strong stresses, so unlike his father’s Tunisan Creole and his mother’s Fylosan. “It wrong taking poor dragon pups from their families and making them slaves.”
He tripped over something, landing on the cold, damp floor: Georg had put his boot at Steph’s ankle level.
Georg stood over Steph, muscular build throwing a shadow over the prostrate young man. He still held Mare’s hand in his own, the dark-skinned girl biting her lip and casting glances between Georg and Steph, perhaps preparing to have to take a side.
Steph pushed himself to his hands. “I no threat.”
“We know by now that you’re no terrorist, but you’re still too Tunisan. You have a soft spot for dragons that’s a weakness. Here in Mekwek, dragons will eat us if we don’t show them how strong we are.” Georg scoffed. “Or are supposed to be.”
Steph reached a cross-legged sitting position. “Sure, I a bad human.” His tone was light, and he waved Georg’s comment off casually. “Some dragons in Tunisa eat humans too, but we have a story about a dragon named Tuni....”
“We’ve had it with you and your country’s mythology. No real dragon would repay human kindness.”
Steph sighed. Georg would believe what he wanted and do as he saw fit. “If you think it good, you go ahead. I’ll wait here. Will you go too, Mare?”
“We promised Mage Newton we’d get our familiars safely tonight. I’m not letting Georg go alone.” She spoke quietly, almost at a mumble, but she enunciated her words well. A promise to support her friends, whatever it took.
So Steph remained on the floor as the two of them crept off, squeezing each other’s hands as they vanished deeper into the den. Steph watched them, feeling a twinge as they rounded a bend. Should he have tried harder to stop them? Mare couldn’t have known better, and he supposed Georg couldn’t have either.
Regardless, when the couple was gone, he stood up and patted himself off. He turned toward the bright green light. Tonight its protection expired.
He marveled that it remained in place. It came from the days when he’d had less training, and any mage could take it down with enough knowledge of Tunisan-style magic.
Then again, he’d put a lot of his own base supply of magic into the barrier, making his spells weaker as a price for its strength.
Now as he touched his own force field, he felt it vibrating under his fingers, thrumming with energy. It made his fingertips tingle. If he weren’t the caster, it would have thrown him like a magnet and attacked him, just as it would do to an enemy. He’d have been repelled like a magnet and stung all over.
He closed his eyes. The spell’s light crept under his brow onto his deep-set eyes, dying his eyelids the color his eyes were meant to be – blue, not the gray they’d been.
Steph counted his breaths. One… Two… Ten… He slowed the pace, breathing louder and deeper instead.
Steph focused his thoughts on the might under his palms. He called the shield’s magic back to his own mind. He pulled it into his hands first, thinking of them getting warmer with the energy. They stung as they regained feeling and stopped as they gained heat. Steph shifted his focus upwards to his wrists and arms, and then even further until he’d balled it all up into the space behind his eyes.
His head raced with the power he regained, a part of his core missing for so long. The magic swirled around his mind, replenishing his reserves. It filled in behind his eyes and restored their rightful blue.
When he opened his eyes, he was greeted by the second barrier, a golden one. It was a thin membrane cast by his brother, the other half to making the cavern an impenetrable shelter. Just as Steph’s spell kept out humans, his brother’s kept out dragons.
He stepped into a dead-end, into a tunnel with walls adorned with the scars from Steph’s time living there with his brother, when he was forced to perform magic for the Foothill Dragons. The smooth walls were covered in blue and yellow marks from various magical mishaps. The small bookshelf carried phantoms from the plates and scrolls they’d read together. Even the ceiling held memories with a green tinge left by the potion that had accidentally turned Steph human.
Standing there now gave Steph a weird feeling. Had the cavern ever been so empty?
All that remained was gathered in one place in the room’s center. Everything was packed, fitting inside only two containers - a medium-sized black, lidded cauldron and a twine basket. These were both attached to the leather carrying harness of a sleeping dragon.
The dragon snored softly, its black back showing off its clear spines and its vivid red and yellow streaks every time it took a breath. It lay on its stomach. Its arms and wing-tips were pinned under its chest, but the rest of it held a less secure position: its legs and tail were spread out behind it, and its head rested where anyone could come crush its skull.
Steph flicked the first of its soft spines, which was set in the middle of its forehead. It bent back and forth. He flicked it again. “Si, Simon!” As always, he spoke to his brother in their father’s Tunisan Creole. “Are you ready?”
Si kept snoring, so Steph put a hand on his smooth, scaly shoulder and shook him awake. “You’re ready, right?”
All seven limbs – arms, legs, wings and tail – stretched before Si got up, blinking blearily. “Ready?” Si asked. He blinked once more, as though buying time for his brain to catch up to what Steph meant. “Are you kidding?” He finished with a sentence of broken Mekwekan: “Let’s do this.”
Steph placed his palm and all five fingers on Si’s flat cheek. He smiled brighter when Si lifted up his own hand, putting all four fingers on Steph’s flat cheek. He looked into his brother’s eyes, the same overcast gray that his had been before he’d taken down his barrier.
Steph took a breath. It was time for him and Si to become each other’s familiar. “Ready?”
“On three.” Steph waited a few breaths to start counting aloud. “One….”
He allowed Si to say, “Two….”
“Three.” A ball of blue energy formed in front of Steph’s chest at the same time a golden one formed in front of his brother’s. The balls split in three, two balls spiraling down the males’ arms, and one spiraling up around their chests and snaking over their faces. Their magics wrapped around each other from the face and down to each hand, entwining the bands of magic together. When they pulled away, they looked like their upper bodies were covered in glowing blue and gold stripes.
Steph’s smile stayed on his lips. “What a relief. No slave bindings for either of us, and no one should separate us again either.”
Si showed his teeth in a kind-of grin. “Who knows how they’ll react when we tell them? It’s been awhile since a dragon and a human have bound themselves to each other as equal partners.”
Steph hummed a low note, looking down toward the cavern floor. It would be nice if it was a proper human doing what he was.
“Was that insensitive?”
Steph looked up into the overcast gray his brother’s eyes had taken. The look on Si’s face was the same as the day that Ulrin made Steph test the potion that had turned him human, the same look he wore right after Steph was banished. Si’s spines drooped down to one side, and his head was lowered.
Steph shook his head. “No, I was just thinking about Tunisa in its glory days. Since I’m not supposed to be human, I’m not sure if this counts as a dragon and a human as equal partners.”
When the dragon remained silent, Steph patted his shoulder. “We knew the old-time Tunisans used it to make peace between humans and dragons, but we didn’t know how exactly. We didn’t know it was the potion used to turn dragons human. We thought it affected emotions, like a love potion. We thought if we used it on Ulrin, things would be better. That he’d stop the pointless raids.”
Si nodded, but he looked away, probably still mad at himself.
Steph kept talking, voice gentle. “We were both still naive. We couldn’t have known that Ulrin would test the potion on me before he drank it. Besides, if anyone’s to blame for me being human, it’s me: it was my idea to use nifufu, wasn’t it?”
Si said nothing, but his spines started to lift up to run down the center of his back again.
They stayed there for a moment. The magic’s light that covered their upper bodies threw shadows on the cavern’s light-colored walls, ceiling, and floor. Toward the entrance, it mixed in with the gold spilling in from Si’s spell, and the spartan, light-filled limestone chamber reminded the boys of home, their real home on the other side of this mountain range, where their clan used magic to fight for their lives and their country, where their parents told them stories of their civilization’s glory and what life was like in the parts of the Fylosans that Tunisan borders had never covered.
One day, Steph and his brother were going to get their home back. Maybe not their land, but at least the best parts of the culture that Tunisa once had. They would spread it here, throughout all Mekwek.
Neither knew how long they were caught up in their nostalgic dreams before two piercing screams echoed in from the main tunnel. Two very human screams. Eyes wide, Steph spun his head toward Si’s glowing barrier.
“Go get them,” Si said.
Steph’s feet were moving even before his brother urged him on. He reached the intersection and saw his two fellow apprentices dozens of paces away, between him and a life-sized version of the dark-colored dragons depicted in the murals. The two were illuminated by orange flames shaped like a comet.
Mare lay sprawled on the ground and was lifting herself to a push-up position, peeking toward the hand Georg reached out toward her. Georg stood near her, frozen as he stared beyond them at the dragon fire rushing toward them.
The fireball was a different species’ magic, harder for humans to block than their own species’. They could not focus enough to diffuse it in such immediate danger, but there was an easier way.
Eyes burning, Steph stopped where he was and placed his hands to his heart. He pulled out a palm-full of energy and imagined it attracting water to itself like iron to a magnet. He held his hands up as though he were drawing a bow and shot his magic through the air like it was an arrow. He had to get it there in time.
His magic sucked in water as it whooshed past Mare and Georg. It met its target close enough to turn everything to a steam that fogged up the mountain air for just a moment.
The dragon, Ulrin, would attack again in a moment. Steph needed to lead the others somewhere safe. “This way.”
Georg unfroze and pulled Mare to her feet. The two of them sprinted toward Steph, heavy footsteps ringing through the wide tunnels.
Steph waited just long enough to grab their wrists before he pulled them through the yellow barrier behind him.
“Are you crazy?” asked Georg. “There’s a dragon in here.”
“It okay. He my familiar. Look close and you can see the fading marks.” Steph released their wrists and turned to look out at the main tunnel.
Ulrin had caught up to them. He took up much of the wide hall with his bulk: Mekwekan Foothill Dragons were about the size of a cottage. His loud breaths echoed into the cavern, along with a low growl.
The dragon narrowed his eyes at them, popping a series of scars than ran over his right eye and making Steph shiver. Not many things could damage the pelts of Ulrin’s breed, only Newmoon Raptors’ fire and Tunisan Streakskins’ claws….
Ulrin’s lime-green eyes seemed to pierce through the barrier and right at Steph, as though Steph, and Steph alone, was to blame for tonight’s slave raid. He spat out threats and profanities in Fylosan, each more vile than the last.
Had Mare and Georg succeeded? Steph glanced at their wrists and saw a fading, very dim brown spiral around their wrists on each of their dominant hands. It signified a one-way bond, and one that didn’t require the sorcerers to take much interest in their familiars’ well-being.
Steph almost gave into a wave of anger. He’d known what they were going to do when he’d come up with them, but he was unprepared for when they actually enslaved members of his species. He clenched his shaking hands into fists and looked away, releasing a breath. Then slowly he opened his fists as he counted his breaths.
He kept glaring at the damp limestone floor until two cries came from the tunnel. Looking up, he spotted two dragon pups, neither any bigger than a small wolf. One black, the other midnight-blue, both lying awkwardly on their sides on the tunnel floor.
“What is that?” Mare asked again, pointing to the shield between them and the dragons.
Steph ignored her question and instead walked up to the yellow force field. He tried to cross through, certain Ulrin would understand if he were going to help the pups, but three strong fingers and a thumb curled around his arm, something lightly scraping against his leather jacket. Si was holding him back.
“He might kill you this time. However you help, do it from in here.”
Behind them, Georg was unknowingly echoing Si’s sentiments. Steph scowled. He hated it when Georg was right.
Si tugged him backward. “You’ll stay in here, right?”
As soon as Steph was released, he knelt on the floor and looked at the pups, who were curled up into balls and whimpering. “Don’t,” he said. “You’ll only make it worse. You need to spread out on your stomachs so the lingering magic can disperse.”
He kicked his legs back and lay on his stomach. “Like this. It will help.”
“Hey!” Georg’s voice snapped from behind him, as though its owner were more important than two injured pups. “Dragon lover, what’s with this pattern? There’s a bunch of yellow here. Did you let it use magic during the binding?”
Steph huffed. What a pest! He replied to Georg only briefly. “He not a slave. Now let me try talking for way out of caves.”
The pups were starting to roll onto their stomachs, but Ulrin stopped the nearest one in mid-roll, letting out a terse bark. “Don’t listen to a word he says. He’s nothing but a traitor who helped enslave you.”
“Ulrin.” It wasn’t Steph who said it. It was Si.
Si grabbed Steph’s shoulder and yanked backwards, making Steph stumble further into the protected cavern. Si stepped between Steph and Ulrin. He turned his head and looked toward the pups, almost mumbling his words. “I’m sorry. I knew I was leaving sometime soon, and I thought the runes I carved would protect the pups in my place.” He lifted his head, tone tense. “Blame me, not my brother. He only came for me.”
Behind Ulrin, the clan’s stronger dragons were filing into the tunnels. Steph recognized some of their fighters: Petra, Milnar, Hans….
“I should have killed him when I had the chance.”
“But you didn’t because you knew it was wrong, right?” Steph asked. “Even you have your soft spots. Why else would you bring back orphans from a clan you destroyed to live with you? You let me go because you know I really am one of the dragons your clan raised. Please, I was just trying to help.”
Ulrin blew smoke in Steph’s general direction. It stopped at the barrier, but the warning was clear. “Wrong. And I told you never to come back.”
Si placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder again and spoke quietly in Tunisan Creole. “I don’t think we can talk them into letting you out safely, let alone your friends back there.”
Steph looked back into his childhood room that he was about to leave for the last time. He spotted Mare and Georg hanging near the bookcase and whispering to each other, their eyes on Steph and all the dragons. He nodded. “How much time can you buy us?”
“Just go. Hurry.”
Steph jogged toward the cavern’s back, where he knew there was a hidden skylight that a human could just climb up and squeeze through. “Follow me.”
“How long have you been in league with that dragon?” Georg’s voice was as sharp as his knives, and given as much malice too. He spat on the floor, keeping both brown eyes on Steph. “Tureso.”
Steph barely paused to glare at Georg. “I not Tureso. We need going. They’ll get us.” He shimmied up the slanted wall at the back of the cavern and pulled aside a bush branch that was blocking the glittering stars from view. He held the rough, thorny branch to the side as Mare and Georg came up behind him.
Then he lead the others down a steep, narrow path, illuminated well enough by the full moon. Twigs and thorns reached at their pants but could only just scratch against the leather. Boulders stood in shadows like giants ready to scoop them up if they awoke.
Every once in awhile, Steph glanced up at the sky. The sky was clear that night – not a good night for trying to spot their predatory pursuers. With the white spots on their bellies, Mekwekan Foothill Dragons were easily camouflaged on a cloudless night.
“Si will distract them if he can,” Steph said, “but you ready for hiding.”
They half-ran, half-slid through the poorly marked mountain path. It ate them alive, chaffing their clothes with white stone teeth.
Its grasses and bushes tasted them with prickly tongues. Its dirt coated them like saliva whenever they fell.
At times, they hid. They peered out from a boulder, checking the coast. The open air tasted like danger and kept Steph’s heart pounding. Would he and the others make it home?
The wind blew on their backs like the dragons that could descend on them at any second. They could eat him now. His life – Mare’s – Georg’s – they could all be over.
By the time they reached the bottom, they were sweaty, smelly, and covered in earth. None of them really cared as they crammed together to search the skies a final time.
They buried their voices under the crickets’ song as they debated the risk of moving. The stars mocked them from above.
The night concealed the dragons. Could they still be there? Where was Si, their only beacon in the troubled air?
“Maybe he lead them off our tail.” Gulping, Steph straightened up and set out over the grassy foothills.
The others hung behind at first, but they joined him in a moment. They walked together, side-by-side. Georg reached for Mare’s hand, and all was quiet between them for a moment. Only the little sounds of nature filled the air alongside their feet’s muffled pitter-patters – crickets chirping, an owl somewhere hooting to its content, and the wind giving its little whooshes.
When Georg spoke, it was much more civilly than he’d spoken in the den. “Alright, dragon-lover, we’re home free. Now spill. Tell us everything.”
Steph shook his head. “Tomorrow. I’ll tell you tomorrow. It late and Mage Newton will want hearing too. Besides, I want talking about your new slaves.” He shot them a glare.
When they got back to their master’s shop, Mare and Georg went to the two-story wooden structure, the only other building around, while Steph and Si went straight to the dragon stables.
The stables were bland in terms of architecture - just blocky walls with a ceramic roof and a runed wooden door - but they were made of precious limestone. Limestone that would never catch fire. Limestone that was dangerous to quarry with all the mountain dragons around. Limestone that proved Newton’s wealth.
Steph opened the door and led Si into the main hallway.
Inside, the wide hall was lit only by what starlight trickled through the window on the opposite wall. Still, the boys could make out three doors on opposite sides, covered in something feathery – six places to keep captive beings. Steph shook a bit, knowing two young pups now had to live there.
“These are the stalls?” Si asked.
“I turned yours into an apartment for you.” Steph formed the words absently, almost wondering which group felt more betrayed – the dragons whose young were taken that night, or the apprentices who’d seen him speaking to Ulrin. “You’re in number four.”
Steph took Si to the third door on the left, where a crisp, dark-colored squiggle could just be spotted above the door, almost as though it actually were an apartment number rather than a stall number.
The apartment was no palace, but it was nice enough for what it was. It had the same limestone walls as the caverns in the Fylosans and the same dirt floor that most of the villagers in nearby Tesman slept on. Designed to hold larger breeds of dragons, it offered just enough space for both Si and his stuff.
Si unclipped the cauldron and the basket from his carrying harness and set them next to the wall. “It’s late. We should get some rest. I’ll unpack tomorrow.”
Steph returned to the silvery wooden shop next door, pausing only to look up at the sign hanging above the entrance: Ashley Newton’s Magic and Creature Control. It should have been the last place he and Si would go to accomplish their dream, but they were here, and Mage Newton was doubtless waiting up for the last of his apprentices to make it safely inside, as though Steph were his own son. He paused for just a moment, inhaling as much of the clean, breezy night as his lungs could hold.
What to say to the sorcerer when he asked about the night? What if he drew the same conclusions as Georg? The last thing Steph wanted was to let his master down, to give him reason to doubt his intentions.
Warm air drifted toward Steph the moment he opened the door and he could hear the fire crackling. Newton was sitting next to it on one of the wooden chairs from the kitchen.
“You’re back.” Newton’s voice was as gentle as the curve of his chin hidden under his short black beard.
Steph bent, showing the sorcerer all the respect he’d earned over the years, for accepting a Tunisan refugee as an apprentice. For years of patient guidance. For keeping the peace between Steph and Georg. For believing in him. “Thanks for waiting up.”
Newton stood, firelight softly bouncing off his black leather. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he was taller than Steph, so he still felt like an authority figure when he strode across the room and examined Steph’s leather clothing for damage. “You’ve been running and getting dirty, but I don’t see any scorch marks. You’re not hurt?”
Steph shook his head very slightly and turned just the corners of his mouth up, but his smile reached his eyes all the same. “I okay.”
The smile only stayed a moment. What if he asked?
Newton put a large hand on the side of Steph’s head, fingers reaching where his blond hair tickled his ears, and tilted his head upward. He had that look again, with a smile and eyebrows still low on his brow, as if he had lost a treasure. Steph wondered if he were seeing him or his dead brother.
“I okay.” Steph said the words more firmly this time. “Just tired.”
“Your eyes are blue. You had magic stored away up there?”
Steph nodded, biting his lip. What to say? If he opened his mouth, he could not push a lie through it. Not to Newton. Finally, he took a breath. “Only for Si. I knew he could help himself, but I wanted nothing bothering him. We promised each other becoming partners.”
Newton withdrew his hand and raised an eyebrow. “It’s true then, what Georg and Mare said about you getting the wyrm as your familiar?”
What had Georg already told Newton about him?
Steph nodded at the plain floorboards under their boots, mumbling his next words. “And I his.”
Newton let out a low whistle. “Most days, I worry about you Steph, but when you do well, you’re something else. Wyrms are not easy to get as familiars, even if they are Tunisan Streakskins.”
Steph placed his hands in his deep jacket pockets and balled his fists. What was he really supposed to say to that? A moment passed and he said nothing, just letting his stomach churn. Didn’t Georg tell their master what happened with Ulrin?
But Georg must have. If Newton wasn’t saying anything, did he trust that Steph had a good reason?
Steph did. Finally, he looked up and found his mentor’s naturally gray eyes in the dim firelight. “Can I go in the bed? I tired. I say you more in the morning.”
“Steph?” His master’s tone asked him to stay, but Steph had already reached the foot of the small, straight staircase.
“Please, I’ll tell you tomorrow.” Steph smiled. His smile lasted this time – up the stairs, inside the room where Georg was already snoring, and into the start of his dreams.
CookieMonster911: The story overall was an adventure that is appealing to any age. The way the characters develop adds a more human characteristic to the novel. The writing style itself is amazing because you can learn every character's thoughts and emotions. The awkward love triangle and jerk moments adds to the ...
Mourn8220House: When first reading "Avarice," I thought it would be another fairytale but I was taken back the author's approach and choice of ending. There is little to be said for the story and overall plot besides the sudden twists and speculation, other than that I do not want to ruin a fantastic tale, you m...
austinl0724: I enjoyed this story immensely. It was the first one I read on here and I absolutely loved it. The characters. The content. The twist at the end! This was a great story with a great message and made me think through some things in my own life and how I react to certain situations. Thank you thank...
softprose: Honestly, this book already has me on my toes, I can't wait to buy the physical copy! It is like a fresh breath of air when reading this. I've already fallen in love with all of the characters! This will be one of those books I'll read over and over again without getting bored of it.
Nymeria: Really can't get enough of this story. It flows well, it captivates the reader from page 1, and throws you into such a well-written, well conceptualized world that you'll believe it's real. Everything in the book is meshed together really well. From character backgrounds to plot twists, you can t...
genlynne2379: I read the other review of this book and I must say that I disagree with it wholeheartedly. I do not believe the author put the apostrophes in the names just to be unique, but because the characters are supposedly of a different race than humans. They are Anmah. They should have different names a...
themyronus: Vanessa has made 'amazing' the norme. I didn't want to read this as I am waiting for the finished and polished book to come out. But then I decided to read one chapter for kicks...well hours later I finished what was posted. Fortunately, my memory is not to good and I hope I will read the book wi...
JWalker: I loved this story from start to finish! It flows at a really nice pace and the story world feels so real. The fight sequences are a treat especially when Isanfyre is training to become a warrior. I found the names really cool and thankfully easy to pronounce. Personally I have always struggled w...
Hawkebat: Playing both Kotor I & II and Swtor I found the story line interesting and it held me until chapter 35 Very good story and plot flow until then, very few technical errors. I felt that the main character was a bit under and over powered, as it fought for balance. The last few chapters felt too f...
cristalyn enriquez: I love the plot of the story and the way how the author describe each character,especialy Elias he's so hot!. I've red this story 4 times and I never get tired of it😊. but I think you must practice your grammar and avoid using the same word over and over. like the word "wonder",because it's an...
kathryncoard: I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast paced book, that kept me interested . Yes, it was political commentary, which I found to be relevant to many things happening in the world. The snippets from the journal show the " boiled frog " analogy that is clearly relevant . Interesting that peop...
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FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"
Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."