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Story 1

John and Lawrence Buentello


"A Balance in all Things" is a collaboration between myself and my brother, John Buentello. Our collaborations have appeared in "Over My Dead Body", "M-Brane SF", "Atomjack's Butterfly Effects Anthology", and other publications.

We are also the co-authors of the short story collections "Binary Tales" and "The Night Rose of the Mountain and Other Stories", as well as the novel "Reproduction Rights".

― Lawrence Buentello

"A Balance in All Things" proves that even the Devil is not immune to an author-sized ego.






A Balance in All Things


By John Buentello and Lawrence Buentello



     When Aloysius died he didn’t expect to be rewarded in the next life, such was his desire to lead a pious existence without the hope of reward. So when the Archangel Michael raised him from his final resting place beneath a beautiful olive tree on the grounds of the monastery he’d built with his own hands, Aloysius was delighted to find himself, his essence, his very spirit, in the company of so beatific an entity. Together, hand in hand, they moved away from the retreat he’d called home for the last sixty years (and from which he’d traveled many times to perform charitable duties for the people in the surrounding villages), over the face of the wide world to a beautiful range of mountains and through a snowy pass as gorgeous as the vision of the Kingdom in his most chaste dreams.

     He dared to gaze on the shining face of his towering guardian from time to time, wondering to what strange land they would finally arrive, until they stopped before a lovely glen verdant with snow flowers and swept by crisp tendrils of mountain air.

     “You’ve lived the purest life of any person in the world,” Michael suddenly announced in a booming, though melodic voice. He reached down and stroked Aloysius’ clean white hair. “And because you’ve kept the faith in such a unique fashion -- quite unlike that whiner Job, let me tell you -- you’ve been chosen to be reincarnated into the most holy duty your Creator has left in the hands of a single spirit. For the rest of eternity shall you stand guard in these sanctified peaks over the most precious treasure known to earth!”

     Treasure! Aloysius had never expected to be so richly rewarded for merely obeying the covenants of God. He smiled as broadly as his humble ego would allow, for he felt he was about to find himself in the most beautiful place in the world.

     When they entered through the valley though, Aloysius stopped short.

     There before them, in a very small field, hunched a large, brooding, pustulous monstrosity chained by the neck to a gigantic stone. Next to the creature stood a small shack with a single window. The shack seemed to be occupied, for he saw a pair of wide, red eyes bob up and down beyond the glass. He stared again at the creature. The grass surrounding it was sere and dead. It raised its head lazily at their approach, exposing long, curved horns protruding from either side of its cranium. It blinked once, yawned, and then recovered it previous posture.

     “Behold!” announced the radiant archangel.

     Aloysius beheld -- to the best of his ability -- but he was still profoundly confused.

     At last he dared to speak, allaying any fears he had of offending the majestic spirit.

     “I’m sorry, but I’m at a bit of a loss.”

     Michael stared down on his charge beneficently.

     “Behold the treasure of Heaven!”

     Aloysius studied the creature again, thinking that perhaps the treasure lay beyond it, or possibly underneath it, but finally grinned good-naturedly and shrugged.

     “Where exactly is this treasure?”

     “Right in front of you.”

     “That thing?”


     “Yes, yes, behold. But perhaps, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, you might enlighten your humble servant of the particulars of all this?”

     “Forgive me, my son,” Michael said, patting Aloysius on the shoulder. “I tend to forget that the human spirit is not prescient. What you see before you is the greatest treasure known to Creation. It is the Devil himself!”

     Aloysius scratched his ethereal chin.

     “The Devil is the greatest treasure in the world?”

     “You were expecting diamonds?”

     “Actually, something like it, I have to say.”

     “Think of it as a trope.”

     Michael went on to explain that the Devil -- Old Scratch, The Great Deceiver, the Prince of Darkness, Satan himself -- had been locked out of the world long ago by some crafty saints. The saints had been charged with a holy crusade after it was discovered that, through the boundless offices of Lucifer, the world had become much more evil than good. In fact, evil was leading good by a ratio of two to one, a situation that simply couldn’t be allowed to endure.

     They lured him to the high mountain valley to ostensibly attend a riotous orgy at a high retreat. Once less than lucid on some very good Scandinavian wine, he was fitted with a blessed and unbreakable collar of silver mined from the virtuous mountain itself and chained forever to the immoveable Stone of Providence.

     “Once Diabolus was removed from the equation,” Michael said boomingly, “the balance returned to the earth. Should he return to his old ministrations, the balance of good and evil would be grossly compromised. All things must be in balance, and so only the purist souls have been charged to stand watch over the most impure. In this case, the most impure. For a thousand years we’ve kept the Devil chained, but until now there has always been a problem.”

     Aloysius bit his lip, then said, “What is that?”

     “That even the purest souls have been tempted by the relentless dialogue of the archfiend. It’s a harrowing job, as you can imagine. Observe.”

     Michael turned toward the shack.

     “Francis! Come out! Greet us at our bidding!”

     After a moment the weathered door of the shack opened on the field, and a small, bent, ragged figure stumbled through the threshold. His tattered robe fluttered obscenely on the wind, and his gnarled cane stabbed awkwardly in the grass. His head was a mass of long, unkempt hair, his face a dark whorl of shaggy beard. He walked to where they were standing and nodded wordlessly.

     “My good St. Francis, how goes the watch?”

     St. Francis smiled toothlessly, laughed, and nodded in an exaggerated motion. He stared at Aloysius and winked.

     “Francis has been a stalwart steward of the watch for lo these last few hundred years,” Michael said. “He was the purest soul we could find and has been guarding Apollyon since his death. But my poor Francis has been worn down over the years by our mortal enemy’s constant harangue and has been on the verge of setting our little treasure free several times. Isn’t that right, Francis?”

     Francis puckered his mouth, waved a finger at Michael, then turned and winked at the creature by the rock.

     “Yes, well, it’s time to leave temptation behind, isn’t it? Francis, I hereby relinquish you of your charge. Your replacement has arrived.”

     Michael smiled radiantly at Aloysius.

     “I beg your pardon,” Aloysius said quickly, raising his hand. “If I understand correctly, you intend for me to take over the duties this most venerated saint could not sustain. Is that wise? How am I more worthy than....”

     “Well, Francis has been a pretty fair fellow, but you have to remember that he was somewhat of a dandy early on in his life. That small bit of corruption in his soul was enough to make him vulnerable.”

     Francis mumbled something slightly salacious and clapped his hands.

     “Come, my friend,” Michael said. “You’re free to go.”

     Francis started down the path, but Aloysius managed to hold onto the man’s filthy robe.

     “Far be it from me to challenge your wisdom,” he said, “but I am completely unworthy of this task. I am foul, terribly foul and unworthy creature compared to--”

     “Nonsense,” Michael said, slapping Aloysius’ hand away. Francis tottered quickly down the mountain. “You are the purest, kindest, gentlest soul ever born. Why, as far as human beings are concerned, no one before you has lived so chaste and faithful a life. You’ve never said a cross word to another human being.”

     “That’s true, I suppose.”

     “You’ve never even had a negative thought about another person.”

     “You have me there.”

     “You gave all your money to the poor, you practically starved yourself by giving all of the food you grew in your monastery to the hungry, you crawled on your knees from Arles to Chartres just to humble yourself before God’s glory....”

     “That could be seen as an act of bravado--”

     “Nonsense. From the moment you were born you’ve led the purest life of any person living or dead. You even rose from your deathbed to give directions to some lost tourists looking for the sepulchers of the Paris underground.”

     “They had all the wrong maps.”

     “Aloysius, you were born for the glory of this mission,” Michael said. “The Devil has no chance of tempting such a pure soul.”

     “Well then,” he said hastily, “let me ask you about a point of logic. If the chain is unbreakable, why do you need anyone to watch over the Devil at all? It would seem to me that you’re only inviting temptation.”

     “An excellent question! Not only are you pure of heart, you’re wonderfully astute. The answer, of course, is that we can’t be absolutely certain the chain is unbreakable. How could you know such a thing, unless, of course, we had someone around to keep an eye on it? If we left the Devil to his own devices, he just might find a way to escape. So we need to have someone watch over things to make sure no unforeseen weaknesses in the apparatus are exploited.”

     Aloysius sighed. “I guess that makes sense.”

     Michael clapped him cheerily on the back. “Excellent. Now, let me leave you to your reward so you can thank the Almighty for these blessings bestowed upon you.”

     And the archangel Michael vanished in a whirlwind.

     Aloysius, standing alone at the top of the world, regarded the Devil silently.

     The Devil opened one eye, licked his nose, and fell back asleep.


     After giving humble thanks for his unique appointment, he rose from his knees to assess the landscape. But the landscape refused to change its odd juxtaposition of natural beauty and supernatural hideousness. He sat on a stump studying the chained incarnation of Lucifer for days, unimpressed by the fallen angel’s laconic demeanor. Every once in a while the Devil rose on his stumpy legs, stretched like a cat, scratched at the silver collar locked around his neck with a long talon, and lapped water from a nearby mountain pool. This seemed to be the extent of the Devil’s interest in his environment. Aloysius found it difficult to believe that this was the true Prince of Evil, but he was too wary of falling victim to the Devil’s charms to regard the creature from anything but a safe distance.

     He’d been given a divine duty to protect the world against the Great Knave, and who was he to argue with God’s judgment? Still, he had to admit, deep in his soul he’d hoped for a better afterlife than the one now looming before him.

     The small shack contained little of interest save for an uncomfortable cot and a table covered by little mountain people Francis had evidently woven from laurel leaves. The mountain people were brown and sere as the grass surrounding the rock. Since he wasn’t really alive anymore, Aloysius had no need for food or drink, though he thought a nice lager after a long day of watching wouldn’t have been too terribly much to ask for. He wouldn’t have turned his nose up at a little companionship, either, someone to talk to other than himself.

     By the end of the first month he was just desperate enough for human interaction to approach the creature and disregarded his previous fear of subjugation. He stood bravely before the Devil, expecting a fiery fount of flame to envelope him, but the imp simply opened his eyes and blinked.

     “Can I help you?” Lucifer asked.

     “You shall not beguile me with wicked temptation!” Aloysius intoned, striking a pose, his right hand pointing to the sky. “Do not attempt--”

     “Calm down,” the Devil replied, waving a talon. “I’m not going to try to tempt you.”

     “But you’re the Prince of Beasts. Surely you’re going to try to beguile me.”

     The Devil shrugged. “Have it your way.” He rose on his belly and cleared his throat. “If you release me I shall give you everlasting life! All you have to do is break this chain and....”

     “I will never betray the will of my Lord!” Aloysius declared proudly. “No temptation from your lips will....”

     He paused a moment, thinking. Then he said, “Wait a minute, I’m already dead, aren’t I? I already have everlasting life.”

     The Devil nodded sagely. “You see my point. Since you’re already spirit, what temptations of the flesh could I possibly offer that would be of any interest to you? Really, this entire scenario is pretty much of a lock, so relax.”

     “What do you mean? Surely you want to escape?”

     Satan sat on his haunches. “Sure I do, I’d like nothing better. But those saints who lured me here really knew their stuff. You see this?” The Devil lifted the chain in his claws. “Well, it can only be broken by a pure soul. The more evil the soul, the denser the material becomes. I don’t mean to brag, but they don’t get any more evil than me, so I have absolutely no hope of breaking the thing.”

     Aloysius pondered this concept for a moment, then found the weakness in the Beast’s argument.

     “But if you beguiled a pure soul to break the chain for you, then you would be free!” he said, delighted with his analysis. “Therefore, you will inevitably try to tempt me into breaking the chain.”

     “But if I tempt you into trying to break the chain,” the Devil rejoined, “then your act of greed would taint your soul, and you would become incapable of breaking the chain. Do you see how devilishly clever this prison is? It’s certainly worthy of my admiration. I have a reputation for creating devious provisos, don’t you know.”

     “Yes, I’d heard.”

     “I was really in my prime, too. The scales were tipping decidedly my way. The world was becoming a real cesspool of filth, violence and debauchery. But someone up there has to have a thing for spiritual symmetry, so here I am--stuck at the top of the world while my minions try to hold serve until their lord can get back in the game. ‘A balance in all things’ my eye. I call it sour grapes.”

     “I’m sorry for your predicament.”

     “Really, you’re too kind. Still, I guess that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

     Aloysius put a finger to his lips. If all this were true, then the Devil really had no means of escape. And if that were true, there really wasn’t a logical reason for anyone to watch over him. And if that were true, too, then Aloysius would have nothing to do for the rest of eternity then stare out over the glen only to have that beautiful vista forever polluted by the sight of Mephistopheles.

     “Say,” the Devil said brightly, “can you yodel? That last guy could really yodel. This is a natural amphitheater; the acoustics are wonderful.”

     “No,” Aloysius said, wilting a bit in his robe. “I’m afraid not.”

     “That’s too bad,” the Devil said. He sighed, settled back down against the rock and closed his eyes. “A pitiful waste of the natural resources,” he murmured before falling asleep.

     Aloysius, chagrinned, was left to mourn his lack of musical ability.


     Six months passed. The quiet began to wear thin. The most perfect soul in the world began wishing for the company of the fragile, trembling souls he’d spent his life saving for God. He recalled his many miraculous conversions of menacing street denizens into mild-mannered knee-benders. He tried to dredge up every word, every syllable they’d whispered, recounted, or cried within the walls of the monastery. This saw him through another three months of his eternal reward, but after that he began searching for a different pastime.

     After discovering some gardener’s tools behind the shack, Aloysius gathered the seeds from the fruits of the nearby trees. He culled the buds of the flowers for more seeds, dug in the ground for bulbs and roots. When he had enough he marked out the boundaries for a garden and set to work. He dug in the earth and planted the seeds and carried water from the stream. Little green buds appeared in the dirt. Aloysius envisioned a time when his garden would bear wonderful fruit trees and beautiful flowers. Once it did, he stood basking in his accomplishment. Then he noticed that the garden resembled every other part of the country around him -- all he’d accomplished was to reproduce the perfect landscaping that already existed. He returned the tools to the rear of the shed and let the garden wither and die. The Adversary barely stirred from his rock in all this time.

     Aloysius then decided to explore the area beyond the small field. He set off one morning with a lilt to his step and a song in his heart. The song died abruptly when he saw that his steps eventually returned him to the shack. He tried another direction and arrived behind the shack. He tried a third route and somehow found himself sitting on the large grey Stone of Providence next to the Devil.

     “This is so unfair,” Aloysius said as he hopped off the uncomfortable rock.

     “Tell me about it,” the Master of the Underworld mumbled. “How does it feel to be trapped in paradise?”

     Aloysius was about to answer when he remembered his fealty to the Almighty and the deviousness of his charge. “I am not one to question the ways of my Master,” he replied with a strained tone of acceptance.

     “Which makes you the perfect idiot for this job,” Old Nick snickered. “Say,” he said, sitting up on the rock. “Since you seem so content being the perfect martyr, would you mind trimming my talons? They’re beginning to become a bit unsightly.”

     “I’m not your slave,” Aloysius said. “I’m your jailer.”

     “The jailer jailed,” the Prince of Darkness snorted before lying back down on the rock. “Perhaps you weren’t so pure in life after all. Why else would He put you through such eternal torture? Even I never came up with a punishment as fiendish as having to be stuck watching over me.”

     “This is my eternal reward!” Aloysius insisted.

     The Devil yawned and expelled a noxious odor from one of his many orifices.

     After this display of poor manners, Aloysius swore he would not exchange another word with the Evil Incarnate. He remained in the shack as much as possible. But as each day was eternally beautiful as the next, and as the shack seemed eternally gloomy, he eventually ventured forth again. He’d gotten into the habit of playing with the mountain people Francis had left behind, and the morning when he realized he was actually having a conversation with Papa Mountain Man over the annoying habit Little Mountain Boy had of crumbling in Aloysius’s grip every time he picked him up, Aloysius gazed from the window at the figure lying on the rock and sighed. He got up and went outside.

     “We have to talk.”

     El Diablo sat up and scratched his rear. “Talk about what?”

     “I just can’t sit here and watch you for all eternity.”

     “What choice do you have?”

     Aloysius hated the way the Devil threw his words back at him. He said, “I have plenty of choices.”

     “Is that why you’ve been playing house with the laurel Lilliputians in there?” the Devil said, pointing to the shack.

     “I, uh, was practicing for a play I’m planning to have the children at the monastery perform for the poor, despicable villagers.”

     “You were chewing on your cracked noodle,” the Devil replied. “And face it Aloysius, you aren’t ever going back to the monastery.” He tugged on the chain. “This is it. For eternity.”

     “Don’t say that. And don’t call me by my given name!”

     “Okay. How about I call you Ally, for short?”



     “Absolutely not.”

     “How about I call you a cab? Oh wait, I forgot. You can’t ever leave here.”

     Aloysius felt his face flush. His hands balled into fists. He remembered the oath he’d taken as a novice to never hurt a living soul, never resort to physical force, no matter how wicked the act, how wretched and vile and loathsome the creature perpetrating it might be. He opened his hands and tried to smile. He would turn the other cheek; walk in the footsteps of that other great soul who once tread the Earth with hallowed steps.

     “You must be frustrated being chained here.”

     “You must be a fairy,” the Devil replied.

     “Now look here!”

     The Cantankerous One expelled more gas. The air became foul around them.

     Aloysius howled with rage. Before he realized what he was doing, he reared back and punched the Horned One in the face. A fount of blood spewed forth from the Devil’s pointed nose. The Light Bringer tumbled off  his rock and fell to the ground. He lay on his back twitching. Aloysius stood with his right hand covered with the Devil’s blood.

     Michael appeared a moment later. He gazed first at Aloysius, then at the Devil lying prone on the ground, and shook his head. Using the edge of his magnificent robe, he wiped the blood from Aloysius’ fist.

     “You smote him a good one, I see,” Michael said as he let his robe fall. The blood miraculously seeped from the shining cloth and drenched a patch of nearby flowers. They curled, browned, and died. “Not exactly what we had in mind by watching over him.”

     “I struck another in anger,” Aloysius said, shaking. His soul wept hot, burning tears. “I don’t deserve to be in Heaven,” he told Michael.

     “No problem there,” Michael said as he toed the Devil in the side. Satan sat up and wiped his bloody nose. “This isn’t Heaven. It’s more of a....”





     Aloysius sighed. “Then what?”

     “A meadow,” Michael replied. “Didn’t you notice the grass?” He smoothed his robes out. “Be that as it may, here thee be and here thee shall stay.”

     “But the beating I gave the Evil One--”

     Michael produced a scroll. It seemed made of spun gold and shone with an unearthly light. “I, God, do hereby forgive Aloysius Crumbody....”

     “Crumbody!” The Great Liar roared with laughter. “That name should be good for about a hundred years of jokes!”

     Aloysius glared at him and raised his fist. The Devil closed his mouth.

     Michael continued. “... forgive thee for anything thee might inflict upon Lucifer while guarding over him for eternity. So said and witnessed. Signed, the Almighty.”

     Aloysius was about to ask a question when Michael vanished. The majestic archangel apparently knew how to effectively dodge a counterargument. The Devil stood up, spat out a mouthful of blood, and went to the stream to get a drink. Aloysius picked up the glowing scroll. There didn’t seem to be any writing on it at all. Aloysius couldn’t be certain, though, because it, too, vanished. From the edge of the stream came the sound of slurping. Aloysius suddenly turned and rushed at the Devil. Grabbing hold of his neck from behind, he thrust Satan’s head deep into the stream. The Devil thrashed violently, trying to get a grip on Aloysius’ hands. The thrashing slowed, then stopped altogether. Aloysius held the Great Serpent’s head beneath the water for a good fifteen minutes until there was no movement. He was just beginning to relax his grip when the Prince of Darkness threw him off onto the grass.

     The Devil laughed, water running down his chin. He wiped it off with a talon. “You can’t kill me, Aloysius. I am beyond living! I am He Who Is Eternal!” The clouds rumbled. The Devil winced. “That is, after the big guy.”

     “But I bloodied your nose!” Aloysius said. “I beat you!”

     The Devil snorted. “No one really beats me. I let you bloody my nose for kicks.”

     Aloysius dropped to his knees. “Heaven help me,” he whimpered.

     The Devil dropped to his knees mockingly. “Heaven help us both... get the hell out of here.”

     It was in this moment of his deepest despair, when he was about to accept with heart and soul the terrible fate to which he’d been consigned, that Aloysius had an epiphany. It struck him down on the grass and left him writhing in wonder. It cleaved the darkness from his soul and opened up the light of Heaven to shine down upon him. He even suffered a nosebleed, an acceptable sign of stigmata indicating he was on the right track. The truth was obvious, and so beautiful to behold! He lifted up his hands toward the light and gasped. Aloysius finally knew his purpose.

     Rising from where he’d writhed the grass down to its roots, Aloysius came to the Devil. He knelt and lifted the Fallen One to his feet and helped him to the stream. The Devil began squirming again, suspecting that Aloysius meant to continue his drowning attempt. But Aloysius sat the Devourer of Men’s Souls down on the grass and began washing his face with water from the stream. He then proceeded to cleanse the Great Deceiver’s arms and legs. When he set to work on Satan’s hooves the Devil howled and squirmed free of his grasp.

     “What in the world do you think you’re doing?” 

     Aloysius smiled. It was a beatific smile. “I’m washing you clean. Oh, we start with the body, then work our way up to the mind and finally scrub out all the dirty corners of your rotten soul, but eventually all will be clean again.”

     The Devil blinked. “Pardon me?”

     “You’re a fallen child of God. I’m here to redeem you.”


     Aloysius allowed his smile to warm the heart of his newest convert-to-be. “You’re no different than any of the damaged souls that came to me on earth to find salvation. Just the first one with hooves.”

     “Come again?”

     Aloysius’ smile became a bit strained. “I’m going to help you find God!”

     “I already know where He lives,” Satan sneered. He jerked a talon skyward. “And thanks, but no thanks.”

     Aloysius felt the warmth of Heaven wash down upon him. His eyes were blazing with unearthly light. “Don’t you see? That is why I’m here. To redeem your soul for the Lord. You’re not meant to be kept here for eternity. You’re here to be saved. By me!”

     The Evil Incarnate tried to run. His hooves left clods flying in the air behind him, but he forgot about the chain around his neck. He ran out the length of it, then tumbled backward onto the grass when it snapped taught. Aloysius was at his side in an instant, anointing the Archfiend’s head with laurel leaves.

     “I was so blind!” Aloysius said. “Don’t you see? The key to both you and I being free of this terrible prison is your salvation! Once you accept God and come into the light the chain can no longer hold you. It will become as insubstantial as the eternal ether. Then you and I will be free!”

     “Kill me now!”

Aloysius slapped his palm against his head. “We could have spent the last few months purging the demons from within you.”

     “Some of those demons are my friends,” the Devil replied.  “My sister married one of them.”

     Aloysius gently patted the Devil on his horned head. “Let’s start with the reason why you fell. Did you feel isolated, left out up there? Were there some gatherings of infinite celestial beings where you felt all alone? Were you an awkward angel?”

     Satan began yanking at the chain around his neck. “You’re insane!”

     “Denial is the first step on a very long, but passable road to salvation,” Aloysius told him. “How do you feel about the Lord our God? Could you accept Him as your personal savior if you really got to know Him?”

     “A thousand fiery spears burning deep into my eyes rather than this!” the Devil cried. “A million! Chop me to pieces and boil me in a vat of my own leaking fluids! Please!”

     “Try saying this to yourself. ‘Have I been searching for answers, but did not know who to call?’” Aloysius kneeled and laced his fingers. “Why don’t you put your hands together -- no, all the fingers stretched out, not just the two. Come, let us pray together. It’ll be fun!”

     “May the fiery furnace take you! May the legions of damnation sweep you away!”

     “That’s it!” Aloysius cried as he knelt beside the Devil. “Let that ancient evil out. Purge it from within!”

     “May Cerberus chase you eternally through all the circles of Hell!”

     “Marvelous!” Aloysius said. “Say, you’ve a very good imagination. You should be directing perhaps, or writing.”

     “You think so?” the Diabolical One asked modestly. “I’ve always liked jotting down my ideas. Nothing serious, just scribblings, really.”

     Aloysius nodded sagely. “Perhaps the Lord has filled you with such talent to achieve some glorious end of His devising.”

     “WHAT?” The Devil, recovering his fury, collapsed before Aloysius. The chain rattled on the ground as he writhed on the grass. “I am the Devil! The Dark One! Lucifer! Mephistopheles! Somebody help me!”

     Aloysius bent close to the Devil’s ear and whispered. “Admitting your sins and humbling yourself before the Lord. We may have you saved, redeemed, and purified sooner than I thought! Can I get a Halleluiah?”

     The Devil whimpered and tugged at the chain. A tiny crack appeared in the link next to his neck. Aloysius noted it, smiled, and finally felt at peace.


The End

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