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Chapter 447: Ripple in Timeline
10 minutes ago
Rolling onto my side, I pushed myself up gingerly, the small crowd moving back to give me s.p.a.ce. As I held out my hand to Sylvie to help her up after me, a bolt of pain through my skull made me stumble, and an arm wrapped around me.
I looked down as Ellie leaned into me, trying to support some of my weight.
Sylvie seemed less affected by the vision and had no problem rising. She looked me over nervously. “I’m sorry, Arthur, I couldn’t hold it back from your mind.”
“Hold what back?” Ellie asked. “What happened?”
I blinked and shook my head, making an effort to dislodge the last of the aching cobwebs the vision had left in my head. “Nothing. Not here. We—” I cut myself off, acknowledging the crowd that had gathered and not wanting to say anything that would become a problem later.
Seris’s approaching aura was enough to pull most of the attention away from me. Her dark eyes met mine, and she seemed to read the situation in an instant. “There is much to do. Allow our companions a moment to catch their breaths. Remember, Lance Arthur Leywin has faced the Legacy herself on our behalf. Mind that you don’t inadvertently start unhelpful rumors, yes?”
The people who had been near enough to see my episode—which, unfortunately, was a lot—shrank back at Seris’s thinly veiled ire.
A cascade of flame-red hair was the first I saw of Lyra Dreide as she hurried through the crowd. “Go on, then, all of you. There is much work to be done, and no room for idle hands!”
The Alacryans broke up and began milling away, although there was no shortage of backwards glances.
“What’s going on?” Lyra asked, leaning in toward Seris, who was watching me from the corner of her eye, her lips pressed tight with obvious worry.
“Let’s have this conversation somewhere more private,” Seris said, her words quiet but firm.
I nodded my agreement, and Lyra led our group to a nearby empty building that turned out to be little more than a single open room with several roughly made wooden chairs filling the s.p.a.ce. No one sat as we all shuffled in. Every pair of eyes turned to me, including, Highlords Frost and Denoir, who must have been speaking with either Seris or Lyra before my collapse.
Doing my best to keep the agitation from my inflection, I said, “My companions and I need to leave. Immediately.”
“Just like that? You’re not even going to tell me what happened, Arthur? This show of weakness could not have come at a worse time,” Seris replied. Her gaze turned away, focusing into the middle distance, and when she spoke again, it was to herself. “But seeking acceptance from the dragons is essential. If we tell the people that you have gone to ensure the peace, then most will accept it without question…”
Her attention jumped back to me. “Still, as your partner in this venture I would like to know the truth of what has happened.”
I thought back to the vision I’d shared with Sylvie.
A Wraith attack on Kezess’s general resulting in the deaths of the Glayders and who knows how many other important public figures in Etistin…
My concerns were many, but primary among them now was to verify that it hadn’t actually happened yet. If it hadn’t, I could figure out how to prevent it. But sharing the information could be dangerous. If Elder Rinia had taught me anything, it was that attempting to change the future was exceedingly risky. I had to proceed with utmost caution.
Additionally, I wasn’t sure who, if anyone, should know that Sylvie was having visions of the future. I wasn’t sure I could trust even Seris with that detail.
“I can’t explain now,” I said. “Not until I have a clearer idea of it myself.”
There was a pause as our gaze remained locked.
“Nevermind then, I can see that you’re set on this.” She broke our eye contact with a humorless laugh. “Vritra’s horns, life was easier when I was surrounded by people who jumped to do whatever I said…”
I gave her a wry smile. “You’re working very hard to deprive yourself of such a life.”
Shaking her head, she waved me away as if I were a particularly irritating fly. “Go on, do what you must. I’d have liked to offer you more preparation for your conversation with the dragons regarding our defection, but I suppose I trust you to handle it on your own. All I will ask is that you take one of mine with you. As my eyes, ears, and voice, as it were.”
“No,” I said, quicker and more forcefully than I’d intended. “I…don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Seris’s look hardened, what little good humor she’d maintained slipping away. “No? Arthur, this partners.h.i.+p works in both directions. You have asked for me not to question your reason for leaving at this critical moment and without prior discussion. I am requesting that you make this concession in return.”
I ran my tongue along the inside of my teeth as I considered. Being in between dragons and Wraiths was no place for an Alacryan deserter, but it would tear open a rift between Seris and me if I forced the issue. “I concede the point, then,” I said after a long pause.
Highlord Frost stepped forward, giving the two of us a small bow. “Lady Seris, I’d like to offer my granddaughter, Enola, for this task. She is highly capable, and familiar with Regent Arthur from their time at the academy.”
“Thank you, Uriel, but I want someone slightly more seasoned for this task.”
She nodded to him in appreciation, and he bit back anything else he wanted to say, retreating to his previous spot against one wall.
She continued, her words directed toward Corbett. “Caera would be a stronger candidate for the role I have in mind, not least of all because she has already worked alongside Arthur at length and has direct experience with the dragons. I trust her in this and am certain she will be willing. Can you fetch her?”
I kept my thoughts to myself, not wanting to prolong this any further now that I’d already given in to Seris’s demand.
While we waited for Corbett to return, Seris spent a few minutes providing me with the basis of her plans in the Elenoir Wastes so that I might pa.s.s them along to the dragons if I thought necessary. When Caera arrived, I bid Seris farewell and led my companions out of the village and into the Beast Glades.
“There is a town near the western edge of the Beast Glades, not too far to the south. It’s the closest teleportation gate that will get us to Etistin,” I explained as we marched.
“Don’t think that I’m unhappy to be coming along,” Caera said, glancing around furtively as we moved into the dense treeline, “but what exactly are we rus.h.i.+ng off in such a hurry for?”
Hopping over a downed tree, I turned and gave Ellie my hand to help her over, then Caera behind her. As I took Caera’s hand, I said, “I’ve discovered some…evidence…that leads me to believe Wraiths will be attacking Etistin in the near future.”
Chul slammed a bricklike fist into his open palm, heat rising from his shoulders in visible waves of orange light. “A chance for vengeance.”
“Wraiths…” Caera said breathily, her brows knitting into a frown. “But how could you know? Do you have a djinn relic in your pocket that shows you the future?” She attempted a playful smile, but it came across as pained.
“No, I…can’t explain yet. I’m sorry. Perhaps when we reach Etistin and have had time to scope out the situation there,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck.
Ellie had gone pale as I spoke, and I was certain she was remembering the aftermath of my last fight against Agrona’s secret asura-killers.
‘So are we just going to, like, not talk about the whole visions of the future thing then?’ Regis asked as he loped along at my side. ‘Sylvie is ama.s.sing quite the collection of mysterious subplots, isn’t she?’
She needs time to probe her own understanding and insight of this vision, I thought back. Until we have a better idea of why and what happened, no one else should know. Out loud, I said, “Here is good enough,” coming to a stop in a small clearing and looking at my bond.
Sylvie, whose mind was a muddle of surging and conflicting thoughts and ideas, forced herself to focus. The transformation was nearly instant as she grew into the form of a black-scaled dragon.
Caera gasped, her mouth moving silently as she stared up in awe.
“It’s not that impressive. Wings are overrated, anyway,” Regis said as he stepped into me and drifted to my core. I hopped up on Sylvie’s back at the base of her neck, and Chul helped Caera and Ellie mount between Sylvie’s wings.
Caera tentatively reached out and brushed her fingers along the back of one wing, a s.h.i.+ver running through her.
From the ground, Boo growled low in his throat, his small eyes peering up at Ellie questioningly.
I pressed my hand rea.s.suringly against Sylvie’s long neck as she stared down at Boo with one huge eye like a pool of liquid gold. “It won’t be too much?” I asked.
“Just as long as I don’t have to carry Chul, too, I’ll be fine,” she said, her voice rich and rumbling in her draconic form.
Chul flew into the air and waited. Sylvie grabbed Boo in her large front claws, gathered herself, and sprang up, her wings beating at the air with graceful ease. Chul moved into position beside her, and we took off to the southwest. We stayed just above the treetops, not worrying about an attack from any mana beasts; the combined auras of Sylvie, Chul, and myself would keep all but the most powerful and aggressive mana beasts from attacking, and we were a long way from the depths of the Beast Glades where such creatures dwelled.
On dragonback, the journey only took us a couple of hours, saving an entire day or more of slogging through the dense forest below. Sylvie transformed back well outside of town, and we completed the journey on foot. We had no need of the Adventurers Guild or any vendors, and so we didn’t stop anywhere in town but instead went straight to the teleportation gate.
Before approaching the gate attendant, who would program the gate to Etistin for us, I stopped my companions and looked at them all seriously. I had been mulling over how to proceed for the entire journey and had made a few decisions that I knew not everyone would approve of.
“Ellie, you’re not coming to Etistin with us,” I said, ripping the bandage off what I knew was going to be a difficult conversation.
“I understand,” she said, catching me off guard. She looked embarra.s.sed at my surprise. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. In spite of my…outburst, I know I can’t be in Etistin with you if things turn out like you expect. But I’m serious about getting stronger. I want to make a difference in”—she gesticulated randomly with her hand—“all this, in the best way that I can. If that means staying out of the way and being safe for a bit, then that’s what I’ll do.”
She reached out her fist, and I b.u.mped my own against it with a grateful smile.
Regis, who had resumed walking with us in his physical form, reached up and placed a huge paw on our hands, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. Ellie laughed, and I rolled my eyes.
“What, isn’t this a team huddle?” he joked.
Chul, who had watched our exchange with a deepening look of concern, huffed. “Sister Eleanor can not be sent off on her own.” He ground his teeth, clearly considering his next words carefully. “Though I wish to test myself against these Wraiths, I also hope to do my duty to you, Arthur, and make a difference,” he said, his tone conveying a not-quite-entirely suppressed somberness. “If you wish it, I will escort her back to the dwarfhome, Vildorial, and watch over her in your absence.”
I let out a sigh of relief, grateful that Chul had offered before I had to ask. With no long-distance teleportation gates remaining in Vildorial—or anywhere else in Darv—the safest way for Ellie to return would be to fly. “Thank you, Chul. I understand why you left the Hearth, and what this means to you. My hope is that there is no battle in Etistin, and that you don’t miss out on any of the fun.”
He grunted and gave me a serious nod. “Yes, but if you do meet a Wraith, do give them a thorough b.u.t.t-kicking for me.”
“Besides, Bairon and Mica will be in Vildorial. Maybe even Lance Varay! They’re really awesome to train with,” my sister said brightly, her own fear and frustration barely evident. Boo rumbled, and Ellie grinned. “Boo says he’d be happy to bat you around a bit, too, if you need it.”
Chuckling, I turned to Sylvie, Regis, and Caera. “Let’s go then.”
The mage quickly calibrated the portal and ushered us through. The last thing I saw as I glanced over my shoulder was Ellie flanked by Chul and Boo. She waved. I lifted my hand and was whisked away.
It had been a long time since I’d traveled by the ancient mages’ portals in Dicathen. I’d gotten used to the Alacryan’s tempus warp technology, which made teleportation much faster and smoother. The portals of Dicathen—relics left behind after the djinn genocide—dragged the user across s.p.a.ce, which distorted as it sped by, and had been known to make people sick the first time they used it.
I realized halfway there that I should have warned Caera.
As we appeared one by one in front of the receiving portal, Caera bent over and clutched her stomach, trying not to be sick. A soldier, who had likely seen this happen more than once, hopped back, his mouth snapping shut as he cut off whatever memorized message of welcome he’d been about to deliver.
Caera took several deep breaths and held up her hand as if to ward off her nausea. “‘m fine,” she said hoa.r.s.ely. “But…what in the Vritra’s name was that?” Finally, she stood and glared at me. “Absolutely barbaric.”
The moment of amus.e.m.e.nt I felt melted away as I remembered why we were there, which coincided with the soldier snapping to attention as he realized who I was.
“Regent Leywin!” He stepped around Caera and reached for my hand with both of his. “It’s great to meet you, really, a true honor. You saved my father at the battle of Slore, sir, and I’ve always hoped for the chance to thank you in person.”
“I should be the one to thank your father for his service,” I said with a practiced smile, allowing him to shake my hand.
Suddenly remembering himself, the guard snapped back into a more professional stance. “Sorry, Regent. I got a little excited. I’m sure you’re here to see Guardian Charon.”
Looking at another guard, who was poking his head in through the door of the small building that housed the portal, he started to give an order, but I interjected. “Actually, I need my arrival to stay quiet.”
The guard hesitated, glancing from me to the palace in the distance, visible through one of the narrow windows.
“I understand you have your orders,” I continued, trying to sound both confident and consoling. “I don’t want to insult Charon by not going to see him right away, but lives are at stake. I really need you to just pretend like I never stepped out of this portal.”
The guard hesitated as he inspected my companions, frowning at Sylvie’s and Caera’s horns. “But the Glayders were very insistent…” Trailing off, he shook his head and snapped into a solute. “You have my word, Regent.”
Returning the gesture, I marched quickly from the portal chamber and out into the courtyard beyond. Two more guards stood outside, including the one who had peeked his head in the door. I gave them a nonchalant salute and led my companions out of sight, taking shelter in a narrow alley between two tall townhomes.
“Well, that’s one question answered,” I said.
“Etistin hasn’t already been attacked,” Caera filled in. “But the Wraiths may still be here already. From what Seris was able to tell me, they’ll be adept at hiding their mana signatures and arranging the battlefield to suit them.”
A figure crossed in front of the alley where we were huddled, but it was only an older gentleman out for a walk with his mana beast, a creature like a feathered lizard that skittered ahead of him on a leather leash.
Addressing Sylvie and Caera, I said, “I want you to go to the palace. Find Kathyln and explain what we’ve seen. Question her about the dragons. Whatever you do, though, don’t let her bring you to Charon.” My gaze turned up to Caera’s horns. “Or let them arrest you.”
She crossed her arms and gave me a severe look. “That wasn’t my fault.”
Extending my senses outward, I felt for potent mana signatures in and around the city. The pressure exuded by the dragons was evident even from where we stood, but I felt no other presence strong enough to be an asura or Wraith.
I probed the dragons’ signatures and felt a hint of familiarity.
“Windsom is here as well,” I confirmed. “Neither can know you’re in the city until we’re ready to deal with them, Sylv. They might try to haul you away, back to your grandfather.”
“What will you be doing?” Caera asked, her eyes jumping to the blurred figure of a small child as they dashed past the alley mouth.
“Regis and I will search the city for any sign of the Wraiths.”
Sylvie took my hand and squeezed it gently before letting it go. “Reach out to me if you get into trouble. Yes, I know you’ve faced Wraiths before, but don’t get complacent.”
“Be careful in the palace,” I said in answer. “It’s certain to be a political quagmire.”
Caera and Sylvie made their way out of the alley, heading across the city toward the palace, while I leapt to the townhouse roof and activated Realmheart, Regis once again sheltering inside my core. I watched them forge their way into Etistin’s city streets until they’d disappeared from view, then I turned my focus to the task at hand.
Atmospheric mana shone everywhere, with the specific elements closely aligned to where the mana lingered, such as earth-attribute mana clinging to the ground and stone walls while air-attribute mana whirled and danced along on the wind. These mana particles were nearly always in motion, being drawn toward a meditating mage or pushed away from the source of some spell, or just winding their way through the world in accordance with some inborn mechanical property of the mana itself.
The aether in the atmosphere was much less dense. Only a thin curtain of purple particles could be seen filling in the s.p.a.ces between mana particles.
It was exactly the interplay between those two forces that I was concerned with.
The Wraiths couldn’t influence aether, and so they couldn’t manipulate it to help mask their presence. I couldn’t be sure just how effectively they could do so with mana, and so I couldn’t rely on Realmheart alone in my search. Although the G.o.drune let me see even the cl.u.s.tered mana of an invisible or illusioned mage, I theorized that a magic user with suitably refined control over mana could smooth away even that to make themselves truly undetectable, especially if they also balanced the input and output of their mana with a technique similar to mana rotation.
Missing my ability to fly more than I had in quite a long time, I leapt from one roof to the next, needing to stay as high as I could get for maximum visibility. The interplay between aether and mana was very subtle and easily missed.
And we have a whole city to search, I thought, my mood sour. Still, a proactive approach seemed better than waiting at the palace for something to happen.
With aether enhancing my senses and Realmheart granting me vision of mana particles, I proceeded to navigate from one neighborhood to the next, searching for any condensed mana without an obvious source, a hint of suppressed mana signature, or changes in the atmospheric aether than might indicate a powerful source of condensed but hidden mana.
Meanwhile, I could sense that Sylvie and Ellie reached the palace but were still waiting for an audience with Kathyln.
As I searched, I tried to remember what the city had looked like before the war, but I couldn’t. The tall walls cutting the city off from the slope down to the bay hadn’t been there, I knew, and the city’s separate districts had been reshaped and walled off from each other, with some entire neighborhoods vanis.h.i.+ng altogether. Etistin still carried a militaristic air, a city fas.h.i.+oned into a fortified hub of countrywide politics, but the people seemed to move about as if they didn’t notice.
A thought struck me. Keep a lookout for areas where people are behaving strangely, I sent to Regis, who acted like a second set of eyes. Areas people are avoiding without seeming to realize it. Places that accrue dark glances, where pa.s.sersby speed up to get past quickly.
‘Yeah, no problem,’ he replied, his tone oozing sarcasm. ‘It’s not like we’re searching for a needle in a haystack or anything. An invisible needle poised to kill everyone.’
As I resumed my search, I jumped down into the street, swiping a faded turquoise cloak off a clothesline and dropping a coin in the pocket of a pair of trousers. The hood was deep, falling down to obscure my wheat-blond hair and golden eyes.
It also covered the glow of my G.o.drunes as I activated G.o.d Step alongside Realmheart.
Slipping into the streams of traffic, I opened myself to my senses, experiencing the sights and sounds, but also the sixth sense that was the tug of the mana, which in turn was overlaid with the sight and song of the aetheric pathways connecting every point to every other point around me.
I followed the current of the city, moving with the natural ebb and flow of its people. It was there, I was certain, at the confluence of mana, aether, and human sensitivity, that I would find my prey.
The pa.s.sage of time became a meaningless blur, keeping track of it a sense that I lost as I focused entirely on the others. The movement of my feet was automatic, the subtle turning of my head to listen to a child’s whimper or watch a woman hurry past a darkened doorway done without conscious effort.
‘There,’ Regis thought, honing in on a distant patch of city wall some time later.
Following the course of his mind, I watched as a pair of guards froze, glancing at each other. Aether rushed into my eyes, enhancing my vision so I could focus on the distant point. The guards were pale, sweating, the question in their eyes obvious: why am I suddenly afraid? As one, they turned and began marching back along their patrol route, but too quickly to be natural.
I moved into the shadows of a building; the sun was setting, I realized, and the shadows were deep. With my hood drawn low and my back hunched, I shuffled toward the wall, suppressing my sight and hearing to instead focus on the mana and aether.
There it was, what I’d been looking for: a subtle distortion in the aetheric pathways, a twitch in the atmospheric mana.
Then, it was gone.
Frowning, I expanded my senses again, searching for the same phenomenon nearby. When I couldn’t feel it, I risked jumping up to the top of the wall, where I immediately crouched behind the low stone edge and searched with my eyes as well.
My sharp-eyed companion again spotted it first. ‘The marketplace.’
Peering down over the townhouse roofs, I scanned the small market square tucked up against the foot of the district wall. Beneath that wall, the shadows grew deeper, and—there!
No strong source of mana emanated from the marketplace, and the only mana signatures were a handful of wandering mages, none of whom were higher than orange core. But in the heart of those shadows, the atmospheric mana distorted ever so slightly, so subtle I might have missed it if not for the faintest distortion of the aetheric pathways that suggested a powerful source of mana was pressing against the aether all around it.
Everyone who approached the shadows turned away suddenly, wrapping their arms around themselves or s.h.i.+vering as if they’d had a sudden chill before hurrying away to a different part of the marketplace.
I started moving in that direction, keeping my eye on that one spot.
The distortion dissolved, mana and aether relaxing as they eased back into their normal configuration.
But it didn’t take me long to find the distortion again, now on the other side of the wall within the shadows of a tower.
‘It’s heading out of the city,’ Regis pointed out.
It knows we’ve seen it.
Casting off the cloak, I pressed Regis, and he manifested from my long shadow, his paws on the wall’s edge. The aetheric pathways opened before me, and I appeared in the tower’s shadow, violet lightning bolts running up my arms and down my legs.
I felt the pressure exuded by the invisible figure for half a second, then it vanished.
‘On top of the city’s outer wall!’ Regis said, guiding me excitedly as he rushed along the wall to have a better view.
Feeling the paths, I G.o.d Stepped again, this time into the shadow of a guardpost that topped the tall outer wall on the south edge of the city.
‘Already gone,’ Regis huffed. ‘Over the wall somewhere.’
I had to search this time, but I was starting to see the pattern.
South of the wall, many low buildings had been erected to replace those demolished before and during the war. I searched their shadows and found the disturbance just as it vanished again, reappearing behind a building a few hundred feet farther away.
The aetheric pathways took me there, and again I appeared just as the distortion vanished.
Distantly, through his senses, I felt Regis leap off the high wall and strike the ground running behind me.
I found and G.o.d Stepped after the distortion again, but I had to look for my prey, whereas it just had to keep running, and again it kept just ahead of me.
But after a few more rapid s.h.i.+fts, we reached the end of the slums built outside of the city walls. What few trees had grown on these stony steppes approaching the bay had been cut down during the war, providing a clear view for over a mile, and with the only shadows provided by wild shrubs, low bushes, or young, straggly trees.
But the sun was nearly down now, and those shadows were growing longer by the moment.
The disturbance appeared in the shadows of a large rock, suddenly veering eastward. I scanned the area beyond the rock, where a row of wild berry bushes provided the only shadow of substance.
Charting the path through the aether, I G.o.d Stepped first to the rock, then to the bushes, not waiting in between.
I would have grinned as the disturbance swelled right beside me, like claws through the shadows, except there was no time.
A dark shard of black ice stabbed out of the air, aimed at my throat. I parried, but when I reached for the hidden arm holding the blade, I grabbed nothing but air. Another blade thrust from the side, aimed at my hip, then another in front of me, driving up under my ribs toward my heart.
I blocked both strikes, imbuing the third impact with an aetheric blast that incinerated the bushes. Moving in the wake of the blast, an aether blade appeared in my fist, sweeping into the center ma.s.s of the disruption in a blur as aether exploded through my arm in precise sequence.
I felt the blade meet resistance as it found my target’s flesh and bone.
The shadows fell away like a cloak being pulled from my target's shoulders as they rolled across the ground and back to their feet. One arm had been completely severed, the b.l.o.o.d.y appendage lying on the ground between us. The thin, pale man pressed his remaining hand against the gus.h.i.+ng stump, glaring at me with bright red eyes through the bangs of his dark, unruly hair. “The ascender…” he said, his voice oozing out of him and staining my eardrums.
“Where are the rest of you?” I demanded, keeping some distance between us but ready to counter if he so much as twitched.
He shook his head, but no emotions crossed his face beyond a twinge of registered pain. “No warning, last time. The High Sovereign didn’t tell them what you are. A toe-to-toe fight, a real one. A rare treat for them, even though they didn’t survive. Won’t happen again, ascender. But not here for you. Knives in the dark, but not for you.”
“You’re standing on the wrong continent,” I said, s.h.i.+fting my weight forward slightly. “Which means that even if you’re not here for me, I am here for you. Now where are the others? How many? I know you’re not here alone.”
Regis approached from behind, circling around to pen the Wraith in from the other side.
The pale man shook his head again and, strangely, seemed to relax. “Already too late. Can’t run, can’t talk, can’t win.”
I c.o.c.ked my head slightly. “I’m not running, but I promise you, I can win. But I am about done talking. If you can’t—”
“Not you, ascender. He is watching.” He pointed to his red eye. “My eye to his. He knows. So it is already too late.”
“He? You mean Agrona? He’s—” I took an involuntary step back as mana swelled within and around the Wraith.
He let out a choked gasp and fell to one knee, then looked up at me with a wide grin on his face, dark blood trickling from the corners.
I slipped into G.o.d Step even as the mana erupted.
From several hundred feet away, with aetheric electricity still arcing over me, I watched as a nova of black mana and blood iron spikes burst from the Wraith’s flesh, spraying outward in a deadly dome that ripped the ground apart for a hundred feet in every direction. A rain of black metal spikes continued to fall for many long seconds after the explosion.
I was still staring at the field of spikes as Regis came padding up beside me. “These Alacryans and their blood curses.” When I didn’t reply, he added, “Think that’s it? Attack deflected?”
“No,” I said, knowing the truth.
We hadn’t stopped the attack. We had simply changed events to a future that we now didn’t know.