***Special Guest Blogger Abigail Mintkenbaugh***
The black wolf growled as he circled the white dragon, her violet eyes never leaving him. Her wings were poised for flight, her teeth bared, and her tail straight, intent on swiping him should he charge her. Saer knew better. Through the past four years, Drax had grown in her abilities and, despite her young age and size, she became one of the highest ranked students in their year.
A roar caused him to snap his attention back to the spar, but not before a blast of wind sent him flying across the room and against the wall.
“Are you even trying, wolf boy?” Drax laughed, swishing her tail back and forth.
Saer shook his head, rising to his feet. “Haven’t even started yet.” He growled and charged at the dragon. He zigzagged his way forward, dodging the balls of spinning air she threw at him. Snarling, he launched up and dug his claws and teeth into her back and neck.
Drax roared, shaking her body to dislodge him; however he only dug in deeper. Gritting her teeth, she barrel-rolled onto the ground, forcing Saer to release her. “Cheap move, wolf,” she said, snapping her wings and shaking her head as she approached him with a low growl.
“No such thing as ‘cheap’ moves,” he replied, still dazed from being squished, but he stumbled to his feet.
A wicked grin crossed her muzzle. Saer flinched at the murderous look in Drax’s violet eyes. “Point.” Inhaling, she puffed up her chest and opened her wings.
Saer braced as she sent out a tornado, large enough to sweep through the room and caught him. He spiraled upward and smash into the ceiling, the floor, then the wall. When he finally stilled, he groaned and slowly lifted his head. “Ow.”
Drax answered by stomping on his middle and biting off his head. His body vanished, fizzling away like foam, only to reform a moment later, healthy, whole, and alive. She giggled as she pranced away, changing into her selarthin form with a devious smile. “That was fun! Wanna do it again?”
Saer, now in his human form, sat up, rubbing his middle with a grimace. “You–are lethal, Shrimps.”
She stopped her dancing as her eyes flashed. “Do you want me to eat you next time?”
The werewolf grinned, leaning back on his hands. “I’d give you indigestion.”
The thirteen-year-old huffed, crossing her arms as she looked around. “Where’s Broji? He’s normally here for these practices.”
“He’ll be here. He just came back from an assignment, and he wanted to sleep in today.”
“Oh, right.” Her shoulders dropped with her short sigh.
Saer glanced at her. “You’ll get your turn.”
“Doubt it,” she grumbled then dropped to the ground, easily folding her legs under her with her arms still crossed.
Saer chuckled. “Come on, the Seeress can’t be that bad.”
Drax grumbled a caustic remark. Throughout her childhood, Scota, the Seeress and her mother, had never been there for her, rarely ever speaking to her, and when she did, it was only to scold her on something Drax did. And despite the many opportunities, Scota had never sent Drax on a mission. “I just have to prove that I can have a mission. If I make top of the class, she’ll have no choice.”
“What’s this about making top of the class?”
The two looked over to see their Ëlonian friend walk through a portal.
Drax grinned. “You heard me. I’m going to beat you in the next class tournament and then be top of the class.”
“Oh, I see.” He huffed, joining his friends on the floor. Though older than the other two, Brojimarie enjoyed spending time with the werewolf and the dragon. He considered himself the older brother, keeping his “younger siblings” in line whenever they got to arguing. “And, tell me, Drax, how do you intend to beat me?”
“You’ll see.I’ve been working on a particular Versian dragon technique that I’m sure even you can’t get out of.”
“We’ll see. So, what did I miss while I was gone?”
“Not much. Inki had us run laps which turned into a giant booby trap.” Saer frowned. “He kept popping up snake pits, spikes, and swinging axes.”
“Saer’s just grumpy because he kept falling into the pits.”
“I swear that selarthin was targeting!”
“Anything else?” Brojimarie grinned.
“Not really. Same old stuff,” Drax answered. “How was your assignment? Where did you go? What happened?”
” It wasn’t much. Went to Dothrik to deal with a band of renegade brigands that were attacking the capital. And obviously, I handled the situation flawlessly.”
“Flawlessly? I bet you took a shot to the face a few times,” Saer replied. “You’re not invulnerable.”
“I’m here, aren’t I? Are we going to spar or not?”
“Finally!” Drax jumped to her feet. “I call dibs on first round!”
Saer laid down on the floor, his hands behind his head. ” This one is all yours, Broji.”
“You’re too kind.” The man grinned as he stood to his feet, pulling his katana from its sheath with a hiss. “You ready for this, Drax?”
“Been waiting all day for this.” She smirked, standing ready.
By the end of the practice, the three had worked up an appetite for lunch. They made their way to the large cafeteria where already other students sat around enjoying their meals. And after claiming their food at the large console, they found their way to their table and sat.
Drax popped a piece of fruit into her mouth. “So are we going to spar afterward?”
“Don’t you have lessons or something in the afternoons?” Saer asked, cutting into his gravy-covered venison.
“I’m playing hooky.”
“I doubt the Head Chronicler would let that slide.” Brojimarie smirked.
Drax frowned. “You don’t understand! He’s teaching me Anrachelian politics! I’d rather deal with Filarik’s training than have to sit through another lecture.”
“That bad, huh?” Saer chewed on his food.
“It’s so boring!”
“Politics can come in handy during a mission. You never know when you’ll have to be a diplomat above warrior.”
“Every world has different politics. Anrachelian politics may not work on Khisfire or Elon.”
“No, but the premise is the same,” Saer offered. “And seeing as how you’re the Head Seeress’s kid, it stands to reason–”
“This has nothing to do with the Head Seeress,” Drax snapped, angrily biting into her sandwich. “Nothing I do has to do with her.”
“You sure? You’re gunning for top of the class to get her to give you an assignment. I say she’s your motivation.”
Drax frowned, picking at the fruit on her plate. “Well, my lessons have nothing to do with her. Chroniclus just thinks that I should know more about my homeworld. That’s all.”
“Didn’t you live there for a little while?” Brojimarie asked, slurping up his noodles.
“I don’t remember much. Just a few snippets here and there.”
They were quiet until the end of their meal, and they went their separate ways for the afternoon. Drax begrudgingly made her way to the Böchard. The massive library was the second finest thing that Mid-Realm had to offer. Filled with books on nearly every world and culture, it gave the Academy ambassadors the knowledge needed for their assignments.
Drax entered into the Anrachelian Sector and found the Head Chronicler already waiting in his office.
“There you are. Did you enjoy your lunch?”
“Yeah,” she sighed, sitting down at the small work area he had made for her.
“Did you finish your assignment?”
Sighing again, she retrieved the eight-page report from her dimen and handed it to the Head Chronicler. “I don’t see the point in writing about the founding of Anrachel. When am I ever going to use this?”
“You’ will need this information someday.” He placed the homework on his desk. “I had Bertram retrieve some books for your lesson today that you’ll need. We’ll start with reviewing the necessity of the oligarchy versus the strict monarch policy.”
“Chroniclus, why doesn’t Ma’a let me have an assignment?”
He paused, looking up from his book. “What do you mean?”
“Nearly everyone else in my class has gone on an assignment except me. Why?”
The elf sighed. “You’ll have to ask your mother.”
“Think she’ll give me an answer?”
“You won’t know until you ask. Now on to our lesson, oligarchy versus strict monarchy.”
For the next hour and a half, Drax listened as the elf droned on about treaties, alliances, and various techniques of manipulating peace talks to gain the best advantages. At the end of the lecture, he gave her a review quiz about the lesson.
“And I want you to write this in Versian. Your elvish is better, but you’re lacking in the draconian languages.”
“All right,” she replied, picking up her pen just as a selarthin walked into the office. She glanced up and frowned, recognizing one of her mother’s bodyguards.
“Kenrien, what brings you here?” Chroniclus asked.
“The Seeress requests Drax join her for dinner tonight.”
“Drax.” Chroniclus frowned. “You know your mother enjoys spending time with you.”
“Really? Couldn’t tell,” she grumbled, holding her head up as she continued to write.
“You best be there, kidoja, or I will personally retrieve you.”
Drax glared at him. “Fine,” she mumbled returning to her quiz. “Do I have to dress up?”
“The Head Seeress expects it.”
“She’ll be there and in formal attire,” Chroniclus confirmed, glancing at Drax who didn’t look up.
Kenrien nodded and after one last look of warning to Drax, left the office.
“I don’t know why you’re so against eating with your mother. I thought you two would talk about how your days have gone.”
“She will either lecture me on something I did or didn’t do, or she will just sit there. It’s more awkward than enjoyable,” she replied and handed him the finished quiz. “Can I go now?”
“No,” he replied, taking the paper, “now I want you to work on your selarthin vocabulary.”
“My selarthin is fine, thank you.”
“You only know a few phrases and can barely hold half a conversation. That’s not what I call ‘fine’.”
“I’ve gotten better!”
“Yes, and that’s because you practiced.” He slid her another piece of paper. “Translate these, and then transcribe the essay at the bottom.”
“You’re killing me.”
He chuckled. “Only a little.”
With a loud groan, Drax picked up her pen and began the assignment; however she was unable to finish by the time she needed to go prepare for the dinner with her mother.
She walked into her private suite where she bathed and cleaned herself with a fragrant shampoo and soap. Despite her pleas, Scota wouldn’t allow Drax to stay in the barracks with the other students, but rather kept her room next to the Seeress suite. Of course, many of the females in her class called Drax lucky, but she always wondered what it would be like to have a roommate.
After putting on a fluffy pink robe, she walked out into her room and stopped short. She frowned. “What are you doing here, Nirra?”
“Your mother requested I assist you.”
“I don’t need help putting on a stupid dress.”
“We all know you would just leave that rats nest you call hair down and messy.”
“My hair isn’t messy!”
“It is when you try to put it up.” The selarthin pulled out a flowing green, purple, and gold dress and laid it on the bed, then pointed to the vanity. “Sit, pepoto [wind (upepo) brat (child: mtoto)].”
Drax growled, but did as the selarthin said and plopped down on the stool, staring at her reflection sourly. “I am not a brat, Nirra.”
Nirra didn’t respond as she picked up a jar and poured conditioner in her hand before running it through Drax’s white hair.
She winced as Nirra pulled at the large knots left in Drax hair then raked the comb over her scalp. After her head was completely numb, she endured more torture as Nirra twisted and pulled her white strands in intricate braids before ending with a traditional selarthin hairstyle.
“There. Now you look somewhat presentable.”
“I look atrocious.”
Nirra flicked Drax’s long ear. “Get up. You’re already late.”
She quelled the urge to send the selarthin flying out of the room, but instead allowed Nirra to help her into the gown.
“Finished. Go on then. Your mother is waiting.”
She pulled at the skirt, trying to loosen the fabric around her hips and arms as she walked out of the room and to the next door. She glanced behind her, wondering if she could make a run for it, but Nirra was watching her from the doorway. Drax turned back to the Seeress’s door and knocked twice.
Drax walked into the elaborate suite, decorated with candelabras, and black and red tapestries and curtains. The air smelled of incense and she could already see the dining room table to the left prepared for the Seeress and her daughter. Drax then moved her attention to the throne at the center of the room. It looked like a huge dragon with amethysts for eyes. Its spade tail held a crystal for the person sitting under its long neck as it loomed over the person standing before it.
“Hi, Daddy,” she whispered then straightened when footsteps alerted her to her mother’s approach.
Scota stepped out of her private chambers, dressed in a regal black gown with a gold chain belt with large coin-shaped links. Her golden red hair was piled up in a mass of curls and waves, held up by a strand of black pearls. Her ears stuck out of the mass and Drax could see earrings dangling to her shoulders. A large ruby necklace sat against her chest and twinkled in the candlelight as she approached the child.
She flinched at the greeting. “I had lessons.”
“But you knew about tonight.”
“I do not make time for these for you to be late, Draxia. I expect you to be on time if not earlier. Understood?”
She bit the inside of her cheek.
“Draxia,” Scota repeated louder.
“Come along then before the food gets any colder.”
As soon as Scota sat at the head of the table, her bodyguards appeared from the walls and began serving the two, placing the first course before them.
Drax looked at the potato and veggie stew then at her mother who was setting her napkin on her lap. She mimicked her, setting her napkin over her skirts, and picked up her spoon.
For the first course, the two sat in awkward silence, neither one speaking or looking at the other.
The next course was steak, asparagus, and couscous.
“What of your classes?” Scota finally spoke, cutting into her steak delicately.
“They’re fine.” She ate some of the couscous.
“Are you excelling in Inki’s class?”
“He pushes me like he does everyone else. Of course, you would know that. He gives you updates, right?”
“Inki may be a selarthin, but that is his class, and I leave it to him to run it.”
Drax rolled her eyes.
“What of Lohre and Filarik’s class?”
“Are you excelling?”
“They push me, like they do everyone else.”
Scota sighed, cutting into the asparagus.
The two returned to that awkward silence and remained through the second course and to the third, a custard-filled pastry.
Drax downed that then quickly stood from the table and turned to the door.
She stopped, but faced her mother. She didn’t miss the glares from the bodyguards, but she focused on the woman still sitting at the table.
Scota opened her mouth to say something, but stopped. She turned away, dismissing her with a wave of her hand.
Drax rolled her eyes then walked out. She marched to her room, discarded the dress, and put her uniform back on, but instead of going to bed, like she normally did, she created a portal to one of the open gyms.
There were a few other students already there, but she made her way to the corner where she pulled out a roll of white tap, wrapping it around her hands. Finished, she punched her palm then began punching the nearest hanging sandbag. Her gaze hardened, thinking of yet another wasted night. Why did her mother make her do this when she knew this was how it would always end?
“Knew you’d be in here.”
She punched twice more before turning around. “Hey, Saer.”
The werewolf stepped forward and leaned against the wall. “Heard you had dinner with the Seeress again.”
Saer watched her hit the bag several times more before speaking again. “You want to spar?”
“No.” She high kicked and punched, gritting her teeth.
“Didn’t go so well?”
“When does it ever?”
Drax continued to beat the punching bag until she used a ball of hardened air to send it flying across the room, causing others to look over at the commotion. She huffed, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear.
Saer sighed. “Come on, shrimps. It really can’t be all that bad.”
“She barely talks to me, and when she does talk, it’s to berate me about something. And when she asks how I’m doing with classes, it’s only to see if I’m actually good at anything.”
“That’s how all parents are. They want to see their kids succeed. My father was the same way. He had a standard for each of his pups.”
“But I’m sure he was nicer.”
“Eh, he had moments,” Saer answered, rubbing his neck. “Look, I know things aren’t good between you and your mom, but she is your mom. That should count for something.”
Drax crossed her arms. “You sound like Chroniclus.”
“Hey, must be saying something right, then.”
“You don’t know the Seeress, though! You have no idea.”
A hand dropped on her head, and she looked up at Saer who grinned.
“You’re right, I don’t. But I do know that every kid needs a parent. And I know some parents aren’t the best, but we should still try to have a relationship with them. Even if it’s small. Ask how her day went for a change.”
Drax frowned. “Why, though?”
“Because maybe that could start you two actually having a relationship.”
“I still think it’s no use. Ma’a–Ma’a is just so–so–”
“Your mom is pretty important, and she has a lot on her mind. Can you at least give her that?”
“Well, yeah, but–”
“Come on, would you have a lot of time on your hands if you were in her shoes?”
Drax looked down again.
Saer knelt in front of her. “Your mom should be an important person in your life and I know your dad isn’t here anymore, but that just means you two have to stick together. You know? If you just try to understand her, maybe you two could have a really good relationship.” He chuckled, rubbing her head. “Junk, now I sound like Broji.”
She pushed his hand away. “What? Weird and creepy?”
“You think I’m weird and creepy?”
The two looked over to find Brojimarie stepping out of a portal toward them.
“I think what she means is grown up. You sound grown up.”
“Well between the two of you, I am.”
“Hey!” Drax shouted.
“That sounds like fighting words.” Saer grinned as he stood.
Brojimarie chuckled. “Save it for the tournament.”
“Yeah, about that,” Saer sighed. “I have an assignment. I leave tomorrow.”
“What! You’ll miss the tournament!” Drax frowned.
“Can they do that? Send out a student before the tournaments.”
“Guess so. You’ll just have to tell me how things went.”
“Oh, you’ll know.” Drax grinned then looked at Brojimarie. “I will be taking top spot.”
“So mad I’m going to miss that fight,” the werewolf groaned, “but it’ll be fun getting out of Mid-Realm and actually seeing a real battle again.”
Drax sighed, but looked at him. “Just get back here in one piece and try not to be a complete uzaji.”
“Whatever you say, Shrimps.”
Brojimarie laughed as Drax shouted at Saer once again for the use of her nickname.
The class erupted with applause and cheers as they watched the final two students fight for top of the class. Brojimarie and Drax fought hard and long, each panting, but neither ready to back down. Through all their classes, both had ended up as the final competitors. Brojimarie had taken the first win in Inki’s physical class, but Drax was victor in Lohre’s weapons class.
Now, in Filarik’s elemental class, each used their abilities to the fullest extent. Drax had already flung Brojimarie against the walls several times, but she had the wounds on her arms and shoulders to prove she had fallen prey to his invisibility trick.
She growled as she stood on all fours, glaring at him as he stood firm with his katana in front of him. Her tail swished behind her and her claws dug into the metal floors.
Brojimarie panted heavily as he gripped his sword, stretching his fingers before he charged the white dragon.
She saw him coming, and aimed for his legs with her tail; however he jumped over her and she lost him in one blink. Pain sliced through her back as his katana sliced through her armored scales. Roaring, she again swiped her tail, this time catching him in his stomach and throwing him into the wall.
Ooohs and hisses filtered through the crowd as Brojimarie stood, holding his middle. The other students began stamping on the ground, sensing the end of the fight, each chanting for their victor.
Drax huffed, feeling her stamina dwindling. It was now or never. Standing tall, she opened her wings and spiraled upward.
The air in the room began blowing. Brojimarie planted his feet, shielding his face from the harsh wind. He watched as Drax flew higher and higher when suddenly his feet slipped out from under him and he was swept up into the massive tornado.
Other students fell victim to her winds, crying out as they were caught up in the vortex.
Brojimarie tried to aim his body to gain back some control, but he kept getting hit with bodies that he kept losing his focus. Finally, he landed on the ground, pinned by the winds, only to look up into the eye and watch as Drax aimed at him, her mouth and claws open. He clenched his eyes just as he was crushed.
When he opened his eyes again, Drax looked down at him with an impish grin.
The crowd was still dazed from being sent all over the place, but eventually the cheered for the tournament winner.
“Well, I must say that was some finishing move there, Draxia,” Filarik said walking up to the two, “and from what I understand this was your second victory?”
She nodded, standing up next to her teacher.
“Then, as per our custom, Draxia Shyft has become top of the class.”
Her heart jumped with excitement, and her smile grew large as the others cheered and applauded. She then looked down as Brojimarie sat up. “Told you I’d beat you.”
He chuckled. “You did. Great job, but you know I’ll be wanting my spot back.”
“Just try and take it!”
Suddenly, an alarm sounded and the students and teachers went still, looking around curiously.
“Attention all students,” Scota’s voice announced, “we have a rogue in the Academy. You are to find and kill him on sight.”
“All right, everyone, travel in pairs and groups. No one is to be left alone!” Filarik said as the students hurried from the group.
“Has this happened before?” Brojimarie asked.
“Very rarely,” Filarik replied.
“Well, let’s go then, Miss Top of the Class.”
Drax smiled. Her first big real fight! “Let’s go!” The entire Academy scoured the premises, looking for the rogue, and soon more information emerged.
He had already killed several other students, leaving them a bloody mess with gashes and teeth marks all over their bodies.
Brojimarie winced as another body was covered with a sheet. “This is getting bad. This is the tenth body. Who is this rogue?”
“Must be some kind of creature to leave all those marks,” Drax replied as the body was carried away.
“We heard it was Saer.”
Both turned to see Rothe, a gargoyle and fellow student, standing behind him, a somber look on his face.
“What? No! Saer wouldn’t do something like this!” Drax snapped.
“Well it is. He came back from his assignment two days ago, but he was sick and sent to the infirmary. Then today he just went crazy and killed the people on guard before running off.”
“How do you know this?” Brojimarie asked.
“You’re all crazy! Saer–he wouldn’t just start killing his comrades! He’s better than that!”
“Something is wrong with him,” Rothe replied, looking down at Drax. “He’s gone rogue and there’s no going back from that.”
“No, you’re wrong! We have the best medicine! We can cure him! Whatever the problem is, Mid-Realm can save him!”
“We got him cornered!” Someone shouted. “We have him locked in part of the Böchard!”
“What sector?” she demanded.
“The Mothryl Sector, but they have it locked–Drax, wait!”
The girl didn’t stop. Using a portal, she entered the Böchard and hopped through other portals to make it to the Mothryl Sector. She knew that the main doors would be locked and most of the portals would be shut down to that Sector, but she knew of a back way thanks to her years of working in the library.
When she entered, she could hear howls, snarls, and crashes. Slowly, she peeked out from behind a shelf to find Saer in his wolf form, attacking desks, shelves, and anything close by. She quickly noted a physical difference in him. His hair seemed spikier, standing straight up as if he were on alert, and his eyes were red, no longer their friendly amber.
“Draxia Shyft! What are you doing?”
She hissed, backing away as she gripped her earpiece. “Chroniclus, stop yelling!”
“Get out of there right now! It’s too dangerous!”
“No, I have to talk to him! Something is wrong with him, Chroniclus! This isn’t like him!”
“He’s been infected with a virus, Drax. There’s no talking to him.”
“He’s my friend. I can handle this!” She quickly removed her ear piece and stuffed it into her dimen before Chroniclus could stop her. Inhaling, she stepped out from her hiding place and slowly approached the wolf. “Saer?”
Snarling, the wolf faced her and with a loud howl, charged her.
“Saer!” she screamed, jumping over him and sliding to a stop as he turned to face her again. “Saer, it’s me!”
The wolf charged again, his mouth opened to bite into her, but Drax used her wind to knock him down.
“Saer, stop it!” She pinned him there. “You’re not yourself! You have to stop before you hurt anymore people!”
He continued to fight her and at one point, nearly broke through her wind.
Gasping, she flung him away, crashing into a book shelf.
A port screen next to her turned on, and Scota appeared. “Draxia Shyft, you are to stop this immediately!”
She didn’t answer, but instead destroyed the port screen with a gust of wind. She tensed as Saer stumbled out of the pile of books and broken pieces of wood. “Saer, come on! Snap out of it!”
The wolf growled, shaking his head and stared at Drax. His body trembled and his tail remained pointed behind him. “Sh-Shrimps–”
She perked, smiling. “Saer!”
“Shrimps–you–you have to kill me.”
” Saer, you’re–you’re just sick!”
“I’ve killed–too many already.” He winced, stopping himself from moving. “I can’t–hold on much longer. You–You have to leave now.”
“I am not leaving you! You’re going to be fine!”
“Drax,” he said, looking up at her. “Something is wrong with me. I-I can’t control myself.”
She whimpered, the fear growing more. “Don’t be stupid, Saer. We’ll find a cure. You’ll be okay.”
He shook his head. “Not this time–Shrimps.”
“Saer, I know you. You’re stronger than this.” She stepped forward despite his growls. “You can push past this! We can save you!”
“Run now, Drax!” he shouted with a snarl. “Go!”
“I’m not leaving you here!” she screamed. “You’re my best friend, Saer, and I am not leaving you behind!”
The wolf howled and ran toward Drax then lunged.
Her body locked up. She couldn’t even summon her wind. Everything slowed as she watched him get closer.
Suddenly, she was shoved to the ground and she heard a hiss of electricity, followed by a pain-filled howl. Looking over, she watched as Filarik shot lightning through Saer and the wolf fell to the ground. “No!” She scrambled to the body, but was electrocuted when she tried to touch Saer. “Saer? Saer!” Tears blurred her vision when he didn’t answer her and she screamed at Filarik. “What have you done?”
“He was infected with a rare strand of lycanthropy, Drax. It made him crazed. There was nothing we could have done.”
She looked over to find Scota walking in with Kenrien and Nirra behind her. “You could have done something! You should have seen this! You could have stopped him!”
“My visions are absolute, Draxia. The boy would have been killed either way.
With a scream, she ran to her mother, her knives already in her hands. Before Kenrien and Nirra could engage her, arms encircled Drax and forced her down.
“Drax, that’s enough,” Chroniclus said in her ear. “There was nothing anyone could have done!”
“She could have stopped him! She could have saved him! He was my friend and she just killed him!”
Scota only stared before turning away. “Well done, Filarik. You’ve saved countless lives today.”
The man nodded his head. “Thank you, Head Seeress.”
“Chroniclus, I trust you’ll see this place is restored.”
He only nodded before hugging Drax tightly to him as she continued to scream.
Drax stared at Saer’s body, the pain of loss and anger mixed into a tight knot in her stomach, and she vowed she would never forgive her mother for this. Never.