A Long Cold Winter Chapter 3
The Serpent's Trail
From a bird's eye view, the Serpent's Trail was aptly named. Long and winding, it covered an impressive distance through a means of random twists and turns. Years ago, it had been underwater, a long chasm on the sea bottom that channeled furious currents from Mobliz to the harbor city of Nikeah. With the coming of the World of Ruin, it had been as grossly distended as the rest of the world, now above the water, offering some semblance of a pathway between various surviving landforms.
But it gave of itself grudgingly. From up in the sky, it had all the appearance and detail of a barren wasteland, the occasional patch of hardy growth constituting its vegetation. For those who traveled on it, it was a entirely different scenario. The ground was swampy in many areas, offering solid ground to neither man nor beast. The surviving life in the area was both meat-eating and indiscriminating in prey. In the absence of another animal, they would not hesitate to take advantage of a hapless traveler.
"We're going to have to let the birds rest for awhile."
"I thought you were in a hurry."
"I am. The birds will recover their stamina faster if they aren't run into the ground."
"We should not stop long."
"What are you worried about?"
"We may have pursuers."
The three chocobo's eased down to an awkward amble under the ministrations of their riders, more than eager to fill their stomachs with what vegetation they could scrounge from the land.
The three riders dismounted, looping a rope through each bird's saddle hook and also around its neck. That done, each rope was given about forty or fifty feet of slack, then tied around a central boulder. This had the benefit of giving plenty of moving space, without the need to restrain the bird physically.
"I daresay I need the break as much as the bird does," Lance cheerfully observed. He glanced at his two partners, neither displaying any detectable emotion. "You two obviously have some experience with the birds yourself."
"I have had to ride them before," Celes agreed crisply, looking across the surroundings carefully for anything more alive than the vegetation.
"Of course you have," Lance agreed. "I worked for a Chocobo farmer once. For four months, actually. I was his chief assistant, so I got to know my way around the birds pretty well. Our birds are the best they had there. We're not in as much danger of being followed as you might think, my friend." The last sentence was directed towards the third, clad entirely in black.
"Time will be the deciding factor," Shadow replied stonily.
"That it will. Trust me when I say we will not delay any longer than necessary. These birds will get their wind back in no time at all. I had no idea such fine specimens were still around in this day and age."
Lance chuckled. "Indeed it is. Now, Celes, I assume you have decided to take me up on my offer?"
"You never made any offer, Saroth."
"Quite right. And don't misunderstand me. I am the employer and you are the employee, true. But I'm not foolish enough to think that your loyalty goes beyond what I pay you." He grinned. "I'm also not foolish enough to think I have a prayer of forcing you to do anything you don't want to. A common robber is one thing. An ex-Imperial general is far beyond my combat capabilities!"
"I have a fairly large collection of Imperial documents with that Zero-class encryption. I was thinking of paying you on a per-page basis... that way neither of us has any long-standing obligations to the other. Does a figure of 10 grams of gold per page suit your fancy?"
After a long moment, she nodded once.
He smiled. The figure had been rather generous, but he would have willingly paid three times that for this information. "Excellent. You are free to discontinue the agreement at any time, of course. I am fairly confident that I have enough money on my person right now to afford enough of your decryption services that I can obtain my short term goals. Should we both be agreeable, I will be able to obtain more at a later date."
"We will see," was all she said.
"We will," he agreed, undaunted. "Now there is one other concern that you should be enlightened on. We are headed towards something that could potentially be very valuable. We are not the only party aiming for it, I am afraid to say. The documents I have represent the most direct and fastest way of obtaining the information. But I don't doubt that some of the less classified information in them could be obtained through other ways."
"You didn't hire Shadow as a guide."
"Very true. I do believe you and him have worked together to a degree. I don't need to tell you how capable he is. He is along to fight if necessary. If Lady Luck is with me, I will be paying him our agreed sum for nothing in return. If worst comes to worst, we could be looking at some fairly serious combat."
"I can take care of myself."
"I won't debate that. But I think we should have an understanding. Where combat is concerned, I am no doubt rather inferior to both of you. Shadow's role is that of a bodyguard and combatant. You have no such obligation, of course. But if you are to come with us, I will not stand for cowardice. You are welcome to decode all my documents this moment and go your own way, with no hard feelings between us. But if you stay with us, you will face our enemies alongside us as well."
Celes' hand rested briefly on the hilt of her sword. "I'll make up my mind when you tell me who we could be facing. You haven't even shown me any documents."
Lance produced two papers. "As best as I can make out, these should provide us with some idea about the concrete location of what I am after."
She looked them over briefly, then began to slowly read the second page.
Lance watched eyes skim over the paper with some amusement. A code that was supposed to be unbreakable, yet she was deciphering it without pen or paper to aid her. Truly a fantastic code. It was truly fortunate that he had managed to get her to work for him...
After several moments, she looked up at him. "We have more traveling ahead of us. The location is north of Mobliz."
"Mobliz? There isn't much north of that ruined village. I might guess... thirty or forty miles of land at most."
"It is about twenty miles north of the town," she agreed.
"So... my other sources were correct. Might I ask you to decipher the entire document? I would like to hear it all for myself, you understand."
She nodded once, beginning to read.
Several minutes later, she concluded both pages, setting them down.
Lance nodded slowly. "Yes... yes... I see. I was rather curious why I was unable to pin down the location of Project A, but this would explain that. It had no fixed location to begin with. This is merely a side-laboratory for the project."
"The purpose of 'Project A' does not seem to be outlined."
Both turned to face Shadow, both having almost forgotten about the ninja. Lance's face looked rather amused for it. "Quite true, Shadow. I regret to inform you that I don't really know myself. But I have more than a few sources which suggest that it could be rather big. I believe that its purpose was deliberately omitted on the off- chance that someone was able to decipher these documents. Very smart people, I must confess. I don't suppose that you'd know, Celes?"
She shook her head. "I have never heard of this project before."
Lance seemed unconcerned as he shrugged. "Oh well. Patience will have to be my guide then."
"As per our deal?" Celes pointed out.
"Of course," he agreed, pulling several thin bars of gold from his pocket. He handed them to her. "Twenty grams of gold. A pleasure doing business so far. This information will be quite valuable. Those security codes are something that my opponents will not have any inkling of."
"Who are your 'opponents'?"
"I would like to know that myself," Celes agreed guardedly, pocketing the gold.
"I am only making educated guesses, let me stress. I believe that I have eliminated the potential threat Figaro could have posed against us. Anything they could mount as a threat will be several days behind us at least, by which time we will be long gone. We may consider ourselves lucky in that way. King Edgar is a bad enemy to have, I understand.
"The second threat that I know of is somewhat more real. It is another group of people, much like ourselves, and somewhat greater in number. You may have heard of a group named Sidewinder?"
Both individuals slowly nodded, causing Lance to raise an eyebrow. "I see. Actually, I hadn't expected you to..."
"They were anti-Imperial terrorists at one time, under the name of Iroq Shin," Celes replied. "They were too pacifistic to work with the Returners."
"I have done jobs for them before," Shadow agreed.
Lance chuckled. "Of course. Somehow, I manage to forget who I am working with. But have either of you experience with them _recently_?"
Both shook their heads.
"Then let me assure you that Sidewinder has changed its ways somewhat. It's members are lesser in number than they used to be, but I suspect this is because the more placid of them have been weeded out. We had best watch our step. I don't believe we will find any fighters who are the equal of either of you two, but they will most certainly have the advantage of numbers. And they will have the defending advantage if they arrive on the site first. Which I fear is quite likely."
The muffled thumping of the chocobo's feet was a repetitive enough noise after a whole day of hearing it. The footprints left behind were almost a inch deep in the moist ground, looking for all the world like a giant chicken had walked over the area. Occasionally a quiet hiss or growl sounded from nearby as something's sleep was briefly disturbed. A twitch of a vine or tentacle was all that might have suggested anything but a typical plant resided there.
Atop the bird, Sabin was studying the ground carefully. Three rows of footprints were clearly visible in the ground ahead of him, telling him that he was on the right track. He hadn't been certain of the thieves' destination to begin with, but after their trail failed to diverge towards Tzen, the number of possibilities had dropped off dramatically. Although it was a long trip, there was nothing this way expect Mobliz.
That was an unnerving prospect for Sabin. Were the thieves headed for Mobliz? He couldn't imagine what they would want with a ruined village full of orphans. But by the same token, the village would be near-defenseless against them... of course Terra was there, and would probably fight to the death to protect them. But as battle-experienced as she might be, she wasn't a trained martial artist or expert swordsman. She didn't even have her magic to use anymore. Did she even keep a weapon around anymore?
He didn't know.
He tried to console himself with the knowledge that there was absolutely nothing of value in Mobliz. They had no money to speak of, no weapons, only garden grown food and couldn't possibly be a threat to anyone. And once Figaro castle received news of an attack on Mobliz, Edgar would probably hunt them to the ends of the earth. The very idea of attacking Mobliz just didn't sem feasible. The only person of any note was Terra, who didn't even have her half-human, half-esper status anymore.
So it must be something else up this way. Surely this would be a good location for hideout or something equivalent. That must be the reason, he told himself firmly. Nothing at all to do with Mobliz...
He gritted his teeth, urging his Chocobo to speed up a little.
"We'll be passing Mobliz shortly."
Atop the two following chocobo's, the two riders only nodded.
"I understand a friend of yours lives here," Lance continued curiously.
"We should skirt it," Celes opinioned. "We don't need any delays."
"Nor do we need anyone able to identify us, no matter how good intentioned," Lance agreed. "Skirt the village, we shall. So how did that business end up, anyway? I've heard bits and rumors about that friend of yours. Terra, I believe her name was?"
Celes nodded wordlessly.
"I heard some ridiculous rumor that she was half-human and half-esper. But I'm sure that was only a rumor..." The look on his face suggested that he knew full well that it was true.
"Not anymore," she replied.
"The esper portion of her would have disappeared with the disappearance of magic, of course," he agreed, "since the disappearance of magic was simply an aftereffect of the disappearance of the three statues and the espers."
"You know a lot about that," she pointed out, not without a little curiosity.
"You can learn all sorts of things if you know where to look, my dear."
The black look Lance received for the ending was almost enough make him wince, but he weathered it admirably. Perhaps that a trick she'd learned some time back, he mused. A useful little trick, really. Especially in her old line of work. Kept the soldiers in line, no doubt.
"Do you know what you are looking for?"
Lance eyed Shadow with amusement. "Truthfully, no. Not a clue. I believe I shall appeal to the lady for some more encryption at our next stop."
Celes scowled. "You're going to all this trouble, spending all this money, and you don't know what you're looking for?"
"Crazy, isn't it?" he agreed, obviously not thinking so himself. "To each their own, I suppose."
Both of his companions glanced briefly at each other in disgust before returning their attention to the path ahead.
It was only an hour later that they saw signs of life. A single individual, not noticing them yet. He was hard at work, chopping at a fallen tree vigorously.
"I don't like this," Lance stated thinly. "I don't need anyone to give directions to anyone else."
"Kill him," Shadow opinioned, a short knife appearing in his gloved hand.
"Knock him out," Celes objected. "We only need a little time."
Lance appeared to give both suggestions some thought for a few moments.
The man had finally noticed their approach, setting down his axe so that he could greet them. He looked a little surprised, but certainly not hostile.
"I think knocking him out will suffice. Would you be so kind, Shadow?"
The only reply he got was the disappearance of the knife the ninja had produced, the left fist curling into a fist.
As they approached within a few feet, the man called out to them. "Good day to you three!"
"Good day you!" Lance returned, just as cheerfully.
Even as Celes eased her bird next to Shadow's, the ninja leapt off his mount.
The man's face briefly registered a shocked expression, then a fist cuffed him on the side of the head, instantly knocking him out cold. Briefly touching the ground, he sprang upwards, skillfully landing on his chocobo again, taking the reins back from Celes, who had been holding them to ensure that the bird did not run off.
Lance applauded, a thin smile on his face. "_Very_ impressive, you two."
"He should have been killed," was all Shadow said.
"Normally, perhaps. But we _will_ be pursued after this. Their pursuit will be less vigorous if they are not chasing murderers. And if we kill him, we'll have to hide the body, which will delay us. Besides, the poor guy hardy deserves to be killed for accidently showing up here. He's probably from Mobliz. I wasn't aware any grown-ups lived there aside from that young lady, Terra."
"Two other young ones," Celes replied.
"With a life ahead of him," Lance agreed softly. "The more people killed today, the less history the future will have to read of."
The footprints continued on relentlessly, sometimes threatening to make his vision blurry. Over hills, through valleys, over swamps and through forest, they went on.
Sabin could hear the slightly hoarse breathing of the chocobo he was riding. He was pushing harder than he should, gambling that once he caught up to them, the bird would have plenty of time to recover for the trip back. They could only go so far before hitting the ocean. Then he would have them for certain...
A flash of red to his right instantly put him on his guard. In the grass, behind a fallen tree... as he approached, he realized that it was no threat to him. It was a man, sprawled out unconscious, wearing a red shirt.
Stop for him? Or keep pursuing the criminals? For Sabin, it was only a brief decision. Easing his bird to a halt, he wrapped the harness around the log and dismounted, first checking around carefully to see if anyone was using the unconscious man as a snare to ambush him. His senses detected nothing, so he cautiously approached the man.
It was a young man, perhaps twenty. He was breathing, with only a slight bump on the side of his head, no doubt responsible for his plight. His axe was a few feet away, leaning against a half-cut log. Whatever had knocked him out had been fast and efficient. No doubt the same people he was pursuing. That they could do this meant they were a step above the average criminal. Then again, _average_ criminals didn't sink entire ships, specifically to block pursuit. They were clearly dangerous. But not dangerous enough to have actually killed this man. No doubt they simply wanted to delay pursuit.
And was going to work, Sabin decided resignedly. If the man was left out here after dark, any number of creatures might find him. With a grunt, he hefted the man, slinging him over the neck of his chocobo, before getting on his himself. The chocobo let out a mild squawk in protest over the increased weight, but Sabin ignored it. He had a hunch that the bird was going to get plenty of rest soon enough. The chase was drawing to a close.
This man was no doubt from Mobliz, so Terra would be able to take care of him. Then Sabin could resume pursuit on his own again.
"We're approaching the site," Lance announced. "We would be smart to approach on foot. The Chocobo's will be fine here until we conclude our business."
All three dismounted.
"You sound like you're expecting trouble, Saroth," Celes observed stonily, already checking her sword to ensure that it was loose in its sheath.
Lance checked his own weapon. Nothing as elegant as the jeweled sword Celes wore, but it had a sharp edge to it and was free of rust. "I am. I hope to be disappointed in that respect, but I'm preparing for the worst. Both of you had best be on your guard."
"Stealth," was all Shadow said, no weapons visible in his hands. "I will go first."
Lance nodded. "If anyone is there, don't kill them. Information is always useful."
"Someone is already dead," the ninja replied.
"He's right," Celes agreed, tilting her head upwards slightly. "I smell blood on the wind."
"_Splendid_. Let's hope they've begun fighting among themselves. I wasn't counting on a third party."
"I caught it! Momma, I caught it!"
"Great! Now throw it back..."
Terra knelt down as the ball was rolled back towards her by the six-year old child. She smiled encouragingly as she rolled it back.
Terra turned at the sound of another kid's voice. "Yes?"
"A big bird's coming!"
Following the gestures, Terra scanned the forest, spotting the approaching chocobo immediately. It was moving at a slow pace, she noted. She thought she recognized the rider too...
Springing to her feet, she jogged out to meet the bird. "Sabin!!!"
The chocobo immediately swerved to meet her.
As he got closer, Terra realized that someone else was draped across the bird as well. Duane. "Duane?!"
Sabin vaulted off the bird before it even came to a stop. "He's okay! I found him knocked out a mile or so out there. He should be taken inside, though. Can you handle to bird?"
Terra took the reins, even as Sabin effortlessly lifted Duane and carried him towards the house. The look on her face was one of restrained nervousness.
"What's wrong, Momma? Why is Mr. Figaro here?"
She smiled as best she could. "Nothing, darling. Sabin's just visiting right now. Duane just got in a little accident, that's all. Why don't you play ball together? I'll come back out in a bit, alright?"
The kids nodded obediently, but they weren't naive enough to not notice the forced smile Terra was wearing.
Moments later, Duane was lying down on a bed, Katerin gently wiping his forehead with a cold cloth. Sabin was standing at the entrance, facing off with Terra.
"What happened to him, Sabin?" Terra was demanding.
"I... don't know. Found him a few miles out."
"You're a worse liar than your brother!" she retorted. "What happened? Cyan came by a few days ago, and he was expecting a fight. He wouldn't say why, though. And now Duane has been knocked out and you come by. Something's going on, I want to know what!"
Sabin sighed. Admittedly, he _was_ a bad liar. "I honestly don't know much, Terra. I'm chasing after three criminals who sank a ship back in Nikeah. I've followed them this far, but I have no idea what's out there. I thought they were headed for here."
"No one showed up here except Cyan."
Now _that_ was a bad thought. "Cyan? How... long ago?"
"Three days ago."
Sabin sighed in relief. On a list of people he _didn't_ want to go up against in a fight, Cyan was certainly on it. Very high up, too. But if he'd been here three days ago, he clearly wasn't one of the three people he was following. "I don't know, Terra. I'm just trying to catch these criminals."
She obviously didn't like the answer. "I've got children to protect here, Sabin."
"I don't want 'em hurt either!" he protested. "I've got to move again. They can't have gone far. There's only a little bit of land to go on past here. And you know Cyan's a good guy too, right? The two of us will deal with any problems no sweat!"
"Let me come along, then," she demanded.
"No way! I've trained all my life! You know that. Cyan's the best swordfighter I've ever seen in my life! You don't have your magic anymore."
"I'm not helpless like you seem to think, Sabin. I can take care of myself. Probably better than you can."
"Then who's gonna guard Mobliz?"
Sabin breathed a sigh of relief as his question hit home. A stroke of genius on his part, he decided. "Everything'll be just fine," he insisted, puffing out his chest. "Think a couple of stupid bandits are gonna take ME down?"
Terra smiled weakly. Sabin was, as always would be, Sabin.
Sabin continued hopefully. "Duane just got unlucky. Those criminals didn't want anybody following them, and they wanted to delay me. I guess it worked, but no harm done, right? I'll just get chasing them now and catch them a few hours later."
"I've been north of this village, Sabin. There's nothing there. There wasn't in the old world, either."
"I believe you. Maybe they've got a little hideout or something. I'll deal with it though. Those crooks are in for the shock of their life!"
A sigh. "Fine. But be careful, okay? Cyan was expecting some fighting. I didn't quite understand everything he was saying, but he seems to think something big is happening."
"I'm always careful!"
"You're _never_ careful."
"Well... I'll be careful this time! Promise!"
"Fine. We'll take care of Duane. But stop by before you head home. I want to know what's going on around here."
"I promise, Terra. Soon's I've kicked a few asses-"
"Sabin! The kids!"
"Uh... sorry. As soon as I've... uh, stopped the criminals, I'll stop by. Besides, I still have to have a rematch with Johanne, right?"
"As long as you don't try that _disgusting_ 'strip poker' thing with her again..."
Sabin held up his hands innocently. "That was Setzer! I _swear_ it!"
"Hmph. I didn't see _him_ anywhere nearby when I caught you!"
"It's Mr. Figaro!"
"Hi Johanne!" Sabin greeted.
"I've still got your sweater! It's real nice!"
Sabin seemed to shrink down in his shoes. "Uh... yeah. Glad you like it."
Terra had to laugh at Sabin's burned face. "Serves you right, 'Mr. Gambler'!"
Time to go, Sabin decided. "Well... I guess I'd better get going!"
For the tenth time in less than as many minues, Lance cursed at himself. Twenty feet away, the slender form of Celes wove through the brush, so smoothly that she seemed to be a ghost. Her forest green undercloak was all she wore, having draped her white cloak over a tree some distance off to aid her stealth efforts. It would also be a well-placed distraction, should some wandering enemy find it. Her sword wasn't even in her hand, tucked away so as not to bounce the sunlight back in a look out's eyes.
Oh yes, Lance realized. She was good. Very good. And he couldn't even find Shadow. Black clothing would be one thing, but he was halfway trail hardy and knew a few things about spotting danger before it spotted you. As for him, stealth was far from his forte. His sword was in hand now, because he didn't trust himself to be able to draw it fast or quietly enough if necessary. Even he could smell something wrong in the air. Blood, Celes and Shadow had immediately ascertained. It smelled bad enough to be just that. But he didn't place an enemy suicide as a very probable thing. He had counted on someone else being at the site. He hadn't counted on a second group. Anything that spilt enough blood to scent the air such had to go beyond a person or two...
Crouching down behind a tree, he surveyed the area ahead. Sunlight was peering through the overhead trees, letting him know that a clearing of sorts was ahead. Perhaps some tree clearing had happened around the site?
"It seems to be deserted."
He let out a sharp retort of breath as Shadow's voice caught him off guard. "You _really_ enjoy that, don't you?"
"You're no soldier, Saroth," Celes informed him, mimicking the ninja's entrance.
"Never claimed to be, my dear." Celes' glare quickly prompted a topic change. "Deserted, you say?"
"No sign of life. There are several dead bodies around the middle of the clearing."
"Their birds are still present."
"So... no signs of the killer themselves?"
"None as of yet," Shadow agreed.
"I defer to your judgement," Lance invited. "There should be some sort of structure around here. I would estimate that it's been buried. What is the best way to find it, as well as stay alive?" Celes and Shadow glanced at each other briefly.
"Have you throwing weapons?" Celes asked.
"Then Saroth and I will go through the clearing, while you approach from the side and make ready disable the attacker."
Celes grabbed Lance's arm firmly, shoving him forwards. "You first."
"Goodness me. And just when I thought you were planning on protecting me," he complained in mock seriousness.
She scowled. "I wasn't. I don't want you in my way. A more dangerous opponent will not approach head-on."
"I defer to your considerably greater experience," he agreed diplomatically, starting forwards as quietly as he could. A quick glance revealed that Shadow was already out of sight.
He smirked to himself. What an interesting bunch he'd hired...
He shielded his eyes as he stepped into the clearing, the previous lack of sunlight made apparent. A few trees and bushes had been felled, which accounted for the increase in sunlight, but certainly not enough to earn the term 'clearing'.
"I daresay someone interrupted the clearing process early on," he observed.
"Likely," Celes agreed.
If there had been such an effort undertaken, it had been interrupted near its beginning. One large oak had a groove cut into it, an ax discarded on the ground halfway through the task. Whatever had interrupted them had been fairly sudden.
Up ahead was what seemed to be a small pit, recently dug. Around the entrance were several still forms. Closer identification revealed them to be dead bodies, still holding their weapons.
"I would say they're members of Sidewinder," Lance opinion, looking at the black and blue clothing. "Which means that whoever killed them either has numbers or else they are extremely talented."
"Those wounds were done by a swordsman," Celes replied. "A good one."
Lance didn't care to ask how she could tell that. He would take her word for it. He still couldn't see anyone around who might be responsible for it...
Celes abruptly stiffened, her gaze focusing on something off to her right. A sharp clang of metal resounded through the forest.
"Found someone," Lance muttered. "At least, Shadow has."
Even now, two shapes could be seen to be passing through the brush, one in retreat, one in pursuit. In only seconds, they had emerged into the clearing. It could now be seen that Shadow was falling back, his opponent chasing.
The attacker stopped as he entered the clearing, seeing that he had three opponents to deal with now. He was holding two long swords, one in each hand.
Lance made a slight bow. "You don't look like youre from Sidewinder. Who might you be?"
The man glared daggers at Lance's two partners. "Yon rogue Shadow. General. Somehow, I am unsurprised to see thee here..."
"You've met then?" Lance inquired. "Stranger, I'm afraid I haven't had the pleasure of being introduced to you."
The man scowled. "I am Cyan. Thou shalt take thy leave of this location immediately."
Lance looked impressed. "Cyan Garamonde? I am most honored to meet a surviving knight of Doma face to face. But I'm afraid that I don't quite understand your quarrel with us. I daresay you've been killing the same people we were prepared to fight. That would make us allies, would it not?"
"I fear not. _My_ enemy is anyone who would breach the walls of this location."
"Well, that could become a problem," Lance admitted.
Cyan's two swords elevated slightly, their tips dully reflecting the sun light at the threesome. "Thou shalt leave. Or thou shalt die."
Author's notes: Ack! Still no big fight? Hey, don't rush me. So what the heck is at the center of this business? Don't expect a clear answer anytime soon. What do you think of Lance? He's a real trip to write as a character. I don't like introducing new main characters, since they always seem to act as the sole catalyst for whatever the story's theme is. I'm going to (try to) avoid that in the long run.
Next chapter: Fighting, the second (and last) new character, more questions
and a surprise ending.
Comments, suggestions, critiques, or flames?
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