I have often wondered about the different courses I could've taken in my life, and by that I mean my mortal one, not this life amongst the Chosen. I was born to power and influence, and in my youth I did my best to use those gifts wisely. My father was a good man, and though I knew her for a shorter time, my mother was as well. They raised me to care about the people in Ultaka, and those outside as well.
This led me to become the leader of my people in a time of crisis, when all other leaders had failed, died, or had abandoned their roles. I told myself I was strong enough to lead, that I could weather any storm as long as I maintained singleness of purpose. I had the undying love of a single man, but I kept him at arm's length to ensure that he would not distract me. He died before I could ever reciprocate with the love I thought he deserved, but which I had kept back, out of a foolish perceived need.
Would I have made the same decisions since then, had I decided to love fully? I could lose myself in that question forever, never finding an answer that would truly satisfy the pain I feel at the loss of Tellen. Death may be inevitable, but that does not make it hurt less, especially when you feel like there is so much you could have done differently.
I lost my great love when I was young, and though I had lovers since, none of them compared. I was too frightened of losing again, so I never allowed myself to move beyond the love I'd lost. Would I have loved the world better if I'd taken those chances?
Vulnerability is the essence of connection. The more we show to those who are receptive, the more we are accepted. The more vulnerability we are willing to safeguard with others, the more pathways we can walk together.
Reaching the end of a path does not mean you cannot continue forward along other roads. Both your feet and your heart can guide you to places you've never been before, and you will be all the richer for the experience. Explore. Be vulnerable. Love.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The gathering of the Shades commenced without delay. Several thousand rallied to the call of their king, climbing the great staircase toward Pentalus. Maxthane sent word through the crowds for the guild leaders, Lady Alsha, and the leaders of the Pentalus Resistance—Nal Maya and Laris—to join him and his commanders in the final chamber. Styx and Kirra came along as well, of course, and stood to either side of Maxthane.
Preparations for the meeting had gone smoothly, all things considered. Maxthane had healed Alsha before they had set out, and was surprised at the level of respect she gave him. Overall, the Knights seemed to give him as much respect as his own soldiers did, which made his soldiers fall in line very quickly. The Pentalus Resistance, on the other hand, regarded him with contempt. However, at least both Nal Maya and Laris seemed willing to work with him.
He hoped it would be enough. While it was unlikely that the number of demons above would do the damage they had managed during the Demon War, there was no telling how much destruction they could accomplish if left unchecked. The fate of the world hung in the balance regardless, and this was the time for action. He needed his words to drive that point home, and he prayed he was equal to the task.
"We go now to face a foe who threatens not only our home but the entire world," Maxthane announced, his eyes skipping around the crowd, always giving the impression that he was speaking to someone directly, acknowledging individual members in the group. "Though this foe could possibly choose to pass us by without incident, it is time The Shade proves itself to the outside world. They think of us as criminals, and indeed we may be by their laws, but we are greater than that."
"The Shade has always been a refuge for the outcast and the unwanted, for those who seek a different way of life than what is forced upon us," Maxthane continued. "Odiran thulu'Khant believed that one day the Everbright City would fall, and we would ascend into a new world, one which would be unable to refuse us entry. This is our day to show the world what we are made of."
"But this has not happened without the sacrifice of a great many people," Maxthane said, meeting the eyes of Alsha and Nal Maya in turn. "We do not celebrate this day, for our allies have lost many of their comrades to the events that have opened the door for us. Though once we celebrated any wounds we inflicted on the Everbright City, today we bolster the ranks and hearts of the Knights of the Firmament, and the citizens of Pentalus whom they protect. Today we fight alongside our ancient enemy, in a cause greater than all factions, to reclaim all our lives from the demons that threaten our existence."
Several cheers rolled out from behind the leaders, but Maxthane went on, speaking over them, "Today the war will end. Today we will finish eight hundred years of darkness, of people living amongst different demons, in the shadows of oppression. We ascend together, we fight together, we will die together, and we will win together. The world will know the strength of all of us, and the demons will know that their time has come!"
Cheers rose from the crowd again, and Styx and Kirra both laid a reassuring hand on Maxthane's shoulder, lending him their strength to face the crowd with confidence. As the cheers died down, Maxthane directed the leaders to join him in a quiet corner cleared for a strategy meeting.
Styx left with Krythe and twenty of Maxthane's personal guards to find Lord Hount, and Maxthane kissed him goodbye in public view. In the culture of The Shade, that was enough to mark Styx as a person of influence and power, and would ensure his safety with the soldiers who traveled with him. They would defer to him, though Krythe could still cause a problem if he wished. Maxthane's hold over The Shade remained somewhat tenuous, though it seemed to be solidifying before his eyes.
Kirra remained behind, but did not join the meeting. Instead, he served as the head of Maxthane's personal guard at the King's request. He stood some distance away, listening but not participating in the meeting, watching the guards as much as he watched the crowd. With so many Shades gathered in one place—not to mention the Knights and the Resistance forces—someone could still take advantage of the situation and attempt to assassinate him. Of those remaining behind, Maxthane trusted Kirra the most.
"Before we go up there, we should probably have some form of plan," Alsha said once all the leaders had reached the corner.
"I don't disagree. What are our recent scout reports?" Maxthane asked. "So far mine have only reported what we've known all along. The demons are not moving, and neither has Hount."
"Kimbler has remained in the city at my instruction, and he can provide us with information," Nal Maya said, glancing at Laris for a moment. The younger woman nodded, confirming some unspoken communication, and Nal Maya continued. "He's coming to join us now."
"I sent Commander Krythe to Lord Hount, and I hope to have even more information once we've spoken to the rebels," Maxthane replied.
"How can you be sure that Krythe will represent our interests?" Madame Godani asked.
Maxthane smiled, glad to have Fau Shae Godani on his side. He trusted her as well, nearly as much as he trusted Styx and Kirra. "I sent Styx with him," Maxthane explained. "While Styx has no official title, of course, he has informed me that he already met with Hount on one occasion, and I think the rapport will help."
"You should've let one of us deal with Hount, King Maxthane," Nal Maya chided. "as we have also dealt with him in the past."
"No, Maxthane was right to send Styx," Alsha countered. "Lord Hount will be unable to trust either the Knights or the Pentalus Resistance, and he may feel the same way about The Shade. We have had agendas in the past when dealing with Hount, but Styx has only one agenda today. He wishes to enlist Hount's aid in defeating the demons, and Hount will have respect for that."
"I appreciate your wisdom, Lady Alsha," King Maxthane said, bowing his head slightly in acknowledgment of her words.
Alsha smiled politely and replied, "Please refer to me as Commander Alsha, King Maxthane. Neredos left no heir, and the center of that kingdom is no more. There is no legitimate aristocracy left to acknowledge. We have our loyalty as Knights who have sworn an oath to protect the world against demonic invasion, and that is the only title we can claim. I suppose when the deed is done, we will not even have that. I hold no attachment to my title other than how it defines me and my relation to the world, and soon it will be meaningless in those roles."
"An odd perspective, but one I can respect," Maxthane replied. "I suppose a lot of things will change once we're done here. Are you certain other leadership did not survive the destruction of the city?"
"Whether it did or not is irrelevant. I will not participate in a government with nothing to govern, and I will not fight a war that has already been won. I'm sure I will find some other career if I survive the day," Alsha said, chuckling.
"Lord Hount will think it's his right to rule," Nal Maya asked. "How do you propose to handle that, Maxthane?"
"That's King Maxthane to you, Nal Maya," Madame Godani interjected, "as we are citizens of The Shade. Our kingdom remains intact." The other guild leaders nodded in agreement. Maxthane wanted to sigh in relief but suppressed it, glad that the other guild leaders were content to follow Madame Godani's lead. Bit by bit, Maxthane's strength as leader of The Shade was growing.
"I may have been born a Shade, sister, but I'm one no longer. Pentalus is my home, and now that I've returned to it—or soon will, at least—I will die there before I leave it again," Nal Maya replied. She stared at Maxthane but continued speaking to Madame Godani. "Besides, I've yet to see if the sins of the parents are missing from the child. Maxthane has a lot to prove before I am willing to afford him the respect of that title."
"I appreciate your candor, and your willingness to fight alongside me despite your misgivings. I cannot speak on behalf of my father or my mother, and I condemn some of their methods," Maxthane said. "I hope that will be enough for today, and that we will build a better future once this day is done."
Before Nal Maya could answer, a messenger approached the guards and asked for access. As soon as Kirra let her through, she approached Nal Maya and whispered something in her ear before departing. Nal Maya addressed Maxthane directly and said, "Kimbler has arrived. With his help, may it be a swift day."
Before she'd even finished speaking the words, a blonde-haired man dressed in simple clothes, with a sword on his belt, passed through the guards. Maxthane was not sure he had ever met Kimbler before, although he seemed vaguely familiar, as if they had once passed each other in a memorable way. Perhaps they had once bumped into each other on the streets of Pentalus, although Maxthane had rarely visited the city.
"I have come as Mother requested," Kimbler said, managing to kneel between both Nal Maya and Laris without directly speaking to either of them.
"What is the status of the demons?" Laris asked, taking the lead in answering to the title of 'Mother '.
"They appear to be waiting for us, or perhaps the rebels, to attack. Their numbers remain fixed at approximately one hundred, though with how much they have moved and circled in their position, it is difficult to get an accurate count," Kimbler explained, rising from his crouch and addressing the group as a whole. "There are a mix of six different types, though individual size seems to vary greatly. There are a handful which are a small as you and me, and a handful as large as the demon who was defeated in Ibrix Plaza. I believe these will be the hardest for us to destroy, and we will want to develop strategies specific to handling them. The rest are somewhere in between in size."
"And what of the terrain?" Alsha asked. "None of the eagles survived the explosion, and if any are laying injured in the rubble, they won't be able to fly anyway. We're going to have to do this all from the ground."
Kimbler nodded, a slight smile creeping onto his otherwise gruff face. If Maxthane had to guess, Kimbler was pleased by Alsha's question and assessment of the situation. Considering the looks they gave each other, they had already met at least once. "It's all rubble and ruin," Kimbler explained. "Difficult to maneuver over, at least for my fighters. We've been scrambling all day."
"Shades will be most useful for that," Madame Godani said. "We are used to moving across uneven terrain."
"We will spread our forces throughout the battlefield," Maxthane replied, nodding in agreement with Madame Godani. "Each guild will be allowed to coordinate on its own, with my personal troops serving to bolster the ranks. We will divide our forces evenly so we hit the demons from all sides with as much force as we can manage while keeping them contained."
"That's a good foundation for the plan," Alsha said thoughtfully. "Unfortunately, we have very few Knights at our disposal. I don't think we even have enough to form a single company. Instead, I will divide my Knights into small groups and send one group with each of the guilds. They will be instructed to work under the guild leader's command, and to offer strategy."
"What role would you have for the Resistance?" Laris asked.
Maxthane considered that, while Alsha asked, "How many experienced fighters do you have, Kimbler?"
"No more than two hundred depending on how you define 'experience'," Kimbler replied, sighing. "It is difficult to train people when they all have livelihoods. We have a couple thousand volunteers, but none of them have combat experience."
"But you know the city better than anyone, I suspect," Maxthane said.
Kimbler nodded and said, "We can certainly provide you with a lay of the land."
"I think if you continue to serve as our scouts, and messengers, that would work out best," Maxthane said, looking to Alsha for agreement. She inclined her head slightly, and Maxthane continued. "Your fighters can coordinate from the front lines, and hopefully be able to get in and out without too much issue."
"The rest of my people will set up triage centers where we can," Nal Maya suggested. "We'll pull the wounded out and treat them as soon as possible."
Maxthane smiled at that and said, "I will be useless in combat, but I will assist in the healing. Back to the subject of messengers, however…" He trailed off as a familiar Elrok started moving through the crowd toward them. As she parted the guards, Maxthane addressed her. "Bradeth, have you had any success?"
Bradeth bowed and said, "I have. The clans are mobilizing, and I'll have a thousand warriors here within the week. If we need to retreat toward Elrok lands, all will be welcomed, and we will turn the tide."
"And what if we win?" Nal Maya asked skeptically, clearly worried about having so strong of an Elrok presence in the ruins of Pentalus.
"Then the Elroks will help you rebuild," Bradeth replied. "We have no interest in laying claim to these lands."
"How will Hount know about our plans? We will have to revise everything to fit him in, if he joins the assault at all," Madame Godani asked.
Maxthane smiled at this. He had expected that question, and he motioned for Kirra to hand him the black metal box at his feet. "Styx will contact me on this as soon as we have agreement with Hount," Maxthane said as he opened the box. He pulled out one of the small communication devices he had shown Styx before, and who now carried one with him.
"What is that?" Bradeth asked, her curiosity clearly piqued by the strange device.
"The best tool we have," Maxthane replied, turning the device on and showing the lit screen to the others. "Communication. Let me show you how it works."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Styx had no idea what to do with himself. He had never had an official assignment from the Shadow King before, and he wasn't sure how to act. He did his best to copy the manner of officials he had seen in the past, but he had dealt with some from both The Shade and the Everbright City recently, and there was a large disparity between the two manners.
In The Shade, those on official business tended to remain much their original selves, with a dash of added self-importance. People in The Shade were less impressed by one's demeanor and more impressed by one's ability, so the behavior of an official was less important.
In the Everbright City, it had seemed the opposite was true. People were more concerned with how you acted rather than whether those actions were important or not. Both had seemed powerful in their own way, one for maintaining a sense of self and the other for maintaining a sense of social propriety. He decided to settle somewhere in the middle, though the looks Maxthane's soldiers gave Styx didn't help him feel at ease.
If only Maxthane hadn't kissed him in front of everyone, this could've been avoided. And of all those looking to treat him differently, Krythe was the worst.
"Sir Styx, I mean no offense, but I question the necessity of your presence on this mission," Krythe said.
The words struck Styx as being condescending, but Krythe's tone sounded sincere in his desire to avoid offense. Styx didn't know what the proper response would be, so he did his best to fake it. "Commander Krythe, whether you question it or not is irrelevant. Your king has commanded it, and that should be enough for you."
"I suppose I can no longer deny that," Krythe replied, bowing humbly. "My apologies, Sir Styx."
Styx let those words sink in for a moment, wondering at the odd sound of them. He took the opportunity to survey their surroundings. The sun would rise soon, revealing the ruins of Pentalus to the world in sharper light. To the group of Shades, however, the world was already bright with all the stars overhead. Styx could see across the sea of rubble, and the cloud of flying demons in the distance.
They seemed so few in comparison to the number of fighters Maxthane had managed to amass so far, but Styx knew from experience that each demon could easily kill a dozen men before it went down. That was a conservative estimate, if not a downright ridiculous one. It was likely the larger demons could kill hundreds before they fell.
It was all making Styx feel inadequate to the task ahead, and in a brief waning of confidence he said, "King Maxthane has not given me an official title, Commander Krythe."
"But you are the heir to the Inkblade guild, are you not? That affords you some rank and recognition," Krythe replied.
"Madame Godani has not made me the official heir, either," Styx said, shaking his head. He glanced at Krythe and found the man's eyes strangely curious. He'd never expected Krythe to take any interest in him, especially not with such sincerity. Encouraged by this change in tone, Styx went on, "I believe she is waiting until I decide what I want to do with my future. But I suppose you are right to step cautiously around me, though currying favor will not help your case. I will not allow you to go against King Maxthane's wishes."
Krythe nodded. "I have no intention of doing so. Before, it was a matter of my service to a king I did not believe was dead, but I have accepted King Maxthane's ascension to the throne."
"Very well," Styx replied, surprised that he believed Krythe. "Then I welcome you at my side during these negotiations."
"You intend to take the lead then?" Krythe asked.
Styx hesitated, but replied confidently, "No, I will allow you that privilege to prove yourself and your loyalty, but we will present ourselves as equals to Lord Hount, and you will defer to me if I join the negotiations."
"I understand and will obey," Krythe said with a bow that was so low it almost made him stumble.
Styx's next words nearly had the same effect. "Do you wish to become Captain of the Guard now that Rega is dead?" he asked.
Krythe shook his head firmly. "My ambition knows its limits, Styx. I know I will be lucky to keep the rank I currently hold, and if I'd done to King Salidar as I have done to King Maxthane, he would've thrown me alone into the pit against whatever strongest beast he had at the time."
"If he didn't skip straight to throwing you into the waters of the Black Lake," Styx replied with a shudder.
They let the silence stretch between them and motioned for the other soldiers to remain quiet as well. Before them loomed the wall of the southern garrison of Pentalus, or what was left of it. The scouts had reported that Hount had taken up residence here, though they were stopped long before they reached the wall.
A dozen archers rose from the rubble, and men with swords and shields stood next to them, ready to defend their positions. One of the archers called out to the Shades. "Hold! Identify yourselves!"
"We come with a message from the Shadow King and seek to confer with Lord Hount," Krythe said without a trace of apprehension.
"You must hand over your weapons before we can admit you entrance to the camp," the archer replied.
Krythe looked to Styx and received a nod of assent. "Very well. How would you like us to proceed?" Krythe asked.
"Disarm and lay them on the ground before you, then step back. We will come and retrieve them," the archer said.
When Krythe looked to Styx for confirmation again, Styx hesitated. He did not like the prospect of disarming all their soldiers, and he could tell that Krythe did not appreciate the idea either. Nodding to himself, Styx turned back to the archer and said, "Only two of us will be entering your camp, the others will hold onto our weapons and withdraw some distance."
The archer did not immediately respond, instead conferring with the shield bearer next to him, too quietly for Styx to hear. After a moment, however, he called back to Krythe and Styx. "We agree to your proposal."
"Are you sure you are confident with us going in alone?" Krythe asked. His face betrayed no emotion.
Styx nodded as he drew the single knife from his belt and handed it to one of the Shade soldiers. "I met Hount before, and he was a reasonable man. Though I do not think he knows the limit of his ambition, as you described it earlier. Nevertheless, I believe we will be safe enough in his care."
"It's not as if we will be defenseless, anyway," Krythe said as he unbelted his sword and handed it to a different Shade. Sliding back his sleeve, he removed a knife, but tapped it once to draw Styx's attention to his wrist, revealing two tattoos; a flame and the open mouth of a cat. "I can manipulate both fire and my own bones if necessary."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Styx said, "but I'll keep that in mind."
Once they were both disarmed, they kept their hands in the air and approached the archer's position. As they neared, several of the sword and shield bearers moved forward. One patted each of them down to search for hidden weapons while the other stood vigil. Once they were satisfied—seeing at once that the small black box of the communications device Styx was carrying could not be used as a weapon—they escorted Krythe and Styx past the defensive position.
They were quickly delivered to a new set of soldiers, who asked Styx and Krythe to state their names and purpose. After an extremely brief conversation, this new escort led them into the garrison. The place itself had taken less damage than Styx had thought from the outside, as most of the buildings inside were intact. It was almost tidy, as if Hount and his forces had cleared out any rubble that had landed in the pathways between the buildings.
There were fewer soldiers inside than Styx had expected, but still enough that he felt he was being watched from every angle. Anxiety threatened to override any confidence he'd had before, and he did his best to breathe normally and push his fear aside as they reached their destination.
The escort brought them inside a small building that had once served as an office, judging solely by the interior. Stacks of paper and a large ledger sat on a table surrounded by chairs. The table dominated the center of the small room, though Lord Hount sat against the far wall in a heavy armchair, nursing an arm wrapped in bandages.
"Lord Hount," the leader of the escort said, saluting, "may I present Commander Krythe and his associate, Styx, representatives of the Shadow King's court."
Lord Hount dismissed the words with a wave of his hand as his eyes settled on Styx. Instant recognition showed in that gaze, though no other emotions were immediately apparent on his face. "You may leave us."
"Lord Hount, I must protest," the leader of the escort stammered.
"Leave us," Lord Hount replied, glaring at his soldier. "This boy will not assassinate me, and I believe in my ability to handle two unarmed men. You should return to performing your own duties, Shael."
The soldier saluted again, much more stiffly than the first time. "As you command, Lord Hount." He shot a glare at Krythe and Styx before departing, taking the rest of the escort with him.
"Your soldiers are loyal," Krythe observed.
"To a fault," Hount muttered, rising to his feet. He moved to a chest in the corner of the room and opened it, pulling out a bottle of some dark liquor and three glasses. Gesturing toward the table, he waited until Krythe and Styx took seats on their side of the table before sitting down opposite. He poured three glasses of the liquor, downed one filled it again, then slid the other two glasses to his guests. Krythe took the glass and drank, and Styx followed suit. It was strong and burned, and Styx struggled not to cough.
Lord Hount eyed him with a smirk and said, "I'm certain you came here about my soldiers. King Salidar seeks an alliance now that his enemies have been destroyed. He should've sent more than a few assassins last time if he wanted my aid now."
"King Salidar thulu'Khant is dead, and the only stake we have in this conflict is survival. Tell me, you must have noticed the demons occupying the city you now claim," Krythe said.
"Do you insult my intelligence, Krythe?" Lord Hount asked.
To Styx's surprise, Krythe continued with confidence, as if Hount had asked exactly the question Krythe had wanted him to ask. "On the contrary, I'm counting on it. I do not know your numbers, but I'm sure you have heard of the demons released in Pentalus over a week ago. Only five were released, yet hundreds died as a result, many of them trained soldiers and Knights. It will be very difficult for you to defeat the demons on your own, and King Maxthane thulu'Khant seeks an alliance to dispose of the demons."
"An interesting proposal. What interest does he have in the demons?" Hount asked.
"The protection of The Shade," Krythe said.
"And the safety of the world," Styx added.
"The strange boy speaks at last!" Hount said, regarding Styx with a strained smile. "And I'm reminded of the courtesy you did me, even though it was too late."
"How many did you lose when the Everbright City exploded?" Styx asked.
"Too many," Hount said, downing his glass again and pouring another, "Too many for me to justify attacking the demons on my own. Even with my allied forces in the north, we were too few."
"Were?" Krythe said.
Lord Hount chuckled and gave Krythe an approving look. "You are too perceptive, or perhaps I am drunk. I will have to watch my tongue even better than normal. Nevertheless, I suppose in the interest of transparency, there is no harm in you knowing," he added with a shrug. "Last night, a messenger rode to me from the northern armies. There are five hundred Gor who seemed to appear out of nowhere. They must've been traveling for weeks to arrive here, so how they knew the demons would be released, I can't fathom, but they have already offered me aid."
"Five hundred will not be enough," Krythe said.
"No, you are right about that," Lord Hount said, "but what will I be expected to give up to King Maxthane if I accept his aid?"
"Nothing," Styx said without thinking, remembering that Maxthane was willing to do anything to get Hount on his side.
"Nothing, except for the agreement to build a better world," Krythe said, surprising Styx again. As he continued, his tone rang with the conviction of a man converted to a new cause. "If you rebuild here, claiming Pentalus as your own as you have, work with King Maxthane instead of against him. Much of the world will rally around you, now that Neredos is dead, but the chances of you ever rooting us out of The Shade are minimal. Neredos tried for centuries and failed every time, and our skills in the dark have only grown sharper. Give us free access to the surface, allow us to trade openly, and you will have no trouble with us."
Styx nodded in agreement, still shocked that Krythe had spoken so eloquently about Maxthane's desires. Krythe was a better diplomat than Styx could ever hope to be, and he no longer doubted Krythe's loyalty in the slightest. "I agree that this is the essence of King Maxthane's wishes," Styx said.
Hount's eyes also betrayed his surprise, going so far as to raise another glass to his lips but setting it down without drinking. "If that is the only condition," he said cautiously, "I believe we can form this alliance. However, I would be a fool to not see that in writing and accept only the word of two messengers."
"Would hearing the word from King Maxthane himself be enough?" Styx asked, earning him a bewildered glance from Krythe.
"It would," Hount replied, nodding, "but he is obviously not here to deliver it."
Smiling with repressed smugness, Styx pulled out the small communications device Maxthane had given him and set it on the table. He slid it toward Hount for his inspection and said, "With this device I can communicate across great distances. Please, allow me to do so."
Hount picked up the device and turned it over several times, opened it, then set it down in front of Styx and nodded. Styx retrieved the device and pressed the buttons Maxthane had taught him to press. In a matter of seconds, the screen came to life and Maxthane's face appeared on it as if he were looking out a tiny window.
Krythe and Hount gasped together as Maxthane spoke. "Lord Hount, it is an honor to make your acquaintance outside of the battlefield."
"King Maxthane, I must say I am surprised to see you," Hount said when he had finally recovered from his astonishment. "Nevertheless, time is not on our side. As strange as this occurrence may be, let us discuss the terms of an alliance. Styx, was it?" He said, turning to Styx. "Would you please recount what we have discussed?"
Styx smiled at both Hount and Maxthane. "I would be delighted," he replied.
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