Here we go!


Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 161


There was a noticeable change as the armada crossed over the Atlesian ocean and into the long, broken set of islands that marked the coastlines of what was unofficially called the Grimmlands. The sky darkened as thick, roiling clouds blocked the sun from view. The Grimmlands was covered in what seemed to be perpetual night, and Jaune wondered if it was something related to magic or if there wasn't some more scientific explanation. Pollution from all the dust crystals piercing the surface or a result of Grimm particles in the air.

That the dust was magic and that it had stained the land an odd shade of purple rendered such thoughts moot. There was magic in the air, the land and beneath it. Denying that wouldn't change what was and he knew full well now just how unscientific the world could be when it wanted to.

James had allowed him onto the bridge for the moment in question. It was a kind but mostly empty gesture because while Jaune knew a lot about fighting and Salem, he didn't know anything about flying an airship. In truth, James probably felt like he had to keep him abreast of the situation. He didn't, but there was no ignoring the gesture. His hand slid down to his side, past Crocea Mors and to the tinkling, golden crown secured on a brass hook stamped through his belt. Up on the main deck, Ironwood had a long staff-like object in hand, wrapped up in white cloth and tied with a black ribbon.

The bridge itself wasn't what Jaune had imagined. It was nothing like a ship with its wheel and deck, and little like a sci-fi movie with a captain's seat. Instead, most of the people were seated at terminals and desks, working on computers and speaking to one another through headsets. The central area was clear aside from a raised platform – another one of those holographic maps Atlas was so in love with.

Up front, before the large, reinforced glass and domed window that made up the prow of the airship, ran a raised metal gangway, like an actual bridge, over the numerous soldiers working below. General Ironwood stood on that with one hand on a metal rail. Though the huge, arching windows gave an unobstructed and commanding view of the land below, that wasn't entirely useful. What Ironwood was paying more attention to were the numerous screens being played on the inside of the glass, showing detailed information on what Jaune assumed was the state of the armada.

He said `assumed` because while everyone else knew their place and stuck to it, Jaune was hovering at the back by the door, too afraid of being a distraction and mucking something up to step any further in. Nice gesture or not, being here really was wasted on him.

"Sir!" A soldier sat at a computer facing the left – or port, he supposed – side of the bridge spoke up. "The armada has fully crossed over the border. Cloud coverage is extreme, visibility poor. I have a request from Captain Coppersmith to wait for clearer conditions before advancing."

"There won't be any clearer conditions," Ironwood replied. "Our scout drones have been patrolling the area for weeks. It's a natural weather phenomenon. The clouds don't go. Relay that."

"Sir, yes sir."

Natural weather, huh? That was as good as excuse as any and might even be technically the truth. Magic was natural to Remnant after all. It was what their world had been formed with.

"Sir," a different soldier spoke up. "Radar is picking up no targets. Sensors aren't detecting any movement either, not in the air or below. Intelligence suggested these islands were teeming with Grimm."

"The intelligence is accurate. It seems they are waiting in ambush." There was a mutter across the bridge. Everyone knew Grimm, or so they thought, and they all knew that aside from rare cases of truly ancient Grimm showing intelligence, most weren't capable of tactics. "There are numerous older Grimm here," he said. "Not to mention the one we're hunting. She has a Semblance capable of passing on rudimentary orders to the Grimm. Tell the other captains to maintain cohesion and be at full alert. I expect they'll draw us in before launching an attack. The cloud cover benefits them more than it does us."

The soldier saluted and the information was passed on. Out the front of the glass and in every direction the other ships of the armada could be seen. They were held firmly in the centre, protected on all sides, but ahead of them was an even more important vessel, the so-called rail cannon ship that James believed would be capable of dealing with any nasty surprises Salem might spawn. Being ahead of them meant their own ship could add its barrage fire to its defence, overlapping with the fire from the smaller ships on either side, above and below.

Forty-two ships all told. The specific breakdowns of each had eluded Jaune even when James tried to explain it, but the basics were that they had six of the huge, battleships and the rest were either cruisers, carriers or destroyers, the smallest ones being the most prominent and also the best at defending themselves and the others. More manoeuvrable and with more of their systems dedicated to anti-air weapons.

The engines hummed through the vibrating floors as they moved on. Interior lights sensed the gloom and brightened, huge floodlights doing the same outside and swivelling left and right, piercing through the gloom like giant flashlights. Ahead, the other ships did the same, crossing beams of yellow light searching for danger.

"Movement ahead!" someone called out. "Large readings – it's something big. No, it's splitting up. It's a swarm!"

"Steady." James said calmly. "Triangulate the distance and send detonation timers to the fleet."

"Triangulating," someone said. "Systems are calculating now, sir. We're going to have to estimate their speed. Six seconds, sir. Six seconds. Feeding information to the rest of the fleet."

"Primers received," another reported. "I'm getting green lights from 80% of ships. 85%. 90%. 95%." Ironwood raised his hand and remained silent. "100% of ships ready to fire!"

General Ironwood's hand swept forward. "Barrage fire!"

The airship vibrated only a little, which was ridiculous given the huge boom of cannons firing that could be heard echoing against metal. More followed, both from their flagship and the others around, large blasts as shells flew ahead, black and nearly indistinguishable against the dark sky.

It wasn't one great perfectly timed volley. Other vessels fired sporadically, their cannons making a staccato as they fired one after the other. Jaune counted in his head, watching ahead of them even though he couldn't make out the swarm of Nevermore the sensors had no doubt detected.

Two, three, four, five, si-

The sky ahead of them lit up. Not once, not twice, but again and again as the dust shells travelled the six seconds the on-board computers had calculated and the timers inside those shells signalled the primers. Less cannonballs and more timed explosives, they burst in violent fire, spraying dust and shrapnel in every direction.

So far away, the brutality of it was muted and it looked more like fireworks, a lovely string of them that burst in small circles of bright light rippling and dotting their way from left to right.

"Hold barrage!" Ironwood ordered. The instructions were passed on and it took a good ten seconds for the last ship to fire its cannon and then stop. Silence reigned. "Sensors?"

"Still some movement out there, sir. Less for sure-"

"Above!" someone cried. "Through the clouds!"

"Anti-air!" Ironwood barked. "All ships open fire!"

The whirr of machine guns swivelling and opening up drowned out everything. Streamers of yellow light pierced up from almost every ship, continuous streams of tracer fire cutting lines through the air, turning and adjusting either through manual aiming or tracking computers. The light of them flashed through the windows, bathing the bridge in yellow. Up above, he could hear their own mounted guns blazing away.

And then the Grimm hit. The ambush was exactly what Ironwood had expected, a distraction from the front and then a proper attack from above, using the clouds to shield their approach. Avian Grimm fell like dark rain, pouring before the glass-fronted prow and completely obscuring their vision for a few seconds.

Ahead of them a fully grown Gryphon struck the starboard side of one of their destroyers like a battering ram. It died on impact, but a violent explosion rocked the side of the ship, ripping off one of its engines completely. The ship veered down and to the left, and for a sickening moment Jaune thought it would plummet to its doom. The other engines quickly and automatically accounted for the sudden loss, however, catching it long before it could crash into another. Slower, limping slightly, it rose back into formation and added its side-mounted dust-fed miniguns to the conflict.

Their own flagship wasn't spared. Given its size, it was never going to be. The constant pang and clang of objects striking metal armour above spoke of that. As beams of minigun fire cut through the largest threats, thousands of Nevermore of various shapes and sizes did their best to slip into any opening, to clog engines with their bodies or find a hatch leading inside. Those that couldn't flung themselves to their deaths on the thick armour. Yet more were smashing and killing themselves on the reinforced glass.

"Maintain formation!" Ironwood barked. "Don't launch interceptors yet. Prioritise the larger Grimm. Don't stop for anything. There are theoretically infinite Grimm, but they will stop once we reach our destination."

The bridge was rocked violently as something big sunk its claws into the ship from above. Jaune caught the wall and all the other soldiers clung to their desks and chairs, looking upward nervously.

"Visuals!" Ironwood barked.

An image projected itself across the inside of the windows. The camera was fielded further back along their roof, but it had a clear enough view of a frankly gargantuan Gryphon some twenty metres long. It was on all fours atop the airship, its tail wrapped around the metal for balance. Raising a foreclaw, it brought it down again, a loud boom echoing from above at the moment of impact.

"Isn't it in front of a canon!?" Jaune called.

"The charge would blow a hole through our armour if we fired that close, sir," a nearby soldier answered for him.

Jaune cursed and reached for Crocea Mors. "I can deal with it."

"No." Ironwood ordered. "Drop altitude one hundred feet."

Someone called their assent and Jaune's stomach dipped as the ship rapidly descended. It was a horrible feeling, one he felt deep in his gut as a big lurch. Their view of the battle was suddenly beneath the ships ahead, a better angle to see above and to the violent downpour of Grimm continuously coming out the clouds.

What being lower than the rest of the armada also did was give them a good view and angle of their hull. It also drew the attention of nearby captains wondering why the flagship was breaking formation. Jaune watched as the camera tracked a nearby airship angling itself to the left. Its stream of anti-air fire halted for a few moments, and he had a feeling he knew why.

Suddenly, the Grimm digging through their hull was raked from its right, huge tracers smashing into its skin so powerfully and rapidly that they pushed it off the flagship before it even died. As it tumbled away, the stream of fire cut through it entirely, severing the beast into two parts that tumbled into the night. The fire cut off as quickly as it came, the airship angling back while their own vessel slowly ascended as well, taking its place back once more.

Their ship had survived thanks to its armour but not all could be as fortunate. Explosions rocked ahead of them as the ship that had already been struck once before was picking out again. The Grimm, smelling blood, pounded into its side over and over until another engine burst free and ignited, exploding with such force that it took out a hundred Nevermore, but also causing the aircraft, belching smoke, to veer off to the side and down. This time, the computers couldn't compensate. There was no saving it.

"Sir. The Dauntless is signalling its engines as shot. They're going down. Requesting orders."

There could be none. Jaune knew. General Ironwood knew as well, clutching his jaw with his mechanical hand and squeezing hard. Though Jaune couldn't see his eyes, he knew they would be clenched shut. "Order their retreat as far as possible. If they can reach the open ocean, await rescue. If not, hold out as best they can."

They would not reach the ocean. Jaune could see that as well as anyone. The ship was going down too hard and too fast. They would crash into the Grimmlands and be overrun. Every single soul on board that ship was dead, and he had a feeling they all knew it.

"Orders received," the comms officer said dully. "Captain Irons wishes us luck and… and says it has been an honour, sir."

"Yes." Ironwood stood immovable. "Yes. It has been."

"Sir. The swarm ahead are growing in number again."

The distraction was what they all needed, even if it wasn't what they wanted. "Fire all cannons. Three second timer. Open fire."

Again, the cannons boomed and again a ripple of blasts split through the air several hundred metres ahead of them. It was louder this time, and Jaune could see the black specs that would be Grimm illuminated against yellow dust explosions. The blasts were timed not to go off amongst but ahead of them, all but forcing the Grimm into the barrage and incinerating them in droves.

"Focus anti air upward," Ironwood barked out. "Keep our flanks clear of fire and launch interceptors. Have them clear space around the Devastator Cannon. I want its firing lane clear at all times."

"Sir!"

A siren blared throughout the battleship. Jaune clenched his jaw, but they weren't losing altitude, and as the siren continued to raise and fall in volume, he realised it wasn't a call to emergency at all, but a call to arms. Right now, pilots would be strapped into their aircraft, closing cockpits and running last-second checks of their weapons.

"Keep the hangar bays closed until the last second. Everyone not in an aircraft is to vacate the hangers. The Grimm will try and get in. Launch when ready."

Through the boom of the cannons and the whirring of machine guns, the launch of the interceptors could not be made out. It wasn't until a flight squad in a V-formation looped over the cannon-ship ahead and shot down a Gryphon that he realised they had launched at all. Like angry wasps, they danced around the ship ahead, circling and looping over and around its hull picking off the various Grimm that had landed and were trying to rip it apart in search of weak points.

The call to angle anti-air fire away made sense given friendly fire was a thing. It would be almost impossible for the pilots to weave in and out of the dangerously arching lanes of fire ripping upward all around them. Instead, Ironwood had created a pocket in which they could operate, a pocket in which they couldn't risk shooting anyway for fear of taking down their new weapon.

"Hangars are swarming with Nevermore, sir," an officer reported. "Flight crew are requesting permission to activate the turrets and clean the area."

"Permission granted. Seal hangar doors and clear them out. Send our huntsmen in if it gets too hectic. In fact, have station some in the corridors leading to and from just in case." Louder, he asked someone else, "How far are we from the first drop-off point?"

"Six hundred metres and closing, sir. There's a large hill ahead."

General Ironwood drummed his fingers on the railing, flinching as another airship was ripped out the air and sent tumbling down, this time more violently than the last. He didn't say a word as it exploded on the ground and an officer miserably reported all crew of the Triumph reported KIA. Jaune closed his own eyes and whispered a quiet prayer for them. If the Brother Gods were paying attention, maybe they could do their jobs for once and help those brave souls on to the afterlife.

"Four hundred metres. Two hundred metres. One hundred metres."

"Commence drop." Ironwood ordered.

A loud ka-chunk echoed deep beneath them. Large, square pods of what Jaune knew to be full of automated Knight-Units were released from the lower decks of the ship, left to plummet down to the Grimmlands. Again and again, over twenty pods were released, each of which contained fifty Knights and some of which even had Paladins.

It was a distraction, pure and simple. Salem's control over the Grimm was absolute but that didn't mean she had perfect information or that she could relay said control easily. If she told the Grimm to `attack and kill the invaders` then they would attack and kill any they found. If Salem were here and watching, she might be able to tell the Grimm not to focus on such an obvious bait, but she was in her tower and the Grimm could only follow the orders they had been given in advance.

How much time this would buy them he wasn't sure, but if it bought them any at all, it would be worth it. The Knight-Units were too risky to take directly to Salem anyway because she could still have access to Watts' virus even with the man dead and gone.

"If they get the chance, instruct the Knights to make their way to the Dauntless and try to protect any survivors." Ironwood said. They both knew it wouldn't be enough, but the effort was worth making, even on the smallest of odds. "Have them check the Triumph as well."

"Yes sir."

"Sir, the other ships are reporting reduced Grimm from above. It looks like we've outlasted them."

"Don't jinx us, lieutenant. You don't outlast the Grimm out here. Not in the Grimmlands. If they're pulling off then it's for a reason. Get on those sensors and find out what that is." Ironwood tilted his head, touching a hand to a comms device by his ear. "Ashari!" he barked.

Jaune perked up, desperate to do something. Anything. "Yes?"

"There's more trouble in the hangar than we expected. Get yourself, Raven and your girls down there and clear it out. Our boys can't come back unless it's safe."

"On my way!"

/-/

They had already opened the corridors up to the hangar by the time he arrived, and Jaune walked past a team of soldiers closing off one end with their guns trained on the path ahead. They saluted as he came and went, letting him wade past swiftly decomposing Nevermore. At the large, open door at the end he could make out the red flash of Raven's blade cutting from left to right, and the loud banter of Vernal teasing Emerald over something or other.

As expected, they were all three of them inside and killing Nevermore, though they weren't the only ones. Two huntsmen were further ahead and he could see Marrow and Vine at the back, just finishing off a Gryphon.

How the Grimm had gotten in was obvious enough. The turrets lay scattered on the floor, ripped from their ceiling mounts. People mistook mindless aggression for stupidity all the time, but Grimm would attack things trying to harm them. Just because you had turrets didn't mean you were safe.

"Dad!" Emerald saw him first.

"We've got this handled!" Vernal growled. "We don't need your help."

"Ironwood ordered me to be here," he said, swaying left to let a Nevermore blur by. He caught it by its tailfeathers as it went, swung and smashed it against the nearest wall to kill it. "Also, weren't you supposed to wait outside until everyone was here and then clear the hangar?"

"Raven did it." Emerald said.

He sent Raven a raised eyebrow.

"As if I could be bothered to wait." She swung between snarls, slicing through multiple Grimm with ease. The golden lantern on her own belt chimed with her movement, the Relic of Knowledge visible to all but thankfully not easily recognised by the average person. "Sitting here listening to the ship shake as the battle goes on outside. I can't stand having nothing to do."

Preaching to the choir. Jaune chuckled and charged ahead. He knew telling Emerald and Vernal to back up would never work, so the best way to make sure they were safe was to take on the biggest threats himself. A large bug-like creature not unlike a moth seemed to fit the bill. It had a giant, rounded head and thick carapace armour over its wings. He didn't recognise it, but when it opened up said wings, a huge swarm of Lancers came pouring out from a hollow chamber in its body.

"Shit." A sword against a swarm of anything was a bad idea. Jaune ducked and rolled, snatched a grenade from his belt and lobbed it haphazardly at one of the moth-beast's sides. It exploded and killed a good twenty Lancers, but that only cut off one stream. "Emerald!"

"On it!" Emerald reversed her weapons and fired their gun forms, punching rounds through the Lancers' thin bodies and knocking them into pieces. The volume also drew their attention, causing them to go after her and Vernal.

Hopefully Raven would keep an eye on them. Jaune pushed himself up and charged the moth-creature before it could spawn more. Its long, spindly legs didn't appear useful for defending itself even though they had sharp edges, so it was probably a carrier-spawner for the Lancers. Ducking past one leg, he swept up and severed it at the knee, then twirled and slashed at the other, making it topple forward with its bulbous head hissing angrily into his. Scowling back, he drew Crocea Mors into his shoulder and thrust between its big, shiny eyes, twisting for good measure.

The Grimm spasmed and collapsed on itself, quickly dying. Unfortunately, that had the result of unleashing the rest of the Lancers inside, which quickly swarmed toward him. Swinging wildly, he lopped three in half, but quickly gave up and threw himself to the floor, rolling like he was on fire and crushing the ones that tried to cling onto him.

A minute later he was able to stand up, sore and with red marks up and down his arms where they'd tried to get their stingers into him. "I hate the small ones," he growled. "Big Grimm you can dodge and fight properly, but it's always the tiny ones that huer the most."

"Big baby," Raven mocked. "Your children weather this better than you do."

"OW!" Vernal yelled, picking a sharp barb out her arm. "Fucking ow! Fucking Lancers! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"

Jaune laughed. "You sure about that?"

"Hangar is clear!" Marrow shouted out for the benefit of the soldiers outside.

"It won't stay that way once we try and bring the interceptors back inside, though." Vine said. "We will have to stay here and guard it. Our thanks to you," he said to them. "Would a few of you mind staying to help clear the hangar again?"

"I'm sure the girls would," Jaune said, waiting for Emerald and Vernal to nod. While he wanted to keep them safe, they'd only sneak off and get into combat if he tried. Better he knew where that was and that they'd be watched over. "Would you be willing as well, Raven?"

"Tch. Nothing better to do."

"Good. Where's Clover?"

"He is taking care of last-minute planning in the barracks," Vine replied. "Do you have need of him? I can patch a message through if required."

"It's fine." Jaune, along with everyone, paused and looked up as another shake rocked the flagship. They all waited to see if anything would go wrong, but after ten seconds without any sirens or alarms, calmed down. "I was just wondering if he had a sword with him. Wanted to make sure."

"He has it." Marrow said. Jaune wasn't sure if he knew what it was or not, but he smiled knowingly. "General Ironwood ordered us to make sure he has it on him at all times. He's carrying it on his back."

Not the proper way to carry a sword you wanted to draw, but then it wasn't Clover's actual weapon, so he could wear it however he wanted. As long as he was keeping hold of the Relic, all four were accounted for. Also on one ship, which was dangerous and all, but as long as they didn't come into contact before he was ready for it, that was fine.

Another explosion rocked the ship, and this time it came from close by. Jaune jumped away from the hangar doors, which bulged inward dangerously. He drew Crocea Mors again, but a Grimm didn't burst through. Instead, another explosion hit, warping it further.

"Was that a rocket?" Marrow asked.

Jaune had no idea, but Vine apparently did. "It sounded like an RPG detonating on us, yes."

"Friendly fire?" Jaune asked.

"General Ironwood has outfitted the fleet with cannons and tracer rounds only. Rockets are better used for facing other aircraft or installations, not Grimm. They can't track Grimm."

So, nothing in the fleet should have had rockets. Another explosion came from further below, this time underneath them, on the bottom of the ship. Because he was listening for it, he heard the distinctive impact and then the following explosion. That didn't sound like a Grimm suiciding itself into the hull, not unless Salem had found a way to make Grimm that exploded.

A brief alarm blared, and Ironwood's voice came over speaker. "We are taking anti-air fire from the surface. I repeat, we are taking fire from human enemies using anti-aircraft weaponry."

Actual rocket launchers or some other kind of vehicle firing them. That answered the question of whether Salem had found new allies or not, but he couldn't imagine who would agree to serve her like that or how they could have smuggled heavy weaponry into the Grimmlands.

The fact she knew at all to target us is all because Ozpin went and warned her. She had time to set up a defensive perimeter. Damn it. Jaune grabbed Emerald as the next blast shook the flagship. It didn't sound like they would be going down anytime soon, but that wouldn't last, and it felt like they were being specifically targeted. The danger of human enemies was that they could decide what the biggest threat was.

"Commencing secondary robotic drop early." Ironwood ordered. "All personnel prepare for bombing run to shut down enemy anti-air. Ashari, I need you on bridge."

"Duty calls." Jaune said with a sigh, jogging back the way he'd come. Soldiers were rushing here and there, and the distinctive ka-chunk of the drop pods being released again mingled with the boom of explosives, the crack of cannons and the ever-present buzzing of their own anti-air guns targeting the Grimm.

Salem wasn't taking any chances. Attacking from ahead, above and below. That only left behind, and he was sure that would come. Ironwood would know that as well, so he could only assume that was accounted for.

Ironwood was off the gangway on the bridge when he arrived and down by the map, which had been replaced with a live video feed taking from cameras on the underside of their ship. Jaune jogged up to ask, "Who's firing on us?"

"Take a look for yourself."

The cameras were zooming in far enough that he could just make out what appeared to be sandbags and ramshackle bunkers. A rocket speared up from one, twisting in the air toward the airship. At the base of the weapon that fired it, he could just about make out the figure of a person in a black robe. Little else.

"Tyrian's latest recruits?" Jaune wondered.

"Them or mercenaries." Ironwood replied. "Or maybe dissonant White Fang members who refused to accept Adam's rule. We can't be sure. What we can be sure of is that they've chosen the wrong side in this conflict." He raised his voice. "Drop bombs!"

Jaune watched the screen as the order was passed on. He caught the brief moment where several missile-shaped objects dropped by the camera, before they became little more than black specs rushing toward the ground. They burst into fire soon after, coating the area in flame. Jaune was grateful that he couldn't see the people being burned alive.

"We use napalm for Grimm," Ironwood explained. "And we were under the impression it would only be Grimm here. There was no reason to bring high yield if we weren't expecting to face fortified positions."

Understandable. Jaune let it go. "I doubt Salem would send her best out this far from the tower."

"Agreed. This is likely meant to score a few hits but mostly report on our movements back to her. We'll have to prepare for a more dedicated anti-air defence of the tower. It will be problematic."

"Can we deal with it?"

"This is the entirety of Atlas' air fleet." Ironwood responded. "Nothing they can put up will stop us reaching the tower. The concern is just that more of our ships will fall because of this. There will be more damage."

More lives lost. More chance the flagship would go down with all the Relics on board. Jaune bit his lip. If that happened, they'd be in serious trouble. It was that fear which prodded at him.

"What if we touched down sooner?"

Ironwood frowned. "Explain."

"Drop the huntsmen teams off before we reach the anti-air, then provide some cover support to help us reach it. We can disable the defences and then signal you in for the artillery barrage." Jaune tapped the screen and the now silent battlefield below. No more rockets were forthcoming. "Whomever these guys are, they're not huntsmen. We can clear them out."

Ironwood kept his voice low. "What about the Relics?"

"I'll have Raven stay up here ready to use portals. The Relics can stay under the guard of trusted people here while I go down with most of the huntsmen. The plan isn't much different to what we had already. There's just a little more walking involved."

"Silencing their anti-air would help a lot…" Ironwood said. "But did the Relic of Choice predict this? I don't want to change the possible victory you saw."

"If I'm here making the suggestion then I think the Relic kept it in mind." Jaune hoped so anyway. "Otherwise I wouldn't be making it. We can't predict what decisions should or shouldn't be made because of the Relic or we might end up not doing something we're supposed to."

"True. We need to treat this as naturally as we would…" He sighed. "And sending you and the huntsmen down early is exactly what I would do to keep losses low. Very well. Pick your teams and prepare for drops." Ironwood looked up and ahead as an officer called out something big appearing on sensors. "It looks like Salem's little surprise is making its appearance."


Next Chapter: 17th July

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