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Certain pain is necessary for the world to keep turning, so cats must hunt and birds must die. He understood this, but right now he didn't care much for it.
Val grabbed the nearest vase and hurled it at the cat in the doorway. The hunter shot out the way she'd come on, leaving behind her prey : a limp white dove splattered red.
He carefully lifted the bird, hoping to save her and knowing it was in vain. He could feel the warmth of life slip away. This had been his favorite bird, raised by himself, the one who always returned with fun stories to tell. Holding her close he sat down, mindless of the shards.
A sound behind him drew his attention, different from the city ruckus outside. In the storage room door stood a blur of white, pink and yellow, his mother. He brought one hand to his eyes to wipe the tears away. When he could see clearer, his mother had crossed the room already.
"Oh, Val." She knelt down and brushed her hand across his head, her other gently pulling him to his feet. Her tail flicked a few of the shards away from around him.
"Val, I know you cared for that bird, but the cat already had brought her to you, right? There was no need to try and hurt him."
Still looking at the bloodied white feathers, he muttered, "I was just angry. Why do we need to have that cat anyway?"
Her tone wasn't harsh, but he felt reprimanded anyway when she outlined, once again, why. The cat kept the rats away, which could carry diseases and took their food, and he gave friendly company. His mother loved that cat, despite its sometimes vicious nature.
"But she hurts the birds."
"Would you like it if because of the cat, I'd forbid you to feed the birds?"
He quickly shook his head.
"Would getting rid of this one cat really save the birds?"
Off course it wouldn't, the cat would just hunt with its new owner. Still ...
"We could lock up the cat!"
"Val, we run a shop. It's impossible to keep all doors closed at all times. Besides, some cats are too wild to be kept indoors, ours is one of them."
He pressed his lips together and would have covered his ears if he could. He didn't want to hear this again.
"I love the birds too, off course," she said gently. "But this is just the way nature is and we can't change that."
She laid a hand on the bird's wing, which hung over Val's arm. "Would you like to bury the bird?"
He nodded stiffly.
"Let me finish up in the back, alright? You go ask miss Elena to find a box."
Val did so and after a little half hour, he and his mother were on their way to the city's edge.
Since the cannon factories had been opened, they had been able to afford bigger houses than before, but nevertheless their current house was in the city and there was no room for gardens. This was why his mother had bought an allotment garden on the outskirts, near the lake. He could always feed the ducks, there.
The burial was a silent thing. They chose a small corner of the garden, shadowed by a jasmine. Val would have liked his siblings to be there, since Palu and Molly had helped him raise the bird. They were at school, however. He didn't go there anymore after the second time he'd accidentally hurt someone.
The prayer that his mother spoke was one she had learned long ago, when she had still served at the temple. Val had once asked her why she kept their words if her back was on the holy order, she had told him that gods and their followers were not one and the same. A few alterations to the verse indicated this, she no longer spoke of disciples.
At the end, he placed the earth atop the bird with his bare hands, after which his mother went around the yard to choose flowers with a meaning. He'd forgotten their meaning, but didn't want to say so as she laid them down. For his own gift, Val grew out some feathers on his back, and pulled one out. He winced at the sting, but retained silence.
This ritual done, his mother let go of a deep breath.
"Would you like to return home now?"
He shook his head. "Gotta feed the ducks."
"I thought so," she said with a warm smile. From her little pocket dimension, she conjured up a sack of celery, peas and other vegetables. He accepted it, and ran off.
The lake lay at the end of the garden, barely visible through the thick reed. He had a small spot where he could climb on a tree root to sit in the middle of the swaying stems, for which he took his shoes off. Splashing his toes into the water was the way to call the birds.
The mild quarreling and splashing took his mind off of the dove a little. He loved watched birds because they were the only creatures truly like him. Wings like his own, feathers they didn't have to hide. He especially liked birds with colorful feathers, like peasants, but they were too shy to approach in the wild. Where they had lived before, he had kept a den with them, but had set them free. They were more beautiful that way.
Val was born a dragon the size of a kitten and had spent the first few years of his life in his true form. His family was wont to tell those who saw him by chance that he was a black salamander bird chimera, up until he by accident had spoken to a customer, and then there had been rumors of sorcery that turn children into pets. They had moved not long after that.
Now Val lived a life as a human, ever careful to conceal his true self. He had special clothing for accidental transformations and knew the cues that might trigger an accident. It wasn't bad living this way, but it didn't really feel like himself. Often he wondered what it would be to have been born a bird. Not with birds, because then he would not have his family. But if he'd been a real bird, not a hated dragon, they would have less trouble.
There'd be a lot he would miss, though. Talking, playing, cities, opposable thumbs, even school. Would he even be the same person at all, if he had led such a different life? His experience would have been so different if he'd been a bird only. Luna had chided him once for desiring anything but what he had for that reason. He had always thought she was wrong, Val was Val, but today he truly reconsidered for the first time.
If he had been a bird, he might have been the one to die today.
So caught up in his thoughts, he didn't realize the footsteps approaching him were too light until the bushes parted. He stopped in the middle of turning and about to speak as he saw the stranger.
The man had long blond hair and golden eyes that looked down on him without saying much of anything. He smelled familiar, though Val couldn't recall ever meeting him before.
"What's your name, boy?"
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," he muttered. His mother encouraged politeness and there was no harm in giving names, but she had also told him that if he felt a situation was unpleasant, politeness wasn't required at all.
This man's face didn't move enough. If his mother had invited him into the garden, why was she not here to introduce him?
"Who are you?" he asked, slowly climbing to his feet. A memory he couldn't hold onto left a warning in his waking mind.
"Asnotkar, vassal of lord Gurionis, chosen leader of Windlord Valwin," he said. As he approached, he passed below sun rays. No, that was not blond hair, but golden.
Before him stood a golden dragon, one as his mother, but who might very well be an enemy.
Val kicked off his shoes off and growled. The ducks scattered, but the dragon remained stoic.
"Val, to the sky!" his mother screamed from far away. He barely heard it, but he obeyed without second thought. Going from human to dragon took no spell, so he pushed out his wings from below his jacket and tore loose his belt.
When mom told him this, it meant the people chasing him were not humans, and he couldn't outrun them. In full dragon form, no larger than a shepherd dog, he sped across the the water.
A narrow white flash grazed his tail, costing him a few feathers. He squeaked, fear threatening to paralyze him. His mother had demonstrated what laserbreath did, he knew exactly what would happen if he was hit. His best chance was the forest, where he could hide.
This time he recognized the sound that came before the laser and he swung aside just in time. Almost across the lake now.
He crashed through the reed, lost sense of direction and so collided into the muddy banks. Another white ray burned a hole through the reed right overhead. This time he did freeze, realizing he would have been hit if he'd gotten ahead earlier. Yet somehow, it didn't feel like the first time he'd been close to death.
The blast hit a tree, burning part out of it. The top started to fall and Val's instincts kicked in again. He scrambled out of the way, just in time. With a loud splash the tree landed in the water while Val disappeared into the undergrowth.
Where did he go to now? It would be no use if he beelined for a hiding place only to be spotted entering it.
A small white feather drifted into his path. Instead of landing, it fluffed away on a breeze that Val did not feel. Almost he ignored it, but a sharp impulse made him follow.
The feather led him down a wild path he only vaguely knew. Behind him, leathery wings grew louder in the wind. Soon the dragon would be over him. Just then, the feather fell into a rabbit hole, and he dove after it. Above a golden dragon shot over, never seeing him.
Val breathed in deeply, out again, in again, and waited.
When the golden dragon couldn't be heard anymore, another white feather darted past the hole's opening. He went after it at once.
Down the road the feathers created for him, the forest turned denser. He still could fly, small as he was, but did not need to hide anymore as they flew overhead. Yet, the speed of his strange guide did not let up. Soon he realized why : there were the footsteps of a running man behind him.
How? Oh, right, he'd left a trail of footprints and broken branches. They human shaped one could follow him so easily.
The feather suddenly made a sharp turn and led him into a wide meadow. A crawling sensation went up his spine, but he did not hesitate.
He should have, at least a little. When he burst from the undergrowth, he collided head first with a pair of legs in baggy black pants. A red and yellow patch told him who it was before he even looked up.
"Oh my, you seem to have reached a whole new level of problem, Val."
Evil Wizard Cone Person Thingy, also known as Wet Trash, Cockroach, Sewer Priest, Go Away and sometimes Xelloss. Mom would be angry he was lurking around, but Val knew him as safe right now. Quickly, he crept behind the devil's legs and under the cloak.
Shadows crossed the sun and trees creaked under the weight of two golden dragons. Their claws curled around branches and stems, their faces unreadable, but by instincts he recognized signs of the hunt : slightly raised tails, the way the wings were flared sideways.
A third dragon appeared from the undergrowth, the same as before and still in human form. Asnotkar still looked eerily lifeless, but not so frightening anymore now that Xelloss was her. Val knew Xelloss was stronger than most things he might encounter in this world.
"What is a devil doing here?" Asnotkar asked. He did not use human language, but the growls and rumbles of dragon language. His mother had learned him this in case he'd ever be in trouble with them. He'd always thought she was pessimistic, now to think she'd been optimistic when assuming he'd live to talk.
"Doesn't matter," one in the trees said. "We can't let him have an ancient dragon alive. They'll surely find a terrible way to utilize those violent creatures."
"Such big words over such a small dragon cub," Xelloss said. "You are not of the fire nomads, am I correct? Are you wind or earth alligned?"
Asnotkar said with pure contempt, "What would it matter to you? The fact that I can transform as I do should cause you to be alert, and I'll—"
"The fact that I'm not fearful in the slightest should be a warning to you just as much. I am curious now, how come a high ranked dragons such as yourself is wandering around in the human backwaters, at the edge of a desolate land?"
"I could ask you the same."
"Hmm, clearly this conversation will not go anywhere, don't you agree, Val?" Xelloss looked down, or feigned doing so. Val could never figure out when his eyes were closed or just narrowed. Maybe he didn't even need eyes to see.
"Yes," he squeaked, putting stubby forearms around Xelloss' leg. "Can we go to mom now?"
Xelloss just twirled his finger and never stopped smiling as the top two dragons exploded into a gory mess. The bits burned up before even hitting the ground.
Asnotkar was stunned for all of three seconds before he turned to run, but a wall of tiny black cones got in the way. He froze, turning back again.
"Who are you?"
"I'm afraid that today, that is a secret. Wouldn't want you to get chatty in the afterlife, you see. You are free to take a few guesses, though. I can't do much about that."
Jillas and Gravos had told him devils feed on bad feelings, that likely was why Xelloss didn't just kill him. Asnotkar had to be scared and Val almost felt sorry for him. Almost. If he hadn't tried to kill him.
What if that dragon already killed his mother?
"Xelloss, we gotta go to mom."
"Ah well, I suppose I'll cut this short."
Asnotkar spasm then, and a small cone slowly bore out of his stomach. Others broke the skin on his arms, one out of his eye, and he could not scream because his throat was nothing but thin black cones. With a snap of his fingers, blue fire broke from the cones.
Death felt like an old familiar thing to Val, he didn't understand why.
When the last bits of blue fire had leaked away, Val crawled out from behind Xelloss's legs and looked up. Xelloss smiled, as he always did.
"Thank you, can we go to mom now, please?"
"Give me a moment to scry for any magic items she might carry."
"She wore her diadem today."
"What did they mean with that they can't let you have me alive?"
"Oh, didn't miss Filia tell you? The devil council was once rather interested in having an ancient dragon on their side. These dragons believed I had come to abduct you and turn you into a chimera, no doubt. Off course, that idea relies on devils beyond the beast court knowing you exist."
"That's stupid, I'm not a bad person so I'd never work for them. Mom thinks you're going to take me away anyway."
"Tss, tss. What the devil lords as a whole want doesn't quite line up with my lord's interests. Miss Filia should know that a secret I keep is well kept." He leaned down and lightly laid a hand on his head, and the world glowed golden.
The scenery shifted before he fully noticed the change. Instead of a breaking corpse before him, there were the torn edges of his mother's white cloak.
She stood with her back to them as she peered around a tree, but off course no devil could be so close without her noticing. Xelloss had given up trying to sneak up years ago. Wide eyed she turned around and was about to speak, then she noticed Val.
She smelled of her own blood, but before he could ask, she'd lifted him. Cradled in her arms, he pushed his crest against her cheek softly. He was safe now, warm all around.
"Mom, why don't you heal? We're safe now."
"Sssshh! They're still there," she whispered. "We've got to—"
With another golden glow, the forest was replaced by the warm glow of the hearth.
"... hide ... " His mother trailed off as she realized they were home.
Her frantic heartbeat slow down, but she remained tense and held onto him. Xelloss flickered out of view again, this time without glow. Xelloss could not take Val along with his space warping technique, but he could teleport him by using his mother's technique, should he have a reserve of holy energy for it. He must have met her before finding him.
Now he was gone, his mother let out a breath. She didn't seem relieved, however. Still holding him with both arms, she pulled out a table chair with her tail and carefully set him down. Then she briskly stepped to the windows and jerked the curtains shut. The tiny garden was full with high dense shrubs, ensuring passerby's weren't likely to see anything incriminating, but she never felt entirely safe.
"I'll go get you some new clothes, Val," she said while draping a towel over him.
"It's okay, I'll stay like this for a while."
"Ah ah, there will be ice cream, you'll need hands." She always used this when persuaded him to transform into human shape. It worked, too. Ice cream was tough to eat as a dragon, thanks to the lack of proper lips. Nonetheless, every time Val wished he wouldn't need to hide.
While his mother went to find Elena, Val curled into the towel and tried reciting the spell to transform into a human. It wasn't easy, it never was. There was no pain in transformation with holy magic, but all too often Val lost touch with the magic halfway through and he had to start again. Xelloss said he was magically unstable, which was why he wouldn't risk warping space around him.
Elena returned alongside his mother, carrying a new set of clothing for him. By then, he had just barely managed to appear human again. Grumbling, he pulled the clothes under the towel and started to change.
"Val, Molly will be home from school in an hour or so," his mother said. "Will you tell us what happened now, before she arrives?"
Val nodded. Molly was the child of Elena and Jillas, they'd decided to raise her as happily as they could. This meant minimal warnings about dangerous dragons, lots of vague rules about talking to strangers, and no word about death and gore. Until today, that last rule hadn't needed to be minded.
His story of what happened started with ducks and ended with Cone Thingies. The death of the dragons caused them a lot of uncomfortable looks, even though Val didn't go into detail. What caught their attention the most, though, was the feathers. Elena speculated a forest spirit had been helping out, but his mother shook her head and pulled her out of the room. They went into the fridge and whispered to one another there. Val tried to listen.
"... at when he was reb ..."
Val didn't know how he was a reb, but his mother didn't seem at all eager to talk about it. Maybe a rebel? Hm, that did fit, Palu was called rebellious by Jillas during his so called teen phase, which was now, and Palu said his mother was rebelling against her own kind by raising him. Maybe that made him a perpetual rebel, because they didn't want him to be alive?
When they returned and his mother had set down a bowl of icecream before him, he asked, "What were you talking about?"
"Ehm ... Val, you really ought to reconsider calling him Cone Thingy. He might get angry. Today you have seen what he can do, does that not frighten you?" Elena said as she sat down besides him.
Val shook his head. "No, he doesn't mind and he's not scary."
Evil Wizard Cone Person Thingy was Val's personal use because he didn't always feel angry at him, but he couldn't call him a devil in front of other people, and he wanted to follow his mother with her nickname tradition. He'd developed his own after deep thought and it made his mother smile, so he kept doing it.
She hadn't smiled today, curiously. As his mother started making tea, her movements were tense and stiff, unlike the grace she usually had. She had to still be scared.
"Mommy, what's wrong?"
Elena sighed, her snout dipping low.
"Elena, what's wrong with mom? Are you sad too?"
His mother sobbed once, restrained, then she laid her hand over her face.
"There are more dragons," she whispered. "They were here with a whole scouting party, twelve in total. He'll kill them all."
"But they're threatening us! We didn't do anything wrong, so they are wrong. I don't care if he kills them!"
"That doesn't mean they deserve death, Val! They might have families who will miss them, just like I would miss you. Now, they don't even have a chance to learn you are no threat. Killing others should be a last resort only."
"Isn't he doing that? They know we exist now, so he can't let them go, right?"
"We can just go live elsewhere, nobody needs to die. Xelloss doesn't need to do this. He's so powerful, he could just do something else."
"But the golden dragons can talk to us and already live elsewhere, and they try to hurt us anyway."
His mother sighed. "You'll understand when you're older that the world isn't so simple."
"But when the cat kills, you are okay with it?"
"Cats don't have higher reasoning, Val. It's not the same."
"What if it was the last dove?"
She stayed silent so long the kettle started blowing. Absently, she took it off the fire and said, "Then we'd send the cat after other food."
"But without other doves, there wouldn't be more doves in the future anyway," he snapped, balling his fists.
"You're not that alone, and I would not let you die either way. Please don't try to draw a parallel here, it won't do."
"Don't we count, Val?" Elena asked. "Just because we think the others deserve to live doesn't mean we'd sacrifice you."
"Off course you count."
He pulled up his knees and locked his arms around them. There was an itch in his left hand, begging to transform and slash something. When the spoon in his hand started to bend, he jammed it in the ice cream.
"So what is Xelloss, if he's not a cat?"
"Xelloss is something that can feed on us. That's why he's here so often, and I can only hope that's all it is," his mother said. "Speaking of food ... I better go prepare dinner. Gravos is probably going to eat another hole in the supplies once he's back."
Val finished his ice cream, while Elena joined his mother to make dinner. Soon the air filled with the scent of stew, and the forced idle chatter of the two ladies.
Cone Thingy was a devil his mother had met on a mission to save the world seven years ago, the same mission where she had found his egg. Everyone else insisted he was dangerous, but he, Palu and Molly had a hard time believing it when he was so silly. Sometimes he and Xelloss played, or Xelloss would ask him about his dreams and have him make drawings of things he saw there, or they'd play a trick on some obnoxious people.
He had always thought Xelloss really meant well, and it was just all teasing when he bugged his mother. Only last year he had learned it was not so easy for his mother. When his mother had received a strange letter from her about a 'long quest' and then no more news, she'd become worried. The timing of Lina's disappearance was too coincidental, too short after her defeat of a third piece of Shabranigdu. His mother's divination attempts all failed, and she'd began to fear Lina was dead or worse. Once day, she had broken down in tears while trying to get Xelloss to talk.
Xelloss had just kept smiling and said he had no idea, waving off her worries like a triviality. He suggested Lina had installed an anti-scrying shield and might have forgotten her, or Lina might indeed have died gruesomely, or perhaps she was simply far away at a place without postal office, like a stranded island. She had later told him that Xelloss didn't offer comfort because this was how devils fed, and the only reason he didn't make a habit of making her miserable was because his favorite taste was irritation, not sorrow and fear.
Val couldn't even imagine how one could eat emotions like it was ice cream, so he didn't really know what that made Xelloss. Cats that ate birds killed the bird, but no real harm came from Xelloss eating emotions. Except, off course, when he caused bad emotions.
He probably was eating fancy right now.
Even if he could be nasty like that, Xelloss was nicer than the golden dragons his mother always warned him about and today just proved that. Val wondered whether he'd care more if those dragons had looked like himself. The thought of any of his family dying that way horrified him, but he couldn't supplant the strangers with them.
He was licking out his ice cream bowl by the time Xelloss blinked into the kitchen chair opposite of him. As always, he smiled pleasantly. Not the face of a murderer.
"Is there any tea, miss Filia?"
Normally she would have told him to conjure his own tea. Not today. Without a word or even a second glance, his mother poured Xelloss a cup and shoved it across the table. She didn't sit down herself, just stood there with her arms crossed.
"Such poor manners again," Xelloss said with a sigh.
"Someone who refuses to use the door is in no position to complain about manners."
Xelloss never knocked. He said it would be useless, houses did not exist on the astral plane anyway. Val often had heard rants about trespassing being illegal, and people who didn't respect private space being bad news. Val wasn't really sure what side to pick, cause he often thought Xelloss's visits were fun.
"You did not seem so averse to my astral endeavors when you sent me for your son, miss Filia."
"That's different. Now out with it. I presume you know something, considering your timing?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. Lately, the western dragons have been sending delegations to the east for matters we have yet to discern, I was in this area to keep an eye on them. My most recent encounters were no more talkative than any of the previous ones, I'm afraid."
"Would it have anything to do with Val?" Elena asked. "They were intent to kill him, right?"
"The western dragons are much like the eastern ones, they subscribe to the popular notion that the ancient dragons were some secluded and violent tribe. However, I believe they might have tried to merely injure him for capture, at least at first. When they finally noticed me, I found their bloodlust to him as quite fresh. I must warn you that there likely was a dragon diviner amongst the group, so others of their flock may have heard word. Should they confront you about Val, miss Filia, you would do well to blame miss Lina Inverse for his presence. Wouldn't want them to know you're conspiring with a devil."
"I'm not conspiring with a devil! It was your decision alone to keep this secret, I never asked you."
"Actually, that was a decision I made that was retroactively approved by my liege the Beast Monarch."
"Besides, Lina isn't—"
"They don't know that, and if not even I can find her, they certainly can't do so to verify it. Not that it mattered if they did, surely miss Lina would play along. For a price."
"Hmmph. Maybe you simply aren't so good at scrying, sewer priest."
The familiar twitch of eyebrows appeared on Xelloss. At this point, they'd be verbally sparring on a good bad day, but it was no surprise that for once, Xelloss let it go.
"You know, it was because of you that they came," he said, conjuring up a crystal ball. "They've been scrying for dragon magical items in this area, judging from the magic signs on this."
"That could mean anything."
"I asked both the first and the second group. They gave identical answers that included your name, so I'm inclined to believe them."
His mother away at once. She started cleaning the stove, though there was nothing to clean.
"They had reinforcements, who I took the liberty to question a bit. They said nothing of their overall mission, unfortunately. Apparently finding you was a side quest, as they were not lip locked over it."
"Why would they even talk to you?" Val asked. "I don't chat with people I don't like."
"Well, normally the talking happens before the fighting, but during or after is just as viable. In fact, after works best when the enemy has been brought down and can be persuaded at ease."
Val needed a moment to realize it meant he had tortured them.
"That's too cruel," Val said, but perhaps he could have been harsher about it. Well, at least his mother was be glad to hear he didn't like torture.
"I suppose we have that in common then, mister Vase The Cat Over A Dying Bird," Xelloss said, nodding at the door. There were still some shards and drops there, Xelloss probably could see the cat hairs too.
"That was just ... I didn't think, okay?"
"How do you know you're not just like this, young as you are? You might turn out to be someone who enjoys hurting others just to satisfy your own emotions," Xelloss said, one eerie eye open.
A loud clang startled Val and Elena. His mother had slammed down a pot on the sink. "Xelloss, don't ... "
Val and Elena sensed it was time to leave. As he turned to climb off the chair, he noticed her tail had appeared and was trembling a little. He could have sworn she looked afraid in the split second she looked over her shoulder.
At this, Val sank back into his seat. It wasn't that he didn't know his mother could be afraid, but it usually was when talking about the past of her clan. His people were the ancient dragons and they had been killed a long time ago by evil golden dragons. He had been revived through a miracle and placed in the care of Filia, last of her own clan. He had always thought they'd been bad to her too, because she was so different.
"Why are you afraid now?" he asked quietly. It couldn't be of Xelloss, she never was afraid of him. The fire dragon clan hadn't been mentioned either.
"I .. Val, it's ..."
"A secret," Xelloss said, raising a finger before his lips. "Miss Filia will tell you when she feels you are ready."
For once, his mother didn't object to him saying that. Weird.
"Val, why don't you go ask miss Katrina whether she'd still like to have our cat?"
His eyes widened, he knew what that meant. It was sealed, then.
"We're really leaving?"
"We should be prepared for it. If miss Katrina doesn't want her, we'll find someone else. Taking her on such a long journey is too traumatizing. Maybe Molly knows someone at school ... now where did I put that ..."
"Isn't it awfully premature to plan for leaving, miss Filia? And here I thought you actually meant it when you spoke of the value of a home. Flighty, I suppose."
"No. Not this again, Xelloss. This isn't a joke. Those dragons will be noticed by the people in the surrounding gardens and there's a crater where my garden used to be. I'm being cautious about dragon-hating towns," she sneered. "You would know why."
He just sipped his tea, while his eyebrows twitch. "At least you learned from it."
"I could have learned that in a less destructive way."
"Reality demands a mixture of high ideals and striving for results," he said. "You know your role and I know mine, miss Filia. Let's keep things simple and act in our own methods, shall we?"
Xelloss said that a lot and Val had never understood it.
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