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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Twenty-Three - A Baited Trap)

Colin Frayn
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For a few moments, the chamber fell silent. Nobody dared to speak in such a place, and the dwarfs began to make their way back up the steps into the library above. This was one of the greatest elven wizards the mountains had ever known, and his lifeless body lay before them, vulnerable and frail. Tarok stepped solemnly away from the great wizard and turned to his friends. The dwarfs bowed their heads in respect and took off their helmets, looking away from the scene and returning to their work above. "It's a sorry time, Tarok," began Randor, "we have come so close to the one man who might be able to help us and here he is, dead."

Tarok nodded. He had secretly expected the venerable elf still to be alive and powerful as ever, but somehow he knew that it was too good to be true. "But we do have one hope left," replied Tarok in an optimistic tone. He reached over towards the stone in Eldoran's hand, his mind full of wonder. Then he suddenly stopped. It felt wrong to remove such a precious object from its owner. He felt like a grave robber. Eldoran clearly didn't want to be disturbed after his death, and had gone to quite some trouble to see to it that he would remain safely hidden away.

Tarok turned back to his friends. Athena and Carek were standing at the base of the stairs, watching silently as the wizard deliberated his troublesome choices. His heart was growing heavy, and already his mind was filled with sorrow. "I'm not sure if I should take the stone," he began. "I suddenly feel as if it was meant to remain here for ever, beside its owner."

Athena shook her head, and approached her wizard friend. "Listen, Tarok, we have no choice. Rakrath and his armies are close, and this stone might be the only chance we have to destroy them once and for all."

Carek agreed. "If Eldoran were still alive, he would certainly not want us to die at the hands of the necromancer. Besides, I see no other option. If we leave the stone here then Rakrath will surely take it instead, and I fear the power he would gain."

"Yes," spoke Tarok, "yes, I suppose you're right."

He turned back to the body, the crystal glowing warmly now that it sensed another magician in its midst. Tarok gazed into it, watching the orange mist swirling inside with the power of an unknown magic. He reached out his hand towards the gem, and pulled it carefully from Eldoran's grasp, taking great care not to touch the wizard's cold fingers.

Tarok withdrew his hand quickly, firmly clutching the bright crystal. It was surprisingly warm, although it had clearly lain here undisturbed for a great many years. Tarok gazed into the depths of the crystal, feeling its power warming his body. He feared it, but yet respected it too. This was one half of the greatest magical device ever known to the mountain elves, and it was now wielded by a lowly human wizard who found himself swept terribly out of his depth into a sea of great troubles. Tarok shuddered as the energy of the stone poured into his veins. It glowed brightly for a few moments, and then began to die down once more, its power waning. Tarok stared intently into the swirling mists, trying to discern any form or pattern, but could see none. Soon, the sensation had passed, and the stone grew cold once more, its gentle light dimming steadily until it was dark once more, clearly disappointed by its new owner.

Carek and Athena let out their breaths, and the wizard relaxed, placing the stone carefully into his pocket, wrapping it carefully in a soft piece of fabric. After replacing the sheet over Eldoran's body and bowing in respect to the great mage, Tarok turned back towards the stairs and followed his two friends up into the room above. He glanced one last time as he left the chamber, examining the strange statues around the corners of the room and the simple, yet purposeful layout of the whole place.

At the top of the stairs, Randor and the dwarfs were busy searching through the books for anything that looked to be of interest. They had so far found very little so Tarok suggested that they set off back down the stairs and tell the others of the discovery. "I will stay behind here and see if I can work out how to unlock the power of this mysterious stone. I will follow in due time, but for now I suggest you post watch at the tunnel, and try to find some safe place to hide amongst the streets and houses."

Randor nodded. For once, he didn't mind taking orders from a human. Wizardry was not his strong point, and he still felt a certain distrust of all things arcane, just by their very nature - it was a common dwarven trait. The great warrior turned to his men, ushering them back down the staircase. "Right men, let's leave Mr. Gallantin to his studies. There's nothing more we can do here."

One by one, the dwarfs filed back out of the door, glancing at the ancient symbols on the door as they passed. The runes were glowing brightly as the dwarfs passed out of the room, and the dwarfs in turn were not the least bit sorry to be leaving the elven tower. Heights did not agree with them, and nor did the overpowering aura of magic that pervaded the place.

Tarok turned to his friends. "Carek, Athena, I suggest you follow them. There really is very little you can do here, and I think I'd better just work on this on my own. I promise I won't be long."

Carek nodded, and wandered back out of the room after the dwarfs. Athena shook her head, and bade the wizard good luck. "I never did understand you, Tarok, or what you do. Now I have no choice but to trust you and I just hope that you know what you're doing. We're meddling in things that are far beyond our comprehension my friend. Make sure you don't get any foolish ideas." Tarok smiled gently. "I'll try my best, but this stone is an enigma. I can promise nothing."

Athena nodded. She knew her friend was the best hope they had. She turned without saying anything more, and followed the dwarfs who were now approaching the room below.

Tarok turned back to Eldoran's great library. He now possessed one half of the greatest magical item in the mountains, but had no idea how he was supposed to make use of it. It was like being given a chest full of treasure, but with no key. Tarok knew that he didn't have much time, so set about his task as quickly as possible. He began to scan through the books on Eldoran's shelves.

Many of the tomes were written in ancient Elven, and it was all Tarok could manage to decipher their titles. What he was looking for would probably not be among the standard wizardry books that Eldoran had collected over the years. No, more likely there would be some scroll or diary somewhere detailing how Eldoran came across the gem, and how he learnt how to use it. Whatever the purpose of the Tharin stone, the elves he had spoken to seemed remarkably hazy about its powers.

Tarok searched through the neatly arranged piles of scrolls and parchments that lay on Eldoran's great wooden desk. They didn't seem to contain anything of any relevance. There was no diary, nor any special tome that caught the wizard's eye. One thing was certain; Tarok knew that he didn't have the time to analyse every single one of Eldoran's books - there were simply too many. He would have to look for something special. Tarok pushed aside a paperweight carved into the shape of an intricate Elven castle. More faded documents, mostly brittle and illegible. Still no clue to the stone's intended function. Tarok turned back towards the chamber. Perhaps there was something of interest in there. He descended the stone steps once more, glancing back over to where the wizard's body still lay, quiet and serene. Tarok bowed once more in reverence to the great Eldoran, and then stepped cautiously into the room.

In each corner of the chamber was a pillar of ornate, polished bronze. Upon each pillar stood a majestic eagle, crafted from gold with eyes of emerald, each one seeming to gaze at the centre of the room where Eldoran lay. The walls were intricately painted with scenes of glory and beauty. One was an exquisitely designed portrait of a city by the side of a great crystal clear lake. The buildings were elven and Tarok began to realise just how beautiful the ruined city must once have been. At the bottom of the picture was a name inscribed into the wall, and lined with gold. "The great elven homeland - Tur Siras." Tarok recognised the name, the powerful elven city of the Sapphire Towers. What had ever forced the elves to leave their homeland and live underground in such an uninhabitable place? Tarok stood for some time marvelling at the wonderful artwork on the painting, then remembered that he had work to do.

The dwarfs had now reached the room near the base of the tower through which they entered. The rope was still holding firm so they began to descend, one by one, with Carek and Athena last. Athena was worried about Tarok, "What do you think he's up to? Do you think that we should leave him alone?" Carek gave no answer as he was concentrating on the rope. "Carek!" Athena was obviously worried. Carek called up, "Don't worry, he's probably looking through the books. He won't want to be disturbed. You know what he's like!" Athena reluctantly agreed, and continued downwards, her arms beginning to ache from all this climbing. She was still wearing a chain mail vest, which weighed her down considerably.

The dwarfs carried on down the rope and eventually all gathered at the bottom, standing at the base of the great tower. Randor enquired as to Tarok's whereabouts, and Carek replied with a shrug of his shoulders. "He's still up in the room. He'll be down as soon as he's learnt how to use the stone, I imagine." Randor looked worried. Carek tried to reassure him, "Tarok can look after himself. I doubt that any of Eldoran's traps would catch him out if we all managed to avoid them!" "Perhaps you're right, my friend. Indeed, I hope so. That stone might be our only way out of this place alive, and young Tarok our only chance to unlock its potential." They sat down on the cobbled pavement, and joined the others looking up the tower for the first sign of the wizard and the crystal. Athena addressed the crowd to tell them about their great discovery.

"My friends, we have found the second half of the Tharin stone, and with it the body of Eldoran."

A murmur from the back of the crowd amongst the elves stopped her for a moment. They had not heard word of Eldoran since the battle. "Tarok is just checking the chamber right now, and he will be back down shortly. As soon as he works out how to use that stone, that is. For now, I suggest we all rest here for a while, and try to get our strength back. We may well need it in the near future."

Athena turned back to the dwarfs. "We should post a guard. Where do you suggest?"

Randor looked around, and then spoke to the crowd of slaves. "We need four volunteers for guard duty. Any four who can stay alert and who know how to run and shout when needed."

A dozen or so stepped forward through the crowd, and Randor picked the first four. "Two of you stand by the tunnel entrance, and keep watch for any sign from the caves. The other two should return to the chamber and make sure nobody has come to check the mine." The four slaves armed themselves with short-swords and ran off through the city and back to the tunnels. Randor turned to the other dwarfs. "I suggest you men prepare yourselves. Eat your rations if you need to, and make sure your armour is in order. Any food you can spare give to the most hungry amongst those in the crowd." The dwarfs began to rummage about in their backpacks and distributed a series of biscuits, bread and water to the hungry workers.

Carek had wandered off towards the nearest of the houses. He was searching around the elven town, trying to imagine what it must have been like in its prosperous days, before the great battle that sealed the fate of this magnificent place. He felt almost as if these elves were his family, distant relatives of those with whom he grew up. At some point in the past, this particular clan must have decided to make the mountains their home. Maybe at the time that the humans were emerging into the world, so many centuries ago. Carek continued down a side path, and wandered round in a circle back to the tower, glancing over towards the entrance to the town as the guards left the walls and ran back up the steps to the tunnel opening which lay just out of sight behind a row of buildings in the foreground.

The slaves ran hurriedly up the steps, out of breath from a lack of proper exercise for many years. Now their duty carried them on, and they soon reached the tunnel entrance, stopping for a few moments to rest and regain their breath. They glanced back into the tunnel. It seemed quiet and calm, but they had been told to wander inside anyway. Somewhere back in the darkness was the necromancer, and none of them particularly wanted to bump into him. They drew straws, and two of the brave human workers were chosen to venture inside. Aron and Elian both stepped cautiously into the darkness, holding a dimmed lantern ahead of them as they made their way out of sight and into the elven tunnels.

The way here was now well trodden, with all the slaves walking through just an hour or so earlier. Aron lead the way, his right hand holding out the lantern, trembling slightly in anticipation of the shadows beyond. Elian urged his friend forward, "Come now, we have an important task to perform. The tunnels are quiet. Let us press on to the chamber, and gather what we can."

Aron shuffled forwards nervously. "We shouldn't speak."

Elian laughed. "Why not? What, are you afraid of the dark now? After so many years in these accursed caves? I can almost see without the lantern!"

"I do not fear the caves themselves, but what lives in them."

"The orcs?"

"Yes, and also the goblins and the skeletons. I fear anything that has been near Rakrath or the taint of his foul magic."

Elian nodded. "Well, let us press on and our job will be done more quickly."

Aron walked onwards, eventually stumbling over the rubble where the goblin tunnel began. He turned back to his friend, and then reached the lantern out into the cruder goblin tunnel. He stepped cautiously over the rocks as a light breeze blew past him.

"What was that?"

"What?" Elian was beginning to grow more nervous now, too. The air in the goblin passageway had grown stale and cold, and there was a definite chill creeping in from the direction of the cavern. Aron stepped forwards, trembling visibly. He could feel the air growing colder about him. His breath was condensing in the air in front of him. Aron wrapped his cloak tighter and paced slowly forward. His heart was pounding inside his chest now, his eyes peering desperately into the darkness. He wandered on a few more yards, avoiding the sharp rocks in the walls. Suddenly he stopped.

"I heard a noise."

"Shhh. It was nothing. Probably a rat."

Aron shook his head. "No, this was no rat."

Ahead they could just see the faint glow of the light from the mining cavern. The torches flickered gently, and then began to dim. Aron turned back to his friend. Elias was growing worried too. "Come on. Let's search the cavern, and then get out of this accursed place. The spirits of the dead march here. It unnerves me."

There was another gust of wind through the tunnel. Aron shielded the lamp, and the flame flickered violently. The wind subsided and Aron held out the light once more. Suddenly the flame extinguished itself in a gentle wisp of smoke. Aron gasped. "Quick, let's leave right now." Aron dropped the lamp onto the floor, and fumbled around for the side of the passageway.

"We should get to the light." Elian's night vision was not as good as he had boasted.

A dark shadow passed in front of the light from the cavern. Aron stood still in fright. Elian began to shuffle nervously backwards. He drew his sword, trembling. Two deep red eyes suddenly appeared from the darkness, piercing the shadows. A tall figure stepped slowly forwards, obscuring the light from the cavern once more. Aron brandished his sword, terrified. Elian called out, "Who goes there?" There was no reply, except a low breathing and a misty cloud of breath hanging in the air. Aron lifted his sword, trembling. He could feel the very air around him electrify and a pounding sensation filled his body. This was a powerfully magical creature; its aura pervaded the very tunnel air.

There was a sudden flash of light, and a bright, crackling chain of lightning shot forth from the dark figure, piercing the body of the noble Aron and sending him into convulsions before dropping his lifeless body onto the rocky floor. The figure stepped forwards and Elian turned and ran. He called out towards the guards by the steps. "Run! Run for your lives." Then he too was silenced.

At the entrance to the caves, the two guards heard a distant commotion. They drew their swords and turned to face the passageway. One looked to the other. "Should we investigate?"

"No, we should stay here."

"But what if they have found orcs?"

"Then they will be back sooner rather than later."

The first guard shook his head, lifted a lantern and peered into the passageway. Just out of the range of the light he saw something move. "Aron?" he called out. "Elian?" There was no reply. He stepped forwards into the shadows, peering into the darkness. Suddenly a gust of wind caught his face, and a surge of magic pulled him deep into the shadows. His muffled screams soon fell silent. The final guard turned with a fright. He stumbled backwards towards the steps, adrenalin coursing through his veins. He shuffled downwards, not daring to take his eyes away from the passageway. A dark shape appeared from the shadows, cloaked in black. The guard dropped his sword and ran down the steps as fast as he could, reaching the cavern floor and sprinting towards the town. He tried to call out, but his voice was silent. Looking back, the dark figure had reached the top of the steps and reached out a hand. Suddenly a volley of magical arrows shot forth, shooting towards the terrified guard and piercing his body like spears. The guard dropped to the floor dead, his blood pouring out onto the dry soil.

Back in the town, nobody noticed the group of dark figures that had begun to assemble silently outside the walls, quietly organising themselves into a deadly battle force, ready to attack the unsuspecting elven city once more.

Tarok put down another of Eldoran's books. He was quite taken away by the depth with which the old wizard had written, and the vast number of spells that he had catalogued over the years. It seemed to be such a waste, just leaving them there, but he knew he could not steal from such a sacred place. However, one thing puzzled the young wizard. Why would Eldoran protect his spell books so much? After all he had no need for them any longer, and there was no-one left from the elven city except a few of the workers. They would certainly be glad to hear that their great wizard's magic was to be used for good purposes. Tarok checked that the crystal was still in his pocket, and brought it out, holding it up to the lamp. It sparkled in the dim, yellow light and gently illuminated the whole room. Tarok put the lamp away and held the crystal in front of him to show him the way. It gave off its own aura of light, which Tarok could use to guide his way in the darkness.

Tarok had realised that he wasn't going to find anything more of interest about the stone here, so he left the room and began to make his way carefully down the stairs, trying not to look over the edge and down to the bottom of the stairwell so far below.

Down below, the dwarfs had seen the light in the tower and breathed a sigh of relief. Tarok was still alive, and hadn't been caught by one of the elven wizard's traps. The light began to make its way down the tower, illuminating the windows that it passed and finally ending up in the room where the rope was fixed. Tarok cupped his hands around the crystal, and the light slowly dimmed once more. He could now see quite well with the light of the lanterns below and the cavern walls in the distance. He climbed out, and grabbed onto the rope, slowly scrambling back down.

At this moment the sound of a battle horn rang out throughout the cavern. It shook the very walls, and drove the workers into panic. There was an almighty commotion as the gates to the north and south of the town burst open to reveal scores of skeletons and zombies marching forwards, wielding swords and spears. Ahead of them ran four tall, dark-haired humans carrying swords that glowed dimly in the darkness and another shrouded figure with a great hooded cloak and glowing red eyes. The slaves froze in horror, and the dwarfs stood back in fright. Rakrath had arrived!

Tarok heard the commotion, and glanced over to see the forces of the necromancer closing in. He was almost half-way down the rope, and glanced back at the ground before suddenly changing direction and clambering back upwards as quickly as he could. He feared that he would not make it back up without being seen, but he had to! Tarok represented the only chance they had to defeat Rakrath now that he had found the second half of the Tharin stone. The necromancer stood forward with his bodyguard and pulled back his hood. His face was scarred by battle and tainted with evil. It was elderly but yet fierce and overpowering. His eyes glowed as he surveyed the scene before him, pulsing with a deep suppressed rage. The slaves tried to scatter, but were soon rounded up by scores of skeletons pouring through the city streets. Randor stepped forward, his axe ready in his hand. The dwarfs formed a line in front of the slaves, and Carek and Athena drew their weapons, too.

Rakrath stared towards the powerful dwarf, and spoke in a deep, authoritative voice. "I understand that you have found something of mine. You have very kindly led me to this cavern and now I believe that I have some unfinished business."

Carek shouted harshly, "We will not allow you to pass. I don't know how you found us, but we intend to keep the crystal." The rest of the group stood quietly, not knowing how the necromancer would react. Rakrath stared at the half-elf, and then laughed, his broad laughter disguising a deep malevolence. He spoke again, "My dear friends, you do not know how I found you, but yet I have been following you all along. Do you honestly believe that I would let you enter my lair undetected? What kind of fool do you take me for?"

There was a deadly silence. The dwarfs looked at each other. Their mission would end here then, in failure?

Rakrath stepped towards the dwarven leader, his bodyguard shadowing behind him.

"When I sensed the destruction of the skeletons guarding the entrance cavern I suspected that something was wrong. I have a link with my creations - I can feel their every move as if they are a part of me. I sent some of my foot soldiers up to find out what had happened. A group of zombies did not return either so I decided to search for the infiltrators myself, and I soon found you."

Randor frowned. "You have been following us all this time?"

The powerful sorcerer smiled perceptibly. "I followed you through the goblin passages. I followed you down the tunnels to the mine, and watched you free my slaves. I watched closely as you found the tunnel for me, and discovered the lost elven city. And now I thank you my friends for you have saved me a great deal of time and effort and discovered the second part of the Tharin stone!" He laughed again, "My dear friends, you have saved me many years of patience with your meddling, and now you have given me the greatest gift I could ever have asked for."

Carek was confused. "You lie, Rakrath! We have keen ears and eyes. We would have noticed anyone following us. What trickery is this?"

The necromancer was beginning to grow angry, "Young man, you underestimate me. I walk in many forms," he growled back.

Carek frowned, "Then who were you?"

Rakrath smiled. The infiltrators had been completely oblivious to his spying tricks. "I was the rat in the passageways, I was the wind in the goblin tunnels. I was a crystal in the wall, and a bat in the cavern. I see everything! These passages have been my home for centuries, and you seriously believed that you could sneak in unnoticed? I credited the dwarfs with at least a fragment of intelligence. It appears I was too kind."

Randor stepped forwards, angered. "You will not talk of my people like that!"

Rakrath lifted a hand and Randor found himself hurled back into the crowd. "Silence! I say what I want." Rakrath was growing annoyed.

Tarok could just about pick out what was being said below him, and he remembered the bat that flew past him as he was climbing up the tower for the first time. He had sensed something strange about it. He tried to stop thinking about the past, and concentrated on his current predicament, looking up the rope. The window was only a couple of yards above his head.

Rakrath took a few steps nearer the tower. The slaves were now huddled together in one mass at the bottom. The necromancer's eyes glowed again. Energy coursed through his veins, and discharged at his fingertips. He possessed power that the slaves did not want to test. As he walked forward toward the petrified crowd, he scanned the group before him. "There is one missing. Where is your wizard?" He was met with silence. Then he looked up and saw Tarok who had now reached the room and was beginning to clamber through the window. A great wave of anger overcame him and he sent forth a bolt of lightning at the crowd. It flashed through the group, scattering them all as they dived for cover to either side. A few were not quick enough. Rakrath reached his hands up once more in the direction of the tower.

A lone elf stepped forward from the crowd and reached out his hand, which began to glow. Rakrath turned and quickly fired a bolt of energy at the poor wizard, who slumped to the ground. The necromancer reached out his hand, and clenched his fist. The elf managed to stand up, but could not breathe and struggled to remove the unseen hands that were strangling him. Slowly, he knelt down onto the ground once more. Carek reached out his hand ready to punish the necromancer, but Athena held him back. "Do you want him to kill you too? You are no match for him!" Carek stepped back, and Rakrath released his grip. The elf collapsed to the floor, dead. Rakrath spoke once more, "A wise decision, my friend. You are lucky that my imminent apotheosis has put me in quite a good mood, or you would be lying next to this poor fool."

Tarok had managed to scramble inside the tower. A bolt of lightning struck the window frame, shattering the rock into a thousand shards, which pierced the furniture, shredded a handful of books and tore a hole in Tarok's cloak. The wizard dived for cover, and rolled out of the door, only just avoiding the edge of the great spiral staircase and scrambling quickly to his feet. Rakrath walked once more towards the door. This time, no one resisted. Carek looked towards the elf mage lying lifeless on the floor. He knew he would be killed, but had given his life to save Tarok. Now the wizard held the only possibility for escape that any of them could imagine.

Carek looked on as the sorcerer reached the door, and found it locked. He became angry again. Carek smiled. Rakrath would not break the wizard lock on the door. Rakrath stood back, and closed his eyes. Three sharp knocks were heard coming from somewhere inside the tower. Flashes of magical energy darted around the cracks and keyhole and the door flew open, smashing in splinters on the side of the tower. Carek's smile faded away. He just hoped that they had bought Tarok enough time to formulate some sort of plan. Tarok was trapped in the tower with Rakrath close behind, and no means of escape.

Tarok himself had realised this, hearing the door splinter below, and was running as quickly as his tired legs would move, up the steps towards the top room. As he reached it, he quickly slammed the door behind him and rested to catch his breath, hoping that Eldoran's runes would be able to hold the necromancer back for a while. The runes were glowing brightly, having sensed the presence of the necromancer far below. Rakrath stopped for a moment as he heard the door slam far above and smiled evilly once more, continuing upwards.

Tarok, meanwhile, was busy searching through the shelves that lined Eldoran's laboratory. They were all labelled in elven script, but eventually he found what he was looking for, and picked up a bottle of strange, green liquid. This was something he had discovered before, on searching the mage's belongings. Tarok uttered a few magical words, and the strange mixture bubbled much to his delight. He ran out of the door, and looked down to see Rakrath only about twenty yards below. Tarok took the flask in his hand and hurled it down at the oncoming sorcerer. It smashed, and the contents immediately erupted in flames, leaping up the sides of the staircase and enveloping the human figure in their midst. Tarok punched the air in delight. Then the flames suddenly died down, and a pale blue glow came from within the conflagration. Looking down, Tarok saw the form of the evil necromancer hovering to one side of the smouldering stairs, and beginning to float upwards. Obviously, Rakrath would be a great deal harder to kill than Tarok had imagined.

Tarok slammed the door once again, and began to stack tables up behind it. He could sense the runes glowing more brightly on the other side, and smiled as he heard footsteps approaching them. Tarok tried to project his mind into the door, and communicated with the runes once more. Then he felt pain - intense pain. He released his grasp as with a few last screams, the runes shattered under Rakrath's potent magic. Tarok ran back to another corner of the tower room, and began to prepare a spell as the door flew open and the tables scattered aside. Rakrath walked in, his red eyes glowing even brighter than before, and his hands ablaze with magic. He looked around the room, and eventually his eyes settled on the cupboard behind which Tarok was hiding. Tarok shuddered as Rakrath stepped forward, and raised his hands to strike.

The observers below watched the room far above as a series of bright flashes shone from the tower windows. They could only guess in horror at the battle taking place inside.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 23 - A Baited Trap © Colin Frayn

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