Chapter Two, Part Four
Melias looks in the direction of the howls and frowns. As if the odds weren’t already against Arturus, now wolves as well? He unties the reins of the horse following his and hands them to Orjulun. “Here, you should head back to the camp. I wouldn’t suggest using a fire right now for all the unwanted attention it might attract. It’s your call. I’ll head towards the woods and skirt the tree line to see if I have any luck finding Arturus. He was probably taken by the Ogres. Still, I can’t just bring myself to presume the worst just yet.” He steers his horse in the direction Arturus ran and spurs it to a gallop.
Grumbling, Rastorn helps the wounded Half-Elf onto his horse and allows the apprentice Wizard to lead them back to where he believes their camp is. “Well, one warrior is probably down,” he says. “With his audacious behavior, he’s probably a meal for those damned Ogres. Never rush into something stupidly without a plan…”
Melias quickly spots Arturus to the south of the blood-spilled camp. The twenty horses he tows make him difficult to overlook. As Arturus limps closer with most of the caravan’s horses strung behind, Melias smiles. “Outstanding…” he says. “Looks like we have gotten ourselves enough food to last a while. Ever eat horse?”
The joke about his hunting skills earns a smile from Arturus. His smile turns to a frown when he recalls he had, indeed, eaten horse meat before.
Shortly, the group gathers at their original camp site, which had remained unmolested.
“Hey tall Elf,” Rastorn hisses, a bony finger pointed at Arturus. “Next time you feel like being so cocksure, let us know first so we may pray your soul to the heavens beforehand. Your quick reaction back there could have cost us lives. No one should do something foolish like that without a plan first. We are too few and short of Warriors for you to get yourself killed.” Removing some punk from the dying fire, he attempts to spark it back to life with flint and steel. Barely audibly he adds, “Anyway, I’m glad you’re alive… though your leg looks like it’s been chewed by a pissed-on badger.”
“It might have been foolish, brash, crazy, and yeah, probably stupid, but it was exciting! You don’t get to be a known hero by playing it safe. You have to grab the situation by the balls and run with it,” a broadly smiling Arturus announces. He didn’t know whether he was going to live or die in the forest, but his adrenaline was pumping, and he still has a slight euphoric feel. “I caught my leg in a trap. The Ogres were closing in and I thought I was done for. Then this dragonish thing came out and struck one of the Ogres in the chest. I tried talking to the dragon-thing, but it ignored me. Then I found all these horses.”
“Dragonish thing?” As he repeats the description, Orjulun turns toward Arturus, then glances around and into the sky. “Can you describe it? Details, please!”
Arturus rubs his chin. “How to describe the thing? Hmm…well for starters it had a giant scorpion tail about twenty feet long. The tail is connected to a forty-foot winged reptile with fifty-foot bat wings, a long neck, and a huge head packed with long, sharp teeth. That good? It stabbed an Ogre through the chest, left me alone, then grabbed the Ogre and flew away.”
“That’s not like any Dragon of which I am aware. I believe you just described a Wyvern. A Dragon would be offended by you relating it to them; they are lesser,” Rastorn says. He remembers all too well his past and being the bait for the Ogres to catch and slay Wyverns. “Nasty creatures; foul-tempered and vile. They, the Ores, and Hill Giants are mortal enemies.”
“Well I liked it. It saved my ass and didn’t eat me in the process,” Arturus says. “So, are those things evil then? Attacking Ogres and Giants… it sounds like a good creature.”
“I agree with you, Rastorn,” Orjulun says, nodding. “It definitely sounds like a Wyvern. And to answer your question, Arturus, yes, they are evil. If the Ogres hadn’t been around, you probably would have been the tasty meat it craved.”
Orjulun turns his attention to the sole survivor from the Ogre attack. “So, friend, what is your name and why were you travelling with that caravan?” He looks over at the Cleric expecting to hear his tale… mildly interested.
The howling of wolves can be heard again – this time closer – disrupting the conversation.
Melias is cleaning Ogre blood from his long sword as the wolfs cry. He blinks and says, “What I wouldn’t give for a nice, calm, quiet inn.” He looks at the mages, so knowledgeable in the ways of the Wyvern, and asks, “Do you know if wolves do carrion feeding, or do they prefer live meat?”
“They surely aren’t scavengers. If they have no other choice, they will eat what they must, but a freshly dead corpse is as good as a fresh kill to them.” Rastorn likes wolves; their power and the pack mentality intrigue him. “But where there are wolves, it is possible for their more dangerous cousins to be present.”
The day’s events are taking a toll on Orjulun. All the riding, skulking, and magic use are tiring. “What if we built the fire larger? Would that help keep the wolves at bay? I’ve used a bit of magic today, and I, for one, am tired. I’d rather not have to battle another foe this eve.”
Melias steps into the darkness beyond the fire to search for wood. Orjulun’s idea sounds good to him. He wants a good night’s sleep as well.
“You’re too quiet, healer,” Rastorn says, nodding to the Half-Elf. Rastorn clearly remembers the reprimand the man gave him for calling him such before, but the fact remains, he is a Cleric and Clerics are far more than bandages. “We’re all new here and not very familiar with one another. Tell us then, what is your tale?”
“Don’t pester the good lad, Rastorn. He doesn’t even know our names and you want him to give us his life story,” Melias says from out of the darkness. He had located a fallen tree nearby and is breaking limbs off as he speaks. “I’m just curious what he intends on doing in the morning. Looks to me like he’s out of a job.”
Grumbling about the reprimand, Rastorn stalks to a secluded area of their camp and removes a candle from one of his many pouches. He’ll be out of a lot more than that if he mucks around with us on my watch tonight, he thinks. “I’m taking first watch,” he states, while opening his spell book on his lap. With a snap of his fingers, the candle is ablaze. “Get the fire lively and get some rest, Melias, you’re on next. You need the sleep. The night is waxing old already.”
The Half-Elf remains quiet and soon falls into a deep slumber without ever answering any of the direct queries concerning the caravan, his position within the caravan, his background, or what his plans are. He doesn’t offer healing to Arturus, ask whether his own mount was among those saved by Arturus, or mention what treasures may have remained within the wagons or the carriage. No one is sure if the day’s events have placed him into a shocked and unresponsive state, but everyone realizes the enormous benefits of a clear-headed Cleric and they all wish to see him recover from this malaise.
There are no more surprises during the remainder of the night. Most sleep lightly, but restfully and, in the morning, everyone not standing guard wakes simultaneously, including the Half-Elf. There is very little talk as they break camp and continue their journey south. It is not until they reach the road that they remember they still do not know if the Half-Elf will be continuing with them.
“So, healer,” Rastorn says, “I can’t speak for my companions, but if you wish to join us, a bandage is always welcomed. Do you think it would be worth the time and effort to search through the debris left from your caravan raid? What were you transporting anyway?” Rastorn can’t help but notice the strange look on the Half-Elf’s face and assumes it is due to his own damaged voice or disfigured face. He has no pride in his looks, so he doesn’t give it a second thought. “If you wish to depart, feel free to take a horse and see your way off. We have a goal ahead of us and if you don’t wish to accompany us, then so be it. But before you decide, how about mending my friend Arturus’ foot. He’s no good to the party lame, you know?”
“Lame, huh? Ah, it isn’t all that bad. Just a little stiff this morning. But if the Cleric wants to give it a bit of healing I won’t object. By the way, holy man, I’m Arturus. Any of these horses belong to you?” Arturus pauses in thought for a moment, then continues, “Also, I wouldn’t mind adding another to our mixed group, keeps things interesting.” In truth, his ankle throbs with pain.
As he listens, Orjulun stretches in his saddle. Sleeping outdoors on the ground was not something he had done often, and the minor aches he now feels remind him why. The silence of the Cleric, he decides, is proving to be more of a pain in his ass than his saddle. “I say we spend a few moments examining the caravan’s remains, regardless of what our closed-mouth companion thinks,” he says. “There might be papers or something else of value intact.”
Melias nods his agreement.
Arturus allows the others to move ahead, so the herd he pulls can trail behind. As they trot past, he says, “You wouldn’t believe some of the things trade companies carry – anything from chests of gold to sacks of grain. It’s always exciting to see what’s there.”
After a nod back at Arturus, Melias turns in his saddle to look the Half-Elf Cleric in the eye. “Look, you know… you don’t know who we are, or where we’re going. But neither do we. It’ll be safer for you to stick with us at least until we hit a city. What do you think? Oh, I know what the problem is… you still haven’t been properly introduced. Allow me to introduce you to our rag-tag band. The gigantic Elf back there, as I think you’ve heard, is Arturus. He’ll be sure to tell you all about his adventures and glory against merchants, given enough time, so enough about him. This well-behaved young man here was kind enough to give us all mounts in our time of need. His name is Orjulun. He’s an Invoker and seems very kind. This unsightly old man is a Necromancer by the name of Rastorn. Just try not to look at him when you’re eating, and you’ll be ok. And I am Melias, an ex-politician from The Nation, looking for a change from the humdrum rigamarole of council meetings. So… I presume you have a name… care to tell us what that might be?”
The Half-Elf dismounts to get a better look at Arturus’ wound. Arturus pulls the reins of his horse, halting it long enough for the Cleric to pray for healing on his injury.
“I am SeLiem of the Fifth Rank,” the Cleric says, as he climbs back onto the saddle. “I help those needing help. The black horse he pulls was the one I rode, but that no longer matters. By the rules of the road, they all belong to us now. I will join your group if you wish; I owe you a lot after the Troll incident.”
Melias grins. “Well, SeLiem, it’s a pleasure to get to know you. But they were Ogres. If they were Trolls, I think that one I skewered would have gotten back up. Thanks for healing Arturus. He runs much better with two legs.”
As he feels the healing powers of the spell take effect, Arturus smiles wide and adds, “Yeah, having two legs is a great thing.” He tests his ankle, slowly moving it in circles. “I’m glad to have a man with your powers around. Happy to have you aboard.”
“Welcome,” Rastorn says, bowing in his saddle.
Before they reach the next camp, Arturus and Melias take the horses seaside for a drink, then tie the herd to a sturdy tree surrounded by grass for grazing. Pulling their own horses behind them, the five men stalk toward the wreckage, passing several of the large poles along the way. Dead horses pepper the area, although no one remembers seeing any the previous night. The formerly sandy ground is muddy with puddles of blood and remains stretching yards past each of the three smashed wagons and the carriage, creating a giant circle of gore. Much is not as their memory had stored it. The bodies all seem much more ravaged and less garbage is strewn about. The body of the Ogre Melias had slain is gone. They all sense something else has changed, but no one can quite place what.
Stepping gingerly through the muck that was dozens of men he personally knew, SeLiem visits the carriage where he stored his personal belongings, including his plate mail armor and his few magic items. Like everything, the carriage is destroyed and covered in blood. Flies buzz around him as he opens what is left of the door. Inside, the carriage is picked clean. All he finds is the tattered remnants of the trade company owner’s wardrobe.
A stray horse grazes at the western edge of camp. It stands calmly, oblivious to the massive carnage yards away. After retrieving it and tying it to the others, Arturus joins the rest of the group in searching for treasure. Stepping over a dismembered body, he recognizes it as belonging to Gar-Ree, the young man who almost discovered him the day before. He waves.
Melias keeps an eye out for the Half-Elf guard from the Fallenleaf family but doesn’t find him. Of course, that doesn’t mean his remains aren’t there somewhere. It might also mean he deserted his post and escaped. Perhaps Melias won’t tell any Fallenleafs he encounters about the bravery of the guard.
Once they have the treasure piled onto the cleanest piece of wagon they can find, Rastorn takes inventory. “Twenty copper pieces, eight blood-soaked – but intact – sets of studded leather armor, a whetstone, soap, a full key chain, 41 crossbow bolts, a whistle, a golden ring, two daggers, a broken crate holding twelve ripped open and slightly bloody bags of rice, eight fifty-foot long coils of hemp rope, lamp oil, a small metal mirror, three iron pots, two empty chests – one with a false bottom smashed out, a bucket, nine intact crossbows, a large and untouched heavily wrapped wheel of cheese, an iron-shod staff, eight gore-filled leather boots of various size, a broken necklace, a small crate of some sort of strong-smelling spice, and a small blank book – perhaps a diary.”
As Rastorn listed the items, Orjulun gazed at the carnage, shaking his head. He turns back to the sorted items and pulls the chest with the false bottom toward him, intending to clean it off. Then something occurs to him. “Rastorn,” he says, waving the older mage closer, “in my readings, Ogres are always depicted as unintelligent beasts, but it seems these were smart enough to find hidden compartments. I’d say someone was leading them. They obviously had an agenda here. Perhaps our Half-Elven friend could enlighten us as to the caravan’s manifest, and why someone would want to totally destroy a large wagon train for whatever it was they were carrying.”
Bent low observing the early signs of maggot infestation on a corpse at his feet, Rastorn, reached down and gingerly slid a gold ring from the corpse’s finger onto his own just as Orjulun called him. He stood erect and looked about guiltily as he saw the young mage motioning for him. He drops the hand with the new ring into the folds of his cloak as he approaches. “Hmmm… seems you are right,” he says, scratching his bearded chin with slightly bloody fingers. “There is also the possibility they triggered a trap or something attempting to open it, and they decided to simply flip it and enter from the other side by force. They aren’t totally stupid, and they could have had a Shaman with them. They’re quite a bit wittier than the common Ogre.”
SeLiem shrugs. “The wagons were full of food. The man who leads them probably tricked the Ogres into making this raid. I do not know who the leader of the Ogres could be, but he must have heard the carriage carried the owner of the trading company. The owner traveled with us in the carriage and was on a mission to hire and train disciplined guards and see how effective they could be.”
Melias violently shakes some gore off his boot as he comments, “They sure seemed to be disciplined to me.” He stands surveying the camp again, with his hands on his hips. “No, I don’t think it was that at all. The Ogres probably came for food, but someone else came afterwards. I don’t know if the Ogres returned, or if it was someone else, but there was an Ogre right over here that I put down.” Met with doubting looks from the others, he frowns. “I did! Really!”
Arturus nods. “Took out an Ogre huh? That’s impressive. Someday when we have time would you mind a friendly spare?”
Melias laughs nervously and rubs a hand over the back of his head, “Well, see… I never claimed to be a great fighter or anything. It was just a good time to strike… and he was a bit winded by the wizards. I didn’t want him running off to tell his tribe we were here.” He changes the subject. “Look, let’s load up the goods on the other horses. We can take it down to the beach and wash it off in the sea. What do you think? It shouldn’t take longer than an hour or two.”
“You know, if these were Elves that were killed, I’d have wanted blood for this, but since it was Humans… who cares? Right?” Arturus says. Then a grin breaks out on his face and he says, “I’m kidding, I know it’s a bad joke, but we needed something to lighten the mood. Taking the stuff to wash it off is fine, not like we’re on a schedule or anything.” Looking around on the ground for tracks, he tries to find clues something besides Ogres was in the camp. It is a long shot, but maybe he can track the last person here by the freshness of prints.
SeLiem isn’t amused by the joke. He chooses a return to silence.
As Rastorn and Orjulun study individual items, Melias discovers a broken portion of wagon to use as a temporary horse cart, if one of them walks beside it and keeps it from tipping. With it, they haul all the items in one trip. The cart will not survive the return trip, but only the items the Wizards were inspecting remain. He and SeLiem start washing everything they brought to the beach.
Next to where Melias said he slew an Ogre, Arturus discovers wagon tracks and the booted prints of four or five men. They likely loaded the body onto the wagon. He is not certain from which direction the wagon came. Deciding not to follow them, since that will take him too far from his companions, he heads deeper into the camp. The tracks made by himself and the rest of his group make his task more difficult, but not impossible. All four of them wear soft shoes and he and Melias have smaller feet. On the south end of the camp, he finds many wolf tracks, some very large, traveling north and south. It appears they dragged many of the men’s bodies closer to the woods and gorged themselves on the remains. This would have taken place an hour or less after he left the camp the night prior, based on the age of the tracks. There are also tracks of horses running and walking through the area and one spot where a horse was taken down by the wolves. He locates a section south-west of camp that is apparently the place the horses were originally tied and cared for. The boot tracks of the guards are all over the area. The boot tracks here are similar or the same as those near where the dead Ogre was, but boots are boots. The area west of camp has some interesting tracks. Many of the guards had laid on the ground here with crossbows facing the forest, but at some point, six of them ran to the woods, then walked back to camp later. No other sections of the camp site have clear tracks he can follow or understand. The area in the center of camp is impossible for him to do any tracking in. He shares his findings with the rest of the group.
“Is anyone good with rope?” Melias asks, as he continues to wash the bloody items. “We have enough rope here to securely fasten these goods to the backs of the spare horses.”
No one answers.
On Orjulun’s advice, Rastorn casts Detect Magic on the pile they sorted. He discovers none of it is magical, but as he turns to tell Orjulun, he spots slight magic emanating from the chest that didn’t have a secret bottom smashed out. He pulls the chest to the side then, before his spell ends, races to the beach to scan the items Melias and SeLiem wash.
Orjulun noticed Rastorn move the chest and waits to see if he shares his discovery. If he shares, Orjulun plans on questioning him about the nature of the magic. Is it covering the entire chest? Does it only emanate from one specific point? Can he determine the school of magic? The chest has a very thin and flat bottom, so there is no chance of a false bottom on this one. He estimates it measures three feet by two and a half feet wide. It is bulbous and about two and a half feet high. The front, top, and side are all rife with ornate metal decoration, mostly flowers, with wolf-like heads poking through them. It is heavy and took two people to move without dragging, since it is too wide for any of them to grasp both leather side handles at once.
Melias kneels next to SeLiem meticulously washing blood stains from the objects. Washing the rice would be a fruitless venture, so Melias suggests SeLiem separate the rice into clean and contaminated portions. They’d leave the bloodstained rice for the fish, come next high tide. Melias sought to take his mind off what exactly he might be touching. He looks up and down the beachfront and chuckles. “Sailing Ogres, who’d have thought? I wonder where they sailed off to. Couldn’t be far. They used rafts, not real boats.” Changing the subject abruptly, he tells SeLiem, “We just left Dumas, as you have. When we get to the crossroads, we must make a choice. Personally, I think we should head for the nearest city to offload some of these items and horses for coins. Naturally, you get a fair share for all the help you’ve given so far – well, if I have anything say about it.” He looks back at the stretch of road heading south and wonders how far that crossroad will be. “From what the leader of your guardsmen told us yesterday, Darkuth should be nearby, and Metava won’t trade with strangers. So maybe we should stop in Darkuth. What do you think? Do you know this area well?”
SeLiem stops cleaning and looks north, then south. He considers returning home to Dumas, but the only well-organized trade company was just demolished. Order is very important to him, to his religion. Dumas has always been far too disorganized and lawless for his taste. He decides he will see where this path takes him. “If we go on horseback south, we will make it to the crossroads in about thirty-two hours. From there, we can go to Metava and then the Allied Sellers Union where there are plenty of opportunities for work. I don’t think we should go to Darkuth; it is a very strict city, even if it is a wealthy one. One small wrong move by any of you and it could be the end.”
“The magics reflected in this chest are Enchantment and Alteration,” Rastorn begins, looking at Orjulun. “It’s interesting. Only a moderate glimmer and obviously ornate physically. There can’t be any false bottom…” He peers in under the lid. “It doesn’t seem to have a false top, either. It’s not trapped, or the trap would have found us by now. Let’s place something inside and see what happens.” He grabs a crossbow bolt and tosses it into the box without waiting for Orjulun to comment.
While he works, SeLiem wonders aloud, “Something was amiss in the carriage. The lanterns were gone, for one thing. Are we sure we found everything?”
Melias laughs. “Hells no, I’m not sure. The thing that has me baffled is those wolves or Worgs. They came along and ate up on the dead things, but what about the horses? I’m thinking they were scared off by whoever came along for the Ogre body and the lanterns.” He grimaces as he plucks the remains of a foot from the boot he is washing and tosses it on the pile of human remains.
The bolt Rastorn tossed in doesn’t trigger any magical effect. He’s able to fish it back out as expected. The two Wizards continue to do unusual little tests to the chest, attempting to figure out what the magic is, but to no avail.
All the attention paid to the chest draws Arturus’ attention, but at first glance he sees nothing unusual about it. He tips it up and feels around it a little, but still nothing. Bored, he squats down in one of the small areas not coated with blood, although he is completely encircled by it.
SeLiem returns with rope and gathers four horses to carry their treasure. Orjulun calls him over to look at the chest. SeLiem says it belonged to the Wizard Sivaeb, the Invoker who was a member of the trade company. He tells them Sivaeb kept his clothing and some personal belongings in it. SeLiem also checks the chest, but he sees nothing odd about it. He leads the horses to the beach to load the goods. Arturus follows him, carrying the other non-magical items the Wizards were inspecting. The Wizards remain and discuss what else they could try and skim through their spell books a bit looking for a potential magical solution.
Eventually, the other three return to the camp, horses loaded with clean wares. Melias heard about the chest, so he decides to take a look. He doesn’t spot any abnormalities as he glances at it. Then he squats down and begins careful inspection. Something catches his attention right away. Soon, his focus is much greater than any of the others before him and he seems almost unaware of their presence. He barely touches the chest at all but seems to study every inch. Standing, he points out four different wolf fangs on the carvings at the back of the chest, explaining if they are each slid in opposite directions away from each other, the back of the chest will fall open, revealing a hidden space. He says he doesn’t believe such a thing could be mechanically trapped.
“Ahhh…” Rastorn’s eyes light up at Melias’ findings. “This is excellent, indeed. Good man,” he says standing and patting Melias’ shoulder. “Now, does anyone here know how to detect traps and disarm them if they are present?” He rubs his hands together, anxious for what may lie within the chest. Still jaded from the loss of all his magic items, other than his most coveted spell book, when he was imprisoned by Ogres, he cherishes every opportunity to gain some trinket to replace each of those he lost. And, yes, he is keeping count.
“If it were mundane, I might be able to take a crack at it,” Melias says, “But, if there were a trap, it’d be magical in nature, which, I expect, is your area of expertise.” He looks at the two Wizards and shrugs. “It’s not going to open itself.” He takes a few generous steps backward, just in case, then smirks, enjoying the look of uncertainty on the Wizards’ faces. “Look, if the two of you don’t have anything that can best circumvent this problem, then one of us is going to have to risk his life for the sake of finding out what is in there. Maybe we should draw straws?”
“Fine,” Orjulun says with some disgust. “I’ll not leave the fates to determine my lot. Step back and I will open the chest myself.” Once the others step away, he slowly turns the fangs into proper alignment. He tries to stay at arms’ reach from the chest and prepares to turn his head slightly when the compartment opens.
Rastorn stares, rubbing his hands together at the possibility of what may be hidden within the back of the chest. He recalls the Cleric of his last party was eaten alive casting a priestly spell that revealed traps. He is not sure if it would work in this situation, so he casts the thought aside.
The back of the chest falls open, revealing a small space. Through one squinted eye Orjulun sees a small amount of treasure. Since nothing bad seems to have happened, he opens both eyes wide and takes a quick visual inventory.
An ornate dagger
A full potion bottle
A small leather bag
A dark-colored leather-bound book covered with curly tooling which looks somewhat like flames
From their distant vantage points, none of the others can see into the hidden hold.
“Good show!” Melias applauds Orjulun’s brave action. He is glad nothing unfortunate happened to the young Invoker. “So, what do you have there? A dagger… a potion… a bag and a book… how interesting.” He returns to securing their other new belongings to the horses.
Relief washed over Orjulun as the back of the chest swung open without a subsequent explosion that would have scattered his bones over the already bloody ground. He touches nothing within the chest, merely moving aside so the others can see. “Looks like we have a spell book here, Rastorn,” he says with a smile. “Hopefully, one not protected by any vicious spell-guardians.”
As he continues working with the horses, an alert Melias hears the galloping of horses on the road to the north. He can’t see them yet, but he guesses they are less than half a mile away.
Although the opening of the chest was an interesting event, Arturus isn’t interested in the treasure inside. After finding the tracks, he was bored and wanted to pick a set of tracks and follow them.
Using a piece of shattered wood, Rastorn, standing back several feet, knocks the contents of the chest out of the back. He makes sure everything falls out before advancing further to touch them. When the book falls out, he drops quickly to his knees, snatches the book, and stands again. His trepidation declines as the hope of new spells floods his thoughts.
“Horses!” Melias alerts the others, as he points north. “I propose we get moving and check those nick-knacks later. I don’t want anyone laying blame on us for doing all this.” He spreads his arms to draw attention to the slaughter all around them. “Besides, it’s really starting to smell ripe around here.”
Rastorn reads the words on the book cover, “Sivaeb, the Invoker: The Road Never Ends.” He acts so quickly, Orjulun’s warning of “Wait!” comes too late. The book explodes in Rastorn’s hands!
To be continued . . .
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