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Varlarsaga Volume 2 - Recovery
Chapter - 27 Sgnarli
Silval stood, bow at the ready, whilst Corin knelt at the imp's side, to study the creature. Pitrag brushed roughly at the leathery hide and, for a moment, it seemed that there was genuine concern in his dark eyes. The imp growled in a kind of crooning fashion, as he rubbed at the dragling's outstretched wing.
‘I do believe that he is much taken with this scaly horror,’ murmured Silval. ‘Yet it is of evil brood, that we well know. Perhaps it would be better to swiftly end its misery?’
Corin peered closely at the huddled form. ‘Partly stunned and partly shamming, I think. See how the limbs tremble and the belly faintly heaves. Do not dispatch it, for even though it is a fright to look upon, there is about it a savage beauty in the green and blue of those slimy scales. I have a feeling... I do not know, or understand why, yet I would let the monster live.’
Silval lowered his bow, saying, ‘Very well, Avarhli. Though it is against my better judgement, there may be some good to come from it. Perhaps the ymp will take it away with him, forgetting us.’
Pitrag looked at Corin, in his sly way, muttering, ‘Er-Gas ess goot to Pithrug. Geeve eem Har-tân.’
‘I hope he is not thinking of eating it,’ whispered Dalen.
The imp heard this and shook his head wildly. ‘Noh!’ he cried emphatically.
‘Never mind,’ said Corin to the imp. ‘Hurry and get some marline from Falnir, and I will bind it for you to carry. Be quick, lest the Stonegnomes return.’
Obedient to Corin's words, Pitrag darted off on his errand, and in the end the deed was done with little trouble.
Corin clamped the long snout shut amidst snarls and twists as the dragling regained its senses, coming sharply back to life. ‘It snaps and snarls well enough,’ he laughed, winding the strong, elvish filament about its flailing legs.
‘Yass, sgnarli,’ Pitrag leered, as he caught up, and bundled it over his shoulder.
‘Take good care of your snarley then,’ said Corin. ‘Or it might get loose and bite you for thanks.’
‘Sgnarli, Sgnarli,’ said Pitrag, as they went on their way. And he laughed his sly laugh. ‘Heh, heh, heh.’
‘It is near nightfall, and we are far enough away to slow our pace,’ called Silval from the fork of a tree.
They were on the eastward slope of a hill, one of many such that rolled gently toward the setting sun like lazy, green waves. A cool breeze wafted into their faces and the vale below lay still and silent.
‘Aye, it is time for rest and repast,’ agreed Elvra. ‘Elves and pechts may travel long without, yet there comes an hour to savour both delight of earth and sky and the taste of world's bounty.’
‘I spy a winding stream not far off,’ called Silval. ‘It is deep within the trees there and should make a fair place for halting. Those who wish may take rest, whilst others keep watch. The stars will glow in Elivagur this evening and I would gaze upon them.’
They came down to the running stream in high spirits. The elves, after combing the woods about, set to and laid a meal on Falnir's upturned cloak, whilst Dalen fetched water from the tinkling runnel.
Pitrag was much engrossed with his sgnarli, fussing about it in a mother-hen way. It eyed him, motionless, unblinking and stiff, until he loosed its snout and began to push a scrap between the needle teeth. It took the offered portion and snapped off one of the imp's horny nails as well. For answer, the imp cuffed it about its scaled ears, barking, ‘Noh Sgnarli!’ Then the imp snatched up the dragling, fed it again, and secured it; chuckling to himself all the while.
This, as Corin observed, was to happen over and again.
The elves too, watched carefully, though dispassionately, whilst Dalen and Bim grew no less wary.
And yet for all their feigned haughty indignation, there was a hint of good humour toward this pair of misfits: these uncertain, perhaps malicious, travelling companions, both of who might have been slain, but for intervening hands. What would become of them, none there could guess.
Though Dalen voiced a disgruntled opinion to the cat, as they climbed into the arms of a tall pine.
‘Probably grow big enough to eat us all, the ymp included,’ he said of the dragling. ‘Either that, or they will both be kicked into a river and drowned, by me,’ he winked.
‘What do you think the Stonegnomes meant, and who are they?’ Corin asked, between mouthfuls of mushroom meat.
‘They are very old peoples; wanderers, stern and sage, I believe,’ replied Elvra. ‘Before them, these lands were probably empty. Now, at least, we are told to follow our feet north and east, to those of some kin with us.’
‘Yes,’ whispered Falnir, staring into the clear, night sky. ‘Somewhere here, lies Vas-Kholm and Mhonkheppur; whatever they may be.’
‘Places, rivers, people, cities?’ hazarded Silval. ‘We can only go on to find the answers. That, or turn back for this time and come again with many more of our kin.’
‘I shall not turn back,’ said Corin. ‘This morning, at the place of the dragon lair, I heard The Voices. I am called onward. I cannot turn back now.’
‘Perhaps it will be best for us all to think over the choices till the morning comes,’ suggested Elvra. ‘Clear day, clear head and heart.’
‘I do not feel weary enough for sleep,’ returned Corin, certain that he would not change his mind by night or day, ‘but I will rest as best I can.’
‘Good,’ said Falnir. ‘After all, sleep or waking-rest for he who comes by it may aid when time ahead gives no chance.’
At this advice, Corin settled down at the foot of a towering tree, where the leaf mould had piled high in drifts. They had no fire or light that evening and there was no moon; and yet the night was still bright, lit by scattered stars: clear and glimmering they sparkled overhead like distant, welcoming beacons.
It was by their light and the glow of his cloak, that Corin withdrew the shell given him by the elvish princess Alluin, at their parting. He lay there, holding it in his palm, gazing at the play of colour on its pearly surface.
He must have blinked, nodding, for when he again opened his eyes, it seemed to him that Alluin's fair face lay mirrored within the concave shell. It was but a glimpse; seeing her there pictured against the immense ocean, then the vision faded, whilst the stars winked out and darkness gently stole in.
Out of mist, he was on a vast, grey seashore that stretched away in both directions.
To one side, played the ocean.
At the other, loomed tall cliffs, unscaleable.
‘How have I come here?’ he wondered, gazing at the water that swept about his bare feet and beyond, thence to return, swirling down to its great home.
Shells littered that empty strand, as did starfish, pink and blue. He saw them as he walked, empty-handed, his feet treading the sanded beach, his eyes searching the sea and the walls that held him prisoner upon that narrow strip.
Once, far away, he saw a bird.
But it was not a seabird.
It had not gull-like form.
It was dark against the graven sky, winging the path that his legs drove.
On he went, never halting, until he came to a stairway cut deep amongst the cliffs. And up this he ventured, leaving the lonely shore and the sea; heaving mournfully behind him. The steps were broad and flat, winding ever upward toward the low clouds.
At last he reached the final few and these he hurried over, anxious to see what lay beyond. He came to a bleak cliff-top: empty, windswept and bare, but for solitary clumps of hard-worn, stringy grasses. The sombre clouds crawled above him in a leaden progress. The sea hummed and trummed, far below.
Nought was there on the horizon: nought on sea, in sky, on land.
He was suddenly cold and shrugged his garments closer round. Then he was aware that he was naked, save for a coarse woollen cloth draped from shoulder to knee. He wore no shoe or slipper upon his bruised feet. He carried no weapon, no sign, no provision.
The wind blew his long hair, streaming, across his face and into his eyes.
He brushed it away, along with the tears that it lashed.
Hopeless, he turned and set out, trudging with a kind of useless resolution.
He bowed his head, shunning to search the way; for there was nothing to watch.
And thus he pilgrimaged, bent and tired, a long and unknown time.
He continued on, until a distant sound caused him to lift his gaze.
It was the pitiable howl of a grieving animal.
Peering before him, along the cliff line, he spied a speck; black against the grey unlight.
A low croak broke from his parched lips.
He staggered forward, eager to end his lonely journey.
The vision grew larger.
It resolved into a singular image, a mean hovel with smoke rising from its broken roof.
And before its staggered door, he made out a shape.
Corin screwed up his eyes to see the clearer against the wind.
One, an animal. The other, a shrouded form, veiled in shadow.
The scene whirled before him and he cried out, sinking to his knees.
He heard his own voice tearing at his ears.
His sight was wrenched away, like a child torn from its mother's arms. He was thrown down upon his face, and the breath crushed from him until he begged, within his mind, for mercy.
And, mercifully, he was released.
The rushing in his head diminished and he dared open his eyes the merest slit.
He was in the black pool of the sea, and a boat with lone rower went sliding past.
The rower, he saw, was himself.
And the words of The Voices went gliding after him.
"Deeper, deeper, sleep thou sleeper.
Dreams undreamt of, reap, thou reaper.
Ply thy oar in sea of night, doomed to never sail in light…"
The Voices faded...And Corin slept…
‘I could not have turned back then, nor more so now, after the dream of last night,’ said Corin, walking swift at Falnir's side.
It was the morrow and the company were early away from their resting place.
Indeed, they had travelled a goodly distance into the afternoon.
Now they were thirteen days inland from the coast and the elvish host upon its shores, the small band of companions still striking north and east. They had come on no other folk, apart from rabbit and fox and birds. And of those, none would venture near, appearing wild and wary.
‘Rosac the brownie might well have served us here,’ said Dalen. ‘For he is wise in the tongues of bird and beast.’
‘Yet it seems these woodland dwellers do not wish to know us, so shy and suspicious are they,’ replied Falnir.
‘Aye,’ said Silval. ‘But the trees themselves tell me things, even by the way the wind lingers in their limbs. We are entering strange new lands, and there is much to be felt and perceived.’
And Elvra, halting to gaze at the massed, leafy crowns that surrounded them, sang, ‘The trees here whisper of older times, when none but the trees knew all; of flowers and clover, and over and over, the leaves of the trees did fall. Old branch and bough groan of time that is now, and time that goes on without end: of oak tree and willow and alders that billow, of lichen and moss and grasses that toss in the winds of the storms, that rending, go sending rabbits scurrying home. To shelter in furrows and burrows they've delved. And hark the whisperings of trees in the gloam….’
A shiver ran through Corin even as the sunlight shivered through the foliage, and he felt an unease steal over him.
Two days more passed uneventfully yet the uneasy feeling did not lift. This was odd, for the country they now journeyed through was both peaceful and beautiful.
In the light of mid afternoon tiny moths hovered about the company, and the sun, freed from the tenuous clouds, played upon them, warming and enlivening.
They had travelled far that day, climbing over green-clad foothills that rose and extended into mountainous terrain, and descending into deep-cloven valleys that lay, secret and hidden, immersed in shadow.
They were on the lowest slopes of a timbered hill, stepping quietly down over soft, pine-needled beds, when Elvra glimpsed a flash as of light reflected on some object below, and then the sounds of a fray reached their ears.
The elves moved stealthily forward, motioning the others to keep close behind.
Pitrag, still hefting his sgnarli, who seemed to have grown a little in the past few days, slithered and slid on the cushioning needles, whilst Dalen and Corin, with Bim at his shoulder, flanked the imp.
The noise of conflict grew louder, and soon Corin could make out a frightened neighing of horses and the shouts and cries of men. The trees thinned before them as the company drew together, taking cover behind a row of pines that marked the boundary of conifers.
Below them, haphazard, grew elm, birch and the ancient sorbis trees amongst bracken and greater ferns leading to the narrow valley floor, and thence to the slopes upon the opposite side.
‘Guard the ymp well,’ whispered Silval as they further descended. ‘There are folk of his own kind lurking in the trees below and on the far hill.’ He raised his arm. ‘See, see those dark shapes: nugobluk, ugush, ymp and gark, to judge by the varying size of them.’
‘What is happening?’ Corin asked, catching up. ‘I heard men's voices. I am sure of it.’
‘That you did,’ replied Falnir. ‘There are men and horses in the gully's cleft. Two score of riders at the most, and hard pressed by the nugobluk. You can glimpse a few here between the trees.’ He indicated a gap where the growth was sparse, and as Corin watched he saw two, then three horses, one riderless, milling about; and the squat, black backs of several gark midway between, raining darts and stones down upon them.
‘We must lend aid,’ said Corin in alarm. ‘They are trapped.’
Silval shook his head. ‘It may be to our bitter end if we do.’
‘There is no time to debate,’ replied Corin. ‘Withdraw if you must, but first give me a bow and quiver of arrows.’
‘Nay,’ replied the elf. ‘We will not leave you, for I at least have not forgotten the service you rendered me on the mountains of Ravenmoor. Falnir, give Avarhli a bow and some shafts, since he is of a mind to shoot; and keep the ymp and his pet under your knife. Best take them upslope with Dalen and be on the ready to fly at need.’
Silval drew his own bow, swift as an eyeblink, and sent a shaft across the width of the valley. Deadly unerring was that shot. Upon the far side, a darting creature stumbled and fell, tumbling over and over, until brought up sharply at the foot of a stunted birch.
Corin's arrow, aimed at a gark skulking between two trees, went astray; striking the trunk of an elm above its head. But as the creature turned to see whence it had come, Elvra's missile struck home, and the gark fell backward beneath the trees.
All at once the air buzzed with quarrels, as the enemy sought their attackers. Along the southward slopes, many nugobluk were to be seen approaching, leaping over fallen logs; their long arms almost trailing the leaf -matted earth.
‘We can do no more here,’ muttered Silval, bringing down the foremost. ‘Avarhli, make away after Falnir. Elvra and I will follow, holding them at bay. Hurry. There is little space left for escape!’
Reluctantly, Corin did as he was bidden; dodging amongst the cover of ferns that grew thickly thereabouts. But even as he flew, more nugobluk appeared ahead and above, so that he was forced to veer down, deeper into the vale.
‘Time to go prrowwling,’ said Bim in his ear. ‘Move sswiftly, lest we become goblin fodder!’
Without awaiting an answer, the cat leaped from Corin's shoulder and stole off into the tangle of undergrowth, leading the way. Darts thrashed the leaves behind them as they reached the shelter of a dense thicket, lower and nearer the fighting.
Then, a shadowy thing bore down on them from upslope; a compact, hulking creature that raised its gnarled arm to strike. Corin's bow twanged. The gark screeched and collapsed.
‘This wayyy,’ hissed the cat, descending the slope at a diagonal.
Behind them came a tide of grunts and guttural cries. A single scream rang out. Corin, on hands and knees, wormed his way along following Bim through the shrubbery that now enveloped them. From all directions there came the noise and confusion of conflict.
A goblin rose before them. Its heavy club smote by Corin's ear, cracking saplings with the force of the blow. Bim threw himself at the foe, spitting and clawing and was brushed aside with a sickening swipe. The cat tumbled limply amongst the ferns, whilst the goblin's club glanced across Corin's head, stunning him.
On that instant, Corin's bow discharged its feathered shaft and when, moments later, he came to himself, he found the gark, as horrible in death as in life, pinned to the trunk of a tree; its club arm wilted to the ground.
Bim lay, unmoving, in the bracken.
Without a moments thought, Corin scooped up the cat and bore him away.
A lone, riderless horse trampled the tangled growth in Corin's path and spying him, shied off between some white-flowering sorbis.
Gaining the shelter of one such tree, Corin risked a halt to get his bearings. He stole a glance from behind the grey trunk and saw that they were almost at the bottom of the vale.
Upslope, horses ranged through the thickets: their riders, glimpsed briefly, as they turned and twisted in the saddle; sunlight sparkling from their swords and brazen shoulders.
The nugobluk too, were there, leaping up from hiding to slash at the men or firing black shafts from behind trees as they passed.
One rider toppled and fell, smitten by an arrow where it struck him through the open visor of his helm.
But almost at once, the gark archer was ridden down by a tall horseman whose headpiece sported a flowing, white plume that spread behind like the tail of his plate-barded steed. Deftly, the rider turned the proud head of his mount, steering through the elms and hurdling logs in great leaps, to cut down any that stood before him.
Away swirled the skirmish along the south-western slopes of the valley.
Once, Corin thought that he saw the slender figure of an elf, flitting amongst the shadows of the pine line; but then it was gone, as were the furious sounds of fighting.
The dale grew still and cold in the late noon, as the battle faded.
Bim stirred in Corin's arms and opened his great, yellow-green, saucer-eyes. ‘Reoww, Meowster! I did my besst forr you.’
‘That you did good cat,’ Corin replied, gently stroking his furry companion. ‘Rest awhile, and as soon as you are able we should be on the move. The others are scattered far and wide, I fear, and we need find them before nightfall.’ He could not suppress a long sigh. ‘Oh cat, this is all my fault. If I had not prevailed upon our friends to aid those men…’
He ceased abruptly, in mid-sentence, as Bim suddenly stiffened, staring at something beyond Corin's shoulder.
Before he could turn, a voice, strong and youthful, easy but lordly, said, ‘If you had not aided us, we should have suffered e'en more than we have.’
Corin whirled about, ready to flee. Yet halted as his eyes fell upon the speaker.
In fact, there were two men, each astride a dappled, grey-blue courser, whose muscled coats rippled as they stood, champing. Both the men sat, tall on their silvered, leathern saddles and each saddle bore, looped to it, a pair of long spears, silver tipped.
The men themselves were clad in shining metal: helms, breastplates, gauntlets and greaves. The foremost was bearded and curls of dark hair fell round his face from beneath the basinet, framing his vigorous brown eyes, straight nose and pale, stern lips; whereupon, there played the faintest smile.
The rearward too was bearded and his long, golden hair flowed down from the head-piece as did the plume that sprouted from the helm's crest. His face was full with youth; fair and rosy-cheeked, as if he had been riding hard against a bracing wind and his deep, grey eyes gleamed with a strange light that Corin thought might well have been excitement.
‘Is he the one, do you think?’ asked the latter of his dark haired companion.
The other was silent for a moment, regarding Corin with grave interest, before shaking his head in a gesture of uncertainty. ‘I am Disintar. And this is Mysingir; youngest of the Three Lords of Mendoth City in Indlebloom Vale. Have no fear or qualm. We are friendly toward any that would risk death to assist plighted folk. Come, give me your hand and ride behind me. It is best we leave this place and get to safer country.’
He leant down, offering his outstretched arm, but Corin took a pace back.
‘I… I cannot go with you,’ he stammered. ‘My companions are somewhere up there and may be in mortal danger. I must find them.’
‘But you will be hard pressed afoot,’ said Mysingir, with a tinge of laughter in his voice. ‘Better ride with us, lest you meet goblins afore friends. If they are to be found, my Brother will find them, for he pursues the enemy and they, in rout, are probably betwixt him and your folk. You can do little more here alone. Trust us and come.’
Corin looked down at Bim, where the cat's tail swished with suspicion, but Bim said nought, instead climbing up to twist about his master's neck, as Corin, in turn, was hoisted up behind Disintar.
In a trice, the horses wheeled about and galloped off through the darkening trees, down the narrow dale northward.
‘We are going the wrong way!’ cried Corin, as they sped along.
‘Not so,’ answered Disintar over his shoulder. ‘Night falls and we must make for open ground. Mysingir's brother knows the place we are bound and will meet us there. He will bring your friends, if that be possible. Hold tight. It is not too much further!’
He slapped the reins and the horse responded, leaping away so that the wind whistled by with a rush. Corin could only hold fast and watch the trees go flying by.
Behind followed Mysingir, and at whiles his voice raised, singing it seemed, as they raced along over the broken ground and splashed across trickling runlets of water.
The sun was gone when the way before them levelled and opened into a broad plain with but a few stalwart trees grouped in threes and fours amongst the springing grasses.
It was chill twilight when they halted and turned to face the hills they had left behind. For a little, they sat quietly whilst the horses snorted, sending spouts of steam from their quivering nostrils.
Then Mysingir began again to sing, ‘There once was a warrior bold. In legend his tale has been told; how he went on a day, to the lands far away, in search of silver and gold. There once was a maiden fair, with rose garlands in her hair: in the glade, unseen, all bedashed with green, astride a palfrey mare. " Oh where are you from? " cried he, as he spied her by old oak tree. With the girl so sweet, flew the horse so fleet, o'er greensward and meadowlea. " I will have me this maiden gay," vowed the warrior upon his grey. With a will and a bent, straightway he went, and he follows to this very day. Yea, he follows...’
Abruptly Mysingir quit his refrain, to stare with creasing eyes toward the dark bulk of the hills.
‘They are coming,’ said Disintar.
Mysingir dismounted and bent his head to the ground. ‘Aye,’ he said, tapping his breastplate, ‘travelling fast.’
‘Best be in the saddle and at the ready,’ answered Disintar, catching up one of the tall spears from its trappings.
The shadows were long under the distant husk of the moon when the oncoming horses drew near. There were, in fact, a score and sixteen; but two were riderless. At a swift glance, Corin could see that none of his companions were with them and his heart sank.
‘Ho Mysingir, I am glad to see you,’ hailed the foremost of the newcomers. ‘Bad news. I have lost four, and Jaromir here is wounded. Worse, a force of the enemy pursues us at a great rate. Some are wolf-riders.’ He pulled rein beside them. ‘Ah Disintar, we have a guest I see. No, two guests in truth is it?’ he corrected, catching sight of Bim.
‘He speaks the Renish tongue,’ replied Mysingir. ‘We came upon him and his cat not long after those who helped us avoid destruction arrived. These two were with them.’
‘And as well they aided us,’ returned the other man, studying Corin and Bim. ‘Please forgive me, but at first I rather thought that creature about your neck was a fox fur.’
‘A foxx might change his sskin, prroww, but never his mannerss,’ said Bim, with some dignity, as he turned his unblinking gaze upon the rider.
A murmur arose from those about, and even Disintar twisted sharply around to stare.
‘The fellow makes it speak!’ gasped a rider, astounded.
‘A wizardly thing to be sure,’ cried another.
‘My name is Corin and this cat is Bimmelbrother, son of Memmelardoth. I have companions, dear friends, back yonder, and we would return to them. Please, it is my wish to part from you in peace, that I may find them. I will pledge to seek you again, if you will grant our freedom.’
The rider facing Corin laughed and then caught himself up. ‘Forgive me once more. But the danger behind us is very real, else we should not have flown.’ He bent his head toward the south, so that the faint moon outlined his profile. It was as if straight lines had chiselled it, so strong and angular were the features: broken only by the tufts of brows and moustache and the scars of old wounds that criss-crossed his cheek and chin. ‘Of your friends I can tell you nothing, except that I came upon none, alive or dead. My men and I pursued the goblins until a larger war party appeared at the southern end of the vale. At that, we fled, being vastly outnumbered. Your companions, if they still survive, may have sought some safety westward, though that is but a guess.’
He turned again to Corin. ‘Who you are and what you are, I know not. Yet you have our thanks for your intervention. I am Mendor, second eldest of the Lords of Mendoth and I am in command here. So it falls to me to decide what next is to be done with you. I cannot permit you to leave us for several reasons; the foremost being your probable capture, torture and death by those who pursue us even as we sit here talking as if we were at some homely hearth.’
Corin was about to protest, or at need slide from the horse's back and attempt escape, when Mysingir gave a wry laugh. ‘Ho ho, too late to debate. We have company, and hurrying up frightful fast. Off with us. And pledge yon moon to light our path!’
Before they swung from the benighted hills, Corin caught a glimpse of shadows, herded and packed together, approaching at alarming speed. Then, their steeds went racing on the wind, bearing both he and Bim further from Silval, Elvra and the others; wherever they were.
The great hearted horses ran long without cease, pounding, pounding, across the open lands and up, up into wooded heights beyond that rose until the morning.
When it dawned, pink and pale blue, smudged with white, they were already high in the green mountains. The sun glittered on the western peaks, spreading over a series of vast, deep valleys: sheer sided and precipitous.
Their pace slowed.
Then, before them, amid spring-thrusting trees and the blossom that burst everywhere, emerged a mounted figure wrapped in white. The steed that the rider sat was of the same rippling grey-blue as those of Corin's captors, yet for some reason, Corin found himself gripping tighter to Disintar, almost holding his breath, as their mount closed with the waiting stranger. Bim's claws sank into his collar, kneading it in a reassuring manner, though he growled softly.
Corin set his mouth, his eyes firmly fixed.
Mysingir, at his right, hummed a soft tune.
Mendor edged slowly forward.
Birds, fresh woken from sleep, began calling and chirruping to all and any, as the new day broke through the leaves.
The steeds of Disintar and the stranger drew alongside, rubbing muzzles and necks.
The stranger regarded Corin and Bim with eyes deep-set and shaded.
For a time without speech, except for the blending of the birds, they sat thus; and Corin was aware both of a contest of wills and a probing of minds between he and the rider facing him.
Then, at length, Mysingir broke that stillness. ‘Good Lord and Brother, we bring you a pair out of the wilderness.’
The white clad figure held up a hand: a good square hand: long fingered and deft, thought Corin.
‘Greetings pilgrims. My name is Menkeepir.’
Chapter 28 [next]
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