SPITTING MONSTERS

The tunnel through the wall was narrow and short, forcing everyone other than Athrogate and Pratcus to stoop low. Poor Olgerkhan had to bend nearly in half to navigate the corridor, and many places were so narrow that the broad-shouldered half-orc had to turn sideways to slip through. They came to a wider area, a small circular chamber with the corridor continuing as before out the other side.

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"Stealth," Jarlaxle whispered. "We do not want to get into a fight in these quarters."

"Bah!" Athrogate snorted, quite loudly.

"Thank you for volunteering to take the lead," Entreri said, but if that was supposed to be any kind of negative remark to the boisterous and fearsome dwarf, it clearly missed the mark.

"On we go, then!" Athrogate roared and he rambled out of the room and along the corridor, his morning stars in his hands and bouncing along. The weapons often clanged against the stone walls and every time one did, the others all held their breath. Athrogate, of course, only howled with laughter.

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"If we kill him correctly, he will block the corridor enough for us to escape," said Entreri, who was third in line, just behind the dwarves and just ahead of Jarlaxle.

"There is nothing waiting for us behind," Pratcus reminded.

"Leaving without that one would constitute a victory," said Entreri, and Athrogate laughed all the louder.

"On we go then!" he roared again. "Hearty dwarves and feeble men. Now's the time for kind and kin, together banded for the win! Bwahaha!"

"Enough," Entreri growled, and just then they came upon a wider and higher spot in the uneven corridor, and the assassin set off. A stride, spring, and tuck sent him right over Pratcus's head, and Athrogate let out a yelp and spun as if he expected Entreri to set upon him with his weapons.

As Athrogate turned, however, Entreri went by, and by the time the confused dwarves stopped hopping about and focused ahead once more, the assassin was nowhere to be found.

"Now what was that all about?" Athrogate asked of Jarlaxle.

"He is not my charge, good dwarf."

"He's running out ahead, but for what?" the dwarf demanded. "To tell our enemies we're here?"

"I expect that you have done a fine enough job of that without Artemis Entreri's help, good dwarf," the drow replied.

"Enough of this," said Mariabronne from behind Ellery, who was right behind the drow. "We have not the time nor the luxury of fighting amongst ourselves. The castle teems with enemies as it is."

"Well, where'd he go, then?" asked the dwarf. "He scouting or killing? Or a bit of both?"

"Probably more than a bit," Jarlaxle replied. "Go on, I pray you, and with all speed and with all the stealth you might muster. We will find adversity this day at every corner - I pray you don't invite more than we will happen upon without your... enthusiasm."

"Bah!" snorted Athrogate.

He spun around and stomped off - or started to, for barely had he gone two strides, coming up fast on a sharp bend in the corridor, when a form stepped out to block his way.

It was humanoid and fleshy, as tall as a man, but stocky like a dwarf, with massive fleshy arms and twisted, thick fingers. Its head sat square and thick on a short stump of a neck, its pate completely hairless, and no light of life shone in its cold eyes. It came right at Athrogate without hesitation, the biggest clue of all that the creature wasn't truly alive.

"What're ye about?" the dwarf started to ask, indicating that he, unlike Pratcus and Jarlaxle behind him, didn't quite comprehend the nature of the animated barrier. "What?" the dwarf asked again as the creature fast approached.

"Golem!" Jarlaxle cried.

That broke all hesitation from Athrogate, and he gave a howl and leaped ahead, eager to meet the charge. A quick overhand flip of the morning stars, one after the other, got them past the slow-moving creature's defenses.

Both slapped hard against the thick bare flesh, and both jolted the golem.

But neither really seemed to hurt the creature nor slow it more than momentarily.

Pratcus fell back for fear of getting his head crushed on a backswing as Athrogate launched himself into a furious series of arm-pumping, shoulder-spinning attacks. His morning stars hummed and struck home, once then again.

And still the golem pressed in, slapping at him, grabbing at him.

The dwarf dodged a crossing punch, but the move put him too close to the left hand wall, and the ball head of his weapon rang loudly off the stone, halting its rhythmic spin. Immediately, the golem grabbed the morning star's chain.

Athrogate's other arm pumped fast, and he scored a hit with his second weapon across the golem's cheek and jaw. Bone cracked and flesh tore, and when the ball bounced away, it left the golem's face weirdly distorted, jaw hanging open and torn.

Again, though, the golem seemed to feel no pain and was not deterred. It tugged back, and stubborn Athrogate refused to let go of his weapon and was lifted from his feet and pulled in.

A small crossbow quarrel whipped past him as he flew, striking the golem in the eye.

That brought a groan, and a pool of mucus popped out of the exploded orb, but the golem did not relent, yanking the dwarf right in to its chest and enwrapping Athrogate in its mighty arms.

The dwarf let out a yelp of pain, not for the crushing force as yet, but because he felt a point ramming into his armor, as if the golem was wearing a spiked shield across its chest.

Then the stabbing pain was gone and the golem began to squeeze. For all of his strength, Athrogate thought in an instant that he would surely be crushed to death. Then he got stabbed again, and he cried out.

Pratcus was fast to him, calling to Moradin and throwing waves of magical healing energy into the tough warrior. Behind the cleric, Jarlaxle reloaded and let fly another bolt, scoring a hit in the golem's other eye to blind the creature entirely.

The drow pressed himself flat against the corridor wall as he shot, allowing Mariabronne an angle to shoot past him with his great bow. A heavier, more deadly arrow knifed into the golem's shoulder.

Athrogate yelped as he was prodded again and again. He didn't understand; what weapon was this strange creature employing?

And why did the golem suddenly let him go?

He hit the floor and hopped backward, bowling Pratcus over in the process.

Then the dwarf understood, as the stabbing blade popped forth from the golem's chest yet again.

Athrogate recognized that red steel sword tip. The dwarf gave a laugh and started back at the golem but stopped abruptly and put his hands on his hips, watching with great amusement as the sword prodded through yet again.

Then it retracted and the golem collapsed in a heap.

Artemis Entreri reached down and wiped his sword on the fleshy pile.

"Ye could've warned us," Athrogate said.

"I yelled out, but you were too loud to hear," the assassin replied.

"The way is clear to the keep at the wall's corner," Entreri explained. "But once we go through that door, onto the building's second story balcony, we'll be immediately pressed."

"By?" asked Mariabronne.

"Gargoyles. A pair of them." He kicked at the destroyed golem and added, "More, if any are in wait behind the tower's northern door that will take us along the castle's eastern wall."

"We should lead with magic and arrows," Mariabronne remarked, and he looked alternately at Canthan and Jarlaxle.

"Just move along, then," said the thin wizard. "The longer we tarry, the more fighting we will find, I expect. The castle is creating defenses as we stand and chatter - spitting monsters."

"And regenerating them, if the gargoyles are any indication," said Mariabronne.

"Looking like a good place for training young dwarf warriors, then," Athrogate chimed in. "Pour a bit o' the gutbuster down their throats and set 'em to fighting and fighting and fighting. Something to be said for never running out o' monster faces to crush."

"When we're done with it, you can have it, then," Jarlaxle assured the brutish little warrior. "For your children."

"Haha! All thirty of them are already out and fighting, don't ye doubt!"

"A sight I'll have to one day witness, I'm sure."

"Haha!"

"May we go on and be done with this?" asked Canthan, and he motioned to Entreri. "Lead us to the room and clear the door for me."

Entreri gave one last glance at the annoying dwarf then started off along the corridor. It widened a bit, and ramped up slightly, ending in a heavy wooden, iron-banded door. Entreri glanced back at the group, nodded to confirm that it was the correct room, then turned around and pushed through the door.

Immediately following him, almost brushing his back, came a fiery pea. It arced into the open tower room, over the balcony. Just as it dropped from sight below the railing, it exploded, filling the entire tower area with a great burst of searing flame.

Howls came from within and from without. Athrogate rubbed his boots on the stone for traction and went tearing through the door, morning stars already spinning. He was met by a gargoyle, its wings flaming, lines of smoke rising from the top of its head. The creature clawed at him, but half-heartedly, for it was still dazed from the fireball.

Athrogate easily ducked that grasp, spun, and walloped the gargoyle in the chest with his morning star.

Over the railing it went, and with a second gargoyle fast following as Athrogate rambled along.

Into the room went Pratcus, Jarlaxle - wearing a concerned expression - close behind, with Ellery and Mariabronne pressing him.

Canthan came next, chuckling under his breath and glancing this way and that. As he crossed to the threshold, though, a hand shot out from the side, grabbing him roughly by the collar.

There stood Artemis Entreri, somehow hidden completely from sight until his sudden movement.

"You thought I went into the room," he said.

Canthan eyed him, his expression going from surprise to a hint of fear to a sudden superior frown. "Remove your hand."

"Or your throat?" Entreri countered. "You thought I went into the room, yet you launched your fireball without warning."

"I expected that you would be wise enough not to get in the way of a battle mage," Canthan retorted, a double-edged timbre to his voice to match the double edge of his words.

The mounting sound of battle inside rolled out at the pair, along with Olgerkhan's insistence that they get out of the way.

Neither Entreri nor Canthan bothered to look the half-orc's way. They held their pose, staring hard at each other for a few moments.

"I know," Canthan teased. "Next time, you will not wait to ask questions."

Entreri stole his grin and his comfort, obviously, when he replied, "There will be no next time."

He let go of the mage, giving him a rough shove as he did. With a single movement, leaping into the room, he brought forth both his dagger and sword. His first thought as he came up on his battling companions was to get out of Canthan's line of fire.

Over the railing he went, landing nimbly on the lip of the balcony beyond. Up on one foot, he pointed the toe of the other and slid it into the gap between the bottom of the railing and the floor.

He rolled forward off the ledge. As he swung down to the lowest point, he tightened his leg to somewhat break the momentum, then pulled his locked foot free and tucked as he spun over completely, dropping the last eight feet to the tower floor. Immediately a trio of gargoyles and a flesh golem descended upon him, but they were all grievously damaged from the fireball. None of the gargoyles had working wings, and one couldn't lift its charred arms up to strike.

That one led the way to Entreri, ducking its head and charging in with surprising ferocity.

Charon's Claw halted that charge, creasing the creature's skull and sending it hopping back and down to a sitting position on the floor. It managed to cast one last hateful glance at Entreri before it rolled over dead.

The look only brought a grin to the assassin's face, but he didn't, couldn't, dwell on it. He went into a furious leaping spin, dagger stabbing and sword slashing. The creatures were limping, slow, and Entreri just stayed ahead of them, darting left and right, continually turning them so that they bumped and tangled each other. And all the while his dagger struck at them, and his sword slashed at them.

The balcony above was quickly secured as well, with Athrogate and his mighty swipes launching yet another gargoyle into the air. That one almost hit Entreri as it crashed down, but he managed to get back behind the falling creature. It hit the floor right in front of him, and the flesh golem, closing in, tripped over it.

Charon's Claw cleaved the lunging golem's head in half.

Entreri darted out to the right, staying under the balcony. He saw Mariabronne and Ellery on the stone stairway that lined the tower's eastern, outer wall, driving a battered and dying gargoyle before them.

The gargoyles saw them too, and one rushed their way.

Entreri made short work of the other, taking off its one working arm with a brutal sword parry, then rushing in close and driving his dagger deep into the creature's chest. He twisted and turned the blade as he slid off to the side, then brought Charon's Claw across the gargoyle's throat for good measure.

The creature went into a frenzy, thrashing and flailing, blood flying. It had no direction for its attacks, though, and Entreri simply danced away as it wound itself to the floor, where it continued its death spasms.

Entreri came up behind the second gargoyle, which was already engaged with the ranger, and drove his sword through its spine.

"Well fought," said Mariabronne.

"By all," Ellery quickly added, and Entreri got the distinct impression that the woman did not appreciate the ranger apparently singling him out above her.

She didn't look so beautiful to Entreri in that moment, and not just because she had taken a garish hit on one shoulder, the blood flowing freely down her right arm.

Pratcus hustled down next, muttering with every step as he closed on the wounded woman. "Sure'n me gods're getting sick o' hearing me call," he cried. "How long can we keep this up, then?"

"Bah!" Athrogate answered. "Forever and ever!"

To accentuate his point, the wild dwarf leaped over to one broken gargoyle, the creature pitifully belly-crawling on the floor, its wings and most of its torso ravaged by the flames of Canthan's fireball. The gargoyle noted his approach and with hate-filled eyes tried to pull itself up on its elbows, lifting its head so that it could spit at Athrogate.

The dwarf howled all the louder and more gleefully, and brought his morning stars in rapid order crunching down on the gargoyle's head, flattening it to the floor.

"Forever and ever," Athrogate said again.

Entreri cast a sour look in Jarlaxle's direction as if to say, "He'll get us all killed."

The drow merely shrugged and seemed more amused with the dwarf than concerned, and that worried Entreri all the more.

And frustrated him. For some reason, the assassin felt vulnerable, as if he could be wounded or killed. As he realized the truth of his emotions, he understood too that never before had he harbored such feelings. In all the battles and deadly struggles of the past three decades of his life, Artemis Entreri had never felt as if his next fight might be his last.

Or at least, he had never cared.

But suddenly he did care, and he could not deny it. He glanced at Jarlaxle again, wondering if the drow had found some new enchantment to throw over him to so put him off-balance. Then he looked past Jarlaxle to the two Palishchuk half-orcs. They stood against the outer southern wall, obviously trying to stay small and out of the way. Entreri focused his gaze on Arrayan, and he had to resist the urge to go over to her and assure her that they would get through this.

He winced as the feeling passed, and he dropped his hand to Charon's Claw and lifted the blade a few inches from its scabbard. He sent his thoughts into the sword, demanding its fealty, and it predictably responded by assailing him with a wall of curses and demands of its own, telling him that he was inferior, assuring him that one day he would slip up and the sword would dominate him wholly and melt the flesh from his bones as it consumed his soul.

Entreri smiled and slid the sword away, his moment of empathy and shared fear thrown behind.

"If the castle's resources are unlimited, ours are not," Canthan was saying as Entreri tuned back into the conversation. From the way the mage muttered the words and glanced at Athrogate, Entreri knew that the dwarf was still proclaiming that they could fight on until the end of time.

"But neither can we wait and recuperate," Ellery said. "The castle's defenses will simply continue to regenerate and come against us."

"Ye have a better plan, do ye?" asked Pratcus. "Not many more spells to be coming from me lips. I bringed a pair o' scrolls, but them two're of minor healing powers, and I got a potion to get yer blood flowing straight but just the one. I used more magic in the wagon run from the flying snakes and more magic in the fight on the hill than I got left in me heart and gut. I'll be needing rest and prayers to get any more."

"How long?" asked Ellery.

"Half a night's sleep."

Ellery, Mariabronne, and Canthan were all shaking their heads.

"We don't have that," the commander replied.

"On we go," Athrogate declared.

"You sound as if you know our course," said Ellery.

Athrogate poked his hand Arrayan's way. "She said she found that book out here, over by where that main keep now stands," he reasoned. "We were going for that, if I'm remembering right."

"We were indeed," said Mariabronne. "But that is only a starting place. We don't truly know what the book is, nor do we know if it's still there."

"Bah!" Athrogate snorted.

"It is still there," replied a quiet voice from the side, and the group turned as one to regard Arrayan, who seemed very, very small at that moment.

"What d'ye know?" Athrogate barked at her.

"The book is still there," Arrayan said. She stood up a bit straighter and glanced over at Olgerkhan for support. "Uncle Wingham didn't tell you everything."

"Then perhaps you should," Canthan replied.

"The tower... all of this, was created by the book," Arrayan explained.

"That was our guess," Mariabronne cut in, an attempt to put her at ease, but one that she pushed aside, holding her hand up to quiet the ranger.

"The book is part of the castle, rooted to it through tendrils of magic," Arrayan went on. "It sits open." She held her palms up, as if she was cradling a great tome. "Its pages turn of their own accord, as if some reader stands above it, summoning a magical breeze to blow across the next sheaf."

As Canthan suspiciously asked Arrayan how she might know all of this, Entreri and Jarlaxle glanced at each other, neither surprised, of course.

Entreri swallowed hard, but that did not relieve the lump in his throat. He turned to Arrayan and tried to think of something to say to interrupt the conversation, for he knew what was coming and knew that she should not admit...

"It was I who first opened Zhengyi's book," she said, and Entreri sucked in his breath. "Uncle Wingham bade me to inspect it while Mariabronne rode to the Vaasan Gate. We hoped to give you a more complete report when you arrived in Palishchuk."

Olgerkhan shifted nervously at her side, a movement not lost on any of the others.

"And?" Canthan pressed when Arrayan did not continue.

Arrayan stuttered a couple of times then replied, "I do not know."

"You do not know what?" Canthan snapped back at her, and he took a stride her way, seeming so much more imposing and powerful than his skinny frame could possibly allow. "You opened the book and began to read. What happened next?"

"I..." Arrayan's voice trailed off.

"We've no time for your cryptic games, foolish girl," Canthan scolded.

Entreri realized that he had his hands on his weapons and realized too that he truly wanted to leap over and cut Canthan's throat out at that moment.

Or rush over and support Arrayan.

"I started to read it," Arrayan admitted. "I do not remember anything it said - I don't think it said anything - just syllables, guttural and rhyming."

"Good!" Athrogate interrupted, but no one paid him any heed.

"I remember none... just that the words, if they were words, found a flow in my throat that I did not wish to halt."

"The book used you as its instrument," Mariabronne reasoned.

"I do not know," Arrayan said again. "I woke up back at my house in Palishchuk."

"And she was sick," Olgerkhan piped in, stepping in front of the woman as if daring anyone to make so much as an accusation against her. "The book cursed her and makes her ill."

"And so Palishchuk curses us by making us take you along?" Canthan said, and his voice did not reveal whether he was speaking with complete sarcasm or logical reasoning.

"You can all run from it, but she cannot," Olgerkhan finished.

"You are certain that it is at the main keep?" Mariabronne asked, and though he was trying to be understanding and gentle, there was no missing the sharp edge at the back of his voice.

"And why did you not speak up earlier?" demanded Canthan. "You would have us fighting gargoyles and fiends forever? To what end?"

"No!" Arrayan pleaded. "I did not know - "

"For one who practices the magical arts, you seem to know very little," the older wizard scolded. "A most dangerous and foolhardy combination."

"Enough!" said Mariabronne. "We will get nowhere constructive with this bickering. What is past is past. We have new information now and new hope. Our enemy is identified beyond these animates it uses as shields. Let us find a path to the keep and to the book, for there we will find our answers, I am certain."

"Huzzah your optimism, ranger," Canthan spat at him. "Would you wave King Gareth's banner before us and hire trumpeters to herald our journey?"

That sudden flash of anger and sarcasm, naming the beloved king no less, set everyone on their heels. Mariabronne furrowed his brow and glared at the mage, but what proved more compelling to Jarlaxle and Entreri was the reaction of Ellery.

Far from the noble and heroic commander, she seemed small and afraid, as if she was caught between two forces far beyond her.

"Relation of Dragonsbane," Jarlaxle whispered to his companion, a further warning that something wasn't quite what it seemed.

"The keep will prove a long and difficult run," Pratcus intervened. "We gotta be gathering our strength and wits about us, and tighten our belts'n'bandages. We know where we're going, so where we're going's where we're goin'."

"Ye said that right!" Athrogate congratulated.

"A long run and our only run," Mariabronne agreed. "There we will find our answers. Pray you secure that door above, good Athrogate. I will scout the northern corridor. Recover your breath and your heart. Partake of food and drink if you so need it, and yes, tighten your bandages."

"I do believe that our sadly poetic friend just told us to take a break," Jarlaxle said to Entreri, but the assassin wasn't even listening.

He was thinking of Herminicle and the tower outside of Heliogabalus.

He was looking at Arrayan.

Jarlaxle looked that way too, and he stared at Entreri until he at last caught the assassin's attention. He offered a helpless shrug and glanced back at the woman.

"Don't even think it," Entreri warned in no ambiguous voice. He turned away from Jarlaxle and strode to the woman and her brutish bodyguard.

An amused Jarlaxle watched him every step of the way.

"A fine flute you crafted, Idalia the monk," he whispered under his breath.

He wondered if Entreri would agree with that assessment or if the assassin would kill him in his sleep for playing a role in the grand manipulation.

"I would have a moment with you," Entreri said to Arrayan as he approached.

Olgerkhan eyed him with suspicion and even took a step closer to the woman.

"Go and speak with Commander Ellery or one of the dwarves," Entreri said to him, but that only made the brutish half-orc widen his stance and cross his arms over his massive chest, scowling at Entreri from under his pronounced brow.

"Olgerkhan is my friend," Arrayan said. "What you must say to me, you can say to him."

"Perhaps I wish to listen more than speak," said Entreri. "And I would prefer if it were just we two. Go away," he said to Olgerkhan. "If I wanted to harm Arrayan, she would already be dead."

Olgerkhan bristled, his eyes flaring with anger.

"And so would you," Entreri went on, not missing a beat. "I have seen you in battle - both of you - and I know that your magical repertoire is all but exhausted, Lady Arrayan. Forgive me for saying, but I am not impressed."

Olgerkhan strained forward and seemed as if he would leap atop Entreri.

"The book is draining you, stealing your life," the assassin said, after glancing around to make sure no others were close enough to hear. "You began a process from which you cannot easily escape."

Both of the half-orcs rocked off-balance at the words, confirming Entreri's guess. "Now, will you speak with me alone, or will you not?"

Arrayan gazed at him plaintively, then turned to Olgerkhan and bade him to go off for a few minutes. The large half-orc glowered at Entreri for a moment, but he could not resist the demands of Arrayan. Staring at the assassin every step of the way, he moved off.

"You opened the book and you started reading, then found that you could not stop," Entreri said to Arrayan. "Correct?"

"I... I think so, but it is all blurry to me," she replied. "Dreamlike. I thought that I had constructed enough wards to fend the residual curses of Zhengyi, but I was wrong. All I know is that I was sick soon after back in my house. Olgerkhan brought Wingham and Mariabronne, and another, Nyungy the old bard."

"Wingham insisted that you come into the castle with us."

"There was no other choice."

"To destroy the book before it consumes you," Entreri reasoned, and Arrayan did not argue the point.

"You were sickly, so you said."

"I could not get out of my bed, nor could I eat."

"But you are not so sickly now, and your friend..." He glanced back at Olgerkhan. "He cannot last through a single fight, and each swing of his war club is less crisp and powerful."

Arrayan shrugged and shook her head, lifting her hands up wide.

Entreri noticed her ring, a replica of the one Olgerkhan wore, and he noted too that the single gemstone set on that band was a different hue, darker, than it had been before.

From the side, Olgerkhan saw the woman's movement and began stalking back across the room.

"Take care how much you admit to our companions," Entreri warned before the larger half-orc arrived. "If the book is draining you of life, then it is feeding and growing stronger because of you. We will - we must - find a way to defeat that feeding magic, but one way seems obvious, and it is not one I would expect you or your large friend to enjoy."

"Is that a threat?" Arrayan asked, and Olgerkhan apparently heard, for he rushed the rest of the way to her side.

"It is free advice," Entreri answered. "For your own sake, good lady, take care your words."

He gave only a cursory glance at the imposing Olgerkhan as he turned and walked away. Given his experience with the lich Herminicle in the tower outside of Heliogabalus, and the words of the dragon sisters, the answer to all of this seemed quite obvious to Artemis Entreri. Kill Arrayan and defeat the Zhengyian construct at its heart. He blew a sigh as he realized that not so long ago, he would not have been so repulsed by the idea, and not hesitant in the least. The man he had been would have long ago left Arrayan dead in a pool of her own blood.

But now he saw the challenge differently, and his task seemed infinitely more complicated.

"She read the book," he informed Jarlaxle. "She is this castle's Herminicle. Killing her would be the easy way to be done with this."

Jarlaxle shook his head through every word. "Not this time."

"You said that destroying the lich would have defeated the tower."

"So Ilnezhara and Tazmikella told me, and with certainty."

"Arrayan is this construct's lich - or soon to be," Entreri replied, and though he was arguing the point, he had no intention, if proven right, of allowing the very course he was even then championing.

But still Jarlaxle shook his head. "Partly, perhaps."

"She read the book."

"Then left it."

"Its magic released."

"Its call unleashed," Jarlaxle countered, and Entreri looked at him curiously.

"What do you know?" asked the assassin.

"Little - as little as you, I fear," the drow admitted. "But this..." He looked up and swept his arms to indicate the vastness of the castle. "Do you really believe that such a novice mage, that young woman, could be the life-force creating all of this?"

"Zhengyi's book?"

But still Jarlaxle shook his head, apparently convinced that there was something more at work. The drow remained determined, for the sake of purse and power alone, to find out what it was.

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