The Necromancer and the Revenant: Complete First Chapter!

As was promised this past Sunday, here’s a fully-updated, reconfigured, rebalanced teaser for The Necromancer and the Revenant–it now includes the entire first chapter!
Content Warning: extremely graphic depictions of gore and death.

***

1

The Death of House Sairo

“Betrayal begets betrayal, as death begets death, and who seeks vengeance will find it sought against herself.” Matriarch Chu Sairo’s The Façade of Power

            A long, black, concave helm weighed Divari’s head down. She knew she should keep the visor closed, but it was just so damned stifling! She tucked blond bangs aside, reframing a pale heart-shaped face and sapphire eyes.
“A bundle of golden silk, palm-sized, likely in the Matriarch’s tent,” Divari whispered to herself again.
“Easy, highness,” Captain Venor said from behind her. A gauntlet settled on her shoulder. “We’ll find it. This Jasczynck can’t know what it’s worth, anyhow.” Divari didn’t look back. If she couldn’t contain her fear, she could still conceal it.
“Lest I sound unfair, Captain,” Divari said, “he did bring an army to collect it.”
“Ha, a fair point indeed!” Venor said. “Suppose we’ll see how much army’s left, then.”
Blood-tendrils crept through water beneath finely-blacked boots. Through the dense undergrowth and forests lining the riverbed, Divari sometimes saw corpses–more with each step. Fallen warriors choked the stream ahead. Even the water stank, but it was her stupid fear making her breath was ragged. She didn’t bother telling herself it was only disgust. The hero–heroine–was always afraid at first, but overcame it.
“As iron were my ancestors, so must I be steel,” she recited, and disguised a nervous gulp with the last words.
The nine visitors hunkered low, fearing sudden quarrels between the shoulders or the arcane’s killing flare. Divari held a classic Tresar talon-sabre with a spiraling cup-hilt and double-edged reverse-hook blade longer than her own arm. It weighed two and a half pounds but felt like forty. Like her guards, she positively broiled in a red-lacquered kembrad–copper wires holding segmented steel plates to padding.
“Her highness might breathe easier if allowed more practical wear,” Mistress Hevrin said.
“It’s traditional and befits her rank,” Venor countered. Clattering metal suggested some dramatic gesture. “What could be more practical than that?”
For Divari Sidra, Crown Princess of Tresamer, “traditional” meant a courtly lashylla: a golden robe embroidered with wilderness images and enhanced by scarlet twinings, jet-black fabrics piled on the neck to create parted “skirts” and lengthen the sleeves, and copious precious-metal rings woven around the limbs.
“You might learn to revere your ancestors properly, woman,” Venor continued. “‘sides, it’s thick material. Doubles as extra armor.”
While he was correct, Divari felt he’d forgotten to mention that the late-morning sun would kill her instead.
She stopped to stare at a young Ton woman framed just above the butcher’s runoff. White and black ash painted the pale features. Thick red bands enhanced slanted eyes; gore clouted the corpse’s loosely-held wedgepoint sword and misted away in the red stream, red silk tassels swaying like loose-torn veins. Hours underwater had rusted the sword’s blade hideous orange.
Rust-filled gashes latticed the dead woman’s armor where exposed steel met river-water, platelets stained bloody where a spear-thrust took her belly. The platelets were split apart and driven into the wound, a slit leaking no longer. The warrior was little older than Divari. She shuddered and walked up the riverbed, its waters too shallow to explain the sodden soil at each bank.
A wall of corpses dammed the river ahead, all wearing white-lacquered lamellar marked with a single red blossom on the shoulder. What trickled through gaps between them held little of water. They leaned into the current over broken twenty-four-foot pikes, fingers bound to shafts by death-rigor. White banners with the red blossom stirred in the low breeze, most sagging from broken staves. Dead marked the muddy riverbanks, crushed subtropical ferns, sprawled over stones. Divari couldn’t help but imagine her own people sprawled in these heaps.
“This wouldn’t happen in Tresamer,” she told herself aloud. “Not this much, not this senseless.” Behind her, Hevrin loosed a skeptical laugh.
“Holding action,” Venor said, stepping up beside her. “Not sure what they thought they’d accomplish. Just opened their flank for Jasczynks’s shock troops.”
The head of her guard was a hawk-nosed, cavern-cheeked man with a respectable tan. A sturdy kettle-helm hid his blond hair. Plates over his ears protected the sides of his head; a black bevor covered his chin. He carried a well-oiled, heavily-notched talon-sabre, but the sheer slaughter made him nervous.
Venor pointed to straggling dead further upriver past the corpse-dam, most fallen face-first with open wounds in the back. The gesture clattered dark plate and stirred his golden surcoat bearing Tresamer’s scarlet Javelet. The spiny prey-bird’s beak scrunched.       “Can’t blame them too much. Sairo kept a tight hand. Doubt any of her band were prepared to take over when she went under the scythe.”
Teman citizen-soldiers lay somewhat sparser than Sairo dead. Their bloodless fists clutched halberds and poleaxes, maces and flails; some had swords as sidearms. They wore black Ceslonian gambesons trimmed blue at shoulders and hems. The thick padded-linen jackets were knee-length, splotched by battle-grime. It’s just armor, the same as our kembrads, Divari thought. She realized she had expected these warstock outlanders to look different, somehow, even in death. Fiercer or more noble, not merely taller and more muscular. They weren’t ignoble either; they were just dead. Just because they bred themselves for war has not made the warstock invincible, she tried to tell herself. But if these foreign humans weren’t so different from her, what separated her from dying like them?
“Let this be a reminder,” Divari ordered. She was ashamed at how clearly her voice quaked. Father would do this better. “No one escapes death in the end.”
“Yes, highness,” the guards echoed.
Scattered plate and mail distinguished slain men-at-arms and knights, plate and helms blackened and trimmed with midnight blue, the mail tinted dull brass.
“Strange seeing so many knights in one place,” Divar said. “It shouldn’t be. Father’s introduced me to knights at court, but…”
“Ceslonians belong in Ceslon. It’d be bad if they felt familiar to you, highness,” Venor said.
“But of course, Ceslonian armor is just fine,” Hevrin said, giving Venor and his hypocrite plate a scalding look. He glared back.
Black, blue and brass against white and red; Temans and Ton alike expected their warriors to wear their leader’s colors into open battle.
“This makes me uneasy,” Venor said. “Temans are keen on pyres. I wouldn’t go to the trouble of burying Ton either, but why’re Jasczynk’s dead still here?”
“Sairo was small, but still a Ton House, and old,” Hevrin said. A thin-faced, brown-eyed woman, her red hair was cropped almost to nothing on her pale scalp; she had been bald on her return from Hanir a few weeks ago. She adjusted golden robes cut in trim Murit style–tight on the arms and waist, loose at the hems. Hems which ended at the knee, replaced by steel shinguards and scarlet silk wrappings. She looks so… temperate, Divari thought, with heretical longing.
“Besides that, Jasczynk forced them to a last stand. He likely has much burying left to do.” She spoke the Teman’s name easily, jumping inflection and all. Divari envied her that.
“Fairly said,” Venor admitted, and turned to Divari. “Usually you win when the other side routs. Teman armor’s tougher, Ton folk are bigger, but at day’s end they’re all warriors and one Ton is close enough to worth one Teman. If the Ton hold, how many Temans to kill eight thousand of ‘em?”
“Thank you, Captain,” Divari said, faking a bright smile. “I proofread father’s missives and am aware of how wars function.”
“Oh, er, suppose you would be,” Venor said, missing her sarcasm.
Meanwhile Hevrin passed by, awaiting them at the corpse-dam. She did not walk as Tresar women were supposed to, steps “light and slight”; she planted her feet in great loping strides like a man. Divari liked her well, but the haughty continent Ceslon had undone Hevrin’s respect for their ancestors.
“But what about Those Who Fell?” Venor pressed. He vaulted the corpse-dam, and offered Hevrin his hand. Hevrin sniffed at him and levitated herself across without a word. Divari fought a wince–she tried to accept Hevrin’s outland magic, she really did. But Tresar should cast spells with words given power by long use. Hevrin’s invocation used strong ideas alone. The Wise Women said magic not bound by words was bound only by thought, and thoughts changed so quickly. How could Hevrin trust hers not to betray her?
With that in mind, Divari felt for the current. It was there as always, the warm rush of power sacred and pure. She drew it in, let herself savor its bubbly thrum for a few seconds as was proper, and then produced a copper chime from her pouch. She extended a hand towards the corpses blocking her way.
“Your highness, I’d be glad to help you across,” Venor said.
Divari ignored him. She rang the chime and said, “Bolsara” at the same time to ensure no one would hear her incantation–if another mage learned it, they could use the spell. Worse, anyone at all could mock the word until it lost all power. Divari felt the current concentrating and bursting down her arm.
“Highness, wait, that will likely–” Hevrin began. It was too late.
A mystic shove drove a dozen bodies clear from Divari’s way. It also ripped blades and splintered shafts from flesh, causing a gore-plume which spattered Divari with rancid grime and viscera. The princess took a deep breath. I will not scream. I can survive humiliation, she thought.
“Well, sorceress? What about Those Who Fell?” Venor repeated quickly to Hevrin, producing a bandage from his bandolier and handing it to Divari. “There’s one army broken here, mayhap two. You expect me to believe there’s not one warrior-ghost thinks death’s no reason to stop killing?” Divari shuddered, still wiping gore from herself.
“Their absence is notable, but not impossible,” Hevrin’s thin brows pinched her nose tighter with each word. “I admit it’s unlikely enough I’d thought the distinction meaningless.”
“Jasczynk had his own mages, I am sure, and,” Divari paused, tongue curling at the word, “priests. Likely they have put the spirits to rest already,” she finished. She threw the filthy bandages into the blood-waters beneath her feet and stepped past the corpse-dam.
Venor wasn’t satisfied. “Your highness, I mean no disrespect, but my duty’s to foresee threats to you. This bauble pulled a duke, third in line to the throne no less, east and across the Ailing! From Temana it’s two months over open ocean. Ancestors’ Breath, they must’ve braved the ice south of V–” He stuttered, refusing to speak the outland Overgod’s name.
At last he continued lamely, “south of the Cap, else they had to pass north around the Barrens Feral! Death by winter-waters or death by monstrosities, but death either way, and all just to die here in Taifen! Jasczynk undertook all that, but didn’t  plan enough on the way to expect this slaughter? So flabbergasted at his losses he needs a whole day before burning the dead?”
“Perhaps if you relay your concerns to father,” Divari said, losing her temper at last, “he will find a man willing to do your duties without your nitpicking.” Venor finally went silent. “And Hevrin, don’t you start,” the princess snapped, whirling on the invoker even as Hevrin opened her mouth. “You are both loyal to Tresamer and our people. You may now be loyally silent.” And, miracles alive, they were.
Divari now saw the battle’s full shape. The air hung thick with smoke and death-stench. Splintered tree-stumps and riven trunks lay heavy. Defiant fires flickered. The slain lay corroded or choked on swollen tongues, burned and blackened with all hairs standing out and muscles still twitching. Plenty bore mundane wounds—if death in battle could be mundane!—arrows and quarrels, spears and swords and mace or warhammer’s plummet.
Divari noted Venor fidgeting and decided to take pity. “You may chart the massacre’s course for me,” she told him.
Venor puffed up with pride. “See there,” he said, “Sairo draws up her army.” He pointed to the only natural ford for miles. Sharpened-stake thickets filled the high point. The water ran thin as a veil above the riverbed’s loose rock and mud.
Here the Temans died thickest–piled around stakes and themselves piled with abundant arrows. The arrow-struck’s exposed skin sagged with black postules and open sores, yellowed skin and suppurating sinew: Tonnish archers cherished knifestail venom. The leering decay took hours; the venom’s neurotoxic rush killed in thirty seconds. Some claimed the victims spent another ten wholly alert but paralyzed, feeling their bodies fail.
“The Sairos take formation about thirty yards back from the ford, inside the treeline–must’ve clearcut the hill the day before to anchor their line. Wanted to bleed the Temans from afar first,” the Captain continued. “A good plan, but what with having so few mages the Ton tend to forget the enemy’s or can’t match their spells.”
The dead clustered inside the smouldering wood were archers and skirmishers with javelins in addition to the thick-shafted, eight-foot war spears of the Ton, wearing only helms and lamellar vests over their thin robes.
“The river runs dry just as Jasczynk’s folk enter range, they attack the whole line instead of clogging the ford, the skirmishers are overrun before they can retreat behind the heavy infantry,” Venor said, and shrugged. “Story as old as war herself.”
Divari spotted a green-robed Teman mage charred across his front, split by debris and impaled on a thin, broken sapling. Red muscle peeked through peeling black around a wide green eye; a few sable hairs remained to his blistered scalp.
Venor digressed for a few minutes to speak of the Loar War. He scoffed over arrogant Ton spell-slingers bleeding the Gift thin against the Gaunt Ones. Divari eyed the dead Teman. If the Ton are so disadvantaged in mages, shouldn’t the Temans’ own losses be fewer? she thought. What Venor described was considered common knowledge in Tresamer, but this battle gave her doubts.
“Anyhow,” Venor continued, pointing to a mound miles away upriver, “we see how well it worked. Jasczynk’s casters dam the river and what gets through isn’t enough to clean away corpses. I wonder, though, why Sairo stopped here. It’s mayhap three days’ march to her own lands and her fortress.”
“I suspect she hoped to fight somewhere with no arcane current,” Hevrin said. “Magic is drawn to sapient minds, Captain Venor. A place like this, wild since times unknown, should’ve been perfect. But we are at most twenty miles from the Kedrul Basin. Which,” she said at Venor’s dour look, “is perhaps Canno’s strongest nexus. The Teman mages’ numbers were likely enough to pull it across the distance.”
“Outland magics,” Venor grumbled.
“Outland arcane theory,” Hevrin countered, “Which, in contrast to our own, exists.
The dam behind them splashed and clattered, a tumble of slain at one side pushed free by pooling water. Far away on the other side of the river sat Teman ballistae and catapults, abandoned.
“Those engines concern me as much as missing battle-ghosts,” Divari said. “They’re valuable themselves, and the engineers needed to operate them–shouldn’t they, at least, still be with their weapons?”
“Very true, highness,” Venor said, and frowned. “I like this less the further we go.” Hevrin, Ancestors’ blessings, actually nodded her agreement!
The white Sairo ranks were charred and split in dozens of places just past the trees, but for the most part they were fallen neatly in lines with Temans piled before or mixed in where formations broke and swarmed together. Divari made out the Sairo position’s shape from their slain. Beyond the center line and swings, a small group carpeted the center hill atop which the last, largest Sairo standard fluttered.
“I wager Sairo thought to take the Temans when they were coming out of the woods off the ford,” Venor said. “That way they’ve broken formation to run around the trees, and the woods make it harder for the Teman engines to lay shots on her folk. The Temans broke through too quickly, is all. Better to hold further back than have her own army charge in disorganized. Again, a good plan, but too much hinged on holding the ford.” Warriors, like morning fog, faded before noon, Divari thought. Would Tonnish warstock appreciate a Tresar woman’s eulogy? She offered it anyway.
“Hevrin,” she said.
“Yes, your Highness?”
“Would you be so kind as to release the river up there?” She pointed to the distant boulders. “It’s the Soloven, with its origin in Tresamer. Outland magics should not imprison ancestral waters.” Hevrin smirked at the irony. “Please?”
Divari instantly wanted to strike herself. She should not beg of her vassals. But Hevrin bowed deeply before she sent herself hurtling through the air: Mageflight. Divari’s school, The Sisters of the Yelba Aflame, had no incantation for it.
The princess picked her way over the slain. Here both sides lay scattered, many grappling in a last embrace. Sairos leaned on fallen trees or behind them clutching bow and arrow, waiting to loose one last flight.
“Would you look at this?” Venor coughed. A Ton warrior hung on his knees against his spear, stopped from falling further by his lamellar’s bracing skirts. The grim-set lips made him seem a sculpture. His helmet’s bowl hid his eyes. Death made even this warrior’s warm brown skin pallid.
Embedded below his collarbone was a sword caught by its guard on the spear’s haft. The spear drove through the outside front of a Teman knight’s cuirass where the armor curved less, point piercing the backplate. “I’d heard rumors, but ancestor’s breath!”
“Double strike,” another guard said. “A bad business.” Everyone nodded; too often even trained warriors both attacked, thus both died because neither protected themselves. The field held many such mutual slayings.
Divari peered under the warrior’s helmet. She should’ve expected the woman she found. Other people are not mine, she reminded herself.
“Right through.” A guard asked; he sounded strangled. “How’d she pierce steel with steel?”
“It’s sapphire-steel,” Venor said, crouching to eye the exposed spearhead. Its blade was crystalline blue with darker shades sifted throughout. All sapphire-steel work had a unique pattern; this one spiked and leapt throughout the blade, sprinkled by dark specks.
“So it is,” another guardsman said. “That explains it.”
“Only part,” Venor said. “His Majesty graced me with the chance to test a sapphire talon-sabre once. Got just deep through the breastplate just enough it might’ve drawn blood. But to pierce clean and drive the haft through besides?” He shook his head. “Ton women aren’t human.”
“Still, what kind of man kills a woman?” another asked. Divari lifted the knight’s visor. She knew what she’d see: a middle-aged Teman woman with sun-worn skin and a single ice-blue eye. The other, and the black brow above, were ruined by a deep, old scar.
Divari shook her head and lead her party uphill over the corpse-ranks and to the banner. The Ton here wore ornate white armor inlaid with black-trimmed scarlet steel, blossoms stippled by engravers’ chisels to have fine texture and striations. Gold and silver adorned their weapons and the sword-scabbards weighing their hips, and rubies fastened their helmets. Every blade was sapphire-steel, and Teman corpses surrounded the thin ring.
“The Matriarch’s Scarlet Guard,” Divari said. “Father said they were among the best heavy infantry on Canno.”
A straight line of corpses stood out. Divari guessed that these few Ton died early in the battle. A broad hole dripping blood and laced with viscera marked each body in the line, the first through a skull’s open ruin framed by helm-fragments, sinking a few inches lower on each. The ballista bolt responsible drove in at that grand Sairo banner’s foot, surrounded by a great splatter of blood and gore-pulp. Inside the splatter bloomed a Ton warrior’s outline, itself filled with a dense red splash. Chills ran through Divari. Like nothing else on the battlefield, the bloody bolt looked frozen in time. It might’ve impacted just seconds ago.
“There it is,” Venor breathed. “The bolt spikes Sairo early, and there’s none other to take command. Of course her Guard try to protect her corpse rather seek vengeance, leastwise ’til it’s too late.”
A gold pocketwatch, outside faces set with rubies carved into a single blossom per side, hung by a long black chain from a splinter in the bolt. The shaft stood taller than Divari herself, and thick as her thigh at the base. She pulled the pocketwatch loose and eyed its cracked face. 2:72 in the afternoon. The exact instant of Mei-la’s death. Divari’s fear was not helped by thinking of a Queen—for surely a Matriarch of the Ton was a Queen by any measure—cut down on the field like a common peasant.
Divari felt stinging in her right hand and saw blood trickle from her palm. When did that happen? She shrugged the thought away. There were too many sharp things about; she must’ve snagged her hand on battle-refuse while distracted.
Hevrin landed beside her. The restored river, at last, foamed apart the carrion-dam far below.
“That’s the Sairo encampment, right?” Venor asked, peering at tent-tops just visible above the hill’s opposite crest. “Bet Jasczynck’s made a grand display of the Sairo woman.”
Divari swallowed hard and nodded. She stepped past the banner, looked out over the Sairo encampment, and her mouth dropped open.
“All Ancestors preserve us,” she said, voice quavering. She couldn’t think clearly enough to care. Thousands of corpses splayed upon rocks, fell against Sairo tent-ropes, hung in pieces from distant trees, and turned blue-green grass to slick crimson.
“I think it is fair to say that Jasczynk is too busy on display himself,” Hevrin said.       Divari rushed down the hill. She mustn’t appear afraid even if there was bile climbing her throat. She saw eyes bursted in blood-raw sockets and skulls folded over on themselves, warriors’ own ribs piercing through armor. So many bloody hands clawed at shredded throat-remnants, nails torn off in flesh. She wretched a little, and pressed her collarbone. Somehow the gesture calmed her belly for the moment.
At the encampment’s center, the largest carrion-heap climbed right to the ties holding Jasczynk’s banner to its stave. Terror froze every intact eye. Every weapon whether broken or whole jutted straight out in futile defense.
Flamboyant armor torn open like a sheet of paper, tendons hanging from skinless legs, bones spiked and splintered through exposed muscle-strands, rotted a gaping flay that must once have been Jasczynk. Its skull was folded open from the center-seam, and the plates broken and twisted round to dig into the jaw. Only the mouth still looked human. It screamed so widely the cheeks had split and torn.
“Let’s find what we came for and be gone,” Divari said. She bolted past the decaying heap to the largest tent. Mei-la’s quarters were sparse. Her cot was thicker and likely softer, but the same off-white and no less sweaty. Most space within was given over to a hard-packed dirt-square surrounded by training weapons and the Matriarch’s personal armory.
The gilded stand of jet-black wood nearest Mei-la’s cot was empty: the Matriarch’s reaping spear was missing. Divari hurried to the red-brown desk in the near corner, and breathed relief to find a golden silk bundle smaller than her hand in the second drawer.
“We have it,” Hevrin urged, “Now let’s be gone, as you said.”
“Hold,” Divari said. A slim book bound in white leather lay atop the desk, a still-wet quill beside it. Divari flipped pages until she found the most recent entry.
“Your Highness, the–whatever massacred the Temans is likely still near,” Hevrin insisted. “Their… disposition… does not speak well for the chance they ended the threat.” Divari shushed her and read quickly.
Divari read on:

2nd of Emtith, 1295 V.R.
            Sidrath has forsaken us; I was foolish in meeting the Temans here. My daughters will carry the line as long as they can. They will say Chu Sairo’s legacy died for my hubris. Yet this much I vow: whether we die here as I expect, or by some miracle win through, I will take my vengeance. My line will die, but I will see Sidrath’s broken. He made this easy.
At least my daughters will be free of the vermin Lins. I have set the Vigil on them. I hope these mad foreigners are as powerful as they claim.

                        By My Own Hand,
Mei-la Sairo, Matriarch of House Sairo, The Red Blossom At Repose, Vanguard of the Ton-Ga, Marshal of the North Bogs, On the Way of the Sundering Fist

“We’ve a change in plans,” Divari said. Despite her concern, she glowered at the Matriarch’s signature. What manner of conceited fool signs her private journal with her titles? “Take this to my father. Do not look within!” Hevrin nodded. “House Lin would make a powerful ally. With a warning and the favor of Mei-la’s death, I might sway them.” Divari did not say how much the Ton’s War-Matrons terrified her: six feet tall, loving only bloodshed and mayhem from first steps to last breath.
She pressed the golden bundle into Hevrin’s hands. Antler-augured Laresba, grant that my father was right. Let this bundle be worth it. Her line’s ancestral protector, Tresar folklore’s hero, was silent. He held no power beyond Tresamer. Divari’s heart sank nonetheless.
Venor and her guards shouted alarms, accompanied by stamping feet. Divari saw shifting red at the corner of her eyes. She began to gasp, but Hevrin’s hand clamped over her mouth. They inched back from the tent-walls. Bloody mists seeped through the gaps.
“You’re dead!” Venor shouted. “Begone, spirit! Walk nevermore among the living!” The rite sounded silly from the gruff captain.
Mortal silence greeted it.
There was a clattering scuffle while Divari and Hevrin ducked beneath the tent’s far edge. Ahead lay nothing but miles of forest, trees thick as new grain growing north towards Tresamer and the poisoned Kingdom of Sarn. Divari felt tingling and Hevrin disappeared. She reached her hand for the woman, and it was gone too! Then, without sight or sound, she felt Hevrin’s hand on hers.
“Peace, Highness,” Hevrin whispered. An unearthly whirring overlaid her words. “Besides the invisibility, I’ve muted our scent and dampened our sounds–for about an hour, I think.” A howl of pain pitched up into a gurgling screech, and there was a wet pop like a sack of fruit falling from a tower. Venor’s sword embedded itself in a tree ahead of them. Venor’s  right arm and both his shoulders were still attached. Divari shut her ears to the sounds the other guards made; she and Hevrin crossed the cleared ground into the trees.
“Not together,” Divari said. “You must reach Alansera, Hevrin,” she whispered. “Warn my father, and give him the bundle.” She turned northeast. “I go to Sarn.”

***

Here, of course, the sample ends–if you want to read the rest of the story, you’ll have to buy a copy come release!

(If you enjoyed this chapter, then please leave a like, chat about it in the comments, share it with your friends wherever you may go online–no, seriously, people can’t buy the book if they don’t know it exists!–and consider supporting me on Patreon! )

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