Dragon Hunt - Part Five
The trio sheltered in a spot between hills while waiting for the dragon’s spell to wear off. Hours went by though still the darkness did not lift from Brunnhild’s eyes. Lana had hoped it might have been a lesser enchantment but, when it did not expire, it seemed nothing could be done until fresh spells were gained on the morrow. Brunnhild accepted the position and turned in for the night. Before she did, she placed her palms across Lana’s injured hip and the flesh partly mended itself.
Burrhus informed Lana that he would be keeping close eyes on the females’ movements, lest they discover the lair of the adult she-dragon. Lana thought herself too fatigued to engage in a full conversation and informed the gladiator simply that she acknowledged his meaning. He perpetuated the discussion by saying he thought it only fair that he receive a fair share of the dragon’s treasure, in view of his having landed the killing blow, if its unguarded lair were to be located.
Lana formed a rough crutch and hobbled a distance from the camp, mainly to give her head some peace though the exertion made her wound sting fiercely. She surveyed the land, wondering whether there might be a lair nearby. They had scouted most of the lower mountains; it seemed they would need to ascend into the higher peaks to continue the search. It would have been unfeasible to do so without the carpet or the pegasus, that was clear, for many of the slopes were becoming sheer in parts.
Three dragons had been slain, her sponsor would be glad however the number seemed small. One or two more would make for a more favourable impression when she reported back.
She could have done without Burrhus sharing their camp, again; at least she would get some sleep that night as she wouldn’t need to keep watch the whole time. Brunnhild wasn’t in any state to keep a look out. Things could be worse, she told herself. At least it hadn’t rained.
The following morning, during drizzle which froze and soaked the travellers to the skin, Brunnhild applied further healing to Lana’s leg after the wizardess had dispelled the dragon’s darkness, then consulted her runestones. She asked Thor to direct her toward the nearest amount of treasure which was all in one place. The stones answered that she should travel east though slightly to the south, rather than into the high peaks. After half a dozen miles in that direction a deserted hamlet was found below a cave up a large hill. The entrance to the cave was propped open by an old wooden jamb and supports. Several of the timbers bore scorchmarks, though Brunnhild was heard to opine that it wasn’t to say dragons had been involved. Just a short way into the cave was a barricade. Strange, Lana commented, the dragons couldn’t have been coming and going that way if it was blocked. Perhaps there was some other entrance which the dragons used, was Brunnhild’s suggestion. In any event the travellers were curious and wished to explore deeper into the mine. Lana kept watch outside with Burrhus’ pegasus while the gladiator and cleric set to dismantling the barrier. Lana stroked the pegasus and found it to be good-natured. Its wing moved less gingerly and looked to be healing well, perhaps it had sustained only a sprain during the attack on the riverboat. The creature’s attitude toward her improved greatly when she fed it a dried apple from her bag.
Venturing through the gap in the barricade a while later, magical light was required to illuminate the way. Shambling figures soon emerged into the light with long forked tongues - ghouls! Lana blasted several with her spells, then when it appeared there was a great many of them all in a line she sent a Lightning Bolt along the tunnel. Still more ghouls were appearing to take the place of those who had fallen, trampling those which had fallen underfoot. Brunnhild was able to obliterate handfuls at a time with her Faith, without resorting to her trusted hammer; Burrhus laid in too, cutting massive arcs with his double-handed sword. Still the ghouls kept coming however. There were dozens upon dozens of them and their seemingly numbers risked overwhelming the party despite the confines of the barricade. After several minutes of steady aggression Burrhus froze when one of the undead grasped his wrist; Brunnhild was obliged to expend a healing prayer to reverse the effect and the party was nearly overwhelmed. The ghouls’ numbers were far too many. Burrhus wanted to keep fighting, seeing how the runes had directed them to treasure. There could be precious ore, he ventured, waiting to be discovered. The fight was needless, in Lana’s opinion, and she wished to conserve her spells for use against dragons. She suggested that they return some other time. Brunnhild agreed to cease fighting, seeing how Lana was her employer, though it seemed she would have been happy to remain. Begrudgingly Burrhus made a fighting withdrawal following which Lana erected a barrier of thorns across the entrance to restore the barricade and contain the undead. Whatever secrets the abandoned mine held would remain undisturbed for a while longer.
A trail was located leading from the hamlet further into the mountains, to a slightly larger settlement which contained an Inn. Locals informed the trio that the mine had partly collapsed several years ago, killing dozens, then there had been some other dark influence which they were unwilling to speak openly about. Lana suspected perhaps a necromancer had made the complex his home, maybe even a powerful liege of the undead had moved in. The locals weren’t to be pressed for more information.
With that line of enquiry closed, the trio reserved rooms and hot baths at the Crumpled Toga.
Burrhus was slouched in a large chair by the fire, with a wench on each knee. Both girls' blouses were displaying a quantity of bosom which was beyond merely tantalising and risked spilling out entirely. One of the pair, a girl with curly red hair whose face was covered in freckles, licked languorously at the man's ear.
"Seriously." Lana surveyed the display with disdain. "That's somebody's daughter. Where is her mother?"
Burrhus’ laugh resounded like a roar while he crushed the girl in an embrace and the other girl quaffed from his tankard.
"Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Lana went on. “Do they know what they're getting into?"
"I imagine they're well aware," replied Brunnhild. She didn’t seem at all put off by the display.
"Ah!" Burrhus noticed the two females. "My companions from the road!"
"We're not your companions," answered Lana. “And none us followed a road, we all flew.”
"Come join me!" His speech was slurred.
"Thank you, no. I don't believe what you're doing is our preferred activity."
The gladiator kissed both girls passionately before replying, leaving the girls gasping and swooning. "Wenching? You ought to give it a try. You ever been with a real man, wizardess?"
Lana was indignant and hoped she wasn’t flushing. "I'll thank you not to pose such personal questions. But I’ll forgive you, seeing how you're inebriated."
Burrhus hadn't heard a word. "Suit yourself. Innkeep! Cider for these wenches." He tossed a pouch toward the bar which looked to have come from the harpies' nest. “Oh,” he grinned at the pair in his arms, “bring some for these two as well.”
The girls continued their incessant giggling.
"We'll leave you to your present company." Lana rose after she had finished her meal, and invited Brunnhild to do the same. "We’re going to get a good night's sleep. All the better for hunting dragons on the morrow."
"Don't go, you pair of bores, stay a while! Listen, there's a minstrel about to strike up a song."
True enough, an individual in flamboyant clothing covered in coloured diamond-shapes had entered the barroom. He was arranging himself in a corner and getting ready to play an instrument - a lyre - which he had brought with him.
“Gentle patrons,” he said openly to the room. He was slender and of medium height, with long auburn hair tied with a yellow ribbon, “I bid you good evening and would introduce myself and my craft. I am Cadogan the Younger, a travelling player hailing from the Isle of Dawn. I would entertain you this evening with my humble talents to put you in good spirits before you retire. Pray stay a while, and hear me play…”
The minstrel’s hand moved to his instrument and he began to play and sing softly.
Brunnhild looked at Lana expectantly. "Some music would be pleasing before we retire."
Lana couldn't help but agree. "Very well. Let's stay a while." They resumed their seats.
"See!" Burrhus announced loudly, to anyone who would listen. "They love me really. Can't keep away."
Lana enquired of the innkeeper whether he had any mead, since Brunnhild’s supply had been exhausted. She felt she was taking a liking for the brew, having enjoyed Brunnhild’s drink in the barn. It transpired that the innkeep kept a limited supply, which pleased Lana greatly. As the bard's music flowed, so too did the drink into her goblet. Brunnhild joined her, and drank the same quantity if not more at a controlled and steady pace. The cleric seemed unaffected by the drink. She informed Lana that the supply she had produced in the barn was Thor's own, for one of her brethren was a master brewer. Thor smiled upon him, she said almost jovially. It was the type of activity her Faith encouraged; good mead bolstered the spirit, or so it had been said.
The minstrel Cadogan had been passing through the room strumming his lyre; when Brunnhild rose and excused herself for a while he seated himself in the space she left on the bench. Burrhus was preoccupied with the wenches and was calling for more ale. Aside from the minstrel's gaudy attire he wore a great deal of gold jewellery such as rings and medallions; he was of middling height and slim, with a freckled complexion and pointed chin, which was partly covered by a small and neatly shaped beard. It was the same reddish hue as his hair which was long enough to be tied back in a ponytail.
"The sound of your lyre is most pleasant," said Lana.
"I am glad you think so," said Cadogan. "I would be gladder still if a small coin were to accompany your compliment." Lana brought out a few copper pieces and deposited them in a pouch which gaped open on the minstrel's belt. He smiled at her.
"Kind of you, milady."
"Whereabouts on the Isle of Dawn do you hail from?" Lana asked.
"A village in an out of the way location. Donahue's Cove, is its name. I do not expect you know it."
"I cannot say that I do. Do you keep up-to-date with events at home? I mean, how things are faring with the War?"
The minstrel shrugged. "I collect scraps of information along the road. Most citizens would know as much as I about the War, I should think." He gave Lana a curious look. “I wonder, good lady, whether I might pose a question of my own, if you do not think it impertinent?”
Lana disliked questions whose purpose was to lead to other questions. Although, the mead had left her relaxed and in good spirits. She took another sip. “If I knew the nature of your other question, sir, I would be better placed to imagine how I might respond.”
“Then I shall be bold and ask it openly,” was the minstrel’s reply. He leaned in close to whisper. “Why is it you are immune to the gladiator’s charms, as seems to be the case?”
"That’s a bold comment," answered Lana, frowning, though her several cups of mead had rendered her less inhibited than she might have been otherwise. She was inclined to pardon the minstrel for venturing such an opinion; after all, it was the minstrel’s way to sing of such matters as romance. “You’re implying that I should find him attractive?” She waved her hand as if it were a nonsensical suggestion.
“He has caught the eye of every woman here, save you and your companion.” From his tone the minstrel might have formed an opinion about her companion, though if he had he kept it to himself.
“Has he? It matters not to me. Besides, he is not my type at all.”
“Pray tell then,” the minstrel smiled mischeviously, “what IS your type? If you don't mind me asking.”
Lana did not know how to answer. “Let’s say I find thinking a worthy quality. Burrhus is lacking in that regard.”
“Yet you and he find yourself on the same path. Hunting dragons, isn’t it? A dangerous calling.”
“Yes it is. So you’ve spoken with him?”
“Indeed. He expects it will not be long before songs of his adventures are sung in taverns throughout the Empire.” Cadogan focused on his lyre for a while, or so it seemed. His talent was such that he was able to converse while playing. “A terrible thing, when you think about it.”
“What is that?”
“That such old and wonderful creatures as dragons must die.”
“If you were speaking of a gold, or a white or a blue, perhaps I’d agree,” Lana said, aware that her speech was slurring. The music calmed her. “Where reds are concerned… they might be intelligent but they’re vicious predators. And there are too many in these parts. It’s an extermination mission I’m on.”
The minstrel’s look turned cold. “How many do you plan to exterminate in all? The Altan Tepes are a huge territory, you know.”
“I shan’t be going all the way through the mountains,” replied Lana. “I only need to take out a handful. A few more should do it.”
“And their gold will ease your conscience, is that what you’re saying?”
“As it happens, I’m not after their gold,” Lana said defensively, sipping some more mead. “Although,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “my coffers are a bit low so it would come in handy, I’ll grant you.”
“What reason have you, then, if not the gold?”
At the back of Lana’s mind a voice cried out for tact. She had an urge to open up; whether it was the mead or the reassuring flow from the lyre she could not tell.
“That is a private matter,” she said. “I’ll thank you not to ask about it again.”
“As you wish.”
He did not press the matter further; it seemed to Lana that their conversation was finished. She expected he would rise and resume playing his instrument in another part of the premises. Thus, when he remained seated and posed his question, it was a bolt from the blue.
“You owned an inn, did you not? In Specularum? Premises in the Bricktop District, if I recall.”
Lana stared at the man incredulously. “How do you know that?”
“I have travelled widely. I had the pleasure of lodging in your establishment one evening.” The minstrel smiled widely with teeth which would have been dazzling had they not been slightly yellow and stained. “I might have played for your patrons in return for a warm meal and dry bed.”
“I do not remember you,” Lana said, slightly dazed.
“There is no reason you should,” was the singer’s response. “You were not there, my arrangement was agreed with a member of your staff. Alivara, I believe the girl’s name was.”
“Astonishing,” Lana said. “You have an excellent memory, sir.”
“In my business it is worth committing small details to mind.” The minstrel played a sequence of chords which were pleasing to the ear. “One never knows what past acquaintaince might reappear on the road. I try to keep my ear close to the ground. Your inn,” he asked nonchalantly after a period of silence, “is it still there?”
“Sadly no,” Lana replied. “There was a terrible… accident and many people lost their lives. It is a sore point which I will not discuss, if it is all the same to you.”
“I will not pry, then, as the subject clearly pains you.” His music continued. “We move on from such incidents, do we not? We shed our skin and become new incarnations of ourselves. Once you played at being innkeeper. Now you have become a noble landowner. What else lies ahead of Lana Budanter, I wonder.”
The music he played was soothing; his last question washed over Lana. Despite herself, she was remembering all those who died when the Flying Ferret went up in flame. Her master had perished shortly after. She forced herself to detach from the painful memories, and brought herself back to the present.
“It’s true I have moved on,” she finally said.
“Indeed,” the man said. “And it has brought you freedom, has it not?”
Lana was affronted. “You misunderstand me. I have not forgotten those who died, I mourned their passing but -”
“Enough is enough. You could dwell on those who died, what would that bring you? Nothing meaningful. Their memories only stifle you. You have detached your emotions as is only proper and you move forward unhindered. The ties that bind us to the past can be severed.
“As for the present,” he continued, “your King does not mind that you are here?”
Lana did not know how to answer the question. “What do you mean?”
“I mean in view of the commitment Karameikos gave to the Empress of Alphatia. Does your King know you are in Thyatis?”
“No,” said Lana, “and it need not concern him. If I considered there was any potential conflict in what I am doing here, I would have informed my liege immediately.”
“Perhaps I misunderstood your companion Titus Burrhus,” said the minstrel, his fingertips caressing the strings of his lyre, “when he explained that you are performing a service for the Retebius Air Fleet? So that their numbers do not become depleted as the War continues?”
Lana’s mouth opened to refute what the singer was saying, though words failed her. “I… You misconstrue...”
“I am hunting dragons,” she said plainly. “For their wealth, which is to say for my personal benefit. There is a host of dragons in the Altan Tepes and I desire their gold. That is all anybody needs to know.”
One of Cadogan’s eyebrows arched and he fixed her with a sly, knowing eye. Does he know my other motivation, she wondered.
“That is not to say your acts are without consequence,” was his counter. “Regardless of perspective, there are those who could turn your actions against you to suit their own perspective. For a noblewoman whose country shelters behind the shield of Neutrality, you steer a precarious course Lana Budanter.”
Lana took umbrage at what had been said; most frustrating was that the singer’s words had the ring of truth to them. She had resolved to be more careful after returning from Alphatia, were there no acts she could carry out close to home which did not risk frustrating the treaty? So much depended on perspective, if her actions were to be reported to Stefan, or worse Eriadna, they could result in disaster…
“I have spoken too freely, and said more than was proper,” was all she could think to say.
The minstrel laughed amiably; perhaps he sensed that he had pushed his argument too far. “Be at peace my lady and let there be no hostility between us! I meant only playfulness with my words, I regret that I have aggrieved you. This is a time for rest and merriment, I will provoke you no further. Permit me to find ways to apologise to you.”
He rose and from out of his sleeve appeared a single rose, a head of flame-coloured petals atop its long thorny stem.
“Pray, take this as my gift and apology to you, my lady.”
Several of the Inn’s other patrons turned to watch. What harm can it do? Lana nodded and accepted the offering. As she took it, she felt a tiny stab in her thumb and saw blood welling from where a thorn had pricked her. She smiled all the same.
The next morning Lana woke feeling heavy-headed and wondered why that might be, then she remembered she had downed a pitcher of mead by herself. She and Brunnhild had shared a room; she read from her spellbook while the cleric completed her morning prayers.
After breaking their fasts they exited the Inn and met Burrhus, saddling his pegasus in the stables. He called good morning to the females who returned the greeting. The minstrel too called a greeting; he wore a silken, canary doublet over a russet shirt and forest green leggings, not to mention the innumerable gold chains and medallions around his neck. His fingers bore several rings; Lana marvelled that he was able to play his instrument wearing so many. He was securing several travelling bags to a mountain pony, squat and shaggy.
It looked like the two men meant to depart together.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Burrhus loudly. “Our paths keep crossing, it seems we are not destined to remain apart. You’re adamant you won’t take another path, nor will I. So it leads me to make this offer. Would you like to join me as we continue into the mountains?”
"You mean form a party?"
"No,” the gladiator replied solemnly, “I mean you may accompany me."
"Why don't you accompany us?"
"That's not what I intended. I can retract my offer, if you don’t mean to accept it."
Lana scrutinised the man. "Your outlook has changed since we were last on the road. Why?"
He shrugged. "They say in war, it’s the winners who write the history books. I've got Cadogan to write songs about my achievements." He smiled charmingly. "I'll pay him a bit more from the hoard to write you out of the tale."
"So you've arranged to pay him from the hoard."
Burrhus nodded. "He was happy with that. A speculative venture, he called it."
"Who says you'll even get part of the hoard?"
"I do," the gladiator replied definitely.
"Well you can pay him from your own share," Lana said. "He’s coming at your behest so Brunnhild and I shan’t pay his way. I mean it’s very pleasant to have music along the way what is he actually contributing besides strumming that lyre?"
"He'll hold us back," said Brunnhild, "while he stays on that pony."
"He could come aboard the carpet," suggested Lana.
"No," said her retainer firmly.
Lana sighed. "We'll lose the element of surprise if our number increases the closer we get to the dragons' lair."
"Don't be a wet squib," said Burrhus, "Cadogan will keep us in fine form, will you not?"
At his employer's command the minstrel's hand went to his lyre and a lilting melody struck up.
Brunnhild took Lana to one side. "That one is not to be trusted."
"What makes you say that?"
She lifted her hammer. "Thor has granted me insight into his true nature. He is a shady individual, one who might lead us astray and will tell a lie more ably than the truth."
"You're certain? Beyond being merely… free-spirited?"
She shook her head. "It could not have been made clearer."
Later, as the carpet travelled low to remain close to the ground, Lana thought she caught Cadogan staring at Brunnhild, though only when she was not looking in his direction. The minstrel's expression was hard to read – it might have been disapproval, or possibly fear. Though his singing continued all the while, it seemed he was not settled on having agreed to accompany the party. He gave Brunnhild the same look of resentment several times, so at least it appeared that way to Lana. Then again, she might have been imagining things. Her head was still heavy from the effect of the mead.
"There's something else," Burrhus revealed after a couple of hours trekking higher into the hills, the singer's thumbs strumming on his lyre all the while.
"Oh? What's that?"
"Cadogan says he knows the way to a dragon's lair. Perchance it's the lair of that one you slew."
Lana’s interest piqued. The minstrel looked toward her, his expression inscrutable.
"Is this true?"
“Why are we only being told now?”
“It would not have been prudent to speak of such things at the inn,” was the minstrel’s response, “where the walls have ears. Had I spoken freely of what I know, there are those who would be following us right now - be it to beg or steal from us, or slay us while we sleep after finding the dragons’ treasure.”
“And how is it you know where the dragons made their lair?”
“I do not know if it is the lair of the beasts you have slain,” replied the singer, “though there is a lair not far from here. I have been there and can retrace my steps with ease.”
Burrhus’ face was aglow at hearing this, despite it not being for the first time. The females remained unconvinced, however.
“Tell us how you came to acquire such knowledge,” asked Lana.
“And how it is you still live, if you escaped the dragons as you claim,” added Brunnhild.
“It is a simple enough tale,” the minstrel said, raising his lyre and beginning a slow tune. “I was exploring these hills no more than a fortnight ago, in search of a particular pass through the mountain range, when wolves set upon me. Frightening beasts they were, each larger than my pony, with bloodlust in their red eyes and coats as black as sin. I fled for my life, my heart pounding as I ran, and I managed to shake them off by leaping across a gorge. There, beyond the dark woods where the hills become mountains, I sought shelter but happened upon a sleeping dragon in a cave, smoke coiling from its nostrils. It lay atop a great many coins and precious stones, such as would instil longing in any man's heart. I played soft music in the hope that it would not awake," the music coming from the lyre turned to a lullaby, calm and gentle, "and perhaps I would have been rich all the rest of my days…” his expression turned gloomy, “though the beast stirred withal and I was forced to flee without touching even the smallest coin.”
A single, discordant note issued from the lyre and the melody ended.
“It woke yet you managed to escape? Right after you managed to escape from wolves or dire wolves or whatever the other creatures were?”
“That is correct."
"Lucky, wouldn't you say?"
"Indeed," Cadogan replied. "I have been known to attract good and ill fortune in equal measure. Moreover, I was able to conceal myself and evade my pursuers through…” he looked thoughtful, “certain abilities I possess besides singing and playing his lyre.”
“Come on,” said Burrhus genially, “give the guy a break. We’re exploring these mountains anyway, he has information we can use, where’s the harm?”
“The harm will come when he slits our throats in the night,” was Brunnhild’s answer.
“I could have done so already,” was the minstrel's swift response, “in the inn where you lay in your beds however I did not. Had I wished simply to gain treasure, I would have taken those which you already possess, rather than risk my skin returning to the very lair where I came close to losing my life.”
“Such words from one such as you,” Brunnhild countered, “mean little.”
“One such as I?” The minstrel stiffened in his saddle. “What do you mean by that?”
“I say that Mighty Thor has revealed to me your true nature,” the cleric rose to her feet and levelled her hammer as a judge might do in a court of law, “and has bid me doubt the truth of any words which spill from your lips.”
This visibly disconcerted the man. “Very well, I’ll admit, my past hasn’t always been the most… upright, but you have to believe me -”
“I need believe nothing from the likes of you,” said Brunnhild thunderously.
“Guys, come on,” broke in Burrhus.
“Milady,” the minstrel turned to Lana. “In the past I may have committed petty acts as many in my profession do… but those days are behind me. For the most part, at any rate. I wish to profit from this venture. If I do, I will have comfort to fall back on in my later years. I cannot keep travelling the roads all my days. Would you deny me the chance, of a secure, settled life?”
“Do not let him play you for a fool,” warned Brunnhild.
Lana sighed, realising she was to become arbiter in the discussion. “If what you say is true,” she said after a moment’s thought, “and if you have witnessed a red dragon sleeping, as you claim…” her eyes flickered to Brunnhild as she spoke, “then you will be able to describe one to us. Can you?”
The minstrel’s gaze did not leave her. “It is a long reptilian beast,” he answered. “The air around it bears heat as if from a forge and smells of rotten egg, sulphur I suppose an alchemist would term it. Its head bears two great curving horns which jut from below hardened ridges where a man would have his eyebrows. Those spiny ridges continue in a long line, down the creature’s back and along its tail. Its jaw is lined along and beneath by horns and pointed ends. Its snout is long and flat, with flared nostrils from which smoke coils while the creature slumbers. Its teeth are daggers, gleaming and deadly sharp. Its scales are the shape of petals, but infinitely tougher and more durable, some as big as an egg but smaller in the joints around its wings where it requires greater movement…”
“I’ve heard enough,” Lana said. It was exactly how she would have described the creature she had seen up close just the day before. Exactly, almost uncanny… She addressed Brunnhild. “As descriptions go, that’s accurate. Doesn’t it sound just like the creature we slew? It might be the very same beast.”
“That it might be,” Brunnhild warned. “But this one would have you succumb to dragon sickness and will turn on you while you are distracted.”
“If he does, I have you to watch my back, as I will watch yours.”
Were Brunnhild’s morals more polarised than her own, Lana wondered. Had she spent more time among those with questionable integrity, was it arrogant of Lana to believe she could prevent her position being compromised, if the minstrel truly turned out to be a scoundrel? Or were they making a mistake and was the temptation of the dragons’ riches clouding her judgment…? There was no more evidence could be called upon to verify the minstrel’s claims.
“I don’t know why you’re hesitating,” said Burrhus to one side,” it’s clear enough to me.”
“I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt,” said Lana, then in softer tones to Brunnhild: “we’ll keep our wits about us.”
Brunnhild was far from pleased but accepted the decision. “As my employer directs.” She turned her hammer in her hand and shot the minstrel a dangerous look.
Lana turned to the minstrel. “We are keeping a close eye on you,” she told him, “if the words you speak are untrue you will regret leading us astray.”
Cadogan slowly nodded his acknowledgement.
“Onward,” said Burrhus boisterously, “to the lair!”
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