Thursday, February 27, 2014

[Karazhan's Story] 2.10: Mayhem in the Fields!

      So here I found myself heading back to Todrin Estate to cause a little chaos, and maybe try to figure out just what exactly the Endless Court were up to here. Spirits willing, maybe I can even put a stop to their machinations.

     As before, I slipped into the grounds through the gaping hole in the side of the stone wall that skirted the Estate's property, keeping my eyes sharp for the enemy. The Endless Court may be comprised of people, but I had no delusions that they were crazed fanatics who were taken over wholly by Regulos and his promise of untold power. There would be no reasoning with them and if I wanted to stay alive, I needed to shoot first and ask questions never. I heard a strange dry rustling sound as I approached the house and ducked into a shallow alcove, peering out cautiously. To my horror, there was some kind of...undead creature, roaming and stumbling around mindlessly by the front door. The remains of clothing clung to its emaciated frame and the empty eye socked glowed with eldritch light. I put a hand to my mouth to contain my gasp. The cultists must be raising the dead to do their bidding. Was there no end to their atrocities? Well, at least I can put this poor tormented soul out of its misery. With a fast hand movement, I sent arcs of flame at the skeletal being, as quickly and quietly as I could so as to not draw any attention. The last thing I needed was to alert all the cultists in the compound to my presence. Infiltrate and cause chaos, not all out massacre. Right. As the first burst of magical flames struck the skeletal undead man and burst over his flesh and bones with unnatural vigor, I'd already began casting another. The creature stuttered to a stop and turned with a dry slowness to stare right at my hiding place in the alcove, its unseeing eyes peering right into mine. I shivered. It began a fast shambling in my direction, and another bolt of bright hot flames exploded into its jawless face, causing it to stumble sideways. I dearly prayed to the spirits that the poor soul couldn't feel its second death as I finally melted its bones and flesh with a flamestrike that also scorched the ground in a perfect circle around its still-twitching body. After a few tense moments to assure myself that no one was alerted to my actions, I stepped out of hiding and approached the dead thing. Undead thing. Whatever it was. I used the end of my staff to prod at the bones, ensuring it was actually dead, and the skull folded in on itself, turning to ash at my touch. I shuddered. Truly horrendous, what the cultists have done. I whispered a quick prayer for the soul to find the Soulstream quickly and avoid Regulos's hands, then moved on. At least with it's body in ashes like this, it would impossible to reanimate.

     I did see several more of the resurrected undead creatures, slaying those that were close enough to do so without being detected. On the second one, I found a strange, tiny square of metal that bore the mark of the Endless Court-a white skull on a black background with a purple border. I pocketed the insignia. Maybe Cyriac would appreciate the sight of it as vengeance for his slain comrades.

     "The people of this March are fools for giving the witch refuge!" The shouted, guttural voice brought me up short as I came around the back corner of the house and I shrank back, heart pounding, then slowly peered around the corner. Two men in long dark robes with white skulls painted over their faces were lounging by crates of various items. I frowned. What did that cultist mean, 'giving the witch refuge?' What witch? I made a mental note to ask someone about that when I was safely away from here. I watched the two cultists for several long moments, before they finally stirred and went back inside the house, grumbling to each other about the people of the March. 'If you're so unhappy, leave then!' I thought to myself in frustration. It would certainly make all our lives easier.

     Beyond the house, I spotted a low shed by the far stone wall. A large tree gave blessed shade from the hot sun and about half a dozen bovine were peacefully grazing on the grass and clover that seemed to grow in abundance around the grounds. The peaceful and lazy picture was totally at odds with what I'd just experienced, and I found myself almost not believing it wasn't some mirage or trick. The steers didn't seem bothered at all by the death magic permeating the air, their shaggy heads bobbing up and down as they chewed. Hmmm, how to cause a disturbance and disrupt these bloody cultists' plans. I needed something to get them good and spooked. I know a fair number of nasty weather spells that could probably startle the dumb farm animals. Some mages, like myself, had a knack for storm type magic, and forks of lighting was something I could call up almost instantly, but it didn't seem like such a good idea to be sending off magical jolts of high electric power into the midst of a herd of live creatures. Not unless I want some hamburger for supper. I'm not above defending myself and raining down death and mayhem on those that are deserving, but I would rather not harm innocent animals. I even hesitated in the harming of these human cultists, because they were only human after all and we all make mistakes. Who knows what decision drove them to sign up for Regulos's cause? So fire magic and weather magic was out of the way, unless I could whip up some strong rains and winds, but I wasn't as well versed in those spells and again, didn't want to risk harming the innocent steers if I could help it.
     So what else could I use, than? I glanced around the back yard, considering my options. Up against the back veranda was more stacked crates and some other odds and ends that looked to have been tossed out of the house when the cultists moved in. One crate had the universal explosives symbol painted on the side and I grinned rather deviously. Inside, the other souls fluttered with eagerness as well. Didn't everyone enjoy the feeling of blowing things up at least once? I will admit that I do.

     Sure enough, when I'd snuck up to the crate and nabbed it, it was chalk full of different types of explosive devices, some magitech, some old fashioned powder and fuse. I grinned like a naughty novice as I pocketed a few and placed the crate back where I'd found it. It was tempting to take the crate back with me, but I was afraid I'd trip or something equally disastrous and blow my lovely Ascended brains all over the pretty green grass. Something I'd like to avoid if possible. My body may be just a machine, a shell that houses my soul that in theory I should be able to return to if separated from it and heal all damage, but let's not test that, hmm? Not to mention it sounded painful as hells.
     So, being the good citizen I was, I crept back to my previous hiding place, lobbed a few low-grade explosives near to the cows, and with some painful concentration was able to get off two simultaneous fire spells. One exploded into the side of the crate at the same time as a stream of bright orange fire lit up the little devices littering the ground at the steers feet. Predictably, the creatures went wild, and chaos sort of exploded in the yard. Cultists spilled out of the house yelling and swearing, both in the common tongue and in some undead demonic language. Serves them right.

     The steers, wild with sudden fear, stampeded in all different directions. Some smashed right through the stone wall, lowing and bawling their fright to all and sundry as they vanished into the green. Others turned tail and ran headlong into the cultists that were milling around by the house, knocking them over like saplings. I prayed that none happened to glance my way and see me crouched by the side of the house. I turned to sneak away and tripped over yet another crate, and let myself spit out a string of curses. That bloody hurt! I rubbed my shin as I glared at the box that had offended me. Unlike the others, this one was a shiny metal box with a blue sheen to it. Curiosity overcame my aggravation and I lifted the lid, sucking in a shocked breath. Inside, dozens upon dozens of sourcestone glowed brightly, giving off a dark aura of planar magic. And I knew just what kind too. The scent of death was almost overpowering. The Shadestones were fully charged, all that potential power just sitting right there for whatever the cultists intended to use it. I couldn't just let them keep it. So with a swift look around, I grabbed up the crate, making an oomph sound at how heavy it was.

     I waddled rather awkwardly back to the gap in the wall, shoving the box through and sneaking after it, looking back repeatedly to make sure no one saw me. Thankfully they were all trying to either round up the steers or put out the fire that had resulted from the crate of explosives going off so close to the house. I grinned. Perfect. That aught to keep them out of trouble for a while and off our backs. Job well done, if I do say so myself. And I didn't even have kill any of the cultists.

    "So I nabbed this box of sourcestone and high-tailed it back here. But, thanks to Jared over there and his crazy Life energy experiments, I was attacked by a giant, crazed razorback boar!" I glared mock-angrily at the elf, who ducked, looking sheepish, and I rolled my eyes. "But hey, at least they won't be causing trouble around here for a while. Their base of operations has....well, it's exploded." I snickered, even though it honestly wasn't that funny, and Cyriac nodded at me proudly, smiling a little himself. I handed over the insignias I'd gathered up, mentioning that my theory was they were helping the cultists control their undead minions, and he thoughtfully gave them to a fellow standing silently to the side.

     "Good thinking, Karazhan. We will certainly melt these down and make arrowheads out of them. Shoot them right back at those bastards." He clasped my hand and shook it, looking relieved and worried at the same time. I cocked an eyebrow. "What's wrong, you don't look very happy." I asked, feeling a little niggle of concern myself.

    Cyriac rubbed the back of his head, sticking his hair in all directions. "I-we do appreciate your efforts, Karazhan." He said slowly. I nodded, feeling a 'but' coming. "I don't like the feel of these sourcestone. Unfortunately, I've felt this exact magical signature before. Before coming here to help out the folks of Eliam Fields, I was stationed at Seastone Bluff with the rest of the command. Our forces encountered a dark being there calling itself Xalos." I frowned, processing this information. A dark being? So...something from the planes, I guess, if it had the same magical aura as the sourcestone. A being from the Plane of Death, loose in Freemarch. Great. Cyriac continued, looking out toward where I could see the terrain sharply turn into a large jutting mountain. From here, I could even just make out black turrets of what looked to be a castle or keep or some kind. That must be where Seastone Bluff is, I assumed.
     "We were able to drive the beast back, but it had some magical device that allowed it to slip into a planar flux, which is sort of like a pocket rift. It must be working with the cultists to gain them fresh Shadestone for their attack." His shoulders slumped and he gave the crate of sourcestone a baleful look, as if blaming it for Xalos's continued survival. I frowned at the crate myself.

    "Not if I slay the beast." I said, narrowing my eyes in determination. Cyriac blinked at me in surprise. "What? No, you can't go after it alone! It took seven of us to beat it back, and I lost two of my best men on that mission. You'll be killed." Any other time, I might have agreed with the man, and indeed I was comforted by his concern, but I waved my large hand. "It's okay," I said softly. "I'm Ascended remember? I was created for this." I smiled gently and put my hand on my hip. "No offense, but I'm more than capable of taking on a planar foe alone. Especially if the creature is already wounded. Time to see what exactly I'm remade of." I grinned, feeling sparks of excitement grow inside me. An actual enemy, a foe that is a real challenge that I don't have to hold back all my potential on. I don't have to feel guilty about harming a fellow Telaran, or wondering if they have a family somewhere despite their wayward path. This creature is an unnatural evil riftspawn that came to Telara for one purpose. Destruction and chaos. I will have no qualms about extinguishing it. Cyriac looked equal parts concerned and relieved, giving me short, careful looks as if wanting to make sure I would be ok.

     "I'll be fine, I promise. Consider it as pest control. Can't have this beautiful March overrun by planar beasts. Especially from the death plane. Can't be good for the flora." He chuckled at my quip and finally gave me directions on how to find where Xalos had last been seen, as well as a message to relay to the officers at Seastone Bluff when I had finished. I gave Cyriac an exaggerated salute. "Aye, aye, cap'n!" I said cheerily.
     The view from Seastone Bluff would have been quite beautiful if it wasn't for the obvious aura of dark magic choking it. It was apparent even before I'd entered the grounds that the place was some kind of warden's watchtower for the Freemarch folk. It was a perfect vantage point to keep a lookout for any trouble in the region, after all, and had the familiar architectural design of other buildings in the march. Sadly, it was also apparent that it had been overrun by cultists for some time. I wasn't sure why the wardens hadn't taken the tower back. Lack of manpower perhaps? More pressing concerns than one lookout tower? I had no way of knowing. It was a shame though, because the tower overlooked the sea with a perfect view of the seemingly endless body of water, along with quite a few miles of the march in either direction. I could easily see the Todrin Estate and Eliam Fields from here and I fancied that if there were another Ascended at Cyriac's location, they might even be able to discern me waving if I were so inclined. And if I had an Ascended companion to share my adventures and journey with, of course.

     There were planar death symbols everywhere on the tower grounds, defiling the once proud land with the foul metallic taint of death magic. I knew of course that death magic had its uses just like any other element, but I just couldn't justify its use when I knew that those accursed cultists were also reverently used it to cause mayhem and misery wherever they went. The front gates that were supposed to provide safety and security for the tower were smashed in and hanging off their hinges. I approached the area with tense caution. I had no idea what to expect, and Cyriac's description of the place was a few months out of date. A lot can change in that amount of time. Despite its eerie planar taint, the grounds appeared deserted, still as death. I had the feeling that the world was holding its breath, waiting to see what I would do.

     Once inside the gate, I found my fearful caution giving way to curiosity and excitement. I loved exploring new places, and I found myself peering around as I walked. Immediately to the left of the gate was a small, domed building with an open archway. A chapel for the wardens to pray at? I heard that the people of Freemarch had belonged to the Vigil. I think in fact that some still do follow their ways and teachings, although it seemed now that most believed the gods had forsaken them and their only chance at survival was to ally with the Defiant "heretics" as they kept calling us. Carefully placed flagstones led from the little domed building to the central tower, which was at least three stories tall. It was narrow and simply constructed, made specifically to be a lookout first and foremost. If I were an evil planar being of death who wanted control of this area, where would I spend my days? I gazed up at the top of the tower and smirked. Of course, the very top, where I could see everything. After making sure there weren't any enemies lurking around a corner to ambush me, I ascended a wooden spiral staircase located in the tower that wove around the inside wall all the way up to the top. At each floor there was a room filled with old dusty furniture and weapon racks. No doubt where the wardens slept and practiced with weaponry to stay sharp and alert.

     The stairs ended at the roof, which was wide open. There was a low wall around the plateau with niches in it. It was easy to imagine the wardens sitting up here, steadfast in their duty to keep Freemarch safe. If only they knew the enemy they faced now couldn't be fought with just spears and swords. The only sign of life up here was a small glowing brazier opposite my position, a beacon proclaiming that at least some creature had been up here recently. I stretched my magical senses outward slowly, trying to feel for any trap or magical snare. Nothing gave me any warnings, but I could pick up a dark magical signature coming from the brazier. That must be where the planar flux is that the elemental was hiding in. What was it Cyriac called it? Xalos I think? I took a deep breath of the death-tainted air. Was I ready? Hells yes. Time to show the minions of Regulos that I was someone to be reckoned with and if he wanted to take Telara, he'd have a fight on his hands first.

     Magical runes pulsed in a circle around the brazier, glowing with an inner violet light, the color of death magic. Yes, this was definitely the spot. I wondered idly how the elemental being was able to hide itself so well. Could he still see the physical world while in that pocket of planar energy? No matter, I suppose. I took out the charged device that Cyriac had given me, smiling fondly at the memory of his warning to be careful and not get myself killed. I wasn't sure how death worked in my new incarnation, but I'd been assured multiple times that it wouldn't be permanent. I gently tossed the tiny device into the brazier, not knowing what else to do with it, and the result was immediate. The air grew ice cold and a strange, foul smelling wind came out of nowhere, lifting strands of hair off my neck. I took a step back and planted my feet in a battle stance, an instinctive reaction that wasn't mine. Having the memories of the other souls was a tremendous advantage against an enemy combatant. Not that I'd ever dreamed of fighting and slaying when I'd been an innocent scholar at the temples of Atia.
     Just as I was finding it becoming difficult to breath through the thick, cold air, a ghostly, oily black shadow twice my height manifested inside the circle of runes. I couldn't hold back my gasp of shock at seeing the creature. It looked like those shadowy planar beings I'd encountered during my time in the future...what seemed like an age ago now after all that's happened. Except this one exuded raw power. The sheer elemental power rolling off the creature hit me like a physical slap and I flinched back, reigning in my magical senses so I wouldn't be so overwhelmed by the death magic assaulting my senses. Most mages are incredibly sensitive to magic. We'd have to be if we wanted to be any good at our craft. Of course there were drawbacks to that extreme sensitivity. I felt a headache begin to form between my eyes and resisted the urge to shut my eyes, knowing I had to keep full concentration on the elemental.

     The being, Xalos, seemed to focus its shadowy sourcestone eyes on me with a malice and arrogance that spoke just much of a threat he thought one puny Telaran was to something from the planes. "You have torn me from the void? Fool, I know not how you have done this, but you will face my wrath!" It's voice was cold as death and echoed oddly, like the creature was only half here.

     "Um, can't we talk about this?" I muttered, trying to buy time as I ran through a list of spells I knew and tried to decide which would be most effective. I'd have only one shot at doing enough damage to slow it down, because once it got a taste of how powerful my own magic was, it wouldn't hesitate at throwing all the death magic at its disposal on me, and I could barely concentrate through the aura of darkness as it was now.

     "Puny mortal! Alsbeth has commanded me to conquer the shorelines. I will not fail my masters." Masters huh? So, this creature was just a pawn in a bigger game. I wanted to ask what Alsbeth needed here, or what her goal was, but I figured that Xalos would no doubt catch on that I was here to put an end to her plans and wouldn't spill anyway, so instead I brought both hands up and together in front of me in a waving arc, trailing tendrils of air and water magic as I did so. When I brought both palms together in front of me and twisted them so my fingers pointed at Xalos, a spear of ice suddenly slammed into his shadowy body. I put all my will and magical force behind the attack and was satisfied when Xalos gave a loud roar of agony, flickering and fading. The taint of death on the wind sharply faded. The creature wavered, fading out of existence for a moment, before solidifying again with another roar, this one of anger and frustration. Ha, found that he couldn't run back to the planar flux and hide this time. That device Cyriac gave me would wedge the flux firmly closed, unable to be entered on this end. Too bad Xalos didn't know that he just had to pluck the device out of the fire to escape. Instead, he charged me, enraged and now fearful.

     I leaped out of the way, tucking myself in for an expert roll to avoid him. Only I forgot the height and build difference of my new sourcestone body and ended up sprawled out on my back instead, feeling mortified. Air whistling behind me alerted me to Xalos and I rolled to the side to avoid a dark splash of planar death magic that hit the flagstones and sizzled not an inch from my wide eyes. The magical backlash stung my eyes and I scrambled back to avoid it, bumping up against the low wall that edged the roof. Something hit my bare thigh and my flesh suddenly felt like it was burning and freezing at the same time. I gave a pained grunt and grit my teeth. By the spirits, that hurt. The death magic was now so strong in the air that I was having trouble concentrating on where exactly Xalos was. Taking a wild guess, I shot a stream of ice in the direction where the most dark magic was emanating from and was rewarded with a hissing sound, like air leaking out of a canister. The death magic lessened again. Good, take that you bloody monster. I squinted against the pain of my wound, which seemed to be traveling up my leg into my stomach. My entire lower half now felt like ice that burned. That can't be good. When I tried to stand, I stumbled onto my knees instead. Alright, think. Obviously I was right in that the ice magic was effective against the elemental. I needed something more potent though. What spell could I use.

     Xalos rushed at me again and almost by reflex I held out my hand and felt a strong wind chill gust outward, hitting the planar creature and sending it hurling backward to hit the low wall. I blinked in surprise at my hand. I didn't even know I could do something like that! Now that I'd done it though, it was like a map had opened it up in my head, giving me the exact ability to use that spell from now on. That was amazing. I felt a thrill of power shoot through me, as if my magic had hit a plateau and was now increasing. No, not my magic, but my skill at using it. As if I'd opened new doors in my mind that allowed me access to higher and more deadly spells. I was so exciting to see what else I could do. Calling up the memory of the book of higher level mage spells I'd read, I singled out a spell that I'd always wanted to try, but hadn't been strong enough or skilled enough to pull off. I painfully and stiffly climbed to my feet, while Xalos hovered, spitting at me in some dark guttural tongue. I imagine he was cursing my lineage or some such. Well, I've cursed my lineage often enough myself in my youth. I brought my staff to bear in front of my body in perfect symmetry with my body, holding it just the way the book had said, and feeling the potential for magic shimmering down my wooden rod and through my fingers. I whispered the words to the spell and felt a broad smile light my face despite the situation as the air grew colder still. Cold as ice. Although this was a pure cold, the type of cold that you felt right before a good hard rain. Or a hailstorm. Suddenly large jagged chunks of ice began pelting down on the tower in a wide frontal cone from the point of my staff onward. The book had stressed that the position of your weapon was of grave importance in this particular spell because of the deadly force of the spell. Once unleashed, it wouldn't hesitate to harm both friend or foe, so I had to be careful where I'd focused it. But I'd done it! I'd actually successfully cast my first hailstorm. Could I now call myself a proper Stormcaller mage? All my young life before my resurrection, that had been my dream. To gain my initiation into the ranks of the Stormcallers, earn my title, and finally be free of the oppressive obligation to my family and their demands. But now that I was someone else, somewhere else, in a grim all out war for the salvation of all of Telara, was being a Stormcaller the right choice? What about my belief that Telara needed a healing hand as well as a protector? Could I be both?

     I was pelted on the arm by a rather large shard of ice as penalty for my lack of attention and I focused back on the fight at hand. One thing at a time, Kara! I scolded myself. I sagged in relief as I realized that the shadowy planar elemental had withered under my magical onslaught of ice magic. The hail ripped right through the shadowy creature's "body" like it was nothing but wet paper, and I paused a moment to reflect on how overly effective my magic actually seemed to be against planar beings. From my interaction with the peoples of Freemarch, it seemed that others weren't so lucky in their interaction with planar enemies. Was it my particular branch of magic-storm magic-or was it because of my unique status as a machine-made reborn being with multiple souls of other long dead powerful mages locked inside? Again I found myself with many questions but no real easy and apparent answers. Well, I'd heard that Meridian was the capital of the Defiant's forces against the planes, as well as being a college of magical and planar study at some point, so it stood to reason that if I were to find the answers anywhere, it would be there. After I'd felt secure in the knowledge that Freemarch was free of this Alsbeth, I would be definitely making a trek to that big, famous city. The more I heard about it, the more I couldn't wait to feast my eyes on it. My eyes were drawn to the dwindling Xalos again as with one final wail of fury, he flickered and seemed to fold in on himself, just like those other planar creatures had. A soft pop was more felt than heard over the crashing of hail onto the stone and all that was left of the once-powerful Xalos was a small shining black orb that radiated dark planar power. Curiously, I approached, feeling that I could finally move my leg muscles a bit, although it still felt stiff and tingly. The icy burning feeling was finally fading and I thanked the spirits that I didn't seem to have any lasting effects from tangling with the death magic. I could just imagine the nightmares I'll have of being corrupted by death magic and turning into some kind of nightmare being that went on an unstoppable rampage, killing innocent women and children and dealing massive damage to everything in my path. Thankfully, Ascended were immune to corruption. least I hoped so.

     I pocketed the little orb of shadestone, not knowing if it would come in handy at some point or not. It may have been tainted by planar death magic, but it was still sourcestone and sourcestone shouldn't just left lying around for anyone to stumble across. Especially in such a defiled place as this. I shivered as the air finally returned to the balmy warmth that seemed to be normal for Freemarch. I rubbed my knee absently to release the last of the icy tingles as I hobbled over to the wall and set my staff up against it. It was a nice staff, that was true, but after channeling that much magical power into it, I could now sense the flaws and uneven quality of the wood, and it itched at my senses like a drawing that wasn't finished. I would need to find a new, more refined weapon to help focus my greater channeling if I wanted to continue with the higher level spellcasting. Which I most certainly did. Just thinking about that hailstorm again made me feel as giddy as a young acolyte again. If only I had someone else to share this sense of wonder with. As I thought this, my eyes roved over the land. From here, and with my modified eyesight, I could quite clearly pick out every detail for what had to be last a league in any direction. Absolutely amazing. Truly a wonder of magitech, as Sylver had said. Than I frowned as my eyes caught something disturbing. Off to the south, the land seemed to suddenly change. The grass ended abruptly on dead brown earth at the base of that strange keep I'd noticed before.

     Men in Defiant colors paced around a little watchtower that sat at the edge of the green land. They appeared to be frustrated by something from their actions, and at first I couldn't see what the men so upset, but I realized with alarm that the brown dead area seemed to be moving! Rather, there were things moving among the dead grasses and trees. Undead things. They bore the same red and gold armor as the Defiant, but were rotting soulless creatures that even from here I knew had been touched by the death plane. Was this part of Alsbeth's plan, I wonder? She had to be up to something, creating an army of horrific undead slaves to relentlessly attack Freemarch's defenders. I wonder if she wanted the Wardens so distracted and exhausted by the multiple onslaughts that they wouldn't be able to spare the time to investigate what she herself was up to? Regardless, I knew I had to do something about what was going on down there! Those poor Defiant soldiers looked exhausted themselves and I saw that they were effectively pinned down at that watchtower, unable to send for aid, or to break through the ranks of undead that seemed to surround them. It wasn't apparent from this far away if the undead were deliberately keeping them hemmed in, or if it was just coincidence that they happened to have trapped a small force of Defiant in their midst as they went about some other mission.

     Quickly, I strode down the tower's staircase, only limping slightly. I suppose I should be grateful I hadn't been crippled or permanently marred by that magical attack. As it was, I wouldn't even show a mark, thanks to my accelerated healing. I wondered if that was a result of my new magical potential or of my unique status of having a sourcestone-generated body. Ugh, enough questions. Was I always this inquisitive? No wonder the temple priests avoided me as a child. I determinedly strode off in the direction of the Defiant camp I'd seen.

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