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The Beginning After The End Chapter 460

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Chapter 460


Chapter 457: Collisions


CHUL ASCLEPIUS


I sank back against the wall, breathing heavily and enjoying the feel of sweat pouring down my face. The cavern smelled of ozone and crushed granite, and the resounding noise of our training was still ringing in my ears.


Bairon leaned forward and rested his hands on his knees, sweat dripping from his nose, each breath laborious. Twenty feet to his left, the little one, Mica, threw herself on her back, huffing and puffing. Only Varay stood straight, her arms crossed as she eyed me thoughtfully.


“This was better, yes?” I asked, going back through in my mind each stage of our sparring. This was unlike the technical training I had done with the Vritra-blooded one, Cylrit; the Lances had pushed me to work with my body differently, and I had strained them to the peak of their capabilities—at least without threatening their lives. “Arthur’s guidance about using what little mana I have in the best way is starting to make sense, I believe.”


Bairon let out a scoff that didn’t disguise his contented grin as he sank down to one knee, leaning on the crimson asuran-made spear he wielded. “That spell layering technique…was that Arthur? Seems like…something he’d come up with.”


I grinned. The human was right; Arthur was quite good at utilizing small amounts of energy to great effect, an unlooked for boon in my traveling companion. My body required the mana output of a full-blooded asura to maintain itself, but my djinn father’s blood had prevented my core from growing to its full potency.


“Your control is improving,” Varay said, watching me closely. Her gaze flicked to the dull metal bracer on my wrist.


I s.h.i.+fted uncomfortably, realizing I had forgotten about keeping up my appearance as a mere human. “Ah, yeah, this has been good. But you all are making progress as well?”


Mica slammed a closed fist against her sternum three times. “I sure hope so. My core aches. Am I the only one? I think it’s…growing clearer. Purifying more. It’s been a long time though, so…I’m not really sure.”


“Yes,” Varay answered, stretching her arms over her head. “I feel it as well. Arthur was right. Our exertions are beginning to pay dividends.”


Bairon stood and wiped sweat from his brow. “What do the artifacts say, Emily?”


A small human in gla.s.ses came out from behind a barrier shrouding one corner of the cavern. She gave her fellow human a pained smile and shrugged. “There has definitely been refinement of your cores, that’s easy enough to see, but the enhanced speed of your mana activation and channeling is still too fast for the equipment to make an accurate reading, even with the upgrades. Maybe if I had more time, but…”


Mica snorted and rolled over onto her side, propping her head up on one hand. “Yeah yeah yeah, you scientists and your big secret project. Remember when the Lances were treated like we actually mattered?” She sighed and mumbled, “Mica remembers.”


Emily roughed up her curly hair with one hand, then straightened her gla.s.ses. “S-sorry, it’s just…”


“I have heard that Wren Kain can be a harsh taskmaster,” I said, recognizing that the girl seemed less energetic than before, darker even. “Do not let the t.i.tan grind you to dust under the heel of his drive for progress.”


Her brows shot up as she gave me a startled look. “Oh, uh, thanks…yeah, I…won't?”


“When is Gideon going to explain what he is up to, anyway? It’s not like I haven’t sensed those mana beasts he had brought in.” Mica’s eyes narrowed at Emily. “For reals. I’m a general, I should be in the know.”


Emily’s gaze settled on the floor, a shadow pa.s.sing over her pale features. “I don't think I’d want to say even if I could.”


“Gideon and the asura have their reasons for secrecy,” Varay said sternly. “Don’t hara.s.s the girl. It isn’t her choice, and she will do well not to speak of what’s happening down there.”


“Wait!” Mica bolted upright. “You know, don’t you! Why do you get to know?” Her glare s.h.i.+fted to Bairon. He gave her a shrug, resting his spear across his shoulders, and she gasped. “You too? What the h.e.l.l, you guys?” Finally, her glare settled firmly on me. “Don’t tell me that everyone here knows except for me?”


Pus.h.i.+ng away from the wall, I stood straight and cracked my neck, already feeling refreshed from the rousing spar against the three Lances. “No, Lady Earthborn. I have little interest in the machinations of the t.i.tan. They make good weapons, but I already have one of those.” I gestured to Bairon’s spear. “Though not perhaps so refined an implement of destruction as your spear, Bairon Wykes. You should listen to it more closely. It seeks to guide you, to teach you to fight like an asura. More than once, you missed an opportunity to land a blow because you fight against your weapon and not with it.”


The human ran a hand along the shaft, considering the crimson steel. “I am fighting with the spear, as I have been for months. But your words make a kind of sense. I can feel the guidance you speak of, only…” He shook his head, then gave me a suspicious look. “You sometimes don’t speak like a man, Chul. You speak as if—”


Mica snorted, interrupting him. “You just don’t want to admit that we’ve been training toe to toe with one guy, and he seems to be as strong as the three of us together. It’s like Arthur all over again.”


Bairon turned in exasperation to Varay. “Surely you see it?”


Varay’s piercing eyes lingered on me as I turned away. She frowned slightly. “Are you okay, Chul?”


My fingers dug into my temple as a sudden pressure pinched inside my head. “Yes, I…you three pushed me harder than I thought. That’s all. I—”


Inside my skull, I heard Mordain’s voice as if through a thick door, dulled by distance and my own poor ability to receive it. ‘Chul, forgive this intrusion into your thoughts. I have need of you immediately. Leave what you are doing and return to the Hearth at once. Be wary on your journey. The Beast Glades are not safe.’


As the message faded, I straightened and shook my head slightly, trying to knock loose the discomfort. Fear gripped me—not for myself, but for those I had left in the Hearth. Were they under attack? There was no way to know except to leave Vildorial and return home.


“I must go.” I looked between the Lances but settled on Varay. “Tell the Leywins—Eleanor and Lady Alice.”


She frowned. “Of course, but…”


The three Lances were all looking at me with concern, but I did not explain further, instead hurrying from the cavern, which was well away from where people lived. Still, it didn’t take me long to reach the surface from the outer tunnels. None of the dwarven patrol stations gave me pause, being more concerned with anyone coming in than going out. Less than twenty minutes had pa.s.sed before I was standing beneath the bright desert sun that hovered over the Darvish dunes.


I didn’t stop to take in the scene but lifted up off the ground and pointed myself eastward, flying at speed toward the mountains.


I had not expected Mordain to call me back from my quest. In truth, I hadn’t been sure he would want me to return. He was a kind man, a good man, but I had never understood his willingness to “turn the other cheek” as he put it, no matter what insult was offered. I, on the other hand, knew that sometimes the only right answer was overwhelming force. Some crimes could never be made up for and should never be forgiven.


Even as a child who did not yet understand what I was, my fiery temperament had made me stand out from the others. Although traveling with Arthur and fighting back against Agrona was exactly what I wanted, I still wasn’t fully certain that it had been allowed because I wished it…or simply because it got rid of me.


This doesn't matter, I reminded myself, crus.h.i.+ng the unwelcome thoughts within the vice of my will. Mordain needs me, and I will go. And when I am done, I will return and resume preparing myself to devastate our enemies, even if Mordain will not.


The flight was long and tiring. It took little mana to sustain flight once it had been achieved, as I only needed to maintain the balance between myself and the atmosphere around me, but it did require a level of focus that I found grating. Growing up beneath the ground, I hadn’t practiced often.


It was with a grateful breath of cold air that I crested the Grand Mountains and dipped down into the Beast Glades. Finally, I slipped free of the uncomfortable cuff Wren had designed to mask my mana signature so that I appeared human even to the dragons. Here, it was more important that I project my own natural mana signature, which would ward off the native beasts.


Home was close.


CECILIA


The air was thick with the buzz of insects and the haunting susurration of some unseen beast. A smell like rotten eggs oozed up from wet, sucking ground. And, worst of all, the rift—the connection between the asuran homeland of Epheotus and the Beast Glades of Dicathen—was still hidden from me.


It shouldn’t be this difficult, I thought, my frustration interrupting my focus.


I pulled back from the search, resting my senses. It had been days already…days spent in the dank depths of the worst the Beast Glades had to offer with no company but Agrona’s Wraiths and only a few intermittent moments with Nico.


I hope his task is going better than my own. It was, maybe, a less important role, but depending on how everything else shook out, Nico’s success would still decide exactly how the next leg of this war would play out.


The elderwood guardian stirred within me suddenly, and I immediately sobered. The beast’s will had been more active since we arrived in the Beast Glades, pressing on me like a tension held just beneath my skin. Tessia, on the other hand, had been largely silent, the presence of her destroyed homeland looming like a dark cloud over her thoughts.


I had expected her to give me trouble, considering. Being in Dicathen was a risk, but it never should have taken so long. But our search was complicated by a number of factors. Grey’s attack on the battle group in Etistin had caused a cascading failure of plans that was still rippling around me, and I had to believe that Oludari had purposely chosen that moment to seek shelter with the dragons. Combined with my continued inability to discover the exact location of the rift, it was difficult not to grow frustrated with this mission.


It should have been a straightforward thing to find the point where so much power was converging and condensing, but the transmission of mana between Dicathen and Epheotus was tremendous. The flow of mana was so great that it sent echoes of itself all over eastern Dicathen, and, to make matters worse, there also seemed to be several layers of powerful diffusive magic and shrouding spells in place throughout the Beast Glades, which I could neither explain nor breach—yet.


Closing my eyes, I rubbed the bridge of my nose with two fingers. Focus, I scolded myself. My eyes snapped open and I unfolded from my floating position before drifting to the ground. “No, I don’t need to focus. I need a break.”


Conjuring a bed of soft soil and woven plant fibers, I lay down and closed my eyes again, trying to doze as I waited for Nico and the Wraiths to return.


I sensed Nico’s mana signature ascend from one of the many dungeons he was searching some time later. Flying over the treetops with his escort of Wraiths to prevent attacks by the largest of Dicathen’s mana beasts, he was quick in returning. The Wraiths kept their distance, setting up a meager camp and lighting a fire to heat their food while Nico came to report on his mission.


He wasn’t having any more luck than I was.


“The timing of all this is starting to become a problem,” he said as he finished telling me all about the last couple of dungeons he’d searched. “The tether between Epheotus and our world, the dragon patrols, the teleportation gates…it all needs to come together just right, otherwise all the pieces collapse individually.”


“Don’t you think I know that?” I snapped, then looked away from him, immediately feeling guilty. Ever since our fight against Grey, there had been a queasy tension between us. “I’m sorry, I’m just…”


He waved away my apology. “I know. I shouldn’t focus on the negative. Perhata’s group took out a dragon, we know where Oludari is, and so far the wider operation in Dicathen seems to have gone unnoticed. We’ve got time. We…”


Something in the distance, an unusual movement within the mana, stole my attention, and Nico drifted off, clearly seeing the distraction of my features.


“Cecil?” Nico asked. “What is it?”


“I’m not sure,” I said, frowning.


The signature was similar to a mana beast’s, but it was too concentrated, and it moved too fast and too straight for any of the more powerful beasts I was familiar with. I focused on it, searching the mana. Deep within my core, a familiar aspect resonated.


“A phoenix!” I exclaimed, unable to hide my excitement. “Its mana signature is disguised somehow, more like a mana beast than an asura, but I’m certain it’s a phoenix. It must be one of Mordain’s people…” Spinning toward the Wraiths, I gestured to one of the battle groups. “You five, with me.”


Flying up into the lower, thinner bows of the canopy, I sped off in the direction of the mana signature. It was coming from the mountains and moving fast, flying just over the treetops. As we moved south and west to intercept, I carefully shrouded even the most minor distortion of the Wraiths’ mana.


We flew for an hour or more before our paths converged. The Wraiths and I alighted in a tree, hiding within the deep shadows, and waited. A minute pa.s.sed, and then there was the sudden rush of wind as a large man flashed past above, sending a wave of motion through the broad leaves above.


I gave a signal to the others, and we sped off in pursuit of the phoenix. Agrona would be quite pleased if this venture rewarded us with not only the location of the rift between Dicathen and Epheotus, but also that of the long-hidden refuge of Mordain and the other asura he’d led from their homes.


Finally, something goes right, I thought, carefully ignoring the p.r.i.c.kling of Lady Dawn’s memories in the back of my head.


CHUL ASCLEPIUS


As I flew deeper over the Beast Glades and closer to the Hearth, a dozen scarlet harpies burst up from the cover of the trees to my right and scattered, their squawking slicing at my ears like razors. I stopped, frowning as they flew away. Scanning the trees below, I failed to see what had caused their unusual behavior. A coven of harpies wasn’t easily cowed; they weren’t fleeing from my pa.s.sage, that much was certain.


The hairs on the back of my neck rose up as a chill tremor ran along my spine.


Flying straight up, I spun around and bellowed, “Come out! I know you are there. If you wish for a battle, you have found one, so come out and claim it!”


I conjured Suncrusher into my hands and pushed mana through it. Orange flames simmered within the fissures, but I was careful to not let too much mana escape needlessly.


The forest below ripped itself apart.


Hundreds of shadowy, winged creatures exploded into the air, spinning around me like a dark cyclone, and from the shadows dozens of needle-thin black spikes flew toward me. I swung Suncrusher with all the speed I possessed, conjuring a gout of bright orange flames in a thin nova. Phoenix fire collided with blood iron and void wind, and the sky became an inferno.


Flames rained down on the canopy, and the forest began to burn.


Flying right, I brought my mace up and caught a blurring scythe as it slashed down, the movement so fast I only saw the big, ugly man holding it after our weapons had already collided.


Too late, I sensed the hissing cut of another weapon, and something bit into my back. I spun away from the scythe, whirling Suncrusher in an arc around me, struggling to control the flow of mana to reinforce both my weapon and the thick barrier cladding my skin. Both my attackers fell back, melting into the wall of blazing shadow creatures and flame.


The shadow creatures were closing in, their spiraling flight speeding as they did so. Putting my head down, I sped onward into the tumult,  pulsing mana rapidly into my barrier in preparation for their a.s.sault. I came up against an invisible resistance—a repelling force—entwining the creatures. My entire body jerked, my force matched by the enclosing cyclone.


With a sound like breaking bones, the opposing spell burst asunder, and I smashed through into open air.


Two horned men waited for me on the other side, both wrapped in dark mana. One thrust forward with a spear like a black lightning bolt as the other breathed out a cloud of pure darkness.


I jerked to a halt, sending the force of my forward progress out in front of me in a controlled burst. The man with the lightning spear twirled around the wave of visible force, but the second man wasn’t ready and was batted aside, the spell spilling forth from his ugly mug clipping off before fully manifesting.


Behind the Wraiths, the force wave exploded in a series of fireb.a.l.l.s.


Suncrusher and the black lightning bolt collided, and coiling tendrils wrapped around the haft of my weapon and up my arms, making my arms go numb. My vision darkened as the winged shadows swarmed around me from the sides, seeking to close the loop of their cyclone again. Flying somewhere within their depths, I could sense three more signatures, indistinct and difficult to trace.


I dropped my weapon and leaned into the spear-wielder’s attack, forcing the spear down and away with one arm as I drove my other elbow into the man’s mouth, rocking his head back. Despite my numb arms, I spun around behind him, gripped him in my quivering fists, and hurled him bodily at his shadow-spewing companion.


Pain ripped through my side, and I looked down to see the black scythe embedded deep into my hip, the long curved blade lodged into the bone. With a roar, I summoned Suncrusher again and slammed it against the scythe, wrenching it free of my body and nearly knocking it from the huge man’s grasp. The blow continued into the man’s knee, spinning him off balance. Layered beneath the physical blow, I released a bursting nova of force and fire, throwing the man further away and deflecting a barrage of blood iron spears.


The winged shadows had congealed around us again, spinning faster and faster, and all three of my attackers backed into the vortex, again melting from sight.


I considered their strength, the dark feel of their mana, and knew them to be Wraiths: the experimentations of the Vritra clan, bred by generations of controlled entwining of basilisk and Alacryan blood. A battle group of Wraiths wielding the decay-attribute magic of the basilisks.


I let out a booming laugh of surprise but held back the eager taunts that jumped to my lips. Brute force and a quick end to the fight would not be enough to win this battle. I needed to stay mindful of the lessons I had learned traveling with Arthur, and I had to make my power last.


Lifting Suncrusher above my head with one hand, I felt for the five half-hidden mana signatures around me, then reached for the atmospheric fire-attribute mana that had drifted high into the sky above the Beast Glades, basking in the warmth of the sun. When my weapon swung down, columns of fire fell with it, scorching the sky like the fingers of an ancient G.o.d.


The vortex of shadow creatures boiled away, revealing the five dark forms it had hidden. The Wraiths deflected the attack with outward ease, not bothering to dodge or hide because of its apparent lack of power. As the columns of fire faded, a haze of my mana clung to them, making each Wraith glow like a firebug.


They would find it difficult to use the shelter of their obscuring spells to hide from me now.


Pus.h.i.+ng mana into Suncrusher, I held the mace aloft and released a flash of blinding light. Flames cracked as the weapon then carved an arc around me, firing off several bolts of phoenix flame. Mana surged from the weapon back into me, and I released it as a solid beam of force.


The spell caught the shadow-spewing Wraith in the arm as he attempted to blink away the blinding flash and dodge a much weaker bolt of fire, which exploded in the air as it pa.s.sed him. His mana crackled against mine, then the skin beneath blackened and broke open.


A black spike punched through my barrier of protective mana and then through the muscle of my shoulder. A second ripped through my side, and a third my upper thigh. A quickly conjured aura of flame wrapped around me, burning away the rest of the projectiles.


Darkness took me. Like a living shadow, it wrapped around my face, covering my eyes, nose and mouth. I clawed at the black, but my hand came away empty.


Suncrusher whirled around me defensively as I struggled for a way to free myself.


A jolt struck my left side. A biting pain sliced across my right. Tiny claws of mana raked and bit at me from every direction.


My weapon moved faster and faster as I whirled it around me, searching for the right mana signature. They had me on the defensive, having already shrugged off the most potent of my spells, and I could feel their movements slowing, their demeanor growing confident. The Wraiths’ mana signatures blinked in and out, half suppressed and muddied by the confluence of so many spells, but they hadn’t yet shaken off the lingering haze of phoenix fire that clung to them.


Something pierced me from above, driving down through my shoulder and back into my hip before leaving my body through the back of my leg. Something flashed through the shadows, black on black, like a bolt of dark lightning, and my body spasmed.


Heedless of the pain, I focused on my target. The source of the suffocating blackness was nearby, closer than he should have been, more still, his guard down. I held my strike even as my blood pumped from my wounds.


Sagging slightly, I gave a ragged, choked breath through gritted teeth and coughed up blood.


The blackness swirled, and I felt the caster, now right in front of me, thrust his weapon casually at my throat.


I shattered the inhibiting barrier of control around my core, letting my mana flood into my weapon. In a single motion, I swept Suncrusher upward, catching the lazy thrust of a blade of blood iron wrapped in shadows and incinerating the weapon and arm alike.


My left hand, grip weak from the spike piercing my entire body, wrapped around an unseen throat, and the shadows distorted, briefly showing me the Wraith’s face, his eyes wide and horrified, his mouth open in a shadow-spewing howl of agony.


“You have fallen for my ruse,” I growled before Suncrusher pa.s.sed through his skull, burnt black fragments of which sprayed out into the air as his blood-slick throat slipped free of my grip, sending the corpse tumbling toward the forest below.


The shadows melted away. The Wraith with the lightning spear hesitated as he turned to watch his companion plummet, while a long-haired woman cursed at the others to close ranks even as her conjured shadow creatures crawled all over me, their claws and teeth making tatters of my skin.


Right in front of me, the big one’s scythe was slicing down.


Releasing Suncrusher, my right hand snapped up and grabbed the weapon just beneath the curved blade, but my left arm quaked and refused to listen. The scythe’s tip carved across my collarbone and down my chest, drawing a torn and b.l.o.o.d.y line. From the corner of my eye, I could see a foot of black iron still sticking up from my shoulder, its length pinning my whole body together like an insect on a mat.


I jerked the scythe toward me, and the big Wraith was yanked forward with it. I drove my forehead into the bridge of his nose, then exploded into an aura of flames once against, sending the Wraith flailing away as his weapon burned in my grip.


The shadow beasts burned off my body. A bolt of black lightning deflected and arced away.


With a twist of my hips and shoulders, I shattered the blood iron spear piercing me, and it oozed from my wounds alongside my own blood.


The next wave of attacks came too fast for me even to lock down my enemies’ locations, and, despite my best efforts to conserve it, I could already feel my mana faltering. Pus.h.i.+ng toward the Wraiths, I took advantage of the gap in their number to force them on the defensive. There was no time to slow down or come up with some plan of attack. My thoughts grew slow and cloudy, unable to keep up with the four powerful enemies, and the lessons of my training bled from me.


Fire and blows rained down in the direction of whichever Wraith was closest, but the conjurer’s shadowy summons were everywhere, crawling over me, flying between me and my target, and although I pushed them back and prevented them from coordinating their a.s.sault, I did little enough damage of my own.


The aura of fire faded far too soon. Though my many wounds were of no importance, my core itself ached as if a fist of iron were crus.h.i.+ng it.


I kept myself from glancing in the direction of the Hearth. The Wraiths had been shadowing me and hadn’t attacked until I discovered their presence. It wasn’t me for which they hunted. It was home.


I grinned viciously and spit out a mouthful of blood. “I have taken a life today, while you have only managed to shed a few drops of blood. Keep running and you will all join the fallen!”


The lightning bolt spear flashed toward me. I batted it aside. A large blood iron lance thrust out of a pa.s.sing shadow at my throat. I caught it on Suncrusher, shattering it. Gouts of uncontrolled flame leapt from my body and weapon, burning away the shadow summons but only hastening the depletion of my mana.


A frigid numbness clutched the left side of my body. I stared down at it, not immediately comprehending.


Blood drained from me in a curtain, chasing the tumbling arm and leg that had just been severed from me, pumping furiously out of the remaining stumps. I thought I could still see the afterimage of the black scythe in the air where it had swept through me, parting me from my limbs.


I wobbled, nearly falling out of the sky, my flight interrupted by the bitter shock attempting to seize my mind.


“Bah,” I spat again, waving Suncrusher before me, the fissures glowing bright orange as air rushed through them. “One arm is enough, it is all I ever needed, I—”


A ring of blood iron spikes grew from the winged shadows, hovering around me. Black lightning struck them, chaining the spikes together so that they formed a solid barrier. Beyond it, the scythe-wielding giant floated into view. He was burned and favoring one side even in flight, but his face was unmarred by the expression of pain. Instead, he was grinning.


“You seem eager to die, asura. Would that I could give you that gift, but such is not my place today.” His rasping voice tightened with excitement as he continued. “But how much pain you experience, that depends on how long you keep up this meaningless conflict.”


Flames blazed across my wounds, scorching my flesh and sealing them, filling the air with the scent of hot iron as my blood boiled. “Do not think you can cow me with these small words. Even your cruel kind has not invented a pain that can break me. Either I will leave here victorious and your ashes will fertilize the forest below, or I will die a warrior’s death and my companions will bring down a mighty vengeance in recompense.”


The Wraith scoffed and exchanged a look with the summoner. She tossed her long hair and shrugged.


“Then we will take the rest of your limbs, one by one,” the Wraith continued.


He gave a signal with his hand, and the web of iron and lightning began closing in on me. I knew my strength was flagging, but I had enough yet to use one arm at least.


Pus.h.i.+ng as much mana as my complaining core would allow into my weapon, I swung with all my might. Flames jumped and curled from the fissures, creating halos of white fire around the round head and leaving a tail of sparks blurred in its wake.


Suncrusher met the combined black lightning and blood iron net.


Phoenix fire raged against the decay-attribute mana of the Wraiths. Blood iron twisted and the soulfire deviant lightning splintered. Energy ripped apart at the seams, fracturing outward in the form of mana shrapnel, the ruptured spells cras.h.i.+ng over the Wraiths like a tide of consuming death.


The scythe-wielding Wraith reared back even as my momentum carried me through the shroud of shattered mana, my weapon aimed at his head. His scythe came up, but too slow. Shadows pulled at my arm, hardened between us, and pulled the Wraith away simultaneously, but the pure white light of my fire cast them aside.


At the last second, the Wraith dipped down, and Suncrusher collided with the side of one horn, sheering it from his head.


Moving with its own hungry l.u.s.t for enemy blood, Suncrusher swept around again, falling toward the Wraith’s skull even as shadow and iron crashed all around me, then…


The light darkened. The weapon slid free of my limp grasp, whirling end over end into the burning trees below. The fire in my core went out, and I began to fall as backlash took me.

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The Beginning After The End Chapter 460 summary

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