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Part 1. A Bargain on Champions
"…FIGHT! …FIGHT! …FIGHT!" they chanted.
"What? First blood?!" Madam Pspew guffawed, almost choking on a handful of nuts. Her rotund croaker body jiggled as she slapped her thick sausage thigh. "This is no churls’ duel. Whoever survives, gets the job! Ha, Ha, Ha." The crowd roared in approval. Really, though, she could only afford to pay one … and only one from the bottom of the barrel, which was what was generally thought of the average Swamp Rat patron … perhaps even from underneath the barrel…
"…FIGHT! …FIGHT! …FIGHT!"
The tightly packed Swamp Rat patrons all guffawed as tables were toppled and chairs hurled and an empty circle erupted amongst them. "Get in there!" The two combatants materialized from the midst the crowd and were thrust stumbling into the middle.
"Two grunts on the mullet!"
"I got one on the Tricorn!"
"Screw that, five grunts says they both die!"
"FIVE?!" screamed the crowd.
"KILL Him! KILL Him! KILL!" Madam Pspew screamed, thrusting a hand into bowl of nuts and then shoving it in her maw. Gimpy, her new chitterling, gnashed his rat teeth from the bottom of the bar stool, and then skittered onto the bar for a better view. He sniffed at the bowl of nuts then ignored them—if they weren’t still attached, he wasn’t interested.
"Stab him—hair man!"
The two combatants circled each other within the claustrophobic circle. One was a straw head youngster who wore a tricorne hat. A rapier sat awkwardly in his fist.
"A most unmanly weapon!" shouted his opponent, a tall lanky, mulleted man with a dashing patchwork cape. Within each fist he carried a long bone steak knife … serrated … pointy…
"FILLET HIM—MULLET MAN!" someone cried over the din.
The mullet acted first, hurling a knife end over end at young Tricorne—who tripped serendipitously and avoided the flying knife—"Ahhhhhhh!" cried a goblin in the crowd. Tricorn recovered immediately—circled, and launched forward with the rapier. The mullet danced aside as the rapier stabbed harmlessly past and into the crowd—"Ahhhhhh!" screamed the same goblin.
"A fair thrust, boy!" cried the mullet, tearing his patchwork goatskin cape from around his neck and whipping it to wrap round and round his forearm. "But no man is the equal to Donvannos! Have at thee!" He slashed wildly, missing, recovering, and slashed again—missing—
Tricorn circled silently … eyes wired in near panic … jabbing and hacking here and there, batting down the steak knife, using the rapier’s length—where his skill was obviously deficient—to his advantage. He spasmed forward suddenly and slammed his rapier into the mulleted Donvannos—but NO! Donvannos had stepped deftly aside and entangled the thrusting blade with his whipping cloak—which he then whipped into Tricorn’s face—and closed the distance—the rapier clattering to the floor!
"YYYYAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!" cried the crowd.
"Yield!" cried Donvannos as he forced the steak knife to Tricorn’s throat—their limbs were locked—Donvannos was the bigger of the two—and he muscled Tricorn awkwardly to and fro—punching Tricorn in the kidney until he tripped and they both fell down in a heap, Donvannos on top. The steak knife point pressed into Tricorn’s throat.
"Yield, boy. Donvannos may kill by necessity," Donvannos cried, "but he does no murder!"
"WHAT!?" roared the crowd.
Tricorn’s eyes bulged from his skull, unaware that Donvannos was even talking so intent was his panic.
"Cease this!" croaked Madam Pspew, as she appeared suddenly between the legs of the bristling mob. "You—Tricorn—you’re beat! You—Donvannos, are the victor. There is no need for death this day!" Not when she could buy a pathetic loser at a heady discount.
"KILL HIM, YOU PANSY!" roared the crowd.
Tricorn gritted his teeth and struggled back, thrashing his legs in impotent frustration as he lay pinned. Then he closed his glistening eyes … defeat in his heart … and started whimpering.
"There … there," Madam Pspew managed to cough up as she edged closer … disgusted, but also impressed and envious somehow by his complete and total lack of shame … a wary eye she kept upon the steak knife that stood point down shivering against Tricorn’s neck. She adjusted her purple wig and bone tiara as she cleared her throat. "Ahem … how could I hire but one champion, when two have proven so very worthy?" Madam Pspew croaked. The winner hadn’t killed, so she could shave his fee … and the loser … the loser she could chisel to half a fee … she glanced at Tricorn’s puddle of desperation mounting upon the floor … a quarter fee, easy … possibly an eighth. "Do you hear me, man? You are both champions."
Tricorn was sobbing too much to answer, and Donvannos had not yet caught his breath … side bets had ensued amongst the crowd as to whether he would before Tricorn stopped crying … insults and daggers were hurled to sway odds…
"Keep crying, ya rapier wearing pansy!"
"You ain’t no croaker even!"
"Croaker-hating racists!" Madam Pspew croaked. Then she softened, or at least, appeared to. "Do not drink in those sour words. Times are difficult … difficult even for a brave man with a skilled blade to eke a sliver for a meal," Madam Pspew lied. In Cesstern, the seat of urban corruption in the Craw, there were always ways for a skilled bladesman to make money: murdering, duels, guard work, hired murdering, mercenary work, pro-bono murdering, robbery, random killing, thieving … a veritable cornucopia of monetary gain existed as far the eye could see and the blade could thrust for a skilled bladesman. But times were certainly tough for these two … specimens. "Tricorn, do you hear me? I will pay you! Cease your incessant dribbling!"
Tricorn quivered his sobbing dead and bets were paid.
"Ya can’t even cry worth a damn!"
The crowd dispersed in utter disgustion, except for the one goblin who’d been stabbed in the leg with the rapier. A steak knife seemed to be imbedded in his skull. He picked at it absently.
"Up, comrade," Donvannos said, finally catching his breath. He grasped Tricorn by the forearm and pulled him up, then slapped him on the shoulder. "It is time we met our generous employer. A drink, bar-keep!"
"Slag off!" screamed the bar-keep.
"Right…" Donvannos muttered.
"I believe this is yours," Madam Pspew said, handing the rapier to Tricorn. "And this, I believe is yours," she said as she stepped over and yanked Donvannos’ steak knife from the stupefied goblin’s head … he fainted … at least…
"Oooh … perhaps someone could aid that fellow?" Donvannos said glancing over. Unsurprisingly, there were no takers. "Oh, bar-keep!"
"I want me steak knifes back, mullet!" roared the goblin bar-keep.
"Right," muttered Donvannos, glancing down at his two knives. He glanced at Madam Pspew. "They were on loan…"
"Those knives are yours now, Donvannos," Madam Pspew croaked. "You have earned them!" She climbed up a stool and slid her last shiny silver sliver across the bar. Gimpy relinquished his perch upon the bar and skittered across the floor to sniff the felled goblin. "A drink for my two meat shield—ahem—my two champions! As well as the knifes. We shall toast—a bowl of nuts as well."
Madam Pspew’s two champions joined her at the bar.
"Excuse me, my Lady—" Donvannos began—
"My name is Wrackolyte, Madam Pspew the MiseryWhip."
"Madam Pspew, that chitterling—"
"Gimpy—Ah yes!" Madam Pspew exclaimed as the bar-keep dumped a handful of nuts upon the bar, and pounded three swill-steins down. The bar-keep took the silver sliver and bit it, and then swallowed it. Madam Pspew drained swill-stein with a thunderous croaker—"!BUUUUURRRRRRP!" She licked her painted lipstick lips. "Another bar-keep!"
"Yes … Madam Pspew, err, what exactly is the nature of our work?" Donvannos asked, taking a sip of the swill. He grimaced and then stifled a shudder. He glanced at Tricorn, who chewed carefully on a nut and reached for another—!SMACK!—Madam Pspew’s green slick hand landed atop his.
"One!" Madam Pspew croaked, withdrawing her hand. "Donvannos can eat two. He triumphed, after all." She shoved a fistful of nuts into her maw and commenced chewing and speaking and shooting nut fragments as she did so. "The purpose of … of our trip is confidential…" She glanced left and right with her huge red eyes and continued chewing, "but … I go in the Dark Lord’s name … we depart for Festerfern Gorse … on the morrow … Black business … disturbing rumors … heresy … yearly tithe collection … often murder…" Madam Pspew swallowed. "We take the Old Ways north. You two are my personal bodyguards as well as anything else I demand of you. Rumors that the Nine have been seen upon the roads around Skittereach—"
"Lord Slaughterhand’s Nine?" Tricorn gulped. Color had drained from his face … and down his pant leg.
"It’s only eight War-Paladins … nine if you count him," Madam Pspew croaked, counting on her fingers … she sniffed curiously. "Bogtard … Rrrrrg … never mind that, you are both up to task. Waymen and buggers are the most likely threat. Possibly angry Gorsers. Fern-farmers." She laughed. "Others are coming as well. Gimpy for one. We travel with a veritable army." Madam Pspew’s eyes glowed.
"Uh … Madam Pspew … it’s Gimpy—he’s gnawing on that goblin’s head," Donvannos said.
Madam Pspew glanced over … shrugged. "He’ll do that," she said.
"Right," muttered Donvannos. He took a long drink.
Part 2. Corpse Conduct
"But we must hide the corpses!" Criptchinn whispered.
"Nay, Criptchinn, my goblin-lad, we must display them for all to see," Wrackolyte Samharm said. "Nothing must seem amiss when they arrive. It will buy us time … I know … it is hard." A callused hand he lay upon the altar goblin’s shoulder to calm him. He glanced around the village square and suppressed a shudder. It seemed all of the black sockets of all the hanging dead were staring at him … loathing … accusing. He mentally averted his gazed and focused upon the remaining inhabitants of Festerfern Gorse. From atop the village well in a clear ringing tone that carried far beyond the meager village square, he spoke, "We must not be ashamed of the vile, unspeakable atrocities we as a community have committed upon our fallen brethren. It is a necessitute." The stink was nearly unbearable. Some had been dead weeks.
"But—it won’t work—they will know!" Criptchinn whimpered. "If there is one thing they know, it is death! Death in all its forms. They will know it was fever killed them—not sacrifice! And they are coming!"
The assembled Gorsers began to mutter amongst themselves. Perhaps fifty strong they were, all those strong enough to stand and walk. All those who hadn’t succumbed … who hadn’t hacked their own bloody lungs up in bending fits … the lucky ones … maybe…
"And they won’t just pass through," Criptchinn said, "not when they learn of the tithe—a month late! We should go now—"
"Allay your fears, Criptchinn," Wrackolyte Samharm said, more to the Gorsers than the altar boy. Upon the village well he was a head taller than the tallest. His one great Cyclops eye surfed the crowd with his gaze. "Yes they come. Yes, they will be here on the morrow, if not sooner. And yes, there will be a confrontation." He crossed his arms. "But we know this. And knowledge is our strength. Garmon Hawke and the Urzgareg brothers have watched the Old Ways this past week and watch them even now. One of them reports back at every dawn and every dusk. We all know Garmon and Nergril and Nurk. I expect Garmon within the hour. We require but another day for the final wagon to be complete. Is that a fair estimate, Moobruc?"
Moobruc twitched a dozen nods rapid fire, his hat clutched between his two massive troll hands. "Yes, Wrackolyte Samharm, tonight … I work all day, I work this night … is ready by midnight … by moonrise," he mumbled.
"By moonrise," Wrackolyte Samharm said. He closed his great eye … then looked up and opened it. "Oberin, would you abandon your wife? Or you, Quaghain, would you abandon your three children to the ravages of the festerscorn fever? For a matter of half a day, a few hours?" He shook his head slowly. "Of course we won’t. We all have loved ones who are ill, dying mayhap. We all have those we care about. I would not leave a single one. Tonight the wagons are complete. We must pack them. Essentials only. Remember room for the sick." He clasped his hands together. It was close. "Tonight we abandon the Craw forever. The Down Chapel, then we cross the Rotmark and make for Lorestone Abbey in the west. There shall we find someone who can help us. Someone who can cure our loved ones."
The crowd eased down. Hope, too, perhaps was infectious. Stronger than the fester-scorn fever Wrackolyte Samharm prayed.
"Fertile soil awaits us across the Rotmark," Wrackolyte Samharm said. He nodded his great brown bearded head as he gazed out with satisfaction over the crowd, his clear sky blue eye singing. He nodded to himself … these were good peoples … they had found the true path … they walked it with him … they deserved better than muck-farming till the end of their short days. The festerfern that grew in the marshes was often deadly with prolonged exposure. Few visitors promised few confrontations, which was the sole boon of the area. But its toll had been taken upon the populace, which swung lazily in the breeze, and it was time to move. Fertile soil … for farming … for growing … for living … and for burial if need be, and the need would be, they all knew … but Wrackolyte Samharm left it unsaid.
"Lustrous crops, and clean air awaits us beyond the Rotmark." Wrackolyte Samharm dropped off the well upon which he stood, soft muck squishing under his large boots, and strode into the crowd. It parted before him and closed behind … embracing him. They had certainly taken him in during the five short years the Black Temple been assigned here … they had listened to him … grown with him … made him one of their own … and them, his own. All different races, all bound by propinquity and a love of family … farming … of peace … and growth, coupled with an abhorrence of violence. They had all lost so much. Once, though, it had been different … it had taken many years … and so many sacrifices…
"Salvation brothers … sisters … is but hours away," he said, fixing his gaze upon one set of eyes and then another and then another … recognizing faces … stooped shoulders … chipped teeth … twisted hair … "We have all committed sins, my brothers and sisters," Wrackolyte Samharm said striding through the forest of bodies. Croakers and humans and goblins parted before him, all friends, all compatriots, all brothers, all sisters, all Travelers upon the Shining Path—all except one…
"We must align and dress the bodies within the square," Wrackolyte Samharm said, glancing at the one he did not know. "We must apply the old Rites to them, though it sickens us to do so. I shall bear this burden as was custom, for it will take an expert hand else all might be lost."
The one he did not know was a he, a young human-he, and he neither was covered with nor reeked of the animal offal and swamp muck that infected the rest of the villagers. Wrackolyte Samharm edged through the crowd … his eyesight was not strong at distance … he moved closer to the man, a mere boy really … a tricorn hat upon his blond head … a rapier was at his hip … an unmanly weapon…
"We take solace that our dead will give us life … we take solace that those who have passed on requested that we do this, so that their loved ones—us—may carry on. So that we might find a place of peace to settle."
During the well speech, the boy had remained upon the outskirts … always within the shadows of the palsied hovels that pockmarked the spongy swampland. Now the boy shied away as Wrackolyte Samharm neared. He melted back into the shadows, but the sunlight was yet strong as it sank, and Wrackolyte Samharm was close now.
"You are new to Festerfern Gorse, sir," Wrackolyte Samharm announced to the boy, who slunk away.
The boy turned, mumbled something unintelligible, and then turned back, stumbling over an empty tortoise shell. The boy regained his feet and started to run, only to realize he was surrounded by the crowd, which had oozed out like slime around the hovels and lean-tos and hanging corpses, wrapped around and engulfed him. He had no escape. He twitched from left to right, back and forth on the balls of his feet. The crowd closed in on him slowly, edging near with flexing hands and heavy, rusted farm tools.
"Stop where you are, sir!" Wrackolyte Samharm commanded. He towered over the boy. "I would know your name and purpose. You will not be harmed. You have my word."
"Please—please don’t hurt me," the boy said, licking his lips. He eyes glistened. "Just let me go, please. Madam Pspew said—" Someone in the crowd coughed behind him and the boy whipped the rapier from his hip—
"!&*HOLD*&!" Wrackolyte Samharm bellowed—thrusting an illuminated hand out—and the boy froze with a sigh just as his blade whisked free of its scabbard—and suddenly Criptchinn landed upon his back, all needles and teeth—sending them both to the ground in a heap. The tricorn hat fell into the muck.
"Up, Criptchinn—Do no harm!" Wrackolyte Samharm said. "As I said, boy, we would not harm you, but I would know your name, and you shall know mine as well. I am Father Samharm, Litigate of Sanctos, He of Justice, of the Sun and Seas and the Mountains, and all between. I walk the True Path now, my apostasy nigh-complete, the path of light and the path of the sun." He peered down at the two twisted bodies … neither moved. "Up, Criptchinn … Criptchinn?"
Father Samharm dropped to a knee in the muck and rolled Criptchinn off the spell-frozen boy.
"UUUUrrggh…" Criptchinn mumbled, staggering in Father Samharm’s strong grasp. A red blossom was growing upon Criptchinn’s chest … and likewise upon the cloaked back of the fallen man, though a steel stem protruded through his blossom. Criptchinn crumpled limp and grey into the muck, sliding from Father Samharm’s arms like a dead eel.
"Criptchinn! NO!" Father Samharm roared. He raised his open hand up and grasped the setting red sun, drawing it down in effigy—glowing vermilion within his thick fist—and then pressed it onto the crimson flower upon Criptchinn’s chest. "!&*LIVE*&!" He commanded, holding the glowing light against Criptchinn’s chest, forcing it inside the wound … a chorus of seraphim filled the air as the wind blew warm and strong … and as it blew … color, yeah, color and then life returned to Criptchinn’s green body.
"Another corpse," Garmon Hawke said kneeling, at hand upon the boy’s throat. He had returned suddenly unawares, which was one of his gifts. "We must hide him. Put him with the others. He traveled with them." He glanced at Criptchinn. "Will he live?"
Father Samharm was at the boy’s body then, rolling him over. The rapier had skewered him through and through, just below his sternum. There would be no helping this one. Father Samharm closed his eye and shook his head as he began the Prayer of the Sanctified Fallen. Hats amongst the crowd were doffed and gazes aimed low … silence but for the wind and words of Father Samharm. When he had finished, he closed the boy’s eyes and drew the rapier clean of the wound and wiped the blood on his robes.
"Will Criptchinn live?" Garmon Hawke repeated.
"Yes … though it will pain him for many a week," Father Samharm said. He took the boy’s hat from Garmon Hawke and placed it over the boy’s face. "Moobruc, carry Criptchinn to my home, please. Watch over him until I return. Thank you."
The big troll obeyed, lifting Criptchinn with ease.
"I will give the boy the rites later," Father Samharm said. He looked at Garmon Hawke. "How long until they arrive?"
Garmon Hawke adjusted his brimmed hat and glanced at the near setting sun. He shook his head. "Two, maybe three hours … if we can slow them down."
"The boy mentioned a name … Madam Pspew? A Wrackolyte, I presume by the title," Father Samharm said. "I’ve not heard of her before … it has been half a decade since last I set foot within the Black Temple in Cesstern. Have you gleaned anything of her in your forays?"
"The one that leads them," Garmon Hawke said. "Vicious little turd … a croaker, of sorts. Beneath an indigo cape … etched upon a still beating heart slung about her neck, she bears the Craven Lord’s symbol. Real mean and so fat she can barely walk. Dresses like a whore—excuse me father." He made the Sign of the Sun on his forehead. "She ain’t nothing to worry about, far as I can see. Was six all together. Five now. Two men. Two croakers. One chitterling. They bear weapons. One or two might now how to use them." He spat chaw. "And they never saw us … city folk." Garmon Hawke adjusted a short two-handed blade-breaker at his belt. "She sent the boy on ahead to spy, most like … he was the weakest, I imagine. Name was Gorrid." He stood up, and spat some more chaw into the muck. A crossbow was slung across his back. "I’m going to rendezvous with Nergril and Nurk. Father Samharm … we could take them in the swamps … never know it was coming…" He left it hanging as though hoping for no answer…
"I would not risk you nor Nergril nor Nurk, Garmon," Father Samharm said. "Let them come. Let it be me who deals with them. I would that we took them prisoner. Incarcerate them until we leave. Enough death has been dealt on this day." He gazed at the setting sun. "The Maliarch and Black Temple must not know of our plans. Not until after tomorrow, and by then it will be too late." He placed a hand upon Garmon’s shoulder. "The people of Festerfern Gorse need you Garmon, to lead them safely out of this mires. Take no undo risks yourself, Garmon, and remember … do no harm."
"Old habits die easy, Father, just like everything else," Garmon Hawke said, mounting his shaggy garron. "Trouble is keeping them that way … see ya, Father … Yah!"
Part 3. The Hanging Gardens of Festerfern Gorse
The bodies dangled … dozens and dozens of corpses twirling slow in a synchronous sway … throughout the various stages of decay. The corpse posts driven into the soft muck had mostly tilted … sagged … bent. A few had fallen. Black hollow eyes regarded Madam Pspew from the flickering dark. An albino crow tore a strip of flesh from the mouth of slack jawed corpse and then tore off into the night flapping ragged wings. Was anyone still here?
Madam Pspew and her party slunk warily through the shamble of hovels and corpse posts and neared the crooked heart of Festerfern Gorse, the village well, bathed in wretched waning moonlight. Mulleted Donvannos strode on point, his twin bone steak knives crossed silent and maybe … just maybe deadly. The Butcher of Cypress Street, Izula, limped along at Madam Pspew’s side. Her bone great sword scraped along five feet behind her in the muck … keep the most dangerous the closest. Her leg was healed nearly complete. Mindel Pfilsh, the arcanist, crept along off to the right while Gimpy crawled along roving off to the left, sniffing out enemies and reeking piles of dung alike.
Not snore nor fart was to be heard reverberating from within the ramshackle hovels. The occasional swamp owl hoot or the buzz of insects was the sole respite from claustrophobic silence. Some of the citizens were no doubt nocterns, out and about, which in a backwater dung heap like this generally meant molesting whatever passed for the local farm fauna. Others, however, no doubt would be sleeping. Yet, evidence of neither sleep nor goat rape was present. Curiouser…
Festerfern Gorse was notable not only for its high death rate due to its namesake, but also that it was a melting pot of races. The poor, the hungry, the downtrodden, the drunk … pretty much the lowest, most misshapen, and horribly inbred amongst all the races eventually sought out Festerfern Gorse. It was the only place in the Craw that would take them in and instead of the typically encountered specie of outright bloody backstab-murder, it offered them the soft loving embrace of passive suicide in the form of fester-scorn fever that even the most cowardly goblin could commit—
"Gimpy!" whispered Madam Pspew as Gimpy started chittering and gnashing his teeth. "What is it?"
Gimpy tore off suddenly into the dark, chittering incoherently…
"Has he caught a scent?" Donvannos asked.
"How in the Shades should I know?" Madam Pspew rasped. "Maybe he caught festerscorn fever … wouldn’t be the first. Keep moving … slig-livids…" They slid deeper into the forest of the damned.
"Who would do such a thing?" Donvannos muttered as he glanced at the corpses. He wiped his brow with a sleeve. The corpses … the bodies … what had been done to them had obviously unnerved him. "Animals…"
"Exquisite…" Madam Pspew muttered … envious … as she inspected the work. She grabbed a foot. It had been flensed of all skin … the knife work had been delicate … precise … the work of master. The way he had left the musculature untouched was extraordinary … beyond her own ability though she would admit it not even to herself … incredible though, despite the ravages of crow and rot the masterstrokes of this Wrackolyte Samharm were yet intact. And there were were so many … possibly fifty or sixty corpses in a community this small … an impressive blood tithe, seemingly … but where was the gold tithe? It had been less and less the past four years. Was he skimming more than was generally accept? Or was he trying to make up for the gold tithe with blood? No … something was amiss here, but what? She gazed into the hanging forest of pale long limbed death that surrounded them and reached out into the darkening infinity … something was amiss, but what?
"Hsssst!" Donvannos hissed—dropping to a knee, taking refuge behind a corpse post. He made hand signals in the moonlight to Madam Pspew indicating that—
"Are you a bogtard!?" Madam Pspew croaked. "Am I a mute, a finger-glibber? What’s this?" She made a series of spasmodic gestures with her hand in pale imitation of Donvannos. "Speak. Speak!"
"I believe the human was indicating my presence," a tall Cyclops announced, appearing from beyond the shadows beyond the well. Long, dark Wrackolyte robes hung from his massive shoulders. A trimmed beard graced his chin, otherwise he was bald. "I am Wrackolyte Samharm … come to greet you."
"What atrocities have you done here, cyclops!?" Donvannos cried, pointing with a quavering steak knife.
"Silence you mulleted maggot!" Madam Pspew screeched. She snapped her whip—!CRACK!—inches from Donvannos’ face. "It is not your place to question a Wrackolyte!" She whipped again—but Donvannos had caught the end and held it tight … inches from his face. Madam Pspew yanked upon it madly. "Let go! Let it go, you racist swine!"
Izula’s saw-sword angled up to ready, clutched between her massive gnarled fists … she waited…
Mindel merely watched, cracking his knuckles … muttering to himself…
"As you say … Madam," Donvannos growled, relinquishing the whip tip.
Madam Pspew coiled her whip length by length, disgust unrelenting in her poisonous crimson gaze.
"You have come to collect the tithe," Wrackolyte Samharm announced, breaking the homicidal tension.
"Yes, but we have come to investigate why no tithe was sent," Madam Pspew croaked. "Which is your job, is it not Wrackolyte Samharm?"
"It is, Madam Pspew," Wrackolyte Samharm admitted. He bowed.
"You are aware of the price of failure?" Madam Pspew asked, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. This Wrackolyte was no buffoon … he was hiding something. "You were a somebody back in Cesstern a decade ago. A big somebody, it was said. With plans to become even bigger. And now you’re a podunk nobody in charge of nowhere. Sting much? Now, why did you not send it?"
"There was … regrettably … no one to send it," Wrackolyte Samharm said. He glanced around at all the bodies hanging from all the posts … a silent majority…
Madam Pspew raised a nonexistent eyebrow as she waddled closer. "You? You killed … the entire village?" Madam Pspew croaked in obvious awe and regret … regret that she hadn’t done it. But he was lying … somehow … about something. "Most commendable, Wrackolyte Samharm."
"You bastard!" roared Donvannos. "Some of these are children! Madam Pspew! We must dispatch this monstrosity!"
"By Grimnir, where are you from?" Madam Pspew croaked at Donvannos. She glanced at Wrackolyte Samharm and shrugged in obvious embarrassment. "Hirelings … I need some good slaves…" she glanced at her feet. There was a trap here … where? "Money’s been tight…"
Donvannos blinked… "And what happened to Gorrid?" he yelled, shaking his knives. "Where is he? If you—"
"Ahem … and while your blood tithe is admittedly impressive, Wrackolyte Samharm," Madam Pspew croaked, cutting off Donvannos with a hand. "I must ask—"
"Where is the gold tithe?" Wrackolyte Samharm finished her question. He walked over to a large dilapidated barn. He laid a hand upon the massive barn doors. "It is in here. I loaded it into the a wagon, but the axel has broken … and the wainwright … is … hanging over there." He pointed at a large rotting troll corpse rocking gently in the soft cool breeze. "If you could help me lift it, and then brace it … I might be able to detach the axel and replace it … fortunous the wainwright made one before I … tithed him."
"Fortunous," agreed Madam Pspew, reading the trap within the Cyclops’ eye. It would spring nigh soon …
"In here." Wrackolyte Samharm grasped a massive wooden door handle. "Towards the back…"
Yes … the trap is inside…
Wrackolyte Samharm drew open the massive doors. They creaked and groaned and resisted, but the Wrackolyte proved the stronger and wrestled the thick doors ajar. Dark silence poured from within. "It is the back axel … let me light a lamp … for the humans." He stepped into the darkness. The sound of rummaging cackled from the liquid dark … and then—"Ah … here it is." A soft orange glow appeared from within. "Please … I only need a few hands. It won’t take long."
"Then by all means we shall help … go, all of you!" Madam Pspew shoved Donvannos ahead of her into the barn … and then Mindel … and the Izula. She paused before entering … how would it play out? Would he smash their skulls with wrench? Throttle them with his massive hands? Skewer them with arcane words? Madam Pspew tightened her grip upon her whip as she waddled inside and toward the back. The wagon was indeed broken. She could see the axel had split at the juncture of one great spoked wheel. Moonlight poured in the back door beyond the wagon. Wrackolyte Samharm stood saintly in the light, at far corner of the wagon … he bent then … grasping with his great hands and lifted the end of the wagon … he gambles now … he shows his vulnerability to gain our trust … to take us unawares…
"Rrrrg … I … need you to … Rrrrrg … hold this up but an instant," Wrackolyte Samharm grunted, "whilst I slide the block … beneath it…" The block was a round cut of oak tree trunk five feet tall and seven in diameter standing by the far door. "Ready yourselves … it is … heavy…"
Madam Pspew noticed a rope tied to a massive eyehook screwed into the tree trunk. "Well, get to it, morons!" Madam Pspew croaked. "Get to it. Hold it up!"
The eyehook rope disappeared into the dark of the trusses crisscrossing above…
Donvannos whispered hate with his eyes as he and Mindel and Izula gathered at the edge of the wagon, finding their grips. Izula could barely reach the wagon. Madam Pspew uncoiled her whip … where did the rope go? She peered up … deciphering shadows … A trap? Something heavy … a bloated swamp-cow, perhaps, suspended above?
"Ready?" Wrackolyte Samharm grunted.
"Ready…" said Donvannos.
"Ready…" said Mindel.
"Croooooak…?" asked Izula.
"Crooooooaaaaaak!" answered Madam Pspew.
A few things happened instantaneously then … Wrackolyte Samharm let go of the wagon … it dropped silent and then slammed to the floor as the crew had failed to even slow its movement … Donvannos screamed as he dove from the wagon and ducked under Izula’s arcing saw-sword … the lantern exploded against the wall and caught flame … as Mindel placed his hands together and muttered dark words that brought a queasy yellow light to bear … and Wrackolyte Samharm dove back as the great saw-sword of the Cypress Street Butcher slipped through him … Madam Pspew’s whip cracked in the darkness and she cursed loud—"!@#STOP#@!"— and impotent … Wrackolyte Samharm ignored the dark warped work and roared out the door, knocking the huge tree trunk over—!THUD! … the eyehook rope attached zipped hot and fast through eyehooks unseen and the huge barn door they’d entered slammed shut … and then Mindel cast a yellow dart at the fleeing cyclops but hit only thick slab door as it slammed in all their faces … and they were trapped in a burning barn.
4. A Sudden and Regretable Relapse of Immorality
"…ther … Father Samharm—wake up … Father, stay with me…"
It was Garmon Hawke. He shouldn’t be here. He should be on the Old Ways … leading them … going toward … somewhere …
The Down Chapel. He should be leading them to the Down Chapel. His garron stood by whickering softly in the failing moonlight. "You should be leading them to the Down Chapel," Father Samharm said, sitting bolt upright. "You—urhh—"
"Don’t move, Father," said Garmon Hawke. He adjusted a lantern on the ground. "Nurk and Nergril are leading them. They are able—hold still…"
"They are able," agreed Father Samharm drunkenly. His head lolled to the side and then bolted back up straight. "Where is Madam Pspew and her minions? I feel … weak…"
"They’re in the barn still," Garmon Hawke said, glancing to his left for an instant, and then his hawk eyes were back.
"It was on fire…"
"They put it out, I reckon," said Garmon Hawke. "They’ve been banging away for about an hour now."
"An hour—what?!" Father Samharm said. He pushed himself up but a splitting pain reduced him to boneless slime. "They’ll escape—"
"You’re hurt, Father," said Garmon Hawke. "I stitched you up best I could … but … only you can heal you, Father. It’s bad…"
Father Samharm glanced down at his chest … a long stitched line ran from his sternum to his lower belly. The stitches were thick, twisted twine. Ichor leaked from between the two sewn pieces. "Gruesome…" he mumbled, picking numbly at a stitch.
"I had to push your entrails in," Garmon Hawke said. He dragged a hovel door over and tossed a coiled length of rope down beside. "Don’t—don’t move … I’m going to tie you to this door and drag you to … we’ll catch up to the others…"
Father Samharm nodded twice … even though he knew it wasn’t true.
"You must heal yourself, Father," Garron Hawke said, forming a knot expertly between deft hands. He looped it over Father Samharms massive shoulders and then worked it under his arms. He snugged it gently but firm.
"I have not the strength, Garmon," Father Samharm admitted. He placed a too heavy hand upon his friend’s shoulder. "Go … leave me here … I’m too damned heavy…"
"I cannot," said Garmon Hawke, looping the rope now around Father Samharm’s waist. "This is going to hurt—" He cinched it—
"Uhhhh!" Father Samharm said. "It was the frog … not Pspew … the other one, the one with the saw-sword … she nicked me…"
"Nicked you, huh?" Garmon Hawke mumbled. He pulled a knot tight with his teeth and then spat it out. He looped what was left through Father Samharm’s crotch. "Good thing she didn’t hit you square, eh? Be nothing left of you." He pulled the rope tight then stood and turned.
Father Samharm laughed, his body convulsing slightly, "Sanctos damn you, Garmon, don’t make me laugh," he said, laughing more. His stitches drew tight. "Why did you come back?"
Garmon Hawke turned from his garron, a knot now neatly tied to the saddle horn. "Damned chitterling came bolting at the wagon column clear out of the dark," he said. "Damned thing comes charging us … I feathered him thrice in the eye and still he kept on coming. Nurk bashed him in the leg and sent him packing—brains leaking out the side of his head. Didn’t slow him, though. Chased him back here … lost him in the muck trample, crafty little thing." He spat chaw into the muck. "Reckoned I’d come check on you, while I was in town, make sure you were alright."
"Looked worse than my grandfather," Garmon Hawke said, and then added, "the dead one."
"Garmon, you must leave me," Father Samharm said.
"No chance," Garmon Hawke said, ripping a knot tight. "Easy, girl … easy, nice and easy…" He guided his garron forward, dragging the Cyclops onto the door.
"Rrrrrrrg! I can hear the timber breaking … Rrrrrg! They’re almost free," Father Samharm grunted. "Leave me."
"Just got to secure you to the door," Garmon Hawke said. "Just hope no one opens it." He glanced up at the barn. His eyes were wide for an instant … then they narrowed. More wood shattered. Someone was shouting—pointing. Involuntarily, he reached for his crossbow, which lay by Father Samharm.
"No," said Father Samharm. A sharp hiss of pain escaped his lips as he reached into his robes and rifled around. "Pspew has power, as does another … not to mention the frog who butchered myself. They would kill you … gleefully … you will not leave me?" Father Samharm sighed, defeated. He dragged a small roll of parchment free of his robes. "I will be dead by morning, Garmon."
"Then I’ll bury you in clean soil," Garmon Hawke said working back on the knot.
"Veil Athmore…?" Father Samharm whispered.
"Veil Athmore," Garmon Hawke said.
"Leave me," Father Samharm said. "This is folly…"
"Maybe…" Garmon Hawke grunted. He was nearly finished securing him to the door. "Don’t believe in miracles, Father? Crisis of faith? Sanctos wouldn’t be pleased."
An arm was poking out of the wall of the barn. A strip of wood exploded out, followed by another … then another … a head poked out—"I see them!" croaked Madam Pspew. "I’m gonna flense the skin off your bones! Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha!"
"Sanctos owes me no miracles, Garmon … not tonight," said Father Samharm. His hands palsied as he lifted the scroll before his eyes and broke the wax seal with his thumb. "My soul has been thrice damned for the horrors I’ve committed … these past five years, though … all the good work…" he shrugged painfully, "been hedging my bets."
"You and me both, Father, you and me both," Garmon Hawke said. He pulled another rope tight and Father Samharm grunted. "Now you shouldn’t fall off. If Sanctos don’t owe you anything, how about somebody else, Father?"
"I was hoping you could call in a favor?" Father Samharm said.
"A vicious old criminal like me?" Garmon Hawke laughed.
"You were only a poacher, Garmon."
"Aye, though it weren’t just animals I poached."
Father Samharm glanced up at the small garron, she neighed in fear as Madam Pspew and her minions of doom burst free from the barn not far enough away. "That horse have wings?" Father Samharm asked. He unrolled the parchment.
"Even if it did, it couldn’t carry your heavy carcass," Garmon Hawke said as he swung up into his saddle.
He turned in his saddle and fit a bolt in his crossbow … he took aim … and fired—!THUNK!—"Damn!"—the bolt buried dead center in a corpse post as the saw-sword frog dashed by, followed by the other minions. War cries followed as Garmon Hawke cried, "Yaaaah, Swifty!" to his garron and the little horse pulled forward, dragging the Cyclops right along … quickly even, but not quickly enough.
Father Samharm held the parchment close to his great eye, the lantern too, and despite the pain, despite the jostling, and the blood loss and insane posse of psychotic criminals chasing him, he managed to read from the parchment … and the ground shook beneath him and the moonlight snuffed out like a candle flame and a dark foulness emanated from his contorted speech a static charge filled the air … the garron neighed in terror and burst forward madly as a forked lightning ripped down from the heavens and showered the village of Festerfern Gorse with scything negative energy—
"Yaaah! Swifty!" Garmon Hawke yelled behind him, "What the hell was that, Father?!"
Father Samharm did not answer him.
Part 5. Pyromania
The black lightning, invisible but for the red sparks and cinders that exploded wherever it hit, sent Madam Pspew and her hirelings diving into the muck for cover. The horse and its rider tore off through the muck, dragging the traitor behind, quickly fading into darkness before even Izula had regained her feet. The stench of singed flesh and burnt wood permeated the thick swamp air. Thick smoke hung in fat asphyxiating tentacles penetrating intertwining the town.
"Izula?" Madam Pspew coughed … she shook her thick wobbly head … blinked … that was … that was some power. But … but no one had been hit. No one killed? Exploded? Not even maimed. She could barely breathe … but … a pure waste of power. She adjusted her purple wig and bone tiara … she turned … something was moving in the darkness.
"Gimpy?" Madam Pspew sniffed the air … the rancid sweet suffocating residue of dark power … of necromancy … it was dissipating … but … something else moved in the smoke. What? She coughed … gasped. How anything could breathe let a lone move—Madam Pspew was on her feet then as fast she had ever moved. "Izula! Donvannos! Mindel! Gimpy!"
she croaked. If they were dead she would save money yes, but her chances of survival were somewhat less. The lightning had struck what it was supposed to strike. It had struck everyone in the town … everyone not living.
A thick body trudged out from the smoke into view—a flensed troll body, it’s musculature dry like jerky and cracking with the movement. The rope around his neck had been cooked into his flesh. Other figures approached behind him … zombie stomping through the muck and mist. There were many of them … the tithe had been … substantial.
"Izula! Where?" Madam Pspew croaked, flailing to her left.
"Over here," Donvannos’ voice called out. "My leg…"
She found them both on the ground not ten feet away. Mindel crouched over them … his hands glowing a sickly yellow in the stifling mist. Donvannos’ leg was caught beneath an immense fallen corpse pole, a tree trunk really.
"Is it broken?" Madam Pspew croaked. If it was…
"No … Rrrg … just stuck," Donvannos said. The muck underneath was soft and though Donvannos looked contorted, it was possible the leg was intact … but if it wasn’t…
The corpse that had been hanging from the tree had been beheaded … Izula raised her saw-sword again, stricken with gore.
!THUD! !THUD! !THUD!
The zombie troll stomped closer and closer, moaning, no doubt for flesh and brains and possibly zombie rights … the numberless dead behind following suit, closing in from all directions.
"Into the barn!" Madam Pspew commanded, pointing.
"Croak?" Izula asked, eyeing Donvannos.
"Leave him!" Madam Pspew commanded.
"Damn you, Pspew!" Donvannos spat. He ripped a steak knife from its sheathe and placed it between his yellow teeth. He struggled, trying to free his leg, his mullet shivering like a porcupine—but it was no use, the log was too massive. "Kill me Izula!" He demanded. Izula flinched for a second, then looked to Pspew.
"Go, Izula—Mindel, GO!" Madam Pspew commanded again. "I will see to Donvannos—Secure that hole in the wall and be ready when we come—DO IT!"
"Croaaaak…" Izula croaked, but she obeyed, as did Mindel.
"!GLLLLAHHH!" The troll leered close, the rare stench of undeath the perfume of some cyanotic flower … it lurched toward Donvannos.
Donvannos tore open his collar and wrenched the steak knife from his own teeth. "See you in Hades, Pspew!" he growled, holding the knife to his own throat.
"It’s Madam Pspew," she croaked. She didn’t even offer a sneer. "Put the knife down, fool." She pushed her sleeves back and lowered her already low stance, standing in the path of the troll zombie stomping through the muck. As the dead eyed zombie troll leered over her she raised her hands before her and grasped the zombie troll’s head in effigy and croaked, "*^The Craven Lord commands you!^*" she said gripping the air—a spasm wrent the zombie—Madam Pspew as well—and a battle of wills ensued—the other zombies closed in stumbling through the muck—and suddenly the air shattered and the zombie troll was hers.
Madam Psew staggered—and pointed at the log—"*^!LIFT LOG!^*" Madam Pspew croaked-and then stumbled off for the barn, looking over her shoulder as she slid and tripped across the uneven muck.
"!GLAAHHH!" The massive troll zombie shuddered as it stepped forward, its huge foot sinking into the muck. It grasped the tree trunk and lifted like a machine until the tree trunk was tipped higher than its head.
Donvannos was on his feet and stumbling through the muck the instant the weight was lifted. He weaved through the closing snare of dead flesh that reached out with black nails and cracked jerky muscle. He dove through the barn wall hole an instant before it clogged up with the limbs and biting heads of the walking dead—landing next to the wagon and nearly squashing Madam Pspew.
Mindel stood within the dark, his face illuminated by the sickly yellow sizzle of arcane powers. He opened his clenched fists and shot the light at the mass of zombies clogging up but forcing their way inexorably through the hole. The light sizzled like fried swine stomach but slowed them not. Chipped nails and crooked teeth bit and chewed and pulled ever closer… "!GLAAAAAAH!"
Madam Pspew lay upon the floor … blood seeped from around her crimson eyes and from the periphery of her round eardrums.
A yellow flare burst into the zombies.
Izula stepped in then, to the side, and grunted as she brought her massive saw-sword down into the tangled mass of arms and legs and heads and bodies. The wall of the barn groaned inward under the press of what must have been the entire village. Timber groaned. Izula’s massive fists pulled the saw-sword halfway to the ground, as it cut through flesh and bone, but then halted. Izula started foaming at the mouth as her sword was drawn into the fray by dozens of fleshless hands.
Izula’s huge eyes went pinpricky and she grunted like a musk-ape as she pulled on her saw-sword and then pushed and then pulled and pushed, limbs and heads and hands raining down in thuds and chunks. But still they came, grasping and pulling and biting Izula, drawing her into the amoeba of dead bodies now pouring through the hole and onto the floor.
"Let go the sword!" Donvannos cried, swiping with his steak knives to little effect. He danced back as a zombie crashed forward.
Another flare sizzled into the zombies.
"CRRROOOAAK!" Izula roared as black teeth tore into her arms and legs—but then she bit back! Dead muscle tissue sloughed off between her needled jaws. Her huge fists still grasped the massive saw-sword in a tug of war between her and the whole village. Her doughty form was fast disappearing within the congealation of wave after wave of dead that slammed into the wall and poured through the hole. "CRRRROOOAAAK!" she croaked in defiance as she disappeared for an instant beneath the wave of dead. Then only her head was visible above the wave of dead.
"Let go the sword!" Donvannos screamed, reaching out as far as he dared.
"Get back, Donvannos!" Madam Pspew croaked as she clomb to her feet. She wiped blood off her slick croaker snout. "!^*GRAB IZULA*^!" roared Madam Pspew, black energies pouring off her like roiling steam … the mound of scrambling dead exploded high as though a giant mole had burrowed beneath its midst … "!^*GO*^!" Madam Pspew then croaked, and the very air warped with power as the exploded mound suddenly receded as though hollow. The dead rained down. "Grab a lantern! Donvannos!" Madam Pspew croaked as she and Mindel climbed the one high point in the midst of the barn, the broken wagon.
Donvannos tore backwards against the cold dead grasp upon his leg and shook free, hopping backward—tripping into the broken wagon. He pulled himself up the tilted broken wagon and heaved himself over it disappearing just as the dead reached the wagon.
Yellow flare blasts singed arms and melted flesh, but Mindel was worn now, near finished, Madam Pspew could see from her perch next to him upon the top of the wagon. The dead coursed all around them now, a sea of red striated meat cracked dry and hanging from glistening white hungry bone. Arms reached up all around, torn cracked nails scraping runnels of wood in twirls as the dead hauled themselves up the wagon.
"Madam, I have it!" Donvannos cried from across the barn. He waved a lantern in one hand as he stood upon a tall workbench, but not tall enough. The sea of dead had covered the entire floor and pressed against the chest high bench, arms reaching and rotten red bodies hacking their way up. Donvannos held a hammer in one hand and swung wildly at the reeling corpses, damaging when connecting—!THWAP! "Madam—?" Donvannos cried swinging the hammer—!THWAP!—
"Shatter it!" Madam Pspew croaked, as she tore her whip free. Amidst the sea of grasping arms, she sidestepped, ducked, tore a leg free and then tore her whip straight upwards, wrapping it upon a rafter—and then despite her soft hands, her despite her skintight dress, despite her titanicistic blobularity, she began to climb. Mindel scrambled up after practically on her back.
Madam Pspew heard the sound of breaking glass below as she reached the rafter and clomb upon it. Mindel hauled himself up next and Madam Pspew unslung her whip and handed it to Mindel. "Get Donvannos if you can!" she croaked. "Then light the oil!" Then she was climbing across the rafter, holding onto supports as she made her way towards the wall with the hole in it. A sickly yellow flash illuminated the air, exploding shadowed light upon the roiling sea of meat and snapping teeth beneath her. The flash lasted an instant, replaced an instant later by a flickering orange glow and the stink of burning flesh and smoke.
Donvannos appeared behind her then, half of his mullet mane gone—torn free of skull, Mindel clung behind. Mindel was wasted, his eyes glazed, his body wobbly upon the truss, only instinct kept him alive. Their visages were nightmarish, though not compared to the horrors below. Some primordial mechanism of the fear of fire had anointed a vigorous madness into the dead as they began to tear into one another in some attempt to escape the conflagration. A quarter of the room was engulfed already in flames and black soot stained the ceiling.
"Get ready to jump—Blaah!" Madam Pspew croaked as she inhaled a lungful of superheated smoke. "!^*COME*^!" Madam Pspew croaked above the cacophony of whirling mad death below. The smoke was suffocating—the heat had singed out all moisture in her skin—red lightning cracked upon her field of green with every motion.
A massive troll-like blur shot from the wall hole—"JUMP!"—and drove a momentary space of trampled dead ten feet into the barn. Madam Pspew and the others fell like dead rocks through the air and crashed onto the clearing of shattered zombies below. Dead ribs and dried muscle cushioned somewhat their fall. Flaming dead surrounded them, white blue and orange fire engulfing the entire barn.
Madam Pspew hacked and coughed and spat black ash as she scrabbled blind over twitching corpses and pulled herself out through the hole in the wall. She hacked and sputtered and rolled herself into the cool night air as she heard Donvannos and Mindel likewise right behind her.
"GLLLLAAAAHHHH!" glorted the conflagrated mass of zombies that struggled to escape the jammed hole in the wall. A mass of waving black bone arms struggled and twitched from the hole.
"Crrrroooaak!" Outside, the hole, Izula stood waiting for them. A massive troll arm was still clutching onto her leg. The massive two-handed bone saw-sword stood poised yet in her gnarled fists. She had not relinquished her weapon. Woe to the few zombies that escaped the burning barn. Charred corpses soon joined the myriad of unburnt corpses that littered the area and had previously encountered Izula.
Madam Pspew lay off with Donvannos and Mindel. Mindel lay upon the ground smoking like a dying ember … unmoving. Whether he was dead or not … Madam Pspew cared not. She hacked and coughed and spat char and smoke … her great eyes leaked steaming fluid. Every inch of her body was crisped and steaming … she could not move save her wracking coughs which sent pain through every ounce of her being and sloughed off her flesh in strips. Her wig was a crisped black thing melted onto her skull and her bone tiara was inexplicably sticking out of Donvannos’ leg. Her legendary beauty was no more. As she drooled precious clear fluid into the muck, with her smoking black charred hands, she scraped a small mound of muck together before her eyes…
Izula’s grunting and croaking coupled with the—!SWISH!—and the—!THUNK!—of her saw-sword followed by the—!THUD!—of zombie limbs raining into the muck alone was a soft cool compress of comfort in the night. It kept her thoughts sane … solid … what would she do? She was ruined … defeated by a has-been Wrackolyte farmer … and a stinking Cyclops, at that … how had Wrackolye—NO … no, he was just Samharm now … just Samharm, and he would pay … one way or another, alive or dead he would pay for destroying her—No … she was not destroyed … she had not been defeated … High Priestess Diathama Sneering would not find out … nor would the others … and she would not be mocked by Lorgex the Blind … NO … they had arrived at late hour this very night in Festerfern Gorse and found to their horror that the entire village had been put to the torch … every hovel every lean-to piss trap … Madam Pspew and her minions had been burned in the conflagration trying to … to save babies! Yes, babies for sacrifice … and … and horse tracks were left that lead west toward the Rotmark. Veil Athmore. War horse tracks, heavy and deep … War-Paladins mounts ... Lord Slaughterhand’s horde … the roving marauders of Sanctos’ Hand … he had put the entire village to the sword … the entire village to the torch … yes … that was what happened … that was what happened … Madam Pspew closed her eyes … they had arrived too late to stop them. She would return a hero to the Black Temple. But first ... she scooped the handful of muck into her mouth and chewed…
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