Tales of the Seventh
Part Three
Chapter Seven
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Marc Alan Edelheit MAE Novels Historically Accurate Fantasy at its Best

The acrid stench of burned wood was strong on the air.

Stiger gazed upon the burned-out farmhouse, the remains of which stood just a few yards away. Only two of the structure’s walls still stood, somewhat. These were charred a flat black and had partially collapsed. Everything that had at one time been inside had been reduced to ruin and ash. Nothing was recognizable, other than the stone fireplace and chimney, also blackened by the smoke and flame.

Stiger could feel his anger rising, heating him despite the chill touch of the day’s air. Eli, Tiro, and Father Griggs stood next to him, silent.

When they’d arrived at the farm, they had found Eli waiting for them. The elf’s expression was now an unreadable mask.

The men had been ordered to halt. They waited a few feet away on the road, looking tired, bored. A few glanced curiously his way or looked at the ruin that had once been a farm. It was not their job to worry about what had caused the fire or what it meant for them. It was Stiger’s responsibility and he knew it. Stiger wiped dust and grit from the road out of his eyes as he studied what was left of the house.

“Three additional farms within four miles have seen similar treatment,” Eli said, sounding deeply unhappy.

Rubbing the back of his neck, he looked over at the barn, ten yards away and across the farmyard. Only the foundation and some charred beams remained.

“That’s not good news.” Tiro placed his hands upon his hips, eyes sweeping the ruined farm. “Not bloody good news at all.”

“This farm was sacked,” Eli said, “systematically looted and burned no less than a week ago.”

“How can you tell it’s been no more than a week?” Stiger asked, curious, as the elf seemed certain of his assessment.

Eli shot him a look that seemed to say, It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Stiger crossed his arms. “I’d like an answer.”

“Then I shall give you one,” Eli said. “Besides the potency of the smell from the fire, there has not been time for fresh growth to sprout. Look here.” Eli pointed at the ground around the farmhouse, which had been turned black by the fire. He moved over and knelt down amidst the remains of what had been grass. “Had this happened weeks ago, the grass and weeds would have begun to grow back. Instead, all you can see is burned and scorched vegetation.”

Seeing Eli was right, Stiger gave an understanding nod. Now that the ranger had pointed this out, it was glaringly obvious. He felt slightly foolish for questioning the ranger, though he knew that to be unfair. He had just learned something. He wondered if these were some of the “little” details Eli was training the scouts to notice.

“There are other more…ah, shall we say subtle signs. In the interest of saving time, I will not point each out.” Eli stood and turned to face Stiger. “I would appreciate you taking my word that the destruction is recent.”

“Okay,” Stiger said, holding up a hand. “What else do I need to know?”

“Everything of value that could be carried off, including the animals, appears to have been.”

“How can you tell?” Tiro asked and gestured toward the barn. “Not much is left other than ash.”

Eli gave the sergeant a look, cocking his head to one side as if to say Tiro should know better than to question him after the previous lesson.

“And the other farms saw identical treatment?” Stiger asked. They had been marching for almost a week now. Stiger was tired, more than a little sore, and very dusty. He was inclined to take Eli’s word that the farm had been looted, even if Tiro still had questions.

A cold wind gusted, ruffling cloaks. The wind picked some of the ash up and carried it away. Stiger watched the cloud of ash as it flew over the road. It seemed almost as if the spirit of the farm was leaving.

“Yes,” Eli answered. “They saw nearly identical treatment. There were no bodies to be found at any of the razed farms, but for four that I came across.”

“No bodies?” Stiger asked, somewhat surprised. Whoever had made these raids—Stiger suspected the enemy—should have killed any civilians to keep word from spreading too quickly about their presence. Surely the local garrison would seek to hunt the perpetrators down.

“Perhaps some locals buried their dead?” Griggs suggested, sounding hopeful.

“I could find no evidence of burials or, for that matter, cremation.” Eli shot Tiro a glance. “I even checked amongst the ash, looking for remains in the event the victims were locked up when the buildings were fired. I could find nothing, not even teeth, which tend to survive fires like these. No, I feel confident they were either carried off, along with everything else of value, or”—he gave a sort of half shrug—“they ran off.”

Stiger glanced around, feeling unhappy. “I doubt they were able to run off. I am thinking the raids occurred under the cover of darkness and were a surprise. It’s how I would do it.”

Eli gave a nod, like a teacher pleased to have received the correct answer from a pupil. “I could find no evidence of flight.”

“The enemy took them as slaves,” Tiro said and spat on the ground.

“That is my belief,” Eli said. “I’ve never understood this penchant your empire has for enforced servitude. It seems counterproductive to living one’s life freely.”

“And this farm you found the bodies on,” Stiger said, ignoring Eli’s comment. He was not in the mood to discuss the empire’s social order. “How were they put to death?”

“Crucifixion.” Eli’s eyes spoke of a deep sadness for the deceased. “A man, woman, and two children under the age of ten were put to death in this manner.” Eli paused, glanced down at his feet. He cleared his throat before looking back up to meet Stiger’s gaze. “I took the liberty of cutting them down and burying their shells.”

Stiger puffed out his cheeks, recalling the two children the Rivan had tortured and killed at a farm they had come across earlier a few weeks back. He shared a brief look with Tiro.

Closing his eyes, he banished the memory of the dead children and returned his thoughts to the present. Stiger opened his eyes. Crucifixion was an imperial punishment. It was not something the Rivan were known to practice, at least to his knowledge. Stiger rubbed the back of his neck again, feeling his irritation and anger mount. It was unimaginable to think imperials would do this to their own. Crucifixion was usually only ever used to make an example, and a bold one at that. It had to be the enemy, attempting to send some sort of message. Stiger felt a stab of concern for Darius and his family. Everyone in the area was at risk.

“What do you want to do, sir? Tiro asked.

Stiger didn’t immediately answer. He looked over his company waiting along the road. Tiro had placed two men on sentry duty. One stood about a hundred yards ahead of the company, on the crest of a small hill, and the other was a hundred yards behind. Beyond the farm fields was prairie with tall grass. An army could be hidden out there.

“I do not believe we’re under direct observation.” Eli had caught his look. “I did not find any tracks leaving the road. Whoever did this came upon the farm from the road. They made no effort to hide their approach.”

“This must be the work of the enemy.” Stiger slapped his thigh with the palm of his hand. “It must be designed to sow terror behind the lines. The general will need to part with men, keep patrols out, and set up additional garrisons. Otherwise the countryside will burn and our lines of communication will be at risk.”

“It could be as you say,” Griggs said. “I would hate to think our own people did this.”

“You humans can be quite cruel to one another,” Eli said. “As long as I have traveled amongst your kind, so it has been.”

“Elves can be just as nasty to their own,” Tiro said. “You forget, Eli. I’ve seen that, in the Wilds.”

Eli bowed his head in acceptance of that statement. “I never forget, Tiro.”

Stiger looked between the two of them a moment, wondering what they were talking about. He decided he had more important things to worry on than something that had happened years ago in the Wilds. He turned away.

“I want to take a look at the map.” Stiger walked over to the mule carrying his pack. He untied the top of his pack, reached in, and pulled out the map the general had given him. He unfolded it, knelt in the road, and laid it on the ground, using stones to hold the sides down.

Eli, Tiro, and Griggs joined him, looking down at the map.

“We crossed this river here, around four hours ago.” Stiger tapped on the map with his index finger. Then he moved his finger a short way from the river, which was unnamed, along the road. “I think the farm is about here.” Stiger tapped the map again, then slid his hand farther along the road to a mark that indicated a town a short distance away. The camp scribe had penciled the name Larensus. Darius the farmer had told Tiro there was a garrison cohort based at the town. “If I am correct, we are perhaps five miles from this town.”

“I can confirm that,” Eli said.

“You laid eyes on the town?” Stiger asked, looking up at the elf.

“I have, but only from a distance. I was not seen. What would you like to know?”

Stiger spared a glance back to the burned farm. How widespread had the raids become? Were there enemy formations nearby? It was a concerning thought.

“Was the town sacked?” Stiger asked, hoping the garrison was still in place. If it wasn’t, and the town razed, with the garrison wiped out, he might need to turn back. The general would expect him to report what he had discovered. There was simply no telling what size force the enemy had operating in the area. Was it infantry? Cavalry?

“I saw no indication of any damage or assault upon the town. Larensus has walls,” Eli said. “What I took to be auxiliaries were on the walls. The imperial standard also flies over the gate. So, it appears the garrison is in place.”

“Well, that’s some good news at least.” Stiger felt a modicum of relief as he carefully began folding up the map. He stood as the wind gusted again, the partially folded map flapping in his hand. He made the last fold and then placed it back within his pack, tying it closed.

“I wonder why the garrison hasn’t reported enemy activity,” Griggs said.

“That’s a good question,” Stiger said, thinking on it. “As Eli said, these raids are recent.”

“We are on a backroad, sir,” Tiro said. “Maybe the garrison sent word on a more direct route. Their messenger may have reached the legion after we departed.”

“You may be right.” Stiger thought Tiro’s argument sound. He hated to think the garrison commander would delay reporting such things. But then again, the prefect in command might try to deal with the problem himself prior to reporting. Perhaps he was handling it. Stiger just did not know.

“We will learn more from the local garrison,” Stiger said. “Eli, have you seen any evidence of the enemy on the road ahead?”

“The ones who hit this farm and the others were the size of a file, maybe two files at most,” Eli said. “I know not where they’ve gone, nor can I offer a guess on the subject.”

“So,” Tiro said, “we are most likely dealing with small raiding parties.”

“Small groups would be easier to sneak past the legion’s patrols, to strike deep behind the lines,” Eli said.

“I seriously doubt the enemy has a substantial force nearby,” Stiger said. “At most, we could be dealing with a company. Supplying anything more would take a serious effort and they’d be required to forage.”

“Agreed,” Eli said.

Stiger glanced up at the sun. It was past noon. “To be on the safe side, I think it best to spend the night in the town. We can re-provision from the garrison and then continue the march in the morning if the road is safe. Does anyone see a problem with that?”

“No objection with me, sir,” Tiro said. “It will be good to be behind walls for the night and give the men a small taste of civilization.”

Stiger looked to Griggs.

“I have no issue, Captain. The walls will provide extra security, as will the garrison,” Griggs said. “I assume if enemy activity in these parts proves to be a serious concern, we will be returning to the legion.”

“Your assumption is correct,” Stiger said. He could not afford to risk the gold falling into the hands of the enemy.

“With your permission, I will stay out and about tonight,” Eli said. “I want to have a look around. It will give me an opportunity to work more with the scouts and see if I can locate the enemy.”

“You don’t want to go into town?” Stiger asked, suspecting that there was more to the elf’s intentions than simply training the scouts.

“I don’t think it wise to be seen,” Eli said.

“Why not?” Tiro asked as another gust of chill wind tugged at their cloaks.

“Considering the sensitivity of our mission,” Eli said, “an elf traveling with a light company might draw more than a little attention. Don’t you agree?”

“Eli has a point,” Stiger said. “Tiro, make certain when we go into the town, the men understand they are not to speak a word about Eli or what they know of the mission.” He paused, thinking of a good cover story. “If pressed, I’m carrying a message from the general to the quartermaster in Haraste. A new supply depot is being built at the port. It should be plausible enough. Is that understood?”

“It is, sir,” Tiro said. “I will pass the word. The men will remain mum when it comes to our friend here and what we’re doing.”

“Excellent,” Eli said and clapped his hands together. “My job here is done, and so are the lessons. If you will excuse me, I will catch up with our scouts. They have much to learn.” He held up a finger. “And with any luck, we will discover more on the enemy operating in these parts.”

“Find us tomorrow morning a few miles from town, if you would,” Stiger said. “If you locate the enemy, I want to know about it straight off.”

“I will do as you ask. If needed, I will send one of the scouts back to town.”

“That works,” Stiger said.

Eli eyed him a long moment. The elf abruptly stepped forward, leaning close. He sniffed, then lowered his voice to a whisper. “When you get to town, you might want to consider finding a bath. I could smell you downwind, long before you arrived.”

With a self-satisfied smirk, followed by a wink, Eli stepped away. Without another word, he started down the road, jogging away in the direction of the town. Some of the men curiously looked on as he passed them by. Stiger simply shook his head as he watched Eli jog off.

“It’s as Lepidus said,” Stiger said under his breath. “He’s gonna drive me insane.”

“I don’t like this, sir.” Tiro gestured at the farmhouse. “We’re well behind the lines, kinda far for raiders.”

“You think this could be something else?” Stiger asked. “Bandits?”

“I don’t know, sir.” Tiro waved toward the burned farmhouse. “Bandits wouldn’t take prisoners, nor take the time to crucify people. It’s too much work. Whatever’s happening, it isn’t any good.”

“No, it’s not,” Stiger agreed. He’d had enough speculation for the moment. The garrison would undoubtedly know more. “Right, then. Let’s get the men on their feet and moving.”

“Aye, sir.” Tiro stepped away toward the road. “Up, ladies. Break time’s over.”

Stiger turned back to look once more upon the farm. Griggs was doing the same. By his drawn face, the paladin appeared as troubled as Stiger felt. The lack of concrete information was maddening. He turned away and gave the order to march.

A mile farther up the road, they came across another small farm. The farmhouse was more of a stone hut with a grass-thatched roof than anything else. This farm hadn’t been razed. Stiger called the men to a halt. Smoke from a fire emerged from a small hole in the roof. Hoping to learn something, he went to the door with Tiro and knocked. There was no answer. He waited, then knocked again. Nothing. Stiger lifted the latch. It wasn’t locked.

He opened the door and peered inside. A low fire crackled in the hearth, doing much to heat the small house against the cold. The heat rushed outward, as did a sour smell of uncleanliness. The stone walls had been thickly plastered over. Together with the grass-thatched roof, the humble abode was well-insulated. A pot hung over the fire from an iron hook.

The inside did not appear to have been ransacked, which was odd because of its proximity to the burned-out farm just up the road. Stiger wondered why this farm had been spared.

“Looks like they went and legged it, sir,” Tiro said.

“Check the barn and fields,” Stiger ordered. “See if anyone can be found.”

“Yes, sir,” Tiro said and spun on his heel.

Stiger turned back to the house. Smoke from the fire was strong inside. The floor was dirt, dark in color, and had an unsanitary look to it. There was a rope bed with an old feather-stuffed mattress against the left wall. The mattress was ripped in places and had been patched over in others. His eyes ran over a small roughly made table with a clay jar and a wooden plate lying on it. There was a medium-sized trunk, a three-legged stool, and not much else of note.

Stiger stepped inside, wrinkling his nose against the stench. The smell of human waste and unwashed bodies was incredibly strong, as was the smoke from the fire. He coughed, gagging slightly. Stiger looked into the pot hanging over the fire. Water boiled. He glanced around, looking for anything out of the ordinary. He saw nothing but abject poverty.

Eying the bed, he considered that the place was likely infested. Stiger hastily stepped out of the farmhouse. Relieved to be back outside, he sucked in a breath of fresh air.

Tiro and three men emerged from the barn a few moments later. The sergeant spotted him and started over. Stiger studied the land around the farm as Tiro worked his way across the farmyard. Partially harvested wheat fields spread out on either side of the road. Several of his men were out in the fields, looking around. Stiger could see no one other than his men. Beyond the fields the long grass of the prairie swayed in the breeze. He suspected that whoever lived here was close by, nervously watching, hoping the legionaries moved on.

“We could find no one in the barn, just a milk cow and a hog, sir,” Tiro said. “They’re likely not too far off though. Probably somewhere out in that grass. I doubt our boys out in the fields will have any success locating anyone either.”

Stiger turned his gaze toward the road. Something had been bothering him, and then suddenly it clicked. In the last ten miles, they had passed more than a half-dozen roads that intersected the one they had been marching along. So close to the town, they should have come across someone on the road, and yet they hadn’t. That was damn strange. Farmers would sell their harvest to the townsfolk and if not them, then any merchants in residence who paid the best price.

The local militia and garrison should be providing some semblance of security or at least making their presence known. Why weren’t they out and about? Why had Stiger not encountered a patrol? The only thing he could think of was that the raids had chased everyone off the road or forced them to hunker down. That suggested the situation was worse than he thought.

“Let’s get moving,” Stiger said, figuring the sooner they got to the town, the quicker he’d have some answers.

“Yes, sir,” Tiro said. He turned to the men and shouted orders to fall in.

***

Nestled into a small valley was Larensus. A large river meandered its way through the valley, passing close to the town. A long wooden bridge spanned the river. Moving away from the town, a wagon pulled by a team of oxen was slowly crawling its way across the bridge.

Stiger and his men had crested the hill, which they now began marching down. Larensus lay before them. The town was on the smallish side. It had a serviceable wooden wall Stiger estimated to be at least fifteen feet high. That was enough to protect from local bandits and, with the garrison present, likely enough to discourage a direct raid by the enemy. There were watchtower platforms along the wall with sentries visible. That was an encouraging sign.

His company had been noticed, for several of the sentries were pointing at the company as it marched into view. Having crested the hill in open terrain, Stiger figured it would have been hard to miss them.

His eyes slid away from the wall to the town itself. The tops of a jumble of tightly packed buildings rose above the wall. Smoke from dozens of hearths trailed upward into the sky. The roofs were tiled, the buildings plastered in gray. The spire of a temple jutted out above the roofs, seeming to point skyward.

A patchwork of fields surrounded Larensus. A few dozen people were out in the fields. As Stiger’s company began working its way down the hill and toward the town, the civilians in the fields quickly made tracks. In an odd twist, they didn’t flee toward the safety of the town, but instead moved farther out into the fields and away from Stiger’s men. What was going on here?

The road took them down into the fields and around the town, toward where Stiger assumed the gate was located. As the gate came into view, Stiger was surprised to see that it was closed. During daylight hours, it should have been open. It was quite possible the garrison had proven unable to deal with the raids, or perhaps even unwilling. There was a reason some nobles and equestrians were assigned command of garrisons as opposed to combat units. He felt the frustration of the moment steal over him. This was the last thing he needed to have to deal with.

Auxiliaries leaned over the wall and gazed down as his column approached the gate.

“Company, halt,” Stiger called.

His men ground to a stop ten yards from the gate. Tiro and Father Griggs joined him.

“Name and purpose?” one of the sentries leaning over the gate called down. The man had a thick, foreign accent Stiger did not recognize. This was not unusual, as the auxiliary cohorts were raised from occupied lands or supplied by allies, though they were always commanded by a Mal’Zeelan officer.

“Not a very inviting bunch, are they?” Griggs said to Stiger.

“I don’t think I’d blame them, sir,” Tiro said, “especially with the enemy roaming the countryside as they seem to be.”

“I said,” the sentry hollered down again, as if they’d not heard him the first time. He spoke more slowly this time. “Name and purpose?”

“Captain Stiger, Seventh Company, Third Legion,” Stiger called back up, “and my purpose is my own. Now, open this bloody gate before you try my patience.”

“Right away, sir,” the man said, then hastily disappeared from view. A few moments later, Stiger heard the locking bar being moved aside. Then one of the doors of the gate swung open, its hinges squealing painfully.

An auxiliary sergeant stepped through the gate and up to Stiger. He was a large man with a tough air about him. As expected, he was an imperial. Stiger felt the scar on his cheek itch. For some reason, the man reminded Stiger of the late Sergeant Geta. Stiger found himself on guard.

The sergeant was followed by a regular auxiliary carrying a short spear. Both wore the armor of light infantry, with hardened leather that had been nailed and studded over the surface. That told Stiger that under the leather and concealed from view were armored plates. Both men were unshaven, with their hair grown long. They had a rather slovenly appearance to them, and it irked Stiger, who was already in a terrible mood.

The sergeant snapped to attention and saluted. Despite their appearance, the salute was sharp and correct. Stiger respectfully returned it, then waited for the sergeant to speak.

“I am Sergeant Karrax, sir, Fifth Nimerian Light Infantry. We welcome you to Larensus.” The sergeant hesitated a moment. “May I ask your purpose in coming here, sir? We don’t see many legionaries.”

“We’re just passing through,” Stiger said. “We will be staying the night and moving on come morning.”

“Yes, sir,” Karrax said and glanced over at Stiger’s men, his eyes assessing. “I am sure we can easily find suitable accommodation for your men.”

“We will also require replenishment,” Stiger said. “But that will be a conversation I will save for your prefect.”

“Yes, sir,” Karrax said. “I don’t think that will be a problem either. We have plenty of supply, sir. You will lack for nothing when you move on.”

“That’s good to hear,” Stiger said, then decided to ask the burning question that was on his mind. “Sergeant, we passed a number of burned-out farms. Have you had trouble with enemy raids or bandits?”

The sergeant shifted his stance slightly and did not immediately answer.

“Well?” Stiger pressed, suddenly suspicious.

“No, sir. We’ve not had any such problems. There has been no enemy activity in our area of responsibility.” Karrax cleared his throat. “Those farms you passed belonged to troublemakers. Unfortunately, examples needed to be made, sir.”

Stiger did not like the sergeant’s answer one bit. He wondered what kind of trouble dirt poor farmers could cause that would affect the garrison’s duty. He already knew the garrison was confiscating property from the locals, which tended to piss people off. Perhaps they’d been too heavy-handed and some of the locals had caused problems? He understood the needed to get the facts and had to tread carefully until he had them. Despite his suspicions, Stiger knew there were always two sides to a story.

“I see,” Stiger said, trying to sound as if he had just tired of the conversation. He would play the part of just another disinterested noble.

Tiro glanced over at Stiger, eyes narrowing slightly. Karrax missed it.

“And what kind of trouble are these peasants causing?” Stiger asked, scratching distractedly at an itch on his arm, as if his line of questioning were just to satisfy his personal curiosity. “I dare say,” Stiger continued before the sergeant could respond, “all this marching leaves one dusty. I need a bath.”

“There’s a small bath in the town, sir,” Karrax said.

“That’s very good to hear,” Stiger said. “And about the trouble?”

“Agitators, sir,” Karrax said. “They are an independent bunch in this province. Well, they didn’t like us being posted here none, sir, even if it was for their own protection. The prefect decided to confront their poor attitude before things got out of hand and we had an uprising, sir. As such, examples were made.”

Stiger noticed that the paladin did not seem too terribly happy with the sergeant’s response. He appeared to be biting his tongue, and just barely at that.

“I am sure Prefect Hanns will be able to explain more, sir,” Karrax added hastily. “He can give you a better picture than I can. I am just a sergeant, after all.”

“That is to be expected.” Stiger had not heard of the Hanns family, which meant that the man was likely from the equestrian class and not a noble. “Your betters will of course always know more. Where can I find your prefect?”

“At this time of day,” Karrax said, as if the comment had not offended him in any way, “he would be in the Dancing Goat, sir. It’s a tavern at the center of town.” The sergeant shifted his stance again and hesitated a moment more. “Excuse me, sir, can I have your name? I’m afraid my man atop the gate may have misheard. He told me you are a Stiger. Surely that’s a mistake.”

“He didn’t mishear.” Stiger gave a fake yawn. “I am a Stiger.”

The sergeant’s eyes widened slightly. He stiffened as the auxiliary behind him took an involuntary step backward, audibly gasping. Stiger ignored their reaction, as if it were beneath his notice and something he was regularly accustomed to. Despite his family’s disgrace, his name still commanded power and a sense of awe amongst the commoners. Where a Stiger goes, death follows, was one of the many popular sayings.

“I am Father Griggs, a traveling friar,” the paladin said humbly. “Can you tell me what temple resides in this town?”

Stiger cast Griggs a sidelong glance before returning his attention to Karrax.

“A temple to the High Father,” Karrax said, with a slight scowl of annoyance on his face as he took in the paladin. Or was it distaste? “Father Senso is the town’s priest.”

“Thank you,” Father Griggs said. “I’ve been with the legion many months and it’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of praying in a proper temple.”

“I am sure he will be pleased to see you, Father,” Karrax said with a smile Stiger found insincere. It was time to end the conversation with Karrax and go find the man’s prefect.

“Sergeant Tiro,” Stiger said in the same bored tone.

“Sir?”

“I will search out the prefect and arrange lodging for the night. Get the men into town and meet me at this tavern,” Stiger ordered.

“Yes, sir,” Tiro said and saluted.

“Might I accompany you, Captain?” Father Griggs asked in the same humble tone, as if he were just a traveling priest, a humble warrior friar.

“You may, Father,” Stiger said and then started off. Sergeant Karrax and the auxiliary stepped aside to allow him to pass. They saluted. Stiger ignored them and continued on. The paladin fell in beside him. Stiger could feel Karrax’s eyes upon his back as he walked through the gate and into the town. He resisted the urge to look back.

NEXT CHAPTER COMING SOON!

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