Despite her own wound, Eya insisted on tending the injured. She hobbled from house to house using a cane, her left leg sheathed in bandages. Besides her, there were four wounded survivors: Ebb, Wil, Rem the mason, and Dek. The only one whose life hung in the balance was Dek, so it was with him that Eya spent much of her time.
     Falnora did not have a true healer, nor was there a wise woman knowledgeable in the uses of herbs and potions. Eya and Lora, although both untrained, were the closest the village had to anyone with understanding in that subject, and they had learned what little they knew from books and through trial-and-error.
     Eya refrained from attempting to use her magical abilities for healing, even on herself. It was tempting to try, especially knowing that she might be able to close a wound in a matter of seconds, but Wil's warning about the dangers of venturing untutored into new areas of magic held her back. As the days passed, she became increasingly certain that sometime, possibly soon, she would have to leave the little hamlet of Falnora and venture to one of the cities. As much as she hated to admit it, remaining in the settlement was holding her back from reaching her potential.
     Two weeks after the aborted attack by Tsab's army, all of the injured were well on the way to recovery except Dek. He lay in his bed day and night, shivering in the grip of a delirium. The wound - a puncture in his lower abdomen - appeared clean and uninfected, but it was not closing and continually wept blood. There was someone with him at all times, but no one could explain why, after fourteen days, there was no sign of improvement.
     Dek had three nurses: Eya, Lora, and, surprisingly, Bre. For some inexplicable reason, Ebb's daughter had begun accompanying Eya on her "rounds," learning to sterilize wounds and change dressings. She rarely spoke, never explaining why she was doing these things, but Eya was glad enough of the company not to ask.
     After the attack, nothing further was seen of or heard from the soldiers of Tsab, even though Wil began sending out short-range patrols. If the force came back, he wanted more time to prepare a defense. One villager had died, and that was one too many. With the resources of two Apaths, no one from Falnora should have suffered a wound, let alone perished.
     The burden of the nineteen Tsabian deaths weighed heavily on Eya's conscience. Although she had not physically struck down those men, they had died as a result of her magic. Wil, who had killed in the past, was not so foolish as to tell her that it wasn't her fault. But he had made it clear that the Tsabians, as soldiers, had been trained to kill and die. By marching on Falnora, they had marched into war. Eya had not killed innocent, defenseless men, but had reacted to the advance of a hostile force. She was not the first person - or even the first Apath - to lose control in the midst of a battle. It was difficult to maintain concentration with an arrow embedded in one's knee. Yet, no matter what extenuating circumstances had existed, those deaths were still Eya's responsibility. She could not run away from the truth, especially not when it asserted itself so powerfully within her.
     She had wanted to burn all nineteen bodies herself, touching the torch to each one personally, perhaps as a penance, but, by the time she managed to limp back to where they had fallen, all that remained was the ashes of a pyre. While no one admitted to performing the task to which Eya had laid claim, she suspected Reg of the deed, and didn't know whether to thank him or curse him for it. Although she had wanted to do that one final thing for those men, maybe it was better that she hadn't been forced to look into nineteen pairs of vacant eyes to wonder what kind of people they had been before her shadow creatures had butchered them.
     The weather had deteriorated over the past two weeks, almost as if the struggle with the Tsabians had set off a period of soggy days and cloudy nights. The sun and moon became rare sights and, as was so often the case with extended bouts of rain, people's spirits were at a low ebb. The recognition that there could be a reprisal from Tsab kept everyone on edge. Falnora, normally as open and friendly a place as there was anywhere on Devforth, had become secretive and untrusting.
     For her part, Eya had not found much to laugh about recently. Her studies had ground to a halt while she spent most of her waking hours caring for the injured, Dek in particular. It would have helped if she could be certain that she was doing some good, but the less seriously wounded men were recovering well on their own, and Dek wasn't making any progress. There were times when she felt useless.
     Then there were the images of the dead Tsabians to haunt her dreams. When she closed her eyes, the soldiers wore the faces of people she knew, and their eyes accused her. Several times Eya had awakened screaming or sobbing. Fortunately, Reg had been there to comfort her. She sometimes wondered what she would do without her brother's strength to rely upon.
     On the fifteenth morning following the confrontation, she arrived, as usual, at Dek's small hut two hours after dawn. Bre, who spent the bulk of each night with the injured man, answered her knock, her face a mask of concern.
     "What is it?" asked Eya.
     "He's running a fever, and he's begun to cough up blood. The wound doesn't seem worse, but something must be wrong."
     Eya hurried over to examine the unconscious man. She removed the dressing from his abdomen to look at the wound. Bre's observations were correct. The injury appeared clean, and there was no sign of infection, but Dek was running a high fever, which had not been the case twenty-four hours ago, and his bed-linens were stained with blood.
     She recognized that this was something they could no longer handle alone. As loathe as the people of Falnora were to go for outside help, if Eya didn't do so in this case, Dek would die.
     "Prepare a letter requesting the aid of a healer. Don't address it to anyone in particular; it may have to be circulated among several people before we find someone willing to travel here. In it, describe Dek's symptoms and state that we are willing to pay any reasonable price - in gold or grain - for services rendered. Then find Wil or my brother and give it to them. They'll know who's on courier duty this week and make sure that the message reaches Fels. With luck, we should have someone here within a day or two."
     "If I could make a recommendation..." began Bre.
     "By all means." Eya replaced the dressing on Dek's wound.
     "Fels is not the ideal place from which to request a healer. In that city, the healers are all nobles. Few would consent to read such a missive and even fewer would agree to come. Any who did make the journey would charge a sum so outrageous that the wealth of the entire village might not be enough to pay it. I would recommend sending to either Llam or Vorti. Vorti might be the best. They have a guild of healers there, and there is no nobility to be concerned with."
     It was perhaps the longest speech Eya had heard Bre make. She told the other woman how grateful she was for the advice, and, to her surprise, received a tentative smile in return.
     "Shall I come back when I'm done writing?" asked Bre.
     "No. Get some sleep and take your regular turn tonight. If something happens - good or bad - before then, I'll make sure you're notified."
     With a nod of thanks, Bre left the cottage and headed for Wil's house. Left on her own with Dek, Eya began to apply cool, wet rags to the unconscious man's forehead, trying to keep down the fever. She was not hopeful, however. By the time a healer in Vorti could be found, then make the trek to Falnora, Dek would probably be dead. And it would be her fault. Another death on her conscience.
     Ten days ago, Wil had asked if she needed help. More than that, he had advised her to consult a healer from one of the cities. But she had assured him that as long as the injury didn't fester, it was within her ability to care for Dek. Now, it appeared that her arrogance was about to kill an innocent man. A twentieth body laid at her feet.
     With his senses dead to the world, Dek didn't see the silent tear that trickled down Eya's cheek as she dabbed at his face to wipe away the sweat.

* * *

     Reg frowned when he opened the door to find Bre standing outside. He tried to keep the displeasure from his voice as he inquired why she had come.
     "I'm here to see Wil."
     "He's still abed. He overdid things yesterday, with his wound not fully healed, and Lis says he's not to be disturbed this morning." Reg peered past her into the drizzle outside. Perhaps if it let up a little he could get some work done. All this sitting around and doing nothing was making him irritable.
     "Maybe you could help me."
     That surprised Reg. "With what?"
     "May I come in?"
     Reg stepped aside to let her pass, belatedly realizing he should have done so sooner. After all, it wasn't the most polite of actions to leave a visitor standing in a misty rain, even if that visitor was Bre.
     "I was just with Eya and Dek. His health has worsened and she thinks we should send a message to the healers in Vorti and see if someone might be willing to make the journey here. She said you would know who's on courier duty this week."
     "I do. It's me and your father."
     "Both of you?"
     "Whenever there's someone on duty who has never left Falnora, we always have a 'veteran' paired with them. Most of us who have lived our lives here would be lost if we were sent alone into a city. Myself included." Reg didn't feel any embarrassment admitting that to Bre. Life in a city, he had been told, was nothing like the simple existence of a farmer of the Halcyon Meadows. He had volunteered for courier duty not out of a desire to see Devforth, but because every male in the settlement was, at one time or another, expected to. Besides, it was rare that anyone was actually called upon to fulfill those responsibilities. Now it looked like Reg was going to be one of the few.
     "My father isn't well enough to travel," said Bre.
     "He had a minor injury to the arm, and that was two weeks ago. He should be fine to travel. I can leave whenever he's ready."
     "In case you don't realize, you need both arms to hold a horse's reigns. I'm sure that even an oaf like you has ridden enough to know that!"
     "Of course I've ridden, but I can assure you that I'm not going to Vorti - or any other city - alone."
     "Why? Are you afraid??"
     Reg shook his head. "It has nothing to do with fear. It's a matter of practicality. You may be accustomed to the ways of a city, but I'm not. It would take me half a week to find a healer."
     "All you have to do is ask someone. You have a mouth. Use it."
     "If Ebb is too injured to ride, he should have taken himself off the list. Since he's on it, he's going with me."
     "He certainly is not!"
     "So you're saying that Dek should die so that a man with a slight injury to one arm doesn't have to ride a horse?"
     "I'm not saying that at all! You're twisting my words! You're perfectly capable of going on your own."
     "My father will not accompany you."
     "Then give me an alternative."
     "Fine. I'll go with you in his stead."
     Following that offer, there ensued a full minute of silence. Reg was shocked that Bre had proposed such a thing, but perhaps little more than she was herself. The moment the words slipped through her lips, Bre wished she could take them back. This wasn't the first time anger had prompted her to speak impulsively. She had nothing against making the journey, but the last thing she wanted to do was travel in the company of this self-important lout.
     Reg shared her sentiments. "Absolutely not," he said. "I'll find someone else to go with me."
     For Bre, his statement was as insulting as a slap in the face. "So I'm not good enough, is that it??"
     "You're a woman!"
     "Brilliant observation. Is there anything else surprising that you've noticed this morning?"
     "Actually, it sounds like a sensible idea to me," said a voice from behind Reg. The pair turned as one to confront a smiling Wil leaning casually against the door frame to his bedroom.
     "I didn't mean to disturb you, Wil," said Reg.
     "I'm sorry that we made so much noise," added Bre.
     "No need for all that. I was awake. I don't need as much rest as they all say I do. If it was sunny today, I'd be in the fields already. But enough about that. So you need an escort to Vorti, Reg. What's wrong with this girl? She seems a perfect choice to me. Familiar with city life and the ways of the people who live there."
     "She's a woman," repeated Reg.
     "So what? All that means is she probably won't make the mistakes we men would, and you won't have someone to show you the best places to get drunk."
     "You came from Vorti, Wil. Why don't you come with me? You must know that city like the back of your hand." It was a desperate plea, the only way Reg could see out of a situation he had backed himself into.
     Wil's face became grave. "Even if I was fully healed, I wouldn't. I vowed long ago never to return to Vorti."
     "That's an end to it! Be sensible and take Bre with you."
     "We don't get along with each other."
     "The reason is that you're both stubborn. I'm sure you won't kill each other on the road. It's only about a six hour ride."
     Reg's expression turned to one of resignation, like someone aware that a bad tooth is going to have to be pulled.
* * *

     "Come in," said Ebb. It was before noon, earlier than Lora usually visited him. "My daughter's gone off on some errand to Vorti."
     "With Reg. I know," said the elf.
     "Really? She didn't say anything about him to me. Are those two alone?"
     "I believe so," replied Lora. "Is there something wrong with that?"
     "Only that it will be a wonder if both survive the journey. You know how those two are always sniping at each other."
     "It is true that they have not been the best of friends, but I doubt Reg would do anything to endanger your daughter," said Lora.
     It was only then that Ebb realized the elf had taken his comments seriously. "No, no, no. I never meant anything like that. I simply thought it will be a tense journey with the two of them together. My daughter is not the most pleasant of people when she's in one of her moods."
     "Does that mean your daughter has been 'in one of her moods' since arriving in Falnora." Along with Reg, Lora had been one of the recipients of Bre's bile.
     "I guess you could say that. She was happy in Fels, you see, before everything went wrong, with a different personality than what you've seen from her."
     "What happened? Why did you leave?"
     "There was a misunderstanding between Bre and one of the landowner's sons. In an attempt to bed her, he made some rash promises. Later, of course, when she tried to press him on them, he denied them. She was shamed and when I brought the matter before the rake's father, he called me a liar and dismissed both of us. He threatened us with jail if we didn't leave the city promptly. So we left."
     "Just like that? Without a struggle?"
     "We had no choice. Tys is a powerful man in Fels. He does not make idle threats. I didn't want to be thrown into a dungeon cell, and I especially didn't want that to happen to Bre. We did the only thing we could." In a lighter tone, he added, "Besides, if we hadn't left, you and I never would never have met."
     "Of course." Lora smiled at him, her wide obsidian eyes tugging at his soul. It amazed him how deeply she could touch him with a glance. No human had such expressive eyes.
     "So, how are your patients doing? My arm is just about healed."
     "Everyone is improving, except Dek. I cannot stay long. With his condition worsening, I agreed to arrive at his house early to give Eya additional help. He is delirious, and has been spitting up blood. And there will only be the two of us to cope with him until Bre returns tomorrow."
     "Is there anything I can do?"
     "No, but many thanks for the offer. It is always good to know there are others who care."
     "I care, Lora. You know that."
     She nodded. Since Midsummer's Day, the nature of their friendship had altered. They were close, but Lora's confession had dropped an invisible barrier to intimacy. Openness had been replaced by caution, especially on Ebb's part. Yet there was little that either of them could do about their emotions; just because Lora was physically unable to engage in sexual intercourse, she could still fall in love. But it would always be a love tinged with frustration.
     "Will you come in?" invited Ebb, stepping aside for her to enter.
     Lora hesitated. She had been in earnest when saying she wanted to get to Dek's as soon as possible, but she reasoned that Eya would be able to cope with a short delay.
     In the spring, Ebb's house had been uninhabitable. Half the roof was caved-in, the mortar around the wall stones was crumbling, and there were rats and insects living in the moldering straw and thatch that littered the floor. It had taken months to repair the damage, and there were still areas that needed improvement, but Ebb's hard work had made the building into a comfortable three-room dwelling.
     Like most of the houses in Falnora, the building was sparsely furnished, with only two roughly hewn chairs and a three-legged bench that functioned as a table. Wood was at a premium, since it had to be carted from the Forest of Llam, so few families had more than Ebb possessed. There were no cupboards or chests; burlap sacks were used to store things. In fact, many villagers had nothing between their four walls except straw sleeping pallets. The writing desk in Wil's house was a rare treasure, only one of only two in the settlement.
     They sat quietly together for some time, Lora in Bre's chair and Ebb in his own. He had fashioned the three pieces of furniture himself, using logs that he and Wil had brought back from the northern fringes of the forest. The chairs and bench were crudely carved, but Ebb was proud of them. It was the first time in his life he had something to show for hours of labor. In the past, everything he had worked for had gone to his landowners. Here, the property, the house, and everything in it, was his. There was no one to take it away.
     "You've seemed sad of late," observed Ebb. Since Midsummer's Day, much of the elf's effervescence had bubbled away. She had become somber and her smiles had been tinged with melancholy. "Is it because of what happened with the Tsabian army?"
     "Partly. Before I came to Falnora, the community where I lived was always under the threat of war. My time there ended violently. Reg, Eya, and I fled before we could become victims, but my bond-mate was slain and my daughter was stolen from me. Those are events I have long tried to submerge in the depths of my mind. For many years, Falnora has been like a paradise, but that changed on Midsummer's Day. It is a hard thing to realize that even a place such as this can be so easily violated, and just when I had started to believe that the ugliness of Heltala would never reoccur."
     "I thought you might have been upset because I asked you to..." He let the sentence dangle.
     "Not at all. In fact, I was honored you would think of me in that way. Before that day, I had never believed that any man could find me attractive. The kind of life I led and the way my bonding came about were not conducive to such a belief. Your request is a moment I have treasured. That I could not accept it is not a reflection upon you or how I feel about you. It is a fact of elf biology. I cannot make love to you. It is not possible."
     "I understand and accept that. Love doesn't always have to be about sex. You can have love without sex."
     "Or sex without love," noted Lora.
     "Did you not love this Dav?" asked Ebb, sensing a hidden meaning in Lora's words.
     "Love him? Never! Sometimes I hated him. But we were drawn together. Once a bond is made nothing can break it. And do you know how I was joined to him? A rape. He raped me. I cannot think about it, though. It will serve no purpose other than to drive me into bitterness. I have always been an outcast. My parents despised me from almost the day I was born. My race abandoned me because I rejected beliefs that were sacred to them. And the man who took my virginity raped me because I was the most convenient receptacle for his anger. No one has loved or cared about me, except Reg and Eya, and now you. Even Wil and Lis, while they have been kind, have never truly cared. I am a stranger to them, a member of another culture. An outcast."
     She held back the tears. She didn't want to cry - not now. What was considered a healthy expression of emotion among elves was regarded as something else by humans, and the last thing Lora wanted from Ebb was his pity.
     He rose from his chair and came to kneel in front of her. She was so tiny that their heads were nearly on a level, even with his knees on the floor. Very gently, he pulled her forward and enfolded her in an embrace. Still, she did not cry, but if she had seen his face, she would have known that he did.
* * *

     "I don't understand this," muttered Eya as she and Lora held down Dek's body in the wake of a seizure. He had convulsed for several minutes, but now he appeared calm. Fresh blood flecked the linens wrapped around his sweating body.
     "What?" inquired the elf.
     "He should be dead by now. Everything I know, everything I've read about sickness tells me that he should be dead. Yet he isn't. I'm glad he's still alive - I don't want him to die - but I don't understand how this can be."
     "You are not an expert healer, Eya. There are many things you cannot understand."
     "I know. Too many things. Maybe if I had been better trained, he could have been healed - really healed - earlier. I have the power, Lora, but I don't know how to use it. What good is it to light candles and grow plants? Magic can be used for so many more important things.
     "I'm going to have to leave Falnora, Lora. Wil was right. I can't learn what I need to as long as I remain here."
     "I know," said Lora. She had known it for years. A small settlement on the Halcyon Meadows was no place for an Apath, unless it was someone like Wil, who was weary of life.
     "I won't leave immediately. Not until after the harvest, at least."
     "Do not wait too long. If you keep putting it off, it will become the unattainable dream."
     "I'm scared, Lora. I'm really scared."
     "So would I be in your position. But you must go to someone who can teach you properly. And you will not be alone. I am sure Reg will accompany you wherever you go."
     "And you? Will you come with me?"
     Lora considered. Since Haven, Reg and Eya had been her only family. They had been like a brother and sister. In Falnora, however, she had found a home, and, just recently, another she could grow close to. She wasn't sure she wanted to leave that. But if Eya needed her, how could she let her down? Responsibility didn't only come with power, it came with love as well.
     "Perhaps," said Lora. It was the most honest answer she could give. "Elves are not well-liked in any of the cities. Tsab will not even allow us across the border."
     "I am not going to Tsab."
     "Where then?"
     "Perhaps Vorti. I want to hear what Reg thinks of the place first. The school for wizards may be in Fels, but Vorti has an Apath king." One whom Wil had warned her to stay away from in the strongest terms.
     "What was that?" asked Lora, her head snapping up, an alarmed expression flickering across her face.
     "What?" Eya hadn't heard anything, but her hearing was not as acute as the elf's. Human senses were comparatively feeble.
     "That noise. Like a wind blowing. I feel..." Suddenly, Lora pitched forward as if struck from behind. She didn't even lift her arms to break her fall.
     Eya quickly knelt beside her. Other than a bloody nose, which she had struck on the hard-packed dirt floor, Lora seemed all right.
     "What is it?"
     "I do not know," said the elf, sounding out of breath. "Something is happening. Something that feels wrong. I have been..." she struggled for the word. "...violated."
     "I cannot explain it. But can you not feel it? All around us? Power and madness."
     Eya, who possessed the mystically heightened psychic sense of any Apath, sensed nothing out-of-the-ordinary. Or nearly nothing. Now that she concentrated, there did seem to be something slightly askew.
     Lora was more dazed than could possibly be explained by the fall, and couldn't seem to catch her breath. She was also having difficulty focusing her eyes. Lowering her head between her knees, she drank in great gulps of air and tried to regain her equilibrium before she spilled her morning's meal all over Dek's floor.
     "Something is happening," whispered Lora. "I can feel it. Emotion being turned into magic. There is an Apath at work." It was impossible. The only other Apath in Falnora was Wil, and Eya knew instinctively that this was not his doing.
     The sound started faintly, like a distant rumble of thunder, but grew rapidly in volume until, within a matter of seconds, it was deafening. The ground began to shiver and quake like a living thing. Eya and Lora were tossed around like dolls, yet, in the midst of the tumult, the floor beneath Dek's sleeping pallet remained rock-solid. He continued to lie serenely on his straw-filled mattress while the whole world around him went mad.
     Neither Lora nor Eya could say for sure how long the tremors continued. Though it seemed like hours, they knew it could not have been more than a few minutes. When it was over, when the rumbling and groaning of the earth had subsided, they both lay facedown on the floor of Dek's house, scarcely believing they were still alive.
     Outside, sheep and goats were bleating in terror. Many people were shouting; a few were crying.
     "Are you all right?" asked Eya, rising unsteadily to her feet. In a few days, her body would be a mass of bruises. Already a welt was blossoming above her right eye.
     "I think so," said Lora, who, although lifting herself into a sitting position, was making no attempt to get up. Her right cheek was gashed from chin to forehead and the side of her face was slick with blood.
     "You're hurt. Let me..."
     "No! It is not yet over! Can you not feel it, beginning again?"
     Lora doubled over as if she had been punched in the stomach. Eya moved to her aid, but this time the invisible assailant got her as well. Some intangible force erupted deep within her, knocking her to the ground as it drove straight for her mind. Then, with a whooshing noise that was a cross between the blowing of a gale and the buzz of a hive of angry bees, it was over. Eya lay stunned on her back, side-by-side with the unmoving Lora. She was aware of her surroundings, but couldn't gain control over her body. Compared to this, the pummeling during the quake had been pleasant.
     Somewhere outside the house, there was a loud explosion, followed immediately by a scream. Eya was too dazed to tell whether the cry had been one of fear, pain, or anguish. The first blast was followed in rapid succession by a series of them, one of which was close enough to Dek's dwelling to shake the walls and cause a rain of dirt and straw to pour down from the thatched roof.
     After perhaps five or six minutes, the detonations ceased and a state of uncertain calm returned to Falnora. Even from the seclusion of Dek's house, Eya could hear weeping outside. She dreaded what she would see when she opened the door. At the moment, however, her concern was for moving her body - any part of her body. She was paralyzed.
     Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lora groggily pick herself up. The elf was unsteady on her feet, and probably not aware of where she was or what was going on, but she was not gripped by the same numbing inability to move that had Eya in its clutches. There was nothing she could do to capture Lora's attention. Even her vocal chords were useless. It was surprising that she was still breathing.
     It took several seconds for Lora to become aware of Eya's prone form. Concern etched on her bloodied features, she bent beside the young Apath and reached out to stroke her cheek. Eya could see the fingers brushing her face, but there was no sensation.
     "Can you hear me?" asked Lora.
     Eya tried desperately to nod her head, tried so hard that sweat broke out on her brow. But movement of any kind was impossible. She willed her eyes to show comprehension, and Lora seemed to get the message.
     "I am going to get Wil. Perhaps he will know what to do," said the elf, rising to her feet. Her gait was still uncertain, but she seemed to be on her way to regaining her equilibrium.
     When she opened the door, however, she stopped in her tracks. From her position on the floor, Eya couldn't see what lay outside, but Lora's horrified expression hinted at something terrible.
     "They are going to need help," hissed Lora.
     There was no time to guess how bad things might be, because at that moment, it started again. Lora reeled away from the door and staggered around the room as she was caught in its grasp. Then, without pause or mercy, it closed vise-like on Eya, threatening to crush the life out of her.
     The blood rushed to her head and the breath caught in her throat. Uselessly, her mind fought to compel a response from her body even as the force that had robbed her of control slithered through her thoughts, like oil over water, skimming everything and leaving behind a foul residue. The gushing, buzzing noise started again, and this time when it was over, Eya felt as if something vital had been torn from her.
     Almost immediately came the recognition of what the sensation was akin to. When she used magic, the basic feelings were the same except, in this instance, instead of her being able to chose and control what emotion was siphoned off, it was being stolen from her.
     It was impossible, but it was happening. Apaths could not take from others. Emotion was not an energy that could be parcelled back and forth between wizards. It was an internal force, available only to the individual. Never in the history of Apaths had there been a man who could tap into the emotions of another.
     Eya didn't know with any certainty that what was happening to her now had anything to do with magic, but she felt secure making the assumption. Everything about this felt like the work of a wizard. Her emotion, someone else's magic.
     She lay there helpless, powerless to stop this most insidious of rapes.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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