While this story does work on its own, it is a continuation of Maxwell Novacek and the Shepherd of Ruin.
I stood on the step of the sorority house where my Mary lived. She’d just joined, and I only knew where she lived by way of her grandparents—my mother- and father-in-law.
More than anything, I wanted to see my wife again. I wanted to hold her in my arms, kiss her, hear her sweet voice. She had been ripped away from me. The only thing I had left of her was our daughter, Mary; and, in my grief, I’d let her slip away from me, too.
I adjusted my clerical collar and took in a deep breath. She didn’t want to see me. I hadn’t seen her in years, since I’d been ordained. It felt strange, standing before the door of a sorority, dressed as a priest at six in the morning. I was a priest, then.
I brought my fist up, preparing to knock. I wanted to offer her a place to stay. I’d just been reassigned for a second time, and I thought she would rather stay somewhere free for her time at university. But no. She had sorority sisters now.
As I turned to walk back to my car, the door opened behind me.
“Can I help you?”
I turned around to see a young woman staring back at me, wearing baby blue pajamas and a messy bun. Something about her seemed familiar.
“I apologize, I had the wrong address.”
“You were standing there for a while.” She cocked her head. “You really a priest? Can you perform exorcisms?”
I pressed out my cassock. “I do happen to be an exorcist, yes.”
She crossed her arms, bit her lip in thought. “Can you help me?”
I climbed the stone steps of the old asylum, briefcase in hand as the frigid evening air whipped my cassock about. The moss growing up the stone walls were the only bit of green in sight, as the shrubs on the lawn were all but dead and the grass had yellowed from lack of care. The lobby had checkered tile floors and whitewashed brick walls, filled with rows of metal chairs for people to wait before visiting their loved ones. The only other person there was through a window with a hole in it for speaking through. As I stepped in the room, he took one look at me, picked up a phone, said, “He’s here.”
Before long, I was walking down a hall, just off the heels of an orderly. The fluorescent lights flickered overhead, their faint hum being the only sound beside the rhythmic tap of our footsteps. Patients peered through thin, wire-reinforced windows on the metal doors that contained them; some smiled, some grimaced, and others were devoid of expression—perhaps devoid of feeling.
One woman in particular caught my eye. Her fists beat against her door and she bared her teeth at the orderly. Once her gaze turned to me, her face softened. She smiled. “Won’t you please set me free?” she said, her voice muffled.
A man pressed his forehead against the window, his jaw slack as his eyes followed me. He lifted his head as I reached his window, started circling his finger on the glass. He sung—or, at the very least, he attempted to sing—to the tune of a rapidly rotating selection of hymns. “Won’t you set me free, set me free? I don’t like this place. Won’t you set me free, please, for me?”
The last person I saw before we reached the end of the hall was a man with dried blood on his face and a swollen eye socket doing nothing. He simply sat in the back of his room, arms crossed. He nodded at me as I looked into his eyes. There was something familiar about him.
We passed through the door at the end of the hall into a stairwell and made our way down into solitary confinement. There were many darkened rooms before we reached the room where the man I came there for was held. There was a slot, just big enough to see through.
The room was bright, the fluorescent light overhead reflecting off the white padding that lined the walls and floor. He sat with his back to the opposite wall, clutching his head, digging his fingernails into his scalp. Tufts of glistening, black hair littered the ground. Every couple seconds, he would scream, his barely muffled voice piercing through the thick, metal door.
“One Gregory Huff, admitted two months ago, when he started having delusions of grandeur and tried attacking his father, claiming that his ‘real dad’ would strike him and the whole earth,” the orderly said. “He was put in solitary after attacking another patient that was going on and on about God or Jesus or something—never had to deal with the other patient, but, from my understanding, he thinks he’s a prophet.”
“The injured patient upstairs?” I asked. “What’s his name?”
The orderly thought for a moment. “Ambrose Sullivan, I think.”
Ambrose. The last time I’d heard that name was nearly three years prior, when I’d first been ordained as a priest. I was sent to tell the headmaster of a group home that a little girl had nothing wrong with her. As it turned out, she was possessed, and Ambrose had been following her for years, watching as people died around her. He was the one who exorcised the demon from her. And here he was again—I was sure of it.
“Does he have a tattoo of a cross on his arm?”
“Yeah.” The orderly crossed his arms, turned to me. “How’d you know that?”
The answer was far too complicated—I shook my head. “I need to speak with him.”
The orderly started turning to go back upstairs; I placed a hand on his shoulder.
As the door creaked open, Gregory stopped clutching his head for a moment. His eyes opened; he blinked a few times, looked up at me. The way the light hit his eyes, they almost seemed to glow.
“You’ve come to kill me,” the boy said.
I looked down at him with pity. He was broken. His whole face trembled as he stared up in fear. I recognized it: an expression I’d seen far too many times in the past three years. When I’d begun my work, I appreciated that it meant—that I would be setting another soul free from the clutches of the evil one. But with each face that bore it, I died a little inside. To know that people had to go through that pain, to feel the fear of the thing which they feared. If something is great enough to utterly destroy you, destroy your soul, how great must the thing be which can do the same to it?
I knelt down before him, placed my briefcase on the ground. “What’s your name?”
His face fell. His mouth opened as if to speak, but simply hung there, while his eyes searched the ground for the answer. He looked up at me; his eyes darted back and forth between mine.
“Gregory?” I asked.
He shuffled around on the floor slightly as his eyes widened. He almost smiled. Then, he screamed again. The sound pierced my ears, and I threw myself backward. He clutched his head once more, ripping at his scalp.
“I am not!” he screamed. “I am not! I am not! I am not!” He threw his head back against the wall, bouncing off the padding with a faint ‘piff’ and let out another scream. He made fists and beat the heels of his hands against his head.
The orderly lurched forward; I raised a hand to stop him.
“Gregory, listen to me.”
He shook his head violently, eyes avoiding me as his hands covered his ears.
“Gregory, I want you to listen to my voice, I want you to hear what I’m saying.” I reached out a hand. “Take my hand, Gregory, I only want to help you. I want to help you get better; can you do that for me? Can you help me help you?”
He stared at me, breathed heavily. His hand began reaching. His fingertips graced mine. He took hold of my hand.
My face slammed into the padded wall, and I fell back, dazed. By the time I’d reoriented myself, the orderly had Gregory pinned on his stomach.
“Not him!” he screamed. “Not him!”
I stood, brushed off my cassock, and rushed over to my briefcase. I pulled the Bible from it and began flipping through the pages. “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you and pray for those who spitefully use you.”
As I began to read, Gregory stopped fighting. He stared at the space in front of him, eyes wide.
“To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either.”
Gregory looked at me, his mouth twitched. “You bring the silence.” He stared at me, began to smile. A tear rolled out of his eye and down his cheek.
I stopped reading; the orderly loosened his grip. For a fraction of a moment, all was well.
A growl emanated from his throat just before Gregory threw his head back into the orderly’s face and began to scream again. The orderly rolled off him, holding his nose. Blood was running down his face.
I dropped the Bible into the briefcase and clasped it shut, jumped for Gregory. The orderly pulled a syringe from his pocket and leapt at that same moment. We collided, a needle piercing my side. Everything became fuzzy.
I woke in the infirmary, with the orderly sitting on the cot next to me. His face was mostly cleaned up, although it appeared his nose had been broken and he had a busted lip. The rest of the room was empty.
“Sorry,” he said.
I blinked a few times as I gathered my bearings, sat up. “Gregory?”
The orderly shook his head. “Knocked me out soon after you. Guessing he grabbed my keys and fled. This is what we get for being understaffed.”
“You knocked me out.”
The orderly wet his lips. “Yeah. Sorry.”
I took in a deep breath, let out a sigh. “Now what?”
He shrugged. “Police are already looking for him.”
“Guess I’ll have to find him first,” I muttered. “What about the other patient, Ambrose? May I talk to him now?”
The orderly cleared his throat as he stood up off the cot. “Sure.”
I was left sitting alone in the asylum cafeteria for nearly a quarter hour before they brought Ambrose in. I wondered how it could possibly be coincidence that I would run into the same man three years later, halfway across the country. Perhaps it was a mistake. Maybe he just had the same name and a similar enough face that I thought it was him. Was that any more likely to happen? Even smaller were the chances that he had the same name, a similar face, and the same tattoo.
The woman. There was a woman with him when I saw him three years prior—Ariel I believe her name was. That’s why I’d recognized the girl at the sorority. It was her.
I nearly leapt in my seat when the door opened. Ambrose entered the cafeteria, followed closely by the orderly. As Ambrose made his way to the table, the orderly stayed by the door. He sat across from me and stared just over my head.
I looked behind me to see if there was someone I missed. No one. I turned back to him, crossed my arms. “Why are you here?”
He shrugged, reclined in his chair, still staring at the air above me. “Because you requested it.”
I took in a deep breath. “Do you know who I am?”
He pursed his lips, squinted, as if in thought. “You are a child of God.”
I wet my lips, cleared my throat, looked to the clock on the wall. “Don’t play games with me, Ambrose. I don’t have time for this.”
He smiled as he finally looked to me. “Because you must catch the child of Satan.”
“I’m certain he’s possessed. Just like Petunia.”
His smile faded. “What makes you so certain? Is it because all you have dealt with in the past three years are possession? How much more must there be? How much more is there which you do not know?”
“If he’s not possessed then what is he?”
“I already told you: a child of Satan.”
“So, what? A sinner?”
Ambrose frowned as he stared at me in disbelief. “Metaphor too often obscures reality from the truth. They were right to put him in the asylum—there is nothing you can do to help him.”
I sat forward, rested my elbows on the table. “Can’t I at least try?”
“There are those who are beyond saving, Maxwell. There are those who do not want to be saved.”
“No one is beyond saving.”
Ambrose shrugged. “Perhaps.”
I glanced at the orderly. “Why are you here, Ambrose? Why are you here at the asylum, why were you there at the orphanage?”
“I have seen many beginnings. I have seen many endings. I have seen that one cannot exist without the other.” He leaned forward, bringing his face inches away from mine. “And each begins with a choice.”
The orderly stepped forward; I waved him away, but he continued inching closer regardless.
“We’ve been watching you for some time, Maxwell. We know you have always made the same choice, and that is something that we value. You’ve left everything; now it’s time to take up your cross.”
He stood up and nodded to the orderly, who was now only a couple yards away.
“I’ll return to my room now.”
I sat in the cafeteria alone for only a few moments before the orderly from the front desk poked his head into the room. “The police have him in custody.”
It was nearly midnight when I arrived at the police station. An officer sat in the corner filling out a crossword—he barely glanced up as I entered the station—and a man using a leather jacket as a blanket with a baseball cap covering his face slept on one of the benches near the middle of the room. An old woman with half-moon glasses and a permanent scowl sat at the front desk, reading a book. “Name?” she spat as I stepped up to the desk.
“I’m Father Novacek, with the Church. I was investigating Gregory Huff when he escaped from the asylum.”
“What’s the Church want with an insane asylum patient?”
“His sister suspects he’s possessed.”
“Mm.” The woman rolled her eyes. “Well, they told us you were coming, take a seat and an officer will be up to take you to him shortly.”
I sat down next to the man sleeping on the bench, opened my briefcase, pulled out the Bible, and began to read to myself. The police station was quiet: the entire time I was sitting, no one came in and no one went out. It seemed that no one even moved.
For at least a quarter hour, there was no sound. Then, a buzz, just before one of the many doors that had a sign reading “Authorized Personnel Only” opened. An officer stepped through.
The man sleeping next to me groaned as he stirred slightly. Before getting up, he slid the baseball cap backward so that it sat on top of his head and pulled a pair of aviators from his jean pocket before opening his eyes. When he walked past, I caught a glimpse of his eyes behind the lens; they almost seemed to glow.
He looked back at me just before the officer took him back through the door.
As the door clicked shut, I stood and walked to the front desk.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
She didn’t look up from the desk, her eyes glued to her book. “Hm?”
“Would you mind if I asked who that is?”
She turned the page. “Yep.”
I stood there, waiting for an answer. After a few seconds, I realized I wasn’t getting one and sat back down. The officer behind me spoke.
“He’s been poking around town for a few days, looking for his half-brother. Got in a couple scuffles, so we’ve had to hold him a couple times, but other than that seems a decent fellow. Anywho, he gave us a description and your boy Gregory fit, so we gave him a call when we called the asylum.” The officer looked up from his crossword at me. “He just happened to get here before you.”
I nodded and returned my gaze to the Bible, though I didn’t read a single word. His eyes were glowing, I was sure of it. Gregory’s did, too—I assumed it to be a trick of the light at the time, but perhaps not. Ambrose seemed insistent that he was literally the son of Satan, and this Jared claimed to be his half-brother.
I stood up and spoke almost too quickly to keep up with my own tongue. “I need to speak with him now.”
Just as I got the last word out, an explosion shook the police station. The officer in the corner leapt to his feet as gunfire sounded through the doorway.
The officer ran to the door, bracing himself against the wall beside it as he drew his firearm and flipped off the safety. “Outside!” he shouted; the woman at the front desk (whose scowl had been replaced with wide eyes and a gaping maw) and I complied. He followed shortly after, keeping his gun trained on the front door as he moved us across the street.
Smoke billowed into the sky above as sirens sounded and flashing lights sped down the street toward us. Soon, police cars surrounded the station, at least half a dozen handguns trained on each door, as police officers stumbled from the building.
From a voice speaking over a nearby officer’s radio, I gathered that two officers and someone else visiting the station were injured and two prisoners were dead. ‘Prisoners’ felt so wrong for them to have used. Those held in the station usually weren’t hardened criminals, they would have been people being held for stupid mistakes.
I found myself in a place that was very familiar. A deep pit opened in my stomach as my heart ached. It took all the strength I had to not cry out in anguish; I had caused this. The world around me faded as the thought overwhelmed my mind: it was my fault Gregory had escaped. It was my fault he’d been in the police station, and whatever happened because of that. Unless it didn’t. Perhaps the explosion was unrelated.
I approached the officer who’d directed the receptionist and I outside.
“Is there any way for you to find out if Gregory Huff is still in the station?”
The officer put his hand on his radio, put his finger on the button, then stopped. “Do you think he had something to do with this?”
“His half-brother went back just before the explosion.”
“Good point.” The officer waited for it to quiet, then spoke into his radio. “Any eyes on Gregory Huff? Over.”
The next three seconds of silence felt like an eternity.
“That’s a negative. Over.”
The pit in my stomach grew deeper. I spent the rest of my time there in a haze as an officer took my testimony and let me go. I returned to my house on the church grounds and laid down to sleep. I didn’t want to deal with this anymore. None of it would have happened if I hadn’t gone to visit my daughter. But it was Ariel who told me to go there. They probably would have just contacted me another way. And I would have complied. Finally, I drifted off to sleep.
I snapped awake at the sound of a creaking board, sat straight up in my bed. A man sat in my desk chair, nearly shrouded in darkness. He was situated such that the light coming through the window revealed one key factor: the inverted black cross on his arm.
“You left the asylum.”
“I have resources.”
“You’re an angel.”
“I never said that.”
I squinted at him. “What else would you be?”
Ambrose cleared his throat as he stood, looked out the window to the street below. “I need you to understand what Gregory is.”
“He’s literally the son of Satan, isn’t he?” I swung my legs over the side of my bed, rested my feet on the cold floor. “His half-brother found him.”
“Why was his half-brother even looking for him? He didn’t seem to even know who he was.”
Ambrose shook his head. He took in a deep breath, let out a momentary noise before pausing. He sat, staring out the window as gears spun in his mind. “His half-brother started calling himself the Hurting One a few decades ago. He travels around, gathering up the unlucky children of their father. He’s building an army for something.”
I craned my head, stared into space for a moment. “’Something?’ Shouldn’t you know what he’s building an army for?”
Ambrose shook his head. “He’s been building it for over a century. There’s nothing that can be done for Gregory now—it’s time we moved on.”
I stood, turning on my heels to face him. “He’s suffering, and from what you’ve told me, going with his brother isn’t going to help him! I believe we can.”
Ambrose sprang to his feet. “There are those who cannot be saved, Maxwell! There are those whose captors are too great for you or I to do anything about! There comes a time where we must cut our losses and move on!”
“No!” A fire burned within my heart, the flames leaping up into my eyes; Ambrose recoiled at the cry of my voice. I felt my tear ducts begin to leak as I looked at the man, his face illuminated by the light streaming from my window. “No one—not a single person—is beyond saving!”
Ambrose stepped forward, now standing within two feet of me. “I have watched as every single one of his brothers have fallen to his rhetoric. As they have all been led away by him onto the paths of destruction as they gave in to the Madness and became his drones. My heart aches, my mind burns with fury at the pain they must go through; every bone in my body cries out in anguish with each and every one we must let go of.”
I craned my head, softened my face, spoke softly. “Then why let go?”
Ambrose set his jaw, let out a frustrated sigh through his nose before taking a step back. “Fine. My employer has told me to follow your direction. If that is what you believe is best, then so be it.”
I closed my eyes, took in a deep breath, let it go. I pursed my lips and thought for a moment before opening my eyes again. “What would need to be done to save him?”
I blinked away my tiredness as I climbed out of the car into the empty street. Lights flickered in an apartment complex several buildings down. Hunched figures with faintly glowing eyes and horns protruding from their foreheads crept along the roof, peering down at the street below. Many more were scattered on buildings nearby, but the one was their primary concentration.
“This is the only place they could have gone,” Ambrose said. “Ariel should be here soon with the cure.”
I watched those around us in my peripherals as I stared at the stars above. The only movement from those apart from the main building was a faint swiveling of their heads every few minutes. Those on the main building paced back and forth.
A whoosh of air blew past us, sending a small cloud of dust down the road as the woman stepped up beside me. She handed me a syringe filled with a thick, red liquid. They were very vague about what the cure for Gregory’s condition was, but, looking at it now, I was certain it was blood of some sort.
“We only have one,” she whispered, “so be careful with it. Ambrose will lead, I’ll bring up the rear.”
I slipped the syringe into my pocket and nodded as Ariel handed Ambrose a handgun, which he tucked into the waist of his pants.
We started toward the apartment; I watched, subtly as I could, while the eyes of those on the rooftops began to focus on us. Their unintelligible whispers and hisses carried down to us. Without skipping a beat, Ambrose turned, entered the building. I hesitated for a moment before cementing my resolve. We would save him.
When I asked how we knew where he was nearly an hour before, Ambrose told me we had eyes the Hurting One couldn’t see. Now, I was convinced that he had eyes we—or, at the very least, I—couldn’t see. Though I could see nothing, it felt as though hundreds of eyes were peering into my very being, watching. I could hear whispers deep within my mind, probing, searching for an answer to a question I couldn’t possibly begin to understand. Ambrose and Ariel seemed wholly unphased.
After ten flights of stairs (seemed about half the building), Ambrose drew his handgun and we began down a hallway, stepping as lightly as we could. I myself was unsure why we even bothered when it seemed we were being watched from every angle. At the end of the hall was a door. While the rest had been painted a boggy, blue green, this one was painted a dark crimson, and the number plate had been ripped off—splintered holes remained where the screws once were.
Ambrose turned around and looked to Ariel, motioned with his hands while contorting his face; she responded in kind. From what I could gather, he asked her something about seeing, and she responded with anger. He rolled his eyes, shook his head, turned back to the door.
He held up a fist, then three fingers. Two fingers. One.
The door flew off its hinges after a solid kick and the familiar scream of Gregory Huff filled the hall. Ambrose quickly swept the room before moving onto the next—Ariel followed closely behind. I knelt down beside Gregory and attempted to calm him.
“You bring the silence,” he’d said.
I began quoting whatever scripture I could think of, and, once he calmed, took the syringe from my pocket. A hand was on my shoulder. I turned, expecting to see Ambrose. What I saw instead was a nearly-naked man with glowing orange eyes, a tail whipping around behind him, and two disks of bone protruding from his forehead—likely horns that had been broken off.
I clutched the syringe firmly as he threw me across the room.
I never quite knew exactly what happened next.
I felt a hand brush me as I flew through the air, and suddenly I was landing on the pavement outside. Demonic creatures surrounded me; Ariel flashed about as a blur, the creatures cried out in pain before falling to the ground. Once they were all down, Ariel disappeared completely with a roar of thunder. Then Gregory was beside me, screaming once more.
Glass shattered above and I watched Ambrose fall. The thing that’d thrown me fell with him, slammed into the ground. Ambrose and the thing stood. He had a massive gash in his stomach and the blade-like end of the thing’s tail was covered in blood. Ambrose raised both fists, prepared to fight.
Gregory kicked himself off the ground, bared his teeth as he stared at me. I held the syringe, ready for the moment to present itself. I began to recite scripture once more.
“You bring the silence,” he said.
“I should flee the silence.”
A thousand whispers echoed him as he leapt toward me; I raised my hands. Fighting back was pointless—I had no training of any kind. But I could, at the very least, defend myself while I took the first steps toward saving him.
“We are here to save you, Gregory!” His fists pounded against my arms. “We’re only trying to help, to free you from the hold of the blood inside you! Let us help you!”
“It is the blood that makes me free.” His speech was in direct contradiction to the rest of his body: calm and collected. His fists came so fast, I felt my arms would shatter.
“What I hold in my hand will make the rage and anger that consumes you, the constant torment you go through, go away. It will clean the blood inside you, ridding you of any demonic influence! I only need you to trust me! Do you really want to serve someone who would kill innocents for his own rotten gains?”
“He would sacrifice anyone to save me, that’s what he did! He truly cares about me, you only want to lock me up, to seal me away forever so that people don’t have to look at the monster they themselves created when they pushed me to the wayside.”
My arms were about to give out. Ambrose told me the solution in the vial would do nothing if Gregory didn’t accept it. But there was nothing else I could do; I had to try and hope that he would accept it when his senses cleared.
My hand shot forward; the needle pierced the skin between his ribs. Before I could press the plunger, his arm clamped down on mine. I heard a faint snap as the needle broke off in his skin. He threw another punch, hit me in the nose. Another—hit me in the gut.
I fell to the ground. What remained of the syringe flew from my hand, shattered against the pavement. He looked down at me, brought up his foot to stomp down on my head. A knife pierced his throat, splattered blood across my dazed body. He fell. I heard an asynchronous thud. It came from behind me. Ariel, who’d replaced Gregory, let out a scream. She disappeared with the shatter of thunder.
I rolled. Ambrose lay on the ground. I’m not sure how, but I crawled to him. As I cradled his bloodied head, he smiled at me.
“I have never had to fear death before. It’s refreshing.”
Ariel stood behind me.
“I have lived for millennia, accomplished great things. I have watched as entire civilizations were erased from existence, never to be seen again, but I have never feared when it would one day happen to me, until this moment.”
“You’re not going to die,” I said.
“Yes, I am,” Ambrose said with a wince. “That vial contained the one thing that could save me.” I killed him. He grabbed my arm and placed his hand over the inverted cross on his. “I pass this mark to you. May the martyr save many.”
Ariel muttered from behind me, “May the martyr save many.”
He released my arm and rolled over in pain. As I stood, Ariel crouched over him. I walked to where Gregory’s body lay motionless, kicked him over onto his back. As lifeless eyes stared back at me, a voice from the distant past echoed in the darkest recesses of my mind; the voice of my wife, my darling Coraline—the last thing she said to me before I made the mistake of leaving her side.
As the sun lifted off the horizon, I struggled to keep my eyes open and focused on the road ahead. Ariel sat in the passenger seat, jaw clenched as she sharpened her bowie.
“It’s my fault he’s dead, isn’t it?” I asked.
She wet her lips as she closely examined the edge, barely casting me a sidelong glance before returning to her sharpening.
“If we hadn’t gone after Gregory, he would still be alive, and I’d be asleep in my room at the monastery.”
Her brow leapt in agreement.
She cleared her throat. “It’s not your fault.” She examined the edge one last time before returning the knife to its sheath. She pulled out another, this one curved—a karambit, I later learned it to be called. “We knew he would die if you made the choice the Centurion thought you would make.”
I glanced at her for a moment in question before returning my gaze to the road.
“Our employer. There’s one hundred of us—including you now—so, Centurion.”
I nodded. She’d told me we were going to meet him, so that I could officially join their ranks. I’d handed in a request for relief from my priestly duties so that I could pursue this secret organization. Several minutes of silence later, I spoke.
“When my wife was on her deathbed, she told me I couldn’t do anything, that it was her time. The last thing she said to me was, ‘You can’t save everyone.’ Until today, the number of everyone has been one. Today, that number rose to three.”
Ariel tightened her lips, dropped her hands to her lap, stared at her knife with mournful eyes.
“By the time your work is done, it’ll feel like that number is everyone.”
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