The wagon rolled down the overgrown road, lurching and hobbling as the wooden cats pulling it slunk along, tails bobbing in time with their gait. Bright patches of colored cloth on the wagon’s cloth covering spelled out big words, that read, simply,
The toys rode in the front, the cats slept in the back, and Threadbare put his tools away as he finally, finally finished the last part of the dummy’s mouth.
Your Tailoring Skill is now level 45!
You are now a level 10 tailor!
PER +1
He nodded, then arranged the robes and hood and veil carefully over the reclining form, until nothing could be seen of its face. Thick gloves already covered her hands. You could tell there was a human shape underneath there, but that was about it, really.
At least, that’s what Zuula and Garon and Madeline had said, instructing Fluffbear to carve the wooden parts, and Threadbare on how best to pad them.
It had been a bit of a rush job, regardless. After they’d all agreed to the plan, Zuula had put him through the rigorous training necessary to make it work. And now here he was, five animator levels later, ready to give it a whirl.
Threadbare tapped on the cloth partition between the front and the back of the wagon. Next to him, Pulsivar opened an irritated eye. Seriously, why was it so hard for the little bear to understand the concept of naptime?
“I think we’re ready,” Threadbare said. “I’m going to stop the cats now if you want to come and watch.”
The cats halted, the doll haunters and Fluffbear unbuttoned the partition, and gazed upon the fruits of their labor.
“No way is this going to work,” Garon said.
“No, it be perfect!” Zuula insisted. “Used to have travelling animator shows all de time twenny years ago. Some of dem even had actual animators running dem.”
“Oh yeah,” Madeline said. “I remembah those. Like most of them were puppeteers lookin’ fa work, and carnies.”
“Carnies? Sounds like a monster type,” Garon remarked, poking his head in, and using his draconic advantage to swivel his neck until he could see over the other toys.
“Kinda. Half of ‘em were on tha run from something. I fit right in until they started insisting I work days.” Madeline shrugged. “There might have been a few minor disagreements and some bloodless corpses left behind, right before I split. Bleh, just thinking about it makes me taste corndogs. Guess that’s something I don’t have to worry about no more.” She rubbed her mouth, sadly. Some experimentation, and a lot of clean and presses, and in one case the disassembly of her new mouth combined with a thorough cleaning later, and Madeline was forced to the realization that she simply couldn’t drink blood. It did nothing for her now.
Which was a problem, given the vampire job’s… well, nudging in that direction. It wasn’t exactly a skill, per se, but it was a kind of loose craving. Couple that with the realization that she wouldn’t gain experience from drinking blood unless she actually drank blood, and her regrets were starting to build.
“Magic Mouth,” Threadbare said.
“Hello, can you hear me?” The dummy said.
The toys considered that for a minute. “That still sounds a little like you,” Fluffbear said.
“Ya putting it in the raht spaht, raht?” Madeline asked.
“Oh yes. It’s below the strings and chambers we made.”
They two bears had gotten very good at building voiceboxes over the last couple of days. And given a whole human torso to work with, they’d been able to fit in their latest model without the usual worries about miniaturization that normally limited them. The voice came out of the tiny mouth at the bottom of the dummy’s esophagus, fed through some strings and amplifying chambers, and came out sounding like a female human’s voice. And whenever the strings vibrated, the dummy’s jaw moved, so that under the veil she’d look like she was talking. Enough to fool someone who didn’t look too closely.
That was the plan, anyway. Right now it sounded like someone speaking from the bottom of a well.
“It’s not working, is it?” Threadbare asked.
“You’re still way soft,” Garon said. “Can you, I don’t know, yell or something?”
The dummy’s jaw crooked open, and a monotone wail issued forth. The cats, already a little freaked out by the whole thing, abandoned wagon.
“This is creepy,” Missus Fluffbear complained. “Are you sure we can’t use a zombie instead?”
“Don’t think that would help much,” Garon said. “No, look, this might actually be fine. Animators are supposed to be weird anyway, it’s part of the mystique.”
“No, this no be mistake,” Zuula insisted. “It work fine.”
“Mystique, Mom, not mistake.”
“Is what she said!”
“Nevermind. Ah, look, Threadbare, could you stop that please?”
The dummy stopped wailing.
“You’ve got decent volume, just… I don’t know, work on the voice a bit. Remember how Celia was. Only older.”
“Like Zuula,” the plush orc grinned.
“Sweet Nebs no, don’t try to talk like Zuula. Just… it’ll work out fine. Outmarsh isn’t exactly a big city, we won’t be there long. Just enough to find out what we need to know and where to go.”
“All right,” Threadbare said, as he started sewing up the dummy’s yellow robe. “I think we’re about ready, then.”
“I still got my resavations,” Madeline said. “Wooden cats is weird. Be bettah if we had horses.”
“I’ve never seen a horse so I couldn’t carve them,” Fluffbear shrugged. “But I know cats! And this way if Mopsy or Pulsivar die we can golemify them!”
“Cats is fine,” Garon said. “But it does mean that you’ll be on your own for a while. Are you sure you’re okay with that?”
“I’m okay with it. It means you’re stronger and that’s good. Besides, I’ve got the kitties to keep me company!”
The whole cover story depended on Threadbare controlling the cats and the dummy, and the simplest and easiest way to do that was to have all three of them in his party. Which left three slots for other members, as the maximum party size was seven.
Add to that the fact that Threadbare had an animator skill called “Creator’s Guardians,” which seemed to be meant for animi, but also affected the doll haunters for some weird reason, and the choice was obvious. It was a decent-sized buff, currently about thirteen to all attributes, and at the level they were at it made a significant difference. Made it easier to think, easier to resist bad impulses, easier to survive if something went wrong.
When, Zuula had pointed out. When something goes wrong.
“Now that that’s decided, we may as well get moving again,” Threadbare gestured and the wooden cats resumed their travel, clattering down the road.
“I’ll take watch,” Garon said, heading out to the seat. The cats did a decent job, and could react to simple instructions like “follow the road,” and “stop before you walk off a cliff,” but didn’t do so well with obstacles.
“Zuula come too,” Said his mother, clambering up on the board.
“Me three!” Missus Fluffbear raced out front. “I want to practice whipping!”
“Pass,” Madeline said. “Too bright. I’ll get naht shift.”
“Good,” said the dummy. “You can help me practice.”
Madeline chuckled. “Absolutely Missus Mata! Tell me how’s the family?”
“Oh they’re ingrates, they never call or send lotters.”
“Those too.”
“And what do you think of the weathah lately?”
“It’s horrible! Back in my day, it wasn’t raining sunny snowing or whatever.”
“No no no, you’re supposed ta pick one of those, the one it’s doing right now-“
Zuula buttoned up the partition. You could still hear the two of them trying to practice small talk, but this helped her to ignore it.
They were in the beginnings of the moors now, where the rivers of snowmelt from the mountains ran down to the beginning of the bowl that was Cylvania’s valley. Hills still jutted up here and there, like the knees of a resting giant, sleeping with his legs crooked. But water sagged and sogged between them, and new spring reeds and tall grasses were poking their heads up, yearning toward the sun with their roots in the wetlands. The road meandered along a natural ridge, lined with willow trees, and Fluffbear got her practice by snapping her whip at passing branches, trying to trim off twigs as the wagon rolled by.
Eventually Mopsy and Pulsivar returned to the wagon, with the bobcat hopping up to the back, and the tiny cougar curling up around Missus Fluffbear, who gave off whipping and settled into a petting routine that only a nigh-inexhaustible golem could sustain. Soon enough the Cougar’s purrs faded and its sides rose and fell with the rhythm of steady sleep.
“She’s doing a lot better,” Garon said, studying the sleeping cat. “Way less skittish. More settled.”
“Cat ghost lady abused her,” Zuula said. “Love heal her. Fluffbear be good tamer.”
“Thank you. I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time,” Missus Fluffbear said. “But it seems to be working out.”
“Most people like dat,” Zuula observed, laying back to study the sky. “Even if dey never admit it.”
As they rolled on, the sky grew cloudier, and Madeline and Threadbare gave off practicing and came forward as well. It was tight room on the buckboard, but the company was good. “I’ve never been anywhere like this before.” Threadbare said, gazing around at the empty marshlands. Occasionally there was a submerged dock, or a fallen pile that could have been a hut at some point, but for the most part it was empty save for foraging birds and Rodents of Unusual Size (ROUS’s) that were content to stay far away from the noisy wagon. “I’ve never been much of anywhere, I guess. The world seemed so big when I was moving around with Celia. But there’s this part of it too, and lots more parts like it, aren’t there?”
“Oh yeah. It’s way big,” Said Madeline. “Takes about two weeks either way ta cross Cylvania. An’ it’s supposed ta be even biggah outside the Oblivion, but I never seen none of dat. It went up befoah I could get out that way. Which is kind of a pity cause I met a lot of nice people from othah lands when I was back in Cylvania City. Nevah ran into one I didn’t like. You could say they had great taste.” She grinned, and her tack teeth glimmered in the rays of the fading sun.
“Hm. What are those?” Threadbare pointed. There, silhouetted in the falling orb, were what looked like distant pillars.
Zuula squinted. “Dolmens. Old stones put up by shamans long dead.”
“Any reason, really. Back in de day, dolmens were like cure all for anything you need. Old tribes discover rock cutting and hauling technology with newfangled t’ings like rope and slaves and chisels, and go a little nuts. Be making standing stones for calendars, for festivals, for sealing ancient evils, all sort of things. Didn’t know what to do about some’ting? Put dolmens on a hill.” The half-orc doll sighed. “Zuula be pretty sure old shamans got kickbacks from rock sellers in dose days. Fortunately time march on. Wicker tech come along and shamans leave old stones behind. More and more of dem end up bricked. Nowadays you get same hoodoo power out of charms you can fit in you pocket, that old-style dolmen did with sixty tons of fucking rocks.”
“Think we should check it out?” Garon asked.
Threadbare squinted. “It would be an awfully long way through the wet mud.”
“I could try flying over,” Garon offered. “I need to learn sooner or later.”
“Oh yeah! You can do that!” Madeline brightened.
Zuula sighed. “Hokay. Stop de wagon. You, child, Slow Regeneration.
“What does flying use?” Missus Fluffbear asked.
“I’m guessing agility,” Garon said.
“Yeah, Agility,” Madeline confirmed. “I used to be able to turn into a bat.”
“Agility,” Zuula grunted. “Owl skills be awesome to borrow.”
“Yorgum’s blessing of agility on Garon!” Fluffbear reached over and nudged him.
“Thanks! All right, let’s see here,” said the plush dragon hatchling, leaping from the cart, wings pumping-
-and promptly plummeting into the mud.
“Oh. Right.” A muddy green head poked out. “Scaly Wings.”
The practice went on into the night, and finally, after a couple of Clean and Presses and much skilling up of Scale Wings, they deemed Garon to be airworthy.
The toys flew out there all at once, piled on Garon’s broad back, holding on for all they were worth. Falling into the marsh wouldn’t be a fatality or even very damaging, but it would mean a struggle back to dry land and a general inconvenience overall.
They touched down on the hill, and Zuula hopped off, and started poking at the stones. Three seconds into it she froze. “Hoo boy.”
“I can’t see,” Fluffbear complained. “Can I glow-gleam?”
“You uh, you might not want to see,” Garon said. “It’s all tentacles and eyes up in here. There’s a fire pit and some wet kindling, too.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to see tentacles and eyes?”
“Well uh, because… well…”
“Some people find those things creepy,” Madeline said.
“More den dat,” Zuula said, moving from stone to stone. “Dey eldritch.”
“What’s that word mean?” Threadbare asked.
“Is like… arcane.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know that one either.”
“Is like mystical?”
“Oh. That sounds nice.”
“No. No, dis de opposite of nice. Remember how Zuula say some dolmens built to trap ancient tings and some be like calendars?”
“Well, ain’t nobody be telling de time from dis one is all she saying.”
As a matter of fact, Zuula was wrong.
There were in fact, a large amount of people very close by who wanted the dolmens to tell them one proper time for years. They had, in fact, taken measures to anticipate such times, and spread the good news when they arrived.
It was just bad luck all around, because tonight was the night they’d been waiting for. The stars slid into position, light played across the runes in just the right manner, and an entirely different group of people than its intended audience got to listen as the great being trapped far below the stones shuddered into a sliver of wakefulness.
To the toys, it sounded like a chorus of frogs starting up.
“Do you think we should light the wood?” Threadbare asked.
Garon shook his head, and glanced to the north. “We’re not far from town. Somebody might see this and come out and investigate.” The town had rather less lights going than he had expected, but no way would they miss a fire this size.
“That sounded like a really big frog,” Missus Fluffbear said. “Are you sure I can’t make a light?”
“Positive,” Zuula said. “Those not be frogs. Those not frogs at all!”
And then, to everyone’s eyes save Fluffbear, the dolmens almost seemed to writhe. The eyes on them shifted, stone cracking, as they blinked.
“Oh shit run!” Zuula yelled, and hopped on Garon’s back.
“NEEKABREEKANEEKABREEKANEEKABREEKA!!!” The voice rose about them in chorus with itself, inhuman cries rising to the uncaring stars above, sounding like thunder, drowning out all else.
Your Stubborn skill is now level 8.
Threadbare found it very annoying.
Missus Fluffbear had her hands over her ears and looked pretty pissed. Garon was shaking his head, thoroughly unsettled by the noise. Blue ‘0’s, followed by the occasional ‘1’, drifted out of him and up into the sky.
But Zuula and Madeline were hard hit. Threadbare watched with horror as they screamed and writhed, holding their heads. Blue ‘7’s escaped from her, dwarfed by Madeline’s ‘18’s and ‘20’s.
And over it all, the thundering croaks and squeaks shook the dolmens, as eyes opened and shut, focusing with burning tri-lobed fury!
“We need to go!” Threadbare yelled, grabbing Fluffbear and jumping on Garon’s back. He grabbed Zuula and Madeline and gripped the dragon’s back with his legs and every bit of his triple-digit strength, keeping a hold on his friends as Garon lifted off.
Your Ride skill is now level 9!
Once they were outside of the stones, the sound shut off as abruptly as if someone had shut a vault door.
“Ow,” Zuula said. “That bad. Really bad. Old one trying to come out. Fortunately not great old one. More like mediocre old one.”
Madeline kept screaming.
“Shit. Check her sanity, Dreadbear?”
“Eye for Detail. Oh dear, it’s at two!”
“Not zero? Good. Zero is how madness happen sometimes. Close one. Too close.”
“If that’s a mediocre old one I don’t want to see a just-sorta-okay old one,” Garon said, landing by the wagon. “What do we do about her? How do we help her?”
Threadbare cleared his throat. Then he wrapped Madeline in a hug, and rocked the smaller marionette, like Celia had rocked him, long ago. “With an Emboldening Speech. I know that was scary. But it’s all right. You’re one of the bravest people I know. You’re safe now.
Calm washed over the party, as Threadbare’s skill buffed their sanity and moxie. Madeline stopped screaming, curled into him, and tried whimpering instead. For his part, the bear rocked her back and forth until she stopped.
“What do we do about it?” Garon asked. “Do we beat it up? How much experience do you get for one of those things?”
“No no no,” Zuula said. “Dose t’ings eat tribes. Uh… Status.” She studied her screen. “Yes, dat work. Got just enough for one of dose. Zuula be back wit’ answer in a bit.” She headed into the back of the wagon, and the toys watched her curl up near Pulsivar. “Dream Quest.”
“Zuula?” Threadbare asked, placing Madeline gently on the wagon, then clambering up to look in at her.
“Forget it,” Garon said. “She’ll be out for hours.”
They looked at the dolmens.
The ancient stones glimmered with a weird light. Possibly mystical, probably arcane. Definitely eldritch.
“We need to tell someone about this,” Threadbare decided. “Let’s go to town while we wait and warn them.”
“I’d really prefer if Mom was awake for that,” Garon said, glancing from her to the dolmens. “And Madeline had more sanity, so our fiery surprise was available if we ran into trouble.”
Threadbare stared at the stones. “Keen Eye.”
Your Keen Eye skill is now level 2!
“Those eyes are still moving, I think,” he said, finally. “It would be nice to wait, but the town could be in danger now.” He made his decision, and the wooden cats clattered to life again. Fluffbear, taken by surprise, ran a bit and hopped up on the back of the wagon. It took a couple of tries before she got a handhold, and squirmed up.
“Should I put on my armor?” Missus Fluffbear asked.
“It couldn’t hurt,” Garon said, glancing between the road and the dolmens. “Have you decided on a code of chivalry yet?”
“I think so.”
“Good. Might come in handy, a passive defensive buff that builds. Certainly couldn’t hurt. I have the feeling we’ll have to end up fighting that thing.”
“All right! I pledge mine blade to this Code of Chivalry! I, Missus Fluffbear, pledge to protect my friends, and feed my kitty on time, and beat up bad people! And bad things!”
For a second she glowed, and then it was done.
“That’s a big responsibility,” Threadbare told her. “Mopsy eats a lot for her size. And she’ll only get bigger.”
“That’s okay,” squeaked the little black bear. “I don’t eat anything so it balances out. She can have my share of everything.”
They rolled on in silence for a bit, following the road. As they went, the toys could see a stockade wall rising in the distance, a wooden curtain that surrounded the town, with torches along it every twenty feet or so. Figures in robes paced along the top, though a small knot formed above the gate, staring as the cart rolled up.
“Who goes there?” One of them called, his voice high-pitched and wobbly.
“I bet it’s a trick,” another one of them whispered, so loudly that the toys could hear it.
“Shut up! Keep the crossbows ready!” A gruff one commanded.
“Hello there, sirs or madams!” Threadbare made the dummy talk. “I’m Annie Mata, here with a show of animated toys for all ages!”
There was a long pause. The three heads visible on the top of the wall ducked down. There came a sound of muttering.
“Come out of the wagon with your hands up, then!” The gruff one said, as one of the others ran off.
Threadbare controlled his animi, directing the dummy out of the wagon. She held up her arms, yellow sleeves flapping in the darkness.
Then the runner came back, with a lantern. He waved it down there, and the guards on the wall blinked to see her, clad in all yellow, masked and veiled.
Comprehension and hope dawned on their faces. “You… you’re…”
“Wait!” Said the one who’d whispered loudly. “Have you seen the yellow sign?”
Threadbare thought fast.
There HAD been a sign on the route, saying “this way to Outsmouth,” and it WAS pretty yellowed with age.
“Yes, yes I have, my boy or girl.”
The guards relaxed. All save for the gruff one. “Nah! Nah, it could be a trick! Look at them cats! Those is wooden cats!”
“Well, yes, what of it?”
“It’s like that one book I read! They’re trying to give us these wooden animals, then they’ll burst open and be full of armies once they’re inside!”
The three guards on the wall considered the cats.
“I think that was horses, Daav.”
“Same thing!”
“They’re a bit small for armies, aren’t they?” The high-pitched guard mused. “Maybe one soldier. If he was a halven or a goblin or something.”
“Well maybe they’re smuggling halvens or goblins then!” The gruff one said. “Look, I’m just saying, this could be a trick.”
“Yeah, and it’s one animator lady against all of us if it IS,” the whisperer in the darkness said. “We did for the garrison, we can do for her if we need to. Besides, her cult’s kin to ours. Bad luck to turn away a fellow seeker.”
“State your business in Outsmouth?” The high-pitched one asked.
“I’m just here to put on a show and talk about interesting things. How about that weather lately?”
The guards relaxed. True devotees of YGlnargle’blah they might be, but they were fishermen first, and fishermen NEVER miss a chance to bitch about the weather. The tension eased, crossbows were put down, and Threadbare smiled as the nice people spent way too long whining about the local drought.
Five minutes later, Daav and Phred and Mhorty opened the gate. “Well, if you’re here for a show, Marva could use some help. The blessed children are getting anxious, since most of their parents are having to pull gate duty. Maybe you could go to the church and help her calm them down?”
“That sounds great, sir or madam! Which direction might it be?”
They gave her a lot of confusing directions, which included such helpful tidbits as “Turn left at Jarger’s house,” but fortunately Threadbare was smart, as teddy bears went, and thought he could figure it out. Then he directed the dummy back into the wagon’s seat, and held still as he willed the cats forward, through the open gate. The green-robed guards shut it behind him, and wished Annie well.
“I look forward to seeing your play later!” The whisperer in the darkness called. “I always dreamed of visiting Lost Corcasa!”
Threadbare had Annie wave back. He had no idea what that was. Then he remembered what he was here for.
“Oh yes, and there’s an old one stirring under those dolmens to the south! You might want to do something about that.”
The guards laughed. “We know, isn’t it great?” The high-pitched one yelled. “He'll call us all home soon!”
Okay, that wasn’t the reaction he’d expected. Puzzled, Threadbare left the guards behind, thoroughly fooled into thinking that the dummy was a friendly ally of sorts.
By engaging in successful duplicitous shenanigans you have unlocked the Grifter job!
You cannot become a grifter at this time.
Well. That was interesting. Also not helpful at the minute.
The wagon rolled on through the town, most of it silent and dark. Garon sidled up next to him, and snaked his head around to Threadbare’s fluffy ear. “They’re cultists.”
“Excuse me?”
“It’s a job. A bad one. There’s only a few types of cultists tolerated in the kingdom, and those aren’t them. I think… I think we’re looking at a full town of cultists. Or enough of them that they’re in charge.”
“Are they bad people?” Fluffbear asked anxiously. “I might have to beat them up.”
“Nnnn…..” Garon’s honesty warred with the realization that if he said the wrong thing, the little bear WOULD march out there and start smiting. “Don’t know. They might just be deluded. Let’s wait and see what the full situation is, here, first.”
“It’s fahcked and we should run,” Madeline said, clambering out of the wagon to take her place with the other toys. “But we’re in now, so the only way out is through.”
“Feeling better?” Threadbare asked.
“Yeah. Still down a wompload of sanity. Gahd I wish we had a way to rest. It’s slow, slow, slow ta come back.”
“Hm…” Threadbare glanced back to Zuula. “Maybe…”
His thoughts were interrupted, as letters flashed across his view.
You are now a level 6 scout!
“Well!” He said. “I guess we explored a fair amount.”
“This is all new territory, so yes… oh. Party Screen. Cool, congratulations.”
“Thank you.”
“Oooh, that could do it,” Madeline said. “I just need ta level up some an’ get my sanity back fast that way.”
“That works until you get out of the lower levels,” Garon shrugged, twitching his wings. “And it’s hard to rely on. Sometimes the experience doesn’t stack up like you expect. Case in point.”
“You’ll hit level two dragon eventually,” Threadbare said, then he stood on the wagon’s seat. “Oh! There’s the church. I think.”
“Oh yes,” Said Missus Fluffbear, as she looked at the stone building by the lake. The windows were green and blue stained glass, and lit from within. “That’s totally a temple to Pau. Yorgum told me about her. Uh, him.”
“God of the seas, right? And big lakes too, I guess.” Garon nodded.
“And Goddess of storms. Which is why lightning strikes say his or her name when they hit.”
As they got closer, they could hear a woman singing inside, barely audible over what sounded like the croaking of a couple of dozen big frogs. Madeline shuddered, and hid back inside the wagon.
Threadbare thought the woman’s voice sounded rather desperate. And also that the croaking was a bunch of voices, nowhere near as deep as what they’d heard on the hill.
“That’s not the mediocre old one’s voice,” he said. “The frogs, I mean.”
Curious, he had the dummy get out of the wagon and knock on the door.
There was a pause. Everything fell silent.
Finally, a harried-looking woman, stout and middle-aged, opened the door. Brown hair poked out, frazzled and chaotic, from under her green hood and the hem of her robe had big bites taken out of it. Strands of ropy drool oozed to the ground. “Hello? Is everything… oh! Who are you?”
Her eyes bulged with fear… then softened, as they fell upon the two bears and the little plush dragon, as they hopped down from the wagon’s seat. “Oh my goodness! An animator show! And these are your little toys, then!”
Your Adorable Skill is now level 22!
“Come inside, come inside,” the woman smiled, madness flashing in her eyes. “The little dears will love you! Ah, I’ll just take a break then, while you entertain them, shall I?”
“Oh, certainly,” Threadbare had the dummy say, as they walked into the church.
SLAM! The door nearly caught Garon’s tail as the cultist shut it.
CLICK! A key turned in the lock.
Feet pounded the pavement as Marva ran for her life.
And from the darkness, two dozen pairs of green, glowing eyes loomed out of the darkness, as the blessed children of YGlnargle’blah emerged from the wreckage of the pews and the thoroughly desecrated altar, staring at the newcomers, sharklike maws opening and closing as drool spilled to the floor.
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About the author

Andrew Seiple


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