The City of Fire: Chapter Forty-Six

THE MOON shone full and bright, brighter than Zelda had ever seen it before; the ravine was bathed in light of liquid silver. She stepped out of the tunnel's shadow into fresh cold air and tilted her head back to stare at the brilliant stars, full of joy and wonder at the sight. The sky had never been so beautiful. She spread her arms wide and felt the cool breeze soothing burns she had not even noticed at the time. Somewhere out of sight, on the slopes of the mountain, an owl made its mournful cry.

"There'll be a frost in the morning," Link said inanely as he came out, then shook his head and grinned. "What time is it, do you think?"

Dark had moved a little way away from them; he climbed up now onto a pile of quarried stone and stood, looking intently at the shimmering sky. "Well past midnight, I would say. But of what day I do not know."

"Look," Sofia said suddenly, her voice strained. Link glanced in the direction she was facing and grabbed clumsily at the hilt of his serpentine dagger.

They were not alone in the ravine. Here and there, stark black in the moonlight, Lizalfos crouched or sprawled singly or in small groups: there must have been a score or more in total, though they were widely scattered. The monsters were for the most part dusty and bedraggled, many of them wounded in some way. Heads turned; yellow eyes gleamed warily. Dark leaped down from his rock and drew his plain sword, and a few of the nearer ones slunk back out of sight.

Zelda stared for a moment, and then moved forward and gently touched the shadow's shoulder. "Don't," she said. "I don't think they'll hurt us. Let's just leave them alone."

There was a sudden noise behind them: a scuff of feet on stone within the tunnel. The four of them turned swiftly, alert for an attack, but saw only a single Lizalfos come stumbling out into the moonlight, his scaly skin pale with rock dust. Black blood gleamed slickly down one side of his head. He saw them and froze, crouching in the tunnel's entrance with his long tail stiff behind him.

Link lifted his hand from the dagger's hilt and stepped back. "It's all right," he said. "Go on, go."

The Lizalfos stared at them for a second as if he did not understand the words, then opened his mouth and hissed fiercely. Before any of them could act, he dashed away along the wall of the ravine, found a slope that was less sheer and was up it in three scrambling leaps. A few pebbles rattled down and all was still once more.

So these are the survivors, Zelda thought, looking about her. Like us...

She turned to look at Link and had to laugh when she saw him under the light of the full moon. His face was haggard, filthy, smeared with soot and dirt; his hair stuck up in all directions, full of cinders. Sofia, dressed in a shapeless sackcloth garment, still wore the filthy remnants of Occa's bandages on her bare, grubby limbs. As for Dark, his once well-made clothes hung in wild tatters and his fine black hair was streaked gray with ash. He was still luckier than them--everyone else wore objects that could barely be called clothes at all.

And how many others had not got out in time? Suddenly the amusement was gone, and tears were prickling her sore eyes. "Oh, Link, the Moblins," she said, her voice growing thick. "What happened to the Moblins? Occa was still down there..."

He hesitated, then awkwardly put his good arm around her shoulders in a clumsy male attempt to comfort her. The mood had sobered now. For a while nobody spoke.

Finally Sofia moved, coming forward to stand with them. "There's nothing we can do now," she said quietly. "We should go."

 

 

They were not challenged as they walked across the rocky floor of the ravine and ascended, slowly and laboriously, the steep path down which they had first come on that crisp autumn day. It seemed a very long time ago now. The marks of their scuffle with Kreet and his patrol were still visible in the loose earth at the top. A chill icy wind blew steadily through the cleft in the stone; Zelda hugged herself and shivered in her meager clothes.

"There's a light on the mountain," Link said quietly.

All four of them turned to look. Death Mountain's peak was shrouded in thick dark clouds despite the clear sky elsewhere; through the haze there gleamed faintly a dull crimson glow, like iron cooling on a blacksmith's anvil. There was a taint like rotten eggs hanging thinly on the night breeze.

"It shines like that sometimes," Dark said. "I have seen it before at night. I think we are safe enough here."

"Even so... I'd be happier if we were off this mountain and back in Kakariko." The Hero sighed as he glanced toward the narrow cleft. "It will be a long walk... are we up to it now?"

Sofia nodded. "I am, as long as walking is all we have to do."

"Zel?" Link said.

The Princess nodded and made a shaky smile. "I would rather walk than wait around here for something else to attack us. Let's go."

Struggling through the cleft was a painful, wearisome task; the rough stone scraped burned and tender skin, and muscles already strained made the necessary exertion agony. It had been hard enough the first time. Zelda hauled herself out at the other end, with Dark's help, and felt tears drying on her face in the strong wind as she stood. She scrubbed at her eyes with the back of one hand.

"Goddess, it's cold," Sofia mumbled, joining her. "And I am horribly thirsty..."

"Oh, don't say that," Zelda said in dismay. Suddenly she was aware of a raging thirst herself; her cracked lips tasted of dry salt sweat. Trying not to think about it, she turned and looked away down the mountainside, seeing the distant sparks of lights somewhere in the blackness of the Hyrulian plain. That was too far away to be Kakariko--perhaps it was Ruto.

Link was still making his way through the gap, taking a long time over it. Suddenly he gave a sharp cry.

"What is it?" Zelda asked, turning back swiftly. "What's wrong?" She could see only a dark shape in the narrow entrance.

"It's nothing... my stupid arm..." His voice was taut with pain.

Dark brushed past her, light as the breeze, and slid into the cleft without a word. There was a rattle of stone and then he backed out again, Link leaning on his shoulder.

"Thanks," the Hero said breathlessly as he stood upright.

"Are you all right?" Sofia asked.

Link nodded and managed to smile, though his green eyes were weary and shadowed. "Just got a bit stuck, that's all. At least the hard part is over," he added with wry humor. "Downhill all the way from here, isn't it?"

"There was a spring behind the shepherd's hut," Dark said vaguely.

That got everybody's attention. "Where?" Zelda exclaimed, at the same time as Link asked, "Are you sure?"

"Of course I am sure," the shadow said, sounding a little irritable. "I heard it running when we passed by. Did none of you?" He turned and moved a little way down the path, then stopped and looked back. "Are you coming?"

The thought of fresh cold water banished all the tiredness from Zelda's limbs. "We're coming," she said, breaking into a trot to catch up. "Wait for us! We're coming!"

 

 

There was a spring. It bubbled up at the back of the stone hut to form a small round pool that overflowed and trickled away down the steep slope, seeping away eventually into the dusty scrub soil. By the many prints in the ground around it, it was mainly used by sheep, but they did not care. The water was clear and so icy cold that it made the teeth ache. It was wonderful.

Once their raging thirst had been slaked and they had washed the dust from their faces, they sat down outside on the sheltered side of the hut, out of the worst of the wind. Link slipped the Forest Amulet's chain over his head and began to examine the clasp closely. "It's strange," he said after a little while. "Do you remember? She dropped it when the dragon caught her. I thought that the catch had broken, but it seems perfectly fine. It must have just sprung open somehow."

"Well," Zelda said, "however it happened, I am glad we got it back again. When she took it, I thought that would be the last we ever saw of it..." She shivered at the memory of those moments in the dark prison cell.

"And now we have two," Sofia grinned. She took off her own medallion and held it out to match it with the other; the two gems, red and green, caught the moonlight and glittered brightly. "Just four more to go! I bet the old witch is furious!"

For a while there was a companionable silence. The mountainside was peaceful and still, now--save for that ominous glow about the peak, and even that seemed to be fading now like old embers, sinking down into the darkness of the night.

"I just can't stop thinking about the Moblins," Zelda said at last. "And poor Occa... They weren't even there of their own free will; they were just slave labour for Sepultura."

"What other fate would you have wished for them?" Dark asked harshly. She turned in surprise; he was sitting a little way apart from them, hunched against the wintry cold with his arms wrapped around his knees. His eyes were bright and chill in the moonlight as he watched her. "Would you have them alive and well on the surface, waylaying travelers and burning villages? They do that, Zelda. They hunt Hylians, and eat them when they can."

"That is a nasty thing to say," she said angrily.

"Yes, it is." He shrugged. "But they are not nice creatures. The fact that a solitary one of them was kind to you changes nothing. If they had survived and gained their freedom, they would pillage and plunder until your father sent soldiers to kill them. Better that they died there, swiftly, knowing nothing."

She did not answer, knowing that he was right and hating him for it.

"Sometimes innocents die," he said softly, his tone kinder now. "And no, it is not fair, but there is nothing to be done." He stood up and walked away.

Link hauled himself upright and stood wincing as he shifted his weight from foot to foot. "We should go on," he said almost apologetically. "We'll have to hurry now if we are going to get back to Kakariko before morning. Zel..?"

"I'm all right," she said dully. She got up painfully and came with him, Sofia following behind. Dark was already on the downward path, pacing impatiently as he waited for them.

They went on, limping now on bruised and blistered feet. Slowly the terrain changed, becoming greener and more verdant; the steep and rocky slope became a shallow gradient of rolling hills with scattered bushes and an occasional bent and battered tree. The path wound around the foot of the mountain in a long steady curve.

At last they turned a final corner and saw before them the roofs of houses, dimly visible in the pre-dawn gray that was now spreading from the east. Kakariko's lights were all out by now, but one golden firefly spark was bobbing on the path below. They hurried down to meet it. As the lantern drew closer, a dark figure faded out of the gloom of night beside it: the bulky silhouette of a man in a thick wool cloak, bearing a shepherd's staff in his other hand.

"Impo!" Sofia cried gladly.

The shepherd stopped and waited for them to come to him, holding his lantern high to shed light on their faces. His expression, when they could make it out against the flame, was deeply relieved. "Thank Nayru ye're back... I was comin' up one last time before we sent to the city for help. All here? Hale and hearty?" He frowned suddenly, seeing the state of them for the first time. "Nayru's Love! What happened up there?"

 

 

Zelda woke with her head in a patch of sunlight, and stared up at the familiar ceiling of the Kakariko Inn, and thought for one emotional moment that she had had a bad dream. Then she felt the pain of her battered body and the soft pressure of bandages. She sat up, groaning, and took stock of herself. Hands--torn and raw; bandaged across the palms. She must have done that somewhere on the way out. Shoulder--spectacularly bruised. That was when the stones had started falling, during that last terrified rush to the surface. Legs--agony. The long run up and out through the tunnels, and then the longer walk down the mountain; she had sorely overworked her muscles. Forearm--heavily bandaged and stinging. Kurgh, she thought; she had been cut there by his axe, though she had nearly forgotten that wound with everything else that had happened.

Stomach--ravenous. Zelda pushed the covers off and swung her legs out of bed. She was naked, aside from bandages, but someone had left a pile of clean linen neatly folded on a chair. She pulled on a pair of loose white pants and a dark blue tunic, and tied a cloth belt around her middle. Someone seemed to have washed her while she was asleep; at least, she was clean, and her cropped hair had been brushed, and she certainly didn't remember doing that herself.

The room was one of the smallest in the inn, tucked away under the sloping gable of the roof; it was the one she had had before, when they had first arrived at Kakariko. There was only room for a single bed and chair. Where were the others? Zelda limped out and along the creaking first-floor balcony, grimacing at the sharp stinging pain in her feet; they were blistered and agonisingly sore. Nobody seemed to be around.

She tottered down a flight of wooden stairs and found herself in the main bar. The inn was empty. Afternoon sunlight poured through the long windows, revealing a million motes of dust dancing in the air; the wooden planks creaked as she walked across them. Most of the tables and chairs were piled up against the walls, but there was one table still standing in a corner with four chairs set around it. Here sat a figure in a hooded cloak. He lifted his head as she came near, and she saw the bright flash of his crimson eyes.

"Dark!" she cried, running to him. He pushed back his hood and looked at her, an odd little half-smile playing on his lips. "How are you?" Zelda asked, pulling out a chair. She sat down and grinned at him over the wooden table. "You look fine," she said, "but then I suppose you would."

"I am well." He spoke solemnly, with a kind of dignity that seemed very old. "And you?"

"Me?" she said, surprised that he should bother to ask. "I am all right. I think, anyway. Where are the others? Is Link all right?"

"Link is well enough. He has been taken to the doctor's house; his arm had to be re-set. The splint he had on had come loose, and it would have healed crooked otherwise." Dark made his tentative little half-smile again. "And Sofia, I think, is looking at the snow. She has never seen it up close before."

"Snow!" cried Zelda, leaping to her feet. She shot to the nearest window and pressed her face against it. The warmth of her hands melted frost-ferns on the outside of the glass. Enchanted, she gazed out at a transformed Kakariko; the ground was covered with a sparkling blanket of white, and the famous red roofs were invisible beneath a four-inch covering. The sun was bright, but a few fat flakes were drifting down even now, floating through the still air like so much swansdown. Zelda grinned until her face hurt. Snow! "Dark?" she said. "I challenge you to a duel."

"Excuse me?" he said.

"You and me, outside, at twelve noon." She came back to the table, her eyes sparkling. "Hey! We could hide and ambush Sofia! We'll start a war!" She burst out laughing at the expression on his face. "I mean with snowballs!"

At that moment the kitchen door swung open, letting a blast of heat and cooking scents out to swirl around the inn. A young blond man came out with a laden wooden tray balanced on one hand, and a water jug in the other. Zelda's ears pricked as she smelled food; she felt a rush of saliva in her mouth. The kitchen hand set down the tray and uncovered various dishes: a plate of buttered toast, a bowl of hot, sweet, sugary porridge, sausages still crackling with heat. "Thank you," she said, smiling up at him. He blushed and bowed his way out.

She started with the porridge, and the taste of it, thick with cream and honey, made her light-headed with joy. The last time she had eaten must have been in the Moblin village; she was famished. She shoveled it into her mouth, pausing only to take gulps of water when she was in danger of choking.

"Do you want anything?" she asked Dark. He shook his head slightly. "You don't eat," Zelda said, pausing with a piece of toast halfway to her mouth. "Ever. What is it you live on?"

"Ask Ganon that." His voice was suddenly bitter. "He made me."

Ah, Zelda thought, and made a note to leave that subject well alone from now on. She started on the sausages. Now that the edge had been taken off her hunger, she felt warm and very comfortable. She could happily have gone back to sleep. Instead she chewed thoughtfully, savouring the taste. "Dark?" she said.

"What?"

"How long were we under the mountain? Do you know?"

"Two days," he said, "and this is the afternoon of the third. You slept for a long time, Zelda."

"Two days," Zelda repeated softly, staring at her plate. There was a little left, but she was no longer hungry; she pushed the plate away and poured herself a glass of water. It was clear and cold, flavoured faintly with the juice of some sharp fruit. She drank the whole glass and felt it soak her insides, softening her parched tongue, stinging her sore, cracked lips. After a moment she poured herself another, and sighed and leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes. "So we have two Amulets," she said, smiling. "Two! And we weren't even looking for the second one!"

"An odd chance, indeed," Dark said. "Then what now? Do we search for the third?"

"Now?" Zelda opened her eyes and looked at him. He spoke as cool and indifferent as ever... but, she thought, there was an odd bright look in his eyes that had not been there before. "I don't know," she said. "Nayru's Love! Frankly I don't want to think about it yet. Let's just go home and have a nice quiet Yule." He said nothing. She drank down the rest of the water, sighed, and stretched her bare toes, pressing them against the cool wooden boards. Her soles were swollen and tender; they ached. "My feet hurt," she said.

"We came many miles last night."

"Uphill all the way," she said, remembering. "The dragon made of burning stone! Nayru's Love! I hope I never see anything so awful again!"

"That has been puzzling me," Dark said. "That mad old crippled lizard... how could he have created something so powerful? That phantom was true magic, Zelda. Somehow, somewhere, I smell the work of Ganon."

"But Ganon is gone!" Zelda exclaimed. "Link defeated him! He cannot return for three hundred years--that is how it works!"

He looked at her gravely. "I have long suspected that there is something wrong in Hyrule. Why has Sepultura surfaced after so long? Why, if the Hero cast out Ganon, are monsters still breeding in the wild places? The land is uneasy. I felt it in the forest, and I felt it under the mountain. Old evils are stirring." He sighed and lowered his head. "I did not have time to speak of this before, but when I was alone in the tunnels, I found something... I was led to a place. There were words carved on the walls. They spoke of me."

"You?" Zelda said. This was new.

"It was dark, and I had no light; I tried to read them by touch. Zelda," he said, shaking back his hair to look her in the eye, "those carvings spoke of betrayal. But I could not read the riddle well enough to tell... did they mean that I would betray Ganon, as I have done? Or did they mean another kind of betrayal?"

She stared at him and understood. "You are frightened," Zelda said. "You think you might be fated to betray us?"

"I know not," he said, looking away. He stared into the far corner of the room.

She reached out and gently took his hand where it lay on the table. As always, he flinched away, startled by her touch; but she held on firmly to his fingers, until he turned his head and looked into her eyes once more. "You stood with us," Zelda said softly, "many times, when you could have done otherwise. We believe in you."

There was a silence, and then he sighed and withdrew his hand. "You will want to see Link," he said, rising.

"Where will you go?" Zelda asked.

"Not far. They have given me a room." He looked down at her for a moment, a slim dark figure of shadow. "Thank you," he said, "for coming back for me. I was not sure that you would."

"Of course we would," Zelda said, smiling. He left her in a ripple of cloth, walking swift on noiseless feet. She watched him climb the stairs without creaking a single board; his hand slid light along the carved wooden banister. He vanished from her sight.

Her thoughts turned in a moment to Link. She heaved herself to her feet and limped into the kitchen in search of a maid or errand-boy. She needed new shoes--and very light, soft, comfortable ones they would have to be!

 

 

The witch's house was much more cheerful than the last time Zelda had seen it, when Dark had been tended there; the windows had been cleared, so that bright light shone within. A fire burned bright in the grate. She smiled at the warmth of it; the air outside had been chill, and the difference made her skin tingle pleasantly. Link was sitting up in the chair, and a sad, dejected figure he looked, his arm thickly plastered and supported in a sling. He lifted his head as she came in, and smiled lopsidedly; she saw a healing pink line running down his left cheek, reminder of Kreet's knife. So long ago that seemed now!

"You're going to have a scar," she said, pointing, as she sat down.

He sighed and raised his free hand to rub at the wound. "I'm afraid so," he said. "The old woman says it will fade over time. Still, what's another one? They will make great stories to entertain grandchildren!"

"How's the arm?" she asked.

"Hurts." He rapped on the smooth white plaster. "They broke it again to fix it. Occa did the best she could with what she had, but it was a bad break in the first place. It will be six weeks or more before I can hold a sword again."

"Poor old you," Zelda said, smiling. "Have you seen Sofia at all today?"

"She came earlier." He teased her. "You neglect me! You don't care!"

"That's right, I don't. You're annoying."

"Farore preserve me from hard-hearted women," Link said, mock-pouting.

Zelda couldn't contain herself any more. "Link, have you seen?" she cried. "It's snowing! Real snow for Yule!"

"I know, I know," he said, laughing. "Sofia spoke of nothing else!"

"Let's go find her," Zelda suggested.

"I hope you are not thinking of doing anything evil," Link said as he got to his feet. He reached for a hooded cloak and swung it awkwardly around his shoulders. It slipped off twice before he had it arranged to his satisfaction, and then he could not fasten the pin. Zelda reached up and did it for him. "I won't be much use for a while," he said, adjusting the sling.

"Does it hurt a lot?"

"Not too much--not as much as it did, anyway. It's just awkward." He offered her his good hand; she took it, and they walked out together into winter.

Everything was bright and cold and different. Their footsteps crunched through thick powdery snow, as soft as feathers and as white as a dream. Zelda shivered at the chill air on her cheeks, and tilted her face into the watery winter sun.

"Snow!" she said, her eyes shining. "There hasn't been snow for Yule since I was seven."

"It might not last that long," Link pointed out. "There's a couple of weeks to wait yet!"

"It will last," Zelda said, grinning. "I know it." She reached down and scooped up a handful; she crushed it together in her hands, forming a lump. After a few seconds it chilled her fingers unbearably and she let it drop.

 

 

It began to snow again in earnest as they crossed the inn-yard, stepping carefully through slush that had been stirred up by carriage wheels and the hooves of horses. Though it could not have been more than four in the afternoon, the sky was already growing dark; winter seemed to have arrived with force while they were below the mountain. Rich gold light blazed from the steamed-up windows of the inn, and there was a sound of laughing voices inside.

Sofia was standing by the inn door, warmly wrapped in Kakariko woollens. A scatter of melted snow glistened in her red hair that was now combed and tied in its usual ponytail. She saw them and waved something. "What's that?" Zelda asked as she came up.

"I don't know. It just came--it's from your father. A reply to the note we sent this morning, I suppose." She held out a folded paper sealed with red wax.

"My father?" Zelda took the letter and looked at it blankly for a moment, then broke the seal. She turned away from them as she opened the paper out, tilting it toward the brightly lit window of the inn.

"What's it say?" Link asked, trying to peer over her shoulder.

"He's sending the coach for us," she said in some surprise. "So we won't have to ride back in the snow. He says we can come back tonight or tomorrow if we prefer." Carefully she folded the paper up again and slid it into the pocket of her wool tunic.

"The royal coach?" Link's eyes sparked with high excitement. "Really?"

"So he says." She couldn't help laughing at his look. "Link, have you never been in a carriage before?"

"Not the royal coach. Being a peasant and all." He grinned. "Can we hang out of the windows and wave at our loyal subjects? No--I'm joking. But it will be good to be driven back in the warm. I like snow as much as anybody else, but riding anywhere in it is miserable."

"Well, that'll save us a cold and unpleasant journey, then," Sofia said. "What shall we do, do you think--go back tonight, or have another night here?"

"I am inclined to go back tonight, if everybody's willing," Zelda said after a moment. "What do you think?" There were nods, and she moved towards the inn door. "We had better ask Dark as well, though I don't suppose he'll mind one way or the other."

 

 

The carriage came at the appointed time: a magnificent coach and six bearing the royal crest on its lacquered doors, with space inside for eight to sit comfortably. They piled in with their bags and fought over the best seats while the coachman lit the lamps. It was full dark now, and the snow swirled thick. Zelda snuggled down into a corner in her warm woollen cloak, anxious to get moving; it was bitingly cold outside after the fierce warmth of the inn.

"Do you think it's snowing in Hyrule City?" she asked Link.

He shrugged. "I don't see why not. Kakariko isn't that far away. There's probably snow right down to Ruto!"

"It will be a cold winter, I think," Dark said, invisible in the deep shadow by the door. He was wrapped in a new black wool cloak, strong and finely woven; another gift from the Kakariko villagers.

"Fine by me," Zelda said. "As long as we're inside."

The carriage rocked slightly for a second as the coachman climbed up; and then, with a click and a flick of the reins, they were off. The big wheels ground through squeaking snow. Zelda sat up again and peered out of her window as the houses of Kakariko slid back into the past, dim black shapes in the snow. Now they were rattling through trees, down the forest road to the Hyrulian plains.

"I've never ridden in a real carriage before," Link said.

"Nor have I," Sofia admitted. "We don't have such things in Gaelaidh. Wheels and sand don't go well together." She pulled the window-glass down and leaned out, caring nothing for the blast of cold snowy air that swirled around the inside, until they shouted at her to close it again. For a while then there was quiet; the coach warmed up until the windows fogged.

Link yawned and shifted his plastered arm against his chest; he winced. "So, Sofia," he said in a moment, "what do you think of snow now that you have seen it firsthand?"

"Mad," she said with a grin. "Utterly mad. Frozen water falling from the sky? Some of my people would never believe such a thing."

"I love snow," Zelda said sleepily, resting her head on Link's shoulder. She closed her eyes, feeling the steady movement of him as he breathed. "Snow for Yule," she said. "Do you think the tree is up yet, Link?"

"What tree?" Sofia asked, frowning.

"A Hylian tradition," Dark said. "They bring a spruce tree indoors to give the forest faŽries somewhere warm to stay."

"That's mad," Sofia said. She yawned hugely. "You're all mad. Hylians are mad."

The carriage rocked and rattled onward, lulling them to sleep. Outside, snow swirled in the darkness; within, they wrapped themselves in their wool cloaks, and yawned, and nodded in the dim light from the swinging lanterns. Dark covered his head with the hood of his cloak and gave every indication of being asleep.

What next? Zelda wondered. There would be the big service in the Temple of Time, and then the Yule ball at the castle... She closed her eyes, reaching up one hand to brush her hair away from her nose. Her feet were cold; she moved them out of a draught and shifted closer to Link to take advantage of his warmth.

Eventually she dreamed: dreamed of dancing, spinning round and round on a floor carved of crystal. Chandeliers glittered like icicles overhead. Link shone through the crowd in a tunic of emerald green, with his long hair braided, and a golden circlet upon his brow. He bowed deep to her and held out his hand, and away they went like feathers on the breeze, spinning into light.

 

Here endeth The City of Fire...

 

 






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