Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 87
IT WAS agreed: they would be going home. They had failed. The Sheikah would deal with this in their own way, once the Princess and her friends had been packed off to safety. Although nobody had spoken a word of blame, it was understood by all that their meddling had caused this crisis; they had been the ones to disturb what would have been better left buried.
And what did it mean for Dark? He would die. Either Carock, or Ganon, or the Sheikah themselves would see to that now.
The only thing that remained to be decided for them was their escort, for Impa would not permit them to leave alone; she did not trust them to obey, and likely that was with good reason. They remained together quietly in the room they had been given, and waited for further tidings with impatience. At any rate there would be no leaving until the following day--not that there was true day or night here, of course, but the stronghold did keep to a routine.
A healer came, and Link went with her to another room; he sat in a bath of warm water while they peeled the soiled bandages from his back and salved the wounds again. It was very painful, and he had difficulty keeping his temper.
"It will heal well enough," the woman said as she deftly wrapped him up again. "But it will take time."
He wondered if that was code for, you'll be scarred. He hadn't dared ask for a mirror to be held up, so that he could get some idea of the damage; his imagination was bad enough.
She bathed his neck wound too, and tidied up the older injury from the battle with the Floormaster before she let him go. He limped back along the corridor feeling vaguely aggrieved at the treatment: now everything seemed to hurt, in one way or another. His right hand felt odd under the dressing, hot and tingly. She hadn't changed that bandage, and he was halfway tempted to take it off himself just to see what was under it. It was a little more effort, at the moment, than he was willing to go to, so he left it alone.
The girls were at their evening meal when he returned; Prowl lay under their table to beg for scraps. He sat down with them, but could not bring himself to join in the talk or choke down more than a few morsels. Sofia looked at him often out of the corner of her eye, and he knew that she was wondering about what had happened earlier. In a little while he excused himself, went to his bed and lay down awkwardly on his least painful side. He fell asleep almost at once, and if they spoke of him at all for the rest of that evening, he was unaware of it.
At some point he became aware that he was dreaming, but he could not make himself wake. He was tangled up in the dream like a fly in a spider's web, and could do nothing but see it through. It did not particularly matter; he felt nothing now but a kind of mild detached interest. Wouldn't he have cared, once? Were there not people involved in all this, people he had once cared about? If so, he could not remember. Without his heart, it was as if parts of him were simply drifting away like smoke in the wind. Nothing was real any more.
Curled in a corner of his lightless cell, he reached up to touch what she had given him. The knife was cool against his skin: he had secured it to his upper arm with a strip of fabric from the hem of his tunic, so that his sleeve concealed it. It was only a small blade, but it had been keen enough when he had tested it on his forearm. For its purpose, it would do.
"You must be ready," she had said over and over, as they worked out the plan together. "You will only have an instant in which to act."
I will be ready.
Without the Medallion's power to sustain it, something inside him was dying slowly, little by little. He didn't care. In fact he thought he might be more content when it was gone. It had never been of any use to him anyway. He despised it, the sniveling wretch. Let it go, let it die, and good riddance to it at last.
Somewhere, from a vast mind far away, he sensed approval...
Link sat bolt upright in the darkened room, drenched in sweat.
He had been convinced for a moment that he had cried out, but if he had done so it had not been loud enough to wake the girls. They slept peacefully, bundled in their blankets; as he watched Zelda shifted a little and passed her hand across her face before settling again. Only Prowl, sprawled idly on an empty bed, had her eyes open; the sand cat turned her head and regarded him thoughtfully, twitching her tufted ears. His body ached from the spasm that had torn him out of sleep.
The lanterns had been partly shuttered, so that only a dim green glow lit the room. It made him feel a little as if he were underwater, and he shook his head in irritation at a buzzing in his ears. He could not tell how late or early it might be; he had lost track of days entirely since his time in the Temple.
He pushed the covers to one side and sat on the edge of the bed for a little while, head down, resting his elbows on his knees.
The cat caught up within a few paces; he hadn't closed the bedroom door soundly enough. Padding at his side, she pushed her broad head up under his hand: he rubbed around her ears automatically, smoothing the soft fur.
He wandered through the gloomy corridors, choosing directions without thought, wanting only to relive his anxiety through physical exertion. Prowl's presence was a comfort--she at least would ask no questions. Nobody else seemed to be abroad at this hour, whatever hour it might be. Silence lay thick over everything, like a muffling layer of dust.
After only a short time his damaged body began to complain; he was not as strong as he had thought. When he saw a low stone bench standing against the wall, he went and sat down, wincing at the pull in his back. The cat immediately squirmed her way into his lap; or at least managed to get her head and forepaws there.
Resting one hand on her furry shoulder, he bowed his head:
Dark. Where are you? Please answer me...
His sending swirled out into the night, and was received. Something stirred, cracking open eyes like smoldering coals.
It wasn't Dark. Not any more.
Even so he tried, reaching out with desperate hope--surely there was something left of his friend? It's me--Link! Remember me? Don't give up--
It swatted at him, lazily, as a cat might swat at a broken-backed mouse. When he came to, an instant later, he had slipped sideways on the bench; Prowl was rumbling anxiously as she nudged him. He raised his suddenly throbbing hand and wiped a smear of blood from under his nose.
When she put her heavy paw on his knee, he slipped his arm around her and held her, pulled her close. She was warm and alive, her fur like new velvet.
A soft footstep brought him back to himself; he raised his head quickly, startled. A few yards away stood a small boy dressed in smoky blues, with a shining fringe of silvery hair. His expression was grave and thoughtful, older than his years. There was something almost eerie about those deep red eyes, something not entirely pleasant. Perhaps it was their intensity which brought Carock to mind.
"Hello," Link said after a moment.
Vaati looked at him coolly. "Hello."
"You're up early."
"So are you," the little boy said matter-of-factly.
Well, that was true enough. Link eyed him for a moment, trying to gauge his mood. "I had a bad dream," he said at last.
"Oh." Vaati sniffed, dismissing it. "I get those sometimes." His gaze flickered over Link for a moment, then moved away--he was looking at the cat. Prowl stared back with wide yellow eyes.
Link moved to one side a little, making space on the bench. "Do you want to stroke her?" he said.
Vaati's eyes widened, and in that moment Link realised how lonely the little boy really was. "Can I?"
He didn't wait for Link's answering nod; he was already coming forward, stretching out his small hands. Prowl sniffed at him for a moment and permitted herself to be petted. Vaati smiled with real delight when the rough tongue rasped at his fingers.
"What's his name?"
"She's a girl," Link said, smiling at that. "Her name's Prowl."
He nodded thoughtfully, running his hand lightly down over Prowl's broad back. "You're the Hero, aren't you?" he said after a moment, his tone becoming serious again.
"Yes," Link said.
The boy looked up, curiously. "What's it like?"
That was a question with a lot of possible answers. "Right now? Not so great..." He stretched out his bandaged hand and looked at it for a moment, flexing the fingers slowly. It hurt.
"Are you good friends with the Princess?" Vaati said.
Surprised, he glanced round. "Pretty good, I think. Why?"
"I don't like her. I think she's mean."
"Mean?" Link raised his eyebrows. "I've never known her to be mean."
"I think she's mean," Vaati said solemnly, kneeling down beside Prowl.
"Well, maybe you should get to know her a bit more."
"I don't want to."
"All right, then," Link said simply, and looked away.
"Is Dark Link your friend too?"
"Yes," he said after a moment. "A very good friend."
Vaati was looking at him with an odd, thoughtful expression. "Everyone says he's evil."
Link sighed. "There's evil in him," he said. "But there's good too, if you can just find it."
"Did he really save your life?"
"He really did."
There was silence for a while. Vaati was absorbed with the cat, feeling the texture of her velvety fur. Link picked at the bandage, pulling it straight; he felt very tired.
"I could help you rescue him," Vaati said.
Link went very still for a moment. Carefully, he turned, and said "What do you mean?"
Vaati shrugged. "I know how to get there. To the Lost Temple. I can take you." He met Link's gaze fearlessly. "Right now, if you want."
Link stared; the little boy appeared to be in earnest. His first reaction was to dismiss it as childish tale-telling, a desire to look big in front of the important stranger; but then he remembered the Floormaster that had approached them by the shore. He had been in quite a state at the time, but not so much that he hadn't taken in what had happened. One cool, easy shot had done it. This child was no innocent.
He leaned forward. "Vaati, you can really do this?"
Proudly, the boy nodded. "Yeah. You want to?"
"Yes, I do. Very much." He hesitated. "But you know it's going to be dangerous. Why do you want to get involved?"
"I want to help." Vaati raised his head, jaw jutting. "I'm not scared!"
"I am," Link said.
The boy looked abashed. "Well, then, maybe I am, just a little. But if he's your friend you should help him, right?"
"All right, Vaati," he said after a moment. "You tell me--what do we have to do?"
"Is Zelda going to come too?" Reluctance.
"She's his friend as well."
"Huh... okay." Vaati stood up. "And Sofia, and the cat?"
"Yes. Why, don't you like them either?" he said with some amusement.
Vaati shook his head, taking the question seriously. "Nah. Sofia's nice. And I like your cat."
He smiled slightly. "So, what's the plan?"
"Okay." Vaati shook back his silvery fringe; now he was all business. "You have to come to the outer hall..."
It was not difficult to rouse the girls; they were not deeply asleep. He explained as concisely as he could. "I don't like the thought of taking advantage of him, but I really don't see what else to do now. We know our choices--go home under guard, or go with Vaati."
"Did he tell you how he's going to get us there?" Zelda asked as she pulled on her boots.
Link shook his head. "He didn't want to say. I suppose he's making sure we don't try it without him."
She was scowling. "Something just doesn't feel right. Why would he do this for us?"
"Honestly?" Link said, sitting down on the end of his bed. "I think because of the cat." He smiled slightly, remembering the look of childish wonder in the boy's eyes. "He's lonely," he said then, his mood sobering. "And that's what's worrying me, really--he's doing this because he wants to please us. He can't understand--I know things are different with these people, and I certainly wouldn't consider Vaati a child in need of protection, but I don't think he has any conception of what we're really going to do."
"And what are we going to do?" Sofia asked flippantly. "Do we even know?"
He drew in a breath, held it, let it out slowly. "I know where we're going, at least," he said. "And I don't mind admitting to you both that I would rather be anywhere in the world but there again. It's not just... It's the place itself. It's evil. I mean that. You can taste it, smell it, feel it..." His voice was slipping out of control. He clenched his fists, clenched his teeth, and fought the memories back down again. After a moment he raised his head again, and then wished he'd kept it down; they were looking at him with identical expressions, a mixture of confusion and pity. They didn't understand. They couldn't. Not yet.
"So what do we do?" he said, trying to brazen it out. "Do we go with Vaati or not? We have to meet him in ten minutes if we're going."
The girls looked at each other, then back at him. "We'll have to go," Zelda said. She sat back, looking composed and calm. "I don't know about either of you, but I couldn't live with myself if I just abandoned him after all this. We have to at least try."
"I agree," Sofia said quietly.
Link nodded and set his feet to the ground, preparing to stand. "Vaati it is, then," he said, then glanced to Zelda, remembering something else that had struck him. "He's really taken against you, Zel. Did you say anything to him?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said tiredly. "We just never hit it off. Maybe I'm just no good with children--it's not as if I ever knew any."
Her tone had been so unexpectedly bitter that he could not help staring, for a moment; she glanced back at him, then forced an awkward smile onto her face. "I'm sorry--I'm feeling sorry for myself right now. I've been making so many stupid mistakes..."
"Can't be any stupider than mine," he said with a wry smile. She smiled back, but did not look convinced. He pushed himself to his feet. "Well--we had better get ready, I suppose. I don't know what time it is, but it can't be long to getting-up, and we ought to be well away before they miss us."
Packing up their things was not difficult; they had very little to carry with them now, anyway. Most of the food and candles they had brought with them were gone, and their clothes now were borrowed. They stole a couple of the small lanterns from the corridor to add to Link's own; the theft weighed heavy on their consciences, but the memory of being lost in darkness was too fresh in all of them to be denied.
Vaati was exactly where he had said he would be: in one of the outer corridors, under the shadow of a great statue. He had his hands stuffed in his pockets, and jigged impatiently from foot to foot as he waited. His little crossbow hung ready at his side, along with a quiver of the silvery bolts. As they approached, he glanced up, and grinned with the excitement of the game.
"You took ages. Come on--Impa will be waking up soon!" He ducked back behind the statue, and a space that had seemed to be shrouded by a deeper shadow was revealed suddenly to be a low doorway. They exchanged nervous glances before following.
Link went first, ducking through; he found himself in a narrow passage of uncarved black rock, so close that he had to stand bent over and tuck his elbows in against his sides. He fumbled his way forward a little to allow the girls to follow, and hoped for the sake of his back that the way would open out soon. In a moment he came to the first step of a downward stair, and stopped. Vaati slid back past him, how he was unsure in this very narrow space, and in another instant it became very dark: the boy had closed whatever hidden portal they had come by. He reached down to unhood the lantern hanging at his belt; but his hand was slapped away.
"You can't use it yet!" Vaati hissed at him. "They can see it through the holes!"
"All right," he said after a moment. "We're in your hands, Vaati."
"We have to be really quiet now, okay?" the boy whispered, wriggling back past him. "Come on, and step quietly."
He would have turned to see how the girls were, but he could barely turn his head. Instead he reached back with his good hand, and found Zelda's arm; she slipped her fingers into his with gratitude. He sent her reassurance, but could do nothing for Sofia, somewhere at the back; she would have to look after herself.
Awkwardly, shuffling in the close confines, they started down.
The spiral steps were ancient and crumbling, and they trod cautiously in the dark. Now and then as they descended, bright chinks appeared in the walls, providing rare glimmers of light. Doubtless the carvings they had seen would hide these spyholes from the outside. Link set his eye to one as he passed, and found himself looking into someone's sitting-room; his vantage point was low down, and he could not make out whether anyone was there. There was an acrid smell--some sort of herbal brew. In a moment Vaati tugged at his belt, and he moved on obediently. By the time they stumbled down into a flat circular space--the bottom of the stair, though it felt more like a well, being so dark and dank--he was aching all over from the strain of walking in such cramped conditions.
"It gets a bit tight now," Vaati whispered from somewhere nearby, and his heart sank.
"Vaati, wait--we're bigger than you. Are you sure we'll fit?"
"Umm..." He heard the boy shifting from foot to foot. "Yeah, you can fit, I think. But you might have to go on hands and knees a bit."
Zelda squeezed his hand nervously; he squeezed back. "All right," he said. "Lead the way, Vaati--we'll give it a try."
Vaati's words had been absolutely accurate: in a few more yards they were crawling, struggling through a winding passage less than two feet tall. This was no carved cavern now but a natural fissure in the rock, that had been there since the world was formed. It was not designed for people. When the roof grew lower still, he scraped his back on a rocky protrusion, and had to stop for a minute to take deep breaths and fight off nausea.
Link? That was Zelda, confused and frightened; her hand touched his ankle in the dark. What's happened--why did you stop?
He didn't answer; he knew he couldn't send to her right now without betraying the pain he was in. Instead he began to crawl forward again, wriggling on his belly now, and praying with all his heart that the passage grew no lower. If it came down to hauling himself through, with the rough rock grinding on his back, he thought he would probably pass out. They'd have to push him through or drag him back, one or the other.
Farore was merciful: it did not come to that. He was inching round one last corner, struggling on the steep downward slope, when he felt the passage widening out in front of him. Eagerly he surged forward--and realised suddenly that there was empty air beneath him. It was too late to pull back. He tumbled down some four or five feet onto a pile of hard sand, and barely had the presence of mind to twist as he fell, so that he landed on his shoulder instead of his neck. It still hurt.
Careful! he sent back as he struggled out of the way, floundering in the sand. There's a drop--warn Sofia! He felt her assent.
This was a large cavern--large enough to stretch out in, anyway, and that was a vast improvement. He sat up and unclipped the little lantern from his belt, deciding to risk at least a little light. The green glow revealed a wide expanse of glittering black sand, and Vaati crouching a few paces away, watching him. His hair was a mess, but he seemed otherwise unscathed.
"You might have warned us, Vaati," Link said, rubbing at his bruised shoulder.
"Umm... sorry." Vaati didn't seem particularly bothered. "It's easy now though."
There was a thud, and they both turned; Zelda was struggling down towards them, shaking grit out of her hair. In another moment Sofia slid down head-first onto the sand pile, holding her arms out to protect her face. A lithe tawny shape leaped down to land beside her, silent on padded paws.
"Ugh!" Sofia said fervently as she sat up; her face was pale under the dirt, glistening with a sheen of sweat. "Let's never do that again."
"Vaati says it gets easier from here," Link said.
"I should hope so." She was pulling her hair back to re-tie it. "I wouldn't like to think of it getting any closer than that. However did you find all this out, Vaati?"
The little boy beamed, flattered by their dependence on him. "I know lots of places. Secret passages and stuff. No-one knows more than me, even Lazuli."
"So you actually know a passage into the Temple?" Zelda asked.
He eyed her for a moment, his expression growing slowly cooler. "Kind of," he said.
"Kind of?" Her voice was sharp. "What do you mean, kind of--?"
What's gotten into her? Link wondered: he was genuinely puzzled. This was not the Zelda he knew. Vaati was glowering and looking sulky; he moved in quickly to calm things down. "We trust you, Vaati," he said, before anyone else could speak. "We're just a bit confused, that's all. Please, tell us what we need to do."
Vaati turned his offended stare on Link; but he was somewhat mollified. "We-ell..." he began, stretching it out. "There's a tunnel that goes under the lake. But it's kind of complicated..."
"Complicated how?" But he had already guessed. "You know the way, Vaati, but you haven't been all the way. Is that right?"
The boy nodded, looking rather relieved that he hadn't had to say it. "But it's the right way, I swear!"
"I believe you," Link said. "We're ready to go, whenever you want to lead us."
Vaati grinned at him, and jumped to his feet. "Okay! Let's go!"
Zelda, he sent, as they were heading down to the further end of the cavern, what's going on?
Her reply came instantly, full of shame. I don't know--I'm sorry! I just don't like him! He feels wrong!
He's just a child, Zel.
I know! He didn't have to look back at her to know that she was near to tears.
Listen, he sent at last. We need him, we need his help. And he wants to help us.
I won't say another word, she promised miserably.
They had passed into another tunnel, with a rugged, uneven floor: another natural cave. Vaati chose a passage, then another, and they were swiftly lost in the confusing labyrinth. Without the boy to guide them, they would have soon become completely turned around. Link, eyeing the openings they passed, wondered how Vaati could possibly know where he was going. Yet one thing was certain: despite all the twists and turns they were taking, and the tunnels which so often appeared to double back on themselves, they were nevertheless getting steadily closer to the Temple, and that which lay within it.
He knew it, because his hand had started to throb again...
It is ready...
He stepped back to admire his handiwork. In just a few short hours the dank abandoned throne room had been transformed: bowl lamps of gold and crystal lit it with a brilliant glow. The headiness of incense was thick in the air, spreading from the two great censers set up on each side of the doors. The broken doorway he could, as yet, do nothing about; but all that would come in time.
It was a twist of rather delightful irony that the deed would end up being done almost exactly on top of the spot where the young Hero had died. Blood still stained the floor lividly beneath his boots. Oh, that had been such a beautiful moment, classic in every way... A frown crossed his face then: there was something that spoiled the triumph. He had been certain he had killed the boy cleanly, and he hated to be proved wrong. If the Hero was still alive, it made a mess of his lovingly choreographed spectacle earlier. Had the shadow been telling the truth? On balance he thought so. Dark Link had never been much of a liar.
Well, he thought, look on the bright side. If the Hero did still live, somehow, Carock might still get the servant he had hoped for. Of course the boy would have to be retrained, maybe altered somewhat to ensure obedience, but still, a Hero, whole and with all his power intact... that was more than the old boar had ever managed.
On that note he turned and faced the throne. It was watching him coldly.
"Good morning, my lord," Carock said cheerfully.
"It'll be mine soon. You're aware of that, I presume?"
A chill breeze drifted the length of the hall, stirring the loose folds of his clothes, but he knew it was all the other could manage, for now. The Seals still held. Not even the lamps flickered; the wicks were shielded behind domes of crystal. His smile widened.
"I'm curious," he said. "What's it like to be so powerless? I really can't conceive of it." He chuckled softly and rocked back on his heels, raising a hand languidly to push back errant wisps of hair. "I mean... here you are, and here I am... who'd have thought it'd come to this, eh? You're the one who gave me my start in all this, of course, and now... well, it's the tired old story, student surpasses master, and so on, and so on." He toyed with the medallion around his neck, smiling brightly. "Ah, the old silent treatment. Well, never mind. I have your shadow--although he was really my shadow in the end, wasn't he, hmm?--and I have my Medallion. I know you've been plotting something, you and that girl, but it really won't make a blind bit of difference." He grinned and tapped the medallion lightly with his painted nails. "Because you didn't know about this part until now, hmm? Never mind. We can't all be perfect."
The breeze came again, fiercer this time; the clouds of incense streamed across the room, hazing the light. Carock's smile widened.
"Got your goat, eh? Well, it'll all be over soon enough. I may even let you live, if I'm feeling particularly nice."
A wind snatched at his cloak and the sleek oiled curls of his hair; he had to flinch back for a moment, raising a hand to shield his eyes. One of the lamps fell from its niche and shattered on the floor with a high crystalline noise. The acrid reek of burning oil joined the heady mix of scents in the room.
"Temper, temper," he said, straightening up. "That's not very kingly behaviour, is it, hmm? Then again you never were very good at that sort of thing. No sense of drama, that was always your problem. You Gerudo are so uncultured. If only you'd bothered to learn a bit more about the stage, perhaps you wouldn't have fallen in Act Three every single time. It really was getting quite boring to watch. I'll do better."
He stood for a while, smiling a secret smile as he watched the throne; then at last he turned away and stepped delicately around the puddle of smoldering oil where the lamp had fallen, holding up the hem of his heavy fur-trimmed cloak. "Gomez!"
A flutter of wings: a shape coalesced in the frame of the broken door. "My lord."
"Where is the young lady now?"
"Down below, my lord, in the old guardroom. She expressed a desire to rest."
"I bet she did..." He pursed his scarlet lips for a moment. "Has she been to see Dark Link? I assume you'd have had her watched."
"I believe sshe did, my lord."
"Go and get her--bring her here. And then go and fetch Dark Link. And Gomez--!" as the creature turned to go.
"Do be cautious when you open the cell door," Carock said. "In fact, take some of the Stalfos with you. And for the love of Din, search him. I suspect our guest will be looking rather healthier than the last time you saw him."
The dark creature made a smooth, fluid bow. "I understand, my lord."
The tea smelled sharp and bitter; astringent. Sitting on the edge of her bed, an old gray shawl around her shoulders, Impa poured a cupful and raised it to her mouth, then blew on it to cool it. Silverbark--an old remedy now forgotten by all save country folk, and the Sheikah. In small doses the infusion could impart strength and banish weariness--but she had been taking too much of it lately, and there would be a price to pay later. She was tired down to her bones, and there was no help for it.
Am I doing the right thing? Nayru help me... show me a sign...
At least the Princess would be out of it soon. She had been certain that that, at least, was the right course of action. Link and Zelda were the heirs; they could not be risked.
It was my mistake, she thought, sipping at the tea. It was cool enough now, but the taste of silverbark was foul; she grimaced as she drank, and swallowed it down like medicine. My fault. I went against the old ways--I chose not to go to her when she was young. I hoped that we could shelter her from a distance, protect her from all this, let her be a woman rather than a warrior. Now I will suffer for my presumption. And she too, if we cannot stop this.
Dark Link would have to be killed, for a start; that should have been done a long time ago. Oh they had tried in the past, so many times... but it was not enough to kill his body; he could recover from that. He would have to be trapped, somehow, by magic, and destroyed utterly.
And Carock... how to deal with that?
There will be deaths, she thought, before this is over.
The hour was passing swiftly. Lazuli would have left by now, with the Princess and her friends. They would be safe soon enough--the Kakariko gate was not far from here.
She drank down the last of the tea in one gulp, made a face at the grittiness of it, and set the cup down heavily. Once, so much of it would have had her climbing the walls, most likely; now, she merely felt well enough to face the day. She sighed and raised her hands to her face, pressing at a soreness under her eyes.
She raised her head, startled by the unaccustomed sound, and in that instant the door burst open. A woman stumbled in, disheveled and only half dressed, hanging onto the doorknob as she gasped for breath. Impa stared dumbly for a moment, and then, with a start, recognised her sister's features.
"They're gone!" The other woman's eyes were wild as she straightened up. "The Princess's companions--and Vaati both--they're gone!"
Her whole body went cold in that instant. "They wouldn't--!"
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