The Dark Elf Trilogy: Exile

14. Dancing Snakes


Luck was with the damaged Sea Sprite and the captured pirate vessel, for the sea held calm and the wind blew steadily but gently. Still, the journey around the Tethyr Peninsula proved tedious and all too slow for the four anxious friends, for every time the two ships seemed to be making headway, one or the other would develop a new problem.

South of the peninsula, Deudermont took his ships through a wide stretch of water called the Race, so named for the common spectacle there of merchant vessels running from pirate pursuit. No other pirates bothered Deudermont or his crew, however. Even Pinochet's third ship never again showed its sails.

"Our journey nears its end," Deudermont told the four friends when the high coastline of the Purple Hills came into view early on the third morning. "Where the hills end, Calimshan begins."

Drizzt leaned over the forward rail and looked into the pale blue waters of the southern seas. He wondered again if they would get to Regis in time.

"There is a colony of your people farther inland," Deudermont said to him, drawing him out of his private thoughts, "in a dark wood called Mir." An involuntary shudder shook the captain. "The drow are not liked in this region; I would advise you to don your mask."

Without thinking, Drizzt drew the magical mask over his face, instantly assuming the features of a surface elf. The act bothered the drow less than it shook his three friends, who looked on in resigned disdain. Drizzt was only doing what he had to do, they reminded themselves, carrying on with the same uncomplaining stoicism that had guided his life since the day he had forsaken his people.

The drow's new identity did not fit in the eyes of Wulfgar and Catti-brie. Bruenor spat into the water, disgusted at a world too blinded by a cover to read the book inside.

By early afternoon, a hundred sails dotted the southern horizon and a vast line of docks appeared along the coast, with a sprawling city of low clay shacks and brightly colored tents rolling out behind them. But as vast as Memnon's docks were, the number of fishing and merchant vessels and warships of the growing Calimshan navy was greater still. The Sea Sprite and its captured ship were forced to drop anchor offshore and wait for appropriate landings to open - a wait, the harbormaster soon informed Deudermont, of possibly a week.

"We shall next be visited by Calimshan's navy," Deudermont explained as the harbormaster's launch headed away, "coming to inspect the pirate ship and interrogate Pinochet."

"They'll take care o' the dog?" Bruenor asked.

Deudermont shook his head. "Not likely. Pinochet and his men are my prisoners and my trouble. Calimshan desires an end to the pirate activities and is making bold strides toward that goal, but I doubt that it would yet dare to become entangled with one as powerful as Pinochet."

"What's for him, then?" Bruenor grumbled, trying to find some measure of backbone in all the political double talk.

"He will sail away to trouble another ship on another day," Deudermont replied.

"And to warn that rat, Entreri, that we've slipped the noose," Bruenor snapped back.

Understanding Deudermont's sensitive position, Drizzt put in a reasonable request. "How long can you give us?"

"Pinochet cannot get his ship in for a week, and," the captain added with a sly wink, "I have already seen to it that it is no longer seaworthy. I should be able to stretch that week out to two. By the time the pirate finds the wheel of his ship again, you will have told this Entreri of your escape personally."

Wulfgar still did not understand. "What have you gained?" he asked Deudermont. "You have defeated the pirates, but they are to sail free, tasting vengeance on their lips. They will strike at the Sea Sprite on your next passage. Will they show as much mercy if they win the next encounter?"

"It is a strange game we play," Deudermont agreed with a helpless smile. "But, in truth, I have strengthened my position on the waters by sparing Pinochet and his men. In exchange for his freedom, the pirate captain will swear off vengeance. None of Pinochet's associates shall ever bother the Sea Sprite again, and that group includes most of the pirates sailing Asavir's Channel!"

"And ye're to trust that dog's word?" Bruenor balked.

"They are honorable enough," replied Deudermont, "in their own way. The codes have been drawn and are held to by the pirates; to break them would be to invite open warfare with the southern kingdoms."

Bruenor spat into the water again. It was the same in every city and kingdom and even on the open water: organizations of thieves tolerated within limits of behavior. Bruenor was of a different mind. Back in Mithril Hall, his clan had custom-built a closet with shelving especially designed to hold severed hands that had been caught in pockets where they didn't belong.

"It is settled, then," Drizzt remarked, seeing it time to change the subject. "Our journey by sea is at an end." Deudermont, expecting the announcement, tossed him the pouch of gold. "A wise choice," the captain said. "You will make Calimport a full week and more more before the Sea Sprite finds her docks. But come to us when you have completed your business. We shall put back for Waterdeep before the last of the winter's snows have melted in the North. By all of my reckoning, you have earned your passage."

"We're for leaving long afore that," replied Bruenor, "but thanks for yer offer!"

Wulfgar stepped forward and clasped the captain's wrist. "It was good to serve and fight beside you," he said. "I look forward to the day when next we will meet."

"As do we all," Drizzt added. He held the pouch high. "And this shall be repaid."

Deudermont waved the notion away and mumbled, "A pittance." Knowing the friends' desire for haste, he motioned for two of his crewmen to drop a rowboat.

"Farewell!" he called as the friends pulled away from the Sea Sprite. "Look for me in Calimport!"

* * *

Of all the places the companions had visited, of all the lands they had walked through and fought through, none had seemed as foreign to them as Memnon in the kingdom of Calimshan. Even Drizzt, who had come from the strange world of the drow elves, stared in amazement as he made his way through the city's open lanes and marketplaces. Strange music, shrill and mournful - as often resembling wails of pain as harmony - surrounded them and carried them on.

People flocked everywhere. Most wore sand-colored robes, but others were brightly dressed, and all had some sort of head covering: a turban or a veiled hat. The friends could not guess at the population of the city, which seemed to go on forever, and doubted that anyone had ever bothered to count. But Drizzt and his companions could envision that if all the people of the cities along the northern stretches of the Sword Coast, Waterdeep included, gathered in one vast refugee camp, it would resemble Memnon.

A strange combination of odors wafted through Memnon's hot air: that of a sewer that ran through a perfume market, mixed with the pungent sweat and malodorous breath of the ever-pressing crowd. Shacks were thrown up randomly, it seemed, giving Memnon no apparent design or structure. Streets were any way that was not blocked by homes, though the four friends had all come to the conclusion that the streets themselves served as homes for many people.

At the center of all the bustle were the merchants. They lined every lane, selling weapons, foodstuffs, exotic pipe weeds - even slaves shamelessly displaying their goods in whatever manner would attract a crowd. On one corner, potential buyers test-fired a large crossbow by shooting down a boxed-in range, complete with live slave targets. On another, a woman showing more skin than clothing - and that being no more than translucent veils - twisted and writhed in a synchronous dance with a gigantic snake, wrapping herself within the huge reptilian coils and then slipping teasingly back out again.

Wide-eyed and with his mouth hanging open, Wulfgar stopped, mesmerized by the strange and seductive dance, drawing a slap across the back of his head from Catti-brie and amused chuckles from his other two companions.

"Never have I so longed for home," the huge barbarian sighed, truly overwhelmed.

"It is another adventure, nothing more," Drizzt reminded him. "Nowhere might you learn more than in a land unlike your own."

"True enough," said Catti-brie. "But by me eyes, these folk be making decadence into society."

"They live by different rules," Drizzt replied. "They would, perhaps, be equally offended by the ways of the North."

The others had no response to that, and Bruenor, never surprised but always amazed by eccentric human ways, just wagged his red beard.

Outfitted for adventure, the friends were far from a novelty in the trading city. But, being foreigners, they attracted a crowd, mostly naked, black-tanned children begging for tokens and coins. The merchants eyed the adventurers, too - foreigners usually brought in wealth - and one particularly lascivious set of eyes settled onto them firmly.

"Well, well?" the weaseling merchant asked his hunchbacked companion.

"Magic, magic everywhere, my master," the broken little goblin lisped hungrily, absorbing the sensations his magical wand imparted to him. He replaced the wand on his belt. "Strongest on the weapons - elf's swords, both, dwarf's axe, girl's bow, and especially the big one's hammer!" He thought of mentioning the odd sensations his wand had imparted about the elf's face, but decided not to make his excitable master any more nervous than was necessary.

"Ha ha ha ha ha," cackled the merchant, waggling his fingers. He slipped out to intercept the strangers.

Bruenor, leading the troupe, stopped short at the sight of the wiry man dressed in yellow-and-red striped robes and a flaming pink turban with a huge diamond set in its front.

"Ha ha ha ha ha. Greetings!" the man spouted at them, his fingers drumming on his own chest and his ear-to-ear smile showing every other tooth to be golden and those in between to be ivory. "I be Sali Dalib, I do be, I do be! You buy, I sell. Good deal, good deal!" His words came out too fast to be immediately sorted, and the friends looked at each other, shrugged, and started away.

"Ha ha ha ha ha," the merchant pressed, wiggling back in their path. "What you need, Sali Dalib got. In plenty, too, many. Tookie, nookie, bookie."

"Smoke weed, women, and tomes in every language known to the world," the lisping little goblin translated. "My master is a merchant of anything and everything!"

"Bestest o' de bestest!" Sali Dalib asserted. "What you need - "

"Sali Dalib got," Bruenor finished for him. The dwarf looked to Drizzt, confident that they were thinking the same thing: The sooner they were out of Memnon, the better. One weird merchant would serve as well as another.

"Horses," the dwarf told the merchant.

"We wish to get to Calimport," Drizzt explained.

"Horses, horses? Ha ha ha ha ha," replied Sali Dalib without missing a beat. "Not for long ride, no. Too hot, too dry. Camels de thing!"

"Camels...desert horses," the goblin explained, seeing the dumbfounded expressions. He pointed to a large dromedary being led down the street by its tan-robed master. "Much better for ride across the desert."

"Camels, then," snorted Bruenor, eyeing the massive beast tentatively. "Or whatever'll do!"

Sali Dalib rubbed his hands together eagerly. "What you need - "

Bruenor threw his hand out to stop the excited merchant. "We know, we know."

Sali Dalib sent his assistant away with some private instructions and led the friends through the maze of Memnon at great speed, though he never seemed to lift his feet from the ground as he shuffled along. All the while, the merchant held his hands out in front of him, his fingers twiddling and tap-tapping. But he seemed harmless enough, and the friends were more amused than worried.

Sali Dalib pulled up short before a large tent on the western end of the city, a poorer section even by Memnon's paupers' standards. Around the back, the merchant found what he was looking for. "Camels!" he proclaimed proudly.

"How much for four?" Bruenor huffed, anxious to get the dealings over with and get back on the road. Sali Dalib seemed not to understand.

"The price?" the dwarf asked.

"De price?"

"He wants an offer," Catti-brie observed.

Drizzt understood as well. Back in Menzoberranzan, the city of drow, merchants used the same technique. By getting the buyer especially a buyer not familiar with the goods for sale - to make the first mention of price, they often received many times the value of their goods. And if the bid came in too low, the merchant could always hold out for the proper market value.

"Five hundred gold pieces for the four," Drizzt offered, guessing the beasts to be at least twice that value.

Sali Dalib's fingers began their tap dance again, and a sparkle came into his pale gray eyes. Drizzt expected a tirade and then an outlandish counter, but Sali Dalib suddenly calmed and flashed his gold-and-ivory smile.

"Agreed!" he replied.

Drizzt caught his tongue before his planned retort left his mouth in a meaningless gurgle. He cast a curious look at the merchant, then turned to count out the gold from the sack Deudermont had given him.

"Fifty more for ye if ye can get us hooked with a caravan for Calimport," Bruenor offered.

Sali Dalib assumed a contemplative stance, tapping his fingers against the dark bristles on his chin. "But there is one out dis very now," he replied. "You can catch it with little trouble. But you should. Last one to Calimport for de week."

"To the south!" the dwarf cried happily to his companions.

"De south? Ha ha ha ha ha!" Sali Dalib blurted. "Not de south! De south is for thief bait!"

"Calimport is south," Bruenor retorted suspiciously. "And so's the road, by me guessing."

"De road to Calimport is south," Sali Dalib agreed, "but those who be smart start to de west, on de bestest road."

Drizzt handed a pouch of gold to the merchant. "How do we catch the caravan?"

"De west," Sali Dalib replied, dropping the pouch into a deep pocket without even inspecting the contents. "Only out one hour. Easy catch, dis. Follow de signposts on de horizon. No problem."

"We'll need supplies," Catti-brie remarked.

"Caravan is well-stocked," answered Sali Dalib. "Bestest place to buy. Now be going. Catch dem before dey turn south to de Trade Way!" He moved to help them select their mounts: a large dromedary for Wulfgar, a two-bumper for Drizzt, and smaller ones for Catti-brie and Bruenor.

"Remember, good friends," the merchant said to them when they were perched upon their mounts. "What you need - "

"Sali Dalib got!" they all answered in unison. With one final flash of his gold-and-ivory smile, the merchant shuffled into the tent.

"He was more to bargaining, by me guess," Catti-brie remarked as they headed tentatively on the stiff-legged camels toward the first signpost. "He could've gotten more for the beasts."

"Stolen, o' course!" Bruenor laughed, stating what he considered the obvious.

But Drizzt wasn't so certain. "A merchant such as he would have sought the best price even for stolen goods," he replied, "and by all my knowledge of the rules of bargaining, he most certainly should have counted the gold."

"Bah!" Bruenor snorted, fighting to keep his mount moving straight. "Ye probably gave him more than the things are worth!"

"What, then?" Catti-brie asked Drizzt, agreeing more with his reasoning.

"Where?" Wulfgar answered and asked all at once. "He sent his goblin sneak away with a message."

"Ambush," said Catti-brie.

Drizzt and Wulfgar nodded. "It would seem," said the barbarian.

Bruenor considered the possibility. "Bah!" He snorted at the notion. "He didn't have enough wits in his head to pull it off."

"That observation might only make him more dangerous," Drizzt remarked, looking back a final time toward Memnon.

"Turn back?" the dwarf asked, not so quick to dismiss the drow's apparently serious concerns.

"If our suspicions prove wrong and we miss the caravan, ..." Wulfgar reminded them ominously.

"Can Regis wait?" asked Catti-brie.

Bruenor and Drizzt looked to each other.

"Onward," Drizzt said at length. "Let us learn what we may."

"Nowhere might you learn more than in a land unlike your own," Wulfgar remarked, echoing Drizzt's thoughts of that morning.

When they had passed the first signpost, their suspicions did not diminish. A large board nailed to the post named their route in twenty languages, all reading the same way: "De bestest road." Once again, the friends considered their options, and once again they found themselves trapped by the lack of time. They would continue on, they decided, for one hour. If they had found no signs of the caravan by then, they would return to Memnon and "discuss" the matter with Sali Dalib.

The next signpost read the same way, as did the one after that. By the time they passed the fifth, sweat drenched their clothes and stung their eyes, and the city was no longer in sight, lost somewhere in the dusty heat of the rising dunes. Their mounts didn't make the journey any better. Camels were nasty beasts, and nastier still when driven by an inexperienced rider. Wulfgar's, in particular, had a bad opinion of its rider, for camels preferred to pick their own route, and the barbarian, with his powerful legs and arms, kept forcing his mount through the motions he chose. Twice, the camel had arched its head back and launched a slobbery wad of spittle at Wulfgar's face.

Wulfgar took it all in stride, but he spent more than a passing moment fantasizing of flattening the camel's hump with his hammer.

"Hold!" Drizzt commanded as they moved down into a bowl between dunes. The drow extended his arm, leading the surprised glances skyward, where several buzzards had taken up a lazy, circular flight.

"There's carrion about," Bruenor noted.

"Or there is soon to be," Drizzt replied grimly.

Even as he spoke, the lines of the dunes encircling them transformed suddenly from the hazy flat brown of hot sands to the ominous silhouettes of horsemen, curved swords raised and gleaming in the bright sunlight.

"Ambush," Wulfgar stated flatly.

Not too surprised, Bruenor glanced around to take a quick measure of the odds. "Five to one," he whispered to Drizzt.

"It always seems to be," Drizzt answered. He slowly slid his bow from his shoulder and strung it.

The horsemen held their position for a long while, surveying their intended prey.

"Ye think they be wantin' to talk?" Bruenor asked, trying to find some humor in the bleak situation.

"Nah," the dwarf answered himself when none of the other three cracked a smile.

The leader of the horsemen barked a command, and the thunderous charge was on.

"Blast and bebother the whole damned world," Catti-brie grumbled, pulling Taulmaril from her shoulder as she slid from her mount. "Everyone wants a fight.

"Come on, then!" she shouted at the horsemen. "But let's get the fight a bit fairer!" She set the magical bow into action, sending one silver arrow after another streaking up the dunes into the horde, blasting rider after rider out of his saddle.

Bruenor gawked at his daughter, suddenly so grim-faced and savage. "The girl's got it right!" he proclaimed, sliding down from his camel. "Can't be fightin' up on one of them things!" As soon as he hit the ground, the dwarf grabbed at his pack and pulled out two flasks of oil.

Wulfgar followed his mentor's lead, using the side of his camel as a barricade. But the barbarian found his mount to be his first foe, for the ill-tempered beast turned back on him and clamped its flat teeth onto his forearm.

Drizzt's bow joined in on Taulmaril's deadly song, but as the horsemen closed in, the drow decided upon a different course of action. Playing on the terror of the reputation of his people, Drizzt tore off his mask and pulled back the cowl of his cloak, leaping to his feet atop the camel and straddling the beast with one foot on each hump. Those riders closing in on Drizzt pulled up short at the unnerving appearance of a drow elf.

The other three flanks collapsed quickly, though, as the horsemen closed in, still outnumbering the friends.

Wulfgar stared at his camel in disbelief, then slammed his huge fist between the wretched beast's eyes. The dazed camel promptly let go of its hold and turned its woozy head away.

Wulfgar wasn't finished with the treacherous beast. He noticed three riders bearing down on him, so he decided to pit one enemy against another. He stepped under the camel and lifted it clear off the ground, his muscles rippling as he heaved the thing into the charging pack. He just managed to dodge the tumbling mass of horses, riders, camels, and sand.

Then he had Aegis-fang in his hands, and he leaped into the jumble, crushing the bandits before they ever realized what had hit them.

Two riders found a channel through the riderless camels to get at Bruenor, but it was Drizzt, standing alone, who got in the first strike. Summoning his magical ability, the drow conjured a globe of darkness in front of the charging bandits. They tried to pull up short, but plunged in headlong.

That gave Bruenor all the time he needed. He struck a spark off his tinderbox onto the rags he had stuffed into the oil flasks, then tossed the flaming grenades into the ball of darkness.

Even the fiery lights of the ensuing explosions could not be seen within the globe of Drizzt's spell, but from the screams that erupted inside, Bruenor knew he had hit the mark.

"Me thanks, elf!" the dwarf cried. "Glad to be with ye again!"

"Behind you!" was Drizzt's reply, for even as Bruenor spoke, a third rider cut around the globe and galloped at the dwarf. Bruenor instinctively dropped into a ball, throwing his golden shield above him.

The horse trampled right over Bruenor and stumbled into the soft sand, throwing its rider.

The tough dwarf sprang to his feet and shook the sand out of his ears. That stomping would surely hurt when the adrenaline of battle died away, but, right now, all Bruenor felt was rage. He charged the rider - now also rising to his feet - with his mithril axe raised above his head.

Just as Bruenor got there and started his overhead chop, a line of silver flashed by his shoulder, dropping the bandit dead. Unable to stop his momentum, the dwarf went headlong over the suddenly prostrate body and flopped facedown onto the ground.

"Next time, tell me, girl!" Bruenor roared at Catti-brie and spitting sand with every word.

Catti-brie had her own troubles. She had dropped low, hearing a horse thundering up behind her as she loosed the arrow. A curved sword swooshed past the side of her head, nicking her ear, and the rider went past.

Catti-brie meant to send out another arrow to follow the man, but while she was stooped, she saw yet another bandit bearing down on her from behind, this one with a poised spear and heavy shield leading the way.

Catti-brie and Taulmaril proved the swifter. In an instant, another arrow was on the magical bow's string and sent away. It exploded into the bandit's heavy shield and tore through, tossing the helpless man off the back of his mount and into the realm of death.

The riderless horse broke stride. Catti-brie caught its reins as it trotted by and swung up into the saddle to pursue the bandit who had cut her.

Drizzt still stood atop his camel, towering above his foes and deftly dancing away from the strikes of riders rushing by, all the while weaving his two magical scimitars into a dance of mesmerizing death. Again and again, bandits thought they had an easy shot at the standing elf, only to find their swords or spears catching nothing but air, and then to suddenly discover Twinkle or the other magical scimitar slicing a clean line across their throats as they started to gallop away.

Then two came in together, broadside to the camel and behind Drizzt. The agile drow leaped about, still comfortably holding his perch. Within mere seconds, he had both of his foes on the defensive.

Wulfgar finished the last of the three he had dropped, then sprang away from the mess, only to find his stubborn camel rising in front of him again. He slammed the nasty thing again, this time with Aegis-fang, and it dropped to the ground beside the bandits.

With that battle at an undeniable end, the first thing the barbarian noticed was Drizzt. He marveled at the magnificent dance of the drow's blades, snapping down to deflect a curved sword or to keep one of the drow's two opponents off balance. Drizzt would dispose of both of them in a matter of seconds.

Then Wulfgar looked past the drow, to where another rider quietly trotted in, his spearhead angled to catch Drizzt in the back.

"Drizzt!" the barbarian screamed as he heaved Aegis-fang at his friend.

At the sound of the shout, Drizzt thought Wulfgar was in trouble, but when he looked and saw the war hammer spinning toward his knees, he understood immediately. Without hesitation, he leaped out and over his foes in a twisting somersault.

The charging spearman didn't even have time to lament his victim's escape, for the mighty war hammer spun in over the camel's humps and smashed his face flat.

Drizzt's dive proved beneficial in his fight up front as well, for he had caught both swordsmen by surprise. In the split second of their hesitation, the drow, though he was upside down in midair, struck hard, thrusting his blades downward.

Twinkle dug deeply into a chest. The other bandit managed to dodge the second scimitar, but it came close enough for Drizzt to lock its hilt under the man's arm. Both riders came tumbling down with the drow, and only Drizzt landed on his feet. His blades crossed twice and dove again, this time ending the struggle.

Seeing the huge barbarian unarmed, another rider went after him. Wulfgar saw the man coming and poised himself for a desperate strike. As the horse charged in, the barbarian feinted to his right, away from the rider's sword arm and as the rider had expected. Then Wulfgar reversed direction, throwing himself squarely in the horse's path.

Wulfgar accepted the stunning impact and locked his arms about the horse's neck and his legs onto the beast's front legs, rolling backward with the momentum and causing the horse to stumble. Then the mighty barbarian yanked with all his might, bringing horse and rider right over him.

The shocked bandit could not react, though he did manage to scream as the horse drove him into the ground. When the horse finally rolled away, the bandit remained, buried upside-down to the waist in the sand, his legs lolling grotesquely to one side.

His boots and beard filled with sand, Bruenor eagerly looked for someone to fight. Among the tall mounts, the short dwarf had been overlooked by all but a handful of the bandits. Now, most of them were already dead!

Bruenor rushed away from the protection of the riderless camels, banging his axe on his shield to draw attention to himself. He saw one rider turning to flee from the disastrous scene.

"Hey!" Bruenor barked at him. "Yer mother's an orc-kissin' harlot!"

Thinking he had every advantage over the standing dwarf, the bandit couldn't pass up the opportunity to answer the insult. He rushed over to Bruenor and chopped down with his sword.

Bruenor brought his golden shield up to block the blow, then stepped around the front of the horse. The rider swung about to meet the dwarf on the other side, but Bruenor used his shortness to his advantage. Barely bending, he slipped under the horse's belly, back to the original side, and thrust his axe up over his head, catching the confused man on the hip. As the bandit lurched over in pain, Bruenor brought his shield arm up, caught turban and hair in his gnarled fingers, and tore the man from his seat. With a satisfied grunt, the dwarf chopped into the bandit's neck.

"Too easy!" the dwarf grumbled, dropping the body to the ground. He looked for another victim, but the battle was over. No more bandits remained in the bowl, and Wulfgar, Aegis-fang back in his hands, and Drizzt were standing easily.

"Where's me girl?" Bruenor cried.

Drizzt calmed him with a look and a pointing finger.

On the top of a dune to the side, Catti-brie sat atop the horse she had commandeered, Taulmaril taut in her hands as she looked out over the desert.

Several riders galloped across the sand in full flight and another lay dead on the other side of the dune. Catti-brie put one of them in her sights, then realized that the fighting had ended behind her.

"Enough," she whispered, moving the bow an inch to the side and sending the arrow over the fleeing bandit's shoulder.

There has been enough killing this day, she thought.

Catti-brie looked at the carnage of the battle scene and at the hungry buzzards circling patiently overhead. She dropped Taulmaril to her side. The firm set of her grim visage melted away.
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