Rebirth -- Part One
The headless corpse hung by its arms as if crucified--again. Gabrielle fell to her knees, suddenly unable to bear the sight of it. Her stomach wretched, but she fought back the urge to throw up.
"Help me, Gabrielle." Her friend's voice reached her from somewhere beyond the wreckage of her body. "Pleasssseee!"
"I--I can't," her voice barely a whisper above the driving rain. "You wouldn't let me! You told me I had to--to let you stay dead!" Anger took over as Gabrielle sprang to her feet. Her katana was drawn in one swift movement, the blade wavering close to what was left of the best friend she'd ever known. "You left me! Damn you, Xena!"
"Help me!" It pleaded the voice sounding closer with each word.
Gabrielle whirled around, but could not find the source of the voice. "I can't! You won't let me!"
"Gabrielle!" The shriek was almost deafening, calling her name over and over until
Gabrielle sat bolt upright, her hand instantly on the chakram. Her green eyes darted back and forth across her camp; her heart beating so hard against her chest that it felt like it would leave her body. She took a deep breath, tossed her damp coverings aside, and stood up, placing the chakram on her belt.
Argo was quietly munching on some grass, but lifted her head up when she saw Gabrielle walking toward the stream. She nickered softly, then returned to her meal.
The bard splashed cold water on her face, cleaning the sweat away, but not doing much to calm her down. Gabrielle sat back on her haunches, watching the water ripple in the moonlight. Is it too much to ask to sleep one night without the damned nightmare?
She angrily tossed a rock into the slow moving stream and watched, as its calm rippled turned into violent waves. Violent waves that mirrored her inner turmoil. "Damn you, Xena. Why did you leave me? We could have found a way. We've beaten death before you said so yourself."
"Not like this, Gabrielle."
She froze, afraid to move in the direction of the familiar voice. Her hands gripped her sais as her body slowly stood. Was this the same voice from her dream? "Who's there?"
"Someone who loves you very much," Xena's soft voice was directly behind her.
Gabrielle turned to find herself face to face with a familiar pair of beautiful blue eyes. "Xena?"
"Yeah. It's me." Xena reached out to touch her friend, her fingers cold against Gabrielle's cheek.
Gabrielle choked back a sob. "I hadn't realized I haven't seen you since I left Japa."
Xena smiled for her, wiping tears from troubled green eyes. "You brought me home. Thank you."
"Of course I did. I promised I would." Gabrielle touched Xenas hand. "I I miss you."
"And I miss you, old friend." Xena's image began to fade. "I have to go, but I will return. I promise."
"Xena!" Gabrielle reached toward her, but her hands only felt the empty air. Her friend was gone. Once again, Gabrielle was alone.
And then she heard it. The subtle creak of a bow string tightening, pulling back, then the distant whoosh of the arrow as it let loose. In a split second, Gabrielle ducked left, reached out her right hand and caught the arrow a scant few inches before it impaled her neck.
Surprise first registered on her face--surprise that she had actually caught it-then anger that someone had just tried to kill her. She heard footsteps behind the tree line across the creek-someone was running away.
Tossing the arrow to the ground, Gabrielle ran through the shallow water and toward the figure in dark leather armor that was retreating southward. She leaped over a fallen tree, ducked under a low hanging branch and skidded to a stop just a few feet from a ravine. The man, or woman, was gone. She looked over the edge, and though it was shallow enough to see the bottom, saw no sign of anyone.
Hilts pointed outward, she took up a defensive stance, watching the trees above her.
The person was close. She could sense it. "Come on down." She was sure there was movement to her right and adjusted her stance.
Her assailant jumped to the ground, landing in front of her. "Here I am." The voice was distinctly male.
"Who are you?" she asked, not recognizing the voice. In the pale light of the moon, she could not make out his face, though he seemed familiar.
"Does that matter?" He drew his sword as he began a slow circle around her.
"It does to me." Gabrielle moved with him, aware that he was trying to maneuver her closer to the edge of the ravine. "You tried to kill me."
"You're quick." He lunged at her, but not far enough to touch, just make her back up.
Gabrielle easily dodged him, but moved closer, trying to keep away from the ravine. "Why did you try to kill me?"
"It's what I do." He answered as he brought the tip of his sword closer. "Now, are we gonna fight or talk?"
She blocked his sword and sighed. "Fight." Gabrielle sidestepped his next attack, using a swing kick to knock the sword from his hand.
He ducked and rolled past her next kick, coming to his feet directly behind her. He wrapped his arm around her neck, pulling Gabrielle against his chest. "You can't defeat me."
"Wanna bet?" A left elbow jab followed by a right, were enough to force him to release his hold on her. She spun on her heels and brought the hilt of her left sai into contact with the side of his head. The blow staggered him, but still he remained on his feet. Rapid strikes with the hilt of her right sai, directly into the man's midriff, took the breath out of him, doubling him over.
Her weapons at the ready, Gabrielle bounced back a few steps, hoping this would be the end of the conflict.
"She taught you well."
"What?" Gabrielle wasn't sure she'd heard him right. "What did you say?"
"She taught you well." He straightened, rubbing the place on his midriff where she'd pummeled him. "I had no idea."
"Why are you doing this?"
He grinned and retrieved his sword. "No, no. Not yet." He twirled the sword a few times before placing it back in its sheath. "I see that I underestimated you, Gabrielle, the Battling Bard of Poteidaia." He half bowed to her, edging toward the ravine. "I must be going now, but fear not, we will meet again." With that he lunged toward the edge of the ravine and disappeared.
Gabrielle rushed to where he last was, but could find no trace of the mysterious warrior.
The road to Poteidaia never seemed so long before. Gabrielle rubbed her neck with one hand, trying to work out the stiffness from the previous night. After that warrior had attacked, she had been unable to fall asleep. It was nearly dawn when she had finally nodded off, only to have yet another nightmare. This time, they were on Mt. Fuji and she was about to put her friend's ashes into the Fountain of Strength . . .
Xena's hand gently cupped the urn, pulling it and Gabrielle's hand away from the water. Gabrielle anxiously looked up at her, confusion written across her face. "Xena, what are you doing? I have to bring you back."
"No. I can't come back, Gabrielle."
"What?" Incredulous, she moved to toss the ashes into the water. "Of course you can come back--I did everything right. We only have a few moments." She lifted the lid and nearly screamed when she realized the water was red. Blood red. When she stepped back, the headless body reached out with its long arms and tried to grab the urn from her.
"I have to stay dead!" It howled at her, trying to grasp the urn, but unable to find Gabrielle.
"You can't have her! You hear me? You can't have her! I will take her ashes home and I will find a way to bring her back!
Gabrielle closed her eyes against the vivid memory of her dream, feeling the warm sun against her face. Droplets of sweat beaded on her forehead as midday approached. A stream ran close to the trail and she decided it was time to relax and attempt to eat the breakfast she had packed away. As if sensing her thoughts, Argo headed for the water.
"You know," she spoke softly into the horses back turned ears, "I always wondered how you did that."
Argo snorted in response, playfully nodding her head. The palomino stopped at the edge of the water, reaching her long neck down for a drink while Gabrielle dismounted and removed the saddle.
She undressed and smoothly dove into the small river. The water felt cool against her heated skin. She closed her eyes and let the rhythm of the gently moving stream relax her. As was her practice now, she took a moment to listen.
Listen to what's behind the sounds
A bird feeding its chicks. . . leaves rustling in the soft breeze. . . water flowing over rocks in the creek. It brought a sense of peace that made Gabrielle smile. A brief respite from her inner torment.
Argo whinnied a greeting at the same moment that Gabrielle heard the footsteps on the trail. She sensed a familiar presence and swam to shore, quickly dressing so she could greet her visitor.
A smile brightened her face the moment she saw him. "Hercules!"
He was laughing as they embraced, "Gabrielle!"
"It's been a long time." she smiled sadly at her friend; knowing, by the look in his eyes, that he had heard of Xenas death.
"Too long." His hands cupped her face, his blue eyes holding hers. "How are you?"
She shrug indifferently as she stepped out of his arms and moved toward her gear in search of a cloth to dry off with. "I thought that once I got to Amphipolisonce I brought her home that it would get easier somehow. Instead, it's only gotten worse."
"It's not that simple, Gabrielle." He eased his large frame onto a fallen log, resting his arms on his knees. "We all grieve differently, but "
She stopped him by holding up her hand. "I know. I've had to deal with grief before: Perdicus, Ephiny, my parents," her voice dropped to a whisper, "Hope." Tears blurred her vision, but Gabrielle continued. "I always had Xena beside me. Now ." She choked on the last word, letting it hang in the air between them.
"Now you go on." He looked up at her, surprised by the emptiness he saw in her pale green eyes. "I know that feels like I'm asking the impossible."
"Yeah, it does." She turned her back to him.
"She'd want you to go on with your life."
Her fingers touched the edge of the round metallic weapon that hung at her side. "Let's head southto the land of the PharaohsI hear they need a girl with a chakram there." "We were going to head south, in search of new adventures. But we had to go to Japa first." If we hadn't, she'd still be alive. Gabrielle bit back those last words, knowing they were wrong. She should not feel that way.
"Xena had a path to follow. She would have gone there eventually."
"Eventually," Gabrielle shook her head, "but did it have to be now? Whywhy did I have to lose her now?"
Strong arms enveloped her from behind, gently rocking her as she cried. It was the first time she had allowed herself to truly grieve for her soulmate. The long voyage back from Japa had been spent in a numbing solitude
Her heart was hurting beyond words. She opened her eyes, blinking back the tears to clear her vision. "It's not like before," she said, leaning against him. "Xena is a part of me. It was supposed to be forever."
"She's still a part of you, Gabrielle." Hercules held his young friend closer, resting his chin on the top of her head.
She turned her gaze back to him, the tears drying in streaks on her cheeks. "Does it ever go away?"
His answer was quiet and painfully honest. "No, but it gets easier to deal with. Time heals, Gabrielle."
She nodded, afraid to speak because any words would be an acknowledgment of that which she never wanted to believe. Xena, her best friend and soulmate, was dead. And this time, she wasn't coming back.
The leather gauntlet slid over her hand and fit snugly against her forearm. Looking into the mirror, she smoothed the brown leather skirt, admiring how it clung to her trim hips.
Her long fingers touched the beaded necklace that hung from her neck, completing her costume. There was one bead for each of her Amazon sisters. She chortled. "Sisters. They abandoned me when I needed them most."
Empty, pale eyes stared back at her in silent agreement. Most of those sisters were dead now, including that bitch Ephiny. A real shame I will not have the pleasure of killing her. Ephiny had always had a special place on my listright below the Queen.
A deep breath brought her center again as she said aloud, "But the little Queen still lives." A wicked smile spread across her face. She drew her sword, turning the blade over, letting the candlelight reflect off the shiny metal. "I get her no matter what."
"And you will." The tall, flaxen haired woman glided into the cavern as if she walked on air. Her white robes flowed around her lithe body, adding to the illusion. She stopped behind her taller, dark haired counterpart, admiring the leather outfit. "Quite nice. You Amazons certainly don't waste any fabric."
"You have to be able to move quick," she said, returning the sword to its sheath on her back.
"Hmm," the flaxen haired woman stretched her hand out, letting her fingers trail across tanned skin, coming to rest on the Amazon's necklace. The bears tooth was still sharp and caused a small cut on her delicate finger.
"How long before I have my powers at full strength, Lillith?" Those empty eyes turned to the smaller woman, staring right through her.
"Not long." Lillith sighed, moving away from her. "Not long before you reclaim your place as Queen of the Amazons."
"Oh, I want much more than that." She pointed the finger of her right hand at the mirror. A tiny bolt of lightning shot out, shattering the glass. She laughed. "I want the little bitch Queen's head on a platter. Then the rest of the world can worship me as the God of Chaos."
"A reasonable request." Lillith turned away and floated out of the cavern.
"And when I'm finished with her, you're next." The once Amazon Queen's laughter reverberated against the cavern walls, carrying it to the entrance.
Lillith smirked at the sound. "Not long indeed."
Hercules awoke just as the first signs of dawn were appearing on the horizon. He glanced across the embers of their fire to find Gabrielle still asleep. Curled up like a child, her arms wrapped around a bedroll he figured belonged to Xena.
He felt her presence beside him and allowed a warm smile to cross his face. "Hello, Xena."
She appeared before him, wearing her customary armor and took a seat on a log next to Gabrielle. Her hand reached out to gently brush back a lock of hair that had fallen across her soulmate's face. "She's having the nightmare again."
"I know," he said gently. "She talks in her sleep."
Xena's smile was bittersweet. "Yes, she does." Misty blue eyes met his gaze. "I'm glad you found her."
"So am I." He stood, adding wood to the fire, trying to start it up again. "You haven't crossed over yet," he observed.
"No." Xena waited for a moment, returning her gaze to Gabrielle. "I can't."
"She won't let go."
"Right," her voice broke as a tear fell down her cheek.
"Does she know you haven't crossed yet?" he asked, joining Xena on the log.
The warrior shook her head. "No. And I don't want her tonot yet."
Understanding crossed his features, even though he did not agree. Hercules cupped Xena's chin in his hand, letting his thumb brush away her tears. "I'll do what I can."
"I know. That's why I'm glad you're here."
"NO!" The scream tore from Gabrielle with such force that it visibly shook Hercules and Xena.
They both rushed to her side, Xena carefully remaining invisible to her friend.
"Gabrielle?" Hercules gently tapped her shoulder. "Wake up. You've had a bad dream."
She turned toward him, her face masked by confusion. "Hercules?"
"Yeah." He said, handing her a water skin and helping her to sit up. "How long have you been having these nightmares?"
"Since Amphipolis." She wiped her sweaty brow with the back of her hand. "Did I wake you?"
"Nah." Hercules glanced at Xena, just before she disappeared. "I was about to fix breakfast."
"Hmm, sounds good." Gabrielle got to her feet. "I'm gonna take a bath first. I'd like to be on the road as soon as possible."
"Sure. Poteidaia it is." He flashed a brilliant smile at her, causing Gabrielle to smile back. "But after we eat."
They traveled in companionable silence for most of the morning, Gabrielle spending the time lost in thought. She had managed to block out her most recent nightmare, but continued to feel the affects of it. She simply could not shake the feeling-the sense-that she could have done more. Should have done more.
She had held Xena's ashes in her hands, literally seconds away from bringing the most important person in her life back to her. And she'd let Xena talk her out of it. It was something Xena had always been good at. But no matter what happened, Gabrielle could not shake the thought that Xena had been wrong. The souls of Higuchi had been redeemed. She had been redeemed. What good could possibly come of her staying dead?
And why, for the first time, had Gabrielle done exactly what Xena told her to do?
"Dinar for your thoughts."
"You'd be wasting your money," Gabrielle replied, glancing sideways at her companion.
"I don't think so." He met her gaze and judging from the look he got, he knew he was right. "Sure you don't wanna talk about it?"
Gabrielle gave him a slight nod. "Thanks, but I'm just not ready."
He held out his hands, palms out toward her. "No pressure." They continued in silence for a few more minutes, before Hercules said, "So, we're going to catch a ship to Egypt?"
"We?" Gabrielle cocked her eyebrow up at him, not surprised he had invited himself along.
"What?" He pretended to be innocent. "You think I'd let you go off on some grand adventure alone? Not a chance."
"Are you sure you want to leave Greece? What about Iolus?"
"Iolus is living out his days with his wife-spoiling his grandkids. It's better that I move on." His expression turned serious. "And so should you."
She held up her hand, bringing him and Argo to a stop. Gabrielle released the horse's reins and edged up the trail a few steps, stretching out her sense to find whoever was waiting for them.
"Two on the left," Hercules whispered.
"And four on the right," Gabrielle replied, drawing her sais. A feral grin crossed her lips the moment the highwaymen leapt in front of them. She let loose with her own war cry and attacked.
The first man went down with a snap kick to the groin. The next one charged over him, his sword held high. Gabrielle blocked the down swing of the sword with crossed sais and pushed him back a few paces.
She saw a third man come up from the right and shot a sidekick into his solar plexus. She heard the distinct sound of ribs snapping. He doubled over and collapsed just as the second highwayman was coming in for another attack. Gabrielle deflected his sword again, bringing her left leg straight up to connect with his jaw. He crumpled into an unconscious heap at her feet.
A fourth man came at her from behind, wrapping strong arms around her upper body and lifting her off her feet. She kicked as hard as she could, but was not able to make him release his hold. His breath smelled like sour milk and felt hot against the skin of her cheek. "Don't fight me girl. I'll make it worth your while."
"Ugh!" She turned her head away when his tongue nearly touched her lips. "Not a chance in Tartarus!" She launched a side kick into his knee, breaking it and forcing the huge man to the ground. Gabrielle executed an axe kick and brought it down on his shoulder, dislocating it and breaking his collar bone.
"You bitch!" He screamed, lunging at her despite the damage to his body.
Gabrielle launched a series of kicks at his head and chest, finally knocking him unconscious.
Hercules, who had watched the melee with grim fascination, was still holding his two opponents in a headlock, one under each arm. Tired of holding the two men, he released them long enough to slam their heads together, letting their unconscious forms fall to the ground.
"I guess all those years with Xena really did rub off on you, huh?"
Gabrielle shrugged, placing the sais in her boots. "I accepted a long time ago, that my path was the way of the warrior. The same path as Xena."
"It's going to be an adjustment."
"Yeah." She walked over to Argo, taking hold of the reins. "C'mon. I don't know about you, but all this fighting has made me hungry."
Hercules laughed, putting his arm around her shoulders. "Now you sound like Iolus."
The moment the farm came into view, Argo picked up her canter, sensing Gabrielle's excitement. They had barely reached the gate when the bard leapt out of the saddle, hurrying into her sister's open arms.
"Gabrielle!" Lila squealed with delight. "What a wonderful surprise?"
Gabrielle stepped back, taking a long look at Lila, glad to see the smile reach her eyes. "You're looking well, sister."
"It's so good to see you," Lila said. She glanced over Gabrielle's shoulder to the handsome man standing behind her. "Who's you're friend?"
"Oh, this is Hercules. Hercules, this is my sister, Lila."
Hercules stepped forward and took Lila's hand, placing a gentle kiss on the top of it. "Nice to meet you."
Lila's let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Likewise. Uh, Sarah has gone to town, but she should be back soon. Boy is she going to be surprised."
"I'm sure she will." Gabrielle chuckled. "I'll go put Argo up and "
"No, no." Hercules grasped her shoulders, steering Gabrielle toward the door. "You two ladies do some catching up. I'll get Argo settled in."
Lila watched in fascination as Hercules lead the mare to the barn. "I still can't believe you know him."
"He's a good friend." Gabrielle hugged herself, watching him. "I don't know what I'd do without him right now."
"What about Xena?" Lila finally asked. She had guessed that something had happened. The devastated look on her sister's face told her everything she needed to know. "Oh, Gabby, I'm sorry."
"Don't don't be sorry."
Lila put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder, guiding her into the house, where her sister dropped her carefully guarded emotions and cried.
Hercules finished rubbing Argo down and reached to put the brush back into the saddlebag. As he did, the bag fell to the ground, spilling its contents on the barn floor. Argo nudged him playfully when he bent to pick everything up.
"Ha, ha." He patted her on the nose. "Glad to see you haven't lost your sense of humor."
She snorted in return.
One of Gabrielle's scrolls lay open on the ground. Hercules glanced briefly at the title. "A Friend In Need." He recognized Gabrielle's careful handwriting. There was a smudge of ink below the title, where the parchment had gotten wet. Other than that, the new parchment was unused.
"Don't move." The voice was soft and feminine, but carried an unmistakable menace.
"I won't." He froze, still holding the scroll. "My name is Hercules. I'm a friend of Gabrielle's."
"How do I know you're not lying?"
He shrugged. "I guess you just have to trust me."
A derisive laugh was her response, but she did lower the pitchfork she'd been aiming at him. "Trust is not something given. You have to earn it."
"Hello Sarah." Gabrielle appeared in the doorway. "I see you've met Hercules."
Sarah rushed to embrace her aunt. It was a full minute before she realized just what Gabrielle had said. Her gaze moved back to the tall, bronze skinned man who was carefully watching them. She found herself unable to look away from his handsome smile and brilliant blue eyes. She wondered why hadn't she noticed it before? "Yeah, we met."
"Good." Gabrielle stepped over to Hercules, noticing the scroll in his hand. "What're you doing?"
He glanced down at the scroll, feeling guilty for having read it. "Uh, it fell out of your bag."
She took the scroll from him when she realized which one it was. Clutching it to her chest, Gabrielle turned and walked away.
"Her name is Eve. They call her the messenger of Eli."
Lillith narrowed her steely gaze at the man in front of her. "Where is she now?"
"In Amphipolis, to bury her mother."
"Xena's dead?" The Amazon strode into the chamber, a grin on her face. "Are you sure it was her mother not an aunt or something?"
The man in dark leather armor shook his head. "I followed the other one Gabrielle. It was definitely Xena's ashes she took there." He looked directly at the Amazon. "She's good-real good. Xena taught her well."
The Amazon's pale eyes flashed with anger. "You fought Gabrielle?" Before the man could answer, her hand was on his throat, pinning him to the rock wall. "By whose order?"
"By mine." Lillith grasped the Amazon's fingers, peeling them off her warrior's neck. "She's a distraction. I need you to focus on your powers."
"My powers grow with each day, Lillith. But if you take Gabrielle's death out of my hands, I will focus my powers against you!" She stomped out of the chamber, each step echoing through the caverns, bringing down pieces of rock as she did.
Lillith gently touched her warrior's neck, healing the bruise left by the Amazon. "You must not fail me again, Stavros."
"I will bring her to you." He leaned into her touch as soft fingers trailed his chest. "I live only to serve you, Lillith."
Her lips captured his, the force of it making his knees buckle, taking his breath away. She ended the kiss, smiling at the power she held over him; the power she held over any man. "Now go, Stavros. Bring her back to me--alive."
Firelight danced shadows across the parchment in her hands, mocking her. She sighed deeply and pressed the quill to the scroll. Still, no words came. There had been a time when the very scent of a new scroll had the power to inspire her. A time when her dreams were vivid and rich with stories to tell.
Now, only the nightmares came. Dark images of her best friend's bloodied body hanging like a carcass in the rain. Gabrielle's hand clutched her chest, imagining the pain Xena must have gone through. So much damage. . . so much blood. . .
Tears rolled softly down her cheeks. Her hand rested on the one thing she had left of the one person she loved most in the world. The edge of the chakram was cold to the touch, as cold as her heart felt now. "You should have let me go with you," she spoke into the flames, now clouded by her tears. "I should have died with you."
"No. It's not your time."
Gabrielle shook her head slowly, refusing to look up. "I don't care. I can't do this anymore. I can't go on without you."
"But I am here, Gabrielle." Xena knelt beside her soulmate, a hand resting on Gabrielle's knee. "I'm always at your side."
"I know, but it's not the same." Finally, she turned her troubled gaze toward Xena. "You're the best part of me."
"Gabrielle, I love you. Don't do this to yourself. You have to go on--,"
"And you had to stay dead." Gabrielle got to her feet, angrily pacing in front of the fireplace. "Nothing about this feels right, Xena. You've been redeemed. I just don't understand "
Her time was limited and Xena hadn't meant to spend it arguing. "It was for the greater good."
"To Hades with the greater good!" Green eyes flashed anger. "I want you back!" Gabrielle said each word with a certain determination. A determination she hadn't realized she had. "And I'll do it, too."
"What?" Incredulous that Gabrielle would go against that which they had spent their lives together fighting for, Xena pleaded with her, "Don't be selfish. Don't do this please."
One look from those eyes and Gabrielle felt her resolve melt. "It's not fair-you don't deserve this. We don't deserve this."
Xena wrapped strong arms around her friend, resting her chin atop Gabrielle's head. "I'm sorry."
"I have to make this right, Xena. I have to." Gabrielle felt her begin to slip away, stumbling when she was no longer being held in her strong embrace. "I'll find a way, Xena. I promise."
"Are you sure?" Hercules asked from the doorway.
Gabrielle smiled to herself. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough." He crossed into the room, stopping when he reached her side.
"I have to do this, Hercules. I have to at least try."
In his heart, Hercules hoped for a chance at success, but his head told him to remember a more realistic outcome. "Then we'll do it."
"I can't ask you "
He shrugged. "Who's asking?"
Gabrielle nodded her appreciation, then packed her scroll and quill away. "Where should we start?"
Hercules sat on the edge of the bed and motioned toward the scroll. "Why not tell me what you've been unable to write?"
The bard nodded and seated herself on the rug. She casually crossed her legs and laid the scroll on her lap before beginning her tale. "Well, it all started one evening outside Corinth. I was watching the heavens and contemplating where we were going, where we've been. . ."
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