“So, how do I do this again?”
Zach held Excallibur in front of him, focusing on the silvery blade as it sparkled in the sunlight. The others surrounded him on the village green near the burned husk of the helicopter Nevala had destroyed several days before.
They had decided as a group to return and ask Fenrir for help in their attack on Avalon. Once they returned to the village, Fenrir offered beds and refreshment, and everyone agreed it was better to take some time to recuperate.
Zach had been as grateful for that reprieve as anyone, and under Peter’s attention he final felt his strength returning to him. He doubted he’d ever get his shoulder back to normal, but at least he could stand and move without feeling weak or lightheaded.
Now that the others were also feeling ready to continue, Zach had agreed to attempt to open the portal to Avalon, though he was still having trouble understanding how it was to be accomplished by his will alone.
“Hold the sword and concentrate,” Nevala said, smiling at him encouragingly. “You have to imagine Avalon.”
Zach closed his eyes and tried to imagine Avalon based off of what he’d heard of the place. It was supposed to be an ancient landscape trapped in an eternal summer. He imagined majestic healthy trees and bright flowers everywhere, a warm sun beating down on him and . . . He snorted in frustration and opened his eyes, looking at Nevala with an incredulous frown. “Hard to imagine something I’ve never seen.”
“It’s in your blood, Zach,” Nevala urged, “I’m sure you can do this.”
“We’ve seen Avalon,” Tristan interjected. Zach’s eyes widened at the claim, wondering what he was possibly talking about.
“I have?” He asked, shaking his head. “I don’t remember that.”
“You haven’t, but the rest of us have,” Tristan replied, looking at the rest of his friends for support. “When Sparrow opened the portal. We saw it on the other side.” He turned back to Zach and smiled weakly. “I suppose you were kind of out of it at the time. Maybe we can describe it for you?”
“I lived there for many years, and I don’t think I could describe it adequately enough to make a difference,” Nevala said, rolling his eyes. He smiled at Tristan as he nodded to Zach. “The answer has to be found inside of him.”
“Perhaps I could be of assistance?”
Puck appeared out of nowhere, standing directly in front of Zach and trying desperately to avoid looking at Fenrir, whose eyes widened in shock at Puck’s appearance. Several of the other werewolves were beginning to react as well when Loki took a step toward Zach.
“Don’t trust him,” Tristan said, taking a step between Puck and Zach. “He’s not who he says he is.”
Zach wondered at the strange claim from Tristan, but he noticed the werewolves who were also watching the unfolding situation with keen interest. They looked as if they were seeing a ghost, and considering the way Puck could move from place to place, Zach wasn’t sure that label didn’t fit.
But regardless of the strange reactions, Zach was glad to see Puck again. Despite his earlier denial of his attraction for the goblin, he had found his thoughts wandering to Puck’s emerald eyes time and time again over the past few days. Those eyes enticed him more than any had, even Tristan’s, and he was beginning to regret refusing Puck’s sexual advances.
“I’m here because of a mutual friend, and Oberon will catch up to me soon,” Puck said, ignoring Tristan and focusing on Zach. He raised his hand which held a small, silver stiletto. “I believe you left this behind somewhere.” He tossed the knife to the ground, and it stuck blade first into the trampled ground of the green. Zach stared at the knife curiously but then returned his gaze to Puck’s eyes as the goblin continued, “As for getting into Avalon . . .”
“Why should we trust you?” Tristan interrupted. “You’re not Loki. I know who you really are.”
“Leave me alone, child,” Puck said, glaring at Tristan before attempting to step around him. Tristan stepped between him and Zach again, and Puck looked ready to kill Tristan. “We are running out of time,” Puck growled. “Zach, come here. Now.”
Not wanting to see either Tristan or Puck harmed by their altercation, Zach took a step forward, taking one of his hands off Excallibur to gently move Tristan aside. Tristan looked up at him in surprise before shaking his head in dismay and stepping aside. As soon as Tristan was out of the way, Puck reached up and touched Zach’s cheek.
“What the hell?” Zach asked as he felt something stir deep within him. It was as if his blood was singing, and in a language he’d never heard before but somehow felt familiar.
“You can feel the power of Avalon coursing through your veins,” Puck said as he took his hand away. Zach felt his eyes closing on their own as he focused on the warm feeling inside of his body. “You can sense the land of eternal summer, where everything is bright and green,” Puck continued, “and the land sings an ancient song. Your blood is calling to you. Answer it.”
“I can feel it,” Zach said excitedly as the feeling in his blood began to radiate out through the palm of his hand and into the sword. He was sure he could see the green hills of Avalon in his mind, and then the image became bright and clear as power surged through the sword. “It’s happening!” He said with a laugh of disbelief.
His eyes flashed open as Tristan and Peter gasped. In front of his eyes was a portal, suspended in the air and showing an image of green hills and a meadow of beautiful yellow and blue flowers nestled between them. Zach was surprised at how familiar he felt with the setting, as if he were looking at a home he hadn’t returned to in years.
“I must take my leave of you,” Puck said as he let go of Zach’s face and took a step away.
“What are you talking about?” Micah protested, stepping forward to stand at Tristan’s side. “If you truly want to help us, you’d stay with us.”
“Don’t forget about my gift,” Puck said, ignoring Micah as he kept his eyes on Zach’s. His smile seemed both sad and hopeful at the same time, and Zach found himself unable to stop from smiling back. “It will serve you well,” Puck added, and then he was gone, disappearing from sight as if he had never been there to begin with.
“Damn, I just about had him,” Finn said, lowering his gloved hand. “I thought for sure I’d be able to keep him here this time.”
“Even if he did help us, I don’t think we can trust him,” Tristan said, shaking his head as he stared at the place where Puck had been standing. “I think he’s working for Oberon, and he’s trying to lead us into a trap.”
Zach was the first to see the grey smoke billow out from the stiletto in the dirt. He stared at it in amazement and forgot what he was going to say in Puck’s defense when Nevala, Micah, Peter, and Max seemed to gasp collectively.
The smoke quickly took human shape, and then a youthful boy took the place of the smoke entirely, his chestnut-brown hair messily framing his face as his pale green eyes focused on Tristan. “Hello, Tristan,” Jacob said, smiling sadly.
“Jacob!” Tristan said, the last to notice the smoke. Even though he was caught off guard, the expressions on both Nevala and Finn’s faces were the most surprised of all. They shared a look before turning their attention to Jacob with their mouths hanging open and eyes wide with wonder.
“Zach, Micah, Peter, Finn, Max, Nevala . . .” Jacob rattled off their names as he met each of their eyes in turn, and then he looked out at the werewolves with Fenrir who were now completely on edge. “Wolves . . .” Jacob added hesitantly, “Did I miss anyone? I learned about what happened to Ethan . . .” He hung his head in sorrow, unwilling to show the emotion in his eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
“Is it really you?” Zach asked, the first to find his ability to speak.
“Who else would it be?” Jacob asked looking up and meeting his eyes. The sadness wasn’t gone, and Zach was grateful Jacob was willing to show it to him.
“How did you end up with Loki?” Zach asked, looking down at the stiletto. He felt he recognized it from somewhere but he wasn’t completely sure. “And where’d you get that knife?”
“You mean Puck? He saved me from Oberon at great risk to himself,” Jacob said with a solemn nod. “As to the knife, it once belonged to Sparrow. I killed him with it after Nevala and Finn attempted to exorcise me.”
“Yes, about that,” Finn said, stepping up to join Jacob and Tristan. “How exactly did you manage to fool us?”
“A little help from Ivan, I’d imagine. He pulled me toward him when you performed the exorcism, after the others left the manor.” Jacob shrugged and looked from Finn to Nevala. “The two of you seemed satisfied, so I figured you’d be happier not knowing.”
“It’s good to see you, Jacob,” Peter said. Zach watched Jacob smile warmly as he turned to face his old friend. Peter seemed as happy as Jacob was, and he seemed on the edge of happy tears. “I never got a chance to say goodbye to you. I’m glad you’re all right.”
“I don’t know that he’s all right, but he’s here, and that’s what matters,” Micah added. “But aren’t we all ignoring the gate to Avalon? The longer we wait, the more chance they have to be ready for us.”
“You’re right, we don’t have a lot of time,” Jacob said, looking at Micah and then glancing at the gate. “But be wary before you step through that gate.”
“Why?” Micah asked. “We have the element of surprise on our hands.”
“No we don’t. You said Loki is Puck?” Tristan asked, looking at Jacob. Jacob nodded and Tristan turned to address the rest of the group. “We can’t trust him, Scheherazade said not to.”
“When did she say that?” Zach asked. He was starting to get sick of the way Tristan was going after Puck, especially after Jacob said Puck had saved his life.
“When I passed out,” Tristan said. He started to look toward Nevala and then snapped his attention back to Zach. Zach frowned at the exchange even as Tristan continued to explain. “It felt like a dream, but she told me we couldn’t trust Loki, er, Puck. He’s working for Oberon.”
“That’s true, he is,” Jacob confirmed, drawing all eyes back to him. “But he does so against his will. Oberon can control him, though I don’t know by what means, but he has been working to subvert Oberon’s will the entire time. He took me to Avalon in secret, and I was able to learn the land and—”
“Then we have to try, don’t we?” Micah insisted, interrupting Jacob. “The gate’s open. It’s now or never.”
“There’s an ambush waiting for you on the other side of the gate,” Jacob continued with a patient look at Micah. “They’re going to attempt to kill you the moment you set foot on Avalon. Oberon knows where the gate opens, and he’s been planning this for days.”
“So what do we do?” Zach asked, beginning to despair.
“We fight as well we can.”
Zach turned around at the sound of a voice behind him, only to see Fenrir rising to his feet and moving forward slowly. His body was covered in dirty white bandages, a sign he was still moving about more than he should while he waited for his bullet wounds to heal. He ambled forward slowly, showing great fatigue and weakness in his step, though his face was nothing but a mask of firm determination.
“Fenrir, if there is an ambush, this has just become a much more serious battle,” Max said, stepping forward. “As much as I value your support, are you sure you’re still willing to commit your troops to this dangerous mission?”
“I’d fight alongside you myself if I wouldn’t be more of a hindrance than a help in my present state,” Fenrir said, then barked a laugh as he looked at Nevala. “Besides, I owe one of you my life, and all of us owe you for giving us Thor and Odin.”
“We thank you, Fenrir,” Nevala said with a reserved bow. “We appreciate your support, and I hope we can win the day with it.”
“We will provide you soldiers and weaponry, as agreed upon.” Fenrir turned and stared hard at the gate. “If we have to fight tooth and nail against this ambush, we will get you through.”
“What we need is a distraction,” Micah said, as he slipped out of his shirt and started to take off his pants next. Even though Zach had known Micah for a while now, it took him a moment to realize Micah was getting ready to shift his form, instead of randomly stripping down. As Micah slid out of his pants he looked at Jacob and said, “Jacob, you’re with me.”
“What’s your plan?” Jacob asked, reaching down and plucking the stiletto from the ground. The last time Zach had seen a knife in Jacob’s hand it had ended badly, and he couldn’t help but wince. Finn and Nevala seemed similarly distressed by the situation as they shared looks with Zach, but the three of them shared a silent agreement to remain quiet.
“Do you remember what we did when we rescued Tristan from Faust’s camp?” Micah asked, removing his last piece of clothing and kicking the pile of clothes to the side. “Time to bring back some old tactics,” he said with a grin and then began to quickly shift into his feline form. He grinned through pointed fangs at Jacob and spoke from his feline tongue. “We’re going to force them to break up and follow us. They’ll waste ammo on us and it won’t do them any good. Then I’ll double back on them and tear their throats out.”
“You have to remember, these are elves,” Jacob said cautiously. “They have ways of restraining you.”
“Jacob, believe it or not, I’ve learned a thing or two since we last met. I’ve got this.” Micah’s menacing grin enhanced his feline features, making him seem even more deadly than Zach knew he was.
“Okay,” Jacob said, nodding in agreement, “let me tell you how the ambush is set up . . .”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Peter prepared his trauma kit while the others discussed how they were going to advance through the portal. Although he trusted Micah and Jacob to get the rest of them through with minimal injury, he still expected a demand for his expertise, and he had been careful to gather all the supplies he could fit into the small bag he intended to carry through the portal.
Micah and Jacob lined up at the front of the line, with an army of werewolves and human soldiers carrying rifles immediately behind them. Finn, Max, and Zach all had firearms as well, though Zach kept his hand firmly on Excallibur and kept the handgun tucked into his belt.
Nevala and Tristan both appeared unarmed, but the elves would surely be in for a surprise once the two phoenixes came onto the battlefield. Peter was glad he wouldn’t have to deal with the injuries caused by his two friends.
“We’ll come through at Jacob’s signal,” Nevala said to Micah, who had turned briefly to see if everyone was ready to move.
Micah nodded in response, and instead directed his question to Jacob. “Are you ready?”
“Let’s go,” Jacob said, nodding with grim determination.
Micah took Jacob’s stiletto in his teeth and jumped through the portal. Jacob warped with him, standing on Peter’s side of the portal one moment and then appearing next to Micah in the next. He took the stiletto from Micah’s mouth and gripped it tightly as he and Micah strode forward.
Finn had explained the reason why Jacob couldn’t carry the knife through the portal himself, but Peter still wasn’t sure he could wrap his head around it. He had learned ghosts were anchored to the objects or places they haunted, and could only move a certain distance beyond those points. More powerful ghosts could move further away than less powerful ghosts, but they still had a limit.
Ghosts who haunted objects, as Jacob did, could attain a level of power where they could pick up the object they haunted. However, the object was still tied to the last location it had been set by living hands, which meant the ghost could still only move a certain distance.
Which was why Micah had moved the knife. Avalon was a great distance away, and now Jacob had the ability to move freely on the other side of the portal.
However it worked, Peter was glad it did. Jacob and Micah were completely in sync as they scouted forward, hoping to draw the ire of the elves they knew were lying in wait, ready to kill whoever entered their land. Peter watched with bated breath, as Micah sniffed the air, walking forward cautiously. Jacob had already told him the location of the ambush, but Micah didn’t want to give away their advance knowledge yet. The longer they kept the element of surprise on their side, the better.
Jacob said something to Micah which did not penetrate the portal, and Micah glanced over his shoulder, diagonally and behind the portal. He uttered a low growl and then immediately took an arrow to the shoulder. The shot hardly staggered him as he shifted his flesh around the missile to let it fall to the ground. Jacob took up a defensive position behind Micah, making a show of using the shape shifter for cover.
Micah shouted something to Jacob and the ghost took off at a run, away from the portal and toward the cover of the hills. Shots followed him, and though they were in line to pierce his spiritual form, he flickered in and out of sight as if he were teleporting, making it seems as if he were avoiding the shots by magic until he made it to the safety of the hills and disappeared from sight entirely.
A number of elves came into view, five surrounding Micah while ten pursued Jacob. Micah growled at the five surrounding him, making a show of feeling threatened, though even from a distance Peter knew Micah was enjoying himself. One of the elves retrieved a bolas from his belt and started it spinning above his head. Micah seemed to grin as the bolas came hurtling toward him, striking him and letting it wrap around him. He collapsed to the ground as the tight cord restrained him, and the five elves closed in.
“Come on, let’s hit them from behind,” Finn said to those standing near him. He was the first to step through the portal, the tip of his rifle leading the way. The second he was on the other side he lifted the rifle and began firing with deadly accuracy, dropping two of the elves around Micah immediately.
The Elves turned their attention to Finn, drawing arrows with inhuman speed. Peter gasped in surprise as Micah shifted again, becoming an amorphous blob which the cord simply fell through to the ground. In the same instant he shifted three hooked tentacles out of his form. He lashed out with them and wrapping them around the remaining elves’ necks, pulling them to the ground and ripping their throats with the hooks in the same movement.
The elves who had followed Jacob turned around at the sound of their companions’ demise, which was the moment Jacob chose to strike. He materialized in the middle of their ranks, stabbing out with the stiletto and catching one of the elves in the neck, dropping it to the ground. The elves were disoriented by this sudden attack, and they were momentarily confused as to whether to face the army coming through the portal or to turn and fight the ghost.
Peter was at the edge of the portal now as the last of the werewolves came through. He felt a strain on his link with the tigress and turned to look at her quizzically. Her ears were pulled back and she stared at the portal, growling fiercely. Peter attempted to step through the portal, but once again the feeling of the link brought his attention back around. The tigress wasn’t going to move through the portal; fear of something on the other side was holding her back, though Peter wasn’t sure what it was.
Finn’s cry brought Peter’s attention back to the portal. Max was on the ground, clutching at his leg, a long thin line of blood on his thigh was visible through the fresh tear in his pants.
A rain of arrows came from somewhere behind the portal as a second ambush force assaulted the small army of werewolves and men, turning several in the back of the group into pincushions. Peter would have been in that line if he had crossed the portal when he had intended, and he looked back to whisper his thanks to the tigress.
When he returned his attention to the portal again he saw Tristan standing over Max. Peter attempted to read Max’s lips as he said something along the lines of, “I’m okay, just keep fighting.”
“I’ll cover you,” Tristan mouthed next, and then shouted over the din of the battle toward the portal, making eye contact with Peter. “Peter, Max is wounded! We need you!”
Peter nodded and tried to step into the portal again, but the tigress pulled on the link hard enough to stop him from putting more than his finger through. “I’m trying,” he called back, gesturing back at the tigress, “but she won’t budge!”
“Come in without her!” Tristan shouted.
Peter nodded and gritted his teeth, forcing his feet to move forward despite the insistence of the tigress that he do otherwise. As soon as he crossed the portal his head felt like it was about to explode. The pressure was more intense than any pain he’d felt other than the time he and the tigress had been separated from each other in the first place. “Ah! God that hurts . . .” Peter said, clutching at his head as he stumbled forward across the battlefield. He eventually made it to Max’s side, past the growls and whistling of arrows. “All right, let me take a look at that wound.”
“Peter, are you okay?” Tristan asked. Peter looked up at him and blinked through his tears of pain. The headache was maddening, but after a moment he was able to focus on Tristan well enough to see his look of concern.
“No, but I can function,” Peter replied, grimacing involuntarily. Tristan nodded and stepped back, searching for any nearby threats. Peter knelt down next to Max and examined the wounded leg. It was a clean cut, as the bladed arrow had done nothing more than graze Max. “This won’t take me long to bandage,” Peter said, using all of his willpower to try to preserve some semblance of his bedside manner. “It just grazed you. You’ll be able to walk on it in a second.”
“Thanks,” Max mumbled, readjusting his position to give Peter better access. Once he was done moving he reached for his rifle again before looking up at Peter and smiling weakly. “If Thor hadn’t injured my other leg I might not have even noticed this until the battle was over. Thanks for taking care of me.”
Peter smiled back at him and started to open his medical kit when Max went wide-eyed and pushed him out of the way. He fired his rifle, the shot penetrating the chest of a nearby elf who had turned his bow and arrow on Peter’s exposed back. Though the shot rang through his ears and made his headache even worse, Peter wasn’t about to complain. Instead he found renewed vigor in Max saving his life and said with a grin, “Don’t mention it.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Nevala surveyed the carnage, glad that they had won their first battle, though he anticipated there would be many more to come before they managed to defeat Oberon. He was glad to see his friends had come through the encounter largely unscathed, thanks in no small part to the diversion created by Jacob and Micah, and the extra help of Fenrir’s Fangs, some of whom did lay among the dead.
But the elves had been far worse for wear. The ambush had been fifty strong at least, meaning Oberon had prepared well for their small band, and had been unaware of Fenrir’s aid, nor had he anticipated Jacob and Micah’s abilities. Had they gone through the portal without knowing the details of the ambush, Nevala and his friends would have likely been slaughtered.
“How is everyone else? Do you need my help?”
Peter was standing up after bandaging a wounded werewolf who had been shot in both the right leg and the right arm during the initial assault. The werewolf had been lucky that such a skilled doctor was nearby, but Peter appeared weary beyond belief.
The commander of the werewolf forces, a large, naked man with unruly dark hair walked toward Peter and said, “A large number of my soldiers are still in need of your assistance. You don’t look well though.”
“I don’t think I can go any further, so you’ll have to help me get them through the portal,” Peter replied, grimly surveying the battlefield. “My tiger friend won’t cross the portal into Avalon, and I can’t distance myself any further from her.”
“Animals can feel the spirit energy here, I imagine.” Finn surmised. He was supporting Max with one arm while watching Peter. “The stench of it is everywhere. I’m not surprised she doesn’t want to cross that threshold. Even I am having a hard time being here. There’s so much death here.”
“Is this where I leave you then?” Peter asked, meeting the eyes of his friends. As his eyes crossed Nevala’s there was an obvious level of sadness there, as if he worried he’d never see him again. “I’ll wait on the other side of the portal and take care of you when you escape. I’ll start getting medical supplies from the ship and be ready to treat any injuries as soon as they arrive. It’s the best I can do.”
“We understand.” Micah bowed to Peter and then looked up, grinning his usual grin. “Peter, in case I don’t make it out, I just want to tell you it’s been a pleasure fighting alongside you. You’re a good man.”
“Thank you, Micah.”
“I’m going to scout ahead,” Micah replied, a strange look in his eye which Nevala couldn’t quite identify. “Jacob, are you coming with me?”
Jacob nodded and turned to Peter, smiling sadly. “Peter . . . You and Micah were both like my children. Kurt felt the same way, as did Luke, Hayden, and Ethan. It’s been good to see the young man you’ve become . . .” He nodded, as if trying to convince himself of something. “Take care of yourself, Peter.”
“Jacob, you sound like . . .” Peter began, but he trailed off when Jacob turned around and walked toward Micah.
“Come on, Micah. Let’s go scout.” Jacob pointed toward the hills and waited for Micah to pick up his knife. “I had some time to see the island when I was here earlier. I can show you some good vantage points and tell you where . . .”
Peter watched them go in silence, and was completely surprised when Tristan approached and hugged him. “Peter,” Tristan whispered as he pulled away, but Nevala was standing close enough to hear, “I’ll see you on the other side.”
“Tristan, good luck. You’re hiding something too, aren’t you?” Peter asked, eyes narrowing as the smile faded from his face. “This is going to be the last time I see you, isn’t it?” His eyes welled with emotion. “What are you planning?”
“Nothing, Peter,” Tristan replied, shaking his head and patting Peter on the shoulder. “Just nervous about the coming battle. I’ll see you soon, okay?”
Peter nodded and his smile began to return. “Okay.”
Tristan walked away, and Zach followed immediately after him offering Peter little more than a wave. Finn and Max had more tact and they made up for Zach’s silence. “We’ll see you soon, Peter,” Finn said, bowing in respect. “It’s been good knowing you. And thanks for fixing Max up. I know he’d hate being left behind, even though I wish he’d stay.”
“After Peter’s care, I’m ready to do anything,” Max replied with an infectious grin. “Thanks, Peter. We’ll see you soon.”
“Thank you to both of you,” Peter said, nodding his farewell. “I’m glad I got the chance to get to know you.”
Nevala watched them move off, and with them went the remaining uninjured werewolves and human soldiers, leaving Peter with the wounded who had been carried to the other side of the portal while he was saying his goodbyes.
Peter looked at Nevala curiously, and then raised an eyebrow as Nevala approached and cupped his chin. His eyes widened in shock as Nevala leaned forward quickly and stole a quick but pleasant kiss.
“I’ve known you’ve wanted that for a long time,” Nevala said as he pulled away.
Peter took a moment to regain his breath and ask, “Why now?”
“Consider it a promise I’ll come back to you,” Nevala replied with a shrug. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to focus on love, and perhaps I’ll see a way to do so once we make it to the other side.”
Peter shook his head slowly, his eyes filled with disbelief. “I don’t think it would be fair to Ethan . . .”
“That’s silly, Peter. Ethan would want us both to be happy.” Nevala smiled and let Peter go, but before turning to follow the others he added one final thought. “Something for you to think about while you wait for us. I’ll see you soon, Peter.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Emerald eyes met emerald eyes, one pair furious and the other defiant. Oberon leaned toward Puck, promising to cause him more pain than ever before.
“You betrayed me, Puck,” Oberon spat, reaching across the link between them and preparing to begin torturing the goblin.
“You’re really that surprised?” Puck asked, smirking at the rage behind Oberon’s eyes.
“Jacob Walker is there with the others. They knew the ambush was there!” Oberon roared, the sound of it reverberating through Puck’s skull. “We lost over fifty elves due to your betrayal.”
“I look forward to you losing even more,” Puck replied, snorting. “They’re going to destroy you, Oberon.”
“We’ll see about that,” Oberon muttered, realizing there was something better than torture as his thoughts gave birth to a new scheme. “They obviously trust you now. You’re going to undo the harm you did to me. Prepare to lead them to their doom.”
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