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HFTH - Episode 130 - Cradles



Content warnings for this episode include: Abuse, Ableism, Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Mental illness, Gun Mention, Gunshot wounds, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs, Body horror, Consumption of Inedible Materials (the Vicar), Religious Violence, Child Sacrifice, Al has no skin as usual



Intro - Something Is Wrong With the Baby

Something is wrong with the baby. You can hear it crying, with its chittering whines, but when you rush to investigate it is not in its crib. The blankets are empty, the pillows disturbed, and it is nowhere to be found in the nursery. You look beneath the crib and find a hole in the wall, a tear in the plaster and wallpaper. The cries are louder from within. Hesitation drains out of your heart like blood, and you push your hands through the hole, and then your shoulders, squirming into the darkness.


It is a splintered crawl through the underbelly of your floors, deeper and deeper, until you reach a cavity. The baby has constructed a nest of chewed wet paper and filled it with lost toys. You shake your head, and carry it back up, pat its beetle-mandibled head before tucking it back into bed. You are growing used to these long nights as you chart a course back for a forest, back for a world that sings Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now, I lurk in a dark, familiar place. I spent years here, once. How changed it is from when and where it began. How much further changed it will be before this is done, I think. I would ask what you were thinking, but the truth is I knew every thought. But there was nothing I could do to remove the fear in you, once it was planted. It is a library, and it fears the world outside, and fears the darkness it was built to hold. The theme of tonight’s episode is Cradles.



Story 1 - The Cradle of Life

“Who was she?” said Al. He hovered in front of a stained glass window pane; he knew that it was not real light that shone through from the other side. That was the curious thing about being a ghost in a liminal space, that he saw right through the illusions of walls and hallways, could step outside the confusing twists of its geometry. It was not the library’s fault, it did not mean to deceive. It only desperately wished to believe that it was still a library at all.


The window pane was real, and its cut pieces of glass depicted an old red-haired woman in a wheelchair. She sat like a fairytale queen in a throne, with a large prince with a fluffy beard standing beside her with an arm on her shoulder, and a regal woman with white hair at her other, and a big dog sitting royally by her feet, and a wealth of books amidst the hospital equipment.


“That was Miss Amaryllis,” Harrow said. Ze had Al’s drum under one arm, and in the other a school uniform sweater in which the slimy hand named Arnold was nestled. “She might have been one of my mothers, but she died before I was born.”


“And not dead like me?” said Al. He already knew he was not the only phantom in Downing Hill.


“If she is a ghost, I’ve never seen her,” said Harrow, and zir voice lowered to a whisper. “I almost wish she was, sometimes. She had bad dreams, visions. Maybe she could have told me more about mine. My mother doesn’t like to talk about her. But I know she loved libraries. I know she founded Downing Hill. I miss her, somehow, even though I’ve never met her.”


“I don’t remember my mom very well either,” Al whispered back. “I know I spent my whole life with her, but it feels like it’s been a long time since that life, now. I remember the things we did together. I remember losing my dad. I remember when we started going to the Church. But I can’t remember her face.”


“My mother says it goes away, in time,” Harrow whispered. “First the memories. And then the missing them at all.”


If he had been at the Scoutpost that night, there would have been dinner time, and he would have tried to pick up a fork and eat spaghetti. But instead, his drum was just put on the bed in their dormitory room, and Handnold wriggled in his green-encrusted fishbowl, and Harrow curled up in the bed on the far side of the room, muttering nightmares about eyes and flames and silver hands. There was a curfew, of course, but since the only one who could see him well was O’Connor, Al drifted.


In the bad man’s basement, Al had only been able to travel a little ways away from the drum before the straps at his ankles pulled tight and he couldn’t go further. But the Library was not like the basement; you could not measure the space inside of it. Everything was near and far at the same time, and what was miles below was just beneath the floorboards, and if you could sail through walls, escape the traps and tunnels that it created, then you could go anywhere. It is a good place for ghosts, Al thought. It is a good place for the dead.


He wandered through the floors; through crooked hallways that curled in on themselves like snail shells, past the reception desk where a librarian with no face sat perfectly still in the darkness, past the deep archives where a little man whispered into a yellow tape recorder. He sank further and further, into the shadow beneath the library, where the shelves and rooms and halls and furniture and fixtures and staircases and balustrades and mezzanines and books and books and books became so densely packed together that they became darkness, and the darkness became empty. And there was a room in it, at the bottom of the library, or at its center. It was also a cave, or a grotto, and stone jutted up from the ground like teeth to meet the many fangs of the ceiling. Water trickled from the earth above into shallow puddles. The weight of the air felt different than Al was used to; heavier, like the atmosphere of some faraway alien planet. He felt nothing, but he still felt cold. And there were two things in the room as he peeked in through the timeless stone.


The first was a fixture of the rock, or perhaps it was a table or basin, that jutted up from the ground. It was carved of black stone, almost transparent like glass, and it had many branches that lifted into the air, as if designed to hold something large. There was a creature coiled around it; a white centipede as big as a person, and a hundred times as long, with twitching black legs. It wound through the stalagmites and its head lay upon the table, porcelain mandibles clicking, soaking up a single shaft of moonlight from the ceiling of the cave above.


“Hello,” Al whispered. Although the silence felt as sacred as it had at Church, he could not control his urge to be friendly. The place stayed the same, but the view shifted. The being’s shell was not shaped like a centipede but a woman, and her eyes were black and her hair white, and she regarded him through half-moon glasses. The bowl was not vast and ancient, but small and made of crystal and filled with peppermints.


“Forgive me,” said the Director. “I did not see you come in.”


“Sorry,” said Al. “It’s hard for me to knock.”


“It will become easier in time,” said Director Blackletter, and she clasped her hands together; her fingertips clicked as she tapped them. “You are the first spirit student we have had at Downing Hill. We will help you learn how to control certain factors like your emotions, and the solidity that seems to be connected to that. But it may take a little more time, than for some. We have more experience with some covenant lines than others. How was your day at school?”


“It was nice,” said Al. “It’s weird that O’Connor can see me. Most people can’t. I’m not used to it. I liked the classes. I feel like I’ve learned a lot already. And Harrow’s been very helpful to carry my drum around.”


“Good,” said the Director. “Is there a reason you came to see me?”


“I have a few questions, if you are not too busy,” said Al. He floated a little closer to her desk. The rest of the room came into view; the shelves and green lamps and fireplace. More of the illusion. It was all transparent, of course. They were still in the grotto as much as they were in the Director’s office.


“By all means,” said the Director.


“There was a girl,” said Al. “When I first came here. One who could see me. But I haven’t seen her today.”


“Her name is Clara Martin,” said the Director. “And she’s off doing important work for the library. When you are older…”


“I’m almost eleven,” said Al.


“That’s very nice,” the Director said. Her smile cracked her face ever so slightly.


“No, I mean, I’ve been almost eleven for a long time,” said Al. “I don’t think I will be older.”


The Director nodded, and sighed.


“When you have completed your base years of study,” she continued, “then you might go on missions for the Library. Just like her. Many of our best students do.”


“What kind of missions?” Al said, and wisped around her office, examining the shelves. “Like spy missions?”


“Some of them,” said the Director, and looked down at her desk. “The mission she is on right now is a very important one.”


“Why?” he said.


“Because it involves the future of this library,” she said.


“Why?”


“You know what you saw when you came in?” the Director said, a little short. She reached out and turned the bowl on its side to empty it of peppermints, and spun it slowly beneath one finger. “That is the Cradle of Life. It was made to house a terrible evil. Very few have seen it. You can count yourself lucky.”


“I have one other question,” Al said, and put his hands together; he had circled back to where the false door was now. “When can Grandma come to visit?”


The Director might have smiled, ever so slightly. “You saw her just the other day, Al.”


“I know,” Al said. “But I miss her already.”


“You have chosen between your future and your past. It is alright to miss that past from time to time. I miss mine, at times. But I am reminded of the value of the future. And what it is going to be worth when we are done paying the cost.”


Al nodded. He was not completely sure he understood, but he felt a no in her tone.


“Al?” she said. He looked up. “You may not see your grandmother again for a little while. You should know.”


“Why?” he said, suddenly burning a little brighter. “What happened to her?”


“Nothing has happened to her,” said the Director, and she replaced her glasses, looked through him. “Downing Hill has not always been located here in Northern Ontario. It has moved several times. It will move again, soon. That is Clara’s mission. To find a new place for the library to belong. One where it can enclose that evil. Hide it from the world.”


“But Grandma Zelda could still come to visit, right?” said Al. “If she was able to reach the new place?”


“I suppose,” said the Director, and smiled again. “If she could reach it.”



Interlude 1 - Dragonslayers

I know it is the end of the world, you say, and all is lost for humanity, and already the first rays of the new sun shine from the coming age. The water breeds a peculiar corruption in the blood, and the oceans have risen to wash away the shorelines, and all that is left of society is ruinous shambles too stubborn to die. And yet, perhaps I should have a child, you think. Why should I apologize for raising dragon slayers in times when there are actual dragons?


Except the dragons are long gone, now. They hoarded worlds of wealth, and sat upon their golden piles until their bones turned to dust. You did not pick up your sword. The few that remain turn their eyes upward to escape this world entirely, stretch their wings and search for new planets on which to breathe their dying flame of breath. The world is charred to ember and ash now; a wasteland desolate of dragons and knights alike.


And if you choose to be fruitful and multiply, you face only one question. Are you willing to let them suffer not the ash, but the terrible spring that will bloom from it, the unknowable future whose prospects are even dimmer than yours? You will be gone by then, and you will leave them to endure the world you have doomed alone.


We go now to one who fed her child to the dragons.



Story 2 - To Make God Happy

Indrid Buckley had not missed a Sunday morning service at the Church of the Hallowed Name in almost fifteen years. Even the prelude, the gentle cacophony of warm voices and pleasant conversations, was its own form of meditation even though the songs and sermons had not yet started. And they had included her when she had first started to come to the services. An impossible Church, functioning just like the good old days, doing the Lord’s work in the desperate hours of revelation. They did not talk to her much, now. She smiled, and took names as they walked in. But a sound caught her attention, one that did not belong in the preamble. The sound of a child laughing.


She could see him, for a moment, the darkness in the blink of an eye. The way he had been in Solomon’s basement, when it was revealed to her what he had done. Skinless. Forever smiling. But it was Johannah, Mrs. Wicker’s girl, who came to the door first, and handed her a black bundle.


“Here’s your sandals back,” she said. “You didn’t even notice I took ‘em.”


“And she is very sorry for having accidentally left with them,” Mrs. Wicker added, appearing quickly in the door, a young child in one arm. She did not seem quite as fevered and pale as she had in the interval where Johannah was missing, as though she was a wilting flower placed back into sunlight from the shadow. Indrid smiled weakly, and tried to put down the feeling of envy in her heart.


“Thank you for bringing them back,” said Indrid. “They are very precious to the church.”


“Where do we sit?” said one of her brothers, which at Mrs. Wicker’s behest she noted down as Jedediah. He had a round head and a youthful face, and could not have been much older than Al was. There were other children now, of varying sizes but similarly blonde. The mahogany pews in front of the podium were beginning to fill as the robed congregation made their way across the crimson carpet. “Why is everyone dressed all funny?”


“Here,” Indrid said, and gestured to the closets by the door, “let’s find one that fits you. It’s a very special day for the Church.”


Mrs. Wicker worked to help robe her children appropriately, and paused by Indrid before accompanying the herd of children. There was a feeling growing in Indrid’s chest, although she did not wish it to take root there. Why is it that some would be so blessed, she thought? Whereas I, who was given only one blessing, have had it taken away by the Lord?


“Indrid,” said Mrs. Wicker, glancing down the aisle. The congregation had mostly found their seats by now. “What is the service today?”


“Today is a very important day for the church,” Indrid returned. At one time, there would have been spritely music playing, but in the absence of their Instrumentalist it was silence. A hush was beginning to fall over the congregation as Mrs. Wicker’s children, older ones holding the hands of the younger, found their way into an empty pew near the front. Some could hardly be counted as children at all, she thought; one walked with a limp and a cane, and had to pull off a firearm from his back to don his robes. She folded her list of names into her robe, now complete. “It is a celebration we hold every year, to pray for a blessed spring. A holy day.”


“May the deep, the darkness, and the dawn dwell in your eyes,” the Vicar said, as he strode onto the stage. Mrs. Wicker smiled a last time at her, nodded her thanks, and carried her baby down the aisle to sit at the end of the pew. Indrid pressed the great doors shut as quietly as she could, and then made her way to the back as the Vicar continued to speak.


“And in yours, until the Hallowed Name is spoken on all tongues,” the congregation echoed.


“Welcome, to so many new faces!” the Vicar said. Good. He was leading with a speech, and that bought Indrid a few minutes of extra time. “As many of you know, today is the day of our spring celebration. But Vicar, you might say, it is not the spring yet? No, it is not. But the Deep, the Darkness and the Dawn, the triune God, three hands stretched toward all mankind demands a sign of our dedication to the church. Every year we perform this ceremonial Sacrifice to the Spring to remind ourselves of our loyalty, and we make our contribution of cleansing blood to wash away the sins of this congregation and invite the holy spring to break our wretched winter.”


As he spoke, Indrid took the names she had written and deposited the slips into the bowl. It was a stone bowl, and filled now with many flecks of parchment. The names of an entire congregation. There was a rush of moving fabric as the Vicar completed his speech, and removed the covering from the altar. It was not of obsidian, she knew, but of a far older stone. The room grew dark as the altar pulled in its light.


“We greet the black eternity with open arms,” he said, and the candles of the congregation hall went dark. She had gotten no more used to the emptiness, the bitter chill that crept over her skin, the wind that howled in the silence. It was her cue now, she knew, and so she stepped out on the stage, joined the Vicar in front of the altar. The stone was completely dark now, and reflected no light. He took the bowl of names from her, and after that it was out of her hands.


She found her way back into the aisle, sat beside Mrs. Wicker; the woman and her children stared with wide eyes at the altar. The very idea of the self became almost nothing in the shadow of the lord, a speck in the expanse of the universe.


The Vicar poured the bowl of names across the altar.


“In the name of the Deep, we offer this congregation,” said the Vicar, and poured the pitcher of water across the stone. The pieces of paper became wet, dissolved in the flow, and slid down the face of the altar.


“In the name of the Darkness, we make our sacrifice,” said the Vicar, and passed his hand over the crumpled remnants of the names, and plucked the piece of paper that clung highest to the stone.


“And in the name of the Dawn, we pray for an end to winter, an end to our sin. Make us new with the seasons, oh lord. Rejuvenate our spirits with the spring.”


He held the name high in his hand, although the paper was almost transparent. Mrs. Wicker was cold beside her, colder than the room. Indrid knew how she felt. Indrid had stayed that cold ever since.


“The name of our sacrifice,” he said, “is Jedediah Wicker.”


Marketing - Nursery

Lady Ethel:


I’ve found a place to stay for the night. I’m not sure what it’s called, but it’s in a hospital. It’s a room that’s like a parking lot for baby coffins. Not real coffins, the plastic ones they sleep in all adorable and pink and disgusting. It’s dark in here of course, and I’ve barricaded the doors with my… sort of secretions. I can see out the window, though, into the rooms beyond, and the world outside of that. It’s funny, with all of these… tiny things.


To think I would have fit in one at one point. To think my mother stood on the other side of that glass, probably, and smiled.


God. She was insufferable. Life may have given her a hundred lemons but it still couldn’t kill her.


I thought about trying to visit home on this journey of self-discovery. But home was a trailer park. A mobile home at times. It isn’t exactly the kind of place that stays where you left it. Chain link fences dissolve over time. Sand erodes your past. And all those barren sand wastes and concrete stretches only brought me pain anyways.


I’d like to focus on the brand new, future Lady Ethel Mallory. No time to wallow in what came before. It’s not important anymore. It doesn’t define me any more than the little tin I came in. They’re like tiny dreaming pods, these. Normally I loathe children, but sometimes I’d go down to the nurseries in Box Cassiopeia. Just to see them all. Tiny little wriggling things, in their boxes of glass and metal. Born outside of their mothers, born dreaming.


Mother never liked what I did for a living. But who’s laughing now? The old spinster that died alone in the desert, abandoned by the daughters she despised? Or me, who she said would never amount to anything? I’m the one who sold the world away.


Story 2, Continued - To Make God Happy

I would not trust Lady Ethel Mallory around a baby. No reason in particular. It would just make me uncomfortable that her mouth is almost exactly as wide as a baby would be. The fragile meaty limbs that a baby has. And all those teeth. Eugh.


We return now to Indrid Buckley.


“Indrid, what does he mean?” Mrs. Wicker whispered, and put her arm on Indrid’s. Indrid put her hand on Mrs. Wicker’s consolingly. The faces of the congregation had pivoted now, and they began to sing a familiar song, a dirge with no words.


“Jedediah Wicker, please come to the stage,” said the Vicar, and spread his hands wide. There was a crescent of sharp black stone in one of them, and it soaked in just as much light as the altar.


“Ma? What is he gonna do?” whispered one of her sons; the oldest, Indrid thought, Jacob.


“What is this for?” Mrs. Wicker said, standing amid the mourning song of the congregation. The very walls of the room had disappeared into darkness, and Indrid rose beside her as the Vicar spoke.


“Your son will be a gift,” said the Vicar, and smiled pleasantly, condolently, “to the Black Eternity. And for the life he gives, you will be rewarded tenfold. This is to please God. For what have we to gain without sacrifice?”


“You’ve read the Bible stories ma,” whispered little Jedediah, eyes just two reflections in the shadow. “God says, go offer Isaac as a burnt offering up on the mountain. But he doesn’t mean it. Not really. Don’t be scared.”


Mrs. Wicker looked to Indrid for answers, but Indrid could offer her none, no look of comfort. She knew it was her duty to help, to hold Mrs. Wicker back the way that others had done for her, encourage the choice to sacrifice, but she could not quite bring herself to do it. So she let Mrs. Wicker decide on her own. She could see each stage of the decision unfolding with the woman’s eyes.


The painful confusion of giving up a child.


The power and blessings of God.


The value of the Church and all that it had done for her, could do, if she proved her devotion. It was the ultimate display of faith. A sacrifice like that of the lord himself. And Jedediah rose, and began to walk for the stage. The nervous smile on the Vicar’s face was replaced by a genuine one, and he chuckled warmly.


“Very well,” said the Vicar. He was incredibly calm, Indrid thought, even when he was about to remove a boy’s skin and feed his still-warm body to the stone. “Come here, my boy. Come here.”


“Jed?” said Mrs. Wicker, and the Vicar looked up to her again, as did the congregation. Mrs. Wicker tried to push past Indrid into the aisle, and Indrid held her for a second, matched her eyes.


“I’m sorry,” Indrid whispered. “I know what this is like. But it must be done. The cycle goes on. His death will honor the Lord, and the Lord will bring a spring.”


Mrs. Wicker stopped pushing, and hovered there in Indrid’s arms, smiled a last time at her son as he looked away from her for the beckoning Vicar. Indrid laid a head on her shoulder, a comfort, a hiding place. She did not want to see what was going to happen as Jedediah approached the stage. No light shone from inside the horned altar, but Indrid could feel the presence shifting hungrily in the shadowed stone. The Darkness was among them.


She was caught off guard, then, as Mrs. Wicker shoved her out into the aisle, and Indrid rolled across the crimson carpet into the other pews. Mrs. Wicker began to scream as a caravan of Wicker children followed her out into the aisle.


“That is my son!” she shrieked, and pulled Jedediah back from the stage. “No one gets to hurt my children. No one takes them from me again!”


“After all the Church has done for you, Mrs. Wicker, be reasonable. The lord has granted you the life of your daughter and takes only his due. Your son’s blood will bring upon us a new age of—” the Vicar began.


“Ma, he’s got a knife,” said her firstborn, and Indrid looked over to find a rifle in Jacob Wicker’s hands.


And there was light. Brief, momentary, an eruption of flame in the darkness as light and bullet alike were pulled towards the stage. And the Vicar had a large red hole that encompassed the center of his skull and most of one eye, and the knife clattered from his hand down the steps of the stage, and his body fell back limply against the horns of the altar. And the Darkness consumed him, skin and all.



Interlude 2 - Parental Figures

I remember only vaguely the earliest days of my existence. That is a part of it, after all. Finding stability. We are born like stars, erupting into the universe. Our stellar nursery is the orchard at the center of the universe. Some would conjecture that just as life upon your worlds is seeded by the Industry as part of their great farms, that Indescribable life is born of the Outsiders’ influence. I am not sure if they caused me to be, or they simply look down and offer a gentle presence from the distant beyond.


Will she outlive me, due to her nature and my choices? Would she mourn me, if I were to be destroyed? Did Marolmar have parents, progenitors in his own way? Do they miss him? Would they even have noticed by now, given how short a time it has been for them?


I am beyond needing validation from such beings, and yet I cannot help but wonder if this, my legacy, would be pleasing. How it compares to the life of an Outsider, if I could even imagine what such a thing was like. Beyond space, beyond time. Beyond any universe where Indescribable life dwells. Beyond the Black Eternity. Is that where we came from? Is that to where we will go?


We go now to one about to contemplate such topics.



Story 3 - Daddy Marco

Marco Torres shut the door as quietly as he could, although he was aware that the cold seeped in every additional second it was open. It was not sufficiently warm inside to take off his coat just yet, but he found a home on the pegs for his scarf and gloves to dry, and stepped into their living room. It was living room and kitchen and dining room all in one, separate only from their bedroom, and a woman sat at the counter drinking a hot tea and organizing something on a checklist, as studious as she had been as assistant to one of the most important people in the world.


“How was your date?” said Brooklyn. “There’s tea.”


“I didn’t think you’d still be awake,” Marco said, and stomped the snow out of his boots before kicking them off next to the door. At a glance from her he paused, re-oriented them neatly side by side, and continued into their makeshift abode. “And tea would be lovely.”


He joined her at the counter, and one arm found a way around her waist while the other dealt a cup of tea from the iron kettle on the woodstove. He kissed the back of her neck while he chose a teabag.


“It went well, I take it,” Brooklyn said, folding her notepad away.


“You know what? It was very nice,” he said, and turned to lean against the counter, sipped his orange pekoe. It had a unique tinge that only the salvaged and long-expired stuff had. “I was surprised how much we had in common, given that I grew up working for Botco and he grew up in a survival cult. Um. But it’s weird, too. Before you, I’ve only really dated people in the Prime Dream, you know. And in there you can kind of be whoever you want to be? It’s more vulnerable than I’m used to, out here. You can’t hide behind anything. You know, my crooked nose, or my smile…”


“I like your smile,” Brooklyn said, and laid her head against his shoulder.


“I know,” he said. “But somehow I’m getting to know real people, and I’m also getting to know the real Marco at the same time. Which is good, I guess. Just takes some getting used to.”


“Think he’ll get a second date?” Brooklyn said, and pursed her lips.


“Maybe,” Marco said, and put his face in her hair, nuzzled her forehead. She smiled at the scratch of his chin. “But I know this is a new thing for you too. I don’t want to push it. What are you working on?”


Brooklyn looked down at the pad of paper in her arms, and it seemed as though she was trying to compose an answer.


“If something is making you uncomfortable, even if it’s irrational or just a feeling, like, I want to talk about it,” he said. “I want you to be open about…”


“It’s not about that,” Brooklyn said, and sighed. He gave her a little space, so she could compose her thoughts. She pushed a string of curly black hair from her face, and fixed her glasses, the dreamtech in their lenses long since out of battery. He expected to find some kind of hurt there, but the look she gave him bordered on a smile. “I’ve been trying to write out some great way to tell you, find the right words for an announcement if you will, but I can’t, so I’m just going to say it. You’re going to be a father.”



Outro - Cradles

Cradles. From dust we are born. Planet dust for you, stellar dust for me. We did not ask to be placed here. We are alive against our will. Forced by unknowable cosmic twist to participate in the grand scheme of the universe. What a brief moment of glorious light to experience. A flash in the darkness. Why not take it, take it all, the beauty and the agony of being, while it is offered only for a moment?


To dust we return. Earth dust for you, space dust for me. And the light is over.


Is a thing meaningless because it was over quickly? Or is it filled all the more with meaning for its brevity? I do not know. Perhaps we will reflect, in some form after this, be able to look back on our experiences. But perhaps not. If dust is all there is, dreamer, I hope you enjoy all this momentary light has to offer. Until the light dies, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting immaculately for your return to the Hallowoods.




The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Carried' and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!


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