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Fic: A Plague of Serpents Chapter Four

I really should have been finishing off ‘Debt of Blood’ this week, or the next ‘Tabula Avatar’ chapter – I’ve had requests for both – but that’s not where the inspiration led me. After a brief diversion into a New Testament/Conan crossover called ‘The Good Cimmerian’ (not yet ready for publication) I returned to a story I haven’t touched since May and which has, perhaps, the smallest readership of any of my WIPs (although I like it).

‘A Plague of Serpents’, the world’s first ‘Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir’ fanfic. Set in the ‘Tabula Avatar’ universe rather than the official ‘Forgotten Realms’ game world, and incorporating the changes that Buffy and Co. have made to Faerûn, but otherwise not a crossover (Buffy and Dawn will make a cameo appearance later). Set five years on from ‘Tabula Avatar’, although a long way from where that story takes place, and may contain some slight spoilers. When I started this story I estimated that it would come out at 30,000 words. I’m now at just over 28,000 and not at the half-way point yet. My revised length estimate is 75,000 words. This chapter is 9,300 words, rating R. Previous chapters can be found HERE.

A Plague of Serpents

Chapter Four: Restless Natives and Rarities

We lay the night in anguish, snakes drawn out by the tide
The compass of decision falls always on one side
But many went before us, and still the cries are clear
There is no beauty here, just the stench of wine and beer
We save no souls
We break no promises
Yay yi-oh
Ee-yay yi-oh

We can do nothing more than move on headlong through the gloom
The thorn between our lips is the missionaries’ tune
Men with open arms turn their faces half away
Observe as we approach that we have not come to save
We stand as thick as vines though the fruit is torn away
There is no beauty here, friends, just death and dark decay

(Big Country, Lost Patrol)

Artiuk the half-orc caressed his new axe. “Impressive,” he said, the first time the adventurers had heard him speak in anything but grunts. His voice, now that he spoke, was deep and surprisingly cultured. “I thank you.”

“You have pleased Artiuk,” Vadin’ya said, “and so you have pleased me. I have given you gold, and so I have pleased you, my falcon. Is this not good?”

“It is,” Kelleth said. “Are there any other items you are after?”

Vadin’ya nodded. “In the jungles of the Samarloch, I hear, lives a tribe of Batiri called the Shattered Spear. In their caves lie gems so pure and flawless it is as if they were cut by magic – and a perfect conduit for it, I think. Only one gem is all I require – but even getting that, my falcon, will be tricky enough. It is up to you how it comes into your possession. By barter, perhaps, or by theft, or by battle – I care not. You will be well paid.” She fluttered her eyelashes at Kelleth.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Kelleth said.

“Chantry, my friend,” Vadin’ya said, turning away from Kelleth, “when next you have time to spend an evening in this city, free from the demands of Sa’Sani, come and dine with me.” She turned back to Kelleth. “Alas, my falcon, this invitation is for Chantry alone. A chance for some girl talk. Dresses, and shoes, and of course poking fun at men. You will have to spend that time doing man things; drinking beer, and playing darts, and lamenting that the foreigners’ quarter of this city possesses no taverns which feature exotic dancers.”

“Damn, she’s rumbled us,” Thorpe said, grinning.

“Fair enough,” said Kelleth. He looked at Chantry and his brow furrowed slightly.

Chantry guessed that Kelleth was about to make some comment about her not being interested in feminine chatter. She hastened to pre-empt him. “I’d love to, Vadin’ya,” she said.

“I shall look forward to it,” Vadin’ya said. She glanced back at Kelleth. “Another time, my falcon. Now, I sense that you must fly.”

“That’s right,” Kelleth said. “Sa Sani is sending us on a mission into the jungle.”

“Just as a change from the last couple she sent us on,” Chantry said. “Those were, if I recall correctly, to the jungle and, yes, the jungle.”

“This time it’s to the north,” Kelleth went on, ignoring Chantry. “The Samarloch is up that way, too, is it not? Maybe we can kill two birds with one stone and get your gem on the same trip.”

“I hope no birds are killed, my falcon,” Vadin’ya said, “but yes, perhaps you can combine the two things. I wish you luck.”

“Wait,” Aysgarth put in. “Kelleth wants to have some elemental damage charms put onto his new scimitar. Can you do it for us?”

Vadin’ya shook her head. “If I could, my crane, would I have needed you to take the axe from the fire-newts? I make potions. Enchanting weapons is a job for a mage. Surely a skilled wizard such as you could easily perform such a task?”

Aysgarth screwed up his eyes and wrinkled his nose. “I know the theory,” he said, “and I’ve purchased a scroll of instructions from Osi Tchaluka, but I’ve never actually done it. I wouldn’t like to try without a more experienced practitioner to guide me through the process. Do you know anyone like that? One who doesn’t turn aside and spit on the ground when he sees a foreigner?”

“I do not, northern stork,” Vadin’ya told him, “but you are welcome to use my laboratory if you are bold enough to try it for yourself. What do you have to lose?”

“Four thousand gold coins’ worth of ingredients,” Aysgarth said, “turned into useless sludge if it goes wrong.”

“It won’t,” Chantry said. “You’re too careful and methodical for that. I say go for it.”

“Hmm.” Aysgarth nodded slowly and looked at the party leader. “What say you, Kelleth? If I screw it up it might damage the scimitar.”

Kelleth tilted his head slightly to the side and studied his friend for a moment. “I agree with Chantry,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll make any mistakes. I trust you, Aysgarth.”

“Why don’t you try it out on a dagger or something first?” Thorpe suggested.

“Good idea,” Kelleth agreed. “Okay, Aysgarth, do it.”

“Very well,” Aysgarth said. “If you will show me to your laboratory, lady Vadin’ya, I will try my hand at enchanting the weapons.”

- - - - -

“Halt!” The Samarach patrol, ten in number, was formed up in a line across the road. The officer, a captain in gilded mail, held up his hand. “You there! Stop and submit to testing.”

“Testing?” Kelleth raised his eyebrows. “What sort of testing?”

“The magical kind,” replied the captain, waving his hand vaguely in the direction of a patrol member in wizard’s robes. “There have been reports of yuan-ti agents in the area and we have been ordered to root them out.”

“Peace, warrior,” said Umoja. “I am a priest of great Ubtao, creator of Chult. We are free of the touch of the snake people, I can assure you.”

“We don’t follow your dinosaur god, jungle-lover,” said the officer. He spat on the ground. “You spend so much time there you have the best chance of being involved with the yuan-ti. Now, submit to testing or die.”

Umoja’s nostrils flared. Chantry showed her teeth. “Very well,” Kelleth said hastily, “perform your test.”

“A wise decision,” the captain said. “Let’s see now. Ah. Very interesting. The magic says you have been in contact with yuan-ti recently. What do you have to say for yourselves?”

“That you must think we’re stupid,” Aysgarth said. “Your wizard didn’t even cast any spell.”

“He did, and the magic never lies,” the captain claimed. “Now, I can overlook this in return for a small donation to the funds for the defense of the realm. Two thousand in gold should suffice.”

“If there is one thing worse than an extortionist it’s an extortionist in uniform,” Kelleth said. “You aren’t getting a single coin. I’ll be sure to tell Sa’Sani about this so that she can have a word with your superiors.”

“You will tell no-one, foreign fool,” the officer growled. “Kill them!” He raised his great-sword. Behind him the patrol’s wizard cast Ghostly Visage to shield himself from attack.

Kelleth parried the officer’s sword-stroke and, for a moment, the two men were locked in the corps-à-corps position. Kelleth stabbed with his left-hand dagger but it failed to penetrate his opponent’s lamellar armor; its new fiery enchantment flared ineffectually as the leather beneath the metal protected the Samarachan from any searing. He ignored the blow and continued to force his great-sword forward. Kelleth couldn’t hold the man back with only his right arm and was compelled to bring his dagger hand up in support. The officer brought up his knee; Kelleth twisted and took the blow on his thigh.

The other members of the patrol had followed the officer’s lead and attacked. Aysgarth hit the wizard with a volley of Magic Missiles; the Samarachan’s retaliatory volley was absorbed by Aysgarth’s Brooch of Shielding and did no harm. Thorpe ducked under a scimitar stroke and drove his Batiri short-sword into a patrolman’s groin. Umoja sent Yushai forward, to tear soldiers apart with claws and fangs, and summoned lighting from the heavens to strike down his enemies.

Chantry went to Kelleth’s aid. Her mace still hung at her belt; she did not draw it but reached out with her bare hand, touched the patrol leader’s shoulder, and spoke a single word. After that she spun to face an oncoming soldier and grabbed for her weapon.

Kelleth had expected more from Chantry. He didn’t have time to speak, or even to frown, but concentrated on holding off his foe; a task that gradually became easier as the officer’s arms began to shake. A flush spread across the man’s face; not the red of exertion but the livid hue of a virulent fever. The shaking grew worse, the sword wobbled, and Kelleth was able to force the other man back.

Chantry battered a soldier to the ground and crushed his skull with her mace. Thorpe slipped behind a man who was squaring off against Umoja and slashed across the back of his legs. The soldier fell to the ground, crippled, and Umoja finished him off. Yushai reached the wizard, who was reeling under the impact of Aysgarth’s spells, and disemboweled him with raking claws.

Kelleth’s opponent swung his great-sword again. The stroke was clumsy and slow. Kelleth parried with ease, riposted, and laid the officer’s throat open to the bone. He danced back, raising scimitar and dagger in a guard position, and looked for another opponent.

There wasn’t one. The Samarachans were all down and none of them were moving. The fight was over.

“Did I mention,” Chantry remarked, kneeling down beside a corpse and checking it for valuables, “that I hate this stinking country and almost everyone in it?”

“You may have mentioned something along those lines,” Kelleth said. He followed her example and began to check out the deceased officer. “Hmm. Nice sword. Probably enchanted. What did you do to this bloke? He was giving me a few problems at first but then he just caved in.”

“Contagion,” Chantry replied. “I infected him with the Red Ague.”

Kelleth winced. “Nice one. Thanks.”

Aysgarth had just reached his late opposite number and was bending down towards the body. He paused and straightened up. “I thought that spell took an hour or so to take effect,” he remarked. “Too slow to be much use in combat.”

Chantry lifted a pouch from the belt of a dead soldier and shook it. “Mmm, heavy,” she remarked. “Extortion must be profitable.” She stashed the pouch away and turned to Aysgarth. “That may be the case for the servants of other gods,” she replied to his comment, “but not for a priestess of Talona in good standing. I hear the priestesses of the other Bridesmaids can get the same instant reaction too, these days, although most of them probably wouldn’t use it.”

“I’ll make a note of that,” Aysgarth said, and stooped to begin looting the corpse of the Samarachan mage.

“Contagion might not have been the best combat choice, on second thoughts,” Chantry mused. “Some can resist it, and if he had suffered from the disease in the past he would have been immune, and maybe casting Bull’s Strength on Kelleth would have been more sensible. It seemed right, however, and it will have pleased my goddess.”

“It worked, and that’s what matters,” Kelleth said. He held up three potion vials, one empty and two full of a dark liquid. “I think this bloke had taken a Bull’s Strength potion,” he said. “He doesn’t look muscular enough to have given me such a hard time otherwise. Check them out, Chantry.”

“Sure thing,” she agreed. She took them from him, held the full ones up against the light and scrutinized them, and ran a finger around the lip of the empty one and then touched it to her tongue. “Yes, you’re right. Bull’s Strength. They’ll come in handy.”

“Excellent,” Kelleth said, nodding his head. “I think this sword is enchanted. I don’t use a great-sword, but we should make a good sum when we sell it.”

“Their mage had a Ring of Protection, and a pair of basic Bracers of Defense,” Aysgarth added. “We have profited from this encounter.”

Thorpe had spotted that one of the fallen patrolmen was still breathing. “Shame their armor’s a bit too recognizable for us to flog,” he remarked, thrusting a short dagger into the man’s throat, “but I’ve picked up a few pouches of gold. A couple of hundred coins.” He pulled the knife free and wiped the blade clean. “Not a bad afternoon’s work.”

“More importantly, we have ended their extortion racket,” Kelleth said, “and that benefits everyone.”

“They’re dead, we’re alive, and we’ve made a profit,” Chantry said. “I’ll call it a win. The sun is shining – unfortunately making me far too hot in this armor – birds are singing, and hairy tropical spiders are doing whatever horrible spiders do. Of course I still have no idea why my goddess has sent me out here to the arse end of nowhere, while all sorts of big things are happening elsewhere…”

“Such as planetoids exploding,” Aysgarth put in. “I really want to find out more about that but no-one around here seems to know anything. I’d love to be able to talk to someone from the Observatory at Waterdeep.”

“Exactly,” Chantry said. “Still, maybe it’ll become clear in time. Let’s go find that jewel for Vadin’ya.”

- - - - -

The Batiri sentries outside the cave of the Shattered Spear clan held their spears in the guard position and made no immediate move to attack. “Halt, humans,” the tallest sentry called, in passable Common. “You walk in lands of Shattered Spear clan, most powerful of the Batiri. Why you come? You wish to see Matriarch?”

Kelleth had nocked an arrow but he refrained from drawing back the string. This was a more civilized greeting than he expected. “If that’s your leader, then yes,” he replied.

“Enter, then,” said the guard. “Seek out largest chamber. You no attack us, we no attack you.”

“Fair enough,” Kelleth said. He returned his arrow to its quiver, as a gesture of good faith, and led the party into the cave mouth.

Warrior goblins watched them with wary eyes, as they made their way through the cave tunnels, but made no move to attack. The group reached a large chamber, illuminated by flickering torches, in which a small rivulet of water splashed down over the rock wall at one side and poured into an underground pool. A carved wooden throne, decorated with skulls, dominated the room. On it sat a wizened goblin woman, her green skin covered in red and blue tattoos, wearing a crown of colorful feathers.

“I am Cuamogh, Matriarch of Shattered Spear Clan,” the goblin queen introduced herself. “You are humans from Northlands, slayers of the great boar Bala’lak.”

Kelleth raised his eyebrows. “That’s right,” he said. “I didn’t think we were that well known. I’m Kelleth Gill.”

“The jungle did not claim you, Kelleth Gill of the North. There must be strength in you,” Cuamogh said. “I see you wear Wisdom Headdress of Stone Knife chief. How did you get it?”

“He had no further use for it,” Kelleth replied, resting his hand on the hilt of his scimitar ready to draw it if his answer provoked an attack, “after I put my sword through his heart.”

The Matriarch grinned. “Stone Knives are our enemies,” she said. “You are strong warrior. Why do you come here to Shattered Spears?”

“We’ve heard your tribe possesses gems of great purity,” Kelleth explained. “The merchant Vadin Ya wishes to obtain one and has sent us to you.”

“I will not give you one, Kelleth Gill,” the matriarch said, “but there is a thing you could offer in trade. The relic of our clan, the giver of our name.”

“A shattered spear?” Thorpe asked.

“A sacred relic,” Aysgarth deduced. “A leader’s weapon, no doubt.”

“The spear of Ksshomog, once consort of Khurgorbaeyag,” the goblin confirmed. “She grew so strong he feared her, and exiled her to the jungle. She said no more would females be seen as weak, but be most feared, most respected.”

“I can relate to that,” Chantry muttered under her breath.

“With her spear she slew her enemies, founded all tribes of Batiri, but we alone carried it,” Cuamogh went on. “Then snake people broke it, stole it, feared it so much they hid it in one of their temples. Return it to us and you shall have jewel stone.”

“How do we know you’ll hold up your end of the deal?” Chantry asked, bluntly, drawing a frown from Kelleth.

The queen seemed not to be offended. “By the gods of the jungle and the dark, and the soul of she who was Matriarch before me, I speak truth,” she declared.

“Then we have a deal,” said Kelleth. “Which temple?”

“South, walk for one hour,” Cuamogh informed him, “but beware. Even my strongest warriors have died in that place, not long after they entered.”

“It could be poison gas,” Chantry speculated, “in which case I can keep us safe. Although if it was fire damp we’d have to be careful not to set off an explosion, and I’m not immune to suffocation if it was black damp…”

“On the other hand,” Aysgarth said, “it could be that the temple has an active population of the yuan-ti. We have defeated several groups of Batiri, it’s true, but we can’t take it for granted that we can defeat a foe who has slain bands of picked warriors.”

“We’d better make sure we’re as well armed as possible. First, we’ll make a detour to Taruin,” Kelleth decided, referring to the town nearest to the Shattered Spear caverns. “Sell off the gear we’ve picked up and see what useful stuff we can get in exchange.”

“We won’t get as good a price as Vadin’ya or Mendar would give us,” Thorpe pointed out, “and I bet they won’t sell us any decent weapons either. We’d be better off going back to Samargol.”

“Maybe,” Kelleth said, “but that’s three times as far away, and Sa Sani would probably moan about us coming back before we’ve done the job she gave us. At least we’ll be able to pick up a stock of potions. That’ll mean you two,” he nodded at Chantry and Umoja, “can take some extra combat spells instead of cures.”

“Indeed so, Kelleth,” Umoja agreed. “A good idea. I shall plan carefully how I shall smite the yuan-ti, the ancient enemies of my people.”

“Yeah, we need to stock up,” Thorpe said. He turned to the Batiri Matriarch. “Got any decent weapons we could trade you for, your Matriarchness?”

The goblin queen grinned, showing pointed teeth, and nodded. “If you use them against snake people, you can take weapons.” She gestured toward a rack propped up against the cave wall. “Take what you want. Kill snake people.”

“Thank you, Matriarch,” Kelleth said, and led his group over to the weapon rack. “Hey, there’s some good stuff here,” he commented.

“Indeed so,” Aysgarth agreed. “I can sense enhancing charms upon this spear and, yes, on this shield too. Hmm. These arrows also.”

“Definitely useful,” Kelleth said.

“These Batiri are decent sorts,” Thorpe said.

“Yeah, nicer than most of the humans in these parts,” Chantry said. “Let’s take the weapons and kick some yuan-ti butt.” She frowned. “Do yuan-ti actually have butts?”

- - - - -

The stone ruins were almost completely overgrown with jungle vegetation. A stairway, its stone slabs cracked and moss-covered, led down from an arched entry and disappeared into an underground tunnel.

“Doesn’t look inhabited,” Thorpe said. They had already searched two other piles of ruins without finding any trace of either yuan-ti or the Batiri holy relic. They had, however, retrieved two valuable emeralds from the eye sockets of a crumbling statue.

“Don’t take any chances,” Kelleth warned. “We assume it’s inhabited, and guarded, until we have evidence to the contrary. Thorpe, you take point. Umoja, you and Yushai bring up the rear. We’re going in.”

- - - - -

The tunnel led into a dimly-lit chamber. A shaft in the ceiling allowed light through from some collapsed room far overhead. Creepers wound their way across the opening, their leaves filtering the light and turning it an eerie green hue, and a faint breeze could be detected. Two giant statues of snakes, their jaws gaping open to display their fangs, dominated the room. The bases of the statues were set in huge stone trays filled with soil, with plants growing around the carved coils, simulating the jungle environment which would be the serpents’ natural habitat.

“Just carved stone for the eyes, not gems,” Thorpe complained. “Cheapskates.”

“There won’t be any poison gas pockets,” Chantry said, glancing up at the opening in the ceiling. “That’s a plus. The down side is that I get the feeling this place isn’t deserted.”

“The floor is clear of debris,” Kelleth observed, scanning the mosaic tiles that paved the chamber. “It’s in use. Definitely.”

“Trap,” Thorpe warned. He tiptoed forward and disarmed the trigger. “Lightning bolt trap,” he said. “Set recently, not some old relic that’s been lying here for years. The temple is open for business and they’re serious about not wanting gatecrashers.”

There were three doors set into the far wall. Kelleth cautiously made his way to each of them in turn, pressed his ear against them, and listened. “I could hear movements,” he said, after returning to the others, keeping his voice low. “The yuan-ti clergy are in residence. Prepare for a fight.”

Chantry, Aysgarth, and Umoja began casting protective and enhancing spells, starting with those of longest duration, on all the members of the party.

Thorpe carried out a further examination of the doors. “No traps,” he reported. “The doors on the left and the right are unlocked, the one in the middle is locked and there doesn’t seem to be any way to pick it. I’m not keen on knocking.”

“Leave it for last,” Kelleth said. “Start with the one on the left, but watch out for foes coming forth from the others when we start making noise.” Umoja nodded and, accompanied by his dinosaur, took up a rearguard position.

Kelleth threw open the left-hand door and entered. He was confronted by a Yuan-ti Abomination, the first he had ever seen, and two mechanical golems in the forms of spiders. Kelleth loosed an arrow and the battle was on.

The yuan-ti resembled a huge serpent, some twenty feet long, supporting itself on ten feet of tail and with its body rearing ten feet above the floor. The top section of the torso was similar in shape to that of a human, with muscular shoulders and two arms wielding scimitars, but the head was more like that of a lizard. It writhed forward as fast as a man could run and swung its scimitars at Kelleth.

It was a formidable opponent. Strong, fast, and equally skilful with each arm. It took everything Kelleth had to parry the blows and he could find no opening to strike back. Then Thorpe shot an arrow into its face, it recoiled, and Kelleth seized his chance. He rammed his scimitar blade into its body. The corrosive charm placed upon the blade by Aysgarth activated, turning a serious wound into a mortal one, and the creature collapsed.

One of the mechanical spiders attacked Kelleth even as he slew the Abomination. Its steel claws gashed his leg open almost to the bone. He hacked it apart, while Chantry bludgeoned the other one into scrap, and then the priestess hurriedly performed a cure spell.

Behind them the far door had opened and foes had emerged. A second Abomination, accompanied by another pair of mechanical spiders, were attacking Umoja and Yushai. A Fireball from Aysgarth seriously damaged the spiders, the druid and the dinosaur engaged the Abomination, and then Kelleth finished it off with arrows fired over their heads at the towering creature.

Yushai uttered a shrill chirrup of distress. His right foreleg was hanging limp and useless, with a deep wound visible on his shoulder, and blood was trickling down the limb and dripping on the floor. Chantry scurried across the room to his aid but Umoja had already cast the necessary healing spells. “Is Yushai all right?” Chantry asked. “Do you need any help?”

“I have healed him, friend Chantry,” Umoja replied. “All is well.”

The deinonychus straightened up, flexed the injured arm, and extended his nose towards Chantry. It was obvious that he recognized the girl had been concerned about him. She stroked the scaly snout and smiled. “Good boy,” she said. “Kill those nasty snakes.”

“My sentiments exactly,” said Kelleth. “They’re tough. That dual-wielding scimitar style is hard to beat. It’s like fighting a giant reptile version of Drizzt.” His brows lowered. “I’m going to have to re-think my style. No time for that now, though, and no time to thoroughly search these chambers. We’d better press on while our buffs are still working. Thorpe, find me a way past that door.”

“There’s a lever through that way,” the halfling reported, indicating the direction with a jerk of his thumb. “I reckon it probably controls the lock. Want me to open it right away?”

“Do it,” Kelleth ordered. Thorpe went off to operate the lever and, a moment later, the locked door slid open. Behind it was revealed a corridor leading to another closed door. “They probably haven’t heard us yet,” Kelleth deduced, “but we can’t expect that to last for long. Ready?”

Chantry, Umoja, and Aysgarth refreshed the charms which were of short duration and would be expiring soon. Aysgarth cast Mirror Image on himself. Chantry conjured up a Skeleton Warrior.

Kelleth led the way along the corridor. An unseen tripwire unleashed a spray of darts, spat forth by a concealed nozzle, but the ranger’s reflexes were equal to the challenge and he ducked under them unharmed. He reached the inner door and threw it open.

Yet again there was a single Abomination in the room beyond the door, accompanied by a pair of mechanical spiders, but when a side door flew open and reinforcements rushed forth they were more formidable.

Four Yuan-ti Abominations, all heavily armed, and including spell-casters. Entangle spells snared the intruders. Magic Missiles hissed through the air. One of the Abominations wielded his scimitars with a skill and force that none of the humans could match.

Luckily Aysgarth had a card up his sleeve. A well-placed Confusion spell set two of the Abominations to fighting each other. Kelleth, held in place by enchanted vines twined around his feet, loosed a series of accurate arrows. Eventually the last Abomination fell dead.

By that time all of Aysgarth’s Mirror Images had been dispelled, Thorpe had collapsed and lay on the floor convulsing as snake venom coursed through his system, and Chantry’s skeleton warrior had been shattered into fragments. Not a single member of the party had escaped unscathed; Thorpe was in the worst shape, but Umoja too had been poisoned, and Chantry had a broken arm.

“We will be in trouble if there are more of them through there,” Aysgarth commented, pointing at one door that remained closed. “I’m almost out of spells and I doubt if the clerics are much better off.”

“Damn right,” Chantry said, as she knelt beside Thorpe.

“Check the bodies for weapons, scrolls, wands, and potions,” Kelleth ordered Aysgarth.

The wizard obeyed. “This scimitar is enchanted,” he reported almost at once. “Powerfully so. No taint of Evil.”

“Excellent,” Kelleth said. He took the weapon, held it in his left hand, and gave it a practice swing. “A fine weapon, and well balanced,” he said. “When I was a lad I used two wooden scimitars, playing at being Drizzt Do’Urden, but I’ve never used two long weapons in real combat. It might be time to try.”

“It’s a tricky art to master,” Aysgarth cautioned. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Kelleth shrugged. “I was outmatched, fighting sword and dagger against that thing with its two scimitars, and I would have lost but for Thorpe’s arrow,” he pointed out. “I think it’s worth the gamble. What else have you found?”

“A ring holding some moderately powerful shielding charms, and a couple of scrolls,” Aysgarth said. “I believe I saw some scrolls on some shelves in the second room we entered. If Thorpe is recovered I shall take him with me to investigate more thoroughly.”

Once Chantry and Umoja had patched themselves up, and tended the hurts of all the others, the group went through the final door. Every protective spell remaining had been cast, Aysgarth had a scroll in his hands, and Kelleth held his bow with an arrow nocked and drawn back. Much to their delight all the precautions turned out to be unnecessary. There was nothing in the room but the omnipresent serpent statues – and chests containing treasure. One of them held something that could only be the Shattered Spear.

- - - - -

The goblin queen held the ancient broken spear in both hands and gazed upon it. “Can it be? Yes, it is! None will dare to challenge me now. Cuamogh will be chieftainess, Matriarch, for always!” She laid the spear fragments on the seat of her throne and rummaged in her girdle. “Here, take your stone,” she said, producing a large, clear, gem.

The traditional way of referring to the size of large gems was to compare them to the eggs of various birds; Chantry had no knowledge of ornithology, and little interest in eggs unless they were boiled or fried, and she came up blank when she tried to find a suitable comparison. The best she could come up with was ‘about the size of the head of a slightly inadequate penis’.

“You gave me, and the Shattered Spear people, a far greater gift,” the Matriarch went on. “Let there be peace between us for the future.”

“Peace between us,” Kelleth repeated. He had been poised for action, expecting that the Batiri would attack as soon as they had their holy relic, and he was caught somewhat off balance by their surprisingly civilized behavior.

“Live long and prosper,” Chantry added, quoting a blessing she had heard Rupert Giles call out to the crowd at a concert she had attended.

“Live long and prosper, humans from the North,” Cuamogh wished them in return. “Farewell.”

“What a fucked-up country,” Chantry commented, after they had left the Batiri caverns. “The goblins play straight, and keep their word, but the people are a bunch of lying, cheating, paranoid… shits.”

“Not all the people,” Kelleth protested. “Umoja is as fine a man as I’ve ever met…”

“I won’t argue with you on that,” Chantry interrupted, “but he’s not from this country, any more than we are. His homeland is just closer to Samarach than Neverwinter is,” she reminded Kelleth. “The same goes for Kwesi. Vadin’ya’s a Tiefling – she’s not even from this planet.”

“I’m with Chantry,” Thorpe said. “The innkeepers are pretty much the same here as other places, and a few of the merchants don’t gouge their customers any worse than they do back home, but nine-tenths of the people are total bastards.”

“Oh, I give up,” Kelleth said. “Just… don’t poison the water supply or anything, okay, Chantry?”

“I won’t,” Chantry promised. She sighed. “What are we even doing here? Why did my goddess send me to such a shithole?”

“Perhaps to fight the yuan-ti,” Umoja suggested.

“What’s the big deal about the yuan-ti anyway? They’ve been around for thousands of years and they haven’t done much,” Chantry said. “They tried to take over somewhere around Icewind Dale about sixty years ago, killed a few people, and then a bunch of adventurers kicked the shit out of them. Apart from that they just hang out in the jungle. Even if they took over Samarach… frankly, I don’t see how they could be any worse than the High Phantasmage’s stooges. I doubt if anyone would even be able to tell the difference.”

“Their Evil must be opposed,” Umoja said. “It is as simple as that. Why do we need more reasons?”

“My goddess doesn’t have a problem with Evil,” Chantry said. “She has big issues with anyone deliberately spreading disease without doing it in her name, and poisoners who don’t placate her tend to slip up terminally before long, but otherwise she really doesn’t care. I was sent here on a holy mission but I have no clue why.”

“No doubt more will be revealed in time,” Aysgarth said. “Perhaps Sa’Sani’s contacts with the Sword Coast are significant.”

“I hope so,” Chantry said, “as it’s about the only clue I have. I suppose all we can do, for the time being, is just carry on with what we’re doing. Keep working for Sa’Sani until something significant turns up.”

“And,” Thorpe added, a cheerful grin on his face, “make money in the process.”

- - - - -

The clearing in the jungle was protected by walls of energy on three sides. Golems guarded the open side.

“Clockroaches, golems, and what can only be a mechanical logging contraption,” Aysgarth said. “Only the Lantanese use such devices.”

“I see gnomes,” Kelleth said, “and, if I’m not mistaken, some are carrying smoke-powder guns. They are, assuredly, Lantanese. Not what I was expecting in the jungles of Samarach.”

“Ubtao will not be pleased if they are despoiling the jungle,” Umoja said.

“The Samarach authorities will go absolutely spare if they find out about this,” Chantry said. “Mass executions all round, including Sa’Sani for having dealings with them, would be my guess.”

“You’re probably right,” Aysgarth agreed. “I suspect that the energy walls, as well as guarding the compound against wild animals, also contain wards against magical scrying.”

The party walked between the golems, who stood motionless and un-reacting, and entered the logging camp. One of the gnomes rushed to meet them.

“Hold it, hold it,” he said. “You can’t just stroll in here uninvited – and how did you even find this place, anyway?”

“Calm down,” Kelleth said. “Sa Sani sent us.”

“Gond’s titanium tongs, I knew that woman would send someone to bother us one of these days,” the gnome said. “It was just a matter of time.”

“What do you mean ‘one of these days’?” Kelleth asked. “She sent someone a while back. He should have got here at least a ten-day ago. Didn’t he get here? Lanky bloke, Samarachan native, talks with a stammer? Had a message for you to send to Crossroads Keep?”

“We wouldn’t have been able to send the message anyway,” the gnome said. “Our portal’s out of action. We can’t even send our goods home. No, no-one from Sa’Sani has been here for ages. Not since shortly after we set up this operation.”

“Then where the fuck is he?” Chantry wondered. “I suppose it would be too much to hope that he got eaten by a dinosaur, or by the Batiri, on his way here.” She gazed at the metal arch of the portal. “Why couldn’t we have come here by portal instead of having to spend months on a ship?”

“Sa Sani wasn’t going to be too free with a secret that could get her hanged,” Kelleth pointed out. “I don’t blame her for waiting until she knew she could trust us.”

“What’s the problem with your portal?” Aysgarth asked.

“The Interface Widget is missing,” the gnome said. “Without it we can’t dial any destinations and incoming portals won’t lock in. We’re in a bit of a pickle, frankly, and eventually we’re going to have to go looking for a mage to help us out. I just hope we can find one who won’t rat us out to the authorities. Maybe you could help? If you could let Sa’Sani know…”

“I did a course on portal theory at the Academy,” Aysgarth said. “It wasn’t my major, I’m afraid, but I found it quite interesting and I did rather well. From what I remember a standard quartz scrying crystal could be re-tuned to serve as a temporary substitute for an interface. It wouldn’t stand up to long-term use, probably only for a handful of trips, but it would let you send someone to Lantan and back to collect a spare.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” the gnome said. “I’m an administrator, not a mage or an engineer. Dall Nickelplate is the name, in charge of this operation. I can operate the portal but I’m afraid the principles behind it are beyond me. Our chief artificer died a little while ago. About the time the widget disappeared.”

“I bet it wasn’t coincidence,” Chantry said.

“Sabotage, you think? You’re probably right,” Dall replied. He focused his gaze on Chantry’s face. “Is that the sign of Talona I see?”

“Indeed so,” Chantry confirmed. “I am a Young Venom in her service.”

“Then this might be of interest to you,” Dall said. “Hang on a minute.” He scuttled away to a tent and returned a minute later bearing a glass vial. “It’s a sample of the poison that killed him,” he said. “It’s nothing I’ve ever seen before, and none of us could come up with an antidote before he died, but maybe it might mean something to you.”

“Did it happen a ten-day ago?” Chantry asked, as she took the vial.

“Indeed it did,” the gnome replied. “You can tell the age of the poison at a glance? That’s amazing.”

Chantry shook her head. “I won’t know much about the poison until I can get to a proper lab,” she said. “I’m not going to try tasting it; I’m only mostly poison-immune, not totally so. No, it’s just that I have a suspect. Luaire. He was supposed to come here to send a message and then stay here as Sa’Sani’s trade representative; I’m betting he snuck in instead, sabotaged your portal, and poisoned your artificer.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Why did he push me into the sea to drown? Why did he sabotage our ship and run us onto the rocks? I have no fucking idea,” Chantry said, “but I plan on asking him. Preferably after staking him out on an anthill.”

Umoja had been scanning the surrounding area. “You seem not to have caused the devastation that I had feared,” he commented. “You treat the land with respect. Ubtao is pleased.”

“We don’t want to attract attention,” Dall said. “We only made a clear cut in the space we needed for the camp. Outside we’re only taking individual trees, concentrating on the most valuable hardwoods, and of course tapping rubber trees for their sap. We can keep doing that indefinitely without killing the trees. Unfortunately it’s a little too labor-intensive, as the golems can’t really get the hang of it, and a bit risky with all the dinosaurs around, but there’s a lot of money in rubber these days.”

“Perhaps you could trade for it with the Batiri?” Kelleth suggested.

“Trade? With the Batiri?” Dall’s eyebrows climbed. “Oh dear. I don’t think that would be terribly safe. They’re cannibal savages, you know, and I really don’t want to be eaten.”

“We have managed to establish friendly relations with the Shattered Spear Batiri clan,” Kelleth said. “I could try and set something up, if you like. They played straight with us and I don’t see why they’d be any different with you.”

“Well, historically goblins and gnomes have been enemies,” Dall said, “but these jungle goblins don’t really have that same history. If you’re sure they won’t just try to eat us then, yes, a trade deal could be very advantageous.”

“I’ll see what I can do, then,” said Kelleth.

“Thanks. And, ah, Mr. Wizard, do you think you could do that thing with the substitute widget that you mentioned? I’d be happy to pay you,” the gnome went on.

“Of course,” Aysgarth said. “It’s to our benefit too, remember, as our employer wants you to send a message to her representatives at Crossroads Keep.”

“Sure thing,” said the gnome. “Oh, this is excellent! When I saw you coming I was expecting trouble but, instead, it’s the best thing that’s happened to us for quite a while. Thank you, thank you.”

“No need to thank us,” said Chantry, “just throw money.”

- - - - -

“You have taken longer than I expected,” Sa’Sani said, her tone severe and her demeanor stern.

“We ran into a few things,” Kelleth told her. “We had to fight Batiri, firenewts, yuan-ti, trolls, spiders, wyverns, a green hag, a ghost, a fell troll, even a rogue Fire Giant. Nothing we couldn’t handle, though.” He refrained from mentioning the Samarach patrol.

“Fascinating,” Volo chimed in. “You must tell me all about your adventures.”

“Later, my dear Volo,” Sa’Sani said. Her gaze swung back to Kelleth. “You have not brought Luaire back with you. Why not?”

“He wasn’t there,” Kelleth said. “The… occupants of the camp hadn’t seen them. We think he’d been there, though; just long enough to sabotage their portal and poison their artificer.”

“I repaired the portal for them, and your message has now been delivered, Lady Sa’Sani,” Aysgarth added, “but we were unable to locate Luaire.”

“Damn it!” Sa’Sani gritted her teeth. “Why is he working against me? Who has suborned him? I need to know.”

“We’ll try to find him for you, Lady Sa Sani,” Kelleth said, “but if he’s in one of the parts of town that doesn’t allow foreigners we won’t be able to do anything.”

“I shall set my agents in the towns to looking for him,” Sa’Sani said, “but I am sure that his presence would already have been reported to me, if he was there. No, he must be hiding out somewhere in the wilderness.”

“Unless the Batiri ate him,” Chantry said.

“He is an accomplished wizard,” Sa’Sani said, “and I doubt that he would be easy prey. I believe that he is still alive.” She focused on Kelleth once more. “You fought a great many foes for such a simple journey,” she said. “I do not object to you diverging from your course to some extent, to gather material for Volo’s book, but you seem to have carried it to extremes this time.”

“There were some… complications,” Kelleth said, “but I think you’ll find that it was worthwhile.”

Thorpe pulled a bundle from his pack and proffered it to the lady. “Two hundred trade bars,” he announced. “We set up a trade deal between the… loggers and a local Batiri clan. They cut you in on it for ten per cent. This is the advance.”

Sa’Sani’s eyes widened. “I am impressed,” she said. “Forgive me for my harsh words. You have done well indeed.” She waved aside the package. “Keep them,” she told Thorpe. “Osi will give you the value in gold or, if you wish, you may use them to trade as representatives of my House and keep the profits.”

“We might just do that,” Thorpe said. “Thanks, milady.”

“I have an idea about tracking down Luaire,” Chantry said. “The… loggers… gave me a sample of the poison he used. It’s not anything standard. Once I’ve identified it I might be able to find where he got it and from that maybe we can track him down.”

“I hear there’s an underground black market in the southern hills,” Kelleth chimed in. “Somebody there might know something.”

“Both good ideas,” Sa’Sani said. “I shall leave the matter in your obviously capable hands.”

- - - - -

“So, my hawk, you are content, yes?” Vadin’ya said. “You have given me this beautiful gem, I have given you lots of gold, and you have bought from me two belts of strength. Everyone has gained.”

“Yes, very satisfactory,” Kelleth agreed. He buckled a giant strength belt around his waist. “It’s a pleasure doing business with you.”

“Indeed so,” Vadin’ya said. “Chantry, my friend, will you be able to have dinner with me tomorrow night, or will the hawk once more carry you off into the jungle?”

“I’m not planning on rushing off,” Kelleth said. “I want to get in some practice fighting with two scimitars, and get used to this belt, before we go off into the jungle again. Aysgarth has some enchanting to perform, and Chantry has to do some… what do you call it?”

“Alchemical analysis,” Chantry said. “I’d like to use your laboratory, if I may, Vadin’ya.”

“Of course, my friend,” Vadin’ya agreed. “You are, then, free for dinner tomorrow?”

“I am,” Chantry said. “I’m sure the boys will be able to find something to keep themselves occupied.”

- - - - -

“You were beautiful, were you not?” Vadin’ya said. “It is still there for those who have eyes to see. The curve of your hips, the swell of your breasts, the grace of your walk, and the light that still shines in your eyes.”

“You didn’t mention the pearly white teeth,” Chantry said. She had consumed a bottle and a half of wine but she wasn’t drunk; her extreme resistance to poison extended to alcohol and she was only slightly mellow. “I was the prettiest girl of my generation, they said.” Her fists clenched tightly so that her knuckles showed white. “Bards used to smash their lutes in frustration at not being able to compose songs fit… to… to… describe… m-m-my…” She choked up.

“My poor swallow,” Vadin’ya said. “Is there no cure?”

Chantry took a deep breath, unclenched her fists, and managed to regain some measure of control. “No,” she said. “The cure came too late. The damage had already been done and it goes too deep. Nothing works.”

“Such a shame,” Vadin’ya said, “and also a shame that our brave falcon can see only the surface.”

“Thank the gods,” Chantry said. “It’s only him being oblivious that keeps me sane. If he knew how I felt about him the humiliation would break me.” She sighed deeply. “If only I could stop loving him.”

“One cannot control one’s heart,” Vadin’ya said.

“I know,” Chantry agreed. “I’ve tried to make myself see sense. I’m not stupid. I know he’ll never return my feelings. It hasn’t worked. You know, back when I was a priestess of Sûne, the High Priestess told me that people tend to fall for someone about the same level of attractiveness as themselves. Probably the only wise words that ever came out of her mouth - actually, probably the only thing that ever came out of her mouth that wasn’t about so long and attached to a man – but anyway, things usually work out more or less okay that way. The trouble is that my heart doesn’t seem to understand that I’m not what I was. Kelleth’s a good-looking man. Six foot two, kind of rugged, brave and honest and all that crap, he’d have been an ideal match for me… before. Now? My perfect match would be something more like a well-spoken ogre.”

“If you refer to Artiuk, little magpie, you cannot have him,” Vadin’ya said. “He is mine.”

“Oh!” Chantry put her hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking of him at all. He’s much better looking than an ogre. I didn’t mean… I wouldn’t…”

“I jest, little bird,” Vadin’ya said. “Perhaps, though, you could find someone not unlike Artiuk.”

“Maybe,” Chantry said. “It would be… logical. Shame the world doesn’t work that way.” She took a long drink, draining her glass, and accepted a refill. “Thanks. Anyway, I think we’ve talked about me enough. I’m probably just boring and depressing you. Let’s talk about you. I’d say, from your coloring, that the human side of your ancestry is from somewhere quite a way north of here. How did you come to be running a shop in Samargol?”

“I have not yet drunk enough to tell that story,” Vadin’ya said. “Later, perhaps, or another time. Let us talk, first, of other things. Perhaps, my magpie, you can tell me the facts about something on which I have been pondering. Is Volothamp Geddarm fucking Sa’Sani?”

- - - - -

There was a spring in Chantry’s step as the group departed from Samargol. The sun was shining – as it always did here, unless there was one of the heavy tropical downpours that could deliver an inch of rain in an hour – birds were singing, and she was wearing a strength belt; of lesser power than the giant strength belt that Kelleth now wore but still enough to make her plate armor seem light and relatively comfortable. The evening spent with Vadin’ya had been enjoyable, barring the period in which Chantry had lapsed into self-pity, and she was feeling happier than she’d been in quite a while. Once clear of the city gates she broke into a suitably cheerful song.

Wonderful day, for going my way
Knock on my door, and even the score
With your eyes
Lovely to see you again my friend
Walk along with me to the next bend…

“Take it you had a good time last night, then?” Thorpe enquired. The men had been late to rise and Chantry had seen little of them before they had assembled to march into the wilderness.

“Yes, it was fun,” Chantry replied. “What about you? Enjoy your drinking session?”

“Bloody brilliant,” the halfling replied, grinning widely. “We all got laid.”

Chantry missed a step and almost stumbled. “What?”

“Well, not all of us,” Thorpe amended his claim. “Aysgarth spent the night with his books.”

“The only woman in Samarach I find attractive is Vadin’ya,” the wizard said, “and she was, of course, otherwise engaged. Also she appears to be in a relationship with her barbarian bodyguard, he seems rather possessive, and I have no wish to be smitten by his fiery axe.”

“I got my leg over with Lastri,” Thorpe continued. “Gods, that woman can knock the drink back, but she shags like a mink with her tail on fire.”

Chantry said nothing. She could hear her heart pounding in her chest. Her vision blurred.

“Umoja got his end away with Kwesi,” Thorpe went on, “and Kelleth shagged Inshula.”

“Excuse me,” Chantry managed to say. “I’m not feeling well. A hangover.” She stumbled away from the road, made it behind some bushes, snatched off her helm and was violently sick.

- - - - -

The light inside the underground market was dim, tailored to the requirements of the non-humans who ran the stalls and made up the majority of the clientele, but it was adequate. Chantry’s eyebrows rose as she recognized the race of the beings behind most of the stalls; illithids, the Mind Flayers, creatures she had never expected to encounter except perhaps as opponents in deadly combat. She had been feeling numb since Thorpe’s revelation, disassociated from everything around her, her enthusiasm crushed and just going through the motions of the day’s tasks. Now her curiosity flickered into life once more.

She cast her eyes around the cavern. It was not exactly thronged with customers; only a handful of Batiri, a couple of apparent humans, and a single drow female accompanied by an orcish bodyguard. Kelleth spoke to the drow and was dismissed with a curt “Leave me alone, rivvil.” Chantry smiled, and nodded to the drow; her gesture was ignored.

For a black market operated by powerful creatures from the Underdark the goods on offer were distinctly disappointing. A duergar ran a fairly standard weapons and armor shop, and one of the mind flayers had a basic supply of potions and minor magic items, but there was nothing available that couldn’t be obtained from Mencar in Samarach; Vadin’ya’s stock was far more extensive and exotic.

“We know you not,” one of the illithids responded, when Aysgarth raised the matter. “Most of our goods are reserved for our select clientele.”

“Oh? How do we get on the select list?” asked Thorpe.

“Either get a recommendation from someone already on the list,” the illithid replied, “or perform a service for us. We seek knowledge of magical lore…”

Chantry tuned out the mind flayer’s telepathic communication as it went on to give the details of some, no doubt tedious, quest to retrieve tomes of magical research from a mage’s tower. Kelleth could make the decision about if they were to get involved, and Aysgarth could handle the details; Chantry couldn’t be bothered. She was more interested in an illithid who appeared to be working at some sort of menial shelf-stacking task. This was completely out of character. The mind flayers had a superiority complex that made the drow seem humble by comparison; manual labor was beneath them and they had thralls to do everything like that.

Chantry approached the illithid. “Greetings,” she said to him, or her, or it. Determining the gender of the squid-faced monstrosities, assuming they had gender, was completely beyond her. “Do you have anything for sale?”

“Hnnngggg,” the monster moaned, its transmitted thoughts a formless blur. “Uuuuhhhh.”

“Are you injured, or ill?” Chantry asked. “If you are, maybe I could cure you – in exchange for getting on to the select clients list.”

“Uuuunnnhhh,” the illithid moaned. It showed no sign of having understood.

“Forgive my friend,” the one who had been briefing Aysgarth said. “He is somewhat… damaged.”

“Did you catch what I said about curing him?” Chantry asked.

“I did. It is no use. He cannot be cured.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was a seer, a prophet,” the mind flayer explained. “He sought knowledge, as do we all, but went too far. It is said that he touched the mind of a god, and what he saw therein left him as you see him now.”

“Oh? Which god?” Chantry asked.

“Some claim that it was Cyric, Prince of Lies,” said the illithid, “but no-one knows for certain.”

“I suppose that would make sense,” Chantry said. “Does anyone know what he saw?”

“He has been incapable of communicating ever since,” the illithid said. “It remains unknown.”

“And there isn’t any way of helping him?”

“None. We are masters of the mind but he does not respond to any treatment. He is useful only as a servant now, nothing more.”

Chantry squinted at the mad illithid’s apparently pupil-less eyes. “I suppose there’s some kind of lesson there about not pushing your luck. What’s the point in reading a god’s mind if you can’t understand what you see and it drives you crazy?”

“Midnight falls, Death itself mourns,” the creature replied.

“That almost made sense,” Chantry said. “Midnight was Mystra’s human name and she was the lover of Kelemvor before he took over as the God of Death.”

“It did,” agreed the illithid stall-holder. “The first comprehensible thing he has said in months. Except that I know not what he means. Oin Chakalop, what are you saying?”

“Madness, chaos, the end of the Weave,” the insane mind flayer went on.

“The end of the Weave?” The mention of the fundamental force that powered all wizardry had grabbed Aysgarth’s attention. “When will this happen?”

“Darkness splinters,” was the reply. “Shadows crack, lies stay mine, no song for me, an implicit dictator parades the toe underneath the gold flower, each in syndrome shelves a marked powdddderrr, mmmmrrgghhh, hnnnngghh…”

“What’s so interesting about that meaningless babble?” Kelleth asked.

“It is not meaningless, my friend,” Aysgarth said. “If I interpret it correctly the mind-flayer revealed that Cyric plots to slay Mystra. That would have terrible consequences for the world. Possibly the end of arcane magic.”

“It’s worse than that,” Chantry added. “Did you hear that bit about ‘Darkness splinters, shadows crack’? I’d read that as meaning that Cyric is going to do something to the Shadow Weave too. If the Weave and the Shadow Weave are both destroyed…”

“Then civilization as we know it will collapse,” Aysgarth finished for her. “We’ll fall back to the Stone Age and be at the mercy of the monsters. The end of the world.”

Continued in Chapter Five: We’re Not In Kansas

Disclaimer: ‘Storm of Zehir’ is the property of Atari, Obsidian Entertainment, and Wizards of the Coast Inc. Song lyrics quoted are from ‘Lost Patrol’ by Big Country and ‘Lovely To See You’ by The Moody Blues. Lyrics used without permission.

Tags: a plague of serpents, fic, tabula_avatar
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