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Here’s a piece by my soon-to-be wed friend Cameron. He’s looking for feedback and I like it a fair wee bit. Post what you think below:

Blood and Ash

They lay silent as the grave, each rasping breath stifled beneath the thick filthy blankets covering them.   Five hearts thudded heavily, their pounding matching the incessant beat of the rain drumming monotonously on the ancient splintered wood above them.  The five men huddled together amongst the muddy roots, secreted in the hollow left by the fallen giant.  Each of them trembled and shook, teeth involuntary chattering and then muffled by swiftly clenched jaws. 

A stench of sulphur filled the air as the blustery southern winds brought ash and rain to dog their footsteps and darken the sky.  The roiling clouds above were stained the colour of old blood, reflecting the glare of the distant south, where the land bled molten rock and fire, spitting choking death into the sky. 

A piercing scream cut through the night.  Five breaths stopped.  Several bestial cries echoed through the night air as if in reply.  A single forlorn scream reverberated through the gloom.  A woman.   Savage inhuman shrieks caused their hackles to rise.  Hunting cries.  The Draugr had found prey.  Hooting and undulating wailing cries receded into the distance, moving off towards the screaming woman.  It seemed a veil of silence suddenly fell across the night and even the rain lessened then ceased its beat as the five held breath.  One by one their chests slowly began to rise and fall once more, each of them straining to hear something, anything drawing near.  The whites of their eyes were almost visible in the huddled mass, flickering from side to side as if they could somehow see out from within the safety of the protective walls of blankets. 

After what seemed like an eternity the thudding heartbeats finally began to slow.  It was not long until dawn now.  They had escaped for another night.  Each of them sagged wearily against each other, exhausted from the tension as much as being ground down from repeated sleepless nights.  As if a signal had been given they collapsed as one into the warm waiting arms of sleep, snatching what few hours they could spare.

A hazy sun gazed down upon Calis only dimly as he crawled from their hiding place.  The light fought through the clouds of fine ash hanging in the sky to force the darkness back into a restless twilight.  The damp tunic on his back warmed only slightly at the dawn light, such as it was.  He brushed the caked mud and ash from his clothes and hair as best he could, more out of ritual than for any attempt to actually be considered clean.   Appearing as a grey spectre in the fitful light, hair, face and ragged clothes covered in the ash that rained down from the fire mountain to the south, he raised his arms and carefully stretched his neck and shoulder muscles with a slight frown.  With careful industrious fingers he worked out the stiffness in his legs.

The others were beginning to rouse slowly, opening bleary bloodshot eyes and yawning.  Calis always woke first, used to waking at dawn to go about his business.  He sniffed the air, the scent of sulphur and rain seemed to be retreating.  They might have most of a day without being forced to cover their faces from the scouring wind-blown grit and sand.  He had seen others choking on the ash, and those who survived seemed to waste away, teeth and bones crumbling before the end.  There was no succour to be had from this land, not any more.  The land was dead.  Utterly still, not even the distant mournful call of a bird or lazy buzzing of flies to mar the stillness.  

He took a long deep breath and sighed heavily, his arms dropping to his sides once more as he slowly surveyed his bleak surroundings.  The world consisted of grey and black, the land smothered beneath a thick carpet of dust and ash while the sky remained choked with death ready to fall. 

He recalled that it had been a bustling mining town once, full of life and noise.  The remnants of wooden buildings lay in blackened piles, burnt then half-buried in the ever-present ash that fell from the heavens.    Dead trees clutched at the sky with skeletal black fingers, wreathed here and there in tattered flesh of fluttering rags.  Even the ancient they sheltered under had fallen, unable to resist the evil unleashed upon the land.  Still, with its last act it seemed to Calis that even as it died it spat in the eye of the great beast.  The Burning Beast unleashed the Draugr and stretched its foul hand forth, but even then the land still protected what little life it could.   

He rested one calloused hand on the trunk of the tree for a moment then sighed once more, turning back to their filthy haven to lower a hand into the hole.  A thin arm rose to meet his and he lifted out the older man with ease.  Calis clapped him on the back and the man smiled his sad, vague smile.  They did not even know his name, only that they had found the gaunt old man wandering dazed and silent through the ruins, his eyes vague and hazy.  His mind had obviously broken under the magnitude of death and despair that hand swept the land.   Calis could not blame him for that.  Garrick maintained they should abandon him, but none of the others could condemn the old man to certain death.  He kept up the pace in any case, despite Garrick’s grumblings.  Again he knelt and stretched down, helping to raise another from the hole.

Hassan’s dark hand wrapped around his own and though the others wiry sinews and thin frame were not taxing to lift the swarthy man needed little help, leaving him to scramble out on his own with only a modicum of assistance.  His ragged clothes had already fallen apart and he wore mismatched pieces of salvage too large for his small frame.

“Another bloody hole my friend” he said, clearing his throat noisily and spat grey slime onto the dirt by his feet.  He massaged his forehead for a moment, pinching the bridge of his nose while screwing up his eyes, grimacing.  He let loose a weary sigh, blinking several times to clear his vision.

“When can we see the end of holes and mud I ask!  Pah, not that I am unused to sleeping in unanticipated locations.  Still, I imagine I fare better than his mighty lordship down there.  I can but imagine how he copes away from his soft bed of linen and down.”  He winked, favouring Calis with a small sardonic smile.

Garrick cursed, spurning the offered hand and pulled himself from the muddy hollow.   He stood in all his filthy and torn finery, tight-lipped and glaring at Hassan.  The swarthy hollow-cheeked little man slowly crossed his arms as their eyes met and held; the old pale scars crisscrossing his arms emerged from his sleeves as he casually took in Garrick in all his faded glory.  The soft black leather boots, now caked in dirt and scuffed all over, the torn cloak with golden trim and the thick winter clothing of fine cloth and down, all ripped in several places.

“I may be a thieving sewer rat your mighty fine Lordship but at least I am not trying to pretend that nothing has changed.  Each of us smells like a five day-old dead dog.   Thief or lord, it is all much the same when sharing a bed in a muddy hole.”

Garrick stood for a moment, eyes narrowing as he continued to glare before his lips curved upwards and a great bellowing laugh erupted.  He moved over to Hassan, who leaned back slightly, and then clapped one hand on his shoulder.

            “Right enough my good lad, right enough.  No point whinging over the end of the world eh!  Soldier on!”  He moved off yawning and scrubbing the dirt from his hair, paying them no more heed. 

Calis let the breath he was holding free and shook his head, watching Garrick move off then smiling at the smaller man knowingly.    “One of these days that sharp tongue of yours will get you in trouble.”

Hassan moved closer and grinned widely “Many times already my Aelish friend, many times. However, I enjoyed each of them immensely, why break the habit of a lifetime!”  

They both assisted the last member of the party up from the hollow after he passed up what supplies they had left, straining and heaving, muscles complaining as they hoisted the fat man from the pit.  Kaufman lay there panting, his jowls shaking with each laboured breath.  Skin hung from him like a loose blanket beneath his volumous travelling clothes, still adorned with the crown and rose emblem of what was once the most powerful merchant house in Aelish.  Every one of them had lost a lot of weight in the last few weeks, wasting away amidst the desert of ash.   Calis could count the ribs on the nameless old man, Hassan was not much better and Calis could feel himself growing weaker every day as his body ate itself to survive. 

Kaufman carefully levered himself upright and the three of them shook out the blankets and gathered their packs.  He carefully picked up one of their three water bladders and suddenly swore.  He slid his finger through a ragged hole in the bottom and held it up, his eyes wide. 

Hassan paled and swiftly clutched at it, frantically looking inside.  Empty and dry.   He grabbed another, already empty.  Calis checked the last, half-full, the water sloshing reassuringly in his hand.  Enough for two days, if they drank as sparingly as possible.  The three of them glanced at each other, crackled lips and dry throats swallowing betraying exactly what each of them were thinking. 

“What is this?” Garrick burst in, storming over and wrenching the punctured bladder from Hassan’s quivering grasp.  His eyes seemed to bulge from his head and his hand clenched, knuckles whitening and shaking.

He flung the container to the ground with a snarl and spun to face each of them.  “What.  Is.  This?”  His hand descended to his hip where his sword was buckled and flexed there on the pommel. 

“This was almost full last night!  Which one of you Traitorous bastards drank the water?”  The sword screeched from the scabbard and he spun, pointing the blade at each of them in turn with a wild stare. 

“You!” he spun to Kaufman, “do not think I haven’t seen your money-grubbing fat paws itching to drink my water!”   Kaufman cringed back as the steel blade edged towards his throat. 

Calis moved slightly and Garrick’s blade was instantly at his neck, the point resting in the hollow of his throat.  He dared not even swallow.  He raised his hands slowly, well away from the thick-bladed knife tied to his belt with a makeshift sling.

“Easy Garrick, look at him” he said softly, “look at all of us, we are all as thirsty as you.”

The blade pressed in a moment longer, the sharp point threatening to puncture the skin but Calis stood unmoved.

“Then which one of you idiotic sons of bitches just lost us the chance to reach the mountains and out of this god-forsaken wasteland?” he hissed, pressing his face closer to Calis and staring unblinking into his eyes. 

The nameless old man shuffled over and pointed towards Hassan, who swallowed and carefully slipped a small knife from his sleeve into the palm of his hand, unseen by the others. 

“Of course.  The thieving gutter-snipe did it!” The sword disappeared from Calis’s throat and swung round violently.  Hassan leaped to one side, sprawling on the muddy ground as the sword whistled past.  His knife flickered out.  Garrick fluidly avoided the blow and lifted his sword once more, poised to deliver a deadly strike.

Calis grabbed the arm with both thick calloused hands.   Strong as Garrick was, his muscles had not been hardened by back-breaking work on the land.  The blow did not fall. 

“Look!  Look behind Hassan!”

Both Garrick and Hassan turned, the old man was still pointing.  Past Hassan and across the muddy ground.  Off in the distance standing out starkly against the grey muddy ash a bright crimson stain splashed the fallen rocks and tumbled stone wall of a building. 

Garrick cursed, twisting his arm free.  “Calis, with me, Hassan, watch our backs.  Kaufman… watch the packs, if I see that water touched I will gut you myself.” 

            Sword raised he led the way, his eyes darting and cataloguing anywhere that danger could be hiding.  Calis clutched his large knife, licking his cracked lips as he kept close to the swordsman.   Hassan took up the back, a small knife appearing in each hand as he acted as their shadow.  Scavengers, human or otherwise, maddened by thirst and hunger were ever bit as dangerous as the Draugr.  It was not the first time that they had been forced to kill to safeguard their food and water, and thus their lives.

            The silence seemed heavy and oppressive as they made their way across the sandy ash, crunching footsteps seeming cacophonous in the stillness.  As they drew closer they could seen the ruins of the building, its name and purpose lost to decay and fire.  Tumbled stones and blackened wood jutted from the sandy ash piled in heaps around them. 

            Garrick signalled Calis and they stepped through a crumbled doorway, weapons at the ready.   Something or somebody lay crumbled in the dirt, half-covered in sandy ash.  They brushed away the soil to uncover pale flesh and the tatters of a black dress The dust below had thirstily drank her life’s blood, turning into a dirty brown and red sticky morass below. 

A cursory check revealed nothing else in the area, nothing living at least.

Calis raised his hand over the body; fingers spread as he looked up at the dim sun above and closed his eyes, “We send this soul to your keeping.  May she find rest and peace in your halls…”  A soft hand on his arm broke his concentration causing him to open his eyes again. 

Garrick favoured him with grim but soft frown “They no longer listen my friend.  The cries of the dead and dying would be deafening I should imagine.”

Calis stared for a moment before looking down at the half-covered body sprawled in the dirt “I heard there was a war in the heavens.  That they fought the great beast.  Some said it was a test of our faith.”

“So they cast it out and sent it here?  What use gods like those”   Garrick’s sword lifted to his eyes “better to place our trust in blood and steel than ephemeral blind hope.  If it was a test of faith then I assume that our peoples all failed.”

He had no reply.  Thoughts of raining fire and rotting death flickered through his mind. 

Hassan listlessly prodded through the debris with a foot, noting the remnants of a carefully drawn sign, the paint still fresh and vibrant amongst the bleak desolation.  Crouching down on his haunches he slowly traced the delicate painted letters, mouthing the words carefully as he went.   Blowing the dust from the last few letters he sighed and stood one more, scanning the ruins. 

            “This was an inn once I feel” he said, “a rich one by the looks of it.   A man should be happy to own such a place I would imagine.”  He carefully stepped over it and joined the others, noting Calis’s pose. 

            He smiled, tight-lipped “We have not seen another soul in weeks, not many of us left it would seem.  Do you wonder perhaps if anybody has made it over the mountains?”

            Calis shrugged, scrubbing his face with his palm “I’m no sage.  All I know is that people said you can still live off the land in the north.  I don’t know if it’s even true.  Maybe we really are all that’s left.  Better blind hope that crushing despair I reckon, least it keeps you moving forward.” 

            “Look here” Garrick said, studying the earth in front of the corpse intently “It looks like there at least three Draugr in the area from the tracks.  Salvage what we can use and get out.  We have to cover the distance to that outcrop before the sun sets.  If we get caught in the open…well…”   he trailed off, the point hanging in the air unsaid yet potent. 

            They dug the woman free and turned her over.  She was bloody and unrecognizable, her flesh in tatters.  What was left of it.  Draugr.  A broken knife remained clamped in one pale hand that refused to give it up.  The jagged edge of the broken blade was smeared with a dried viscous black fluid.  She had fought to the end, which gave them some grim satisfaction at least.  Men and women were not meant to be prey for such vile things.   

While the others worked Calis prised a small half-empty pouch from her other hand and opened the drawstring.  White crystals lay within.  Licking a finger he dipped it in, raising it to his tongue frowning.  Salt.  Shrugging he dropped it into his pocket.

Nothing was said as they moved her and took a few minutes to pile a small cairn of stone atop her.  They did what they could to return a little dignity in death.  So many others had not even had that.

            A soft breeze began to swirl around them as they searched for anything she had left behind.  A hint of the sea hung in the air blowing in from the west.  Good.  The Draugr were quiet when the west wind blew.   Nobody knew why.  Yet one more mystery, though a welcome one.

Calis dug through the pile of earth surrounding the corpse, his throat clenching and tightening as the red stained ash flowed through his fingers.  Anything useful could make a difference between survival and death.  His fingers brushed over the shredded remnants of her bag, its contents carelessly strewn beneath the dust and ash.

            In minutes they had assembled a few meagre prizes.  A water skin with a few blessed dregs of water, a few crumbs of stale bread, a larger bag of salt and another small knife.  They also found a few ragged pieces of bloodstained paper with some sort of faded, unrecognizable lettering carefully inked across the pages.  

The wind picked up, tugging insistently at their cloaks as dust swirled and danced around their feet.  Garrick gathered up what could be salvaged and looked to the south.  The clouds gathered dark and ominous, looming across the horizon.

 “Time to go”. 

They wrapped cloth around their faces to keep the swirling sand and dust from their eyes and trudged their way through the back to the others.

Kaufman was waiting with everything packed and ready to go.  He watched them approach, emerging from the dust clouds.  His brow furrowed and he began to restlessly wring his hands.   Garrick passed by without a word, dropped the salvage into his waiting hands and then slung his own backpack across his shoulders. 

             Looking at the swordsman’s back Kaufman sighed and looked down at the pitiful package in his hands.  His face fell.  He kicked at a rock in the dust and winced, his toe throbbing painfully as the boot connected.  It was larger than he thought and bounced pitifully across the ground.  Cinching his belt tighter he took a deep breath and set off, herding the nameless old man ahead of him as the party trudged onwards, towards the looming mountains. 

            The old building was mostly intact, thick stone walls still standing despite the earthquakes and the raining fires that had seen the death of cities.  Though the roof had collapsed some time before, burying the interior in a deluge of ash and debris, it kept the wind and scouring sands at bay for a night.  Bales of rotted and mouldy cloth were stacked up against one wall amidst the petrified remnants of somebody’s last unfinished meal scattered across the floor.  A few cracked and warped barrels made perfect seating. 

The light was reduced to a fading grey glimmer as they readied camp.  After clearing the heaped ash from the doorway they managed to force the warped and rusting iron-banded door shut, barring it with a thick beam of wood.   For the first time in a week they were secure enough to build a small fire from the charred remnants of the roof, the light hidden from the dangers of the wasteland by sturdy stonework.

            They sat around the crackling fire in a circle, holding out their hands to the warming amber glow as they chewed on the last scraps of food.  The water was carefully passed from hand to hand, each of them raising it to cracked dry lips for a few meagre sips as the others stared intently.  The temptation to drink that little bit more was almost overwhelming. 

Calis held the water skin in one hand, listening to the sloshing water inside.   “One day left.” 

It was not enough to get them through the mountains.  They all knew it.  Nothing more needed to be said.  The crackling of flames and the soft howl of wind were the only sounds to mar the silence.  Even Garrick sat in silence, wrapped in his blanket, mesmerized by the dancing flames.

Kaufman finally broke the silence.  “I know that we have all avoided talking about it… but this may be it.  We may be all that is left.”  

            He carefully smoothed out the pieces of paper they had found on the dead woman, pieces he had painstakingly sewn back together.  Though there were gaps here and there it did resemble pages from a manuscript of some sort.  The ragged edges were stained a deep rusty crimson but the merchant paid it no heed as he carefully ran his stubby fingers over the paper, eyes glittering in the firelight. 

“This is a fragment of the Book of Night.”  He smiled as the others looked at each other and sat up straighter “It seems likely that the woman was a Sister of Silence.”   Keepers of the archives.  Keepers of dead words.  The Keepers of the dead and dying.

“No wonder she died fighting” Hassan whispered, bloodshot eyes staring at the bloody pages, peering over his fingers as they massaged his temples. 

Garrick nodded “Scary women, the whole damn lot of them.” 

            Kaufman held the paper up, to better illuminate the faded writing “I can’t read all of it yet, it has been long time since I last seen High Elphane.  However…” 

            The moment stretched longer, the silence almost deafening as Kaufman studied the page, head bowed, index finger slowly moving across each tiny faded letter.  Eventually he looked up. 

            “… even as the Golden Age ended in fire and burning death, so too, the Silver Age ended in flame and frozen death.  The Gods and their children fought the Great Beast and the children of air, fire, earth and water fought with them.  Ancient men too were there, though they were more akin to the beasts of the forest than ourselves.  The gods succeeded and rewarded the ancient man with knowledge of good and evil, of metal, cloth, agriculture and writing. Then the gods slept, weakened by the conflict.”

            Kaufman’s voice droned on, his eyes unable to tear themselves away from the page as the words played across the rapt audience. 

            “The God-Emperors, children of the gods ruled the third age, the lesser age of bronze.  The spirit of Edan grew weary, her body the earth grew tired and the children of air, fire, earth and water retreated.  The age of men began.”

            Kaufman hesitated then looked up to meet their eyes, licking his cracked lips.  “This is the section that I wanted you to hear.”  He took a deep breath and looked down at the paper once more “The Bronze Age will end in flame and choking death at the Great Beast’s return.  The age of men will end there…” 

            Somehow the silence seemed to deepen, as if the night held its breath.  A wooden beam cracked amidst the fire, causing them to jump as sparks drifted up into the air. 

            “There is more, but I’m struggling to read it” Kaufman said softly, “it has been so long since I’ve had to read this language” he shrugged and retrieved a stick of charcoal and another scrap of paper from his backpack.   “I will take the first watch.  This is irritating me and I cannot sleep until I have it.”

            The others nodded and silently settled down around the fire, deep in thought as they huddled under blankets.

            Garrick turned to Calis and yawned, “Enough of this ancient rubbish, tomorrow I shall regale you with the stories of the time I met the Duke of Kellis, have I told you before?  Well no matter, in any case I am sure you will find it fascinating.”

            Calis sighed inside.  “I can hardly contain my indifference” he muttered to himself.

It was not long until they fell asleep to the sound of a charcoal stick scratching away at paper.  Sleep was rare, a sense of safety even more so. 

            Wood exploded inwards, rusted iron rivets and slivers of wood showering them in debris.  The door splintered, barely holding as something heavy slammed into it. 

            A shriek tore the still night as they rose struggling from their bedding, fear flushing away the drowsiness.   Their hackles rose at the inhuman cry.  Something in their very blood and bones screamed that it was not natural.  Dancing shadows cast by the low dying fire illuminated the splintering wooden door.  A glimpse of movement flickered in the blackness through the holes.

            Garrick leaped up first, wild-eyed, hands already drawing his sword before his mind even knew what was happening.

            “Kaufman, feed that fire!” he shouted, storming past the sitting merchant where he sat frozen, charcoal still in his hand.  “We need light!”

            “Where are my knives” Hassan hissed, scattering his belongings across the ash, his hand finally emerging from his pack with a single large bladed knife in hand and a heavy rock in the other.  “This will have to do.”  He joined Calis, and the two men moved forward towards Garrick and the doorway. 

            The door shuddered once more, cracking and sagging on its hinges.  The old man cringed in the corner, eyes hidden beneath his arms as he rocked back and forward, moaning softly. 

            A grey mottled hand burst through the door, ragged claw-like fingers gouging the wooden door.  Garrick’s sword whistled through the air and three of the fingers flew free, still wriggling and oozing dark liquid.   It did not cry out in pain, instead it tore even harder at the wood heedless of its bloody stumps.  The stench of rot and decay filled their noses as the sword sliced more flesh from its arm.


            The middle of the door shattered as another arm smashed through the wood. Bones shattered, erupted from the mottled reeking flesh too weak to withstand its own naked fury.  Ignoring the broken bones it continued to tear at the door heedless of the jagged splintered wood tearing its own flesh.

            Calis and Hassan went to work with their knives slashing at the Draugr arms through the door.  Garrick severed a hand, covering them all in stinking black blood that spurted from the stump.  The arm withdrew and a moment later the door shuddered once more, the barring beam cracking loudly.

            “Damn you Kaufman, we need light!”  Garrick cried, glancing back at the frozen figure, still sitting.  Garrick readied his sword, hefting it over his shoulder.

The door bulged inwards and shattered with an almighty crack.  Fragments of wood rained around the shadow-wreathed wasted human form that tumbled through and landed on all fours.  The reek of rotting meat followed in its wake, the grey mottled flesh a mess of black weeping wounds and exposed bone.  Its hairless head snapped up, a snarl on its face, any trace of humanity in its expression long since devoured.  Its head raised and the thing sniffed at the air, crimson blood-filled eyes searching almost blindly before they snapped into focus on Calis.

            Calis faltered as he met the Draugr’s gaze.  The sheer all-consuming hatred fuelled by unknowable rage and pain stunned him.  The weight of his own mortality crushed down on him as its hungry eyes tore into him.

The Draugr surged forward, torn lips exposing jagged cracked teeth as it leapt at his throat, clawed hands reaching for him.  Time slowed to a crawl as it flew at him, he could feel his heart hammering noisily in his chest.  His knife felt suddenly useless in his hand as fear filled him.   It was close enough in the flickering darkness for him to make out the remnants of the man it once was, and the unnatural rotting monster he had become.  He could feel the fetid breath on his face…so close!  The jaw opened to tear into his face, the blank feral stare in those bloody eyes, so close to human.

Garrick’s sword flickered through the air.  The steel cleaved through its collarbone to bury itself mid-way through the things ribcage.  Gore showered Calis as he fell to the ground, knife raised in a shaking hand.  The Draugr squirmed, impaled on the blade, almost cut in two yet somehow still animate and still dragging itself inexorably towards Calis.

“Die abomination!” Hassan shouted as the next Draugr scrambled over the debris of the door.  He grunted, hurling the rock at its face.  The stone smashed its jaw into bloody pieces, knocking it backwards into the third creature which flung its wounded colleague aside and leapt, its sole arm reaching out for Garrick.

Garrick heaved at his sword; it shifted but still remained embedded in the Draugr’s ribcage.  One foot slammed the crawling thing into the ground as he pulled harder, using his leg to lever it up.  A sharp crack from below and it was free, the Draugr flopping on the ground as it’s bones shattered, still crawling to reach for Calis, it’s maddened red eyes fixed on him. 

            Garrick turned just in time to avoid full force of the blow as the third Draugr slammed into him.  Knocked from his feet, he sprawled in the dirt with fresh lines of red welling up from a torn shoulder as the Draugr latched on, rolling in the dust with him.  Even with a single arm the strength in the withered form was beyond belief.   He jerked his head to the side just in time to avoid the clawed hand that buried itself elbow-deep into the ash below him.  Hassan appeared on its back, a blackened knife plunging into the reeking flesh repeatedly.  It absently swung its arm back, swatting him aside with the severed stump, his knife spinning off into the darkness.

            Garrick punched upwards, unable to bring the blade to bear and instead striking its side with the pommel of his sword.  Again he punched, feeling ribs break under his blow.  If it pained the Draugr it gave no sign.  It opened its maw, revealing blackened teeth, cracked and sharp as blades.  Flakes of rotted skin fell from its lips on his face as it opened them wide and hissed.  He could see his death reflected in its eyes.

            The thing crawled inexorably towards Calis, dragging its ruined body towards him as he sat frozen.  His breath rasped quickly through his teeth as he snarled at it, the fear building to a crescendo within him. 

            “Bastards” he hissed through clenched teeth, weeks of running and hiding, crawling in mud, freezing cold, starvation and dehydration… all for this? 

“Bastards!”  these were the things that caused all of this pain, and now he was to die after everything he had went through?  The thought of escape was overwhelming.

“Bastards!” his hand lashed out.  “Bastards!” the knife rose and fell “Bastards!” the knife flickered red in the low firelight as thoughts of flight exploded into burning rage.  The Draugr reached for him, clawing at him madly.  He ignored the pain blossoming on his legs and arms, barely felt it armoured deep in his fury.  Bones snapped, flesh tore and still the butchers knife rose and fell.

            Garrick screamed as teeth tore into his neck.  Warm blood ran down his throat as he thrashed, smashing at the ragged thing eating him.  It tore a chunk of meat free and looked at him, his own blood drooling from torn lips.  Its eyes were dark and empty; all that was left was hunger.  Its jaws opened wide and went for more but this time his forehead smashed into it.  It did not have enough force to damage the Draugr but it distracted it for a single moment longer.

            Hassan staggered to his feet looking for a weapon, anything.  Kaufman sat still in front of the fire, staring into the doorway and the Draugr, so he ignored him, no help would be found there.   His hand wrapped around the remnants of a burning beam.  He drew it from the fire, smoke rising between his fingers as he ran at the thing pinning Garrick.  Its gory jaws gaping wipe to tear into its prey. 

He rammed the burning wood right thought the gaping jaws and up into the skull.  “Feast on this demon!” 

The thing spasmed, limbs flailing as he shoved even harder to prise it off Garrick.  Its flesh sizzled and smoked as the wood crunched through flesh and bone.

With a roar Garrick slammed the thing to one side, rolling away clutching at the bloody wound on his neck. 

Hassan stepped back, raising his hands defensively.  The Draugr twitched and fell, smoke leaking from the remnants of the things nose.  A sound caused him to spin; almost surprised by the clawed arm that slashed through the space he had occupied a scant moment before.  Nobody who grew up on the streets of Ashat-Marad would be surprised by such a clumsy blow, but the things were hideously fast, and unnaturally tough.

            The creatures jaw hung in grotesque tatters but Calis seemed equally as macabre as he rose up behind it, eyes and dripping knife gleaming orange in the firelight.

            Hassan backpedalled as Garrick staggered upright holding his bloody neck, the sword point rising towards the oncoming creature’s chest. 

Calis silently lifted his blade behind it, like a grim executioner.  The steel slid into its back at the base of the neck causing it to screech and flail violently.  Garrick’s sword laid open its chest, reeking entrails bursting forth as it ruptured like rotten fruit.

It twisted like an eel, spinning and howling.  An arm shot out to clamp over Calis’s face, squeezing.  Blood flowed over one eye as torn nails sliced skin.  Muffled screams erupted, his skull creaked. 

Garrick surged forward, wielding his blade two-handed, his face pale and smeared with his own blood.

            Suddenly the pressure eased on Calis skull and he sank to his knees as the thing tumbled back, half its head missing, limbs flailing wildly. 

            The three men froze as the thing regained its footing and stood still.  The Draugr’s head was sliced in two, a diagonal cut running up from the corner of the mouth and up between the eyes.    It turned clumsily as something black and gelatinous moved in the ruin of the skull.  Tentacles erupted from brain matter, writhing, reaching out towards them, glistening obscenely in the dim flickering light.  The thing staggered and flailed blindly, moving randomly, still searching for prey.

Calis rose and staggered back, clutching his head and glancing at the others.  “By all that is holy, what is that thing?”

Garrick simply stared ahead, not acknowledging the question.  His hand clenched tightly around the hilt of his sword. 

Hassan swallowed and shivered, the feeling travelling all the way down his spine.   “I have heard stories.” He whispered “Some have called them the Taken.  Created of the dead by the touch of the Burning Beast.  Something of him gets into a person and devours from the inside out, leaving nothing but the hunger.  Just one of the uncounted evils unleashed upon us.  Blotting out the sun and drowning us in ash were not enough it would seem.” 

  The thing collapsed to the ground, squirming, limbs flailing and twitching madly for a few moments before slowly winding down and laying still.  They stood waiting, on edge. 

“What now?”  Garrick croaked, swaying on his feet.

Calis looked at them both then at the corpses on the ground.  He suppressed the urge to vomit as he remembered the Draugr that came for him, so close. 

“Those things should have been dead long ago” he said finally “we burn them, just to make sure.  No coming back from that, whatever they are.”

“Kaufman, you bloody coward!” Garrick snarled, limping through the darkness towards the fire “Where were you when we needed you?”    The fat merchant sat unmoving, staring off into the distance with his back to the fire.

Garrick reached out a hand and pulled his shoulder round so they were face to face “Listen to me you…”

Kaufman’s body rocked then fell back, slumping bonelessly to the ground as it slipped from Garrick’s slack grip.  His head lolled back and blood oozed thickly down from the thin red slash across his throat.  A small knife was still embedded in his throat, buried to the hilt.  Calis stepped forward, studiously avoiding looking into Kaufman’s glassy eyes, drew out the blade.

Hassans blade glittered red in the firelight.  Two heads turned to stare.

“That’s… it cannot be… that was not I!”  Hassan said, raising his hands so they could be seen to be empty. 

The air seemed to thrum with tension, the crackling of the low fire echoing ominously in the night. 

Garrick’s knuckles grew white around the hilt of his sword.  Calis shifted uneasily, holding the traitorous knife at arms length. 

Hassan swallowed.  Looking into their eyes he set his jaw and stood straighter.

            “It was not I.  Did I not say my blade was missing?  I am no fool to use my own weapon even if I had the cause.”  His eyes latched onto Garrick.  The greater and more volatile threat.

            “He was dead when we awoke yes?  It could as easily have been any of you.”  Garrick paused, indecision obvious on his pale face, eyes flickering to Calis. 

            Hassan turned and pointed “The old man perhaps, what do we know of him?”

            Calis scowled, dropping the knife to the dusty earth “He is just an old man Hassan, are you trying to shift the blame?” 

            Garrick took a step back, away from them all.   Keeping them all in sight. “What do we know of him Calis?  Hmm?  Do you know anything at all about him?  He could be an ally of the Draugr!”

            Calis opened his mouth to reply but froze, something on the ground catching his eye.  At his feet, crumpled beneath Kaufman’s body lay one of their water skins, a neat slit cut into it’s side to drain the water,

            Garrick’s sword rose, trembling in his hand from the unconcealed rage.  “Who did this?  Again the water.  Which one of you bastards is it?”  His eyes darted between the three of them. 

            “My friends, why would any of us do this thing?”  Hassan pleaded “we have fought our way through dead lands, almost to safety!  Wounds and pain have not stopped us.  Why would we do such a thing now?”  His eyes settled on the old man cowering in the corner, rocking.  He seemed to cringe away from their gaze, as if trying to bury himself in the shadows. 

            “There I think, is our answer.  It can only be him”

            Calis growled.  “He is an old man you bastard, he’s been through more than he can deal with!  Look at him; he can barely keep going as it is.  Kaufman was wide awake, he may not have been a soldier but he could fight off an old man!  You two however…” 

            Garrick’s eyes narrowed, “or you for that matter.”

            The three men circled the fire, eyes never leaving each other.  Who killed Kaufman? 

            “I swear that it was not I” Hassan said softly, “I say it is that old man.”  He rubbed his head with a hand and sighed “it is late my friends, I am tired and my head pains me, how do we resolve this?” 

            Garrick growled, “If I wanted any of you dead I’d just gut you right here and now!”

            Calis took a deep breath and slowly let it loose “I’m always up first, I could have killed any of you while you slept!  Look, first we get these creatures out of the way.”  He lifted  a shattered wooden beam and threw it on the fire.  The flames licked at the dry wood hungrily as he added another.   A welcoming glow began to grow; instinctively they drew closer to the fire as the full decaying unnatural horror of the Draugr corpses lay revealed.

            Garrick’s sword point wavered then dropped.  He kept it clutched in one hand but began throwing wood on with the other, followed a moment later by Hassan.  They kept their distance from one another, exchanging glances if another came closer.  Soon the fire was blazing, the warmth welcome now that the cold night air was chilling the sweat on their bodies.

            Garrick’s neck was a bloody mess of rags; his face was pale as he looked at the others.  “I know what to do with these pieces of filth.”  He hefted his sword and with a couple of blows the first head rolled free, oozing black slime from the severed stump.  With a swift kick the head rolled into the fire, hissing and crackling as a greasy cloud of stinking black smoke rose into the air.  A strange shill whistling filled the air for a moment before the logs cracked loudly, shifted and the flames roared higher.  A few moments later the other two heads joined the first in fiery destruction.  They wrapped their hands in clothes and dragged a corpse each to the doorway and shoved it out into the night, each of them shuddering as the decaying things slid from their hands, flesh sloughing away at the merest touch. 

Calis realised he had been holding his breath and let it loose all at once and drew a shuddering deep breath.  “Man or monster, that’s the end of those!”   The energy seemed to drain out of him and he leaned against the stone wall.  The solid stone felt good, felt reassuring beneath his fingers.

            “Is it?”  Garrick retorted, his eyes travelling over Kaufman and to the yawning shattered portal beyond him.  “Who knows how many of those things are lurking out there in the waste.  Maybe they can smell our blood on the air…”  He swayed slightly, glassy eyed, then blinked and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand.  His hand abruptly snapped down and his eyes flared with intensity once more, flickering between Calis, Hassan and the old man cowering in the corner, missing nothing.

            Silence fell.  Their eyes glittered in the firelight as they stared at each other, the silence taking on a malevolent and oppressive life of its own. 

            Calis cleared his throat; his eyes fell to Kaufman’s body, where it lay untouched on the earth.   “Hassan, you mentioned these… Taken?  How are Draugr made?”

            Hassan shrugged.  “Knowing this thing is not something I have alas.  All I know is the stories told by others, before we all scattered to the four winds seeking safety.”  He sighed and kneaded his forehead with industrious fingers, looking suddenly exhausted.  “Somehow they get into the corpses of men and force them to rise again…how are we to know, all I know is that my headache grows worse by the day, I weary of this accursed land.”

            There was something in Garrick’s expression, a grimness in the eyes and in the set of the mouth, the slight heft of the sword.  Hassan and Calis stared at Kaufman’s body.  Images of dark writhing tentacles erupting from his face suddenly filled their minds.  They nodded and Garrick set to work.  Calis might once have vomited at the sight of the man he had shared so much with being butchered.  A lot had happened these last few weeks; this was but one more horror, yet one more thing to endure.  He fought down the urge to retch as the body was disposed off.  Just to be sure. 

            Kaufman’s blood dripped onto the thirsty earth from the fiery steel in Garrick’s hand.  Flames flickered and shadows danced around them.  The crackle of burning wood filled the silence only fitfully.       

            The three men stood, shifting their feet in the ash and dust as they eyed each other, none willing to be the first to break the tableau.  Somebody had slit Kaufman’s throat, that much they all knew.  In the end, the nameless old man spoke first, a shrieking cry as a few scraps of rotted remnants of wood and roofing dislodged by the fighting dropped onto his stooped shoulders.  Leaping to his feet he frantically scrubbed at his back to swat off whatever it was that landed on him. 

            Calis’s eyes met those of the old man, his eyes wide and staring, his dusty cheeks stained by tears. 

Hassan glared at Calis, then shot forward, a knife appearing in his hand “If you will not, then I shall end him!”

Calis felt himself plunging forward, racing after Hassan before he could think.  A pale-faced Garrick followed after, his feet unsure and breathing laboured.

The old man saw them coming and froze, not making any attempt to defend himself.  He closed his eyes; seemingly he accepted whatever fate was coming. 

Hassan lifted his small blade ready to plunge it into the old mans breast.  The knife came down just as Calis barged into him, sending them both sprawling to the earth.

They both sprang apart, Calis moving to stand between him and the old man in the corner, his own knife in hand.  A small crimson stream of blood wound its way down his arm from the new cut burning on his arm.

“I won’t let you do this Hassan!”

“Step aside, he took our water and he killed Kaufman.  In any case we have not the food and water for him.  He will die anyway, better I slit his throat for him now!”

Garrick moved up behind him, facing Calis.  The steel in his hand visibly shook.  His face was shrouded in darkness with the fire flickering at his back. 

Hassan turned slightly, “Come Garrick, you are a survivor; you know that we must do whatever we must to survive.  The old man’s mind is gone, he is worthless to us.”  Calis shifted and his eye was drawn back.

Hassan stiffened suddenly and looked down at the foot of steel suddenly jutting from his chest.  Blood bubbled up through his lips as he turned his head slightly to look behind.  His lips moved and trembled, trying to say something. 

Garrick’s pale face was beaded with sweat and crusted blood covered one side of his body from the wound in his neck, his eyes stared out wide and glazed.   

“You would do anything to survive, slitting throats and stealing our water…” he gaze wandered slightly before refocusing with an effort “…of course it was the thief, yes, what was I thinking.  A lying thieving piece of trash.” 

The blade slid back out of Hassan’s chest.  He slowly pitched forward into the sandy earth and lay still.

Garrick stood for a moment staring at his sword, then dreamily lifted his eyes and lazily took in Calis and the old man standing frozen in the corner of the room. 

Calis swallowed and looked down at Hassan’s body.  Their brotherhood of survival had collapsed all in one night. 


“He took our water, yes I know that now.  Slitting throats is thieves work.  He was right, I must survive…”  Garrick’s eyes drifted off into the night sky and the sword point dropped to his side.  His breathing grew quicker as sweat rolled down his face, glistening in the firelight.  With his free hand he absently fussed with the makeshift bandage around his neck, wincing slightly as he adjusted it.

His voice grew small and distant “Cannot trust anybody…”

Calis lowered his knife slowly “We can make it Garrick, we made it this far.  We are only a day from the mountains; there will surely be fresh water somewhere up there.”

Garrick stared unblinking at the knife in Calis’ hand, one eye twitched and the sword rose “no, no, cannot trust them can we.  They could have been in it together.”  His knuckles whitened around the hilt of his sword as he swayed on his feet, muttering unintelligibly. 

Calis turned to the old man and gave him a firm shove sideways towards the door, circling Garrick while he was distracted. 


The old man stared at him a moment, his mouth trembled as if to finally say something but could not find the words.

“Run for your life!  Even if you bloody well die out there, don’t give death the satisfaction of laying down in despair.”  The old man looked at Garrick then slowly back at him, blinking.

“RUN!” Calis roared, brandishing his knife.  The old man jerked back and fled as Garrick’s head snapped up, his eyes blazing in the firelight.

Garrick stumbled forward, his body unsteady, his eyes glazed but his sword settling into form with unconscious ease.  Hurting and dazed though he was, his muscles remembered everything from uncounted days of practice. 

Calis tried to move towards the doorway but Garrick advanced too quickly and was on him in a moment.  He lifted his long knife just in time to deflect the sword stroke. 

Garrick’s chest heaved as he wobbled on his feet, taking a step back as he hefted the sword again. 

Calis readied himself, stepping backwards “Stop Garrick!  You’ve been hurt, let me help or let me go!”  The swordsman shook his head as if to clear it. 

They clashed together again and locked together, straining, Calis forcing him back.

A human form rose behind Garrick and tore into his back.  Blood sprayed everywhere as they were both tossed to one side and Garrick landed heavily, the sword falling from his hand.

The light revealed Hassan standing for a second, his eyes blood red and feral.  Calis shivered as they passed by him to latch onto Garrick.  Draugr eyes, twin pools of hate and hunger.  Blood stained his clothing from the hole in his chest, the gaping wound unheeded. 

A moment of utter panic struck Calis, oh gods, it was in his head all along! The thought of one of these things infesting him brought bile to his throat.  Hassan’s headaches had been but a symptom of the thing growing inside.

It leapt on Garrick, battered aside his feeble defence and tore out his throat with its teeth, drinking noisily from the fountain of hot blood.

Calis rose and leapt forward, stabbing with his knife.  It slid deeply into the back, through the ribs into the thing that was Hassan.  The Draugr hissed and spun, slamming one arm into him.  It felt like an iron bar had smashed into his stomach, flinging him backwards through the air. 

He landed badly and rolled across the dust gasping for breath that didn’t come.  His lungs refused to work, his body refused to obey him as he struggled to breath.

Hassan’s body bit once more into Garrick’s corpse and chewed hungrily, then rose and turned with the knife still jutting from its back.  Steam escaping from it’s maw as gore dripped thickly down onto the ever-thirsty ashen earth.

For a single moment something flickered in its eyes as it looked at Calis, a quickly dimming flame of anguished light.  A shred of humanity guttering out as the Draugr devoured him entire. 

The iron band around Calis’s chest eased and a trickle of air trickled in.  The Draugr crouched and then charged, leapt and landed over him on all fours, fingers gouging into his flesh as the jaws extended unnaturally wide. 

The sickly sweet bloody smell of rust filled his nostrils as its head began to descend to his throat.  He had no weapon.  His fingers found something and his hand rose, ramming it into the Draugr’s mouth.  Its jaws snapped shut and the bag of salt burst, spraying salt everywhere.

Calis screamed as salt burned his eyes and blinded him.  The Draugr clutched its head and fell to one side spasming and gurgling as pink froth bubbled from its mouth. 

Rubbing at his burning eyes, though a veil of tears he could see the Draugr flop bonelessly on the ground.  Something black and viscerally loathsome crawled from its mouth, sizzling and melting like a slug covered with salt as it dissolved into a pool of sulphurous slime.  Tentacles writhed and flopped as they slowly melted into the ooze.

Calis roared and cursed as he hobbled to the fire and threw burning sticks onto the thing, ignoring the reeking black smoke that rose into the air.  Once it was done he collapsed onto the ground bloody, battered and exhausted to watch the small pyre. 

How long he lay there, he had no idea but when he woke the grey of daylight was creeping up into the ashen sky.  The fire was still burning fitfully, now mostly smouldering embers. 

He struggled to rise but could only manage to gain a sitting position and his hand fell on Kaufman’s papers, the tattered remnants of The Book of Night.   He lifted the papers up and looked at the charcoal writing, Kaufman’s letters standing out bold on the papers.

“The Bronze Age will end in flame and choking death at the Great Beast’s return.  The age of men will end there.  Neither god nor spirit will stand in the Destroyers path.  The dead will rise; the living will be devoured from within.”

Calis swallowed and read on, noticing Kaufman correcting his translations below.  “The age of men may end there”.  May end.  Not will. 

“Neither god nor spirit will stand in the Destroyers path.”  Mankind was neither.  If gods and spirits would not stand then perhaps somehow men could find a way. 

Calis lay back on the earth and laughed, great sobbing peal of laughter rang out in the air.  It was something at least, a shred of hope. 

He had come to the end of his strength.  Battered and bloody he laughed some more.  It felt good to hear a human voice in the silence.  Come so far to fail at the last.  He stared up at the sky as the sun struggled through the clouds of ash choking the sky.    A rare brief gap in the haze allowed the sun to briefly surge through, warming his flesh.  He closed his eyes and could almost feel the full warmth of the old summer sun and the sound of leaves rustling in the wind.  Slowly he drifted off, dreaming of warmth and safety.

Some time later he awoke, his lips cracking as he opened his mouth.  His body ached from every movement as whatever he was on swayed and bounced.  He had no idea of long had he slept.  His mouth moved with difficulty and he managed to croak out a few broken words.  The movement ceased.  Eventually a face loomed over him, the old mans face came into view and cup of water was tilted to his lips.  Cool blessed water swirled around his mouth and down to his parched throat.

He old man smiled and nodded.  Calis turned his head slightly and realised he was lashed to a makeshift stretcher, tied to… of all things!  A horse!  He blinked.  A horse?  The old rugged cart horse waved its tail languidly, swatting at a fly, it looked to be in just as much of a poor state as they did.  The mountains loomed all around him.  They were in a mountain pass.  The old man gently gripped his shoulder and turned his head the other way.

Off in the distance, glimmering in the sunlight a river of silvery water wound its way down from the mountains.  Through a river valley lush with life it plunged and flowed into a radiant lake in the distance.  The land was stained here and there with hillocks of grey ash and dead trees but the land lived.  It lived!  A bird wheeled overhead, drifting gently on the air across Calis’s vision. 

He smiled as the endless waste of ash felt behind him.  His fingers hesitantly touched the earth underneath.  Moist fertile soil filled his hands, not gritty sands and sulphurous ash.  He raised a handful of earth to his nose and sniffed, savouring the aroma of rich earthy loam.

The nameless old man patted his shoulder and smiled.  Calis returned it, heedless of his cracked lips.  He had survived.  Now it was time to rest.  There would be others out there, somewhere.

He lay back and closed his eyes.   Visions of glorious summers gone by filled his mind.  Perhaps those summers might someday come again.


Found this on Linda’s  blog, which you can find in the links section under poetry.

WTF Japan

I got a text at 3.34am this morning from the boss saying, “Have a nice time at training,” which woke me up. I’m due at the train station at 6.50am for Tokyo meaning I’m up at 5.50am to get there. With 3 and a half hours sleep I wanted to answer, “Yes, I’m sure I might.” Would that be considered insulting by a japanese person?

Japanese people remind me of us Brits. We’re all so touchy and questionable. “What was that last comment supposed to mean?” Then we clam up, ponder about it more and get touchier. Which is exactly what’s happening to me now:

When I was at work today I got the ‘Sumimasen, taihen ne?’ which translates as something like, “Excuse me, it’s difficult isn’t it?” The boss was referring to the 2 days of training I’m about to do on my weekend off with no pay. The incentive to go is to learn the system we use at our school which involves learning a tonne of flashcards and how best to use them. This will be the third time I’ve attended such a training seminar and thankfully, it’ll be my last.

I’ve had no problems with the first two and was happy to go to them. Despite getting no sleep for the second one, whilst I was adjusting to a shift in work scheules, I had a good time. Getting out of Kofu’s often a treat and meeting new people’s always good. I even managed to get top marks in the class  after combining the scores of the first two seminars together. You’d think I’d be sad about it being the last time.

Having to attend this seminar’s righteously ticking me off. It’s not the format of the seminar itself that gets to me or the lack of pay. I don’t really care too much about the weekend of my time being consumed by work although I would really have liked to get things in order here before Helena arrives on Thursday (another trip to Tokyo – expensive isn’t it?).

I guess what bothers me most is the boss’ attitude to the whole affair. That Japanse phrase “Sumimasen, taihen ne?” means – in my experience – is a kind of sarcatsic jolt to say – ‘chin-up’, ‘do your best’ or ‘try harder’. At least that’s how I’ve seen it used by teachers at my old school I taught at previously and is a phrase often used to kids who aren’t doing their best. I’m guessing the appropriate, polite response is “Oh no! Not at all, nothing’s difficult. Everything’s very easy and harmonious! I love my job!”

Then there’s the early morning text message – what do I make of that? Did he stay up specifically just to send me his regards? Did his new born baby wake him up and remind him to mail me? Or perhaps he wanted to make sure I woke up on time? I never know what to make of these polite little gestures the Japanese make because I’m not Japanese and as much as I’ve tried to figure out what they mean, no one tells you or tries to help you out with an explanation. Asking would be a faux pas on my part, probably to be greeted with silence. If you question them on said faux pas they pretend not to know what you’re talking about.

This happened to me in my high school class on Friday when one girl’s English pronunciation was a mystery to me. Of course the other kids knew what she meant. When I questioned everyone for examples, the heads went down and they shared private chuckles at moron sensei who doesn’t his own tongue even when it’s spoken to him.

So what’s the correct response to this text then? My  head calculates that I should ignore it, my heart beats for honesty to tell him that he woke me up whilst the shy guest in Japan in me nags me to say thank you for the polite, albeit mis-timed message. 

“It’s difficult, isn’t it?”

It all leads back to that big question: December, do I stay or do I go? I won’t know that until after Thursday. Maybe not even after that. 4 days and approximately 6 hours to go until Tokyo. Again.

Captain’s Edit: Just as I finished  this my alarm went off and it’s 5.50am here. Tokyo here we go…

There are faster versions than this and versions for other songs but I still like the original:

Forgot about this bad boy:

Christ it works for everything!

… It’s Charlottefield, who disbanded in 2008 just after I saw them play with YourCodeNameIsUngooglable. Shame, they were proper intense.

Notably, their drummer, Ashley Marlowe, is a freakin’ God.

…Check out Cinemechanica:

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