Darkness and Beauty

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Chapter 52 - Fauna

While Darius and Thea have a rather awkward, but flattering, conversation, I scan the crowd again. People smile and dance, not a single one of them looking like they are going to make a move against the royals. When you can't find anything but know that something's coming, you find yourself looking twice at everyone. Lance managed to pull me aside before I went back to the tower to change and told me everything. About Eleanor and Charles's dreams and what their sleep talking may imply. I honestly wasn't surprised, I mean I was the one to say that they'd be aiming for some time during the festival. Still, I don't like silence.

When our world goes quiet, it means a storm is brewing on the horizon.

My father's voice rings through my head, and I swear I can feel his hand on my shoulder telling me to look closer. To see with more than with my eyes. Listen in between the noise. Feel the shift in the universe. Smell through the lies of the deceiver. Taste the blood before it's spilled. If you can't trust your senses, then trust your instincts. But everything comes back the same, with nothing to show for my tension but the fighting children beside me. I turn to accept Thea's proposal if only to see what Darius will do, when the hairs on my arm stand up.

In seconds, every nerve in my body starts firing signals. I hunt through every inch of the room, stopping when I look into the shadows of the ceiling. Above the balconies of the third floor, a golden lion's head is mounted on the wall, but it's not the detail of the carving that I'm interested in. It's the shadows that move behind it, followed by a brief flash of light before it stills.

By the Gods and their Saints, they're going to shoot from across the room.

It's within easy hitting distance, but if that's Will in the shadows, then it's no ordinary arrow he has knocked on the bow. Keeping my face carefully neutral, I frantically flash my fingers behind Darius's back in hopes that Lance will see it. We created our own codes with our hands and fingers when I was twelve, and we haven't told anyone about them. Not even my father.

They weren't supposed to be here for another hour.

I keep flashing my fingers as I lean slightly towards Garrison and say, "Mountain Mallow."

He doesn't acknowledge me at all as he walks up beside Mal, and repeats the words. In no alarming way, they all tighten their ranks and move so that with a quick whistle from me, they'll fall back into the arrowhead formation around Darius.

"What?" Shit. I forgot Thea was still here and has no idea what that means.

"It blooms after a fire in the woods."

"Oh."

"She's family," Darius says tightly as he casually steps behind me and puts his arms around me. No more than the Prince enjoying his lover. I take a quick glance over to the Queen's throne, thankful to find it empty and Lance and Kat gone. All but two of the Queen's guards are gone with them, tricking the crowd to think that she'll only be gone for a few minutes. "Clare."

"Alright." I step closer to Thea and keep one eye on the lion's head as I speak. "I need you to do exactly what I say in the order I say it."

"What-"

"Trust her, Thea. Please."

I don't wait for her to agree. "You're going to walk back to Derek, acting like nothing is wrong and you're perfectly happy. Give him a drink, kiss his neck, whisper sweet things in his ear – I don't care, just get him seduced and then take him to your normal chambers in Darius's tower. Make sure you two look like you're nothing but two people going off to find pleasure in your bed. If someone stops you, tell them your name and that Darius personally requested you enjoy yourself. When you get to the room, lock the doors and windows, close the curtains, don't light a single candle, and hide in the bedroom. I'll send someone to retrieve you. Don't scream if the bookcase opens, and if the person who walks through says salutem, then you're safe. If they don't, then you can scream. Do you understand?"

"I..." She looks partly convinced that this is some sort of prank Darius is trying to pull on her.

"Look, you can trust me. I swear on my parent's graves that this is no trick and you'll be perfectly safe so long as you do as I say."

"Please, Thea," Darius pleas again.

Something must've shown in his eyes, because she slips a convincing smile on her face, and then turns and walks down the dais. Darius starts kissing my neck, but I know that the only reason why we haven't moved yet is that we're checking to make sure that she gets to Derek. Eleanor doesn't look happy to see her, and politely excuses herself. Taking the gold circle necklace in my hands, I reflect the light from the chandeliers off of it and right into Blight's face. She's been standing beside a few clueless servants, and immediately heads over to the dais when the glare hits her face. I could send Julyan, but I need him to go with the King when he retreats, and having a woman rather than a man go to get Thea and Derek, won't frighten them as much.

"Thank you," Darius whispers on my neck. I look to Thea one more time, finding her tugging Derek towards the garden.

I pull him back to his throne, making sure to keep my body in front of his. Blight is already pushed up against the back of the chair when we get there. "You blinded me, your loveliness?"

"Mountain Mallow."

"Shit."

"Change of plans. I need you to go to Darius's tower and take the secret door to my bedroom. There will be a woman and a man in pale green clothing waiting. Say salutem, and then take them to Layara."

"What about-"

"We'll be fine. Now go." She hesitates but then slips back against the wall and to the servant's entrance in the corner of the room.

I go to call over Aillard when the hairs on my arms stand up again, and instinct has me pushing Darius behind the throne. There's a flash in the corner of my eye, and the whoosh of the arrow as it flies past me. I turn, one of the long Ebony blades already in my hand, and whistle. The Bhaltayr easily back-peddle up the steps and into the formation. Another arrow flies as I take my place at the tip of the arrowhead, and with a flash of my blade, it ricochets helplessly to the ground.

No one saw the first arrow, but the second the Bhaltayr moved, so did the King's guard, and everyone goes into a quiet panic. If you think it's because of the arrow, you're wrong. When someone shoots an arrow at the royals, people turn and bolt for the doors. When the arrow flew at me and Darius, the first thing they noticed was the all-black blade in my hand. They're all just now piecing together who, exactly, the Prince has been involved with. Sadly, I don't have time to make a snarking comment.

I'm in the motion of taking a step towards the King when every torch, lantern, and flame goes out. I didn't feel a single breeze blow into the room, and based on the way that the thin white curtains aren't moving at all, I'd say there's no wind at all. I don't like this.

"What the hell is going on?" Ethan whispers.

"If I knew, I'd-" There's a high-pitched scream, followed by a small chorus of others.

"He's here," Darius says, and then the flames light again, and seven cloaked figures stand in the middle of the room, each with a woman held against their chests by two blades aimed to slit their throat, and plunge into their hearts. Two dozen more cloaked figures stand behind them, another twelve on the second-floor balconies, ten above that.

The crowd quickly backs away from them and against the walls. There's no mistaking the one closest to us as Dúghall. For one, his hood isn't pulled up, and he's got one of those faces that haunt your nightmares. Scars frame his face, his matted dark hair falls down to his eyes that are black around the bright red iris. He looks like a demon of Helias's making, and the sinister smile he gives as he scans us makes chills run down my arm. You don't need to have magic to sense the death and lethal quiet that seeps from him.

If it weren't for the gown peeking out through the black cloak of the second, I wouldn't know that it's Eleanor with a girl my age behind her blade. Once look to Dúghall's other shoulder, and I spot Charles's blue jacket. Little shits deserve the knife I'm going to put right between their eyes. I can't see who the other's might be, but not knowing will make them easier to kill.

"King Neven," Dúghall says, and dear Gods his voice sounds like there are glass shards in his throat. "I regret to inform you that it's not your life we seek."

"And what is it you seek?" Neven replies. He's all too calm about this right now, and it's enough to make me slide out my other Ebony.

"I seek my King and Queen."

"Are you not currently speaking to him?"

"Don't play coy with me. I know they're here."

"Every other ruler is in their own kingdom-"

"The elementals, you idiot! Where are they? Where are the heirs to the Spirits of the Living?"

"Your judgment is foul. There are no elementals in my kingdom, and even if there were, I'm afraid you're outnumbered." Just as my father wrote out, a hundred guards walk through the grand archway and on the balconies, all lining up between Dúghall and the people.

Dúghall laughs, and you can see the shadows thicken at the sound. "My dear King, I need no army to win." Before anyone can blink, Eleanor and Charles drive their blades into their victim's chest. People scream and cry out, but I can barely hear it over the ringing in my own ears as I watch the two women begin to choke on their own blood. Another second, and then they slit their throats. "Shall we try this again? Where. Are. The elementals?"

"I...I told you-" He doesn't get to finish before Dúghall sends his knife into the woman's heart. Rather than slit her throat, he just pulls out his blade and lets her fall to the ground.

Another woman cries out, and the world falls from my hands. This is madness. This is what I've been sworn to protect, and yet I see no way to do so. There's blood puddling at their feet – innocent blood. Pureblood that didn't deserve to run cold. Not like this. Dúghall was supposed to be our problem, not theirs. He was supposed to take us, not them. I was supposed to be the one with the knife in my heart, and now I have to live with that for the rest of my life. As I watch the blood spread, I don't stop as the killing calm rushes through me. He's had his fun, and now he's going to regret it.

Locking my eyes onto the left side of his chest, I slip my Ebonie back against my hips and pull the hood lower so that it covers the entirety of my face in shadows. He's not the only one with a dark side.

"Clarice-" I silence Garrison with a raise of my hand. He wants to leave, to get Darius out, and he will, but I have a promise to uphold.

I leave the Bhaltayr to guard Darius and walk to the King. Reynald is likely already taking my place amongst them, Julyan still standing by the door behind the dais, waiting.

"I thought I told you to protect my family," Neven says as I reach his side. I can feel Dúghall's eyes locking in on me. He'll get his chance.

"And I shall do as I promised," I say with a voice I know to be full of emptiness. A voice not my own, but that of the assassin. "I shall protect you and your family. That was the promise I made a month ago." I don't wait for him to catch it and look to Aillard who already knows what's coming.

It wasn't hard to figure out that Aillard was Thralian. His facial features weren't of any known kingdoms, he's learned to speak Vandarian well enough, but his accent slips here and there. At first, I couldn't place it, but then Ella showed up and started talking, and I didn't hesitate to take advantage of the little fact. Thralia may have been forgotten, but I loved the many mysteries of the world, and luckily read up on it a few years back. One of the many bogus things that I thought was ridiculous, was that every Thralian citizen, whether living on the island or not, is to obey the orders of their rulers. If they ask you to bring them a pastry from whatever land you're currently venturing, then you have no choice but to obey them. It was laughable until now.

"Vos have vestri ordinis. Non deficient." You have your orders. Don't fail.

"Ut vis, mea Regina." He says with a bow. As you wish, my Queen.

After finding out the Aillard was Thralian, I figured that Sibella knew. She has, after all, been ruling Thralia for the past few decades. So I thought that maybe she has been in contact with possible Thralians in the area. I sent a letter to Rykiel last week telling him to trail her and find out if she was. He wrote back a day later saying that she was in contact with someone in the castle. He didn't know who it was or what she wrote because it was all in a different language. Lithian. Turns out that Lithian is actually Thralian. It was kind of ironic to know that I had learned the language of my mother without knowing it. I knew the topic would come in handy one day.

"What is this?" Neven asks. I look to Julyan over the King's shoulder and wait until he nods before turning back to the Neven.

"This is me keeping my promise. Go. Aillard will get you to safety, and Darius will be right behind you. Go." He opens his mouth to argue, but Aillard puts a stiff hand on his shoulder, and he closes it. His eyes snap back to mine, and I know the second he sees what they hold. "He'll never forgive you."

"I know. Now go."

He doesn't resist when Aillard pulls him toward the door. One nod from the Captain of the Guard, and the King's guard fall in ranks. Around me. Dúghall knows very well that I and Darius are the elementals, he just wanted to show the people of Vandaria that their King was willing to let his people be slaughtered to keep two people hidden. He wants them to turn on him, but little does he know, that the people have long since lost faith in Neven. Now it's just a matter of giving the people someone else to look to.

Ignoring Darius's desperate whisper, I turn around and face Dúghall. He laughs deeply as I walk down the steps of the dais, pulling my blades back out of their sheaths.

"At last. Someone with some common sense. I do hope you'll be smarter with your words, my Queen." I don't break his stare, not as I wave off the guard, not as I stop at the bottom of the dais, and definitely not as one of his seven followers shoves his victim into another's chest, rushes to Dúghall's side, and pulls off his hood.

Will.

Of all people to be beneath the hoods, I'm not at all surprised to see his face. I learned a while ago that Will would always betray me. Again. His betrayal doesn't hurt this time. My steps don't falter, my breath doesn't catch, nor my hands shake. Instead, the killing calm takes over everything, and my vision blurs on everyone but those will full black cloaks.

"Clarice-" My eyes snap to him, and I know he sees the lethal storm raging, because he goes to talk in that annoying 'let's be friends' voice. "Put the blades away."

I don't do it, and instead, slowly stalk towards him. Dúghall laughs, and it only makes me tighten my hands on my blades.

"Clarice. Please."

Please. Please. Did he stop when Rose said 'please?' Did he put his blades down when she pleaded for her life? Did he bite down on that STUPID rage of his when he entered that factory? Please. He deserves to suffer. He deserves to be broken from the inside without knowing it. Cutting into him isn't enough for him – letting Lance make him beg isn't enough for him. He deserves to feel the heartbreak I felt, to feel every piece of him shatter – and he'll get that. He'll get that and more. That's a promise.

He took that vow to protect the innocent, and here he is, standing in defiance of his own blood he spilled on that codex. It's about time someone reminded him of that. About time I finish that scar over his eye.

"With this blade in my hand..." I say in a dangerous tone, beginning the spoken vow that every Jade Assassin takes the day they've been allowed to join us.

"With the strength of my heart..." Continues Rykiel as he walks from the crowd and past the lined up guards.

"By my love of the innocent..." Say five more Jades, all cloaked and hooded, stepping forward.

"And mastery of my training..." Ten more continue.

"I will drop my blood," Fifteen of us say in unison.

"My flesh," Thirty.

"My soul," Forty.

"To defend those lay waste," Forty-five.

"By the hands of the broken." Fifty.

"I take this vow and spill my blood on these words, sealing my promise."

I stop a few feet from Will, looking him dead in the eye. The words hit home, they've done their job, but it's not enough. "The hands of the broken have lay waste." Will goes pale, scanning the faces of the gathered Jades now all staring right at him. They all know who he is and what he did. "We are bound by blood to defend them, and your blood will be taken for theirs."

"Dear child," Dúghall says trying to get my attention, but I'm honed in on Will, and nothing will break it. "Have you not yet learned-" There are four loud thuds that cut him off, and I don't bother to look at his four followers that are now dead with arrows in their heads, as I slice into Will's shoulder and back.

I swipe my leg out at his, but he jumps, pulling out two of his own blades from his boots in mid-air. I don't wait for him to land before moving on the offensive. The sound of Jades fighting around me and the castle guards ushering everyone else out is a distant echo, driving me faster and harder.

"You slaughtered Rose," I seethe as I slice into his wrist, catching his knife that he drops, and slide it into my boot as I duck under his swing. "You murdered my father." I kick him in the stomach and swing for his throat.

He catches it and pulls me against his chest so that we're inches apart. "I love you, Clare."

"That's not my name, asshole." I shove him back, hitting his groin before once again kicking his chest. I don't give him a slip second to recover and pull his ankle, sending him falling to the ground. My blades are angled at his throat and heart, ready to move. "You're a practiced liar who keeps stabbing me in the back. Did you really think I'd let the gesture go unpaid?" I flick my wrist to cut his throat, but just as we were taught, he gets his hand under the blade.

He uses a move I should've seen coming, hitting me in the gut hard enough to make my eyes water and breath hard to come by for a few seconds. It's enough of a delay for him to roll and pin my arms down beside my head. "Do you remember that night?" He whispers in my ear. His knees slide down, making his hips fall between mine. The memories cloud my vision, and then I'm shoving them aside and turn my head so that our lips are a hair's length apart.

"Yes. Do you remember the day I first bested you?" I bring my lips in a hard crash against his, keeping my lips sealed shut. I feel the shift in him, and before he can remember, exactly, how I won that sparring match, I shove the blade that I flipped in my hand before he pinned me, into his arm. His grip loosens, and I twist my wrist out of his grasp, quick enough to get the blade into the back of his shoulder. He lets out a cry, but I'm not done yet. Using my strength, I roll him onto his back and take the arm of the shoulder I didn't stab, and put my body beneath it. I put one leg over his neck and the other over his chest, then slowly, I push down on my upper back, and lift my hips until a satisfying pop sounds, telling me his arm is now dislocated. He screams again, and I wish Lance was here to hear it.

Taking a moment to assess the rest of the chaos, I find too many black cloaks on the ground to know if they're Jades or followers. Saints guide them to the next life if they're Jades. If not...well they're already meeting the death god. Will shifts beneath me, and I dig my heel into the empty socket of his shoulder bone. He screams again, but this time louder as he tries to bring up his legs. I make the mistake of using my own leg to knock down his, and he doesn't hesitate to grit his teeth and pull my heel from his shoulder. He moves to catch me off balance, somehow kicking me right in the boob.

Little bastard knows that hurts.

I get on my feet and hit him hard enough in the jaw to make my wrist bark in pain at the contact. "Clarice!" I whirl, ignoring the pain in my hand, and find the Bhaltayr all still standing, but slowly crumbling with the force of the followers.

"I'm going to regret this." I grab Will's blade from my boot and throw it into his thigh. I'm already spinning by the time he cries out again, knowing that Lance will likely want to strangle me that I didn't finish the job when he hears about it.

I ram myself into Winston's opponent, digging my blades deep into his lungs. Another blade leaves my hand the next second, straight for the follower about to hit Alex's weak spot. With another slit of a throat, I take my place at the tip of the arrowhead, letting Reynald drop back behind Garrison and at Darius's side. Amel and Benny take out two more, and when I, Vlad, and Winston go to raise our weapon for oncoming swings, they don't come. No one's coming toward us, and I'm about to run back down to finish off Will when a voice comes from the other side of the dais.

"There wasn't supposed to be so much spilled blood," Dúghall says.

"And yet you didn't hesitate to be the one to start it."

"Dear child, you're the one who sent the King to safety while his son stays here. I know who you are – who you both are. Did you think I'd leave here without you?"

"No, I didn't."

His arms slacken at his sides, no weapons gripped in them. You don't necessarily need them when you were forged into one. He's waiting for me to attack, waiting for the Bhaltayr to follow. I want to take him on. I want to see his blood run for the blood that stains his hands, but he's right. He's not leaving her without me. As if hearing my plea, Rykiel and two other extremely well-experienced Jades climb the steps, and stand between us. I don't even wait to see the fight start before whirling.

"Don't you dare," Gabe says when I open my mouth. "Don't say it."

"Gabe-"

"No! You are not going to say those words because if you do, I'll torture you myself." My eyes burn, and just like that, the killing calm falls and I burst into tears. "You are not doing this to us – to him."

"Gabe-"

"No." I look to Alex and find the same defiant look on his face. "We stand together."

"What the hell are you all talking about?" Darius says trying to push past Garrison, but we all ignore him.

"Don't say it, Clare," Al begs.

I look to every single one of them, skipping over Darius who keeps begging for someone to tell him what the hell is going on.

They all agree. Even Garrison. We stand together, not alone. I want to...but...they're family. Family comes first. "Saorsa." It comes out as nothing but a strangled sob and whine, so I close my eyes, not being able to look at them as I say it louder. "Saorsa."

When I open my eyes, I find everyone but Darius shaking their heads with watering eyes. I hate this. I hated it two days ago when I made them promise that if I said the word, they'd take Darius and leave. Leave me to buy them time. I said that I'd meet them in Layara, but we all knew the likelihood of me getting out if Dúghall is involved. They yelled and screamed and raged, but I made them do it. I pulled the Queen card, and when they tried saying that I wasn't their Queen, I just watched as they broke down, finding it a lie they hadn't realized they'd excepted.

From the moment we all found out that I and Darius have been practically crowned King and Queen, you could just see it in their eyes that they'd be there to protect us. They'd be there to smile when we were coronated and every day we put those silly crowns on our head. They'd fight and bleed for us, and they'd do anything if we asked. It hurt so much to see them all numbly nod and murmur the words, "we promise." It hurt to the point that I cried myself to sleep after making Melody and a few others make the promise. It hurt then, and it's killing me now.

"I don't give a shit what we said." Henry persists. "We're not going-"

"And you can't make us." Benny finishes.

"What the hell is Saorsa?"

"We stand until we fall, Clarice." I force myself to look at Garrison, to remember all the things he's said and done since I've infiltrated his life.

I look to the rest of them, committing them all to memory, memorizing the sound of their voices and smiles that drew the darkness within me further back without any of us knowing it. I feel the pain, feel it thrashing as the sound of a body falling echoes behind us. Rykiel can only hold on for so long.

"No. You swim..." I choke on my sobs, avoiding their eyes as I make direct eye contact with Raynald still at Darius's side. "Or you drown."

Not giving them a chance to take in my words, I lift my hands in front of my chest, hands forming a cylinder, and bite back my wince as the water element bursts open.

Water from the fifty purposefully placed buckets behind the dais in the shadows. springs out of them, and encases the men before me in a ball of water. Waves rush by my face, blurring the faces of The Dozen. I ignore their screams and pounding fists as I watch Reynald pull the white cloth from his pocket, and place it over Darius's nose and mouth. Darius struggles, clawing at Reynald's arms like a scared child. The Dozen take notice, all moving to help Darius, but a flip of my hands and the water shifts, causing them all to fall.

Darius goes limp, the sleeping poison that was poured onto the cloth doing its job. I made Reynald, Blight, and Julyan swear to carry the cloths dipped in a powerful, but harmless, sleeping poison on them tonight. I told them why and they swore their secrecy, even from Lance. Gods know that if he found out, he'd put one of the cloths over my mouth and drag me out. I couldn't have that. I can live with them ignoring and being mad at me for the rest of my life, but I couldn't live with myself if they died. They're ordered to use them if they're met with any resistance to leave.

Reynald finds my eyes, still standing, and with a nod of understanding, he bows at the waist, his fist going over his heart. Ethan's face appears before my own, the image shifting as the water keeps circling them.

Please, his mouth says. Please.

Before I can change my mind, I pull my hands further apart, the water rising to hover over the ground. Another movement of my arms, and their floating towards the open doors leading to the garden. I follow them out, Jades clearing a path, and try to keep my shaking knees from giving out.

Whenever Darius's power surged to bring up a wall of flames, or feel when his father came into the castle, he did so unknowingly, but with an amount of control we have yet come nowhere near to mastering. I didn't want to ask Ella about it, as I still don't trust her, so I did my own digging. Every time he used his power in those controlled times, he did so with one thought on his mind. Protect.

The power thought he was in danger, so it quickly rose to protect him and obey his order on how to do so, as it couldn't very well see what the danger was. The power yielded to him, and so he could sustain it. For the entirety of last night as I lay with Darius, I quietly practiced doing the same. No one noticed the buckets of water I slid beneath the bed, and no one heard when I brought a wall of water around the room. I did it until I was sure I had it down, and then I fell asleep.

All it took was tricking the power into thinking I was in danger by asking it for protection, but little does it know, it's not for my protection, but theirs. They can hate me later. They can curse my name and forget me for the rest of their lives, so long as they get a life to live.

"Clarice! Clarice!" Their voices start bleeding through the water's walls as they begin to thin.

"Don't do this!"

"Please!"

"I love you," I whisper, and then call up the entire force of my power, reinforcing the walls around them with layer upon layer of more water from the ground beneath my feet.

Everyone else is still begging, but Reynald moves, laying down and pulling Darius on top of him, covering them both in his coat. I wait for his nod, and then with a scream, launch the water and everyone inside, straight for the edge of the Dearg Forest.

*****

I'm on the ground, sobbing and shaking at the pain, both physical, and emotional.

I should stand and fight Dúghall or finish Will, but my legs won't move. My head hurts from crying so much, my throat closing and stomach trying not to hurl up whatever's left in it. I lost more today than I've ever lost before, and it's ripping me to shreds.

You haven't lost anything, Everglow.

I hear my mother's voice. Hear her clear as day.

You haven't lost anything, but you might if you do not stand.

You were never born to be soft and quiet. You were born to make the world shudder beneath your feet.

'Dad?"

Stand, Fauna. Stand even when your legs give out and you feel like falling, because this world is meant to break you, but you, my dear...you were never made for this world.

Fight, little one. Fight.

Stand and fight.

Their voices echo in me, running along every fiber of my being. The pain threatens to pull me down, but I stand. I grip my blades, I stand, and I fight. I fight not for Darius or Lance, or Kat or the Bhaltayr, or anyone else. I don't fight for them, but for me. For the raging fire and water pulsing through my fingertips. This is my stand, this is my promise, and this is where they'll all fall beneath me. For I am the Queen of Thralia, the Ebony Nightingale, the heir to the Spirits of the Living, and Fauna Clarice Rheasydia. But above all, I am my mother's kindhearted Everglow, my father's wicked little one, my brother's teeny monster, my friend's greatest nuisance, and my greatest love's waterlily.

So I stand.

And I begin my song of flesh-and-blood.

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