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Without Sin (Contest Entry)

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Contest Without Sin (Contest Entry)

Post by elephantlord May 19th 2023, 1:53 am

Without Sin
The rain had washed most of the blood away.  The scent of it still hung around the alley; cloying like the fog rolling out from the harbor.  There were still some traces of crimson on stonework nearby, stretching all the way up to the thatch overhanging cobblestones.

Finnegan Cassidy stared down at the body, his mind jumbled and unsteady. The corpse lay with its chest carved open, the cavity empty save for the reddish water that pooled there.  

He was too late.

Finn leaned against the wall and tried to control his shaking hands. He ripped the damned headpiece this zone had forced him to wear and slumped down next to the wall.  He tried not to look at the wounds; his missing eyes and fingers. Rats had been at him as well, bites taken out of what flesh he could see.  

Clark had been such a kind child when he had first met him, a few years back. He was in that awkward time on the cusp of manhood.  Just shy of seventeen, gangly as a stork, with bright blue eyes and a big heart.

And someone had carved them out.



It turned out Clark lived only a short distance away from where he had been murdered.  Wrapping him in the large pelt cloak Finn had been given when he ventured into this beknighted city, he carried the body back to his home. Several of his neighbors challenged him - you couldn't bring a body through a street in broad daylight without eliciting some interest, after all. And apparently Clark had been very well regarded, considering the tears that came to more than a few faces.

Boston had never been a quiet town. Before the city had taken a turn for the Tolkeen, it had been a major economic and cultural center.  The translation from modern day metropolis to this bygone Beantown hadn't changed that.

The city was broken up now, large rents of forests and gorges breaking up the sprawl and creating isolated pockets of the population. Some primitive agriculture had taken hold, as well as some simple commerce. Strangely, the city itself seemed to defy certain laws of economics, keeping items at fixed prices despite local fluctuations of supply and demand.  Apparently, famine and economic collapse wasn't allowed in Eugenia.  

It had become strange - witchy - with odd occurrences happening almost daily. Rampaging hordes of sewer dwelling monsters would verge up from the underworld, for instance, requiring the local inhabitants to intervene lest they be carried away by slimes or rodents of unusual size. To that last, Finn had heard that the new overlords had standing bounties for giant rat tails, now a viable way to make money in the much changed city. Finn would have laughed if he didn't feel like crying.

It had been called the Cradle of Liberty once. It was central to the story of the American Revolution. Now it was an autocratic city-state ruled by undead oligarchs who managed the city with a sort of malign indifference.  Basic city services still functioned, though this seemed to be a product of enterprising citizenry rather than any effort on the part of the vampires.

Not that any of this mattered on a practical level. The challenges the city faced were brought by the changes made to it.  An endemic, never ending adventure.  It was really a wonder people were still living here.

Well, Clark had decided to stay. Whatever weird dimensional warping had taken one look at the kind, gentle man and had turned him into some sort of holy warrior. Which was ironic as Clark had been a pretty firm pacifist.

That seemed to have changed, however. There were calluses at the base of each of his fingers and the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger; all on his left hand.  He had been wielding a weapon - a sword or a mace.

Finn had seen something similar on the hands of stunt extras when he had worked on the set of Valor Lords, a poorly done fantasy series trying to capitalize on the D&D craze. Apparently Clark had decided his ethics hadn't been worth seeing his neighbors eaten by sewer oozes.

That was confirmed when he entered his home.  A crude thatch hut made of quarried stone, He found a humble straw pallet and a dirt floor.  If this had been Clark's original spot, it didn't speak well of his finances.  Clark had been a strong young man the last Finn knew of him, but brawn alone was not as marketable as one might wish in this day and age; a fact Finn well knew.  

The change in Clark ethics didn't bother him, nor that he had been adventuring. From the look of the place, Clark hadn't been accepting much for his services.  From what he remembered, fantasy settings tended to heavily reward danger. While Clark had not taken the same vow of poverty Finn had, he might feel a way about doing violence for coin, especially considering it was an act for his community.  It squared with what he knew of him.

No, what bothered Finn was what was missing.  If he had been some sort of holy knight, it warranted that there would be a weapon of some sort.  And while he found a set of well-cared for chainmail and a metal heater shield, he saw no weapon of any variety.  

"Can't do much slaying without your sword, kid," Finn had muttered to himself.


His personal effects helped matters little. While he had an eating dagger on his belt along with a money pouch he was using as a makeshift wallet, he didn't have much.  There were no cellphones in Eugenia (they having been converted into either magical speaking stones or just rocks), so there was no trolling through recent phone calls for a leed.

It was only when Finn checked the crude desk near the sleeping pallet did he find something unusual.  There were a few silver coins, the numb of a charcoal pencil, all standard.  But when he lifted up the pot of dried ink, he discovered a rectangle of paper.  

It stood out like Clark's corpse had in that alley. The strange effect of Eugenia's reality warping should have turned it to parchment or disintegrated it.  It was unnatural in a place like this.

Without Sin (Contest Entry) D23XfJnm

Because the card had been machined.  Finn could feel the sharp edge of the stiff paper square with his finger, feel the high thread count, and the faint odor of printer ink. That, and cloves.

Cloves?

 —

The trek to the chair maker, or whatever it was, proved surprisingly difficult.  The system had cast Finn as some sort of wild man - a barbarian or ranger or something.  He had come in with simple clothing and no electronics, and the zone had immediately put him in a loincloth, strapped a two-handed club to his back, and a vicious looking animal skull to serve as a helmet.  Finn had rolled his eyes when he had seen it.

Typecasting.  Typical.

It let him blend in at least, even though the denizens gave him a wide berth when he walked through.  Finn was big, half again as big as many of the humans that were there.  Bigger, even, than some of the ogres.  It said something about this place that it hadn't forced any change or alterations on him physically.  Not that his unnatural biology would stand for any of that horsecrap.

When he finally crested the last ridge, he found the building he wanted, placed on a high hill.  It was set off by itself, like it had been shunned by the surrounding countryside.  It was... incongruous. Gray concrete walls, old graffiti, modern glass. Yet it had been patched by wooden boards and more local materials.  Parts of it seemed worn away, causing the straight right angles to seem crooked.  

It had been part of a strip mall, once.  The business itself seemed to have been wedged between a coffee chain and a cannabis dispensary. They still seemed to be in use.  The dispensary had been converted into some sort of alchemist and the coffee shop... well, still served coffee. Just because things had gone pear-shaped didn't mean people stopped being caffeine addicts.  There was a line of supplicants standing in the rain outside the door, trying to get a brew.  It put a sad smile on Finn's face to see something so normal.

His smile faded when he noticed something on the doors to the middle shop.  Small, intricate patterns of light etched into certain places. Wards. Some faint with age, some bright and new.  Finn could not intrinsically see magic, but he had discovered in his long years that some eldritch effects bled into spectrums most folk could not see. It had something to do with 'leakage' or something.  Did these wards have something to do with counteracting the effects of Eugenia here?

Well, he had come this far.



The electric door chime croaked out a warbling funeral dirge as Finn entered. He had become so used to the relative quiet of the city that the sound made him jump. The floor was eclectic, to say the least.  It was laid out much like a furniture or shoe store; an open display floor showing the products on sale with goods racked on the walls. Some of these did not belong in Eugenia, or even polite society.

Apparently 'Fine Custom Furnishings' could mean the elaborate black tufted couch with the buttons replaced with grinning silver skulls, or the loveseat shaped like a pair of bats wings.  But it could also mean the intricate BDSM wrack standing in one corner, complete with a black plastic mannequin in a maid outfit laying with her limbs splayed in it, or the bondage harness where a medical skeleton swung like a prisoner in a gibbet. The phrase 'Fine Custom Furnishings' seemed to be doing a lot of lifting.

Once he was over his initial shock, he began to notice things that shouldn't be in a custom furniture/sex toy store.  Such as weapons.  Oh, there were riding crops and bullwhips aplenty, but those were more of the recreational kind.  Actual, functional weaponry stood in racks and rows alongside the kinker offerings.  Armor seemed less in evidence, but he noticed some of the S&M mannequins had been repurposed to display several sets, poised in less risque ways.  

The sound of an honest to God power tool being used could be heard coming from the back. As he approached, the sound suddenly stopped, and a loud, repetitive banging began.  Frowning, Finn pushed aside the 'Employees Only' door and found the proprietor.

She was slender of build and of average height, wearing a black halter top and a pair of welder's goggles. She was holding a bar of glowing hot metal beneath a pneumatic hammer.  Between her lips was a cigarette, black and slender, which smelt strongly of cloves.

He had to yell several times to get his attention.  She was wearing a pair of earbuds which emitted the same warding light Finn had seen outside. She nearly jumped out of her fashionable black boots when she saw him standing there, so close.  Finn tended to have that effect on people.  

"I'm sorry for startling you," Finn said, as she pulled out her earbuds.  He tried a smile, though was careful not to show any of his teeth.

The goth woman seemed a bit overawed by Finn's person. "How the hell did you even get in?"

"I managed," Finn said with a shrug.  He'd long become used to the challenges a nearly nine foot frame imposed. "I'm Finnegan Cassidy.  My friends call me Finn."

Somewhat uncharitably Finn thought, leaned past him to make sure the door was still intact.  Satisfied, she eyed the big man, skeptically. "Scarlet," she replied. "You sure you're not some dark sorcerer or something, Finn?" Her eyes flicking to the entrance.

"Hat's not pointy enough," Finn said, flicking his skull helmet.

She snorted with laughter. "Let me clean up here and I'll be right out."  She flicked her head toward the door and Finn took the hint.  He didn't miss how Scarlet's eyes locked on him as he squeezed himself through the door frame again.

  —

Scarlet hadn't made him wait long.  After putting out her clove cigarette and donning a black leather jacket and a jewelry store's worth of silver rings, she came out only to fall immediately into a worn black armchair at an incredibly ornate desk.  To Finn's surprise, he noticed the actual functional computer displaying an Elvira, Mistress of the Dark screensaver. It looked to be at least 20 years old.  

She clapped her hands together. "So!  How can I help you, Finn?  You in the market for something a bit less loincloth-y?"

Finn chuckled, despite himself.  "No," he said, holding out the card between his massive fingers. "I'm looking into the death of a friend."

Scarlet all but snatched the card out of his hand.  She stared down at it. "This is Clark's card."  She looked up at him, "How did you get this?"

"I found his body in an alley about a block from his home. His eyes and heart missing."  He kept his eyes trained on the pale flesh of her neck.  She was a baseline, or near enough it made no difference. The vein in her neck began to pulse with an increase in her heart rate. Her scent had also changed slightly - not that he could smell much past those damned clove cigarettes.  Nerves?  

No, not nerves. The woman looked crushed when he gave her the news.  Something more than a business acquaintance then.

"Are you the police or a cape?"  She asked him.  Finn shook his head.

"Clark's father asked me to look for him. He was a member of a community of Quakers living in Northern Pennsylvania.  I'm a part of a... sort of network of small religious communities.  We..."

There was a scowl on Scarlet's face the moment she mentioned Clark's father. "Then you can fuck right off.  You and your bigoted ass.  Get the fuck out!"

Finn long ago discovered the patterns to situations like this. Some fights, he had found, could be recovered so long as you did not allow yourself to be pulled into their pace.

Finn put a deliberate two breath pause delay before his response.  "Miss Scarlet, I'm the one that set him up in Boston after it happened."

"So?  You're still one of the useless cucks that let it happen!"  She shot back immediately.

Another two breaths. "I wasn't there.  I was in Japan at the time.  I couldn't have stopped it, I would have if I had been there."  He closed his eyes for a moment, awaiting the next shout.

It didn't come.  Instead, there was a sob.  He looked at her again. Her fingers will laced through her wavy black hair, trying to keep herself together.  Without thinking, Finn stepped around the desk and knelt, wrapping one of his large arms around the girl.  




It took Scarlet a little while to get herself back together.  Finn helped her by closing up the shop early, then guiding her to the small living area she had made for herself in the back.  Her sleeping space was typical of some of the creative professionals Finn had met in his time.  Disordered and eccentric, bookshelves stuffed with carpentry books and magical tomes. Her bed, ironically, was an ornate Victorian four-poster bed complete with a spider web canopy. The bed itself?  The spider; the four of the legs serving as the bed itself.  The woman sure knew how to dedicate herself to a theme.

Finn made some tea and brought it to her in a chipped 'Blood of My Enemies' mug. She sipped it quietly for a time as Finn waited, making himself busy by cleaning her kitchenette.  How the hell did you get sawdust into a toaster oven anyway?

"How long did you know Clark?" Scarlet finally asked, about a half-hour after Finn had begun to 'mother' her.  

  "Five years or so. I travel around a lot, doing odd jobs.  Met him when this," Finn gestured toward himself, "was still in its early stages."

"You're a metahuman then?  A superhero?"

"Yes to the first, no to the second," Finn replied. "I'm not strong enough for that."

"You look like it.  You look like you could take the front off my store," Scarlet gave a snotty little snort.

"I've tried very hard not to be that sort of person. It's not who I want to be."

"Clark said something like that to me.  When.."

"When?"  Finn pressed, watching her out of the corner of her eye.

"I knew him before all this bullshit," Scarlet said. "When I was in that support group."  She had paused to gauge his reaction.

"The LGTB Support community, yes. He wrote to me about it.  How it was helping."

Scarlet seemed to grow quiet for a time, then, "Did he ever tell you why..."

"Why he tried to kill himself?  No." Finn looked at her fully now. "But it wasn't exactly a mystery."

"How could you do something like that to your own kid?  So he's gay.  Like, who the fuck even cares any more?  It's almost a fucking fashion trend now. 'Oh you chose that sexuality with those shoes? Well, each their fucking own'." Scarlet sob-laughed.

"His parents deeply regretted how they treated him."

"Yeah.  They just wanted him to come home and they would 'forget' everything.  Not accept him, not really.  Just forget and 'forgive' him.  Fucking assholes. How can you even worth with people like that?"

"His community or bigots?"

"Fucking same thing, isn't it?"

Finn shook his head, "His community is less homogeneous.  There have been very different views on matters of same sex relationships. It has caused not a little strife in their community; some embracing all the children of God for who they are, and others.."

"Being dipshits," Scarlet finished for him.  She sipped her cooling tea. "So?  How?"


"I have to trust that people will find their way to God. I cannot force it on them, nor should I.  It's not the sort of person I want to be."

That caused Scarlet to be quiet for a time.  

"Clark kept me going after everything got crazy," she finally said. "He looked out for me.  He kept me from making some mistakes. How could... someone just kill him like that?!"

Something tickled the back of Finn's brain, but he ignored it for now. "You don't think it was a monster, then."

Scarlet shook her head, "Not with what you described.  Heart, eyes missing? Those sound like reagents."  Scarlet willed herself out of her macabre bed and went to her overful bookshelf.  She searched it before producing a slender tomb.  Finn was relieved to see it was dark blue rather than the ever pleasant black.  Strangely, several pages had been torn out.

Opening the book, she showed him a complex series of diagrams and sigils. It was in a language that Finn did not know.  She tapped it with a black fingernail.

"Some summoning spells require certain ingredients like these as an offering.  Well, the unwholesome ones.  I think someone targeted Clark and cut him up for parts."

"I see,"  Finn frowned down at the book. "How can this help find the killer?"

"Because I'm the motherfucking Scarlet Hex, bitch!"  Scarlet paused, "Err, I mean 'bitch' in the best possible way, of course."

Finn smiled, "Of course," and handed the book back to her.


Apparently being the Scarlet Hex meant that you had a lot of weird magical junk in your storage closet.  She was a good fifteen minutes rummaging while the neat freak in Finn had an existential crisis.  

Finally, she found it.  A ivory white skull with jewels for eyes she brandished like holding up an award trophy.  She blew off some dust and showed it to Finn.  "This is the Skull of Moragalcu."  She shook it.  She was a very excitable person when she wasn't having an emotional collapse.  "I got it off an adventurer in exchange for a thing.  Anyway!  You give it an item keyed to a person and it can lead you right to them.  However, the clever part is I can modify the enchantment to find specific pieces of them."

Finn stepped back and let the woman work.  He looked on in mild amusement as she began to coo at the thing, purring like a loving parent and then making irrational demands of it.  And cursing.  Oh, but the cursing.

When she was finally finished berating the skull into its proper configuration, she fed Clark's card into it.  "Ok, we're ready."

"We?" Finn asked with an eyebrow arched.

"They killed Clark. You better believe I'm coming.  Besides, your non-pointy helmet isn't going to help you if they start throwing spells around."  

"It is very deficient in that regard.  Speaking of, I don't suppose you have something in my size?"

"No," Scarlet said with a sigh.  "Anything I have to make for someone else has to be custom."

"Like Clark's sword," Finn guessed.

"Yeah, exactly," Scarlet said absently.  "Wouldn't work for anyone but him.  Ok, let's go."



The Skull of Morry, as Scarlet started calling it, led them to a very dark and foreboding ruined castle some five miles distant.  Finn suspected it had been a college gymnasium once upon a time. Indeed, he could see a few flags cast in the colors of the local community college on display.  

"Fuck this rain," the drenched gothic sorceress complained. "Fucking never rained this hard before fucking Eugine."

"Fucking Eugine," he agreed, eying the castle.  "Where is it pointing?"

"Basement.  Fuck, the bridge door thing is down. Ok, so I have a ten foot pole. I think we can rig a rope and..."

Before Scarlet could finish her statement, Finn grabbed the woman by the waist and leapt straight over the wall. Palisade.  Whatever.

Finn cradled Scarlet carefully as they landed, the stone courtyard beneath the giant man cracking with the landing. Scarlet stepped down woozily, before giving Finn a weak smack in the arm.  "Dick."  She then pointed toward the half-collapsed keep.  

There were no guards to challenge them; no strange skeletal minions or even sewer oozes.  The castle seemed well and thoroughly deserted.  Except for the chanting coming from inside.

Finn pressed a hand against the door.  He could see through the crack someone had barred it.  Luckily, Finn had a long history and questionable history with the structural integrity of doors.  

Placing his palms against the barrier, he gave a great shove, his muscles flexing.  There was a terrible groan from the old wood before the tall doors of the keep gave way before him.  

Scarlet stared at him, opened mouthed a moment, before she muttered, "Fucking dark sorcery bullshit," and stepped inside.  



There was just one of them - an ominous figure in red robes chanting over a collection of various body parts in a black, skull studded brazier.  The were in the middle of disintegrating while a colorless flame consumed them. It wasn't just Clark's eyes and heart, either.  Limbs and other organs had been collected onto a monstrous shrine.  

At the sound of the doors being pushed in, the figure turned and scowled at them. It was a man in his thirties, head and face shaved clean.

"Wait... Hansel?!" Scarlet exclaimed.

"You've met?" Finn asked, pulling the greatclub from its place on his back.

"Yeah… He came to the support group once or twice.  He was a... friend of Clark's."

The man - Hansel - scowled. "He was the one your fucking unnatural cult sent to brainwash me, you mean.  That idiot kept coming around, trying to get me to talk about my experiences.  Like I wanted his fucking help."

Finn began to stalk forward.  "Son, you've got about three seconds before you're a part of your collection, there.  You better get explaining."

The man seemed to need no proding. "He told me what I was natural.  That God didn't turn himself away from people like us.  I told him I just wanted to be normal again, like everyone else?  Do you know what that asshole said?"

"God did not make you to hate.  Others, or yourself," Finn said softly.  "I'm the one that told it to him."

Scarlet looked at Finn, then back at Hansel.  "You don't need to do this Hansel.  Whatever it is.  We can... "

"What, work it out?  I have everything I need," he held up several torn pages. "I don't have to live like this any more.  With this, I have..."

Finn didn't need to hear any more, he was already moving. In three strides he was across the floor and swinging the massive weapon toward Hansel.

The weapon did not connect.  Instead, there was a crack as the robed man's hand whipped out and swatted the club aside. Without pausing, Hansel opened his hand and revealed fingers tipped with ugly, barbed talons.  These raked over Finn, tearing large gashes into his torso.  

Hansel drove his talons into the wound, a mad smile stealing over his face.  "You should never interrupt the villain when they are monologuing," Hansel said, and threw Finnegan away with inhuman force.  As Finn landed wetly against the wall, Hansel went on.  "As I was saying, I have summoned a demon to dwell within my skin. As a shaper of flesh and soul, I will unmake this unnatural lust inside me and offer the same to those like me.  I will remake this flawed world without sin.  Come, embrace me, friends."

"Finn," Scarlet hissed, "Get the fuck up.  He's drunk the kool-aid."

And, because he was who he was, Finn did just that. He clutched where Hansel had clawed him open, dark blood leaking from the wound.  Finn paused for a time, waiting for the wound to regenerate. It didn't oblige him. He looked down at the wound - his flesh seemed to have been almost molded into a damaged state.

"Don't let him touch you," Finn said, stumbling forward.

"What, like this?" Hansel said, suddenly in front of Finn.  That clawed hand dove into Finn's torso again. He rummaged around for a moment, before pulling out a rib. By God he was fast.

Finn bellowed in pain, falling down again.  

Luckily, Scarlet was not the sort to stand around in helpless astonishment.  "Buy me some time!"  She pulled a piece of chalk from her pockets, and went to the ground drawing symbols.

Hansel's neck turned unnaturally in her direction.  "Oh ho ho, what's this?  Is my first convert trying her witchy-woo powers on me?"  He simpered.  He had taken one step before Finn's large hand wrapped around his shin.

"We're not done," Finn growled, and slammed him into the ground.  And then again.  And again.  It was on the third repetition that Hansel had recovered from his shock and bent at the waist.  Finn screamed as Hansel did something, and his fingers flew away from his hand, causing Hansel to fly free. The moment he had touched the ground, he was immediately running.  Only it wasn't Finn he went for.

Three steps before Scarlet, he ran headlong into an invisible wall.  "What?"

Scarlet produced an appointment book from her leather jacket, as well as a black birthday candle and a small novelty Liberty Bell one used to be able to find all throughout Boston.  She lit the candle and opened the book, beginning to chant.  

"Idcirco eum cum universis complicibus..."

"No, NO!"  Hansel shouted, then turned to run.  Only to find Finn there, arms spread wide in welcome.

"Embrace me, friend," and grabbed him, holding Hansel in place. While Hansel was by far faster than Finn, Finn was far, far stronger. It was the benefit of being nearly nine feet tall.

Hansel did not go quietly, of course.  Finn felt his flesh warping as the meat of his torso began to run like wax as whatever was inside him sought to subvert his mortal shell.  Finn closed his eyes and simply sought to endure, trying to outlast the pain.

"Hurry up, please," Finn gargled, feeling his ribs turn inward to pierce his lungs. Blood began to pour from his mouth and eyes as his body began to turn against itself.  

Finally, Scarlet's chant reached its crescendo. "... tradentes eum satanae in interitum carnis, ut spiritus ejus salvus fiat in die judicii!"

And it was Hansel who screamed.  

As if crushed by some great, jovian weight, the possessed madman began to crush down toward the floor.  His body began to move through the minute cracks found in the stonework, until he ran like loose sand through them.

And was gone.  Banished.

Finn slumped to the floor, his body a ruin of twisted flesh and mutilated bone.  For a moment, Finn wondered idly if this would be what did for him.

"Jesus, Finn," she gasped, unable to quite look at him.

Not wanting her to worry, he held up his arm and gave her a thumbs up.  It was his only current thumb, after all.  Best use it where it could do the most good.  "I'll be ok.  I'm tougher than I look," he consoled.  

Just then, a small treasure chest popped into existence before them while upbeat, tinny music burbled their congratulations.  

"Eugenia," Finn whispered, and then lost consciousness.



Whatever strange power to warp flesh Hansel had gained seemed to be no match for Finn's body refusal to be other than it felt it should be. The rain had stopped by the time Finn woke up.  Scarlet was smoking one of her strange smelling cigarettes and watching the bundle of pages Hansel had shown them be consumed by the fire.  Something about them resisted being burned.

Finn could see Scarlet had been crying again; her black eye makeup was running.  Finn stood behind her, watching for a moment before he spoke.

"It was your spell, wasn't it?  The one that let him do this. It's how you knew how to banish him, how to keep him from touching you."  Finn paused, his voice growing softer.  Scarlet remained silent.  

"It's why you were so devastated when you heard Clark died and how. You recognized the ritual even before we tracked him down.  It's why you already had what you needed."

She continued to watch the pages burn. "I told you Clark stopped me from making some mistakes. Some of them were bigger than others."

It was Finn's turn to be silent for a time. Finally he spoke.  "There is no 'ungay' spell."

"I know." She watched the fire for a while. "Clark knew that, too."

Finn reached out and gripped her shoulder, and watched the fire with her in silence.
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