Master Jepthe, adept of a thousand gestures, kicked his apprentice in the back.
“The movements must be exact,” he thundered. “Unless the spell’s cadence and enunciation are perfect, you will be a fool waving his arms and speaking gibberish. Your body must know even when your mind does not. Do it again.”
Wedge gritted his teeth, adjusted his posture so his shoulders aligned in the prescribed fashion, crooked his fingers just so, then moved his hands through the complicated weaving that shaped the space for the spell. At the same time, he chanted the incantation. An inflection on the second syllable stressed just right, a slurring of sibilants, the staccato rap of hard-ending consonants, and then the rising trill that culminated the chant. On the table before him, the squirrel lay in a crunched bundle.
Jepthe sat on the stool behind Wedge, arms crossed. The old man had only grown more brutal through time, which seemed like an irony. As Wedge improved, Jepthe pushed him harder, and looked unhappier. Wedge felt the scowl but began the spell. His magic is all he has, thought Wedge. He must think of me as his legacy. Through me, they’ll know Jepthe’s achievements when he’s gone.
Wedge swayed to the spell’s rhythm, then found the shape. It was like dropping his hands into an invisible groove, and power flowed through him. Spell-making had embarrassed him at first. He remembered how aroused he had become the first time, a simple casting that closed a door. His face had flushed and his breathing turned hard. When he had finished, a nap had sounded like the best idea, but he couldn’t wait to try a spell again. For weeks, he opened and closed doors with a quiet word and a practiced wave.
Now, the power arced in his forearms. Sparks snapped from his elbows, at his ear tips, and language welled from an inner cauldron. Command crackled in the room. With a rush, the energy crested, overflowed, then released in a sensual flood. The squirrel twitched, jumped up, looked at Wedge, and dashed for the open window.
Wedge sagged on the stool, exhausted. Jepthe swung his hand through an evil motion and barked a jagged, thorn-filled word. The sprinting squirrel died in mid leap, hit the window sill, and dropped lifeless to the floor.
“Do it again,” Jepthe said.
Fifteen years earlier, when a ten-year old Wedge began his apprenticeship, he asked Jepthe why the spell to kill was so short but the spell to resurrect was so long. Jepthe contemplated the boy for a moment. Wedge felt proud that he had asked a question that gave his new master such pause. Jepthe reached out with his bony finger and pushed a crock off the table. It shattered into dozens of pieces on the stone floor.
“Reassemble that so it is as good as new,” the old wizard said.
Pieces had sprayed across the floor. Not a one was larger than Wedge’s thumb. “But that will take hours,” the young boy said.
“And so you have an answer.”
Jepthe had been stern when Wedge began with him, but not cruel. Wedge wondered if Jepthe hated him now.
The afternoons had belonged to Wedge since he had nearly reached his magical majority. The wizard’s apprentice became the master in his twenty-fifth year, and the old master joined the ranks of previous masters buried in Magus Field. Jepthe had prepared the internment slate years before, a black slab of stone the size of a small dinner table. Twenty-three slate stones lay in the wizard’s cemetery, and even though the groundskeeper kept the stones clear, the oldest ones had sunk into the ground so that rain turned them into rectangular pools. It was said that the faces of the dead wizards could be seen in the water’s reflection by lightning flash, but Wedge had never witnessed this. Jepthe showed him the death robe, made entirely from crow feathers, that he would wear on his last day, which would be Wedge’s first day as master.
He wondered why wizards didn’t die like ordinary men. The apprentice studied for fifteen years, and then at the end of that time, the master died, always. No extended deathbed for a wizard. Their candle blew out on schedule. Jepthe told him that when the day came, he would don the death robe and perform the ending spell. What was it like to know that your days were so numbered? Had Jepthe hated Wedge from the beginning because he saw in him his hourglass draining?
Wedge turned toward the athenaeum as soon as he passed through the city gates. His free time, what little he had, was spent there: not just because of the scrolls, parchments, and learned tomes, but because of Charlotte, an assistant bibliothecary.
She sat on a long bench in the research antechamber, a pile of slender leather-bound volumes beside her. He smiled as he approached, but Charlotte frowned.
“How many more times until you quit visiting me?” she said. She had gathered her hair into a braid that hung like a rope down her back. Silver embroidery on her maroon doublet caught the afternoon’s light, which sliced through the room’s high windows.
“When I am wizard, I will be free to come whenever I want.” He tried to sound jovial. Of late, Charlotte had seemed progressively sadder.
“I don’t think so.” She picked up one of the books. “This is the miller’s wife’s personal journal from sixty years ago, when your master graduated from his apprenticeship. She confesses herself honestly in these pages.”
Wedge sat beside her. The athenaeum’s air felt cool after the long walk down dusty streets. Paper, ink, and aged leather scented the building. “Why do we care about a long dead miller’s wife?”
Charlotte turned the book over in her hands. Wedge admired her long fingers, the strength in her wrists. “She tells about her daughter, who loved Jepthe when he was young. They were inseparable, and the miller’s wife thought they would marry when he became master.”
Wedge could not picture Jepthe as a young man, and certainly not as one in love. The idea felt foreign. Jepthe angered easily and hardly tolerated human company. “What happened to them?”
Charlotte put the book back onto the stack. “The day Jepthe became master, he slapped the girl down in the marketplace. He kicked her. It broke her heart. Her mother said that she never recovered. Jepthe destroyed her spirit.”
That sounded more like Jepthe. “That’s horrible, but Jepthe has always been loathsome. What does this have to do with us?”
In the main room beyond, a student sat at a table, diligently taking notes from a book that lay open before him. His quill scratches were the only sounds.
“The miller’s wife wrote pages about Jepthe before he became the master. He courted her daughter for years. By her account and by others . . .” Charlotte picked up two more books. “Jepthe was the kindest of men. Compassionate. A poet. A dancer. The day he . . . ascended, he turned into the man you know now.”
Wedge took her hand. “That is not me. When I ascend, nothing will change between us. I am who I am.”
Charlotte shook her head. “Writings go back eight hundred years. Journals. Daybooks. Reminiscence. Every apprentice who takes the wizard’s robe turns cruel.”
Nothing Wedge said could dissuade Charlotte or stir her from her misery. When he left and the city streets had grown dark, he kept his head down and kicked a small rock in front of him disconsolately. She was wrong. When he became wizard, he would be kind. He would still care for her.
“The king calls,” said Jepthe. “Where were you?” When he was young, he must have been huge, but now he bent over while holding his staff, and his robes were too big.
Jepthe’s voice was raspy, but he didn’t sound as irritated as he sometimes did. This summer, his viciousness was occasionally muted. Perhaps this close to the end, he was coming to terms with death. Whatever anger drove him was running dry. Surprisingly, though, when he chanted spells, the old man’s throat found volume he never attained for conversation. “Squiring the librarian again, I expect. I don’t like her looks. Too skinny by half. You will have no interest in her when I am gone. If you travel into town, the least you could do is waste time fruitfully.” By which Jepthe meant practicing invisibility; he sent Wedge to spy out plots. More than one merchant who had cheated the wizard, or town elder who had spoken against him, fell ill and died after Wedge reported what he had overheard.
The master’s traveling bag rested by Conjury Hall’s entrance. Wedge picked it up and slung it over his shoulder.
“The king’s usual problem?” said Wedge.
Jepthe spat on the ground. “Of course. You’ll do the spell, and you’d better get it right. The king needs magic to perform as a man, so we’ll give him magic.”
Wedge reviewed the chant and motions in his head as they trudged toward the king’s chambers. “Why does the spell wear off? We should only have to do this once.”
The wizard laughed, an evil sound when he made it. “It would be permanent, but the queen pays me for another spell after a couple days. A manly king disturbs her rest.”
The king didn’t want the spell Wedge had rehearsed. His Highness sat on the steps before his throne, the vast room lit only by torches above the door and beside the king. At his feet, an old dog stretched on a blanket barely raised its head when they entered.
“I have had many hounds,” said the king. His eyes were rheumy and red. He petted the animal’s ears. “I grow sentimental with age.”
Jepthe handed his staff to Wedge, then gingerly sat beside the king. “There are no spells to reverse years. The old die as they always have.”
“I have heard of another spell,” said the king. “The body may die, but the essence can live elsewhere.”
Wedge’s attention perked up. He did not know of such a spell after spending fifteen years with the master. It occurred to him that there could be many spells the master had not shared with him that he would have to teach himself once Jepthe was gone. The old wizard’s private library held numerous scrolls that he had never unrolled.
Jepthe nodded. “There is such a spell, but your long-time friend will not know his old tricks.”
The king looked hopeful. “If he can be saved, we must do it.”
Jepthe gave instructions, and the king called a page for the errand. After the boy left, they waited in the dark room while the torches hissed and sputtered, and the dying dog wheezed. Very soon, the boy returned with a young dog on a leash.
Wedge helped the wizard stand.
“Your dog will pass on. He will pass tonight, but I can move his life to this other animal. He will be your dog, and he will remember you, but he will not know what has happened to him. He is a dumb animal and will be afraid. He might even become mad, and then you’ll put him down as you would any mad dog.”
Jepthe dug into has bag. “It will be easier on him if we cover his eyes and bind his limbs.”
Wedge took the ropes and cloth shroud, and approached the king’s hound.
“Not him, you fool,” said Jepthe. “The other dog.”
Wedge’s ears burned as he bound the dog and covered its head. Then Jepthe closed his eyes and chanted. His hands moved through a complicated pattern. Wedge concentrated on the movements. What an interesting and useful spell this one could be, if it existed. He suspected that Jepthe lied to the king, though. There could be no such spell to transfer a being into another. Jepthe would make magical sounds for a few minutes, and then sneak in the death spell, killing the old dog. He could claim the spell had worked when all he had done was put the old dog out of its misery.
Somehow, the quality of torch light changed. Wedge gasped. These were not meaningless words and arm motions. An ominous pressure built in the room. In the distance, dogs howled, and the young dog whimpered under the cloth. Jepthe’s voice grew deeper and hollow. His hands and arms glowed, but the king cared only for his dog, and continued to pet him. Jepthe had never taken so long with a spell. Its complications were many. Wedge saw the wizard’s movements, and the spell’s motifs in his hands’ dance. He read the gesture’s grammar and heard the incantation’s tonal complexities, and in the complexities, verses and bridges. Air swirled in the chamber, bending the flames. Then, the king’s old dog sagged as if it had deflated. If Jepthe had slipped in the death spell, Wedge didn’t hear it. The young dog whined and choked. Its legs quivered.
“Go to it,” said Jepthe. “Your hound will respond to your voice. Your voice and touch will be all it recognizes of itself.”
The king looked up, his hand on the dead dog’s skull.
Jepthe said, “Do it now. Your animal suffers.”
The king held the young dog in his lap until it stopped whining. When he removed the shroud, the dog nearly jerked out of his arms, but the king commanded it to be still, and it remembered its master’s voice.
“This is really my favorite still?” said the king.
Jepthe nodded. “As it grows accustomed to the new body, it will show itself to you more and more. But it will not have memory in its muscles to do what it used to do. The dog will have to teach its body the old tricks. It will have a young dog’s enthusiasms, so think of how your dog behaved when he first came into your house.”
The king nodded. “You have given me a great gift.”
Gathering the young dog in his arms, the page took him away.
“Now,” said the king, “we can attend to that other matter.”
Jepthe nudged Wedge. “My apprentice will fulfill the spell, sire. This is his fifteenth year as my student. He will be the master soon.”
Wedge set himself up before the king. “Are you ready?”
As Wedge worked, though, sketching the spell’s shape, he struggled with what he had seen. Had Jepthe done a kind act, putting the old dog out of its misery while convincing the king that the puppy was his long-time companion, or had the wizard given the king exactly what he wanted, which meant Wedge had killed the young dog? Not its body, of course, but its mind and soul? What a horrifying spell that would be.
Conjury Hall was the second oldest building in the kingdom, preceded only by the castle keep. The first wizard, whose magic guarded the people and whose wisdom guided the first king, designed Conjury Hall as a fortifiable structure, a site for large gatherings, and a repository of mystical literature. Butted against a cliff, the building didn’t appear imposing on the outside. Plain crenellated walls jutted from the cliff, made of the same stone, not a hundred strides wide. The interior, though, burrowed into the cliff, above and below. Rooms high on the cliff wall with secret windows looked into the kingdom’s valley, and hidden entrances on the mesa above the hall concealed the wizard’s comings and goings. The first master had even constructed stables and weapon shops. In the fifteen years Wedge had lived there, he had not explored it all.
Lying in bed, his hands behind his head, he pictured Conjury Hall becoming his. He would invite committees from town to visit, both to find ways that his art could make their lives easier, but also for camaraderie and companionship. Jepthe might have liked the old building filled with creepy echoes and ghostly whispers, but Wedge imagined music and laughter. The wizard’s treasure room overflowed with precious metals, jewels, and coins. Wedge would be charitable with it. The poor could look to him for help.
And there was Charlotte. He could see the day, soon, when he would lead her into the master’s archives. Scrolls lined the walls. Maps filled drawers. Books of arcane matter stood side-by-side on stone shelves. She would be ecstatic. They could hold hands and read by candlelight. Jepthe may not have been romantic, but Wedge would not live a hermit’s life.
Wedge’s room overlooked Conjury Hall’s courtyard. A full summer moon bathed the stone with its cool light. A square of it fell on Wedge’s floor, dimly revealing his wardrobe and study table. Tomorrow, he would go to the archives and find the spell that Jepthe had used on the king’s dog.
What a frightening magic it was. Sad if the young dog had died to save the old one. Wedge asked Jepthe as they walked home where the young dog had gone. If the spell was real, there must now be two dogs’ minds in one skull, fighting for possession, or the minds had switched places. Jepthe laughed. His laugh always sounded sardonic and bitter. “We sacrificed the young dog, you cretin. It is gone. That is the price of such a spell.”
All magics had a cost. Something traded, or altered, or destroyed. That was magic’s first lesson. Wedge sighed. How many lessons would he have to learn on his own when Jepthe joined the dead in Magus Field? For a moment, in the dark of his moonlit room, he almost pitied the old man.
Later, when the moon square had traveled the floor’s length and crawled part way up the wall, Wedge had still not fallen asleep. He kept seeing the moment when the king’s old dog stopped breathing, and the young dog’s shock at that second. In all the time Wedge had studied under Jepthe, the old wizard had never claimed a magic he could not do. For all his disagreeableness, he treated magic with respect.
Wedge did not feel sleepy at all, thinking about the king’s dog and his own growing conviction that the spell had not been a way to trick the king into believing his hound lived on. Jepthe told the king that magic could not prevent aging. It could not turn back the clock. The old die. Magic could resurrect the dead from other causes, but not old age. Wedge had revived the squirrel that very day a half dozen times before Jepthe finally let the poor creature go. How frustrating to have the power to revive the dead, but no way to prevent your own, inevitable end.
These were the thoughts that kept him awake. Anticipation, questions, the insecurities of a young man, and the moment he kept returning to was Jepthe performing the complicated spell for the king. He truly was the master. The old dog’s body died, as it would have soon on its own, but the dog himself lived on.
Wedge suddenly felt cold. He rose quietly from his bed. Jepthe’s chamber was just a door away, and the wizard slept lightly.
Barely daring to breathe, Wedge gathered his clothes, opened his door with a wave and a muttered word, and creeped down the passageway. He didn’t relax until he was outside Conjury Hall, put on his cloak and boots, and sprinted toward the town.
Charlotte lived with her parents in a cottage near a stream. The full moon lit the fields, and a breeze rustled the dark trees. Wedge tapped on Charlotte’s window until she opened it for him. He had creeped to her window before, and they had whispered to each other until dawn, but tonight he didn’t pay attention to her night clothes, and his heart pounded for other reasons.
An hour later, she unlocked the athenaeum. At first she had laughed when he had insisted they go right then, but his urgency swayed her. Soon, she had gathered the books she had shown him earlier. “We need every record you have of when the apprentice ascends to master at Conjury Hall.”
They pored through journals and town records and letters and histories. By dawn, they had found mention of nineteen of Conjury Hall’s twenty-three previous masters, and the pattern seemed clear.
“This is monstrous if it’s true,” said Charlotte.
“I don’t think becoming master changes the apprentice’s character,” he said. “The power, of course, and the responsibility are heavy burdens, and surely they would make a young man more thoughtful, but he wouldn’t become a different person.”
Charlotte nodded. “Each new wizard behaved the same way. The apprentice doesn’t become the master. The master never changes. Jepthe is eight hundred years old.”
The enormity of this staggered Wedge. “No apprentice survives his fifteenth year with him.”
“What will you do?” Charlotte asked.
“I can’t kill him.”
She grasped his hands, and he saw in her an intensity he had never seen. “Why not? He’s going to kill you.”
“He’s too powerful. He has wards and protection spells all around. Knives turn to powder when turned against him. Archers catch fire and burn to death. Poisons only sweeten his drinks. Besides . . .” He held Charlotte’s hand. “I think that killing him would make me become him, too. Not the same way, but surely if I murdered him I would taint myself, and I would lose you.”
Charlotte looked away. “You must flee, then, where he will never find you.”
“He would only choose someone else.”
The antechamber echoed their words. Perhaps Wedge could defend himself magically from Jepthe’s power. In his time with the master, Wedge had learned hundreds of spells, and he could find ones he didn’t know in the archives. “I have to go back.”
“You are giving yourself to him?” Charlotte looked stricken “What if he comes to me in your form? I could not bear to know that you are gone.”
“I might have a plan,” he said. “Besides, he thinks you are too skinny.”
Charlotte didn’t smile. “When will it happen?” She closed the book in her lap. “The wizard always dies in the summer. The leaves turn in weeks.”
“I don’t know, but I will be ready.”
Jepthe’s archives were not like the well-organized and neat stacks at the athenaeum, and the rooms had no skylights or windows, so Wedge dug into the scrolls armed with a candle lantern. He knew two spells that cast light, but one revealed ghosts, and the other attracted night gaunts like giant, leather-winged moths. Moreover, he didn’t know what to look for. Was there a spell that removed a wizard’s powers? Was there one that made one immune to the transfer spell? Was there a general spell immunity spell? Or how about one that made a wizard forget a spell? The possibilities were uncountable, but if the spells were there, they had been buried in irrelevant arcana. Here was a history of well digging in the southern valley. Next, variations on a spell to tan rabbit skins. Then, a treatise on cosmetic uses for berries and fruits. Scrolls detailing harvests. A book naming hand movements for “oddity” spells: one that turned walnuts white, another to turn frogs into cottontails, one to trick bats into flying at noon. Why would a wizard want to turn leaf mulch to dead ants?
Wedge knew defense spells. Minor warlocks occasionally challenged Jepthe’s supremacy. The last one, Jepthe had ordered Wedge to dispose of. How humiliating was it to be defeated by the apprentice? Wedge had long ago protected himself against conjured sleep, illness, blindness, deafness, and pain. He also warded himself against love spells, depression, madness, and confusion. Of course, so did Jepthe, who was practically invulnerable to attack. How else could he have survived for so long? In eight hundred years, the kingdom had suffered plague, fire, drought, famine, and disastrous weather—much less than the surrounding realms—all made easier, of course, by the presence of a powerful wizard. Despite Jepthe’s distaste for anyone other than himself, the kingdom had surely benefitted from his presence. Wedge wondered if he should just yield. Could he defend the kingdom as well? Wasn’t it horrifying arrogance on his part to believe he could do the job as competently as an eight hundred-year-old sorcerer?
He closed his eyes. When he walked to town in the afternoons, he loved how the late summer grain rippled in the breeze, how cattle grazed with contented calm, how the city gates opened for him when he spoke the spell. He loved when the seasons changed. Charlotte’s face when he surprised her at her work made him smile. When her face rose to his and their breath met in the middle. This could be gone forever in the next few days. Jepthe’s spell would end him.
The next parchment was written in a language Wedge didn’t know, but it looked by the illustrations to be boat-building instructions. He dropped it to the shelf in despair, stirring dust and frightening a mouse.
That night he couldn’t sleep. There was no bar he could put on his door that Jepthe couldn’t shatter, and to do so would reveal his suspicions, but with the door unlocked, every creak sounded like its opening. Another night in the archives revealed little. Wedge fell asleep, his head resting on a five hundred-year-old tome. When he woke, the candle had burned out, and he found his way from the dark room by touch.
“You look unwell, boy,” rasped Jepthe. “Have you discovered the joys of the taverns, or is it your scrawny town girl who distracts you?”
The only reason Wedge didn’t run was that the transfer spell was a long one. He would have warning if Jepthe started it, and unless the old sorcerer had a secret way to bind him—and he might—Wedge would have time to move out of range. He could bargain with Jepthe. Perhaps there was a way that didn’t kill the apprentice or anyone else.
“I have been studying. There is so much I don’t know yet to be master.”
Maybe there was something frightened in Wedge’s voice, or perhaps Jepthe knew him too well, but the old man looked at him with suspicion.
Jepthe came for him that night. Wedge went to bed as he normally did, planning on returning to the archives later, but the young man had stretched himself too thin and fell asleep. Jepthe had reminded him time and time again during his training to not rely solely on magic. Diplomacy could settle disputes without spells. Illness could be treated with medicines, too, and an arrow would stop a man (but not a wizard) as effectively as a deadly enchantment. So Wedge didn’t use magic to warn himself; he leaned his staff against the door between his room and the master’s. When it clattered to the stone, he woke.
Jepthe stood in his death robes, silhouetted by the torch in the sconce behind him. The crow feathers fluttered.
“You know, don’t you, boy?” said Jepthe. “I didn’t think you were so clever, but you’re not the first.” He raised his hands into a new position, not the beginning of the transfer spell, something else. Perhaps a spell to paralyze him. Wedge didn’t wait to see what it was. He shouted a word and waved his hand. The door between the two rooms slammed in Jepthe’s face, while Wedge leapt from his bed and into the hallway. The intervening door exploded. Splinters flew behind Wedge as he fled. Despite his thinking, he had no plan. He had pictured a dozen ways this encounter would go. In all of them he remained calm. He was, after all, a well-trained magician, but now he was running, as frightened as he had been the first day he had come to Conjury Hall when he was ten.
The wizard’s home contained rooms and stairways and secret passages, but a spell of finding was the most elementary of tricks. Hiding would be impossible. Jepthe, though, was old and slow, while Wedge was young. As the apprentice ran up a flight of stairs, his heart shuddering and his breath like fire, he knew he would have to stop. Now, though, like a child, he ran in a panic. What could he say to save his life?
He skidded on the slick floor as he turned and dashed into one of the trophy rooms, a long chamber lined with art and armor and gifts from kings long dead. Jepthe stood in the doorway at the other end.
How could the old man have beaten him to this spot? Spent, Wedge stopped, his hands on his knees, gasping. Jepthe wasn’t even breathing hard. He had said that Wedge was not the first to guess his fate. Had other apprentices, as young and fit as he, also fled into Conjury Hall? Who would know the house’s passages better than Jepthe? Perhaps, even, it was designed to confuse the panicked.
Jepthe raised his arms, the crow feathers dangling, his hands already glowing with the spell’s energy.
Wedge sat, defeated. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t allow Jepthe to kill someone else in his place. He would join the unbroken line that was Jepthe’s eight hundred-year-old life.
But Jepthe didn’t start the motion that would hold Wedge still for the spell. Instead, he paused to smirk, an expression he wore often. He smirked and mocked and laughed at people. His superiority surfaced in every expression.
It was the smirk that provoked Wedge and the pause that saved him. If he was going to die, he didn’t want Jepthe’s smug face to be the last thing he saw, so Wedge spoke his first word of power, waved his hand in his most practiced gesture, and slammed the double doors on Jepthe.
Jepthe screamed. The door trapped his extended wrist, shattering it.
And so Wedge became master of Conjury Hall and the kingdom’s twenty-fourth wizard. Many people wrote in their journals and letters about his kindness and charity. Charlotte became the first woman to occupy Conjury Hall in its history, learning magic of her own, teaching it to their children when they came.
The people wrote, too, about Jepthe, who had once been their wizard, but who didn’t die when his apprentice ascended. He sometimes came to town. They saw him in the tavern, bitter to the end, crippled, unable to make an enchanting gesture, haunted by life as no old man they had ever seen.
When Wedge, adept of a thousand gestures, died after a full life, he left no apprentice, although his and Charlotte’s children learned from their parents.
To a passing traveler, the kingdom looked much like the others, but it suffered fewer plagues and famines, less drought and disastrous weather, and enjoyed more fine seasons during which the grapes came rich, the cows were abundant, and marriages and births were plenty.
Happiness and misery were doled to them unequally, and after a long, long while, when the writings had crumbled to dust, the people told no stories of Jepthe the Cruel, or his apprentice, Wedge, but they lived in a place where magic was as common as singing birds and starlit nights, and doors opened easily for friends who were welcome within.
© 2016 by James Van Pelt
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