Serpent Possession: Senex of Alba Longa

14 Jan

It was an arduous journey on foot to Alba Longa in the depths of winter. But Carbo Caelius of Rome kept his mind on his unusual secret mission as he trudged through snow up the his ankles.

The giant white mountain, Mons Albanus, grew ever larger before him.

His eyes were fixed on the great peak, sacred to the cities and tribes of broad Latium below.

Already the lone traveler spied the masonry walls of the mysterious town perched on a high dorsum. Alba Longa was strung out on a narrow stridula of the mountain, like a ribbon of dark cloth that reached up and touched the sky.

Carbo halted for a moment to take in the grand panoramic prospect.

At the foot of the snow-covered mountain lay eerie Alban Lake, frozen gelid with ice. His heart beat faster as he took in breaths of the frigid air.

His destination came into sight. This winter had everywhere been unusually severe, yet he had been commanded to leave the warmth of his Roman hibernaculum to make a trek to the holy mountain.

Eyes focused on the town high above, his thoughts returned to the important mission given him by the cura urbanae securitatis of Rome, the state security service.

Carbo shivered as he pondered what he might have to face soon.

A custodes guard at the town gate demanded his name and business in Alba Longa.

“Carbo Caelius, citizen of Rome, come to work as tutor in the household of Rufus Otho. Could you give me directions to where he resides?”

The tall, thin traveler gave a friendly smile as he knocked the snow off his thick woolen lacerna. Brown castanean locks protruded beneath the felt pilleum covering his head. His emerald-sharp hazel eyes seemed to glow.

Following the guard’s instructions, the Roman found his way to the large domus of the prosperous merchant who was to be his employer and host. It took several knocks to bring a servant to the imposingly heavy door. Carbo told the servus who he was and the latter at once led him inside, to the introitus chamber of the roomy house.

Taking the outer cloak and traveling sack of the newly arrived tutor, the servant showed Carbo to the cubiculum where his master was engaged with financial records and business accounts.

Rufus Otho, seated on a high scabellum that faced a working table, rose and took the hand of the young man who had walked from Rome to work for him.

The merchant, short and completely bald, wore a plain, inexpensive tunic. His cerulean eyes has a bright winter sparkle, reminding Carbo of the clear sky over Alba Longa that morning.

Rufus ordered the servus to bring a bowl of hot porridge from the food armorium of the kitchen, then pointed to a vacant scabellum for his visitor to occupy.

When both of them were seated, the dominus turned to what was troubling him.

“Thank you for coming here through the difficult snow. I appreciate the obstacles you must have had to overcome. But, as I wrote to the authorities in Rome, it was imperative that an immediate initiative be taken. No one in Alba Longa is able to cope with the terrible peril.”

Carbo then spoke. “I did not receive exact details beyond being told that certain creatures of the night have attacked young men of high familiae and prominence. It was also related to me that the majority of these youths are sons of Romans who have moved to Alba Longa to live. Am I correct, sir?”

The merchant reddened.

“One unfortunate boy has already died. Several have suffered horrible physical attacks. They keep mum about what happened to them, but I have succeeded in making one of them talk. The story told me is incredible, but must be taken as true and authentic.”

“What is it that the boy says?”

Before Rufus could tell him, the servus entered with a tray containing bowls of porridge and wine. Only after the man was gone and Carbo had begun to eat did the dominus speak once again.

“One victim revealed to me an experience he dared not describe to anyone else. His parents and the town authorities know nothing of his confrontation with a wild monster. Do you realize what it means if such a being is loose in Alba Longa?”

The lanky Roman stopped chewing and swallowed hard. His hazel eyes grew large as he spoke.

“I have carried out numerous secret investigations for my organization. In the course of preparing for my assignment here, there was a need to do much reading about the beliefs of our ancestors. A century ago all Roman citizens had fear of a terrible night creature they called the belua, a monster that consumed human flesh.

“My impression is that no one in Rome has encountered one of these wild beasts for several generations. It is a great surprise to hear of a belua in your city.

“I wonder about one thing: why are the victims well-off young men, especially of Roman ancestry?”

Both men looked to the door of the cubiculum as it slowly opened.

A small female entered. She had long hair of rich golden brown and the blue eyes of Rufus.

“This is my daughter, Laverna,” said the merchant. “Come in, my child. This is Carbo Caelius. He shall be your teacher in reading and writing the language of Latium.”

She proceeded forward with shy, hesitant steps, bowing to the stranger. Then she turned and addressed her father.

“The antistita has sent two attendants to accompany me to the temple, father. I know that you wished me to tell you when we were about to leave the house.”

“Yes, my dear. You may go at once, but be sure to return early,” smiled Rufus. “I think it best that you and your tutor should begin lessons as soon as possible. There is no time to waste in advancing your education, my dear.”

“I might have to stay for a while to help with chores that the head priestess wishes me to complete at the temple,” she noted. “But my work shall certainly be finished in time for me to return home before evening.”

Rufus made a sour face. “Study will have to come first, now that you have your own tutor, my dear,” said her father in a stiff tone of voice.

Once Laverna had departed, Carbo noticed the lines of concern on the face of his new employer. Why should he be so worried about his daughter’s close ties to a priestess and her temple? wondered the Roman visitor.

A curious situation indeed, decided the investigator as he bowed and exited.

Virgilia had come to the Temple of Ceres as a young girl recently orphaned. The presiding priestess of that time had taken her under the protection of the cult, making the child a special, dedicated ward. No one had any doubt that she would one day become a priestess and eventually the antistita in charge of the temple of the harvest goddess.

That afternoon, Virgilia led the excited Laverna into a small cubiculum to talk in private. Wrinkles folded on the satiny face of the head of the temple. When the two of them were seated, the older woman began to address the younger one.

“You have made incredible progress, my dear. There are few ritual formulae that you have not memorized. The time has arrived for your full admission, Laverna. I refer to your induction into the sodalicium. That will be a matter that must never be revealed to any outsider. Even your father cannot be told of your membership in our secret sisterhood. Is that understood?”

“Oh, yes,” nervously answered the young lady. “That has always been a requirement for full participation. Every sodalis must keep her family ignorant of the pledge to our organization. Otherwise, it would no longer be able to maintain its invisibility.”

“You swear to stay silent?”

“With all my heart, antistita.”

The priestess stared at Laverna with pale amber eyes.

“I have learned that a special tutor has come from Rome for your education. You must be on guard with this outsider, my dear. Do not give any information about what we do here. Do not answer questions should the man become curious about our temple.”

Laverna, saying nothing, gave an affirming nod.

Soon, the antistita went out to summon an attendant to escort the maiden home.

After a pleasant, friendly supper with Rufus and his daughter, the new tutor pretended to go to bed early. But his mind was too busy to sleep as he made plans for exploring Alba Longa that night. What dangers would he face in this unfamiliar setting?

Carbo left the residence unheard and unseen through the back door.

The evening had no moon. Snow underfoot made a crunching sound in the empty alley. No one was about in the frosty darkness. Alba Longa appeared to be empty.

Where should he begin his investigation? wondered the Roman.

All of a sudden, his eyes fell upon a columned fanus with a high flight of stairs leading into it. This had to be the Temple of Ceres where Laverna had gone the previous day. The building held an aura of solemn expectation, as if waiting for an unknowable bolt of fate. What unknown force had drawn him straight here? he asked himself.

Standing still, Carbo studied the facade with intense concentration. He had a deep sense of how ancient and primeval the site before him was. How much had it witnessed over many, many generations?

The goddess of agriculture and the land continued her reign in Alba Longa, though elsewhere diminished. These people still adhered to an old cult no longer important in Rome. This was a city of changeless tradition that avoids the new, he reminded himself. The past continues hereabouts.

My journey here is one into bygone conditions and situations, smiled Carbo, turning away from the temple.

In a split second, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a disappearing glimpse of something profoundly terrifying.

What can it be? thought Carbo, ducking into a small shop entrance cove.

He tried to find a name for the strange being that had flashed past him, either in his imagination or reality.

It had a horrible face, totally hirsute, completely pileous and hair-covered.

An extraordinary contradiction existed: a human form with a beastly face.

Suddenly, he remembered the mad lyciscus he had seen as a small boy. His father had told him it was a wolf-dog, dangerously bloodthirsty and always hungry.

A posse of Romans had caught and destroyed the canis rabidus. The city could not tolerate such an untamable being roaming its territory.

Could a wolf-dog be joined and attached to a two-legged, upright body?

Carbo shivered and shuddered at the image engraved in his mind.

Had he, by chance, found the cause of the crimes he was in Alba Longa to investigate?

Best to head back to the house where he was staying. There would be time later to think about what he had seen out here in the dark.

Virgilia sat huddled in a corner of the underground conclave beneath the temple. Waiting was always a difficult task for her. She had never possessed the power of patience, especially if control of a situation was in any question.

This night, her dominance within the sodalicum was facing a dangerous challenge, from the one who had from the beginning been its main beneficiary.

How could this be? pondered the antistita. Why am I met with such disobedience and insubordination?

Thinking her problem over and over, Virgilia came to a conclusion that seemed inevitable.

An important change had to be made. For the first time, a female would have to become the donor of flesh and blood. And the pioneer in this had to be Laverna, daughter of Rufus the merchant.

There had to be a test of this new method of feeding the ancient creature who dwelled beneath the temple of Ceres.

The high priestess heard a faint rustling noise from the night outside. She looked across the conclave to the closed but unlocked cellar door. It suddenly creaked open, and a figure in a dark brown tunic made its way in, closing the door slowly.

“Senex!” gasped Virgilia with surprise. “You have returned sooner than I supposed. Did anything go wrong?”

The other, an old man with a leonine mane of frosty white hair, walked closer. He moved with agile, spry steps, his posture as erect as that of a warrior. Only after taking a stool opposite the priestess did the strange form answer her question.

“There was a man lurking before the temple when I went out. It took me time and effort to watch and then follow him. He made his way to the house of Rufus and disappeared inside.”

“That must be the tutor I told you of,” murmured the other. “Why is he out at night? What is he looking for? This Roman could cause us difficulties.”

The one called Senex stared fixedly at her with his pale, grayish eyes that appeared devoid of emotion.

“It cannot go on like this, without a young donor,” he sadly whispered. “After all these many years, my end may be near. But it has taken generations of time to come about. I fear that I cannot continue to carry out my tasks as I have for so many years. My attention has turned to this young follower of yours, the daughter of the wealthy merchant called Rufus.”

Virgilia tightened her jaw and pursed her thin lips.

“No. This one final try must be made. Young Laverna will soon be a member of our sodalicum. I think that I can convince her to submit and cooperate. Of that I am certain.”

The priestess gave him a soft, warm look of kindness and concern.”You found nothing tonight, then?” she ventured to inquire.

“Only a stray catulus,” said Senex.”The puppy had little taste to it. I like more salty flesh than that. And stronger blood.”

“I understand. That is why you must be patient and wait for Laverna to come to you on her own. She will be worth it, I promise.”

“Too bad you cannot recruit some new male, like this Roman. That would break the sameness of what I have had for so long here in Alba Longa. Yes, flesh and blood from elsewhere might make me and my circle of serpents feel unusually invigorated. It would give us the energy we now lack and have lost.”

“You shall be greatly satisfied with Laverna, I assure you,” predicted the head of the temple. “And so will the serpents that depend upon you for the flesh and blood they crave. In a week, we will hold her secret initiation into the sodalicium. That is when the two of you will meet.”

Though he waited about the Temple of Ceres each evening, Carbo failed to catch sight of the monstrous creature again.

What had become of the belua monster he thought he had glimpsed?

Perhaps the vision had been a ghostly larua, a wraith of some kind, not solid or material. It might have been some immaterial phantom.

Carbo soon discovered that Roman history had special interest for his pupil.

“Do you know the story of the founding of Rome?” he asked her one morning.

“Yes, I have heard at our temple how an Alban Princess, Rhea Silva, gave birth to the twins, Romulus and Remus, though she was a Vestal Virgin from Alba Longa.”

“She was raped by a member of her family and refused to reveal his name,” continued Carbo. “The babies were condemned to be drowned, but survived because of the flooding of the River Tiber. That is what saved it from death.

“A wild wolf found and suckled the two brothers who were identical twins. They grew up to become the founders of the city of Rome.”

All of a sudden, Laverna interrupted him with evident anger. “That is incorrect! You are telling me an invented lie. It was the kings of Alba Longa who inherited the special powers and strength found in wolf blood. The antistita told me that Romulus and Remus were nursed by a whore who lived with pandering shepherds. The two boys grew up among robbers and latroni who stole cattle from the Alban herds of our region. That is how things actually were.”

Carbo grew agitated by what he was hearing. “But it was a female wolf who nursed…”

“No, we know better here in Alba Longa. It was the mistress of a shepherd who saved and nursed the two boys, a common meretrix of the roads. She was a very sinful, immoral person.”

The tutor glared at his pupil. “When the two grew up, they restored their uncle Numitor to the throne of Alba Longa. They built Rome on the spot where they were left to drown. The excess population of Alba Longa was invited to join them in the new city on the Tiber, and many people moved to the new location.”

The voice of Laverna became bitter. “I have heard at our temple that after killing his brother, Romulus made his settlement of Rome a refuge for criminals, escaped slaves, and fugitive riff-raff from all of Latium. From these vagabonds and runaways he chose a hundred friends to become the patrician class of Rome, the leaders of new noble clans. That is the awful but true story of how Rome came about.”

Carbo felt his head swim. “You have heard a strange version of Roman history, Laverna,” he sputtered. “I take it that you learned these stories from Virgilia, the high priestess of Ceres. There are serious errors in what she taught you, my dear.”

“She knows many things about the past,” declared the young woman with a small laugh. “And they are wholly true.”

It was at that moment that the tutor made a fateful decision.

“I believe it would be very useful for me to speak with her about your education, Laverna. When are you to attend the temple again?”

“This afternoon, sir,” she answered.

“Let me accompany you there,” he proposed, looking into her eyes with force and authority.

“You shall find the Temple of Ceres interesting,” she murmured. “I have learned much there listening and watching. There are valuable things one can find out in that place.”

Virgilia was upset by the presence of the Roman alongside the young woman.

“I had hoped to see you in my private cella, my dear,” she told Laverna. Her eyes glowed with anger toward the tutor.

“My wish is to speak with you in private,” said Carbo, ignoring her animosity. “It is of great importance that we talk as soon as possible.”

“Very well,” coldly replied the priestess. She motioned with her hand for him to follow her to the cella she used for conferences. When the two were seated, he began with a complaint to her.

“I have had difficulties in teaching Laverna, and they are traceable to what has been said to her in this temple. Her knowledge has become distorted and incorrect.” He continued, giving examples of his pupil’s mistaken views of Roman history.

The eyes of Virgilia grew enlarged and dilated the more he told her.

“Whatever the girl learned here was based only on the truth,” asserted the priestess. “You cannot expect that we in Alba Longa see the past as Romans do. Our city is much older than yours. Many of those who first settled Rome came from here. Our legends are primary, while yours are secondary ones.” She twisted her mouth into a sneer. “Do you know the story of how Alba Longa was founded? It was the leader named Ascanius who created our city at this high elevation.”

All of a sudden, Carbo was on uncertain ground.

“Only the general outline is known to me. I recall that Ascanius was the son of Aeneas, the Trojan warrior and the Latin princess named Lavinia. He reflected the combination of the migrating Trojans and the native Latins of our region.”

She gave him a withering look. “The refugees from the Trojan War sought safety in western Latium, in this region of Italy. Our king, Latinus, sat down with Aeneas and negotiated a permanent agreement, a solemn pact between the two people. The Trojans needed open land where they could build a new city. Latinus gave Aeneas his daughter, Lavinia, to seal their alliance. Two nations joined together to make themselves one.

“Aeneas and his Trojan army fought the Rutuli and the Etruscan enemies of the Latin people. King Latinus was killed in battle and his nation was absorbed and fused with the Trojans. The latter came to dominate the entire area.

“The only son of Aeneas, Ascanius, was raised according to Trojan customs brought from the East. That was how the practice of nursing princes and warriors with lyciscus wolf milk was introduced. Aeneas had his son nurtured on that milk. This gave the gift of combat prowess to the young. They possessed the strength and endurance of heroic demigods of the oldest lands. Such princes came to enjoy incredibly long life. Our kings enjoyed the powers of the lyciscus, the wild Trojan wolf.

“Ascanius, the builder of Alba Longa, was the blood brother of an entire pack of lycisci. Legend says that he brought the wolf dogs of his father here with him, for they were his true brothers.

“You see then, Rome has stolen our history and twisted it into a different tale of its own.”

Virglia looked sternly at the Roman.

“Laverna has heard only the truth from me,” she said unwaveringly. “My hope is that what you teach her does not consist of lies and fictions.”

Since Carbo did not reply to her challenge, she rose from her chair and led him out of the private cella.
_

Laverna looked lost and surprised as the antistita approached her in the temple atrium. Where was her tutor? she wondered. What has become of him?

“Your teacher is busy reading in our librarium,” explained Virgilia. “I gave him several ancient chirographae to read through.”

“He is studying in our temple?” sighed Laverna. “There is, perhaps, much he wishes to learn that he does not yet know.”

The priestess pursed her lips. “There is much he does not correctly know about the history of Alba Longa.” She suddenly frowned. “I have decided to postpone your initiation, my dear. This is not the right time for us to proceed with it. I shall have to inform the sisters of the sodalicium of this decision of mine.”

The novice turned white. “When shall I become a member, then?” she asked.

Virgilia thought only a second. “That depends on circumstances,” she answered.

An important consultation must be held in the basement of the temple, thought the antistita. It was necessary for her to converse with Senex and receive his advice.

The tutor and his student ambled slowly homeward. Both of them remained silent for a time, until the Roman decided he had to address her before they reached the house of Rufus.

“I learned some interesting things about the past of Alba Longa,” muttered Carbo. “But there are still important questions in my mind. I asked the high priestess to allow me access to the temple librarium and she granted me that favor.”

“We can go together to the temple, then,” said Laverna. “That will be good for both of us.”

My initiation may come sooner, then, she calculated. Without long, unnecessary delays.

At that same moment, the priestess made her way with a lantern in her hand into the underground conclave of the Temple of Ceres. In one dark corner, a figure covered with a thick wool blanket lay on a sellae.

She approached the unmoving shape, catching sight of lifeless gray eyes watching her.

A white mane lay like soft down over the neck and chest. The face was a mask of solid hair.

Virgilia halted, staring at Senex, the ageless lyciscus. She spoke only after a long silence.

“I have announced that the initiation of Laverna will be put off for a time. This tutor of hers hovers over the girl. Until he leaves Alba Longa, we cannot carry out our plan for her. I am sorry, Senex.”

A croaking, rasping sound came through his darkened lips.

“How can I wait?” he growled. “This will cause me horrible pain. I must be properly fed. My serpent grow ever more hungry. He is eager to taste the body of a young, fresh person like your pupil, this Laverna.”

“You must be patient,” coldly said the priestess. “I must be, as well. All will be different once the Roman is gone from our city.”

She said no more to him, retreating to the stairs leading out of the dim cellar.

Standing at his post opposite the temple that evening, Carbo had the opportunity to think clearly about what he had found out that day in the librarium.

The old royal family that once ruled Alba Longa had close links to wolf-dogs and lycisci. That was an important part of the historical legacy going back to the Trojan migration and influence.

A lyciscus blood brother had often merged with the body of its human twin. A dangerous hybrid then resulted. Carbo recalled several uncanny tales he had read at the Temple of Ceres, of strange and eerie adventures in ancient Alba Longa. The royal princes often had intimate ties to their half-brothers who had the full lyciscan character.

An unexpected distant sound distracted Carbo from his musing thoughts. What could it be?

A flitting shadow came and went inside his field of vision.

Was it a lyciscus wearing a tunic? he wondered in near panic.

Carbo decided to follow it along the narrow, unlighted street. He shivered as he thought of the possible danger to himself if a confrontation should occur.

Where was the lyciscus headed? If it actually was one.

The answer caused a shudder. The mala bestia appeared to be going toward the house where he was himself a guest. The ghostlike form turned to the rear of the domicilium of Rufus Otha.

Carbo trailed along behind, foreseeing what the upright wolf form might have in mind to do to Laverna.

He hurled himself down the dark alley. What if the monstrum turned back upon him? he shuddered.

Laverna is in imminent danger. She is the intended victim of this mad lyciscus, no one else is its targeted victim.

When the collision occurred, it threw the Roman immediately to the ground. Before he could right himself, the other one was on top of him, reaching for his throat. Deadly danger flashed before Carbo as the semi-human tried to kill him as fast as possible.

Long, wolflike teeth gleamed in the void of solid black.  A wild growl emerged out of the mouth and throat of the attacker. Animal noises gurgled. A beastly smell filled all the air.

This is it! decided Carbo. I must go for its throat or perish!

He felt the pressure of furry fingers on his own windpipe, squeezing with terrible force. Hot breath indicated that the other’s mouth was bending down, reaching out to bite and kill. A vicious attack was the goal of the monster. It had amazing, unhuman strength.

All at once, Carbo caught sight of the head of a yellow green snake making its way out of the open mouth of the old figure that was fighting him.

There remained only one way to escape. In one final, desperate surge, Carbo himself tried to become what the other was. His own teeth sank into the hairy throat of the foe only a second before the teeth of the lyciscus could bite into him, before the serpent could attack him by itself.

The Roman bit and spit, bit and spit, without interruption, as if he had turned into a lyciscus on his own.

He accomplished what he never imagined he or anyone else could ever do. The wolf teeth scratched his surface, but failed to penetrate flesh. The emerging snake was unable to make any cut or bite at all.

Can a human being defeat a semi-human lyciscus and a beastly snake in deadly combat?

That night Carbo Caelius exceeded an ancient limit never crossed before, achieving what appeared impossible up to then.

No need to bring in the Alba Longa civil authorities, concluded Rufus Otho with the agreement of the special quaestor he had sent for from the capital, Rome. The merchant ordered his household servi to bury the body of the dead lyciscus behind the house at once. Before dawn, all trace of the unnatural beast that moved on two legs had disappeared, along with its resident serpent. Nothing more was to be said publicly or privately. No attention was to be drawn to the events of that night. They were to fall into deserved oblivion, as if they had never occurred. The nightmare was over and forgotten.

Her father commanded Laverna to stay away from the Temple of Ceres for an indefinite period. No explanation was given her. She was to be busy with concentrated study at home. “Your tutor must return to Rome in a short time,” her father told her icily. “He cannot stay in Alba Longa much longer. Duty calls him away from us to his native city.”

With only a few days left before his departure, Carbo decided to visit the antistita named Virgilia one last time. Will she clear up the riddles that remain? he wondered as he walked to the temple.

The high priestess, giving him a scowl, led the way to her working cubiculum. Once they were both seated on scabellae, the Roman addressed her candidly.

“I have reason to believe that a certain bestial creature has long resided within your temple. It came out into the streets the night before last. Crossing my path, the monstrum led me to the house of Rufus Otho. To my mind, there was reason to fear that here was a lyciscus intent on finding and attacking young Laverna. I had to act and I did. The creature combined an eastern serpent from Troy with the nature of a wolf-man lyciscus.”

The face of Virgilia reddened. “What did you do to our Senex? He has not returned here.”

Carbo sent her a piercing look. “You called the monster Senex?”

“Where is the royal prince?” she pleaded. “Has he suffered harm?”

“I don’t understand you, not at all. This was not a prince of any sort. It was a terrible beast, mad and wild. I was in fatal battle with it. The lyciscus wanted to kill me, but lost the fight. Do you understand? It died in person-to-person conflict with me. So did the awful snake that came forth out of him.”

The priestess averted her eyes from his. “I named him Senex because of his incredible age. He was born over three hundred years ago, the eldest son of a king of our city. Something happened in his first months of life. The prince could never become our ruler, for he was more lyciscus than human being. His father had him hidden away for his safety. The Temple of Ceres was given the responsibility of caring for him. A secret sodalicium has guarded the unfortunate prince ever since then. I am, at present, its leader.

“An ancient serpent came to dwell within the physical body of Senex. It was an inheritance carried forward from his Trojan ancestors, who brought it with them when they migrated to Latium after the fall of their native city in the East.

“Senex was a lyciscus of Latium who contained and bore a Trojan serpent that provided him uncanny power and capacity. That is why he was able to survive for three centuries. His double character contained a multiplicity of capacities and powers.

“If the kingdom of Alba Longa should ever be restored in some future time, the prince to rule over it would be available some new Senex replacing the old one.”

“But that lyciscus is now destroyed, along with his snake” countered Carbo. “There is no more any reason for your group to continue.”

Virgilia looked at him with a musing, distant look.

Is she thinking of finding another such monstrum? the investigator asked himself with a frown.

He rose and left the temple, worried about what might befall Alba Longa in the days to come.

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