Blood on the Snow: Chapter 9 (draft)

The Old Town watchhouse, when Archer reached it, turned out to be as run-down and ramshackle as the rest of the district, though the subtle shimmer of spell-wards around the windows and doors suggested that its peeling paintwork and crumbling plaster weren’t its only lines of defence (and, to a magician, offered a rather worrying insight into exactly what some of the more subtle gangs in the River Quarter were capable of. Spell-wards weren’t proof against physical projectiles, after all).

It was also, much to his surprise, incredibly crowded – and the reason for that became almost immediately apparent as soon as he’d managed to talk his way in past the incredibly stressed-looking sentry (who seemed to be the only person who’d been spared from whatever was going on inside to do door detail and, if his tone and posture were anything to go by, was deeply, deeply resenting it).

There’d been another murder.

And this time, the victim had been one of the Watch.

Oh gods and goddesses. If our murderer was trying to make this harder for me, they couldn’t have picked a better time and place. 

It wasn’t that the Watch were anti-vampire, of course. There were vampires in their ranks, same as in almost any other occupation in the city, and speciesism within the various bodies that made up the law and justice system was stamped out harder than most, given the potential for corruption and upsetting the delicate balance of relations between the various peoples. But equally well, they weren’t stupid – they knew full well what species a killer who practised exsanguination was likely to be, and a murder of one of their own meant whoever had done it had, to all intents and purposes, declared war on the Watch.

And now they were faced with a upper-class vampire private citizen, walking in right in the middle of their shared grief with the express purpose of asking awkward questions and getting in the way of their investigation. Which, as far as Archer saw it, meant that he’d be lucky to get from one side of the room to the other without someone trying to start something.

He made it, in actual fact, about five steps.

“What in the hells do you think you’re doing?”

The speaker was, unsurprisingly, human. He was also young – early twenties, if that – and, from the redness around his eyes and the catch in his voice, he’d been crying.

Wonderful. I’d put good money on him being a friend – or closer – of the poor bastard who was murdered. This… is going to take some careful handling. 

“I said, what in the hells do you think you’re doing, leech?” the boy repeated, stepping out of the crowd to block Archer’s path. His fists were clenched, the muscles taut in his arms and jaw, and he looked as though he was fighting back the urge to haul off and punch the intruder square in the face. “You’re not wanted here.”

“I’m here to see your captain,” Archer said, deliberately keeping his voice low and calm. There wasn’t any sense in provoking the youngster any more than he had done already simply by existing and, if he was honest, he’d take a few slurs if it meant getting this situation sorted without further bloodshed. “I have a prior appointment with her.”

If the boy was placated, he didn’t show it. “What are you going to see her about? How your lot didn’t do it, despite all the evidence to the contrary?” He spat. “We all know it was leeches. Everyone knows. Godsdamn bloodsuckers, you don’t deserve to be part of civilised society – all your airs and fucking graces, sooner or later you all revert back to being what you really are.”

“And what’s that?” Archer asked, before he could stop himself. He could feel the red rage building in the space behind his eye sockets – he slowed his breathing, pushing the burning anger back down below the surface until it was needed. No need to rise to it. He’s human, he’s scared, he’s facing off against what every instinct in his body is telling him is the same predator that just killed someone he cares for. Just… let it go. 

“Animals,” the boy snarled. “Stupid, evil, bloodthirsty animals.” He scrubbed the back of one fist roughly across his eyes, but not before Archer had seen the tears start to flow again. “You don’t deserve to breathe the same air as normal people.”

Don’t rise to it. Don’t rise to it. Even if every bloody nerve and fibre in your body wants to lash out, don’t damn well rise to it. All you’ll be doing is proving his point, and that has repercussions for a damn sight more people than just you. He closed his eye, focused on the image of the ragged little newspaper girl bundled up against the freezing winter winds. If you lose your temper here, you’re not going to be the one who pays for it. She is. Her, and all the others like her.

“I said, you don’t deserve to breathe the same air as normal people, freak.”

“And you don’t want to do this,” Archer said, as calmly as he could manage. He leaned in, noticing how the boy flinched away from him as he did so. Not quite as foolish as all that, then. Good. I can work with that. “Listen to me. I know you’re in pain. I know you’re angry. And I know full well that right now, you really don’t care whether you win or lose this fight, because you wouldn’t be trying to pick it otherwise.”

“Fuck you!” the boy snarled, though it seemed more like a reflex than an actual considered response.

Archer ignored him. “If you strike me, I will put you down. That is not a threat. That is a statement of fact.” He paused, letting the weight of what he’d just said sink in for a second, then pushed on. “But I am not going to land the first blow. If you want to assault a private citizen in front of witnesses for the crime of being a vampire, be my guest. But also be very sure that that’s something you’re willing to bear the consequences of.”

“And be very sure your captain isn’t standing directly behind you when you do so.”

Archer hadn’t noticed her enter the room – he’d been too focused on dealing with the situation in front of him – but there she was, arms folded, looking out across the gathered troopers and officers with a mixture of sorrow and exasperation.

“I trust at least one of you is going to tell me exactly what’s going on here?”

The boy spun round, eyes wide, and managed a surprisingly good salute for someone whose hands were visibly shaking. “Captain! I- I- I can explain!”

“I don’t need your explanation, Ataan. You’re relieved of duties for the next week, and you’re bloody lucky I’m not taking your badge for that little stunt. Do you realise how much damage you could have caused if you’d tried that with anyone else?”

“I- I-”

“I’m prepared to overlook a lot from a trooper who’s just lost their spouse, Ataan. I am not prepared to overlook rhetoric like that when we’ve already got a district that’s this close to rioting over interspecies tensions. This isn’t over.” Her voice softened a little. “Go see the medic before you leave – Brewer, Varinsson, you two make sure he gets home safe – and tell your brother to come see me before eighth bell tomorrow. Given I’m sending you home without pay, the least I can do is make sure you get the death payment as quickly as possible.”

The boy – Ataan – nodded, the colour draining out of his face. “Understood, captain. May I-?”

“You’re dismissed, Ataan.” As he took to his heels, she turned to address the rest of the room. “The rest of you, listen up! Yes, we’re angry. Yes, we’re hurting. Carr was a good kid – he didn’t deserve what happened to him, any more than any of the others we’ve lost did – and he died hard. And yes, we will find who did it, and they will pay. I can promise you that. But this? Shit-stirring, starting fights, throwing accusations at people purely on account of their species? This stops. Now.” She looked around, obviously taking stock of the various troopers and officers in the room. “This district is a tinderbox at the best of times. Right now, we’re one small spark away from a fire that’ll burn the whole damn place down around our ears, and I will not have one of mine be the one to provide it. Understood?”

There was a general rumble of agreement, and a few shamefaced nods from some of the troopers who’d been closest to the confrontation.

The captain nodded once, sharply, and then lifted a hand for silence. “Alright. From now on, I’m shifting the patrol rotas. No single-species groups, no groups of fewer than four, and no-one goes out without either a bell or a whistle on them, no matter how fast they think they can run or how loud they think they can shout. I want eyes and ears open for any sign of this bastard, and I want you lot talking to the people on the street. Most of you are from round here, so use that. And yes, if that means turning a blind eye to some street rat on the filkin lay so you can get some information, then you do that. I’d rather a couple of kids think they’ve pulled one over on the Watch than we miss something vital because they’re running too scared to talk.” She paused, took a breath. “All sergeants, I’ll see you in my office in an hour unless you’re scheduled to patrol. Anyone who’s not on patrol or body detail, take two hours to cool your heads, and your sergeants will bring you up to speed on what’s going on when I’m done with them. And the whole lot of you – anyone who pulls the same stunt Ataan just did is losing their damn badge. No exceptions. You all know why.” Another pause, long enough for some of the troopers to start looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Now that that’s been cleared up – dismissed!”

The hall cleared in a matter of minutes, leaving Archer and the captain standing somewhat awkwardly in the middle of the suddenly empty room. For a brief moment they stared at one another – then the captain coughed, smiled slightly, and said “At ease, soldier.”

Archer blinked, then flushed as he realised that, quite by accident, he’d ended up standing at parade rest. He shifted his weight, dropping back down to at ease, and then through from that into a more civilian position. “Sorry. Old habits.”

“Tell me about it.” Her smile widened into a genuine, if tired, grin. “Thought I recognised an old soldier when I saw one. Cavalry, right?”

“Queen’s Own. Back before the revolution.”

“Second Irregulars, going on twenty years ago. Never made it past sergeant, but at least some of the training stuck.” She sighed, running one hand through her grey hair. “So. I take it you’ve not brought me an incapacitated murderer and a nice signed confession?”

“Unfortunately not,” Archer admitted, relaxing a little. “I’ve put some of the Order’s best assets onto the case, but they’ve not been able to track down anything as of yet.” Mostly because they – or rather, he – is currently asleep at my rooms. But that’s beside the point.

“Ah well. Figured I’d ask, given it was always a possibility with you lot.” She jerked her head towards the stairs at the back of the hall. “Shall we? I get the feeling whatever you want to talk to me about is probably best shared in private.”

“Indeed,” Archer agreed. “Lead on.”

The captain’s office, when they reached it, turned out to be a surprisingly large room on the second floor of the building, with a single large window opening out onto the courtyard below. The walls were lined floor to ceiling with filing cabinets and bookshelves, and in front of the window sat a solid, battered-looking wooden desk, piled high with paperwork.

The captain threw herself down into the chair behind the desk, which creaked alarmingly as she did so, and kicked her boots up onto its scarred surface, expertly manouvering them to avoid knocking over any of the towering piles of forms and reports. “So,” she said, once Archer had found himself a seat, “What is it that you wanted to tell me?”

Something you already know, by the looks of it, Archer though. Out loud, he said “That, unsurprisingly, you’re almost certainly right about the murderer being a vampire. While it’s still possible that it’s an attempted frame-up, it’s exceptionally unlikely.”

The captain nodded, rummaging in one of the drawers of the desk and pulling out a box of matches and a pre-rolled cigarette. “You don’t mind if I smoke, do you? Helps take the edge off.”

“Be my guest,” Archer said. Like most vampires, he wasn’t exactly keen on tobacco smoke in theory (though werewolves had it far worse, as heightened senses went), but he’d known Sabbat for long enough that he barely noticed the smell any more.

“Thanks.” She lit up, took a deep drag on the cigarette, and then continued. “I was fairly sure, but it’s always good to have confirmation from an unbiased source. I don’t suppose you’ve got anything more than ‘vampire’ to give me?”

“As a matter of fact,” Archer said, slowly, “I do.” He leant back, steepling his hands under his chin. “I only have the one body to go on, so can’t speak to whether my observations would hold true for all of the victims but, based on what I saw, I can tell you you’re looking for someone who’s either desperate or insane.”

“Go on.”

“The girl had defensive bruising on her arms – that, and the depth and angle of the wounds on her throat, indicate that she wasn’t consenting at any stage of the process. Given there are more than enough blood dolls and prostitutes who offer that service working in the Quarter, why attack someone unwilling unless they weren’t thinking rationally?”

“Or unless there’s another motive for the killings, other than the blood,” the captain suggested.

“I had considered that. Though if there’s anything that connects a docker, a- a serving girl from the Daggers, and a Watch trooper, it’s not something that’s immediately obvious to me.”

“You can say prostitute, you know.”


“The girl from the Daggers. I know she was a prostitute.” She sighed. “Jenny keeps the peace in her area of the district well enough that I’m not going to go chasing her for running an unlicensed brothel, but we’re doing nobody any favours if we pretend the girl’s profession might not have had something to do with her death. It’s possible our killer’s going after people he thinks of as plagues on society, for instance – though I’m damned if I know what he’d have against dock-workers, if that’s the case.” She frowned. “Still, it’s worth a thought.”

“Exsanguination seems like an odd method to choose if his motives are moral,” Archer objected. “I’d expect either something more ritualistic, or simpler – slashed throats or garotting, perhaps. Why choose a method that’s so perfectly designed to cause chaos, if what he’s after is some sort of return to order?”

“Maybe because he wants an anti-vampire riot?” the captain suggested, though she didn’t sound entirely convinced. She scowled, leaning forward in her chair and lowering her voice. “Look. Between you, me and the table leg, I’m damn close to chalking this one up as yet more overspill from your dirty little war – and don’t give me that look, you know as well as I do that Harrow was one of yours.”

Damn. He briefly considered denying it, then tossed the idea aside: the captain was smart enough that she’d see through any attempt to cover his tracks, and, for all she wasn’t a member, loyal enough to the Order that she wasn’t about to sell what she knew. Not that it’d make much difference, anyhow. “You’re not wrong. But the girl from the Daggers wasn’t. Nor, as far as I know, was your trooper. Which means that either the Sinnlenst have started branching out into random murders for the hell of it, or something else is going on here.”

“Or they were both tied to your people in some way even you don’t know about,” she fired back. “Who’s to say they’ve not decided to go after families?”

The fact that’s not how the game works, Archer thought. But then again, Lucy bloody Foreval wasn’t how the game worked either, and the Sinnlenst had been all too happy to put her uncanny abilities to work for their own aims. And, given they’d apparently now added blackmail to their repertoire, it wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that they’d decided to break with even more of the unwritten rules. Though that still doesn’t explain the method. Exsanguination’s not the kind of thing you choose unless you’re explicitly trying to make a point. 

Out loud, he said “It’s…possible, I grant you. If either of them were related to members of the Order, then yes, it’s entirely plausible that the Sinnlenst might have decided to go after them – and, if that is the case, then I’ll accept full responsibility for sorting this damn mess out.”

“You’d bloody better,” the captain muttered.

“But,” he went on, ignoring her interjection, “if they’re not related to any members of the Order, or, indeed, linked to us in any way, then we likely have a killer who’s either insane, desperate, or fanatical, and who may be trying to provoke an all-out species war within the city. With that in mind, will you at least consider holding making your decision on the investigation until I can ascertain whether either of the other victims were targets for the Sinnlenst?”

The captain growled low in her throat, and Archer wondered for the first time if she might not have some werewolf blood somewhere back in her family tree. “Fine. I’ll consider it. But the next time something like this happens in my district, I want names. Not bodies, not assurances that it’s dealt with – names. You can have your damn war anywhere else in the city you please, and I’ll not say a bloody word about it. But this? This is beyond gang killings and blade-for-hire jobs and burglaries gone wrong. This is personal.”

He bit back a snarl of his own, clenching his fists hard enough that his fingernails bit deep into the skin of his palms. Losing your temper here isn’t going to help anyone. Especially when half of what you’re doing requires having the local Watch very firmly on your side. “I agree. And, if it’s the Sinnlenst who are responsible for this, I promise you that the Order will deal with the matter… and, if that means handing the perpetrators over to you, I’ll do my best to ensure that that happens. In the meantime, what do you need me to do?”

She opened her mouth to reply, and then blinked, obviously registering exactly what he’d just said. “Say again?”

“What do you need me to do?” Archer repeated, far more calmly than he felt. He slowed his breathing, attempting to push back the rage still burning in his chest. “I’ve already put an Order agent on the hunt for the killer. I’m going to go back to the Daggers to question the rest of Jenny’s employees tonight, see if I can learn anything from them. If there’s anything else I can do that will help your investigation, please, tell me.”

“…You’re serious.”

“As the grave.” He smiled, humourlessly. “If there are any more of these damn killings, every vampire in the city is going to be in danger. If you don’t believe that I’d help you out of the goodness of my heart, or out of guilt that the Order’s war has infected your territory, at least believe that I’d do it for them.”

The captain eyed him for a long moment, then nodded. “I believe you.” She pulled one of the towering piles of paper towards her, extracting a battered file from halfway down the stack and handing it to Archer. “We’ve managed to dredge up some witnesses for the Harrow murder – it’s what Carr was up to when he disappeared. None of them were much use, but you’re welcome to what little they gave us, if you want it.”

“It’s better than nothing,” Archer said, and meant it.


In hindsight, Fest thought, it had probably been the penny dreadfuls’ fault. He wasn’t under any illusions as to how well-researched his chosen form of entertainment tended to be, of course, (if for no other reason than the human authors usually managed to get vampires spectacularly wrong despite probably knowing at least a few of them) and it wasn’t as though he generally had any issues separating fact from fiction, but nevertheless when Anneke had invited him into their laboratory, he’d found himself having certain expectations as to what any room described with that particular word was likely to be like.

Said expectations, if he was honest with himself, had mostly been of the ‘shadowy basement with dripping candles and jars full of unidentifiable green liquid’ variety, with an outside chance of ‘containing more than its fair share of repurposed torture devices’ and ‘pretty much indistinguishable from an alchemist’s workroom, except possibly with fewer explosions’ – which is to say, they’d been mostly unsubtle, unflattering, and not exactly the kind of thing that screamed ‘yes, this sounds like an excellent place to spend an afternoon’.

That being said, he’d still decided to go along with the priest’s plan. It would’ve been rude not to, after all, not to mention the fact that Anneke was probably the only person who was in any way likely to get anywhere close to working out what was wrong with him. But he’d gone along in the full knowledge that, in all likelihood, he was probably stepping into something out of a particularly fevered author’s nightmare. It wouldn’t have been the worst thing that’d happened to him today, after all.

Anneke’s laboratory, it turned out… wasn’t anything like that.

As a matter of fact, it wasn’t anything like he’d been expecting.

For a start, it was above ground – a fairly long way above ground, in fact, given it was on the second storey of a building that jutted out over the edge of the cliff face in a slightly worrying fashion – and, far from being dark and shadowy, two of the four walls were entirely given over to large windows, filling the room with snow-bright light. Bulging bookcases lined the other two walls, sharing space with tall wooden cabinets containing every possible kind of magical glassware Fest had ever encountered (and several that he’d never seen before in his life), and, running down the centre of the room, a long polished wooden table held candles, herbs, bowls of chalk, and all the other paraphernalia needed for performing magic.

And the place felt… clean, for want of a better word for it. Clean, and bright, and – gods, if he was being completely honest with himself, absolutely everything that the laboratories from his penny dreadfuls weren’t. If Anneke was some sort of evil curse-caster, they were the neatest evil curse-caster he’d ever seen.

“You’re staring,” the priest commented, tapping him lightly on the shoulder as they stepped past him and into the room. “Were you really that sure I was working out of some sort of horrifying torture chamber?”

“I wasn’t- I mean- That is to say-” Fest stuttered, trying to find a way of phrasing ‘yes, actually’ that wasn’t… well, that. “I didn’t realise that when you said ‘laboratory’ you meant… well, something like this. Not that I thought you were going to do anything evil to me,” he added hurriedly. “I just…”

“Wasn’t entirely willing to trust someone with my interests?” They smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It’s part of the reason I keep this place as tidy as it is – that and it means I can find my notes when I need them.” They strode across the room, making a beeline for one of the more overcrowded bookshelves. “Now, if I can just dig out that copy of Halsdottir’s second set of essays…”

Ten books, five pamphlets and fifteen minutes of enthusiastic academic discussion later, Anneke finally stepped away from the bookcases, dropping an armful of papers onto the tabletop with a resounding thud. “…And I think – think, mind you – that that should do the trick. Agreed?”

Fest nodded, still engrossed in the second-to-last pamphlet the priest had thrust into his hands. It wasn’t one he’d ever come across before – the university library was well-stocked in general, but it did have significant gaps in places – and some of the details involved in the sigil-crafting it described seemed oddly familiar, though he couldn’t quite place where he’d encountered them. Something he’d seen at Archer’s house, maybe?

“Much as I hate to drag anyone away from books,” Anneke went on, “I actually do need your involvement for this part of the process.” They held out their hands towards him, proffering in one, a small glass bowl, and in the other, an almost disturbingly sharp-looking scalpel. “If you’d be so kind as to bleed for me? As I said, a few drops should do it, though I’m not going to complain if you add more – it gives me more material to work with.”

For all I don’t think you’re evil any more, Fest thought, I do think you still have some work to do on not coming across as distinctly creepy. This was, however, possibly the wrong sort of thing to say to someone brandishing a scalpel, and so he settled for a polite “Of course” and carefully taking possession the aforementioned instrument before they could start having ideas about exactly how much more ‘extra material’ they might need.

“I’d suggest using a fingertip on your non-dominant hand,” the priest said, turning away again to start laying out the ritual materials on a clear area of the table (and one that, Fest noticed, already had a silver casting circle inlaid into the wood). “And no more than a third of the bowl, if you don’t mind. This procedure has the possibility of getting… messy.”

“That’s not worrying at all,” Fest muttered under his breath. He looked down at the scalpel and bowl in his hands, and bit his lip. It isn’t that I don’t want to do this – well, it is, but that’s beside the point. I just really wish it didn’t have to be blood.

It was stupid, really. He’d never had a problem with it before today – he was a vampire, for crying out loud, it’d be like a human having a problem with bread – and it wasn’t as though pricking his finger was in any way on the same level as vomiting up blood that he didn’t remember drinking. Just one little scratch, and then he didn’t even have to look at the damn stuff if he didn’t want to. Easy. Simple.

And, apparently, completely sodding impossible.

Come on! He’d managed to put the bowl down on the table, at least, and get his left hand approximately situated over it. But his right – the one holding the scalpel – didn’t seem to want to move, no matter how many times he swore at it, and, worse than that, it was actually starting to shake. Gods gods gods, this is not something I need right now! I-

“Are you alright?”

“No!” He hadn’t meant to say it out loud but, judging by the look on Anneke’s face, they’d already guessed as much. “I- I can’t do this.”

“Oh.” The priest’s face fell. “I’m sorry. Was it what I said about giving me more material? Because that wasn’t- I mean, it was sort of meant to be a joke. Not a very good one, admittedly, but-”

“No, I mean I can’t do this,” Fest interrupted, nodding towards his shaking hand. “You’re going to have to make the incision for me. My hand’s shaking too badly, and I don’t really want to lose a finger.”

“Ohhhh!” Anneke’s frown lifted, replaced by a look of mingled understanding and relief. “Is that all it is? Not to worry. I’ve had lots of practice.” They paused. “That was another one of those things I shouldn’t have said, wasn’t it?”

“Just a little,” Fest agreed, though he couldn’t help smiling as he did so. After spending the whole morning (and most of the previous night) alternating between confusion, fear, anger, more confusion and a large amount of unremitting terror, there was something oddly relaxing about his current largest problem being a priest who wasn’t overly good at social interactions. And, honestly, he couldn’t exactly judge them for it after his own dismal showing at the war council.  At least I probably proved to them that I’m not a Sinnlenst spy, I suppose. No spy worth their salt would be half as bloody incompetent. 

“Here,” Anneke said, carefully taking the scalpel from his hand. “Let me.” They took hold of his pale left hand in their dark one, the fingers warm and tight around his wrist, and held it steady over the bowl. “Ready?”

He nodded, and, hating himself a little for doing so, closed his eyes. Better to risk getting laughed at for not being able to bear the sight of his own blood than to have yet another sodding fainting fit, especially given how much breakable glassware there was in the room. “Ready.”

“Good. On three, then. One, two-”

The pain, when it came, was easier to deal with than he’d expected it to be – a single sharp scratch, and then a deep burning pressure around the pad of his finger as Anneke squeezed the last drops of blood from the wound. After a few moments, he felt the pressure ease, and then something cool and damp was pressed against his fingertip – a cloth of some kind, he thought, though he’d not noticed the priest preparing anything of the sort earlier.

They’re a damn sight more professional about this than I would be. I guess they were telling the truth about having had practice. 

“There,” they said, after the sting of the initial cut had just about died away. “All done.”

Fest risked cracking one eye open – and, when he didn’t immediately faint dead away at the sight of the tiny puddle of blood in the bottom of the bowl, followed that up by very slowly opening the other. Nothing happened.

He looked down at his hand, noticing that whatever was wrapped around his fingertip looked an awful lot like a repurposed handkerchief. Again, nothing.

If he was going to have another fainting spell any time soon, it apparently wasn’t going to be because of one little cut. And thank the gods for that. I’m hardly going to be much use to the Order if I keel over any time anyone waves a blade in my general direction.

“Thank you,” he said, once he’d ascertained to his complete and utter satisfaction that his face wasn’t about to have an unscheduled meeting with the floor in the next few minutes. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be more helpful.”

Anneke smiled. “Don’t worry. I normally have to do this on people who’re unconscious, so you’re actually a good deal more helpful than most.” They picked up the bowl of blood, moving it to the middle of the silver circle and dropping in a single copper coin to lie on top of the small pool of liquid. “There. Copper for connection, blood for the sympathetic link. Deergrass and wild ashfruit for boundaries, red candles for a seeking, and white for protection from whatever comes back through the link we’ve forged. Unless you can think of anything I’ve missed, that should be everything we need.”

Fest frowned, looking over the ritual setup. “I don’t see anything missing,” he said, after a while. “Though you don’t have a spirit-anchor in there, unless you’re using the blood for it.”

The priest shook their head. “The circle’s silver, and I’ve damped it down. I know it’s not the most orthodox way of doing things, but given we’re in a temple and the silver I used was blessed before I installed it, it works well enough for this kind of thing.”

That wasn’t a way of building a spirit-anchor Fest had ever heard of before – but, then again, he was only a first year student, and Anneke had already proved that they knew a damn sight more about magic than he did. That didn’t mean he wasn’t still slightly worried it was going to explode, mind, but the room did seem fairly clear of scorch marks and other signs of previous magical backlash. Which means it’s doing better than pretty much all the workrooms in the university. 

“Anything else?” Anneke asked. They stepped back, looking around the laboratory. “I’ve not done this in a while, and I’d hate to mess it up in front of a witness.”

“Not that I can think of,” Fest assured them. “Though, given you know the spell and I don’t, I’m not really sure why you’re asking me.”

“Fresh eyes,” they explained. “You’re trained enough that you know what should be in a basic ritual, and not experienced enough yet that you’d just gloss over what wasn’t there on the assumption I didn’t need it.” They paused. “That, and you were worrying you weren’t being helpful. I thought you might like having something to do.”

Well, he couldn’t say they were wrong. “Is there anything else you need me to do? I mean, as part of the ritual.”

Anneke shook their head. “Not if everything goes to plan.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Then you might need to pick me up off the floor. Though that’s not very likely, and it’s only happened… twice, I think. Maybe three times, but I don’t remember much about that casting anyway.” They waved a hand dismissively. “It’s alright. It should be fine.”

Which, given my luck, Fest thought, means I should probably start looking for the nearest hiding place. I wonder how ablative those textbooks are. 

If Anneke noticed his apprehension, they didn’t think it worth a comment. They raised their arms, closing the circle with an audible crackle of magic, and began to chant. The words weren’t familiar to Fest – unsurprisingly, given he’d not studied this particular type of spell in great depth – but the language was: the unmistakable short syllables and harsh consonants of Old Sacaask, rising and falling with a rhythm that, while it echoed that of normal speech, had a music all of its own.

As Anneke chanted, the air suddenly seemed to thicken, heavy with electric potential. It felt to Fest almost as though the two of them were standing inside the beginnings of a very localised thunderstorm – he almost expected to see tiny clouds building in the rafters, or miniature bolts of lightning snaking down to strike the tops of the tallest bookcases – and he bit his lip, resisting the urge to reach forward and break the circle before the pressure built any further.

I don’t understand. This barely happened to me before – now all of a sudden it seems to be happening every time I’m near someone casting a spell. What’s going on? 

Anneke’s voice rose, the words coming faster and faster as the energy of the spell built – and, with it, the hot, heavy, humid feeling in the air, pressing down hard enough that it felt like a physical weight. Fest could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end and, when he wiped his hand across his brow, it came away smeared with blood-tinged sweat.

Is that supposed to be happening? 

If it wasn’t, there wasn’t much he could do to stop it now. With a shout of exhortation that Fest was pretty sure wasn’t in the original text (unless Halsdottir had been much more of a follower of Ashkenta than most werewolves), Anneke flung their arms wide, grinning in triumph as the spell caught with an audible snap. Fest, for his part, collapsed back against the nearest bookshelf, sighing with relief as the pressure slowly ebbed away and, for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, he was finally able to get a full breath of air.

“There,” the priest said, wiping their bloody nose on the same handkerchief they’d used to clean the wound on Fest’s fingertip. “Done.” They stepped back, eyeing the circle with what seemed like to Fest somewhat undue trepidation. “Now we just need to wait for the echoes to bounce back.”


“Think of it as a spider’s web. We’ve tugged on one of the threads, and…”

“We’re waiting to find out what kind of spider made it?” Fest hazarded. He wasn’t entirely sure he liked the metaphor – but, then again, he wasn’t entirely sure he understood it either, so maybe the two things balanced one another out.

“Something like that,” Anneke said. “It shouldn’t take too long, unless…”

“Unless? I don’t think I like the sound of ‘unless’.”

“Unless whoever’s influencing you is currently doing the equivalent of this spell.” They frowned. “And, while I’d normally say that’s not very likely, neither’s someone who wasn’t involved in the casting ending up sweating blood, so… I think all bets are off at this point.”

I knew it. Nothing ever bloody well goes right for me, does it? “I don’t suppose you-” he started, but Anneke raised a hand, cutting him off mid-sentence.


For a moment, Fest couldn’t work out what they were talking about. Then he saw it – a ball of reddish light, about the size of his clenched fist, hovering just above the pool of blood in the glass bowl at the centre of the circle.

“Perfect,” Anneke whispered, more to themselves than Fest. They stepped forward, reaching out across the silver barrier to hold the palm of their hand an inch or so above the glowing sphere. “Now, all I need to do is-”

And, with a flash of blinding light and a roar that seemed to shake the building to its foundations, the ritual circle exploded.

Fest threw himself backwards, one hand shielding his eyes, the other held out in front of him in a desperate attempt to ward off whatever it was which had caused the explosion. Through the ringing in his ears he heard someone scream once, sharply, the sound ragged and pained, and, as he forced one eye open against the blinding pain in his head, he saw Anneke huddled on the floor next to him, their curly hair matted against their forehead with blood and a thick raised welt marring the otherwise smooth skin of their throat.

A dark shape loomed over Anneke’s crumpled form, a nightmare shadow of dark wings and curling, writhing tentacles. As he watched, it reached down, stroking the tip of one long, sinuous tendril over the unconscious priest’s battered face. Anneke moaned in pain, turning their head away, but the tendril followed their movements, and, wherever it passed, a thin white line followed, shockingly visible against the priest’s dark skin.

Fest didn’t know what the thing was – there’d been no illustrations like it any of his books, and none of the lecturers had ever thought to mention the possibility of horrifying tentacle monsters erupting out of the middle of rituals, which was currently seeming like something of an oversight. What he did know, however, was that whatever it was, it wasn’t friendly. And, more to the point, it was currently doing something that looked distinctly unpleasant to someone who was in no shape to fight back.

Clearly someone needed to do something. And, in the absence of anyone more qualified, ‘someone’ meant him.

“Hey! Hey, you! How about picking on someone who’s actually conscious, for a change?”

The thing turned its head – or, at least, what passed for its head, since it wasn’t as though it had much of a face to speak of – towards him, the three glowing red orbs which he assumed were its eyes narrowing in what looked almost like confusion.

“Yes, I’m talking to you!” He pushed himself away from the bookcase he’d collided with, grabbing one of the less expensive-looking volumes and holding it in front of him like a shield. It wouldn’t do much against the thing’s tentacles, if it tried to go for him, but it might at least absorb enough of the damage that he could get himself mostly out of the way. ‘Might’ being the operative word. “What’s the matter? Is picking on unconscious priests the best you can do?”

His mouth seemed to be operating completely independently of his brain at this point – the latter being currently employed keeping up a running commentary which went something along the lines of ‘oh gods oh gods oh gods I’m going to die I’m going to die I’m going to die’ – and he found himself listening to the words coming out of it with a sort of horrified fascination. At least I’m going to die sounding vaguely like I know what I’m doing. Somehow. “Come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough!”

The thing, apparently, did. With a rustle of wings, it pivoted in mid-air, drew the longest of its dangling tentacles back into the main shadowy mass of its form, and charged.

Fest dodged sideways as it flew towards him, dropping the book, and it cannoned into the cabinet at the far end of the room, sending shattered vessels and shards of broken glass flying as it smashed through the shelves and crashed against the backboard. The impact, thankfully, seemed to stun it – it reeled back, the edges of its form blurring in the air like ink dropped into water, and its glowing eyes flickered, seemingly blinking in and out of existence in the mass of smoke and shadow which served it for a head.

Not invincible after all, then, Fest thought, with a sudden wild rush of elation.

He took another couple of steps to the side, moving out into the centre of the room to give himself more space to fight, and grabbed for his belt-knife, suddenly deeply regretting the fact that he’d forgotten to put his sword on that morning. Yes, he’d never actually used it in anger, and yes, his fencing master had pointed out that he was about as naturally talented as a dead fish, but when it came to facing off against terrifying tentacle monsters from beyond the bounds of reality, three feet of steel was three feet of steel no matter how good you were at wielding it.

And right about now, three feet of steel would have come in very, very handy.

The thing had disentangled itself from the wreckage of the shelves – it turned again, eyes narrowed, and started back towards him. It was moving slower now, either wounded or learning from its past mistakes, which meant that Fest had ample time to watch its advance and to notice, with the clarity born of complete and utter terror, that while it had wings, it wasn’t actually using them to fly. If anything, it seemed to move like some sort of airborne jellyfish – if jellyfish came complete with disturbingly humanoid heads and torsos, bat wings, and enough tentacles to outfit an entire basket of octopuses – and, where it passed, it left a heat-haze-like shimmer in the air behind it.

Definitely magical, then. That’s… helpful. 

It wasn’t. Fest’s belt knife was a good piece of steel, true, but even good steel wasn’t likely to be much use against something that was probably made of spirit-stuff, and he’d never paid enough attention in Comparative Religion to know what was supposed to work against things like this. If Viola was here, she’d probably be able to tell him – but then again, if Viola was here, she’d probably be able to sort the whole bloody thing out with no help from him anyway, so that was something of a moot point.

Although… He risked a look back over his shoulder, one eye still on the slowly advancing menace. “Anneke! Anneke, are you awake?”

The priest mumbled something unintelligible, curling in tighter on themselves. They seemed to be vaguely conscious again, though, which was a start.

“Anneke, what herbs do werewolves use for banishing evil spirits?” And, as the evil spirit in question flicked an exploratory tentacle towards him: “I really need to know now, if at all possible!”

Anneke shuddered, coughed, and then said, in a low, rough voice, “Depends. There’s… all sorts of rituals, depending on the type of-”

“The type that has three eyes, two wings, too many tentacles and is currently trying to kill us, Anneke!” Fest yelped, slashing wildly at a second tentacle as it lashed out towards his face. He leapt backwards, crying out in pain as he collided with something solid, sharp, and… wooden?

“Watch out for the table,” Anneke said, helpfully.

Fest bit back a reply that would’ve been both unwarranted and unfair – it wasn’t Anneke’s fault they were probably slightly concussed, after all – and, keeping one eye on the still-advancing creature, hastily set about untangling himself from the fractured remains of what had once been the ritual circle. The table had shattered outward from the middle of the inlaid hoop of silver, leaving raw-edge splinters as long as Fest’s arm, and the candles and herbs were scattered to the four winds – or, at least, the four corners of the room. It’s a miracle nothing’s ended up on fire, Fest thought, and then immediately regretted doing so in case it gave the universe ideas.  Not that that would make the situation all that much worse, honestly. Are evil tentacle-monster spirits fireproof?

Another tentacle lashed out from the thing’s bulk, this one catching him in the side, and he choked down a scream as a lance of white-hot fire seared across his ribcage, the pain brighter and sharper than anything he’d ever felt before. “Augh!”

“What happened? Are you alright?!”

“I’m fine!” I’m not, but I’m not telling them that. He bit his lip, hard, taking deep breaths until the pain subsided to a level which he could actually think past. Gods, if this was what that thing did to Anneke’s face, no wonder they’re not in any shape to help. Problem is, I can’t do this without them. “What herbs do I need, Anneke?”


Preferably before this thing stops playing with me and actually starts trying to kill me, if you can. He was under no illusions as to what’d happen if the creature actually went for him with all the tentacles he could see writhing under its shadowy form. For now, it seemed content to fling the occasional one or two his way – possibly it was still recovering from having collided with the bookcase, or possibly it just liked playing with its food – but that wasn’t going to last forever. And I really would like to avoid dying again any time soon. Especially since this one’s more than usually likely to be permanent. 

“Drinkwater leaf,” Anneke offered, after a pause that felt like an eternity. “Salmonberry, sage, hunter’s-blessing, dew-daughter… that’s all the ones I can think of right now, but I don’t know if-”

“Wait a second,” Fest said, a spark suddenly igniting somewhere in the back of his mind. “Hunter’s-blessing?”

“Yes, but I don’t have any. I didn’t think to-”

“Hunter’s-blessing’s a regional name.” And one that’d got him laughed out of class on his first day in the university, when they’d been asked to identify the herbs which went into a basic ritual. Not the kind of thing you forgot, even in the middle of a life-or-death battle against a creature from beyond the bounds of normal space. “It’s normally called wild ashfruit.”

Anneke made a noise which almost sounded like a laugh. “Oh Goddess forgive me, I didn’t even think to check if someone had-”

“Do you have any of that?” Fest interjected, rather more interested in the more immediate threat than the little priest’s introspection on the gaps in their research.

“Yes!” And this time they did laugh, sharp and loud and just a little too close to the edge of hysteria. “It’s one of the herbs I was using in the ritual!”

No bloody wonder he’d had the name so close to hand. He answered their laugh with a grin of his own, and dodged to the side just in time to avoid another tentacle, this one whipping dangerously close to his throat. “Excellent! Now… what do I do with it?”

If it was anything other than ‘throw it blindly at the monster and hope’, things were about to get a whole lot more complicated. But, given how his luck was currently going, it wasn’t as though-

“Um. I think you just throw it at it,” Anneke said, sounding somewhat apologetic. “It’s not one of the rituals I’ve studied extensively, so I could be wrong, but my understanding is that-”

“Good enough!” Fest bent down, scooping up a handful of trampled leaves and broken glass, and hurled it full force into the creature’s face. “Eat that, you bastard!”

Nothing happened.

The creature blinked its three glowing eyes at him, slowly, and tilted the lump of shadow which passed for its head to one side. There was a shard of glass sticking out of it, approximately where the mouth would be on something humanoid – as he watched, it cracked, warped, and finally turned to a fine, shimmering dust, disappearing into the creature’s bulk as though it had never been there.

But… that’s not fair! he thought, and then it was racing towards him, and there was no more time for thinking – no more time for anything except staggering backwards and trying to put as much distance between himself and the nightmare as possible, and knowing that it still wasn’t going to be enough, and hoping against hope that Anneke managed to get themselves out of there, because better only one of them get themselves killed facing off against this thing, and-

“I see you!”

And suddenly the monster wasn’t coming for him any more, but frozen in mid air, its red eyes blinking independently of one another as it searched the room for… something.

Or, he amended, as the realisation of what he’d just heard sunk in, someone.

“I see you and I name you, misbegotten thing!” Anneke was on their feet, shaking and bloodied, but staring down the monster with the fire and fury born of complete and utter desperation. As Fest watched, they thrust their right hand out in front of them, blood and pieces of crushed leaf leaking between their dark fingers as they walked towards the suddenly immobile creature. “Mother Moon turns her face from you!” They took another step, lifting their left hand, and suddenly it seemed to Fest as though they were carrying a ball of flame in their palm. “Father Sun takes his warmth from you!” Another step, and the flames shone even brighter, bright enough that the edges of the creature’s shadow form started to bleed and peel away into nothingness. “Earth Brother shakes you from his back! Sky Brother steals the breath from your lungs! Ocean Brother swallows you into his darkness!” One more step, close enough that they could reach out and touch the monstrosity, and he slammed his eyes shut as the flames flared even higher. “Twilight Sister sees the path and breaks the gate behind you, and you are gone!”

The world… shifted.

There was no crack of lightning. No roll of thunder. No unearthly voices, or uncanny breezes, or, somewhat to Fest’s surprise, any hint of another nosebleed. The world just… shifted on its axis, as though the entire universe had suddenly decided to up and move itself two feet to the left of where it had been previously.

And, when he opened his eyes, the creature was nowhere to be seen. Though the laboratory floor had acquired a large and unsightly burn mark right below where it had been hovering.

“What was that?” he managed, once he’d ascertained that he still had all his limbs, and that they all seemed to be roughly in the right places. “I’ve never seen magic that looked like that before!”

“That wasn’t magic,” Anneke said. “That was an exorcism.” And then, quietly and without any fuss, they fainted.


“You do realise,” Viola said, hauling Amelia to her feet for the fifth time in as many minutes, “that the other person’s supposed to end up on the floor?”

Amelia rolled her eyes, dusting herself off and rescuing her practice blade from the pile of splintered furniture it had somehow lodged itself in. “I’m getting the hang of it, Vi! You saw how close I was this time, didn’t you?”

“I saw the fact you nearly put your foot through the window, if that’s what you mean.” She sighed, relenting a little at the downcast expression on the other girl’s face. “Look, ‘melia. You’re good – I’m not denying that – but you’ve still got a way to go before you’re going to be able to do this in a real fight.”

“I know. Which is why we’re practising.”

Viola grinned. “Which is why, if you really want to go through with this, we’re practising at least four hours every day this week. More if we can persuade your parents to agree to it.” She flipped her braid back over her shoulder, moving to square off against the other girl again. “Come on, then.”

“Wait.” Amelia held up a hand.

“What’s the matter? Need to get your breath back?”

“No. But your brother’s about to come through that door, and I don’t really want to have to explain why you’ve just dropped me on my head on the floorboards. Knowing him, he’s likely to get entirely the wrong idea.”

“I don’t think-”  Viola began, and then broke off as the door in question swung open, revealing a harassed-looking Sebastian carrying a folded piece of paper in one white-gloved hand.

If he was surprised to see his sister and his employers’ daughter in the middle of a sparring bout, he didn’t show it – he nodded to Amelia, raised an eyebrow in Viola’s direction, and then said, with perfect diction that almost hid the fact that he was trying very hard not to laugh: “A letter for you, Miss Amelia.”

Amelia winced. “You know you don’t have to call me that when my parents aren’t around, Sebastian.”

“I know,” Sebastian admitted. He smiled. “But, given the fact you went and hid up a tree to escape my brotherly guidance, I thought you might respond better to a more formal approach.”

“Bastard,” Amelia said, affectionately. She reached out for the letter, almost snatching it from his hand. “Is it from-”

“Your fiance? Yes.”

“Is he here?”

“No. This was delivered by a runner, but she left without waiting for a reply.”

“Damn.” She unfolded the letter, scanned down the page, and then looked up, grinning widely. “Vi?”

“Yes?” Why do I have a bad feeling about this all of a sudden? 

“Do you fancy a trip to the River Quarter?”

Aaand there it is, Viola thought. She bit back her first response (which had been something along the lines of ‘are you crazy?’), settling instead for a simple “Why?” and then, given that that one word somehow failed to completely encapsulate her feelings on the matter, added “Please don’t tell me you’re serious about that.”

“I’m with Viola on this,” Sebastian chimed in. He scowled, running his hands through his hair. “The River Quarter’s not exactly safe at the best of times, and with that poor girl getting murdered-”

“That’s why I want Viola to come with me,” Amelia said, wide-eyed and guileless. “She can protect me from all the bad people.” She held the expression for a moment, watching the two werewolves spluttering as they searched for words, then grinned. “Oh, you should see the looks on your faces! I know it’s not ‘safe’, and I’m not an idiot – I’m not planning on going any further in than the top of Steepside, and even then, only a few streets down. And I’m going armed. Obviously.”

“That doesn’t make it any better!” Viola exclaimed. She sighed. “I mean, I can’t stop you, short of actually knocking you down and sitting on you, but this is still a terrible idea.”

“Oh, I know,” the other girl agreed. “But I can’t ask Harry to come by the house if Mama’s likely to catch him here – she’ll only end up asking questions, and that’s not something either of us want right now.”

“So instead you’re going to go down into the worst quarter of the city to… do what exactly?” Sebastian asked. “Go calling on him? Is that what he asked you to do?”

Amelia scowled. “I don’t appreciate that insinuation, Sebastian. He’s-”

“Someone neither of us have ever actually met, for all you’ve been engaged to him for a month now,” Viola interjected. “You don’t think we’ve every right to be just a little sodding suspicious?”

The other girl’s eyes narrowed. “Not when this has nothing to do with you. He’s my fiance, not yours.”

“And you decided not to bother even introducing us before you bloody well went and got engaged,” Viola growled, exasperated. “Sod the whole bodyguard thing, I’d be raising seven kinds of hell over this even if you were my true-born sister. More, in fact, because you don’t just sodding do that!”

“Why not?” Amelia challenged. “In fact, why does everything I do have to involve you – both of you? If I want to get engaged to someone I know, and trust, and love, why do you have to be involved at any stage of the damn process?”

“Because I care about you, ‘melia!” And because right now you’re acting like a complete lovestruck idiot. “Spirits and ancestors, I was prepared to bite my bloody tongue over most of this-”

“Oh? Really? Because it sounded like you actually approved of him earlier!”

“-but if he’s going around asking you to come down to the slums for no good reason, then yes, I reserve the right to be fucking suspicious!”

“Why? Because I want just one thing in my life that’s mine?” She folded her arms across her chest, the letter crumpled in her hand. “I know you want to protect me – gods and goddesses, we’re practically siblings in every way other than blood – and I know that half the time you’re just following orders from on high, and that’s not something I can do anything about. But I’m sick and tired of being watched and followed and guarded, as though I were some kind of prisoner rather than a girl who just wants to have her own damn life, for once!” She paused, breathing heavily, and glared from one twin to other. “Is that too much to bloody well ask?”

I… honestly hadn’t thought about it that way, Viola thought, somewhere behind the mess of shock and hurt feelings Amelia’s words had stirred up. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath and inadvertently scenting the bright thread of the other girl’s distress. Well, if I’d ever thought she was lying… Spirits and ancestors, I didn’t realise it was this bad. “Look. ‘melia. I-”

“We’re sorry,” Sebastian said. He looked about as rough as Viola felt, but he’d at least managed to get to the point where he could string a sentence together – even if he was doing that irritating thing where he ended up trying to speak for the both of them. “It hadn’t occurred to us-”

“That I might ever want some part of my life that you weren’t part of?” Amelia interrupted, eyes blazing.

“That that was why you were hiding it,” Viola said, quietly. She sighed, letting a portion of the tension bleed out of her shoulders and spine. “And Seb’s right about us being sorry, even if he’s a prick half the time.”


“I only said half the time, brother of mine. The rest of the time you’re perfectly lovely.” She turned back to Amelia, who’d simmered down from incandescent rage to merely slightly irritated-looking. “Fine. Alright. If you trust your boy, that’s enough for me. I’m still not happy with you going to the River Quarter on your own  – not to mention the fact your parents would kill me if I let you do that – but first off, I can’t stop you, and second, I think you’re smart enough that you’re going to take one of us with you no matter how pissed off with us you are.”

Amelia frowned at her for a moment, and then nodded, once. “Thank you. And yes, if you’re willing to come with me, I could do with the company.” She smiled, a brief flicker of an expression that ended up looking a whole lot more worried than she probably meant it to be. “I didn’t mean to yell at you. It’s just… the way Mama and Papa treat me sometimes, you’d think I was made of glass. I promise you, I’m not that breakable.”

And if the ancestors are feeling kindly disposed towards us, that’s not going to end up getting put to the test. It wasn’t that she thought Amelia couldn’t handle herself in a fight – she’d trained the girl herself, for fuck’s sake – but there was a hell of a difference between ‘good in a training salle’ and ‘good against someone who actually wanted you dead’. More to the point, she’s a human. Slower reflexes, slower healing, duller senses… the fact they’re even able to take us on in combat is a testament to how bloodyminded the whole lot of them are as a species. Not that I’d change her for the world, mind. 

“…Vi? Reassure me I’ve not completely screwed everything up, will you?”

Not least because she’s the one who’s got every right to be angry, and she’s worrying if I’m alright. Out loud, she said: “You’re fine. And, look, if it helps, I’ll stay outside and keep my face turned to the wall the entire time you’re talking to him, if you want.” She grinned, letting the expression turn a little more wolfish than would generally be considered polite. “Can’t promise I won’t listen in, mind.”

“Vi!” Amelia protested, but she was laughing as she did so. “It’s not like that. He just wanted to tell me where he was staying for the moment, and ask if I wanted to meet him there so I could reassure myself he wasn’t living somewhere completely unfit for sapient habitation.”

“Given where he’s chosen to live, that’s a sensible worry to have,” Sebastian chipped in. “You said he was lodging in Steepside, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” She unfolded the paper in her hand, smoothing out the worst of the creases, and looked down at it again. “Apparently on a road called ‘Butcher’s Lane’… which, I will admit, isn’t the most reassuring of names.”

I’m going to regret this. I’m going to regret all of this. So much. But she’d given her word, and Amelia had had a point about wanting her own life for once, and… And if he does turn out to be a problem, he’s a human and I’m a werewolf. The odds aren’t exactly in his favour. 

“Fine,” she said, out loud. “When do we leave?”


Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan.  All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Blood on the Snow: Chapter 9 (draft)

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