Oh, damn. Here we are again!
VAELA DENARR (SHE/THEY) & MICAH IANNANDREA (THEY/THEM)
The Gift of Blood (Crimson Tears: Book One)
The Gift of Blood Book Cover by Lexa @rocket_bird
CW: This book contains gore, brief mentions of self-harm, and brief mentions of homophobia.
Ryann had sometimes had issues with her sleep cycle, back when she was studying hard for her medical degree. Two years of late nights had taught her one thing: If you can’t sleep, lying in bed trying to force yourself to sleep likely wasn’t going to work.
She had no idea whether becoming a vampire would reset her sleep schedule so she could sleep during the day. Or if she needed vitamin D in the long run. And those thoughts, her wondering about her new biological needs and requirements, were what had kept her up most days and nights the past week.
Like right now. It was all in all a pleasant day. It had rained, so Ryann had been able to look outside for a bit without worrying about the sun. Now the rain had stopped, the sun was going down, but she still didn’t budge from her bed. She couldn’t sleep, and she really needed to try, for her sanity.
Beating up Batman had been hard work. Surely she needed to rest. Or so she had thought when she’d returned home that night. And yet here she still was, trying to get the blessed sleep that eluded her.
At least it didn’t feel like she slept. A few times she had drifted in and out of consciousness, but it hadn’t been restful. She’d tossed and turned and writhed at the image of sharp fangs in the night permeating her dreams of blood-scent and darkness. Now, as she’d opened her eyes and her racing heart had stopped pounding, she didn’t feel like she had rested at all. Time had passed, as a look at the clock had told her, but that was the only indication that she’d done much more than stare at the ceiling for some hours. Even those feverish dreams faded into obscurity shortly after waking.
Most nights this past week Ryann simply hadn’t been able to sleep because the hunger in her gut kept her awake. It gnawed at her and burned in her limbs. It itched in fingers, making her squeeze them into her mattress and blanket. As if she was trying to hold on to something, something tasty and filled with wet, warm blood…
She felt starved. Not just for blood, she had enough of that, but… anything. Everything. Movement. Touch. Action. It felt almost mundane, but amplified. She needed something to do other than lie here all alone.
In the quiet and the dark of this Thursday night, Ryann sat up in her bed and looked at the cheap alarm clock she had bought when she’d moved into this attic apartment. (She had resolved to get a better one once she had made more money, but it had ultimately never mattered enough.) The clock read 11:30 in stark red lines. Red lines that were way brighter than Ryann remembered them ever being.
She looked around her room with a little grumble of discontent. She was restless. She hated that feeling, but she saw nothing she could really use to get that tension out of her muscles. Everything was outlined sharply in the contrasts of her night vision. The edge of her bed, the abandoned weights that had started collecting dust in the corner, the books on the small desk… Resting didn’t help, neither did the little workouts she could do in her small home, nor did reading.
The Stalwart Hunter’s Almanac lay on her desk, closed, still mocking her, as she so far hadn’t been able to find out anything about the language it was written in. There seemed to be no online account of anything related to ‘Thelosian’. Ryann shouldn’t have been able to see it there without turning on the lights at all. Her window faced a brick wall, and the sky was still very much overcast with dark clouds. The fact that she could make out the room so easily only highlighted how much she had changed.
She sighed and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, quietly standing up. She had to duck to make sure she didn’t hit her head on the slanted ceiling as she got up, and made her way to the bathroom. She fumbled for the light switch for a moment without looking. The click of it sounded loud in her ears, as did the humming of the lightbulb flickering to life. She squinted briefly before her eyes adjusted to the brightness and everything turned colourful again. Much better. She didn’t like the monochrome of her night vision. Useful as it was, it made her world feel alien and strange.
Ryann stripped off her tank top and pyjama pants. She let them drop to the floor and got into the shower. The water took a second to heat up, but then it became warm and comfortable. It was soothing after the past nights of stalking, searching, and evading Batman. And making herself feel clean helped Ryann organise her thoughts.
But as she ran her fingers through her long, black hair, her stomach rumbled loudly. It burned with hunger and reminded her of her new diet.
She huffed and braced an arm against white-tiled wall. The blood hunger was different from regular hunger. It felt like a pull in her gut towards the scents of people. She could faintly smell them and their blood everywhere, on the streets, even through the walls of their homes sometimes.
Ryann shook her head. She watched where the stream from her shower head crossed her right forearm. It hit the little space of skin above her elbow, right under the blackout floral designs that wrapped around her biceps and triceps. Water cascaded over her back as she moved. It warmed her and formed little rivulets in the dips of her muscles. She leaned back and let the water drench her hair and cover her face. After a couple of seconds, she moved out of the stream again with a small huff. Little droplets of water sprayed from her lips.
She didn’t like how she could tell that she’d lost some muscle in the hospital. She was still pretty big, but she had worked hard for her strength and physique, and to lose it through such bullshit kinda sucked.
But she was still more than a match for the ones who’d kidnapped and killed her. Doing so, and healing her in the process, would be the worst mistake they’d ever made. She would find them. She would pay them back for the humiliation, the pain that still stung whenever her mind flashed back to how helpless she’d felt.
Her fist hit the wall in anger. Not a hard strike, but it cracked the tile she’d hit. Ryann shook her head to clear it. When that failed, she turned the water from warm to ice cold, and put her head under it again. It reminded her of doing the same after a fight and her workouts, and that was sufficiently familiar to help her relax.
She felt a little better when she stepped out of the shower. If nothing else, her body was working right again, and she couldn’t help but let out a happy breath at feeling. No pulled muscles, no cramps, no great pain from being immobile for a while. She stretched happily and arched her back. Not even her hands hitting the ceiling of her cramped bathroom was enough to dampen her mood right then, though it did remind her of her plans to move out. Those were now thoroughly dashed, but she had bigger issues.
Ryann turned with her back to the bathroom sink and pulled her wet hair aside to inspect her back in the mirror over her shoulder. She moved a little, and her muscles rippled under the black feathers. Those blackout wings stretched from the half-sleeve on her thick neck over the top of her back. They wrapped around her sculpted shoulders, went down the arms and encroached on the tattoos there. She’d wanted to get a tattoo in that blank spot at the back of her neck, but had never gotten around to it. Still, now that she looked at it, that space felt somehow empty, and she rubbed her hand over it a little.
She had obviously lost muscle in her back too. She’d have to build her strength back up… if she even could. Nothing said for certain that a vampire’s metabolism allowed for muscle growth. In most pop culture, they were just static, walking corpses. But Ryann bled. She inspected the cut on her ribcage where Bruce had slashed her. It hadn’t been particularly long or deep, and now it was pretty much gone already. She could still trace a faint, discoloured line in her skin. Other than that, nothing.
If that was how quick her body healed, then there was no reason not to go out hunting the bastards who had turned her. She was as healed as she was going to be. And her little cemetery getaway had shown her that she could still kick ass.
Might as well get this done quickly so I can move on with my fucking life, Ryann thought and rolled her shoulders with a little growl. She cleared her throat at the sound as she turned to the mirror. It still felt strange. The sounds just came out of her throat unbidden, and it was just a little weird. She hoped her new throat wouldn’t cause any complications while breathing.
She looked herself over a bit more as she brushed her hair to get any knots out before it dried. There hadn’t been many changes at first. There were now. Her dusky-bronze skin had taken on a paler colour. Dark veins surrounded her eyes, which looked as sunken as during her most stressful med school weeks. Her eye colour hadn’t changed, despite all popular vampire media saying otherwise. They were still green, with a hint of red around her pupil. The skin around hadn’t gone slack or pulled taut, her eyes remained oval and sharp, with a gaze that could make people melt in either adoration or fear.
She let her eyes run over the four scars on her face. Some stuff she’d read during her research had told Ryann that becoming a vampire healed all scars. She was glad hers were still there. They were reminders. One cut across the inner corner of her right eye, smaller than the others, thin and barely noticeable. A souvenir from a competitor’s attempt at a foul in an underground fight ring. Ryann had beaten him bloody even without weapons and just one eye.
Another scar ran through her left eyebrow. A relic from a scuffle in the streets. It went down from her brow almost to her eyelid. She’d been lucky to just get a scar. Other people there had not been so fortunate.
Another scar from a street fight remained as a vertical cut on her lip, towards the left of her mouth. That was when she had learned how to dodge a knife to the face. She’d only messed it up once.
Her eyes rested on the last scar, the oldest of the four. It ran vertically across her face, with the frayed end slanting down towards her right cheek. It was thin, barely visible anymore with how old it was, but Ryann knew it was there. In the right light, it would be easy for anyone to see. She remembered how much the healing had itched. She had been so young, it was almost one of her first memories.
She used to hate that scar. But with time, it grew on her. It was a reminder that she was still here, and that she would make her parents proud. The scars always attracted attention, though. Some people pretended not to stare, some people looked at her with pity. Some asked about them casually. Some asked invasively. Only one person had ever just waited until she’d felt ready to open up about them.
And that was when Ryann felt her throat close up because she was suddenly reminded of London. Her Lonnie. Their relationship had ended with London crying and Ryann feeling miserable and being stuck in a hospital bed.
Everything after waking up had been just a deluge of hurt piled on Ryann. The weakness, the nausea, the pain, the breakup… And worst of all, she didn’t even tell me why, Ryann thought pitifully and felt like breaking down in tears. She could imagine the ‘why’, to be quite honest. You didn’t have to be a genius to know how seeing her in the hospital after a four-month coma had affected her girlfriend — ex-girlfriend — London, that is.
She had sat at Ryann’s bedside after the coma, looking as miserable as Ryann had felt from embarrassment about her state. Her then-girlfriend had witnessed her throwing up just seconds before, too. She hadn’t answered when Ryann had whispered her name, and then, when she had eventually looked at Ryann with teary eyes, she had just said five words.
“I can’t do this anymore.” And then London had left.
Ryann had watched her walk away with a numbness in her limbs and in her head. Then that hole in her stomach had opened into a pit of nausea that had made her want to throw up into the bucket at her bedside again. She had stayed in that hospital bed for days, crying. She had lost her strength, her ability to fight, and a girl she really, really liked. In her darkest moments, she had almost wished she had just died.
And then she really had died.
Life kinda sucked right now.
Okay, enough of this shit. Ryann turned on the faucet and splashed some icy cold water in her face. That was the past. She needed to worry about her future.
She took a deep breath and brushed her hand over the side of her neck. Her undercut had really started to grow out, she noticed as she tucked some of the long hair behind her ear. She hadn’t really paid it any mind when she was heartbroken. She had paid it even less mind when she’d tried to find clues on her killers. Funny what you miss when you’re trying to find your murderers.
She took a few moments to clean it up in the shower. The low buzzing sound of the shaver was calming and familiar to her. She took little time to run her fingers over the little hair stubbles. She checked one more time in the mirror. Nothing worse than missing a spot.
She tilted her head gently, watching the light catch on the thin cut at her lip. She bared her teeth and inspected the elongated fangs. She tested them with a tongue and almost drew blood. That’s… interesting, she thought. They didn’t seem to impede her speaking, and closing her mouth felt normal, but she probably still should see a dentist to make sure everything else remained properly aligned.
Ryann was just glad she hadn’t lost any teeth yet. She didn’t need any supernatural bullshit messing up her streak. Then a thought occurred to her. Do vampires grow teeth back, question mark? Maybe they were like sharks. Could be a thing, Ryann thought. God I hope it’s a thing… That would make getting punched in the face so much less worrisome.
Her fangs ached with a dull throb as she inspected them. Her stomach burned with renewed hunger, and she pressed her arms to her gut with a little groan. The more she tried to ignore it, the more it hurt. Like there was a physical, throbbing mass inside her that slowly spread throughout her gut.
She leaned on the side of the sink as the hunger flared up stronger. It was a brief, unpleasant moment, but she still heard her claws scratch over the sink as they extended from her fingers like sharp blades.
She quickly pulled back and ripped her hand away from the sink. There were some hairline cracks where her fingers had curled around it too tight, with some scratches from her claws to boot. She grimaced. Another thing I’ll have to replace when I move out, she thought with a soundless sigh. Stupid-ass claws with a mind of their own…
She inspected them, dissatisfied. They slowly shrank back down, as if they hadn’t just come out and destroyed her property.
They didn’t make sense (as much as anything made sense about being a vampire). There was no way her fingernails could somehow extend like the claws of a cat. That’s not how it worked, seeing as her hand and bone structure was all wrong for that. The claws didn’t slide out and in. She had checked. Her fingernails just seemed to grow and shrink back down, defying all common sense and physics she knew of.
On top of that, the claws also didn’t have the common decency to slide all the way back in, so she had to fucking cut them all the time. Which was hard. Because they were fucking hard. Like super hard. Like ‘get an extra powerful nail clipper and file’ hard. Or a power tool, at this point. Ryann was going through nail clippers faster than she liked. Two in the last week. She’d tried scissors and had blunted them. And the result hadn’t been pretty.
Then again, her blood drinking also didn’t seem to make much sense, unless her digestive system had reworked itself a bit.
Another powerful throb in her gut and fangs reminded her to get back on that.
She moved to the kitchen, rubbing her fangs through the skin to alleviate a little pain. She was thankful the power hadn’t been turned off since she’d been in the hospital, unable to pay her electricity and water bill. The last thing she needed was her sparse blood supply going bad. She had received a number of invoices reminding her of late payments, which she frankly thought was bullshit. What was she supposed to do, rise from her coma at the convenience of capitalism? No fucking chance.
What had surprised Ryann far more than the fact that vampires were real and that she was now one of them, was how easy it was for her to come to terms with that. She had never considered herself superstitious. She generally believed in science over magic. But after that first night, when she’d made it back to her apartment and had noticed her claws and her changed teeth, she had come to accept it fairly quickly.
It had been a confusing night. She hadn’t known how she’d gotten back to her apartment, until her memory had slowly come back. She’d just been there, had taken a shower to try and warm her cold body, and had noticed the changes. The borderline breakdown afterwards was not something she wanted to revisit, even in memory.
For a little bit she’d still thought that maybe she’d slipped back into a coma and was having a terrible dream. But it wasn’t a dream. The visceral pain of her hand burning in the sun had quickly driven that point home.
It could have been worse. At least I have food, she thought dryly to herself now as she knelt down to open her small fridge. Ah. I stand corrected. No more blood. Barely half a bag was left from her cemetery excursion a few days ago. She was so hungry all the time, it was hard to keep track. She could still ingest normal food, but blood had a strange sweetness to it that she couldn’t resist, and it filled an appetite that normal food couldn’t sate.
She still tried. Ryann had lived on the streets long enough to know that an addiction could be lethal. So she really didn’t want to get too much into the blood slurping until she knew more about how her body worked. She needed a blood bag almost every day, even without running around and fighting, though she felt as though the hunger was slowly decreasing. She had no idea if this was because she was newly Turned or because she’d tried to space out her blood drinking.
There was still so much she didn’t know. She really wanted to research a bunch. But right now was not the time. She needed to follow the trail of her killers before it went cold.
Ryann rubbed her neck before cracking it once with a set of audible pop’s. Either way, there was nothing for it. She would have to go out hunting for more blood. And while she was at it, she could look for her enemies, she decided as she crouched before her little fridge.
She unscrewed the cap on the blood bag. With a little shudder at the taste of plastic, she started sucking on it.
I’m drinking my food through a fucking straw. I hate this.
She still drank. She was too fucking hungry.
The blood ran out far too quickly. She wiped her lips with a tissue and threw it in the trash along with the now empty blood bag.
Warmth flowed through her limbs. Ryann hummed thoughtfully and quickly stepped back into the bathroom to check on her appearance. Looking into the mirror once more, she could see the dark veins disappearing around her eyes. Life returned to her, so did warmth and colour to her cheeks. She bared her teeth at her reflection again to see if there was any blood on them. She could still almost taste some when she licked her lips.
She also couldn’t deny the fangs were kinda hot. Maybe something to think about if she wanted to ever date again.
She brushed her teeth and tried not to think about girlfriends, and instead got dressed in loose fitting black sweats and a sleeveless, grey hoodie. She went to the door, reaching out, then stopped before she touched the handle.
She looked back to the window. She really needed some excitement. Her lips pulled into a little smirk. “Yeah, let’s have some fun,” she muttered softly to herself and stepped in front of the window. It opened quietly and let in a cool night breeze.
Ryann took a breath, stepped back, then flung herself out into the night.
For a moment she had that plunging feeling in her gut as she fell. Then her fingers caught the railing of the fire escape opposite her window. Her feet landed against the metal bars with a soft clang, cushioning her impact. She pushed off the metal and twisted, falling again and catching on to the windowsill of her downstairs neighbour. Then she went back to the fire escape again, lower again, leaping down quickly with practised motions.
She used to practise a lot around her apartment before she got the chance to go to an actual parkour gym. If she hadn’t been turned into a vampire, she’d still have to take the stairs like a boring person. Or even worse — the elevator. Ryann would have died of old age or boredom before that shitty old thing reached any new floors. Besides, she barely fit in it.
She continued to turn and jump and fall down the remaining four stories, quick and agile as a cat, before landing on the wet pavement of the alleyway. It was narrow and smelled bad, something that was much more apparent to her now than it had been before her Turning. Her senses seemed to have sharpened to a small degree. She didn’t even need reading glasses anymore.
Ryann pulled her hood up and started walking down the alley. She went slow at first, but gradually got faster. The cool night air felt wonderful as it brushed over her arms and shoulders. Running always got her into a better mood. It helped her sort her thoughts, clear her mind… Maybe she’d come up with a few ideas of how to get blood?
Stealing blood was not a good idea. Clinics regulated their blood supplies strictly. They would definitely notice some missing. Besides, people needed that blood.
Attacking people was also out of the question.
I guess I could just ask people, she decided as she ran. She jumped up the wall next to her at an angle and pushed off of it. Her hands gripped the top of the chain link fence blocking her path. She vaulted over it with ease, landed on her feet with only the faintest stumble, and kept going.
Drinking blood helped her heal. A week ago, she had been incredibly weak and unsure on her feet. Now she could run like she used to.
The city was louder now, even here in the back alleys, where all sound gradually got swallowed by bricks and twisting turns. Or rather, Ryann could hear more going on. She heard the sound of televisions through windows and walls, the noises of people arguing and yelling two streets down, the roar of a car flying past long before anyone else would have heard it… Luckily she was learning to drown out the noise as long as she wasn’t thinking too hard about it. The smell, though… Safe to say, garbage day would be her least favourite day from now on. Or night, as the case may be.
Few people were out on the street that night when she exited the back alleys to run along a better illuminated street. The ones who were didn’t stop to watch Ryann jog past, likely assuming she was some gym rat or athlete who just couldn’t exercise right in the middle of the day. They weren’t exactly wrong.
She didn’t mind going out in the dark. It was cooler in the summer, perfect for exercising, and she wasn’t afraid of people she might run into. The one time she had run into problems, she had kicked those problems all the way to the emergency room. Her grandma had given her a pat on the head and smiled at her.
Ryann frowned gently at the memory. Maybe rewarding her bad behaviour hadn’t exactly been the best idea, but it explained why she’d grown up to be such a badass.
A strange scent deepened her frown. It drifted up from further down the street and was so intense that she almost felt like she could see it in the air. It was distinct as well. Ryann slowed to a stop when a stranger stepped right into her path, a little ways ahead, directly under a street lamp.
She narrowed her eyes at him. He was huge, at least six-four, with a dense, black beard, dark tanned skin, and piercing grey eyes. His hair, pushed back and equally as dense, was peppered with little flecks of white.
His expression was even and his gaze calculating as he looked Ryann over. She quickly pulled her mask up. The man was wearing a brown button-down with the sleeves rolled up. It looked a little big on him, but she could see the clearly defined musculature at his neck and forearms. A ring glinted on his left hand as he moved it from its crossed position and lifted the hand to greet Ryann.
She walked just a little closer and stopped a little ways before him, just inside the ring of light. She sniffed and leaned back a bit with a grunt. “You smell like a wet dog.”
The man furrowed his brow. There was something off about the way he looked, but Ryann couldn’t say what it was. “Wow, rude,” he said dryly with a deep and rumbling voice. “You smell like blood. Had a late breakfast?”
Ryann shot back a step. She tensed and brought her fists up. Her heartbeat quickened as she prepared to throw down with this random fucking stranger. But he just slowly raised his hands, which were marked with a myriad of little scars that pulled over the forearms and all the way up the arms.
“Hold your horses, kid,” he said. “I’m not here to fight.”
“Who the fuck are you?” she growled back at him.
He casually and slowly put his hands in his pockets, like she was a skittish animal he didn’t want to frighten. “Name’s Carver. I work for the Dawn as… an associate, let’s say.”
“The fuck is the Dawn?” Ryann rolled her shoulders gently, ready to fight. She looked the guy over. She was having a hard time placing his age. Somewhere between his thirties and late forties, maybe? Either way, he looked pretty tough, and he knew what she was. His skin wasn’t pale, but neither was hers. Ryann was starting to wonder how exactly that worked for Bloods.
Carver seemed a bit taken aback at that. “Are you new in the city? Stars, are you newly Turned?” Apparently he could see in her eyes that that was it, because he pulled his hands out of his pockets and ran one over his hair with a worried expression. “Fuck me… Shit.”
Ryann growled a little louder. “You’re gonna start making sense fucking soon,” she said, “or I’m gonna see if I can’t knock some into you.”
Carver shook his head. He rubbed his neck and looked back at her. “We should get a drink. This is gonna be a long talk…” He already sounded tired.
“Oh, yeah, no,” Ryann said with a little chuckle. “I don’t think so.” Who does this guy think he is? But she relaxed her stance a bit. “I don’t know you, dude. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
Carver looked at her and his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. After a moment, he nodded gently, as if he was deciding on something. He hadn’t taken even a single step closer to her. “Suit yourself. But if you don’t know about the Dawn, there’s a few things you should know. So, mind if I give you a crash course on survival? From one person with a secret diet to another.” His lips twitched in what was almost a smile.
“What’s the catch?” Ryann asked and crossed her arms. She narrowed her eyes as well.
“Nothing much. Just the name of your killer?”
Her growl returned. “If you mean the bitch who Turned me, no idea,” she said and pulled the stolen ID out of her pocket. “But this guy was there.”
Carver took it with a little frown creasing his brow. He looked at the ID and growled in clear anger. It was a deep, throaty sound, much more animalistic than what Ryann’s throat produced. She flinched back a little. “Lucas Merlowe’s gang,” Carver said with a snarl. He handed the ID back. “Stay away from them. The Dawn will deal with them.”
“Sure,” she said, lying through her teeth as she took it. “So what’s the Dawn?”
“Bloods form factions,” Carver explained. “The Scorching Dawn is relatively new — they’ve been in control of the GTA for around a hundred years. And they have some strict rules regarding human interaction.” He looked Ryann over one more time, with a thoughtful look that ran over her arms especially. Was he gauging her “Bloods aren’t allowed to Turn anyone.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Ryann said and tapped her foot. She started to pace a little. “So what’s the punishment for that, huh? Because I feel kinda like I’d want to have a word with this Lucas guy about exactly that!” She ground her teeth behind the mask in anger. Oh, she would have words alright… Mainly his screams.
Carver huffed and tilted his head in a strangely animalistic gesture. “It’s called the Scorching Dawn,” he said darkly. “Make a guess. Which, by the way, brings us to you.” He took a step closer and leaned in a bit. This prompted Ryann to stand still again, feet squared, ready to fight. She could smell his breath, sharp but strangely odourless, like that of a predator. His voice was low and deliberate as he spoke again. “Don’t drink from people without consent. If you coerce or pressure anyone…”
“I’m not a fucking monster!” Ryann growled and got in his face. “I’m not gonna ambush people in the night!” Their eyes remained locked for a moment, then she huffed and shouldered her way past him. A couple of pedestrians had spotted their interaction and had crossed the road. Luckily there weren’t enough people around for them to create a scene. “Now, I’m gonna go on a run,” she said. “Don’t follow me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Carver said back. His voice was level, but she could feel his stare at the back of her head. “If you need blood, I can—”
“Fuck off is what you can do!” Ryann called back and headed further along the road, away from him. She rubbed her shoulder a bit. It hurt where she’d pushed past Carver. He hadn’t looked particularly big, but he’d felt much stronger and harder than his outward appearance had let on. Not too dissimilar to the vampire she had had to choke out in the ring that one time.
She kept an ear out, but she didn’t hear the stomp of Carver’s heavy boots anywhere nearby. She still checked over her shoulder a couple times, but there was no scent of wet dog or that weird animal smell that had permeated the air around him.
She growled at remembering his instruction to stay away from Lucas and fucking Victor Vaughn. That wasn’t going to happen.
After all, she had business with them.
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