Country Pursuits

Story by Ziegenbock on SoFurry

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In an island nation gripped by a food crisis, old rivalries between predator and prey re-surface. But surely re-legalising fox hunting is a step too far?

Whew! It's good to be back on SoFurry. This is somewhat different to my usual writing, but I hope you all enjoy it.

This is my entry for the Dog Eat Dog Fiction Contest, currently being run by Fauxlacine ( It's set in her dystopian world plagued by food shortages, infertility and inter-species conflict.

This is by far one of my darker pieces - with scenes of a graphic nature. Please read the keywords first! Otherwise, enjoy.

Country Pursuits A Dog Eat Dog tale from a small island

Welcome to my home. It's strange to think that this quaint little country was once the powerhouse of the world. One hundred years ago we ruled the waves, but just eighteen years ago, we sailed into a sunset once thought impossible. A nation without purpose, riven with hate and division. Now hunger, infertility and paranoia stalk this land - a cocktail darker and more satanic than Brunel's wildest nightmares.

Being an island, the global food shortage hit us harder than most. With other nations also tightening their belts, our friends elsewhere took any little excuse to cut us off, and twenty-two miles of cold water was plenty excuse enough. Then, like most aspects of the special relationship, what began in America soon found its way to our shores. Strictly speaking, the old enmities between carnist and herbivore didn't "re-appear". Herbies have never shaken their deep-seated, primal fear of the unknown. The fear that the mother badger in the supermarket queue soothing her howling and emaciated little cub might tire of the ever-increasing price of meat-rations and simply snatch a nearby rabbit-morph to feed her baby's hunger-pangs. Yet the food crisis was the perfect catalyst for these old rivalries to rise to the surface. Crisis brings out the best in an animal - and the very worst.

Weed-munching scum. We knew they would decriminalise their quote-unquote 'sports' as soon as they could. All throughout the last election campaign, the pro-prey parties made no secret of their desires - within just twelve months, hunting would be legal again. It was right there in black-and-white in their manifesto (then again they could write anything in there - nobody reads those things). All the old arguments came up: it was good for the environment and pest control (while conveniently failing to mention that they themselves bred the foxes for release - and always have done). It's good for the economy too, apparently. Plus, hunting was always a huge social spectacle for herbies. Whole towns and villages will turn out for the hunt - even if most return to their tea and slippers well before any actual slaughter happens. Why did they remove this fulcrum of rural life in the first place? All in all, it was a masterfully manipulative piece of politics - just the snide vote-winning policy they needed to shore up support from the herbie majority. Most of them hate our predatory guts anyway: why would they oppose it?

They loved it, in fact. Soon, pro-huntist groups sprung up, the largest of which was the Rural Liberty Alliance - a ragtag band of farmers, landowners and thugs who ostensibly lobbied for 'countryside affairs', but in reality just wanted an excuse to rip a carnist limb from limb. But you have to hand it to the RLA - they played the 'tradition' card masterfully. You see, we as a nation cling to our ways, like a pitbull's jaws cling to a dripping piece of meat. 'Tradition' counts for a lot in these isles. More than our eight hundred years of hard-fought rights, it seems.

True, some of us lobbied and fought against the Field Sports Bill, and a lot of morphs got very angry about it. Like that stoat boy who got high on Valium and attacked the Countryside Minister with a riding crop. Oh, that was a PR coup for the RLA, believe me. But even with those setbacks, the apathy among the public, even among my fellow preds, it was... it was crushing, to tell the truth. Looking back, I know why so few actively opposed it. The government sold it as such a minor change. Everyone said there were more important debates to be had. Which makes me wonder why they dedicated so much debating time to the Bill. Well let's be fair, even politicians need a break. Let's give them something 'lighter' to bleat about. It's not like there's famine and infertility to combat - for them at least. Always enough swill in the trough for them.

So the vote came around. It was a free vote, meaning it wasn't whipped (ha ha). And we thought there were enough sympathetic herbivores and omnivores in the House to kill the Bill stone-dead. But it passed. Something which nobody expected. Then again, nobody expected them to win a majority last year.

The machinery of government grinds on, greased red with blood and fur.

So the impossible happened: hunting was legal once more. The lords of the land had a slight problem, though: no quarry. This land may be green and pleasant, but it's about as natural as the sewage in our seas. Even our wilderness is managed, grazed by livestock until it's sterile. At the same time, all of our game animals had been wiped out. As one anti-hunt politician rather succinctly put it, "What will you hunt?" The answer was so obvious - foxes. Not our feral cousins, but real, thinking, breathing_feeling_ vulpine morphs. Good enough, I suppose. If it looks, walks and talks like a fox, it's a fox. Of course, all the hunts stringently denied hunting morphs: they claimed that feral foxes had been reintroduced from Slovakia or somewhere. They even posted a video online of three crates arriving at a farm, all marked with a foreign and accented text. The boxes were crowbarred open, and out shot three feral foxes, all scarpering for the nearest forest as fast as their paws would carry them. That little propaganda piece was called into question when a newspaper posted an investigation into fifty missing morphs in the south-east of the kingdom- foxes, every last one, all disappearing without a trace within one week of each other. Of course the government machine went into full spin, smearing the poor rat who broke the story. Websites and tabloids posted old pictures of him at university, attending something called a 'predding party'. I've heard of these. Predators will meet somewhere remote, an abandoned farmhouse perhaps. The party proceeds like any other: drinking and maybe some music. The only difference is the prey-morph, gagged and tied-up as the centrepiece. Some will simply hog-tie the animal, but increasingly they will pull some hooks through the animal's wrists and string him from the ceiling. And much like a buffet, whenever a pred feels hungry, he will tear a strip of flesh from the morph and gulp it down. The prey's muffled screams will rouse the attention of his fellow party-goers, some of whom will smile and raise a beer-can, others of whom will circle and slaver, waiting for their chance to butcher the animal, slowly but very surely devouring him alive. Not all of them die, either: sometimes a farmer or rambler will find them the next morning, flayed and skinned alive, bleating and gurgling for breath. If I were a sheep, I'm not sure I'd want to survive such an encounter.

So the message with the rat was clear: how can you trust an animal whose own feral lust bubbled so close to the surface? I tell you, omnivores really have it worst. Too slick and cunning for preds, too meat-loving for herbies.

Propaganda. Counter-propaganda. And disappearing animals. Once again some preds got very angry. But then, with so much information and misinformation on their screens and papers, most animals gave up deciphering it all, and much like the sheep at that predding party, the story slowly spluttered and died.

A couple of months passed. Even I forgot about my rural brethren. Of course they had gone for the rural foxes: easy pickings, a bit timid, but good for a chase. I suppose I can't take all the blame for forgetting them. Nobody in the city cared about country news before, still less did they care now. If you're a fox or a cat with seven hungry maws to feed, why would you care about some flower show or village fete a hundred miles away? As for the little news that did filter through from the shires, it never showed any actual hunt images. Of course - that might upset little Johnny and Jenny Lamb, mightn't it? Instead, they will show some stock footage of a pack of hounds, baying and bounding through the fields after some unseen quarry. Or else they show some ginned-up old nag, dressed in a crimson hunting jacket with a rifle slung over his shoulder. He will beam with a buck-toothed smile, slurring on about it being 'fine hunting weather'. Sometimes, he will even thank the prime minister for 'saving his livelihood'. I know I'm not the only carnist who still feels sick hearing those three syllables. Three plates of leaves a day - that's all the livelihood you lot need.

One night though, everything changes.

Why didn't I take the bus that day? We were always warned - 'don't walk alone late at night'. But I'd walked those streets since I was a kit. I guess familiarity breeds carelessness... or however the phrase goes. So this little hare walks up to me. Or maybe he's just a rabbit, I can never tell the two apart. He has big ears though, like a hare. Anyway, he starts hassling me for spare change or some such rubbish, like any other nutter on any other street. When I refuse, he starts getting all jumpy (you know, being a lagomorph and all). Then he threatens to 'get rough' with me and be sexually violent with my non-existent wife. Nothing I've not dealt with before. Herbies spit at me in the street, call me names like 'butcher' and 'chicken-fucker'... and heck, sometimes they'll even cut in front of me in queues. You soon learn to filter it out.

So I try not to scoff at him - I can practically step over him. I don't though - I step_around_him and continue on my way, only to hear some much heavier footsteps than a rabbit's. Hooves. Just behind me. Much too close behind me. A chilled shiver slips down my back. I glance over my shoulder just in time to see something dark fly through the air and crack me on the skull. Straightaway I slump to the ground, limp. I couldn't tell you what they hit me with. All I know is I'm lying on the ground, head on the pavement with the world on its side, every heartbeat stabbing through my skull. There are at least two pairs of hooves before me, four fused keratinous weapons - horse hooves. I brace a paw on the cobbles, and stagger to my forepaws and knees, hunched over and wracking out my lungs. I scent them, smelling which direction they were in, and without warning I leap up lashing with my claws, uttering a strangulated hiss like I remember mice doing when we caught them as cubs. In retrospect, fighting them was about the most ridiculous thing I could do. My excuse is I wasn't thinking straight. Well, I'm certainly not thinking straight after one of them knocks me to my knees, turns away, cocks his hind leg and kicks me in the muzzle. I hear a febrile chink, before my head cracks the pavement and my muzzle fills with blood. The bastard was even wearing horseshoes. I know what's happened, but I still run my tongue over my teeth, feeling the gap and the bare gum between, which sends a sickening wave up my gullet. I lie there, retching, muzzle to the floor, staring just ahead at that jagged yellow tooth of mine which will never grow back. They kick me or trample me or something, but my mind must shut down shortly after that.

The world swirls into focus. The floor beneath me is cold, and metal, and vibrating. In an instant I'm back on edge, although my every movement falters. Where am I? I can tell I'm strewn across a bare metal floor - fully nude. Somewhere nearby, I hear an engine rumbling. I'm in a vehicle, some kind of van or truck. It's cold and draughty and smells of other foxes. Feral but also, disturbingly, morphs, and it makes me shiver. I clutch my chest, wincing with every breath. I've broken a couple of ribs before, so it's no real surprise that my attackers have cracked them again.

The van screeches to a halt, and I tumble sideways. For a few seconds, there's nothing but silence. Then the van doors creak open, flooding the metal cube with harsh sunlight. I hiss and whimper and crumple up, my retinas scorched with the sudden whiteness. As I blink open my tear-filled eyes, and colour returns to my world, I see a silver-pelted horse in the doorway. Not a stallion this time, but a mare. She beckons me over, her voice pure and mellifluous. She promises me freedom, escape. Her words, however, are secondary to the two items she places between us: a bowl of water, and a plate of meat. Curious, I uncurl myself, brace myself on wavering paws, and crawl towards her on forepaws and knees. First I lap up the water, and then turn my attention to the meat. It's offal. It smells putrid, rotten, and there's no telling exactly which animal (or animals) it came from. And yet... it's real meat. Not that bland, rationed, government-sanctioned ersatz meat we city predators are forced to subsist on. These are real, raw, bloodied animal organs. It isn't exactly a steak, but presumably those are reserved for some upper-class carnist somewhere. Still, good on them for not wasting good meat. They may be too well-bred to eat a goat's brain or a deer's liver, but I'm certainly not. I clutch that plate, peering over it, letting that wet and slowly rotting flavour drift up to my nose. I hold out as long as I could, bathing in that aroma, until my stomach gives a pleading growl. At once I dip my snout down, prod some raw rubbery flesh with my nose, and catch it in my teeth. I bite down, feeling the flesh yield easily to my teeth, letting the juices and gristle ooze onto my tongue-tip.

She lets me eat, and I purr when she runs her hoof over my unwashed pelt. After what could have been hours in that van, it's so wonderful to feel another morph embrace me like that, predator or prey. Yes, she loops a chain-leash around my neck, but she assures me it's for my own protection, to keep me calm. I'm beyond fighting it, even when she gives a gentle tug and coaxes me from the van.

Fresh air. Cold and clean and crisp. So different to the fumes and smoke and ash which we have to breathe in the city. It doesn't even bother me that the sky is utterly grey. This is my first fresh air in hours (no, years), and my word am I going to savour it, cracked ribs or no! Clearly though the mare doesn't want me to tarry, so with a jerk on the chain, I lurch forwards, stumbling to keep up with her rapid trot, almost falling onto all fours a few times.

The mare leads me across a farmyard, and out towards a huge country manor made of sandy-white Portland stone. The mare tugs on the chain, but I can't help glancing sideways at the spires and turrets and ten-foot windows which make up this building. It's the biggest single house I've ever seen, a grand edifice, with immaculate lawns all around. We're all in this together, they say. Whatever.

Around the corner, I hear a commotion. The crunch of gravel, the murmur of conversation, and the bawling of what I assume to be feral hounds. That's when it twigs: I've been captured for a fox hunt. And sure enough, as we reach the vast expanse of the manor's front yard, the hunt party is already assembled. There are between twenty and thirty hunters, all stallions, all decked in their finest hunting gear, and all with a rifle in their hooves. An army regiment two hundred years ago would be proud of such uniforms. Everything about that gleaming uniform speaks of pride, honour, prestige. A small throng of supporters stands at the edge, herbivores every one, conversing with the hunters or amongst themselves. And off to one side, the hounds are tethered to ropes. They must pick up my scent rather quickly, because one by one they turn to me, bare their teeth and strain at their leashes. They are true ferals, bred and inbred to think nothing except "See fox! Kill fox!"

The mare parades me in front of the hounds. Of course this excites the dogs, which all lunge and snap at me (which I find utterly terrifying, I might add). She is throwing them my scent, making them familiar with it, leaving them in no doubt which animal they are tracking today. I make the mistake of looking one in the eye. The brute must be sensing my fear, because it grins at me (yes, grins!) and breaks into a loud, feral growl, fur on end and drool pouring from its fanged muzzle, shaking with the lust to maul quarry just beyond its reach. Thankfully the mare keeps me out of harm's way. Just. We retreat to a safe distance, and I see the whipper-in rush over to try and calm the hounds. I shudder to think what would happen if one broke free.

A portly horse steps forward. He wears a scarlet-red jacket and white breeches, and he has a bronze medal pinned to his lapel - three feral foxes entwined in a circle, the insignia of the hunt master. When he calls for order, even the dogs fell silent. I half-listen to his welcome: some village news, an explanation of the day's events, some health and safety announcements (of course). My attention, however, is far more focused on my line of escape.

The rules are simple: evade the hunt. But I am under no illusion about which side has the upper paw. They know the terrain, and they have dogs specifically bred for killing foxes. Oh, and they have guns.

As an urban fox, I'm sadly lacking in natural survival instincts. However some ideas seem immediately sensible. To evade the hounds, I need cover. Forest and ideally water. That rules out the driveway: it might lead to a village, but there is too much risk that the hounds will catch me on an open stretch. In the other direction is an open field, with what appears to be woodland on the other side.The prey hides in the covert. It's a long shot, but my best shot at throwing the hounds off my trail.

My thoughts are interrupted when I hear hoofsteps crunching across the gravel. I twist my ear, and then my muzzle, in the hunt master's direction. He doesn't look like a murderer. He's caring and jovial, more a schoolmaster than a furious Woden. He even smiles as he crouches down, strokes behind my ear, and whispers to me.

"Remember fox, the prize is your life. Good luck."

Oh, he's right within clawing distance. And yes, I am severely tempted to launch into him. But I'm not that foolish. They probably wouldn't shoot me - they still want a hunt. But a fox can run with his ear or his tail cut off.

The mare unclips the chain, and off I run, not thinking, over the gravel, my breath soon breaking into a ragged pant. Where I am running, I have no idea. I just know I have to get as far from those horses and those hideous hounds as possible. I reach the fallow field and go to all fours, propelling myself through the wild grass. I know I will tire soon, I know the lactate will soon build and burn in my muscles, making every step and every breath a challenge. But I'll face that when it happens. Right now, I need the best head-start I can get.

Behind me, I hear the clarion call of the hunting-horn. This is it. The chase is on.

I quickly glance behind me, but of course I do not slow. Even if the hunt is out of sight, I have to keep running. I have no idea how large this estate is, but surely, eventually, I'll reach a house, or a farm, or even a road somewhere. Anywhere.

I reach the covert and dive straight in. Brambles scratch my face and nettles sting my under-paws, but still I press on. The forest around me is dense, filled with bracken and leafless trees. And it's deathly silent: no birdsong, even for late winter. Only the rustle of leaves and the pounding of sore paws as I drive forwards, weaving around trunks and over fallen branches.

I know I cannot maintain this pace much longer. So I slow to a jog and rise to my hind legs. I continue through the undergrowth, pushing branches out of my way. I mutter the plan to myself: stay in the forest, pay attention to the wind, find some water to lose my scent. Just then, a bark cuts through the silence. I stop, gasping, my ears and my snout pivoting each way to pinpoint the dog. More baying, a broken pizzicato cry, echoing around all the trees. They are here. In the thicket. Sniffing me out. Still I can't locate even one. Logically most of them should be behind me, but again they could wheel from the sides and cut me off. They know the terrain. I have to keep moving though, and so on I run, through a clearing and straight back into the undergrowth. Soon the barking is constant, still some way off but rapidly getting closer. I fight to push on, harder, faster... but no matter how hard I kick, I just don't have the energy to go faster. Come to think of it, I have no idea how large this forest is.

Bugger. I've reached the forest edge. Well, I have to make a run for it. I glance out into the field, left, then right, checking the coast is clear, before making a dash straight through the field.

"Tally ho!"

They've spotted me! No choice now but to run.

At first, there's only stillness. My pained breaths, wind rushing past my muzzle, and a distant jackdaw startled by my paw-beats. But then I feel it. The thunder of hooves, and the maddened bark of hounds. My pulse races, thrumming in my ears. Yet through my fear, the world turns sharp. I feel it all: every rustle and every chirp in the air, the sway of every blade of grass against my quickening paw. So these are my instincts. I just hope they're sharp enough to help me survive.

They are right behind me. And yet, by chance, there's another patch of forest dead ahead. Maybe I can lose them there? I dive in, ducking under branches and leaping trees. The plants are even thicker here. Branches and ivy block my view, thorns snag my bare fur and cut my face, but I brush them aside and struggle through into less dense foliage.

A dog! There's a dog in front of me!

I skid to a halt, open-mawed and open-eyed, feeling the adrenaline drop into my bloodstream. The dog has won and he knows it. I swear he's smiling, even as the drool pours from his muzzle. And though I cannot see them, I know the rest of the pack is nearby, lurking and waiting for their comrade to make the first lunge.

Oh god oh god oh god...

Together we square off. The hound slowly circles me, and I match his step. A second canine emerges from the brush and joins us in our spiralling dance, and then a third. More brazenly, they close right in and the largest dog takes a pounce. I dodge it and take a running leap for a nearby tree. I catch a low branch and haul myself high, lifting my hind paws and tail just out of the dogs' reach. I watch them leap in vain, and afford myself just a little chuckle. But as I aim higher, the branch I'm holding cracks, giving one dog just enough distance to leap up and snare my foot. I feel the jaws crush, shattering the bones in my paw one by one, and I scream. The dog lets go and I fall from the tree, bracing myself for a thudding landing, and as my lifeless paw hits the dry earth I scream and howl. I do anything to numb the pain, to distract myself from it all. I roll on the ground. I bite my forearm so hard I draw blood. I try to move my paw, but all the splinters of bone grind against one another, forcing yet more choking howls from me. Seconds later, the dogs are on me. Through my pain, I grab one by the snarling snapping jaws, holding them open, fighting the animal's lethal strength, but this only gives another the opening to carve into my back with claws, rending long strips of fur and flesh from me, while the third hound locks onto my ribcage and bites down, breaking my ribs afresh, crushing the air out of my lung. And then it shakes me. Skull like a cinder-block, jaws like a vice. So it's true. Everything the RLA say about hunting is a lie. These dogs aren't going to nip my neck and kill me quick. They are going to mutilate me.

Gunfire. The dogs heel, lingering close by but no longer attacking. I just lie there, on my blanket of parched leaves, sobbing, a cool soothing sensation icing over my brain like a creeping frost. I know I'm slipping into shock, I know I should dig deep and fight it, but it's so comforting compared to the ache of my mangled foot. I can't dare to look at my hind paw, still less to feel for it. Is it there? Is it attached?

A horse approaches, pale-coated, clutching a rifle in both his hooves. He looks young, maybe still a colt. He crouches down to stroke the hounds, and they whimper and whip around him like timid pets. Look at them. They probably haven't been fed for two days. No wonder they're all so ravenous. The horse prods me with the rifle barrel, and I roll onto my back, choking and gargling and spluttering for air to fill my crushed lungs. With paws to my front, I stare up at him. His eyes are a misty chlorine-green, perfect for a pale-pelted horse. He looms above me, cool and unsmiling.

"I only have to say the words, fox."

I know the words. Their callousness, their simplicity, shocked me ten years ago when I first researched fox hunting, and they still chill me now.

Tear him and eat him.

He could use his gun. A single shot to the head would finish me. Instead he wants to use his hounds. I size him up. He's just a young horse, a young herbivore, not a veteran like the hunt-master with twenty years' experience to desensitise him. There is no killer instinct in this foal. Just curiosity.

"This is your first hunt, right?"

"R... right."

"Then..." I cough and rasp. "Congratulations on killing me. I know that very few hunters catch the quarry on their first hunt. I hope I'm still intact enough to make a trophy or two. But let me ask you just one thing before I die. Why do you hunt?"

A hoof stamps on my chest. There's a dull wet crack and I wheeze in pain, clutching what remains of my shattered chest.

"Oh no. You're not talking your way outta this one, flea-rag."

I shake my head. "I'm not trying to, my friend. I know this forest is where I die. But look what you're doing. You're a horse, a proud stallion. It's not in your nature to be cruel. This isn't who you are."

I think I have him. But my heart sinks when a wicked smile appears on his lips.

"Wrong. This is all we'll ever be. Predator and prey. Hunter and hunted."

I close my eyes. I pray to a god who doesn't exist.

One gunshot.

One dog utters the most pained yowl I've ever heard from an animal. I open my eyes. I see him thrashing, twitching and kicking up dry leaves. My breath stops, and so does my heartbeat for all I know. A voice calls out, a female voice, hidden but close by.

"Leave this fox alone. Or I shoot your other dogs."

The colt considers his choice for a few seconds, hawks, then spits on my face. Of course I cringe, but I know not to provoke him further. He cracks open his rifle, tipping out both shots and slipping them into his jacket. Seconds later he has turned tail, leaving, with two of his hounds in dejected attendance. The third tries to scramble after him, but collapses again with an agonised whine. And as the young horse leaves, he calls to his unseen hunt-mates.

"Gone away! North! Scared 'im off."

Moments later, another animal appears. A vixen, a morph just like me, with a rifle of her own clutched in paws. Through failing eyesight I glimpse her, hear her talk of tourniquets and raising limbs. The foxhound whimpers and cries.

The same vixen is speaking, hours or days or weeks later. Gone is the chill of the February forest. Gone are the foxhounds, both the keen-to-hunt and the chronically wounded. And gone is something else, part of me, something deep down that's been part of me since birth.

She tells me they amputated my paw. I break down.

She allows me a moment alone. Then I feel a soft paw under my chin, lifting me slightly. Her claws curl into a scritch, and I shiver. That's nice. It was a neat operation, she says, one of the cleanest she's ever performed. Despite having such little anaesthetic to give me, I was peaceful throughout. And it will heal, she adds.

Which makes me think. What will heal? Certainly not my paw - that could never be saved. So what then? My bite-marks? My cynophobia? The country I love?

What will heal?

Sadly, my story has no romantic twist. The vixen and I don't run away, start a den, have a litter of little fox-kits and live happily ever after. However thanks to her, I am safe now, so don't worry about me. I can hardly imagine any hunters wanting to pursue me now. They want an animal who can put up a fight, or give them a worthy hunt. The thrill is in the chase, not in pointing a rifle and firing from point-blank range. Because that's the only entertainment you'll get from a lame, three-pawed fox like me.

But maybe that's enough for some animals? Like that colt.

That's the bitterest memory of all. Worse than the van, worse than the trampling. His face. That long, crooked-toothed, equine muzzle. He's always there, that pale horse with his chlorine-green eyes. I used to wonder why he didn't order his hounds to kill. Then one night, I realised. That horse wanted to see me bleed. Watch the life seep out of me. Hatred, infecting a whole new generation.

They are killing carnists, it's as simple as that. And with every fox or badger that they murder, the less chance we have of ever living peacefully again. Time is running out. Something has to change.

But what, and how? Whether city-folk presume they're still hunting ferals, or they know the truth, or they even care, it hardly matters. I could tell my story, but why would anyone listen to me? After all...

I'm just a fox. I'm a flea-rag. I kill your chickens. I'm vermin.

By Ziegenbock

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