Today we’re spotlighting Herrick’s End by TM Blanchet
Read on for more about TM, the book, and a giveaway!
Meet TM Blanchet
T.M. Blanchet is a producer at A Mighty Blaze, an initiative started in 2020 to help connect readers and writers during the Covid pandemic, and the producer and host of A Mighty Blaze Podcast, which features weekly interviews with bestselling authors. T.M. is also a former reporter, editor, and award-winning humor columnist, as well as the founder of the nonprofit organization Operation Delta Dog: Service Dogs for Veterans.
About the Book
Ollie is trying. He really is.
He’s trying to lose weight in the biscotti-and-Bolognese wonderland of Boston’s North End.
He’s trying to recover from his mother’s recent death.
Most of all, he’s trying to battle the loneliness that comes with being 19, living in a shoebox, and working a dead-end job. No girlfriend, no parents, no friends.
Well, he does have one friend. Nell.
But she’s gone missing.
At first, Ollie pretends that he hadn’t noticed Nell’s bruises and skittish behavior. Then, finally, he faces the facts: Nell is gone, and probably in danger. And he might be the only one who can help.
What he doesn’t know—couldn’t know—is that his journey to find her will take him far below the streets of the city into a dangerous, underground world: a place where magic spills like blood, humans are not quite human, and notions of justice and revenge are as murky as the cavern’s brackish waters.
And this time, trying just won’t be enough.
Book 1 of The Neath Trilogy
By T.M. Blanchet
Salem Village, Massachusetts Bay Colony
The horses kicked up clouds of dust as they traveled the narrow dirt road, dragging the cart behind them. One driver, three passengers. The women’s wailing drowned out every other sound on the grassy hill.
The driver stared straight ahead, snapping the reins with tight precision as his prisoners sobbed and implored him for mercy. They also bellowed prayers and, he suspected, incantations of a more suspicious sort. He paid them no heed. The women had been examined; some had even confessed. Anything they said now surely came from Satan’s mouth, designed to deceive. But he would not be fooled. He had work enough to do in this earthly realm, difficult and underpaid, without partaking in the devil’s work, as well.
As the cart reached the crest of the hill, the driver gave a start. Something clutched his sleeve. He looked down to see a bony and bent hand, its fingernails caked with dirt. For just a moment, he turned, and the cart slowed.
She had reached for him through the bars, this woman, this unholy creature.
“Unhand me,” he ordered.
But her grip did not loosen. “I see you,” the woman hissed through blackened, crooked teeth. Her hair was a wild mass. “I know your name.”
“Silence, woman,” he snapped, tearing her fingers away from his coat sleeve.
She clutched the bars of the crude cage, pressing her face through the narrow opening. Behind her, the two others wept and keened. “Hear me now, afflictor,” the woman said, her voice as graveled as the road beneath his wheels. “You cannot hide from this. They see all that you do. And they will know your name.”
The driver gave a snort. “You are mad, old woman. Mad, and cursed.”
The prisoner’s bloodshot eyes widened as her voice rose. “Can you not see it? I am no more a witch than I am a cloud in the sky. You have imprisoned innocents! It is not too late for you to save us, and to save yourself. I beseech you now, open this cage! Stop this injustice! By your own hands, you bring us to death, George Herrick! You bring us to hell!”
The man blinked. He was startled to notice that he’d been leaning toward the crazed woman, as though pulled by an unseen force. Disgusted, he reached forward to shove her face through the bars. “Cease with your tricks!” he spat, spinning around in his seat. “They hold no purchase here.” Then he snapped the reins again, urging the horses forward.
The cart continued its arduous journey along the pocked road, jostling its passengers with every rut. The driver, who held the official title of Marshall and Deputy-Sheriff, concentrated on the animals as he navigated a particularly narrow curve. Not far, now: The jail was only a mile or so ahead. Then he would be free of his passengers. Free of the incessant wailing. The wild-eyed woman’s insinuations had left a foul taste on his tongue, try as he might to ignore it. He was only doing his job, after all. Earning his wage, supporting his family. As a man should. What happened to the prisoners after that was none of his concern.
With all of his attention focused on the road, the harried driver did not notice the faces peering out through the leaves as he passed.
Five pairs of eyes, following the cart’s progress. Taking measure of the man, and of the women trapped inside the traveling, makeshift cell. The unlucky prisoners were not witches, of course, no matter who it had served to call them so.
The real witches watched from the trees. They heard the woman’s cry: “By your own hands, you bring us to death, George Herrick! You bring us to hell!”
They watched him on that day, and on all the days that followed in the perilous year of 1692. They observed the transport, and the examinations, and the cold, dank prison cells infested with lice. They saw the pleading, and the starvation, and the lies, and the hatred, and the hubris, and the persecutions, and the bodies jerking and twisting at the ends of knotted ropes.
The real witches watched it all.
And they did not forget.
I am not the fattest person in the room.
It was true, if only marginally. Ollie repeated the thought like a feverish prayer, hiding behind the rim of his baseball hat as his eyes jumped from chair to chair. Fatter. Fatter. Smaller. About the same. Fatter. He knew he had no right to judge—not here. These people had been nothing but kind to him. But he couldn’t seem to stop himself. In this one place, at least, he could look left and right and find someone, anyone, whose girth exceeded his own.
Ollie wanted to feel smug. Or even mildly confident. He would have settled for any emotion, really, other than the usual debilitating humiliation.
I am not the fattest person in the room.
The room in question had tall ceilings, exposed-brick walls, and just enough floor space to accommodate its ten folding chairs. The group sat in a circle, as always. To Ollie’s left, Kendra was saying something about her “holiday weight gain,” though the holidays were already three months past. The others nodded. “Holiday weight gain” was a popular topic in Lighter Tomorrows meetings, as was “summer weight gain.” Kendra, in particular, liked to label her gains, as though assigning them a name made them different, somehow. Less permanent.
Ollie was sitting with his arms folded and his right leg bouncing. He needed to crack his knuckles, but knew the sound would be too disruptive. He shifted and sat on his hands instead.
“Kendra makes a good point,” said Lorraine. In Lorraine-speak, that meant it was time for someone else to talk. She surveyed the room with a wide, tight-lipped smile. Lorraine was the meeting host, hired to keep the gatherings in check and the members engaged. She had lost 53 pounds—a figure Ollie always found oddly specific—and now served as an enthusiastic ambassador for the LT brand.
“This time of year can be particularly tough, don’t you think?” Lorraine prodded. Her thin hair, stung by static, lifted from the tips of her shoulders. “Does anyone else have winter struggles they’d like to share?”
Ollie knew what he was supposed to say. He could have written the script. My God, yes, it’s tough. Snowstorms, comfort food, trapped inside. Darn this weather. The group would murmur in agreement, and Lorraine would thank him “for sharing.”
The truth, the real truth, was uglier. And harder to wrap in a crowd-pleasing soundbite. Yes, winter was challenging. Of course it was. But so was spring, and Halloween, and the third Tuesday in August. Ollie’s trials didn’t begin or end with any particular season; they began when he opened his eyes in the morning and ended, if only temporarily, when he was unconscious at night. Winter wasn’t the problem. Food was the problem. Always had been, always would be. Delicious, wretched food.
Lorraine turned to her left. “How about you, Christine? Are you finding it hard to stay active this winter?”
Christine was, in fact, finding it quite hard to stay active. Her work hours were long. Her boss was unsupportive. A gym membership was not in her family’s budget.
Ollie tried his best to “listen actively,” as LT hosts liked to say. But as Christine’s monologue morphed, predictably, into a description of her boys’ demanding hockey schedules, his gaze drifted to the window. He could almost see the cold air snaking its way past the loose, rattling casing. The building was hundreds of years old, the windows, only slightly younger. From his second-floor vantage point, he could just make out the snow-dusted top of Nina’s Bakery across the street. Nina’s made the best anise cookies he had ever tasted. Ever, and that was saying something. Perfect domes of spiced dough smothered in a sugary white glaze and sprinkled with multi-colored nonpareils. Soft on the inside, with just the tiniest crisp on the edges. His grandmother had made spectacular anise cookies, as had his mother. But Nina’s Bakery made the best.
“Lisa, last week you mentioned you were planning to make a list of trigger foods,” Lorraine said. “How did that go?”
Lisa scooted forward in her seat. “Good,” she answered, holding up a notebook. “Should I…read it?”
“Of course,” Lorraine smiled.
“Okay. Well, the first thing I thought of was birthday cake. Seems like every week we have a birthday in the office. Stupid, right? I mean, why do grown adults need a birthday party at work? And then, for number two, I wrote chips and salsa. I mean, I know the salsa is fine, but…”
The list went on. And on. As Lisa talked, Ollie returned his attention to the scene outside. Two restaurant awnings, one blue and one gold, flanked Nina’s doorway. Though Ollie couldn’t see the signs, he knew that the blue awning belonged to Andiamo, and the gold to Fioretti’s. Anywhere else, both eateries would be considered top-notch. Best in the city, maybe. But this wasn’t anywhere else. This was the North End, where cannoli was currency and the smell of simmering tomato wafted down every alley. The neighborhood housed nearly a hundred Italian restaurants, pizzerias, salumerias, bakeries, and cafes within its one-third of one square mile. Vampire hunters used less garlic than the kitchens on Hanover Street, where Andiamo and Fioretti’s had to compete with the likes of La Sicilia, Pesco Fresco, and the indomitable Mama Mary’s. The tourists and suburbanites descended every Saturday night, eager to walk the cobblestone streets and inhale a week’s worth of calories in one meal.
Ollie’s neighborhood was a swirling orgy of alfredo and gelato and Pappardelle Bolognese. Or, as he had come to think of it, Fat Quicksand. And he had lived there, sinking slowly day by day, for all of his 19 years.
A deep voice to the left jarred him from his musings. Vince was asking a question: something about the merits of treadmills versus stationary bikes. “Big Vince” was a local cop whose weight was about to cost him his job. He sat through each LT meeting wide-eyed and panicked, as though he had just fallen from a high place and was trying to figure out where he had landed. Every once in a while, Big Vince would interrupt the group discussion with an urgent question: Butter or margarine? Steamed or broiled? Weights or cardio?
Vince is the fattest person in the room, Ollie thought to himself, gripping the edge of the metal folding chair. Then Audrey, then Jose. Next, it was a toss-up between Kendra and Lisa. And then him. He wasn’t even in the top five.
But he’d never be the smallest. Not even here. At six-foot-six, Ollie would always be the awkward giant of any gathering. A massive, hovering ghost, complete with pale skin, light hair, watery brown eyes, and undefined edges.
Today, the smallest person at the meeting was Grandma Helen, a cotton-topped eighty-something who came to the meetings mainly for the social interaction; while not thin, per se, she wasn’t any rounder than any other nonna on the block. Normally, though, the title of Smallest in the Room would have gone to someone else. Ollie’s gaze traveled to the empty chair in their little circle. Conspicuously, curiously empty.
“Let’s move on to this week’s recipe,” Lorraine said, rising to hand out sheets of paper. With a note of excitement, she read the top line: “Tandoori Tofu with Brown Rice and Cilantro-Lime Drizzle! Looks yummy. And easy, too.”
Ollie took the recipe and sighed. Who drizzled? Nobody drizzled. He didn’t even know what that meant. He had dunked, smothered, and poured, plenty of times. But never drizzled. If Nell were there, this would be the moment when she would catch his attention and roll her eyes to mock Lorraine’s Tandoori Tofu enthusiasm. And he would smile and nod in silent agreement. But Nell wasn’t there. Her seat was empty. Again.
This was the third meeting in a row she had missed. Two Tuesdays, one Saturday. Ollie felt her absence like thumbtack in his shoe.
Antonella “Nell” Cascone wasn’t the only reason he came to meetings. Definitely not. But if pressed, he might admit that she was probably the reason he came to this particular location on these particular days. He’d first spotted her in the circle nearly two years prior; since then, she’d been a regular. And so had he.
Nell was 18 years old, voluptuous, sable-haired, and by far the best-looking girl to have ever given him the time of day. So yes, she was pretty. And hell yes, he’d noticed. He’d have to have cataracts the size of quarters not to. But that wasn’t the only reason Ollie always looked forward to seeing her. Nell was also just…nice. Nice to him, specifically, in a way that other people were not. Hers was an easy, almost accidental sort of kindness, radiating from her body like steam from a hot bath. She asked him about his college applications. She asked him about his job. She laughed at his jokes, which, he knew, were usually not all that funny. She gave him hugs goodbye, and casually affectionate pats on the arm. To some, these might be small things. But to Ollie, they were mountainous.
Nell had even come to his mother’s wake. And sent flowers. Most people had done one or the other, but Nell had done both.
So if she was also a bit scatter-brained and stubborn, Ollie could, and did, forgive it all. Whatever her faults, Nell had, day by day, grown to become an outsized figure in his life. Perhaps too outsized. Even the smallest spot of color draws the eye on a blank canvas, and Ollie’s canvas, sadly, was nothing if not blank. He knew this. When she invited him for the occasional coffee after a meeting, he had to remind himself that it was just that—a coffee. Not dinner. And certainly not a date.
But coffee was coffee, and Nell was…Nell. He was happy to take what he could get, considering that she already had plenty of options to choose from. Ollie saw them, sometimes, waiting for her out in the street: blonde athlete types, brunette construction-worker types, bearded emo types. Once, even a woman. Nell had her pick of the city, and there was no way she was wasting a Saturday night on the likes of him. Ollie harbored no delusions about his standing.
And yet, sometimes, when the winter night fell and the loneliness squeezed him like an orange juicer, Ollie liked to tell himself a different story. He liked to tell himself that he and Nell shared a special bond—something those gorgeous, strapping suitors would never understand. Like him, Nell struggled with food. She confided those struggles in him. For all he knew, she confided only in him. That had to mean something, right? And he had watched enough rom-coms to know that sometimes the clueless young heroine does, inexplicably, turn around one day to find that the one she was searching for—cue the swelling symphony—had been right there all along.
“And how about you, Ollie?”
“Hmm?” He straightened, pushing up the lid on his baseball cap.
Lorraine was staring at him. Everyone was staring at him.
“Any goals for the week ahead?” she asked, in a tone that implied she was repeating herself.
Goals. Goals, goals, goals… His mind spun.
The question wasn’t a surprise. At every meeting, Lorraine asked each of them: “What are your goals for the week ahead?” She was talking specifically about weight-loss goals, of course, and the answers were easy: Extra steps, maybe. Or: less carbs, more protein. Duh. It was Lighter Tomorrows 101.
So why did he never have an answer ready? And why did the question always strike a nerve, as though she were accusing him of something?
What are your goals for the week ahead, Ollie Delgato? For the year? For your future? Anything? Anything at all?
“Less pasta, I guess,” Ollie finally said.
“Just do your best. And keep counting those credits.”
“Fill up with water before you eat,” chimed in Kendra.
Ollie would do all those things. And it wouldn’t make one damn bit of difference. That day’s weigh-in had been disastrous. Three pounds up, again, despite the fact that he’d been drinking enough water to float a ferry. In the LT program, each food was assigned a “wellness credit,” and each member had a daily limit. Ollie was supposed to count his credits each day, and he did. Most days he just counted too high.
As for his other “goals for the week ahead,” it was nothing they wanted to hear. Leveling up on his PS4 game, maybe. Restocking the Diet Coke in the fridge. Ten thousand steps per day. Binge-watching superhero movies. Wasting his youth.
Ollie rubbed a hand against his stubbled chin. Down below, in the street, two different car horns were honking: a high meep meep, followed by a deeper, aggravated series of bellows.
I am not the fattest person in—
“Okay, that’s time, people!” Lorraine said, interrupting his thought with a sudden clap. “Great meeting. I’ll see you all on Saturday. In the meantime, let’s hear our motto…” She cupped a hand over her ear.
Dutifully, the group chanted in unison: “Here today, lighter tomorrow.”
“Here today, lighter tomorrow!” she trilled in response. “Have a great weekend, and keep up the good work!” Lorraine stood up and started the exodus. Chair legs scraped against the floor as people rose to leave.
“See ya, Ollie,” Big Vince said, sliding an arm into his coat.
“Bye, Vince. Have a good one.”
And off they all went, back to the cold, hard world of judgment and scorn. Ollie watched them leave, then turned back to look at her chair.
Did she quit the group? He couldn’t imagine it. Nell loved Lighter Tomorrows. Plus, she was doing well. Counting her credits, losing weight. She said it was like a game, the counting, and she wanted to win.
Maybe she was annoyed at him. Maybe she was tired of the meetings. Or maybe she had decided to accept herself the way she was and stop the futile effort of attending a weight-loss support group located steps away from three different pastry shops.
Maybe. Or maybe something was wrong.
If he’d had to guess, this probably had something to do with The Guy. That was how Nell talked about him—capital T, capital G. The latest one. After they started dating a few months ago, the other suitors had disappeared. Ollie got the impression that she’d moved in with him, at least unofficially. Ollie didn’t even know the dude’s name, or anything about him other than the fact that he apparently liked kielbasa, a lot, and he didn’t like Nell hanging out with other guys, even if they were “just friends.” Which would explain why she hadn’t been returning any of Ollie’s calls or texts.
Each time he thought about it, a thick weight of dread began to settle on his chest. Heavier every time.
Ollie squirmed in his chair. All these “maybes” and “probablys” and ridiculous invented theories… Maybe Nell had Lyme disease. Maybe she had a sick relative, or a dead relative. Dead relative with a faraway funeral. Cosmetology conference. Habitat for Humanity. Swept away by Mormons. Touring with a band.
Who did he think he was kidding with this shit?
He knew already, didn’t he? Hadn’t he known it for weeks? He knew, but didn’t want to know. He hadn’t wanted to believe it. And maybe he had hoped that if he ignored the obvious, it might just go away. But now, in that suddenly empty room full of suddenly empty chairs, the repressed images returned in a sickening series of flashes: Nell’s scarf, arranged in an odd way to obscure the purplish discoloration on her jaw. Sunglasses on a cloudy day. Twitchy behavior. Strange isolation. Thick, sometimes cakey makeup.
The last time Ollie had seen her in person, two weeks ago, he and Nell had made a quick stop for cappuccino after a meeting. The weather that day had been brisk: low 20s with a sharp wind. Nell had kept on her coat—a hunter green thrift-store find—even while they were inside. Her lipstick left a ruby smudge on the rim of the white cup.
“You okay?” Ollie had asked.
She was staring over her shoulder, out the window. At the sound of his voice, Nell had spun and flashed an unconvincing smile. “Yeah, sure. Why?”
“You just seem…distracted, I guess,” he had said. In truth, she had been skittish and uncharacteristically disheveled. Ollie had been startled to see her wearing baggy gray sweats under her coat. Nell didn’t do gray. And she sure as hell didn’t do baggy—at least, not that he’d ever seen. Her hair, normally shining with carefully styled waves, had been stuffed under a knitted hat. And then there was the scarf, again. That damn scarf, wrapped around her chin. Wrapped too high.
“Aren’t you hot?” he had asked her. “It’s like, eighty degrees in here.” The café owners had compensated for the outside temperatures by cranking up the thermostat to uncomfortable heights.
“Hmm? No. I’m good,” Nell had said. She twisted her body into a fusilli spiral, peering to look at passersby out the window, then pulled out her phone to check the time. “I can’t stay long.”
“Sure. That’s fine.”
“Hey, you mind if we switch seats?” she had suddenly asked.
“I just… I like the view.”
“Of Hanover Street?” Ollie had asked dubiously. What was there to see? Sure, the tourists loved it, but Nell was a local.
“C’mon, Ollie. Please? Humor me.”
“Yeah, sure, okay.” Hearing something desperate in her tone, he got up more quickly than he had intended. “Here.”
“Thanks,” she had smiled then, a real smile, and the sight of it came as a welcome relief.
They had stayed for another fifteen minutes. Nell did all the usual things. She played with her spoon, and talked, and laughed half-heartedly in the right places. But as he watched her, Ollie had gotten the eerie feeling that he wasn’t actually talking to Nell, at all. She was more like hologram of the girl he knew. A nervous, frightened imposter. She checked her phone three more times while they sat.
Between sips, Ollie had asked her why she had stopped going to her cosmetology classes. She told him the classes had started to bore her, and he didn’t argue. He asked her why she had stopped skating on Frog Pond with her friend Jocelyn. She said Jocelyn had started to bore her, too, and he didn’t argue. He asked, finally, about the new bruises on her wrist. Nell had tugged down the cuff of her sleeve and told him a story about wrapping a dog leash too tightly around her hand.
Ollie knew what he was seeing. Of course, he did. He had seen it all before, in his own home. And still, somehow, he didn’t argue.
The conversation had ended abruptly when Nell slurped her cup dry, jumped to her feet, and said she had to go. She had an appointment, she told him, over on Henchman Street. Even now, a week later, Ollie could clearly remember the odd expression he’d read on her face: something between determination and fear. And then, she was gone, letting in a rush of cold air as she vanished out the café door. He doubted she had even heard his goodbye.
Ollie’s knee bounced in agitation as the memory dissolved. Somewhere inside the walls, the archaic heating system’s pipes rattled to life, blowing weak streams of hot air through the vents. Someone had spilled coffee creamer on the floor a few weeks ago and never cleaned it up; now, each time the heat kicked on, the blowing air spread the lingering, sour stench throughout the room. Ollie stayed in his chair, motionless save the knee, washed in waves of heat and odor.
A group in the hallway shared a sudden laugh; the sound echoed off the walls. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, staring at the open doorway. Pretending he was in on the joke. He did that a lot. Pretended. Mostly, he pretended that he wasn’t so alone. It wasn’t too much to ask, was it? He didn’t want anything glamorous or royal. Just what other people had. Regular, happy people. The couples he saw on the subway, nuzzling necks and sharing conspiratorial whispers. The dad holding his little boy’s hand in line at the grocer. The brides and grooms traipsing through the Public Garden in tuxedos and gowns, posing for goofy pictures in front of the Swan Boats. College pals roaming in drunken packs. The endless pairs of lovers on Instagram, faces pressed together and filling the entire frame.
We have each other, they all said, without saying anything at all.
That was all he wanted. Just…someone. Someone to be on his side. To make him feel normal, and listened to, and not so achingly solitary. But it wasn’t to be. His size was like the Great Wall of Ollie: a barrier no one wanted to cross.
As it was, he only had one real-ish friend in the world, and he had let her down. Spectacularly. There had been no dog, of course. No leash on her wrist. No walking into door jambs, no tripping and falling. There was only someone leaving ugly marks on Nell’s body, plain as day, and Ollie hadn’t done a damn thing about it.
She had been sitting right there, five feet away, twice a week. He could have come right out and asked her: What’s really going on? How can I help?
But he hadn’t asked. And now she was gone.
The word slumped him forward in his seat.
Where the hell was she?
Her roommates didn’t know, and didn’t seem too concerned, since she had more or less been staying with the new boyfriend anyway. The last time he had spoken to her, Nell had mentioned an upcoming “weekend away” with The Guy. That would explain a few days’ absence, but not a whole week. He supposed they could have extended their stay at the Vermont campground or Manhattan hotel or Provincetown scuba-diving expedition or wherever young lovers got off to nowadays. Anything was possible. But his gut was telling him that it just wasn’t very likely.
She had also mentioned that unspecified “appointment” on Henchman Street.
Henchman was one of the North End’s shorter roads. A nondescript cut-through, used mainly to jump over to the busier Commercial Street below. Ollie rarely ventured down there; he never had a reason to. As far as he knew, it held nothing but apartments. No office buildings, medical labs, or other kind of place where someone might have an appointment.
Which didn’t make any sense at all, now that he thought about it. Where had Nell been going that day? And why had she never returned?
The heating vents had stopped blowing, though the foul odor remained. Traffic hummed noisily, relentlessly, out in the street.
Ollie had never thought of himself as the white-knight type. Hell, no one on earth had probably ever thought of him as the white-knight type. But if Nell really was in trouble, and if he was the one who happened to save her… Well, that opened up a whole world of possibilities, didn’t it? It might even get him out of the Friend Zone if he played his cards right. And even if he didn’t—a much more likely scenario—at least he could sleep at night knowing he hadn’t been such a candy-ass, chickenshit loser. For once.
Ollie stared down at his sneakers, at the wide wooden floor boards, at the scattered bits of dust and dirt, knowing what he had to do. Or at least where he could start. Too little, perhaps, but hopefully not too late.
On the bright side, it looked like he finally had a “goal for the week ahead.” Lorraine would have been so pleased.
Book’s Title: Herrick’s End (Book 1 of The Neath Trilogy)
Author: T.M. Blanchet
Release date: May 10, 2022
Publisher: Tiny Fox Press
Genre: YA Fantasy
Age Range: Late teens-adult
Two winners will receive a signed limited-edition Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) of Herrick’s End (T.M. Blanchet) ~ (INT)
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