His head spun. Attila staggered but kept his balance. He could walk! Okay, let's try it again.
He took another step. And again, trying to relax and breathe in synch. That was it. He was fine. He wasn't wheelchair-bound anymore. He wasn't a cripple. His legs were there: strong and healthy, his amblers, his supports, his very own limbs! He could will them to move! It wasn't his cartoon character on screen but he himself, Ivan Attila, happily sauntering around!
Attila ran his hands down his thighs, then did a few sit-ups. He laughed. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this happy.
The wind rippled the grass around the portal station; it ruffled the branches of the towering poplars whose tops pierced the clouds. The sun would come out, revealing patches of bright blue amid the menacing clouds and spotting the valley below with gold. Then the clouds would close in, submerging the world below in a chilly gloom.
Shaking his head, Attila took in the cool air. So this was the Dead Canyon. The land of sorcerers and necromancers, of witches and the undead, vagabond pioneers and Royal legionnaires, peddlers and dark knights; of humans, dwarves and Elves as well as monsters of every possible caliber.
Right. Time to turn to business. No matter how good he felt, he had a few debts to pay. Which meant he had to get the God's Eye off his hands and pretty quickly, too.
He shifted his shield from his arm to his back. Off we go, then! All the way to the Unicorn Tavern, chop chop!
Yeah right, dream on. Immediately he noticed the Rot glowing in front of the castle wall. This was one hell of an acid-like aberration that could eat right through you down to the bone. Next to it lurked an almost indistinguishable Butcher, betrayed only by a slight quivering of the fabric of reality by one of the poplar's roots. This was something much worse: a gravitational aberration that could, if you weren't careful, suck you in and grind you into bone dust, then spew you out scattering your powdered remains to the wind. In daytime you might just about notice it if you were lucky but at night it was virtually invisible.
Aberrations were localized phenomena of magic nature that had been discovered at the Dead Canyon after the first Magic Storm. Although dangerous, they could generate artifacts of unique and useful properties. This generated a considerable infusion into Gryad's economy as its artifact market was estimated at several million dollars.
The area bordering on the Dead Canyon was known as the Frontier Valley and the ruins of a castle and the wall around it, the Fortress. It used to be controlled by the Awesome clan but recently they'd been driven out. Afterward, the area had been trampled by one of the occasional monster stampedes. These days it was a quiet location, neutral and sparsely populated.
Lots of things can change in a game. Players come and go; the internal balance of power can change and so can the map of aberrations. Some things, though, remain the same. Like the Unicorn Tavern, always open in the Fortress donjon: a place to stretch your legs after a raid and to sell or swap your findings.
Attila gave these aberrations a wide berth. He climbed through a breach in the wall and walked past a couple of ruins overgrown with moss. The donjon rose before him. He slapped his belt bag where he kept God's Eye and hurried on, not forgetting to watch where he was going. The Dead Canyon was one dangerous place. If he was killed now, the cheat would probably stay on his corpse. Which meant he'd have to retrace his tracks from the portal station, risking being late for his RV and - much more importantly - risking someone else picking God's Eye up from his dead body.
The tall angular donjon made of large slabs of stone towered before him. A squawk came from above. Mechanically Attila reached for his sword, then swore under his breath. This was Bestia, a harpy that lived alone in her nest on top of the donjon. She was as mad as a bat. Harpies are, normally, but this one had a couple of screws loose. Every time someone approached the center of the fortress she would scream her head off warning the tavern's guards about a new visitor and showering him with her fossilized feces. Although she never actually hit anyone with it.
The breach in the donjon wall that offered access to the tavern faced north. Attila was approaching it from the west. Instead of entering the building, he stole a look around and turned toward a tall copse of bushes. He climbed inside and crouched on the ground. Then he opened the Book and reached for the God's Eye in his belt bag.
No player was ever without his Book. You couldn't lose, sell, steal or give it away. The Book's appearance differed depending on your level. At first it was little more than a miserable-looking journal bound in cheap leather, but as you progressed through levels, it transformed into a precious manuscript inlaid with precious gems. You could leaf through it; alternatively, you could transfer your interface onto its cover. As a level 29 Ranger, Attila owned a beautiful Book bound in embossed morocco leather and topped with a fancy frame surrounding the magic screen. Instead of all the buttons and the joy stick he had four oblong crystals, one in each corner of the Book: white, blue, green and black. You could press them, sinking them into the soft leather, and also turn them knob-like... overall, this was an excellent thing available to everyone level 20 and above. It had cost Attila two hundred gold but it was worth every penny.
He pressed the white crystal, then turned the green one. The bag on his belt twitched. The silver disk of God's Eye soared into the sky, clicking; it splayed its arms out, unfolding into a steel six-pointed star. An open eye glowed in its center, its black pupil floating in a hemispherical pool of mercury. Its arms dripped magical runes that slowly melted in the air.
The artifact stopped about fifty feet above the ground. Attila pressed the white crystal slightly, activating its stealth mode. The star streamed charges of lightning, dematerializing. It wasn't a hundred percent invisible but if you didn't know it was there you'd be hard pressed to find it.
He reached into the bag again, producing his pride and joy: a pair of large copper goggles complete with a leather strap. Attila had modeled them after the Goggles of Underground Gloom which he'd bought from a dwarf player who'd managed to come back from the Steam Tunnels alive and in one piece. The modified goggles still allowed you to move in the dark dungeon without a torch or other source of light, but now they also served a new purpose.
Attila put the goggles on and secured the strap around his head. He turned the black crystal on the book cover. A small round window appeared in the goggles' left lens. He turned the blue crystal slightly, and the Eye in the sky rotated, following its movement.
The little round lens blinked. Overlapping the view around, it offered a bird's eye view of the area. Bestia soared over the donjon, oblivious to God's Eye watching her. Ruins bared their grinning stumps of walls from the sea of greenery. Slowly God's Eye began to rotate, offering a panoramic view.
So, what did we have here? The Eye offered a view of the donjon's flat roof complete with Bestia's nest made of a paraphernalia of twigs, bones and withered pelts of small forest creatures. Then she was back, landing and taking her place in the nest. Harpies were sharp-fanged creatures dressed in scruffy tunics made of animal pelts. They had female bodies, emaciated arms and a pair of scraggly skeletal wings on their backs. Harpies were known for their nasty and quarrelsome character, aggressive with newbs and cowardly with established gamers.
Bestia crouched in her nest and froze, staring into space. Attila couldn't see her face from above but he could well imagine it, spiteful and dumb. Despite the fact that harpies walked around half-naked, they were about as sexy as a geriatric frog.
He motioned the Eye further on and squinted, focusing on a hole in the wall overgrown with brambles. This was the entrance to the Tavern.
A man clambered out and stood up, looking about himself. He wore a checkered bandana, a gray and green hunter's jacket and a tartan kilt. A highlander, oh right.
The man carried a leather backpack. In one hand he held a short spear. And if Attila lowered the Eye slightly and looked at him from a different angle... oh, yes. Now he could see the man's short dark beard and his bushy eyebrows. His powerful legs were stuck into a pair of fur boots.
The highlander shrugged and began forcing his way through the bushes. At least he seemed to be heading in the opposite direction from the portal station. Attila wasn't exactly looking forward to meeting the guy face to face.
In any case, it looked like the Eye was working. True, it wasn't exactly legal. It could easily get him collared by the legionnaires: the players hired by the Admins to perform police functions. The only thing left was to get paid for it.
Attila stood up. The whole thing was a piece of cake. He had the goods; his customer was now waiting for him in the tavern, prepared to part with a hefty sum of money. So why did he have this bad feeling? He seemed to sense someone's stare focused on his back.
Attila changed the Eye's settings so that it hovered nearby the donjon, rotating slowly. The image in his goggles and on the cover of the Book also began to rotate. Good. Let it stay there and scan the area. This wasn't some Mickey Mouse business. Attila was playing big time. Security was key.
He shut down the Book view and began walking around the donjon, keeping an eye on the image in his goggles. Immediately he stumbled into some gelatinous goo. The fabric of reality around him thickened, rippled with interference. Then it all ended. An aberration? There was no record of anyone encountering them so close to the tavern. A glitch? Most likely. Never mind. It didn't seem to have affected anything. Time to move on.
He climbed through the narrow hole and found himself in a room with a door watched by two NPC guards. A torch burned brightly. One of the guards was sitting on an upended bucket; the other was leaning against the wall. Whoever entered the room, their modus operandi didn't change: the one on the bucket raised his loaded crossbow, aiming it at the guest, while the other laid his hand on his broadsword and demanded,
"Who the hell are you? What's your business?"
"Need a drink," Attila dropped as he walked through the door.
"Leave your weapons over there!" the guard barked at his back.
He went down a staircase lit by another torch which was stuck into the crown of an enormous skull that sat on one of the steps. Below, a copper-lined door led into the tavern. Joel the guard stirred next to the shelves laden with various weapons. He was an NPC, too.
"Lay your weapons onto the shelf!" he commanded.
You couldn't enter the tavern while carrying weapons in any shape or form. The door just wouldn't open. Every game had to have safe locations like this.
Attila ran a nonchalant hand across his chest, removing his sword and the shield, then unbuckled his knife and laid it onto the shelf. Joel watched over him, playing with his broadsword. The only thing Attila had kept was a large iron medallion on his neck in the shape of a two-pronged fork. Attila had been allowed through while carrying it hundreds of times before; the game security just failed to detect it. And still he breathed a sigh of relief when the door opened before him.
The tavern was lit by oil lamps hanging from hooks. Two patrons were engrossed in a game of cards at the nearest table; they turned their heads for a look and immediately lost all interest in him. A gaunt stooping Elf nursed his mug on a bar stool; he looked around, saw him and reached for his backpack lying on the spare stool next to him, moving it onto his lap.
Two more men were having dinner at the other end of the room next to the door that led to the castle's dungeons. The one that was facing him raised his head, meeting Attila's stare; then he looked back down at his plateful of meat stew. His friend kept rattling his spoon against his own bowl gulping his food down greedily, his ears moving with the effort.
Attila nodded to the landlord behind the bar. His name was Barb - and he was actually a unicorn. Or rather, an animal humanoid. His body was perfectly human, ending in a horse-like neck and head topped with a long horn. A long time ago, when Attila had still been learning the local lay of the land, someone had told him Barb's story. His name was indeed Barb: a seedy vendor dealing in some questionable goods who one day had the misfortune to rip off a Barbarian Shaman by selling him some run-of-the mill deer horns in place of the unique Unicorn horns famous for their magic properties. The shaman - who happened to be a worshipper of the Beast God - saw right through his little scheme and cursed the landlord, turning him into his current shape. After that, no one wanted to deal with him so he opened the tavern instead.
Upon seeing Attila, the landlord shook his mane and neighed curtly, motioning him to enter. Attila found it funny that he could both speak and neigh like a proper unicorn.
Finally Attila saw his customer.
A large bearded half-orc clad in a shiny bulbous cuirass (he'd identified himself as Beast at their initial RV) was sitting at a table not far from the bar. In front of him lay his helmet adorned with a picture of a fanged orc skull and crossbones. It was tacky as hell but it did catch your eye. An enormous mace lay on the table next to it.
The half-orc raised his huge beam of an arm, motioning Attila to approach. He bared his yellow fangs in a grin, then raised his beer mug by way of greeting him.
Attila took a seat at the table next to him. The half-orc had pale-blue skin. A scar ran across his temple. His long beard was tied in a knot at the end; as for his hair, it was unusually thick, resembling a nest of little snakes. A bowl of pickles stood on the table next to a second mug. Beast reached out and filled it from a keg.
"Cheers, man! May the Canyon be good to us!"
Attila reached for the mug and drank the toast. Beast's Adam's apple twitched as he poured the beer down his neck. Then he grunted, pounding his nearly-empty mug onto the table. Attila barely touched his drink.
"So? Have you got it?" Beast craned his powerful neck toward him. His voice sounded impressively husky but still Attila thought he could detect a sour note. His customer must have been young - most likely using a voice changer attached to a microphone to sound older.
The customer cast a furtive glance around and leaned toward Attila. His dark orcish eyes glistened as he repeated,
"So, you got it? Show me. Can't wait."
His boyish intonation didn't match his militant stance. When an enormous bearded hulk of a half-orc complete with scars, weathered skin and fat greedy lips begins to fidget and pull faces, it admittedly looks funny.
"Relax," Attila said. "Calm down, man. You're attracting attention. You sure you got the money?"
"Where's my cheat?" Beast raised his voice.
Attila cast a worried look around. "Put the voice down, you idiot!" he hissed.
Beast shrunk his head into his shoulders. "Why?" Not receiving an answer, he sat up straight again. "Who do you think you are?"
Jesus. Attila heaved a sigh. "The Eye is hovering over the donjon's roof," he said. "It's transmitting the images here," he reached into his bag for the Book and laid it on the table. "Wait, I'm gonna turn it on now. Can you see? You can control it via these crystals. Here, try it."
Continuing to explain, he pushed the Book toward Beast who immediately began pressing and turning the knobs, open-mouthed with the effort. When the image in the frame obeyed his actions commanding the Eye to move, he beamed like a little boy.
Yes. This was a boy. He must have stolen the money from his parents. Having said that, some of these kids were quite capable of earning large sums by gaming, much more than their dad could bring home by busting his hump on some assembly line. Attila kept explaining the details while casting occasional glances at the helmet. What a stupid logo.
The bad foreboding arose in him again. He cast an inconspicuous look around. No one seemed to be paying any particular attention to them. Everything was business as usual. And still-
The landlord and the hunched-up Elf by the bar were talking in low voices. The Elf finished his mug in one swig and cast a nonchalant glance at Beast and Attila.
Attila didn't like it. Then again, there was nothing suspicious about the man. It wasn't even the patrons that worried him, it was the tavern itself. There was something wrong about the whole setup. What could that be? He didn't notice anything out of the ordinary.
"Cool," Beast mumbled, playing with the Eye. The image on the book cover kept rotating. The picture in Attila's left goggle lens mirrored its movement. He could see the room and he could also see the overlapping view of the ruins outside, the bushes and the donjon.
Beast had found Attila via one of his old clients. He'd contracted him to make the Eye: an absolutely indispensable thing for every ranger, whether alone or in a group. A cheat like that could seriously improve your chances of survival in the Dead Canyon. The problem was, it wasn't exactly legal. The emphasis being on "exactly". The truth was, the Admins had chosen to close their eyes to the players' use of cheats which admittedly added to the game's appeal. On the other hand, they tended to unsettle the game's balance which was why cheat builders were prosecuted, arrested and heavily fined.
Admins didn't bother to arrest them themselves, though. They had specially hired players to do just that. Called Legionnaires, these too were obliged to follow the game's rules just like everybody else. Well, almost. The constant standoff between the legionnaires and cheat masters that often resulted in major confrontations were Gryad's special feature: a fun addition to the game which added to its excitement.
Attila frowned. There was one other strange thing about the tavern. It was nearly empty. Normally, the Unicorn was packed. He'd never seen even half of its tables empty; now virtually all of them were deserted.
"I'll take it," Beast announced.
"Quiet, you," Attila hissed. "What's wrong with you, man? Can't you keep your voice down? It's five and a half grand."
Beast's eyes opened wide with indignation. "You said it was four!"
"I had to buy some native software. Couldn't get any hacked ones. Didn't I warn you that the price might rise? I did. So if you want it, you'd better pay now."
Attila pulled the Book closer and closed the Eye's view on the cover, opening his payment provider instead. Beast stared at him, mouthing something.
Attila knew this old salesmen's trick. You had to hand the goods over to the client so that he could hold it, touch it and feel that it was already as good as his. Then you took it back from him. Subconsciously the client would already regard the item as his own and would be much more prone to buy something he otherwise wouldn't have. So now Attila was sure this Beast wasn't going to reconsider.
He was desperate, too desperate to be unscrupulous over such tricks. Besides, he'd indeed gone over his budget while working on the Eye. A visit from some shady debt collectors was the last thing his wheelchair-bound body needed. He had to raise the money today, by hook or by crook.
Beast sniffed unhappily.
"Have you ever used the in-game banking system?" Attila asked.
"Of course I have. Who do you think I am?"
"I don't know, do I? I'm not talking about shopping. I mean a direct transfer between accounts."
"I know what you mean."
"So send it, then. Or are you not taking it? I'll be off, then," Attila reached for the Book. "It's not a problem to find another customer for this."
"I am!" Beast gasped. Stealing a look around, he reached for his backpack that lay on the bench next to him. He rummaged through it for his own Book and placed it on the table. It looked truly Barbaric with its rough leather cover, all scratched and dented. Instead of crystals, he had four skulls mounted in the cover's four corners. The screen was framed with a pattern of bones.
"Don't look," Beast said, leaning over his Book and covering it with his elbow. "I need to enter the password."
Attila, however, looked hard - but not at the Book. He was peering at the outside view that the Eye was sending to his goggle lens, watching five legionnaires circle the donjon. They were clad in light knee-length chainmail shirts with an emerald sheen. Their signature helmets were topped with birdlike beaks. The legionnaires were armed with bastard swords which they wore whenever they weren't undercover. They never used shields, relying on their powerful arm bracers with which they parried the fiercest of slashing blows.
They hurried through the brambles toward the donjon. Were they just patrolling the area? Or were they on a manhunt?
Slowly Attila turned his head and looked at Beast. The understanding came too late.
Beast glared back at him. "Quit staring! I don't need no password spies!"
Attila cast a quick glance at the two men by the back door. Why had they chosen that particular table? And the card players by the front entrance, weren't they sitting there to cut off all possible escape routes? And this Beast... he was trying too hard pretending he was an unskilled noob.
Shit. This was a sting.
They'd been waiting for him. Wanted to catch him red-handed. He, Attila, had given the RV details to his customer who was in fact an undercover legionnaire. This wasn't the real Tavern: the NPCs had lured him into its copy created specifically for the purpose of entrapping him. What was that spell called - Smoke and Mirrors? A powerful piece of magic and prohibitively expensive, too. To cast it yourself you had to be a level 80 wizard which was something only Elven wizards - and maybe the Drow too - could afford with their racial magic bonus. And the gelatinous goo he'd walked in as he tried to enter the donjon was no glitch, either. By walking through it, he'd triggered the trap.
The Elf by the bar stood up. The landlord leaned over him, explaining something while casting a big horsey eye at the table where Attila and Beast were sitting.
How sure was he that this was indeed Barb? Most likely, the character was being controlled by a legionnaire player, someone in the RussoVirt office who'd taken over from the game's AI for this occasion.
"Whatcha lookin' at?" Beast asked warily.
"Waiting for you to enter the goddamn password," Attila mouthed while undoing the top button of his shirt. Pulling inconspicuously at the chain, he produced the two-pronged medallion. It was flat and almost as large as the palm of his hand. Immediately it began whizzing. Bright blue charges of lightning emitted from both its ends.
"What d'you think you're doing?" Beast tried to grab Attila's hand while reaching for his mace.
Attila stood up and jabbed the fake customer's chest with his weapon. A blue light flared out; the air crackled with static, spreading an aroma of seaweed. Beast flew back like a dry leaf caught in a gust of wind.
Triton's Fork was one hell of a weapon. Triton was an ancient sea god; the medallion had preserved a tiny speck of his strength. To resist Triton's Fury spell, you had to have a top set of armor and a whole bunch of Earth-bound amulets.
Leaping to his feet, Attila scooped his Book from the table and kicked the bench to trip the stooping Elf who was rushing toward him. The Elf clattered over the floor. Beast cussed and grabbed at the wall trying to scramble to his feet, then tumbled back down on his rubber legs.
Attila whipped out a vial from a belt pouch and poured its contents down his throat. He had over a dozen such pouches with a wide choice of potions and elixirs, each in its respective quick access slot. He could feel the Giant's Strength fill him with enough power to lift the table and use it against the two guarding the back door, sweeping them off their feet. Giant's Strength was an enhancing elixir that only worked a few seconds, but that was plenty.
By the time the legionnaires stomped into the room, Attila had broken down the back door, run through a small passage and rammed a second door that led into a small storeroom. Once inside, he slammed the door shut propping a heavy crate against it, and then kept running.
He'd never been in this part of the tavern: a succession of dark pantries and storerooms. Attila very nearly stumbled into a heavy chest that stood in the middle of one such chamber. Without stopping, he leaped over it and ran out, finding himself back in the dark low-ceilinged corridor. The grim pattern of the walls' stonework repeated itself again and again.
Finally, the stairs. They should lead into the donjon's main room. He ran up the steps, simultaneously whipping out the Book and lowering the Eye trying to make it enter the main room. But operating the Eye on the run wasn't easy. He missed. The steel star hit the wall. He could hear screams and a hell of a racket outside.
Attila stopped and began fiddling with the Book's crystal knob. The Eye left the donjon's wall and ducked into a window. Attila rearranged his goggles and hurried on, peering at the view in his eye lens as he ran.
Far below, he could see the donjon's round hall overgrown with grass and small shrubs that grew up through the cracks. The stone floor was littered with bones and bits of broken furniture. Attila noticed a round trapdoor in the floor by the wall. Was it where this staircase was taking him? It definitely looked that way.
Two men stood over the trapdoor. One was wearing the beaked helmet and a bastard sword. The other wore a checkered bandana and a kilt. He was holding a short spear. Had Attila chosen the Imitation mode, he could expect a prompt to jump up next to the player's spear,
A pole weapon used for thrusting and throwing and used both as a projectile and melee weapon.
So this highlander was on the Admins' payroll too? An undercover agent, oh great. They were waiting for him, the tips of their two weapons pointing at the trapdoor.
He heard the sounds of splitting wood far behind him. The crate hadn't stopped them. They were coming for him. He had nowhere to escape.
He could already see the end of the stairs and the barred trapdoor. Attila slowed down, trying to step noiselessly. The two men above him mustn't hear his approach. They had no idea he could see them.
He recognized Beast's indignant bellowing. Attila gulped. Thoughts rushed through his mind, running in circles like a pack of excited dogs. There's always a way out. He spun the crystal knob, causing the immobile image in his eye lens to jerk back into motion. The heads of the two men began to fade away until the Eye reached the room's ceiling.
Attila spun the knob in the opposite direction, forcing the Eye to go back. The bandana agent must have sensed something. He was about to turn around when the eye smashed into his head.
Thump. The image jumped and rippled. Attila didn't watch further. He forced the bar aside and swung the trapdoor open, jumping inside. Before the second agent could recover, Attila sent him flying with a hearty well-aimed punch. Yelling, the man landed crunching onto a heap of stones.
Attila darted across the room, heading for the door. Now: command the Eye to soar up, direct it out of the window and refocus the Eye to watch the area behind it, synchronizing its movements with Attila's own. This way he could see his pursuers.
Actually, he already could. Beast, the five legionnaires, the stooping Elf, the kilted agent - all present and correct, chasing after him.
Attila scrambled deep into the thicket where they couldn't see him. His pursuers ran out of the donjon and paused, looking around and listening.
Should he log out and quit the game in a hurry? But that way, he risked losing the Eye. Then he'd have nowhere to get the money from. This was his own fault, choosing the life of a lone recluse. Not a good thing, especially when you're handicapped. Now he had no friends to urgently borrow the money from. So losing the Eye wasn't an option.
Should he hurry back toward the portal station? If he ran they'd hear him but if he walked fast...
He took a few tentative steps, leaving the donjon behind. The hole in the wall gaped right in front of him. Now run, swiftly as a fox.
He climbed out of the hole and crossed the gooey area again, successfully leaving the virtual trap. Hiding in the tall grass, he peered at the portal station. Shit. They were waiting for him there.
That left him with only one option: the Gamekeeper's hut. This was now the nearest portal station. Not the safest of places, considering the ghoul that lived in the marsh nearby. Few players ever ventured there.
He began walking away, listening to the disturbed donjon's noises and to the voices of his pursuers. As he passed some poplars, he was very nearly caught by another aberration, the Stinging Thorns which pierced everyone they trapped with long bone needles. He gave them a wide berth and entered a small grove while controlling the area via the Eye. His pursuers had split: Beast in his bulbous cuirass and stupid helmet was clutching the mace, leading six legionnaires in the same direction as Attila was heading. The second group had taken a sideways route, gradually moving away from him.
The Stinging Thorns were now in Beast's way. If only they trapped his pursuers! But Beast raised his hand, motioning his men to stop. He'd seen it, the bastard. They circumvented the aberration just like he'd done a moment ago and continued on their way.
Attila walked faster. The legionnaires had to know about the second portal station. That's exactly why they were moving in that direction. Never mind. If he stayed on top of them, they wouldn't be able to catch him red-handed. Their job was to apprehend an offender in flagrante just as the illegal software was changing hands. In order to prosecute him, they needed to catch him in the act. So he absolutely had to beat them to the station. Because if they caught him...
He shrugged the thought away. If they caught him, then he'd have problems. Big ones.
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Release date: October 12 2015