Friday, April 1, 2016

Gate of Twilight - Volume 1 - Chapter 6

So, I'm trying my hand as scheduling a post. If this doesn't work, I'll probably look like a fool, which at the very least should give everyone a good laugh, so you'll have to forgive me if that happens.

I don't think that will be the case, but well, better apologize early than regret it later.

So, here's Gate of Twilight, Chapter 6.
At Kyle's revelation, the companions stood stunned, and the only thing inside the temple that moved was Ruzzella's right ear, twitching slightly. Aside from that, no one dared lift as much as a finger.

“I know you're still in there,” the deep, not unpleasant voice of the dragon boomed into the hall. “Come out and play! Or do you want me to come in there with you?”

“What do we do?” Seyran whispered to Kyle. “I haven't fought a dragon before!”

“Neither have I,” Kyle hissed back, “but we don't want to go out there. In here, we're at an advantage. It can't fly, and between those pillars, it can't move freely.”

Ruzzella's ears folded down, a certain sign of disagreement for her. “So what else do we do,” she grumbled, “stay here and wait for it to go away?”

Kyle seemed to think for a moment. “Maybe we can lure it in here,” he eventually replied. “We may have a chance if we can use the environment to our advantage.”

“Are you certain we have a chance at all?” Emrald asked. “Dragons are known to raze entire cities, and there's only four of us!”

“Elder dragons are that powerful, yes,” Kyle said, “but this one looked too small for an elder dragon. I suppose it's still a-”

“Booooring!” the voice outside the temple boomed again. “Why are you hiding? It's no fun like this!”

Ruzzella bared her teeth. “Why don't you come in here if you're bored?” she yelled.

“Ruzzy!” Seyran looked at her as though she had gone mad.

“What's the problem? I thought Kyle said-”

“No, you come out!” the dragon demanded, in a decidedly huffy tone. “And don't tell me what to do! It's much more fun if you try running from me.”

Kyle nodded to himself. “That dragon is still a youngling,” he said, “less than a century old. We can do this if we play our cards right. Now if I could only remember my dragon-hunting lessons...”

“How are we supposed to fight it?” Emrald asked. “None of our weapons are strong enough to pierce dragonscale, and I don't see how we would be able to get to his underbelly or throat.”

“What if you call upon your elemental and wrestle it down, like you did with the megaraptor?” Seyran suggested. “You are invulnerable in that state, and-”

Emrald shook his head. “I'm much tougher, yes, but not invulnerable,” he said, “and I'm not certain if I can hold a dragon, even in that state. There's a limit to how much my elemental can do, and I think a dragon is well beyond that limit.”

“Our best shot really is getting it into tight quarters where it doesn't have the advantage of mobility,” Kyle repeated. “We really need to stay in here and wait for the dragon to-”

“I don't think I like you any more!” the voice of the dragon boomed into the hall once again, and then the companions could hear it take a deep breath. The next moment, it exhaled, and a large cloud of sickly greenish mist rolled into the temple hall.

“Gah! What's that?”, Ruzzella shouted.

“Poison gas!” Emrald bellowed. “Don't breathe it!”

“Not poison,” Kyle corrected him, “acid mist! It's a black dragon.”

“Sounds just as bad,” Seyran shouted. “What do we do?”

Kyle sighed. “We need to get out of here, fast.”

“But didn't you say we needed to stay in here?”

“Situation's changed.” He looked at the cloud. “That acid's not yet enough to reach us back here, but a few more breaths from that dragon and it will.”

“But how do we get out?” Ruzzella wanted to know, her tail nervously twitching from side to side. “That dragon's right in front of the door!”

“I have an idea,” Kyle hissed and pulled an arrow out of his bag. “I'll hit it with this. A wind arrow should disperse that acid, and as soon as it hits and stuns the dragon with lightning, the three of you charge past it. Once its attention is on you, I'll follow you outside.”

Emrald nodded. “Sounds good,” he said. “On your mark, then.”

Kyle nodded back and prepared his arrow, and the same moment, the dragon breathed into the hall again. The acid cloud extended further and now filled almost half the temple. Two more breaths, and it would have reached the companions.

However, Kyle wasn't willing to give the dragon these two breaths. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, focused on his shot, then opened them again and quickly moved around the pillar he was standing behind, drawing his bowstring at the same time. He aimed for less than half a second before he let his arrow fly, and and as it whizzed through the air, it blew the acid cloud apart like he had predicted. And then it hit the dragon.

Or rather, it would have, had it not suddenly changed direction and zipped past the dragon, uselessly disappearing in the forest.

“Rotblood,” Kyle cursed. “It's immune to wind magic!”

“Then what do we do?” Seyran asked, his earlier confidence now visibly shaken. “How do we get past it when it's not stunned?”

Emrald put a hand on his shoulder. “Keep calm,” he said. “We need our wits with us. And we need a distraction.”

“Distraction?” Ruzzella looked at him, then she suddenly grinned. “You got yourselves one!”

“Ruzzy, don't do anything carel-”

But despite the warning, she leaped away from the wall and right in front of the altar, in plain sight of the temple entrance and the dragon waiting behind it.

“Hey, ugly!” she yelled. “I'm coming at you! Try and stop me if you can!”

The dragon's eyes focused on her. The creature was large enough to cover the full width of the entrance gate, even without extended wings, and it certainly looked as though Ruzzella had gotten its attention.

And then she leaped at the pillar to the right of her, and from there to the next pillar in line to the left, and then to the right again, in a zig-zag-pattern, each leap taking her higher up. The dragon's eyes followed her movements, apparently curious about what she was trying to accomplish with her acrobatics. She moved closer and closer to the entrance with each of her leaps, and thus closer and closer to the creature waiting outside.

Ruzzella was fast and agile, but there was no way she would be agile enough to get past the dragon with what she was doing. It was focused on her movements, its head moving to the left and right with each leap, and whatever Ruzzella was trying to accomplish, her final leap would bring her into range of its teeth. It wouldn't be difficult to predict her path and just snatch her out of the air – the last pillar was too far away from the entrance to give her enough of a surprise.

Four pillars remained. Three. Now two. Now she was jumping towards the right one closest to the entrance.

“CHARGE!” Ruzzella yelled at the top of her lungs, leaped directly at the dragon's head and burst into flame.

The dragon blinked. Any living creature would have blinked, after staring into the darkness of the temple hall and now suddenly confronted with a fire bursting out right before their eyes, and even a dragon was no different. With its eyes closed, even if only for a second, it could no longer see Ruzzella, and as it could not see her, it could no longer chomp down on her.

Ruzzella landed on the dragon's snout hands first, somersaulted over its head and landed on its back, immediately continuing to run. At the same time, she called her fire elemental back within her, returning to her normal form again. The dragon turned its head, looking after her in surprise.

When it turned its head back forward again, Seyran and Emrald were charging towards it, both glaive and war-fork pointed at its throat. They were less than ten feet away.

The dragon jumped.

It didn't have the time to inhale for another acid breath, and two pole-arms were one too many to just chomp down on. Also, in all its life, other creatures had always run away from the dragon, never towards it. Having two people charge it directly was a very new experience, one it wasn't certain how to handle.

The jump took the dragon twenty feet into the air, and it extended its wings and flapped twice, flying backwards and landing on top of the gate that led outside of the temple city. It perched there, wings still extended, and looked at the pitiful creatures down there. The creatures that had dared break into its hoard. So small, so not-scary. How could they have dared surprise the dragon so much? Impertinent little pests – this was supposed to have been fun, not confusing!

“What do you think you're doing?” it hollered at the companions. “This isn't how the game goes!”

“I thought you wanted us to come out,” Seyran shouted back. “Make up your mind already!”

The dragon snarled at him. “How dare you talk to me? This is my palace! I do whatever I want!”

“So, you're the lord of this palace?” Emrald asked.

“Lord of this palace?” The dragon laughed. “I am queen of this entire forest! And you will bow, and maybe I shall let one of you live!”

As she spoke, Kyle came walking out of the temple, both his large saber and one of the smaller ones in his hands. “You leave this place and begone forever,” he said, “and maybe we shall let you live.”

The dragon grinned, and it was a nasty sight. Then she inhaled.

“Run!” Seyran shouted.

The acid breath of the dragon spilled over the square, and the companions raced to avoid it. They were out in the open now and had plenty of room to move, but they were now also much closer to the dragon than they had been inside the temple, and Emrald would have almost not made it into cover behind one of the ruined walls had Ruzzella not pulled him over.

On the other side of the square, Seyran and Kyle were crouching down behind the remains of what must have been a statue. “Okay, what do we do now?” Seyran asked.

Kyle didn't answer. Instead, he put the hilts of his two sabers together. Like earlier, they joined to form a bow, but this one looked different – it was asymmetrical, its upper half larger than its lower one. “We fight,” he said.

Seyran raised an eyebrow. “I thought your wind arrows were useless against that dragon?”

“My arrows are,” Kyle agreed, “but this one isn't.” And he drew his third saber.

Seyran didn't quite understand what he was getting at and wanted to ask, but before he could ask, the voice of the dragon boomed across the city again. “Yes, hide, you little snacks,” she chided. “Three, two, one – ready or not, here I come!”

With those words, the sound of the dragon's wings flapping filled the air, and then her shadow loomed in the sky. The companions looked up and saw her, flying at least a hundred feet above them, an altitude she had reached in only a few strokes of her large black wings. Young as she probably was, her sheer power let everybody's heart sink – how could they possibly defeat something that was more of a force of nature than a living creature?

“I see you!” the dragon shrieked from above, and it was more like the gleeful shout of a little girl who had found her favorite doll underneath the bed than anything else. She made a small half-circle in the air and then, almost instantly, went into a dive straight for the wall Emrald and Ruzzella had taken cover behind.

Before the dragon could reach them, Ruzzella had already leaped out of hiding and made a mad dash towards another wall, one that would give her protection from the dragon's angle of approach. Emrald, however, did not move. He just stared at the approaching black shape, almost as if hypnotized by the monstrous creature swooping down on him.

And then, almost at the last second, he pulled out the war-fork he had been hiding behind his back and set it against the dive of the dragon.

With any warhorse, his tactics would have worked. No rider of any skill would have been able to evade the three iron prongs at this speed and distance. The dragon, however, simply flapped her wings once and majestically glided out of her dive and into another circle, evading the weapon by several feet.

It did annoy her more than a little, though. “How dare you?” she hollered. “When I come to catch you, you can't just fight back!”

“I think he just did,” Ruzzella yelled. “What are you going to do about it?”

“This isn't how you play the game!”, the dragon roared, and once again, she inhaled deeply, sending another cloud of acid down towards Ruzzella. Again, the catfolk was able to evade the attack with a mad dash and a few leaps, and as the dragon was occupied with her, Emrald took the opportunity to change locations, running behind another wall as fast as he could.

The dragon snarled in frustration. At least that little cat-something down there knew how the game was played, she thought, but hunting her down would be a bit of a bother, the way she skipped and hopped around the ruined temple city. That rock friend of hers was much easier prey, much slower, though she probably couldn't just swoop at him as long as he still had that pointy stick of his. She should probably have found him and breathed a nice cloud of acid at him – even if it didn't kill him, at least it would melt down that pointy stick, and that would make grabbing him much easier. Now, where was he?

Just as the dragon was flapping in one steady position in mid-air, looking for Emrald, she saw Kyle. The monster hunter had stepped out of hiding, his bow drawn, only that there was no arrow on the bowstring.

It was his third saber.

The realization what she was seeing had just hit the dragon when Kyle let loose, and the saber flew towards her no slower than any arrow would have. It was rotating rapidly in flight, looking more like a wheel of shining silver than anything else, and it was aimed straight for her throat.

The dragon hurled herself around, and while she was able to get her head and neck out of the way of the spinning blade, it still hit her in the left wing, cutting right through the thinner skin there. She roared in pain and plummeted to the ground, landing on her right legs and only barely avoiding falling over.

“Get her!” Ruzzella hollered and came running back from around the temple where she had been hiding, skipping over the scattered debris in order to cover as much ground as possible. Seyran stepped out from behind the ruined statue and advanced towards the dragon too, his glaive firmly in hand, while Kyle still stood in the position from where he had shot. His saber, still spinning through the air, made a wide arc and then returned to him, and he caught it in his free hand.

The dragon looked at the monster hunter whose weapon had just injured her. It wasn't a bad injury, just the membranes of her wing, but it hurt a lot, and it would make flying difficult, especially the kind of flying required to make mid-air dodges. Had she seen that saber earlier, she could have probably avoided it entirely, but now, she couldn't risk taking to the air again, or she would make an easy target for another shot. Well, at least her scales would protect her from any real danger as long as she didn't expose her neck and belly, and if she kept her wings close to her body, it was very unlikely anyone would be able to-

From the corner of her eye, the dragon saw something move, and as she turned her head, she saw Ruzzella pouncing at her from her right flank. The catfolk warrior landed on her right wing, clawed both her hands into the thin membrane there and then leaped off again, rending a deep hole where her claws had struck. The dragon howled as now both her wings were injured and snapped at Ruzzella, but her powerful leap had taken her already out of reach. How could something so small move so quickly?

The whole incident had only taken two or three seconds, but it had given Seyran the time to close in on the dragon, and now he was almost in range. He covered the last yards with a few quick footsteps, raised his glaive and then swung it at the dragon's chest. Unfortunately, she was no longer occupied with Ruzzella's attack and quickly spun her head around so that Seyran's blade only hit against the side of her snout, uselessly scratching over the black scales and not even leaving a mark on them.

“Keep her busy”, Kyle shouted from the distance and readied his saber-bow for another shot as, finally, Emrald appeared again at the dragon's left flank. He had probably circled the battlefield using the ruins as cover and now used this advantage in positioning to take the creature into a pincer attack together with Seyran, quickly closing the distance with his war-fork held like a lance under his arm. His heavy footsteps meant his attack wouldn't come as a surprise, but it would still get their enemy into an awkward position.

The dragon only shifted her legs slightly. Then she leaped backwards again.

Emrald was able to duck at the last moment, or the dragon's left rear leg would have hit him straight in the face. Kyle, seeing an opening, let his saber fly again, but he had only had a split-second to aim his shot, and so the spinning projectile only hit the dragon's shoulder, bouncing off in a rain of orange sparks but leaving the scales undamaged and unceremoniously clattering to the ground.

The dragon was now far enough away from both Seyran and Emrald so that they could not immediately attack her, and Kyle didn't look like he had another projectile at the ready. That meant she could safely do what she had intended to do the whole time.

She inhaled.

From behind, Ruzzella leaped at her. This time, she intended to really wreck one of those wings for good.

“Gotcha!” the dragon roared, and her tail shot up like a whip.

Ruzzella had reflexes that were quick as lightning, but even she couldn't change direction much once she was in the middle of a jump. The dragon's tail caught her squarely in the chest, knocking the wind out of her and sending her flying right into the temple entrance, where she disappeared into the dark.

“Ruzzella!” Seyran shouted and looked into the direction where she had been knocked, but only for a second. Then he focused on the dragon again. “You're going to pay for this!”

“This would be much more fun if you actually played right,” the dragon complained. “What's with all this trying to attack me? Run, and maybe I will only eat one of you and let the others get away.”

“Not a chance,” Seyran yelled, now slowly starting to circle the dragon. “You've picked the wrong dinner to mess with.”

“I did?” the dragon bellowed. “You broke into my hoard! You touched my playthings! You started this game, and yet you don't play by the rules!”

“And now, we will kill you”, Kyle said and slowly walked towards her. He had taken his saber-bow apart again and was just sheathing his smaller blade, taking the larger one into both hands in a typical fighting stance. “Emrald – if she tries jumping again, get underneath her and let her impale herself on your trident.”

The dragon laughed. “You're going to get squished, little one,” she said, almost amused.

“No,” Emrald said, “I won't. I've survived worse.” And as if to prove it, he drew on his elemental and let the earth power within him run over his skin, creating the impression of a crystal sheen.

For a moment, the dragon seemed to be impressed. She looked at him, then at Seyran, both with their polearms.

Then she started charging at Kyle.

The monster hunter hadn't exactly expected this reaction, but his reflexes were good enough to roll out of the way of the trampling beast, though he had no hope of counterattacking her with a weapon like his two-handed saber, and unlike Seyran or Emrald, he couldn't have just set it against her charge. He was back on his legs quickly enough to see her crashing into one of the ruined walls but not quickly enough to avoid her swiping tails as she spun around, and his legs were knocked out from under him, the platemail he was wearing fortunately protecting him from the entire force of the blow. He managed to turn his fall into another roll, though this one still left him right in range of the dragon's snapping maw, and so he decided to do the wise thing rather than the brave. He ran towards where Seyran and Emrald were standing, where the dragon couldn't just charge into.

The dragon saw him running and grinned. Then she inhaled again.

“Breath attack!” Seyran hollered and ran into cover behind a corner of the temple, together with Emrald. Kyle did his best to get to their position in time, but he was too far away, and too close to the dragon.

The acid cloud that puffed out of her mouth caught his right side while he was still running, and he howled in pain as he made that final leap into the safety of the temple corner.

Seyran and Emrald quickly dragged him with them, behind another ruined wall and out of sight of the dragon. Kyle's leg armor seemed to have protected his lower body, but the right sleeve of his overcoat had been burned off, and his arm was covered in quickly expanding blisters. He bit his teeth in pain as he looked at what the dragon's breath had done. “Rotblood”, he cursed.

“Is there something we can do?” Emrald asked. “Will water-”

“No water,” Kyle hissed. “It's only going to get infected if you get it wet. I'm lucky this dragon's still so young. The acid of an adult one would have burned my arm right off.”

Seyran bit his lip. “Can you still fight?” he whispered.

“This looks worse than it is,” Kyle replied, “though it hurts just as badly as it looks. But yes, I can still fight. And I will. We're taking that little brat down!”

“But how?” Emrald asked. “A direct assault is out of the question. She'll just cover us in more acid. My elemental can probably protect me from that. But you... I see no winning strategy here.”

Kyle closed his eyes and sighed. “We need to approach her from different directions, like before. We need to goad her into attacking us and wait for an opening. The only thing that will kill her is attacks to her underbelly.”

“Her wings seemed vulnerable too”, Seyran suggested.

“But she's not going to die from ripped wings.” Kyle opened his eyes again and looked at Seyran. “If we only had someone with a weighted weapon, something like a hammer or an axe – something she'd feel though her scales, then-”

“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” the dragon's voice gleefully boomed through the temple ruins. Apparently, she was back in her game of hide and seek.

“Let's split up,” Seyran said. “As soon as she finds one of us, the others rush her. That's the only way to attack her from different directions. We use these ruins for cover.”

Kyle nodded. “Alright,” he said. “Don't run from her. Stay close so that she doesn't risk breathing at any of us again. She exposes her throat as she breathes in, and she knows it.”

“Where are you?” the dragon's voice echoed through the ruins again. From the sound of her heavy footsteps, it was obvious she was approaching the companions' position. “Come out and play! It'll be lots of fun, I promise!”

Without another word, Seyran and Kyle nodded at one another and then quickly moved away into two different directions. Emrald considered doing the same for a moment but then decided against it. If the plan was for the dragon to find one of them so that the others could outflank her, then it could have just as well been him she found.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Far from searching the ruins methodically, which would have led her right to Emrald, the dragon instead wandered around in what seemed a random pattern, looking around a corner here and a corner there, sometimes knocking over a small wall with a swipe of her tail or a strike of her claw, but she never got anywhere near Emrald's position. Instead, without really intending to, she slowly backed Seyran further and further towards the city wall.

And eventually, she knocked over a wall in front of her that was chest-high, and as it came down, she saw Seyran running away, barely dodging the falling stones and stumbling towards a corner of the city walls. Into a dead end.

“Found you!” she triumphed and grinned as Seyran spun around, seeing the shock in his eyes as he realized he was too far away to counterattack immediately (especially with the stones from the collapsed wall now littering the ground between him and the dragon) but perfectly in range for another breath attack.

The dragon thought the same and inhaled. Seyran immediately turned to the right and started to run, but there was no way he could have avoided the acid cloud that would now engulf him. Not even Ruzzella with her superior speed could have dodged that attack.

The dragon breathed out. The thick cloud of acid mist rolled towards Seyran. He saw it coming, like a village on the coast sees a tsunami coming, knowing there was no escape.

And then, it suddenly stopped.

Only that it didn't really stop. It was still rolling towards Seyran, but in his eyes, it had suddenly slowed down, almost looking like one of the clouds in the sky (just much greener than these usually were). And at the same moment, he realized that this was the power of his elemental kicking in, that once again, his speed-up had triggered without him even intending to. Not that he was unhappy about this.

Seyran used the advantage he had and ran out of the way of the billowing cloud, and it was not a moment to soon. He was just out of range of the breath attack when his elemental withdrew again, and the world around him started moving at the same speed as usual again.

“What?” he heard the dragon roar, and as he looked, he saw her starting at him in disbelief. “How did you do that?” she bellowed. “That's not fair!”

“Catch me if you can!” Seyran shouted, hoping to give his companions a cue as to his location, and then he ran behind the next wall that provided him cover from the dragon. He should have attacked her, but with the acid cloud still hanging in front of her, he had no angle of approach, so this was the next best solution.

At the very least, it drew the dragon's attention. The wall Seyran had chosen was not one she could knock down easily – it was one of the larger ones, around twenty-five feet tall - so she followed him, only to find him standing close enough to immediately attack her. She raised her right claw just in time to block his glaive blade and followed up with a claw attack of her own, which the young warrior skillfully dodged with a hop backwards before he immediately came back with another stab of his polearm. The weapon scratched harmlessly over the dragon's leg, and her head shot forward, trying to take a bite out of Seyran's shoulder. Seyran sidestepped it far enough for that not to happen, but the dragon's head still smacked against his side, forcefully knocking him backwards.

That moment, the dragon felt a stinging pain in her tail, and when she looked behind herself, she saw Kyle standing there, the tip of his blade lodged between two of her scales, drawing blood. It was not a dangerous injury, or a debilitating one, but just the thought that this simple metal thing had been able to actually wound her made the dragon very, very angry. She whipped her tail upwards, almost knocking the saber out of Kyle's hands, and when she brought it down again, there was no way he could have avoided getting smashed by it.

Only that this wasn't what Kyle had been intending. Instead, as the tail came down, he swung his saber upwards in a two-handed arc.

The blade bit into the soft underside of the dragon's tail, taking off the last two feet of it in a clean cut.

The dragon howled in agony. The rending of her wings had been painful, yes, but that pain didn't compare to the feeling of actually losing a part of her body. In a red-hot fury, she lashed out with what remained of her tail, and the blood spurting from it hit Kyle's eyes, blinding the monster hunter temporarily. He screamed and stumbled backwards.

“Get away from her!” Emrald's voice suddenly bellowed through the city, seemingly out of nowhere.

Seyran needed only a second to react, and that was good. As he quickly withdrew, the large wall he and the dragon were standing next to suddenly shivered and crackled, and then it toppled over as Emrald, having summoned his elemental, pushed it from the other side. It came down on the dragon, and though she immediately tried to turn and run, she was too slow. Rocks and rubble poured down on her, and her screams were muffled by the quickly expanding cloud of dust and sand.

To her credit, the collapsing wall didn't kill her. The falling rocks broke a few of her ribs and one of her wingbones, and one that hit her on her head dizzied her enough to make her lose consciousness for a few seconds. When she awoke again, she found herself lying on her side, underneath a pile of stone and rubble, but apparently still strong enough to shake the heap off her and get up again.

But before she could do that, both Seyran and Kyle plunged their blades into her exposed belly, carving her up, and with one last hoarse scream, she died.

The warrior and the monster hunter both took a deep breath looking at the dead dragon. In the settling dust, the shape of Emrald came into view. His elemental was still active within him, manifesting as a crystalline form. He nodded weakly towards the others; this feat of strength had taken a lot of his endurance.

“Aw, really?” an annoyed shout filled the air.

From the distance, Ruzzella stumbled towards the others. “It's already over?”

Seyran turned towards her. “Already?”

Ruzzella nodded. “Yeah, already. Just when I thought I finally had a way to really give that beast something to worry about.”

She pulled something from her back, and Seyran could see that it was a broad, two-handed sword made out of a reddish metal with a fiendishly serrated edge. It almost looked too heavy for Ruzzella to wield, but she seemed to handle it well enough.

“Where did you find that?” Seyran ask.

“In the dragon's hoard,” she grinned. “Underneath all those coins. Thought it might help. Too bad I'm a little late for that.”

Emrald looked at her and shook its head. “You shouldn't have done that,” he said. “Taking things from a dragon's hoard is asking for trouble.”

Ruzzella looked at him, then at the dead dragon and laughed.

“Who's going to trouble me?” she said. “Her?”


  1. Thanks for the new chapter! Enjoying the story so far, but the pacing of the story seems a little off.