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↤ HOW TO DESTROY THE WORLD ↦
(that is, the madness of the great bomb)
When Dal Kolt and his associates left the gaseous swamp, night had fallen, and with it came the slithering sounds of the horrors rising from the muck to find food. He and Dallam Latas stood silently outside the hut in the sullen evening mist while Dallam Jel took care of the misshapen thing inside that was once a man.
Jel knew that whatever strange energies had infested the man’s flesh would also make it dangerous to simply strike him dead. She softly told Kolt that she must do it, and to wait a distance from the structure while she ended him properly.
He supposed the husk in there was unlikely to interfere with his plans, especially after helping him. And despite his extreme caution in all things, he would have been satisfied leaving the Blackened Man to his eventual demise, grateful for his assistance. Yet the secret he’d whispered to him was dangerous, and although he couldn’t explain how it reached him, Kolt needed to be sure it ended with him.
Latas was distracted by other thoughts, nervously thinking about the cargo he carried in his pack. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he could feel a hum from the amber encased in the glass jar, pulsing with its glow. He considered whether it was just nerves or if the terrible substance had a will and mind of what was happening.
They had wrapped it thoroughly in layers of animal hides and stuffed it tightly in the pack. Latas was the most proficient at climbing, and so the natural choice to transport it back to the Oozha Dal — House of Dal — on the mount near the Black Hills. Despite his skills, no one is comfortable carrying an untamed explosive on their back, let alone one as unpredictable as the sap from that cursed Tree.
As they waited, a bluish light began emanating from between the thin cracks in the walls and the sliver between the hides covering the hut’s entrance. Kolt and Latas ceased their idle movement and stood poised as carved statues.
A deep thrum began resonating through the muddy earth as the light grew in intensity. The two men took several steps back, unsure of what to do. Soon the light was nearly as blinding as the noon sun, the energies feeding it curling the mist around the structure with an unnatural wind.
“Sir, perhaps we should —” Latas began, but was interrupted by a tremendous bang as the light blew outward with a blast of air. The sound was deafening and threw the men to the ground with its force.
They were stunned for a moment before Latas regained his wits and checked on the pack. It was undamaged, insofar as they were still alive and not a black stain on the earth. They stood up, the tinny ringing in their ears slowly subsiding. The hut’s roof had caught fire, the flames consuming it despite the condensation on the wood.
Before the hides were engulfed, Jel emerged from inside and walked out. She appeared dazed, but otherwise unharmed.
“Jel,” Kolt said, “what summoned such a strange thing?” Jel only shook her head.
“It need not be spoken of, Dal,” she spoke breathlessly. “It was a terrifying thing, and if I may, I’d prefer never to put word to it.”
Kolt had never seen Jel so rattled in all their years together. He nodded and granted her the hope that whatever transpired would fade into the haze of old memories.
“Come,” he said, “we have much to accomplish.”
Kolt and Latas moved off. Jel bore a final look at the desecrated home, now entirely wrapped in a fire far stronger and brighter than it had any right to be, before departing with them.
Despite the near tangible sense of dread while transporting the amber, the journey back to the Dal’s fortress was uneventful. Perhaps eerily so, as the normal movements of nightflyers and insects seemed entirely absent from their return trek, almost as if they were avoiding them.
The glass jar with the most important piece of the weapon was placed in a special chamber deep within the reinforced stone walls in the sub-level of Oozha Dal. It was set on the floor atop three carpets made from the soft fur of the tusk lambs that were raised nearby, locked behind an iron door which could only be opened by Kolt’s personal key, and down a hallway whose entrance was sealed by yet another door which was perpetually guarded in shifts by the Boonesh Dal.
The twelve Boonesh were Kolt’s personal guardians and normally never left his side except upon direct order. His trust for them was unwavering, but he kept even them from the secrets of the swamp. The Boonesh are pulled from boys in the Fealty that are considered the most vicious and cunning by their trainers. They are raised to be fiercely loyal and are amongst the most dangerous soldiers on the continent.
Better to face an army of a hundred swordsman than one Boonesh, so the saying goes.
To create the weapon of Kolt’s desire was simple in theory, but amassing the other ingredients would take time and ingenuity. Fortunately Kolt considered himself both patient and clever, and began work as soon as the amber was secured.
The construction of the bomb was described plainly —
Mix the following components in a dry environment:
69 dram iron rust
29 dram graywater salt
2 dram sulfur
Half-dram wood pulp from the Great Tree
Once components are combined, use enough resultant paste to encase a piece of amber from the Great Tree which is sized at least one-third dram, but no more than 10 dram.
Allow to harden.
To ignite, use naked flame on exterior for a count of ten.
So put the Blackened Man on a crumpled, stained piece of parchment that was given to Kolt alongside detailed instructions for procuring and processing the raw materials.
When asked of what size the blast would be, the Blackened Man said only, “A single dram may end the dreams of a village; five dram, a city; a hundred dram, the world.”
Kolt found this exaggeration compelling, but unhelpful.
The easiest component was iron rust. Kolt ordered old iron swords and useless cauldrons to be cut into strips and left to be eaten by the moist caverns in the Black Hills. The rust would grow and begin to consume the pieces of metal, which would be shaved from them, ground to dust, and stored in the basement in clay pots to prevent further decay.
Graywater was a term Kolt had heard floating about, but knew nothing of it other than its vague familiarity. He spoke with Dallam Jel, who informed him that she knew a man who could prepare it, though it would take some time.
They spoke in the nook Dal kept for himself at the edge of the Oozha Dal. Designed to be imposing, the single stairway leading to the chamber was cramped and ill lit, only to reveal a black door wreathed in iron fittings that took effort to open.
Once inside, the space was dedicated to making anyone who wasn’t the Dal feel insignificant, all the furnishings and tapestry framed behind the intricately carved graywood desk, leaving only empty space and implication in front of it.
Behind Kolt’s lacquered desk was a gazing window of prismatic stained glass overlooking the rising eye of the eastern dawn, sending colorful wanderings of light in a scattered array through the otherwise impenetrably dark and unwelcoming space. During Jel’s many summonings there, she thought that she was like that light to the darkness of his rule. It was easy to become lost in the marshland of sovereignty, but she had always kept the humility of his task fresh in his thoughts.
Because, she often said, the humble man is helped by all.
“Go then,” he ordered, “but don’t take longer than I need.” She didn’t require clarification, and merely bowed in the slightly askew way that those in the Dal Fealty always had, quietly exiting the black-stone chamber thereafter.
She was able to synthesize graywater salt herself, but the raw materials were perilous to collect. The higher peaks of the Black Hills smoked with wretched smells from burning rock deep belowground, but were rich in a particular mineral deposit that was endemic to only there — the gray-ash. The gases were noxious and could only be tolerated for short periods before causing intense coughing, dizziness, burning eyes, and even collapse. Falling unconscious in such a place with no aid nearby would almost certainly mean death, so the desperate or foolish who travel there care little for their lives.
Gray-ash had limited use, and could only be collected after the very occasional heavy rains washed away the topsoil, bleeding the ash into mucky streams gurgling down the hills. Even that was hazardous, as contact with the skin could cause intense, flaring pain as it ate the flesh. Even dense leather gloves could only survive a few collections before being unusable. This was the graywater of its name.
The men who brought the toxic mud back from the Black Hills were of the sort that kept to themselves, held no close loves, and appreciated a quick bit of coin, regardless of the danger to get it. Even with utmost precautions in ideal weather, the work aged them with sagging, wrinkled skin, staining them a permanent, diseased silver. Eyesight began to suffer and the ones who had been collecting it longest developed boils, skin conditions, blindness, and malign tumors that choked their throat, lungs, and eventually consumed them entire. Despite this, the rare uses for it were so important that they were paid nearly a month’s labor for only a few days of collecting.
Assuming it was successfully procured without killing its gatherers, the sludge had to have its contaminants removed, and the desired mineral boiled off until it solidified to jagged, needlepoint salt crystals. This was the step Jel was hopeful to avoid, as it was the process of many days using caustic acids which themselves were difficult and expensive to obtain, and also dangerous to breathe or touch.
So she sought out the whisperman on the edge of the nearby town. A strange sort, but more concerned with concoctions that dissolved his brain than bringing harm to anyone, much like most of the ones who dealt in macabre elixirs. Jel was hopeful that he would already possess the means and materials to provide Kolt with the graywater salt, or even have some on hand. It was unlikely, as the salt was used as an inducting agent to marry different herbs and chemicals together, and it went quickly.
She arrived in the haze of cloudy midday. The squat and poorly maintained structure — calling it a home was generous — sat nestled behind a copse of sickly ghostfinger trees. Their frail and contorted forms gave wonder to how they survived at all in their current condition, and perhaps the answer would explain why all the vegetation in an uneven radius around the poorly constructed dwelling was in various stages of decay.
She steeled herself before entering. Though unafraid of the blighted man inside, it was always a chore to communicate with him, as he lived half outside of reality and in his own imagined world. He would say it was not a deluded fantasia, but the true understanding of things. Eventually she tired of arguing the point whenever she came, and tried to focus on business alone.
A few quick raps on the entrance preceded a rasping encouragement to enter. She pulled open the door on its rusty hinges that sang out in offensive dissony before disappearing from sunlight to the cramped shadow world inside.
“Close the door!” the man hissed when she crossed the threshold. She nearly slammed it shut in annoyance.
Despite appearing like it would be filled with shards of light poking in through crevices in the awkwardly built walls, the interior was only lit by a strange, flickering green flame inside a glass enclosure hung from the ceiling. Barely providing enough visibility, it was probably all the light he could take.
Whispermen often used milkroot drops in their eyes to "help lift the veil," causing not only intense visual hallucinations and complete hair loss over their entire body, but severe light sensitivity. Daylight could, with enough exposure, blind them.
"Hello, pale one," she said, speaking with as little disdain as possible. The man, such as he was, lay back in the corner, listless eyes undulating in strange rhythms at some unseen something.
"I know you, but yet I don't," he nearly hissed.
"I have no time nor desire to fence with you. I need something."
"Everyone always needs when they come here. They need always, I suppo- What?" His gaze turned to the empty space beside her, eyes focused at whatever he believed possessed the absence. "No… No she is still what she believes. But maybe not for long."
Jel snapped her fingers at him, drawing his attention.
"I need graywater salt. Do you possess some that I might purchase?"
"Ahh, the poison brew. Whatever would you need such a thing for?" His face had become reptilian in a way that she couldn't quite describe — mouth wider and slitted like a lizard, eyes wide and dilated so much that they were almost entirely black. His clothes were ragged and stained, hands scarred from burns handling the vicious toxins he cooked and mixed and drank.
"That is my concern. I have coin and am in need, do you have what I seek? I need at least a hundred dram."
"A hundred? My, what terrible things could be done with so much." His eyes narrowed, peering at, perhaps even through her. He spoke with a slow, methodical cadence, every word especially prepared. "Do you wish to kill a city? Poison a river? Perhaps boil it in fire water to make a malformation of gas that would cook people from the inside?"
"Nothing of the sort. Regardless, it's not your business."
"You are incorrect. My business is the seeing of the hidden, and I cannot see into your heart. This is an unusual thing, a very unusual thing. I only perceive a shadow self, drawn across your spirit as a thick shade of wood. How did you come across such a curtain in yourself?"
Jel was becoming ever more frustrated with his prattle. The headaches, which had been growing stronger over the past few weeks, bubbled up behind her eyes. Though they weren’t really headaches, they were a dissonance of thought and action. There was no pain, but instead a thinning of her mind that waxed and waned as tides of building pressure, harmonizing with the unceasing thrum of Kolt’s ambition.
She had begun to feel as if she were a mere passenger in her own body, a ghost of a person not yet dead. Initially a hazy sensation, it now fell upon her as crashing storm waves, drowning her sense of being and leaving the disturbed feeling that she could simply disappear as snuffed candle smoke.
She clenched her eyes shut and ground her teeth into each other with such force that she heard a wrenching squeal reverberate through her skull. It was enough to pull her back from the coastless oblivion she’d found herself misting into ever since the man with the auburn beard and fierce disposition had set his sights on this singular task.
Her vision snapped back to the whisperman’s din of shadows. Not noticing, or perhaps not caring for her fight with the inexplicable, he reached out a stained hand and clicked over the squat table of glassware with his sharp, jagged fingernails. Each vessel sealed with cork, crystal lid, or metal stopper, depending on what could contain the disparate, turgid colors inside them.
He finally settled on an unassuming glass phial of exquisite craftsmanship, topped with an obsidian seal that would surely make a squealing, angry noise when twisted from its perch. Underneath the unyielding cap was a coarse, off-white powder, though in that cramped place of mysteries it carried the same swampy color as everything else that reflected the berylitic light of the whimpering flame nearby.
“How much is that in there?” Jel asked, the words feeling both of her and of elsewhere at once. The dissociative gnawing hadn’t abated completely, leaving her on unsteady ground. She had developed a talent for deceiving others into believing she always thought ahead of everyone else, and she used that now just to stay present.
His cavernous eyes narrowed at the phial, hiding his dark pupils and briefly encasing his head entirely in his smooth, albinic skin. After a time, he snapped his gaze to her.
“I would say near 300 dram, oh starburned mistress.” Another enigma of word she had no space to acknowledge.
“Are you certain?” she managed, sucking in air and working desperately to keep focus.
He held up a finger and slithered in crouched half-steps to the other side of the room, arriving at a cracked wooden stool supporting a brass balance.
She used the weights and that very scale often in her practice, and recognized the imprinted mark of the Council of Moral Weights, a standardization body for all who relied on exact measurements to ply their trade. There was not a single reputable vendor or practitioner in the entirety of the Central Continent that would measure anything without their seal.
After rummaging in a storage box on the floor, he removed an empty phial and three 100-dram weights. He set the phial on the small pan suspended from the hanging left arm of the balance and twisted a knob atop the device to bring the pans in parity again.
He swapped the empty phial for the other containing the graywater salt and placed the weights on the opposite side. The arms tipped and swayed after he released them, gradually finding their center. The phial tipped the balance slightly in its favor — the salt was even heavier than he’d estimated.
“Sufficient for you?” He cocked his eye at her, gratefully accepting her nod. “We need only discuss price.”
She unclipped the money-purse hanging from the back of her belt and tossed it to the floor in a satisfying if unceremonious jangle of coins.
“That should be double the market rate and then some,” she said, extending her upturned palm in expectation of the phial.
She realized offering as much so quickly placed her at a disadvantage, and feared the pathetic figure crouched at her feet would use his clear advantage to bilk her for more coin, but she had to chance ending it quickly. Her confidence was mere shine on a dung pile, for despite the dim cold in that dark claustrophobia, anxious sweat beaded on her forehead. She feared that much longer without light to focus her mind away from the spreading pool of ruin distorting her perception would cause her to collapse then and there.
“You seem not at all well, Dallam,” he said, smiling for perhaps the first time since she entered.
“We all have our miseries,” she said with an arid sincerity. “Let us finish our concern and I’ll leave you to yours.”
Certain that she would need to kill this man to get what she came for, he confounded her by placing the glass vessel in her hand.
“My miseries are nothing to yours,” he replied with that same, impenetrable smile. “I wish you every kindness, but your troubles are beyond the reach of compassion.”
Be damned this thing, she thought, and threw open the door to leave, sunlight exploding everywhere at once. He hissed in alarm, clawing at his eyes and squealing as he scrambled to close the door and go back to the necessary blackness of his bleak little home.
Collecting the wood from the Great Tree proved to be the most arduous and deadly of all the necessities. Though exposure to air would allow the wood to be used safely, the dense fibers of the lignin meant any new layer revealed would be another opportunity for the poison to burn, scar, or kill.
The malformed man of the swamp had only withering advice for such an undertaking, saying he had never gotten the wood himself, but had been pleased to find the price for risking a man’s life was far cheaper than he’d imagined. Kolt agreed — in thought if not word — but felt simply throwing human misery at the problem was wasteful.
Being adept in his own ways, he commissioned a kind of armor to be made to completely cover the wearer in a series of animal hides which had been tanned and stitched together with the tough threads of rotgut sheep sinew. A sheet of crystal, highly polished, was set into a pouch in the hide helmet to allow an obscured but workable view of the world.
It was a particular challenge for the official crysartis of the Dal to make glass lightweight enough to not pull the hide helmet off, yet thick enough to prevent shattering. It was a slow process of months of experimentation before it was ready for the suit.
The leatherman who layered and stitched the hides together was given the unusual edict that the entirety of the outfit could be sewn onto a man piece by piece with overhanging material to seal and prevent any air from entering. After many weeks and failures, his fourth prototype was successful in being light enough to ambulate, portable in a container a third of its size, and sealable on the wearer with the proper materials.
It was the law that no one may enter the Valley outside of the appointed spring walk, and so it had been for hundreds of summers. This was most particularly a way to prevent extensive surveying of the Trail by the lower classes, but was publicly presented as fair and just to all.
As the law is not a concern for a Dal, Kolt dispatched a skeleton crew of four honorable men to the Valley months prior to the Pilgrimage to test his new creation. While the Valley’s southern entrance and northern terminus were both heavily patrolled by the Journeyman Extraordinaire’s personal army — who were impervious enough to bribery that the attempt would be a waste — a sliver of the Valley was accessible from a gap in the mountains. It wouldn’t allow those foolish enough to slither through it a path to the wider trail, but it did connect with one of the Tree's massive, dangerous limbs. Not helpful for the unscrupulous seeking a shortcut, but perfect to test the efforts of Kolt’s tinkering.
After the arduous travel from the Oozha, they found access into the mountain passthrough to be impossible with their wheeled cart. Secreting it underneath a fluster of dense branches, the four of them collected parts of the outfit, tied them to their backs, and ferried them within the slight parting between mountains. Some sections were barely wide enough for them to shimmy through, requiring holding the awkward sections of the gear above their heads as they sucked in their stomach to just slip past the uncomfortable edges of gray stone.
The sun had already crested the top of the sky by the time they extricated themselves from that claustrophobic vice. Thankfully they didn’t have to travel but a short distance around a bend before facing their destination.
Erupting from the forest canopy, large as any tree any of them had ever seen, was the easterly branch. One of the most chaotic of the Great Tree’s limbs, it mostly burrowed underground not long after arcing from the Tree’s base, corrupting the earth surrounding it like an acrid screech that shuttered all life close enough to hear it.
The four of them took only a moment to absorb their enemy before beginning to assemble the suit around the bravest — or perhaps most foolhardy — of them all.
Putting on the protective wear was tedious and challenging. The sections of the hides — two parts for the feet, four for the legs, a body vest, two gloves, four pieces for the arms, and the helmet — had to be held tightly by two men while a third made careful, tight stitching to join them. Each joint or separation was coated with rendered pig fat and sewn together with double-lined stitches of dense blackslate thread. The fat sealed the gaps and prevented any of the tree fibers from entering.
The helmet was an iron band that rested on the crown, over which was a single piece of layered hides whose trailing edges were stuffed and sewn into the vest, also sealed with the gelatinous globs of lard. Once completely encased, the person inside was warm and stiff in movement, but otherwise able to see and do basic work as needed.
The man who acted as the live test of the protection, whose name wasn’t important enough for Kolt to know, felt tremors of anxiety as the final stitch was tightened and tied and his three other companions patched the few holes in the seals with extra fat.
He was handed an ax and pointed to the branch of the tree, which lay three hundred paces ahead. It was one of the minor offshoots that had winnowed to a staccato series of movements until it pushed into the ground.
Yet the branch itself, even from that distance, was intimidating. Nothing could ever grow on the Great Tree, for even if mounds of earth piled on sections of it, the poison would slowly leech into the soil and kill anything that surrounded it. Indeed as he approached it, he could see the dead mark in the ground where the branch entered it.
At the point of contact, the limb was no wider than a man’s waist, but quickly engorged into a behemoth that disappeared through the thicket of trees that hugged the massive branch in a pained agony, scorching their leaves from the friction of its unyielding surface. Despite his trepidation, he was committed to his task, and set about chipping away at the edge of the wood.
The first smack with the ax only lodged it in the dense outer bark, forcing him to pry it out with some heated grunting. The next came easier, and soon he had a rhythm of hitting the same widening slice over and over again, more and more dusty flecks filling the air as he went.
From the distance, the three others watched with great interest as the suit they had lugged for over a week of travel was proving its worth. None of them spoke a word or took their eyes from the ludicrous site of the figure bound with the skins of a half dozen animals and stinking of pork rot.
In all the testing at Oozha Dal, it had only been worn for short periods to account for weight, movement, and maintaining tight bonds with the fat. In those things they were confident and prepared, and the first few minutes of the experiment rewarded their conviction. Yet the man in the suit was starting to feel strange, less himself as each moment passed.
Somewhere around the second minute of his dutiful chopping, he found it harder to keep power and accuracy behind his swings. The blade would skip off, once almost dangerously biting at his ankle. He shook his head and attempted to right his mind — he put it down to the sweltering heat inside the suit making him sweat and leaving him ruddy and less capable. Yet it was something even more insidious.
In the zeal for the leatherman to eliminate outside contamination, the most critical part he forgot to account for was borne of simple neglect — air. Without free circulation inside, the man was recycling his own breath over and over until it staled and was sapped of use. This was not immediately apparent, but created a cumulative widening between a functional mind and slipping off into darkness.
By the third minute, the man knew something was definitively wrong. His vision was cloudy, black spots popping in and out at the periphery of his sight and crowding into denser bubbles that were moving inexorably towards the center. He lacked the strength to raise the ax, and it slipped from his grasp before he even had a chance to raise it.
Despite the wane of consciousness, a pebble of survival instinct clawed up into his knowing and found that he needed fresh air. Unable to communicate with his partners to assist, he clawed at the edges of the suit, but found the stitching too refined, and the thickened, waxy crust of fat globules sealing the edges impossible to wipe away. The other men, confused as to his actions, tried to shout at him to not try and remove the suit, as they could clearly see the free-floating fibers caught in the air around him like a swarm of flies.
With only seconds away from blacking out, a final burst of energy shot from deep within and he hurled his glass facemask onto a sharp nub of the tree, shattering it. The shards cut superficial marks in his cheeks, but he didn’t even notice the pain as he greedily sucked in breaths.
As he gasped, the fine particles of the tree, previously suspended in the air, rushed into his lungs and made camp there in the viscous fluid lining them. As he took each desperate breath, the poison began its work.
First he noticed that despite having free access to the outside air, his throat began closing. He stood and grabbed at it, but couldn’t get around the thick skins of the helmet. He clawed at the threads, but it was impossible to unbind as panic reasserted itself.
Inside him, the vile toxin had begun to disintegrate the walls of his lungs, and with each passing moment, blood blisters were forming and bursting in hot explosions of red, pooling and suffocating him bit by bit. He staggered forward, reaching out helplessly to the men he had formed a camaraderie with, the men who could only stand there and witness the horror revealing itself before them.
He fell forward, clutching his chest, willing the air to revitalize him, but the Tree’s vitiate continued to churn his lungs to bloody mucus that choked him more fiercely. His heart raced to pump what little resources he had left to the rest of his body, only hastening the coagulated mass of tissue to drown him.
His stomach spasmed and he both vomited the remnants of his midday meal and threw up clotted lumps of his own organs dissolving. He fell forward onto the grotesquely colored acidic bile and began convulsing. By then the poison had worked its way to his other organs and especially his brain, where it had continued the work of burning away every piece of tissue it touched. His limbs seized in a schlerotic dance of death, mind disintegrating along with every other part of what he had been. His legs tensed up so forcefully that it cracked his right thigh bone like a splinter, not that he could feel it.
After diminishing cycles of jerks and twitches, his body stilled, and a chunky, black ooze filled up his mouth and ran out onto the ground below, steam rising from the excited reduction of flesh to nothing.
Of the other three men, one vomited profusely into the bushes and promptly fainted. The other two were transfixed by the hideous spectacle that had been shown them and promised to never speak of it again.
That pact was a bother to Kolt, who was exasperated that not only had the suit failed, but that he was being refused details on it. After some cajoling, one of the men explained that it seemed like he was gasping for air when it happened, and that the remnants of the outfit had been left on the forest floor in a burbling pile of liquifying meat. This was confirmed by the second man who had joined on their promise of silence, easily broken by the grim stare of their Dal.
Except for the last man, the one who had vomited. He simply said, “It didn’t work,” and refused to speak any further.
It didn’t make a difference for him or the others, this was a secret test meant for only a few to know, and the three witnesses to the failure of the suit were a few too many. As each man exited Kolt’s chamber, he was led down to the stables with hopes of being paid the sturdy horse and handful of coin he’d been promised. What met each of them was sharpened blade and a shudder of blood thatched on the hay floor.
The horses remained undisturbed, they’d seen far worse things.
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