-44-

Rays of morning sun slip through the blinds into the bedroom and scatter a glow upon the area. Sebastian's ethereal forms kneels next to the bed and he eases his voice into Aristespha's long ear. "Dear... Time to wake up. You turned off your alarm last night. Dear?"

A grumbling mumble sounds out from under the covers and Aristespha rolls her head purposefully away from Sebastian into a mass of blankets. Sebastian smirks with a lift of a brow, shakes his head, and drifts over Aristespha to the other side of the bed. He floats down upon the bed and grins widely at the face peeking out from bed sheets. "Well, it looks like SOMEONE had a little too much last-"

A pair violet eyes open to a dim glow and stare unamused at Sebastian. Aristespha growls weakly and averts her narrowing gaze away briefly. "I am fine. Sebastian."

Sebastian rolls his eyes playfully and slowly nods with a dramatic flair. "Of course you are, my dear."

Aristespha returns her gaze to Sebastian, sighs, and gradually removes the covers off herself. She stares up to the ceiling, rubs the temples of her head, and rolls herself to the edge of the bed. Her silvery blue hair drapes over her face and her hand reaches out to pat around the floor underneath the bed. Sebastian sinks through the mattress, searches briefly around, and gently calls out to Aristespha. "It's up against the wall near the bed post, dear."

Aristespha's hand slides sideways along the hardwood floor, bumps into metal box, and quickly grasps onto the top. She guides the container over just under her view, undoes the locking clasp, and flips the hinged lid open. With a few pokes into the assorted contents, she lifts up a single vial, pries the cork off with a bite, and tilts her head back to dump the clear fluid back into her mouth. Sebastian slips up from underneath the bed, stands up next to the side, and watches Aristespha cringe and cough. "Fine, are you?"

Slowly sitting up, Aristespha places the glass tube upon the nearby nightstand and narrows her eyes at Sebastian. "I'm fine... Now... Soon..."

She works the disgust from her face and shakes her head. Sebastian mutes his amusement and dons a plain smile. "It never tastes any better, does it?"

Aristespha sighs smirking, and shrugs her shoulders as she stretches her neck. "No. Generations of medical mages have yet to figure out how to counter that awful taste."

Sebastian lowers himself down to a seat upon the bed and eyes Aristespha. "So, you remember anything I told you last night. Or, do I need to-"

A violet eyed glare strikes Sebastian, but Aristespha eventually softens her gaze with a slow nod. "Yes. I wasn't... THAT far gone. There's a job about a missing evuukian teenager that was directly sent to our group from a guild ID we've never seen..."

Consciousness returns in full and Aristespha's hand reflexively reaches out to her aetherphone. She quickly taps a side button and the current date and time flashes up. A breath of relief escapes her mouth and she releases some tension. "Good. Didn't sleep in too much."

Her eyes squint down at the notification list and she quickly taps in her security code upon the display. She sorts through on screen menus and pours her full attention to a series of messages. Sebastian notices the quick change of focus and slides around to peer above her shoulder. "What's the matter, dear?"

Aristespha curiously scrolls through the messages and glances over to Sebastian quizzically. "Valavera sent me a few messages last night."

Sebastian blinks and scans the evuukian text upon Aristespha's aetherphone screen. "Is she okay? Please tell me she's not the missing teenager?"

Quickly shaking her head, Aristespha drags a finger tip up the aetherphone display and hovers over a section of text. "No. She's just fine, Sebastian. Beckerin took her along on a few side jobs on their way back and she's been at home for a few weeks. She says she knows the missing teenager and told her parents to hire us specifically to find her."

She slowly turns her head to gaze at Sebastian with mix of intrigue and concern upon her face. "Valavera says she has information about where the teenager might be and wants to talk to all of us over the phone because of how sensitive it is."

Sebastian cocks his head to the side, relaxes his ethereal form in thought, and twists his lips. "Did she mention anything else?"

Aristespha returns her stare to the aetherphone screen and searches the lines of evuukian text with a gradual shake of the head. "No. She's being vague about what she wants to tell us. I guess Beckerin probably advised her on how to phrase it all via a message. He's always been careful about anything written or recorded."

After a moment of pause, Sebastian's eyes widen as memories spring back to the front his mind and he sternly watches the display scroll. "It might be something about the Terra Priests."


----

Tassilda stands in the middle of the wrap around kitchen and inspects a number of glass tubes in wooden holders. She grasps onto one with a gloved hand, slides it up out of the frame, and holds it up against the light coming through the window. A faintly milky liquid swirls within the confines of the glass container. Examining the contents, Tassilda squints her light blue on black eyes and pulls a plotting smirk to the corner of her mouth. She lowers the tube over the larger basin of the kitchen sink, places her other hand around the glass and her hand, and closes her eyes. With slow breaths, she concentrates, straightens her posture, and calmly mouths out careful incantations. Moments later, gradual flows of magical energy glide along her arms and consolidate into a single trail that condenses into the open mouth of the glass tube. The cloudy fluid glows brightly as the magical power collects and small bubbles form upon the interior sides. Just when the concoction foams at the top, Tassilda opens her eyes, waves off the excess magical flow with one hand, and carefully inserts the glass container into another wooden holder at the bottom of the sink. She quickly checks her hands for overflow. After a few moments, she looks over to a series of black rubber stoppers and one white wax cork. A sinister spark lights her eyes and sharpens her smile when she focuses her attention upon the wax top.

An irregular series of creaks echo out from the stairs. A few seconds later, a groggy Deedri plods through the archway into the dining area, brushing the loose fabric of her pajamas on a wall corner and letting her tail lazily sway. As she walks closer towards the kitchen, she rubs her forehead with one hand and feels her grip on a small vial of clear liquid in the other. Tassilda breaks from her task and curiously watches Deedri sloppily navigate to the front of the refrigerator. Removing the hand from her head, Deedri opens the fridge door and side steps out of the swing path. She grasps onto a carton of orange juice inside, pulls it out swiftly, and keeps it at the ready. Tassilda cocks her head, lifts a confused eyebrow, and places her hands on her hips. "What are you doing?"

Deedri blinks to attention, draws a long breath in, and sighs reluctantly. "Self medicating."

In a quick series of motions, she claws off the stopper in the vial, dumps the contents down her throat, folds the carton open, and quaffs a long pour of orange juice. Tassilda eyes' open wide as she continues to watch Deedri wince, squirm, and tense. Deedri drops the carton back down, breathes deeply, and slumps to full awareness. She glances down the nearly empty carton and bites her lip in embarrassment. "I'm sorry. It takes a lot of orange juice to counteract the bad taste."

Tassilda slowly nods, brushes her raven hair over her swirling horns, and presents a very amused grin. "I see. I was wondering what you were up to last night."

Deedri closes the fridge door, places the stopper back in the vial, and stands back to support herself on a nearby counter. "It was a rough day, so I stopped by a... place that many other clinic staff visit."

She glances over to Tassilda and notices the intrigue and curiosity swelling up on her face. "Uh, so um... What are you doing right now? Making potions? Um..."

Tassilda chuckles lightly, pivots to gaze up her project, and shrugs casually. "Oh, nothing too complicated. Just making a batch of dispelling charges."

Deedri focuses her stare upon the tubes of milky fluid, and nods. "I see. That's actually a good idea."

A smile pulls across Tassilda's lips and she turns back to face Deedri. "I figured. It'll be nice to have something to dispel those annoying little bits of magic without requiring our energies at the time."

She frowns momentarily and grumbles under her breath. "... and counteract any other cute tricks that Veevi happens to figure out without wasting valuable effort..."

Deedri's posture tenses upon hearing Veevi's name and she scans around the quickly. "Have you seen Veevi today?"

Tassilda's focus locks on to Deedri and she quirks a brow. "No. I believe she's still in HER room. For once. Why?"

Reluctantly, Deedri sighs and shakes her head. "I had a run in with her last night before getting to my room and... Well... I, um... Made sure she knew my claws weren't for show."

A proud smile graces Tassilda's face. She steps forward in front of Deedri, lifts her hands off her hips, places them on Deedri's shoulders, and looks Deedri in the eyes. "As you should. Someone of your talent should NEVER have to suffer grief from someone like that."

Deedri blinks to attention and dons a humble smile. "Thank you. I appreciate hearing that."

Tassilda releases Deedri, walks over to the kitchen sink, and directs her voice over a shoulder. "You shouldn't be afraid to stand up for yourself."

A bit of hesitation infiltrates Deedri's voice and she grits her teeth briefly. "I know. But, I'm bit worried what might happen because of how I stood up for myself..."

After a pause, Tassilda eases her head to face Deedri and dons a delightfully curious expression upon her gray toned face. "Really? However did you stand up for youself?"

Deedri quickly lifts the carton of orange juice and drinks, stalling for time, in front of the patient Tassilda.


----

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia sit at the dining room table, while Sebastian hovers overhead. Attentions focus upon the aetherphone resting upon the table. Valavera's voice sounds out from the speakerphone. "Okay, Uncle Becker told me to tell you all this over the phone and make sure there's no written record of it, because... Well..."

The unamused tone of Aristespha cuts through the idle air and she aims her glare at the aetherphone. "It's incriminating of you. We understand and it's okay. Just relay what you know, so we can help."

A nervous gasp escapes Valavera's side of the conversation and she sighs longly with acceptance. "Okay. Sorry. When I went out into the woods, I wasn't the only one that was put on the same type of assignment. My friend Faelatelia and I went out to a meet up with the guy from the group. We split up after we got our missions and I was in contact with her until... my phone broke."

Tension builds in her voice and concern leaks out into her cadence. "I... Well... When I got back home, I tried to contact her and find out what happened. I was hoping she was abandoned like me and had gone back home eventually. But... No one has seen her since we both left..."

Sebastian's ethereal form lowers slightly and he directs his question at the aetherphone. "Do you know where she was suppose to go for her assignment?"

Valavera perks up and promptly responds. "Yes! I told Uncle Becker and he even called in a favor from his friend Mavian. He scouted the area and found signs that someone had been there a while ago. But... Left..."

Cideeda raps a hand of claw tips upon the table top, twists a lip in though, and proposes a suggestion. "The guild mission brief has a huge, vague area that her aetherphone was last detected from a few distant radio towers. Were they able to get anything else from the phone that wasn't on the mission brief?"

Valavera focuses back upon the present and snaps out of her worry. "Oh, uh. Yes? Sort of? Uncle Becker contacted some people he knows at few of the aethernetwork companies. A lot of messages didn't get delivered to my phone, but they had records of them. There were a few from her..."

Aristespha speaks clearly, firmly at her phone, and interlocks her fingers together as she ponders. "What did they say?"

With a drift in her tone and hints of resignation, Valavera answers with a long sigh. "She got accepted into the group. She was given a location to go to, and was told to go there to get taken to the Terra Priest commune. That location is within the area they tracked her phone to."

Dretphi nods slowly, processes the information, and comments as she sorts through the implications. "It is a meeting point. For safety. Likely far from the final destination. Heavy forest does not allow useful vehicle transit. The commune could be within walking range. Unfortunately, could be hours, days of travel to reach."

Sotalia grumbles in frustration and slides the highlighted region around on a tablet upon the dining table in front of her. "Gods. So, even if we go to that spot, the real place could be ANYWHERE around here. Probably kilometers away. And, I bet they are keeping an eye on the whole area."

Releasing a groan as the possibilities form in her mind, Dretphi shakes her head. "Dangerous territory. Probably would be found if we perform a wide search. Ambushed if we get close. Wander for weeks uselessly. They may leave. Be gone before we get close."

Tapping a long finger nail upon the tablet display, Sotalia squints her golden eyes at the map, tosses back her dark red hair, and curls the corner of her mouth with a flit of a brow. "It'd be nice if we had a good overhead view with a good camera."

Bach blinks to attention, searches his mind, and glances around the table. "Huh, we might see if Kaleb and Lagi could do a fly over of the area."

Sebastian hovers over to stare at the tablet display and tilts his head to a side. "Not a bad idea, bro. But, that's A LOT of area to cover, especially if we want useful photography. Also, I'm pretty sure if there's anyone there, they'll get real suspicious of a dragon flying overhead for so long."

Aristespha narrows her eyes, taps her fingertips against each other in thought, and ponders. "So, we need more information to limit the search area..."

Dretphi flits her eyes wide and smirks with a tinge of hope in her voice. "We should contact Captain Hackle. He may have information. He may be able to get information."

Nodding slowly with a spark in his ethereal gaze, Sebastian smiles at Aristespha. "And, Hayes could be a good one to call up. With all the scouting and wandering the woods they've done in the area, they may have seen something that could help."

Aristespha gauges the growing agreement between Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia, and grants a reserved smile towards the gathering. "That sounds like the best course of action at the moment. If we can narrow the area enough, Kaleb and Lagi might be able to get us the information we need."

She sighs and aims her voice at her aetherphone. "Regardless, that's the best we can do at the moment. I wish we had more, but give us time, Valavera."

A happy peak shines from Valavera over the speakerphone. "Thank you! Just knowing someone is working on it is good to know. I just hope Faelatelia is okay... It's just... The more I read up about the Terra Priests..."

She continues with the heavy weight of worry in her voice. "The more... I don't think she'd want to be part of them."


----

Chad stands tall and proud at the head of the dining table in the two story house. Camera crew members wedge themselves into ideal positions and aim recording equipment at the gathering. Around the table Tassilda, Trakenthin, Deedri, Modoran, and Veevi sit and watch Chad expectantly. Veevi briefly glances away from Chad across the table to catch a glimpse of Deedri and quickly snaps her head away when Deedri's head moves slightly away from looking at Chad. Modoran darts his eyes briefly between Veevi and Deedri and subdues a grimace. Trakenthin stares ahead at Modoran until their eyes meet, and tilts his head quizzically to either side. Modoran shrugs his shoulders, and shakes his head slightly. Chad hems and addresses the group with a bold tone. "While we may have had some trouble in Hattan, we persevered and aided the town in its time of need. And, with a bit of time to recover and allowing Deedri to assist the Amaranth Valley clinic with her services, I believe we are ready for our next big mission."

He lifts up a tablet from the tabletop, taps a few on screen buttons, and spins it around to show to everyone at the table. "We will be providing assistance in patrolling a section of highway with..."

A bright, white grin shines forth from his smiling lips and he taps a finger up the display. "The Chrome Crusaders."

Trakenthin blinks hard, places his phone quickly down upon the table, and rotates his head to gawk at the tablet display. Genuine surprise fills Modoran's face and he squints to read the text within the confines of the tablet screen. Tassilda covers her mouth with a hand and stares at Chad with honest interest. Deedri tenses up in anticipation and keeps her excitement contained. Veevi slides close to Chad in the shot and smirks slyly to the cameras. Chad flips the tablet back around, presses a few buttons, and finishes with a swipe. "I've send the guild mission details to everyone. We'll be heading out soon, so take tomorrow to prepare. We'll be traveling for a week with a Chrome Crusader unit. While we should be fairly safe with such a renowned group, we don't want to disappoint. So, be ready."

He pauses a moment as various aetherphone alert chimes ring out. After gazing out at the reactions around the table, he pans a curious stare at the team. "So, any questions?"

Modoran slowly raises a hand, waits for acknowledgement from Chad, and cracks a partial grin. "So... Any chance we get to drive one of their mechs?"

Chad groans with a tinge of humor and shakes his head. "Unfortunately, no. This particular division uses small personnel mech suits that are customized to the pilot. Powered armor suits and your average transport trucks."

Trakenthin lowers his hand back down to the table after the answer from Chad, and shrugs when Modoran glances over. "Same question."

Tassilda crosses her arms and scrutinizes Chad with a forming sneer. "What are they patrolling the highways for?"

With a tilt of his head, Chad grins at Tassilda. "Regular bandits that have been hassling commerce. Normal humanoids that are most likely to be affected by a whole host of charm and enchantment spells."

A sinister smile graces Tassilda's lips and she uncrosses her arms out onto the table, rapping her long nails upon the tabletop. "I see. This seems like a fitting mission for our team then."

Deedri gradually raises her hand and watches Chad grant a respectful nod towards her. "Will I need to focus on our medical needs or are we pooling resources for the length of the mission?"

Chad blinks in thought, twists his lips, and eventually draws a calming breath to a smile. "Well, I... don't know at the moment. The Chrome Crusader unit will have their own medical staff, but I think we'll assist each other regardless. So, I would say focus on our group's medical needs and prepare to assist if needed."

Deedri nods in acceptance of Chad's answer and glances around the table at everyone else. When her eyes pass over to Veevi, she witnesses the pink haired, half-fvalian momentarily freeze as the two make eye contact. After a few awkward moments, Veevi averts her gaze away shyly and focuses upon her aetherphone, settling back fully into her seat. Deedri blinks, squints her stare briefly at Veevi, and then puzzles to herself.


----

The bright moonlight from the night sky projects itself through the gaps between the slats of the window blinds. Modoran groggily stirs from sleep and puts forth his limited consciousness towards a series of noises coming from the hall. He tilts his head, aims his long ear at the door, and waits. Footsteps creak upon the hallway floor, and Modoran cracks open an alert eye at his bedroom entry. Shadows play underneath the doorway gap and fade away. Seconds later, a series of soft wooden steps faintly sound out to eventual silence. Modoran gathers enough awareness, slips out of bed, and cautiously slinks towards the door. He kneels down, lowers his head to the floor, and inspects the floor of the hallway for activity.

The careful search reveals no signs of anyone around. As he begins to lift his head up, his ears twitch in recognition of a familiar mechanical noise. He quickly cracks the door open, aims an ear out, and catches the unmistakable sound of the back sliding glass door closing downstairs. He pauses in thought, withdraws his head from the hallway, and seals his door. Gradually, he lifts up to his feet, wipes the sleep out of his eyes, and directs his attention towards the moonlit window blinds. He steps forth quietly, leans forward, and lifts an inconspicuous slat up. His eyes squint in the shine of the moonlight and scan down to the backyard below.

Movement captures his full focus and his stare locks onto at a figure moving across the lawn. A moment later, parts of his mind awaken and bewilderment fills his face as he recognizes the person. Tassilda searches the area around her and secures her tight black pants and long sleeve shirt. She darts along the perimeter of the backyard along a fence until she arrives at the corner of the plot. With a final inspection of the vicinity, she runs off diagonally away towards the distant ranch style house. Modoran blinks in confusion, opens his mouth to mutter something, and stops.

He releases the window blind slat, his eyes search his mind for a reason, and his hands clench. With a long sigh, Modoran holds his hands up in resignation, shakes his head slowly side to side, and closes his twisting mouth. He waves off the whole affair with both hands, continues to rock his head in defiance, and mutters a series of phrases in grumbling evuukian. At the edge of his bed, he whips up the covers, slips underneath the falling bed sheets, and secures his head firmly on a pillow. Pulling a long breath in, he sighs with a quiet trailing groan and rolls up into his sheets.


----

The afternoon sun lights up the grass around an old vertically propped log. Small shadows fill in the cracks of the decaying wood and darken large gouges into the core. A small hatchet sinks partially into the soft lumber and wedges itself by a corner of the blade edge. The thick, aged trunk rocks slightly against the smaller timbers supporting it, and settles back onto the ground. Sebastian crosses his arms, hums with an ethereal reverb, and twists his mouth in thought. "Not bad, bro. Getting the spin right for this distance is tricky at times."

Bach rolls his shoulders, cracks his neck, and swings out the tension in his arms around at his side. "I think I released it a bit early on that one."

He pauses a moment, glances over to Sebastian, and smirks curiously. "Still don't know what use ax throwing is going to get me."

Sebastian shrugs his shoulders, puts his hands out to the side, and grins nonchalantly. "You never know. I've been meaning to teach you anyway. Plus, can you think of anything else to do at the moment that beats throwing axes?"

Bach blinks, stares back at the log target, and walks forward with a satisfied smile. "You know, I really can't beat that logic right now."

Reaching the timber stand, he grips hold of the ax handle, yanks it clear, and feels out the balance of the tool. A solid thud sounds out from further down the side lawn as a heavy sac lands hard within the outer limits of a painted ring on the grass. A brief fit of frustration sneers Dretphi's upper lip and she places her hands on her hips. She studies the missed target with a contemplative stare. Cideeda reaches up to pat her on the shoulder and laughs encouragingly. "Don't worry, you're still beating me in weight and distance."

Dretphi sighs and shakes her head with a grumble. "Release felt wrong. Do not know what specifically."

Cideeda lifts up a smaller sac from the ground by its rope, idly swings it, and plants her feet wide. "Timing may have been off. Timing the release is always important."

She directs her focus forward at the circular grass target and narrows her emerald green eyes. With a few forceful revolutions, her arm circles the weighed bag up to speed. Seconds of concentration later, her hand opens up, the small sac sails up into the air at an arc, and plummets down from its apex. The bag solidly hits the earth near the center of the circle target. Dretphi glances over to the toothy grin of Cideeda, and nods in agreement.

The hot tub gazebo door opens slowly. Sotalia steps out with a towel wrapped around her head and another towel covering the bottom of her two piece bathing suit. She slowly walks around to the side yard of the house and stands with a slight squirm next to Sebastian. "How goes the practice?"

Sebastian shrugs with a simple smile and glances over to Sotalia. "It's practice. Throwing various things and seeing if we can get near the targets."

Bach arrives in front of Sebastian and Sotalia with ax at the side, and puzzles at Sotalia. "You're out of the water early today. Is the hot tub not working?"

Sotalia twists her lips, rolls her shoulders uneasily, and thinks about her situation. "No. It was working fine. Just felt a bit weird being in it today.  Couldn't quite figure out what was different."

Lifting a mock accusatory eyebrow at Sotalia, Bach dons a wry smile. "Maybe you've been abusing it a bit too much?"

As Sotalia opens her mouth to retort, she pauses, averts her eyes away in thought, and grumbles at herself with a sigh. "You might be right... Never had a hot tub this accessible. And, never really used one this much."

She bites her lower lip and waves her hand to the side. "What can I say, I'm bit of a glutton for relaxing in water. Got the habit from my family. We ALWAYS had either a pool, sauna, lake, or tub somewhere around our vacation spots."

Bach glances over to Sebastian and smirks with amusement. "About the only vacation spot our family took with a lake was one that no one wanted to go in. Well... Except Sebastian."

Sebastian groans ethereally and closes his eyes with an awkward sneer. "Once. Just once. Gods, I still shiver thinking about it."

The sliding glass door glides along its track and Aristespha excitedly steps out with a smile and tablet in hand. She quickly walks over to Bach, Sebastian, and Sotalia, and waves towards Cideeda and Dretphi. "I heard back from both Captain Hackle and Captain Hayes."

A hopeful grin presents itself upon Sebastian's face and he gestures towards Aristespha as Cideeda and Dretphi arrive nearby. "Good! What did they have to say?"

Aristespha takes a deep breath in as she mentally organizes her thoughts, and summarizes. "Okay. Captain Hackle checked with his sources and they have recent evidence of a Terra Priest group in that area. It's a long hike from the meeting point Valavera told us, but it's a far smaller area they could be in."

She adjusts the brightness of the tablet's display, and presents it out of the sun's glare to the group. Dretphi points out the digital map scale measurement in the corner of the screen and nods in agreement. "Yes. Significant difference. Workable area."

Bach nods in agreement and moves his finger in a few paths over the area. "No kidding. Kaleb and Lagi should easily be able to do a few passes over the area without drawing that much attention."

Sebastian leans his head close to the screen and glances over to Bach. "Especially, if he spaces the fly-overs with a few hours between each. And, maybe do them at early dawn or late dusk?"

Cideeda ponders the plans and grins as she plays it out in her mind. "Definitely should go around dawn and dusk. It'll just seem like a dragon traveling to and from another location. The lookouts will probably be different people at those times, too."

Sotalia adjusts the towel on her head, lifts a scrutinizing brow at the information, and puzzles with hints of irritation in her voice. "Wait... They know about this group and where it possibly is... And, they haven't dealt with it?!"

Aristespha groans and shakes her head with a similar sentiment. "I know. The only way I even got this information from Captain Hackle is letting him know about Faelatelia and the possibility of the Terra Priests being involved. It seems this specific group has kept to themselves rather than engaging in the usual activities the Terra Priests are infamous for."

She pulls her lips to the corner of her mouth with a brief grit of the teeth and sighs. "Since this group is also near the border between the GAA and Appaland territories, everyone has taken a wait and see approach. That might change depending on what we may or may not find."

Sebastian lifts a curious brow to Aristespha as he stands back up straight. "What did Captain Hayes have to say?"

Aristespha briefly searches her mind and nods when she retrieves the thought. "Not as much as Captain Hackle. They've been focused on other things since Hattan. But, Captain Hayes mentioned some strange activity when they were following a group of weird zone animals away from Hattan that lead them far south of that area. Faint magical disturbances, odd spirit activity, and strange behavior from the normal wildlife."

She shrugs her shoulders and lowers the display to rest her arms. "They thought it may have been caused by the zone creatures, since that's not an uncommon occurrence."

Sebastian crosses his arms, gradually tilts his head side to side, and nods with a growing grin. "Okay. I'm thinking this is workable enough and should be worth going out to now."

Bach gives a thumbs up to his brother in agreement. "If we can hang out roughly nearby, Kaleb and Lagi might be able narrow it down for us. Then, we move fast, scout it out, and fall back. Then, figure out what we need to do further?"

Sebastian looks over to Bach with a proud smile. "That sounds like a good plan for now. I don't want risk too much, but have to get our own eyes on the area."

A sly toothy smile graces Cideeda lips and she places her hands on her hips with sway. "If they're really keeping to themselves, they might leave us alone so long we just look like lost adventurers chasing some bogus ruin to pilfer."

The group tosses around ideas and mulls over possible tactics between themselves. After a few minutes, Aristespha notices something out of the corner of her eye and she snaps her attention to a trail of dark red fluid running down the side of Sotalia's head. She narrows her eyes momentarily and opens them wide in surprise. "Sotalia? Did you injure your head?!"

Sotalia blinks to awareness, notices the finger point from Aristespha, and pats her fingers upon the dark red trail. After seeing the color, Sotalia quickly removes the towel from her head. From the unraveling towel wrap, locks of fiery orange, wavy hair fall to rest down upon Sotalia's shoulders. Sotalia unfolds the dark red soaked fabric before her in utter bewilderment and spots two spots of black in the mess. The rest of the group gawks in sheer confusion at the dark brown and tan, swept back horns upon Sotalia's fiery hair covered head. Bouncing her stare between the stained towel and the expressions of the rest of group, shock floods Sotalia's body. Her face pales, her stance stiffens, and her hands tremble. Without a further word, she snaps a pivot away from the group, and speeds off into the house.


----

A pair of golden, nervous eyes stare into the bathroom mirror reflection of a half-emin woman. Sotalia slowly raises her hand to her shoulder, and lifts a wavy lock of fiery orange hair up. She twirls the strands between her fingers, lets the hair slip out, and feels the minute amount of dark red residue. Her hands touch the dark brown and tan horns on her head, and follow their swept back path. With a long exhale, Sotalia lowers her arms, places her palms firmly upon the bathroom counter, and aims her head to stare down at the few dark red spatters in the sink. With a long, slow breath in, she raises her face up to stare at the person in the mirror. "It's been awhile..."

A series of knocks sound out from the bathroom door. Sotalia grimaces and yells firmly. "I'm FINE!"

Her confidence drains and the strength of her voice fades to a listless mumble. "Just give a few more minutes... or... more..."

A few familiar voices talk outside until Sebastian's ethereal tone rises up from the debate and resonates through the doorway. "It's okay. Just give her some time."

He speaks directly at the door. "Hey. I'm coming in."

Sotalia blinks hard, snaps her head towards the door, and swats at the ghostly visage of Sebastian. "Gods! Oh, will you fuck off!"

Cringing from the swipes of Sotalia's long nailed fingers through his form, Sebastian floats around to Sotalia's other side and maintains a concerned gaze upon her. "Sorry, Sol. Have to make sure you are okay."

Sotalia draws a long calming breathing in, relaxes her curling fingers, and places her hand back upon the edge of the bathroom counter. "I'm okay..."

Sebastian crosses his arms, lifts an inquisitive eyebrow, and stares unconvinced. Sotalia sighs out her frown and eyes the sink basin below. "For the most part. It's just... Gods..."

Drifting over closer to Sotalia, Sebastian cranes his head to meet her face. "It's okay, Sol. I'm here. Everyone is just worried and we just want to make sure you're okay.  You darted off on us and didn't seem well."

Sotalia nods her head and turns to Sebastian with a weak smile. "I... I know. It's just. Gods... A bunch of old memories of my stupid past self coming back all of the sudden. Ones I was happy to never think about. Never thought seeing myself like this would bring them back so strong."

Sebastian nods and speaks calmly with a supportive smirk. "Is this the same stupid past self that you always changed subject away from back when we first started out?"

A soft chuckle escapes Sotalia's mouth and she rolls her eyes at herself. "Yes, the very same. A really embarrassing stretch of my past that just gets harder to look at as I get older."

With a smile and shrug of the shoulders, Sebastian shakes his head. "Well, it always seemed like a touchy subject. I figured if it became relevant, we'd explore it then."

Sotalia pulls a long breath of air through her nose and exahles out her nerves. "And, here we are."

Sebastian nods and unfolds his arms out to the sides. "Yes. But, we don't need to go into full details right now. As long as you are okay, and know that we are all here for you, Sol."

A genuine smile graces Sotalia's lips and she wipes a build up of tears out of her eyes. "I know. I'll be fine, just processing a bunch of old baggage."

She grits her teeth, focuses her stare into the mirror, and shakes her head slowly. "Behold the face of a vain... arrogant... stupid... over-achieving... glory hungry... self-important... Bitch."

Sebastian hovers behind Sotalia, eases his face into the reflection of the mirror, and presents a reassuring smile. He stares at the mirror, glances over to Sotalia, and reassures. "I just see you, Sol. And that's all anyone else here will see."

The light glints off the tears welling in Sotalia's golden eyes and she bites her lower lip with a sniffle. Sebastian perks his brow, chuckles ethereally, and rolls his eyes at himself. "Anyway, you have nothing on the transparent, arrogant idiot that heroically got his dumb ass at the mercy of a lame magical sword, and almost dragged everyone else to destruction."

Sotalia fights to hold back a giggle. Sebastian simply shrugs his shoulders with a hands out to the sides. "Well, it's the truth. Everyone saw it."

Seconds of silence hang in the room and eventually Sotalia lifts a hand from the counter. She brushes her fingers through her fiery orange, wavy hair and laughs. "To think my hair used to be much longer than Aristespha's. I have always missed that."

Sebastian floats nearby and examines the bright locks upon Sotalia's head. "I always wondered if that dark red was your natural hair color or not. I just never found any clues otherwise to what else it would be."

Sotalia presses her finger tip upon her eyebrow, and drags out a dark red fluid from the orange follicles. She drops the residue into the sink and flashes a sly grin to Sebastian via the mirror. "What can I say? I was always very thorough in those regards."

She straightens up her posture, rolls her shoulders into a stretch, and breathes out some tension. "Okay. I'm going to wash off in the shower. Then..."

Pondering recent events and sorting through her memories, she hums. "I'm going to take a close look at that hot tub."


----

Isaac sorts through a stack of paperwork, taps it to order upon the restaurant table, and neatly lays it in front of Blesk. "It looks like a fine application to me. You most certainly will get some attention from a quite a number of people at the Grand Library with your magical photography experiments."

Blesk scratches the back of his head, combs through his wild, light blue hair, and smiles graciously. "Thank you so much. I would have never known about Dr. Malkav or even thought about sending some of my results to him."

A sly grin cracks across Isaac's face and he chuckles lightly. "Not a problem. Dr. Malkav is a good man. He'd most certainly be interested in your research and has a little pull on the application side of things. You'll most certainly still need to present a strong portfolio of your research, but every little bit helps."

Slowly grasping the application in his hands, Blesk carefully inserts the paperwork into a folder and packs it securely away in his satchel. "Of course. But, still... I feel a bit bad for not mentioning you in all of this. I mean, I wouldn't even be remotely as far along as I am without you."

Isaac holds up a hand and shakes his head with a smile. "Do not worry. I have unfortunately had some academic disagreements with a few on the admission board in the past, so it's best that my name doesn't taint your chances. Anyway, you have more than rewarded me with sharing your knowledge with me."

He glances over to a camera on the table top and taps his hand on the device. "I would never dreamed of being able to take this antique store find and breathe into it new life as a fine magical detection tool."

An honest grin spreads across Isaac's mouth and he bows slightly to Blesk. "I actually cannot wait to see what pictures I'll take with this. I just hope I'll be able to capture something astounding enough to repay you."

A humbling surge of emotion fills Blesk's expression and he shrugs with a bit of embarrassment. "Aw... It's nothing really. Just whatever copies of the pictures you take with a bit of documentation will help so much."

He looks towards Isaac and hints of sadness sneak into his tone. "I wish you could stay a little longer. We've done so much in a week, I can't fathom the possibilities if we had a solid month of time to research together."

Isaac points to Blesk with an encouraging smirk. "That drive there is why you need to get into the Grand Library. There are so many others that will support your efforts and help you bring your research to fruition."

Blesk nods slowly but shows reluctance. Isaac chuckles to himself with a nonchalant smile. "Don't worry. Once you get in, I'll be sure to contact you. But, for now, I need to resume my quest of sorts and see what progress I can make with my own research."

The hesitation disappears from Blesk's demeanor and he nods sympathically to Isaac. "I totally understand. It wouldn't be fair to keep you from your own projects. But, still... Thank you."

Lydia steps up to the side of the table and places down a sandwich and fries basket in front Blesk with her free hand. "Here you go."

Another basket rises into view from below the tabletop and slides up onto the surface in front of Isaac with a push of small hand. Isaac glances down at the sandwich and sides, and swings his delighted face over to meet the happy smile of the little girl next to Lydia. "Thank you very much, Leigh."

Lydia pats Leigh's head and nods to Isaac with a reserved smile. "I really hate to see my favorite customer leave. But... I can't keep you from making your living, otherwise you won't be able to be a customer. Just promise me you won't disappear for two months straight again will you?"

Isaac gazes warmly at Lydia and sighs with a chuckle. "I'll try... Really, I will."