-46-

The thin, reddish glow from the setting sun fades across the sky into the growing dark blue night. Thick rows of trees border the sides of the gravel road. Off to the side in a worn alcove surrounded by thick underbrush, Cideeda lifts the hood of the humvee and casually inspects the engine compartment. She leans down to a toolbox on the grass next to her, opens the lid, and picks a few choice tools out from inside. Standing up with a contemplative gaze, she ponders and raps her free hand's claw tips upon the front of the vehicle. She purposefully places individual tools upon a quarterpanel, the powerplant turbine cover, and an access panel. Bach walks around from the passenger's side, scans over the scene, and lifts a curious brow to Cideeda. "So, I get lifting the hood up to make it look like we're adventurers with a broken down vehicle. But, what's with the tools everywhere?"

Cideeda places her hands on her hips, and reveals a sly grin on her face to Bach. "Oh, that's just to sell it better. It's one thing to see a hood up and think MAYBE the vehicle is broken down. But if it looks like someone frustrated tried to fix it, THAT sells the illusion."

Bach steps a few meters back towards the road, carefully looks over the presentation, and nods in agreement to Cideeda. "Oh yeah, that DOES make it more convincing."

He squints his eyes in thought, and pulls a smirk from the corner of his mouth. "Maybe roughed up service manual, face down off to the side?"

After glance over to the front of the vehicle, Cideeda nods with a scheming smile. "Oh, definitely. I'll see if I can position it... Angry."

Bach chuckles to himself and he pivots around to scan the vicinity. Midway through his slow spin, he spots Sotalia off to the side holding her aetherphone up in the air. She carefully sweeps the device side to side, judging the signal indicator on the screen before shifting again. Bach steps up to an annoyed Sotalia and watches the fluctuating bar graph on the display. "Any luck getting a good signal?"

Sotalia frowns with slight snarl of the upper lip and sighs as she rests her arm back to her side. "No. It seems to be about the same no matter where I aim. And, it's no faster at downloading the new images from Kaleb than what Aristespha is getting in the humvee."

She turns to Bach, shrugs her shoulders, and rolls her eyes. "Well, if nothing else, it's making us look like hapless adventurers to anyone watching."

Bach nods in agreement and warily eyes the dense forest beyond the clearing. "Hope so. Dretphi and my brother think we should be far enough away from any big patrols. And being close enough to the main roads, they'll probably only keep on eye on us."

Sotalia narrows her golden eyes out into the wilderness and crosses her arms. "That'll buy us only so much. I don't think they'll be very agreeable once we get closer."

Bach fights an uneasy grimace off his face and sighs, tensing his shoulders. "Yeah..."

A comforting smiles appears on Sotalia and she gazes over to Bach. "Nervous?"

Bach plainly meets Sotalia's look, blinks, and twists his lips. "Kinda scared, actually."

Sotalia nods, and bites her lip as she averts her eyes away briefly. "Well, let's just say you aren't the only one fighting some nerves. But, I think we'll handle it just fine."

Some comfort relaxes Bach's posture and he releases a long breath. After a few silent seconds, he glances over to Sotalia. "Question."

Sotalia glances back over to Bach, perks her brow, and guides her fiery orange, wavy hair behind shoulders. "Yes?"

Bach quizzically eyes Sotalia and carefully forms his inquiry with a respectful tone. "I was wondering what... Um... Irritated you when we drove past the convoy?"

After a long draw of air through her nose, Sotalia contorts her mouth, rolls her shoulders, and squirms momentarily. She stares at Bach, softens her gaze with a smile, and grumbles out her embarrassment. "Just being fucking angry at that Tassilda. She pretty much confirmed my suspicious about the whole hot tub thing."

Cocking his head to the side, Bach flits his eyes wide in surprise. "Oh! How did she do that?"

Sotalia tenses her arms, puffs up her chest, and sighs out her frustrations. "She waggled a vial of the same shape and size the of the vial that I found in the hot tub filter with that melted wax. Also, that smug look of hers left no room for doubt."

Bach grits his teeth briefly and tries to present some understanding. "Yeah. That would probably irk me, too. Sebastian has pulled some pranks on me that I'm still not quite over."

Sotalia debates the options on her face, glances over to Bach, and relaxes her arms. "Well... To be honest, I can deal with whole hair dye dispelling thing. It's-"

She pauses with a confused gaze to Bach, gestures a rolling hand in front of her, and pieces together her sentence. "As silly as it sounds... It's the whole... Experience of... Being reminded of the past again? Gods, there's a Grath word for it. Does that make sense?"

Bach stares into Sotalia's eyes and slowly nods in agreement. "Yes. I completely understand."

Sotalia smiles appreciatively, draws in a long breath, and exhales out her nerves. "Yeah. I guess you would."

She slowly pivots away and stares up to the starry night sky. A dull frown creeps from the corners of her mouth and regret tinges her voice. "Well, to save you the terrible details, I was quite the royal fucking know-it-all, arrogant bitch when I started adventuring. Fucked up my membership in a really nice group because of it and got my old guild stage name blacklisted. Hence, why I was taking small time escort missions to dangerous towns... ALONE."

Rolling her eyes at herself, she shakes her head and closes her eyes with a cringe. "Dyed, straightened, and cut the hair to try keep from being reminded of that past self."

Bach nods in agreement, glances over towards the humvee, and puts his hands in his pockets with an awkward smile. "Well, I know that's a hard thing to deal with. But, if nothing else..."

He steps closer to the vehicle and directs his voice nonchalantly towards Sotalia. "I'd keep the hair. It looks really nice."

Sotalia maintains her stare up to stars and keeps her face away from Bach. Her cheeks blush, her eyes flutter, and she stumbles back to a semblance of her usual confidence. "Uh... Well, of course. Thank you..."


----

Morning light finds the sparse gaps in the thick overhead canopy and beams down upon the forest floor. Dretphi and Cideeda lead the group cautiously along a narrow, hard dirt game trail. Cideeda's furry ears flick around and meticulously scan the soundscape. Her emerald green eyes search distantly and she maintains a constant watch. Dretphi examines the trail ahead, inspects the condition of the underbrush bordering the path, and focuses her attention on the trunks of nearby trees. Glancing over shoulder, she directs a quiet voice back. "No signs of recent activity. The path is used regularly. We should be careful."

Behind Cideeda, Aristespha flexes her gloved fingers and asks ahead. "Should I cast the camouflage bubble again? I should be able to manage a quarter hour without much strain."

Cideeda briefly turns her head back and presents a comforting smile to Aristespha. "I don't hear anything right now."

She sniffs the air with her eyes closed, mentally sorts through the smells, and shakes her head. "Nothing out of the ordinary. Normal forest scents and everyone here."

Bach blinks blankly as a thought lodges itself in the front of his mind. He lifts up the visor of helmet, lowers his nose close to the collar of his duster, and vents some air from inside the garment. He satisfies his curiosity and pats his clothing back down. Cideeda smirks amused, flicks an ear away from Bach, and rolls her eyes. Sebastian's ethereal voice gently sounds out from the sword at Aristespha's side. "We should pace ourselves."

Sotalia eyes the scenery of the dense woods and twists her mouth in contemplation. "It would also be nice to make sure we don't trigger any magical detectors... Needlessly."

Aristespha nods, reaches to the side of her pack, and grips a fluid filled vial. She halts with an idea, leaves the container alone, and holds her hand back to Sotalia. "Grab hold of my hand, Sotalia."

Sotalia quirks her brow, cracks a small grin, and eyes Aristespha's hand. "Aw, getting a little scared and need me to hold your hand?"

With a dismissive snort, Aristespha grumbles playfully and gestures a gripping motion with her hand. "Why yes. And, someone's big reserve of magical energy would really make feel better right now."

Sotalia grabs hold of Aristespha's hand firmly and uncertainly asks. "Okay, so flow a little or a lot?"

Aristespha glances over her shoulder and smiles calmly. "A little. I figured I would save the potions and... Tap nearby resources."

With an amused nod, Sotalia keeps pace behind Aristespha and faint wisps of magical flow gently glide across the held hands. The group continues along the path. The air remains still in the dense buffer of trees. The only signs of wind rustle the leaves in the canopy far overhead.

A sharp, distant, wooden snap echoes out.

The group abruptly stops at the signal from Dretphi. Cideeda's ears hunt through the disruptive audio. She leans to the side around Dretphi, and squints her eyes ahead. Both her ears fix onto a distant point. Her eyes narrowing, she levels a point ahead. She gestures to her ears, directs everyone's attention ahead, and holds up two fingers to the group. Dretphi searches behind the group, motions towards a thick patch of undergrowth meters back, and crouches down. The team lower their profiles and backtrack next to the abundant ferns and brush. Bach searches for an easy entry, side steps wide off the path, and hides behind a flora coated log. Sotalia, Aristespha, and Cideeda follow and crowd tightly within thick, obscuring forest cover. Dretphi searches in front of her, grips her gauntlet around a small bush, and muscles it swiftly out of the ground. She brushes the dirt trail lightly with the small plant, and stirs up the forest floor off the path, leading away from the group. She replants the shrubbery with a purposeful tilt. Carefully, she creeps backwards down the path, keeps watch ahead, and joins the group in hiding.

Two young evuukian men amble along the game trail and gesture towards their nature themed attire. Despite the casual conversation, both maintain grips on the strings of their bows. As they approach closer, one points distantly down the path, slowly traces the route up to recently disturbed dirt, and aims his finger at the tilted bush. The other nods in agreement. Both ready their bows, retrieve arrows from their quivers, and nock them. The two step quietly forward and search the woods. One inspects the stirred dirt leading off the path, and surveys the underbrush leading away.

The other evuukian continues up the trail. As the man closes the distance to the thick undergrowth patch, Dretphi secures a tight grip on the combat knife at her side. Cideeda quietly raises a laser pistol barrel up and keeps a rough aim upon the man. Sotalia and Aristespha ready their hands in casting stances. Bach remains still, palm securely upon the ground and his eyes faintly glowing. A hair thin magical wire extends swiftly out from his hand, races underneath the forest floor debris, and flows towards the opposing underbrush.

The man uncomfortably close to the hidden group stops, turns his head towards the thick patch of undergrowth, abundant ferns, and flora coated log. He starts to squint his eyes into the dense obscuring forest cover.

An unseen force loudly zips along the ground meters from the tilted bush, rustling the brush and kicking up leafy debris. Both men snap to attention, lock full focus on the movement, take aim, and draw bowstrings. Flows of magical energy rush out from the arms of the men, wrap around the arrow, and enter into the bow. The two let loose their arrows.  Misty streaks trace behind the arrows as they rocket to the same target. Both missiles impact the ground with loud, powerful thuds. Moments later, small bursts of magical energy vent out from the arrow heads. The rustling of forest debris continues into a thick grove of ferns, leaves parting along the way. The men exchange eager, hungry grins, say one word in unison, nock new arrows, and rush off to chase.

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia collectively emit muted sighs of relief. Bach relaxes his body, glances over between Aristespha and Sotalia, and whispers a question. "What did they say?"

Aristespha quirks her brow and curiously narrows her eyes towards the distant evuukian men. "Lunch."

Bach smirks smugly and chuckles to himself. "Well... Hope they packed one."


----

Chelindia settles into the wide pocket in the middle a four-way trunk split of a tree. She seats herself onto the soft mossy covering, rests her back against a trunk, and secures her feet against branches. Tilting her head up, she stares at the noon sun peeking through leaves. Her dark tan fingers idly twirl her dark green braids, and the shifting light through the canopy glints off her turquoise eyes. A strong wind rocks Chelindia gently with the upper limbs of the tall, old oak. Chelindia closes her eyes, rubs her forehead, and grimaces as her mind wanders. Minutes pass, her face flits between emotions, and she sways her head side to side at each indecisive moment. Eventually, she grits her teeth, releases a long sigh, and opens her eyes into a regretful expression. With a distant stare, she feels the string of the bow hanging from a small branch nearby. A gust gently pushes the tree. Chelindia watches the finely crafted bow swing with the motion, and squints as an elegant inscription shines in the light. She stares at the writing, loses herself in deep thought, and frowns as the evuukian meaning sinks in. The world fades from her perception. She focuses upon the phrases and the simple signature at the end. Sadness bubbles up onto her face and she drops her head firmly upon the bark behind her. She gazes into the blue sky above, covers her face with her hands, and sighs deeply.

A group of voices below snaps her attention harshly back to the world around her, and she blinks back to awareness. She swiftly and quietly grasps her bow, lifts it free, and leans her head cautiously out from her hiding place. Peering down through the obscuring leaf and limb mass of the tree to the ground over thirty meters below, her eyes witness a group of people traverse a game trail. She notes the armor of the large figure in the lead, ear flicks of the fvalian, and the silvery blue hair of the evuukian woman. She cocks her head in confusion at the odd, fiery orange, wavy hair and brown horns of another woman, and lifts a brow at the tall, heavier man at the back. Chelindia snarls her upper lip, snorts, and pulls out a bulbous headed arrow from the quiver hanging off another small branch. She readies the bow, nocks the arrow, and aims high up through the leafy canopy. Drawing the string back, flows of magical energy spiral around the arrow and sink into the glowing ball tip. While adjusting her posture, the elegant inscription shines and flashes its meaning into Chelindia's eyes. She freezes right before release and uncertainty locks her grip tight on the bowstring. She summons her will, grits her teeth, regains her aim, and-

Sotalia's voice lands upon Chelindia's long, pointed evuukian ears. "...I hope Faelatelia..."

Chelindia's eyes shoot wide open and she relaxes the bowstring forward. She unnocks the arrow, ceases the magical flow, and holds it tightly as the magical energy gently vents out from the head. She kneels down, peers out from hiding, and focuses her long, pointed ears down below. Aristespha responds back to Sotalia. "I do hope she is okay. Even if she's part of the group, she may still be approachable. I hope we can talk some sense into her."

Bach rocks his head side to side in thought and gestures out a possibility. "She might be looking for a way out. A lot of these groups don't make it easy to leave once you get in. She could be playing the part because there's just no other good option available to her."

Cideeda flicks her ears around for a few moments, finds nothing unusual in the drone of the rustling leaves, and comments. "Understand that. Hope that's the case, because that's an easy job right there. Sneak close under the cover of darkness, get her, run back to the humvee, and just drive as fast as possible from here."

Dretphi inspects the trail ahead, and nods in agreement. "Simple. Effective. Minimal contact with hostiles."

Sebastian's ethereal voice resonates from the sword at Aristespha's side. "Gods, let's hope it's that simple. But, probably won't be. I'm not too sure what we should do if she's really into this whole Terra Priest thing."

Sotalia places her hands on her hips, twists her lips, and groans. "I really hope that girl isn't buying everything these people are selling."

Chelindia watches the group as they walk away. She blinks blankly and recovers her focus when the conversation fades into the background forest din. She stands up upon the pocket between the trunk split, guides the quiver over her shoulder, and places the bulbous tipped arrow back in. Tilting the bow into a beam of sunlight from above, her eyes read the inscription. She closes her eyes tightly, bows her head down, and firmly grips the bow. In moment of silence between waves of wind, she whispers out a gracious, appreciative evuukian phrase, and gazes at the writing on the bow with tears forming. After wiping her eyes, she secures the bow on herself, gestures along with a series of incantations, and silently runs along the long length of a thick branch leading towards the group. With faint flows of energy pulsing across her body, she leaps off, glides through the air, and lands silently onto the branch of the next tree. She resumes running without a sound through the tree onto the next.


----

Bach looks down at the mossy carpet around the base of the ancient, gigantic tree, and lowers himself to a seat upon the dark green ground. He lays against the trunk of the tree, flips up the visor of helmet, and breathes out his fatigue. "That was a tense hike to get here."

Aristespha sits down on a massive tree root, slides her pack off, and flips up the canvas top. She rummages around the contents, retrieves a number of colorful, fluid filled bottles, and presents them to group. "I have stamina potions for everyone. A few of each flavor."

Cideeda takes a container with a light purple liquid, reads the label, uncorks it, and drinks it with a smile. "Tarot root. Nice."

She settles down prone upon the ground, crawls up to the edge of the obscuring undergrowth, and retrieves a pair of binoculars from her small pack. "Now, we should still have an angle to spy into that huge clearing from here."

Dretphi eases up next to Cideeda with a bottle in hand, pulls out another set of binoculars out of her backpack, and lifts the visor up on her helmet. "I hope. This area seems undisturbed. Far enough away. Plenty of cover. Few options remain otherwise."

Sebastian's ethereal visage materializes sitting next to Aristepsha and he pans his gaze over the entire group. "Okay. So good so far. Now, let's see what we can find out from here. And most importantly, if Faelatelia is freely walking around the place."

Cideeda carefully twists a knob on the binoculars, slides herself over a bit, and aims the lenses through the heavy foliage. "Well, it's not much, but I can get a decent view of the open space between everything. See some people moving around between all those old buildings."

Contorting his mouth, Sebastian hums in thought and sighs. "It's a start. At least we can get an idea of how big this group is. And maybe, figure out a schedule for their patrols."

He holds his chin in thought and grumbles as he ponders out loud. "Dammit. It'd be nice to get a clear, full view of that area. But, we've had one close call already today. I think it'll be best to hang back for now."

Bach nods his head at Sebastian. He stops momentarily, quirks his brow, and presents an idea. "We could try that magical camera drone trick again. I still don't know how close I can get, but it won't be any of us getting close."

Cideeda lowers the binoculars, pats a small bag hanging off the back of her vest, and grins toothily to Bach. "I'm up for trying that. I haven't seen any Terra Priest using anything remotely technological. So, I REALLY DOUBT they'd notice a wireless video feed signal, even in their camp."

Sebastian relays his approval with a smile and tilts his head to side as he considers the option. "Not a bad idea, bro. That'll be a good one to try first."

He glances over to Sotalia sitting upon a partially buried rock and notices her constantly searching the trees above. "Something up, Sotalia?"

Sotalia crosses her arms, pulls the corner of her mouth, and drums her fingers. "I don't know. Keep thinking I'm feeling some really faint magic nearby. But, this forest already has a weird vibe to it. So, it's hard to tell."

Aristespha nods and closes her eyes. She opens a pair of glowing violet eyes and scans the immediate area slowly. "I've noticed a lot of leftover ambient traces from magical activity. Between the Terra Priests, certain types of plants, animals, and possible spirit activity-"

As her head lifts up to check the treetop, her eyes dart around to many points above. "Above us!-"

A firm, collected female voice fills the air around the group. "I would like to speak to you all. I believe we have similar goals. But first, how do you know of Faelatelia?"

Cideeda's ears search frantically for a source. Dretphi cautiously surveys locations up in the trees. Aristespha continues to watch with glowing violet eyes. Sotalia frowns with a sneering upper lip and softly growls her discomfort. Bach's eyes flicker to blue and he searches above, along with Aristespha. Sebastian crosses his arms, hums with a ghostly reverb, and sighs thoughtfully. A few seconds of silence later, he speaks with an explanatory tone. "We are here because of a guild quest directly sent to us. We are to find Faelatelia and exercise our discretion as to what to do once she is found. We think the mission came from her parents."

The woman's tone shifts sharply inquisitive and a direct question echoes down. "How do you know that?"

Sebastian checks the canopy above and turns slowly to scan the woods around him and the group. "We helped Faelatelia's friend from a similar situation. She recommend us to Faelatelia's parents to perform a similar task. Her name is Valavera."

As the voice above starts to respond, it halts abruptly to a lengthy silence. Moments later, the woman's cadence softens and she respectfully inquires. "Will you agree to a peaceful meeting?"

Sebastian checks the attitudes of Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia. Aristespha nods slowly with hints of reservation. Bach agrees with a slight shrug of the shoulders. Cideeda twists her lips and sighs out her reluctant acceptance. Dretphi nods respectfully. "If she meant us harm, conversation would be counterproductive."

Sotalia glances over to meet Sebastian's quizzical look, grumbles, and gestures out her hesitant agreement. Sebastian unfolds his arms and presents a professional smile. "We agree. Let's see what we can do."

A minute later, the figure of Chelindia slips in to sight from behind a large tree. She carefully approaches the small clearing, and greets Sebastian a slight bow. "My name is Chelindia. I am the assistant to the leader of this Terra Priest commune, Meredosia. I know where Faelatelia is. And... I want to get her away from here."

Sebastian relays his understanding with a nod. Chelindia wanders her eyes over the group and lifts an inquiring brow. "May I see the guild job posting?"

Aristespha retrieves her aetherphone from a pocket, taps through a few menus, and presents the display of the device. Chelindia steps closer, leans her head forward, and squints her eyes as she reads the text. "Do you all have guild IDs?"

Everyone slides out cards, flips out wallets, and lifts lanyards to reveal guild identification. Sebastian smiles awkwardly and shrugs his shoulders. "I would, but my current condition doesn't allow it."

Chelindia nods awkwardly, draws in a long breath, and sighs graciously. "Thank you. To keep things short, Faelatelia tried to leave the group after going with Meredosia on a secret assignment that I do not know all the details of yet. Faelatelia ran away, but was captured at Meredosia's request. She is in a prison inside the building on the outskirts of the commune. I will assist you in your mission. I only ask we do so as carefully and quietly as possible."

Aristespha quirks a brow and narrows a curious stare at Chelindia. "Why do you want to help us to get her away from here?"

Chelindia pauses in thought, briefly indicates the internal conflict upon her face, and assumes a more wary demeanor. "I've known Meredosia since childhood. We joined the Terra Priests together a long time ago and I traveled here with her to form this new commune under the best of intentions. Unfortunately, something has changed. Things are not what they should be. I know there's much to be done about it. But, the first thing that needs to happen is to get an innocent girl far from the danger she is in..."

She lowers her head down, exhales out her nerves, and lifts up to gaze at the group pleadingly. "And... you are the best opportunity I have to do so... And, I fear the best I will have before the situation gets worse."

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia exchange a mix of concerned, reserved, and uncertain expressions. Sebastian mulls over the situation, gauges the feelings of the group, and dons a small grin towards Chelindia. "Let's talk more about this. I think we should explore this more."

Chelindia bows appreciatively and pulls a slight smile on her face. "Thank you so much. How about we discuss the patrol routes... And, where they are often NOT at night."


----

Dim lamps cast out circles of illumination upon the ground between the ancient, stonework structures encircling the area. Only the ambient sounds of the forest night fill the area with a few faint spots of moonlight slipping through the thick canopy of old trees. Two evuukian sentries stand outside the entryway of a building, isolated from the rest of the main encampment. They idly stare at the empty pathways in the vicinity. The light haired man groans out a long sigh and the dark haired guard commiserates with a slow series of grumbling nods.

From behind the cover of perimeter overgrowth, Chelindia points out the two evuukian men to Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia. "Those are the only two guards active right now. Night patrols go much further out than during the day."

She shakes her head gradually and vents out her ambivalence. "It is so strange that I'm now thankful that Meredosia never listens to my security recommendations."

Sebastian's ghostly voice whispers out from the sword at Aristespha's side. "Do you think those two guards would cooperate with you and let us to get Faelatelia out of here?"

Chelindia lowers her head, sorts through the possibilities in her mind with her eyes, and bites her lower lip uncertainly. "I don't know for sure. They were part of the founding group with me. While not as vocal as I am, I don't think they like what's going on either. They are outstanding scouts and hunters, but have been relegated to this."

She glances over to weapons upon Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi and eyes magical items on Aristespha and Sotalia. With a pleading tone, she lowers her head down with an uneasy grimace. "They are good people, but I can't risk them performing their duties. I don't want them hurt."

A comforting tone emanates from the sword and Sebastian chuckles lightly. "Don't worry. We prefer keeping things alive whenever possible. We have plenty of options."

Sotalia lifts an inquisitive eyebrow and poses a question to Chelindia. "Would anyone or anything detect a directed, localized spell in the area?"

Chelindia blinks in though, shakes her head, and twits her lips. "No. Anyone with significant magical ability is part of Meredosia's inner circle and lives with her in the main building. Or... You are the three other founding mages that are probably too tired from enchanting arrows all day to notice anything right now. As for detection devices... Another ignored security suggestion of mine."

Aristespha and Sotalia exchange sly grins, and gesture the rest of the team into a huddle.

The dark haired evuukian sentry lifts his gaze upwards, watches the leaves gently sway, and catches glimpses of the moon in the late night sky. His mouth moves to form an elegant, thoughtful, and insightful series of sentences in evuukian... But no sound escapes his lips. He halts in surprise, attempts to call out to the other evuukian, and nothing audible leaves his mouth. Turning to face the other guard, he watches the light haired man vigorously rub the bases of his long, pointed ears in bewilderment. Both meet the other's confused stares, attempt to converse, and simultaneously realize the situation both are in. The moment they reach for their swords, both suddenly startle still. The two men slowly lift their hands up away from their weapons, straighten their postures, and awkwardly wait.

A gauntlet slides over the shoulder of the light haired guard and firmly grips over his mouth. Shame, unease, and irritation mix upon the man's face, but clear away to sympathetic terror as he gawks down towards the other sentry. The dark haired guard's hands nervously curl slightly and he attentively stares down. A hand of sharp, fvalian claw tips flex uncomfortably close and threaten a VERY sensitive lower region. The fvalian hand moves away enough point and direct the man backwards. The dark haired man nods with cooperative enthusiasm and follows instruction without trouble.

Cideeda and Dretphi guide their captives around the sides of the isolated building and out of sight. As they lead the evuukian sentries to the back of the structure with combat knife and laser pistol against their backs, Aristespha holds out an arm to each guard and watches them backpedal their heads into her awaiting hands. With violet glowing eyes, she secures her gloved grip on the back of their heads, and releases an enveloping flow of energy around their heads. The two evuukians yawn reflexively, close their eyes, and drop their heads in slumber. Drepthi, Cideeda, and Bach ease the men down to the ground and prop them up against the back side of the prison structure. Aristespha breathes out her strain and rolls her shoulders to stretch. "That should keep them docile for awhile."

Cideeda lifts up a pocket flap on her vest, pulls out large plastic cable ties, and hands out sets to Bach and Dretphi. Out from the thicker undergrowth, Chelindia and Sotalia walk up to the rest of the group. Sotalia grins triumphantly and interlocks her fingers to stretch her arms out. "It's been awhile since I used that silence spell."

Chelindia steps up, kneels down in front of the two guards, and smiles satisfied at their soft snores. "I must say I am impressed."

She stands back up, glances over to the group, and quietly walks to the corner of the building. "Okay, we should be quick. We have a few hour window before the first night patrol comes back."

Inside the dark cell, Faelatelia stirs in her sleep. Her ears twitch at the faint, muffled noises trickling into her room. A loud metallic scrape grinds out into the air through the door and startles her wide awake. The heavy metal door opens and Faelatelia squints her sky blue eyes against the sudden rush of light into the room. Chelindia steps through, smiles warmly to Faelatelia, and cracks a grin upon noticing a picked-clean food plate. "I'm glad you ate, you are going to need your strength tonight."

Faelatelia blinks bewildered at the choice of language Chelindia uses, and shields the light from her face. As her eyes adjust, she notices Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sotalia, and the ethereal Sebastian behind Chelindia.


----

Pulses of light scatter out into the forest as fireflies drift upon the gentle breezes sifting through the densely packed woods. Faint shimmers of magical light swirl along branches high up in the canopy. Tiny transparent forms flit into existence and disappear without trace. An ethereal fox slowly turns its head towards the top of a small hill, stares off distantly, and then nonchalantly fades away. Chelindia reaches the crest of the mound, surveys the vicinity, and relaxes her stance. "It should be clear from here. This land is home to many small spirits. We usually avoid sending patrols through and keep to the perimeter out of respect."

Dretphi nods and pans her head to survey the grove of vibrant plants covering the ground. "Is it safe to cross?"

Sitting upon the ground, Faelatelia finishes off a stamina potion, fights through her fatigue, and speaks with a meek voice. "Yes. The spirits here are peaceful. Most just ignore people."

After a few deep breaths, she stands up straight with help from Aristespha and Sotalia, and nods her appreciation. "I'm ready again. I'm sorry."

Sotalia smiles at the evuukian teenager and pats her shoulder. "It's okay. You've only been stuck in a prison cell for weeks."

The group slowly traverses down the hill, and cross a wide, rocky creek at the base. In the still spaces of the area, colorful flickers of life leave misty trails and disappear into the grasses. Shadowy outlines fade into existence, affix their attention upon the group, and blend into the night. Faelatelia smiles brightly and releases a happy sigh as she sees the activity around. Others watch in awe at the brief sightings of spirits that momentarily pay attention, and then resume their normal routines. The party walks along a worn dirt path through the active forest grove. Cideeda ears flick and her emerald eyes open wide. She snaps her head to a spot, and points a claw tip out. The team halts, drops low to the ground, and waits. Dretphi squints through her helmet visor, and confirms Cideeda's suspicions.

A dozen evuukians in dark, nature themed outfits crouch in wait behind an outcropping of rocks with bows at the ready and arrows nocked. Chelindia narrows her stare, cocks her head in confusion, and mumbles a question to herself in evuukian. Aristespha's eyes flick to glowing violet and Bach's illuminate blue. Dretphi directs the group's attention into the distance to two people sitting near a rainbow luminescent flower upon a brightly leafy plant. Glints of moonlight reflect off of tools, vials, and carrying cases near the two people. Sotalia quickly casts of spell quietly between her hands, holds her finger points together, and looks through the opening at the couple in the distance. "I think those are reagent hunters. Looks like they are collecting samples from a chromatic chrysanthemum?"

Cideeda's ears twitch. She tilts her head, focuses her hearing, and repeats a few phrases in evuukian. "What does that mean exactly? Because, I don't like the tone he used."

Aristespha, Chelindia, Faelatelia, and Sotalia react with shock. Sotalia grits her teeth, clenches her fists, and growls. "Gods, we need to warn them."

Chelindia frowns darkly, grips her bow tightly, and mutters angrily in evuukian as she shakes her head. Aristespha glances to Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi with a firm grip upon the sword at her side. "They're planning on shooting them."

Sebastian's ghostly visage forms prone underneath the fern coated forest floor off the path and he immediately stares out at the situation. "What?"

Chelindia continues to shake her head and contorts her face with surges of emotion. "This is NOT right. Not right at all. I don't know what is going on here. These are people Meredosia recruited."

She stiffens her upper lip, glares resolutely, reaches into her quiver, and retrieves the bulbous headed arrow. "I can't allow this happen. I can make a distraction, but you all need to get away from me before I use it-"

Sebastian interrupts with a scheming grin and glances over to the group. "Wait, what does that do?"

Glancing behind her, she lifts a brow at Sebastian. "Um, it's a magical signal flare. It will erupt in a bright light with a plume of smoke, a few seconds after firing. Unfortunately, at this range it will be long enough for them to run clear and figure out where it came from."

Bach trains his glowing blue eyes upon the ball headed arrow, grins mischievously, and holds his hand out. "Let me see that."

A sly smile parts Sebastian's lips and he winks to Chelindia. "Let me keep their attention for a bit then."

He glides along the forest floor away from the group, circles around wide, and silently flies towards the dozen evuukians in hiding. The leader starts whispering commands, gesturing out orders, and readies his bow. He grins menacingly as he nocks an arrow, stands up with the group, takes aim, and-

Sebastian's booming ghostly voice echoes out into the woods. "WHAT INTERLOPERS HAVE ENTERED MY SACRED GROVE?!"

The evuukians clumsily spin around, awkwardly point bows at the floating, brilliant visage of Sebastian above, and reflexively let loose arrows. The missiles zip and tumble through Sebastian's form. In the distance the couple frantically search the area and notice the bright ghost.

A man's voice spits out. "Holy shit! The fuck is that?!"

The other distant figure, scrambles to hastily pack up the equipment, and snaps back with a female cadence. "Let's not stick around and find out!"

The evuukian leader curses as the two reagent hunters sweep up their gear quickly and run off. He tries to call out orders in evuukian, but splits his attention with boisterous banter of Sebastian. Off in the middle of the team, Bach's eyes dim to normal levels and he passes the bulbous arrow carefully to Chelindia. "Okay. It's triggered upon impact now."

Chelindia warily eyes the arrow as she nocks it. With extra care, she readies her bow, draws the string back, and takes aim as flows of energy spiral into the arrow. Aristespha dons a short grin, grasps hold of the sword, and closes her eyes thoughtfully. Sebastian pauses his ramblings of forest spirit superiority and annoying, distracting flights around the evuukian crew. He laughs proudly, spreads his arms wide, and smiles manically. "Maybe you need a taste of my POWER! ... BEHOLD!"

Chelindia lets loose the arrow. From the center of the evuukian squad, a ten meter radius bubble of thick white smoke engulfs the area in under a second. Coughs, gags, and sneezes fill the air along with evuukian curses and complaints. Sebastian's ethereal form materializes next to Aristespha and floats with the group as they all escape. "Nicely done, bro. But, I thought there suppose to be a bright flash?"

Bach laughs while running and holds his finger up. "Wait for it."

The dome of dense mist erupts into a blinding, white light that beams out through the gaps between trees. Screams of furious, aggravated evuukian swears shatter the peace.


----

The humvee powerplant spins up to life as Cideeda checks the gauges and goes through her startup routine. Chelindia stands with the Aristespha, Bach, Dretphi, Faelatelia, Sebastian, and Sotalia. Faelatelia steps up, wraps her arms around Chelindia, and softly speaks thankful evuukian words between sobs. Chelindia embraces the teenager, pats her on the back, and releases her with a warm smile. The two exchange heartfelt goodbyes, and Chelindia wipes a tear from her eye before commanding the young one into the humvee. Faelatelia nods and follows Drepthi's guidance to lay down on the far back seat. Chelindia turns to the rest of the team and bows graciously. "I can never thank you enough. I could not have managed this myself and feared I would have caused more harm than good overall."

Sebastian nods with a proud smile. "Well, we should thank you, too. As much as I trust ourselves to get the job done, you saved us from a lot of trouble and unnecessary risk. I just hope we haven't stirred up the hornet's nest too much."

Chelindia chuckles and quirks her brow in amusement. "Actually, that may help my plans."

Sotalia crosses her arms and examines Chelindia's expression with hints of apprehension. "How so?"

Drawing a long breath in, Chelindia explains thoughtfully. "Well, I'm certain Meredosia will want Faelatelia captured again. And, seeing how all the outer patrols somehow missed spotting her... I might be able to convince her to allow me to take charge of a search party... Of my choosing."

A sly smile graces Chelindia's face and she places her hands on her hips. "Of course, I will pick a team made up of founding members of the commune. A good chance to break the rust off our skills and..."

She sighs calmly and lowers her head slightly. "An opportunity to talk about things freely."

Bach nods in agreement and scratches the back of his head. "Yeah. Seems like things aren't going the way you think they should."

Chelindia nods, crosses her arms, and bites her lip. "A lot has happened to give me many moments of pause and I don't think I'm alone. Most of us are older and wiser now. Also, seeing how Meredosia has twisted the principles of the Terra Priests and who she surround herself with... I think many of us will take our leave."

Aristespha lifts a quizzical brow at Chelindia and inquires respectfully. "What do you think will happen if you and your group leaves?"

A frown pulls heavily upon the mood of Chelindia and she shakes her head slowly, uncertainly. "I don't know. I used to consider Meredosia a sister by choice. As much as I hoped my constant presence by her side would keep her reasonable, and my suggestions would guide her back to the right path... I feel that situation beyond anything more I can do. And, I just can't follow her anymore."

Aristespha nods understandingly, steps over to the open door of the humvee, and rummages around for a pencil and paper. She pulls out her aetherphone, taps through the contact list, and writes out some information on a piece of paper. Holding the note out, she returns in front of Chelindia. "Here. I don't know what you plan to do after this, but this the contact info for Captain Hackle of the GAA and Captain Hayes of the Borderland Rangers. I don't know what assistance either could provide you, but one of them might be able to work something out for you and your group."

Chelindia apprehensively grasps onto the paper, examines the information hesitantly, but eventually stows the document in a pocket. "I'll consider it. A few members the founding group aren't welcomed by the law in a few regions. But, maybe something can be worked out."

She glances up to the night sky, bows to the group, and presents a sly smirk. "I need to get back. There's a search party I need to organize. I think we're going to avoid checking the roadways and search other remote passages to old, secluded outlooks that are nice and private."

The group shares a moment of amusement and Chelindia departs with a final wave to Faelatelia. She speaks a few incantations with gestures, flows energy down her body, and gracefully leaps up into the tree tops, off into the night.