-52-

The humvee rolls into a spot upon the worn, pavement of an old service station parking lot. The noon sun above heats up the rooftop solar panels of the main building in the middle of encircling fuel pump awnings. A faint breeze hardly moves even a few blades of grass in the empty fields near the lone stop along the long highway. When the vehicle stops, the powerplant inside the humvee spins down and a door opens. Sotalia hops out, dashes in a rigid jog around the side of the main structure, and swiftly pushes through the front glass storefront doors. Cideeda calmly exits the cab, shakes her head with a roll of the eyes, and shrugs as she casually walks to the entrance. Aristespha steps out of the vehicle, slides her seat up, and clears the way for Dretphi to climb out. Dretphi nods appreciatively and catches up to Cideeda at the store doors. Aristespha slides her seat back, and curiously observes Bach.

Silently staring out the window to the scenic fields and trees around, Bach sighs softly and maintains an inner distance to the world around him. Aristespha steps up into the humvee, sits down in her seat, and stares inquisitively at Bach. "What's on your mind, Bach?"

Bach blinks a few times, turns his head slightly towards Aristespha, and awkwardly stumbles on his words. "Uh... Well... Nothing really... Just enjoying the scenery, I guess."

Aristespha lift her eyebrow unconvinced and seeks a better reason with a stare. Sebastian's ghostly form appears in the aisle between Aristespha and Bach, and levels a questioning glance at Bach. "Oh, bullshit, bro. You've been spacing out the whole ride back since the morning. Something heavy is sitting on your brain. What is it?"

After a brief squirm in his seat, Bach hesitantly gazes over the Sebastian and Aristespha. "I don't know. It's well... I... I've just been thinking about yesterday. And really thinking about... Well... What am I?"

Sebastian cocks his head in puzzlement and blinks out his confusion. "Okay? Um. In what context are we asking that question?"

Bach crosses his arms uncomfortably, rolls his shoulders, and draws a nervous breath in. "Well, in the context of me using elder energy from whatever source it comes from for me. Last I checked, people who tend to use that type of magic haven't been viewed favorably for a really long time."

He glances away briefly and mutters to himself. "Especially, if the puppet shows are to believed."

Sebastian smiles proudly and speaks with a comforting voice. "You saved the life our friend. I saw you struggle and try your fucking damnedest to do everything else possible. You had no other option and did what you felt was the right thing to do. I don't think anyone will fault you for that."

He glances over to Aristespha and back to Bach. "I'm pretty sure anyone that same situation would have done the same thing, bro."

Bach grimaces uneasily and averts his eyes away as he examines his thoughts. "Yeah. I mean... I know I made the right choice and all."

He unfolds his arms, grits his teeth, sways his head as he rakes both hands through his head of longer, brown hair. "But... I still worry what thinking that way could eventually lead to. I mean how many Dark Lords before were honestly justified in what they did initially and still felt fully that way when they went off the deep end?  And never knew it?"

Sebastian ethereal eyes widen in concerned shock. He slides around to face Bach from the center console, and cranes his head around to make eye contact with his brother. "You are NOT a Dark Lord. DO NOT put that on yourself."

Aristespha reaches her arm out, firmly grips onto Bach's shoulder, and stares sternly compassionate into his worried blue eyes. "You have to understand that term is not some kind of official classification. It's a term that was born out of fear and the desires for manipulation. Ultimately, it's nothing more than a convenient branding the ignorant masses use, and the media and governments encourage."

Bach lowers his head and contorts his mouth as mumbles. "Even so... It seems to have been really appropriate a bunch of times in the past."

After a long sigh, Aristespha's gaze softens and a gentle tone colors her voice. "Bach. Just because you have access to Elder energy does not make you a Dark Lord. Or even destined to become one."

Presenting a sincere smile, Sebastian nods in agreement with Aristespha and angles his head to meet his brother's eyes. "Yeah. And if I got the score right, you've annihilated two Nightmare Geists and saved Sotalia's life with that power. I think you are far from any infamous Dark Lords at this point, bro."

Bach lifts his head up, musters a halfhearted smile, and sighs in reserved acceptance. "I'd like to think that, too."

He stares poignantly at the sword at Aristespha's side and fights back the hints of dread bubbling onto his face. "I don't know. In a weird way, it seemed a lot easier and safer for everyone to just live my life as a lame mage. If I don't use that energy... I can't become something that would require... a special sword to take down."

Aristespha and Sebastian trace the path of Bach's stare to the sword. Sebastian briefly frowns. Aristespha pats her hand on Bach's shoulder and calmly explains. "There's been no properly done research that has shown that Elder Energy has any effect on the minds of its users. If fact many at the Grand Library believe most the infamous Dark Lords had serious prior issues before they came into their power."

Sebastian grins reassuringly to Bach and nods with Aristespha's statement. "Exactly! You have the power and you avoid using it as much as possible. That sets you apart from a lot of people."

Bach summons up a full smile towards his brother and shrugs his shoulders. "I guess. But, as much as I'd like to not use it at all... It might be best to get some idea of what exactly I have. If only just to not accidentally fuck things up."

Aristespha leans an analyzing expression towards Bach and confidently smirks. "I most certainly can help you with that. If you want. The Grand Library has done plenty of research in related fields of study and I might be to contact an expert or two, discreetly. I promise we'll take it slow and careful."

Drawing in a long breath, Bach exhales out his nerves, relaxes into his seat, and nods appreciatively at Aristespha. "That sounds pretty good. Maybe in a few weeks? Still a little shaken up right now."

With a final few pats, Aristespha smiles kindly and glances over to the store corner. "Of course. I think we all need a rest before anything else."

She watches Sotalia round the corner of the building with a large coffee cup in one hand and collection of sweeteners, creamer cups, and seasoning packets in the other. She slides down off her seat onto the pavement near the humvee and places her hands on her hips. "I think I might need something to drink anyway. You want anything, Bach?"

Bach thinks moment, and searches his desires. "Um. I guess a milk tea-"

He pats his stomach and becomes conscious of his figure. "Uh, the unsweetened kind."

Sebastian glances over, perk his brow, and rolls his eyes. "Oh, live a little, bro. You've been doing damn good about getting in shape anyway."

As Sebastian fades back towards the sword, Bach sighs playfully with a tinge of sarcasm. "Okay, the regular kind. Live a little dangerously today."

Aristespha laughs, nods, and walks towards the storefront entrance. She pauses after an off step, feels her leather booted foot around on the pavement, and mutters Evuukian curses under breath as she adjusts her pace. Bach leans his head side to side, stretches his body out in the seat, and feels the stiffness in his neck. The front passenger door opens and Sotalia places her large cup of coffee in a center console drink holder. After dumping an assortment of extras in the beverage, she glances over to Bach rolling the tension out of his shoulders, and smirks. "Maybe you should walk around and move, instead of sitting motionless staring out the window for hours?"

Bach rolls his eyes at himself, and reaches for his door handle. "Probably not a bad idea."

He carefully steps down from the humvee, walks out, and places his hands on his lower back. With a slow, careful motion, he leans backwards and stretches his spine, while brief grimaces appear on his face. Bach stares out into the tree perimeter around a grassy field. Sotalia moves up to his side and gazes over. "How are you doing?"

Bach blinks back to awareness, meets Sotalia's golden eyes and darkened sclera, and attempts to nonchalantly shrug. "Well, I'm still pretty sore and got bruises all over. But, I'm okay enough at the moment."

Sotalia gradually nods with an amused smirk, and lifts a curious brow. "Hey, question. How much do you remember after I woke up?"

Searching his mind, Bach mentally pieces together events and twists his mouth thoughtfully. "Ah, well, most of it. I think. Why?"

A genuine, gentle smile graces Sotalia's lips and her expression softens as she brushes back her fiery orange, wavy hair over her horns. "I wanted to make sure you heard me on our way back up. I know you risked a lot to save me. From what I saw and... felt."

Shyly averting his gaze, Bach chuckles awkwardly and scratches the back of his head. "Ah, well, it was nothing, really."

He cringes briefly and groans at himself. "Oh gods, I can't believe I just said that."

A giggle escapes Sotalia and she shakes her head slowly. "Don't worry. You'll say plenty worse ones soon enough."

She side steps in front of Bach and concentrates her gaze upon him. "I can only imagine what a monumental pain in the ass it was to save me, from everything Sebastian told me..."

A few moments of silence fill the air between the two. Sotalia reaches her arms out, slips them underneath Bach's, and leads him into a hug. Bach leans down and wraps his arms around Sotalia in return. Sotalia nestles her head upon Bach's shoulder, presses her horned head close to his, and squeezes him. Bach smiles with a happy sigh. Sotalia angles her head and directs a gentle, grateful whisper into Bach's ear. "Thank you again..."

She tightens her embrace. "For being my hero."

Bach blue eyes widen in stunned silence and fight vainly against the welling of tears. Sotalia feels Bach's attempts to stifle his sniffles, quietly closes her watery eyes, and softly rubs his back comfortingly.


----

Ambient dusk light illuminates the clearing under a reddening evening sky. Within the confines of a large encampment, Chrome Crusader personnel, and Next Adventurers of Nexus crew mingle between tables of festive foods. Samantha directs Gerald's camera aim in between bites of a sandwich. Deedri converses with a gathering of medical team members. A bravado filled Chad and energetic Maxon exchange tales to the enjoyment of those around. Veevi attempts to garner some attention with her additions to diminishing returns. Between her antics, she sneaks peeks towards Deedri. Trakenthin sits quietly at the corner of a table, slowly scrolls through a familiar aethersite on his aetherphone, and occasionally glances up to watch the activity. Modoran nonchalantly strolls through the area, casually spots a card game, and smoothly slips into an open spot at the table.

Next to a rough entry gate to the area, Tassilda casually sits upon a wooden perimeter fence with her legs crossed. She idly picks at the aged lumber with her long finger nails and sighs with a tinge of boredom as she observes the festivities. Tossing back her raven black her over swirling horns, she settles her balance upon the timber beam and stretches body slowly in her form revealing blouse and dress. A tall emin man steps up to her side behind the fence and speaks with a clear, calm voice. "My lady. Whatever are you doing all the way out here?"

Tassilda's interest piques as Daedrican's tone reaches her ears and she smiles with delight. "After all the excitement this week, I fancied a little peace."

Daedrican rests his dark gray hands upon the wooden fence rail and taps the lumber with his naturally long, thick black finger nails. "That I can understand. It has been an interesting patrol."

Sneaking a glance, Tassilda's light blue on black eyes follow Daedrican's strong arms to the rest of his physique. She quickly notices the lack of armor and distracts herself with his tight fitting shirt and athletic shorts. "Um. Yes. It certainly has been. I do hope our group hasn't proven too burdensome in your team's efforts."

She musters some semblance of composure and calmly aims her head towards the center of the encampment, while her eyes attempt to examine Daedrican out the corners. Daedrican chuckles lightly and slowly shakes his head. "Not at all, my lady. You all seem quite capable, each in your own ways. But I must say, I'm especially impressed with the skill you demonstrated."

Tassilda blushes slightly and tries to discreetly work the color in her face to normal. "You are ever so kind, Paladin."

Daedrican cracks a grin upon his face and scratches his masculine jawline. "Only Junior Paladin... Well, for now."

Resuming her stealthy analysis, Tassilda ponders as she swaps the crossing of her legs. "I have to ask, do the Chrome Crusaders usually have end of mission parties like this?"

Distantly surveying the plates of food, gaming, and mingling, Daedrican shrugs his square shoulders. "Our division does at least. Maxon implemented such events to keep morale up during long quests. It helps to relieve some stress before the return trek back."

He stretches his back out, gazes down towards Tassilda with a pleasant smile. "While we certainly cleared out the path here, we still need to be on guard on the way back. So, a break to release some tension is appreciated by everyone and allows everyone to focus afterwards."

Tassilda slowly turns her head with a slight twist of her body and faces Daedrican. She watches the distant lights reflect off his long, straight silver hair. A few locks slip over the cleanly cut bases of his thick, black horns and drape down upon his pointed dark gray ears. A suggestive smile grows upon Tassilda's lips as her eyes trace the shape his high cheek bones and square jaw. Finally below silver eyebrows upon a dark gray, evenly toned skin, she focuses her gaze into Daedrican's eyes. His golden pupil and white sclera eyes.

Her expression blanks abruptly as her mind processes the shocking deviation of her expectations. Daedrican curiously perks his eyebrow and tilts his head slightly to the side, allowing a few silver strands to shift upon his muscular chest. "Anything wrong, my lady?"

Tassilda's posture stiffens and she directs her empty stare forward at the encampment rigidly. After a few seconds, her mind remembers to respond to Daedrican with a deadpan cadence. "Um. No. Nothing is wrong. I just realized I'm quite famished."

Daedrican nods and points over to a specific table with large pans of sliced meat and cooked vegetables. "If I may suggest, the venison the scouting team hunted a few days ago is delicious."

Tassilda nods slowly as a mix of emotions wander through her psyche. Despite brief twitches and a trend to grimace, she maintains her neutral composure. "That sounds lovely right now."

She slides awkwardly down off the wooden fence rail and walks uncomfortably to the festivities. "If you'll pardon me. I'd like to partake in the food... and... see what the rest of the my party is doing. Um... Goodnight."

As Tassilda continues to meander towards the center of the encampment, Daedrican crosses his arms, cocks his head, and puzzles to himself. "Good night, my lady."

Tassilda pauses a moment at Daedrican's response and awkwardly resumes her egress. Daedrican smirks with amusement and mutters to himself intrigued. "Interesting."


----

Heavy mats cover the entire surface of the dining table. Cideeda carefully probes her claw tips through boxes of spare electronic parts and inspects the splayed out components of her laser pistols upon a blue rubber pad. She grumbles in frustrated fvalian and picks tiny pieces off a controller board into a nearby garbage can. Dretphi removes the barrel out of her sub machine gun, shines a flashlight down the bore, and inspects its condition. Her steely gray eyes narrow in annoyance and she groans a few choice words in grath. She places the separated barrel down on a heavy cloth pad and reaches a hand into a metal case filled with mechanical parts. With a wince, she pauses a moment, adjusts the cold pack wrapped around her shoulder, and gently flexes the joint.

Bach steps through the hallway archway into the median between the dining and living areas of the large room. After a long yawn, he shifts his focus over to the dining table with Cideeda and Dretphi sitting opposite to each other. He notices familiar weapons in pieces upon the table, approaches curiously, and presents a confident tone. "Well, so how did everything hold out?"

Cideeda lifts her head up, meets Dretphi's glance across the table, and smirks out of view of Bach. She sneaks a wink and Dretphi lifts an amused brow. Both Cideeda and Dretphi slowly turn their heads in unison, sternly stare at Bach, and remain silent. A shallow wave of nervous anxiety washes over Bach. He examines their expressions carefully and verbally stumbles about the situation. "Uh... Okay... So, I guess there were problems... Correct?"

Maintaining a serious tone, Cideeda picks up an electronically encased crystalline tube and holds it over to Bach. "You could say that."

Bach sits down at the end of the table next to Dretphi and Cideeda. He takes the component from Cideeda, and carefully inspects the device. He rolls the tube in his hands, and inspects a number of blackened spots in the crystal, melted power contacts, and discolorations on electronic board. He grits his teeth and hints of embarrassment trickle in his voice. "Oh. Yeah. That doesn't look good at all."

Dretphi offers the barrel section from her sub machine gun. Bach gives Cideeda back the crystalline part, grabs the metal part from Dretphi, and examines it. After a few seconds of searching the exterior for issues, he eyes down the bore and puzzles at the interior. He thinks about the physics of the device and searches his mind for the exact summation of his suspicions. "This looks too smooth. Shouldn't there be-"

Dretphi stares coldly. "Rifling."

Bach nods slowly and returns the piece to Dretphi. He bites his lip, sighs, and lowers his head a bit ashamed. "Ah shit. Sorry about that. It was an emergency situation and-"

He feels a familiar five claw points gently squeeze on his arm and Cideeda meet his gaze with a toothy grin. "Oh, don't worry. We're just fucking with you. You have nothing to apologize for."

Dretphi lightly pats Bach's shoulder and warmly smiles at him. "No complaints."

She momentarily averts her eyes with a hint of color in her cheeks. "It was exhilarating to fire."

Bach relaxes and snorts out laugh, shaking his head. "Damn. You had me going. But, it still looks like those parts are done for."

Cideeda nods quickly with a shrug of the shoulders. "Oh yeah. That laser tube is no better than a laser pointer at this rate. But, it's not the first time I've changed out a laser tube."

She rolls her eyes at herself and grumbles. "And well, it won't be the last.  But, this was the best use of a tube I've ever had."

Dretphi flips open the lid to a wooden, rectangular box and removes a fresh barrel in a cloth wrap. She unrolls the fabric, examines the replacement part, and smiles to Bach. "Ammunition for this gun is potent. Not gentle to barrels. They need to be changed. Periodically."

She glances down at the old barrel, quirks her brow, and twists the corner of her mouth. "Happened early on this barrel."

Shrugging her acceptance, she glances over to Bach and smiles. "A worthy sacrifice.  Thank you for your help."

Bach drums his fingers on the table top in thought and puzzles over the non-functional parts. "Well, back to drawing board on those enchantments. I'll try to figure out something a little less destructive on the equipment."

Cideeda nods in agreement while she locks replacement components into her laser pistols. Her emerald green eyes gaze prospectively to Bach and a sly smirk graces her face. "Definitely work on those enchantments... But... I actually have something I'd like to look into more with your help, if you can."

Lifting his head up from closely watching Cideeda and Dretphi's projects on the table, he glances inquisitively to Cideeda. "Um, sure. What would that be?"

Cideeda grins toothily as her long tail brushes purposely along the top edges of a box filled with old tools, raw materials, and crystal infused metal and stone mechanical parts.


----

Sotalia searches through the laundry hamper on her bed with one hand and keeps the aetherphone on her ear with the another. She picks up a shirt, inspects it briefly, and tosses it into a pile of others. Pausing a moment as her focus shifts to the person on the other side of the conversation, she smiles and sighs her relief. "The trip went okay. We got some really good information we're sorting through right now. Aristespha is going to call up her contacts at the Grand Library and see what they can provide."

She waits a moment, listens to the response, and squirms uncomfortably a bit. "Well, it got a... little... hectic and crazy. But nothing we couldn't handle, of course."

Sorting through the contents of the clothes basket, she flips out a few undergarments into respective spots upon the bed and puzzles a moment. "Huh? Oh, yes."

A gentle smile warms upon her face and she nods slowly as she stares inside herself a moment. "He really came through for everyone... and me."

After few seconds of silence, Sotalia's golden eyes flit wide and surprise reddens her face. "Mother! Really?! Gods, you know how I don't like to have conversations about THAT part of my life with you!"

Twinges of irritation distort Sotalia's demeanor and she grits her teeth as she rolls her shoulders. "That was different! It was just the two of us years ago. And, it was just a really nice fling that ended with us still being great friends today... Mother? Can we NOT have this conversation right now?"

She exhales apologetically and resumes a smile with calm tone. "I'm sorry. I love you. It just been quite the week. And gods, it's only Wednesday."

A laugh escapes her mouth and she rolls her eyes in amusement. "OH! You've got to send me pictures and videos of that. That reminds me, if you talk to Maelvia and Talelia before I do, let them know I'm about to send another care package for the little ones."

Sotalia grins and stands proudly with a chuckle. "Oh, you know Aunt Sotalia is not going to let them go without."

With a few nods, she shrugs nonchalantly and rolls her eyes with a smirk. "If father is in the shop, he can call me later. Otherwise, he'll be absolutely distracted the five to ten minutes he manages to stay on the call. There's no use expecting a meaningful conversation from him when he's got a project waiting for him in the shop."

She lifts up the laundry hamper, dumps out a few pairs of yoga pants on to bed, and dons a happy smile when she glances at the aetherphone upon her ear. "I love you, too. ... I'll take care, I promise. ... Bye."

The phone displays the end of call screen and flicks back to the main desktop. Sotalia slides the device into the side pocket of her shorts and surveys the assortment of clothing upon her bedspread. Her gaze mulls over a starting point. She side steps, and picks up her belt of pouches near the head of the bed. Flipping open each pouch after another, she inspects the contents and snaps the flap back shut. She halts as her eyes narrow to the dim illumination radiating out of a particular pouch. Pinching onto an object inside, she removes a small, blue tinted crystal with a faint glow. She ponders the artifact, searches her recent memory, and a spark of recognition lights up her face. Her attentions fall upon the small crystal as she places her belt of pouches back down. Glancing around her room and cautiously eyeing the doorway, she kneels down next to her bed and reaches a free hand underneath.

With a bit of effort, she slides out a finely crafted wooden box, gestures a quick incantation, and lifts the lid open as a faint wave of magical miasma dissipates from the exterior. Inside the normal container, trinkets, baubles, and knickknacks of questionable magic potency fill the interior. A golden disc, a jar of golden fragments, a translucent green plate, a coil of magical cable, a stabilized energy spoon, a practice wand, and a neatly folded mesh of blue and green magical fibers contrast the other contents of the chest. Sotalia opens a pouch on her belt, retrieves a cleaning clothing, and wraps the dimly glowing crystal inside. She places the bundle inside the box and admires the collection.

Her curiosity guides her attention towards the magical cable and she inspects the length in her hands. She loses herself in examining it closely, pulling it as hard as she can, and observing the fluctuations in the stabilized flows. Her mind ponders and contemplates the properties. As her investigations subside, her interest wanders over to the folded mesh.

She lifts and unfolds the blue and green weave of fibers into a rough garment that matches her figure very closely. After comparing the diameters of the pair of cut magical cables at the shoulders, she rotates the magical mesh, and holds it next to and over her body. A sensually amused smirk creeps from the corner of her mouth. Part of her mind abruptly reminds her of surroundings with a hard blink, and she quickly glances around her room with a hint of pink in her cheeks. Folding the magical mesh neatly back into the chest, she closes the lid, casts a quick spell, and slides the container back under the bed. With an awkward smile, she stands back up and resumes sorting her laundry.


----

Trakenthin's tall, muscular frame walks pass the border of the forest clearing and into the middle of a small circle of tents. He kneels down, unloads the bundle of firewood out of his arms, and starts arranging the small logs within a rough fire pit. Towards the edge of the site, Samantha stands next to Gerald and waves her hand across the area. "Okay, I want you to get a good shot of the camp setup and then see if you can get a few bits of what everyone else is doing."

Gerald resettles the camera on his shoulder and nods as she adjusts the lenses. "Sounds good to me. It's been pretty uneventful after that last bandit encounter."

Samantha examines the ongoing call information on her phone, shrugs her shoulders, and snorts mildly disappointed. "I know. Still, we could use some filler footage between the main segments. But, I really do hope good things are coming... Any good news, Howie?"

A voice sounds out from the aetherphone speaker and Howie ponders out loud with plotting cadence. "Yes... Actually. I have a few options for interesting missions for our adventurers to go on. I'll send over the quest descriptions. And, I'd like to get some input from the crews on those."

A sly smiles widens on Samantha mouth and a happy tinge lightens her tone. "Oh, I can't wait. I think the crews wouldn't mind a little bit of action. Or, at least something entertaining to film."

Gerald groans with a long roll of his eyes and shakes his head. "Well, let's not get too crazy here. I think there's some beauty to simple and boring. I'd also prefer anything I can record from a distance. I do have telephoto lenses for a reason."

Howard chuckles, dripping with dry amusement. "Oh, why Gerald! I've always thought your best work came from some of your most daring moments."

Gritting his teeth with an upper lip sneer, Gerald loudly grumbles and aims his camera towards Tassilda and Veevi. "Just because it DOES, doesn't mean it SHOULD."

A sigh of faux disappointment resonates from Samantha's aetherphone and Howard's relays his understanding. "Very true. That's why I want everyone to review the possible missions and figure out what you all are up for recording. Regardless, I think we can spin anything from those for an episode or two. I'm certain all of you will find those perfect moments for me."

Samantha's eyes flash with a sinister glint and a dark giggle slips from her. "Oh, you know us too well, Howie."

Howard hums to himself and the sounds of paperwork and keyboard clacks echo from the other side of the teleconference. "Oh, I do. One more thing before I go... I might have a surprise for Trakenthin. Well, once my inside sources confirm all the difficult little details. It's proven a bit hard due to certain complexities of houses."

Both Samantha and Gerald gaze at the aetherphone and exchange curious glances.

In an open area next to the camp site, Tassilda groans loudly while crossing her arms, and berates Veevi in a harsh lecture. "You CAN'T cast that spell yet! How do you expect to summon up destructive energies without knowing the basics of proper insulation and protective spell elements?!"

Veevi tosses back her pink hair defiantly, grips her hips to an obstinate pose, and petulantly pouts. "You keep making this whole magic thing hard! Practice this, practice that! And there's NOTHING that's related to the FUN spells!"

Tassilda narrows her eyes at Veevi, sneers her upper lip, and commands. "Once you can demonstrate a basic flow barrier, you will be taught a safe practice spell befitting of your ability. Until then, you practice what I've shown you!"

Veevi grits her teeth to reveal her pointy canines, holds hands out close together, and curls her sharp nailed fingers around a center point. "Once I demonstrate MY ability, huh?! Let me show you what I can do!"

Tassilda hoists a dismissive brow, and scrutinizes the faint thread thin flows of energy streaming down Veevi's arms and condensing in between her hands. Her eyes flit wide and she raises a finger at Veevi with an assertive, demanding tone. "STOP. RIGHT. NOW! You are going to hurt yourself trying to cast something like that!"

A rebellious grin spreads on Veevi's face and she strains to flow more into the red-orange centimeter wide sphere of energy in between her palms. When Tassilda steps forward and starts to reach her hands out, the miniature ball shakes and quivers. A brilliant flash of orange illuminates the area when a bubble of fire billows out from the space between Veevi's hands and dissipates quickly into the air. Tassilda stops in place and awaits Veevi's reaction with obvious concern. Trakenthin snaps his head up from building the camp fire and searches for the source of the sudden light. Chad stirs in his Flames of the Phoenix branded tent and mutters loudly. "The fuck was that?!"

Veevi remains still and only manages to blinks her pink eyes. She slowly lowers her stare at her hands and carefully rotates her palms into view. Studying the reddening skin, she becomes acutely aware of her fresh, painful experience. "... ... Ow ow owowow!!"

Vigorously animated, she cringes, squirms, whines, and tears up. Her puffed out tail flails in a clueless panic. Tassilda attempts to seize Veevi in place, but only manages to direct Veevi towards Chad as he emerges from his tent. Chad snaps a glance to the frantic Veevi and aims an accusatory glare at Tassilda. "What the hell happened?!"

Tassilda turns her nose up, firmly places her hands at her hips, and growls back. "You should ask HER what she did to HERSELF!"

Chad groans in frustration, pinches the bridge of his nose, and sighs out his irritation. "Gods dammit. Not now. First things first..."

He searches the immediate vicinity, quickly pulls his aetherphone out, and taps in a few commands as it keys up the radio. "Deedri?"

Veevi freezes mid panic and her posture stiffens. Deedri's voice crackles over the phone. "Yes! What happened? I think I heard Veevi crying?"

Chad rolls his eyes and nods. "Yes. That was her. Something happen when she was practicing magic. Could you come over, please? I think she burned her hands."

Deedri replies immediately. "I'm on my way! I'm not far!"

Worry infiltrates Veevi's expression and she dons a teeth gritting grin. "U-u-u-uh, I'll be okay. I just need to wrap them up for a little while. I'll be fine... Really!"

Puzzling at the sudden attitude change, Chad places a hand upon Veevi's shoulder and leads her towards to an unfolded camping chair. "Deedri will be the judge of that. Just sit for now, and calm down."

Deedri rushes out from forest brush and scans the area. Trakenthin catches her glance and immediately points out Veevi in the chair. In a single fluid motion, Deedri tosses off her apron filled with freshly picked herbs, snatches up the large first aid kit next to her tent, and dashes over to Chad, Tassilda, and Veevi. With calm, neutral demeanor, Deedri stares directly at Veevi and her eyes systematically analyze her condition. Her full attention locks onto Veevi's hands and her auburn eyes illuminate. "Mild first degree burns from a magical source. From between the hands, I guess. Okay."

Deedri kneels down in front of Veevi, opens up the first aid kit, and begins the treatment. Chad pats Veevi's shoulder and looks down to Deedri appreciatively. "Thank you, Deedri."

As Deedri grants nod and resumes her task, Chad motions Tassilda over and away, towards the black sports utility vehicle nearby. Midway through the walk, he glances over with an annoyed sigh. "Okay. What exactly happened?"

Veevi remains still, cooperative, and quiet while Deedri treats her. She averts her eyes away and suppresses her flinches. Deedri cleans the burns, applies an ointment, and casts a spell. For each of Veevi's hands, she places hers around and flows of magical energy radiate into the wounds. Veevi's discomfort from pain gradually subsides and she no longer winces with every motion of her fingers. Minutes later, Deedri finishes wrapping up Veevi's hands with a thin protective bandage. "You were lucky. The application should keep the swelling down, help heal any damaged tissue, and keep the pain dulled. I'll need to do another treatment to help facilitate healing, but that will be before you go to bed tonight."

Veevi respectfully nods and meekly replies. "Yes, I understand. Um, thank you. And... Uh..."

Deedri pauses a moment and inquisitively stares at Veevi. After a few failed attempts to start the sentence, Veevi quietly apologizes with authentic, sincere tone. "I just wanted to say... I'm really sorry for how I... treated you before."

Deedri's expression blanks and she blinks bewildered. She regains her composure and assembles enough of her thoughts to respond. "Well, I will accept your apology. But, I'd suggest you treat people with a bit more respect in the future."

Veevi's pink eyes look to her thoughts. Moments of introspection play blatantly out upon her face and eventually she nods with a genuine smile to Deedri. As Deedri stands back up, Veevi hops back up, bows respectfully to Deedri, and walks over to Chad and Tassilda. As she steps closer to the discussion between the two, she dons a smug smirk, presents her typical prideful demeanor, and assumes an assertive posture. She quickly slips next to Chad and sparks the debate into an argument.

Deedri stares in utter confusion and slowly scans around the area. She halts her gaze upon Modoran leaning against a tree close by. She cocks her head to the side, droops her furry ears, contorts her perplexed face at him. "Did you... see that?"

Modoran nods slowly, shrugs his shoulders with his hands out to the side, and grimaces uncertainly. "Yes. And, gods, I wish I knew what to make of it."

Deedri sighs, shakes her head, and kneels down to reassemble her kit. Modoran steps on over, squats down next to her, and attempts to assist. Trakenthin rolls his eyes away from the fresh squabble and focuses upon lighting a camp fire.


----

Dim evening light sneaks through the closed window blinds of a nicely decorated inn room. Finely crafted wooden details encompass the lodging with well made bed, table, chairs, and other furniture. Isaac sorts through a number of drying pictures on folded towels upon the bed. He examines one photograph of himself and closely inspects the prismatic aura with intermixed streaks of white threading through. He scans over another collection of images. Pausing to focus upon each photograph, he studies weathered golem parts in a courtyard, heavy manufacturing equipment in a large dark area, debris surrounding a ransacked building, the massive central platform structure over a deep pit, and colorful speckles of twilight covering a tall cavern ceiling. Faint, hazy hues of color cloud around objects in the pictures but barely stand out from the rest of the scenery.

Isaac lifts up his picture, holds it next to another row of photographs, and analyzes them attentively. Examining individual, distantly magnified pictures of Aristespha, Dretphi, and Sotalia, he pauses thoughtfully and focuses upon Cideeda's image. He moves Cideeda's photo above Sotalia's and closely studies the similar prismatic auras evident along with Aristespha and Dretphi. "Fascinating... That makes sense now... But, before she never..."

He glances to an image of Sebastian and his muted aura, and stares at the picture of Bach with a prismatic aura indiscernible from the others. Isaac tilts his head to the side, puzzles out dissatisfaction, and grumbles to himself. He taps upon a photograph of the dire wolf golem and traces his finger along the green aura with specks white. A series of electronic chirps chime out from a wristwatch on the table and he turns around to turn off the alarm. Upon the table top, a dark red, translucent field boxes in a series of trays, alchemical containers, magically enhanced photography equipment, and rolls of film. Isaac reaches his hand into the magical area, grasps a pair of tongs, and fishes out a blank piece of slick paper from the first tray of fluid. With great care, he lowers the sheet into a middle tub and settles the material into an alchemical bath. As he carefully watches the sheet soak in the solution, a knock sounds out from the door and a man's voice amicably calls from the other side. "Hope I'm not bothering you Mr. Huxley, but dinner is about ready. The wife cooked something special for all us tonight. She's bribing you for more of your stories."

Isaac startles momentarily, regains a happy demanor, and raises his delighted tone. "Oh, I will most certainly be down in a few more minutes, Goff. I just need to finish up with the last part of a research task."

From the door Goff chuckles. "Understand. The wife was curious if there's any photos you could show us. I told her I'd ask you, Mr. Huxley. But, I know academic research is serious business, so I understand if you can't."

Thinking a moment, Isaac surveys the photographs out on the bed, sets aside the images of scenery, and glances over to an unsealed, addressed envelope. He smiles kindly and directs his voice towards the door. "I mostly certainly have a number I can share. And, would love to take a few photographs while I'm here, too."

An appreciative laugh sounds out from Goff. "Not a problem. A little advertising wouldn't hurt, even if it's just academic. Thank you, Mr. Huxley."

Isaac rolls his eyes with an amused smirk and shakes his head. "You may call me Isaac, Goff. Do not let the white hair fool you, I'm not THAT old."

Goff's humored tone grows audibly distant as he responds. "Sound good, Isaac. Come on down when you are ready."

As Goff's footsteps disappear into the background din of the inn, Isaac smiles and chuckles quietly to himself. He turns his attention towards the middle tray and his gray eyes spring wide open. He squints through the dark red magical field and futilely searches out the details of the developing picture. His impatience manifests into eager fidgets. He grasps the tongs, hovers the tool in wait above the alchemical bath, and eyes the digits of the countdown running on the wristwatch. After muttering a tense count, he lifts up the image covered sheet, transfers it over to the final tray, and settles it into the mix. Quickly gesturing out an incantation, Isaac holds his hand over the solution and releases flows of energy into the bath. The paper briefly glows, the fluid bubbles faintly, and the picture stops changing.

Isaac resets the wristwatch and focuses his full attention to the new image of Bach flying upwards with an unconscious Sotalia in his arms. His eyes search through the discoloring haze of the dark red magical field and he grits his teeth in anxious anticipation. The minutes creep slowly by and Isaac tightly grips the table top in between impatient taps of his feet and glances to the counting down digits of the wristwatch. A chime rings out, the tongs gently lift up the picture, and Isaac quickly summons a flow of magic. With a quick motion, he swipes his energized hand over the paper, repels the solution back into the tray, and removes the excess liquid off the sheet. Without sparing another moment, Isaac retrieves his picture from the bed, removes the fresh photograph from the dark red containment field, and grins expectantly as he compares the two.

His expression blanks. His eyes widen. His jaw drops. He blinks in sheer bewilderment and tilts his head in astonishment. Putting both pictures into the grip of one hand, he traces a finger along Bach's aura. The image of Isaac showcases a prismatic aura with threads of white weaving into the flows. The photograph of Bach and Sotalia shows a typical prismatic aura around Sotalia. But, the picture also reveals the faint prismatic outer shell of Bach's aura and the bright pure white the inner aura radiating out from him. Isaac remains speechless and wanders over to a seat on a nearby chair. He squints as his mind attempts to piece together an understanding. Eventually, he recollects his composure, draws a deep breath in, and sighs out his expectations.

As he stares at the photo of Bach, he calms down and musters up a mood swirling with wonder, confusion, and eagerness. "How?"