-76-

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia stand around the humvee in the parking lot in front of a thematically old wooden building. They collectively observe the many questionable facets of the kitschy attempt at a classic inn. Beneath the thin outer facade, hints of modern design peek through and reveal the tourism intent. After a minute of silent analysis, Sotalia lifts a critical brow above her sunglasses, and glances over to Aristespha with a slight curl to her upper lip. “So, how much was this place a night?”

Aristespha quickly flips through a few screens on her aetherphone, presents the display towards Sotalia, and rolls her eyes under the shade of her floppy hat. “Economical enough.”

Sotalia lowers her sunglasses, reads the modest pricing on the device, and shrugs her shoulders as she returns her attention to the structure. “Okay. Fair enough. I’ll tolerate it for that price.”

Twisting his mouth, Bach releases an unenthusiastic sigh and musters up a smirk. “Yeah, I think Goff’s place has really broken the scale I judge by.”

Crossing her arms, Cideeda taps her clawed fingers on her arms and snorts in agreement. “Gods, yes. Was just thinking the same. Admittedly, it’s not THAT bad. Just geared for a different crowd. I know a few reenactment geeks that would love to stay the weekend in a place like this.”

Bach smiles slightly as he puts his hands in his pockets, perks a humored brow, and chuckles. “And get out the character sheets and start rolling the dice?”

Cideeda glances up, barely contains her grin, and rolls her emerald green eyes a with wag of her tail. “OH please. That’s not dedicated enough. They’d be wearing the outfits and speaking old dialects... Kind of fun, occasionally...”

Dretphi slowly pivots around, lifts her hand to shade her steely gray eyes, and scans the scenery along the river front. “It does have a nice location. Pleasant view.”

As the wind blows across the parking lot, ruffling clothing and hair, the team shift their attention to the forested opposite bank. They quietly watch the water flow warp the reflective surface of the river. Mixing with the scenic beauty of the ambient natural background sounds, the distant changes of the green horizon and blue sky mirror fluidly upon the open waters. Sotalia spots a sandy lot and park nearby, and cracks a reserved smile with a sway of her hips. “Hopefully, we’ll get this job handled soon enough. I wouldn’t mind a day sunbathing with a few drinks.”

Aristespha nods with a sly smirk, reveals her aetherphone display to Sotalia, and motions towards a direction. “Looks like there’s a few promising establishments along bank.”

The large wooden double doors open and a middle aged woman steps out with customer service smile. “Welcome to The Ark Inn! I see that you’ve already discovered the wonderful view our fine establishment offers, and that your room overlooks. My name is Katherine.”

Aristespha spins around, steps forwards towards Katherine, and greets her. “I’m Aristespha. I believe we talked on the phone.”

Katherine nods to confirm, perks up the grin on her tan face, and motions the group towards the entrance. “If you’d like, allow me to show you around and help get you settled in.”

The team quickly reaches an agreement, and start to retrieve their luggage from the humvee. With an assuring tone, Katherine presents an alternative solution. “Oh, if you want I can have your belongings brought up for you. Allow me spare you that trouble.”

Aristespha glances to Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia, gauges the receptive expressions, and nods to Katherine with an appreciative smile. “That would be nice.”

Katherine promptly pivots around, narrows her stare towards the open doors, and sternly motions towards two figures just within the doorway. A teenage girl lugs out a luggage cart, and a teenage boy pushes a heavier duty hand truck. Katherine resumes her customer service smile, nods towards both teenagers, and introduces them. “This is my daughter, Kristine, and my son, Brennon. They’re quite helpful around here, and will be happy to ferry your belongings to your room.”

Both lanky, awkward teenagers struggle to project serviceable smiles in stark contrast to their true feelings. Hints of adolescent contempt for their current existence slip through the facade. Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia unload their baggage onto both cart and truck. Afterwards, Cideeda locks up the humvee, and rejoins the group slowly migrating inside the establishment. Both Kristine and Brennon strain to move their carriers. After checking for mother and customers, Brennon whispers over to Kristine. “The fuck did these people bring? Rocks? Good fucking gods...”

Kristine glances around behind her as she drags her cart along, and returns her gaze back to Brennon. “I don’t know. That half-emin woman’s pouch belt is clanking around, and the fvalian dropped a case holding something heavy.”

Brennon nods with a hard shove over across a crack in the pavement, and quirks a curious brow towards his sister. “Did you see that sword around the evuukian’s waist? That actually looks real.”

Inside The Ark Inn, Katherine recites a well rehearsed explanation of the establishment, while motioning to the internal architecture. “The Ark Inn focuses on providing a focused experience for our guests. The adventuring party suite is our largest suite with plenty of beds, a large bathroom, and a dedicated conference area. It also has the best view of the river front and beautiful views of both sunrises and sunsets.”

The congregation follows Katherine to the base of a staircase where a middle aged man stands. Katherine smiles brightly and directs the group’s attention to the man. “This is my wonderful husband, Johnathan. He’ll be happy to show you up to your room and make sure it is to your approval. I must handle some business for now. Hope to see you tonight in the common room!”

Johnathan respectfully to the team, and starts up the stairs. “Follow me.”

After climbing the stair case, the gathering arrives to the middle door of a long hallway, and Johnathan opens the door. He leads Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia inside, and presents a modest room with quality beds and decent accommodations. “Please check over everything and let me know if there’s anything you need.”

From the apron around his waist, he retrieves a number of pamphlets and hands them to Aristespha with an encouraging tone. “Now, while we don’t do a full dinner service, we have worked out agreements with a few good places nearby. They all deliver here, and we’ll even take it up to your room for you. But, you are more than welcome to come down to the dining area, where the bar will be open tonight.”

Aristespha nods, and passes the various menus to the rest of the group to review. Seconds later, muffled sounds of quiet cursing peak out of the background. Kristine's mumbling voice drifts barely through the door. “That old elevator sounds worse everyday.”

Brennon’s grumbles faintly rise out from the hallway. “Gods... It wants to die. But, we just won’t let it.”

The sounds of luggage cart and hand trunk stop just outside the room, and Johnathan maintains a calm exterior while eyeing the teenagers in the hallway. Kristine walks into the room with a cloak on a hanger in one hand and a belt of pouches in the other. She feels out of the odd heft in each, and awaits instruction in front of Sotalia. “Um, where would you like these, ma’am?”

Sotalia directs the girl towards a bed. “Just on there for now. Thank you.”

Kristine lays the garment and accessory on the bed, pauses in thought a moment, and inquiries. “If you don’t mind me asking, is there anything special about these? They’re heavy.”

Within an intrigued smile, Sotalia pries open the snap on a pouch flap with her long, thick, black nails, and slides out stoppered tube of faintly glowing liquid. “Well, it is loaded with a variety of potions right now.”

Brennon arrives into the room carefully carrying Bach’s helmet with an uncertain expression on his face, and presents it to Bach cautiously with both hands. “Where would you like this, sir?”

Bach notices the odd twist to the teenage boy’s face, pauses in thought, and then chuckles apologetically. “Oh, yeah. Sorry, I didn’t warn you. That helmet has protective enchantment on it. Make it’s feel weird, if your aren’t expecting it.”

He hooks up his hand into the helmet, flicks a finger onto surface to trigger the faint, fading golden barrier, and shrugs his shoulders. Brennon and Kristine depart to the hallway, pick up more luggage, and exchange glances in an unspoken conversion of excitement out of sight of everyone else.


----

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia sit around a large dining table in the common area of the inn. The team picks through the different plates filled with food from a number of delivery containers off to the side. Johnathan arrives next to the table between Aristespha and Sotalia, and places fanciful alcoholic beverages next to them. “It’s been awhile, but I think I remembered all the steps for these. And, I had all the right ingredients, too.”

Both Aristespha and Sotalia eagerly sweep up their respective drinks into their hands and quickly sample them. After a few moments of deliberation, they give satisfied nods to Johnathan. Sotalia smirks sly, tosses back her fiery orange, wavy hair, and chuckles to herself. “Just perfect. Admittedly, if I have more than one more, I’m probably not going to tell the difference anymore.”

Aristespha smiles with a relaxing sigh. “Tastes just right. I’m surprised you had everything for this. Not many places in the area have enough evuukian liquors in one place to pull it off.”

Johnathan grins proudly, shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly, and laughs. “Well, despite current appearances, we get a lot of guests with broad tastes.”

Quickly depositing mugs of beer, large glasses of teas, and a few pitchers of water, Katherine relaxes her arms, rests her hands on her hips, and presents an entrepreneurial smile. “You happen to have arrived here during one of our off-seasons. So, you’re getting our special attention to all your needs. While we aim to provide the best experience for everyone, I have to admit it gets a bit hectic depending on the clients we have.”

Bach finishes a long swig of his milk tea, thinks a moment, and glances over to Katherine. “Have to ask, what types of clients do you normally get out here?”

Katherine searches through her mind, twists her mouth contemplatively, and begins to count out on her hands. “In the winter, we get the same families and groups that come to experience Ark’s holiday festivities. Spring, we typically get a number of people going to agricultural conferences and don’t want to pay outlandishly for the main hotels. We also get a few people doing long weekend breaks scattered throughout. But...”

An excited grin grows on her face, and she steps next to Johnathan. “Soon all the adventuring and reenactment fans will arrive!”

Johnathan lifts an amused, reserved brow to Katherine, places his arm around her, and smiles to the team. “Those are the guests we like to cater to during the summer and into the fall. They like the area, and the town enjoys their business.”

Katherine tosses back her light brown hair, smiles boldly, and gazes out to the team. “It’s also the time we all get to dress up for a good reason. I can’t wait to put on my dashing rouge outfit.”

Cideeda’s furry ears perk up, and she aims a curious emerald eyed glance towards the inn owners. “Is there some smaller adventuring convention happening around here soon? I haven’t heard of anything lately.”

Rocking his head side to side indecisively, Johnathan narrows down the right description and relays it carefully. “Somewhat? We have a few different groups that like to spend the week... And lose themselves in the pockets of wilderness around Ark.”

Katherine narrows her stare at Johnathan with hints of accusation, resumes an eager expression to the group, and continues her excited explanation. “Not everyone is like that! But, the best ones are the summer camps for the children. We host their events and give them a memorable Ark Inn experience! In fact, even Brennon and Kristine play characters and have wonderful costumes.”

At a nearby table, both Brennon and Kristine halt mid bite of their meals, shift their embarrassed gazes over towards their mother, and cringe visibly with teenage revulsion. With hints of young defiance, Brennon mumbles loudly and rolls his eyes. “The only reason they come here is because NOTHING ever happens here. It’s SO SAFE and PEACEFUL.”

Kristine twists her mouth uncomfortably, and glances over to the team’s table. “Well, usually... There have been a bunch of weird noises and clouds of steam appearing lately.”

Aristespha pauses a moment as she rests her hand on the sword at her side, ponders out a silent conversation, and lifts an intrigued brow towards the family overall. “Speaking of that... Do know of anything related to those incidents? We have been assigned to investigate those phenomena.”

Johnathan and Katherine exchange glances. Johnathan meets the new attention from the Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia, and sorts through recent memory. “Unfortunately, not as much as I would like to. But, my son is right. Things are normally very quiet around here, so I think the first incident happened over a week ago? Maybe two?”

Katherine meets her husband’s gaze, and relays bit of information to the team. “Yes. It was really worrisome last week. We had strange noises, steam eruptions, and other weird things. But, oddly, it’s gotten quiet again.”

She grits her teeth briefly, gazes to the group with a mix of pleading and hopeful thinking, and sighs. “It’s good to know you all are investigating. I just hope you find it was nothing worth worrying about.”

Dretphi presents a comforting smile, and nods appreciatively. “We hope the same. Can not expect that. Hope it is.”

Brennon frowns slightly with an irritated tint to his voice. “I keep telling you all that it had to have been that strange evuukian man I saw in Cumber Woods.”

Kristine rolls her eyes, shakes her head of light brown hair, and groans dismissively. “Not this again. You saw him over a week before any of this started happening. And, there’s no way one guy could still be causing all this. It’d take some real magic to do all this.”

Narrowing his glare at his sister, Brennon curls his upper lip, and argues loudly with her. “Okay! Well, you explain why some evuukian weirdo was wandering around the woods dressed up in leaves, leather, and odd drawings on his clothes?”

Standing her figurative ground, Kristine leans over the table slightly and growls out. “Says the guy wandering around the woods with his loser friends at the same time! Maybe he was some reenactment dork doing some solo thing.”

Brennon angles over the table, stares down his sibling, and retorts. “That BOW over his shoulder was NOT some cheap knock off! It looked real and the arrows were nothing like I’ve seen before. You can’t buy stuff like THAT. He looked really suspicious, too. Like he was up to something, or looking for something-”

Right before the teenagers engage further into their clash of attitudes, Bach exchanges glances with developing intrigue of the team. He focuses his gaze at Brennon, and calls out to the teenager. “You know that actually sounds REALLY strange to us. And, oddly familiar...”

Both Brennon and Kristine halt mid breath, pivot their heads to Bach, the interested team, and their parents. Katherine crosses her arms, and narrows a parental stare upon her children. Johnathan lifts an inquisitive brow, glances over to the team, and motions over his son. “Brennon, tell the nice people what you saw.”


----

Through the few of windows in the large, long inn room wall, the dim glow of late evening light radiates into the area. Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Aristespha, and Sotalia slumber in the line of beds, and the sounds of sleep mix with the low drone of the lone air conditioning unit. A muted and barely audible high-pitched whistle echoes from the distance outside, and resonates against the glass of the windows. One of Cideeda’s furry ears flicks reflexively and she rolls over. Less than a minute later, a metallic straining groan roars out across the river and vibrates the inn. Cideeda groggily mumbles incoherently, lifts her head up off the pillow, and lazily aims her ears towards the rattling glass. Bach stirs in his bed, as flits of consciousness prod him further out of slumber. While Aristespha softly snores undisturbed, Sotalia snorts and unconsciously pulls a pillow to cover the side of her head. Dretphi fidgets briefly as the resonating, echoing noise outside halts.

Moments of silence contrast the sudden low, eruption that thunders powerfully into the area and rolls harshly over the inn. Cideeda springs wide away and abruptly sits up in bed. With wide emerald eyes, her tail puffs out behind her. “What the fuck was THAT?!”

Bach crashes hard into consciousness, pulls himself up in a daze, and searches around the dark room. “Wha- Fuc- The hell is going on?”

As Dretphi stirs awake, Aristespha and Sotalia fumble to understand the situation. Cideeda throws the covers off, rushes over to the closest window, and throws it open. She leans out of the opening, closes her eyes, and searches the outside air with her ears. Surrounding buildings light up with activity, and specs illumination flicker on along the river front. A constant reverberating hiss escapes the natural baffles of the forest and drones over the background water of the river. Bach finally arrives at the same window and stands curiously peering out. “Any idea what THAT noise is?”

Cideeda moves her head side to side, allows each furry ear an attempt to home in on the source, and twists her mouth uncertainly. “I don’t know... It sounds like gas escaping? But huge? Steam? It’s really hard to pick out the details.”

Sebastian’s ethereal form materializes over Bach and Cideeda, and he searches out along the distant opposing river bank. “Yeah, that doesn’t seem like something that should be happening around here.”

Aristespha, Dretphi, and Sotalia join the gathering, open up windows, and scan the dark horizon. Minutes of hunting for information with magical and mechanical optics later, the ambient hiss fades below the recovering sounds of nature and emerging town activity. Dretphi lowers a pair of binoculars, rests them back into her nearby bag, and sighs uneasily. “I do not think we can gather information tonight. Contact authorities tomorrow. Start looking for answers.”

Aristespha blinks her glowing violet eyes back to normal, gazes over to the rest of the team, and frowns slightly. “I can’t see any traces of magic. But, being this far away from the source, that doesn’t indicate anything definite.”

Sotalia dismisses a visual spell between her hands, crosses her arms, and pulls at the corner of her mouth unsatisfied. “I certainly don’t feel any thing magical about this. That doesn’t make me happy. Something that loud and powerful, I should feel.”

Sebastian grits his teeth, ethereally hisses out his reservations, and slowly shakes his head. “Well... Let’s all just try to get some more sleep for now. We can’t solve it right now, and we’ll be useless if we are sleep deprived.”

Cideeda slowly slides down the window firmly, rubs her eyes, and pivots back towards her bed. “Yeah... Gods dammit, I was really enjoying that dream, too.”

After closing her window, Sotalia massages the side of her temples, winces briefly, and steps over to the bathroom door. “Ooo... I think I need a glass of water.”

Aristespha pauses, closes her eyes hard, and flutters them back open towards Sotalia. “Pour me a glass, too.”

Sebastian drifts over next to Aristespha, narrows an accusatory stare at her, and chides her over expressions. Rolling her eyes away, Aristespha grumbles back at Sebastian, and playfully waves him off. “Oh please, Sebastian. You of all people...”

The team settles back into an uneasy slumber. As the locals of Ark calm back down and the lights flip off in homes around the area, a faint haze graces the tree tops in the horizon. Expanding slowly out, a misty fog filters through the trees and fields, and gradually spills out along the flowing river surface. The cloud fades as it wafts over the water, and disappears.


----

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia maneuver through the clear corridors in a dense field of three meter tall protellow plants. Aristespha shields the late morning sun from her tablet screen, studies the map, and glances back towards access road at the mouth of the passage. “We should be coming up to the area the local police believe last night’s disturbance happened.”

Sebastian drifts up above the tops of the surrounding protellow plants, searches out into the distance, and directs his voice down. “Yeah, looks like there’s dip in the plants just ahead in the next row.”

Eyeing around the area, Sotalia hums in thought, and twists her mouth uncertainly. “Still not feeling anything magical. This just doesn’t seem like the work of most spells that would be that loud.”

Slipping in through the gaps between the thick plants stems and huge, broad leaves, Bach navigates to the next row, surveys the run, and direct his voice back. “Yeah. There should be some left overs or even faint flow residue.”

He blinks his eyes hard, reopens them to a bright blue glow, and scans the vicinity carefully. “And, I’m not seeing anything.”

Cideeda deftly flexes her agile frame through the closely packed protellows, hops out into the row with Bach, and cautiously walks ahead. “If it was magic, that would be an easy explanation. But, whatever THAT was last night, sounded and felt like an explosion. I’d expect a HUGE crater for something like that.”

Sebastian zips back overhead of the team, points towards a section of the field, and instructs the group. “Up ahead! Something weird definitely happened.”

Aristespha, Dretphi, and Sotalia find passage through the crop into the clear dirt corridor with Bach and Cideeda. The team slowly approaches their destination with Sebastian in lead. Stopping suddenly, Cideeda’s face contorts and her nose twitches. She draws in cautious sniffs of the air, twists her mouth, and grumbles apprehensively. “Okay, that’s a weird smell. I think I should know it... But, what is it?”

Widening her eyes, Aristespha motions the team to halt, steps ahead, and gestures out an incantation for a complicated spell. With a violet glow in her eyes, she holds her arms out, aims her palms ahead, and releases a faint pulse of magical flow ahead. Pondering inside her mind, she relaxes her posture, and eases out a sigh of relief. “Oh, good. No obvious toxins or hazardous compounds.”

Sebastian smiles appreciatively to Aristespha, and nods. “Good call, dear.”

The team arrives at the sparser spot in field of protellows. They fan out into the area, and individually search for information. Bach stands next to a curved stalk, and examines the deformed, wilted leaves barely hanging on. “The hell happened to these protellows?”

He cocks his head to the side puzzled, and calls out to the rest of the group. “What would make these things sag so much, but still be green? They’re not withered or dried out...”

Dretphi grasps of another floppy protellow leaf from a nearby plant, feels out the shape and integrity, and tests its strength. As the flora easily pulls apart, she works the material into a green mush in her gauntlet, widens her steely gray eyes in sudden recognition, and gazes to Bach. “Steamed. They were steamed.”

Sotalia blinks her golden eyes at the response, studies the area around her, and lifts an intrigued brow in surprise. “That would be A LOT of sustained steam to do this thorough of a job. Or, a really powerful blast.”

She narrows her stare to the surrounding fairly health protellows, crosses her arms, and frowns slightly. “That much heat and water, I would have thought it would affect the other ones nearby more.”

Nodding in agreement, Aristespha gazes above at the drooping plants, the slack leaves, and the sagging flowers. She slowly shakes her head contemplatively, bites hers lower lip in thought, and tries to step forward. Recovering her briefly lost of balance, she snaps her glance down at her leather boots partially sunk into the ground, tilts her head to the side confused, and flits her eyes wide at a discovery. “The soil is absolutely soaked here.”

The team shifts their attentions upon the dirt, and search for clues. Cideeda kneels down, sniffs carefully, and widens her emerald green eyes at a revelation. “That smell is coming from the ground.”

She continues searching along the ground, sifting through the air with her nose, and follows an odor. “It’s got a stale metallic scent to it. Humid, of course. Iron? Copper? Both? A lot of clay and earth in it, too.”

Sebastian stares down overhead, squints towards the center, and directs attention to a spot. “Hey, there’s a hole right there!”

Quickly responding, the rest of the team gathers close to the nearly ten centimeter wide hole of strangely smooth and discolored mud. Cideeda leans briefly close to the port, draws in air through her nose, and backs away nodding. “Gods, that’s strong. It’s definitely got an iron and copper tinge to it and still hot and humid.”

Dretphi pulls out a flashlight, aims the directional spot down the hole, and carefully gazes into the darkness through her full face helm. “Deep. Strangely deep.”

She kneels down next to the opening, puts her light away, searches her utility pouch, and retrieves her range finder. Cautiously, she positions the device above the hole, presses a button, and studies the display of numbers. Finely aiming the range finder, she ponders the readings to emerging surprise, and glances at the team. “At least fifteen meters deep.”

The group exchange bewildered expressions as they individually process the new information. Sebastian furrows his brow, searches his mind, and lifts a curious brow towards Bach. “Never heard of them tilling soil that deep.”

Bach nods uneasily, and gazes at the hole. “Yeah. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Dretphi puts away the range tool, stands back up, and contemplates the situation. “This is related to last night. The bore is smooth. Recently made. Has not filled with ground water. Still warm. Steam.”

Bach blinks his glowing blue eyes back to the normal, shakes his head, and shrugs his shoulder. “Nothing magical going on. So... What the hell is causing this?”

Twisting her frown, Aristespha deliberates in her mind, and grumbles out a bit of frustration. “I know a few spells for archaeological purposes, but at that depth the most I could detect is cavities underground... Which is a bit redundant.”

An idea hops to the front of Cideeda’s mind, and she eagerly searches the various pockets in her vest. She dons a toothy grin, gazes up to Bach, and opens her hand to reveal a small portable camera. “Want to do that remote controlled camera setup again?”

Bach notices the device in Cideeda’s palm, and he nods quickly with a smile. “Worth trying at least.”

Minutes later, Dretphi stands over the gathering and shields out the bright near noon sun off of Cideeda sitting on the ground. Cideeda checks the connections of the receiver unit to her aetherphone, taps out some adjustments to the video feed on her screen. “Looks good here. Ready when you are.”

Bach places the magical machinery encasing the camera to a hover upon the ground in front of him. Concentrating with a blue glow in his eyes, he gently moves his fingers and adjusts a series of magical threads wrapping into a flowing thread to the energy construct. “Let’s see what we got.”

Aristespha, Sebastian, and Sotalia find spots around and above Cideeda and Bach’s shoulders to spy on the progress. The hovering camera drifts up to the mouth of the hole, edges to the lip, and floats down inside. Team watches the video feed of a smooth downwards tunnel with a faint glow of magical flow illuminating the mud walls. Seconds of tension pass as the stream shows a gradually widening passage of converging branches delving deeper into the earth. Bach maintains his focus as magical energy flows out from his hands to the lengthening cord pulsing down into the small tunnel. Cideeda’s emerald green eyes remain fixed upon the imagery on her phone, and the strange geology beneath. A minute later, her eyes flit wide, and she instinctively leans to view the display closer in surprise. “Is that a-?! Bach, can you make it shine a light ahead? The glow is too dim to see clearly enough.”

Bach thinks, smiles to Cideeda, and nods. “Yeah, give me a moment.”

The screen on Cideeda’s phone washes out briefly, and gradually the camera’s systems readjust. When the scene refocuses, Cideeda’s jaw drops open and she blurts out. “Good gods! That’s massive steel... and copper pipe... What is that even doing here? And, why the hell is blown completely open?!”


----

Standing around the large table in a side room, Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia focus upon an assembled collection of prints out forming a large map of the area. Confirming with Dretphi, Cideeda marks a spot across the river in a designed farming plot, and carefully draws out an arrow in both directions with a protractor. “Okay. So, that pipeline seems to run these directions. Now... The fuck does that actually mean for us?”

Dretphi furrows her brow, tosses back her platinum blonde braids, and sighs. “Locations are spread out. Erratic.”

Sotalia uncrosses her arms, leans over to squint studiously at the map, and idly raps her long, black nails on the table top. “There’s got to be something going on. All the places have roughly the same signs of steam erupting from the ground. No magic involved. But, now it might be some kind of pipe network? I guess?”

Humming with an ethereal reverb, Sebastian’s ghostly visage narrows his stare upon the spread out points of data, and he ponders out loud. “I mean, that would make sense, but that’s just an assumption. A good one given what we’ve found out. But, still... It’d take some effort to really confirm it, and we still need to get some more data.”

Cideeda twists her mouth, straightens her posture, and runs her finger claw tips through her short, multi-colored hair with a sigh. “If we could find another pipeline, that would definitely confirm suspicions. Maybe we’d figure out an intersection between the directions of the runs. But...”

She rolls her eyes, droops her furry ears, and grumbles loudly. “That’s assuming that a supposed pipeline doesn’t suddenly change directions. We’d honestly need at least three or more vectors around town to get a decent fix... IF there are all running to some central place.”

Working through a mix of commiseration and frustration, Bach slowly shakes his head and grits his teeth briefly. “Gods dammit, it just seems like tons of ways to possibly waste time.”

Sebastian groans out, slowly nods, and contorts the contemplation on his face. “I know, bro. The reports we got from Captain Hackle, that he got from the local police, never mentioned underground pipes. Or, centimeters wide, deep holes. This could be an unrelated fluke, and some side thing triggered.”

Cideeda’s tail wags sharply, and she sneers her upper lip and sighs. “Even if we rented a backhoe and spent days digging, I doubt the town would appreciate fifteen meter deep holes everywhere.”

A frown grows on Dretphi, and she gradually slumps her shoulders as an unfortunate realization forms in her mind. “If they are correct places to dig.”

The groups attention shifts to Dretphi, and she grits her teeth and sighs. “Geology could lead steam away from the source. We dig down. May not find the source. Waste days trying.”

Aristespha sadly nods, places her tablet down on the table, and rests her hands on her hips. “Very true. Even with a focused version of the archaeological ground detection spells I know, if the disruptions aren’t significant enough... It won’t stick out enough. The spells are designed for sharp contrasts in materials.”

Defeat slowly fills the air in the room, and the team idly stares at the pieced together map on the tabletop. Unsatisfied expressions seep individually onto everyone as the pressure from the looming frustration weighs down. Blowing the white streak in his hair out of his face, Bach stands back up straight, scratches the side of his head with a sneer, and sharply shrugs his shoulders. “You know, for the hell of it, put down that spot that Brennon says he saw that evuukian guy.”

Aristespha perks her brow as intrigue overtakes her face, thinks a moment, and nods with hopeful curiosity. “Yes. Let’s do that. I have my suspicions that whoever may be a Terra Priest, and may be involved... Somehow...”

Cideeda searches the map briefly, finds a spot within an area designated as Cumber Wood, and neatly circles a rough area on a marked access road. The team analyzes the relations between the old points and the newest addition. With each second, interest grows within everyone and attentions focus more upon sparks of intuition. Flicking her furry ears in thought, Cideeda reaches out for a ruler and pencil, aligns the straight edge along the new and an old data point, and gauges reactions. With growing encouragement and interest from the rest of the group, she draws lines between the Cumber Wood location and all the other disturbance sites. After a few minutes, she finishes the last line, steps back from the drawing, and widens her emerald green eyes as the pattern becomes clear. “Okay, we might assuming A LOT here... But, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something to this.”

Sotalia twists her mouth, crosses her arms, and sorts through her doubts out loud. “I want to believe this, but the distances are all different.”

Floating above, Sebastian stares straight down at the map, and smirks. “Yeah. That’s true. But, the angles between the lines are REALLY even.”

Dretphi reaches out, slides over the protractor, and begins nodding as she measures the angles. “Indeed. Minor variation. Correctable. Still would be near this central point.”

Aristespha quickly picks up her tablet, holds it above the drawings on map, and taps a few onscreen buttons to capture the image. She cracks an eager smile, and begins tapping through a few application functions. “I’ll see about charting a few of those possibilities. And, I do suggest we talk to Brennon again for a bit more information about that area.”


----

Late morning sun slips through the overhead canopy of leafy trees, and lights up scattered spots of tall grasses. A gentle wind sways old branches and fills the air with a soft background drone into the serene soundscape. Wooden snaps and dry, light crackles grow rhythmically louder. Dretphi’s camouflage pattern covered, armored arm pushes through the full branches of a tall shrub, and opens a route into a thinning of the undergrowth. Cideeda quietly slinks out, steps softly into the area, and carefully pivots her head around. After a quick visual scan, she closes her eyes, and focuses her attention. Perking her furry ears, she searches the subtle sounds surrounding. She reopens her emerald green eyes, glances back to Dretphi and the rest of the team in hiding, and shrugs her shoulders. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Sebastian’s ghostly visage flies into the vicinity, hovers high above, and surveys nearby. “Dammit. I was hoping there would be something obvious. Guess we’ll have to search the hard way for some of interest.”

Bach snorts as he shakes his head, steps out into the space between a number of tall trees, and glances up to Sebastian. “I don’t know, that mock up of a fort was pretty cool.”

Rolling his eyes amused, Sebastian drifts down next to Bach, and smirks. “Yeah. Trying to figure out if that was for combat sims or cheap roleplaying events.”

Cideeda perks a humored brow, and cracks a greedy smile. “Which ever group is paying the rental fees that day.”

Sotalia arrives from behind the perimeter of underbrush. Aristespha follows behind, studying her tablet. Glancing over to the discussion, Sotalia smiles at the concept, and chuckles to herself. “Gods, that all sounds so goofy, but I can’t help but to think it might be pretty fun.”

Bach lifts a curious brow at Sotalia, and tilts his head to the side. “The combat sims, or roleplaying?”

With a sly grin to Bach, Sotalia winks with an amused tone. “Maybe both. Depends on the mood.”

Blinking off his confusion, Bach gradually, awkwardly shifts his attention to the surrounding area, and ponders out loud. “So... this is the spot that Brennon mentioned?”

Aristespha lowers her tablet down, presents the display between the group, and confirms. “From his directions and description. We are also near the intersection between all the different points. So...”

She twists her mouth, sighs, and gazes to the rest of the team. “Hopefully, this will help our odds in finding something further to go on. Otherwise, I don’t know what more to do.”

Sebastian nods slowly, hovers up into the air, and directs the group outwards. “Well, let’s spread out a bit and start looking.”

Fanning out into the region, Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia start their individual investigations. The morning sun rises close to high noon, the clouds drift over head to cast a fluffy shade over the region, and the team continues their hunt for clues. As time passes, an emerging mix of frustration and disappoint materializes upon the team, and fruitless searches grow gradually more aimless.

Sebastian lands back onto the ground, and calls out to the team while motioning them to gather. “Okay everybody, anyone got anything to report?”

The group convenes in rough circle and sort through their unamused expressions. Dretphi crosses her arms, glances around the area, and sighs. “Nothing out of place. Forest seems typical for region. No tracks. No signs of campsites. Nothing unusual.”

Cideeda taps her foot onto the forest floor, shifts her weight around, and shrugs her shoulders. “Same for me. I’m not smelling anything weird. It looks fine. Sounds like it should. Certainly haven’t found anything man-made. Gods, not even an old fucking beer bottle even.”

Sotalia slowly shakes her head, tosses back a stray fiery orange, wavy lock over her swept back horn, and contorts the rising dissatisfaction on her face. “I’m STILL feeling NOTHING magical. Well, apart from the normal, barely perceivable background flows. So... No help from me... Unfortunately.”

With a similar expression, Aristespha sorts through some menus on her tablet, glances over to the team, and frowns. “My impressions exactly.”

She gazes hopefully to Bach, and inquires. “Have you found anything?”

Bach shrugs his shoulders, grits his teeth briefly, and exhales with a hint of a groan. “No. Dammit. I’ve been trying, but nothing obvious is showing up. If it wasn’t for Brennon saying he saw someone here and the description of the guy he gave... I probably would have just kept walking along and never paid any attention to this place.”

With a disappointed curl to his frown, Sebastian arrives to a reluctant acceptance, rubs the back of his head, and ethereally sighs out tinges of defeat. “Yeah, bro. I’m the same as you there. Looking overhead, this place doesn’t stick out at all. If it wasn’t for all of you wandering around here, I probably would have drifted off course and dropped in somewhere else without knowing I did.”

He works through a grimace on his face, hums ethereally, and musters up his determination. “Well, this is the best spot we got to check out at the moment. Any ideas?”

Aristespha straightens his posture in thought, pans her gaze around the area, and uncomfortably cringes. “I have the few spells that could help. Unfortunately, to get any useful information, I have to narrow the focus. Which means, it’ll take some time to methodically survey the area.”

Cideeda tugs at the corner of her mouth, nods reluctantly, and perks her furry ears. “Worth a shot, in my opinion. We can section off the area, and maybe get lucky finding the right-”

A muffled series of solid impacts faintly shakes ground below. A strange undercurrent of noises resonate from ambiguous source, and the powerful vibrations rattle up the nearby trees to a shuddering chorus among the leaves. Cideeda’s emerald green eyes widen as she slowly pivots herself to face the direction her ears home in on. She narrows her stare to a location, points a claw tipped finger in an area, and struggles for the correct term. “I heard an... Echo? Reverb? Something hollow?”

Stepping next to Cideeda, Aristespha gestures out an incantation, determines the spot indicated by Cideeda, and releases her spell in a faint wave towards that direction. After a moment, she blinks with surprise, and calls out to the team. “There’s a LARGE cavity in the ground there... Contained inside a solid structure.”

Dretphi carefully approaches, studies the dirt and debris of the forest floor, and glances over to Sotalia. “Could you clear off the loose material?”

Sotalia grins eagerly, steps up while readying a spell, and positions herself with her arms aimed down. “Why, of course!”

Releasing a projected vortex of wind down upon the ground, she blasts clear centimeters of dirt, leaves, twigs, and other fodder in a methodical sweep. Seconds later, the torrent of air uncovers a slight, straight indentation in hard dirt beneath patches of loose grassy soil. Focusing the stream, Sotalia clears out the long straight section, and reveals a deep crack in the earth leading to a straight mechanical join between to concrete surfaces. Sebastian swiftly flies over the spot, nods to the team, and phases down. Seconds later, he emerges with a hopeful grin on his face, and points down. “It’s thick cover to a ramp that leads down into... something BIG!”

The team collaborates on the task. Dretphi and Sotalia finish clearing the outline of the huge earth layered hatch, while Aristespha documents and searches for information. Sebastian repeatedly dips down through deep ground, and relays up to date information to Cideeda and Bach. Pondering through the problem in her mind, Cideeda coaches Bach as he weaves threads of magical flow down through the crevice leading into the gap of the massive door. With a final draw of a thoughtful breath, Cideeda nods and smiles to Bach. “Okay. If it’s still working and we’ve tapped into the right wiring, we should be able to trigger the opening sequence. Hit it!”

Focusing upon a remote task, Bach narrows his glowing blue eyes, grimaces, and winces hopefully. “Okay... Now!”

A mechanical groan sounds out as old machinery hums to life. An over three meter wide, five meter long hatch gradually angles upwards. Old hydraulic pumps pressurize powerful rams to lift the thick concrete slab beneath multiple layers of crumbling earth and rock. The team cautiously backs away from the rising entrance, and stare apprehensively down a long, sunken ramp into a dark corridor with flickers of faint light at the distant end.