-78-

High, sparse clouds slowly drift along the gentle air currents above, as the noon sun beams down upon the landscape of Ark. A low, fast paced rumble reverberates out into the idle town’s soundscape, and a large carryall zooms on by with thrusters and hover pads glowing brightly. Faint trails of ionized air disperse quickly as the massive airborne transport lines up towards its destination within the river peninsula. As large metallic, mechanical clanks sound out, the large vehicle’s wings tuck in for a narrower profile, and jets rotate downwards during the slow vertical descent below the treeline. The reflective markings of Greater Azure Alliance logos flicker briefly in the sun before the carryall drops out of view with landing gear extending out.

The teenage boy, Brennon, squints across the river towards the woods, halts sweeping the front steps to the thematic inn, and points enthusiastically. “There’s another one! That’s another GAA carryall. That HAS to be the seventh one that’s landed there!”

Kristine rolls her eyes at Brennon and scoffs in an argumentative tone towards her brother. “Sixth one. You really need to learn how to count.”

Sneering his upper lip, Brennon shoves a large pile of dust and dirt towards the sidewalk near his sister with the push broom in his hands. “Whatever. Still, what the hell is going on?! I mean, like, nothing happens out here. Now, the GAA is sending everything they’ve got over THERE.”

Defiantly brushing back the debris off her side of the cleaning chore with a bristle broom, Kristine awkwardly grimaces with hints of nervousness slipping through, and proposes an unconvincing explanation. “Maybe it's an exercise or drill? I mean, it’s not like they don’t use this area all the time for random stuff. Maybe it’s just a really big training thing?”

Brennon pauses a moment to think, and slowly shakes his head. “Nah... If it was one or two carryalls... Maybe? But-”

A huge shadow projects down from above and shades out the vicinity. A rattling rumble vibrates the area, and both teenagers gawk up in utter surprise. Nearly a hundred meters long, the air carrier gradually descends towards the river, rotates itself along its flight path to align with the center of the river, and slowly dips its adjusting keel into water. The massive volume displaces water in a large wake, and launches out large crashing waves against the river front. Upon the flat top of the vessel, military personnel scramble to various land vehicles and control stations for large extending ramps. A torrent of churning bubbles blasts out from behind the floating air carrier, and it gains velocity around the river bend as it sails out of view.

Brennon and Kristine remain speechless as they stare blankly at the vessel going down the river. In their shock, they fail to notice the humvee pull into one of the parking spaces in front of the inn. As the powerplant spins down, the driver’s side door opens up, and Cideeda slides out with a mix of fatigue and eagerness blatant as she pulls against her body suit. “Okay, just lock the doors for now. We’ll deal with it later, because I need a shower NOW.”

The rest of the doors open up. Bach groggily eases himself out of his seat, puts his unsteady boots onto the pavement, and yawns while rubbing the temple of his head. Sotalia hops out, steps next to Bach, and slips a supportive arm under his shoulder. “Going to make it up the stairs?”

Bach blinks a few times, fights off the drowsiness, and nods with an appreciative smile. “Yeah. I think so. Just REALLY tired.”

Aristespha directs her voice through the cab from the other side of vehicle, and hoists up a medical kit under her arm. “That is not surprising. Just take it easy for the rest of the day. You should feel a bit better with a big lunch and a few stamina potions mixed in.”

Dretphi steps out of the humvee behind Bach, pats his back gently, and gestures forward. “Let us get you upstairs.”

Bach rubs his blue eyes, fights backs another yawn with a twisting grimace, and smirks with a little embarrassment. “Yeah... Definitely wouldn’t mind just laying around and watching random aethersite videos on the phone until I pass out.”

Dretphi closes the doors on her side of the humvee, and protectively walks behind Bach and Sotalia. Aristespha closes up on her side after hitting the lock button on the driver’s console. She walks up towards the front entrance of the inn, notices Brennon and Kristine still captivated by the military activity in the distance. After studying the huge vessel slipping out of view, she smirks over towards Brennon and lifts her brow. “By the way, Brennon. You were right on about your suspicions.”

Brennon awkwardly blinks to attention, glances over to Aristespha, and puzzles. “Huh, what?”

Aristespha maintains a professional demeanor, and nods to the goofy teenager. “The evuukian man you saw in the woods. It turns out his his presence there was not a good thing. He was very likely a Terra Priest and extremely dangerous. Thankfully, whatever he was planning did not come to fruition.”

Narrowing a stern stare upon Brennon, she instructs with hints of concern in her tone. “Now, I will NOT recommend you being too adventurous at your age. But, I WILL recommend that if you come across anything that suspicious in the future, don’t be afraid to let the police and guild know. It could make a bigger difference than you’ll ever know.”

Trying maintain his stumbling composure, Brennon summons up a bit proper procedure and straighten his posture. “Oh- Um- Yes, ma’am! Thank you. I’ll do that in the future.”

Aristespha smiles respectfully, turns away towards the entrance, and rolls her violet eyes mildly amused. Brennon enjoys the moment accomplishment in brief silence, turns around to his sister, and grins pridefully. “SEE! I FUCKING TOLD YOU!”

Kristine groans in disgust, shakes her head, and aggressively flicks a pile of dirt over onto Brennon’s side of the front walkway. “GODS. WHATEVER.”

As Bach, Sotalia, and Dretphi walk through the lobby of the inn, Sotalia glances over to Johnathan cleaning up a number of glass at the nearby bar, and waves for his attention. “Hey, Johnathan?”

Johnathan pivots towards Sotalia’s voice, nods briefly, and smiles with a concerned twist. “Oh, yes, how can I help you all today? Looks like you all have had quite the day... already.”

Sotalia shrugs her shoulders with a smirk, sighs brightly, and chuckles. “You could say that. But, we’re okay. Just a little worn out, and a needing a few days of not doing anything.”

With a sly smirk, she searches her mind briefly, perks an inquisitive brow towards Johnathan, and coyly asks. “You have any drink specials sold by the pitcher?”

Johnathan chuckles with a grin, glances behind at the selection of bottles behind him, and returns his gaze towards Sotalia with a confident nod. “We have a few favorites... And the stock to make any of them.”

Aristespha walks up to the conversation, glances between Johnathan and Sotalia, and twists her mouth curiously. “What do you have by the bottle?”


----

Through the wall of windows, the faint glow of nearby city lamps barely creeps over into the large inn room. Along the horizon, bright lights highlight the top of the distant treeline across the river, and the blinking flight lamps of drones dart around in the starry night sky. Fluttering her emerald green eyes open, Cideeda stares up at the plain white ceiling in the dark, draws in a long breath, and releases a mildly frustrated sigh. Quietly grumbling to herself, she rolls her head side to side upon the pillow, flicks her furry ears, and vainly searches for a comfortable position while tugging the covers. Staring groggily upwards, she closes her eyes, and tries to calm herself into slumber. Drifting off into her thoughts, she contorts her face in a variety of grimaces and uneasy expressions. Finally, she reopens her eyes, sighs quietly, and grumbles to herself in fvalian with spikes of self aggravation.

A noise tickles her furry ear, and she perks it towards the source. Hearing the sound again, she slowly sits up, and searches around the large, dark inn room. After few passes, she focuses her gaze over to Bach in the bed at the end of the row, and she watches carefully. Tossing and turning, Bach rolls over to new position, mumbles incoherently, and winces in his sleep. With a shudder in his breath, he tenses up uneasily and cringes in between muttering. Cideeda pulls the covers off her, rests her feet on the floor, and stands up quietly. Stepping silently across the room with her tail waving out from underneath her nightshirt, she navigates to the side of Bach’s bed. She kneels down, and observes the discomfort and unease upon Bach face. Her ears flick forward and listen carefully. Gritting his teeth, Bach mumbles out a few clear words in between his pained cringes. “... why won’t... ...I’m sorry...”

Cideeda’s expression softens as a slight frown curls the corners of her mouth, and she sighs sympathetically. Her concern sharpens with each shift between fear, sadness, and pain upon Bach face, and the visible tension and discomfort building up. In the darkness, a tear escapes the corner of Bach’s eye, rolls down over the bridge of nose, and barely reflects the sparse light from the windows. Leaning close, Cideeda directs a gentle whisper to Bach's ear with a reassuring tone. “It’s okay. You are okay.”

With a sad tremor in his voice, Bach mutters out something incoherent in his slumber. Moments later, he winces out tears in a remorseful whimper and slightly shakes his head. Listening to the meek pleas from Bach’s unconsciousness, Cideeda narrows her worried gaze and quietly ponders. Searching her mind, she musters up a calm smile and softly speaks to Bach. “It’s fine. Everyone got out just fine. Everyone is safe.”

Resting her hand gently upon Bach’s topmost shoulder as he lays on his side, she rubs his arm comfortingly. Bach grimaces, rolls his head slightly, and sighs with an uncertain, sad whine. “You... sure...”

Sliding her grip down, Cideeda holds onto Bach’s forearm, thinks a moment, and softly presses her claw tips with a few squeezes with a gentle smile. “Yes. It’s okay. I’m fine. Don’t worry anymore. It’s going to be okay. This is just a bad dream.”

Over the next minute, the twitches of discomfort subside on Bach's face. The distress in his unconscious mumbling fades away to a calmer tone. Cideeda gently rubs his forearm, and watches his breathing ease to a peaceful snore. As tension gradually subsides, Bach’s head shifts to settle fully upon the support of his pillow, and he slips into a deeper slumber. Cideeda gazes upon Bach with a relieved smile, and quietly sighs shaking her head.

With her free hand of clawed fingers, she deftly combs the white streak of hair dancing upon Bach’s nose off to the side of his face. With a few final pats upon Bach’s forearm, she stands back up quietly, and silently travels down the large, dark in room to her bed. She stops a moment, pivots slowly, and stares out through the windows. Gazing distantly to the treeline edging the horizon across the river, she fights off a grimace. Staring at the flickers of light and activity around the night obscured land, she silently ponders to herself. Eventually, she shudders herself back to the present, fights off an disturbed expression, and fidgets out her nerves. Slipping back under the covers, she rest hers head upon the pillow. Drawing in a few comforting breaths, she lifts her head up briefly, aims a furry ear over towards Bach, and waits. Confirming the consistent, peaceful sounds of sleep, she settles into a comfortable spot on her bed, coils up in the covers, and closes her eyes as her tail slips out to wag freely off to the side. Gradually, the fatigue of the day and relief of the night allow to her drift off to a proper slumber.


----

A breeze blows across the river and ruffles the leaves in the surrounding patches of forest. Underneath the shade of a large beach umbrella, Aristespha and Sotalia lounge in fold out chairs upon the sandy lot near the water. Sotalia lifts up a mixed drink pitcher off the wooden table between the two of them, pours her glass full, and tops off the other glass close to Aristespha. “This is nice.”

Aristespha picks up the refreshed beverage, stretches her legs out, pushes some sand with her feet, and settles back into her chair. “After yesterday, it certainly is. Nice and quiet.”

Stirring around the ice in her glass with a few gentle swirls, Sotalia lifts her brow up from behind her sunglasses, and glances over to Aristespha. “Still seems weird to be relaxing here given what we found just across the river.”

With a defeated sigh, Aristespha sips her drink, adjusts her floppy hat against the wind, and shrugs her shoulders slightly. “If half the GAA’s teams specializing in hazardous materials can’t keep it under control, then it won’t really matter if we are here and back at the house. We’re both figuratively and literally down river from Ark in Amaranth Valley.”

She cringes briefly, and mumbles. “Which is frightening thought really.”

Pondering the concept, she tips back her glass a bit further than before. Tossing her fiery orange, wavy hair back with the breeze blowing by, Sotalia brushes stray locks around her swept back horns with her long black nails, and grumbles at the thought. “It is. Especially listening to Cideeda explain how close the thing was to just blowing it’s top and blasting everything up into the air.”

She grits her teeth with tinges of frustration and irritation, and huffs indignantly. “That Hackle better get us the location of where Noxian went after handling this mess for him. I’m getting a REALLY tired of stumbling into these supposedly simple missions that turn out to be worst fucking doomsday machines this side of Nexus.”

Aristespha twist her mouth and groans out her irritation. “Oh, I think he will...”

A sly smirk appears upon her face, and she narrows her stare ahead with plotting satisfaction. “Because, I think he’s smart enough to realize that it would be best to keep us happy... And, not give us reasons to complain to certain sources on how the GAA is haphazardly risking the lives of the public by handing off critical missions to some random adventuring group.”

Sotalia glances over to Aristespha with an amused grin, enjoys a long swig of her beverage, and relaxes back into her chair. “Damn, girl. Getting your alpha bitch mode armed and ready for the fight right there.”

Spiked into the sand, the sword within its scabbard resonates with Sebastian's voice. “To be fair, we’ll give them some time to do their jobs.”

Sebastian’s tone darkens slightly and an ethereal grumble sounds out. “But after a week or so, I think we’re in our right to demand some gods damned answers.”

Aristespha nods slightly, chuckles to herself, and rests her hand on the sword handle. “Still, Sebastian, I’m going to demand a significant bonus to compensate us for sacrificing our sanity in contending with this... absolute bullshit.”

A reverberating laugh sounds of from the sword, and Sebastian agrees. “Of course, dear. I wouldn’t expect any less.”

The small waves of the river lap against the water front and fill the air with a serene background drone, as Aristespha and Sotalia continue to relax on their chairs in the shade. From the parking lot, Cideeda and Dretphi step down a walkway with paper bags of fast food and carriers of drinks in their hands and arms. Cideeda stands in front of Aristespha and Sotalia, glances between the two of them with an amused smirk, and flicks her tail. “Well, I see you two have been hard at work.”

Sotalia chuckles, lowers down her sunglasses, and muses. “Well, this pitcher isn’t going to drink itself.”

Aristespha smiles smugly, sighs, and shrugs her shoulders nonchalantly. “After extensive testing, we have determined this to be the best spot to enjoy a late lunch. A good balance of sun, shade, and wind, if I must say.”

Dretphi rolls her steely gray eyes at the comment with a humored snort, reaches over Aristespha and Sotalia’s shoulders from behind, and deposits a paper sack in each of their laps. “Your food.”

A spark of excitement appears on Sotalia’s face, and she opens up the bag eagerly. “Thank you!”

Aristespha methodically removes individual containers out of her bag, and sorts through them with an appreciative smile. “Oh, yes. I was getting really hungry.”

Sebastian’s voice emanates from the sword with thankful tone tinged with sarcasm. “Good timing. They’ve needed something to slow down the alcohol absorption and let their livers catch up.”

Eyeing the sword briefly, a sly smirk cracks on Aristespha. She retrieves her aetherphone, flips up to the messaging app, and starts to type on the screen. Cideeda searches around the area briefly, and looks to both Aristespha and Sotalia. “Where’s Bach at?”

Sotalia turns her head towards a patch of trees at the edge of the sand lot, points to a spot under the leafy shade, and sighs with a slight frown. “He’s over there. Seemed like he just wanted to be alone for bit... Even after I tried my best to encourage him to sit with us. Even so, I think he’s had enough time to internally beat himself up over things he really shouldn’t.”

Dretphi gazes over at the wooded spot with concern and worry, and judges the opinions of everyone else. “Should I ask him to join us?”

A confident smiles appears on Cideeda’s face, and she lifts up a paper bag with Bach’s name written on it. “I’ll go see if he’s worked up an appetite from too much self reflection. Be right back.”

A bit of relief eases Dretphi’s tensions, and she settles down in another nearby wooden beach chair with her order of food. Sotalia slowly shakes her head, draws in a long breath, and leans back into her chair. “I guess he can’t help but to think about things... But, I still think he really needs to stop overthinking to the point he comes up with reasons to stress himself.”

She pauses in thought, glances down at alert chime coming from her shorts pocket, and retrieves her aetherphone. Sebastian ethereally sighs, and sympathetically comments. “Well, it can’t be easy for my bro. Dealing with all that has to be a weird existence for him. As the ghost trapped in the sword here, sometimes you can’t help but think about everything.”

Dretphi nods in agreement as she watches Cideeda approach the tree Bach sits under. Sotalia snorts, meets Aristespha’s gaze, glances down to the sword, and nods with a dramatic curl to her smirk. She quickly taps out of response on her aetherphone, presses the send button, and waits for Aristespha’s reaction. Glancing over to her phone after the chime, Aristespha reads the message quickly, rolls her eyes in annoyed commiseration, eyes the sword, and type up another message. Sebastian’s voice resonates out with growing suspicion and confusion. “Hey... Are you both looking at me? You know I can’t see that well when I’m in the sword and- Wait. You two have your phones out. WHAT ARE YOU TWO TALKING ABOUT?”

Dretphi pauses in the middle of sipping the straw in her drink, rests the paper cup down, and curiously eyes over to both Aristespha and Sotalia. Aristespha and Sotalia meet Dretphi’s gaze, exchange glances, and both gesture to their aetherphones. Dretphi eagerly pulls out her phone with a mischievous curl to an excited smile, and starts tapping out a message. Sebastian's voice pleads out with indignant twists in his tone. “Oh, come on! Don’t make me manifest out in public here.”

Cideeda walks casually up under the canopy of the tree Bach sits underneath. With a distant stare detached from his thoughts, Bach watches the wind push long lines of ripples across the river from his seat on the ground. Tracing his long gaze out across the water, Cideeda pivots in place to look out onto the water and idly wags her tail while perking her ears to the ambient sounds. After a few quiet moments, she glances down at Bach, and hangs the paper sack with his name into view. “So, are you hungry?”

Bach blinks back to awareness, notices the bag, and gratefully takes it from Cideeda. “Oh, uh... Yeah. Um, sorry, just spacing out there. It’s actually a nice view and it’s not too hot in the shade.”

With a comforting smile, Cideeda flicks up a furry ear at Bach and pries with an inquiring tint in her voice. “So... You doing okay?”

Slowing down his progress opening the paper sack of food, Bach grimaces uneasily, darts his blue eyes around slowly, and eases out an uncertain sigh. “I guess? I mean all things considered, this was the best outcome. But... I don’t know.”

Cideeda rests her free hand on her hip, flexes the her other grip on a bag with her name on it, and twitches her tail with a sway in her stance. Lifting a puzzled brow towards Bach, she mulls over recent memory thoughtfully and directs a question. “Why did you say you were sorry?”

Bach’s eyes flit wide momentarily, and he gazes up to Cideeda confused. “Um, what?”

Narrowing her inquisitive stare at him, Cideeda expands upon her thought. “Last thing I heard over the radio, you said you were sorry to me. What did you mean?”

Contorting his expressions between guilt and embarrassment, Bach eventually draws in a long breath and stumbles upon an answer. “Well... Um... you see... I, uh, kind of went against your last wishes.”

Cideeda perks up her furry ears, cocks her head to side, and cracks an amused toothy grin. “Well, seeing how I’m alive and standing here, I think I’ll be perfectly okay with it. When I made those... last requests... I didn’t think flipping open and slamming closed a few ton door open like a toilet seat was an option.”

A humored smirk slips out on Bach face, and he chuckles awkwardly. “Yeah... Truth be told... Me neither. And, that’s THE problem.”

As Cideeda puzzles at the answer, Bach works through his disappearing confidence and ponders out loud. “I mean... I took your perfectly logical solution to a huge problem, and risked it all on the idea that I had the power to make it better. When looking back on it, I could have completely fucked everything up. Not just a little, but REALLY fucked it up. I could have failed at so many points from not getting the door open, damaging the structure, not being able to get the door closed, and some many other ways I can’t think of at the moment.”

He slumps his shoulders, hangs his head lower, and frowns. “I just don’t know if using that power was ultimately the right thing to do. Am I allowing poorly placed confidence in some power I barely understand to lead me down THAT path? Which makes me no different than...”

Cideeda kneels down to seat next to Bach, grabs his shoulder, and gazes her emerald green eyes at his blue ones. “Listen, I agree that maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do given all the possible odds and outcomes. But...”

She grimaces uneasily, sighs with a grit of her sharp teeth, and squirms slightly. “Even what I did was probably not the best course of action depending on the perspective you take. I mean, what if I had taken a look at the situation and just told everyone to run for the hills? What if I had gotten trapped in there and there was no way to shut it down? Or, maybe we could have timed it right? And, it wouldn’t have locked when I was there? Then, I hit the shut down, and we all got clear with out any problems?”

Squeezing Bach’s shoulder firmly, her expression softens and she smiles kindly to him. “It was a REALLY fucked up, shitty situation. I navigated it the best I knew how and made the choices I thought were for the best given what I had available. It’s the same thing you did.”

Gradually averting his gaze from Cideeda, Bach contorts his face as he processes the sentiment and eventually settles upon a halfhearted acceptance. “Yeah.”

Lifting a smug eyebrow, Cideeda presents a toothy grin with a genuinely happy tone, and playfully shakes Bach’s shoulder slightly. “Hey, the town is safe and we’re all alive to debate all the hypothetical ethics behind getting here. That’s a pretty good result.”

She smiles with hints of concern as she leans around to meet Bach’s gaze. “And the fact you are deliberating about this is a good sign. From my experience, it’s the ones who aren’t aware you have to worry about.”

A smirk gradually appears on Bach and his tensions relax a little. Cideeda hums in thought for a few seconds, chuckles to herself, and grins. “Let me tell you one of those fvalian fables that... somewhat applies.”

Bach shifts his attention fully upon Cideeda and waits curiously. Cideeda draws in a long breath, wags her tail behind her, and starts to relay the story. “Okay... So, a thief goes to rob a house. While he’s robbing it, he notices a lot of smoke coming from the house next door, and quickly realizes that it’s on fire. Well, he decides he really needs to get ready to leave before all the firefighters and police arrive to investigate. But, while he’s outside loading stuff up into his van, he sees a car parked in the driveway. He realizes that no one is outside at this point, and the fire is pouring out a few of the windows now.”

She presents a puzzled gaze to Bach with a questioning flourish of her hands. “Against the obvious choice to leave, he decides to investigate... And, even goes inside the house when it just doesn’t feel right to him. Just as he’s about to give up searching, he finds a woman passed out from the smoke. So, he carries her out... to the awaiting police and firefighters.”

Donning an uneasy, tight lipped expression, she explains the predicament further. “So now, he’s REALLY trying to leave the scene and not draw any more attention. But... The neighbors point out they don’t recognize him to the police, and one officer starts asking what he’s doing with all the stuff in the van. They quickly figure out what’s going on, and arrest him. Later, he’s on trial for the robbery, and fully expects to be put into jail for a long time.”

She furrows her brow and playful bewilderment tints her tone. “Oddly and against all his expectations, the judge is really light on the sentencing. This totally baffles him. Why be nice when he was so obviously caught in the act? As much as he didn’t want to admit it... it was a pretty open and shut case, and he didn’t think there was any way to argue against it.”

Twisting her mouth in suspicious intrigue, she focuses a dramatic gaze upon Bach. “Somehow while filling out paperwork to process out, he was by himself and the judge wanders in to handle some other bit of business. So, they are alone briefly. He decides to simply ask the judge why she was so easy on him? While he’s not one to turn down mercy and good fortune, he can’t deny how it felt like it should have gone differently.”

Smiling kindly, Cideeda leans closer to Bach and asks him. “You know what she said?”

Bach tilts his head to the side, narrows his attentive gaze, and shakes his head slowly. “No. What did she say?”

Cideeda grins toothily and chuckles lightly. “She said that she couldn’t very well condemn the man who choose the risk for her daughter’s life, over certainty for his freedom.”

Allowing the last line of the story to sink in, Bach gradually nods as he start to decipher the intended meaning, pauses to a blank expression, and then puzzles more upon it. He continues to visibly deliberate and contemplate the story. After a few seconds, he glances over to Cideeda with a pleading expression in search of further explanation. “Alright... I’m seeing few possible lessons to take away from that... But... Wow, it is a bit murky, and I’m not sure I’m pulling the right things from it.”

With a humored giggle, Cideeda stands up, picks her paper sack of food up, and stretches out her back. “Well, don’t think too hard about it. They are ALL like that. That actually was one of the straight forward ones.”

She motions over to the rest of the team, and smiles brightly as her emerald green eyes gaze into Bach’s blue eyes. “So, how about you join the rest of us to eat? Afterwards, maybe you can tag along and we all see what passes for a comic or game shop in this town?”

Rising up to his feet, Bach stands up fully, stretches out some of his stale stress, and smirks with a humble chuckle. “Yeah, sounds like a plan to me.”

Cideeda grins toothily and walks along side Bach with a confident stride in her step and satisfied wag of her tail. As they approach Aristespha, Dretphi, and Sotalia messaging each other with sinisterly humored expressions, Sebastian’s voice whines in mild frustration. “This is SO rude.”


----

A strong gust of wind blows across the large, sparsely graveled lot, and bits of sandy soil stir up into the air. The flecks of dried grass and specks of white sand gather around the tires of many different vehicles and the side of an old, worn store front. A small rust spattered windmill anchored to the flat roof top spins to the surges of airflow, and creaks when direction changes. Driving down the long paved road between other quiet business, a dark green sedan cruises slowly over the gentle dips in the aging asphalt. The vehicle rolls to a stop next to the sign upon a tall chain-link fence next to an open gate.

Isaac lifts up a folded up paper map, orientates it to his view, and compares landmarks around him. Glancing ahead, left, and right, he twists his mouth, focuses upon the rusty metal sign, and grumbles to himself. “Trusty Tony’s Transportation...”

Lifting an uncertain brow at the alliteration, he draws a suspicious breath through his gritting teeth, and releases a slightly disgusted sigh. “Gods almighty, Emanuel... Who the hell are you recommending to me?”

Dropping the paper map into the passengers seat, Isaac eases off the brake, and steers the car through the entry gate. Pulling into one of the many empty parking spots in front of the small, glass walled building, Isaac puts the car into park and turns off the engine. He slowly steps towards the front entry, peers inside briefly, and pushes open the door. The small bell above the door rings out, and Isaac cautiously walks towards the front desk of the small front office space.

Muffled noises of movement sound out from behind a sun damaged, cheap wooden door opposite the counter. As Isaac arrives at the front desk, and he suspiciously watches the doorway open on the wall across from him. Brushing off cheaper business attire, an older fvalian man notices Isaac at counter, and presents a sly, chipped fang smile with an enthusiastic greeting. “Hello! Welcome to Trusty Tony’s Transportation. You MUST be a customer of EXCELLENT taste to have graced me with your patronage. How can I ever be of service to you?”

Isaac blinks briefly as he comprehends the changing situation he finds himself in, and cocks his head to the side curiously. “YOU are Trusty Tony?”

Tony smiles pridefully, combs his sharp claws through his slicked back, graying hair, and flicks his nicked and notched, furry ears. “Of course. Tony is a shorter nickname. And, it flows so much better in Americ with my business name. So...”

Nodding at the reasoning, Isaac glances around the office space and through the large windowed walls. “Well, you have been recommend to me by a business associate of mine.”

Furrowing his brow with signs of intrigue, Tony hums to himself and raps his thick claws upon the counter top. “Oh, really? Certainly it MUST be someone I know, and has been quite satisfied with the services I provide.”

Settling his investigative stare upon Tony, Isaac twists his mouth, and purposefully keeps his tone even and calm. “Might be. He used to do a lot of work in the recovery and transportation of historically significant cargo.”

Tony narrows his gaze briefly, ponders a moment, and pulls a widening grin across his face. “Ah, yes. I think I know the particular, previously adventurous, academic minded individual. How is he doing these days?”

Isaac shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly, and keeps a cool expression. “Enjoying his retirement however he can and pleases. But lately, he’s been graciously educating me on particular aspects of his old career.”

With an amused chuckle, Tony smiles eagerly and flits his brow. “Indeed he is. And, I’m so happy he is teaching you to come to me. So, how exactly can I facilitate your education?”

Gesturing toward the front of the office and at the dark green sedan parked, Isaac states the situation. “I recently arrived in town, and I don’t believe my current vehicle will suit my needs anymore. So, I’d like to... trade up... to something better suited to exploring the zone.”

Eyeing Tony from the corners of his gray eyes, Isaac mentions in a hushed tone. “This sedan has too much recent history on it for me.”

A sly smirk creeps out upon Tony’s lightly tanned face, and he chuckles in good humor with a darker undertone. “Completely understand. It helps to start out fresh in a new town. And, I just happen to have a wonderful selection of all terrain vehicles, proven to handle what our own Perimeter Weird Zone can dish out.”

He narrows a calculating stare upon the dark green sedan in the parking space out front, and widens his smile as his eyes focus upon the key details and conditions. Shifting his attention back to Isaac, Tony lifts up a hinged section of desk, steps out swiftly, and leads towards another set of doors exiting out into the back lot. “Follow me, let’s see what you desire first before we talk any further.”

Isaac follows along behind Tony, maintaining a cautious distance from the antics of the salesman, and thinks to himself. After a few moments, he remembers an issue and searches his mind for the right phrasing. “Oh, by the way, there’s a few spots on my sedan that might need to be... returned to stock condition to make it... easier to sell in the future.”

Tony slows his pace, glances behind to Isaac behind him, and smirks curiously. “Hmm... So, a horizontal hail incident?”

Isaac decodes the obscured meaning and slowly nods his head. “You could say that.”

With a reassuring laugh, Tony waves off the worries, and shakes his head as he opens the door for Isaac. “Oh, nothing to worry about. Around here, not uncommon at all. Nothing to concern yourself with. I know a few talented people who will make it presentable. They’re so good, it’ll look like a totally different car.”

An odd sense relief washes over Isaac as he follows Trusty Tony through a large lot of all terrain vehicles of different sizes and designs, as the moist, salty breeze stirs the white sand throughout the area.


----

Out in the back yard of the two story house, Samantha steps up next to Gerald with her attention fully upon her clipboard. Flipping through a number of pages, she grumbles to herself, and tosses her brown, shoulder-length hair back in a fit of frustration. Briefly closing her hazel eyes, she draws in an audible breath, and exhales in a vain attempt to ease her attitude. Gerald shifts his dark brown eyes from the large camera’s viewfinder, and lifts a curious brow towards Samantha. “What’s wrong?”

Grimacing out her thoughts, Samantha groans, idly raps her fingers upon her clipboard, and lifts her gaze ahead. “I’m trying to figure out what to do next with the team. We need some drama, action, or... Something! A little down time is fine, but we got to be ready to grab viewer attention, again. Soon. With Trakenthin’s family off limits, I’m trying to figure out who we should focus on next.”

Turning his attention back to the viewfinder, Gerald scratches his head of short, dark blonde hair, shrugs his shoulders, and aims the camera around at the different members of the Flames of the Phoenix. “I’m sure something will happen soon enough. We just need to keep an eye for any clues, and keep the cameras rolling. There’s still enough volatility left in this team.”

Samantha releases a long sigh, holds her clipboard in her arm, and scans around the back yard. Out of the corner of eye, she catches some movement beyond brush leading into the nearby forest. Squinting her eyes, she leans back and spots Veevi’s contrasting pink hair against the forest green and brown. As Veevi pulls Chad along with her seductive intent blatant, Samantha smirks slightly, and signals a small camera team over. “Urdi, Radnae, Harris... They’re hitting the forest again. See what you can get.”

The older human man leads the fvalian man and woman to a stealthy approach into the forest, carefully trailing Chad and Veevi. Samantha groans out her annoyance, and rolls her eyes with a slow shake of her head. “We might get a good side bit in an episode, but even that isn’t quite enough.”

Propping her chin with her fist, she shifts her weight from foot to foot while she fidgets with thought. “What to do...”

Gerald glances over to Samantha, returns his focus to recording, and aims the camera towards rest of the team. Deedri and Tassilda discuss different magical recipes, and sort through notes upon the metal mesh garden table. Deedri wraps her hands around a large cup of tea, lifts it up to her mouth, and sips the steamy, warm drink. Flitting her auburn eyes wide in pleasant surprise, she examines the beverage again, and offers compliments towards Tassilda. “Oh, this is really good! You’ll have to tell me how you made it.”

Tassilda tosses back her raven black hair over her spiraling horns with both hands, leans back into the wooden outdoor chair, and giggles lightly. “It’s nothing special really. To be perfectly honest, it’s just one extra ingredient I put in on top of a store brand mix. You will won’t believe it when I tell you.”

A sly grin appears on Tassilda’s gray toned face and she narrows her light blue on black eyes at Deedri playfully. “Try guessing. I’m curious if you can figure it out.”

Biting her lower lip, Deedri’s furry ears twitch thoughtfully as her eyes search the top of her mind, and her tag wags swiftly. “I don’t know... Hmm... Let me have a few more sips and sniffs, first.”

In the middle of the back yard plot, Trakenthin’s tall grath form stands at the ready with a sparring sword. He carefully maintains a watch of his nearby surroundings, and eyes the ground immediately around him. A gentle wind coasts across the area, and brushes the tops of the short blades of grass. Trakenthin’s hazel eyes widen to an alert glare the moment two small narrow strips of grass stop swaying in sync with the rest the yard. His body tenses at the ready, and he swiftly swings his practice blade well above two visually hazy spots joining the unusual patches. The sword halts with a solid wooden clack midair, short of crossing into the airspace above the suspicious ground. With satisfied smirk, Trakenthin concentrates his gaze expectantly and waits.

Gradually shifting from transparent to fully opaque, Modoran grumbles to himself as his dark blue eyes glance up to Trakenthin. He eases the pressure off his practice dagger as Trakenthin lowers his sparring sword, and twists the disappointment upon his dusky bluish gray face. “Damn. I thought I was doing decent there.”

Lifting an inquisitive brow at Trakenthin, he pivots around behind him and studies his previous approach. “Okay, what gave it away? I swear I obfuscated my foot steps in the grass when I was getting close to you.”

Trakenthin rests his wooden training blade upon his shoulder, grins proudly, and gestures with the flow of the air. “Wind. The grass behind your legs did not move correctly.”

Rolling his eyes at himself, Modoran slumps his shoulders, and sighs with a slight droop in his long pointed ears. “Gods... That figures. This is why people sneak between dim and dark spots. Too many details to keep up with.”

After shaking his head and pondering to himself, he shrugs back to his nonchalant self, and steps away from Trakenthin. “Okay, let’s try this, again. I think I might be able to do something about that... Maybe...”

Trakenthin nods with a singular laugh, readies his practice sword, and calms himself to fully focus. As Modoran stretches out his neck, shoulders, and back during his walk to the edge of the back yard, Samantha curls a sly grin and taps her clipboard eagerly. “I think I have an idea.”

Gerald rolls his eyes out of view, concentrates upon capturing the video of the activities before him, and humors Samantha. “Which is?”

Samantha flips through her notes upon her clipboard and eyes a report print out with a devious smirk. “After the resort, there’s been a small, vocal group on the community forums that haven’t had the nicest things to say about Modoran.”

Blinking in disbelief, Gerald turns his puzzling gaze away from the viewfinder, cocks his head to the side, and stares confused at Samantha. “Really? I mean, he’s a bit of smug ass sometimes, but I don’t think he’s done anything to rile up the fans. What’s got those people mad?”

Samantha slowly shrugs her shoulders, and gazes at Gerald. “I don’t know exactly. But...”

Sporting a sinister smile, she chuckles with a plotting tone. “I took the liberty of having the community managers check the details of those accounts... And, had the tech department do a few checks. It turns out a few of those accounts connect from Evuukian owned aetherphone companies. Also, initial sleuthing shows one account is definitely from someone living in the heart of Evuukian territory.”

Gerald furrows his brow and grimaces in a shifting blend curiosity and surprise. “Huh. Who would he have pissed off?”

He pauses in thought, searches through bits of memory rising up into his mind, and nods slightly. “Actually, yeah. Thinking about it, he got more than a few strange looks from the evuukian nobility at the resort.”

With growing excitement, Samantha grins eagerly and narrows her scheming gaze up on the magically fading Modoran. “Exactly! So tonight, when I call Howie, I’m going to mention this and see what he wants to do. But, I’ve already told the community managers to... encourage and allow... those people talk about whatever they want.”

She chuckles to herself darkly, smiles smugly, and hugs her clipboard tight. “I wonder what our researchers will dig up given the right clues.”