The side door to the long brick house opens up, and Shadeesa grips onto the handrail as she steps down the few steps to the concrete of the attached carport. After adjusting the apron over her looser fitting clothes and large belly, she hands over a small packet to a middle-aged emin and presents a smile on her light gray, white freckled face. “Here’s the official test results straight from the Dragon Sciences lab of High Alton, Mr. Frenzacia. Varan is a proper dragon.”

Mr. Frenzacia blinks his deep red on black eyes, glances down as he removes the paperwork from the manila envelope, and uneasily smiles. “Wow... I guess that Professor Blaureiter’s hunch was right. Huh... Um...”

He gazes over to a young teen-aged girl in with silvery, red tinted hair blowing the gentle breeze, and calls out with a nervous grin. “Did you here that, Fawna? Your little Varan is a genuine dragon. He’s probably going to grow really... big...”

Fawna pauses a moment from pulling a firm bristle brush along a small dragon’s amber scales, and smiles with a bright expression of joy in her blue on white and blue on black eyes. “REALLY?”

She barely contains her excitement, briefly shifts her attention to a thought while idly guiding stray hairs over her horns, and gazes back over eagerly. “How big is he going to get?!”

Mr. Frenzacia slides his distant gaze over to Shadeesa with an awkwardly smirk. “Vet Serania... What damage should I expect when that one grows up?”

Hints of future dread sneak into his stare over to the gigantic Lagi as the dragon spreads both wingspans out for Kaleb. Shadeesa lifts an eyebrow, and tilts her head of tied back dark green hair to the side. “Depends. How much land do you have? You’ve mentioned having a farm.”

Searching the top of his mind, Mr. Frenzacia’s eyes sort through mental figures, and he reports the results with a confident hum. “Just over a square kilometer between all my plots. I take care a few more of the family plots, too.”

Nodding at the figure, Shadeesa crosses her arms just over her pregnant belly, and smirks thoughtfully. “What do you grow?”

Mr. Frenzacia nonchalantly shrugs his shoulders and smiles. “Honestly, a little bit of everything. We have the usual vegetables everyone buys around here. Been trying to get an apple orchard going on a plot that’s not great for much else. And if all goes well, our frost avocados should fruit this fall.”

An intrigued spark lights up Shadeesa’s eyes, and she smiles reassuringly to Mr. Frenzacia. “You should be just fine. In fact, the larger Varan gets the more useful he’ll be on the farm.”

Cocking his head to the side, Mr. Frenzacia blinks curiously. “Really? Why is that?”

Shadeesa grins widely and chuckles amused. “Oh, let me tell you all about your new, growing garbage disposal unit.”

Out in the backyard near the carport, Kaleb walks around from the other side of Lagi into view. He pets Lagi on his large, armored head, and walks next to Fawna as she brushes the relaxing Varan. “Yeah, Lagi loved his stiff brush when he was that little. Enjoy it while it’s that simple.”

Kneeling on the ground slowly pulling the brush over the sedate Varan’s scales, Fawna gazes up to Kaleb with a bright smile. “Does it get harder to care for dragons?”

Turning to gaze at Lagi sunning his massive wings in the sun, Kaleb shrugs his shoulders with his arms out to the side, and indecisively ponders as he scratches his head of short blonde hair. “Well... Not harder, exactly? I think the right words are... More complicated?”

Glancing down at the completely enthralled Varan, Kaleb shakes his head with a smile and steps over to an open toolbox. He retrieves a pair of large pliers, directs his voice to Fawna, and gestures Lagi over. “Soon, you might be filing claw tips, shaping armor plates, and pulling out stubborn scales.”

Kaleb furrows his brow, points to a spot under a wing shoulder on Lagi, and inquires. “So, under there?”

Lagi narrows his green eyes at the spot, turns his body towards Kaleb, and scratches at the troublesome area of blue black scales. He speaks out in a complex series of clicks, snorts, churls, chirps, hisses, and growls. Kaleb nods his head, walks over to area, feels around the outer layer of the dragon, and taps on the odd scale out. “Yeah, it’s close enough to falling out, but just hanging on enough to be annoying.”

Kaleb rubs around the base of the thick skin the scale is attached to, clamps the pliers carefully onto the scale, and glances over to Fawna. “Now, the trick to is to be quick right after you’ve massaged the spot just enough.”

Fawna idly brushes the little amber dragon Varan, while she watches the dragon care lesson from Kaleb. Shadeesa draws a long breath in, sighs with smiles, and finishes her explanation. “So, really, Varan is going to save you A LOT of money on disposal of most of your processing leftovers. When his digestive track develops fully, there will be few very things he won’t be able to eat.”

She pauses a moment, perks her brow, and twists her mouth, hinting at past sour experiences. “Though, you will need to teach him he’s not allowed to eat from fruit trees without your expressed permission. Otherwise, you NEVER see a ripe piece of fruit on those trees EVER again.”

Stroking his chin thoughtfully, Mr. Frenzacia nods with growing relief and chuckles to himself. “Understood. I guess I can stop buying that gods awful expensive fancy whelp feed now.”

Fawna’s long, pointy ear tips twitch at her father’s voice, and she turns her unhappy stare at her father. “Dad! Varan LIKES that food a lot.”

With a waning sigh, Mr. Frenzacia rolls his eyes in defeat. Shadeesa quirks her face to smile, holds a finger to signal Mr. Frenzacia to wait, and walks through the side door to go inside. A minute later, Shadeesa carefully steps down with a large square of green and brown minced fiber in each hand. Mr. Frenzacia puzzles at the faint sheen on the objects, cocks his head to the side, and queries. “So, what are those?”

Shadeesa smirks slyly, gauges the gentle breeze, and intersects its flow towards the backyard. “Something Kaleb and I have been developing over the years for Lagi. It’s compressed fruit fodder and lard... with just a little peanut butter.”

The wind stirs around Shadeesa as she holds a large, thick rectangular treats in each hand. She allows the faint gust to blow across the fragrant slabs. Moments later, Varan stirs abruptly from his brush induced slumber, sniffs the air with confused chirps, and blinks his aqua eyes. Fawna puzzles at the sudden excitement from Varan, glances around, and meets Shadeesa’s gaze. “Huh, uh... What are those?”

Shadeesa carefully leans over, passes both treats over to Fawna, and grins as she stands back up with her hands on her back. “Treats for the dragons. Give one to Varan.”

Fawna sniffs the strange block, and scrunches up her nose reflexively. She eyes the strange square apprehensively, and glances down to a small pair of clawed dragon hands expectantly pawing at her arms. Varan alternates his attentive aqua eyed gaze between Fawna and the square treat. Fawna blinks, and holds the large treat in front of the small dragon. Varan quickly grasps hold slab of fodder, sniffs it, and bites off a chunk. Chewing the treat slowly, he halts suddenly. His eyes widen, claws grip the thick square tightly, and his full focus concentrates on the delicious creation before him. A loud series of happy chirps and purrs slip out between chews and bites, as Varan excitedly consumes the treat with reflexive tail wags and wing flaps.

Fawna gazes astounded, smiles brightly at the absolute delight plain on the small dragon. “Wow! You really must like it. I’ve never heard you make all these noises. Not even when I gave you your nice food.”

While attention remains on the small dragon’s reaction, Lagi’s green eyes fully focus onto the remaining treat in Fawna’s other hand she idly holds off the side. With slow, careful movements, Lagi purposefully moves quietly closer to Fawna under the distraction of Varan. Pausing often to study the reactions of Kaleb, Shadeesa, Mr. Frenzacia, and Fawna, Lagi maneuvers his massive frame forward in a collective mental blind spot, gradually threads his neck closer to Fawna, and slowly parts his maw. Easing out his long tongue, he extends the tip ever closer to the treat. The wind blows the faintest traces of taste upon Lagi’s tongue and his eager green eyed stare widens the closer to the goal he gets.

A powerful, loud snap of the fingers pierces through the air and halts the large dragon’s progress immediate with a swell of frightening familiarity. Shadeesa squares her stance, glares disapprovingly at Lagi, and commands. “LAGI! NO! YOU know better.”

Lagi shrinks back away guiltily, and shamefully adverts his gaze with whimper. Shadeesa rests her hands at her hips, points a finger at Lagi, and narrows her stare at him. “That’s very RUDE of you. Fawna is our guest. If you want the treat, you need to ask her nicely.”

After working through the embarrassment, Lagi meets Fawna’s gaze, regains his composure, and emits a series of chirps, clicks, purrs, and whines. Fawna tilts her head to the side, glances around to everyone else confused, and puzzles at the noises. Sharpening her stare at Lagi, Shadeesa sighs loudly, and shakes her head. “In Americ, Lagi. She doesn’t understand that language, and you need the practice.”

Lagi gazes pitifully at Kaleb and whines out a plea. Kaleb crosses his arms, stands sternly, and reaffirms. “You heard her, Lagi. I agree with her. You need to practice.”

A mumbling, disappointed grumble slips out from Lagi, and he sits up childishly defiant to the terms. He summons his resolve and presents a facade of disinterest to the treat in Fawna’s hand. Varan’s chirps and purrs of joy fill the silent moment as he munches upon a pocket of peanut butter within the treat. Lagi glances briefly over to witness the small dragon coiled blissfully around the partially eaten treat, and lapping up oozing, delicious mix in his clawed clutches. Each happy noise from Varan and playful toss of the savory square dissolves Lagi’s resolve, and his attention shifts back to the dragon treat in Fawna hand.

Drawing in a large breath of air, Lagi gazes at Fawna, contorts his mouth awkwardly, and flexes his throat in unpracticed motions to rough, approximate vocalizations. “May. I. Have. Treat? Please?”

Both Fawna and Mr. Frenzacia stare in surprise. Shadeesa smiles happily and claps her hands together. “There you go! Very good, Lagi.”

Kaleb pats Lagi on the side and smirks proudly at him. “See it’s not so hard. Just practice a bit more.”

Fawna blinks out of the stupor to a bright smile of astonishment and excitement, and offers the treat to Lagi. “Yes, you may, Lagi.”

Lagi licks up the treat into his maw, settles down on the grass, and slowly chews the treat to a moment of bliss. Fawna catches a random thought in her mind, glances to Varan, and her eyes widen with possibility. “Wait... Could Varan talk one day?!”

While the dragons enjoy their treats and Kaleb explains the dynamics of dragon vocalization, Mr. Frenzacia ponders a moment. He turns to Shadeesa, and casually inquires. “How stocked up on baby clothes and furniture are you?”

Shadeesa lifts entrepreneurial brow, and cracks a plotting smirk. “No where near as much as I should be.”

Mr. Frenzacia nods, strokes his beard, and crosses his arms. “My wife has been wanting to clear out the bonus room, and there’s a quite a bit of old baby clothes and a nice wooden crib... among other things.”

Turning her head towards Mr. Frenzacia, Shadeesa grins slyly, and chuckles to herself. “Well, I think an arrangement could be made. Plenty of advice to be shared and treats to be made.”


The overhead fan’s wooden blades gently spin and push a stream of air down into the middle of the room. A paper bag of corn chips wobbles upon a finely crafted wooden coffee table, and raps softly against an empty beer bottle upon a coaster. Thomas Blaureiter snorts loudly and settles back down as he shifts his head upon a couch pillow. He unconsciously tosses upon the dark brown leather couch, and scratches his thin, tight white shirt with his cybernetic hand. Softly snoring, he stretches out briefly, yawns, and reflectively cradles the game controller closer to his muscular chest.

Without a single sound, an athletic man appears in entryway leading to the nicely decorated living room. After tightening the belt around his house coat, he finishes tying back his slick, black hair, and scans the room with his amber eyes. He aims his gaze at Thomas, and cracks a humored smirk on his olive toned face, and slowly shakes his head. “Just one more level... Right...”

With a fluid grace, the man steps silently upon the old wooden floors, and his sleek, cybernetic feet deftly apply near-perfect pressure upon the finished boards. Swaying in purposeful motions, he continues to walk in complete stealth around the coffee table, and balances upon legs blending biology and technology. Standing in front of Thomas, the man reaches down and slips his fingers around the controller. After a few careful attempts, he manages to firmly but gently free the game pad from the tight clutches of Thomas’s cybernetic arm. With a swift pivot on the balls of his feet, the athletic man holds the device in his hands, and taps a button. The controller flickers to life, a game console lights up on shelf in a finely crafted, hand-made entertainment center, and the large television displays the pause menu of a role-playing game.

Quickly pressing buttons and moving the joysticks, the man enacts a well practiced series of commands, and glances back to Thomas with a loving smile. Another menu opens on the television, and the on screen highlight moves to a new save game slot in a long list. The man taps a confirmation on the game controller. Pausing a moment, he tilts his head to side, notices the very little playtime difference between saves. He ponders with a narrowing stare at the screen. Exiting the game, he swiftly flips through the large library of games on the system, and selects one in particular. He swiftly taps the mute button on the remote on the coffee table. The main menu appears upon a backdrop of a large dragon flying through a twisting course with a rider shooting targets. The man navigates to the high score list, and scrutinizes the entries. A bit of relief graces his smirking face when he reads “Albert” at the top and nods confidently.

Albert analyzes the many other entries below his name, shakes his head slowly with a smile at all the variations of Thomas’s name, and quietly giggles to himself. “Just can’t resist can you.”

With a humored grin, Albert glances over his shoulder at the sleeping Thomas, and sighs happily. “Keep trying, my dear.”

Holding a button on the controller, the console and television dim back to sleep, and Albert softly rests the controller on the coffee table. Without a sound from his footsteps, he struts across the old, wooden floors into the kitchen. Minutes later, the muffled sputtering of a coffee maker rises in the background of the living room, and the crisp, gentle trickles of coffee filling a glass carafe sprinkles into the soundscape.

After a few clanks of glass upon ceramic, Albert steps gracefully out of the kitchen archway into the living room with a cup of coffee in each hand. He stops next to Thomas on the couch, and wafts the odor of a mug of black coffee near his nose. Fluttering his light blue eyes open, Thomas groggily glances around room and develops enough awareness to notice Albert holding the coffee in front of him. “Oh... Shit... I really did mean to go to bed. I hit pause menu, closed my eyes, and... Well...”

Thomas scoots himself to an upright seat on the couch, appreciatively grasps hold of the mug of black coffee, and sheepishly apologizes. “Sorry... Didn’t think I was that tired.”

Albert leans down, kisses Thomas, and ruffles his head of swept-back, silvery gray hair with a smile. “Gods, as if I’m going to be mad at something I’ve been guilty of myself. Anyway, I saw you paused it right before that dungeon I wanted to co-op with you.”

A faint hint of blush colors Thomas’s cheeks, and he shyly smiles. “I also found a sword that might work for your dual-wielder build, too.”

With a well-practiced twirl, Albert grabs a quilt, flings it open, and floats it down upon him as he lowers onto the open spot on the couch. “Ooo. I can’t wait to try it out.”

Slipping his tan colored coffee, he lifts an examining brow towards Thomas with a playfully accusatory tone. “As much as I love the loot you keep finding, I think next summer you need to teach a class or work at a summer camp. I don’t think this much free time is the best thing for you.”

Thomas finishes up a long swig of his black coffee, narrows an apprehensive gaze at Albert, and grumbles to himself. “I don’t know. Maybe one summer course. But, they usually want you to teach a selected topics course... And, I really don’t know if anyone would be interested in them.”

Blinking blankly, his mind wanders to the other idea, and he grimaces uncertainly. “As for a camp? I don’t know if I’d be that good of a camp counselor. Children these days probably would think I’m old and boring.”

Albert narrows his incredulous gaze at Thomas, and rolls his eyes with a sarcastic drone. “Oh no, children. I’m sorry to tell you that your camp leader is Commander Blaureiter. You know, the guy who rode the dragon named The Night Terror and... Literally... Flew around and shot stuff with a blaster. His stories will probably bore you all to tears. Have your aetherphone games loaded and ready.”

Thomas quirks his brow at Albert, grumbles to himself, and sighs. “They don’t know who I am... Or, probably care. Anyway, I’d probably just have the parents angry at me because I unknowingly taught their kids something they’ll misuse. Gods, reminds me of all the random ways my Uncle Jimmy showed me how to make napalm and explosives when I stayed with him over summers.”

A mischievous smirk graces Albert’s lips, and he snorts with a snicker, shaking his head. “Don’t worry. I’ll just draft up a legal waiver the parents have to sign, and watch them TRY to go against me in court.”

Settling into the plush back of the finely-made leather couch, Thomas glances over to Albert with a curious tone. “By the way, any progress on figuring out anything on that Dragon’s Right group around Amaranth?”

Albert sighs, and shrugs his shoulders. “No luck, I’m afraid, dear. But, my sources haven’t found anything that links them with the group lingering around here. So far, the consensus seems to be that it’s just some half-assed copycat group. My friends are definitely interested in figuring out if there is a connection.”

Thomas nods in agreement, drinks another bit of his black coffee, and tugs at the corner of his mouth. “Damn. Well, that’s probably good news, since they’re not backed by anyone. Kaleb, Shadeesa, and Lagi will sleep a little easier. Though, I don’t think any group would be stupid enough to bother Lagi.”

Flitting his eyes wide with a spark of excitement, Albert smiles to Thomas and squirms eagerly. “Oh! I sent my suggestions for baby names for their son. I hope they decide on one soon.”

Briefly grimacing, Thomas rolls his eyes and sighs. “Me too. She’s due within two months, if I'm it remembering right. Ah, they’ll figure it out. If they can raise a dragon like Lagi, they’ll be able to manage.”

Albert and Thomas sit on the couch, enjoy their coffee, and idly listen to peaceful morning sounds. After a few minutes, Albert stretches his leg out towards Thomas, and gently but firmly pokes a toe into the outside of Thomas’s thigh. Blinking to attention, Thomas glances over, cocks his head to the side, and puzzles. “What?”

Albert furrows his brow, twists his mouth, and lifts an expectant eyebrow. “It’s your day to cook breakfast.”

Thomas tilts his head side to side, searches his mind, and wades awkwardly through his confusion. “Wait, what?”

Rolling his eyes, Albert releases a mildly annoyed groans. “By the gods, Thomas! It’s TUESDAY.”

Halting to sort through his memory, Thomas’s eyes widen in surprise, and he begins to lean forward. “Oh... Shit... It is.”

Standing up from the couch, Thomas’s heavy footsteps press onto the old, wooden boards, and creaks resonate out into the living room. He halts before crossing the threshold into the kitchen, and glances over to Albert with a grin. “And?”

Albert crosses his arms with a playful smile, and snorts. “Oh, you know what I want.”

Stepping into the kitchen, Thomas nods and directs his voice back. “Cute cat ears and whiskers on your pancakes?”

With a satisfied smirk, Albert wiggles down to relax upon the couch, and colors his tone with loving sass. “Of course! I mean, why else do I keep you around? It’s certainly not for your time keeping.”

Thomas quips back from the kitchen. “And, shoulder massages?”

A guilty smirk appears on Albert’s face. “Well, THAT, too.”


The members of the Flames of the Phoenix idle around the dining table. Chad stands up at the head of the table, surveys the team, and hems to get everyone’s attention. Veevi glances up with her dark pink pupil eyes, presents a manipulative little grin on her tan face from her seat next to Chad, and tosses back her head of long pink hair. Trakenthin straightens up his tall posture, gradually lifts his stare from his aetherphone, and patiently waits. Tassilda narrows her light blue on black eyes towards Chad, twists her mouth into a suspicious grimace, and raps her long, thick black nails upon the table top. Modoran blinks back to a mix of attention and consciousness, gradually assumes his typical nonchalant demeanor, and stretches his arms back. Deedri’s furry ears twitch and perk towards Chad, and she sits up attentively. Nearby in the kitchen area, Gerald leans upon a counter, balances the camera on his shoulder, and carefully aims the device for an ideal shot of the meeting. Just outside, another recording team slips in a camera lens and a boom microphone through an opening in the back sliding glass door.

Chad meets everyone’s eyes, stands up proudly, and addresses the group. “It’s about time for our team to undertake our next quest. To mix things up a bit and get more involvement from the team...”

Slight tinges of suspicion rise in the expressions upon Trakenthin, Tassilda, Modoran, and Deedri. Drawing in a long dramatic breath, Chad presents a bright, white grin to the team, reveals three packets from behind his back, and lays them out on the table. “We’ve been given three different missions for all us of to vote on and decide which one to take on.”

A wave of surprise spreads through the assembled team. They gradually show signs of genuine interest. Noticing the growing acceptance, Chad smiles and nods with a happier tone. “Well, you haven’t started to groan and grumble, so I’ll take that as you all being open to it.”

He slides the three folders into the middle of the table, and gestures for the group to investigate further. “I want each of you to rank your preference on the quests. Take some time to consider. I’ll need your votes by noon on Friday. And, we’ll be revealing our votes live Friday night.”

Tassilda lifts a wary brow towards Chad, leans over the table to drag the top folder over, and inquiries further. “So, what kind of missions did they see fit to burden us with now?”

Chad smirks slightly, crosses his arms, and motions towards the packets. “So, a quick summary. One quest is to escort a celebrity while shooting for his latest movie. The site is on the outskirts towards the west. And, we may get a chance to have parts in the film.”

Veevi eyes widen with an overtly eager grin, and she focuses her alluring gaze straight at Chad while reaching out towards the folders in the middle of the table. Chad glances briefly at Veevi, buffers an awkward grimace fighting against his grin. He summons back his composure, and continues his explanation. “The second mission is a survey and exploration operation across an area with multiple ruins that haven’t been checked out thoroughly in a decade. It seems pretty standard...”

Chad’s confidence trails slightly with his tone, and faint hints of unease infiltrate his body language. Trakenthin’s hazel eyes examine the subtle changes in Chad’s demeanor, and he lifts his muscular bronze skinned arm to point between the mission folders. “Which envelope for that mission?”

Veevi finishes examining the first page of a quest packet, sneers her upper lip, and turns up nose. “This one I think. Here. You can have it.”

She disgustedly dumps the papers in front of Trakenthin, stretches out across the table in her tight fitting clothes, and slides the remaining large envelope to her with a sharp grin. Trakenthin eyes over Veevi cautiously, picks up the paperwork, and studies the contents. Chad re-establishes his confidence, draws in a long breath, and presents to the group. “The final possible mission is a search and retrieval. Without getting into too much detail, it seems that a research group lost track of a scout drone near a small weird zone in the middle of the woods to the east. They’ve been able to narrow it down to a search area, and need someone on foot to try to find it.”

Veevi blatantly ignores the rest of the discussion with her full focus upon the document firmly in her sharp nailed hands. Trakenthin glances up briefly from reading the mission brief, motions towards the packet between Tassilda, Modoran, and Deedri. “Should contain that task.”

Tassilda opens up the large envelope, slides out the packet, and holds it in view of Deedri and Modoran. “Interesting. What research group would fund a retrieval mission for something like a drone?”

Chad grins with a bright white smile and nods towards the team as he sits down. “I’ll leave it to you all to look over everything, and make your own conclusions.”

As Chad settles into his seat, Veevi scoots over to his side, eyes him seductively, and charms with a faint purr to her voice. “So... You do want to be a movie star some day? I mean, what better chance do WE have than THIS?”

She grins with a sharp smile, flexes her body revealingly to Chad, and flutters her eyes with a flick of her tail. “Those other jobs sound so BORING... I’m sure you’ll make the right choice for US.”

Chad hoists an apprehensive eyebrow at Veevi, contorts his face, and dismissively shrugs his shoulder. “Well, uh... It’s not my last choice.”

Deedri’s auburn eyes focus upon a line of text in the mission description, and her furry ears perk up with excitement. “Wow! This is a job from the Grand Library. There must be some important research purpose for that drone.”

Blinking back to focus, Modoran’s interest piques and he directs his attention to the document. “Huh. Okay. They probably narrowed down the search area to something that will be useful. We might actually find it.”

Tassilda sorts through a pile of photographs, maps, and schematics, and nods in agreement. “Yeah. Here’s the original flight plan, pictures of what it looks like, and... I think the log when it last reported in.”

Deedri, Modoran, and Tassilda examine the information before them. Trakenthin abruptly halts his reading, lowers the paperwork down, and slowly slides it back into the folder. A souring grimace forms on his face, and he slowly shakes his head as he pushes the packet back to the middle of the table. Tassilda notices the change of expression, cocks her head to the side, and narrows an inquisitive gaze at Trakenthin. “What’s wrong with that one?”

Trakenthin draws in a long breath, and sighs out his disgust. “Possible slime activity.”

Silence slams down upon the gathering, and all activity ceases. Veevi’s eyes widen in horror, and she stares at the folder gritting her teeth. Modoran stands up, leans over the table, and slaps his hand down upon the packet. “Let me put this where it belongs.”

He grabs the folder tightly, steps close to the back sliding glass door, and puts his hand out through the gap while grinning to the camera crew. “Excuse me.”

As the crew backs out of the way, Modoran slides the entry wide open, curls his arm back, and flings the packet out it the back yard with a spin. As he pivots back around, he halts to the nearby presence of Tassilda holding her hand out forward and pointing a finger at the flying folder. A mischievous grin grows wide on her face, and she quickly gestures out an incantation. With a simple flick of her fingers a small ball of fire leaves her palm, coasts across the backyard, and intercepts the packet in a fiery burst. She turns around with a small bow, and struts back to her chair. “I believe we’ve decided that.”

Chad releases a long sigh of relief, smiles appreciatively to the group, and nods. “Thank gods you caught that. I wasn’t allowed to say anything before you read the mission briefs. But... I REALLY didn’t want to do that one.”

The team shifts their focus to the remaining two quests, while Veevi states her obvious favorite with a developing persistence to convince others.


The door at the end of the hallway opens. Aristespha blinks her violet eyes, heavily plods across the hardwood floors, and sways slightly with each footstep. She runs her fingers through her long, silvery blue hair, stretches her neck while gritting her teeth, and shakes off some of the cloudiness from her daze. Brushing off her loose t-shirt and adjusting her baggy shorts, she sloppily pivots at the archway into the living area, and steps through. In a groggy state, she ambles into the room, navigates around behind the coffee table, and plops down upon the couch on her back. She blankly stares up at the ceiling and releases a long sigh.

Cideeda lifts an intrigued brow at Aristespha from her seat at the dining table, and directs her inquisitive tone toward the evuukian on the couch. “What have you been up to?”

Aristespha’s very long, pointed ears twitch, and she lifts her head up to gaze at Cideeda. “I just got done filing all the paperwork related to the last mission. Guild payments authorized to the party business account, expenses deducted, GAA contractor bonuses received, and processed everyone’s cut to your individual guild accounts.”

Fluttering her eyes as she lays her head back down, she sighs out her relief, and rests her hands on her stomach. “I think everyone will be happy with the payout. Very much on the high side.”

Cideeda cracks sly smile, retrieves her aetherphone from her shorts pocket, and taps out a security code. After navigating menus and opening a guild branded app, a wide, toothy grin grows upon Cideeda’s light brown face and her tail wags energetically. “Very nice, indeed. That will make the retirement fund very happy.”

Closing her eyes, Aristespha relaxes her body gradually with each breath. Her long, pointed ears twitch to nearby metallic clicks and whispered frustration. She props her upper body up with her arms and scans the room. Finally noticing Bach and Dretphi at the table, she focuses her curious stare at device both are paying close attention to. “Oh, hey... What are you two doing?”

Cideeda glances over briefly with an amused smile, and smirks pridefully to Aristespha. “Oh, they’re trying out a little trap puzzle I made for Bach. Figured he could get some practice disarming different kinds of trap mechanisms.”

Bach carefully wedges a metal pick between the thin crack between a plate and surrounding frame. Narrowing his stare, he attempts to gently wedge a thin shim into the divide and apply pressure. After seconds of gradual force, the pressure plate moves slightly and a buzzing alarm sounds out from the unit. Aristespha cocks her head to the side, ponders a moment, and curls mouth. “Okay, so THAT was the noise I kept thinking I was hearing.”

Bach taps a reset button the side of the square block, places the tools in front of Dretphi, and slides the device over. “Your turn. Damn, I thought I had the pick in there enough.”

Slowly lifting herself up from the couch, Aristespha steps over next to Cideeda and studies Dretphi’s attempt. “So, you made a practice pressure plate?”

Cideeda nods her head as she relaxes in the dining chair, and raps her claws tips on the table top. “Yeah. Simple enough and kind of entertaining to watch.”

Aristespha leans over slightly, squints to focus upon the practice plate, and tilts her head to the side. “So, the goal is to put those pieces of metal between the cracks?”

Nodding in agreement, Cideeda gestures to points of interest on the practice device with a claw tip. “Basically. You use the pick to not only wedge apart the gap between the plate and frame, but to keep the plate from going down by accident. Then, you slip in the metal shims to jam the plate along that edge. If you can shim up the four corners, you should be able to put a good amount of weight on the plate without tripping it.”

A sly smile graces Cideeda mouth, and her emerald green eyes light up with a mischievous glimmer. “But, it gets a little tricky when the shims stabilize the plate and start to work against what you need to do.”

Dretphi’s steely gray eyes keep constant focus upon her efforts, and she carefully slides in a metal shim in the gap near a corner. Guiding the pick point along the divide between plate and frame, she applies gradual force to widen the thin space a tiny amount. The pressure moves the trigger platform off slightly in the wrong direction, and a buzzer sounds out from the base. Dretphi snarls her face, mutters a few curses in grath, and grumbles out her frustration. Aristespha slides a chair next to Dretphi out, sits down, and faces her curiously. “May I give it a try?”

Dretphi glances over to Bach, watches him shrug to no contest, and slides over the device with tools. “Sure. Need a break.”

Bach nods in agreement and grimaces briefly. “Yeah, I think were fast approaching the obsessively stubborn point. Was getting too worked up to hold the tools steady myself.”

Examining the tools and materials, Aristespha feels out the balance in her hands, finds a comfortable grip on both pick and shims, and stretches out her arms and shoulders. Straightening her posture, she closes her eyes, breathes several calming breaths, and concentrates her full focus on the task before her. Using well-trained finesse, she cautiously explores the side gaps between the pressure plate and frame, and applies faint probes of force to feel out the mechanical dynamics. Sensing an entry, she gracefully works the pick into the divide and barely widens the space. Stretching and flexing her wrist off the side first, she deftly guides the shim close to the entry point, eases the thin metal deep into the gap, and withdraws her pick. Pondering a moment, she searches for another safe spot with exploratory applications of minute force.

Sebastian drifts in through the hallway archway, glances around the room, and spots the gathering around Aristespha. Hovering silently above, he joins Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi as they all attentively watch the progress on the trap puzzle. With some visible difficulty, Aristespha manages to fit the second shim into another corner. Hints of concern and apprehension swell on Aristespha’s face, and she grits her teeth uncertainly. “There was not much give in that last corner.”

Cideeda crosses arms with a toothy grin, and nods in agreement. “It gets trickier with each shim. The shims jam the plate against a direction and apply pressure that works against you. If you aren’t careful, you could start to lift the plate up when you put another shim in, and end up triggering it.”

Rolling her shoulders and stretching out the tension in her neck, Aristespha draws a breath, and sighs out her nervous energy. Sebastian whispers from above and an encouraging grin. “You can do it, dear.”

Aristespha cracks a smile, regains her focus, and starts her attempt. After a number of retreats from forces causing unwanted movement of the plate, she manages to get a workable gap for a shim, and navigates the metal into the tight divide between plate and frame. The shim’s progress halts early, and Aristespha grits her teeth. With fine motions, she twists the pick to drive the gap gradually wider. The pressure works with other forces upon the plate. It lifts up... just enough... to trigger the buzzer. Aristespha’s long, pointy ears slightly droop with disappointment, and she draws in a long breath. She releases a mildly disappointed sigh, and settles back into her chair. “Damn. A lot less forgiving than most body tissues.”

Bach shrugs his shoulders and smirks. “Well, that's far better than what I’ve done so far. Pretty damn good, in my opinion.”

Dretphi nods in agreement and pats Aristespha’s shoulder. “Amazing for your first time.”

As the team reassures Aristespha performance, the sliding glass door opens. Sotalia steps through, closing the door behind her. She struts into the room and towels off her fiery orange, wavy hair. Letting the towel drape down her shoulders over her bikini top, she rests her hands at the side of the bikini bottom, and lifts a curious brow at the group at the table. “So, what have you all been doing in here?”

An evil smile appears on Cideeda’s face, and she points over to the puzzle trap on the table top. “Oh, just trying to see who can get the furthest on this puzzle. Want to give it a try?”

A competitive spark glitters in Sotalia’s golden eyes, and confident grin widens on her face. “Sure. What’s the score to beat?”

Sotalia swiftly sits down and Aristespha slides the device and tools to her. Cideeda recites a quick explanation of the process. With an eager zeal and the audience around her, Sotalia starts her attempt... and almost immediately triggers the buzzer. After initial laughter, Sotalia attempts again and again with minute progress between each short attempt.

Watching the fumbles and hearing the swears, Aristespha barely contains her giggling and shakes her head. Sotalia eyes over to Aristespha with tinges of annoyance. Aristespha sighs, waves off Sotalia suspicions, and smiles awkwardly. “Sorry, this reminds me of that one time Sebastian got that huge splinter.”

A wave of humored embarrassment washes over Sotalia, and she covers her mouth reflexively. “OH GODS. THAT.”

Bach turns his head curiously to Sotalia and pries further. “I sense a story behind this...”

Sebastian contorts his ghostly face, and groans ethereally. “It’s nothing. Really. Just got a really big splinter. Not much to say.”

Cideeda glances over to Sebastian, and shifts her gaze to Bach with a toothy grin. “In his ass cheek.”

Sotalia leans back in her chair, grimaces in ill-humor, and draws a long breath in. “Okay... Since it was kind of my fault I’ll tell it. Long story short, I was trying to put Sebastian and Aristespha in... situations so they would have nice, personal moments with each other. This was before they were together.”

Tilting his head to the side, Bach furrows an inquisitive stare at Sotalia, and glances between Aristespha and Sebastian. “Hold up. So, YOU were trying match up my brother and Aristespha?”

Cideeda rolls her eyes with a groan, and shrugs her shoulders. “In her defense, we all kind of were after awhile. It was well past endearing, and getting to that annoyingly and painfully OBVIOUS point.”

Sotalia works the playful guilt off her face, and fights against past embarrassment. “Yeah, I was trying to figure out way to... Um... encourage moments. And, let them hopefully arrive the horribly obvious, to the rest of us, conclusion. So, after a busy day of tracking down leads to find Noxian, we stopped for the night at a rest area. It was a nice, clear night with all the stars out. And, Aristespha was sitting by herself on a wooden park bench.”

Averting her golden eyes briefly, she glances over to Sebastian and motions over to Aristespha. “So, I told Sebastian that it looked like Aristespha was a little disheartened with everything going on, and maybe she needed to hear some encouraging words from the Chosen One.”

Bach blinks at sentence, slowly pivots his head to face his brother, and narrows a questioning stare. “Really? You can’t tell me that YOU didn’t pick up on this ploy.”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Sebastian's ghostly form stands with a grimace, and motions his hand trying to defend himself. “I, uh... I just wasn’t thinking that way at the time, bro. It was different circumstances and... well...”

Widening his blue eyes at his brother, Bach’s jaw hangs incredulously open, and he cocks his head to the side. “Wow... The one time YOU weren’t thinking THAT WAY.”

Sebastian leans forward with an agitated stare at Bach, and throws his arms to the side. “Oh fuck you, I was TRYING to be better.”

Sotalia rolls her eyes, shakes her head, and directs the attention back to the story. “So... He goes over, sits next to her, and they seem to have a nice talk.”

With long, groaning sigh, she rubs her temple underneath her horn, and shakes her head. “Then, he slides closer to her... And, manages to impale himself the longest splinter from that wooden bench... That I have EVER seen.”

Dretphi lifts up her hands, catches Bach’s attention, and demonstrates a gap of over fifteen centimeters between either finger on each hand. Bach cringes and visibly recoils as the realization of the situation dawns upon him. He grimaces towards his brother. “Damn... Man... Ow?”

Sebastian winces as past memories rise up in his mind, and his ethereal form shudders. Cideeda snorts out a laugh, and shakes her head. “To his credit, they continued talking for an hour after that and he kept a straight face.”

Chuckling at the past moment, Aristespha smirks awkwardly and sighs with a gaze to Sebastian. “I was SO hoping he’d slide closer. I thought maybe he was just being respectful, or shy. I didn’t realize he physically couldn’t.”

She cracks a guilty grin, glances over to Sotalia, and rolls her eyes playfully. “But, I guess we still ended up having personal, quality time together.”

Feeling his pride vacate the building, Sebastian groans out a mix of embarrassment and disappointment, and crosses his arms defensively. “I really don’t think spending an hour with my pants down..."

He pauses a moment and closes his eyes hard with an uneasy frown. "Laid over a seat in the humvee, while you extracted that splinter, cleaned the wound, and use your magic to heal it... Counts as quality time together.”

Aristespha shrugs her shoulders nonchalantly, meets Sebastian’s gaze with a loving smile, and winks. “Depends on your perspective.”

Dretphi snorts, leans over the table toward Bach, and comments. “Next day was not fun. All the roads were bumpy. All day travel. Needed two pillows.”