-100-

Mera pushes through the front glass door of Fval Spice, retrieves a neat bundle of papers from her jeans pocket, and steps up to the cashier’s counter. As she sorts through the orders, she arranges tickets and money on the counter top. “I’m back!”

In between the crackle of cooking fires and clanks of utensils, Noyando’s voice calls out from the back. “Good! One moment.”

Giving a final inspection, Mera matches up money and signed charge receipts with satisfaction. Noyando slips out from the back of the kitchen, stiffly rolls his shoulders, and smiles at Mera. “All the deliveries go well?”

With a confident smirk, Mera glances down at the arrangement. “All delivered on time, and with no problems I could tell.”

Deftly slipping his claw tips under the paid bills, Noyando methodically stacks up the paperwork, and visually tallies the money. He separates the currency from the receipts, pauses in quick calculations, and parts a few larger bills away from the stack. Handing the cash over to Mera, he appreciatively grins and opens a register drawer under the counter. “Very good. Here’s your pay for the day so far.”

With a simple nod, Mera swiftly stows the cash into her pocket and smiles. “Thank you.”

Noyando glances back into the kitchen briefly, notices the time on a wall clock, and returns his attention to Mera. “What would you like to eat? Modeena is cooking the next orders. I can cook your lunch.”

Mera perks up, and her crimson eyes search her mind briefly. She cracks an eager smirk and chuckles lightly. “I think I’ll try the spicy beef salad. I kept on smelling that the whole drive. So...”

With a smile, Noyando nods, and rushes off into the kitchen. “Good. I will make a big batch for everyone. Have lunch together before any more orders come in.”

Wandering her gaze around the few regulars enjoying their meals at usual tables, she settles her focus upon the three pairs of furry black ears of the fvalian girls of descending ages. She steps over, stands observantly over the sisters, and watches their drawings progress. Mera smiles happily and leans over slightly. “You are doing great, Katelli. You are getting the hang of perspectives.”

She shifts her attention to the younger fvalian girl, and studies the blending of color pencil marks on the page. “If you like smooth blends of color Natashalli, you should try water colors. You can mix and guide the color directly on the page.”

As Mera rotates her head, the youngest girl thrusts her page of rough art up. With a smile showing a new tooth growing in, the fvalian girl perks up her furry black ears and giggles. “I’m getting better!”

Blinking blankly at the sudden piece of paper in her face, Mera dons an amused smile, gazes over the chaotic sprawl of crude caricatures with familiar sets of major features, and nods. “Yes you are, Jesselli. Keep it up and fill some more details.”

As the Jesselli lays the page back on the table surface and reaches out her painted claw tipped fingers to the central pool of supplies, Mera smiles with a quiet chuckle. Her gaze grows more distant, and her attentions shifts inwards. Minutes pass and she idly continues observing the girls draw. Her crimson eyes shift between emerging thoughts, and she clears her long gray hair from the ivory face. From the kitchen archway, Noyando steps out with a large plate with a mix of vegetables and beef slices covered in a spicy sauce upon a bed of lettuce. He looks around briefly, places the platter in the middle of the larger table in the front area, and glances over to the children. “Time to eat. Sit down.”

A furry brown eared fvalian woman arrives out from the back, navigates around chairs and kids with a huge bowl of rice, and carries a stack of smaller plates in her other hand. She lays out six places at the table, and steps back towards the kitchen. Pausing next to Mera, she pantomimes filling a glass, and lifts a curious brow. “What drink do you want?”

Mera snaps back to awareness, sorts through her desires, and smiles awkwardly. “Oh, um... Jasmine tea? If that’s okay?”

The fvalian woman nods and continues to the back area. “Good. That’s what I wanted, too. I’ll use my good tea, then.”

Blinking out her surprise, Mera bows slightly with an appreciative tone. “Thank you, Modeena. That sounds wonderful.”

She watches Noyando herd the three girls over to the table with food, and places napkin wrapped silverware at each setting. When Noyando steps away, she approaches with hints of nervousness. “Noyando? Can I ask you a question?”

Noyando flicks his gray tipped, black furry ears, and tilts his head to the side. “Of course.”

Fighting the twist of her mouth, Mera eases out a sigh and manages a hopeful, awkward smirk. “Would it be okay if I borrowed the scooter early in the morning to run a personal errand? There’s this one specialty grocery store north of town I’d like to go to. It has some evuukian specific products that I can’t get around here... since I can only walk.”

With a chuckle, Noyando nods his head and smiles. “I think that would be fine. If you want, I can drive you there. I think Modeena has wanted to go there.”

Mera’s crimson eyes search around with hints of nervousness, and she briefly grits her teeth. “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t want to inconvenience you. You and Modeena have enough to deal with the restaurant and your children. I should handle this myself.”

With a glint of inspiration in her eyes, she smiles with a shrug. “And, it might help me learn the roads around here better.”

Lifting an intrigued brow, Noyando agrees with an understanding smile. “Good point. Very good point. Just be sure to connect it to the charger when you get back. Do not want you to run out of power on a delivery.”

After Mera bows appreciatively, Modeena walks by with a tea pot leaving a faint steam trail behind her, and glances over. “When you go, be sure to tell me if it’s any good.”

Mera nods with a smile. “I will.”

Noyando and Modeena settle into chairs, corral the children, and invite Mera to sit down with them.


----

Dust speckled air drifts sluggishly through the wide halls, and beams of light slip through the narrow gaps in the weathered ceiling above. An outside gust filters through and pushes fresh air into the stagnant corridor. The faint hints of leaves rustling seeps into the stale silence filling the space between stone work floors and walls. Creaks of old piping echo with the slightest pressures upon the old structure. Chad walks slowly next to Odellon and a combined mass of crew and teams swell through the hallway. “Now, it’s usually good at intersections to hold position just short of the crossing. It keeps you from revealing yourself and gives you a chance to let the sneakier people to check ahead.”

Odellon tosses back his golden hair, straightens his posture, and glances over to Chad. “Being very cautious I see? I thought this was just some dusty ruin.”

Twisting his mouth, Chad sighs with a smirk and shrugs his shoulders. “A little too cautious is never bad. Old, quiet ruins attract a lot of different creatures. Some are easier to deal with when they don’t know you’re around.”

Nodding slowly as he processes the information, Odellon hums dramatically, spots a camera aimed his direction with his sparking blue eyes, and dons a bright white smile. “Yes. You are right. This could very well be a lair for some hideous beasts.”

He grins to the unseen audience, grips the handle of his blade, and pulls it slowly out of the scabbard. “Best to keep my Stalwart Sword drawn and ready.”

Chad furrows his brow, quells a cringe, and chuckles lightly. “Maybe? We haven’t found any signs of activity yet, but if it makes you feel better.”

Lifting his hand to hide his mouth, he whispers to Odellon. “It might wear on you constantly carrying it around like that.”

Odellon nods in agreement and smirks as he motions his head behind him. “It very well could, but that’s why I have my squires to aid me.”

Darting his gaze awkwardly around, Chad eventually blinks to a halfhearted acknowledgment. He points down the long corridor, and smiles to Odellon. “If you want, you could take lead with Veevi for a little bit. It would be good experience to learn how to assess these situations for yourself.”

With a bold grin, Odellon steps forth in front of the groups, points his blade forward, and commands. “Indeed. Onward everyone, but proceed with care... Danger may lurk ahead.”

As Odellon leads on with Veevi at his side, Chad slows his pace, and gradually falls back in middle of Tassilda, Trakenthin, and Deedri. He eyes the rest of the team, waits a few moments as recording attention shifts to the two new leaders, and slips muffled sigh. Tassilda smirks, narrows her light blue on black eyes, and snickers quietly. “Didn’t like that look in the mirror?”

Chad rolls his brown eyes, groans softly, and shakes his head. “A bit more painful than I wanted it to be.”

Odellon and Veevi reach four way intersection of the hallways. With a quick lift of his free hand, Odellon signals a stop. He glances down at his side, presents a bright smile to Veevi, and inquires. “Veevi, how are you at sneaking around?”

Veevi blinks her pink pupil eyes, draws a sly grin around her tan face, and tosses back her long pink hair. “I think I’m exceptional.”

With a nod, Odellon motions to the right hallway, and quietly commands. “Could you explore that corridor for a number of meters, and make sure nothing is lying in wait?”

Glancing down the dark, eerie hall, Veevi summons up her courage, grins sharply, and struts away with her body language directed specifically at Odellon. “Of course. I’ll be back.”

Trakenthin rolls his eyes, slowly shakes his head dismissively, and leans towards Chad. “Should we stop them?”

Chad scratches his chin, crosses his arms, and ponders softly. “Maybe. I don’t think there’s anything in here, but I’m still waiting to for Modoran to return...”

From the shadowy edges of illumination, Modoran nonchalantly leans away from the brickwork wall, calmly steps on over to the team, and shrugs his shoulders. “I’ve found nothing so far. Layers upon layers of undisturbed dust and untouched debris. It’s a bit creepy with the wind blowing through the ceiling cracks... But, that’s it.”

Tassilda brushes back her long raven black hair, cracks a plotting smirk on her gray, patterned skin, and surveys the lack of immediate camera attention from the main horde. “So... Anyone up to bump up the drama a bit? Stir up their fears, raise the tension, and frighten them?”

Rolling her auburn eyes, Deedri’s furry, tufted ears droop down, and she tugs at the corner of her mouth dismissively. “I don’t think we need to do anything. They seem just fine themselves. I’m curious how far they’re willing to go with the farce.”

Chad snorts, quirks his brow, and sighs with a smirk. “Yeah. Honestly, it’s been nice letting those two dork around and keep the cameras off us.”

Tassilda rolls her eyes, crosses her arms, and shakes her head. “True. And honestly, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge. Tossing a pebble down the hall would probably spook them enough.”

From the shadows of the right intersection branch, Veevi slips back into view, stands with her sharp nailed hands on her hips, and smiles with a slow wag of her tail. “All clear down there. Do you want me to check the left side now?”

Odellon nods, extends his arm in the direction, and bows slightly. “Please do.”

Veevi struts with a sway to her steps, walks across the front of Odellon, and slips her tail between his legs in passing. She flashes a sneaky, devious grin. Blinking out his surprise, Odellon observes Veevi moving into the darkness with a sly tint to his bright white smile.

Chad, Tassilda, Trakenthin, Deedri, and Modoran exchange a mix of ill-humored expressions, and contain their amusement. Trakenthin twists his mouth, snorts, and rolls his hazel eyes. “This requires no effort on our part. Let this happen on its own.”

With a nod, Chad steps forward in the lead of his team. “Yeah. Let them have the spotlight and we’ll just enjoy the show... for once.”

As the squad regroups, a small recording team focuses their attention from hiding. The fvalian man aims a camera with a telephoto lens, the fvalian woman trains a microphone with a parabolic dish on the team, and an older man coordinates the other two.


----

Inside the main room of the Precipice Tavern & Inn, Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia sit around a larger table upon mismatching chairs. Cideeda’s emerald green eyes narrow upon a metal box next to her plate of food, and she flicks her furry ears. Placing her fork down upon the dish, she combs her claws tips through her short, multi-colored hair, and twists her upper lip into a snarl of her canines. With a grumble, she grips her clawed fingers around the metal box, and scratches carefully around the seams between heavy outer plates. Blinking out of a daydream, Bach shifts his blue eyes over and watches Cideeda struggle to pry part of the device open. He cocks his head to the side, and lifts a curious brow. “What are you trying to break open?”

Cideeda strains her arms for a few more moments, and huffs as she relaxes. Resting the metal down on the table, she picks up her fork, sweeps up a bit of her salad, and sighs with a smirk. “I think it’s an old Vukasin IFF module.”

She rolls her eyes at herself, and smiles with a little embarrassment. “Well, at least that’s what it looks like to me from the miniatures I’ve seen and the model book specs I’ve read. It has the right logos at least.”

Bach leans his gaze over, and studies the blue geometric wolf logo embossed on the device. “Makes sense, I guess. You think it still works?”

Cideeda swallows a bite of food, raps her claw tips upon the chassis, and ponders out loud. “Maybe? I’m trying to get an access panel open, but they damn well made sure every security measure was put into this thing to lock itself up tight.”

She pulls a sly, toothy grin on her light brown face, and winks at Bach. “Might have to draft you to see if you can disengage the locks.”

Contorting his face uncertainly, Bach briefly grits his teeth, and shrugs his shoulders apprehensively. “I don’t know... I could very well break it. Hate to ruin it before you get chance to check if it works.”

Rolling her eyes nonchalantly, Cideeda waves off Bach’s concerns and rocks the device on its edge on the tabletop. “Ah, I’d need a lot more parts and pieces to make it work properly. I’d just want to see if it draws enough power to indicate it was trying to boot up.”

Bach nods, squints as he studies the exterior markings, and puzzles. “How old do you think it is?”

Cideeda rests the component down, pats it, and stretches her arms out. “I think it’s from the Red Gear conflicts. Has all the right numbers and design features.”

Tilting his head to the side, Bach guides the white streak out of his face, and brushes back wild longer brown hairs. “Certainly gives some credit to the rumor that some old mechs are buried in that junkyard.”

With a smile Cideeda shrugs her shoulders as she settles back into her chair with a wag of her long, furry tail. “Yes, but it’d take forever to find and dig up just one.”

Dretphi leans over into the conversation with a delighted smile. “I am happy you found parts for the minigun.”

An eager grin grows upon Cideeda’s face, and she flit her eyebrows up. “With a few modifications and changing out the ammo type used, I think we could make something nice. Might be only useful for suppression and harassment fire. But, that’s sometimes enough.”

Walking away from a small group of adventurers, Amos strolls between the tables, and navigates himself over to larger table. With a slight bow, he stands up straight and arranges the lapels of his duster. “I hope you all enjoyed the grand tour yesterday. Certainly seems like you found far more treasures than junk.”

Sotalia focuses her golden eyed stare at Amos, curls a smirk, and chuckles her amusement. “Well, you found anyone else to pawn your maps off to today?”

Amos laughs with synthesized cadence, refocuses his optics, and charts a grin upon his facial displays. “Well, I may not have sold one exactly. But... I did a little community service by providing the children with an activity.”

He leans down towards the table, glances around briefly, and emits a whispering tone. “I hid some candy around the school and playground, and drew out a treasure map for them. Keeps them from wandering off into any real danger. And a little exercise and wonder can’t hurt.”

After some humored expressions around table, Aristespha’s attention briefly switches inside her mind as she rest her hand on the hilt of the sword at her side. She readies a thought, and focuses her inquisitive gaze upon Amos. “Out of curiosity, how lucrative is the map business around here?”

Amos straightens up his posture, crosses his arms thoughtfully, and ponders out loud. “It depends really. It depends on the groups of people in town at the time. New adventurers and other groups between jobs are usually interested in my common tier of maps. Places they can check out in a day and occasionally come back with something nice.”

He mimics a growing smile on his displays with a tilt of his robotic head. “Rookie zone runners are great. They don’t quite know where are the best spots for finding anomaly artifacts are yet, so they’re usually happy to pay a little to get that early edge. A little payment now for a steady payday for the future.”

Twirling her fork with a piece of meat at the end, Sotalia points towards Amos, tosses back her fiery orange, wavy hair, and smirks. “So, the more gullible the better, right? That’s your angle.”

Amos chuckles, shakes his head, and rolls the lenses of his optics. “I almost wish. Unfortunately, the truly gullible ones latch onto the latest rumor going around and head off into the worst parts deep in the zone... Sometimes never to be heard from again. My customers come back. Maybe empty handed, but they still come back.”

Dretphi’s steely gray eyes sort between a few ideas emerging in the front her mind, and she stares curiously at Amos. “Do you have competition? For maps?”

Resting his mechanical hands on his steel plated sides, Amos nods slowly and emulates a sigh. “In a way I do. It’s mostly the rougher zone runners that don’t like their supposed secrets being spilled.”

He leans down near the table and address the team with a defiant grin. “I hate to break it to them, but I’ve known about their secret spots well before many of their parents were out of diapers. So, I believe I’m in my right to sell off whatever I know. I charted it well before they were ever here. If I know, it certainly isn’t a secret.”

Stepping through her patrol of customers at the tables, Aggie arrives at the larger table and gazes over the assembled team. “Just wanted to see if you all needed anything else before while I’m up and wandering.”

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia check their food and drinks, and relay their satisfaction so far. Aristespha cocks her head of long silvery blue hair, and inquires. “Any updates on Mavian’s arrival time?”

Aggie presents a hopeful smile to the group, and nods. “Talked to him briefly while the radio signal got through. He should be back by tomorrow night. He got held up waiting for an anomaly along his shortcut to town to calm down before he tried to pass through it. But, he said that’s the last rough patch, then it’s straight here.”

Faint dissatisfaction washes over the team. Sotalia glances around, cracks a smirk on her face, and combs her long, black nails through her hair as she relaxes in her chair. “Well, I say we could stand a round of proper drinks. No sense in not relaxing while we can.”

After a few moments of silent consideration leading to unspoken agreement, Aggie writes down orders from each member of the team at the table.


----

A hint of a very early morning light radiates down upon the front yard of the ranch style house. Traces of morning dew condense and slip off the tall blades of grass, and small bits of debris evenly coat the driveway top leading up to the garage. A few advertisement fliers flutter in the weak breeze rolling down the two lane highway. With a faint whine, an electric scooter zips a hard right turn into the driveway, rolls quickly down the path, and slows to a stop next to the garage door. Mera kills the lights, and swiftly clicks off the power. She slides off the vehicle, presses herself against the garage door, and slowly removes her helmet. Glancing her crimson eyes around, she angles her head down to either side of the house, and waits. Seconds of still ambient morning sounds out into the vicinity, and she eases a tense breath out. Slinking down the front path, she cautiously approaches the front door. Inspecting the frame, she narrows a studious gaze at the door jamb and analyzes the door knob. Grasping onto a hand rail, she leans herself over, grips a window sill, and peers inside through the divide between frame and window blinds inside. Moments later, she settles back onto to front steps, and inspects the even coating of dirt and pollen upon the doormat.

She ducks down low, and creeps around the corner of the house. Keeping close to the brick walls, she halts under a window, surveys the area, and hops up. Carefully peering inside, she peeks through the gaps of the partially closed blinds, and eases her ivory ear close. With hints of satisfaction, she drops back down and rushes around the corner. Softly stepping up to the back sliding glass door, she angles her careful stare through the visible gaps and inspects the room inside. She places her ear against the glass, and waits. Her mind sorts through her senses, and she eases out a tense breath. Glancing down upon the patio, she slowly scans the undisturbed leaves and dead grass flakes coating the area. Her inspection shifts to the handle of the sliding glass door, and she narrows her investigative gaze upon the equally even coating of dirt, grime, and pollen upon handle and frame.

With a flicker of crimson glow in her eyes, she studies the entirety of the door. Summoning up her courage against the hesitance upon her face, she quietly and precisely gestures out a series of incantations, and guides flows of prismatic energy into the door lock. With careful motions of her hands, tension upon the cylinder gives away to soft tapping of metal pins inside. After a sudden click, the lock rolls smoothly and the latch disengages. Glancing around, Mera grips the handle, and pries the door open. The sliding frame abruptly halts after a few centimeters, and Mera freezes in fright. Her eyes dart around and her ears faintly twitch. Her attention snaps to a wooden plank resting in the door track on the other side of the glass. Rolling her eyes at herself, she slowly shakes her head, and recollects herself. Flowing new threads of magic within a different series of gestures and incantations, she guides the energy through the crevices and thin gaps of the lower door frame. Seconds later, the wooden plank lifts up quietly, shifts out of the way, and lands softly on the floor. With a search of the area, Mera grabs the handle, eases the door open, and slips inside.

Mera slowly seals the glass door behind her, stands still, and observes the room. An ambient drone of the wall air conditioner joins the idle quiet inside the living area of the ranch style house. Studying the layout of the room, Mera glances at the hallway archway, kitchen area, and corridor leading to the front door. She softly steps in front of the coffee table, moves by the dining table, and passes by the fridge towards the garage door. Entering into the space, her glowing crimson eyes survey the contents, and her stare settles upon a large box off to the side. She kneels down next to the container, reaches inside, and inspects the assortment of golem parts and crystals. Her stare grows distant, and she drops her head with a sad sigh. Easing the components back into the box, she departs the garage and secures the door shut.

Leaning through the archway, Mera peers down either end of the hallway, and eyes each door with her glowing crimson eyes. With careful steps upon the wooden floor, she creeps to the door at the end of the hallway, listens for a moment, and opens it. Peeking inside, she quickly scans the plain, simple room, and dismissively closes the door. Passing by the bathroom, she cautiously enters the next room. Passing her illuminated sight across the room, she pauses at the old under armor suit and collection of battered plates, and quirks her brow at the stuffed dire boar toy on a shelf over the bed.

Leaving the room, she walks over to the next door, and peers inside. Her investigating stare slowly wanders between a stack of comic books, technological devices in different states of assembly, and a table covered in miniatures and painting supplies. Pulling the door shut, she eyes door at the end of the hallway, and passes by an open office door and another closed bedroom door. She slows her approach when gets close, focuses her glowing eyes, and carefully opens the door. Inside, she quickly pans her stare across the room, and snaps her attention to a number of items upon a table. After a few moments, hints of relief emerge on her face. She steps into the room, navigates around the boxes of medical supplies, and studies the different magical projects upon the table top. Her searching gaze halts around the floor near the bed. She eases herself down, finds a wooden box, and pulls it out. Opening the lid, she finds a collection of vials filled with various liquids, and closely examines them. Minutes later, she shakes her head, closes the box, and slides it back where she found it.

Mera sighs, steps away from the end of the hallway, and snaps her attention at the last unopened door. As her stare remains upon the doorway, she cocks her head to the side, blinks in surprise, and mumbles to herself in evuukian. Carefully turning the knob, she pushes the door open. The crimson glow in Mera’s eyes brighten as surprise overtakes her face. She wanders into the room, and drifts her aimless gaze upon the bountiful collection of magic trinkets and items littering the bedroom. Mera gradually steps around the perimeter of the room, and pauses to inspect strange artifacts upon a table top or shelf. She narrows her inquisitive gaze upon items in special glass containers. Her curiosity leads her to a table with a list of names on a pad of paper on one side, and arranged trinkets on the other. Mera halts at a compact chest of thin drawers. She kneels down, grabs the handles, and pulls the frame out. Her eyes flit wide at the expanded space within the frame and the ready to ship packages inside with matching names from the list.

As Mera proceeds to search through the space frames, trickles of doubt trickle into her expression. Pushing the last frame back into place, she breathes out a long, heavy sigh, and mumbles to herself. With surges of guilt and doubt tainting her tone, she buries her shaking head face first into her hands. Slowly combing her fingers through her long gray hair, she grits her teeth and aimlessly stares around the room. Minutes of self contemplation later, she pinches the bridge of her nose, nods to herself, and summons up her resolve. As she stands up her eyes open. She halts, and snaps her focus to the underside of the bed. The illumination in Mera’s eyes brightens and her pupils widen. She kneels down next to the bed, and pauses in place. Her mouth twists with interest. She reaches her hand out to a finely crafted wooden box, and stops. Meredosia’s eyes flit wide with recognition and desire.

Gripping the container tightly, she drags it out and examines it. With a series of complicated gestures and incantations, she forces a surge of flow at the box, and magical energy upon the box wavers. With a few sputtering crackles, the enchantment upon the finely crafted wooden box dissipates in a faint puff of miasma. Meredosia quickly flips open the lid. She cautiously brushes aside a coil of magical cable near a neatly folded blue and green woven garment resembling a harness. Moving a jar of golden shards, she shifts over a golden disc and translucent green plate. She blinks her confusion at the stabilized energy spoon, lifts her brow at the practice wand, and halts her gaze upon a folded cleaning cloth. Mera’s hand trembles above the wrapped bundle, and she uneasily grits her teeth. Steeling herself, a spark of determination ignites on her face, and she swiftly plucks the rag out of the chest.

Unwrapping the cloth, Mera stares at the small, blue tinted crystal with a faint glow. Licking her lips, she draws in a breath through her teeth, holds her other hand over the mineral, and concentrates. Seconds later, a thin, tiny wisp of white energy drifts up into the palm of her hand. Meredosia moans out her relief, rocks her head back, and smiles.

Eagerly stashing away the crystal in her pocket, she closes up the wooden box, slides it back under the bed, and leaves the room with a close of the door. Quickly, she navigates through the living area, and slips out through the back sliding glass door. With a similar series of incantations, she locks the doors and levitates the wooden plank back in the track. Slinking around the house, she mounts the electric scooter, turns it on, and speeds down the driveway. She rides for minutes down the two lane highway, and eventually finds a wide shoulder to stop at.

Mera feels her heart beating in her chest, eases her pants to calm breaths, and regains her composure. She stares up the brighter early morning skies, flutters her gaze to the clouds above, and sighs with smile. Chuckling out surges of nerves, she retrieves her aetherphone from her pocket, taps through menus to map, and studies a marked location. Noticing the time and checking the opening times for a selected specialty grocery store, she puts her phone into a holder, puts on her helmet, and zips off with a sated smile.


----

A drone activity fills the air in the high ceiling bar. People play on a few arcade machines in a corner, televisions display different programming, and the glow from beverage advertising merges with warm overhead lighting. Sitting at a table, Nash grips his glass of foamy amber and drinks a long swig. He wipes his mouth, sighs, and leans into the back of the sturdy wooden chair. “Nothing like burger day. Gods, I needed it after these last few weeks.”

Harvos shakes his head of short, bright brown hair, pours back his glass of golden liquid, and groans. “I know. The start of the semester is bad enough. But all these governments digging around all our records with this investigation has just made it miserable.”

Nash plucks a fried potato wedge off his plate, takes a bite of out it, and rolls his pale blue eyes. “No fuckin’ shit. I thought my hemorrhoids were real pains in the ass, but these fuckers... Holy hell!”

Gripping his burger, Harvos lifts the hefty sandwich off his plate and sinks his teeth in. He drifts off in his mind and enjoys the bites of the meal in moments of bliss. Blinking his bright brown on black eyes, he sighs and twist his mouth. “It’s made getting any proper information for our investigation gods damned difficult.”

Gritting his teeth briefly, Nash groans with a trailing grumble, and contorts the irritation into his expression. “Yeah... So, I mean... It’s not like we have that much to go on at the moment. Isaac busted in there, grabbed something, and left. We don’t know how he knew, what he got, or where he’s planning to go.”

Harvos cautiously rocks his head from shoulder to shoulder, glancing around for clearance for his tall horns. “Admittedly, I don’t believe where he went is really going to grant us anything. I am really curious as to what he got. That is the principle concern here.”

Nash lifts up his glass of beer, and nods in agreement. “Indeed.”

His gaze works around Harvos, and Nash narrows his eyes to someone walking around. A woman with orange streaked, ruby hair wanders through the crowded bar, searches for an open spot to sit down, and makes eye contact with Nash. With an amused grin, Nash lifts up his drink, slides a chair out at the table with his foot, and calls over the surrounding din. “Come on over, Vetra! Don’t worry, we’ve long since accepted you bite.”

Vetra rests her sharp, dark nailed hands at her hips, grits her sharp teeth with hesitance, and flicks her pointed ears. She shakes her head, walks over quickly to the chair, and rolls her bright orange eyes. “Why am I not surprised?”

Nash pours back his beer, motions to the remnants of a burger on his plate, and shrugs. “Burger day. I mean...”

He pats his large stomach and snorts. “I’m a creature of habit.”

With a wave of his hand, he directs Vetra to the seat. “Have a seat. Enjoy a meal.”

Vetra twists a smirk on her face, sits down, and rests her arms at the table. “Well... Thank you. I guess a lot of people needed burger day this week.”

Harvos nods with a tight smile and sighs. “Yes. Indeed. These investigations have been awful.”

Gritting her teeth, Vetra rubs the temple of her patterned face, and groans. “I know. I’ve only caught some of it, but looks like they’ve been really tearing through your departments.”

She narrows an inquisitive gaze between Nash and Harvos, and lowers her voice. “Have you two found out anything more about... Isaac?”

Nash grumbles and sips his beer. Harvos frowns slightly and shrugs his shoulders. “It’s ground to a standstill. We really just don’t have much to go on. Kind of stuck until the investigators stop watching over everything.”

Vetra raps her nails on the tabletop, searches her mind, and lifts an intrigued brow. “Okay... Well... I mean... What are the major names involved in what you’ve found out so far?”

Harvos grimaces, and contorts his light gray face. “Isaac. And... Maybe Dr. Dawkins? That’s all we have really.”

Rolling his eyes dismissively, Nash sighs and shakes his head. “The only other major name remotely related is Dr. Malkav, since Isaac searched for his work on the system.”

Vetra’s eyes flit wide, and she slowly tilts her head to side. She searches quickly through her mind, and narrows her stare inwards. Twisting her mouth, she bites her lip and perks her pointy ears. “That name...”

Harvos and Nash exchange glances and look to Vetra. Harvos inquires with an encouraging tone. “Yes? You got anything?”

Drawing in a long breath, Vetra uncertainly explains. “I don’t know. If I’m remembering this right, one of the old facilities guys has told me a number of stories about someone named Malkav. He used to run into him all the time at night.”

Her head rocks to the side, and she squints her eyes as she scrutinizes the memory. “He used to do his work at night. But... He mentioned... Seeing him in the computer science building. That prompted him to do a whole sweep of the building checking for anything out of place.”

Nash pulls his head back, blinks his confusion, and pries for more. “Why would he search the building for something out of place?”

Vetra shrugs her shoulders, and quirks her brow. “Uh, because it seems that Malkav HATED the previous head of the computer science department and swore to never step foot in that building.”

Nash and Harvos blink blankly, and ponder quietly. As the din of the surrounding bar radiates around them, Nash sits upright in his seat and narrows his gaze to Harvos. “Hey... Um... How well did Dr. Dawkins know Dr. Malkav?”

Harvos lifts his head up, eyes Nash, and awkwardly tugs at the corner of his mouth. “I think they were close colleagues...”

Glancing between the shift in mood between Harvos and Nash, Vetra grimaces uneasily. “So, what would connect Isaac to them?”

Nash’s eyes widen in abject realization. “Orth Ridge.”

Harvos grits his teeth and slips out. “Shit... Dawkins... Oh, fuck...”


----

Sitting at the crude table, Isaac lifts his head up from closely examining a collection of documents and images. Blinking one gray eye at a time, he winces as he wanders his gaze around and rubs his eyes. He shakes his head and brushes his white wispy hair back, and exhales long. Thinking in his own head for a few moments, he trains his attention on Max, sitting in his makeshift recliner. “Okay... There’s something I keep observing when reading your notes and comparing it to the original documents.”

Max flutters his eyes open, yawns wide, and stretches his shoulders back. “And what would that be?”

Isaac scratches the temple of his head, adjusts the blue scarf around his neck, and ponders out loud. “The architect certainly made it difficult to gauge the proper context from what they omitted on purpose and by their own assumed knowledge. But, there’s a reference to an aether access point... And, it just doesn’t seem like it is in reference to one of the original twelve construction access points for the prism.”

Narrowing his scrutinizing stare upon Max, Isaac inquires with hints of curiosity and faint suspicion. “Have you encountered such an observation yourself?”

Max lifts a brow at Isaac, maintains a neutral, cool expression, and searches his mind with his blue eyes. Twisting his mouth into a grimace, he contemplates out loud, and motions down the hallway. “Yes. I had originally thought that maybe the inference was to the old access point we have down the hallway. But, since that thing has been well beyond ever working again... I abandoned that theory. And given how everything was phrased, I ruled out any of the original twelve.”

Isaac furrows his brow, cocks his head to the side, and watches Max carefully. “So, do you believe there’s a thirteenth access point to the abstract prism? Similar a backdoor or backup connection?”

Pressing the finger tips of his hands together, he slowly nods. “That’s most logical theory I’ve got so far.”

A smile widens on Isaac’s face. “It makes sense. Something like the prism, they would have had to have such just in case something went wrong.”

Max points to Isaac and sighs his hesitation. “Now don’t you fucking get your hopes up. I don’t have any exact details about what it is, where it is, or even if the thing is anything more than an ancient piece of shit. I’ve just been able to draw out inferences at best from my recent studies, and do some general extrapolations and cross-referencing.”

He rolls his eyes and grits his teeth. “To be damned honest, the thing may be nothing more than a shitty lawn ornament at this point. Given what has happened with the original twelve and the prism, we have to be careful not to assume too much.”

Isaac eagerly grins, gazes upon Max with wide gray eyes, and sits up in his seat at the table. “But, the potential is still there! Just from what I can conclude so far, it doesn’t seem to be located in the zone. But, I get the feeling it’s at least in the greater region. The little clues are there.”

Max frowns slightly and sighs as he shakes his head. “Again, I have to warn you about delving into things we don’t fully understand.”

Furrowing his brow, he tilts his head of white hair to the side and ponders out. “Honestly, if one found it... What would one even do with it? I’ve been trying figure THAT out. There’s easier methods for getting elder energy. So, what would be the end goal of accessing this connection to the prism?”

A calm wave washes over Isaac, and he focuses his full attention upon Max. Carefully reading the contemplative and genuine curiosity on Max’s face, Isaac slowly nods, draws in a long breath, and explains. “It wouldn’t be about just getting elder energy for yourself. But... finding a way to open the channels for elder energy for yourself... and others...”

Sorting through his thoughts, he feels the fabric of the blue scarf around his neck, and continues. “While we have done well as a world to operate within the confines of prismatic energy granted to us by the prism... We still are suffering from the mistakes of the past. We are still paying debts our ancestors left us the bill for. But, we could remedy so much with proper access to elder magic again.”

He tightly grips the scarf, sniffs, and closes his eyes tightly. “We could finally clean up hazards before they have a chance to harm anyone else.”

With a crack of a smile, his tone brightens gradually. “As a people we have grown wiser in our understanding of magic. There are those that are showing proper wisdom with magic. And, if we could grant access to elder energy to those very people... The great things that could be achieved.”

A wild grin appears on Noxian’s face, and he chuckles hopefully. “We already have an example that such can be achieved.”

Max blinks his eyes, studies the expressions of the man at the table, and sighs deeply with a stern tone. “Isaac... I understand where you are coming from. But, lest you let fucking ambition blind you to the collection of dumbasses we call humanity... Many of the worst events have happened because people with access to great power cocked things up. Well meaning, but short-sighted. Just imagine what the opposite could manage to do.”

Isaac blinks back to awareness, crosses his arms, and grits his teeth. “Yes, I know. But... We both know that access to elder energy at the right time could have prevented... so much... loss...”

Maintaining a firm upper lip, Max nods once, focuses his cool stare upon Isaac, and calmly rebuts. “Yes... I agree. But... Remember... Elder energy also set THAT in motion long ago.”

A long, tense silence loom overs and weighs down the mood. Minutes pass by as both men introspect quietly. Stirring from his makeshift recliner, Max sighs, stands up, and walks over to a crate in the corner. Lifting the lid, he leans over and rummages through bundles of papers. Sneaking a glance over his shoulder at Isaac, Max separates a thin bundle of documents from the mass within the box. He pulls up a hidden metal loop, quietly lifts the false bottom, and slips the folio of papers into a secret compartment. After securing the fake platform inside the crate, he lifts up the remaining papers, pivots around, and steps up to the table next to Isaac.

With a soft thud, Max plops the stack of assorted documents upon the table. Isaac startles back to reality, and puzzles at the mound of notes before him. Max draws in a long breath and weighs his voice heavy with concern. “These are my recent notes. They are scattered as hell, but maybe it’ll give you more insight on the thirteenth access point. I just... Well...”

He sighs long and gazes into Isaac’s eyes. “Please pay attention to the terrible incidents I transcribed from the architect's recounts of history in his journal. And heed my advice... All this may not be worth pursuing just yet. Maybe in time with more understanding. Just... consider it.”

Lifting his head to meet Max’s stare, a genuine and thankful smile graces Isaac’s face. “I will. I’ll take it all into account, my friend.”


----

Stepping through the doors into the Precipice Tavern & Inn from the diminishing evening light, Mavian ambles in a few meters and stops. Slipping his backpack off and sliding it down to the ground along his arm, he stretches his back out, spots the nearest bar stool, and plods over dragging his pack. Plopping into his seat, he rest his arms upon the counter top, and nods towards Aggie. Cracking a smile, Aggie walks down the behind bar, narrows her brown eyes at him, and waits quietly. Mavian reaches into his pocket, retrieves a bundle of bills, and counts off some money. Laying it neatly upon the counter, he nods to Aggie. “Next month’s rent. AND... My tab.”

An entrepreneurial grin emerges upon Aggie’s face, and she returns the nod to Mavian. “Beer?”

Mavian plainly states. “Yes.”

Elissia steps out from the back kitchen, notices Mavian, and smiles at Aggie filing away the money. “I’m glad you are back, and paid up. You want your usual?”

Mavian plainly states again as he relaxes his shoulders. “Yes.”

Aggie places an opened brown bottle in front of Mavian, leans close, and motions towards Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia sitting around the larger table in the room. “By the way, your next customers have been waiting. You might not want to keep them waiting for much longer.”

Rolling his faintly glowing green eyes, Mavian smirks dismissively. “They can wait till after I eat and drink.”

Elissia lifts her brow, curls a smirk, and laughs. “Yeah... I think you’re not going to be able to hold them off for that long.”

Mavian glances over, makes eye contact with team, and watches as a chair is pulled out from the larger table. Blinking blankly, he eyes over to Aggie and Elissia, chugs back half of his beer, and sighs uneasily.