-93-

Trakenthin inspects the tightly packed back of the sports utility vehicle with firm pokes. With a satisfied nod, he closes the back hatch door, and pushes down to a secure click. Wandering his hazel eyes up at the partly cloudy, morning skies, he walks up to the open front passenger door, and hops in. Chad adjusts his driver’s seat, pushes back his light brown, coiffed hair, and turns the ignition key. Tassilda settles into her middle aisle seat, and taps out messages on her aetherphone with a delighted smirk. Deedri leans back into her seat, angles her auburn glance over her shoulders, and sneaks a loving smile towards Modoran. Stretching his dusky bluish gray arms out along the length of the back bench, Modoran maintains his nonchalant exterior, despite the distracting, playful brushes of Deedri’s tail tip against his leg.

Chad gazes towards the porch of the two story house, and ignores the numerous recording crew littering the front yard. His wary stare gravitates to the front door. Crossing her tan, brown striped arms, Veevi concentrates a harsh, disgusted glare at the vehicle. She notices Chad, stiffens up her posture, and snarls her upper lip. Nearby camera crews quickly refocus, and train recording equipment on both Chad and Veevi. Working through a grimace, Chad eases out of a stressed sigh, and waves towards Veevi. Twisting her mouth, Veevi summons up a petulant toss her her long, pink hair to the side, and promptly spins around. With a defiant flick of her tail, she shoves through the front door. A loud, muffled slam sounds out, and members of the Flames of the Phoenix notice. Chad shakes his head, puts the black, dinged and dented sports utility vehicle into reverse, and backs out on the main road.

Inside the house, Veevi peeks out the gaps between blinds, and narrows her pink pupil gaze. She watches the chaos of Next Adventurers of Nexus vans rolling out after the Flames of the Phoenix, and other crew members scrambling. From the kitchen archway, Urdi aims a directional microphone, Radnae trains a camera towards the front door, and Harris maintains a watchful eye over the scene. Veevi turns around and slowly steps towards the couch. She punctuates her dump upon the couch with a long, dramatic growl, and frowns out a clashing mix of disappointment and irritation. Her attention shifts to the remote on the coffee table, and she swipes the device between her sharp nailed fingers. Minutes of idle, apathetic surfing pass, with her fuzzy ears perking towards the front door. As the sounds in and surrounding the house grow stagnant, a sly smirk creeps out, and her eyes sneak towards the camera crew waiting in the kitchen.

Veevi springs up from the couch with a defiant, sharp grin, and her long, short-haired, pink tail flicks up into an eager wag. Stepping out into an ideal camera angle, she struts with a sinister giggle straight to the kitchen archway. Harris guides Urdi and Radnae out of the way and into new positions. Veevi skips into the kitchen, and springs up towards the refrigerator. In one swift motion, she yanks the fridge door open, and slowly surveys the contents inside. Her eyes narrow suspiciously, and she leans forward while reaching deep inside. A devious smile springs wide on her face, and she slowly works her arm out. She perks a curious brow at the brown glass bottle in her grasp, and puzzles at the grath writing on the label. Shrugging her shoulders, she jams the top of the bottle underneath a drawer handle, and pries the cap off. Sniffing the aroma from the lip, she shrugs her shoulders pours back a long swig. Pausing thoughtfully, she ponders her impressions of the brew, and quirks an intrigued brow. Her attention gradually shifts up to the upper cabinets above the refrigerator. Placing the grath beer off to the side, she crawls up upon the counter top, and searches the top of the fridge. Finding a clear space, she opens up the upper cabinets, and peers inside. Digging through the random kitchen fodder, her hand pats around the recesses of the space. Her growing frustration halts, and her eyes spring open in delight. She angles her arm through the mess of random dusty boxes and cans, and retrieves an elaborately decorated cardboard box.

Easing herself back to the floor, she studies the container’s elaborate construction, the fanciful emin script, and the enticing imagery of chocolate, caramel, cream, and red fruits upon tiny cookies and cakes. A sinister grin sparks an evil glint in Veevi’s eyes, and she slowly lifts the lid. She draws in long breaths through her nose as the surrounding air mixes with the bouquet inside. With the lid in her other hand, Veevi licks her lips as she greedily studies the nearly untouched selection of treats. Resting the bounty upon the counter top, she plucks her choice from the gamut. Swiftly popping the cookie in her mouth, she giggles in shameless delight.

Savoring the moment, she rests the lid back upon the finely crafted box, sweeps up the grath beer, and marches towards the kitchen archway. With Urdi, Radnae, and Harris following behind, Veevi walks confidently up the stairs, and scans the upstairs hallway. She examines Tassilda’s bedroom door, grips door knob, and twists. The door remains securely closed, and Veevi hums in thought. She drinks down long swig of the beer, blinks in surprise at the flavor, and settles her attention back at the door. Kneeling down, she carefully turns the knob. Her fuzzy ears perk to the faint mechanical sounds, while her eyes watch the hints of movement in the gap between door and door jamb.


----

Aristespha, Bach, Sotalia, Cideeda, and Dretphi stand outside a busy cafe. Aristespha glances down at her aetherphone, eyes the decorative signs, and nods. “The Sisters Cafe. The PDF investigators said to meet them inside.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Bach pushes pushes a door, and holds it open. “Well, let’s find them, I guess.”

As the team walks into the entry, each scans the arrangements of tables, chairs, and booths. Locals converse between each other, enjoy a variety of beverages, and eat sandwiches with eclectic sides. A pair of fvalian women with similar dark orange eyes, freckled faces, and burnt sienna, furry ears coordinate themselves within the tight space behind a long counter. One pauses at an archway, calls out in a dialect of fvalian, and waits as the air flow to the kitchen flutters the tufts of her pointed ears. An identical style of fvalian yells out over the ambient din with a trailing grumble. Rolling her eyes, the fvalian woman at the doorway, hoists up a tray nearby, and balances herself over to the register with a forming line of customers.

Cideeda and Sotalia exchange glances and quietly share snickers as the sassy fvalian conversation bounces between the two fvalian women in front and the voice in the back. Bach whispers between Sotalia and Cideeda, and furrows his curious brow. “What’s going on over there?”

Cideeda shakes her head of short multi-color air, and glances her emerald green eyes up at Bach. “Nothing. Just a bunch of sisters bickering at each other.”

With a reminiscent giggle, Sotalia crosses her arms and smiles at Bach. “Reminds me of my sisters. Gods, I would never think of working with either of them. We’d tear each other apart before the day was out.”

She narrows her golden eyed gaze towards the counter, observes the fvalian woman, and listens to the conversation with her pointy ears. “I think the older one is running the register.”

Gradually nodding, Cideeda smirks, and glances up to Sotalia. “Yeah. She is ordering the other two around.”

Aristespha studies her aetherphone, reads a message, and overlooks the layout of the cafe. Her search locates a separate dining area through a set of double doors. From a large table inside, an older Perimeter Defense Force officer waves towards the team, and smiles through his bearded face. Signaling the direction to the rest of the group, Aristespha navigates down the walkway between tables and booths. “Found them.”

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Sotalia, and Dretphi weave through the busy and cramp layout of talking patrons and locals idly staring a tablets and laptops with fanciful mixes of tea and coffees. Sotalia spots an elaborate, colorful concoction in a large mug, and mutters to herself. “Oh. That one looks too good.”

Dretphi glances between the different entrees, sides, and treats, and ponders out loud. “Good selection. Simple. Well made.”

Her steely gray eyes focus upon a few desserts, and she eagerly smiles while covering her mouth. “They have those...”

Filing into the side dining area, the older officer stands, and motions the team to chairs surrounding a long table. “Well, you all look the parts from your guild descriptions. Have a seat.”

He points to himself and chuckles with a smirk as he waves casually to his badge. “Officially, Perimeter Defense Force Senior Investigator Calvin Savage. Please, just call me Calvin.”

He gestures towards a woman with very long, fuzzy ears, and long, braided multi-color hair. “This is Investigator Treevianna Murimakti.”

Treevianna bows slightly, gazes over the group with her aquamarine eyes, and presents a pleasant smile on her blue hinted, tan face. “As with Calvin, Treevianna is perfectly fine.”

The rest of the team introduces themselves around the table before everyone takes their seats. Sebastian’s voice greets the officers from the sword at Aristespha’s side. “Calvin, Treevianna. Just to get this out of the way... I hoped you’ve been informed of my state of being?”

Calvin blinks blankly for a moment, recovers from the initial surprise, and laughs lightly. “I have. But, I didn’t really know what to expect.”

Treevianna suspiciously eyes the sword as Aristespha props it up in an empty seat, and twists her mouth. “We’ve been told you can project yourself?”

Sebastian’s voice resonates from the holstered blade. “Yes. But, I try not to do so if I think it might upset bystanders. One less thing we need to explain. And, far less drama.”

Treevianna nods, and Calvin resettles into his seat. Tugging his leg back to a comfortable position under the table, he stretches out his back with a smile. “So, straight to business first, and then we can enjoy our lunches?”

Aristespha motions her head towards the busy cafe through the doorway, and lifts an intrigued brow. “To be honest, we are a little curious about meeting at a cafe. Any particular reason why?”

Calvin grins with a snort, and shrugs his shoulders. “A few. I’ve helped the sisters who own this place over the years, so they don’t mind me using this private party room during off hours. It’s secluded enough for most conversations I’d have at this level.”

He chuckles and rolls his eyes. “And... Truthfully, with the people I have to deal with most the time, a promise of a nice lunch here gets them to show up more often than crappy coffee at the head PDF office.”

Treevianna sighs with a reluctant smirk, and shakes her head. “It has proven quite effective.”

Reaching towards the floor next to him, Calvin hoists a satchel into his lap, and opens it up. “Well, let’s get the business out of the way. We’ve been tracking Mr. Isaac Huxley indirectly by where his new ride has been seen on the traffic cams.”

As Calvin arranges folders, printouts, maps, and data drives on the table, Treevianna glances over the team. “It has been a slow process. While we don’t know the exact places he has been, we have been able to narrow it down to a few areas he has visited for significant amounts of time. We investigated possible sites in some areas we could easily determine and verify. Hence, we have checked his motel room and locations he visit for meals.”

Sebastian’s voice resonates from the blade with a hopeful tone. “Any chances he’s still somewhere in Perimeter?”

Sliding the collection of documents and data to the awaiting team, Calvin grits his teeth briefly, and sighs with a shake of his head. “Wouldn’t count on it. Good news, we haven’t caught any video of him hitting the docks or leaving out any northern routes. There's only a few routes to those places, so I think he hasn’t left back north or tried to leave by sea.”

He draws in a long breath, and frowns slightly as he signals to the patient Treevianna. “But... Despite that...”

Treevianna straightens up her posture, and addresses the team in a serious tone. “The border area between Perimeter and the Perimeter Weird Zone is mostly unrestricted. While there are official exit gates upon main roads, there are plenty of side routes that have no monitoring.”

She frowns sternly, and interlocks her fingers in front of her upon the tabletop. “He nor his vehicle have shown up on city traffic cameras or monitoring stations for the last few weeks. We assume he has left Perimeter for the PWZ. But, we cannot confirm how or where.”

Sebastian’s ethereal sigh sounds out from the sword. “Makes sense.”

Studying a map Dretphi unfolds upon the table between the team, Bach twist his mouth in thought and cocks his head to the side. “Well, it’s also one of the major draws to this area. Isaac goes to strange magical places. And, the biggest weird zone around sounds like something that might be on his list, I guess?”

Cideeda curls her claw tips under an enlarged picture of a blue all terrain vehicle, scrutinizes the details of the image, and flicks her tail with her thoughts. “He wouldn’t have traded out his sedan down here for something designed for off road, UNLESS he was going to use it.”

Dretphi leans over to study the locations of traffic cameras and visually traces the major routes between intersections. She angles her head over to the conversation and comments. “He came here for a reason. The zone. He could have gone other places to escape. Could have abandoned his car.”

Unplugging a data drive from her tablet, Aristespha retrieves another storage device, connects it, and gazes her violet eyes over to both Calvin and Treevianna. “He retrieved something from the Grand Library, stopped in Amaranth Valley, and immediately headed here. We are assuming some connection.”

Bach passes a smaller map to the curious Sotalia, and eyes over a printout. “Yeah, and despite the fact we practically ran him out of town, he came straight HERE. So, something important is down here. But... We’re still trying to figure out exactly what.”

Calvin and Treevianna nod in agreement and watch the team study the materials. Sotalia’s golden eyes narrow upon a circled section with timestamp notes, and she taps a long, thick black nail upon the label on a business location within. “What’s this Lady Rhian’s Shoppe of Magic and Treasures?”

Quirking his brow, Calvin tilts his head to the side and smiles. “Lady Rhian deals in a lot of magical curios and supplies. She’s fairly knowledgeable about what comes out of the zone, and knows a few runners.”

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi notice the blatant interest piquing on Sotalia’s face, with looming trepidation. Treevianna glances towards the smaller map in front of Sotalia, and nods as she explains. “Isaac was extensively in that area a few times. But, there’s a large open market in the middle of the surrounding commercial buildings that cater to people who deal with the zone and adventurers. Without context to Isaac’s motivations, we held off investigating that area, until we met with all of you.”

Dretphi glances over the team. “He had to resupply. We left him no opportunity.”

Sebastian’s voice sounds out from the blade. “I agree. We’ll definitely need to check that area out tomorrow.”

An eager grin sneaks out onto Sotalia’s face, and she taps info into her aetherphone. “Oh, we need to stop by Lady Rhian’s Shop.”

A wave of quiet fills the room, and faint suspicion focuses Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi upon Sotalia. Moments later, Sotalia meets the attention from the rest of the team, rolls her golden eyes, and groans defensively. “If you are going to the zone, why not talk to someone who has experience with what comes out of the zone. Who am I going to go to for special supplies? Some random street merchant, or someone doing well enough to have proper building?”

Cideeda tugs at the corner of her mouth, crosses her arms, and shrugs her shoulders. “She has a point. If you are unfamiliar with the market in the area, you’re better off going to someone established, than someone who can pack up overnight.”

Calvin nods in agreement, and smiles reassuringly. “Also, Lady Rhian knows Mavian, and he has extensive experience going deep into the zone. So, if he’s around, he’d be a good one to talk to.”

Bach surveys the amount of information on the table top, and directs his voice towards the sword. “So, I guess that’s definitely a place to visit tomorrow. I mean, there’s a lot here we need to go through.”

With a hearty chuckle, Calvin shakes his head. “Yeah. I don’t envy you all. It was hell to compile that much. But, hopefully, we’ll have a few more useful leads once we get done sorting through the last clues we’ve found. We’ll finish that up tomorrow and compare notes later.”

He glances out the doorway, spies a few fresh entrees emerging from the kitchen, and addresses the group. “I know I said business first... But, you all against getting our drink orders in?”

The team exchange quick glances, and show no contest. Sotalia snaps her glance out at a familiar beverage freshly made upon the counter, and directs Calvin and Treevianna’s attention. “Speaking of, what is THAT? I think I want one.”

Treevianna spots the drink, cracks a smile, and nods to Sotalia. “You do. It’s wonderful. Calvin got me hooked on them. They’re called-”

She speaks out an elaborate term in fvalian. Sotalia and Cideeda perk up, and both ask questions between gestures about the ingredients and creation of the treat. Bach, Dretphi, and Aristespha glance at her each, and curiously watch the conversation between Cideeda, Sotalia, and Treevianna, while Calvin snorts and shakes his head.


----

In the far corner of a large super-market parking lot, Marcus paces in the open field near a run-down, old van. He combs his slicked back hair with his fingers, and sighs. “We just got THIS week left. We NEED to do something!”

Cind crosses her dark gray arms, shuffles upon the cab floor of the van, and draws her legs back through the open side door. “I don’t know. We REALLY need to get back to High Alton. It’ll take us a few days to get back up there. Then, we have to get ready for classes once we get into our dorms.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Kell scratches his shaggy beard, twists his face into a grimace, and furrows an uncertain purple on black eyed stare towards Marcus. “Yeah, man. I think our chances of doing something big have dried up. But, I mean, it’s not like we haven’t tried. And you know, it’s been kind of cool overall. Got to see one of the biggest dragons up close, and it seems like he’s treated pretty good.”

With an agreeing nod, Cind smiles reassuringly towards Marcus. “Kell is right. I mean. We can plan something during our Fall break. Or, maybe the we can work with another dragon rights group and join them on a demonstration.”

Kell smirks while he picks at a chipped section of one of his horns. “Yeah. I’m all for a good cause, but I think we’re looking in the wrong place.”

Marcus closes his dark brown eyes tightly, rubs either side of his nose, and groans. “Maybe- I- Well- Dammit...”

He draws in a long breath, stops pacing while straightening his back, and address the duo sitting out the open van side door. “We’ll never do anything big with the People for Dragons’ Rights, if we don’t do something worthwhile. I just wanted to check out something before we head back.”

Kell and Cind glance to each other, and settle their attention upon Marcus. Cind tosses her braided red hair to the side, and blinks her bright blue eyes curiously. “Okay... I mean, I think we should have time for one thing?”

Contemplatively, Kell furrows his brow, and eventually shrugs his shoulders. “Yeah, I guess? We still need to get enough donation money to fill up the van for the trip back, and stock up on some noddle packs.”

A hopeful smile forms on Marcus’s face, and he rubs his hands together. “Good. Okay. Here’s what I think we should do. We need to check on that small amber dragon, and do a home visit.”

Kell lowers his brow tightly over his purple on black eyes, and focuses a suspicious, unconvinced stare upon Marcus. Cind flits her bright blue eyes wide open, sours her face into an uneasy grimace, and slowly shakes her head. “Uh, Marcus? I don’t think that’s the best idea... like... ever.”

Crossing his faintly purple tinted, light gray arms, Kell searches through the surges of hesitation in his mind, and scratches his long black nailed fingers through his unkempt black hair. “Yeah. Seriously. Really? I mean- I’m all for dragon rights, man. But, I think that one is being treated pretty nicely from what little we saw driving by those few times. They were teaching little guy how to fly. It was pretty nice.”

Working against the conflicting moods, Marcus dons an understanding tone, and organizes his plan. “Yeah. That’s what it looked like from those small, brief moments we saw. But, we don’t know. And, since we are still in the area... We should check it out.”

Cind wrestles with the notion visibly, squirms uncertainly, and grumbles out her reservations. “I guess. I would feel bad if we didn’t make sure and the little thing was being mistreated. But! I don’t want to do anything more than that. If there’s nothing wrong, then we head straight back to High Alton.”

Kell nods in agreement with Cind, and narrows a stern stare upon Marcus. “Yeah. And, I don’t know. That amber guy was pretty small to be a dragon. I think he may be a really big whelp.”

He grits his teeth briefly, and eases out an undecided groan. “Man... I don’t think we’ll have the time to, like, find where they live. It’s Tuesday, and classes start next week on Monday. It’ll take us two days to get back to High Alton. Cutting it close, my friend.”

Marcus nods understandingly, waves down the rising concern, and draws in a long breath to a confident grin. “Totally understand. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll spend the rest of the day collecting donations, and be on the look out for the father. I’ve seen him a number of times and that same truck. He seems to stop by here for stuff a lot. If he stops by today, we’ll tag behind him, and find out where he lives.”

With dramatic waves of his arms to the sides, he smiles reassuringly with a nonchalant tone. “Before we head out to High Alton tomorrow, we sneak nearby, make sure the little dragon is being treated right. Then, we continue on our way. We’ve done our due diligence, and can drive back happy.”

Cind tugs at the frayed edges of her shorts, processes the plan between shifting grimaces, and releases a marginally sated sigh. “Okay. That’s sounds okay. If we can, we check, and then leave. I can do that.”

Marcus adjusts his gaze towards Kell. Loosening his firm resolve, Kell’s exterior relaxes and a smirk appears on his face. Brushing some of unkempt hair around his broken horn, he shrugs his shoulders and chuckles. “Okay, man. I’m good with that. If the girl is treating him good all the time, I’ll be pretty happy.”

Clasping his hands together, Marcus loosens the tension from his back, and nods appreciatively. “Great. Thanks. Now... We got some donations to collect.”


----

Flicking her tail side to side, Veevi wedges the unraveled end of a wire coat hanger in the tight gap between frame and door. Gritting her sharp teeth expectantly, she narrows her pink pupil eyes upon the locked door, and her fuzzy ears twitch with each mechanical noise. Holding back her swelling frustration, she concentrates and observes the door’s rattles against the scarred up jamb. Shoving a plastic card into the divide, a soft clunk sounds out, and the door shifts inwards. Blinking in surprise, Veevi gently leans her shoulder into the door, keeps the card and coat hanger in place. The door slowly swings open into the room and reveals an orderly space with bits of finer decoration.

Veevi carefully steps into room. She notices the desk with organized tomes of magic, neatly arranged stacks of recipes, and collections of packaged reagents. Walking further into the space, she wanders towards a vanity with an array of nail and horn care products. With a curious perk of her dark pink eyebrow, she picks up a few glass bottles, squints at the emin script, and puzzles. She swirls one container, and studies the darker polish inside.

Bracing upon the door frame, Radnae angles his camera inside Tassilda’s room. Urdi sneaks a boom microphone through the archway. Meanwhile, Harris points out Veevi, and quietly hand signals his instructions. As the crew readies themselves, Veevi finishes carefully brushing a coat of black polish on her pointed thumbnail, and observes. Seconds later, the fresh coating solidifies to an even, clean covering with a muted sheen. A satisfied smirk appears on Veevi’s tan face, and she caps the chosen bottle, and pockets the prize in her tight fitting shorts.

Veevi pivots in place and scouts out the rest of the room. Her gaze shifts between finely made cloaks upon a coat rack, pictures upon the dresser, and the intricate pattern of the bed spread. Stepping up to bed, Veevi brushes her sharp nailed fingers along the surface of the sheets, and furrows her brow. She feels the material more, and cocks her head. With a hop up, she lands down up the bed, and stretches out upon the comforter. Sliding up to the many pillows, she settles down and gazes up at the ceiling. She drifts off into her own thoughts while her eyes hunt around the different points of interests in the room. Sneering her upper lip, she squirms upon the top of the bed, fidgets uncomfortably, and rocks side to side puzzling. She sits up, glares down at the bed, and presses down hard in different places. Dropping off to the side of the bed, she reaches between the mattress and box, and her fuzzy ears flick up. She pulls out a plain, leather bound book. Slowly opening the thick tome, her eyes widen at pages upon pages of magical script and handwritten notation. A sinister grin parts her lips, and she giggles her dark satisfaction. Tucking the book under her arm, she steps quickly out the room, as the camera crew parts.

Veevi rushes off into her bedroom, and emerges out moments later. Gauging her interest between the other doors, she snatches the wire coat hanger and plastic card outside Tassilda’s bedroom, and skips over towards Trakenthin’s door. With a surge of confidence, she goes through similar steps, and promptly bypasses the bolt of the older, worn lock. Pausing briefly, Veevi tilts her head to the side in genuine surprise, and pushes the door open. With the camera crew following behind her, she glances around at the functional layout, sections of deliberate chaos, and modest organization scattered throughout. Veevi idly wanders around the room, picking though clothes, checking out practice gear, and tapping the keys of a secured laptop. Her suspecting gaze slides over towards the underside of Trakenthin’s bed, and an evil smile appears. She drops down on the carpeted floor, and peeks underneath the wooden bed frame. Reaching underneath, she slides out a metal ammo container. Unlatching the lid, she furrows her brow bewildered, and reads a label on a smaller box inside. “Two millimeter... electromagnetic cartridge...?”

Veevi blinks in surprise, and hunts excitedly around the area with a wild, eager glint in her eyes. “Trakenthin has gun?! Where?”

She rummages under the bed, wiggles deeper underneath the frame, and scrambles around. Minutes later, she backs out through scattered piles of paperback and hardback books. She sits up, crosses her arms, and huffs out a disappointed frown. Her pink furred tail whips side to side, and she grimaces while surveying the mess around her. Settling her attention upon an ornate, thin wooden box, she slides off the lid and stares at a collection of paper pads. Flipping through the sheets, she cocks her head at pages of prose, notes, and space themed sketches. Resting the lid back down, she sits pondering the box in front of her. Moments later, a sly smirk cracks from the corner of her mouth, and she grips hold of the wooden container tightly. She bolts out through the camera crew, and into her room.

Strutting out into the hallway, she marches down towards the end, straight to Modoran’s door. With coat hanger in hand, she readies the mangled tip of the wire, and drives in it. The metal gouges the wood of the frame and flush fitting door. Veevi gawks incredulously, leans close to the door lock, and twists her mouth. Glancing at the other entrances, Veevi puzzles at the stiff, immobile door knob, and the door secure and tight against the jambs. The camera crews draw in closer, and focuses upon the futile attempts at Veevi to twist, pry, and jimmy the door. After a few minutes scratching the surfaces, Veevi snorts out her begrudging defeat, and steps back. Pivoting in place, she pauses her gaze at Deedri’s bedroom door.

An uncomfortable grimace creeps out from behind Veevi’s prideful facade, and her stare at the entry softens. Shifting her eyes briefly at the attention from the camera, she steps up to the door, positions herself to hide her hesitance, and carefully slips the coat hanger tool into gap next to the door lock. With a halfhearted effort, she dramatically wiggles the wire around the jamb and bolt near the knob, and grumbles out loud. “Damn, this lock is just as bad-”

The coat hanger end catches between erratic jiggles, the wire tip yanks the bolt clear, and the door slides inwards. Veevi’s eyes flit wide in a surge of shock, and she sneaks a peek at Radnae, Urdi, and Harris closing in. Mustering up her resolve, she projects her confidence, and pushes into the room. As Radnae and Urdi move forward, Harris hold both in place by their shoulders. “That’s as close as we can get to this room.”

Veevi steps slowly into the room, and squirms uneasily. She drifts her gaze around the area, spotting a desk of neatly organized files and records, a table top of spare medical supplies with reference books, and a plain, simple bed. Glancing over her shoulder at the crew, Veevi wanders aimlessly around, respectfully examining random items out in the open, and acting unimpressed. With deliberation on her face out of view, she kneels down behind the bed, and glances underneath. Easing a nervous breath out, she searches underneath carefully and purposefully slow. Knocking her hand loudly against the frame, and shuffling items around for the noise, she mutters incoherently and acts out a fruitless search. After a few minutes, she neatly places everything back, and starts to get up.

Her eyes spot a large accordion folder hidden between the wall and base of the headboard. She grimaces uneasily and stiffens her expression against waves of hesitation. Reaching out as her resolve crumbles against curiosity, she slides out the thick, treated cardboard container. Unwrapping the binding cord, she flips up the flap, and spreads open the individual sections. Sorting through, she slowly pulls out a piece of thick stock with intricate design work encompassing fanciful calligraphy. Veevi’s eyes trace the official wording across the document, the list of titles, and the array of certification seals. Her gaze softens and hints of a smile sneak out as she returns the degree. Walking her fingers along the folder divisions, she lifts up a large bundle of paperwork. Moments later her eyes widen as the monetary amounts, interest rates, and payments schedules visibly shake her. Dropping the promissory note back in the pocket with disgusted shake of her hand, she reaches down into to the last section, and pulls up a bundle of photographs. Veevi rests her eyes upon an image of Deedri proudly holding up a document while wearing a graduation gown. Behind Deedri, an older fvalian woman sharing similar features, smiles with her arm wrapped around lovingly. A genuine smile breaks out on Veevi’s tan face and she sniffs a few times. She plucks out a smaller picture hanging out from the bundle, and studies it. Her gaze softens, her eyes water, and a frown weighs heavily on her face. Her fuzzy ears droop to the sides, and a long, pained sigh sneaks out of her breath as she stares at the image of Deedri in the same gown, shedding tears while hugging an older fvalian man with similar auburn eyes.

Veevi’s ears perk up at the sounds of Urdi, Radnae, and Harris whispering. She replaces the items, rebinds the accordion folder, and gently hides it back. Working off the sadness in her expression, she musters up a bold demeanor, and springs up with a brash, dismissive tone. “Good fucking gods! There’s nothing, but medical texts and other nerdy shit. My head hurts just from looking at that.”

Strutting straight towards the exit, she pushes through the camera team, pivots sharply, and walks down the stairs with her expression wavering. “I think I need a beer and few more chocolates.”


----

People walk along the sidewalks between tall store fronts. Groups of people wander between advertising displays. And, traffic flows up and down the street. The distant drone of open market trading and discussions waft over the surrounding buildings, and drift down upon the team. Aristespha, Sotalia, Cideeda, Dretphi and Bach walk along the pavement. Bach glances up to keep his bearings while keeping pace behind Dretphi. He rolls his eyes and listens to the aetherphone against his ear. “Yeah, dad. I’ve tried a few of those spells. But, I’m still a little rusty on those bigger ones... Yeah- I- Yes. I tried that.”

He pinches the bridge of nose, angles the end of the phone away, and draws in a long breath. Rocking his head side to side, he grimaces briefly, and returns the mouthpiece close. “Okay, I’ll give it a try. I’m just taking it slow, and working my way back up to those again. And, I’m kind of focused on getting Sebastian back to normal.”

With snort, he grins and chuckles. “Well, as normal as he’s ever been. But, we’ll see how close we can get. Hell, it might even be an improvement.”

Sebastian’s voice resonates from the sword at Aristespha’s side. “I fuckin’ heard that, asshole.”

Nodding at the conversation, a spark of relief graces Bach’s face and he laughs. “Totally understand, dad. We’re about to do something, too. I’ll let you go do that. ... Yeah? ... Okay, I’ll let him know. ... Love you, too. Bye.”

Peeling the aetherphone off his ear, Bach shakes his head and grumbles. “Good gods, he must have been saving all that up for him to talk for that long. Rarely goes longer than fifteen minutes usually.”

He direct his voice to the sheathed sword at Aristespha’s side and snorts. “Sebastian, dad wants you to give him a call whenever you can arrange it.”

Aristespha shakes her head, and twists a frown with an annoyed grumble. “He has THE most unique ability to call at the worst times. And, when you return the call, he never answers!”

Sebastian’s voice sounds out with a humored tint. “Whenever you are eating or shitting. Never any other time. And, I swear he must turn the phone off after he makes a call. That’s the only explanation... Gods...”

Sotalia points towards a hanging wooden sign, and gazes upon the decorative lettering with a glint in her golden eyes. “There it is! Lady Rhian’s Shoppe of Magic and Treasures. Oh! I can’t wait.”

She darts ahead of the pack, pivots to stand in front of the large, ornately carved wooden doors, and smiles brightly. She pushes through the doors, and a faint chime rings out from in the shop. Aristespha, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Bach follow behind seconds later. Inside, Sotalia ambles ahead and gawks. She glances over the odd items and strange kitsch covering heavy tables in the middle areas. She scans down the long side paths of commercial products and unique offerings filling the tall shelves. Moving forward, her path wanders between the draw of colorful magic displays, and the allure of unlabeled artifacts behind glass. As the rest of the team comprehends the contents of the shop, Bach leans towards the middle of the group and whispers while motioning to Sotalia. “I think we’ve made a mistake...”

Aristespha smiles tightly and nods as she draws in breath through teeth. “It was either this or the open market today. I don’t know which would be the greater evil.”

Shifting her emerald eyes between the products, Cideeda tugs at the corner of her mouth and rests her hands on her hips. “May the gods have mercy upon her bank account.”

Bach glances around. “Maybe I should stay with her to-”

The team notices Sotalia’s absence. The group spreads out slowly, scanning around for signs of fiery orange, wavy hair, swept back horns, or a cloak zipping around the corner. After minutes of slow progression around the middle tables of magical merchandise, Dretphi lifts an unamused brow and points towards the back of the store.

The group walks up to the counter behind Sotalia. While organizing her freshly shopped pile of magical knickknacks upon the counter, Sotalia grins happily at the prominent display cases filled with strange and unique artifacts along the back wall. From around an archway, an evuukian woman with long, flowing crimson and gold blended hair appears with an attentive, bright orange eyed gaze assessing the situation. With particular interest towards Sotalia, she approaches the counter, and grins. “Hello, everyone. Welcome to Lady Rhian’s Shoppe of Magic and Treasures. I am Lady Rhian. And, I can tell YOU are a discerning customer.”

Sotalia glances over to Rhian, and smiles. “You could say that. I’m definitely interested in hearing all about your more unique selections. I have nieces and nephews that are depending on their aunt to bring them the best wonders of the zone.”

Rhian smiles confidently, and shifts her gaze to the rest of the group. “I definitely can assist you in that quest. Now, what do you all desire? I’m sure I have it.”

Aristespha furrows an examining brow, straightens her stance, and taps on her aetherphone. “We wanted to ask a few questions.”

Resting her hands on the counter, Rhian focuses her attention upon Aristespha, and tilts her head to the side. “Of course. What questions do you have?”

Aristespha presents the screen of her aetherphone toward Rhian. “Have you seen a man by the name of Isaac Huxley, lately?”

Cideeda’s emerald stare narrows at the faint hints of recognition upon Rhian’s face. Rhian’s smile flattens, and she shifts her weight back as she crosses of her arms. “I’m not one to talk about any who may, or may not, have entered my shop. Without GOOD reason.”

Sotalia frowns, draws in a long breath, and glares at Rhian. “What if the Dark Lord Noxian walked right in here?”

Rhian’s eyes flit wide and she squints incredulously at Sotalia. “What?! I think I would know if THE recent Dark Lord wandered into MY shop!”

Bach sighs, gazes at Rhian, and explains. “He doesn’t wear that mask like he did in the news anymore. Um, listen, did you see an older man with white hair, wearing blue scarf around his neck? Spoke like he has an academic background?”

The stoic facade on Rhian’s face crumbles a bit, and worry leaks out. Bach draws in a breath and scratches the back of his head. “Maybe he mentioned going into the zone, looking for something?”

Rhian blinks as her mind visually juggles facts and memories, and her stubbornness shields. “Plenty of different people want to go into zone. Your point being? It's not my business to discuss other people's business.”

Bach calls down to the sword at Aristespha’s side. “Hey, Sebastian, can you help us here?”

Sebastian’s voice resonates out. “Yeah, bro. I was thinking about it, too.”

The ethereal visage of Sebastian materializes out into an empty space in front of the counter, and he bows towards Rhian with a bold smile. “Sorry for the surprise, but I think this might provide a good reason quicker?”

Rhian’s jaw drops and she slowly nods her head. “Uh... Um... Actually, it does... Oh gods... You’re Sebastian Warwick. The chosen one? Of the sword... I remember seeing you in the news months back. I thought you were killed!”

Awkwardly grinning, Sebastian shrugs with a comforting laugh. “Well, so did I. But, long story short, that wasn’t the case.”

Searching her mind, recent memories flood her thoughts and Rhian gasps in shock. “Oh gods, Mavian! Oh my gods, I can’t believe- I’ve got to try to contact him and-”

Aristespha cranes her head around and focuses her violet eyes right at Rhian’s bright orange eyes. “It’s okay. Very likely, Isaac will not harm your friend. Despite his goals and motivations, he’s shown great regard for the safety of others and is very reluctant to harm anyone. Your friend should be safe.”

Sebastian presses his mouth shut, crosses his arms, and maintains an even tempered expression. Rhian slowly collects herself, and musters up her composure. “Okay. Sorry. A lot hit my mind. But, you are right. Isaac seemed very nice. Mavian knows how to handle himself.”

Pressing her hands firmly upon the counter top, she straightens her back, and draws in a long breath. "And last, I heard him a week ago... He hadn't seen Issac in Precipice yet. So... Okay..."

Gathering her thoughts, she returns her attention to the team before her. “So, what do you need from me?”

Sebastian glances over the group, and asks Rhian. “Information, first off. Anything you remember that could be useful in finding Isaac.”

Rhian swallows hard, and flutter her eyes. “Done. I just need to calm my mind a bit, then I’ll work on remembering all I can. It’s been a number of weeks, so the details are hazy right now. I do remember he got zone running supplies.”

Dretphi cocks her head to the side in thought. “We may need similar.”

An entrepreneurial smiles gradually recovers on Rhian’s light face, and she chuckles. “I have plenty in stock for sale. And, I exactly remember what package I sold Isaac.”

Cideeda perks her furry ears, wags her long tail, and cracks a toothy grin. “A friendly discount might assist us.”

Rhian shifts her gaze towards Cideeda, evaluates her, and smirks intrigued. “I’ll consider it.”

Bach lifts a curious brow and speaks with a appreciative tone. “Rhian, could you get us in contact with Mavian? So, we can see if we can warn him and check on him?

Her expression softens, and Rhian gazes at Bach. “Yes. He is in the zone. It’s hard to contact him from here. I might get lucky if the relays are working properly and he just happens to be in range. Chances are the best I can do is leave a message he might pick up at some point. But, if you are going into the zone, you might be able to contact him sooner.”

Bach smiles to Rhian and reassures. “I mean, we’ll definitely try to get in contact with him, and make sure he’s okay.”

Relief calms Rhian, and she relaxes. “Thank you. I do appreciate the effort. He’s hard to contact at times.”

She shifts her stare over to Cideeda, and wrestles between grimaces. “Twenty percent discount on the supplies. The best I’ll offer, with the condition you contact my- um- Mavian, and let me know he’s okay.”

Nodding appreciatively, Cideeda smirks satisfied. “That’s fair. I'll see if I can convince him to call you.”

Rhian rests her hands on her hips with an appreciate nod. She shifts her attention to Sotalia, and surveys the merchandise on the counter. “Now, let me collect my thoughts as I make some sales, and we’ll talk more.”

Sotalia studies the bounty of trinkets in front her, frowns, and crosses her arms. “Do you have any means of shipping these reliably? I want to make sure they get to my little ones.”

An enterprising grin widens across Rhian’s face, and she tosses her hair back confidently. “Why, of course! I actually offer a gift wrap, packing, and shipping service... for a modest fee.”

Cideeda analyzes Rhian’s demeanor, and thinks with the flicks of her furry ears. A spark lights up emerald eyes, and she smiles slyly. “Could the fees be waived with adequate trade of marketable artifacts?”

Rhian slowly pivots, studies Cideeda, and twitches her very long ears. “Possibly? What do you have to offer, that I don’t have?”

Bach startles, glances down at his forearm, and feels five claw tips lightly pull him over. He steps over next to Cideeda, and narrows a suspecting stare at her. Cideeda grins toothily at Bach with a pleading gaze, and gesturing out a cup. Rolling his eyes, Bach shakes his head with a smirk, and holds his hands together as faint flows of energy condense down into a forming shape. “So, start with some wine glasses? Maybe a tea set? I’ve gotten much better with plates lately.”