-99-

A gentle white glow fills the large room and illuminates the furnishings of the camp site within the ancient walls. A tall man stands at a brewing machine upon a crate and sways his lean frame side to side. As the light brown, hot beverage finishes to a few final drips into a carafe, he grabs the handle and walks over to a small table. He pours an equal share into the mug in front of the seated Isaac and the mug in front of the open seat. The man settles down into the seat, brushes back this stark white, tied hair, and sighs his mild annoyance. “It’s not bad tea, but certainly nothing in comparison to what you can easily get in Perimeter. Hard as hell to get anything out here without it costing your first born or taking months.”

Isaac graciously grabs hold of the cup in front of him, nods respectfully, and chuckles. “Oh, don’t fret Dr. Malkav. After the trek out here, this is absolutely wonderful. Especially after the last few days. Weather around here is pretty aggressive.”

Dr. Malkav narrows his blue eyes with a curl to his smirk. “Gods, Isaac. It’s Max. I appreciate the respect, but no sense in having proper titles out in this wasteland. It’s simpler to yell out when something fucks up, too.”

Blinking his gray eyes, Isaac nods, sips his steaming tea, and laughs. “Yeah. I guess that makes sense. I’ll eventually get used to it.”

Max narrows an inquisitive stare at Isaac and smirks. “It’s just fanciful terms at the end of the day that stroke the egos of some.”

Sampling his drink, he straightens his posture in the wooden chair, cocks his head to the side, and twists the corner of his mouth. “So... What the fuck brings you out here?”

With a smile, Isaac chuckles lightly as he explains. “Well, the short answer is Emanuel directed me to your backup notes. After acquiring them from where you hid them in the computer science building, we both reviewed them. It took some effort and travel, but I followed the information. It finally lead me here after searching.”

Max settles back into his chair, sips his tea long, and focuses an examining stare upon Isaac. “Okay, that explains the how... How about the WHY? Care to share those details? What’s the reason for coming out all this way through hell’s backyard? I’m certain it’s not just socialize and catch up.”

Propping up a smirk, Isaac uneasily contorts his face, and eases out a sigh. “To be honest, both Emanuel and I were extremely curious as to what you had discovered out here. Given that there was no easy way to contact you and not receiving a new update for some time, I decided to come out to you. Partly to learn and partly to find out if you were still among the living.”

Max taps a light tan finger upon the side of his mug of tea, rocks his head slowly shoulder to shoulder, and thoughtfully studies Isaac. After a minute, he sighs with a brief grit of his teeth, and grumbles. “Pardon my paranoia, but while I do believe all of what you’ve said... There’s more. So, stop bullshitting me already. I may have been out in middle of nowhere for years, but that doesn’t mean I’ve completely lost my gods damned mind.”

He leans forward, glares into Isaac’s eyes, and frowns. “Why the fuck would Emanuel even let you know about my stash? What did you present to him that convinced him this was the best course of action?”

Isaac maintains eye contact with Max, lifts his head of wispy white hair up, and squints with a pull at the corner of his mouth. “A very interesting development in the subject of Elder Energy, specifically a new source of it.”

Flitting his blue eyes wide, Max slowly pulls his gaze back, settles back into his chair, and searches his mind. He contorts his face in thought, glances back to Isaac a few times, and gradually nods. “Yeah... That would probably convince Emanuel and lead the both of you to my stash.”

He narrows an examining stare through Isaac, cracks sly grin, and chuckles. “And given your activities under your alter ego... It would make all to much sense that you would come across such a new discovery.”

Noxian’s gray eyes widen, and he straightens his posture rigid in the chair expectantly. In the moments of tense silence, he quietly examines Max, and darts his eyes around the room in sprints of paranoia. Max shakes his head, rolls his eyes dismissively, and waves of the tension. “Oh please, I’ve had my suspicions for years, especially with THAT scarf around your neck... It’s hard to forget...”

Cocking his head to the side, he forces a nonchalant smile over a flit sadness. “Truthfully, someone going around scooping up the last reserves of elder energy out of the hands of psychos and morons just seems like a much needed clean up effort. Better someone I know rather than any of these self-important government black site idiots.”

With a long regretful sigh, he frowns sadly and slowly shakes his head. “I think we both know what happens when those are left to their own devices for too long.”

Isaac’s expression softens, and he nods in grim agreement. Max shrugs his shoulders, drinks his tea, and gazes over to Isaac. “And, really, at the end of the day, it doesn’t affect anything I’m doing... My digging through ancient junk and leftovers hoping to find something historical.”

A sly grin appears on Max’s face, and he cocks his head to the side. “So, you and Emanuel want to know what I’ve found?”

Blinking back to awareness from an old, painful memories, Isaac snaps his attention fully upon Emanuel. “Oh, yes! Of course. Your notes mentioned finding the place one of the architects for the Abstract Prism retired to?”

With a simple nod, Max rests against the back of his chair, takes a long sip of his tea, and snorts with a smirk. “You could say that. Turns out it was a bit more than that. Whoever came back here was busy carefully scrubbing certain aspects of this place from history. But, I don’t know if they did their job right or not. Because I’ve figured out what this place was.”

Isaac unconsciously leans closer, gripping his mug tightly. “And that is?”

Max grins brightly, and perk his brow. “One of the aether access points used in the construction of the Abstract Prism.”

In sudden silence, Isaac stares blankly at Max. Moments later, flits of thought twitch across his face, and he straightens up in his seat. Searching his mind, he tries to process the information and his eyes dart through different thoughts racing within. He twists his upper body around, glances down the long hallway to the massive chamber, and gawks in awe. He shakes his head out of the stupor, and snaps his wide eyed attention back to Max. “One of THE TWELVE? One of the twelve anchors used to align the prism? HERE?!”

He swings his arm out, points down the hallway, and stares at Max. “There? Down that hall? That massive chamber?”

Max shrugs his shoulders, and snorts. “Yeah. I mean it looks the part, doesn’t it? Just examining the equipment and enchantments, I can barely comprehend the intricacies of such a system. But, I’m limited in what theories I can test in its present state. I mean, the thing runs off of massive amounts of Elder energy ONLY. It doesn’t even react to anything prismatic. I feel that was intentional.”

Blinking hard, Isaac tilts his head to the side, grins eagerly, and chuckles. “Well, I think I might be able to help with that.”

Releasing a long, frustrated sigh, Max shakes his head and frowns. “Unfortunately, it would be a waste of time, effort, and energy. From everything I’ve read up and studied, whatever connection that access point had to the Abstract Prism has long since been severed completely.”

Isaac stares at Max for a few seconds, glances back down the hallway to the huge chamber, and sinks down in his seat. Max smirks and offers a comforting tone. “No sense in feeling bad about something like that. Its fate was decided long before us. From what I learned, those connections were cut a LONG time ago. Fairly certain it was before both our grandparents were even born. And whichever architect decided to live here made sure to cover up a lot of key details to make brute force probing the aether fruitless.”

A begrudging acceptance fills Isaac’s face, and he slowly shakes his head. “That makes sense. I would have been more surprised if it hadn’t been given such a treatment. Oddly, I think I would be disappointed if the architects hadn’t followed up like this.”

Max shrugs his shoulders, motions to a massive array of document piles upon a number of scattered crates, and laughs. “Well, they were very particular in how they followed up. It’s very strange what information they didn’t scrub and seem to have purposely left behind. You are more than welcome to look over it and see if you can divine anything else from it. I can only tolerate it for so long these days.”

Isaac shifts his gaze over to the stacks of papers and other articles, and a surge of eager excitement swells in his face. “Of course! Thank you! That’s wonderful.”

Focusing his inquisitive stare upon Isaac, Max curls the corner of his smirk and narrows his attention. “Before you run off, what’s this new source of Elder Energy you mentioned?”

Pausing briefly in thought, Isaac nods as he opens up his backpack. “Oh yes! It’s absolutely fascinating and has really given me new motivation in my own research. I think new source isn’t the most correct terminology. It’s technically correct, but not the... full picture.”

He retrieves a bundle of documents, places them upon the small table, and smiles eagerly. Max places his tea down to the side, leans forward, and surveys the collection of materials. Flipping through the pages, he sorts sections into separate piles. He halts upon a photograph of a brown haired man carrying a half-emin woman in his arms in the air with a white aura surrounding him. Slowly lifting the picture up, he squints his blue eyes and taps upon the image. “What is going on here?”


----

The doors to the main room of the Precipice Tavern & Inn spring open and Cedric rushes through. He stops in the middle of the entry and waits. Moments later, Ryos pushes open the main door and holds it. A young girl walks in with a doll in her arms, stops in front of Ryos, and bows slightly. “Thank you, Ryos.”

Ryos shyly averts his eyes, nods, and whispers back. “You're welcome, Suzie.”

The robotic doll in Suzie’s arms turns its head, and grants a respectful tip of its small hat. “Appreciate it as always, Ryos.”

Suzie sprints off next to Cedric. Ryos glances around the door and waits. Stepping through the doorway, a humanoid robot brushes off his ragged clothing, and straightens its mechanical form. It gazes down at Ryos with a simple approximation of smile on its battered and chipped mouth display, and bows with the sound of faint servo strain. “Always the gentleman, Ryos. So, how has school been so far today?”

Ryos eases the main door close as the mechanical man side steps. He pivots around, and shrugs his small shoulders. “Good. I guess. We’re learning new words, Mr. Amos.”

Amos’s pair of eye optics refocus upon Ryos and he nods his flat gray, steel head. “Excellent news. The more you learn, the more stories I’ll be able to regale you all with.”

Cedric perks up, and snaps his attention to Amos. “Can you tell another story Mr. Amos!?”

Suzie smiles brightly, hugs the doll in arms tightly, and chimes. “Did you hear that Mr. Ishy! More stories!”

Mr. Ishy rolls his faintly glowing, mechanical eyes, and sighs with a sarcastic tinge. “Oh joy, another inflated tale from the deranged droid.”

Narrowing optic shutters, Amos paints an amused smirk upon his facial display, and emulates the sound of a snort from a speaker. “Oh yes, Ishmael... I think the next one I’ll tell with be particularly grandiose and drawn out. I think my THIRD encounter with a the great four winged blue dragon is in order.”

Ishmael drops its articulated, cloth head forward, and groans out in mild disgust. “Of course... Some new variant of that old tale.”

A mimickery of a smirk pulls upon the soft fabric of Ishmael’s face, and it stares up at Amos. “You should really tell the children of your story with the Great Thudkickers of the West. I think it’s some of your best work.”

Amos shakes his head, crosses his robotic arms, and dismissively averts his gaze. “Of course, the one where I got nearly torn apart by giant psychotic birds.”

Ishmael holds up his simple cloth covered arms. “I think it’s such an underrated classical comedy.”

Suzie frowns slightly, stares down her reddish-brown eyes at Ishmael, and squeezes him gently. “Don’t be mean, Mr. Ishy. I want to hear Mr. Amos’s story.”

Glancing up to Suzie, Ishmael sighs and dons an apologetic tone. “I am sorry. I’ll try to be on my best behavior. I promise.”

He cocks his head to the side, and contorts his brow. “But, before the story, you need to eat lunch, and your mother has given you money to give to Aggie and Elissia.”

Amos nods in agreement and motions Suzie towards the bar. “Well, you better eat, first. Then, I’ll tell you a story before you head back to school.”

Suzie nods, rushes over to Cedric and Ryos. Suzie hands off Ishmael to Ryos, and starts climbing up into the bar stool. Cedric boosts Suzie up the rest of the way by lifting up her shoe, and Ryos passes Ishmael to Suzie’s awaiting arms. Suzie tosses back her braided blonde hair, and smiles thankfully to both Cedric and Ryos when they take their seats. Amos watches Aggie and Elissia greet the children. Slowly searching the large main room and the eclectic collection of furniture, he spots a group of five adventurers sitting around one of the large tables. Brushing off his dusty, ragged clothes, he adjust his mechanical stature, and nonchalantly walks over towards the table.

Aristespha sorts through documents on her tablet. Cideeda busily taps through different settings on her aetherphone, waits, and grumbles quietly. Dretphi enjoys the grilled chicken, rice, and vegetables dish. Sotalia examines a number of crystals arranged on the table next to her empty plate. Bach idly eyes the current channel on the television.

Amos approaches the table, stops nearby, and mimics a cough. Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia stir up from their distractions, and shift their attention to Amos. With a dramatic bow, Amos dons a pleasant tone, and smiles brightly on his facial display. “Greetings fellow adventurers! My name is Amos, and I hope you’ve found our fair town of Precipice to be enjoyable so far. If it’s not too forward, may I ask your names?”

Aristespha lifts an intrigued brow, tosses her silvery blue hair back, and rests her tablet down upon the table. “Aristespha, pleased to meet you, Amos.”

Dretphi’s steely gray eyes survey the robot in front of her, and she puzzles briefly. “Dretphi...”

Bach cocks his head to side, ponders briefly, and nods towards Amos. “Bach.”

Sotalia lifts an incredulous brow, crosses her arms unconvinced, and twists her mouth. “Sotalia...”

Leaning out of her seat across the table, Cideeda’s wide emerald green eyes scan Amos and an eager toothy grin grows. “Cideeda. You are- You are an actual AI? Just not a programmed greeter with advanced heuristics and some deep learning algorithms? Or some remotely controlled drone?”

Amos lifts his head to the side, fashions a grin on his worn mouth display, and simulates a laugh. “Now that is a hard question to answer. Any answer I could give could be construed so many different ways. Who is to say that the answer I give will be correct given the context? I believe I think therefor I believe I am. But, to prove either is a whole different situation.”

Sotalia rolls her golden eyes, tilts her head of fiery orange, wavy hair, and sighs. “Gods, he’s trying to discuss existential philosophy, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt now.”

Resting his mechanical hands on his sides, Amos fashions a smile on his digital face, and leans towards the team. “So, seeing that you are new adventurers in town, I have to ask...”

He holds a robotic hand close to his face, and emulates a hushed tone. “Does your current quest grant you room for a side quest?”

Amos gauges the mix of interested and amused expressions on the assembled team, and slides a worn satchel from his back. He unbuttons the top flop, and reveals dozens of rolled up papers inside. Scanning the curiosity of the team, he proudly addresses the team. “You see, I’ve been around this part of the zone for a great number of years. I’ve seen many things, and heard of many tales. And I’ve been only so bold to investigate rumors and discover the truths behind them.”

He gracefully draws out one scroll, taps the end lightly, and gazes at the team. “I’ve got a little bit of everything. But, I’m curious if a group like yours would be interested in map to location rumored to contain great treasures. I am only so brave, so while I’ve confirmed these fabled locations to exist... I dare not go into them, for I am only one aging mechanical man.”

Sliding the scroll back into the satchel, he stands up straight, gazes over the team, and laughs. “But! With your might, you can profit off my fright! I charge only the simplest of fees, and will present you with a fine map leading to a location of possible riches.”

Amos awaits an answer from the team. Sotalia stares up and down Amos, snorts, and shakes her head. “Oh, please. I mean, admittedly, that’s a really great pitch there. But, we’re not that gullible.”

Bach scratches the back of his head of longer brown hair, shrugs his shoulders, and awkwardly smiles. “I mean, we’re kind of already looking for something as it is. Don’t think we need to be looking for anything else at the moment. We’ll keep you in mind.”

Gauging the lack of interest, Amos nods respectfully and slides the satchel around towards his back. “Understandable. Just remember, if your schedule clears up, I’ll be happy to provide. Now, is there anything I can possibly assist you with?”

Lifting an intrigued brow, Aristespha smirks curiously and taps her finger tips together. “Would you provide a little knowledge about the local area?”

Amos quirks his head, nods slowly, and displays an entrepreneurial smile. “Of course. I can definitely give you the many highlights of the fair town of Precipice. Planning on staying for a little while?”

Aristespha rocks her head side to side with a small, pleasant smile. “You could say that. We’re a little curious about what this town has to offer, while we prepare for the next step of our quest.”

With an understanding bow, Amos adjusts the collar of his tattered duster, and lifts a visual approximation of a brow. “I can be quite the tour guide for many of the local attractions Precipice has to offer. Despite how remote we are, we try to be the quite the spot of civilization.”

He bows with a flourish and simulates a chuckle. “For local tours, I’m very modest with my fees, and they often pay for themselves with the discounts my name can offer with many of our fine businesses.”

Straightening his posture, he address the group and waves his hand out. “As a sample of the knowledge I can relay, I’m certain you’re familiar with the town center.”

The team nods with a variety of reservation. Amos grips hold the lapel his duster, tilts his head, and pantomimes a circle in the air. “Well, Precipice has a few circles around the town center. There’s a fair number of fine businesses you’d easily miss without a little insider knowledge. Pally’s automotive yard, Precipice guild office, Borderland Ranger office, the community garden and market, the Precipice Scrapyard, -”

Cideeda’s furry ears perk up, and she blinks her emerald green eyes to attention. She raps her claw tips upon the table, cocks her head, and interrupts. “Precipice Scrapyard? Anything special about that?”

Amos swings his gaze over to Cideeda, refocuses his optics, and presents a digital grin. “Ah, it’s a fine place for the technically inclined. An outstanding place to find those hard to locate parts and strange technological mysteries of the past. That yard is rumored to be older than town of Precipice itself, and occasionally they discover technology from as far back as the First Period.”

He leans over the table slightly, cups his hand near his face, and simulates a whisper. “Rumor has it, there’s even enough parts for a few whole battle mechs buried out there. Leftovers from the Red Gear conflicts out west.”

Cideeda’s emerald green eyes widen, and toothy grin forms on her face. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t mind checking that out.”

Amos stands up, and holds his hand up to make a point. Ishmael yells out from the bar and motions with his simple cloth arms. “TIN MAN! Stop trying to swindle the tourists, and tell the poor children the story you promised them. They have to go back to school soon.”

A flit of digital noise flutters on Amos’s facial displays, and he glances over his shoulder. After a moment, he addresses the team with a bow. “My apologies. I need to honor a prior commitment. But, if you are interested, I will happily give you a proper tour of our fair town... including a special trip to The Scrapyard, tomorrow. My schedule is currently open.”

Cideeda glances between the rest of the team, lifts an entrepreneurial brow towards Amos, and smiles. “Well, I’m interested. So, morning around eight?”

Amos flashes a smile on screen, and reaches his hand out towards Cideeda. “Quite acceptable.”

With a firm handshake between Amos and Cideeda, the rest of the team shows growing interest. Amos gives a final nod to the team, and walks over towards the children at the bar. Dretphi cocks her head of platinum braids to the side, and crosses her arms. “This town is interesting.”

Bach glances over, and watches the humanoid man regale a tale to three children, while an animated doll begrudgingly tolerates the show. “Yeah... You can definitely say that.”

Sotalia golden eyes focus upon the doll. She blinks and puzzles at the life like actions of the child’s toy. Sebastian's voice softly emanates from the sword at Aristespha's side. “Yeah, the sword has been sense some odd blips. Just plain odd.”


----

Sitting the middle of a massive circular platform of the ancient chamber, Isaac flips through a packet of notes and searches the lines of text. He pauses upon a page, glances over to an array of papers upon the stone and metal alloy floor, and compares the documents hopefully. Refocusing upon the writing, Isaac continues to read the information closely, and shakes his head in surprise. Lowering the packet down upon the ground, he rubs his eyes, yawns, and gazes around the echoing chamber of technomagical equipment. Easing himself up, he straightens up his back into a long stretch, flexes his shoulders, and winces as he works the stiffness out of his neck. Surveying the huge space of silent and dark magical machines, he slowly walks towards the archway leading to the hallway. Stepping through long passage, he massages the temples of his head, brushes his wispy white hair back, and gradually gains awareness of the world around.

Glancing around the built out camp in the large room of the ruins, he settles his gaze upon Max. He walks up to the small table nearby, drops into a chair, and directs his curiosity towards Max. “I must give credit to a bright student, Blesk Ziebens, for the camera technology. It’s an amazing process he’s come up with that gives far greater clarity for such imagery.”

Adjusting his position upon a makeshift recliner of wood and blankets, Max nods his head slowly and flips to the next picture in the stack. Resting the collection off to the side, he draws in a long breath, and twists his mouth. “This Bach Warwick is a very interesting case. If he has somehow forged some kind of connection that provides him direct access to Elder energy... Then, he has accomplished something that no one has done in over two hundred years.”

An eager smirk appears on Isaac face, and he props his feet upon another nearby chair. “I know. It’s absolutely fascinating! I haven’t been able to really examine it properly, but it indicates whole new possibilities we could have never thought as feasible before.”

A faint frown emerges upon Max’s face, and he eases out a long sigh. “Indeed. All indicates something has possibly changed... And, it is one of most troublesome things I’ve been made aware of in a long time.”

Isaac halts in thought, blinks blankly, and narrows a puzzling stare at Max. “Um... Uh... Could you explain that further?”

Max sits up in the makeshift recliner, stuffs a rolled up blanket behind his lower back, and crosses his arms has he leans back. “Yes. One of the main reasons I’ve been here for so long is simply because I have no idea what to do with what I’ve discovered.”

He gradually turns his head, and levels a serious gaze upon Isaac. “As you’ve seen from my notes, I’ve learned a lot from my studies here. At first, I was happy to gain the knowledge I could from what was left behind. Later, I desired to know what seems to have been purposely kept from me.”

Weighing a heavy frown on his face, he grits his teeth and shakes his head. “In pursuing such, I found something completely unexpected, and it imparted a lot of fucking uncomfortable wisdom upon me. It gave me a great deal of context behind many of the decisions the architects of the prism made.”

Isaac’s gray eyes widen, and he cocks his head in utter fascination. “What did you find?”

Max stares at Isaac, twists his mouth uncertainly, and sighs sadly. “A journal of one of the architects. The one that fled here. It’s mix of historical recounts and personal thoughts. To say the least, it has given me a lot of pause.”

Pulling his head back in shock, Isaac blinks his confusion and awkwardly laughs. “My gods, whatever could shake the magic maverick of the Grand Library?”

Laying his head back upon the back of the makeshift recliner, Max contorts his face uncertainly, and narrows his eyes upon a thought coming to the front of his mind. “Far more understanding than I ever wanted. I’ll leave the details for you to explore, if so wish to understand them. But, I’ll try to summarize.”

He draws in a long breath of air, concentrates on his words, and explains. “The more I’ve learned, the more I’ve come to understand how intricate and complicated magic has become. Even going beyond how intertwined every being with some semblance of will is with the Abstract Prism and the Foundational Constructs... There’s far more going on. The Abstract Prism of legend no longer exists.”

Twisting his head to the side, Isaac blinks blankly, darts his eyes around his mind, and focuses a perplexed stare upon Max. Rolling his eyes at himself, Max groans out his frustration and nods. “Well, more appropriately, the Abstract Prism has long since evolved from its original form. There have been countless fundamental reorganizations, updates, revamps, and optimizations to every aspect of the prism.”

He points across the camp site to the long hallway. “The main reason that access point will no longer work for what it was designed for is because it has nowhere to connect to anymore. The prism shed it’s original construction mounts a long time ago. Not simply deactivated. Completely removed. Even with the knowledge of the architects, we could never reestablish a link.”

Isaac leans back into his chair, rests his arm upon the table top, and drifts his thoughtful, lost gaze within. Max grips the arms of the blanket covered recliner with hands, twists his frustration upon his face, and tempers his tone. “That’s just one example. There’s been whole new schools of magic formed over the years by discoveries of new magical incantations and gestures. Those incantations and gestures didn’t exist for decades after the prism was installed. They're not even derivatives. Somehow they came into existence.”

He narrows stern stare upon Isaac. “Spell processes have gotten simpler. They’re discovering shorthand versions of old spells that work just as reliably. Direct casting is becoming more intuitive than it has been historically. This is well beyond just some optimization routines. There is significantly more going on with the Abstract Prism, and probably has been for years.”

Searching aimlessly around the room, he releases a long sigh and shakes his head. “I don’t know if there’s some kind of proper intelligence behind all of this, or if it’s even something we could even know to recognize. But whatever is happening, it’s adapting the very nature of how magic works for everyone. I keep finding more and more examples of the differences in this place.”

Isaac blinks into a stupor, slumps his shoulder, and idly taps the table top with his finger. After a few seconds, he regains some awareness and pries for more information. “Okay... But, what do you make of Bach and his access to Elder energy?”

Max slowly pivots his head to Isaac, and frowns uncertainly. “I haven’t the slightest fucking clue. All I know is that it shows me how much I don’t know about these processes... these machinations... I’m certain now the Abstract Prism is now as much of a mystery to the architects now as it is to us.”

He huffs out his irritation, pulls himself up off the makeshift recliner, and steps over to a cooler chest. Flipping the lid up, he studies the assortment of capped, brown bottles in the cool, hazy mist, and plucks two out. He pops the bottle caps off with an opener mounted on the wall, walks over next to Issac, and drops a beverage on the tabletop. “This Bach just adds another twist to a very complicated puzzle that just evades me. Was this some discovery the prism left out there? Maybe this was a pure accident and catastrophic mistake that even the architects didn’t anticipate? Maybe the prism wants to see if elder energy could be allowed to some degree? Maybe it’s temporary thing to see if someone will clean up some leftovers of the past?”

Isaac gradually grips the bottle on the table, searches through his thoughts, and ponders out loud with waning certainty. “All those could be feasible explanations. He’s stated he doesn’t quite know how he made the connection. But, he’s been very reserved and careful about his use of such power. And, he’s managed to eliminate two Nightmare Geists with his connection to elder energy. When you put such in this context, it does make it hard to decipher any exact reason.”

Pouring a long swig of the beer, Max gulps down the alcohol, exhales deeply, and shrugs his shoulders in defiance of the circumstances. “Well, I don’t very well fucking know... At this moment, I can’t very well bring myself to get in the way. This is beyond me at this point. And if the Second and Third Cataclysms are teach anyone anything... Mucking with this shit could make us all pay for thousands of years!”

Awkward moments of silence between the two pass on by. Isaac contorts his face introspectively, and plays out his deliberations visibly. Max gazes at Isaac, frowns regretfully, and sighs apologetically. “Oh gods, I am sorry for the outburst. That subject has been a very sore one for me for the past few months. You certainly didn’t deserve to be front row to that rant.”

Isaac presents a weak, understanding smile to Max, and shrugs his shoulders. “It’s okay. It’s not the first time I’ve faced similar moments in my life. It’s not easy figuring out what to do next when you learn uncomfortable truths and face the situation at hand.”

Max smirks sadly with a nod to Isaac. “Yeah. We both have.”

He steps over to a device on a cinder block and plank shelf, taps a power button, and motions towards a crude couch. “Let’s take our minds off this crap for a bit. I got a holoplayer loaded with a bunch of the old comedies, and plenty of beer I don’t need to drink by myself.”

A faint grin appears on Isaac’s face, and he stands up from the chair with beer in hand. “That actually sounds like a good distraction. We’ll continue research tomorrow.”

As the holoplayer fires up and a projection materializes, Max steps over to his makeshift recliner, and eases himself back down. “Fair enough. I actually have some very interesting materials for you to review. Wouldn’t mind your perspective. Maybe you'll see something I can't.”

He picks up, and tosses a small remote to Isaac. “But, for now, pick a movie.”


----

Teams of recording crews move between the outer perimeter of a clearing and settle into different choice angles. Standing in the middle of the grass field under the morning sun, Chad glances around the area, crosses his arms, and sighs out his emerging boredom. Behind him, Trakenthin reads the latest article on an aethernet site quietly. Tassilda brushes back her raven black hair and inspects her nails. Deedri patiently waits and occasionally sneaks a warm glance to Modoran. Stretching his arms out, Modoran maintains his nonchalant facade and cracks brief smiles to Deedri. Nearby in front of Chad, Veevi scans the clearing section closest to the road, rests her hands on her hips, and briefly snarls her upper lip. “How long does it take to get out here?!”

Chad glances his brown eyes over to Veevi, rolls them away, and twists his mouth. Near the outer perimeter of the clearing, Samantha checks her aetherphone, nods, and signals everyone towards a passage. A minute passes, and two small teams of different camera crews rush out into position. Veevi, Chad, Trakenthin, Tassilda, Modoran, and Deedri shift their gazes over. Stepping out from between two large trees down a dirt path, a tall, young evuukian man arrives into the clearing. Tossing back his golden locks, he presents a bright white smile to the crews, poses in his shining suit of light, plated armor, and winks his sparking blue eye to the perceived audience. Chad furrows an uncomfortable brow, grimaces, and squirms under the surge of latent self-awareness.

Moments later, the evuukian dramatically guides his hair against the gentle wind over a very long, fair skinned ear, spots the team, and struts pridefully over. Keeping pace behind him, a few plain dressed assistants haul his pack and caddie his equipment. Stopping in front of Chad, the young evuukian man smiles brightly, extends his gloved hand, and nods slightly. “Odellon Magnus Verital of House Grefallin. Pleasure to make your acquaintance...”

Chad shakes Odellon’s hand firmly, grants a polite, acknowledging bow, and presents a professional tone. “Chad Bosch, Leader of The Flames of the Phoenix team.”

Odellon lifts his brow, smirks smugly, and chuckles. “I have been made aware of your work. I am an emerging fan.”

Presenting a reserved smile, Chad humbly nods to Odellon. “I have seen quite a few of your movies.”

He steps aside, and individually points other members of the team. “Trakenthin, our capable front line. Tassilda, our master of magic. Modoran, the infiltration expert. Mage Deedri, one of the best medical mages around.”

Odellon shakes Trakenthin’s hand firmly, and bows respectfully to Tassilda. He pauses a moment, studies Modoran, and the two settle on short nods. With a smile, he bows to Deedri. Chad motions over and directs Odellon’s towards Veevi. “Last but not least... Veevi Valiant, pop star and our... Wildcard.”

Odellon smiles brightly at Veevi, bows with a dramatic flair in front of her, and gazes at her. “Oh, I’m quite familiar with Miss Valiant’s artistic exploits. And, I’m starting to learn more about her adventuring prowess.”

Veevi straights her posture slowly, grins wide, and flutters her pink pupil eyes at Odellon. “You flatter me too much, Odellon. It’s quite an honor to meet you in person after watching so many movies starring you.”

Perking his brow, Odellon chuckles lightly and winks at Veevi. “Well, if we have time I might regale you with all the tales behind the scenes, if you will be so kind to entertain me.”

A spark of glee travels through Veevi, and she graciously nods. “Of course!”

Odellon pivots to Chad, rests his hands at his sides, and smirks. “Well, my dear leader, I have been seeking a proper adventure and offer my services as another sword to your team for the duration of this quest.”

Maintaining his composure, Chad respectfully nods, gestures towards a map upon a foldout table, and directs Odellon to follow. “I accept. Without further ado, please join us in our briefing of the quest at hand. If you have any immediate questions, please feel free to ask Veevi. Since she is our newest member in training, answers to common questions are probably fresh on her mind.”

Odellon steps forward towards the table with his assistants trailing behind. Soon camera crews follow behind Odellon while Veevi rushes up to his side. Chad walks a slow pace within a blind spot of obvious camera coverage, glances back to Trakenthin, Tassilda, Modoran, and Deedri, and rolls his eyes quickly. The team meets Chad’s gaze with similar brief, dismissive breaks in facades, and group up behind him.

From a secluded vantage point, Gerald lifts a suspicious brow, and grimaces uncertainly. Lowering his camera down, he steps out from his hidden spot, and moves towards the main grouping of crew members. He spots a middle aged man directing a fvalian man and woman recording team, and points over. “Harris! Hold up!”

Harris stops in place, and gazes at Gerald. “What’s up?”

Gerald twists a faint frown on his face and motions towards Chad, Trakenthin, Tassilda, Modoran, and Deedri. “Keep your attention on them. Shadow them, and keep it on the down low. I’m... looking to record some of their honest thoughts on all this.”

Thinking a moment, Harris nods, and cracks a sly grin. “We’ll see what we can do.”


----

Below the noon sun from a partly cloudy sky, Amos leads Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia down the sidewalk bordering a worn road between sparse rows of small square buildings. He glances back to the team, waves his robotic arm towards an T-intersection, and gestures to the right. “We’re pretty close, down this next right, and we should see it.”

Sotalia quirks her brow, adjusts her sunglasses, and smirks as she surveys the surrounding structures. “What part of town is this?”

Amos’s optics refocus, and he motions an outstretched arm to the area with a smile upon his facial display. “This is where the hardest workers live. Not much for aesthetics, but it’s functional and fair out here. Quite a few like to prowl around the heaps in search of treasure, or scrap to pawn off.”

He shrugs his shoulders, pivots to face ahead, and simulates a chuckle. “Rough business to succeed in, but someone has to do it. And, you never know who might be interested in your finds.”

In a large space between two buildings, groups of people shuffle between different vendor stalls, and the drone of trade conversations fill the air. A small group of rough and ragged zone runners part from the small marketplace. They walk quickly in a direction leading in front of Amos. At the crossing of paths, one of the larger men side steps and shoulder checks Amos with a mean grin on his face. “Watch where you’re going, fucking scrap heap.”

Quickly balancing himself to a stable stance, Amos bows politely with a cheery tone. “My apologies. I’ll be sure to re-calibrate my navigation routines in the near future.”

The crude man snorts derisively, rolls his eyes dismissively, and spits on the ground towards Amos. “Whatever, talking toaster.”

As the rough group departs, Bach blinks his perplexed gaze at Amos and directs a hushed tone. “Hey, you okay? What was their problem?”

Sotalia rests her hand on her hip, lowers her sunglasses, and narrows a golden eyed glare to the rude crew. “Really. It seems like they need their shitty attitudes adjusted.”

Dretphi crosses her arms with a stoic stare maintaining a cautious watch of the ragged team as they leave. Sneering her upper lip, Cideeda pulls her furry ears back, and grumbles out. “It’s in bad taste to interrupt someone when they’re working anyway.”

Amos emulates an appreciative chuckle, and displays a calm smile. “Nothing to worry about. Just a few people who don’t exactly care much for myself and what I do. While I appreciate the concern, let’s continue with the tour. We are so close to our destination anyway.”

As the team reforms and follows Amos, Aristespha quirks an intrigued brow as her gaze wanders from the small market. “Does anyone own the scrap yard in particular? Or does the town lay claim to it?”

Pausing a moment in thought before the right turn, Amos’s displays flicker between different expressions of thought, and he rocks his steel plated head side to side. “That is a good question. Technically, it is supposedly owned. But, the owner passed a long time ago. While Precipice is technically the legal authority of the area, it’s ability to rule and enforce complicated matters such as inheritance and estates with no known heirs is... Severely lacking.”

He shrugs his shoulders dramatically as he steps around down the right path of the intersection. “It’s unofficially public domain at this point, because it’s frankly too much of a pain otherwise.”

Halting his approach, he side steps, waves his arms with a dramatic flair, and presents a grin on his facial display. “Behold! The Scrapyard.”

Down at the end of the short, rough street, a large gateway in the middle of tall stretches of chain link fence frames a scene of unending junk. Beyond the entry, mountainous piles of metal glint in the sun despite their ages of corrosion. Heaps of partially sorted materials lay around mounds of discarded technology. Hills of parts to machinery long forgotten warm in the light. Hints of large contraptions jut out from the many amassed piles.

Aristespha, Bach, Dretphi, and Sotalia gawk in awe at the vast landscape of scrap before them in silence. Amos straightens his stance, and stares ahead. “The place to search when you are seeking a piece of the past. I should know. I have found quite a few needed parts and pieces for my own self. I wouldn’t be half the machine I am today without the bounty of this wondrous scrapyard.”

Blinking back to some awareness, Bach chuckles and directs his voice down at his side. “So, where do we even start in this place?”

Bach waits a few moments, flutters his blue eyes at the lack of a response, and glances down at his side. Noticing the empty space next to him, he puzzles to the rest of the team. “Um, uh... Did anyone see where Cideeda went?”

Aristespha and Dretphi search around the nearby area. Amos pivots in place, tilts his mechanical head to the side, and ponders out loud. “Strange... I normally am very good at detecting movement.”

Sotalia cracks a humored smirk, shakes her head, and walks towards the entry gates. “Gods, I don’t think it was my day to watch her. But, I think I know where she went.”

A long, furry tail wags eagerly up into view upon the top of a junk mound near the main gate.