Episode 101

Leaning far back into the chair, Mavian tilts up his beer bottle sharply, swallows hard, and cringes with twitch at the corner of his eye. Hissing an uneasy breath through his teeth, he sets the empty container upon the table, blinks his faintly glowing green eyes hard, and stumbles upon his words. “That- He- Isaac... The Dark Lord Noxian?! Um... Really?! He didn’t seem anything like what the news made him out to be. Seemed really nice and all... Huh...”

Crossing her arms tightly, Sotalia curls up a sneer of her upper lip, and groans out her frustration. “When he’s not terrorizing, he likes to act like some kind of rogue scholar.”

Chuckling uncomfortably, Mavian wrestles the disbelief on his face, and checks the message on his aetherphone. “I mean, the message from Rhian I got through the relay does match your story. But... I mean, I’m finding all this a bit hard to believe. I’m not going to call you liars, but how do I know you really are that same team?”

Sebastian’s voice resonates out from the sword at Aristespha’s side. “Is the coast clear to come out, dear?”

Drawing in a long breath, Aristespha glances around the empty tables in the main room, and tugs at the corner of her mouth. “Go ahead, Sebastian.”

Sebastian’s ethereal visage materializes next to Aristespha, and he leans over partially through table towards Mavian with a smug smirk. “Hello, I’m Sebastian Warwick. Leader of the team, and the chosen one by the Sword of the Spirit Realm that the Dark Lord Noxian blasted. Proof enough for you?”

Mavian blinks blankly, swirls the faint remnants of beer in the bottle, and glances over to the bar. “Hey, Aggie! I’ll take another, please. Maybe two.”

He returns his attention to the group, chuckles nervously, and scratches the back of his head of wild brown hair. “Okay, so I believe you. But... What do you exactly want from me at this point?”

Sebastian drifts down into an empty chair while scanning the room for unwanted attention, and studies Mavian. “Any information you got to where and why Noxian- Well, Isaac, is.”

Aristespha taps through a few screens on her tablet, opens up a notation app, and waits patiently. “Any information you can provide would be appreciated.”

Gritting his teeth briefly, Mavian’s eyes search his mind, and he furrows his brow while pondering out loud. “Okay... He met up with me days ago, and he simply wanted to track down this one location his friend Malkav was rumored to be at. Malkav comes to Precipice once every few months for supplies, but not much else. So, I knew he was in the area.”

He idly rocks the bottle in hand, twists his mouth between thoughts, and exhales thoughtfully. “It took a few days. But, following a lot notes and rough maps that Isaac had, we were able to locate some really old ruins. He went inside the place, and came out. Confirmed his friend was there and okay.”

Aristespha narrows an inquisitive stare at Mavian, and pauses her note taking. “So, you saw Malkav?”

Mavian shakes his head and frowns slightly. “No. I stayed outside.”

Sotalia lifts her eyebrow, grimaces sharply, and grumbles. “So you didn’t even go inside to confirm he was telling the truth?! Or even check to see what was so important about the place?”

Slowly pivoting his gaze to Sotalia, Mavian shrugs his shoulders, and darts his indifferent glances around the table. “Um, no. It was none of my business. I make it a policy to not pry too much about other people’s affairs. My job was to guide him to the place safely, and chart him a path back. That’s it. I delivered and left.”

Cideeda tilts her head the side, flicks her furry ears, and slightly nods her head of short, multi-colored hair. “Understandable. Standard contractor policy with stuff like this.”

Wrestling a mix of expressions on his face, Bach sighs with a hint of agreement. “Yeah. I can’t blame you. Keep it neutral and professional, and then you get to walk away home.”

Mavian points towards Cideeda and Bach with a thankful smile, and sighs. “Exactly. Helping someone get to a place is innocent enough. After that I don’t want to know. I mean he seemed straight forward enough, so I didn’t have any reason to doubt him, as far as I was concerned.”

Sotalia rolls her golden eyes dismissively, and groans out her frustration. “I guess... Would be useful to know what was in there.”

Lifting an intrigued brow, Dretphi cocks her head to the side, and inquires. “You remember the location?”

Mavian blinks his faintly glowing green eyes, nods, and smirks. “Of course, I just got back. I could probably mark it on a map if you want.”

Aristespha sorts through a few menus on her tablet, lays it flat in front of Mavian, and points to the screen. “Can you find it on this map?”

Sliding the device over to him, Mavian navigates the map, zooms in and out, and traces a path through the topology. Pausing in thought, he searches for unique points of reference, shifts between a few possibilities, and settles upon one area. “There. If not exactly, then it’s within a few kilometers of that point.”

Sebastian cracks a hopeful smile, crosses his arms, and laughs. “So, you up for making a little more money leading us back to that spot?”

Mavian thinks a moment, glances over towards the bar briefly, and gazes over the team. “Sure. But, it’ll be a few days a before we can set out.”

With faint twitch of her cheek, Sotalia narrows a glare at Mavian. “A few DAYS? I can understand a day, but what’s the hold up?”

Squinting his stare Sotalia, Mavian curls his upper lip, and growls out his irritation. “Listen, I just got back from traveling a REALLY dangerous passage, and pulling long days and nights of travel on foot to get back here. I’m going to need at least a day to rest up, and another to get supplies ready. Which I recommend you do, too.”

Sebastian glances between Mavian and Sotalia, waves down Sotalia’s ire, and nods to Mavian with an apologetic tone. “Hey, we understand. Sorry, if we are a bit on edge, but we’ve been chasing him for quite some time.”

Mavian eases out a calming breath, and cracks an appreciative smirk. “Hey, I get it. I want to help. But, I really don’t want to lead a bunch of people through dangerous zone territory sleep-deprived. It doesn’t take much for things to go really bad in the zone when you are ready. I’ve found what’s leftover of those who weren’t careful, too many times.”

After a few uneasy moments processing the implications of that statement, Dretphi straightens her posture, brushes back a stray platinum blonde braid, and directs her question to Mavian. “Could we use your shortcut?”

Contorting his face, Mavian sighs with a regretful cadence. “No. I can’t imagine a way for it to work for you all. I can navigate it, but I still run into issues. The passages can only be traveled on foot, and you have to move with the fluctuations of overlapping anomalies. It would wind up being slower and more dangerous than the route I used with Isaac.”

Bach cocks his head to the side, sorts through his thoughts with his blue eyes, and scratches the beard on his chin. After a few seconds, he focuses his attention to Mavian and inquires. “Is there any other settlements apart from Precipice around? I mean, anywhere else Isaac could run off to?”

Quickly shaking his head, Mavian snorts and chuckles with a smirk. “Oh, hell no. Precipice is the only real civilization out here. There a few zone runner camps. But, most of those aren’t friendly because they’re filled with all the people not allowed to get near Precipice. Plus, they purposefully keep hidden because of they don’t want anyone paying attention to what they do.”

Cideeda perks her brow, glances her emerald green eyes at Bach, and grins toothily at Mavian. “So chances are if he’s going to leave, we’re going to run into him here in town or on the road.”

Mavian simply nods. “Pretty much. There’s only a few routes and all narrow down to Precipice before hitting either the southern or northern roads.”

A sly smirk curls out from the corner of Sotalia’s mouth. Cideeda raps her claw tips upon the table top with smile. A quiet eager agreement spreads through team, and Sebastian nods to Mavian. “Sounds like the best plan we got at the moment. Let us know what we need to get ready and a time frame.”

Aggie walks up to the table, places a full brown bottle in front of Mavian, and smiles. “Just can’t keep that tab closed for long can you?”

Mavian awkwardly smiles, picks up the beer with an appreciative bow to Aggie, and pours it back. Aggie glances over to the team, begins to open her mouth, and narrows a her focus upon Sebastian. After a few moments of silent examination and faint flickers of illumination from her brown eyes, Aggie lifts an intrigued brow at Sebastian. “Huh, I get the feeling there’s a story behind you.”

Sebastian dons a goofy smirk and shrugs his shoulders. “Yeah... You could say that.”

Overhead stars glow brightly with faint traces of the Milky Way in the infinite backdrop upon the crowded skies above. A crescent moon hovers in front of the galactic starscape, as a few faint outlines of clouds drift slowly around the horizon. Isaac stands outside the entry to the ancient ruins, and stares quietly up into the cosmic scene. Gentle breezes coast over the surrounding tall grasses, shrubs, and scattered trees. Blinking his gray eyes, a peaceful smiles grows from the corner of his mouth, and stray wispy white hairs flutter in the calm winds. The tail of his blue scarf drifts with the gust. His hand slowly guides the knit fabric back around his neck, and Isaac feels the texture between his fingers. A gentle frown pulls down his expression, and remorseful sigh escapes his breath. Minutes of distant thoughts reflect along with the night sky in Isaac’s eyes as he gazes out aimlessly.

Along the horizon faint flits of magical light flicker briefly into existence and fade. Sparks flash out without sound in one direction, a cluster of orbs dart from one lone tree to another, and visages of ethereal beings slowly move across the land in bursts of wavering opacity. In stark contrast, wandering spots of flashlights congregate around the far off ruins of a modern structure.

Isaac blinks back to awareness, aims his attention to the gathering of illumination, and studies the scene. Specs of humanoid silhouettes cast shadows against the scattering glow of the spot lit building. An uncomfortable curl at the corner of his mouth tints Isaac’s expression, and he slowly steps back towards the entrance of the ancient ruins. Keeping close to the old stone walls, he furrows his curious brow, and narrows a wary stare. Minutes of cautious observation pass, and the distant figures merge into the modern ruins with lighting following. Easing back, Isaac steps through the ruin's entry into the corridor of the ancient structure. Mid way through the dark tunnel, he stops at a security gate. Quietly closing the steel door, he engages the lock, slides over a blackout curtain hanging across the hallway, and grimaces uneasily.

He continues down the corridor to the large room, glances around, and settles his concern upon a relaxing Max. “Not to alarm you, but there seems to be some people going inside one of the older buildings east of here.”

Max flutters his eyes, quickly gathers his thoughts, and sits up on his makeshift recliner. “Oh... Yes... I’ve been noticing a few groups occasionally poking around the abandoned buildings around here.”

Isaac glances back down the entry halls, and lifts a curious brow towards Malkav. “Anything we should be concerned with?”

Searching his mind with his blue eyes, Max scratches the back of his head of white, tied back hair, and shrugs. “Not really. I’ve never seen any of them come close to the old ruins. They just don’t seem to have an interest in any of them. I figure they are just some scavengers or maybe some salvaging company taking risks for some kind of pay day. I don’t know...”

He smirks with a snort, and rolls his eyes as he eases back into makeshift recliner. “I try to keep a low profile out here anyway, since I’m by myself. Keep this place looking as unappealing and ordinary as possible. It seems to work. I don’t think they’re interested in archaeology anyway.”

Isaac chuckles briefly and shakes his head. “I wouldn’t guess. You are probably right. Still a little disconcerting.”

Max nods in agreement, and points down the corridor as he leans forward to get up. “You locked the gate?”

Settling down into a chair at the crude table, Isaac glances over to the corridor briefly before sniffing the air. “Yes. I locked it up, and pulled the curtain. By the way, what are you cooking?”

A humored grin grows on Max’s face, and he walks over to large pot on a hotplate and a kettle on a smaller heater. He lifts the lid to reveal a warm broth filled with curly noodles and cubes of chicken, and stirs with a nearby ladle. “Ah, the old researcher favorite. Freeze dried chicken cubes with soggy discount noodles in the saltiest broth around! I’m sure this brings back those undergraduate memories.”

Rolling his eyes, Isaac snorts while shaking his head. “May the gods help our stomachs.”

Cracking a smirk, Max taps the kettle with the ladle. “That’s why I went with mint tea tonight. We’ll need all the help we can get.”

Down the worn and cracked sidewalk, Amos leads Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia along, and motions ahead while brushing off his duster. “Now the best place I know to get rations and other packaged meals is Marla’s. She specializes in a variety of food ready for long journeys. And, if you are really nice, she’s been known to do custom orders, too.”

Aristespha scrolls through a list on her aetherphone, and glances back. “Dretphi, how many days of food do we have packed up?”

With steely gray eyes searching the top of her mind, Dretphi blinks with a grimace and sighs. “A week. Few days of desirable food. The rest is passable for emergencies.”

Cideeda grits her sharp teeth, flicks her furry ears back, and grumbles. “Yeah, we need to stock up then. I know it’ll keep us alive, but I rather avoid tapping into that stuff.”

Shivering briefly as an uncomfortable memory pops into his mind, Bach grimaces, and gazes around at the surrounding team. “Yeah, I tried one of those meal bars once. I think I nearly chipped my tooth on it.”

Dretphi smiles tightly, shakes her head of platinum blonde braids, and relays a commiserating tone. “Boiling helps. Does not help the taste. Makes it easy to eat quick. Do not focus on the texture.”

Tensing her shoulders, Sotalia shudders, and winces her disgust. “Gods, I will personally chip in to get anything else. Still can’t forget that time we had to eat those for two weeks.”

The gathering travels down along the packed dirt and gravel road, and approaches a large open, well cared field surrounding a brick and steel building. A few children sit outside at wooden tables under an awning, while a few adults keep watch over their antics. Walking out from the entrance gate, Cedric, Ryos, and Suzie turn and quickly travel towards Amos. Stopping with a smile on his facial displays, Amos kneels down to the children’s level and greets them. “Now whatever are you young adventurers up to today? Certainly nothing too dangerous?”

Cedric rolls his brown eyes, and shakes his head. “Nothing. Going home to eat.”

Amos tilts his head to side, glances over to the school sign, and puzzles briefly. “Strange to see you all at school on a Sunday.”

From Suzie’s arms, Ishmael directs his soft cloth face towards Amos. “Well, someone forgot to turn in some homework and needed to do some make up exercises.”

Cedric narrows a pouting glare at Ishmael, crosses his arms defiantly, and grumbles to himself. “It was easy, I don’t know why Ms. Reena wanted me to do weekend school. I could have done it tomorrow.”

Shaking his head slightly, Ryos slowly rolls his purple on black eyes, and sighs. “Our mommas said you had to. They didn’t want you to get behind... again...”

Amos focuses his optics upon Cedric, and colors his tone with stern hints. “Now, you don’t want to that to happen. I can’t very well give you another treasure map, if you keep that up.”

The young boy’s eyes widen in worry at the prospect, and Cedric bows his head slightly. “Okay, I guess.”

Turning his attention to Ryos and Suzie, Amos cocks his head to the side. “So, why are you two here?”

Suzie smiles brightly and giggles. “To play! No one is using the playground.”

Shrugging his robotic doll shoulders, Ishmael furrows his brow. “I’ll admit it made sense. If the teachers are going to be around, might as put the equipment to use.”

Ryos blinks as he remembers something and summons up his voice. “Um, Mr. Amos, do you think you could... Um, come to school tomorrow? To tell another one of your stories?”

Amos fashions proud grin on his facial display, synthesizes a laugh, and raps his fingers on his knee. “Of course. I don’t have anything planned for tomorrow... If Ms. Reena will allow it. I don’t know if she’s fully forgiven me for the last tale I told, after all the bad ideas I SUPPOSEDLY put in your heads.”

Nodding quickly with Cedric and Suzie, Ryos smiles and his eagerness lightens his tone. “Yes! But only during recess. After lunch.”

With a nod, Amos stands back up, displays a smirk, and emulates a chuckle. “Then, I will be there. I’ll meet you at the gate right at the start of lunch. I’ll need to remember a particularly special story.”

An annoyed, higher pitched groan emanates from Ishmael, and he points his simple cloth arms past Amos and the team. “Oh good, I’ll forward to THAT tomorrow. Come on children, time for your lunch.”

After a quick goodbye, the three children blitz around Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia. During the energetic rush, Ishmael’s arm brushes against Bach leg. Ishmael freezes as his robotic eyes flit wide in a reflexive motion. As Suzie rushes off to keep up with Cedric and Ryos, Ishmael focuses his attention to his arm as a brief, faint stir of magical illumination blurs an outline around his form. He leans his head around watches Bach, and stares as intrigue and fascination grow upon his simple face.

Sotalia turns her head back around, tosses back stray locks of fiery orange, curly hair, and narrows her golden eyes at Amos. “Okay, so what’s the deal with the little girl’s doll? I’ve never seen anything like that. And, I’ve scoured everywhere for stuff for my nieces and nephews.”

Cideeda glances her emerald green eyes up at Sotalia, ponders a moment, and scratches a claw tip gently under her chin. “Yeah... He might be a really advanced robotic assistant. Rare, but not unheard of. Strange he’s in that type of body, but he may have been a custom model. In really good shape though.”

Amos pauses a moment as flickers momentarily disrupt his facial displays, and he recomposes himself. “Well... We all have our mysteries. And, given the strange items you found in the junkyard, it’s not unheard of to come across fascinating technology that’s been... re-adapted over the years. I tend to believe that Ishmael and I share some common lineage at a point.”

He pivots to face back down the sidewalk, motions his arms forward, and starts walking. “But, that’s discussion for another time, we need to get you prepared for your journey and I have plenty of shops to show you.”

Sotalia lifts an unconvinced brow and ponders quietly to herself as she follows. Cideeda shrugs her shoulders and quips. “Could just be a really convincing conversation assistant AI. I’ve run into a few of those.”

As the team forms up and moves, Bach glances back over his should and notices the attention from Ishmael in distance. He puzzles as the children turn around a corner and Suzie carries Ishmael out of view. The group travels down the sidewalk, and pass an alley way. From the alley way, a familiar group of zone runners glare out at the mechanical man, maintain their irritated stares, and whisper quietly to each other.

Sitting around the larger table in the main room of the Precipice Inn & Tavern, Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia review a collection of maps, documents, and tablets in the center of the table between plates of lunch time meals. Mavian reaches over and traces a route upon the map with a finger. “So, this passage is usually pretty trouble free. But, once we get around here, we’ll have to take it slow depending on how anomalies have shifted. There’s always some route through, but it’ll take some time to figure out.”

Dretphi studies the topography indicated on the printout, and slowly nods her head. Cideeda flicks her furry ears back, bites down on a carrot, and mulls over the circumstances. “Okay, how much trouble are we asking for if we take it fast? The old humvee is pretty tough. Are we’re just talking about annoying things that inconvenience us? Or...”

Gritting his teeth, Mavian loosens the knit, green scarf around his neck, and hisses a sigh. “Yeah... That’s the problem. You don’t quite know until you get there. The problem is there’s really crazy sections that butt up against that route. It could be all clear, or one of the bad pockets of anomalies has drifted over and dumped a bunch of problems.”

Finishing off a hot wing, Sotalia leans back in her seat, twists her mouth after a swallow, and casually motions towards the map with the chicken bone. “Will any of our defensive magic help? We can layer up some armor and barriers? Or, sling A LOT of dispel blasts?”

Mavian ponders a moment, crosses his arms, and slowly shakes his head. “That’s not something you want to rely upon this deep in the zone. The PWZ can fling out a lot more than you’d expect. And dispel magic upsets the zone. As crazy as that sounds. It disrupts the balance in way you can’t quite anticipate. It just, uh... Makes it angry.”

Contorting his face in thought, Bach draws in a long breath, and shrugs his shoulders. “You think it’s still worth taking the time to put up magical armor and similar things?”

Nodding his head, Mavian circles an area with his finger above the map, and smirks. “Yes. Anything that’ll give us a few more seconds to react. Especially at this one point. That part is always coin flip. Peaceful some days. Absolute hell others. And depending on how it goes, we’ll need to stop for the night before that point. You really don’t want to risk a night drive through that.”

Aristespha's violet eyes observe the spots on the map. Upon her tablet, She taps on a matching section on a digital layout, and enters in detailed notes. The main door of the Precipice Inn & Tavern opens. Cedric leads the way through with Ryos and Suzie immediately behind. Aggie gazes over at the children with smile while cleaning off three spots at the bar. “How’s everything going at school today?”

Cedric frowns with a huff, pulls himself up into the bar stool, and crosses his arms. “Mr. Amos hasn’t shown up like he said he would.”

After helping Suzie up, Ryos climbs up into the bar stool, gazes up to Aggie, and uneasily sighs. “We waited a long time, and we didn’t see him.”

Suzie glances down at the robotic doll in her arms and asks with a sad tone. “Do you think he’s okay, Mr. Ishy?”

Ishmael’s robotic eyes glance between the children and Aggie, and an uncertain expression contorts on his simple, cloth face. “I wish I could say so. Despite my misgivings about how he normally carries himself, this is very odd for him to break a promise to you all.”

Narrowing his eyes, an unamused twist curls his the representation of a mouth on his face with traces of genuine concern. “It’s certainly not like him to miss an opportunity to regale yet another tall tale of his.”

Aggie straightens her posture thoughtfully as Elissia steps out of the back kitchen. Elissia notices the mood, surveys the frowns and worry, and steps next to Aggie. “What’s going on?”

Holding her elbows, Aggie pivots slowly to gaze at Elissia, and contorts her unease on her sun tanned face. “Amos didn’t show up to meet the kids at school.”

Elissia blinks her violet on black eyes, tosses back her head of dark blue braided hair, and hums in contemplation. “He may have run a little late. If nothing else, he knows the children usually eat here. So, I’m certain he’ll show up any time now-”

A loud thud knocks the door to main room, and the force swings it open. Standing shakily upon on his remaining leg, Amos’s dented and battered form teeters between unstable attempts of balance. With his one functional arm clamped upon the door frame, he plots out a static peppered grin on his loosened facial displays, and refocuses his stuttering optics. “You’ll have the excuse the delay children. I’ve had quite the morning- Evening? Time. Yes. I’ve had quite the time recently.”

A spark arcs out from his ankle joint, and his weight topples forward. His grip on the door frame slides off from the sudden tug of mass, and his partial arm braces down towards the floor. With a metallic crash, his form flops upon wood planks, and a his ripped duster billows out the remaining wind of his descent. With the team standing up in shock from their table and children staring wide eyed, Amos pushes up his frame with his working arm and emulates a chuckle. “I was curious when that signal line was going to give up. Quite the dramatic timing there.”

A thin trail of smoke rises up around Cideeda’s light brown face, and she blows softly as the soldering iron melts a shiny coat of metal around thick copper wiring. Lifting her head away, she waves off the remaining vapor, and scrutinizes her work. “That should actually carry some proper amperage now.”

She glances over to Bach, watches the magical mesh of flow suspending a cloud of individual parts and pieces in the air, and smirks. “How’s the arm reassembly going?”

With a bright blue glow in his eyes, Bach’s fingers and hands move slightly as floating components gradually assemble back together. He narrows his stare upon the hovering mass of pieces, and pauses. Twisting his hands around carefully, the parts drift away to allow a section of the forearm to move away from Bach and closer to Cideeda. “I think there’s something missing here or I’ve got something in the wrong place.”

Pausing a moment from her work, Cideeda glances around the area. She nods with a smile over to Cedric, Ryos, and Suzie watching the magic and tech at work in utter fascination. She halts a moment, watches Ishmael stare constantly at Bach, then returns her attention to Bach. Leaning close to the free floating robotic arm pieces, Cideeda reaches out, carefully inspects with her claw tips, and rotates the components as her emerald green eyes study. Flicking her furry ears with her inspection, she twists her mouth thoughtfully, and nods. “Yes. There’s something missing, but the oxidation around there makes me think it hasn’t been there for awhile.”

She glances over to Amos’s partially disassembled form upon the largest and sturdiest chair from the eclectic collection of the main room, and guides the hovering components into his view. “Is this a new issue?”

Amos refocuses his optics, tilts his head slowly to the side, and flicks searching indicators on his facial displays. “Oh, THAT. I lost that particular guide in a grand escape from a horde of bloodthirsty whelps.”

Drawing a smirk on his face, he synthesizes a sly laugh and rolls his optics. “They were quite disappointed when they figured I didn’t contain any blood.”

Cideeda shakes her head with an amused smile, leads the floating mass of parts back over, and snorts. “Well, we’ll try to fashion a good replacement when Aristespha and Sotalia come back with the rest of your parts.”

An appreciative tone sounds out from Amos, and he carefully bows his head. “You all are too kind. I just might be able to get back into my card tricks. I used to be quite the fast draw.”

With a gentle tap of a finger from a tan and faint gray striped arm, Dretphi gets Amos’s attention, and displays Amos’s patched up duster with smile. “Rough patches. They will hold up. Unfortunately, the material is thin. The best I can do under circumstances.”

Amos chuckles with a synthetic cadence. “Oh, that’s more than I expected could be done. You are certainly a master of your craft. I’ll wear it proudly... Until it completely gives away, of course.”

Dretphi nods with an understanding smirk, and folds up the duster neatly. The door leading to the main room opens, and Aristespha and Sotalia step through. Aristespha carries a severed robotic forearm and a bucket of scrap bits. Sotalia eases down a detached metal leg from her shoulders, and lowers it to the floor near Cideeda. She glances her golden eyes to Amos and sighs. “Found your shack. Or what’s left of it. Whoever attacked you made sure to leave a mess behind.”

Aristespha deposits the forearm on a nearby table, and directs her intrigue to Dretphi. “What does this look like to you?”

Dretphi studies the cleaved metal structure bars, sliced polymer, and chopped wiring. She frowns sternly and grumbles. “Sword. Cleaver. Sharp. A proper weapon designed for combat do this.”

Aggie and Elissia nearby exchange glances, and both nod to the other. Aggie steps up behind the children, puts her hands on Cedric’s and Ryos’s shoulders, and leans close. “Okay. Boys. Suzie. It’s time for you get back to school. It’s well past lunch time, and I’m certain Ms. Reena will be worried if you take too much longer.”

Cedric gazes up at his mother, and whines. “Aww, momma! But this is so cool to watch.”

Ryos blinks his purple on black eyes up at his mother, and pleads. “Momma, can we stay longer? I want to make sure Mr. Amos is okay.”

Tightening her arms around Ishmael’s robotic doll form, Suzie sniffs and gazes teary eyed up at Aggie. “Mr. Ishy seems really concerned, too. Him and Mr. Amos are friends.”

Elissia steps forward to Amos, rests her long, black nailed hands on her hips, and sharply frowns at Amos. “Who was it?”

Amos’s optics reset and refocus. He pans his gaze around, and laughs in a dismissive tone. “Oh, just my usual fans. Nothing to really concern yourselves with.”

Elissia crosses her arms, narrows her violet on black eyes, and growls softly. “Don’t give me THAT, Amos. This has gone beyond roughing you up over a territorial dispute. This has to stop. NOW.”

A digital sigh escapes Amos’s speakers, and he shakes his head. “It would honestly stir a whole nest of trouble. They’ve gotten it well out of their systems now, so what’s the point in antagonizing the situation more-”

Shifting attention sharply from Bach, Ishmael points his simple arm out towards Amos, and directs a demanding tone. “For love the of- Just tell them already, Amos! There won’t be enough left of you next time. And, there WILL be a next time with these people. We BOTH know that.”

Amos and Ishmael stare at each other. After seconds of silence between the two, Amos nods in a quiet agreement at a hint of satisfaction upon Ishmael. He pivots his head to Elissia and emulates a curious tone. “You wouldn’t have to have a tablet or similar device? I’ve got images and video.”

Aggie presents a warm, calming smile to the worried children’s pleas, and gently ushers them towards the door. “Don’t worry. We have some nice people getting Mr. Amos fixed up enough. You need to get back to school. Don’t want any of you to have to go to weekend school again.”

Cedric grumbles quietly. Amos bows his head towards the kids, and chuckles out brightly. “Go to school. I’ll be good as new soon enough. If all goes well, I join you all tomorrow after lunch. I’ll try really hard this time.”

As Aggie leads the children, Ishmael leans out around Suzie to observe Bach. Suzie smiles and holds Ishmael close. “Don’t worry, Mr. Ishy. He’ll be okay.”

Ishmael snaps back to awareness, fashions a smile on his simple, cloth face, and awkwardly replies. “Oh yes, of course. Yes... Let’s get back to school now.”

As the door closes, Elissia glances around towards the bar and bites her lips uncertainly. “Oh gods... I’ve got an old model tablet that might work in the bedroom...”

Aristespha reaches over, plucks a tablet of the larger table, and presents it to Amos. “Will this one work?”

Fashioning an appreciative smile on his distorted facial displays, Amos focuses his optics on the screen and nods. “I think so. Thank you so much. Give this old droid a moment.”

Seconds later, a sync request appears on the device, and Aristespha accepts it. Moments later multiple transfers stream onto the device. After the final download completes, Amos motions his head towards Elissia. “Check the media gallery. All the evidence should be there.”

Aristespha hands the device over to Elissia. With a thankful bow of the head, Elissia taps to the gallery, and sorts through the most recent images. She grits her teeth with a hard tinge of anger, and shakes her head. Glancing around the room, she growls out. “Fucking Rust Runners. I knew it. They’ve been trouble for years.”

She glances over to the team and Amos, and points towards the bar. “I’m calling the sheriff and the Borderlands Rangers. We’ll see what happens from there. Maybe Mavian will have a few clues to where they went.”

As she departs to the land line phone behind the bar, the last few sub-assemblies reunite and the magical forces reform Amos’s arm. Cideeda lifts her hands underneath the robotic limb, and nods to Bach. Blinking the blue glow out his eyes, Bach shudders and blinks hard. “I’ll need to take a break before we try the other arm. And... then fashion any replacement parts.”

Cideeda deftly reattaches the arm into Amos’s shoulder socket, clips in the cables, and locks the support clamps. “That’s fine. I’m going to need to go through that other leg before we do anything else.”

Bach settles down into a chair next to Amos and contorts a worried expression. “Not to pry into your personal business... But... How long have you put up with that shit?”

Amos turns his head to face Bach, blanks his facial displays, and ponders out loud. “Oh, you mean this particular group here? A few years. But, it just got bad recently. Thought I was humoring them enough before this happened. I guess not.”

Bach quirks his brow and cocks his head to the side with a puzzling tone. “There’s been others?”

With a simple nod, Amos awkwardly chuckles with hints of digital distortion and wavering digital noise. “Oh... Yes... This is not a new phenomena for me. When you are an... alternative intelligence, you tend to be a lightning rod for any kind of discriminating tendencies people have. When you aren’t the right type of biological persuasion, you aren’t pleading your case from the most ideal platform. Visual differences alone are difficult enough for many to get around.”

Sotalia frowns sadly and nods understandingly to Amos. “Yeah, I know how that goes.”

Amos flexes the fingers on his reattached arm, slowly rotates the forearm section, and halts the motion briefly at spots of aged damage. “Many of the marks on my chassis are from sad and scary moments. All part of the ongoing question to what my existence is.”

His optics narrow down and the hue fades from his facial indicators. “It’s one of the reasons I am here in Precipice. I was driven from one place to another, until I arrived at Perimeter. But, I could only stay in the noise of the big city for so long. So, I traveled to Precipice and have made my home here for decades now. But...”

Closing and opening his hand, his emulated tone drifts off into a monotone and simple synthetic cadence. “Each time something like this happens... I can’t help but question what I am. Do I even properly exist? What do I compare myself with? Am I even consciousness or is this just an elaborate illusion?”

Sebastian voice emanates from the sword at Aristespha’s side. “I can feel you there. Took me week to move past that point.”

Amos pulls his head back, refocuses his lenses, and rotates his head to the side intrigued. Aristespha glances down wide eyed at the sword, searches around the sparse post-lunch crowd, and sighs. “Sebastian...”

An ethereal sigh resonates from the sheathed blade, and Sebastian’s tone shifts to apologetic. “Sorry. But, I wanted to say it. Long story short, Amos... Blasted by the Dark Lord, drawn into the sword, and now I have a strange existence at the moment. We can talk more later.”

Color returns to Amos’s facial displays, and he plots out a delighted smile. “Fascinating. And, quite reassuring that I’m not the only one that’s wrestled this very topic before, and from such a unique angle.”

Sotalia rolls her golden eyes with a smirk, brushes back her fiery orange, wavy hair over a horn, and snorts. “If you are honestly debating yourself this much about it, I’ll vouch for you. Again, that’s proof enough for me.”

Dretphi nods, and smiles. Cideeda shakes her head, cracks toothy grin, and continues inspecting leg servo. “I wouldn’t worry too much. If you can legitimately ask the question, you are doing better than most.”

Donning a goofy smile, Bach laughs awkwardly and shrugs his shoulders. “Yeah, I mean. I think, therefor I am. And, well, you think, therefor you are? I might be stretching that one out a bit.”

As Bach scratches the back of head and reviews his thoughts, a genuine smile appears on Amos and he gazes at the team surrounding him. “I must say you are nice people to humor my existential quandaries. I’ve had quite a few. Intelligence, sentience, and sapience... I’ve found my own answers for each over the years.”

He chuckles lightly. “To be fully honest, for the longest time I questioned if what drove my intelligence, my sentience, and my sapience was the same as everything else in this world.”

A dull tone emanates from Amos and he slowly shakes his head with a somber motion. “Every time I was treated differently... Every time I was dismissed... Every time I felt lesser... I always asked that question and wondered if I was different on a deeper, fundamental level. Those thoughts were always the ones that haunted me in my most idle moments.”

Glancing through his own troubled memory, Bach blinks out of a trance, and sighs. “Yeah, those aren’t easy thoughts. Coming from experience.”

Upon a cracked screen, the vectors morph and twist to a sly grin, and Amos perks his digital brow. “But... I got an answer. Certainly not the one I expected. Nor in a way I anticipated. But, it satisfies me. Would you like to see it? It’s given me comfort in my darkest days.”

The surrounding team exchange a mix of intrigue and wary glances. Bach lifts a brow, tilts his head to the side, and nods with a genuine tone. “Yeah. I’m actually really curious.”

Amos extends his working arm out in front of him, turns his hand over, holds his mechanical palm up. Seconds of quiet pass. Flickers of digital patterns flash out upon Amos’s different displays, and faint trill noises sound out from his audio system. From his robotic frame, strands of prismatic flow thread around his chassis, swirl around his metal body, and travel down his functional arm. The waves of energy drift around his forearm, and gradually condense into his hand. A simple, prismatic orb of energy forms, hovers above his palm, and remains.

Aristespha’s violet eyes widen in wonder. Sotalia’s jaw drops slowly and she blinks astonished. Dretphi covers her mouth with hand as she gasps. Cideeda gazes up, and maintains a bewildered gaze. Bach cocks his head to the side, darts his blue eyes around, and watches in sheer fascination. Amos’s displays return to normal, and genuine joy swirls into his articulate voice. “To the powers that matter... I guess I’m the same as anyone else.”

In the early morning light, Cideeda checks underneath the humvee, Dretphi hoists up a bundle of supplies into the back, and Aristespha arranges some documents near her seat in the vehicle. Mavian walks out the door to the Precipice Inn & Tavern with Bach and Sotalia behind him. He glances over his shoulder, and awkwardly contorts a grin on his face. “Sorry, about taking your seat and all. But, I really need to be in front.”

Sotalia smirks and shakes her head. “Don’t worry about it. I rather someone warn us what we are about to roll into, rather than watch it catch us on fire or worse.”

A small, devilish grin cracks out the corner of her mouth, and she winks to Bach. “Plus, it’ll be fun to pester Bach from the back seat for once.”

Bach twists his mouth, slowly shakes his head, and sighs. Leaning against the wall of the building, Amos waves to the group and bows slightly. “I wish you the best of luck in your travels, my friends.”

Halting in place, Bach pivots around nods to Amos. “Thank you. You going to be okay?”

Amos displays a smile on his face. “Very much so. Aggie and Elissia are going to let me stay in a room they can’t rent due to the bathroom being out of order. Which doesn’t affect me much. It’ll give me time to figure out what my next lodging arrangements will be.”

Mavian points to Amos. “By the way, word has it that group ran off from town. So, I don’t think they’ll be back any time soon. Quite a few zone runners weren’t too happy with them already, and were NOT happy to hear what they did.”

Tilting his head in honest surprise, Amos dons an appreciative tone. “That’s comforting. Well, here’s hoping they move to some other part of zone far, far from us.”

Running excitedly down the sidewalk, Suzie rushes up to Amos hugs his leg. “Mr. Amos! Are you okay?”

Amos glances down at the little girl, pats her on the head, and shows her bright smile on his facial display. “Perfectly fine. A little more functional than I was before actually.”

Ishmael glances up from his position in the top of Suzie’s backpack, and nods to Amos. “Excellent. Maybe that’ll improve your memory on how your stories actually went rather than filling the missing details with your grandiose embellishments.”

Crossing his arms, a smug tone infiltrates Amos’s synthetic voice. “Oh, there’s never any embellishments with stories. Just contextual adjustments.”

Mavian waves goodbye to Amos and walks away. Bach and Sotalia give goodbyes. Amos returns the gesture while Suzie keeps asking different questions. As Bach starts pivoting away, he glances down and meets Ishmael’s stare at him. After a few tense moments, Bach blinks his eyes, steps away, and turns around. He walks quickly to Sotalia’s side, and directs a whisper to her. “Okay... Um... I’m getting a weird vibe from that doll now.”

Sotalia darts her golden eyes over to Bach, and slowly nods. “Yeah... I’ve felt something similar before, but not quite. Gods, I don’t know where to put it. It’s familiar, but not really.”

She grumbles her frustrations and crosses her patterned arms. “This place is so weird. I just can’t get a good read off anything.”

Bach shrugs his shoulders, and sighs. “Well, hopefully it’ll just be one less mystery we have to solve.”

Sotalia turns her head up towards Bach, and snorts with a smirk. “When has THAT ever been the case?”

Hanging his head low briefly, Bach shakes his head. “I know... I know. I can hope right?”

Sotalia pats him on the back, and the two join the group around the humvee.