Episode 107

A twig snaps underneath a leather boot. Stepping through the forest with a chorus of loud thumps and mechanical noise behind him, a lone evuukian man navigates through the sparse forest underneath a canopy of shade. Approaching a patch of sun beaming through into a clearing, he shields his light gray, green hinted face with the sleeve of his nature themed outfit, and pushes through a line of brush. Out in the open area against a rocky base of a tall hillside, he narrows his yellow eyes in a long, slow stare across the area and twists an unamused frown. Slowly pivoting in place, he shifts his focus up to distant landmarks visible through the thinning tree cover, contorts his age weathered expression, and lowers his gaze upon a map. Pinching the paper tightly in his leather glove, he tosses back his long black hair over the shoulders of his leather armor, alternates his glances between landmarks and the map, and hums unsatisfied.

Straightening his posture, he pivots to face the forest, draws in long breath, and projects his voice. “Squad one! Line up near my position!”

From the woods, a series of electronic confirmation beeps echo out. Heavy thumps sound out. A dozen humanoid robots weave between tree trunks, cut through low brush, and assemble in a line formation in front of the evuukian. With a twitch of his very long, pointed ear, the man contorts his mouth and scrutinizes the collection of old construction robots. Faint glints reflect off the few patches of gloss remaining upon faded yellow, orange, and black paint. Worn edges frame in the sections of neglect and streaks of rust contrast the against the functional systems.

The evuukian male gestures a wide sweep of the arm out into the clearing area and commands with a cold tinge. “Scan the area with ground penetrating radar. Search for constructed structures using any manufactured materials. Report to me upon any discovery.”

Confirmation chimes sound out, yellow tinted spinning lights activate, and equipment covers open up. A humanoid robot in the middle of the lineup, perks up as servos activate, rotates its armored head to the evuukian man, and responds. “Foreman Zero Zero confirming work request. Units synchronized. Instructions issued.”

The dozen construction robots move out into the open field. Reinforced legs step upon the hard soil with methodical paces, scanning equipment shifts into optimal positions, and the machines coordinate into a pattern. Many droids struggle against ancient damage, repeatedly adjust to limited operation, and apply a variety of compensating measures to perform their task. The evuukian man stands with his arms crossed and impatiently frowns with a slow tap of his boot up on the ground. Minutes later, the foreman robot straightens its chassis, pivots sharply, and faces the evuukian man. “Foreman Zero Zero reporting. Constructed structure detected under landslide debris.”

A faint smirk appears on the evuukian’s face and he nods. “Understood. Proceed to clear debris and expose structure. Investigate upon debris clearance. Report to me upon any discovery.”

The foreman bot mechanically nods, spins around, and marches to the rocky outcropping at the base of the hill. He forms up with the other machines, and they approach it in unison. Different units retract equipment covers on their arms and reveal drills, jack hammers, and hydraulic claws. As the cacophony of excavation work floods the air, the evuukian man calmly retreats into the woods. He wanders while surveying the area and finds a large, old log. Sitting down up on the fallen lumber, he sets down a large pack off his back, opens the flap, and reaches far into it. Gripping upon an item a full arm’s length down a half an arm’s length bag, he retrieves a radio unit and places it next to him. Powering on the system, he tunes it to a preset frequency and adjusts the volume to play a general news broadcast. Feeling his stomach, he widens the opening into the magical bag, gazes into the larger space within, and rummages through a collection of common survival gear, random trinkets, and occasional old artifacts. His hand brushes up against a worn, aged binder, and he halts. With a wide flit of his yellow eyes, an uncomfortable, sad curl twists his face and a reflexive sigh escapes. His attention shifts to the binder and he draws an uneasy breath in. In pained recognition, he grits his teeth briefly, grips the thick folder, and pulls it out of the bag. His gloved hands hold the binder and he stares sadly at it. Feeling the edges of the documents within the confines, he summons up his will, and undoes the securing clasps on the cover.

He slowly opens up and reveals the contents of an overloaded scrapbook. Upon the first few pages, news articles fill the background behind different trinkets. As the evuukian man turns the next pages, his soft, longing gaze drifts between pairs of entertainment tickets, postcards from different cities, and random tokens of different currency. He pauses momentarily, sighs painfully, and lowers his head. Stiffening his upper lip, he turns to the next page.

A collage of pictures overwhelms the pages. Each picture contains at least one of two evuukians. In one photograph, a younger, smiling version of the evuukian man waves out to the person behind the camera. In another, a young evuukian woman with flowing red hair, grins brightly, and excitedly points out to the sea in the background. The now fades from the evuukian man as he stares distantly between young evuukian man and woman together in the lively collection of pictures. His attention rests upon each past moment. Memories rise out from undertow and brief moments of happiness wear the frown on his face towards a smile. The pages turn slowly with stretches of time between each attempt to move forward in the book. Another collection of photographs showcases the couple outside in different locations during all the seasons. As the evuukian man progresses through the book, the next flip of a page reveals the couple in similar nature themed outfits and gear. Flit of pride escapes upon his face as the pictures showcase the chain of shared moments between the couple. The evuukian man flips to the next page. The blank background paper of the scrapbook starkly contrasts the prior collections. The empty and barren pages weighs down the smile upon the evuukian man’s face, and his expression darkens as the stark distance between the past and now reveals itself.

The foreman droid approaches, halts meters away, and addresses the man. “Foreman Zero Zero reporting. A portal into an unknown structure has been found.”

The evuukian blinks hard back to the now, and shakes his head against the reality suddenly entering his thoughts. He glances up to the robot, and waits. Foreman Zero Zero appends his prior statement. “Entrance is sealed. No non-destructive means has been found for entry.”

The man twists his mouth, tilts his head up slightly, and concentrates his stare upon the Foreman. “Any destructive means?”

Foreman Zero Zero promptly replies. “Yes. Current scan data indicates that shaped charges upon entry supports would breach into the structure. All calculations indicate it would be the most effective and efficient in regards to resources and time. Would you like to authorize?”

After moment of uncertainty, the deliberation within the man’s mind slows down as the glances around the area stop. A thin grin curls upon the evuukian’s face. “Yes.”

The humanoid robot pauses, chirps out an alert tone, and angles its head to focus upon the man. “Please enter confirmation code to complete authorization.”

Drawing a long breath, the evuukian man calmly recites. “User, Lexattican. Password, Two nine seven five zero four two eight.”

Status lights upon Foreman Zero Zero’s diagnostic screen blink rapidly in different sequences. It straightens up its mechanical posture with a rigid application of servos, bobs its head briefly, and explains. “Authorization code accepted. You are currently at predicted safe distance, but further protective measures are recommended.”

Lexattican smirks. He puts the scrapbook back into the bag along with the radio, stands up, and holds up his hand. “Understood.”

He turns around slowly, snaps his fingers, and calls out. “Security Squad! Assume protective barrier formation behind me.”

Stirring from transparency, large, humanoid robot outlines blur into visually refractive shapes from behind large trees. After a few meters of heavy footsteps, the transparency obscuring the six refreshed war machines fades, and the mechs move into a barrier position behind Lexattican as he grins smugly.

Upon a large picnic table on beach, a vast selection of barbecue in huge metal pans airs out delectable smells and Greater Azure Alliance military members orbit around with plates. Loading up on the array of sides surrounding the main courses, the hungry people eagerly pick through the bounty. Nearby at another large picnic table, Captain Hackle sits at the middle of table upon the bench seat and finishes a long sip of iced tea. He gazes over at Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sotalia, and Sebastian, and sighs out hints of his dissatisfaction. “So... That’s unfortunately how our attempt went. Admittedly, he was merciful, but such an expenditure of his power was completely unexpected. We were wrong to assume he was merely being economical rather than simply restraining himself.”

Sebastian’s ethereal form crosses his arms, twists his translucent mouth into a frown, and slowly shakes his head. “I wouldn’t be too hard on yourselves. While he has used his power on us in confrontations, he always seemed reserved with it. Just enough to get him out of the situation. So... This is new to us, too.”

Blinking her violet eyes, Aristespha contorts her ivory face in thought and rests her hand upon the sword at her side. “Yes. The fact were we able to detect his expenditure of power from down in Perimeter is a recent development. Lately, we have not reliably detected any of his activities from any kind of distance.”

Captain Hackle nods slowly, twists his graying mustache, and shifts his scrutinizing gaze between the assembled team. “I do believe something has changed for him. And, any information you can provide about what might have caused this change would be greatly appreciated.”

Aristespha smirks and bows her head slightly. “I would be happy to share our summation of what we know so far.”

Finishing off her plate of pulled pork, Dretphi pauses in thought a moment, turns her gaze towards Captain Hackle, and frowns. “We have not confirmed the information. It seems to have been enough for Noxian. That is troubling.”

Cideeda narrows her emerald green eyes, contorts a frown on her light brown face, and sighs. “Yeah, from the source we talked to... He seemed REALLY excited. We honestly didn’t think he was going to do much more than the usual. Hell, we were really trying to keep back and see what he did on his own, first.”

With a long eye roll at himself, Captain Hackle slowly shakes his head and groans. “I will admit we should have exercised such wisdom. We’ll have to assume he’s capable of much more now.”

Pointing a forkful of sauce soaked beef at Captain Hackle, Sotalia dons a slight sneer of her upper lip and grumbles. “Don’t forget he’s still the Dark Lord Noxian. He may have been lying low and keeping quiet, but he’s probably just as tricky and capable as he ever was.”

Lifting an eyebrow towards Sotalia, Captain Hackle nods his understanding as flit of frustration seeps out from behind his calm facade. “Oh, he was very adamant on reminding us who he is. None of my team is going to forget that. Especially, the mech pilots that were trapped in their suits for a day waiting to get cut out.”

Bach cringes briefly, shudders at a thought, and smirks uneasily. “That must have been really uncomfortable for them.”

Captain Hackle snorts, taps the fork on his plate, and cracks a chuckling grin. “They are very capable and tough people. The mech suits are designed to make their use as accommodating to the body as possible. Unfortunately, they had not been kitted out for extended operation.”

He smiles tightly, slowly shakes his head, and sighs. “I’ll spare the details, since we are dining. But, I will say it has been a long time since I’ve seen modesty so quickly discarded along an exceptional sprint to the nearest body of sea water.”

After a few moments of gauging the dawning realizations of the team, he laughs, straightens his tall, thin frame, and shrugs his shoulders. “Admittedly, despite his methods Noxian did show us mercy. Though, he seems to have a particular way to show his respect to his enemies. I’m still puzzled as to why Specialist Thayal got the more unique entrapment.”

Sergeant Violet walks up near Captain Hackle, salutes, and addresses him respectfully. “Captain Hackle. Apologies for overhearing, but I heard Special Thayal mentioned. Do you require anything of me regarding him?”

Captain Hackle smiles and waves off the notion. “No. There’s no need today. He is to enjoy his time off.”

With a quick nod, Sergeant Violet leans close to Captain Hackle and speaks quietly. “I wanted to inform you that Captain Hays has called in. Do you want to take the call now or should I see if he can schedule a better time?”

After a few moments of deliberation, Captain Hackle directs Sergeant Violet towards the center of the table, and smirks with a twist of his mustache. “I’ll take it right here. I’m certain this will probably involve all assembled.”

Sergeant Violet straightens her posture, tosses her light brown hair back, and blinks her dark blue eyes. “Oh. Of course, sir.”

She presents the tablet underneath her arm, lays it out upon the tabletop, and quickly taps into a few long, complex authorization codes. The speaker in the unit crackles to life and Captain Hays’s voice calls out. “Hello? Dammit, is this thing still connected? The reception out here is absolute shit-”

Captain Hackle laughs, cracks a humored grin, and directs his voice down at the device. “We can hear you just fine, Hays. Just to let you know, I’ve been joined by Sebastian Warwick’s team.”

Captain Hays’s voice perks up and he greets the team. “Well, that saves me trying to get another call from out here. Nice to speak to you all. Let me be quick with the important stuff, since I don’t know long the planets are going to align to keep this connection working.”

He draws in a long breath from the other side of the call, and relays an explanation. “We’ve been tracking Noxian since he left Phis. Initially, he was heading straight east down the main highway towards Amaranth Valley...”

Uncomfortable, uneasy expression taints the moods of Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian and Sotalia. The tablet’s speaker sounds out the continuation of Captain Hays’s words. “But, he then diverted away from the main road and almost seemed like he was looping back. We weren’t exactly sure if it was a tactic to throw people off his tracks, until he started using a bunch of back routes. Seems he got some practice down in Perimeter using his new ride, and is taking every forgotten side ride and overgrown access path.”

A contemplative hum rises above a wave of static and distortion in the call and he continues. “It seems his current route is taking him to the north west.”

Captain Hackle cocks his head of short gray hair to the side and strokes his mustache. Others in the assembly around the picnic table fight the growing confusion and puzzle at the new information. Captain Hays sighs over the connection and ponders out loud. “It’s going to make pursuing him a bit difficult to justify since he’s eventually going to clear proper GAA jurisdiction-”

Bach blinks his blue eyes hard, lifts his head up, and plainly states. “Let him go.”

Everyone around the call focuses their attention upon Bach. Aristespha and Dretphi exchange glances as the realization dawns upon them at nearly the same time. Captain Hays’s voice inquires uncertainly. “Come again?”

Thinking about his words, Bach holds out his hand, searches his mind, and fashions an explanation. “Isaac, um, Noxian, is after something. He doesn’t know where it is and neither do we. But, we know more about where it could be.”

Cideeda’s furry ears perk up, and she crosses her arms with a toothy grin. “Oh. That’s right!”

Sebastian sorts through his thoughts, dons a smug smirk, and nods. “Huh.”

Twisting his mouth, Bach reveals the key detail with a hopeful upturn in his tone. “He’s going the completely wrong way. And, he doesn’t know it.”

Sotalia traces a mental map in the air in front of her with a fork, glances to a point in her mind, and charts the direction. An evil grin parts her lips, and she chuckles darkly. “THAT, is wonderful.”

Captain Hackle glances up to Sergeant Violet with an amused smirk, and directs his voice to the tablet. “Did you get that Hays?”

Intrigue seeps out from other side of the conversation and singular laugh sounds out. “Yeah, I did. That’s interesting to hear, Bach. I still want to keep tabs on him.”

A plotting grin grows on Captain Hackle's aged face as he leans back and strokes his mustache in thought. “Yes. Still keep track of him. But, there’s no need to be that aggressive in tracking him.”

Captain Hays replies in agreement. “Exactly. We can definitely drop back and let him have a longer lead. Thankfully, our newest recruit is proving to be prefect for stealthily traveling through the forests. Which reminds me, since I have the rest of you on the line...”

The other side of the call quietens into static and bits of background audio peaks over the noise floor. After a few seconds, Captain Hays speaks up across the connection. “My new recruit wanted to ask you all question when the opportunity arose.”

A woman’s voice crackles through the tablet and she awkwardly introduces herself. “Um, hello? This is Chelindia. I was the one who assisted you to rescue Faelatelia.”

The team interest piques and Aristespha directs her tone. “Yes, we remember!”

Sebastian smiles and projects his ethereal voice. “Sounds like you’ve changed up your career a bit.”

Chelindia chuckles lightly, draws in a long breath, and replies with an appreciative hint. “Yes. I was made generous offers. I felt my desires aligned with the Borderland Rangers more. Though, the GAA offer was very nice, too. No offense, Captain Hackle.”

Captain Hackle shrugs his shoulders with smile, and laughs kindly. “None taken.”

Chelindia awkwardly approaches a question. “How is... Faelatelia?”

Aristespha smiles, leans close to the tablet, and calmly speaks. “Safe and sound with her family. Valavera is quite happy to have her friend back safely.”

A long sigh of relief escapes over the call, and Chelindia breathes easily. “That is good to hear. Thank you again for taking her to safety.”

Bach glances around and chimes in. “And, it’s good to know you got out of there, too.”

Chelindia’s voice sounds out from the tablet and bit of cheer rises out from sadness. “I am, too. A lot of us are working on better paths now. I only wish more could have joined us in seeking those paths.”

After a few moments of quiet, she excuses herself with an apologetic tone. “Oh! I am sorry. I don’t want to take up much more of your time. We can converse later.”

Sounds of movement arrive from other side of the call and Captain Hays speaks up. “Again, she been amazing in keeping track of Noxian through the forests.”

Captain Hackle nods in agreement and gazes over the team. “Indeed. She’s given the GAA a lot of information. Thank you all again for directing her and her group towards us. While Hays is on the line, maybe you can give us the key points on what Noxian found.”

Bach and Sebastian exchange quick glance, crack knowing smirks, and nod to each other.

The muffled sounds of keys jingle through from other side of the door for the single bed, old motel room. Mera swings open the door, steps past the threshold, and slowly seals up the evening behind her. She flips on the lights, staggers over to the bed with long yawn, and flops down on top of the sheets. After releasing a long fatigued sigh, she gradually rolls her ivory face from the bed spread, puffs out a few stray strands of gray hair out of the way, and blinks her crimson eyes. She idles for a minute, dons a smirk with a snort, and pushes her upper body up. She crawls over to the side of the bed, opens up door in the stout nightstand, and reveals a simple metal room safe. Patting around to her side, she grasps hold of the bundle of keys, flips through to a smaller one, and places it into the lock. With a careful sequence of moves, she convinces the safe to open. She reaches inside, and pulls out a modest backpack. Placing the bag upon her bed, she sits up straight with her legs crossed, unzips the top, and sorts through the contents. Her hands pat against a metal box, and she grips it upon recognition.

With the lockbox in hand, she quickly rolls the combination dials with her thumb in a well rehearsed chain of flicks to a combination of evuukian script. Sliding the button next to the lock, the lid of the container releases, and Mera inspects the contents. Neatly arranged bundles of paper currency mix with wrapped coins, and a hopeful smile graces Mera’s face. She leans to the side, reaches her hand into her pocket, and draws out a simple leather wallet. She opens it up, plucks out the larger bills, and merges them into a small bundle of matching currency denominations. With a swell of pride at the pile of money within the lockbox, she slowly closes the lid. While fitting the rigid container inside the backpack, a few photographs spill forth onto the bed. Mera blinks while puzzling, sweeps up loose pictures into a bundle, and checks out the first one.

A wave of familiarity tempers her mood, and recognition allows tinges of sadness to curl her frown. She studies the top photograph of the sun lit clearing in the middle of the ancient ruins surrounded by huge trees. Slowly flipping through to the next picture, her crimson eyes shifts between the different individuals working on cleanup tasks and her expression softens more with each familiar face. A sad sigh escapes her, and she grits her teeth briefly, fighting a surge of discomfort. Moving to the next picture, tears well up in her eyes and she stares at the smiling evuukian woman in the picture. She lifts the photograph from the stack, and gazes warmly with a smile at the turquoise eyes and dark tan face of the evuukian woman with long dark green braided hair. “Chel...”

As minutes pass, Mera stares at the picture, blinks away welling tears, and sniffs. With a somber exhale, she slides the picture to the bottom of the stack and catches sight of the next image. Briefly narrowing her eyes at the two individuals in the shot, she snorts out reflexive giggles. A humored smirk pushes against the sadness upon her face, and she holds up the photo. She gazes over the picture of her and Chel, sitting next to each other holding hands with complete surprise on their faces. Both stare awkwardly towards the camera. Laughter finds a way out from under the weight of her past, and Mera chuckles between sobs.

She collects herself with significant effort, and shakes her head warmly at the picture. She flips to the next photograph. Studying the scene, her expression hardens and flits of coldness replace the previous warmth. A number of younger evuukians sit in rows while an evuukian man gives a speech. Working up a sneer of her upper lip, Mera focuses upon the light-gray, green hinted face of the evuukian man with long black hair and yellow eyes. “Lexattican...”

After a few moments of working the ire out of her mood while gripping the crystal fashioned into a necklace, she sighs heavily and shakes her head. She flips back to the photograph of Chel briefly before placing the bundle of pictures back into her backpack. Zipping the bag closed, she secures everything back into the room safe, engages the lock, and retrieves her keys. Sitting idle on the bed in quiet contemplation, she feels her stomach, glances over to the small room fridge, and steps over. Searching inside, she taps through a selection of dishes in plastic covered paper takeout trays, grips one, places it in the microwave above. Tapping out an exact time, she flops back upon the bed, reaches over to the small desk on the other side, and snatches a notebook with a pencil in the ring binding.

She convinces her old phone to function with a series of more insistent taps on the screen. She trudges through the sluggish navigation of menus and brings up a bookmarked aethernet site. The app eventually brings up different listings of apartments and rental houses, and Mera meticulously browses through them, writing down notes upon the pages next to her.

The sounds of the coast and active city below slip through the open sliding glass door to the balcony. The noon sun beams down and Sotalia lounges upon a deck chair. She idly taps her long, thick black nails upon a nearly empty glass and swirls the remnants of a brightly colored mixed drink. Arching her back in a long stretch, she settles back down into the chair, adjusts her bikini top strap, and props her feet up upon a wooden stool. A gust of wind fluffs her fiery orange, wavy hair, and she secures her sunglasses against the breeze. After a few moments, she turns her head towards the open sliding glass door and calls out. “Anyone heard anything from Aristespha? I’m getting really hungry now.”

From the large hotel suite, Bach blinks back to awareness from a grath drama on the television, rolls over on the bed to check his aetherphone, and shakes his head. “No. Nothing yet. I guess that place was busy?”

Cideeda diverts her attention from her laptop screen, shifts her emerald green eyes over to her phone nearby, and shrugs her shoulders. “I got nothing. She’s probably on her way back. You’ll live until then.”

Peering up from her graphic novel, Dretphi directs her voice with a smirk. “Make another drink.”

Sotalia lifts her nearly empty glass up, sloshes the leftovers, and perks her brow with a grin. “Not a bad idea.”

She places her feet back on the ground, hoists herself up, and struts back inside. Pausing a moment, she glances at the television, and pans her attention over to Bach questioningly. Seconds later, Bach notices Sotalia’s amusement and sighs with a shrug. “What? I got started midway through the season. I’m trying to figure out all these plot lines, so I’m watching all the previous episodes.”

Sotalia smirks with a giggle to herself, quickly steps across the front of the television, and wanders close to Dretphi. She tilts her head, lowers her sunglasses, and narrows her golden eyes upon the title of the book. Craning her head around to peek at the page, she whispers in grath to Dretphi. Biting her lower lip, a guilty smile appears on Dretphi’s tan face and her steely gray eyes glance over to Sotalia. She replies in hushed grath and trails off her response as flush of embarrassment fills her face. Sotalia blinks in surprise, narrows her gaze at the book. Dretphi obscures the pages onto her chest, frowns playfully at Sotalia, and quips back in grath. With a huff, Sotalia pleads with a smile and eager squirm. After twirling the darker end of a platinum blonde braid, Dretphi relents, turns up a single panel of a page into view, and smirks. Sotalia’s eyes flit wide, and a sly grin grows to both gray patches of skin underneath her pointed ears. She stands up straight, points at the book with a comment in grath, and walks closer to the kitchen. Dretphi nods in agreement and resumes reading.

Stepping close to Cideeda’s bed, Sotalia perks her brow, rests a hand on her hips, and smirks. “How are the markets today?”

Cideeda lightly raps her claw tips upon the battered and worn laptop, flicks her furry ears in thought, and rocks her head side to side. “Slight improvement overall. Got a few new ones on the watch lists. We’ll see.”

Lifting up an eyebrow, Sotalia plucks her sunglasses off her face, twists her mouth in thought, and ponders out loud. “Anything I should change up soon?”

Combing her claws through her short, multi-color hair, Cideeda smiles confidently and stretches her arms and legs out. “Nothing I’d recommend, right now. You should be fine.”

Sotalia points a finger from the hand around her glass at Cideeda, and quirks her brow with a smirk. “I know you’ll be the first to act, but make sure I’m a close second. Okay?”

A toothy grin graces Cideeda’s face, and she crosses her arms behind her head. “Sure. We’ll see.”

Sotalia shakes her head, struts past the connecting door to the other part of the suite, and slips into the kitchen. Inspecting between the bottles of alcohol and mixers, she directs her voice out the group. “Anyone want anything while I’m up here? Plenty left.”

Bach’s voice sounds out. “Not now. Waiting for food.”

Dretphi shakes her head. Cideeda glances over at the empty glass on the nightstand, and shrugs her shoulders. “Just another of what you mixed before for me.”

Sotalia nods, retrieves glasses from the stocked cabinets, and sets up ingredients. As she mixes the beverages, she directs a question to the team. “Anyone else going to join me on the beach after we eat? I want to enjoy a few more hours on the sand before we head back tomorrow.”

Dretphi keeps her eyes trained on the novel and nods. “Yes. I agree.”

Cideeda flexes her toes, and brushes off sand from the top of her bed sheets. “Sure, there’s that one game shop I wanted to check out anyway.”

Bach glances to the sun outside, and smiles. “Yeah. That sounds good. Haven’t had much of chance to just sit on the beach really.”

Finishing up the concoctions with an elaborate pour from a bottle of spirits, Sotalia lightly stirs the two drinks, picks them up, and steps out of the kitchen. “I know. Gods, we’re always running around. I swear we really need to just have a month or two to actually enjoy the places we go to.”

She hands Cideeda a drink into her waiting hands. With a casual clink of the glasses, Cideeda sips the beverage and nods with a sigh. “Yeah! We really need to go down to Dothan.”

Dretphi perks up, and an eager smiles appears on her face. “Should go to Verdan. Get away. Relax. Enjoy good food.”

Cideeda’s, Dretphi’s, and Sotalia’s attention shift to Bach. Eventually, Bach notices the interest, glances around awkwardly, and shrugs while scratching the back of his head of longer brown hair. “Uh, High Alton isn’t that bad. I guess. It’s not exactly setting any standards. But, my mom and dad would be happy to have everyone over for dinner. Maybe wander around campus and see what they ended up spending my tuition money on.”

Sotalia chuckles lightly, sips her drink, and grins with wink. “Oh, a game of Where Did My Tuition Go? I’ve played that a few times. I think I settled on a gaudy statute of the school mascot in front of the college of magical sciences building. That’s where I believe MY tuition went.”

Sebastian materializes into the room, glances around, and points to the door. “Hey! Aristespha is about at the door and-”

A chime sounds out from the hotel door lock. The door opens, and Aristespha swings through a large to go bag. With different sacks upon her arms, she angles her athletic, thin figure to a balance point, and darts her violet eyes into the room. “Help?”

Sotalia sets down her glass, rushes over, and stabilizes the load. The rest of the team quickly gathers to sort and distribute the containers of food. Clearing the kitchen counter, the trays of bulk orders find places, and an impromptu serving line forms. Aristespha straightens out her back with her hands on her lumbar, grunts as she stretches, and waves her hand out. “Enjoy. I’m going to need a drink first. I got some news, too.”

Bach twists his mouth uncertainly while he sets out some paper plates. “Uh, good or bad? We’ve had weird mix of both lately.”

Aristespha spots the familiar bottles, scoots through the team, and positions herself in front of the important ingredients. “I’d say, interesting? I don’t know if it’s good or bad yet.”

Sotalia retrieves her drink, lines up behind Dretphi at the food line, and narrows a puzzling golden gaze at Aristespha. “Well, what is it, girl?”

Drawing a long breath, Aristespha directs her voice to the team while her eyes study the alcoholic possibilities. “Nash called me. He got the information I sent to him personally. He and the head of the archaeology department actually were having suspicions about Dr. Dawkins already. They just didn’t have any solid evidence before.”

Cideeda forks over pulled pork onto a bun, picks up a packet of hot sauce, and judges it with a sniff. “Well, they got it now.”

Aristespha rolls her violet eyes, and groans. “Yes. But, they’re still not quite sure how to proceed. A whole lot of Grand Library politics is involved now.”

Shaking her head, Dretphi huffs and explores the side trays. “Disappointing. If they do not act, we should provide the evidence directly.”

Pouring a generous portion of a brown liquor into the mix, Aristespha sighs with frown. “I know. I’m trying to give them a chance to act as they see fit. Even I’m not that versed in the Grand Library politics, so I don’t want to upset the tenative balance.”

Sebastian dons a sly grin as his visage hovers next to Aristespha and motions to the team. “Tell them best part, dear.”

Aristespha smiles eagerly at Sebastian, takes a long swig of her drink, and pivots to face the group. “Of course, Sebastian.”

She crosses her arms, swirls her drink, and gazes over the team. “Dr. Malkav called me on the way back here. He just got back into Perimeter. And, he’s already making a lot of calls and gearing up to head straight back there.”

Progress on getting food pauses momentarily, and Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia glance over to Aristespha. Bach blinks his blue eyes in surprise and smirks. “Shit. I don’t think you need to do anything more.”

Dretphi nods in agreement and smiles tightly. Cideeda snickers and shakes her head. “Yeah, I don’t think we need to worry about providing the Grand Library anything else at this point. He’ll take care of that and then some.”

Aristespha pours back a bit of her drink, brushes back her silvery blue hair, and relaxes her shoulders. “That’s what I thought. So...”

She reaches over into a food tray, picks up a chicken leg, and bites a piece of it off. “Let’s enjoy ourselves today and get back. We’ll figure it the fuck out then.”

Sotalia raises her drink to Aristespha, and the two clink glasses to the agreement of everyone else.

Nash presses the pause button on the game controller, places it on the coffee table in front of him, and slouches back into his corner of couch. “So, any clue how the absolute fuck we are going to figure out this mess of shit?”

Harvos blinks his bright brown on black eyes, plops his gamepad on the middle couch cushion, and combs his long, black finger nails through his bright brown hair. He grits his teeth, hisses out a sigh, and anxiously grips one of the tall horns on his head. “No gods damned clue.”

Flopping onto the back of old, worn couch, he blankly tilts his head to the side, twists his mouth, and grumbles to himself. He glances aimlessly around the surrounding clutter of the busy living room, huffs out his frustration, and tilts his head back with a groan. “Fuck. If he wasn’t an emeritus this would be a lot simpler. He’s technically with and not with the Grand Library, at the same time.”

Slowly nodding, Nash props his head up with his fist and snarls his upper lip. “Doesn’t fucking help that he played us. I can almost hear the provost and higher ups yelling at us, wondering how the hell we didn’t figure it out sooner.”

He rolls his pale blue eyes, snorts out a dry laugh, and shakes his head. “Well, it was fun being the head of the department. I just hope they let me keep some of the pay when they demote me.”

Harvos quirks his brow, turns his uneasy stare to Nash, and smirks awkwardly. “You’d really think they’d do that?”

Shrugging his shoulders, Nash darts his eyes around, waves his hand dismissively, and sighs. “What makes you think they wouldn’t? They didn’t get up to power playing nice and they certainly aren’t when it comes to staying up there. A sacrificial head of the department isn’t new to them.”

Gritting his teeth, Harvos drums his black nailed, light gray fingers upon the patchy couch arm. He twists his mouth and grumbles. “I like my job.”

Nash shakes his head with a smile and snorts while stretching his back out. “Oh, don’t worry. It didn’t happen in your building. Plus, they’ve been looking for ways to feasibly unseat me. I might as be the one the give them the ammunition to come up with some contrived excuse to feed to all the big letter organizations. Pick your poison and all...”

He rocks his heavy figure forward, stands up, and glances towards to doorway leading into the kitchen. “Speaking of which, what’s your poison before we roll on to the next quest?”

Harvos eyes the large television showing a twin status screen overlay with two science fiction warriors frozen on split sections. He flits his bright brown on black eyes wide, cracks an eager grin, and twist to gaze at the refrigerator in the kitchen. “You still got those chocolate covered ice cream bars?”

Nash smiles with chuckle and steps through the doorway. “Hell yeah, I do. I got cheap ones and the name brand. Got a preference?”

Narrowing his stare in thought, Harvos smirks slyly and laughs. “One of each.”

Nash pulls open the door to the upper freezer, nods in agreement, and sorts through the ice covered cardboard boxes. “I like that! Think I’ll do that same... Once, I figure out where I buried the damn things... Shit, I really need to defrost this thing. My fingers are sticking to boxes.”

He tugs at a box in the way, frowns at the difficulty, and sighs. “Might take a moment. Hope I don’t need a gods damned chisel.”

While Nash works out a paper brick from the frozen food wall, Harvos glances over to the source of an electronic tune on the couch. He leans over to the other side of the couch, reaches in the gap between cushion and couch arm, and pulls out an aetherphone. Studying the alert display briefly, he directs his voice towards the kitchen. “Hey Nash! Your phone is ringing!”

Nash turns his head away from the chore at hand, furrows his brow, and calls back. “What’s the caller ID say?”

Harvos focuses upon the screen, cocks his head to the side, and twists his mouth uncertainly. “Weird number format I’ve never seen before.”

With a final tug, Nash frees two different boxes of ice cream treats, shoulders the fridge door closed, and shrugs. “Fuck it, I feel like being difficult to some confused salesperson. Put it on speaker. I wonder what random thing they’ll shill this time.”

The call connects after Harvos taps the right on screen buttons, and a background hiss and distortion sounds out. After a few awkward moments, a voice rises out of the faint static. “Hello? Can I speak to a Dr. Nash Howard?”

Nash steps up to the aetherphone upon the back of the couch, glances curiously towards Harvos, and cautiously replies. “This is he. Um, hmm. Who is this? Usually, random people don’t address me by doctor. So, you know of me for some reason.”

With a chuckle, the tone of the voice at the other end of call lightens. “I know the feeling. Your friend Aristespha gave your number to me to contact you about certain person we both know. I’m Dr. Maxwell Malkav.”

Nash blinks blankly, and holds out the opened box of store brand ice cream treats to Harvos. After a few moments, Harvos plucks a foil wrapped, square package from the container, shifts his attention to Nash, and grimaces uncomfortably. Max continues on after the drone of silence. “I get the feeling you know who I am. And, probably a bit surprised I’m calling you.”

Nodding his head, Nash contorts his expression and sighs. “Yeah. That’s about the case. So, um, huh... Well, what would you like to talk about? I mean, we’ve got plenty of questions we could ask... But, I’m sure you got the more pertinent ones at the moment.”

Max’s voice sounds out from the speaker phone. “We? Who else is here?”

Harvos swallows a bite of the chocolate covered ice cream, straightens up his posture, and speaks clearly. “Dr. Harvos Azerios, current Head of the Archaeology speaking, Dr. Malkav.”

A tint of respect colors Max’s tone. “Max is fine. But, good. I lucked out in getting both of you at the same time. So... Let’s see here. First things first. What recent info have you relayed to the higher ups?”

Nash grits his teeth briefly, and twists his mouth. “Nothing. We were just trying to figure out how to break this latest development to them.”

Harvos sighs and shakes his head. “It’s been very... Difficult right now with everything else that’s happened before this point. We don’t know how they’ll take it.”

Hints of relief slip through from the other side of the call, and Max exhales. “Good. You two are fast learners. Next question, does Dawkins have a clue?”

Nash and Harvos exchange glances. Nash removes a foiled wrapped square from the box, and smirks warily. “Not that we’ve been able to determine. We were starting to suspect him before Aristespha gave us the latest update...”

Harvos continues after Nash trials off. “Yes. We have kept our distance and left him alone for a while. Again, we were trying to figure out what to do actually do now that we know all this for certain.”

A calmer tone settles into Max’s cadence, and he breathes easy. “Very good. I’m going to ask a professional and personal favor of the both of you. Simply put. Don’t. Say. Shit. To anyone.”

Nash and Harvos shift their focus briefly to the other, and then return to their attention to the phone. Through the aetherphone speaker, Max continues. “I’m coming back to the Grand Library, as soon as possible. I just got back to Perimeter, and I’m heading out tomorrow. It’ll probably take a good week or so. Please, hold off saying anything.”

A spark of determination weighs down his voice. “I’m partially responsible for this mess. You two don’t need to clean up after it. I’ll handle the higher ups. I’m sure a few will shit their pants when I show up.”

Ire darkens his tone. “The most important thing is... I get to talk to Emanuel before anyone else. Understood?”

Both Nash and Harvos nod and chime in their agreement. Max sighs over the background hiss, and groans out the remainder of his frustrations. “Okay. Good. Now that’s settled...”

With an uneasy, awkward cadence, Max dons a polite tint. “Could you all update me on what the hell has been going up there? It sounds like the whole lot of those dipshits in charge have lost their fucking minds. How many outsiders did they let into our archives?”

Nash snorts, finishes a bite of the ice cream treat, and quips. “Easier to name who they didn’t.”

Max audibly rolls his eyes with a long groan, and sighs. “Gods damn them. You leave for a few years and they let it all go hell in a hand basket.”