Episode 114

Sitting on a worn wooden chair at a plain table, Meredosia’s crimson eyes dart around the gray, painted brick walls of the holding room. Maintaining defiant scowl on her ivory face, she narrows an examining glare at the magical inscriptions along the edges of the space. She flexes her fingers and turns her wrists within the heavy, metal handcuffs. She watches as flits of magical energy flicker in etched flow channels upon the restraints. A long sigh escapes her and she slumps her shoulders down. Glancing up to the overhead panel lights, she tosses her gray hair back and winces when strands shift on one side. With a sharp frown, recent memory flashes back into her thoughts and she inspects the shorter side. Her clipped, bandaged ear perks faintly and she hisses out a mix of shame and embarrassment.

A metallic clang sounds out from the locking mechanisms in the heavy, warded door. A power armored GAA soldier steps in along with a uniformed mage in full battle gear. Meredosia’s posture stiffens in the chair and she narrows a wary stare towards the gathering. Captain Hackle’s tall, thin frame steps in calmly and he nods to Meredosia. “I apologize for keeping you waiting here for so long. It took a little longer than expected to get certain information, Meredosia Kali Zerha Verherin.”

Meredosia’s crimson eyes flit wide briefly, and an uncomfortable curl in the corner of her mouth twists her stern expression. Hackle perks his eyebrow and steps towards the table, opposite of Meredosia. Sergeant Violet follows into the room with a chair similar to the wooden one underneath Meredosia. She sets the chair behind Hackle, stands at attention, and focuses her dark blue eyes between the meeting. Easing himself into the seat, Hackle glances his brown eyes around the room and smirks under his graying mustache. “Not the worst place I’ve had such discussions, to be honest. So, Meredosia, would you like anything before we start? Coffee, tea, or something from the vending machines?”

Meredosia remains stoic and stares quietly at Hackle. After a few nods, Hackle motions to Violet and directs a flat, explanatory tone to the evuukian woman on other side of the table. “Allow me to explain the situation at hand. You are under suspicion for many unlawful activities. While a bulk of them happened outside our immediate jurisdiction, components would have had to have occurred within GAA territory.”

As Violet sets a large tablet in front of him, Hackle narrows his eyes at Meredosia. “Right now, you have been arrested for multiple counts of assault and battery with deadly force, and attempted murder. With the witnesses and victims being in good standing with GAA, it won’t take long in the courts. From there, we will have the time to investigate further into your activities.”

He taps upon the screen of the device in front of him, twists his mouth, and furrows his brow. “But... It has come to our attention that you may have knowledge that’d serve us in handling a far greater threat.”

Focusing his full attention, he directs an inquisitive gaze through Meredosia. “If you would assist us and provide useful information to aid our investigation, I feel we could resume our efforts with newfound momentum. We may overlook these incidents past and present. Then, you are welcome to resume your new life in Amaranth Valley.”

An encouraging smile appears on Captain Hackle’s face, and he opens up a map upon the tablet. “Any questions so far?”

Meredosia flexes her fingers tightly, straightens her posture, and narrows a glare at Hackle with heavy reservation. “It’s not that simple. What is the catch? There always is one.”

Hackle nods understandingly and gestures to Violet. “Yes. You would be on retainer to the GAA for a period of time. People like Sergeant Violet would keep tabs on you. And, you would make yourself available for consultation by the GAA when your insight could prove valuable.”

An uneasy frown forms on Meredosia’s face, and she draws a long, suspicious breath in. “So, I would at your beck and call. I can never go anywhere without you knowing it.”

Hackle interlocks his fingers, searches his mind, and smirks. “To some degree. I would consider it a flexible, long-term probation.”

Meredosia’s shoulders tense gradually, her fists tighten, and she directs a stern stare at Hackle with a trace of a frown. After studying her body language for a moment, Hackle draws in a long breath, relaxes his demeanor, and sigh sympathetically. “I know this is not an ideal situation for you. But, through the processes and procedures I have available, this one of the best routes out of it I can provide.”

While Meredosia continues her unamused glare upon the proceedings, Hackle gazes right into Meredosia’s crimson eyes and adopts a sincere tone. “While getting information about your recent activities here in Amaranth Valley, it has become obvious to us that your want to start anew. You’ve come to this city with nothing, taken the initiative to find a place to live, and even found honest work.”

He cocks his head to the side, perk his brow, and smirks. “This is progress I’d to see more of. This is a good direction, and it shows you want to do better. It shows you want to move forward.”

Blinking a few times, Meredosia struggles to maintain her facade against the rushes of painful memories. A defiant surge tightens her muscles and she tightly balls her fists. Twisting her mouth, a spark of rage boils up from the depths and pushes to escape her lips. As the potency wanes, her expression blanks and she stares into herself. Sorting through a flood of moments, cringes of regret and twitches of guilt leak out. Drawing a long breath, Mera sighs sadly and nods in agreement. After a few quiet seconds, she refocuses her gaze at Hackle and meekly replies. “Thank you for allowing me to call out of work... sick. I didn’t want to worry them.”

Hackle smiles with a gentle nod. “Understandable. Depending on how cooperative you are and valuable your information is, there might be ways I can see about getting assistance for your new life in the GAA.”

Mera wrestles her emotions underneath her neutral facade and collects herself. “So, what information could I have that you would want?”

Focusing his examining stare at Mera, Hackle simply states. “It’s about an evuukian that goes by Lexattican.”

Blinking her crimson eyes wide, Meredosia’s back straightens, her head tilts away slightly, and she winces reflexively as her clipped ear sways with the motion. Faint hints of hesitation form in her expression. Moments later, Mera musters up her composure and sighs reluctantly. After waiting patiently for Mera, Hackle slides the tablet across the table. “We can start simple. Let’s focus on these maps on the tablet in front of you. All I want from you is to look them over. If you find any marked locations that are familiar, let me know. If you happen to know information Lexattican told you that would be related to these maps, it would be invaluable.”

As Mera’s attention settles upon the device in front of her, Violet quickly motions to key controls on the display and grants a prompt explanation. Returning to Hackle’s side, she watches Mera scroll through material on the screen, and exchanges a quiet glance with Hackle. While Mera sorts through the maps, questionably interested, Hackle addresses Violet’s unconvinced frown with a reassuring nod. Mera flips through the first set of maps and images. She slows her progress as her eyes focus upon familiar points. Her attention shifts between recognizable terrain and topology. Hackle smiles patiently and explains with an encouraging tone. “If you need to make notes on the maps, feel free to write them out. Right now, we are more concerned with confirming suspicions we already have. So, even if you just know the location was mentioned, that would still be valuable.”

Mera glances up, nods in understanding, and returns her focus the device. She flips to the next map. She blinks in confusion and studies the new image closely. The map encompasses a large regional area with clear labels upon the cities of Clark, Amaranth Valley, Tullachester, and Hattan. Mera’s inquisitive stare traces the red, orange, yellow, and green zones of the overlay. An uncomfortable red blob starts in Clark and plumes southeast to Amaranth Valley. After the red, a larger surrounding orange zone forms with similar yellow and green areas. Curiosity leads Mera’s focus towards the map legend and her eyes spring wide at the title.

“Projected Clark Site Breach Contamination Zones”

Mera’s eyes dart around to the different points on the map and she leans closer to the tablet to the see details. “W-What... is this map about?”

Hackle squints at the tablet. “Which one is that, I can’t see well from this angle.”

Violet leans over the table slightly. “It’s the Clark site fallout predictions.”

Nodding slowly, Hackle settles back into his seat. “Ah, yes. I think that’s the result from the latest prediction model from the Grand Library.”

Mera lifts her head up and glances between the Violet and Hackle with concern growing. “A model for what?”

Pulling in a deep breath, Hackle’s voice darkens with a serious, grim tint. “It seems that Lexattican somehow found an abandoned nuclear waste disposal site within Clark. One that we didn’t even know about. While we don’t know his reasons, we have determined his methods.”

Mera unconsciously nods and notices Amaranth Valley well within the red region.

Hackle continues and watches Mera’s interest in the map on the tablet. “After bypassing safeties, he directed the system to process a load of nuclear waste outside nominal specifications. Then, he proceeded to prevent cooling system from maintaining coolant levels. Finally, he destroyed all primary control systems and forced the system into a failsafe loop.”

Mera blinks blankly as her mind weighs the gravity of the scenario. She focuses the map in on Amaranth Valley and searches for recognizable landmarks. Shifting the map over a familiar section of the city, she centers it over an area. Dread wells up through her stoic facade, and she zooms the map in closer. She stops abruptly when a shopping strip next to an intersection renders and the label overlay draws out business names with address labels.

Mera’s crimson eyes lock onto “Fval Spice” over the outline of a building and her ivory face pales further. While Violet leans quietly over to peek at the map, a relieved smirk appears on Hackle’s face and he sighs. “Thankfully, this map will only ever be a prediction for a situation that won’t happen. That very team you assaulted...”

Snapping back to awareness, Mera gazes over to Hackle. With a comforting smile, Hackle continues. “They accepted a mission I had no idea would be this grave and did not falter. At great risks to themselves, they made sure that whatever Lexattican intended... Did not come to pass.”

Slowly bowing her head down, Mera stares at the screen between one side of long gray hair and one side of short gray hair. Her crimson eyes focus on the “Fval Spice” label underneath an overlay of eerie, deadly red. Her jaw hangs open and she remains silently horrified. Drops of water land upon the tablet screen. With a sharp sniff, Mera fights back an audible sob and mumbles to herself. “...Noyando...”

As the tears flow free from her eyes, she hides face in her handcuffed hands. Hackle perks his brow, straightens his posture, and directs his concern. “Meredosia? Do you need anything?”

Mustering up her composure, Mera slowly lifts her head up, settles back in her seat, and simply states. “I’ll tell you everything...”

Hackle and Violet look upon the sobbing evuukian woman. Mera swallows down her regret and remorse, and iterates. “Everything.”

Veevi releases a long breath and closes her pink pupil eyes. She sits upon her medical bed and holds her aetherphone, the background quiet of the hospital room surrounding. Tightening her sharp nailed grip around the device, she reopens her eyes and gazes down at the contact list. Lifting her tan, brown-striped arms, she grits her sharp teeth and hisses out a reluctant sigh. “You can do this...”

Furrowing her dark pink eye brows, she grimaces and droops her fuzzy ears. Tossing back her long, pink hair, she straightens up her posture, musters up a smile, and taps the “Momma” contact button. The display on the aetherphone flips through a few status messages and Veevi positions the device at an ideal focal distance from her. The call connects and a middle aged human woman with a tan face of make up appears on the screen. She grants a bright smile, adjusts her carefully styled pink hair, and focuses her pink pupil eyes to the other side of call. “Baby! How are you feeling today? You are looking so much better.”

A genuine smile graces Veevi’s tan face and she shrugs her shoulders. “Good, all things considered. How’s your day been, Momma?”

Veevi’s mother sighs with a long roll of her eyes and shakes her head. “Oh, baby girl, you know how it is. I’ve been talking with lawyers and accountants after how badly that scum fuck Howard handled the whole situation. I swear I’ve never looked forward to happy hour more than today. Just a few more hours til I can enjoy it.”

Veevi perks her brow and tilts her head to the side with a smirk. “Why wait for happy hour?”

A wicked smile appears on her mother’s lips and Veevi’s mom chuckles with a seductive tint. “Oh, who is to say I haven’t started already? I’m just waiting for happy hour for my discounted drinks from all those desperate people.”

A smirk cracks out at the corner of Veevi’s mouth. “That’s my momma.”

With a wink, Veevi’s mother smiles with her eager amusement. “You know it. So...”

She draws in a long breath and shifts her full attention to her words. “I’ve been thinking about how we can spin this whole situation to our advantage. I can see about interviews. Then, with some theatrics, we can totally sell this whole experience and use the publicity to really super charge our brand. And, then I can really put the screws to Howard for a massive bump in the contract payout for next season!”

While Veevi fights down an abject cringe to a twisting grimace, her mother continues on with glee. “Oh, it’ll be so perfect. They’ll be desperate to wrap this season after that’s happened. It really sounds like Howard’s crew is about the revolt. So, we have the break to get ready. That useless team will be gone and I’m thinking... YOU get to lead the next team!”

An uneasy smile barely turns Veevi’s face, and she chuckles nervously. “Uh, yeah, that would be... Interesting, momma. I just-”

Narrowing her stare through the call, her mother’s tone darkens and she inquires. “Is there a problem with THAT?”

Veevi’s pink pupil eyes widen and she contorts the hesitant expression on her face. “Well, I was thinking about taking a break from adventuring...”

Weathering the concentrated attention from her aetherphone, she puts forth her best smile. Veevi’s mother ponders a moment, searches her mind, and cracks a smirk. “Well... Hmm... I already thought about that, too, for you!”

With a prideful grin, she perks her brow and explains. “We could definitely use a break from the show to our advantage. Give the fans a breather from all that’s happened. Let them long for the excitement we provide while they watch the next boring team Howard manages to slap together. Meanwhile, we work on that next album!”

A greedy, sly smirk widens slowly on her make up covered face, and she draws her phone close, on the other side of the call. “If we time this right, we could do a short promo tour right into your leader role in a future season of the Next Adventurers of Nexus! I can just imagine the money we’ll pull in.”

Dumping out a harsh sigh, Veevi pulls into a long breath, musters up her courage, and plainly states. “Momma, I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Veevi’s mother blinks blankly, cocks her head to the side, and quirks her trimmed brow. “Don’t want to do what? The show? Oh, like I said, you don’t have to it any time soon. We have an album you need to put some studio time in!”

She projects a reassuring tone across the call. “It’ll be fine. Focus on getting some recording done, take your mind off this whole adventuring thing, and we’ll revisit it. I’m SURE you’ll WANT to give it another try.”

Veevi exhales deeply with a faint wince, works a grimace off her face, and tightens her grip on her aetherphone. “No, momma! I just don’t want to do any of it!”

Narrowing a stare at Veevi through the phone display, hints of frustration twitch on the middle aged woman’s face. Veevi’s mother draws in a long breath, twists her mouth, and sighs. “Well... If that’s how you feel, I’ll see what I can do. Thinking about it, this show has done everything for us it can. It’s time to see what better options we have now. I’m sure I can find a new show for you to be on to promote that next album! I’ve got a few ideas I’ll on what-”

As her mother drones on, Veevi bites her lower lip, tenses her arm muscles, and focuses a defiant glare upon the aetherphone screen. Summoning a surge of ire, she blurts out. “NO! I’m DONE! I just NEED to take a break from EVERYTHING! I just want to do nothing.”

Veevi’s mother blinks a her pink pupil eyes a few times, tilts her head to the side, and incredulously asks. “Nothing? And, miss out on this opportunity for us?! I mean we’ve suffered to get to this point. I know things have been hard for you, but you really need to look at the bigger picture. We have to make use of this momentum!”

Wincing her eyes closed, Veevi hisses out aggravation through her clenching teeth and shakes her head of long, pink hair. “NO. MOMMA. I’m really tired. I don’t want to worry about all this. I just need time for me.”

Focusing a glare through the call to Veevi’s aetherphone screen, her mother scowls sharply and darkens her tone. “Don’t be so SELFISH! You only need to stand around for the cameras and give them a show. I’ve put a lot of work in getting you to this point and you don’t need to throw it away now! You’ve got drama, controversy, and tragedy happening all at once-”

A series of twitches tighten Veevi’s cheek and she guides her phone close. “SELFISH?! I’m selfish?! Are you kidding me!? Momma, in case you fucking forgot... I. NEARLY. DIED. Do you not understand that?!”

While puffing up her chest and frowning sharply, the image on the aetherphone shifts to an upward angle of Veevi’s mother. “Baby girl, don’t take that attitude with me! I fully understand how close your were to dying. Remember, I LOVE YOU. I’ve been thanking the gods everyday that you survived just fine. But, I can’t let you throw away what we’ve done over one close call! I want the best for us!”

Pulling back her lips, Veevi grits her sharp teeth and snaps loudly. “What do you mean WE?! I’m the one going on the stage! I’m the one in the recording studio recording tracks! I’m the one wandering into the terrible, monster filled places! What have YOU done?!”

Harshly sniffing in a long draw of air into her lungs, Veevi’s mother sternly berates with a furious glower. “What have I done?! Well, for one thing, I’ve been keeping you on this track you were meant for! I worked hard and earned a lot of favors to get my pretty little girl all the right lessons. I got you the right coaches. I entered you into all the right contests! You would have never gotten to this point without ME!”

She narrows her glare and exudes her dark tone through the phone. “You are here because of ME! You owe ME for what I have done for YOU.”

Sparks of rage flicker in Veevi’s eyes and she shouts at her aetherphone. “D-D-DID it ever occur to you that MAYBE this wasn’t what I wanted?!”

As her mother remains unmoved and indignant, Veevi rants loudly. “I- I- I HATE THIS LIFE!”

She blinks thoughtfully and pants for a few moments while she watches the new thoughts swirl in her mind. “I... I... I hate everything about it... I hate all that I’ve had to do to make it work. I hate how I feel at the end of the day. I hate doing this... I hate being this...”

Her rage wilts into regret and dismay. “I... I want to do something else... Anything else...”

Veevi’s mother remains cold and firm. She snorts out her disappointment and growls. “Well, as much as you may wish and want, THIS is the only thing you can do now. How could YOU possibly change paths now? You are in far too deep. The only way out of this is to let ME navigate you out. I lead you here and only I can lead you out.”

Veevi winces into a grimace, and grits her sharp teeth while her pink pupil eyes flit through the past. “I could have done other things. You never let me have a chance to see if I could! They wouldn’t make me famous, but maybe I would have liked them...”

Her mother huffs dismissively, rolls her eyes in disgust, and shakes her head of carefully styled pink hair. “Oh please, baby. What else could you have done? Be a doctor? Gods, I will NEVER understand why you were so dead set on that daydream.”

She narrows a punitive glare through the call at Veevi. “Can you imagine? My pretty little girl wasting her days stuck in a lab coat far from the spotlight that I could put you in? Such a stupid career choice for you.”

Veevi’s expression blanks. As her mother drones on about other degrading roles, Veevi frowns sadly, and slumps her shoulders with the depressive gravity. Her pink pupil eyes scan through her mind, darting between harsh memory after cruel experience. Her distant stare falls lost in the flood of freed emotions welling up from within. In the lull of berating words, Veevi’s mother returns her focus to her silent daughter with a hint of satisfaction. “I know this is hard for you to hear. But, Momma is going to take care of you, baby girl. You are going to be just fine. This little talk between us will seem so silly when your next album comes out. We’ll be joking about this when you sign that contract to be the best leader of a team for the next season of the Next Adventurers of Nexus-”

Blinking back to awareness, Veevi focuses her tearful attention back to her aetherphone screen and draws in a shallow breath. “No.”

Her mother blinks and furrows her brow. “What?”

Sniffing loudly, a surge of defiant courage rises up and pushes the words out of her mouth. “No. I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore. Just... No.”

After seconds of silence, Veevi’s aetherphone speaker blares out a litany of enraged insults and duplicitous demands. While Veevi’s mother feverishly rants on the phone screen, Veevi holds the power button on the side. A confirmation prompt appears and Veevi taps the power down option. The display cuts dark. Veevi’s wandering stare settles upon her faint reflection upon the black screen. Blinking hard, she squeezes more tears out of her eyes and lowers the phone down. Her gaze drifts aimless around the room in front of her, while her face empties of emotion.

In the quiet of the hospital room, Veevi sits upon the medical bed. Leading with a single sniff, a torrent of emotions erupts out in flowing tears, pitiful cries, and pained sobs. She flops over to her side, curls upon the top of the bed, and clutches a pillow. Her long, short haired tail coils around her and she unconsciously strokes it between sobs.

In a wide hall, a set of wooden double doors opens with assistance from two uniformed GAA soldiers. Captain Hays steps forward, grants an appreciative nod to both guards and walks into the middle of the decorated corridor. Heccaeh moves out, quickly points down the hall with a claw tip, and flicks his furry ears. “Hey, I’m going to check on Ralli and Orrento.”

Hays smirks and laughs. “Good plan. I doubt they’ll behave themselves for too much longer in the break room.”

Shaking his head, Heccaeh sighs and rolls his lavender eyes. “Gods, I just hope they haven’t escaped their carriers and started to gnaw on the furniture... Again.”

Chana steps out next to Hays, rests her hands on her hips, and dons a smirk on her sun-tanned face. “Well, for a meeting, that was surprisingly productive.”

With a snort, Hays rolls his light blue eyes and shakes his head. “Yeah, but it looks like we got our work cut out for us now.”

Chelindia walks through the double doors out of the meeting room, approaches Hays, and respectfully addresses with hints of hesitation. “Captain?”

Hays perks his brow and nods to Chelindia. “Yes?”

Wrestling a flit of awkward tension on her face, Chelindia eases out a nervous breath and inquires quietly. “Do you believe it would be acceptable for me to ask Captain Hackle about Meredosia? I don’t know if that would be inappropriate or out of line.”

A reassuring smile appears on Hays bearded face and he grants a confirming nod. “I doubt he’d have a problem with asking. Go right ahead.”

Sergeant Violet stops right outside the polished wooden double doors, glances back inside, and directs a commanding tone. “Specialist Thayal. If you are having problems with carrying that paperwork, maybe I should put you on supplementary PT in order to address any possible deficiencies?”

Hoisting up stack of two slightly bulging cardboard boxes, Specialist Thayal’s lanky form strains to settle the parcels comfortably in his arms. He grits his teeth into a frustrated grin, narrows his silver eyes at Violet, and fights to quell a twitch of his cheek. “Sergeant, I do not require assistance, sergeant. Thank you for your concern with my well-being, sergeant.”

A faint trace of smirk curls at the corner of Violet’s mouth and she leads the way. “Good, Specialist Thayal. Now let’s deliver these materials to the Captain’s field office.”

As she steps away, Thayal blows away some stray black hair from his side curling horns, straightens his back, and follows behind Violet with hefty payload. Captain Hackle calmly steps out. He watches Violet and Thayal go down the hallway, and glances over to Hays, Chana, and Chelindia with an amused smile. “Quite the dynamic going on there.”

Stepping respectfully forward, Chelindia bow slightly to Hackle and asks politely. “Pardon me, Captain Hackle. Could I inquire about... um... Meredosia?”

Hackle’s gaze studies Chelindia’s dark tan face and he meets her turquoise eyes with a smile. “Certainly. If I’m not taking you away from anything, walk with me for bit.”

Chelindia glances over her shoulder to Hays. Smirking with a nod, Hays acknowledges Chelindia’s quiet request and points a thumb down the hallway with his cybernetic arm. “Ah, go ahead. We’ll be in the break room, probably wrangling some loose whelps again.”

With an appreciative smile, Chelindia joins Hackle’s side, while Hays and Chana travel down the corridor to the faint sounds of chirps and squawks. The two move down a long stretch of hallway towards reinforced metal doors. Hackle glances over and twists a curious smirk under his graying mustache. “So, what did you want know about Meredosia?”

Chelindia’s very long, pointed ears twitch with an uncomfortable grimace, and she sighs sadly. “Well, I was curious as to how she was doing, first.”

Hackle nods, steps up to a key card scanner on the door, and pulls a badge out of his front pocket. “She is doing good. I’m actually a bit surprised at how cooperative she has been.”

Blinking in surprise, Chelindia cocks her head of dark green braided hair to the side, and searches for further explanation. “She is cooperating readily? Has she shown any kind of resistance or hesitance?”

Sliding the identification key into the reader, Hackle holds his hand against the pad and waits for the system to process. “Initially. But, I believe her time in Amaranth has given her perspective. Once Lexattican’s other efforts became clear to her, she was willing to cooperate fully.”

The card scanner chirps a confirmation, and Hackle retrieves his badge from the lock. He pushes open the reinforced metal doors and motions Chelindia through. “She has offered us a wealth of knowledge. Names, locations, and dates. She’s not only confirmed a number of our suspicions, but given us a list of locations we’ve known of, to double check.”

He narrows a concerned gaze to Chelindia as the two walk between gray, painted brick walls on either side. “What is the most worrying are the places we had no record of. Those are being confirmed as we speak.”

Chelindia’s eyes widen briefly and she nods in agreement. “Yes. She has had more discussions with Lexattican than anyone else I know of. And, there were many times she would return from traveling with new artifacts and information.”

Hackle grimaces slightly and sighs. “Her insight is giving us the missing pieces of the puzzle. One the very locations we mentioned in the meeting came from her and was confirmed this morning.”

Glancing around the vacant intersection, he lowers his voice. “From recent reports, another location she noted was one on record. A team I sent found the lock to the facility entrance completely melted and a number of old computer systems online. There were also signs that a number of robotic units left the facility under their own power.”

Leaning her head back in shock, Chelindia blinks and contorts flits of worry on her face. “That certainly is not great news.”

Hackle shakes his head of short, graying hair. “Definitely not. What concerns us are the maps with locations to other possible facilities. One of those we suspect could be related to the recent convention center attack.”

A comforting smile widens on Hackle’s face. “While my forces are spread thin to lock down possible breaches, I believe a certain adventuring team we know might be uniquely qualified to handle investigating this location more immediately.”

Chelindia cracks a knowing smirk on her dark tan face, and nods. “I think they would be the best to ask, too.”

Hackle grins slightly and leads Chelindia down a branch off the intersection. “I do believe I owe them a very lucrative government contract, too.”

Chelindia walks along side Hackle, and musters up another question in the lull of conversation. “What will happen to Meredosia... after she tells you what she knows?”

Searching his mind, Hackle gazes over to Chelindia and smiles. “As far as I know, she’ll be allowed to resume her normal life. Occasionally, the GAA might need to consult with her on matters she might have experience in, and she will need to check in.”

Shaking off the surprise, Chelindia focuses her turquoise eyes at Hackle’s brown eyes, and inquires in disbelief. “Really? She’ll be allowed to go free? I hate to say it, but I almost expected she would be put in a prison.”

Hackle quirks his brow and shrugs his shoulders slightly. “That was on the table. But, she’s shown a lot of regret and remorse for her actions. She also came back into the fold of society on her own and has taken efforts to be part of it. So, I don’t see the need to ruin it. And, I’ve talked to everyone else involved in her capture, and they’re willing to forgive if she works with us.”

A hopeful smile grows on Chelindia, and a wave of relief washes over her. Hackle steps down another stretch of gray hall towards a guarded door next to a window. “She’ll be on GAA parole for some time. Given how cooperative she is, that will probably be all. Anyway, she doesn’t meet the profile of someone we need to lock up.”

Chelindia draws in a long breath and vents her tension. “That is comforting. I don’t think it would be good for anyone if she was put in a prison.”

He nods to the GAA armored guards, stands in front of the window into a room, and gazes at Chelindia. “I agree. Right now, we’re coming up with a good cover story for her absence with her employer. With the wealth of information she is providing, I may be able to see about some assistance for her. I feel the GAA wants to keep her experience nearby.”

Slowly pivoting to face the window at Hackle’s prompting, Chelindia gazes through and watches Meredosia talking to a GAA agent. She quietly observes Meredosia fill out the final few lines of a pack of paperwork. Meredosia returns the pen to the agent and stretches her arms out. Chelindia’s gaze warms watching the modest smile on Meredosia’s face, and she sighs longingly. Hackle cracks an intrigued grin and notices the agent gathering the paperwork to leave. “Would you like to talk to her?”

Chelindia’s eyes spring wide open, her posture stiffens in surprise, and she stumbles upon her answer. “I-is that allowed?”

Hackle turns his gaze over to Chelindia, perks his brow, and chuckles. “Certainly. There’s nothing to stop you when she returns to normal life in town. I believe this is a critical point for her. So, her talking to someone that can understand her and what she faces would be invaluable right now.”

Sorting through her thoughts and emotions, Chelindia swallows hard and takes a deep breath. After a few moments, she nods appreciatively. “I would like to talk to her.”

Hackle’s brown eyes follow the GAA agent leaving out the door, and he nods to the door guards. “Keep that door open, if you could.”

The guard acknowledges his request. The agent addresses Captain Hackle upon exiting and Hackle steps through the held open doorway. “Meredosia. I hope your writing hand has held out.”

A meek smile appears on Meredosia and she laughs. “Yes. I hope that’s the last of the paperwork for a while.”

Hackle smirks and sighs. “I hope so, too, since I fill out the other part of it. If you don’t mind, I have a visitor for you.”

Meredosia blinks, darts her crimson eyes around, and cocks her head of uneven gray hair. “Who?”

With a signal from Hackle, Chelindia steps into the room and meets Meredosia’s gaze. Hackle examines the body language between the two, and studies the awkward tension blatant. A humored smirk appears at the corner of his mouth, and he bows out. “If you need anything, just knock on the door and the guards will assist you.”

Hackle leaves, the door closes, and Chelindia and Meredosia silently gaze at each other. After uneasy seconds, Chelindia approaches the table, settles into the chair opposite of Meredosia, and stares at her. Meredosia squirms in the seat, averts her eyes away from the attention, and sighs sadly. Chelindia breaks off the focused gaze, grits her teeth briefly, and draws in a long breath. The two exist in the looming pressure of their past and struggle in their minds for a route towards conversation.

A spark of determination drives Chelindia and she addresses Meredosia in evuukian. She awkwardly pries and waits for response. Meredosia summons up enough for bits of small talk with nervous laughs punctuating. After Chelindia acknowledges, she visibly strains against internal strife. With a sniff of welling tears, Meredosia shudders out a series of profuse apologies in flowing evuukian. Surges of past pain rise to the surface in each sad ramble, and Meredosia confesses profusely to Chelindia. Gathering her thoughts in the lull from remorseful words, Chelindia sighs and dons a forgiving smile with choice phrases. The two meet the other’s gaze and share the quiet.

Chelindia ponders a moment, tilts her head, and inquires about Amaranth Valley. Meredosia recounts events with flashes of embarrassment and shame. Then, a genuine smile grows on her ivory face. Recounting through different events with giggles and amused sighs, she mentions Fval Spice and Noyando. As Mera continues through stories and tales of Katelli, Natashalli, and Jesselli with warmth in her tone, Chelindia gazes lovingly at the evuukian woman before her. Recognition fills her hopeful smile.

The joyful stories stall as bad memories rise up in Mera’s mind and worry chokes her words. Wincing at the situation surrounding her, she rests her hands down on the table, fights against her nerves, and takes a deep breath. Uncertainly and doubt subdue her confidence, and she nervously flexes the fingers on her trembling hand. After recounting the last bits of recent history, she bows her head down. The long and short runs of her gray hair drape down, and she squeezes out the tears from her eyes.

Slowly shaking her head, Mera stops. She raises her head up and glances down at the table. Her crimson eyes widen and she gazes upon Chelindia’s hand upon hers. Mera’s crimson eyes meet Chelindia’s turquoise. With a loving smile and tears welling, Chelindia addresses the evuukian woman before her. “Mera.”

Sniffing away the sadness, Mera smirks hopefully. “Chel...”

Aristespha adjusts the position of her aetherphone on the table top and directs her voice down. “Everyone is here now, Captain Hackle. We’ve had a chance to read up on the mission brief.”

Around the table Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sotalia, and Sebastian listen attentively to the device. Captain Hackle’s voice sounds out from the speaker phone with a grateful hint. “Good. Let me first say that I’m pleased that you all are interested in the mission. I hope that the offer is acceptable for the task at hand and possible risks.”

Meeting Cideeda’s fiscally delighted toothy grin with a humored smirk, Aristespha chuckles lightly. “We find it acceptable.”

Hackle pauses a moment on the other side of call and takes in a long breath. “So, I’m certain you all have questions. But, allow me to give a brief of what we know at the moment.”

The faint sounds of papers ruffling and desktop items sliding echoes through the call, and he hems. “Here’s the latest information I have at the moment. We’ve confirmed that this Lexattican left the one breached site completely. There are no recent signs of activity. My teams have discovered other sites we believe he entered, but did not reside long at.”

He draws in a long breath and sighs. “This leaves a handful of places left to investigate. Given our evidence and the Rangers projections, we believe the mission location is highly suspect.”

Sebastian’s ethereal form smirks and nods. “We have our own suspicions about this place. So, I think that this location is worth checking out closely.”

Hackle agrees over the speakerphone. “Indeed, too many things lead to this possible place.”

He sighs heavy with dissatisfaction from the other side of the call. “Unfortunately, we don’t know if Lexattican is at the site. Presently, my teams have yet to discover any other locations he may have visited recently. And, the Rangers are just starting their search around the area for signs of travel.”

His tone stresses caution, and he warns. “Lexattican could still be at the location. If so, we suspect he might leave the area soon. That is assuming he already hasn’t. Regardless, I would approach the site carefully and be prepared for possible confrontation.”

Pausing in thought a moment, Hackle sounds out. “So, any questions?”

Sebastian searches his mind with his translucent blue eyes, rocks his head side to side, and directs his response. “While the mission description states we are there to investigate and assess the location, what are we suppose to do if we run into Lexattican? Do you want us to try to capture him? Keep our distance? What’s the protocol you want us to follow?”

Hackle sighs and ponders out loud through the aetherphone speaker. “That is the tricky part of this. Ideally, I would prefer him to be captured. He’s shown himself to be dangerous and likely to cause future problems. On the other hand, my primary goal is to lock down any dangerous materials and prevent any future threats from those materials. And, I don’t want you all to needless endanger yourselves. So, prioritize securing the site.”

Narrowing a curious stare at the phone on the table top, Dretphi cocks her head of platinum braids to the side and furrows her brow. “Why us?”

Hackle chuckles lightly and simply states. “My teams are spread out trying to lock down locations we have prior experience with. We don’t know the exact location of this possible site, and it’s presently a better use of GAA resources to secure known locations as quickly as possible.”

He draws in a long breath and continues. “Your team has proven to be quite capable of handling very unique situations like these. I believe all of you have the right experience and skills for this task. Also, it is my hope that a team of adventurers wandering the woods won’t seem as alarming as a military squad. It is my hopes that would grant you a unique advantage we don’t have.”

Dretphi nods in agreement with a faint, proud grin forming. Sotalia leans forward while brushing her fiery orange, wavy hair back. She props her head up with her hand and hums in though. “Say we find this guy or something suspicious happening there... Do we just call you and keep an eye on it until you get there?”

Hackle remains quiet for a moment and calmly states. “That is a judgment I will defer to you all. If careful observation makes sense, then do so. If intervention is required, I will trust such will be done if necessary. Do what you feel is required to ensure the safety of the surrounding area. Once, you are there, you all will have more information than I to make those decisions.”

In the lull, Sebastian glances over the rest of the team. He gazes at Bach and inquires with a quiet gesture. Bach shrugs his shoulders and nods. Cideeda gives a thumbs up. Sotalia sits back and smirks with a confirming wave of the hand. Dretphi nods stoically. Aristespha exchanges an agreeable glance with Sebastian. Grinning proudly at his team, Sebastian directs his ethereal tone towards the aetherphone on the table. “I think that’s all the questions we have. And, we’ll take you up on the job.”

A bit of energy perks up Hackle’s cadence from the other side of the call. “Excellent. Great to hear. I will have Sergeant Violet finalize the bid through the guild system, and we’ll get you access to all relevant intelligence.”

He thinks a moment and his tone grows heavy. “As much as I’d encourage you act as quickly as possible, I’d also like to stress extreme caution. Prepare appropriately. Don’t think twice about calling in our support, if the situation deems it.”

The team around the table collectively concur. Hackle excuses himself to handle business, and the team shifts towards planning as the call ends.