Episode 119

Threading through the narrowing forest path, the humvee rolls cautiously in the passage between the dense trees. The vehicle eases to stop short of two large trees in the light of headlamps, constrasting the shadowy woods behind. Cideeda scans her emerald green eyes into the evening horizon beyond the illuminated trees ahead. She twists an uncertain frown and sighs. “Shit. I think this is as far as we are getting driving.”

Sotalia squints into the distance, searches between darkly shaded gaps between moss caked trunks, and glances up to the evening sky. “Gods dammit. It’s getting really dark, too. I really don’t want to hike right now.”

She cranes her head around her seat, and gazes between the team in the back seats. “How close are we to this camp?”

Holding a tablet out into the aisle for Bach, Dretphi, and Sebastian to study, Aristespha sighs and wrestles an uncertain grimace on her ivory face. “We should be very close. I do not believe it would be much further.”

Dretphi supports the back of the tablet, moves her fingers on the screen to orient the digital map, and ponders out loud. “We are close. Walking should not take long. Enough time to explore to confirm the location of the camp.”

She narrows her gaze momentarily at the display, stares down the aisle through the windshield, and tilts her head curiously. “Strange that an established trail ends abruptly.”

Bach shifts his attention from the tablet, presses his head close to his window, and angles his attention to the surroundings outside. “You know, now that you mention it... This path seemed really consistent? I mean, you’d think something this remote would be a little harder to drive on.”

Cideeda’s furry ears flick with her thoughts, and she quirks her brow with a glance into the rear view mirror. “Yeah, we've driven on some paved roads that were rougher than this. And, there’s no way anyone this far out is keeping this thing up.”

Furrowing her brow, Sotalia perks an eyebrow, focuses upon Sebastian’s ethereal form floating attentively at the map, and smirks. “So, what’s the call? Hang here until morning, or hike around?”

Sebastian blinks back to attention, meets Sotalia’s inquiring gaze, and crosses his arms thoughtfully. “Well, how about I look around the perimeter and see what’s going on around us. Then, we can see if we want to chance walking it at night.”

Lifting herself up, Cideeda leans close to the wind shield and dims the headlamps. She focuses her adjusting eyes out into the dark areas under the thick forest canopy ahead. “Huh. That’s weird. The land past these trees seems even and... It looks like there’s a lot of flat stones scattered about?”

Cocking her head curiously at Cideeda, Sotalia directs stray fiery orange, wavy hairs out of her face and over her swept-back horns. She searches into the darkness and grimaces uncertainly. “Where do you see that-”

She blinks her widening golden eyes, glances around, and stiffens her back. “Does anyone else feel that?”

Aristespha flutters her violet eyes away from the tablet, straightens her posture, and puzzles. “Feel what...”

She pauses a moment, exchanges a glance with Bach, sharing similar confusion, and searches out her window. “Yes. There’s some significant magic stirring.”

Bach nods in agreement, blinks his blue eyes to illumination, and focuses his attention out his window. “Yeah... Uh, you could say that.”

Sebastian starts scanning around, while Dretphi blinks in thought and Cideeda tightens her grip on her steering wheel. “I think... I think I’m feeling some of that, too.”

She peeks around her seat, notices Dretphi’s confirming nod, and shifts her attention back forward. The team watches the outside world from the humvee cab and wait in anticipation.

Flits of faint light smear through reality in a translucent haze. Traces of activity swirl around nearby trees. Pulses of energy flow through the packed soil of the path and radiate past the blocking trees. Specks of glow flutter into existence around the trunks of the trees. A wave of energy disrupts the obscuring illusion and hundreds of entities emerge into view.

Synchronous pulses of power flow through the small magical beings coating the surroundings. The pair of blocking trees shudder, gradually lean away, and slowly shift apart. The trunks gently rotate with the motion, and their large roots curl up as the huge plants slide clear. Sparks of energy coat flat stones floating through the dirt, and the rocks fit themselves together. Loose stones leading deeper into the forest organize into a humvee wide passage.

The trees settle into new positions. The rocks form a solid path. Hordes of spirits fade from view. The team gawks in wonder. Eventually, the awe wanes, and Sebastian darts his blue translucent eyes between the group. “So... I guess that’s the invite to come on in? I mean...”

One by one, orbs of shifting hue light ignite overhead in the trees near the crude cobblestone road and shine upon the passage. Moments later, a dimming of cascade chases down the chain of magical lamps. Aristespha cracks a humored smirk, brushes back her silvery blue hair over her long, pointed, ears, and sighs. “Yes, Sebastian. Mark knows we are here. We best go before he gets creative and more blatant about his signals.”

Cideeda settles back into her seat, turns up the brightness on the humvee head lamps, and accelerates the vehicle. “Well, I can take a hint. Nice that he made a road for us.”

The humvee rolls ahead as Cideeda deftly navigates the vehicle through the impromptu natural roadway. While the machine moves foward, Bach notices Dretphi peering out the back window. Dretphi glances at to Bach and points. The two watch swirls of magical flow behind encircle trees and brushes. Seconds after the humvee clears, the trees lean and shift through the forest floor, shrubs coast into place to obscure, and ivy vines creep over to conceal the road. Dretphi cocks her head of platinum blonde braids and blinks her steely gray eyes. “Thorough concealment.”

Bach nods astonished and shifts his attention to Aristespha. “Okay... I’m going to admit, I may have not quite grasped how powerful this Mark guy really is.”

Perking her brow, Aristespha smiles and sighs. “To clarify, he himself is not THAT powerful. On the other hand, all the spirits he has befriended are exceptionally powerful in their own ways.”

Observing the new attention from the team, she pauses in thought a moment and shrugs her shoulders. “Spirits can be very powerful in very specific abilities. All this involves multiple varieties of entities that aren’t powerful individually. But, when coordinated and organized, they can do amazing things.”

Drawing in a long breath, she smirks and chuckles. “Despite appearances, Mark is extremely capable in getting all these entities to work together when they naturally would not do so. It takes significant effort to set up a location like this to allow all this happen. I also suspect this location is special.”

Sotalia quirks her brow, raps her long, black nailed fingers upon the side of her seat, and cocks her head. “Oh, so he prepared all this beforehand.”

Aristespha nods to Sotalia. Bach tilts his head and entertains a memory in his mind. “Yeah, I remember Valavera said it took days for her to get that whole wind wall and vine thing going.”

Rolling her golden eyes, Sotalia barely attempts to stifle a snort and chuckles. “Well, I wouldn’t use that as a gauge for anything.”

Bach sighs with a slowly nod and glances over to Sotalia. “Yeah. But, same concept, mostly. Still impressive to see what can be done when you got somebody who has a clue of what they are doing.”

The humvee gently rolls around a long curve, and the stone roadway opens up to a large forest clearing. Cideeda’s furry ears perk up, and she points a clawed finger ahead. “I think we’re here.”

As the humvee slows down, the team wanders their gaze across the encampment. A fire burns beneath a large stonework cooking oven, with rocks containing it. The camp fire flames radiate a warm light upon a few large, solid huts of woven root and vine. The natural structures cast shadows upon neatly arranged stacks of supplies within rustic containers. From the larger hut, an older man in plain robes eases himself out, takes a few steps, and slowly stretches his back out. After a long time to straighten himself out, he squints towards the approaching humvee. He waves, and warm smile appears within his bushy beard. He points over to a stony patch of land and motions the vehicle in that direction.

Cideeda turns the steering wheel, coasts the humvee to a stop, and parks the machine. As the powerplant spins down, the doors open, and the team exits. Aristespha swiftly steps around the humvee, waves to the man with a delight, and smiles. “My apologies, Marcus... Um, Mark. It took a little longer than expected.”

Mark shrugs his shoulders, walks over to a pot upon the stonework oven, and pries up the lid. “Ah, don’t worry about it. It’s not like I make it that easy to get here. And... the stew needed a little longer. So, it worked out just fine.”

He turns to the approaching crowd, dons a welcoming grin on his dark tanned face, and motions out to the rest of the camp. “I hope you all are hungry. I’ve requested some places for you all to settle in for the night, and I was able to find my old stash of dishware.”

Rolling his hazel eyes, he snorts and shakes his head. “A few of the more kleptomaniac sprites hid them in my absence since last year. Thought I’d never find them in time.”

Refocusing his attention to the team, he points out the logs benches around the fire and walks to one with a blanket upon it. Slowly easing himself on the seat, he smiles warmly and motions around. “Please, sit down. Gods know you’ve been cooped up all day long. Relax, enjoy some stew, and let’s just catch up.”

He perks his white haired brow, and cracks an intrigued smirk. “I get the distinct impression you have plenty to tell me, and I’m very interested to hear.”

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia sit down upon the logs around the camp fire. Between idle chit chat, attentions eventually wander to the stew.

The front door leading into the living room opens up. Chad peeks in briefly, glances his brown eyes around the room, and motions forward. “Looks like everyone has headed off to the their bedrooms. Should be clear.”

Nervously biting her lower lip, Veevi warily steps inside, searches the dimly lit room, and stops once she’s a few meters inside. After a few moments of scanning the vicinity, she glances back at Chad and perks her dark pink brow. “I don’t see any cameras set up.”

Chad closes the door behind him, locks it, and nods. “Yeah. Things are winding down with the show. They’re going to try to finish off the season as best as they can and figure out what they are going to do next.”

Cautiously walking through the living room between the large screen television mounted on the wall and the coffee table, Veevi pans her pink pupil gaze around the familiar setting and eases out a long sigh of relief. “That’s... Good to hear. That’ll make it a lot easier.”

She brushes back her long pink hair, tightly clutches a travel bag in her tan, brown striped arms, and keeps her tail curled close to her legs. Flicking her fuzzy ears low, she breathes slow and purposefully. She flexes her sharp nails upon the travel bag and works out some nervousness. Chad perks his brow, stands next to Veevi, and calmly whispers. “You doing okay?”

Veevi tenses briefly, dons an awkward grin, and glances up to Chad. “Um. Yes. I, uh... I think I just need to go to my room. That’d probably be the best thing to do right now. It was a long day checking out of the clinic.”

Chad nods his head of short, brown hair and smiles reassuringly. “Yeah, just try to get a good night’s sleep. You can worry about everything else later.”

An appreciative smirk curls out the corner of Veevi’s mouth. “I think so, too. I feel a little overwhelmed right now... to be honest.”

With a faint twitch of her long, pink, short-haired tail, she blinks at a thought and eyes Chad with concern. “Did, um, Tassilda and Trakenthin get their things out of my room?”

Chad confirms with a light chuckle as he walks towards the kitchen archway. “They did as soon as I told them where to find everything. Don’t worry, they were quick and didn’t disturb anything else.”

Veevi draws in a long, calming breath, exhales slowly with a trailing nervous shudder, and summons up a smile. “Good. That’s good... It might be best I just keep out of everyone’s way for now.”

Glancing back towards Veevi, Chad grants gentle nod. “If that makes you feel comfortable. It seems like everyone has calmed down after everything that’s happened. And well, the lack of crews watching our every movement has helped a lot.”

Stepping closer to the stairwell, Veevi presents a weak smile, brushes back some of her wilder, unkempt hair, and laughs quietly. “I can imagine. Yeah... Um... Goodnight.”

Chad nods as he stops at the kitchen archway and gazes at Veevi. “Goodnight to you, too.”

Placing her shoe upon the first step and resting a hand upon the wooden hand rail, Veevi halts and feels familiar grooves in the surface. A memory flits in her mind, and she grimaces through the painful thought. Shuddering back to awareness, she glances over to Chad and smiles genuinely. “Um, thank you again.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Chad replies simply. “Not a problem.”

After a few moments, Veevi returns her focus to the stairs before her and swiftly steps up. She carefully climbs the stairwell as quietly as she can. With flick of her fuzzy ears, a surge of tension goes through her body, and she darts up the last few steps to the upstairs hallway, hugging the side of the corridor. As she reaches the top of the landing, Deedri steps into view and pivots obliviously towards the stairwell.

Both Veevi and Deedri startle at the presence of the other. Holding uneasy eye contact, the two stare uncomfortably at each other for seconds. Fighting through waves of embarrassment and tinges of fear, Veevi squeaks out a sentence between the trembles of her frayed out tail between her legs. “Um, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there.”

Deedri blinks her auburn eyes, straightens her posture, and maintains a neutral gaze upon Veevi. “It is okay. I didn’t either.”

Sliding against the wall of the stairwell, Veevi slowly passes by Deedri and averts direct eye contact. Deedri perks her brow curiously and directs her voice at Veevi. “Did you just get back?”

Veevi tenses her shoulders briefly and smiles with a nod. “Oh, yes. Just a few minutes ago. It was a really long day of filing out release paperwork...”

She awkwardly chuckles and rolls her pink pupil eyes. “And, well, you know... Scheduling all kinds of follow ups and getting all the referrals processed.”

Deedri blinks through a moment of confusion and softens the tone of her voice. “That I can imagine. It gets a little excessive.”

After seconds of heavy silence, she draws a long breath in, cocks her head of tied-back multi-color hair, and twist her mouth. “I do have copies of some of your medical records. If you need those, please let me know. It might save you some time with certain forms.”

Darting her eyes around, Veevi smirks and nods. “Yeah. I probably will need those. With everything that’s happened, it’s a little hard to focus on digging through everything. It’s a bit much... at times...”

Narrowing an inquisitive gaze upon Veevi, Deedri assumes a professional attitude and dons a reassuring tone. “If you need help with those forms, I can provide some assistance in understanding them.”

With a perk of her fuzzy ears, an appreciative smile grows on Veevi’s tan face, and bits of stress escape with her sigh. “Thank you. Really.”

She glances around with a few nervous twitches of her tail and steps slowly away with a gesture towards her bedroom door. “You have a good night. I really need to get to sleep. Thank you, again.”

Swiftly Veevi darts away her room with wary glances towards Trakenthin’s and Tassilda’s bedroom doors. She grips the door knob, twists it, and slinks inside her room. In the quiet afterwards, Deedri blinks and puzzles to herself. She crosses her arms, tilts her head to the side, and wrestles a grimace on her fair face. Idly picking her shirt sleeves with a her claws, she contorts her face away from suspicion towards confusion. Glancing around the area distantly in her mind, hints of pity slip between twists her in expression.

With a final snort, she shrugs her shoulders, steps down the stairwell, and shakes her head in flit of disbelief.

Mark rests an empty bowl to his side while upon the blanket covered log and pans a gaze across the assembled team. After a few moments, he nods with a chuckle. “I have to say, it sounds like you’ve all been really busy dealing a bunch of things.”

Hovering next to Aristespha, Sebastian’s ethereal visage sighs, and he briefly grits his teeth. “Yeah, you could say that. It’s really been one thing leading into another. And, unfortunately, we’ve discovered something a bit more... Troubling? Worrying? Um...”

As he glances between the rest of the crew, Bach meets his wandering gaze and shrugs his shoulders. “Uh, I guess more immediately pressing?”

Dretphi’s steely gray eyes search around her mind, and she nods in agreement. “Accurate.”

Aristespha rubs her temple and twists her concern on her ivory face. “It seems as if this could potentially be more dangerous than Noxian himself. So, we want to see if it’s a credible threat.”

She rolls he violet eyes and groans her frustration. “But, in order to do that... We have to find it, first.”

Stroking his fingers through his bushy beard, Mark nods in agreement with a tight smile and hums to himself. “Can’t fault you there. It’s going to take me pulling some old favors from all kind of things get this happening.”

With a slight bow, Aristespha sighs and presents a grateful smile. “I’d like you know we are appreciative for any help we can get. I apologize for being so demanding on your-”

Furrowing his brow, an amused grin pulls across Mark’s face, and he chuckles. “Don’t be that way. If there was anything I needed to cash in those favors for, this is it. Goris has given me enough history lessons to know that anything that allows people to mess with core magic functions leads to gods awful things.”

He leans forward, wanders his hazel gaze across the team, and points to everyone present. “Something like this has a potential of becoming everyone’s problem fast. We need to figure out what the hell it is and take care of it as quietly as possible. Don’t need word to getting out such a thing is around... At least until it can’t do anything. Then, everyone can argue over it.”

As the team sits and listens, Cideeda’s furry ears flick towards the surrounding woods. Sotalia squirms uncomfortably and her golden eyes dart around, searching. Mark straightens his back out, starts to open his mouth for another sentence, and pauses. Turning his head towards the emerging glow from the surrounding brush, he cracks a grin and directs his voice back. “Don’t you you think so, Goris?”

A towering radiant figure effortlessly pushes through the dense brush and overhead branches. Calmly navigating through the obstacles into the camp clearing, the humanoid being steps solidly onto the ground with a meticulous care. Shifting its smooth, precise form, the glowing white figure approaches the camp fire behind Mark. When it stops, it narrows illuminated orb eyes and rotates a curious stare to Aristespha, Dretphi, and Sotalia. Tilting its angular head, it focuses an inquisitive gaze upon Sebastian and quickly shifts its attention to the sword at Aristespha side. It briefly focuses upon Cideeda. After a hint of satisfaction, a casual glance to Bach develops into a long examining stare through him.

Bach nervously watches the five meter tall elder energy being, notes the imposing blend of smooth muscular frame and angular exterior, and cracks an awkward smile. Mark rolls his hazel eyes, stares up at the passively intimidating form, and hems. “Don’t you think so, Goris?”

Goris breaks its visual examination away from Bach, gazes down respectfully towards Mark, and nods. After a few moments, a calm, collected tone resonates from Goris. “Yes. If such exists, it needs to be handled.”

In the looming silence around the campfire, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sotalia, and Sebastian continue to gawk in awe at Goris. Aristespha collects herself, presents a smile, and bows slightly. “Goris, it has been a while. I hope you have been well.”

Goris pivots it head towards Aristespha, nods respectfully, and gradually softens his tone. “It has been some time, Aristespha. I am glad to see you again.”

It surveys the quiet tension from the team, ponders a moment to itself, and gently addresses. “I hope I did not interrupt anything. I seem to have dissipated the conversation.”

Aristespha laughs, takes a deep breath, and sighs. “We aren’t as experienced as Mark in existing in your presence. Even after my time with you, I still have to grow accustomed to it again.”

Goris pauses, straightens up his imposing stature, and nods. “Understood. It is by design. Admittedly, I find it reassuring that my aura still functions after all these years. Mark is no longer an indicator.”

With snort, Mark shakes his head and waves his hand up to Goris and gazes over the recovering team. “I guess I’ll do introductions. This is Goris. A good friend and a pristine example of an Elder Geist.”

He glances up to Goris and motions to the others. “These are the nice people I’ve been telling you about and you saw me talking to from afar.”

Narrowing its glowing eyes, Goris shifts his focus between the team. “Yes, I remember. Cideeda. Dretphi. Sotalia. Sebastian. And... Bach.”

Bach blinks his blue eyes and struggles to present a smile through flits of nervousness. Mark sighs, pinches the bridge of his hose, and shakes his head with a smirk. “Goris, sit down, join us, and relax a for a while.”

The towering figure of Goris settles down onto the ground nearby, sits upright, and calmly waits with a gentle dimming of his form. Mark smiles to the rest of the team as the awe wanes from their expressions and motions to Goris. “Old habits die hard. Goris actually knows a little bit about the old anchor points for the Abstract Prism.”

Sebastian gathers his composure and inquires. “Really? Um, how do you know about them, Goris?”

Goris gazes over to Sebastian, tilts his head, and flickers his eyes. “I was summoned by the architects to guard the construction of two of them.”

Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia focus their full attention at Goris. Aristespha’s very long, pointed ears twitch, and she furrows her brow puzzling. “Wait. You were at the construction of the anchor points?”

She blinks her violet eyes, cocks her head, and contorts the disbelief on her face. “How did I not know this? You told me so much of history, but you never mentioned this?!”

Goris glances around his mind, nods his head, and resonates an apologetic tone. “You never asked? It was not relevant at the time to your questions then.”

Sotalia fights against an amused smirk, covers her mouth with her hand, and averts her golden eyes. Cideeda crosses her arms, narrows her emerald green eyes at Goris, and flicks her furry ears. “So, you were a guard. How much of the construction were you around for? How much did you actually see?”

Remaining silent for a few moments, Goris pivots his gaze over to Cideeda. “From the planning of the foundation to the first functional tests.”

Surprise widens the eyes of the team. Sebastian sorts through his thoughts, rest his chin on his palm, and eyes Goris. “Wow... Huh. So, which two anchor points were you around for?”

Goris tilts his head to the side and gazes at Sebastian with a calm tone. “One located on the western coast of this continent. The location names I know are old and not easily recognized by current geography. The other is located in the Perimeter Weird Zone. I believe you are familiar with that one now.”

Stunned silence fades into eager curiosity from the team. Aristespha buries her face in her hands and groans out her self frustration. “Oh gods... I have SO many questions.”

She holds up her hands, glances around, and sighs. “I need to get my tablet. I’ve got so many notes to take down.”

Dretphi gently pats Aristespha’s shoulder, stands up, and smiles. “I will get it. Sit. Prepare.”

Mark maintains a humored smirk, shakes his head, and chuckles. “Don’t go too overboard tonight, Aristespha. We have a ritual site to work on tomorrow and I’m going to need your help.”

When Aristespha flashes a deflated stare at him, he grins and laughs. “Don’t worry. Goris doesn’t go too far. Right, Goris?”

Goris shakes his head. “Not far from you.”

As Aristespha collects herself, Bach slowly stands up and picks up a few empty ceramic bowls. As he helps clean along with Cideeda and Sotalia, he occasionally catches the brief glances from Goris.

Bach opens his eyes. A long sigh escapes, and he stares blankly into the dark at the interwoven vines and roots at the top of the hut. Flits of dim orange light seep around the heavy cloth flap covering the opening to the space. With an annoyed grimace, Bach lifts his head up, repositions the pillow underneath, and flops back down. Squirming in his sleeping bag, he resettles inside and shifts to a comfortable spot upon the thatch mat floor. Drawing in a long breath, he sighs, closes his eyes, and purposefully relaxes his body. Seconds of stillness wear into minutes to idle frustration.

Reopening his eyes, Bach groans quietly and slowly sits up in the hut. He glances around the dim space at the shadows dancing upon his gear, the naturally woven walls, and the floor. Rubbing the lack of sleep out of his eyes, he sighs out his aggravation and rests his attention ahead at the flap to the hut. He watches the dim orange light slip around the heavy cloth and the faint illumination seep through the fabric. After a long silence, he unzips the side of the sleeping bag, flings it open, and reaches for his boots off to the side.

Peeking out from inside, Bach slides the flap open, steps out onto the dirt, and stands up straight. He surveys the campsite, pauses his gaze upon other huts, and listens. Only the idle night time ambiance fills the air from the surrounding forest. Bach plods aimlessly closer to the low fire. He glances down at one of the logs and settles down to seat. Holding his hands out to the warmth, he stares distantly through the fire. Twitches of emotion find their way to his face in the reflective minutes. Blinking back to awareness, he shakes his head with a shudder down his back. Averting his gaze from the fire, he turns his head up. His eyes widen. Starlight from above glints upon the blue and mix with the dim, warm orange cast from the fire. Faint pops and cracks crest above the muted sounds of the forest, and a weak smile grows as Bach stares at the clear night sky above.

Quiet, solid steps barely rise above the idle noises. Bach lowers his head down, notices his shadow cast against the rocks surrounding the fire in contrasting white light. He puzzles a moment, stiffens his body, and gradually turns his head to peek behind him. Standing nearby, Goris stares down at Bach and silently watches. Bach meets the attention from Goris’s, glances around, and waits. The two remain still for tense seconds, until Bach draws an audible, awkward breath in. “Um... Can I help you?”

Goris sits its imposing elder energy frame down, dims its radiance, and focuses its eyes upon Bach. “I have questions for you. I was not able to ask earlier. Could you answer them?”

Bach darts his eyes around, gradually turns himself around on the log, and shrugs his shoulders. “I guess. It depends on the questions?”

Goris nods its head with a hunt of understanding, and its voice softly radiates. “I would like to inquire about your experiences with... Nightmare Geists? I believe that is the current nomenclature for them?”

Scratching the back of his head of longer brown hair, Bach twists his mouth uncertainly and sighs. “I mean... I’m not really an expert on them. I’ve only run into two proper Nightmare Geists, and one thing that was using that type of energy. That one was more like a golem I think.”

Tilting its head to the side, Goris focuses upon Bach and puzzles. “That is new. I will have to ask more about that later. Could I ask about how you encountered the two... proper Nightmare Geists?”

Bach crosses his arms, takes deep breath, and grimaces. “Well, the first one I ran into was a few years back. I was on a class trip to study view some old ruins, and one showed up. And, after a long fight, I was the last one still able to fight.”

Gritting his teeth, he winces at the memory. “Somehow... I still don’t know how... I was able to destroy the Nightmare Geist.”

Goris cocks its head and furrows its brow equivalent. “I assume this is related to your... connection.”

Bach blinks in surprise and freezes. After thinking, he rolls his eyes and smirks uncomfortably. “Oh, yeah. I guess you can probably sense that. Yeah, it’s related to my connection to Elder Energy.”

With a simple nod, Goris inquires further. “The second Nightmare Geist encounter?”

Thinking a moment, Bach scratches his beard and shrugs his shoulders. “That happened a few months back. From what I remember, the thing for some reason left the Perimeter Weird Zone and headed straight to Hattan. It went on a rampage through the town, until... Um, I dealt with it. Sort of like I did with the first?”

Goris remains quiet, and Bach watches in anticipation. Traces of emotion morph the smooth, simple features upon Goris’s face, and it gazes with a remorseful tone sounding out. “I apologize for what you have had to content with.”

Bach blinks his blue eyes, glances around in confusion, and settles his attention upon Goris. “Apologize for what? I don’t think you sent them after people or attracted them... Uh, right?”

Shaking its head, Goris averts his gaze briefly, and sadness weighs down its ethereal voice. “No. It is an indirect responsibility for their existence.”

Cocking his head, Bach eyes Goris curiously and waits. Goris meets Bach’s stare and straightens its form’s posture. “My kind have thought about this. If you follow the chains of responsibility, they eventually lead to us. If we did not exist, the need for Nightmare Geists would not exist. If we were more proficient, the number of remaining Nightmare Geists would be less. Finally, if we were more brave now, we could locate the remaining. We are uniquely able contend with them despite their ability to damage us. So, they are our responsibility.”

Bach rocks his head side to side, twists his mouth uncertainly, and hums thoughtfully. “I don’t know about that. I mean, if I remember right, you all were created first as just defenders. If anyone deserves the blame, it’s the people who made the Nightmare Geists. And, maybe the people who created you?”

Goris nods in agreement. “Ye. It would be so, if any of them were alive. Since Nightmare Geists are incapable, the Elder Geists take responsibility.”

Wrestling an unsatisfied frown, Bach shakes his head. “Yeah, that still sounds unfair to you all.”

He furrows his brow, and glances up to Goris. “Wait, Nightmare Geists are incapable? Just how... aware are they? The two I’ve run into didn’t seem dumb but still not smart.”

Goris flexes the fingers on his large hands and shakes his head. “Barely. They do have sentience, but I would not consider them to be sapient. They are also very unstable and unpredictable. It’s the nature of their construction. I believe there has been significant degradation over time to compound this.”

It pauses in thought and ponders out loud. “The best equivalent is to consider them rabid animals. They are conscious... enough. That is by design. Single minded but erratic.”

Bach slowly nods and stares upon the ground ahead. “Yeah. That’s the impression I got. Certainly far different than you and, I guess, other Elder Geists.”

Goris tilts its head to the side. “Yes. We were designed for a purpose and carefully crafted. We were defenders and threat suppression.”

It stares distantly off to side and furrows its brow. The hints of annoyance reverberate from it. “Unfortunately, our goal was proven to be unmaintainable. Our purpose was further... outmoded... by the Abstract Prism.”

Stiffening his posture at the tints of frustration from Goris, Bach narrows an inquisitive stare. “Um, you have problems with the Prism?”

Goris’s glowing eyes search within, and a resonating sigh escapes the being. “For a very long time, I... questioned the wisdom of the architects, some who were my creators.”

It lowers its smooth and angular head and narrows its gaze distantly. “It seemed like a short-sighted plan to block off Elder energy. As you have experienced, there are many remnants from previous eras that should be dealt with. Some of these require the Elder power to handle effectively.”

After a quiet lull of the conversation, Bach sniffs in a long breath, quells his nerves, and gazes at Goris. “So, I have to ask you... With this old access point that could connect to the Abstract Prism... What would you do, if you could access it?”

Goris slowly turns his head, focuses his full attention upon Bach, and ponders silently. Seconds later, it tilts its head and calmly resonates. “Nothing, other than closing it off.”

Bach blinks his blue eyes and furrows his brow. “Really? I mean, some would say finding a way to open things up would help many people. Change things for the better?”

Shaking its head, Goris narrows its eyes at Bach. “Possibly. But, this world is far more peaceful now. I have been in many conflicts and know of great tragedies. My purpose was to defend and help make the world more peaceful. That has happened. Despite problems, the world seems better off.”

It stops in thought and angles its head up to the stars. “I have only ever been a pawn during my life. I still sense there are bigger things happening... Even if I don’t fully understand them.”

Glancing down at Bach, Goris’s tone lightens with traces of hope. “I believe the architects may have designed their creation more thoroughly than I original granted. You may be evidence of such.”

Bach averts his gaze, and scratches the back of his head with an uncertain smirk. “I guess... I’m not so sure some days.”

Goris nods. “I understand that.”

Both Goris and Bach stare up at the stars in quiet. Minutes later, Bach yawns and rubs his eyes. He stands up from his seat upon the log and points over to his hut. “Well, it was good talking to you, but I need to try to get back to sleep. I think it’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”

Goris rises up to his full height from the ground, acknowledges Bach, and pivots to face the woods. “Yes. I need to resume my patrol.”

As Goris steps softly and meticulously upon the ground, Bach walks back to his hut, fighting off a fresh wave of drowsiness.

Flutters of activity swarm through the surrounding forest. Flickers of magical light shimmer, darts of light launch between trees, and translucent forms warp the sunlight overhead. Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia gawk in awe at the spirits and other magical beings flowing through the area. Sebastian hovers overhead and shifts out of the way of the streams of life and dodges ethereal creatures flying about. Aristespha steps ahead of the group along the path and catches up to Mark. “The spirit activity is amazing out here.”

Mark glances back briefly with a grin, walks along the gradually shifting path, and gently nudges an orb of light off his shoulder. “Oh, yes. This is a haven of sorts for them. So, they’re a little bit more bold about showing themselves.”

He adjusts his tunic while waiting for a large ethereal beast to cross ahead, turns to the team, and motions out to spirit filled forest. “They run the show out here. So, be on your best behavior.”

Sotalia tosses back her fiery orange, wavy hair, glances her golden eyes at pack of glowing squirrel forms, and returns her attention to Mark. “What does that actually mean?”

Mark stands back up from checking the laces of his boots, glances around, and shrugs his shoulders. “Oh, nothing too demanding. Don’t blow anything up. Don’t pester them.”

He twist his mouth into a grimace and furrows his brow. “Definitely, don’t try out your common spirit spells on them. That’ll make them not like you real quick.”

Bach surveys the vicinity as he walks and calls out to Mark. “Anything else, we should know magic wise?”

Stopping in front of a pile of rocks in the middle of the path, Mark crosses his arms, searches his mind briefly, and smirks. “Not that I know of. You all shouldn’t have the, um, smell of typical spirit wrangling magic on you. Since you are with me, they should be nice enough to you all.”

Dretphi watches a large translucent dire boar briefly appear between distant trees and fade off. She blinks back to awareness as the astonishment fades and cocks her head curiously. "You have large beings here.”

Mark chuckles as he kneels down slowly in front of the stones on the path. “Oh yeah. They just tend to hang out here. It’s far away from the things they don’t like.”

Focusing his hazel eyes at the pile of rocks, Mark whispers in a kind, soft tone. “Hey, sorry to bother you, but would you slide over enough for us to get by?”

Rhythmic pulses of flow radiate through the stones and magical miasma coalesces to a pair of glowing eyes. The rest of the team behind Mark halts under the scrutiny of the stern stare from the shifting rocks. The stones stack up within a fine weaves of flow threads, roll over each other off the forest path, and settle upon the nearby grasses. The magical energies disappear from sight, and the ethereal eyes close away. Mark eases himself back up, brushes off his pants, and straightens his back with a wince. “Thank you. You have a nice day.”

Running his hand over his very short, nearly bald head, he cracks a grin at the anxious team and shrugs. “There’s a few of them around here. They tend to just stop wherever they feel like, since I’m usually the only one that uses this path. You just have to ask nicely. They’ll move rather than risk getting stepped on.”

The group starts walking ahead again. Cideeda hangs back briefly, narrows a curious emerald eyed stare at the mound of minerals, and studies it. A pair of ethereal eyes form and crack open half way to an unamused gaze. Blinking off her surprise, Cideeda grins toothily with a nervous chuckle and brushes down the spooked fur on her tail. “Huh, uh, wow. Um, good camouflage. I never would have guessed. Have a nice day...”

She rushes back up to the group, slips between Bach and Dretphi, and glances around with a newfound paranoia.

Through a dense narrowing passage, the team and Mark approach the end of the path leading into a tall wall of bushes. When Mark steps within a few meters, prismatic flows of energy pump through the flora. Leaves curl back, branches bend, and small trunks lean away. A divide splits in front of the path and grows to a large opening. Without a second thought, Mark steps through. Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia traverse through the plant archway, and Sebastian phases through the brush.

Mark pivots around and spreads his arms out to the vast area. “Here’s the ritual site!”

Morning sun beams down through the forest edged opening upon a massive stone dais. Remnants of morning dew glisten off the mosses between the meticulously carved stone bricks. Flecks of quartz within the rock reflect the light and contrast the dark carbon within the thin runic traces upon the surfaces of each block. Mark steps up onto the circular platform, gazes over the thick engravings between finer detailing, and nods with a satisfied smile. “Yep. It’s been awhile, but I still remember all the important parts.”

Aristespha’s violet eyes widen at the vast space, gawks at the inscriptions faintly glowing against the bright sun, and shakes her head in disbelief. “After all you your description of these places... It’s still a lot different to actually see them yourself.”

Sebastian ethereal form crosses his arms, drifts down next to Bach, and whispers. “I guess this is one of those ancient places of power you talked about.”

Bach slowly nods, pans his amazement across the scene, and chuckles lightly. “Uh, yeah. This would definitely qualify. It reminds me of the other collection daises we’ve run into...”

While Sebastian wait expectantly, he contorts his face in thought, crosses his arms, and tilts his head to the side. “But, this one is different.”

He squints at the runes upon the stonework, visually traces the nearby channels in the rock, and cocks his head. “This feels like it was designed for specific things. A lot is etched in already, but there are still pieces to fill in.”

Mark furrows his brow, pivots to Bach, and nods with a smirk. “That’s correct. It was designed to get the common pieces for big, complicated ritual spells laid out. All you have to do is to fill in the blanks for what you want to get going, and you’re ready to go.”

Sotalia smirks, lifts her eye brow, and rests her hands on her hips. “Oh, that’s nice of them. This shouldn’t take too long to get set up then.”

Curling an amused grin on his dark tan face, Mark chuckles slowly at Sotalia. Seconds later, Sotalia crosses her arms and twists her mouth uncertainly. “This shouldn’t take too long, right?”

Mark smiles brightly and shakes his head. “No. It’ll take some time. That’s why I brought you all down here. I’m going to need some help to get everything ready.”

He places his hands on his lumbar, stretches his back, and groans. “Well... this old back can’t take too much time on my hands and knees anymore. So...”

With a sly smile, he motions over to an alcove of magical supplies along the outer circumference. “So... Who wants to volunteer for what? Plenty of work to go around.”