Episode 121

Beams of sunlight pour through the wide opening in the surrounding forest canopy and radiate down upon the huge stone dais. Loud clacks and shuffling of boots upon rough rock sound out. Bach lunges forward with his practice sword and readies a swipe at Aristespha. In the moment, Aristespha tenses and shifts from a defensive stance into a countering posture. Bach hesitates, leans away with his guard forward, and springs back. Stepping back, he twists his mouth uncertainly and grumbles to himself with frustration weighing his tone.

Sebastian’s ethereal form coasts down next to him, narrows a translucent blue eyed stare, and sighs. “Bro, you had a good shot ready. You should have taken it.”

Bach tosses his head back, glances up at the cloudy, blue skies above, and groans. “I know, I know... But, I saw her tense up and she was about to attack me.”

Nodding in agreement, Sebastian perks his brow and crosses his arms. “Yes. She was about to attack you. She hadn’t gotten that far. When you hesitated, you gave her the chance to take control of exchange.”

Grumbling under his breath, Bach levels an annoyed gaze at Sebastian and grimaces. “Yeah. I know. Hence, that’s why I jumped away. I didn’t want to give her an opportunity.”

Sebastian leans close, focuses his attention on Bach, and whispers. “You already did. Again, you bailed on the attack too soon. You just got to go for it sometimes, bro.”

He drifts in front of Bach and presents a reassuring smile. “Okay. Let’s break it down step by step. Listen carefully.”

While Sebastian explains quietly to Bach, Aristespha tosses back her long, silvery blue hair, stretches her arms out, and twirls the practice blade. Resting a hand on her hip, she glances over to side and shrugs towards to the shady sidelines with a smug smirk. Sitting upon the flat stonework, Cideeda’s long tail wags, and she taps through different settings on her aetherphone. Sotalia leans forward from her seat on a bench and peers over Cideeda’s shoulder. “What are you trying to do?”

Blinking her emerald green eyes away from the focus on the screen, Cideeda perks her furry ears, rests a claw tip on an indicator icon, and curls a toothy grin. “Turning up the frame rate for the video capture. It should make the slow motion playback better.”

With a nod, Sotalia settles back onto her spot on the bench and glances over to Dretphi. She gazes at Dretphi’s attentive body language, tilts closer to her, and smirks. “So, what do you think, girl?”

Dretphi narrows her steely gray eyes and contorts her tan face. Straightening her sitting posture, she pushes her platinum blonde braids over her shoulders, sighs thoughtfully, and curls a faint frown. “Cautious to a fault. Needs to assert himself...”

Quirking her brow, Sotalia cracks a humored grin and chuckles to herself. “Well, yes, but I was asking about his sword fighting.”

Blinking blankly, Dretphi glances over to Sotalia confused and furrows her brow into a puzzling stare. Sotalia rolls her golden eyes, shakes her head of fiery orange, wavy hair, and stretches out her legs and arms. Nearby on the end of the bench, Mark watches with a smile and combs his hand through his bushy beard. In a lull of conversation, Bach glances away from Sebastian hesitantly and calls out. “Hey, Mark, are you sure it’s okay to do all this sparring on this... ancient ritual site? I mean, isn’t it sacred or something?”

Mark cocks his head to the side and ponders between blinks. His hazel eyes dart between his memories, and he snorts loudly into a laugh. With a wide, humored grin on his dark tan face, he shakes his head and chuckles. “It’s just an old rock with stuff carved into it.”

His gaze drifts upwards through opening to the sky above, and he shrugs his shoulders under his robe. “Can’t be all too sacred when the birds shit on it everyday.”

Bach furrows his brow, eases out a reluctant sigh, and eyes his brother. “Okay... I’ll give it a few more tries.”

Floating off to the side, Sebastian signals a thumbs up to Aristespha and nods to Bach. “Remember no opening is going to be ideal... Some are just better than others. Don’t let that deter you.”

Pulling a long breath through his nose, Bach straightens his back, rolls his shoulders, and walks up towards Aristespha. Shifting her boots upon the stone dais, Aristespha readies herself and smirks to Bach. “Whenever you are ready.”

The two wield their practice weapons and wait. Aristespha observes each shift of Bach’s weight on his feet. Bach’s blue eyes dart between possibilities and settle between a few approaches. Tensing his body, he steps forward carefully and keeps his sword at the ready. Aristespha tightens her grip, gracefully matches Bach’s movement, and repositions herself in anticipation. Cideeda taps the record button on her aetherphone, Dretphi directs her full attention at the action, Sotalia leans with her stare ahead, and Mark watches with flits of intensity between casual observation. Sebastian sounds out a reverberating sigh and rests his hands at his side. “Come on, bro. You got this.”

Bach leads with cautious thrusts, and Aristespha calmly parries each. With a fast step forward, Bach guides a swing of the practice sword at Aristespha’s side. Her violet eyes track the attack, and Aristespha uses her sparring blade to intercept and deflect. Narrowing his determined stare, Bach pushes forward with a flurry of swipes and thrusts, and presses the next attack after each counter. After the onslaught, an eager glint sparks in Aristespha’s eye, and she launches an attack during the recovery. Bach’s body tenses, and he springs back while parrying thrusts. Backpedaling in his retreat, he summons the strength to empower a deflection and shoves Aristespha’s sword swing back. His blue eyes widen, and recognition seizes his focus. Hesitation emerges upon his face as Aristespha readies herself to counter, and he drifts his attention inwards. Furrowing his brow, a surge of determination from within washes over Bach, and he lunges forward, blade ahead.

Surprise springs Aristespha back, and she assumes a defensive stance. Bach tightens his grip on the practice sword, steadies himself, and studies Aristespha’s maneuvers. Between mutual exchanges, Bach presses attacks, and Aristespha retreats to growing frustration. Both launch flurries of thrusts, swings, and swipes to the parries, deflections, and counters of the other. Cideeda aims her aetherphone towards the action as she slinks in orbit along with the wandering duel. Sotalia sways with the action, while Dretphi analyzes each motion. Mark grins at the demonstration.

Aristespha grits her teeth, pushes back against the last in chain of attacks from Bach, and powers a heavy swing down. Bach raises his blade to intercept, redirects the energy, and starts to back away. His eyes dart around, and a surge of determination quells stale hesitation. He steps forward into the space next to Aristespha within the shadow of her last attack. A confident grin cracks from the corner of his mouth and his eyes focus upon a target. He twists the sword grip to reveal the flat of the practice blade.

An echoing smack bounces off hard surfaces and filters into the surrounding forest. A reflexive high pitched yelp breaks free from Aristespha. She stiffly hops away to a stumble from the broad side of the sword against her butt. As contortions of shock, confusion, and fury mix upon her flush, ivory face, she hisses through a jaw clenching wince and covers the back of her pants with a free hand. Bach blinks blankly. He eyes the practice sword, glances at Aristespha warily, and unconsciously hides the sparring blade behind him. Sputters of Evuukian curses slip out from Aristespha, and Sotalia rushes next to Cideeda. “Tell me you got THAT.”

A toothy grin parts wide on Cideeda’s light brown face, and she winks. “Want to see it in slow motion?”

Dretphi stands up with her hands covering her mouth in surprise. Excitement swirls up her and she lowers her hands to reveal a proud smile. Mark claps and chuckles with a grin. “Nicely done. I wondering when you’d get a hit in. You picked up the pace in the end.”

Sebastian’s ethereal form hovers next to Bach. He glances over to his brother, leans close, and maintains a stiff upper lip. “Bro...”

When Bach glances over, Sebastian flashes a pride filled grin. “Damn... That was impressive fighting.”

An appreciative smile appears on Bach’s tan face, and he stands taller. “Yeah... I... I don’t know. After that first bit, I just keep pushing and... Well...”

Sebastian nods, glances briefly over to Aristespha rubbing her backside between mutters Evuukian curses, and hovers close. “Now, she got flustered and let her guard down. That was great work to keep the pressure up, but you can’t always hope for that to happen with everyone. Some can keep their cool for a lot longer.”

He meets Bach’s gaze and smirks. “So, before the next round... Let me give you some advice.”

Briefly gritting his teeth, he lowers his voice and quietly speaks while shielding his mouth. “You can probably score two-”

A string of irritated Evuukian sounds out with Sebastian’s name intermingling between phrases. While Sotalia squelches a laugh into a snort, Sebastian twists his mouth and whispers. “Let’s just go for one more hit today. And, bro, I’d avoid smacks with flat of the blade. She really doesn’t like those.”

Bach glances around the ghostly visage of his brother to the violet glare of Aristespha, and turns his head to Sebastian. “So... There’s a story behind that, I guess?”

Awkwardly averting his gaze, Sebastian releases an embarrassed ethereal sigh. “Yeah. Um. Yeah, you could say that.”

The warm orange glow of the campfire contrasts the cool darkness encroaching. A light breezes sifts through the thinning trees, and a faint drone fills the air around the camp. Dretphi stacks the last of cleared plates with traces of dinner in a wood crate and glances over to Mark sitting on a log. “Are you sure you do not want me to clean these?”

Mark gazes over from the idle conversations between others, waves off Dretphi’s concern, and smiles. “I’ll get them tomorrow. After that wonderful meal, I’ll be happy to clean them later. Well, a few whelps that hang out will.”

With a nod, Dretphi locks up the container, turns around, and walks up to the circle of log seats. Cideeda leans close to Sotalia, shows her aetherphone screen, and taps the display. A slow motion replay of Bach launching his attack against Aristespha plays in the video app. Sotalia pokes the phone quickly, slides between frames, and smirks mischievously. Cideeda cracks a thin grin. The two glance over to Aristespha and barely contain their amusement. Aristespha’s long, pointed ears twitch, and she darts her eyes around. Settling upon Cideeda and Sotalia snickering, she narrows a unamused glare upon them, crosses her arms, and tilts her nose up. “If you think you can match me, I welcome your challenges.”

Sotalia’s golden eyes widen, and she twists an awkward, reluctant smile on her light tan face. She brushes back a stray lock of fiery orange hair, idly scratches a dark gray patch underneath her pointed ear, and laughs lightly. “I think I’ll keep to my magic, girl. I leave to the swords and stuff to the rest of you.”

Cideeda blinks her emerald green eyes, dons a halfhearted toothy grin, and waves off the proposition as her furry ears droop. “You know I’m not one for direct confrontation.”

Sebastian’s ethereal form leans close to Aristespha, and he cranes his head around to meet Aristespha’s gaze. Furrowing his brow, he smirks lovingly and calmly speaks. “Dear... Come on now, we’re all friends here.”

Drawing in a long breath, Aristespha huffs and fights against a forming pout. Sebastian shakes his head and chuckles. “It’s only fair after all the times you got hits in.”

Bach glances over sheepishly from his seat on a nearby log and presents a reassuring smile. “Yeah, again, I’m sorry. I got a little caught up in the moment and all...”

Aristespha relaxes shoulders, twists a smirk on her ivory face, and sighs. “It’s fine. You did nothing wrong, Bach. It’s just my... pride... was not anticipating that attack. But, it was a fair hit.”

Rolling her eyes at herself, she cracks a smile and nods to Bach. “I am actually happy that your skills have improved.”

A sinister grin appears, and she perks her brow. “Now, you are proper challenge. I’ll keep that in mind in the future.”

Bach blinks blankly. Sebastian grits his teeth and shrugs his shoulders when Bach glances over to him. Dretphi covers a yawn and glances around at the camp site. “Think it is time for bed. Good night all.”

Sotalia stretches her back, gets up on her feet, and steps away from the campfire. “Gods, it is late. Well, I’ll see you all bright early in the morning.”

Popping up from her seat, Cideeda puts away her phone into her shorts and sways her tail while working the drowsiness from her body. “Yeah. A long day of driving tomorrow...”

She waves to remaining people seated near the fire. “Night. Don’t stay up too late. It’ll be hard to sleep in the ride back tomorrow. This is the bumpy stretch before we camp at the rest stop.”

After a few idle minutes, Aristespha flutters her eyes open, glances around, and sighs. “I should turn in, too.”

Standing up from her spot on a log, she slightly bows towards Mark. “Thank you again for being so accommodating.”

Mark nods with a smile. “Not a problem. You get some sleep now.”

Aristespha trails a playful glare at Bach and cracks a smile at the end when Bach’s confusion piques. Sebastian grants a wave and follows behind Aristespha.

Idle moments pass. The embers in the fire pit dim with the occasional snap and crackle. Mark glances over to Bach, cocks his head, and perks his brow. “So, after all this time, you still don’t know how you got that power?”

Bach shudders back to awareness and meets Mark’s gaze. Wrestling different thoughts on his face, Bach eventually sighs and shakes his head. “No. I keep on going through each moment I can remember. But, I still can’t figure out what I did that was really... special?”

He rests his chin upon the palm of his propped up hand, darts his eyes inside his mind, and hisses out his stale frustration. “I mean. I was just desperate. Fighting that Nightmare Geist... I just kept digging deeper into my reserves. I didn’t even know I could do that much. But... It felt weird. Then again, I was scared shitless, fighting an unholy horror, and trying to stay alive. So, that may have been it.”

Mark nods understandingly and sighs with a tight smile. “Yeah. I know that feeling. Really hard to clearly remember things when things weren’t clear.”

Flitting his blue eyes wide, Bach shakes his head and groans. “You’re telling me. There was an odd feeling right before everything got bright and I blacked out. Then, I just remember waking up. No sign of the Nightmare Geist, and everyone that was part of the trip was really confused.”

Furrowing his brow, Mark cracks a smirk on his dark tan face. “Yeah, such a thing is already hard enough to explain even when you know what it is.”

Bach nods in agreement and rolls his eyes at himself. “Gods, yes. There wasn’t much to report. Big monster showed up. We all flung magic at it. Everyone blacked out. And, we woke to it being gone.”

He groans and narrows an annoyed gaze at Mark. “Damn investigators from so many places wouldn’t stop bugging us for days. Damn, they were not happy with all the gaps in information. Thinking about it now...”

Twisting a frown on his face, he sighs and furrows his brow. “They were probably frustrated that they couldn’t find out where that Nightmare Geist ran off to. To them, it couldn’t have just disappeared. They had figured out I wiped it out.”

Mark nods slowly and grimaces with a snort. “Yeah. No. They probably were more concerned with it than anything. Partly because it was still a danger to them. But, I wouldn’t doubt they had other interests.”

Bach rubs his eyes into a pinch of the bridge of his nose, sniffs a long breath in, and groans. “Gods, yeah. After all the crazy shit people have tried to do, I wouldn’t be surprised if they wanted to capture it for experiments.”

Focusing his attention on Bach, Mark perks his brow, tilts his head curiously, and inquires calmly. “So you have this power now, and you decide to go into hiding. If you don’t mind sharing, why did you do that?”

Rolling his blue eyes at himself, Bach sighs heavy with old frustration and shakes his head. “At the time... Because, I didn’t want to turn into the next Dark Lord... as silly as that sounds now. But-”

He grits his teeth briefly, darts between the thoughts in his head, and combs his fingers through his longer brown hair. “Even without that reasoning... All I knew is that I had this power without any clue on how to use it. And, I didn’t have any good options to find out more about it.”

Squinting his eyes, Bach straightens his posture and cocks his head to the side. “I think I can explain it... Um...”

Moving his hands with his thoughts, he gazes at Mark and carefully pieces together his words. “It’s like, um... It’s like waking up one day and finding a bomb in your bedroom. You don’t have a clue how to disarm it. You can’t move it since it’s bolted to floor. And, if you do anything other than walk around the room, it starts to beep. You just know that’s not good.”

He scratches the back of his head as stale frustrations, disappointments, and pain color his tone. “Your first thought is to leave the house. Because, it can’t possibly be safe. But, you put so much time and money in the house, and people wonder why you don’t stay in your own house. You want to tell them about the bomb, but that just causes more questions that gets you all the wrong attention. I mean, do you really want a bunch of random people interested in the bomb going through your house?”

Mark cracks a smile and snorts into chuckle. “I totally understand. A smarter attitude than I would have had at your age.”

Bach quirks his brow and eyes Mark closely. “Really? What would you have done?”

Shrugging his shoulders, Mark grins and strokes his bushy beard. “Well, something stupid! I know that much. I was a wild one back in the early days. Not much would have stopped me from just trying anything.”

He tilts his head back and focuses an inquisitive gaze at Bach. “Okay... If you knew then what you know now about the power, would you have done things differently?”

Bach pauses completely in thought. His stare drifts inwards and grows distant. Opening his mouth a few times, he flounders for an explanation and sighs. Pulling in a long breath, he blinks back to awareness, glances at Mark, and frowns unsatisfied. “I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of good things with this power. But... I’ve done a few things I regret. And... How easily I could do them... THAT scares me.”

A gloomy mood overtakes Mark, and he eases out a sad exhale. “Yeah. I totally understand that, too. I’m just glad that you had a lot more restraint about it all and learned that way. Because, figuring out the other ways ain’t fun. It can take a lot of pain before you take a moment to pause and think about things.”

Bach shifts his attention upon Mark, and tilts his head curiously. “So, I guess you learned the other ways?”

Mark nods, slacks his shoulders, and wrestles against a pained frown on his dark tan face. “Yes. The details are pointless now. But, let’s just say I got caught up in a bunch of those conflicts before you were born and did a lot of shitty things for what I thought was right. It wasn’t until things went from bad to fucked that I realized the situation I was in.”

Blinking his surprise, Bach inquires further. “So... What did you do then?”

Donning a humored smile, Mark glances around and holds his hands out to the surrounding area. “I said, oh shit... Then, I ran off into the woods for a few years.”

He leans closer to Bach, twists a grimace on his face, and sighs. “Not the greatest plan. But, I was a real dumbass. Well, if I couldn’t figure out how to unfuck the situation, I figured I could at least not add to it anymore. Remove myself from the equation.”

Bach crosses his arms, rocks his head side to side, and searches his mind. “I can understand.”

Mark bows his head down, gestures with his hand, and laughs. “I figured you might. Anyway, I couldn’t sit on the side lines forever. Things happened to where I was forced to do something. So, I had to figure a new way to do things, because I wasn’t going to do the old ways.”

Nodding with the sentiment, Bach cracks a reserved smile and chuckles. “Can’t fault you there.”

He pauses in thought a moment, straightens his posture, and sighs. “I just wish I knew why I got this power. There’s got to be some justification.”

Mark shrugs, brushes out a stray leaf from his bushy beard, and dons a humored smirk on his face. “I don’t know. Might be as simple as you needed it when fighting that Nightmare Geist.”

Bach narrows his gaze, tilts his head, and frowns slightly. “Yeah... But, I was done with that for years. Never used it, until recently. I mean people theorize the Abstract Prism might have some kind of intelligence to it. You’d think it’d pull back that power to make sure things don’t go out of control.”

Scratching his chin, Mark quirks his eyebrow. “I mean, you showed restraint and respect for the power...”

Bach contorts a spark irritation through his expression and rolls his eyes heavy with sarcasm. “Oh good. The all powerful entity in charge of magic is misunderstanding all my hints that I don’t want this power.”

Mark chuckles and grins slyly. “Who better to grant such power than someone who doesn’t want it?”

An exasperated groan escapes Bach, and he shakes his bowed head. “Great.”

Smiling reassuringly, Mark snorts and gazes at Bach. “I don’t know how all that works. Though... If there’s anything I do know, it’s that there’s a lot more going on in this world. What you do with what you’ve been granted might lead to far bigger changes down the line.”

A smile briefly appears on Bach. After a few moments an ill-humored smirk settles upon his face and sarcasm flows out in his voice. “Ah, so no pressure really. Don’t worry, the future of how greater forces decide the fates of many might be on your shoulders.”

Mark shakes his head and rolls his eyes playfully dismissive. “I’m certain such decisions take a little more to make So, you don’t have to put all that on your shoulders.”

He cracks a sly grin and winks. “But, just in case, I still think some great, noble uses of that power might be good for all of us. You seem to have a good head for it. So, it seems like something made a good choice, if there was one.”

A genuine smile grows on Bach’s face, and he gazes over to Mark appreciatively. “Um, thanks. Really.”

In the lull, the ambient sounds of forest fill in the gap. Bach gazes out into the remaining embers of the fire. As the distance grows in his stare, his eyes flutter with drowsiness and close briefly. He quickly straightens his back and blinks back awake. “Well, I better get to bed.”

Mark nods and smirks simply. “You should. You got a long day tomorrow.”

Bach stands up from his seat upon the log, steps over towards the camp site, and pauses a moment. He glances over to Mark and nods. “Thanks for the talk.”

With a slight bow, Mark smiles. “Anytime.”

As Bach departs, Mark holds his hands up to the radiant heat from the glowing pile of embers in the fire pit. From the forest, a white glow brightens. Goris meticulously steps out, carefully approaches the campfire, and stands near Mark. “Everything good tonight?”

Mark nods, stretches out his lower back, and sighs. “Yup. Just enjoying the last bit of heat before I turn in.”

Goris turns its head and stares down at the spurts of flame above the coals. Mark glances up at Goris, cocks his head, and furrows his brow. “You think that Bach is the key to something going on?”

After a flicker from its eyes, Goris gazes down at Mark and shakes its head. With a dismissive tone, it explains. “The architects never worked that way. They were careful in all affairs and designs. If they designed the Abstract Prism as they designed all other things, then there are multitudes of factors constantly being evaluated. No single vector alone could influence a great change during nominal operation.”

Mark returns his stare to the fire pit and ponders out loud. “Yeah, that makes sense. I figured as much. But, even then... It’s still strange that something allowed Elder energy after all these years.”

Goris gazes upwards a moment, narrows its eyes, and emulates a sigh. “Yes. I wish I understood.”

Easing himself up off the seat upon the log bench, Mark straightens his back out, grits his teeth, and grumbles. “Me too.”

Goris watches Mark wander off to the largest hut with a wave. Seconds of quiet contemplation, it picks a new direction and quietly marches out to a new patrol path.

A blue all terrain truck rolls down a long stretch of highway. Inside the vehicle, Isaac keeps his head forward and stares out the windshield at the road. As he guides the truck into a gentle curve, he darts his eyes towards his side mirror and furrows his brow. His focus settles upon a worn, gray van distantly behind him. When he straightens out the steering wheel, he hums to himself and gazes ahead in thought. He wrestles an uneasy frown on his face, brushes back stray, wispy white hairs, and tightens his grip on the wheel. Running the tail of the blue scarf between his fingers, he briefly grits his teeth and glances at his rear view mirror from the corner of his eyes.

Squinting into the reflected distance, he watches the plainly dressed driver and passenger of the van maintain watch ahead. Seconds pass, and Isaac grumbles to himself. “Who are you people...”

Settling his attention forward down the road, he raps his fingers on the steering wheel and sighs out his frustration. The blue truck coasts down the highway running within a valley between tall hills coated in mixes of waning green, bright yellows, brilliant oranges, and deep reds. Gentle winds sway the nearby trees of thinning branches and pluck autumn leaves free. Isaac draws a long, deep breath in. He blinks his eyes, focuses his gaze down the highway, and searches along the side of the road. Darting his eyes towards road markers, he steadies the vehicle down a long straight away and tenses against the chill going down his spine. Easing out a long breath, a shudder of paranoia accompanies his uneasy stare ahead. He mutters uncomfortably. “That same damned van... ...a few days ago... ...doesn’t make sense...”

Blinking back to awareness, he settles his gaze upon a large, tall metal highway sign.

“Lands Between Train Depot”

Isaac’s gray eyes widen, and an intrigued smirk emerges on his face. Furrowing his brow, he quickly reads through the reflected afternoon sun at the various icons and notations. Another chain of different advertisements and other postings spread out further from the main highway sign. A sly grin cracks from the corner of Isaac’s mouth, and he briefly darts his eyes to the rear view mirror. With a bubbling of confidence, he relaxes in his seat and taps his finger upon the top of the steering wheel.

Minutes past as the blue all terrain truck follows down the highway, with a distant worn, gray van keeping pace. As the pair travel, more vehicles from other direction pass on by and a number turn onto the main roadway from side streets. The van gradually tightens the gap as the speed limit signs reduce at each major junction. Isaac maintains a nonchalant facade, while his gray eyes dart between different mirrors to gaze upon the individuals in the van with vague familiarity. He searches the starts of civilization ahead. Glancing between the points of interest, he studies the restaurants, stores, and other facilities surrounding the dense industrial core of the Lands Between Train Depot. Drifting his attention to the other side of the highway, he searches the different advertising signs. Springing his eyes wide open, he cracks a sly smirk and focuses upon a motel around the outskirts.

He flips on his turn signal and watches his rear view mirror carefully. The passenger in the van stirs and speaks to the driver. The driver maintains a calm exterior and simply nods. Isaac slows the truck into a middle turn lane and waits for oncoming traffic to pass. The gray van passes on by, and he observes from the corner of his eye. As the worn vehicle continues deeper into town, it turns on its own signal and pulls off into a fueling station. Isaac pulls a humored smile across his face and drives his truck into the parking lot of motel. Guiding the all terrain vehicle into a spot, he slowly gathers his belongings and sneaks peeks towards the van at the pumps.

The driver side door opens and a fit man in plain clothes steps out. Sorting through his wallet, he directs his voice inside. “Contact high and let them know the situation. I’m going to fill up the tank.”

A woman inside nods and opens up the glove box. “On it.”

She retrieves a rugged tablet, clicks a side button, and taps in a long code on the screen. Glancing over to the man, she calls out. “Could you go inside and find out what snacks they got?”

Stepping closer to the driver’s side door, the man leans over and nods with a smirk. “Yeah, I was thinking the same. Your usual if they got it?”

With appreciative smile, she snorts. “You know it. Get extra, it’s probably going to be a long night.”

The man closes the driver’s door firmly and studies the pumping system’s options for fuel. The woman gazes down upon the different apps on the screen and the official GAA logo and legal statement background. She opens up a messenger app and quickly types out.

“Target stopped at a motel near Lands Between Train Depot. Target may be suspicious and could be preparing to change up transportation. Request backup to monitor Train Depot and surrounding area.”

Early morning light beams upon the wide main street in front of the fenced perimeter of the Lands Between Train Depot. Large haulers pass through gateways, employees enter through checkpoints, and customers arrive at designated lots outside the protected core. Surrounding the depot, flits of activity occur within shops. The next wave of customers filter through the Pancake Shed near the motel, and another line of trucks roll out to their destinations.

From a camouflaged observation point, two GAA scouts peer through the trees to across the street and watch the area around a motel room. One gradually pans his binoculars along the stretch of the structure and settles upon the blue all terrain truck in front of one section. He draws in a long breath and whispers. “So, what’s the activity report from the night team?”

Blinking his faintly glowing green eyes, the mage scout twists his mouth and softly explains. “After checking into the motel, he went over to the Pancake Shed and ate. Seems he was talking to a few people in there and sat down with someone. They’re trying to figure out if it’s anyone of significance, but nothing has come up yet. Some kind of exchange happened, but we didn’t have a good angle on it.”

Squinting into the distance, he sighs and ponders out loud. “Apart from that, he headed back to his motel room, seemed to go to bed at a decent time, and here we are.”

The binocular scout furrows his brow and glances over inquisitively. “That’s it? Anything else? Did the magic monitoring teams detect anything? Or, did the lookout over at the depot spot anything weird?”

The mage scout shakes his head, turns his stare to another part of the motel, and grumbles. “Fuck all. From what anyone can tell he’s just been in his motel room all night after getting something to eat.”

Rolling his eyes, he blinks hard and refocuses his gaze back upon the motel room in front of the blue truck. “There’s been some magical activity. But, honestly, nothing out of the ordinary for your average mage performing basic things. Which means, this guy may have just been doing nothing but watching TV... Given what he’s capable of.”

Peering back through the binoculars, the other scout settles back into position and scans the building front. His aim shifts quickly and he focuses the lenses. “Hey, check this guy out.”

With the mage scout watching carefully, he trains his full attention upon a guy in a hoodie walking up to the blue truck. The thin man walks up to the driver’s side door. The binocular scout whispers. “Is that him? Everyone reported he was in that motel room. What’s going on here?”

The mage scout keys up his radio and narrows his stare. “Motel Watch to all. We have a someone approaching target’s truck. Can anyone tell me who this is?”

The hooded man reaches into his pocket, pulls out a set of keys, and puts them into the driver’s side lock. With a twist and pull, he opens the door and slips inside. The scout with the binoculars leans forward slightly in surprise. “Oh shit! It might be him. He just unlocked the door and got inside.”

The all terrain vehicle starts up, and the hoodie wearing man inspects the cab. The mage scout calls out on the radio. “Target vehicle started by unconfirmed driver. Requesting that someone track that vehicle.”

Crackling over the radio, a voice responds. “Gray team ready. We’ll tail behind it.”

The truck backs away from the motel room, turns as it moves forward, and rolls up onto the main street. As it moves down the road, a worn, gray van pulls up to an intersection, merges onto the road, and follows far behind the blue truck. Shaking his head and resting the radio down, the mage scout blinks his faintly glowing green eyes and grumbles. “Who the fuck dropped the ball on that? Gods damn it. Did he slip out the back or-”

Squinting his stare, he snaps his full focus at the distant structure and reflexively keys up the radio. “Magic activity at the motel door. Repeat. Magic activity at the motel door.”

Training his binoculars at the building, the other scout twists his mouth uncertainly. “The door knob is turning. The fuck? Is he still in there?”

The motel room door opens slowly without anyone behind it. A massive plume of thick, obscuring smoke blasts out from the doorway and floods the parking lot. The mage scout yells out with a tight grip on the transceiver. “Eyes on the motel!”

A translucent figure launches out from the obfuscating cloud, zips through the air towards the Train Depot, and drops down out of sight in the middle of the industrial zone. The radio crackles to life and another voice sounds out. “Something breached the perimeter of the depot and landed between some buildings. Dispatching team to investigate. No eyes on it currently.”

After a brief lull, another transmission keys up on the channel. “The back window to the motel room just opened up! The smoke covered the area, but we saw something camouflaged run through it into town. Pursuing now. It just went down an alley.”

Squinting hard, the mage scout searches the obscuring mist flooding the front of the motel and grumbles. “Damn it. It’s charged with energy, I can’t make anything out from this far away.”

Tapping through different buttons on his binoculars, the other scout grits his teeth and growls. “Fuck. I can’t see through it, either. Something is messing with thermal vision.”

The two exchange glances, nod to each other, and glare at the motel. As they ready themselves to their feet, the mage scout keys up the radio. “Motel Watch moving in closer to check the room. Requesting backup.”

Rushing out from the woods, the two GAA scouts reach the road, check both ways, and rush up to the edge of the thick plume of smoke. The both peer through the vision blocking haze and glance at each other unsatisfied. The two exchange silent signals in a frustrated conversation. A faint sputtering sounds out from inside the motel room, and the two men tense at the ready. The flow of smoke wanes quickly from the doorway, and the thick plumes filling the front lot of the motel gradually drift away into thinning clouds. Both scouts carefully watch the dissipating mists and maintain their position near the motel room. As the fog fades enough for semblances of visibility, the scouts cautiously approach the entryway.

With backs against walls on either side of the door, both take turns peering inside and checking their angles. After initial inspections, they crane their heads and slowly scan the interior. Through the haze, they spot the expected, intact motel furniture and a large flask into the middle of the room. The mage scout focuses his glowing green stare at the bottle and sighs into whisper. “Some kind of alchemical smoke bomb.”

He darts his eyes between a number of points around the room, and signals the okay. The two step inside cautiously. The other scout gestures towards the open bathroom door. The two quietly approach the entry. They peek inside the empty bathroom, checking the open shower curtain and the lifted back window. Both share an exhale of brief relief. As they walk towards the exit, the mage scout halts at a tap of the shoulder from the other. He turns around, notices a signal towards the bed, and tenses. The two gulp hard and ready themselves. After a quick gesture to an incantation from the mage scout, the bed end lifts up, and the other scout aims a pistol down at the empty floor. Breathing sighs of relief, the mattress and frame drift back down, and the pistol slides back into its holster.

The two quickly exit the motel room. One pulls the door shut as the other keys up a radio. While they secure the area, the remaining traces of obscuring mist coasts away and down onto the ground. One plume maintains its shape long enough to filter into the far off brush. As the cloud sifts into the forest, leaves stirs, twigs snap, and movement sounds out softly. Well within the confines of woods, Isaac stands up tall from the disappearing fog, straightens his back, and continues to walk deeper into the forest. He cinches up his backpack, tightens his grip on his bag, and grins slyly. He glances back towards the motel through the woods, shakes his head, and rolls his gray eyes. “Have fun...”

He trudges through the woods, peeks towards the highway going away from the depot, and narrows his distant stare to his thoughts.

Bach stares up at the ceiling of the living area, yawns, and adjusts the pillow under his head. Scooting up the arm of the couch, he gazes around the room. Drifting his attention away from a rerun of the Next Adventurers of Nexus, he catches of a glimpse of Dretphi stepping into another part of the kitchen. Pulling himself up to a seat on the couch, he notices Cideeda sitting at the dining table. Subtle twitches wag the tip of her tail, and she studies an image on her aetherphone. After a few moments, her emerald green eyes focus upon a piece of paper, and she meticulously inks in a series of connected glyph sketches. Her furry ear flicks over to Bach, and she glances over with a smirk. “Hey. Been staring at the ceiling?”

Bach sighs, glances outside at the bright noon sun, and shrugs his shoulders. “Yeah. Almost got sleepy enough for a nap, but... Then, the sun came out and it just got too bright. Now, I’m wide awake.”

He slides back against the couch arm, crosses his arms, and twists his mouth. “I hate to say this, but... I’m a little bored right now, and I don’t know what I want to do.”

Cideeda nods her head of short, multi-colored hair, rests her chin on her props up hand, and hums in thought. “Yeah. Not much to do at the moment.”

A smile forms on her light brown face, and she chuckles lightly. “You can always show me a few more of these symbols.”

Bach rocks his head side to side and smirks. “Sure. But... It just feels weird to be waiting after all the other stuff we’ve been doing.”

Stepping in through the hallway archway, Sotalia rubs her golden eyes, glances between Bach and Cideeda, and rests her hands on her hips. “Any thing going on?”

Bach shakes his head. Cideeda shrugs after finishing up inking in a symbol. “Nothing really. You?”

Sotalia arches her back, sways her hips idly side to side, and sighs. “Got all the latest presents sorted for all my nieces and nephews. Next time any of us head into town, I need stop by the post office.”

Brushing off her apron, Dretphi steps in from the kitchen, walks up to the refrigerator, and glances through the bar window towards the dining table. “Lunch will be ready in fifteen minutes.”

She closes back up the door to the fridge, pauses in a thought, and contorts her face in indecision. “I over heard. It is strange. Waiting for the information. Hoping to react fast.”

Sotalia crosses her arms, puffs up her chest, and groans. “I know, girl. I wouldn’t mind a simple local job off the guild board. But, I want to get to whatever before Noxian has a chance.”

Nodding agreement, Bach combs the white streak in his hair off to the side over and ponders out loud with an uncertain tone. “Yeah. I know. Waiting is the hardest part.”

Phasing in through the wall, Sebastian’s ethereal form glances around at the assembled team and perks his brow. “So, who called this meeting?”

Sotalia pivots slightly, lifts her eye brow, and tosses back her fiery orange, wavy hair. “Well, we’re trying to figure out how to kill some time without it being too involved.”

Furrowing her brow, Dretphi twists an uncomfortable expression. “Awkward situation.”

Sebastian briefly darts his attention to another source. He hovers further into the room and settles to a spot above a pulled away chair at the dining table. “Yeah. No sense in us running around and get caught up in other crap. Hopefully, if this access point exists, we’ll get location from Mark soon. Then, we can act.”

Bach slides down the couch arm and sprawls out on the cushions. He stares up at the ceiling, shrugs his shoulders, and chuckles. “I guess there’s a few things we can do around here to past the time...”

He furrows his brow at the sound of footsteps closing. Startling to awareness, he glances down at the practice sword dropped upon his chest and gazes up to Aristespha’s stare. Alternating between the sparring blade and Aristespha, he cocks his head to the side quizzically. Aristespha hoist up an amused eyebrow and cracks a smug smirk. “Sounds like you might be interested in another match.”

Bach awkwardly blinks. “Uhhh... Could be...”

Aristespha laughs lightly and rolls her violet eyes with a toss of her long silvery blue hair. “Good, after lunch, if you want.”