Episode 122

Kneeling next to the wide trunk of a tall tree, Isaac watches the sky through the sparse canopy overhead. Darting his uneasy stare between the brief clearances through swaying branches, he waits expectantly and wrestles a frown on his face. His posture stiffens, and he glances over his shoulder towards a distant thumping in the skies. As the noise grows louder, the mechanical qualities define themselves through the surrounding chorus of leaves. Isaac glances around nervously with an irritated grimace. After fruitless seconds searching with the aircraft drone closing, he spots a shallow cave in a hill side. Checking the skies overhead, Isaac dashes across the leaf covered forest floor and slides down to a rough seat past the natural shale arch. Pressing close to the damp stone wall, Isaac cautiously cranes his head low and peers up into the cloudy skies above. The weak downdraft of a military helicopter high above faintly rustles the canopy and sends a colorful rain of leaves downwards. The light scout aircraft hovers above for a few seconds before tipping forward to a new direction. As the rotor racket fades, Isaac slowly peeks out from the shadows warily.

Releasing a long sigh, he settles back. Glancing around the small space, he brushes off a spot and shifts over to the cleaner area. After a moment, he winces, rubs the back of his neck, and slowly stretches out aches. Slowly twisting his torso, he pulls his muscles to uncomfortable extents, waits with a grimace, and groans as he relaxes again. Resting his head of wispy white hair against the cave wall, he sighs loudly and gazes up distantly. “...just one night in a proper bed...”

Drifting of into his thoughts, his stare wanders to the side and watches the fallen leaves dance around with the wind. As the moments pass, his gray eyes soften and the faint hint of smile curls on his tan face. His far off gaze drifts between memories, and he unconsciously feels a tail of the blue scarf around his neck. Sadness slips into his breaths, a frown weighs down his expression, and he closes his eyes with twist into a pained wince. Slowly exhaling with a trailing shudder, he wipes the traces of tears from face and coughs through a sigh. With a final long sniff, he shakes his head, straightens his back, and grits his teeth.

Pulling close his backpack, he opens the top flap and studies the interior. Spotting his target, he reaches inside, pulls out a map, and unfolds it. Contending with the awkward expansion of paper, he manages to confine the document to the most relevant section. His studious stare shifts between different marks, notes, and drawings. A number of crossed out locations liter the northern region within a large search area. Narrowing his gaze, Isaac twists his mouth and slightly tilts his head to the side. After following a sketched out route down roadways, his eyes settle upon the region in the middle of the map. His gray eyes read the label “Amaranth Valley”, and he grumbles curiously. “...do you know something... ...I don’t...”

Tapping his finger upon a location northeast, his attention settles upon the connecting routes leading to Amaranth Valley. Furrowing his brow, he mulls over the options, contorting his face indecisively. Rocking his head side to side, his attention settles upon a city icon labeled “Ark.” Humming faintly through his internal debate, a smirk curls out from the corner of his mouth, and he sighs to a tentative agreement. He examines the map moment, studies the fold lines, and attempts to guide the paper back to a proper compact size. A few attempts lead to unsatisfactory results and growing frustration. Finally, Isaac rolls his eyes, crudely forces the document to fold, and stuffs it back into his backpack with an annoyed curse under his breath. Securing his belongings, he stares from the shadows of the small cave and watches cautiously. Minutes of relative silence fill the area, and no trace of the overhead scouting efforts exist.

Crawling out through the shale rock arch, Isaac eases himself up. Stretching out his lean frame, he grimaces while working out stiffness and shakes his head. Searching above for the sun, he orients himself and ponders a moment. Gesturing his finger to a few directions, his point gradually settles upon a direction. He travels carefully underneath the thicker sections of canopy above and darts between opens areas after listening for familiar thumps. Traveling through the forest, he scans the horizon and squints into the distance. Hiking up to the crest of a small hill, he gazes down and focuses ahead. He lowers his profile and carefully approaches the edge of the forest next to a highway. As he gets closer, he keeps low to the ground and hides behind the brush before the high grasses bordering the paved roadway. Peeking through the bushes, he searches along the road. Within his thoughts, he points in a desired direction and traces back the highway. Narrowing his stare, he notices a few vehicles getting closer.

Readying himself and tightening the straps of his backpack upon his back, he grips his bag at his side. Small passenger cars arrive closer and Isaac shifts his attention back to the horizon. Hints of frustration slip into his sigh. Minutes tick by, and Isaac watches sedans, small trucks, and closed up haulers speed on by. He shakes his head, twists his mouth, and returns his watch back down the road. When a motorcycle rolls on by, he perks his brow and hums to himself.

A low rumbles travels above the highway down the cleared trough through the trees. Isaac snaps his full attention and waits anxiously. Rolling down the roadway, a large cargo truck slowly navigates the road. A driver and passenger stare distantly ahead through the windshield of the rusty cab. Isaac squints and flits his eyes wide with an eager grin. The loose corner of a tarp over bed of the hauler flaps in wind. With his free hand, Isaac quickly gestures out a few incantations and draws a deep breath in.

He quickly fades from view into a nearly transparent warping of light while hovering up into the air. When the truck rolls down the highway close enough, the bushes shake from a downwards force. The tall grasses in the green spaces next to the highway sway briefly in the wake behind a nearly invisible blur. The fast moving haze zips behind the slow moving hauler and flies next to the flapping corner of the tarp. A force seizes the rubber coated canvas and lifts up it swiftly. The translucent blur squeezes underneath the tarp. Soon, the corner resumes its previous flapping.

Fading to opacity, Isaac crawls between crates and barrels to a space between tall containers. Pulling his bag off a box, he fits himself into the gap and seats himself on floor. Squirming into the least uncomfortable position, he relaxes a bit and rests his head against a wooden crate. Under the shade of the tarp, he wanders his gaze between the different labels upon the parcels. After riding out the shakes from the old truck suspension, he spots logistic markings on a package sliding around.


Isaac nods to himself. He draws in a long breath and sighs. “Ark... first...”

Gripping nearby boxes to brace against the rocking from a pothole, he winces while stretching out his neck. He sighs, rolls his gray eyes, and rubs his back while muttering.

Nash leans his head heavily against his propped up hand and idly swirls the shallow remainder of beer in his glass. He furrows his brow and sighs with a forming grimace. “Well... Shit.”

Across the worn and aged wooden table, Harvos eases into the back of the chair, glances aimlessly around the dining area, and groans with a frown. “Yeah... What the hell...”

Picking up the tall glass, Nash tosses back the remnants of his drink, gazes over to the bar, and catches the attention of a server. He lifts up his empty vessel and confirms with a quick nod. Setting the glass back down, he twists his face contemplatively and shakes his head. “I mean... We kind of figured it out, but just getting the actual confirmation that he was pulling some shit...”

Harvos stares down at the mostly full mug of dark brew in front of him, grips hold of it, and pours back a hefty sum down his throat. Exhaling a disappointed breath, he settles his bright brown on black eyed gaze towards Nash and curls vague disappointment on his face. “Yeah, it hits a little hard for me. He’s a previous head of my department. I KNOW there’s going to be some drama over this. It’s just a matter of when... and from who.”

Rolling his pale blue eyes, Nash leans his heavy frame forward, perks his brow, and snorts to a chuckle. “Eh, don’t feel bad. The higher ups can’t say much since Isaac came from Library.”

Wrestling a tight grimace, he scratches the back of his head of long, graying hair and trails off a groan. “And, my department looks like dipshits, too. I mean... Key research leading to some major thing that a Dark Lord wanted was hidden in my server center. It’ll be years before they stop bringing that up in project proposal meetings.”

A young server stops on by, delivers a freshly filled glass of amber beer in front of Nash, and plucks up the empty. With an appreciative nod, Nash grants a thumbs up and picks the brew up. “Thank you.”

Harvos brushes back his short, bright brown hair, quickly checks his very tall horns, and glances around the lunch crowd. “I hope our food comes out soon. It’s getting hard to hold back. I’m feeling left behind by you.”

Lifting an amused brow, Nash shakes his head, pours back his beverage, and sighs with a smirk. “Don’t try to follow me. I got the mass and the tempered liver working in my favor. If you thought the whole thing with Dr. Dawkins was bad, I doubt the both of us coming back from lunch tipsy is going to help our cases.”

A familiar voice sounds out nearby. “Wouldn’t change your reputation much, though.”

Both Harvos and Nash glance up. Vetra rests her sharp, dark nailed fingers on her hips, twitches her pointed ears, and cracks a smug grin. Her bright orange eyes glance between the two sitting at the table, and her expression softens. A subtle frown forms between the skin patterns on her face, and she sighs sympathetically. “I heard the latest rumors and figured you two would be here.”

Nash quirks his brow, shrugs his shoulders, and snorts. “Well, damn. Let it not be said you don’t know us.”

He pushes out a chair table with his foot and motions to it with a wave. “Sit down. We’re just trying to sort through all the bullshit.”

Vetra slides into the seat, combs back a stray lock of orange streaked, ruby hair, and frowns. “Gods... To think if it wasn’t for those two students fucking down in the basement.”

Stifling a reflexive snort, Nash chuckles and shakes his head. “You know, I want to see how they word that part when they do the big write up of all this.”

Harvos places down his glass of dark beer, struggles to swallow in down against his humored grin, and laughs. “They will definitely use some selective language there. It will some kind of technical writing euphemisms for sure. We have plenty in archaeology.”

Nash blinks briefly, gazes over to Harvos, and tilts his head curiously. “Wait, what?”

Failing to suppress a humored smile, Harvos shrugs his shoulders and snickers. “Well, I mean how else do you catalog a huge collection of ancient sex toys and keep it sounding official enough to keep the grants coming?”

Pondering to himself for a few seconds, Nash attempts a few responses, sips his beer, and sits back in his seat. “Huh. You know I never thought about it, but... Yeah. That would be a problem. In computer science, we just say it’s for adult electronic entertainment. I mean, most people just assume over half things on the Aethernet is just porn. Pointless to hide it.”

He cracks a mischievous grin and gazes over to Vetra. Seconds later, Vetra rolls her eyes and sighs with a groan. “Yes. We have plenty of technical terminology. Someone has to design production at scale.”

Nash snorts and shakes his head. “I figured.”

He pauses in thought, furrows his brow, and contorts his face contemplatively at Harvos. “Like, how much of the stuff that gets discovered is for sex?”

Harvos draws in a breath, pours back a long swig of his drink, and wipes his mouth. “A LOT MORE than you’d think. Some of the Pre-Cataclysm items were crazy. You can tell who jumped on the cyber and bio modification trends first.”

The trio sit quietly as the surrounding drone of the other bar customers fills the lull in conversation. Sniffing with a twisting frown, Nash grumbles out and grits his teeth. “Fuck. Still can’t believe that shit. Feel like a real idiot.”

Harvos slumps his shoulders and shakes his head. “Same here. Completely fooled us. We should have suspected him so much sooner. It’s so obvious now.”

Vetra glances between Harvos and Nash, dismissively rolls her bright orange eyes, and rubs the temple of her head. “Listen. You two collectively are reckless morons for plenty of other reasons. But, this? This isn’t one of them.”

She narrows her stare at both of them, sighs with softening expression, and presents a comforting tone. “You two put your trust in a highly regarded previous head of one of the major departments. Someone who had skill and experience in being deceptive and scheming greater than any of us could have known. You can’t be blamed for taking the information he gave you all at face value. It was an acceptable assumption. There was no reasonable way you could have known anything was wrong until information you got much later.”

Crossing her arms, she lifts an eyebrow and curls a reserved smile from the corner of her mouth. “To give credit where it is due, you two had suspicions well before you got confirmation from Dr. Malkav. It’s arguable you two had more of a clue than all the official investigators did.”

Harvos and Nash exchange glances and puzzle at Vetra. Noticing the emerging confusion, Vetra sighs and rolls her eyes dramatically. “I’m saying you two should stop taking turns kicking your own asses. I doubt anyone else would have done any better.”

Cocking his head to the side, Nash smiles appreciatively and chuckles. “Well, damn. I’ll take that as the highest praise coming from you.”

Harvos nods with a gracious cadence. “Yes. Thank you, Vetra. Hearing that from you helps.”

Nash grins wide, sits up in his seat, and tilts his head towards Vetra. “I’m feeling generous now. I’m buying for you, Vetra.”

Vetra furrows her brow and twists a suspicious frown. “What did you do this time?”

Darting his eyes through recent memory, Nash contorts his face and settles upon a neutral shrug. “Nothing. Just figured I’d get a head start on the incident I’ll eventually cause.”

A small smile grows on Vetra’s face, and she chuckles quietly. “I’ll take it. What’s nicest thing on the menu here?”

Nash grins slyly, motions over to an approaching server, and points at a stacked burger on a platter piled with different sides. “THAT is a good option. It’s what I usually get.”

Harvos nods in agreement and points to the other plate of fried chicken wings. “It’s not bad. The wings are good, too.”

The server drops off food in front of Nash and Harvos. He greets Vetra with a smile, takes her drink order, and leaves a menu as he departs. While Vetra studies the menu, Harvos and Nash enjoy their meals. Nash pauses a moment, sits up, and ponders out loud. “Thinking about it... Damn, that had to be fucking awkward to realize your ex-student was a gods damned Dark Lord.”

Harvos flits his eyes wide and briefly grits his teeth. “And, AFTER you invited him in your home? Wow. I don’t know about that.”

Vetra quirks her brow and sighs while inspecting the back of the laminated menu. “Honestly, that reminds me of a roommate I had.”

Resting his burger down, Nash drinks his beer and narrows a curious gaze at Vetra. “Okay, I got to know... What could a roommate have done to be compared to a Dark Lord for you?”

Vetra dons a defensive frown and eyes Nash suspiciously. With a genuine smile, Nash laughs. “I’ll be fair. I’ll tell you my favorite roommate story.”

Harvos gulps down his drink hard, catches his breath, and stares pleadingly a Nash. “Oh fucking gods, not while we’re eating!”

The display updates and a call ended message blinks on the screen. Captain Hackle leans his tall, thin frame back into the cushions of the office chair around a plain table. He draws in a slow breath through his nose. His brown eyes stares distantly into his mind and flits of deliberation play out on his face. With a faintly annoyed twist of his graying mustache, he releases a long sigh as tinges of frustration slip out. Easing himself up to his feet, he quickly combs his fingers along the side of his short graying hair and pivots towards the exit of the small video conference room.

The heavy wooden door opens, and Hackle steps out and glances around the plain military base halls. Sergeant Violet perks back to attention upon noticing Hackle and salutes him. “Captain.”

Hackle nods respectfully and straightens his posture. “At ease.”

Violet furrows her brow, and concern contorts her dark tan face. She fights against a grimace and keeps a neutral tone while prying. “How did the meeting go?”

Shaking his head slowly, Hackle sighs with a trailing grumble. “As expected. A huge web of politics slowing down progress and hindering our ability to operate.”

He rolls his eyes and frowns slightly at Violet. “Not that I don’t understand the wider reaching aspects, but...”

As he shakes his head, Violet nods understandingly and averts her dark blue eyes to the side. “It always seems to be the case.”

She straightens up her slender body, tosses back her short, light brown hair, and perks an eyebrow. “Captain, may I ask what the status of the situation is?”

Hackle smiles respectfully and points down the hall. “Certainly, but let’s head to my office. I need to get my jacket. I feel like going off base for diner.”

While Sergeant Violet follows to the side just behind Hackle, he sorts through recent memory and ponders out loud. “First, it seems that the scouting teams haven’t been able to pick up Noxian’s trail after he slipped out from the Lands Between depot. By now, he could be anywhere.”

Violet cranes her head around and meets Hackle’s gaze. “I am assuming they are distributing information to local offices and officials in areas along the major roadways?”

With a nod, Hackle confirms and smiles. “Correct.”

Narrowing her dark blue eyes, Violet perks her brow and tilts her head curiously. “Are there any plans to alert the public?”

Hackle twists his face into a grimace and releases a frustrated sigh. “No. Unfortunately not. They want to keep it quiet for as long as possible. Too many organizations are facing significant public relations nightmares if the media connects the dots back to them and start spinning wild theories.”

Stiffening her upper lip, Violet eases out a slow sigh and maintains her composure with a trailing groan in her voice. “I cannot say that I am surprised. Unfortunately.”

Nodding in begrudging agreement, Hackle narrows his stare ahead into his mind and sorts through the information. “It is the usual situation. The public has lost interest in the Dark Lord Noxian, since he hasn’t made the headlines. So, it has been determined that it would be best to let that waning interest continue to do so. At least until there’s an immediate reason to alert the public. So, I am assuming they’re hoping that reason never happens.”

As the two round a corner at an intersection of corridors, Violet eyes Hackle with an unconvinced quirk of the brow and a slight twist at the corner of her mouth. Hackle smirks with a faint chuckle and nods. “Exactly my thoughts. I assume I speak for both us when I say we fully expect that reason to eventually come?”

Violet breathes a long sigh out through her nose and cocks her head with a tight smile. “Yes, sir.”

She narrows her gaze briefly and lifts her brow as she straightens her posture. “Has any information been released about what Noxian is interested in?”

Granting a respectful nod to a nearby guard standing on watch, Hackle pulls out a security card from his shirt pocket, swipes it methodically, and types in a code. Holding his hand against a scanner panel, he glances over to Violet. “Enough to know there’s quite a deal more. I’m certain there are a few Intelligence divisions that are frantically trying to investigate what has been turned by Dr. Malkav and the testimony from Dr. Dawkins.”

He pushes open the heavy metal security door after the locks disengage, and motions Sergeant Violet through. Violet swiftly steps through, grabs hold of the door, and waits for Captain Hackle to clear the doorway. She waits until the exit seals back up and the system rearms. Rejoining Hackle at his side, Violet tilts her head to the side and directs a quiet tone. “Not enough information for you, I suppose?”

Cracking a sly grin, Captain Hackle chuckles and perks his brow. “Exactly. If this is important enough for Noxian to go great distances, stay in the area with growing resistance, and risk direct confrontations... I would like to know more. Especially, if we may have to stand between him and it.”

Violet dons a similar expression and folds her arms behind her back. “May I suggest that Sebastian Warwick’s team be contacted?”

Gazing over to Violet, Hackle smiles proudly and nods a confirmation. “I was just thinking the same course of action. Remember. Intelligence dictates the release of information they have gotten, but not information we get out in the field.”

Violet smirks satisfied, steps up to a finely carved wooden door, and retrieves a security card from her shirt pocket. Swiping the card, she taps in a code onto the display pad and presses her hand against the device. The door unlocks and she pushes the door open for Hackle. After an appreciative nod, Hackle steps into the modest office, walks up to a well made wooden coat rack, and lifts up a plain jacket. He meets Violet’s eyes, gestures a subtle hand wave towards the door, and waits for her to close it. When the doorway seals, he draws in a long breath and dictates. “Contact the team Monday. I’d like to have a meeting with them and discuss recent events. We will see if they want to compare notes.”

Sergeant Violet nods promptly, stiffens her posture to attention, and retrieves her aetherphone. “Yes, sir.”

After tapping through menus, she enters a series notations to different apps. She pauses from the task, gazes at Hackle, and inquires. “Do you believe they will be that forth coming with information? They have been guarded about certain details in the past, and I believe they will have reasons to continue to do so.”

Hackle slips on his jacket, adjusts the garment neatly on himself, and cracks a grin. “Oh, I fully expect them to keep certain details to themselves. They are adventurers after all. Keeping secrets and withholding information is their prerogative.”

He pauses in thought and smiles as he zips up his jacket. “To their credit, they have been fair to us. Also, they have been very proficient in handling a lot of extremely dangerous situations well past any reasonable expectation to do so. So, let us see what they might offer up in exchange for what we know.”

Violet resumes typing down notes and nods in agreement. “Understood.”

A sly smirk creeps from the corner of her mouth. “If nothing else, we will be able to confirm what details of ours they did and did not know.”

A proud smile appears on Hackle as he approaches the door. “Exactly. Hopefully, it’ll garner us some insight in how they are handling their quest.”

Stopping in front of the exit, he stares at Violet and leans close with a low tone. “I also want to put in another request for an observation team to watch them for the next few weeks. Nothing more than passive status checks. I do want to be informed of any departures from their current residence.”

Violet nods with the instructions, pauses entering data, and furrows her brow. “I will make sure to specifically request NOT to have the same group that trailed Noxian.”

Hackle rolls his eyes and groans with a shake of his head. “Thank you.”

He turns the knob and pulls the door in. He walks out into the plain halls of the military complex and waits for Violet to exit. After making sure the security locks reengage, Violet puts away her aetherphone and addresses Hackle. “Do you require anything else, Captain?”

Hackle smiles appreciatively and shakes his head. “Nothing work related. You are relieved for the night.”

He tips his head back, meets Violet’s gaze, and smirks. “Now, if you have no dinner plans, I’m going to try this restaurant I’ve been informed of by Maria. She would like to know more about it and I’m afraid my palette is not as refined. So, I wouldn’t mind a differing opinion.”

Violet blinks her dark blue eyes in surprise and dons an intrigued gaze on her dark tan face. “Oh. I would be honored. Will your wife be coming to this base soon?”

As the two walk down the hall, Hackle grins with a chuckle and sighs. “Yes. She’s had quite enough of visiting the family this summer and would like to join me. She’s been quite interested in this area anyway. So, I suppose it works out.”

Violet smiles appreciatively and relaxes her shoulders faintly. “Apart from the recent incidents, it’s not a bad location. Hopefully, we can address that.”

Hackle draws in a long breath through his nose and exhales. “I believe we will.”

Late morning sun beams down upon the road in front of the slowing old cargo truck. As the vehicle eases to a stop behind a long line of cars, the rough voice of the driver slips out through a cracked window. “Ah, shit. What the fuck is this about?”

Another voice whines with a sigh. “Dammit. We’ve had enough delays already. Gods... And... That breakfast wrap is not sitting well with me.”

Hints of aggravation trickle into the driver’s voice. “I told you not eat that rest stop food. You know how bumpy this route to Ark is.”

The passenger groans. “I’m sorry. The truck acting up yesterday threw my schedule off. I thought we were going to get here yesterday and I’d be eating at a nice place by now.”

As the discussion continues in the cab, the corner flap of the tarp rises up. A nearly transparent form emerges to a hover behind the cargo bed, and quickly darts off into the nearby woods. When the hardly visible, humanoid shape settles down onto the forest floor, the translucent visage fades. Isaac darts his cautious stare around the vicinity and slides close to a large tree. Glancing around the trunk while opacity fully returns, he breathes out a sigh of relief. With a wince, he turns his head to the side and faint pop crackles out from his neck. He hisses in a breath and grumbles. “...just one night in a decent bed...”

Arching his back with a help of hand push, he rolls his shoulders and grits his teeth. Peeking around the trunk of the tree, he squints his gray eyed stare off into the distance and down the long line of waiting vehicles. At the furthest point, he spots a number of GAA vehicles parked near the road and uniformed troops performing checkpoint procedures. Isaac perks his brow, brushes back his wispy white hair, and frowns with a hum to himself.

Adjusting his backpack and gripping his bag tightly, he stands up with a slight stoop and quietly travels through the woods far off but parallel to roadway. He pauses throughout the trip and peers through the gaps between trees and distant, thinning brush. Watching the soldiers, he witnesses simple questions, casual visual checks, and basic exterior vehicle inspections. Isaac studies the process, furrows his brow, and cocks his head to the side. With a lift of an eyebrow, he smirks smugly and shakes his head dismissively. Squinting past the checkpoint perimeter, he spots scattered houses within fields. He ponders a moment, darts a paranoid stare towards the checkpoint, and searches the forest for a path opposite.

Hiking along a game trail, Isaac navigates the thinning woods and reaches the brush covered outskirts. He stares out into the distance and locates civilization on the horizon. Pulling out a budget aetherphone, he clicks the device on and frowns at the slow boot up. During the minutes, he walks to a dirt access road and begins to follow it towards town. The phone springs to full life with a simple chime, and Isaac eyes the device and watches an indicator blink on for network access. Sorting through the menus, he taps a map app and watches the screen chart up a representation of the area. With a few finger gestures, he squints at the screen, zooms around, and glances at the road ahead. With a final confirming nod, Isaac powers down the device. While he walks down the dirt access road, he opens the back panel of the aetherphone, reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a small plastic and metal chip. Prying out the old identification token from the phone, he fumbles a new one into place and returns the devices back to his pants pocket.

Late morning sun slowly climbs towards noon in the clear sky overhead. Isaac’s path leads him to paved roads and eventually streets with sidewalks. The tallest buildings in the area barely contrast the surrounding rural fields and barns. Isaac wanders around gazing at the lively square of small local business and searches the different streets signs. A tiny plaza in front of a public library catches his attention, and he notices a large, colorful map encased in a plastic display. While local residents walk around, Isaac stares up the information sign and studies it. Glancing through the different points, his curiosity settles upon point of interest, and he mumbles with a humored tinge to his tone. “The Ark Inn?”

He places a finger on the weathered plastic cover, traces a long, scenic about route from the “You are Here” icon, and cracks a smile. With the noon sun, the town livens up. People wander between the different store fronts. The hungry folks on lunch breaks gather toward restaurants. Vehicles navigate through the few busy intersections. Only the gusts of wind filtering through the buildings interrupt the routine with autumn leaves rustling around the sidewalks and pavement. Isaac travels sporting a calm facade with flits of paranoia eyeing the equipment major intersections. Tense moments grip him until he finally relaxes at the lack of traffic monitoring cameras. Peering around the corner, he spots a police station a block away. Glancing around at the street signs, he changes his course and reroutes down another way.

A breeze washes over Isaac and he sniffs the air. He blinks to attention and narrows his stare ahead. Glints of sunlight reflect off the rippling water in the river. Piquing his interest, Isaac pans a gaze around and spots his target. Leaves stir around the front of a thematically old wooden building. Slowing his approach, Isaac cocks his head to the side and darts his focus between the many questionable facets of the kitschy attempt at a classic inn. He stops near the entrance and perks his brow at the tourism intended facade on the modern structure. “Well...”

The large wooden double doors swing open and a middle aged woman steps with a customer service smile. “Welcome to The Ark Inn! I couldn’t help but notice you were admiring our fine establishment. If I can be of help to you, don’t be afraid to ask. My name is Katherine.”

Isaac blinks the initial surprise off his face to a blank expression. After a few moments, he composes himself and smiles kindly. “Indeed I was looking at your Inn. I just arrived in town and saw your business on the map in front of the library. I just had to see what it was about.”

Katherine perks up and smiles brightly. “That’s so good to hear. The Ark Inn offers an authentic experience for those wanting to feel like they are taking a day’s rest from adventuring. We offer amazing room service sourced from the best Ark can offer. We also have a great selection ale, beer, wine, and anything we can mix up.”

Furrowing his brow against emerging apprehension, Isaac politely nods and stiffens a smirk. “I see.”

Continuing her pitch, Katherine pulls in a long breath. “We have the best view in Ark for you to enjoy after you sleep in the most comfortable beds available for kilometers around.”

Isaac blinks to attention, turns his focus to Katherine, and cocks his head. “Really? I’d like to know more about those beds.”

Katherine cracks an entrepreneurial grin. “Fluffy pillows, thick comforters to keep your warm against the autumn chill, and soft but supportive mattresses.”

Closing his eyes, Isaac brief wanders in thought. He sniffs in a long breath, smiles his intrigue, and nods in acceptance. “That actually sounds outstanding right now. Do you have a room available?”

An eager smile widens on Katherine and she motions Isaac into the Inn. “Of course we do! If you need a place to stay for a few nights, I can work you into an exclusive seasonal special right now.”

Briefly eyeing Katherine, Isaac playfully rolls his eyes and sighs. “I actually would not be against that. I feel I would be remiss in not fully resting up before continuing my adventure.”

Katherine excitedly leads Isaac to the front desk. “Excellent!”

She glances over to a teen-aged boy and girl playing on their aetherphones. After a moment, she dons a stern expression and hems. “Brennon. Kristine. We have a customer who needs their luggage taken up to their room.”

The two startle from their stupors, glance around, and spring up to the ready. Before Isaac can object, Brennon wheels over a worn luggage cart, and Kristine offers to assist with smile. Isaac nods appreciatively and loads his backpack and bag upon the cart. While Katherine works on paperwork behind the desk, a middle aged man wearing an apron walks in from back room and notices Isaac. “Any requests for drinks tonight?”

Isaac furrows his brow and smirks. “What do you have on tap? I think I could stand to indulge a little.”

A tense air hovers over the dining table. Stacks of plastic chips rise and fall in front of the players. Cards forms into hands and flip out onto the table. Casual conversation ebbs and flows with stifling silence pressing into the space around the tabletop. A final contribution of chips lands in the center pile. The players reveal cards. A greedy glint lights up Cideeda’s emerald green eyes, and she sweeps out her spread out, clawed fingers over the prize. “I tried to warn you... I even raised.”

Sotalia rolls her golden eyes and contorts her mouth into a dissatisfied frown. “Girl, how the hell was I supposed to know THIS was one of the times you actually have the winning cards?”

With snort, Dretphi narrows her steely gray glare at Sotalia and groans dismissively. “Stop giving her chips.”

Pressing a black nailed finger upon a pair of cards in front of her, Sotalia huffs and grumbles while eyeing Dretphi. “I’m trying not to! These were perfectly good cards to go in with...”

Cracking a smug smirk, Aristespha toss back her long, silvery blue hair and collects the cards. “Yes, that is true. But...”

She picks up a card from the center, flips it towards Sotalia in her fingers, and smiles with a chuckle. “This card changed all that.”

Sebastian’s ethereal form lowers next to Sotalia, and he shrugs his shoulders. “Yeah. She bet that card hard, I mean... I don’t know what to tell you.”

Crossing her arms, Sotalia huffs and squirms in her seat as she averts her gaze. “I still had a chance. There was a good chance she was full of shit this time... Like the last few times.”

She glances over to Bach in the chair next to her, and perks her brow curiously. “Are you going to play a hand any time soon?”

Bach slowly pivots his head to face Sotalia, presents a mildly annoyed grimace, and sighs. “When I can get a hand worth a shit, I will play. But, thank you for dealing me crap last hand. Probably saved me from losing a lot.”

After neatly organizing the chips in front of her, Cideeda surveys the table hungrily. She visually assesses remaining counts while idly playing with her stacks between claw tips. Her toothy grin widens as she eyes the chips in front of Bach. “Look a little short there. Think you can survive the next few rounds?”

Bach dons a calm exterior and grants a simple smirk. Aristespha works the cards through a few shuffles and cuts, and deftly deals them out. Sebastian points to Dretphi and then to Cideeda. “Little blind. Big blind.”

He glances over to Bach with motion of his hand. “First to act.”

When Aristespha places the last card in front of her, she rests the remainder of the deck in the center. While others around the dining table check their hands, Bach glances down at his two cards, slides them close the edge, and tips them up into his view. His blue eyes flit wide. He angles the cards down, darts his attention around the table, and inspects his hands again. With twitches of deliberation on his face, he plucks up enough chips to match. “Call.”

Sotalia tosses her two cards into the discard, huffs dramatically, and playfully glares at Aristespha with a toss her fiery orange, wavy hair. “Every time you deal, I seem to get the worst cards in the deck.”

Sebastian smirks and chuckles. “Well, at least it’s free to fold for you.”

Narrowing a bemused gaze at Sebastian, Sotalia shakes her head, curls a frown on her light tan face, and points to Cideeda. “True. But not playing keeps me from taking her money.”

Dretphi rolls her eyes and grumbles. Aristespha’s violet eyes shift between her cards, her stack of chips, and the table in front of her. Biting her lower lip, she hisses in a breath, rocks her head side to side, and raps her fingers upon the tabletop. With strong sigh, she matches the current bet. “Call.”

Demonstrating a stoic exterior, Dretphi calmly plucks the required chips from her stack and places them out in front of her. “Call.”

Cideeda picks up her cards, examines them for a while, and grins toothily at the waiting players. She curls her claw tips around a tower of chips and idly combs through the stack repeatedly. With sudden halt, she picks up a hefty number of chips, places them next to her existing bet, and smiles slyly. “Raise.”

Attention shifts to Bach, and he furrows his tensing brow. Easing out a long exhale, he nods simply as he produces the matching amount. “Call.”

Sebastian curls an intrigued smirk. “Okay, bro. We might actually see cards yet.”

Leaning back in her seat, Sotalia cocks her head and smiles at Bach. “Don’t you quit. Take her money.”

Grumbling out a few quiet Evuukian curses, Aristespha drops her cards face down with Sotalia’s discarded pair. “Those had potential, but... Gods, I cannot pay that much for them.”

Maintaining a neutral, stoic exterior, Dretphi narrows glare at Cideeda, holds the stare for seconds, and matches the bet. “CALL.”

Aristespha reaches out and grabs hold of the deck. She tosses a card to the discard, and reveals three cards face up in the middle. Sebastian grins eagerly with excitement in his voice. “Oh! Two tens and an ace from the start! This might get good.”

Dretphi focuses fully upon Cideeda. While the two exchange hard stares, Bach blinks out of stupor and eyes the two ten cards on the table. He glances down his hand. After a moment, he notices Dretphi break off eye contact from Cideeda, and summons up all his composure for a stoic facade. Sorting through her chips, Dretphi gathers up a modest bet and places it front of her. “Raise.”

With a calm sway of her tail, Cideeda sits up in her seat, raps her claw tips on the table top, and glances between Bach and Dretphi. Flicking her ears with her thoughts, a toothy grin grows wide on her light brown face, and her emerald green eyes watch the chips click through her fingers. She snatches up an entire stack and plants it near the center of the table with glee. “RAISE!”

Bach closes his eyes a moment. He tilts his head to the side and straightens his posture. He calmly opens his eyes, visually counts Cideeda’s bet, and matches the bet. “Call.”

Aristespha, Sebastian, and Sotalia blink in surprise at Bach and direct their attention at Dretphi. Cracks in the exterior form. Dretphi strains a breath through her nose and fights against emerging frustration on her tan face. Her platinum blonde braids slide around as she rolls the tension out of her shoulders. Cideeda quietly waits and smiles slyly. With a long sigh, Dretphi places her cards into the discard and pushes her losses into the middle. “FOLD.”

Aristespha discards the top card from the deck, and drops another one in the center with the first three. Sebastian glances at the card, examines the remaining two players, and twists his mouth. “I don’t think that one helped anyone.”

Aristespha, Sebastian, and Sotalia wait in anticipation. Cideeda narrows her emerald green eyes at Bach, rests her chin upon her propped palm, and leans over. “So, you think you got something. Hmm?”

Bach maintains a cool exterior and meets Cideeda’s gaze. “I think so.”

With a flick of tail, Cideeda sweeps up a stack of chips, plants it in front of her, and grins with a sinister glint in her eye. “So. Do. I... RAISE.”

Bach cocks his head to the side, peeks under his cards, and studies the cards in the center. He gathers up enough to match Cideeda’s bet. “Call.”

Aristespha discards the top card and slowly places down the fifth card in the center. Everyone reads the lackluster value and suit. All watch Cideeda and Bach. Maintaining a firm stare upon Bach, Cideeda sweeps up a few high value chips and places them out. “RAISE.”

Bach glances down at the bet, and presents a larger stack. “Raise.”

Cideeda’s tail reflexively whips to the side. She pulls her knees up onto the seat, sits up tall, and glares down at Bach. “Really? REALLY? What do you think you have?”

She motions over to the cards. “Let me tell you, those last two didn’t help you. Believe me, they didn’t. There’s no flush. And... If you somehow have an Ace and a Ten, you are about to be really disappointed.”

Leaning towards Bach, she smiles smugly and chuckles darkly. “The question I have for you, Bach, is…”

She flutters her eyes, reveals her pronounced canines, and perks her furry ears. “How much money, do YOU want to LOSE?”

A slow spreading grin widens on Cideeda’s face and her eyes stare eagerly. “I’ll put you all in.”

Sebastian zips over, quickly compares remain stacks for both Bach and Cideeda, and nods to Bach. “She can do it, bro. What do you say?”

A smug smirk emerges on Bach’s face. “Call.”

Aristespha, Dretphi, and Sotalia stand up and watch expectantly, while Sebastian drifts to angle a good view. Cideeda flips over her hand of two aces, postures pridefully, and laughs with a dramatic wave. “Full house. What do you have?”

Bach glances down, picks up his cards, and calmly flips them face up upon the table. “Four of a kind.”

Shock flushes silence into the room. Cideeda blinks blankly as the fur of her tail fluffs out. She tips her head sharply down, stares quietly at the two ten cards in front of Bach, and cocks her head in disbelief. As she sinks back down into her seat, Sotalia excitedly cackles. “Oh! How does it feel to be one the receiving end for once!”

Dretphi grins proudly at Bach. Aristespha sorts through the numbers in her mind and smiles. Cideeda sorts through her chips and settles the bets in the center. She swallows a hefty gulp of pride with a droop of her furry ears, and inquires with a subdued cadence. “So... Um... Bach, how much do I owe you?”