Episode 124

The engine drones as the motorcycle rolls along the abandoned, overgrown roadway. Isaac maintains a slow speed while weaving between the missing sections of decayed asphalt and mounds of earth encroaching from the edges. In the long, narrow stretches of workable pavement, he stares out into the autumn scenery of the small hills and valleys and catches glimpses of wildlife scurrying around. Returning his attention ahead, he throttles up into a long curve around a tall sheer rock face and eases to the outer edge of the remaining road. Studying the path before him, he navigates the motorcycle down a passage between old, weathered rubble and the rusted guardrail. He glances past the barrier and gawks at the clear view of red, yellow, orange, and brown blended forests upon hills from above. His attention momentarily wanders to the sharp drop off, and Isaac tightens the grip on the handle bars. Blinking his gray eyes back to full awareness of the situation, he grimaces and turns his helmeted head back forward.

With each bump and dip, the suspension of the vehicle adapts with the contours and buffers the impact. As the grade tips downwards, Isaac carefully balances out his braking and tenses his body. The wind rushing around him waves the tails of his blue scarf. Isaac adjusts his trajectory and plots a path down a long, intact stretch of worn pavement. His attention briefly darts away to the skies as a rumble resonates from overhead. Searching through the moments of clarity in fast moving tree canopy, his wide eyes peer through the helmet visor and fruitlessly hunt the clear blue skies above. Forcing a tense breath out, he snaps his stare ahead. Fighting against a reflexive jerk, he forces against instinct into a hard swerve around a washed out section of road. Riding out the remaining harsh bumps from the shocks, he stiffly controls the machine. Easing on the brakes, he slows the vehicle down and finds a gentler passage through the decline. He sighs long and drags a breath through his nose. Faintly shaking his head, he focuses forward.

As Isaac travels down the long, curved passage, he rolls over the transition from decayed and forgotten path to occasionally maintained road. The roughly paved run levels out and leads into the main route after a gentle merge. Blinking in surprise as the motorcycle ride smooths out, Isaac relaxes his body and resettles into a more comfortable position on the saddle. Minutes pass, the access road leads between signs of civilization. Isaac searches ahead and spots farm houses in the middle of vast fields, the occasional old business along the roadway, and the lone combination fuel station, grocery, pharmacy, restaurant, and auto repair place. As he drives by the all-in-one business, curiosity tugs for his attention. Isaac slows down to an idle cruise and stares over at the building. He narrows his gaze and peers through the large brightly lit windows. He cocks his head and perks his brow at the numerous displays of liquor, beer, lottery tickets, and gimmicky magic kits. Cracking a wry smirk that barely curls into view above the lower part of his helmet, he turns to face ahead and throttles up the motorcycle.

Accelerating through the gentle winding curves of the access road, Isaac eagerly navigates the smoother and clear surface as hints of excitement creep onto his face. The machine handles the rough pavement and forgives the numerous but minor imperfections. The spread out rural region gradually increases in density with hints of suburbia appearing. Squinting into the distance, Isaac tilts his head and blinks. Easing his brakes, the motorcycle rolls slowly to stop in front of a lighted T-intersection. Planting his boots down, Isaac keeps the motorcycle balanced and waits in front of the red light.

In the pause, he straightens his back, rolls his shoulders, and cracks his neck. Gritting his teeth with a wince, he rubs the left side of his neck and mumbles. “...need to have that checked out...”

After seconds under the red light, he idles into different stretches of his arms and back. He stares out directly across the intersection into the cleared shoulders of the main road and into the sparse leaves on the shrubs. A minute later, Isaac furrows his brow, twists his mouth, and cocks his head to the side. Slowly pitching his gaze upwards, he focuses his scrutiny upon the constant red glow of the traffic light above. Blinking out his confusion, he leans forward. He aims his stare far down the left route. Nothing but leaves dance with the wind upon the pavement. Quirking his brow, he pivots his gaze towards the right. No signs of traffic exist. Easing back in his seat, Isaac crosses his arms and puzzles at the situation with alternating glances between the empty routes. As the red light persists, he opens his arms out wide and mutters incredulously. “Why... why is THIS... here?”

Motioning with his hand to the stop lights along every path, he puzzles out loud with a genuinely bewildered tone. “People approved... And built this... HERE...”

He glances up at the blue skies above and late morning sun rising higher. Eventually, his attention returns to the still red light fixture above. Hints of an annoyed frown show around the lower guard of his motorcycle helmet, and he glances down the asphalt around him. While searching the surface, the stoplight changes to green. Isaac places his hands on the handlebars and rolls his gray eyes. “...about time, you damned thing...”

The light flicks to yellow. Isaac narrows an irritated glare at the device. “Oh, go fuck yourself, machine.”

He shifts and throttle ups quickly through the intersection. He swings left to join the main roadway and accelerates down the smooth stretch of road. Shaking his head, his long sigh snorts into a laugh as he speeds down the paved and maintained route. Passing modest homes and more local business, Isaac rides over gentle hills and valleys. Over the crest of a larger hill, Isaac rolls into the outskirts of suburbia and past a decorative street sign.

“Welcome to Amaranth Valley”

Glancing around he spots a fuel station on his side of the road, and turns off into the parking lot. Stopping into a space, he kicks out of the kickstand, tilts the motorcycle upon it, and kills fuel to the engine. After a few final sputters, he draws in a long breath, and exhales out the road weariness. Moments later, he shudders out of his daze and turns his attention to one of the side cargo cases. Rummaging through the container, he pulls out a folded map titled “Amaranth Valley Street Map”. Cautiously opening the paper to a large, cumbersome chart, he studies the diagram of streets and pauses in thought. Hissing out a vaguely frustrated sigh, Isaac mumbles. “...where are you...”

Sitting on the bench seat of the picnic table, Cideeda lightly brushes her feet over the taller patch of grass nearby and perks her brow. Flicking her furry ears with thought, she leans forward from resting her back against the table edge and scrutinizes the lawn surrounding with her emerald green eyes. She twists a deliberating frown on her light brown face, glances over her shoulder towards Dretphi, and tilts her head of short, multi-colored hair. “Think we should wait another week before getting the grass mowed.”

Dretphi blinks to attention from browsing her aetherphone, glances around at the field, and ponders a moment. She contorts her face in thought, pivots on her spot on the plank bench, and reaches a hand down. Feeling her fingers through the blades of green, she inspects the ground. Sitting back up straight, she tosses back here platinum blonde braids over her shoulders and shrugs with an indecisive curl at the corner of her mouth. “Maybe. Do not think it will grow more this year. It is getting cold at night. Why not this week?”

A toothy grin grows on Cideeda’s face and she tilts her head with sly perk of her brow. “I’m waiting to see how many leaves fall. Then, the mower can take care of them.”

Dretphi’s steely gray eyes search her mind, and she rocks her head side to side with the notion. “That makes sense. I do not think we are responsible for leaves.”

She aims her inquiry to Aristespha across at the other end of the plank wood, picnic table. “Aristespha? Are we response for cleaning up leaves here?”

Aristespha’s very long, pointed ear twitches at the question, and she turns her head away from watching Bach and Sotalia. “I think the lease stipulated mowing the grass...”

She blinks her violet eyes, cocks her head, and contorts her ivory face as she puzzles. “But... I probably should double-check that. It has been quite some time since I actually read the details of the lease agreement.”

Cideeda’s furry ears flick back, and she furrows a guarded stare around. “Well... I’m not raking leaves. So, you all are going to have to figure out how to handle that.”

Sebastian ethereal visage hovers down next to Cideeda, and he narrows an amused gaze at her. “I sense strong resentment towards yard work from you. Just an observation.”

With a humored smirk, Cideeda rolls her emerald green eyes. She pivots her gaze at Sebastian, rests her chin upon her propped up palm, and flicks her long, fluffy tail. “Let see here... Single child growing up. My father ran a scrap yard. My mother did metal working. And, they both tended to bring their work home with them... Since, it was next door.”

She widens a toothy grin, quirks her brow, and chuckles with a perk of her furry ears. “Want to take a wild guess what cleaning up the lawn was like for me?”

Sebastian blinks in surprise and smiles awkwardly. “Ah, not a typical experience, I guess.”

Cideeda sighs with a smirk and shakes her head. “One the main reasons I learned how to use a winch was for pulling scrap car parts that had sunken into the dirt.”

Her ear flicks back. She pauses in thought a moment, and turns her attention away from the tabletop. “To be fair, it was useful to learn. You’d be surprised how far metal sinks into soft coastal dirt over time.”

A few meters away, Bach stands next to Sotalia and watches her with glowing blue eyes. Flows of energy swirl around her body and condense to a mass of magic between her hands. Bach squints and leans close to amorphous blob of power. After a few moments of study, he steps back and nods to Sotalia. “Okay. Now, start forming the particles for the disintegration spell.”

Sotalia nods, furrows her brow, and concentrates her golden eyes upon the energies between her palms. As the seconds pass, bright, tiny specs of form into a starry cloud. Bach nods at the progress and glances over to Sotalia. “Okay. Good. Now arrange them into a few rings.”

With a few faint twitches of the tips of Sotalia’s fingers, the dots gradually float into a formation of concentric rings a few centimeters in diameter. She eases out a tense breath, squints briefly, and maintains a constant watch. Bach inspects the results, rolls his shoulders, and hands his holds close. He gazes at Sotalia and catches her attention. “Alright. This is when it gets really dangerous. I’m going to be here in case it you need help stabilizing it.”

Sotalia lifts an eyebrow, cocks her head of fiery orange, wavy hair, and smirks faintly of pride. Bach rolls his illuminated blue eyes, and smiles reassuringly. “Only if you need it. I promise.”

An appreciative smile graces Sotalia’s light tan and dark gray face, and she nods. “Thank you.”

Bach moves his hands back a little as flows of energy coat his arms, and he tenses his body at the ready. “Okay. You just do as we practiced with all the individual motions... But, combine them together. Spin the rings up. Roll them. Then, rotate them.”

He stares right into Sotalia’s golden eyes. “If it starts to shake, ease up on what you did last, then adjust it.”

Sotalia nods understandingly. Bach turns his attention to the forming energy in between Sotalia’s hands. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Drawing in a long breath through her nose, Sotalia directs her full focus upon the rings of bright specs and squints her golden eyes. The particles speed up within their circular paths and blur together into hazy, thin toruses. Sotalia contorts her face into a grimace between twitches of concentration. Growing flows of energy swirl down her arms and coalesce into the cloud of magic. The rings each adopt counteracting, slow rolls. The central structure slightly wobbles. Briefly flitting her eyes wide in surprise, Sotalia eases out a breath and notices Bach’s hands move close and halt at the ready. She glances over with a confident smile and mutters. “I’m good. Easing it back.”

Bach nods and gradually pulls back from the swirling energies. The rolling rings speed up in the flickering orb. A faint low noise pitches up the faster they move in unison. Cideeda’s furry ears twitch at the noise, and Aristespha angles her head and listens carefully. Dretphi narrows her attentive stare, while Sebastian watches on with a hopeful smile.

Pulling in another long breath through her nose, Sotalia exhales and carefully adjusts her hands around the magic formation. The hazy ball’s rhythm fluctuates. The rings rotate along different axis at increasing velocities. The flickering orb wobbles off-center. A surge of worry floods Sotalia’s face and her hands tense against the powerful forces surrounding the magical mass. She grits teeth and visibly strains as rushes of flow spiral down her arms into the thickening cloud around the chaotic ball. Bach brings his hands close, halts at ready, and gazes at Sotalia. After struggling a few moments, she meets Bach’s eyes. Glancing at the shaky ball of power, Bach smirks at Sotalia. “Go ahead. Adjust it slowly. I got you covered. You can do it.”

A warm smile appears briefly on Sotalia face. She snaps her full focus back upon the energies between her hands. With each second, the shuddering and erratic sway of the orb calms to a gentle vibration. Another rush of flow sinks into the cloud surrounding the ball. The flicker visually solidifies into a constant glow. The drone rises above the background and a sharp, white noise gains volume. Bach pulls his hands away with a proud grin. “You got! It’s stable! Power it up to full.”

Tensing her whole body, the surrounding magical miasma between Sotalia’s hands rushes into the chaotic orb. When the last bit of haze clears, Sotalia’s golden eyes watch upon the few centimeter wide, tiny disintegration ball. She gawks in awe at the creation between her palms and grins brightly. Blinking back to awareness, she shifts her hands around the mini D-ball and cautiously guides the orb in the air. Moving her hands behind the destructive ball, she lines up a shot with the battered, scorched, chipped, and worn boulder in the back yard.

With a final rush of power, a pulse of energy propels the disintegration ball across the yard and straight into the center of the rock surface. A puff of stone dust bursts forth and drifts away with the wind to reveal a new, significant divot in the boulder. A quiet moment passes over the team as they assess the results. Aristespha, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sebastian cheer and clap. Sotalia hops excitedly with a brilliant smile. “I did it!”

After moment of celebration, she throws her arms around Bach and hugs him tightly. Bach blinks out his surprise and smirks proudly. Sotalia pulls away while holding Bach’s shoulders and gazes up at him. “Um, thank you for teaching me all that...”

She wrestles against her pride and smirks appreciatively with a quieter tone. “And... being right there in case anything went wrong.”

Brushing back stray hairs over her black, swept back horns, she grits her teeth briefly and averts her golden eyes away. “It got a little scary there a few times.”

Bach nods with a long sigh and chuckles awkwardly. “Yeah. You handled it just fine. A lot better than what I did when I was figuring out the spell.”

Perking her brow, Sotalia aims an intrigued gaze up at Bach and smiles slyly. “Oh, really?”

She rest her hands on her hips and shifts her weight. “Is there a story behind that?”

Darting his gaze around, Bach crosses his arms and chuckles uncertainly. “Well, I don’t know if I want to tell it. But, let’s just say there’s dorm room somewhere with some really suspicious patches in the drywall and really cheap paint covering them.”

Perking her brow curiously, Sotalia smirks with an intrigued laugh. “Sounds like a fun time.”

Sebastian calls out from the bench. “Hey! Is that all? Let’s get another!”

Cideeda cracks sly smirk as she rests her elbows on the table top behind her. “Yeah, one shot? That’s it?”

Tilting her head up, Sotalia pivots around and furrows her brow. With a playfully indignant wave of her hand, she walks over to the audience gathered and sighs. “Surely, you can’t expect me to show you my power all at once.”

She rubs the temples of her head and chuckles softly with an embarrassed twist of her smile. “And... Gods... I need to do something mindless. That took A LOT. If I tried another one of those right now, I’d be too dizzy to stand.”

Bach crosses his arms, puffs up his chest, and smirks pridefully. “Yeah. Try ten or more layers.”

Sotalia pauses a moment and narrows an amused stare at Bach. After a moment, she smiles happily at him and pokes him in the shoulder. “Yeah. But, I’ve only seen you manage one at any given time, too.”

Thinking a moment, Bach shrugs shoulders and sighs. “True. Very true.”

He glances over to Sotalia and grins proudly. “Still, getting that far is significant. If you can get that first layer down, it’s just repetition and tweaking after that.”

Checking over his shoulder, he squints at the boulder in the middle of the backyard and cocks his head. “I wonder how deep that shot drilled into that thing.”

The collective attention of the team wanders upon the large rock sticking out of the ground. Sebastian tilts his head to the side and snorts. “Damn, we have really worked that thing over.”

Bach nods as his attention shifts between the different sooty burn marks, rough chips, and smooth indentations. “Wow, we haven’t shown that thing any mercy.”

Dretphi and Cideeda exchange glances and smirk at Aristespha, Bach, and Sotalia. Dretphi perks her brow and tilts her head up slightly. “We?”

Rapping her claw tips upon the wooden plank table top, Cideeda crosses her legs and leans in her seat upon the picnic table bench. “I think most the damage on that rock has been from our more magically inclined members.”

Sebastian slowly turns his head to toward Cideeda and chuckles with a grin. “I, actually, distinctly remember two people having quite some fun doing target practice with a particular commander’s old particle cannon.”

Wrapping her arms around herself, Cideeda draws in a slow breath and furrows her brow at Sebastian. “Yes. But, to be fair, I’d consider that an exceptional situation. I mean, who could resist an opportunity like that?”

Dretphi meets Cideeda’s confirming glance and nods in solidarity. Aristespha shakes her head with a roll of her violet eyes and snorts. “Well, thankfully for all of us, I distinctly remember the leasing agent mention how much the owners HATE that boulder jutting out of the ground.”

Bach scratches the back of his head and glances over to Aristespha. “So... Why haven’t they gotten rid of it?”

Aristespha tosses back her long, silvery blue hair and smirks. “I got the impression it’s the tip of a very LARGE mass. So, not only would it cost a lot for removal, but you’d just be stuck with a large pit to fill afterwards.”

Dretphi squints her steely gray eyes, distantly studies the terrain, and ponders out loud. “Maybe turn into a pond. Water table is high here.”

Tilting her head thoughtfully, Sotalia twists her mouth. “Wouldn’t be a bad thing, if you ask me.”

The team quietly idles with the surrounding autumn wind blowing around them and carrying another wave of leaves across the taller grasses. Cideeda’s furry ears flick around and lead her stare up to the clouds forming over head. “Think a storm is moving in.”

With a collective confirmation from the group, they gather back up and walk towards the house. On the way back, Cideeda smirks and stretches her arms behind her head. “So, who’s up for another Champions of Nexus match up?”

Sotalia rests her hands on her hips and narrows a stare at Cideeda. “Only if you all aren’t allowed to use your favorites. You need to mix it up once every while.”

Cideeda smiles smugly and nods in agreement. “Sure.”

Furrowing her brow with growing suspicion, Sotalia leans down towards Cideeda. “You’ve been practicing with someone else. Which character?”

Stepping ahead of the group, Cideeda shrugs with a playful wag of her tail, and dons a toothy grin. “Only one way to find out.”

Sotalia follows after Cideeda, and the rest of the group returns the shelter of the ranch style house.

The harsh drone of rain resonates into the single bed motel room. Blasts of wind blow water spatter upon the lone window in oscillating waves. Light from a bright flash bounces through the stormy haze and flickers around the partially closed blinds into the room. Isaac’s gray eyes widen in brief surprise, and he stares out into the chaos outside. “1... 2... 3... 4...”

A rumbling boom rolls over the area and rattles the structure. Glancing around the room of cheap, dated decorations, Isaac returns his focus the fully open street map of Amaranth Valley in front of him. His studious gaze wanders over the different lines, shaded regions, and symbols. His attention drifts to different sections of the greater metro area, and aimlessly meanders to other points of interest. Seconds of staring later, flits of frustration twitch upon his faintly sun tanned face, and an irritated frown starts curling at the corner of his mouth. Grabbing another pillow off to the side, he stuffs the cushion in front of another and behind the lumbar of his back. Lifting up his aetherphone, he drags through a similar digital map of the area and compares the information between glances of the two. Picking up a pencil to the side, he hovers the tip over a pad of paper between scribbles of notes. Pausing in thought, he idly taps the point upon the page and leaves light graphite scratches on the surface.

Isaac darts his eyes between his aetherphone, map, and notes in quick succession. As the seconds of indecision pass, he grits his teeth and hisses out a sigh. Dropping the pencil upon the pad paper, he plops down his phone upon the mattress, and eases back upon the piled up pillows behind him. Releasing a long breath, he places the palms of his hands upon his forehand and slowly drags them back pass his temples to eventually interlock his fingers behind his head. Wrestling the persistent frown on his face, he grumbles to himself and mutters incoherent curses. Staring at the aged stained ceiling above, he watches the dusty blades of the overhead fan slowly spin. An advertisement’s announcement on the television crests above the storming drone from outside.

Tilting his head forward, Isaac briefly studies the screen, reaches over to the nightstand, and plucks the remote. Aiming the device the television, he flips through the different channels. Cycling through the limited selection, his assessment shifts between mildly annoyed and vaguely accepting. After a number of passes, a channel flashes fanciful graphics leading to the logo of the Next Adventurers of Nexus. Hovering his finger over the channel change button, Isaac mulls over the programming. Furrowing his brow, he shrugs his shoulders, drops the remote off to his side on the bed spread, and sighs out begrudging acceptance. He picks up his aetherphone, taps slowly through a menus, and waits for the cheaply made device to process the requests.

As the voiceover fades out, the show cuts to a segment. On screen Trakenthin follows behind his father and pleads exasperated. Undeterred, Trenannin continues his determined march across the open field. The camera maintains a shot of father and son debating, until Trakenthin’s father stops. Standing defiantly, he levels a demanding scowl towards someone. The camera pans over and focuses upon Dretphi. Isaac idly glances at the screen and returns to watching his aetherphone load. He blinks blankly and snaps his attention back to the television. The camera view shifts over and shows Dretphi across from Trakenthin and his father.

Isaac’s eyes open wide, and he quickly pulls himself up to seat upon the motel bed. Leaning his gawking stare forward, he pores his full attention towards the programming. As Dretphi converses with Trakenthin and his father, Isaac searches the background and catches glimpses of the backside of the ranch style house. Turning his head slightly while keeping his eyes affixed to the screen, he pats around and finds his pad of paper. Sweeping up the pencil, he flips over to a new page. Locating the top of the pad, he begins to quickly write out notes. Short descriptions, observations, and assumptions begin to fill the paper, and an eager smirk grows upon Isaac’s face. His eyes dart between the location details, and his hand sketches out the information. Ranch style house, large backyard, forested plot along one side, near two lane road, large tree on side of house, and other morsels of knowledge appear in graphite scribbles upon the yellow, lined paper.

The drama of scene plays out with fanciful editing and a voice over ramps up the conflict with conjectures and leading proposals. The show fades out and leads to brief message.

“We’ll return to our Thursday catch up marathon of Next Adventurers of Nexus after a brief severe weather update...”

Isaac blinks back to awareness from his intellectual stupor and glances down upon the page full of notes. Studying the material, he shifts his gaze upon the map upon the bed in front of him. He scans over the large chart with pencil in hand. Squinting at a region, he leans down close and examines it closely. With a slow nods and intrigued smile, he circles out an area and marks it with a question mark. Lifting his head up, his gray eyes search nearby and his curiosity leads him to another spot. Scrutinizing the natural features of the area and the types of roads, he grants a simple nod and circles out another section. After denoting the spot with another question mark, he hunts around for other areas that share similar suspicious aspects.

The jingle for the Next Adventurers of Nexus signals the return of the show. Isaac returns to an attentive upright seat and readies his pencil and paper.

With each segment of the show, Isaac divert his attention away from the dramatization. His focus seeks out unique details of the surroundings, and he quickly scribbles down more tidbits into his growing collection of notes. Fighting against the draw the show, he continues to vigilantly hunt for revealing traits in the scenes. After the battle between Dretphi and Trakenthin leads into the final confrontation between Trakenthin and his father, the voice over transitions to the ending sequence for the episode. After baiting future conflicts, the voiceover reads off boiler plate information.

“...and don’t forget to go to our aethersite where you can join other fans on the forums to talk this episode and others...”

Isaac lifts his eyebrow intrigued. Picking up his aetherphone, he taps out a few search terms into the browser. After the results return, he presses on the most relevant link. A forum filled with posts and discussion topics loads upon the screen of the aetherphone. A sly grin emerges on Isaac’s face, and he brushes back wispy, white hairs. As the background advertisement noise fades away against the outside drone of the storm, the intro music to the Next Adventurers of Nexus rises above and fills the room. Isaac places his phone off to side at the ready. He picks up his paper and pencil, and settles back against his pillows. Searching around the room, his head leads his upper body into a turn. He reaches over into a paper bag with a Fval Spice receipt stapled upon it, and pulls out a container of food with plastic utensils.

As the waves of rain wash up against the window, Isaac adjusts the pillows for comfort and stretches his wrists and fingers to faint pops and cracks. The show cuts over to the first intro segments and Isaac readies his pencil with an eager smirk.

A dense curtain of rain splashes up upon the windshield and obscures the view of the stormy landscape. The wiper blade scrapes the layer of water off and flings it off to the side of the sedan. Another wave of rain drops quickly floods over the glass, and soon another swipe of a rubber strip peels off the water. The fvalian man sighs while shaking his head, and grips the steering wheel tight. Reaching his hand over the dash, he wipes off some condensation from the inside of the windshield and groans. “Gods damn it. This is fucking ridiculous.”

In the passenger seat, a tall woman with very long, pointed ears presses a few buttons on the console and rolls her purple eyes. “I know.”

The fvalian flicks his furry ears and darts a side glance at the woman. “Seriously, Verkari. Are you sure want to do the pass now? I’m all for waiting for this to blow over. It’s not like we’re going to be able to see much from the road with all this going on.”

Verkari sighs as she feels a rush of warm air blast up from the dash vents over the inside of the windshield. “I already checked that, Tik. This isn’t letting until after midnight at the earliest. And... Probably not until three or four in the morning.”

Tik frowns and briefly grits his sharp teeth to a hiss. “Well... Shit.”

Verkari shrugs her shoulders, brushes off some futz from her plain t-shirt, and gazes out the water coated door window. “We’ll just take it slow when we go by the place. In this weather, we shouldn’t seem suspicious if we coast on by.”

She glances over to Tik and smirks. “I’d rather keep our routine consistent and believable.”

Tik nods as he steers the vehicle through a long curve, and narrows his stare through the chaos of the storm. “Yeah.”

He twists a smile on his face and quickly rolls his dark blue eyes. “Just a couple driving back home from work after a hard day...”

Another curtain of rain dumps a thick layer of water over the outside the sedan. Tik stiffens his arms as he grips the steering wheel tightly. “Through this shit. Gods, I wonder if we can get hazard for going out in this crap.”

Verkari snorts and shakes her head playfully as she narrows her gaze out the passenger side window. “If I could find a way, I would have already. Believe me, if posing as a dealer in Clev doesn’t get you hazard pay, nothing will.”

Blinking briefly with an uncomfortable shudder, Tik rolls his shoulders and chuckles. “Still can’t believe half the stories you’ve told me. I guess I was lucky to just be wandering out the woods most of the time.”

Furrowing her brow, Verkari twists an amused expression on her dark tan, dark brown shaded face and laughs. “I don’t know about that. Keeping tabs on those Terra Priests must have been something else.”

With a simple shrug, Tik eases his foot on the brake pedal and brings the vehicle to stop at an intersection. “It wasn’t too bad. Well... At least until fucking Appaland decided to break up that whole commune.”

Shaking his head, he squints through the torrent of rain coating the outside of the car and hisses out a breath. “What a damn mess that was. Damn near had a heart attack when I caught the outline of one of those Death Stalkers in the rain.”

Verkari tenses up her shoulders, frowns sharply, and squirms in her seat to a shudder. “I can’t blame you. I probably would of have shit myself.”

Tik curls an ill-humored smirk. “I about did when I saw the second one next to the first. Got right out of there as soon as I figured out what direction they were going... And, went the opposite.”

Nodding in agreement, Verkari wipes off the condensation on her passengers side window with a fast food napkin. “Completely understand. No sense in being listed as collateral damage in that post-op report.”

She pauses in thought a moment, lifts up her aetherphone, and crests the camera open just above the bottom of the window. “Well, ready when you are.”

Tik grants a simple nod, rechecks the empty intersection, and accelerates the vehicle. The two inside the cab remain quiet, while the noise of rain bombarding the sedan resonates inside. The chorus water and wind from the storm drones through and fills the air with constant background of chaos. The plain gray car rolls down the two lane highway, past a large forest section, and slows down as a ranch style house appears in view through the stormy haze. Verkari keeps her head ahead and her eyes quickly glance at her aetherphone. She deftly taps an onscreen button to activate the video record function. Keeping a constant pace, Tik steadies the vehicle against the gusts of wind and calmly pushes through the curtains of rain rolling across the roadway. Both aim their heads forward, but glance out the corner of their eyes at the parked humvee and faint traces of light deeper within the house through the window.

As the sedan rolls on past and the view of the house fully disappears behind another long section of trees, Verkari taps the screen of her phone and sighs. “Well, it doesn’t look like anything has changed. I swear they haven’t gone anywhere since we started observing them.”

Tik twists his mouth with an unsatisfied tone. “Well, no where far. Anything they’re doing is local or close enough they’re getting back home by nightfall when we drive by. They’re not even setting out early in the morning.”

Verkari furrows her brow, tilts her head back against the headrest of her seat, and slides an intrigued gaze towards Tik. “Yeah. You know... I’ve got an idea to fix that.”

As the sedan slows down to an idle crawl, Tik perks an eyebrow and narrows a curious glance at Verkari. “You want to tag their ride. Don’t you?”

Tilting her head of long, tied back hair, she smirks guilty and shrugs her shoulders. “Well. Yes.”

Tik hums uncertainly and releases a contemplative breath through his nose. Verkari leans closer to Tik and whispers. “Listen. The only requirements of our mission here is to keep tabs on them and keep out of their sight as much as possible. We can do general stuff like this, but that’s not going to give us the whole picture.”

Fighting a frown, Tik nods in agreement. “I mean, you’re right. We can’t really ramp up driving passes without getting their suspicion, and there’s no good way to set up an observation point without risking discovery. I’m... I’m for it... Under one condition.”

Verkari quirks her brow and cocks her head to side. “Which is?”

Tik cracks a smug sharp grin. “You’re planting the damned thing. I’m not going out in this weather.”

Blinking in surprise, Verkari settles back in her seat and snorts. “Oh please. Not right now...”

She glances around the area outside the vehicle. Watching the obscuring haze of rain and hearing the drone of wind resonate, she grits her teeth and sighs begrudgingly. “Crap. It’s actually a perfect time to do it. Perfect cover hide the act, and the tracks will be washed away in minutes.”

She dons a tight smile, stretches her back straight in her seat, and draws a sharp breath through her nose. “Well. Fine. Where are did you put the trackers?”

Tik eases the car to a stop, puts the gear shift into park, and twists in his seat towards the back. “Right over here behind your seat.”

He retrieves a rugged plastic case with combination lock and a GAA logo upon the side. Verkari takes hold of the package, deftly unlocks the container, and opens it survey the collection of small, plain cubes. She inspects a few, picks out one, and places it into the socket of a small computer console inside. “Okay. One magnetic mount with long logging and semi-random transmit timing. Sound good?”

Nodding while checking the surroundings of the vehicle, Tik cracks a sly smirk and points out a break in the trees of the forest. “That should work. And there’s path you can go down. Head into the woods and approach from the side of the house.”

Verkari closes up the GAA tracker box and unbuckles her seat belt. She snatches up a thin, dark raincoat from a pouch on the back of her seat, and swiftly slips it on. “Just what I was thinking, too.”

Tik quickly searches the sedan’s console, presses the hazard light button, and unlocks the doors. “Okay. I’ll pretend I’m making a phone call. Trying to keep it under five minutes, okay?”

Verkari nods and readies herself. Tik scans the horizon around the vehicle, pulls out his aetherphone, and winks a Verkari. “Go.”

The passenger’s door swiftly opens and closes with only a few drops of rain managing to reach into the interior.

Moonlight reflects in the pools of still water within the dips of the two lane road. A natural quiet fills the air and faint splashes of water filter in from the surrounding area. A muffled rumble rises out of the background and grows louder. The headlamp beam of the motorcycle tilts down as the vehicle crests over a slight hill. Specs of detail of the road glint out of the wet, mirror black surface before the machine. Isaac keeps the motorcycle at a subdued pace, and divides his attention to the unique patches of scenery in the vicinity. He slows the vehicle down as he approaches a stop sign before an intersection. Planting his feet to the side, he balances the motorcycle and stretches out his back. After wiping off the build up of condensation, he lifts up the visor of his helmet and breathes in the air. Taking in generous sniffs, he wanders his gaze to the moonlit fields, patches of trees, and a full, flowing creek.

He fights against a yawn, but eventually loses the battle. Shaking his head, he releases a defeated sigh and twists around to reach inside a side cargo bag. He pulls out a messily folded map, opens it up to a section, and studies it. His gray eyes sort through all the notes and marks, and he brings a section of the chart close. Glancing up at the intersection, he orientates the map against his surroundings and twists his mouth. He struggles against another yawn and shudders as a cool breeze blows through the trees, leading a chorus of water falling upon the damp earth. He stares at the right path of the intersection, rocks his head side to side in deliberation, and sighs. Staring down at the map, he eventually shrugs his shoulders, crudely folds the map back up, and stuffs in back into the side cargo case. Stretching his arms out, he grips the handlebars, readies the controls, and check the intersection one last time.

Accelerating into a right turn, he brings the motorcycle to a slow idling pace and resumes scouting the area. He gently turns along a lazy curve and settles back into the middle of the lane down a long straight away. While glancing around the area, his attention snaps to the cut up remains of a massive protellow stalk. Furrowing his brow, he cocks his head as recognition bubbles up into his expression. Shuddering awake, he musters up his focus and scrutinizes the passing landmarks and other features. Sparks of familiarity light up his eyes, and he keeps his examining stare upon the newfound clues longer with each new occurrence. Following through a slight curve in the road, he gazes down a new straight away. Two houses on the side seize his attention. Furrowing his brow, Isaac momentarily studies the tall three story dwelling with a number of a Next Adventurers of Nexus vans parked out of the view... of a two-story house with a black, dented up sports utility vehicle.

Quickly, Isaac brings the motorcycle to a stop and gawks at the building. Darting his gray eyes around at the moonlight scene, an eager excitement swells into body. Searching around, he rolls his ride up a few meters and finds an unblocked line of sight. Peering around the two-story house and between nearby trees, he spots a large back yard with a huge rock within it and... a ranch style house sitting upon the slight rise behind it.

Isaac eyes widen in surprise and his body tenses. Glancing around hurriedly, he indecisively mutters to himself. After a few moments, he calms himself and focuses on a few breaths. Straightening his back and resettling upon the saddle of the motorcycle, he takes moment to quietly ponder. He checks around the area, and accelerates the machine down the road. He quickly cruises down the street until he reaches another stop sign in front of a different intersection. Twisting around quickly, he retrieves his map and examines road marking against his surroundings. After a patting around himself, he plucks out a pencil from his pocket, circles the area, and nods satisfied. He stows away the map, and gestures out an incantation. Guiding a cloud of magical flow upon the exhaust of the vehicle, the muffled rumbles fades away below the ambient night sounds.

Traveling down a few roads, Isaac coasts quietly down the two lane street, and keeps his attention to the side of the road. Soon the front of the ranch style house arrives into view and Isaac smirks while he gazes at the familiar humvee. Rolling on by out of view, Isaac pulls off to the side of road and eases behind some brush. Mounting the motorcycle on the kickstand, he hops off and rummages around a side storage container. Feeling around, he retrieves a chunk of stone from his backpack nestled inside. Nodding with a confidence, he works through a complicated casting, meticulous gestures, and intricate incantations. The energies rush out and sink into the rune covered chunk of black rock. With a final motion, he stone splits exactly into two clean cut halves. Dropping one stone back into his backpack, Isaac creeps back towards the humvee in front of the two-story house and fades from view as opacity drains from him.

Underneath the humvee, wet gravel stirs and faint pats upon metal sound out. After minutes of soft noises punctuated by dull clanks against the machine’s frame, a surprised voice mutters out. “...what the fuck is...”

A pause in activity leads into gravel beneath the humvee stirring and the sounds of wet footsteps upon the driveway toward the street. Near the motorcycle, Isaac sheds off the transparent coating and glares at black cube. Furrowing his brow, an irritated curl turns into angry sneer. Tightening his grip on the device a flit of glow emerges in his eyes, but fades. Pulling a sharp breath through his nose, he relaxes his shoulders as he exhales. He wanders his gaze around the peaceful moonlit scene and rests his attention up a full, rushing creek. Isaac tilts his head curiously and searches around the area. A discarded paper fast food cup with plastic lid and straw rests nearby. A devious smirk parts Isaac’s lips. He sweeps up the paper cup, pops open the lid, and dumps out collected water. He places the black cube into the container, seals the top back on, and walks next to the creek. Holding his arm out, he lines up the cup with the current and drops it off. The vessel floats on top and drifts away with the flow of the water.

Isaac rushes back up to his motorcycle, seats himself on the machine, and grins smugly as he watches the fast food cup bob away down stream.