Episode 126

Faint traces of early morning glow seeps through the sliding glass window, and the light drifts further into the living area of the ranch style house. Soft pats upon a wooden floor sound out from the archway to the hallway, and Sotalia groggily lumbers out. Her golden eyes barely open to slits as her sluggish pace follows a path of unconscious habit. With a wide turn around the dining table, she ambles back on course while she surrenders to a yawn. Scratching the back of her pajama bottom, she arches her back into a stretch with a grunting wince as each pause lets her steep in an old aches. Fluttering her eyes briefly in the dim light, she searches through the dark outlines of kitchen appliances upon counters and spots her target. Fumbling through small, colorfully labeled cups, she mumbles to herself. “...why am I awake... this hour... where is it...”

Squinting through the clinging drowsiness, she inspects a number of coffee packs and plops one right into the single serving coffee machine. Sliding a cup under the spout, she presses a blinking serving size button, and watches the device gurgle to life. While the machine goes through its processes, she fights back another yawn. Combing her fingers through her sleep mussed fiery orange, coiling hair, she pulls the chaos over her swept back horns. She winces with a breif hiss as a tangle snags her fingers. She mutters and struggles to free the bound strands. Gritting her teeth, she pulls through the mess and grumbles. Glancing down at her night shirt, she brushes off a few mangled hairs from her chest and sighs.

The last drop of brew lands with a dark ripple. Sotalia carefully sweeps up the cup into her hands. Bringing the mug up to her face, she sniffs into the aroma deeply and a wave of relief radiates through her figure. After slow, cautious sips, her shoulders relax. Tapping a long nail upon ceramic mug, an indecisive quirk appears on her face. She opens the nearby refrigerator door. Snagging a bottle of creamer, she deftly adds the right amount and swirls the mug gently. Sniffing up the scent of the brew, a faint curl at the corner of her mouth leads to a smile. Another cautious sip leads to a pour of the drink and a quiet moment. She opens her golden eyes all the way to stare out at the morning light sifting through the glass of the sliding back door.

Hovering in a seat at the dining table, Akalab waves nonchalantly to Sotalia. A gasp gurgles in the brew, and Sotalia’s body contorts in shock at the mistake. She blasts a spray forth, and the tan spew spatters into abstract art upon the tabletop. Barely landing the mug on the counter top, she sputters and coughs between cursing breaths. Barely subduing the fits, she wipes her mouth with her night shirt and blurts out. “Gods damn it! Why can’t you knock or something?! Ack!”

Akalab lifts up an indignant brow and cocks his head. He slowly waves his hand through the tabletop without any resistance. Staring indifferently at Sotalia, he waits quietly and cracks a faint curl of a smug smile. Sotalia groans into an unamused sigh and cleans herself off with a hastily torn run of paper towels. “Yeah. I get it. Whatever...”

She clears her throat and yells out. “HEY! Wake up! We got a message!”

Sorting through the paper chaos upon the dining table, Bach fishes out a worn and marked up printout. “Here it is!”

He slides the packet over between Aristespha, Dretphi, and him. Aristespha tips back a long swig of black coffee from a mug, shudders back to awareness, and focuses upon a stack of papers. “Okay! Let’s see if we can match all this up.”

Dretphi nods and perks a curious brow at Akalab. “A large open field?”

Akalab’s translucent visage drifts closer to the dining table, and he peers over the documents. “Yes. A vast plain that seems very remote. I only saw one access road to it. The map I transcribed has all the major landmarks I sensed on my way here.”

Tilting her head in thought, Dretphi orients a digital map on a tablet and zooms into a region. Sebastian hovers nearby and points down at paper map. “Alright. So that shows our location here and that mark shows the site?”

Akalab grants a simple nod. “Yes.”

Dretphi bounces her stare between the tablet screen and the rough chart. With each check, she matches up distinguishing landmarks and focuses her search upon a smaller region. Aristespha’s violet eyes dart through the few pages of magically inscribed notes, and she inspects the images on the tablet in front of Dretphi. “That’s looking like it-”

Perking up her posture, Dretphi taps upon a thin line and zooms in upon a lone roadway. Following the winding path through a forest, it ends next to a large blank void in the middle of a sea of tree iconography. “There. This has to be it.”

Bach glances up from sifting through the worn printout of location and scribbled out notes. “What’s the coordinates?”

As Dretphi recites the numbers, Bach narrows his stare upon the paperwork and cocks his head as hazy recognition grips his thoughts. “That... That sounds close to something... I remember something like that...”

He traces down rows of translated coordinates, flips through a few pages, and stops upon an entry. He glances over to a handwritten note and reads it out. “Barely any signal. Empty field with no signs of recent activity. Nothing else of note.”

Leaning back in his seat at the dining table, Bach blinks baffled and shakes his head. “I’ll be damned. It’s that same open field that we completely wrote off.”

Sebastian zips his visage over next to Bach, lowers his head off to the side of Bach’s shoulder, and reads the line item on the printout. “Shit, you’re right, bro. What the hell? That research station’s system barely detected anything, and it seemed to be a long time ago. Nothing recent.”

Akalab crosses his arms, straightens his armored form, and sighs. “To be fair, what you are looking for is deep underneath the ground.”

The kitchen door from the garage opens, and Cideeda swiftly walks in. She pauses next to the meeting at the dining table and glances over curiously. “What’s new? Did we find it on our maps?”

Dretphi nods with a bemused curl to her short smile, and tips up the tablet into view. “Yes.”

Bach turns the printout towards Cideeda and points out the offending line. “It matches up, too.”

Resting her hands on her hips, Cideeda’s emerald green eyes dart between the information presented, and she perks her furry ears with an incredulous flick of her tail. “No way... Really?!”

As the rest of the assembled nod, Sebastian grins awkwardly and shrugs his shoulders. “I know. At least we know where it is. And, we can get to it?”

Dretphi nods a confirmation towards Sebastian’s inquiring glance. “Yes.”

Sotalia steps out from the hallway archway, brushes off her long sleeve top, and inspects her armored cloak. “So, we know where we are going yet?”

Cideeda rolls her eyes, droops her ears, and sighs. “Yeah. You won’t believe where.”

Lifting an intrigued brow, Sotalia steps up closer to the dining table and scans over the scattered documents. “Where?”

Dretphi rotates the tablet to face Sotalia, and Bach presents the printout packet with a point to the line in question. Sotalia narrows her stare briefly, and her golden eyes open in shock fighting back a tinge disgust. “Oh, you’ve GOT to be kidding!? It’s on THAT list?!”

The team nods, and Sotalia rubs her temples underneath her swept back, black horns. “That actually figures with our luck. My gods.”

Bach pivots the list back towards his eyes and sighs. “Yeah. It’s that big empty field we completely ignored, since barely anything was detected.”

Sotalia pauses and her expression blanks. A dark spark leads a cunning grin across her face, and she chuckles with a sinister tinge. “That’s actually good news. Noxian has probably written that list off completely. He probably hasn’t touched anything that didn’t stand out…”

A surge of determination flexes her fingers into a fist. “Certainly, nothing with a weak signal. We can get ahead of him for sure!”

Sebastian slowly nods with an eager smile. “Exactly. We should have plenty of time to check this thing out and carefully disarm it now.”

Narrowing her gaze at Akalab, Sotalia tilts her head of fiery orange, wavy hair and settles upon a mild frown. “So... Where is this magical place in this field?”

Akalab pivots in place and calmly states. “Underground.”

Crossing her arms, Sotalia furrows her brow and stares through Akalab. “And, how do we get to it?”

Shrugging his visage’s shoulders, Akalab indifferently smirks. “Don’t know. But, it seems there’s something special about a tree that could be linked with what’s underneath the field.”

Sotalia searches her mind uncertainly. “A tree?”

Cideeda rolls her eyes and snorts out a laugh. “Probably some kind of secret passage. There’s probably a crazy tunnel system or whatever. It’s always some kind of tunnel system. Gods, I just hope it’s intact enough.”

Sebastian stands up straight and addresses the team. “Okay. We’ve got a location and soon a route to there. It doesn’t look too far. So, let’s load up and check it out as soon as possible.”

He glances over to Akalab. “Would you mind accompanying us to the site?”

Akalab bows respectfully and stands at attention. “My task is to insure you find the location. So, I will.”

Donning a grin, Sebastian nods to the team. “Let’s load up and move out!”

Tapping a pencil idly at the end of a paragraph, Isaac stares at the dense thicket of notes upon the page of the journal. Fluttering his gray eyes, he glances away from the page and rests his gaze upon the cheap decorations of the aged motel room. Closing his eyes with a wince, he shakes his head of wispy white hair and shudders the remaining drowsiness off. His attention drifts over to the morning light slipping through the window blinds and stares aimlessly into the warming glow. His thoughts drift off. Brief moments of remembered joy fade to current pain with a waning smile. Loss slips out through his long sigh, and he glances over the collection of notes, maps, and documents upon the cheap desk. He wrestles sparks of emotion with each twist of his mouth, and dissatisfaction creeps out. Drawing in a long breath, he mumbles incoherently to himself and snatches up a sausage and egg biscuit peeking out a Draco-Burger wrapper. After taking a bite, he pauses in thought, glances at the breakfast sandwich and shrugs with a semblance of satisfaction.

A hard clatter rattles out into the room. Isaac darts his eyes around as surprise yields to curiosity. Another wooden rumble sharply sounds out. Letting his ears guide his panning head, Isaac faces the old nightstand next to the single motel bed. A rune inscribed stone cube vibrates along the surface. A pulse of energy illuminates a wave across the surface of the artifact. Isaac’s gray eyes open wide, and he clambers across the bed. Snatching up the cube, he holds it between his hands and waits. The stone shudders in his hand, and a ripple of magical flow lights up the rune etched surface towards a direction. Excitement drives a grin across Isaac’s face, and he gazes out towards the indicated direction. Briefly narrowing his stare, he searches mind and nods as memory reassures him.

Quickly pocketing the shaped rock, he stands up from the bed, hoists up his backpack from the floor, and deftly packs up his notes. Driven with past experience, he swiftly organizes, condenses, and packages everything without wasted action. Throwing his backpack on, he tears through the remainder of his sausage and egg biscuit, downs the cool dregs of coffee, and forces a hard swallow. Gasping for a breath between a few coughs, he quickly surveys the motel room at the threshold of the door. With a nod to himself, he swings through the door, secures it with a pull, and rushes over to his motorcycle nearby.

With his claws digging into the bark of the tree trunk, Tik leans out and adjusts the position of a small camera. He glances down at Verkari and furrows his brow. “Any better?”

Verkari shields the morning sun from a tablet screen and squints through the glare. “A little better. Maybe a little to the left? There’s that one tree branch in the way.”

Tik rolls his dark blue eyes and groans. “We might need to try another angle.”

He tightens his grip on the supporting trunk, reaches out, and carefully tweaks the aim of the device. Squinting his stare through the lattice of sparsely leaved branches, he scans across the open field towards the obscured ranch style house. After searching the horizon a few moments, he directs his voice back down. “Any better?”

Verkari turns her back towards the sun, focuses upon the screen, and starts to nod. “Much better. I think this will work just fine. It’s nice clear shot of...”

In the sudden silence, Tik flicks a furry ear down and furrows his brow. “Uh, Verkari?”

Bringing the screen of the tablet close to her dark tan face, Verkari’s very long, pointed ears twitch, and she grits her teeth with a hiss. “They’re on the move... And, they’re backing out fast onto the road. They’re in their adventuring gear!”

Blinking in surprise, Tik squints into the distance and catches a glimpse of the humvee through the layers of cover. “This is a Saturday morning? They’re not usually up this early... in general.”

Both Verkari and Tik share glance at each other, and surprise rising up their tensing bodies. Tik focuses upon the reflections of metal slipping out from behind the obscuring brush and tracks the movement. His stare follows the humvee as it speeds away with the powerplant roaring loudly. “They’re going south bound on the road!”

Verkari snatches up an equipment bag and rushes off through the woods. Tik climbs down the tree past the upper branches and strips coils of bark off in a final slide down to the ground. The two sprint down a rough trail, leaping over autumn debris, and launch out to the shoulder of a roadway. Verkari yanks the gray sedan door open, and Tik slides over the hood to the other side. Both secured in the vehicle, the engine starts up, the transmission engages, and the tires spin. A barrage of mud chunks up behind the tires. The machine swerves to bite asphalt and leaves a trail of muck and rubber.

Tik grips the wheel tightly scans the road in front of him. “Gods dammit. I think this road loops back around that direction. Need to get someone else checking around for them.”

Tapping through a contact list, Verkari presses an item and puts her aetherphone to an ear. “Working on it.”

The call connects and Verkari concentrates into a calm, commanding tone. “Targets just left southbound on route forty one. They are moving fast with a purpose. I need some coverage along that route as we are trying to catch up to them.”

She nods with response from the other side of call. “Correct. We do not yet have eyes on them. We are trying to pursue.”

Tik steers the sedan hard, snaps back to the main road, and speeds up. “Hang on. We’ll catch up with them yet.”

The gray car zips on by the ranch style house, stirring up a trail of fallen leaves that settle peacefully upon the silence that returns briefly after.

Stepping up a slight rise, Bach joins the rest of the team standing along the crest of hill. Slowly panning his gaze around the area, he stares out across a vast, open landscape. Cool winds coast across the waving sea of fading pale green, and the tops of tall grasses whip with the current. At the furthest horizon, the surrounding forests barely rise into view. With a squint, Bach follows the wooded perimeter and traces it back around to nearby trees. He glances around the wide, nearly featureless landscape, and scratches the back of his head of longer brown hair. “Well, this seems like a whole lot of nothing.”

Sotalia rests her hands on her hips and frowns faintly. “Yeah. I guess if you are going to hide something, you might as well put it here. Don’t think anyone would expect anything to have been here.”

She snarls her upper lip and sighs with a roll of her golden eyes. “Gods, I hope we don’t have to dig around to find this thing. We’ll be here for months.”

Sebastian drifts down from the skies, lands next to Aristespha, and crosses his arms. “Well, I think we’re probably the only people around here for kilometers. Just a whole bunch of forest surrounding... This gigantic clearing...”

Twisting apprehension upon his face, he darts his translucent blue eyes between his thoughts as uncertainty directs his suspicions. “Which feels a little unusual, now that I’m thinking about it.”

He pivots and directs a searching gaze at Dretphi. After noticing the attention, Dretphi surveys the scenery, pauses at sections, and furrows an intrigued brow. “Your suspicions are not unfounded. This area feels... off. Natural features with aspects that I cannot dismiss. New questions each time I look.”

Aristespha scrolls through a document on her tablet and narrows her violet stare upon the screen. “Unfortunately, I do not have any answers either. Just more questions.”

She holds out the device and invites others to peek over at the documentation. “It seems this property is under the ownership of a natural preservation organization that received this land and the surrounding area as gift from a donor.”

Standing up on the balls of her feet, Cideeda quirks her brow as curiosity leads her emerald gaze along the text. “Interesting. There’s a trust funding the maintenance of the area. So, there’s this legal entity that just pays for any work that needs to be done on it. It’s not unheard of... But...”

Bach motions towards the tablet interface around the digital documentation and strokes his beard. “Is there a way to look up who had the property before the donor? I mean, I doubt whoever was the only one.”

With a nod, Aristespha deftly navigates the system, types in a query, and reads the output. Scrolling down a long list of transactions, she attempts a few frustrated flicks at the bottom of the catalog and sighs. “No, there were quite a few owners. But, it goes far enough back that they don’t have all the records online.”

She taps out of the menu and lowers the tablet to her side with an annoyed stare upon the plain. “Which unfortunately means, that in all likelihood, the records do exist... In ancient formats stuffed in some random corner of some government historical archives... Somewhere on Nexus.”

Sebastian shrugs his shoulders and cracks an accepting smile. “Well, that’s not worth our effort. We know something is up here. So, let’s see what we can figure out.”

Akalab floats up to the gathering with his arms crossed, and nods over to a long row of old trees. “I’d recommend starting your investigation with this particular tree.”

Flying down the orderly, ancient lineup, he lands next to one tree in the arrangement and waits for the team to gather around. After a few seconds of quiet anticipation, he points to the tree. “This one.”

Watching the expectant gazes narrow to unamused stares, he scoffs defensively and shakes his head. “THEY told me nothing more than that. The sprites were very interested in it. Unfortunately, I do not know why. That was not my responsibility, hence that was information I was not entrusted with.”

The wave of moot disappointment washes over the team, and they spread out around the tall, thick tree. Dretphi angles her head upwards and studies the layers of twisting branches multiplying into thin points. A spark of recognition grasps her attention and pulls her closer to the imposing plant. She flips up her full face visor, leans close to the trunk, and squints at the bark. After tapping upon the layers of shaggy bark, she peels up a section and pinches the thick exterior between her gauntlet covered fingers. Mild surprise pulls her head back. Dretphi steps back, squints up into the tallest branches, and spots a few remaining leaves fluttering stubbornly against the autumn winds. Crossing her armored arms, she stares distantly into her mind and sorts through the emerging possibilities. “This is a rare tree.”

Bach perks up as he blinks the blue glow from his eyes. “Rare in what way?”

Dretphi glances around and surveys other specimens. “Few grow in this region. One in a forest is typical.”

She narrows her swelling suspicion upon the line of trees and motions a point down the row. “This is not a natural possibility.”

Sebastian tilts his head of short brown hair. “I guess someone must of planted them there on purpose.”

He blinks a few times, and curls a trace of frown with a long sigh. “And THAT brings up whole new questions to answer.”

Walking towards another similar tree, Dretphi bounces her gaze between the equally large plants. Pivoting in place, she scans the nearby forest perimeter, and wrestles new surges of suspicion. “They are old. Too old to the match the growth in this part of the forest.”

With her hands on her sides, Aristespha squints with a brilliant violet glow from her eyes and aims her full concentration upon the shaggy bark of the massive trunk. With a twitch spreading from the corner of her eye, she winces and shakes her head of long silvery blue hair. Rubbing her temples, she frowns sharply and groans with traces of pain. Sebastian drifts over next to Aristespha and whispers with a concerned tone. “You okay, dear?”

Aristespha stretches her neck, grits her teeth briefly, and sighs. “I’m okay, Sebastian. I’m trying to detect something off with this tree and I’m not getting anything.”

Bach glances over his shoulder from staring at another similar tree, and closes his blue illuminated eyes with a wince. “Yeah, me neither. I’ve been trying compare against this other tree. And... well... Nothing...”

He shakes his head into a shudder down his body, and rolls his shoulders with a surge of discomfort. “Gods. I swear I think I should be getting something. But, it’s just... More normal than it should be? I don’t know how to put it.”

Both Aristespha and Bach meet each other gazes and shift their attention towards Sotalia. Noticing the attention, Sotalia furrows her brow, tosses back her hair, and sways her weight to another foot. “What? I’m not feeling anything unusual. It feels like every other plain old tree I’ve stood around.”

An idea hops to the front of Dretphi’s mind, and she uncertainly addresses the team. “I remember that these trees can have magical properties. Can not remember how exactly. I believe it can vary depending on factors.”

Aristespha nods in agreement and presses the strain away from her eyes. “Yes. I know of a few disciplines that often use such materials for magical focuses.”

Contorting his face with simmering aggravation, Bach draws in a long breath. He eases out the frustration through a calming exhale, and rolls his shoulders to the ready. Open his brightly glowing blue eyes, he narrows his full attention upon the suspect tree and rocks his head up and down. With slow, meticulous steps, he circles around the wide trunk and scans the shaggy bark encased circumference. Fighting back watering eyes, he halts abruptly and snaps his focus to a point close to the base of the tree. Pointing to the suspicious section, Bach cringes into a closed eye grimace. “I think I saw something there. Maybe? I don’t know. It could have been the strain getting to me.”

Aristespha steps up next to Bach, follows the direction indicated, and kneels down at the base of the tree. “What did you see?”

Blinking each eye individually, Bach works on clearing his watery vision. “It’s like when you showed me differences in body tissues. Like... When you have a previous injury, there’s differences in texture? Or, it could it have been me seeing things. Ow...”

Bach tenses briefly at a pat on his shoulder, and Sotalia stands next to Bach with a comforting smile. She opens up a pouch on her belt, deftly flips out a small squeeze bottle, and unscrews the cap. With a quick point upwards, she shows the label on the container to Bach. “Look up for me.”

She steadies Bach’s head with a hand under his chin, squeezes a few drops of solution into each of his eyes, and wipes the excess from his cheeks with thumb. After a few slow blinks, Bach smiles gratefully at Sotalia. “Thanks. This dry fall air is rough.”

Sotalia nods with an understanding smile. “I know. I always pack some of this during this time of the year.”

Searching around the roots of the tree, Aristespha’s illuminated vision meticulously pores over the layers of bark. She halts. She leans to one side and leans to the other. Swaying her gaze, her fingers feel around the trunk. “There’s definitely something here. It’s so slight that it’d be easy to dismiss normally, if you are not at the right angle.”

With an incantation under her breath, she gestures out a spell and summons up magical flow to her finger tip. Pressing into the bark of the tree, a pulse of energy radiates out and warps around the trunk. Aristespha’s eyes widen in surprise, and she cocks her head while intrigue pulls her attention closer. “I think there’s been a large chunk of this tree cut. Possibly removed and replaced.”

She traces fingers around a large section of the tree trunk near the base and gestures out the total size of the piece. “Then, it seems someone used very precise magics to reattach it at nearly a cellular level. This is... Very advanced magic.”

The team surrounds behind Aristespha and waits expectantly. Tense silence looms and presses out the ambient crackle of autumn leaves and the drone of wind weaving through grass. Sebastian draws in a long ethereal breath and addresses the group. “So... I think we need to open it. Any objections?”

With no sign of contest from the gathered, Bach shrugs with a goofy grin. “It’s kind of what we’re here for.”

Sotalia crosses her arms and lifts an eager brow. “Better us than anyone else at this point.”

After a nod from Dretphi and thumbs up from Cideeda, Sebastian drifts down to a kneel next to Aristespha. “Dear? Can you get it open safely?”

Aristespha stares at the task before her and eventually nods. “I should. I can see where the original cuts were made, behind layers of new growth over the years. Give me a little time.”

Stretching out her back, she relaxes her shoulders, flexes her arms, and exhales. After collecting herself, she deftly gestures out a complicated incantation and guides flows of energy to her hands. Concentrating the magic to a precise point, she directs a fine beam through bark and into the trunk of the tree. Following a path within, she carves tiny incisions into a square route. Minutes pass as the cut reaches deeper into the layers of wood. The team waits anxiously and gradually readies when the final pass reaches an end. Aristespha rests her hands upon the surface of the trunk chunk, sinks flows of energy into the surface, and pulls back. With a little extra effort, she frees the heavy cover and parts it away from the rest of the tree.

Sotalia shivers as unease constricts her body. Sebastian’s ethereal visage wavers slightly. Cideeda and Dretphi squirm uncomfortably. Aristespha and Bach gawk in shock. From behind the wooden barrier, the late morning light glints off the pristine, ancient control panel embedded into the core of the tree. Faint shimmers reflect off the complicated flow channels layers laminated deep into the surface. The team gazes upon the arrays of buttons and rows of switches. Attention splits between the dormant display screen, the locked down lever, and the lifeless elder energy cell.

Akalab leans over to peer at the devices within and gazes upon the team expectantly. Breaking the choking quiet, Sebastian hems for everyone’s attention and pieces together a few words. “I... have... no idea... on how to proceed. Any thoughts?”

Bach steps back slowly, crosses his arms defensively, and shakes his head. “I’m not fucking touching it.”

Narrowing her emerald green eyes, Cideeda flicks her furry ears back and fights a snarl pushing the grimace on her light brown face. “That just looks gods damned dangerous. I don’t know why, but I just feel it.”

She bites the end of a claw tip and cringes faintly. “And that’s before you think about everything else we’ve dealt with like this.”

Sebastian glances over the remaining opposition and nods in absolute agreement. “Yeah. We are going to need to do some serious research on this one. So... Let’s take a bunch of high resolution pictures. Capture every little detail you can.”

He gazes over his shoulder at his brother. “Bro, no offense, you might want to keep your distance from this one. Just to make sure it doesn’t activate for whatever weird reason.”

Bach chuckles nervously and walks away from the team. “Man, no offense at all. Really. I’m going to wait in the humvee just to be safe. THIS is all too ominous for me right now.”

Shaking his head while stepping down the slight hill, he mumbles to himself. “...like hell I’m going to accidentally start another cataclysm. Three is enough for this world.”

Cideeda and Sotalia capture numerous pictures, while Aristespha studies the edges of the thick wooden cover. Dretphi scans the vicinity and turns to Sebastian. “We should not linger. This does not need attention from others. Come back tomorrow night.”

Sebastian sighs to an uneasy frown, and follows his paranoia’s desires in staring out at the surrounding forests. “Yeah. Thankfully, it’s pretty remote out here. So, I don’t think anyone is out here. And this is far from a major road. So... Once we seal this back up, we should have a little time to figure this out.”

His ethereal form kneels down next to Aristespha. “Can you get that cover back on, dear?”

Aristespha gazes up over her shoulder and smiles reassuringly. “I should be able to, Sebastian. I may not be able to get it to the level of perfection it was previously. But, I should get it very close.”

She grins confidently and rolls her violet eyes with a light giggle. “And honestly, who is going to know to come out here, to this one specific tree, and remove this specific cover with magic?”

After moment, her expression wanes to an uncomfortable smile, and she sighs. “Though, I don’t think it’d be wise to test that. We should really get back. I’ll contact Nash and Dr. Malkav. I hope they can help us discreetly. This needs to stay quiet for now.”

Sebastian stiffens his upper lip and gazes out nervously across the vast, open plain. “Yeah. I’m really not feeling good about this. This is just weird overall.”

As the sun rises towards noon, the team finishes up. After Aristespha seals up the tree, Akalab bows respectfully and fades into the aether. The group regather in the humvee and depart down the rough access road.

A glint of metal shines out from deep within the forest. Casually seated upon his motorcycle, Isaac draws a satisfied grin across face, and his gray eyes glimmer eagerly upon the new target of his desire.

Verkari squints down an alley as the gray sedan speeds on by on the main road. She grits her teeth and growls out her frustration. “Damn it all. Where are they? The traffic cameras didn’t catch them going to the next set. They had to have taken a turn down one of these roads.”

Tik eases the brake down as the red lights flip on at the intersection ahead, and sinks back into the driver’s seat. “What’s the ETA on the drone scouts flying over?”

Wrestling down her irritation on, Verkari grumbles to a grimace. “Another fifteen minutes... If we’re lucky. Someone thought they spotted someone that looked like The Dark Lord Noxian and pulled away a few packs of the drones for that search. They’re about to give up on that hunt soon.”

Shaking his head of reddish hair, Tik gazes up at the stale red traffic lamp above as the wait drags down his frown. “At least we tracked them down to this section. That’s not a terrible scope to work within. It’ll take awhile, but we can get help checking down these roads.”

He dons a reassuring smile towards Verkari. “I’m sure we’ll be able to figure out where they went. It has to be something big for them to have left this early geared up.”

Tipping back into her seat, Verkari sighs with a long roll of her purple eyes. “I guess...”

She pieces together a plan out loud. “We can look over the maps and prioritize locations that might be of interest and send off teams to those. Then, we can use scout drones for the rest. That’ll cover enough territory fast enough. I just hope they’re still where they are at.”

The traffic light flips to green in front of gray sedan, and the flow of vehicles resumes down the highway. Verkari gazes down another side road and narrows an agitated glare at a distant, suspicious hedge at the start of a long curve. After a few moments of projecting her ire at the inanimate plant, she closes her eyes with a sigh and rests her face in her propped palm. “I can’t believe they just had to leave, right when we were in the middle of something. Damn it. A few more minutes we would have been ready.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Tik grins awkwardly and chuckles. “Well, they haven’t gone home yet. So, like you said, they could be out at the location and the drones will be able to spot them.”

Another intersection appears around a long bend, and the gray sedan slows into the gathering mass of traffic forming in front of another long red light. Verkari shakes her head and pulls out her hair tie. She combs back her long black hair and tightly binds it behind her home. “You’re right. They’ll be out wherever, and the drones will be able to ping them without them knowing it. Probably for the best-”

A familiar humvee rolls into view from a side road and speeds through the intersection into a left turn. Both Tik and Verkari watch their target navigate into the opposing lanes beside them and continue their journey back towards town. Verkari blinks bewildered and shudders back to awareness. She frantically points at the humvee speeding away and directs Tik with a series of motions. “There they are!”

Tik nods and guides Verkari’s eagerness towards the street sign. “I see them! Write down that street and I’ll find somewhere to turn around in.”

Verkari scrambles for a pen and scratches down the name on a fast food napkin. “Got it! Just do a U-turn here!”

Glancing over incredulously, Tik blinks and shakes his head. “Are you kidding? What’s more obvious that someone pulling a U-turn at an intersection and speeding after you? They’re one of the few cars going that way. I think they’ll figure out something is up.”

Tensing her grimace, Verkari pushes out a stubborn sigh and nods in reluctant agreement. “You’re right...”

She shifts her attention to the side street and lifts an intrigued brow as she stares at the promising path drifting off into the woods. “This is more important. This... This will narrow down our search.”

The few traces of clouds drift swiftly below the starry night sky. The waning moon highlights the outlines of the long hazes streaking across with the autumn wind. Peering up from under a layers of bare branches, Isaac humors his paranoia and stares distantly upwards. The tinges of worry subside, and his gaze softens at the night scene. He pulls in a careful breath against the cold and shivers as the chill sinks deeper. He wraps his blue scarf another lap around his neck and pauses in thought to feel the barely frayed tail between his fingers. Pushing out the rising sadness, Isaac sighs long and struggles with a frown.

Shaking his head of wispy white hair, he stretches his back briefly and steps between the trees towards the edge of the woods. Glancing around the darkness, he blinks his eyes to a faint illumination and slowly drifts his gaze around. After a few passes, he walks over the patches of gravel still compromising the disused access road and turns his head towards the slight rise before the vast, grassy plain. Reaching the crest, he pauses a moment and gazes out upon the peaceful sea. The wavering moonlight follows the wind driven tides upon the grass tops. Only the faintest shifts against the flow happen when wildlife submerged under the surface move.

A calm washes over Isaac, and a faint smile curls at the corner of his mouth. Quiet moments pass under his longing stare. Blinking back to awareness, he glances around and spots a particular tree in the ancient, rare row. Kneeling down next to the base, the glow brightens in his eyes and he studies the trunk carefully. Feeling along rectangular path upon the surface of the shaggy bark, he nods with honest admiration surfacing. “Fascinating hiding place they choose... so long ago...”

Furrowing his brow, Isaac glances off to the side as recent memory bubbles back up to the front of his mind. “... how did you all even find this...”

Twisting his mouth, he directs his attention upon the task at hand and summons up flows of magical energy into his hands. With a precise projection of power, Isaac guides a fine beam meticulously along a hidden path beneath the surface. Finishing the full trace, he press his hands upon the surface of the natural panel and flows of energy grip upon it. He pulls back slowly and frees the wood cover. Flitting his eyes widen open, his stare snaps ahead, and he cautiously slides the panel off to the side as tension constricts his breath.

Gazing upon the ancient, pristine control panel, Isaac blinks in awe. He gawks at the precise construction, layers of complex flow channels, the blend of magic and technology components, and the ancient texts neatly arranged. Pure curiously pulls his hands close, and his fingers barely grace the keys. Isaac darts his eyes between the immaculate buttons, switches, and display. He tilts his head back suspiciously at the secured elder energy cell and the arcane machinery seemingly fused around it. Finally, he settles a long stare upon the locked down, red handled lever.

Leaning away from the imposing specimen of engineering, his attention falls inwards. He breaths slowly with long pauses to allow thoughts to build between. Sitting down upon the ground, he slides off his backpack and rummages within. In the minutes, Isaac assembles an impromptu workspace and pores over notes under magical light. Bouncing his attention between papers, notebooks, and pictures, he compares his information against the ancient, embedded machinery before him. Double-checking the linguistic symbols around a button, his finger wanders close to a button with an expectant wince forming on his tan face.

A click sounds out. A yellow light blinks. A series of other indicators pulse red. After a few moments, they flicker to amber and eventually glow green. Faint traces of activity radiate through the layers of flow channels. The display flips through a variety of test patterns of color, text, and random pixels. The start up chaos settles to a stream of text output in synchronicity to indicator switches between status color codes. Isaac focuses upon the text flowing up the display and mumbles to himself. He furrows his brow as a battle between sheer confusion and surges of understanding plays out on his face. The minutes of furious output halts. The screen clears. A simple diagram with instructions glows upon the display.

Isaac leans close and reads the ancient fonts to himself under his breath. Constantly referring to his nearby notes, he mumbles. “Cell... empty... Charge cell?”

Eyeing the secured energy vessel, he hovers a finger over a large button. With the press, contacts retract, locking mechanisms disengage, and the caddie tips the elder energy cell out. Isaac cautiously grips the container, slides it out, and studies the device. Moments of contemplation later, he shrugs his shoulders, braces himself, and grips the power cell tightly. Wisps of white energy flow swirl around his body and sink into the elder energy vessel. Mustering up his full focus, Isaac directs surging torrents of power into the cell. The currents of flows sweep up drifting clouds of magical miasma venting from himself. A faint glow pulses brighter with each second. When the light from cell shines out and pushes back the night meters away, the flows fade. Gasping for relief, Isaac struggles to catch his breath and leans forward upon the device. Shaking his head back to some semblance of awareness, he gazes at the brilliantly lit elder energy cell and sighs with a hopeful gaze upon the control panel.

Hoisting the cell back into place, Isaac shoves the caddie in despite lingering exhaustion. The locking mechanism secures the cell and contacts press in. The diagram updates and new text flashes upon the display. Reading the new instructions, Isaac slowly presses down a line of buttons. With the last push, the red handled lever unlocks. Wrestling an uncertain frown, Isaac tightly grips the inviting red handle. He pauses in thought as internal deliberations spill out.

A memory sparks to the front his mind. Old terror surges new winces of pain. Determination seals the decision. Isaac slams the lever down against each mechanical clicks to resounding thump.

Silence floods the area. Isaac darts his worried glances around. In the quiet, anticipation tumbles to anxiety, and each new moment drags down a sharpening frown on Isaac’s face. He pauses his search of the horizon. In the distance, wooden snaps echo across the vast plain. A thin pole crests over the tops of a trees. Another rises up further over. New towers emerge from the deep in the earth. Snaps of thin roots crackle out as an ancient pole burst forth from its hidden grave near the access road. Isaac stands up and gawks in awe at the activity.

The circle of points kilometers from the center of the plains emit pulsing yellow light and warning alarms. The elder energy cell flashes brightly as the controls panel floods with flow. A burst of power surges out of sight. Isaac stands at the ready, glancing expectantly around the area.

The remaining specs of free gravel rattle upon the packed dirt of the access road. Isaac stiffens his posture. From the distant center of the plains, a low rumble vibrates out. Massive chunks of earth rise up stories high. Magitech platforms lift above the depths below the grass sea and unceremoniously dump the meters of packed soil to the side. From an opening kilometer wide pit, the top point of a rising structure crests over the tops of the tall grasses.

Isaac blinks in awe. A reinvigorated, wild grin beams brilliantly upon him. Closing his eyes, he basks in the refreshing wave of purpose. Donning an eager smile, he swells with determination. “Finally...”