Episode 127

Sebastian’s visage hovers near the dining table, gazing over the piles of research material. “Okay... So... We’ve determined that whatever this control panel is... It’s pretty unique.”

Aristespha swirls the dregs of her coffee in her mug and nods slowly. Sebastian drifts his stare over the spread out materials and sighs. “Which makes it likely it’s what we are looking for.”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Aristespha winces and wrestles an uneasy frown on her ivory face. “The trouble is how do we even approach this? It’d be absolutely insane to try to use the panel when we aren’t even sure what that would do. That would be outlandishly irresponsible and dangerous.”

Glancing from the kitchen, Bach snorts and shakes his head. “Yeah. If it requires Elder energy, it’s obviously going to do something serious. We’ve yet to find something that requires that kind of power, and it not have the potential to ruin part of the world.”

Cideeda’s voice bounces out from the doorway to the garage. “Haven’t heard of any elder energy toasters yet.”

Blinking in thought, Bach pulls his glance away from the comment. “I mean... Yeah. Don’t think any of those exist... Did they exist?”

He curiously eyes Aristespha, seeking an answer. Moments of searching her own mind, Aristespha shrugs back at Bach. “Possibly? There’s been sillier things that used Elder energy before the Abstract Prism.”

She shakes her head back to focus upon the notes before her. “We have to approach this carefully. I don’t have a slightest clue what it could-”

Her aetherphone vibrates upon the dining table, and she cocks a surprised stare at it. Picking the device up, she navigates the menus and her violet eyes scan over the text of a new message. From the archway leading into the hallway, Sotalia steps out with towel wrap over her wet hair and darts her golden eyes between the everyone. “Hey, has anyone checked the news? I just got a message from Tassilda.”

Aristespha slides her chair back and stands up with her phone in hand. “No, Deedri just sent something to me.”

Leaning out from doorway to the garage, Dretphi holds up her aetherphone. “Trakenthin contacted me.”

The team exchange uneasy and tense glances. As they all gather around the couch, Aristespha sweeps up the remote from the coffee table and turns on the television. Watching Aristespha flip through channels, Cideeda motion towards the screen. “Try two zero.”

After pressing the buttons, the monitor flips to a newscast where a nicely dressed man addresses the audience.

“Early this morning, the GAA responded to a disturbance in the southern regions outside of Amaranth Valley, within the Eagle Rock province. GAA authorities have set up blockades and are restricting the airspace. Our dedicated helicopter team was able to record this video before being escorted out of range.”

A video feed appears. The view settles upon a familiar plain surrounded by forest. Zooming in, a massive tower in the middle of the vast field commands attention. Shimmering with magic flow, streaks of energy glitter down numerous channels embedded into ancient stonework. Surrounding the central building, a scattered mess of small structures form a courtyard that creates a buffer space before huge pillars outline an imposing wall. Just outside the wall, scattered obelisks pepper the region of overturned dirt mounds and ancient risen platforms.

The shot sways over to a flurry of activity. Groups of lumbering golems stagger towards a GAA defensive line near a recognizable row of rare trees. A single access road guides military vehicles into the fray. Flashes of auto-cannon fire streak across and spray down a golem into a hazy cloud of sparks. Another heavy mech stomps up with blue glows from mounted weaponry lighting up. Balls of plasma burst forth and splash upon the magic etched hull of an golem wandering too close.

The shot shakes about and zooms out completely to a GAA scout helicopter flying up close. The military pilot hand signals and the feed stops.

“We will keep on bringing you up to date news on this emerging situation.”

The team gawks silently. Only occasional blinks interrupt the still stares, motionless towards the television. A hard twitch pulls up Sotalia’s upper lip into a pained grimace, and she gasps. “WHAT. THE. FUCK?!”

Curling her clawed fingers towards her palms, Cideeda grits her teeth and bares her pronounced canines as her fluffed out tail wags erratically. “How the- When did- What could have- This makes no sense!”

Aristespha’s violet eyes dart through the racing thoughts in her mind and mouths out phrases that never receive audible words. Dretphi crosses her arms and furrows her brow, fighting off flits of rage with surges of concentration. Bach plops down upon the couch and sinks back upon the seat. Sebastian drifts down upon the seat next to Bach and gazes blankly ahead.

A spark of fury ignites Sotalia, and she jabs a finger at the screen while her body tenses. “NOXIAN! That’s the ONLY explanation! Somehow that bastard got there after us! That thing needed elder energy, and he’s the only one that would have done that!”

Cideeda glances up to Sotalia with her emerald green eyes, and combs her hands through her short, multi-colored hair. “But HOW!? How? How did he know about the location... And how did he know about the control panel- How did the GAA get there so quickly?! It’s in the middle of nowhere!”

While Sotalia seethes and Cideeda toe claws dig into the floor, Bach glances over the Sebastian. After a few moments, Sebastian meets Bach’s gaze. Bach sighs while searching his mind. “I think we’re beyond asking the what, when, and whys.”

Slowly arriving to nod, Sebastian frowns and narrows his stare. “Yeah, bro. We only got two options right now. We sit back... Or...”

Bach cracks a faint smile. “We do something about it.”

Gazing at his brother, a proud grin appears at the corner of Sebastian’s mouth. “Yeah. I agree.”

Staring between the furiously debating Cideeda and Sotalia and the frantically analyzing Aristespha and Dretphi, Bach and Sebastian watch the news broadcast quietly. Bach startles and retrieves his aetherphone from his pants pocket. The notification prompt on screen shows a new message from Chad Bosch. Sebastian draws in a shaky ethereal breath. “Bro, this is huge. We’re definitely going to be in over our heads on this one. But, we got to do something.”

Bach perks his brow when a thought slams to the front of his mind. He turns his head towards Sebastian and grins. “Let’s call in some help then.”

When Bach turns his phone screen towards Sebastian, the brothers exchange glances. Sebastian searches his mind and smiles at his brother. “Yeah. We can’t fuck around on his one. Our chances are going to be better with their support.”

Bach pulls a long breath through his nose and frowns. “I don’t want to put them in danger. But... I think Isaac already did that... to everyone.”

Sebastian hovers up from his place on the couch and nods to Bach. “Then, let’s do this.”

He floats up and addresses the team. “Everyone!”

In the lull from the interruption, Sebastian smiles at the group. “To say the least, we’re going out there and figuring out how to stop whatever is going on. We don’t know what we’re facing or what to fully expect. This is big.”

He motions to Bach and grins. “I think we need to call in some help on this one, as suggested by my bro. And, we have a group right next door that’s capable. Any objections?”

After seconds of quiet, the team realizes the suggestion. Sotalia cracks a smirk and chuckles. “I’m not going to turn down help in taking down Noxian.”

Dretphi nods sternly and straightens her posture. “We should warn them. Will take the assistance.”

With no objections, Sebastian crosses his arms. “Alright. Aristespha, Bach, and Sotalia. Message their team to get ready. Cideeda and Dretphi. We’re going to need a point to meet up at that’s near the site.”

He grits his teeth briefly and cringes with a roll of his translucent blue eyes. “We need to keep away from the GAA. That’d be a mess to sort out... And, we don’t have the time for that. I think they’re doing a good job keeping everything distracted, so we actually have an element of surprise right now.”

Glancing over to Cideeda and Dretphi, he ponders out loud. “So... Something that’s opposite to them and good launch point. We’ll meet up and figure out a plan.”

Looking over the gathering, he presents a proud smile. “Any thing else?”

With no contest and eager grins around, Sebastian nods. “Okay. This is big. Get everything ready. EVERYTHING.”

Sneaking up the stairwell, Chad glances back down and anxiously listens. After muffled exchanges between Samantha’s voice and someone else, he steps quickly over to the awaiting team in the hallway. “Well, I tried to convince her let us go get breakfast first, but she’s not budging. She wants to get all this filming done today all at once.”

Tassilda rests her hands on her hips and sways as a souring sneer twists her grimace. “Of course, she would. I guess she finally conned enough of the crew to work with her and can’t waste it.”

Rolling his dark blue eyes, Modoran grits his teeth and wrestles frustration on his dusky bluish gray face. “We’re going to have to sneak out.”

Deedri gazes up to Modoran, furrows her brow, and flicks her furry ears with her thoughts. “How many people can use your invisibility spell on?”

Blinking with a tilt of his head of grayish white hair, Modoran ponders the figures and frowns over the results. “I can manage one other person at a time, and it still be not easy to detect. Anything more, and I can’t keep focus enough for the illusion to be useful.”

He crosses his arms while shaking his head. “It’d take too long, and it’s tiring.”

Trakenthin brushes his hand through his short, dirty blonde hair and twists a grimace from the corner of his mouth. “Need to leave quickly together. Simple plan. Fast results. Get away before they have a chance to follow.”

He glances over the team and rolls his hazel eyes. “They are liabilities... Can not risk them tailing us into danger.”

Chad draws in a slow breath and slacks his shoulders with grumble. “Yeah, you’re right. As much as I think we could outrun them, we can’t risk even one stumbling upon the meeting point.”

A door nearby quietly cracks open and a fuzzy ear twitches out. Strands of long pink hair slip out through the widening divide, and Veevi’s pink pupils peer out at the debating team. After her ears flick to the bits of drifting information, she searches between her anxiety and tenses briefly. She opens the door, cautiously approaches, and hems. Summoning up her courage, she waits patiently for the group to settle their attention upon her. Meeting their expectant stares, Veevi sighs out her tension and addresses the team. “If you want, I think I can help.”

Darting glances bounce between the team. Flits of hesitation solidify into reservation, and attention shifts to Chad. Perking his brow curiously, Chad dons a comforting smile. “Okay. I mean, we appreciate the offer. But, I not about to let you join us on this mission, it too danger-”

Veevi’s eyes widen in surprise, and she quickly waves off the notion with awkward chuckle. “Oh! No! I’m not... an adventurer. You all have that handled without me causing problems. Um...”

A bubbling of confidence pulls her grin, and she poses with a mischievous sparkle in her eye. “I overheard you talking, and you need a distraction, right?”

Watching the interest from the team, Chad nods intrigued. “Yes. That would help.”

An eager lip curl unveils a sharp canine, and Veevi tosses her hair back. She straightens her posture with a sinister smile upon her tan face. While checking her sharp nails, she gazes at the team and quirks her brow. “I was thinking. It has been peaceful and quiet lately. The crews and Samantha aren’t expecting anything from me. They’ve written me off at this point.”

She narrows her stare towards the stairwell and cracks an evil grin. “They’d be caught totally off guard if I just happened to have a fully unhinged melt down right now.”

Resting her hands on her hips, she shifts her weight and swings her tail with the motion. Slowly returning her gaze to the team, she smiles with a giggle. “I’ll direct all my rage at Samantha. Blame her for some random failing in my contract. Maybe force an impromptu renegotiation right there in front of everyone...”

While Deedri, Modoran, Tassilda, and Trakenthin ponder the offer, Chad blinks in surprise and cocks his head uncertainly. “I mean... That definitely could work. I, uh, don’t want to demand anything you aren’t comfortable with and-”

Veevi smiles kindly at Chad and laughs reassuringly. “It’s fine. Really. I’m trying to do better. But, it doesn’t mean I’m going to forget who I was. Think of it as using those powers for good now.”

Tassilda smirks and rolls of her light blue on black eyes. “By the gods, I almost would want to see you unload on Samantha.”

With a wag of her tail, Deedri cracks an evil grin and perks her furry ears. “Oh, you won’t miss it. You’ll be able to watch it later, because the crews are going to record every moment.”

Modoran nods in agreement, and glances down hallway towards Chad’s bedroom door. “If we prep our supplies in your room, Chad, we can go out the front windows. I got a spell or two to help us out.”

Firming up his stance, Trakenthin narrows his determination. “Lower equipment. Drop down. Rush to the vehicle.”

Chad surveys the acceptance from the team and smiles appreciatively to Veevi. “I think that’s the best plan we’re going to get any time soon. Thanks for doing this, Veevi.”

A faint flush fills Veevi’s cheeks, and she averts her eyes briefly. “Not a problem. This sounds... and FEELS really important. So... I guess you all need to get ready. Just let me know when to go. I’d wait for Samantha and I to start screaming at each other before you do anything. Just to make sure everyone is paying attention to us.”

With a signal from Chad, the team rush to their rooms. They swiftly don their gear and snatch up equipment. Veevi closes her eyes and performs calming breathing exercises. The team migrates over to Chad’s bedroom. Tassilda and Modoran gestures out spells. Deedri scouts out open windows to survey the front lawn. Trakenthin arranges equipment containers and plots out the process. Chad whispers down the hall and waves to Veevi. “We’re ready. Are you ready?”

Veevi slowly opens her eyes and smiles to Chad. “Yes.”

Chad nods and motions towards the stairs. “You’re up.”

As Veevi turns towards the steps, he directs his voice down the hallway. “Thank you, again, Veevi.”

Out of view from Chad, an encouraged smile cracks out from the corner of Veevi’s mouth, and a flit of eagerness skips her down the steps.

Chad closes the door and signals the team. Soon, muffled voices resonate from the floor below. Vaguely familiar tones raise each other around a growing argument. Veevi goes all in with a loud indignant scream, and Samantha calls her with an enraged yell. A vicious squabble reverberates from below and permeates up the stairwell.

Spell energy rushes down to an anchor point in the front yard. Equipment slips down the curtains of flow and lands safely upon the leaf thick lawn. Chad and Trakenthin slip out the windows, slide down the cushioning magical energy, and coast to landfall. Deedri, Tassilda, and Modoran follow after, and the spells dissipate into miasma carried off by the wind.

The team sweeps up containers and rush over to the black sport utility vehicle, keeping a low profile as they pass the front windows into the living room chaos. Veevi’s gaze briefly diverts and spots the team making their escape. Summoning up her ire, she releases a frenzied barrage of spite upon Samantha, and seizes the full attention of the camera crew.

Chad starts up the SUV and glances over the group. “Everyone buckled up and ready?”

After few confirmations, he snaps his attention ahead. “Okay, last chance to object before we-”

Gerald stares at the team in the black vehicle. Seconds pass in the awkward deadlock between the Flames of the Phoenix and Gerald. Uneasy glances between the team bounce around. Gerald surveys the situation from his vantage point near the side corner of the two story house. A slow grin grows across his face, and shrugs his shoulders with a chuckle. With hoist of his freshly opened beer can, he salutes the team, pours back the brew, and gives them a thumbs up. Chad bows his head respectfully, puts the SUV into reverse, and backs out onto the road.

Afters the team speeds off out of sight, Gerald enjoys his beer. He pauses a moment to listen to the furious fight trickling out into the airspace and walks away toward quieter pastures.

In the middle of dense tree cover, two teams stand near the hood of the humvee. Sebastian hovers over and motions over a sketched map. “Everything is pointing to a rush towards the center.”

Chad nods as his brown eyes dart between the rough drafts and frowns slightly. “Yeah. A slow and methodical approach will put us in more danger.”

Peering through the tree line, he stares out to the upturned mounds, rough passages, and raised platforms in the vast plains down the ridge. “It looks like we have plenty of room to maneuver with our vehicles. And... It looks clear enough.”

Sebastian gazes over to a line up observing the distant activity in the open region. “Any updates?”

Gradually adjusting her binoculars with a claw tip on the knob, Cideeda flicks her furry ears and grimaces her light brown face. “Nothing new. The GAA are keeping these security golems, I guess, busy. They are really sluggish.”

Next to Cideeda, Trakenthin pivots the aim of his binoculars over and tilts his head down. “Still powerful when they do attack. Long recharges.”

Studying the brief exchanges of GAA and golems on the opposite side of the plains, both Sotalia and Tassilda peer through optic spells with quiet, deliberative frowns. Tilting her head of raven black hair to the side, Tassilda perks her brow. “They do go down, but we can’t hold back.”

Sotalia twists an annoyed grimace on her light tan face and shakes her head. “I know. I haven’t seen any sign of a weakness. They’re walking tanks.”

Waving off the spell between her hands, she cracks a confident grin to Tassilda and chuckles eagerly. “I guess we’ll just have to hit them with our most powerful spells.”

A competitive spark lights up Tassilda’s light blue on black gaze, and she smirks slyly. “Oh no. Whatever shall we do?”

The two turn around and focus back onto the gathering near the humvee. Sotalia adjusts her cloak and shrugs her shoulders. “We need to hit them hard and fast. No weaknesses. But, thankfully, nothing that special from them.”

Walking away from the line up watching the vast, disjointed plain, Bach scratches the back of his head and stops next to the humvee. “I get the feeling they’re not fully powered up.”

Dretphi glances over to Bach from charting out the map further and cocks her head curiously. “Any tactics?”

Bach blinks in thought. “Not really. Lumber towards something in the area and shoot it?”

He shifts his gaze over towards Cideeda and Trakenthin. “You all see them use any kind of tactics?”

Trakenthin shakes his head of dirty blonde hair and curls an unamused frown. “No. Simple reactions.”

Lowering her binoculars down, Cideeda furrows her brow and darts her emerald green gaze at Bach. “Those cyber-zombies from a few months ago had more going on than these things. And, they seem to be set against the GAA forces, right now.”

Meeting Bach’s returning gaze, Sebastian’s ethereal visage grimaces and crosses his arms. “That’ll give us the best opportunity we’re going to get.”

He lands on the ground next to Chad, and lifts his brow. “So, ride as fast possible, minimum engagement, and just try to get through one of those wall archways?”

Chad crosses his arms, straightens his posture, and studies the map. He glances through the thin canopy of bare branches at the towering structure rising out of the center of the vast field. Returning his attention back to the meeting, he sighs with a reserved smile. “Yeah. That’s all I got. It’s only a few kilometers, but it’s going to be a wild ride.”

Modoran steps over nonchalantly and observes distant flickers of suppressive fire from the GAA. He twist his mouth and nervously chuckles. “They got armor over there. What do we have?”

Team members exchange glances, seeking an answer. Aristespha tosses back her silvery blue hair and tips her head up. “I have protective barrier spells I can layer upon our vehicle, and Bach is backup.”

Deedri perks up her furry ears and grins confidently. “I can do similar spells. I wouldn’t recommend going head first into anything, but it’ll soften a direct hit.”

Her furry ears droop, and she struggles to keep a bold smile as her auburn eyes avert awkwardly. “And that’s one direct hit. If I get some time to flow more energy, I can get be ready for another attack.”

Blinking her violet eyes, Aristespha twists an uneasy smirk and sighs as her confidence wanes. “The same for me. It’s incredibly taxing.”

Chad and Sebastian exchange glances. Both motion everyone close. After a few gestures between each other, Sebastian urges Chad to speak first. Drawing in a long breath, Chad addresses the congregation. “Okay. With everything we know, the fast approach along a route with the least golems around is the best plan we have. Avoid attacking unless necessary and focus on getting to the center.”

Confirming the pause from Chad, Sebastian picks up the conversation. “We know there’s security golems lumbering around. There may be other things. Hopefully, if we keep our presence less hostile than the GAA, there’s a chance we might seem like the lesser targets and use that to our advantage.”

He frowns firm. “We probably got one shot at this. So, don’t hold back. Once we get through the walls, we’re entering unknown territory. The goal is to ride for as long as possible and find Noxian. After that, well, improvise.”

A heavy silence weighs down and cements the severity. Chad presents a reassuring smile and stands tall. “Together we can make this happen. We just have to be careful and smart about it.”

He taps upon the map on the hood of the humvee and directs attention upon their marked position. “We ride out together and keep close. That way we can help shield and cover each other.”

Sebastian nods in agreement and gauges the crowd. “Any objections? Speak now.”

With a quiet agreement from the assembly, he smiles proudly and waves over to the map. “Good. Let’s figure out a few routes and backups.”

Late morning sun beams down up on the tall grass swaying the breeze. Faint gunfire echoes in the distance. An engine roars out from the forest along with a powerful turbine whine filling in the gaps. A chorus of wooden snaps and harsh rustles flood the air. A black sports utility vehicle and an ancient humvee plow through thick shrubs, and send brush toppling to the side. The two machines bound off the slight bumps and launch down the long incline. With a final leap, both vehicles steer towards their goal. Carving paths through the tall grasses, the humvee lines up on the right side of the SUV and pushes through the waves of paling green sea. Both Cideeda and Chad grip steering wheels and keep on track with each hidden dip and bump beneath the flow of overgrowth. Flickers of magic ripple from the fronts and sides of the machines, as an unending torrent of yellowing grass tops smack into metal.

Jetting above the two groups, Sebastian zips high above and surveys the paths between huge mounds of upended earth, obelisks, and ancient platforms. His visage darts back down through the humvee, and he calls out inside the cab. “The first part of the run is clear, but in a few hundred meters there’s a golem off to the side.”

Chad’s voice crackles out from an aetherphone speakerphone. “Keep to the other side and see if it leaves us alone?”

Sebastian nods towards the emerald green eyes reflected in the rear view mirror. “Yes. But, get ready. If it pays us any attention, take it down.”

Glancing over from the black SUV, Chad grants nod to Sebastian and his voice sounds out in the humvee’s cab. “Affirmative.”

The humvee hatch slides open, and Sotalia rises up through the portal. She stabilizes herself with her hands upon the roof and Dretphi firmly holding her waist. Glancing over, Sotalia watches Tassilda pop out through the open sunroof. During a hard bump Tassilda tenses and grips onto the supporting arms of Trakenthin and Modoran. Windows roll down, and Bach and Trakenthin prime their pistols.

Sebastian darts out ahead of the pair of vehicles, coasts high above the passage through the obstacles, and searches the area. He spots the standing golem down the way. The teams drive opposite of the ancient machine. Sebastian narrows his glare down at the golem and keeps ahead of the vehicles. The humanoid golem shudders and sways its weight to a rocky boot. Its rigid upper torso shakily rotates, and flits of magical energy radiate into a rune etched barrel at the end of one arm. Sebastian flares up his ghostly form and shouts out with a point. “OPEN FIRE!”

Both Sotalia and Tassilda deftly gesture through incantations, and flows of magic spiral to forming energy between their hands. With quick glances, both count down. The golem raises its arm towards the humvee. Two beams of prismatic energy slam into the magical machine. Burrowing into the layers of armor, the melting forces sink into stone behemoth. The golem tips back and a volley of plasma bolts push it pass its center of gravity. The SUV’s and humvee’s wheels bounce when the humanoid mass splashes into the flowing tall grass.

Both vehicles turn down a passage, and another golem stomps out from the cover of a distant obelisk. Sebastian calls out, and both rides veer from a collision course. The magical monster sluggishly swings its charging weapon towards the teams. Loud cracks echo out. The golem shakes with each impact and spews forth magical sparks. Two balls of energy cut through the dissipating vapor trails, and slam into the rocky giant. Powerful bursts erupt into a concussive waves that ripple out upon the grass tops. Another heavy slam rattles the land.

Steering around mounds of debris, the SUV and humvee settle back on course and turn down a corridor between risen platforms. The grass fades to patches upon out piles of dirt, and the sun glints off of smooth stonework under the tires. The stillness and peace of the passage infuses a new paranoia in the teams.

Panels from the raised platforms spring open. Groups of hovering magic tech drones spew forth. The tailed, ovoid machines zip menacingly, leading with bulky arms of destructive utility tools. Cideeda narrows her emerald green eyes briefly and springs them wide open in surprise. “What the hell are those- They have saws and drills?!”

From the aetherphone, Chad’s voice crackles out. “Why would the defense system send maintenance drones after us?! The fuck?!”

Bach darts through the rush of thoughts in his mind and grits his teeth. “It’s not fully automated. Someone must have activated them!”

Both blinking in surprise, Sotalia and Tassilda exchange stares, motion out spell gestures to each other, and agree. Swiftly going through a series of incantations, both summon up surges of magical flows into their hands and aim their power above. Volleys of bolts zip chaotically towards the swarm and crash into a few. Streaks of prismatic energy coils through the air, sharply turn, and burrow through targets. Vapor trails crack into existence behind gauss rounds along with plasma pellets scattering into the mess. Drones tumble out of the mass and crash into fiery piles upon the passage floor. Both Tassilda and Sotalia continue feverish sprays of spells into the approaching swarm. In their furies, they thin the horde to a few stranglers. Summoning up their energies, Sotalia and Tassilda coordinate fire upon the last batch. Bolts and streaks tear the drones into flaming metal carcasses, trailing smoke behind. In the moment of victory, mental math from all calculates the trajectory of the falling machines. Sebastian shouts out. “TAKE COVER!”

Dretphi catches Sotalia when she drops down, and Modoran swiftly pulls Tassilda clear. A maintenance drone splatters upon the hood of the SUV. Another crashes upon the roof of the humvee and tumbles to pieces off the back. Shimmers of magical flow radiate out upon the surfaces of the vehicles, and Aristespha and Deedri feel the strain. A hail of machine pieces rain down along, and explosions from dead drones pepper shards into the area. Cideeda brakes hard, swings the steering wheel to the right, and forces the humvee around a cluster of smoldering machinery. Chad darts the SUV around one pile and slips around another fiery mass.

The teams form back up as they turn sharply back towards the central tower. Sebastian materializes back into the cab of the humvee and glances around at the team. “Is everyone okay?”

Sotalia crawls back into her front seat panting. “I am... I just need a minute. That was a lot of at once.”

Sebastian nods and calls out towards the aetherphone mounted on the front dash. “Chad? Everything good?”

Chad’s voice sounds out. “We’re good here, too. That was WILD.”

Relaxing his shoulders, Sebastian shakes his head. “Yeah. We’re getting pretty close. There’s probably a few other surprises-”

He catches the glint of something from the shadowy alleys between the surrounding raised platforms. “WATCH OUT!”

A fiery mass of blue-white splashes over the front of the humvee. The magical field warps away from the metal and Aristespha winces. Sucking in a tense breath, her violet eyes flash brighter and the protective barrier latches back. “Gods! What was that?!”

Dretphi snatches up her rifle, drops her visor, and stands up through the hatch while chambering a round. Quickly spotting her target, she braces herself and pulls the trigger. A bright eruption of sparks blows out near a corner as the loud report echoes. A smaller bipedal golem flops onto the ground. Readying for the next shot, Dretphi grimaces with rage trickling into her voice. “More golems. Small ones.”

Another humanoid machine peeks around another corner ahead. As Dretphi swings her rifle around, a streak of magic darts across and rails into the smaller golem. Dretphi glances over to Modoran in the SUV nearby. Modoran grants a quick nod and nocks another arrow. Between rifle reports and silent streaks, a few ambushing golems manage to line up their attacks. Balls of blue-white energy vent out magical barrels. Defensive driving leads to safer positions, but chance guides a number of attacks close. The fiery chaos coats the vehicles and strains barriers. Projectiles from other defensive golems spark along the sides of the humvee and SUV.

Dretphi ejects a magazine and grabs the next. A small squad of leaner golems appear at the ready. A hail of projectiles ripple upon the defensive barrier. Dretphi manages to reload in time to duck down. “Incoming!”

A volley of energy orbs erupt and burn off the magical barrier. Aristespha flops back into her seat in a daze. Sebastian worriedly looks her over. “Dear! You okay?”

Aristespha shudders while holding the temples of her head. “Yes. I just- I- I couldn’t hold it.”

Returning her full attention to the passage ahead, Cideeda tenses, her emerald eyes spring wide open, and her claws dig into the wheel. “They’re running towards us!”

Bach holsters his pistol and slaps his hands down upon the floorboard of the cab. With brilliant flash of bright blue from his eyes, a surge of flow rushes into the humvee. A golden hexagonal barrier materializes from the front bumper spreads out to form a protective plow. Cideeda tries desperately to aim for a clear path and braces herself. “HOLD ON!”

A human sized golem lunges out at the humvee. It crashes upon the golden barrier and bounces over. Another bipedal machine dives low. The vehicle pitches up violently and slams harshly down. A sparking spray of stone segments tumble out behind. Chad glances over from the SUV, and his voice crackles out. “You guys okay?!”

Sebastian checks over the team picking themselves up and settling back in their seats. “Looks like it. But, we’re not in the best shape at the moment.”

Chad nods and calls out over the radio. “We’ll take lead. Give you all a chance to recover.”

Granting a quick nod, Sebastian smiles appreciatively. “Thanks.”

The SUV takes the lead down chaotic passage. Modoran sinks arrows into targets, and Dretphi sends anti-material rounds down range to enemies. Trakenthin covers with volleys from his Gauss pistol. Golem attacks slip through and pelt the SUV with impunity. Sebastian zips ahead and spots a final wave near the end of segment. As he points out the attackers, they blind spray around the corners. The rounds spark off the wavering magic barrier. Modoran looses an arrow, spots incoming energy balls, and reflexively drops down while yelling back. “GET DOWN!”

As Dretphi follows through, the volley burns over the SUV and melts off the protective field with most the paint. Chad squints through a blackened windshield, while wipers streak sections clear. Another blind fire barrage bounces off the passageway. A cacophony of loud metal thunks, pings, and clanks resound from the front of the SUV. Lights flood the dash in a rainbow of warnings, and new erratic noises challenge the harmony of the engine. Chad glances around and calls out. “Everyone okay?”

Trakenthin and Tassilda inspect themselves and look over each other. Modoran pats himself, and quickly checks on a dazed Deedri. “I’m okay. Deedri?”

Deedri winces to awareness. “I’m fine. Just... Gods, I lost the spell... I’m sorry.”

Modoran reassures Deedri with a side hug. Sebastian’s ethereal tone sounds out from Chad’s aetherphone. “Chad! Is everyone okay?”

Chad fights a frown. “Yes. But, our ride took a hit. I don’t she’s going to make it.”

Cideeda’s voice crackles in. “You don’t have long. I smell every bad thing possible coming from it.”

Sebastian’s ghostly visage phases into the cab of the SUV, and he glances over the dash light spectrum flickering. “Shit. Chad, do you need to ride with us?”

Chad grits his teeth, shakes his head, and sighs. “No. We can’t slow you down. We need to get as far as this thing will take us back and get clear.”

He grins at Sebastian and nods respectfully. “We’ve done all we can.”

Sebastian returns the gesture and smiles proudly. “We got this. Thanks for the help. Now, get the fuck outta here.”

Sebastian’s form dissipates. The SUV steers away from the humvee and turns around. Sebastian reappears in the humvee. “They’re heading out. Just hope they can get to the treeline.”

Bach, Dretphi, and Sotalia watch the black vehicle race back through the cleared route behind with a faint trail smoke. Turning their attentions ahead, the sun shines upon the tall walls around the massive tower. Cideeda points out towards the massive archway ahead. “We’re almost there. We just got to keep-”

Arcs of energy ignite the top of the walls. Pulses of magical flow fire up stout flow channels in the huge support pillars. A slow wave of translucent energy waterfalls down the towering wall face. Bach squints briefly. “That doesn’t look good. That looks like a barrier coming down!”

A massive figure steps into view from a side passage, Sotalia mutters out. “Oh, that’s big.”

The huge humanoid golem stomps out, pivots in place, and stands imposingly. Cideeda eases up the accelerator, and darts her emerald green eyes around. “Shit, I don’t see another route around.”

Dretphi grins menacingly at the target. She rushes to the back of the humvee and grabs hold of something heavy. From the hatch of the humvee, Dretphi hoists up the minigun and yells out. “Keep it steady!”

She primes, arms, and readies. The huge golem adjusts it’s aim.

A barrage of mass chisels off chunks of finely engraved stone. Dretphi’s whole body tenses against the rippling shocks coursing through her armored form. She muscles the constant line of rounds and paints exploratory bullets across the stonework beast. A stream of projectiles punch through weak spots and spill forth into tender internals. The final bullet leaves the barrel, and the last belt link falls. The huge golem stands still in front of a distant backdrop of the descending barrier. An erratic flicker pulses across the golem’s form. The rigid stance wavers to an unsteady sway. The massive magical machine tips to the side. A explosive boom launches a wave of debris.

Cheers sound out from inside the cab as Dretphi grins triumphantly. The humvee speeds around the downed golem and rides towards the final straightway to the archway. As the team collects themselves, a panel opens up and another swarm of maintenance drones erupt forward. Sebastian spots the approaching mass. “Oh shit. Really?!”

A deep, loud shriek reverberates in the skies above. Sebastian and Bach search overhead. Fast, booming pulses resonate. Streaks of prismatic energy hail down. The barrage of beams home in and spear drones into molten craters. A draconic shadow casts upon the humvee. Bach’s aetherphone rings and he quickly turns on the speakerphone. Kaleb’s voice calls out from the other side of the call. “So, what do you guys need from us?”

Bach grins excitedly and stares ahead at the descending curtain of energy approaching the archway. “If you can somehow disrupt that barrier coming down, that’d be great!”

Kaleb sounds out through the speaker. “Well, I’ll try shooting it. That’s all I got.”

Flying close towards the walls, Lagi levels off and steadies his speed. Kaleb observes the falling magical veil and grimaces uncertainly with his particle power blaster in hand. “Any suggestion where?”

Bach’s voice crackles over Kaleb’s helmet. “Try above the archway and work upwards.”

Kaleb nods understandingly and pats Lagi’s shoulder. “You heard the man. Line up for a pass for that archway they’re driving towards.”

Lagi clicks to confirm, and navigates into a pass. Kaleb readies his blaster, takes aim, and pulls the trigger. A few shot sink into the descending waterfall and ripple out disruptively. Kaleb ponders a moment and studies this weapon. Bach’s voice sounds out. “That seemed to work a little. Can you do anything more powerful? We’re still too far and tapped out.”

Kaleb pauses in thought and catches Lagi glancing back him. He grits his teeth briefly, hisses in a long breath, and nods resolutely. Checking his seating on the saddle, he cranks up the power dial on the particle blaster to full. “Lagi... Let’s go for another slow pass. It’s going to get rough.”

Lagi blinks his bright green eyes and cocks his head. A high-pitched hum from the blaster catches his attention. Flapping his wings, Lagi darts around and sets up the approach. Kaleb secures an arm in safety straps, braces his other tensed arm against his side, and tightens his grip on the blaster. When they close in on the target archway, he laughs eagerly. “Don’t tell Shadeesa I did this!”

A constant pulsing stream of charged blasts rip through the air. The bolts of energy splash into the lowering veil. The field bubbles with each strike and blows out sections into plumes of miasma. The curtain divides at the impact and staggers with the bombardment. The humvee closes the distance. Kaleb winces in agony while the recoil rails his elbow into ribs. His muscles struggle to steady the blaster and keep him in the saddle.

The team speeds closer to the archway. Kaleb strains to keep the blaster firing on target. An accidental shift in the saddle, his elbow slips off his ribs and behind his back. A muffled pop follows a blast, and the weapon ceases. The weapon dangles from a safety line. Kaleb lays forward and gasps in shock as his arm flops limp upon Lagi’s blue black scaled side. Pulling away from the target, Lagi worriedly chitters and chirps. Kaleb collects himself between gulps of air and grins against the pain. “Light it up, Lagi. Make grandpa proud!”

In the cab of the humvee, Cideeda guns the humvee down a clear straight away. “Shit! I don’t know if we’ll make it through.”

Bach call out into his aetherphone. “Kaleb?! What happened?! Are you two okay?”

Kaleb cackles confidently. “One moment!”

A large dark shadow briefly shades the vehicle. The team gawks ahead. Streams of magical flow pulse across Lagi’s wings and body and swirl to a central point in his gaping maw. A radiant orb of blue-white energy swells. Flapping his two pairs of wings, Lagi hovers in place in front of the archway and aims his mouth. A column of plasma erupts forth, splashes upon the ancient wall above the archway. Swinging his head up, Lagi drags the molten beam higher and slices into the descending magical curtain. The flood of plasma parts the veil and the plumes of heat billow it off the surface of the wall. Lagi swings the spray side to side, ripping up layers of the barrier waterfall and flinging shredded magic energies mixed molten stonework.

The humvee speeds through the archway as the last flames fade from Lagi’s maw. The barrier anchors into the ground and seals the entry.

Speeding through the debris of the recent fighting, Chad swerves around a flaming drone pile up. The failure lights on the dash frantically blink and a chorus of alarms ring off. Glancing down at the garbled errors on console display, Chad summons up a brave smile against his clenched jaw. He stares ahead at the darkening smoke swirling with the white steam venting from under the hood, and cringes at a new metallic clang joining the chaotic symphony. He pulls in a hissing breath and mumbles. “Just a little farther-”

A bang shakes the vehicle and the engine sputters dead. Tassilda blinks in shock. “Oh gods, what was that?!”

Chad muscles the steering wheel as the SUV coasts. “Piston, rod, valve... Just anything, at this point.”

The vehicle slows to stop upon the stonework floor between upturned earth and raised ancient platforms, in the middle of smoldering combat debris. Chad glances over his shoulder. “We’re going to have to go on foot. The tall grass isn’t that far away. Once we get there, we should be hidden enough to rush to the treeline.”

As the team scrambles for their belongings and gets ready to disembark, Modoran checks out the back window. His dark blue eyes spring open in fright. “We have a problem.”

The team follows Modoran’s point down the corridor. Golems of all sizes step out from side routes, pivot, and march towards the SUV. Trakenthin darts his hazel eyes between the approaching enemies. “We are the only target nearby.”

Pulling out his laser pistol, Chad unbuckles his seat belt and motions to the open sunroof. “I’ll distract them. They’re probably after the SUV, since it’s a big target. I’ll keep firing to keep their attention-”

Tassilda rolls her light blue on black eyes and grips Chad’s shoulder tightly. “NONE of THAT. We can figure a way out of this together.”

Narrowing a determined stare at Chad, Deedri frowns sharply with a scolding hint in her tone. “Don’t you split from us and try to do that heroic sacrifice shit. There’s a way... We got illusion spells we can use to hide long enough to get clear and-”

The cab darkens. A rush of air gusts into the space. The bewildered team searches around. A powerful, loud shriek echoes just overhead. Chad gazes up through the sunroof in utter disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding-”

Lagi drops down and lands on the black sports utility vehicle. Scrambling for grip under the flexing metal, he scratches around the quarter panels. His claws curl around and into the wheels. Kaleb leans over from his saddle and calls down through the sunroof. “HEY! My friends told me you all might need some help out of here. Hang on a moment. Lagi’s got this.”

A pulse of green lights up Lagi’s eyes and flow radiates out through his body. Pulses of energy burst forward along his four wings and rush down his legs and arms. The blue black scaled dragon roars out as prismatic waves surge out of him. His wings pitch up and slam down. Torrents of wind launch heavy debris meters away. Powerful flaps press shock waves of flow swirling into downward gusts of air. The Lagi rises into the air and hoists up the battered and beaten SUV. Flapping furiously, he gains forward momentum and climbs up into the skies. The eager dragon shrieks out in triumph. Chad and Tassilda grip the dash wide eyed. Trakenthin maintains a stoic stare ahead despite the crushing grip on the overhead handles. Deedri and Modoran hold onto each other, with Modoran catching the excited grin winning out over the fright on Deedri’s fair face.

Behind a defensive perimeter, GAA forces rush to prepare for the next assault. Specialist Thayal calls out while snapping the aim of his binoculars to a distant target. “Captain! Sergeant! We’ve got incoming!”

Sergeant Violet firmly addresses Thayal. “What? Where? The golems fell back a while ago.”

Energetically pointing to the sky, Thayal rushes towards the access road and yells out. “Dragon with a vehicle! He’s on approach towards the road! CLEAR THE RUNWAY!”

Sergeant Violet gawks as Lagi coasts down with the SUV beneath him. Captain Hackle perks his brow in honest surprise and cracks an amused smile. “Well.”

Slowing down to a low altitude as GAA crews run clear, Lagi releases the SUV upon the road and glides down to a soft landing upon a grassy spot. The Flames of the Phoenix depart their vehicle. Chad steadies himself back on his two feet, pivots around, and surveys the wrecked machine. He stares at the fatal damage and snorts. “Well, they finally did it. They killed my fucking car.”

Trakenthin walks up and pats Chad on the shoulder with a commiserating grimace. Nearby, Kaleb manages to release himself from his safety harness with a his working arm and slides off onto the grass. He pokes Lagi and grins through his pain. “You okay?”

Lagi clicks and chirps between pants and snorts. Kaleb nods and sits back down while cradling his arm. “Good... Good. Now, if I can just figure out how to explain my dislocated shoulder-”

An aetherphone chime rings out. Kaleb pats around his pockets with a distant stare. Lagi glances over, blinks, and grumbles out. “Uh. Oh.”

Kaleb holds device out and dons his most innocent smile as the video call connects. “We’re okay.”

Shadeesa’s green on black eyes stare out from the screen through the Kaleb’s very being. The heavy silence crushes down any hope for words. As the moments pass, Shadeesa softens her gaze and smiles after a long exhale. “I love you.”

Kaleb grins. “I love you, too.”

He awkwardly averts his eyes and nervously chuckles. “How did you know that I-”

Shadeesa narrows her eyes and tilts her head of dark green hair with a smirk on her light gray face. “News helicopter caught you diving in from above.”

She perks her brow at a detail through the call. “Did you do something to your arm?”

Kaleb swallows his pride. “I dislocated it while... running the blaster at full power.”

Narrowing a glare, she contains her aggravation. “Do I need to take you to a clinic?”

Searching around at the Flame of the Phoenix and the gathering GAA forces, he chuckles between pained winces. “I’ll ask around, they got medical mages around here.”

Shadeesa frowns with a hint of a humor. “Good. Need you in good enough shape to handle Cassidy tomorrow.”

Captain Hackle steps between the activity. His attention wanders and spots Chad standing near the wrecked SUV. He walks up, stands up straight, and stares over. “Could have I moment of your time? I’d like to ask some questions...”