Episode 47

A very early morning, ambient glow seeps in through the sliding glass door. The dim illumination barely lights up the outlines of the coffee table, recliner, and couch in the living room. An idle, quiet flow of air slips through vents of an air conditioning unit upon the upper part of wall. The soft drone from the machine provides a gentle acoustic backdrop. Minutes later the muffled sounds of a mechanical winch rattle from behind the kitchen door leading into the garage. Soon, sounds of equipment upon a solid floor resonate, before quickly spiking into the soundscape as Sotalia opens the kitchen door. She steps slowly across the tile floor, yawns, and drapes a heavy, armored cloak upon a dining chair back. "Oh, gods. That bed is going to feel so good."

She pulls the seat out, sits down, and places her foot upon her opposite thigh, working the boot off. Aristespha walks into the kitchen, waits near the door, and guides Faelatelia's drowsy self up. She leads the young evuukian teenager to the living room couch and helps her to a spot. "Have a seat for now. We'll figure out a nice place for you to sleep."

Faelatelia nods with a tired but appreciative smile, yawns with growing sleep in her eyes, and settles into the comfortable cushion. "Thank you. I really don't need much, as I have found out lately."

The motor unit of the garage door opener hums to life and slowly lowers the large, sectioned door down upon the concrete floor. Cideeda steps out from the garage, rubs her eyes, and places the humvee key fob upon the bar. She slips out from her open vest, hangs the garment upon a chair back, and reaches behind her back. "It is getting a lot warmer at night around here."

Bach steps into the dining area, pulls his helmet off, slides of his duster off onto the tabletop, and sits down in a chair. He loosens straps holding his kevlar vest, and starts to pry his feet out of the armored boots. "Well, it is May. Around these parts, it's usually the last nice month before it turns plain, nasty hot."

Cideeda pulls down the back zipper on her body suit, breathes out relief, and lightly fans some circulation through chest portion of the outfit via the collar. "Then again, we DID run through the woods for most the night. Anyway, I'm getting out of this. The humvee is locked up. We'll unload tomorrow- Well... later today, I mean. Gods, I'm tired."

She plods groggily through the archway into the hallway, and disappears through the doorway into her room. Moments later, a body suit flops into a pile upon the wooden floor outside her door, and pairs of toed boots and finger-less gloves land on top. Dretphi closes the kitchen door behind her, brushes off her damp, skin-tight tank top and shorts. "It will be laundry day... Today... Later."

Bach glances over to Faelatelia as she fights off another tempting moment to fall into the slumber, and smiles with a chuckle. "Faelatelia? If you want you can use my bed for the night. Honestly, I don't think I'll make it there at the rate, and the couch is a lot closer."

Dretphi eyes Bach with a reserved smirk and lifts an inquisitive brow. "Have you made it recently?"

After an idle stare ahead, Bach blinks back to awareness and his eyes search his mind. "Uh... Well... Uh..."

Faelatelia smiles weakly to both Bach and Dretphi, and laughs softly. "It's okay. After what I've been sleeping on for the past weeks, the back seat of the humvee was so nice."

Her attentions shift to the furniture underneath. She glides a hand over the cushions of the couch with a contended gaze. Aristespha twists her foot inside her boot, moves over next to the dining table, slides out a chair, and takes a seat. Loosening the laces on her long, finely crafted boots, she grumbles to herself and shakes her head with annoyance upon her face. "I checked these boots before leaving and tightened the laces correctly... Yet there's another damned rock in them."

Bach draws in a long, open mouthed breath and grimaces as sleep tries to take hold. He glances over to Aristespha and points to the sword at her side. "Is he asleep?"

Aristespha pauses, grips the handle of the sword, and closes her eyes momentarily. She snorts in amusement, smirks wryly, and rolls her eyes. "Oh, yes. I think Sebastian fell asleep halfway through the ride back."

With a shrug, Bach pulls off the last boot and shakes his head. "Long car rides always do that to him, even now I guess."

Dretphi taps Bach's shoulder and gently speaks. "I will get sheets for your bed. We will change them soon. Grant Faelatelia a-"

A snore sharply rises up from the background. Aristespha, Bach, Dretphi, and Sotalia aim their gazes upon the completely asleep Faelatelia upon the couch. She stirs momentarily to unconsciously grip the cushion underneath her head and back up against the couch back. Bach smirks and shrugs his shoulders. "Can't blame her there."

Dretphi smiles, sighs, and quietly steps along the floor into the hallway. "Blankets instead."

Aristespha retrieves her aetherphone, taps through the security code, and navigates the menus to a message list. She stands up, softly walks up in front of the television, holds her phone with both hands, and aims the back camera at the peacefully slumbering Faelatelia. With a light tap on the device's screen, a faint click sounds out, and Aristespha rights the phone back into her hand. Sotalia stretches out her arms, slides next to Aristespha, and quirks a curious brow. "Sending an update to the clients?"

Aristespha nods and continues to tap out a message. "Yes. I believe the parents and Valavera would be happy to know she is safe and back in civilization once again."

As Dretphi arrives from the hallway with folded blankets in her arms, Sotalia grins and winks at Aristespha. "Take a picture after we tuck her in and send that one. It'll look a lot better than her just passed out on our couch."

With examining gaze at Sotalia, Aristespha tilts her head to an agreeing nods and sighs. "It would definitely look more like a successful rescue..."

Sotalia smirks as she crosses her arms. "Rather than the aftermath of a party?"

Aristespha glances back over at Sotalia and twists her lips slightly. "Yes."

The warmly tinted morning light glides over the thick forest canopy and slips in through the gaps between the leaves. A slight gust of wind trickles down into the thick cover and finds passage through the wide highway divide between rows of trees. In a small clearing off to the side of the paved road, Senior Paladin Maxon stands in front of a crowd of Chrome Crusader personnel, along with Chad, Deedri, Modoran, Tassilda, Trakenthin, and Veevi. He straightens his posture, grins brightly and orates. "Okay. All present and accounted for, I believe. Today, we are going to search this stretch of road for any bandits. We've had many reports of bandits halting travelers and robbing them. And, our forward scouts have found signs of people camping out near the roads recently."

He glances over to Chad with a proud smile and nods. "It will a be standard search and capture, if possible. From the reports, these seem to be small time criminals that are just interested in easy profit and survival needs out here. So, I strongly recommend capture protocols be exercised first. Chances are a few of them are wanted alive by some law enforcement agency, and it would be nice to collect those for a mission bonus to everyone. Again, the Flames of Phoenix team will be joining us today and I have discussed with them appropriate assignments."

Looks exchange between the different groupings of Chrome Crusaders. Mixes of reluctance, reservation, and even anticipation arise out of the crowd. Maxon gazes over all, clears his throat, and lifts a brow with a smile. "Medical Mage Preeta will again join the medical squad and assist where needed. I'll leave it to our head doctor to decide any further decisions."

Deedri smiles with relief and waves back to a welcoming medical division. Maxon eyes Tassilda with a smirk. "Tassilda will accompany Junior Paladin Daedrican's search and capture group. They will hunt out the hiding spots that the scouts find and subdue any bandits."

Tassilda cracks sly, small grin and lifts an alluring eyebrow at Junior Paladin Daedrican, as he slightly bows to her. Maxon turns his attention to Modoran. "Modoran, you'll join the scouting teams. I think your skills will be best utilized there. Primary objective is to relay information. I'll leave it to the Captain to decide if you are allowed to engage targets of opportunity."

Modoran tilts his head to the side slightly, and nods nonchalantly in agreement. "I can't argue with that logic, sir."

With a quick shift of his gaze, Maxon grins at the armored Trakenthin and chuckles. "Trakenthin, you'll be joining our heavy hitters today as the special... Cargo... of the bait truck."

An eager grin draws across Trakenthin lips. He nods respectfully and glances over to a small squad power armored soldiers and confident mages in light protective suits. Focusing his attention to Chad and Veevi, Maxon laughs with smile and winks to the two. "Chad. Veevi. You'll be center of attention so to speak today. Both of you will be driving the bait truck and playing the part of simple traders just trying to get by in this hard economy. We'll make sure to equip you with our stealth... Safety... equipment."

Chad presents a bright white grin and poses proudly. Veevi places her hands on her hips, sways them to the side, and smiles with a sly, cunning attitude. Maxon straightens his posture and examines the gathering once more. "I've already briefed the team leaders with further instructions. You are all dismissed into your individual squads. Be ready to move out by zero eight hundred."

The noise of a door closing stirs Faelatelia. She groggily flutters her sky blue eyes, stares blankly half asleep, and darts her groggy gaze around her environment. She freezes in thought and relaxes as the recent memories awaken in her mind. Her hand feels the pillow underneath her head, grasps onto the blanket tucked around her, and slides upon the seat cushion. She tilts her head towards the sliding glass door leading out into the backyard and smiles happily at the bright sun overhead warming the green, grassy field. She combs her chestnut hair out of her vision, allows a sigh of relief to escape her mouth, and closes her eyes. Her long, blue hinted ears twitch when Aristespha firmly places a glass filled with a thick, orange blend upon the coffee table. Faelatelia opens her eyes wide, and pushes herself up to seat upon the couch. "Um... Uh... Morning."

Aristespha chuckles to herself and shakes her head with a smirk. "Afternoon, actually."

Faelatelia blinks and pieces together the timeline in her mind as a bit of embarrassment hints on her face. "Oh. I guess I haven't slept that good in a while."

With an understanding nod, Aristespha directs Faelatelia's attention to the filled glass. "I mixed some nutrition supplements into a fruit smoothie. Purely precautionary. I don't believe you've had the best meals to eat for some time."

Faelatelia nods quickly, reaches out for the beverage with a hungry gaze upon it, and enjoys long slips from the glass. She pauses a moment and glances back up to Aristespha. "Thank you."

Sotalia smiles towards Aristespha from her seat, lifts her own glass of the same orange blend off the dining table, and laughs. "Told you she'd like it."

Aristespha rolls her eyes and shakes her head in mild amusement. Faelatelia nods in agreement to Sotalia and continues to drink more. Sotalia returns her attention to bottom edges of her cloak, pinches her long, black fingernails onto a bur, and plucks the seed clear from the garment. She shakes her head as she deposits the spiky ball into nearby garbage can. "I've lost count on how many of these I've pulled off this thing. It must have been when we hid from that one patrol. Gods, there's another one!"

The kitchen door to the garage opens. Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi step through one after another with individual laundry baskets in hand. Sebastian floats in with them. The group notices Faelatelia awake upon the couch as they arrive around the dining table, and rest their baskets upon the dining table surface. Dretphi presents a friendly smile towards the awkward, evuukian teenager. "Did you sleep well?"

Faelatelia looks up at the tall, grath woman, thinks a moment with the smoothie in her hands, and eventually nods. "Yes. The best I've had in a long time."

Cideeda snickers, lifts an accusatory brow at Bach, and grins toothily. "Oh good. We were afraid that SOMEONE may have woken you up earlier."

Bach shrugs his shoulders, holds his hands up, and sighs slightly ashamed. "I was obviously not awake yet. I completely forgot someone was sleeping out here."

He scratches the back of his head, turns to face Faelatelia, and briefly averts his eyes with a bit of embarrassment. "If you got woken up by someone pouring a bowl of cereal loudly and complaining about not having enough milk, I apologize."

Faelatelia shakes her head and smiles appreciatively. "No. I only woke up just a few minutes ago."

Sebastian hovers over next to Aristespha and gazes at Faelatelia. "That's good to hear. Last night was really crazy. I'm just glad we all got clear of that mess before it got too bad."

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia agree unanimously in own ways while tending to laundry related chores. After a few moments, Sebastian crosses his arms and lifts an inquiring brow at Faelatelia. "After you wake up fully and get enough to eat, do you think you can answer a few questions for us? We heard from Chelindia why you were imprisoned, but we'd really like to hear your side of the story. If that's okay with you and you are comfortable with that."

Faelatelia finishes a long swig of the fruit smoothie, and emphatically nods in agreement. "Oh, yes! Of course. To be honest... There's something I've thought about on the ride back here and I believe I should tell you all."

Aristespha lifts a curious eyebrow and awaits a response. "Well, what would that be?"

Faelatelia lowers the glass back down upon the coffee table, lowers her head, and grimaces as she reflects. "I don't where to exactly start... But... Okay. Meredosia has been experimenting with some weird magical power. I don't quite understand what it is, exactly. But, I know she's using an odd amulet to store what she's been collecting from a strange circular platform. It's really old and has strange runes all over it."

Aristespha's full attention focuses upon the evuukian's words. Sebastian waits in anticipation. Bach halts midway through taking his duster out from the laundry basket and listens motionlessly with wide eyes. Dretphi and Cideeda exchange glances and silently recall memories of similar locations. Sotalia trains her golden eyes upon the evuukian teenager and reads her every move. Faelatelia draws a long breath and continues her explanation. "I don't know what the amulet is really capable of. But... I know where she got it from."

Aristespha narrows a concerned stare upon Faelatelia and calmly inquires with a supportive tone. "Chelindia told us you went on a secret assignment with Meredosia. Did she take you to the place she found the amulet then?"

Faelatelia nods with a growing frown and sighs nervously. "I never told Chelindia all the details of what happened. I was SO afraid of what she might do if she knew. There is something not right about that place. I could feel it. Meredosia wanted me to draw spirits in to bind them to animate constructs... That she wanted to imbue with that weird power of hers."

Hugging her arms, she draws the blanket over her shoulders tighter around her, grimaces, and momentarily shudders. "I told her I'd think about it... But... I was NEVER going to help her with that. Then, I got caught after I tried to escape. Thankfully, Chelindia and many of the older members were as nice as they could get away with to me, and always helped where they could."

She bites her lip and sighs sadly. "I hope they all get away. But..."

Aristespha kneels down in front of Faelatelia, places a supportive hand upon her shoulder, and presents a comforting smile to the nervous teenager. "But, what?"

Faelatelia shakes her head, draws in a long breath, and struggles with the uncertainty on her face. "I don't know what will happen if they leave. They kept Meredosia... In check? Balanced? They were the few that didn't blindly follow her and would question her when she got too extreme. Even if it meant they got practically demoted when they did so."

She searches mind and shakes her head slowly. "As much as the newer members thought they weren't proper Terra Priests because they questioned Meredosia so much. I always thought they followed principles better than anyone else. It's so weird and strange."

Sebastian nods thoughtfully and smiles proudly at Faelatelia. "We really appreciate you sharing that with us. I'm sure Chelindia and the others will be fine, if Chelindia is any example of what they are capable of."

He hovers down to a sitting position upon the coffee table, rests his arms in his lap, and explains with a genuine cadence. "As much as you have to do what you think is right, they have to too. Sometimes you just have to get yourself out of a bad situation before you can do anything else. You're not responsible for other people's decisions."

Faelatelia gazes over to Sebastian, nods understandingly, and sighs. "I know. I just feel uneasy about what might happen."

With a brief grit of his teeth, Sebastian ethereally exhales thoughtfully at the notion. "That's a normal thing to feel. But, we'll get together later on tonight and get all the details written down. Do you remember how to get to that place?"

With a weak smile, Faelatelia responds as she reaches out for the glass, and gulps down the remainder of the orange smoothie. "It's actually far south from the commune. I'll try to remember the exact route we took. But, we went up to the top of one of the mountains in the area into an ancient building. Sorry, but I don't know much more as we didn't go that far inside. Inside felt large? It seemed like there was space somewhere inside with how the air felt coming out."

Gently patting Faelatelia on the back, Aristespha retrieves her aetherphone, sorts through a contact list, and taps an entry. "Do not worry. We know a lot of people and have access to many resources. Anything you tell us with help out and we can let the right people know from there."

She eyes the progress of call on the phone, passes the device into Faelatelia's hands after she puts the glass back down, and smiles warmly. "I've informed your parents that you are here. You should talk to them and see how we should get you back to them."

A grim reluctance forms upon Faelatelia's face and she grits her teeth as phone call connects to a video mode. Aristespha stands up with a final squeeze on Faelatelia's shoulder. "But, I think you will want to talk to someone else first."

The aetherphone screen switches to a full video feed of Valavera's confused face and a background of teenager's bedroom. Faelatelia's sky blue eyes brighten and Valavera gasps in joyous shock. Faelatelia smiles with welling tears and blurts out a heartfelt phrase in evuukian. Valavera excitedly chimes back in the same dialect. The two teenagers chat away and catch up. The rest of the group exchange uncomfortable glances with each other and fight foreboding feelings as they process the new information.

Within the tall underbrush, Junior Paladin Daedrican, Tassilda, and three light armor Chrome Crusader troopers step silently up to clearing's edge. Tassilda stares ahead with her light blue on black eyes, and maintains watch within the middle of the team. She keeps her hands open at her sides, directed downwards. Despite armored boots impacting forest debris, no sound emerges. The squad stops meters away in the undergrowth behind three rough humans. Two stand and maintain idle observation of the nearby roadway, while one leans against the trunk of a large tree. Red bandannas flutter gently around their necks in the slight breeze, along with the frayed and tattered parts of their clothing.

When the group kneels down behind a thicket, Tassilda carefully gestures, and swings a hand ahead of her and the other above. She glances over to Daedrican and softly speaks. "The sound buffer is around us for now."

Daedrican nods his full helmet towards Tassilda and pans a visored gaze over the others. "Understood. We should be able to take them down without too much trouble. Unfortunately, scouts have reported another group may be alerted if they yell out for help."

He turns his head towards Tassilda and tilts horned helm inquiringly. "Is it possible to cast silence upon the area, my lady?"

Tassilda briefly smiles, but twists her lips into an apprehensive expression. "Yes. But, sudden silence will give us away."

One of the standing bandits yawns, shudders momentarily, and steadies his stance. Tassilda quirks her brow, draws a mischievous grin, and slyly eyes Daedrican. "I think I have an alternative, if you'd allow me to try it?"

Daedrican glances back to the three troopers and queries. "Any objections to some tactical experimentation?"

The three light armor soldiers exchange looks, and return no rejections to the idea. Tassilda nods appreciatively to the group and focuses her attention ahead. "Thank you. I'll need to drop the sound buffer, so I can free myself up. So, please, keep quiet for a little while longer as I cast a few spells."

Daedrican removes the baton off his belt, extends it with button press, and watches the end prongs spark. He inspects the three other Chrome Crusaders as he readies his polymer shield. "Everyone ready your stun batons and shields."

He inquisitively cocks of his fully covered head, glances to the three bandits, and directs his gaze at Tassilda. "So, what are these spells going to do?"

Tassilda smiles suggestively at Daedrican and winks. "Well, the results are simple enough..."

The older bandit leaning upon the tree rubs his back against the trunk, and rolls his head side to side to pops and cracks. He lifts a bored eyebrow at the two observing the highway through rows of trees and underbrush. "Anything yet?"

One bandit crosses his arms, shakes his head, and groans. "No. Nothing. Gods, I hope it's not another slow day."

The other bandit to the side props himself against a small tree, and checks the battered rifle in his hands. "Dammit. I don't know why we're still out here. Still think we should have gone somewhere else. Why does Red Hat want us to hunt here?"

Stretching his shoulders, the older bandit sighs and rolls his eyes. "I think he's just trying make up for what was stolen last week."

The young bandit leans away from the small tree and aims his voice back. "That whole situation is pretty fucked up. Robbers getting robbed... What the fuck..."

The bandit trio resume staring into the distance and view the gusts of wind blowing through the forest divide cut by the roadway. A barely noticeable, almost invisible wave of energy radiates over the area and fades away to transparency. The older bandit blinks a few times, eyes over to edges of his vision, and nonchalantly shrugs back into idle boredom.

Behind the protective barrier of Daedrican and the three troopers, Tassilda keeps one hand extended out, grins confidently, and slowly gestures with her free hand. With a faint light blue glow in her eyes, she eases an energy flow in front of her other hand. The wisps of magical power blend into the slow, transparent wave emanating from her open palm. Tassilda narrows her eyes in concentration and smiles eagerly.

The older bandit yawns loudly, rubs his eyes, and flexes neck. The young bandit snorts and laughs. "Aw, grandpa needs his afternoon nap?"

After a long irritated grumble, the older bandits lifts his head up against the trunk of the large tree behind him and blinks. "Meh, fuck you. I didn't get any sleep last night."

Fighting the reflexive contortions of his lips, the young bandit draws a lethargic breath in. "Damn. Well, to be honest, I didn't get any sleep either. All that weird fucking noise kept me awake."

The third bandit vainly tries to keep his mouth closed against the urge to yawn and grits his teeth as the submits. "Gods dammit, you two. Got me yawning now."

The older bandit's eyes close and his head tilts down upon his chest. The young bandit leans heavily upon the tree next to him. His eyes droop, and he lets his rifle hang by the strap over his shoulder. The third bandit's head sways slowly from one shoulder to the other and the rest of his body drifts. Moments later, a quiet wave of magical energy visibly warps over the clearing. The older bandit slides down the large tree trunk to a seat upon the roots. The younger bandit oozes down against the small tree, and sloppily slumps upon the ground. The third bandit stands motionless for a few seconds, and drops down to his knees with his arms still crossed. A second later, his balance surrenders to gravity and his upper body falls forward unceremoniously onto the forest floor. Puffs of air through his nostrils stir the dirt into the breeze, and soft snores barely peak out from the drone of rustling leaves.

Daedrican and the three soldiers step forth and survey the area. Tassilda arrives behind Daedrican, grins smugly, and confidently chimes. "They're in a deep sleep. You can talk and move them around. It'll be awhile before they wake up."

The tall, armored junior paladin shakes his head and astonishment tints his tone. "My lady, that was quite impressive. What was the process again?"

As the thoroughly amused light armor troops secure the slumbering bandits, Tassilda smiles happily and counts out the first step of the process upon her gray hand. "The first spell helped the flow of energy to establish a route to the targets."

She flicks up another black nailed finger, and curls a satisfied smirk from the corner of her lips. "Then, you have to gently trickle in a spell to put them in the right mindset and convince them that sleep is acceptable. The mind can easily will up a very powerful defense against magical suggestion and mental affects if the person is alert. At that point only concentrated, direct application can possibly get through that barrier."

With a smug grin, her eyes search into the reflective visor of Daedrican's helmet. She perks her brow and rests her hand upon her hip. "Finally, you spring the trap and release the full effects of the spell. And, you can see the results."

Daedrican nods in agreement, examines the progress with the bandits, and relaxes his shield and baton at his sides. "Well, I must admit, my lady, I feel a bit extraneous at the moment."

Tassilda dons a pleasant smile and presents her appreciation to Daedrican. "Oh, do NOT feel that way. Such magic is a delicate process that can be prone to folly. YOU and your team provided me with the protection I needed to fully dedicate myself to the task, to ensure success."

Daedrican cocks his helmeted head, chuckles, and nods to the other troopers. "Well, we appreciate your ability to make this significantly easier."

Tassilda poses approvingly.

Four men stand in the middle of the long stretch of highway between two forest borders. Three of the red bandanna wearing bandits aim barely serviceable rifles at the windshield of a large cargo truck. The fourth dons a conniving smile, waves a pointed finger at the two occupants of the vehicle, and maintains a firm grip upon a finely made sword at his side. He draws in a long breath and projects his voice with a commanding tone. "Okay! If you would please DISEMBARK your truck and STAND over here... We can make this quick, efficient, and mostly... Painless."

Both cab doors of the box truck open. Chad and Veevi in common, drab outfits climb down to the ground, lift their gloved hands up in the air, and walk in the front of the vehicle. Two bandits on the sides keep their rifle trained upon Chad and Veevi. The commanding bandit taps the handle of his sword, brushes the brim of the red fedora on his head, and lifts an inquisitive eyebrow at the two previous occupants of the vehicle. "Now, are you two going to tell me what you are hauling today?"

Chad presents a neutral expression and calmly speaks with a faint tremor in his voice. "Nothing. Really. Just dry goods, furniture, and some supplies."

Veevi stares resolutely at the hat wearing man and sneers her upper lip to reveal her teeth. The scrawny man, to the side of the red fedora bandit, glances over and eyes Veevi with a lecherous grin. "Hey, Red Hat! You want me to search them?"

Red Hat looks over briefly, nods in agreement, and crosses his arms in anticipation. "Mostly certainly, Rat, I'm curious what they may be carrying."

With an eager smile, Rat shoulders his rifle by the strap, walks around behind Chad, and pats him down. He quickly feels Chad's sleeves, checks the pockets of his hoodie and pants, and finds a bundle of paper money. He flips through the wad, quickly shows Red Hat, and stows it away. He runs his hands down Chad's pant legs, stands up, steps around in front of Chad, and glances at Chad's big belt buckle. "Hmm. Nice belt. Might take that later."

Chad narrows his glare at Rat and grumbles. "Uh, thanks?"

Growing an ear to ear grin, Rat steps around behind Veevi and performs a similar search of her person. Inspection times slow down drastically with extra attention paid to choice areas of Veevi's hoodie and shorts. Red Hat impatiently coughs loudly after long holds and pauses during the lengthy pat down. Veevi's ire boils upon her face with each passing second. Her tail fur puffs out more with each moment until she finally spits in the face of Rat when he leers up. "You'll feel your broken off hands in your ass if you keep that up!"

Wiping the thick phlegm off his face, Rat stumbles away cursing and scrambles for his rifle. "Argh! Ah, fuck you, damned pink bitch!"

The two bandits on he sides snort and laugh as the lecherous cretin stumbles back to his feet next to Red Hat. After a long, annoyed sigh, Red Hat shakes his head. "I take you didn't find anything... Rat?"

Rat retrieves the money from his pocket and hands it to his boss. "No, just this money."

Red Hat shrugs his shoulders, glances over to each side at the other two bandits, and points to the truck. "Okay. Briggs. Mort. Open up the back doors and check the cargo. If it's any good, let the rest know and get it hauled off."

Briggs and Mort nod to Red Hat and take a side of the truck each. As the two slowly step along, they pause midway down the length to kneel and survey the underside of the vehicle. They examine the mechanical aspects, pat a few places underneath, and tap parts of containers. Afterwards, they exchange glances and nod in satisfaction. Both stand up, resume walking, and reach the back double doors to the cargo compartment. Briggs undoes the locking mechanism and grabs the handle for one door. Mort takes hold of the other. In unison, the two lift the latches for their doors, and swing them open. Their heads turn to face into the cargo hold. Briggs and Mort freeze in place and gawk in pure shock.

The two only manage a few dumbfounded blinks before power armor gauntlets swiftly reach out, and clamp firm, threatening grips on each of their faces. Readied hydraulics straining dangerously close to their ears keeps them silent. Trakenthin stands stoically, points a finger at Briggs and Mort, motions to awaiting Chrome Crusader personnel with restraints, and gestures for silence with a finger to his lips. Briggs and Mort eye each other through the gaps between the mechanically enhanced hands, look at the two power armored paladins the hands belong to, and nod pleadingly to Trakenthin. Moments later, Briggs and Mort swiftly disappear inside the cargo hold of truck, and the doors slowly close back up.

Red Hat sighs and taps his foot. "Hmm. It's taking them some time. So, simple dry goods, furniture, and supplies? I wonder."

Chad shrugs his shoulders and maintains a stare at the bandit. His attentions briefly shift to an unseen source. He thinks moment, pulls a white toothed grin along his face, and aims an examining gaze at Red Hat. "Question. How well do you know how to use that sword?"

Lifting the brim of his red fedora up slightly, Red Hat quirks an intrigued brow at Chad, and cocks his head to the side. "Fairly well, I'd like to think."

Gripping one hand onto the other, Chad frees his fist from the glove along with his Stalwart Sword, readies the blade at the boss, and sneaks a firm press upon his belt buckle. "Want to find out?"

Rat leaps back in surprise, aims his rifle at Chad, and nervously blurts out. "Drop it or I'll shoot!"

With excitement igniting his eyes, Red Hat waves off his underling, draws his finely made blade, and grins brightly. "It's okay! I think this will be fun!"

Chad and Red Hat assume combat stances, Veevi side steps carefully away, and Rat maintains an uneasy watch. Chad narrows his analyzing stare at Red Hat. In return, Red Hat eyes Chad up and down, assessing every little detail. He smiles in sheer amusement and chuckles. "Oh my, whoever are you really? You actually know how to use that sword."

A triumphantly bright white, trademark smile graces Chad's face and he laughs out proudly. "Chad Bosch, leader of the Flames of the Phoenix."

Red Hat nods, bows slightly, and brushes the brim of his red fedora. "Pleased to meet you, I'm THE Red Hat. Shall we?"

The two stare intensely at each other, eyes watching every motion. Blades gradually reposition in response to the other. Postures shift and footings slide along the road surface to counteract the changes of the opponent. Long, tense moments tick slowly by until both suddenly tense their muscles. Chad and Red Hat lunge at each other to the clash of blades, and leap back to reevaluate their tactics. The two circle each other, pause, and swiftly approach. In a fast flurry of activity, both combatants unleash multiple strikes, expertly parry, solidly block, and continuously seek out openings to exploit. Minutes of deadlocks, equal exchanges, and dodges later, Chad and Red Hat maintain the duel and await the next assault from the other. Red Hat manically smiles and pants as he stares eagerly at Chad. "This has been quite exhilarating. It's been too long actually."

Chad grins confidently and laughs as he adjusts the angle of his blade. "The same. But, I think it will be decided soon."

Red Hat nods, tightens the grip upon his finely crafted sword, and tenses his muscles. A brief moment of still silence flits by. Both approach. Chad swings his sword slightly off. Red Hat dodges and expertly guides his blade towards an unguarded opening. A smile splits Chad's lips as he releases his blade, shifts his footing along with his body, and swings his arms to firmly grasp upon Red Hat's sword arm. With a strong pull and momentum, Chad forcefully drags the rest of the Red Hat's body along a powerful, disarming throw onto the roughly paved road. Both swords clatter along the surface and slide out of reach of both fighters. Red Hat lays upon the pavement, chuckles loudly as he gazes up into the blue sky above, and sits up with a dark grin. "Now, THAT was a proper gods damned fight! You have no idea how long I've yearned for such a battle."

He bows his head to Chad and smirks with a sinister tinge. "Pity, I'll only get to experience it ONCE from you."

Rat levels his rifle at Chad, aims, and freezes. He witnesses a number of red and green dots wander upon his body and gravitate to vital areas. As he realizes the surrounding sources, he moves his finger away from the trigger of his rifle, and raises his hand.

Veevi screams out angrily in a sharp spike of panic. "H-Hey! Pervert!"

Rat pivots in place with one hand up in the air to face Veevi. A bright green beam flashes out from the laser pistol in Veevi's gloveless hand and impacts into the crotch of Rat's pants. A chaotic, fiery burst of vaporized cloth, smoke, and reflected green light erupts out and the impact ripples out from the epicenter. Rat flops over onto the ground motionless. Seconds later, a panicked wail of pain echoes into the area as Rat scrambles to rip his pants open. He tears out an object, and flings a glowing, red-hot, dented metal athletic cup, and sends it scraping across the roadway. Rat rolls arounds with both hands securely cupping his groin and focuses on breathing against the odds.

Chad and Red Hat gawk in terrified horror and unconsciously guard the respective lower bits. A chorus of surprise sound out from the woods. Modoran voice briefly becomes audible. "Holy shit!"

Red Hat inspects the vicinity, sees an abundance Chrome Crusaders stepping out from hiding, and catches a glimpse of the laser pistol in Veevi's hand. He quickly raises his hands up into the air and calls out. "I. YIELD. Everyone! Dear gods... I surrender!"

In a walkway connecting tall, shelving lined rows of the massive store, Bach and Cideeda read the overhead Merc-Mart signs that outline the contents of each aisle. Bach stares above and directs his voice towards Cideeda. "Well, I'm glad Faelatelia is on her way back to her parents."

Stepping along the path, Cideeda weaves between advertising and demo stands. "Yeah, hope the parents cut her some slack. From what she said last night, she's been through enough."

She signals Bach to follow and glances over. "Okay, we ARE here to get you new clothes. But... there's another reason."

Bach furrows his brow and suspiciously eyes Cideeda. "Which is?"

Cideeda pauses, turns around to face Bach, and presents a toothy grin. "It's Sotalia's birthday tomorrow."

She resumes walking, surveys contents of a nearby counter, and turns at a pathway intersection. Bach thinks a moment and catches up. "Oh! Okay. So, what do we need to do?"

With a laugh, Cideeda shakes her head and nonchalantly stretches her arms over her head. "Nothing too crazy. We usually gift something practical and useful that you'd never get around buying for yourself. Or..."

A scheming grin graces her lips and she winks a Bach mischievously. "We get a FITTING gag gift."

Bach narrows his eyes ahead, sighs, and grumbles. "Oh. Great. I can just imagine the possibilities for me at this point."

Cideeda snickers, rolls her eyes, and smiles comfortingly to Bach. "Ah, it's all in good fun. And, you get whatever you want baked for you as long as we can put candles in it."

Nodding in acceptance, Bach scans the vicinity with renewed interest and examines a display of different types of socks. "Yeah, I guess that's a pretty nice deal. So, what does Sotalia get usually?"

Cideeda flips through a few pairs of toed socks, glances over to Bach, and smirks. "A big pan of chocolate brownies. Dretphi is taking care of it this year."

Bach inspects a few t-shirts upon a table, places them back, and expresses interest. "That sounds pretty good, especially if Dretphi is making them."

After a long sigh, Cideeda crosses her arms and plots. "We're cutting it a bit close with everything else that's been going on. Hopefully, if we can find a good gift today and you can keep her occupied enough during your Monday magical training sessions... We might be able to sneak this one in."

A scheming smile appears on Bach's face and he winks slyly to Cideeda. "Oh, I can keep her occupied. I'll randomly hint at some other spell I know."

Cideeda bows her head understandingly, reads the overhead aisle signs, and grimaces in frustration. "Gods, I'm just not seeing anything that sticks out."

Bach pivots in place and pans his stare. In the large, open space, rows of tables stand with assortments of merchandise. Bright yellow tags cover the normal price tags with phrase "Clearance" boldly printed. A spark of inspiration arcs in Bach's mind. He closes his eyes, reopens them to a glowing blue upon the sea of clearance items, and smirks. "How about a box of random, cheap magic crap?"

Cideeda pauses in thought, tilts her head to the side, and perks her furry ears in agreement with a toothy grin. "Gods, yes. I'll enable her habit this one time."

Aristespha brushes off the dining table and hoists up a large gift wrapped box onto the middle. Cideeda stands next to the open sliding glass door, glances out into the late afternoon lit backyard, and keeps a furry ear focused outside. Dretphi precisely guides a kitchen knife into the pan of brownies and divides the whole into equal squares. Sebastian awaits next to Cideeda and whispers over to her. "Anything yet?"

Cideeda shakes her head and smirks. "Nope. She's still in the gazebo and the hot tub is still bubbling."

Sebastian quirks his brow. "You think she fell asleep in there?"

Bach steps up next to Dretphi, examines the tray of chocolate baked goods, sorts through the candles in his hand, and looks out to the group overall. "Um... How many candles do I put on this?"

Dretphi glances over, smiles slightly, and places drink glasses down from the overhead cabinets onto the counter. "Twenty six."

Bach starts to accept the amount, pauses with a twist of the mouth, and dons a mildly confused expression. "Huh... Really? I mean, I, uh..."

Aristespha snorts into laughter, finishes arranging some place mats upon the tabletop, and rolls her eyes in humor. "Well, we have this accidental tradition that Sebastian started when he put down the wrong number candles. So, we all decided if we're going to put any number, it'll be the number of the youngest in the group."

Bach nods at the notion, quickly pokes more wax sticks into the brownie squares, and inquires. "So, who's the youngest?"

Dretphi smiles amused, pivots to the face Bach, and raps her fingers upon the counter. "Me. Could you not tell?"

Bach's eyes widen, and he slowly glances over at Dretphi. With an awkward smirk, he stumbles to a response. "Uh... Well..."

After watching Bach fumble about, Dretphi shakes her head with a happy chuckle. "Do not worry. I was joking."

Cideeda's ear flicks and she cranes her head out the opening in the sliding glass door. She snaps her head back inside and whispers loudly to the rest of he group. "She's coming out."

Dretphi sweeps up the pan immediately after Bach places the last candle, swiftly carries the tray over, and places it upon the table. Cideeda quietly slides the glass door shut. Aristespha quickly gestures out a fast incantation, flicks a flow of magic across the candles, and colored flames spring up upon each of the wicks. The group waits around the table.

A minute passes by and the door slides open. Sotalia steps through drying her fiery orange hair with a towel. As the towel lowers to drape over her shoulders, she guides her hair over her horns and gawks at team. Excitement overtakes her and she skips over to join them around the table. Everyone cheers out a happy birthday in their own languages. Sotalia smiles brightly, draws in a deep breath, and blows out the candles. After a few re-ignitions, a stubborn flame gets a dispelling tap of magical energy from a long nailed finger. Bach smiles inquisitively and crosses his arms. "So, how old are you today?"

Sotalia's lips part into an evil grin. She weaves her fingers together, rests her head on her hands, and props her elbows upon the table, while focusing a piercing gaze into Bach. "Well... How old do YOU think I am?"

Hints of hesitation trickle over Bach, and the counter question from Sotalia rattles his response. "Uh, well, I'm not really good at judging ages... But... Maybe late-"

Sotalia narrows her stare and mutes her smile. A brief twitch pauses Bach's voice. "... Twenties?"

A flattered grin appears on Sotalia's face and she sighs longingly. "Oh gods, I wish. Very nice of you to say, though."

With an appreciative tone, she rolls her eyes at herself and shrugs her shoulders. "I was born today, May nineteenth, twenty nine eighty one. Thirty six... years ago. Hence, the oldest of the group."

Sebastian motions for the gifted wrapped box. "It's just a number. You are most certainly young at heart. Anyway, gift time!"

The gathering at the table slides the large gift in front of Sotalia. After a thankful smile to Sebastian, Sotalia places hands on the side of the box. Her golden eyes lock onto the package, and she eagerly inspects the container. "What do you guys get me? I feel magic in here."