Episode 49

Tassilda draws back her raven black hair over swirling horns and places her hands upon her hips. She narrows a stare at the cluttered cargo area of the black sports utility vehicle. After scanning the space, she spots a familiar bag, grips the draw string, and yanks it clear out of the mass. She flings the sack over her shoulder and steps confidently towards the camp site. Deedri sits upon a foldout stool, sorts through boxes of medical supplies, and taps out an inventory into a tablet. Tassilda stops next to Deedri, cranes her head around to watch, and smiles. "Quite the daily routine you have."

Deedri glances up, nods, and returns her attention to a kit of medical tools. "Yes. Just making sure it's where I remembered it, if nothing else. Yesterday was quiet, thankfully"

Tassilda sways her hips, glares over towards the tent with a bold Flames of the Phoenix logo upon it, and sneers. "Well, for the most part... Save for certain individuals' nightly activities."

Deedri briefly winces and sighs. She pinches her fingertips upon a paper bag and lifts it into view. "Do you want any cotton balls? They worked me to keep the noise bearable."

With a groan, Tassilda shakes her head and rolls her eyes. "No. While I do greatly appreciate the offer, I just wish they would take their nocturnal antics out into woods and leave us alone."

She briefly surveys the vicinity and notices the tall, strong, lightly armored figure of Junior Paladin Daedrican patrolling nearby. When Tassilda makes eye contact with the visor of his full helmet, Daedrican drops his head into a bow. A greatly amused grin grows on Tassilda's face and she struts enticingly out towards him with a sly smile. Meters away from the campsite, she steps right in front of Daedrician's path, perks a curious brow, and focuses her light blue on black eyes upon him. "Now whatever brings you here, Paladin?"

A light chuckle escapes the slight muffle of the helmet and Daedrican stands proudly. "Nothing terribly exciting, my lady. A very banal patrol around the inner perimeter, before I do a final outer perimeter sweep."

Tassilda dons an inquisitive smirk and her gazes wanders around Daedrican's light power armored figure. "They most certainly keep you very busy."

Daedrican nods with a muted shrug of the shoulders as he tracks Tassilda's interests. "It is something excepted of all junior paladins. With the rank comes responsibilities and duties. I am also expected to put forth the extra work to justify the armor."

Making brief eye to visor contact, Tassilda suppresses a brief flit of embarrassment and resumes controlling her composure to project confidence. "While on that very subject... I don' believe I've gotten a chance to see your face fully."

Daedrican tilts his helmeted head to the side, ponders a moment, and sighs respectfully. "I apologize, my lady. It's a bit of a policy for those on active duty to keep their helmet on, especially the head and visor components. There is allowance with the lower face mask."

He watches as Tassilda's suspicion twists her lips to an unconvinced, slight frown. "Interesting, it seems that policy certainly doesn't stop Senior Paladin Maxon."

Daedrican gently bows apologetically and straightens his posture. "Well, he is the Senior Paladin. And by his own admission, his hard head serves the task enough that it is rumored the helmet is completely redundant."

A smile graces Tassilda and she covers a giggle with a free hand. Daedrican relaxes his shoulders and nods his head down with tinges of embarrassment. "But truthfully, my lady... I'm still getting used to the suit and it's recommend to keep the helmet on as much as possible during the initial training phase."

Tassilda grins slyly, lifts an inquisitive brow, and glides her long, black nailed fingers upon her horns. "And, I'm assuming you don't want to be seen without horns on your head?"

Daedrican laughs and shakes his head gently. "Oh, there's a little story behind that."

Intrigue ignites Tassilda's curiosity and she gradually lifts her hand up, pointing towards the prominent black horns on Daedrican's helmeted head. "I certainly hope those don't belong to the previous owner of the armor."

Deadrican lowers his upper body forward and puts his horns within reach of Tassilda's hand. "Oh no, my lady. They are most certainly MINE."

Tassilda attempts to hide the eager bite of her lower lip and firmly feels a solid, long, smooth, keratinous protrusion from the helm. After a few seconds, she releases her grip and flushes out her excitement to a calmer demeanor before Daedrican lifts his visor obscured eyes back up. "So... How did your horns ever end up there?"

With a long sigh hinting pass annoyance, Daedrican places his hands on his sides. "Well, to use the power armor suit properly, I need to use the helmet that it was calibrated to. So, I decided to have my horns carefully sliced by one of our mages. I kept them in my footlocker, in hopes that maybe the engineers could eventually modify a helmet that might work with my horns after I had them reattached."

He raises his hand, grips a horn, turns it a quarter way, and slides it free of a precision mechanical mount. Slightly grumbling in a mix of amusement and begrudging respect, he inserts the horn back into the socket with a twist. "Engineering... Surprised me... With a more immediate solution. Which I've come to appreciate in a way."

Tassilda firmly covers her mouth and tries in vain to contain the reflexive snickers leaking out. She attempts to work the ill-humor free from her face and dons an apologetic smile as she gazes into Daedrican's visor. "I am terribly sorry. I don't mean to be rude. That seems endearing, in a strange way."

Daedrican slowly nods and sighs with a bright tint. "I'm pleased you see it that way. It took me a little longer to accept it myself."

He bows to Tassilda and glances down a path. "I hate to be rude myself, my lady, but need to resume my patrol... You are more than welcome to join me on the inner patrol."

Tassilda grins nonchalantly and nods in acceptance. "If you'll have me, Paladin. Just one moment."

She calmly pivots, strides over quickly to Deedri, and sets down her bag with a whisper. "Hey, could I leave this with you to-"

Deedri glances up from her chore, flashes a winking grin, and guides the sack next to her. "Go for it."

Tassilda backs from Deedri towards Daedrican, recovering her composure, and mouths. "Thank you!"

Daedrican gazes down at Tassilda at his side while they walk together and inquires. "Would it be too much trouble for you to indulge me in few particular dialects of Emin, my lady? There's a few I don't encounter a lot that I believe you seem elegantly fluent in."

Tassilda blinks in brief surprise and presents a delightful smile with a wink to Daedrican. "Only if you indulge me."

After a quiet laugh, Daedrican voices a gentle, smooth sentence of an emin dialect that leaves Tassilda fighting traces of blush on her cheeks.

In the mowed field behind the ranch style house, Sotalia hovers a meter above the ground and holds onto Bach's arms. Drifting around, she slides the floating Bach around her same level. "I think you're finally getting the hang of this."

Bach sways into balance and keeps his attention to the shadow below him from the noon sun peeking out from the clouds. He grimaces briefly and steadies himself with the support of Sotalia's arms. "I guess. It's not so bad at this height. We're close enough to the ground I'm able to keep myself up in the air a little differently."

Sotalia glances down and watches the grass wave against an unseen force. Her attention shifts to the circular area of pressed down blades directly beneath Bach and dons an inquisitive cadence. "Really? How is it different?"

With his focus upon the ground, Bach leans his weight to counter the force of Sotalia pulling him along. "Well, it's sort of how the hover disc spell works to keep the disc up. It creates a virtual ball of force that acts against the ground and disc. I've got something similar worked up for this height and it's a lot less draining."

Gradually steering Bach along, Sotalia searches around the top of her mind and hums in thought. "So... There's a limit to how high you can go due to the dynamics of maintaining the virtual force between you and the ground."

Bach gazes over to Sotalia and nonchalantly shrugs of his shoulders. "Yeah. It starts to get really hard to maintain after a few meters. I'm still having to propel myself to keep balanced on top, but it's a bit easier than normal flight. And, I'm at the mercy of the ground, since I'm practically rolling along it."

Sotalia blinks, eyes the picnic table, and then surveys the downwards slope leading into the rest of the field. As she examines the terrain, a smirk cracks out of the corner of her mouth, out of sight of Bach. She stops mid-air, releases Bach, and gradually pivots in place. "Well, since you seem to have a good hang of this. Let's make it a bit more... Challenging."

When she turns away from Bach, Sotalia quickly gestures her hands and quietly mouths out a series of incantations. Bach cocks his head curiously to the side, narrows his glowing blue eyes, and scans up and down Sotalia's figure suspiciously. Sotalia momentarily bobs down and rises back up, and a faint flow of energy swirls the air around her. Bach's eyes flit wide in surprise, and he slowly floats away. "Why did you just change up to a different flight spell?"

Sotalia rests her hands upon her hips, tosses her wavy, fiery orange hair hair back, and grins slyly with a glint in her golden eyes. "Oh, this spell offers a bit more mobility than the hover spell."

Bach warily drifts further away from Sotalia as she glides closer. "Why would you need more mobility right now?"

He barely catches the mischievous smile of Sotalia when she flies past him in a blur and traces the trail shaking of grass blades leading behind him. A pair of long, black nailed hands clamp securely down on his shoulders and twist him towards the picnic table. With a strong push from behind, Bach coasts above the ground and holds his hands out for balance. He snaps his head back and grits his teeth. "Okay! What the hell are you planning on doing now?!"

Sotalia giggles with an impish hint and steers Bach's body along. "Oh, nothing BAD. I just figured that if you can maintain this comfortably, I could ramp up the difficulty a LITTLE bit."

Bach glances ahead and then returns his uncertain stare back to Sotalia. "DEFINE a LITTLE bit."

Sotalia winks with a grin, cranes her head to the side, and nods ahead to the upcoming slope down into the field. "Well, just a gentle decline to start with."

Bach snaps his head forward and aims his full attention upon the terrain. Reflexively, he extends his arms out a bit more, adjusts his stance midair, and prepares. With a hint of a smile behind a nervous expression, Bach swiftly rides down the incline, maintains a steady height from the ground, and easily buffers the return to flat earth. Sotalia laughs excitedly as she flies behind and propels Bach forward. "OH, you've done this before! What are you so scared about?!"

Leaning into the turn as Sotalia directs him in around the large boulder in the field, Bach aims his voice back with hints of hesitation leaking out. "Well. I used to do similar WITH an actual hover disc below me! It handled the vertical and I did the horizontal. So, this is kind of different!"

The wind blows through Sotalia's fiery orange hair and she loudly sighs with an understanding tone. "Fair enough. Still, I think it'd be good practice to get used to horizontal movement. So, if you still want, I'll gently push you around the field a bit..."

Her golden eyes shift over to stare longingly at the grassy slope upwards. Bach glances back and then turns his gaze towards the incline. An adventurous grin parts his mouth and he flexes his fingers in anticipation. "Fuck it. I got it figured out enough for a few more minutes. Give me some speed. Gods, it's been too long since I banked a good turn off a ramp."

Sotalia shakes her head in surprise, brightly grins, and squeezes Bach's shoulders as she increases velocity. "That's more like it! Maybe even some launches up the slope afterwards?"

Bach laughs and snorts. "Ah, one thing at a time."

He examines the slope and traces a path up over the wooden outdoor furniture. "But... maybe sooner than later..."

A curious smile graces Sotalia's face as she follows Bach's focus. "Hmm, so there IS some truth to those stories Sebastian's has told about you two abusing hover discs."

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia sit around piles of maps, printouts, paperwork, notes, and tablets upon the dining table. Each slowly analyzes their section of the mass of information. Sebastian hovers overhead and sighs contemplatively. "Gods, plenty of places Noxian COULD go. But, nothing points to where he WOULD go next."

Bach settles into the back of his chair and rubs his eyes. "It always seems like we find where he has been. And admittedly, we STILL don't know what exactly he's trying to accomplish."

Resting a tablet down, Aristespha crosses her arms and plays with her silvery blue hair in thought. "I've gone over the list of things in the access history Nash provided. He's obviously looking into elder energy and information about its use. But... Nothing blatant about what he wants to actually use it for."

Sotalia twists her mouth as she props her head up with her hand and stares in frustration at loose leaf notes. She taps her finger idly and grumbles. "And for a supposed Dark Lord, he's been really quiet about his ultimate goal. Really bold about getting what he needs for it, though."

Gazing up at a holographically projected display, Cideeda drags a claw tip through the menu scroll bar and watches the list of data files roll on by. She pauses in thought and glances over to Dretphi. "Did you find anything that matches what Faelatelia described?"

Dretphi slides over a topographical map between her and Cideeda. Tracing a finger along one of a few penciled routes, she circles out a peak in the mountains. "Here. Seems the candidate. Route matches her travel description."

Cideeda squints her emerald green eyes, leans closer to the map, and follows the latitude and longitude lines to the outer frame. "Wait... I remember something really close to these coordinates..."

Aristespha stands up, balances herself over the table, and notes the point's coordinates on the map between Cideeda and Dretphi. "Let's see if the Grand Library system has anything in that area. Now that I'm thinking about it..."

The tablet pops up an entry form and Aristespha quickly types out the numbers. She sits back down, enters a series of search parameters, and focuses her attention fully upon the results from the query permutations. Bach searches his mind and his intrigue piques as he looks over to Cideeda. "Wait, we have a printout of all the strange coordinates from that research base Nash translated for us."

Cideeda's eyes widen in realization. "That's right..."

She swiftly pulls her knees underneath her in the chair and reaches over the table top to a heavily annotated printout. "I bet it's on there somewhere. That's probably where I remember it from."

As Cideeda flips through a page and drags a claw tip down rows of numeric data, the hunt pulls in the attention of the rest of the team. After a few pages, her finger halts under a line right underneath a set of nearly matching coordinates. "That's WAY too close to be coincidental."

A chime rings out from Aristespha's tablet and she lays it down next to the topographical map to show the group. She slides through snippets of relevant referenced material of the results on screen and presents the connection to the group. "There's no exact matches. But, I increased the tolerances and extended the search to the historical archives. That pulled up a number of articles that mention a lot of activity around the general area regarding a number of facilities."

She sighs and rolls her eyes with an annoyed tone. "Which, of course, conveniently have no official records that ever said exactly what went on there. Anything the Grand Library has on file is flagged as matching the common pattern for a forged cover record. So, nothing official is actually correct."

Sotalia groans and shakes her head with a commiserating sneer. "Well... So nice of them to keep it a surprise for us."

She pauses, backtracks the penciled route on the map, and points to the starting point. "I'm guessing this is where the Terra Priest commune is?"

Dretphi nods in confirmation. Floating above, Sebastian snaps his head downwards and squints below. He gradually drifts down until he's hovering roughly eye level to the rest of the team and moves an ethereal hand between the map and number list. Sudden surprise fades into curiosity upon his ghostly figure. "The commune location is on that list."

The rest of the group's attention shifts in unison towards a particular row of numbers. Cideeda sways her head between the map and list, and contorts her face. "Holy shit. It is. Okay... What the fuck IS this a list of?"

Sebastian glides back upright and lands next to the table on the hardwood floor. He holds his ethereal chin in his hand and searches his mind with a distant stare. "Okay... This is something. I think we really NEED to check out the place Faelatelia told us about. There's a lot more to that list from the research base. The Orth Ridge site being on it seemed plausible since it was a big place with a lot going on. And, it was actually the only big thing we knew of on there."

He crosses his arms and hums as he contemplates further. "But, a recent Terra Priest commune and some possible old ruins that have barely gotten anyone's attention over the many years that they have probably been there? That doesn't quite fit."

Dretphi lifts an eyebrow, tilts her head, and puzzles. "The commune was recent. The structures they used are old."

Bach angles the list for better viewing and scrutinizes the data. Sebastian steps next to Bach and cranes over to watch his analysis. "You got any thoughts on it, bro?"

With a defeated sigh, Bach shakes his head uncertainly. "There's something we're missing. Unfortunately, I think Noxian knows exactly what is it."

Aristespha frowns and dons an apologetic tone. "I wish I had more information. But, when Nash translated the coordinates from the data Cideeda uploaded, he checked the locations for anything. It seemed fairly random and he couldn't pick out a pattern that made any kind of sense."

She grimaces and grumbles. "Admittedly, there's a few areas in the Perimeter Weird Zone that would be suspect. But, there's far more in completely normal farmland and in populated cities that have never reported anything out of the ordinary."

Cideeda growls slightly as her frustration leaks out. "It's got to be the extra info in the data sets. But what exactly?"

Aristespha nods and swipes through a few menus on a tablet in front of her with a hopeful smile. "I'll send Nash and aethermail with what we've found out. Maybe they've made some progress on determining out what the system was recording at the research base."

Sebastian dons a grin, shrugs his shoulders with his hands out to the side. "Well, I think we have enough justification to pay this place a visit. And until we check it out for ourselves, I don't think we're going to make any headway on deciphering that data."

He gazes out to the group. "So, enjoy the weekend and head out Monday?"

Everyone else indicates their agreement. Sebastian smiles proudly and sighs ethereally. "Okay. Well, I think we'll ponder this some more tomorrow with our travel plans. Until then, I think we need to see what our... favorite show... has for us."

Sotalia slides her chair out, stretches her arms over her head, and smirks wryly. "That's right... We didn't get to see last week's episode. I need to watch the replay before the new one. I'm curious to see how much Veevi pushed her luck."

As others depart from the table, Dretphi notices Bach staring at a spot between the map and list. She walks over, cranes her head around, and queries. "Theories?"

Bach blinks back to awareness, glances over to Dretphi, and shrugs plainly. "Sure. Plenty."

A frown pulls down the corners of his mouth. "None I'm really happy about."

Dretphi pats Bach's shoulder and nods as she walks towards the popcorn air popper in the kitchen. "Understandable. Thoughts for another time. Let us enjoy popcorn now."

Inside the Amaranth's Wrath Game Emporium, customers wander between aisles of comic books, navigate tables of games, and hang out at glass displays to gawk at the latest trinkets. Three people stand around between the tabletops. A tall, muscular red-head teenager shrugs his shoulders and rolls his eyes. "So, yeah. Um, Shallen, you were fuckin' right. That blaster really is that powerful."

Shallen blinks his green eyes, scratches one of his long evuukian ears, and smiles with a hint of smugness. "I told you so. But, still, Dace. Damn... Wish you had called me or something. I would have helped you cut grass to see all that."

Furry ears drooping, a fvalian man firmly combs fingers of thick black claws through his wild white hair. He stares in disbelief at Dace with red on black eyes as he holds his hands out. "REALLY! Come on! You KNEW I was back in town from school. Seriously, my FAVORITE professor somehow drops in, AND is hanging out with one of THE dragons half of dragon fandom has been trying to get more information about!"

He narrows his eyes at Dace and frowns disappointingly. "And you don't even give me a call!?"

Dace shrugs nonchalantly and assumes a moderately apologetic tone. "I'm sorry, Tellerran. It's just I was busy trying to get the job done. I was already running late and had put off Cideeda's yard for a few days already. Then, I totally got caught up in the whole situation."

Tellerran slumps his shoulders, straightens his back with a long breath, and sighs with a perk of his ears. "Gods dammit. I can't really blame you on that one. I don't think I would have kept my cool enough to get any work done. I mean, I barely kept it together when Professor Blaureiter got Lagi to visit towards the end of the semester."

Reaching into his pants pocket, Dace pulls out two large blue black dragon scales and fans them out in front of Shallen and Tellerran. He grins smugly with a laugh. "Would freshly plucked dragon scales make up for it?"

Shallen and Tellerran each take a scale from Dace. Shallen nods and slips the scale into his shirt's front pocket. "Paid in full, man. But, I just read up the leaked copy of the latest errata's table of contents..."

Dace smirks and lifts a knowing brow. "Let me guess, they're trying to rebalance the blaster combo."

Shallen groans and shakes his head. "Gods, you know it. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. I'll just have to find a new combo to work."

Dace watches the awe upon Tellerran's face. "Totally worth it to see your face, man. That one they let me pull off Lagi, since it was about fall off."

Tellerran carefully carries the dragon scale over to a table next to the group, flips open a binder, and meticulously slides it inside a protective plastic page. "Dude... Thanks... Wow... This looks better than any I've ever gotten from a convention."

He pauses a moment after carefully pressing the transparent layer down and cocks his head curiously towards Dace. "Did anyone say anything about Lagi's parents?"

Dace thinks a moment, scratches the back of his neck, and twists his mouth uncertainly. "Ah... No. Well, nothing I overheard. But, Lagi would NOT leave Blaureiter alone. Almost tackled him, curled up around him, and was purring all time. Also... That dragon ate A LOT of the grass I mowed."

Tellerran's interest piques and he quickly snatches a nearby mechanical pencil. After scribbling a few quick notes upon another paper page in the binder, he dons an eager smirk. "Interesting. Professor Blaureiter would never say anything about Lagi's lineage... I wonder..."

Shallen snorts and shakes his head of dark gray, slicked back hair dismissively. "Oh shit, do I sense another heated online debate in the future?"

Crossing his arms, Tellerran stands resolutely, flicks his furry ears, and narrows his eyes facetiously at other two. "Well, I can't fucking help it when someone wants to be wrong and post it everywhere they shouldn't."

The front door to Amaranth's Wrath opens and a tall, imposing figure steps in. Thomas surveys the shop proper and slowly steps towards the front desk. Steve sits with his full attention focused upon a small miniature in front of him. With a calm, precise hand, Steve lifts a fine, few hair brush and gently guides a tiny speck of paint along the minuscule detail of the plastic figure. Thomas stands in front of Steve across the front counter and nonchalantly asks. "Have you gotten in the latest issue of Red Gear Rising?"

Steve reflexive lifts his free hand to signal a wait gesture to Thomas and finishes the fine task. "Sorry, one second. Just need to get the hair highlights in there... And... There."

Thomas gazes down at the miniature and recognizes it after a few moments with an embarrassed smile. "Nicely painted there. But, I'll admit... There's A LOT more gray these days."

Steve lifts his head up, smiles at Thomas, and chuckles. "I know, but I'm going for the classic, first issue look. Okay, the latest issue of Red Gear Rising-"

Recognition dawns upon Steve and he compares the Commander Blaureiter figure to Thomas in front of him. "Holy hell... Commander Blaureiter... Um... Totally! We have a copy of the new Red Gear Rising. I'm okay with taking your money... But... I really rather take a few pictures and get some signatures. If that's okay with you."

Thomas grins with amusement and nods. "Sounds like a deal."

Dace pauses from the latest rules debate between Shallen and Tellerran, and waves towards Thomas. "Oh! Hey, Thomas!"

Thomas glances over and waves back. "Dace! Good to see you. Nice shop you all have in town."

Shallen halts his next sentence, pivots in place, and gawks at Thomas. Tellerran's red on black eyes widen and he eagerly questions Thomas. "Professor Blaureiter?! What are you doing here?"

Thomas scratches the back of his head of gray hair with a cybernetic arm. "Well... Since I'm down here to visit friends for a few weeks, I figured I'd find a place to make sure I don't fall behind on the Red Gear Rising series."

Tellerran blinks in stunned silence and ponders a response. Thomas sighs with a smirk and points to Tellerran. "By the way, I really liked your final paper for class. Really demonstrated a good handling of dragon biology and genetics. Thought, I'd avoid citing certain forums as resources in the future."

Tellerran nods blankly as Shallen recovers some of his composure. Dace nudges Shallen with a sly grin. "Hey, ask HIM about THE blaster."

A chorus of heavy footsteps from large, heavily armored solders stops at the perimeter of an elaborate camp. The team leader turns his helmeted head and nods to the team of other similarly suited Chrome Crusaders behind him. "That was a nice quiet outer patrol. I'm certain anyone in the area will think twice before getting close to the base. You are all relieved of duty for the rest of the Sunday afternoon."

The squad of heavy armor troopers divides up and disperses. Trakenthin watches the unit slowly scatter, straightens his stance in his suit of polymer plate, and nods towards the leader. "Captain. Thank you for allowing me to accompany."

The captain returns the sentiment and bows slightly to Trakenthin. "Thank you for offering to join us for another day. Not many in willingly tolerate us powered ruffians for these long patrols."

Trakenthin smirks under his clear face shield and proudly stands. "It was enjoyable."

The captain tilts his head to a side and crackles a laugh through his helmet's voice box. "Damn. You're brave one. After the final stretch of the operation tomorrow and Tuesday, feel free ride with us on the return. Now, go get that armor off. I'm sure you're soaked from the heat without a suit cooling system."

Trakenthin nods and calmly walks off into the Chrome Crusaders camp site. As he searches the area, he glances out the corner of his hazel eyes and watches a small Next Adventurers of Nexus recording crew tag along. A young male and female fvalian concentrate on getting video and audio, while an older man instructions the duo around. Trakenthin draws a long breath and quietly grumbles his annoyance. He continues to survey the vicinity and locks his attention upon familiar voices bickering. Sharply turning around the corner of a cargo truck, he spots the Flames of the Phoenix's black sports utility vehicle. He snaps his gaze towards the source of the argumentative yelling and sees Veevi and Tassilda. Veevi places her hands on her hips, leans forward at Tassilda, and petulantly mocks. "Do YOU not know the spells yourself?! Because it certainly takes you FOREVER to get to the point!"

Tassilda sneers indignantly and growls out her irritation. "Because I am TRYING to teach you REAL MAGIC. Not some discount store toy tricks that you picked up from that OLD WITCH!"

Veevi's ears lay back and her tail puffs out. She crosses her arms, tosses her pink hair back, and glares her pink eyes at Tassilda. "At the rate you do everything, I'll be an old witch before I get anything from you!"

A mean smile pulls across her lips and she averts her stare. "Speaking of toy tricks, did you bring enough copper powder for your fireballs?"

Tassilda cringes visibly despite her vain attempts to suppress. Her light blue on black eye twitches, her cheek muscles wince, and she grits her teeth. Trakenthin stands patiently and watches the camera crew trio dart off for the ideal angle of the tense stand off between Tassilda and Veevi. Cautiously, Trakenthin eases over into the small camp site and slips quietly into the large tent, distantly opposite of the Flames of the Phoenix branded tent. Resting his sword and shield to the side, he pulls off his helmet, unstraps free of his under armor, and slides off the equipment into a pile. With a long sigh of relief, he shakes some air underneath his sweat soaked underclothes and rests down upon a nicely made, custom bedroll. Staring blankly at the leaf shadows dancing on the tent top, Trakenthin zones out, ignoring the ambient sounds of Veevi and Tassilda verbally clashing.

Minutes later, he blinks back to awareness at the prompt of an electronic chime. His hand rummages around the mass of equipment and eventually retrieves his aetherphone. Holding the device above his head in view, he taps through the security prompt and navigates through a few menus. On the display, bit by bit, an aethernet site slowly trickles into existence. Trakenthin smiles at the title "Shayuri's Study" and scrolls down the page to the latest entry. He stops upon the picture heading the latest entry in the blog. The image shows a young, tall woman with piercing hazel eyes and long silvery hair, excitedly presenting a brand new book and brilliant grin on her tan face. Trakenthin smiles warmly and reads the paragraphs in delight.

At the bottom of the essay, Trakenthin stares at the comment button. His expression fades to uncertain apprehension. He taps the aethersite's menu and eyes the contact info option. The fingers on his free hand flex nervously and his face dons a frown. After seconds of visible deliberation, he clicks a button on the side of the phone, turns off the screen, and releases a long, doubt filled sigh. Trakenthin rests his aetherphone off to the side, runs his dark bronze fingers through his dirty blonde hair and shakes his head slowly.

The humvee shakes and bobs along the rough dirt path and barely passes through the openings between the trees in the thick forest. Cideeda leans out the driver's side window, stares far ahead at the route, and grimaces. "I think this is as far as we can go. This path seems to end ahead and the trees are too thick to even try squeeze this thing through."

Sebastian's ethereal form glides up between the front seats and surveys the scene ahead. He nods in confirmation and smiles understandingly. "Well, don't worry. You did great to get us this far."

He angles his head to scout out the windshield and his gaze follows the faint trail's end. He then stares distantly up the steady incline in the background until it disappears out of view in the mass of brush, trees, and canopy. Dretphi inspects a map, checks the readouts from a positioning application on her aetherphone, and examines the features of the area around the humvee. "We are at the mountain base. Good time. We have hours of daylight left."

Sebastian glances back with a proud smile and speaks to group. "So... Stop ahead, get the humvee turned around, and do a little exploring nearby?"

Everyone else shows their agreement as the vehicle rocks again over another dip in the dirt road. Cideeda grumbles and shifts her focus to a clearing ahead. "Sorry about that. It feels flat enough for a few meters, then there's another drop or bump. At least the clearing ahead looks large that we can get turned around easily."

Dretphi stares with suspicion and traces the strangely rectangular perimeter of the treeless, grassy opening as the humvee rolls in. With hard cuts of the steering wheel and a series of direction shifts, Cideeda navigates the large, old military vehicle gracefully and aim the humvee to face their path of origin. "That should do it. We'll be ready if we have to leave in a hurry. The capacitors are charged, so I'm going to give the powerplant a break."

A muffled, downwards pitching whine resonates faintly into the cab. Sebastian looks over to the group. "Okay, let's check out this clearing first and then we'll judge how we want to proceed. Ideally, I'd like to at least locate the entrance Faelatelia told us. But, if there's anything too crazy, we'll return here and figure it out."

As Sebastian zips up through the roof and floats overhead, doors open and the group disembarks. Minutes pass as Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia fan out a few meters from the humvee into the clearing. Dretphi stomps the ground with her heavy armored boot, ponders the sensations, and kneels down to inspect the soil. She digs into the earth with gauntlet covered hand and lifts up centimeters of rich, dark dirt. Attempting to go deeper, the plating on her gauntlet scrapes against a hard, rough layer of ancient asphalt. She ponders briefly, lowers her head close to the ground, and surveys the topology of the clearing. Standing up quickly, she calls out to the rest of the team. "This is an old parking lot."

Cideeda cocks her head, scratches her chin with a claw tip, and slowly lifts an inquisitive brow as she remembers more supporting evidence. "That explains why the road leading here was so odd. It's probably a paved road that's fallen apart and been covered with layers of dirt from runoff. I bet the drops are where chunks of asphalt are missing and the bumps are tree roots growing underneath."

Dretphi nods in agreement and points to either side of the path leading into the clearing. "No old trees near the edges. Only younger trees."

Sebastian hovers high above approaching the top of the tree canopy and calls down. "It certainly looks the part up here. I don't know if this is THE exact place, but it's certainly something."

Walking along the edge opposite to the entrance, Bach notices a strange pile of rough rocks. Leaning closer, he spots a scattering trail leading into the underbrush. Pulling aside a thin patch of long grasses, he reveals a heavily deteriorated pavement stairway. The top of the stairs meets remnants of a decorative stone path which leads distantly upwards into the woods. Bach turns back to face the rest of the group. "I think I found a path up the mountain."

Sebastian floats down next to Bach, scrutinizes the discovery, and nods. "Nice find, bro. That matches the type of path Faelatelia told us about."

Aristespha, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia join Bach and Sebastain. Sotalia's golden eyes trace the sparse rock route and she rests her hands on her hips. "That's definitely going to be a hike up."

Dretphi shrugs and tilts her head towards Sotalia. "An inconvenience. We have traveled worse."

An uneasy frown curls the corners of Aristespha's mouth as she studies the area. She steps away from the group, draws in a deep breath, and blinks her eyes to a glowing violet. She pans a stare around into the forest surrounding the clearing and fails to settle her nerves. She carefully gestures, clearly voices a series of incantations, and finishes by throwing her hands out to the sides. A shimmering energy expands into a bubbling wave and swells out into the vicinity. As the pulse of magic fades and disperses with the distance, nothing more happens. Aristespha widens the surprise on her blue and gray hinted, ivory face. "There's absolutely no spirit activity nearby..."

Sotalia crosses her arms, firmly grips her elbows, and twists out the faint anxiety upon her face. "Oh gods dammit. Here I was hoping that tiny, weird feeling I was getting from the ambient magic flows was BECAUSE the spirits were messing with it. Great... Now, I'm uncomfortable with this place."

Bach glances over to Aristespha with an uncertain smile. "Well, we are still far from that one part of the forest that had a concentration of spirits. Maybe they don't wander this way often."

Aristespha grits her teeth briefly and sighs with a shake of head. "I thought about that, too. There's no signs they've been here in recently. That's a bad indicator when there's a huge hive in the area."

The unease in Bach guides his stare up the scattered stone path into the heavy woods of the mountain. Cideeda's furry ears droop and she groans as she anxiously picks her claws. "I guess it's my turn to add to the creepiness factor... But... This place sounds different from when we first got on the dirt road. I can hear wildlife, but it seems really far away. Nothing close by."

She grips her vest, flexes fingers, and scans the vicinity with apprehensive curl to her upper lip. "The air has an off smell, too. I don't know WHAT exactly, but it is different."

Dretphi bites her lower lip and sighs. As rest of the team's attention shifts her, she reluctantly adds to the growing suspicion of the region and explains an issue with a regretful tone. "I have not seen animal nests. This area has been undisturbed for a long time. There should be nests. There are NO animal nests. No old ones. No remnants. No animals to make the nests. This area is avoided."

She directs her gaze towards the entry path and works out her anxious expression gradually. "Stopped seeing game trails during transit. Few I saw did NOT lead this way."

Bach grumbles as he rolls out the tension in his shoulders. "Fucking hell. No wonder Faelatelia wanted nothing to do with ANYTHING involving this place. We haven't even gotten to the front fucking door and this place is weirding me out."

Sebastian shakes his head and crosses his ghostly arms. "No shit, bro. Gods, what the hell happened here? I think even the damned sword is on some kind of alert mode. Still trying to feel that one out."

Sotalia smirks at Bach and playfully rolls her eyes. "You know, the perimeter fence outside the Orth Ridge site with all the warnings felt more welcoming than this."

Bach snorts out some of his anxiety and dons a commiserating, humored smile. "I know, right? I guess it makes it less nerve wracking when you know people tried to dress the place up before they left."

Cideeda grins wryly and stretches out her body suit covered arms. "Yeah, at least you know there were actual survivors and they were well off enough to post warning signs."

After a few moments of silence, Dretphi shrugs her shoulders and tries out a hopeful smile. "I have not seen any dead animals. Believe that is positive."

The team agrees generally, but soon resumes staring at the task before them. Hesitation looms over the group in the eerie quiet of the strange clearing in the forest. A minute later, Aristespha coughs and twists her mouth in grim acceptance. "Okay... I don't think we are going to find any more good things about the situation standing here."

Sebastian nods, assumes a bold stance, and presents an adventurous grin to the party. "You're right, dear. Let's gear up for the hike, see where this path leads, and at least find the entrance. Depending on how much daylight have left, we'll see about exploring further."

Gritting his teeth, Sebastian contorts a reserved smile. "And, I'm not against just coming back down for the night and saving most the exploration for tomorrow. So, let's take our time getting up there. No need to rush into this creepy mess."

Aristespha, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia walk towards the humvee and start readying equipment. Bach continues to stand at the crumbling ruins of the concrete stairs and slowly exhales out his tension while staring at the stone strewn path. Sebastian slides next to Bach and quietly speaks in a comforting tone. "You okay, bro?"

Bach nods slowly and sighs. "As best as I can be. I don't know. I get the feeling this is going to be a strange one."

With a smirk, Sebastian tilts his head to the side and drops his arms to his sides "And that's different than anything we've done before? But... I know. I hate to go into this blind, but I don't think we have much choice."

Shaking his head, Bach glances over to Sebastian with a smile. "No, we really don't. I mean... We could just ignore it, but that doesn't really help us out. We need the information."

The brothers idly survey the scene before them, before returning to the humvee to prepare.