Episode 66

The glow of the near noon sun radiates inside the living area of the ranch style house. Bach steps through the archway from the hallway, stretching out his shoulders with a roll and rocking his head side to side. He stops to scan the room for activity. The sounds of kitchen metal snatches his attention, and he steps forward towards the kitchen area. With a quick peek, he studies the food in the middle of preparation upon the counter top. Leaning closer, Bach attempts to determine the intended meal, and pauses as he feels a tall presence next to him. He glances up with an awkward, innocent smirk to Dretphi, and scratches the back of his head of longer brown hair. “Hey... Just curious what’s for lunch.”

Gradually dropping the stern, stoic gaze to a humored, warm smile, Dretphi rests a covered pot upon the counter top, and brushes back her platinum blonde braids. “Remnant soup. Nothing special.”

Bach stands back up straight, cocks his head curiously to the side, and inquires. “Remnant soup?”

Dretphi sighs amused with a nonchalant shrug of her shoulders. “My mother calls it that. Soup made from the remaining ingredients you have. After you have cooked all other meals. Before you go to the grocery store.”

Nodding understandingly, Bach steps back to give Dretphi room to cook and studies the assorted collection of vegetables, seasonings, and other edible bits. “Well, it looks like it’ll be good when you are done with it.”

Dretphi smiles appreciatively, and gently directs Bach out of the kitchen. “I hope so. We shall see.”

Wandering back into the living area, Bach walks along the side of the dining table, and glances around for the source of a new noise. A stream of faint clicks fill the soundscape near the couch as Cideeda types upon a laptop. She adjusts her head upon a couch pillow, flexes her fingers briefly, and studies a screen of numeric figures and charts. Her toes claws idly press onto the fabric of the couch cushion as her long tail wags out from underneath her drawn up knees. After a few seconds of her emerald green eyes analyzing the screen, she sighs with a trailing grumble and clacks her finger claws upon the sides of the weathered and heavily retrofitted laptop. Bach approaches slowly and pries with an intrigued tone. “Huh, I’ve never seen that laptop before.”

Cideeda tilts her head up briefly to glance at Bach, and resumes her attention to the computer resting on her stomach. “Oh, it’s my old one. I like to keep it well protected and out of the way. It’s got my personal stuff on it... And, it’s gotten REALLY cranky with age and repairs, so it spends most of its time in a protective case.”

Looking over towards the dining table and the boxes near it, Bach points a thumb over his shoulder. “Any projects you need help with today? Still feeling a bit sore, so I don’t really want to do anything too physical today.”

Searching her mind, Cideeda nods her head, and directs her voice back. “Yeah, there’s a few things I’ve been meaning to get your help with. And, I need to show you a few things about locking mechanisms. Maybe see how you can apply that magical angle.”

She taps a claw tip on the laptop’s screen. “Let me take care of a few things here first, and I’ll see what we can do.”

Bach gradually shifts his attention and directs the topic towards what’s on the screen. “If you don’t mind me asking, what are doing right now?”

With a sly grin, Cideeda taps upon a few keys and directs a cursor on the screen through a few menus. “Oh, just managing my future fortunes and seeing where I need to invest my money next.”

Bach snorts lightly with an amused smirk, and allows his curiosity to shift his focus to the graphs and number tickers on the display. “I can’t say I’m surprised you are playing the markets. Working those hot tips and making the split seconds trades for the big payouts?”

Cideeda laughs, rolls her eyes with a smirk, and slowly shakes her head upon the couch pillow. “Oh gods, no. That type of day trading has always seemed like needlessly abstracted gambling to me.”

Perking her brow and gazing up to Bach with a sinister grin. “I prefer to see the faces of the people who I’m taking money from if I’m going to gamble.”

Pushing herself up to rest her back against the couch arm, she stretches her legs out and resettles the portable computer upon her lap. “I stay away from all the short term trading business. I’m playing the long game, and go after companies that have proven dividend payouts. That’s about as risky as I’m going to get with my retirement portfolio.”

She lifts a humored eyebrow, and chuckles softly. “Anyway, I’m not looking to strike it rich with this money. I’d just end up worried all the time if I was going to lose it in the next minute.”

Bach’s interest piques, and he leans over to get a better view of Cideeda’s laptop screen. After a few moments of watching the information stream upon the screen, he grits his teeth briefly and sheepishly admits. “You know, I wouldn’t mind getting some advice on investing money... Since... Well... I actually have free money to do so. For once.”

A spark of excitement lights up Cideeda’s eyes. She pivots upon the couch, slides over to the middle seat, and pats the spot next to her. “Well, let me give you the introductory lesson! Have a seat.”

Bach blinks at the sudden shift in attitude, slides behind the coffee table, lowers himself in the seat next to Cideeda, and awaits further instruction. Cideeda quickly taps her clawtips on the laptop keys and brings up a few simple informational graphics and charts. “Now you can search the aethernet, and you’ll get every get rich plan in the world. But, I’ve found the bucket system to work nicely for me.”

Studying the pictures on the screen, Bach glances over and patiently waits. Cideeda draws in a long breath, and her genuine interest slips through into her explanation. “Simply, your different accounts are buckets. Your first bucket is going to be your guild account. They don’t pay much interest in those accounts. But... No fees, easy access, and no restrictions. So, you’ll want to fill that bucket to a point where you should be able to handle three months worth of expenses. Then, you can start to fill other buckets. These could be savings and low risk investment accounts. Once, you get the amounts distributed evenly across the board, then you get into the riskier...”

A toothy grin parts Cideeda’s lips, and an eager glint flashes in her emerald eyes. “And exciting markets.”

Bach gradually nods as information sinks in, and he glances over to Cideeda. “Okay. That makes sense. Limit liability and all that. So... Once, I get to the point of getting into the riskier markets, what do you recommend then?”

Cideeda taps the finger tips on her hands together with an intrigued twist of her mouth. “Well, I prefer the long term game. So, first, invest in what you know and understand. I’ve been burned on investing into companies whose markets I didn’t quite know as well as I should.”

She points out to a list of company names with industry categories to Bach, and leads his attention around. “Second, I would always keep a diverse portfolio. Nothing will drive you crazier than watching one large investment in a single company tank. That will unnerve you to do something silly in a frantic state of mind. Diversified portfolio will buffer those bad days.”

With a shrug of her shoulders and a slightly annoyed lift of her eyebrow at a downwards trend on chart, she sighs with a grumble. “And... Don’t get discouraged by the daily fluctuations... Despite how frustrating they may be...”

Bach frowns slightly at the offending graph, notices the annoyance drooping down Cideeda’s furry ears, and finds a new topic. “Um... So, any favorite companies you’ve put your money into?”

Perking her ears back up, Cideeda’s claw tips clack out commands, and a short list of companies appears on the laptop screen. “Of course! There’s Arc and Spark Munitions, Faraday Aetherwave, MercMart, and...”

Narrowing his stare at a company name on the screen, Bach slowly shifts his questioning gaze over to Cideeda, and lifts an inquisitive, slightly incredulous brow. “Pancake Shed?”

Cideeda meets Bach eyes, dismissively smiles, and points out a set of statistics on the screen. “Don’t let the storefront appearances fool you. They have been consistent performers when it comes to dividends. Plus...”

She dons a wide, toothy grin and chuckles smugly. “I’m just trying to get back some of the money I’ve given them over the years. Just investing on the other side of the business arrangement, so to speak.”

With the cut off of running water, Dretphi leaves the kitchen area, drying her hands on a towel. She wanders over to the other side of the couch, glances over to the laptop screen, and politely asks. “Could you bring up Diamond Defense? I am curious to its performance.”

Cideeda sorts through a few screens on the computer, finds the trading symbol, and opens up a very promising monthly graph. “Wow. Should have gotten in when you did. Might have to buy a few shares if it keeps it up.”

A tinge of excitement emerges upon Dretphi’s face while she reads the statistics and trends. “It was a risk. Loss of a core workshop was hard to comeback from. They did not lose that defense contract. That saved them.”

Tightly smiling, Cideeda eyes over to Dretphi, slightly narrowing her gaze. “Well, next time your house hears about tips like that, let me know as soon as you can.”

Pausing in thought a moment, Cideeda grins eagerly towards the screen and switches to another program on her computer. “That reminds me... Someone is going to need a NEW set of armor!”

Dretphi twists her mouth, averts her gaze humbly, and sighs calmly. “Replacement plates. New boots. A new suit is not needed.”

Bach feels the slight nudge of Cideeda’s elbow into his arm, and catches her winking to him. Cideeda opens up a browser to an aethernet site, and the display loads up with the Diamond Defense logo header. As images of different armor sets appear on the screen, Cideeda angles the laptop screen towards Dretphi with a scheming smile. “Are you sure, looks like they released the latest line.”

Dretphi’s steely gray eyes lower down, lock onto the screen, and focus upon the products appearing. She blinks away, crosses her arms, and attempts to quell her desires with financial logic. “It would be prudent to replace the missing parts. Cost effective option.”

Smiling while scratching her chin with a claw tip, Cideeda playfully sighs, acts as if she’s searching her mind, and thinks out loud with an unconvinced tone. “That’s... technically... true. But, I’m quite certain with a little negotiation and effort on our part... And, factoring the growing amount of maintenance the old suit is starting to need... I don’t think the difference in the long run would be that much.”

The line of thought piques Dretphi’s attention, and she twists her mouth as she contemplates the logistics. “It has become difficult to mend the under armor. The fasteners are fraying. Cleaning has never been easy.”

Her face sours with long term annoyance, and she grumbles to herself. “After each wash, it faintly smells of slime... Still...”

Momentarily, Cideeda snarls her upper lip, grits her teeth, and sighs. “Yeah. It lingers much longer than you know.”

Bach scrutinizes Cideeda and narrows an investigative stare at her. “I can’t shake the feeling there’s something you’re trying to work here.”

Cideeda grins with bold guilt, and nods while holding her hands upwards. “A little. I’ve been wanting another body suit, and it’s easier to work discounts on larger group purchases rather than individual.”

She gazes right at Bach with a sly smile, and pokes a finger claw gently into Dretphi’s arm. “Speaking of which, I think someone needs a new duster?”

Dretphi briefly looks away from browsing on the laptop to Bach, and nods in complete agreement. “Yes. Sleeves are beyond repair. Fabric is thin. Charred. I would NOT trust it on a mission. You need a new duster.”

The trio settle upon the couch, and take turns pointing to the latest sales and deals. Dretphi asks while studying the picture of new armor plating. “Do the armor covers come in red?”

With a long, uncomfortable sigh, Trakenthin lowers his aetherphone from his ear, gazes at the ended call screen, and briefly grits his teeth. Drawing a slow, calming breath, he tries to roll some of the tension out his shoulders, and straightens his posture. He scans around his room and idly coasts his stare across the armor on the stand, the boxes of equipment stacked, the great sword hung in its sheath, and the laptop on his desk. Finally, he focuses upon his bedroom door, steps forward, and opens the exit to the second floor hallway. Surveying the empty hall, he glances around to the other doors for Deedri, Modoran, Tassilda, Veevi, and Chad. Pausing for the moment, Trakenthin angles his ear towards Chad’s room, and listens to the activity sounding out from the cracked open door. He twists his face in concentration, but eventually drifts to frustration as he fails to decipher anything. From distantly down the stairwell, Veevi’s faint whines of curses grate against the peaceful ambiance upstairs, and Trakenthin cringes at the peak of her fit. A bit of relief emerges on his face, as he walks slowly towards Chad’s bedroom door. As he steps forward, he remembers his previous task, and his face grows more stoic and neutral. With the overlay in full, he knocks on Chad’s door. From inside the room, activity halts momentarily and Chad’s voice rises up. “Oh, uh... Come in?”

Trakenthin calmly pushes the door open and turns to face Chad. “Sorry to interrupt?”

Chad gazes up examining himself in a reflective spot of the shield in his hands, and nods to Trakenthin with a smirk. “Hey. What’s new?”

Lifting his eyebrow curiously at the shield, Trakenthin blinks back to focus. He winces slightly with a hesitation straining his voice. “Oh. Want to inform you my... father will visit tonight. After lunch... Stay for dinner. I hope it is not a problem.”

Pondering momentarily, Chad flashes his trademark white smile towards Trakenthin, and shakes his head. “Of course not! I’m quite happy you’re spending some time with your father after so many years. And, his stories from serving in the defense against the Red Gear Uprising are amazing!”

Weakly smiling, Trakenthin thinks about it as his eyes search his mind while slightly gritting his teeth. But, he nods eventually in partial agreement. “Stories they are.”

Chad glances down at his Flames of the Phoenix branded shield, and happily points out a very reflective section of metal. “I took his advice with cleaning up spots on my shield, and it’s turning out great.”

He motions over to his desk, and points out the bottle of cola, a cut lime, and salt shaker next to rag covered bowl. “I was getting some oxidation around the edges where the lacquer has worn off a bit, and this stuff takes it right off.”

A small genuine smile appears in the corner of Trakenthin’s mouth, and he sighs with hints of pride. “He is knowledgeable in that field.”

Chad shifts his gaze over to Trakenthin, studies the body language and expression, and cocks his head to the side. “Hey, Trakenthin, you okay? You don’t seem to be all that excited to see your father. I don’t mean to pry, but is there anything I should know?”

Trakenthin’s hazel eyes widen briefly, and he grumbles uncomfortably to himself. Chad holds up his hand with an awkward grin. “Hey, if it’s a touchy subject, I’m cool with staying away from it.”

Shaking his head side to side, Trakenthin frowns slightly and groans softly. “No. The subject is fine. It is just hard to relate correctly.”

Searching in his head for the words, he tries to piece together a concise explanation. “He is my birth father. He is... NOT... my house father. Has not been for a decade.”

Chad drifts off in his thoughts as he processes the meaning, and gradually arrives at some kind of understanding as he nods. “Oh. Okay. Huh. Sorry, to hear that. That must have been tough.”

Trakenthin crosses his arms, shrugs his shoulders, and contemplates the sentiment. “Parts were. Better overall.”

He grumbles thoughtfully and slowly shakes his head. “It is strange now. Difficult to know how to act.”

Chad dons an awkward grin, and sways his head side to side as he thinks out loud. “I guess it would be. I don’t know. My dad and I don’t always see eye to eye on things. But, we get along for the most part...”

He curls a corner of his mouth toward frown and sneers his upper lip as a few memories pop to front of his mind. “On the other hand, my dad and grandfather. Now, those two barely tolerate each other. My grandfather was and is an adventurer today. But, my dad started and runs a used equipment dealership chain. I guess that was his way of rebelling? I don’t know.”

Fumbling to find a justification, Chad contorts his tan, clean shaven face, and narrows his brown eyes. “There are moments they seem to enjoy being around each other... But, the rest of the time? They barely can stay in the same room for a few minutes before the other tries find any reason to leave.”

He pauses to focus his attention to Trakenthin, and goofily grins while scratching the back of his short, brown, coiffed hair covered head. “Sorry, man. Wandered off on my own problems. Don’t know if that’s anything like your troubles... But, I’ll try to be understanding?”

Trakenthin ponders over the sentiment, and eventually settles into a slow nodding acceptance. “It is similar. Thank you for relating.”

A genuine smile appears on Chad’s face, and he commiserates with a sympathetic eye roll. “Yeah, I guess parent issues are pretty universal.”

He perks up a curious brow at Trakenthin and carefully approaches a question. “So, how long has it been since you’ve seen your father?”

Drawing in a long breath, Trakenthin exhales calmly and shrugs his shoulders. “Years since in person. He occasionally writes. Visits were not often due to circumstances.”

Chad tilts his head to side and inquires further. “Circumstances?”

A humored smirk appears on Trakenthin’s face as he explains. “Father travels. Not in the area often. Other circumstances... My birth mother wants nothing of him. My three other house mothers have promised him shallow burials.”

Chad snorts in amusement briefly, but halts as he reviews the last word from Trakenthin. “Wait, burials? Plural?”

Trakenthin’s gaze widens, and he slowly, dramatically nods with a stern expression. “Yes. Never been told what would happen before that point. Do not want to know.”

Gradually shaking the imagined possibilities out of his head, Chad props the shield up on the floor against the side of the desk, stands up brushing his pants off, and steps next to Trakenthin. With a charismatic bright smile, Chad pats Trakenthin on the side of the shoulder, and dons a sure, bold tone. “Well, if he gives you too much trouble, let me know and I’ll show him the door.”

Trakenthin focuses a judging, slightly incredulous stare at Chad, but slowly lets it fade to an appreciative, humored smirk. “Will keep that in mind. I will try to suffer him for now. Seems to be behaving. See how long that lasts.”

Pulling his phone out briefly, Chad checks the clock on the display, pats Trakenthin on shoulder again, and leads out into the hallway. “Well, it’s showtime. Time to see what everyone has been up to today for the cameras.”

As the two move down the second floor hallway, Veevi’s voice competes with Tassilda’s as the conflict echoes up the stairwell. Both Chad and Trakenthin roll their eyes at the cacophony as they gather their will for the descent down the stairs.

Off to the side from the aisles upon aisles of merchandise in the massive MercMart store, Sotalia stands waiting outside in an open area next to a dressing room. She waits expectantly as her gaze wanders at the many mannequins covered in various armor attire and displays filled with advertising literature. Cideeda shifts her inspecting stare between two large under armor suits, and focuses her attention to the comparison of the small details between garments. Bach looks apprehensively at a clothing rack of various dusters, jackets, and trench coats, and contemplates one before sliding to the next. Aristespha sits back in a chair, sorts through numbers on a spreadsheet displaying on her phone, and taps the sword at her side. After a few moments, Dretphi emerges from a dressing room door, walks out between everyone, and stretches out in a gray, thick full body outfit. “I am not sure about this one.”

Cideeda turns around, scrutinizes the rough fit of the suit, and paces around Dretphi. “Yeah. That one seems like it’s designed for heavier plating. The extra armor around the joints is nice with the thicker outer shell, since you are using medium coverage plating.”

Sotalia quirks an eyebrow, twists her mouth unsatisfied, and slowly shakes her head. “It’s really bulky looking. And, not really flattering. How well can you move in it?”

Dretphi moves her body through a number of stances, executes a few maneuvers, and slowly explores a common set of motions. Bach watches, frowns slightly, and slowly shakes his head. “It’s like you’re fighting the suit a little to move.”

Grimacing as she stands back up from a squat, Dretphi rolls her shoulders, and fidgets uncomfortably in the suit of under armor. “It is stiff. Not flexible for what I need. Not this one.”

Nodding in agreement, Cideeda lifts up one of the under armor suits towards Dretphi with a confident smile. “Okay. Given the last few you tried and how your old suit was, this one should be really close to the mark.”

Dretphi grabs hold of the garment, studies it briefly, and walks back towards the dressing room. “It looks similar to my old under armor.”

Cideeda grins toothily, perks her furry ears, and flits her brow. “Should be. It’s the latest Diamond Defense medium under armor. Should be the same thickness as your old suit.”

As Dretphi slips through the dressing room door, Sotalia crosses her arms, flashes a curious glance to Dretphi, and sways her stance. “Before you try that one, could you give the one I found for you a try?”

Dretphi pauses a moment, nods to Sotalia, and closes the door. “I will try that one now.”

Wandering over a bit aimlessly, Bach surveys the selection of under armor garments as Cideeda puts them back on their hangers. “There’s a lot of options with this type of armor. It’s not as expensive as I’ve always heard though.”

Cideeda gazes up to Bach after she finishes laying out the latest rejected suit, and smirks as she gestures to emphasize the hidden costs. “Well, that’s just for the armor pieces themselves. A LOT of the true cost comes with fitting the suit to your dimensions, adjusting the plating fasteners to work with coverage and style you are using, and all the customizations you’d want to fit it to your needs.”

She grins slyly with a frugal spark in her emerald eyes, and taps the claw tips on hands together. “But, we are fortunate enough to have a good range skills in our group. Between Dretphi, you, and myself, we’ve got everything covered.”

Bach blinks a few times as his mind ponders to a point of confusion, and he quirks his face seeking clarification. Cideeda smiles confidently, rests a hand on her hip, and points a thumb over her shoulder towards the dressing room. “Dretphi can sew anything on the suit to her liking. I can adjust and tweak the plating and accessories. And, you can handle the finishing touches.”

Tilting his head to the side, Bach puzzles briefly and thinks about what Cideeda said. After a few moments, Cideeda rolls her eyes playfully, flexes her fingers in front of her to mimic a series of magical gestures, and stares at Bach with an amused smirk. “Enchanting. Those last ones saved her a few times, I think she’s going to want a fresh set upon her new plating.”

Bach’s pride cringes as he remembers the blatantly obvious, and he smiles with a sigh. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. I keep forgetting...”

Cideeda narrows an incredulous gaze at Bach, twists her mouth, and rests both hands on her hips. “You keep forgetting you can do ridiculous magical stuff?”

Frowning momentarily, Bach fights the word choice to an explanation of his feelings. “Well, uh, no. I just... I guess I’m just still getting used to being included in on projects because my magical skills? I mean, after not having anything worth mentioning magically... It stops being the first thing you assume people are talking about?”

He scratches the back of his head with an awkward smile, and fidgets uncertainly. “Did that make any sense?”

Cideeda smiles genuinely, nods slowly to Bach, and sighs. “It did. I think I understand.”

She reveals a toothy grin, perks up her furry ears, and wags her tail. “Also, you could definitely assist in a bit of reworking of the old plating for an idea I had.”

Sotalia’s golden eyes flit wide as her pointed ear catches a gasp and mumbles of grath in an obviously embarrassed tone from the dressing room. She steps close the door, knocks on it, and curiously asks. “Everything okay in there?”

Dretphi’s voice emerges uncertainly form the other side of the room with an awkward cadence. “... Yes... This suit has an... Unexpected fit...”

Sotalia puzzles blankly at the choice of terms, narrows an inquisitive stare, and tries to push open the door. “What are you talking about?”

She taps around the slide lock on the other side, and rolls her eyes impatiently. “Come on, let me see. I did pick it out for you.”

Seconds later, the lock slides, and Sotalia peeks her head around the cracked open door. “Okay, what are you talking about...”

A mischievous grin grows upon Sotalia’s face, and she chuckles evilly. “Oh... What are you worried about? There’s nothing wrong with something that accentuates your figure that well. Come on out.”

Another grumble of grath from Dretphi slips out from behind the door. Sotalia sighs as she slowly shakes her head. “It’s not bad at all.”

Cideeda’s ear flicks back from the conversation at the dressing room door. She pivots around, walks over next to Sotalia, and slips her head in for a glance. “Okay, what’s going on?”

She pauses a moment, cocks her head, and flicks her ears around contemplatively. “Oh. That is DEFINITELY much more form fitting than your old suit.”

Aristespha blinks to attention from her phone, stands up, and steps over to the gathering. “Gods, now I’m curious. What are we dealing with?”

She peeks around the door, halts to study for a number of seconds, and covers her mouth. Stepping away, she walks back to her seat while searching her mind and tapping at the sword. “Oh, that design was obviously inspired by one of those animated action movies.”

Sebastian’s voice softly emanates from the sword inquiringly. “You mean the ones with revealing outfits and impossible body physics?”

Sotalia crosses her arms, stares unamused at the detractors, and pouts shaking her head. Her gazes falls upon Bach as he distracts himself with an informational literature next to a display. A devilish grin cracks from the corner of her mouth, and she quips. “Well, let’s get another opinion from a different perspective... Oh, Ba-”

Her voice cuts out abruptly right before it carries over far enough, and she cringes with a reflexive lean. Cideeda glares right at Sotalia, releases her cautionary grip upon Sotalia’s side, and closes the dressing room door. “Try the other one out, Dretphi.”

Sotalia sighs with a grumble in fvalian. Cideeda slowly shakes her head with an apologetic phrase in fvalian, but focuses an accusatory expression to Sotalia as she walks away. Sotalia rolls her eyes dismissively with a playful smile. Minutes later, Dretphi emerges in a suit similar to her old suit. After a few maneuvers and common movements, she dons a happy smile and grows more satisfied with each test of the garment. With a few final series of mock attack and defense motions, she stands content before the group. “This one. It feels right. I can move in it freely. Similar to my old suit.”

Cideeda gives a thumbs up to Dretphi and points towards nearby tall racks of plating in a plentiful gamut of sizes, shapes, materials, and colors. “Good. Let’s try out some plates and see what works for you.”

Dretphi eagerly walks over to the expansive selection, surveys the products before her, and picks up an example piece. Cideeda crosses her arms in thought, taps her foot, and deliberates. Determining her desires, she steps next to Sotalia and directs a quiet question. “Where did you find that particular suit?”

Sotalia smirks slyly, brushes back her fiery, wavy orange hair, and points over to a display rack. “Over there. There’s a few other styles.”

Bach arrives at the overwhelming line up of armor plates upon many levels of rack space, and stands in awe as analysis paralysis seizes his mind. Situational awareness returns to him when he notices Dretphi standing next to him patiently with an example plate in hand. “Oh... Yes?”

Dretphi smiles warmly, presents the plate, and approaches her request, biting her lower lip slightly. “Could you put a barrier enchantment on this?”

Bach picks up the plate in his hands, examines the construction, and slowly nods. “Yeah. I don’t think it’d be any different than before.”

Dretphi lifts a curious brow to Bach, and poses another question. “Could the color be red instead of gold?”

A high gust of wind blows through the thinning forests along the sides of the highway. The afternoon sun slowly approaches an orange horizon, gradually reddening towards the evening hue. The breeze stirs Meredosia’s long, gray hair against her ivory skinned face as she walks along side of the roadway. She adjusts her old backpack, and brushes off her worn hoodie. Twisting her mouth briefly, she works an uncomfortable spot out of her frayed blue jeans. After checking her course, her crimson eyes wander to peacefully gaze into the rural landscape, and sighs heavily with a slight droop of her long ears. She occasionally smiles at the brief appearances of wildlife existing nearby under the cover of trees.

Minutes pass on by as the ambient glow from the horizon shifts to a warm red, and the tinges of evening purple crest opposite. The lone evuukian woman arrives at the top of a taller hill, and pauses a moment to gaze ahead. Meredosia focuses her attention in front of her and watches with widening eyes at the distant lights of the suburban sprawl. She studies the scene before her with an uncertain mix of fear and anticipation, drawing long calming breaths. After the sounds of traffic stir her back to awareness, she musters her courage and steps forward.

As she continues her journey into the sparse outskirts, she sinks into her own thoughts, and occasionally glances over to survey the changing landscape. Moments she smirks at familiar sights, but often stares uneasily at the unfamiliar aspects. The sky overhead darkens from purple to dark blue with the waxing moon brightly contrasting, despite the ambient city lights. Her thoughts wander inward and her dark red eyes sort through her mind. She continues walking along the side of highway of moderate traffic, and loses knowledge of the world near her for minutes at a time. Eventually, the toe of her boots tap up against a concrete curb, and her attention snaps back to the path ahead. She stares ahead towards the distant city upon the horizon and the highlighting glow of urban activity. Surveying the area around her, she notices a huge, tall sign off the roadway and over to the side of the sidewalk in front of her.

“Welcome to Amaranth Valley.”

Meredosia’s crimson eyes widen as she finishes reading the sign, and she slowly resumes her stern gaze ahead towards the city. She tightens her grip on her backpack straps, briefly grits her teeth, and slowly exhales her nerves. She dons a cool, calm exterior, reaches into her jeans pocket, and pulls out an old wallet. Opening the billfold, she sorts through a few old government IDs, worn business cards, and a very modest amount of money. A surge of uncertainty floods her expression as she looks distantly ahead. Seconds later, the wave of emotion subsides and determination boils up to the surface as she returns her wallet to her pants pocket. Hesitating briefly, she puts one foot ahead, and resumes her journey into Amaranth Valley.

Isaac clamps hold of a slice of beef out of a take out box with a pair of chopsticks, pops the piece of food into his mouth, and points towards a document on the table. “And, those are my notes from exploring that one hidden base near Hattan.”

He pauses a moment to enjoy a few more morsels of dinner, and remarks nostalgically while glancing at the logo on the takeout carton. “Gods, I’ve forgotten how good this place is. They haven’t changed a bit.”

Dr. Dawkins chuckles to himself as he scans over the documents, pictures, and information upon the large, antique dining table. “That they haven’t. Same owner still, too.”

Picking up papers and printouts, he skims through stack after stack, and slowly shakes his head in disbelief. “So fascinating... I can’t quite make out what you’ve found. But, it is significant.”

Isaac slowly nods and sighs with hints of frustration in his voice. “And, this latest discovery wasn’t a remote thought in my mind. The scope of my investigations were in a completely different direction.”

Reaching over the table top, he taps upon a folder of documents, and tilts his head to the side. “I got my original list of locations to explore from the remote radio outpost. Quite a few on there. It took some effort to decipher the coordinates.”

His attention shifts over to a small stack of written notes interleaved with paper and graphite rubbings of rough symbols, and he narrows his gray eyes upon the pile. “Surprisingly quite a few of those locations had ancient elder energy structures that were still quite functional. One unfortunately had fallen into wrong and dangerous hands, but I remedied that.”

Dr. Dawkins perks up his brow and levels an inquisitive stare at Isaac. “What exactly was going on, and... How did you remedy it?”

Isaac meets Dr. Dawkins gaze, frowns slightly, and sighs in a mix of disappointment and frustration. “No one was hurt... Physically. I did manage to severely wound the ego of a very self-righteous leader of one of those damned Terra Priest cult groups. It’s actually quite the shame. That young evuukian woman had figured out how to control elder energy. And, was able pull it into and from an energy storage amulet.”

Twisting his mouth, mild sadness emerges upon his face, and he slowly shakes his head. “If she just wasn’t so caught up in her delusions, she had the potential to become a great pupil and possibly help with future breakthroughs.”

With a long sigh and slump of the shoulders, Isaac tugs at the corner of his frown and grimaces. “I despised having to ruin that elder energy dais and the amulet, but after seeing those who were trying to use it, I could NOT leave it functional.”

Dr. Dawkins slowly nods in total agreement, and grumbles loudly with a curling sneer of his upper lip. “You did the right thing there. Truth to be told, I’ve had the misfortune of running into a number of the more inane groups in my career, multiple times. Depending on where you are setting up, you had to check the area for any signs of Terra Priests, Red Gears, or government privateers. Gods, we practically had to pay monthly rent to a number of local gangs and mobs to keep them not only out of business, but to keep them quiet about it, too!”

Isaac exhales in commiseration with Dr. Dawkins. After picking a few choice pieces of beef out of the takeout box, he settles back into his chair at the table, and gazes upon a battered laptop’s display filled with electronic document text. “After taking the pictures, I had to pull all the data I could of Dr. Malkav’s research. But... Unfortunately, it’s not exactly what I need. There seems to be hints and overviews of his initial vague theories, but none of the specifics I need to see.”

Dr. Dawkins picks up the photograph of Bach in flight carrying Sotalia within a cavernous pit, brings it close to study it with his eyes, and traces his finger along the bright white aura surrounding Bach. “I can’t fault you there. But, you might want to be careful accessing the Grand Library in the future. I haven’t heard much, as they’ve been uncharacteristically quiet lately. Which usually means something happened to spook the higher ups.”

Lifting a curious eyebrow, Isaac ponders the advice, and gradually nods in agreement with a sly smile. “Thank you for the warning. I had thought my access to the system after so long might seem strange. So, I made sure to pull everything I could... From a random location in the woods near an outskirts aethernet tower that I don’t plan to ever visit again.”

A proud grin graces Dr. Dawkins face, and he chuckles in sheer amusement at Isaac’s tactics. “Good thinking. I am happy you still remember those early lessons of mine.”

He rests the picture down, hums in thought to himself, and slowly eases back into his chair contemplatively. “Gods, this Bach Warwick... Whatever has he managed to accomplish? Before we even venture to ascertain HOW he pulled this feat off, we first have to establish WHAT he did...”

Isaac dramatically nods as he sits up, rakes his fingers through his head of wild, graying white hair, and grumbles out his frustrations. “I KNOW. This is absolutely baffling to me. Did he find some strange power source of elder energy that causes this difference in auras?”

Dr. Dawkins quirk a wary and intrigued brow towards Isaac, and strokes his chin thoughtfully. “Gods help us, has he bypassed the abstract prism?”

Isaac flits his eyes wide while entertaining the possibility, and slowly shakes his head frowning. “We could theorize all we want, but that will not get us the answers. Are you certain you don’t know where Dr. Malkav is?”

With a long sigh, Dr. Dawkins grimaces and lowers his head slightly. “I know where he’s been. At least, from when he stops to write during his slow periods. But, he gets caught up in his work and disappears for months at a time. The last package I got from him was from a hotel in Perimeter.”

Gritting his teeth, Isaac groans as he sinks into his seat a little. “Good gods. The Perimeter Weird Zone? He could be anywhere in that area, and who knows if he’ll ever resurface. What was he out to study there?”

Dr. Dawkins crosses his arms, contorts his face as he searches his memory, and shakes his head with hints of irritation. “He’s always vague about the details when he thinks he’s on to something big. It’s aligned with the common theme of his research. Clues to an old point of power that seemed extremely relevant to him. I could never get him to elaborate more before he headed out on sabbatical years ago.”

Isaac’s mood drops as he slumps in his chair, and he releases a sad, disheartened sigh. “Well... Shit... It will take forever to figure out exactly WHERE he was going without some kind of context to WHAT he was researching. If we could just have something to work off of, I’m certain we could derive what caught his attention...”

Nodding sympathetically, Dr. Dawkins halts as a distant memory tickles his attention and he concentrates upon a thought in his mind. After a minute, he blinks to a realization, slides back his chair, and holds a finger towards Isaac as he gets up. “Wait here... I think I might have something...”

He walks swiftly out of the dining room. Distantly from the archway into the hallway, the faint sounds of documents shuffling, paper moving, and a desk drawer opening resonate. A bit of excitement fills Dr. Dawkin’s voice. “There it is!”

Isaac sits up in his chair, gazes curiously towards the entry into the dining room, and cocks his head in anticipation. Seconds later, Dr. Dawkins reappears, shuffles over eagerly into his chair, and presents an old envelope to Isaac. “This might be what we need.”

Narrowing his attention upon the aged paper exterior, Isaac glances towards Dr. Dawkins and points curiously at the item. “What’s inside?”

Dr. Dawkins smirks with a glint of anticipation in his green eyes, and laughs as he turns the front of the envelope at Isaac. “I don’t exactly know.”

Isaac’s eyes flit wide as he reads the text upon the paper container above Dr. Malkav’s barely legible signature. “Open upon my DEATH?!”

A sly smile creeps upon Dr. Dawkin’s mouth, and he chuckles dryly at Isaac. “If he’s dead, no better time to open it. If he’s still alive... He’ll understand.”

Isaac waits barely patiently as Dr. Dawkins uses a nearby plastic knife to awkwardly saw through the top of the letter. Dr. Dawkins empties out a few folded letter pages, and a key upon the table. Both Isaac and Dr. Dawkins exchange glances, and Isaac urges Dawkins to read the letter via hand gestures. After a few seconds of Dr. Dawkins speed reading through the paragraphs upon the first page, he chuckles loudly with a wide grin and slowly shakes his head. “You tricky old bastard.”

Isaac leans over to get a glances at the papers Dr. Dawkin’s hands, and eagerly searches for the meaning. “What does it say?! What’s the key for?!”

Dr. Dawkins picks up the key, smiles brilliantly to Isaac, and reveals a hand drawn map upon the next page of the letter. “He hid backup copies of his notes underneath the computing equipment anchors in one of the collection’s server rooms!”

Isaac’s eyes open wide, and excitement drives his curiosity as he grabs hold of the map for further study. “By the gods! YES!...”

He halts a moment as his mind remembers old details, and puzzles at a conflict in his mind. “The server rooms? I thought Dr. Malkav LOATHED the chair of he computer science department?”

Dr. Dawkins nods with grin as he chuckles, and sits back in his seat. “Oh, yes. He DESPISED the previous chair. But... It oddly makes sense, though. No one would have EVER thought to look there for anything of Dr. Malkav’s knowing his hatred.”

Isaac snorts as he examines the map further, and remarks on a thought. “Probably wanted to put one over on that chair. Hiding his treasure right in the house of the one he hated.”

The two sit quietly a few moments as they study the pages from the envelope. Dr. Dawkins smirks slyly at Isaac, and poses a question in a foreboding tone. “So... How should we go about acquiring this treasure?”

Isaac grins and hums contemplatively, and the two men examine the map closer.