Episode 87

A lightly armored patrol cruiser rolls down the long, paved road between quiet businesses, and the Perimeter Defense Force logos on the vehicle reflect in the late morning sun. The car slows down to a stop outside large, sparsely graveled lot. The older officer in the driver’s seat narrows a stare over to the small, glassed walled building in the middle of the lot. He glances over to his partner, nods this head towards the location, and laughs with derisive hints. “And, right THERE, is where you start when the reputable places are dead ends.”

The woman’s very long, fuzzy ears twitch towards the rusty metal sign in front of the chain link fence surrounding the property. She narrows her aquamarine eyes, reads the text, and sneers her upper lip to reveal a sharp canine. Grimacing her blue hinted, tan face, she uncertainly grumbles. “Trusty Tony’s?! Are you sure about this? I’ve seen this fvalian’s ads when filing out late night paper work. I could smell the sleaze from the television screen.”

Rolling his brown eyes, the older human man cracks a humored smirk, turns off the sedan, and releases his seat belt. “Yeah. You could probably change the oil in this car by squeezing a picture of him into the spout.”

He draws in a long breath, and releases an unfortunate, accepting sigh. “If someone like what the Borderland Rangers and GAA described came into town, Tony either has dealt with him... Or, knows who did.”

Aiming an unconvinced gaze at the older officer, the younger woman lifts an examining brow, and groans. “Okay, Calvin. But, do you honestly think he’ll tell us anything? It’s Trusty Tony.”

Calvin laughs loudly as he opens his car door, swings his legs out, and stands up next to the squad car. “Don’t worry about it, Treevianna. Trusty Tony and I go back. He doesn’t give all the details. But, he gives just enough information to speed up our investigations. It’s a bit of a balancing act.”

Treevianna’s long, pointed fuzzy ears droop, and she shakes her head of long, braided multi-color hair. She slips out of her side of the sedan, brushes off her plain clothes, and starts affixing her badge at her waist. Calvin walks around the front of the vehicle, shakes his head at Treevianna, and steps towards the gateway in the fence. He gestures subtly at the badge. “Keep the badge ready, but not out. If it’s out, he’ll go on the defensive.”

Nodding slowly, Treevianna slips her badge wallet into her pants pocket, tightens the belt around her lithe figure, and rushes up next to Calvin. Her ear twitches, and she glances down at Calvin’s leg. “It sounds like that bearing is getting worse.”

Calvin frowns his bearded face, draws in a long breath, and grumbles out. “Yeah. I’m just going to get a whole new leg. This thing has been rebuilt over three times, piece by piece, over the years. And... the Perimeter Health Department really would like me to get new one. It’s getting hard for them to find people to work on it.”

Treevianna shakes her head, sighs with a smile, and muses wistfully. “That old cybernetic leg of yours has been the department mascot for years. Still won’t forget when you detached it and dropped it on the table as a bet for the department card game.”

As the duo steps across the intermittent patches of gravel upon the mix of sand and dirt in the large lot, Calvin pulls a wide grin on his aged and tanned face, puffs chest, and chuckles. “Glad I won that hand, too. We’ll still have it around for our fun. Anyway, I’m saving up for NICE realistic bionic like Lady Rhian’s.”

A spark of intrigue lights up Treevianna’s eyes and she glances over to Calvin with a delighted smirk. “Oh, those are nice. So realistic you can barely-”

She blinks blankly a moment, mentally picks through the last few seconds, and puzzles eagerly. “Like Lady Rhian’s?! Wait! She has bionic limb? Which one?”

Calvin laughs lightly as he grips hold of the glass door to the small building of window walls. “Her left forearm. You should see her shell pecans. Fuckin’ humbling.”

Treevianna follows behind Calvin through the doorway, surveys the age upon the furniture and interior, and keeps next to Calvin. Strutting up to the counter and resting his muscled arms on the top, Calvin leans his weight forward, and eyes the area with a mischievous smirk. He notices the bell on the counter top, slides it over under his hand, and pats out a jingle. “Trusty Tony’s, trade your old way, and for new ride today.”

From behind a sun damaged, old cheap wooden door, sounds of activity muffle out. The door opens slowly. An older fvalian man steps out, straightens out his cheap business attire, and spots Calvin. Pulling a wide, chipped fang smile at the older man at the counter, Trusty Tony enthusiastically greets Calvin, and stands pridefully across. “Ah, Calvin. That was a good ad run. Might have to bring that one back.”

He narrows a curious gaze upon Calvin, and combs his sharp claws through his graying, slicked back hair. “Am I so lucky today, that I might have you as proper customer? You’ve always been such a dedicated browser of my wares.”

Calvin straightens his posture of his large frame, lifts a humored brow at Tony, and slowly shakes his head with a smirk. “Not today. Maybe after I get my new leg, we’ll see what the money situation looks like.”

Nodding respectfully, Tony maintains an entrepreneurial grin, and eases a slight sigh. “As long as the new leg keeps you coming here, I’ll keep hoping.”

He shifts his gaze over to Treevianna, lifts an intrigued brow, and bows politely. “Oh, where are my manners. I am Trusty Tony. And, I am pleased that Calvin has brought you here to my fine business. What is your name?”

Treevianna stiffens her stance, slows the wags of her long, short-haired tail, and acknowledges the greeting. “Treevianna.”

Tony smiles with a chuckle, and narrows an inquisitive stare. “A very lovely name, matching a very lovely lady.”

He eyes Calvin briefly, darts his gaze around the room, and gestures the two plain clothes officers to follow him. “Let’s tour the lot. You might find something you might like.”

Leading the duo out the back doors into the sand speckled, huge back lot, Tony gives a general tour, and motions to a number of different vehicles. When they near the mechanic shop at the corner of the property, Treevianna spots a green sedan on a lift inside a garage bay. She subtly taps Calvin on the shoulder, motions towards the vehicle, and whispers. “I think that might be it.”

Calvin nods in agreement, and catches a brief glimpse of Tony’s furry ear flicking back forward. He dons a sly smirk, steps up to the side of Tony, and points over to the green sedan on the lift. “That’s interesting car right there. When did you manage to get that?”

Tony’s expression cools, and he faintly stiffens his posture. “About three weeks ago. It was sold to me.”

Narrowing an examining stare upon Tony, Calvin walks near the green sedan, studies the vehicle from a distance, and twists his mouth. He squints his eyes at the back window and trunk, and frowns slightly at the intact glass and untouched metal surface. Tony eases behind the two, summons up an uneasy smile, and observes. “Something you might be interested in?”

Calvin nods, scratches his bearded chin, and hums thoughtfully. “Maybe. It’s similar to something I’ve been looking for.”

Treevianna glances down at her aetherphone, quickly reads a paragraph of description text, and focuses her hard stare upon the back end of the car. Sniffing the air, she eyes the edges of the very clean back window, and concentrates a comparing gaze between the trunk lid and surrounding body panels. Tony uncomfortably taps the claw tips of his hands together, and directs a polite inquiry to Calvin. “So, are you more interested in the vehicle, specifically?”

Calvin calmly elaborates. “No. Just curious about WHO would drive such a vehicle to Perimeter.”

Hint of relief spreads through Tony, and he nods in agreement. “Yes. But still, a customer’s business is their own.”

Calvin nods respectfully. Treevianna searches her mind, ponders the right encoding, and questions Tony. “Did you have to do any work on this car?”

Tony pauses a moment, cracks a wide grin, and chuckles lightly. “Well, yes. I couldn’t very well sell such a fine vehicle with blemishes on the backside. Things like HOLES are very unsightly.”

A proud smirk appears on Calvin’s face when he glances over to Treevianna. He lifts an inquisitive brow at Tony. “You mind if we get a closer look at this fine vehicle? You’ll probably sell it before I get a chance to buy it, but I’d like to get a feel for it.”

Tony presents a prideful, chipped fang grin, combs back his slicked back hair, and chuckles. “Of course. Let me go in and get the key to unlock the lift.”

When Tony departs, Treevianna leans close to Calvin, and sneaks a hushed tone. “So, what’s the next step? Seizing the vehicle will take some legal paperwork...”

Calvin shakes his head, smiles satisfied, and motions his head towards the road. “Won’t be needed. We need to figure out where this Isaac guy went. This vehicle just confirms he was here. And, this long road only has to two main outlets. Both happen to have?”

Treevianna thinks briefly, and grins slyly. “Traffic cameras.”

Aristespha, Sotalia, Bach, Dretphi, and Cideeda sit around a collection of cards, tiles, tokens, and chits. With a smug, toothy grin, Cideeda repeatedly stacks her collection of golden tokens between her claw tips, and greedily eyes the assets in front of Aristespha, Sotalia, Bach, and Dretphi. She props her head up with an arm on the tabletop, flits her emerald green eyes open, and flicks her furry ears between the other players. “Well, well, well... Look at all these wonderful things that require so much money to maintain. I’m sure someone might like a loan with a FAIR interest rate and the MANDATORY non-aggression pact.”

Dretphi narrows her cool glare at Cideeda, rearranges her military tokens neatly, and silently waits. Bach uneasily sorts the cards in hand, glances down at the text upon different cardboard tiles, and rehearses through different scenarios by moving chits in from of him. Cideeda’s gaze settles upon Bach, and he uncertainly meets her plotting stare. He glances between Dretphi, Sotalia, and Aristespha, and points over to Aristespha, with a worried tone. “Go bother Aristespha, she’s got all the research going. I’m just finally getting this process working right.”

Aristespha flashes a frustrated glare at Bach, rolls her eyes, and scrunches up nose. “Oh please. You’ve actually got something over there in that mess. I’m barely able to get the funding to get these projects off the ground...”

She slowly pivots her head, and focuses her sarcastic glower with a dismissive snort towards Cideeda. “Because SOMEONE got lucky and horded every money producing tile in the game.”

Cideeda playful shrugs off the guilt with toothy grin. After a few seconds, she narrows a suspicious stare at Sotalia, and sternly prompts. “Any more event cards you need to play?”

Sotalia finishes peeking at the top few cards of the deck, plucks a card from her hand, and rearranges collection face down on top. She slides the pile back to the center of the table, smiles contentedly, and eases back into her chair. “I’m done. It’s your turn Aristespha.”

Sebastian hovers next to Aristespha, watches her quietly grumble over cards, and cranes his ethereal form over to gaze at her. “Uh, it’s your turn, dear.”

Aristespha glances up from studying combination of tiles, chits, token, and cards in front of her, grimaces with a sharp breath through her teeth, and hisses out a sigh. “I know, Sebastian. Let’s see the event card.”

She reaches her arm over to the deck of face down cards, pulls one off, and reads it. Sebastian’s ethereal form smirks, and he playfully narrates. “She’s drawn the card. She has read it. What will the event for her be?”

Perking a suprised brow, Aristespha places the card down on the table, sighs her relief, and picks up a small stack of golden tokens from the center reserve. “Small research grant. Not a lot of gold, but that should pay off a few projects.”

Quickly sorting through her cardboard accounting, Aristespha finishes up her turn, and indicates the end to Cideeda. “Your turn.”

Cideeda slowly pulls a card off the top with a confident smile, and her emerald green eyes sift through the text. She furrows her brow, lifts her stare towards Sotalia, and cocks her head curiously to the side. Laying card down, she reaches back out towards the deck of cards as her confidence wanes into uncertainty. “It comes in threes. Draw three more event cards and use them immediately in the order drawn...”

Sebastian blinks upon remembering, and coasts over behind Sotalia. With a tightly hidden smile, Sotalia fans out her cards into Sebastian’s view. Sebastian adopts a similar expression, and the two wait in growing anticipation. Cideeda plucks the top card off the deck, studies the text, and sharply frowns into a twisting grit of her teeth. “Privateers Attack... Any player may sacrifice military units to attack you and capture gold equal to difference between attacker and defender power...”

With the hanging silence from Cideeda, Dretphi perks an intrigued eyebrow and attentively listens for the next words. Cideeda draws in a breath, sighs with tinges of pain, and recites. “This attack is... NOT... affected by non-aggression pacts...”

Blinking at the reveal, Dretphi glances down quickly with her platinum blonde braids sliding, and examines her ordered units. She begins to slide the entirety of her units over to Cideeda. With wide eyes, Cideeda grimaces, and sputters out a protest. “Hold up! Um... You still NEED to keep enough to defend yourself from everyone else.”

Dretphi studies the desperate smile upon Cideeda’s light brown face, ponders a moment, and nods in agreement. She checks the military in front of Bach, Sotalia, and Aristespha, slides off a modest portion from the martial mass in front of her, and moves the rest towards Cideeda. After a barrage of dice rolls and cards, Cideeda finishes sliding over a few stacks of gold tokens over to Dretphi, and settles uncomfortably into her chair. Sebastian hovers back down to the side of table, examines the exchange and nods. “Well, that was a fight. Now... You still have two more cards to draw.”

Cideeda twists her mouth, and a soft growl rumbles under her breath. She reluctantly draws another card, and starts reading the title text. Her tail swiftly frays and fluffs out. Her stare widens, and she grits her sharp teeth. She slaps the card face down on the table, hisses in a gulp of air, and forces out an uneasy sigh. “So... I’d like to take a quick break... To think what I need to do... Please?”

Sebastian glances between the rest of the group. With no objections, the team leaves the table for the bathroom, fridge, and couch. After a few minutes, Bach, Aristespha, and Sotalia settle near the television. In between channel flipping, Bach leans over and whispers to Sotalia. “The hell did you do?”

Sotalia smiles slyly, tosses back her fiery orange, wavy hair, and giggles to herself. “What the card said. Rearrange the top three cards of the deck, in addition to one of your own.”

Bach grimaces at the thought, and stops at a channel with a familiar show on the screen. “Oh, yeah. It is Friday. I think this latest episode of The Next Adventurers of Nexus. I wonder how their mission went-”

The eerily recognizable forest seizes the full attention of Aristespha, Bach, and Sotalia. As the trio watch, Sebastian drifts over curiously, glances over at the television, and freezes. Dretphi finishes preparing her snacks, deposits the plate at the dining table, and notices the looming discomfort across the room. As the audio of the events breaks through the stunned silence surrounding the screen, Dretphi walks over, and stares at the screen. Cideeda appears from the hallway archway, peeks at the events transpiring on the show, and remains silent.

The team settles uneasily around television, and watches the immediate familiarity of the landscape, architecture, and the huge clearing surrounded by old, giant trees. Frowns appear on faces, and cringes briefly wince out in between expressions of dismay and worry. Aristespha pulls out her aetherphone, quickly taps up a message, and waits. Sotalia glances over at Aristespha, finds her phone, and types out to another recipient. Attention briefly shifts away from the events on the screen when alert chimes ring out from both Aristespha and Sotalia’s phones. Both quickly read through the responses, and nod assuring smiles as a wave of relief deflates the tension in the room. During a cliffhanger commercial break, Sotalia pushes out a long sigh, and flutters her golden eyes. “Tassilda said they’re all okay. It was absolutely insane, but they pulled through.”

Aristespha nods, and blinks hard. “Deedri apologized for not contacting me sooner. But, she just finally got time to process it herself. She... thanked me for the spirit guide advice. Said it helped them stay safe.”

Sebastian smiles comfortingly at Aristespha. The show drops back into the action from commercial break. After the futile attempts from Veevi, clips showcase the rest of the Flames of Phoenix coordinating the efforts into a triumphant victory. When the action wanes, another commercial break slips in. The team breaks free from the hold of the television, and they migrate back to the tabletop. Cideeda grits her teeth, and droops her ears as she settles into her seat. “I’m glad they’re okay. Gods. Appaland really fucked that place up.”

Bach shudders at a though in his mind. “Yeah, I’m glad we got that girl out of there. And, I hope all those others got clear.”

He twists his mouth uncomfortably, but smiles with a snack offering from Dretphi. Sebastian sighs with a ghostly reverb, and dons a brighter smile. “Well, the team is okay. When things are better for all of us, we need invite them to something.”

Sotalia lifts a curious brow at Sebastian, and crosses her arms. “Please tell that doesn’t include Veevi.”

Squelching an ethereal snort, Sebastian shakes his head with a laugh. “Hell, no. I’m nice, not crazy.”

Cideeda flexes her clawed fingers upon the table, rolls her shoulders, and prepares herself. “Okay. Back to the game. Now, I’m suppose to draw all three of the cards, first. So, before I do this one, let me see-”

Swiftly yanking the card off the top of the deck, she grits her teeth, grimaces in anticipation, and eyes the card. Cideeda’s eyes spring wide open, and her tail frays out as it wags fast and erratically. She furiously plops the card upon the table, and growls in frustration. Sotalia fails to hold back her devilish glee, as she catches of glimpse of the title text. Her snorts break through into a cackles of laughter, and she maniacally flexes her long, thick, black nailed fingers. “Oh, that’s too perfect! I didn’t know what that card was going to be, but it turned out... SO GOOD.”

Pointing a claw tip at Sotalia, Cideeda motions down at the collection of four drawn cards in front of her, as her furry ears draw back. “SOTALIA?! WHAT. THE. FUCK?! Which one of these is YOUR card?!”

Three figures slink away from an old van and into the brush along the side of the road. Each attempts some semblance of stealth to middling degrees of success in the dark. As the trio approach a large metal hangar near a long brick house, the leader peeks his head above the clipped top of a large shrub. Marcus shakes off a few leaves in his slicked back hair, and glances back at the young, dark gray skinned woman, and emin man with chipped horns behind him. “Okay... This HAS to be the place. Big open area and that huge building, right around where we keep seeing the dragon drop altitude.”

Cind peers her dark knit cap covered head out of hiding, and glances over to Marcus with her bright blue eyes. “Make sense. This is one of the few houses on this road. So, what’s the plan?”

She tucks a few stray braids of her red hair back under her hat, and waits expectantly. Kell scratches his shaggy beard thoughtfully, casually plucks off a spider from one of his horns, and places his down on a tree trunk nearby. With a growing series of nods, a goofy smile appears on his face, and he narrows his purple on black eyes at Marcus. “Shouldn’t be too hard to get into that place. If they’re expecting to keep a dragon that big in, probably don’t worry about the small doors or windows.”

Marcus contorts his face contemplatively, and raises his hand to signal the other two. “Follow me. Let’s check those doors and windows, first.”

Leading the trio, Marcus navigates through the remaining brush, while Cind and Kell file in behind. They keep a low profile in their approach to hangar at the end of the makeshift dirt runway near the long brick house. The small team investigates the side door carefully, and find no access. They quietly walk to a window, and fail to get it to open from the outside. Checking around the back side of the large metal structure, they find a shallow gravel ramp leading up to a garage door. Combining their efforts, the three strain to hoist up the gate, and eventually surrender to the locked entryway. Marcus pants out his mild frustration, and shakes his head. “Okay. So, they are pretty thorough with locking everything. Cind, you might have to do some of your magic on the locks.”

Cind nods uneasily, and sighs reluctantly. “Simple cage doors are one thing. These look like decent locks. I might have to try to cut them open.”

Kell blinks a few moments, scratches a notch in one of his horns while lost in a thought, and hums. “Hey, maybe... we should try the big door in the front?”

Marcus narrows an incredulous stare at Kell, and cocks his head. “I... guess? We didn’t try it, but if they’ve locked everything else...”

Shrugging her shoulders in her black turtle neck shirt, Cind glances over hopefully. “It’s worth checking. I mean, everything else about this dragon has been a little off.”

Stepping forward around the corner to side of the building, Marcus slinks down low, and gestures the rest of the team to follow in a low voice. “Sure. At least, we can say we tried... But... Really?”

The trio sneak around the side, dart quickly around the corner, and scurry to the front of the tall, wide hangar door sections. Marcus quickly surveys the front, steps up to the middle divide, and grabs hold of a handle. He glances over to Cind and Kell, shrugs his shoulders, and pulls. The door segment slides effortlessly to the side, rolls smoothly along a metal track above and supportive wheels below. Kell grabs the other half of the setup, and glides it along. Cind remains in the middle of the gateway, and her bright blue eyes widen as the mix of exterior night lamps and faint moonlight cast upon the blue and black scales of a particularly large dragon. Lagi’s maw opens into a quiet yawns, and he stirs upon a bed of blankets and bulk cloth. As the dim light creeps upon his face, he curls his neck away, and tucks his head under an arm and wing.

Cind’s initial worry fades as she watches Lagi faintly snore, and directs a whisper to Marcus. “Aww... He’s asleep.”

Marcus cracks smirk, puffs up his chest, and sighs. “Well, I guess we’re going to have to wake him up. You have the berries?”

Slipping off a worn and kitsch adorned backpack, Cind searches through the contents and retrieves a burlap sack with spots of purple staining. “Yes. I’ll to wake him up and lead him out.”

Kell walks up next to Marcus, squints as he cranes his head around to inspect the interior of the hangar, and lifts a questioning brow. “Man, I don’t know. There’s nothing here that looks like he’s been restrained or locked up. A lot of places usually have at least a collar and chains. I don’t see any of that.”

Marcus crosses his arms, hums to himself, and grumbles. “I don’t know. Maybe he’s just been so indoctrinated that he doesn’t know any better yet.”

Scratching his beard, Kell nods a little, and sighs. “Yeah. I could see that. That’s pretty rough to be raised to believe that.”

Cind tip toes near the sleeping Lagi, stops meters away, and opens up the burlap sack. Swinging the bag side to the side, she moves air around and towards the slumbering dragon. Moments later, Lagi’s nostrils flare open, and he sniffs the aroma into his nose. His head sluggishly traces the scent back. His consciousness catches up, and he drowsily opens his bright green eyes to stare at Cind and the bag. Cind tenses up as Lagi’s awareness grows, and he focuses his attention upon her. Studying her for a moment, he sniffs the air, shifts his gaze to the sack of berries, and crawls forward to stretch his open maw towards the bag. Cind steps back, motioning with her other hand, and encourages Lagi. “Come on. Follow me, and I’ll give you this whole bag of berries.”

Groggily, Lagi crawls up into a slow walk, and follows Cind’s backpedaling through the hangar doorway. Peeking his head out, Lagi blinks out enough sleep, and notices Kell... and Marcus. Narrowing a halfhearted stare upon Marcus, a low growl reverberates from Lagi’s throat. Cind grits her teeth briefly, reaches into the bag, and pulls out a handful of berries. “Hey, here you go. You’ve done really good so far.”

Lagi diverts to the distracting offering, and lowers his open maw in anticipation. Kell pats the stiff postured Marcus on the back. “It’s okay, man. Probably just a little defensive from last time. I’m sure he’ll warm up to us.”

Cind tosses a handful of berries into Lagi’s mouth, and watches the dragon enjoy the brief snack. Lagi purrs out softly, munches on the treat, and sneakily eyes the burlap sack. Cind glances over to Marcus and Kell with a smile. “I think we just need to take it slow and-”

In a sudden blur of movement, Lagi leans his head out towards the bag, wraps tongue around the sack, and yanks it out from Cind’s grasp. He pauses a moment chirp appreciatively at Cind, and swiftly retreats back into the hangar. Lifting back on his hind quarters, he leans with a clawed hand out to one section of the sliding doors, pulls it along, and then repeats a similar motion with the other side. The trio watch dumbfounded as the hangar doors close shut, and a mechanical clank sounds out.

Marcus, Cind, and Kell blink blankly, and puzzle. Marcus steps forward, grabs hold of the door handles, and pulls. The doors do not move. Turning away from the doors, he stares at Cind and Kell. “He... locked the doors.”

As Marcus plods off towards the van confused and defeated, Cind and Kell offer comforting words.

Gerald narrows his glare at the television from the couch in the clutter strewn living room. He plucks a beer can off a stack of equipment cases, and pours the last remnants into his mouth. With an over arm fling, he tosses the can across the room into a large, trash filled garbage can, and belches loudly. He lifts the remote off the equipment covered coffee table, and aims it at the screen. As the channels flip on the screen, Samantha slowly steps down the stairs, leans down to peek under, and directs her voice to her phone. “I found him, Howie. But, I don’t think he’s in a very talkative mood... Right now...”

Gerald focuses his dark brown eyes at Samantha, and narrows the brunt of his attention to the aetherphone in her hand. “OH. Hi, HOWIE.”

After a brief swell of silence, and Howard’s voice sounds out over the speakerphone with a reluctant tinge. “Oh gods... He’s calling me Howie... He’s not happy...”

Rolling his eyes with a disgusted sneer, Gerald growls out his boiling irritation and rips another fresh beer from a cardboard case. “What brilliant fucking insight gave you that idea? You have so many possible things to choose from. The murder drone, the night running for our lives, the creepy, blood-spattered ruins... Or, the pink bitch nearly taking MY head off.”

Samantha freezes in place as the wave of tension stiffens her, and glances down at her phone. A long breath distantly sounds out from the other side of the call, and an uneasy sigh follows from Howard. “Yeah... First, I’m glad everyone is okay. Really. I am. Second, I just thought it would be a simple retrieval mission. Monsters and sites of bloody battles were NOT part of that plan.”

A sharp cracking hiss echoes in the large living room from Gerald’s beer can, and he quaffs defiantly. Samantha slowly steps down to the landing of the staircase, and approaches the couch Gerald rests upon. “We know that, Howie. We’re all on edge at the moment. And, a lot of us are not in the mood to record that much.”

Howard groans through the speakerphone, takes a deep, audible breath, and relays an understanding tone. “I get it. I was thinking of an easy episode or two. Domestic stuff, aftermath, and that kind of thing. Maybe a small local mission doing real routine stuff. Or, a short notice appearance nearby.”

Samantha grits her teeth, and thinks through tinges of worry. “An appearance? We usually need more time to prep those. But, we might be able to do something...”

From the other end of the call, Howard ponders out loud. “Now, the criminal alter ego poll results came back, and we got some interesting info from Modoran’s fan club. There might be something we can arrange. But, we’ll have to see.”

Gerald rolls his eyes, flips through a few more channels, and tips back his beer. “Whatever you say. But, I’m using the telephoto lens for that confrontation. I’m not getting close to that shit show.”

Donning bright smile, Samantha leans forward, tilts her head of shoulder-length brown hair to intercept Gerald’s stare, and nicely begs. “Um, I REALLY need you to coordinate recording reactions this afternoon when we release those poll results.”

She twists her mouth, uncomfortably squirms, and sighs sadly as she gazes at Gerald with her hazel eyes. “No one is listening to Howie... Or me... for that matter right now.”

Gerald narrows stern glare at Samantha, and tries to maintain the intensity upon her. Seconds later, his resolve weakens from growing apathy, and he groans demandingly. “Fine. And, that’s all we’re doing today. Nothing extra. We got a movie night planned tonight.”

Howard’s voice rises appreciatively from Samantha’s phone. “Thank you, Gerald!”

Snorting out his cooling anger, Gerald growls out. “Go fuck a hornet’s nest, HOWIE.”

With a loud sigh, Howard bargains for peace. “Would a gracious expense account authorization for your movie night even things out?”

Gerald searches his thoughts, mulls over the possibilities, and gradually nods with a tentative smirk to Samantha. “A very good start... Howard.”

A wave of relief radiates out from Samantha’s phone, and Howard eases out a long breath. “Good. I’ll arrange for some easy episodes for you all. Before I go, anything interesting happen lately?”

Samantha blinks when recent memory jumps to the front of her mind. “Yes, actually. One team was following Deedri, who some how lost them.”

Gerald nods as he remembers. “Yeah, and then they chased after one of Modoran’s phantoms going the opposite direction.”

After a long pause, a slow chuckle resonates from the speakerphone, and Howard’s amusement fills his voice. “So, Deedri AND Modoran were off in the forest together? Oh... THAT is... INTERESTING. Please, keep an eye on them. I think we might have something happening now, but I want a little confirming evidence.”

Widening his stance upon the sun lit grass, behind the two story house, Modoran rolls his shoulders and tightens his grip around the finely crafted bow. Raising the bow up, he takes aim at a large shrub towards the corner of the property, draws the tight, strong string back, and holds the weapon at the ready. After a few moments, he carefully eases the bowstring forward, and adjusts his handling of the bow. Deedri smiles warmly towards Modoran, and calls out to him from her seat at the patio table. “Learn anything else about it?”

Resting his arms at his sides, Modoran glances over his shoulder with a happy smirk, and shrugs. “Maybe. It’s REALLY well made. I’m trying to figure out who may have made it. I swear I have used something similar before, but I can’t remember where.”

Tassilda shifts her observant light blue on black eyes between Deedri and Modoran, blinks at a chime from her aetherphone, and taps through a prompt. Sorting through the menus, she uses a link to open an aethernet site, and a sly smile grows. “Well... They’ve released the results of that what our criminal alter egos would be poll.”

Pulling her attention away from watching Modoran, Deedri blinks back to awareness, picks up her aetherphone off the table top, and explores a similar alert. “Oh, yeah. Um, let me get there. I’m actually kind of curious.”

Modoran directs his voice back to Tassilda and Deedri sitting at the metal mesh patio table, and nocks a wooden practice arrow. “What’s the results?”

Tassilda taps her long, thick black nails on the screen to a result graph, brushes a lock of her raven black hair over her spiraling horn, and lifts an intrigued eyebrow. “Well, first is Chad. Bank Heist Leader. That actually makes some sense. And, people really think Trakenthin would be some kind of hitman?”

Deedri furrows her brow, and frowns. “Oh. He’s too nice for that.”

Nodding in agreement, Tassilda scrolls the listing up, and continues to read. “I know. But, I guess no one thought about a librarian barbarian. Oh, here I am... Blackmailer and Extortioner?!”

She twists her mouth initially into a defiant scrunch of her nose. The expression wanes as she mulls over the thought and sighs. “Well. Gods. I guess it’s more likely than not.”

Deedri’s furry, tufted ears droop, and she grits her teeth with an indignant grumble. “Illegal medical experimenter?! These results make it sound like I’m some kind of mad mage.”

Tassilda covers a reflexive snort, draws a wide, evil grin across her face, and giggles. “Oh, I think we can agree on the next one. Veevi... Prostitute.”

Biting her lower lip and cocking her head to the side, Deedri slowly nods at the sentiment with a sigh. Modoran steadies his footing, readies the bow, and takes aim towards the overgrown section at the corner of the plot. He calls back with a smirk as he stretches his arms, draws the practice arrow back, and feels out the bow. “Okay, I got to know. What are they saying about me?”

Tassilda’s eyes read the entry, tilts her head to the side, and perks up an intrigued brow. “Huh. Not quite what I thought, but I could see it... Artifact Thief.”

Deedri’s auburn eyes flit wide, Modoran briefly startles, and the bow launches the arrow on a high, long trajectory towards a ranch style house. The nonchalant exterior dissipates quickly on Modoran, and he grits his teeth. “Shit!”

He quickly rushes off, hurdles over an overgrowth covered fence, and disappears in a sprint into the woods. Tassilda snickers at Modoran’s folly, and Deedri covers her mouth with her hands in surprise. The two sit quietly a moment, and exchange sympathetic glances. Tassilda leans over the patio table top, props her arm up, and guides a whisper with her hand. “So... What’s happened between you and...”

Deedri spooks a moment, darts her eyes around, and subtly directs Tassilda’s attention to a camera crew with recording equipment pointed at them. She draws in a careful breath, dons a concerned expression, and purposefully projects her voice slightly louder. “Yes, Tassilda, that could be muscle strain in your forearm. Why don’t we go upstairs to my room, and I’ll examine it closer?”

Tassilda blinks, shifts her eyes over to the crew, and massages her wrist as she slides back in her chair. “Yes. Let’s do that. I think I may have strained it during our escape, and stumbling through the woods.”

The two quickly depart back into the two-story house through the sliding glass door, while a few members of the recording team watch suspiciously. But, comparative apathy wins out when Veevi’s irate shriek muffles out from an upstairs window. “PROSTITUTE?!”

A patch of brush parts and reforms. Boot indentations form one after another into the grass plot on the side of the ranch style house. The lengthening path leads towards a wooden practice arrow laying on the dirt. As a section of the lawn flattens out, the arrow rises up from the ground with a transparent shimmer wrapped around the shaft. A disembodied sigh of relief escapes, and faint distortions outline a transparent figure kneeling, and holding the arrow. A loud hem startles the man.

Aristespha narrows her violet glowing eyes, crosses her arms, and lifts her chin sternly. “Why, hello. I guess that’s your arrow I heard hitting the roof.”

Modoran stands up into a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders, and smiles awkwardly as transparent coat around him fades away. “Uh, yeah. Sorry about that. Testing out a new bow, and turns out it’s a little more powerful than I expected.”

He chuckles lightly, and sighs. “Also, I apologize for sneaking around. But, if I had known, I would have called, and asked you to throw the arrow back over.”

Cracking a mildly amused smirk, Aristespha steps forward towards Modoran, and focuses her curious stare to the finely crafted bow slung on his back. “You are right. That bow is an odd thing for you to have found.”

Modoran slides the bow free, holds it with both hands, and shows it to Aristespha. “That it is. I can’t shake the feeling I’ve used something similar before. But, this feels different. Really different.”

He cracks a sly smile, quirks his brow, and levels an intrigued gaze at Aristespha. “You’re probably the best person around here to ask about it, Lady Aristespha.”

Rolling her eyes at the honorific, Aristespha shakes her head, and examines the bow closer. “Truthfully, my skills aren’t what they used to be. But... I’ve learned far more about history and magic, since my archery competition days.”

She squints her violet glowing eyes, lifts the bow out of Modoran’s hands, and cocks her head. Twisting her perplexing face, she lifts a puzzled brow at the finely crafted weapon, and ponders out loud. “This IS a strange thing to have found. Even the physical construction is odd. And how the enchantment was integrated...”

Overtaken by interest, she deftly handles the bow, switches into a well rehearsed stance, and draws the string back into a ready position. Showcasing well aged expertise, she performance a number of practice maneuvers with drilled ease, and contemplates how the bow handles with each step. Modoran cracks a smile, crosses his arms, and laughs. “I think you could match your old records, if you wanted to. Probably, even break them.”

Aristespha halts her practice motions, twists her mouth, and returns the bow to Modoran. “Maybe. But, my competition years are long done. It was fun when I was much younger. Don’t have that desire anymore.”

Modoran shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly, and inspects the bow closer. “Fair enough. But, you are more than welcome to just fire it for fun.”

Scratching his head of grayish white hair, he tugs at the corner of his mouth, and sighs hopefully. “So, you have any idea what the deal with it is? There’s something more to this thing.”

Aristespha blinks out the glow of her eyes, rests her hands on her hips, and nods. “Yes. I have a few possible theories about it. But... There’s a question you can answer for me, first. It’s something I’ve been curious about.”

Modoran receptively awaits. A curious smirk cracks from the corner of Aristespha’s mouth, and she narrows an inquisitive stare upon Modoran. “Do you actually have any real lineage to the Dark Evuukians, or did you say that for show drama?”

Modoran blinks at the prompt, snorts into a chuckle, and averts his eyes. “Well, yes and no. My ancestors were the people that got out when everyone that started believing that crap moved in. So, from that area? Yes. Part of that crazy cult? NO. My ancestors helped get other people out before it got REALLY bad there.”

Aristespha nods contemplatively, and searches her mind. “That’s right. There were a few exodus waves before the Dark Evuukians secured their power in that region. Interesting.”

She shifts her focus towards the bow in Modoran’s hand, draws in a long breath, and grits her teeth uncomfortably. “Before I go into too much detail about that bow... I really need to tell you what I know about those ruins you found in that forest.”

Modoran trains his full attention towards Aristespha, and nods in agreement. “Yeah. What was going on there?”

Captain Hackle leans back into a simple office chair and stares at the monitor on the desk, while status indicators show the progress of a call connection. Settling into the utilitarian seat, Captain Hackle adjusts his posture and allows his tall, thin frame to find a comfortable position. The screen flickers and a pixelated video plays through fits of distortion. Furrowing his brow, Hackle narrows his brown-eyed gaze at the image of Captain Hays, and smirks underneath his graying mustache. “Hays.”

Nodding his wide brimmed hat, Captain Hays returns a similar greeting with a twist of his bearded mouth. “Hackle.”

Hackle glances around the small office space, and perks a humored brow at the screen. “I got your message. Apologize about the delay, but it took a while to find a secure enough room.”

Nodding understandingly, Hays angles his camera’s view slightly to showcase the surrounding wilderness, and shrugs his shoulders. “Not a problem. Took my team a while to find a place where I could get a decent signal.”

Squinting as the video fidelity increases slightly, Hackle watches the reddish purple sky of a finishing sunset in between the framing of two forest sections. He smiles with a jealous hint, and sighs. “Very nice. Send me pictures. It’s been a while since I’ve had the luxury to observe a peaceful sunset.”

Hays shifts the aim of the camera back to him, and draws in a breath. “Well, I’ll cut to the chase, then we can both enjoy the view. Isaac was definitely in Perimeter. Perimeter Defense Force investigators located his green sedan.”

Hackle leans forward with his intrigue and thoughtfully rests his chin against his propped up hands. “We all suspected as such. But, it is good to get some confirmation. I assume he’s no longer using that vehicle?”

After a quick nod, Hays grimaces and grumbles. “Yeah. Unfortunately, he traded the thing out three weeks ago. So, could have gone many places, but I suspect the PWZ. The PDF investigators are checking traffic cameras to get anything more telling. Once I get information one way or another, I’ll tap a few contacts I have.”

Hackle searches his mind, twists his face in thought, and hums contemplatively. “If nothing else, I think we need to inform our friends that they might want to go to Perimeter.”

Hays nods simply in agreement. “Makes sense. At this point he’s either operating out of Perimeter, or he’s in the zone. Either way, Perimeter is close to their target now. It’ll at least put them in a position to respond when any of us gets more information.”

Hackle eases back into the chair with a slight squirm against the spartan padding, and sighs. “I do hope we get something actionable. Thankfully, with the Grand Library cooperating fully now, I can authorize more upfront and actually provide proper support. Don’t have to go through the guild as a proxy.”

With a slight grumbling tone, he shakes his head and frowns. “One less annoyance I have to deal with.”

Hays narrows a curious stare through the video call, and tilts his head to the side. “What are they having you deal with now?”

Twisting his mouth between different grimaces, Hackle ponders out loud. “Strange reports of activity in a forest around an old ruin site. Along with odd radio transmissions. Very strange since that site should be locked down and off records.”

Focusing a scrutinizing gaze, Hays hums thoughtfully. “Not unheard of for sites like that to get stirred up. But... What’s bugging you about this one?”

Hackle leans close to the monitor, and directs a calm, cool whisper. “I’m worried that there’s a common thread between recent events. I wonder if there’s a single agitator behind these incidents...”