Episode 94

In the middle of an overgrown courtyard between old stonework structures, Chad surveys the quiet, serene area. A transparent figure emerges from the tall brush, and gradually grows more visible. Modoran nonchalantly steps up next to Chad and crosses his arms, reaching full opacity. “So, nothing to report on the perimeter. Just animal tracks.”

Chad glances down at his aetherphone, scrolls through a long checklist, and taps a box. “Good. No recent signs of intruder activity. That’s one less thing to worry about, and less paperwork.”

He straightens his back, eyes the recording crew nearby, and directs his voice to Modoran. “Just need to check with the others and, hopefully, we should wrap this site up.”

With an amused smirk, Modoran narrows his dark blue eyes, and tilts his head of short, light gray hair. “Yeah. Mission is going smooth so far. I mean, just routine and... normal.”

Chad nods, grimaces slightly, and sighs. “Yeah. It feels a little weird, but... Not in a bad way? I mean to put it nicely.”

Resting his hands at his sides, Modoran chuckles softly. “I know the feeling. I’m sure something will come up with one of these sites, but... This... This is nice.”

Gritting his teeth briefly, Chad cringes and twists out his guilt. “I know. Really wish I’d done what I needed sooner. Would have made a lot of our previous missions easier.”

Modoran shrugs his shoulders, and holds his hands out to the sides. “Oh well, it’s getting fixed now.”

In the distance, Deedri, Tassilda, and Trakenthin form up, and navigate through the high grass and ruined piles of stonework towards Chad and Modoran. Deedri waves over, points to her aetherphone, and gives a thumbs up. Chad glances down, scrolls through the checklist, and taps another item. “Looks like they got updated pictures. Nice. Moving along schedule.”

Sliding through images on her phone screen, Tassilda brushes back locks of raven black hair over her swirling horns, and drifts off into her mind. She shudders, and frowns uncomfortably. Trakenthin glances down, and tilts his head curiously. “Are you okay?”

Tassilda blinks back to awareness, and smiles. “Oh, yes. It’s just a weird feeling I’ve had today. Everything is fine. But, I can’t quite describe it.”

Deedri flicks her furry, tufted ears, idly taps her claw tips on her phone case, and nods slowly. “It has felt a little strange today. I guess we’re... um... Not used to everything going so well?”

Trakenthin snorts out a brief chuckle, and rolls his hazel eyes. “Explains it.”

Tassilda sighs, straightens up her posture, and dons a smirk. “Oh, THAT definitely explains it. It’s just so nice. I’m sure it’ll make for an awful episode.”

A sarcastic curl twists the corner of Deedri’s mouth, and she hides a sly grin. “Oh... Their poor ratings... Whatever shall they do. I SO pity them.”

Tassilda squelches a snicker, Trakenthin shakes his head with a short smile, and the trio regroups with Chad and Modoran.

A drowning chorus of energetic conversations, merchandise moving, and money exchanging reverberates through a sprawling, diverse open air market. People weave through scattered vendor stalls upon the white sand glazed, brickwork. Food, weapons, armor, artifacts, and domestic goods share equal footing within the expansive entrepreneurial arena. Dretphi stands near a booth, and gazes over the crowd at the collection of stuffed animal dolls. Her fiscal restraint wrestles the temptation before her, and the fight plays out upon her tan face. Biting her lip slightly, she briefly distracts herself playing with one of her large, platinum blonde braids, and sneaks out a sigh. Glancing down at the pair of swept back horns and fiery orange, wavy hair at her side, she hides her desire behind a neutral front. Sotalia darts up golden eyes at Dretphi with a sly grin, and pats her back lightly with a tempting tone. “I would totally buy the black velvet dragon. He’s soooo cute with the big blue eyes.”

Dretphi strains out a grumble as she crosses her arms up close, and conceals the eager smirk with a hand. “Yes. They all are. Do not know what I want. If I should...”

A mischievous grin grows across Sotalia’s lips, and she chuckles encouragingly. “Well, I think your dire boar on your shelf needs a friend.”

Drawing in a long breath, Dretphi slowly pivots and steps away to save her weakening will. “This is the first shop. Need to focus.”

As Dretphi and Sotalia rejoin Aristespha, Bach, and Cideeda, Dretphi whispers with a guilty smile. “Will know before we leave.”

Sotalia smirks, and giggles with a nod. “Of course.”

Bach stands up straight, peers over the crowd, and scans the area. “Huh, this isn’t much different than vendor halls at a convention. Same chaos. And, oddly, the same themes.”

From the sword at Aristespha’s side, Sebastian’s ethereal voice sounds out. “Yeah, bro. But, I get the feeling weapons and armor are VERY real here.”

Nodding at the sentiment, Bach spins around to the gathering and scratches his head. “So, what’s the plan?”

Aristespha twists her mouth uncertainly, and rests her hands on her hips. “Well, it’ll be impossible to cover all of this thoroughly. And, there’s no guarantee that anyone who could have been here to encounter Isaac is still here. So...”

Dretphi ponders out loud as she watches the flows of foot traffic. “Split up? Scout. Discuss over lunch?”

Cideeda brushes her clawed fingers through short, multi-colored hair, and hums out thoughtfully. “Probably the best plan we got right now. Split up, and focus on finding anyone selling supplies that could be useful to someone running around the zone. Then, after we eat, we get serious.”

Bach laughs, cracks a grin, and rolls his blue eyes. “So, just like exploring the vendor halls at an adventuring convention.”

Cideeda gazes up to Bach with her emerald eyes, and smirks confidently. “Exactly. Plus, it’ll be less likely to tip off the shadier ones if we actually look like we’re shopping, and not investigating.”

With a dramatic pivot, Sotalia’s eyes widen toward a distant stall filled with various trinkets, and steps away from the team with a wave of her long, black nailed fingers. “Sounds good to me. See you all later. I’m off to play my part.”

The rest of the team watches Sotalia strut away, without surprise. Aristespha rolls her violet eyes, tightens her smile, and shakes her head. “I’ll follow her. Someone needs to be her fiscal conscience.”

Cideeda snorts with a twisting curl of at her corner of mouth. “Good luck there.”

Following the path in the crowd towards Sotalia, Aristespha mutters. “How does she keep finding these things...”

After Aristespha departs, Bach glances around, shrugs his shoulders, and squints through the rows of vendor booths. “Well, I guess I can start looking that direction-”

He gazes down at the toothy grin upon Cideeda’s face, and notices the familiar five claw tips lightly upon his forearm. Lifting an eager brow, Cideeda straightens up her posture, pulls Bach over to her and Dretphi, and smiles. “Let’s stick together for a bit. I think there might be a few good opportunities for our combined experience and abilities to shine in this market.”

Bach nods slowly, and seeks a response from Dretphi. With a hopeful, warm smile, Dretphi gazes her steely gray eyes at Bach. “You are an expert at magic. Understand our equipment. We would appreciate your help. If you want?”

Blinking through the swell of pride and hints of embarrassment, Bach awkwardly shrugs his shoulders and attempts to play it nonchalant. “Uh- Um. Sure. I can do that. It’s what I know.”

Cideeda’s furry ears perk, her tail flicks up, and she flexes her clawed fingers expectantly. “Good. Let’s see what we can find around here. I’m certain we can shop for both goods and information easily enough.”

Dretphi nods happily, follows behind Cideeda next to Bach, as the trio merge into the traffic flow.

Cideeda, Bach, and Dretphi weave through the different stalls, booths, and displays. Following the winding routes down the worn brick paths, the trio stop to survey wares, engage in small talk, and ask cursory questions. They gather in a wide, open intersection between branching routes, and discuss their impressions. Through the surrounding din and drone, Cideeda’s furry ear flicks over towards the source of a voice. She blinks her emerald eyes. Recognition contorts her face, and she slowly pivots her head. Narrowing a glare through the gaps between people, her stare locks onto a fair complexion, wiry man with wild black hair. A sly, toothy grin parts her lips, and she chuckles darkly. “Ralado... Of all the people to see...”

Gazing up to Bach and Dretphi, Cideeda smiles eagerly and intertwines her fingers together with a pleading tone. “Okay... I’m going to need some help here.”

Bach darts his eyes around, shrugs his shoulders, and blinks out his confusion. “Sure? What do you need?”

An entrepreneurial glint lights up Cideeda’s emerald eyes, and she subtly motions over to the table with Ralado. “I need a little assistance convincing HIM to make some good on a refund, he has yet know he owes me. But, I don’t expect THAT much from him.”

She holds up a clawed finger, and smirks with a chuckle. “I do KNOW he keeps some quality stock in the mix, whether he knows it or not, that I think WE can... convince him to discount.”

Bach awkwardly mulls and stumbles on his words. “I, uh, guess? I mean, who is that guy?”

Cideeda grits her teeth briefly and hisses slowly. “Ralado. A supposed provider of quality parts, when he feels like it. There’s a matter of some sear springs I need to bring up with him.”

Dretphi firms up her expression, snorts lightly, and nods. “Understood.”

Noticing Bach’s reaction to her sudden tone change, she leans close, and whispers. “Portray yourself tough. Dangerous. Ralado gets nervous. Becomes cooperative. Otherwise, he remains stubborn.”

Nodding out shifting degrees of acceptance, Bach straightens up his posture and mimics Dretphi’s stoic front. Cideeda stretches out her shoulders and neck, adjusts her body language, and confidently approaches Ralado’s table.

Swiftly sweeping change off the table top to a lockbox below, Ralado smirks as a pair of faint footsteps stop in front of two pairs of heavier boot falls. He slowly lifts his head up, sits up on his stool, and grins with glints of greed in his bright yellow eyes. “Hello, prospective customers, how may-”

His grin wanes to a sharp smirk, and he focuses his attention upon Cideeda with an elaborate greeting. “Cideeda! Of all the places to see you! I’m SO happy to have someone of your grace before me. What can I ever do for YOU?”

Cideeda maintains a quiet exterior, studies a number of items on display, and twists her mouth. Scrutinizing the merchandise, she quirks her brow and releases a disgusted sigh. “While it does please me that you see me as such a good customer, I’m having some trouble bringing myself to be your customer again.”

Ralado chuckles as his bold facade conceals tinges of suspicion. “Why whatever would be troubling you so? And, more importantly, how can I resolve your hesitations?”

Cideeda’s furry ears gradually pull back, her lips sneer slightly to reveal her pronounced canines, and she inspects her sharp claw tips on a hand. “Well, there was this batch of sear springs I got from you that just were NOT up to your... advertised standards?”

Ralado maintains a firm exterior, sighs out his faux sympathies, and shakes his head. “I’m SO sorry to hear that.”

His gaze quickly darts to key points on Cideeda, Dretphi, and Bach, and a sly smirk curls at the corner of his mouth. “I am, of course, happy to accept a return for store credit... if you HAVE the items to return with you.”

Cideeda rests a hand on her hip, focuses her unamused stare upon Ralado, and waits. Ralado shrugs his shoulders and holds his hands up. “I understand where you are coming from. But, I have a business to run, and I can’t possibly give refunds to items I don’t get back.”

Cideeda grins toothily, aims her examining stare upon Ralado, and chuckles lightly. “I know. We’re both merchants in our own ways. But, I was thinking that you could smooth things over with a little courtesy discount on your QUALITY items.”

Sitting up straight, Ralado waves his arms out dramatically to the items in his stall, and presents a slick grin to Cideeda. “I don’t understand, Cideeda. ALL my items are QUALITY. And quality demands a proper price, which I know you understand all too well. You can’t very well expect me to cut my own throat, even if it is for one of my favorite customers.”

Cideeda glances up to Dretphi, shifts her gaze briefly to Bach, and leans forward to glare at Ralado. She furrows her brow, cools her expression, and sighs. “A little bit of goodwill goes a long way, Ralado.”

Ralado squints, and shifts his stare over to Dretphi. Crossing her arms, Dretphi puffs out her chest, flexes her upper arms, and sternly glares down. Ralado tugs at the corner of his mouth with a slight twitch, and nods. “I see you are doing well, Dretphi. It’s nice to see you, too. Always the stoic one.”

He turns his head up to Bach, pauses a moment, and tilts his head slightly. “And, who are you, sir?”

Cideeda smirks confidently, tilts her head towards Bach, and laughs with a dark tint. “Oh, that’s our new mage, Bach. He’s got a really SPECIAL way of handling magic. Stuff you could never imagine possible.”

Ralado lifts an intrigued brow, cocks his head, and chuckles out his amusement. “Really? Well, I’m always interested in the magical arts. Maybe I have something you’d be interested in.”

Bach stiffens his upper lip to hide his nerves, searches the table in front of him, and points to a metal armor plate. “Maybe. Can you tell me about this?”

Ralado grins eagerly, and motions to the plate. “Why yes, of course! It’s a metal plate from a very nice set of armor that was salvaged just recently. While, I don’t have the whole suit, that plate can be incorporated into so many different things. It’s solidly made of a high tech alloy from a reputable manufacturer.”

Nodding slowly, Bach quirks his brow and taps the plate calmly. “May I inspect it?”

With a gracious bow, Ralado smiles wide. “Yes, go ahead. See where it can fit to protect you best.”

Bach picks up the plate with one hand, flips around to different sides, and holds it along an edge. As his eyes glow blue, threads of magical flow condense into his hand and form into a translucent, golden handle. Gripping hold of the base, the energies solidify into a thin edge, and Bach brings the magical blade to the metal plate. Ralado starts to open his mouth and abruptly halts. The golden, solid flows gradually slide through the metal plate. Bach tenses his muscles as he carefully carves a long slice through the armor chunk. Constant, slow progress ends with a loud thunk as the edge portion of the plate drops upon the table top. The blade dissipates in a plume of magical miasma, and Bach studies the layers inside the metal. Lifting a curious brow, he hands the plate over to Dretphi and grumbles roughly. “Doesn’t look solid to me.”

Ralado’s jaw hangs open as his shock shifts between the cleaved metal strip on the table top, and the unamused sneer of Dretphi studying the cut plate. Returning the plate to Bach, Dretphi shakes her head, and growls. “Poorly laminated.”

Bach plops the metal unceremoniously down, and crosses his arms. Posing confident, Cideeda grins toothily, grips her hips proudly, and concentrates her emerald stare upon Ralado. “Well, if you are just going to pawn off crap so blatantly and not even attempt to make amends, then I guess I’ll just have to take my business elsewhere. And, I’ll HAVE to post a warning on a few guild forums about your business practices-”

Ralado holds his hand up, twist his mouth uncomfortably, and groans. “Fine. I’ll make good on the sear springs... as a discount upon something I have right NOW.”

Cideeda nods slowly in agreement, and draws a long breath. Her gaze darts between the number of items on the table top, and sorts through the nearby merchandise on display. Her tail slightly wags and her ears flick while her mind evaluates the inventory. She glances up to Bach and Dretphi, and traces their attentions. Upon a crate behind Ralado, both Bach and Dretphi eye a pair of high tech pistols. Cideeda’s eyes faintly widen, and she smiles as she points to the weapons. “Those.”

Ralado blinks, turns around, and locates the items. He curls a smirk, and presents them before Cideeda. “You always have the eye for quality, Cideeda. A fine pair of compact multi-stage coil guns. Which also command a fine price-”

Cideeda snorts, leans in, and smiles. “If anyone was buying them. You don’t put anything behind you if you think someone is actually going to buy it.”

She leads with a low price, and Ralado quickly dismisses it with a high counter. Cideeda shakes her head. “Do you even have ammo for them?”

She pitches forth another low price. With a dry chuckle, Ralado reaches behind him, plops a box of two millimeter electromagnetic cartridges in front of him, and pushes a high offer. Searching her mind, Cideeda studies Ralado’s expression and body language, twists her mouth, and ponders out loud a middle figure. Eyeing the merchandise in front of him, Ralado rocks his head side to side, deliberates while his eyes drive the calculations in his mind, and holds his finger up. “I will accept that. But, that’s factoring in most of your... Discount.”

Cideeda bows respectfully, smiles at Ralado, and chuckles. “I guess that’s as fair as I’ll get from you. For the rest of my discount... Maybe a little information from you?”

Ralado cocks his head to the side, lifts a genuinely intrigued brow, and hums amused. “Really? Well, I’ve been known to know things. What do you want to know?”

Sorting through her aetherphone, Cideeda presents Ralado with a picture of Isaac and smirks. “Seen a man by the name of Isaac Huxley?”

Narrowing his stare at the phone display, Ralado turns his head slightly and nods slowly with traces of recognition springing up. “Yes... A few weeks back. He stuck out to me for some reason. Just didn’t feel like one of the typical customers. I didn’t sell anything to him.”

A smug grin grows on his face, and he stretches his arms out with a shrug. “But, my memory is a little hazy. I think I saw him buy things... Somewhere? Maybe? I don’t know...”

Bach glances over to Cideeda, picks up the two pieces of the metal plate, and stares at Ralado. “Would putting this back together, help piece those memories together?”

Ralado ponders a moment, tilts his head, and crosses his arms with intrigue. “Possibly. If nothing else, such a spectacle just might amuse me enough to think about future possibilities and get me in the... remembering mood. So to speak.”

Sotalia struts through the open walkway between the aisles of commerce surrounding her, and stops to pull out her aetherphone. Tapping through menus, she glances around at notable landmarks, and types out a response. Afterwards, she casually scans the moving crowds and shifts her attention between the main routes. Her gaze wanders to the stonework pedestrian bridges over a channel and part of a waterway side plaza visible on the other side. Bach weaves through the dense crowds, and frees himself into the pocket of space between the forming lines of browsing customers. He brushes himself off, and walks over to Sotalia. “Wow, it’s really picking up around here. I thought the morning rush was bad.”

Sotalia smirks and surveys the scene. “I know. So, any luck?”

Rolling his blue eyes, Bach chuckles and combs back some of his longer brown hair. “Yeah. Cideeda was able to shake down Ralado and trade a refund on some bad parts for some info. Ralado saw Isaac, and mentioned who might have sold him stuff. We did an initial check, and most of the vendors he mentioned were there and seemed like they sold the right stuff, too.”

He shrugs his shoulders. “So, some possibilities to check out.”

Crossing her arms, Sotalia shifts her weight and visibly contemplates. “Better than what we found. A few people looked like they were selling zone gear. But, it’s picked up too much to really get their attention long enough to ask questions.”

Bach glances around, and puzzles. “Where’s Aristespha?”

A sly grin graces Sotalia’s face and she chuckles brightly. “Oh, I may have convinced her to buy a few things for herself. I could tell she found a few wants, and I think I finally got her to loosen the wallet, just enough.”

She gazes at Bach, and smiles softly with a calm tone. “After all we’ve been through, I think we should enjoy the little things a bit more. Despite what we’re actually here for.”

Bach snorts, ponders a moment, and finds no objection in his mind. “Yeah. A little frivolous spending never hurt anyone.”

Sotalia nods with a wide grin, rests her hands on her hips, and poses confidently. “I agree. I certainly wouldn’t rely upon it, but there’s nothing quite like a little impulse buy to reward yourself.”

Gesturing over towards a far off booth, Bach wrestles with his fiscal wisdom and grits his teeth. “Well, if that old copy of The Ur-Quan Masters cartridge is still around after lunch, I might take your advice...”

Just as contentment hints grace Sotalia’s face, she blanks completely. She angles her head slightly, aims her pointed ear through the surrounding drones, and freezes. Through the ambient din of the market place, voices crest over the threshold, and Sotalia’s golden eyes spring wide open. Gasping in a reflexive breath, she darts her frantic glances in the direction of the voices. Slowing down her hunt, she keeps finding normal crowds. But, as a group of people move, Sotalia’s entire body tenses. She watches a large man with a sword on his back, an emin woman with a scar across her dark face and pistols at her sides, and a thin, hooded figure with a sleek outfit emerge from the foot traffic. Her eyes grow huge with terrified recognition, her complexion pales, and she winces in fright. As her breathing labors, she grips her upper chest, and frantically searches for escape.

Bach halts mid sentence, and pivots around perplexed. He notices the panic in Sotalia’s watering golden eyes, the uncertainty in her movements, and her trembling hand. “Uh, Sotalia, are you okay-”

Sotalia darts off in a hurried walk down a side street along the decorative channel stone railings. She grimaces through short, fast pants, rushes around people, and hops out of sight behind a stack of crates. Blinking through his bewilderment, Bach quickly follows the route after Sotalia, and locates her tightly against the corner between the wooden boxes and a building wall. Studying her body language, sparks of recognition open Bach’s blue eyes, and he directs a calming, concerned tone to Sotalia. “Hey, what do you need?”

Sotalia shakily lifts her head, gazes through her fear into Bach’s eyes, and musters up a pleading tone through her stammering voice. “Uh-um- J-j-just need- Some where out of sight. F-f-for a bit. Please...”

Bach reassuringly nods, and glances around the vicinity. He spots a stone stairway leading to a waterway side plaza, and notices advertisements for an open air cafe. Stepping close to Sotalia, he holds her trembling hand, and calmly whispers. “It will be okay. Let’s go down to the waterway. There’s tables and chairs out the way, and out of sight of there. Sound good?”

Tightening her grip on Bach’s hand, Sotalia nods quickly with a gasp of breath. “Yes.”

Bach leads Sotalia towards the stairs, keeps close to her side, and darts his stare around the area worried. Going down the stairs, the Sotalia sweeps her gaze across the number of nicely made tables and chairs upon the decorative plaza tiling. She locates a table off against the retainer wall with chairs and a large opened, obscuring umbrella, and guides Bach along. Swiftly taking a seat, she slumps her crossing arms up on the table top, and hides her face. Bach sits next to her at the table, and patiently waits as her breathing slows between shudders and coughs. He cautiously places his hand on her back and gently rubs her shoulder. “Anything else you need right now?”

Sotalia shakes her head. “N-no. Just need a moment. Work through this.”

Bach waits patiently, maintains supportive vigil, and watches over. Over the minutes, Sotalia gradually eases into some semblance of calm, sits upright her seat, and pieces her composure together. Drawing in deep breaths, she rubs the tears out of her golden eyes, and smiles weakly to Bach with a meek voice. “I... Um... Thank you.”

Bach nods, eases out a concerned breath, and smiles back. “Not a problem. I’m familiar with those. Um... Can I ask what caused that attack?”

Sotalia pauses a moment, contorts her mouth uncomfortably, and stares at Bach. After a few moments, she pulls in a long breath, and grits her teeth briefly. “Yeah... Yeah... Gods... I, um... Saw members of my old adventuring group... In the market...”

Bach tilts his head to the side perplexed, and searches his mind. “Okay. Do we need to call the-”

Visibly swallowing her pride, Sotalia shakes her head of fiery orange, wavy hair, and nervously grips one of her swept back horns. “No. No. It’s nothing they’ve done. It’s all MY issues. I...”

She closes her eyes, concentrates on breathing against the flood of shame, and gazes at Bach. “As I’ve said... We didn’t part on good terms. I was an absolute, irredeemable bitch high on my own pride. I was an arrogant asshole. I just manipulated and controlled the group to my whims, thinking I was the best in world.”

Rolling her eyes at herself, she wrings her hands tightly and grimaces as painful as old memories rise up. “I thought I was SO irreplaceable and unique. Oh gods. Things I felt justified in doing.”

She winces, rubs her belly, and sticks her tongue out in disgust. “Thinking about it again just upsets my stomach.”

Slowly lifting her gaze back up, she settles her attention to Bach and fights against her guilt to muster a smirk. “Really, the fact they didn’t get fed up and leave me in an unmarked, shallow grave is fucking amazing. They’re really good people to only just ditch me in a decent town with a note explaining it all.”

With a sharp frown, she works through a few breaths and shakes her head. “It took me so long to realize what I had become. And, well... The guilt really tears you up. Gods, sorry for dumping all this on you. It’s hard to hold it in sometimes.”

Bach nods slowly, keeps his concern upon Sotalia, and ponders out loud. “It’s okay. Really. Well, I mean, have you tried to contact them, um, indirectly? Make some attempt to apologize?”

Sotalia rocks her head side to side, grits her teeth, and deflates. “The best I could manage was an apology letter. I mean, it was really, really long, and I put everything I could into it. But... I know it’s not enough. So, I just decided to try to keep out of their lives as much as I could. It’s the least I can do for them.”

Thinking a moment, Bach scratches his beard on his chin, and mulls it over. “Yeah. I mean, you want to be respectful. Um, did you ever get a response to your letter?”

Sotalia blinks a moment, and tugs at the corner of her mouth. “No. I was moving around so much, and didn’t really keep track between hopping around guild missions. But...”

A genuine smile appears on her face and she flutters her golden eyes. “What difference would it make? Why bother them with the past? I occasionally read up on them. They’ve got an amazing mage that really meshes perfectly with them now.”

The joy wanes quickly upon Sotalia’s face. She shrinks as she wraps her arms around herself, and averts her gaze away from Bach. “Anyway, it’s not like I’ve got it together enough to actually face them. You just saw how badly it hit me...”

Bach cranes his head, aims his blue eyes to gaze into Sotalia’s golden eyes, and smiles with a comforting cadence. “Well, it sounds like it was a lot to deal with at once. That’s not easy. It’s not fun to have a lot of your past jump you all at once. I can understand that.”

Sotalia blinks, gradually smirks, and awkwardly chuckles. “Yeah, I guess you do understand. Well... Thank you for understanding.”

An honest laugh sneaks out from Bach, and he grins at Sotalia. “Anyway, how about I let the servers know we’re over here, and we can get something to eat and drink?”

Perking up in her seat, Sotalia blinks and bites her lower lip with a bit of embarrassment. “I guess we did rush in here. They probably didn’t see us.”

Bach stands up from his seat, and shrugs his shoulders. “Yeah. Oh, message the others. This looks like a good place for lunch.”

Sotalia retrieves her aetherphone, and smiles appreciatively at Bach. “Yeah. I mean, we’re already here. And, I really need to eat something now.”

As Bach departs and Sotalia composes messages, the thin, hooded figure in a sleek outfit watches from a shadowy vantage point above, lifts an intrigued brow, and steps away, back towards the market.

Finishing off a long swig of beer, Veevi wipes her mouth, and sneers her upper lip at Chad’s bedroom door. She grumbles out her agitation, kneels down to the floor, and rests the bottle off to the side. Picking up the plastic card and coat hanger, she furiously assaults the lock, and indiscriminately digs into the wood of the door jamb. Rolling up a growl into her throat, she rams the tools harshly into the divide between door and frame, and shoulder the checks the door. Slamming her weight against the door with a hollow thump, the thin wood flexes. A loud click sounds out into a quick metal scrape, and the entry springs open.

Narrowing her pink pupil eyes menacingly, Veevi stands up with a proud grin, and flexes her sharp nailed fingers. With a shove of the foot, the door flies open and clashes against the wall door stop. Veevi struts into the room with a mean glare dragging ire across the area. Urdi, Radnae, and Harris cautiously approach the entryway, and maintain a defensible position from the door frame. Stepping up to a dresser, Veevi layers disdain upon the random collection of items, and rests her arm upon the edge of the surface. With a sloppy sweep of the arm, she clears the off the dresser top and scatters the contents into the room. She walks over to a desk, grits her teeth at the different books, documents, and notes on the desktop, and curls her fingers. Swiping angrily, paper rips fill the air, flutters of pages sound out, and patters of random stationary resonate. Flits of dissatisfaction flood Veevi’s tan face, and she curls her sharp nails into drawer handles. Yanking her thin frame back, she flings out drawer after drawer in a growling fury, and dumps out the contents chaotically behind her. She kicks over a desk chair, pulls down nearby posters, and settles her attention upon the bed. Gritting her sharp teeth, she steps up, tightly grips the bedspread with one hand, and sinks her sharp nails into the fabric. Straining against the cloth, she rips and cuts through comforter, shreds the sheets, and carves out handfuls of the foam mattress. With each layer, another stream of incoherent curses hisses from her lips, with Chad’s name punctuating passages of insults.

Harris guides Radnae and Urdi back as fodder topples near the doorway, and the team leans back when half a pillow puffs out its stuffing against the wall. Working into a furious scream, Veevi claws onto a bed post, summons her rage, and wrenches the bed frame back and forth. The cheap framework cracks and pops, and the foot board flops onto the carpet. As the end drops down, contents underneath the bed spew forth, and Veevi rummages through in uncaring swipes. A metallic glint catches her eyes, and she finds an older sheathed sword. She grips tightly and draws the blade out. With a vengeful grin across her face, and she glances around the room. Slamming the weapon down, she chops into the desk repeatedly, and chucks off wood with each slash. She runs over to the other side of the room, sweeps the tip of the sword along a collection of posters, and gouges the drywall. Stumbling around, she regains her balance and steadies herself. Brushing her long pink hair back, she grumbles out between pants, weakly spikes the sword into the floor, and steps over to the bed.

She scrounges through Chad’s belongings from under the bed. A brief spark of evil ignites her eyes when she grips hold of package of energy cells. But her drive wanes when she fails to locate what they power. After a spree of dumping through boxes, she grabs hold of a wooden, decorative box, and curls a mean smirk. Wrapping her sharp nailed fingers around the lid, she pulls the top off, and narrows her glare inside. She stills herself, and her stare softens gradually. Her eyes settle upon the top most picture underneath a few trinkets, and the rage dissipates. She examines the picture of Chad, an older man, an older woman, and a woman younger than Chad together. All share similar traits between each other. The young woman nervously smiles in scrubs, as Chad, the older woman, and older man hug her encouragingly outside a medical center. Blinking away from the image, Veevi squints at a bit of writing in the margins of the print.

“First day of residency.”

Veevi frowns as her head hangs down, and she averts her depressed stare internally with a sad sigh. Her fuzzy ear perks up at the sound of the camera crew approaching. She drops the box down, flashes a mean glower at Radnae, Urdi, and Harris, and grips the other half of a pillow. Flinging the gutted cushion at the trio near the door, Veevi charges out of the room, sweeps up the beer bottle on the hallway floor, and dumps the remainder back. She marches towards the stairway, summons up a surge of rage, and pitches the grath beer bottle onto Modoran’s door. With a loud crash of glass and splatters of left over foam streaking down the door, she stomps down the stairs and the small recording crew follows.

Ducking under a low branch, Marcus weaves through a patch of densely packed trees, and pushes through brush. “If the maps are right, we should be close to that field behind the house.”

Cind steps carefully around a shrub, and glances behind with her bright blue eyes. “I hope so. We did park really far away.”

Kell casually ducks below low hanging branches, shrugs his shoulders, and smiles. “Ah, it’s a nice hike before we have to stay in a van for most the day.”

The trio navigate through the thinning undergrowth and reach a division of the forest. Marcus follows the formations of the woods around a large field, and scratches the back of his head of slicked hair. “Well, didn’t see this from the other road. Um...”

Kell blinks his purple on black eyes, traces the edges of the tree lines, and points out the possible paths. “Looks like there’s three branches. One big one there. And, there’s this one that splits again.”

Studying the paths, Cind crosses her arms, tilts her head of red braids, and shrugs her shoulders. “Um, we can split up. Keep an eye out for a bit. Just message each other if anything happens?”

Kell and Marcus glance at each other, shift their attention to Cind, and agree. Marcus breaks off down the long singular path, and Kell and Cind travel down forest run to the secondary split. Minutes later, as Kell and Cind gravitate towards a worn game trail, they both stop and duck down. Both sneak to a large bush, and peer through the forest into the field.

Fawna runs through the large field, and Varan bounds behind her, between hops to glide down. Turning around, Fawna waves a brightly colored ball in front of Varan and gets his attention. With Varan’s eyes focusing upon the toy, she pivots, readies her arm back, and pitches the ball. Varan pounces forward, running in between springs up into the air, and hunts down the ball. The small amber dragon disappears into the tall grasses. Moments later, he hops up with the ball in his mouth, and bounds back over to the waiting Fawna. With a bright smile, Fawna kneels down, hugs Varan, and pulls the ball out of his mouth. “Very good! You’re getting really good at this. I’ll throw it really far for you now.”

Both Cind and Kell enjoy watching Fawna play fetch with Varan, encourage him to use his wings, and toss rewarding treats to him. Cind glances over to Kell, and smiles. “I think she’ll take good care of him.”

With a goofy grin, Kell chuckles quietly and nods. “Oh yeah, that little guy is happy as can be. He’s got plenty of food, and a big open field. And, it looks like they got shelter for him if he gets bigger. They seem like good people.”

Cind nods, eases back further into the woods, and motions to Kell. “I think we can get on the road.”

Creeping along quietly, Kell joins up with Cind and smirks. “Yeah. But before we do that, I think I saw some berry bushes and young protellows. You want to pick a few?”

Flitting her bright blue eyes wide, Cind nods eagerly and pulls out her aetherphone. “Yes! It’ll be something nice to eat between the noodle packs. I’ll let Marcus know and tell him to head to the van.”

As the two depart, Fawna halts in the field, waves the ball, and snags Varan’s attention. “Okay, Varan! Get ready! I’ll throw this one as hard as I can!”

She plants her feet, readies herself, and winds up the pitch. With fast throw, she arcs the ball high into the air, and nearly stumbles when she loses her balance. Varan tears off through the grasses excitedly. He builds up momentum, bounds up into the air, and runs faster. As the ball pierces the forest canopy, Varan summons up his determination, leaps up into the air, and plows through the bordering underbrush. Fawna blinks in surprise, jogs over to treeline, and listens to the distant rustling of debris. “Varan! Don’t go too far. Stay with mommy!”

Peering into the forest, she cocks her head to side, notices the silence, and uncertainly pushes into a shrubs with a concerned tone. “Varan? VARAN! Where are you?!”

Wiping down a section of the long wooden bar, Aggie narrows her brown eyes at stubborn stain, and scrubs her cleaning rag harder. After a few passes, she huffs, tosses her curly black hair back, and slowly shakes her head unsatisfied. She shifts her attention out into the quiet main room, and surveys the few patrons in different degrees of awareness watching the television. Foot falls faintly creak on the stair case leading upstairs, and a light gray, blue hued emin woman rubs the sleep from her bright violet on black eyes. She groggily navigates behind the long wooden bar, and instinctively gravitates towards the coffee machine. Aggie smiles lovingly at the woman, presents a coffee filed personal mug, and wraps her arm around her. “How’s my sleeping beauty?”

The emin woman grasps the cup with both her hands, immediately pours back a long sip, and exhales. Guiding her dark blue braided hair over coiling horns, she leans close to Aggie, and kisses her. “Awake, now.”

Aggie rubs the back of the emin woman’s work shirt, and furrows a curious brow. “Dear, how late were you up?”

The emin woman groans, sips her coffee, and twists her mouth. “It was four in the morning before Jackson got done celebrating his big haul.”

She glances to a table, narrows her gaze, and smirks. “Right, Buford?”

A man cringes up from his slump over a large mug of coffee, and directs a wavering tone. “Yes, Elissia. Not so loud, please...”

Aggie shakes her head, and eyes Elissia. “You didn’t have to keep the bar open for THAT long for them.”

Elissia lifts an eyebrow, smirks, and plucks a book from under the counter. She opens it up the last filled page, places it in Aggie’s hands, and taps a long, black nail upon a total. “Oh, I had a good reason.”

Aggie quickly analyzes the data, slowly nods with a growing grin, and sneaks peck on Elissia’s cheek. “Even got them to tip good, too.”

The large wooden door to the opens wide, and a young human boy with curly black hair rushes in excitedly. An emin boy with long, dark blue hair follows a few seconds later, timidly slipping around the door. Both human and emin boys pull themselves up on the bar stools in front of Aggie and Elissia. Elissia smiles at the two, reaches out, and ruffles hair. “How are our boys doing today?”

The human boy groans and rolls his eyes. “Bored. Ms. Reena is giving us a bunch of homework to do.”

Aggie shakes her head, and narrows her gaze. “It’s school, son. That’s what they do.”

Elissia smiles lovingly at the quiet emin boy, squints her eyes, and taps the tip of one of his curved horns. “Did you paint your horn tips?”

The emin boy blushes and sheepishly admits. “No. It was Suzie.”

Elissia and Aggie exchange amused glances. Elissia pivots around, lifts up an apron over her head, and ties it behind her. “So, what do you two want for lunch?”

The human boy grins wide and excitedly calls out. “Cheeseburger with extra bacon-”

Both Aggie and Elissia snap their attention, and focus their combined mother voices. “NO.”

Crossing his arms, the boy pouts and frowns. “Why not!?”

Aggie furrows her brow and stands firm. “Cedric. You’ve got to eat SOMETHING else before your mother is going to cook another cheeseburger for you.”

Cedric grumbles, contorts his face, and huffs. “Fine. I’ll get a sandwich like Ryos gets.”

Elissia nods respectfully to Cedric, and gazes over to Ryos. “Ryos?”

Ryos glances up, shyly darts his eyes around, and summons up his voice. “The, um, club sandwich.”

As Elissia turns and steps towards the door, Ryos leans over to Cedric, and whispers. “Get extra bacon.”

Cedric blinks, grins at the suggestion, and calls out. “Extra bacon on mine!”

Elissia halts mid step through the door leading into the kitchen, and twists her mouth with a grumble. Aggie pats her on the back, and shakes her head. “It’s still progress in the right direction, dear.”

With a trailing sigh, Elissia slips into the kitchen. Aggie narrows a stare between to boys, and points up upstairs with a command. “Hands. Wash them. Please.”

Ryos swiftly hops down with Cedric trailing behind. The boys move past Mavian and Isaac going down the stairs. Mavian checks a list written on a pad of paper, and nods towards Isaac. “I think that’s everything.”

Isaac smiles and steps along side Mavian towards the bar. “I believe so. The vehicle is loaded with all the equipment and supplies. And, I don’t know how much more planning we can do to the route.”

Mavian slides upon onto a bar stool, and shakes his head. “After a certain point, it’s useless. We’ll just have to go there, and see what’s actually there. We’ll deal with it then.”

Settling up in a seat next to Mavian, Isaac smirks and rests his binder of notes upon the bar. “I agree. So, lunch?”

Mavian perks his brow, and laughs. “Lunch. We’ll be dining on rations tonight, so lets get one good meal in.”

Aggie steps up in front of Mavian and Isaac, and grins. “Okay, sweeties, what are you hungry for?”

Mavian stretches his back, and crosses his arms on the counter. “Cheeseburger with extra bacon.”

Easing through the perimeter of the forest, Cind and Kell step out upon the roadside shoulder. Cind holds the bottom part of her shirt up in sling and contains a bounty of blackberries. Kell carries out a stack protellow leaves, seeds, and tubers. The two walk towards an old van, and notice Marcus. Cind smiles brightly and nods down to the collected fruit. “Plenty for the road!”

Kell glances down at the collection of ingredients and chuckles. “If we find a good spot to camp out, I totally can cook some awesome wraps for us.”

Marcus squirms against the side van door, awkwardly grins, and laughs nervously. “C-cool. So, uh, I guess we’re ready to go, right?”

Kell steps up towards the van, and lifts a curious brow at Marcus. “Yeah. I guess? Don’t think we got anything else to do here.”

Cind approaches the side door, and gestures for Marcus open the door. “Could you open the door, please?”

Marcus twists his mouth, contorts his body language, and hems. “Um, about that. I- Uh- Need to tell you something-”

A shrill, annoyed growl sounds out from inside the van. Thumps and thuds resonate against the metal walls of the vehicle, and angry snarls reverb from inside. Marcus begins to open his mouth when series of loud fabric rips tear into the soundscape, and higher pitched roars shriek out from in the van. Loud flaps and skittering scrapes of claws interrupt each attempt for Marcus to explain.

Kell’s purple on black eyes widen in twitching shock. Cind glares at Marcus, straightens her posture, and demands. “What did you do, MARCUS?”