Episode 96

The black sports utility vehicle pulls into the driveway of the two story house, and slows to a stop. Nearby cameras crews aim their equipment, and move into rehearsed positions. Inside the vehicle, Chad turns the engine off, pauses momentarily, and stares uncertainly between the surrounding camera crews. “Anyone else getting a BAD feeling about this welcome?”

Trakenthin slightly sneers his upper lip, slowly shakes his head, and grumbles. “It is concerning.”

Rolling her eyes, Tassilda grips her handle, and opens up the back driver’s side door. “Well, no use sitting here. Let us see what they have planned for us now.”

Deedri glances back at Modoran, droops her furry ears, and grimaces uncomfortably. “What do you think?”

Tugging at the corner of his mouth, Modoran narrows his scanning gaze, and sighs with an unamused grumble. “I don’t quite know. But... They’re anticipating something. All too well planned.”

Chad, Trakenthin, Tassilda, Deedri, and Modoran exit the vehicle, gather around the front house door, and witness the crew uncomfortably closing in. Chad smirks uneasily, use his the keys on the lock, and quickly pushes through the entry. The group slips through and gradually disperses into the living room. Sitting on the couch, Veevi releases a long dramatic sigh, and greets the team with a pitiful whine. “I was wondering when you all would get back today. I am so happy you got here so soon. It was getting very lonely without you all here.”

Tassilda narrows her light blue on black eyes, gradually pivots her head, and lowers her stare. Trakenthin glances over to Veevi, and presents a stern front towards her. Chad studies Veevi’s demure display, and lifts an intrigued brow. “Well, I hope you’ve had some time to think things through. Maybe we’ll talk after we all have settled back in, and see if you are ready to be part of the group again.”

Veevi’s fuzzy ears drop slightly, and she bows her head sadly. “If you think that’ll help. Maybe we can talk. I’d really like to go on the next mission.”

Chad sorts through his thoughts in between flits of confusion, and forces out an uncertain chuckle. “Good. We’ll talk later tonight.”

Twisting her mouth, Tassilda rolls her eyes dismissively, weaves through the team towards the stair case, and tosses back her long, raven black hair. “Whatever. I need shower before anything else today.”

She quickly darts up the stairwell out of sight, and a camera operator trails closely behind. Modoran narrows his gaze uncertainly, and glances around the area. Deedri’s ears perk to footsteps upstairs, muffled sounds of keys working into lock, and then a strange abrupt pause. She blinks and puzzles as her ears flick.

A string of Emin curses burst into the air upstairs, and an enraged yell from Tassilda echoes into the living room. “WHAT. THE. FUCK?!”

Chad, Trakenthin, Deedri, and Modoran quickly exchange bewildered glances with each other, and then simultaneously focus their attention upon Veevi. Combing her sharp, black nails through her long pink hair, Veevi presents a smug grin on her tan face, and giggles insidiously. Chad blinks blankly, reflexively winces, and quickly steps up towards the stairs. Trakenthin, Deedri, and Modoran follow afterwards, and crew members rush up behind them. The team gathers around Tassilda’s bedroom door, and peer inside. Tassilda glares furiously at her bed as her balled up fists tremble with anger. Drawing a strained sniff and growling out an exhale, she scoops her fingers underneath a pile of fanciful wrappers upon her bedspread, and lets the small papers slip out between her fingers. Snarling her upper lip upon her gray face, she runs her palm upon the comforter and sweeps up specs of cookie crumbs onto her hand. Her face lowers in anger as strands of straight black hair slip over her swirling horns. She shakily points to an opened box with fancy emin script and images of finely crafted chocolates.

The team at the door studies the situation, and each arrive to an unnerving conclusion. They split away from Tassilda’s door, and rush over to their own bedrooms. Trakenthin swiftly gets his door open, and he steps in. Halting a meter from the door, a low grumble sounds out, and Trakenthin slowly surveys the spots of disarray in his room. He kneels down next to the chaotic mess of books littering the floor around his bed, and sifts through his scattered belongings. As he stands back up, he pauses as a reflective glint catches his eyes from on top of his bed. Almost a dozen empty beer bottles with grath titles bask in the late morning sun beaming through the window. Trakenthin reaches out, grasps the nearest bottle tightly, and glares at it. As he maintains his stoic stare, twitches of swelling anger slip out upon his dark bronze cheeks. Standing straight up, he silently steps to his bedroom door, moves through with recording crew keeping a safe distance, and slowly pivots to glare back down the hall.

Modoran crosses his arms, studies his door up and down, and cocks his head to the side. He glances over towards Trakenthin, notices the empty bottle, and points down to shattered glass of a similar color. “Yeah... I think I found out where some of your beer went.”

He kneels down, narrows his dark blue eyes at the door jamb next to the door knob, and shakes his head. “Wow...”

Deedri hops out of her bedroom, closes the door firmly behind her, and pants out her relief. “I don’t think she got into my room. Nothing looks out of place.”

Nodding towards Deedri behind him, Modoran stands up, shrugs his shoulders, and scratches his short white hair. “I know she didn’t get into mine. But, she sure tried.”

Gesturing through an incantation, Modoran wills wisps of magical flow to his fingers, and taps the door knob to his bedroom door. A wave of faint energy pulses through a barrier weaving into the door frame, and a haze of miasma diffuses away. The flush join between jamb and door drifts apart to form a narrow divide.

Tassilda marches out of her room, grits her teeth tightly with seething breaths, and tightens her grip upon a decorated box top. “Gods. HELP ME. I am going to KILL that UNHOLY ABOMINATION. She’s nothing but a PINK FURRED MONSTER that feeds upon chaos and misery!”

Snapping her bright light blue glower at the stairwell, she storms off stomping and growls out. “Oh... It’s going to be closed shoe box funeral when I get done with her!”

Deedri’s auburn eyes widen, she pushes through a camera operator, and diplomatically blockades Tassilda. “You need to sit down a moment, and clear your head. Please! She’s not worth the jail time.”

Tassilda halts in her tracts, stares at Deedri, and mulls over the pleas unconvinced. A firm hand grips her shoulder, and holds her in place. Tassilda snaps her glance over and stares at Trakenthin. She starts to move her mouth, and Trakenthin hoists up the empty grath beer bottle. Tassilda gazes into Trakenthin’s stoic face. A low groan sounds out from Trakenthin, and he slowly shakes his head. Tassilda visibly debates her emotions, slumps her shoulders gradually, and holds up her box lid. Patting her shoulder, Trakenthin nods with an understanding frown, and turns his head towards Chad’s bedroom.

Trakenthin leads ahead, and Tassilda follows quickly behind. Deedri and Modoran rush over to join the group. The gathering converges upon Chad’s bedroom entry. Trakenthin steps once into the room, halts, and blinks in surprise at the destruction. Tassilda begins to summon up a demanding tone, pauses to blink her light blue on black eyes, and drops her jaw at the wood chunks near the desk. Deedri peeks around Tassilda, springs her auburn eyes wide, and gasps as she covers her mouth. Modoran leans out through the door to get a view, and cringes as he scans the vicinity. Standing the middle of the room, Chad tosses scraps from shredded poster upon his collapsed bed, draws in a long breath, and scratches the back of his light brown, coiffed head of hair. Glancing unhappily at three person recording crew in the corner of the room, he eventually pivots around, notices the rest of the team gawking, and musters up a smile. Pushing against the overwhelming defeat in on his voice, Chad just sighs sadly, shakes his head, and awkwardly laughs. “Well... Um... Ah... This was not exactly the... ah... huh... direction I was hoping she would take.”

He blinks around at the extensive, rage fueled redecoration of his bedroom, uncertainly crosses his arms, and gazes to the team. “So... I’m going to admit, I don’t know how to proceed here. Any thoughts would be appreciated? Yeah... Huh...”

Trakenthin steps forth, glances down at Chad’s bed, and kneels down. “I will lift. We will clear out all underneath.”

Modoran slips through, drops down to his knees, and sorts through the messes of belongings on the floor. “Yeah, we’ll need to clean up the floor a bit, so we can work through all this.”

Tassilda steps up to Chad, rubs his back, and motions to the torn posters. “I might be able to piece those back together for you.”

Deedri picks up a torn half of a pillow, inspects the torn fabric, and ponders out loud. “I’ll see if I can stitch this up.”

An appreciate smile appears on Chad’s face, and nods to Tassilda. “Thank you.”

He glances out to the team and smirks. “Thank you all... We’ll... figure this out yet.”

Down the stairwell in the living room, Veevi lounges upon the couch, casually splays out upon the cushions, and giggles delightfully. A smug grin grows wide on her face, and she tosses back her pink hair with a flick of a furry pink tail. Settling upon the couch in sheer satisfaction, she admires the flat black color upon her sharp nails, and pulls out a paperback novel. She cracks it open to a bookmarked section, settles her gaze at it, and flicks the bookmark away.

Rolling curtains of wind wave across the thick, tall grasses in the surrounding fields. Shallow pools scattered in the marshy sections ripple with the breezes, small wildlife moving, and unseen forces. Large magnolias sway with the air and brush branches with nearby pines and willows. Cresting the top of a long winding incline, the humvee slowly climbs the apex. Tires turn against the rough dirt road, spin free for brief moments, and regain traction as they dig into the layers of gravel underneath. The vehicle settles to a steady roll upon the level road ahead, and Cideeda leans her head outside her driver’s side window. Squinting at the relatively flat path ahead, she follows the course and notices a concrete entrance at a crude “T” intersection. She settles back in her seat, sighs as she rests of her head of short multi-colored hair, and presses a button on the front control console. “I think we’ve FINALLY made it to the rest area. And, before I lose my mind, I’m turning off the traction control. Those damn whiny motor controllers.”

Sotalia gazes out at the darkening purple and blue sky ahead, and glances behind at the cooling warm orange sunset. “If you say so, girl. I’ll just be glad to remind myself what being on flat ground feels like.”

Focusing her attention upon a location on a digital map, Aristespha glances up to the signage at the reinforced gateway, nods to herself as see matches up the information. She taps her finger upon her window. “This is the correct area. I believe we just turn in and find a place to set up.”

The humvee turns between concrete entry pillars, and rolls up onto dirt and sand coated pavement slab. The vehicle navigates through sparse directional signs encircling a huge cleared area around a large central structure. Bach searches out his back passenger window, and directs his voice to the rest of the team. “I think we’re the only ones here. At least right now.”

Dretphi leans into the central aisle, peers out Bach and Aristespha’s windows, and ponders out loud. “Area is maintained. Camp areas have been used. Within the last week? Good sign. It has not been abandoned long.”

Sebastian’s ethereal form materializes between Bach and Aristespha, and in front of Dretphi. He stares out windows, shrugs his shoulders, and motions towards a long, concrete archway. “I guess we have our choice of camp ground. Let’s pull into one of these armored carports? And, we’ll check the place out.”

Quickly scanning the large reinforced shelters, Cideeda navigates the humvee into middle of a wide, open bunker. As the powerplant of the vehicle spins down, doors open up. Sotalia hops out onto the dirt and sand covered pavement, glances around the roofed space inside the shelter, and gazes up at the nearly six meters of clearance overhead. “My gods, they don’t fuck around when they build carports out here.”

Bach slides his seat forward, and allows Dretphi to squeeze out from the cab. He gazes up around the huge vacant space, shrugs his shoulders, and scratches the back of his head of longer brown hair. “While I feel relieved they put really nice shelters out here for travelers... I’m wondering why they’re THIS well built.”

Floating up in the space above the team, Sebastian’s ghostly form drifts around with his attention, and he crosses his arms. “Well, bro, I mean if you are going to put something out here and not have to fix it every week, you probably have to go all out.”

Glancing up a moment, Bach levels his stare out to the central building, and nods in agreement. “Yeah, that makes sense. Build it ridiculous once, and don’t have to touch until something ridiculous happens.”

Stepping out from underneath the dim shade of the arched concrete bunker, he slowly pans a gaze around the vicinity, and settles upon an assembled wall of signs with different icons and languages. “They certainly didn’t cut corners on the literature. Holy shit.”

The team assembles and wanders toward the large, reinforced central structure, and stop in front of the metal panels of instructions. Each studies different signs and reads through the information. Sotalia crosses her arms, lifts an intrigued brow, and mumbles out loud. “Restrooms with showing facilities available inside? We’ll see about THAT.”

Tossing back her silvery blue hair, Aristespha smirks towards Sotalia, and chuckles dryly. “Yeah... I have my doubts at how viable they are, but I honestly would not mind being proven wrong after today.”

Sotalia rests her hand of long, black nailed fingers on her hip, smirks smugly towards Aristespha, and snorts. “At this point, I’ll make them viable. It’s amazing how clean and cleared things get when you do a little aggressive magical steam cleaning.”

Glancing down at her shirt, she picks at the fabric, fans some air through her chest, and sighs. “Honestly, I really wouldn’t mind getting a crappy shower right now. Worked up a sweat with this heat and casting telekinesis spells today. Hope the rest of the roads are less cluttered.”

Cideeda blinks her emerald eyes, perks up furry ears up, and flicks her long tail up. She pivots in place, focuses her attention to the inside of the bunker at a huge metal cabinet. She cocks her head curiously, and shrugs. “If they’re willing to provide vehicle chargers in the bunkers, working showers might not be too much to ask for.”

She slowly spins in place, and her eyes inspect the solar panels upon the roofs of the central structure and the different arched shelters surrounding. Her furry ears flick towards a noise above, and she watches a few windmills turn into the wind. While studying the different types of antennas mounted, she reaches into her shorts pocket, and retrieves her aetherphone. She taps her claw tipped fingers on the screen through the different menus. “They put some thought when they made this place. I think there’s a radio relay system running.”

Dretphi shifts her attention from a sign to a rugged awning over a number of picnic tables, cooking pits, and basic food preparation facilities. “Requirements are different here. This feels like a long term camp site.”

Aristespha finishes reading a dense chunk of instructions, glances over to Sebastian hovering next to her, and perks her brow. Sebastian shrugs his shoulders, and points to a kiosk. “I guess do what it says.”

Stepping up to a metal booth, Aristespha cautiously grabs hold of a handle, turns the latch on the protective doors, and opens up a cabinet of switches, buttons, and indicators. She glances over her shoulder, narrows her gaze at the number carved at the top of the arched bunker, and pulls a large weatherized switch that matches.

A status light flicks green on the panel, and a number of others follow. Cideeda’s ears flick around at the emerging sounds in the background, and Dretphi watches the area expectantly. Dim building lights brighten. Armored flood lamps flip up from the side of the central building and illuminate the surrounding area against the encroaching darkness. Muffled whirs of pumps coming online and the rushes of water flowing through pipes faintly sound out from inside the central building. Lights flick on inside the arched concrete bunker and shine upon the humvee.

Sebastian glances around, twists his mouth, and blinks blankly. “Huh. Well, I guess things will be ready for us soon. Settle in I guess?”

Sotalia nods, eyes the entry to the restroom facility, and brushes a lock of her fiery orange, wavy hair over a swept back horn. She pauses a moment, rolls the red strands between her fingers, and grimaces with faint disgust. “Sounds good. I’d really like to see if we can get a shower running here.”

Crossing her arms, Dretphi sneaks a sniff towards her shoulder, twists her mouth uncomfortably, and tilts her head of platinum blonde braids. “Yes. We should run the water. Clean the pipes out. Should be workable.”

Cideeda glances up to Bach with a smile, pokes his arm with a claw tip, and motions towards the bunker. “I’m going to get the humvee hooked up to whatever passes for a power source out here. Might need you to magic up an adapter.”

Nodding in agreement, Bach concentrates upon a big sign with red text and a direction indicator. He blinks at the literature, glances over to mesh doors upon a wide, deep concrete stairwell, and grimaces. “Yeah. We might want to check out this Surge Shelter they keep talking about. It says to make sure the door opens up, and there’s a clear path to it from the exterior and interior entrances.”

Aristespha shifts her violet eyes over to the sign detailing Surge Shelter information, sorts through the information, and frowns. “Yes. I really hope we will not need it. Maelstroms are here powerful enough. Surges are on a whole different level.”

As the team divides and spreads out into the site, flits of bright light flicker in the distant dark clouds east. Eerie glows cascade out, illuminate the night sky, and sparkle out chains of other faint activity.

Sheets of thick rain pound the ground, and a roaring chorus of water drowns the world under a relentless drone. The blue all terrain vehicle revs up, and tires spin through layers of mud and wet rock. Isaac squints his eyes through the fast swipes of windshield wipers, and misty haze flowing around the vehicle. The wheels muscle up to the crest of a hill and grip onto a patch of scattered stones. Isaac glances over to the passengers seat, and blinks wide eyed at Mavian. “Not to sound negative, but I think we’re pushing our luck quite more than we should right now.”

Mavian’s faintly glowing green eyes search ahead, and he nods with a grimace. “Yeah, I agree. There’s a small surge shelter around here. We just need follow the path for another kilometer or so.”

Tensing his grip on the steering wheel, Isaac grits his teeth and navigates the rugged truck around washed out ruts and debris. Along a clear straight path, he eases out a breath of relief, brushes his wild, wispy white hair back, and blinks his gray eyes. “Well, if the next kilometer is like this, I think we’ll be alright.”

Focusing his stare ahead, Mavian’s eyes widen and he gestures ahead to soaked and empty span of road ahead. “Shit! STOP HERE! Don’t go THERE!”

Isaac narrows his confusion at Mavian, glances ahead, and cocks his head. “Really? What’s the problem-”

Mavian motions towards the brakes, and sternly addresses Isaac. “Please. STOP THE VEHICLE.”

Isaac blinks blankly, gazes ahead, and eases the vehicle to stop. As the rain washes over the vehicle, he alternates his attention between Mavian and the open, soggy road ahead between fast sweeps of the windshield wipers. “Okay. What am I missing here?”

Mavian’s green eyes glow brightly, and he directs Isaac’s attention with a wave of the hand ahead. “Mage sight. Look carefully at the road ahead.”

Lifting his head back in surprise, Isaac squints his gray eyes as they flash to a bright light, and widens his stare as he reflexively gasps. “Dear gods... What in the hell is going on up there?”

Twisting his mouth, Mavian uneasily draws a breath in, studies the road ahead, and rocks his head side to side uncertainly. “I don’t know. Looks like something got dropped out from the storm. Which means we’re close to this being a proper maelstrom.”

He leans close to the front windshield, peers out carefully through the chaotic rain and haze, and points to the rough shoulder of the dirt route. “We might be able to squeeze around it over there.”

Isaac traces the direction Mavian indicates, gradually nods in agreement, and summons up his nerve. “That looks feasible. And, I guess, probably our best option at the moment.”

Glancing over to the wet passage of road, he grimaces as he watches uneasily through his glowing gray eyes. “Because from the traces of flow I’m seeing, I don’t think anything good will happen if we touch that spot.”

Mavian nods, and focuses his attention upon the brush and roadside debris along the shoulder. “Yeah. I’m not quite sure what that anomaly is now, but it looks like Flare Out or leakage from a Fire Flower. Neither are that great, and the water makes them blast steam instead of just heat.”

Summoning up his courage, Isaac grips the steering wheel tightly, carefully steers the vehicle towards the shoulder, and eases the accelerator. Tires churn through the soggy earth, and the blue truck rides upon the rough shoulder. Pushing through brush and rolling over debris, Isaac steadies the path and Mavian observes the progress. Isaac keeps the all terrain vehicle steady, and glances over to the eerily calm section of wet road. A sharp snap happens overhead with a surge of wind, and a large, leafy branch lands upon the empty part of the path.

An eruption of heat boils the water into a powerful gout of steam. A thick cloud of vapor immediately floods the area. The haze billows out and engulfs the blue truck, and plumes into the surrounding area. Seconds of hard rain later, the vapor disperses down onto the ground. Isaac glances back over, and grits his teeth uncomfortably as he stares at the branch. The piece of wood smolders slightly, lays barren of leaves, and flecks of stripped bark float away with the flow of water. Gradually turning his stare ahead, Isaac grips the steering wheel tighter, and uncomfortably grumbles under his breath. Mavian nods understandingly, and resumes his watch.

The rugged vehicle pushes through the final patch of shrubs, angles back towards the center of the road, and powers through the waves of heavy rain. Rolling through thickening muck, the vehicle struggles to keep forward momentum. Mavian spots a colorful marker pillar, and directs Isaac. “There! Turn in here, hopefully, there’s a shelter we can use.”

Turning into the driveway, the all terrain vehicle finds footing upon packed gravel, and Isaac navigates the pathway into a concrete, arched shelter. Putting the vehicle in park, Isaac blinks back to his senses during the escape from the pounding drone of rain, and breathes slowly. Mavian glances around, studies the area, and nods slowly. “Okay. We’ve got something to shield us for now. We’ll need to check to see if we can get in the surge shelter. But, I think we can take it easy for a bit.”

Isaac rubs his eyes, stretches his shoulders, and laughs nervously. “I’ll admit, while I’ve driven through some maelstroms, I get the distinct impression you classify things a little different out here.”

Mavian snorts out his humor, and smirks as he relaxes in the seat. “Yeah. Regular storms are always a bit more powerful. And, we don’t consider something a maelstrom until it constantly drops dangerous stuff.”

Idling in the relative quiet, Isaac rubs his ears, cracks his neck with a wince, and glances over to Mavian. “On the same subject... I’ve read up about zone surges. But, I’ve never experienced one personally. So, I’m not certain on what exactly happens.”

Mavian blinks his faintly glowing green eyes, twists his mouth, and grimaces as he pushes his back against his seat. “Yeah. I’ve been through many, and a few times without much shelter. It’s hard to really explain in detail. But, I can kind of sum it up?”

He searches through his mind for the words, taps his finger thoughtfully on the door side, and sighs with a cautious tone. “Maelstroms are just magic stirred up by weather. So, they can only get so much power naturally, and the anomalies can only boost it so much. The magic in a maelstrom is just part of the chaos soup. It’s not really organized in any shape or form.”

Drawing in a long breath, he grits his teeth, and slowly shakes his head. “A Surge. That’s a different beast. Surges form without any kind of weather. For some reason, magic energies align and... As strange as it sounds, seem to coordinate with each other. You practically get a magic hurricane forming high above a huge area, and the eye of it is where the surge can happen.”

Mavian gazes at Isaac and motions a finger upwards. “If you are lucky, when it reaches critical mass, it launches it up. It’ll scare the shit out of you, but all the energy goes away from you.”

He frowns sternly and points down. “If you aren’t lucky, it surges it down on top of you. Gods help you if you are outside, and don’t have some protection.”

Isaac blinks slowly, and contorts his face uncomfortably. “I see. So, best to be well within a surge shelter before that point?”

Mavian eases out a breath, and points roughly towards a concrete bunker in the middle of a circle of a few more arched shelters. “Yes. Surge shelters go underground, have protection enchantments upon the inside, and have layers of magically protective materials surrounding them. The best protection you’ll get out here, if you don’t have some shielding magic.”

He chuckles lightly, and shakes his head. “But, don’t worry right now. There’s been no surge warning issued over the radio network, no sirens blaring from the monitoring station here, and the skies looked... clear... today.”

Isaac lifts an intrigued brow at Mavian, and cocks his head to the side as he adjust his blue scarf. “Interesting. Anything that mage sight can detect?”

Mulling over the thought, Mavian wrestles with a concept, and shrugs his shoulders uncertainly. “Yes and no? It’s more noticing when the usual chaos is too... organized? You get a feeling that the background noise is somehow different. It’s something you start to notice after years of being in zone.”

Pausing as a stray idea crosses his mind, Mavian gazes over to Isaac, scratches his chin curiously, and ponders out loud. “Speaking of being in the zone... Typically, I don’t pry too much into people’s business out here. But, I’m not going to lie. I am a little curious as to why your friend Malkav has been out in the zone for so long. I’ve lead people around and scoured the PWZ for a long time, and I still can’t recall anything that special about that region he might be in.”

Isaac casually turns his ahead to glance out his driver side window, and his eyes widen with flits of worry and suspicion. He musters a calm demeanor, and wrestles down the unease out of his expression. He presents an intrigued, academic tone towards Mavian. “I actually thought the same exact thing. I know general pieces of what he hopes to accomplish out here. But, I frankly do not know fully. I believe he thinks something exists in some very old ruins of significant archaeological importance. So much so, he’s been very dedicated and not bothered to regularly contact anyone about it. I’m happy he’s actually been seen in the last few months from your reports, because that’s more than a lot of people have seen him.”

Mavian narrows his faintly glowing green eyes, searches his mind, and analyzes Isaac’s words. Quirking an interested brow, he crosses his arms, and smirks out his curiosity. “That actually explains a lot. Most zone runners keep tabs on everyone going into the PWZ for all the artifacts and strange magic.”

He frowns slightly with hints of embarrassment. “We actually don’t pay that much attention to anyone just looking at the, uh, old architecture?”

Isaac blinks to attention, and concentrates upon Mavian’s cadence. “You say that like there’s generally a lot of ruins and old structures out here.”

Mavian nods quickly, shrugs his shoulders, and smiles awkwardly. “Yeah. This zone is loaded with a lot of ancient buildings. Some are hidden. Some are a bit too dangerous to go near without a good reason. And, some are just, well, boring. Most zone runners just consider them part of the scenery, and really only pay attention to them if they’re useful to hide in or find artifacts around.”

Isaac cocks his head to the side, studies Mavian, and hums in thought. “Interesting. Any of these ruins you are willing to tell me about?”

Mavian pauses, rolls down the window, and listens carefully. “Sure. If you are going to be anywhere else in the zone, there’s a few I can recommend in case you need a place to shelter from a storm... Or, hide from the not so friendly people that wander parts of the zone.”

He opens the blue truck’s door, glances out behind the vehicle, and motions towards the surge shelter. “It looks like the rain has slowed down. Let’s check to make sure the shelter is in working order.”

Isaac pushes his door open, steps down from the all terrain vehicle, and nods. “Sound goods. I guess we should set up camp down there for tonight?”

Mavian stands at the edge of the concrete arch bunker, surveys the vicinity, and glances up at the dark sky. “Yeah. We’re not traveling much further in this mess.”

Unlocking the back tailgate, Isaac lifts up the top window hatch, and cracks a relieved smile. “Oh, good. I hoped you’d agree. It’s been a bit harrowing today, and I wouldn’t mind a long rest.”

An intrigued grin grows upon his face. “And, I would love to hear more about these ruins you know of.”

Lounging in the fully tilted back front passenger’s seat, Sotalia slowly turns to the last page of a graphic novel. Her golden eyes follow the flow of the story across the layout, and she bites her lower lip as anticipation builds. As the toes of her sock covered feet curl upon the front dash, she flips the other side of the last page. She studies the literature, blinks, and rolls her eyes with a disappointed groan. “Oh gods... You’ve got to be kidding me. ANOTHER cliffhanger?! Why do I do this myself?”

She rolls her head, gazes out the back passenger door, and waves the book for Dretphi’s attention. “Can you believe this crap? Now I understand why you were so frustrated.”

Dretphi notices the graphic novel in Sotalia’s hand, grimaces, and sighs with a shake of her head. “It is aggravating. Next volume MUST deliver.”

Standing up from her tent, she inspects the rigid supports and cabling, and gazes with satisfaction at her lodging. Sotalia closes up the graphic novel, rests the book down against her chest, and runs her long nailed fingers through her fiery orange, wavy hair. “I mean, they share interests, have some real chemistry, and have been awkwardly close to each other SO MANY TIMES!”

She tilts the cover of the book towards her narrowing stare, and twists her mouth. “Shit, will you two just kiss and FUCK already!”

Dretphi pauses a moment, smiles tightly, and steps over near Sotalia in the humvee. “I have a theory.”

Sotalia tilts her head over, perks an intrigued brow, and curls a devilish smirk. “Oh? Do tell...”

Leaning down, Dretphi whispers a few sentences of grath to Sotalia, and fails to hold back the her enthusiastic smile against flush of embarrassment. Sotalia blinks blankly, glances at the book, and contorts her face uncertainly. “I like where you are going... But... Would that even...”

Dretphi slips a finger between the pages of graphic novel, and searches through with an eager grin. “Read this part...”

From the large central building in the middle of the camp site, Bach steps out of the restroom hallway, stretches his back, and gazes up at the full moon overhead in the star filled sky upon faintly hazy hints of the Milky Way. He stares upwards silently, gawks at the serene sky above, and relaxes. A small scraping sound interrupts his trance, and Bach searches around for the source of the noise. His stare settles upon a squirrel working on the leftover peach flesh around a pit. Cocking his head to the side, he curiously studies the critter upon the picnic table under the illuminated awning. After a few moments, the squirrel pauses, snaps its gaze towards Bach, and stares quietly. Bach chuckles with an awkward tinge, and shrugs his shoulders. “Well, don’t let me interrupt your dinner.”

He pans a gaze across the open area surrounding the central building, and notices Cideeda pacing around with her aetherphone out. Bach glances over his shoulder briefly and freezes. His blue eyes widen slightly, and he uneasily spots three squirrels staring back at him. He cautiously steps back, pivots towards Cideeda, and quickly walks over. Stopping nearby, Bach suspiciously glances back towards the now empty picnic area, and shifts his attention to Cideeda. “So, any luck getting a signal?”

Cideeda frowns with a frustrated grumble, and rolls her emerald green eyes. “No.”

She raps her claws along the protective case on her aetherphone, and snorts with a grimace. “There’s a news radio broadcast, the emergency channels, and a crude radio relay service.”

Slipping her phone back into her shorts pocket, she gazes up to Bach, perks her ears, and smirks. “We’re just going to have to entertain ourselves, I guess.”

Bach chuckles, puffs the white hair streak out of his face, and rolls his eyes. “Oh gods... The horror. What will we ever do? What could possibly captivate our attention while in the middle of a weird zone.”

Resting her hands on her hips, Cideeda shifts her weight with a wag of her tail, and twists a smile upon her face. “You have a point. Maybe we should take a look around?”

Bach blinks his eyes, glances down at the toothy grin on Cideeda’s light brown face, and shrugs his shoulders. “I’m not against it. Might be good to check anyway if we’re staying the night.”

Cideeda nods, and motions Bach to follow. The two rejoin the rest of the team under the arched bunker. Sebastian’s ethereal form hovers down from the curved roof above, and lands at the center of the camp near the humvee. Crossing his arms, he furrows his brow and a smirks creeps up on his face. “So... Just curious, anyone up for checking out this part of the zone? I mean, since we’re here and all.”

Sotalia pulls herself up in humvee seat, puts her book down, and works her feet into her boots. “Gods, yes! I can’t wait to see what I’ll find!”

Dretphi nods and smiles eagerly. “I will join.”

Bach and Cideeda exchange glances, and nod towards Sebastian. Glancing around the area, Sebastian settles his gaze upon a small tent, and drifts his ghostly visage next to it. He kneels down beside it, and whispers. “Oh, dear, you think you take a break from writing your slash fiction, and help us explore?”

Cideeda snorts, and mutters of embarrassed evuukian sound out from the tent. Aristespha crawls out from the tent, straightens her back out as she works out the faint flush in her ivory face, and sighs. “Yes, Sebastian. I actually would like to see if we can explore this area.”

Brushing her silvery blue hair over her very long, pointed ears, she starts to slip her foot into her leather boot, and stops. Thinking a moment, she grabs the boot, turns it upside down, and shakes it. After a few dull rattles, a single pebble drops out onto the ground. Aristespha narrows her stare with a smirk of satisfaction. “I figured as much.”

The team readies themselves, and walk out from underneath the concrete arch bunker. Following a side path, they approach the cleared perimeter of large rest area, and Aristespha steps ahead. She signals the group to stop, and glances back. “Before we go any further, we need to gauge how safe this part of the zone is right now.”

She draws in a calming breath, readies her hands, and plants her feet. With intricate gestures and precisely rehearsed incantations, she directs flows of magic into the palms of her hands and holds the energy tightly. With a wide opening sweep her arms, a faint pulse of energy swells out into the tall grass and trees before the team. As the wave travels, glowing specs of activity flit about, spectral entities flicker into view, and moving flow of light drifts upon the ground and plants. Focusing her glowing violet eyes, Aristespha stares and assesses the otherworldly inhabitants casually existing. As the rest of the team gawks at the expanding reveal of the hidden spiritual life further out, Aristespha smiles contentedly, spins around to the team, and nods happily. “We should be okay to look around. The harmless and nicer spirits are plentiful, and there’s no signs of anything obviously dangerous.”

Sotalia’s golden eyes widen with glee, and she motions her head towards the field while staring the team. “Well? Let’s see what we can find!”

Sebastian darts out in front of the group and hovers in the air above. Sotalia leads the group, while Aristespha keeps pace with her, and Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi follow right behind. Navigating through the large open field of pools and trees, the team wanders closer to the flits and specs of magical light. From above, Sebastian halts mid flight, glances down, and stares. He waves towards the team and points down past tall grasses and surrounding willow and magnolia trees. The team finds an opening and peer into a clearing around a small pond. Sotalia visually searches the area, contorts her face, and puzzles out loud. “Okay... What are we looking for?”

She narrows her stare, slowly scans, and twists her mouth. “I’m feeling something around here.”

A distant gust filters through the landscape and pushes a gentle breeze through. As the wind sways the plant life, wavering glows of colorful light radiate along the leaves, bark, and roots of the trees. Aristespha and Bach glance to each other. Aristespha focuses her violet glowing gaze upon the pond as prismatic ripples pulse out upon the surface. Bach narrows his blue illuminated eyes at the large waxy leaves of a magnolia. He leans close to a dark green leaf, cocks his head to the side, and ponders out loud. “There’s some kind of... flow capacity... in this leaf?”

Dretphi peeks over Bach’s shoulder, and Cideeda gazes up from next to Bach. After a few seconds of study, Bach glances between Cideeda and Dretphi, reaches his hand out, and wills wisps of flow to the tip of his finger. Tapping the surface of the leaf gingerly, he tilts his head to the side with a smirk as a prismatic dot glimmers. “Huh. That’s pretty cool.”

Cideeda’s emerald eyes glint with the faint reflection from the colorful glow, and she lightly presses her claw tips onto Bach’s forearm. “Can I try that?”

Bach gazes down, smiles, and pulls down a huge leaf in front of her. “Sure. All you have to do is to concentrate your flow to a finger tip, and just press it on the surface.”

With Dretphi watching curiously, Cideeda closes her eyes to concentrate, lifts up a claw tipped finger, and eases out a breath. Opening her eyes, faint swirls of magical flow slowly drift down her arm, up her hand, and condense loosely upon her digit. Dragging her finger across the leaf, a faint prismatic trail glows upon the surface. A warm smile fills Cideeda’s face, and she excitedly sketches out a fvalian caricature. Dretphi eagerly reaches for another large leaf ahead, and ease down a branch for herself.

Floating above the small pond, Sebastian keeps his stare upon the waters and slowly shakes his head. “I know I saw something in the water.”

Kneeling down upon faintly glowing moss, Sotalia squints her flickering golden eyes and grits her teeth as she strains. “There’s something in this pool. But, I can’t... see it...”

Aristespha surveys the perimeter of the pool with her radiant violet eyes, frowns slightly, and crosses her arms. “I’m having problems, too. There just seems to be a lot of... magical noise? That is my best explanation without further study. There’s definitely something about this pool.”

She twists her mouth, huffs out her frustration, and mumbles. “There seems to be a lack of contrast.”

Sotalia drums her long thick nails upon a nearby rock, and glances over to Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi. Watching the trio flow magic energy upon the leaves and paint residual glows, her golden eyes flit wide, and a bold grin emerges on her face. Lifting an intrigued brow, she places her hands into the surface of the water, draws a breath in, and focuses. A burst of flow swirls out from her arms, jets down to her hands, and surges into the pond. A pulse of prismatic energy radiates brightly into the pool, travels along winding channels along the shore, and creeps up blades of grass and tree roots. Sebastian and Aristespha watch the pond shine brilliantly against the moonlit, starry night, and Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi glance over at the colorful display.

Sotalia diligently observes as the illumination wanes, and squints into the pool. As the water’s light fades, crystalline specks within remain bright. With an eager smile, Sotalia’s attention shifts to larger formations of crystal upon the bottom of the pond, and she reaches her hands into the water. The rest of the team converge around Sotalia as she scoops up, and raises up a prismatic mineral from the pool. Her attention fully affixes upon the artifact in her hands, and she grins brightly. “Oh I’ve heard of these, but never have been able to find one intact.”

Aristespha’s fascination locks onto the crystal, and a genuine smile appears on her face. “Oh my. A natural magical material formation. I always wanted to hold the ones in the geology department’s displays, and charge them up to watch them glow.”

Gazing over to Aristespha, Sotalia smirks warmly to Aristespha, presents the prismatic mineral to her, and rests it in her hands. “Well, here’s your chance. This one is all yours.”

Sebastian smiles to Sotalia, and chuckles as Aristespha studies the crystal happily. “What do you say, dear?”

Aristespha rolls her eyes playfully at Sebastian, and nods sincerely to Sotalia. “Thank you, Sotalia.”

Sotalia nods with grin. “You’re welcome, girl.”

Determination twists her mouth, and desire focuses her attention into the pool. She rolls up the short sleeves of her shirt, seats herself upon the rock along pond bank, and reaches her hand back. “Okay... Bach! Dretphi! Hold onto to my arm, I see a few big ones I want and I don’t want to fall in all the way! I got nieces and nephews expecting Aunt Sotalia to deliver!”