Episode 98

Rumbles from the chaotic outdoors vibrate through the aged concrete walls of the dim alcove. Flecks of debris rattle loose from above, and scatter upon the floor below. Sotalia stirs upon a blanket, and rocks her head side to side upon a rolled up towel. With her cheeks twitching against unconsciousness, Sotalia flexes her elevated, socked feet. Fluttering her golden eyes open, she groggily searches around her environment and slowly pieces the world back together in her mind. Her confused gaze settles upon Aristespha sitting next to her on the ground. As consciousness returns, Sotalia furrows her brow and puzzles at the device in Aristespha’s hands. “What are you watching?”

Aristespha blinks her violet eyes, shifts her attention to Sotalia, and smiles calmly. “Just monitoring your vitals. Fortunately, your old group’s medical mage had his on him in that big pack of his.”

Sotalia watches Aristespha study the metrics and graphs upon the display and pauses in quiet contemplation. She sighs long and collects herself. “Yes. Drekkalin always carried a portable hospital everywhere. Really saved us a number of times...”

A large grath figure steps through the archway into the side room from the main chamber. The stout man gazes his blue eyes through shaggy orange hair and down at Sotalia. As he kneels down nearby, a rhythmic alarm chirps out from the vital monitor in Aristespha’s hands, and both medical mages exchange intrigued glances. Aristespha narrows a stern gaze at Sotalia, and calmly instructs. “Breathe, please.”

Sotalia snaps back to awareness, exhales, and draws in a long breath. The grath man furrows his brow, tilts his head to the side, and frowns his fair, freckled face. “Do not know if I should be impressed? Disheartened?”

A sad groan slips out from Sotalia between her concentrated efforts to ease her anxiety. “I’m so sorry, Drekkalin. It’s not you... Really. You’ve always been nice and kind to everyone. Even to me. It’s just... My guilt by association? I don’t know...”

She contorts her face and grits her teeth as she struggles against the swell of stress. Aristespha frowns at the device, taps a mute button on the side, and sets it down. She holds Sotalia’s hand, and directs a comforting tone. “Just focus on your breathing. Take long deep breaths, and ease them out.”

Drekkalin smiles reassuringly and instructs with a patient cadence. “Close your eyes. Focus on that one beach. Imagine that nice place.”

He cracks a smirk and a wry, sarcastic tinge slips into his voice. “Ignore reality tearing itself apart outside. Do not focus on that. If possible.”

A giggle rides out with Sotalia’s exhale, and a humored smile appears on her face. “Of course. Totally not relevant.”

Minutes pass and a tentative peace returns to Sotalia with Aristespha’s and Drekkalin’s advice. Sotalia blinks her golden eyes back open, brushes clear fiery orange hairs past her horns, and sighs. “Gods. How long have I been out?”

Aristespha’s violet eyes search her mind briefly. “About half an hour. Longer than I expected, but today has been exhausting.”

A slight frown curls at the corners of Drekkalin’s face, and he shakes his head with hints of frustration. “I apologize for Cassolon. He should NOT have done that to you.”

With snort, Sotalia’s smirks and lifts a humored eyebrow towards Drekkalin. “Crass Cass strikes again. I should have known of anyone in the group, it would have been him to do something like that.”

Drawing in a long breath, she exhales with focus and bites her lip uneasily. “So, I guess everyone knows now?”

Drekkalin nods simply. “Yes. We were informed previously. Did not expect to encounter you here. A strange surprise to us.”

Aristespha glances over between sorting through medical supplies, and presents a reassuring smile. “After you fainted, there was a lot of confusion turning tense quick. But Bach stepped up and explained the circumstances.”

Sotalia twists an uncertain expression on her light tan face, and scratches the dark gray skin under her pointed ears. Leaning close, Aristespha smirks with a stern gaze at Sotalia. “He wanted me to apologize to you for saying anything.”

Rolling her eyes, Sotalia frowns briefly and shakes her head upon the rolled up towel. “Gods, he should not feel guilty for that. Especially, not when my problems became everyone else’s.”

Sorting through his thoughts, Drekkalin contorts his face as his feelings push through his calm, stoic exterior. “On that subject... I want you to know that I do not harbor animosity to you. This you.”

He pauses in thought a moment, and gazes his blue eyes upon Sotalia. “I believe each have thought on how we would handle encountering you. Multiple times. Initial considerations were unkind.”

Shrugging his shoulders, he smiles genuinely to Sotalia and sighs. “Time has mellowed our desires. Understanding has replaced revenge.”

Sotalia puzzles through the meaning of Drekkalin’s words, and grimaces uncertainly. “Even Precella?”

Drekkalin blinks a few times, searches his mind, and tilts his head to the side. “Surprisingly, yes? Comparatively to her original fantasies. It took her a long time. Now we just desire closure to what was.”

Focusing his genuine concern upon Sotalia, he frowns slightly. “I believe you need it.”

Cracking a smirk from the corner of his mouth, he perks his brow with a wry tinge. “Seem to have beaten yourself up. Spared us the trouble. Needs to stop. Excessive now.”

Closing her eyes, Sotalia covers her face with her hands, grumbles uncomfortably to herself, and groans. “Gods, I really don’t know about this. I know I should, but I don’t know if there’s anything I could say. I just... I don’t know...”

Aristespha pats Sotalia’s shoulder, and smiles reassuringly. “It’ll help. You can’t undo the past. Just give everyone a chance to move on from it at least.”

Sotalia hisses an uneasy sigh through her gritting teeth, gradually nods, and cringes. “Yes. I know. Just... Let me rest a bit, so I can muster my courage. I’m still feeling crappy from the outside world turning itself inside out.”

Drekkalin nods in agreement, and glances out towards the archway. “Understandable. Precella has been irritable today.”

Narrowing an amused stare at Drekkalin, Sotalia lifts an eyebrow with a smirk. “There’s a difference?”

Meeting Sotalia with a similar expression, a faint grin appears on Drekkalin’s fair, freckled face. “Slight. Irritable today. Often irritated with you before.”

Nodding at the divide between definition, Sotalia smiles with a roll her golden eyes. “I always thought it was horn envy with her.”

Drekkalin ponders quietly, rocks his head side to side in deliberation, and quirk his brow. Aristespha retrieves a small bottle from her medical pack, and examines it. “Would you like something to bring the anxiety down a little?”

Sotalia flits her eyes widen, smiles tightly, and snorts. “Oh gods, yes, girl. I’m going to need all the help I can get.”

Powerful, low vibrations shudder through the surrounding wall of the central dome room. Omaron and Dretphi observe the metallic rattles of the door against its worn frame from the archway. They watch the translucent gold magical flows reinforcing the entry shimmer with waves of prismatic energy. Omaron grimaces his brown face, and darts his dark brown eyes between the doorway and Dretphi. “That seems to be holding pretty good. I don’t think anyone needs to be near that thing right now.”

Dretphi shifts away from the corner against the wall opposite of Omaron’s position, twists her mouth uncomfortably, and nods. “Agreed. Will prefer Bach’s shelter when done.”

She glances over towards the center of the main area, and watches flows of magic solidify upon a geometric structure. As swirls of energy wane from his arms, Bach blinks his glowing blue eyes dim, and settles to a seat upon the ground. He rests his hands on his knees and relaxes as much as possible during the wave of noise seeping in from the outside. Along a wall, a woman in elegant robes concentrates her shimmering bright yellow eyes upon a woven matrix of flow in front of her and meticulously articulates her fingers to shift the imagery in the web. Omaron directs his voice to the woman with elaborate blonde, white-streaked braids. “Brianna, is it still building up outside?”

Brianna blinks, draws in a breath, and contorts her light tan face. “It hasn’t gotten stronger. But gods almighty, it’s fluctuating incredibly. Maybe the next fifteen minutes? Sooner? I don’t know. It can’t seem to make up it’s damned mind.”

Tapping through a status screen on her aetherphone, Cideeda narrows her emerald green eyes the wavering projection from the holoplayer, drops her furry ears down against the earth shaking groan emanating from far above, and grits her sharp teeth. “That’s about what the last alert we got said. Haven’t gotten anything about which way the surge is going to erupt.”

Omaron nods at the response, and focuses upon the thin hooded figure cycling through channels on a handheld radio. “Cassolon? Anything on your end?”

Glancing his dark green eyes up from the screen, Cassolon shrugs his shoulders, scratches the dirty blonde hair at the base of his long, blunted tipped ears, and awkwardly presents a smirk on his dark tan face. “Uh, well... About the same, too. It’s getting hard to pick out voices in all the interference.”

Aristespha and Drekkalin step out from the archway of a side room, and move towards the gathering. A few moments later, Sotalia peers out, glances around, and cautiously steps out into the main room. She walks slowly towards the center of the area. Sebastian’s ethereal form phases down from the ceiling, lands on the floor, and shudders as his visage warps. He regains awareness of the area around him, notices Sotalia, and floats over. “Hey. How are you feeling?”

Sotalia crosses her arms, fields a slight frown, and directs her embarrassed glance to the side. “Better. Just got overwhelmed. That’s all. A whole lot of what I did not expect to deal with today. Minor in comparison to what’s going on outside...”

Hovering close, Sebastian smiles comfortingly to Sotalia, and meets her gaze with a soft tone. “It’s still important. And, you know we’ll help you as want. So don’t be afraid to ask.”

Drawing in a long breath through her nose, Sotalia smiles weakly and nods appreciatively. “I know. I’m trying to handle it... a little at the time...”

She darts her golden eyes up towards the domed ceiling, grimaces uneasily, and sighs. “After the world stops trying to blow up.”

Sebastian rolls his blue tinted eyes, and groans out his frustration. “Yeah. That’s still going on. Pretty freaky outside. My form gets distorted being out there too long and I stop seeing things clearly.”

Shifting her gaze side to side around the room, Sotalia puzzles and whispers to Sebastian. “So, how did they take seeing you the first time?”

Glancing at the rumbling pressure above, Sebastian shrugs his shoulders and smirks. “Good. Given everything else happening, probably didn’t even register on their weird scale.”

Sotalia sneers at the muffled chaos outside, and sighs. “Yeah. That makes sense.”

Sebastian points and drifts upwards. “Going to give it another check.”

With a nod, Sotalia watches Sebastian depart through the ceiling. She uncomfortably grips her elbows, searches around the room, and settles her gaze upon Bach. Stepping swiftly over, she squats down next to Bach and gently rests a hand on his shoulder. “Looks like you’ve been busy. Do you need any help?”

Shaking off some creeping drowsiness, Bach turns his head of longer brown hair and blinks his eyes. “Oh, uh... Not right now. But, if you are feeling good enough, if you could cast a barrier once we're inside that’d be great.”

Sotalia glances her golden eyes over to point and returns her attention to Bach. “I can do that.”

Bach twists his mouth uneasily and whispers out an apologetic tone. “Hey, um... Really sorry that I told everyone about your... circumstances. With everyone on edge already, I didn’t want it to get out of hand and-”

With a thankful smile, Sotalia rubs Bach’s back and shakes her head. “It’s okay. Really. You don’t need to worry. I’m going to... Try... to take care of it.”

She glances back over to the same point, grimaces faintly, and continues her conversation with Bach. “You did nothing wrong. You shouldn’t feel responsible for my problems. How are you doing?”

Bach shifts his gaze towards the large, translucent geometric bowl barrier, and sighs out his fatigue. “Trying to create something to give us some extra protection when this surge erupts. After closing that door, I wasn’t ready to trust the rest of this place. But... I’m trying to pace myself.”

Sotalia studies the magical shelter in the center of the main room, and glances back over to same point as before. Bach blinks to awareness, tilts his attention to Sotalia, and softly inquires. “You okay? I feel your hand shaking.”

Flitting her golden eyes wide, a few locks of fiery orange, wavy hair tumble off a horn when Sotalia twists her gaze back to Bach. She strains a sharp breath through her nose, exhales a slow, quiet sigh, and sneaks a whisper. “Kind of. Precella has been staring me down for the past few minutes. We fought A LOT. So...”

Bach nods his understanding, and speaks quietly out the corner of his mouth. “I mean, I can stick near you if you want?”

Sotalia pats Bach on the back, smirks warmly, and briefly grits her teeth. “I appreciate the offer. But, if I can’t have a simple conversation at this point, then I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.”

With a parting squeeze of the shoulder, Sotalia stands up slowly, summons up her composure with a deep breath, and faces towards the emin woman with a scar across her face. She meets the silver on black glower of the woman with aged familiarity, stands still for seconds, and steps through a swell of fear. Approaching the woman leaning against the wall, Sotalia fights to maintain a neutral expression on her face, and stops nearby. Struggling against the constant eye contact, Sotalia musters her resolve, and bows slightly. “Hello, Precella. I hope you’ve been well...”

Precella quirks her brow with genuine surprise, tilts her head of very long, tied back silver hair, and contorts her light silvery blue face incredulously. “By the gods, I think you really have fucking changed. I was expecting you to call me a bitch in five languages I’ve never heard of and spit at me for staring at you like that.”

Sotalia blinks her golden eyes blankly, puzzles a moment, and stumbles to an answer. “Uh, yes. I, um, huh... I really did mean what I wrote to you, if you read it. It was a long time ago, and I’ve had a lot of life lessons since. I didn’t think any of you would believe me so... Um...”

Resting her hands on her hips, Precella straightens up her athletic figure, and cocks her head to the side. “Gods damned right I didn’t believe that letter of yours. Initially. Hell, I didn’t fully believe it was possible until you blacked out at the sight of Cass. It’s really fucking weird seeing you with remorse and guilt.”

Drawing a long breath, Sotalia grits her teeth, nods, and sighs. “It’s been strange dealing with it. I’m pretty fucking awful at it. But, if I can hold a normal conversation with you, maybe I’ve got a chance.”

Precella snorts out a chuckle, shakes her head, and narrows her silver on black eyes. “Ah, so I’m your biggest challenge then? Well, I guess I should feel gods damned honored.”

A sly smirk emerges from the corner of her mouth, and she drums her long, black nailed fingers on her hips. “So, who in this group are you fucking?”

Sotalia crosses her arms defensively, uneasily pauses, and sighs with a long roll of her eyes. “Really? Okay. Listen, I’ve honestly changed. You said it yourself.”

Precella laughs with an ill-humored grin, and lifts an inquisitive brow. “Changed. Not mutated into another kind of life form.”

Closing her eyes, Sotalia breathes deeply and reopens her eyes with a long sigh. “It didn’t happen all at once.”

Nodding in agreement, Precella studies Sotalia's expression and body language, and softens her stare. “Yeah. That it did. Huh... I'll be damned.”

The two gaze at each other in relative quiet for a minute. Seconds later, Sotalia darts her gaze around the vicinity and tenses her posture. Precella searches the area and inquires. “Wait, are you feeling something, too?”

Sotalia nods quickly, and checks around the large main room. “Yeah. I don’t know what though.”

A looming silence swells into the space and the eerie pressure seizes everyone’s attention. Sebastian phases down from the ceiling wide eyed, and points to the shelter. Bach rushes over to the magical geometric dome, and flows energy into the construct. As the doors of the golden bowl open, everyone scrambles inside. The doors close under Bach’s control. Sotalia quickly gestures out an incantation and field expands upon the interior walls of the golden barrier. The two teams reside under the magical shell for minutes in the eerie, dead silence, and tension fades to confusion.

After a few exchanges of awkward shrugs and bewildered stares, a loud boom resonates into entire area, as a prismatic wave washes over geometric, magic dome. A very low, warping groan from the world above passes through the walls, and sharply rushes to chaotic roar. The constant harsh white noise seeps through the protective layers and floods out all other sounds. Dirt rattles across the floor, large fleck of debris rain down from the ceiling, and clouds of dust fume from the braced exterior door. The intensity of the cacophony wanes in cascading waves until final drop to silence. As usual background noises rise back, digital alerts chirp out from aetherphones, radios, and the holoplayer. A transcribed message from a data broadcast appears on the holographic projection and a voice crackles through radio. “Surge over. Surge over. Surge over. Upwards eruption was detected.”

Thunder rolls over outside, and the wavering drone of heavy rain emanates into the background noise of the small concrete room. Aristespha snores as she slumbers upon a wall mounted cot, and mumbles incoherently. On the other side of the room, Sotalia’s golden eyes blink with the soft rumble of storm outside, and she sighs while staring at the concrete ceiling above. Aimlessly drifting her gaze between the dim blue-white light of magic orbs around the room, she rubs her face and groans quietly. Pulling off the blanket, she quietly sits up on the cot, steps softly to the archway leading into the main room, and peers out. Omaron studiously flips through a stack of paperwork and writes out detailed notes. He rests his dark brown eyes upon the faint warm glow of a small magical construct, and holds his open hands close. Sotalia grimaces, squirms uncomfortably, and sighs. Summoning up her will, she breathes deeply, and slowly approaches.

Omaron notices Sotalia walking closer, grants a friendly nod, and pleasant smile. “Couldn’t sleep either?”

Halting briefly, Sotalia frowns lightly and grits her teeth. “Yes. Still too riled up from today. It’s been a lot.”

With an understanding smile, Omaron gestures to a spot on the floor near him and motions towards the solidified flow formed around a large battery cell. “You’re welcome to sit down. I’ve been enjoying the heater that Bach crafted. Pretty handy guy to have around.”

A slight smirk grows from the corner of Sotalia’s mouth, and she settles down on a blanket on the concrete floor. “That he is.”

After a few moments of silence, she perks her brow and awkwardly smiles with a reserved, humored tone. “Not thinking of trying to recruit him from our team?”

Omaron snorts lightly, shakes his head, and chuckles. “Don’t know if I could afford him. Plus, everyone likes the pay splits as they are.”

Sotalia pulls up her legs, warps her arms around her knees, and stares at the pulsing glow of the magitech heater. Biting her lip uncomfortably, she draws in a long breath, and gazes at Omaron with genuine remorse. “Since, this opportunity has come up... I want to apologize to you. For... Well everything I did and was... I’m really sorry.”

Nodding his head of short, curly black hair, Omaron replies with calm, intrigued tone. “I do appreciate hearing that from you. Maybe a little unnecessary given how detailed your letter was. But, it makes those words feel more honest now. We didn't quite know what to make of them at first.”

Dropping her head down, Sotalia cringes and squirms slightly. “Gods, that was just a rambling mess. I didn’t know how, or if, you could write anything that would start to make up for all the shit I was responsible for.”

Omaron chuckles, shakes his head, and rests the packet of papers in his lap off to the side. “To be honest, I don’t think anything written could. But... It helped. Really gave me some reassurance that leaving you behind wasn’t the worst decision I have ever made. Just so you know, that still was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Sotalia strains a breath through her nose, twists her mouth, and averts her gaze away as she fights embarrassment. “You all should have done it sooner. I was a lost cause back then. Too stupid to realize what I was doing. Ditching me was the smart and kind thing to do. It took me forever for my dumbass self realize what I had become even after that.”

Contorting his brown face, Omaron scratches his arm around an elaborate tattoo, and sighs. “Well, I held out hope that you’d come to that realization with us. It was hard to accept the raw facts and do what was needed. I mean you had your good moments and pulled your weight. But...”

Rolling her eyes at herself, Sotalia grimaces, groans regretfully, and shakes her head. “Oh gods, you were too generous. I really do appreciate it now. Just wish I could have back then. I needed something that sudden and harsh to break me. You all needed to be free of me more than anything.”

Slowly easing a smile upon her face, she gazes over to Omaron and laughs. “Anyway, all of you seem to be doing better without out me anyway. I’m happy for you all.”

Omaron blinks at Sotalia, and grows a delighted smile. “Thank you. It was hard for a while. We really missed having a power mage for a few quests. And... We missed having the rare moments of the nice and kind side of you around.”

Wiping the welling tears out of her eyes, Sotalia snorts out a soft chuckle, and shakes her head. “Oh please, those couldn’t been worth the sheer amount of bullshit I was. But... I have missed all of you, but I just couldn’t bring myself to darken your lives again when you were doing just fine without me. It just kind of got out of control in my own head after that... As you saw. It’s still taking a lot to do even this.”

Solid footsteps sound out from the shadowy perimeter of the main room, and a thin hooded figure steps out into the dim glow of the magical heater. Cassolon holds his dark tan hands up, awkwardly grins, and approaches cautiously. “Hey, don’t be alarmed. Just heard you two talking. Don’t want to accidentally scare you again.”

Sotalia concentrates a stern stare upon Cassolon as he twists the goofy expression on his dark green hinted face. After a few moments, she melts the glare into a warm smirk and sighs. “It’s fine, Cass. You deserve at least a few jump scares on me.”

Cassolon eases down in another spot around the stabilized magical flow heater, and quirks his brow. “So, talking about the past and stuff? Um, well, uh, we’re cool now. Just so you know. Shit, I didn’t mean to nearly scare you to do death and all. I was surprised when I saw you at the Perimeter market place. And then you ran off.”

Cringing visibly, Sotalia sighs and nods slowly. “Yes. I couldn’t process it then. Barely can now.”

Scratching the back of his head, Cassolon smiles and nervously chuckles. “Yeah... Well, don’t worry yourself on my account. I think you seem different now. I mean, you don’t feel like the same Sotalia as before... Does that make sense? I’m still garbage at words and talking, so nothing new there. But, this feels different... Better?”

Sotalia nods and smiles humored at Cassolon. “I understand. And, thank you. You still deserve a proper apology. So, I’m sorry, Cass. Really.”

She rolls her eyes at herself, sighs deeply, and shakes her head of fiery orange, wavy hair. “Gods, I bet you all went for the exact opposite of me when you got your replacement. Why take any chances, right?”

Omaron snorts and Cassolon tightly smiles as he darts his gaze away. Sotalia tilts her head curiously to the side and searches for an explanation between the two. Omaron meets Sotalia’s gaze, and grits his teeth with a chuckle. “We did initially. But... Turns out our group has type when it comes to power mages. It just meshes better with us when they’re bold and competitive to a fault. Don’t get us wrong, Brianna is nice and a pleasure to work with.”

Cassolon grumbles to himself and crosses his arms petulantly. Omaron grins widely, and lifts an amused brow to Sotalia. “But, be ready for a vicious fight when there’s a card game on the table.”

Shrugging up his shoulders, Cassolon narrows a pleading, frustrated glance to Omaron. “It’s such fucking bullshit. She has a red blue deck that’s full of rares she’s must of blackmailed the developers out of at some point. You just don’t find all of those and put them in one deck. It’s obscene, disgusting, and an abject sin against the gods.”

Sotalia blinks at the childish irritation on Cassolon’s face, smiles reminiscently, and lifts an intrigued brow towards Omaron. “I’ve been warned about his game I think.”

Omaron slowly nods, and groans. “You have no idea.”

Light clouds drift slowly across the clear, late morning sky, and gentle wind rustles the leaves of trees surrounding the clearing encircling the surge shelter tower. Bach drops prone upon the gravel, blinks his eyes to glowing blue, and carefully searches underneath the humvee. Wagging her long tail, Cideeda kneels nearby, angles her curious gaze, and flicks her furry ears against the wind. “See any weird magic under there?”

Crawling further under the humvee, Bach scans around, shrugs his shoulders, and direct his voice back. “Nothing I can see. Looks clean.”

Swiftly, Cideeda lays on her back on the ground next to Bach, slips her clawed fingers around a vehicle support bar, and slides herself underneath. Her emerald green eyes dart between key points, and she methodically inspects the suspension and plating. “Good... Doesn’t look like anything is immediately wrong mechanically. And, the plating is intact. So, we should be good to roll if everything starts up.”

Nearby Brianna quickly gestures out an incantation, flicks her finger towards a warping mass of energy meters away, and releases a prismatic blast. The flow sprays upon the strange anomaly and the entity diminishes in size slowly. Sotalia steps up curiously next to the woman, observes her work, and crosses her arms. “Might have to give it a little more. I’ve run into a few that didn’t dissipate completely.”

Turning her head of very long blonde hair to face Sotalia, Brianna smirks. With a twist her hand, flows of magic surge and zip down the stream. Upon impact, the energy bursts inside the anomaly and pops it into a faint miasma. Sotalia cracks smile at the display, and lifts her examining brow. “Nicely done. Use the stream as a conduit to contain the surge until contact.”

Brianna nods, rests her hands at her hips, and shifts her weight. “Indeed. The force of the stream sometimes pushes into these things, and creates a nice pocket for a blast.”

Sotalia ponders a moment, lift an intrigued brow, and tilts her head. “So, you lean towards the elemental spells?”

An amused smile appears on Brianna’s face, and she laughs. “Oh, certainly. From what I heard, so do you.”

Grimacing briefly, Sotalia sighs with a quick roll of her eyes into a proud grin. “Well, my past behavior aside, I still think myself quite capable. And as cliché as it sounds, I am very partial to fire and ice combos.”

Pulling a humored grin across her light tan face, Brianna idly plays with the end of an elaborate braid, and sways her hips. “Oh, don’t feel bad. I love the thermal spells, but I rarely get a good chance to use them.”

Sotalia sighs and nods understandingly. “Inside ruins and ancient tunnels a lot?”

Brianna rolls her bright yellow eyes, and twists her mouth. “Gods, I wish it was just that. I always have to keep a watch out for Cassolon sneaking around right into the blast area.”

Gritting her teeth as old memories rise to the front of her mind, Sotalia groans lightly and glances over to Brianna. “Some things don’t change. I ended up having to whistle loud and point before I used any energy bombs. I got him trained decently.”

Brianna nods as she ponders and hums thoughtfully. “I’ll have to try that. We’ve been checking out old ruins in the area, so I’ve been sticking to electric and photon spells.”

Rolling her golden eyes, Sotalia sighs in commiseration and shakes her head. “Always hate running into things down in old tunnels. SO limiting.”

Across the clearing, Omaron hoists up a large branch off large truck with a covered bed, and tosses it off to the side. He rubs a smudge of bark grime off the surface of the hood, and shrugs his shoulders at the vehicle. “Looks like it’s intact.”

He turns to Sebastian and Aristespha, bows slightly, and smiles. “Well, despite some awkward history coming up, I’m glad we ran into all of you. It was reassuring to have the extra magic and good company. Hope the rest of the your trek to Precipice is... really, really uneventful.”

Sebastian’s visage laughs ethereally, and nods in complete agreement. “Gods, that’d be nice. Hope you can wrap up your mission the same.”

Omaron shakes his head, and groans. “Yeah. I mean, it’s nothing hard. We’ve just had to be so exhaustive in our inspections and searches. It just takes so long to properly clear these ruins, and we have to be really careful being in the zone, too.”

He pauses a moment, looks to both Sebastian and Aristespha, and twists his mouth. “If you all could do me a favor, if you find a group of people hauling a bunch of old equipment around here... Let me know.”

Sebastian blinks, nods, and cocks his head. “Sure. Any particular reason?”

Omaron crosses his muscular arms, and ponders out loud a moment. “Well, we’ve been sent out to inspect a bunch of abandoned military facilities in the area. A bunch of zone runners reported strange activity in a few of them and signs of odd people moving around. In most of the places we checked, it looks like they’ve been cleaned out. Recently cleaned out. I mean they unbolted things to strip them out of the places. Not the typical scavenger operation either.”

Narrowing her stare at her tablet, Aristespha shifts her attention to Omaron and inquires further. “That requires some significant effort to perform. Were you able to track down where they went?”

With an uncertain frown, Omaron grumbles and shakes his head. “Somewhat. Tracking is a bit hard in the zone, but the trails we followed always lead to the water ways. It’s really weird.”

Sebastian searches his own mind for a moment, frowns, and agrees. “Yeah. That’s strange. We’ll keep an eye out.”

Showing the screen of her aetherphone to Omaron, Aristespha smiles nicely, and points out relevant information. “Here’s our contact information.”

Omaron blinks a moment, remembers something, and laughs as he retrieves his phone. “Oh, right, you’ll probably need to know our info, too. Sorry. I’m still figuring out all this technology.”

Glancing around the vicinity, Sebastian quietly directs his voice to Omaron. “By the way, thanks for being understanding with Sotalia. She’s mentioned things, but never gone into detail.”

Pausing from pecking out the information on screen, Omaron glances up with a calm smile and sighs. “I’m just glad she’s come around and is with a good group. I always wondered what happened to her. So, this has given us some closure. I hope it helps her, too.”

Sebastian, Omaron, and Aristespha glance across the clearing and watch Brianna and Sotalia take turns flicking dispelling bolts at small anomalies, comparing their abilities.

Chad walks in front of the large screen television in the living room of the two-story house. Trakenthin, Tassilda, Modoran, Deedri, and Veevi sit on the sectional couches surrounding the center coffee table. Clearing his throat after surveying the camera crews at the edges of the room, Chad straightens up his posture and addresses the team. “Okay, everyone. Before the next fan meet up, we are going to do one mission. I made sure ALL of you got packets containing the information for each beforehand.”

Drawing in a long breath, he glances over the team and settles his reserved stare upon Veevi. “One the first orders of business... Is deciding whether Veevi is to be allowed back on a mission.”

Tossing her pink hair back, Veevi narrows a contemptuous glare at Chad, drags her sharp nails upon the back of the couch, and flicks her pink tail up. The rest of the team exchange a mix of expressions, shift their full attention to Veevi, and wait silently. After tense moments of quiet, Tassilda groans out her disgust and crosses her arms. “Well, we might as fucking well. At least we can keep an eye on her, and she doesn’t have free reign to wreck our rooms.”

Trakenthin darts his hazel eyes between the different recording crews, grumbles, and snarls his upper lip. “Regardless, two bad options. Take her along. She can be destructive elsewhere. Not here.”

Veevi scoffs with the roll her pink pupil eyes and perks her fuzzy ears. “See, you all are learning.”

Chad gazes to Modoran and Deedri, and sneaks a quick eye roll with a flit of smirk. Modoran scratches the back of his head of white hair, and shrugs. “Um, sure? If they don’t have an issue with it, I don’t.”

Drawing in a long breath, Deedri sighs, rests her hands on her lap, and perks up her furry, tufted ears. “We might as well give her a chance to put her energies to more productive things?”

A sly smile graces Veevi’s lips, and she nods appreciatively towards Deedri. Chad agrees in slow, dramatic motions. “Okay.”

He gazes to Veevi and announces. “Veevi, you’re back on the team for this mission. Please use this opportunity well.”

Veevi glares at Chad, twists her mouth on her tan face, and flexes her fingers. “Oh, I’ll try my best, fearless leader.”

Shifting his attention away from Veevi, Chad scans over the team and addresses the group. “For this mission vote, I’m going to abstain and let you all decide. And, we’ll do a show of hands this time.”

In the corner of the room with a camera aiming at Chad, Gerald blinks a moment, and suspicion creeps into his demeanor. Chad holds up the first packet from the coffee table and smirks dismissively. “First mission choice... Slime extermination.”

The team remains silent and unmoved. Chad nods in agreement, tosses the packet towards a garbage can, and rolls his eyes. “Yeah. I know. They keep putting one in.”

He picks up a second packet, presents it up into camera view, and quickly glances between Trakenthin and Tassilda. “Second choice... Ruin exploration for the local county.”

Trakenthin and Tassilda raise their hands. Veevi sneers her upper lip at the two, and stares expectantly over to Modoran and Deedri. Chad waits a few moments and places the document back down. “That’s two votes. So...”

He lifts up the last packet on the table and presents it. “Third choice... Escort a mystery celebrity on an adventuring themed outing.”

Modoran shrugs his shoulders and lifts his hand nonchalantly up. Deedri raises her arm up. Attention from the team and camera crews focus solely upon Veevi. Blinking in sheer bewilderment, a bright smile appears on her, and she jumps up from the couch, arm first. “YES! Finally!”

Barely containing her excitement, Veevi grins in delight and hops in place as her tail wags. “Oh gods! This going to be so much fun! Just you all wait, it’ll be amazing! I can’t wait to see who it is! Just to be adventuring with a big name!”

Chad nods to Veevi, and announces to the team. “Well, I guess it is decided. I’ll make this official.”

As the recording team focus upon Veevi’s antics, Chad glances over his shoulder to the rest of the team with the hint of a smirk and meets similar subtle expressions. Samantha snickers from the dining area, grins, and mumbles as she writes down on her clipboard. “Very good, Veevi... This is going to boost the ratings, so much...”

Gerald lowers the camera off his shoulder, glances over to Samantha, and studies the team. Narrowing his suspicions, he lifts an intrigued brow, contorts the smirk on his face, and hums in thought.

The humvee rolls to a stop in a rough parking lot near the center circle of the town. As the powerplant winds down, the door opens and the team departs. Bach, Sotalia, Dretphi, Cideeda, and Aristespha congregate upon a crude sidewalk and slowly survey the small town center. Sotalia lifts an eyebrow and crosses her arms. “So, Precipice...”

Bach shrugs his shoulders, observes locals walking about, and squints at the signage upon surrounding buildings. “Well, it’s a town. I mean, it’s civilization in the middle of the zone.”

With snort, Cideeda spots a large building and points to the Precipice Inn & Tavern. “Far better than what we’ve seen. That looks like the best place to start. And I’m hungry.”

Aristespha checks her aetherphone, scrolls through lines of text, and nods in agreement. “I believe that’s the place that Lady Rhian told us to check for Mavian.”

The team strolls along the walkway, scouting the very few attractions around the town center, and arrive at the front doors of the inn. Filtering inside from the late afternoon glow outside, they enter a large main room with a few patrons using an eclectic collection of tables and chairs. From the bar counter, Aggie smiles wide and waves to the team. “Hey there! What can I get for all of you?”

Aristespha leads the rest of the group over to the bar, and bows slightly to Aggie. “Hello. We’ve got a few things actually. Lodging and food, first.”

Surveying the team behind Aristespha, Aggie visibly contemplates, rocks her head of curly black hair side to side, and hums thoughtfully. “We’ve got a few rooms. But, dear, I’m guessing you probably want the big group room. Economical and all.”

With a gracious smile, Aristespha nods in agreement. “Exactly. We’ll take that one, and I believe we’ll probably need it for the week. Possibly longer.”

Arranging a number of glasses upon the bar top, Aggie pulls out a ledger, and opens it up. “That works for me. Makes the bookkeeping easier. Hence, I’m inclined to give a good rate for you all.”

She motions over to the tables, and scribbles out some calculations on a scratch piece of paper. “As for food, grab any table, settle in, and I’ll get you menus. Got some drink specials going, if you are interested.”

Sotalia glances between Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi, and presents an eager grin to Aggie. “Oh, I think we’d be interested. It’s been a trying few days.”

Bach grits his teeth, hisses out a sigh, and nods. “Yeah... That surge was not fun.”

A tired groan slips out from Dretphi, and her shoulders slump slightly. “Beer. Food. Bed. A good way to end today.”

Lifting a curious eyebrow, Aggie cocks her head to side, and twist her mouth with hints of concern. “Gods, don’t tell me you were caught up in that mess.”

Cideeda smirks and shakes her head. “Caught up? Hell, we were underneath it in a shelter when it erupted. Spent last night waiting for it go away, then the storm afterwards.”

Resting her hands on her hips, Aggie grimaces uncomfortably and sighs uneasily. “Gods, well I’m glad Mavian called that one in when he did.”

The team’s attention piques. Aristespha directs her focus upon Aggie, and inquires. “Is Mavian around? We actually are here to talk to him.”

Aggie quirks her brow, cracks a smirk, and shakes her head. “Not at the moment. He should be back in a few days. But, I might be able to encourage him to pick up the pace, if he’s got business waiting for him. He should be getting done guiding his latest client.”

An awkward wave of tension radiates through the team. Aristespha cautiously broaches the subject, and nicely asks with smile. “Oh... Good. I hope his current job goes smoothly.”

With a snort, Aggie rolls her eyes and laughs. “Oh, it’ll probably go better than most his jobs. He was just helping a nice man find a missing friend. I do hope he stops back on by.”

From the kitchen, Elissia’s voice calls out. “Are you talking about Isaac?”

Aggie turns around and calls back. “Yes. It was nice having someone academic minded around here.”

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia blink blankly at the same time and remain quiet. Sebastian’s muted ethereal tone emanates from the sword at Aristespha’s side. “Shit.”

In the late afternoon glow, Isaac and Mavian stand before a large stone structure. Mavian glances over to Isaac, and crosses his arms. “This is the closest thing I know around here that matches what you described.”

Isaac’s gray eyes widen as he spots unique markings, and he pauses to study the odd structures nearby. After scanning the area, he starts walking closer to the ancient building and nods his head. “I think this is IT. The designs and architecture... just fits...”

Mavian twists his mouth, follows behind Isaac, and blinks his faintly glowing green eyes. “Okay. Don’t get your hopes up too much. A lot of these things often look very similar-”

Halting in place, he squints is eyes, flits them wide in recognition, and points over to a location. “Well. This has to be it. Look.”

Isaac traces Mavian’s point, and stares at the spot underneath a rock overhang. A gust of wind flows through and ruffles layers of carefully arranged camouflage mesh concealing a parked hover truck. Mavian glances over to Isaac, and shrugs his shoulders. “Meets the descriptions I’ve heard from other runners. So, I think that’s confirmation enough.”

A delighted smile grows on Isaac’s face, and he picks up his pace towards a large entry archway. As Isaac examines the elaborate detail work, he notices the glow of artificial lighting from work lamps further inside. He turns around and notices Mavian leaning against an aged wall patiently. “Well, would you join me inside?”

Mavian smiles and shakes his head respectfully. “I’ll have to pass. I try to stay out of other people’s business as much as possible, when it’s not related to what I need to do. But, I appreciate it.”

Glancing up to the darkening skies, Isaac politely offers. “It’s getting dark. I certainly wouldn’t want to put you out, and I am sure my colleague wouldn’t either.”

Standing up straight, Mavian grins proudly and shrugs his shoulders. “Ah, it doesn’t bother me. I appreciate the gesture. I’ve got plenty of tricks when I’m by myself out here.”

He gestures towards the archway. “You should probably check to see if you friend is in there. Once you know, let me know and I start heading on back to Precipice.”

Isaac nods understandingly, pivots around, and walks into the building. Navigating through old architecture, Isaac recognizes different markings on the walls, chalk notes scribbles near points of interest, and warning marks. He follows a long chain of electrical lines joining the gaps between work lamps, exploration equipment, and survival supplies. Passing through a long established camp site in a large room, a faint, distant voice seizes Isaac’s full attention. Quickly rushing down a long corridor to a dim glow, he reaches end and steps into a massive, vast chamber. In a stupor, he gawks at massive pillars of interwoven magic and technology, elaborate crystalline arrangements, intricate flow conduits, and gigantic machinery incorporating untold components. His attention snaps towards the center of the area upon a large circular platform, and he watches a tall man with tied back stark white hair step around with a notepad in hand scribbling notes.

A genuine smile of joy appears on Isaac face, and he walks towards the man. “Dr. Malkav!”

Dr. Malkav halts in place, blinks back to awareness, and slowly lifts his head up. Searching around the room, he snaps his focus upon Isaac. His blue eyes widen in a mix of recognition and sheer surprise. Cocking his head to the side, Dr. Malkav gawks utterly bewildered at Isaac. “Oh my hell...”