Episode 4

The ancient military machine rolls down the two lane highway, falling in line with other traffic approaching the thickening civilization surrounding. The powerplant within the humvee settles to faint, constant background whine, and the vehicle coasts down the gentle curves bordered by thinning forests and thickening stretches of residential. The road widens to four lanes right before long rows of small business fences in the highway. Sebastian floats within the middle aisle of the cab inside the humvee. "Okay, everyone. Here's the plan. Aristespha, you got medical supplies and digging for any kind of info about the ruins in the area."

Flipping through a menu on her tablet, Aristespha taps in a few entries on a checklist and nods. "Any problems with the self-adhesive bandages or the quick patch spray I got the last time?"

Dretphi shakes her head. Sotalia points to Cideeda across from her in the driver's seat, and Cideeda shrugs indifferently. Sotalia twists around in the front passenger's seat and leans out to look at Aristespha. "We're good here."

Aristespha jots down notes into the tablet with her pen stylus. Sebastian turns to Dretphi sitting in her backseat. "Dretphi, stock up on food and expendable gear. Since we'll probably be back doing ruin exploration, if you find a good deal on decent spotlights, grab a few please."

Confirming silently as her eyes focus on her aetherphone, Dretphi types out a list. Glancing up through the rearview mirror, Cideeda waves down the aisle for Dretphi's attention. "Hey, if you find any more of that jerky in the yellow and green bag, get me a few packs."

After a quick thumbs up back to Cideeda, Dretphi returns to her growing phone notes. Shifting his attention to Sotalia, Sebastian furrows his brow in thought. "Sotalia, you know what magical stuff you need to get. But, keep an eye out for any more of those disposal magic detector sticks. Also, check to see if there's any places with Aristespha for local history. If we're going down into the ruins nearby, I wouldn't mind knowing about any local legends or tales... That could turn out to have some truth to them."

Sotalia peeks back into the aisle and settles her golden eyed gaze at Aristespha. "Girl, you hitting the pharmacy first?"

Aristespha meets Sotalia's inquiring look and deftly dances her ivory fingers upon the tablet. "Yes, I hope there isn't too much of a line. Let me message you my list of magical supplies I need, real quick... There, sent it."

Checking her aetherphone, Sotalia settles back into her seat. "Got it. Message me when you get done, and we'll figure what places to check out. There might be a local history section in some bookstore around here."

Confirming nods, she pulls back stray locks of silvery blue over her very long, pointed ear. Sebastian shifts his attention to Cideeda. "Cideeda. Ammo, tech toys, selling of loot, and some updated reading material? Hmm. Anything I'm missing?"

Shaking her head, Cideeda keeps her eyes on the road and smirks confidently. "Nothing that I can think of. I'll message Aristespha if I think of anything, unless that sword has figured out how to use the AetherNet."

Sebastian perks a brow and angles a cold glare at the sheathed sword in the aisle next to Aristespha. "No. Turns out a few hundred year old relic isn't keen on keeping with the times. Not much of a conversationalist either anymore, since I moved in."

Finally turning to Bach, he smiles eagerly. "As for you Bach, I figured you could tag along with Cideeda and-"

He lowers his head forward and stares intensely at the old flip aetherphone within Bach's hands. A reflexive laugh slips out of Sebastian, he squelches to a snort. "Holy shit! And get you a new phone! Speaking of a fucking relic, is that the same one you had in school?"

Defensively darting his head around, Bach quickly follows the new attention towards his old phone. "Y-Yes. What about it?! It still works just fine! I mean, I just need it to make calls."

Sebastian raises his hands up diplomatically and seeks to calm Bach. "Hey, now... No judging here. But, I'm totally gonna hook you up, bro. Cideeda, can you get this man a proper phone?"

Cideeda momentarily flicks her eyes into the rear-view mirror and dons a toothy grin. "Will do! I saw one or two places that should carry decent phones. We'll check them out and see what we can find."

Spinning completely around in her seat, Sotalia's golden eyes peeks over the head rest. Her eyes flit wide at the target, and she smirks slyly. Her hand whips out, and her black, long nailed fingers snatch up the phone right out of Bach's grasp. "Ooo! Let me see!"

Bach blinks at the sudden loss of his phone and tries to reach around the front seat after it. Sotalia slaps a hand underneath her seat and pulls a bar up. The seat slides forward out of range of Bach's effective arm reach. She grins excitedly at the device and swiftly taps familiar sequences of buttons. "I haven't seen one of these since graduate school! Oh! Does it have any of the good games on it? I used to be a total master of the snake game."

Approaching for a grand rescue attempt, Bach's blue eyes judge the uncomfortable proximity of the tips of Sotalia's swept back horns. Bach settles back into his seat in defeat and crosses his arms with a frown. "I'd like my phone back, please."

Sotalia playfully sighs and rolls her golden eyes. "Okay. Here you go."

Holding the old phone over the back of the seat, Sotalia tosses back her dark red hair and waits. Bach snatches back his phone, flips it open, and inspects it suspiciously. Sotalia pulls the bar underneath her seat again and attempts to slide the seat back. The seat slides only a few centimeters and far short of its original position. Struggling within the tight, cramped confines, Sotalia strains against an immobilizing force. Watching the scene, Dretphi sneaks a smile out the corner of her mouth. Sebastian glances upon the cab floor and finds Bach's boot blocking the seat slide tracks. While Sotalia squirms uncomfortably in the narrow space between her and the dash, Bach holds a finger up to the rest of the intrigued team and searches through phone menus. "One moment, I'm just making sure she didn't do anything to it..."

Sotalia crooks her head around the seat, spots the blockade, and traces it back to Bach. With a faint grumble, she stretches back for a deep breath. "I didn't do anything to it! Really! Can I have some knee room now... Please?"

Flipping the phone closed, Bach lifts his boot back. The seat slides back swiftly and hits the limit of the track. Sotalia flops onto the back of the seat and blinks in surprise. Combing back her hair over her swept back, black horns, she collects herself and enjoys the space from the front dash with new relief. Aristespha points to Bach with her eyes trained on the tablet. Her arm unknowingly goes through Sebastian, and he cringes uncomfortably at the intrusion. Aristespha furrows her brow at information on the screen. "Sebastian, we need to get Bach officially registered with our group and fill out some more paperwork."

Hovering to the side and clear of Aristespha's arm, Sebastian thinks for a moment. "Let's see... Okay. After we are all done, we'll all meet at the local guild office. Sounds good, everyone?"

The gathering agrees in their own ways, as a familiar large sign for Amaranth Valley comes into view on the side of the road.

Around a busy parking lot, people stroll between the different storefronts surrounding the perimeter of the huge space. Colorful signage blending tech and magic decorates the different businesses in the open air mall, and townspeople peer inside the display windows to peek at the latest deals and activities happening inside. The door of "Aether Innovations'' opens. Cideeda steps out with a satisfied smile and holds the door from closing. After a few seconds, Bach walks through the doorway, slides the plastic bag around his arm, and pokes at a new aetherphone. He furrows his brow completely perplexed and eyes Cideeda with an awkward grimace. "Okay... So, how do you make call with this thing?"

With a humored snort, Cideeda pops up on the balls of her feet within toed shoes, and points a claw tip at the aetherphone screen. "The phone icon. Right there."

Rolling his blue eyes at himself, Bach grumbles and sighs. "Thank you."

Settling back upon her feet with an amused sway in her stance, Cideeda quirks her brow and eyes Bach with a grin. "A man who can weave together technology and magic in ways that astound me and freak-out our mages... Undone by a phone."

Following Cideeda when she walks down the sidewalk, Bach continues to navigate through the new menus, icons, and screens. "Hey! It's a massive increase in complexity to a device that didn't require much from me... But, I'll admit, having the expanded band two-way radio is nice."

Cideeda nods with a wag of her tail and squeezes her phone into a brand new case. "It costs extra, but it's a good feature for our line of work. We'll have to mod it up with the extended frequency chips I got from..."

A sly, toothy grin widens on her light brow face, and Cideeda's emerald green eyes glint against the shadowy context. "The Usual Sources."

Averting an uncertain gaze away, Bach slips the phone into his side pocket and glances between the advertising signs of the stores nearby. "Well, sounds good to me. So... Where to next?"

Cideeda flicks a point towards a game shop, eagerly struts down the path, and pats the satchel at her side. "There! I need to pick up some reading material. And, I might be able to sell one of the early era chests there."

Bach tags along behind as Cideeda strides to the double doors between front windows plastered with board, tabletop, and war game posters. Both enter the store on either side of the entryway. A brilliant assortment of entertainment vices for the Nexus nerd, geek, or dork litters the large area. Boxes of comic books upon tables fill a few aisles. Board games and books overload tall shelves along the wall that narrowly fit under the aged drop ceiling tiles. A long display counter showcases choice cards, miniatures, and dice. Regulars congregate in the chairs around open tables bouncing between playing games and discussing the latest episodes of shows. A few grant a momentary peek at the door, and promptly return to their activities. Bach scans over the chaotic expo of entertainment, stops, and angles his confusion down to Cideeda. "Huh... Why are we in a game shop? I mean, not that I wouldn't mind grabbing the latest issue of Tales of Orion, but..."

Smiling, Cideeda points to Bach and leads as they navigate the store. "You have your brother to thank. Sebastian recruited me right out of a comic book shop. I was between groups and decided to catch up on the issues of Tinkering Tina I missed."

Bach blinks in thought, and twists of mild disgust color his face when memories bubble to the front of his mind. "Gods... He tried to flirt with you, didn't he?"

Cideeda rolls her green eyes and giggles. "Oh, pitifully so. But, I humored him. Found out he needed a technical expert, and I got with the group. So, I can't complain about getting a steady enough job."

Lowering his head shaking, Bach sighs. After a moment, he puzzles at Cideeda. "What about the comic books?"

Cideeda gingerly flips through wrapped comics in a box and judges her position in the collection. "Come to find out, two comic book geeks are enough for it to be contagious to others in a group. Also, comic books are perfect for down time when you are too far from the Aethernet relays, and you have a few hours of night watch to kill."

Rocking his head side to side, Bach mull over the idea to an agreement. "Makes enough sense to me. I'm going to look at the miniatures they have."

Cideeda pauses with a perk of her furry ear and catches Bach's attention before he wanders off too far. "Wargaming or RPGs?"

Waving an indifferent gesture with his hand, Bach shrugs his shoulders. "A little bit of both? But, I really got interested in miniatures when I figured out how to morph the metal and plastic into custom poses for people. I got paid a lot for custom figures back in school."

A spark of intrigue lights up Cideeda's eyes, and an intrigue smile forms as her thoughts deepen. Bach makes his way to the display and kneels down to examine the assortment of miniatures through the glass. From above the counter, a frustrated voice mumbles out from the other end. "Dammit... Still doesn't work... Why won't it work? I read all the instructions."

Peering over the counter, Bach watches the shopkeeper concentrate his frustration to stare a hole through a paperback book. The large, round man keeps his fists on his sides and frowns, quietly muttering to himself. Bach stands up and casually drifts towards the register, while sneaking a peek at the book. Magical symbols adorn the page with scattered instructions at the top and bottom where space permits. Recognizing the type of discount text, Bach grits his teeth and curls his lip in disgust. He narrows his blue eyes at the contents apprehensively, and visibly lowers his expectations. The shopkeeper puts his hands on either side of the page and concentrates. Furrowing his brow, Bach stiffens his posture and studies the effort from the large man. As the seconds pass, he refines his suspicions to the markings on the book's page and cocks his head intrigued. Following his curiosity, he slides up next to the register across from the shopkeeper. In a lull of focus upon the book, the shopkeeper notices Bach, double-takes, and startles slightly. "Oh! Hello. Welcome to Amaranth's Wrath Game Emporium! The name is Steve. So, um... Can I help you?"

Bach makes eye contact with Steve and twirls his finger down at the book. "You have the ink bottle that came with this?"

Searching either side of him, Steve spots a bottle sitting on the shelf underneath the counter. He fetches the bottle and curiously eyes Bach. "Here it is. Um... Are you magically inclined?"

Bach holds his hands up and shrugs with a nonchalant smirk. "Well, somewhat. I'm kinda getting back into it lately."

Steve happily grins at Bach and respectfully pleads with a slight bow towards the materials upon the counter. "Man, I don't want to bother you, but if you can share any tips, I'd really appreciate it. I've been trying every book around. And nothing seems to work. I feel it flowing through me. But, damn... Nothing seems to happen. I don't know what I'm doing wrong."

Bach holds his hand out for the bottle and Steve passes it over. Twisting the cap off, Bach wafts the bottle underneath his nose, then seals the top with a finger. After briefly turning the bottle upside down, he lifts the finger and licks it. Steve blinks stunned and cocks his head confused. Bach furrows his brow and groans with a sneer of his upper lip. "Yep. This mix is pretty watered down. If it's the same stuff they use to print that page, unless you know how to brute force a lot of magical flow already... It's not going to work. You got any salt and... A lime, maybe?"

Steve arrives back to awareness and pivots around hunting. He plucks a salt packet from a fast food bag. Leaning over to a small mini-fridge behind the counter, he opens the door to reveal canned sugary drinks and a lone, lime-shaped plastic bottle of juice. "Will lime juice work?"

Bach nods, cracks open the paper salt packet, and dumps the contents into the ink bottle. Steve holds out the plastic lime juice bottle and Bach grabs it. With a flip the cap, Bach squirts a healthy amount inside with the dissolving salt. "Okay. Cap that bottle with your finger. Shake it a few times, and hold your finger out. We'll test to see if the rest of the mix is still good."

Following Bach's instructions, Steve perks a quizzical eyebrow. "So, what's all this supposed to do?"

Bach points at the container towards the sloshing dark concoction inside. "Recharge the mix. The watering down messes with the electrolyte mix, and the pH often gets screwed up during bottling. The cheap reagent they use is really picky about the solution it's in."

Steve stops shaking the bottle, places it down, and holds out his ink spotted finger. Bach stares at Steve with an instructing tone. "Okay. Now, I want you to concentrate and direct your flow to that point on your finger. If the mix is good, it'll glow."

Steve nods, closes his eyes, and summons a deep focusing breath. Bach narrows a studious gaze down and attentively watches the spot on Steve's finger dimly glow orange. "Steve. You're forcing it too much. Don't listen to what those guides on the Aethernet said. Calmly guide it. Take your time to think clearly about it."

The faint light shines brighter with each passing moment. Faint shadows form out behind action figures posed on the countertop and contrast the orange tint swelling out. The ambient conversations among the tables lower, and the regulars observe with growing interest. Bach smiles confidently and side steps out of the way. "Steve. Open your eyes."

Apprehensively opening his eyes, Steve tips his head down into a gaze of his finger. His eyes widen as he processes in stunned silence at the bright light upon his digit. The awe overtakes him as ear to ear smile grows. Bach snaps his fingers and points at the orange sheen. "Now THAT is a good sign. So, you want to fix this page right with your recharged ink?"

Steve slowly raises his head to Bach with sheer determination in his eyes. "Fuck. Yes. I do."

A small gathering of regulars surround the counter watching Steve's progress. After an important lesson on arcane dynamics, Bach instructs Steve with the application and motions to the symbols on the page. "Now... Trace those last outlines and put some curve on those sharp corners. They do that to save on ink, but with the poor print quality it really does a number to the energy flow."

Steve hovers his head over the page with an attentive eye and carefully applies new ink to the page. Standing back up after finishing the last flowing line, Steve waits expectantly. Bach examines the page closely and crosses his arms with a smile. "Alright. Give it a shot. Only way to know now."

Steve places his hands down on the sides of the page and takes a deep breath. His eyes narrow intensely upon the arcane symbols darkened by fresh ink. A flow of ethereal orange glow travels along the marked paths on the page. Reaching the center, the energy condenses and forms a simple rotating cube. The illusion floats up to a fixed point above the book and hovers in place. Steve slowly removes his hands from the page, and the cube exists for seconds before dissipating away. Awe quiets the crowd. Cheers for Steve break the silence.

"I got it on video, Steve! Fucking awesome, dude!"

"Holy shit, you finally did it!"

"It looked better than how-to videos on the Aethernet!"

Steve slides a stool behind him and plops down. Disbelief and wonder mix upon his face, and he blinks between moments of thought. He places his hands to the sides of his head. "Wow. I... I... I don't know what to say. I've been trying all these months and all these guides and... I did it."

He settles his attention upon Bach. "You... Man. Thank you. I don't know how to pay you back."

Putting his hands in his pants pockets, Bach shrugs his shoulders and acts nonchalant. "Don't worry about it. I've kinda been there before. Know how it feels."

Steve pats his legs and stands up in triumph. "I got it! Your next few visits, including this one... Twenty-five percent discount on purchases."

Astonishment radiates through the gathered crowd, and pockets of discussion bounce between those wrestling the notion in utter disbelief. In comic book aisles, a pair of perked furry ears above the shorter shelves flick before dipping swiftly. Bach bashfully chuckles and scratches the back of his head of shorter brown hair. "It seems like quite the honor. I'll have to find something to-"

A voice chimes cheerfully out beside Bach. "Sweetie, there were a lot of issues we didn't have. Would it be okay if we got them all?"

Bach's expression struggles to stay unchanged, and his body tenses in surprise. Moments of sheer bewilderment slip through the cracks of the facade. Bach's blue eyes dart around as his mind and frantically sort through the sudden change in the situation. The voice sounds familiar, but the cadence does not match. Claw tipped hands plop a large stack of comic books, graphic novels, and other media onto the counter. Smaller arms wrap around Bach's arm, and a short figure playfully leans on him. Donning a calm exterior, Bach follows a path down his arm and spots Cideeda acting sweetly affectionate. A chaotic blend of confusion, frustration, embarrassment, and indignation swirl through Bach's expression, and he aims a searching stare right at Cideeda. Discreetly revealing the screen of her aetherphone, Cideeda winks cutely to Bach, an entrepreneurial grin just beneath the surface, and lightly presses a hand of five claw tips into his forearm. Bach silently reads the note on the screen. "25% discount!!! Play along! PLEASE!!!"

In the moment, a stir from the back of Bach's brain refocuses his blue eyed gaze. A surge of confidence rises from sunken depths and solidifies his facade. As memory and old skills reemerge, a suave presence overlays upon Bach exterior. Tempering the act with a humble air, Bach dons a smile and endearingly addresses Cideeda. "Well, I don't know, dear. I wouldn't want to impose too much upon Steve's generosity, now."

Steve bounces his gaze between Bach and Cideeda and arrives at a conclusion. "Oh! No, man! It's completely cool! It's no problem at all! I thought I wasted my money on all those magic workbooks. But with what you taught me, it's going to be an absolute trip going back over those and practicing inking all those tweaks in. You've totally got me my money's worth back."

Shrugging nonchalantly, Bach glances at Cideeda with a smirk. "Well, if he has no objections, I have none for you, dear."

With an energetic wag of her long, fluffy tail, Cideeda smiles softly and perks her furry ears happily. Glancing around at the customers in the area, she reaches into the satchel at her side and inquires. "Steve, question. Would you know of anyone who would be interested in one of these?"

Cideeda presents Bach's holoplayer, presses an option on the holographic menu, and projects the hologram of an early era chest. Steve and other regulars study the imagery. Stroking his chin with great interest, Steve narrows his intrigued stare upon Cideeda. "That does look genuine. Does it have a working lock and key?"

Tugging lightly on Bach's arm, Cideeda reveals a toothy grin and entrepreneurial spark in her emerald eyes. "A working lock and maybe a key. If keys aren't that much different than miniatures. Are they, sweetie?"

Bach musters a smile with a brief twitch in the eye. "We'll find out, won't we?"

A relevant quiet drifts through the huge open space and over the rows upon rows of bookshelves within the large book store. Murmurs of conversation wane over the distance around the corner coffee cafe and the surrounding tables. People wander down the aisles and follow their interests between spotting the covers of books and inspecting the first pages. At the glass window front of the store, large automated doors of slide open to let the raw daylight in with a spring breeze. As the two walk in, Cideeda pats Bach on the back with a triumphant grin. "Come on! That was pretty good on the spot acting you did back there."

Bach rolls his eyes and grumbles as puts his hands in his pockets. "I've had plenty of practice getting out of awkward situations. Thanks to Sebastian. I didn't think I'd need to use that to con someone to give you a discount."

Twisting her mouth incredulously, Cideeda raises an eyebrow at Bach and cocks her head of short, multi-colored hair. "Con nothing. You just used your fair and honestly earned discount to buy everyone their reading material. You still technically brokered the deal, hence the discount still applies fully."

Remaining silent, Bach narrows his stare down at Cideeda. Adopting a genuine tone in her voice, Cideeda glances up to Bach. "You... You shouldn't feel bad. You helped Steve significantly with his magic. He got to repay you with a decent discount for you..."

A sly curl creeps out the corners of her mouth, and she averts her emerald green eyes briefly with a flick of her furry ears. "And assumed lady friend. He also got a good deal on a genuine early era chest, with a working lock..."

An entrepreneurial spark lights up Cideeda's gaze as she taps her finger tips together. "And a key custom formed on the spot with magic before everyone's eyes."

Bach stops walking and aims an uncertain stare down to his side. Cideeda wags her tail with her stride and winks with a toothy grin. "As someone who was a game shop regular and worked a lot behind the counter a decade ago... That would have been a hard day to top for many, many years."

Slowing her pace, she crosses her arms defensively and frowns faintly at Bach. "Now, if you are a little angry at me for putting you on the spot... I'll accept that and apologize to you."

After a long halfhearted glare, Bach eventually releases a sigh and dismisses the charges with a shrug of his shoulders. "It's okay. Really. It just brought back memories of some crazy moments with my brother that I'd conveniently forgotten about."

Cideeda nods, plucks her aetherphone from her shorts, and squints at the screen. "Yeah, I understand. By the way, do you see Sotalia anywhere? She messaged me that she was here and I'm not seeing her."

Peering above the tops of the display shelves, Bach scans the tops of heads wandering through the aisles and random people down the walkways. Halting his hunt, Bach spots familiar dark red hair and swept back horns and points Sotalia out near a history section sign. "There. Way down this next row across in the next section."

Cideeda peers down the aisle and catches sight of Sotalia. "I see her."

Bach blinks as his vision notices something else and snaps his attention over. His blue eyes widen, and he punctuates with gritting teeth. "SHIT...."

Cideeda perks her furry ears and glances over her shoulder at Bach. "What?"

Spotting an emin woman with swirling horns and raven black hair strut confidently toward the book shelf rows near Sotalia, Bach watches the small camera crew trailing behind. "We need to get over there and warn Sotalia."

Cideeda flits her emerald green eyes wide, perks her furry ears, and nods. She deftly sneaks upon the toes of her shoes and leads the charge. Bach sinks low behind the stacks and keeps as quiet as possible. At the far end of the aisle, Sotalia plucks a book out from a row and flips it over to the summary. As she reads the text, she furrows her brow. Blinking to awareness, her eyes lead her head, and she spots Bach and Cideeda frantically signaling her. She squints confused and tilts her head incredulously. "What?"

Bach motions to something behind Sotalia in the next aisle. Checking over her shoulder, Sotalia tenses when she catches glimpses of activity nearby. "Oh, shit."

Spinning back around, she promptly replaces the book and stiffly walks down the aisle towards Bach and Cideeda. When she joins the two a distance from the camera crew setting up around the young emin woman, she groans with a roll of her golden eyes. "Gods. Thank you. I did NOT want to get caught up in that bitch's path. Just something about her puts me off."

Bach peeks his head over the top of a long display shelf row and observes the flurry of activity. He ducks back down when the cameras shift, and the emin woman stands in front of another nearby section. A human woman steps out from the mix of recording crew, reads notes from a tablet, and prompts the young emin woman. "Okay. Tassilda. Talk about what books you'd recommend for people wanting to learn more about magic."

With a toss of her long, raven black hair behind her shoulders, Tassilda strikes a flattering pose in front of the shelf within the "Magical History" section. Glancing at the nearby contents with her light blue on black eyes, she slyly draws a book out and holds it suggestively close to her chest. "I will always recommend a favorite of mine, the Collected History of Nexus Magic series. It always captivates my attention and the details are all so enthralling. If you want a complete history of how Nexus got its magic, this is my first choice."

Bach cringes at the suggestion and disagrees with a shake of his head. Sotalia contorts her mouth in disgust and parts a spot in the books to spy through. "Really, woman? Out of all the books on that shelf, you pick the one that's a proven insomnia cure."

Tassilda gradually places the book back into the shelf and adds a purposeful bounce to highlight personal assets. Sotalia narrows her golden glare at Tassilda and grumbles while annoyance simmers to the surface. "Oh. And I bet you are the first to take offense at about people comparing you to a succubus, too."

Plucks another book from the shelf with her black nailed fingers, she presents a playfully suggestive smile on her light gray face. "Another one I'd only suggest to the most dedicated is The Great Magical Handbook of Nexus."

Bach slides his head right next to Sotalia's and sneaks a peek through the opening. He furrows his brow at the volume in Tassilda's grasp and frowns disdainfully. "Okay... She's GOT to be getting kickbacks from a publisher. I remember spending way too much money on that damned thing in school, and it was useless to get any useful information out of it. Also, it was pretty shitty doorstop, too."

Bouncing her examination between the two, Cideeda quizzes Bach and Sotalia. "Well, if you two are such experts, what book would you recommend?"

Sotalia holds her face and ponders to herself about the subject. Bach steps back and searches the books on the shelf. Walking down the aisle, he hunts through the titles on the spines, following the order. He slows and places a finger on a book, and tilts a paperback out. Stepping back over, he hands it to Cideeda with an encouraging tone. "The Illustrated Guide to Magical History. It's pretty much first semester magic history in illustrated novel style."

Straightening her posture, Sotalia stares at Bach incredulously. "Really?"

Cideeda inspects the paperback and flips through the table of contents. Bach points out the subjects in the listing. "It covers the Three Cataclysms, the Three Periods, the Abstract Prism, Foundation Constructs, and even basic Magical Flow Dynamics."

Sotalia peeks over Cideeda's shoulder and cocks her head in surprise. "Huh. It goes in how ridiculously dangerous Elder Energy is. Okay... Even how it caused the Third Cataclysm and prompted the creation of the Abstract Prism."

Noticing Cideeda's furry ears flicking around searching, Bach checks over the shelf and finds no camera crew visible on the other side. He returns his attention to the book in Cideeda's hands. "See. It's not bad at all. It has textbook parts after the story section, and it does a good job explaining it all. It even has a decent high-school romance subplot."

He cautiously scans the area and locates Tassilda and crew far off. "I think we're in the clear. They've moved on to the coffee shop."

Popping up on the ball of her feet, Cideeda's furry ears perk over the top of the shelving and flick around. "I was wondering where they moved off to."

Taking out her aetherphone from her tight fitting pants, Sotalia glances around before focusing upon the device. "Good. Anyway, I messaged Aristespha to see how far along she was and- Oh. Oh my."

Cideeda and Bach turn their attention to Sotalia. Scooting next to Sotalia, Cideeda reads the screen and blinks in astonishment with a flick of her tail. "Yeah. She's just MAD right now."

Fighting a flit of worry, Bach moves to peek at Sotalia's aetherphone. "Uh, what's going on? Huh?"

Sotalia holds her phone out for a better view to all and explains the developing situation. "Wow. Girl has gone full Low Evuukian in her rants. I'll be honest, I can only make out half of this, but I think we're not the only ones who ran into one of the Next Adventurers of Nexus."

With an uneasy groan, Cideeda hovers her claw tip over a few characters. "It's the fvalian. I recognize that term. Seems like she's stuck... behind her... in line?"

Bach squints at the new lines of characters and visibly struggles to comprehend between rocks of his head and contorting his face. "Uh, that's something not good. I've never seen half of these before. The ones I have... Um, it's never with anything you want directed at you."

Sotalia holds her phone up close and carefully reads the line a few times. She grits her teeth briefly. "Oh, girl is definitely furious. She's dropping out all the proper structure parts and really going off straight context."

Blinking her golden eyes, she stifles a snicker into a snort and tosses back her shoulder length dark red hair. "Okay... So, what do you two think this direct translation means? Brain devoid furred abomination destroy time. Yank bell broom handle feed, necklace reach rip start bell expedient ass exit."

Bach's blue eyes widen, and he scratches his head with his hiss of air through his teeth. "Um... Maybe we should check to see how Dretphi is doing?"

Nodding in agreement, Sotalia winces to an uncertain grimace as another line pops on the phone screen. Returning the illustrated guide back to its spot, Cideeda pats her pocket and slips out her phone. She motions towards the front exit while reading a message. "Dretphi says she is still waiting for the staff to get her order together over at the general store across the way."

After a quiet agreement, the three calmly but expediently escape the aisles towards the front door. Wincing at a thought, Bach shudders to a frown as they step out to the sidewalk in front of the bookstore. "Gods... Poor Sebastian. Hiding in the sword strapped to Aristespha's side right now."

Sotalia hisses breath through her teeth. "Yes. But, he's the only one keeping her calm right now."

Grimacing at the situation, Bach nods with a vaguely hopeful frown. "Well, I hope he's gotten better at that. That wasn't his strong suit back in the school."

In the open lobby of the general, overhead fans hang from the high rafters and blow a constant breeze down upon the customers shopping through the front aisles. A mix of brightly colored advertisements scattered around every convenient corner showcase the latest name brand fads with their products arranged in eye-catching displays. Throughout the store goods desired by the locals intermix with products geared towards adventuring groups. A banner waving gradually in the air conditioning currents displays "Amaranth Valley General Store" in big bold letters with "Last bit of civilization before your next adventure!" underneath in fancier script. The modest general shopping area contained with tall partition walls contrasts against the heavy metal structures supporting towering warehouse ceiling. Echoes of people and equipment filter in as distant noises, and employees rushing through doorways give glimpses of a greater, unseen complex.

Towards the back near huge double doors, a number of long counters with registers exist with different customers waiting for service. Dretphi's imposing form stands tall, and she sighs with stale annoyance trickling into her tone. Her steely gray eyes stare at a long, folded receipt in her hand, and her gaze wanders between the nearby double doors, the register showing order information, and the pallet platform next to the counter. The muffled squeaks of the wheeled cart sift through the closest doorway to the back, and Dretphi perks up. The metallic rumbles grow louder. Then, the noise fades. Seconds later, an employee rolls a hand truck stacked with goods through another set of double doors to a customer a few counters down. Rolling her eyes, Dretphi tosses back her platinum blonde braids over her shoulder and notices a grath man a few registers away. Cautiously peeking out of the corner of her eye, she observes the grath man subtly pose and straighten his posture with a tensing flex of his physique. Spotting the cameraman nearby, Dretphi eases out a long, frustrated sigh and keeps her gaze to the nearby doorway to the back with a hopeful grimace.

Retrieving his aetherphone from his belt holster, the cameraman studies the scene and reports with the phone against his ear. "Hey, Samantha... Your lone Unit C is still here with Trakenthin. He's failing to flirt with some grath woman. Complete no sale. It's getting sad."

Listening to the voice on the other side, he furrows his brow. "Hmm? Sure, I guess. Give me a moment.

Lowering his phone down and tap through the functions discreetly, he angles the device towards Dretphi and quickly snaps the image. With a nonchalant, wandering gaze around the room, he taps through a rehearsed sequence on the display and presses the speaker back his ear. "Sent it."

He briefly squints at Dretphi and nods with a thought. "You know... Now that you mention it, she does look familiar. Yeah... Huh, Unit A saw an evuukian woman with a really nice sword strapped at her side? I'll let you know if anything changes."

Summoning his confidence into his exterior, Trakenthin struts over towards Dretphi with a smile, his hand gliding over the counter tops along the way. Dretphi reads a new message on her aetherphone and searches around the nearby store. She gazes towards Trakenthin and waves in his direction. Smug smile springs forth on his dark bronze face, and he picks up the pace with a swift brush of his short, dirty blonde hair. Sotalia, Cideeda, and Bach hurry by Trakenthin right to Dretphi. Trakenthin sharply pivots and walks himself back to his original spot. He wrestles against an embarrassed grimace and his stride tenses up. Off to the side, the cameraman chuckles to himself while watching the retreat through a camera viewfinder. "Ouch. Denied."

Breathing out her anxious energy through a sigh, Dretphi quietly addresses everyone. "I am glad you arrived. Believed IT was going to talk to me."

Sotalia crosses her arms and tips her head back towards Trakenthin. "You mean the two meter tall ego back there?"

Dretphi groans with an annoyed grimace. "Yes. Unfortunately."

Grinning with a tinge of evil, Sotalia drips sarcasm. "Come on, Dretphi. I'm sure he's quite the accomplished man. Probably has plenty of trophies he wants to show you in the bedroom."

Furrowing his brow, Bach eyes Dretphi with a bit of concern. "Do you want us to do anything? I mean, is there something about him we should know? Sorry to pry, but you seem bothered by him."

Dretphi meets Bach's gaze and smiles warmly. "It is okay. Thank you for your concern. He seems an unfortunate nuisance from an aspect of Grath culture. One day he may achieve great things."

She narrows her eyes and peers at Trakenthin without moving her toward him. "For men that abide by those ideals, their deeds will receive a paragraph in history. Men the level of my fathers, write the history that paragraph will go in."

Containing her laughter, Sotalia reaches up to pat Dretphi on the shoulder. "You keep that bar high for the rest of us, girl."

Dretphi straightens up, crosses her arms, and dismissively rolls her eyes with grumble. "My bar to set."

Cideeda snickers with a shake of her head, and checks a new message on her phone. "Well, Aristespha is going to meet us at the guild office. I don't think she's in the mood to do any researching today."

Blinking her golden eyes widen, Sotalia briefly grits her teeth and settles upon an uneasy grimace. "Yeah. There's no translation for what I read.

Furrowing her brow, Dretphi searches for an explanation between the assembled group. After noticing the attention, Bach leans and whispers up. "She got held up by one of the Next Adventurers of Nexus."

Dretphi shakes her head and draws in a deep breath while relaxing her shoulders. "A sentiment I understand."

Noticing a clerk coming to the register, she pivots around in anticipation with a hopeful smile. The young emin clerk stands behind the register and promptly types upon the point of sale system. "I am so sorry about the wait. But, good news, your order is ready! We've already processed payment to your group card, and I am printing out your claim ticket. One of our warehouse assistants will be happy to cart your order out to your vehicle."

Dretphi takes hold of the claim ticket and her group card with a relieved nod. Stepping out from behind the counter, the clerk leads the way to a side door and guides the team. The intrigued cameraman finishes capturing a series of photos and presses the send icon on his aetherphone. Seconds later, a message window pops up on the display.

"Gods, Gerald. This is getting WEIRD now. Unit B is wrapping up with Tassilda right now. Meet me in the parking lot when you get done. We might need to call up Howie."

Gentle spring sun shines down upon the brick plaza between tall government buildings. As the image of the overhead sky reflects off the mirror tinted wall of windows, breezes sift through the young leaves sprouting out the branches of potted trees outlining a courtyard. Locals wander through the vicinity and quickly find paths towards the large parking lot of the open air mall. Between the crowds, small groups of people dressed in armor and other adventuring attire travel between the doors of a smaller structure with a simple sign next to the entrance, "Amaranth Valley Guild Office." Gathered around a metal mesh picnic table under the shade of an older tree, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia idly entertain themselves and occasionally check the areas. Furrowing his brow at the display of his aetherphone, Bach tilts the device into view of Cideeda and points at a line of text. "Okay, what does this setting actually do? I've never used that setting."

Cideeda's furry ears perk, and she glances her emerald green eyes at the screen. After a moment, she cracks a smirk and lifts a brow at Bach. "That's the automatic color mode setting. If you want it to change the color temperature depending on what time of day it is, you flip that on.

Bach gradually nods his head at the revelation and grimaces as understanding fails to fully materialize. "Okay... I might need to be educated on that."

As Cideeda taps claw tips on her phone and brings up an aethernet article, Dretphi scans across the plaza, slowing her hunt at the entries into the area, and frowns with concern. "She said she would be here."

Rapping her long, black nails upon the painted metal mesh of the table top, Sotalia leans back on her bench seat and glances around. "That's what she sent me. I wonder if something... Oh, there she is..."

A pair of violet eyes contrast the dark shade upon an ivory and blue and gray hinted face, framed by long silvery blue hair. Faint grumbles of Evuukian curses drift through the air with a part of very long, pointed ears twitching with her furious punctuation. Aristespha marches with her fists clenched, head bowed slightly, and frustration blatant. She halts in front of Bach, Sotalia, Cideeda, and Dretphi and tips back a distant glare. As she starts to open her mouth, a resonant voice at her side interrupts. "Dear. Take a deep, long breath first."

Fighting against a hesitant wince, Aristespha collects herself, closes her eyes, draws deep, filling breath. Exhaling with a long growl hidden in the mix, she stretches her neck to both shoulders. Sebastian's ethereal tone sounds out from the sword at Aristespha's side. "You might need another breath."

Aristespha grits her teeth, slowly hisses out her aggravation, and adjusts her attire back in order. "Thank you, Sebastian. I think I'll be fine."

Summoning up a new wave of calm, she relaxes her posture and sighs. "Well. It seems that some children's cereal is giving away medical mage licenses as the prize in the box. But despite the excessive delay, I was able to get the medical supplies we need."

A chipper tone colors Sebastian's voice. "Good! So, medical supplies, check. Sotalia?"

Sotalia works off a tight, humored smile, and tosses back her dark red hair. "Magical supplies are good. Unfortunately, there was nothing of value at the big book store. We didn't find a Local Lore section."

Sebastian resumes his run down and a ghostly hum sounds out. "Okay. We'll try the local library and maybe there's college that has some adventurer access program through the guild. Dretphi?"

Straightening her posture, Dretphi clears her smirk as she shifts her attention away from Aristespha. "Food requisitioned. Gear acquired. Found the jerky requested."

Cideeda happily grins with a perky wag of her long tail. "Thank you! Oh. We got Bach a new phone. And... We got new reading material at a really good price. Also, we managed to find a good source to sell any ancient trinkets in the future. But, didn't get to the ammo today."

Sebastian sounds out an understanding and appreciative tone and chuckles. "Well, I think that's pretty good for today, given all the interruptions we've had to work around. Before we call it a day, Bach, let's get you officially registered. Then, we can get out of here before we run into any more celebrities. Also, while Aristespha, Bach, and I handle all the paperwork stuff, the rest of you see if there's any missions, quests, and jobs you like posted."

As the group reassembles and enters the guild offices, off in the distance a cameraman and woman casually hang out by a van with the Next Adventurers of Nexus show logo plastered on the side. Despite the idle conversation, the two keep a very attentive eye on the guild office. As the minutes pass, the sun slowly drifts closer to the horizon and hints of orange sneak up high into the bright blue. The dark blonde haired cameraman sorts through equipment in the opened up van and idly chats with the brown haired woman with a packed clipboard. As minutes roll over to an hour, the two coordinate inventory efforts and review video clips. As late afternoon starts to lose out against early evening, the cars and people cycle out of the large central parking lot of the open air mall. With the change of locals, the volume of customers between shops shifts with the new demands, and entertainment businesses light up and ready for their evening prime time. Small groups wander towards Amaranth's Wrath Game Emporium with books, carriers of figurines, and boxes of neatly kept cards.

The metal framed, tinted glass doors of the guild office open. Bach trails behind the exiting team and examines his registration card closely. Sebastian's ethereal form floats behind Bach, and he peeks over his brother's shoulder with a proud smile. "It's pretty thing, bro."

Bach feels the card's facets, takes his wallet out, and carefully settles the card into the most prominent spot. "Yeah. Still though... I'm only, technically, an intern."

Sotalia's golden eyes glance over at the card in Bach's wallet and she perks her brow. "Still pretty cool that they can work it as an internship and have it count for college credit. Surprising given how long it has been."

Darting a quick peek over at the guild identification, Aristespha nods in agreement. "That paperwork is significantly easier now. On the other hand, the paperwork for denoting an authoritative proxy due to a team's leader being in a state rendering them physically incapable of signing forms through typical means due to unclassified magic from an ancient sword... THOSE are harrowing forms."

Sebastian catches Aristespha stare with an amused smirk and groans with a long roll of his translucent blue eyes. "Dear... If I could actually sign stuff, you know I would."

Aristespha winks playfully, rests a hand on the handle of the blade in the scabbard at her side, and taps. "I know. Well, before you scare the locals, if you could, Sebastian?"

Swirling his visage into the sword, his voice echoes out. "Understood. I just wanted to see Bach's registration card in the light while in that form. Vision is so weird from within the sword. Oh, anyone find anything good on the boards?"

The rest scroll through their aetherphones and take turns reading job descriptions. Debates follow after each reading and the team discusses jobs on their way to the humvee. Nearby a particular van, a cameraman records the group from a secluded spot and the woman with a clipboard stares in complete astonishment. She checks with the cameraman and stares hopefully. "Gerald. I hope you recorded all that."

Gerald grins smugly and lifts an confident, amused eyebrow. "Of course, Samantha. You'd think I'd miss something like that?"

Samantha flips up a section of pages, reveals her tablet, and quickly taps in notes. "I can't believe it. It's actually them and they are here. I've got to send all this to Howie. There's got to be a way to work this into this season."

Evening falls around the ranch style house as the last bit of the orange and red in the sky fades to dark blue. Through an open garage door, Cideeda flips on switch, and overhead lamps light up the large garage. Stepping around slowly, she surveys the workbenches surrounding the space. Eyeing the cabinets curiously with a pondering claw tip scratch of the chin, she hums to herself and wags her long furry tail with her thoughts. Through the doorway into the pantry section of the kitchen, Dretphi inspects the arrangement of groceries in the fridge. Standing up to her full, imposing height, she rests her hands on her hips and bounces her steely gray eyes between the packages of supplies on the nearby countertop and the scarce vacant spots inside the refrigerator. Sotalia walks on by with a casual glance over to the situation and continues her walk around the dining table and through the hallway archway. While walking down to her bedroom door, she turns her attention down one end of the hall and catches a glimpse of Bach plodding around his room with a new aetherphone in hand. An humored smirk appears on her light tan face and she guides stray locks over her pointed ears beyond dark gray patches below. Shifting her attention to the other end of the hall, she watches Aristespha step through the doorway with exhausted yawn. As Aristespha closes the door to her room, she removes the sheathed sword from her belt and places it on the bed. She slides the sword to a corner of the mattress and plops down in the middle. After removing her boot and excessive attire, she lays down the rest of the way on the bed and sighs deeply. Moments later, Sebastian's visage materializes and floats above her. "You okay, dear?"

Aristespha rubs her eyes and keeps them closed as she stretches out on the bed. "Yes. Just the state of things bothers me. I was ready to accept certain elements, but now new ones have been introduced that I was not anticipating."

Hovering down next to Aristespha on the bed, Sebastian grimaces uncertainly. "I know. But, we are making good progress. Bach is going on his first quest soon. That a big step."

Twisting her mouth with her thought, Aristespha ponders out loud. "Sebastian, your brother is still an unknown factor. Not that it is a bad thing. But, there's still much we don't know, and much you do not even know."

Sebastian frowns lightly and sighs with hints of self disappointment slipping in. "I know. I really wish I knew what more to tell you. He did mention the Nightmare Geist incident to me. And... How it left him a lame mage."

Aristespha 's violet eyes spring open, and she pivots her head to lock an examining glare on Sebastian. "Anything else?"

Blinking blankly from the sudden change of expression, Sebastian awkwardly glances around the room. "Uh, no. I kind of didn't want to push the issue. I mean I was amazed he mentioned it without me pestering him. So, I'm hoping he'll open up more once he gets some confidence back. I mean he's been out of the game a bit, and he's just recovering some of what he was capable of."

Closing her eyes, Aristespha rubs her temples in thought and massages her very long, pointed ears to the tips upon the mattress. Sebastian quickly stiffens up and glances down at Aristespha in a surge of concern. "I mean, is there something wrong with Bach? Like really wrong?"

Aristespha opens her violet eyes with a faint glow, reaches her hands up, and places them around Sebastian's translucent face gently. "Your brother is just fine. It's just... He has his abilities. What I am trying to figure out is how or even why he arrived at them. They are proficiencies that you would not expect."

Placing a hand on one of Aristespha's as his visage interacts with the faint magical flow around her, Sebastian smiles lovingly. "I'm sure you'll figure it out soon enough, or he'll eventually tell us. I'm just happy to have him along... It just might turn out like what we promised each other when we were kids."

Aristespha warmly returns the smile as she lightly touches Sebastian's ethereal face. "We shall see. But, I want some answers eventually."

With a backdrop of a calm night through the windows above his bed, Bach examines his new aetherphone as he lays on top of the comforter. Flipping through menus, settings pages, and lists of icons, he eventually settles back on the home screen and mumbles to himself. "Well... ...it's time..."

Bach presses the phone icon and taps a series of numbers on the shown numeric pad. Holding the phone next to ear, he0 waits for the call to connect. After a few moments, Bach hears a familiar voice and his blue eyes soften. "Hey, mom. It's me. I just got a new phone and everything. Thanks to Sebastian. So, I wanted to try it out and... thought I'd call you."

Bach listens to his mother talk, nods with the conversation, and responds with the prompts. "He's doing well enough. Well, all things considered... Yeah, still getting used to it myself. So, I guess he's been keeping you up to date with- Well, I guess, technically, Aristespha has, since he hasn't figured out a way yet."

He tilts his head to the side and ponders a moment on something said. "Huh. Yeah, I guess his voice would sound weird over the speakerphone. When did you last talk to him?"

He nods briefly. "Okay. Well, saves a lot of long explanations. Give me a second... I think I got this figured out on the phone. It's got so many new functions, I'm barely about to make a call happen."

Removing the phone from his ear, Bach aims the front camera at his registration card. After he presses a few buttons, he replaces the aetherphone on his ear. "Did you get tha-"

Stopping mid sentence, he gently smiles with a tear welling in his eye. His mothers voice, happy and excited, calls out to someone in the background on the other side of the call. After a cheerful explanation from her, another masculine voice calls out loud enough to be audible near the phone speaker. "Well, it's about fucking time! Went to school long enough."

Bach rolls his blue eyes with a snort and shakes his head. "Thanks, dad!"

The voice of Bach's mother continues in a rapid succession of excited prompts that rise up from the speaker. Easing the phone away from the loud excitement, Bach interrupts. "Hey, mom, I'll answer all those. But, there's something I've been working on that I want you to see first. Let's see if I can figure out this feature. Cideeda show me it once, and I hope I can remember the steps."

Holding his hand out and palm up, Bach aims the front camera of the phone. He presses an icon on the screen, and a video stream of his mother's face appears in a smaller corner overlay on top of the video of his palm. Concentrating with a dim blue glow in his eyes, faint, flickering outlines appear in Bach's hand. The framework fills in with a transparent form, and soon details and color materialize. In seconds, the vague outline of flowers morphs into a bundle of violets, the forms solidifying into stabilized magical energy. Bach's mother's face floods with awe and pride as she watches the process. He presses the icon on the display again and puts the phone back to his ear. "I kind of wanted to show you in person. But, I figured, with everything going on, I'd just show you now. I'll get it in the mail to you soon."