Episode 8

Laying upon the top of his bed, Bach flips through the unending pages in a thick textbook. His blue eyes wearily scan the elaborate medical terms and drift between the dense paragraphs. Blinking hard with a grimace, each moment of focus grows harder to maintain, and Bach's attention wanders away in desperation. Fruitless minutes later, he closes the book, tosses it to the side on the bed, and winces. Letting his head sink into the pillow, he rubs the strain from his eyes and blinks his vision clear. His arms lead the rest of his body to a seat on the bed. Pulling his back into a stretch, he yawns, stands up, and plods to the bedroom door. He glances out the window at the sun-backed gray and listens to the surge of rain against the pane. A distant thunder washes over the house, and Bach opens the door to the hallway.

Walking into the large living room, Bach notices Aristespha lounging on the couch staring a hole through the paperwork splayed on the coffee table. He steps over next to the arm of the couch and surveys the piles of documentation with an electronic tablet dividing the masses. Aristespha shakes her head side to side, fights against the building fatigue, and straightens her posture in protest. Rubbing her very long ears, she notices Bach out the corner of her violet eye. "Oh! Sorry. I'm trying to finish up some paperwork. I should be done in an hour or... So... Then, we can work on your training and my materials research..."

Bach studies the scene. Stacks of paperwork liter the area into roughly organized piles. Boxes of receipts and invoices sit on the floor around the coffee table. A dulled flash from the sliding glass back door illuminates an uncomfortably familiar tax form. Points to a seat cushion on the couch, Bach furrows his brow and smirks. "Um, you want help with this? I mean, after trudging through that last book, this seems like a nice change of pace. Feels like I could be somewhat constructive and useful here."

Aristespha perks a brow and eyes Bach curiously as she scoots over on the couch. "Which book are you talking about?"

Bach carefully slides a pile of papers over, takes a seat, and sighs out his frustrations. "Greyhawk's Guide to Magical-Biological Interactions."

Fighting down a reflexive cringe to a frown, Aristespha nods heavy with commiseration. "That is an unfortunately rough one to get through. I remember burning up one coffee maker keeping myself awake when studying it. Despite how absolutely dry it is... It does contain the best information I've found on that topic. I recommend any mage of advanced proficiency read it at least once."

Shrugging his shoulders, Bach leans his head over to idly read some random piece of paper on top of a nearby pile. "Yeah, I'm starting to agree. It's actually nice to get the official terms for stuff. Gods, calling everything That Thing was getting old quick."

Aristespha chuckles to herself, stops as she remembers something, and fishes out a packet of papers from a stack next to her. "Speaking of official terms... If you could, fill out how and where you want your pay, please."

Bach grabs the form curiously and flips through with confusion. "Oh. Um... Okay. So, how does this all work out? I have no clue."

A surge of pride manifests as a smile on Aristespha's ivory face, and she pulls out a tablet from between a pile of papers. Tapping commands on the screen, she presents the device to Bach. "That's right. I forgot, you never did your internship year. Well, thankfully, I created a few diagrams over a year ago when we got together to formalize the financial process for our group."

She slips the tablet between Bach's hands, swipes through diagrams, and selects one to full size. "Depending on the mission, quest, or contract, the payout goes into our group's company account with the guild. We deduct any related expenses, then the money gets distributed evenly to everyone's individual guild accounts, up to a quota we all agree upon once every few months. Any excess gets put into another company account that is for shared party expenses, up to a quota. Anything above this quota at the end of the month, is divided out as a bonus to everyone."

Studying the diagrams, Bach zooms in on sections and watches summarizing animations of the process on the tablet. He eventually nods understandingly and hands the device back. "Okay. That makes sense to me, and seems pretty fair. It sounds like it avoids a lot of possible money drama."

Aristespha draws in a deep breath, exhales her relief, and quells a corner twist in her smile. "Yes, it certainly does. Money issues tend to break apart adventuring groups faster than any other issue and often with more dramatic results. Just ask Dretphi or Cideeda, they've got a few choice stories about financial fights between team members."

Lifting up a section of paperwork upon the coffee table, Bach bounces his bewildered stare between Aristespha and the overwhelming stack. "Damn... I hope this is just a backlog of paperwork, because this might actually be scarier than facing those cyber-zombies."

A genuine laugh slips out of Aristespha, and she passes Bach a pen and takes one for herself from behind her ear. "Yes, it thankfully is just a backlog. Chasing and confronting Noxian forced A LOT of our documentation to be left... Unfinished. It is normally a modest sum of pages of legal documents that amount to a few signatures. I have got most of the accounting handled by software. Most of the time, the only time consuming part comes from matching receipts and invoices to account transactions. I've got logging software on a tablet to help that process."

Bach stares at the mass of paper, readies his pen, and cracks a wary grin. "So, uh, where do you need me to start?"

Aristespha taps the packet with her pen and retrieves another tablet for Bach to use. "First, fill out your payment information. You can use the guild account system if you don't have a bank account. They're not fancy or featured, but they do work enough to hold your funds. After that, you can use this tablet to catalog receipts and invoices. It has the better camera for that."

Shifting his attention to the packet, Bach reads a few lines and a thought crosses his mind. "Hey, um, just curious. How much does that monthly individual quota go up to?"

Leaning next to Bach, Aristespha traces a finger down the page and stops next to a number. Bach follows the trail of text down to the spot. His eyes widen, jaw drifts down, and head slowly tilts. Aristespha grins with satisfaction and returns to her stack of papers. "Why do you think anyone considers this line of work? The actual pay can vary based on the workload we take on. There have been some slow months when we were fully dedicated to tracking down Noxian that cut into our ability to work other assignments from the guild. While you are starting at the end of a month, Sebastian wants you to have his share for this month."

She presents her tablet screen and points out an account summary. "As a... Oh, how did he put it? An apology for abducting you and flipping the fucking table that was your life."

Bach blinks in astonishment. After failed attempts to form a coherent response, he draws in a breath and shrugs appeased. "You know... I've now come to full acceptance of that incident and look forward to our future business ventures with a refreshed adventuring spirit."

Aristespha rolls her violet eyes with a humored smile, tosses back her long, silvery blue hair, and circles her finger over a box of receipts on the floor nearby. "Right. Sure. Let's see how you feel after sorting through this box."

Steadying the tablet, Bach lines up the shot and captures a picture of the last receipt from the box next to the living room coffee table. He sorts through the menus and links the image to an outstanding traction. Leaning back into the couch back, he blinks his blue eyes and snorts with a humored smirk. "By the gods... You guys have must have single-handedly kept Pancake Shed in business for the last few years. I mean, they're good and all. But, I mix it up a little bit."

Aristespha twists her mouth mildly defensive and lifts an eyebrow at Bach. "Well, you find another restaurant that widespread, near every major highway, open all hours, and that takes you as you come with no questions."

Using a pen to scratch a check mark on the last receipt, he stuffs it under a rubber band with others. "Yeah, fair enough. The one in High Alton was the perfect place to recover from all the crazy misadventures I had to rescue Sebastian from. Their hash browns are REALLY good at three in the morning."

Aristespha places her pen, tablet, and papers down on the coffee table and sinks back into the couch. "Indeed, they are. And, the Pancake Shed is very accommodating to adventures. There's one in Perimeter that lets you order your captive's food off the children's menu. That way bounty hunters can save money on food."

Bach slowly pivots his head to Aristespha and furrows an uncertain brow. "That's... Interesting."

Ducking forward to put herself on her feet, Aristespha stands up and stretches her back. "A lot of fugitives try to hide out in the Perimeter Weird Zone. Most are usually very thankful when a bounty hunter finds them, so they can get escorted out of the zone. It's very easy to get lost and find yourself in a bad predicament out there."

Stepping around the coffee table, she brushes her faded T-shirt off and guides stray silvery blue hairs over her very long, pointed ears. "Oh, I'm going to make some tea. Do you want any?"

Bach tidies up his immediate area and carefully pulls himself up and away from the nearby haphazard piles of paper. "Uh, sure, I guess. Are we done with all this for now?"

Spinning a carousel of single-serving drink packets on the kitchen counter, Aristespha plucks two of them out and loads one into the brewing machine on the counter. "Yes. It's not going anywhere. We've made good progress, so I'm not too terribly worried. Thank you for helping me with that mess."

Settling into a chair at the dining table, Bach wanders his gaze aimlessly. A question lands in his mind, and he quizzically stares at Aristespha. "So... You've been in a weird zone? You mentioned Perimeter and the Perimeter Weird Zone. It sounds like you've had some experience with them."

Aristespha fits a mug underneath the brewing machine and presses a button. While the machine hums with flowing water within, she ponders a moment as her violet eyes search her thoughts. "Yes. I have been in a few. They were some of the spots I visited during my research into spirits, sprites, and other such entities."

As his interest piques, Bach keeps his attention on Aristespha. "So, what do you know of magic in that realm of study?"

Aristespha deftly pops out the spent packet, pitches it into the garbage can without looking, and sets that mug off to the side. In a quick series of motions, she loads the next packet, hits the button, and slides another mug underneath the machine. Bach cocks his head curiously, and Aristespha smirks smugly. "Studying at the Grand Library, you learn how to run these things as fast as possible. Anyway, as for spirit magic... Most of my study has been focused on sensory, communication, and projection types of magic. Honestly, that was all I was really interested in. I know the theory behind the spirit family of magic."

Eying the cup as it fills, she waits expectantly. When the last drop hits, she sweeps up both containers and walks to the dining table. Placing a mug in front of Bach, she takes a seat opposite from him. "I just don't care for how those spirit mages perform most of their magic."

Bach lifts the tea up to his nose for a sniff. Feeling the hot vapor flowing around his nose, he lowers it back down. "So, um, what about it don't you like?"

Aristespha sighs with a slight frown on her face. "Most spirit mages are absolute ASSHOLES to all those entities."

Bach blinks to attention and gazes in surprise at Aristespha. "Wait- Really?!"

Nodding with a grumble, she lifts her mug and sips the tea. "I could go on for hours about it. They coerce, con, and manipulate spirits to do their bidding in exchange for some magical energy. Now, the smarter spirit types will negotiate up front. But, the simpler ones are lucky to get anything after getting controlled by spells. Thankfully, there's a growing movement towards spirit magic that is far friendlier and drastically more ethical. I actually spent a week with the teacher that inspired the initiative."

Leaning back in his chair, Bach ponders with bewilderment toiling on his face. "Wow. That's... Surprising. I've met a few spirit mages, but I didn't realize that's what they were doing. I mean, I never had any of the same classes with them after the first year. I focused on far different things than them."

Aristespha shakes her head and stares down at her cup. She smiles kindly and sighs. "I really didn't want anything to do with spirit magic after learning that, but meeting that teacher changed my mind. His name is Marcus Harold. A simple, old man on the outside that holds the favors of thousands of spirits, sprites, daemons, and ghosts. He keeps to forests out in the wilds. There's one spot he visits in the unclaimed territory between the GAA and Appaland."

She lifts the mug to her lips, drinks a moderate sum, and stares off distantly. "That was the most beautiful forest I've ever been in. The density of spirits inhabiting that area is a magnitude of order greater than anywhere else. It actually affects the biology of the flora and fauna out there. As for Marcus, he is a very laid back and kind man. While I learned much from him, he always summed up his lessons to two things."

Breaking from listening, Bach remembers to enjoy more of his tea. "Huh, what were those?"

Aristespha snorts with a humored grin and glances at Bach. "Ask nicely and be reasonable."

Bach nods slowly and shrugs his shoulders in agreement. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Seemed to work for him."

Taking a deep breath in, Aristespha tenses her voice. "It does. His resident Elder Geist told me that's why it lives there."

Bach's eyes spring wide open, and his jaw drops agape. Using his remaining cognizance to land his mug on the table, he summons up his senses to keep tea from dribbling out of his mouth. "Uh... Eh... Hu- What?! Just to make sure I heard you correctly... By Elder Geist, you mean a five meter tall creature formed of pure elder energy, that has probably been around since after the first cataclysm?"

Aristespha sips long of her tea, and her violet eyes meet the shocked stare of Bach. After finishing, she places the mug back down on the table and cracks a smile with hints of old tension rising from her recollection. "Oh. Yes. It was my last day there. I was talking to Marcus. It came over. Sat down next to me. Apologized for not meeting with me sooner, as it took it a while for it to go through its memories. It translated some audio transcripts I had played for Marcus. And then, it showed me the location, on my tablet's map, of an ancient ruin that housed a library and manifested a pass card for me to use to get in. It wished me well, said it would see me again in the future, and left."

Bach gawks in awe at Aristespha as she exhales with a faint shudder. He finally blinks and recovers enough to form words again. "What did Marcus do?"

Aristespha playfully sneers as she curls an upper lip. "Oh. He just absolutely fucking failed to hold back his laughter as I was scared for my very existence. He tends to forget most people aren't used to being that close to such a powerful magical entity."

Morning lights beams onto the rural landscape. A two lane road weaves through the countryside, and the last vestiges of rain upon it dries in the growing heat of fresh sun. Clear pools of water litter the low spots upon gentle rolling hills, and the excess drains down worn channels in the earth into the nearby stream. A few drops on the open garage door break free and fall onto the gravel junction between the ranch style house's gravel drive and interior concrete floor. Metallic clicks, clacks, and clanks echo faintly from within the garage and drift outdoors, in contrast to the ambient calm. Bach tightens a frame bolt with a wrench and grants a quarter turn twist to satisfaction. Standing back to survey his side-car motorcycle, his examining stare wanders across the machine. Morning light reflects off the freshly cleaned surfaces, while minute warps in the sheen hints at dents undone. Bach admires the close to new presentation of the vehicle before him.

Sebastian's ethereal breaks the long moment of quiet. "Sweet machine you got there, bro."

Bach turns around to Sebastian as he hovers through the door leading inside the house. "Oh, yeah. Cleaned it up and checked everything. Should be good for a ride, man."

Flying over the vehicle, Sebastian appreciates it from different angles. "I'll admit it's a lot nicer to look at when you're not riding the handlebars."

Bach grants a single laugh and shakes his head at Sebastian. "Well, I mean, to be fair, it's not like I gave you that long to take in the beauty."

Eying his brother with a smug smile, Sebastian rolls his translucent blue eyes. His ethereal form lightens and his expression softens. "Hey. Thanks for saving everyone. It's been rough getting used to just being an over-glorified cheerleader slash doomsayer, and mostly feeling useless. It could have gone really bad down there, but you delivered us the leverage we needed to make the best outcome happen."

Bach rubs the back of his neck and sheepishly shifts his shoulders up and down. "Man... I couldn't just let that happen to anyone and not do something. But, I've got to be honest..."

He awkwardly gazes at Sebastian, grits his teeth uneasily, and hisses in uncomfortable breath. "I was totally pulling stuff out of my ass! I mean, I knew the THEORY behind the whole EMP. I'd imagined a few designs in the past. But... Shit... That was the first time I've ever actually implemented an EMP bomb of all things! Gods, that was such a ridiculously complicated piece of machinery, I just-"

He drags his fingers through his longer brown hair and wanders towards the garage door with worry in each footstep. "Holy shit... I mean it's great that it worked and we got out, but- Dammit! Oh, it could have gone so wrong! If the blast wasn't enough, if they were fully insulated, or even if they just took cover in broom closet- I just- Well- I- FUCK! Two weeks ago I was just happy enough to get out of bed and read a decent story on an Aethernet forum..."

Holding his half-open hands shakily out in front of him, Bach's eyes shift between the bullet points of his rant. "Somehow in less than two weeks, I have gone from living in an over-glorified shack, seen as a failure of a mage, to somehow resuming our dream of adventuring together!"

He glances over his shoulder at his brother and sighs with an uneasy smile. "Don't get me wrong. I'm all for getting my life back on track, but... It feels like I've been strapped to the front of a runaway train! I try to keep focus on the many positives. But, I can't shake these feelings that I'm setting everyone up for disappointment... And... And, uh..."

Letting his arms go limp and flop to his sides, he slacks his shoulders and searches for serenity in the peaceful day outside. Sebastian stares at the floor with each floaty step towards Bach, shaking his head with a knowing smile. He circles around in front of Bach and waits to meet his brother's gaze. "Good. You've gotten to the freak out and situational awareness stage. I was starting to get worried."

Bach refocuses his narrowing blue eyes upon Sebastian with a dumbfounded expression. "W-what? This is... Normal?"

Sebastian doubles over laughing with an ethereal echo and holds a hand up to Bach. "Oh, gods yes! It happens to any sane adventurer. In fact, most of the veterans get worried when they think some newbie isn't freaking out, or worried, or not aware of how fucked-up their profession is!"

Blinking and drifting his gaze around the area, Bach follows his stare and paces the driveway in thought. Sebastian hovers close to Bach with a sly grin as he waits expectantly. Bach halts in place and furrows his brow at Sebastian. "So, YOU went through this, too?"

Sebastian nods with a ghostly snort. "Yes. Yes, I did. I tried to hide it from the group I interned with, because I was trying to impress them. We were camping out in these woods up in the Southern Crags near High Alton, clearing out this invasive species of dire rat. I volunteered for firewood gathering duty right off the bat and did it for a week. I didn't realize it, but they were totally expecting me to freak out after the first few days of fighting these things.

He darts his attention back to Bach and twists his transparent face into a disgusted grimace. "Fucking nasty, angry things, bro. The textbooks make dire creatures sound like enlightened, cooler versions of animals... Totally doesn't translate when it comes to rats. Fuck, those things still give me the creeps."

Turning his head away, Sebastian squints his eyes briefly and finds the dangling thought. "Anyway... The ranger in that group finally tracked me when I left the camp for firewood and figured out why I was so willing to do firewood duty."

Bach quirks a brow, bounces his eyes side to side, and leans closer. "Which was?"

Sebastian throws his hands up to the sides and exaggerates his shrug. "Oh, you know. Cursing the job, party members, school, the world, and so on... All the while chopping at trees like an ax murderer with blue balls."

He pauses a moment as his mind stumbles upon a random tidbit. "By the way, I so need to show you how to throw an ax, if you don't already know. Learned the basics from that ranger, after she enjoyed watching me rant and rave."

Narrows his eyes at Sebastian, Bach figuratively and literally stares right through him. Sebastian matches Bach's scrutiny and places his hands on his sides. "What? Why are you-"

His gaze darts between possibilities, and his eyes flit wide briefly. He relaxes his posture, and a goofy, unapologetic grin sneaks onto his face. The first few words fall out his mouth. He put his hands behind his head. "Well, you know, bro. She made a really good point about not letting such youthful energy go to waste."

Lifting his head up to the clear skies just outside the garage door, Bach rolls his blue eyes dismissively and plants his face into the palm of his hand. He slowly slides his hand down and just stares at Sebastian. "I, of all people, shouldn't be surprised. Especially after all those times I had to rescue you."

Sebastian smirks and jokingly shakes a finger at Bach. "Hey! I'm trying to pay you back for all those times. So, you feeling any better, bro?"

Bach tenses up his shoulders, puffs his chest up with a breath of air in, and relaxes with a long exhale. "A bit... If I am going insane, at least I'm on schedule, which somehow makes it normal. Right?"

Floating at the side, Sebastian presents an honest smile and genuine tone. "Hey, listen. We do good work for good reasons to achieve good things. But, that doesn't change the fact that what we are doing ranges from being a bit weird to really fucked up."

He gazes directly into Bach's eyes. "It's normal to feel this is insane. It's insane to feel this is normal."

Bach and Sebastian stare at each other for a minute. Sebastian watches Bach's familiar body language. Summoning up traces of determination, Bach wrestles a frown to a smile. "Yeah, it's insane and fucked up when you break it down. But... Everyone got out safe, and we kept those cybernetic monsters from getting loose. I don't think anyone else was going to get it done before really bad stuff started to happen."

Nodding with pride, Sebastian drifts back satisfied. "And that's what you have to focus on. It's a hard balance between striving for the best outcome and keeping aware of what it is you actually do. But, that's a balance you want to maintain. I've seen what happens when it goes too far one way or another. Not a good time either way."

Bach wanders his attention around the front yard and sighs. Taking in the nice sun filled scenery, he gazes off across the two lane road into the large open field bordered by greening forest. Sebastian floats next to Bach and stares off into the same distance. "Too nice of a day for any more heavy shit, bro."

Bach simply nods with a smile. "Yeah. I'm feeling okay for now, brother. Thanks for the talk. I kind of need to get that stuff out of my head. By the way, what's everyone else up to?"

Sebastian tilts his head to the side and furrows his brow thoughtfully. "I think Sotalia and Aristespha were analyzing the magical material stuff you made for practice yesterday?"

Grimacing into an unamused frown, Bach groans in disgust. "Well, I'm not going in there for a while. Already feel like enough of a lab rat for them."

Sebastian directs a thumb towards the side of the house with a scheming glint to his eyes. "Dretphi and Cideeda should be sorting through all the random melee weapons we've picked up-"

Bach swiftly sets off towards the side of the house, swinging an arm out ahead to signal Sebastian. "Sold! Sounds like fun to me."

Aristespha slides a box of paper with her foot, clear of the recliner. She swiftly drops into the recliner, pulls the handle for the foot rest, and spreads a blanket over her. "We've got about five minutes. Last week's rerun is finishing up."

Switching out a bowl under the spout of the hot air popcorn popper, Dretphi hands Bach the popcorn filled bowl. Bach ferries it with another in his hands over to the coffee table. Sebastian zips through the sliding glass door and drifts down to Aristespha's side. Wrapping herself tighter in the blanket, Aristespha gazes curiously to Sebastian. "Where have you been, Sebastian? You disappeared earlier today."

Pointing a thumb out the sliding glass door, Sebastian twists his mouth to the side intrigued. "I saw some lights coming from a house on the big plot diagonal to this one. It's the first time I've ever seen activity over there. Thought I'd check it out."

Aristespha settles deeper into the plush cushions of the recliner and tilts her ivory face. "Probably the property management company getting it ready for new renters, if I had to guess. Many of these properties are rentals."

Sebastian hovers closer and wanders his gaze towards the television. "That makes sense. I couldn't get close enough to make out anything, since I hit the limit from the sword. Anyway, apart from that, not much else is happening around here."

Furrowing her brow, Aristespha guides a few stray silvery blue hairs back and glances her violet eyes out into the evening beyond the sliding glass door nearby. "If I remember correctly, I explored that property as an option but it was not ready to rent when we needed it.

A bowl of popcorn lowers down near her. She happily lifts her hands underneath the blanket, and Bach places the bowl right between. Dropping off the other bowl on the coffee table, Bach departs back to the kitchen. Checking to see if anyone is paying attention to her, Aristespha smiles mischievously. With swift hand gestures underneath the blanket and soft incantations, her violet eyes briefly flicker. A small helping of popcorn drifts from the bowl into her mouth. Crunching down on the popcorn, she catches the mockingly judgmental glare of Sebastian. "Whut?"

Shaking his head, Sebastian sways his attention back to the television. Aristespha rolls her faintly glowing eyes and another batch of popcorn leaves the bowl. "Oh, please... You'd do it, too."

Dretphi immediately switches out another bowl under the popcorn popper and gives the freshly full bowl to Bach. Zipping through the hallway archway, Cideeda vaults over the couch arm and deftly maneuvers to the opposite end. Her long, fluffy tail wraps around her, and her clawed fingers reach out eagerly for the bowl of popcorn on the coffee table. The last of the popcorn drops out of the popper. Both Dretphi and Bach carry a bowl each from the kitchen into the living area. Shuffling between the coffee table, Dretphi settles onto the middle spot of the couch. Bach lines up to get between the coffee table and couch.

Sotalia's voice sounds out. "Hey, Bach!"

Freezing, Bach stands upright and pivots towards the kitchen. Searching the area, he squints confused. A flow of air accompanies a hazy blur directly behind him. Sounds of scrambling over a couch arm sound out along with a struggling grunt. Bach spins back around and snaps his gaze at the previously empty spot at the end of the couch. Causally waving off the last traces of magical mist off herself, Sotalia slowly stretches her legs onto her part of the coffee table, wiggles into the cushions, and puts her arms behind her head. Grinning with smug self-satisfaction, she perks her brow. "Oh, too bad. I guess you'll just have to get your own seat."

Narrowing his blue eyes at Sotalia, Bach cocks his head. Maintaining her smug attitude, Sotalia gently twists into the cushions more and flashes a sly smile. Bach stares at her briefly. A smirk forms on his light tan face and gradually grows into a grin. He lifts an eyebrow at Sotalia with an amused tone. "Well... I guess I will."

Sebastian blinks away from the programming on the television and turns his attention to his brother. Lifting his free hand up, Bach stretches his arms and flexes his fingers as a blue glow pulses from his eyes. Sotalia's smug attitude cracks, and she tenses her body and widens her golden gaze. Following Sebastian's focus, the rest of the team watches expectantly. Bach's hand twists down and drops just above the height of the couch. A framework of magical energy flows out and spreads to the floor. The framework fills in, and reveals an emerging structure. Parts materialize into existence, shift into place, and arrange to form a greater whole. Within the minute, the stabilized energy manifests fully, and a deck chair solidifies completely with translucent cushioning in the right places. Laying into the chair with another word, Bach magically adjusts it and scoops out a handful of popcorn from his bowl.

Sotalia gawks at the new chair, while Dretphi suppresses a laugh behind a hand. Leaning into view around Dretphi, Cideeda gives a quick thumbs up to Bach. Both Sebastian and Aristespha nod with approval. The television blares out the iconic intro music for the Next Adventurers of Nexus show.

"With that recap out of the way ladies and gentlemen, let's see what our adventurers were up!"

The screen cuts to a shot of Chad Bosch. Sitting by himself in a room for individual interviews that's decorated with a simple chair, background, and some lighting, he draws in a deep breath. "We decided to pursue a contract to investigate an old military facility where there may have been some recent activity. As the leader, I believe it would be the perfect mission to test team cohesion. But first, we needed to get supplies and equipment."

Clips and segments showcase the Flames of the Phoenix team shopping. A video journal segment shows Deedri uncomfortably sitting in the individual interview room. "Well, I've only done small medical supplies orders for myself. I never had to get everything for a whole team! Unfortunately, it took a lot longer than I expected. But, the people at the pharmacy were really nice and understanding! But... There was this one evuukian woman. Um, she didn't seem happy. I overheard her grumbling and-"

A piece of paper finds its way into Deedri's hands from an out of frame source, and she blinks at it confused. "Oh! Uh, what is this?"

From off camera a woman's voice speaks. "That's a translation of what that woman said."

Deedri's auburn eyes follow each sentence. Hints of distress slip out with each line she reads, until she covers her fair face with a hand in shock. Staring wide eyed at the bottom of the page, she grabs hold of the bell on the collar around her neck, muffling ring. "S-she wanted to put my bell WHERE?!"

Attention in the room turns to Aristespha. Crossing her arms, she returns an unamused and unapologetic glance to everyone else. "I'm not sorry."

Another clip shows Trakenthin seeking Dretphi's attention and the prompt denial by the group arriving. Trakenthin observes from a distance and notices Dretphi giving a warm smile to Bach. Trakenthin trains a sneering glare right at the back of Bach's head. Bach squirms uncomfortably when Trakenthin cracks his knuckles.

The next segment shows Tassilda posing for the camera and presenting her choice books with purposeful positioning of the material in compliment to her figure. Through the narrow gaps between the tops of books and bottom of shelves, Sotalia, Bach, and Cideeda occasionally show up in the frame of the shot. A few more shopping segments play out before a cut to the adventurers meeting together and planning for the mission. After a fade to the next day, the segment continues with an outside shot of the Amaranth Dining House. With a swipe cut inside, Chad walks and talks to the camera. He takes time to greet the soldiers. Then, he focuses upon Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia at their table. The video playback dramatically hangs upon the group into a slowdown to a freeze frame. Different angles of the team appear, and quick shots of each member follow. Unease swells through the living room, and an uncomfortable pressure looms heavy and thick.

Chad's voice cuts mid way into the sequence with a hard cut over to him in the individual interview room. "This group... I got a strange feeling about this group. There was something about them I couldn't quite put my finger on."

Tassilda's voice interrupts an individual shot of Sotalia. "Oh. I've had to deal with HER kind before..."

Sotalia sneers and narrows her golden eyes at the screen. "MY kind? That. BITCH."

The screen shows Tassilda in the interview room, sitting with proper posture. She takes in a deep breath and exaggerates her chest movement with a sly smile. "Yes, she is of the ilk that try, often in vain, to tap into the magic potential of their ancestry. But, unfortunately, especially for her... Their distance from their Emin ancestors is often too far for significant results."

Facial twitches of confined anger flit upon Sotalia's light tan and dark gray face, while those around watch for further development. The show cuts to a clip of Aristespha before switching to Modoran. He calmly sits in the interview chair, arms stretching behind his head and an idle smirk on his face. "I really don't know what everyone's problem is. I thought the evuukian was pretty cute. It's kind of a pity she left before I had a chance to talk to her and all. I caught sight of her leaving... I wonder if she's spoken for?"

Sebastian's blue-white ghostly form sparks hints of small flame-like distortions around the edges. A segment plays back Cideeda awkwardly waving to Deedri. Cringing at the display, Cideeda sinks into the couch. "Gods. Damn it. Of course, they used THAT clip."

Deedri sits in the interview chair and excitedly fidgets. "There was another fvalian on the team! She seems really nice and even waved at me! I hope I get a chance to talk to her in the future."

Viewing the screen in abject horror, Cideeda slowly shakes her head with a wince and mouths. "Please. No."

A video clip with Dretphi plays out. It cuts to Trakenthin, and he silently stares stoically to some point off camera. The camera shifts and zooms on Trakenthin, and he gives a dismissive snort. The show cuts to another segment. Dretphi groans to herself, places her face into her palm, and breathes a hard sigh. The show highlights some footage of Bach at the restaurant. Chad tips head back and his nose high. "Well, I guess it's nice they're helping out a drop out get back on the right path."

In subsequent clip, Tassilda quirks brow and rolls light blue on black her eyes. "I guess they thought they needed a token human."

Following the prior segment, Deedri searches overhead in her mind while tapping a claw tip on her lips, and simply shrugs. "I guess he seems okay. What does he do?"

Immediately after the previous sequence, Modoran's attention lies elsewhere. A female voice out of frame hems, and Modoran snaps his head back to the camera. He squints his dark blue eyes at something off camera. "Huh? Oh. Um? Sure. Whatever."

Finally, Trakenthin crosses his dark bronze arms, narrows his hazel eyes with flecks of anger, gusts in air through his nose with a rattle, and spits a wad of phlegm onto the floor. Bach blinks in disbelief and gawks in shock. Leaning forward, he glances around to the rest of the assembled group and his arms out to the sides. "Okay... THE FUCK was THAT?!"

Sebastian gazes over to his brother and twists his ethereal face confused. "I don't know, bro. They certainly gave you a special treatment."

"Looks like our Adventurers may have some friendly competition... Or not! Who are these people? Why are they here? And more importantly, what did they do NEXT!? All will be answered!"

The music drops into a suspenseful tune, and the video clips fade in. Chad sits in the interview chair with disgust and resentment plain on his tan face. "We hit a snag. That's to be expected with any adventure. We were regrouping and getting ready to make the rescue and be THE heroes. Then... They showed up. Strangely, just right at THE perfect time to swoop on in."

The show transitions to another clip with Tassilda. She crosses her arms and pouts defiantly. "They kept us away. We never got a chance to go back in there and prove ourselves. How DARE they take that away from us! We could have handled the rescue without question."

A final clip of the adventurers around a table shows them complaining back and forth, getting upset and yelling at each other. The screen fades away from the program and a commercial flashes up.

Sotalia shoots up from the couch, slips from behind the coffee table, and marches over to the kitchen. Opening the cabinet above, she reveals a variety of different glassware. Pulling back doors below the counter top, she procures multiple bottles of alcoholic beverages. She straightens up and wryly smiles at everyone in the living room. "So. Raise your hand, if you want a drink."

Hands go up for everyone, including Sebastian. Noticing the attention, Sebastian shrugs with a sigh. "Yeah, I know. But, I can still WANT one."

Turning her head away from Sebastian and towards the kitchen bar, Aristespha notices a new alert on one of her tablets on the coffee table. She picks up the tablet, props it up on her lap, and taps in a password. Flipping through the notification and alerts, a message from the local guild office blinks for attention. Opening the message, she reads the first few lines. Her head tilts back puzzling, and she furrows her brow, leaning close to read. Sotalia readies glasses and assesses the resources available. "Okay, I can mix a few good ones with these. What do you want, Aristespha?"

Aristespha darts her violet eyes between text messages. The perplexed expression on her ivory face and lack of awareness beckons the interest of the team. Returning to present reality, she notices the attention from everyone else. "Oh. Sorry. We just got a message from the local guild office. Someone just directly bid an existing contract to us."

On the living area television screen, a segment of Deedri happily chimes. "I know I keep saying it, I'm just excited there's another fvalian in the other team. It's just nice having someone else that could-"

The screen blanks to black. Cideeda pulls a claw out of the soft plastic power button on the remote and tosses it onto the couch. Turning to walk to the dining table, she shudders uncomfortably with a tinge of disgust. "Little creepy."

Aristespha picks up the whiskey glass of dark amber liquor and calmly sips. She directs her voice towards Bach, across at the table. "It's not unusual for different patrons to all bid on the same contract. In fact, that can help a common problem between multiple parties get the best group to address it."

Sotalia sits back, stirs the mix within her glass, and rolls a hand out to punctuate. "Yeah. Let's say a town has a bandit problem. At first, the one merchant that ran into them might set an initial bid. Then, later, as the bandits harass the town, other people with some money will throw in more into the overall pot. Eventually, it gets good enough that a decent team takes it and gets it done right, rather than a desperate group attempting it and fucking it up."

Holding a finger up, Aristespha slowly points down at the tablet in front of her. "But... What can also happen is that a patron can put in a bid with stipulations. It is often used for contract conditions on bounty hunting with the payout difference between the target being dead or alive. It can also be for limiting availability to groups with specific skills sets or requiring conduct conditions. Now, bids restricted to specific groups through the guild system are uncommon."

Settling into her seat, Cideeda claws the cap off of her bottle of beer and cocks her head of multi-color short hair, bewildered. "A specific group with an unpublished ID number? That's RARE."

Sebastian's ethereal visage drifts next to Aristespha, and his eyes trace text on the tablet. Taking a moment to appreciate the aroma from Aristespha's whiskey glass, he shifts his attention to Bach. "Yeah, most of our families know our team's ID number. And, we've gotten direct work by references and even contracts forwarded our way. Some really good ones, too."

He directs Bach's attention to Dretphi. Nodding as she holds her large bottle of cider with both hands, Dretphi furrows her brow and recounts. "My birth father maintains Grath military connections. There were contracts we were allowed. Hidden from the public."

Aristespha tips back a little of her drink, exhales, and narrows her violet eyes at the tablet screen. "What we have here is a direct bid to our unpublished ID number for a two month old contract that paid very little before to what is offered now... From a patron, undisclosed, with an ID number I don't recognize."

The gathering around the table idle amongst their own thoughts with hints of deliberation playing out in expressions and body language. Bach tips his head up, narrows a stare at the television, and furrows his brow curiously. "And... We got sent the job right after we were on TV. Maybe someone recognized you guys?"

Dretphi puzzles at Aristespha and drops her steely gray eyes at the tablet. "What IS the job?"

Shrugging her shoulders, she slowly shakes her head. "Ah. It is an investigation of some odd disturbances in a forest reserve an hour's travel from here. No major threats or problems listed. Just some strange activity has been scaring people away when they travel around, camp, or visit the area. There isn't much more in the description. The local park service put a really low bid initially... And now it's a very high sum."

Aristespha gently slides the tablet to the middle of the table. The payout number lights up prominently on the screen. The team leans in together, and different degrees of interest and surprise manifest between them. Resting back in her seat, Aristespha watches the group to process the amount. "So. Should we investigate? Personally, I am intrigued."

Sotalia knocks back a bit from her glass and shrugs amused. "Sure! If they want to pay us that much to wander around a damn forest, that's fine with me."

Cideeda quirks her brow and gently scratches her chin. "It's weird how we got this. But, it's not the first time. There's more to this, but for that amount I'm willing to take a look."

Dretphi nods in agreement. Bach watches the reactions and slowly nods. "Yeah, I've got no objections. If it's not another cyber-zombie den, I can work with that."

Sebastian grins proudly and clasps his hands together. "Awesome! Well, if tomorrow sounds good, let's do it. For now, let's find something else to watch on the TV and get a good night's rest."