Episode 9

A gentle breeze coasts over the tops of the fresh green canopy below and sifts through the thickening forest foliage. The wind sways young branches and flutters the pedals off new blooms. Reaching the perimeter around a cleared area, the strength of the gust dies and deposits a few old, decayed leaves in the thick patches of grass surrounding a gravel lot. With a swift turn of the front wheels, the humvee pulls into the parking space closest to the wide paved pathway leading between small buildings nearby. A faint squeak of brakes sounds out, and the powerplant inside the machine winds down to silence. Cideeda hops out from the driver's seat with a happy grin as the wind blows through her short, multicolored hair. Stretching her arms out, she lets the breeze ripple across her dark green, short-sleeve shirt. Sotalia steps onto a crumbling of asphalt and flips open a pair of sunglasses. Placing them on her light tan and dark gray face, she smiles as another gust tosses her loosely worn button down shirt over her bikini top and jean shorts. Aristespha glides down from the vehicle and turns around to retrieve a backpack behind her seat. Hoisting it up, she adjusts the backpack straps and her indigo blouse. With a final check, she guides the hilt of the Sword of the Spirit realm comfortably in the middle of her back, hides the sheath's straps with the backpack straps. Lifting another backpack out, she hands it to Cideeda and puts on her floppy hat. Bach lugs a large backpack around from behind his seat and throws it on over his loose-fitting t-shirt. He slides his seat forward and clears the way for Dretphi to shuffle out from the backseat. Sotalia puts on her belt of pouches and confidently struts out, peeking her golden eyes over her sun tipped down sunglasses. "Well, this doesn't seem so bad, right now. It's beginning to get that abandoned feel, but still better than some places we've been."

Aristespha circles around the front of the humvee and stands at Sotalia's side with an inquisitive perk to her brow. "It said in the briefing that they have done everything short of officially closing the area to the public. All events canceled, no posted times, and all services suspended. It is practically closed."

Cideeda checks the doors on the humvee and clicks the security system on with the key fob. "So, what's the plan?"

Sebastian's ethereal voice emanates from Aristespha's back. "Check the visitor area, and then hike the main trail? From what it sounds like, whatever was scaring people wasn't isolated to any particular spot. So, we might as well try the major paths and see if we run into anything."

Rolling his shoulders, Bach adjusts his backpack to a comfortable spot on his back. Scanning the path ahead between overgrown grasses and the park picnic furniture, he stops his gaze at rows of the rough wooden frame buildings and curls his upper lip, hinting of apprehension. "I guess that sounds decent enough. But... I'll admit a few of these buildings look straight off a horror movie set."

Dretphi joins up with the group, checks the knife sheath on her thigh, and cinches up the straps on her hiking pack over her tank top. "I think we could be mistaken for hikers."

Aristespha scrutinizes appearances, furrows her brow momentarily, and nods satisfied. "It is close enough. Nothing in the briefing indicated the disturbances so far caused any significant physical harm. But, we would be best to keep it low-key and avoid unnecessarily escalating the situation."

Reaching her arms up high, Sotalia arches her back in a stretch, and relaxes her postures with a sigh. "So? How are we going to do this? Building by building? They don't seem too big, so we should be able to clear them fast."

Retrieving her aetherphone from her capri shorts pocket, Aristespha browses the device and taps up a map of the area. "The largest building far away is the visitor center. There's one building for gift shop stalls and one on the opposite side for vending. Finally, there's the bathrooms and the utility building."

Sebastian's voice resonates from the sword on Aristespha's back, covered by the backpack. "Okay... Let's split up to check the small buildings, and then we'll meet up for the visitor center. I'll stay out of view for now, since I don't think most hikers have a ghost following them around. Let's try to keep up some appearances for now. Keep around the area, don't wander too far out of sight of others, and hit the alert on your phone if anything gets weird."

The walks down the paved path between the natural reserve wooden buildings. They split up to investigate. Aristespha wanders towards the vendor stalls. Dretphi taps Bach on the shoulder and points towards the bathrooms. Bach stares at the long rectangle structure with rows of doors on two sides, and nods. Each takes a side and carefully opens the doors to individual restrooms. Cideeda slinks cautiously to the utility shed, studies the locked door, and curiously glances around the area. Resting her hands on her hands, Sotalia lifts a brow at the activity around her and grimaces indecisively. Her attention wanders to a closed up snack with an extended roof sheltering rows of vending machines. With a nonchalant shrug, she struts down a branch route towards the area.

Minutes leading to an hour pass, and the morning sun rises higher towards the center of the clear blue sky above. Holding her floppy hat down against the breeze, Aristespha stands outside the visitor center on the long, wide walkway leading to the main doors. Narrowing her violet eyes at the many windows, she hunts for a glimpse inside through the reflections, tint, and dirt. Sprinting up to speed from the walkway, Cideeda perches herself up on a low, rough wooden fence near Aristespha. She smiles contentedly, wags her long, fluffy tail, and perks her furry ears. "Well, nothing to speak of in the utility building. Well, except for a lock on the door.

Rolling her emerald green ears, she flashes a toothy grin. "But, THAT wasn't hard at all."

Aristespha angles her head towards Cideeda and crosses her arms thoughtfully. "Did everything look normal to you? Anything out of place?"

Cideeda digs her claws into the wooden beam beneath her. Leaning herself back, she stretches her light brown legs out, and balances herself gracefully on the fence. "Looks like the park crews turned everything off properly. There were some marks on the door frame around the handle. Just looks like some kid with too much time and a stick tried their best to break in. Obviously, it didn't work out for them."

Her furry ears flick back, and she tips her head back. She spots the rest of the group approaching, and tips her balance forward back to an upright seat on the wooden beam. Pushing her arms down on the wooden beam, she pops herself up, swings her legs over, and spins around to face the other side of the face. Settling back down to a seat, she waves over to the rest of the team and muses to Aristespha. "Seems like nothing too exciting happened with everyone else."

Glancing over her shoulder, Aristespha pivots around in place and meets the gazes of everyone else. "Anything to report?"

Dretphi shakes her head and works out a stale grimace. "Bathrooms are clear. Have not been visited for some time... Including cleaning staff."

Bach nods in agreement and shudders with a brief frown. "Yeah... I think we're better taking our chances behind a bush, if anyone needs to go.

Glancing at Aristespha, he points a thumb over his shoulder at the gift shop stalls. "Did you find anything? Because all that looked pretty empty from walking by up here."

Aristespha shrugs indifferently and sighs. "No. There has been some sign of activity, but I believe it was the park employees clearing out inventory."

Swallowing down a bite from a chocolate bar, Sotalia directs everyone's attention to the vending area with the partially unwrapped candy. "Well, someone broke the windows on all the vending machines. They nearly cleaned them out of everything."

She snaps another morsel from the chocolate bar and slowly chews. Surrounding attention settles upon her, and she swallows with a long pause following. Underneath the sun glasses, her golden eyes dart between gazes, and she defensively puffs herself up. "What?! This was the last one left! If you want, there's plenty of granola bars left. Whoever broke into those things obviously didn't like those."

Rolling her violet eyes, Aristespha pivots to face the visitor center. "Anyway... I am getting a strange feeling from the visitor center."

Cocking her head to the side, Sotalia blinks her golden eyes and squints curiously at the visitor center. "Well, I'm not feeling any strong magic from there, girl."

Aristespha shakes her head and holds her chin as she scrutinizes the spaces beyond the larger glass windows. "It's not strictly magical energies, but more of a presence. It's similar to what I've felt before... We'll have to get inside and investigate."

Cideeda hops off the wooden fence and walks towards the front door while flexing her clawed fingers. "Sounds good to me. Let me check those front doors out."

Standing next to the metal framed glass window doors, she studies the construction of the entry. She peers through at angles and spots the locks and other supporting hardware. After scanning the outer frame, she presses her light brown forehead against the glass and darts her emerald green eyes into the darkened interior. Focusing on the top and bottom deadbolts, she furrows her brow, puzzling. She steps back confused with quirks of her furry ears, wags her tail with her thoughts, and steps back staring at the entryway. "Okay. The doors don't seem locked. The deadbolts on both doors are disengaged. And, I don't see anything that's obviously a trap, or even an alarm on them."

Backing away from the door, Cideeda gestures hands towards the doors and wiggles her fingers, perking her brow at the group. Sotalia cracks a slight grin, proudly straightens her posture, and stretches her arms and hands out. "A telekinetic pull sound good to everyone? Just to make sure?"

Aristespha, Bach, and Dretphi collectively nod and move off into the grass near the concrete path leading away from the doors. Reciting an incantation, Sotalia gestures a well rehearsed sequence of motions. She reaches a hand out in a grabbing gesture to one of the door handles. With a sly smile, she pulls back and the visitor center door opens in sync with her hand motion. The door swings a quarter of the way and stops. Sotalia's eyes spring wide open startled, and she reflexively opens her hand. The door slams shut with a resounding crash, and the door frame rattles. Tilts her head while narrowing her stare, Sotalia grimaces with waning confidence and cautiously retreats back to the group. "Something... Broke my hold of the door."

She glances over the rest of the team and combs back her dark red hair of her swept back black horns. "THAT was really WEIRD. I felt there was magic behind it... But, something else, too?"

Training her gaze at the door, Aristespha approaches methodically, carefully. Within a few meters of the door, Sebastian's ethereal form immediately materializes in front of her. "STOP."

Aristespha halts in place and blinks her concern at Sebastian. "Okay, but why though?"

Sebastian hovers around and searches the area in vain with an uneasy grimace. "I don't know, dear. I just felt something strange. The sword picked up on SOMETHING, and I felt it. But, I don't know how to interpret it. Ah, um... I'm at a loss here, but I KNOW I felt something unusual."

Checking the immediate area, he settles his translucent blue stare right at the front doors. He straightens up his form and warily watches the doors. "There's... Some things... Behind the door? I see some faint, wavy shapes."

Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia ready themselves into defensive postures. Sotalia holds her hands forward in preparation to cast. Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi each unzip a side pocket of their backpacks, reach inside, and wait. Aristespha waves an open palm to the team and squints her eyes as they glow violet. Her eyes widen and her jaw hangs agape. Shaking her head, she recovers her senses. Standing up straight and hands held close, she closes her eyes and concentrates. Moments later, a field of shimmering energy forms between her hands. Dretphi gazes at the door, then turns her attention to Aristespha. "What is at the door?"

Aristespha flutters her eyes open with a bright stare. "We are about to find out."

With a swift motion, she flings her hands out in an arc to her sides. The shimmering energy expands into a bubbling wave and swells out into the vicinity. As the tide washes through the visitor's center, dozens of small glowing entities appear at the front doors along with a large being resembling a huge badger. It tightens clawed grips on the interior handles for the front doors. Aristespha meets its glare. "Well..."

Cideeda gawks and blinks dumbfounded at the badger entity, pointing a finger at it. "Okay... What is that?!"

Dretphi draws her head of platinum blonde braids back, furrows her brow, and narrows her stare. "That form is similar to a dire badger."

Keeping her stance at the ready, Sotalia desperately glances at everyone else for some indication for how to proceed. "Okay. So, that's probably a spirit? Maybe a sprite? Gods, that's really fucking big sprite..."

Bach relaxes his posture, and his focus drifts between the many small orbs tightly hovering behind the badger. Removing his hand out his backpack pocket, he zips it back up, while both Cideeda and Dretphi notice. He puzzles at the situation before him and motions towards the orbs. "Hey, everyone... I think the badger is defending the sprites by holding the door shut. Maybe we should ease back here?"

Cideeda and Dretphi each zip up the side pockets of their backpacks and relax their stances from defensive to cautious. Sotalia puts her hands down, while keeping an eye on the ghostly dire badger. "Okay... I guess that makes sense. But, how is the over-sized sprite defending anything by holding a door shut?"

Hissing a breath through gritted teeth, Aristespha rolls her eyes and exhales a groan of disappointment. "Bach. After you are done with that copy of the Spirit Guide, give it to her!"

She snaps a stern stare over the rest of the team and wrestles down her unease on her ivory, blue and gray hinted face. "This is NOT a sprite. It's a full fledged daemon! Fairly powerful and quite intelligent spirits that are usually sentient and VERY capable."

An reverberating presence echoes out over the area. "Correct."

Aristespha's glowing violet eyes slowly tow her head to face the daemon. Cideeda's furry ears snap forward at the door, and she remains motionless as fends of a whole body squirm and fluffing tail. Dretphi maintains her calm, stoic exterior, but stiffens her upper lip. Sotalia remains speechless and cocks her head in blinking disbelief. Bach and Sebastian exchange uneasy glances, shrugs, and hand signals. Regaining her composure, Aristespha politely addresses the daemon with a calm, reserved tone. "Excuse me, spirit. Why are you here, holding the doors closed?"

A low voice resonates through the air around the front doors, and faint metallic rattles slip out around the frame. "Defend."

Cautiously drawing breath, Aristespha nods as hints of concern well into her expression. "From?"

The badger daemon's ghostly eyes search for the words. "Abuser. People here, Abuser avoid. Hide safely. People not here, Abuser near. I defend. I can ignore abuser, they can not."

Bach's mind flings up recent memory as he tilts his head to the side. He furrows his brow while his eyes search through his thoughts. "Oh shit... There might be a spirit mage in the area."

Sotalia catches that idea, ponders to herself, and nods in agreement. "That could explain the strange disturbances without any solid explanation. Even a rookie investor mage would have figured out if someone was using regular magic to cause all the problems. But... Spirit stuff is harder to identify, since it's spirits doing all the work, rather than someone just casting spells."

Crossing her arms as faint irritation swells up, Aristespha stares into the daemon's eyes and inquires resolutely. "Where and who is this abuser?"

The same detached voice echoes into the area. "Big path. Always near. Awake now, will find. Careful. Bold now, desperate, waiting... Similar to you."

Aristespha lowers her head, intrigued, and puzzles out loud. "Similar to me? Interesting..."

Sebastian shrugs and dissipates back into the sword hidden on Aristespha's back. "So, I guess we do some hiking."

Aristespha bows respectfully to the daemon. "Thank you for the information. We will try to address this abuser."

The badger daemon nods appreciatively and its voice emanates out from the door. "Must stay here. Good fortune. Hide now."

Readjusting her floppy hat, Aristespha glances over her shoulder. "That sounds like a plan."

Sebastian's voice rises up and addresses the team. "Okay! Keep alert and let's see if we can find this abuser and what's causing the disturbances."

The group reassembles and makes its way to the main hiking path. Bach lingers behind and gazes at the spirit entities when they fade from sight. He walks around the corner of the building and hears a high pitch whine coming from his backpack. Snapping to attention, he stops immediately and quickly unzips the backpack's side pocket. An audible click sounds out and electrical whine tapers off. Bach sighs relieved and zips the side pocket back up. Lifting his face forward, he halts in place and stiffens his posture. Darting his blue around searching, he pivots towards the building and meets the daemon's curious stare through a window. A voice softly sounds near Bach's ears. "You... Hide. Hold. Why?"

Bach's guard slips and his eyes widen in uncomfortable realization. Confusion, shock, worry, and embarrassment bubble up on his face, splashing up and washing away to the whims of the next. Finally, an overwhelming honesty cuts through the turmoil, and Bach drops his head with a sad frown. "Fear."

The badger daemon simply nods and moves away from the window. "Understand, now. Not forever."

Recomposing himself, Bach draws in a deep calming breath and rushes along the path to catch up to the group. Contemplation flits on his face, but he fades back down upon nearing the team.

Noon sun slips through the spare, young canopy above as the party travels down a well worn rock and earth trail. Above the ambient drone of wind sifting through the leaves, Sotalia exhales in frustration and clenches her fists in front of her. "Dammit! You keep on telling me that the series gets good, and it's just been a non-stop drama rollercoaster!"

Chuckling to herself with a smug grin on her light brown face, Cideeda glances over to Sotalia. "You have to invest into it. Patience, you need."

Groaning, Sotalia shakes head, tightly purses her lips, blows air out, and relaxes to an unsatisfied grimace. "FINE. BUT... If I pull my horns off from frustration, I'm blaming you."

Bach shrugs contentedly with a smile. "This is why I stick to reading Tales of the Orion. No drama fatigue."

Watching the clouds go by in the blue sky between the foliage of the trees, Dretphi calmly walks with the group. "Forest canopy is thickening. Summer will be here soon."

Aristespha glances up and searches overhead, while holding her hat against the strong breeze. "It is. I wonder if we are-"

Furrowing her brow, her violet eyes dart between the dimming light flickering between the openings in the trees above. "Is it getting darker for anyone else?"

Dretphi squints and notices a strange change in illumination. "Yes. Something is shading the sky from us? Do not know what. Magic?"

Sebastian's voice emanates from the sword softly. "Heads up. The sword is feeling some activity around us."

Bach, Cideeda, and Sotalia stop their debate and search the nearby area. The wind fades away and leaves behind a still, stagnant air. The light in the area declines rapidly. The group halts expectantly.


Heads seek the source of the low, booming voice. Echoes bounce around the surrounding forest, and the darkened vicinity obscures the origin. Cideeda's furry ears flick around scanning, and she grumbles low with a frustrated shake of her head. Sotalia plucks off her sunglasses, closes them up, and places them in her shorts pocket.


Promptly counting the members around him, Bach closes his eyes, breathes out in begrudging anticipation, and strains a grin.


The rest of the team glances at Bach. Placing his face into his palm, Bach grumbles to himself. He rubs the bridge of his nose and vainly tries to suppress his simmering annoyance in voice. "Why? Why put that on me? Don't even know me and dumping that shit on me. Powers that be, fuck me."


The last part echoes throughout the area and fades into a dead silence. The group stands resolute and waits expectantly.


In the distance a chorus of trees rustle. A wall of wind rockets down the path, sweeping up dirt and other debris inside a swirling torrent. Sotalia quickly gestures an incantation and steps forward with a both hands flung out. A thick energy shield rises from the ground to just above Dretphi's towering height. Aristespha finishes her casting and throws a hand up into the air. A barrier bubbles over the group and meshes with Sotalia's shield. The chaotic wall of wind blasts past. Sticks and tiny rocks pelt the shield and barrier. Almost a minute later, the wave dies down and the last bits of debris bounce into the surrounding leaves of the trail. Sotalia and Aristespha release their energy barriers, and the energies dissipate away.


Cideeda reflexively springs up and instinctively leaps away towards the middle of the path. "LEGS! Watch your legs! Something tried to grab me!"

From the underbrush, swarming masses of vines slither and whip out. Dretphi draws her knife and postures herself defensively. Swiping purposefully, she counters attack after attack, slices taking end segments off vines each time. Sotalia backs away from the swarm and prepares a spell. As she raises her hand back for the final part, a plant strand wraps around her arm and yanks her back. Long stretches of ivy peel off the trees and descend upon the melee. Cideeda nearly rips open the zipper of her side pocket and draws out her laser pistol. With careful flicks of the wrist, she carves searing paths through the vines with blue beam bursts. Bach sprints and grips the vine pulling Sotalia with blue radiating from his eyes. Part of the vine snaps out from Bach's grip, cleanly cut. Sotalia wrestles the uncoiling the vine from her arm and finishes her spell. A freezing jet bursts forth from her hand onto the vine mass after her. Frost coats over the plan and freezes into to crackling stillness. Sotalia kicks through it with her boot, and it fractures into misty chunks upon the forest floor. Aristespha releases the buckles on her backpack straps. Firmly grasping the sword's handle, she swiftly draws the blade free. Stepping forth, she spins and slashes low with the momentum. She cuts high to split a descending vine and drops the blade down onto a vine sneaking along the trail. Bach watches in astonishment, and recognition dawns on his face. Sebastian materializes above the group and follows the scene in initial surprise. Recovering quickly, he calls out attacks. "Dretphi, twelve high! Aristespha, nine low! Cideeda, six mid!"

More vines rip from tree trunks, and whole sections of the ivy covered forest floor writhe under the blanket of old leaves towards the battle. A plant mass pulls from two trees nearby and joins a rolling swarm. Bach shakes his head, grits his teeth, and pulls his plasma pistol out from his backpack side pocket. "MAN, FUCK THIS!"

Bach hits the power button to full and disengages the safety. The pistol sounds out with an empowered whine. With a pull of the trigger, the weapon ejects a plasma bolt into the center of the rolling heap of vines. The bolt explodes with a fiery super-heated eruption of gas and incinerates a huge chunk of plant matter. The surrounding portion ignites into billowing fire and plumes out crackling cinders into leaf piles.

A higher pitched voice blares out into the area. "W-w-w-what are you doing?! You fucking maniac! Are you trying to cause a forest fire!?"

Many vines drop limp, and others abruptly halt their attacks. Flaming vines separate from the swarm and beat themselves out, rolling onto the dirt. Bach glances behind him to the rest of the team, quirks his brow curiously, and points his free hand to his ear. "HEY! Did that sound like a teen-aged girl to anyone else?"

Cideeda cocks her head, furrows her brow, and nods in growing agreement. "Yeah. Yes, it did."

Meeting Bach's inquiring gaze, Sotalia thinks for a moment and pulls an evil grin across her light tan face. "I don't know. Maybe we need to hear it, AGAIN."

Dretphi perks a brow, Sebastian gives a thumbs up, and Aristespha nods once. Bach spots another still mass of vines and squeezes the trigger. Another bolt flies out the barrel and explodes another bundle into a blaze.

"Oh. My. Goddess! What is wrong with you?! This is a FOREST! Stop setting fires!!"

Putting her hands on her hips, Sotalia processes this new information with indignation spilling out into her. "That- Gods, that does sound like a teen-aged girl."

Aristespha narrows her glare and closes her eyes with a long, annoyed sigh. "I think we ARE dealing with a CHILD. The wind wall was weak. Impressive looking, but lacking any significant power behind it."

Kneels down cautiously, Dretphi examines the inert vines at her feet. She pulls them apart with trivial effort and cocks her head with a frown. "Thin vines. Even the tree vines are not thick. Few attacked at a time."

Sebastian touches down on the ground perplexed. "You know... I'm surprised the tree roots didn't spring up, and the tree branches did reach out to swipe at us. We've encountered worse before."

Bach stares down the sights of his pistol and aims at another pile of leafy vines. "She either doesn't know the spell or isn't powerful to cast it- Hold a second, she's almost got the last two put out."

Pulling the trigger again, the plasma gun ejects another superheated ball into the vine mass on the forest floor. The writhing plants erupt into flame, and fiery bits splatter out in the area.


Aristespha focuses her violet glowing eyes and analyzes a bundle of limp vines. Her eyes follow the twisting mass up a tree and into the overhead canopy. Tapping her foot, she bites her lower lip and narrows her thoughtful glare above. "The magic in use is basic spirit control magic. It looks like sprites are doing all the grunt work. Unfortunately, there's too much going on with the sky and voice illusions to easily see where it leads to."

Dretphi scans overhead with a tight frown. "If we could locate her..."

Sinister curiosity creeps onto Bach's face, and he smiles slyly at the group. "Hey... I wonder if we get her frustrated or mad enough, if that will strain her concentration. It seems like she can barely maintain what she's got."

Rapping her long, thick nailed fingers on her crossed arms, Sotalia shifts her weight in thought and grins evilly with a wink to Bach. "Well, YOU are the- Oh, what was it, again? The filthy mother terra defiling fucking human? Oh, I'm certain you can live up to that namesake."

Bach nods slowly, mischief building, and gauges everyone's reaction. "I AM. Am I?"

A toothy grin appears on Cideeda's light brown face. Dretphi smiles and nods. Aristespha reservedly agrees and returns to observing the canopy above. Sebastian gives an encouraging chuckle. Taking a few steps in front of the group, Bach waves his plasma pistol loosely around and laughs loudly in an enthusiastic, dark tone. "STOP? STOP?! Why, this human filth you so proclaim is only getting started! I quite enjoy a good bonfire. In fact, I need another one right- HERE!"

He snaps his pistol at a resting mass of vines, squeezes the trigger, and sends yet another small ball of plasma straight into the center. The brilliant super-heated gasses rush out through the spaces between the bundle and vaporize much of the plant matter. Bach holds his pistol loose and nearly skips around the trail with a taunting grin. "AH! Ever SO enjoyable watching mother nature BURN! I could do this ALL day."

"OH! OH! You- You are- You are not filth, human! You- You are a THREAT! T-t-take THIS!"

Aristespha's stare darts to a section of the trees above, and she squints movement in the canopy. "Incoming! Energy bolt of some kind! I can't make it out clearly. It's taking a long route this way."

Sotalia pivots towards the same direction as Aristespha faces. "That's regular magic this time. I can feel that, barely."

Cideeda's furry ears perk towards the new faint sound, and she points with a claw tip. "It's moving down behind that tree!"

Bach spins towards the tree and waits at the ready. The small magical energy bolt whips out from the base of the tree. Bach tenses in anticipation. With a clear sight of the bolt, he relaxes down to moot disappointment and snatches the bolt out of the air.

"What?! How did you do that?!"

Plodding over to the group, he confines the small magical bolt above the palm of his hand. He turns off his plasma pistol and returns it to his backpack. Reaching everyone else, he presents the bolt with a long roll of his blue eyes. Aristespha drops her head down, and frustratingly winces with a groan. Sotalia stifles an initial snort and bursts out in mocking laughter. "HAH! A training bolt! OH. MY. GODS!

She points at the diminutive orb of magic and cackles out to the treetops. "GIRL! This is your attack?! AHAHAHAHA!"

Groaning, Dretphi draws in a deep breath and sighs deeply. "Can we flush her out? Capture her? The day is nice. I want to enjoy it."

Lifting an eyebrow, Bach nods as the magic bolt starts to warp and change. His eyes flush with blue light and mischievous intent. "I think a return to sender is in order. Give me one second and..."

The magic bolt balloons into a larger, energized incarnation, and Bach lofts it up into the air. It jets off down the reverse of its original path and flies faster with an angry, high-pitched buzz. The teen-aged girl's voice cries out. "Huh?! What the fuck is THAT- OH SHIT!"

Leaves rustle, branches snap, someone screams out Evuukian expletives, and bits of bark fleck down. The chaos above blends into a cacophony of panic with a warbling, angry, high-pitch whine punctuating the moments of scrambling. Cideeda's furry ears twitch and pluck out the bigger target from the soundscape. She tracks the sound and points it out to everyone else. With a crack, a branch drops from above. Someone hastily slides down a tree and flees into the trail path. The thin, lithe figure dive into a roll on rock and dirt path and dodges angry magic bolt trying to dive-bombs her. Scrambling back to her feet in a panic, sticks, leave, and vines stuck in her hair and clothes shed off her. The bolt whips sharply around and zooms right at her head. She covers her very long, pointed ears and dirt-caked golden hair, and squats to the ground. Summoning enough frustration, she defiantly stands back up. The bolt banks long near the group and rockets down the trail straight at the thin figure. The young evuukian woman holds both her hands up and projects an energy shield with the last bit of defiant pride on her dirty smudged face. The bolt barrels within centimeters of the shield. It turns at a right angle and slips drop below the shield. Zipping between her legs, underneath her tattered skirt, the magical orb halts behind her. The young evuukian shrieks in surprise, and reflexively grabs the front of her skirt to hold it down. The orb detonates into a burst of force behind. The waves hits the young woman's backside, tips her off balance, and shoves her onto the dirt. As the evuukian gathers her senses, the group approaches carefully.

Leading the approach, Aristespha stares at the young, evuukians woman lifting her ivory face off the ground, and her violet eyes light up with recognition. She laughs out loud and garners the attention of everyone else, including the girl. "OH. Of all the people in this whole world..."

She stands off to the side and waves out a hand to the evuukian girl on the ground with a devious grin. "Behold everyone... Valavera Tala Erisa. Fourth child of the Verherin house."

Valavera shudders to frozen fright. She slowly raises her head up towards Aristespha and blinks her green eyes, seeking an explanation. Shock and bewilderment surge as the back of her mind desperately tries to dredge something up from the past. "H-h-how d-d-do you know my name?!"

Aristespha takes a dignified hold of her hat, gently slides it off, and tosses her silvery blue hair around. She glares a dark, tooth-bearing grin down at Valavera with a strange, otherworldly shade upon ivory face. "Oh, after ALL the years I spent changing your diapers and baby-sitting to help out your mother... How could I EVER forget THAT face."

Valavera gasps to choke, her green eyes widen, and her pupils narrow to pin points. Defensively drawing herself up, she shrieks in sheer terror. "A-A-A-ARISTESPHA!!!"

Valavera sits defeated on the grass near the utility building with her legs and arms crossed, and sneaks a glance back behind her at the towering grath. Dretphi returns a commanding glare through her. Snapping her awkward stare forward, Valavera lowers her head down and meekly rubs her dirt smeared forearms. Aristespha stands with her back against the humvee, snorts out an irritated breath, and just shakes her head disapprovingly. Sotalia slides up next to her, crosses her arms, and sighs incredulously. "That's something else right there. She turns eighteen and has a paid ride to school. Then, runs off to join a damn Evuukian supremacy cult."

Aristespha winces, rubs her temples underneath her long silvery blue hair, and groans in frustration. "I know... Admittedly, her mother is pretty strict, but she's very nice and fair most of the time. I never thought THIS would be the way she would be rebellious. Gods, I just hope all this humbles that little brat. She's always been difficult, but this is a whole new level of STUPID trouble."

Walking up to the two at the humvee, Bach uncoils a section of garden hose off his arm every meter. He places down the remainder of the hose and the end with a sprayer nearby. "Well, the power was even to turn on. Water pump on the well is running, and there seems to be enough pressure."

Cideeda rounds the front of the humvee. Stepping towards the group, she holds a dirty, worn satchel at arms length and fights against a grimace. She orbits around the filthy belongs to stay upwind and winces in mild disgust. "It was exactly where she said it would be. Honestly... I could have tracked it down by her smell, though. Found an aetherphone with a dead battery and cracked ID chip. Apart from that, there's just some other junk..."

Narrowing an very unamused gaze at the team, Cideeda presents a battered, handmade book. "And, a Terra Priest handbook."

Sebastian's ethereal voice echoes from the sword on Aristespha's back. "So, how do you want to handle this, dear? You know her. As far as I'm concerned, we've completed the contract. I'm pretty sure if we just told the park service folks we scared off some dumbass kids and gave them that book, they'd believe us. Any other thoughts, everyone?"

Sotalia puts her hands up behind her head of shoulder length dark red hair, leans onto the humvee, and rolls her golden eyes. "Meh. She's not worth turning in to the police. She's an idiot. But, I think she deserves a chance. Maybe learn something and make better choices. Plus, I got a good laugh out of it."

Bach shrugs and directs a thumb over his shoulder at Valavera. "She put on a good show. But, I recognize that look of impending regret anywhere. The justice system has better things to deal with than her. I get the feeling dealing with what at home will be punishment enough."

Flipping opens the top cover of the satchel at a distance, Cideeda showcases the overflowing amount full of vending machine food wrappers within, and laughs amused. "She was going to starve anyway. She's been eating out of the vending machines, and I bet she tried to open the utility building. That girl is, and has been, in WAY OVER her head. She was probably just desperate."

Aristespha rubs the bridge of her nose and breathes deeply. "Thinking about this job now, I am CERTAIN it was her mother that put in the other bid now. Evuukian politics at their finest. They probably tracked her down to this area through her phone. And, I am certain they were trying to get to her without being obvious with their resources. When she left like she did, it probably got the attention of some other houses. It just happened that her mother saw we were in the area and decided to bid in hopes we'd handle it. Some timing and luck there."

Sebastian's voice resonates from the sword sheathed on Aristespha's back. "I'm gonna guess they knew about the source of the park service's problems well before the job got posted. They probably didn't want the average batch of adventurers to bring her in. They were likely trying to work out a discreet option... Then we happened."

Aristespha nods grimly and stares at Valavera. "She has NO IDEA how fortunate she is."

Stepping calmly away from the humvee, she arrives next to Dretphi. "We were thinking of getting her back home. Do you have any objections?"

Dretphi focuses on Valavera, shakes her head with a firm frown, and gazes down at Aristespha. "No. She is scared. Tired. Hungry. Defeated. Send her home. That fate will be sate me."

Agreeing with Dretphi, Aristespha catches Valavera peering over her shoulder. She concentrates her full attention on Valavera and dons a stern expression and proper posture. "Stand up. Face me. Now."

The tone of Aristespha's voice frightens Valavera into unquestioning, prompt compliance. Narrows her eyes at Valavera, Aristespha cuts a stare right through her. "Do you have any more surprises for us, or are you going to cooperate?"

Valavera trembles in place and lowers her head sheepishly. "N-n-no. That was all I had. It took me two weeks to work it out. When people stopped coming here, I had time to set something bigger up than what I was doing. But the daemon kept the rest of the nearby sprites away from me. So, I don't have anything else now."

Aristespha powers the glare upon her and orders. "Good. We are going to take you to our place for now. Then, home."

Valavera's face lights up, and she shows some genuine relief. "Okay. So, should I get in the vehicle and wait or-"

Cackling, Sotalia tests the hose sprayer and sends a jet of water off to the side. Cideeda closes the back hatch of the humvee and flashes a toothy grin to Valavera while holding a bottle of liquid dish soap in one hand and a stack of clothes in the other. Bach snorts to himself and averts his anticipating smile. Valavera blinks bewildered and gazes to Aristespha for an answer. Aristespha firmly bellows one word. "STRIP."

Valavera's face pales and her eyes dart around in fear. Summons the last bit of courage in her, and she defiantly shouts with an angry glare. "NO!"

Putting her hands to her sides, Aristespha tilts her head and examines Valavera up and down. "If you think we are going to let you track that stench into that vehicle and inconvenience our long ride home, you are very wrong. Now. Either you cooperate, or I'm certain Dretphi will be happy to pull that filth off of you."

Dretphi smirks, stands to her full towering height, and flexes the many muscles in arms with a few stretches. Valavera shrinks back, grits her teeth, and weakly nods. "Okay... Okay... I guess I probably do smell really bad."

Crossing her arms, she musters up a plea bordering on demand. "Can't I just take a shower in one of the bathroom stalls?! They're right over there!"

Aristespha leans her cold glare closer to Valavera and explains with a tinge of a growl. "NO. We're letting you out of our sight right now, especially your WONDERFUL performance today."

Her expression softens, and Aristespha grimaces tinged with disgust and whispers. "Also, I am certain the grass and hose are FAR cleaner options than anything in those restrooms right now."

Acceptance washes over Valavera, and she nods with defeated sigh. Awkwardly glancing off to the side, she focuses pleading embarrassment at Aristespha and motions to Bach. With an understanding smile, Aristespha calls out. "Bach, could you try to see if you could get that phone working, and give us a bit of privacy for a while? Please?"

Bach nods, searches the satchel for the aetherphone, and waves to the group. "Oh. Yeah. Not a problem. Uh, just let me know when you are done. I'll see what I can do with this stuff."

Tapping the hilt of the sword on her back, Aristespha gently calls out. "Sebastian, could you join him, please?"

Sebastian's ethereal form materializes next to Aristespha, nods with a smile, and flies over to Bach's side. Valavera watches in a mix of surprise and awe, with a faint flush of color in her ivory face. Bach ejects the ID chip from the aetherphone and scrutinizes the small device as he walks further away. Sebastian peeks over Bach's shoulder with curiosity, and both brothers furrow their brows at the tiny electronic device. A girlish shriek echoes out into the clearing. "OH GODS! IT'S COLD! WHY IS IT THAT COLD?!"

Between a mix of laughter and snickers, other members offer honest suggestions to make the process tolerable. Sebastian snaps his head back momentarily and shrugs at Bach. "Huh, I guess the water heater is broken."

Shaking his head with an evil grin, Bach chuckles to himself. "Nope. Works just fine. That hose is just hooked up to a cold water only faucet."

As a burst of shrill evuukian curses bounces between the surrounding trees, Sebastian reflexively laughs and blinks in surprise at his brother. "WOW. You EVIL asshole. Nicely done, bro."

Bach simply shrugs and rolls his blue eyes. "Hey, I'm just making sure she remembers this experience. And MAYBE, a little bit of revenge for singling me out."

Sebastian perks his brow and crosses his arms, judging playfully. "A little?"

Twisting his mouth against a flit of guilt, Bach shrugs. "Maybe a little more than that.

As Sebastian nods knowingly at the responding, Bach furrows his brow and inquires. "Oh, by the way? When did you start teaching Aristespha mom's sword style?"

Sebastian's ghostly visage strokes his chin, and he searches his mind. "Ah, I think it was shortly after she joined. Figured if she was supposed to protect the sword, she needed to know to use it, too"

Bach pops the battery out of the phone and nods. "Good call. Might have to get Cideeda to help me on this one."

Valavera sits in the aisle of the humvee cab between Aristespha and Bach. Her arms hug her folded legs and her cleaner golden hair drapes over a faded t-shirt. Squirming in the worn pants, she sighs sadly. Aristespha stares down at Valavera. "Continue."

Breathing in reluctantly and Valavera tells her tale. "So... I went to the forest reserve and park thing to try to scare everyone off and get it shut down. I figured if I did a good enough of a job and proved myself by doing what they asked, the Terra Priests would consider me for full membership. But..."

Sotalia chuckles to herself and cranes her head back with a smug grin. "Let me guess, things didn't go to plan?"

Valavera squeezes her arms tighter around her legs, and her ego shrinks even more. "NO. After a few days, my friend with the Terra Priests... He stopped responding to my calls. Then, my phone ran out of power and I broke when I got angry. The visitor area was abandoned, and the utilities got cut off. The daemon locked me out of the visitor center. I had next to no food left. I was losing control of the spirits I could control. And the big thing I set up to maybe get some major attention... Well... You all made short work of it."

Staring sternly at Valavera, Aristespha inquires coolly. "What are you going to do now?"

Valavera sheepishly gazes up at Aristespha. "Go home. Go to school. Learn to do magic correctly. Never get involved with any group like this ever again."

Aristespha nods and softens to a caring smile. "A very good answer."

Bach loads the battery into the aetherphone and presses a few buttons on the side. "Okay, battery is charged. The cracked ID chip pins should be fixed as per Cideeda's recommendations. So... In theory, it should boot up and come online, any time now?"

The aetherphone screen flickers to life, and a series of company logos splash up with a loading bar. After a few seconds, the home screen initializes and icons for the various functions and applications load up. The finer decorations overlay onto the interface and paint a colorful theme of evuukian pop idols and art. Bach blinks at the unfamiliar font, furrows his brow uncertainty, and taps the touch screen on the system status bar. He watches indicators flicker and progress between states. "Well, looks like it's working. Oh, it seems like it found the network and re-registered itself to it-"

The phone vibrates and chimes a distinctive ring. Every muscle on Valavera tenses. She remains motionless in wide-eyed horror. Squinting at the screen confused, Bach hands the phone over to Aristespha. "I can't read Evuukian, I'll leave this to you."

Taking the phone, Aristespha quirks a brow at the screen, and smiles with a sinister tinge. She presses a button on the screen and happily puts the phone to her very long, pointed ear. "Lady Verherin. It has been too long. How have you been?"

The conversation's language immediately transitions to an Evuukian dialect. Minutes later with Sotalia barely containing her amusement, Aristespha switches to Americ for group clarity. "Yes, of course. The phone battery is fully charged, so take your time. We'll discuss those details later."

She removes it from her ear and lowers it down the Valavera. "It's for you."

Valavera shakily accepts the aetherphone and warily brings it close. Speaking a few words in another dialect of Evuukian, she cringes and waits in silence. Lady Verherin's voice sounds from the phone's speaker enough to drift up into the cab of the humvee. While the words dissipate with the road noise filtering it, the cringes and winces Valavera displays, fuels smiles of accomplishment on the faces of everyone else.