Episode 10

A bundle of blankets twists and turns on the couch. A mass of golden hair slips out from under the cover, and green eyes peer out through the parting strands. From underneath the sheets, a light skinned hand reaches out and pulls hair back, revealing a sleep-dazed, evuukian face. Valavera rubs the drowsiness out of her eyes and groggily examines the living room. Past noon sunlight glows into the living around through the sliding glass door and warms the space. Lifting herself up to a seat on the couch, Valavera scans the room with fresher consciousness. She abruptly stops her head at the sight of movement. In the kitchen, Aristespha places a plate of breakfast food in the microwave and taps a few buttons. "Good afternoon, sleep-deprived one."

Blinking in confusion, Valavera swiftly glances at the sliding glass door and squints at the short shadows underneath patio furniture. She bites her lip in nervous anticipation, and her voice shakes. "I- I didn't mean to sleep in so late. I was just so tired and well... I..."

Aristespha calmly walks into the living room, drops a mug of tea off on the table in between some papers, and stands in front of Valavera. "You were busy with your thoughts for most of the night. I heard."

Valavera sheepishly hangs her head low and sighs remorsefully with a slight droop of her very long, yellow and blue hinted, pointed ears. Sinking into a back cushion of the couch, she averts her green eyes. Aristespha's stern exterior softens, she motions Valavera up. "Stand up."

Pulling herself up off the couch, Valavera stands at attention. Aristespha meets Valavera uncertain gaze directly with a soft smile and holds her arms out to the side. Valavera winces with tears forming in her eyes and embraces Aristespha. Burying her face in Aristespha's shoulder, she sniffles between tearful sobs. "I'm so- sorry. I just got so- caught up in trying to make it work that- I didn't think about whether it could work... Or, even if I wanted it- to work."

Aristespha wraps her arms around Valavera and holds her motherly with light pats on the back. "It is okay. You have kicked yourself enough for now. There will be other times for that when you are older. And... You need to save some for your mother in the near future. I'm really happy we found you first, with no harm done."

Lifting her head up, Valavera takes a deep breath and releases a tear choked shudder. "What did my mother tell you? She said she'd work out something with you. But... She didn't say anything more to me... Well, about THAT... At least."

Aristespha soothingly rubs Valavera gently on the back. "We talked, caught up, and hatched a plan. Your uncle Becker will pick you up later tonight. It works out. He just got done trading in surrounding towns and wants to acquire a few things to trade along the way back. Thankfully, we happen to have a variety of items we've collected that need to be sold to someone like him."

Valavera pulls herself back from Aristespha and wipes some of the tears from her eyes with a smile. "I haven't seen Uncle Becker in a year! I can't believe my mother would call upon him."

Aristespha shakes her head and sighs with a grin. "Well, despite how far he stays away from the politics, he is the best... BULLSHIT artist I've ever known. If anyone can weave a tale so thick that no one is going to question where you've been for the last month or two, it will be him."

Rolling her green eyes, Valavera smiles firmly amused. "After the first half hour of the story, no one will want to ask anymore."

Tilting her head towards the dining table, Aristespha smirks and pats Valavera's shoulder. "Take a seat. Let's catch up. I saved some breakfast for you."

Valavera nods and dries out the few remaining tears with her worn T-shirt. "That... Sounds really good."

She searches around and listens carefully with her very long, pointed ears. "Uh, where is everyone else?"

Aristespha pauses en route to the kitchen and points outside. "Outside. It is a nice day, and they're getting ready for our next mission tomorrow. They didn't want to wake you with the noise. They have held off test firing their guns. So, I assume they are checking armor and other gear."

Examining Valavera closely, Aristespha studies her up and down and smiles with a plotting confidence. "Speaking of which, we need to get some better clothing than that. I should have a few things that will fit you. And, to fit with your cover story of self-discovery... We have got old extra adventuring gear you can have your pick of."

Valavera rushes up and excitedly hugs Aristespha. "Thank you, so much!"

Aristespha pats Valavera on the back and discreetly wipes a tear off her blue and gray hinted face. "Consider it making it up to you for being so scarce for these past few years."

Sniffling, Valavera squeezes Aristespha with a smile. "You saved me from a HUGE mistake and... You've been chasing and fighting Dark Lord Noxian..."

She meets Aristespha's gaze and sighs. "It doesn't matter. You were here when I needed you, and that's all I care about."

Aristespha pulls in Valavera tight. The two hold each other for a minute. Loosening her arms, Valavera pulls away and furrows her brow at Aristespha. "I REALLY do appreciate everything. But... I have to ask... Um..."

Lifting an intrigued brow, Aristespha cocks her head to the side. "Yes?"

Valavera twists an uncomfortable grimace and grumbles. "Was the shower with cold water really necessary?"

Aristespha narrows a cold stare. "If I told you another one of those experiences would be awaiting you, if you EVER attempted a stunt like this again, would you think VERY CAREFULLY about committing such?"

Valavera slowly nods with wide eyes. "Yes."

Aristespha presents an evil smile and chuckles. "THEN, it was absolutely necessary."

Under the afternoon sun, Bach props his elbows upon the wooden top of the picnic table. Spinning his helmet around in his hand, he inspects closely and squints his blue eyes at parts. With a satisfied smirk, he rests the modern military helm upon the tabletop and sits upright on the bench seat. With her head upon her crossed arms, Sotalia watches Bach from the opposite side of the table. She stares and sighs out her sheer boredom. Reaching her hand out, she picks at a loose sliver of wood from a plank with a long, black finger nail. "So... What are you doing? That helmet looks fine to me. So, we should practice spells now."

Scratching the back of his head of longer brown hair, Bach shrugs with his gaze upon the helmet. "I'm going to try my hand at enchanting it. I mean, if I'm going to do anything with anyone's equipment, I should probably test it out on my own first. That only seems fair, right?"

Sotalia furrows her brow and focuses her golden eyes on Bach with a curious quirk of her light tan and dark gray face. "Wait. Didn't you say that you enchanted that helmet for Sebastian?"

Bach blinks confused and searches his mind. Realization dawns upon him, and he curls the corner of his mouth with a snort. "Well... I have never personally enchanted anything with my own spells. I used a store bought kit on this helmet. So, did you consider Elander's Econo Enchanting actual enchanting?"

Sotalia sneers her upper lip, lifts her head up off her arms, and stretches back on the wooden bench seat. "Oh! Oh no. Not in a million years. Gods, you really used Elander's Econo Enchanting?"

Rolling his eyes, Bach briefly grits his teeth with a slight twist of the head. "Well... I mean- What else do you do when you are a broke college student? I mean, all things considered, it's actually held out decently enough."

Poking the helmet, Sotalia shakes her head of shoulder length dark red hair in mild surprise. "Can't believe Elander's anything blocked the shots thrown at this-"

She places her hand firmly on the helmet and squints at the piece of armor. Searching her mind, she studies the helm closer. "Huh. I'll be damned. That old spell is still there! It's really faint, but I can still feel it. Gods, how is that even possible? Those slow burner spells usually run out after a few years, at best."

A proud grin appears on Bach, and he puffs up with the praise. "Well, I used to have some serious power to throw around. I do remember dumping A LOT of energy into that kit. WAY MORE than they'd ever recommend... or honor the warranty for."

Propping up her head with her hand, Sotalia cracks a sly smile and narrows an inquisitive gaze upon Bach. "Oh. Really? You had power?"

She perks her brow and focuses her stare. "How much?"

Bach glances up from the helmet and his eyes dart around the question. "Ah, um. A lot? I used to be able to cast a few good spells. Nothing too crazy, really..."

Sotalia squints her golden eyes and maintains an expectant smile. "How many cells were you rated at? There’s no way you didn't have a measurement done in a flow chamber."

Bach grips the helmet with both hands. While keeping his awkward stare upon the helm, he gestures dismissively at Sotalia and laughs with a nervous tinge. "Uh, it's been so long... I've forgotten the exact number. I mean, it's been over five years since I've even thought about it. Anyway, it really doesn't matter what my numbers were at this point. I mean, do you remember your-"

Sotalia stares through Bach and concentrates on every move. "Eighty six, sixty nine. Biased towards raw throughput. First year of school."

Bach's expression blanks, and he blinks in uneasy silence. Glancing at Sotalia's expectant glare bearing down on him, he awkwardly grins and begins to raise his head up to meet her scrutinizing, golden eyes. An ethereal voice echoes out near Sotalia. "Ha! I can't believe you forgot your score, bro! After the scene you made at High Alton University's Grading Chamber?"

An ear-to-ear grin sprouts on Sotalia's face, and she spins her head to Sebastian. "OH! Really? Tell me ALL about it."

Sebastian floats down onto the picnic table top and smirks deviously. "Oh, man! I mean most people just throw a bunch of spells until they can't anymore. But, we both got this idea of just venting magical energy out like characters from this animated show we were really into. So, Bach goes first."

He snorts and laughs while tensing his muscular visage. "And, DAMN! He goes all out, and just blasts energy throughout that huge chamber! I remember some of it leaking out the door seals. The graduate assistant freaks the fuck out and nearly yanks the emergency energy siphon and purge lever. Gods! They were SO fucking pissed at us."

Shrugging his shoulders, he rolls his translucent blue eyes. "But, they counted Bach's score anyway. Begrudgingly, since they didn't want to rescore him again. Also, he did pass out."

An eager glint flashes in Sotalia's eyes, and she assumes her most charming posture and tone. "So, do YOU remember his score, Sebastian?"

Sebastian opens his mouth and notices Bach waving around erratically just out of Sotalia's view. Bach motions cuts his hand across his neck and mouths out the words. "Don't tell her."

Grinning with confidence, Sebastian chuckles with bravado. "Why, of course! It is..."

He drifts off mid sentence, drops his head down in thought, and scratches his chin. Attempting to say something a few more times, he places his hands to his sides in frustration. "Well, shit. I've forgotten, too. It has been awhile."

Rolling her eyes, Sotalia plops her head back onto her folded arms with a huff and groans aggravated. "I can't believe you two. Forgetting important things like this!"

Bach shrugs with a relieved smile and resumes work on the helmet. "I mean, it doesn't matter. I'd probably be lucky to break a thousand these days. Hell, I haven't been able to get all the spells I used to be able to cast working with how I have to do magic these days."

Slowly turning her head towards Bach, Sotalia focuses an inquisitive gaze. "Oh? Which spells?"

Bach rubs his hands together and places them around the sides of his helmet. "Well, a number of small ones that I just haven't been focusing on. And the D-Ball spell."

Sebastian frowns slightly and crosses his arms. "Aw, man,bro. No D-Ball still?"

As magical energy flows out from Bach's arms onto the helm, he shakes his head and keeps his eyes on the helmet. "Nope. Sorry, man. I still haven't figured out how to optimize it enough to even get past the start-up phase. I think I could do everything else, but that initial setup is complex and power hungry."

Sotalia glances between Sebastian and Bach, leans back, and raises her hands up. "Okay. Hold up. What's the D-Ball spell you two keep talking about?"

A coating of magical energy rests upon the helmet and solidifies. Adjusting his grip, Bach rocks his head side to side. "Um, it's a ball form of the disintegration beam spell. Just something I managed to hack together in third year."

With an annoyed grumble, he slumps his shoulders and glances off to the side. "And, it was promptly banned from ever being used on any official tests."

Sebastian chuckles while shaking his head. "Ha! One of the many Warwick rules instituted because of us. Damn, that spell would have made those team assessment exams so much easier."

Sotalia's eyes spring wide open, and her mouth hangs open in astonishment. A devious grin reemerges, she slyly watches Bach with an intrigued charm in her voice. "So, that means you know how to cast the spell like you used to, correct?"

The magical energy sinks into the exterior coat of the helmet. A few faint glimmers flicker and fade while Bach tweaks the magical energies involved. With his brilliant blue stare full upon the helm, he obliviously explains. "Yes, of course. I used to direct cast it often enough to-"

His words stumble to silence. Revelation yanks his attention away from the helmet, he reflexively grimaces. Slowly lifting his gaze up, he turns to meet the eager, winning grin radiating from Sotalia. Happily standing up from the picnic table, Sotalia steps back over the bench seat. She rests her hands at her sides and tilts her hips into a smug, victorious pose. "Well... Looks like I have a spell to look forward to learning from you, in the NEAR FUTURE. Don't forget it any time soon. I think you're due for another training session with me."

She pivots and strides off to the house, accomplished. Sebastian glances away from her to Bach. "Sorry, bro. That was all your doing. I couldn't spare you there."

Bach sighs deeply and shakes his head. "Bah. It's okay. I'd rather her be obsessed with learning a spell than knowing my old magic statistics. Gods, she's already competitive enough, I don't need her to have numbers to justify it."

Sebastian circles a finger over the helmet with a smile. "So, how's the old helmet coming along?"

The remaining bits of energy visibly fade around the helmet. Bach hoists the helmet and stands up from the table. "Well, I meshed in a mix of some of the magical materials I've been working on and figured out some kind of energy storage system with an ambient energy recharging mechanism and-"

Narrowing his blue eyes at his brother, Bach perks his brow and groans. "You stopped listening after magical materials, didn't you?"

Sebastian's ghostly visage stands up next to the picnic table, and he confesses with a tinge of embarrassment. "Well, yes. I mean, you know I try to keep up, bro. But, I studied swords, armor, and psychology. You know the few spells I eventually figured out."

Tugging at the corner of his mouth, Bach raises a brow at his brother. "You know... I always wondered why you went with psychology. But, I think I understand now. Man. The strangest things that turn out to be useful, you know?"

Sebastian draws in a long ethereal breath and nods with a firm smile at Bach. "Oh, you don't know the half of it. I didn't realize how much I'd put those psychology classes to use."

He eyes the helmet and points at it. "Anyway, how are you going to test that enchantment? Going to shoot stuff at the helmet?"

Bach examines the helmet and shakes his head to Sebastian. "No. I kind of like this helmet, and I'm not THAT confident about my abilities. The firing range that Cideeda and Dretphi set up over in the yard off to the side of the house has a bunch of steel plates. Figured I could enchant those the same way I did this. Close enough of a test?"

Sebastian rubs his chin and gives a nod of approval. "Sounds like a plan, bro. If nothing else, maybe the metal plates will last a bit longer. They always figure a way to wear them out."

Late afternoon sun slides down the shingles of the ranch style house and beams upon the grass field on the side of the property. Glancing over his shoulder, Bach eyes the thick, chained back steel plate hanging between posts, and sweeps his gaze over the thick forest behind. With a shrug, he walks towards the house on the opposite end of the field and stands next to Cideeda and Sebastian. "Well, I got the same type of enchantment on that first metal plate. So... Um. Fire away, I guess?"

Cideeda squints down the improvised firing range and flicks free the locks on her hip holsters. Drawing a laser pistol out, she clicks the power switch, disengages the safety, and levels her aim. The sights line up on the steel target and narrows her stare against the glint of sun of the faint magical shimmer. She slips a finger in front of the trigger. With a slow squeeze, the trigger clicks. A blue beam splashes upon the surface of the metal plate. Light diffuses off a translucent golden barrier before the surface of the metal plate. The laser pistol cuts the pulse off. Seconds pass, and the barrier fades back to obscurity. Cideeda nods intrigued with a perk of her furry ears and glances at Bach out of the corner of her eye. "Not bad. Not bad at all. I held that to the max pulse time."

A sense of pride wells up in Bach, and a confident smile forms. "Well. It's just an initial draft, but it is similar to the barriers I put up when we encountered the cyber-"

A wicked grin flashes upon Cideeda's face, and she quickdraws the other laser pistol from the holster. "Let's see if it can handle two beams!"

Both triggers engage. Two rays of blue erupt from the ends of the photon weaponry. Both accurately contact the barrier and splash their energy on target. Smaller threads of enchanted light reflect off the barrier as it grows opaque. Both laser pistols discharge the last bits of energy and shut off the emitters. Bach's eyes slowly guide the rest of his head to watch Cideeda's dark glee manifest. Perking both her eyebrows at Bach, Cideeda shines a toothy grin. "I approve. So far, that is. We'll have to see what Dretphi brings out."

Sebastian ethereal visage hovers behind the two, and he glances around the corner of the house. Biting his lip in a wary anticipation, he furrows an uncertain glance back. "Huh. Well, she seemed really happy when you told her to hit it hard. I wonder what she's-"

Trailing of mid sentence, his eyes stare off into the distance while an epiphany shoves other thoughts out of the way. He blinks and turns his head towards Cideeda. "She just got that scope sighted on her rifle, didn't she?"

Cideeda winks at Sebastian with a smug smile. "Yes. We might as well throw a real test at it."

Catching the exchange between the two, Bach furrows his brow as his confidence withers. "Oh. OH-"

A loud, heavy mechanical clack echoes into the area as the large rifle bolt disengages. Dretphi strides around the corner of the house's brick wall with a hint of a skip in each step. Hoisting the anti-material rifle up, she keeps the muzzle pointed into the air with one arm. She reaches into a satchel hanging at her side, removes her hand, and playfully twirls a large rifle round in her fingers. Bach gawks the long, solid barrel of the rifle. Glances between the heavy metal and sturdy construction factor into the physics calculations eroding Bach's confidence. Dretphi stops in front of Bach and gazes down at him with a slight smile. "Doubting your abilities?"

Bach nods slowly and honestly slips out. "Yes. Oh, yes. Ah, um... Especially, with THAT much firepower."

Dretphi examines the first metal plate in the distance and glances back at Bach with a glint in her steely gray eyes. "A little doubt is healthy. So, we test."

Bach crosses his arms and contorts his grimace to side with a grumble. "Yes. I know. I was hoping to enjoy a few smaller tests before... absolutely shattering the thing to a million pieces."

Dretphi walks over to a mat next to a stack of sandbags on the ground. Kneeling down, she places the rifle on the ground and slips the satchel off. She sets the rifle up for firing, settles down prone behind it, and readies herself. Turning her head to look over her shoulder at Bach, she smiles warmly. "With what I have seen, I am not assuming the outcome. You should not either."

Bach meets Dretphi's glance. Puzzling a moment, he parts a reserved smirk and relaxes his arms to his sides. "Well, okay. It could... Possibly... Withstand that. I ain't putting my money on it though."

Perking her furry ears, Cideeda furrows her brow and gets Sebastian's attention. "Sebastian? Could you warn everyone inside real quick? This might be a little loud."

Sebastian flits his eyes wide and flies off towards the wall of the house. "Good call, be right back."

A minute passes with the bright sun beaming down on the region and a gentle wind blowing through the fresh green forest. Sebastian phases through the brick wall of the house and gives everyone a thumbs up. "They've been warned."

Dretphi returns her focus towards the target. Squints through the optics, she dials in a distance on the scope, and lines the crosshairs up on the first metal plate. She picks up the rifle round, loads it into the chamber, and carefully locks the bolt. She put in a set of ear plugs from the sachet. Holding her hand out from the grip, she calls out. "Cover your ears!"

Cideeda presses her palms against the sides of her head and seals up her large fuzzy ears at their bases. Bach plugs a finger in each ear and eyes his brother. Sebastian hovers with his arms crossed and catches Bach's glance. He raises an indifferent eye brow and gestures with his hands to his ethereal form. Bach drops his head momentarily with a bit of embarrassment and smiles awkwardly apologetic to his brother. Sebastian puts his hands up in the air and nonchalantly shrugs. "It's cool, bro."

Dretphi wraps her fingers around the grip of the rifle, rests a finger on the trigger guard, and checks her shot. Sliding her finger on the trigger, she gently squeezes. A loud boom ripples throughout the area, vibrating any surface it washes over. A bright yellow flash shines out. A crash rings out. Glimmering speckles of bullet fragments and magical sparks scatter away from the target and into the dirt below it. Silence floods into the acoustic void. Trickles of background noise filter in and lead a swell of normal environment noise over time. Dretphi pulls the bolt open and locks it back. Bach removes his fingers from his ears with a shudder and notices Sebastian staring at the target. Floating in place, Sebastian crosses his arm, and holds his chin intrigued. "That was strange, bro. I think I heard... Crackling? Almost like glass or something starting to break."

Uncovering her ears, Cideeda squints at the metal plate, unsure. "The plate is still there. But, the magical barrier is really easy to see. It looks cracked?"

Dretphi engages the safety and positions the barrel of the rifle pointing up and away from the first metal plate. Pushing herself off the ground, she stands up confused. "Need to get a close look."

Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi walk, while Sebastian hovers, down the field to the metal target. Intrigue grows the closer they gather around the enchanted metal plate. The golden, magical barrier glimmers almost fully opaque. A meshing web of cracks spider out from the center impact point. Width and density of the cracks wane further out in the translucent field. Despite the fractures within, the barrier's surface remains smooth with a gap. Underneath the metal plate remains untouched.

Dropping down to a knee, Bach lifts up the bottom edge of the hanging metal plate, unhooks to chains, and angles the plate forward for a better view. "Holy. Shit. I think it actually held. Gods, looks like hell, though."

Cideeda squats to the side of the target with an eager wag of long, fluffy tail and peeks behind the plate. "Nice! No signs of denting on the backside. It shook the plate around, but it seems just fine to me. That's SO cool."

Sitting down on the grass, she examines the golden field on the front of the plate. Her emerald green eyes widen, and she points a claw tip to a disappearing fault lines within the barrier. "Is it- Repairing itself?"

Bach studies the spot and rocks his head side to side. "Well. Sort of? Technically, it didn't break enough to need big repairs. It more or less got stretched out in places. But, I did put in bits to recharge the barrier and maintain the internal alignment with any ambient energy. So, it must be using all the sunlight to recharge and realign itself. This is probably the very limit of what it can handle."

Cracks shrink slowly as the seconds pass. The lines fully retreat back to the impact point and clear the edge of the barrier. As the fissures close and the magical material solidifies, the golden field fades into transparency. Dretphi kneels down and spots a few bullet fragments in the grass underneath the target. She pinches onto the largest and lifts it up for a better view. Examining it carefully, an excited hint sneaks into her smile. Bach feels a strong hand grasp his shoulder and follows it back to the source. Dretphi cracks a slight grin. "When can this be put on my armor plates?"

Uneasily eyeing the team at the dining table, Valavera timidly approaches. From the huge collection of large takeout cartons and aluminum trays in the middle part of the tabletop, the team scoops and plucks out servings of different vegetables and meat dishes. Valavera stands nearby and nervously brushes off her nicer outfit of old clothes and leftover adventuring gear. She reluctantly hems and visibly tenses when everyone's full focus lands upon her. "Um. Before I leave with my uncle, I just wanted to properly apologize to everyone. I made a huge mistake, and I am forever thankful you stopped me before I did anything REALLY stupid. And... I am very sorry I called you such terrible terms and attacked you."

She holds her hands together low in front of her, bows forward gracefully, and remains in silence. Aristespha smiles gently at her and signals Sebastian in the seat next to her with her eyes. "That's a very nice gesture. Thank you. Sit down and eat. I am not sending you out hungry."

Sebastian floats up next to his seat and bows to Valavera with a gentleman's grace. Sebastian pulls his ethereal hand through the back of the chair and grimaces at the reminder. Dretphi reaches next to her and slides the seat back. Under Sebastian's direction, Valavera takes a seat in-between Aristespha and Dretphi. Gawking at Sebastian, Valavera blinks herself out of a trance and glances around the busy and full dining table. Aristespha places a translucent, dark green plate of stabilized magical energy in front of Valavera. The strange plate immediately seizes Valavera's interest, and she carefully prods it. Gently patting Valavera on the shoulder, Aristespha whispers. "We ran low on regular dishes. I will explain later."

Cideeda catches Valavera's wander glance and chuckles with a toothy grin. "Ah, don't worry about the names. I've been called far worse with a lot worse intent. Beast doesn't even register with me anymore."

Sotalia leans over the table, hunts down her target with a wandering plastic fork, and stabs a large fried egg roll. Returning to her seat, she cracks a smile at Valavera and rolls her golden eyes. "Don't worry, girl. We've all made mistakes. Big ones."

Taking a big bite out of the egg roll, she roughly points the fork, with the half eaten egg roll, at Valavera, and flits her brow with a wry smirk. "You try ending a contract with a group in a town full of backwater emin purists as a second generation half-emin. Gods... I had heard stories of how bad some towns were, but I thought they were just exaggerating the more extreme stories."

Sebastian's eyes open up with a spark of memory and laughs. "Yeah... That was such a fucked up place. I still remember going through the door of that dive bar. Everyone was mean mugging me, except you. The one half-emin woman in the place, sitting alone at the worst table, with a dirty glass of water, and literally pointing me to the chair in front of her."

Sotalia shakes her head of dark red hair, holds her free hand up, and bites her lip. "Gods, this will sound terrible. But, I was just happy to see someone other than a emin. Thank the gods, no horns, I might be able to talk to him. I REALLY didn't want to be alone around there."

Flicking her furry ears back, Cideeda sits back in her chair, holds her chin, and wags her fluffy tail. "Oh, that town that wouldn't take your money?"

Emphatically nods at Cideeda and gazes at Valavera, swaying the forked egg roll with each punctuation. "YES! If someone warns you about the town a contract ends in... TAKE. THEIR. ADVICE. I didn't and nearly got into some really bad trouble. Here I was in this little shit hole of a town. Paid in cash from a successful escort mission as an independent contractor. And... I couldn't spend ANY of it!"

Pausing in between shoveling rice into her mouth, Valavera blinks confused and draws her head back in shock. "Wait? They wouldn't take your money at all?"

Sotalia shakes her head wide-eyed and takes a deep breath in. "NO. These were racists, with principles. Biggest storm to hit the area was a few hours out. Nightfall in an hour. All transportation out of the place had already cleared out or was closed for the night. And, I had only managed to find a single dive bar to sit at with a dirty glass of water."

Furrowing her brow, Sotalia rolls her golden eyes and snorts derisively. "Which I'm sure they spat in. Anyway, they were closing early because of the storm."

Sebastian ethereally exhales in disbelief and rubs the back of his neck. "Yeah... I had gotten a pretty shit welcome to that place, too. They'd at least take my money, even if they were gouging me. Long story short, I managed to get a room at this awful motel, sneaked her in during the start of the storm, and we basically laid low until the start of my contract."

Sotalia sighs, uneasily flexes her long nailed fingers, and levels her head solemnly at Valavera. "Every time I think about those few days, I still get chills. I KNOW there were people looking for me. Gods, I was SO lucky."

Smirking at Sebastian, she shakes her head. "Turns out Sebastian's contract was the next part after my contract. After I explained everything to them, they were completely fine with me tagging along."

Sebastian grits his teeth briefly and sneers with a quirk of the brow. "Turns out the rest of the group didn't have the best time with that town either and wanted to leave for the next one with as much help as they could get."

Valavera loses herself in thought and squirms a bit in her seat with the flits of empathy. "I just don't know what to think about all that."

Finishing the remaining egg roll off the fork, Sotalia holds her hands up and shrugs with a smile. "It was a... LEARNING EXPERIENCE. You'll have plenty more of those, girl. Just hope the next one doesn't try to teach that much that quickly."

Taking a break from his meal, Bach furrows his brow with a growing through and faces Sotalia curiously. "Wait. So, you were the first one to team up with my brother?"

Sotalia twirls the plastic fork in her hand and twists her mouth with a nod. "Yes. Yeah, I was. Gods, we were SO limited with the jobs we could take."

Sebastian catches Bach's attention and motions a hand towards Dretphi. "Yeah, that was some rough times, bro. BUT, a few months later Dretphi joined up."

Dretphi smiles and idly stirs some noodles on her plate. "Was in a bad situation. Offered me a chance to move on from a... questionable team. No regrets."

Pointing towards Cideeda, Sebastian wrestles a grimace into a smile. "And, after an awful run of contracted technical specialists, Cideeda got on board."

Cideeda shakes her head of short, multi-colored hair and snorts. "I STILL can't believe what passes for technical specialists these days. I was amazed they weren't killed by those moronic fly-by-night contractors."

Sebastian smiles lovingly to Aristespha and adopts a more proper tone. "Then the wonderful Lady Aristespha graced us a few months after that."

Stirring a large spoon in a bowl of soup, Aristespha tries to hide a humored smile. "Well, I place most of the blame on the sword for leading me to you. I still debate if following its guidance was the best of ideas some days."

Sebastian hovers next to Valavera and lowers his head near hers with a wry grin, while eying Bach. He gives his brother a wink. "All was well with our group, then misfortune happened a month ago. Hence, I am now a bit more transparent than previously. So, two weeks ago, we picked up this scrub."

Valavera stifles a snicker with her hand, watching the exchange. Bach narrows his eyes at his brother and lifts a lone eyebrow. "Scrub, eh? Well, I think the word you are looking for is abductee, ghost man."

Sebastian straightens his hovering form and crosses his arms with a proud grin. "Well, strong words from the intern."

Valavera leans close to Aristespha and lowers her confused voice. "Is... Is he really an intern?"

Aristespha rolls her violet eyes and sighs softly. "Technicalities. A long story. This is why you should make sure you finish your schooling."

Bach and Sebastian stare at each other for long seconds, until both break down into laughter. Bach shakes his head and resumes eating with a humored smirk on his face. "I really don't know how you all have dealt with this asshole for this long."

Dretphi calmly responds in between bites with a hint of a grin at the corner of her mouth. "The paycheck helps."

A collection of snorts, chuckles, and snickers fill the air around the table. Sebastian gradually turns his head towards Dretphi with a warped smirk. "Ow. Good shot. Here I thought Cideeda was the only one with claws around here."

The turbo whine fades as a large cargo truck rolls down the two lane rural highway. Closing in the mouth of the gravel drive leading to ranch style house, pressured air hissed out and the six large wheels slow to a stop. The last of the momentum bounces through the machine and the back cargo pod rocks slightly on the suspension system. Loud mechanical clunks sound as the transmission disengages. A motorized grind reverberates with the parking brake clamping down. Finally, the engine sputters to a stop and the huge machine drifts off to silence. The driver's side door opens and a round figure steps down the short ladder. His worn trench coat of scattered patchwork flutters with the last leap onto the roadway. The pot-bellied evuukian struts off the highway, down the side of the gravel driveway. Reaching the doorway, he moves his head to follow along the door frame and finds the doorbell with a firm poke. Seconds later, the front door unlocks and opens, revealing a smiling Aristespha. "Well, if it isn't Former Regent Beckeri-"

The evuukian quickly holds up his hands, gestures them downwards, and respectfully shushes. "No titles here. But... I do appreciate that you still know them... Young Lady Aristespha."

Aristespha pulls a firm smile on her face and sighs. "Okay, Becker. Come on in."

Walking alongside Aristespha, he laughs heartily and scratches his clipped ear. "Strange times we live in. But, if I get to see you and my niece, they are good times to me. I hope the little one has not been too much to handle. Some habits, she really shouldn't take from her mother."

As soon as Becker clears the archway into the living room from the main entry hall, Valavera gleefully bolts from her chair at the table and throws her arms around. "Uncle Becker!"

Becker hugs back and warmly whispers numerous things in a dialect of Evuukian with a happy tone. Gently pushing her back, he studies her up and down, noting her clothing. "You are dressed for the occasion! Very good! I am glad you took care of the clothes. Because..."

He pats his belly, shakes his head with a good humored sigh. "Your Uncle Becker has nothing of his that will fit you."

Valavera laughs with a smile at him. "I've got everything packed in this bag. I don't have much at the moment. Should I put it in your truck?"

Becker scratches his short golden hair and brushes back the stray locks over one very long, pointed ear and tries to so over the other missing the upper half. "Not quite, yet. I have been informed that I may be able to acquire a few more things to trade along the way home."

Cideeda steps forward confidently, stands in front of Becker with her emerald eyes studying him, and extends her hand to shake. "So... I've heard you are a broker of unique and interesting items."

Furrowing an intrigued brow, Becker shakes Cideeda's hand firmly and draws a sly smile towards the corner of his mouth. "I often engage in such activities."

Focusing on Becker's face, Cideeda perks her brow and armors the inquisitive stare on her light brown face. "What do you define as unique and interesting?"

Grinning with entrepreneurial bravado, Becker reaches inside his trench coat, retrieves curious artifacts, and displays them on the nearby dining table. "Why, I just got back from an interesting adventure to Perimeter and the surrounding Borderlands. There, I met a strange character who claims to have lived near the heart of the Perimeter Weird Zone for untold years! He had an amazing collection of strange and wondrous artifacts..."

He darts his eyes around with faux paranoia. "Many that should never be so far from the zone. But... Here before you is just a small sample of what I have."

Sotalia's pupils dilate. Watching Becker place the artifacts on the table, she subconsciously drifts closer to investigate. Becker proudly grins as he effortlessly reads Sotalia's extreme interest. Returning his gaze to Cideeda, he adopts a similarly hardened, stoic stare. "But, I have other definitions, too. What do you define as unique and interesting?"

Stepping to the side, Cideeda slides her clawed fingers into a backpack on a dining chair next to her and slowly draws out a drained cybernetic soldier power cell. She firmly, soundly places it down on the wooden tabletop next to Becker's artifacts. She maintains eye contact with Becker and searches for his reaction. Becker remains silent. The neutral expression on his face shows no wavering. "Let us conduct some business."

Resting a free hand on her shorts waistband, Cideeda straightens her posture and calmly states. "Five thousand."

Lifting his eyebrow, Becker counters. "Two thousand.

The price point bounces between a narrowing divide. Twists of tone and inflection color the next bid for either side. Cideeda slowly spins the cybernetic power cell between her claw tips upon the finished wood table, and darts a piercing emerald stare to Becker. "These are very hard to find. Intact. No official documentation of their existence."

Becker narrows his calculating gaze and crosses his arms stoically. "Very hard to sell. Lack of documentation works for AND AGAINST the price point."

Another exchange of bids spring up in between the justifications. The rest of the audience stays back and watches the spirited financial sparring. When the number divide closes close, a tense silence looms over the two. Becker furrows his brow and takes a deep breath in. "I do have buyers. But... I would have far more eager buyers if... You had a fully charged cell to go with it?"

An evil grin cracks from the corner of Cideeda's mouth. She reaches into the backpack, procures a brightly lit, charged power cell, and gently places it next to the first power cell. Becker nods blankly. "Six thousand."

Another battle of economic prowess sparks, and Cideeda presses the price point harder against Becker's defenses. Aristespha leans close to Valavera with a sly smile. "He certainly hasn't lost his love of the haggle."

Valavera shakes her head with her green eyes affixed to the exchange. Another lull in the fiscal fight leads to a contemplative quiet between Cideeda and Becker. Becker confidently puffs his chest out. "For what you are selling... The number you say you have to sell... You have to admit that's the fairest price you'll get anywhere, anytime soon. And, I've given you my exclusive friends and family bonus."

Flicking her furry ears back, Cideeda nods her head and aims her face down, resting her lips on her fist in thought. Becker holds his hand out to shake Cideeda's. "I think we have a wonderful deal."

Wagging her fluffy tail, Cideeda lifts her head up and drives a toothy grin right through Becker. Pausing intrigued, Becker cocks his head and furrows his brow. Holding a finger up to Becker, Cideeda rest straightens her shirt and side steps. "I'm curious how eager your buyers would be to pay a premium if they had something that USES those power cells."

Reaching her foot back underneath the table, her toe claws find purchase on top of a rectangular case, and she gracefully slides it in front of Becker. While crossing her arms, she taps it with her claw tips and gestures with a hand for him to open it. Becker strains to gets down on one knee, releases the case locks, and lifts the lid. The cyber commando plasma rifle glints faintly in the dining room lamp light. Leaning forward with a toothy grin and glint in her eyes, Cideeda firmly and confidently quotes. "THAT. That will be seventy five thousand. FIRM. It works, too."

Becker examines the rifle in silence. Grumbling to himself, his mind calculates the margins between mumbled numbers. Eventually, he releases a long groan. Cideeda chuckles triumphantly and shakes her head while checking her finger claws. "Oh, don't act all pained. I know you have to pass near The Grand Library, and the end of the budget year is just around the corner. I'm certain plenty of professors with research budgets would like to buy the set."

Hoisting his heavy self up, Becker laughs happily and points to the rifle. "It is not pain... But longing for a future session in which I get to surprise you with something as wonderful! I WILL see my money again from you."

Both Cideeda and Becker vigorously shake hands with satisfaction throughout. With the bidding war over, Sotalia returns her ogling to the artifacts on the table from Becker. Patting unconsciously for her wallet, she leaves quickly for her room. Becker bows slightly to Cideeda and relaxes to his normal posture. "Hopefully, I don't have to fight you for this, but... Where did you get THAT chair?!"

Bach halts mid-step. Gradually pivoting around in a circle, he notices Cideeda staring at him with a toothy grin and a clawed finger beckoning him over.