Episode 15

Thin traces of clouds drift above, and the wind occasionally picks up speed to quickly fade back into the calm scenery. Morning coasts across the front yard full of sparkling drops of morning dew and the left traces of rain. Murmurs of activity drift out from the open doors of the garage, and the team gathers around the humvee. Pulling his door shut, Bach hops in last and settles into his seat. Cideeda swings her head out her window and sniffs in the fresh morning air. She casually steers the vehicle with her claw tips rapping upon the steering wheel. Aristespha glides her finger across a tablet surface and hunts between pictures of items on a long store listing. Leans over, Bach catches glimpses with honest interest at the search. "I've never actually been to a Merc-Mart. I mean, I've heard they have everything and anything. How true is that?"

Aristespha shrugs and gently rocks her head side to side with an unconvinced twist of a grimace. "I will say that they have a very good marketing department. Admittedly, their selection overall is better than most places."

Fiscal experience manifests from memory, and her enthusiasm drains, leaving old frustration twisting her face. "Unfortunately, they are a bit proud of their prices."

Sotalia happily peers around her seat, and a fiercely frugal edge sharpens her smile. "Which is why Free Fridays are THE BEST! Gods! I can't wait to see what they have on their point tables!"

Blinking over a gap in understanding, Bach bounces his gaze between Aristespha and Sotalia. "Uh, point tables?"

Pausing a moment with a twist of her mouth, Aristespha gauges the eagerness radiating from Sotalia and rolls her violet eyes. With a dismissive hand gesture, she defers to Sotalia. Taking a long breath, Sotalia subdues her excitement just enough to explain to some degree of coherence. "Okay! So, Merc-Mart keeps a huge inventory of many, many things. Once every while, they will clean out ALL the old inventory and put it on display tables out front. Now, depending on how much you buy during their Free Fridays, you earn points. You can use those points for cash back on your purchases, OR..."

A rush of commercialist glee swells up through her, and she grins with a tensing grip on the top of her front seat. "You can redeem them to get things on the tables. Everyone calls them Point Tables because that's where you spend your points."

Aristespha raises her tablet near Bach. While he furrows his intrigued gaze between items on the screen, she scrolls through pages of random inventory. "To help advertise the event, they post many of the point table items on their Aethernet page. This store actually has a few interesting items listed."

Glancing into the rear view mirror towards the conversation, Cideeda flicks a furry ear back. "Yeah, as pricey as Merc-Mart usually is, the Point Table stuff is discounted A LOT. Regardless of how you like to determine the point to cash equivalency, they're decent deals."

She narrows her emerald green eyes into the distance and surveys the glistening grit of the county asphalt roadway. "The best deals are the damaged and incomplete items."

Entrepreneurial pride shines from a toothy grin on Cideeda's light brown face, and she combs her short, multi-colored hair with accomplished pride. "One time we found the carbon fiber plate kit to Dretphi's armor suit. I think it was only missing one plate."

Holding up two fingers, Dretphi aims a corrective stare ahead and calls out from the far back seat. "Two plates."

Satisfaction still finds purchase as a smile, and she shrugs. "Not important plates. Use the old plates instead without a problem. Still a good find."

Sebastian materializes his ghostly visage in the aisle of the cab. "Yeah, bro, it's not a bad place. If you go at the right times, otherwise it's absolute chaos."

Drifting lower next to his brother, a smug smile flashes on his transparent face. "We have a team membership, so we get a few perks. The after-hours order and pick up has been really handy in the past."

Aristespha shakes her head with a slight snort and softly chuckles to a humoring memory. "I still cannot believe you managed to get all those sandwiches."

Bach quirks an eyebrow and glances at his brother. "I guess there's a story here. Isn't there?"

Sebastian rubs the back of his neck and straightens his hovering posture with a proud grin. "Well. Yeah. It was a few months after Aristespha joined up, and we just got done combing through these old ruins looking for Noxian. It was really late, and we were lucky to find a Merc-Mart with an overnight parking lot."

Holding his hands to his side to highlight to past dismay, Sebastian squashes down old embarrassment into a grumble. "Our finances weren't as organized as they are now... So..."

He rolls his translucent blue eyes away from the shame. "We only had a little bit of money on hand to buy some food. But, the vending machine stuff wasn't looking that great."

Leaning closer to Bach, Sebastian flashes a sly, scheming grin. "So... I had an IDEA."

Bach narrows an expectant stare through Sebastian, tugging at the corner of his mouth with winces of memories. "Well... THAT'S always a dangerous situation."

Sebastian rolls his eyes away from the condemnation. "Come on, bro! I occasionally get a good one. Anyway..."

He motions to the team surrounding him. "We pooled our money together, and I went to the after-hours window. It took some negotiating, but I managed to get a great deal on all the deli sandwiches before they cleared them for the night."

Straightening himself up, he surfs the wave of pride. "Even had change leftover."

Sotalia snorts dismissively and covers mouth to contain the laughter. Between shorts gasps of derisive humor, she speaks under her breath. "Negotiating?! Gods! That's what you're calling it?"

Sebastian defensively crosses his arms against the disrespect. "Well. Uh. Yes? It took some convincing to get such a good deal."

Gritting her teeth to contain her commentary, Cideeda shakes her head and mouths. "Bullshit..."

Dretphi cracks a warped smile and avert her steely gray eyes away. Aristespha cocks an unconvinced gaze through Sebastian and huffs into call out. "Sebastian. You can tell everyone what really happened. It's okay."

Grimacing against honesty, Sebastian squirms while he accepts the truth. "Well..."

Unfolding his arms, he shrugs and places his hands on his hips. "I MAY have used my charms on the well-aged lady at the window. I mean, there's nothing wrong with a few choice compliments to make someone more agreeable with you."

A sinister grin manifests across Aristespha's ivory face, and she concentrates her stare further into Sebastian's soul. His eyes darting around at the attention upon him, Sebastian relents against the existential pressure. "HEY! I got a lot of good food at a really good price, when we needed it!"

Aristespha eases back to a sly smile and resumes browsing her tablet. "We know, Sebastian. I saw the numbers on the receipt."

Pausing a few moments, a wicked grin lights up on Aristespha, and she finishes with a playful tone. "Especially the handwritten numbers on the back of the receipt."

Bach shakes his head away from Sebastian and pinches the bridge of his nose, without a bit of real surprise. A defeated sigh slips out of Sebastian, and he weathers the humored glances of the team. "Well! No one's stomach complained! I know that for sure."

In a massive warehouse, rows of overhead lights hang off metal framework and illuminate dozens of long, wide shelf lined aisles below. Droves of people wander between the towering racks of merchandise, flow through the capillaries into the dividing veins, and pulse over to other sections of the huge mega store. Glancing above at the large advertising signs that showcase Merc-Mart specials, Bach gawks in astonishment at the gigantic commercial enterprise under the metal roof. During many moments, he slows to a halt and stares down the corridors of consumerism, attempting to process all before him. He scans around the area and spots Cideeda and Aristespha staring intensely at a display in the electronics section. He swiftly walks through crowded main, plain concrete lanes and drifts in the flow of customers crashing upon scattered kiosks in the wide open areas. Arriving behind Cideeda and Aristespha, Bach brushes himself off and peeks around. Aristespha glances over her shoulder and grants an acknowledging nod. "I wondered where you got to. Did you find anything?"

Shaking his head, Bach blinks through his bewilderment to an uneasy grimace. "Uh... No. To be honest, this place is a bit intimidating."

From the sword securely sheathed at Aristespha's side, Sebastian's ethereal voice emanates out. "Yeah, I know what you mean, bro. First time I went to one of these places was with Sotalia. She basically just dragged me around while I gawked like an idiot. Did you catch the armor section on the way here?"

Glancing through memory Bach's awe pulls him back in a direction, and he shudders back to the conversation. "Oh, yeah. Kinda hard to miss the power armor suit they had on display."

The high racks packed with boxes loom overhead, and his disbelief remains blatant staring above. "Man, I thought UltraStop was huge. We'd spend hours in one of those on the weekends back in school."

A ghostly laugh echoes from Sebastian. "Yeah, bro. I remember those days. Too much fun almost getting kicked out every other weekend. Surprised they just didn't do it preemptively the next time we showed up. Totally deserved it."

Lowering his head back down, Bach surveys the electronic merchandise in the aisle and compares the collection to determine a theme. "I knew Amaranth Valley was a bigger city area. But, big enough for a place like this?"

Standing back from studying a display headphone frame, Aristespha glances to Bach with an explanatory tone. "Merc-Mart actually does not count on surrounding towns to be customer bases. What they tend to do is pay attention to common guild mission locations, historical points of interest, and unclaimed zone borders."

Her ivory hand reaches out to a plastic package and twists the glare off the advertising text. She rolls her violet eyes and shorts dismissively. "About the only reason they are near any towns is for the workforce. I distinctly remember hearing about the number of social-economic studies they order regularly from The Grand Library."

Bach nods into a pondering trance and crosses his arms with an inwards gaze. "Huh, I guess that makes sense. All the ruins around here, the big weird zone, and the main highways running through here. Yeah..."

Wandering his focus outwards upon the display, he observes Cideeda traces a claw tip along detailed specs of small speaker modules. He steps back and pans his studious stare across the entire intimidating collective of displays. Below big lettered category labels, brands compete for attention upon vertical real estate and showcase a plethora of buzz words common to electronics. Bach narrows down his focus to the colorful shelves packed with pieces and parts for kit build headphones. Stepping between Aristespha and Cideeda, Bach lifts a cardboard backed plastic package from the hooked row and cocks his head curiously. "So... Um... Headphones?"

Nodding, Cideeda twists her indecision on her light brown face and places her hands on her hips with an idly contemplative claw tip picking at her short's waistband. "Yes. I've been wanting to get some new ones..."

Rocking her head with the wags of her long, fluffy tail, her furry ears flick between each point of internal deliberation. "And, Merc-Mart actually carries most of the F-Tech custom pieces that I REALLY like."

Placing the package back upon the display hook, Bach scratches the back of his head of longer brown hair. "Wow. I never actually knew there were so many different styles and designs."

Cideeda darts up her emerald green eyes towards Bach and grins toothily, eagerly to educate. Combing out her large, pointed, fur filled ears on the side of her head, she gently tugs them out so the tips wiggle above the ends of her shoulders. She points to both ears, lifts and droops a few times, and winks with a bright smile. "Normal headphones are NOT comfortable on these."

Watching the demonstration, Bach snorts and scratches his chin thoughtfully as revelation widens his perspective. Newfound curiosity leads his exploration to biological dynamics different audiophiles endure. Watching the interest, Cideeda reaches out and taps a logo upon a base kit. "F-Tech started out in the old Fvalian territories around the Yellow Provinces. So, they've always designed their stuff with different ears in mind."

Aristespha plucks a package off the display and brings it closer to her studious stare. Furrowing her brow, she tosses back her long, silver blue hair and entertains a passing thought. "If I remember my history classes correctly, F-Tech was either the second or third foreign company to be granted distribution rights within Evuukian counties."

Waving the F-Tech earpiece kit side to side, she sighs with a humored smile. "As self interested as Evuukian House politicians are to their own businesses, even they couldn't resist having comfortable headphones."

Cideeda picks two packages, places them in a shopping basket nearby on the basic tile floor, and lifts up the basket. "Well, not sense in changing a sure thing. Same cup and headband styles as my old ones."

She peers around Bach towards Aristespha and frowns briefly with an irritated snarl. "BUT, I'm definitely going for the softer padding."

Aristespha places the chosen kit into the shopping basket as she passes by Cideeda. "Well, I think I will do the same. My headband is still good, but the cup padding has worn out."

A frustrated frown twists on her face, and she grumbles. "Getting very tired of waking up to pinched ears."

Bach perks his brow and quizzically glances towards Aristespha. "Oh, listening to music when you go to bed?"

Shrugging nonchalantly, Aristespha pivots herself at opening of the aisle leading to the main, smooth concrete avenue. "Occasionally. It depends on mood..."

She darts her gaze down and lightly pats the hilt of the sword. "Also if I'm trying to drown something out."

While she walks to the end of the aisle, Sebastian's quiet tone rises from the sword just audible enough for Aristespha. "Really, dear? You know I haven't even been able to snore."

With a few meters of distance from Bach and Cideeda, Aristespha lowers her head momentarily, fighting for a smile over her longing sigh. Sadness colors her soft whisper. "I... I miss being woken up in the middle of night to that sound."

After a long, gloomy pause, Sebastian musters up a cheerful tone and brightens with gentle encouragement. "Don't worry... You won't miss it for long. We're making progress. Just... One day at a time, dear."

Standing next to Bach, Cideeda flicks her furry ear away from Aristespha's and Sebastian's conversation and tightens her grip on the shopping basket. She pulls a short, somber smile while watching the subtle droop in Aristespha's very long, pointed ears. Seconds later, she works off the sad expression and dons an eager grin. Ushering Bach along, she regroups at the end of the aisle and perks her furry ears with a wag of the tail. "So, where to next, Aristespha?"

Straightening up her posture, Aristespha taps a spot on her tablet and checks a box on a list. Searching the grand arena of commercialism penned in by towering monoliths of product shelving with roving bands of other shoppers, she points over towards a section across the distance with a narrowly clear line of sight. "I think we should join back up with Dretphi and Sotalia. Bach needs some new clothes and some proper sparring gear, and I think that should be located over there."

Bach squints at the designated spot and grumbles with trickles of defensive pride. "Well, I don't need THAT much. Just a few shirts and pairs of pants really."

Sebastian laughs out ethereally from the sword. "Yeah, bro... No. You NEED some new clothes. I actually recognize the socks and underwear you have from our school days. Seriously, my treat. Buy some NEW clothes for once. Have fun with it."

Bach resigns to the chore with a sigh and shrugs as traces of interest slip out. "Okay! I mean.. I guess I SHOULD. If only to go along with all the other changes in my life."

Sebastian musters up some bravado and encourages his brother along. "That's the spirit!"

Suspicion and wariness mix into the ethereal reverb of this tone. "Also... I think we need to make sure Sotalia doesn't wander off to the point tables without us."

Cideeda snarls her upper lip, and a spark of fierce frugalness glints from her emerald green eyes. She flexes her claw-tipped fingers with a restrained growl. "Gods, if that woman spends all our points on magical crap..."

In a vast open space, merchandise completely coats rows of large tables, and Merc-Mart associates stand at the ready with a chipper smile and tablet in hand. Sotalia drops the last question piece of kitsch in the bag with a nod of approval from the salesperson and struts off with a delighted grin. Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, and Dretphi filter through the outer perimeter of the contained bazaar and regroup around Sotalia. Behind a loaded up cart of individual Merc-Mart branded bags, Dretphi guides the merchandise vehicle with one hand and lifts up a small fluffy toy boar out of a bag. She smiles happily at the prize and holds it close. Wrestling down a flit of disapproval, Cideeda glares out of the corner of her eye at the single, stuffed bag Sotalia wings and flicks her furry ears away from the satisfied tune Sotalia hums. "I STILL think the 5% overall discount would have been a better deal."

Sotalia flashes a pout at Cideeda and draws the bag up into her arms in a playful defense. "But, they had so many neat magical things with a really low point cost! You got that dock for the holoplayer. And everyone else, got something."

Shaking her head against the notion and Cideeda sighs with heavy resignation. "I know."

Aristespha pats Cideeda on the shoulder with a commiserating smile. "Don't worry. Merc-Mart would probably fight stacking that many discounts with my Grand Library discount. It would have been a wash."

Cideeda nods while flicking her furry ears with her thoughts. She shrugs with a begrudging acceptance and opens her bag up to glance at the holoplayer dock box within. "True... And, it will be nice to have a proper dock for that old holoplayer."

Sebastian chimes into the conversation from the sword at Aristespha's side. "Hey, we found that copy of Zone Runners for that old console."

Bach closely examines the game box in his hand and blinks in stale surprise at the find. "Yeah, I mean, I haven't seen a copy of THIS since back in school. Even back then, only one guy in the dorm managed to ever get a legit copy."

A brief, ethereal laugh slips out from the sword. "Gods, all the hours we put into that one epic run, bro."

Shaking his head slowly, Bach drops off the game box in a bag within the shopping cart. "Man, We ALMOST got to the Veil. Wouldn't mind trying it again someday. I'd totally be out of practice though, and we'd really need someone else experienced to switch up with. Else you start making mistakes when you get worn out and tired."

Wandering her focus from the conversation, Aristespha motions towards Merc-Mart's dining area. If no one is against eating here, I am a bit hungry, and they do have a decent menu. Anyone else?"

Nodding in agreement, Dretphi returns the fluffy boar toy back into the safety of its bag and steers the cart towards the automatic exit doors. "I am not against it. I will put our bags in the humvee. Order a number five special for me, please."

After Cideeda tosses her the keys, Dretphi splits from the team. Leading through the archway of the in store restaurant, Aristespha usher the group ahead of her towards the counter. Fighting to keep her idle confidence on her ivory face, twitches of uncertainty crack through the facade, and she grumbles to herself. A reverberating snort sounds out from the sword at her side, and she flicks down a brief violet glare and crosses her arms indignantly. Sebastian's voice whispers out. "Seriously, just get the twenty pack of chicken nuggets, dear. I know that's what you want."

Aristespha wrestles down an defiant pout and huffs to a narrowing stare at the menu suspended over the counter. She projects down a frustrated mumble. "For your information, Sebastian, I thought I would try something different today."

Suppressing the humor bubbling in his tone. "Okay. So, what are you getting?"

Straightening her posture with a deep breath, Aristespha tosses back her long silvery blue hair and squints indecisively at the back-lit array of trademarked names, fanciful glamor photos of food, and prices. "I haven't decided."

Faint ethereal snickering resonates out, and Aristespha drops a swift, reflexive elbow from her folded arms against the handle of the sword. Standing before the large showcase of fast, fine cuisine choices, Bach and Sotalia slowly scan the options, each pausing their hunts in moments of internal deliberation. Perking her furry ears, Cideeda quickly spots her choice and gets in a line in front of a register. Leaning closer to Bach, Sotalia furrows her golden gaze and motions to the menu. "What are you thinking?"

Bach scratches the back of his head and twists his mouth with a shrug. "I think I'll give the house special a chance."

Glancing around the walkway leading to aisles dividing booths and tables, he pats his pockets. "Hey, could you order for me? I'm going to go find the bathroom."

Sotalia smirks at Bach's distracted search and waves him off. "Sure. Go use the bathroom, I'll cover yours."

With a thankful nod to Sotalia, he maneuvers between the small groups of people waiting for their orders. Scanning over the sea of occupied tables and chairs spread out in the dining area, he spots a simple sign pointing the way to salvation. He goes around a corner and quickens his pace down the walkway along a long wall of windows to a green space. After a swift double-check against monetary doubt for the right door, he slips on in. Minutes later, Bach exits the facilities and steps down the path. Gazing outside through the windows to the paved walkway running through a grass lot, he surveys the small runs of shrubs and other commercial landscaping encircled by old mulch. He returns his focus forward, and a spark of familiarity gravitates his gaze to someone. Sitting a few window side tables down, a man sorts through his order, checking each item with experience-earned scrutiny. He unconsciously brushes off the chest and leg harnesses over his tough, padded jumpsuit. After a few crackles slip out, he turns off the personal radio rig along the chest harness, and pats tech enhanced goggles hanging from his neck. He raises his head from inspecting his order and brushes his hand through his bright, blonde hair with a satisfied, relieved sigh. Bach halts in place, and recognition seizes his stare upon the man. The man notices the attention. Catching sight of Bach, his light brown eyes spring open fully. "...Holy shit... BACH?!"

Bach's jaw drops, and a huge smile explodes on his face. "KALEB?!"

Kaleb hops out of his chair and stands straight up with his arms out. "Motherfucking Bach Warwick! Where the fuck have you been, you bastard?! Get over here!"

Bach walks up with a hand out and shakes Kaleb's hand. Kaleb pulls him close and both path the other one back. Kaleb steps back and glances over Bach. "I'll be damned, my dude. Out of all the places to find you. How the hell have you been?"

Bach shrugs uncertainly and laughs with a tinge of embarrassment. "Well... That's kind of a crazy story, really. Gods, I don't even know where to start with it all."

Kaleb holds his hands out expectantly to his sides with an eager grin. "Well, I'm not doing anything right now. Tell me all about it."

Furrowing his brow against the rush of recent memory, Bach takes a deep breath in and grins awkwardly. "Well... Long story short for now... Sebastian got taken down by Noxian. But, he didn't die, technically, and ended up tracking me down. He and his party practically abducted me and have been getting me into adventuring. And, I've actually been on a few crazy missions and-"

Lifting his hands up to Bach, Kaleb blinks incredulously a few times and narrows a curious stare. "Whoa! Okay! Hold up. Back up to that first point. Shadeesa and I saw the news about Sebastian and his group."

Cocking his head to the side, he fights through blatantly bewilderment. "He's not dead? Technically?! The fuck does THAT mean?"

Bach rubs his eyes into a pinch of the bridge of his nose. "Yeah... It's a bit weird, man. I know. Uh, how about we go to my group, and he'll explain it, him... self..."

Kaleb nods quickly and snaps his head out towards the rest of the dining area, searching the vast space. "Sounds like a plan. So, where are they at?"

Subconscious recognition pulls Bach's attention to activity beyond the window behind Kaleb. Slowly blinking numerous times, he squints and fails to fully process the scene before him. Outside in the grass lot a large scaly creature wanders into view. With a strange feline grace walking on four limbs, the massive creature steps lazily behind a small shrub and sits down, towering above it. A long, finned tail coils up nearby, and two pairs of folded wings shudder as it yawns open its large maw. Bright green eyes focus down upon the small shrub, and a black tongue licks the creature's lips. The sun shines across blue and black shiny scales, between white bony plates. The creature deftly digs claws into the dirt around the shrub, and scoops the top layer with dexterous hands. Craning a head down with its long neck and open maw, it fits most of the shrub within its mouth. The maw closes tightly around the shrub. Lifting up its head, it uproots the plant effortlessly from the lawn and slowly chews upon the plant, bits of dirt shaking free with each motion.

Kaleb faces Bach again and quizzically asks. "Hey? Bach? Where are they at-"

Noticing Bach staring past him, he follows Bach's eyes to a point behind him. Kaleb tenses at spotting the creature and growls in frustration. "Oh, gods dammit! Lagi!"

He rushes down the dining walkway to an external door to the grass lot. Bach tilts his head to the side and mouths out through the state of confusion and shock. "Lagi?"

Kaleb storms out through the doorway, stomping his boots with each step on the paved walkway. Stopping with rigid parental authority, he throws his hand down and snaps to a point on the ground. "LAGI! SPIT IT OUT! NOW! You're being a bad boy!"

Lagi slows munching upon the shrub to a defiant, unamused halt. With roots dangling out, he slowly shifts his stare to Kaleb and waits. Narrowing his bright green eyes upon Kaleb, a faint frown curls around sharp teeth. Kaleb stands in front of Lagi and sternly glares up. "You put it down, right now! That's not your shrub, you can't eat it! Put it down now, or no treats after dinner tonight."

Lagi meets Kaleb's glare and defiantly grunts with an undertone of frustration and a trailing snort. Crossing his arms, Kaleb exaggerates the taps of his boot and maintains an unmoving parental stare. "Put. It. Down. Or. No. Treats."

An odd silence flushes out all other sounds in the area. Kaleb and Lagi maintain eye contact throughout the quiet, heavy tension. After a quick squint challenging the authority, Lagi opens his mouth and tosses the rest of the shrub into his maw. He closes with cheeks bulging slightly. Kaleb pivots around, throwing his hands up in the air. "Welp! No treats for you!"

He reaches inside a chest pocket, pulls out an aetherphone, and waves it above his head. "Guess who I am calling? I'm going to tell her what you did, and you better hope she just sticks with tonight. Because she might say no treats for the rest of the week, and she'll be right."

Lagi's eyes spring wide open, and his pupils dilate in childish terror. He drops his head down above the fresh hole in the ground. With a low, guttural wretch, Lagi deposits the shrub back into the dirt. A coating of mucus and phlegm glistens in the sun, and a gust of wind tips the half-chewed shrub crooked. He frantically sweeps up loose dirt around the base of the shrub with his hands and pats it down haphazardly. Speeding over behind Kaleb, Lagi attempts to nuzzle his head on Kaleb, pleading through pitiful chirps and whines. Kaleb firms his resolve and holds the aetherphone in front of him. He hangs his thumb above the call button on the screen. The pines grow desperate, and Lagi begs for forgiveness with bright green eyes affixed upon the aetherphone. Bach cautiously opens the external door and steps onto the walkway outside. Turning towards Lagi, he gawks in utter shock and tilts his head to the side in pure disbelief. He rubs his eyes and blinks again dumbfounded and entertains the conclusion old memories offer. "Lagi... That's you?"

Lagi ceases. Lifting his head up towards the sound, his eyes lock onto Bach and his jaw opens in surprise. A happy shriek pierces the air. Lagi excitedly lunges forth into a hopping, bounding gait. A wide eyed stare spring open on Bach's light tan face, he throws out his hand to the more than ten meter long creature and tries to command. "Lagi! Sit! Sit, Lagi! Lagi?!"

Inside the Merc-Mart restaurant, a growing crowd around the large windows watches the scene unfold outside. Standing up from the table with Aristespha, Cideeda, and Dretphi, she narrows her golden eyes at the gathering of people. "Gods, what is going on over there-"

Squinting for a glimpse of the action, she brushes back a stray lock of dark red hair over a swept back horn. "What the fuck is Bach doing outsid-?!"

Lagi charges up to Bach, sweeps Bach into tackle with his front legs, and curls up around. Sotalia glances back to the awe-struck, blank stares of everyone else. Aristespha, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia sprint out of their seats and rush towards the exterior door.

Outside, Kaleb runs over and calls out. "Bach? You okay?"

An arm reaches out and pats the head of the purring beast defensively curled around. Bach chuckles while wiggling for more freedom. "Yeah! He's still pretty gentle despite how big he's gotten."

Lagi whines happily and shudders both pairs of wings in sheer joy. Bach pulls him himself free and meets the light headbutt from Lagi. Scratching under Lagi's chin, he laughs with a bright smile. "Yes, I missed you, too."

Kaleb walks around Lagi next to Bach and pats him on the back. Aristespha, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia pile out the door and observe Bach petting the large creature. Examining the situation, Aristespha furrows her intrigued brow and cocks her head to a hint of memory. Resting her hand on the handle of the sword, she glances down thoughtfully. Cideeda and Dretphi cautiously approach Bach, being very mindful of Lagi. Blinking her golden eyes in astonishment, Sotalia flings her hands out in front of her and yells out with an incredulous expression on her face. "Okay?! What the fuck is a DRAGON doing out here?!"

Starling him from a quiet conversation with Aristespha, confusion overtakes Sebastian. "Wait, what?! A dragon?!"

A curious grin grows upon Aristespha, she respectfully nods to Kaleb. "Kaleb Hellstrom, I presume?"

Kaleb pivots to Aristespha and nods with a slight bow. "Yes, ma'am. I-"

A spark of recognition flashes his sun tanned face, and he smiles brightly. "Oh! Your Sebastian's group! Where is he?"

Sebastian's ghostly form materializes next to Aristespha. Lagi spots Sebastian. A surge of joy stumbles to a pause, and he quizzically tilts his head at the visage of Sebastian. Examining closely, he chirps out his confusion and whines. Sebastian nods to Lagi with a calming smile. "Don't worry, boy. I'm doing fine all things considered. This is only temporary."

An awkward pause looms over in the lull of activity. Kaleb takes in a long breath, puts his hands on his waists, and chuckles. "Well! I guess we got A LOT to talk about."

The group collectively nods, including Lagi. Aristespha briefly scans the windows leading inside and sighs holding back her embarrassment. "If I may make a suggestion, let us continue this back at our place? Somewhere private."

Bach follows Aristespha's glance and tenses at the small audience of a dozen people watching. Sebastian shrugs in acceptance and waves to people. Many wave back, while eating their food. One man gestures for the group to keep on going. "Don't mind us! We didn't know there would be a show."

Kaleb slowly nods with a clenching grin. Points to the harness and saddle upon Lagi's shoulders, he whispers to the team. "If you can give me the address, I've got a holographic HUD with a navigation system. I'll meet you all wherever."

Afternoon light drifts across the wooden floor of the small bedroom through an open doorway. Sliding from a recording equipment cluttered desk, Gerald stands up from his chair and steps through the doorway onto a small balcony. From the third story overlook, he wanders his stare over the large backyard of the property and drifts his attention to the nearby properties. He lifts a condensation covered bottle of beer up and enjoys a long swig. Resting his idle gaze above the treetops of the filling in the forest, he absorbs freshly spring scenery and slowly sniffs in the warming air. Creaks and cracks of old wood sound out from the stairs near the entry to the bedroom. Samantha steps onto the landing before the doorway and studies the slight disarray of the room. Pausing to note major caches of equipment within the chaos, she presents a short grin. "Well, I see you've settled in quickly."

Gerald glances over his shoulder and casually shrugs. "Pretty easy when you have plenty of space to scatter stuff around. I'll sort it out later. Just happy enough to get it up here."

Samantha walks carefully across the room, avoiding large blockades of travel containers. She slides next to Gerald on the balcony and blinks in honest surprise at the view. "This IS a nice view. I can see why you claimed it."

Nodding, Gerald waves his hand across the scene. "Pretty enough. But... I especially like the clear shot I've got of our adventurers' yard, and..."

He settles his pointing finger towards a large open field behind a ranch style house. Taking another swig from his beer, he guides Samantha's curiosity towards a nearby plot. "A nice shot of our OTHER adventurers."

Leaning slightly over the handrail, Samantha squints over the forest tree tops and grows a mischievous grin. "Oh! That IS nice. I'm sure you have some plans for that."

Gerald chuckles and perks his eyebrows with a smug smirk. "Oh, yeah. I'm thinking of using the outdoor case with a telephoto lens and motion trigger. Fix it on the railing. I still haven't decided on the high resolution camera or that one with the good night-vision mode. "

Samantha stands back and crosses her arms. Resting her chin on her fist, she sighs. "If you want my opinion, I'd go with the high resolution one for now. I'll talk to Howie and see if he can send us another outdoor case, because I would love to have both at the ready. You never know what's going to happen-"

A loud shriek echoes out from above and low, repetitious thumps vibrate through the air. Samantha blinks and searches to the left and right. Recognition springs Gerald stare wide open, and he immediately tilts his head up. The balcony briefly darkens under a huge shadow passing over. Samantha hunts in vain. "What WAS THAT?! It sounded like a hawk, but huge!"

Gerald's eyes lock themselves to a single target. Slamming back the remainder of his beer, he tosses the empty aside and reaches through the balcony doorway. Puzzling at Gerald, Samantha spots the source of the strange noises and gawks in sheer astonishment. Her jaw drops with a blank stare, and the few words that manifest in her mouth tumble out into incoherence. Coasting low into the field, Lagi stretches his arms and legs out for a landing. Riding a breeze to hover over a clear stretch of grass, Lagi pitches his massive front wingspan and deftly flaps his smaller back wings. With a final dip down and cushioning slam of air, he touches down, routine and smooth. As he glances over his shoulder, Kaleb pats him on the head from the saddle. Leaning forward, Kaleb speaks a few words to Lagi and waves his hand towards the wooden plank picnic table. Samantha slowly pivots towards where she remembers Gerald being. "By the gods, I hope-"

Her smiles grow wide with satisfaction. Gerald adjusts his large shoulder camera rig. Feeling a pat and squeeze on the shoulder from Samantha, he laughs. "You know better than to ask that."

A strong breeze sways the tops of tall grass in the field. Lagi stretches his two pairs of wings, and afternoon sun glints off the blue black scales on the dragon. While rolling the stiffness out of a shoulder, Kaleb walks up to the wood plank picnic table that Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sotalia, and Sebastian congregate around. Bach meets approaching Lagi with arms outstretched, and Lagi quickly nuzzles his head close to Bach. A low purr rumbles out from the content dragon, enjoying scratches under his chin. Bach smiles with a chuckle and hugs Lagi. "Yeah... I missed you, Lagi."

Kaleb shakes his head with a grin as he watches the two. Cautiously approaching Kaleb, Dretphi keeps a calm facade over her overwhelming eagerness and politely asks. "Would it be okay for me to pet Lagi?"

Glancing up to Dretphi, Kaleb chuckles and gestures with a wave towards the dragon. "Oh! Go right ahead. Really. He LOVES the attention. I won't be able to convince him to go back home until he shows off for a bit, anyway."

Flicking her furry ears away from the conversation, Cideeda steps up to the side of Dretphi. She carefully reaches up and gently scratches Lagi under the neck in between the attention from Bach and Dretphi. Sotalia crosses her arms vaguely petulant and sniffs in a demanding air. Alternating an expectant stare between Sebastian and Bach, she furrows her brow. "Okay! I guess I'm going to ask the questions. Dragon. Why? How? When?"

Bach and Sebastian exchange awkward glances and converse quietly through flashes of expressions. Sebastian shrugs in defeat and tilts his head to the side with an appeasing grin. "Well, to be fair, I did mention a few times my roommate had a pet dragon."

Sotalia pivots a glare upon Sebastian and rests her hands on her hips with incredulous tilt. "You made it sound like a little dragon, something like a whelp!"

She throws her hands out towards Lagi and waves her arms emphatically at the dragon. "I honestly didn't think it was a legitimate DRAGON."

Stepping back from Lagi, Bach frees up space for Aristespha to slip in to caress Lagi. Studying the large creature, he scratches the back of his head. "Well, I mean... Back THEN, Lagi could fit in the bathtub... after a little bit of a fight."

Bouncing his glances between the ground, the top of Lagi's, and the tips of the wings, Bach faces Kaleb and points a thumb over to Lagi. "Dude, how big has he gotten?! I'm amazed his back wings grew that big. But... He's HUGE."

Kaleb pulls a deep breath in and exhales with a trailing sigh. Blinking through his memory, he strokes his chin. "Umm... Last time Shadeesa and I managed to get a tape measure on him, he's easily pushing a fifteen meter front wingspan and maybe eleven meters long head to tail. He's probably gotten bigger."

Cocking his head, Sebastian eyes Kaleb with a sly grin. "Aha! So you and Shadeesa are still keeping in touch?"

Kaleb works a smile on his face and laughs. "You could say that. In fact, I wanted to thank you, Sebastian."

Sebastian lifts an eyebrow and places his hands on his hips with hints of smugness slipping out. "Really? And, why is that?"

Kaleb proudly straightens up his posture. "Well, I finally took your advice and asked Shadeesa out. I mean, I'm a biologist. She's an exotic veterinarian. Totally made sense when I thought about it."

He shrugs his shoulders and crosses his arms. "And well, I got a job traveling to strange and weird places, which worked perfect for her research of creatures that live in those same places. It made for some really interesting places to have dates. So, we've been together since a few months after you graduated."

Bach and Sebastian exchange glances and focus upon Kaleb with knowing smirks. Sebastian puffs up his chest with an ethereal chuckle. "Damn, Kaleb. That's really awesome. Well, I figured you two would do well-"

Kaleb flicks up a finger as a point of attention and grins. "Hey, I'm not done, yet. But, yeah, you were right. We've actually settled down a little over an hour away and well..."

Wrestling the mixture of pride and embarrassment, he laughs. "We're expecting our first in six months."

Sebastian's mouth opens silently in dumbstruck awe. Bach walks up and shakes Kaleb's hand. "Congratulations! That's great news!"

Kaleb humbly accepts a wave of courteous congratulations, and shrugs. "Everything is... Good. Shadeesa makes sure of that. She can give more details, herself. When we get inside, I'll get a video call going to her on my aetherphone. Hopefully next doctor visit, we'll find out the sex of the baby and figure out if the baby will have her mother's horns."

Pausing from petting Lagi, Sotalia glances over her shoulder at Kaleb with an interested, hopeful smile. "So, Shadeesa is part emin?"

Kaleb nods. "Oh yeah, full emin."

Sotalia bites her lip briefly and allows a confident grin to form. "Well, if she needs a half-emin to talk to, I'll answer any questions she's got."

Blinking through a wave of parental worries, Kaleb shakes back to the conversation and exhales in relief. "Thank you. Any bits of wisdom will help us so much."

Lifting his head up, Lagi cranes over Kaleb and mutters a sequence of clicks, chirps, and rumbles. Kaleb rolls his light brown eyes and rubs Lagi's chin. "Okay! I was wondering when you'd want to show off for everyone."

Kaleb sweeps a gaze over everyone else and gestures out into the field. "Would it be okay if Lagi does one of his spells? It's something he likes to show new people."

Bach searches around for any objections and points off to the lone boulder in the field. "I don't have any problems. We train in this field anyway, and THAT boulder is usually the target."

Nodding, Kaleb steps next to his saddle on Lagi and draws out a large, bulky energy pistol from a holster. Cideeda squints at the high-tech weapon and quirks an intrigued brow. "That's a Particle Power Blaster isn't it?"

Kaleb hoists the pistol up, keeping it muzzle up into the air with a sly grin. "Yes it is! It's nothing fancy and old. But, it has a multi-spectrum laser target painter module. I use it to point out things to Lagi."

He whistles, snaps his fingers, and levels his aim at the boulder. "Lagi! Get ready!"

A spark of excitement courses through the dragon's bright green eyes. Slowly unfurling his massive wings into the air, the blue and black scales shimmer shades between. Claws dig into the dirt, and anchor in the soil a large frame. Opening his maw wide, glowing trails of magical flow funnel towards a central point building in front of Lagi's mouth. Sotalia slides next to Aristespha, and both carefully observe. Sotalia eagerly waits. "This is so cool! I remember the last time I saw a dragon breathe fire, it jetted almost a hundred meters across the sky!"

Kaleb taps a second set of triggers on the pistol and a bright blue beam flashes on the boulder. Lagi full attention focuses upon the point, and the magical condensing energy warps. Misty flow erupts into a flaming orb of orange fire, and a river of energy rushes in from tributaries all across the dragon's body. Staring in wonder at the manifesting power, Aristespha blinks her eyes to violet glow and concentrates upon the torrents of flow. Sotalia's excitement stalls while watching the orb, and flashes of familiarity border on recognition on her light tan and dark gray face. The energy ball near Lagi's mouth compresses down, and colors blend from orange to yellow to blue to blue-white. Rolling flames surge into powerful jet torches, roaring loudly. Tilting her head, recognition springs out of Sotalia, and she gawks in disbelief with a hanging jaw. Aristespha grins in sheer amusement and enjoys the expression on Sotalia.

Kaleb pulls and holds the second trigger down. A glint of excitement flashes in Lagi's bright green eyes. The blue-white orb of magical fire streaks across the field, and crashes upon the boulder into a fiery explosion. The shockwave ripples through the grass and carries a loud thunderous boom across the field, smacking into the leaves of the bordering forest and vibrating the glass nearby. Quickly turning his head, Lagi eagerly watches reactions from the team with a toothy smile, and happily hops in place. Sotalia blinks out her astonishment. Gradually pivoting around, she raises a hand with a point at Bach, and narrows her golden stare. "YOU had something to do with this. THAT was not normal for any dragon I have ever heard of."

Bach awkwardly shrugs, hands out to his sides uneasily. "Uh, yeah... You could say that. It turns out dragons learn their fire blast spells from their parents. Neither of Lagi's were alive. He was trying to mimic a lot of the spells I was doing..."

He chuckles and averts his gaze away from the condemning glare. "So, I... Improvised a few spells?"

Laughing, Kaleb places his blaster pistol back into the holster on the saddle. "Yeah, it's kind of strange. Lagi only ever paid attention to Bach when it came to spell casting. So we figured he might learn from him. Lagi knows a lot of different spells from Bach."

Sotalia grins ear to ear and flutters her eyes at Kaleb. "Well, I would LOVE to see them. Would it be too much to ask for Lagi and you to showcase a few of the more spectacular ones?"

Barely containing her excitement, Cideeda grin sharply. "YEAH! I'd like to see a few more! That was amazing."

Dretphi eagerly nods with a large smile. Aristespha sits on the picnic table bench, and amusedly watches Bach's uncomfortable grimaces under Sotalia's scrutiny. Kaleb nonchalantly pivots to Lagi. "You up for a few more? Looks like we're putting on a show."

Wagging his long, fanning tail, Lagi nods and chirps delightedly with an energetic sway. Kaleb plucks his blaster box out, side steps from the dragon, and levels an aim on the boulder. "Okay! Well, I'll do some of the usual routine. This next one is called Homing Laser. Available in single shot or flurry attack."

At the edge of the field behind the ranch style house, a pair of furry, tufted ears flick up and a pair of swirling horns rise just into view from behind a bush. Peering above a small shrub at the edge of the forest, Deedri and Tassilda stare eyes wide at the large, blue-black dragon sunning himself in the grassy field. A strong breeze sweeps over the open space and bends the taller stems still out of the green sea. Lagi instinctively pitches his wings up and sinks his front claws into the dirt. The current gradually hoists up the dragon just enough to hover above the ground briefly, and Lagi relaxes in the drift. Tassilda tilts her head close to Deedri and keeps her tone hushed against her anxiety. "What is a dragon doing here?!"

Deedri raises her auburn stare above the top of the brush with her hands covering her mouth and squirms excitedly. "I-I-I-i... I can't believe it! It's really a dragon! A BIG, QUAD wing... They're so RARE."

Warily glancing over to eager Deedri, Tassilda stares back at the dragon. "Right. Yes. How about we sneak back and call it a day?"

Determine glints in Deedri's eyes, and she bites her lip with a grin. "I'm going to call him over here."

Tassilda snaps her head at Deedri and blinks blankly. "Uh- You're what?"

Two clawed hands reach out over the bush and gesture Lagi over. Deedri clicks with her mouth and directs her voice. "Hey! Yeah! Over here!"

Another set of light gray arms snatch the first set away, and Tassilda puts her face in front of Deedri's. "WHAT. ARE. YOU. DOING?"

Pulling her arms back, Deedri quirks an indignant brow. "Calling him over. I want to see him up close."

Tassilda shudders her body in disbelief and narrows her light blue on black eyes. "Are you insane?! That's a DRAGON!"

While taking in a deep breath, Deedri slowly nods her head with a determined smile growing. "Tassilda. I know. My undergraduate thesis was titled The Engineered Genetics and Magical Alterations of the Modern Day Dragon. So, when presented with an extremely rare octopod, tame, and unusually large dragon..."

She leans her confident stare closer to Tassilda and asserts. "I'm going to get a good look at him. And, I would like to pet this creature."

Fumbling in surprise, Tassilda leans away and grimaces. "Okay. Go ahead. Go pet the dragon."

Deedri stands up slowly and walks out to Lagi. "Hey, big dragon! What's your name?"

Wincing in anticipation, Tassilda watches the approach. She furrows her brow, pulls back a stray raven black lock over a horn, and blinks in surprise. A flurry of confusion washes over her light gray face, and she mumbles to herself. "She's... actually petting it... It's purring?"

Minutes later, she shakes her head free from dumbstruck bewilderment. Standing up, she brushes the dirt and leaves off her form fitting outfit, regains her air of confidence, and struts out. "Well... Hello. What big tough dragon do we have here?"

Deedri smiles tightly and rolls her eyes to Tassilda. Meeting the stare, Tassilda sighs and scratches underneath Lagi's chin. "Well. I couldn't very well let you have all the fun."

Inside the living space of the ranch style house, a gathering around the dining room table gazes upon the tabletop. On the table, an aetherphone screen shows an emin woman smiling warmly. She exhales in joyous relief and wipes a tear off her white freckled cheek, underneath her green on black eyes. "Gods... It's just so good to see you again, Bach. And, to also know you're not dead, Sebastian. Kaleb and I were so worried, but didn't know how to contact you."

Sebastian visage awkwardly grits his teeth to a smile. "Well. To be honest, we haven't been very reachable. My fault there."

Bach shrugs with a sigh. "And, I kind of dropped off the face of Nexus. So... My fault there, too, Shadeesa."

Shadeesa guides her dark green hair over her light gray pointed ears and shakes her horned head. "Oh, it doesn't matter. We got each other's contact information now. I'll hopefully be there in person in the near future."

Tilting her head to the side, she tugs at the corner of her mouth. "Or, you all are more than welcome to come visit our home. Whatever works. It's not much of a place, but we have plenty of land."

Glancing over his shoulder to the dimming light outside, Kaleb gazes at Shadeesa on screen. "Hmm... Hate to break up the party, but the daylight hours are running thin. Hey, could you check the radar real quick for me, please?"

Shadeesa spins to a side with a faint squeak of a rolling chair and leans out of view. "Yes, I will. And... Oh my. Good gods, really?! Again?!"

Kaleb leans in closer to the aetherphone with concern. "Did that damn weird zone kick something else out?!"

On the screen, a hand grabs around the camera lens on the other side of the call. With the sounds of movement filtering in, the view clears to show a computer screen. A weather radar loops a time lapse animation, showing large, dangerous storm cells in bright highlights. Kaleb hems and rubs his chin in contemplation. "Well. Damn. That's going right into my flight path back to the house. That is pretty big and slow moving, too. Okay, I need to lea-"

A stern voice floods the surrounding space from the aetherphone and Shadeesa firmly stares through the phone. "Stay for the night."

Lifting an eyebrow, Kaleb stares at his phone and begins to open his mouth. The aetherphone screen fills with Shadeesa's face. Her stoic, stern, unamused glare slices through Kaleb's very being and seizes his complete attention. Bach and Sebastian instinctively take a slow step away from Kaleb and wait. Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia exchange bemused glances, off to the side, while Aristespha curls a hidden smirk. Kaleb nods his head and smiles with a resigned breath. "You are right. No sense in chancing it right now."

Sebastian steps back to Kaleb's side. "We won't put you out into the storm. You are welcome to our most comfortable couch."

Bach taps a fist into Kaleb's shoulder. "Plus, Lagi can curl up comfortably in the garage. I'll just need to move my bike."

Dropping into a seat on the couch, Cideeda settles into the cushions with a remote in hand. "Hey, you can help us suffer through watching tonight's episode of the Next Adventurers of Nexus."

Crossing his arms, Kaleb shrugs in agreement. "That works for me. We haven't caught the latest season yet. Anything interesting happened?"

Silence looms in the air. A consensus of nods follow. Kaleb warily picks up his phone from the dining table and directs his voice to the phone. "I think we might want to get caught up."

Shadeesa nods on screen. "Yes. I get the feeling we should."