Episode 19

A few beams of morning light slip in through the blinds and reflect off the hard armor plates upon the desk. The air current from an oscillating fan gently nudges the soft armor suit upon the hanger stand. Dretphi concentrates on her tan hands and braids the last bit of long hair in between her fingers. With a few twists, she slips on a stretchy band and secures the end. Inspecting the braid, she runs her fingers from the dirty blonde end to the platinum blonde root. She twirls her hair in her fingers a few moments and drops the braid upon her chest. Lifting her head up against her bed pillow, she searches the shelf above, behind the bed. She stretches her muscular, grayish striped arms out and grasps an object. The small fluffy toy boar rides down in her hands into the focus of her steely gray eyes. A smile briefly rises upon her face but fades to a frown. She sets the plush toy boar upon her rising chest and ruffles the wild furry head ridge. Exhaling a long, sad sigh, her blonde eyebrows droop somberly. A knock at the door snaps her back to awareness, and she sits up quickly. "You may open the door."

The door opens slowly, and Bach leans around into view. He politely waves and glances at Dretphi. "Hey, uh, just wanted to let you know, we're about ready to head off to the convention."

He cracks an amused smirk. "I think Cideeda finally figured out all that she's going to try to pawn off to convention folks."

Dretphi nods and dons a faint smile, masking her frown. "Good. I am interested in what will happen today. Much happens at these conventions from what I have been told."

Bach confirms with a smile. Wandering his gaze around the room, his eyes home in on the small toy boar Dretphi holds against her chest. Briefly puzzled, Dretphi follows Bach's eyes and glances at the toy boar in her hands. Biting her lower lip, the realization hits, and she attempts to casually put the toy boar back upon the shelf behind her. With a few awkward stretches, she tries to obscure the flush of embarrassment. Bach blinks and politely averts his gaze elsewhere around the room. "Miss the little pig, don't you?"

Dretphi pauses mid stretch of her arm, returns her hand in front of her with the fluffy toy boar, and noticeably sighs. "Yes."

With tug at the corner of his mouth, Bach nods a similar sentiment. "Well... Glad we found him, and got the help he needed. Back with his mother, too."

Bach glances back over to Dretphi with a knowing smirk. "You really wanted to keep him. Didn't you?"

Swaying her head slowly shoulder to shoulder against an internal debate, Dretphi winces between different grimaces and shrugs uncertainly. "Feelings... Conflicting..."

She holds the toy boar in front of her with both hands and ponders out loud. "Would have been happy to raise the boar. Would have been difficult. Albeit... rewarding. Ultimately, I am delighted that I was not needed. The best happened. I am happy to have made it possible."

Twisting around, she places the toy boar on the shelf and turns herself on the bed, placing her feet onto the area rug. A warm smile returns to her tan face, and she gazes at Bach. "Thank you for your assistance. Did not know how much time we had. You made sure we did not waste that time."

Bach scratches the back of his head and tries to humbly play off the given credit. "Ah, well, you carried him the rest of the way and were at his side the whole time. I'm just glad the mother showed up when we were outside. Sounds like it could have gotten pretty dangerous otherwise."

Dretphi glances over from tying her boots and takes a long breath in with a serious hint in her tone. "Indeed. Walls may have been missing after she was done."

Standing up, she brushes off her shirt and shorts in place, and walks towards the door. "I am ready. I am curious as to what I should expect?"

Bach darts his blue eyes around his thoughts and bites his lip, trying to condense the difficulty in his voice. "Well... Uh... I'll try my best to explain some of it on the way there. It's just hard to explain. Really."

Spotting Dretphi's furrowing brow, he awkwardly chuckles and leads the way down the hall. "You'll understand once you get there. It's just something to be experienced."

Crowds of people flow through the divided paths of registration lines and gaps of space between, traversing the snaking runs when people shift forward in line. A floating animated visage drifts above the hordes with extravagant messages heralding the Amaranth Adventure Con in grand spectacles, with colorful logos emphasizing favored sponsors. Intermixed in the masses, people showcase their thematic attire, and discuss topics of fiction and more between themselves. The parallel conversations rise into a low, droning echo, bouncing around the high ceilings of the entryway of the convention center. Small bits of dialog lodge themselves in Cideeda's ears, and she deftly navigates her small frame through the gauntlet of people. A tall emin woman poses seductively in a succubus costume and gives a wink to the photographer. A passerby stops, points out the emin woman's tail, and inquires excitedly. "OH! How did you do your tail?! That's so life like!"

The emin woman giggles with a beaming smile, strokes her tail up into her hand, and wags it slightly. "Oh, THAT is because it's real! My great grandfather was Fvalian, so it shows up in my family. It really sells the whole outfit!"

Cideeda slips in between a few armor suit wearing grath, expertly dodges the swing of an over-sized plastic sword wielding man, and slides by a group of evuukians comparing older era mage robes. With a final dash through a momentary break in the waves of visitors, she rushes clear to the awaiting group of Aristespha, Bach, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia. Retrieving a collection of badges and pamphlets from her backpack, she distributes them to everyone else. "Whew! Okay! Damn, it's been awhile since I've had to dodge that many people."

She sorts the supplies into kits and presents them with a smile barely concealing her excitement. "BUT... Here's our weekend passes, official literature, and guides to all that's going on."

Aristespha clips her badge onto her belt, next to the sword sheath. She flips through a few pages of the guide and wanders her violet eyes around the architecture. "Well, this is quite the place. It feels weird... Feels like I'm in a-"

Cideeda grins slyly and perks an eyebrow. "A shopping mall?"

Glancing over to Cideeda, she slowly nods with the revelation. "Yes!"

After a few claw-tipped page flips in the guide, Cideeda presents Aristespha, Bach, and Sebastian a page with the About headline. "It used to be. But, a few decades back some crazed, rich old adventurer sunk his life savings to buy this place after an economic slump and overhauled it into a massive convention center."

She flicks to the next page and taps a finger upon pictures nestled between the paragraphs. "Offered discounted rates to attract renters. Now, it has some kind of convention every month with this one being THE big one."

Bach opens his guide to the same page and skims down the paragraphs of text, nodding. "Huh. Can't go to adventures, so bring the adventures to you. Well, that's not a bad retirement plan."

Hovering over Aristespha's shoulder, Sebastian's translucent blue eyes wander over the words on the page, and he squints at the biography segment. "Wow! He lived to hundred sixty three. Damn. Not bad at all. Dude must have seen it all."

Aristespha thumbs through another set of pages and flits her brow with a smile to Sebastian. "To think Pre-Cataclysm life expectancy was approaching two hundred. I still find it astounding what they did without magic Pre-Cataclysm."

A segment of the event schedule snags Aristespha’s attention, and her violet eyes widen at the event title. An eager smile cracks upon her ivory face. "Interesting... I did not think they would have something like THIS here."

Sebastian twists his mouth at the title and grumbles with an ethereal resonance. "Well, I guess I'm going with you to that one."

Sliding her finger over to another part of the schedule, Aristespha gazes lovingly with a smile at Sebastian and watches his eyes light up figuratively, also a tad literally. "Oh, don't worry, Sebastian. I think we'll both like THIS one afterwards."

Boyish glee swells up within Sebastian and an excited grin firmly plants itself. "Yes, dear. I believe two hours of Sword Style Demonstrations would be great for the both of us to experience together."

A voice from the crowd calls out. "Cool! Awesome illusion!"

Sebastian blinks blankly up from the page and turns himself to the source of the voice. Assuming a bravado flushed pose, he snaps a point back and smiles heroically at the passersby. "Enjoy the convention!"

The passerby enthusiastically waves back, and the surrounding group of friends gawk in astonishment at the Sebastian "illusion". Hovering his head over Aristespha's shoulder, he chuckles to himself. "Holy shit, I think this illusion ploy might actually work. This is going to be great!"

Bach stops shuffling pages in the guide and studies the schedule closely. "I think I might join you two for the sword style showcase. Might be helpful for me to see some other styles..."

Sebastian stares at Bach with a quirk of an eyebrow and narrows his ethereal gaze at him. "Let's concentrate on getting you proficient with A style, first. That's next on the list after flight."

A low groan rumbles from Bach, and he meets Sebastian's stare. "Man, I know a style!"

Amusement wanes from Sebastian, and he cocks his head back with an examining glare. "So... Bro... Does that style involve THROWING the sword? Because, I distinctly remember THAT."

Bach averts his eyes and grits his teeth against a surge of embarrassment. Attempting to shrug off the unamused gaze of Sebastian, he grumbles back. "Dammit! What the hell else was I supposed to do? I could never match you in sword fighting."

He tightens a smirk and avoids Sebastian's vague annoyed glare. "So... I had to... Improvise."

Sebastian rolls his eyes and sighs with a begrudging smile, laughing. "Well, that instructor learned NEVER to pit us against each other ever fucking again."

Stifling a snort at the interplay between brothers, Cideeda wanders emerald green eyes over to Sotalia and Dretphi. "Hey. You two find anything... Uh... Yet?"

She watches Sotalia and Dretphi stand, idly grasping onto their badges and guides. Both stare off to the convention around them. Dretphi scans the busy scene, riding the edge between chaos and order, and slowly absorbs in the spectacle before her. Delight swells up in her and drives a strong smile upon her face. She continues to watch people in costumes and listen to passing discussions. Activity within a part crowd seizes her focus and directs her gaze upon two grath men hauling a large flat stone grill top. She gawks at a grath woman carrying a collection of cooking utensils with obvious recognition for the tools. Sotalia blinks her wide golden eyes blankly in stunned silence. Managing to break away from the stupor, she turns slowly to the group. Her face remains indecisive on any tangible expression. "So... I've been watching all THIS... For the last twenty minutes."

She drifts her gaze across the group and works through another variation of confusion. "Gods, I still have no idea what is exactly going on here."

Cideeda grins toothily, exchanging humored glances with Aristespha, Bach, and Sebastian. Returning her attention to Sotalia, she steps up to the side and pats her on the back. "Don't worry. It's really simple. Just pick something from the guide and go with it. You'll figure it out after doing that a few times."

Sotalia nods in a daze, lowers her eyes uncertainly to the guide in her hands, and wanders aimlessly through the pages. "Right... Okay... Sure..."

Through the wide halls of the mall turned convention center, people flow and pulse through artery passages leading to events and return back through veining detours towards side booths. Individuals dart with purpose in mind. While loose groups wander from one location to the next random choice, experiencing what Amaranth Adventure Con offers. Through the convention chaos, Bach manages to locate a sparse cove out off the main river of traffic. With a few well-timed side steps, he shifts out from the masses into the clearing, slowing his pace and appreciating the space. Benches and chairs offer their surfaces, and Bach gladly uses them. Unfolding his guide, he searches his pants pocket and furrows his brow during the hunt. Finding a in his hand, Bach strikes off list items on the guide's schedule and circles others of interest. Minutes go by, and Bach idly taps the pen upon the page between two events in the same time slot. Lifting his head up, he places his back firmly against the wall behind the bench and closes his eyes. The chorus of sounds from the area wash over in waves. Conversations drift on by. Distant echoes of loud voices escape from a large room with celebrity panels. And, other curious noises pepper the flooded soundscape.

Nearby, a sighing whine from a small child rise above the din and reaches Bach's attention. Opening his eyes, he glances around the traffic tree branch off the main hall. He finds the saddened source over at another collection of benches. A sitting evuukian woman gently rubs the shoulders of a small child standing in front of her, trying to comfort. The little boy holds a wand in both hands, sadly staring with disappointment. He waves it around vigorously, and the wand remains inert. Despite his effort, nothing happens in the space before him. A long, sadder sigh escapes, and he stares longingly at the wand. The evuukian woman leans forward and wraps her arms around the child. She rests her head on top of his, letting her long golden brown hair flow around, obscuring his long but rounded tip ears. "I know my son. We'll try tomorrow to see if we can find that dealer again. Maybe he can get it working for you."

With as much care as his young motor skills can manage, the boy waggles the wand through different motions. "It was working. It lighted up and everything. Am I doing something wrong, momma?"

The boy's mother presents a reserved smile, leans back, and ruffles her son's dirty blonde hair. "No, my dear Mylo. I think it is equipment failure. You had it working just fine. I saw you. It was very good."

Mylo squints at the wand and concentrates, furrowing his brow intensely. Across the way, a strong tug pulls the corner of Bach's mouth. He lowers his head back to his schedule and taps the pen idly upon the page.

Within his head, a long ignored motivation stomps around. The drive behind the recent split-second shield saves, heroic plasma barrages, an energy draining D-ball, and a bold thudkicker challenge, now loudly, annoyingly taps a foot over the other thoughts, leveling a demanding glare. Over the span of a minute, a long wince overtakes Bach. He exhales his resignation. Placing the pen back in his pants pocket, he folds the guide back up and stands up, a hint of heroic determination slipping out. With purposeful, calm steps, Bach walks over in front of the woman and child. "Excuse me. I couldn't help but overhear that you have a problem with a wand?"

The evuukian woman blinks her focus away from Mylo, gazes up, and nods with a polite smile at Bach. "Why, yes. I purchased a toy wand for him, since he was enamored by it. Too many stories about his grandfather, I guess.

She furrows her brow at the toy in Mylo's hand. "Unfortunately, I think this one is broken... But, I could not find the person I bought it from."

Bach returns a smile on the edge of a grin and understandingly nods. "He may have left or closed up for the day. If it's not a problem, I could take a look at it and see if there's anything I can do about it. I have some skill in fixing electronics."

The smile on the woman's face grows brighter, and she lowers her head next to her son's. Directing his attention to Bach, she asks in a motherly tone. "Mylo, do you want the man to look at the wand and see if he can fix it for you?"

Mylo glances up at Bach, back at the wand, and back up. Extending the wand in his hands toward Bach, he watches expectant and hopeful. With a slow descent, Bach kneels down and settles on the floor, taking the wand. Mylo's mother softly pats her son on the shoulder and watches. "I greatly appreciate you taking the time to help."

Hints of parental exhaustion slip out, and she smirks with a sigh. "If you can get it working even for an hour, I will be in your debt."

Bach studies the plastic wood-textured toy wand and rests it in the palm of his hand. A confident grin widens on his face. Blue light flickers into his eyes. He hovers his other hand over the wand. With a slow twisting, pull of faint threads of flow to the sides, the wand hovers midair and disassembles methodically in all its pieces. The parts float in the air between Bach's hands, and his glowing blue eyes examine the components. A stray wire away from a solder joint bends around under the influence of magical forces. Perking his brow at the defect, Bach glances over to the awestruck mother and gawking son. "Ah. There's the problem. This one was probably the last one made for the shift, and they skimped on that wire. Give me a moment."

The stray wire end frays out to the individual strands of copper, and intertwine back into a cleanly raveled wire. The cloudy gray, solid blob of solder morphs into a liquid silver. The fluid reaches out and seeps into the wire closing in. The copper settles into the cooling silver coat, securing the connection. With a waggle of a small sensor, the light from the tip illuminates and a small speaker chirps out. Bach watches the floating parts snap and merge into the complete toy wand and thinks with distinctly unimpressed grimace. A bold grin springs up on his face. "Well, it should work just fine now... But..."

Glancing at the mother, he gazes at her son, determination within shining up in a heroic grin. "I don't think you came out just to settle on a simple toy wand."

A bright flash of blue shines from Bach's eyes, and he focuses upon the wand. Thin shimmering fibers of magical flow spring out from his hands, contact the wand drifting in between, and sink in. Pathways of multi-color energy etch onto the surface of the wand in systematic, geometric designs, encasing the entirety of the wand. In between the larger paths, patterns of magical mesh grow into the outer surface and partially embed into the plastic. Brilliant lights shine upon the area and the faces of the mother in astonishment and son in sheer wonderment. The magical flow wanes, the glows fade, and the wand feathers down upon Bach's open palm. Lowering his hand to Mylo, he gestures with a little lift. "Take it. It is yours."

Mylo blinks blankly, his young mind recovering from the spectacle. He reaches out with his hand and grabs onto the toy wand. His mother watches on, her face attempting comprehension, failing halfway. Mylo lifts his hand up, his finger on the other hand approaches the power button. Bach shakes his head with a smirk. "Not yet. It does work as a regular toy wand. But... try it right now, without turning it on."

Blinking confused, Mylo stops, angles his head to stare with an exaggerated attempt to raise an eyebrow, and squints back at the wand. "How?"

Bach chuckles softly, clasps his hands together, and mimics straining in concentration. "You know how you tried to think really hard to get it to work before? Try that again, just imagine all the magic going right to it."

A long, uncertain gaze, tinged childish suspicion settles up Bach from Mylo. Taking the wand in both hands, Mylo stares at it. Moments later, the child fumbles from a faux concentration grimace to properly focused gaze. With a brief flash of determination beyond his age, the pathways of the wand illuminate, and the tip sputters to a shining haze of green magical energy. Mylo's eyes spring wide open. The green glow and joy lights up his face. Waving the wand around, he notices the trail of misty energy lingering. He launches out his mother's arms, twirling the wand in rough shapes around in an empty area nearby. Covering her face with her hands, Mylo's mother gasps. She gazes in disbelief and rushes over to hug Mylo, leading him back. Bach slowly nods, content and satisfied. His mind wanders from the happy scene. Furrowing his brow, he notices something very strange with the acoustics of the space. A tense quiet fills in the normal drone of the convention center. Something muffles the sounds from the background activities behind. Bach begins to pivot in his place upon the floor and catches a glimpse of someone holding a phone recording the scene. He turns the other direction to find another. And another springs forth. Behind Bach, a whole crowd of people watch on, many phones recording Mylo playfully drawing shapes in the air. Bach returns his head forward, wide-eyed. Darting his eyes around, he hunts for an exit route. "Shit..."

Shrinking against the pressure of camera attention, Bach slumps his posture and scoots carefully away to an opening around the gathering. With each kneeling shuffle, he cautiously glances at the camera holding crowd, waits for a response, and continues to slink away. Mylo's mother finally convinces Mylo to go where she keeps pointing him to and walks him there, with wand distraction securing his attention. She glances up to the crowd. Summoning a defensive but respectful motherly glare, most in the crowd stop recording. After a few tense seconds, a few politely ask questions. Many break off into their own debates about the events. Sensing something missing, Mylo's mother turns to the spot Bach was. She snaps her head around to points around the area, staring at the crowd. "Where did he go?"

Smells of delicious food from all around the world mix into an alluring aroma, wafting above the high glass ceilings of the food court. Heated sizzling intertwines with rattling cookware and enriching conversation upon the area's acoustic canvas. Bach navigates through the vague walkways between the crowds. Changing between brief routes flowing through people, he finally finds refuge in an unused alcove. He pulls out his aetherphone and checks a message on his aetherphone. Searching the area for anyone familiar, he feels five pressure points gently press into his arm with a slight tug. Cideeda's snicker draws Bach's attention to his side, and she perks her furry ears. "So... What's this I hear about some mystery mage fixing up toy wands into artifacts of power?"

Bach's blue eyes flit wide, and he attempts to casually avert his gaze away from a piercing emerald stare and toothy grin. "Ah... Um... What are you talking about?"

Narrowing her gaze, Cideeda smiles confidently, raises her aetherphone up from her side, and aims the screen at Bach's face. "Oh. Don't play THAT game with me."

She furrows her brow and chuckles smugly. "WHO else could possibly be at this convention and perform such feats. I don't know of many that could manage such."

Scrolling briefly through the comments and back to the video playback, she grins with a glance up to Bach. "And, neither does the rest of the aethernet from the looks of it."

The video replays on Cideeda's phone. It showcases the wand revamp process from a perspective behind Bach and off to the side of his shoulder. A strong twitch yanks at the cheek beneath Bach's eye into a wary, unnerved grimace. Lowering the phone down, Cideeda pats Bach on the shoulder and laughs. "Don't worry. Everyone was too focused on the magic to get a good shot of your face. Most the aethernet's finest armchair mages are too busy in arcane knowledge pissing contests to bother figuring out who you are."

A long sigh escapes Bach, and he stares at the ground with a hand on his chest and relief solidly upon his face. "Oh. Good. I really didn't want to have to dodge attention and questions for the rest of the convention. I just really want to enjoy all this."

Cideeda glances up from her phone at Bach and shakes her head with a smirking smile. "Still questioning the logic behind arming a small child with potent magic."

Lifting head up towards the ceiling, Bach groans with a long eye roll. "It's NOT anything powerful. It's just a simple magical focus. A training tool. Simple energy collector piping to a simple vapor light trail effect. My dad had a bunch of different ones to help refine his magical flow control. It's still just a TOY."

A poke into his side prompts Bach to lower his head back down to Cideeda. Winking, she smiles humored. "I know."

She points to a table near several large stone grill tops. "Anyway... Aristespha, Dretphi, and Sebastian are over there. Let's eat, first. Then, worry about how much you are trending on social media."

Cideeda steps away with a sly grin. Blinking back to awareness, Bach follows behind with worry on his face. "Wait- I'm WHAT?!"

Dretphi sits patiently at the table, her gaze wandering between the stone grill tops and grath cooking. Aristespha taps through menus on her tablet upon the table with Sebastian hovering nearby peeking over her shoulder. Bach settles in a seat next to Dretphi, rests his elbows upon the tabletop, and props his head up. Leaning close, Dretphi keeps her steely gray eyes on the culinary arts around her. "Excellent timing. They are close to completion."

Slipping into the seat between Bach and Aristepsha, Cideeda carefully slides her phone over towards Aristespha and nudges with an elbow. "I see you found the app they posted for the convention."

Aristespha cocks her head with a hint of curiosity to Cideeda. Scrutinizing the urging stare from Cideeda, Aristespha gazes down at the phone with an intrigued corner curl of her mouth. Discreetly tilting her head to Bach, Cideeda glances at the phone and holds a finger to her lips. Aristespha nods back, slides the phone over next to her tablet, and taps a prominent play button on the phone's screen. "Yes. It has really helped with planning everything out, and posts all the updated information."

Cideeda sways her head to face Bach and pokes him in the shoulder. "You have the app, yet? Get your phone out. It allows you to show your schedule to other people and plan with others."

Bach grumbles a moment and reaches into his pocket. Retrieving his phone, he holds it out and wanders through the levels of icons and windows. Cideeda directs, nearly commands, Bach on the setup process, keeping his attention on task. Aristespha focuses upon the video and watches it silently play. Her expression softens over time. A warm smile grows on her face. Sebastian smiles proudly, glances over to Bach in mid-distraction with Cideeda, and unconsciously tries to rest his hand upon Aristespha's hand. Sebastian's ethereal visage starts to pass through. He sighs but halts. Aristespha turns her hand and holds onto his hand. Sebastian gazes at the faint violet glow of her eyes. Both watch happily until the video's end. Aristespha discreetly slides Cideeda's phone back, pressing it carefully against her elbow. Without changing her focus from Bach, Cideeda deftly swipes the phone up, swiftly exits out of the video player, and places it up next to Bach's phone. "Here. Let me add you to the group, and we can see our schedules and choices."

Aristespha's eyes dim to normal, and she gazes at Sebastian lovingly with a happy sigh. Sebastian chuckles quietly and shrugs. Dropping into the seat across, Sotalia blinks wide-eyed to the team. "Okay. I think I'm figuring this all out. I'm going to things. I'm doing things. And, I'm seeing things."

Shuddering out of the over-stimulated daze, she draws a deep breath with a sniff of the air. "Now, it is time to eat. So I can go, do, and see more things."

The alluring odor seizes her and turns her around in the seat. "Wow! That smells amazing! Is that what we're getting to eat, because I'm all for it."

Dretphi nods quickly with a wide smile and keeps her eyes on the grills. "Yes. All cooked properly."

Sotalia leans her head back at Dretphi quizzically. "How so?"

Dretphi lifts her hand to point out and energetically explains. "Stone grills. Dense stone has very small holes. The stone is oiled. Takes time to heat up. It stays hot no matter what food you put on it. When you are done cooking it will warm the house at night."

Shifting her aim, she directs everyone to collections of ingredients nearby on tables, in buckets, and some in water, the excitement welling within. "Main ingredients. Very few other small ingredients. Plenty of spices. Those that you need very little to flavor. Those that are trivial to have great amounts of. Enough to enhance. Never overtake."

Dretphi sits up in her seat and thinks a few seconds, twisting her mouth, testing out words in her mind. With a renewed, calmer smile, she gazes at the group and carefully speaks, her hand gesturing to the grath cooks. "There have been many times in Grath history when we could not anticipate what food would be available. Grath developed streamline, simple recipes. Focus on the preparation to compensate for lack of abundance."

The team pays attention to the careful movements of the cooks. The grath chefs shuffle food around on the grill, cycling ingredients around from the center region to outer areas. Each position carries significance, and each change done with purpose. Flipping through the screen on her phone, Cideeda notices a new update from the Amaranth Adventure Con news feed. She taps the notification, and the article expands out on her phone.

"Mystery Guests of Honor revealed to be The Next Adventurers of Nexus's own Flames of the Phoenix..."

Disgust trickles up Cideeda, and a cringe distorts her light brown face. Snarling her upper lip, she stares at the painfully familiar promo group picture filling the phone screen. She manages to fight back the grit of her teeth and hisses a calming breath through her sharp teeth. "Well... That's... Interesting... news."

Bach tilts his head back and peeks at Cideeda's phone, lifting an uneasy eyebrow. "Oh. Well... There goes the neighborhood."

Craning her head over, Aristespha catches a glimpse of the headline on screen and returns to her own tablet with a few taps. "Oh. I'm not exactly surprised. But, it looks like they are pretty booked for the rest of the convention."

She hovers a finger over a spot in the convention schedule app and waits, narrowing her violet stare. Sebastian leans for a better view of what lies underneath and curiously eyes Aristespha, an evil grin forming on his translucent face. "Really, dear?"

Aristespha bites her lip. A playfully sinister impulse contains the fleeting embarrassment. She presses down on the scheduling selection. An alert pops up on Bach's and Cideeda's phones. Both slowly rotate their stares from the alert and concentrate their collective, awkward confusion at Aristespha. Glancing back down at her phone, Cideeda darts her eyes over at Aristesph, flicking her furry ears with her thoughts. "Whatever are you thinking, woman?"

Aristespha shrugs, feigning coyness, and averts her eyes up and away. "Oh, I don't know. All of them... In one place... In front of a few hundred people... On a question and answer forum. For two hours?"

Cideeda blinks. Lowering her head at the screen, her grin widens, and she taps a spot on her phone. Bach wrestles the options visibly for a few seconds. He firmly places his finger tip on his phone screen, right on the same schedule spot. Dretphi furrows her brow, retrieves her phone from her shorts pocket, and quickly reads through the screens towards the current topic. Cracking a grin, she taps her phone screen and casually places it back in her pocket. Sotalia darts her confusion between the others. "Um? I'm missing something. What is it?"

Aristespha spins her tablet around and eases it over to Sotalia. Golden eyes follow the literature on the screen. Sotalia laughs to herself with a dark undertone. "Oh. Well, I know where I'll be tomorrow."

A directed voice calls out from the grath grills. Dretphi snaps her head towards the source and spots an older grath woman gesturing everyone at the table over. "The food is ready!"

She stands up, halts herself abruptly, and turns to the group, her excitement spilling out. "Please enjoy what you want. I will pay. It is rare to enjoy this away from home. I want to honor all of you with this meal."

She waits patiently for the rest of the group to go ahead, her eyes betraying her desires with longing glances at the fresh stone grilled food. Sebastian smiles proudly at Dretphi and shakes his head. "Thank you for the honor, but there's no need to wait for us. Get over there."

Dretphi bows slightly to the group and happily rushes over, the first customer in the serving line.

A chorus of laughter echoes above the crowd around the simple wooden riser, cobbled together stage, bordered by suspended curtains, in a large hallway intersection. Upon set and surrounded by an audience of convention goers, Kaleb secures his pants with a pull, readjusts his helm back upon his head, and twists his fake breast plate back straight on his body. Stomping dramatically up to a large stone prominently in the front center of the stage, he rubs his gauntlet-covered hands together and firmly grips the sword stuck in the middle of the stone. With a heroic grin and nod, he glances over his shoulder to Shadeesa upon a painted castle set piece. "Don't worry my fair princess! I will have this sword out in no time and use it to slay the dragon!"

Shadeesa rests her elbow on a handrail in front of her and props her head with an unamused frown on her light gray face. Narrowing eyes at Kaleb from the platform decorated as a tower balcony, she sighs dismissively. With an exaggerated eye roll, she flows her fanciful green princess dress and shakes her head to the crowd. "Heard that a few times before."

Kaleb's brave grin to the audience wanes with his wary thoughts. He snaps his head back over his shoulder again. "Uh... A few times? Um, how many times?"

With a disinterested wave, Shadeesa poses into a ponder, tapping a finger to her chin, and glances around the stage. "Oh, I don't know anymore. I've completely lost count. How many charred suits of armor do you see around here?"

The eyes of the audience along with Kaleb wander between the many piles of decorative armor pieces littering the stage. All finally settle back on the sword in the stone. Chuckling uncertainly towards the crowd, Kaleb returns his determined stare to sword and frantically pulls at the sword. He tugs, yanks, and exaggerates straining with each motion. The sword remains solidly in place. Wrestling a bold grin on his tan face, Kaleb laughs at the edge between panic and enthusiasm. "Come on! Don't be shy, sword! There's dragon to slay!"

He shakes around with a pull. "FULFILL."

Twisting his body, he fumbles around the handle and fails to wrench it. "YOUR."

With a boot upon the stone, he tilts back. "PURPOSE."

Blinking her green on black eyes dumbfounded, Shadeesa firmly facepalms at the struggle. Witnessing the greater and more ridiculous lengths of the battle with the rock, she groans loudly. "Really? THIS is what it has come to?"

She darts her eyes over the side of the stage and gasps with both hands covering her mouth. Lagi casually and confidently strides on the risers and surveys the crowd. Acknowledging their cheers and gasps, Lagi works the crowd and absorbs the attention. During the distraction, Shadeesa directs a harsh, loud whisper toward Kaleb. "HEY! HEY! HERO!"

Furrowing her brow, she spits out a shout. "BEHIND YOU!"

Kaleb struggles at a feverish pace, trying to work the stubborn sword loose from the imprisoning stone. The children in the audience chatter about the looming Lagi behind. They point, wave, and scream. With each second, Lagi steps closer and closer, his opening maw leading the rest of his body. His loud grumbling and constant pleas to the sword seemingly block warnings from the audience. Lagi his wide open mouth just behind and over Kaleb. Theatrically powering all his remaining strength into one final yank of the sword, Kaleb plants his feet, grasps the sword with both hands, and whips his body up with a scream. "AHHHHHHh-"

The sword shifts up. Kaleb's light brown eyes spring wide open. "Ooooohhh GODS!"

Launching out of the stone, the sword frees itself from Kaleb's grip, and he flops backwards. The prop blade flies right into the dragon's awaiting mouth. Lagi slams his mouth shut around the sword, engulfing it. Kaleb scurries up off the floor to the side of the stage and watches Lagi the dragon warily. Lagi blinks in surprise and staggers in exaggerated steps along the stage, gurgling out dramatic choking noises. He stiffly pauses in the middle of the spotlight upon him. With slow, careful grace, he places one draconic hand on his chest, reaches up towards the light with another, and gazes into the heavens. The moment hangs for seconds. The spotlight cuts out. Lagi unceremoniously flops onto the stage floor, releasing a final contrary death cry. "Bleah."

Sliding step by step up to Lagi, Kaleb checks with the crowd, shrugs, and pokes Lagi with a boot. He waits. He pokes again and waits again. Doubt no longer plaguing him, he assumes a bravado filled, bold stance. He gives a bright grin and wink to princess Shadeesa. "So? This counts, right?"

With a frustrated twitch in her cheek, Shadeesa sternly crosses her arms and turns away with a flowing flare of her green dress. Walking out of view into the castle set, she flings her arms to the sides and cries out. "I can't believe THIS! Years of waiting, and THIS is the..."

With a shrug and pivot to the crowd, Kaleb gazes out with a sly smile. "Well, I'm counting it."

The lights cut out, the suspended stage curtain closes, and the audience cheers and applauds. Noises of movement sound out from behind the stage and stop. The curtains open back up. Kaleb holds Shadeesa's hand up high. Lagi quickly spits out the wooden sword onto the stage floor. Swaying himself over to join in the bows to the crowd with Kaleb and Shadeesa. The curtain closes for the final time. A convention staffer flips the show sign over, revealing no further showtimes for the rest of the late evening.

The crowd disperses over a few minutes, leaving only a group of people standing nearby. Bach fumbles with his phone and fights a bit to get it to playback a recording. Chuckling with an evil undertone, he holds up the screen in clear view of Sebastian. "Man, I'm SO saving this."

Sebastian grins and nods darkly. "Oh yeah, bro. Now... If we could get in touch with that drama professor he took classes from..."

Bach snorts and shakes his head, watching the video. "Oh, YES. I'm sure that the whole department would be laughing their asses off at Mister I'm-Just-Taking-These-To-Kill-Electives."

Waving her hand at Bach and Sebastian, Aristespha catches their attention and directs around to the side of the stage. Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia congregate near Kaleb, Shadeesa, and Lagi. Seizing another chair nearby, Shadeesa slides it over and carefully hoists up her legs, with dress in tow, upon the seat. "Gods, I'm so glad that's the last show until late tomorrow. This princess needs to start wearing more comfortable shoes."

Kaleb slips off the costume slippers from Shadeesa's feet, tosses them into an open suitcase, and glances at the team. "Next script revision, I'll work in the princess having gel insole work boots."

Sebastian floats over to Kaleb and laughs with a smile. "That actually wasn't too bad. Good to know all those theater classes came in handy."

A sighing groan escapes Kaleb, and he rolls his eyes with a finishing shake of the head. "Well, I'm glad you enjoyed the show and didn't add too much commentary of your own.

Cracking an amused smirk, he lifts his brow. "By the way, how's your hologram, illusion act been going?"

Shrugs with his hands out to the side, Sebastian snorts ethereal. "Pretty good, I guess. Mostly getting compliments at how lifelike I am. No one seemed to recognize me, or if they did they just thought I was a joke done in poor taste. Everyone just thinks I'm some really amazing magical illusion. It's been kind of a relief."

Aristespha briefly glances away from admiring Shadeesa's elegant dress with Dretphi and Cideeda, and scoffs with a heavy dose of sarcasm. "Well, there was one exception with that one poor girl."

Kaleb narrows his stare quizzically at Sebastian. With an ethereal grumble and a palm firmly on the forehead, Sebastian grimaces. "You know, dear, the sad part is, I really don't think that the exorcism she tried was an act to her. She was SO into it. I kind of felt bad when I was still standing there afterwards."

With a curious quirk of the brow, Bach glances between Shadeesa and Kaleb. "So, what are you two doing tomorrow?"

Shadeesa gazes at Lagi with a playful roll of the eyes and sarcastic smile. "Well, you know, pimping our dragon out to pay the bills."

Lagi gnaws on the wooden sword from the show and pauses at the attention. Shuffling the sword from his mouth underneath him, he attempts a facade of innocence. Shadeesa shakes her head and returns to face the group. "Any particular plans yourselves?"

Bach digs out his battered guide from his pants pocket, unfolds it out, and flips through a number of pages. "Well, apart from one big event, I think I'm going to wander around the dealer room for a while."

Blinking to attention from watching Lagi, Sotalia scoots over to Bach's side and squints at the page with her phone out. "Dealer room? What's that exactly?"

Opening the guide to a page with a map detailing a section of the mall, he circles out a large area with his finger. "Well, it's a huge area dedicated to shops and vendors of all varieties. They mostly just sell supposedly magical trinkets and..."

Wincing at the realization, the words fumble to silence, and he awaits expectantly. Sotalia's golden eyes widen, and she deftly flicks through menus on her phone to a picture gallery of the location. Her eager stare grows even wider, studying the colorful, captivating commerce. "OH..."

With a glint in her golden gaze, a hungry grin sharpens on her light tan face. "We are DEFINITELY going THERE tomorrow."

In the distance, far away, Samantha and Gerald walk down a hallway of the mall towards the intersection. Samantha taps on her clipboard and nods to Gerald. "Okay. That should all work. They arrive tomorrow, do the first panel and-"

Samantha halts mid sentence with Gerald's pokes into her shoulder. Flicking her hazel eyes up, she stares up from the clipboard. She swiftly hoists her phone up, taps the screen a few times, and smiles sinisterly. "OH. Howie is going to be so happy..."