Episode 23

The humvee rolls along the roughly paved surface of the four lane highway. Thick forests border the cleared, grassy shoulders of the roadway. The many bumps and dips in the roadway rattle the humvee's suspension, regularly rocking the chassis after each shudder. The front wheels turn and lead the old military vehicle out of the way of obvious minor hazards within the extra wide lanes. The road noise suddenly shifts from a constant drone to a gritty rumble, and the humvee rolls from the rough asphalt onto packed gravel. Harsher rises and pits jar the suspension system, and the vehicle slows, large all-terrain tires following into the worn, hard dirt valleys between dusty rocks mounds. Lifting his head up from his seat's headrest with the sway of the cab, Bach blinks into a yawn and glances out the window, peeking downwards. "Well... So, I guess we hit the Greater Azure Alliance road maintenance limit?"

With her eyes continuously scanning the road ahead, Cideeda gently pulls the steering wheel and leads the humvee towards a calmer path in the road. "Yes. I'm guessing in a few hours, I'll be lucky to keep it at sixty kilometers per hour. Don't think this road is a high priority for anyone."

A sigh escapes Aristespha, and she smiles tight lipped. "It is unfortunate, really. These routes used to be maintained so well when the Greater Azure Alliance and United Appaland States had a comprehensive trade treaty."

Stirring from her back seat, Dretphi opens her eyes, and gazes towards the front of the vehicle. "Thought about a route through Hattan. Good roads. Did not save time. This route is faster."

Harsh bumps shake the vehicle, swaying everyone around inside with the upwards and downwards shift. Dretphi reflexively grabs onto the bottom of the back bench seat, securing her position, and groans to herself. "Despite unfortunate travel conditions."

Snarling her upper lip, Cideeda grits her teeth and stares at the road ahead. Fighting her brief frustrations with a wince of her eye, she apologetically calls back. "Sorry about that one. Looks like the storms did a real number on this section. Hope that was the worst of it."

Sotalia glances up from her phone and squints her golden eyes at the road ahead. Resting her gaze back down on the device in her hands, she ponders out loud. "It's still in pretty good shape. I wonder if this is an old road the Train reworked at some point."

Darting her emerald green eyes around, Cideeda examines different aspects of the road design nearby. "Oh, it definitely is. Extra wide lanes. Huge shoulders. And, the actually useful designation markers. They probably used to run some of their triple length haulers down this route... At some point in the past."

Bach sinks back into his seat, a thought pulling at the corner of his mouth. "So... Don't know if there's any truth to this... But, I remember hearing a few rumors that the Train has been working on a new route through the Berland river valley."

Furrowing his brow, Bach bounces his blue eyes to the sides of his mind. "Well, at least that's what the drunks at the bar kept rambling about."

Faintly perking a very long, pointed ear, Aristespha eyes Bach curiously and focuses her intrigue upon him. "Beckerin mentioned similar... Did these drunks wear Train uniforms?"

Tilting his head with a memory, Bach glances over to Aristespha and smirks into an acknowledging nod. "They DID actually. As much of a dump as Tullachester is... It does attract all the Train workers from the Hunt Train depot as a stop along their runs."

He twists his mouth and grumbles under his breath. "Plus, the local bars were about the ONLY attraction to THAT place."

Sebastian's ethereal voice resonates from the sword secured next to Aristespha's seat. "Noticed a few of those less than a block from that shack you were in."

Bach shakes his head with an eye roll and sighs. "Yeah... I stayed away from those places. Too many brawls on my front lawn at three in the morning to make me ever want to actually go into any of them. I mean, if all that spilled over into my yard, I don't even want to know what was going on inside."

A small smile sneaks out onto Bach's light tan face, and he relaxes his gaze up to the ceiling of the humvee's cab. "I usually went to an adventuring themed tavern a kilometer down the way. Nice atmosphere."

He snorts to chuckle and shakes his head. "And, I traded magical tricks and trinkets for free food and drinks."

The pair of swept back, black horns poking through dark red hair in the seat in front of Bach stir. They rotate around, and a head rises up from behind the headrest, revealing a pair of interested golden eyes. Sotalia grins slyly, spins the rest of her body around in the seat, and gazes at Bach. "Really? What kind of magical tricks and... trinkets?"

Flashes of embarrassment trigger a few winces upon Bach's face, and he squirms uncomfortably. "Oh. Uh, um, just simple little bar games and... Other... Stuff. They weren't anything too great, really. Just what I could scribe on these little novelty scrolls the owner bought in bulk."

Sotalia's gaze narrows, eagerness tinging her intrigue. She wraps her arms around the headrest, places her chin down, and concentrates her stare at Bach. "I see. Give us an example."

Lifting his head forward briefly, Bach attempts to nonchalantly dismiss the attention of Sotalia, glancing over to another part of the humvee cab. "Uh, nothing great really. I mean, the old owner retired. Sold the place to his son. Then, he made it into a sports bar. Not really worth talking about."

His wandering stare drifts to another spot. He catches a glimpse of Aristespha with a wicked smile, pausing in the confusion. Aristespha edges close to a grin and narrows her violet eyes upon Bach. "I am actually curious myself. What feats of magic keep someone fed and grant them free drinks? This certainly sounds like useful information that might be good to know."

Bach surveys the rest of the cab. Dretphi angles her head slightly from her lounge on the back seat and perks an anticipating brow. Flicking a furry ear back, Cideeda glances up to the rear view mirror and graces the reflection back to Bach with a toothy grin. Sebastian speaks from the sword with a slight reverb in his amused tone. "Well, bro... We got a few more hours of travel today. Plenty of time for you to entertain us all about your magical tavern exploits. I'm sure we'd all like to hear it."

The peer pressure compresses Bach into his chair, and he awkwardly grits his teeth into a reluctant, strain grin. Silence looms over and eyes watch from around in the cab. Releasing a long sigh, he palms his face and groans. "Ah, shit..."

A gust of wind blows bits of debris and flecks of dust across an almost empty parking lot surrounding a single large wooden building. The wooden, rustic theme of the structure blends in with the remote location and surrounding dense forest, despite the more modern underpinnings beneath the surface. A fan inside an air conditioner unit spins up and rattles the system to life. Next to the packed gravel road at the edge of the lot, the internal light intermittently blinks inside of an old sign reading "Cookes Inn and Tavern". The flickering light casts far out upon the lot and mixes with the warm evening twilight, eventually fading into the plentiful ambient light.

Two headlights crest the top of a distant hill and beam down the declining roadway. Minutes later, the humvee's front tires turn and lead the vehicle into the parking lot, the left blinker going off. A slight squeak escapes the brakes, and the ancient military machine slows to a stop within a marked parking space next to the building. From the powerplant under the hood, the turbine spins down and the faint, high pitched whine drifts off to silence. The headlights switch off and doors open up. Cideeda, Sotalia, Aristespha, and Bach disembark, and eventually Dretphi exits behind Bach's slid up seat. Sliding his seat back into place, Bach pushes the door close and scans the huge lot. "Huh. Doesn't look too bad. But, it's a bit... Um... Vacant?"

Sotalia places a hand on her hip, sways to a side, and tosses back a few stray dark red hairs over a horn. "Well, that's pretty normal for these places on the outskirts. Dead for days. Then, everyone shows up."

Walking with a long stretch to each step, Cideeda slowly pulls her arms around to the limits of motion and relaxes her body with an exhale. "Don't let the empty lot fool you. These places make a good bit of money. When you are the only place with beds and bathrooms for kilometers, you can name your price and people WILL pay it."

Nodding his understanding, Bach squints towards a series of long, large parking spaces arranged in a spacious lot with small utility stations rising out of the pavement between each. "So, I guess those spots over there are for the big trucks?"

An outstretched foot taps down next to Bach. Cideeda slides the rest of herself up next to Bach and perks her furry ears in agreement. "Yes, they are. Usually these places have charging, water, and waste hookups rigged up in those stations. Also..."

She sniffs the passing breeze and scans her emerald green eyes towards the back corner of the building. "They probably have a fuel pump somewhere in the back... Don't know if I'd trust what it's pumping."

Dretphi reaches inside the back of the humvee, pulls out a wheeled duffel bag, and carefully lowers it to the ground. Stepping around the side of the vehicle, Sotalia grabs hold of the top handle, pulls it out, and rolls it out of the way. Another gust of wind washes through the area, blowing ripples through clothing and rustling a chorus of leaves in the surrounding trees. Securing another bit of luggage from the back of the humvee, Dretphi rests it upon the ground. Aristespha lifts the bag by the strap over her shoulder and waits along with Sotalia. While Dretphi sorts through other equipment, Cideeda slips over, and a claw tipped hand snagged her backpack. Wandering over, Bach widens his blue eyes in surprise and instinctively opens his arms out, catching a simple draw-string duffle bag. Dretphi hoists up a fancier version of the bag over her shoulder and closes the back hatch. Reaching into her pocket, Cideeda draws out the humvee's controller fob and clicks a series of buttons. The machine blinks its lights and emits a beep. Aristespha sets off towards the front door of the building and glances back, leading the way. "I called ahead and reserved one of the large common room suites upstairs."

Sotalia strides along behind Aristespha, rolling her bag with her. Lifting a brow, she cracks a sly grin, sarcastic toeing the line. "Oh. Splurging a bit aren't we?"

Aristespha shrugs and returns her head forward. "I figured we might as well enjoy it while we can. It was about the same price as a bunch of smaller rooms."

Briefly narrowing her stare forward, she sighs with a hint of a stale groan. "And, we will have that part of the upstairs to ourselves... And not get woken up by any later arrivals."

She wraps her hand around the metal horizontal handle upon the ornate wooden door and pulls it open for everyone else. Sebastian's voice echoes from the sword at her side. "Everyone hit up the shower while you can. Including YOU, bro."

Bach furrows his brow and focuses a glare at the blade. "The fuck is that supposed to mean, man."

An ethereal sign resonates, and Sebastian placates with a genuine tone. "Hey, bro. I'm just saying, if you even feel like you vaguely need to shower, it's A LOT easier HERE than in the WOODS."

Dretphi shudders at passing memory with a twisting cringe across her face. "THAT is the TRUTH."

A sneer perches on Cideeda's upper lip, and she sighs out past frustrations nearing aggravation. "Less leeches, too."

The group files in through the door into a large lobby. Worn but carefully polished wooden floors adorn the area and contrast against the intricate stone tile leading into the spacious dining hall. The tall ceilings provide ample room for local artifacts and other treasures on display. A wiry, muscular older man gazes up with a smile from the handcrafted counter. "Hello! Welcome to Cookes Inn and Tavern. I'm Goff, and I believe one of you is Miss Aristespha."

Aristespha spins around from examining all the details of the lobby area and bows slightly to Goff. "That would be me, Mr. Goff. I called earlier today."

Goff stands up quickly from his seat behind the counter and grins happily, pulling open a jingling drawer on the side. "Just David or Goff, ma'am. Mr. Goff is my father. I appreciate the respect, though."

He rummages around inside the drawer. "Just let me get the key and paperwork up on the counter..."

Fishing out a few keys and a few page stack of papers, he lays them out on the counter's top. "Here! Just got the room ready. Those should be the freshest bed sheets and towels for quite a while."

Grinning excitedly, he motions out towards the large hall. "And, I got some good options for dinner, too!"

Aristespha steps up to the counter and briefly scans over the paperwork. Retrieving a few cards from her pocket, she copies information onto key fields on the forms. "We will certainly be partaking. It was a LONG, ROUGH trip."

Goff nods with an understanding sigh, checking over the sheets after Aristespha fills them out. He shakes his head, filing them away in another drawer. "Yeah... Getting rougher by the day, too. I REALLY wish the Greater Azure Alliance and the United Appaland States would get over themselves and strike a new trade deal soon. I've been real tempted to build an add-on to this place just to sell tires and shocks."

Glancing out the front window to the main roadway, Cideeda lowers her furry ears and flicks out an annoyed flit of her tail. "You have no idea."

Goff stands back up behind the counter, scooping the keys into his hand. Energetically walking out from the counter, he excitedly gestures to everyone to follow. "Come on! Let me show you all to your room. It's got the best view around. After you all are settled, come on down and I'll give you the grand tour."

Windows in the walls surrounding the dining hall reflect back the warm light inside, contrasting the darkness outside beyond the glass. Around the largest table in the space, Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia sit with plates of food encircling center serving trays. Sebastian hovers near Aristespha, enjoying the aroma of the meal. Goff settles back into his chair at the head of the table and laughs. "That's an amazing story! Ones like that keep me believing I made the right decision building this place."

Sebastian shrugs and chuckles with an ethereal echo. "Yeah, we got plenty of them. I'm still amazed I'm not the strangest thing you've seen before."

Returning the shrug, Goff waves to the general area and snorts, smirking. "THIS far out? Man, I've seen plenty of crazy stuff. The further you get from a civilization, I guess all the weirder things get more comfortable with being in the open."

Rubbing his forehead around a prior story-worthy injury, Bach nods at the sentiment and grimaces lightheartedly. "Comfort is a nice way to put it..."

Goff motions generally upwards and cracks a proud grin with an adventurous glint. "Plus, I'm originally from much further north, closer to the Lakes. Around there... There's some utterly wild things up there, especially on the Yoop."

Aristespha quirks a curious brow at Goff. "I have to admit, you picked a very nice spot for this inn."

Chuckling to himself, Goff collects his silverware upon his plate and slides his chair back. "Oh, yeah! I figured out the right spot from experience.

Waving out towards the barely lit road beyond the windows, he wanders a pointed finger along the path. "Used to go around with my son and crew down this very road doing tree care. Pretty good work, but I had to travel a bunch."

He stands up, lifts his plate off the table, and walks back to a door behind a bar counter bordering the dining hall. "Man, I lost count the number of times we had to camp out around this very place. One day, I figured..."

Glancing over his shoulder at the team, he cracks a grin. "Someone needs to build a nice tavern and inn along here."

Depositing his plate and silverware into a cart bin just past the doorway, he steps back out and gets behind an ornate bar with a wide selection of beverages upon the display shelf behind him. "When I finally handed over the tree care business to my son, I figured I'd might as well build such a place. That way, my boy and old crew always have a place to stay after a long trip."

Examining the craftsmanship of the woodwork on the table, Cideeda squints at a few of the surrounding chairs and scrutinizes the bar with growing interest. "Is this all your woodworking?"

With a proud nod, Goff grins brightly and places his hand out upon the top of the bar, rubbing the smooth finish. "Yes it is, ma'am. You see, I always saved the choice bits of wood I got from the trees I worked on. After I retired, my wife demanded that I do SOMETHING with it all.

He gazes around the dining hall of the inn and motions to the rafters, paneling, and other wooden details. "So, I built this very building and the furniture in it. I got my place, and she was happy to get the barn back."

Inspecting the woodwork, Sotalia scoots her plate to the side and lifts her head with a smile to Goff. "So, where is Mrs. Goff?"

Goff shakes his head with a happy eye roll. "Oh, she stays at our nice house down the road. She likes to avoid all the chaos here. Always has been the wiser one. Nice to have someone on the outside to bail you out."

Bach glances over to the bar and Goff, scratching the beard underneath his chin. "So, do you get a lot of people going down this road?"

Fingers drum on the counter top of the bar, and Goff searches his mind with a few tugs upon the corners of his mouth. "Well... It has been a little slow leading up to yesterday. I got a few regulars that travel through this area a lot. A few couples that want a taste of the rustic life."

Glancing over the team, he furrows his brow and recounts. "One guy stayed a few days a couple weeks ago. Really nice guy! He had A LOT of amazing stories, and we talked for hours every night. Then, yesterday..."

Quick snort escapes Goff, and he grins slyly with a guilty shrug. "I got my fill of chaos and fun for the month!"

Curiosity seizing Bach, his spoon midway, and he glances towards the bar, at Goff. "Huh, so what happened yesterday?"

Goff whistles in thought and draws in a deep breath. Collecting the timeline of events in his head, a spark of excitement energizes his voice. "Sunday, I get this call from this lady. She says her group and another smaller group are heading out this way, and they will need accommodations. For the first time in a long while, I'm going to have a full house!"

Pantomiming with his hands, he grins during the depiction of the events. "I get all the rooms ready. I even call up my old friend Oyn to come over and start cooking up a storm. Man, I even convince my wife to come down and tend the front desk for me. The time comes when they said they're going to arrive..."

Furrowing his brow, he leans slightly over the bar counter at the team. "And nothing..."

Holding his arms out, he shakes his head, putting his hands down upon the bar top, and grits his teeth. "Here I am... Man, I was starting to think I had made a huge mistake. But, this one lady with a clipboard and a guy with a camera, like one of those television cameras, comes in."

A slight crook warps the side of Bach's mouth. Goff idly rolls his hand, punctuating the situation. "She gives me all this PAPERWORK to sign to allow them to run cameras in here. I'm thinking, yeah, it's strange. But, I don't mind showing the place, and I'm not going to let everything I did to get ready go to waste."

Pointing to large main doors, he wanders his gaze across the big dinner table to everyone. "The second I signed the paper, she radios to someone. The camera guy starts recording. Then, this group pushes the doors wide open!"

Goff flicks his index finger up on a hand. "There was this heroic looking guy with a big bright smile..."

Sebastian halts mid drift and barely contains a cringe, flashing upon his ethereal face. Bach squirms a bit in his chair, glancing around uneasily. Another finger rises on Goff's hand, and he furrows his brow with his memory. "An emin woman with black hair, blue and black eyes, and way more revealing clothes than my wife would approve of..."

A piece of meat flops back into the soup bowl from the spoon in Sotalia's shuddering hand. Goff counts off another description and thinks more into that moment. "A nicely dressed fvalian with this bell around her neck."

A brief twitch squints Cideeda's eye, and a low groan strains out from Aristespha. Four fingers flex in Goff's hand, and he searches into his mind. "And, there was this evuukian guy that seemed nice enough. But, he was scarce most of the time..."

Aristespha rolls her violet eyes, and Sebastian echoes a low groan very similar to hers. Goff closes his fist and holds a thumb up with a final shake for emphasis. "Finally, this BIG grath nearly clips the door frame coming in. I think he was just putting on a show, because I know that door is much taller than him."

The grip tightens upon the fork in Dretphi's hand, and muscles flex in her forearm. With an astounded sway of the head side to side, Goff laughs loudly. "The second they cleared the door and went up the counter... This flood of camera crews just filled in around them."

He snorts and shakes his head. "Oh, the drama between them. They argued back and forth about who would get which bed in the other big common room suite. After dinner, they fought about who should do what and that on this mission. They were a mess! I guess it makes for good television... I guess..."

A heavy silence looms over the group at the dining table, Goff remembering other details of the events from yesterday. After a few minutes, Dretphi raises a hand with an index finger up and snags Goff's attention. "Excuse me. Question. Did they state when they would return by this route?"

Scratching his chin, Goff seeks out the bit of knowledge in his head, between searching flicks of his eyes. "I think they mentioned possibly in a few days. The woman with the clipboard said she'd give me a call if they were coming this way again. And, from where I guess they were going, it'll take a few more days to get there."

A collective release of tension flushes away the heavy silence, and relief finds the group at the dining table. Goff surveys the change in mood and quirks a brow with a curiosity driven smile. "They wouldn't happen to be friends of yours?"

Snickers, snorts, and laughs escape the group with shaking of heads. Goff grins, places both hands upon the top of the bar, and nods. "Well, that sounds like at least a story or two to be had over a few drinks. Consider the bar open! I still got to run a business. But... I'll let the first round go at cost."

Sotalia sips up the last bit of soup, placing the spoon down. Plucking a roll from a basket on the table, and she waves it around in sync to her thoughts. "Speaking of discounts, Bach over here actually used to create this wonderful line of mini magical scrolls..."

She cracks a sly grin and perks a devious brow. "They're perfect for a place like this."

Abrupt gurgling sounds out, and an ill timed gasp of food sends Bach into a coughing fit. Sotalia's expression adopts a playfully sinister undertone. Goff blinks thoughtfully and focuses his attention on the proposed concept. "Well, I'm always looking for things to sell or show. What do they do?"

Biting a piece off, Sotalia waves the roll around in her fingers to punctuate. "There's the random fortune teller, drink tracker, drunk detector, and..."

A toothy grin springs up on Cideeda, and she aims a mischievous gaze towards Bach. "Oh! Don't forget all the games. Bomb defuser, balance the card, and that mini role playing game. I still think that collectible card game would have done well if you had a marketing department behind."

A brief, sudden snort manages to escape Dretphi, and she averts her steely gray eyes away, keeping a small, mischievous smile from progressing further. "Love tester."

Sebastian's ethereal form fails to hold back the cackle, triggering almost the rest of the table to laugh. Bach sighs with twitches of a lip curl and rolls his blue eyes. Moments later, a facetious shrug and shake of the head accompanies a thinly veiled crack of a smile upon Bach. "Well, I mean, that all that sounds great. But... I don't have anything to write on that would fit the bill."

Goff tilts his head down and examines the area behind the bar, a finger hovering with the focal point of his attention. He kneels down behind the bar, stops, and returns with a roll of receipt printer paper in hand. Puzzling over the item, he draws out a long sheet from the roll. "Hey, will this work?"

Aristespha, Bach, and Sotalia spot and scrutinize the receipt printer paper roll. Aristespha and Sotalia nod in unison, evil tinges coloring their smiles. Bach only blinks with an awkward cringe. His demeanor stumbles to a recovery, and he tries to adopt the previous facetious shrug. "I mean... That COULD work. But... I would need special pens and inks to-"

Popping the remainder of the roll into her mouth, Sotalia stands up from the table, chewing. She perks an eyebrow to Aristespha and holds her hand open, walking from the table towards the main hall. Aristespha reaches into her pants pocket and tosses the room key with a flick into Sotalia's awaiting hand. "Third zipper pocket from the right. It is the small roll out kit."

A long exhale of defeat slowly vents from Bach, and he pivots his head to the side and tilts up to Sebastian, hovering nearby. "I guess I'm doing this, huh?"

Sebastian nods with his hands behind his back and glances down to his brother. "Yes, bro. You must placate them. Peer pressure and all."

Dropping his head low for a moment, he draws in a long breath. He straightens back up with an accepting semblance of a smile. "Okay... Fine. So, which one first?"

The morning light floods the large, long common room. The sun’s warmth beams upon the six beds lined up perpendicular to the outer wall, each just under a wide window, upon the wooden floor. Two tables rest flush against the opposing wall, loaded with a number of chairs each, and lockers line the remanding, clear stretch of wall after the dividing doorway. At the far end of the room, another door opens, and flow of steam and bright light beams in, reflecting off bathroom tile. Sotalia steps out bare footed onto the wooden floor, walking with a relaxed smile. Balancing the towel wrap on her head between her horns, she keeps a hand on the towel tuck over her chest. She glances over at the other roughly remade beds and the personal items arranged upon each. Passing over the unused bed, she pauses and stare at the furthest bed. Bach stirs under the covers, still slumbering. Rolling her golden eyes, Sotalia shakes her head amused and continues to her bed, a quiet chorus of hardwood floor joining the pats of each foot. She kneels down over her open luggage and gazes over the selection. Picking out clothing for day, she notices the hum of her aetherphone vibrating on the bed. With a swift snatch, she reads the message on the phone. Glancing to Bach, she watches. A long intermittent snore from Bach barely graces just above the background noise. Sotalia snorts to herself and shakes her head side to side, her thumb tapping out a reply. Seconds later, the phone vibrates with another message. Sotalia quirks an eyebrow and gazes at Bach. Slyness curls the corner of her mouth, and evil widens the expression.

Bach slumbers on his side, facing the end wall, and subconsciously shifts his face away from the line of sunlight creeping up the sheets. His current snore fades. A faint rush of air echoes out in the room with a muffled sound of flapping fabric trailing. A damp towel impacts the back of Bach's head, and momentum carries over, flopping part of it on his face. Bach startles and stirs groggily from sleep, grumbling incoherently. His hand aimlessly paws at the towel on his face. Soon, enough motor coordination and consciousness reassembles itself. Bach lifts himself up to a seat up in the bed, the towel still covering most of this head. A snicker momentarily sounds out, quickly squelching quiet. Bach manages to finally remove the damp fabric from his head and reveals a chaotic mop of hair. Opening his eyes halfway in a morning daze, he spends almost a minute examining the towel, in between blinking and clearing the sleep from his eyes. Idle mumbles of deliberation lead Bach's attention and sways his head towards the source. His groggy vision watches an hourglass figure finish pulling up a pair of pants to the small of her back. Puzzlement and confusion mix harshly within the morning fog inside Bach's mind, and familiarity tries to cut through the stubborn haze. Bach's blue eyes move up the two color pattern on the skin of the woman's back. Black nailed hands reach up to the towel on her head and unfurl the fabric, revealing dark red hair and black swept back horns. Recognition finally manages to shriek clear through the lethargy in Bach's head. A flush of embarrassment overtakes Bach and tightens his throat. Shock drains the color from his face and forces a gasp into a short lived squeak. The reflexive twist of his head away, nearly sprains Bach's neck.

After the sounds of clothes rummaging, luggage zippers, and button snaps, Sotalia calls out over her shoulder. "You awake, Bach?"

Bach blinks in silence for a few moments, stalling long enough for functional speech to leave his mind. "Uh... Y-yes?"

Other faint noises emanate from Sotalia's direction, and a series of softer footsteps grow in volume. Sotalia snaps her fingers a few times to get Bach's attention and calls out with a curious tone. "Hey... Over here. Wake up!"

Hesitation staggers Bach. With a deep breath, he forces his head to turn the rest of the way. Sotalia lifts an inquisitive brow and stands at the side of Bach's bed, pants, shirt, and socks on. Relaxing, Bach releases the tense breath. Sotalia works a questioning twist to her smirk. "I guess I'll count this as awake enough. We'll be leaving in an hour or so. Shower and come down for breakfast. Your brother's orders... via Aristespha message."

Bach nods a confirmation, fighting a yawn. "Okay... Yeah... I'll be down in half an hour."

Returning the nod, Sotalia spins around with a smile and walks to the room door. "Sounds good to me. I'll let them know."

Opening the door, she goes through the doorway into the hallway, and a guilty smirk curls from the corner of her mouth. Bach watches the door close and stares forward, contemplating. A minute passes in the faint morning din from below and nature outside. Tilting over onto his side upon the bed, he groans and greets the new day.

In the middle of a wide, overgrown gravel road, the humvee slows to a stop just before an abrupt, thick tree line. Peering out through the windshield, Cideeda scans the out from the vehicle. Sotalia squints her eyes and seeks anything of interest in the forest bordering the roadway. Sebastian's ethereal form floats out forward from the aisle, between Cideeda and Sotalia, and stares uncertainly ahead. "Okay... Something is NOT right about this."

Cideeda taps her finger on the steering wheel thoughtfully and turns her head to the side, checking out the driver's side window. "We're near the area where people reported seeing someone matching Noxian's description."

Narrowing her emerald green eyes, she wrestles a grimace on her light brown face and flicks her furry ears. "And, this is really close to the coordinates from the research base data."

She leans out the driver's side window and squints down at the packed gravel, her long tail twitching. "But... This is also a road not on any map I have."

Sebastian hovers in the middle, slowly scanning the horizon, and hems to himself. Crossing his arms, he drifts through the windshield out to the front of the vehicle and calls out. "Okay. Let's get out and check around. If there's nothing here, we'll drive around a bit more and see if there's some other route around."

Reaching under her seat, Dretphi rummages around and pulls out a hard shelled case by the handle. "We should verify our position."

Doors open and the team exits out, wondering and wandering the terminal point of the gravel roadway. Cideeda opens the back hatch, and Dretphi reaches in, lifting out three telescopic poles and a tripod. Aristespha, Bach, Sebastian and Sotalia spread out from the humvee, watching the bordering forest. Both Aristespha and Bach blink their eyes to a bright glow, carefully surveying sections of the road and overgrowth surrounding. Sotalia’s golden eyes flicker to a constant dim illumination, and she strains her concentration, maintaining the effect. Sebastian rises high up into the air, rotates around, staring out at parts of the horizon. Dretphi opens up the tripod, rests its feet securely upon the ground, and adjusts it to a level point. Opening the hard case up, she carefully lifts a complicated piece of machinery, incorporating elements of a sextant and other measurement devices, and attaches it to the top of the tripod. Dretphi retrieves a book from the hard case, flips to a worn section, and reads intermittently between tweaks of setting knobs on the device. Cideeda climbs up to the top of the humvee and locks the telescopic poles into welded on mounts. Extending the last pole, she screws in signal cables into each pole's base, connecting to small, rugged electronic device. Flipping a switch and pressing buttons through the thick rubber weatherproofing, Cideeda commands the device life and watches a series of numbers and gauges render upon the protected screen. She leans back and glances over her shoulder toward Dretphi. "It'll be a minute or two. Nav beacons out here are a bit old and use an old spec."

Dretphi nods and returns her attention to the machinery on the tripod. "Similar delay. Want long measurements to reduce inaccuracy."

Scratching the back of his head of longer brown hair, Bach shrugs his shoulders and alternates a glance between Sotalia and Aristespha. "Well, I'm not sensing anything magical around here. Any luck?"

Aristespha blinks her eyes back to normal, pivots towards Bach, and walks with a sigh. "Nothing, either. I really was hoping for at least an illusion spell. That actually would have made some sense."

Closing her eyes to a rough wince, Sotalia rubs her face and shakes her head, stepping back to the group. "Gods. Well, I don't see or feel anything over here. Seems pretty normal to me."

Sebastian flies back down from a lofty height and lands his ghostly self, standing on the ground in front of the humvee. "Anything to report, everyone?"

Aristespha shakes her head and crosses her arms, her mind processing possible next steps. "No magical influence at the moment, Sebastian. If there is anything, it's no stronger than the typical background energies."

Cideeda lifts the radio navigation console and shows the screen towards Sebastian, Aristespha, Bach, and Sotalia. "Land navigation beacons put us roughly where we think we should be. I'm waiting for the computer to refine the area down."

Dretphi calls out behind the humvee, squatting down and carefully writing measurements and calculations in a notebook. "Need time difference in measurements to reduce error. We are in the vicinity of where we should be, regardless."

After a few pondering nods, Sebastian points out towards the dead end of the road and drifts slowly in that direction. "I think I saw an odd clearing a few kilometers away. Maybe? I couldn't make out much more than that, but the clearing has a really weird shape to it."

The group roughly assembles behind Sebastian. Turns to face the team, Sebastian smiles and meets eager and curious gazes. "Well... I guess no one is against a bit of a nature hike?"

Grins, shrugs, and smirks appear, and Sebastian leads the group into the woods beyond the dead end.

Leaves crackle in a chorus with the occasional stick snap, and the group navigates through the dense forest. Minutes later, Dretphi stops, reaches up to a tree branch, and lowers it down to her eye level. Studying it with intense curiosity, she furrows her brow and contemplates internally between deliberating grimaces. Sebastian glances back and calls out with a hopeful hint. "Did you find something, Dretphi?"

The rest of the group halts, face Dretphi, and wait expectantly. Glancing around at surroundings, Dretphi reaches out for another branch from a shorter tree and brings it down next to the previous. "This Forest... Is not... Natural."

Bach blinks a few times and puzzles at Dretphi's statement. "Uh, how so? There's no magic that we've found so far."

Wrestling the conflict on her tan face, Dretphi lifts her head back, and her eyes search upwards in her head for the right phrase. "Not naturally occurred."

Entertaining her observation and proposal, interest quickly turns to the surrounding forest, intrigue building each second with sparks of suspicion. Dretphi eases down the branches lower and shows her findings. "The tall trees here are not native to this area. The short trees are."

She turns the tree limbs in her hands and angles for better comparison. "Both similar in appearance. From the same family. Different species."

Easing the branches back up to their respective trees, she squints into the forest ahead, eyes out to the sides, and glances behind. "It is strange that the non-native tree is found only in this narrow band here."

She crosses her arms and frowns, paranoia tickling the corner of her mouth. "That species grows fast. Does not live long."

Spinning around gazing up at the canopy above, Sotalia twists her boot on the ground. Patting the sole upon earth a few times, she furrows her brow and heels out the ground. "Okay, has this been like a really easy hike for anyone else?"

She stares down at the ground and motions to the terrain beneath. "I just think this terrain should be... A lot rougher? It's an incline but really consistent?"

A series of long, slow nods punctuate Dretphi's silence. Kneeling down, she digs at the forest floor with her hand and ponders implications between sifting through the dirt. Sebastian holds his chin, thinks, and gradually spins back forward to the direction of the clearing. "Let's see what this clearing is. It should be up ahead. But... Let's approach it carefully."

He waves a hand signal to the team. "Everyone, stay in the forest when we get to the edge. I'll go scout ahead."

Sebastian glides out in front of the group. Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia spread out and cautiously hike on. Venturing forward, they keep loosely behind tree cover. Close to a quarter hour later, the group reaches the edge of the forest and stares out into the clearing. Blinking in disbelief, Bach mumbles astonishment. "What... The... hell?"

Before the group, an overgrown, wide strip of land cuts out into the hilly distance, devoid of trees. Strangely even height grass grows upon the track, matching the oddly flat and smooth topology. Almost hidden, worn ruts indicate the only semblance of path through the stretch of field. Off to the sides of the grassy strip lay different piles of rubble, scattering out into the surrounding trees. The age mounds of debris provide a place for covering undergrowth to root. Sebastian jets back to the group and signals them out, waving his arms. "Nothing dangerous I could find. But..."

He glances over his shoulder and guides the rest of his form. "So... What do you all make of THIS?"

Cideeda's eyes spring wide in surprise, and she points a claw tip towards one of the rubble piles. "Wait! That's broken up asphalt! Gods! There was a road here!"

Dretphi nods with a wave of shock washing down. "Land has been graded to suit that purpose. Felt unnatural. Tilled. Packed tightly. Too even... Too consistent..."

Sotalia puts her hands on her hips and idly gazes out ahead, dumbfounded. "So... Making sure I'm following all this...."

Flicking her golden eyes to Cideeda, she points over to the nearest pile of rubble under the trees. "Someone removed this road..."

She glances back to the forest behind. "And planted trees to hide it?"

Shifting her weight, she gazes between the team and motions behind her. "So, why didn't they just take it all the way to the highway?"

Aristespha draws a breath in and slowly exhales the nervous energy out through her reserved stare at the situation before her. "I would theorize it would be less suspicious to keep that much of the road there than obviously removing it from the main highway. Easier to dismiss it as some old access road or some other mundane thing."

Sebastian shakes his head and sighs with an ethereal reverb. "SOMETHING has been covered up. This is A LOT of effort to hide anything. There definitely IS something here we need to investigate."

Glancing back into the forest, Cideeda growls in frustration and grits her teeth. "I hate to leave the humvee back there. But, I didn't see an easy path through...."

Perking her brow, she tilts her head curiously and crosses her arms with a wag of her tag. "Now that I'm thinking about it, it's like the trees were planted close enough to stop most vehicles."

A sinister grin creeps up on Sotalia, and she stretches out her arms over her head eagerly. "Oh. I'm very certain I can remedy that. I mean, the trees aren't native here anyway. They really should be pruned down."

Laughing, Sebastian stands proudly before the group. "Sounds like a good enough plan to me. Aristespha, Bach, and Sotalia get ready to make some lumber. Cideeda and Dretphi, navigate the best you can and see if we can keep the clear cutting down to minimum. I don't know if we should be too obvious about what we're doing."

A large furry ear twitches towards a repetitive tapping noise upon the roof of the humvee. Cideeda press down on a control button, rolling her window down. Reaches out through the open driver's side window, she plucks out a small branch stuck in a gap between roof and roof rack. She brings the branch inside, hold it near Sotalia, and aims a brief glare at her. Meeting the attention, Sotalia attempts to innocently play off the accusation with a shrug. "What? That wasn't on my side."

Rolling her emerald green eyes, Cideeda chucks the branch out of the humvee and focuses on driving through the grassy pathway. Humvee rolls smoothly through the field, and only the constant patter of large grass blades add to the background rustle of road noise. The vehicle crests over a hill and coasts through the sea of green. Rubbing her temples, Aristespha concentrates upon her tablet and the sparse mapping data. "We were already kilometers off the main highway. Now, we've gone almost five more. Why is this not on any map? This isn't some kind of forgotten logging trail."

Bach leans over from his seat and peeks at topological charts on the screen. "I mean, I keep on seeing more piles of road they ripped off. All of it dumped off in the forest."

Staring out a side window, Dretphi frowns, concern tugging at the corner of her mouth. "Without the road surface the forest will reclaim the area naturally. This... This was purposeful. Planned."

Cideeda squints ahead down the hill and spring opens her eyes wide. Following Cideeda's stare, Sotalia blinks ahead and tilts her head to the side in confusion. "What? Is that a town up ahead?"

Working her way up from her seat into the aisle, Dretphi stares forward bewildered. Aristespha rolls her window down and leans out for a clear look. Bach and Sebastian peek around the headrests of Cideeda's and Sotalia's seats. Cideeda focuses her gaze harder and ponders out loud, puzzled. "I guess it used to be? It looks like it has been abandoned for some time now."

The humvee drives further towards the collection of rundown, derelict buildings in a larger cleared section of the landscape. The faint squeal of brakes trails off, and the vehicle stops short of a perimeter of uninviting barricades and huge warning signs, encircling the main entry point. In many languages and dialects, the same phrase repeats upon each surface possible.