Episode 24

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian and Sotalia stand just outside the perimeter of the imposing barricade of fencing, alert symbols, and warning signs. Wary eyes seek out the elements worthy of the caution and foretold danger. Only the placid fields and peaceful forest surround the team, contrasting all implications. Glancing to either side of himself, Bach gauges everyone's demeanor and pinches the bridge of his nose with a cringing close of the eyes. He draws in a long breath and releases a wary sigh. "I get the feeling we are going to COMPLETELY ignore these warnings...

He shifts his gaze over to his ethereal brother. "Aren't we?"

Sebastian pivots his ghostly form toward Bach and lifts an eyebrow, shrugging his shoulders with a nonchalant smile. "Half the places we usually go to on missions have warning signs, bro. And... The other half usually SHOULD have them."

With a hand supporting her chin and an idle finger tapping the side of her cheek, Aristespha ponders the signage, focusing on areas around the messages. "It is very strange. There are no organizations listed anywhere.... But, these signs are extremely well made. These were not hastily made. Which oddly isn't that surprising when you consider the road removal and tree planting."

With a brief perk of her brow, Sotalia's golden stare wanders between the different alphabets and languages written upon the signs. "There's just about every major language listed here and a few older minor ones, too. I've never actually seen a warning message this thorough in so many languages."

Leaning forward, she reads the smaller text under a large warning paragraph and stands back straight in astonishment, tempering her curiosity. "OH! Wow! Gods, that's a really old dialect of Americ on there, too."

She furrows her brow and chuckles to herself. "Still can't believe the spelling rules they had back then."

Cideeda pans her gaze along the perimeter, and her head halts at a large gate section of the tall, solid metal fence. She focuses upon the thick, long weld running down between the gate and frame. "Interesting..."

Motioning towards the gateway, she squints at the metalwork, curiosity leading to intrigue. "Looks like whoever decided not to even bother with a lock and just welded the thing shut. I don't think they planned on coming back to this place."

Dretphi turns her head to Cideeda and lowers her quizzical gaze. "Strange. The gate must have been used before. Sealed afterwards."

Glancing around the concrete anchors holding metal posts, she wrestles a number of possibilities on her face. "This fence construction is high quality. Built with the town?"

A nod slowly gains momentum from Cideeda, and she meets Dretphi's attention with a thoughtful gaze. "I think so. You can't easily put this much high grade steel up, this good, without some serious planning. This looks like a lot of the old small town perimeter fences my dad would get in the scrap yard when the town upgraded to something bigger."

Placing her hands on her hips, she surveys the work ahead, involving the welded gate. "I should be able to cut that gate open in an hour..."

Her weight shifts with an idea. She twists in her bodysuit and faces Bach with a toothy smirk. "Or... I'm certain Bach could crack it open in a few minutes."

Blinking back to the discussion, Bach catches Cideeda's widening grin. He notices the encouraging attention upon him and stares briefly at the door, lowering his forehead into the palm of his hand. "Yeah... Of course... Let me go forth, ignore all the warnings, and crack open the gateway to our doom. Oh, this makes TOTAL SENSE."

Sebastian rolls his ethereal blue eyes and shakes his head with a ghostly laugh. "Oh, come on, bro! This is nothing on the scale of crazy things you've done, including recently."

Bach removes his head from his hand. Narrowing his eyes at his brother, he groans and returns his stare to the gate. "I know... I know... BUT, at least with those other crazy moments, I didn't have signs, quite literally, EVERYWHERE telling me to do the OPPOSITE."

Sotalia stretches her arms and interlocked hands out forwards, straightens her back, and flexes her head from shoulder to shoulder with a growing grin. "Well, if you don't feel up to it, I'm still plenty fired up from that bit of deforestation. This gate isn't anything that a few plasma flares couldn't fix."

A long sigh crawls out from Bach, and he draws a long, uneasy breath. "No, no. I got it. Despite that little voice in the back of my head telling me not to."

A grin cracks across his face and widens. "Plus, I'd much rather the gate be functional afterwards. Just in case we need it."

A few blinks later, Sotalia quickly snaps her stare at Bach with a quirk of the brow and a reserved, neutral expression on her face. A sly smirk develops, and she perks her brow, resting her intertwined hands on the back of her head. "Fair enough."

Sebastian nods and addresses the group. "Okay, here's the rough plan. Bach will get the gate open. Cideeda and Dretphi, I'm leaning towards camping out in the humvee tonight. Things have been plenty weird, so I think we might need to be ready to leave on a moment's notice. Hence, best to stay in our primary escape."

Processing the situation, Dretphi examines the treeline near the grass overtaken roadway, slowly nodding to her thoughts. "I agree. We should hide the humvee in the forest. Clear a path for escape. Hide obvious traces."

Cideeda motions a thumb behind her and grins to Sebastian. "I saw a spot not too far away that should obscure us enough. And, the humvee should fit into it without too much trouble."

With a gradual pivot, Sebastian's ghostly form faces Aristespha and Sotalia. "Good. Okay, while they get camp ready, I'll scout as far out as I can. Could you two check for any possible magical weirdness nearby?"

Aristespha smiles lovingly to Sebastian, and her eyes illuminate with violet light. "I will see what I can find, Sebastian."

Noticing the violet glow, Sotalia squints hard, and her eyes flicker a golden light. "Sounds like a plan. Gods, I still don't know how anyone does this for any period of time."

Faded gray asphalt roadways form a rough mesh around decaying buildings and overflowing vegetation. Years of abandonment eclipse the original craftsmanship of the structures, and the long strain against the environment reveals the shortened lifespans left. With a low whistling, the wind blows by a broken hole in a window, and the traveling sun reflects off the jagged edges of glass. A rusted metal post grinds to the will of the breeze, and the sign face twists with a faint squeak, revealing the stubborn paint outlines around the original message. "Central Administration Office."

Aristespha carefully approaches the sign, grips the weathered edge, and turns the barely legible lettering to her sight. "This... Seems familiar to me."

Darting her stare around her surroundings, she fights against a frown on her ivory face. "The terminology, the layout, and the building designs..."

She releases the sign, straightens her posture, and pivots back to Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia. Her violet eyes search low for an explanation, and she grimaces against the theory forming. "This HAS to be a Grand Library outpost. I've visited many, and most were laid out very similar to this."

Pulling his head back blinking, Sebastian directs a concerned gaze to Aristespha. "But, dear... Wouldn't this have shown up in the searches you did on our map locations?"

Comfort withers from Aristespha's body language, and she grits her teeth in a battle between bewilderment and nerves. "Yes. Yes, it SHOULD have. Something as significant as an outpost SHOULD have a number of entries in the main database... Unless..."

The rest of the teams keep their expectant attention upon Aristespha. Covering her mouth briefly with her hand, she slides her hand down to her chin to speak. "Unless... This place has been... Decataloged."

Aristespha shudders her focus to the group. She watches the confusion and uncertainty wander between themselves before seeking her. Drawing a slow breath, she exhales and explains carefully. "It is a core Grand Library law that data within the main database can never be deleted. But, there have been some... liberties... taken with the catalog that indexes all the data. Unfortunately, I think this is one of those liberties."

Crossing her arms, Aristespha grips her elbows tightly and stiffens her posture. She eyes the area with a new aura of caution and tenses with her thoughts. "We NEED to be extremely careful. I can't imagine what is here that has to be hidden so thoroughly. I've only ever heard rumors about minor items getting decataloged. But..."

She stares out to the aged, weathered, and once orderly outpost. "Nothing like THIS."

Sebastian hovers close to Aristespha and gazes into her eyes. "You okay, dear?"

A long sigh strains out from Aristespha, she nods with a slight smile. "Yes. It's just the situation has changed in ways I didn't think it could."

Bach surveys the streets running between lines of derelict buildings and shrugs nonchalantly with a comforting smile to Aristespha. "Well, I think I know how you feel."

Dretphi glances up to the afternoon sky and checks her aetherphone, stepping forward. Squinting to a point through the broken front door windows, she calls out to Sebastian. "We have four hours left of daylight. Stay together. Clear perimeters of buildings."

She glances over her shoulder and perks her brow. "Search interiors?"

Sebastian nods slowly and pivots his ethereal form towards the large remnants of the Central Administration Office. "That sounds good. It'll take longer to investigate areas, but I would much rather keep everyone close. So, keep within line of sight of someone else, and have anything strange checked for magic before disturbing it. We don't know what happened here, so let's not make any assumptions of what's safe."

Sotalia stares out to horizon down each major roadway path from an intersection, puzzling and furrowing her brow. "So, they built an outpost here. But, WHY? Gods, I haven't seen or detected ANYTHING strange yet.

She waves her arm out and motions towards the abandoned structures all around. "THIS is a lot to build in the middle of nowhere."

Smirking, Cideeda unbuttons a pouch on her vest, draws out a flashlight, and beams a bright spot towards the doors of the Central Administration Office. "Depending on how careful they were on their way out, we might find something in here."

Satisfaction wanes from Cideeda's face, and she thinks about the circumstances around, grumbling to herself. "But... This would be the FIRST place I would clean out if I was getting rid of evidence."

Crossing his arms, Sebastian floats forward and shrugs with a glance back. "Hey, it's still worth checking out. Might be a good test to see if there was some kind of cover up happening. And, if nothing else, maybe they were too busy removing all the secret files to get rid of general stuff?"

Bach scratches his head, puzzling, and asks Aristespha. "So, are Central Administration Offices similar to town halls or city capitals?"

A few hard blinks later, Aristespha arrives back to her senses. Facing Bach with a curious grimace, she internally debates and ponders out. "Oh, yes, for most purposes. It is more structured towards outpost management than legislature."

Pointing at the structure, Bach curls the corner of his mouth and lifts an eyebrow. "Okay. So, you think they have a map of the place in there?"

Aristespha nods with a growing grin and stares towards the front doors with a violet glow to her eyes. "Why yes. They should have at least ONE somewhere."

A smirk sneaks out on her face, and she chuckles softly. "It might be a visitor's pamphlet."

Through weathered, dingy glass windows, beams of light reach into the empty offices on either side of the main hallway. Reflecting off the unkempt spaces, the remnants create ambient glows, spilling onto the hallway floor from the doorways. A weak breeze slipping in from all the fractured panes stirs the illuminated dust floating in the stagnant air. Within the Central Administration building, steps upon the simple, smooth concrete floor echo distantly down the corridor, the softest pats still resonating. Dretphi stands in the middle of the central rotunda, scanning down the hallway leading to the exit. She pivots in place and leads her sight to one of the many doorways in the large, circular room. From a heavy duty flashlight, she guides a bright spotlight along the search, keeping the other hand upon her strap-hung submachine gun. Sotalia exits from a doorway and drags out a disappointed sigh. Dretphi lowers the light down towards the floor away from Sotalia and quizzically furrows her brow. "Anything found?"

Shaking her head, Sotalia guides her dark red hair with both hands over her horns and places a hand on her hip with a halfhearted frown. "No. Nothing. Not. A. Damned thing... at all. Whenever everyone left, they must have taken everything that wasn't nailed down."

Aristespha side steps out from behind Sotalia through the doorway, discouragement weighing heavily upon her. "Gods... The times I wish people were not so thorough."

Bach wanders out into the rotunda from another doorway with a shrug, twisting the corner of his mouth. "So, we found nothing."

Toed shoes lightly patting upon the floor, Cideeda shakes her head with her thoughts. She idly scratches a furry ear with a claw tip and grumbles. "There's got to be SOMETHING here. There's always something that gets looked over, especially when people are leaving a place with the intent to never come back. They had to have been pressured to leave..."

She lifts her head up, and her emerald green eyes hunt around the forgotten space, pausing along the way to squint out her theory. Sebastian drifts through a door and releases an ethereal sigh, shrugging with his hands up to his sides. "The rest of the rooms look pretty empty. Some rolling chairs, desks with all the drawers open, and a table or two."

Contorting his smirk, he grumbles. "But overall... It looks like it was cleared out pretty thoroughly some time ago."

Bach walks towards a reception desk off the center point of the room, near the archway leading to the exit hall. Placing his hand on the age-touched rolling chair back, he gradually leads it away from the desk, a trace of a squeak leaving a wheel. He spins the chair around a few times, stops it towards himself, and plops down into it. Dretphi glances up to the domed ceiling's windows and studies the orange light from the dusk sun. "An hour of daylight left. We should return to camp."

Sebastian nods with a frown curling and crosses his arms. "Yeah... We'll try again tomorrow, and maybe check further out. Don't worry, everyone. It's just the first day. We'll find something soon."

Everyone shares some form of agreement to the sentiment. The encouragement from Sebastian subdues the collective, mild disappointment briefly. Bach halts a slow spin in the chair, secures his feet on the ground, and leans forward to stand. He pushes the chair back underneath the reception desk. The chair stops short with a soft thud and lighter, crispier sound. Cideeda's furry ears immediately perk towards the noise and flick around in a search. Her head spins the rest of her body around, and her wide eyes lock on to Bach. "Garbage..."

Meeting Cideeda's gaze, Bach blinks, puzzling a moment at the word. He kneels down, peeks underneath the desk, and rummages around. The crinkle of plastic twitches Cideeda's ears and echoes around the rotunda. A toothy grin flashes wide upon Cideeda's light brown face. She rushes over to the other side of the desk and eagerly greets the plastic garbage bag Bach slides out from underneath the desk. Sebastian flies over ahead with renewed interest. Dretphi steps over and cranes above the reception desk, watching curiously. Aristespha and Sotalia walk around and wait. All witness Cideeda gleefully slice open the plastic bag with a claw. Sotalia wrestles a sneer and rolls her golden eyes with snort. "Gods, this may be another part I'm going to conveniently forget next time I talk to my mother."

Aristespha smiles slyly at Sotalia and lifts an eyebrow at her. Crossing her arms, Sotalia leans her posture back and huffs dismissively, slipping out a finger to point at Aristespha. "Girl, if you can somehow spin taking a two day trip to a forgotten, forsaken town..."

She waves out to the surrounding area, glancing around. "Where something terrible, that drove off an entire village of people, that may very well still exist..."

Resting her point upon the gutted garbage bag, she groans. "To dig through a bag of garbage, and NOT have it sound like a good reason for my mother to suggest a career change... AGAIN..."

She leans close to Aristespha and twists a smirking grin, furrowing her brow. "I'd LOVE to hear it."

Reaching to the roof of the humvee cab, Aristespha adjusts a small reading light down upon the document in her hand. Her violet eyes focus upon a sequence of numbers and letters barely visible along the tattered edges of the information pamphlet. Angling the aged paper, she discerns the faded paragraphs upon a web of crumpled lines. "This document is in the database... It has to be. This looks like a valid database address."

She flips the paper around and stares at the "Orth Ridge Archaeological Site Welcome Guide" title font. Carefully folding it up, she places it into a hard, thin case next to her seat, and expels a long sigh, staring at the ceiling of the humvee cab. "I wish we were not so far out. If I could only access the database right now, and get some damned answers to this mess."

The seat back across the aisle reclines, and Bach settles down into the new position, squirming and hunting for comfort. "Honestly, that's still WEIRD you can lose track of information like that with just having the catalog entry removed."

A long boot thuds upon the humvee floor in front of Aristespha, and she flexes her sock covered toes. Wrestling off the other boot, she turns it upside down and shakes it a few times. A sole, singular pebble drops out. Squinting her violet eyes upon the offending rock, Aristespha contorts a twinge of frustration on her ivory face and groans to herself. Dropping the boot, she drapes a blanket over herself and wraps up in it, glancing at Bach with a frown. "It's not USUALLY a problem. But... The infrastructure the Grand Library's main database uses to allow its flexibility, robustness, and capacity can theoretically have such... Issues."

Searching his mind, Bach pieces together a question, furrowing an genuinely curious brow. "So... What type of infrastructure is it... Well, uh, roughly?"

Aristespha fidgets around, finds a sweet spot, and rests her head against a small pillow. Glancing around, she remembers the reading light above and slips out an arm from comfort, turning it off. Her silvery blue hair flows over the cushion, she gazes at Bach, hints of internal unease sneaking through her smile. "Well, it only used to be one big massive, singular database, a VERY long time ago. Unfortunately, a near complete crash occurred, and they nearly lost a massive chunk of the records. Hence, a new design was requested and what was chosen happened to resemble a smaller version of the Aethernet system."

Rolling her eyes dismissively, she curls a vague smirk. "Technically, it could be considered an intranet, but there's debate about THAT being a fitting definition rather than all the others that keep getting proposed."

Bach ponders quietly, furrows his brow thoughtfully, and stares distantly. He turns his head forward, processing the concept, and blinks his blue eyes, pondering. "Wow... I've heard it was big and complicated. But, a Mini-Aethernet?"

A large figure stirs underneath a blanket in the back bench, and Dretphi slowly rolls her head, facing away from the back of the seat. A faint snore drifts into the air, and her platinum blonde braids with darker ends unfurl upon her pillow and tan face. The driver's softly door opens, and Cideeda quietly sneaks in, sliding into her seat. Pulling open the front passenger's door slowly, Sotalia gently maneuvers herself inside. Both softly guide their doors closed and tug, door latches engaging with a muffled click. Sotalia opens a dash compartment and stows a roll of toilet paper inside, closing it back up. "We checked the perimeter one last time. All the magical wards were undisturbed and active. We should be good for the night."

Peeking her head around her seat, Cideeda perks her furry ears and glances at Bach and Aristespha. "So, anyone else got to go before I arm the exterior alarm?"

Both Aristespha and Bach shake their heads. Dretphi sounds out a slow slumbering exhale. Cideeda smiles, returns fully into her seat, and presses buttons on the dash console. With a final dull click of a button on the side of the in-dash display, status messages gradually and continuously scroll on the dimming screen. Sotalia checks around her seat and reclines it down, stopping above Bach's legs. Pausing with a flit of evil on her face, she subdues the urge and raises the seat back, providing ample leg room. She flashes a sly smile at Bach's watchful stare and flops a pillow down, pulling a blanket snugly over herself. Cideeda raises her hand up from the center display and adjusts a few setting knobs on another control panel. Moments later, a barely audible stream of air flows from the front air conditioning vents into the cab. Cideeda coils up in the front seat under a blanket, the tip of her long fluffy tail poking out and covering her neck.

The humvee cab grows quiet, the group slumbering. The surrounding forest tightly pens in the vehicle. In front of the vehicle, the ambiguous haze of night obscures details and dithers any focus upon inspection, flits from imagination transparent to the faint moonlight above. Further out, small metal posts with antennas masquerading as twigs quietly monitor, outside of view behind trees. Near each, thick sticks with magical script barely reveal themselves out of the ground and faintly illuminate in a split second pulses with each other. Further out, the humvee blends into the backdrop of the forest, hidden from the waving tall blades in the grassy pathway leading to the stark barricade.

A shock pulses through Bach's body, and his eyes spring wide open. He freezes rigid, mid breath, remaining still in humvee cab. A distant stare silently echoes upon his face. Second of stillness later, he free his gaze away from within. Carefully, systematically, he inspect his surroundings. Aristespha sleeps peacefully with the slight rise and fall of her chest under the cover and a hand resting securely upon the Sword of the Spirit Realm. Slowly peeking behind his seat, Bach watches Dretphi and listens to faint snoring. He turns forward and notices a few locks of dark red hair peeking over the head rest. Carefully lifting himself up, he gazes upon Sotalia's less than glamorous, sleep contorted face. Blinking more aware of the surrounding, he stares out into the darkness beyond the windshield of the humvee and inkiness of night past the hood. Squinting further into the dense forest, he searches between the trace outlines of tree nearby and further into the dark, obscuring woods, sorting reality from imagination.

Cideeda's incoherent mumbling yanks Bach away from growing paranoia, and he watches her grimace. Wincing and cringing, she mouths out unintelligible phrases, clenching her fists around the blanket. Tension travels through her body, claws sink into fabric, and she grits her sharp teeth. Writing uncomfortably, her furry ears droop down, and she mumbles enough to be heard. "...no... ...go away... ...stay back..."

Frowning, Bach witnesses another wave of unease wash over Cideeda and carefully leans forward with a soft voice. "Cideeda... Cideeda?"

A furry ear flicks up, perking towards the source. Bach pauses uncertainly in thought and searches his mind. Returning his gaze to Cideeda, he keeps his voice low and calm. "Cideeda?"

The same furry ear flicks again, perking towards Bach. Cideeda's head turns slightly, and her short multi-color hair presses against the reclined driver's seat. Summoning a smile, Bach gently whispers. "Hey... It's just a bad dream."

Cideeda's light brown face twitches and her lips move, faintly voicing. "...it's back... ...not again...."

Bach states with the most reassuring tone he can muster. "Hey. It's just a bad dream. Just a dream. It's not real. It can't hurt you. You can CHANGE it."

Through the unconscious confusion, Cideeda stirs under her blanket and winces between squirms. "...dream... ...change it..."

Nodding with a relieved smile, Bach softly speaks. "Yes. Just a dream. Change it to what you want. You are okay. Change it to something you like."

Flits of understanding twitch upon Cideeda's face, and her tail tip flicks next to her neck. Moments later, her uneasy expression calms, her body relaxes, and she slips back into peaceful slumber. Bach eases out a tense breath. Staring out into darkness contrasting the moonlit forest, his relieved smile wavers. For minutes, his blue eyes hunt through the voids between the trees around the vehicle. He drops his gaze upon the constant stream of nominal status text upon the dimmed center dash display. Lifting his head up from the display, he halts, closing his eyes hard. He draws in a shuddering breath and lowers himself back upon his reclined seat. Pulling the blanket back over his body, he wraps up a section and hoods his head, warily sighing with his eyes still firmly closed. Sleep eventually finds Bach, at its own reluctant pace.

The rusting handle slowly turns, the bolt grinds against the door jam, and specs of dust shake free off the aging door. A claw-tipped hand with a laser pistol slips between the narrow gap and sweeps the aim across the growing span. The door bumps into the crumbling rubber doorstop on the wall. Another hand trains a similar laser pistol across the room. Cideeda glances over her shoulder and meets Bach's glowing blue eyes and waits expectantly. Bach sweeps his vision around the space and shakes his head. Engaging the safeties, Cideeda holsters both her laser pistols and lightly steps, eyes watching and furry ears flicking around. Bach walks into the room and stands just behind Cideeda, panning his dimming gaze at the features of the office. "Huh. Yeah, I don't think anyone has been in here in a LONG while."

Cideeda steps next to a desk and surveys the arrangement of items on top, underneath a faint gray haze. Resting a finger tip upon the surface, she clears a speckled path with a drag across the surface. "Dust and some mold. It's definitely been undisturbed and closed off for years."

Bach pivots slowly in place, assessing the major contents of the room. Old books rest upon the shelves and manila folders occasionally divide sections. Written notes nearly burst out from the gaps between shelves. A drafting table sits at the ready near drawers of supplies and rolls of decaying paper. Large ring binders rest upon the nearby desk corner next to a variety of measurement hand tools arranged neatly. The desk bridges the office half to the other side of the room. Bach wanders his stare over to a child's toy box upon a play rug. The sight twists an unsettling grimace upon Bach, and he gazes back at Cideeda, cautiously inspecting the desk. "Okay. This seems so strange... Especially this room."

Nodding her head, Cideeda sighs and scans the area again. "I know... All the other houses so far were almost completely cleared out... Or just abandoned hastily. This place feels like it..."

Bach turns to Cideeda, frowning. "Was left like this PURPOSEFULLY?"

After a long breath, Cideeda nods in solemn agreement, twisting her mouth uncomfortably. "YES. Not just left behind... But, left like THIS."

Silence looms above Bach and Cideeda. They investigate parts of the room, exchanging glances between possible items of interest. Exhausting other points of interest, both stare at the barely touched desk and approach. Cideeda kneels down, investigates the gaps and joints, and shrugs her shoulders. "So, there's no obvious traps."

Rolling her emerald green eyes, she smirks dismissively. "But, I haven't seen anything resembling one the whole time I've been here."

Bach reaches out a hand underneath the wide middle drawer handle. "So... Open it?"

Cideeda peeks under the desk and scrutinizes the underside of the drawer. Rapping her claw tips upon the thin wood bottom, her furry ears flick with the sound. Cideeda stands back up and steps back, resting her hands on her hips. "If you don't feel or see anything magically dangerous, go right ahead."

A secure grip on the handle, the drawer slides out with a little hesitation. The inside compartment stores a single book, a necklace and ribbon wrap binding it shut. Bach and Cideeda cock their heads in confusion, glance at each other, and stare at the book uncertainly.

Aristespha leans into the room through the doorway and enters, the contents of the room capturing her intrigue. "THIS is very different."

Bach places both hands on either side of the book and carefully raises it out of the drawer. Turning to Aristespha, he angles the front of the book to her. "Yeah. Very different."

Opening her violet eyes wide in surprise, Aristespha carefully reaches out with open hands towards the sealed volume. "Oh..."

Aristespha wanders her gaze around the room, furrowing her brow. "We are going to search this place from top to bottom now. Let's get back to everyone else. They were about to check the bedrooms down the hall-"

Sebastian darts into the room and halts in between Aristespha, Bach, and Cideeda, holding a finger to his lips. Signaling them through the door, he jets out. Sebastian leads Aristespha, Bach, and Cideeda to Dretphi in the dining area. Against a corner, Dretphi waves a point along faint trail footprints pressed upon the hallway carpet leading from the kitchen. Blinking in surprise, Cideeda quizzically perks her brow at Dretphi, whispering. "I thought we checked the perimeter of this place to make sure no one has been in it? Those are relatively fresh in the dust and mold."

Nodding in thought, Dretphi sneers her upper lip and grumbles, narrowing her steely gray eyes under her full face visor. "Back door leads to a brick patio. Connects to the driveway from the street. All surfaces that tracks do not last long upon."

Sebastian floats over and quietly addresses the group. "Get ready. I'll go through the bedroom door and see what's there. Be ready for my command."

The rest of the group moves into position, lining magic and firepower down the hallway at the door. Sebastian nods, and his ethereal form phases through the door. A tense silence swells down the hall and looms over the team. Sebastian's ghostly visage pops through the door. "Okay, no one is in here. Don't see anything rigged to the door, but double check it on this side."

Cideeda slinks up to the door, her eyes guide her head in methodical stare around the frame. Glancing to Sebastian with a nod, she reaches out to the door knob. She turns the knob and pushes the door open, swinging it into the room. A fine layer of dust lightly coats the two dressers, a pair of nightstands, and the large wooden bed frame in the room. The group cautiously fans in, checking the area. Squatting down, Dretphi squints at the area rug upon the carpet. Not able to determine how recent this activity was. Material is old. Dusty room. Closed environment. Strangely preserving. Not within a week?"

A low grumble slips out of Dretphi, and she frowns frustrated. "Could be more? Less? Difficult with countering factors."

Cideeda sighs and drags a finger tip along the top of a dresser, revealing similar results from the office. Sebastian hovers into the room further and puzzles at the environment. "This house has been a real odd one. Figures it would be one of the last we checked for the day."

Pivoting mid air, he wanders his curious concern around the room. The rest of the group expands out into the space, investigating sections. Sotalia places her hands on her hips, lifts an eyebrow, and examines the space unamused. Resting her glare upon the shadowy corner behind the open door, she halts abruptly and her eyes widen slightly. She casually steps over and pulls the door back, removing the shade obscuring a simple wire waste basket. With a nearly reflexive eye roll, she dismisses the object and starts to turn around. A glint off something reflective seizes her attention. Kneeling down, Sotalia peers into the waste basket and plucks out one of many plastic wrappers. She brings it close to her and inspects. Cideeda sniffs the air and pauses perplexed. Her nose leads her toward Sotalia with a breakfast snack bar wrapper in hand. The odd silence draws in everyone else, and they all stare at the discovery. Leftover crumbs fall out onto the carpeted floor, each relatively fresh and mold free. Upon the folded join, the ink of a future expiration date contrasts the shiny coating of the wrapper. All eyes rest upon the extravagant promotional image overtaking most of the label space, featuring a recent group shot of the familiar Next Adventurers of Nexus.

Sebastian drifts near a large window and stares out through the cleaner spots of the dirty glass pane. Through the frame of the window, a long, well-engineered road leads out to a distant set of structures near the base of the nearby mountain. Sebastian addresses the group with an air of determination. "I think we NEED to take a tour of this Orth Ridge Archaeological Site ourselves..."

Narrowing his stare, he wrestles an uneasy frown. "As soon as possible."

Dretphi checks her submachine gun and adjusts the strap to the large rifle on her back. Cideeda nods and subconsciously rests her hands near her holsters. An eager grin emerges upon Sotalia's face. Aristespha nod calmly and straightens her posture with hand on the sword at her side. Bach gives a simple thumbs up gesture with a smirk.

Sebastian smiles proudly and squints through the window. "Good. I'll scout ahead. Move fast there, but keep watch for anything off. This place isn't as abandoned as we thought."

Gigantic, ancient structures stand solemnly in spite of the hundreds of years of exposure to the world. Stone, metal, and traces of arcane intertwine and form massive buildings of purpose that remain silent. Between the tall weathered archways, imposing, battered walls, and worn roadways, modern constructions add minor conveniences via stairs, doors, walkways, lifts, and lighting. Massive areas with magical ruins and strange industrial equipment stand beneath the skies above, whether by original intent or the eventual decay of time. Sebastian darts around and scans the path ahead, waiting for the team to catch up. Dretphi and Cideeda lead the group with a submachine gun and laser pistol at the ready. Aristespha and Sotalia follow close behind, pondering the purposes behind each structure. Bach maintains the rearguard, keeping a watchful eye behind. Hearing the murmurs of discussion, he steps up and joins in on the current debate. "Yeah, I have no idea what was supposed to happen here. But..."

He wanders his gaze to the blends of magic inscription and technology upon huge stone and metal amalgamations. "It had to be big and significant."

Aristespha bounces her intrigue between one significant structure to one of the many more littering the area. Pausing to rub her eyes away from the afternoon sun, she slowly shakes her head in disbelief. "I know... And, so much effort and time was taken to set up here. So, why leave so fast? I would be disingenuous to say I am not worried about what such a reason was."

Sotalia rests her stare forward to newer construction industrial doors, standing five meters tall within an ancient archway. Noticing the smaller sub-doors open, she squints her golden stare into the dark beyond. "I've seen a few places with that big and open style, but... I don't think this was a style choice."

Shaking her head slowly, Cideeda's eyes peer into the darkness through the small embedded doorway, in stark contrast to the outside light. "Oh, the construction of this place isn't just for looks. Despite how old this main roadway is, they only installed some up to date safety rails and maybe some basic patching."

She waves her arms out towards the mesh of stonework and alloy framework before the team. "THIS... was made to handle heavy, HEAVY traffic."

The team approaches the tall archway and positions themselves around it. Dretphi and Cideeda ready weapons and aim through the open small doorway into the next area, cautiously seeking. Dretphi steps her large armored boot onto the roadway inside, and a faint echo bounces around the massive, cavernous space. A spotlight, flashlight, three different lights spells, and an illuminating ghostly figure shine out, pushing away the darkness and stretching the shadows. Through small cracks and worn seals in the ceiling, natural daylight creeps in, providing the barest ambient light into the space. The bridging roadway from the entry arches over the floor meters below and meters under the ceiling. The path leads to another archway with a similar configuration of modern doors and ancient archway. The group spaces out on the heavy walkway, cautiously searching out towards the assumed distant walls deeper in the inky darkness. Cideeda steps quietly next to Bach and aims her flashlight down over the guard rail, guiding a circle of light through chaotic, long undisturbed debris below. Wincing briefly, she uncomfortably squirms all over and guides her flashlight ahead.

The pupils of Cideeda's emerald eyes narrow to pinpoints. Her light brown skin complexion drains and pales. In a frantic, split-second flurry, another laser pistol leaves its holster. The flashlight free falls and bounces on the floor. Simultaneously, both weapons aim rigidly ahead and shriek to full power charging. Bach snaps his head to Cideeda's terror driven determination. Following the trajectory of her laser pistols, he blinks to a blue glow in his eyes and searches for the target. Horror stuns him in the moment. A force from within powers through the fright, Bach gritting teeth and a snarling lip. His determined stare explodes with brilliant blue light, and swarms of magical flow swirl within and around him, condensing between the palms of his outstretched arms. Layer by layer of tightly packed, hair thin rings of magical energy build upon each other. Each shell of rings rotate, spin, and turn, forming a growing chaotic maelstrom of visual white noise in orb form. A shrill drone from the ball of destructive energy joins the resounding chorus with the powerful energy whine of laser pistols.

Sotalia and Aristespha shiver from the nearby magic and pivot towards Bach and Cideeda. Sebastian and Dretphi hear the familiar noises and spin around, seeking the source. Quickly hunting through the dark void, Dretphi raises her spotlight towards where Cideeda aims. She instinctively raises her submachine gun, her body tensing in anticipating. The spotlight shines upon the far wall and reveals ancient industrial machinery and arcane components against it. In the middle, one mass remains pitch black. Encapsulated with an outline of illumination, a billowing cloud of black miasma lingers, remaining in place. Spitefully ignoring all light within its aura, the fluctuating entity idly looms, the edges of its twisted, vaguely shaped entity overflowing in black ethereal fire. Weapons and magics ready. The team stands still. The whines of laser pistols and the chaotic shrill drone of a disintegration ball flood the air. Cideeda frantic pants punctuate her terror, her tensing form struggling against frightful tremors.

A still, stifling minute passes. Squinting his brightly blue glowing eyes, Bach gradually tilts his head in thought and breaks the silence. "T-That's... That's not one of THEM."

Suddenly cringing, Cideeda growls back, forcing down panic, and tenses her rattling grip on her pistols. "The FUCK do you mean?!"

Her emerald green eyes widen, her body shakes with her frightened gasps, and she grits her teeth. "I KNOW what IT looks like! It's right THERE waiting for us!"

Swallowing hard, Bach releases a long, shuddering sigh, and drags a long breath in. "That... It... It's not a whole... Working one... It's not all there... It's like the components to make one..."

Lowering her furry ears back, Cideeda defiantly maintains her terrified glare upon the black form engulfing a cylindrical tank. The mass ripples out through a rupture on the side of the container. Bits of arcane material, runes, and equipment rest in scattered fragments upon the floor and stick into other pieces of nearby equipment. Gazing over to Cideeda, Bach waits, struggling to keep the disintegration ball going. Cideeda darts her eyes away briefly and blinks out of the fear into the analytical. Her focus breaks away from the dark shape and wonders upon the whole scene. A long painful sigh struggles out, and the tension releases hold of her body. She concentrates on her breathing and flutters eyes back to awareness. "IT... It... It would have come after us by now."

Laser pistols slowly lower. The charging whine disappears, safeties reengaging. The disintegration ball shrinks with the reverse flows of magic entering back into Bach's body. The last spec of energy fades, and Bach relaxes his arms limply to his sides, panting with his head hanging. A painful grimace flashes upon his face, and he growls loudly. "THE FUCK IS WITH THIS PLACE!? What THE HELL did they DO HERE?!"

Drifting around in her dazed thoughts, Cideeda glances over, feeling Sotalia's hand on her shoulder. She notices the concern on Sotalia's face and returns a weak smile with a nod, glancing over to Aristespha and Dretphi nearby. Bach closes his eyes hard and pinches the bridge of his nose, idly shaking his head. Sebastian slides next to his brother, angling for a clear view of Bach's face. "Hey... Hey, bro... You okay?"

Bach draws in a deep breath and eventually manages to nod. "Yeah... Yeah. But... Oh, holy shit, man."

Lifting his head up, he stares into the darkness at the black miasma fluctuating. "THIS... This is a bit much."

Sebastian stares out solemnly to the black mass leaking out from the tank and furrows his brow against his discomfort. "Is THAT what they look like?"

Swaying his head from one shoulder to another, Bach recollects himself and grimly smirks. "Generally. Well, usually about five meters tall with all the fucking anger, spite, and hate you could ever imagine one damned thing ever having."

He narrows his stare at the nightmare fuel. "But... Mostly... THAT."

Sotalia steps next to Bach, gently bumps her shoulder into his, and gazes at him, masking her concern with a grin. "Hey..."

She winks with a sly tint. "You still have to teach me that spell."

An honest smile surfaces on Bach, and he playfully rolls his eyes at Sotalia. Feeling light but firm pats on his back, he glances over his shoulder and meets Dretphi's warm smile underneath her helmet's visor. Sebastian stares towards the light coming in through the small door within the larger archway door. "Good. Everyone, I'm going to check ahead. Let's see if we can avoid any new surprises like that."

Pauses his flight next to Aristespha, Sebastian hovers in front of her, parsing her expression. "Dear?"

Seconds later, Aristespha turns to Sebastian, relinquishing the tremors of anger, twitches of irritation, and strain of gripping frustration. "I am fine. Sebastian."

Sniffing in a breath, she calms and collects herself. "I am going to get answers to this madness once we get within aetherphone reception. Someone WILL tell me what happened here."

Sebastian waits concerned. Aristespha finally shows a loving smile and motions Sebastian off. The group reforms to the previous marching order. Feeling a set of light pressing claw points on his arm, Bach glances down to Cideeda smiling back. She sighs and gazes at him for a moment. "Hey. Thanks for the backup."

Bach shrugs modestly with a smile and rubs the back of his neck, hinting embarrassment. "Well, I don't know how much it would have helped. I mean, I was just mostly scared there."

Cideeda tightens her wrap around Bach's arm and releases it. "You still stood your ground."

She moves up to the front of the formation, and Bach positions himself to the back of the reforming group. The team approaches the small doorway in the larger archway doors. A powerful low hum resonates throughout the area, startling the group. In between the team's worried glances, a voice echoes from the sword.