Episode 26

Early morning sun beams through the rows of trees and scatters a warming glow upon the humvee. Aristespha, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian, and Sotalia sit within the small clearing around the vehicle. Dretphi slides a spatula underneath the last few pieces of bacon in the frying pan above a small cooking burner. Carefully balancing the last slices away, she deposits them on a transparent green plate on a log nearby. The bacon settles in the space between scrambled eggs, biscuits, oatmeal, and gravy. Dretphi turns the burner knob to an off click, and the blue jets of flame flutter out with a poof. Glancing between the full plate and the humvee, she gazes at the rest of the team. "I know we agreed to let him sleep. Prefer he eat fresh food before it gets cold."

Aristespha lifts her stare up from her tablet towards Dretphi, thinks for a moment with her eyes searching, and nods with a smile. "We might as well wake him. I doubt he will sleep much once we get back on the roadway anyway."

A wicked smile flashes upon Sotalia's face, and her golden eyes light with a mischievous gleam. Pinching the last piece of bacon off her plate, she places the plate to the side. She stands up and strolls towards the humvee, a faint giggle in her tone. "Oh, don't worry! I got it!"

Watching Sotalia walk away from the gathering, Dretphi wrestles down a grimace and turns her attention back to the cooking burner. She rolls her steely gray eyes long and grumbles. "She enjoys the torment."

Narrowing her gaze, she peeks back over her shoulder. "Possibly too much for good."

Cideeda shakes her head and perks her furry ears with an amused smirk. Sipping steaming coffee cautiously from a thermos, she sighs with an ending chuckle. "Oh, don't worry... She's just having fun with his inhibitions. "

She lifts an eyebrow, grins toothily, and slides her emerald green eyes over to Sebastian, floating in thought next to Aristespha. "I'm sure she did worse to you, right, Sebastian?"

Blinking back to awareness and the conversation, Sebastian darts his eyes around confused and finds Cideeda's expectant gaze. He pauses in thought, waiting for the last few seconds to play in his mind, and nods. Twisting a tight smile on his translucent face, she wavers between a smirk and grimace. "Oh. Yeah... She's actually been pretty mild. Probably still gauging his tolerance for being messed with..."

He laughs to himself with faint reverb, shrugs his shoulders, and glances over to Dretphi, amused. "Anyway... My bro will be fine. Really. He's not defenseless here. He just needs to learn how to stop being so awkward, anyway."

Dretphi contorts a grimace between a few variations with her thoughts, mulling over the sentiment. Swaying her head side to side, she shudders out a flit of uncertainty and sighs her reservations. "Indeed. There are lessons to learn."

She furrows her brow at Sebastian and curls a vague frown. "Doubt the effectiveness of present methods implemented."

Biting her lower lip, Cideeda rolls eyes, sweeps her long, fluffy tail behind her, and snickers in between sips of coffee from her thermos. "Well... We shall see."

The smile upon Sebastian fades. Returning his head to a rest upon the fist of his propped arm, his ethereal visage stares distantly in thought. Aristespha pulls her attention away from the events in front of her and gazes upon Sebastian with a quiet, calm voice. "Are you okay, Sebastian?"

Sebastian flutters his eyes back to awareness, returning his attention back to the outside world. He pivots his head upon his fist and smiles warmly to Aristespha. "Huh? Oh. I'm fine, dear. Just... Thinking about... Things."

A curious quirk of the brow poises itself over Aristespha's violet eyes, and she trains a concerned, piercing stare to Sebastian. Seconds later, a long ghostly sigh escapes Sebastian, and his smile weakens. Deeper thoughts rise up his body and play out upon his face. Sebastian smiles lovingly at Aristespha. "It's okay. I'll explain it to you later, in private."

A gentle, ivory hand grasps onto Sebastian's hand resting upon the pants of his transparent visage. Aristespha's glowing violet eyes gaze into Sebastian's with a warm smile, hinting faint concern. "Okay, Sebastian."

Inside the humvee, intermittent snores from Bach softly fill the cab. His head rests upon a small pillow and face away from the morning light invading through the windows. A blanket covering his body rises and with each long breath. Bach twists and turns within the sheet, averting himself away from the imposing sunlight. The front passenger's door opens, and the sounds of the outside world leak into the muted interior. The front seat rocks slightly. A woman with golden eyes, dark red hair, and swept back horns places her chin down upon the headrest. Wrapping an arm around the seat, Sotalia eyes the sleeping Bach with a playful grin. Two fingers secure a piece of bacon between them, and an arm reaches out, slowly waving the slice near Bach's nose. Seconds pass, twitching cheeks contort Bach's nostrils, and his face animates with the first stages of consciousness. His head moves subconsciously and briefly follows the scent trailing behind the bacon Sotalia leads away. Bach's blue eyes flutter open and struggle through the haze of sleep, barely perceiving Sotalia. A crispy snap and muffled crunches kick Bach out from his mental haze. Sotalia presents her devilish grin in between bites of the diminishing bacon slice and flutters her golden eyes at Bach. "Well, good morning!"

Bach blinks the remnants of sleep from his eyes and slips out a hand from underneath his blanket, wiping the stubborn holdouts away. "Uh... Um... Morning?"

Perking her brow, Sotalia rolls her eyes and sighs to a smile. "Yes. Morning. Dretphi wanted you to eat breakfast while it's fresh and hot."

The blanket slides off to the sides of the seat. Bach pulls the side lever and angles the seat back from a recline. "Oh, okay. Yeah... That sounds good... Right."

Sotalia's smile drifts closer to concern, and she tilts her head to the side, her attention fully upon Bach. "Hey. Are you okay?"

Bach blinks and yawns closer to full awareness. Watching Sotalia vainly fail at suppressing a reactionary yawn, he manages to put forth a weak smile and faintly chuckles. "I guess. I think? I don't feel bad or anything."

Drawing a long breath, he sighs and wanders his stare off into the internal distance. "It's just... A lot to process, still?"

Sotalia rocks her head upon the headrest, mimicking a nod, and renews her smile to Bach. "Well... That makes sense. Last few days have been pretty wild."

Long brown hair with rare strands of gray free themselves from last night's arrangement and rest upon Bach's shoulders. He brushes out a few stubborn tangles with his fingers and finishes with an uneasy exhale, shaking head side to side. "I'm going to be honest... Yesterday really pushed me to the breaking point..."

Sotalia's smile lowers gradually into a frown, and she watches the discomfort and tension sneak out through Bach with memories of yesterday resurfacing on his face. Swallowing hard, she furrows her brow. "I know."

She lifts her arm from a wrap around the seat, stretches a hand out, and places her fingers underneath Bach's chin. Angles his head upwards, she inspects Bach's face and gently guides his head, checking a few spots. A smile reemerges on her light tan and dark gray face, and she drops her hand away from Bach's chin. "You are looking A LOT better today. And... Since we're being honest..."

The morning sun reflects the worry in Sotalia's golden eyes. "You really spooked me yesterday."

Bach sadly curls the corners of his mouth, twists a pained grimace, and briefly grits his teeth, averting his eyes. "Ah... Yeah... Well... Sorry about that."

Sotalia slowly blinks her eyes, lightly sways her head, and draws a widening grin from a corner. "Sorry nothing. Thank you. Really."

Wrapping her arms tight around the headrest, she sighs and glances away. "I NEEDED someone to blatantly remind me of the situation, before I ran off doing something stupid in the heat of the moment."

The dry smirk finds its way upon Bach's face, and he chuckles softly. "Hey, I'm glad I could help there. But, I really hope it doesn't require something like that to remind you in the future."

A confident laugh escapes Sotalia, she lifts her head off the headrest, and her hands settle to either side of the top of the seat. "Gods. I hope so, too."

Seconds of silence pass in the humvee cab, the morning light flooding the space more. Gazing out his window to the rest of the team in the clearing, a thought wanders itself across Bach's face. Moment of contemplation later, he gazes back at Sotalia with a wary tense in his tone. "So... I guess you and Aristespha are going to question me how I sent that blast back?"

Sotalia narrows her eyes upon Bach and slowly nods, maintaining her stare. "Oh, yes. Especially since that's the FIRST time we've seen someone pull a return to sender on anything from Noxian."

She cocks her head to the side, her gaze upon Bach. Placing the now short piece of bacon in her mouth, she bites sharply and crunches loudly. "But... THAT can wait a few days after we get back to the house."

She smiles evilly and a hint of satisfied giggle slips out. "That's the least I can do for you after seeing the look on Noxian's face after what you did to him."

Rolling her golden eyes, she vents out her mental exhaustion and combs her fingers through her dark red hair. "AND... I'm all for taking a few days break after all of this. Gods..."

Her golden eyes flick over towards the back passenger's window, and she grimaces in thought. "Anyway, I think Aristespha will be too busy trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with this place and whose head she's going to rip off when she finds out."

Bach exhales in relief. Quickly drawing in a breath, he glances out through his window at Aristespha in the small clearing nearby. "Yeah, I can't blame her. I'd really like to know what happened here, too. But..."

He curls his upper lip into a sneer and groans out his frustration. "Preferably not while we're still here? I mean, I can read about this place from the comfort of the living room couch."

Sotalia draws air sharply through her nose and exhales long with a slow, exaggerated nod that trails off to a blinking sway of the head. Noticing the small silver e of bacon left, she pops it into her mouth and chews it away. Bach squints suspiciously at Sotalia and quirks his brow inquisitively. "So. I have to ask. Was THAT one of MY pieces of bacon?"

A wicked, devious grin flashes up on Sotalia's face, and she nonchalantly slides out of the seat, stepping out the front passenger door. "Hmm. Maybe? You should probably check your plate."

An orange glow from the dusk sky radiates dimly through the windows of the inn's decorated, wooden dining hall. Goff adjusts the television out from the wall upon an articulated mount, aiming it towards the table with the expectant team. "Okay! I think I got the roof antenna right last time I climbed up there."

Lifting up the remote to the screen, he presses a few buttons and watches the television. He glances over his shoulder with a grin. "Well, we'll find out soon. I hardly ever turn this thing on unless it's for a special event... And the weather, when it looks like it might be a maelstrom."

Sebastian laughs with an ethereal reverb and grins wide, crossing his arms smugly. "It should be quite the SPECIAL event given the week they probably had. I'm actually curious how they are going to try to spin it."

Snickering with a dark, mischievous tone, Cideeda glances at Dretphi and pokes a claw tip gently into her side. "Oh, I wonder how they're going to frame that ass beating you gave your..."

Her emerald green eyes roll to Dretphi with a parting smirk. "Professional peer?"

A low grumble rumbles out from Dretphi. She averts an unamused, distant stare away from Cideeda's toothy grin, pouring a ladle full of stew into her bowl. "That term is incorrect."

A curl of pride creeps out from the corner of her mouth. "Wishful thinking on his part."

Squirming with anticipation throughout, Sotalia plucks a bread roll from the center of the table and fidgets in the finely crafted wooden chair. "Oooo! Gods, I hope they do a nice segment between me and that Tassilda bitch!"

Narrowing her gaze, she smiles smugly and settles down in her seat. "Oh... I wonder how much the camera caught afterwards. Hope the mic was hot."

Bach fends off his apprehension towards the television and the commercials running in the space before the next show. He focuses upon enjoying the food in front of him and occasionally eyes the screen, deciphering what product the latest commercial tries to advertise. Shrugging nonchalantly, Goff walks back to his spot at the table and slides himself and chair back in. "Well, I think that's the right channel."

He wrestles down a flit of doubt and smiles hopefully. "Anyway... I hope they show this place in a good light, if anything. Wouldn't mind a little extra business."

Aristespha smiles reassuringly at Goff and covers a brief giggle. "Oh. I wouldn't worry too much. Given how they usually act, this lovely inn will seem absolutely wonderful. Again, I want to thank you for having room for us on such a short notice."

Tilting her head to the side, she lifts an intrigued eyebrow at Goff and glances around the mostly vacant dining hall. "If I remember correctly, you said that you usually had a few regulars frequent this inn around this time?"

Goff scratches the graying beard stubble underneath his chin and shakes his head, drawing in a long breath. "Hey, not a problem. I'm glad you all needed a place to sleep."

Gazing over the empty tables, he furrows his brow and ponders out loud. "And, yeah... For one reason or another, all my regulars either canceled or postponed that week. A little weird, but it happens."

Sebastian drifts over near the conversation and perks an interested brow at Goff. "Huh. What were the reasons? If it's not too much to ask?"

Goff gazes up into his head, mentally sorting through a list. Keeping a count upon his finger, he recites through his memory. "Yeah. No. Uh, let's see... A trade group from the Appaland area postponed a few days due to bandits deciding to camp out on their main route down. But, last I heard they got some big mercenary group clearing the route ahead of them. Their partner group is on standby until that clears up."

Hemming to himself, he arrives at the next explanation, flicking up another finger for the count. "Then, these reagent hunters canceled because a Terra Priest group was spotted recently in the place they wanted to explore. But, they mentioned there was another spot they were interested in and would get back to me to make arrangements. Something about having to figure out how to get to the spot safely."

Shifting his weight upon the back, the chair creaks slightly under Goff, and he sighs. "I'm really sad the old guy from a few weeks ago had to cancel. Really enjoyed having him around. I was hoping to hear a few more of his stories."

He shrugs his shoulders and twists the corner of his mouth. "BUT, he said he had something really unexpected come up and had to change up all his immediate plans."

With a frown, he shakes his head slowly and throws his hand up in defeat. "Hell, even offered him a discount. But, it sounded like he needed to take care of some important business first. I can't fault him there. Life happens."

Bach glances over to Goff and wrestles a grimace, a bit of interest tinged with concern. "Wow. I mean, all THAT has to be rough on business."

Goff shrugs and holds his hands out to his sides with a nonchalant smile. "That's the nature of the business. Some weeks are packed. Some are dead. But, it works out. You all needed a place to stay from what sounds like a rough few days, and I'm happy to be able to provide a place."

He furrows his brow contemplatively and chuckles. "Anyway, usually for every thing that stops people from getting here, there's something that brings others here."

Resting an elbow on the table, he waves off the thought. He spoons some stew and cracks a sly grin. "I don't aim to profit from disaster, but that last maelstrom sent a lot of people my way."

He proudly grins and nods to the team. "And, it provided a lot of tree clearing work to my son."

The television blares out a familiar fanfare, and a series of graphics flash up on the screen, prominently displaying the title "The Next Adventurers of Nexus".

"Thank you for tuning in to this week's Next Adventurers of Nexus! We have quite the week to recap! Our adventurers have been quite busy! Tempers flared from confrontation..."

A brief clip highlights the banter between Sotalia and Tassilda. The feed swipe cuts to a split screen graphic of Sotalia grinning menacingly with a fireball in hand upon a golden yellow background. Tassilda's closeup smug, sly grin occupies the other side with her green fireball and a contrasting blue backdrop, clashing with animated sparks to Sotalia's side.

Sitting up with pride, Sotalia widens a smug grin across her light tan face and points a partially eaten bread roll towards the screen. "Ooo... Backgrounds that match our eye colors. Gods, that's actually not too bad. Almost looks like something from a fighting arcade game."

"Emotions exploded from unexpected defeats..."

On the television, the camera frames Trakenthin sitting unamused in the interview room. His body language borders on irritable, hints of frustration slipping out from his stoic facade. Crossing his arms, he glares harshly into the camera and growls low. A woman off-screen questions. "Trakenthin, what are your feelings towards Dretphi? Given your last match with her..."

The woman's tone pries, jabbing a point. "And the question at the panel?"

Trakenthin remains quiet. The glare intensifies upon the camera focal point, and a persistent twitch forms in his eye. The woman continues her queries and shuffles some paper off-scene near a microphone. "We have the original audio, but we actually have a translation of the exchanges that I'll read off, too. First, let's play the question at the panel."

An audio clip of Dretphi's voice filters into the airspace of the room. Sotalia snickers, covering her mouth. She winks to Dretphi, a wicked smile escaping the concealment of her hands. Satisfaction fills Dretphi's grin. Noticing attention from Sotalia and the rest of the group, the expression deflates towards neutral and stoic. Bach discreetly leans close to Sotalia and whispers. "So, uh, what did she say anyway?"

Sotalia bites her lip mischievously, under the watchful eyes of Dretphi. Rolling her golden eyes, she softly slips an answer back. "Oh. It doesn't have the same punch translated. All the cultural contexts make it REALLY cutting. It would be too much to explain."

The woman off-scene draws breath for her next statement. Loud cracks of clenching knuckles echo out into the room, and Trakenthin pulls his hand back. A fist impacts the protective glass of the camera, and the lens shatters. The view abruptly falls backwards, hazily focusing upon the lighting rigs above and spooked camera crew around. Heavy footsteps stomp away from the microphone, and a door slams powerfully with a faint crackle of splintering wood.

Wagging her long fluffy tail, Cideeda playfully pokes Dretphi with a claw tip and barely contains her laughter. "WOW. I can't believe how far under his skin you got! He can't even stand to hear your voice."

A content smirk sneaks out upon Dretphi's tan face, and she relaxes her stoic front. The television cuts to another segment and the announcer's voice calls out.

"Curious covert conversations were had..."

In a distant shot across a huge space, Cideeda stands along with Deedri in the dealer room at the convention, talking to each other. Cideeda blinks in shock, her jaw drops, and her eyes widen in sheer bewilderment. "HOW. THE. FUCK?! I checked around the floor before and afterwards!"

Studying the screen, she squints and angles her head to the side. Her stare studies the dynamics of the camera shot. Pantomiming the physics behind the shot, she alternates glances between the television and her clawed hands. One hand serves as the target and the other as the camera location. Cideeda gawks at the screen, curiosity tempering frustration. "Wait! That's a downward overhead shot."

Her tail tip flicks around, and her furry ears flick back. "Someone actually climbed up into the maintenance walkways up in the rafters... Found us... And recorded us?!"

Her jaw hangs open, and she blinks her emerald green eyes in utter disbelief. "GODS. That's it! I see support beams around the edges of the shot. Who the hell does THAT?"

The imagery on screen morphs to another theme, and the music mixes with a pop rhythm. Scene transitions to a camera moving forward down a dark walkway towards a figure on the center stage.

"But, FIRST... The announcement you've all been waiting for!"

A video flashes up upon the television and overlays on top the stage scene. The clip shows Chad standing up from a large, immediately familiar table in Goff's dining hall. Hemming loudly to capture the rest of the group's attention, Chad addresses the assembled team. "I know you all have been curious as to the exact details of the assignment, and who exactly we are escorting back to Amaranth Valley. I believe it is safe to reveal the details, now. After the last show of her tour, we are going to escort back the pop star, Veevi Valiant."

A mild mixture of reactions stir in between Deedri, Trakenthin, Tassilda, and Modoran. No strong acceptance or rejection manifests, a generally bland reception overall. Chad grins brightly and draws a deep breath. "After which..."

His brown eyes gaze over the team. "She will join our group as a short term intern to experience the adventuring life herself, first hand."

Modoran's eyes flit open, and he barely halts the sharp inhale of water from his glass. Dropping his head forward, he dumps the contents of his mouth back into the glass and yanks in a rough gasp. A wave of unease strains through Deedri, and she fights an involuntary cringe upon her fair face. Trakenthin slowly lifts his head back, away from his meal. Slowly pivoting his head to Chad, he concentrates a glare of brewing rage upon him. Tassilda crosses her arms with a hoist and flips her head up defiantly at Chad, curling her upper lip into a disgusted snarl. Tense moments of silence loom over the Flames of the Phoenix. Stifling peace shatters into tumultuous objections from Trakenthin and Tassilda. The video window shrinks away into the background, and the focus shifts to the stage lighting up. A half-fvalian girl struts across the stage to the walkway in front. Tossing her vibrant pink, long hair around, she sways her long, short-haired tail in sync with each step. Her short, upright fuzzy ears perk, and she lifts a microphone to her mouth, singing to the music playing. Clips of her career flip up onto the screen, showcasing a variety of pop phases and themes along with segments of her scandals and drama. Cutting through the din, the yells of Chad to the team rise out from the background. "It's ONLY for ONE mission! Just ONE!"

Aristespha widens her violet eyes in disbelief. Her jaw hangs agape, and she cups her mouth and nose with both hands. Sebastian snorts and fails to contain his ghostly reverberating cackle. An ear to ear grin spring up on Sotalia, and she props her arm upon the table. Resting her head upon her hand, she delightfully watches the chaos upon the television. Cideeda blinks hard a few times and slowly shakes her head. "Okay. I have to admit... THAT is a little cruel and unusual."

Dretphi quirks her brow and glances at Cideeda quizzically. "She is the same one from the concert... I believe?"

Nodding slowly, Cideeda furrows her brow at her memory and exhales to a slight whistle. "Yes. YES, it is. I think she's on a show called The Next Star of Nexus..."

She snorts and contorts an amused smirk. "Oh. I bet this is some kind of cross promotional ploy."

Bach grits his teeth and squeezes a sigh through, eyeing the simultaneous progression of drama and derailment of normalcy on the television. "Well... I guess the good news is that they'll be a little, uh, preoccupied for a while. Hopefully, they'll leave us alone."

An awkward tension wafts across the table. Each member of the team individually ponders the implications. Goff shrugs nonchalantly and smiles humored. "Well, looks like tomorrow night is going to be really exciting again!"

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian and Sotalia snap full attention upon Goff, a mix of curiosity and dread playing out upon faces. Working his mouth side to side, Goff hems with an ending chuckle. "Yeah. As much as I'd love more of your business this weekend..."

He shrugs his shoulders and sighs. "It might serve you all better to head straight home tomorrow morning."

From the sliding glass door, late afternoon light illuminates the familiar and comforting living area. Dretphi sits upon the floor, sorting through the first load of dry laundry, and places folded clothes in the baskets with name labels upon them. Cideeda's claws pick through the exposed components of her laser pistol, scratch at a layer of soot, and pry out a fleck of rock from the end of the focusing barrel. Sitting on the couch, Sotalia counts vials of potions and inspects the parts and pieces of unrolled equipment kits upon the coffee table. Bach hoists up a large metal case onto the kitchen floor from the garage steps. Summoning up the strength, he lugs the box over to another similar container by the dining table. Moments later, Aristespha walks in from the hallway archway and stands straight with a neutral, serious expression. Sebastian hovers through immediately afterwards, moves next to Aristespha, and gazes across the space at Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia. Putting forth an admirable effort, he maintains a confident smile that roughens around the edges with the prominent thought in his mind. With an ethereal cough, he addresses the group, tone lacking the typical bravado. "Everyone. If I could have your attention... I need to say something pretty serious."

Sebastian's off tone carries across the room, yanking everyone's focus away from their respective chores. The room fills with uneasy tension and eyes fall upon Sebastian. His efforts to keep a smile fades quickly. With a wary smirk, he gazes out at the group and exhales somberly. "I've been thinking about it for the last two days. Reviewing the situation... And... How things are looking."

Lowering his head momentarily, he ethereally sighs and lifts his face up to meet the expectant stares. "We got ridiculously lucky Thursday. There was a damn good chance that we could have all met our ends."

Sebastian’s face contorts with a flood of emotions, fighting to break the surface. "I know our profession is risky in general. But... I feel that some misjudgment on my part put us in that situation..."

Furrowing his brow, he shifts his stare inwards. "That was completely avoidable."

He stiffens his lip, blinks hard, and gazes out to the group. "I know situations can change at any time, any way on a mission, and all of you have been extremely supportive. But, this last encounter with Noxian was too close... Again."

Visibly swallowing hard, he pauses to collect his thoughts. "And... Way too familiar to THE previous time we encountered him."

A shaky undertone infiltrates his voice, and he concentrates upon the team, glancing over to Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia. "I... I... I'm glad no one paid a price this time... Like I had to last time."

Aristespha winces slightly and fends off a forming grimace. Frowns weigh up faces, and gloom looms into the room. Rolling the faint tension out of his shoulders, Sebastian straightens his posture and addresses the team. "I can accept my fate..."

He briefly averts his eyes to the side, a hint of frustration rising. "Eventually."

Returning his attention to the team, he continues. "But... I do not want anyone else to suffer a worse fate because of my failure of judgment."

He grits his teeth into a grimace and sighs remorsefully. "We had NO BUSINESS confronting Noxian this time, especially THE last time down in Anta. As much shit as we give those guys in Flames of the Phoenix and previous groups on Next Adventurers of Nexus... I can't rightfully say my judgment was any better than theirs. I've been pushing the group too hard, too fast, and without being careful enough."

His shoulders slump, and he frowns heavily. "I thought we might be able to catch Noxian when he was weak and just solve everything quickly. But... Noxian has changed his tactics. And... I don't know what he's up to anymore."

With distant stare forward, a head held up high, and stiff upper lip, Sebastian carefully speaks in a calm, wavering voice. "That's why in good faith, I can't ask any of you to continue on this path against Noxian. If anyone wants to stay away from him, I'll understand completely. We'll continue on as a group for as long as we can. We'll enjoy the time we have before circumstances catch up to Aristespha, and by proxy of the sword... Me. And... If you want to leave the group... I can't blame you. No shame at all."

His stoic demeanor cracks, and his words shudder with his trembling frown. "Truth be told... There's part of me that would be so happy to know you wouldn't be steered towards Noxian's direction anymore."

Wide-eyed gazes search around the room. The heavy atmosphere flattens down and compresses the mood into the floor. Traces of tears form in Aristespha's eyes, and the silent collective contemplation lingers in the room. A minute later, Sotalia mutters and swears under her breath to herself, lifting off the couch and standing quickly upright. She marches around the coffee table and glares up into Sebastian's face, with a fury welling behind her golden eyes. "Fuck. You. Sebastian."

Sebastian's dour expression flops unceremoniously off his face, and his translucent blue eyes widen with shock towards Sotalia. Focusing her stare upon Sebastian, Sotalia's eyes pierces through his very being. "Fuck. You. Don't you DARE kick your own ass in front of us and act like we didn't have a part in the whole thing!"

Sotalia firmly places her hands on her hips, perks her brow, and concentrates a hard stare upon Sebastian. "You've always involved us in every big important decision. You always considered our safety above anything else. And, you have ALWAYS reviewed any plan with us and asked for our input. We've been a part of all this the whole time and made our own decisions about being involved. So, fuck you for dumping this bullshit all on yourself like you're some kind of martyr."

Softening her expression quickly, she gazes into Sebastian's eyes and blinks hard, wetting her eyes. "And, fuck you... For not being solid enough for me to slap some sense into you."

A small smile graces Sotalia, and she winks to Sebastian and pivots to face Aristespha. "So... I'll do the next best thing for you."

Aristespha blinks with glistening tears hanging in her eyes and puzzles at Sotalia's attention. Smiling, Sotalia opens her arms up, steps forward, and hugs Aristespha with a soothing pat on the back. "There, there, girl. I am going to help you kick Noxian's ass and get Sebastian back whole again. Don't think I'm going to leave that easily."

Tears finally escape and trail down Aristespha's face. The initial stun wears off, and she wraps her arms around Sotalia with a meek whisper. "Thank you."

A warm smile grows on Dretphi, and she gazes toward Sebastian with a calm, bright tone. "Important decisions rarely have best options. Right for the time, not best. I believe we have taken the right option with the decisions presented."

She smirks confidently. "We will continue to make those decisions in the future."

Exhaling slowly, a tension in her voice. "Noxian's actions concern me. Do not want to experience what they will become if unhindered."

Flicking a furry ear, Cideeda stares at Sebastian with an amused, sharp smile, and slowly shakes her head of short-colored hair with a long, exaggerated eye roll. "Please. You can't get rid of me that easily."

Gesturing with her hands, she emphasizes and punctuates her points with a toothy grin. "Hey, don't beat yourself up on my account. I'm smart enough to know damn well enough what I'm getting into. Anyways, I really doubt that letting Noxian mess with a magical rift or continue to charge up with some ancient artifact was going to lead to anything good for anyone. So, don't work yourself up with the thought I'm going to leave NOW."

A strong smile forms on Sebastian and relief loosens his stiff posture. He blinks, and the semblance of tears reflect on his ghostly visage. Seconds later, he gazes upon Bach in silent contemplation and humbles himself. "Bro... You put yourself in the line of fire, yet again, and saved everyone. I..."

Wrestling a surge of guilt, he musters up a hopeful smile. "I've already put you into harm's way enough as it is-"

Lifting his hand up, Bach halts his brother's speech and snorts, contorting his mouth into a reserved smile. "Brother, I promised to help you. And, I am going to whether you fucking like it or not at this point. I mean... it's not like the broke-ass quasi-mage life is calling me back."

He perks up an eyebrow, strains his marginal smile, and exhales with a slight hiss, his eyes wandering, analyzing the situation. "I'm still pretty clueless to all this adventuring stuff."

Squirming faintly, he chuckles. "I'm still scared by some of the stuff we do. And, I'm just NOW feeling USEFUL overall."

A solid grin pushes through the waves of doubt upon Bach, and a moment confidence washes away the uncertainty in his body language. "But, gods dammit, you all are going to need my help to stop that crazy bastard from doing whatever he's got planned."

Gazing at everyone else in the room, he draws a deep breath and sighs in an awkward laugh. "And I'm sure we've all seen, heard, or read enough stories to know that anyone messing with power like that... Shouldn't be left alone with it."

Sebastian closes his eyes for a few moments, sniffs a couple times, and ethereally exhales his remaining tension away. "Thanks, bro. That's good hearing it from YOU."

Projecting a renewed aura of bravado, Sebastian smiles confidently to everyone and nods. "Well, I'll do my best to lead us right in the future towards our goal of stopping Noxian. But..."

He furrows his brow and shakes his head. "For now... Let's take the rest of today and tomorrow to relax. We'll sit down Monday and rethink our plan of attack. The situation has changed again, and I want to make damn sure we change accordingly."

Biting his lower lip with an eye roll, he shrugs off a wave of embarrassment. "Sorry for any unnecessary drama, but I had to say something and make sure for everyone's sake. I consider you all family, and I want to do what's best for everyone..."

He lifts an eyebrow up and snorts. "Well... The best that's possible given the likely world ending dark lord we have to somehow triumph against."

Gazing proudly over the team, he grins. "Thank you, everyone."

Sotalia releases Aristespha. Eyeing Sebastian with a quirk of her brow, she shakes her head with a smile and walks back to the couch. Dretphi resumes digging through the dry clothes in the laundry basket and figuring out who they belong to. Cideeda turns herself back around in her chair at the dining table and picks up a cleaning cloth, focusing upon her partially disassembled laser pistol. Bach gives a quick thumbs up to his brother, pivots, and then steps back towards the kitchen door to the garage. Aristespha gazes up to Sebastian's ghostly form and waits for Sebastian to meet her violet eyes. He smiles warmly back to her, and she nods happily.

Bright white light shines from the headlamps on black sports utility vehicle and down the narrow residential road. Through the night covered rural landscape, Chad gradually guides the steering wheel, following the winding contours of the dark road. "Almost there."

Tassilda tips her head back into the headrest and flicks her light blue on blacks out the driver's side rear window. Groaning, she rubs the bridge of her nose. "I can NOT believe we're going to try to teach that girl ANYTHING about adventuring. I sincerely hope whatever mission we have to bring her on is VERY easy. It will be trying enough as it is."

Squirms of nervous energy work their way through Deedri, and she grits her teeth briefly, staring out the rear passenger's window. "Well, I just hope she doesn't get hurt. It's dangerous enough for us, much less someone with no experience."

Rolling her head on the headrest, Tassilda faces Deedri across from her with an amused curl to her upper lip. "Well, I do, too. As if we need anything more for her to COMPLAIN about. I am just glad she's staying at that hotel for the night, at least. A little reprieve for now."

Deedri bites her lower lip and eyes Tassilda warily with a nervous twist. "That... Too. But, if she gets hurt, I'll have to treat her."

Furrowing her brow, she wrestles down an uneasy grimace. "And... She gives me strange looks that really make me think she's more than I want to deal with. Especially, alone."

Modoran's dark blue eyes dart between Deedri and Tassilda's conversation, lowering to whispers. Easing himself forward from rest upon the third row seat, he trains his full attention upon the discussion between Tassilda and Deedri, curiosity tinging the intrigued smirk. From the front passenger's seat, Trakenthin tends a near sneering glare out the front windshield with arms crossed. He squints abruptly to a section of road in the closing distance. "Something ahead."

The vehicle slows to a stop, and the lights project forward onto two blockages upon the road. On one side of the road, a gigantic plant stalk arches from the nearby forest, and a large circular flower of seed pod lays crashed on the pavement. Huge leaves springing from the stalk shake, and an animal pushes against it. A large boar with patterns on its back fur sniffs and snorts over the pavement. Opening his mouth, he bites down on a large seed and munches contentedly. Chad tilts his head to the side and mutters to himself. "What the fuck is that?"

Deedri, Tassilda, and Modoran work their ways forward in the cab and peer out, studying what lies ahead. Deedri points a claw tip towards the gigantic plant, and her auburn eyes widen in astonishment. "That's a protellow plant. And a huge one! Wow! I didn't know there were any around here."

Trakenthin grunts and narrows his stare upon the creature through the windshield. "Resembles a boar... The markings are strange."

Furrowing his brow, Chad watches the boar delightfully eat seed after seed, happily ignoring the headlights illuminating the area. He presses a thumb on a steering wheel button, and the car's horn blares out in the surrounding dark roadway. The boar stops and briefly glances to the vehicle. The creature promptly resumes eating another seed, tail wagging without care. Chad blasts the horn out a few more times. The boar pays absolutely no attention. Chad ponders a few moments, and a smirk grows. He stares at Trakenthin, shifting the gearshift to park. "Okay. Well, if you know what it is, then you can deal with it."

He waves out to the road through the windshield. "Get it out of the road."

A low growling grumble rises up from Trakenthin, and he releases his seat belt buckle, pulling the handle of his door. Placing his heavy boots firmly upon the pavement, he stands up behind the open car door and glares at the boar. He ponders a moment. Loudly clapping his hands together,he bellows out aggressive phrases in Grath to the boar. In a respite from eating, the boar glances at Trakenthin for a moment and consumes another seed from the huge, round flower. Trakenthin blinks blankly, shakes his head incredulously, and steps cautiously towards the creature. Standing right beside the boar, he studies the creature and scratches the back of his head, shrugging at Chad in the sport utility vehicle. He lifts up his large boot and lowers it firmly onto the backside of the boar. Gradually applying pressure, he guides the boar forward on to the other side of the road. The boar tenses his body and stubbornly leans his mass and muscle against Trakenthin's foot, in passive defiance. Trakenthin stops pushing, placing his boot back down. Watching the boar settle his footing without interruption, a greatly amused grin appears upon his face. He chuckles to himself with a quip in grath, kneels down, and strokes the boar's back ridge of hair. Chad's jaw drops in astonishment, and he throws his hands out to his sides. "Wh- What the fuck, Trakenthin?"

Deedri spots Trakenthin petting the boar and smiles excitedly with a bright glint in her eyes. "Aww! He's friendly. I want to pet him!"

Chad undoes his seatbelt and shoves his door open. Hopping out of the vehicle, he narrows his eyes at Trakenthin. "Get it out of the road already!"

Trakenthin glares back at Chad and growls, calmly stroking the back fur of the boar. "I am TRYING."

Frustration overtakes Chad's tone, and he shakes his head angrily. Walking up to the boar, he glowers down at him, pouring the full ire of his scowl upon the critter. "What's wrong with this thing? I mean, shouldn't this pig be scared of us or something? Big truck, big people, good reasons to move out of the way?"

Contorting the corners of his mouth with his thoughts, Trakenthin shrugs uncertainly, petting the boar. "Maybe. Not familiar with this fur pattern on a boar. Look like a piglet? Strange."

An amused smile grows on his face, and he chuckles softly. "Friendly. Indifferent. Stubborn. Respectable."

Chad buries his face in his hand and grumbles loudly. "Well... Just pick him up and drop him off the side of the road. Or, something! Tomorrow is Monday, and I really want to be able to rest SOMETIME this weekend."

He huffs and groans. "Gods. I just want to get back before anything else happens!"

A loud cascade of snaps and cracks merge together into a chaotic cacophony, echoing forth in the vicinity. Another gigantic plant stalk slips between the gaps of nearby trees and free falls down, crashing with a resounding metallic, dull thud upon the roof of the black sports utility vehicle. A shriek and squeak intertwine into the background noise under the cascading rainfall of large seeds upon the vehicle and pavement. In the following eerie silence, Chad slowly pivots and gawks astonished at the huge circular, flowery seed pod resting within the fresh dent into the roof. Trying to form words, he manages to only move his mouth with the mere starts of phrases. Trakenthin blinks blankly and surveys the scene carefully. He glances over to the boar, happily grunting and wagging his tail. Feeling the boar shuffle in place and excitedly squeal, Trakenthin lifts his head and freezes in place, his eyes wide. In mere moments, Trakenthin scrambles from the boar, plants himself back in his seat, and slams the door shut. He points out something to the rest of the group inside the cab. Chad regains awareness and witnesses Deedri, Modoran, Tassilda, and Trakenthin staring in unison into the forest bordering the road. Pivoting slowly, his eyes spring open fully, and he races into his front driver's seat. "Shit!"

The door closes. Snapping and crackling noises burst out from the dark forest. A large two meter tall dire boar mother plows effortlessly through the underbrush. Her eyes follow the stalk to the vehicle, and she steps proudly up on the road. An accompaniment of five other dire boar piglets spread out from the flowing magical miasma, radiating from the mother. Clamping her maw onto the stalk, she drags the giant plant and slides the seed pod off the roof of the vehicle with a dull metallic scrape. The flowery seed pod crashes down on the pavement. The piglet swarm descends upon the scattered seeds around the scratched and dented, black sports utility vehicle.

The initial shock fades. Occupants of the vehicle deal with the situation in their own ways. Trakenthin smiles and watches the piglets challenge each other for choice seeds. Tassilda stares in sheer fascination of the power and aura of the mighty mother dire boar. Modoran deftly picks off seeds from the roof through the open sunroof, giving handfuls to Deedri. Carefully, Deedri feeds the piglets through her window. Lifting his head briefly from the steering wheel, Chad weakly glares at the lone piglet in front of the car and drops his head back down into a frustrated grumble.