Episode 37

Under the simple, inexpensive coffee maker, a faint stream of vapor wafts out the top of the half full pot of coffee. A few torn open packets of creamer and sugar rest near a short stack of foam cups upon a small table. Early morning light beams into the modest hotel room from the sliding glass door leading to the small balcony. The sun's projection creeps past the regular bed with bags of personal care items and clothes stacked upon it. The radiant glow off the bed sheets illuminates a wide brimmed hat on a nightstand near a futon bed. Farthest from the glass window, the sunlight reaches the other regular bed. With an unconscious grumble, Heccaeh rolls his head away from the imposing radiance. A curled up dark blue whelp shuffles slightly on top of Heccaeh's chest, and a slumbering brown-striped whelp rises up and down upon his stomach, in sync with slow breaths of sleep. The persistence of dawn overtakes Heccaeh's fair, tan patterned face. The subconscious perk of a brown furred ear shields his eyes from little against the overwhelming sun. Following a series of mumbles, Heccaeh yawns wide and groggily opens his hazy gaze. Turning his head towards the ceiling, he attempts to lift his upper body off the bed. He pauses at the beginning of his attempt and studies the two weights on his body. Rolling his lavender eyes, he slips his arms free from under the covers and carefully sneaks his clawed fingers underneath the dark blue whelp. Gently he slides the slumbering whelp to one side of the mattress. Exercising similar care, he relocates the brown-striped whelp next to the other. His chaotic, shoulder length, tan hair settles, and he rises to a seat upon the bed. Sliding over to the edge, he places his clawed feet on the ground and stands up, teetering for balance briefly. He narrows his eyes towards the glass sliding door, discerning the two backlit figures on the balcony. Glances over at the coffee, he pauses and longingly eyes the bed. In place of two whelps, two large lumps stir underneath the daylight shielding cover, snuggling into the warmth of Heccaeh's prior spot. Heccaeh slowly shakes his head with a smile. "Lazy little shits."

Tugging his ratty, old t-shirt straight, he plods over to the small table with coffee and cups, scratching the backside of his loose gym shorts. His medium length, thin tail limply hangs. The scent of coffee sparks up the semblance of life. With precision and coordination uncanny, Heccaeh pours out a cup of coffee, follows a rehearsed routine of creamer and sweeteners, and lifts the concoction under his nose. With a long sniff of approval, he ambles towards the sliding glass door, breathing deeply of the brew. He reaches the door and slowly slides it open, his vision adjusting to the surge of natural brightness. Captain Hays glances over his shoulder from staring out past the balcony and laughs. "Well, good morning, sunshine."

Heccaeh cracks open his wincing eyes and peeks out from behind a shielding hand against the morning light. "Morning, Captain."

A sly grin gracing the young woman nearby, she leans against the brick hotel wall. "Heh. About time you woke up."

Heccaeh eyes the woman and sighs, opening his eyes slightly more. "Oh, come on, Chana... I'm still recovering from the late watch schedule."

Chana chuckles to herself, tips back her head of shiny, coppery hair against the wall, and closes her eyes, basking in the dawn warmth. Reopening her copper eyes, she gazes over towards Heccaeh with a kinder smile. "I know. Still... You really need to get to bed sooner."

Heccaeh shrugs his shoulders, turns to face Captain Hays, and studies the expression of reserved concern before him. "Um... Is there something wrong, Captain?"

Captain Hays twists his mouth and contemplatively hums in thought. "Don't know. Not yet."

Wandering his light blue around the quiet perimeter of the city, he furrows his brow. "Tell me, what do you hear right now?"

A few groggy blinks later, Heccaeh visibly puzzles and takes a long sip of his coffee. His brown furry ears focus out to the local soundscape, rotating, panning, and twisting around for noises. Furrowing his brow, he twists a vague grimace on his face. "Well... A few of the normal city sounds. But... Nothing else..."

He halts in thought, steps up to the railing of the balcony, and closes his eyes, sweeping his head around. His furry, pointed ears aiming out into the distance, a foreboding unease bubbles up his being, and he opens his eyes towards the Captain. "Nothing else at all. I don't hear any of the wildlife sounds we heard yesterday morning."

Chana frowns sharply with a hiss and bows herself off the wall. "Gods dammit... I was hoping I was just being paranoid."

Drawing in a long breath of air, Captain Hays grumbles. He nods in commiseration and strokes his beard. "And here I was hoping age may have finally taken some of my hearing away. No such luck, of course."

Pivoting away from the balcony railing, he steps towards the sliding glass door and pauses at the threshold into the hotel room. "Both of you pack up for a perimeter sweep today, please. I get the not so great feeling we shouldn't wander too far off away from town today. And..."

Tilting his head to the side with a smile, he watches the two large lumps in Heccaeh's bed squirm further from the sun beaming in. "Get the little ones ready to do some aerial recon."

He briefly snarls his upper lip and grumbles to himself, walking through the hotel room, sights upon the coffee pot. "Gods willing, may we find nothing... Nothing at all..."

Down the tall, wide stonework halls of the ancient structure, Chad proudly leads Tassilda, Trakenthin, Deedri, and Modoran, with Veevi at this side. Oozing bravado from a grin, Veevi keeps a hand on her holstered laser pistol and another hand on her hip. Turning down a branch from the derelict structure's main hall, the rest of the group follows behind Chad and Veevi, and search along the surrounding dust coated and age stained walls. Delving deeper into the shady passage, an unease looms over Tassilda, Trakenthin, Deedri, and Modoran. A few members of the camera crews maintain their cautious distance from ideal angles, capturing the progression down the dark corridor. Chad directs his voice over his shoulder with a bright white smile. "Do not fret. This should be the last stop for this mission. From what the report said, it was another colony of slimes that was recently discovered, related to the main infestation. So, it shouldn't be any worse than what we have faced so far."

Fingers drumming on the chassis of the laser pistol, Veevi excitedly chimes in with a skip to her step. "YES! More target practice from the sounds of it!"

Tassilda rolls her light blue on black eyes and groans disdainfully, glaring at the back of Veevi's pink haired head. "Oh. So that's what you are calling blindly firing at anything that moves and running around scared when anything gets near you?"

A snide sneer arches Veevi's upper lip, and she snaps her head back over shoulder, narrowing a mean stare at Tassilda. "Oh, on that same thought..."

Curling a damning smirk, she smugly calls back. "What do YOU call it when you panic cast spells at point blank range and shriek like a cheerleader when you get spattered with goo?"

Veevi and Tassilda lock eyes and silently engage in a staring contest, mutual contempt fueling both. Deedri shifts her gaze away from the competition, draws in a long breath, and sighs out long, letting her shoulders slack. "I just hope it's a small group we can keep our distance from. I don't have any more clean changes of outfits with me."

She lifts a hand up, adjusting the small bell around her neck. Flicking her furry, tufted ears downwards, she notices the silence from it. With an exhale of relief escaping her, she hides the slime residue on the exterior of the bell with a quick wipe from her fingers. "This slime is really tough to clean off."

Trakenthin spots a patch of congealed muck on his armor plating, grunts out some irritation, and reaches into his pack. Retrieving a spray bottle, he holds it in front of his visor and reads over the label. He pulls the lever trigger and spritzes down the thickened patch of slime. Modoran shrugs his shoulders and casually strolls along at the back of the group, glancing behind the team. "Well, at least these aren't the corrosive variety. That stuff is nasty."

Nodding in agreement, Trakenthin tugs out a roll of paper towels from his backpack and carefully wipes the loosened ooze off his armor plating. "Indeed. Would need DAYS to repair armor from exposure."

Chad slows to a stop, lifting a hand up to motion a halt to the group. Waiting for the team to gather behind him, he squints his brown eyes at the golden barrier in front of them, at the end of the passage. "This type of barrier looks familiar... I just can't recall how."

Tassilda and Deedri peer around Chad and Veevi and exchange intrigued glances between each other. Both mirror a silent agreement upon their faces, acknowledging their shared suspicions. Veevi boldly steps up to the barrier, swaying her pink, short-haired tail. Standing in the filtered light glowing through the field, she taps a finger solidly onto the transparent golden surface and pivots around to Chad. "Well? So, how do we get it open?"

Drawing an aetherphone out of his pants pocket, Chad taps the screen, scrolls through paragraphs of text, and settles upon the last entry in the notes section of a listing. "If you want to do the honors, then..."

He furrows his brow and cocks his head. "There should be a disc in the middle that you turn clockwise three times."

Spinning back around into a dramatic pose for a nearby camera, Veevi visibly puzzles and studies the barrier. She hovers a sharp nailed finger near the magical wall, grips onto a raised energy disc in the barrier, and spins the large dial quickly. Three revolutions later, the disc disappears in a cloud of flow. The sealing field disperses into the air, and the magical miasma fades into a thinning vapor. Veevi's pink pupil eyes widen with a manic spark. Drawing her laser pistol ready, she grins eagerly and lifts an excited eyebrow towards Chad. "Ready?"

Chad dons his trademark brilliant grin, puffs up his chest under his breastplate, and strides forward. Veevi edges out in front of Chad and leads the team out of the dark passage onto the brightly lit walkway overlooking a huge, open arena. Veevi's prior eagerness shatters, her senses witnessing the horrific scene in front of her. The slime molds ooze with impunity around the entirety of the architecture, expressing an implied superiority over their small domain. Struggling to maintain a bold, willing expression, Chad settles for a false smirk, hiding the welling reluctance from the plastic wrap armored camera crew around. Recording teams cautiously spread out and hunt for ideal recording angles. Tassilda covers her mouth in shock, her light blue pupils widen, and her gray complexion pales a shade. Deedri grits her sharp teeth and reflexively winces her cheek, constant twitch manifesting. Lowering his eyelids nearly over his hazel eyes, Trakenthin angles down a completely unamused glare upon Chad. Keeping his lips tight, Modoran squelches a laugh into an awkward snort and averts his darkly humored face. Seconds of silence later, the surprise wears off, and he manages to mouth out. "Well... Fuck us..."

From the high stonework ceiling above, a pastel colored, liter-sized slime free falls. It lands semi-solidly in a wet squishing flop onto the walkway in front of Veevi. A laser pistol muzzle lowers down at the small slime mold. The pinkish, translucent blob remains still in the tense seconds, under many watchful stares. Quirking her eyebrow, Veevi blinks confused at the motionless mass and furrows her brow curiously. "Huh? I guess the fall killed it?"

The blob contracts itself tightly and ejects a stringy stream of viscous gel at Veevi. The jet of mucus splats squarely between her eyes, wanders down towards her mouth, and trails a gelatinous spew onto her chest, flowing down her tight fitting, light armor. In wide eyed shock, Veevi blinks aghast and slowly pivots around to the group, her arms rising up in sheer disgust. "Buh... Ungh... Wha..."

Out from the team's silent surprise, a malicious light ignites Tassilda's eyes. A devious grin menaces at Veevi, and Tassilda poses smug and superior. Presenting a mocking, waving motion of the hand, she scoffs derisively. "And I thought YOU... Of all people... would be used to something like THAT."

A rage boils up inside Veevi, and she spits out a wad of muck on the floor in front of Tassilda, drawing back her lips and revealing her sharp, gritting teeth. Cackling out into the echoing arena, Tassilda narrows her light blue on black eyes upon Veevi. "Well! That conveniently answers my other question."

Narrowing her ire upon Chad, she sneers her upper lip. "Right, Chad?"

Chad flashes a mean glare towards Tassilda. Veevi growls loudly and points angrily at Tassilda, sputtering out remnants of ooze between furious words. Trakenthin, Modoran, and Deedri attempt to maintain calm, neutral expressions, against the building pressure of sheer amusement.

Crawling upon a wood plank floor, Cideeda sweeps a flashlight underneath a simple, dusty wood-framed couch and flicks her eyes around the underside of rusting springs and flowing cobwebs. Sighing in defeat, she slides back out from under the furniture,and springs up into the rustic room, brushing the futz off her body suit. "Okay. So, he didn't hide anything under the couch."

Dretphi stands up on the toes of her boots and peers over layers of undisturbed powdery haze on the office shelving against the wall, sneering disgustedly with a twist of her lips. "Nothing found here."

With her arms crossed, Sotalia wanders around in the middle of the main section of the small office outbuilding and grumbles to herself, a frustrated frown forming. "Gods damn it... Well, it figures the one place I picked would be a bust. Shit."

Her fingers ruffling through a pile of blank, age yellowed paper, Aristespha glances over to Sotalia and smiles, granting a little reassurance. "Oh, it's not a waste. Noxian likely was here at some point in the recent months. The fact it is an archaeological site office is very interesting though, given what we have learned lately."

From the drop ceiling above, Sebastian's ghostly form phases through and floats down, hovering just above the floor. He shrugs his translucent shoulders and softens his disappointed frown for the team. "Well... Nothing up in the attic of this place. One less squirrel given how quickly it ran out the hole in the roof vent when it saw me pop in."

With floorboards creaking, heavy armored boots step slowly across the room towards the large front window. Dretphi peers out into the dirt lot, narrowing her steely gray eyes, and concentrates upon faint, water washed tire ruts in the soil. Seconds later, a frown curls upon her tan face, and she releases a long sigh. "May have been recent tracks. Can not tell. Weathered away."

A muffled flush sounds out from behind a door with a restroom sign. The bathroom door opens, and Bach steps out, furrowing his brow, and shakes his head with his thoughts. "Yeah... Checked the toilet tank, and the plumbing works perfectly fine. So, I doubt that anything was hidden in there. Nothing tucked under the sink, either."

Contorting his tanning face, he scratches the back of his head and curiously searches between the rest of the team. "Hey, wait, haven't the police and government investigators picked this place apart already?"

Uncrossing her arms, Sotalia places her hands on her hips and dismissively rolls her golden eyes with an unsatisfied huff. "Yes. Yes, they did. BUT, you never quite know if they got everything. To be fair, your average law enforcement is looking for evidence of NORMAL crimes."

She draws a long breath, gently exhales out her simmering frustration, and manages a calm smirk. "They're not expected to deal with someone like Noxian. It's a little out of their usual jurisdiction."

Twisting her mouth on her light tan face, gray bordered face, she scans her stare across the office and grumbles to herself. "I totally thought he'd at least stop by here on his way from Anta."

Dretphi pivots in place, quirks an eyebrow at Sotalia, and tilts her head of platinum blonde braids. "He may have. Lack of evidence is not lack of possibility."

Straightening her posture with a thought, she narrows her steely gray eyes upon the abandoned archaeological site, visible through the main window. Her stare searches along the aging fence encircling the area and settles upon the rusty lock on the entry gate. Turning her head slowly towards the rest of the group, she lifts an eyebrow, curiosity curling a intrigued smirk. "Did any report mention exploration of the site?"

Thoughtful silence floods the room. Everyone exchanges glances, and revelations dawn upon each. Aristespha steps over towards the large, wide office window, cocks her head to the side, and squints towards the aged worn ancient architecture. Her violet eyes flip through memories, and she furrows her brow. "Surprisingly... No."

Crossing her arms, she straightens her posture, lifts a hand up under her chin, and rests her head on top. Sebastian hovers over next to Aristespha's side, an intrigued smile forming from the corner of his mouth. "If I remember right, there was a lot about what they found in and around HERE... Where they found obvious signs of him being here. But..."

He narrows his stare out to the aging metal fence and the untouched lock on the closed gate. "Not a damn thing said about them checking in THAT site."

Donning a quizzical grimace, Bach ambles up to the front door and peeks through the smaller inset window. "Well, given our latest discoveries, I get the distinct impression that these ancient sites are not just a coincidence."

A smug grin graces Sotalia, she strolls up to the door, guiding Bach off to the side, and turns the doorknob. "So... Anyone against a little off the record exploration?"

Cideeda reaches her clawed fingers into a vest pouch, lifts out a soft, thick fabric case, and presents a toothy grin to the rest of the team. "Hey, as long as the lock goes back the way we found it, was it ever really disturbed?"

Furrowing her brow and tilting her head down, Dretphi eyes Cideeda and mumbles faintly sardonic. "Yes."

Excitement driving Cideeda's gait, she nearly skips out the opened door. She unfolds the carrier and gleefully examines an array of lockpicks within. "Details, details. It's been a while since I got to use my nice set of picks!"

Rolling down the Hattan city streets, a stifling, awkward quiet presses down upon the Flames of the Phoenix inside the cab of the black sports utility vehicle. Keeping his brown eyes forward with a persistent unamused scowl, Chad navigates through the busy downtown traffic. His fingers reflexively comb through his ooze slicked hair. Startling to awareness, he shakes the residue off his hand, disgust twisting his face. Behind him, Tassilda futilely towels a stubborn mass of congealed slime, trying to free it from her raven black hair. Grimacing sharply, she strains and tugs upon the glob. Many tries later, she flops the heavy towel on her lap and stares out the window in defeat, sunlight shining upon the glistening layer soaking her form fitting clothing. Sitting on the back bench seat, Trakenthin inspects an empty spray bottle of cleaner and rattles the trace specs of fluid left. Examining the dried splatter upon his armor plating, he unleashes a long, annoyed sigh, and drops the bottle on the floor of the cab, sharp resignation curling his frown. Modoran nonchalantly relaxes on the other, cleaner side of the back seat. Glancing over his shoulder into the cargo space, he eyes his slime coated short swords next to the team's ooze soaked gear and shrugs indifferently. He casually settles back comfortably within his dry and unscathed light, form fitting armor suit. In the seat ahead, Deedri momentarily loosens her strategically crossed arms, inspects the state of her outfit, and frowns in stale embarrassment. Hooking her clawtips into the fabric, she attempts to pull the damp, clingy cloth off her figure and groans quietly, dismay renewing with each adhering tug. Leering over the shoulder of the front passenger seat, Veevi eagerly gazes at Deedri with a hungry smirk and seductive lift of her eyebrow. Subconsciously sensing the pair of eyes upon her, Deedri cinches her arms back over her chest and conceals the newly revealing section of her garment. She flashes a stern glare ahead. Darkly giggling, Veevi turns herself forward in the seat and arches her back in a stretch, sliding her hands down her slime soaked shirt. "OH. Live a little! Flaunt it if you got it..."

Seconds in front of a green light later, Chad snaps back to awareness, spots the traffic signal change, and refocuses upon driving the vehicle, accelerating forward. "WELL... It's a mission accomplished. Despite the..."

He swallows hard and grumbles. "Difficulties."

Rolling her light blue on black eyes dismissively, Tassilda groans loudly with her irritation. "Difficulties?! Is THAT what we are calling THIS?"

Chad narrows his eyes down the road ahead and shakes his head in frustration, a few globules swinging from the tips of his hair. "We're almost back to the hotel and proper showers."

Discomfort radiating, Deedri secures the wrap of her arms around her upper body and shrinks into her seat. "Good. Park down stairs, run to the elevators, and go straight to the hotel room. That's the plan right?"

Chad offers only a foreboding silence in response. Leaning forward, Tassilda arches an accusatory eyebrow at Chad, through the rear view mirror. "Well? What ever is the plan, O' Great Leader?"

A forced smile shoves itself upon Chad's face, and he musters a trace of bravado in his tone. "We are to pull up to the hotel drop off and walk in through the front doors. The line for the fan meet up is queued up there."

Tassilda drills an ireful scowl through the headrest in front of her, into the back of Chad's glistening head. Drawing in a long breath, Trakenthin weakly growls another fit of resignation, shaking his head in absolute disdain. Modoran relaxes with a yawn and rolls his shoulders indifferently. A mischievous smile graces Veevi. Blinking her auburn eyes in pure shock, Deedri glances down her slime soaked wardrobe, and her fair complexion visibly pales. Tassilda gazes over in concern, picks up the small, clean towel, and offers it to Deedri. "It's, unfortunately, not much I'm afraid."

Sighing, Deedri nods appreciatively and carefully grasps onto the tiny cloth offering. "T-Thank you..."

In the back seat, Modoran's very long, pointed ears twitch with the wavering tone in Deedri's voice. His dark blue eyes search his mind, and he brushes his hand on his dry, clean light armor top. Deedri sizes up the towel reluctantly, and her furry, damp ears flick behind her towards a zipping noise. Blinking in confusion, she glances over to motion beside her and spots Modoran's outfit top. Gently waving the heavy fabric garment around, Modoran offers in a soft tone. "Here."

Hesitating for a mere moment, Deedri graciously accepts the cover and swiftly drapes the article over herself, peering over her shoulder towards Modoran. "THANK YOU so much..."

Sentence trailing off, her auburn eyes widen, and a flush of pink fills her cheeks. Modoran nonchalantly stretches out his arms and settles upon the back seat, shirtless. Granting a small wave, he casually gazes out the side window with a genuine smile. "Not a problem."

With a simple nod and a muted smile, Deedri faces forward, glances down at the jacket top, and slips it on. Tassilda sneaks a tap of the elbow onto Deedri's side and reveals a sly smirk. Deedri fails to hide her amusement, subtly biting her lip, and latches the zipper tracks of the light armor garment together. Peeking over the front passenger's seat, a pair of pink pupil eyes narrow unamused.

On the hood of an old, weathered jeep off on the shoulder of hillside road, Chana sits with her legs crossed, hands together, and her eyes closed. Breathing calmly and slowly, she occasionally tilts her head with a curious twinge in her face. "I can't quite put my finger on it... But, something distant feels... ODD."

Standing a few meters away next to a grass covered guardrail, Captain Hays lifts up a pair of binoculars and searches the sprawling green canopy of treetops from the vantage point of the winding hillside road edge. Heccaeh stares out into the distance, opposite of Hays. Hooding his lavender eyes with a hand, he squints out towards the horizon and sweeps the skyline. "Huh, strange. Looks like Ralli and Orrento are flying back this way."

He cocks his head to the side and grimaces. "But... It's way too early for them to return."

A puzzled eyebrow lifts up on Chana's sun-tanned face, and she blinks from her trance towards Heccaeh. "They're moving really fast! Way faster than I normally sense them flying."

Hays aims his binoculars towards the growing outlines of the whelps and tracks their swift approach in. His eyes widen from behind the lenses, and he shouts out. "Heccaeh! Get ready. They're not slowing down."

Heccaeh blinks confused and flicks his furry ears forward towards a cacophony of squawks and screeches echoing out. Bracing himself, he shifts his weight and holds his arms forward, hands open. "What the-"

The dark blue whelp pitches its wings sharply, fans out into an air brake moments before impact, and latches onto Heccaeh's shoulder. The brown-striped whelp swoops tightly around the other side of Heccaeh, claws onto his duster, and scrambles up to the top of his back. Both the creatures constantly repeat the same distinctive, crude mimicries of fvalian words, crawling around chaotically in a sheer panic. Dancing around for balance, Heccaeh struggles to secure the frightened whelps and flails about in vain. "The fuck is up with you two! Calm the hell down!"

Chana swiftly slides off the hood of the jeep, rushes over to Heccaeh, and wraps her arms around the dark blue whelp. Hays tosses the binoculars onto a nearby vehicle seat cushion, sprints over to the other side of Heccaeh, and reaches out for the brown striped whelp. His cybernetic arm clamps down upon the handle of the frightened creature's harness, and carefully pulls the critter back. Chana hoists up the dark blue whelp, freeing scrambling claws from Heccaeh coat, and rocks the critter gently, soothing some of the frantic fear. Hays secures the brown striped whelp long enough for Heccaeh to get a hold. With a loud bellow, Heccaeh yells out sternly in a dialect of fvalian and the two whelps silence immediately, staring wide eyed. Each of the subdued critters blinks anticipating, spooked gazes towards Heccaeh. Releases a long exhale, Hays furrows a concerned brow at Heccaeh. "OKAY. So, WHAT is going on?"

Rolling his duster back in place on his shoulders, Heccaeh straightens himself and collects his composure. Catching his breath, he stares down at the bright, brown eyes of the striped whelp and calmly, firmly speaks. "Orrento. What see?"

Orrento blinks thoughtfully a few moments and very roughly mimics out the same chain of fvalian words from before. Heccaeh nods to Orrento and directs his gaze to the dark blue whelp. "Ralli. What see?"

Ralli pulls her head out from hiding underneath Chana's arm and quickly repeats another vague approximation of the same fvalian words, buries her head back. Bewilderment overtakes Heccaeh, and he faces Hays worried, pondering out loud. "Well... They saw SOMETHING. They're repeating the same thing. Um... Black. Fire. Huge. Walking?"

With the last word from Heccaeh's mouth, Hays's expression crashes into solemn dread, and his posture stiffens against the severity. Slowly pivoting around, he squints into the distance and draws in a slow, wary breath. "Are. You. Sure?"

Tensing equally in the moment, Chana and Heccaeh watch Hays. Heccaeh nods and glances between the two terrified whelps. "Yes, Captain. Both have said the same thing over and over. They're too scared to say anything else right now."

Hays nods firmly and quickly steps over to the jeep, dutiful determination prominent on his weathered face. "OKAY. Load up the little ones, check their harness trackers, and figure out roughly where they encountered..."

Gritting his teeth, he hisses in a stressed breath through clenched teeth. "Whatever the hell they saw..."

He retrieves an aetherphone from his jacket pocket and taps out a number. Lifting the phone to his ear, a voice at the other end greets him, and he interrupts. "This is Captain Hays of the Borderland Rangers. I need an emergency aerial recon in the Hattan area. Who do you have in the area RIGHT NOW?"

Within a large hotel ballroom, a long, winding line of people splits out into different queues. Between the posts of belt barriers, loose gatherings of people wait expectantly and gradually shift towards the end of their sections, space permitting. Across the cleared carpeted floors, opposite lines taped at the mouths of each path, Chad, Veevi, Deedri, Modoran, Tassilda, and Trakenthin sit at individual promotional booths, piles of The Next Adventurers of Nexus swag littering the tabletops in front of them. Beaming a brilliant, proud grin to an overflowing line, Chad poses full bravado within the flashes of multiple cameras, his trademark prideful voice cutting through the background drone. Veevi exaggeratedly proclaims her appreciation of the admiration of the crowd packing her line and rewards their attention with cute, coy poses, bordering on suggestive. With an elaborate, fanciful signature, she signs both The Next Adventurers of Nexus and her musical career promotional material, granting a little extra decoration upon her favorite products. Capturing the full focus of a fan recording video, she sings out a chorus line from one of her songs along with a few attendees.

Sitting awkwardly behind the table next to Veevi's, Deedri's smile fights to contain and obscure her wide eyed, near panic. She politely field fan after fan for pictures, the bell around her neck ringing with each new pose. She stares out into the mass people before her in line, a mixture of terror and shock competing upon her fair face. In the booth next to hers, Modoran maintains a suave and debonair exterior and entertains the many requests of the people arriving at his table. With a shorter line, he nonchalantly spends the extra time for each person. Exuding a sultry confidence, Tassilda provocatively styles her presentation with a dark, controlling charm, tossing her raven black hair over her swirling horns for cameras. During the lulls of visitors at her table, she scans the overflow waiting in queues for Veevi and Deedri. With a specific focus upon Veevi's patronage, she winks at potential detractors with an alluring curl of the finger, beckoning them over to her line.

Trakenthin idly scrolls through paragraphs of text on his aetherphone, purposefully ignoring the few stranglers that wander into his queue. Hearing the hem of a young man in front of him, Trakenthin glances up and acknowledges the existence of a stubborn, determined fan. Moments later, he narrows his hazel eyes and glares harshly at him. A minute passes, and Trakenthin slowly rises from his seat. Towering his two meter height over the young man, he leans forward and emphasizes the sheer difference in stature. He focuses a cold, stoic stare downwards and waits expectantly, darkening his glare by the second. Behind the young man, a group of his friends tap capture buttons on their phones.

"Holy shit, dude! You got him to stand up and stare you down! I'm posting this picture on the forums!"

The loose gathering of compatriots depart and leave behind an empty line. Maintaining the glare upon the group, Trakenthin catches their glances back towards the booth. He narrows his hazel eyes, furrows his brow, and coldly concentrates on the group, encouraging their exit from the ballroom. Moments later, he lowers himself back down onto the fold out metal chair, settles upon his seat, and resumes reading the text on his phone. Peacefully dragging his finger through a few more pages of text, he focuses upon the words. A young woman's voice politely addresses. "Umm... Hey. Sorry to interrupt."

A grimace forms on Trakenthin's dark bronze face, and he starts to summon up a dismissive grunt. He lifts his head up from his aetherphone, flicks his eyes upwards, and pauses, his face blanking in genuine surprise. A young, tall woman with piercing hazel eyes smiles hopefully and lifts up a book, showcasing the cover. "This is going to sound REALLY WEIRD, but..."

She wrestles down an awkward grin. "I saw you reading this book on an episode... And... I started reading it myself."

Blinking in a sudden surge of confusion, Trakenthin tilts his head to the side. He snaps his stare upon the book, and his eyes spring open with immediate recognition. The young woman subtly squirms in a fit of embarrassment and brushes back her long silvery hair over a shoulder. "Well, I just wanted to thank you for, um... I guess, reading it during the show. I've enjoyed it immensely."

Lifting his head up, Trakenthin gazes at the tall woman's tan face and smiles genuinely to her, nodding in delight. "You are welcome. I wait for the next book release."

The woman lights up and bows slightly. She lifts her hand to wave and steps back to leave. With an eagerly curious tone, Trakenthin calls out to her. "Who do you think will be the chosen?"

Stray hairs swaying with the momentum, the young, tall woman halts and swings her attention back over excitedly. "Oh! I don't know. I think it's between Caspan and Mayon. I just can't see any way that Jonas would be chosen."

Minutes passing, Trakenthin and the young woman discuss enthusiastically about the book. Between the topics, she flips open her book to particular pages and points out certain passages. Theories driving the debate, he summons up collections of paragraphs on his aetherphone and presents his explanation. Each maneuvers the debate around and presses the other's points, revealing their honest thoughts. A quarter hour late, a large group of people file into the queue leading toward Trakenthin's booth. The young, tall woman glances over her shoulder, notices the growing line with surprise, and apologizes all around. "Oh! I'm so sorry. I tend to ramble on."

Gazing out towards the exit, she waves at a group of people curiously watching both her and Trakenthin. She faces Trakenthin with an embarrassed eye roll at herself. "I'm sorry. I really shouldn't take up any more of your time. Thank you, I really enjoyed talking to you!"

Watching her balance shift to walk away, panic grips Trakenthin, and he searches the table. "W-wait! I-I should sign an item for you."

Fumbling around the tabletop, he frantically flips through the scattered, cheap promo materials. Despair weighs down his frown, and he hunts in vain. The woman thrusts forth a pen and the book opened at the inner cover. Glancing up, Trakenthin watches her smile and wink and bashfully takes the pen. He signs his full name, stops, and gazes up mildly ashamed. "I apologize... What is your name?"

The young woman chimes bright and happily. "Shayuri."

Trakenthin nods graciously, finishes a message, and returns the pen. With a wave, Shayuri steps away and rushes over to her group of friends. Smiling well after Shayuri leaves with the group, Trakenthin drifts his gaze around the area. He spots the many stares upon him with each wandering pass. Modoran blinks in complete bewilderment, cocking his head of short grayish white hair, and crosses his arms in disbelief. Covering her mouth with both hands together, Tassilda's light blue on black eyes open up in sheer amusement, and she giggles quietly. "Oh, my gods... That was ever so precious."

Leaning back in his chair, Modoran calls out towards Trakenthin around Tassilda, sporting an eager, quizzical grin. "SO. You did write your phone number in her book. Right?!"

A harsh sneer arches up Trakenthin's upper lip, his hazel eyes narrow with an unamused glint, and a frown pulls back the corner mouth, revealing teeth.

"Hey, could you sign this?"

Trakenthin swings his glare over to a nearby fan thrusting a promotional group photo towards him. A marker hovers close, the odor wafting over and irritating Trakenthin nose. Indignantly sweeping his stare over the items before him, he slowly rises from his seat to his full height. Leveling a soul piercing, stoically cold glare right into the face of the fan, he grunts solidly into a trailing growl. The young man cautiously steps back a meter and stalls his retreat. Trakenthin systematically cracks each knuckle, each pop jarring the teenager further and further away. The guy reconsiders and rushes away into the back of another line.

From a raised platform in the corner of the room, Gerald smirks, chuckling to himself, and adjusts his shoulder mounted video camera. Drawing a dark grin across her face, Samantha glances over towards Gerald. "Oh, please, tell me you got THAT."

Gerald simply smiles and sets his sights upon the next shot through the viewfinder. "Every bit of it. Of course."

A weathered jeep with spotty, worn green paint speeds down the twisting access road, riding the edges of the banked corners. Locking her copper eyes forward on the road ahead, Chana brakes hard before the sharp turns, maintaining pace through, and opens up on the straightaways. Heccaeh sways with the forces and checks on the two whelps, Ralli and Orrento, each in a secured carrier crate. Captain Hays's cybernetic arm clamps firmly onto the overhead roll bar, preventing him from sliding with the shifts in acceleration and direction. Keeping his aetherphone to his head, he calls out in a commanding, official tone. "This is Captain Hays, who am I speaking to?"

Over the phone's loudspeaker, a man's voice responds with the hints of background wind on the other side of the call. "Kaleb Hellstrom, sir."

Hays nods to himself and scans the skies above, squinting between the clouds. "I've heard that name before. Are you the dragon rider that's done a few northern borderlands surveys?"

Kaleb sounds out promptly, a sprinkling of pride slipping out. "Yes, sir! Just flying back from a weird zone perimeter survey this morning when I got the call from the guild."

The jeep slows to a stop at an intersection connecting the access road to the main highway. Chana swiftly searches both directions for traffic and guns the vehicle down the highway towards the city, a cloud of pebbles and dust spewing out behind. Hays warily stares out into the distant hills between the trees and draws a long breath of air. "GOOD. You should have the coordinates from the guild office. I need you to do a pass over the area from HIGH UP... For your own safety."

The microphone on Kaleb's side of the call rubs against a surface, and he speaks clearly, caution tinting his cadence. "Okay. I am coming up on the coordinates... Uh, what am I exactly looking for, sir?"

With a growing roar from the engine, the jeep accelerates up to highway speeds. Hays presses his elbow against the window switch on his door armrest and triggers his window to roll up. Adjusting his voice to the lowered noise level, he sighs with traces of an unhappy grumble. "Something BIG and walking around."

Static crackles sound out from the phone, and a strange distortion adds a warping, faint echo into the background. Kaleb's voice pushes through the interference. "Okay, sir. I'll see what's there. I should be in the rough area now. Waiting for a fix on my navigational computer from the ground beacons to confirm. Wow, I'm having some really strange interference-"

He pauses mid sentence, allowing the interference to dominate the connection. Crackling seconds later, Kaleb's confusion colors his voice. "I'm seeing signs that something has happened here.... Definitely to the southwest of Hattan. Strange... I see a few trees down that look really recently cut, um, wait, pushed down?"

A sharp deep shriek funnels into the microphone from the other end of the conversation and intrigue seizes Kaleb. "Wait. Lagi senses something... Where is it, Lagi!? Okay... He's flying towards something, and it looks like the fallen trees are all along the same direction. Something big is definitely moving through, and it is big enough to knock down-"

Along a surge of static, He pauses and momentarily gasps. "Oh, WOW... Actually snapped these huge trees."

Narrowing his light blue eyes towards the southwest, Hays firmly states a warning. "Keep your altitude high. Stay way up there. While I hope it's nothing, I don't want any unnecessary risks. Just need a visual confirmation from you."

Kaleb reaffirms the mutual understanding. "Understood. Okay... Whatever it is, it's practically going in a straight path towards town. There's almost no deviation and..."

A thunderous shriek bellows out and temporarily overloads the microphone to squelched silence. Hays's body tenses, he snaps at concern, yelling out to the phone. "Come in?! Kaleb? Are you okay?!"

A cacophony of distortion, static, movement, and wind blasts out the aetherphone's speaker. The surge of audio chaos distracts both Chana and Heccaeh. A minute later, the noise calms down. Kaleb's voice rises up into the call, coherent words sound out between heavy pants. "Yes! Yes! I'm okay. Sorry, sir! Lagi and I had to- Uh- Increase our safe distance... But. We have... Something?!"

Hays brings the phone closer to his ear and speaks slow, firm. "What does it look like?"

Puzzling out loud, Kaleb audibly fumbles for the right descriptive words. "Uh, um... A giant man... Covered in... Black fire that-"

He halts mid sentence, and a horrific realization looms in the tremor of his words. "SIR. Is THIS, uh- What I think it IS?"

A long exhale escapes Hays, and he grits his teeth, sifting in a tense breath. "Send me the best picture you can."

The old jeep speeds past a Hattan city information sign off to the side of the road. Maintaining the vehicle's direction, Chana's focus drifts to the eerie dead air pouring out from the phone. Heccaeh flicks a furry ear at the phone and tends to the spooked whelps, hiding well within their cages. Captain Hays's phone chirps a notification. Holding the phone out in front him, he trains his eyes upon the display and presses his thumb on the new message. The screen renders a photograph. The whites of Hays's eyes grow, a shades of color leaves his face, and his body tenses stiffly. He resolutely calls out to Kaleb. "It, unfortunately, IS. I want you to know, you've done your job and can go home, FAR FROM HERE."

Reluctantly, Hays pushes back hesitation and pleads sincerely. "BUT, if you can, we're going to need eyes on that thing. I don't want to ask too much but-"

Kaleb interrupts with a long sigh and a nervous chuckle. "Lagi and I will do what we can, sir. It doesn't seem to even be paying any attention to us, right now. So, I think we can track it safely, for now."

A smirk parts from the corner of Hays's mouth, and he slowly nods gratefully. "EXCELLENT. Ranger Heccaeh will transmit all the official radio frequencies. Switch over to them and keep us updated. I need to make a few calls."

Kaleb confirms. "Understood, sir."

The call ends, and Captain Hays taps through a series of menus, searching through a list of contacts. He swings his glance to Chana and Heccaeh. "Heccaeh, contact Kaleb and see if you can figure out the trajectory and speed of that thing. Chana head straight to city hall. Park it in the lobby if you have to."

A progress bar appears on Captain Hays's phone, and he waits with a grimace, a solemn staring out towards the southwest. The bar finishes, and the phone remains silent. For minutes, only the wind whipping outside competes against the quiet dread filling the cab. The phone rings. Captain Hays lifts the aetherphone to his ear, attempts a smile, and settles for only halfway smirk. "Hey, Hackle. Sorry for your heart attack, but we're short on time. and Hattan is going to need anything it can get as soon as possible."

Clenching his teeth, and he solemnly grumbles. "Worst part, it doesn't even know it needs it, yet."

Nodding with Captain Hackle, Hays keeps the phone pressed against his ear and sighs, faint tracing of relief slipping out. "Thank you. If you can, let them know we are on our way. That will save us time in trying to get through the official bullshit. We'll do what we can do from there."

Glancing out to the southwest, he squints into the horizon. "Also, we've got a guild contractor in the air keeping an eye on it."

He grants a final nod and sighs. "Well. I'll let you get to it. Thanks, again."

Pulling the phone off his ear, he presses the end call button on screen and sinks back into his seat. Heccaeh blinks in thought, leans up into the space between the front driver's and passenger's seats, and uncertainly ponders out loud. "Uh, Captain. What's the plan, and how are we going to do it?"

Puffing up his chest lungfuls of air, Hays wells with determination and tilts his head to each shoulder, solid cracks of the neck sounding. "We somehow evacuate one of the largest towns in the area to get as many people clear in what little time we may have."

He stiffens his neck and hides a hard swallow. "And... Hope there's a town left to return to."

A solemn frown weighs down his tone, and Captain Hays's gaze searches in utter vain. "As for how? That's a good fucking question. The last time any major city in this part of the world tried to evacuate out of the path of a Nightmare Geist was Dothan.

He stares coldly through Chana and Heccaeh, his thoughts visibly swirling on his aged face. "May the gods have mercy on us all, if THAT is what we are having to compare to."