-60-

Aristespha narrows her gaze out into the large city park, and sidesteps bright orange and white barricades. Closing her eyes momentarily, she reopens them to a glowing violet. She stares out into the gentle hills, sidewalks, playground, and shady gatherings of trees, and glances down to the aetherphone in her hand. “We definitely have our work cut out for us.”

Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia filter in through the gaps between warning signs and underneath plastic strip barriers. Bach blinks his eyes to a bright blue illumination, and searches out into the distance. “Oh... Yeah... Looks like this area caught a lot of the weird stuff from that one maelstrom cell.”

Cideeda glances over to Aristespha and Bach, and focuses her survey out towards a few strange phenomena. She quirks her brow curiously at the leafy debris gently hovering above the ground many meters away, and nods in agreement. “That’s an understatement. I need to do some scouting with thermal camera and a radio sweep. Also...”

She reaches into a large pouch at her side, retrieves a big rusty nut with a small rag tied through it, and rolls it idly in her hand. “There’s nothing like a physical check.”

Deftly sliding her grip to the cloth tail, she casually twirls the weight and releases it into an arc towards the hovering leaves and sticks. During its natural descent, the nut sharply rises, coasts level above the debris, and then plummets hard upon the ground. The rest of the team quickly focuses their attention to the dent in the dirt. Cideeda smirks while flicking her ears back, rests her hands on her hips, and sways her stance with her tail. “Not the worst I’ve seen, but that got pulled down quicker than normal gravity for sure.”

Dretphi stares distantly out into the park, puzzles at the scenery, and closes her eyes. She carefully angles her head around to scan the soundscape, and hums intrigued as she reopens her eyes. “It is quiet. Wildlife have retreated. Not unexpected. Worrying still.”

Sotalia crosses her arms, stands confidently, and grins with shrug. “I’m not feeling anything too terrible from here. Probably a bunch of small annoying things to dispel.”

The wind blows across the area, and waves of air roll over the grasses in the park. A tree in the distance sways hard, prompting a loud crack. A small branch tumbles out, and lands upon a very dry spot in the middle of damp pavement. Within the air above the arid circle, the branch’s leaves quickly dry out, and the bark cracks open. In the next minute, smoke wisps out from the wood and the crispy leaves ignite to flame. Sotalia blinks in a mix of surprise and interest, and smiles as she unfolds her arms. “Well, that’s a neat one.”

Aristespha glances down at her aetherphone, taps out a few lines of notes, and returns her attention ahead. “Good. That one is on the list. So far, it seems like whoever checked the area made good notes for the mission brief.”

Bach watches the distant branch burn within the dry circle surrounded by damp concrete, and warily smirks towards the rest of the group. “Let’s see if we can dispel that one from a good distance.”

With nod and a reassuring smile, Aristespha gazes over to Bach with an understanding tone. “Most certainly. I’ll guide you through the usual processes for handling many known anomalies. But, I think you’ll be able to figure out means more suited to your abilities.”

She retrieves a tablet from her small backpack, clicks it out of sleep, and places it into Bach’s hands. “Most should be disarmed by manipulation of flow dynamics. But, if not...”

Sotalia flashes a prideful grin towards Bach and Aristespha, interlocks her fingers, and stretches her arms out. “I’ll provide the raw dispelling power.”

Bach nods and returns his stare out towards the park scenery. Strange flits of light blink out from different locations in the area. Odd, unusual disruptions in the landscape contrast typical, natural expectations. The rag tied to the test weight lifts up, flutters, and gradually rises with the rest of the rusty hardware. Cideeda points over to the change and watches it with fascination. “Huh, it reverses after some time.”

Sebastian’s ethereal forms materializes in front of the group, checks around for anyone else, and relaxes to a nonchalant pose. “Good, no one else is around. Okay. So, overall we’ll do the usual scout, mark, and remove plan. Nothing on the mission description indicated anything out of the ordinary for this type of job. So, I believe standard operating procedure?”

The group nods in collective agreement. Sebastian grins, stretches his ghostly visage, and studies the area. “Well, I think I’ll best serve everyone by going around and making use of intangible self. Get a good close look at any possibly dangerous anomalies.”

Bach slowly shakes his head in astonishment as he watches more strange phenomena appear in the previously serene park. “It always amazes me how these things can ride out storms, and continue to function after landing.”

Aristespha nods in agreement and sighs uncertainly. “I know. Quite a few people at the Grand Library are still trying to figure out exactly what creates these anomalies and how some are so portable. So many theories...”

With an intrigued flit of her emerald green eyes, Cideeda glances over to Aristespha and twists her mouth. “Any favorite theories? These things always seemed like seeds or spores to bigger and weirder stuff to me.”

Dretphi pauses in thought, ponders, and shrugs her lightly armored shoulders. “Similar behavior. Do not grow into anything more. Maybe changing the environment to suit another purpose? There are plants that do such.”

Stepping forward into the conversation, Sotalia strokes her chin thoughtfully and sways her hips side to side in contemplation. “I don’t know. Most of the anomalies seem really erratic and just crazy. I don’t see how they’d help anyone or anything. I’ve always just figured they’re just leftover zone garbage that got carried away.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Bach sighs indecisively and furrows his brow. “You got me. Maybe they’re scattered pieces to something bigger? Individually, they don’t make sense. But, if you got them together in the right way, it does something useful? I don’t know. The stories I heard from weird zones never explain the reasons why.”

Cideeda flexes her clawed fingers, rocks her head side to side, and thinks for a moment. “Yeah. They’re cool stories still. Oh well... Let’s start cleaning up. I’d like to hit the Pancake Shed at a decent lunch time and get a punch on my new card.”

Sebastian nods in agreement, and hovers up slightly into the air. “Yeah. We got a busy morning with this and a few small jobs. After lunch, we got a tougher job to contend with.”

He gazes at the team and individually addresses them. “Okay... Summary of the plan. Dear. Give my bro a quick refresher, and keep us informed on what we are tackling. Bro. You should figure this out in no time, just do what you do where you can. Sotalia. Feel around the area, and let us know where things seem off. Cideeda. Run the scanning equipment around the area. And, help us out with your eyes, ears, and nose. Dretphi. Check the area and let us know if the natural is being unnatural.”

Glancing over his shoulder, he motions out to the landscape behind him. “I’ll do the overall sweep for anything that immediately sticks out, and see how much I can scout out. Sound good?”

Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia relay their agreement to the plan. Sebastian gives a quick thumbs up, and drifts off into the park proper. Aristespha begins to point out key information on the tablet in Bach’s hand, while Sotalia peers over shoulders curious. Cideeda and Dretphi walks over to the humvee, past the safety barriers, and begin sorting through equipment.




Tassilda’s glowing light blue on black eyes focus upon swirling streams of magical flow as they wrap around a warping, transparent mass. Deedri cautiously gestures out an incantation, gently wills out thread like strands of magical energy along current flows. Tassilda nods calmly but rigidly to Deedri, and the two synchronously gesture out another series of complicated incantations. From the translucent containment field, magical miasma vents out slowly into the area, and dissipates harmlessly out. The warping mass shrinks quickly and soon collapses onto the hot, dry dirt, quickly fading from existence. Tassilda lowers her arms, blinks her eyes hard to normal, and releases a long sigh of relief. “Oh, thank you so much for the assistance. I got the distinct impression that one could have been troubling without someone else.”

Deedri perks up her tufted, furry ears, and presents a content smile. “It was not a problem. I could feel it getting unstable towards the end, so it was a good call.”

She pauses a moment, glances around the area, and cocks her head to the side curiously. “Not that I want to tempt Fate, but where is Veevi? I thought she wandered off with you.”

An evil smirk cracks out from the corner of Tassilda’s mouth, and she flutters her eyes with a chuckle. “Oh. I put to her work on a task befitting her abilities.”

Deedri narrows an incredulous gaze at Tassilda and twists her mouth uncertainly. “Oh... What would that be? Given her... abilities?”

Tassilda tilts her head towards the shade of a distant tree, and smiles impishly. “Oh. Trying to dispel those light anomalies over there.”

Shifting her weight to one side, Deedri narrows her auburn eyes towards Veevi, and watches her knelt down, holding her hands out in front of disembodied flickering lights, and straining herself magically. After blinking a few times, Deedri leans closer to Tassilda and whispers confused. “If I remember correctly, those require a significant about of energy to dispel.”

Tassilda grins widely, and winks to Deedri as she responds quietly. “I know. But... She doesn’t.”

Deedri bites her lip, tries in vain to hide her satisfaction, and rolls her eyes. “I guess THAT is the best use of her time for now.”

Across from Deedri and Tassilda, Modoran approaches Chad and Trakenthin, whistling a tune, and stops next to them with a nonchalant bow. “Gentlemen. I’ve scouted around this place, and don’t think there’s anything else that looks out of the ordinary. Past that last row of trees, it just goes into farm plots. And, I didn’t see anything.”

Chad nods his head, scrolls through lines of text on his aetherphone, and studies a small list. “That’s good to hear. So, it looks like nothing outside this reported area has anything to worry about.”

He hums in thought for a few moments, glances up to Trakenthin, and points over towards the forested section near Veevi. “Trakenthin, could you check in the woods over there? There’s a mention of something weird going on in the forest near the flickering lights on the quest report.”

Trakenthin nods stoically and pivots around to set off. Modoran lightly taps Trakenthin on shoulder and leans over to direct his voice. “Hey, be careful in the woods. I think they have a bullymunk infestation around here. I mean, I kept to the tree tops, but looking down I saw a bunch of holes that looked like their burrows.”

Trakenthin thinks a moment, smirks appreciatively, and pats Modoran back on his shoulder. “Thank you for the warning.”

He walks slowly towards the trees near Veevi, and sighs midway with hints of annoyance slipping out into his tone. Veevi huffs in frustration, rolls her shoulders while gritting her teeth, and throws her arms out while grumbling to herself. Faint flows of magical energy swirl around her arms, condense in her hands, and pulse out towards floating, flickering lights. Trakenthin halts his travel, turns his gaze towards Veevi, and studies her inept attempts. The hovering orbs of light continue their erratic patterns in defiance against Veevi’s weak emissions of magical energy. Trakenthin slowly shakes his head, turns his attention to the forest perimeter near Veevi, and steps forward. After a tiring attempt, Veevi plops down upon the grass, and pants as she props herself up with her arms behind her. She regains awareness of her surroundings, and notices Trakenthin nearby parting some underbrush. A sly smiles graces Veevi’s lips, and she narrows her eyes upon Trakenthin. “Hey, Trakenthin. What’s the big, strong warrior doing over here?”

Trakenthin snarls his upper lip out of sight Veevi, and grumbles out. “Chad instructed me to investigate this area.”

Veevi blinks, glances around, and hops up to her feet with a smile while flexing her posture. “Oh! Can I join you?”

With a faint grimace leaking out into his stoic expression, Trakenthin slowly shakes his head and focuses his attentions forward. “Not necessary.”

Veevi frowns, lifts her nose at him, and crosses her arms petulantly. Trakenthin ignores the behavior and continues to scan the forest area. While surveying the vicinity, he spots a small hole in the dirt at the base of a tree leading to a tunnel. Sun shines down from above and highlights the rough meter perimeter cleared of debris surrounding the entrance. Trakenthin studies the area carefully and recognition colors his stoic expression with caution. He steps back away from the forest, and starts to walk off, following the forest edge. Veevi glares at Trakenthin and growls out. “Well?! I thought you were going to explore the forest there. What’s wrong? Too scared?”

Trakenthin sighs with a long roll of his eyes, and slowly pivots back to face Veevi. “No.”

Veevi puffs up her chest, sneers with an indignant stare at Trakenthin, and quips. “I guess none of that childhood training you got taught you how to brave the wilderness.”

Narrowing his cold stare upon Veevi, Trakenthin draws in a long breath, twists his mouth with a brief curl in his upper lip, and grumbles. “No. I know how to travel through the forest.”

A sinister smirk creeps out upon Veevi’s lips, and she straightens her posture defiantly while checking her sharp nails. “Whatever... I was so hoping to see a brave, strong warrior in action. But, I guess that’s just not going to happen. Oh well...”

Trakenthin focuses an annoyed glare upon Veevi, and examines her silently. Veevi retorts with a dismissive glower, and rolls her eyes dramatically. Trakenthin briefly clenches his fist, and searches his mind. Then, he cracks a slight smile. He blatantly sighs, relaxes his stance, and slowly shakes his head. “I apologize. I sought an easy route for you. So you can join me.”

Veevi blinks in surprise, concentrates her attention on Trakenthin, and shifts to a seductive smile upon her face. “Oh? Really? Well, I may have been a bit too quick to judge.”

Trakenthin dons a calm gaze and looks down at coy posturing of Veevi. “I judged, too. You have shown you should take lead down this path.”

A sly smirk parts Veevi’s lips and she steps forth towards the underbrush near Trakenthin. She bites her lower lip, examines Trakenthin up and down, and peeks into the forest. “Doesn’t look bad at all. This could be really fun... for the both of us.”

Trakenthin grabs hold of the tall plants, parts a path through, and gestures with a his free hand for Veevi. “You first. Consider it part of your training.”

Veevi perks her dark pink eyebrows at Trakenthin, struts seductively through the brush, and steps towards the cleared area near the base of a tree. Trakenthin quietly waits, and watches Veevi continue stepping past the perimeter into the debris free area around the small hole. Veevi pauses a moment as her fuzzy ears twitch towards a sound below her, and gazes down curiously. Moments later, a small brown and tan rodent, with black and white stripes and a short tail, waddles out of the small burrow. It quickly pans its head around side to side, before quickly snapping its stare up at the figure shading out the sun. Veevi kneels down slowly in front of the small creature with smile, and focuses upon the critter with enthralled delight. “Hello. Aren’t you the cutest little thing? Is this your home?”

Trakenthin’s eyes open wide with familiarity, and he quietly releases the parted underbrush. He slowly steps back from the forest edge and waits. Veevi’s head rolls side to side as she continues to be amused by the small critter staring at her, and wags her tail excitedly. “I’ve never seen anything like you. Would you like something to eat?”

A high pitched growl bellows out, seizing the attention of Chad, Deedri, Modoran, Tassilda, and the nearby camera crews. An ear piercing shriek splits the air, and Veevi erupts out from the forest edge in wild eyed fright. As she sprints off in an erratic panic, the rodent pursues her relentlessly in a constant fit of furious, angry barks. Trakenthin barely contains his ill-humored snorts, and covers his face. Everyone else watches in pure bewilderment as the small creature chases the flailing Veevi. It keeps pace with her and occasionally hops to nip at her puffed out tail when it waves close. Chad blinks in absolute astonishment, before spitting and snorting into uncontrollable laughter. Tassilda covers her mouth in sheer shock and amusement. Deedri gawks briefly, before turning her stunned gaze towards Modoran. Shrugging his shoulders and maintaining his nonchalant demeanor, Modoran tugs at the corner of his mouth and grits his teeth briefly. “THAT is why you don’t bother bullymunks.”

Veevi musters her coordination, concentrates on running, puts distance between her and the angry bullymunk. Modoran shakes his head and sighs towards Deedri and Tassilda. “They’re REALLY. FUCKING. Territorial.”

In a frantic flurry, Veevi leaps onto the trunk of a large tree, scratches her sharp nails on her hands onto the bark, and scrambles up awkwardly into the branches. Modoran smirks with a devilish satisfaction and calls out into the area. “They easily climb trees, too!”

Veevi’s horrified, shrill yell echoes into the area, and guides the camera crew recording equipment. “THEY WHAT?!”

The bullymunk runs up the trunk of the tree without missing a single step.




Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia walk down a long gravel path through aisles of bamboo patches, rock encircled flower gardens, and shrubbery. Bach pauses a moment at a bend in the walkway and slowly scans the area intrigued. “I didn’t expect all this to be here, especially given the really run down fencing and parking lot.”

The wind tickles Cideeda’s furry ears into a few flicks, and she gazes forward down the route ahead. “Well, most of these shrine gardens are only funded from donations these days. So, sacrifices have to be made.”

Dretphi smiles calmly and nods as a gentle breeze passes through her platinum blonde braids. “Reminds me of the ancestor gardens from home. Peaceful. Perfect for reflection.”

Sotalia kneels down to a small patch near the path, and curiously cocks her head to the side as she studies the plants growing. “Gods... I should know what this plant is. It looks so familiar...”

Dretphi stands next to Sotalia, stares down at the distinctive leaves, and studies the plant’s attributes. “Oh. A type of mint. What variety... That is difficult. Hard to narrow down without a full examination. The flowers have not bloomed.”

From behind a row of neatly trimmed bushes, a young fvalian woman steps out on the path. She tosses down a handful of weeds and debris, wipes the sweat from her brow, and pants with brushing off her apron. After a few seconds, she turns her gaze towards the group, blinks in surprise, and happily greets the team. “Oh! Hello! Welcome to the Freesbo Shrine Garden. Um, are you here for the guild job?”

Aristespha steps forward to meet the fvalian woman, bows slightly, and presents a smile. “Yes, we are. You must be?”

The fvalian woman’s furry ears perk up through her long black, patterned hair, and a sense of relief washes over her. She removes a pair of gardening gloves from her claw tipped hands, and sighs with a slow wag of her short haired, tuft tipped tail. “Rekeeka Tarodeena. The current and... Well... Only shrine maiden here.”

After an exchange of names and greetings between the team, Rekeeka bows respectfully to the group and manages to maintain a cheerful tone despite the concern weighing upon her. “Thank you so much for responding. I apologize for the job not paying that much despite the significant task. I’m a bit surprised anyone took the job so quickly when I posted early this morning.”

Bach shrugs his shoulders and smirks nonchalantly. “Well, it wasn’t too much out of the way from all the other jobs we had to do in the area. And, we had lunch at the Pancake Shed down the road.”

Rekeeka’s ears flick up and a she dons a toothy grin as her tail sways. “Oh! Do you have any customer cards with you?”

Cideeda lifts an intrigued eyebrow, opens a pocket on her vest, and deftly draws her new card with a single punch into view. “I do. Why?”

A sly smile graces Rekeeka’s face and she swiftly pulls out a pen from her shorts pocket, clicking it. “I work there on the night shifts. And, while I can’t offer that much monetary compensation for the job ahead, I can comp a free punch.”

Grinning toothily, Cideeda gives the Pancake Shed card over to Rekeeka and nods appreciatively. “No complaints here.”

Rekeeka quickly presses a thumb claw through a punch spot on the card, swiftly initials next to the spot, and returns the card. She clicks the pen again, stows in her pocket, and gestures down the path. “Well, I shouldn’t take too much of your time, since you probably have other jobs after this one. So, follow me, and I’ll give you a little tour on the way.”

The team follows Rekeeka down the path. Following a few twists and turns, Rekeeka glances back with an explanatory tone. “This particular shrine garden is one of the oldest in the area. We... Well, I maintain close to twenty five different locations on the property, part time. And, while I’m still learning traditional magics...”

She flashes an entrepreneurial grin and playful wink. “I pride myself on providing both herbal and alchemical plant reagents... For a fair donation.”

Waving her arm out, she points out number of paths leading to different areas in the distance. “We house a variety of worship sites to many gods, goddesses, spirits, and other entities today. But, historically, we used to only house shrines for-”

She speaks out a complicated phrase in a fluently paced dialect of Fvalian. Cideeda’s interest piques. Sotalia nods, while the rest of the group remains in polite confusion. Rekeeka senses the loss of understanding, giggles with a bit embarrassment, and sighs apologetically. “Oh, I’m sorry, the name doesn’t have an easy translation to Americ. Um, it roughly means the religion of experience? There’s a lot of context lost in that translation unfortunately.”

Cideeda nods to Rekeeka, smiles happily, and gazes over to the rest of the team. “The simple version is you take all the forces you experience in life, give them easy names, and assign personifications that describe them. Then, by proxy, seek guidance from or to guide those forces.”

Rekeeka grins appreciatively. “That’s a wonderful explanation. You seem quite versed.”

Shrugging her shoulders with a nonchalant smirk, Cideeda chuckles and rolls her eyes at herself. “Versed enough. I mostly tend to pay tribute to Fate and Karma.”

She quirks her brow as thought reminds her of something. Twisting her mouth, she sighs with a tinge of embarrassment. “Which reminds me, do you have shrines to those two? I’ve been meaning to give a proper thanks for recent things.”

As Rekeeka continues to the lead the team down the route, she points down a neatly tiled stone path and chimes in. “Of course! They’re down there in an alcove. After you’re done with your job, I’ll be happy to take you there. After last night, I need to be a thankful, too.”

Bach glances down the route briefly, ponders a few seconds, and returns his attention ahead, puzzling. “Huh. That’s actually a neat concept and practice, thinking about it. A bit different approach than Gnost’s, but he’s mostly about seeking knowledge. His book of fables my mom would read to Sebastian and me were always good.”

Aristespha lifts her head up from studying her tablet and glances over to Bach. “I’ve read that book. One of the better religious texts out there for its age. SO MUCH better than any of the Evuukian Light Gods tomes I had to tolerate growing up.”

Sotalia chuckles lightly, grins impishly towards Aristespha, and leans close. “Oh, but that group does have one hell of party god.”

Stifling an amused snort, Aristespha slowly shakes her head with a roll of her eyes. “Wherever red cups fall, honor him braced upon an altar of porcelain... Gods, and that’s being kind with the translation.”

Snickering briefly, Sotalia sighs, smiles playfully, and rest her hands upon her hips. “At least, your gods occasionally loosen up. I could never get into any of the emin deities. They’re so self absorbed most of the time... But, I just CAN’T resist the holiday celebrations. Oh, especially throughout winter solstice.”

She rests a hand on her chest, sighs, and grins slyly. “I may not know who to believe, but I’m not turning down an excuse to enjoy all those treats.”

Dretphi nods with her thoughts, and shrugs her shoulders with a bit of humored guilt. “They are good. My family has adopted fun traditions. We believe our ancestors grow bored of stale methods to honor them. The spirits appreciate the variety.”

The discussion continues between all. Minutes later, Rekeeka leads the party to an open area near the corner of the property and stops when the path fades into the taller grasses. Her body tenses, and she slowly pivots to the group with a wary gaze. “This is the spot. It's called Avis Mark. And well... It has always been considered a cursed spot. So, we try to discourage people from going near it.”

She sighs, rolls some tension out of her shoulders, and grimaces. “It just seems to attract strange things from maelstroms, and usually the dangerous variety.”

Pointing out a clawed finger out into the tall grass clearing, she frowns uneasily, and directs the team’s attention to a strange swirling of air stirring a large swath grass blades. “Right there. I’ve never seen this kind before. But, I believe it has trapped a small animal within it. It’s hard to make out, as it seems to warp light, too.”

Aristespha’s eyes blink to a glowing violet, and she focuses her full attention to the shimmering mass. Bach squints as his eyes illuminate blue, and studies the visual fluctuations revealing a small opaque outline briefly. Cideeda pulls out a small camera, holds her aetherphone out, and taps through the menus. A visual thermal representation of the constant vortex appears on the display. Cideeda alternates between examining the screen and watching the swirling air with her ears trained upon it. Dretphi carefully approaches the edge of the tall grass field, and cautiously investigates the perimeter. Sotalia stares at the anomaly, shudders briefly, and twists her mouth with a slight grit of her teeth. “Okay. That’s definitely not a nice one. I’m starting to feel it now.”

Rekeeka bows respectfully, and steps out of the way with an appreciative smile. “Thank you so much for taking on this task. I’ll excuse myself for now. I don’t want to get in the way. But, if you need anything, please let me know. I’ll be at the temple area in the middle of the property.”

She departs after acknowledgments from the team. A minute later, Sebastian’s ghostly form assembles next to Aristespha, and he peeks over her shoulder at the tablet. “So, dear, what are we dealing with?”

Aristespha grumbles to herself, brushes back a lock of her silvery blue hair over a very long pointed ear, and sighs in frustration. “It’s one of a few things, Sebastian. Nothing good.”

She glances to Bach and inquires. “Do you see the flow radiating from the ground, too, Bach?”

Bach aims his stare down through the tall grasses at the base of the sluggish vortex, flits his eyes wide open, and gradually nods. “Oh... Yes... I think this is one of those anomalies with a source object.”

Cideeda contorts her face, furrows her brow, and cocks her head to the side. “I’m not getting anything too unusual on the thermal camera. It’s moving air around, but it’s not heating or cooling it. But...”

Her furry ears flick and perk towards a point in the shimmering mass. “I hear some kind of small animal in there. Maybe squirrel or rat? I can’t tell, the sound is all distorted.”

Dretphi walks up to the group and shakes her head with a frown. “Nothing unusual in the surrounding area. It seems localized. I do not know any more.”

Aristespha nods appreciatively to Dretphi, drags through paragraphs of text, and focuses her gaze upon a few lines. “Thank you, everyone. That actually narrows it down a great deal. Sebastian?”

Sebastian turns his ethereal form towards Aristespha. “Yes, dear?”

Aristespha’s eyes quickly read through the mass of information on the screen, and she points up to the top of the swirling air at flecks of debris drifting in the currents. “I’m going to need you up there to keep an eye on this. It’s a tricky one to disrupt and disarm, but can be done.”

Bach glances over quizzically. “What’s the process?”

Biting her lower lip, Aristespha sighs as she collects her thoughts. “Okay. This is called a Vacuum Snare. It uses sudden vacuum to draw anything within proximity into a folded space pocket in the middle.”

Sotalia blinks in surprise, stares awkwardly at the anomaly, crosses her arms, and uneasily picks at one of her horns. “Good fucking gods... It’s got a folded space pocket? That’s NOT trivial magic there. It felt strange, like it was warping something... But... Wow...”

Aristespha nods in commiseration at Sotalia’s observations and continues reading the literature. “Unlike the folded space frames, this is not properly stabilized. Anyway, there are two key things. One, we must cut the current effect off from its source in the ground. Second, we must keep powering the effect from our own sources, and gradually allow the effect to fade, unfolding the space.”

She gazes up from the tablet to the team around her. “Otherwise, the space unfolds immediately, and releases a massive burst of all the air it has drawn inside it... along with anything else.”

A nervous tension looms around the team. Bach draws a long breath in and releases it with a grit of his teeth. “So... Who’s got what?”

Aristespha perks a directed eyebrow at Bach, twists her mouth, and hands over the tablet. “You should be able to handle cutting and isolating the source. I believe you have a few tricks for remotely manipulating the flows and sealing up the source.”

Bach nods in agreement, glances over the information on the tablet, and smiles as he thinks. “Yeah. You’re right. Probably could flow some cables, and then construct a barrier around it.”

A smirk graces Aristespha’s lips, and she gazes over to Sotalia with a composed stance. “And, with a little redirection from me, our raw power house will be able to easily keep the effect powered long enough to let it wind down gently.”

Sotalia grins slyly, poses confidently, and brushes her fiery orange, wavy hair back. “Oh. Well. Of course.”

Sebastian smiles proudly, ponders in thought, and glances over to the transparent warping of spiraling air in the middle of the plot of land. “That sounds good. I guess I’m keeping an eye on things from above the anomaly.”

He gestures towards to Cideeda. “Cideeda, you keep an eye out for anything going strange on the ground. If it starts to look weird or sound bad, let us know.”

Cideeda nods in agreement, flexes her arms, and stretches out her back. “Sounds good to me.”

With appreciative tone, Sebastian points to Dretphi casually with both hands. “And Dretphi, you are on over watch. If it looks like things are going bad, be ready to pull us out of harms way. With the amount of focus required, we all may not be that observant when needed.”

Dretphi grants a simple, confirming nod. Sebastian looks to the team and hovers upwards. “Okay. I’m getting into position.”

He floats above the high top of the anomaly, and begins to observe the tiny flecks of debris trapped in the flows of air. Aristespha quickly explains the details to Bach and Sotalia, while pointing out positions for Cideeda and Dretphi. After many minutes reviewing the steps, the team readies themselves. Bach kneels down, blinks his eyes a glowing blue, and guides elongating cables of magical energy through the grasses towards the base of the transparent vortex. Sotalia stretches her arms out, flexes her legs and hips, and poses her hands forward at the ready. Cideeda keeps her attention split between the anomaly and the thermal display on her phone. Dretphi kneels down behind Aristespha, Bach, and Sotalia, and inspects the path behind the group for a clear escape. Aristespha places her tablet in her backpack, releases her nerves in a long exhales, and readies herself. “Okay. Bach. Start isolating the source.”

Bach nods as his eyes flash a brighter blue, and pulses of magical flow radiate down the cables from his hands. Aristespha quickly gestures a series of incantations, and projects out faint corridors of flow towards the bottom of the vortex. Cideeda’s ears flick as whistles of wind stream out from the top of the anomaly, and flecks of debris fly through Sebastian’s ethereal form. A rising gust of wind billows out from the bottom of the swirling mass, and pushes down the surrounding grasses. Sunken into the ground, a crystal speckled rock flickers brightly while the vortex above sways more erratically. A golden sphere of hexagonal pieces slowly builds up from the dirt, and gradually conceals the stone orb. As flows of energy erupt out between the tightening gaps through the barrier field, Bach directs his concerned tone to Aristespha. “Ready?! I’m about to cut it off!”

Aristespha nods quickly, pushes her arms outwards, and directs a powerful flow of magical energy through the swirling, ethereal conduits. “Yes! Get ready, Sotalia!”

The golden sphere completes around the crystal speckled rock against strong flow resistance. The vortex shimmers and releases out blasts of air into the area. Aristespha grimaces and grits her teeth. While the anomaly draws relentlessly upon the flow conduits, she maintains the massive amount of energy through the magical pathways. She turns her palms upwards, pivots carefully towards Sotalia, and winces as powerful gale blasts onto her. “NOW!”

Sotalia grasps hold of Aristespha’s hands, and tenses herself as a wave of magical flow spirals out from her body and concentrates into the energy conduits. The vortex shimmers opaque, spins quicker, and sways wildly. Sotalia grits her teeth, dons a determined stare, and growls out. “Holy shit! It’s pulling some serious power.”

Aristespha nods, turns her head to shield away from the growing gale, and calls out. “Yes! Keep feeding smaller amounts over time.”

Sebastian yells out from above and energetically points. “Watch out! It’s really starting to swing around.”

Dretphi reaches out, and taps on Bach’s shoulder. Bach glances over, and watches Dretphi gesture him backwards. He nods, and carefully moves back with Dretphi’s guidance, gradually lengthening the cables in his hands. As Aristespha and Sotalia lean back from the wind, both Dretphi and Cideeda brace the pair from behind. The air grows loud as a torrent blasts out and magical miasma vents out. With a final poof, the wind suddenly stills and faint traces of shimmering magical mass disappear. Aristespha breathes out a long sigh of relief. Sotalia releases her grip, steadies herself, and places her hands at her sides with a prideful grin. Cideeda and Dretphi relax, and Bach rests prone on the ground. Sebastian searches the air above briefly, squints down towards the ground, and scans around in utter bewilderment. “What the- The hell was that?”

Aristespha combs her hair back out of her face and chuckles lightly. “Nicely done, everyone. That had a LOT more air in it than I expected.”

Sotalia lifts her brow at Aristespha, crosses her arms, and smiles proudly. “Oh, yeah. Quite the challenge... But, not too terrible..”

Cideeda’s ears twitch and she searches around the tall grass. “What’s that noise?”

Dretphi flits her steely gray eyes open wide and focuses upon the trail of shaking plant blades towards Bach. She reaches out to grasp Bach’s shoulder. Bach lifts his head up from rest, pushes himself up, and glances down ahead. “What’s going-”

A small, furry creature leaps out from the grass right onto Bach face. As it scurries in a panic upon his head, Bach tilts backward while flailing wildly, and shrieks out. “OH, GODS! AH! WHAT THE FUCK!?”




As the team walks along the path through the shrine garden, Dretphi bites her lower lip in a mix of glee and embarrassment, reaches her hand out above Bach, and gently pets the flying squirrel securely nestled upon Bach’s head. The critter enjoys the affection, leaning into the attention. After a few seconds, Dretphi slides her fingers underneath the creature, and applies a gradually amount of upwards pull. The squirrel hunkers down, tightens its grip onto Bach’s hair and scalp, and stubbornly resists. Bach grimaces, and grits his teeth briefly with wince. “Ow. Stop. Please. He’s still not letting go.”

Sotalia snorts and shakes her head, covering her mouth. Dretphi sighs with a warm smile, pets the soft furry, loose coat of the flying squirrel, and pats Bach on the shoulder. “Sorry. I believe it is a ruin squirrel. I have read about them. They do not have many predators. They are friendly. Not easily scared. Do not understand why he is attached to you.”

Bach grumbles to himself and rolls his eyes blatantly annoyed. Sotalia grins wide, reaches up, and gently strokes her long nails along the cheeks of the ruin squirrel. “Oh, he’s so cute! We might have to keep him.”

From the sword at Aristespha’s side, Sebastian’s ghostly voice snickers. Bach eyes downwards irritably and snarls his upper lip. “Are you- Are you laughing? Seriously...”

Sebastian's echoing tone sputters out a few laughs, and settles down. “I’m sorry, bro. Just watching you stumble around screaming when it was crawling all over you was too much.”

Bach glances over to Aristespha with a dry smirk. “Hey, Aristespha, could I hold on to the sword for a bit?”

Aristespha lifts a suspicious eyebrow at Bach and meet his gaze unamused. A devious grin cracks across Bach’s face and he darkly chuckles. “Don’t worry, I’ll return it... Eventually. Just wanted to see how far I could pitch into that pond we passed on the way here.”

With a sharp growl, Sebastian voice emanates from the sword. “Don’t. YOU. Fucking. DARE...”

A spark of sinister glee lights up Bach’s eyes, and he curls the corners of his mouth. “Oh, I mean, I just wanted see if I lost my touch with throwing swords around.”

Aristespha groans annoyed, gazes upwards, and places on firm grip on the handle of the sword as her eyes glow faintly violet. “Sebastian. Stop provoking your brother, and apologize.”

Sebastian’s voice quietens down and mumbles out. “Sorry...”

With a sigh, Aristespha glances over to Bach with a firm, understanding expression. “I’ll contact Captain Hayes. I’m certain the Borderland Rangers will be able to help somehow. Just stay calm.”

She reaches over Bach’s head, and pets the affectionate ruin squirrel a few times with a guilty smirk. “And... Keep the little one content for now.”

Bach sighs and stares ahead unamused. Seconds later, he feels a familiar five claw points of slight pressure on his forearm and glances down to Cideeda. “Yes?”

Cideeda gestures him down closer. Bach leans down close to Cideeda’s eye level, puzzling, cocks his head to the side, and whispers. “What?”

With a toothy grin, Cideeda raises her hand to the top of Bach’s head, and playfully pets the ruin squirrel to it’s enjoyment. She fights a bit of guilt and shrugs her shoulders. She flutters her emerald with an awkward smile in the face of Bach’s narrowing stare. “Sorry. I didn’t want to be left out. And, I couldn’t reach that high.”




Heccaeh carefully slips his clawed fingers underneath the sleeping ruin squirrel, gently lifts him up from of Bach’s head, and quickly carries him off into an awaiting cage. Chana swiftly closes the door when Heccaeh hands clear, locks it shut, and covers it with a dark blanket. Bach immediately brushes his fingers through his long brown hair with a white patch, and shakes off a few seed shells. “Oh man... Thank you! Every time we tried to get him off, he’d just claw onto my skin.”

Heccaeh chuckles lightly, grins, and flicks his furry ears. “Not a problem. I’ve had to do similar to when Ralli and Orrento get too riled up. Those seeds are tasty, and mild sedatives.”

He pauses a moment in thought and gazes over to the covered cage, shaking his head. “That’s still strange how he latched on to you. The only time I’ve ever seen them that stubborn is when they are in their nests.”

Bach searches his mind as he stands up from a seat on the ground, and curiously inquires. “Really? Where do they make their nests?”

Heccaeh thinks a moment and plainly explains. “Well, they’re ruin squirrels. They live around old ruins in the zones. They like to be high up, and fly from spot to spot. But... They REALLY like to make their nests in places where old magical power once was. Don’t understand it, but if there’s an old magic circle, they nest all over it.”

Bach eyes flit wide and dart around uneasily, as he continues to brush himself of with an awkward tone in his voice. “Oh... Um... Interesting...”

Aristespha bows slightly and politely to Captain Hayes. “Thank you so much for meeting us so quickly.”

Captain Hayes smiles with a chuckle, and tips his wide brimmed hat respectfully with his cybernetic arm. “Not a problem at all. Actually, you saved us some time.”

He motions over to the cage and small magical containment tank holding a golden barrier enclosed, crystal speckled stone. “Even if you turned that anomaly source to the guild, we would have had to pick it up anyway. This just saved us the trip. We’ve been running around lately, so one less drive to make helps.”

His smile fades to a grimace, and his tone shifts to a serious cadence. “Also, I’ve been meaning to relay some information to you all. It’s a bit of of mix, so I’ll start with the good news.”

He draws a long breath in. “Both Captain Hackle and I have been contacted by all those ex-Terra Priest folks. Some didn’t have criminal records with anyone that mattered, so many going back to regular lives. The rest have records with a few places, but Hackle and I are brokering some deals to get them to work it off... With appropriate service and trades of information.”

Relief and satisfaction emerge on Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia hearing news. With a grim expression overtaking his face, Hayes sighs sadly. “And, that information has gotten more valuable. Since it seems like that group is the only resource we have anymore.”

A wave of concern and confusion washes over the team. Captain Hayes grits his teeth, rests his hands at his sides, and slowly shakes head. “Simply put. After that golem attack on the Chrome Crusaders, Appaland army sent a clean up team. I’m not sure if Captain Hackle can’t say or doesn’t exactly know... But... If I know Appaland... It probably wasn’t good.”

An uneasy, dour mood looms above the gathering. Seconds later, Captain Hayes sighs loudly and dons a calm smirk. “My apologies for being the bearer of bad news. But, don’t let that discount the good you all did.”

Bach nods appreciatively. “Ah, it’s okay. Just feels weird.”

Similar expressions appear on the rest of the team. Captain Hayes smiles understandingly, adjusts his hat, and crosses his arms. “Yeah. It’s a strange one.”

He studies the dark blue night sky overtaking the reddish glow of dusk on the horizon, and proposes an idea. “Well, it’s about dinner time for my team. You all want to join us over at the local Pancake Shed? End the night on a nicer note?”

A toothy grin grows on Cideeda and an eager spark lights her eyes as she studies Aristespha, Bach, Dretphi, and Sotalia. “No objections from me.”