The Huntress Chapter 7

By Intrasonic

     Destroyed rock.
     Unnaturally destroyed rock.
     Opera smiled thinly as she surveyed the massive crater in the side of the pathway. It had taken her almost the entire day before the scenery had changed significantly. In lieu of the grassy plains and green forests, she was now ascending a rocky pathway that looped around a large lake several hundred feet below. It had the makings of a warhead detonation or a meteor- impact site. On this underdeveloped planet, the second was probably more likely. Once she was back on a spaceship, a proper sensor sweep would give her more information upon which to base a theory. Although Ernest might have already done as much since arriving here himself.
     As far as the object of her attention was concerned, it had everything she was hoping for. Burnt, fused and crystallized rock, coupled with a little pile of black powder. The first was a sure sign of something really hot hitting it, the second was probably the scant remains of what that something had burned through first.
     An energy weapon. And a fairly sizable one. Probably plasma-based in nature. And there could only be one person around this area using energy weapons. And if there was somehow more than one, there would only be one person stupid enough to fire such a massive weapon into the same rock outcropping supporting them several hundred feet above the lake.
     That being said, he was probably using the AP-3 that she had made him store aboard his ship. A nice weapon, illegal on many planets, but Tetragenes wasn't one of them. It was always smart to pack a little something extra, she had told him at the time. You never knew when it would be useful to have a weapon capable of putting out six million degrees Kelvin of plasma for extended periods of time. Besides, at the time, she'd had her hands full just explaining the illegal-even-on-Tetragenes AP-8 she had stored aboard her own ship. Customs could be such a bitch sometimes.
     It seemed like Ernest had finally found a use for the weapon, she decided, continuing onwards. A disgustingly overpowered use for it, but at least he wasn't trying to negotiate with the creatures around here. She could still remember him trying to attempting to placate a charging Rhinotaur back on Antares IV. Nasty reptiles with bullet-proof armored shells who usually didn't waste time with pleasantries like chewing their food and applied that label to anything that moved - alive or not. Unfortunately (for it), it had tried eating a moving grenade first. She had invited Ernest to placate what was left.
     By the time the sun was finally beginning to set in the sky, after a few tiresome hours spent ascending the pathway, she had finally found something worth noting. A cave. With a squared-off doorway. Unless the wildlife in the area was knowledgeable in the field of masonry, she'd just found the entrance to the Mountain Palace. Fishing quickly through her pack, Opera produced her letter of permission. It wasn't as though she actually felt she needed permission, but it would make things easier if she didn't have to waste time arguing with the guards that were supposed to be on station here. Must be one hell of a boring job for them.
     The cave was well-lit with torches inside, dispelling any possibility of animal ownership. Although she hoped they weren't stupid enough to line the entire thing with torches. Not only was it extremely impractical and expensive, it was a good way to burn up all the oxygen in the air. She was used to Tetragenes' somewhat oxygen-sparse atmosphere to begin with, but a smoked-out cave was beyond the limits of any biological organism. But the air seemed clean enough for the moment. At the other end of the entrance room, another doorway was present, probably leading to the rest of the ruins. A lone soldier was propped up against the doorway, snoring away. Even on this underdeveloped planet, the military was still the military.
     No need to disturb his sleep then. Depositing the letter on his lap, Opera checked the charge on the Kaleidoscope. Full. There might be monsters here, but if they were too stupid to leave her alone, there would be a few less by the time she left. Assuming Ernest and his AP-3 had left any alive in the first place. All she needed to do was go in, locate Ernest, give him hell, then get out again.
     Aside from the fact that she was missing her partner, it was almost easy to feel at home in this set of ruins. The fact that there were torches every so often made seeing her way easy enough, and she was wary enough to avoid walking on any shadowed portions of the ground. The more intelligently placed traps tended to be placed just out of the light.
     There was a notable absence of writing on the walls too, which strongly suggested that the place lacked much in the way of religious significance. It had quite possibly been a practical building at one point. If it belonged to the kingdom of Cross, perhaps this was a hideout for the royalty in dangerous times. A common-enough characteristic of old monarchial kingdoms in her exploration experiences. Although it had clearly been a long time since it had been used. Even the dust on the ground was measurably thick and all but devoid of markings. Although... not entirely so. And considering the upcoming three-way fork in the path...
     Kneeling down, Opera inspected the dust carefully. There were definitely marks in the dust. And some them seemed to have been made by something with size 80, three toed footwear. Others were smaller and less worrisome. But there was a distinct lack of humanoid prints down the one path location.
     The second...
     "Gotcha," Opera muttered. Size 13 boots with slight scrapes to either side, corresponding to Ernest's favorite rough-terrain boots, complete with rock spikes. Ernest had most certainly been this way. With a little luck, he would still be here.


     It was only a few passageways later that her nose caught the faint smell of burning organic matter, setting off warning bells in her head immediately. More handiwork from Ernest's AP-3, no doubt. The fact that he'd had to use it in here opened up a whole can of worms by itself. How could anything survive down here, if they never left the cave for food and water? The lone guard sleeping near the entrance suggested that he hadn't considered himself in much danger, so whatever lived here probably didn't leave. But to survive for so long... that wasn't quite natural.
     Then again, neither was that two-headed demon dragon. And it had shrugged off the Kaleidoscope like a slap on the wrist. One had to wonder how well these 'demons' would stand up against an AP-3.
     Rounding the corner, the source of the smell was easily identified. Someone had blasted something into the next world, also ripping the hell out of the wall behind the target. And probably leaving the target in a gaseous state.
     She frowned upon surveying the damage. Wanton destruction of ruins wasn't like Ernest at all. Actually, it pretty much went against everything he stood for. The archaeologist in him was usually upset when she so much as scratched the wall with a stray shot. And he'd just pulled down half a ton of rock here...
     She coughed. "Why is it so dusty?" she muttered rhetorically, knowing the answer already. A sustained shot from a plasma weapon would have ionized the air in the process. This had probably happened recently enough that the residual charge was still present. And that charge was keeping the ever-present dust airborne...
     "Isn't that because it's a cavern?"
     She nodded in approval. "You might have point. That could be one reason-"
     She stopped in mid-sentence. Unlike normal, she didn't have a partner at the moment. And that voice had been several octaves too high to have been Ernest. Spinning around, she had the Kaleidoscope leveled towards the speaker in less than a
second, an electric whine audible as the main capacitors charged themselves up.
     There were four people, actually. Three of them were looking at her with assorted looks of confusion, while the fourth had a look of panic on his face.
     Then Opera recognized the fourth. The same guy she'd met in the bar back in Hilton. Claude Kenni. What the hell was he doing here? Or more accurately, why had he followed her? She lowered the barrel of the gun, but didn't power it down. He might look like some teenager who'd only recently outgrown his acne, but that didn't mean he might not be dangerous. "What? Do you have something you want to say to me?"
     Opera could make out one of the other three muttering something that sounded like "That's what I'd like to know.".
     The lowered weapon seemed to reassure Claude somewhat, as he finally came forwards. "Yes, actually."
     Entirely too close for comfort at the moment, especially considering the sword he had on him. "Hey wait..." she warned.
     Claude glanced back at the other three briefly before facing her. "Let me get to the point, Opera. I know you're not from this planet."
     Warning bells immediately went off in Opera's head. This guy was either a loony, or else he was the first person she'd met so far who actually understood the concept of 'planets'. "What? Aren't you-"
     Then she noticed his jacket. And things fell into place very quickly after that. A UFP academy jacket. A smile began to appear on her face. A civilized person! Even if he was a United Federation of Planets person.
     "Why are you here?" Claude demanded. "According to the Underdeveloped Planet  Protection Treaty, interference with this planet is supposed to be prohibited."
     The smile faded from Opera's face, quickly replaced by a scowl. He'd chased her down like this to tell her THAT? And worst of all, if there were Federation people here, she might actually be stuck with answering to their laws. Politics were bitch where unexplored planets were concerned. "I... have my reasons."
     One of the other three seemed to be growing impatient. "What are you talking about, just the two of you?"
      "Oh... um..." Claude turned to face the others.
     One of the others, a teenage-looking girl, was alternating between glaring at Opera and glaring at Claude. Jealousy, if she'd ever seen it before. Opera smirked as she caught Claude's somewhat nervous face. "Sorry to disappoint you, but we don't have that kind of relationship."
     The other girl appeared somewhat mollified by the statement, although Claude's face was still red from the implication. The other merely raised their eyebrows in unison, obviously wanting an explanation.
     Opera decided that it probably didn't matter if they knew or not. And it wouldn't hurt to keep Claude around for a moment. If she could convince him to give her a quick lift to wherever Ernest had parked his space ship, this would all be over in no time. After she made sure that he wasn't in this set of ruins. Although she'd have to make sure the explanation sat well enough with Claude. She didn't need to spend several years in Fed court over Underdeveloped Planet Protection Treaty charges.
     "My boyfriend..." She'd actually said it! "...Ernest is an archaeologist and with the excuse that it was for his studies, he ran off to the Frontier without asking me. So that's why I'm following him."
     "All the way here?" the older woman inquired.
     The lady had no idea. Opera herself couldn't entirely believe she'd tailed him for so long, either. Aside from the issue of getting back home. But she could still remember her talk with Rosalia before. "Yeah... I guess that's what love is."
     "So this Ernest person might be in the interior from here?" Claude asked.
     "Perhaps..." She hadn't seen him yet. For Claude's benefit, she pointed towards the wall. "This must have been a wall. Judging from the scorch marks, the wall must have been destroyed recently."
     He nodded. "Indeed..."
     What if Ernest had been shooting a demon? Her Kaleidoscope didn't seem to do very well against demons, and her solid ammunition was limited. If Ernest hadn't killed everything, things could get dangerous really fast under these circumstances. On the other hand, Claude seemed to have picked up a few companions. Probably locals, if his attempts at secrecy meant anything. Locals who might be better equipped to handle demons. The words 'cannon fodder' also came to mind, but she ignored them. She wasn't that heartless.
     "I know." But she wasn't a martyr either. Time to see if they were suckers or not. "If you don't mind, would you mind coming with me into the interior? I'll give you all the treasure we find on the way."
     They all looked at each other. The woman seemed to especially like the idea, while the third person, a young man, seemed rather indifferent. The younger girl seemed hesitant, but the older woman whispered something about 'Sorcery Globe', which
seemed to tip the balance towards the better/more useful.
     Claude seemed to like it too, although he might simply have been wanting to keep an eye on her. Which was understandable, in lieu of how much she cared about those stupid UFP regulations. "Okay, it's fine with me. Is it okay with everyone?
     The older woman nodded. "It's fine with me."
     "Okay by me."
     "It's a deal then."
     Opera smiled thinly. Best of all, Ernest would have already grabbed anything of note for himself. This little deal was win-win all the way. No need to sound too cocky, however. "I'm so relieved."
     "Shall we go?" Claude asked.
     She nodded, powering her weapon down to 20% power again. Enough to knock a threat for a loop, but not in a wasteful fashion. Like someone else seemed to be doing so far. "Keep an eye out," she warned. "I haven't found anything yet, but I've passed some big footprints."
     The older of the two woman coughed. "I don't believe we've been introduced. My name is Celine. Celine Jules. Opera, I believe your name was?"
     Opera turned and nodded. Celine was about her age, she would have guessed. Elegantly-styled platinum blue hair cascaded down to her shoulders, with a some sort of blue tattoo on her forehead. She was dressed in an... interesting outfit, to say the least. And how the hell were those rings being supported? A striking woman by any cultural definition she'd ever encountered. "Opera Vectra."
     The other girl stepped forward, smiling in manner that was either incredibly vacuous or eternally optimistic. Either possibility somewhat scared Opera. She looked normal enough at first glance, but Opera was able to notice a few subtle differences between her and the other two locals. The pointed ears were the most prominent, along with the extremely intense blue hair. If she didn't know better, she'd have sworn the girl wasn't a local either. "I'm Rena Lanford. From Arlia. Nice to meet you!"
     The man nodded, an easy-going grin on his face. He looked a little older than the others, although it could have just his more casual way of looking at her. Someone who had stopped overreacting to life's little surprises. "Bowman Jean, nice to meet you. After having Claude run up to us with a 'I was in the bar and saw a three-eyed woman', it's nice to see this wasn't just a case of too much to drink."
     Well, somebody in the group seemed to have a sense of humor. "Nice to meet you all. Shall we go?"


     It was about five minutes later that Claude gave up trying to get into a position that would let him whisper to Opera without being overheard. With three other people nearby, ranging from indifferently curious to suspiciously curious to jealously curious, it simply wasn't about to happen any time soon.
     That being ascertained, Claude went for the casual approach. "So... Opera..."
     "How long... have you been around here?"
     "A week or two, I guess."
     "That long? So... you got here by ship?"
     "That's right."
     "So how long were you planning on... visiting the area?"
     "Until I find Ernest."
     Claude was silent, not quite sure how to proceed from there. "Oh."
     "So what the hell are you doing out here?" she asked. Under her breath, "Aren't you breaking some UFP regs by just being here, ensign?"
     Claude frowned. "I'm..."
     "We're investigating the Sorcery Globe," Rena supplied.
     Opera thought about what she'd heard in regards to the 'Sorcery Globe'. It had pretty much all been from Ashton, and he hadn't known a whole lot. But she understood that it was generally blamed for all the problems happening lately, including the demons. "Sounds pretty dangerous."
     "Ah, we've managed to keep ourselves alive so far," Bowman replied easily.
     "We were actually on our way somewhere else," Celine added, a faint hint of irritation in her voice. "But Claude felt very strongly that it was important that we chase after you. Have you two met before?"
     "Never met him in my life."
     Claude lowered his voice. "You're not helping."
     She glared back at him. "I was minding my own business, buddy. You chased after me. And if you just came to tell me all about your stupid Fed regulations..."
     "Well... actually..."
     If Claude was trying to be a poster boy for Federation recruitment, he was failing. Miserably. "You mean, you did?"
     "Then what the hell did you want?"
     Claude glanced back at everyone else.
     Everyone else glanced back at him.
     Opera dragged Claude a short distance aside. "Fine, fine. Whisper it to me."
     Claude nodded, lowering his voice. "I'm not here by choice. I was on an exploring team on the planet Milocinia, and some strange equipment threw me to this planet."
     Milocinia. Another relatively unexplored area, Opera knew. And far away. Which meant that he'd run into an impressive transportation device. "So you're stranded here."
     He turned red. "Yeah. Kind of."
     "How can you be 'kind of' stranded?"
     "Okay, I'm stranded."
     "Then it sucks to be you. Why'd you chase after me?"
     "Well... I was wondering... if you might be able to help me out."
     Opera finally realized what he was getting at. "Sorry. My spaceship crashed on this planet. My ship is scrap and doesn't have any power left."
     Claude's face fell. "So... how are you getting back home?"
     "Easy. Ernest came here on his own ship."
     His face lit up again. "So..."
     Opera thought for a moment. If Claude was just stranded here, that meant that there wasn't any Federation expedition here. Therefore, she didn't have to worry about any regulations! And it would probably gain her some brownie points with the Federation if her and Ernest helped a cadet out of this jam. "Yeah, yeah, once I find Ernest, you can hitch a ride with us."
     "Were you two planning on getting intimate?" Celine called out, impatiently.
     Claude turned red. He seemed to do that a lot, actually. "Uh... no."
     "Glad to hear it," Opera smirked, heading back to the group. "Claude just wanted to explain a few things to me."
     "So it's a secret?" Bowman inquired. The look on his face seemed somewhat indifferent, actually.
     "Um, sort of like that," Claude agreed sheepishly.
     "Whatever," Celine decided. "Shall we continue searching for treasure?"
     "And for Ernest," Rena agreed with a smile. "You must care for him a great deal, Opera."
     "Well, he's a wimp, so he's probably going to get his ass handed to him if I don't find him," Opera agreed.
     "Oh. I... see. Well... I'm sure that we'll find him. And if he's in danger, we'll work together to protect him."
     Opera supposed that it was the thought that counted. Ernest would be perfectly safe once she got her hands on the AP-3 that he had and put it to more efficient use. And of the four people she was with, only Claude seemed to have a legitimate weapon on him, a sword. Bowman's heavy forearm braces were possibly intended for fighting, but Celine's rod didn't look particularly impressive. And did Rena think a pair of brass knuckles were going to win a fight for her?
     Then again... "Hey, Claude."
     "Is that sword all you've got for a weapon?"
     "Um... yes."
     "Nothing else? No energy weapons?"
     "Claude had a sword of light before," Rena ventured.
     Sword of light? Where had she heard that before? Back in Arlia when she was talking with that elder. So Claude was that strange man mentioned. And the one who'd probably killed the one beast. "You've got an energy weapon," she informed him.
     "It's out of power," he replied sheepishly.
     "Forget it," she muttered, continuing onwards. Not only was she stuck with a Federation rookie, she was stuck with a stupid one. One that was too stupid to conserve his firepower and bring along extra power packs. "What branch are you in,
     "Security," he replied under his breath.
     "You have got to be kidding me."
     "I hope we find something valuable for our trouble," Celine was muttering.
     "How can you be worried about treasure?" Rena exclaimed. "Opera's boyfriend could be in danger!"
     "Rena, darling, you'll forgive me if I'm not a wellspring of sympathy in the romance department these days. If this 'Ernest' was low enough to run off on her like he seems to have..."
     "Did something happen-"
     Bowman changed the subject with a convenient distraction. "Rena, do you smell something?"
     "Something's burning," Claude agreed, sniffing the air gingerly.
     "Smells like..." Bowman frowned, "...something living."
     Opera was inclined to agree. "Stay sharp. "


     By the time they reached the room, the air literally stunk beyond belief. As Bowman so eloquently put it, something was either burning to death or else finally getting over a month-long period of constipation. Regardless, by the time they found what was causing the stench, it was a welcome thought that the smell was finally going to stop getting worse.

     "Ooh! Gross!" Rena pronounced, pinching her nose.
     "Most uncouth," Celine commented.
     "Not covered in university," was Bowman's pronouncement.
     Opera advanced closer to the two huge mountains of flesh in the middle of the cavern. Closer inspection revealed them to be reptiles of some sort, albeit five-ton versions of the species. Fairly standard sort, with the exception of larger-than-normal
hind legs. The feet looked to be a good match for the footprints that she'd seen earlier. The probable source of the stench, the monsters' hides were severely burnt and scorched in a manner than suggested the shooter was either drunk or scared out of their wits.
     "What is this?" Claude asked, observing next to her.
     "Ernest must have done this," she replied, recognizing the signs with ease. To say nothing of the crystalized lines of rock running along the walls and ceiling. "The blasts are from a Firefly."
     "AP-3 plasma launcher."
     Claude gave her an incredulous look. "He's... packing quite a piece. I thought it was totally outlawed..."
     "What are you two talking about?" Rena asked, approaching from behind them.
     Opera waved the question aside, noticing Claude freezing up again. Probably worried about the whole non-interference clause again. As though anyone else here would even know what a plasma launcher was in the first place. "Just determining the cause of death."
     Okay, maybe death hadn't quite occurred yet.
     "They're alive!" Claude rhetorically informed everybody, rapidly backpedaling.
     She was going hurt Ernest when she found him, Opera swore. "That idiot didn't kill them!"
     "Surround them!" Claude yelled, now brandishing the sword he had been wearing before. Without even waiting for a reply, he had lunged towards one of the lizards.
     The lizard closest to Opera had gotten to its feet. Even with the massive wounds, it still seemed more than eager for a fight. Probably some a sense of wounded pride on some instinctual level, she mused. She'd probably feel that way if someone had cut loose with a plasma launcher at her too.
     The reptile's mouth opened wide, a blast of flame exploding out towards her. Reflexes kicking in before conscious thought, Opera dove sideways, rolling as fast as her high heels and the bulky Kaleidoscope would let her. It didn't seem that this creature was going to be found in a zoo any time soon.
     By this time, the others had already begun to attack, Bowman and Celine concentrating on the first lizard, Claude and Rena concentrating on the other.
     Celine was touching her fingers together, flame beginning to appear before her. "FIREBALL!!!"
     Opera watched the ball of fire explode against the monster, leaving light burn marks on its skin. It had been a while since she'd run into someone who could use heraldry. She'd almost forgotten that her ship's computer had given the planet a 9 on the
Federation heraldry scale. Given that, she supposed that a heraldry user was to be expected.
     "A different flavor," Bowman yelled, punching the monster in the side of the head several times quickly. True to expectations, the monster barely noticed the blows, slashing out at Bowman with a clawed forearm. The man nimbly skipped backwards a few steps, staying just barely out of reach.
     "Resistant to fire," Celine murmured, already beginning to concentrate again.
     "Then it can try this on for size," Opera decided, noting that Bowman was finally out of her line of fire. Several pulses from the Kaleidoscope sang out, each blast leaving a deep burn in the reptile's skin.
     "Cute toy," Bowman acknowledged, the lizard now charging towards Opera.
     "That was 20%," she corrected, thumbing the power dial up to maximum. Whatever these lizards were, they weren't demons if they took damage that easily. "Try 100!!!"
     The sustained blast literally bowled the monster head-over-heels into the wall, dislodging several bricks from their mortar before finally lying motionless. A gaping, blackened hole in its side suggested that it wasn't about to get up any time soon. Not
without some serious organ transplants from a suitable donor, anyway.
     "One down."
     "Interesting," Celine commented, ceasing her concentration.
     Opera shrugged, starting towards the other lizard/suitable organ donor. "It gets the job done."
     Claude and Rena weren't having nearly as easy of a time, she noticed. Actually, Rena was simply staying well out of range, while Claude was hacking and slashing in a manner that she assumed was supposed to keep it at bay.
     "Claude's getting slow," Bowman chuckled, starting towards the monster.
     Celine nudged Opera as they followed behind at a slower rate. "I don't believe I've seen that manner of weapon before."
     "Probably not," Opera agreed, wondering if she was going to be able to get a clear line of fire with the two men attacking the creature.
     "One might almost presume it to be a Sword of Light..."
     "It's not," Opera muttered, halting in preparation to fire. Unfortunately, both Claude and Bowman were doing their best to get in her line of fire. At least Rena was staying back. "Beats me how you guys have survived so far."
     Celine frowned at the insult. "I'll thank you to remember that I'm an experienced treasure hunter in my own right."
     "With those little fireworks?"
     Celine bristled. "If you're keen for a demonstration, I'll be most happy to oblige you!"
     "Cut loose," Opera invited. No sense in her wasting the Kaleidoscope's energy if this woman felt like showing off. And it would make for a couple of good research notes later on. She'd never seen what a heraldry user could do on a planet that exceeded 9 on the heraldry scale. The best she'd ever seen was from a 7. It had been rather impressive, to say the least.
     A glow began to surround Celine's hands as she pointed her fingers towards the lizard.
     Opera took an involuntary step back from the display, not wanting to feel the victim's pain in a few moments.
     Claude and Bowman gaped, both diving out of the way of the onslaught.
     Razor-thin blades of energy lashed out from Celine's hands, crossing the distance in a blink of an eye and raking the entire length of the beast for good measure. For a moment, nothing appeared to happen. Then the entire side of the creature seemed to implode, the skin and bones rippling, then cracking inwards. The lizard screeched in pain, its limbs giving out immediately.
     "Gravity well?" Opera inquired in surprise. A MXR-100 cannon was capable of generating energy threads with the equivalent force of 1/100th of a micro black-hole, but it weighed several thousand pounds and required several million watts to fire properly. And this woman had just put her hands together and done the exact same thing...
     Celine shrugged, content to watch Claude and Bowman slash and pummel the disabled creature to death. "Vacuum-based heraldry. No need to be wasteful, hmm?"
     Translation: 'I could have used something even more powerful, but these things weren't worth the effort. So enjoy eating your humble pie.'
     Opera frowned, not being especially fond of that particular dish. "So... what you doing hanging around with this bunch?"
     Celine scowled, obviously expecting a much bigger serving to have been eaten. "They have their own talents. And for your information, I am a treasure-hunter. This is merely another treasure hunt. I shall be most disappointed if this little side-trip does not yield something of considerable value."
     "Hey, don't look at me. If anything's left here, you're welcome to it."
     "Anything left..." Celine turned towards Opera angrily. "Meaning that your boyfriend has already looted this entire place?!?" Translation: 'You tricked me!!!'
     It was Opera's turn to shrug indifferently. "I don't know. He's an archaeologist, not a treasure hunter." Translation: 'Therefore, he's got more class than the likes of you.'
     "You two alright?" Bowman inquired cheerfully, heading towards them. Claude and Rena behind him.
     "Perfectly alright, Bowman-dear," Celine acknowledged with a smile. "We thought that we'd let you finish off the demon yourself."
     "Those weren't demons," Opera interjected.
     Celine straightened even more. "Begging your pardon, but those most certainly were demons."
     Opera held up her weapon pointedly. "This is a Heraldic field cannon. It worked on the lizards. Heraldry doesn't work on demons. Therefore those lizards weren't demons."
     "A common belief among the simple and uneducated," Celine agreed, putting extra emphasis on certain words. "There are many different strains of demons. You're merely referring to one of those strains. A very rare one, I might add."
     That would explain a few things, actually. Such as the fact that they'd survived down in the caves so long without food or water. And the part about spitting fire. "Yeah, well, I just finished killing one a few days ago in Salva. So they're not that rare."
     "In Salva?!?" Rena exclaimed.
     "Yeah. Some two-headed dragon demon in the mines. But it's dead now."
     "You killed it?" Claude inquired, obviously in disapproval. He probably thought it violated his Federation's stupid underdevelopment treaty.
     "Hey, I needed some local currency. And they were offering 30000 gil as a reward. So I went and killed it. You got a problem with that?"
     Celine stared at her. "Thirty... thousand... gil?"
     Opera feigned indifference. "Well... it was no big deal. You do what you have to do for a little money, hmm?"
     Bowman placed himself between the two. "As much as I'd love to listen to you two banter some more, maybe we ought to keep searching? We do have to be back in Hilton in a few days. And we still haven't checked out this place in full, have we?"
     "Quite right," Celine agreed with a smile, now ignoring Opera. "Let us see if this little jaunt will reveal anything of worth yet."
     "Rena?" Claude inquired. "We should probably go now."
     The girl was looking back at the two cooling reptile corpses. "I guess these monsters have lived here a long time."
     He approached her. "You're probably right."
     "I'm sorry," Rena whispered. "You were just trying to protect your home..."
     "They were trying to eat us," Opera pointed out logically. "You can't go around feeling sorry for every single thing, you know."
     "Oh, Rena-darling certainly tries," Celine muttered quietly to Bowman.
     Her logical explanation didn't seem to sit well with the girl. "That's... harsh."
     Opera shrugged. "Needless compassion and sympathy will only slit your own throat."
     Another hurt look. "You're... pretty tough."
     "I wouldn't have made it this far otherwise."
     "Very modest, too," Celine commented.
     Claude intervened. "Maybe... we should keep searching. Ernest might still here, right?"
     "That's right," Opera agreed, starting towards the room's exit. Under her breath, "The idiot had better be."


     "So where are you from?" Bowman was asking Opera.
     "It's a place really far away called Tetragenes."
     "Obviously. So it's normal to have three eyes in Tetragenes?"
     "That's right," she agreed idly, carefully scanning the corridor as they advanced down it. As far as the group was concerned, she was beginning to notice some subtle differences between the four.
     Claude seemed the closest thing they had to a leader. Although this may have simply been on account of no one else really caring either way. Regardless, he seemed determined to lead the group, warranting a few glares when he had inadvertently starting walking in front of her (and in her line of fire). Stupid Federation rookies.
     Rena seemed to be sticking close to Claude most of the time; presumably Claude was regarded as a talented fighter. The girl certainly seemed to think so. Although she might just be deluded on account of a mild crush on him.
     Bowman apparently didn't have a care of the world, or at least none that warranted him taking his hands out of his pockets. He kept pace with the group, occasionally looking at anomalies with a detached sort of interest. Every now and then, he would
comment on something to Celine, who would briefly answer, then continue her own inspection of everything.
     It had taken some time before Opera had realized that Celine's inspection wasn't due to fascination. It was being done with an air that suggested routine analysis. And she never walked on the unlit portions of the floor. And that magic... It was entirely possible that she was the one person in this group with some competence in exploration.
     Opera noticed Claude elbowing her a moment later. "What's your problem?"
     Claude made a face, beckoning her closer. "You can't go around saying things like that!"
     "Why not?" she hissed in return. "Afraid that he's going to walk to Tetragenes or something?"
     "That's not the point!"
     "Then what is the point?"
     "It's against the Underdeveloped Planet Protection Treaty! You're interfering with this planet's development!"
     "I'm going to interfere with your development if you don't shut up about your stupid Fed rules! I'm a Tetragene, so I'm not part of the Federation. Therefore you and your Useless Piece of Political Trash can kiss my ass, got it?"
     "Are you sure you two don't know each other?" Bowman inquired, unable to keep from chuckling at their exchange. If he hadn't heard their words, their expressions were more than enough to understand the nature of the exchange.
     "Positive," Opera growled, pointedly ignoring Claude again.
     "So when did you two meet?" Celine inquired.
     "Same time I met the rest of you."
     "I see." Translation: 'And I have an asteroid belt to sell you'.
     Anything Opera would have said in reply was cut short as she noticed something on the ground. Giving the path ahead a quick precautionary glance, she bent down and picked the object up.
     "What's that?" Rena wanted to know.
     "A cigarette?" Claude guessed.
     "Del Amiera Lite," Opera agreed, recognizing Ernest's favorite brand. All the flavor, none of the choking and wheezing. A healthy man's smoke, the advertisements claimed. Considering their price, they were also a rich man's smoke. Only three- quarters finished, Opera noted in curiosity. It was bad enough that Ernest seemed to have picked up smoking again, but he wasn't even finishing his cigarettes. Maybe he was feeling guilty for starting up again.
     "It's still burning," Bowman commented.
     Cigarette technology had come a long way, Opera reflected. "One of these sticks is usually good for a day and a half."
     "So he was here within the last day?"
     "Well, he lit the cigarette up within the last day."
     "Your boyfriend seems to have messed up the walls a little," Bowman observed, inspecting the one side.
     He was right. More plasma scouring was evident on the walls, along with some fine black dust on the ground. Ernest 'Overkill' Raviede had struck again, once again defacing a section of ruins. "He has got to be drunk," she muttered. It was a good thing that the walls didn't have any writing on then. When they finally published their findings on this planet, their profit margin was going to suffer enough from this type of damage as it was.
     Celine examined the walls closely, unable to keep amazement from showing on her face. "This rock was... melted, I do believe."
     Opera smirked. "A few stages beyond melted. Try 'melted, evaporated, ionized, then fused'."
     "And what exactly transpired to cause that?"
     Noticing Claude's warning expression, Opera settled for a vague explanation. "He's using a weapon that I lent him a while back."
     Celine shook her head in disbelief. "And you believe that he's in danger?!"
     "Hell yes! Look at his aim! At this rate, he'll bring a roof down on himself! Or blow his own head off first!"
     "Then why is he using such a weapon in the first place?"
     "Because he's an idiot."
     "Here's another cigarette," Rena called out, studying the floor a short distance ahead.
     "He's also a heavy smoker," Bowman observed.
     "Not for a few years. Figures he'd start up when I wasn't around."
     "Men," was all Celine said in reply.
     Opera frowned as she met up with Rena, accepting the cigarette. It was lit, but still burning. It was a little less burnt than the first, and the filter seemed to have been bitten off. This had been lit up within the past day, she guessed. Although the higher oxygen content of this planet might be rendering her calculations useless in the first place. Just ahead, more sections of the walls had also received a plasma-based redecoration treatment.
     "He's certainly putting his weapon to use," Claude observed in disbelief. "Is he even trained to use it?"
     "Any Tetragene knows how to use a gun," was Opera's reply. On account of her interest/obsession over firearms, she was a crack-shot. But that being said, Ernest wasn't a half bad marksman himself, especially after she'd given him some lessons. The chaos she'd been seeing so far was wrong on more counts than she cared to think. Unless he was...
     "Scared," she breathed.
     "Who?" Bowman asked. "The monsters down here?"
     "No, Ernest is." Everything suddenly made complete sense. The dropped cigarettes, the terrible marksmanship, the choice of weapon... Ernest was scared. "He's scared shitless."
     "Then why doesn't he turn back?" Claude wanted to know.
     Excellent question. Why didn't Ernest turn back? What was here that he was so desperate to find? Why couldn't he afford to turn around, go back to Tetragenes, and get her? Pride? Perhaps, but Ernest wasn't that irrational. He was as arrogant as the next Tetragene, but it tended to be more of an academic arrogance. Was there something incredibly valuable here? If so, it had spent countless years here already; would a few more days have made any difference?
     Even as she thumbed a switch on the Kaleidoscope, the weapon immediately powered itself up to 100%, a quiet hum promising that anything in its way when the trigger was pulled was going to be in a world of pain.
     Unlike the others, Claude understood exactly what she'd just done. "Uh, Opera..."
     She shouldered past him. "Come on," she growled, starting down the passageway again.


     Half an hour later, several dead ends, several more half-used cigarettes, countless defaced walls, and a lot of walking, found the group still without results. To say that a certain individual were getting agitated would have been an understatement.
     Celine nudged Opera, interrupting her mantra for a moment. "I thought this Ernest was your boyfriend?"
     "What about it?" she demanded, her eyes not straying from the pathway.
     "Perhaps customs are different where you come from, but around here, boyfriends are usually referred to in more... affectionate terms."
     "Are you a new couple?"
     "Sure. Something like that."
     Celine shrugged, absent-mindedly tossing a jewel in the air. They had located the stone in one dead-end. A small spell on her part had identified it as a high quality diamond. Whatever the case, her mood had lightened considerably since finding it. "This seems like quite a bit of trouble for a new boyfriend, you know. And whatever manner of weapon he's employing... I wonder whether he's in as much danger as you seem to think. You seem quite certain that he needs your protection."
     "Your point?"
     "It sounds to me like your boyfriend has things quite in hand. I almost pity the creatures that he's been running into so far. I would venture that he has less need of you than you think."
     "Celine..." Bowman began.
     "You don't know what you're talking about," Opera growled.
     The woman shrugged again. "Perhaps, perhaps not. All I'm saying is that you should be careful about how you judge a man. There are some absolutely wonderful men out there, just like Bowman-darling. But there are others who much less considerate. To them, you're just a tool or a means to obtain something, nothing more-"
     "As flattered as I am," Bowman interrupted, "I don't think we should be jumping to conclusions. We've never met this Ernest, so perhaps we should hold off on our judgement until then."
     Celine was non-committal in reply. "Perhaps."


     "I don't suppose any one here is trained in linguistics?"
     Opera could feel several pairs of eyes focused on her as she studied the stone. Apparently none of them were. Another dead end room, but it was the first to contain engraving. Cut into a greenish-hued monolith, the writing was remarkably well-
preserved, if the general aging on the rest of the ruins was any indication.
     "I ought to drag Keith down here sometime," Bowman was musing.
     "It's not like anything I've ever seen," Celine offered. "And I've seen a considerable number of written languages."
     "Advanced," was Opera's pronouncement after a few moments.
     "You know it?" Claude asked in surprise.
     "No, but I can only count about twenty different characters. Which means that it's using an efficient alphabet, not hieroglyphs or picture images. The cutting was either done by a damn good stone-cutter, or else by a machine."
     Bowman nodded in agreement. "I didn't realize that you could tell all that just by looking at the stone."
     Once upon a time, she hadn't either, Opera reflected. "When you hang around with an archaeologist for more than a few years, you pick up a few tricks. Ernest would probably just read this language like any other."
     "A few years?" Celine pointed out, hanging on the first point. "I thought you said that you and him were only recently an item?"
     Opera gave her a look than would have melted stone. "It's complicated, okay?"
     "Now, now," Bowman soothed, before Celine could say anything in reply. "There doesn't seem to be anything else in this room, so why don't we check out that last fork and see what turns up?"
     Only one pathway left to explore, Opera mused. And still no sign of Ernest...
     "That must be where Ernest is," Rena decided, starting towards the door again.
     Opera decided to keep her pessimism in check for the time being. If a complete stranger could believe Ernest was still here, she should at least do so herself. "Right."


     Some bookshelves framing the doorway  were the first thing to suggest something significant about the approaching room.
     "Books," Celine observed rhetorically.
     Claude reached out to grab one, only to have her slap it away lightly. He looked at her in bewilderment.
     "Leave the treasure hunting to the treasure hunter?" Celine reprimanded, giving him a thin smile. "These books are extremely old, I imagine. Quite fragile in inexperienced hands, hmm?"
     Opera nodded in approval, carefully inspecting the books herself. "You see any finger prints on the books?"
     "A few. Someone was clearly this way at some point recently."
     "Ernest must be inside," Rena decided, entering the room without hesitation.
     "Don't get to far ahead," Bowman warned, quickly following after her.
     The others followed afterwards. Inside the room, Rena exclamation of surprise could be heard, followed by Bowman's voice. "Don't touch anything. It's some sort of laboratory. This stuff could be dangerous."
     Opera followed Celine through the doorway, already noting the distinct absence of any exiting door. And Ernest. And they'd gone through every other passageway in these ruins. Therefore Ernest wasn't here anymore...
     She pushed those thoughts from her mind for the time being. A laboratory, Bowman had said. Judging from the assortment of beakers and test tubes set up, he was right. "What exactly is this place?"
     "A pretty elaborate hide-away for a king," Bowman offered, looking everything over with what appeared to be a practiced eye.
     "It does look like it was built here for a purpose," Claude cautiously agreed.
     It was hard to imagine what they would do without Claude's brilliant and insightful observations, Opera reflected disgustedly. "Well, it doesn't look like a place where a King lived."
     Claude must have been telepathic, since he didn't offer any further observations.
     "As you say," Celine agreed. "There are extensive facilities for alchemy present here. Very high quality equipment, if I do say so myself. I imagine that some exceptional elements could be synthesized here with the proper talent. This certainly warrants further investigation."
     "It doesn't look like Ernest is here," Rena observed sadly.
     Opera frowned, but couldn't very well deny the facts. Her one lead had come to naught. Ernest had been here, trashed things, and left again. And she had absolutely no clue as to where he'd gone. The idiot.
     Bowman was whispering something to Claude behind her, although she couldn't make out the exact words.
     "Incredible!" Celine was exclaiming, holding a bar of metal in her hands. "I do believe this is Rune Stone! And in such large quantity! Absolutely priceless!"
     Well, somebody was happy after this whole trip, at any rate.
     Claude tapped her shoulder from behind. "Hey, Opera?"
     She turned to face him. "What is it?"
     "Why don't you come with us?"
     "How come?"
     Claude swallowed, not meeting her gaze. "Well, this Ernest is an archaeologist, right? So he'd be checking out ruins, right?"
     No kidding. "That is why he came here."
     "That's right!" Rena agreed happily. "Maybe he'll be at the Hoffman Ruins!"
     Hoffman Ruins? The name meant nothing, but the word ‘ruins' certainly did.
     "We're headed there right now," Claude clarified. "The ship back in Hilton is going to be leaving for the ruins really soon."
     "We may well have missed the ship," Celine further clarified, although she seemed more interested in her bar of precious metal than any schedules.
     Well, she didn't have any other leads to follow at the moment. And if a ship was necessary to get to these ruins, she might as well hitch a ride with some other people who planned on exploring them. Although Ernest would probably be gone by the time
they arrived. Assuming he didn't get himself killed first on account of his idiocy.
     But did she have any better ideas?
     "We'll help you search for Ernest," Rena offered. "If we all search together, I think we can find him faster."
     No, she didn't have any better ideas. And if Rena could still be optimistic about this all, despite having never met Ernest in her life...
     Opera nodded slowly. "Thank-you."
     Bowman was standing in the doorway now. "We should get back to Hilton. Hopefully the ship hasn't left yet."
     Opera followed after him. It seemed that the hunt for Ernest was far from over. But at least she wasn't shooting in the dark. Perhaps these ruins would take some time for him to explore properly. Time enough for her to catch up to him, perhaps.
     She sighed, allowing her feet to walk automatically. Was there anything behind Ernest's behavior? Why was Ernest so determined to do this without her? Was Celine right to suggest that he didn't need her around?
     But that was ridiculous. Surely his performance in these ruins would make him realize how much he needed her to keep him from getting killed. Even if he was still alive, she didn't destroy the ruins they were trying to explore in the process of
protecting them.. Surely that would register with him. That said, what if he had another reason for leaving her behind?
     What if he didn't want her around anymore?


Go To Chapter 8

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