The Huntress Chapter 9

By Intrasonic

     o/ I can learn to resist...
     Anything but temptation...
     I can learn to co-exist...
     With anything but pain... o/

     "...I can learn... hmm?"
     Celine pointed at the device in Opera's hands. "What exactly  is that?"
     Opera looked down at her headpiece. "Oh this... I guess you could say that this is one of my tools."
     "What exactly does it do? It's rather bulky and elaborate to merely be a hairpiece."
     Claude was still on her case about all that Underdeveloped Planet garbage, she reflected disgustedly. "Well, it's broken right now, from when I crashed here. But I might be able to fix it, which would be really handy."
     "I see. Would you be able to explain what exactly it does?"
     On the other hand, she wasn't going to rub dirt in Celine's face on account of some treaty she didn't consider worth the paper used to write it on. "Well... it's complicated, to be honest. Basically, it lets me see more than I normally can. Especially dangerous things. If I can fix it, it'd be much easier to just show it to you."
     The other woman nodded understandingly. "Tools of your trade, in other words. Not
unlike your 'Kaleidoscope', hmm?"
     "You could say that, yeah. Unless you'd understand me when I say that I'm trying to see if the power diodes leading to the optical fibres have been fractured."
     Celine shook her head. "Point. I think I'll leave it at that until you manage to fix it."
     The two were silent after that, Celine resuming her soaking up the sun's rays, with Opera doing likewise while continuing to inspect the internals of her headpiece.
     So far, she couldn't quite figure out why it wasn't working, since the casing seemed intact. The FET chips inside didn't look cracked, and they were military grade, which should have rendered their internals immune to any impact short of a thermonuclear detonation. So it was probably something more blatant/annoying. When she got home, she'd have to write a letter to the company and let them know about this poor field performance. And demand a replacement. Good equipment shouldn't have any trouble withstanding an emergency spaceship crash-landing...

     o/ I can learn to resist...
     Anything but frustration...
     I can learn to persist...
     With anything but aiming low... o/

     "Despite your name, I hadn't thought that you actually were musically inclined."
     "Ah... not really. Not anymore. I took lessons when I was younger."
     Celine raised an eyebrow. "Your voice certainly sounds like it. But to be frank, it almost seems... at odds with your personality."
     Opera offered a lopsided grin in reply. "No kidding, huh? I don't really sing any more. Just when I'm concentrating really hard."
     "I see. I hadn't meant to interrupt you..."
     "I didn't mean it that way. It's just an old habit I picked up when I was young. I never really liked complete silence."
     "So... you did not enjoy singing?"
     One of Opera's eyes swivelled to look at Celine, but only saw a curious expression. "I didn't say that. I just didn't want to do it for the rest of my life."
     "You're not a person to do things halfway, are you?"
     "I'm a Tetragene."
     Celine laughed quietly. "I do hope that you'll forgive me for being ignorant on what exactly being a Tetragene entails."
     Opera had to laugh at that too. "Point. Basically, Tetragenes are obsessive. It's just the way we are. We take one thing and just... obsess on it, I guess. My father is one of the most powerful individuals back home, just because he enjoys politics so much. My mother is a renowned chef. My great-uncle is a martial-arts guru. One of my best friends is already on her way to being a Famous painter. Ernest is highly recognized in the areas of Archaeology, History, Anthropology, all that sort of stuff. Me, I'm big into ranged weaponry, and I've already got a reputation as a weapons expert. Just about everything that I know is somehow related to weaponry."
     "I thought that you were an explorer."
     "Well, sure, but that's just extra. That's where I get to test out all my weapons in real life. Any idiot can nuke a country into a pile of dust, but you have to be damn good to be able to walk through a set of ruins, keep from getting killed, and not damage anything in the process. It takes a heck of a lot of skill and knowledge, and that's exactly what I've got."
     "To say nothing of your modesty."
     "Might as well get used to it. Tetragenes are arrogant, too. Just wait until you meet Ernest. He's even worse than I am. And besides, you're one to talk."
    "I beg to differ, Opera-darling. For one such as myself, no degree of arrogance could possibly do me adequate justice."
     "Uh huh. Better watch it. I'd hate to see your head get so big you couldn't fit through the door."
     Celine resumed allowing the sun to worship her. "Unthinkable. Simply unthinkable. To believe that my immaculately divine looks could possibly be marred in such a way."
     Opera laughed quietly, returning to her inspection of the headpiece's internals. Not that she had any doubt that she was more than this planet's equal without the piece of equipment, but only an idiot would throw away such a potential advantage. And the last time she'd decided to ignore a potential problem, her spaceship had run out of fuel.
     Besides, for all she knew, the only thing wrong with the unit was a few cracked solder joints or broken wires. And that was something she might even be able to fix on this backwater planet...

     o/ You can fight...
     Without ever winning...
     But never ever win...
     Win without a fight... o/


     The sea was a gorgeous sight to behold at any time of the day, but at sunset, it could literally be transformed into a masterpiece. The way the sun's dying rays would reflect and refract through the waves; the way the bow of the boat would skim through the waves, seemingly without effort; the feel of the calming breeze as it half-heartedly tousled stray strands of hair-
     Claude started, almost going over the edge of the boat's railing and appreciating the ocean in an entirely new manner before finally realizing who had snuck up behind him. "Do you mind?"
     Opera smirked. "You're too paranoid. Besides, what's the difference? Who cares if they hear that you're from the military? You afraid they'll write a bad letter to your commanding officer?"
     "It violates the Underdeveloped-"
     "-Planetary Protection Treaty," she finished impatiently. "I know, I know. I can't believe you follow that garbage so literally. It's just a bunch of paperwork, you know. Just don't let anybody see your weapon, and nothing bad will happen, right?"
     "It's not like you've been doing that."
     She patted the Kaleidoscope lovingly. "This is just a Heraldic weapon. No big deal around here, right? By the way, if your weapon is out of energy, why don't you let me have it?"
     Claude recoiled slightly. "I couldn't do that! It's Federation property!"
     "Hey, aren't we a team right now? What good is it to you, anyway? And where are you going find a charge pack around here?"
     "That's not the point."
     "I'm the one person around here who you can trust, buddy. Heck, Tetragene technology kicks your Fed stuff any day. If I even believed that UPPT garbage of yours, I'd be giving you the silent treatment."
     "We're both from space-faring races," Claude pointed out. "Here, they don't even
understand the idea of a solar-system. There's a huge difference."
     "Give me the weapon. I might be able to use it."
     "We're not going to use energy weapons around here!"
     Opera rolled her eyes. "I never said I was going to fire it. I said that I might be able to use it. There's a big difference. And I doubt your weapon does anything my Kaleidoscope can't do better. Way better."
     The second point was hard to argue. As for the first... "What do you mean?"
     Opera pointed towards her sensor unit. "Ever seen one of these before? OmniTrax
Type 7 sensor goggles."
     Claude looked a little stunned. Apparently, he had. "Those are... expensive."
     "Damn right they are. I managed to bargain the seller down to seventy-five thousand credits. And it was worth every bit. But it broke in the crash."
     "So, I might be able to salvage some parts off your gun to fix it. Some wires short-circuited, which blew out a few diodes before melting a couple solder connections, that's all. Nothing too major."
     Claude looked suspicious. "You can actually repair one of those?"
     "Unlike you UFP slackers, we learn useful things on Tetragenes. So give me the gun and let me see if I can use it for parts. If we're exploring some ruins, this thing'll be priceless. Even you have to admit that."
     "We were just fine at the Mountain Palace."
     "That was on the Cross continent. Even I've been able to pick up that the real trouble's on the
Lacour continent. Besides, it's not a weapon or anything. It's just a kick-ass sensor unit that'll help keep anyone from getting killed. What's wrong with that?"
     Claude frowned.
     Opera played her last card. "We're not all... trained, you know. Celine can take care of herself, and Bowman's careful. But Rena's seems a little... inexperienced with this sort of stuff, don't you think? Be a real shame if she got hurt just because we didn't have enough warning beforehand..."
     Claude made a face at that, clearly aware that she was deliberately pushing a few of his hot buttons. But logic with less than pure motives was still logic... "Promise that you're not going to use it for a weapon?"
     "I've got a better one, don't I? And there's no way you're ever going to be able to recharge it while you're here. So give it up for the cause. And this way, you won't have to worry about any of the others catching you with it, right? Win-win all the way."
     "Well... I guess so. But don't let them know about it, alright?"
     "You're secret's safe with me," Opera assured him, accepting the weapon. And it
wasn't as though she was going to let anyone, even Claude, know that she was also packing an AP-5 in her bag as well. She glanced at the weapon for a moment. "Hey."
     "What the hell is this?"
     "This is the weapon. My weapon. You wanted to use it for parts, remember?"
     Opera's face looked like she'd just bit into a lemon. "This is a  XRT-054 hand blaster. THIS is a complete and utter piece of garbage!"
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     "Exactly what I said! This is the UFP's idea of arming you? I wouldn't wish this kind of a weapon on a tribble! You must be one hell of an expendable officer! Either that, or you really made a superior officer mad."
     Claude turned red. "I'll have you know that I took honours at the academy! And I don't get into trouble!"
     "Whatever. You know what we call these things? Rookie Rifles. They have the power of a pea-shooter, they have a energy pack that was probably borrowed off a flashlight, and they have less range than a cheap slingshot. The UFP gives them to rookies who'd probably shoot their own foot off if they were given anything more powerful!!!"
     Claude's face turned redder. "I don't believe that."
     "I'm obsessive about ranged-weapons, buddy. I've got a platinum membership to the IRWO. I've had weapon companies beg me to try out and vouch for their latest developments. I play with weapons that your UFP won't even let within sensor range of its borders."
     Opera smirked at him. "And you think you know better than me? So... how bad do you suck to have them give you one of these?"
     Claude was possibly wishing that the ground would swallow him up, but he valiantly held his ground. "I'll have you know that I just finishing taking second place in the Lacour Tournament of Arms."
     Opera shrugged, heading back towards her room. "Big deal. I just finished killing a
two-headed demon dragon. Any of those at the tournament? Face it, Fed-boy, this planet is so backwater and peaceful that even a Fed-rookie looks tough. That's why they're having so much trouble with this demon business recently. The only thing making you look like hot-shit right now is a little UFP Security training plus a gravity constant of under 9 metres per second squared."


     "Steady... steady..."
     Celine watched blankly as Opera used a borrowed pair of kitchen tongs to carefully lower a red-hot bar of metal into her headpiece's internals. She might have asked for some details, but the look of concentration on the second woman's face recommended against it for the time being.
     Opera's other hand was presently holding a strand of metal up to the red-hot bar, and
holding both against a specific item in the device. Very strange, in her opinion.
     Opera withdrew the bar, no longer glowing, and held it up to Celine. "Heat this up again, will you?"
     The sorceress nodded, cupping her hands around the bar and directing a blast of flame into it until it was an orange-white hue again. "Any hotter and I daresay that you could pour it. Do be careful."
     Opera held the bar inside the device's internals again. After several seconds... "Sweet."
     Celine finally ventured a question. "Did things go to your liking?"
     Opera shrugged, setting aside the metal, while resting the still-hot bar on an improvised stand. "I'm not sure yet. It needs to be powered up, which is going to take a few hours. And then we're going to find out for sure. Thanks for the help, though."
     "I only wish I understood a fraction of what you were undertaking there," Celine admitted. "My expertise lies in Heraldry, not... mechanical things like you."
     "Well, I don't really know anything about heraldry, so we're even there."
     "Yet you walk around with a heraldic weapon?"
     Opera shrugged. "Only the power source is heraldic, actually. Once the heraldic energy's been converted into conventional energy, I understand the weapon perfectly. I keep meaning to do some in-depth studies on heraldic weaponry, but I never have the time."
     Withdrawing a plug from the side of the (hopefully) repaired headset, Opera inserted the free end into a jack on the side of her ever-present Kaleidoscope. A 9.6-volt output jack. One little feature on the weapon that she'd never expected to find so useful, since she'd always been careful enough to use equipment that didn't (normally) need an external power source. Her headpiece would have done much better on a Tetragene standard 10-volt source, but it would still be able to charge itself up to a functional level in a few hours.
     "That's about all I can hope to do for this headpiece with what I've got here, but it should do the trick. It's a good thing that silver's so common around here."
     "Had you expected it to be rare?"
     Opera shrugged. Precious metals weren't as expensive as they once had been, but matter replication still required a fantastic amount of energy to make elements higher up on the periodic table. While she had her doubts that Expel used anything of the sort, it did seem to be a rather mineral-rich planet. And she still had money in abundance to buy it with. "I'm not complaining."
     A knock on the door interrupted them.
     Opera opened the door to reveal Claude standing in the doorway. "What's up?"
     "I just wanted to let you two know that we're coming into Hilton's port now. It looks like the military boat hasn't left yet."
     That was good news, Opera decided. It meant that her ride to the Hoffman ruins was still waiting. "Tell me again why you guys are going there?"
     "We're babysitting," Celine supplied, "for lack of a more generous term."
     "We're acting as bodyguards for the son of Lacour's chief researchers," Claude offered, his tone of voice suggesting that he possibly agreed with Celine's version more than his own.
     "So how'd you guys get the job?"
     "Lacour's soldiers are all busy fighting the demons, so there was only us available."
     "And," Celine added, "Claude-dearie put on such a marvellous performance at the Lacour Arms Tournament, that his Majesty himself recognized his face."
     Opera was distinctly under-whelmed. "Oh. I see."
     Claude's face flushed red, no doubt still remembering Opera's earlier comments. "Well-"
     "Well, I'm sure that we'll be just fine," she interrupted. "After all, we have Claude to protect us, right? It must not be too dangerous if they didn't bother hiring the first-place guy."
     Claude predictably wilted as Opera shouldered past him to leave the room.
     Celine smiled at Claude, wrapping an arm around him. "Don't look that way, Claude-dearie. You're so much cuter when you smile. And that man, Dias, did compliment you, did he not?"
     He swallowed, a sure sign that Celine had hit the mark right on the spot. "I... uh, it's nothing."
     "Exactly. So don't let her get you down too much. Haven't I been gracing you with my presence for a much longer time?"
     "Well... yes..."
     She nodded approvingly. "Of course I have. And if I happen to think that you've been a brave and talented fighter thus far, is my little opinion worthless?"
     He shook his head. "N-no! It's just that..."
     "Just what, Claude-dear?"
     Claude sighed, looking away. "It's nothing."
     Celine tsk'd her disapproval. "Then why do you look so depressed? Heroes simply cannot look cute when they're frowning, hmm? And if you don't look cute, what other young, single man shall we beautiful women turn to?"
     Claude managed a weak laugh. "Of course."
     Celine caught the expression on his face. "Really, don't let Opera-darling get you down. She's simply under the weather lately. You'd be worried if little Rena was missing and in danger, wouldn't you?"
     "And you'd do everything in your power to rescue your girlfriend, would you not?"
     "Yes... hey! She's not my girlfriend!"
     Celine laughed, pinching his cheek. "I can tell that you're feeling better all ready. Why don't you go invite Bowman to meet us all up on the deck?"
     "What about Rena?"
     Celine put on a look of exaggerated shock. "You mean to tell me that she wasn't the first person you were able to find?"
     Claude's face reddened again as Celine left with a smile on her face.


     By the time the loading ramp to the ferry had made contact with the dock, the ship they were to take was blatantly obvious. Being forced to choose between a handful of ratty fishing trawlers, a few old barges, a sailboat with patchwork sails, and a two hundred-foot long, metal-clad, three-masted man-of-war with a whole train of supplies being slowly loaded onto it...
     "They're still loading it up," Bowman observed, starting down the ramp first. "Nice to know they weren't waiting on us."
     "That's good," Rena agreed. "I would hate to make them wait for us."
     "This is military we're talking about," Opera pointed out. "They don't get anything done on time."
     That evoked a chuckle from Bowman. "Oh? It's like that where you come from too?"
     "Universal constant, I bet. Right Claude?"
     Claude scowled in reply. "We don't even know everything that they need to do to prepare for this trip. They've probably been busy since we originally left."
     "You actually believe that, don't you? You're so naive."
     Claude's retort was cut off as someone approached the group.
     "Where have all of you been!?!"
     Opera glanced at the angry individual, then back at the group. Blue hair, white lab coat, really weird cat-like ears, angry expression. Oh yes, and only about four and a half feet tall. In short, a strange-looking kid. She was missing something, she was certain.
     "Hi Leon!" Rena greeted.
     "We're going to be leaving within the hour!" he snapped.
 Apparently the anomaly's name was Leon, Opera registered.
 "Where were you all?"
     "We're sorry to have worried you," Claude attempted by way of placation. "But we're ready to go now."
     "They almost made us delay the trip!" the kid snapped disgustedly.
     "But we're here, we're good to go," Bowman stressed, "so no delays are going to happen, right? A happy ending, so let's not get worked up over nothing."
     "That's not the point!"
     Opera's could feel her patience slipping somewhat. "Hey."
     Leon fixed an analytical eye on her. "Who is she?"
     "Name's Opera."
     The kid did an excellent job of hiding his spell-struck awe and wonder. "I didn't ask you, peasant. And you weren't with them before."
     Opera managed to put two and two together. They were coming along to guard the son of some researchers. And there was a kid in front of them who seemed to know the rest of the group. Therefore... "So you're the little brat that we're babysitting," she concluded.
     Behind her, Claude groaned and held his head in his hands.
     Leon drew himself up, glaring at her angrily. "I am not a brat! My name is Leon D.S. Geeste, and a common peasant like you has no right addressing me such!"
     Opera met his glare, plus an extra eye. "Well, my name is Opera Vectra, and I'll address you however I want, you obnoxious little stain-on-the-rug. And if you give me any trouble, I'm going to tie you up with a rope and let the ship drag you the entire trip. What do you say to that?"


     "I had no idea you loved kids so much, Opera-darling."
     "Don't you start," Opera warned, taking a long sip from her drink. Apparently hard liquor was one of the things the military had felt important enough to bring along. "I don't know what makes kids like him exist, but it should be banned. I still say we should just lock the kid up in his room and do the job ourselves. I don't see why he has to be along in the first place."
     Bowman set down his drink. "I know that Leon can be a bit of a pest, but he's apparently been to these ruins before. And underneath all that annoyance, he's a downright brilliant kid."
     "You'd better believe it. I worked for a short while in the research department at Lacour, before settling down in Linga. His parents are still the head of the department, and we keep in touch occasionally. And the last I heard, that kid was putting even them to shame. They can't even begin to explain it, but he sucks up information like a vacuum. And puts all that information to new uses. It's him that managed to come up with working designs for the crucial parts of the Lacour Hope, actually."
     "Lacour Hope?"
     Bowman nodded. "I guess you wouldn't know about it. It's a massive heraldic weapon being developed right now by Lacour. And according to our favourite little kid genius, it's capable of blowing away an island in one shot. And they've almost finished it."
     "So why is that kid coming with us on this trip? Doesn't he have some designing to do still?" The second question had a considerable amount of hope behind it.
     "Actually, the whole point of this trip to obtain some sort of energy stone that will allow the construction to finish." Bowman shrugged. "I'm afraid that my heraldic knowledge ends about there."
     Celine cleared her throat, continuing the explanation. "That is essentially the case. The amount of power that the weapon requires can't be channelled using conventional heraldic seals and metals, but I understand that this mysterious 'Energy stone' will be up to the task. Most fascinating, really. While the child is irritating, he is quite knowledgeable about heraldry, from what I've seen thus far."
     "Hmph. Then he can go theorize all he wants. As long as he stays out of my sight."
     "Don't you think you're being a little harsh?" Bowman inquired. "To be honest, I think he's the first person I've seen so far that hasn't immediately wondered about you having three eyes. Give him credit for that."
     "There's nothing strange about having three eyes," Opera insisted. "Now if you want
strange, what about those ears of his? Completely different mounting points. That's strange."
     "You know, I'd hate to think that I was looking at a hypocrite."
     "I'm not being a hypocrite. It's perfectly normal to have three eyes. You're probably all just missing one. But those ears of his would probably require a completely restructured brain to accommodate them properly. And he's the first around here that I've seen like that. What gives?"
     Both shrugged.
     "I'm afraid that I haven't the foggiest," Celine admitted.
     "Maybe you should ask him some time," Bowman suggested. "From what I've seen so far, if there's anything that Leon hates, it's being forced to admit that he doesn't understand something. Speaking of which..."
     Both women turned to face in the direction that his finger was pointing. In the doorway, the aforementioned Leon was looking at them carefully. More specifically, he was directing his gaze towards...
     "What's your problem, kid?" Opera demanded.
     His face darkened at the title, but he seemed to have other issues at the moment. "That device," he stated, pointing at the Kaleidoscope. "What is it?"
     "It's none of your business," she informed him.
     "That," Leon continued matter-of-factly, "is a heraldic device. And you will tell me what it is."
     "This," Opera replied, "is my heraldic device. And like I just said, it's none of your business. Get lost, or I go find some rope, catch my drift, kitty?"
     Leon's face purpled after the last sentence. "I order you to demonstrate that device!" he snapped. "Or else!"
     Opera had to force herself not to give into the urge to follow the order. Even if she was tempted to do so while pointing the device at the kid's head. "Or else what? You gonna throw a tantrum, little boy?"
     "I'll have you placed under arrest!"
     "You and what army? I don't know who was stupid enough to give you any authority, but it sure doesn't extend to me. So go get lost."
     This highly philosophical conversation might have gotten even more abstract, as appreciated by the impressive number of bystanders now gathering around. Unfortunately, some of those bystanders were finally deciding to intervene.
     "This isn't really the time or place for this," Bowman interrupted. "Maybe you two should just agree to disagree, and let bygones be bygones-"
     "This is none of your concern!" Leon interrupted, pointedly ignoring him. "This commoner will do as I say."
     There weren't many people in the room who were shorter than Opera, but Leon happened to be one of them. That fact noted, Opera immediately proceeded to take advantage of the planet's lighter gravity and haul Leon clear off his feet. "Listen here, pipsqueak. I don't know how hard you were dropped when you were a baby, but it sure wasn't from a high enough place."
     Leon tried to twist out of her grip, but he had a distinct lack of purchase with his feet. "Let go of me, you peasant!"
     "Peasant?" Opera gave him a rather evil-looking smile. "Hate to break to you, brat, but I'm basically nobility where I come from. Ever hear of 'diplomatic immunity'? Either you make yourself scarce, or you're going to find out the hard way what someone with diplomatic immunity can get away with."
     Leon was saved the trouble of freeing himself when Claude interposed himself between the two of them, freeing Leon in the process. "Opera!" he growled. "What are you doing!?"
     She redirected her glare. "What does it look like I'm doing? This brat has an attitude problem. I'm suggesting that he do something about it. Fast."
     "He's just a kid!" Claude shot back.
     "I'm not a kid!" Leon snapped angrily. "I'm twelve years old!!!"
     "I don't care if he's two or two hundred years old!" Opera informed Claude, sitting back down again in her chair. "I'm not going to go out of my way to put up with him. If you're so concerned about him, then you keep him out of my face, got it? I've got more important things to worry about."
     "Then why are you picking on Leon?"
     "He's the one bothering me! I'm just trying to enjoy a drink and some peace and quiet. So why are you defending him?"
     "Who was attacking who?" Claude pointed out.
     "I don't start fights," Opera retorted. "I just finish them. So you make sure that kid doesn't start anything, and we'll all be happy, right?"


     The ship reached the shoreline near the evening, anchoring about half a mile off-shore. A large lifeboat was put to the task of ferrying the six travellers ashore, along with the two soldiers doing the rowing.
     "So how long of a walk are we looking at to reach the ruins?" Opera wanted to know. Claude and Rena were busy studying the map they'd been provided with, occasionally exchanging opinions.
     "I don't think we can make it today," Rena ventured. "It's pretty late right now."
     "Time is of the essence," Leon reminded them.
     "Then we can skip sleeping tonight," Opera agreed. She was promptly met with five
unhappy expressions. "What?"
     Celine nudged her, smiling faintly. "Opera-darling, while I agree with your proposal in theory, I don't believe that we're all capable of abstaining from sleep like you seem to be."
     Opera frowned. She'd forgotten about that little detail. The days on this planet were a lot shorter than they were on Tetragenes, and the locals were used to these short days. Whereas the sleep that she'd gotten last night would probably get her through the rest of tomorrow without any problem. "Okay. Then we should at least travel as far as we can tonight."
     "Brace yourselves," one of the soldiers warned.
     With a quiet lurch, the lifeboat ran aground on the shore, the bow managing to slide
through the sandy beach for a short distance before finally grinding to a halt.
     The boat occupants quickly got out of the boat, although some were a little quicker doing it than others.
     "You feeling okay?" Bowman asked Leon.
     He nodded curtly.
     "Is something wrong, Leon?" Rena inquired worriedly, having overheard.
     Bowman waved her concerns aside. "He just gets a little sea-sick, that's all. I gave him some medication for it earlier."
     Leon turned red. "It's no concern. We should be going now."
     Several colourful curses drifted towards them, courtesy of Opera.
     "You really should have thought to pick up some suitable footwear in Hilton," Celine
chided, demonstrating her own boots for comparison.
     Opera gingerly extracted her pin-heels from the beach sand, inwardly debating the merits of simply walking barefoot. While she could possibly tolerate her heels while walking on hard-packed roads, forested area would be another matter entirely. "Ugh. Tell me about it."
     "I think our feet will be about the same size," Rena offered, already rooting through her pack.  "Maybe my extra shoes will fit you?"

     "We'll only be a few days," Leon was informing the two soldiers. "Hold position here until we return with the Energy Stone. I want to leave for Hilton the moment we return!"
     The soldiers both saluted. "Yes, Master Leon." "Good luck."
     Leon scowled by way of response. "I don't need luck. I have skill."

     Opera had finished lacing up Rena's spare shoes by this point. While they didn't exactly go with the rest of clothing, Rena's feet seemed a close enough match to her own. And the shoes were not only comfortable, they were sturdy enough to double as a light pair of hiking boots.
     "Are they alright?"
     "Oh yeah, much better," Opera confirmed approvingly as she stuffed her heels into her pack. Taking a few experimental steps was enough to inform her that mere words couldn't possibly do justice to the difference. This was the last time she was ever following after Ernest while wearing high heels, she decided. Next time she'd wear durasteel-impregnated hiking boots. All the better to kick Ernest's ass when she finally found him.
     "We don't have all day," Leon muttered. "Let's go!"
     "You're in no position to talk, kid," Opera retorted. "Feel free to stay behind, right?"
     "I don't suppose we'd be asking too much to have some peace and quiet?" Bowman
inquired hopefully. "I don't think I can take the two of you for this entire trip."
 "I will second that notion," Celine agreed.
     "Get behind me," Opera ordered Leon. "I don't need you in the way."
     "You will go first," Leon ordered Opera. "I have more important things to do than deal with some pathetic monsters."
     "Seeing how we're agreed," Bowman quickly interjected, "shouldn't we get moving? After all, time is of the essence, right? And we wouldn't want to miss Ernest, would we?"
     The two settled for exchanging some evil glances, then joined the rest of the group in heading towards the forested area.


     It took approximately one step for Opera to be grateful for the hiking boots that Rena had loaned her. Apparently this region received a lot of rain, because the ground was soft enough for her feet to sink a considerable distance into. If she'd been wearing her heels, she probably would have hit the bottom in seconds.
     "Ew, muskeg!" Rena observed, gingerly walking around a patch of ground with a glassy look to it.
     "What's that?" Claude wanted to know.
     "It's really soft ground," she explained. "There's a little bit of it back home near Arlia."
     "We have a lot of it south of Linga," Bowman seconded.
     "So what's the big deal about it?"
     "It's soft and really deep," Rena offered. "If you leave something on it, it sinks out of sight in a few hours. You can even loose animals and carts that way. And it's impossible to dig them back out, because it's so deep."
     "Some ponds are deep enough to bury a castle," Bowman confirmed.
     Like quicksand, Opera decided, stepping around a sinister-looking patch of ground. "So what kind of wildlife is around this area?"
     "No major studies that I know of," Bowman offered. "Too remote for that. But the
Northern Lacour area probably has similar sorts of animals and demons in it."
     "So what does that mean we can expect?"
     "The wildlife shouldn't be much trouble. They'll run if they catch wind of us, I'll bet. But the demons can be nasty if you're not ready for them. The worst ones are the flying ones. No real name, but they're big, have sharp teeth and like to ambush their prey, from what I'm told."
     "This would constitute ideal ambushing territory," Celine noted, giving the surrounding forest a more critical look.
     Opera pushed down her headpiece, activating the unit. "Gotcha."
     To her immense delight, both eyepieces immediately lit up with a red glow, indicating that they were working as expected. "Kick ass..." she muttered in approval, swivelling to take in the surroundings with her newfound eyes.
     "What is that?" Leon immediately demanded.
     "None of your business," she replied, mostly out of habit. Her one eye that didn't have the headpiece in front of it noted that Leon now wore a thoroughly peeved expression.
     "I believe you mentioned before," Celine recalled, "that it allowed you to see more than you would normally be able to?"
     "That's right. It's not perfect in forested areas like this, but it's still a big help. With any luck, it'll keep any of those flying demons from getting the drop on us."
     "That looks a little creepy," Rena ventured. "It looks like your eyes are glowing."
     "Nah, it's artificial. The lenses do that when there isn't much light, but it's no big deal."
     "So what exactly can you see?" Bowman wanted to know.
     Next to her, Claude coughed loudly.
     "It's hard to explain," Opera replied, settling for an extremely simplistic explanation. "In a nutshell, it helps me see in the dark and helps me spot living things."
     "How does it work?" Leon demanded.
     Claude didn't even bother giving Opera any hints this time.
     "It's too complicated for you," she replied, able to visualize Leon's expression without even turning around. "Too complicated for a kid like you."
     Leon simply fumed, to Opera's satisfaction. If the kid was going to annoy her to no end, she was at least going to take pleasure in returning the favour. It mystified her to no end why the rest of the group didn't share her enthusiasm for just tying the kid up back at the boat, but she was simply going to have to live with the situation. As soon as she found Ernest, things would become much more bearable.
     A flash of movement up ahead caught Opera's attention. "So how big are these flying
things?" she inquired.
     "Quite large," Celine replied. "Many are bigger than a person, to be exact. But their
colouring will most certainly work to their advantage in this undergrowth..."
     "Right. Are they mammals or something? Warm-blooded metabolisms?"
     "I never deigned to check, I'm afraid."
     Opera fired.
     A screeching noise was heard from within the treetops, a large form plummeting to the ground shortly afterwards.
     "Is that one of them?" she inquired, gesturing at the form.
     She was met with a chorus of incredulous stares.
     "Well? Is it?"
     "That's one of them," Bowman finally replied. "How did you see that thing so easily?"
     Opera tapped her headpiece. "This lets me see things I normally can't."
     "That's a weapon!" Leon exclaimed, already looking at the Kaleidoscope intently. "A non-elemental, heraldic, focussed-energy-discharge device!"
     Opera held the weapon away from him. "Congratulations, kid. Get lost."
     "Where did you get such a weapon!" he demanded, already trying to work his way around to the weapon again. "Who developed it? Who manufactured it?"
     "None of your business," she retorted. "It's mine, so quit trying to analyse it and get lost! Go play with that stupid Lacour Hope thing you're working on or something. We're in the middle of dangerous territory and I'm trying to not get killed right now."
     "What are its capabilities?" Leon persisted. "I order you to tell me!"
     "It's capable of ventilating your face without wasting too much power. Now shut up
before I use my foot!"
     Leon finally backed off when Opera drew back her foot, apparently quite willing to make good on her threat, which spared anyone else the trouble of having to intervene on Leon's behalf. The look on his face suggested that he considered the matter far from settled, however.
     Opera was inspecting the corpse by this time. "Freaky," she muttered.
     "What's wrong?" Claude wanted to know, not quite willing to lower his sword.
     "This thing's hot," she replied. "It looks like a flying reptile, but it's warm-blooded. Really warm-blooded. This thing must burn energy like a forest-fire or something. I'd swear this thing wasn't natural."
     "I don't believe that they are natural," Celine opinioned. "They only appeared with the advent of the Sorcery Globe, to be exact."
     "So that device allows you to see heat-emanations," Leon concluded. "Where did you-"
     "Which part of ‘shut up' didn't you understand?" Opera growled in disbelief. Bowman hadn't been kidding early when he mentioned Leon's aptitude for learning things. "Shut your mouth before I do it for you, brat! It's beyond me why the hell you're even out here in the first place, but if you have to be here, don't interfere! In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not from around here in the first place! Just get used to it, got it?"
     Leon actually backed up a step.
     Opera looked back at Claude. "Anyway, let me lead. With this headpiece, these things are practically wearing big ‘Shoot me' flags."
     Claude looked like he was going to argue the matter.
     "And considering that I'm going to see anything before you can, do you really want to walk in front of a heraldic field cannon?"
     Claude quickly nodded. "Right. I'll make sure Leon doesn't do anything... um, dangerous."
     "You do that," Opera agreed, continuing forwards again.


     Under the dense forest growth, what little sunlight was given off by the settling sun was basically rendered non-existent by the dense forest growth. To add to the situation, the flying monsters had proven to be extremely plentiful. While Opera had easily shot down the vast majority of them, she hadn't always been quick enough to eliminate entire packs of them, resulting in extremely dangerous dive-bomb attacks. These had resulted in some extremely close calls for various members, followed by some extremely violent pyrotechnic displays from Celine, which had reduced most of the attackers to extremely fine particles within moments. The survivors were knocked senseless by some extremely fast blows by Bowman before being impaled extremely quickly by Claude's sword. All in all, it tended to be extremely stressful.
     At any rate, after several hours, the party voted to settle in for the night, then make the rest of the trip the next day. This also provided a good opportunity for a meal, which even Opera was completely in agreement with. Considering her eating habits over the past few days, she was definitely going to come out of this excursion missing a kilograms that she'd entered with. So a meal made the stop all worthwhile. Discovering that she wasn't going to be expected to do any the cooking was simply wonderful.

     "Did you want to help with the cooking, Miss Opera?" Rena inquired, cheerfully chopping up a row of vegetables.
     It was nice to finally know exactly what Rena had stashed her pack full of, Opera reflected with a small amount of amusement. Somehow, the idea of Rena carrying a pack with some beer, chocolate bars and an AP-5 hadn't seemed quite plausible. Which reminded her... "Ah... I think I'll pass. For everyone's sake. Anybody want a beer?"
     Bowman perked up. "Did someone say the magic word?"
     Opera pulled a bottle from her pack and tossed it to him.. "I think it passes for wine
around here, but help yourself."
     "You brought beer?!" Claude asked incredulously. "Out here?"
     "And a few chocolate bars," she agreed.
     "That seems like an unusual choice of supplies for a seasoned traveller like yourself,"
Celine ventured. "No offense, but I believe that I shall abstain from your offer."
     "It's all that survived the crash," Opera explained in regards to the first comment. "Or did you think I normally did my exploring in an evening gown?"
     "You disappoint me, Opera-darling," Celine tsk'd. "Here I was supposing you had excellent taste in exploratory garments, only to find out now that you had no choice in the matter to begin with! I think that a stylish appearance in essential for a successful explorer."
     "Of course you do," Bowman chuckled, taking a sip of the Meryti lager. His eyes grew rather wide a few moments later. "You weren't kidding! And this passes for beer where you come from? Do you have wine and hard liquor too?"
     "Sorry, didn't bring any with me."
     He gave a remorseful sigh. "Man, where were you when I was in university?"
     "It's just beer, y'know. Good beer, but still beer."
     "You obviously take this for granted," Bowman chided. "This is clearly superior to that disgusting stuff they serve at the university. If I didn't know that your land was extremely far away, I'd be asking you to set me with a delivery schedule for this stuff."
     "Don't drink the whole thing if you're going to wind up with a hangover tomorrow. Unless you're packing more of that medication."
     "Ah, don't you worry yourself. I'm the voice of experience, remember?"
     "Uh huh," Opera agreed. "Your head, not mine."
     A metallic clank behind her made her spin around, lunging at the same time. Her hand closed around the barrel of her Kaleidoscope, but her other hand narrowly missed Leon's clothing. For a kid who apparently had his head in the books all day, he sure could move fast... "Hey, hands off!"
     "I'm studying it!" he retorted.
     "Well, study it from ten feet away! Before you wind up blowing someone's head off!"
     Apparently it was Celine's turn to intervene between the two. "Leon-dearie, would you care for the honour of starting our fire?"
     He glanced over at her. "I didn't bring any matches."
     "Oh?" The sorceress looked surprised. "You're not proficient with fire magic?"
     "Water," he replied, by way of explanation.
     "Ah, I see," she agreed, apparently understanding the answer. "I don't suppose that you're trained in any other schools as well?"
     "Ice, Shadow, and Void," he answered.
     Celine's eyes opened wide. "Goodness, you are a theoretical individual, aren't you?"
     "I don't need you to tell me that."
     She gave him a knowing smile. "But of course not. So tell me, what do you know of the magic of healing?"
     Leon scowled. "There's no such thing."
     "Of course not. How silly of me to suggest such a thing."
     Several moment's of silence ensued between the two.
     "There's no such thing," Leon repeated, a little less confidently.
     "Rena-darling," Celine invited, "would you care to demonstrate?"
     Rena swallowed. "Ah... but I don't think anyone's hurt right now, Celine. And I don't
think we want to... hurt anybody, right?"
     Celine sighed dramatically. "Almost a pity, isn't it? Leon here will simply have to do
without a demonstration. Quite tragic, really. And it's really the most fascinating little ability I've ever seen..."
     Opera leaned closer to Bowman. "Is she telling the truth?" she hissed.
     He nodded. "Beats the heck out of me how, but I've seen her do it myself."
     "Prove it," Leon was insisting to Rena.
     "Are you volunteering to be injured, kid?" Opera asked, sounding almost a little
     Leon seemed to notice her tone of voice, because he took a step away from her and a step closer to Rena. "A demonstration can wait until-ah!!!"
     Rena looked properly horrified at the scene of Leon sprawled on top of the vegetables she had just finished cutting up. "Are you okay, Leon?"
     "Ouch," Leon muttered, sparing rather dazedly at the treetops.
     "I think we've just got ourselves a test subject," Bowman decided.
     Apparently Leon agreed with that notion, since he was already looking himself over for something that needed to be healed. After some searching, he located a thin scratch on his arm that was managing to leak a few drops of blood down his arm.
     "Demonstrate," he ordered Rena.
     Rena placed a finger against the small wound, concentrating briefly. "There you go."
     Opera craned her neck just in time to see a halo of green light emanate from the finger, then the wound simply closed up and vanished in a matter of seconds. "Whoa." She'd seen demonstrations of heraldry before, but the degree of talent that Celine had displayed on occasion had been something entirely new to her. And this was beyond even Celine...?
     "How did you do that!?!" Leon demanded, studying the spot incredulously, as though expecting the wound to reappear at any moment.
     "Ah... I don't really know," Rena admittedly sheepishly. "I just... do it."
     "I haven't the foggiest myself," Celine seconded. "Quite fascinating, don't you think? Any theories?"
     Leon seemed to be fascinated enough to actually shake his head in denial. "I'll... need
some time to formulate a working theory..."
     "I think that's the closest we'll ever get to a ‘I don't know' from him," Bowman decided in bemusement. Judging from his now half-full bottle of Meryti lager, he was clearly a convert of the beverage.
     Opera was already using her headpiece to study both Rena and the now-missing injury on Leon's arm.
     "Anything?" Claude whispered.
     She shook her head slowly in response. As far as her headpiece was concerned, absolutely nothing had ever happened. There was a slightly warm area on Leon's arm where the wound had been, but that was expected on account of the blood that had exited the wound. Judging by her body temperature, Rena hadn't even broken a sweat to do what she'd just done. The skin on Leon's arm was as genuine as the rest of him. No abnormal light, no nothing.
     Absolutely freaky, to put it in simpler terms.
     "Nothing at all?" Claude persisted, sounding more curious than anything else. Apparently he'd seen a demonstration of Rena's abilities before. Either that, or he didn't fully appreciate what had happened a moment ago.
     "Nothing. Just a little bit of gamma radiation," Opera muttered.
     Claude coughed. "Gamma radiation?!?"
     Everyone immediately swivelled to face them.
     "Idiot," Opera muttered.
     Claude hastily lowered his voice. "You're telling me that Rena's giving off-"
     "No, not Rena," she muttered, a small smile appearing on her face. "The surroundings. I'm picking up small traces of gamma radiation in the area. Take a wild guess what that means."
     "Um... we're in danger here?"
     Opera began to walk around the area, scrutinizing the area. "It's nowhere near dangerous levels. But Tetragene TAMIR units give off residual gamma radiation when they're in gravity fields."
     "And that means...?"
     "Don't they teach you UFP cadets anything useful?" Opera muttered in disgust. "Tri-particle Antimatter/Matter Injection Reactor. Way more efficient on fuel than your stupid UFP units. They don't need as much maintenance either. But Ernest's ship has a pair of them."
     Claude caught on quickly enough. "You mean his ship is..."
     "The radiation should have decayed quickly enough if he'd left," she confirmed. "And I'm not seeing any signs of it fading. Unless you can think of anything else that would be putting out gamma radiation around here, Ernest's ship is probably idling somewhere close by. And the radiation is strongest over here..."
     Opera's foot went down to knee in mud. "Ack!!!"
     "It's all muskeg," Claude observed. "All of it."
     Opera hastily backed up before she found herself breathing dirt. Taking a cue from Claude's observation, she scanned the area without the headpiece. There was a huge area devoid of trees, but the ground had a glassy look to it. Definitely a prime example of the muskeg they'd been told about. "Wow. There must be several square kilometres of muskeg here," she observed slowly.
     "And you said that there's gamma radiation here?" Claude inquired.
     She frowned, replacing the headpiece. "Definitely. And if I didn't know better, I'd say that the source was from inside this muck."
     Claude had spotted something. "Skid marks!"
     Opera followed him, halting before a wide swath of scoured ground. Judging from the marks, it was have been reasonable to assume that it had settled down, then moved into the muck."Yeah, that looks like it was made by the front landing pylon of the Heartbreak Hotel."
     "Heartbreak Hotel?"
     "That's the name of Ernest's ship. Long story."
     "Ah, okay. So what was he doing landing here?"
     Opera considered the question for a few moments before understanding. "He was hiding the ship. Look at the skid mark. He landed so that the front pylon was on solid ground, and the back pylons were on the soft ground. Then he got off and let the ship sink out of sight. Once the back end went under, it pulled the front end under too.
     "How is that a good thing?"
     "Easy. Heartbreak Hotel has limited remote control capabilities. We had to get them installed when we wanted to dock at Ferii Prime. A push of a button, and the main engines will just fire up and lift it right out again. A few high-speed atmospheric barrel-rolls will clean the mud right off again."
     Claude let out a whistle. "That is pretty smooth. So once we find him, he'll just lift the ship right out?"
     "Right," Opera agreed. "Too bad we can't get in. We could have just scanned the entire area and located him easily. And grabbed some equipment while we're at it. I guess we'll just have to do it the old fashioned way for now. Or we could just camp out here until he gets back. This area is probably the safest place around."
     Claude almost looked tempted by the idea, but finally shook his head. "No, I'm going to go on to the ruins. I've come this far, and these people could use a little help. Besides, I don't want to try explaining what's so important about this area to the others. But you can stick around if you want to."
     She shrugged. "I might as well go to the ruins too. There's no telling how long Ernest plans on spending there, and they're not very far away. Besides, don't try to tell me that this headpiece hasn't come in handy."
     Claude didn't try. "We can sort things out when we find Ernest at the ruins tomorrow," he agreed, starting back to the campsite.
     "So what are you two talking about, just the two of you?" a voice inquired.
     Both swallowed as Celine approached them.
     "Um... nothing really," Claude offered. "Look at the size of this muskeg swamp!"
     The sorceress nodding slowly. "If that impresses you two, perhaps you should head down to Linga after this over. The muskeg there is extensive enough to engulf Lacour Castle, I believe."
     "Cool," Opera agreed, silently cursing Claude and his miserable excuse for an alibi. "Say, when you and Leon were talking before... what were you talking about?"
     "I beg your pardon?"
     "You know, all that stuff about ‘fire', ‘water', ‘ice', ‘shadow' and ‘void'."
     "I'll see if Rena needs any help," Claude offered, heading back to the campsite quickly.
     Celine rolled her eyes as he left. "You're not very experienced with heraldry, are you?"
     "I've seen a little bit, but nothing like the sort of things I've seen you do," Opera offered honestly. "So what gives?"
     "I was referring to schools of magic, of course. There are a wide variety of heraldic
studies that one can partake in. They are generally fashioned after different manifestations of heraldic energy. I myself have been extensively trained in the schools of Fire, Wind, Lightning, and Light. I've also dabbled a small amount in Vacuum, but I don't usually find it as helpful in my line of work."
     "So... you can shoot fire, wind, lightning and light?"
     Celine smiled. "That would be one way of looking at it, I suppose. Merely ‘shooting' is a beginners approach to using the power. With practice, one learns to control exactly how the power manifests itself, which enables some extremely impressive and widespread displays."
     "So what about Leon?"
     "As he said, he's studied in the schools of Water, Ice, Shadow and Void."
     "So what was that ‘theoretic' bit you were talking about?"
     "The schools tend to either lean towards the practical or theoretical. Incidently, all of my schools are considered primarily practical, while all of Leon's are considered primarily theoretical. Since it tends to be counterproductive to train in opposing schools, knowing what schools a person has chosen to train in can tell you a lot about the person's bent. If I hadn't already been aware that little Leon is a scientist, I would certainly know now."
     "Cool. So... what makes them practical or theoretical?"
     "The training involved in learning them. The training techniques used for Fire are vastly different from those used for Water. Indeed, attempting to learn both tends to be an exercise in futility. I myself have done research in Leon's schools, but I've deliberately abstained from any practical training."
     "Because it would have messed up the training you did already," Opera concluded. "That sounds... complicated."
     "You did ask," Celine pointed out bemusedly. "Or would you have preferred that I give you the same answer you gave me when I inquired about your weapon and headpiece?"
     Ouch. "Look," Opera protested, "if you really want me to try and explain, I will. But I don't think you realize how advanced this thing is."
     Celine looked thoughtful. "Well... you could make the attempt. Or better yet, you could enlighten me on what you and Claude-dear were really talking about before I interrupted you. Anything that doesn't involve you making faces at him must be fairly important, I imagine."
     Ouch again. "Well... you know how this headpiece lets me see things that I normally can't see? I'm seeing certain things in this area that suggest that Ernest is really close by and he hasn't left yet."
     Celine scowled somewhat. "That is your idea of an explanation?"
     Opera mirrored the scowl. "Dammit, Celine! Give me a break, will you? If I'm not careful, I could be up to my neck in politics and court hearings for the next five years! So if you want to bitch at someone for not explaining anything, do it at Claude, alright? Because this whole secrecy thing sure as hell isn't my idea!"
     "Better," Celine replied approvingly. "That sounds like a much more honest explanation than what you told me before."
     "Hey, if it was all up to me, I wouldn't be bothering with all this secrecy garbage in the first place. But it's nothing personal, alright?"
     "I suppose that I can accept that for now. It doesn't make me any less curious, but I do appreciate the frankness on your part. Perhaps we should return to the group now. I am quite convinced that Rena-darling is an absolutely genius in the culinary arts."
     "Lucky her. All I can do is burn stuff. My great-aunt once taught me how to distill beer, but that's about it."
     "Somehow, that fails to surprise me."
     "Hey, Ernest usually does the cooking when we're on-site. He's a halfway decent cook."
     Celine nodded neutrally. "Then, Opera-darling, I believe you're in for a pleasant meal
tonight. Although, I must warn you, Rena is not a proponent of hunting animals. I do hope you enjoy meals of the vegetarian sort."


     Meal was everything that Celine had promised.
     Which was to say that while there was a definite absence of any meat, it was excellently prepared and seasoned, and Opera wasn't the only one wishing for second or third portions. The only incident marring the meal was the fact that Leon seemed to have a penchant for meat. This had distressed Rena to the point where Opera offered to extract the meat from him. This had resulting in the grudging admission that he could just as easily eat plants, and that Rena had done an excellent job preparing them. Some willow-eyed requesting on Rena's part had convinced Leon to use his magic to create water, which was then flavoured with something that seemed to be a combination of fruit punch and melon juice. Opera discreetly used her last beer to help redeem the flavour, which Bowman quickly mimicked.
     Once supper had been cleaned up, everyone had gone to sleep quickly enough. Any
nervousness about nearby monsters was allayed after Opera expressed not-so-heartfelt sympathy for any that did come close enough for her to detect. That seemed to provide enough reassurances for the group to fall asleep, with Opera using a convenient stone as a resting chair. The Kaleidoscope was given a resting spot by virtue of a thick Y-branch driven into the ground next to her. And so it was that the night began.
     Opera had long ago learned to deal with the intense boredom associated with night-watch. With all the travelling that her and Ernest did, there had been many occasions where they simply hadn't been able to land a spaceship near the location they were investigating. Actually, there had been times when they'd walked for several weeks before even reaching their target. When travelling for such a long time, sleep was eventually required. And when one was in the middle of terrain that had a reputation for making scientists disappear, you didn't ever let down your guard. Which meant that only one person slept at a time. Which meant that both her and Ernest had developed methods to keep from going batty from spending eight to twelve hours doing absolutely nothing but looking around in the dark.
     She wasn't quite sure what sort of methods Ernest used (Although she had a hunch that archaeology magazines and publications were often involved), but hers usually involved reading technical journals on whatever weapons she'd recently acquired. While 99% of all ranged-weapons could usually be grouped into one class or another, such as chemical, plasma, heraldry, or laser, etc, there were always little nuances that defined each weapon.
     Like the antique 4-gauge shotgun she'd picked up at an auction once. If she hadn't done some research on it before using it, she might have learned the hard way that the carbide steel chamber was notoriously prone to cracking if slow-burning powder wasn't used for the shells. Or the three-barrel rocket launcher she'd gotten second-hand from a retired militia force? The piece of garbage, friction-based safety was an accident just begging to happen. A little machining on her part had seen to the installation of a much more reliable safety.
     Apparently that genre of reading was an acquired taste, but Opera couldn't imagine how anyone could be bored reading through a 400-page technical manual on an assault rifle or a fusion cannon. Why, there was no telling when you might find yourself having to power a weapon with nothing but a cheap, second-rate UFP power pack and a screw driver. Or find yourself in a life-or-death position, trying to start a fire with an anti-matter launcher (Her great-uncle had).
 At any rate, that sort of reading material was in short supply right now. She should have checked her ship for some good magazines to bring along before departing. Because this was boring as hell, even if she was happy to be able to use her headpiece again. At least the air was cooling off now, providing a small degree of comfort to her. When all was said and done, this planet was just a little too warm for her tastes.
     A quiet rustling from the direction of the sleepers alerted her to the face that one of the sleepers was still awake. Despite the poor light, the infrared signature of the individual was too tall to be Leon, and too short to be Bowman or Claude. The slightly muted signature suggested that the individual was wearing several layers of clothing.
     "Are you still awake, Rena?" Opera asked quietly.
     The younger girl startled, before sheepishly realizing who had spoken. "Oh, Miss Opera. I kind of forgot you were there."
     Opera gave the surroundings one last glance before pushing her headpiece up. "How come you're still awake?"
     "Ah... I just can't seem to get to sleep."
     In other words, Opera interpreted, Rena wasn't a big fan of sleeping out under the stars in a vast, unfamiliar forest full of dangerous monsters. Pointing out how correct she was might not be the most constructive thing to do. "Your boots fit fine, you know. Thanks."
     "I'm glad. I always bring an extra pair, because they don't feel very good when they get soaked with water."
     "Oh? You do a lot of travelling?"
     Rena nodded. "Well, nothing like this, but I've done some travelling between Arlia, Salva and Cross Castle. Um... I guess you've done a lot of travelling. Your home must be far away from here."
     Only 143.8 light-years away. "Yeah, you could say that."
     "I've never even heard of it before. So what it is like where you come from?"
     Opera deliberated on how to reply to the question. "Well... it's... different. Everyone has three eyes, just like I do. Most Tetragenes travel a lot, although maybe not as much as I do."
     "That sounds really neat.  Are there demons there too?"
     "Um... demons?"
     "Like there are around here. I mean, if it's far away from here, it must be far away from the Sorcery Globe too..."
     "Oh. Yeah, it is pretty far away from here. We don't really have demons like the ones
around here. Most of the regular wildlife is already dangerous enough as it is. We have pack weapons if we go very far outside."
     "That doesn't sound very nice."
     Opera looked thoughtful. "Yeah, I guess it isn't. But it's been that way for thousands of years, so I guess the system works pretty well. Besides, there's no place like home, y'know?"
     "I guess things don't seem so bad here, then."
     "Not really. When you've been exploring for almost seven years, you've pretty much seen it all at least once."
     Rena gaped. "You've been exploring for seven years? How old are you?"
     "You mean... you started exploring when you were only sixteen?"
     "Well, the first two years, I just did it occasionally. Most of what I did then was more along the lines of bounty hunting and bodyguard work. I didn't start exploring full-time until I hooked up with Ernest. That was about five years ago."
     "I can't imagine doing that right now. I mean, I'm only seventeen right now..."
     Opera smiled wanly. "Well, it's not all its cracked up to be, you know. I mean, sure I get to see things face-to-face that lots of people never even hear about. Ernest and I have made a few genuinely ground-breaking discoveries while travelling about. That's all pretty cool. But the pay isn't very consistent. You only get to go home maybe a couple times a year. And there's all kinds of dangerous things out there that you're never expecting. It's not the safest job in the world, really. Do you really want that?"
     Rena sighed. "It's really annoying. I couldn't even leave the village until Claude showed up. And even still, mother and the elder were really nervous about it."
     "Well... I think they're right, you know," Opera stated. "It's not safe out here at all. Look at the weapon I've brought along. You've seen Celine's magic, haven't you? She's an explorer just like me. We're used to this kind of dangerous stuff, so we've learned how to take care of ourselves. If you want to see the world, you're going to see everything, including the not-so-nice parts."
     Rena sighed again. "Maybe you're right."
     "Of course I'm right. That doesn't mean that you can't go exploring, but you have to go into it thinking straight. I probably make using this weapon easy, but I've been using stuff like this since I was only eight. I don't know how long Celine's been practising her heraldry, but she probably started when she was young too. Either way, there's lots of practice involved, right?"
     "I've never had anyone teach me how to use my heraldic powers."
     "You could probably ask Celine for pointers. Or maybe even Leon. But the most
important thing to practice. If you want to get good at anything, you have to keep practising until you can practically do it without thinking. This trip would probably be a good chance for that."
     Rena finally nodded. "Maybe I will try to practise a little. Just in case."
     "That's the spirit," Opera approved. "Even if me and Celine are around, that just means that practice is safer for you to mess up a little."
     "And Claude is here to protect us too," Rena agreed.
     Opera made a face that she hoped wasn't visible in the darkness. "Uh... yeah. Him too."
     If Rena had been planning to mention any further virtues of having Claude around, she had apparently decided not to voice them near Opera. "I hope we find Ernest at the Hoffman ruins."
     "I hope so too. The idiot's been way more trouble than he's worth."
     "But you still love him, don't you?"
     Opera coughed, forgetting whatever she had been planning to say next. "Excuse me?"
     "Even though he left without telling you and he's been really hard to find," Rena
elaborated, "you still love him, don't you?"
     "Look, it's not like that, alright? We're... business partners. Really good business partners. We're really good business partners who have been working together for five years and are also really good friends. But we're not a couple."
     "Exactly," Opera elaborated. "Not the least bit romantic at all."
     "But you called him ‘your boyfriend' before..."
     "Um... it was a figure of speech. Yeah, a figure of speech. I mean, if you hung around with someone for five years, you'd be really good friends with them too, right?"
     Rena considered that scenario for a moment before nodding. "But you're worried about him?"
     Opera frowned, debating how to reply to the question without encouraging Rena any
further. "Um... yes, I'm worried about him. Ernest and I have... different areas of expertise, understand? I'm good at keeping us safe, he's good at understanding all the ruins that we explore. So when he's screwing around in this dangerous area, without me to cover him, I'm going to be a little concerned, don't you think?"
     "Ah... I guess so."
     "Right. So now do you understand?"
     "I think so."
     "That's good. You should probably get some sleep, you know. Otherwise, you're going to be tired tomorrow."
     Rena nodded slowly. "Right... I'll try to get to sleep."
     "It's a quiet night," Opera offered. "I haven't even seen any birds around, so I bet we
scared all the monsters off a long time ago. We weren't bothered during supper, were we?"
     It was mostly a lie, but Rena seemed to accept the logic. "I guess you're right. It's just that I've never been camping out this far from home..."
     "Well, trust me when I say that you couldn't be safer if you had a whole army around you. The most dangerous thing you've got to worry about is tripping over your own feet tomorrow if you don't get enough sleep tonight."
     The other girl nodded, getting inside her blankets again. She squirmed around briefly, getting into a comfortable position, then was still. Repositioning her headpiece, Opera studied her form for several moments before deciding that Rena wasn't about to get up again.
     Opera let out a quiet sigh as she resumed searching out the surroundings. She was going to be one extremely happy person when she was off this planet and heading back home again. It wasn't that this planet was so miserable, aside from the whole ‘Find Ernest before you wind up stranded here for a few centuries' thing. It was the interactive portion of the trip that was beginning to grate on her nerves. The part where she actually had to deal with the planet's inhabitants while travelling.
     In all fairness, Bowman was a nice enough to person to be around. He was intelligent, considerate, respectful enough to accord her some privacy, and had even shrugged off the whole incident where's she'd gotten herself drunk out of her gourd and ragged him out. And for a pharmacist on vacation, he seemed to have enough martial arts skills to keep himself alive when being dive-bombed by flying monsters.
     As far as Celine was concerned, she had seemed a bit of a *ahem* bitch to start out with, but the two had since warmed up to each other considerably. No doubt partially on account of their similar professions, they also accorded a measure of respect to each other. With a little effort, Opera could overlook the fact that the woman was one of the most shameless narcissists she'd ever met in her life. Especially since Celine was willing to overlook the fact that Opera was deliberately withholding a few details herself.
     Claude... was Claude. That was to say, he was a moronic Federation rookie who evidently thought that graduating from the academy made him good at anything beyond filling a desk job. He also apparently thought he could lecture her on the Underdeveloped Planetary Protection Treaty, after practically passing himself off as a local legend. Even more incredibly, he actually seemed to think that she cared about his treaty too. It was truly unfortunate that the headline "Tetragene Noblewoman Stuffs ‘Sword of Light' Down UFP Ensign's Throat" would be bad for diplomatic relations.
     Leon annoyed her. Severely. On multiple fronts. To start, there was the fact that he clearly wasn't a local. She didn't know what race he was from, but he was clearly from somewhere very, very far away on a galactic scale. He was also an arrogant loudmouthed brat who apparently had a few heavy encyclopaedias wedged up his ying-yang so far that the information was entering his brain through osmosis. And to top it all off, he was apparently considered a normal kid by the locals, which meant that it was not acceptable for her to try and twist his neck 720 degrees in a randomly chosen direction. The sooner he was out of her life, the better.
     Rena... didn't annoy her. That was Leon's department. But Opera would have been lying if she'd claimed that the blue-haired girl didn't irk her slightly. If it wasn't as obvious as in Leon's case, Opera was still positive that the girl wasn't a local. Aside from the pair of uniquely pointed ears she sported, the hair also seemed to have the wrong lustre and shade to it. While there was a remote possibility that Rena simply had access to some radioactive hair-care products, Opera didn't think so. There was usually set range of hair colours that a race would take on, and Rena's hair seemed to fall outside this planet's ranges from what Opera had seen so far. To add to the situation was the girl's recently demonstrated healing abilities that neither Celine or Leon - both acknowledged talents on heraldry on this planet - claimed to understand.
     And aside from the whole origins issue, Rena was simply... strange. Opera didn't know what passed for a fairy tale on this planet, but the girl seemed to have read them all and taken them to heart. While optimism in itself wasn't a bad thing, Opera preferred to have it based on a rational assessment of her own resources and abilities. That was to say, she had a heraldic field cannon, with an AP-5 automatic handgun as backup, a sensor-equipped headpiece, and most importantly, a lot of experience in using all of them. Therefore she was probably going to be safe. Rena apparently had no such compunctions about her own blind optimism.
     Opera shook her head wearily. She had nothing against Rena, really. But if Rena kept up at the rate she was going, she was going to wind up getting the biggest shock of her life when reality finally hit her square between the eyes. She just hoped that it didn't happen during this trip.


     The Hoffman ruins came into view all too quickly the next day. In what seemed the source of only a few feet, the dense forest had been replaced with scrub brush and grass, the ground suddenly shown to consist of a great deal of rock. The ruins themselves occupied the majority of the treeless area, an eye-catching sight by any definition.
     "They're... awesome!" Rena breathed, eyes growing unnaturally wide as she took in the unfolding scene before them.
     "Most impressive," Celine agreed. "I daresay that the books on it fail to do it justice from this perspective."
     "Not bad," Opera granted, eyes travelling over the length of the stonework. The central building was the most prominent and intact, bearing marked similarities to various pyramid-architecture that she'd seen on other worlds. The angle of the sides seemed slightly on the shallow side, suggesting that a particularly heavy type of stone had been used. Either that, or vertical height had been a strictly secondary goal for the builders. The wide stairs carved into the slopes had a rather practical appearance to them, as though heavy loads might have been carried up them on occasion.
     The walls around the outside were a slightly worse conditions, large slabs of stone lying amidst pockets of rubble. The size of some of the pieces suggested that more than mere erosion had been at work at some point, while the lack of elaborate carvings hinted at a rather unmystical/religious purpose to the entire setup.
     "So who built this?" she inquired to the rest of the group.
     "I don't believe that I could even offer a reliable guess," Celine admitted. "The style is
markedly different from any other ruins that I've been in. And I can only guess at the labour involved in moving the stone slabs. The builders clearly had a flair for the dramatic."
     "It must have taken a long time," Rena offered.
     Opera gave Leon a glance. "What about you, kid? You've been here before, right? What do you know about it?"
     Leon scowled at her. "That's none of your concern, peasant."
     "You don't know either, huh?"
     "I didn't say that! I just don't feel like telling you."
     Opera mirrored his scowl, but decided that the matter wasn't worth pursuing. There were more important issues at stake at the moment. Such as confirming whether Ernest had been here. And most importantly, confirming whether he was still here. Wherever his ship had been back near their campsite, it had clearly been present.
     The group headed towards the central building at a leisurely pace, everyone taking more than a casual glance at the surroundings. Even if anyone had forgotten their 'bodyguard' assignments, the oppressive silence that hung around the location was enough to discourage any notions of relaxation.
     "The stone is extremely aged," Celine observed. "Either the climate is extremely severe in this location, or this structure has been present for far longer than I would care to guess at. This would bear some significant investigation at the University of Linga."
     "I've heard some talk at the university," Bowman supplied. "The general impression that I get is that no one knows much about this place. The location is extremely out of the way. There's not really any significant treasure to speak of, so treasure hunters don't bother coming all the way out here. And no one wants to spend the kind of money required to do an in-depth study of it. And they haven't even been able to completely access the main building before. It's also supposed to be very dangerous, even before the Sorcery Globe landed."
     "That's why we're here," Claude agreed, double-checking his sword.
     Opera positioned her headpiece over her eyes, turning the unit on and beginning to scan the area. If Ernest had been here, she should be able to pick up some signs easily enough... the goggles detected an IR signature almost immediately. "Bingo."
     "What is it?" Claude inquired, following after her. "Did you find something?"
     She knelt down, picking up a small object. A cigarette, still smoldering.
     "So Ernest was here," he agreed, already looking around for more evidence.
     No more cigarettes were to be found, but something was.
     "Holy shit," Opera breathed, looking along the rubble through her headpiece.
     Claude's sword was already out. "Where?"
     "Everywhere," she muttered, inspecting one pile of rubble. "Look at this rubble. Burn
marks. The growth underneath the collapsed stone is still green. This was done recently, and it didn't happen naturally."
     Bowman had overheard the last comment. "Sounds to me like your boyfriend is putting that weapon of his to use again."
     "You mean, Ernest pulled down all this rock?" Claude demanded, looking over the
surroundings with newfound awe. The far wall was in extremely severe shape, looking more as though someone had deliberately planted explosives along its length. "But... he's practically destroying everything! I thought you said that he was an archaeologist!!!"
     "He is!!!" Opera muttered in disbelief. When she caught up to him, she was going to have a serious talk with him about where he pointed an AP-3. Assuming she ever let him have such a weapon again! Their profits were going to take a serious nosedive with what he'd just done here. "Stupid sonuvabitch."
     "I would imagine that he was attempting to fight something," Celine pointed out. "While his aim seems to be quite questionable, that may also say something about what he was dealing with."
     "Or the idiot could just be incompetent."
     "Also possible," the sorceress admitted.
     "Hurry up!" Leon yelled, already starting up the steps.
     "Ernest must be inside the ruins," Claude ventured, breaking into a jog after Leon.
     Opera nodded, following afterwards.
     "So what do you make of all this?" Celine asked her.
     She scowled in response. "Same as the last ruins. The stupid idiot is panicking, and shooting everywhere. But these rocks still have a decent heat signature around them, so they were pulled down only a short time ago. Maybe half a day ago."
     "That's good news," Bowman agreed. "Let's just make sure we don't take him by
     No kidding, Opera reflected. For all she knew, Ernest might just open fire at them without looking. This whole situation was absolutely crazy, to say the least. But at least she had caught up to Ernest. She didn't pretend to understand why he was so determined to handle this business without her, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know.
     But before this business was over, she was definitely going to find out.


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