Part 3

Evelyn pulled out her battle-staff and examined it carefully one last time, then hooked the power lead to her armor. The staff was currently in its compact form, looking like little more than a silver, rune-covered handle with a perpendicular brass ring at the top with a glittering prism held in the middle of the ring. Aside from the frequent practice she’d had in the ship’s firing range during her time on-duty during the trip, Evelyn hadn’t used it recently. Not that that was hard, considering the length of the trip.

Her armor was in better shape than she remembered as well, and she suppressed the urge to scowl. Obviously one of the armorers had decided to perform repairs on it without asking her, which was rather annoying. Even so, she could see where the numerous dings and scorch marks had been removed, if only faintly. The diagnostics were good as well, so she wasn’t going to complain too much.

“Is everyone ready to drop?” Lieutenant Esress asked, the enormous lizzan’s voice somewhat sibilant as she spoke. Evelyn liked her own armor, but the crimson power armor Esress wore was intimidating, looking more like a mobile fortress or mech than armor to Evelyn. Not that she could move something like that.

The other soldiers chorused their affirmatives, and once it came to her Evelyn responded calmly. “Ready, Lieutenant.”

“Good. We’re coming down on the other side of the ridge from the target zone, and the shuttle is evacuating the area as soon as we’re down.” Esress said, looking over the troops with a cold gaze. “Lightseeker is maintaining a geosynchronous orbit so they can supply fire support if necessary, but do not take unnecessary risks. Move slowly, and don’t touch anything that isn’t dirt. Also, the atmosphere is dead, so don’t try breathing it.”

There was another rumble of agreement, and Evelyn smiled to herself, looking over the dozen soldiers. Half of them were human, as humans made up the bulk of the coalition, but they had a dwarven combat engineer, a couple of orcs, one of which was a shaman, an elven sniper, and a second lizzan, this one a male that was slightly smaller than Esress. It was an interesting group, but ever since the coalition was founded a century before their departure, the military had been growing more diverse.

“Hey, Evelyn! Why’re you the only science type going down with us, anyway?” One of the soldiers asked, a woman who Evelyn vaguely remembered meeting during the launch ceremonies. She nodded toward the staff and asked. “I’ve never seen one of you types in armor, and haven’t seen that sort of thing before, either.”

“In that case, you probably haven’t seen a xenoarcheologist before.” Evelyn replied calmly, making sure the staff was getting a proper charge. Tapping her armor, she added. “This is just common sense. You wouldn’t believe how many ruins have enchanted traps or guardians, ranging from summoned creatures to golems to poison gas or even ones that evacuate the atmosphere. No xenoarcheologist worth their salt goes anywhere without the best armor they can afford and a weapon that suits them. Speaking of weapons…”

Evelyn flicked her wrist and the staff instantly responded. The mithril shaft rapidly telescoped outward into a two meter shaft, and the additional segments snapped outward to form a single smooth surface. As the runes across its surface locked together, they began to glow with an eerie blue light and the prism began to shine slightly. Evelyn smiled as they stared at her, continuing. “This is a warmage’s powered battle-staff. It’s enchanted for close combat or to empower my spells, and contains a high-energy cannon that rivals a military-grade combat rifle. I believe in being prepared.”

“Oh. I thought that most archeologists took combat teams with them to clear out ruins.” The woman said. Fiona, that was her name, Evelyn finally remembered. “I didn’t realize you had gear like that.”

“Most do. You don’t see me dropping onto the planet on my own, do you?” Evelyn replied, smiling wryly. “The thing is, something can always go wrong. Most of those who can’t defend themselves don’t delve into ruins that haven’t been thoroughly cleared, and those that do don’t tend to survive long. It’s not talked about much, except for in bad vid-dramas. My peers and I like to watch those and laugh, a lot.”

“Like so many other vids.” Esress said, letting out a hissing laugh. There was a bump a moment later and she ordered. “We’re on the ground, so let’s get moving. Evelyn, keep the hell back until we’ve cleared the area.”

“Of course. I’m not going to get in your way, unless you’re about to touch something you really shouldn’t.” Evelyn said, smiling in return.

That prompted another laugh, but then the soldier closest to the bay doors hit the button to let them out. Pumps whirred as they evacuated the air, leaving it silent for a moment then let in new atmosphere that had a faint red haze to it. Only then did the rear exit of the shuttle lower, revealing the blasted landscape of what had once been a living world.

The soldiers rushed out of the shuttle rapidly, and Evelyn waited for them to go, instead standing slowly and waiting for them to declare the area clear. Not that it took much, considering the blasted landscape that awaited them. At their signal, Evelyn hopped down from the shuttle and felt her boots sink into the cracked, dead soil beneath her feet. She took a couple of steps forward to get clear of the ramp so it could close, then knelt, reaching down with her left palm to brush the ground as she triggered her scanner. As it worked, she looked around.

“Damn, this looks like Hell.” One of the soldiers muttered, shaking his head slowly. “Less volcanoes, but it’s just… dead.”

“It may be dead, but don’t drop your guard.” Esress ordered, her voice sharp. “I don’t want anyone getting iced here.”

The scene was just as bad as the man had said. The ground might have once had plants, but wind had long-since removed their vestiges. Evelyn saw what she thought might be the trunks of trees, but what drew her eye the most was something other than the lifeless brown and red landscape. Not far away was a flat stone platform about five meters across that ran as far as she could see away from their target, though it was buckled and battered in many places, time having taken its toll. It didn’t pass through the gap to the stasis field, though, and the end was rather abrupt and ragged.

“Lieutenant? Could someone check to see if there’s residual magic in that platform?” Evelyn asked, nodding toward it. “Or technology, for that matter.”

“Rammer! You heard the lady.” Esress snapped.

The dwarf nodded, stepping forward cautiously, the other lizzan covering his back. Evelyn looked at the HUD and frowned. She subvocalized the commands to bring up a full readout of what the sensors were detecting, and her frown grew deeper.

“These readings make no sense at all.” Evelyn announced after a moment, frowning as she stood. “The ground isn’t dangerous to us, but I can’t tell what happened here. It’s possible that the traces are just too minute for my suit to figure out.”

“Great, that means we get to guard a full scan tower.” Fiona said, sighing heavily.

“You’d be doing that anyway.” Evelyn replied, putting the tip of her staff over her shoulder. “There’s no way we’d come all the way out here without the other specialists taking as many readings as they can manage. What surprises me is that I can’t detect any mana bleed from over the ridge.”

“What does that mean?” Esress asked, shifting to look at the gap in the hillside.

“It means either the stasis effect is technological, or it’s one hell of a better spell than I’ve ever heard of.” Evelyn said bluntly. “Either way it’s scary, since we can’t create anything close to doing what I saw. If it’s kept the stasis field going since the explosion we detected, I have no clue what could be doing it.”

“I’m not sure myself, but this platform is making me nervous, Lieutenant.” Rammer spoke up, his voice grim. “The tech in this is roasted, but the scanner doesn’t know what to make of half the elements in it, plus I’m detecting tiny amounts of residual mana. Still, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say this was some type of tram.”

“A tram? I… thought it might be, but I was pretty sure I was mistaken.” Evelyn said, a bit taken aback. “That’s too small to carry much, and… well, I guess magic would help preserve it for this long, especially with plants not ripping it apart.”

“Maybe so, I’m just talking about what it looks like to me. Not maglev, obviously, but it could be something similar, or was before the tech fried.” Rammer said, shrugging. “My gear not reading the elements right makes my skin crawl.”

“Huh. Rammer, take samples from the broken end when we approach the bubble.” Esress ordered. “I want the lab rats to have the time of their lives. Everyone else, let’s move.”

“Right.” Rammer agreed, and Evelyn saw the soldiers move as she brought up the rear, mostly.

As they started into the gap, Evelyn heard one of the soldiers speak up. “Hey was that like… glass? Does this seem like a spot that got hit by an orbital cannon to anyone else?”

“Shut it, Warble.” Esress said, her voice grim. “Command already spotted tons of locations that got hit by KEWs.”

“They did? No one told me about that.” Evelyn said, her eyes narrowing.

“Probably just the intel gals not sharing with you, again. They’re not used to talking to you boffins.” Esress replied, then paused. “Huh. That… is bigger than I thought it’d be. And makes my scales itch.”

The murmurs of agreement stoked Evelyn’s curiosity, and she quickened her pace, moving to the side to get a better view, then stopped abruptly, whispering. “I… I don’t believe it.”

Before them was the bubble, and the other end of the stone platform continued from just outside the gap in the hill to inside the bubble. Once inside it turned into a pristine, sleek white surface covered in runic patterns, and it went right up to the building ahead of them, and to a set of thick doors formed of gold and white metal. At least, she thought they were metal.

The building was taller than she’d expected, a hexagonal structure with six towers at each corner and one spire that ascended from its center, and the entire building glittered with gold and white light, save for glittering blue crystals at the top of each tower and spire. The elegant golden patterns over its walls were stunning, or would’ve been if there weren’t black scorch marks marring the structure from where the blasts of the attackers had struck it, and Evelyn could see that most of the fire was focused on what must be the front gates. Considering how familiar the design was, Evelyn couldn’t help a sense of outrage over the damage that had been done.

The attackers gave her the creeps, though. Dozens of figures were on the grounds, and there were four types that Evelyn could see. Most numerous were strange, three-legged creatures that reminded Evelyn of beetles, with their low-slung bodies, but they had a central… stalk that extended upward, glittering with numerous faceted eyes all around their surface. They also had four insect-like arms that were holding weapons, and whether the creature was wearing armor or not was something Evelyn couldn’t say, even with several of them half-suspended in mid-air after having been destroyed by beams of light from the structure. She did determine that their interior was an odd shade of purple, though.

The second type was a lot like the first, but bulkier and with a single large weapon that looked like some type of tuning fork on the end and was emitting a lightning-like purple beam. Third were a trio of enormous figures that reminded Evelyn of black-armored tanks on legs, and they were each unleashing dozens of beam-like attacks, though some might have been projectiles. It was hard to tell with as much smoke was in the air.

Last were a handful of serpentine creatures with six lower legs like those of an arachnid, as well as four upper limbs that were thin and each of which had a half-dozen narrow digits. They were obviously in armor, as they had faceplates, but they were looking away as they mostly hid behind the huge monstrosities, which made their features impossible to make out.

“What don’t you believe?” Esress demanded after a moment. “It looks like the place is a war zone!”

“Yes, but that looks like one of the pictures of one of the angelic temples from around a thousand years ago!” Evelyn retorted, gesturing at the building. “You know, the ones that were burnt to the ground when the angels supposedly vanished?”

“Huh? That doesn’t look like something that would be taken down by a little fire.” Esress said, her voice annoyed. “It might look like one, but it can’t be the same thing.”

“Ah, but we’ve heard of temples like that on other inhabited worlds, too. Most of them were abandoned around the same time, and—” Evelyn began explaining, and at that moment saw one of the soldiers take a cautious step forward.

“Redmond, what are you—” Esress interrupted, her voice a bellow, but it was a moment too late.

Evelyn saw the air around the stasis field ripple once, then twice. A feeling of utter foreboding struck her, and she dropped to the ground instinctively as the field simply vanished.

The air was filled with the roar of explosions instantly, and Evelyn flinched as the blasts of energy ripped through the air again after a half-millennium pause. For a moment she hoped that the attackers wouldn’t notice them as beams of brilliant energy cut through attackers, but then one of the serpentine creatures pointed at them.

A dozen of the creatures spun to face Evelyn and the others, and she swore, taking aim with her staff at one of the smaller creatures and triggering her cannon.

The blast of crimson energy erupted at the creature, and her aim was flawless. It struck the creature dead center of mass… and her heart sank as the blast simply bounced off. An instant later the creatures began firing on her team, and Evelyn swore under her breath, then began casting a spell.

This was probably the worst situation she’d ever run into, and that took some doing.

Part 4