The sun rises above the Enceladean horizon, and the small moon’s icy surface immediately begins to sublimate. Wisps of vapor rise and dance, looking for all the world like tendrils of delicate smoke. The vapor coils and writhes and is carried through the thin atmosphere by the barest whisper of a breeze.
A moment later, a figure cuts through the fog, and for the briefest of seconds, she looks as though she is wearing the mist like a cape, as though the entire surface of this little moon exists for the sole purpose of cloaking the Hunter in mystery and wonderment. Then, as she continues pacing forward, the illusion is broken, and the vapor swirls to fill the void she has left behind her. She pays the mist no mind.
Traxis reaches behind her to the satchel nestled in the small of her back and softly curses the necessity of the cold-weather gear she wears. The heavy garments are essential to her survival in this arctic wasteland, but their confounded bulkiness makes all her movements slow and clumsy. She fumbles with the satchel for a moment and produces a worn piece of parchment that looks like it would be more at home in a library, under glass, than here in the snow and ice. Traxis studies the document for several long moments, then consults the rangefinder strapped to her wrist. She ticks off some numbers on her fingers, then nods perfunctorily to herself, apparently satisfied with the result.
She pushes on, altering her course only slightly. Soon, a light dusting of ice crystals begins to fall, and she knows that she is drawing near to one of Enceladus’ outer cryovolcanoes. The miles-high geyser of icy particles serves as the goalpost for her destination, and she quickens her pace.
Half an hour later she has a visual on the icy plume, and ten minutes after that she is safely ensconced inside a narrow rift in the ice near the base of the volcano. It is utterly and completely silent here, a sharp contrast to the roar of the geyser outside, and Traxis claps her gloved hands together just to reassure herself that she has not gone suddenly deaf. The muffled whump encourages her, and she turns her attention to the corridor ahead.
The passage itself slopes gently downward. The floor and walls are perfectly smooth, carved so perfectly from the frozen landscape that Traxis knows this is not a natural formation. She had suspected as much even before her arrival here, but this visual evidence validates her prediction. She takes a few tentative steps forward and is surprised to find that, despite the floor’s glassy-smooth appearance, she has no trouble maintaining her footing. Whatever technology it was that created this place has made it deceptively secure.
From here she walks more confidently, traveling ever downward. The corridor turns sharply right at regular intervals, and Traxis begins to get into a rhythm of walk, turn, walk, turn, walk, turn. The only sounds are the scuff of her boots on the icy floor and the occasional whistle of air through unseen crevices.
Eventually, Traxis realizes the floor is beginning to level out and she slows her pace. She turns one, last corner and is brought up short. The frozen corridor opens up into a cavernous room lush with green vegetation and vibrant with life. Everywhere trees and bushes sprout from a soft, loamy soil. The chatter of birds and buzz of insects reverberate off the rocky ceiling high above. It is a scene that would be more at home in an arboretum than buried deep below the surface of this frozen moon. The first thought that goes through Traxis’ mind, though she doesn’t know why, is that the room is awake — and she can’t explain why that thought brings such coldness to her soul.
She takes a couple of cautious steps into the room and is alarmed — but not surprised — when the corridor she was just standing in vanishes, the wall sealing up seamlessly behind her. No way to go but forward then, she thinks and continues to push further into the room. There is no clear trail here, but Traxis senses, then begins to see, a pattern to the room’s layout. The trees, bushes, and foliage all seem to be set around a focal point off to one side, and she cannot resist its undeniable allure.
As she approaches, the greenery begins to thin out and she emerges into a small clearing about 35 feet in diameter. At its center is a stone reliquary, and she knows without question that this is what she has come for.
It is then that she notices the creature lying before the reliquary. It is long — nearly two meters — and vaguely reptilian, but its skin is fur-covered, rather than leathery, with long, black, almost downy hair. The beast has a sharp, hooked beak that looks as though it would be more at home on a bird of prey than on this low creature.
“What manner of beastie are you, hm?” she says. “Herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore?” She keeps her voice low and steady, not wanting to startle or provoke it until she has had time to evaluate it — and its capabilities. The creature doesn’t move, doesn’t twitch a muscle, but Traxis knows that it is both awake and aware of her because its eyes track her as she paces slowly around it.
It is only when she steps toward the reliquary that the creature shows any real signs of life. Quick as a blink, it is on its feet, a low rumble emanating from deep within its body.
“Damn, but you’re fast,” she murmurs to herself, astonished. It cocks its head at her, as if listening, but otherwise doesn’t move or challenge her.
Traxis continues to circle around the clearing, and the beast moves with her, maintaining a position between her and the reliquary. She studies the creature, watches the way it moves, observes its body language. On its feet, it stands just under a meter tall. Its movements are fluid and controlled, and Traxis begins to suspect that the beast was created expressly to guard this place. She has certainly never seen anything like it, and nothing about its structure or anatomy strikes her as something that would ever occur naturally over millions of years of evolution.
She takes another step forward, probing, testing, watching to see what the creature will do. It rumbles again, low in its belly, and with growing amazement and unease, Traxis watches as four long talons slide slowly, silently out of each of the monster’s feet. “So, not an herbivore,” she muses grimly.
It is then that the creature opens its beak with a warning hiss, and Traxis observes the short — but very sharp — needle-like teeth within. “Ah,” she says and releases a resigned sigh. “That would be carnivore, then.”
Moving slowly, she reaches up and releases the catch on her cloak, letting it fall to the ground. It is warm here, certainly warmer than outside, and the cloak will only get in her way. Still moving slowly, she slips a hand to her belt and surreptitiously slides out her dagger. Her other hand rests on the butt of her pistol and with a quiet click she releases the catch on her holster. The creature cocks its head at her again and rumbles. Another warning. “No, you’re certainly not stupid, are you?” she says. “But then, I didn’t really expect you would be, not with what you’re guarding.” They stand there a moment longer, looking at each other, waiting.
And then things begin to happen very, very quickly.
Guardian charges guardian, but the beast’s mechanical advantage wins the skirmish, and Traxis finds herself suddenly flying backward. Even as she is falling, she has her arms under the creature, lifting it, and when she lands on her back, her feet are under the beast’s belly. She pushes, hard, and the leverage supplied by her legs and the momentum of her tumble launches the monster up and vaults it over her head. It lands on its side with an awkward flop a few yards away and lets out a strange larruping sound that Traxis can only interpret as frustration or anger. It is on its feet again in an instant, even as Traxis is scrambling to find hers.
There is no time for breath, or thought, because the creature is upon her once again, but this time she dodges to the side as it launches itself at her chest. She slashes with her blade and feels the steel bite home. The creature lurrups, a cry of pain, but it otherwise seems not to notice the wound. Already it has turned to face Traxis, circling, more cautious this time but not at all afraid or intimidated. The gash on its shoulder is only barely weeping blood, or ichor, or whatever passes for life fluid with a creature such as this.
Traxis doesn’t wait for another attack. She brings her pistol up — amazingly still in its holster after all that — and squeezes off three shots in quick succession. None strike anything but dirt. The monster is already moving, feinting, dodging — she thinks, Traveler, but it’s fast — and before she has a chance to try again, it is crashing into her, knocking her off balance. It never again tries to knock her down, just attacks, slashes, and rushes in from another direction. The beast seems to be everywhere at once. In moments she is bleeding superficially from a dozen different wounds.
Then there is blinding pain as three of the creature’s razor-sharp talons sink into her shoulder. She feels her feet leave the ground as she is flung across the clearing. She screams as she feels her right clavicle snap, as the ligament that holds the bone to her sternum tears, and her right arms falls limp and useless. She lands, hard, and nearly passes out. The only thing that keeps her conscious is the knowledge that, if she succumbs, it will be all over for her. She fights for consciousness, nearly loses it, bites down on her tongue hard enough to draw blood, forces her eyes open, and wills herself to remain alert. The flood of pain from her shoulder washes almost every other sensation away, but she pushes herself to her knees with her good arm and looks up at the creature, which is stalking her from just a few yards away.
“What are you waiting for, huh?” she seethes. She takes a deep breath — it is all she allows herself time for — then says, “Here’s something I’ll bet you’ve never seen.” With a gasp, she throws herself toward her pistol, which is lying in the dirt just a few feet away. No sooner is the weapon in her hand than it flares to life with a sudden burst of the Traveler’s terrible power. Flames lick up along the length of the gun, and Traxis fires off a single shot even as the beast leaps toward her. The exertion and the blast cause Traxis to nearly pass out, and for a long moment it is a close thing. But when she recovers, she is surprised to find that she is still alive. She is even more surprised to discover that the creature is lying on the other side of the clearing, smoldering, an ugly wound blasted into its side. Much of the creature’s insides are now outside, but amazingly, the beast is still alive; Traxis can see its sides heaving as it labors to draw breath.
She pulls herself to her feet and staggers over to the creature. Black wings creep into the periphery of her vision, but each time they do she stops and takes deep breaths until they pass. She finally reaches the creature, which lets out a pitiful mewling sound as she flops down next to it. She places her good hand on the beast’s side and feels its shuddering tremors.
“I wish it didn’t have to be like this,” she says to it, “but you are guarding something that is very important to my people.” She pulls out her blade again, reverses her grip on the hilt, and holds it poised over the creature’s head.
“Go quickly, my friend, and find rest within the Traveler’s shadow.” She slips the blade quickly across its throat and a moment later she is the only living thing left in the clearing.
It is several minutes before Traxis moves again. She feels her own blood flowing down her arm and side, but for the longest time, she just can’t bring herself to care. She is awash in mind-numbing pain, but as her body begins to flush the adrenaline out of her system, she can feel it starting to shut down. “Get a move on, Traxis,” she admonishes herself. She is alarmed by how weak her voice sounds to her own ears, and that shakes her out of her reverie.
It takes some effort, and not a little agonized moaning as every injury on her body cries out for attention, but eventually she gets the satchel over her head and opened on the ground before her. She pulls out a stim pack and jams the needle into her thigh, pushing the plunger all the way down. Within seconds she is fully alert again, now feeling a little like a solar flare. Next, she pulls out her first aid kit and begins bandaging up the worst of her lacerations as best she can. The punctures from the creatures claws on her shoulder are the worst. Every touch is agony, but they are also the worst of the bleeders and she must get them stopped if she hopes to get out of this place alive.
“I’ll get a Warlock to finish patching me up later,” she mumbles. Her voice sounds stronger, steadier, but she knows she is not out of the woods yet.
Finally she has the bandages in place, and she fashions a makeshift sling for her right arm. She pushes herself to her feet, staggers, but remains upright. Her vision swims in and out of focus for a moment or two longer, but eventually even that stabilizes, and she pushes herself in the direction of the reliquary. Once there she leans against the blessedly cool stone and breathes heavily. The exertion has left her feeling weak and washed out. The trek back to her ship will be brutal, she knows.
Then, Traxis turns her attention to the reliquary itself. Access to the coffer can only be obtained by touching in the correct order a series of runes carved into the stone itself. This poses no barrier to the Hunter. She has already done her research — and she has seen this lock before. She quickly enters the combination — she is feeling stronger now — and the reliquary opens before her.
But it is empty. The archive she had hoped for is not present. She is not surprised by this — this is not the first archive she has raided in hopes of obtaining valuable weapons in defense of the City — but she is disappointed nonetheless. Her injuries, the death of the guardian, the futility of this effort — all these could have been avoided had she but known for certain what she would find. But she had to come, she had to check, she had to be sure.
Traxis looks again and finds the expected ceramic tile where once the grimoire had been. She pulls it from the reliquary and turns it over. The now-familiar symbol stamped into the ceramic seems to mock her.
“Who?” she croaks. She has had time to research and discover that the symbol represents not a faction, nor an enemy race, but a single individual, one whose identity yet eludes her. “Who are you? Why do you keep stealing the hopes of the City, of an entire people?” She turns the tile over again but finds no other identifying marks, no clues as to the name of this mysterious entity.
She sighs in resignation and tucks the tile into her satchel. It will join the other three secreted in her quarters back in the Tower. For now she must make her way back. It will be hours before she reaches her ship — her last two stim packs will be necessary to get her there without collapsing — and hours more with auto-pilot and a cryochamber before she reaches Earth and the City. She only hopes that someday she will have something to show for all this danger and frustration.
She only hopes.