Nielle and Marie, their plasma rifles at the ready, took point as the shuttle set down and the rear hatch opened. Behind them were Tegan and Rhona, and then Isamura, with Caroline picking up a weapon and jogging after them once the shuttle was powered down.
The town square was not busy but here and there people were slumped over awkwardly, having obviously fallen asleep in mid-step.
Isamura could sense that they were near the centre of the magical field. In fact, they all felt an odd sense of familiarity as they stopped at the door to Meg’s shop.
The front of the shop was unlit but a faint glow seeped through the edges of an interior door.
“Rhona, Nielle – go around and cover any other exits,” Tegan ordered.
While those two turned and circled around to the back of the shop, Isamura quietly applied a bit of magical coercion to the lock, allowing the rest of the team to slip inside.
Suddenly the front of the shop was flooded with an unearthly bright light as the door behind the counter flew open and a silhouetted female figure stepped out.
It was not Meg, but behind her they could see the trader sprawled on the floor, unmoving.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you back here so soon,” the woman said. ”You’re supposed to be out looking for someone.”
“It was you that sent us into that ambush,” Caroline stated.
“Yes, I suppose I did.”
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Talestra, enchantress of darkness and servant of those you call, Siphen. I underestimated you once, I won’t be doing that again.” Without warning the woman hurled herself across the counter, knocking Caroline to the ground in a blur of motion and immediately turning to attack Isamura.
As the others scrambled to bring their weapons to bear, Isamura cast a crackling discharge of energy at the enchantress.
Talestra barely flinched. The spell burned a neat round hole in her shirt, but it barely left a welt on the skin underneath.
“Is that all you’ve got?” said Talestra, glancing down at the hole with an unimpressed expression, and taunting, “Show me some real magic!”
“You asked for it!” Isamura said with a smirk, casting another spell into the fray. To her horror, the spell seemed to rebound, darkening her vision. Muttering curses, Isamura dispelled the curse, but Talestra had already moved on.
Tegan fired a burst of plasma from her rifle at close range but incredibly the energy seemed to refract away as if hitting some sort of barrier. Talestra snatched the rifle away and tossed it out of a window. Glass tinkled noisily to the ground.
“Your toys won’t work on me,” she said with a sinister smile.
Marie charged in with a scream, landing a fierce blow to the mid-section. The woman grunted at the force of the blow, then cast a dark spell which knocked Marie back so hard that she spun into the frame of the front door.
Caroline and Tegan pulled Talestra to the ground and attempted to subdue her, but were similarly knocked away by a blast of dark energy. The enchantress got up and gave a sigh of mild irritation. “I’m not even warmed up yet here, come on, who’s next?”
Isamura hit her with another, stronger blast of energy at the same time as Rhona and Nielle fired their weapons from the back of the shop. The combined streams of magic and plasma seared at Talestra’s clothes, setting them alight.
Talestra staggered for a moment or two under the onslaught then repelled the energy outwards in a powerful burst which brought shelves crashing down and sent everyone to their feet.
All was quiet for a few moments as the team from the Orion caught or painfully sucked in their breath.
Talestra surveyed the damage, both to her clothing and the shop. “Well, maybe you do pose a threat after all. I wonder how many rounds it will take for me destroy you all.”
“Everyone, get down,” said an unfamiliar voice.
Although almost all of the team was on the deck anyway, they instinctively flattened against the floor of the shop. Talestra turned her head to see who the newcomer was, but was unable to evade their attack.
A concussive bolt of plasma thundered into the shop and disintegrated the dark enchantress in mid-step. Mostly. The charred remains fell forward onto the shop floor.
Isamura gazed at the woman standing outside the shop toting Tegan’s plasma rifle. She was dressed in an Orion jumpsuit but wasn’t one of the team that had joined them in the shuttle. Flowing red hair cascaded down to her shoulders.
“Not that we aren’t grateful for the rescue but who exactly are you?” Caroline asked as she unsteadily got to her feet.
“The answer to your question is simple. The explanation will take considerably longer,” the woman said. ”I am Orion.”
“What do you mean, you’re Orion?”
“The starship which you used to travel into the Nexus, you call it Orion. I am an avatar, a representation of the artificial consciousness stored within the Orion’s computer.”
“Well, when you put it like that, it does sound pretty simple,” Caroline said with a hint of sarcasm. “But how did you know how to take out this… Talestra?”
“The Siphen have employed minions and given them special abilities to further their cause in the past. I am familiar with those abilities. So I made a simple adjustment to this crude plasma weapon and now Talestra is no more.”
She gestured to the pile of ash on the floor. “A pity. I would have liked to take her alive and answer some questions, but I judged the risk to you and the away team to be too great.”
“Why didn’t you just warn us about her earlier? For that matter, why haven’t we seen you up until now?”
“When the Orion suffered a critical loss of power, I decided that the mission to retrieve a replacment crystal would have the best chance of success if I accompanied you. However, I did not want my presence to raise questions or distract you from the task. So I employed a low-level neural block which affected your short-term memory. You quite literally forgot about me as soon as you saw me.”
“All right, I think that’s enough questions for now.” Caroline indicated Rhona, who was holding up the crystal that they had come for with a triumphant smile. “We’ve completed the mission. But we can’t call you Orion. That will just get confusing.”
“Very well, Captain. Perhaps you could call me by the other name by which you know me.”
“What other name would that be?”
The woman who had called herself Orion smiled. It was a very human-seeming smile for someone who claimed to be a computer avatar.
“Oh. Of course. It was some time ago for you. I am… I was Princess Irena.”
“Who’s Princess Irena?” Tegan asked.
“A character from a virtual reality,” Rhona explained. “Caroline and I were a little bored so we decided to go on an adventure together.”
“So you’re really her?” Caroline asked.
“In the flesh,” said Irena with a grin. “Come on, we can talk all about when we get back to the ship.”
“Oh, you bet we will. Right everyone, let’s move out.”
“I will be there momentarily,” Isamura said. She was tending to Meg, who seemed to stll be alive.
“All right,” Caroline said, helping Marie to her feet and handing her back her rifle.
“I’m glad you came back,” Meg said to Isamura, “and I’m sorry I sent you into that ambush.”
“Few can resist the magic of an enchantress, Meg. I am glad that you are alive and well.”
“Will I ever see you again?” she asked.
“I’ll try to come back and see you sometime,” Isamura promised her. As an afterthought she added, “I am sorry about your shop.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I don’t keep the valuable stuff out in front anyway.”
Isamura laughed. “Be well, Meg.”
“You too, Isamura.”