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Shadus leaned back. "So are you clear on your instructions?"

Glenn nodded. "Affirmative."

Ray folded his arms. Or tried to, given it's condition. "Basically search for another Gem in the Howling Woodlands, am I correct?"

"Correct you are. Radar is showing some rather large Aparus activity there and I want you four to find out what's going on. With the sudden outbreak it's highly possible that whatever is causing this mass activity is too important to ignore. Scanners also show more Aparus moving toward the same location. I doubt this is a result of massive breeding. I'll bet they are after something and it's located in the heart of the Howling Woodlands. But go with utmost caution. Beasts more dangerous than Aparus are rumored to make their home within the forest."

Jace gulped. "Say...what...........? What kind of...er...beasts?"

Shadus's expression glowered. "I do not know. These are only rumors. Animals said to possess the intelligence of man. That is all I can tell you. From what I've gathered, so called 'sightings' are very rare. But the Howling Woodlands aren't very well-known. It's best to be prepared nevertheless. But I figured you would benefit from such knowledge, whether such creatures exist or not."

Ray held his arm nervously. Shadus seemed to take notice.

"I'd advise you to be especially careful, Mr. Hadron. I hope your arm is coming along fine."

"I'm working on it." Ashe replied. "It may take a couple more days to restore to normal condition, but he should be able to fight with it currently. As long as he doesn't overstrain himself.....or do something stupid. Keeping him from breaking it again will probably be rather hard then, if that's the case."

Ray scratched the back of his head. "Thank you, Ashe. Always the encouraging one..."

Ashe laughed. "You know it."

"So that's it then. I suggest you leave A-S-A-P. But go when you feel ready."

The team nodded and left the room and on to their way toward the dock.

"So did you manage to actually fix your cutter, Ray?" Glenn asked him.

"Yeah. Hopefully I won't break it again. If I do, then I guess I'll be S-O-L when it comes to close range."

Jace frowned. He now wore a different armor. It was blacked-out Draco armor, with a few patches of white neon. "Meh. There are better choices. Have you considered the Xmas-Tree? It might work well for you, considering your suit's sudden laser buff."

It was true. Ray's armor, classified as a Mithril Processing and Utility suit, was first developed nearly seventy years ago solely for the prospecting and handling of mithril. It was confirmed after its sudden change in the Energy Core, that it somehow boosted the overall output of laser based weaponry. Researchers estimated up to a thirty percent power increase compared to other armor. It was only outmatched by the Thunder's auto-enhance feature, but this buff lasted only approximately ten seconds. Whereas Ray's suit's effect seemed permanent and offered better protection than the Thunder, and allows equal mobility. The new armor's permanent effect is however unexplained. The Thunder utilized a built-in generator chip that supplied the user with a short muscle stimulus that increased the wearer's power and mobility, but this stimulus wore off in about ten seconds and took twice that long for the chip to recharge. Ray's armor possessed no internal generator or any imbedded technology that supplied its power. Researchers have been working to duplicate this effect without success. No one has any knowledge as to how it receives it power, how it applies to only laser-related weaponry, or how it came to possess such and extraordinary yet bizarre enhancement. It was at one point thought that it may contain a mithril-infused fiber that draws energy from the wearer itself to utilize its ability, similar to the Pegasus armor that Ashe wears. This allowed the Pegasus to generate a force field around the user, but the wearer suffers loss in stamina the more it is used and longer it stays active. But it has been confirmed that the wearer of Ray's suit is not affected by its ability in any particular way. The only possible explanation is that the railgun shot reacted with the mithril Ray was holding at the time, electromagnetically charging it. The mithril’s assumed reaction possibly allowed the shot to “bypass” Ray’s body, with the suit absorbing the beam’s atomic properties that would have otherwise vaporized his internal organs; therefore, suppling boosted power to beam-based weapons. In spite of Ray's title for it, it was dubbed the "Atom" armor.

"You mean that oversized leaf-blower? It's cool in its own way, but I'll pass on that. Do you know how expensive that thing is? And of everything else, I don't want to take classes for use of heavy weapons." Ray said.

Jace shrugged. "Suit yourself. Blades are pretty useless in my opinion."

Glenn chuckled. "I find firearms only somewhat useful. Bullets mean nothing if they miss their mark. They don't impress me much. But then again, I'm a tough audience."

Ashe rolled her eyes. "Weapons have their place, but a true warrior only needs his fists."

Jace stopped and looked at her. "Says the hand-cannon wielder."

Ashe smiled and held her Energy Glove inches from his face. "And tell me, Mr. Weapon Expert, how guns are fired? Do they shoot themselves?"

"Meep!"

"That's what I thought."

The team walked out onto the docks and boarded the Mach Dragonfly. The prepped their gear as usual and took off.

Glenn had Ray turn his radio to a private channel.

"So what did you say to her, exactly?" He asked Ray.

"What do you mean?"

"When I found out you took off after Ashe that night I'd expected you to come back with more than a broken arm. She clearly wasn't in a good mood, and clearly dislikes you."

"I thought the same."

"Then why?"

"Because she needed someone to talk to."

"Against her will?"

"Yep."

"Can't say I envy you. I'm sure had you said something wrong you would be pulling your jaw out of your stomach. How did you even manage to get her to talk? To you?”

Ray thought for a moment. “Um. Patience?”

The Dragonfly came to a stop and lowered itself in a small clearing. The density of the woods obscured the ship's radar a bit.

When the ship touched down, Ashe activated the cloaking device and turned her seat around with a holographic screen hovering in front of her. "The Howling Woodlands is the most densely wooded-area on UBW. Aparus have made their home here in scarce quantities, but recently there has been migrations, making their numbers skyrocket. I managed to find this legend that Shadus was talking about; it mentions rumored animals that walk upright like man and are equally as intelligent. Not only that, they are physically stronger, faster, and sturdier. I couldn't find any pictures, so I can't tell you what they look like, if they even truly exist at all. But that's all of the information I have on the Howling Woodlands. Not much here. I do know it'll be hard to navigate properly. This radar isn't as powerful as the one on base, so I have taken the liberty to map out a course that should lead us close enough to the destination point Shadus gave us. The only real loss we face is being able to see enemies in their precise location. I can detect enemies with a portable scanner, but it can only spot enemies within a fifty meter radius. Because it will be impossible for me to see anything from the skies or monitor your moment through the woods, I'll accompany you as a ground unit."

Ray chuckled. "These things sound like a Sasquatch."

"A 'Big Foot' in the mouth would be healthy for you, wouldn't you think?" She replied.

Glenn smirked and insisted that they carry on with their directive. The clearing that they landed in was very small, and they were practically in the density of the woods after walking a few feet from the Dragonfly. A few more feet, and two trails branched off. The trees were so tightly packed in the area that taking one of the trails was their only option. A small holographic screen lit up above Ashe's wrist.

"Ok, I was not prepared for that!"

She began punching various buttons nervously. She gave up after a few minutes.

Glenn folded his arms. "Can you locate anything?"

"No, sadly I can't."

Jace started to look a bit nervous himself. "So we are going in blind?"

Glenn thought for a moment. "We need to pick one or the other. If we veer too far off course we turn around."

Ray studied his LIT07. "Sounds good enough to me."

After assessing their equipment, they departed along the trail to the right.

They had a few run-ins with a few speedlings and quite a decent number of panthers. They seemed more interested in toying around with Ray. The other three however drew out their aggressive side, viciously attacking. Glenn picked enemies off from behind, using the trees to his advantage. Jace took out energy flys that buzzed around, not letting one escape his sights. Ashe took full offense. A few measly panthers were no serious match for her athletic finesse and Energy Glove. Almost as if she'd had eyes everywhere, she slid, dove, ducked, and dodged every attempt a panther made to leap at her, and only met the explosive weapon energy fired from her Glove. She even managed to smash one with the weapon itself. Another attempted to pounce from behind, but it met a swift end as she burned it with a quick jet from her F.L.O.A.T. She had downed five already while Ray was getting frustrated with his own target. It simply leaped out of every attempt to slash it, yet it showed no sign of wanting to attack yet. He tried to catch it off-guard with an upward swing, but it leapt backward. In anger, Ray grabbed his cutter in both hands and swung downward, even knowing it was out of range. Surprisingly, a vertical, turquoise crescent flew from his blade and the panther ceased to move. Collision was radiating with an eerie, bright green light. Ray stared in awe. Ashe seemed equally as fascinated. Glenn looked dumbfounded. Jace nearly dropped his R-700.

Glenn's expression was blank behind his helmet. "How.....?"

"I.....don't......I don't know....."

Ashe thought for a moment. "Your sword. Let me take a look."

Ray handed his blade to her. The moment Ashe took hold of the hilt, the green light fizzled out. It had returned to his normal, curve bladed Cutter. Puzzled, Ashe returned his blade and reminded him he had a gun. They carried on until the path grew denser, almost pitch black from the wooded thicket, appeared before them.

"Are you sure this is a good idea, Ashe?"

"Well there is clearly no other way. There's a tiny spot of light in the distance. Surely you see that."

"Yes, but you can't otherwise see well. How do you know that there aren't punji pits in there?"

"I'm pretty sure we'll be fine. Try different visor settings."

"I'm not so sure."

"Ugh. Seriously, Ray? Don't you have any balls?"

"Wanna see 'um?"

Glenn and Jace stared at him in shock, speechless. Ashe however responded.

"RAY!" She yelled, her face reddening underneath her helmet.

He smiled under his visor. "You're cute when you get upset."

"I, du- wha-? Why must you be so frustratingly infuriating?"

"Because it's fun, and you're usually a party pooper."

She brought her White Drill across the back of his head.

"Ow!"

"Stop whining. Start walking."

Ray chuckled and didn't say anything else.

Jace held his Plasma Neo across his chest. He remained focused, but the thought of rumored beasts lurking in these very woods, was fresh on his mind.

Glenn didn't let that bother him. He stayed ready for anything. Both of his swords were drawn and ready for use at any time. He was actually hoping a bit for a challenge, but he figured he'd be disappointed until they reached their destination.

They dragged on through the woods for what seemed like an hour. More flys and panthers showed up. And died. Jace noticed a bull in the distance, but it was trying to figure out how it got stuck in between two trees. They paid it no attention. Up ahead they all stopped. What they saw was nothing they ever saw before. A few speedlings and panthers were already dead, laying along the trail with a few dead soldiers. They all wore a seasonal Dec.24 armor.

Jace took a step back. "What happened here.....?"

"Not sure. But look at this mess. This is crazy."

Jace nudged a soldier that was laid up against a tree. He was hoping he'd been alive, but he fell over. His helmet rolled off. Ashe gasped. It wasn't a soldier, but rather, an automaton of some sort.

"What the hell is that?"

Glenn grit his teeth. "I'll bet you the military is experimenting with some kind of classified information. Animatronic soldiers? That'll cost us our jobs."

Jace seemed puzzled. "Um. Wouldn't that be a ‘‘good’’ thing if we have robots to fight for us? The casualties won't be nearly as high."

"Please. Robots aren't fit for battle. They lack the creativity and imagination we humans do. They'll just know how to shoot, but I'm sure Aparus will learn how to deal with them. Those speedlings are smarter than they look."

Glenn severed its head and stuck it in his bag. Jace rubbed his chin.

"Are you sure this is the military's work? I didn’t think the military carried the Dec.24 anymore."

"They do. But you have to have it ordered, along with the Xmas-Tree and that backpack that looks like an angry, waving snowman."

"Ah right. That stuff isn't in the shop, as its Special Edition type gear. And the backpack you're thinking about is the Jin.Jingle. It's actually a step up from the STK-06-ZZ that Ray wears. But that is one expensive piece of gear."

"Do what?"

"The Jin.Jingle contains all of the same technology and lightweight material that the STK-06-ZZ does, but it also combines a little bit of the imbedded hardware that the STK.F-VI-00 and HYD-00-IX possess. It's not as effective as those two packs individually."

"And why only partial and not all of the hardware?"

Ashe looked at the map that popped above her wrist.

"Well. We're back on the right trail now. Shall we proceed?"

Despite Ashe attempting to avoid more explanations, Jace continued. Luckily he kept it short and sweet.

"Cost for one. As had they threw in everything, it wouldn't be as lightweight as the STK-06-ZZ."

Ray poked at the ground with his cutter. "Sounds like a good investment. But I suppose Ashe is right, let's keep moving."

Suddenly, a familiar roar came from the trail behind them. The bull that had been wedged between the trees was free. It charged, but making itself known, there was no problem avoiding it. It turned and readied itself to charge again. Glenn held Jericho and Ai up, while the others aimed their guns.

Jace peeked through his sniper scope. "It's free!"

Ray braced himself for the charge. "The Rhino!"

"You know, I think you were right last time, it looks more like a bull."

"Whatever it is."

The bull lunged forward. Before anyone took a shot, a pillar of ice surrounded it instantly.

Jace looked up from his scope in shock. "What was that?"

Ashe continued to hold up her Energy Glove while shaking nervously. "I don't know! It just...froze."

A voice sounded from the above foliage. "This isn't a place for kids. Go home. It's far too dangerous for you to be wandering here."

Glenn kept his blades raised. "Show yourself! Who are you?"

A figure dropped from the treetops onto where the bull stood. It shattered, and there a man now crouched. On his back was a large, black sword. He stood up and brought the blade out to where he held it at his side, with the tip resting on the ground. The sword was as long as he was, from the end of the hilt to the point of the blade. His features were slightly different from that of an ordinary human, appearing almost as if a living fantasy. A pair of fuzzy ears stretched from his head. A tail was visible from his backside. He looked at them.

"Military personnel? Should have known." The stranger spoke.

"Who are you?" Glenn asked assertively.

"Who am I? Shouldn't I be asking you that?"

"Stop playing around. Answer me."

He approached Glenn. Glenn stood his ground, but the others backed up. The man looked at Glenn, as if he could see his eyes through his visor.

"Your confidence is matched only by your supreme foolishness. I would expect as much. You're a Venture, aren't you? Surely you're aware of your ilk's crimes?"

Glenn snapped back. His answer was rather strange. "I am nothing like him!"

"Perhaps not. But you act brave, yet your body language says otherwise. You fear my presence, yet you waste the energy hiding it."

"Don't compare me to him!"

Glenn swung. As if his sword weighed nothing, the man parried and forced Glenn backward with a palm to his chest.

"I do not wish to harm you. But if any of you raise your weapons against me, I won't hesitate to make this your burial ground."

Glenn attempted to pull himself up. He coughed and wheezed. The force of the blow knocked the breath out of him. Jace backed away slowly and ran over to him.

He looked over at Ashe. She stood as frozen as the bull had been, save for the shaking of her legs. He walked over to her and placed his hand on her glove. He applied pressure, and Ashe lowered it to her side.

"You hold your weapon up like your friend, yet you back away? Are you not as overconfident as he? I sense a broken past. Some failure perhaps? Are you trying to cover that up with an adopted personality?"

Ashe swallowed. Her throat was dry. "You're... You're a Lycan!"

"I see you pay attention. I also sense you have a big ego. Do you cause pain to others around you? Do you act selfishly? Why do you build yourself up by making others feel small?"

Ray stepped forward. "Hey! Don't talk to her that way!" The stranger backed up a few paces as Ray centered himself between Ashe and the aggressor.

Ashe crumpled to her knees. She began to sob a little. Ray stood between him and Ashe. He knew that was touchy subject.

The man's eyebrows came together. He looked straight toward Ray's eyes. He held his blade up and pointed it toward Ray.

"You! What is your name, knave!"

"You can call me Ray Hadron. You mess with my friends, you mess with me! I don't care how strong you may be, I won't go down without a fight!"

"You would dare challenge me, Ray? What do I have to say about you? Do you defend your friend because of sympathy, or because you share a similar past?"

"Similar....past?" Ray asked, puzzled.

"Your past is a much darker one. Horrors unspeakable. And you do not even remember such traumatic events?"

"I don't remember much. My earliest memory was five years ago when I was told I was in a coma for a while. But stop trying to mess with my head! Why don't you just leave us alone!"

The man's ears twitched. His tail swept slightly back and forth.

"You’ve seen too much. I promise I'll make your end a quick one. Your friends will suffer your fate as well."

He swung his blade. Ray turned his head to the side and closed his eyes. After a moment he opened, and found the man's sword a centimeter from his neck. He lowered the blade.

"Quite a surprise, Ray. You would truly stand against me, to defend your friend?"

Ray gulped. "Y-yes."

The man looked Ray up and down. "Despite your past, you show a positive side. I sense a certain kindness about you."

Glenn walked up with his arm around Jace. He still coughed a bit and breathed heavily. "Damn you. I don't care what my name really is. I don't follow the likes of them!"

The lycanthrope looked at him. "You deject your family, is it? You would rather call yourself by a different name than live by your own family's sins?"

"You got it, Buster!"

The man put his blade back behind his back and folded his arms. "You can refer to me as Canis. May I ask what your business is here?"

"We um...we're searching for a classified artifact." Ray said as he helped Ashe to her feet. She took her helmet off and wiped her eyes. Canis took a deep breath.

"Everyone does things they regret or wish to atone for. The path you seek is a difficult one to walk. But you have your friends to help you should you stray. You're a strong young woman. Do not let something as simple as anger take you away from who you are."

Ashe dried her eyes and put her helmet back on.

"So you are here on account of some artifact? I've roamed these woods for longer than you can imagine. You won't find anything here."

Ashe uttered an explanation. "Radar showed signs of increasing alien activity. We were s-sent to investigate." She sniffled.

"The Aparus have indeed been increasing in numbers lately. I will make sure they are under control. It's nothing for you to be concerned over."

Jace hesitated, but asked a question. "Are there more of you? I mean, of your people?"

"Hmm. I assume you ask because of that silly rumor that intelligent yet savage creatures lurk here? My people have been wiped out. All that I know remains is myself and one of my siblings. As for your rumor, that was started by us long ago to keep nosy runts out of here."

Ray didn't want to ask a lot of questions, or show that he knew little of his past to his friends. But curiosity consumed him.

"You spoke of a dark past. If I may ask, Canis, what did you mean?"

"Simply put, you've been through trials that would break an ordinary man."

"You talk like you know me personally."

"You are just easy to read. It may be better you don't remember much about that. Your mind is probably in denial, not allowing you to recall those things. I knew there was something strange about you. You kids are an unusual bunch. You may restore my faith in the human race, yet."

"I struck you as strange?"

"Yes, ever since I dragged your hapless body out of here a couple weeks ago."

"Huh? You had brought me back to base?"

Glenn rested his hand on the hilt of Jericho, now sheathed on his side. "So that's how he made it back alive, huh? I have a question for you myself. How do you know my family?"

"I've seen them before. I've noticed around these parts your group is not nearly as notorious."

"That's why I moved here."

Canis sniffed the air. He focused back on Glenn. "What is that you're carrying in your bag?"

Glenn removed the robotic head from his Blademaster. "Not sure what this thing is or who is responsible, but I'll make sure the officials know about this."

"I see. Those things have been wandering through here for the past few days. They are as much a nuisance as the Aparus."

Ashe's holo-screen popped from her wrist flashing between red and blue hues. She looked at it. "Guys, we've got a large wave of them heading toward us. We need to move!"

Canis growled. "You four head home. The Aparus are growing here because of me. There is nothing here to be found. Consider your mission a success and go! And take this."

Canis handed a small black square to Ray. It was a chip to some piece of hardware. Ashe was tugging on his arm with urgency. He closed his hand around it at ran back toward the Mach Dragonfly.

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