Chapter 1: Arrival

"Pioneer 2's coming today, Dad."

A man with close-cut brown hair didn't even look up from his microscope. "Yes. I know. In a few minutes."

His daughter, Danielle, didn't let her sorrow show through. "It'll be the first time we see Mom, you know." He didn't answer. Danielle fought back tears. "Why don't you care? Don't you at least miss her?"

He lifted his head from the microscope but didn't look back. "Why don't you do something helpful instead of just asking questions?"

The tears came, anger burning deep inside. "You know what, Dad? I really hate you. Sit and rot in front of your microscope for all I care. I'm leaving." Before he could reply, she stormed out of his room, the door sliding closed behind her. Danielle Sterling trudged through the throngs of people who were all talking excitedly about the arrival of Pioneer 2. She had been eager at first, but now after what her father had said…

Maximillian was a scientist, and his work was his life. Recently, he had been researching some weird new microorganism the government had discovered. It was top secret, very hush-hush. Several times he would leave without warning, not telling his own daughter where he was going. Danielle was getting tired of it, just as Kate had.

Danielle took the transporter from the Central Dome to the residential sections. It was calm and peaceful here with most people opting to watch Pioneer 2's arrival from the Dome. No one would be outside. She made her way through the forest to the tallest and oldest tree there. Scaling up it with ease, she sat on the highest branch, able to see the Central Dome from her perch. She sat and waited, watching a family of Rappies play around below. She smiled at them, but it quickly fell away as a red light shot up from the Central Dome, piercing through the clouds. A blue beam of light came down, and Danielle's heart raced. They were here! Pioneer 2 was here!

Frightened chirps came from the Rag Rappies, but Danielle's eyes were fixed on the massive transparent figure that had appeared near and slightly behind the Central Dome. It was like an enormous monster, and as its "wings" opened behind it, a massive explosion of light blue energy engulfed the Central Dome and spread outwards. Danielle didn't even have time to scream before the light filled her vision completely.

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Stormsworder stood before Principal Tyrell, the leader of Pioneer 2. He wasn't even intimidated by the android, who towered over him by nearly a foot. As soon as the news came of the explosion he had come here, knowing that Tyrell would have a briefing for him.

"Stormsworder, I'm glad you came on such short notice." A grim smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, but it quickly fell away. "I'm sure you've heard of what happened. We have an emergency." Tyrell turned to face the console behind him. "We've been unable to establish contact with the Central Dome. Every unmanned probe we send, we lost contact with it as soon as it enters Ragol's atmosphere. The council has decided to launch a transporter to the surface, but so far, all attempts have failed."

Slowly, he faced Stormsworder. "We are bringing the First Expedition Force in. You, as the commander, will lead Alpha squad. Your teammates will be Jaden, a RAmarl, Draslushee, a HUmar, and Riina, a FOnewearl. All of them are exceptional hunters. There is only one other team on even ranking with yours, but we aren't sending them in just yet. You, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta squads will investigate separate area of the surface once we successfully launch a transporter. Once on the surface, communications may not work. In case of emergencies, use telepipes to return to Pioneer 2.

"I don't have to tell you how important this mission is. We need to know what happed on Ragol. Report directly to me upon your return. We don't need to cause a riot by letting the public get any… 'unsettling' information. Brief your team. You'll be contacted as soon as the transporter is launched. Dismissed."

Stormsworder stepped back and saluted, bringing his right fist up to his chest, covering the Oran emblem. He did an about face and left the office, returning to the bustling street near the surface transporter. "Stormsworder, wait!" He turned around, watching Tyrell's secretary approach. "I have a favor to ask of you, something Principal Tyrell couldn't bring himself to request."

"What is it?" Stormsworder asked quietly.

"Tyrell's daughter was on Ragol. She's a scientist and hunter with Pioneer 1. I'm sure you've heard of her."

If Stormsworder could, he would have smirked. "Everyone knows her, Irene. I take it you want me to search for her?" When Irene nodded, he turned away. "I'll keep an eye out for Rico. I promise. She won't be the only one I'm looking for."

"Kate's daughter, huh?"

He nodded. "I must go. I will find Rico for you, don't worry." Without another word, Stormsworder left.

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Something wet touched Danielle's face, like a tongue licking across her skin. When something nudged her head, she groaned, opening up her eyes to find herself staring up into Ragol's clear blue sky. A Savage Wolf's head popped into view, staring down at her. It let out an excited bark, and Danielle immediately knew who the wolf was. "Aska! You're okay!" She slowly sat up, rubbing her throbbing head. She had fallen from the tree she had just been in, but she was more surprised that she had survived the explosion instead of the fall.

The Savage Wolf she had raised, Aska, licked her hand happily as she got to her feet. "Whoa! I know you missed me, but just chill out!" Aska obeyed, lying down on the ground. "Crazy wolf," she muttered, looking around. Everything was normal. There were no signs of an explosion anywhere. No scorch marks, no debris… It was like there was no explosion in the first place.

"Come on, Aska! Let's get back to the Central Dome and see if everyone's okay!" She ran off, the wolf keeping pace beside her. It was faster to just run the path to the Dome instead of going back to the transporter.

It's probably not even working now, either. Maybe the explosion was like an EMP blast that just knocked out electronics and didn't hurt living things.

The closer she got to the Central Dome, the foggier it became. As soon as she came in sight of the giant structure, it began to rain. It wasn't really a downpour. It was more of a gentle shower. Danielle's shirt stuck to her back as she tried to remember how to get back to the entrance from her location. There were several different paths, but which one led to the main doors?

Aska perked up his ears, growling at the nearby bio-gate. Danielle frowned and stepped through, looking around. There was a strange pillar near the pond, decorated with peculiar runes. Aska was unable to come through the gate, so he sat and wined while Danielle investigated.

The government had claimed that this monument was erected in memorial of their arrival to Ragol. She had never seen it before now, but it was definitely older than seven years. She traced the runes on it, trying to recall why they seemed so familiar. That was when she nicked her finger on a particularly rough edge of the stone. Danielle cringed, pulling her hand back as the monument suddenly activated, the runes shining with energy. A loud howl of pain made her spin around, her eyes going wide. "Aska!"

Danielle ran through the gate, her pet bleeding from a set of claw marks. He was facing off against another Savage Wolf, but there was something very wrong about it. There was a deranged look in its eyes, which were glowing purple. With shaky hands, Danielle pulled out her Bravace, aiming at the animal. It went to lunge for Aska, but a single Photon bullet to its head took it out. Danielle dropped to her knees beside Aska, checking his wound. It wasn't deep at all, but she still used a weak Resta to heal it. She wasn't a full-fledged Ranger, but she knew how to fight and use techniques.

More growls came from behind them, and as she looked over her shoulder, she saw an entire pack of Savage Wolves. Danielle's mouth went dry, and she held her weapon in a hand that had suddenly gone numb. "Oh, no…"

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"So, they want us to be the first to check out the surface, huh?" Draslushee smoothed his black hair back, but it was still messy. "I guess they see how much we rocked together in training, so they couldn't resist putting us together."

Stormsworder shook his head. "Dras, you're crazy."

He smirked, patting his friend on the back. "I've known that for a long time, Storm."

Stormsworder would have smiled if he could. Normally, he was a professional: calm, silent, never speaking more than he needed. But around his friends, but he was completely different. "Jaden, how do you put up with him?"

The Ranger smirked. "It's not easy. Especially if you get him started on the topic of dragons."

Dras looked around frantically. "Dragons? Where?"

Jaden smacked herself in the head. "I should just shut up sometimes," she muttered, making Riina laugh softly. Jaden looked over at the young Newman, smiling. "So, you're Riina, right? Well, welcome to our crazy little group."

Riina bowed her head. "Thank you. It's an honor to be teamed with such great hunters. I would never have imagined being on your squad."

Dras now returned to his relatively normal self and plopped down in the chair next to her. "Hey, personally, I'm glad you're with us! It hasn't been the same without our old buddy, Kate."

"Kate? Who's that?"

Stormsworder hesitated as they all looked at him. "Kate… She was formerly the leader of the FEF. She was murdered a few months ago by Black Paper." Everyone fell silent at the mention of that organization. It was cruel and heartless, sending out assassins to deal with whoever got too close. Kate Sterling was one of them.

Someone entered the room, nodding to Stormsworder. It was Irene. "Transporter has been launched. We're ready to send in your team."

Stormsworder turned to face his team. "It's showtime, kids."