Hello, and welcome to The Monster Hunter Serial! This story is just a little project I have going on prompted by my interest in Monster Hunter and my desire for writing practice. I'm hoping to get parts up on a fairly consistent basis, and I'm aiming to turn this into a sort of episodic series, allowing for plenty of short term action in addition to the long term development. In many ways, this is an experiment for me, one that I hope will help me hone my writing skills as well as have a little fun. I'm afraid the first few parts are a bit slow, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoy writing it!
In terms of content, I go no farther than Monster Hunter's T-Rating: Mild Language and violence.
“Alright,” Ian thought as he checked his work one last time, “The trap’s ready. I sure hope this works…”
Carefully, the young hunter backed away from the trap. If all went according to plan, this trap would be a key part of the hunt’s success. If not… well, he wouldn’t think about that. Already, careless mistakes in past hunts had made Ian the subject of a very critical eye from Darren, the self-made leader of the Raiders. But today was to be a day of victory at all costs, for its success was vital to both Ian’s future in the Raiders and to the team as a whole. Oh, what a victory it would be!
As he crept through the underbrush from tree to tree, the other Raiders came into his view. Of the three, the first to detect his approach was Stewart, a fellow junior member of the team.
“Hey, guys!” He said, forgetting to speak quietly, “Ian’s back! Nice work, Ian!”
“Shush it, Chubby!” Darren’s command came in a sharp whisper. “You want to alert Birdie over there and every other monster in the neighborhood?”
“S-sorry…” Stewart’s apology was barely audible.
Darren turned to Ian, who was now standing just a few feet away. “Well, Ian? Is it ready?”
“Yes, I checked and double checked it. It’ll work, I promise.”
“It’d better, seeing as it’s our last one. Logan, give Ian back his toy.”
The final member of the Raiders, Logan, was a hunter quite close to Darren in experience but significantly short of him in ambition. With a nod, he picked up Ian’s heavy broadsword and handed it back to its owner. “Nice work, Ian.” Ian smiled as he took it back. From the taciturn Logan, even one sentence was something to be proud of.
Darren stood up, stretched, and picked up his light bowgun. The small crossbow was not much to look at compared to Logan’s bone lance, Ian’s metal greatsword, or even Stewart’s short blade, but out of the four weapons, it had without a doubt had drawn out the final breath of the most monsters. Today, though, it was not to be an instrument of death. In place of the bullet shells it usually held were shells specially equipped with a powerful tranquilizer.
“Alright, it’s naptime for Big Bird,” Darren quipped. In the most dangerous part of the hunt thus far, he was about to face down an angry bird wyvern with nothing but the special shells in hopes of capturing it alive. “Logan, prepare a fist pump for me when I get back. You other two rookies stay hidden. And don’t even think about cheerleading this time.” He punctuated his last sentence by pointing his bowgun square at Stewart’s chest. With final nod at Logan, he departed.
Their quarry for this hunt was very precious, hence the plans to capture it rather than kill it. It was a rare breed of the bird wyvern called Gypceros, with a hide colored deep purple rather than the usual grey, and with bright green scales on its neck and tail, a striking alternative to the orange the creature usually sported. Who the Gypceros was for and for what purpose did not matter a bit to Darren, but what did matter was the 20,000 zeni reward: an unusually generous amount for its difficulty, numbering 5,000z for each member of the Raiders, a veritable fortune for where they stood as hunters. Of course this reward was on the condition of a successful capture. Otherwise they would receive nothing, compounded by a humiliation what would haunt them for a long time. Needless to say, failure was not an option.
The Gypceros was not far off, so Darren moved carefully to avoid catching the monster’s attention too early. Already the Raiders had weakened and exhausted it in a series of hit and run skirmishes, as was necessary for capturing most large monsters, so it was liable to try and escape if it sensed danger. However, if it were alarmed with obnoxious jeering, which Darren excelled at, it would likely decide to charge rather than to flee.
Before he crossed into where the Gypceros could see him, Darren checked that the rock that marked Ian’s trap was directly behind him. Considering what he was about to do, he had to be absolutely certain it would work. Then, with a deep breath, he entered the clearing where the creature lay.
The Gypceros, which was quietly nursing its wounds, did not notice immediately notice Darren. To get its attention, Darren fired a bowgun shell right past its head and then shouted his taunt. “Hey rubber-butt, I’m over here! Come on, I’ve got something for you!” Startled, the Gypceros raised its head, focusing one eye on the Darren. Slowly and painfully, it rose to its feet.
“Remember me, beautiful?” The foolhardy hunter continued, “Yeah, I thought not! Considering how much you’re worth, you’re an absolute moron! Good thing some namby-pamby noble’s love-struck, or you’d make me a nice pair of long underwear!”
The ploy was working. After a few seconds of irritated panting, the Gypceros could take no more of Darren’s mocking tone, and it began charging. The creature could hardly keep its balance in its exhausted state, and it struggled to keep upright. The rather pathetic display brought a scornful smile to Darren’s face as he retreated back into the cover of the foliage and beyond the trap.
When the Gypceros crashed through the last curtain of foliage, Darren re-cocked his bowgun and made one last beckoning taunt. “Come on, pretty bird! Come on!” The Gypceros let out an angry squawk and lunged at him blindly. With an almost maniacal laugh, Darren shot one tranq shell square into the monster’s chest, then another.
Staggering, the Gypceros fell, its eyes glazing over with drowsiness. Nevertheless, it struggled to its feet and continued working its way to its attacker. As long as it could focus on fighting off the tranquilizer’s effects, it would manage to stay awake. Of course, that’s where Ian’s trap came in.
At least, that’s where the trap was supposed to come in. It only took a second of anxious waiting before all of the Raiders realized something wasn’t right. At this point, the Gypceros was standing exactly where Ian had set his trap. All eyes were at its feet, but nothing was happening. Ian’s face was white.
“Ian, why isn’t your lousy trap working?!” Darren yelled angrily. “What did you—“
Darren was interrupted by a hoarse, dreadful sounding noise. Without the distraction of the trap, the Gypceros was able to fight off the effects of the tranquilizer, and was now moving into a new wave of adrenaline thanks to its rage. Its cries became stronger and louder as it jumped furiously up and down, losing regard for its injuries. When Darren looked back up at it, its face was inflamed with a frightening green glow.
“Gah, be quiet, you rubbery bag of--!” Darren’s exclamations became louder and more profane as he fired additional tranq shells into the enraged Gypceros’ chest. As loud as he was, however, the enraged Gypceros was louder, and its angry gobbling effectively drowned out Darren’s schoolboy swearing. In the face of the monster's wild threatening, Darren involuntarily retreated until his back hit a tree. Unfortunately, his increasingly frantic mind knew no direction but backward, and now he had no place to run.
There was no doubt that the Gypceros was now more than a match for the cornered gunner, despite its injuries. Between its rock hard beak, razor sharp claws, and deadly toxic vomit, it would only a matter of seconds before the creature spilled out Darren’s life, one way or another. Without a thought, Logan sprang from the bushes, his lance in one hand and a full body shield in the other. Ian and Stewart were not far behind him, albeit with trembling hands. Considering this was the strongest and most frightening monster they had yet seen, they carried themselves well.
By now, Darren had been knocked to the ground by his attacker, with a wickedly sharp talon planted into the thick hide of the armor on his chest. He was still trying to fire tranq shells at the Gypceros with his one free arm, but none connected. Even if they had, it would almost certainly have done nothing to the enraged creature.
As Logan reached where the Gypceros had Darren captive, he thrust his bone lance into the side of its vulnerable chest, inducing a shriek of pain. “No, you idiot!” Darren screamed at Logan, despite his peril, “Don’t kill it! DON’T KILL IT!!”
Fortunately for Darren, his commands fell on deaf ears, and within seconds Logan had driven the Gypceros off his chest and a few paces back. He raised his large shield to keep the monster at bay and yelled at Darren to get back.
The Gypceros was now furiously spitting purple vomit on Logan’s shield. The nauseating stench of the toxic mucus was nearly unbearable, but as long as it couldn’t get past his shield, he would remain unaffected by its poison. The monster was attacking so fast, though, that all his energy was poured into blocking.
Ian, hoping to stop the flow of the mucus and perhaps mortally wound the Gypceros, ran to try and aid Logan. “Hold on, Logan! I think I can slice its neck from here!” he shouted. Unfortunately, he had made the mistake of announcing his intentions.
“Don’t you dare!” Darren snarled, still determined to make a capture. He grabbed Ian’s foot as he ran past, tripping him. Ian hit the ground hard, unaware of what caused his fall.
Sensing the stalemate with Logan’s shield, the Gypceros decided to change strategies. Switching to a physical assault, it lunged forward and hammered Logan’s shield with its rock hard, gnarled beak. This was too much for the shield, which was far from high quality, and Logan heard loud cracks as he continued blocking. Making use of a split second pause from the attacker, he let the shield go and dived out of the way. After that, a final peck was all it took to shatter it to pieces.
Now having its choice of three defenseless hunters, the Gypceros zeroed in on the instigator of its rage. It extracted a pain-filled oath from Darren as it slammed its talon back down on his chest and renewed its hideous bellowing. Unfortunately, the only other hunter nearby was Stewart, whose blunt hacking at the monsters leg went almost entirely unnoticed. Now that it once again had Darren at its mercy, there was nothing stopping it from taking its revenge.
For a moment the Gypceros looked Darren in the eye and gobbled threateningly. Then, without warning, it thrust its head towards his, only to stop the blow short. Although this was likely an instinctive threat, to Darren the feint seemed like vengeful mockery. The monster repeated this motion a few more times, and then finally shot its beak towards his head without intention of holding it back.
A sickening crack rang through Darren’s ears, but after a moment of shock, he realized it was not his skull. When he opened his eyes, instead of the Gypceros, he saw Ian standing over him, struggling to steady his vibrating buster sword. Immediately his whirled his head around to see the status of the Gypceros, which had retreated a few steps back. Sure enough, its rock hard beak now sported a bleeding fracture.
Before the monster could retaliate, Ian jumped over Darren and swung his greatsword again, striking the Gypceros’ beak with the same cracking sound. Tiny sections of it went flying and the Gypceros howled furiously. Blindly, it hurled its bulk toward Ian in a full-on body slam.
Ian was barely ready for the attack. Clumsily he tried to turn his broadsword crosswise to shield himself, but the sheer weight of the Gypceros still threatened to crush him. However, neither he nor the Gypceros anticipated the bone lance that appeared over Ian’s shoulder, and after a breathless moment, the reckless monster found that it had impaled itself on Logan’s weapon, held firmly in both hands by its wielder.
Even as the creature wailed one last cackling scream, Logan and Ian yet faced the peril of its toppling body, which was more than heavy enough to break an ill-placed limb. Adrenaline racing, Ian dropped his sword and heaved his strength into holding back the falling monster. After a few seconds soaked in blood and sweat, the two hunters were able to redirect it harmlessly to one side, but not without the resounding snap of Logan’s lance breaking in two. With two feet of the bone weapon sticking out of its chest, there was little doubt the Gypceros hit the ground dead.
As the reality sunk in, Darren was first to act. “NOOOOO!” he screamed, struggling to his feet. Shoving Ian to one side, he took a tumbling step toward the dead monster, paused, and fell to his knees.
Logan and Ian both knew well there was no way they could have spared the life of the monster without grave risk, but the agonizing significance of what they had just done nevertheless hit them almost as hard as the Gypceros would have. For a few long seconds, they looked at the ground, sharing the shame that radiated from Darren.
It was Ian who unwisely broke the silence. “Logan, Darren, you guys OK? Anything broken?”
Logan glanced back at Ian, then at Darren, and said nothing. Stewart, who had watched the whole thing in paralysis, now looked about ready to bolt. Finally, Darren slowly stood up, still trembling, and turned toward Ian. In his eyes there flashed a rage that rivaled that that the Gypceros had indulged in. “What,” he began, “what the HELL DID YOU DO?!”
Ian took a step back, and stammered, “Um, uh, w-what do you mean?”
Darren advanced toward Ian. “This is COMPLETELY your fault! Why didn’t your lousy trap go off? Do you mean to tell me that you can’t even set up a pitfall trap correctly? WELL?!”
Ian had almost forgotten about the trap in the heat of the moment. “Uh, oh, the trap… I really don’t know… I’m sure I set it up right, I swear!”
“OBVIOUSLY, you DIDN’T!!” Darren rammed past Ian over to where the trap was. After a moment of observation, he wheeled around. “WHAT IS THIS?” he bellowed, pointing at the trap.
Ian stared at the trap, not following Darren’s logic. “It’s… It’s my trap.”
“THIS is a SHOCK TRAP!” Logan and Stewart winced upon hearing this. Darren continued, “I told you a THOUSAND TIMES to bring a PITFALL TRAP!! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!”
“Well, money’s tight!” Ian defended, “I couldn’t afford a Pitfall Trap, so I got the next best thing! Is that so wrong?”
“YOU IDIOTIC CHEAPSKATE!!” Darren‘s face was scarlet. “Did you EVER happen to THINK about the fact we were fighting a GYPCEROS?! The monster with rubbery hide? As in, the monster that DOESN’T EVEN FEEL SHOCK TRAPS?!!”
“Yes, REALLY! Are you REALLY SO DENSE?! Now the rest of us are going to look as stupid as you are because you just HAD TO GO BARGAIN-BASEMENT!”
Darren, brimming with anger, turned around and shouted a curse that echoed through the forest. Once again, his exclamation was punctuated by a long silence. This time, though, it was Darren who picked the conversation back up, not with another outburst, but with a light chuckle: a signal that immediately told Ian that he was now in real trouble.
“…Oh, well. I guess I should have expected it, considering.” Darren said in a deceptively calm voice before turning around. “Yes, I should have seen this coming, I suppose. It’s not as if this is the first time you made a blunder like this. Right, Logan?” Darren returned and walked up to Logan, who, despite being the one who landed the finishing blow on the Gypceros, was still in the leader’s good graces simply by virtue of his skill. Putting his hand on Logan’s stiff shoulder, Darren continued. “I still get of a headache thinking of that time Ian threw that flash bomb right in front of our eyes. Of course, you got the brunt of that one. Getting a leg full of Bulldrome tusk because you can’t see would be enough to make a lesser man quit hunting.”
Logan’s thigh ached at the memory.
“And Stew, I seem to remember a time when a certain hunter forgot to bring the iced drinks for your big day in the desert. Man, we all sweated enough to fill barrels by the time those Genprey were all dead. You just about fainted a few times with all that extra padding. It’s funny how much pain and discomfort we might have avoided with a little elementary education, huh?”
“But, of course,” Darren continued, walking back towards Ian, “we’ve got no such luck, right Ian? While the rest of us had our noses to the grindstone in the academy you were out on a playground who knows where. Of course, now I suppose you’ve realized your mistakes. After all, even a rough and ready hunter has a lot to learn from school. And to think you just up and quit when you wanted to become one… such a waste.”
Darren’s devious turn made Ian feel sick. He always knew those little one-on-one chats during initiation for entry into the Raiders would probably come back to bite him, but at the time he was so desperate to advance as a hunter he didn’t care. Now it was only a matter of time before his new community knew everything about the past he tried so hard to run from.
“Knowledge is power, after all.” Darren’s voice carried the superiority of a lecture. “Any hunter worth his britches knows that. I suppose if you go back to school now you might still see that, but what really hurts is that dropping out cost you more than just your chance at being a hunter. What was it your dear old dad said? That you were ‘A branch which bears no fruit’ and were ‘destined for the furnace’? That’s some pretty heavy poetry there. All because you couldn’t stand studying, no less…”
Ian could hear no more. “What’s your point, Darren?!” he blurted out, while trying his best to keep his own anger subdued.
“What’s with the bee in your bonnet, Ian? I’m just trying to steer you in the right direction, like your parents would want. Ah, but maybe they were right. You’re just stubborn in your poor judgment. Well, I won’t bore Logan and Chubby here with your family history… at least not right now. Besides, I’ve got a question for them.” Darren turned to Stewart. “Say, Chubby? What do think of us Raiders? Are we a pretty good team?
Stewart looked wide-eyed at Darren, caught off guard by the unwanted attention. “Uh... y-yeah, of course! The b-b-best!”
“Smart man!” Darren slapped Stewart on the back. “So, would you say we Raiders are lazy bums? You know, quitters? …Drop outs?”
“What? No! Of c-course not…”
“Neither would I, Chubby. Now Logan…”
Logan closed his eyes. He knew what Darren was up to just as well as Darren himself. He had seen it before, after all.
“How, about you, bud? We’ve taken down quite a few monsters together, huh? We must know a thing or two about hunting. That makes us a pretty good team, just like Chubby said. What d’ya say, old pal?”
A conflicted silence ensued, but the verdict nevertheless came. “………Yes.”
Darren smiled and winked at Logan, then turned back to Ian. “So, then! Logan and Stewart know the truth. The Raiders are a top-notch hunting team. Of course, it goes without saying that a top-notch hunting team has top-notch hunters, and well, Ian, I hate to say it, but you aren’t one. Now, it’s not much of a stretch to deduce that that means our two fine friends think you’re not quite up to snuff. Now, me, I’m not the kind to make quick judgments like that, but after this fiasco, I’m prone to agree with them. So let’s see, what to do... Well, logic is logic. By basic arithmetic, that makes three quarters of us… Oh, excuse me; I forgot you probably missed out on that class. That means three of us out of four would rather see you let go. Now, since the Raiders has always been a direct democracy, I suppose that means it’s time for you to turn in the tooth. Any questions?”
Darren stepped forward holding out an open hand. Ian knew well what he wanted: the physical symbol of membership in the Raiders, a tooth from a ferocious monster called Tigrex, beyond any of their league.
Ian looked broke his glare at Darren to turn toward Logan. “Logan, are you really gonna let this happen? I mean, we had a lot of good quests together, right?” Logan didn’t answer, looking at the ground. “Stew? Come on, man, after all the times we’ve looked out for each other?” Stewart’s eyes darted between Darren and Ian. He opened his mouth, but made no sound.
“Yeah, that’s right.” Darren said, allowing just a hint of the burning rage that had never truly left him escape through his tone, “They know being Raiders is their best shot at making it big as a hunter, so there’s no room for mess-ups like that. You’ve already set them up to look like idiots, you know. So?”
Inside, Ian was shaking with outrage, but he continued to struggle against it. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out the tooth and took a step toward the blackly smiling Darren. Then, with little more warning than a twitch on his face, he hurled it past Darren, deep into the thick foliage beyond them. “There you go, Darren! Have fun finding it!”
Darren’s eyes widened. “Oh, you didn’t just do that, you SON OF A--” The sentence ended with a perfectly aimed punch in the gut as well as with the insult, so Ian barely heard it as he doubled over. Even through hard leather armor, Darren’s blows hit like a hammer, not so much from strength, but from intelligence and precision.
As Ian staggered, Darren jumped back, fully expecting retaliation. Ian, however, remained on his knees, clutching his stomach, and finally Darren relaxed his defense. “Stewart!” he barked, “Go find that tooth!” Immediately, Stewart complied.
Darren passed the motionless Ian cautiously to retrieve his bowgun. “Logan, take his sword, he owes you a new weapon anyway!”
Logan hesitated. “Really, Darren, I can’t even use…”
“DO IT!” Darren shouted.
Logan slowly walked over and picked up the greatsword. As he did, his eyes chanced upon Ian’s, who looked at him with an angry disbelief. Looking away in shame, he turned away and followed Darren, who was already on his way back to camp.
It took several minutes for Ian to get back on his feet. When he finally did, he found his only company was the putrid-smelling dead Gypceros, worthless and forgotten. In the distance, he heard the rustling of Stewart’s search for the Tigrex tooth, but Stewart himself was well out of sight. Exhausted, Ian collapsed at the base of a tree and sat staring into the forest. He would return to camp in due time, but for now he just wanted to be alone.
Ian drummed his fingers on the Guild Hall’s table anxiously. What stretched his patience wasn’t so much that his former hunting team was late for the report; he himself was actually quite a bit earlier than he had ever been before. Really, it was that back at his dormitory he had almost finished packing up his few possessions, and all that prevented him from clearing out of Toratuma’s stuffy streets for good were a few remaining formalities. As soon as Logan, Darren, and Stewart showed up to confirm the outcome of last night’s hunting disaster, he would turn in his Toratuma Guild Card and leave without looking back.
Of course, the thought of making his exit the night before had crossed his mind, but considering how much of a stickler for rules Toratuma’s Guildmaster was, a glaring absence during the report of a failed mission would certainly make it on to his record. Such a blemish on his short hunting career would almost certainly cripple his chances of getting a job elsewhere, and as much as he hated the reality, hunting was about the best job he could get with his limited education.
Stretching back, Ian looked up to the ceiling at the chandelier of colorful gems and finely sculpted monster bone: a reminder of the irony of his situation. Here he was, a low-class man with almost no money, living and working in Toratuma, the embodiment of material excess. Although it called itself a city, Toratuma housed less than 500 people, all of whom probably had more money to their name than Ian’s native village in its entirety. As a well known hotspot for celebrities and influential noblemen, it was exactly the kind of place a naïve country boy with stars in his eyes would gravitate to. Well, the stars in Ian’s eyes were fading fast, and he was glad to finally be moving on.
For that matter, Toratuma would probably be glad he was moving on as well. Ian’s experiences since he wandered in held no shortage of odd looks and upturned noses. As cosmopolitan as Toratumans were, they still had an abiding distaste for those less cultured than themselves, and almost everything about Ian—his appearance, his habits, his speech—marked him as such. Being from one of the small villages in the southeast of the Schrade Region, his funds were very limited, and a tight wallet was not a welcome thing in Toratuma. If the Hunter’s Guild did not have laws regulating the residential fees for hunters all over the continent, he almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to stay for a single night. As for food, he had already had earned a miserly reputation among the Guild Hall Felyne cooks and waiters for his constant default to cheap food and his less than satisfactory tipping. On more than one occasion he had found bitterbugs and other unpleasant things in his food that he was sure were not traditional ingredients.
Ian was forced out of thought by sound of the Guild Hall door opening. He watched as Logan entered quietly, followed by Stewart. The two of them walked in grim silence, the weight of the embarrassing visit clearly affecting them. Looking around, Logan happened upon eye contact with Ian, and for a split-second, they froze, each unsure of what the other was thinking. Then, Logan broke his eyes away and moved to a table on the other side of the room. Stewart briefly looked back himself, and then followed Logan.
The sight of his two past friends acting so cold caused a conflicted aggravation in Ian. What were they thinking yesterday? Were they really so cowed by Darren that they couldn’t stand up for a friend? For that matter, had they really ever been friends? Ian liked to think so, but he knew that Stewart’s allegiances were determined primarily by where the power was, and as for Logan, who knows what goes through his head?
“No,” Ian thought to himself with a sigh, “They have themselves to look out for. They’re still Raiders, after all. I can’t hate them for that.”
They were still Raiders, and that was not a position to squander. True, with an average age of about 21, The Raiders were mere infants compared to the wider world of hunting, but in the upside-down world of Toratuma, that was really all it took. Most Toratumans who took up hunting didn’t see it as a way of life—they saw as a sport, even a game. After scoring a few trophies, they retired back to the lap of luxury, pursuing other careers. On the off chance that there was a hunter who was serious about their job, they usually left for hunting hotspots such as Minegarde as soon as they came of age. These tendencies left the height of skill to practiced young hotheads like Darren, who had little trouble rising to the top.
It was this void of real discipline that also propelled Ian quickly up the ranks. For all the jeers and disapproval from the other hunters, it was fairly obvious that Ian had patience and a work ethic forged outside the walls of wealth, not to mention a physique that was not natural to the native Toratuman. What he lacked in experience, Ian almost always made up with willingness to learn, when given the chance. For all his faults, Darren did know how to spot a good hunter, and so Ian found a place in his entourage quickly, although not without enduring a few humiliating hazing rituals. Thus, aside from a few blunders, Ian enjoyed a relatively smooth career in the glory of the Raiders.
Until now. By a stroke of ill-luck, it had all been shaken to pieces, and the very person Ian had to thank for his rise had just sent him to a crashing fall. Why? “Perhaps,” Ian thought, “for all his skill, Darren’s just another spoiled rich boy crying for attention.”
Speak of the devil. As Ian lay in his seething thoughts, Darren entered the Guild Hall.
From his behavior, one never would have guessed Darren was walking into what was without a doubt his most humiliating quest report yet. His mouth still sported a sly smile, and he winked at the Guild Maiden flirtatiously. Looking across the hall, he spotted Logan, Stewart and Ian, and in as clear a voice as ever, he called, “Raiders, report!”
Immediately, Logan and Stewart complied. As eager as he was to get out, however, Ian’s desire to return some of Darren’s grief won out, and he stay put as if he hadn’t heard. After all, he wasn’t a Raider, was he?
“Hey, Ian! Get over here, you thick-headed Conga!” Darren yelled, forcing out as good-natured a chuckle as he could despite the very real wrath in his voice. Ian glanced over, looked back out the window, and got up. Putting on his own little façade, he walked as slowly and as indifferently as he could manage. Upon reaching Darren, he was met the hardest bro-hug he had ever experienced.
“Alright, love all around!” Darren yelled as loud as he could, so as to get the whole Guild Hall’s attention. Darren’s rock solid reputation included occasional antics like this, but Ian’s was still developing.
“OK… That’s not weird at all,” the Guild Maiden in charge of receiving the report quipped. “So, shall we get down to business?”
Darren nodded with uncharacteristic reserve, “Yep…”
“Alright, so… Raiders,” the receptionist began, “yesterday you took on a quest to capture a Gypceros in the Telos Jungle for a certain Mr. Aramis Helioso, I believe, with a reward of…” Her eyes widened and she whistled through her teeth. “20,000 zeni! What’d you do, give him a life supply of hair care products?” She couldn’t resist taking a shot at the well-known socialite’s reputation for vanity.
“Hmm…,” she continued, “I don’t seem to have a report of the monster being received yesterday… what happened?”
“Oh, you know, you win some, you lose some…” Darren finished by coughing into his elbow to hide the quivering in his voice.
“Uh… Woah,” the receptionist’s rosy face lost a bit of color. “Woah, uh, that… really sucks. I mean, really. If I were you, I would probably be slamming my hand in a door right now… So… did it die?”
The Guild Maiden looked dazed. “…So I mark that down as a Quest Failed. Sheesh, 30,000 zeni… Darren, are you serious?” Ian’s mind stirred at her sudden breach into familiarity.
“It was a pretty big kink in our system. I think we got it pretty well removed by now.”
The receptionist got the implication loud and clear, and all it took for her to figure out the rest was a subtle nod in the direction of Ian. “OK, then… um… do you want me to keep this on the down low?”
“No, no sense in that. Actually, I think the best way to handle this would be to make sure the certain details get out. I’ll talk to you later when you’ve shed that uniform of yours. You know… off the record.”
She nodded, and addressed the whole group. “OK, well, that’s a real bummer, guys. I just need your signatures and you can put this behind you.” She put the contract out in front of Darren, who signed quickly and without his usual gusto. “So, Marie… this doesn’t… we’re still on for Thursday night, right?” he said before putting the pen down. “Of course…” Marie responded.
“Good girl.” Darren winked and left the front of the counter. Logan proceeded to sign the paper, then Stewart, then finally Ian. Immediately after the last stroke, Ian set off toward the door. Of course, before he could reach it he felt a long arm wrap around his shoulders.
“Hey Ian, let’s catch up, shall we?” Darren was smiling with very real spite.
“No, we’re done. I’m leaving.” Ian forced himself out of Darren’s grip, but Darren nimbly wheeled around so he stood in front of the door. “Hey, hey, I just wanted to let you know how things turned out last night!” Darren reached in a pocket and pulled out the Tigrex tooth that once embodied Ian’s membership in the Raiders. “I knew you were concerned, so I wanted to make sure you knew we found this. Chubby is a better tooth hunter than he looks.”
“Congratulations,” Ian growled sarcastically, “now let me go.”
“Gladly! You know, I’m beginning to think yesterday has its silver lining. We really didn’t lose all that much, now that we have this back. What’s a few zeni lost in the name of progress? After, if anything, it was more of a gain…”
“Shut up and let me go!” Ian raised his voice so that it was clear Darren was harassing him. A wondering glance from the receptionist was enough to convince Darren to comply. “Be my guest… So, I’m guessing you’re headed home now? Say hi to you parents for me, will you?”
Ian hardly heard the end of Darren’s sentence as he slipped out the door and walked briskly away. He wasn’t going to take any more teasing about his home life, of all things. No, he wasn’t going home. He didn’t know where he was going.
“There.” Ian said after securing the last of his travel chests shut. “That’s everything… It sure isn’t much to look at.”
Ian let out a deep breath. The sight of his possessions all bundled up on his bed brought back plenty of memories in his mind—very few of them good. No, he was not looking forward to trek before him, which would almost certainly include roofless nights, inadequate food, sore feet, and possibly even monster attacks. Nevertheless, weighed against living as a disgrace among former friends, it beat the alternative. After all, he had already suffered through both, and he knew which was worse.
Unfortunately, there was still one thing preventing him from taking off, and that was to have the Guild officially strike him off the list of Toratuma hunters by issuing him a Traveler’s Card in exchange for his Toratuma Guild Card. In the world of bureaucracy, there was no doubt some enlightened reason for this formality, but to Ian it just seemed like an unnecessary inconvenience.
Glancing at the clock, he nevertheless decided that it would be best to wait a little while longer before returning to the Guild Hall to make the exchange. The last thing he wanted was to run into Darren again before he left, and at this hour, he was probably still there having lunch. “Besides,” Ian thought, “That smart-mouthed receptionist is probably pretty close to the end of her shift. If I know anything about Darren’s taste in women, she’d probably turn my decision to leave into some kind of humiliating scandal. I doubt a few moments of rest would hurt…”
Sitting down at his room’s table, he picked up the monthly issue of the Hunter’s Life Magazine. “Might as well pass the time somehow…” Opening to a random page, his eyes were caught by the large heading of one of the articles. “Super Scientists: The Exciting World of Monster Research!”
“Great, just up my alley.” he said flatly to himself as he flipped to another page. “Hunter Fashion, no, Fine Cuisine, no… Hmm… What’s this?” His vision was drawn to a cartoon of a Gypceros and a Cephadrome in an advertising war over shock traps and pitfall traps. “Well, thanks a lot!” he spat, sending the magazine whirling across the room. “I never liked that magazine anyway.”
“Uh, Ian? Is this a bad time?” Ian looked up to see Tombo, his roommate, standing timidly at the door.
Ian stood up, startled. “Woah, Tombo, sorry, I didn’t see you there. No, I’m just a little grouchy right now.”
“Alright.” Tombo darted in his usual hurried fashion. “I was all set to go on a quest, but you know me, I forgot whetstones again. Now everyone’s waiting for me, so I gotta… huh…”
Tombo paused at the sight of the chests and bundles on Ian’s bed. Ian had tried hard all morning to keep his packing discreet, but now he was caught redhanded. “Uh… Are you going somewhere?” his roommate asked.
Ian closed his eyes. He had desperately wanted to skip this goodbye. Tombo was part of the minority of Toratuman hunters that was able to look at him with admiration rather than scorn. Of course, he was quite young for a hunter, barely over the legal limit of 17, and so it was natural for him to look up to even the least noted member of the Raiders. More than once, Ian had overheard Tombo proudly announce he was roommates with him, and then vigorously defend him when another hunter inevitably responded by scoffing. Of course, as Tombo’s roommate, Ian was frequently irritated by his untidiness and constant pestering for hunting tips. Now, though, with Toratuma soon to be a thing of the past, it was becoming painfully clear that Tombo had been a grossly unappreciated ally.
Choosing his words carefully, Ian broke the news. “I’m sorry Tombo. I should have told you earlier, but… I’m leaving town.”
“Oh… Well… that’s okay, I guess… when are you coming back?” his optimistic roommate replied.
“I may not… probably won’t… be coming back.”
For a moment, Tombo just stared back. There was little doubt that the news devastated him. “R-really?” he finally managed to choke out.
“T-then this… this is goodbye?”
“Probably. I’m really sorry…”
“B-but, but you were going to show me… Awww… Never mind. B-bye!”
Forgetting about the whetstones, Tombo turned to the door and ran out, obviously on the verge of tears. Needless to say, Ian felt terrible, but he knew it was too late to turn back. Looking at the clock, Ian decided it was time to go. Darren could very well be at the Guild Hall still, but meeting an enemy now seemed infinitely less unpleasant than meeting a friend. Gravely, he stood up, checked to see that his Guild Card was in his pocket, and set out on his last trip to the Guild Hall.
Ian’s walk through Hunter’s Alley, the busy string of shops between the hunters’ residences and the Guild Hall, seemed unusually quiet. That was a good thing, he thought. The lack of unwanted attention meant that the news of his role in the Raiders’ failure had yet to become public knowledge. Still, the quiet had a dark side to it as well, a somber, eerie side, emphasized by the dark sky forming overhead. All the sounds of the afternoon were around him, of course, but knowing this was the last time he would hear them made them sound distant and foreign. With his last conversation with Tombo still in his mind, he was now increasingly attuned to some of the more friendly memories of Toratuma. He didn’t let his thoughts articulate it, but he now realized he was leaving home once again.
Finally, he reached the Guild Hall. Cautiously opening the door, Ian scanned the area for Darren, and much to his relief, he was nowhere to be seen. Upon walking all the way in, though, his also found that the receptionist that would be responsible for his departure, Marie, was very same as the one who recorded his group’s failure. “Great,” he muttered to himself, “I wonder how much fun she’ll have with me now.”
With a deep breath, Ian drew out his card, walked the counter, and laid it in front of the Guild Maiden. “I’d like to exchange my Toratuma Guild Card for a Traveler’s Card, please,” he said with as much solemnity as he could manage, “I’m leaving Toratuma.”
The receptionist picked up the card, then looked up at Ian. He could tell there was a good deal of suspicion in her eyes. “Uhhh… Why? Something wrong?” was her professional response.
Ian shifted uncomfortably. Just as he suspected, it sounded like he wasn’t going to get through scratch free. “I have my reasons. Please just do your job.”
“Uh-huh, thought so. Alright, then, what if I said no?”
“You heard me. What if I said no deal on the exchange?”
Ian frowned. Was she really saying this? “Then I would say you make a pretty lousy receptionist. Now, can we please get this over with?”
“No.” The guild maiden wore a slight smile as she held the card back out.
“What? You’re joking…” Ian replied, his face twitching slightly.
Ian was dumbstruck. Sure, he was prepared for scorn, but not outright refusal. After all, what kind of Guild receptionist would refuse to do her job? Unfortunately, the Wyverian Guildmaster was nowhere in sight to crack the whip, so he resorted to a light jab. “Alright, then,” he started, snatching the card back, “I guess I’ll wait for someone who actually takes her job seriously to have her shift.”
“Oh, I take my job VERY seriously.” The receptionist said with a wry smile.
Making a grunt of disgust, Ian began to turn away.
“…Wait!” the Guild Maiden’s voice called him back. Perhaps she thought it was worth the pay after all. “I’ll do it… on one condition. Give me one good reason for leaving town, and the Traveler’s Card is yours.”
“Oh, no,” Ian said, “I don’t have to explain myself to you.”
“Sure you do. I’m the one checking you out. Don’t I have a right to know?”
“…So, you going to give me a reason or not?” the maiden said after a short silence.
Ian paused. Obviously, she was playing with him, but considering in a few short hours he would never see her again, he thought a bit of explanation was worth a ticket out. “Alright, you win. I’m leaving because I’ve been dropped by my hunting team. Somehow, though, I don’t think that’s news to you.”
The receptionist faked a yawn. “No, it’s not. It’s not a very good reason either. Try again.”
“What’s wrong with it?!”
“Well, for one thing, I’ve known plenty of hunters who’ve been ditched by their team and then went on to form an even better one. If I were you, I’d jump at the chance to be my own boss. So, I say that’s not a good reason. Got another?”
“Alright, how about this: I’m not from around here, and everyone in Toratuma has a crummy attitude about it. Either that, or they’re a nosy receptionist who’d rather play truth or dare than do her job.”
“Everyone?” She responded, letting the insult slide off.
Impatient, Ian was about ready to shout his answer, but unfortunately, the question had its intended effect. Before Ian could reply, his mind was inconveniently struck by the fresh memory of his emotional roommate running out of his room. There was no way he could say that Tombo looked down on him as an outsider. For that matter, neither Logan nor Stewart had ever said anything to suggest they did, at least not directly. Soon, his mind was flooded with glaring inconsistencies to his claim. “Well… almost. I guess.” was now the best answer he could honestly give.
The receptionist smiled. She could see from Ian’s eyes that the gears in his mind that locked the door back to Toratuma were beginning to creak into motion. No, she wouldn’t push him any further. “Alright, alright… if you say so. I guess that’ll do.” She reached out for Ian’s card.
“Finally…” Ian muttered as he handed it to her.
After a few moments of the maiden’s shuffling and scribbling, the exchange was complete. “Alright, Ian Stenfredt, you’re no longer registered as a Hunter of Toratuma.”
Ian reached and took the card, but without the determination he had started with. It was easy to tell he was lost in thought, not to mentioned puzzled at the receptionist’s change in behavior. “Thank you,” he said, although more from habit than from real gratitude.
“You’re welcome. …Hey, Ian.”
“Please don’t think I was trying to make a fool of you. I wasn’t. I just wanted you to know that not everyone here sees you the way you think they do, and that Toratuma is home to more than just wealthy snobs… or nosy receptionists. You may not know it, but are people here that would gladly use your help. Don’t forget that.”
“…Alright. I won’t.”
“Oh, I’m Marie, by the way, in case you didn’t already know. You may not believe it, but I’ve actually heard a lot of good things about you. Hopefully, we’ll meet again someday.”
“…Maybe. I wouldn’t count on it though. …It was nice to get to know you better anyhow.”
“Ditto! Have a safe trip out! Bye!”
Ian nodded and turned around. Opening the door, he paused momentarily upon seeing a light rain had started. Then, without looking back, he stepped out and shut the door behind him.
Preparation. The muscles in Heck’s upper body tensed, anticipating the upward swing of the brutishly heavy hammer in his grip. Glancing up, he saw that the monster opposite him, a good 40 paces away, was instinctively gnashing its jaws in an attempt to intimidate him. Of course, all that meant for him was an extra few seconds to plan his attack.
Positioning. Finished with its useless taunt, the monster lunged blindly forward with a leap that sent it flying through the air. Upon landing, however, it found no enemy to sink its teeth into. Anticipating the massive bound, Heck had darted forward so that his bestial opponent sailed clean over him, all the while breathing in deep cycles and focusing on preparing his strike.
Timing. Confused, the monster looked right and left in search of its missing target. Sensing a presence behind it, it turned itself around, a rather slow process for a wyvern so large. When it completed the motion, it came face to face with Heck’s grotesquely masked helm: just as Heck was just bringing the hammer back down in a reverse motion of his upward swing.
Impact. The spiked hammer landed directly on top of the monsters head, bringing the weight of its crushing momentum with it. Although the slam was enough to crush the ribcage of a lesser wyvern, the tough skull of the mature Tigrex was able to hold up—barely. Reeling back, the Tigrex howled a roar of pain as Heck regained control over his weapon. A bleeding gouge displayed where the prominent spike of Heck’s steel hammer had happened upon its cranium.
“Humph,” Heck thought to himself, looking at the red wound on the staggering monster’s head, “A decent enough blow, but the aim was a little off. The follow-through could have been better, too.” Upon re-mastering itself, the Tigrex leapt violently backwards, the prominent muscles on its forelimbs and face now red with intensely pumping blood. Whatever else Heck’s attack did, it succeeded in sending the monster into a seething rage.
Heck braced himself. Although it had jumped a significant distance back, the roar the Tigrex proceeded to let loose was enough to make him visibly cringe. The violent vibrations of the monster’s throat were the evidence of one of the Tigrex’s most notable abilities: releasing an eardrum shattering roar that rendered the hearing of careless hunters null for days, as well as permanently affected thereafter. Heck knew the agony of this from an incident in his youth: a Tigrex’s roar was one of the few sounds permanently etched into his brain.
Having completed its announcement of its wrath, the Tigrex immediately went into a charge. The wicked claws on its inflamed forelimbs slashed at the ground with each step, and its powerful jaw was hanging open, ready to snap shut instantly should a loose limb happen to graze it. The sum all this violent motion was a deadly wall of tooth and nail advancing quickly toward Heck. As the veteran hunter knew well, however, it was also a severely one-sighted wall, and he had no problem clearing out of its way. After realizing it had missed its nimble target, the Tigrex immediately began clawing at the ground to its right it in an attempt to change direction, but the momentum of its mass combined with the slick snow underfoot made this difficult.
What made it outright impossible was that in the all-encompassing whiteness of the mountaintops, the Tigrex had failed to perceive the harshly steep ledge it was heading toward. Heck, fully aware of the Tigrex’s mistake, hustled toward the careening wyvern. As the Tigrex’s bulk slid over the cliff, it grasped frantically at the ledge with a frustrated snarl, ending up dangling hopelessly by its two strained forelimbs. Of course, this vain attempt to hang on ended when one of its claws was brutally hammered by the hunter above it, and with an enraged moan it allowed itself to plummet down.
Heck stood and watched it fall. With forelimbs that doubled as primitive wings, Tigrex were technically capable of flight, but in reality they could manage no more than a short aerial sprint usually ending in a crash landing. This particular Tigrex was no exception, and unable to control its fall, it hit the area below as hard as any landlocked creature. The drop certainly didn’t kill it—Heck ruled out that possibility before the fall even began. What it did do was send it into a painful exhaustion from which it would need time to recover. Writhing, the defeated wyvern far below pulled itself to its feet and slowly limped into one of the many tunnels that cut through the frigid Furahiya Mountain range.
“Heck!” A voice from behind called,“I’m sorry, I was absolutely no help at all. With all this wind and snow, I couldn’t get a straight shot from where I was. At least not without risk of hitting you, that is.”
Heck responded without turning around. “That’s no reason to hold back. Frankly, that brute’s teeth scare me far more than one of your arrows.”
“I’ll do better next time.” The tightly bundled figure behind him pulled away her hood, revealing a forest of deep green hair shining with sweat. “I apologize.”
Heck turned to face her. Breathing heavily, he pushed back the viciously tusked mask that adorned his own helmet. Crafted from a certain variety of mountain ape, his snow white armor looked leagues more impressive than Daphne’s borrowed winter wear, and the dark-skinned face that emerged from it intensified its radiance by contrast. “No apologies, Daphne. Just do better next time.”
“Where is it?” Daphne asked, “Is it still down there?” She approached the ledge to look down, fully expecting to see its corpse lying sprawled on the distant area below. Disappointed at the result, she cursed inaudibly.
“It’s headed inside the mountain to try and recover.” Heck replied, “Based on where it fell, I’m pretty certain I know where it’ll come out, too, but I doubt it does. That Tigrex has very little experience in this region, judging by its careless behavior.”
“That would certainly explain its coloration.” Daphne replied solemnly. “That shade of dark clay is usually only found on desert Tigrex. Honestly, I never would have expected to see it on one here.”
“It’s a ways away to where we’ll find it again. I suggest we start walking.”
Daphne had reservations. “Heck, don’t you think we’ve already sealed it for death? Surely it has severe brain trauma from your blows, and that fall… I’m sure it won’t last much longer down there.”
“And I’m sure it will. Besides, I want a closer look at that wound on its wing. You coming?”
“…Of course.” Daphne replied flatly, resentful of being contradicted. “Lead on, Professor.”
Heck, or as he was more professionally known by his colleagues, Dr. Hector Verano, was not the kind of person that came to mind when someone said ‘field researcher’, nor was he the kind of person one would expect to see traversing the intellectual circles of the greatest scientific minds in the continent. Nevertheless, his reputation as an active pursuer of higher knowledge preceded him, and the same level of mastery he exhibited while hunting followed him into ornate halls of learning. There was no question that deserved the exalted title of ‘Professor’.
Nevertheless, the apparent discrepancy between his position and his gruff and abrasive surface was no mistake. His background was no different from that of any low-class hunter from the country, and like most in that profession, he was primarily fueled by a burning desire to master the threat of the world’s predatory wyverns. The fact that his natural ability to observe nature and speculate on its mysteries propelled him to soaring heights was secondary to him. Every thesis he had ever written and every class he had ever taught boiled down to one thing: watch the monster, fight the monster, kill the monster. It was as simple as that.
It was this calling that now brought him to the snow-capped Furahiya Mountains. Recently, there had been harrowing claims cycling through Pokke and the surrounding villages about a deadly “White Tigrex.” As inarticulate and unverified as these frantic stories were, they were enough to warrant an investigation, especially in conjunction with the recent changes in the in the behavior of the herbivores. Something unusual was definitely out there, preying on Popos, and it an intriguing enough case to call in the experts.
Beside him, Daphne trudged breathlessly through the snow. Heck’s young partner was certainly not among the best of hunters, but there was no doubt she was a talented monster morphologist and anatomist, not to mention a former star student of his. “I’m beginning to think that that Tigrex isn’t our mystery monster.” She mused out loud, “Not even in a snowstorm could I imagine anyone mistaking its color for white. If anything, I’d say it’s darker than the average predator around here.”
“No…” Heck observed, “That Tigrex is out of place, but it’s not enough to get the locals talking like they are.”
“Well, what do you suppose it is, then? I can’t think of anything.”
Heck stopped in his tracks and looked piercingly back at Daphne. “Think, girl. We have plenty to go on at this point. People are calling it a ‘White Tigrex’. It’s been seen preying on the Popo population. What’s more, there have been claims that it can jump enormous distances and disappear without a trace. What does that sound like to you? If you can’t figure that out, I don’t know why you’re wasting your time here.”
Heck’s condescending tone ate at Daphne’s considerable intellectual ego. As much as she hated it, she knew well that being treated as an academic infant was standard fare with her former professor. Still, she knew that if experience was what she sought, she would have no better luck than with him. “Well,” she began, “if we weren’t in the Furahiya Mountains, I’d say the description fits a Barioth perfectly. But that’s impossible. Beyond that--”
“Why is that impossible?” Heck interrupted.
“Heck, there are no Barioth this far north, you should know that. It would have to have traveled across most of the continent, including hundreds of miles of desert.”
“Again, why is that impossible?”
Needless to say, Daphne was bewildered by her former professor’s apparent persistence in folly. “…Well, fine then, maybe it is a Barioth. I suppose that’s what we’re here to find out.” She said, brushing the question aside, “We ought to find something helpful somewhere. I just wish it weren’t so windy. If we could just find some well-preserved tracks…”
“That’s what I’m looking for. Just not in the snow.”
“Not in the snow? You’re not making any sense today, Heck.”
Heck’s shadow of a smile went entirely unnoticed by his companion. “No, I suppose I’m not. That’s one thing Mother Nature and I share.”
Wrapped tightly in her blankets, Daphne stared sleeplessly upward. Somewhere, beyond her view, the cavernous twisting of the false ceiling above gave way to the heavens, and reflections of the moon’s light cascaded down the frozen walls, making the icicles glow like lamps. Even to one who had grown among the greatest artistic achievements humankind had produced, it was enough to provoke a quiet and respectful wonder.
But it was cold. The beauty of nature aside, there was no way around the fact that a frigid cavern was not the place Daphne had wanted to spend the night. To her indignant frustration, all her lobbying to return to base camp for the night had fallen on deaf ears, and instead she was forced to rely on cold, hard stone for her rest.
Turning her head slightly, she saw Heck staring into space, a concentrated look on his face. It was no secret that he considered the wilderness his true home, and that his greatest pleasures came from far outside the gates of civilization. Given a job in the field, he was known to stay out in the wild for weeks on end until the task was complete, returning to the base camp for neither food nor sleep. It was always a mystery to Daphne how he was able to do this, but considering he knew every Guild-designated hunting ground all the way down to the stones underfoot, there was little doubt that he not only did it well but enjoyed it thoroughly.
As a child of the wealthy city of Toratuma, Daphne simply could not share his passion. It was certainly true that she was fascinated by nature and its secrets, but she much preferred encountering them from the pages of a book or the words of a lecture, and in this kind of hunting, she thrived. Only recently had she challenged herself to see things firsthand, however, and the discomforts of life away from home had found in her an easy target.
“I’m crazy for going along with this,” She thought edgily, “Not only is this terribly uncomfortable, but it’s dangerous! What about frostbite? Even worse, what if a monster were to find us? Surely Heck’s ‘Barioth’ would be delighted to find a midnight snack. For that matter, even that injured Tigrex would make short work of us in sleep… if it were still alive, which I doubt.”
Daphne’s pessimistic thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Heck getting up. Unsure whether he knew she was awake, she remained silent. Judging by how little noise he was trying to make, he probably wasn’t. Silently, he kneeled down near his minimalistic bedding, but it soon became clear that he was not preparing for sleep. In fact, he seemed more like he was suiting up into his armor. The moment he picked up his hammer, Daphne knew there was something he was not telling her.
Her first thought, however, was not to call out to ask him where he was going—she was too sly for that. Closing her eyes, she pretended to sleep as he quietly finished preparing for whatever he was going to do, and then finally, his footsteps faded away completely. When Daphne opened her eyes, he was gone.
To be fair, there were many possible explanations for this, but in Daphne’s suspicious mind it was inevitable that one would surface faster than the rest. “Oh, no,” she schemed, “if Heck thinks he can leave this lady hunter out of the action, he is sadly mistaken. I’m not missing one second of this.” Quietly, she got up, gathered her inventory satchel, quiver, and bow and put them at the ready, and snuck out after her unaided partner.
As Daphne made her way through the heart of the mountain, she began to wonder if following Heck was the smartest idea. Unlike him, she did not know her way around the area, and as she crept through the inconsistent moonlight, thoughts of getting lost began to trouble her. Nevertheless, she stubbornly continued to follow the path she thought Heck had taken. There was just something about the idea of showing up in defiance of her former professor’s plans that was irresistible to her.
Suddenly, she stopped. The silence of the empty passageway had been broken by an alarming, if subtle, noise. Echoing lightly through the cavern was the most unusual sound, almost like a soft squeak. As she began moving again, she continued to listen closely, and as her clever mind deduced its origin, chills ran down her spine. Something nearby—something big—was heavily drawing breath, whistling as it exhaled.
Daphne’s progress was suddenly interrupted by a steel-like arm around her waist. Before she could scream, her mouth was covered by a thickly gloved hand, and momentarily she was face to face with the frightening mask on Heck’s helm. Having her cornered, Heck released her body and made put a commanding finger to his lips, and as her silent cry subsided, he released her mouth. Her heart racing, she followed his pointing finger with her eyes over into a moonlit clearing near where they stood. Not more than a few yards into it, the formidable shape of the Tigrex they had previously encountered lay sound asleep.
Picking up his hammer with one hand and firmly holding Daphne’s with the other, Heck retreated hastily back toward the alcove. As soon as the two were safely out of earshot of the sleeping monster, he roughly released her and cursed in a hoarse whisper. “Dammit, girl, why did you follow me?!”
Daphne’s shock was quickly dissipating into defiance, intensified by Heck’s manhandling. “You’re not my teacher any more, Heck!” She hissed, her vermilion eyes flashing fiercely, “Don’t think you can leave me napping in the corner like a child while you do all the work! And don’t think you can push me around like a timid little housewife!”
“I suppose then you would rather been grabbed by that Tigrex, then. Leaving the safety of that alcove was irrational, irresponsible…
Daphne interrupted his lecture. “Yes, Heck! If you hadn’t been there to save me, I would have walked straight into the monster’s jaws! What do you think I am, an idiot? Did you think that my acing all your classes was a fluke?”
“…and the mark of a self-centered fool.” Heck resumed forcefully as she finished. “I don’t care how book smart you’ve proven yourself, girl, the only thing you’re showing me now is you’re nowhere near ready for working in the field.”
“Oh, I’m not? Well, whose fault is that? People don’t learn by being sheltered safe and sound while the expert does all the work, Heck! Of course, you of all people would know that, so why are you being so selfish with your work? Perhaps I’d be getting the real lesson if I were a man!”
Heck waited a moment before responding, weighing the accusation Daphne had thrown at him. “Well, then, that’s what’s wrong.” He finally said, “I’ve been wondering what was blocking up your ability to reason. Perhaps you’re right: bringing a woman along was a bad idea after all. I used to think otherwise, but you’ve singlehandedly demonstrated to me how much of a hazard the female mind is while hunting. You should be proud, girl; it’s not easy prove me wrong. Come on, we’re heading back to camp. This expedition is over.”
Heck walked back toward the alcove, leaving Daphne to sort out what had just happened. Momentarily, he heard her voice follow him. “Wait, Heck! Stop! …I’m sorry. Please continue. I’ll stay back.”
Heck paused. One never would have guessed the grimacing mask he wore hid a smile. “Stay back? People don’t learn that way, Daphne. I would know.”
Stealthily watching from above, Daphne had to admit Heck had given her a pretty good view. From her perch, she could see almost everything below, from the sleeping Tigrex to the frozen nest of eggs sitting among what looked like petrified tree branches. It crossed her mind that this area would make a fascinating research subject, but for now, all she was going to learn was to come from the white clad hunter standing alone in its center.
Carefully, Heck stepped up to the monster, and for a moment stood in absolute silence. Daphne wondered what he could possibly be doing, but then remembered that earlier in the day, Heck had said something about wanting to observe a wound on its wing. So far as she could tell, that was exactly where he was looking. Apparently satisfied, he took a few steps back and readied his hammer. Taking care to make as little noise as possible, he prepared the upward swing of his strike. Then, swinging it up just short of the creature’s head, he allowed it to take its course behind his back, held it in suspension momentarily, and finally brought it on a reverse course downward, putting all his effort into maximizing the heavy weapon’s momentum.
The impact was devastating. Forced from the dormant state of sleep, the Tigrex had absolutely no presence of mind to begin coping with the blow. As it woke, its body convulsed wildly, sending Heck back in a controlled stagger, and by the time the veteran was back on his feet, the monster had still not identified its attacker. After a few more moments of flailing in blind self-protection, the Tigrex was able to regain control of itself and spot where the blow had come from. Immediately, it showed the signs of entering its adrenaline-fueled state of rage, but before the creature attempted its instinctive roar, Heck was back on top of it. A powerful swing from the side made sure the terrible sound never left its mouth.
Now fully aware it was outmatched at close range, the monster initiated a charge to try and escape to a safe distance, and to Daphne’s surprise, Heck made the choice to oblige it. After it had retreated to the other side of the clearing, it wheeled around and gnashed its jaws angrily. The, the Tigrex began charging anew, now with the intent of the predator rather than the prey. Nevertheless, Heck moved as nimbly as ever, and stayed clear of its thrashing movements. Predictably, every time the monster realized it had missed, it clumsily tried to wheel around and start in a new direction.
Once, twice, three times the Tigrex tried to catch its clever assailant, but with every new charge it made Heck was required to use less and less effort to effectively evade. Having now circled the area more than once, the monster’s energy was waning. Finally, on the fourth attempt to redirect its charge, the Tigrex’s weakening claws lost their grip on the slippery ground and the exhausted creature was sent toppling onto its side by its momentum. Heck watched patiently from the other side of the area as it pathetically regained composure. When it finally resumed its threatening gestures, its jaws were soaked with dripping saliva.
At this point, a momentary silence crept back into the air. On one side of the moonlit clearing, the Tigrex trembled in an angry fatigue. On the other, Heck remained motionless, both hands cupped on the end of his resting hammer’s heft. Daphne, almost directly above where Heck stood, looked on in confusion. “What is he waiting for?” she thought, “That thing is drooling like an idiot! Why is he passing up a textbook opportunity like this?”
With Heck now staying put, the fatigued Tigrex decided to try a method of attack that required a little less energy. Pulling back one of its forelimbs, it dug its claw deeply into the snow covered ground underfoot, then shot the retracted limb back toward its enemy. Even in its weakened state, the strength of the Tigrex’s motion was enough to send a large collection of loose ice and stone hurtling toward Heck. To Daphne’s surprise, he made no effort to dodge; he merely shielded his face with his arm as the hail of rock and snow pelted him.
When the last of the loose snow finally settled, it revealed Heck still standing in the same spot, albeit knee deep in snow and leaning heavily on the small ledge behind him. “Something’s wrong.” Daphne concluded after seeing the way he relied on the terrain for support, “He’s hurt. This could be bad…” Her pulse was racing, but she tried to keep calm. Although Heck had made her promise not to interfere, she gripped her bow tighter and inched it unconsciously closer to the ready position.
Daphne was not the only one who now thought Heck easy prey. With its teeth bared in a vicious grin, the famished Tigrex decided to end Heck with a final charge. Though it stumbled over a few steps as it started, it paid no heed to its fatigue and continued to barrel forward, mouth open wide. Still, Heck remained motionless.
In the next few seconds, hours passed through Daphne’s thoughts. All at once, the sight of the Tigrex’s jaw hanging open brought vivid memories from the classroom before her mind’s eye. Yes, it was Heck himself that had described the crushing power of a Tigrex’s lightning-fast bite reflex that day, as well as the nauseating details of what it could do to the human body. She recalled watching in revulsion as he unveiled partially dissected Tigrex, skin stripped from its head so that the many jaw muscles were clearly visible. She remembered how Heck probed the inside of its mouth with the severed leg of an herbivore, and how even in death, the wicked skull snapped shut with the sickening crack of bone, causing a stifled shriek to pass her lips. Finally, she remembered how all manner of heavy equipment the more courageous students were allowed to try afterward could not move so much as a tooth.
What was she supposed to do, then, as this machine of death hurtled toward her former teacher? Despite Heck’s warnings, she found herself having notched an arrow aimed directly at the mouth of the approaching monster. On the count of three, she would have no choice but to release.
The arrow flew at halfway to the count of two. Hissing over Heck’s head, its skillful aim landed it toward the back of the roof of the Tigrex’s mouth. Although the Tigrex had no intention of closing its mouth, the painful stimulation induced the powerful reflex. The muscles in the monster’s jaw contracted automatically, forcing all of the bite’s strength up onto the bottom of the arrow’s steel reinforced shaft.
The first phase of Daphne’s plan had worked. Thanks to its reflex, the Tigrex had just embedded the arrow deeply into its head from the inside. Daphne was certain it would reach the brain, thereby bringing an abrupt halt to the Tigrex’s life. Frozen, Daphne waited breathlessly for the end she sure was coming.
But it did not come. Although it went into a violent fit of convulsions and painful howls, the Tigrex astonishingly clawed itself upright afterward, and considering how much pain the clever attack had inflicted, its rage was sent to an enormous height. Now drooling saliva mixed with blood, the Tigrex jumped vigorously back, its inflamed muscles growing an entirely new shade of crimson, and its eyes burning like twin suns.
Silence: that is all Heck heard as he faced the monster charging straight at him. He could feel the ground shake with each step the creature took; he could see the violence of its slashing motions, the wicked glow of its eyes, and even the blood mixed with the saliva that spilled out of its mouth, but of the familiar sounds he associated with an enraged Tigrex, he perceived nothing.
Of course, now was not the time to figure out what had gone wrong. All he knew at the moment was that a Tigrex was about to mow him down, his hammer was nowhere in sight, and time was running out: a formula almost certain to command of him his last breath. Still, by a gross breach of logic, this was not the first time he had faced down this particular situation, and consequently he knew exactly what to do: hit the dirt and hope things turned out better than last time.
He struck the ground none too soon: Any more hesitation and the Tigrex’s deadly maws would likely have disemboweled him. Of course, avoiding that, he conceded to the lesser of the two evils, and he screamed silently into the snow as the Tigrex’s right front claw found its next step on his back, along with the greater portion of the monster’s weight. As he felt the talon lift back off, all he could do was hope that none of the three deep puncture wounds on his back had reached his spine: that, and that the Tigrex’s back leg would find a better place to land than his head. Considering this alternative, he was glad to feel the second limb slamming down on about the same area, cracking what felt like another rib.
When the stampeding predator finally passed, he found that his legs indeed were still at his command, and he immediately began running toward the wall opposite his enemy: a feat that at this point was surely adrenaline’s last gift to him. Although he could hear nothing, he knew by the time he reached the wall that the Tigrex had already wheeled around and initiated its second attempt and ending him, and with no other options, he grabbed the furthest protruding rock he could find and started climbing.
He had barely made it up three feet before he felt the entire wall shake violently, and, despite having barely been able to hang on, he did not let it stop his progress. The remainder of his excruciating climb went rather pleasantly uninterrupted, and the top came none too soon. As he lifted himself up for the last time, he was met by the petrified face of Daphne, whose shock had not prevented her from immediately yelling in his face words that were as silent as they were meaningless.
Grabbing her hand as he passed, he resumed running, now straight toward the tunnel that led back to their alcove. Judging by the way her weight felt behind him he was in all likelihood dragging Daphne literally across the floor, but considering the Tigrex would probably still reach be able to reach them he did not stop to correct his etiquette. As he entered the tunnel, he perceived the first sound he did since the Tigrex’s last roar, which was, disappointingly, the Tigrex’s roar once again, now distant and dreamlike but nevertheless distinct.
At this stage his vision was clouding over, and his back was now almost completely numb, but nevertheless he ran on. Finally, after a period that felt like a marathon through the netherworld, he saw that they had entered their alcove, and dropping Daphne’s hand, he fell to his knees, toppled headfirst onto the ground, and remembered no more.
Huddled over the spilled contents of Heck’s tinderbox, Daphne vigorously tapped one of the two small flints against the other, trying to spark a fire. Crafted from the specialized nails of a foreign bird wyvern, the small tools were able to create flames almost instantly in capable hands, but Daphne was no expert in the ways of the woodsman. Yet, as fate would have it, it was she, not her experienced partner, who was left with the burdensome task of survival: a problem not even the most difficult of her examinations had posed her.
Of course, it was not just her survival that hung in the balance. Pausing from her work, she glanced over at Heck, who lay motionless under a carefully placed layer of blankets, his wounded back to the ceiling. Fortunately, the grievously deep gouges the Tigrex had left had overcome the worst of their bleeding, thanks in no small part to Daphne’s expertise, but she knew all too well that the true extent of the damage Heck had suffered remained unseen. It was possible, perhaps probable, that some deadly internal injury was sapping his life even now, but without Heck’s knowledge and skill, there was no way Daphne would be able to get him out of the mountains to safety. If he wasn’t immediately given medical attention, she thought grimly, Heck would probably never awake from his comatose state. If ever there were an impossible situation…
No. She couldn’t let herself think like that. Redoubling her efforts with the flints, she cleared her mind and concentrated on her work. Nevertheless, her patience gradually waned once again, and her motions with the tools increased correspondingly in violence. Finally, she let loose a sudden explosion that sent her tumbling back in shock. Swearing loudly, she rolled frantically through the snow to extinguish any flames.
Upon returning to her feet, she eagerly checked to see if the kindling had caught. Finding nothing, she hurled one of the flints at the defiant pile with another curse and sat down to catch her breath.
Just as she had regained her wits, however, they were scrambled again by the last thing she expected to hear: a voice behind her. “I can see I woke up none too soon. Give me those before somebody gets hurt.”
“Heck!” she cried upon reclaiming her own voice, “How did you-- Please, don’t push yourself, you’re severely injured!”
Heck, indifferent to Daphne’s protests, was already attempting to stand. The pain on his face was all too clear, but it was outmatched by determination. “I know how injured I am.” He stated matter-of-factly. “Less than you think.”
The two hunters sat silently next to each other, each staring through the fire into their own thoughts. Neither was eager to discuss the events that had occurred earlier that night, but both knew the conversation must come eventually if all questions were to be answered. Apparently, those questions bothered Daphne more out of the two, as it was she who finally broke the silence.
“Heck…” she began, trying to sound as calm and confident as she could. “About that Tigrex… You saw how fast it went, and that awful roar… it wasn’t behaving normally, was it?”
Heck continued to stare silently into the fire, and after a few moments of silent consideration he responded. “…No. I suppose it wasn’t.”
“What do you think happened?”
The look he gave her after hearing this made her want to disappear. “Do you really want me to answer that question?” Daphne winced. He knew the truth.
Heck looked back to the fire, and continued after a heavy sigh. “What am I supposed to say to you, Deitra? I had hoped a promise from someone like you would be enough. Obviously, I was mistaken.”
“Heck,” she protested, “What was I supposed to do? That thing was about to mow you down, and you were just standing there. If I hadn’t fired that arrow, then--”
“Then what? What would have happened? Answer me honestly, girl.”
Daphne hesitated, realizing her mistake. She knew as well as Heck what would have happened: His actions during the fight were part of an oft used ploy to use the power of the monster’s jaws against it. The ledge against which he leaned as the Tigrex charged him was just high enough to receive its deadly jaws should Heck make a last second retreat. The ensuing bite reflex would then have locked them involuntarily into the stone, immobilizing the confused predator for a critical few moments. Heck would have been free to hammer away at its skull from above, in all likelihood enough times to finally deliver the killing blow.
Instead, though, Daphne’s cleverly placed arrow had interrupted the tactic and, perhaps worse, had sent the Tigrex to an unimaginable ceiling of pain. With a wyvern, that always meant an equivalent increase in adrenaline: the increased speed, the devastating roar, the reckless attacking—all that was easily explained by her arrow. Had Heck not had both skill and chance on his side, he would have immediately been shredded, and even then the only thing that ultimately saved him was the fact that the Tigrex blindly fell into the reflex trap as he scaled the rock wall—an amazingly fortunate ending, but one that nevertheless managed to highlight Daphne’s blunder all the more.
“No. You’re right. That’s not what would have happened.” She finally admitted in a low voice. “If I had known that at the time, I would have held my fire.”
“Would you?” Heck pressed, his eyes narrowing, “I know you, girl. You’re not that stupid.”
Daphne remained silent, but the frustration inside her spiked as she listened. The irony of his comment was bad enough, but what was worse was its truth. No, she’s not that stupid. She never was.
After a few moments, Heck rose to his feet. “I’d recommend you try and get as much sleep you can from the rest of the night,” he said quietly, “Our best bet of making it back to camp without incident is to leave before daybreak. And if you’re worried about monsters finding us here, don’t be. I’ve slept here more times than you’d believe, and the most dangerous things I’ve yet seen in here are Giaprey. Until I led you here, that is.”
With that, he turned and walked away, leaving Daphne to boil in her own thoughts.