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Foreword

This is my new story, Shadows of Deception. I plan to make the chapters, and therfore the whole story, a lot longer than my previous plots. It may take longer to post, as I intend to read through other users' stories (albeit very slowly), and I want to make it a little more descriptive than TWST. The full story will be posted on this one page.
Shadows of Deception
SoD (mdv)
Description and Information
Fan Fiction Name: Shadows of Deception
Author/s: UkantorEX
First Debut: 30th November 2012
Number of Chapters: 35 (subject to change)
Current Status: Ongoing
Chapters
-


Enjoy! I'm right behind you...or am I? (talk) 17:00, November 30, 2012 (UTC)

Word Count: 62,072
Closer To The Truth - Cryoshell - Lyrics03:55

Closer To The Truth - Cryoshell - Lyrics

Main Theme

Plot

Altus.

The very core of Guild power, where a deadly new disease of unknown origins called the "Mad Dragon Virus" has taken root, girdling the populations of both human and monster alike. Meanwhile, the Guild struggles to end the ten-year war with the rebellious Separatist Province of Tenkai, a region of Altus that broke away from Guild jurisdiction. A band of hunters from the backwater town of Kairu in Tarin, one of Altus' outer regions, is recruited by the Guild to assassinate Tenkai leader Shikimaru Tetsuya as part of a black ops mission to bring an end to the war. However, as events continue to unfold, not all is as it seems, and the friends will slowly begin to question the very power upon which they so wholeheartedly rely...

NOTE: Amount and titles of chapters are subject to change. (probably quite a few chapters' names will change because the current names reflect my initial plants for the storyline, whereas now they have changed dramatically).

Characters

Main Characters: Dante, Alexis, Aaron, April

Sub Characters: Yumi, Ruby, Teiko, Ash, Eiji, Ichiro, Irvine, Miyuki, Thain, Shin Mei, Shikimaru

Under-Sub Characters: Archminister Grimsley, Laretta, Alexander, Sayuri, Narka, Ito (TBC)

Minor Characters: Five unamed Guild Black Ops soldiers, Yakuza (not mentioned by name), Chancellor Tojou

Monsters

Akura Vashimu, Akura Jebia, Gurenzeburu, Gigginox, Amatsumagatsuchi, Jaganoto, Goa Magara, Luminastra, rest to be confirmed.

Opening

Summons From The Guild

Dante sat up in his bed with a gasp, finally being allowed respite from his nightmare. His brow was slick with sweat; his body had clearly been restless as his mind enacted the twisted nightmare. Ignoring the pang of the cold midnight against his bare chest, he scanned the room feverishly, as if looking for an enemy in the shadows. He felt something salty and wet touch the corner of his lip. As he smoothed his finger across the source of irritation he realized that he’d been crying softly. He sharply turned his head in the nighttime darkness at the sound of a soft, carefree moan. It was only his girlfriend, Alexis, rolling over to lie on her stomach, her long ebony hair reaching over the bed covers to rest lazily upon them in an untidy mess. As Dante was about to make another attempt at peaceful sleep (which was likely to fail), Alexis slowly rose from her position, rubbing her eyes tiredly. She looked around sluggishly until her eyes found her boyfriend, sitting upright, sweating, his eyes alight with fear. She dragged herself closer to him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders protectively from her place on the right side of the bed as he stared blankly ahead into the window at the foot of the bed, which let in the bleak, misty moonlight from the world outside.
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-23 - Sky-Blue Eyes01:47

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-23 - Sky-Blue Eyes

Theme- Sky-Blue Eyes, Blood-Red Sword (Dante's Theme)

“Another nightmare?” she asked softly, though she already knew the answer.

“Yeah. Always the same one; that strange monster…its fur-covered wings…its sharp talons pinning me down. It roars in my face, and then…and then…” Dante couldn’t bring himself to finish, but Alexis knew exactly what he would’ve said. She kissed his cheek comfortingly, and gently pushed her hand down on his chest, motioning him to lie down.

"Just try and get some sleep. There’s no need to be scared, I’m right here,” she murmured tenderly, enveloping the distressed young man in her embrace, his head nuzzled deep in her arms, which curled around his back. She hummed an old lullaby and stroked the back of his head like a child until he fell asleep. ____________________________________________________________________________________________

Morning. When he woke up, he was still in Alexis’ embrace. He smiled, and carefully shrugged her off of him, wanting to get free and to wake her up. That was what was good about Alexis when it came to a hunt; she was a light sleeper, and easy to wake.

With a peaceful sigh she peeled her body from the bed as her eyes slowly flickered open, gazing upon her loved one, a sweet, simple smile sketched upon her face.

“What time is it?” she asked with wryness, still smiling, her senses returning quickly.

“Uh, about…nine, ten in the morning?” he replied unsurely.

“Then we’ve still got plenty of time,” she purred playfully, wrapping her arms around his neck, tugging him back under the bed sheets and leaning in to kiss him tenderly at the same time. ____________________________________________________________________________________________

Kairu was a small town on the outskirts of the region of Tarin, in the Guild-controlled country of Altus, the largest country in the known world and the central seat of Guild power. Although many people saw Archminister Grimsley to be in command, the de facto leader of the Guild, and therefore the known world, was Chancellor Tojou, although nobody ever really saw or heard much from him since the beginning of the war with the Separatist Province of Tenkai, a fairly large area of land which had incited civil war with Altus about ten years ago, managing to rally a couple of nearby regions under its banner, which were then absorbed into Tenkai. Dante and Alexis had only been about five at the time, so they were too young to understand. But they did now, to a lesser extent; Tenkai apparently disagreed with the Guild policies and the way it was run, despite the fact that there hadn’t been any form of protest directed at the Guild since the Reformation over two-hundred years ago. The Guild had been in peace talks with them for eleven years before the war began, so it was hardly surprising to the rest of the people of Altus when war was formally declared by Grimsley himself. However, a recent turn of the tide in Altus’ favour was bringing the war to a close. One final push was all it would take to drive Tenkai over the edge.

As Dante and Alexis strolled past the walls of houses and miscellaneous stores that were situated on either side of them and toward the Guild Hall, the voice of Dante’s best friend echoed from behind.

“Heeeeeeey! Wait for me!” Aaron yelled, running as fast as his Rathalos Soul G armour would allow. A huge Shiny Rathalos Sword G was strapped to his back. As he caught up with Alexis, who was clad in simple Steel+ armour and sported a Hi Ninja Sword G (which was, ironically, crafted in Tenkai) and Dante, who sported Rathalos+ armour and the Red Divine Flame, he smiled at the Guild Hall with anticipation.

“Do you know why we’ve been summoned by the Guild?” Dante asked, desperate for clarification, the trio all tucking their helmets under their arms to talk. A few days ago, he and Alexis had had a message delivered from the Guild (whom employed them) asking them to report to their local Guild Hall at twelve sharp. The thing that perplexed him so was that he had no idea why and neither did Alexis. But, clearly, Aaron had it figured out.

“Well…” Aaron replied unsurely, placing his hands on the back of his head absentmindedly (as he had been wont to do, for all the years Dante had known him), trying to figure out a way to explain what he wanted to say. “I don’t know, per se, but I’ve got a feeling it’s something to do with Tetsuya.”

“Who?” Alexis jumped in.

“Uh, Tetsuya?” Aaron repeated, as if it was obvious. Dante and Alexis stared at him with blank innocence. Aaron let out a sigh of half-hearted exasperation.

“I’m only talking about Shikimaru Tetsuya, leader of the Separatist Province of Tenkai!” Aaron exclaimed. “Geez, don’t you guys know anything about Tenkai?”

Aaron was right, they really shouldn’t have been so riddled; Shikimaru Tetsuya was the self-appointed emperor of Tenkai and the rebellious region’s general, although he often kept his hands clean, instead formulating the strategies for his soldiers to follow rather than doing the dirt himself. This wasn’t cowardice; he had never fled a fight on the sparse occasions in which he was challenged, but other than that he stayed behind the scenes. He was a shrewd man, and an excellent tactician. It was this keen mind that kept the Guild on their toes, even though Tenkai was on the brink of defeat.

Of course, the village’s mind had been on other things far more important than Tenkai. Recently, a strange and virulent contagion had taken hold, one that threatened Altus’ entire populace. They called it the “Mad Dragon Virus”, mainly for the detrimental effect it had on certain monsters such as Elder Dragons, certain Pseudowyverns and most Flying Wyverns. Its effect on monsters was extremely adverse to those it had on a human; a human would simply grow frail and weak before slowly dying, whereas monsters would survive the infection, and their eyes would turn purple and dark, varicose veins would sprawl across their hides. They would also gain insanely brutal strength but at the same time driving them utterly insane (hence the “Mad”). The monsters that were seen to be affected by the Mad Dragon Virus then had “Mad” added to the beginning of their name when referred to by hunters, but the Guild simply stamped the contracts for the hunting of a Mad monster with a purple biohazard symbol.


That was the strange thing about the Mad Dragon Virus; it wasn’t something that you just caught with the season or the area, like a cold or influenza. It seeped into your system through any wound or cut you may have sustained, no matter how minute. The Village Elder’s son had caught it when an infected monster wounded him, and the Elder herself had caught it when she cut herself and her son was nearby. The only way to avoid the disease was to not cut yourself when those infected were around. Of course, since this was difficult for hunters, it was often they who were affected most. As a result, villages with high concentrations of the Mad Dragon Virus were quickly running low on hunters to protect their village, and attacks from small monsters such as Jaggi, Baggi and Furogi as well as larger monsters such as Tigrex were becoming a lot more common. Kairu had suffered no such attacks, as it was only a small outlying village with nothing much that these carnivorous Wyverns might want, but even still, it feared such an event and warned hunters constantly to stay safe.

Dante, Alexis and Aaron had reached the door to the Guild Hall at last. Aaron swung the door open slowly, and a wall of noise greeted them, different from the relative quiet of Kairu proper. The chattering of hunters both leaving and returning from a hunt, as well as the drunken laughter of those gathered around the bar and the quiet (compared to the noise around them) undertone of the hunters who sat at tables eating, was enough to wake up the village, startling the still slightly groggy Dante.

“You’re still tired?” Aaron said, raising an eyebrow theatrically at his friend. “…Did you two have sex?” he asked bluntly, with a hint of mischief. Alexis blushed ever so slightly.

“Ahhh, so you did! Well, good for you. Just…try not to overpopulate the village, ’kay?” he said wryly, laughing to himself briefly. Then, Dante spotted some of their friends, standing by the bar. Only a couple of them were actually drinking, though. One was female, dressed in Uragaan armour with a Crimsonwall upon her back, another, also female, clad in Gurenzeburu armour, wielding its corresponding hammer, another pair-one male, one female- sported Gogomoa armour; the male wielded a sword and shield while the female bore a longsword, both of which were also crafted from Gogomoa materials. The last two were both male; one donned Akura Vashimu armour and dual swords while the other was clad in Akura Jebia armour and dual swords.
  • Dante's armour (left)
  • Dante's weapon
  • Alexis' armour (right)
  • Alexis' weapon
  • Ichiro's armour (left)
  • Eiji's armour (left)
  • April's armour (right)Go to
  • April's weapon
  • Teiko and Ash (This is them as well as their armour)
  • Yumi's armour (right)
  • Yumi's weapon
  • Ruby's armour (right)
  • Ruby's weapon
  • Aaron's armour (right)
  • Irvine's armour (left)
  • Irvine's weapon (without the shield)
  • Miyuki's armour and weapon
  • The symbol stamped on Quest Contracts whose target(s) has MDV


“Hey guys!” Alexis exclaimed, causing the group of friends to look up from their respective conversations, exclamations of surprise and happiness blurted out from each of them.

“Long time no see, Teiko, Ash,” Dante said, smiling at the two Gogomoa-armoured hunters.

“Yeah, we kinda got stuck in Jonton; the monster we’d been sent to hunt was, in fact, a Mad Barioth. Damn thing nearly killed Ash here. No wonder the client didn’t say what the target was; poor guy must’ve known nobody’d help him if he said the creature was Mad. I don’t understand how the request was even given a grant if it didn’t have the biohazard stamp on it,” Teiko explained matter-of-factly. Ash hit him on the shoulder.

“Hey, it nearly killed you too!” Ash complained as she ran her fingers through her silvery hair, annoyed at being made to look so helpless.

“Shut up, sis…!” Teiko hissed out of the corner of his mouth. Dante giggled at the pair. Tekio and Ash were brother and sister, and as a result were always competing with each other to be a better hunter. Teiko would be better than Ash, but his reckless bravado often got him into trouble, so overall, Ash was slightly “better”, if only in the intelligence sense.

“ALEXIS!” the girls in Uragaan and Gurenzeburu armours squealed excitedly, rushing over to hug their erstwhile friend.

“APRIL! RUBY!” Alexis squealed back, all three of the girls squeezing the life out of each other as they hugged.

“Hang on a second, where’s Yumi?!” Alexis asked, worried. Yumi was her best friend, and an accomplished hunter. “Don’t tell me…that Mad Barioth killed her?!”

“No, no, no! Don’t get so wound up!” April said, taking a swing of ale from Teiko’s cup while he wasn’t looking. Ruby and Alexis giggled at this as she talked. “She’s just doing something. Oh, look! Here she comes now.”

Ruby and Alexis both turned to the entrance with April to see a slender girl in Jhen Mohran armour and armed with a switch axe, the Great Demonbind G, strolling in. Her hair was black, tied back into a neat bun, her armour covered with small, barely noticeable bloodstains. She stopped when she laid eyes on Alexis.

“Alexis?” Yumi called out.

“Yumi?” Alexis replied.

“ALEXIS!" Yumi shouted.

“YUMI!” Alexis shouted back, and the two ran to cuddle each other, giggling immaturely as packs of teenage girls were wont to do. “When you weren’t here I thought that Mad Barioth had killed you!”

“Oh, you heard about that, huh? Yeah, well…no disease-ridden, oversized cat is gonna get the better of Yumi!” she huffed boastfully, her friends laughing at her amusing display of pride. “Still, we’re all extremely lucky that no-one was wounded in that fight. We’d have been infected otherwise…” Yumi said seriously, trailing away, pausing to think with dread about what might’ve been.

“Oh, cheer up, Yumi; nobody was hurt and that’s that. We’re all fine!” Ruby said cheerily.

"Yeah, until the next hunt. What if the next one turns out to be Mad as well? Do you think lightning won’t strike in the same place twice?” Yumi snapped. Ruby looked down, abashed.

"Hey, what’s the matter with you?” Alexis asked. “Relax! I know it’s difficult, the infection and all…but nobody was hurt. Sure, next time you might not be so lucky, but don’t think about that. Live in the now!” Alexis smiled, and Yumi managed a smile in return, once again returning to enjoy her reunion with her best friend. After all, Yumi, along with Ruby, April, Teiko, Ash and the Akura Twins, as Eiji and Ichiro were known around the village, hadn’t seen Dante, Aaron or Alexis in a month; Jonton was a city in Tsutoko, one of the inner regions of Altus, and it took a long time to travel there and back to and from an outlying village like Kairu in an outer region like Tarin.

Aaron had missed Eiji and Ichiro (or the Akura Twins, as they had been dubbed by the villagers). As they talked, Dante, Teiko and Ash came up beside them and joined in.

"Teiko, Ash,” Aaron said, smiling as he nodded, acknowledging the siblings. Teiko nodded back while Ash smiled girlishly.

“Long time no see, Eiji, Ichiro. I heard about the Mad Barioth. Tough times, huh?” Dante said.

"Damn right,” Eiji said, twirling one of his Akura Jebia dual swords absentmindedly. “Damn thing nearly fucking killed us. To be honest, I don’t think we’d all have made back alive if it wasn’t for Ash. She was the one who saw the damned thing about to ambush us in the first place, as well as saving April and l from the monster on several occasions. We owe you one, Ash.”


“Aww, that’s alright; it’s no biggy,” Ash chirped, smiling still.

"Oh, looky here; I think we’re about to find out why we’re here,” Ichiro murmured with anticipation, pointing to the back entrance, where two Guild soldiers (as could be seen by their red and gold attire) walked in beside a female hunter dressed in Barioth X armour and bearing its respective sword and shield and a male hunter bearing Rukodiora armour, a Rukodiora-crafted rapier hanging from a scabbard attached to the right side of his hip. He had no shield to accompany it, however.

"Oh my god…whatever we’ve been summoned for, it must be pretty darn important,” Yumi said seriously as she, Alexis, April and Ruby joined their friends in gazing upon the spectacle. “That guy’s from the military higher-ups; only the real high-ranking officers, the generals and field marshals and colonels and stuff wear armour other than the Guild uniform. And since he’s wearing Rukodiora gear…it must mean he’s part of the black ops department. Whatever we’re gonna be asked to do, I’ll bet gold to gunlances it’s real hush-hush.”

The ten hunters watched as the four strangers approached them. Despite the fact that there was a high-ranking officer from the Guild in their midst, the other occupants of the Guild Hall barely took any notice at all. The foursome stopped in front of them, the two Guild officers standing slightly behind while the Barioth-armoured hunter and the high-ranking officer stood prominent, both of their faces hidden from view beneath their helms.

"Greetings," the Rukodiora-clad man said. His voice was formal and polite, with the tone of a fairly young man, perhaps later twenties or early thirties, and sounded ever-so-slightly tinny from beneath his helmet. “I am General Irvine, commanding officer of the black operations department within the Guild military.” Irvine pointed to the woman adjacent to him. This is Miyuki, an elite hunter and agent of the Guild. We have come here to summon you to spearhead the operation in which we will assassinate Emperor Shikimaru Tetsuya and bring an end to the war with Tenkai."

The Three Trials

Arrival At Yii-Do

"Why us?" Yumi asked quizzically. Irvine and Miyuki stayed silent, an air of speechlessness descending. "There are plenty of better-trained hunters in the inner regions and cities; Tsutoko, Kojo, even other, bigger places in Tarin have hunters that will work for less, and are better than us. What, do the backwater people not matter? If they die, or worse, get MDV, it doesn't matter as much?" Yumi sneered aggressively. She was the most level-headed and uptight member of Dante's circle of friends, their leader of sorts.

"Yumi..." April sighed, the way a mother does when their child ignores warnings about touching hot food.

"Please, Miss...?" Irvine began politley.

"Yumi. Yumi Kimimoto."

"RIght. Miss Kimimoto.." Irvine started again. "We did not pick you and your friends because you are "backwater". Strictly speaking, we haven't actually picked you...yet."

"What do you mean, "yet"?" Teiko asked, folding his arms and furrowing his brow as if to concentrate.

"What I mean is that we have already asked for the assistance of other hunters, from Kojo, Jonton in Tsukoto and even in inner Tarin, along with many other places. We test test them to see both their individual apitudes and their ability to work as a team. You are the last on our list; the others are potential candidates. So far, the small band on hunters from Jonton has excelled the most. Should you fail, they will undertake this misson," Irvine explained.

"Are you sure it's wise to tell so many people about a mission of such importance? What if one of them is an Tenkai operative? I'm sure Shikimaru'll be flattered to hear about the attempt on his life," Ichiro said with a hint of haughty derision.

"It doesn't matter; they're smart enough to know that we'll find the bastards and slit their throats if they so much as utter a sylable to do with this op," the Barioth-clad hunter, Miyuki, retorted bluntly. Her voice was deep for a woman's but still easily identifiable as feminine, and sounded blunt and matter-of-fact.

"...Precisely," Irvine said, reinforcing Miyuki's point but hesitating to do so, as if taken aback by her blunt threat upon the hunters' lives.

"...What do you mean by "test"?" Dante enquired, raising an eyebrow.

"You will be taken to the Guild military bastion in Yii, in the Kojo region. The bastion has a training arena. A plethora of monsters from across the land await there, from which we shall select in order to test your abilities. You should be aware that the monsters you will face will not be matched based on Hunter Rank; they will be chosen with the purpose to challenge you in mind. The only thing you can be sure of...is that none of them will be Mad," Irvine murmured forbodingly. Even though the hunters couldn't see him, they felt his eyes scanning them intently.

"Well then what the heck're we waiting for?" Ash asked with impatient anticipation (she was the youngest of the friends at the tender age of thirteen, and was the most easily psyched of the group). "Let's go already!"

The friends took a moment to confer amongst themselves, before Yumi emerged from the scrum, a look of formality on her face.

"Alright; we'll do it."

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The ten good friends were really excited now, adrenaline surging through their veins like a wildfire. They had never been on an airship before. They had read about them in picture books as children,a nd seen them docked in the inner regions of the country on the rare journeys they had embarked upon to inner Altus, but never before had they actually been on one. It felt incredible, and for a citizen of an outlying region like Tarin, it was a dream come true.

As Dante and Alexis stood at the starboard side of the craft, holding hands, Dante breathed a sigh of satisfaction, closing his eyes for a brief moment to listen to the whistles of the wind, the gentle creaking of the wooen planks and the squawking of small birds in perfect harmony with the prideful roars of Rathians returning to their nests, most likely with an unlucky Jaggi or Baggi clenched between their jaws.
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 2-04 - Theme of CRISIS CORE "To a New Post"01:26

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 2-04 - Theme of CRISIS CORE "To a New Post"

Airship travel theme- Through the Clouds

"I've dreamed of this since I was a kid," Dante sighed, opening his sapphire eyes to watch a small flock of Qurupeco fly by sounding their mating calls, their bulbous vermillion vocal sacs bulging as they cawed.

"Well, good for you," Alexis said, smiling, her head resting gently on Dante's shoulder.

Following this, Teiko and Ash came to stand beside them, Teiko sighing quietly.

"Something wrong?" Alexis asked him.

"No, it's nothing," he said. "It's just...I've always wanted to ride one o' these."

"Me too," Ashe agreed, lifting her arms to her sides and clsoing her eyes to take in the breeze.

"Mind you don't fall off!" Teiko joked. The other laughed, including Ash.

"Hey, look! A Rathalos!" Teiko exclaimed, pointing ahead as a huge, red Flying Wyvern emerged from the wispy clouds screeching pridefulyl as it flew past the airship, scattering the Qurupeco flock with it's intimidating aproach. Dante, Alexis, Teiko and Ash all watched with wonder at the King of the Skies until it swooped down below the clouds and out of sight.

Their awestruck thoughts were swiftly interrupted by the heavy stomping of Irvine's Rukodiora leggings on the wooden deck.

"We are approaching the military bastion. Be ready," he said, then turned on his heel and retreated into the depths of the ship.

"I guess we can just relax up here then. Glad we kept all our stuff on us. By the way, where are Eiji, Ichiro, Aaron and the girls?" Ash questioned.

"Uh...I guess they must be below deck. 'Cause they sure ain't up here," Teiko said.

"Hey, Yumi," Dante said, acknowledging the Jhen-armoured hunter as she stolled above deck to meet with him and the others.

"Are all you guys prepared?" Yumi asked seriously. "Make sure you are; 'blos knows what we'll face down there," she warned, gripping the handle of her switch axe tightly. Shortly after Yumi's wise words, Eiji, Ichiro, April, Ruby and Aaron can scurrying onto the deck to stand with them.

"We're nearly there! We're about to descend! You'll hear the warning drum in a second," Aaron said excitedly.

And, as he'd said, the deep, strong and climactic sound of a large drum reverberated from below deck, and, sure enough, the airship descended, the clouds grew thinner, and as they cloud layer disappeared completely, a large island off the coast of Yii, Kojo, was a small island, covered from north to south in industrial structure. The group turned away from the starboard rail as Miyuki stutted past them.

"Welcome to Yii-Do," Miyuki huffed dismissively, "Your new home for quite some time, assuming you pass par."

The hunters turned back to gaze upon Yii-Do, conjuring up mental images of what fearsome creatures they might have to face.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

After the airship had landed, Dante, Alexis, Aaron and the others had been led through many areas of Yii-Do. They had to walk quickly, so there had been very little time to sightsee, but the bits that had been seen were almost foreign to them: Tarin wasn't as rich as other regions like Kojo or Chi'Huen, and so the advanced technology afforded to Guild outposts like this was slightly out of their reach. They weren't bothered by this though: they didn't have it simply because the Guild has no major military activity there, and Kojo (as well as other places) did.. This wasn't the kind of equipment you could just buy, it was expensive and resource-consuming to make, and as such it was only used on important places like Military Bastions in order to help them become self-sustaining and not rely on outsources from the capital all the time.

They were led down a long, straight stone hallway, lit by torches all the way along, beams of white light seeping in through the gaps in the barred window of the large, wide door that now stood before them.

"Be very careful when you venture into the arena, hunters. It is sperated from the mainland, and these drawbridges are the only way to...and from the arena. You can't escape from your fight once you cross, whatever monster it may be. Is that understood?" Irvine warned them carefully.

"Right," Dante answered for his friends.

"Very well," Irvine said. He grabbed a level to his right and slowly pulled tit down. Dante and friends watched as the dorr before them slowly fell away from the top, forming a bridge to a large, circular arena that awaited ahead, large chains clinking loudly as it did so.

Dante, Alexis, Aaron, Ruby, April, Eiji, Ichiro, Yumi, Teiko and Ash all strode forward, acorss the draw bridge and into the arena; Dante, Ash and Alexis with their swords and shields, Ruby and Aaron with their greatswords, Eiji and Ichiro with their dual swords, Teiko with his longsword and Yumi with her switch axe. Almost as soon as their feet stepped off of the wood and onto the dusty, desert-like ground, the drawbridge-and, therefore, their only means of escape- was pulled back the way it had come, the heavy chains on each side clinking as the wooden slab was peeled back from its position between the main building and the watery drop below and back to its upright position, blocking the passage way the hunters had just come from.

Even the surroundings of the arena were lushious to the eye. the rest of the strcture within which the arean was situated circled it in an amphitheatre-ish way, the clay-coloured stonework cut to look like rows of seats that went all the way around, although they had clearly not been used in some time, as clumps of moss, brush, dandelions and other greenery were dotted all over the brick, giving it a look of an old desert temple. Gentle streams of water seeped out from between the brittle bars (some of which had been eroded away partially) of rusty, derelict drainage pipes; not nearly enough to make the level of water  that awaited far below the gorge-like drop that awaited over the edge rise to any credible degree, but enough to make it look somewhat sceinic. The general gargantuan size of the whole area took the hunters' breath away as well.

"This...is the Yii-Do Training Arena," Irvine's voice echoed from over a relay of large horns that had been placed at key points around the amphitheatre-esque surroundings in order to amplify the sound. The group figured that he must have the original horn somewhere within the main building. "Here, you will be put to the test against a plethora of captured monsters from our reserves. If you can pass this test, you will be allowed to move on to the second test."

There was a short pause, and then another drawbridge was lowered to the northeast of where they had entered, and two scorpinlike monsters scuttled across it an into the arena, hissing and rattling their tails like snakes as they did so. One had brown skin and coated in purple crystals while the other had navy blue skin an icy white crystals. Both had four round, beady red eyes. They slowly moved in around the ten hunters, snapping their pincers and waving their tails in anticipation, circling the hunters antagonistically.

"These two Carapaceons are known an Akura Vashimu and Akura Jebia. Trained for use in the arean, they will be your first challenge. When the drawbridge closes, you may begin," Irvine's voice sounded from the mic system again.

A few seconds later, the drawbridge closed and the first test of a hunter's mettle began.

The First Test: Vashimu And Jebia, The Crystal Carapaceons!

Before the nucleated group of hunters even had time to draw their weapons, the Akura Vashimu screeched and leaped toward Ruby, who let out a cry of shock and swung her Crimsonwall toward it at the last moment. The sharp, heaby bladecut into its left mandible, cleaving it straight off and disorientating the Carapaceon, diverting it from its warpath and sending it crashing into a nearby moss-covered rock with a pained screech. However, some crystals from its tail broke off like shrapnel and flew toward Ash. A few small splinters dug into her flesh and she winced, but the rest collided with the flat of Ruby's greatsword, shattering them on contact and preventing them from reaching its owner.
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-12 - Conflict02:22

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-12 - Conflict

Theme- Fight in the Yii-Do Arena!

Meanwhile, the Akura Jebia hissed and pouned on Alexis, who was sent tumbling acorss the floor in a heap. The creature simultaneously fired a high-pressure water beam from its crystal-tipped tail, which blasted into Teiko, knocking him away. As Ash brought her longsword to bear, the Jebia whipped her away with its tail, then hissed triumphantly. As it was doing so, it let its guard down to Yumi's attack, her Great Demonbind G slicing into the sub of it's leg. It hissed with irritation and swept its body across the floor an attempt to roate around in the oppostie direction and swipe Yumi with its pincer, but to no avail; Yumi brought her switch axe to bear, but in sword mode now, the Jhen-crafted blade slicing into the crystals that coated the Jebia's claw. The monster shrieked shirlly and drew it's claw back protectively before batting Yumi away with its tail.

Ichiro and Eiji were slashing away at the stunned Akura Vashimu with their dual swords, the demonized slashes tearing into the carapace of the creature at its legs flailed wildly, its body stuck at an awkward angle against the rock its face had rendezvoused with. Finally, it heaved itself onto an upright position and swiped its claws across one another, slapping the Akura Twins away. It hissed and screeched with humiliation and rage, barely any crystals left on its pincers. Dante quickly ran over to Alexis and helped her up.
Vashimu

Akura Vashimu

Jebia

Akura Jebia

"C'mon, you've gotta stay with it! Help me with the Vashimu!" he said. Alexis nodded and the pair ran over to the brown Carapaceon, where Eiji and Ichiro had already recovered and were slashing away at it while it jabbed its claws at them inaccurately, too irate at having allowed itself to take so much damage (as well as loose its mandible right off the bat) to do anything else.

On the other side of the arena, April and Ruby had rushed over to assualt the Akura Jebia, covering Yumi's recovery. She shook off the last of the crystals that had coated her upon being struck with its tail, drinking a Mega Potion to recover her vitality and munching a couple of quick Rations ot recover some of her completely drained stamina, before switching her Great Demonbind G back into axe mode and jumping back into the fray with her friends, slashing at the Jebia's back left leg while Ruby sliced into it's already damaged claw with a full-power attack from her greatsword and April was busy pounding the creature's head with her Gurenzeburu hammer. The Jebia hissed even more aggressively then before, and slammed it tail down on the ground repeatedly, attempting to flatten Yumi in its ire. Yumi switcher her axe into sword mode once again and pointed the tip up as the Akura Jebia's thick tail came smashing down upon her. The sword pierced the shell, blood and flakes of crystal pouring out of the mammoth gash. The Carapaceon shrieked louder than it had done since it had entered the arena, and swivelled around and stabbed its left pincer into the ground, pinning Yumi to the floor between its two thick, crabbish joints and kicking Ruby and April to the floor at the same time. 

With its back to Ruby and April, the two girls could now see the full extent of the damage Yumi's last-dicth attack had done to the Jebia. Its tail hung at an angle, dragging along the floor, still attacked to the main body, but only just. One or two more strong thumps and it'd be off.

The Akura Jebia hissed lowly with antagonistic pride, sensing its advantage over Yumi. It slowly began to squeeze the two joints of it's pincer together, wishing to watch the helpless hunter squirm as its claw crushed her bone by bone. It then hissed and rattled its mandibles to augment the sound that came out, giving the impression that the crystal-coated Carapaceon was laughing at its quarry. It listened intently as Yumi grunted and cursed, desperately trying to wriggle free from the Jebia's rock-hard vicegrip.

"Quick! Get its attention before it crushes her!" Ruby hissed to April, who fumbled in her puch for a stone and throwing it as hard she she could. The rock landed clean on it's head as it was squeezing the life out of their friend. The Jebia hissed and spun around at an angle, its four crimson eyes boring into Ruby and April. It turned around and lifted its claw out of the ground a few centimetres, then slammed it down onto Yumi's body. She cried out in pain, feeling immediately brusied. As the Jebia slowly slunk away from her, she rolled over, winded. The Jebia screeched a battle cry before scuttling toward Ruby and April, claws at the ready, beady eyes gleaming with spite.

As it screeched and lunged at Ruby with it's left pincer, she brough the flat of her greatsword up defensively, deflecting the hit. In this time, April had prepared a hefty swing, which she now loosed upon the monster, the gargantuan hammer striking the Jebia below the chin and causing it to cry out it pain and slump to the floor, stunned, its legs feebly scrabbling on the floor. Ruby ran around behind the creature and began to charge her Crimsonwall above its almost severed tail, while April continued to savagely pound the beast's head with her Gurenzeburu hammer. Out of the blue, the Akura Jebia recovered, drooling blood from its shattered jowls, and thwacked Ruby away with its pincers, scrambling to prise itself off of the ground. In its haste, however, it had forgotten Ruby, whose greatsword subsequently slammed down onto the Carapaceon's damaged tail, severing the crystal-tipped natural weapon in one fell swoop. The Jebia shrieked and hissed with raw pain and anger, before swishing the half of its scorpion-like tail that remained to fire crystals over a broad range behind it, the crystal projectiles immeadiately slamming into Ruby, blowing her away. As she hit the ground, she tumbled over and over, latching onto the edge of the arena's turf with both hands, looking down with fear, the wind slicing crisply as her greatsword tumbled down to the water far below.

Then, every hair on her body stood up with fear as a low, gurgled hiss seeped into her ears. She looked back up, past her hands, to see the Akura Jebia, its head twitching erratically as if to say well, well, well, what do we have here?, Ruby's reflection shining in its four round, beady vermillion eyes, its outer and inner mandibles twitching impatiently, more blood and saliva dripping from them. Something about it looked rabid, as if it were a hungry dog hellbent on vengeance. As it raised its claws triumphantly in preparation to force Ruby to fall to her doom, a girlish battle cry echoed from behind the Jebia, and it then shrieked hoarsely, its spine arching in pain. Then, a voice as feminine as the cry that had just sounded called out to Ruby, although its owner was obscured by the Jebia's hulking form.

"Close your eyes!"

Ruby recognised the girl immediately. Ash! she thought with relief. Hope for survival renewed, she screwed her eyes shut as a dull, metallic sound echoed above her. A Flash Bomb. The Jebia hissed once more, angry at being blinded by the projectile.

As Ash sliced at the Akura Jebia's back leg, she signalled to April to make her move. April sprinted across the Jebia's spine, then leapt into the air, hammer over her shoudler. As the Jebia shook its head, regaining its sight, it screeched, stunned for the second time by April's crushing blow to the head. April then leapt off and hauled Ruby back to safety, although it took a mighty effort on her part due to Ruby's heavy Uragaan armour.

"Thanks," Ruby said.

"I got your back, girlfriend," April said with a wink and a pinch of sass. They then joined Ash in setting up as many Large and Small Barrel Bomb+'s as they could, then run and dived away in preparation for the fuses on the Small Barrel Bomb+s to run out.

As the Jebia returned consciousness, it had moments to gaze around at the sight of the bombs that had been placed around it. It hissed and seethed with silent rage at having been defeated, before its entire form was consumed in flames, the silent, charred carcass blown off of the edge of the arena by the monumental force of the exlposion and tumbling into the watery moat below.

Ruby, April and Ash knew it was over when they heard the loud hiss of a heated object hitting the water. They slowly uncurled their bodies from their respective protective positions and unsheated their weapons; Ash her longsword and April her hammer-Ruby had lost her greatsword to the watery depths.

Each of them gazed yonder to where Teiko, Dante, Alexis, Aaron, Eiji and Ichiro were still slashing away at the Akura Vashimu. The creature was putting up a brave and aggressive fight, but it wa clear that it was being bullied into submission by the reletnless attacks from six different hutners.

"Guys...Guys...Help me..." a voice rasped from closeby. Ruby, April and Ash looked just ahead to their right to see Yumi, clutching her stomach as she edged along the dusty, stony floor toward her friends, looking somewhat reminiscent of a wounded caterpillar. The three girls quickly scurried over to help Yumi to her feet. Ruby and April wrapping one of her arms around their shoulders to help her sustain her own weight.

"You guys stay back. I'll go and help the others finish off the Vashimu," Ash said, her voice both casual and serious, but an inherent air of intelligence in her words. Ruby and April nodded soberly and watched Ash turn on her heel and spint off to help their friends, Gogomoa longsword in hand.

Yumi winced with pain as Ruby and April set her down against a nearby rock, then leaned against it with her, watching the others tackle the brown-skinned Akura Vashimu. Ruby took some a flask from her puch and offered it to Yumi. Yumi took it, then shook the flask from side to side gently, as if she didn't know what to do with it. She wrinkled her nose with hesitation and curiosity.

"What's in it?" she asked, somewhat dreading the answer.

"It's a weak Lifepower solution. Rather bitter, I've gotta warn you," Ruby replied gently, but bluntly. She was the resident medic of the friends.

"Ugh, I remember how horrible this stuff is. My mother used to give it to me when I got sick. Do I have to drink it?" Yumi groaned.

"If you wanna feel any better, yes. But not all of it! I have to save some for other patients; Lifepower's expensive, y'know. I can... put a lttle bit of honey if you want to sugar-coat the pill," Ruby offered.

"No, no. I'll just down it as it is. I'm a big girl, I can handle some bitter medicine," Yumi declined, taking a couple of gulps from the flask then handing it back to Ruby, who packed it away carefully.

"God, that stuff really is vile," Yumi said, taking a Ration from her item pack to wash out the taste with some meat. That didn't make the aftertaste much vaguer but it was all she could do not to throw up.

Meanwhile, Dante and Alexis were slashing away at the Akura Vashimu's legs. The creature had been downed, but it wasn't out yet. Dante's Red Divine Flame slashed across the area where its mandible would have been, reigniting both the stinging pain of the wound and the burning rage of loss inside the Vashimu. The creature screeched and fired its swept a large swathe of the area with its water beam from its tail, brushing Alexis and Dante away and knocking Eiji into a rock, knocking him unconscious. As Ichiro prepared to avenge his brother-in-arms' wound, the Vashimu quickly dismissed him with a strong thump from its right pincer. Meanwhile, Teiko was still slashing away at the underbelly of the Carapaceon with his Gogomoa sword and shield. The Vashimu reached under its body and plucked Teiko out with its pincer. It then chucked him into the air and opened its mandibles wide, it mouth gaping open, eagerly awaiting the juicy morsel that was soon to drop into its hungry jaws. The others could do nothing but watch with horror.

However, at the last moment, the drawbridge that led back the way the hunters had come in suddenly dropped down, and Irvine came sprinting in, his Rukodiora rapier sheathed on his hip, though he now had a Rukodiora greatsword upon his back too. He threw a Flash Bomb as soon as he could. The flash blinded the Vashimu, forcing it to reel away from the path of Teiko's fated fall. Teiko came back down the solid earth with a crash. He hurt like hell, but nothing was broken, and he definitely hadn't been eaten.

Irvine quickly lobbed a pair of Tranq Bombs at the Vashimu, and it hissed woozily, before slowly slumping into a sprawled form on the floor, small drops of drool dripping from its flaccid mandibles on onto the dry clay floor.

"Hunters, your test is over. You have performed vailiantly here. You have done well enough to move on to the second and penultimate test. Now, if you will please follow me; I will show you to your quarters. Your next opponent will be even tougher than this. I assure you, you will need your rest," Irvine annouced formally. As he turned on his heel to vacate the arena, Dante, Alexis, Aaron, Teiko, Ash, Yumi, Ruby, April, Eiji and Ichiro all strolled out behind him, heads held high, proud and satisfied with their impressive victory.

"The Hunters of Kairu- Conquerors of the Crystal Carapaceons!" Aaron whooped triumphantly, gazing back upon the comatose Akura Vashimu and the severed tail of the Akura Jebia (all that remained) one last time before accompanying his friends away from the Yii-Do arena.

The Second Test: Further Training In The Yii-Do Highlands

About an hour ago, Irvine had led each of them through another portion of the industrial structure to their quarters. They still hadn't had time to get a good look at the technology installed here, and they had begun to think that they probably never would. Their rooms were down a long passge way to the left of a crossroads inside a castle-like structure with only one floor, the north path leading to a forge and the right path leading to the dojo, full of dummy Tenkai soldiers and the like. All three were lined with torches, otherwise sight would be impossible.

Their rooms were all in order from left to right; Dante and Alexis at the very end of the hall, then Aaron, then April, then Ruby, then Yumi, Teiko and Ash, Eiji and Ichiro. When Irvine had said that they could distribute the rooms among themselves, Dante and Alexis had almost instantly called dibs on the double. There were other doubles, which Teiko and Ash and Eiji and Ichiro took, but the couple had seized this room because it was the only bedroom with a bed built for two people (the other doubles were two seperate beds). Hearty meals had been placed in each of their rooms to allow them to regain strength lost in the Akura battle before retiring.

"Cozy," Alexis purred tiredly as she let Dante wrap his arms around her.

"Yeah, it is," Dante agreed with a slight chuckle directed toward how trivial the conversation was. Dante's blue eyes met with Alexis' emerald ones, and they kissed.

"Well...as much as I could stare at you all night...we should sleep. Something tells me we're gonna need it tomorrow. If the highlands here are anything like the ones we know...then I think we have a fairly solid idea of what to expect."

"Yeah."

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A knock on the door was the prelude to April's abrupt entering of Aaron's room, which almost made him jump.

"Aaron, I brought you som-!" she stopped with a short gasp. The hunter was drssed in only his underwear. April blushed at both the sight and the fact that she had been so hasty as to not wait for him to let her in.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't knwo you were-! That was really rude of me..." she groaned, abashed. As Aaron pulled some night clothes on, he shook his head dissmissievly and started toward April.

"No, it's fine. I don't mind, honestly," he said with a smile. He ran his fingers through his straight black hair, his plain black eyes returning April's gaze with warmness, and somewhat...fondness. "Besides, now you know to wait a bit before you barge in like that. Right?"

"Right," April said, nodding. She stared and smiled at him for a few moments. She had a bit of a soft spot for him, although she had never admitted it. His figure, his hair, his warm eyes and gentle voice. He wasn't really looking for a girlfriend, as far as she knew, but if he was...she wouldn't mind giving it a shot.

"Um, so...you were saying before..." Aaron said hesitatnly, coaxing her into remembering what she'd barged in to tell him in the first place.

"Oh, yeah! Sorry!" she said, the pair of them laughing awkwardly under their breath. "I just came to say that...well...I know it's your birthday the dat after tomorrow, and..." she stopped, blushing again.

"What is it? There's no need to be shy," he said reassuringly, still smiling.

"Well, uh...I...I got you a gift. It's only small, but...please take it..." she giggled bashfully, handing a delicately crafted knife. The main blade was jet black, but the silver embroidery along the edges were silver. The handle was simple iron wrapped in some bandage, which was greyed from the dirt it had collected in its lifetime. "It's just a combat knife. Cheaply made, but it's pretty strong, sharp and definitely durable.  Aaron's face seem to light up just a little bit more as he ran his finger gently along the flat of the blade.

"Wow, that's really neat that you remembered my birthday. I'm sure others have too, but...we live in a pretty poor town in a pretty poor  region. This must've really choked your wallet. Thanks alot," he said with genuine sincerity. He leaned in and kissed April on the cheek. She almost yelped, but she managed to hold it in, blushing an even brighter shade of vermillion and moving a few stray strands of her long, straight light brown hair out of her eyes.

"Goodnight, April," he said, smiling as he turned away, bound for the bed in the left corner of the room.

"Night," she replied meekly, barely able to speak, still recovering from the unexpectred surprise as she shut the door quietly behind her.

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Morning crept in through the gaps in the undrawn curtains next to Dante's and Alexis' bed. Dante's blue eyes snapped open. That was a strange thing about him; he would never rub his eyes or let them flutter open gently, they would simply snap open, as if his subconscious knew the exact hour, minute and second to awaken. A pleasant surprise was that, when his vision focused, Alexis' leafy green eyes were staring into his, waiting for him to wake, a smile sketched across her face.

"Hey, you," she giggled.

"Hey," he muttered back with a smile. As they leaned in to kiss, Alexis drew back sharply, sitting upright, her brow creased with alarm.

"What's wrong?" Dante asked quickly, alarmed. Alexis had no time to answer, she quickly ran to the wooden pale in the far corner of the room, ususally used for trash and the like, clasped its rim with both hands a violenty vomited into it, horrible choking and retching noises echoing mildly around the inside of the pale for a few seconds. Dante quickly ran over and put his hands on her shoulder as she lifted her head up briefly, hyperventialting with distress. Before Dante could utter some words on reassurance and consolidation, Alexis' head dipped straight back into the bucket for another round of unpleasant yaking.

"It can't be...this can't be right...it can't..." she huffed to herself.

"What can't be? What are you talking about?" Dante asked hollowly, although he was painfully adamant about what the answer was.

"Dante...I...I think I'm pregnant."

The sentence was exactly what Dante had feared; and it was like a bullet to the head.

"No...What're we gonna do?" he exclaimed. Alexis looked at him with empty eyes; she had as much of an idea as he did. Suddenly, somebody rapped on the door.

"Guys, are you awake? C'mon, it's time to get up! We've got time for a quick breakfast, then we have to get going!" Teiko's voice boomed, slightly muffled from behind the wodden door. Dante looked about the place hurriedly, trying to think of a way to open the door without it looking suspiscious. His head then whipped back to Alexis.

"Um, get back in bed, cough alot; you feel like shit and can't go anywhere," he hissed quietly. "Quick! Go!"

Alexis quickly picked herself up off the floor and clambered back into the bed, taking what was now well and truly the room's designated 'sick bucket' with her just in case. When she was comfortable, Dante rushed to the door and opened it.

"Hey. You get all that?" Teiko asked casually. Dante nodded affirmatively. Following the conditions of the haphazardly cobbled together lie, Alexis coughed heavily a few times, then pretended to be sick into the bucket again.

"Hey, is she okay?" Teiko asked, one eyebrow raised with concern. "Are you okay?" he asked, this time to Alexis herself.

"She's caught something. She's been vomiting on-and-off for the last...twenty minutes or so. She really won't be able to go anywhere," Dante answered on Alexis' behalf, while she coughed and spluttered a little more. Teiko took a brief moment to analyze the situation at hand.

"Well, we can't postpone the traning, of course. She'll have to miss it," Teiko sighed frankly, apologetically.

"Maybe I should stay here and look after her..." Dante groaned unsurely.

"No, Dante, it's fine, you go. I'll be fine-!" she said, almost choking on the last word as she threw up into the sick bucket again, this time for real.

"She's right, Dante; you should come. We can get Ruby to look after her; she is our group's medic after all. Alexis'd be alot better off with Ruby tending to her than you," Teiko mused, almost didactically. Dante hesitated for a moment, then nodded, walking of with Teiko.

"C'mon, the others are in the barracks having breakfast."

As Teiko rushed down the hall, eager to chow down on what he hoped would be a nice chunk of gourmet steak, Dante took one last worried look at his apprently pregnant girlfriend, before following his friend away.

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Dante sat quietly at the long, almost pew-like table, one of the many that filled the eating area of the barracks. He felt really guilty about lying to his friends, but he was sure it was for the best. After all, if word spread thta Alexis was pregnant, it would hardly gain much approval. Sex before marriage was frowned upon in Tarin; the region's populace felt that it promoted promiscuity and unfaithfulness, and so those who did concieve prior to marriage were generally shunned by the public, their friends; even one's own family would cast them out into the streets without so much as batting an eyelid.

Dante wouldn't let that happen to Alexis. Not to their child either.

In fact, he didn't really want a child, not right now. There was a special consumable liquid that had been recently discovered that could prevent a baby from being born and get rid of the foetus, the process having come to be known as 'abortion'. They could nip the foetus in the bud, no questions asked. But could he really condone taking a life that had yet to be even born? And even if entirely agreed with himslef on that, what would Alexis think? He was as frightened as she was, and neither had any idea what to do. Not yet, at least.

His worrisome train of thought was derailed when a voice shot from across the table.

"You're really quiet, Dante; is something wrong?" Eiji asked, sitting one to the left of Ruby, who sat directly across from him, scooping up as much ramen as was possible. He looked down and noticed that he wasn't eating either, just twiddling the ramen strands round and round on the chopsticks. From the silver plate in the middle of the table, upon which various sauces and dressings were placed for their application, he saw his reflection. He looked depressed. His eyes were alost dead and he had dark circles under them. The same way one doesn't notice pain until they acknowledge the wound, gazing upon his tired appearance suddenly made the exhaustion written on his face take hold.

"Dante?"

"I'm fine, it's nothing," he said, brushing his friend off. "I was just deep in thought."

"Alright then. Good to get all that heavy thinking out of the way now so you don't zone out when we face the next monster," he said, his sympathetic tone laced with so much sarcasm that his other friends chuckled at the remark. This seemed to snap Dante out of his gloomy thoughts, and he slowly began to eat.

April sat at the very end of the long table, where their table ended and another began on the other side of the divide through which pedestrians could travel. She, like Dante, ate slowly. She didn't have enough concentration to be able to eat at a normal pace; she was too busy wrestlig with her brain for control over her eyes, which drifted to Aaron like magnets. No matter how many skirmishes she won, where she sould look at something or someone else, she always found herself gazing into his eyes. Those glistening blue eyes... She could've sworn that no sea, ocean or sapphire could ever compare to the depth and warmth within them. And a large part of her wanted that depth and warmth to be only for her.

And then, suddenly, it happened.

As he looked back from the laughter, chuckling to himself as he prepared to down another mouthful of ramen (evidently the only food available as it was all that was being eaten by those around their table), his eyes snapped up and to the right (from her view) and bored straight into April's. She almost gasped and dropped her chopsticks into her bowl, but that would be, in her words, "totally not cool", so she forced her startled brain to "keep it cool". As their staring continued, the rest of the world seemed to dissolve around them.

Until it was all ruined as April's mouth fall slightly agape, allowing the half-consumed ramen within to tumble out. As the greasy strings slipped off of her lips, she fell back to earth, quickly shoving her mouth full of more ramen, blushing to herself. She watched Aaron grin to himself briefly, before he refocused his attention on his meal.

"What do you think we'll be facing today?" Ash asked, excited.

"I'll bet gold to gunlances it's Pariapuria," Ichiro said wisely.

"No, no, no! Gurenzeburu, for sure!" Eiji disagreed. The two then squablled for a few moments.

"Alright, fine! Let's bet on it!" Eiji challenged. "Fifty Zeni."

"You're on!" Ichiro said confidently.

"Pfft, you're both wrong; I bet it's a Doragyurosu," April cut in.

While the three of them squabbled, Ruby turned to Yumi, who sat next to her, eating quietly.

"How are you holding up?" she asked. She had tended to her cynical friend's injuries the night before, giving her more life powder and wrapping bandage around her midriff where the Akura Jebia had slammed her with its claw.

"I'm fine; chest hurts, but it's bearable. Thanks," she said, smiling thinly at her friend, eating all the while.

"Alirght then, you should be fine now. I shouldn't need to give you any more medication."

"Well good, because if you think I'm chugging any more of that vile shit you've got another thing coming," Yumi said bluntly. After a pause, the pair of them laughed with each other.

Almost as if the timing was deliberate, Miyuki strolled in through a pair of wooden doors to the north west of the small eating area. It wasn't a quiet entrance either, thanks to her heavy Barioth X armour. It was as she drew close that Dante noticed the small arms dotted aroudn her waist. She carried several small kunais, the blades of which were all made of the black, triagular claws of a Barioth. She also carried a combat knife with a blade that was literally a Barioth's orange saber tooth. Silence descended as she stood before them.

"We're leaving for the Highland soon. Be prepared; tardiness is unacceptable," she barked tonelessly, before turning on her heel and leaving the way she had entered.

A short silence followed before the friends started for their rooms to prepare for whatever lay ahead.

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The hunters set out from the barracks at a mild walking pace, fast enough to get to where they needed to go (the Yii-Do Highlands wasn't terribly far away; in fact it was almost on the bastion's doorstep) but slow enough to finally be able to marvel at the industrial forest that was Yii-Do.

Dante, Aaron, Yumi and everybody else (except for Miyuki and Irvine, of course, who had probably seen this thing a thousand times before at many other bastions and keeps, if not only this one) gazed around in awe at the wood and steel, the army of contraptions that each had a vital role to play in the autonomy of the base. There were several watermills, lined up horizontaly like dominoes, which in turn powered the huge metallurgy structures up ahead to the immediate northeast.

Further northeast of there, the teenagers witnessed the smoke billowing from towers as tall as any king of old's, made of pure, obsidian Noctalite, a new ore that had recently been unearthed in the mines of the Arken region. There were three of them, far enough to be able to witness them without having to crane one's neck to the sky but still clsoe enough to cast it's imposing shadow over the party. They were broad at the base, but they grew more pinched the further up they were built. There were short, pike-like spikes that jutted out at regular intervals, continuing all the way up, appearing almost like spines. At the peaks of the towers, there were six tall, flat, blade like spikes that curved inwardly. It was from there that the black smoke billowed through a pallet of square, blackened iron mesh (it couldn't possibly be seen from there but the teens had stood atop the peak of such a tower before and knew it well), through which could be seen the fires of industry and the sparks that flew from hammered metal, on every level from the very top to the very bottom. The smoke that wafter from the tower at this time was just the leftover from the periodic expulsion of fumes, whenere the six bladed pillars pulled backward and came to rest against the towers walls, and smoke and ash and emberes were exumed. Theese towers were all forges, and as such they had been aptly (although unimaginatively) dubbed Forge Towers.

These towers had always unnerved Dante somewhat, as their blackness, and cruel, barbed appearance seemed out of place amidst the browns of wood and the grays of stone, but then again, it was made of a brand new material; of course it was going to look misplaced.

They turned their gaze opposite to the west, where there were windmills and bakeries for preparing bread, next to which were a series of abbatoires and butcher stores where meat and rations would be prepared, often filled with Aptonoth and Kelbi meat, but sometimes, according to what they'd learned about military outposts, they would get occasional shipments of Rhenoplos meat, as well as pork to break the monotomy, such imports being the only occasions where autonomy was not the case.

As the hunters observed all this, it was clear that one side was about food production and the other about armour and weapons, as well as mining (how else would they have come across the Noctalite?). The city was a giant factory that fueled-they estimated-around three thousand men. It was certainly impressive, and was a perfect example of the Guild's might.

After what felt like a day staring at the structures of the place, the Dante and co. were roused from their awe by the deft, surly feminine voice of Miyuki.

"Come; your next trial awaits."

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The Yii-Do Highlands didn't look that far different from anyother highland in the land. Rocks and cliffs, at the end of the day were only rocks and cliffs after all.

Dante and friends all stood peering down over the edge of a precipitous cliff face, not white like cliffs of chalk, but simply  rocky and mountainous, with a huge gorge in the middle where the mountain had split apart from it's other half long ago, becoming a simple-but still just as dangerous-highland. It was U-shaped: Dante and the others stood on a large patch of even ground, but further ahead there was a gap in the rocks that lead through the rocky pass to the other side of the highland, in the middle of which was a small waterfall, which emptied into a small pool below, ahead of which was a thick jungle (where the air was no doubt thick and humind compared to the pleasant, brezzy climate up on the rocks), around which lay brush and muddy sand, where Dante and co. could see a small pack of Aptonoth, no more than four or five, lapping up some water. Suddenly, they were pushed aside when a Barroth came galumphing up to them, barging them out of the way, snorting and grunting and it slammed it's brutish body into the wet mud and rolled around like a pig. Three of the Aptonoths left quickly, but looked back with contempt, while the other two simply moved to the far left side, which was more beneficial to them than the middle as there was a conveniently placed patch of brush there to munch on as they drank deeply from the pool.

Silence descended as the Barroth righted itself and left. Then, out of the water rose the head and neck of a Plesitoh, which hissed triumpahntly before clamping it's jaws down like a vice on on of the Aptonoth's necks. The herbivore yelped and roared hoarsely, it's stumpy legs scrambling meekly against the soggy sand before Plesitoh dragged its head and its quarry back into the depths with nought but a ripple of water. The other Aptonoth quickly fled. The lake was far too small for the Plesioth to be dwelling in...it most likely lived in a larger lake, but there was a hole- a former cave, before it was flooded- that water had broken in thorugh from behind the rock wall, and that was big enough for a Plesioth to slide it's body through and back out again.

Such a sudden death was what awaited the hutners, if they dropped their guard. Witnessing the spectacle had served as a cutting reminder of just how stark reality was.

"Attention all," Irvine said, not particularly forcefully, but the subtleness of his voice was a suitable replacement for Miyuki's disciplined, choppy commands. Miyuki stood beside him even now. Dante couldn't see either of their faces, but sensed that Irvine had a sharp, beady gaze, but not as harsh as Miyuki's, who he imagined to be the firm sneering glance a teacher mgiht give a pupil when they catch them talking in their lesson.

When Irvine was sure that they were all paying attention, he continued.

"This is the highland of the island of Yii-Do. It might look benign from here, but I assure you it is no such thing. As you may have seen, an assortment of monsters stalk these lands, preying on smaller creatures: Plesioth. Barroth. Daimyo Hermitaur. All of these will chew you up and spit you out if you-"

He stopped seamlessly, without so much as uttering the next word, his hawken eyes transfixed on Eiji and Ichiro whispering away in the middle of the nucleated group of friends. Dante probably figured that they were arguing over their earlier bet.

"Don't excercise caution," Irvine said, enuciating each word, his voice a little louder and sterner so as to get the Akura Twins' attention. The pair of them fell silent immediately under the dour gaze of Irvine's Rukodiora helm. Irvine once again continued without fault. "Now, onto business. Your next opponent is a Flying Wyvern. Some of you may be familiar with it, some of you may not. But I promise you that after today, you will all know this creature better than you know your own mothers." Irvine momentarily regretted such a conditional comparison. Most of them, if not all of them (which was in fact the case) probably didn't even have mothers (or fathers). At least, not anymore. Nevertheless, it mattered very little in the grand scheme of things. "Good luck," he added with finality.

Irvine and Miyuki drew back swiftly, turning their backs on Dante and his comrades, dissapearing back behind the rock face from whcih they had reached this rocky plateau. It was not long before the teenage warriors understood exactly why.

A loud screech echoed from above. Dante, Aaron and the others all drew their weapons and looked up in front of them to see the front half of a cruel, nasty-looking Gurenzeburu crawling over the rocky, jagged wall that seperated their large natural arena from the way back to the bastion, the creature using its wings to crawl across the moss and weed-covered stone, before leaping from above to slam to the ground in front of them. The Gurenzeburu's left eye was ruined, nothing but crude scratchings and dried bloodstains remaining. Its body was covered in the scars of old lacerations, and there was holes in the webbing of its wings, much like the dragons of old. In one small place it was
Gurenzeburu

Gurenzeburu, the Barbarian Wyvern.

even missing some scales, red raw flesh exposed to the crisp highland air. It had a huge gash on the left side of its face, crossing over both of it's jaws, history of the Flying Wyvern attempting to eat the wrong hunter. It one remaining eye sneered at them. The contempt and malice emanating from the creature was almost palpable. It had clearly been crossed far too many times.

"Impossible," April gasped quietly to herself. She knew for a fact that this was no imprisoned monster, consigned to the labours of the Yii-Do arena for the rest of its days. This particular Gurenzeburu was wild, and dangerous, the threat doubled- maybe evn tripled- by its apparent abundance of experience. If the scars, cuts and wounds that covered it's body were anything to go by, it had clearly survived many a hunt and claimed many a hunter.

"What is it?" Aaron asked, overhearing the musing of the girl whos tood adjacent to him.

"Oh, nothing," she said, but Aaron could tell by her ever so slightly agape mouth and her briefly dead eyes that she was lying. This wasn't the time or the place; he would ask her later.

Ash, looking straight at it as it scanned them all for weaknesses, could tell without a shadow of a doubt that this fight was going to be far from easy.

Without warning, the Barbarian Wyvern leapt forward and plunged it's dealy horn into the earth with all its might. Everybody managed to egt ouut of the way in time, and Teiko even managed to slice the horn with his sword inadvertently as he ran out of the way, although, when a creature has suffered laceration after laceration on countless boxed in trainign sessions, a small nip from a stray blade would barely faze it. It narrowed it's eye with smug, sly satisfaction as it saw Yumi, April, Eiji and Ash sprint around it to the right. A bunch of greenhorns, it thought with delight. They have no idea what's in store for them.
Monster Hunter Frontier 902:02

Monster Hunter Frontier 9.0- Gurenzeburu Battle Music

Gurenzeburu theme

As the four of them ran, it rotated it's head, horn still stuck tight in the ground, to the right, intent of showing, April, Yumi, Eiji and Ash the price of inexperience. However, the monster was about to realise that they weren't as foolish as they seemed.

"Whoa!" Yumi cried out, bringing her switch axe to bear and swinging it like a bat at the oncoming attack. The Great Demonbind G's blade cut a fairly sizeable gash into the Gurenzeburu's head, casuing it to shriek and recoil. However, it did this not out of raw pain, but to ride Yumi's blow. By the time Yumi realised what she'd opened herself up to, it was too late. She was shoved off her feet and thrown high into the air, along with pieces of uprooted earth and weeds, by the action of the creature's recoil, the horn acting like a shovel. The Barbarian Wyvern sneered and hissed as it thwacked Yumi away with a forceful whip of its tail, sending the girl flying into the rock wall and collapsing with a pained grunt, her switch axe barely within her reach, though he hadn't the strength to grasp it, or even to get up. The incredible strength of the blow, combined with the force of hitting th wall and falling to the ground was more than enough to make anybody's strength leave them, but in Yumi's case, her chest injury from where the Akura Jebia had slmmed it's pincer into her abdomen had begun to throb and ache again, and gritting her tteth and screwing her eyes shut was all she could so not to cry. Every time she tried to open her eyes, her head throbbed like she's been kicked by a horse and her vision was blurry and shaky, as if she were looking through a telescope held by someone with an unsteady hand. Luck really isn't on my side these days. First the damn Jebia, now this shit, she thought with contempt, Biding her time until she could gather some strength. Until then, she allowed unconsciousness to veil her within the folds of its pitch black silence.

"Yumi!" April cried out, making a dash toward her fallen friend, hammer in tow. The Gurenzeburu, which was currently in the process of snappping it's jaws at Ash and flicking Eiji and Ichiro away with it's tail, glaced behind it to where April was dashing for the creatures first victim. It made a gesture with it's eye and lips somewhat akin to a malicious smile, before it hulked it's body around, swivelling in a deliberately slovnly fashion so as to knock everybody over at once, which it did. It then notcied something else about April. She wore a large, jagged piece of blue, scaly skin, which was threaded through a piece of string and hung on her waist like a battle trophy, along with a couple of small, sharp teeth. The Gurenzeburu slowly scanned it;s mouth with its tongue. It was missing two teeth. It also  glanced behind at the patch of raw flesh that was exposed upon its back, that had bled for half a day and had smarted like a vespoid's sting ever since.

The monster had met this girl before. Oh, how it hated her. And that fact that her clothing was made of its kind only served to add to its hatred.

It roared, roared so loud that Dante, Aaron, Teiko, Ash, Ruby, Eiji and Ichiro all had to clamp their hands against the sides of their heads. April, who had been taken by surprise, cried aloud and fell to her knees, then pressed her ears with her hands, dropping her weapon. Now the Gurenzeburu had its chance. It quickly sprinted over and bashed into April with the side of it's head, sending her rolling across the floor and comign to a slump against the wall, next to the unconscious Yumi. It kicked Yumi to the side and out of the way with it's right foot, before, it closed April in with the flods of it's wings, as it it were a bird allowing its hatchlings to nuzzle against its breast. But what it had planned was something far more sinister. It statred into the now fearful (doubly so, as she recognised the monster as much as the monster did her) eyes of the girl who had pulled out his teeth and ripped his hide. Perhaps evens ome of these old wounds were hers, but it couldn't be sure, and it its rage, it didn't care. She would pay for each and every one of them.

April cried out in terror and pain as the Barbarian Wyvern folded and its left wing and pulled it back, then thrust the golden, pointed stub into her shoulder. One! the creature counted to itself. It then brought it's right leg up and stomped on the girl's chest, hard enough for it to hurt, but not enough to kill jher or break any of her fragile bones. The pain was moderate at most but it was excruciating to APril, the pain amplified by the stab wound in her shoulder. She cried out again. too closed in (the monster's pointy head was millmetres away from embedding itself into the wall. Infact, it occasionally scraped against it, the flasked of stone and dirt falling onto April and the mosnter) to be able to do. Two! the Gurenzeburu spat, even though the victim of its eagerly-awaited revenge couldn't even hear it. Suddenly, as it opened it's jaws wide in prepaation to chomp into April's leg, it screeched with pain and drew back, flapping its wings like a chicken as something short, snall amd very, verys harp pierced it's flesh and scraped against its bone. Then it felt the sharp thing slide out and back in, each time painful, again and again and again.

Behind it, Aaron was screaming aloud as he clugn onto the vreatures back, holding one of Eiji's Akura Jebia duls blades and stabbing the red patch of raw skin on the Flyign Wyvern's back continuously. Finally, he gripped it so tight that (assuming one could see his knuckles under his armour) his knuckles turned white, and thrust it into the red, bloodied flesh with all his might, He left something hard  chip away before he was flung off the creature's back as it flailed about in pain. A red mist has descended over its eyes and it was no longer aware of its surroundings only the pain in it's back and the chipped piece of bone. But there was no respite from the pain as the other huters had ganged up on it, hacking and slicing away in the monster's body with their myriad weapons. Finally, it felt another surge of pain from a fresh wound on its leg and that was the final straw. If I can't have the girl, I'll claim another. But I'm not leaving here-or dying here- without a kill! It thought.

The Barbarian Wyvern roared with ire and loathing, before unleashed a torret of high-pressure water from it's mouth, then flailing its head about recklessly like an ungripped hosepipe, into commotion, the hunters retreated before they were either blasted by water and accidentally whacked by a stray limb. However, it was too late for Eiji, was impaled by the Gurenzeburu's pike-like horn, coughing up blood to add to the splashes of it that already stained the desrt-brown earth below. Fianlly, the Gurenzeburu stopped its endless flow of water,and stood still, although at an angle, his wounded leg giving way a little, the blood from his severely wounded back and cut leg mizing with that of Eiji's. Finally, the Gurenzeburu lifed it's head alotf and screeched at the midday sun triumphantly. Then, it flicked it's head upward some more and cuaght the armoured corpse, now limp and lifeless, between its jaws, holding it thre like a dog with a stuffed toy for a moment for using its tongue to pull the body into its waiting jaws in its entirety, chewing it up and reducing it to nothing more than mush in but a few seconds. A gulp followed, and it was over. The Gurenzeburu turned to face the remainign hunters, who stare on in horror, to shocked to even cry out. The monster grinned at them, baring it's bloodstained teeth, before taking flight and swooping off into the distance, over the rocks and out of sight.

An age passed, in which nobody said a word. The only sounds were that of April's whimpering and crying, her wounds still hurting, and that of Ichiro, who sniffed and blinked back tears.

Yumi had seen it all. She had woken up just in time to watch the Gurenzeburu's grim display of bitter triumph, how it'd impaled Eiji right through the chest, then shook him loose and swallowed him hole. While she was no stranger to the death of friends, the free prize that came with the hunting profession, Eiji's sudden and untimely end had rocked her almost as much as it had the others, and the image of the Barbarian Wyvern's bloodstained teeth shaped into a crude grin would stay with her forever. She decided she might as well try to get to her feet now. She grunted softly as she pulled herself up, hauling her switch axe up with her leaning on it. She stood for barely a second before she her legs buckled and she gave way.

Yumi's cry awoke the others from their sordid silence. Ruby and Teiko ran over to help Yumi. As Dante watched the two run over, he admired Yumi as a hunter. She was never too brash or reckless (like Teiko) and most of all, she was clearly very resilient to take such a beating in such a short space of time, from both a hulking Carapaceon like the Akura Jebia and a vicious (and in this case extremely savvy and battle-hardened) Flying Wyvern like the Gurenzeburu. Such traits were handy to have in battle.

Aaron, his best friend, had also followed Ruby and Teiko, not to help ash but to help April, who had been badly wounded by the monster and was clearly traumatised by both her injuries and witnessing the death of a good friend who, not a two hours ago, had been sitting next to her (or one away from her, she couldn't remember) squabbling with her and his closest friend about which monster they would be facing today. They had placed a bet on it. Fifty Zeni.

And the great irony was that Eiji would have been a hundred Zeni richer if he was still around to collect.

And it was then that the black arms opened wide to catch the barely conscious tennage girl in their embrace. She felt as cold as ice but her shoulder burned like fire, and her eyelids were like slabs of heavy stone, which she was holding up with all her strength, what little of it remained. All she wanted to do- all she had the strength to do- right now was to let go and let the stone walls fall.

And it was then that she felt herself being scooped up off of the ground in somebody's arms. She couldn't tell who it was, though. They were just a black shadow to her. All was shadow in a world of dreary gray. She heard the person's voice calling to her, though it sounded a thousand miles away.

"Hold on, April..."

The rest became muffled noise as she let the darkness envelop her.

Meanwhile, Yumi had been helped to her fett by Teiko and Ruby. She stayed silent, not feeling the need to say something. She didn't feel it was necessary either. The silence said more than enough, and the blood, tears and sniffles of her friends spoke for themselves. She had tried to carry her Great Demonbind G, but Ruby had insisted that she not. "Doctor's orders", as they say. She had ignored Ruby and dragged it along, but int he end she felt herself slipping into unconsciousness again and Teiko had slowly taken it off her. He carried over hsi shoulder even now.

She didn't like it one bit. She hated having to rely on others to help her, to do things for her, to save her skin. Above all, she couldn't stand people who couldn't stand on their own two feet. And that, ironically, was just what she couldn't do. Hypocrisy at its finest. Although she told herself that it wasn't her fault, she felt the doubt in her midn creeping up on her, whispering in her ear. If only I hadn't fallen for that trick, if I only I had been faster, If only...

If only.

The doubts squeezed her mind like a snake, hissing pessimism and negativity in her ear. All she could do was blame herself for her current state. Then, she reached the crushing epiphany her conscience had been slow-walking her to.

If only I hadn't gotten myself knocked out, I could've saved Eiji.

Sh knew it was a stupid thought and that, even if she had been able to wake up in time, it would've made little- if any- difference. But even so, the doubt was there.

All she wanted to do now was crawl under a rock and wait for it to all go away.

It was that exact moment that Irvine and Miyuki came strutting calmy round the corner they had left behind a few minutes ago, although it felt like half a day had passed. It was then that Ichiro finally snapped.

"WHERE THE HELL DID YOU GO?! WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?! IF YOU HAD STAYED, YOU COULD HAVE SAVED HIM, JUST LIKE YOU SAVED TEIKO FROM THE JEBIA! YOU BASTARDS!" he screamed. And then all of his strenght left him and he sank to his knees, bowed his head and began to cry, letting the tears for his closest friend fall freely. Irvine and Miyuki simply stopped at the curve of the bend in the narrow, rocky pass, apathetic and impassive, wating coldly and calmly while the Vashimu-clad boy who knelt before them cried to himself. After about ten to twenty seconds, Miyuki spoke.

"Don't blame us. This was your test. You signed up for this. You took the risk. Not me, not Irvine, you. All of you," she said calmly, as cool as ice, fitting for one clad in Barioth X armour. As Ichiro snapped to his feet and balled his hands into fists, he stopped, let his hands become impassive again and drew back, looking down to the ground at an angle, his brow creased with the strain of keeping back further tears. Miyuki was right and he knew it. They were monster hunters. They knew damn well what they were getting into when they signed up for this.

But that didn't mean it doesn't hurt to see your closest friends die. Especially when there wasn't even anything left of them to bury. Ichiro didn't even have anything of Eiji's to remember him by. The Gurenzeburu had eaten him, dual blades and all. The only thing that was left was blood on the earth, which was still scarred by a miniscule ditch where the Flying Wyvern had slid its murderous horn through the dirt.

"I am sorry for your loss. But we must return now. These two girls need rest and medical attention as soon as possible," Irvine said with calm solemnity.

Slowly, slowly, he and Miyuki turned and left the way they had come mere minutes ago, and slowly, slowly, with lead in their hearts and blood on their hands (and various other places from when they had mob rushed the creature), they followed behind like a funeral procession, death and grief weighing heavy on their consciences.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Putrid meatsacks. Always gettign away, always squirming and writhing and struggling and worming.

How the Akura Jebia despised humans. Especially those humans, the ones who had hurt it today, and killed its friend.

Last night, when everybody was sound asleep and all was quiet, it had climbed all the way back up the chasm from whnce it fell, stabbing its pincers into the stone wall, edging its way back up until it had fianlly reached the surface of the Yii-Do arena again. There, it had eaten and regenerated its tail. While they were only closely related, that Akura Vashimu had been his only friend in this prison. He had felt a tinge of sadness at leavign him behind. But then he had thought that,with the recent battle, that perhaps the Vashimu would think its friend had been slain. Perhaps that would lead it to attempt escape and join him in freedom. Who knew?

But the Akura Jebia was free. Free to avenge himself, and the treatment of his fellow Akura.

When it had finished, it had let itself fall back into the water far below. There, it had found a tunnel, barred by metal bars. It's strong pincers had made light work of that, though, and it had swam through the tunnel, and had come to a large body of water, maybe a lake. The Jebia hadn't know. It hadn't cared. It only cared about those humans now. It had ignored the Plesioth swimming about, and swam through another, smaller hole in the stone. It was cramped, but when the Jebia had tucked its legs in it managed to squeeze through.

Then, when it had scuttled onto the dry land and the jungle that had lay ahead of it, it had heard the roar of a Wyvern overhead, it scampered into the thick brush, but as it peered form the darkness, it saw the very hunters that had wounded it and its friend. It had watched as they fought with the Gurenzeburu. It had watched as the monster killed one of them and fled. It had watched as they despaired and were lead away by two other humans.

It had seen everything.

It followed them as they had walked away behind the rocky passes. It had stealthily climbed up and peered down at them, only daring to peek its eyes above the rocks. It had heard the words "Gigginox", "cave" and "tomorrow".

It then stayed hidden until it was sure they were gone. Then it had slunk away, safe in the knowledge that it knew where they would be.

It knew where and when to strike.

The Third Test: Gigginox?! Are You Mad?!

It had been a long night for Dante.

Everybody at the base was asleep, except for the few Guild soldeirs who remained on watch patroling around the walkways on the thick, heavily fortified outer walls or those who were stationed on the tall watchtowers placed at the four corners of the walls. Irvine had told them that early tomorrow morning they would be heading to a cave in the jungle they had seen earlier, and they'd be facing a Gigginox there. Initially, Dante had figured that they'd be fine if they were careful, but then Miyuki had added that this would be like nothing they had faced before, that there was something special...or rather, wrong with it. If it was infected with the Mad Dragon Virus, there's be trouble, perhaps even more than when they'd faced the Gurenzeburu today, but Dante figured that, while he and Aaron (and Alexis, although she obviously wouldn't be there) hadn't afce a Mad monster before, but the others had spent the last month (perhaps more, Dante couldn't remember how long they'd said it was) getting to Jonton to hunt a Mad Barioth, so at least they could tell the two of them what to expect.
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-10 - Burden of Truth02:09

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-10 - Burden of Truth

Theme- Mourning for Eiji

But Dante didn't want to think about that anymore. He had too much on his mind. Eiji was dead, and everybody was grieving for him. Not to mention that he'd went and got his girlfriend pregnant before they were married.

He opened the door to his and Alexis' room, slowly and quietly, so as not to disturb anybody next door. He was sneaking in, really, as he'd spent quite some time sitting in the empty barracks downstairs with his thoughts. As he quietly slipped though the narrow opening he had made, he saw that Alexis was fast asleep, lying on her stomach, which was her typical sleeping position, her dark brown hair splayed out in all directions. And, as Dante expected, she slowly woke up as soon as he had taken a step through the door, even though the floorboards weren't creaky and he was barefooted. She really was a light sleeper.

"Where were you?" she said, not a hint of tiredness in her voice, although it was slow and a little sad. Obviously she'd heard about the incident today.

"Oh, I was just downstairs. I needed to be alone," Dante answered tiredly. "Did...Did you hear? About..."

"Yeah, Ash came to see me. She told me everything. I can't imagine how Ichiro must be feeling; those two were like brothers, inseparable. It must be tough on him right now."

Dante didn't reply, he just kissed her, pulled off his shirt and crawled into the bed next to her. The curtains were drawn, unlike last ngiht, and the moonbeams slipped in through the window, casting a little light upon their faces, enough from them to be able to see each other.

"Well, admist all this doom and gloom, there is one shred of good news," Alexis said quietly, her voice alot perkier. Dante turned on his side to face her.

"Really? What is it?" he asked eagerly, equally quietly.

"...I'm not pregnant!" she exclaimed (quietly still), grinning now. Dante smiled back, with relief and happiness.

"That's great!" he said, and they sat up briefly and hugged, Alexis arms holding him close. After a few seconds, they kissed and lay down again.

"So what was all the-" Dante made a small vomiting gesture. "-About, then?" he asked.

"Well, this is gonna sound silly, but..." Alexis said, already struggling to hold back her giggling. "It turns out that the salted pork I ate last night wasn't exactly...fresh. The medic who monitored me said it was a minor case of food poisoning and that I'd be fine by tomorrow. So I can come with you guys on the last trial."

Dante laughed a little at the anecdote. "Well, at least you're not pregnant. By the way, make sure you prepare well for tomorrow. It's only a Gigginox but Miyuki said this one was different. In a bad way, I'm guessing."

"MDV?"

"Probably."

"Well, then, as much as I'd like to "have some fun"..." she muttered playfully, stroking her boyfriend's neck teasingly, lying on top of him now instead of beside, "...We should get to sleep!" she snapped, almost making Dante jump. "Besides, I don't want to really get pregnant."

But even though Dante and Alexis would have these kinds of amusing conversations filled with satire, innuendo and witty, sarcastic remarks, it wouldn't last when they really stared into each other's eyes. Alexis found her hand moving up from Dante's neck to his face and Dante found his arms locked around her waist, and it wasn't long before they were lost in a passionate kiss.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

At long last, April's eyes fluttered open. But she wasn't distressed in the slightest. Most people might sit and look around contastantly, maybe cry out for someone or something, but not her. Besides, even if she had wanted to, she felt far too tired to be doing things like that. She felt something squeezing herleft hand, and she moved her head to one side to see Aaron, clasping her hand gently, sitting on a chair positioned with it's side against the wall.

"You're finally awake," he mused, smiling at her. She smiled weakly.

"How long was I out? Where am I?" she croaked tiredly.

"You were in the hospital wing for a time while they fixed up your injuries, but you're in your room now. You won't be bale to do any hunting for a while, but you'll live. I can't really say how long you were out, but I went to pick you up after the Gurenzeburu fled, and I carried you back here. It's night now. Everybody else is more or less asleep."

So it was Aaron who had carried her away from the highland. She couldn't tell who it was, all of the people she could see had just become like sillhouettes, but secretly she had been hoping it was him.

Aaron really didn't want to burden her with the bad news about Eiji, but he figured that she was going to find out soon anyway. He decided to tell her now.

"Well, during that little...episode...we had a fair few casualties. Yumi was knocked out, we all know that. Then there was you, the thing stabbed you. But not long after you were out of it...the monster killed Eiji." The words were like stones in his heart. Nobody could've done anything but he felt responsible. They all did. April gasped midly, shocked. She tried to sit up but her movments awakened the stab wound in her shoulder and she cried out sharply.

"Agh, it still hurts...Shit!" she hissed quietly.

"You shouldn't be moving now, you should rest," Aaron advised comfortingly. He was happy to be watching over her, although he wasn't entirely sure why. Then, his mind shouted at him. He'd nearly forgotten that he meant to ask her about earlier. The way she'd stared at the Gurenzeburu with a blank face and dead eyes...the way it specifically had its sights set on her... She must've been hiding something. But what? He waited until April had settle again, then began to speak.

"Earlier, when the Guren leaped down in front of us... You said it "impossible", as if it should be dead or something. And they way it specifically targeted you, and only you, it was weird."  He pointed to a bone-crafted, manequin-like figure in the far corner of her room, where her armour was placed. " Those little souvenirs...the two teeth and that patch of hide. The Gurenzeburu was missing two teeth. And it had a raw patch of flesh on it's back," Aaron said, building up to his ultimate question. April stared at her armour from the bed.

"What are you trying to say?" she said, not lowering her pitch but speaking monotonely in every way. A short pause followed.

"You've met that monster before," Aaron said, with the same tone of voice a teacher might give to a child who they know to be lying. He squeezed her hand gently. "Haven't you?"

He waited patiently for her to decide if she wanted to talk about it.

"Tameke Forest, Arken region. That's where I first encountered that thing," April began hollowly, the words ringing heavy. Aaron leaned in slightly from his chair and listened intently.

"It was about five years ago, when I was ten. I was hunting with my father. He'd taken a quest to slay a Gurenzeburu who semmed to have taken up residence at the lakeside in Tameke Forest, and the sprawling nexus of caves that existed around it. Perhpas that's an unusual habitat for a Gurenzeburu, but y'know, ask it, not me. Anyway, my father decided to take me; he decided it was time to rear me for the life of a monster hunter. I was so excited..." she paused, her eyes flashing as she replayed the moments in her head like a play. "But father had no idea just how seasoned that Guren was. Those lacerations you saw? Most of them were there when I firstr saw it. Of course, the raw skin and missing teeth, those are new. Well, if you call five years ago "new"."

"Go on," Aaron said, listening fervently, holding the uneasy teen's hand all the while. It was strange how her demeanour and tone hardened like a war-ravaged veteran when she spoke about this incident.

"...It attacked us as we came out of the thick trees and to the sandy lakeside. Just came charging out of one of the cave entrances on the left had side like an angry boar. My dad put up his shield and held his lance true but the monster simply bowled right into us. Our trajectories separated, my father comign to a stop by the edge of the lake while a was slumped against a tree. My father was dazed. I saw it looming over him like death itself, its eyes scanning him like a piece of meat, decided which way was best to eat him. As it thrust its jaws down he managed to lift his lance into its path just in time. The blade gouged the creature's eye and it went reeling back," April continued.

The way she was describing it, the sophisicated vocabulary (which she wouldn't normally use at all) and the detailed account, was mesmerising. Aaron could just imagine the crowd of Kairu children gathere dby the campfire, April sat on a chat with a pair before them, the fires dancing in her eyes, the way he himself used to do int he village. Aaron was the great storyteller of the village, the bard...the Wordweaver, the Village Elder would call him. He would weave stories together like silk, making even the mundane seem exhilarating. He'd even managed to turn a simple Giaprey hunt into a bedtime story to make children behave. And now he himself was mesmerised by the tale of this girl.

But is it the storytelling, Aaron? his conscience questioned him. Or is it April herself?

He looked at April. He liked everything about her; her mid-length, autmnal brown hair, her aqua blue eyes, her gentle complexion (excpet now, of course) and soft skin. And her personality, just a normal girl who was a good friend, with a sensitive heart. It was in these moments that he admired her more than ever.

"Of course, that pissed it of big time, so it came after him, so I decided to take a stab at it, quite literally. I'd bought this little sickle thing with me as well as my sword and shield so I pulled that out and stabbed it into his back. That pulled of the piece of hide. I knocked two of its teeth out when it tried to bite me. I shoved the sword into its mouth and that was that. It wasn't a particularly strong metal so I don't really know why it didn't just break, but...anway, that managed to piss it off even more, so it attacked my dad again and fled into the caves. I managed to help him get back to Tameke proper and a hospital there, but..." her voice cracked and her hands began to tremble. She tried to bring herself to carry on but eventually she gave up and burst into tears. Aaron didn't mind; it was obvious what had happened next anyway. He moved his chair as close to the bed side as he could, reached over and put his free hand (the one that wasn't clasping April's) around April's neck and gently prompted her to calm down.

"Look at me," he said gently, turning her face sideways to look at him. Her eyes were reddened from the tears. Suddenly, April felt so, so at ease. "It's okay," he said slowly, firmly, without hint of a carefree smile. An epoch of timelessness followed as their eyes bored into one another's. Then, the gaze was finally broken was Aaron rose from his chair.

"It's late. I should go now," he said, an air of dissapointment about him. As he moved and his fingers slipped away from April's April quickly gradded his hand and pulled him to a stop before he got ou tof reach. He looked back at her.

"Stay?" she pleaded meekly. He paused to contemplate. "...Please?"

Slowly but surely, he sat back down in his chair on the beside, gently storking her hand until she was lost in her dreams.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Ash stood atop one of the great Forge Towers in Yii-Do proper, her short silvery-white hair gently tugged along by the rough graps of the late night winds. Eiji was one of her very first friends, whom she'd known since she was three. A whole decade of friendship, fellowship and camaradarie, swallowed up with a mere few bites of a monster's gnashing jaws. It felt like some one had reached into her sould and ripped a hole in it and nobody could ever hope to fill it again. She wanted to scream, to shout, cry. She even thought about spreading her arms wide and letting herself fall off of the edge of where she stood. At least it would make the pain stop. But then, she
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-31 - Why (CCFFVII Mix)02:15

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-31 - Why (CCFFVII Mix)

Theme- Ash's childhood memories

remembered what Ember had told her that day, when one of the village kids threw a stone at her, when she was very little. Ember had walked her home and talked to her about it, and as Ash had stood at the door of their house, sniffling and about to cry, Ember had clasped her tiny little six year-old hands and shifted them around, placing her little and index fingers together, touching at the tip, while her others were clasped together. Ash had looked up to gaze upon Ember's face. She had been smiling, her flaming red hair and cyan blue eyes as soothing and as gentle as sunbeams at dawn.

"Don't look back, Ash. Life is a one-way road, with a path that crumbles behind you with each and every step you take. Don't linger too long, or you'll fall," Ember had said. That was the last thing Ember ever said to her. She died while on a hunt the day after.

Ash hadn't truly understood the purpose of such prudent advice until now.

"Ember..." she whispered, forming the shape with her hands she'd beeen taught by the very girl she beseeched now. "Sis...Help me...I'm gonna fall..."

She had to. How could she ever move on from a cut as deep as this?

She didn't have the answer just now. Instead, she looked to the sky for guidance, the silent soliloquy of the full moon soothing her troubled conscience.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Ichiro didn't know what to do.

He'd lost his best friend in the blink of an eye, with nothing left behind but blood on the ground (and on the Gurenzeburu's teeth). He was angry at himself for letting it happen, angry at the monster for killing him, and angry at Irvine and Miyuki, who had just left them to it and wondered off to God-knows-where while they were beaten to a pulp and Eiji was dead. Why had death chosen him to be taken? Why not somebody else, far way from here, who'd lived a full life? There was no answer.

Anyway, there wasn't much point being angry at anybody now. Eiji was gone, and that was a cold hard fact. There was nothing anybody could do.

But he'd run out of tears, and anger. He simply stared at the ceiling from his bed until the midnight closed in around him.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Morning.

Dante's eyes snapped open like usual, to find Alexis' head resting on his chest, his arm wrapped around her neck. He smiled. He'd always found it somewhat amusing how she was such a light sleeper and yet she could look so at peace.

As he was about to sit up to try and coax her into awakening, a rather loud rapping on the door did the job for him. Alexis almost jumped out of her skin, until she saw Dante and they smiled at each other briefly.

"Will you get it?" Alexis said sweetly.

"Okay," he grumbled resignedly, felling groggy and tired. He kissed her on the cheek quickly before pulling himself out of bed and making his way to the door. The person knocked again, a little more urgently.

"Alright!" Dante growled. "Fuck sakes...." he murmured under his breath. He grabbed the doorknob and swung the door open haphazardly. Miyuki was standing in front of him, donned in her Barioth X gear as usual. Dante had begun to wonder if the woman actually had anything else to wear.

"You should get to the barracks now, a VIP has arrived, and he wishes to see you and your friends. As soon as you're dressed, that is," she said curtly, noting his general lack of clothing. Following this, she turned on her heel and strutted off back down the corridor.

Dante shut the door quietly and lurched over to the corner where his Rathalos + armour waited on a manequin made of bones, next to Alexis' Steel + armour, his shirt draped over its shoulder. He pulled it over his lean torso before slowly gearing up from head to toe, Alexis eventually getting up out of bed to follow suit.

"What took you so long? DId you zone out again?" Dante asked sarcastically as he wated calmly next to the door, waiting for hsi girlfriend to get her equipment together.

"No, I was just staring at your ass is all," she said, winking at him.

"Touché," he purred wryly. Alexis let out a little girlish gasp.

"Hey!" she squealed as he chuckled to himself. "That's totally not how it works!"

"Oh, so girls can perv over boys' asses to their heart's desire but boys can't even glance? Nice," he said with sarcastic flatness as the pair of them opened the door again and set off down the long, plain narrow corridor to the barracks.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The loud knock at the door almost made Aaron fall out of his chair.

He and April had spurred into life almost instantly, Aaron rushing over to the door to open it, only to greet the expressionless gaze of Miyuki's Barioth X helm.

"Barracks. Now. VIP," she snapped, clearly tired of relaying the same message, so much so that she had dumbed it down to short, sharp and monosyllabic grunts. She'd walked away almost as soon as the words, tinny from under her armour, had left her mouth.

As he shut the door, he almost instantly began to pull his armour on (he had brough it from his room along the corridor and into April's just in case).

"I'm sorry April, but I've gotta dash. It's the final trial today, and apprently there's a VIP. I wonder who it could be! This is gonna be so awesome...!" he said, first serious, then quick and high-pitched like an exited child.

"It's okay, it's not like you can just stay," she said, a small giggle escaping her lips. Aaron looked back at her at the sound.

"It's good that you're laughing again," he said sincerely. An awkward pause followed. Then, Aaron opened the door and began to leave.

"Wait!" April cried out, almosr barking. Aaron stopped and looked back. Now that she had the fifteen-year-old boy's attention, she felt as if the world was watching, the butterflies already doing loopy-loos in her stomach.

"...Thank you...for staying with me. I just feel safe with you around...y'know?"

"...Yeah."

Another awkward pause, less lighthearted this time. April had made up her mind about him. Every instict and impulse within her urged her to leap up from the bed, run toward him, hook her arms around his neck and kiss him with every fibre of her being, but she held them at bay.

Now isn't the time. He has to go, and I can barely lif a finger without my shoulder burning... No. I'll save my feelings for the right moment.

"Well, I guess I'll see you later," she said awkwardly.

"Yeah. See ya."

He left, shutting the door behind him.

Immediately April regretted her inaction. What if Aaron never made it back? It was too late to dread now. Al she could do was wait and hope that the inescapable arms of death would not take Aaron unto their haunting breast as soon as they had Eiji.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The barracks were empty apart from Dante, Alexis and the others, which seemed to always be the case. despite having a bar on the left side and enough rows of wooden benches to fit about two hundred people in there,both times that the hunters had been there eating, they had been the sole occupants. Dante thought that either they were always in here too early or that this particular structure had been abandoned in favour of a new one, although the latter seemed very unlikely as the bar was still working (although you had to serve yourself). There was a cook, but they didn't talk to him except to tell him what they wanted; he looked normal but he unnerved them all somewhat.

"Unlike anything we've ever seen," Teiko mused, quoting Miyuki (or at least that was the general gist of what she'd told them yesterday). "What d'you think that's supposed to mean?"

"God knows," Yumi answered, shovelling as much ramen into her mouth as she could without distorting her speech (ramen was pretty much the only thing served here that wasn't monster guts (normally, that would've been foirst choice, but the ones there were pretty dicey-looking), so they daren't pick anything else. "It's probably the Virus."

"As likely as that seems," Ash added, eating slowly, "I'd really rather not fight a Mad Gigginox. They become so much more...well, mad...when they get infected. Not to mention 'Nox creeps the heck out of me anyway."

"I like the way Miyuki wakes us all up so damn early spouting stuff about a VIP who wants to see us when he or she isn't even here," Teiko scowled. It wasn't that early- about eleven o'clock- but, then again, any time was too early for Teiko. He loved his beauty sleep.

"It's not early, but nevermind. Anyway, I'm sure whoever iut is will get here when they get here," Ruby said, her words laced with simple common sense and a patient tone of voice.

It was then that that Miyuki and Irvine burst in through the back doors of the barracks, which were situated about a metre or so away from the bar, a dusty, unlit chanelier hanging above it (perhaps not the safest place for something that could potentially fall and injure you), which swayed with the wind and made a harsh grinding sound as it did so, the way with unoiled hinges would. It was that old.

"Come quickly, all of you. Our VIP is here," Irvine hissed with a sense of great urgency, as if they were labour camp prisoners who'd be shot if they were late for roll call. Dante, Arron, Alexis, Ichiro, Ruby, Yumi, Teiko and Ash all swiftly abandoned their half-finished meals and bolted toward the back doors, following Irvine and Miyuki's lead.

They sprinted through Yii-Do proper for about two minutes, having to duck, dive and dodge any men working in the industrial metropolis as they simply followed their instructors. Although, as they'd stepped outside, they'd noticed a huge airship overhead, very low in the sky. They assuked that it was coming to land and that the VIP was on it.

Nobody said a word the whole way there, but the teenagers all gazed skyward to the imminent airship. It was amazing. It was like a large boat, like all airships, but the wood of the boat structure was coloured balck as night, with stark red streaks in rows of three. The wood of the bow of the ship had been carved expertly in the shape of rather large and fearsome-looking crow's head. The stone-grey rims of deadly cannons peeked out from square wooden hatches that were kept constantly propped open as a display of supremacy. It had three gallant blood red sails, the two on the left and right slightly behind the middle one, which bore the proud golden emblem of the Guild.

It became crystal clear that this was no common airship. The expensive red fabric and the customised bow were signs that this airship was that of a very, very wealthy and high-ranking political dignitary.

Finally, Dante and co. had reached the front gates of the bastion, which towered above them. They were open at present, however, no doubt when the guard on vigil in the two watchtowers on either side had seen the airship bearing in on the base. As the daunting stone walls of the bastion fell behind, the bright, midday sun greeted the hunters, a long, narrow stone pathway with high borders stretched out for at least fifty metres ahead, where the airship had come to rest at last. Irvine, Miyuki and their teenage charges watched as a narrow slice of the airship's side was lowered down by the crew. immediately, a large squadron of Guild soldiers, all bearing rapiers, clad in their infamous red and gold uniforms, marched out and formed them selves into two long, disciplined lines along the sides of the pathway, their bodies still and their heads held high, looking up at an angle. Whoever was onboard the airship, it was most definitely someone of extreme importance. There could be no doubt about it now.

A solitry Guild soldier stood next to the end of the ramp. He readied some kind of rudimentary megaphone, then spoke, his voice very educated and precise, almost nasal in tone.

"ALL HAIL THE ILLUSTRIOUS ARCHMINISTER GRIMSLEY!"

Dante and his friends almost cried out when they heard the name. Archminister Grimsley, the Chancellor's right arm. They were stunned to be in his presence.

"I knew I recognised this ship," Irvine mused. "The Hyperion..."

Miyuki began to walk forward toward the docked ship. "Come, all of you. We greet the Archminister."

Slowly, with a great deal of nervousness and uncertainty in the air, the group of falbbergasted teenagers gingerly followed behind a seemingly calm Irvine and Miyuki, trying not to meet the gaze of the Guild soldier or the beady carven eye of the crow that, even though it was simply a decorative bust carved into an airship, seemed to be watching them. It unnverved Dante more than the others.

The party stopped about five metres away from the airship ramp, and waited in patient silence.
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 2-07 - The Gloomy Mansion01:40

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 2-07 - The Gloomy Mansion

Theme- Crowsong (Archminister Grimsley's Theme)

And, a short thirty seconds or so later, Archminister Grimslety finally emerged from the ship. He was tall, approximately six feet, with hair as black as shadow (albeit with a few gray streaks), which flowed down to the middle of his body, although two long, thick strips of it hung from his temples, a silver rings dangling from the tips. His eyes were beady, sour and stern, as dark as coals and very deep-set. His face was chiseled and bony, his lips almost non-existant. He was dressed in a long black robe which concealed every part of his body other than his face and hands. It turned up at the collar, with two small and very pointy lapels, the edges of which were gold. The area from his shoulders to behind his neck was made of layer upon layer of dark and gold feathers, giving him an almost hunched over appearance. The robe even concealed his feet, so that it looked as if he were gliding instead of walking, the bumps of his knees moving behind the fabric the only thing that kept Dante and friends from believeing that he really was. He was impossibly thin. His skin was aged (but not particularly wrinkled,although it was freckled in places), although there was so little of the man himself that it hardly made a difference. Dante could have sworn that he'd come across twigs in the forest that were more substantial in general matter than the brittle twig of a person that stood before him. He had a gold ring with a very intricate engravings on it. It was no doubt the ring with which he stamped the Seal of the Guild into the blot of wax that sealed important letters. It was like staring at a walking skeleton (if his skin was any paler it could've actually been one). Grimsley, indeed.

"Greetings and salutations, hunters," Grimsley said, his voice archaic, precise and serpentine, lingering on his S's a couple of seconds more than normal. He also enunciated each word, and as such it took a long time (compared to the average person) for him to say anything. "What a pleasure it is to make your acquaintances."

Okay, so it's a walking corpse that talks like a half-dead snake. How appealing, Ruby thought, desperately trying to hide her inner repulsion.

"Archminister." Irvine nodded, acknowledging him. Nobody bowed. Such a thing wasn't part of Altus' culture; they saw it as vain and unecessary. Why bow to someone when they know you know how important or famous they are?

"Tell me, Commander, how is progress on Operation: Black Harvest coming along?" Grimsley said, walking away from his ship andT toward Yii-Do bastion's front gates, still wide open, waiting and ready to recieve him. Irvine had follwed him and walked beside him- slowly, as the Archminister was hardly able to walk, let alone walk at decent pace- and Miyuki had gestured silently for the others to do the same, and to not say a word. A pair of Guild honour guards, dressed in Damascus armour and bearing spears, followed close to the Archminister, making sure the man they had been charged to protect did not come to any harm.

"It's moving along quite nicely," Irvine answered confidently. "We have summoned our last team of hunters, from Kairu in Tarin," he continued, gesturing discretely to Dante, Alexis and the other teens behind them, "and I must say that they have yielded the most promising results so far, although one of them was claimed by the Gurenzeburu yesterday. One test yet remians, however. The Mad Gigginox."

"Very good, Commander. Let us hope that they make it through this last stretch. A Gigginox infected with the Mad Dragon Virus is a dangerous foe, indeed," Grimsley mused wisely. Irvine nodded his head in agreement. "It will take nothing less to be able to handle a mission deep in the heart of enemy territory."

"Come, Archminister. We must talk somewhere more private, away from prying eyes. While I trust every one of these men, Tenkai spys aren't renowned for being obvious, are they?"

"Quite so," the Archminister rasped, as Irvine led him through the Yii-Do front gates and away into the labrinthian forest of industry.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"...All you can be sure of...is that they won't be Mad."

That was what Irvine had told them before they'd left for Yii-Do. So why, Teiko thought, is the Gigginox infected? Could it have happened recently? Or was he lying to us?

So far, Irvine hadn't kept anything from them, and there'd be no point in lying about an infected monster to them anyway; it wasn't like they were going to shy away from the proposal simply because of a Mad Gigginox. It wasn't the first -or the last- time they'd come into contact with the Virus. Teiko decided to assume it was the former, that it happened recenly, although that only served to trouble him more, as he then thought about how it could've come into contact with the Mad Dragon Virus.

Could the sickness be here, too?

"...Final push Tenkai needs to be finally defeated. They have no allies, no reinforcements, they are running low on supplies and the only territory they have left is their own, the Tenkai region itself. However, Tenkai is a vast and wealthy land. They could easily bribe the poorer regions of our great country, take advantage of their neediness and poverty, and recruit them to march under the banner of Shikimaru. We must eliminate their emperor while they are weak, before the weed has time to regrow its choking roots," Grimsley elaborated, speaking about the plan to finish Tenkai for good.

Maybe said "poorer regions" wouldn't be so poor if you fucking helped them out; you are the Archminister, after all, Yumi thought angrily, glaring at the Archminister with contemptuous brown eyes.

Irvine, Miyuki, Dante and the others had gathered around one of the benches in the old barracks where they had been eating not ten minutes ago, their bowls of ramen still sitting, abandoned, on the tabletop. They thought about finishing their meals off but the ramen had gone cold and they had thrown it away.

The old barracks wasn't the first place Yumi had thought that Irvine would bring the Archminister; it wasn't exactly flattering or impressionable. It was built like any Guild Hall in any place in the country, except that it was so old that it looked like a haunted house from a ghost story. In its defense, there were no cobwebs, spiders or vermin, but the place was cloaked in dust and there wasn't single surface in the room that wasn't constructed of mottled wood that was probably decades past its prime. If you slammed the tables too hard, they'd probably break. The one advantage was that nobody would think to come in here, which gave them all some semblance of privacy in spite of the hustle and bustle of outside.

"So where is it that we're gonna be heading, assuming we're chosen for this mission?" Ruby asked, seeming unfazed by the fact that she was talking with the second most powerful man -and one of the most prominent- in Altus.

"This misson has been designated "Operation: Black Harvest". You will be taken into the heart of Tenkai, to a small fort in Starfall Forest in Kijuka, the region's capital. It may be small, but the security there will be immense; Shikimaru Tetsuya will be present, after all. They know all too well that their region is defeated if Shikimaru falls. They cannot afford to be lax," Grimsley answered, taking his sweet time doing so too. It was like listening to a snake trying to learn to talk. In fact, everything seemed to take prestigious effort for the Archminister; he could just about walk (slowly), he took forever to make any kind of movement or gesticulation, and he took at least one and a half times longer to say something than an average person. He was like a music box that was winding down. In fact, he'd been in office for nearly seventy years. He must've been at least ninety. It amazed Ruby that the man was still alive.

"How are we going to get there? We can't just waltz into the Heart of Tenkai," Yumi questioned cynically, trying not to sound too aggressive.

"Why, by airship, of course," the Archminister replied politely. "How else did you think you would get there? I'm a politician, dear child, not a magician."

"Also, why doesn't Chancellor Tojou ever adress the people anymore? He hasn't spoken publicly since Tenkai was driven out of the Eridias region four years ago," Yumi asked with politness that belied so much negativity that it was almost palpable. Grimsley took a while to answer, although it was hard to tell the difference as he normally took "a while" to do anything, even blinking. What Yumi said was valid. Tojou always used to make public adresses every month on how the war was going, but four years ago he had stopped. Archminister Grimsley had taken his place, so as not to leave Altus in the dark.

"Our Chancellor is busy with the war effort. He is our lord, not our newsreader."

Yumi wanted to say more, but she decided that she didn't want to get on the wrong side of someone who could have her killed with a snap of his fingers (although God knows how long that would take him), so she remianed silent. Even though what the Archminister had said was almost undoubtedly true, she still didn't like it.

"I will say no more. I must return to Shihon. Good luck, hunters," he said flatly. As he rose from his seat and he was escorted toward the exit by his two honour guards, and encore of screaming rushed in from outside. Everybody jumped a little, then almost panicked as they heard fould hissing and growling, and the sound of wood and metal shattering, and people dying.

"Stay in here, Archminister," Irvine instructed. Grimsley nodded calmly and returned to his seat, his honour guards both more vigilant now, stading with their spears at the ready.

Meanwhile, outside, everything had turned to chaos. Although Yii-DO proper was about the size of a small city, the creature had already smashed its way through the first sixty metres of it. Not all of it, of course, but there was a clear trails of crzed destruction from the entrance to where Dante and co. were now. Even as it approached them, it knowcked over huge vats of water, metal, stone and other things, swatting people out of the way as it moved.

It was the Mad Gigginox.

It looked nothing like a Gigginox should. It was almsot entirely black and it was covered in a network of purple varicose veins, and the normally purple patches on its head and tail had turned a deep, terrifying scarlet. It drooled slime eveywhere and was hardly ever silent, its breath rattling in its throat. It seemed to treat everything around it as a mortal threat and lashed out at anything, even if it wasn't moving.

All ten of them drew their weapons.

"This is something you are unlikely to face a regular basis," Irvine shouted above the noise, "but nevertheless, you must face it now. Be ready; one foot wrong will be the death of you."

"Dante, I'm scared," Alexis said. She didin't sound scared, but Dante knew her well.

"It'll be fine. Stay close to me," he said seriously.

Barely three seconds more passed before the Gigginox made its first strike at Miyuki, slapping its left arm dwon ferociously. Miyuki clamly sidestepped out of the way. The Gigginox then lashed out with its head, jabbing its face forward at her the way frog's tongue ensanres a fly. Miyuki cried out with all her might and swung her arm mounted shield into its path. The shield batted the Mad Gigginox's face out of the way, but it seemed unfazed. Miyuki slashed at its arm with her sword, making a small cut on its leathery skin. It hissed and spun a hundred and eighty degrees to the left, its midriff smashing into Miyuki and knocking her into a nearby wall.
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-15 - The Summoned (from FFVII "Those Who Fight Further")03:11

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-15 - The Summoned (from FFVII "Those Who Fight Further")

Theme- The Mad Venom

Before it had the chance to chase after her, it felt a searing pain in its tail. It flipped its body around to see Ash, slcing at it fervently. As she prepared to jab its face with her longsword it whipped her away with its eerily flexible neck, which it swished around again to bring it slamming into Teiko, who was busy hacking at its side.

"Duck!" Dante screamed, grabbing Alexis and forcing her down with him as the creatures tail came whooshing over their head. The Mad Giggino was so fast, so furious, that if you so much as blinked or looked away for a few seconds you'd have missed about five different movements. Dante, Aaron and Alexis had never faced a monster with MDV before. It was hard to keep up. But they were confident that they would pull thorugh. After all, the others had managed to bring down a Mad Barioth. This was a smaller monster with more hunters. Surely it would be just a little easier.

"MOVE!" Irvine shouted, pushing Dante and Alexis out of the way, so hard that they fell over. Irvine's Rukodiora blade pierced the red raw flesh of the Gigginox's underside of the Giggonox's hand. It screeched with pain and reeled back, a little blood dripping from the wound.

At first, Dante was wondering how Irvine could have done something like that; the physical strength of the Gigginox, amplified by the Virus, should've hurt him somehow. And how could Miyuki so easily see the berserk creature's super-fast attacks coming in time to be able to sidestep around them. She had just been calmly striding closer and closer to the face of the Creeping Venom like it was another day at the office. Then, he remembered what he had been taught at school back in Kairu, about the Guild's elite. They were enhanced through the power of recently discovered technology. A special serum was administered to each of them, and it would give them a boost in physical ability, not quite normal, like, say, a Mega Demondrug, but not quite superhuman either. The effects never wore of, as far as people had seen. The technology was very new and had only just been commissioned for use, after being approved by Archminister Grimsley. Dante often wondered why such matters were never referred to Chancellor Tojou, but the whole thing never really meant much to him until now, where he could see its effects in action.

"Don't just stand there, you fools! Move!" Irvine hissed back at Dante and Alexis. He regained focus on the fight again just in time to duck under a whip-like strike from the Mad Gigginox's strecthy neck. He bent over backward, staring at the black flesh and purple veins that were mere millimetres away from skimming his face.

Suddenly, the black shape fell away from Irvine's view, followed by a tortured shriek. Irvine righted his body position to see Aaron attacking the creature fiercely with his gargantuan with his Shiny Rathalos Sword G, the blade digging deep into the Gigginox's black flesh, blood spurting out , an almost chasmic gash on it's neck, close to it's face. Aaron was attempting to decapitate the beast.

But the Mad Gigginox wasn't going to lay down and accept it. It swung it's body around recklessly, violently, flaling like a fly in a glass bottle. It swatted Aaron away before he could finish the bloody job. It then swished its tail instictively. It had sensed Teiko coming up from behind to attack it. WIth a cry, Teiko was slammed face down into the gravel and the dirt.

The Gigginox then yelped again, craning its thin, rubbery neck around to see Ash's Gogomoa longsword stuck in the bare red flesh of it's underside. Thick, contaminated blood was sliding down the blade. It hissed angrily and batted Ash away with it's forearm, then let out an earsplitting, bloodcurdling screech, piercing the ear drums of the hunters- as well as any terrified civillians who were rushing past the creature while it was distracted- like a cruel knife that sent all the chill of the tundra with it. Dante and a few of the others had normal earplugs but it wasn't enough. A few of the civilians that were closest collapsed, shrieking incoherently with pain, blood trickling from their ears, while most were curled up into the smallest shape possible, hands clamped down on their ears like vices (much like the hutners were).

The Gigginox punced on Irvine before he had a chance to recover. He was stuck in place on the ground, the Gigginox's heavy, leathery body lying on him and keeping him in place. His Rukodiora rapier was just out of reach. He strained as he reached for it desperately, his fingers wriggling like a tin of worms as he struggled to clasp it once more. He swiveled back as he registered the impact of large globules of drool from the Gigginox's gaping maw of a mouth, droolign being a common characteristic of monsters affected by the Mad Dragon Virus. The smears of purple on its face seemed to be scanning him intently, as if it were deciding if Irvine was safe to eat. Finally, the Gigginox's mouth spread out in all directions, the abyssal maw creeping ever closer, slowly preparing to consume the black ops soldier. A hundred thousand rotting corpses couldn't hope to best the stench of the Mad Gigginox's breath.

Irvine then returned to struggling for his blade, more frantically this time, but to no avail. The Gigginox was begginning to swallow him up where he lay even now. He felt its tiny little fangs grinding against his armour.

"Here!" a voice shouted. Not long after, Ruby's Uragaan-clad foot had kicked Irvines blade into his hand. Immediately, Irvine thrust the black and yellow sword into the monster's left "eye". It screamed with pain and annoyance, dragging it's wounded face away from Irvine, who's legs came out of its mouth slimy and slick with saliva. He quickly pulled himself to his feet as Dante, Alexis and Aaron came running up to join him.

Ruby had dug in, followed seconds after by Yumi, Ruby's Crimsonwall slashing at the great bloodied incision Aaron had left in it's neck while Yumi's Great Demonbind G, in sword mode, sliced away at its tail. In fact, even after all this hunting, they and the others could barely tellt he difference between a Gigginox's head and tail. The only thing that gave it away was Aaron's enormous wound to its neck.

Soon, Ash, Teiko, Ichiro and Miyuki joined in, mobbing ferociously like they had done the one-eyed Gurenzeburu. Alexis, Irvine, Aaron and Dante also jamped in to have a piece of the slaughter. After about a miute of harsh and relentless slashing, stabbing, slicing and hacking, the Gigginox, was covered in bloodied wounds and a few larger lacerations. The once purple patchon the monster's face that mathe marked its eye was now smeared a deep burgandy. The hunters slowly, cautiously drew back from the Gigginox, which was slumped in place on the ground.. It was breathing, but the breath rattled in its throat even more than normal and it was hoarse and dry and it almost seemed to be choking on it's own blood. Alexis finally stepped up to its face and, with a loud, determined cry and all the might she had, thrust her Hi Ninja Sword G into the surface of its head, aiming for the brain. WIth naught but a yelp (which was cut off midway), the Mad Gigginox's body became flaccid immediately, fresh maroon blood still flwoing weakly from its multitude of wounds.

It was difficult, frightening and frenzied, but they had finally bested the creature. The Mad Gigginox was dead and they had passed the third trial without a single non-civilain casualty.

"Superb," Irvine stated simply, sheathing his weapon, a little breathless. Then again, they all were, even Miyuki (albeit just a little). They had almost lost themselves in that brief minute of bloodshed, beneath a mindless and blood-soaked haze. "You handled the creature with a balance of quick thinking, good timing and careful attacks. If it weren't for you- well, Ruby, at least- I would probably very well be missing a limb right now, if not dead. You have my thanks...and my authorisation."

"What, you mean we're going to Tenkai? We're going on the mission?!" Teiko asked, his eyes shining like a puppy in a pet sho window.

"...Yes. And don't so close to me! You smell of Gigginox blood," Irvine said, almost amiably.

"Sweet!" Aaron exclaimed, filled with glee. "This is gonna be super super awesome...!" he said quietly. The others cheered a little, happy to have been chosen above all others but at the same time not letting their happiness cloud their sense of resposibility. The end of the war was now in their hands. It wasn't a matter of winning or losing the war, but being sent on a black ops mission to assassinate emperor Shikimaru Tetsuya wasn't exactly an everyday job.

"It is settled. We will travel with a small group of black ops soldiers by airship to Starfall Forest, Kuhnii, in the heart of the Separatist Province of Tenkai to end the Ten-Year War for good. Come, we must prepare to leave at once. There is no time to waste," Miyuki said instructively.

"Wait, what about here? Who's gonna clean up all this mess?" Yumi asked seriously. Her questioned was answered almost as soon as she'd asked it, as large groups of Yii-Do residents, most on foot, but some with carts and tows, had begun to swarm in. Already, the corpse of the Mad Gigginox was being piled onto the back of a cart, ready to be taken to an incinerator for safe disposal. The soldiers who lived in Yii-Do might have been unprepared for the attack, but they certainly new how to clean up their own machinery by themselves.

The ten hunters slowly headed away from the scene. They had a mission to plan for.

Operation: Black Harvest

To Tenkai!

Things had happened very quickly after the Mad Gigginox was slain. The civilians who had been panicking and fleeing for their lives mere minutes before it's death had quickly returned to clean up the debris, corpses and spilled resources (many vats full of water and been spilled and countless pieces of scrap metal littered the floor). It was both inspiring and unnerving (in the sense that they barely seemed to register the bodies, simply chucking them into the incinerator along with the Gigginox) that the soldeirs at Yii-Do could so easily resume with normality.

Not long after, Archminister Grimsley had said his farewells to the group before departing the island in the Hyperion. Aaron and his friends had watched as the sleek, sophisticated black vessal had powered up its rear engines, which, like most modern airships, ran on this expensive new substance called "petrolium". It had been created using old "fossils", remains of ancient animals and plants, found in the ground. As the Guild had realised its usefulness, they had set up dig sites all over Altus, mainly in Kojo and Tarin, but there were even some being put into place in Eridias, the captial region. But the two regions with the most dig sites were Jonton and Chi'Huen; Jonton was one of the most well-known and respected regions in Altus, and seemed to be an all-round rich region, in terms of Zeni, food and water, natural resources and even these "fossils"; Chi'Huen was a region in the far east of Altus, not quite on the coast but not located too close to main civilisation either. The teenagers had read about Chi'Huen in school. It was a rustic, welcoming place with immense historical value (not to mention immense amounts of sand), and myriad ruins, carefully preserved. It was no surprise to hear that the Guild had headed there to find more fossils. It sort of saddened Aaron- and Dante agreed with him- that the Guild hadn't taken the time to examine the fossils they collected before burning them up (or whatever they did to them, he had no idea, not may people did) to obtain the petrolium. He didn't know for sure if they didn't- perhaps they did- but he just didn't like the thought that they might've missed out on the only proof that a certain species had ever existed just to power their aircraft more efficiently. He also sensed the Archminister's hand in this detail, too. Like most things, it seems, Aaron thought.

After watching the Hyperion until its black form was consumed by the midday clouds, the party had all returned to their rooms under Irvine's instructions. They had to gather all their belongings- not that they really had any, being simple Kairu folk with simple lives. In fact, they had no doubt in their minds that they'd be living in squalour like most other residents of poor outer regions such as Tarin if they hadn't taken up hunting. For many, hunting was the only lifeline, the only barrier between eating a filling meal in a decent home or being naked in the streets with not a zeni to their name.

It hadn't taken Dante, Alexis, Yumi, Ruby, Ichiro, Teiko and Ash very long at all to gather their things and return dwonstairs to the old barracks, where Irvine and Miyuki- and the small black ops team that would be accompanying them to Tenkai- waited patiently. It was strange when they had seen the other black ops soldiers for the first time; the only one they'd seen in so far was irvine, and when he stood next to the others they could barely tell him apart as they all wore the signature Rukodiora armour. There were five of them, four males and a female: one with a greatsword, two with lances, one with a hammer, and the other- the female soldier- with a light bowgun, all
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-18 - The Clandestine Dark Suits (from FFVII "Turk's Theme")02:27

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-18 - The Clandestine Dark Suits (from FFVII "Turk's Theme")

Theme- Guild Black Ops Department

Rukodiora-made, of course. The only things that made Irvine stand out from amongst them was the fact that he had two weapons- a greatsword and a sword (with no shield)- and the fact that none of the others had a sword (well, not of that kind).

It had taken Aaron longer than most to prepare. Like his friends, he didn't really have anything to his name but his Rathalos Soul G armour and his Shiny Rathalos Sword G. But, of course, he had to say his goodbyes to April. How could he not?

As he knocked on the door and came through it simultaneously (much like she had done to him the other night), he saw that she was standing by the bone sculture that held her Gurenzeburu armour for her, pulling it off piece by piece and donning it. He had just finished placing her helm upon her head. She clasped her hammer with delicate fingers and swung it over her shoulder, holding it aloft. She turned around, her face, determined and slightly excited. The thing Aaron noticed most was that colour and vitality had returned to her skin once again (she was a tad pale when last he saw her). And, for the first time since the night before the fateful trial in the highlands, she was smiling, and her eyes, an icy, ephemral blue (in contrast to Aaron's flatter, less eye-catching shade of blue), were gleaming like starlight. Her lips were a luscious rosy red.

"Wha...? Where are you-" Aaron began.

"I'm coming too, silly. There's no way in hell you guys're leaving me behind!" she said, psyched.

"But you're still-"

"No, I'm absolutely fine. The medic came and checked up on me. She said my wound has healed well and I'm strong enough to go back to normal. C'mon, Aaron, I'm holding this giant hammer up; I wouldn't be able to even lift it off the ground if I was still weakened. Let's go!" she chirped. Aaron smiled, shook hsi head and chuckled to himself.

"Boy oh boy, you've got a lotta moxy holed up in there, April," he sighed with a sense of fondness.

"Too right I have," she retorted, almost barging past him on the way out.

The only thing that Aaron found strange was that nobody had questioned April when she had told them all that the medic said she was good to go. Anybody could say that. But still, April wasn't a liaras far as anybody knew. Her friends believed her and that was all that was needed.

"Very well. Follow me to the west dock; an airship is docked there for us. We leave now, and we'll be in Tenkai by nightfall," Miyuki informed them all. Slowly, silently, the ten teenagres stode away through the still damaged industrial metropolis of Yii-Do proper, headed for their ride, their destination and their target.

Whether they liked it or not, they had become a part of this war now. There was no turning back. Failure was not an option.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The Akura Jebia scuttled swiftly through the cold, damp cave in the jungle below the highland ledge where its quarry had faced a Gurenzeburu. It was angry, very angry. The humans had not come to the cave like it had expected. The Gigginox hadn't been there either. There was just water, moss and an empty shell of rock, and many other openings that led to different routes. Clearly something had happened to make the nasty little creatures not travel here today.

As it scurried along angrily, its mandibles wriggling inanely in its ire, it felt something coarse and rough collide with it, before the world turned upside down with a *thump!*. 

As it squirmed helplessly, its legs writhing in the air, it felt a large, stong claw clamp down on its chest. Seconds later, the intimidating and imposing shape of a Gurenzeburu's face met its gaze. Its left eye was missing. It was the same one, the one it had seen yesterday. It snorted at him with suspiscion.

What are you doing here? This whole nexus of caves and tunnels belongs to me, you've no business being within its walls! Looking for something to steal, I suppose?! it growled impatiently, outraged and accosted.

I was looking for prey, there's no need to get so antsy! the Jebia hissed back. It screeched with pain at the Gurenzeburu lifted the foot that had it pinned down and stomped on its stomach.

Curb your tongue, Carapaceon, or I will tear it out! the Gurenzeburu roared back. It was clearly accustomed to being in charge around here and didn't take kindly to backtalk at all.

Alright, alright! Please, just listen to me! I was lying in wait here for some humans, about ten or eleven of them. The ones you were fighting up on the rocks earlier. I was seeking revenge, that's all, I swear. I wasn't trying to steal anything from you.

At this, the Gurenzeburu seemed to soften up a bit. He slowly stepped back and flipped the Akura Jebia back over gently, and stood passive.

Those humans...they hurt me. But one in particular, the blue one... that one took my eye many years ago. They must all pay for crossing me! And you... You claim to be seeking revenge, and revenge, I respect! the One-Eyed Gurenzeburu bellowed. He never seemd to say anything quietly, and he always sounded angry or irrtated. He was clearly a bit of a loose canon. The Jebia mad a mental note-to-self to keep on his good side, just in case things turned ugly.

I want to see them all dead. But I care not how. You may have this "Blue One", and any other you wish to deal with yourself. As long as I get my revenge, the Jebia said honestly. A short pause followed.

Well then, Carapaceon, I believe he have ourselves an agreement! the One-Eyed Guren boomed. Then, it pinned the Jebia to the floor again, thsi time the right way up, with its foot. But listen well: if you weven think of betraying me, I'll pull your innards out through your eyes and make you eat them until you choke! Is that crystal clear?! the Flying Wyvern added, chuckling a little at his accidental pun. The Jebia moved its face ever so slightly in agreement. The One-Eyed Gurenzeburu let go of him. Very well. Lead on, Carapaceon!

The Akura Jebia did as he said, not wanting to incur the wrath of the Barbarian Wyvern.

The Foehammer

The south dock wasn't much different from all the others. It was a large area of stone bricks, some small weeds growing within the tiny gaps. The platorm itself jutted out from the edge of the sloped cliff that led down into the sea, which was lit by the sun's early afternoon rays. A huge ship was docked in the centre, pinned down by several large iron nails that had been set in the ground, several thick nylon cords wrapped around them.

Guild Seal

The Guild Seal

The ship itself was made of normal wood, but, like the Hyperion, the three sails were a rich and valiant red and emblazoned with the proud gold of the Guild's insignia. It had changed since the Reformation (the historic event about seven hundred years ago when the Guild became the ruling government); it now looked like two snake-like creatures wrapped around a sword and was coloured a tarnished gold (except on airships where it was bright gold), whereas before it was a dragon, breathing fire and surrounded by a thin circle, all silver. That symbol was now engraved into the currency instead. Whether it was in remembrance of the Reformation or because they couldn't think of anything else to put on the coins was unknown.

"This," Irvine announced, pointing at the mammoth aircraft before them, "is the Foehammer. This ship is one that was constructed entirely here on Yii-Do, fully equipped with cannons, crossbow turrets and six tow cables, three per side, made entirely of Noctalite. It was very, very expensive to make." He paused for a moment, allowing what'd he'd said to sink in. "...And it's all ours. Hop aboard! The Shipmaster will be wanting to see you."

Dante and the others exclaimed with delight, racing one another to the large ramp carved from the ships hull, desperate to get onboard an airship for the second time in their lives.

The top deck of the ship was a pleasant place to be. The angle the Foehammer had docked at managed to catch the breeze, which sliced gently through the ruffling sails and across the hunters' skin. There were two sets of stairs, on the left and right, near the rear of the ship that led to the cabin, where everybody would leave their belongings and sleep in hammocks stockpiled in layers of three. From down there, one could reach the brig to the left and the lavatory to the right. Nearer the bow of the ship, more or less behind the steering wheel, was a smaller set of steps, smaller and steeper, that led to the captain's quarters.

"Isn't this great? Imagine what it'll be like when we take off! It'll be even betrter than before. Setting of through the clouds with the wind in your face toward the heart of enemy territory on a mission that could potentially win us the war -well, win us the war quicker- just gives me such a rush. Don't you feel it too?" Yumi sighed, already breathtaken simply by standing on the deck of an airship again. Yumi didn't smile to often, not properly at least...but right now, her smile was so wide that Dante thought she might pull a muscle in her face if she smiled any harder. Okay, maybe he was exaggerating it a little, but it was quite the giddy grin for one who barely allows a thin smile to cross her face.

"Oi, you lot! Get yer wee selves over here! We'll be needin' to be 'avin' words before we set off!" a thick, accented voice boomed from nearby. They turned to see a large man, immensely tall and muscular, with a stocky, robust build and broad shoulders standing in front of the steering wheel, which had a pair of levers beside it which were used to alter the angle of the sails (or so the teens had been told in school- modern airships such as this were all outfitted with advanced machanics hidden beneath the thick hull) and an extra one on the right, which activated the engines. Dante, Alexis, Aaron and the others, all crowded together, stood ther with blank expressions, like small children do when they are given a long speech that they don't understand.

"Come on, then, let's be 'avin' ye! We cannae sit in the docks all day!" he called out again, less patient and with a smidgeon more urgency this time. The teen hunters all rushed toward him, standing round the huge man like a crowd at a campfire. Having a closer look at the man who now towered over them, Dante could see that he had short brown hair tied into a ponytail, and his eyes were as red as crimson blood. He had a shapeless moustache that concealed his upper lip from view and his face was covered in a thick layer of brown stubble. His face was aged and a large, intimidating scar was scrawled down the left side of his face, his lower left eyelid slightly
Metal Gear Rising OST - Red Sun Original04:25

Metal Gear Rising OST - Red Sun Original

Theme- Bloody Axe (Thain's theme)

disfigured as a result. None of them really focused their gaze on it, though; they were fairly seasoned hunters, as hunters go in the outer regions, and they had seen scars much worse than this. He was covered from head to toe in ornate armour that was a dull, tarnished silver colour, with a stip of tattered fabric as red as his eyes wound around his waist, the excess dangling inbetween his legs. The armour was engraved with elegant, expertly-designed patterns, mostly circular or semi circular, placing emphasis on the bearer's appearance. It was also covered in splatters of blood, scratches, welts and all sorts of superficial wear and tear, the evidence of many years of either monster hunting or warfare- probably the latter in this case, as, while his crimson eyes had the fire of a rookie hunter, his skin showed his age, and the rest of his face was haggard and worn. He bore a supremely daunting silver axe, the hilt of which was covered in small, cruel stubby spikes, some of which were also covered in dried blood. They had never seen a person so utterly sanguinary in their lives.

"Hello t' all o' ye. The name's Thain, or if yer bein' all formal-like, Thain, The Iron Fist. 'Tis mighty fine to be meetin' ye. Welcome aboard my lass, the finest airship within a thousand miles in any direction- the Foehammer," the man began, gesticulating to the vessel he so clearly adored. "Anyway, I s'pose I should be gettin' on with what I brought ye over to say. There are some rules abord my ship. Number one- I'm the cap'n. Ye do as I say, when I say and how I say. This is for yer own safety. Number two- don't be feckin' about with me ship. I drive 'er for a reason. Number three: feel free to relax! This ain't no sea vessel. There'll be no a-fiddl'n about with all those ropes an' all that shite, 'cause there ain't none. All I need to do in the maintainance way is steer and angle the sails when need be.  And number four- always be ready for an attack. Wyverns ain't the only thing we'll be needn' to stay on our toes for; Tenkai's got 'emselves airships as well. 'Tis likely we'll run into a tussle, one way or t'other."

Thain paused for a few seconds like Irvine had, making sure his words had time to sink in.

"Well, tha' just about wraps it all up," he said, stretching his arms wide and clasping the wooden rungs of the steering wheel (airship stering wheels had wooden bars carved out of them rather than the traditional knobs stuck on sea ship wheels). "Ye'll be wantin' to get some rest righ' about now; airship travel's hard to get accustomed to, so yer biological clock migh' be messed up for a small while. Go on, away with ye!" he commanded without turning around. The teenagers slowly stode off to the cabin, already a little sleepy after the surprising tiring struggle with the Mad Gigginox, the airship rumbling beneath their feet as Thain pulled the far right lever, activating the engines, already lifting the Foehammer off of the ground.

Operation: Black Harvest was now in motion.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The Akura Jebia and the One-Eyed Gurenzeburu crept as quietly as a hulking Carapaceon and angry Flying Wyvern could around the rocky edges of the sandy shore, the thick jungle trees just behind them.

Look, up there! the Jebia hissed, jabbing ahead with its pincer. The One-Eyed Gurenzeburu turned his gaze upward to see a massive ship sat on the edge of a stone landing pad built into a sheer, slightly sloping rocky cliffside. He grinned with satisfaction.

The humans are there, the Barbarian wyvern murmured, his sotto voce musing rattling in his throat like dragon's fire, I can smell them.

As he said this, the airship's rear exhaust blazed into life, bright blue flames coming out from the metal tube. Slowly, it began to lift off of the ground, the bow turning to face the distance.

It's leaving! the Jebia screeched, alarmed. The Gurenzeburu roared with frustration, luckily too far away to be heard by any humans.

NO! I will not allow the Blue One to escape my clutches yet again! We must follow them!

How? I can't fly.

At first, the Akura Jebia seriously thought that the One-Eyed Gurenzeburu was going to callously abandon him and shoot off after the humans alone. It seemed like the only thing he could do, unless he wanted to wait for them to come back...if they came back at all, that is. But it thought wrong. The Flying Wyvern growled, then flung the Carapaceon into the air. As the Akura Jebia hissed and shrieked, it fell silent as it landed on the back of the now airborne Gurenzeburu with a dull, hollow *thump*.

Are you insane?! You can't possibbly carry my weight for any ceridle amount of time! 'Blos knows how long they're going to be in the air! the Jebia shouted.

I CARE NOT! the Gurenzeburu roared back. I'm stronger than I look! Besides, I thought you wanted to see them dead! Or is that not so anymore?

The Jebia knew the Gurenzeburu was right. There was no other way. It had to trust its rather disagreeable partner in crime if it wanted to have his its revenge. The Jebia stayed silent, staring at the airship to fuel his hatred of the small party of hunters as the One-Eyed Gurenzeburu jetted off through the sky, making sure to follow its quarry at a safe distance.

The beginning of their revenge.

Eye Of The Storm Dragon's Typhoon

The Foehammer cut through the sky at a moderate pace, nothing but a large expanse, the blue of the sky above and the fluffy void of the clouds below. The sun was shining brilliantly upon Ruby, Yumi, April and Ash’s armour- Uragaan, Jhen Mohran, Gurenzeburu and Gogomoa respectively- from the distant west as they stood leaning over the port side of the airship, feeling the wind cutting through their faces.

“Oi! I wouldn’t be doin’ tha’ too much, alrigh’?” Thain yelled at them, espying the four hunters peering dauntlessly over the side. “I cannay do nothin’ for ye if ye topple o’er the side!” he warned. “Don’t worry about us, mister, we’ll be fine!” Ash called back, laughing as the wind, gentler now, tickled her face. Thain sighed heavily and shook his head with dismay. “Young’uns these days…” he murmured to himself, pulling the wooden lever to his left to angle the red sails to the right, to catch the wind.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it? Being up here, with nothing but cloud, sky and sun in sight,” Irvine remarked almost wistfully to the four of them, coming to stand against the edge of the vessel with them, not leaning over. The teens pulled back sheepishly as he came to a stop beside them. “It’s not often that one gets to experience something so exhilarating. Even I have only been onboard an airship a few times in my life. You are all very lucky.”

It was true. They were lucky; most residing in the outer regions of Altus would never fall upon the chance to travel on a horse-drawn carriage, never mind an airship, or even a sea ship. There were airships that came to and from Outer Altus regularly but the fares were far too expensive for them people there. If they purchased a ticket for even just one person they’d most likely never be able to put food on the table ever again. There were far too many taxes to pay- war tax, air force tax, navy tax, accommodation tax (even those who built houses with their own materials couldn’t escape the tax), sliding salary tax (the richer you were, the more of your wages went to the Guild), and many more. The Guild had bumped up the taxes in the last decade because of the war effort- even the riches of Eridias itself could not fund a war for ten years. In fact, Chancellor Tojou himself had said that if the Guild hadn’t upped the charges then they would have to start using up the money reserve in Szaras Dúl, commonly known as “The Glass Palace”, where the Chancellor and the Archminister lived and the High Court discussed any and all affairs of the country. This was something that had never happened in the seven centuries since the Reformation, when Szaras Dúl was built. Despite the fact that Archminister Grimsley stated that everybody would have to bear the financial hardships until the war with Tenkai came to a close, most knew this to be a sham, but said nothing; they knew that, in the end, it was just political smokescreening to keep the country’s spirits up and that it would only be temporary. But still, the Ministers of the outer regions -Tarin, Arken, Galdaan, Sinata, Chi’Huen and Je Bul- knew all too well that it was their people who were becoming poorer while the inner regions like Jonton, Kojo, Zakimuto and especially Eridias (although it was Altus’ capital, so it was bound to be rich regardless)  remained prosperous. Kojo and Zakimuto even became richer.

Yes, indeed, they were incredibly lucky.

“Really? But you’re a soldier; don’t you get to travel on airships all the time?” Yumi asked, surprised.

“No. I’m not in the air force; I’m with the black ops department. Most of my time is spent on Yii-Do doing…well, really not much at all. I know when you all hear “black ops” you automatically assume that it involves constant action and adventure. But to be honest, missions aren’t that common. This is the first mission the black ops department has been asked to undertake in three years, and even so only a few of us are going.” He waved his hand lazily at the other black ops soldiers standing on the far starboard side of the ship, the top half of their bodies obscured by the sails, which flapped madly in the wind.


“Wow…” Ruby said, shocked. “The black ops department is really that slow-going? What do you do when you’re not on missions? Doesn’t it drive you insane?”

“We’re not housebound, Ruby,” Irvine stated, “we’re allowed to travel into Kojo. Yii is just off its coast, after all.”

It was definitely a strange thing to hear, entirely adverse to what the teenagers thought. They knew the black ops department was for very special missions that had to be handled with the utmost secrecy and care, but they had no idea that such missions only came along once in a blue moon.

"Anyway, I must speak to Thain. Feel free to wander about, just...don't touch anything," he said, almost as if he expected them to, walking off to toward the bow of the ship, where Thain steered idly. He barely had to even move the wheel. The journey had been blessed with perfect weather, for flying and for general comfort. He only reason he was even at the steering wheel was because it was the protocol; a pilot cannot leave the wheel unattended at any time for any reason.

Irvine gazed into the distant clouds ahead as he came to a stop next to Thain. Despite the peace and calm that surrounded them, Irvine's keen eyes spotted a single blot on the canvas of white and blue.

“It’s comin’,” Thain said seriously, gravely. Irvine continued to stare ahead. “Ain’t it?”

A pause followed. The flapping of the sails and the whistling of the wind acted like a drum roll.

“Yes,” Irvine sighed resignedly, “It’s coming. It’s barely visible now, but eventually, we will draw lose to it. There is no avoiding it. We must be ready. But say nothing to the children.” Irvine walked away to tell Miyuki and his subordinates what he’d just said Thain.

“The eye o’ t‘ storm it is, then,” Thain muttered decisively, adjusting the angle of the sails to gain speed, edging ever closer the speck of ominous dark ahead.

3 Hours Later

The cabin wasn't a place one wanted to spend the night.

It was rectangular and a little cramped. The walls were simply bare wood, although the Guild insignia was plastered onto the wall seperate from the cabin wallas, the wall which formed the two-way short corridor that lead to the brig on the left and the lavatory on the right. There were one bed (which the couple had taken), only hammocks, in stacks of three, three columns on the left and right cabin walls, making for a total of eighteen. It was a close call in terms of accomodation. There were eleven of the teenagers and when you add Irvine and Miyuki and the five other black ops soldiers, that makes exactly eighteen. If they had taken one more person, they'd have run out of room. The thought made Dante think of Eiji once again. It was almost as if his fate was written. It was almost as if he was destined to die. Dante strayed from the thought. It sickened him.

"He-eey! You alive in there?" Alexis' voice came sweetly, softly on the wind of the world, muffled and phased out. Slowly, the sound broke through to him and his eyes sharply met hers, as if she were attacking him. "You were just far away, weren't you?" she giggled, smiling at him from where she lay, next to him in the one bed that rested against the middle wall, directly opposite from the two-way corridor on the other end of the room. It only meant for a single occupant, so it was cozy and intimate for a couple. Almost naked under the covers pulled up to their shoulders, all they could feel was skin amidst the fold of the fabric.

"I was just thinking that if we had brought one more person with us, we'd have had no room. Eighteen people, exactly. Ah, ignore me; I'm just bored. The others've all gone upstairs," Dante sighed. He almost jumped at first, but then smiled as Alexis' gentle hands smoothed his chest.

"Exactly," she whispered, dangling a vial of watery-blue liquid in her hand. Abortion serum.

It took less than five seconds for Dante to press his lips against hers and for the pair of them to delve in beneath the covers and lose themselves in ecstasy.

2 Hours Later

Night had fallen and Aaron, Teiko and Ichiro stood atop the deck, marvelling at the endless sea of moon, star, and sky with Ruby, Yumi, Ash and April. It had begun to rain lightly and the ever so wuiet patter of miniscule raindrops pattering against the hunters' armour was a somewhat pleasant undertone, giving sole to the silent sky.

"Wow, it's really great out here," Teiko remarked to his sister, extending his hand into the air from the rail of the port side of the vssel, as if to wade a hand in hot warm water. The air was cool- not too cold or too hot- and tingly on his fingertips. He let out a small, surprise whine. "Ooh, tingly!" he said, tickled my the winds. Ash reached out and did the same. She too giggled as the breeze tickled her hand.

The only thing that spoled it was the dark clouds they had drifted into that regularly obscured the benvolent light of the new moon, and the low, quiet rumbling that contantly echoed in the nothingness. The teens had dismissed it, thinking it was all part of the petrol-fueled engine of the Foehammer.

But they were wrong. Something far more credible was asitr, deep in the nimbus.

And Thain knew exactly what that "something" was.

"Oi! Get yer bleedin' 'ands away from t' clouds!" Thain bellowed, with a sense of great urgency. "NOW!"

As they did, a great screech shattered the silence, thunder, and thunder and lightning fractured the late night sky. Irvine, Miyuki and the five black ops soldiers joined the teenage hunters on the port side to witness the great calamity. Each flash of a lightning bolt gave a glimpse of a gargantuan shadow, a magificent terror of the sky larger than even the Foehammer.

"Amatsumagatsuchi," Thain uttered with horror, gazing upon the writhing, roaring shadow in the stormy dark. "...Heaven's Catastrophe."

Despite Thain's apprent horror, it took him mere moments to plan a course of action.
Monster Hunter portable 3rd Amatsumagatsuchi Battle Theme Part 1 ~ Calm Confrontation04:25

Monster Hunter portable 3rd Amatsumagatsuchi Battle Theme Part 1 ~ Calm Confrontation

Theme- Storm Dragon Ho!

"TO ARMS! ALL HANDS AT THE READY!" he roared in deliberate excess, as if trying to contest with the terrible growling a shrieking of the Amatsumagatsuchi. The five black ops soldiers rushed down to the lower compartments to arm the cannons. Miyuki accompanied them to man the sixth. The Foehammer's cannons packed quite a punch; barbed, arrow-shaped projectiles made of pure Noctalite. Such deadly ammunition was sure to rack the Amatsumagatsuchi with pain. Thain hoped that the beast would not come close enough for the hunters to have to use them.

"Thain, look!" Ichiro shouted!, pointing ahead. Thain averted his gaze from the Amatsu and looked straight ahead,
Tenkai Insignia

Tenkai Symbol

to see the bow of another airship piercing through the dark storm clouds ahead. It was a similar colour to theirs, and it had a dragon carved into the front, much like the Foehammer.
But as the green sails and the scarlet dragon emblazoned upon each of them came into view, Thain's eyes widened and his hopes were blown away like sand in the wind. All the colour drained from his face.

This was a Tenkai airship.

"What is it?" April asked, concerned at the burly man's sudden speechlessness.

"Tha' there's a Tenkai vessel. The dogs mus' be onto us. Damn it all!" he cursed. Barely a moment's silence passed before one of the teenagers, all of whom where now fraught with concern, prompted Thain to decide upon a course of action.

"Well?" Ash asked, with the voice of a visitor waiting for the doctor to give a diagnosis, ignoring the thunder that mauled the air, the lightning that cut the sky and the rain that pushed against her and the others. "What do we do?"

Thain listened to the shrill cries of the Amatsumagatsuchi whilst staring through narrow, conservative eyes at the Tenkai vessel that was fast approaching their own. Finally, he clenched his fist and nodded affirmatively to himself. He had come to a decision.

"This ship is called the Foehammer," Thain stated with pride, followed by a wry smile as he pulled another lever to adjust the angle of the sails, charging stright toward the enemy ship with fire in his heart.

"Methinks it's about time it did jus' tha'."

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The shrieking, the thunder and the awfully sickening sensation of an airship being rocked gently by the harsh, aggressive wind had roused Dante and Alexis from their sleep. Still nude under the bedsheets, they scrambled for the clothes they'd shoved under their pillows (in case something akin to what they were experiencing now happened), managing to pull it all on in about twently seconds, before getting up from the bed and running off to the left, to one of the cells in the brig where everbody's belongings had been placed, and where Dante and Alexis' armour sets and weapons awaited their retrieval. Slipping the heavy metal on in no time and yanking their swords and shields (Red Divine Flame for Dante, Hi Ninja Sword G for Alexis), they quickly sprinted upstairs to meet with the others.

They were nearly blown over by the force of the winds. grabbing onto the wooden railing that made up the side of the stairs quickly before they were thrown against the side of the ship. Yet, despite this vigourous, unrelenting tempest, the Foehammer held her own, steadfast against the elements. Of course, it rocked harshly to the left or right at times, and the sails were fluttering so much it sounded like thunderous appaluse, but the ship was clearly sturdy and robust, and wasn't about to get bowled over by the storm anytime soon. Although, it might not have to, if the Tenkai ship that Dante and Alexis now clocked did the job itself.

"So, there's a huge Elder Dragon that we can't possibly defeat lurking in the clouds and a Tenkai ship straight ahead that we're about to charge -deliberately, I might add- into. Do you all know what "insanity" means?!" Alexis yelled over the storm, clearly dissaproving of the current plan of action.

"Call it what ye may," Thain began frankly, driving with fervour toward the enemy aircraft even then, "'tis all we can do at this point.

As the Foehammer cruised ever closer to the hostile vessel before them, everbody- and that means everybody- was becoming anxious staring at Thain as if he held the fate of the world in his hands.

Closer...and closer...and closer...and closer...

"What're ya planning to do?! Crash into it?!" Alexis shrieked with fright and alarm. The other ship was so close to them now that the crew could be clearly seen, although they all looked the same- tall, lean figures clad in Dyuragaua armour with short swords upon their backs, about twenty five of them. That was another thing Alexis had just found to add to her list of disadvantages; they were trapped in a storm; an Amatsumagatsuchi- which was probably about the same size as the boat- was lurking in the nimbus; an enemy ship was before them; they were outnumbered. Juuuuuust great, Alexis thought to herself with the utmost cynicism.

Suddenly, she, along with everybody else, felt the wind cut across them as the ship turned as it approached the Tenkai airship.

"What the-?" one of the black ops soldiers exclaimed, confused. But Yumi saw it. Thaine was turning to the right side so that the starboard side cannons and other artillery would all be able to hit the enemy. It was perfect.

"I thought I told all o' ye to be at the ready! How is this maneouvre goin' to be any bloody use if there' not a soul to man the damned cannons?!" Thain exclaimed. A few stunted seconds apssed and again the hunters stared at Thain like he was an alien. He sighed with resingation before shouting at them much like before.

"MAN THE FECKIN' CANNONS!" he bellowed. Almost instantaneously, Irvine, Miyuki and the soldiers rushed downstaris to to get to the cannons while, Ash, Teiko and Ruby manned the three starboard-side cossbow turrets. The recognised the make- it was very similar to that used on the forts that protected vulnerable towns that were unfortunate enough to be situated near the habitats of Shen Gaoren or Lao-Shan Lung, astoundingly last monsters that made the very ground shudder for miles and miles with each step they took. Thankfully, they were too large to bother with tiny humans, and only attacked what was in their way, or humanity would be in serious danger. Teiko, Ruby and Ash were glad too see such reliable weaponry at their disposal in this situation. They narrowed their eyes and focused their aim. WIth adrenaline rushing throug their veins, they were ready for anything.

Meanwhile, Yumi, April, Aaron, Ichiro, Dante and Alexis unsheathed brought their various weapons to bear and consuming their chosen items- demondrugs, armour pills, nutrients, etc- in preparation for the Tenkai soldiers that they would undoubtedly have to face- the only variable was whether they would be the boarders or the boarded.

A moment of standoffish silence- albeit marred by the storm and the Amatsu's roaring- followed before Thain gave the both dreaded and anticipated command.

"FIRE ALL CANNONS, YE BABY-SKINNED LANDLUBBERS!"

Almost instantly, the noise of the stormy skies was drowned out by the deafening, almost sickening *BOOM!* of at least half a dozen cannon shots, complmented by the sharp, quiet sound of arrows from the crossbow turrrets slicing through the air. Most of them embedded themselves into the wood of the airship, a couple tore hit the sails, probably tearing holes (although holes so tiny that they'd be impossible to see from where the hunters stood), but only two or three of them actualy hit the Tenkai soldiers. Two were downed almost immediately but the third managed to yank the arrow out of his arm with grit and determination. The cannonballs, however, were another story. They smashed stright into the bow of the ship's hull with a sickening crunch, stray bits of wooden shrapnel flying in all directions breifly before tumbling down into the darkened abyss below. One of the large, rotund projectiles smashed stright into the carven dragon on the very forefront of the ship, tearing the wooden bust's head from it's body in a flash.

But there was no time to celebrate. Even as this happened, the Tenkai ship was rotating sideways to be parallel with the Foehammer, preparing to fire cannons of their own. Upon observing this, Thain grabbed a long, winding piece of wood, clearly some sort of makeshift loudhailer, and shouted into it, no doubt to Irvine, Miyuki and the black ops soldiers below deck, manning the cannons and the noctalite tow cables.

"FIRE TOW CABLES! RIP THA' MOTTLED PIECE O' CRAP APART, PLANK BY BLOODY PLANK!"

Not long after, Dante, Alexis, Yumi, Ruby and the other teens watched ahead with awe as, following a loud noise akin to metal striking stone, three gargantuan rope,s probably wideer than them, sprang out from their vessel, a pitch black attachment on the end of each of them shaped like an "X", each of the bars armed with sharp, cruel barbs that jutted out like an Akantor's spine. An awesome crunch followed as they chomped into the enemy aircraft's woodwork, lodged within it. Once he confirmed that they were firmly in place, Thain spun the wheel wildly, turning the Foehammer about, bringing the Tenkai ship with it, ever so slowly. The Tenkai vessel, which had been about to fire their cannons, did so, but all missed as its aim was sabotaged as it was dragged along by the pivoting Foehammer. After about a minute, he reached for the loudhailer again.

"PULL 'EM BACK IN!" he boomed. Seconds later, the massive tow cables were torn away from their quarry, leaving gigantic maws in the port side of the ship. The huge ropes were quickly pulled back the way it came, no doubt by some sort of mechanism within the ship.

Not long after, everybody on deck jumped with surprise when an almost deafening boom splintered the sound barrier. A huge, cylindrical metal projectile with an arrow shaped head had been fired from the Tenkai ship, and had slammed into the Foehammer with such force that the boat almost rocked to one side. Immediately, the hunters all heard the sound of conflict below, the ugly grinding of steel on steel. Dante then heard Thain graonw ith exasperation and dissapointment, the way a child whines when denied a sweet, only gruffer, thichker and angrier.

"We've been feckin' boarded. Bollocks!" he scowled. A couple of moments passed before he stretched his fingers outward and flexed his neck, bones cracking each time, and armed himself with the monolithic battleaxe he had been carrying on his back. The handle was iron plated wood but the blade (which was about half the height of an average person) was made of "shatterstone", one of the newer ores discovered within the last sixty years, and the last to be found until the discovery of noctalaite. Shatterstone was named in apropos, and so was often used for crafting brutish weponry desinged to bludgeon and smash, such as maces, ballistas and battleaxes. Thain's battleaxee's blade was made of said material, and if thgat alone wasn't fear factor enough, it was still peppered with the bloody stains of decades' bloodshed and a sharpy, pointy barb on the tip of the handle. A fearsome and intimidating article indeed, if only in stature.

"We'd best be gettin' ready," Thain grunted at the others. "They'll be comin' up here soon enough; I reckon there's 'bout twenty o' the bastards. They're but cannon fodder, but the same can be said about ants, until they swarm around you. I'd like to make it out o' this thundery deathtrap alive, thank ye very much."


All was then quiet as they listened intently to the heavy, marching footsteps that echoed from under their feet. About twenty age-long seconds passed, before the tension broke like glass as a great sword sliced though the
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-04 - First Mission (from FFVII "Opening ~ Bombing Mission")02:53

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-04 - First Mission (from FFVII "Opening ~ Bombing Mission")

Theme- First encounter with Tenkai!

wooden floor of the deck. The multitude of hunters shielded their faces with their arms and the shattered pieces of wood hurled them selves in each direction. As Dante and the others pulled their arms away, a conglomerate of Tenkai soldiers, identified by their treademark Dyuragauga armour and weapons, leapt acrobatically from the maw in the floor, all aiming their weapons at the Guild associates. It took but a second for them to react, each of them brandishing their variety of death instruments and surging forth to meet their foes.


Immediately, Thaine set his terrifyingly large axe to work, smashing it horizontally into an oncoming soldier with a howl of glee and determination. The shatterstone armament did what it was made to do and smashed right into its target's armour, cracking the chestpiece open and slamming into the human ribs within. A bloodcurdling crunch sounded out as blood burst out in all directions and the undeniably dead and mangled body was sent tumbling across the floor, leaving a trail of crimson blood along the way. Another foolishly challenged the Iron Fist, to whom Thain responded by swatting him away casually with the flat of his axe. It looked like a light blow, but it was no such thing, as the soldier it hit was slammed to the floor almost immediately, his skull fatally fractured. Yet another came up behind Thain without him knowing and smashed his great sword into the back of Thain's armoured head. Nothing happened. That is, nothing other than Thain's brutal response: a sharp kick to trip the assailant up before the fatal rib-smashing from the battleaxe, followed by a guttral roar of enthusiasm.
  • Tenkai soldiers (Blademaster)
  • Tenkai soldiers (Gunner)

"Bleeding flesh and shattered bone, torn out innards and blood on stone, keep me goin', all the while, till all my meals come out as bile!" Thain sang roughly, toying with more feeble Tenkai attackers, cutting them down when he grew bored of watching them feebly tap their weapons against him and his massive weapon. To them, the blows were wearing, mighty and heavy, but to Thain, they were nought but raindrops against metal. Bored of toying with them after a couple of minutes, he quickly dispatched them all in ways as equally bloody and brutal as his other opponents.

Meanwhile, April had been toppled to the floor by a Tenkai soldier armed with a sword and shield after dispatching another of his ilk mere moments before with her Gurenzeburu hammer. She backed away on the floor as fast as she could, looking somewhat like a spider as she fractially moved her limbs to avoid the syncopated strokes of her adversary's Dyuragaua blade. She then raised her hammer horizontally, her hands at each end of its handle, using the aqua blue rod to block another slice from the soldier's sword which would otherwise have been fatal. Seeing the opening she needed, April put her legs together and thrust them toward the man's chest, knocking him over while she used the momentum form her kick to pull herself up to a staning poistion. She lorded her cruelly sharp hammer over her haplass prey for a few moments before slamming its keen face into the white mask that hid the militant's face, the blood pouring out from beneath signifying that she had definitely mortally wounded him. She then proceeded to smash her hammer into the side of another solder, whom she dodged as he swiped at her.

All of a sudden, she was knocked off of her feet once again as Aaron collided with her, Shiny Rathalos Sword G and all, the pair of them sliding across the now slanted deck (the ship had been blown slightly askew by the wind so that it slanted lower of the port side). They both cried out at the sharp pain of being thorwn against the port side railing of the ship, with Aaron actually landing on top of April, almost obscuring her from view behind his ostentacious Rathalos Soul G armour.

"Cudh yuh get the fuck offa me please?!" April's muffled, irritated voice reverberated from behind Aaron.

"Oh, sorry," Aaron said quickly, pulling himself off of the young girl. April put her hammer back upon her back and dusted herslef off as if she'd just fallen in mud (although if she was so determined to keep her gear clean, the rain was doing a mighty fine job of it for her). A few awkward seconds passed where the two hunters' eyes met intensely. It just felt so natural.

But it didn't last long.

"Look out!" April cried, shoving Aaron behind her and punting her hammer into the face of an onrushing, gunlance-wielding Tenkai soldier. The warrior and his cumbersome weapon were sent metres away. April relaxed her muscles and let her hammer fall limply in her grip. She turned around and extended her hand out to the boy, who took it hesitantly but gratefully.

"...Thanks," he said slowly.

"Think nothing of it," she said in a friendly tone. Another awkward stare-off ensued. She wanted so badly to kiss him and hold him against her, but she knew that now was most definitely not the time for frivolous hanky-panky between the sexes. The two of them ran back into the fray of the battle that still raged on deck.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The One-Eyed Gurenzeburu flew wildly through the Amatsumagatsuchi's storm, the Akura Jebia still on its back. It flew as fast as it could while lingering a safe distance away from the airship it was following, which was currently in bttle with another, heavily damaged airship. All it was thinking about all the while was the many slow, painful ways
BLAZBLUE CHRONO PHANTASMA Azrael Theme04:20

BLAZBLUE CHRONO PHANTASMA Azrael Theme

The One-Eyed Gurenzeburu's theme

it could torture the Blue One. The One-Eyed Gurenzeburu yearned for her screams more than anything else in existence. Food, shelter, safety, even life itself. All paled in comparison to the exquisite satisfaction of hearing the Blue One beg for death in its human tongue, msot of which it did not understand.

Whether it be today, tomorrow, or a hundred years from today, I shall dance to the music of the Blue One's screams! the One Eyed Gurenzeburu thought. It craned it's neck back alittle toward the Akura Jebia on its back, its black, empty eye socket boring into the creatures four crimson eyes. The only thing more fearful than the blood red eyes of a monster, was no eye at all.

Are you alright, Carapaceon? the Flying Wyvern asked in its usual, angry, growling tone.

I'm fine. But still, are you sure this was a good idea? I mean, what if the Amatsumagatsuchi sees us, ro worse, we get struck by lightning and fall to the ground? I don't fancy being eaten, being electrocuted, or falling to a messy doom, the Jebia replied aprehensively.

Fear not, Carapaceon. The Amatsumagatsuchi is one of us. While it hold no interest in helping us, it has no interest in eating us either.

Alright, if you say so.

I do say so, Carapaceon.

Slowly, slowly, the One-Eyed Gurenzeburu and his flightless companion soared through the darkened skies, hell-bent on ultimate revenge.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The fighting still raged below deck.

The Foehammer's noctalite tow cables had really ripped into the Tenkai airship, as had the cannons that Miyuki, Irvine and his team were currently manning, but still the vessel refused to be shot down. It didn't have much in the way of fire power, but it was slowly eating its way though the starboard side of the Guild vessel with its own cannons.

"For fuck sakes," Miyuki sighed exasperatedly, "we've been at this for ages! Why won't the bastard just die?"

"I honestly don't know, Miyuki. But if it's any consolation, it's really starting to get on my nerves as well," Irvine calmly replied, despite Miyuki's rhetoric.

All of a sudden, a cry came from above.

"ALL OF YE GET DOWN BELOW! THOSE MANNIN' THE CANNONS, HOLD ONTO SOMETHIN'!"

It was Thain.

Quickly, Irvine, Miyuki and the Rukodiora soldiers abandoned their cannons and gradded ahold of whatever they could find first, and waited to see what would happen next.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"Oh, aye, I've fuckin' 'ad enough o' this shite!" Thain muttered to himself. Backhanding a Tenkai soldier, the captain of the Foehammer stomped back toward the steering wheel and grabbed it, then shouted at the top of his voice (which was unbelieveably loud) at those above and below deck.

"ALL OF YE GET DOWN BELOW! THOSE MANNIN' THE CANNONS, HOLD ONTO SOMETHIN'!"

Immeiately, Dante, Alexis, Ichiro, Yumi, Aaron, Ruby and April abandoned their foes and sprinted for the way below deck. As they did, Thain rapidly spun the wheel, and pulled a level next to him. This cause the ship to tilt madly on the starboard side while it surged on though the clouds, to the point where anything above deck would begin to slide in one direction.

Unfortunately, April hand't made it below deck, as she had to fight a Tenkai soldier out of her way. SHe tried to grab the railing of the stars that led below deck for support but it was no use. She cried out as she slid down the now almost vertical deck of the ship, and all the while her frightened eyes were fixated upon the edge of the ship and the abyssal expanse of gloomy clouds below.

"APRIL!" Aaron cried out, almost involuntarily. He grabbed Ichiro's Akura Vashimu dual blades instantaneously and quickly slid down the side of the ship toward her, worrying that he wouldn't reach her in time, having to dodge the falling bodies of Tenkai soldiers, alive and dead, who werte falling to their dooms, as Thain had planned.

Just before April slipped over the small wooden railing of the ship's side and to her death, she felt a jolt as her body was stopped form falling. She felt a tight vicegrip around her left wrist. She looked up, and to her surprise, Aaron was staring down at her, the parir of them dangling from the ship- Aaron had stabbed one of the dual blades into the wooden floor of the deck, preventing them from falling. The other was strapped to his waist. He gestured to it with his eyes. "Quickly, grab it! We'll climb up!" he said. Without thinking, April grabbed the blade with her free hand (her hammer was put away) and stabbed it with all her strength into the wood. Together, the pair of them climbed up, Aaron stabbing into the wood, then April, then Aaron and so on, their hands locked tightly together the entire time. Halway though the ordeal, they felt a wave of relief wash over them as the ship began to slowly right itself.

All the Tenkai soldiers were gone.

Mere moments ago, April and Aaron had been climbing for their lives up a steep, nigh on vertical wooden wall. Now, they were sitting on the flat wooden surface which they had just been climbing, panting and loooking down at nothing in particular. Slowly, they looked up and into each other's eyes for the third time since they;d been on the Foehammer. This time, it was different. They both knew that there was no time better.

April made the first move, practically throwing herself on Aaron, her lips pressing tenderly against his. Their eyes slowly shut, and they lost themselves in ecstasy.

All of a sudden, a lightning strike came from above and hit the Tenkai airship dead on. It only took a moment, and the damaged aircraft was little more than a charred, hollow shell tumbling down towards the world below. Then, to brighten the situation even further (quite literally), the rain stopped, the thunder and lightning slowly fades away and the Amatsumagatsuchi;s roars and howls were no longer audible.

The sky was clear and starry, the air was clam and dry, and the just visible shape of Starfall Forest, Kijuka, could be seen ahead.

The hunters had reached the Seperatist Province of Tenkai. Very soon now, their mission would begin.

Fort Ryū

The moon illuminated the way along a well-desinged pathway cutting through Starfall Forest.

Thain had set the Foehammer down on the coast of Kijuka Bay, the capital's famous summer retreat. The Guild-hired hunters had expected some semblance of security there, a patorl or two perhaps, but there had been nothing of the sort. In fact, Thain expressed his belief that the Tenkai forces didn't even know they were here. One would think that a huge airship bearing the valiant red and gold sails of the Guild would be seen coming from miles away and that someone would alert the others to the danger, but -luckily for Dante and friends- there had been no response whatsoever, and they had been able to simply land their transport and get right to work, marching up the beach and into the clearing in the foliage that led into Starfall Forest.
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-06 - Patriots On a Moonlit Night-001:31

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-06 - Patriots On a Moonlit Night-0

Theme- Midnight Mission

"So far, so good, I'd say," Teiko mused optimistically as he, Ash, Ichiro, Ruby, Yumi, Dante, Alexis, April and Aaron (both of whom were holidng hands), along with Irvine, Miyuki and the five black ops hunters, strolled at a steady pace though the fresh green undergrowth.

"...I can see now. Why they call it Starfall Forest, I mean. These things falling from the trees...they're beautiful," Ruby remarked, astounded, reaching out to gently touch the butterfly-like insects, which glowed a mesmerising phosphorescent white as they slowly descended from above, presumably from the trees overhead, to the ground, whereupon the lights faded as quickly as they had flared into being, the dead corpses of the insects lying still where they settled upon the ground, like snowflakes. Hundreds of them at once, in every tree, silent and slow (their descent from treetop to ground took approximately sixty seconds, as they fell incredibly slowly).

"Ghostwing Butterflies, they're called. Winged, but flightless. A unique species of Neopteron fround only in Kijuka. They are bred by bigger, flightless versions of themselves, who come out from within the trees and spin the larvae into cocoons attached to the undersides of the leaves. When the butterfly within is ready to hatch, the cocoon falls away and the Ghostwing Butterfly is released. As it cannot fly, it falls slowly, slowly to the ground, and dies. So ephemeral, and yet so beautiful. This forest is protected by the Guild itself to preserve them," Irvine elaborated. Despite the amazing sight, the hunters soldiered on, not stopping for even a moment.

"You okay, sis?" Teiko asked Ash, who seemed a little cautious and nervous, glancing around feverishly at so much as the snap of a twig and the rustling of a bush.

"No. No, I'm not okay. There's someone here, Teiko, following us. I can feel it," Ash groaned.

And as if on que, a small squad of five Tenkai soldiers leapt from the trees and landed blindingly fast before the huntrers, startling them. However, as they rushed forward to attack, Miyuki reacted swiftly with an overhead kick, knocking two of the soldiers out for the count. The other three she quickly dispatched with further had-to-hand combat, slitting the throat of the last. A moment of silence followed, before the corpses were shoured by puffs of greyinsh smoke. When it cleared, everybody's eyes widened at the sight of five stumpy blocks of wood that lay on the floor. They had been tricked.

"Great, it's the elite corps," Miyuki scowled sullenly. "Just when things were going seamlessly."

The hunters drew their weapons and braced for further out-of-the-blue ambushes, walking steadily forward as they did so; they were'nt prepared to stay put and waste valuable time because of five slightly smarter infantry grubs. They had bigger fish to fry. They had an emperor to kill.

As they slowly covered ground, the five assailants, clearly well-versed in Ninjutsu, the signature skill of Tenkai's advance forces, attacked from the shdows once again, black five-ponited shurikens slicing through the crisp midnight air from who-knows-where, at least thirty of them, five or six aimed at each person in the hunters' party. They were throws well, but Dante and his friends quickly brushed them off with light, casual swings of their weapons. Miyuki simply seemed to sense the projectiles headed toward her, and performed a series of acrobatic somersualts and sliding dives to avoid them. However, much to the woman's surprise, one of them was headed for right for her head as she stood up. With no time to safely evade the throwing star, she decided instead to meet it. Within a matter of seconds she had drawn of of her kunais, which were simply the black nails of a Barioth's claws, and threw it straight and true at the shuriken before her. The miniature, arrow-shaped knife collided with the black-as-black shuriken and dull sparks flared as the two small armaments were repelled by each other's force. Miyuki jumped and grabbed her kunai as it was flung back toward her.

Suddenly, the group was greeted by yet another surprise. A puff of smoke later, a man stood before them, clad entirely in black so that two slits for his beady black eyes and stern, apathetic mouth were the only bit of flesh showing. He wore a red scarf around his neck that covered the bottom of his face slightly and carried a huge, round three pronged glaive on his back, black with bold crimson embroidering, like veins, coursing through the metalwork. He had thin bandoliers full of shurikens and kunais wrapped around his waist, forearms and across his chest, and a white belt around his forehead with the excess length dangling freely from just behind his right ear. And to top it all of, as if all his weaponry and attire wasn't enough, he stood poised on one leg, the other bent and tucked behind, against the part where his other leg would bend. His right arm was folded away behind his back while his left was brought in front of his, his middle and index fingers cutting vertically across his lips as if he gesturing for quiet.

The hunters all pointed their weapons at the (clearly) ninja before them, anticipating a difficult confromtation.

"Peace, advocates of the Guild. I mean you no further ill will," the man said. His voice and his tone were almost cynical, as if he were tired of repeating something, and his voice was low and mellifluous, his words floating on the wind. The group relaxed marginally, perplexed.

"Is that so?" a sceptical Thain hissed slowly, stabbing his huge battleaxe aggressively into the earth, making a sharp slicing sound in the process.

"I thought I saw..." he hesitated for a moment, then scowled almost inaudibly an continued vaguely, "someone else. That is why I attacked all of you."

"You're with Tenkai, right?" Ash began, leering at the shady man through narrowed eyes.

"That is correct."

"So why, then, don't you mean us harm? And what about those five fake soldiers?" she enquired, making no attempt to mask the suspiscion in her voice. She may have only been thirteen, and the youngest of her friends by a minimum of two years, but she wasn't stupid, and far was she from guillible. The man chuckled shakily.

"It's a good question. I suppose the only real answer I can provide you with is that, well, I don't need to mean you harm. I am sure you will all be dead fairly soon without my blades to guide you. Oh, and the fake soldiers? Simple ninjutsu. Pretty transparent really; I mean, come on, five soldiers in the middle of the woods with no weapons decide to rush more or less three times as many enemies? No real soldier would be that stupid."

"Who are you?" Yumi barked, ferocity etched on her face, her hand gripping the Great Demonbind G on her back with a grip tougher than iron, and a steely gaze to match. She was the eldest of her friends at the responsible age of eighteen, and was always the first to make demands and bark at people, and seemed to adopt a "big sis" attitude to defend those around her.

"How nice of you to ask; it's only been five minutes," the man remarked with snide sarcasm. "My name is Shin Mei, and I am a general of the Tenkai militay, a master of the ninja arts."

"Well, now that we're all chummy, can we get on with the damn op already?" One of the black ops soldiers piped up, clearly anxious to make the mission swift and clean, in-and-out. Irvine turned to glare at him, and even though his helmet hid his face from view, everybody could tell it was silently grilling the Guild soldier alive for so foolishly giving away the party's intent.
Blazblue Chrono Phantasma - Bang's Theme (NEW)02:48

Blazblue Chrono Phantasma - Bang's Theme (NEW)

Theme- Appear, Ninjutsu Master! (Shin Mei's Theme)

"Oh, so you're here to storm Fort Ryu, are you?" Shin Mei purred, ever so slightly antagonistically. He stood normally now, clearly tired of standing on one leg with one arm in front and one behind. No need to look awesome and intimidating when your introduction moment has expired. Then, his eyes widened as he realised the bedrock of their plan. "Ah, so you're here for the emperor. Interesting. So tell me, how exactly do you propose to storm and entire fort with just the -now, my arithmetic's not the best- one, two, three, four, five, six, seven..." he counted with his fingers, pointing briefly at each one of them as he added them up. "...With just the fifteen of you?" he finsihed his question, glaring at them with big, round, innocent eyes, clearly sarcasm.

If they had learned just one thing about General Shin Mei in the last few minutes, it was that he was very peculiar. He didn't seem to take his duty very seriously, or even seem to hate the Guild. It was as if he was hired help and he could just defect as and when it pleased him. Dante found himself wondering if this man actually had any loyalties at all, and if he did, where they truly lied.

"I think you're forgettin' somethin', laddy," Thain cut in. "I'm Thain, the Iron Fist. I've been fightin' against your bunch for t' best part o' ten years. Them black ops lot are with the Guild, and all the Guild soldiers have that whajamacallit inside 'em taht makes 'em super strong, and these young 'uns 'ere are the best hunters of at least several regions. Even the hunters in Jonton couldn't compare. In fact, they're better than some of those ye can find in the inner regions. If you think yer masked twats, yer wee prissy-boy ninjas and yer piddly-pants little shit of an emperor can take us down alone, ye've got a hundred other things comin', and I can tell ye now, Shimmy, ninety-nine of 'em hurt!" Thain ranted, his quiet hissing building up to a boastful shout at the end.

"It's, um, Shin Mei, not "Shimmy"," Shin Mei said quietly, somewhat embarassed.

"Shimmy it is then, Shimmy," Thain retorted, amused. Shin Mei's expression went lax, as if he were exhausted.

"Fine, whatever. Anyway, be as cocksure as you feel is necessary. You'll regret it later. Trust me."

And with that rather anti-climactic foreshadowing, Shin Mei folded himself away into the night as quickly as he had apeared, leaving no trace that he was ever there in the first place, although something told the hunters that they would be seeing him again. Slightly bewildered at the strange and awkward encounter with an equally strange and awkward man, the hunters soldiered on through the forest, eager to reach their destination.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

A clearing in the trees was the prequel to a natural high rise in a steep rock cliff that Dante and his companions now stood on the precipice of. It wasn't a terrifyingly far drop, but it was more than far enough to be fatal. the ground below was shrouded in darkness; the moon's delicate, serene rays were being blocked off by the high, imposing circular stone wall that surrounded Fort Ryu, which was alit with torches and candles and whatnot that seemed to be but mere beads of light from such a far distance away. However, t became quite clear that the huge, squre, two-level structure that sat on the hill the fort had been built around, so as to be higher than everything else, was where Emperor Shikimaru Tetsuya would be.

Ash took out her binoculars to get a closer look, informing her friends and allies in hushed tones as she spotted each obstacle.

Of course, Tenkai would never leave their lord unprotected; the fort was circled by Tenkai infantry, several small groups, no more than three or four, marching in double file around the perimieter of the wall. There were also archers lurking in the trees near the fort (the hunters couldn't really see them but Miyuki had a keen sense of hearing and heard them rustling the branches and leaves and fiddling with their bows) and the solitary entrance was guarded by two more soldiers, also dressed in Dyuragaua armour, but it had all been coated in silver and black paints and dyes, and they were armed with long, black glaives with silver blades, and the area under the black painted-on eyes of their masks (which had been left their original white colour) had been daubed with a crimson subtance, presumably enemy blood. They held a pair of malicious, hungry looking bloodhounds on chains, to ward off any potential intruders. These two were part of the Tenkai imperial honour guard, the créme de la créme of the Tenkai war force. The blood of fallen Guildsmen under the eyes of their helms was a reminder for them to destory everything they hate in the world (in other words, the Guild) no matter what the cost. The Honour Guard soldiers were known for their kamikaze approach to combat, charging at the nearest opponent while shouting loudly in an attempt to scrae them, not caring if they died before their glaives tasted blood or not. They were, above all others, the most fearsome and intimidating of Tenkai's array of weaponry.

"Out-fuckin'standin'," Thain sighed. "The place is crawling with Tenkai critters. How on God's green earth are we ever gonnay get in there? Look at the security! 'Tis impossible, we cannay do it!"

"Now, now, don't be so quick to give in, Thain!" Ash reassured the burly, pessimistic warrior. "Looking at the actual fort, it's not that bad. It might seem pretty packed 'cause of all the fires n' stuff, but there really is a lot fewer soldiers than there first appeared to be. In fact, when I compare the current occupancy to the size of the fort, it really is quite empty."

At this, the atmosphere amongst the warriors lost some tension, and Thain appeared less despondent than he had been a minute ago.

"Well, what the hell are we waiting for?" Yumi said, clearly emboldened by Ash's promising observation. "Let's get down there and kill the guy before we grow old and die."

"Yumi, you can't just go galumphing off the edge of a cliff that high. You'll kill yourself," April said flatly, almost chuckling at the end of her sentence, with her eyes frowning and her arms folded sarcastically. Everybody giggled briefly.

"Aw, c'mon! Sure you can! Just grab the cliff wall real hard and push you hand against it. It's grinding, you'll slide right down," Yumi replied engetically, her best friend's sarcasm fuelling her whimsical zeal.

"Well, alright, if you say so," Ruby said consignedly, smiling a little, heaidng with the others right to the edge of the cliff. "But if I break a leg, I promise I'm gonna break you after!" she almost shouted, her remark amusing the others as they hauled themselves quickly over the edge and did as Yumi had said, grabbing tightly onto the cliff wall and pusing against it with all their strength, and they slid down harmlessly at a safe, moderate pace, lading with a minor crash onto the leaf-riddled ground.

Now it would get tricky. The leaves made noise, which was amplified by the general quietness, and if the Tenkai archers in the trees heard them, then they'd all be dead. If any of the myriad patrols passing by periodically spotted them, they'd all be dead. If they showed themselves or gave their position away at any point, they'd all be dead. Their one and only advantage from hereon out was the relative darkness of the area leading up to Fort Ryu. The lack of light hid their shadows and their bodies from plain view, so any suspiscious soldiers would be forced to find them by hearing, or using the two bloodhounds kept at bay by the two imperial honour guards at the entrance.

Then it clicked! That was it! That was their way in!

What if, Aaron thought, grinning to himself in the dark and he and his comrades hid carefully behind a tree, we distract the two guards at the door enough for them to leave and get the bloodhounds to start sniffing us out, and we then cut across, charge in and start a surpirse attack from there? That'd be perfect!

"If we get the bloodhound to move the guards away, the entrance will be free," Aaron whispered to Miyuki, pointing with two fingers at the shadowy patch close to the entrace, with some trees and bushes to shield them from view should they need to hide there. Miyuki nodded to herself as she considered this course of action, silently weighing up the risks with the rewards. After thirty seconds of solid silence, she came to a decision, everybody hanging on her verdict.

"He's right. However, I propose we alter that plan a little, make it a little more...explosive," she almost purred the last word, hinting at what she was about to say. At the mention of explosions, Teiko's eyes flickered with pyromania. "Has anybody got some barrel bombs?" the young woman asked. Ruby and Yumi nodded soberly. "Right, then here's what I want you to do; I want you to place them here, make sure they're primed. Ash, you're fast; I want you to scream as loud as you can for as long as you can, then follow me and the others when the oldiers come to investigate. Can you do that?"

"Sure thing," Ash replied happily.

"Okay. Then, while Ash is busy screaming, we can run as fast as we can over to where Aaron pointed, They won't hear us moving over the noise. When they all eventually arrive here, the bombs will be about to explode and it will be too late. Hopefully they'll die, but I doubt it. Anyway, when you hear the explosion, we charge through the gates and spam flash bombs and sonic bombs and then get the op running. You all get that?"

Every body nodded.

"Good. Then let's get this show on the road. We don't have all night."

Immediately, Ruby and Yumi began producing small and large barrel bombs from their item bags and placing them on the ground, Teiko ready with some matches to light them. About a minute later and there was thirty -if not more- explosives armed and ready, waiting to be found by unfortunate Tenkai infantry. "Ash, you're up," Ruby snapped, as quietly as possible.

The conglommerate of warriors began to move about half a moment before Ash opened her mouth and emitted an ear-splitting girlish shriek that even the mythical Banshee would have a though time contesting with. She played with it a little, making herself sound as if she was in pain, frightened or had come across a big, scary monster. The others watched the patrols carefully as they sprinted across the clearing in the moderately dense foliage and saw them all look up like cats hearing the sqeak of a mouse, and one by one they all marched off in Ash's direction. As the hunters made it to the shady, tree-laden patch literally three metres from the entrance, Ash's scream ceased and the unshakeable silence took hold of the place once more, the uniform marching of the soldiers the only noise that broke the subtle monotony of the night. At first they were worried that Ash had been discovered, as they were startled by the aggressive barks and growls of the two bloodhounds held by the pair of honour guards that were investiagting with the other patrols, but their fears were soon laid to rest when Ash quickly cam eto join them behind a log that they all squatted behind, running with her torso bowed the whole time so as to further diguise herself.

"Okay, that's everyone accounted for," Miyuki said. "You can stand up now. Have your flash and sonic bombs to hand and be ready for the explosion." And so every body drew either sonic bombs or flash boms, or both if they had them, and stood, still beding their knees slightly in case they had to squat down again to hide, eagerly anticipating the explosion that would mark their good-to-go.

"Are you okay?" Dante asked Alexis, who was just behind and to the side of him.

"Yeah, I'm fine," she replied, not too confidently, but confidently enough for her boyfriend to be satisfied that she wasn't terrified, which was exactly what she wanted him to believe. April felt in the darkness for Aaron's hand and found it, gripping it tight and never wanting to ever let go. He squeezed hers in return, letting her know he was there.

They waited. And waited. And waited. And waited.

But no explosion came. No deafening noise, no blinding inferno, no nothing. Something was amiss.

"Guys, I think something's wro-" Teiko began, before he was cut off by the long-awaited deafening noise and blinding inferno.

"GO!" Miyuki barked curtly, and at a moment's notice everyboyd sprinted for the unguarded entrance. As they burst though the meagre wooden doors that protected the fort within, they hurled sonic and flash boms in every direction, dazing and confusing the already dazed and confused Tenkai inhabitants. When the flashing cleared, some where running away, some were dazed, deafened or both and the rest were scrambling to their feet and frantically fumbling for their weapons, or a nearby armament if they didn't have one on their person. The time was short but it was more than dante and his friends needed to, like the conniving, predatory eagle, spread their wings and dive down to the eart, claws outstreched, allowing their hapless prey to wander into their midst. Immediately, a dozen Tenkai soldiers had been cut down by the ruthless, adrenaline-fuelled Guildsmen as they estruggled to recover or to find a wepon, or in some cases even to get up off of the floor. A couple of the more alert men and women put up a fight, but it was feeble, futile and, in the end, fatal.

"Alright, everybody split up; We'll all take different routes and meet up in the coutyard of the main building. That's probably where Shikimaru is," Irvine stated calmly. "You don't have to goa lone, but don't travel in groups larger than a pair." He then turned to the black ops soldiers. "You five can travel together." He turned back to Miyuki, who was waiting silently. "Miyuki, you're with me."

Dante stayed with Alexis and Ruby paired with April while Ash satyed in the company of her big brother, and everybodyy else decided to go it alone.

"Okay, move out," Irvine commanded.

Those in pairs ran off together while the others picked their direction and sprinted away, eager to get stuck in to the bloodshed for the sake of their people.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The fort itself wasn't particularly organised or flashy. It was just like a village, with bland stone buildings with no decoration (bar a few patriotic Tenkai flags) and drab design, built for purpose rather than visual admiration. And yet, for all its mundane, monochromical ugliness, it was still bigger than Kairu, the town Dante, Aaron, and the others had known their entire lives. Yumi had clocked this, and she seethed with silent hatred at how -not just Tenkai, but the Guild as well- the government were prepared to build forts the size of large villages but didn't feel obligated to provide any of the outer region villages and cities with breathing room. In the outer regions, the villages were small and almost entirely left to their own devices. They recieved no aid from the Guild of any kind. In fact, the only relations they have are with their own regions cities, and the rest of Outer Altus. Anyone on the other side of the Sinata Border (Sinata was the outer region nearest to the furthest inner region, Zakimuto -so close, in fact, that it would be
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-07 - Encounter03:25

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-07 - Encounter

Theme- Ambush at the Dragon Fort

classifed as an inner region if it was just thirty kilometres closer to Zakimuto- and so the border established around the country to distinguish between the inner and outer regions was named after it) didn't seem to give a damn about the outer regions, and if they they did, they didn't -or perhaps, more worryingly, couldn't- do anything to help them. They were segregated by their own people, it seemed. Of course, the only time the Guild would help the outer regions would be if enough of the inhabitants kicked up a fuss- the big-shot politicians didn't want to be shown up and the governing body was afraid that the situation might escalate into armed conflict. They couldn't afford to fight another civil war, not against more or less half of Altus, and especially not while the war with Tenkai was still raging. She began to think that perhpas it was the Guild negelect that forced Tenkai to come to te decision to rebel in the first place.

But no. Yumi slapped herself metally, reminding herself that Tenkai had comitted atrocities of their own volition -men women and children slaughtered on several occasions- and nobody, no matter how dire their situation, should be allowed to get away with that unpunished. Tenkai had to pay for its crimes, and tonight, that it exactly what it was going to do. They would kill Emperor Shikimaru and bring the limping Tenkai war machine to its knees by severing the head.

However, in order to accomplish this goal, the best way yo start would be by concentrating on the situation at hand.

As Yumi quickly immersed herself in the sanguinary assault, she froze in place with shock as the blur of a shuriken zoomed across her eyes, millimetres away from her face. She quickly regained control of herself and turned her head sharply to the right, where one of the silver honour guards stood at the ready, nodachi glaive in hand, bloodhound on a chain in his other hand. As Yumi stared at the blood-daubed eyes that in return drilled into hers, he let slip the vicious dog, which then bounded towards her, howling almost like a wolf, its jaws dripping with saliva, the silver chain that was its leash clinking as it was dragged along in the animal's wake. As it drew near to its target, it leapt off of the ground and pounced at Yumi, who quickly swatted the fell creature away with a hefty swipe of her switch axe. The bloodhound's corpse was pared in two, the gory pieces flying away to the ground, the ground slick with its viscera. However, in this time, the young adult had not been paying attention to the hound's bearer, who's sharp blow she just barely deflected as the silver blade of his spear-like glaive thrust itself toward her. The metal collded with the metal of her switch axe, igniting bright, electric-yellow sparks that licked the keen edged of both weapons. Both fighters' weapons were repelled by the force of one another. Yumi used this chance to slam her weapon stright down into the earth. The Tenkai honour guard was knocked off his feet, small chunks of earth catapaulted into the air as Yumi's Great Demonbind G ate into the dirt.

As Yumi wrenched the enormous blade from the ground and brought it to bear for another, fatal attack, the experienced silver warrior rolled to the right and out of the way. The female hunter's switch axe bit into the solid ground once again, but did not taste the blood of the enemy. Of course, Yumi could not yank her blade out from the ground before her opponent could attack her. He backhanded her with his right arm, drawing blood from her lip and knocking her to the floor, her sword, still firmly embdded in the ground, out of reach. She scowled with annoyance and shame. How could she have allowed herself to be bested so easily?

"My, my, lady of the Guild, you look awfully small from down there," the Tenkai warriors voice resonated from within his helmet. The helm gave his voice a dull echo and a tinny sound to it, but it wass arrogant and dripping with contempt nonetheless. Saying nothing more, the man once again thrust the point of his glaive toward Yumi's bosom, aiming for the beating heart within. However, what he didn't notice was that Yumi's expression, which was that of a feeble girl who had screwed her eyes shut as she awaited to end, was a sly ruse to trick him into thinking he had won. He failed to notice the flash bomb she had concealed beneath her palm, which rested on the floor, and now it was too late. She pressed down on it with all her strength, bursting it and releasing the searing flash within. The girl's had shut her eyes to protect herself from the blinding light, not out of fear of looking death in the eye. Now the honour guard was blinded and he knew that his arrogance had cost him the fight and his life. Yumi quickly arched her back and  kicked both legs into the air, allwong her to spring up off of the ground. She grabbed her weapon and swiped it across her enemy's legs, slicing them off below the knee. The soldier cried out in pain, but only briefly, and let his glaive fall to the floor. WIth no legs to support the rest of his body, he fell to the ground, resting on the bloody stumps where his knees were only moments ago, sticky scarlet stock oozing out from underneath. Yumi wrapped kicked what remained of her opponent in the gut, toppling him over. He now lay on his back in the dirt, the soil, gravel and dust mixing with his blood, making it filthy and viscous. She switched her switch axe to sword mode and stood over the man, allowing her shadow to loom over him impressively in the moonlight.

"Now you can see me just fine. I'd take it in now; you don't have long," Yumi said coldly, smiling thinly at the irony, before pluning her blade into the separatist's torso, ending his life. His head fell back to gaze at the benevolent moon above his arms fell limp and his fingers went lax.

Without even pausing to contemplate anything at all, Yumi plcker her bloodied blade from the cadaver's chest, turned on her heel and swanned off to the next battle.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Ichiro blindly slashed at the crowds of Tenkai warriors that rushed toward him. He was bathed in the trademark neon red hue of a Demonised dual blade wielder, and he had gulped down some mega juice in order to preven his stamina from being drained by the Demoisation. He had darted and weaved his blades through foe after foe as if he were scribbling on some paper, a frantic artist sketching out his enemies' deaths. His weapon was his brush, his foes' blood was his paint and his surroundings was his canvas. His face was peppered with flecks of others' blood, but he didn't care. He didn't care about them. He cared only about vengeance for his fallen friend. He was still mourning Eiji's death, but he couldn't blame Irvine or Miyuki and he couldn't and wouldn't blame his friends or himself. So he'd decided to blame Tenkai instead.

And in a way, he was right to do so. In a way, it was their fault. If they hadn't statred the civil war, then Ichiro, Eiji and their other friends would never have been summoned to Yii-Do to train for this aasignment, which in turn meant that they would never have had to face the Gurenzeburu and Eiji would never have been killed. They hadn't had a direct hand in Eiji's death, but in a way, they had killed him just as they had killed many others; men, women and children alike.

And now Ichiro would make them pay.

In his rage, he suddenly slice into another opponent, but the bump of blade against armour and flesh was more forceful this time. Ichiro deigned to gaze upon his most recent kill to see that their arm was missing. Suddenly, upon seeing this, a red mist descended over his eyes and he lunged at the incapacitated soldier, and he found himself relishing the man's tortured screams and Ichiro hacked away at his body, bits of flesh, armour, sinew and bone flying in every directiing and the Vashimu-armoured hunter ravaged his latest opponents body brutally, in some sort of psychotic rage.

And then, suddenly, he stopped, partly because there was nobody left to kill -ro rather, to destroy, in this case- but mostly because he semmed to regain his composure. The red mist lifted away to reveal a pathway paved with crimson blood, broken bones and shattered armour. At the sight of the carnage -his carnage- Ichiro sank to the floor, curled himself into a ball and began to cry, hugging his knees and rocking himself gently as he did, groaning with pain and confusion.

Why won't this feeling go away?

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"Watch out!" Ruby cried as April stormed though a squad of Tenkai soldiers, determination and fearlessness flaring in her eyes, trying to alert her to to kunai that was speeding toward her. But it was too late, April allowed the knife to hit her even as she powerwalked confidently though the enemy forces, battering them out of the way with her Gurenzeburu hammer, aiming to get this over with as soon as possible, She winced and grunted almost inaudibly was it cut into her flesh and styed ebdded in her arm, but she carried on nonetheless, a girl of steel. The separatists rushed toward her, the way men flock to a siren, but she brought them to heel before they had time to ebing any kind of lengthy confrontation. Ruby was doing the same, although she was to the far left of April and there were less soldiers heading for her, mostl likely because her bulky Uragaan armour and great sword were far more imposing na dintimidating than April's Gurenzeburu attire, although not by much; the sharp aggression of the Guren gear was enough to strike fear into the stoutest of hearts, like staring a piece of the real Barbarian Wyvern in the face. It was hard to resist one's primal insticts. Every once of one's body would scream at them to flee with their tail between their legs.

Suddenly, April was bowled over by an angry, berserk bloodhound, a loose silver chain around its neck. It pinned April to the ground with her hammer out of reach. She was forced to clamp both hands firmly on its head and push. It was all she could do to keep its eager, snapping jaws from tearing her throat out.

"April! I'm coming!" Ruby shouted with alarm, rushing over as fast as her cumbersome armour and unweildly weapon would allow her, rushing -or rather stomping- to her friend's aid. However, before she could get to her, she too was knocked off her feet by a man in Dyuragaua armour, like the other separatists, but his was enirely silver and black, with the eyeholes of his helm coated in blood. One of the imperial honour guards Ruby and the others had spotted guarding the entrance. No doubt there were more than too round and about.

"No, you're not," the honour guard chortled smugly, aiming his glaive at Ruby's face in triumph. Ruby couldn't see his face but his eyes were gleaming with malign smugness.

"That's what you think, buddy!" Ruby growled, backflipping off of the ground (a feat that seemed nigh on miraculous considering the girl's heavy, bulky attire) and simultaneously kicking the combatant's glaive away from her. She immediately swung her Crimsonwall at her enemy, who sidestepped away from the oncoming blow, knowing full well that his pike-like weapon would not be able to contest with the sheer force of a great sword and would be snappe din half like a twig.

"What, are you gonna stop me with your toothpick? Gimme a break!" Ruby said, somewhat disgusted by the man's implacation that he would stop her from resucing her friend, especially with his "toothpick".

"I don't need to kill you, or even injure you. A starved dog is a dangerous foe. I doubt your friend can hold it back with her barehands for very long. She'll be a pile of ribbons and steel by the time you're done with me," the imperial guard taunted, jabbing at Ruby with his weapon. Ruby blocked the feeble blows effortless with the flat of her giant blade, then counterattacked with a series of massive arcs from the sword culminating in a ground slam, the force of which created a small tremour in the earth forceful enough to topple the man over.

"Waste of time. See you in hell," Ruby huffed bluntly, not bothering to think of anything much to say before smiting her foe with a damning slam from her Crimsonwall. She seemed to stare though the corpse into nothingness for a few moments, the way one does when deep in thought, before a cry for help from April, woke her up.

"Um, hello-oo! A little help here!" April said, her voice strained as she struggled to keep the blood hound away from her neck. Ruby quickly stormed over and viciously kicked the beast in the stomach, slamming it intot he wall of a building closeby. The two girls heard a distinct snapping sound and the dog's flaccid body fell limpy in a heap against the wall. Ruby quickly dismissed the spectacle and helped her friend to her feet.

"C'mon," she said, panting a little, as if in a hurry. "This area's clear. We have to keep moving."

"Right," April answered affirmatively, and the two girls spead off further into the hornets' nest without a moment's hesitation.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Irvine's gaze didn't falter once as the sparks danced across his eyes.

He was in the middle of a viciously fast-paced fight in the Fort Ryu couryard between, he, Miyuki and two honour guards, although these two had katanas rather than glaives. They were very strong indeed; it took alot of might to hold back two Guildsmen, what with the special serum and all that, but to be able to hold one's own against Miyuki Sawashiro, who was renowned within the military for her physical prowess, which was abnormal even by Guild standards, was an incredible feat.

The courtyard itself was hardly befitting of an emperor. It looked much like the ground outside its walls: dry, rough and desaturated. The large, drab stone "castle" that sat in the middle was cuboid in shape. It was tall, monolithically so, and unimpressive. It had no windows (although there was doubtlessly some kind of lookout post at the very top) and no distiguishable features that one could use to tell it apart from the other structures in the fort, excluding its height. It was well and truly quite boring, depressing even.

"Fuck this shit," Miyuki snapped under her breath, before she drew her combat knife, made of a Barioth's coral orange saber tooth, and stbbed it into her assailant's head, blood suprting out from the knife's exit point. The separatist's body shuddered frantically, his arms twitching gently. His limp feet could no longer support the weight of the rest of his corpse and so it fell, its weight now resting on Miyuki's knife. She savagely yanked it out and pushed the corpse over her shoulder and out of the way, and then stopped at the sight of a young boy, perhaps about thirteen or fourteen, splattered with blood. He wasn't looking at the woman but at the soldier who now lay face-down on the ground, a big hole in the back of his skull, trails of blood seeping out.

"...Papa...?" he whimpered sheepishly. Miyuki then grunted almost involuntarily, causing the child before her to acknowledge her existence. He glared at her with hatred, his eyes accusing and agressive.

"You'll pay for this! One day, I'll find you. I'll find you, and I'll kill you! I'll kill you!" he snarled, tears flowing from his eyes. Following his angry, grief-stricken outburst, he turned and fled the scene, wiping tears from his face as he did so.

Miyuki barely dwlled on the thought at all. A child hadn't the strength to kill her, nor the nerve. He probably wouldn't follow through on his threat anyhow. He'd realise that he was just angry and move on from this. She wasn't terribly concerned either way; she'd do to him what she'd done to his father if he decided to challenge her. What did his life matter to her? He was Tenkai, anyway. She turned to Irvine, who was just yanking his Rukodiora sword out of the corpse of his opponent. He nodded silently, affirmatively, and Miyuki did the same. Everything had been running smoothly so far, almost too smoothly.

"I don't think we could've hoped for a better outcome tonight," Irvine stated with confidence, clearly pleased with how the op was doing."A few minutes and we'll have this area surrounded, and he'll have to show."

"Yeah. But something tells me it's not going to be that easy," Miyuki replied. Not five seconds after the monotone words had left her mouth, a third voice, smooth, sublime, dripping with somewhat sinister gravitas which neither Miyuki nor Irvine recognised, joined the conversation.

"How right you are, fair lady."

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Ash sliced through the bloodhound's neck with her Gogomoa longsword, aiming for the vital artery within, ignoring the creatures short-cut whimper and blood that splattered on her; she could worry about clean clothes and animal abuse later. For now, she had to reach the centre of the fort and regroup with her friends. Ash was almost frighteningly fervent and focused in fights. It was like she was a different person, with very few objections to cutting down people and monsters alike. She didn't enjoy a moment of it and hated the fact that she had to murder other human beings, especially at the (supposedly) tender age of thirteen, but she reminded herself every time she felt remorse for her foes and doubt towards her actions that these people had committed deeds far more horrible than hers. Women and children cut down in the streets like animals, countless brave, patriotic men of Altus slughtered over ten grueling years of bloody, savage war, and with just one region! 'One sword drawn in another kept sheathed', Yumi had once told her. Now she was starting to understand what that meant. She had never had to fight Tenkai before, but her father had, and he had paid the price with his life. It was only fair to return the favour to the man that ingited the sparks that lit the flames of war- Shikimaru Tetsuya.

"Teiko! C'mon, big bro, stop messing around and finish that guy! We've gotta keep moving!" Ash groaned at her bother, taking his weet time with a wounded foe who was barely able to keep hold of his blade, nevermind use it. Teiko, who, despite his macabre, bravado exterior, had no desire to kill the man, and simply disarmed and floored him quick before sprinting off after his little sister, who had already begun to move on, the walls of the central structure very closeby.

"Hey, Sis! Wait up! Don't leave me behind!" he yelled after her.

The man watched from behind his white mask as his opponent grew more small and shapeless as he fled the scene. He sighed weakly, almost smiling to himself, before everything became blur and the world faded to black.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"Impressive, Guildsman. Very impressive, indeed. You live up to the reputation the urban myths have wrought you, Miyuki Sawashiro. Or should I say "The Ice Fanged Huntress"? Or perhaps you would prefer "The Moon Child"?" The razor gaze from the young man's piercing silver-gray eyes sliced into Miyuki's very consciousness, as if he
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-09 - Last Order - Crisis Mix (from "LAST ORDER FFVII")03:27

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-09 - Last Order - Crisis Mix (from "LAST ORDER FFVII")

Theme- The Separatist Lord (Shikimaru's theme #1)

could see through her helmet, her skin, perhaps even her sinew and bone to whatever else lay within them.

The man before Miyuki and Irvine was tall and imposing, dressed in a violet silk shirt made only for the royals of Tenkai and a black hakama with a black leather belt with silver buckles placed at even points all the way round, a special tied placed on the right hand side to keep his sword, a well crafted and well balanced rapier. Its blade was made of pure noctalite that glinted in the moonlight while it's hild was made of pristine, shining silver, an emerald placed at the very bottom of the round-ended handle. He had tanned skin and pitch black hair which was all set going downward, covering his right eye and continuing downward in a mullet-like fashion, pointed like an arrow, stopping at where his neck ended and his spine began. As if the emerald in the hilt of his blade and the dyed purple silk (purple was mightily expensive and as such only royalty or those almost as rich could ever even dream of being able to afford them) didn't make it obvious enough, both the steely female and the black ops commander knew full well who the man was.

They stood in the presence of none other than Emperor Shikimaru Tetsuya, leader of the Separatist Province of Tenkai.

Not wishing to maintain her standoffish gaze with Shikimaru any longer, Miyuki put all her weight on her blade and forced the emperor back, then proceeded to attack him with swift and savage blows. She thought he was a fool, thinking he could fight armoured soldiers in his everyday leisurewear. She had no idea just how much she had underestimated her foe. Shikimaru quickly responded with a swift knee strike to Miyuki's stomach, followed by a rounhouse kick to the face, sending her sliding across the floor to land at Irvine's feet. Surprisingly, this seemed to have hurt the huntress, otherwise she would have been on her feet by now. Instead, she simply lay there, clucthing her stomach quietly, her blade by her side.

"...The fuck...is this...? That power..." she muttered to herself.

"Tsk, tsk, Miyuki," Shikimaru purred, although the taunt lacked any kind of venom. Everything the young man said seemed hollow and rehearsed. "I was hoping for a far more...entertaining fight. You can't trade blows with me if you're crumpled in a heap." As he slowly walked toward the woman, Irvine leapt into the fray, locking his blade with the emperor's, sparks flying upon first contact. Now it was Irvine's turn to lock eyes with Shikimaru, whose glare was as sharp as his sword.

"She can't...but I can," Irvine stated cooly.

"Not for long," Shikimaru retorted. Shikimaru pulled his rapier away from Irvine's, and the latter warrior came stumbling forward, losing his balance. Shikimaru pivoted to face the Guildsmen as he passed him and kicked him fiercely in the back. Irvine slid across the floor, leaving dirt tracks in the earth and coming to a halt against the wiry old trunk of a beautiful sakura tree. A few of the bright pink blossoms were dislodged from their places on the branches on the tree and daintily floated down to the ground. "Is it just me, or can Guildsmen not manage to stay on their feet for more than a few seconds?" he sighed. "If you're wondering why it is that you're having such a hard time, don't. You wouldn't understand if I could be bothered to explain it to you." Shikimaru lifted his arm to the sky and stared at the back of his hand, the moon's benevolent rays reflected in his eyes. "Narka really does work wonders..." he muttered to himself, so quietly that one would have to be invading his personal space to hear him.

"Why don't you explaint it to me, lad?" a gruff, burly voice with a distinct accent echoed across the courtyard, causing Shikimaru to turn sharply...and see the hulking, armoured form of Thain towering before him, his axe embedded in the floor, his beady eyes glowering at the separatist with the sternness of a schoolmaster and the bloodlust of a soldier. "I've got time."

As quickly as Shikimaru thrust his sword at him, Thain yanked his gargantuan battleaxe from the dirt and swung it back in return. The rapier snapped like a dry twig and Shikimaru himself almost suffered the same fate, the shatterstone blade mere milimetres away from his face as he bent over backward to avoid the sweeping blow. However, in doing this, Shikimaru had no way to avoid the metal boot Thain thrust into his stomach with a determined growl. He grunted with pain and surprise as he flew across the courtyard, landing in a crumpled heap face-down on the ground about five metres away from where he'd been not ten seconds ago.

"I'm no fresh-faced greenhorn, boy; I've been doin' this for best o' ten years now," Thain hissed as he stalked toward his prey. "Little wee kids who walk around with no armour pointing toothpicks at their elders are bound to end up in sorry state indeed. Now, I'd tell ye t' run along an' be more careful an' all tha', but my lot kinda need ye dead, so..."

As if to finish Thain's sentence, the sound of clinking metal and soldiers running filled the more-or-less silent courtyard. Seconds later, Dante, Alexis, Ash, Teiko, April, Aaron, Ichiro, Yumi and Ruby came rushing to the scene from all sorts of directions, effetively blocking off all routes of escape for the seemingly defeated Tenkai ruler. The now recovered Miyuki and Irvine joined the conglomerate.

But it wasn't over yet. This was just the beginning.

Shikimaru huffed amusedly to himself as he pulled himself from the floor and brushed the dusty earth off of his clothes. "You've dirtied my clothes now. Darn. Don't you know how much zeni this stuff costs?"

"I'm sure you can clean it all up..." Yumi began bluntly. She then raised her switch axe and swung it at Shikimaru. "In the afterlife!" Shikimaru shouted out in his regional dialect as he flung his arms across his eyes, as if wating for a fatal blow.

"Watashiniha, waibān!" (To me, Wyvern!)

To Yumi's surprise and bewilderment, in response to Shikimaru's call, a humungous Brute Wyvern crashed through the high stone wall of the courtyard behind Shikimaru, roaring at the top of its voice. It was bulky and angular,
Rawr

The Jaganoto.

covered in very large scales which seemed to be made of rock and acted like some sort of nartural amour. Its eyes were a dull, reptilian green colour and its mouth was ajar, displaying its gruesome, knife-like fangs. The hunters were at an awestruck standstill, too shocked to react in any way at all.

"This is a Jaganoto, my beloved pet. He's a faithful companion. I have to keep him on a leash so that he doesn't hurt anybody I don't want him to. He's fed well, but he's kept hungry enough to tear apart anybody I tell him to. He will do anything I command. Good luck," Shikimaru explained casually. He pointed toward his would-be assailants, before turning to flee. "Korosu!" (Kill!)

At Shikimaru's command, the Jaganoto growled and lashed out toward the hunters. As it lumbered forward, Irvine had to take control of the situation.

"Dante, go after him! The rest of us will hold this thing off! Go!" he barked. Without the slightest bit or hesistation, Dante sprinted off through the huge, rubble-ridden maw in the courtyard wall, ready for anything that came his way. Irvine watched the boy until he could no longer see him, then turned to face the Jaganoto.

"Alright, Fido," he taunted the Brute Wyvern. "Let's dance."

The Emperor's New Pet

Dante ran as fast as he could through the deserted fort. The only noises were the heavy footfall of him and Shikimaru and the endless symphony of the roaring Jaganoto combined with steel upon rock. He panted heavily, stuggling to keep up with the separatist in his burdensome Rathalos armour. He didn't have time to take it off, though. In tha time it would take him to do that Shikimaru would already be gone. In fact, he'd probably have to parkour across the fort to catch him. He was pretty good at being unpredictable; they'd been expecting a feeble, spoiled young man with an over-the-top secrutiy arrangment who'd be easy to kill, but instead they'd got a seemingly intelligent young man with superhuman strength (it took alot to take on a Guild soldier, and Shikimaru had just beaten two in less than a minute) and a Brute Wyvern for a pet and hardly any protection at all. Things had gone from picture-perfect to worst-case-scenario within about 30 seconds.

He was gonna catch this son of a bitch even if he had to fight a thousand Brute Wyverns.

As he darted down another sharp turn after the runaway emperor, he was forced to stop dead in place as a black kunai sliced into the ground before him. Seconds after, the familiar form of Shin Mei leapt acrobatically from the rooftop of one of the fort's small structures on the left side of the area, landing on his feet like a cat and retrieveing his kunai from where it lay embedded in the dusty earth.

"Sorry, kiddo, but I've gotta do my job. "Duty to your country" and all that," the Tenkai general stated casually. He almost seemed to be complaining. Dante growled to himself and drew his sword, hunkering down into a menacing stance. He knew he had to get this over with quickly or he'd lose Shikimaru. He ran forth to attack. He blade sliced into the ninja garbs of Shin Mei...and the separatist turned to smoke before his eyes. Dante's eyes widened, knwoing he had been decieved. Not long after, he felt the keen sting of a sharp kick to the head as Shin Mei attacked from behind wihtout making a sound. "Please don't make this take any longer than it has to," he moaned with disdain.
Metal Gear Rising Revengeance OST - The only thing I know for real HQ Extended06:55

Metal Gear Rising Revengeance OST - The only thing I know for real HQ Extended

The Way of the Warrior (Shin Mei vs Dante theme)

"Fuck you," Dante snarled as he stumbled to his feet.

"Nah, I'd rather not; I don't swing that way," Shin Mei retorted almost gingerly. Dante wasn't sure whether he was being sarcastic or he really misunderstood the insult. He shook the thought from his mind and ran at Shin Mei once again. Yet again, he slashed into Shin Mei, and yet again he became smoke. He slashed out behind him in case the ninja attempted to ambush him a second time, but his Red Divine Flame simply fanned the air once again. Upon instinct, he slanted his head to the left, and a few seconds later a kunai whizzed past his face. Dante flung his sword out behind his back, and it made contact with some kind of metal. He turned to see a large glaive spinning through the air on its way back to Shin Mei. It was like a giant shuriken, bladed and deadly. No sooner than Shin Mei had retrieved his weapon had he flung it toward Dante once again, the razor blade becoming a round, deadly silver blur. Dante put his shield up to block the attack, but the defense was futile, the deadly weapon sliced vertically through the shield and pared it in two like butter, but still it didn't stop. It made contact with Dante's helm, tearing into the metal and into the skin on his face, slahing him from his left eyebrow down to his cheek, thankfully not gouging his eye out. He stil cried out in shock, however. He pulled the weapon out of his helmet with a determined grunt and dropped itat his side, the blades that protruded from the centre stanied with his blood. His helmet was ruined and wouldn't provide a great amount of protection with a gaping maw in it, so he pulled it off, exposing his windswept, dark brown hair and blue eyes beneath the intimidating Rathalos gaze of the headgear. As the helm began to roll away, he put his foot on it and slowly crushed it.

"Is this all you've got?" Shin Mei asked, dissapointed. Dante stayed silent and glared at the separatist, somewhat angry. "I'm disappointed..." he continued, then trailed off upon the epiphany that he didn't know his opponent's name.

"Dante," Dante snarled.

"Right, Dante. As I was saying, Dante, I'm disappointed. I know I said I wanted this to be quick, but...wow. Are you sure the black ops department was wise in their decision to bring a ragtag group of outer region monster hunters into a warzone?"

"Shut up."

"Oh, come now! You're onyl saying that because you know I'm right."

"I said SHUT UP!" Dante roared. Before Shin Mei had time to react, Dante had lobbed his sword at the general with the same speed and strenght that SHin Mei had just thrown his glaive. Shin Mei simply stepped a little further to the right and allowed the crimson lade to continue on its course. embedding itself in a stone wall behind him, close to a sakura tree.

"Well, that wasn't a very smart move, now, was it?" Shin Mei said, as if he'd warned the teenager beforehand. "now you have no sword, no shild and no helmet. What is it you hope to accomplish by fighting a ninja with your bare hands?"

Dante had finally had enough of Shin Mei's prattle. He lauched toward the man, eager to beat him senseless. Shin Mei simple sidestepped as he approached and stuck his leg out, tripping the boy up and causing him to fall face-down in the dirt. He walked over, crouched down and grabbed Dante by the hair and lifted him to his feet.

"You are a fool," Shin Mei hissed. He almost sounded like he cared about what was going on for once. "You have allowed yourself to be distracted by me and my tuants and you have allowed Emperor Shikimaru to escape. Go home, boy. This is not your war."

"Your people made it my war when you took my parents from me!" Dante cried, as if confesing to a murder. Shin Mei fell silent, and so did Dante. Shin Mei looked forward, the way Shikimaru had escaped and beyond, allowing his surroundings to become a blur, the way one does when in deep thought. Then, out of the blue, he let go of Dante, who fell to the floor with a defeated sigh and lay there. The Tenkai general sprinted away into the distance, the sound of his movements fading away within a matter of seconds.

Dante thought of his parents, his mother and father, who had both enlisted to join the Guild's armies to fight for a country embroiled in civil war against separatists who thought that they knew better than the government. A month later, when the bi-monthly death tolls were relayed around the country, both of his parents' names had been on the parchment. Luckily, he was fifteen at the time and was able to look after himself, but he had then moved in with Alexis (who was his girlfriend then as well), who'd also been orphaned the very same way a couple of months before, but it was still hard to put enough food on the table every night, even though they were hunters. Lukily, fortune had smiled upon them and they rose in the rankings, which meant more pay, but things were still hard. Orphaned children were nothing new in the outer regions even before the war with Tenkai, but it was still a terrible thing. He'd buried everything deep down inside until now, but all of his pain, rage and grief was boiling to the surface. All the walls he'd spent so long making were tumbling down, and tears were flowing from his eyes like an inexorable tide.

He curled himself up into a ball and cried.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"MOVE!" Miyuki roared, shoving the vulnerable Ash out of the way and placing her sword flat against her free hand and pressing it against the onrushing Jaganoto's head with all her might. Although the oncoming headbutt clashed with her blade (it was a miracle the sword didn't break), Miyuki herself was pushed back in the dirt a considerable coupel of metres before griding to a halt, sparks dancing around the point of contact between the Brute Wyvern's head and Miyuki's blade all the while. With gritted teeth and a lot of effort, she pushed the creatures head back. It growled in response, stumbling backward a couple of steps. It was then that the shock trap -set by Alexis- underneath its feet activated. Electricity coursed from the small black disk and into the monster, cauing it to howl in pain, paralysis taking root and binding it in place. the pointed plates that made up its "scales" quivered violently,exposing the dark pink flesh beneath.

This was their chance.

Everybody surged forward at once, swamping the fearsome creature from all angles, hacking and slshing at it with their myriad weapons, aiming for the exposed flesh (although the plates on it's back weren't stabding right up, so it was difficult to reach the weak spots with larger weapons like longswords or switch axes). Ichiro was going wild, stabbing his Akura Vashimu dual blades into its flesh again and again and again, blood purting out and smearing the blades, his armour, even his face. He didn't seem to care. His face was fierce and determined but his eyes were alight with bloodlust and pleasure. As the shock trap expired, Ichiro's last stab into the creature made it scream in agony. Following this, it flailed about where it lay, knocking all of the hunters away, scattering them like leaves in the wind. As it lumbered to its feet, its eyes turned a menacing, nightmarish red, and it braced its body and roared so loud that those without any earplugs dropped their armaments and clamped their hands over their ears. As the bloodcurdling noise was projected from the Jaganoto, all of its plates stood up, making it look somewhat akin to a monstrous, demonic hedgehog, it's already intimidating figure now covered in jagged, triangular spines.

"Okay," Alexis said as she gazed upon the beast, "I think it's pretty safe to say that we pissed it off. Big time."

As if to actively support this statement, the Jaganoto lept forward at April, rearing it's pointy head back, poised to strike any moment now. Luckily, Aaron was on hand and scooped his newfound love interest out of the way just as the Brute Wyvern slammed it's horn into the dirt with brutal aggression. Chucnks of soil and clay sprayed out in all directions, not damaging in any way but certainly forcing home the destructive potential of an enraged monster. As it pulled its head back out, it swiped at Ash and Ruby, who were preparing to atack from behind, with it's massive tail. The two girls cried out as their delicate bodies bounced off of the ground several times before finally coming to a stop.

"Leave my sister alone, you...!" Teiko grolwed, but never finished the sentence upon realising the futility of spweing insults at a monster. He simply raied his sword aloft in a display of courage and charged at the creature, roaring all the way, feeling invincible as usual.

"Not again..." Ash groaned as she sat up on the floor with Ruby, the pair of them watching with dismay and exasperation. "Typical big bro. Sometimes I wonder if how big his hero complex really is."

"You should count yourself lucky he's not an egotist. Well, not a huge one, but hey, nobody's perfect," Ruby said, struggling to fit the words together, trying not to laugh.

"Yeah, least of all Teiko!" Ash chuckled. She appreciated that her brother wanted to protect her, it was just that he wasn't very good at it. They watched as the Jaganoto swatted Teiko away like a fly with one of it's stubby arms, then got up to rejoin the fight, shaking their heads as they built up a run.

"Damn, this thing's one tough bastard!" Alexis complained as she desperately tried to damage the creature. It's rock-hard armouring was too tough even for her Hi Ninja Blade + and each time she struck the beast she got nothing but yellow sparks and a jolt of recoil in return. Finally, having had enough of failure, she tensed her muscles with anger and adrenaline, focused on the creatures lower leg and slammed her blade down on it again and again, endlessly, her growling growing louder as she failed even more.

"Take this, you piece of shit!" she shrieked,a nd witrh one final mightly blow she tore into the rock and cut a deep gash in the flesh beneath. The Jaganoto yowled in pain and lashed out at Alexis with it's wounded leg. The force of the blow hit her stomach full-on and she crashed against a tree trunk, hitting her head and falling unconscious. As the Jaganoto turned and prepared to attack another hunter, it stopped and perked it's head up attentively at the sound of a strange kind of flute. It must have been some kind of singal that the monster had been trained to recognise as an order to retreat, as it almost immediately bounded back out of the tear in the courtyard wall it itself had made, stoming off away as fast as it's wounded leg would carry it.

Silence descended and the wildlife orchestra of hooting owls, chirping crickets and buzzing flies began their symphony. The fires in the fort, whether intentionally lit or caused as the hunters had fought their way through the fort, crackled in the background like an encore. Noody was really sure when to break the silence.

After a very long minute, Yumi spoke.

"Well, that was anticlimactic," she grumbled with a hint of sarcasm, sheathing her weapon with dissapointment.

"Oh my god, what about the soldiers that were with us before? Where did they go?" Ash cut in, alarm etched onto her face.

"Dead, bonnie lass," Thain answered, sort of solemnly. "We Guildsmen might be augmented by that serum they give us, but we ain't invincible, and lemmme tell ye, those silver ones, the imperial honour guards, they're a tought bunch o' bastards, I tell ye now. It doesn't surprise me that we've suffered casualties against foes like them."

"Aw, too bad..." Ash trailed off. SUddenly, Irvine gasped and looked up from where they stared into space.

"Dante! I sent him after Shikimaru. We have to find him," he said.

"The rest of you go. I'll stay herw and tend to Alexis. I am the resident medic, after all," Ruby stated. Immedaitely, the others sprinted off through the broken wall in search of their friend.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"Mother?"

The boy called out to his mother, who was walking toward the village exit. She was dressed in the valiant red and gold of the Guild, like a male soldier's uniform, but with the red and gold mterial arranged like an elborate poncho as opposed to mere decoration, as well as a knee-length red skirt with a gold trim and a neat red beret as a finishing touch. There was a fancy-looking open-back wooden carriage lined with expensive metals and being drawn by a massive, hunkering Bulldrome. Another, person, a man, was also dressed in a Guild military uniform and was waitng on the back of the carriage. The woman turned around, smiling at her son. She was beautiful, with soft skin that lacked an wrinkles at all, gorgeous, wavy golden hair that was down to her shoulders, ruby red lips and two mesmerising eyes as blue as the sky. The boy also noted the deep gold leather attached to her waist with a belt, the hilt of a sword protruding from it. He preferred to ignore the golden scabbard- he knew all to well what was concealed beneath its surface and he had no desire to see it. The woman walked over to the boy, a teenager, who was almost her height.

"Yes, darling?"

"Why are you going? Why are both of you going? If what they say is true..." He stopped, his eyes twictching as he tried not to express too much emotion. He looked down at the floor, anger creasing his brow. The woman placed an gentle hand on the boy's face and slowly turned his head to face her again.

"Dante, look at me," she said with the tenderness only a mother could provide.

"I don't wan't you both to die. I don't want to be another outer region orphan!" he said weakly, his voice breaking. Dante's mother wrapped her arms around her son's neck and let him cry for a little onto her chest. She kissed his head lovingly and ran her hand though his hair. She, too, knew the risks of singing up for the war effort. The chances of her making it back alive were slim.

"I know. You won't be. I promise. Even if your father and I..." she stopped to rethink her wording. "Even if we don't make it back, you've got Alexis. She loves you, Dante. I'm a woman, I can tell. No matter what the outcome of this is, you won't end up on the streets. You won't. I guarantee it."

A moment of silence passed.

"I've got to go now, honey," she said with regret. She slowly moved away from her son, their fingers parting slowly. She climbed onto the back of the carriage with her husband, with dark brown hair and the same deep blue eyes as his wife, with a thin coat of stubble. who said nothing. He'd already said his goodbyes and judging by the look on his haggard face and the pain in his wise, aged eyes, he'd break if he said anything further. "Always remember that we love you very much," she said, trying her best to smile.

Dante watched as the Bulldrome pulled the carriage away from the village and to whatever lay beyond, his face a gaunt mask of fear and sadness.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"...Nte...ke up! ...Ante....Dante, wake up!"

Dante's eyes snapped open. He was back in Fort Ryu, his friends crowded around him. Those whose faces he could see were fraught with worry. The pain from where Shin Mei's glaive had sliced his skin began to set in once more, and as he put up his right palm to hold it against his face, he saw that it was slick with blood, and so was the arth beneath. Well, perhaps "slick" was over-exaggerating. He wasn't going to bleed to death, but he was still bleeding and the wound hurt. He must've been concussed, too, to have blacked out .

"What happened?" Irvine asked slwoly, with care, not rushing him.

"It was...Shin Mei, he...he got in...in the way..." Dante murmured. His vision was hazy, his head felt like lead and everything he said came out as in a slur. Sound was becoming fuzzy, too. He was sure he was going to pass out again.

"So Shikimaru escaped..." Irvine muttered with dismay. He sighed sadly. "It is my fault; It was follish to send Dante after him alone. I should have known he'd have a failsafe of some sort. I just wasn't expecting a huge Brute Wyvern to attack us and a ninja master to attack Dante. We had the end of the war in our sights...and I let it slip away."

"...So what do we do now?" April asked hauntingly, genuinely worried about the situation. The tide of the war, Dante's injuries, all of it was too much.

"I...I don't know, April. I don't know. But we can start by going home."

The Source

Regret

Alexis sat by her and Dante's bed, her hands clamped around his. Luckily, the weather had been very calm and the Amatsmagatsuchi had moved on, so the Foehammer had sailed swiftyl along the might sky without a single obstruction. They had arrived back at Yii-Do in around three hours (taking into account that the airship had been moving considerably faster than it had been on the way to Tenkai, as it needed to get back as soon as possible). They had managed to help Dante onto the boat before he blacked out again. He hadn't woken up since.

As for Alexis, she had had to be carried onto the boat by her friends. The Jaganoto's powerful kick had knocked her unconscious too. She had woken up in the cabin on the boat in the captain's bedchamber, Ruby preparing some kind of medical concoction by her side. She hadn't stopped thinking about Dante since. Occasionally he called out to his parents and twitched ever so slightly, but nothing more. He'd unwittingly begun to cry softly a few moments ago, however. Alexis reached into and wiped the tears away with her fingers. Whatever it was he was dreaming about, it must have been a painful memory.

It was then that she though he must be dreaming about the day his parents left Kairu to join the war effort. Alexis had a similar memory, and like Dante's its scars had left behind a keen sting. Her parents had told her that they'd see her again, that she was going to be fine and that Dantewould take care of her if she did the same in kind. But she'd known even then that they knew better than to believe they'd come back. They'd taken care with their words to avoid mentioning their own welfare. They hand't said "you'll see us again", or "we'll be fine", they'd said the reverse. They'd reassured her about her safety and  not their own. And sure as the sun rises, two months later, they were both on the list of casualties. Dante had been out on a hunt with their friends at the time (the income fees were particularly high today so they'd all taken out a bucnh of requests to last them most of the day and planned to split the total income between them) so she hadn't even had someone to hold her while she cried. She'd had to roam about her home screaming and crying and physically abusing whatever was at hand that didn't cost anything to replace. When Dante finally came back from the day's work to visit her he'd found her in a ball on the floor, not too dissimilar from the way the others had apprently found Dante at the fort.

About a week after, Dante's parents had left to fight, and two months later, Dante's parents were on the list. From then on, they'd been orphans. Alexis' house was bigger so Dante had sold his home (as he had inherited ownership of it) off and moved in with Alexis. The money from the sale had been enough to last them a month but when it was gone they found it hard to put food on the table each night. They would normally be able to provide for themselves but the fees for hunting contracts had hit an all time low at that point, as a large amount of taxes had to be paid for the war with Tenkai to continue, so nonly the rich could afford to pay hunters, and most of them were stingy with their prices. As such, this affected every hunter in the country, which was a fairly substatial amount, and since they couldn't afford to buy food, they couldn't afford to pay the taxes that applied to them, meanign the money wasn't being circulated around and the Guild wasn't getting the necessary funds to keep running the war. The Guild then tried to reduce the amount of money they spent, but this was extrmemly difficult in a country torn apart by civil war, and so, for the first time in its history, Altus fell into recession, and have been in recession ever since. Tenkai, despite its inferiorty in size comapred to the rest of Altus, was slowly bleeding the country dry from the inside out. Of course, things had gradually improved, and hunting wages were now enough to live on, although they were still lower than they had been. However, while the majority of the public had rejoiced upon being informed that the economy was starting to build up again, they had failed to notice that it was because the outer regions were being bled out of every penny the Guild though they could spare, so poverty and starvation were rife and orphanhood was becoming more and more rapant every day there. There had been mass upheaval when the outer regions' governing bodies had reached breaking point: peaceful protests, attacking Guild officers in their cities, the works. And yet the Guild ignored their pleas, and so did the inner regions. It appeared to be that the Guild was leaving Outer Altus to rot like a carcass in the desert sun. In fact, so many people had been dying, from either starvation or from fights, that Galdaan had one entire city devoted entirely to the cremation of corpses. The people didn't even give it a proper name. They simply referred to it as "the Crematorium". The bodies of the dead recovered from the war were also sent to the Creamtorium. The stench from the place was said to be so nauseating that the people who worked in the incinerators there had to wear special masks in order not to faint or throw up. Of course, because it was a veritable sanctuary for flies and crows and other carrion-eaters and carriers of disease, it wasn't long before those who worked there fell ill and died themselves. Following this, the Guild had the workers removed and had the machinery there upgraded with the latses clockwork technology, which ran on natural power sources such as wind, water and the thunder of Zinogres (although the latter was less used than the others as it was a new technological advance, and as such was incredibly volatile) so that they could run by themselves. They functioned non stop, twenty four-seven, so all that people needed to do was take the bodies there and deposit them in the right place. The machines would do the rest.

It was after processing all of this information that Alexis snapped back into reality. She was surprised at how far her train of thought took her when it got started. SHe snapped to an even higher degree of attention as Dante's eyes fluttered open (which was unsusal for him, as they usually just snapped open. Of course, that was when he woke up from normal sleep). He felt something holding his hand, and turned hsi head to the left to see Alexis, still holding onto his hand, smiling her ususal beautiful, perfect smile, not too much and not too little. He smiled thinly at her, his other emotions burying happiness deep within his brain. It was then that he acknowledge the bandage wrapped around the right side of his face, where his wound was.

"Ruby took care of you. She applied some ointment to prevent infection. She also left you some herbal tea on the table over there. It possesses a natural painkiller, in case your wound still hurts. Luckily, the wound is superficial. It shouldn't scar. You'll be fine before you know it," Alexis elaborated warmly, proud of herself for rememberign everything Ruby had instructed her to tell him when he awoke.

"Okay, thanks," he said weakly. He exhaled deeply. "I'm really tired. D'you mind if I just go back to sleep?"

"Not al all," Alexis said sweetly. She leaned in and kissed her boyfriend on the forehead. "Ruby said you've gotta have the bed to yourself, so I'll just sleep in the chair. I'll be right here if you need me."

Mere seconds had passed since Alexis had uttered her last sentence, but Dante was already fast asleep.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

April's lips slowly separated from Aaron's and she allowed her eyes to open again. She smiled, and he smiled in return. They lay on the bed in April's room (although it could easily have been anybody's room as they all looked the same), with April lying on top of him.

"You could do with some practice," she giggled jokingly.

"You can talk, Miss Too-Much-Tongue!" Aaron retorted jokingly. April's brow furrowed and her mouth form a sort of "O" shape as she let out a surprised noise of digust.

"I do not use too much tongue!" she insisted, feigning offense. Aaron began to laugh.

"Are you sure you didn't take mine with you? It was like being caught in the Yama Tsukami's motuh while it inhales!"

"Hey, now that's just plain below the belt!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

Amidst their joke bickering, Aaron wrapped his arms around April's slender hips, pulling her in for another kiss. It lasted almost awkwardly long, before they pulled away from each other again and smiled.

"...Now that was better," April said, a small chuckle escaping her lips. The couple leaned in once more, all their worries forgotten and their troubles a thousand miles away.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The One-Eyed Gurenzeburu was back home in his network of tunnels and caves, along with the Akura Jebia. It had taken all of the Flying Wyvern's stamina to fly them through the Amatsumagatsuchi's storm to Tenkai and then back home again. He had been exhuasted, but he was feeling refreshed after having just chowed down on one of the Ludroths from the lake by which him had placed himelf. Not his usual meal, but he had been far too hungry and desperate to go wandering off in search of something else. He hadn't had enough energy to do a full tour of his lair. The Ludroth had had to do. The Jebia had taken the scraps that his ally had left behind, hungry enough to eat something but not to eat a whole Ludroth.

These humans are so unpredictable! the Barbarian Wyvern grumbled. First they fly all the way to another part of the land, and then they come straigh back again! How am I supposed to ensnare them if they won't stay put?!

I think you mean "we", the Jebia interjected. It heard the Gurenzeburu hiss and growl lowly, guttrally, thinking that it was lash out at him.

Yes, yes, we, he sighed, as if impatient. A few long, silent moments followed, the only sound in the cave being the gentle sound of ripples on the water where the marine life swan around with carefree abandon.

...So what's the plan now? the Jebia asked.

We follow them. We follow them anywhere and everywhere. When the time is right, we will strike...and we will finally have our long-overdue revenge, the One-Eyed Gurenzeburu answered. You should sleep. We will need all of our might for the tasks ahead. We must not reveal ourselves to those humans until there is nobody else around to interfere.

The two monsters curled up and fell into the deep, dark recesses of silent slumber.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

A dark cloud had cast itself over Irvine's mind.

He felt comepletely, wholeheartedly guilty and responsible for everything that had happened. He had gotten kids involved in a war and sent Dante after their primary objective by himself, resulting in him being incapacitated, Shikimaru escaping and the chance to bring the Separatist Province of Tenkai to it's knees for good being squandered irrecovably. Now that Tenkai's forces knew their emperor was a high priority target, they would up security tenfold wherever he set foot from this moment on. He had allowed the Guild's hand to be revealed, leaving them vulnerable to a counter-strike.

In short, he had failed the people of Altus and allowed the threat to innocent lives to remain. He had never felt so utterly worthless in the entirety of his eight long years as a Guildsman.

He sat alone in his office, pacing across the room with his hands behidn his back, still fully armoured. It was a small, bland room with barely any furnature or decoration, th only things atrempting to give the place any distinguishable features being the unmade bed and the table at which Irvine would often have to sit at. He did many things there. When he wasn't sitting there reading a book or a new issue of Hunting Life (he wasn't a hunter, but he found the information in the magazine interesting and sometimes useful, even on the battlefield of men) he would be trying to keep himself awake as he waded his way through piles upon piles of profoundly boring -but necessary- paperwork. He didn't even bother to read the vigorous, neverending onslaught reports, files and dossiers anymore, or even skim over them. He simply put quill to paper, watched and waited as it whizzed across the sheets. At first he had been slow and careful to avoid misspellings, as crossing out things in ink was terribly messy, but after a while he learned to write very quickly without pausing or lifting the quill from the paper, and rarely made mistakes. In fact, he had paperwork on hsi desk even now. But he wouldn't do it, at least not tonight. His head was so full of regret and guilt that he was sure he would make a mistake or allow ink to spill.

As he paced endlessly, his mind was torturing him, bombaring him with questions. What will happen now? Will innocent lives be taken yet again? Will Tenkai launch a counter-attack? What would have happened if any of those kids had died, or worse, been taken prisoner? Why did I leave Dante to handle Shikimaru alone? Am I truly fit to lead? Do I really deserve my rank?

Is this all my fault?

Irvine had already made up his mind about the last question.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Yumi, Ruby, Ash and Teiko sat together in the old barracks, discussing the events of the mission, still fully armoured except for their helmets, whcih they'd placed on the table.

"All I'm saying is it's not the end of the world," Teiko stated firmly. It was strange how intelligent he voiced his opinion when engaging in a debate. Normally, ninety per cent of what left his mouth was bragging and boasting, but not in a serious conversation. Ash was thinking that the mission had made him a little less immature. Although, she'd listened to her brother's tall tales and big talk for the last thirteen years, so she knew him well, and she wasn't holding her breath. "Sure, we may have totally flunked this op, but it's not like we're on the edge of defeat. Tenkai is the one on its knees, not the Guild. The Guild has more or less won absolutley, it's just that Tenkai refuses to give up and takes advantage of Altus' weak economic situation. Tenkai's dead, but it won't lie down, if you get what I mean."

"It may not be the end of the world, or even th end of Altus," Yumi began, "But it will be the end of more innocent lives because of our failure. Do you think Tenkai is just going to sit idly by and watch the Guild play cat-and-mouse with its leader? Thinkabout it. Tenkai has been fighting vigorously on the easter front, laying siege to Tsutoko for three motnhs now, desperate to gain more land and expand. But other than that, it hasn't touched the rest of the country at all. And now, we've gone and tickled the sleeping Rathalos. Tenkai will respond with a vicious bite, not just a bark. And, because this was a black op, everything will be kept hush-hush. When the Tenkai war machine begisn to churn again, it will grease the rusty gears with inocent blood and all the public will see is aggression from the enemy. They'll implore the Guild to retaliate and that'll be it. Another ten years of war. Don't you get it? The success of this mission was imperative! It's failure has prolonged the war exponentially. And it's all. Our. Fault."

"I..." Teiko trailed off, left speechless by Yumi's words. Everything she'd said was true. There wasn't a single thing he could say that would refute her argument.

"You're right," Ash murmured meekly.

"How did it come to this?" Ruby despaired, shaking her head in dismay. Her friends focused on her. "This war has ruined the country. People weren't starving or in poverty before the war. People weren't dying before the war. The outer regions weren't being left to wither and die before the war. Why didn't the Guild talk to them, negotiate with them, before charging in, all guns blazing? It's sick."

"What do you think the Guild spent the year before the war trying to do, Ruby? Didn't you pay attention to what was in the newspapers ten years ago?" Yumi replied, somewhat irked. "It allowed them to protest peacfully, it had peace talks with them. Heck, it even gave Tenkai money from the Treasury! Chancellor Tojou met and negotiated with Shikimaru! But that wasn't enough. So a year later, they annexed Nyridia and Armantar and then launched an attack on Zakimuto, Tenkai's closest region, marking the beginning of the Altus Civil War. The Guild is not to blame for this. They didn't start the fight, but by Altarch, they'll end it. You can count on it."

Ruby didn't deny or try to prove Yumi wrong. She was obviously right. The Guild had to have negotiated with them. But she was far to busy with her head in schoolbooks and learning about medicine (she'd always wanted to be a medic, even as a little girl) to pay any attention to current affairs. Anything she knew about the situation with Tenkai was told to her by Yumi and the others, which wasn't much seeing as nobody cares about what goes on in the world at the age of six or seven or eight. Yumi was the only one of the group who had always been keen to know what was happening in Altus. She'd always read the news. There might have only been a year between Yumi and Ruby, but Yumi had always been serious and down-to-earth, sometimes to the point of stubbornness. That was just how she was.

A short silence followed.

"...I think some rest would do us all some good. We can't change what's happened now. It's best to just carry on," Ash said, then paused briefly. "Life is a one-way road, with a path that crumbles behind you with each and every step you take. Don't linger too long, or you'll fall."

Thanks, Ember, Ash thought to herself warmly, remembering what her sister had told her. It was what she reminded herself of every time she found her self dwelling on the past.

"I guess you're right," Yumi sighed with resignation.

The foursome grabbed their helmets, tucked them under their arms and trudged upstairs, eager to fall into blissful slumber.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Calm down, calm down, calm the fuck down!

Ichiro splashed water over his face from an open basin of water. He'd been kneeling in the Yii-Do proper, staring at his reflection in the wodden bowl for what felt like an eternity now, but for all his reflection and trying to calm down, nothing had changed. The voice was still there, the fingers of delusion clawing away at his mind. As he watched the rippling water settle, he almost jumped out of his skin. His face was grinning and covered in splatters of blood. His eyes were dark and they twinkled murderously.

Just admit it! You enjoyed it! You found pleasure in ever moment of their suffering! Your lust grew more and more powerful with each life you took and each fleck of blood that splattered on your face! You're a natural born killer, Ichiro...so why don't you embrace it?!

"SHUT UP!" Ichiro screamed. He stood up and kicked the basin over with all his might. The container fell forward and the water it held spilled out onto the stone floor like a coming tide. For a few silent seconds, he stood there panting, staring at the spillage. He had one question that his mind shouted louder than all others.

What's wrong with me?

____________________________________________________________________________________________

A supremely loud explosion couple with an almost quake-like tremor woke Dante up abruptly and threw Alexis to the floor as her chair fell to one side. Alexis, quick to become alert, staggered to the indow as the shuddering and explosions continued. She pulled the curtains of the solitary window away and stared in shock at the great sea of flame, smoke and ruin that spread out before her. A large crowd of about twenty airships, the green sails of each emblazoned with the red dragon symbol of Tenkai. All of them were loosing blast after blast of canon fire upon the industrial metropolis of Yii-Do, destorying structures and people in a matter of seconds. If there was any commotion outside it was all blocked out by the noise of the attack. The ofrest of wood, metal, stock and stone was becoming a field of charred, blackened ruin, little by little.

It was just as everybody had feared. The sleeping Rathalos had woken. Tenkai was back on full offense.

The Shadow In The Fire

Altarch protect us..." Alexis murmured under her breath, her hands clamped tighty against her bosom, still staring in blank shock at the calamitous field of fire that was Yii-Do military bastion. The explsions cause the very ground to shake benath her feet, and the floorboards creaked like a rocking ship. Dante, as he pulled himself to his feet, espied something in the distance, gradually drawing closer. It shimmered like starlight a roared like hellfire. Whatever it was, it was lethal.

And it was headed for them.

"DUCK!" he shouted, jumping onto Alexis and flooring them both -with a sharp cry of alarm from the latter- before she could respond. Dante shrouded Alexis under his body, curling his arms and head around her to protect her from any shrapnel that may decide to come their way. Not long after, the ball of searing flame slammed into the window Alexis was peering out of only seconds ago. Alexis screamed as the glass shattered into countless pieces and flew over their heads. A small area under the window has also been obliterated, causing splinters of charred wood to be thrown at them also. The area where the window had once been was now a jagged maw ringed with deep orange flames. The flames slowly began to extend their reach, setting the edges of the floor around it alight.

"C'mon, we can't stay here, the place is catching fire. Let's grab our armour and go," Dante said. The pair of them scramble to their feet, Dante using the adrenaline being supplied in this fight-or-fligt situation to block out the pain from his wound. He made a mental note to "say hello" to Shin Mei if he saw him here. Alexis pulled on her Steel+ armour and her Hi Ninja Sword G, whille Dante pulled on his Rathalos+ armour. Unfortunately, nobody had taken his sword back to Yii-Do from Fort Ryu, as they'd been too busy paying attention to him. It was probably still embedded in the stone wall from when Dante had lobbed it at Shin Mei in his ire. So he was unarmed. No matter, he'd have no trouble finding a weapon outside if the airships and destruction weren't enough of a prelude to the conflict that was taking place on the ground. If he couldn't get one from one of the corpses he'd surely be able to steal one from a Tenkai soldier. Anyway, this wasn't the time for thinking ahead. In times of fire, one had to be living in the present.

And this was most definitely a time of fire.

Dante and Alexis quickly threw the door open and ran, leaving as quickly as they could. As they ran along the hallway they could see, Teiko, Ash, Ruby, Yumi, April and Aaron, all fully armed and armour-clad, rushing along the hallwayd and down the stair leading to the main hall of the old barracks, where they often stayed to chat and eat as nobody else used them. Their friends acknowledged them but said nothing, all of them rushing down the stairs, through the mainspace and oout of the old wooden doors.

They were welcomed with fire, blood and anguish.

Yii-Do was a mess. Chaos and Calamity had taken hold. The residents of Yii-Do were nowhere to be seen, and neither were any Tenkai footsoildiers. The group stood in the centre of a large ring of fire, charred remains of buildings surrounding them, trapping them in like a farm pen.The only things in sight apart from Tenkai airships were corpses, blood, fire anc the charred remains of what was once industrial structure and machinery. The entire scene was alit with hellish flames that could outshine even those of the Dire Miralis. The floor was slick with blood and the air carried echoes of the pained cries of the wounded, as well as the crackles of hungry, dancing flames, devouring everything in sight.

While everybody stared on in horror and disbelief, Ash's own horror and disbelief were far greater. She had never known true carnage, true fear, true despair. The only sad thing that had ever happened to her was the death of her and Teiko's older sister, Ember. But no berievement could ever compare to witnessing the scars of war firsthand. It was awful. All Ash wanted to do was cry, but no tears would come.

Suddenly, a shadow rushed over the blackened, ashen ground. It was quick and fleeting, appearing for onyl a moment, large and small at the same time. The group spread out a little, still maintaining formation, the hairs on the backs of their necks standing up like an enraged Nargacuga's tail spikes, their eager, uncertain eyes scanning every inch of their surroundings for signs of the shadow's owner.

They each jumped at the sound of a surprisingly loud, guttural growl that resonated from everywhere and nowhere at once. Then, they heard the soft sound of nimble feet on ash growing louder and quieter, closer and nearer. It was clearly some kind of monster, perhaps a Nargacuga or something. The hunters had each decided on the "something"; Nargacuga's wouldn't be able to withstand fire, especially like this. And they were sure that a Nargacuga didn't behave so paradoxically, seeming to be here and not here at the same time, like a phantom.

The group's concentration was broken as Dante cried out in alarm, as if he'd seen a ghost. As he was helmetless (his helmet has been broken by Shin Mei's glaive and left at Fort Ryu along with his sword and shield), they could see his face. While he was handsome and perfectly formed, no visual appeal could hide the fact that his skin had turned deathly pale.

"What is it?" Alexis asked. Dante didn't reply for some moments, and when he did, his voice was but a whisper.

"It's here...It's really here...It's really happening...!" he rasped. Alexis ahd never heard her boyfriend so frightened.

"What's here? What's happening?" Alexis probed gently, holding the teenager's hands in hers. While he was facing her, he seemed to be starting through her rather than at her.

"That thing...It's the monster from my nightmare..." Dante hadn't had his hellish vision since he'd left Kairu, but now he was having it again. No...it was actually happening. Not exactly as he'd dreamt (he was alone in the dark in his dream), but he was sure that the creature was the same, if nothing else.

Whatever this thing was, it was. And it wanted to play.

Bloodscourge, The Plaguespeader

A scampering shadow followed the hunters as they walked through hell.

Still shaken by the spinechilling realisation that his nightmare monster was real, a snow white Dante slowly trudged along at the rear of the group, his wide eyes ever on the lookout for the mystery monster. Of course, each and every one of them was eagerly seeking out signs of the creature, but Dante's eyes flitted from one angle to another, more paranoid than he'd ever been. Despite the intense heat, his skin looked clear of sweat and ice-cold.

"There, there! Look!" Dante blurted out, poiting frantically to the north-west of the scene. The hunters all saw it, as clear as day; a large, four-legged creature with nimble limbs and a smooth, rounded head and a large, flowing shroud -perhaps wings- which was tugged by the wind as the creature moved, like a large cat with a cape. Is was there, and in the same instant it was gone. If you blinked or looked away for just two seconds, you'd miss it. The silence already choking the inferno tightened its grip.

"...I think...it's safe to say...that we are not safe." Ash said meekly, as if she'd been running for miles and was out of breath. A small silence followed...and the group broke into a run.

As if waiting for its prey to pick up the pace, the creature lurking in the flames screeched. Seconds later, for the first time, the monster's footsteps could be heard. It was obviously clambering its way across the fragile, burnt out skeletons of buildings after its quarry, gurgling and shrieking with eerie delight as it did so.

"What in the world is that thing?!" Teiko panted as he, along with his sister and their friends, ran through their temporary -and utterly incinerated- home. The only trouble with running is such an environment is that the only guide you have is the sky, the only visible thing amidst the smoke and flames. They had no idea where they were running. It felt to them like they were trying to run away from themselves. They were more likely to run into a wall than they were to get out of this labrinthian vortex of fire. But running is what they had to do if they didn't want whatever was dogging their every step to make mincemeat of them. They knew it was hopeless; this creature clearly knew its away around what passed for a "town" far better than they did and with its speed it would undoubtedly force them into a confrontation. Attack of the cornered rat, as they say.

Suddenly, the group ground to a halt and let out a collective cry of shock and surprise as two armoured figures emerged from the unrevealing wall of fire before them, almost stumbling toward them then stopping sharply themselves. At first, the flames hid the duo's colours and shapes, makign them appear as nothing more than phantoms. But now they hutners could see them clearly, they recognised them immediately. One was dressed in Rukodiora armour with a matching sword in hand. The other sported Barioth X armour coupled with a matching sword and shield, their waist decorated with a combat knife made from a Barioth's tusk, as well as countless kunai. The party sighed with intense relief.

Irvine and Miyuki.

"Oh, thank goodness! You're all safe! Where have you been?!" Irvine exclaimed.

"We heard the noises and saw what was going on outside so we grabbed our stuff and ran as fast as we could," Ruby explained simply. While she appeared to be looking at Irvine and Miyuki, she was keeping close watch on her surroundings for signs of the mystery monster.

"Where the hell is everybody? The fighting can't have started very long ago at all. Everybody can't just dissapear," Yumi growled, frsutrated and confused.

"So you haven't found anybody either...I see...So that's the case..." Irvine muttered to himself strangely.

"What are you saying?" April asked, looking grave. Irvine exhaled deeply, as if preparing to tell somebody that a sick relative isn't going to make it.

"What I'm sayign is that we're trapped. We can't see anything beyond the immediate area and the noise of the crackling fire combined with that of the cannonfire overhead means we can't hear very much either. There could be people fighting very close to us, but there' no way we can know without staying mobile. It's an old form of psychological warfare. Tenkai used it against the Guild at the Sinata Border five years ago, albeit on a smaller scale. Our men thought that everybody else other then themselves and those they happend to be with at teh time were dead and panicked." He paused for a moment. "...I suppose you've all seen the shadow, too? The creature in the flames?" He took the groups stunend silences affirmatively. "That same shadow was in that fire, too. It frightened the soldiers, kept them moving...straight into enemy hands. We are in a very dangerous situation indeed, far more dangerous than you can even begin to appreciate. I know this sounds like some kind of silly ghost story, but believe you me, it's anything but false. It happened at Sinata, and now it;s happening here, in Kojo. There's no saving this bastion; Yii-Do is finished. What is important is that we find a way off this island posthaste."

No sooner than Irvine had finished his explanation had a small battallion of Dyuragaua-clad Tenkai infantrymen jumped out from the fires and the nothingness and surrounded the group, each pointing a blade or bowgun at them, silently warning them not to event hink of drawing their weapons.

"A way off the island, you say?" a crisp, familiar voice, resonating from everywhere and nowhere, much like the shadowy creature's shrieks, echoed. A few seconds passed, and then a figure as familiar as the voice emerged from the inferno, calmly strolling towards his newly-captured prisoners.

It was Emperor Shikimaru Tetsuya.

He looked the same as he did when the teens had met him at Fort Ryu; the purple, expensive-looking shirt, the black hakama, the dark, entising eyes and slick black hair shaped into a stylish, pointy mulet with a bang covering his right eye, although thsi time he wore an extravagant green cloak that touched the ground. The hunters couldn't see from this angle but the cape's back was, like the Tenkai flag, emblazoned with the province's hallmark, the red dragon. He appeared to be unarmed, but they remembered his unexpected pet form their last encounter and were sure that if would come to his aid should he call.

"Where's your pet rock pile? Gonna call it and fuck off like last time?" Yumi spat, having nothing but hatred for the young man, the country's biggest enemy. Shikimaru chuckled wryly.

"Oh no, no, I've no need for the Jaganoto here. He is otherwise occupied. Besides, I have dearest Bloodscourge to keep me company."

"Who's Bloodscourge? And what the hell d'you mean by "otherwise occupied"?" Aaron growled, rying to resist the urge not to pull his Shiny Rathalos Sword G from his back and smite this smug bastard where he stood.

"I am not at liberty to divulge such information to you. Besides, you will find out what I mean soon enough. Bloodscourge, on the other hand..." Shikimaru chuckled again,with a more sinister tone this time. "Well...You've already been introduced. Why don't you say hello in person? Face-to-face?" The emperor snapped his fingers promptly.
Goa Magara

Goa Magara (aka. Bloodscourge, the Plaugespreader)

Summoned my its master's call, Bloodscourge leapt from the flames and landed inbetween Shikimaru and the group, facing them with its feratureless face. There was hardly any difference in its visage in clear view than when it was concealed by the fire. It was the most alien thing they had ever seen.

"This is Bloodscourge, the Plaguespreader," Shikimaru said. "Well, not exactly; that's just a silly nickname to scare the children of Tenkai. This creature is unlike anything you have seen before or will ever see. This is a Goa Magara."

Eternal seconds of silence passed. The faceless abomination seemed to be analysing you. Staring at it was like staring into an abyssal void. You felt yourself slipping away each second you met its "gaze". The party snapped out of it whent hey notcied the soldier surrouding them forming two sigle file lines on either side of them as a Tenkai airship descended into the fiery remains of the area, clearly here to take them onboard. Shikimaru made a superfluous, almost sarcastic gesticulation, half bowing and extending his arm to the ship behind him.

"Please, step aboard. There is much to be seen and done."

Second Date With Shikimaru

The Phalanx was the name of the airship, and it wasn't pleasant.

Of course, the pleasantness of an airship was hard to judge if the only place you'd spent any credible amount of time in was the brig. Said brig was rather spacious, but that was about all it brought to the table - it was plain, aged and dusty and looked like it could really do with a fresh lick of paint and some oil for the ugly iron gate, which had made so much noise when the guard had swung it open that no quantity of stabbed Felynes could ever compare. There was nowhere to sit, so the hunters had to either stay standing or lean against the wall at the back. Dante sat with Alexis in his arms, as did Aaron with April. Teiko and Ash sat hugging their legs in the left corner while Yumi and Ruby sat in the middle and Ichro sat silently in the right corner, not making a saound. Miyuki leant carefreely against the bars that made up the eat-facing wall toying with one of her kunai while Irvine was deep in thought, pacing back and forth across the cell, trying to gather his thoughts. Thain was here now, too; he'd already been in here when they'd arrived. He stood across from Miyuki, not doing much at all other than breathing, heavily as always. He was thick-set and almost unimaginably tall, after all, so with eleven other people in the cell, as big as it was, there really wasn't much room from him to do anything. Normally he would tap on the blade of his enormous axe when he was bored but each of the prisoners had had their weapons confiscated, as they'd expected, so there really was nothing to do. None among them was comfortable making conversation with guards -strangers- standing vigilantly just outside the cell, so they weren't talking to each other either. It was quiet, boring and awkward and the teenagers all hoped that whatever Shikimaru had planned for them, he'd make a start sometime soon. It had been at least a day since they'd been taken from Yii-Do, although with nothing to do it felt like far longer.

Ash, personally, would have given anything to be back in school in Kairu right now. She ddin't care what lesson; science, history, mathematics (yes, even that), literature, it didn't matter. Anything was better than being held captive by separatists and sitting in a cell in utter silence (well, minus the low vibartions from the aircraft's engine), even if it was with your brother and your friends. Of course, all this was entirely normal; she was thirteen and became homesick whever she'd set foot out of town prior to this, which was to go hunting with the others. But she'd never missed home like she did now. She missed the snow and the ice and the mist and the flowers. She missed every inch of it. But she knew in her heart that it would be a long, long time before she would ever go home.

Her wistful train of thought was interrupted by the jangling of heavy keys, the turning of a lock and the familiar shrieking of the metal gate in dire need of oiling that imprisoned her and the others. Those who weren't standing already did so promptly.

"The emperor wishes to see you on the bridge, the jailer said placidly, gesturing down the dark, narrow corridor that lead to other areas of the ship. Slowly, almost begrudgingly, the hunters stalked out of the cell and began to walk.

"This ought to be good," Miyuki grunted as she strode past the jailer, ever confident and apathetic.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

They hand't been expecting the sudden change of scenery. It turns out that the Phalanx was just one of the myriad airships docked in a destroyer-class Battleship called the Titan (aptly). They hadn't seen it from the outside: in fact, they hadn't seen any of it. They'd all been blindfolded -the guards hadn't even bothered to remove their helmets to do so- just before they'd left the Phalanx. But now, they stood on the bridge, and they could see Shikimaru, dresed the same as he was before, standing with his back to them, his green cloak bearing the Tenkai emblem still around his shoulders. They had been told to wait where they were and not to speak until spoken to. Again, there was nowhere to sit. It had beens some minutes since they'd entered the room so the hutners had had plenty of time to scan in carefully. It was triangular in shape, pointed at the front, with two rows of four seats -all filled by crew members operating one thing or another- lining the diagonal sides of the room, tapping away at control panels or pulling on levers, shouting out various readings ans ship status updates that they did not understand. And all the whi, Shikimaru simply stood still, as if frozen in time, staring out of the glass that lined the two sides of the room.

"Haven't these guys heard of chairs?" Teiko scowled.

"Quiet!" snapped one of the guards at the door behind them. Then, as if awakened by the guard's outburst, Shikimaru spoke twos imple words, sternly and almost grumpily, and if angry at the soldier for interrupting his mulling or some such thing.

"Leave us."

The two guards on ither side of the door leading away fromt he bridge bowed their heads politely before turning on their heels and leaving. A brief silence descended before the separatist spoke again.

"I suppose you're wondering where we are, and why it is I've brought you here," he said thoughtfully, each word precise and deliberate.

"However did you guess?" Yumi asked sarcastically, feigning bewilderment.

"I thought as much," Shikimaru continued, unperturbed. Finally, he turned to face his prisoners. He outstretche dhis right arm and curled his fingers inward, beckoning the party forward. "Come, and I will show you."

With hesitation and reluctance the group walked toward Shikimaru untilt hey came to a stop at the very front of the ship, so close that they could almost press their heads against the glass windows. They almost jumped back in shock. There was a city below them, barely visible above the thin layer of clouds concealing the mammoth ship from view, but each and every one of them knew exactly what city it was.

Eridias. The capital of Altus.

"Now you know where you are," Shikimaru picked up his monologue again. "As for why I've brought you here, it's simply because I know from past experience how persistent and unpredicatble you can all be, and I didn't want another fiasco like Fort Ryu. So, I upped security for myself and my future destinations and ordered you be brought to me shoudl you be found. And now, here we are. Small world, is it not?"

"How did you possibly figure out where to find us?" Irvine growled, by Shikimaru's smugness.

"Well, Commander Irvine, I'm afraid the blame for that one really is on you," Shikimaru said, using the Guildsman's name -which he Irvine hadn't given him either- only to anger him further. Shikimaru snapped his fingers and five soldiers walked in form the door at the back of the room. There were four males and one female, each dressed in Rukodiora armour. "I believe you recognise them. They came to Tenkai with you. They've been posted at Yii-Do for, oh, about a year now, haven't they, Commander? They worked directly under you - well, under your nose, that is."

"Spies..." Irvine let out a heavy sigh, filled with regret. "How could I have been so blind?" he muttered.

"I'm afraid only a doctor has the answer to that particular question," Shikimaru taunted him.

"Why Eridias?" Alexis asked, baffled. "It's a megacity dead in the centre of the country, and the most heavily protected location in Altus. What could you gain by attacking the capital when the rest of country will obliterate you regardless of what transpires? Tenkai has lost this war. Why won't you just accept that?"

"Lost? No, nonononononno. Tenkai hasn't lost, far from it."

"How can you say that?" Miyuki wayed in. "Are you blind? The only thing you can do right now is hold your own territory together. You haven't even attacked us in ages, and now you're rushing to attack the capital all because a few kids ruffled your feathers. Get the fuck over yourself."

"I wouldn't say it if I wasn't adamant. Tenkai has access to the most powerful weapon in the known world. The people under the Guild's banner live sheltered lives under a false sense of security. But when their leader is no longer there to look to for support, they will descend into panic. And when the Goa Magra is put to work intoxicating the populace, they will quickly fall apart. Unless, of course, they accept the new rule."

"You're insane...Completely bat-shit crazy..." Dante said, awestruck by the words of a madman.

"That's your opinion."

Moments after Shikimaru's retort, the crew member nearest to him on the left spoke.

"My lord, we are approaching Szaras Dúl. What are your orders?"

Shikimaru pased for a moment as if to think, but Dante and co. could tell he'd already made up his mind about what to do. A few short, tense seconds pased, and the emperor gave his command.

"Take us below the cloud layer," he said, flatly and decisively. The crewman uttered nothing further. The whole crew of the bridge began doing whatever it was they had to do to take the Titan lower. Shikimaru snapped his fingers yet again and the two guars that had brought the teenagers here to begin with walked in through the bridge entrance. "Take the prisoners back to the Phalanx. The ship doesn't leave the hangar until I say otherwise," Shikimaru ordered. The two guards nodded, and with that, Dante, Alexis and the others were once again blindfolded and guided away from the bridge and back to the Phalanx and it's painfully boring brig.

Shikimaru cleared his throat and gently took ahold of a cone-shaped loudhaler at the edge of the left side of the bridge crew's control panel and spoke into it. His words would resonate through the entire ship.

"Attention all units. Commence the attack."

A New Strain

Even from within the brig of the Phalanx, the noise of countless pairs of armoured feet marching and scurrying to their stations, ready to rain fire down on the proudest city in Altus, Eridias. As a Battleship, the Titan was huge, perhaps the width of a Jhen Mohran, and twice one in length, easily able to hold two hundred normal-sized airships within itself. And, of course, it had its own weaponry: huge cannons with power enough to leave craters where houses would stand; ballistas to tear huge holes in ships of similar size and simply tear apart normal aircraft, flamethrowers -thanks to the newest technology- plus whatever other fearsome, cruelly imaginative ways to destroy there were installed upon this airborne death machine. It was worrying just to merely entertain the thought that one could design new and inventive ways to kill their fellow man so easily.

"This ship is so huge...Full of airships and soldiers," Alexis said, her voice filled with dread. "There's an army in here. Eridis is gigantic, but...can it really withstand a force this large?"

"Sure it can!" Aaron boomed optimistcally. "It's not defenseless. It's got it's own army!" He placed his hand on Alexis' shoulder reassuringly. The intimidating, angular eyes of his Rathalos Soul helmet held no emotion, but Alexis, like everybody else, could imagine the sizteen-year-old's million-zeni smile behind it. "This is the capital of Altus we're talking about," he said slowly. "Whatever this thing's packing, Eridias'll have tenfold."

"Yeah...I guess you're right...But what about us?" Alexis murmured, still unsure. Dante, who sat right up against her, gently turned her to face him.

"Hey," he said comfortingly, clasping her hands in his own. "It'll be okay. We'll get out of this, I promise. I won't let them hurt you." He hooked his arm around her and pulled her in for a kiss.

"Steady the buffs!" Thain bellowed, chuckling heartily. Alexis smiled as she pulled away and buried herself in her lover's arms. Meanwhile, Aaron, turned to face April, pulling off his helmet to reveal his stunning eyes. They were blue like Dante's, but they were a vibrant sky blue, as opposed to Dante's, which were sapphire, like the sea. His hair was windswept and messy, coloured faint brown.

"Are you okay?" he asked, as softly as possible. April slid over, laid herself on top of him and kissed him. It was strange, new and exciting for him. April was his first -and, he hoped, only- girlfriend and he wasn't used to the passion. It wasn't familair yet. He liked it that way. The feeling washed over him like a bolt of thunder. This was what love felt like. At last, April's lips gently fell away from his, but not far.

"I am now," she purred, and, like Alexis, buried her head in Aaron's arms.

"Ah, youth!" Thain sighed wistfully, chuckling again, a little more brief this time.

"Haven't you ever fallen in love, Thain?" Ash cooed teasingly. The teenagers chuckled, bar Ichiro, who still hadn't said a single word in ages. Thain's face became placid and he sighed again, deeper this time, as if mulling over a question that had been eatign away at him forever.

"Aye, I did, once."

"What was she like?" Ash asked, like a child being told a legend. "Was she pretty?"

"Oh aye, she was indeed; the finest lass from miles around. We'd agreed to marry one day, but we never got the chance."

"What was her name"? Teiko asked.

"Alice," Thain said, a smile on his face. He said the name with wistful nostalgia.

"Why?" Ruby cut in. Thain exhaled deeply.

"She went out to gather some herbs one night for sick child in our village. She never came back. Never found her body. She was probably eaten by some godforsaken beast. I can only hope it were quick an' painless."

Now that the teens knew this, Thain looked just that little bit more weary. He sighed once again and said nothing more.

Before conversation to continue, the whole airships shuddered into life, the engine making a whinign noise, the pitch growing higher and higher.

"We're leaving!" Miyuki exclaimed.

"They must be starting to attack...!" Ash cried out, then whined like a hurt dog. She looked to Teiko for comfort and fell into his embrace.

"It's gonna be ok," he reassured her, despite his own doubts.

There was nothing the hunters could do but wait.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"ALL HANDS, FIRE AT WILL!" Shin Mei shouted over the very same louadhailer that Shikimaru ahd been using only minutes ago. Moments after he gave the command a crescendo of -if not for the thick glass of the bridge front- deafening noise began it's woeful chorus. Explosions bloomed like flowers all over the cityscape of Eridias, destoryign countless buldings and lives. Whole row of houses and industrial stuctures annihilated in an instant.
CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-17 - On the Verge of the Assault (from FFVII "Those Who Fight")03:08

CRISIS CORE -FFVII- OST 1-17 - On the Verge of the Assault (from FFVII "Those Who Fight")

Theme- The Attack Begins!

Shikimaru had delegated control of the Titan to Shin Mei upon his departure for the Phalanx. It wasn't something he particularly enjoyed, but he couldn't complain. He didn't dislike it. He just didn't like to be in absolute command. He preferred having at least one superior above him, partly because he preferred to be told what orders t gibe ratehr than make his won decisions and partly because it was better to not be the first person everybody looks to when something goes awry.

"General, sir, our instruments are picking up another electrical charge! Fifty-three gigafulgurs!" one of the bridge crew shouted out.

"Look, there! It's emerging from the clouds!" another cried.

Shin Mei looked with both frustration and awe as a Battleship as gargantuan as the Titan pierced the wispy white veil of clouds in the midday sky. Unlike the bland, industrial dark grey of the Titan, this vessel's every inch was covered in the valiant red and gold of the Guild. The ship itself was shaped much like the Titan, too; relatively triagular and covered in cannons and other weaponry, almost a mess really.

Then again, the technology required to sustain ships this large was extremely modern, hot-off-the-press, and humans had only just learned how to maniplaute it: the electricity generated by Zinogres, or, to be more precise, the Fulgurbugs that provided the beasts with such power. The unit of measurement for this "electricity" had been aptly dubbed "fulgur". Of course, instruments to detect seperate sources of electrical charge had been developed, as well as metres to display the fulgurs of electrical charges within ships. Then there was a kilofulgur (one thousand fulgurs), a megafulgur (ten thousand fulgurs), a gigafulgur (one hundred thousand fulgurs) and terafulgurs (one million fulgurs, although no such measurement had ever been rocorded).

Shin Mei's black, already beady eyes narrowed to slits, making his angst apparent.

"Sir? What are you orders?" the crewman nearest to Shin mei asked him, awaiting instructions. Shin Mei thought for a while. There was now ay they were turning back. They'd come for a reason. Of course, now that they's attacked Guild territory -not to mention crossed into it- the Battleship now staring them in the face would do all in its power to swat the Titan out of the sky...

It was then that Shin Mei realised their mistake, and laughed.

It was clear that the Guild's intention was to shoot them down. However, they had failed to notice a fatal flaw in this otherwise simple, perfect plan - when the Titan fell, where would it land? Eridias, of course. Even if the Titan was shot out of the sky, it would crash into Eridias and crush countless buildings and people alike.

Checkmate, Shin Mei thought to himself smugly. He turned to face his still-wating subordinate.

"Destroy it."

The Titan fired.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Admiral Lysander Hunt stood upon the bridge of the Dragon's Roar, his hands behind his back, standing with a stiff posture and an equally stiff upper lip (hidden under his moustache, which was, like his hair, dark grey and swiftly turning white) and staring in the face the Tenkai Battleship before them, which had fired upon his aircraft only moments ago. Even as the ship had shuddered benath his feet as the enemy projectile had tore into the ship, Admiral Hunt had stood completely still, as if he hadn't even acknowledged the attack. It had only dealt superficial damage but there was bound to be more projectiles and other lethal paraphernalia headed their way. He had to be ready to do his job. He calmly produced a cigar from the pocket of his red and gold waistcoat and lit it with a match, which he promptly flapped about int he air the extinguish the flame before dicarding it, placing the cigar in his mouth and taking a good, deep puff, blowing a few O's in the air with the excess smoke afterwards.

"Admiral, sir! Upper Decks nine through twelve are compromised!" One of the bridge crewmen shouted.

"Ignore it. Just seal them off," Hunt replied calmly.

"Aye aye. Sealing Upper Decks nine through twelve."

"ALL HANDS, FIRE AT WILL!" Hunt shouted down the loudhailer, incredibly loud but equally as placid. More shuddering and booming and myriad other sounds clashed against one another as the Dragon's Roar loosed the wrath of a thousand Teostras upon the gloomy grey enemy, ugly explosions dotting the ship.

"Full speed ahead!" Hunt snapped to the birdge crew. The Dragon's Roar began to creep (needless to say, "full speed" for a battleship as terrifyingly large as this really wasn't very fast at all) towards the enemy ship. They were fairly close, so it wouldn't take long to be at the distance (or lack thereof) Hunt desired. The Tenkai aircraft continued to fire upon the ship but Hunt stayed the course regardless, firing back constantly in return. At last, the Guild ship was close enough, drifting past the ship's right side (or left from a person's point of view). 

Now was the time.

"Fire the starboard side ballistae!" the Admiral barked. He almost jumped as he heard the noise and felt the jolt of at least seven enourmous ballisate lauch from within the ship. these particular ballistae use metal chains instead of rope, aothough the cruel, barbed, four-pronged grappling hooks and the ends were the same (just unimaginably large). He heard the discordent screeching of the hooks tearing through the metalwork of the Tenkai ship. He waited until the screeching stopped, meaning the ballistae had settled in one place.

Once again, Admiral Lysander Hunt bellowed into the loudhailer.

"BEGIN BOARDING THE ENEMY VESSEL!"

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The rumbling was so intense if felt like an eathquake was ripping the world apart. The screeching that accompanied it was so loud, ugly and unpleasant that it was almost painful to the ear.

"Ugh, what is that dreadful noise?!" Ruby growled as she, like Yumi, Teiko, Ash, Alexis and everybody else in the brig of the Phalanx, clamped her ears over head head in a vaina nd futile attempt to drown out the noise.

"Ballistae!" Thain shouted. "Eridias must 'ave a Battleship, too!"

"The Dragon's Roar..." Miyuki murmured to herself. Suddenly, the screeching subsided, and slowly, hesitantly, everybody let go of their heads with relief.

"Hang on, didn't we leave the Titan?" Ash asked, perplexed.

"Evidently not," Irvine answered her, curiosity in his tone. "Something tells me that this does not bode well."

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"Why are we still onbaord the Titan?!" Shikimaru growled at the pilot of the Phalanx. He was in a rather disagreeable mood. He had a tight schedule and had wanted to be on his way to Szaras Dúl by now.

"I-I-I'm sorry, my lord, we-! Th-the Titan's under attack by an enemy Battleship! It's n-not safe to-!" The nervous and startle pilot stammered, but had no time to finish his sentence. Shikimaru had broken his neck in his ire. He hadn't even had time to blink before he fell to the floor in a heap.

"I don't have time for this!" Shikimaru hissed. He grabbed hold of the wooden wheel that steered the ship and ignited the engine with a lever to his left. He shouted the the crew below through the loudhailer to his right at the top of his voice.

"FIRE FRONT CANNONS! BLAST THE DOCK GATES OPEN!"

He watched as the light from outside burst in through the newly blown hole in the ship (one of many by this point), the lights of still-glowing splinters of charred metal dancign across his gleaming black eyes. He summoned a soldier from below to take command of the ship and told them to head for Szaras Dúl before walking away from the wheel and down below deck, headed for the brig.

Silence was drawing near.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Admiral Hunt skept his position on the bridge, still not moving a muscle, as he watched the explosions light up the Battleship that the Dragon's Roar had latched onto with its nightmarishly large ballistae. It irked him greatly that he couldn't see the boarding as it happened but he wasn't going to leave the ship, so he'd just have to deal with it.

But he was about to find out that the boarding was never going to happen.

Another tremor shook the aircraft violently, so much so that Hunt had to move properly for the ifrst time in ages, grabbing onto the seat of the nearest crewman to him. When the quake settled, he righted hismelf and immediately demanded an explanation.

"What was that?!" He snapped impatiently, concerned.

"The enemy severed one of the ballista chains!" someone ont he bridge shouted. "We've lost our grip on the enemy aircraft!"

"Goddammit!" Hunt growled, puffing his cigar to vent his anger. "I didn't wanna use it just yet, but..." He murmured to himself. The Dragon's Roar was facing the Tenkai ship at such and angle that a wide-area blast from the front of the ship could damage it's engines. It was now or never. Admrial Hunt had made his decision.

"This ship is called the Dragon's Roar...I think it's about time this dragon breathed some fire," he said slyly, a slight grin twisting his lips.

"Aye aye, sir," the crewman nearest him on his left muttered. "Firing flamethrower in three, two, one...."

At zero, a funnel of flame burst from the front of the Guild aircraft, obscuring everything from view. The hellish claw of fire reached across from the Dragon's Roar and latched onto the Titan, melting, scorching and ripping everything it touched. At last, it hit the engines at the rear of the ship. An explosion larger than life bloomed like a deadly flower, before the flames from the Dragon's dissiapted and the fire from the damaged engines was consumed by thick black smoke. Admiral Hunt watched safely from behidn the bridge window as the Tenkai war ship slowly began to tilt toward the ground far below, unable to sustain itself without all its engines in full working order. The smoke followed close behind it like a faceless phantom. Everybody aboard the bridge of the Dragon's Roar whooped and cheered, relieved.

"Good job, people. Pull the ballistae back in," Admiral Hunt gave what he hoped would be his last order, for now at least. The jolt of the safely retracted ballistae washed over the Admiral like a tide of reassurance and relaxation.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"What the hell's going on out there?!" April moaned impatienly as she hit her head for the thousandth time against the back of the cell and the Phalanx shook violently, also for the thousandth time.

"Oh, who cares anymore?" Ash huffed. "The sooner we get off this thing the better."

"My thoughts exactly."

Everybody jumped out of their skins with shock, Shikimaru suddenly stood before them. Had he been there the whole time? It was higly unlikely, but it felt like it.

"Since you asked, we're currently embroiled in a mass aerial dogfight. But we don't intend on seeing it to the bitter end, no no. I've far too much to do. We're headed straight for the Glass Palace, Szaras Dúl. But while we have this precious time together, I thougth I'd explain to you something of vital import," Shikimaru said, pacing back and forth slowly, from left to right.

"And what would that be?" Yumi hissed defiantly.

"The true nature of Mad Dragon Virus. Perhaps, before I begin the theory, I should give a visual demonstration," Shikimaru answered. He closed his eyes, as if to will the universe to fall under his control. Dante almost screamed as a large black wing burst from the left side of Shikimaru's back. Unlike the sharp, bony stubs of normal monsters' wing tips, this one had a menacing set of rusted orange claws which twiched and flexed as the wing did. The large, webbed, monstrous appendage looked so out of place with a human body that Dante wanted to rip out his eyes. He didn't want to gaze upon it any longer.

"What the fuck?!" he exclaimed, his voice pitchy and fearful, eyes wide with disgust.

"The Goa Magara's hallowed gift, with some help from Narka, naturally. This is what the virus can achieve. THe power of montsers in human hands will make us unstoppable. Well, it will if one survives the process. Survival of the fittest, as they say. This is the next stage of humankind."

"You're fucking insane! How the hell did you do that to yourself?!" Dante yelled, outraged for reasons he couldn't define.

"A magician never reveals his secrets," Shikimaru replied mysteriously. "But seriously, in all honesty, I have no idea. I was merely the first text subject. I don't know how he did it. But he did. It may not be a complete, perfect merging -yet- but perfection only comes with time. That man is a true genius..."

"Who?" Teiko asked, confusion creasing his brow.

"I can't fly of course," Shikimaru continued, unperturbed, "one wing cannot provide the balance. But still, aesthetics are not the only feature of this new strain. Greatly increased physical strength, and a limited ability to tap into the power of the monster you've been spliced with. Such are the powers of a hybrid. Like the Goa Magara, I too can spread the virus should I wish."

He allowed the unsettling revelation to sink in.

"Now you see. The Guild is the one with it's neck in the hangman's noose. Not Tenkai."

Shikimaru relaxed his wing, allowing it to drape over his back like an organic cloak -exactly like the wings of the Goa Magara itself- as he strode away confidently, counting the minutes as the Phalanx drew nearer and nearer to its destination.

The Chancellor's seat of power.

Silence Upon The Throne Of Altus

The Titan plummeted toward the ground.

Shin Mei had tried everything to get the ship to straighten out, but to no avail. Finally, with a heavy sigh, he had decided to give the order he'd saved for last.

"...Activate emergency fulgur rerouters," he groaned, almost sounding embarassed.

"But sir, that'd mean-!" one of the bridge crew started to protest.

"Just DO it!" Shin Mei cut in massively. He knew full well the consequences of rerouting electricity to the engines (which were fitted with settings allowing them to run on electrical power should they be damaged). The electricity would be taken from other parts of the ship. Getting the two damaged engines to run again woukld require a large amount of it. It was likely that the electrically powered weaponry (including ballistae) and the doors allowing smaller ships in and out of the hangar would be rendered unable to function. The Battleship would be reduced to little more than a grossly oversized cargo hauler. The airships disperesed prior would now have to make their own way back to Tenkai. But it was either that or allow the ship to crash, killing everybody aboard, as well as a significant portion of Eridias' population, and probably ruining Shikimaru's plan in the process. And Shin Mei knew that that was out of the question.

Slowly, the ship righted itself, the electricity fueling the damaged engines, metalwork creaking with the strain.

"Set a course for Tenkai. We've no choice but to leave," Shin Mei commanded sternly.

"But what about the enemy Battleship? It's not just going to let us -," a crewman began.

"Nevermind that," Shin Mei interrupted smoothly, "The demolition team did their job. By the time that ship realises we're fleeing, they won't be in a position to follow anything or anyone. Trust me."

With Shin Mei's cryptic explanation in mind, the crew stayed silent, steering the Titan away from danger and back to Tenkai.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"Admiral, the enemy ship has evened out!"

The words were like needles to Admiral Lysander Hunt.

"What?! But that's-! Ah, the fulgur rerouters..." Hunt growled with contempt, then fell silent.

"...Your orders, sir?" the crewman nearest to him on the right asked, his voice grave.

"...Destroy. That. Ship. Now," the Admiral seethed. But the order was never acted upon, for seconds after Admiral Hunt had uttered it, the bridge was engulfed in a blazing heat, a blinding light and a deafening noise, and trapped in the grip of an almighty quake. The admiral was knocked off his feet and was utterly disorientated.

Slowly, the blankness that blinded him faded and allowed the world back in, but even so his vision was a tad blurred and any attempt at thinking was, like the cacophony of noises he could hear in the undertone of the chaos, drowned out by intensely loud white noise. With his vision cleared -mostly- he could see that the once pristine bridge was now awash with flames. The whole room was littered with rubble and debris and the floor was slick with blood. Only two of the bridge crew were alive. The rest were nothing but broken bodies (quite literally in some cases) scattered across what passed for a floor. The consoles that controlled the ship were battered and broken, some spraking, the mechanical equivalent of a twitching corpse.

"What...what happened?" the Admiral asked, the two officers, both of whom stood above him, his speech somewhat slurred.

"An explosion. The enemy must have somehow planted explosives on the outside of the ship. I'm assuming that these explosives came in the prom of projectiles lauched by the enemy Battleship; no other form of explosive could have caused such damage. This destruction has occured across the ship, and we are currently losing altitude as a result," one of the officers informed him with absolute neutrality. She wore the standard unifrom for an officer: a knee-length skirt, a waistjacket and a beret, all red with gold trims. Her hair was blonde and tied into a neat queue that reached all the way down to her hips. Her face was small, neat and perfectly formed. Her lips were as red as her uniform and her eyes were a stunning, ethereal hazel. She offered Hunt her hand and he took it thankfully, pulling himself to his feet and dusting of his clothes.

"What's your name, officer?" he inquired.

"Corporal Amelia Jade, sir," the young woman replied. She had a surname, so clearly she was of a fairly wealthy background. Her confidence was of no surprise, then, to the Admiral.

"And yours?" Hunt asked the other crewman, a man this time, dressed in the usual red and gold trousers and waistcoat. His hair was short and brown and his eyes were such a pale blue that msot would think them grey. He was young, perhaps nineteen or twenty, and seemed rather sheepish and frightened.

"P-private Adam, sir," the young man stuttered, hesitant. The Admiral laid an hand on his shoulder and put on the warmest facial expression he could.

"Relax, son. You'll get out of this okay," he said.

The Dragon's Roar was losing altitude, and fast. If the three of them didn't do something soon, the Battleship would smash into Eridias, with unimaginably catastrophic consequences. The Admiral was in charge. He had to act now. He turned to face Corporal Jade, a slight twinkle in his old eyes.

"Any idea how pilot a Battleship?"

____________________________________________________________________________________________

With a less than graceful landing, the Phalanx had finally reached Szaras Dúl, the Glass Palace, dead in the centre of Eridias. They'd had to shoot...a lot...but they'd finally made it, the airship crashing through the grand silver gates and into the courtyard, ploughing through objects and earth alike. There were no civilians to be seen for miles around, not even in the city outside the low-lying circular wall that surrounded the building. The Glass Palace itself, however, wasn't made of glass at all. It was contructed entirely of virtually opaque purecrystal, and icy blue-white that cuaght even the slightest beam of light, which made it appear almost glasslike, hence the name. It didn't even look very palace-y. It was btoh wide and tall, but was very squarish, no smooth or round areas. It was grand, very, very grand. Just not glass, and not a palace. Then again, if people just called it "the seat of parliament", then people from all walks of life and from all over the country wouldn't flock to see it and it wouldn't be considered the biggest tourist attraction in Altus.
Guildknightarmour

Guild Knight armour (left)

On another note, while no civilians were present anywhere nearby, there were certainly plenty of Guildsmen, called to arms in the name of their Chancellor. At least three rows of them, around ten or eleven in each, all dressed in the traditional armour of a Guild Knight. They all carried rapiers, which they promptly drew as Shikimaru, along with Dante, Alexis, Aaron, Ichiro, April, Teiko, Ash, Yumi, Ruby, Irvine, Thain and Miyuki and about half a dozen Dyuragaua-armoured Tenkai soldiers stepped off of the airship.

"Pointless," Shikimaru huffed at the sight of the Guild Knights, all of them making a beeline from him and his company. He simply grunted dismissively to himself and flapped his wing a single time, fast and swift, cutting through the air like a swift swordstroke. A sinister, otherworldy substance emanated from the wingbeat, glowing a deep purple with hints of black, peppered with glittering particles of god-knows-what. As it blanketed the marauding Guildsmen, they each began to cough and splutter, then cry out sharply, clearly in some distress, before the colour drained from their skin and they toppled to the floor. Each and every one of them, dead in seconds.

"Thanatoxide intoxication," Shikimaru explained without being prompted to do so. "That's what Narka dubbed the substance the Goa Magara transmits, carrying the Virus. In laymen's terms, MDV overdose. Anyhow, keep moving. We're almost there."

On swift heels, Shikimaru and the hunters headed toward the entrance to the Glass Palace.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

"A Battleship?" Corporal Amelia Jade echoed Admiral Hunt. "Well, no. But I've had moderate experiance in airship and sandskiff piloting," she asnwered honestly.

"Better than nothing. Hop to it!" Hunt replied, somewhat optimistic. Jade calmly appraoched one of the blocky metal control panels and scanned over it with her eyes, assessing the damage.

"Hmm...this one appears to be working. Well, just. But one of the others are, so this will have to suffice," she explained, almost like tour guide. She prompty sat down in the seat  before the control panel with superfluous grace, her fingers taking to the myriad keys and buttons with lightning speed, her barely visible eyebrows furrowed with intense concentration. At last, a small beeping noise sounded from the panel and Jade sighed with relief before standing once again. "There, now the flight controls are unlocked. They went into lockdown following the explosion in accordance with Flight Protocol Zero Thrity-Two. I can pilot manually now. Please step back, Admiral."

Admiral Hunt did as Jade said, calmly taking a couple of paces back, allowing her the space to concentrate and perfrom at optimum efficiency. Jade's eyes lit up as they studied to set of controls before her, her slender, feminine hands gently finding their way around the various levers, what did what and the like. Suddenly, she groaned with exasperation and dissapointment.

"No. No, no, no, no, no!" she grumbled with frustration. "There isn't enough power for the controls to function. I can't do anything!"

"What about the fulgur rerouters? Activate them," Hunt suggested.

"Can't, that method doesn't apply to the flight controls - it runs on a power cell of its own, but this one's dead; the only way to restore power now would be to get a new power cell from the reactor room," Jade replied. "However, that place is crazy unstable and buzzing with kilofulgurs and kilofulgurs of electicity. You'd need one of the Zinogre armour suits provided and some experience to even attempt to step inside."

"I can do that! I work in the reactor room!" Private Adam burst out, eager both to help out and to save himself and anybody else who could be alive.

"Perfect! Get down there!" Corporal Jade chirped.

"Hold on a minute," Admiral Hunt interrupted. "How long do we have until we hit the ground?" he asked.

"Uh...About..." Jade trailed off as she consulted the one control panel still working. "About ten minutes."

"And how long will it take to get from here to the reactor room?"

"...We won't have enough time!"

"How long?" Hunt pressed, unperturbed.

"Five minutes, if you run, Plus five minutes back, plus however long it takes Adam there to extract the power cell. Not enough time. Not unless you can sprint," Jade answered. "Really, really fast," she added as an afterthought.

Jade let out a short, almost inaudible stutter as Private Adam produced a phial of translucent golden-yellow fluid from a pouch attached to his hip. He quickly guilped it dowm and checked the empty glass into a pile of rubble.

"Mega Dash Juice," he said simply, wiht a hesitant smile, having a feeling that those three words would sink it on their own.

"...Fantastic," Jade said,a lmost under her breath. She paused, seeing Adam was still here. "Well, what the hell are you waiting for?! GO, GO, GO!"

"Y-yes ma'am!" he blurted, quickly dashing away from the bridge (thankfully, the door hadn't been blocked by the rubble) and toward the reactor room.

The only thing Admiral Lysander Hunt and Corporal Amelia Jade could do now was wait.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

The doors of the Glass Palace burst open with a cloud of ominous, shimmering purple smoke. Shards of crystal flew in every direction like shrapnel. A few Guild Knights drew their rapiers, poised and ready to strike at whatever emerged from the rapidly clearing smog.

But they never got the chance. They were struck dead by a wingbeat full of Thanatoxide -basically the Mad Dragon Virus it it's purest form- from Emperor Shikimaru Tetsuya of the Separatist Province of Tenkai before they even had the chance to catch a glimpse of him. He strode forward confidently with his small squad of soldiers and his prisoners -Dante and friends- as if this were his palace and he hadn't seen it in years.

The Glass Palace's interior was nothing like the exterior. The walls were a regal marble white and the floor was red with gold lines running in elaborate patters, almost as if someone had carved the design of an item of expensive clothing into the floor. The tarnished gold Guild insignia had been engraved in the centre. Although, the ceiling avoe them was made of glass, probably the only major part of the palace that was actually glass. There were several closed doors and a couple of turns that led to other areas of the palace, but there was no need to explore them. Already sat on his throne was Chancellor Tojou, both calm and startled at the same time. He stood as Shikimaru appraoched the bottom of the three short steps.

Tojou was a fairly old man, perhaps in his early sixties, with ash blonde hair tied into a very tight, very neat and carefully groomed queue, tied with an intrictate bronze hairclip shaped like a snake's jaw, and a long beard that reached dowm to his upper chest to match. He possesed a pair of deep-set, wizened eyes with a gaze that was so erudite it was almost tangible. His skin was ever so slightly tanned and had the dull gleam and luster that only came with the luxury of extensive care and good hygiene. He was dressed in an olive green robe -probably made of the finest silk, if his position was any indication- decorated with strange, almost symbloic linings of golden thread. The robe covered his entire body except for his hands, neck and head, so that he looked like he was gliding when he moved. He looked so eastern that it was almost hilarious and stereotypical.

"Many greetings, Kobayashi," Tojou greeted his enemy calmly, almost welcoming him.

"Don't use my surname, Itsuki!" Shikimaru snapped. "You know I can't stand it."

"Precisely. That's why I said it," Tojou replied.

"Enough of this inane chatter. You're coming with me, your highness" Shikimaru stated as if it were fact, adding the formal address with wry sarcasm. As Shikimaru's soldiers prepared to escort Tojou away, a dull rumbling noise stopped them. The noise reached its peak volume as at least a hundred Guildsmen, most dressed in the standard red and gold, some dressed in the black and gold of elite Guildsmen,, came stampeding into the expanse of the throne room from the plethora of passageways and doors. The delicate cliinking of razor sharp rapiers being drawn filled the air for a few seconds, and after that a short silence settled before being broken when Tojou spoke again.

"I'm sorry to dissapoint you, Shikimaru," the aged Chancellor mused. "I'm afraid I shan't be going anywhere. It would be in your very best interest to leave, now, while you still can."

"I'll leave when I've got what I came for," Shikimaru retorted. However, before he could do anything, Ichiro, who stood almost directly to the right of Shikimaru, snatched the emperor's own rapier (which had obviously been replaced since Thain snapped his previous blade at Fort Ryu) and sliced into the soft, fleshy webbing of Goa Magara wing with decisive force, as if the boy had tonnes of pent up anger that had finally boiled to the surface. Shikimaru roared with pain, stumbling forward. Chancellor Tojou sidestepped and allowed the separatist to hit the cold, hard floor. Thain, Irvine and Miyuki quickly dispatched the six Tenkai soldiers that guarded them, Miyuki and Irvine dispatching their targets with hand-to hand combat taught to all soldiers within a week of signing up, while Thain simply put his thick, stocky build to good use and smashed a couple of the soldiers with his brutish fists. As the hoard of Guildsmen surged toward him, Shikimaru produced a long and narrow white flute from his pocket and sounded it loudly, emitting a high-pitched, slightly discordent note.

Seconds afterward, the ceiling high, high above shattered as the tenebrous abomination known as the Goa Magara crashed through it with a stygian yowl. No sooner had its nimble limbs touched the ground had it set to work on the mass of Guild soldiers, clawing and snapping at them with unrivaled atrength and blinding speed. The sounds of tearing flesh and anguished cries spread through the room like wildfire, the Plaguespreader -which was, ironically, not curently plague-spreading- dashing around wildly, bowling through the crowds of militants like a Bullfango in a china shop.

While the Goa Magara was busy decimating Tojou's men, Shikimaru quickly recovered from the surprise attack Ichiro had dealt him, ignoring the sharp, stinging pain in his injured wing, and quickly flapped the boy with it. Ichiro fell to the floor with a dull thud. Shikimaru's rapier was jolted out of his hand and into the air, its rightful owner quickly snatching it in midair as it reached eye level. Before any of the his former prisoners could attack him, he grabbed Chancellor Tojou and shoved the ageing ruler in front his him, the separatist's keen blade pressing against his back.

"Take one more step and I'll run him through!" Shikimaru warned sternly. The hunters froze almost instantly, and slowly backed away a few steps, some sighing and cursing under their breath as they did so. Shikimaru called out to the Goa Magara. "Watashi o toru!" (Take me!)

The Goa Magara almost instantaneously abandoned its rampage, galloping over to Shikimaru, who forced Chancellor Tojou to climb onto its back. Shikimaru himself did the same after, and the moment Shikimaru settled on the Goa Magara's back, the abomination spread its eerie cape-like wings, which matched perfectly with its equally ghoulish visage, and took to the air once again, flying out through the shattered glass ceiling with the same awesome speed it had used to shatter it to begin with. Dante, Alexis and their compatriots could only look on with despair as their target made off with their protector. With hardly anybody besides themselves left alive or standing, a silnce followed, which Ash eventually broke, hesitantly.

"Well...we might as well go n' get our stuff back from the Phalanx," the thirteen-year-old suggested.

"The wee lass 'as a point," Thain concurred. "Not like there's anythin' left to do here."

Frustrated, outsmarted and defeated, the disheartened band of hunters slowly trudged off to the crashed Tenkai airship.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

8:00

The Dragon's Roar was still falling toward Eridias, and at no leisurely pace. It was literally falling out of they sky like a rock. It still had two of the four main engines fuctioning, so it was keeping itself level, but it was falling nevertheless. Corporal Jade still stood patiently beside the dead manual flight controls on the bridge with Admiral Hunt, waiting silently, patienly for Private Adam to return with the replacement power cell for the defunct console.

"It's been two minutes," Jade stated plainly. "We've got eight minutes remaining until collision." She sniffed absentmindedly and swished her head,making her tight, long and thin blonde queue whip the air stylishly. She blinked her hazel eyes shut for a split second. Her hands, which were stationary by her side, twitched ever so slightly.

"Nervous?" Admiral Hunt asked, somewhat jokingly, raising a blackish-grey eyebrow inquisitively, causing the wrinkles on his forehead -the one true signn of age- to scrunch together.

"Of course I am," Jade replies calmly, her voice wavering in such a slight degree it was almost unnoticeable. "I've stared death in the face many a time. Just...just never on a Battleship, above the heart of my country, far away from home. And this time I can't do anything to help myself. I have to rely on somebody else to survive, to see another sunrise. It's not a situation I'm comfortable with."

"That's justified; nobody wants to die far away from their loved ones with no way to prevent it. Nobody wants to have to rely on others, either. But think about the bigger picture, Corporal."

"The...bigger picture, Admiral?"

"Yes, the bigger picture. We might be relying on another individual to avoid death, but that action will save the lives of potentially thousands of innocent people. That's what our job is, Jade. It's what we signed up for."

"Yes, well..." Jade said stiffly, staring out of the window at the endless cityscape growing ever bigger, "...We won't be saving anyone if that power cell doesn't get back here in six."

____________________________________________________________________________________________

6:00

Private Adam had skidded to a halt just outside the reactor room, where a line of about eight -or maybe it was nine, he wasn't very good at counting- sets of Zinogre armour were set on the wall, piece by piece, in logical order, just waiting for somebody to put them on. The turquoise and gold with tufts of white fur dotted around, along with the sharpness of the set, its asymmetry and the thoroughly intimidating, almost tribal-ish face incorporated into the helm, made it truly striking. Not that such qualities were necessary when working in a reactor room. Then again, such armour was designed for hunting, combat, not maintenance (albeit essential maintenance). The only real reason Zinogre armour was used was because of its incredibly high resistance to thunder, making it perfect for dealing the the high volatile electrical power employed in next-generation technology such as Battleships like this.

Okay, keep calm, just let the- The- Oh, what's it called? Adr...Adrena... Ugh, nevermind. Just concentrate!

He was thinking of adrenaline. That was the thing about Adam; he wasn't very smart. A practical job like reactor maintenance was nothing short of ideal for someone like him. Of course, his lack of intellect wasn't his fault. He was born in Je Bul, which was pretty much the poorest, most impoverished region in Altus, which was mostly because it was hit hardest by the recession and most neglected by the Guild. It was a simple farming region with hardly any credible exports besides the odd fish you couldn't find anywhere else, so naturally, in a country pared in two by civil war and crushed under the iron heel of a recession as a result, the Guild considered Je Bul to be the least important place in the country. The rest of the outer regions weren't too much better off, but they were still better off than poor Je Bul.

He pulled the armour off of the wall and put it on, piece by needlessy fearsome piece. As soon as he was ready, he appraoched the thick metal door of the reactor room, pulled the handle downward and pushed.

The reactor room was squarish and compact, glowing a deep, vibrant azure due to the copious amounts of free electricity in the room. Most of it wasn't even contained, it zapped and danced around the floors and walls contsantly, the buzzing in the room so loud one couldn't possibly hear themself think. It was that volatile; human control over it was that rudimentary. The walls, floor and the part of the door that faced the inside of the room where plated with thick, dense plastic, so as to contain the electrical power within the confines of the reactor room.

Here we are, Adam thought, not daring to breathe a sigh of relief just yet. He managed a thin smile to himself, however.

Placed in the main space of the room were four metal, grey-silver cuboid structures, shorter than a person but tall enough that one could touch it without having to bend their elbows. On the top sat four entisingly eye-catchting cylinders of...something...which glowed and even brighter shade of azure -more like sky blue, really- and were embedded so deep within their metal containers that only about a quarter of the full object could be seen. Four of these cylinders in four of these cuboid containers. These were the power cells necessary to keep the reactor, the most essential part of the ship, online. Of course, the problem was that they would die if they were kept in the same slot all the time. Each power cell required it be subjected to multiple intensities of voltage to perform at optimum efficiency. Keep it contsantly at a high voltage and it'll short out; keep it constantly at a low voltage and it won't provide enough electricity. Ergo, you had to move each power cell to a different container every half an hour. The two containers ont he left side (from the point of view at which you enter the room) were high voltage and the pair on the right side were low voltage, each container being labelled A (top left), B (bottom left), C (top right) and D (bottom right). Cells in A went to B, cells in C went to D and vice versa. It was a fairly boring job, but on the plus side those in charge of moving the cores only had to do just that. Nothing else for a whole hour. It didn't take very long and only needed one person per container. The other four sets of armour (or five, again, Adam couldn't really remember how to count that well) were just in case there was some kind of problem and someone else had to enter the reactor room, or just in case somebody needed to take over for somebody else. Thankfully the reactor could -under strict monitoring, of course- fuction pretty much without any extrenal interference. Obviously, erring on the side of coution, the reactor could be -at considerable risk, mind- deactivated manually. But then the ship would drop out of the sky like a rock, so many wondered what the point was.

Adam walked over to container C. It was on the left, so its power cells would have a high electrical charge. He carefully, placed his left hand on the top of the cell on the bottom right of the four and lifted it out very, very slowly. Removing a power cell was delicate work, and potentially dangerous if the remover is inexperienced. Every power cell in the room was slightly different to one another. If it made contact with another power cell, it could earn one an electric shock, at the least, no matter what they were wearing. As he lifted the cell out far enough for him to be able to hold it with two hands, Adam did so, for the extra control.

Steady...Steady...Almost there...Aaaand gotcha!

Adam yanked the power cell away from the container as soon as it was away from its slot, as if he'd just freed his arm from between two walls. He held it horizontally, with both hands gripped tight around each end, as was the textbook procedure fro carrying power cells. And because it was pretty darn heavy. The reactor would be okay, or at least, so Adam hoped. He'd never been specifically told that a reactor needed all eight power cells to function. It might just fuction slightly less efficiently. No big deal. Better to have a grazed knee than a broken neck, so to speak.

Right...Now to get this thing back to the bridge.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Dante, Alexis, April and Aaron, along with Yumi, Ruby, Teiko, Ash, Miyuki, Irvine, Ichiro (who had still said nothing literally all day) and Thain all stood in a disorganised cluster just outside the Phalanx, staring up into the sky at possibly the most terrifying thing they had ever bore witness to.

A Guild Battleship was falling out of the sky.

It was so, so huge. If it hit the ground, it would completely obliterate a small portion of Eridias. However, that wouldn't be the case; the reactor within was of such a calibre of power that if the Battleship hit the ground, it would probably wipe out a quarter of the city. It was so close to ground contact now that no matter where the hunters went, they wouldn't escpae the blast in time, even by airship. Unless that ship somehow managed to right itself, they were doomed.

"Well, bugger," Thain huffed and spat on the ground beneath him, not sounding particularly phased by the prospect of vaporisation at the hands of a nigh unfathomably large explosion.

"I don't want to die here...!" Alexis murmured, frightened. She clutched Dante in her loving embrace and he retuned to gesture silently, both closing their eyes and waiting for the end. Aaron and April both said nothing, but their hands joined together slowly. Like Dante and Alexis, Ash wrapped her arms around her brother and squeezed her eyes shut in fearful prayer. Yumi, Ruby, Irvine, Miyuki and, albeit hesitantly, Ichiro, all joined hands archaically and stared the ship in the face, waiting for everything to turn to white.

They were at death's door. And they were ready to knock.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

2:00

The explosion rocked the ship through and through, almost causing Corporal Amelia Jade and Admiral Lysander Hunt to lose their balance. Even when the quakes ceased, the low rumbling didn't. The ship slowly titled on its port side, with the two Guildsmen having to grip tighty onto whatever was at hand -the manual flight controls for Jade and a broken control panel for the Admiral- in order to avoid sliding across the now lopsided floor. The ship faced the ground almost directly now. It was now falling more or less stright downwards, a huge, flaming red arrow tip racing toward the ground. A hellish shard of destruction.

"What the hell's going on?!" Hunt barked, alarmed.

"A second engine just went bust! It must've been suffering from a fuel leakage or something! We're falling even faster!" Jade answered, also distressed. Just then, she screamed and thrust her body back as far as she could as a huge cluster of jagged rubble that was once piled in a heap on the floor flew past her. It made contact with the glass panel at the head of the ship. The glass was thick, strong and durable, but it was no use - the rubble smashed through the panel, shattering it with ease. The glass and the rubble seemed to be yanked away as soon as they fell away. The heavy, deafening sound of the whistling air rushed into the bridge, as did a gust of wind, herculean in strength. The fronts of the two soldiers'  clothes were literally pressed against their chests, rippling madly. Jade lurched over to her left, to the one control pnael that still worked, trying with all her might to withstand the gale-force wind pushing against her. With a freakishly feline yowl of determination (although msot of the sound was lost in the noise) she slammed her palm down on a large, circular metal button. Moments later, a large metal panel began to slowly creep across the now-empty window pane, replacing the lost glass with heavy grey metal. With a dull, echoing thud it slammed closed, shutting out the wind. Of course, they were now blind, but at least now they could move properly.

"WHERE IS ADAM WITH THAT FUCKING POWER CELL?!" Jade screeched in her fearful ire. Admiral Hunt didn't answer, but lt another cigar, placing it in his mouth and taking a good, deep puff.

Almost as if it were his last.

"I think it's safe to say that we're not getting out of this, Corporal," he said with tired resignation. "Perhaps we should use this precious time we have left to amke our peace with Altarch."

____________________________________________________________________________________________

0:57

Adam clutched the power cell against his chest and tried not to scream as he slid acorss the almost vertical floor. The ship had lost another engine and now it was almost facign stright down, and falling faster to boot. Sure, since the young man was pressed for time at the moment, this currect mode of "transport" was convenient...but it wouldn't be anything but if he didn't lose speed before he hit the bridge doors, which were growing increasingly larger before his eyes.

0:54, 0:53, 0:52...

Adam could make out the thin, black line filled by shadow, where the bridge doors would pull apart to allow one inside. If he didn't slow hismelf down now he was going to die. His wide eyes frantically scanned the surroundings that rushed past him in a blur, desperate for some kind of escape; a lose cord, a door handle, a box, anything. Anything that he could hold onto.

0:46, 0:45, 0:44, 0:43, 0:42, 0:41, 0:40, 0:39, 0:38, 0:37...

There it was! His lifeline, quite literally: a panel on the left side fo the wall had been blown off in the colossal explosion that wrecked the ship to begin with, and it had left several thick, black cords dangling out of it, sparks almsot too small to see  buzzing meekly at the tips.

This was his one chance. He couldn't mess it up. He moved himself over to the left, reached out with one hand -his other was clinging onto the power cell- and...

He felt his body shake once, heavily, all his body weight falling upon the thick black cable his hand was now clenched around, so tightly his knuckles had gone white, suspending his slide-slash-fall just a couple of metres away from the bridge doors. Low enough to jump. But, despite his rather lacking intellect, he did have at least a shred of intuition. He yanked the cable as hard as he could, again and again and again. Sooner than he'd anticipated, it gave way, more of the cord tumbling out of the circuitry and the wiring in the wall. He fell fairly fast (although not nrealy as fast as he had been when he was slidign along the floor) and soon reached the bridge doors, usign his feet to smash them open like the doors of some outlandinsh saloon, whizzing toward Jade and the manual flight controls.

0:19, 0:18, 0:17, 0:15, 0:14...

With a thud, Private Adam pressed his legs against one fo the defunct control panels. He crouched down and tore the open panel, used to shield the power cell, away dismissively, ripping out the dead power cell as well. he quickly shoved the fresh cell in the slot. It began to hum loudly and its bright glow returned.

"Got it! The controls are back up and running!" Jade exclaimed, snatching hold of them like a greedy Jaggi and pulling them toward her, using her torso to its limit as she arched her back, scrunching her eyes shut , gritting her teeth and groaning loudly, high-pitched, so loudly in and roughly in fact that one would have though that, were the circumstances different, she was giving birth. Meanwhile, as Jade was determined to give herself a hernea, Private Adam and Admiral Hunt clung onto the control panel before them and tightly as their hands would allow.

"You did good, son!" Hunt boomed over the rumbling of the ship and Jade's almost horrific straining. Adam nodded, smiling thinly, follwoing which the pair of them faced forward to the thick steel window cover and waited for either a merciful brush or a woeful handshake with death.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

It really hadn't been very long -not even a minute had passed- since she shut her eyes, but to Ash, it felt like hours had passed. The ship was almost at building level last time she'd seen it. Where was it now?

She dared to open her eyes... and...

"Guys!" she hissed. "Guys, look!"

Thain, Miyuki, Irvine and the others all opened their eyes.

"It cannae be...!" Thain mused, bewildered. "It's rightn' itself!"

"Don't celebrate just yet, people," Irvine cut in cooly. "It might be levelling out, but it's far too late. It will crash."

"But it's highly unlikely to explode now. We have a chance of escape, and we've got to take it," April added.

"We'll never ma-"

"Aw, come on, Irvine! What's the point of stickin' around? Better to at least try and get away then wait and hope not to get killed. Right?" Aaron butted in, ever chipper. Everybody glared at Irvine now, as if to silently shout him down. The commander sighed with resignation.

"I suppose you're ri-" Irvine began, but was cut off.

"IT'S ABOUT TO FUCKING CRASH! IT'S LIKE THREE FEET FROM THE FUCKING FLOOR! CAN WE JUST! FUCKING! LEAVE?! PLEASE!" Yumi screeched, clearly not wishing to die. Such an outburst from her never occured unless disaster was imminent...Which is was.

Everybody ran for the ship, both out of fear of Yumi's explosive temper and the equally frightening propect of death by landsurfing Battleship.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Admiral Hunt, Corporal Jade and Private Adam had all been thrust forward with almighty force as the ship's underside had made contact with the ground of Eridias, crushing miles and miles worth of buildings -and probably people- to rubble in seconds. Thanks to the superhuman efforts of Jade, the three remaining crew members of the Dragon's Roar had managed to right the mammoth aircraft in the space of about ten seconds. Well, not entirely, that'd be breaking every know law of physics. They'd managed to sort of right it, but it was still at a downward facing angle upon collision. Thankfully, there was a big, fancy decorative front to the ship, somewhat like the fearsome wooden carvings on the front of sea ships, that extended in front of where the bridge was located, else they'd all have been crushed.

All they could do was wait it out, eyes screwed shut with a juxtaposition of fear and determination, as the hulking husk of a Battleship slid across the ground of their country's beloved capital.

Despite the fact that they'd saved many lives in preventing the ship's explosion, they were taking away lives still, right now. They felt guilty and there was no way around it. Nothing they could have done would have prevented these people from dying, and, true, they had prevented countless more deaths, but the fact that they were causing civilian casualities to begin with was a disaster.

They allowed the minutes to pass, with nothing on their minds but death.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

"Tell me, Kobayashi," Chancellor Tojou addressed his captor. "What do you expect to gain by abducting me?"

Shikimaru growled quietly at Tojou's usage of his surname. He detested it.

"Did you hope toforce the Guild's surrender?" Tojou probed further.

"Of course," Shikimaru stated flatly. Tojou broke into coarse, throaty laughter.

"What do you intend to do with me, them? To hold me to ransom? Or to kill me?" Tojou asked, still chuckling under the words. "Regardless, my people will not surrender. Make ransom demands, and they will spit in your eye. Kill me, and their will avenge with fire and metal and blood. Do what you will with me, Kobayashi. It matters not. Why not surrender now, while you still have the chance?"

Shikimaru barked a bitter, humourless laugh. "Surrender, and face the Guild's special brand of "justice"? I hardly think so. Besides, why would I surrender...when I'm about to turn the tide of this whole civil war on its head?"

"What are you talking about?" Tojou said, shaken a little by the separatist's sinister tone. Shikimaru alughed again, this time for real.

"I'll explain on the way," he said.

The Goa Magara screeched like a banshee as it soared through the clouds towards Tenkai.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Truth And Lies

Hometown Of The Moon Child

COMING SOON

A New Light On Old Secrets

COMING SOON

Gift From A Fallen Angel

COMING SOON

The Separatist's Impromptu Interruption

COMING SOON

Project Eclipse

COMING SOON

The Truth

COMING SOON

Elegy For A Lost Soul

COMING SOON

Dunes Of Death

Misfortune

COMING SOON

Desert Ambush!

COMING SOON

The City In The Sand

COMING SOON

Betrayal

Escape

COMING SOON

Another Angel In Jonton?

COMING SOON

For Science

COMING SOON

A Familiar Face, Long Forgotten

COMING SOON

Lunar Hollow

COMING SOON

He Who Lays Claim To Heaven's Bounty

COMING SOON

The Seventy-Sixth Letter

COMING SOON

Beneath The Stars

COMING SOON

Epilogue

A Hunter Always Returns

COMING SOON

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