Any monster that looked up in response to a shadow flashing across the ground would have been unpleasantly shocked - who had ever seen an undersized Berukyurosu flying in volcanic territory before? And was that a human and a Melynx on its back?

The wyvern in question was, of course, Taka. Elegantly landing on the dark-colored earth, he allowed Relcia and Lauren to slide down from his back before changing back into his human form. Almost immediately, the three of them could feel the heat beating down on them relentlessly. It was worse than the Desert's heat, and the Cool Drinks they subsequently swallowed barely kept them from sweating profusely.

It was morning, and the sun was just barely over the horizon. The trio was surrounded by huge, black peaks, the largest of which was closest although still far. Smoke billowed from its pinnacle, leaving no doubt that this was the Volcano that they had to pass in order to continue their journey through the Great Frontier.

Taka had previously done research on this harsh region, and knew that, in a sense, it was probably the least dangerous of all areas in the Great Frontier. As far as he knew, every monster that inhabited this Volcano also inhabited some areas of the Central World, so at least they didn't have to worry about being unpleasantly surprised by some new monster.

"Where, exactly, do we go after traversing the Volcano?" Taka asked quietly. Relcia unfolded their map and stared hard at it for a few seconds. Finally, she replied, "We have to head north into the Highland. Then east, to the Tower and the White Fatalis."

She said the name of the Elder Dragon with a glint in her eyes. It made the light half of Taka nervous, and the dark half quiver with anticipation.

The hours went by as Taka, Relcia, and Lauren trekked across the fiery land. Rivers and lakes of lava were prevalent, adding to the nearly unbearable heat. Ioprey stalked the caves and plains, but fortunately didn't pay attention to them. One time, Taka thought he saw movement in a large magma lake, and felt a thrill of fear when the head and back of a Lavasioth slowly emerged. Thankfully, the Piscene Wyvern ignored them.

They decided to rest on a huge plain, dominated by boulders and open spaces. It was ringed on all sides by cliffs and lava rivers, and a medium-sized pool of magma was almost exactly in the center. There were numerous holes in the cliffs - some too small for even a Giggi to enter, and others large enough for a full-grown Gravios to fit through.

"Lauren," Taka asked, turning his attention to his Melynx friend, "could you scout down one of these tunnels and find a safe path for us to travel?" Lauren was more than ready for the task. Whether it was because she wanted to help make up for her earlier actions in the Desert, or she wanted to get away from Relcia (whose dominant dark side unnerved her), Taka couldn't say. Nevertheless, she cheerfully meowed and scampered down a decent-sized tunnel.

"There's nothing we can do but wait for her," concluded Taka, settling down wearily on a boulder. "She doesn't know the terrain, and neither do we for that matter, so moving on now is a good way to get ourselves permanently lost." Relcia nodded in agreement and sat down next to him.

For a while, it was peaceful enough. The occasional Remobra soared across the sky, cawing loudly. The sun rose high into the sky, bathing the entire landscape with radiant light. There was a terrifying moment when the couple heard a loud, echoing howl, and fearfully glanced up to see a huge, wolf-like monster perched atop a cliff. But it didn't stay long, much to their relief.

So much for no unpleasant surprises, Taka thought grimly, watching the monster lope off.

After a few moments, an earthshaking roar rang out into the morning air, startling both Taka and Relcia. "Goodness, what was that?" asked Relcia, reflexively grabbing Taka's arm. "Whatever it was, it doesn't sound good," he replied grimly. "I hope Lauren's all right by herself out there."

Relcia gave him an encouraging smile. "She'll be fine," she reassured him. "She's a monster, remember? She can easily survive on her own. It's us we need to worry about." Taka smiled back at her and held her close.

In less than a second, she was pressing her lips tightly against his. Taka had no objections, and his dark side in particular was pleased. Bliss, he thought.

Lauren scuttled off down a narrow, twisting tunnel. Every sense was on alert - she could see through the darkness, smell the sulfurous, sooty scents around her, hear the crawling of unknown things around her. All of this was new to her, and she didn't like it one bit.

She emerged from the tunnel on another volcanic plain. The ash and clouds belched from the Volcano hung heavy in the sky, darkening the area. A mob of Remobra circled around the body of a partially eaten Apceros, shrieking arguments and insults at each other.

The plain, covered with hardened lava and ringed by a moat of the molten substance, was uninviting to Lauren. Looking for a way out, she spied a nice-looking hole on the other side, leading hopefully to a better, safer part of the Volcano. It was her job to make sure that her, Taka, and Relcia got out safely.

But as she scuttled rapidly for the opening, crossing the plain as quickly as she could, there was a colossal roar that shook the Volcano. The Remobra cried out in fear and scattered, flying off as fast as their scaly wings could carry them. Lauren froze as the roar sounded again, this time seeming like it was coming from everywhere at once.

Then she saw it - a huge black shape perched on the very rim of the Volcano's crater. With a sinking feeling, she realized that it had fixed its attention directly upon her.

The creature flew from the crater, diving down toward the plain at an incredible speed. Yowling with alarm, Lauren ran as fast as she could for the hole she had spotted, hoping to lose the creature. But it was already upon her, flying past her in a blur, with the wind thrown up from its passing causing her to lose her balance and fall. When she stumbled to her feet, there it was, standing over her, staring down its snout.

Lauren found that she couldn't recall the monster's name. But it was clear that the unknown beast wanted something from her. "Y-yes, nya?" she asked it timidly, her voice barely beyond a whisper.

You're a Melynx, said the creature in a surprisingly casual tone. A Melynx I haven't seen before. Lauren found her tongue again and replied, "W-well, yes... I've never been here before, meow."

The immense monster grew more interested. Well, obviously, it said idly, as if commenting on the weather. And that's what fascinates me. You see, I am the master of this Volcano. No monster, not even a Vespoid, comes or leaves this place without my consent.

Lauren gulped, trying to swallow the hairball that threatened to climb up her throat and out her mouth. "I'm sorry, nya," she cowered, wishing that she were just a bit bigger of a monster. "But my master wishes... Taka wishes to pass through peacefully, be-claws he needs to reach the Highland, nya."

Now the creature seemed to be very interested. Take me to your master, it said gently, bending its great head down to her level. It licked its lips briefly, before continuing, I wish to negotiate with him.

Doing her best to retrace her steps, Lauren ended up on the volcanic plain where Taka had told her to scout for a safe passage. At first, she didn't see her master, nor did she see Relcia, and she began to panic.

But as she advanced further onto the plain, she caught sight of the two sitting on a flat rock, with their mouths so tightly locked together that it looked like they were trying to eat each other alive. Humans, Lauren thought exasperatedly. She loved her master, and she knew that he in turn loved Relcia, but she wished that they wouldn't go so... far.

Taka, on the other hand, didn't notice Lauren at first, so enamored was he with Relcia and the passion with which she treated him with. But a thunderous roar echoed across the plain, causing the magma lakes to ripple and boil, and the Volcano itself to spurt a plume of fire into the sky.

The couple broke apart, breathing hard as if they had just run a marathon. "What... what was that?" Relcia breathed, snapping back to reality. "I doubt it's good news," Taka said dryly, but with an undercurrent of fear. What monstrous creature could have made that sound? he wondered, hoping not to find out.

But he and Relcia looked behind them instinctively, and with audible gasps, saw the great, red dragon gazing down upon them from a mountainous outcropping far above.

The second Fatalis sibling - Crimson Fatalis.

Don't stop on my account! the beast called jokingly, eyes sparkling with amusement. Taka instantly turned as red as the dragon's scales, and Relcia instantly sprang to her feet, just as embarrassed as he was. Only joking, the creature amended, but the corners of its maw tweaked upwards nonetheless. Allow me to introduce myself. I am the ruler of the Volcano, and indeed all volcanic lands in the Great Frontier. I am the Crimson Fatalis.

Despite the dragon's jolly nature, Taka felt a thrill of terror at the realization that this mighty Elder Dragon was indeed the Crimson Fatalis. It could crush us all with one blow, he thought, then instantly regretted doing so. I'd better not show any hostility.

"What is it you want with us?" Taka asked boldly, summoning all the dignity he could muster. The Crimson Fatalis grinned and replied, Maybe I don't want anything with you. Maybe I just stopped by to say hello. After all, it wouldn't be polite for me to refrain from greeting a newcomer to my territory.

Taka rolled his eyes when the Elder Dragon burst out in bellowing laughter. When he began to settle down, Relcia whispered in Taka's ear. "I think he wants to know why we're here. He wants to know why we're in his territory." Taka nodded and thought back to the Crimson Fatalis' words; After all, it wouldn't be polite for me to refrain from greeting a newcomer to my territory.

"If you're wondering why we're here in your Volcano," Taka called up to the still-chuckling Elder Dragon, "we only need to pass through to reach the Highland." The Crimson Fatalis stopped laughing and squinted at the trio.

Why, may I ask, do you need to reach the Highland? he asked, suddenly serious. Relcia opened her mouth to speak, but Taka hastily gestured for her to be quiet. His light side was warning him that nothing good would come out of letting Relcia negotiate with the red dragon.

"We need to cross the Highland because it is the quickest way to the Tower," Taka explained. "It is urgent that we speak with your brother, the White Fatalis."

The Crimson Fatalis grew silent. He looked ever harder at the threesome in front of him - two humans and a Melynx. Both humans were hunters, there was no denying that. He hardly ever saw humans in the flesh, but he was pretty sure that regular folks didn't wear Rathian armor or carry Longswords around.

And the ominous vibe emanating from the two didn't bode well, either. It was stronger in the girl, but steadily increasing in the shapeshifter he knew the boy to be. Instantly, the Crimson Fatalis knew that it was indeed urgent for them to find his brother. They needed his magic to heal their spirits, which were sinking deeper into the shadows. But, he also knew that he needed to gain their trust. They would have to bargain.

I see, he said at last. I realize how... important your situation is, and why you so desperately need to cross this land. But the fact still stands that you have trespassed into my territory without my permission. He thought for a second, then grinned toothily. Tell you what, he added, voice regaining some of the cheer from earlier. If you give me something I will request from you, then I will guarentee your safety until you reach the Highland.

Taka grinned back - he knew that whatever the Crimson Fatalis asked for would be a small price to pay for the welfare of himself and Relcia. I'll give up anything to reach the Tower and heal Relcia, he thought, but his dark side immediately flared up. Taka suddenly felt like he didn't want to find the Tower anymore, but he frantically fought the feeling off.

"What is your price?" he called up to the Elder Dragon. The Crimson Fatalis considered, then spoke once more. I request the Longsword you carry, he said firmly but not unkindly. Give me your weapon and you will be safe.

For some reason, Taka hesitated. Although his other Longsword, Demise, was back in Mediatas Village safe and sound, the Blango Decimator he carried had started to grow on him. He liked the frozen blade and the soft, fur-trimmed sheath that kept it cold. He didn't know if he could give it up.

Then Lauren was there, climbing up his back and hanging onto his shoulder. "Think about it, master," she whispered to him. "You don't need your weapon anyways, nya. You are a shapeshifter, and you don't need protection. Relcia has her Wolf Tessen Dual Swords, so she's still well defended. It's a purr-fect deal for you, meow."

After a moment of thought, Taka nodded at last. Lauren was right. He didn't really need a weapon to defend himself with, but Relcia did. And since he could indeed shapeshift, he could protect both of them.

"All right," he said to the dragon, pulling the Longsword and its sheath off of him. "I accept. It's a deal."

The Crimson Fatalis grinned again. I knew I could trust you, he said, gently swooping down to land in front of them. He reached down with a massive claw and gently plucked the weapon from Taka's grasp. Don't worry, you will see it again. And by the way, that Melynx of yours has prime potential as a negotiator.

Under her fur, Lauren blushed at the compliment. Taka smiled at her, then turned to wave farewell to the Crimson Fatalis. "It was a pleasure meeting you," he said politely. And you as well, the Elder Dragon rumbled in reply. Take  care now, and good luck.

The Crimson Fatalis watched them walk off for a minute or two. When they were out of his sight, he gave a mighty roar and took off into the smoke-streaked sky, eager for a nice long rest.

To be Continued...

Monster Hunter Destiny: The Darkness Within XI - Raging on Absolute Island

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