Taka stepped back a pace, dumbstruck by Illeera's news. "...What?" he gasped. "We can't... I mean, I can't... Wait..." Hyperventilating now, Taka slowly calmed down, taking deep breaths, before continuing.

"We can't become hunters! We're too young! And anyway, me, a hunter? I'll be killed before I can even get my weapon out!" The Village Elder then gestured for the two friends to join the group standing before her. Taka took a space beside Hornt, who glared at him before looking back at the Elder.

"The nine of you have been chosen as Mediatas Village's next defenders," the Elder began. "The monster threat is growing. There have been at least twenty attacks in the past ten years. Mediatas needs hunters. Not even Hydra, our best defender, can face the attacking beasts alone every time." Hydra, Taka's sister, stepped forward and put her hand encouragingly on Taka's shoulder.

"Pack your bags, children," the Elder continued, voice feebly shaking as he spoke. "You will journey to the Arena Terra, located in the Military Bastion deep in the Barren Desert. There, your trainer, an... acquaintance... of mine, awaits with your first assignment."

The nine teenagers looked nervously at one another. The Village Elder finished in a slightly stronger voice, "Go, future hunters of Mediatas! May your training be successful and your hunts to be remembered forever in legend." With that, he hobbled into his home, closing the door behind him.

One hour later, the group was sitting in the back of an Aptonoth-drawn cart with all of their supplies and personal belongings, heading across the harsh Barren Desert. The sun beat relentlessly down on them, making them feel like they were being baked alive. They had all been given Cool Drinks to combat the heat, but even those restorative potions barely protected them.

"I'm going to crush those monsters," boasted Hornt, leaning back with his arms resting confidently behind his head. "None of them will ever know what hit them. BAM! One strike of my weapon and they'll be Uroktor fodder!" Mylie blushed slightly at his words. If every village had someone whose bravery and good looks were admired by all of the opposite gender, then that would be Hornt. Taka loathed him.

"Right," sneered Taka. "You'd probably raise your Ukanlos Hammer against a Barioth - and get your rear end handed to you in a storm of flying ice and snow." Kread laughed and added, "Yeah... And wearing Diablos armor to boot!" The carriage erupted into laughter, with Hornt turning bright red and Mylie patting his arm in sympathy.

"Personally," said Relcia, when the gales had died down, "I'm a little worried about the monsters themselves. I mean, you can have appropriate armor and a good weapon, but isn't even a Yian Kut-Ku twice as long as we are tall?" Taka looked at her for a few seconds, considering her point. Relcia met his gaze and smiled at him. Taka turned away and fiddled with his half-full Cool Drink bottle.

"Oh, I'm sure it won't matter," Hornt broke in, back to his old prideful self. "Bring on the Akantor - Hornt will beat them so badly no one will recognize them!" Taahnn grinned, saying, "Before or after they've mauled you so badly that your grandchildren will have scars?" Kread, Taka, and Kiem all roared with laughter. Ryka, Kread's girlfriend, rested her head on his broad shoulder, grinning as well.

Suddenly, Illeera pointed to something in the distance. "Look! Aren't those Delex?" Everyone turned, and indeed, an entire school of the Piscene Wyverns were leaping through the sand like dolphins, following the cart. "And look!" exclaimed Ryka. "Cephalos and Rhenoplos!" Soon, the group was gazing in wonder at the sheer biodiversity of the so-called Barren Desert.

Kiem said grimly, "Yeah, they're all cool-looking and all, but we're hunters... or soon will be. It's our job to slaughter them." Relcia looked up and gasped. "Kiem! A Rathian! Quick, hide!" Kiem looked up in alarm, only to see a bright, empty blue sky. Relcia began to laugh, followed by everyone else. Now it was Taka's turn to smile at her.

The driver of the cart, which turned out to be Hydra herself, turned to face the group. "I'd recommend you keep your eyes open," she warned. "I've been hearing reports of a Black Tigrex sighted in this region." Everyone instantly shut up and nervously scanned the area. Black Tigrexes were very rare, but incredibly ferocious. They were popularly used in stories to scare small children. If the hunter and hunter wannabes encountered a Black Tigrex, it was guaranteed that only one would get out alive - the Tigrex.

The rest of the journey was spent in dead silence as the Aptonoth plodded on toward the distant Military Bastion. Occasionally, a shadow would fall across the cart and the young warriors would look up instantly, but it was usually only a lone Vespoid or Remobra. One time, they even saw a Nibelsnarf, but it took no notice of them. And there was no sight of any Pseudowyverns.

Finally, the spires of the Military Bastion came into sight and everyone relaxed. Illeera slumped against Taka in pure relief, and Hornt, incredibly, looked disappointed. As the Aptonoth-drawn cart passed the gates, everyone looked around in amazement at the vast walls and watchtowers. Hydra stopped the Aptonoth, then instructed everyone to get out and follow her deeper into the fortress.

After another ten minutes of walking, they reached the entrance to the Arena Terra. Their trainer, Bronton, was already there to greet them. Wearing a full set of Uragaan armor and carrying an Agnaktor Lance, he was quite a sight to behold.

"Greetings, trainees!" he bellowed heartily through his heavy helmet. "Welcome to the Arena Terra, where you'll meet, and fight, monsters from the four corners of the Central World!" Bronton then turned to Hydra. "Hydra! It's been too long, my friend." Hydra shook his hand warmly and introduced the nine. The trainer led them all into the vast gates of the Arena Terra, where a lone table sat in the sandy ground, covered in weapons and armor.

"Yes, that is what you think it is, trainees," Bronton said to them. "Pick your armor set and your weapon! You'll be using them soon... today, in fact!" In response, eight of the group rushed toward the selection, followed nervously by Taka.

Taka's weapon choice, the Guan Dao

Soon, everyone was talking cheerily as they tried on armor and picked up each weapon in turn, trying to get a feel for each item. The first to make a final decision was Kiem, who picked a huge Lance, the Rugged Lance, and a set of Blangonga armor. One by one, everyone made their decisions. Illeera selected a Sonic Bow III and Zinogre armor, and Taahnn picked out a Bone armor set and a Basarios Rock, a Hunting Horn.

Hornt, almost instantly, took a Vespoid armor set and the most ferocious-looking Hammer Taka had ever seen. Bronton told them that it was called the Devil's Advocate, made from Deviljho parts. Typical, thought Taka. Hornt picks the biggest weapon of the bunch without a lot of consideration. When Mylie asked him why he picked the frail Vespoid armor, he replied, puffing his chest out, "I'm strong enough to take down monsters without an armor set - I don't even need this." Taka responded with a small chuckle, then chose a Jhen Mohran Longsword, the Guan Dao, and a set of Qurupeco armor.

Meanwhile, Kread and Ryka had chosen Plesioth and Steel armor, as well as the Siegmund Greatsword and Shadow Saber Sword and Shield, respectively. Relcia, after much thought, finally picked a set of Rathian armor and a pair of Dual Swords, which Taka knew as the Raven Tessen, the same weapon that his sister used. That left the Ludroth armor and the Agnablaster Bowgun for Mylie.

With everyone fully equipped, Hydra picked up the table effortlessly and carried it out of the arena. Bronton left for a moment, and just as Taahnn was about to ask where he had went, he reappeared at the top of the arena, on the parapet running around the circumference. He was effectively blocked off from the arena by a fence of wire. Taka began to get that sinking feeling.

"Alright, trainees!" shouted Bronton from his perch. "Starting today, you will train yourselves against specific monsters in this arena. Each monster has been or will be selected for a specific lesson. For today, the lesson is 'Expect the Unexpected'! You'll be fighting a relatively weak wyvern, but don't let that fool you - this little bugger can be quite tricky!" With that, Bronton yanked hard on a lever next to his position, and the large stone gate on the other side of the Arena Terra rose into the air.

From the blackness beyond lurched a large, colorful Bird Wyvern. It screamed once, showing off its blue and green plumage. Taka had seen one of these creatures once - he knew it to be called a Qurupeco. The Qurupeco inflated its bright red throat sac and roared at the hunters-in-training.

At once, Hornt charged it, Hammer held high, yelling at the top of his lungs. The Bird Wyvern instantly saw him and charged as well, bowling him over. It then delivered three direct hits with its blunt beak, knocking the air from his lungs. Rolling his eyes, Kread drew his Greatsword, signalling for the rest to do the same.

"Alright, Guan," muttered Taka to his Longsword. "Let's see what you can do..." The words were barely out of his mouth before the Qurupeco charged at him as well. Dodging frantically, he swung the sword by reflex, slicing the beast's leg. Squawking in pain, the Qurupeco puffed up its throat sac and let loose with several high-pitched yowls. Knowing what the Qurupeco was doing, Taka slashed at its throat sac, but it was too late. Bronton had yanked another lever, allowing several Melynx to scamper into the arena. Taka heard Illeera groan and Kiem curse. At once, the arena was chaos, with the catlike creatures swiping at the warriors, stealing items frequently, and to top it off, the Qurupeco continued to run rampant.

The Qurupeco, aka Impersonator

The young friends paired up, able to defend themselves more effectively. Kiem and Taahnn were the next to be attacked, as the Qurupeco slapped Kiem in the face with its tail and savagely pecked Taahnn twice while he turned to help Kiem. Bleeding from his cheek, Taahnn swung his Basarios Rock, bashing the Qurupeco's beak and causing the Bird Wyvern to stumble. As the Qurupeco turned to face the advancing pair of Hornt and Kread, Taahnn took the opportunity to play a note on his Hunting Horn, increasing the agility of his teammates.

Rearing up on one leg, the Qurupeco splatted Kread with a ball of gastric fluid, who barely blocked with his Siegmund. Hornt attacked with his Hammer, the Devil's Advocate, hitting the monster on its wing - not the best target. Hornt realized his mistake when the Qurupeco pecked again at him, hitting him in the chest. From across the Arena Terra, Taka and Illeera heard one of his ribs break.

Illeera drew an arrow from her quiver and instantly released it, piercing the Bird Wyvern's side. Its tail turned bright red as it became more enraged. Taka rushed up to it as it performed a threat display, slashing once, twice, three times at its left wing. On the third hit, he succeeded in snapping the Qurupeco's wing flint off. The Qurupeco turned to look at him, eyes showing its intense anger. Taka hesitated - and was slammed by its wing flints, the sparks catching his armor on fire. "Don't you dare!" screamed Illeera, letting loose with three more arrows, which electrified the Qurupeco as they impacted on its legs.

The Qurupeco had had enough. Rearing up on one leg, it inflated its throat sac and roared deafeningly, scattering the remaining Melynx. Taka, getting up, tried to shut it up, but too late once again; Bronton had heard the roar and, wincing slightly, pulled another lever. Another gate opened up, and from it came the glow of two murderous eyes.

Relcia and Mylie screamed as a fully-grown Rathian flew from behind the cage door. The Rathian struck, diving from the sky and slamming Mylie with her claws. Mylie was thrown back, bleeding from several wounds. "Help!" she shrieked as the Rathian moved to finish her.

Relcia, in vain, sliced at the wyvern's legs with her Dual Swords, trying to distract it. Kiem struck her with his Lance, spearing her in the side and causing a spurt of blood to gush out. The Rathian roared in pain and swatted Kiem aside with her tail. Relcia fell next, victim to the Rathian's infamous venomous backflip. Seeing this, Taka suddenly became angry. He attacked again and again with the Guan Dao, causing the Rathian to retreat, in intense pain from her several bleeding wounds.

Swallowing an Antidote, which she had packed in advance, Relcia slashed at the oncoming Qurupeco with her Raven Tessen, driving it back. A moment too late, and the Bird Wyvern would have caught Taka with another wing flint attack. Nodding to her in thanks, Taka struck the finishing blow, stabbing the Qurupeco in the chest with his Longsword's thrust attack. Wounded fatally, the monster fell with one last squawk.

With the Qurupeco finally down, Bronton sprung into action, driving the incensed Rathian back into her cage. As the thrill of the hunt ebbed away, Taka stared at the Guan Dao in disbelief and horror, unable to take his eyes away from its blood soaked blade. Relcia, gasping for air as the Rathian's poison continued to fade away, turned to him. "You saved me," she said to him in awe. "That's what friends do, isn't it?" Taka replied, tearing his eyes away from his Longsword and looking into her eyes.

The moment was interrupted by Bronton, who insisted that the trainees get some rest as he tended to Mylie and Hornt. Looking back at the two, Taka walked out of the Arena Terra, the memory of the dying Qurupeco haunting him as his friends followed.

To be Continued...

Monster Hunter Destiny III: Thunderous Duo

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