The Arena Terra hadn't seen action in days, as the trainees were still recovering from the loss of one of their group, the Hammer-wielder Hornt. Even Taka, who loathed Hornt with a passion, felt stricken at his sudden disappearance.
What made him sadder, however, was the deaths of the four monsters that he had fought in the Arena Terra - a Qurupeco, Lavender Barroth, and two Bruteon. Even though Taka knew that he should hate the monsters, as they had been warring with the hunters for hundreds of years, he felt very sad when he remembered them falling to the ground in mortal agony, finally becoming still as death took them.
Taka suddenly looked around. Bronton was gathering the rest of the group for another fight in the arena. He picked up his Longsword, Guan, and hurried out the door, grabbing his item pouch on the way out. It felt a little heavy with its First-Aid Meds, Rations, Antidotes, Whetstones, and other assorted supplies inside of it.
Bronton held the group up as he prepared to brief them on what they would face in the arena. "Today's lesson is about Unstable Environments," he boomed when they were all gathered. "Even when on a simple mission, gathering Herbs or Iron Ore, a large monster can ambush you. This is why I need you to be prepared for anything that I will allow to enter the Arena Terra."
Kread and Ryka looked nervously at each other as Bronton continued. "Your mission is to gather as many Unique Mushrooms as you can. The one who gets the most will win some free supplies - but beware, as after a certain amount of time, I will be releasing a monster into the arena." He then opened the doors into the Arena Terra.
The changes that the arena had undergone were dramatic. It was now a dense forest, with trees and shrubs literally covering the arena floor. They were standing in an open clearing, from which they would venture into the makeshift jungle to gather mushrooms. Taka supposed that it had taken Bronton since the Barroth fight to get this ready for them.
"Go!" yelled Bronton from his usual vantage point. As the arena doors slammed shut behind them, the group scattered and made their way into the trees.
Taahnn, Kread, and Kiem stuck together as they searched for the rare fungi. Although they worked independently from one another, they knew that if a monster attacked, they would need to be united in order to stand a larger chance against it.
Kread shouted in surprise as he looked under a fern and discovered a clutch of Unique Mushrooms. Putting the four mushrooms in his pouch, he heard Kiem and Taahnn find some as well. He doubled his efforts, quickly checking each shrub for patches of mushrooms. After five minutes, he had found only one other Unique Mushroom - the rest were common Blue Mushrooms and Exciteshrooms.
Suddenly, he heard Kiem say, "Quiet! I hear something!" Kread and Taahnn became silent, then heard it too - the now-familiar sound of a monster cage opening. The sound was quiet, so the monster was far off and would take time to reach them. Muscles tensing, they continued gathering in silence, prepared to instantly grab their weapons if something attacked them.
Relcia and Illeera stopped dead as they heard the cage open a slight distance away. They had foolishly headed to the deepest part of the forest first, knowing that this area would likely have the most mushrooms, and that the others would search the area around the exit first. Now, they realized that this could have been a potentially fatal mistake.
Illeera took out her Bow and dipped four arrows in Paralysis Coating in advance, then continued searching, more stealthily than before. Relcia sharpened her Raven Tessen with a Whetstone and ate a Ration just in case.
Little did they know that, luckily, this preparation was virtually unneeded. The monster wouldn't find them, at least for now. However, this was only because the unknown creature had already picked out another target...
The creature stopped. It had heard something rustling the ferns in the clearing up ahead. Instinct took over as it went into stealth mode. Moving with complete silence, it slowly followed the sound. As it neared the small clearing, it lowered its body, blending in almost perfectly with the shrubs that now covered it completely.
Its eyes narrowed. A lone human in strange, spongy armor was busy plucking fungi from underneath a fern. Her back was to it, so the creature could easily see the long weapon she carried. The monster winced as it remembered a weapon that looked almost just like that - it had been used to subdue the monster in the rainforest where it lived, while it struggled in the cleverly disguised trap the hunters had placed.
The wyvern shook its head as if to dispel the painful memories. Instead, a plan formed in its head, a plan that it had used many, many times before against prey, and had always worked perfectly.
It shook its long tail, making a low rattling sound and purposely disturbing the plants around it. It smiled a predator's grin as it saw the human turn around, frightened and curious as she heard the noise. Soon, thought the wyvern. Now all I have to do is wait.
Far from the clearing in which the monster stalked, Ryka and Taka continued to quietly gather Unique Mushrooms. Each was cautious, but confident as they counted seven mushrooms each. They didn't know the other's find, so they were both certain that they would win.
And so far, the monster Bronton released hasn't even shown up, thought Taka happily. He knew that for a fact. If the monster was as large as even a Qurupeco, it would have rustled the leaves and stems around them, making quite a bit of noise and alerting them to its presence.
Out of nowhere, the duo froze as they heard a loud *fwssshhhhh*, as if something was flying through the air at a high speed. Then, a shrill scream split the otherwise complete silence, so loud that it made Taka jump. However, the noise wasn't nearly as shocking as the fact that he knew that scream."MYLIE!" Ryka shouted, and instantly sprang to her feet, weapon already in hand, and ran in the direction of the sudden noise. Taka did as well, then faltered as he heard a deafening, catlike yowl somewhere near Mylie's attack. He became terribly frightened as he realized that he recognized that sound - he had heard it before, in the Forested Spring a long time ago. He spoke the monster's name in a horrified whisper as it wound its way into his brain - "Nargacuga..."
Taka began to run again, but more cautiously. If he rushed into the fight, blindly crashing through the foliage, then the Nargacuga would instantly know where he was and would strike without mercy. He needed to be like that Pseudowyvern - silent and stealthy.
As he slowed his pace and began to crawl through the dense foliage, he heard the shouts of his comrades as they rushed toward the scene of the crime. He heard the Nargacuga's angry growl as it, too, heard the multitude of people running to help Mylie.
As Taka continued to creep toward the clearing where Mylie and the Nargacuga were, he began to hear the sounds of battle - Kread's grunt as he blocked a swipe from the wyvern, Kiem's shout as the beast barely missed him, Illeera's voice as she angrily shot arrow after arrow at it. Underneath it all, Mylie's screams had become small groans of pain.
Finally, Taka reached the clearing. The Pseudowyvern was everywhere at once, black scales flashing in the sun as it darted this way and that, striking out at one person then suddenly slashing at another. Taka could see Mylie rolling on the ground in pain and covering her face with her hands. Why, he didn't know, but he knew that the Nargacuga was responsible.
Drawing Guan from his sheath strapped to his back, Taka crept out of the foliage, careful not to attract the Nargacuga's attention. Right now, it was busy with Taahnn, trying to strike him with its muscular tail as he dodged and swung his Basarios Rock Hunting Horn again and again. When the Nargacuga finally succeeded in bringing him down with a tail swipe, he simply got up, drank a First-Aid Med to begin healing the new bruise, and played a few notes on his Hunting Horn, increasing his comrades' speed as well as their weapon's physical strength.
The Nargacuga suddenly jumped 180 degrees and forcefully slammed its tail into the earth, nearly striking Illeera as she dunked a few arrows into her Power Coating. As the monster tried to pull its tail out, which had become stuck in the ground, she rapidly fired five arrows, which all hit their mark.
The Nargacuga yelped as the arrows stung it when they hit. It retreated back, then charged forward, creeping quickly on its stomach and tackling Kiem. He just got his shield up in time, then retaliated with a strike from his Rugged Lance. The sharp point pierced its scales and made it shriek in pain.
Eyes beginning to glow red in pure fury, it screeched another bloodcurdling yowl in anger. Taka quickly ran up to it, and as the wyvern turned toward him, he swung Guan twice, slicing through its front leg. The Nargacuga responded with a slice of its own, slashing its razor-edged wing at Taka. He barely escaped the swipe thanks to Taahnn's agility boost, then thrust the Longsword at it, but missed as it jumped back and then leapt to the side, trying to outflank him.
"Come on... Come on..." Taka muttered at the monster as it hissed angrily at him. It charged him, which was too fast for him to dodge. He was sent flying from the Pseudowyvern's tackle, and when he got back up, it was already leaping for him, jaws wide open. He braced for the sharp pain of the beast's teeth cutting into him.
Kread, quickly running for Taka, heaved his mighty Siegmund at the Nargacuga. It slashed its wing, causing the bladed edge to crack and the monster to stop just short of Taka, squealing in pain. Taka instantly ran for the safety of the foliage, drinking a First-Aid Med when he was sure that the Nargacuga's attention was focused somewhere else. Quietly, he waited for his wounds to heal completely.
With a shock, he realized that he was sitting right next to where Mylie lay groaning in pain. She unconsciously moved her hands away from her face in exhaustion, and Taka saw, with a thrill of horror, that one of the Nargacuga's infamous tail spikes had embedded itself in her left eye. Luckily, it didn't seem to have pierced through to her brain. Taka dragged his helpless friend into the ferns next to him and, making sure that she would be safe, returned to the battle, Guan Dao in hand.
When he reached the Nargacuga, it was already in heated battle with Relcia. It struck again and again in its rage, missing each time and getting slashed by Relcia's Raven Tessen. Suddenly, it stumbled and fell to the ground. Relcia instantly raised her blades above her head, triggering their Demonize ability and causing them to glow bright red. Whirling faster and faster, she sliced the Nargacuga again and again with her Dual Swords. To Taka, she seemed to be moving at a superhuman speed.
Abruptly, her stamina wore out and she dropped her Raven Tessen, exhausted and out of energy at the moment. The Nargacuga instantly sprang to its feet, taking advantage of her helpless state and slamming its tail into her side. Relcia flew through the air and was momentarily knocked unconscious as she hit a tree. The wyvern's eyes narrowed, and Taka knew that it was planning to finish her.
Rattling its tail, it snapped it forward, sending three tail spikes flying at Relcia. In spite of a million to one odds, Relcia, at that moment, slumped against the tree, making all three barely miss her. However, one shot through the sleeve of her Rathian armor and pinned it to the tree. Coming to consciousness after a second, she screamed as she saw the Nargacuga leap toward her, muscles tensed in anticipation for the kill.
Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Taka desperately ran at the Nargacuga, raising his Longsword. As if time was moving slower, he saw himself bring the blade down. The sharp edge, coupled with the weapon's Dragon element and the increased physical strength, succeeded in slicing through the flesh and bone of the Pseudowyvern's tail. With a loud cracking noise, the tail spun off in another direction, blood flying everywhere.
The Nargacuga, aiming directly for Relcia, screeched shrilly as it felt the sharp pain and its tail detach from its body. It spun off course, missing Relcia's tree by a hair and plunging into the ferns. The girl frantically yanked the tail spike out of the tree, freeing her and allowing her to escape. Quickly eating a Ration and washing down with a healing Potion, she retrieved her Raven Tessen and stood ready for battle once more.
Bronton, eagerly watching the fight from the sidelines, had enough. He sprang into action, leaping down into the Arena Terra and literally dragging the moaning Nargacuga into its cage. "Well!" he said in excitement and satisfaction. "You trainees are getting better, much better! Hardly any rookies out there could have fended off a Nargacuga attack!"
He told everyone to wait by the arena's exit while he attended to Mylie, now unconscious from the pain. After handing her over to Hydra, who was waiting with a stretcher, he motioned for the rest to follow him. Closing the arena doors behind him, he led everyone to an airship, docked inside of the Military Bastion's landing area. "Get in," he said to them. "Time for your next assignment."
The airship dropped the team off in the middle of the Forested Spring. Bronton explained that they should take this opportunity to gather as many items as they could for use in the Arena Terra. "But remember today's lesson..." he cautioned. "There might be a few large monsters out there looking for a meal!"
Late afternoon found Taka on the edge of the forest, near a huge lake in a clearing. He was picking Herbs, which were the main ingredient in Potions. After he finished picking the last few, he heard a rustling in the shrubbery behind him. Without hesitation, he whirled around and drew Guan. "Show yourself!" he ordered, voice shaking a little bit in fear.
"Relax,Taka." Taka sighed and put away his weapon. It was only Relcia, carrying a handful of Blue Mushrooms. "You didn't think I was a monster, did you?" She smiled teasingly at him. "Oh no," said Taka sarcastically, putting the Herbs he had collected in his item pouch. "I like nothing more than threatening my friends with fearsome weapons." She laughed, the bright, cheery sound making him blush a little.
Relcia became a little bit more serious as she said, "Taka, I wanted to thank you." Taka cocked his head to the side in confusion. "You saved my life twice in the past week. I thought that you deserved a thank-you." Turning away slightly and drawing his leg back, he said modestly, "It was nothing, really. I just did what any friend would have done."
Tears in her eyes, Relcia suddenly rushed forward and hugged Taka tightly. Startled, Taka faltered, then righted himself as he hugged her back (a little cautiously at first). She let go and drew back a step. Taka's face was now glowing brighter than the setting sun.
"Here," Relcia said, suddenly changing the subject. "I found this in the forest. I don't need it, so I thought that you might want it instead." Taka's eyes widened in amazement as she extended a hand. Sitting in her palm was a large mushroom with a glistening red sheen. "A Dragon Toadstool?" he asked in disbelief. "These are extremely rare. Why don't you want it?" She shrugged and replied, "I told you. I don't have any need for such a thing."
Relcia carefully, tenderly in fact, placed it in Taka's hand, brushing his fingertips with hers. He smiled and placed the Dragon Toadstool in his item pouch. Looking out at the sunset over the lake in the Forested Spring, he suddenly felt Relcia's hand creep out to clutch his own.
Taka turned to her and saw that she was smiling. She drew closer to him and wrapped her other arm around him - their faces were now inches apart. He waited with bated breath, staring into her eyes as if hypnotized, and gently put his free arm around her waist.
Just before Relcia closed the short distance between them, Taka suddenly jerked his head toward the forest as a noise rudely pulled him out of his contentment. Something was stirring in the depths. And in his heart, beyond the love he was feeling for Relcia, he knew that this time, it wasn't a friend.
Relcia heard it too. She carefully drew her Dual Swords. The bushes began to rustle and she glanced fearfully at Taka. He didn't move a muscle as he stared, curious as well as frightened, at the moving foliage.
The bushes stopped for a moment - and then a massive, serpentine shape crashed out from them, slithering rapidly towards the two friends. They dove out of the way as it came to a halt. They looked up and saw its proud head silhouetted against the pink-and-orange sky. Taka's heart, which had been in his throat just mere seconds ago, sank down to somewhere near his lower legs. "AGSOLESTEA!" he shouted in terror, as the great white Wyrm opened its fanged mouth and produced a hissing screech that carried for kilometers.The Agsolestea's frills began to glow as it absorbed the setting sun's rays. It hissed chillingly, then spat a wad of venom at the duo. They ran away just as it splatted against the ground and caused a small bed of flowers to wither and die. Readying his Longsword, Taka suddenly remembered something about Agsolestea in the Forested Spring. What was it? he thought frantically, pushing his brain to the limit. Oh no. It can't be... He opened his mouth to warn Relcia, when another screech came from deeper in the forest.
This time, a black Agsolestea slithered out of the foliage to join its mate. The two serpents, as one, turned toward Taka and Relcia and screamed loudly. A Dark Agsolestea... Oh, we are so screwed... Obviously, it was breeding season, as the Dark Agsolstea would have still been in the Frozen Wastes if it wasn't.
Bronton, who had heard Taka's shout and then the shrieking of the Wyrms, suddenly burst through the foliage and drew his Agnaktor Lance. "Go!" he shouted at the two friends. "Get to the airship - I'll hold them off as long as I can!" Hesitating, then running as fast as they could, Relcia and Taka raced for the clearing where the airship was docked. They heard Bronton's grunt of pain and the Agsolesteas' hiss of triumph. Neither dared look back.
Suddenly, Bronton was there, running with them through the darkening woods. "I couldn't stand against them!" he yelled, in almost as much of a panic as the two teenagers. "They're too strong together! And soon it will be night - the Dark Agsolstea will draw power from the shadows!" The trio heard mad hisses and the cracking of crushed shrubs - the pair of Wyrms were giving chase.
Just before they reached the clearing where the airship waited, Relcia tripped on a plant root. She cried out as she hit the ground. Taka looked back, stopped, and ran back, trying to help her up. He managed to get Relcia up and running in seconds, but in those seconds, the Agsolestea pair caught up to them. The Dark Agsolestea reared up, then plowed its thick body into the ground, just missing the two friends, now running for their lives again. His mate spat a white ball of light energy at them, formed from the sunlight it had absorbed just minutes before.
The projectile slammed into a tree, causing the trunk to fracture and splinter. By now, Taka and Relcia had burst through the vegetation into the clearing. By the airship, Kread and Ryka looked up in surprise - clearly, they had been having a romantic evening of their own. At least THEY weren't disturbed by two Agsolesteas, thought Taka jealously. Then the Agsolesteas, eyes glowing green in the increasing darkness, burst through the shrubs as well and continued to pursue the fleeing humans.
Already on the airship, Bronton helped the four friends up over the side, then cut the rope that held it to the ground. The vehicle rose up above the trees, leaving the enraged Wyrms behind. The Dark Agsolestea fired a beam of pure shadow at the airship while the other shot a beam of light. Both barely missed, instead hitting each other and exploding violently. By now, the airship was already heading off, and Taka heard the Agsolesteas' shrieks grow fainter in his ears. Exhausted, he slumped to the deck, asleep even before he hit it.
Overall, the mission into the Forested Spring was a success. After the airship had picked up Taahnn, Kiem, and Illeera, Bronton had counted out the great amounts of plants, ore, insects, and even fish that the group had collected. He awarded three Mega Potions each to Ryka and Taka, who had gathered seven Unique Mushrooms during their earlier lesson.
Finally, the airship landed in the Military Bastion. Bronton sent them one by one to wash in the small lake in the middle of the Bastion, then told them to get some much-earned rest. They all hung up their armor and weapons, and instantly were asleep, all except Taka.
Taka, staring up at the ceiling of their barracks, thought for a while. Eventually, his mind settled once again on the Qurupeco that he had killed. In his mind, he heard its squawk as it fell to the ground in mortal pain. Then he thought of the Bruteons, the Lavender Barroth, and the Nargacuga, which hadn't died but had still been severely injured. He felt a pang of guilt when he thought of its tail flying off, severed by his Longsword.
I shouldn't be thinking this, Taka thought once again. I only cut off the wyvern's tail to save Relcia. I didn't mean it any harm... He blushed a little when he remembered his meeting with Relcia in the Forested Spring.
Maybe I'll feel a little better tomorrow. Taka reassured himself. Maybe I'll stop feeling sorry for the monsters - the things that we're supposed to be at war with.
Little did Taka know that, tomorrow, things wouldn't get better. They'd get far worse.
To be Continued...