"TAKA!!" Bronton roared in delight. Positively overjoyed to see the thin, bespectacled teenager again, the trainer slapped Taka on the back. The blow knocked Taka's glasses off of his face and sent him sprawling to the ground. "Oops, sorry, Taka," Bronton apologized.
Thankfully, Bronton didn't ask any questions about where Taka had been and why he had gone. He was simply too happy to see his trainee again, as he had grown to like Taka over the couple of weeks that he had been training in the Military Bastion. However, when Taka asked where his sister, Hydra, was, Bronton grew grim.
"She went to Mediatas Village," he began. "You see, a monster called Kuarusepusu attacked..." He went on to explain the situation in Taka's village. When he finished, Taka looked grim as well.
"No word from her yet?" he asked, a note of worry in his voice. "Sorry, mate," Bronton replied. "Nothing from Mediatas Village at all. Knowing how powerful a Frontier monster is, I'm guessing that the village was decimated." Taka simply remained silent, but he smiled a little when Illeera patted him gently on the shoulder, trying to cheer him up.
"Enough about monster attacks and missing hunters," said Bronton, loud voice booming through his Uragaan helm. "How's that prosthetic arm of yours holding up? Feel any different when you swing that magnificent Guan Dao?" Taka shifted from foot to foot and looked at his half an arm. "Well," he said uncertainly, "I'm getting used to it. It's a little difficult, but I think that I'm getting better with Guan here."
Bronton nodded, satisfied with Taka's answer, then asked, "Why don't you go see those friends of yours? They've been dying to see you again, you know." Taka's faint smile vanished. "Oh... Okay then, I'll go do just that." He shook his trainer's hand and looked at his armored helmet, as if trying to see through it and into his eyes.
Bronton, as he saw the vibrant blue eyes of Taka boring though his helm, felt a funny sensation. Whenever he looked at Taka, he felt this... weird feeling. As if he knew Taka somehow. It wasn't nostalgia, he knew that for a fact - after all, he had never seen Taka before in his life until now. But he couldn't shake the feeling that Taka reminded him of someone.
Oh, well, Bronton thought as Taka and Illeera headed off. I can dwell on this later. After all, I need to prepare the Graduation Match for the trainees. Too bad Hydra isn't here to help me with the last monster - it'll be a doozy, that's for sure.
Illeera opened the door to the barracks. Hidden behind her, Taka could see the faces of all of his friends - Well, remaining friends, that is, Taka thought - look up at her as she entered the room. "Everyone, look who's here!" she said happily. She stepped aside, and Taka knew that he was fully exposed, looking sheepish in his Qurupeco armor. "Umm... hi," he said awkwardly.
He glanced at everyone's face in turn, from Mylie's look of astonished joy to Kiem's look of what looked suspiciously like disappointment. He quickly looked away when he saw Relcia, but not quickly enough to see her expression - a curious blend of mixed disbelief, relief, and guilt.
"Where WERE you?" demanded Mylie. "Everyone's been worried sick!" Taka felt his heart sink somewhere down to his toes. He knew that this moment would come eventually, but that fact didn't make him feel any better about it. He met Illeera's eyes, which seemed to say, Just tell them.
"Um," he began hesitantly. "You know the monsters that you've battled recently? Well... could you tell me about them?" Taahnn answered grimly, "Bronton's been piling on the tougher monsters, and we haven't been having too much of a good time, believe me." Taka nodded, all the while staring at the nasty scars on Relcia's leg - Courtesy of me... he thought with a pang of guilt.
Taahnn continued, "There's been a Glauxiturn, which almost killed all of us. Then in the Frozen Wastes, we encountered a Jet Agnaktor that mopped the floor with us, not to mention killing Kread... And then a Zinogre, which wasn't as hard on us, but tough all the same."
Taka's eyes were a mixture of sadness and guilt. Only Relcia noticed, and realization dawned in her heart, bringing a sinking feeling with it. My God... she prayed. He didn't... He wouldn't dare...
Taka started to speak. "I know all of this, Taahnn." There was a string of gasps. "How?" demanded Kiem. "You were gone for days! How could you know ANY of this?" Taking a deep inhalation, Taka spoke in a deathly quiet whisper... "It was me."
There was instant silence, a silence so thick that Taka could have cut it with his weapon. "...What?" breathed Mylie. Kiem didn't understand (he was always a little slow). "WHAT was you?" he demanded again. Relcia remained silent, instead staring at Taka with pure terror in her eyes. The shapeshifter confirmed her innermost fears; "I was those monsters. I tried to kill you all three times."Another string of gasps ensued. "So," whispered Ryka, voice dangerously unstable. "You're the reason Kread is dead. You're the reason that my boyfriend WAS SLAUGHTERED!" Drawing her Shadow Saber and screaming in a maddened rage, she ran at Taka, who looked positively terrified. After only a moment's hesitation, Taka bolted out the open door, narrowly dodging the poisonous sword which crashed into the wooden wall instead.
Ryka, followed hesitantly by the rest of the group, madly chased after Taka, determined to slice him into pieces if it was the last thing she did. It nearly was too, as Taka actually had a plan - as soon as he led her into a wide enough area, he instantly became a Dark Agsolestea. Hissing ferociously, and so hard that saliva flew out of its mouth, the serpent coiled around Ryka and pinned her arms and legs. Drawing its head back, eyes burning with pure anger, it prepared to finish her.
"Taka, NO!" screamed Illeera. "Remember yourself! Don't give into anger again!" Slowly, the Dark Agsolestea calmed down. However, it tightened its grip, letting go only when Ryka had stopped struggling. Gasping for air and falling to her knees, Ryka fought her exhaustion, trying to reach her Shadow Saber. Taahnn kicked it away.
"We don't murder friends, Ryka," he said simply. "We're better than that slime over there." Glaring at Taka, he stepped away from Ryka's heaving body. Taka glared back and slowly reverted to his human form, venom in his eyes.
"For your information, hunter," Taka said, spitting out the word as if it were poison, "I did all of this to protect the monsters. They are going extinct as we speak. My friend is in danger!" Mylie's eyes bulged. "You have a FRIEND monster?" she asked, amazed and appalled at the same time.
"Yes," snarled Taka. "He is a Rathalos, and I helped him when he was on the brink of death. His name is Vulcan." Backing away from the shocked group, he continued. "For his sake, I will not harm any of you. He wishes that we make up and continue our lives as friends - and as impossible as it may seem, I wish that as well." His eyes teared up and his face softened. "I wish it more than anything."
Taahnn, initially taken aback at this speech, slowly nodded. "If what you say is true, and you indeed have a friend in need out there," he confessed. "Then I will help you. A true friend must be protected at all costs. And I know that I would protect my friends with my life." Taka was shocked at this sudden mood shift.
Illeera stepped forward. "I stand by Taka as well," she declared. "He has a friend to defend, and I, for one, say that it doesn't matter that his friend is the very thing that we humans have sworn to destroy." Mylie nodded and linked arms with Illeera. "Then I guess I will help," she said, full of confidence. "A friend of Taka's is a friend of mine, and no friend gets left behind!"
Cautiously, Relcia took a step as well. "Even if that friend breathes fire and eats our species for lunch," she murmured, finishing Mylie's statement. Taka's heart warmed - with Relcia by his side, he felt like he could do anything. But when he tried to catch her eye, she looked away.
Only Kiem and Ryka stood against them. "I will NOT stand beside a murderer and a traitor," growled Ryka, and Kiem nodded his agreement. "Or a monster," he added. With a final nod, both of them stalked away, deeper into the Military Bastion.
"So I guess it's a plan," agreed Taahnn. The five of them had agreed to work together in order to complete the Graduation Match that Bronton was setting up for them. They were excited and, most of all, happy to be working together with Taka by their side once more.
Taka himself was polishing his Guan Dao, or Guan as he called it. "When's the Graduation?" he asked absentmindedly. "Later this afternoon," replied Mylie. "Do you think you can prepare in time?"
"Of course," laughed Taka, looking up from his work. His eyes were sparkling with a radiance that no one had seen in a long time. "I'll just tell Bronton that I don't think I'm up to such a challenge yet. With my arm and a half, it'll be easy to convince him."
Relcia shook her head. "You could be killed, Taka," she pleaded. "Please don't do it." Taka tried once again to look her in the eyes, but again, she turned away. "Relcia, if I don't do this, I might get killed anyway, as well as everyone else. If I do this instead, then I'm the only one at risk." Quietly, Relcia put her head in her hands and began to cry.
Clearing his throat loudly, Taka got up from his seat and sheathed Guan. "I've got preparations to make," he said, trying to cover up his shame. "I'll see you all in the Arena Terra!" With that, he walked out the door and disappeared from view.
"Welcome one and all, to the Arena Terra's Graduation Match! Today, we will see whether these new recruits have what it takes to defend Mediatas Village! But can they succeed in becoming Mediatas's new hunters?"
Bronton was the announcer, yelling into a large horn fashioned from the shell of a Shogun Ceanataur. Villagers from Mediatas Village, eager to get away from their partially demolished home, had come to the Military Bastion to cheer on the future hunters. The Elder was there beside Bronton, smiling confidently, and Hydra sat on his other side, wearing a splint for her arm and with a nasty scar on her cheek.
The Kuarusepusu had proven no problem at all. It had fled shortly after Hydra had entered the village, but had left behind a smoldering ruin. Only a few buildings were left standing, and the rest were burnt black by lightning strikes and pure, destructive light. To Hydra, and indeed the rest of the people, coming here was a chance to get away from their troubles.
The six trainees - Ryka, Kiem, Relcia, Mylie, Illeera, and Taahnn - filed into the arena, drinking Armorskins, sharpening their weapons, preparing ammo, and simply waving to the cheering crowd. "Oh, if only Hornt was still here," sighed Mylie. She had never quite gotten over his death. "Imagine what he'd be doing right now."
Taka, according to plan, was absent, having asked Bronton for a few more days in order to practice wielding his weapon before graduation. Bronton had granted his request, and had sent him off to go train with one of the Bastion residents. But Taka had quietly given that particular person the slip, with the aid of a Baggi's powerful sedative.
"Alright, folks!" bellowed Bronton. "Now for the main event! Cheer on your future defendants as they prove their valor here, in the Arena Terra!" He flicked a lever, the last of many, and the noise of the opening door was drowned out by the roaring crowd.What wasn't, however, was the screech of the newly-released monster. Scuttling into the arena, modeled once again after an ancient ruin, was one of the most fearsome Neopterons of the Central World - the centipede-like Scoliarch. With another screech, it clacked its vicious mandibles and reared up, many legs waving in the air as if caught in a wind.
Everyone tensed up, ready for the fight of their lives. However, only Ryka and Kiem were actually doing it and not pretending, like the others. They didn't know what Illeera, Relcia, Taahnn, and Mylie knew - that the Scoliarch was actually Taka in disguise. Just before the match, Taka had released the real monster and took its place in the cage.
Taahnn opened up the match by playing on his Basarios Rock as usual, increasing his teammate's resistance to extreme temperatures - useful against monsters such as the Scoliarch. Ryka, knowing that Neopterons were weak against poison, charged with her venomous sword held high.
Unfortunately, Taka saw her coming and blasted her with his own poison, the spray deliberately missing her by a few inches. Dodging Ryka's initial attack, he body-slammed her, once again missing her by inches. Kiem charged as well, spearing his Rugged Lance into Taka's exoskeleton. The shell was harder than Kiem expected, however, and the weapon simply bounced off of it.
Illeera carefully shot a few arrows coated in Paralysis Coating ("Surprise," muttered Mylie) at Taka. The first two were carefully fired at insufficient angles, and they simply glanced off Taka's armored shell. The third hit him in the underbelly, but didn't have enough coating on it to actually paralyze him.
Taka played his role well, instantly making a beeline for Illeera when the arrow struck him. However, his head swing accidentally hit her, sending her to the rocky ground. Then, he focused on Mylie, climbing over a ruined wall that got in his way. She pelted him with Freeze shots, knowing full well that it wouldn't hurt Taka all that badly.
To Taka, the freezing impacts stung, but he managed to ignore them. OK, time to get serious, he thought. I need to break out some more powerful attacks, or else the crowd, not to mention Bronton and Hydra, will suspect something. With that, he released high-pressure jets of flammable gas that hissed out from the special pores under his shell.
Ryka was struck as well as Relcia. Lucky that Relcia's wearing that Rathian armor, Taka thought with relief. The Fire resistance will help balance the gas - but I can't say the same for poor Ryka. The cheering crowd grew louder as it saw the two girls become enveloped with the gas. I know what they're expecting next... Well, better not disappoint them... and I'm sure Relcia will see it coming, so she'll get out of the way for sure.
Taka released his gas again, but not in jets - he simply let it hiss out of his pores and engulf his centipede-like form. Reacting with the gas was his shell, which was coated in special oils. Almost instantly, he burst into flames.
Screeching triumphantly, Taka coiled up and rolled around like a wheel, aiming directly at Kiem. He successfully blocked the charge with his giant shield, but was knocked over from the force of the blow. Taka ground to a halt, fires extinguishing themselves when he landed on his many legs.
Relcia took the opportunity to strike multiple times with her Raven Tessen Dual Swords. However, the swords only made minor scratches on Taka's carapace. Thank goodness, he thought. I thought that she'd be mad enough at me to really cause me harm.
Chittering, he casually batted her away with his back end - not too hard, just enough to make her lose her balance and fall. Then Taka struck, coiling around Relcia and gripping her with his legs. Dipping his head down repeatedly and snapping his mandibles, he pretended to bite her. In reality, he was using the opportunity to communicate.
"Doing OK?" he whispered in a strange, clicking voice. "Of course, Taka," Relcia whispered back. "And I'm really glad to see you again, by the way." Taka's mandibles shivered slightly, the closest a Scoliarch came to smiling. Then, Relcia hurled a Dung Bomb, which exploded in his face and caused him to uncoil and release her. The sheer smell made Taka give out a chittering scream of disgust. That's my girl, he thought proudly.
The battle dragged on. The group of six all had minor injuries, but nothing serious. Ryka and Kiem were amazed, but didn't question their "luck". The others simply thought, Just part of the plan. Taka was enjoying himself greatly. There was nothing like a little deception to spice up his day.
Finally, his exoskeleton was marred by countless scratches and cuts, some which actually dribbled yellow-green blood. He was growing increasingly wary of Kiem and Ryka, who didn't know it was him and would kill him without hesitation. Then again, he thought grimly. They'd probably kill me anyway.
Missing Illeera with a snap of his mandibles, he tripped on a medium-sized rock and flipped over, waving his legs in the air and chattering madly, doing a good impression of a panicked, upended insect. That was Relcia's cue - it had been decided that she would make the finishing blow. She had decided this separately with Kiem and Ryka as well, to stop them from unknowingly killing Taka.
Running up to the thrashing Neopteron, Relcia raised her Dual Swords over her head, thus triggering the Demonize ability. Breathing hard, she became a blur of movement as she struck again and again and again. Finally, she halted, dropping her Raven Tessen out of exhaustion. But her work was done, or so it seemed - Taka shapeshifted once more, imitating a dead Scoliarch with lifeless eyes and blood oozing out of its many wounds. He gave one twitch, then lay still.
The crowd, which had gone silent, suddenly erupted, cheering and applauding at the top of their lungs. Everyone put away their weapons and grinned widely, bowing and waving their arms at the cheering villagers. Taahnn even played a victory note on his Basarios Rock, and Bronton shouted, "Well done, trainees! Or should I say... MEDIATAS VILLAGE'S NEW HUNTERS!" The noise of the crowd sharply increased, until it was more deafening than the screech of a Diablos.
Hydra climbed down the stairs leading up to her and Bronton's perch, opening the great doors of the Arena Terra and allowing the new hunters to file out. It was only when there was silence, and the villagers left to their Aptonoth-drawn carts to head back to the village, that the dead Scoliarch became a live one. Chuckling, Taka scuttled out of the Arena Terra, closing the doors behind him.
To be Continued...