The Zinogre was dragged, howling deafeningly, into its cage by a tired Bronton, huffing and puffing in his thick Uragaan armor. The Fanged Wyvern had been the subject of another training exercise, and it had just escaped death when the trainer decided enough was enough. Just before then, the still-enraged Ryka was about to sink her poisonous Sword and Shield into its eye.
Everyone was exhausted after the battle with the speedy, acrobatic wolf. Illeera had finally run out of arrows and needed to get more from Bronton. Taahnn's lips were sore from playing endlessly on his Basarios Rock, trying to increase his friends' agility to the Zinogre's level. Kiem's right arm ached badly after continuous blocking with his massive shield. The others were in slightly better shape.
So far, almost all of them had been severely injured or killed since first arriving at the Military Bastion and the Arena Terra. Hornt and Kread had been fatally wounded, Mylie had been permanently half-blinded, Relcia had attained severe damage to one of her legs, and Illeera's leg had been bitten clean off and replaced with a metal prosthetic limb. Taka was nowhere to be found after he had gotten his arm bitten off as well.
Now, in the barracks that they shared, everyone contemplated about the adventures and losses they had in the Arena Terra. It was almost silent, but at the same time, everyone's heads were buzzing.
Illeera had perhaps the most disturbing thoughts of all of them. Recently, she had begun to suspect that Taka, a shapeshifter, had been trying to kill them in the guise of various monsters. She pondered endlessly; The Glauxiturn that became so furious at the sight of Relcia, who broke Taka's heart not a day before... The Jet Agnaktor, which had rescued her from an accidental attack by Kread, and speared him through the heart in mindless rage... What about the Zinogre? Was that creature Taka as well?
She got up without a word and headed for the now-empty Arena Terra. Only one way to find out, she thought grimly. I must inspect the Jinouga's holding pen, even if that mighty Fanged Wyvern is still inside.
Taka spilled out more of his feelings to his friend Vulcan, an injured Rathalos that he had rescued days before. Yesterday, he had come to Vulcan after he had blindly murdered Kread and cried his heart out. Vulcan had been most helpful, saying that it was a tragic accident and that yes, even monsters, the most honorable of creautres, do terrible things out of rage.
Now, after posing as a Zinogre in the Arena Terra, Taka told Vulcan more. "They're my friends," he said numbly, tears pouring onto the ground below him. "And Relcia... She's even more than a friend to me. Why am I still doing this? What good could come out of murdering my only friends?"
Vulcan growled softly, trying to soothe him. Remember, I asked you the same once. You told me that they will soon be hunters - beings that would threaten the existence of monsters all over the Central World. Are you telling me that you will go back on that? Will you neglect the safety of monsters in order to protect your friends?
The Qurupeco-feather-clad being raised his tear-streaked face and looked Vulcan in the eye. "Of course not. I love monsters, but... I love my friends even more. You understand? Did you once, or still do, feel the same?"
Not anymore... Vulcan mumbled. Hunters took my friends one by one... And then my mate and children. I wanted to kill every single human being that lived. But then I calmed down. I remembered the prophecy made by the Elder Dragon, now long dead, and told myself that peace was the answer. But yes, I do understand what you mean. If I still had friends, they would come before anything... even me.
"But I'm your friend, Vulcan," Taka said hoarsely. "You don't have to think of long-lost companions anymore. You have a new companion. A new friend." The corners of the great wyvern's mouth tweaked upwards in a smile. You are right, Taka. We are friends - friends until, no, even after death. And together, we will find a way to end this ridiculous war. We will end it peacefully. The wyvern tossed its head impatiently. But enough with this depressing talk. Why not help me practice flying now that my injuries have healed significantly?
Stealthily closing the doors behind her, Illeera entered the Arena Terra. Bronton was nowhere to be found. The arena had been modeled into a grassland, with a small pool of water and a single tree with vibrant pink flowers garnishing it. The Zinogre's cage, she knew, was straight ahead. And with a shock, she realized that is was wide open.
Unconsciously, she braced for an attack. Then she remembered that if there was going to be an attack, it would have come already. Calming down, she jogged the length of the arena and carefully, cautiously, entered the dark cave-like pen. Straw covered the floor, which would provide mild comfort for whichever monster was being held.
Now, where should I start looking? Illeera wondered. As she poked around in the cage, the only things that she found were scraps of meat, probably from an unlucky Gagua, and bits of fur that the Zinogre had shed while in its pen. Was I wrong? Was the Fanged Wyvern we fought just an ordinary Zinogre?
Suddenly, something caught her eye. Sticking out from underneath some straw in the far corner, it was vibrant and colorful, standing out from the dark, dank inside of the cage. Pushing pack the straw, Illeera saw with grim satisfaction that it was a Qurupeco feather. So it WAS Taka. One of these days, he's going to regret choosing that particular armor set.
Illeera, job done, walked back out of the arena, wondering what to do. She couldn't simply look for Taka, as a shapeshifter like him could have easily gotten away from the Central World by now. However, when she took a closer look at the ground, she saw the faint imprints of great, clawed footprints leading away from the Arena Terra and into the Barren Desert. With a satisfied smile, Illeera began to follow them.
Luckily, Illeera's journey across the Barren Desert was uneventful and relatively safe. No particularly troublesome monsters bothered her. Eventually, her travels took her to the Magma Mountain, and the Zinogre footprints she was following vanished altogether as the terrain became less sandy.
Why would anyone go to the Magma Mountain? Illeera asked herself. It's a good place to avoid hunters, that's for sure - but the dreadful amounts of ferocious monsters surely overbalance that plus. Abrubtly, a shriek sounded from higher up the volcano and she nearly jumped out of her armor.
As Illeera explored, she pondered endlessly. Where in this inhospitable place would Taka be? She maintained a firm grip on her Sonic Bow III and readied an arrow, which she had gotten a stock of just before coming here. Eventually, she came to a huge lake. Illeera's heart skipped a beat as she saw a clump of colorful feathers attached to a shrub. But she was destined to be disappointed - they were bright red and blue instead of green and blue, indicating the presence of a Crimson Qurupeco, not the individual she was after.
Finally, she summoned up her courage as she decided to explore the extensive caverns of the volcano. As she climbed Magma Mountain's rocky slopes, she heard another shriek, the same as the one she had heard earlier. Entering the nearest cave, she followed the sound, which seemed to grow more frequent. She instantly froze when she heard a familiar voice accompany the screeching.
Peeking around a cavern wall, Illeera immediately pulled her head back behind it. In the next cavern was a flying Rathalos, and standing near it, giving instructions, was her dear friend Taka. She cautiously peeked at the duo again.
The Rathalos suddenly crashed to the ground, squawking in pain. Illeera saw that it had a huge gash in its wing, one that looked like it had recently healed. "Come on!" shouted Taka encouragingly. "You were in the air for at least six seconds, that has to be a new record." The Flying Wyvern growled at him as it got up painfully. "Oh, Vulcan," Taka admonished, then astonishingly; "No need to be so sarcastic."
Illeera barely stifled a gasp. He can UNDERSTAND the wyvern? she thought through her shock. When did this happen? Is he becoming a monster himself? She brushed off this last question. It didn't matter if Taka had been born a Deviljho; he was still her friend.
She poked her head out a little more - and then instantly regretted it. The bright blue and white of her Zinogre cap stood out like a sore thumb against the drab grey cave walls, and Taka spotted her nearly the instant she did so. His reaction was immediate - he became a Volvidon, complete with the red shell and long tongue.Apparently, Taka could still speak human while in monster form, as his growl came out loud and clear to Illeera. "What are you doing here?" he said furiously. "If you've come with the others to kill my friend, you're going to regret it!" Illeera stepped out from behind the wall, shaking her head furiously. "No, I'm alone!" she cried out. "I've only come to find you - everyone's been very worried about you!"
"You expect me to believe that?!" Taka exclaimed angrily. "Kiem's never liked me, Ryka's livid about me killing Kread, and I doubt Relcia's ever even thought about me ever since I left!"
It became clear to Illeera now. Taka was changing because of his built-up anger with his friends. For sixteen years, he had not once become angry with them, no matter what happened. But now, it seemed to be too much for him to hold in any longer, and was pouring out in a storm of vengeance and hatred.
"Taka, please come to your senses!" Illeera cried. "I know that everyone's a little upset, but we're your friends! We all care very much about you and want you back with us again!" The Rathalos, which had been standing on the sidelines, suddenly shrieked at Taka. "I know that, Vulcan!" he growled at the wyvern. "But they need to pay for everything they've done to me!" With that, he curled into a ball and rocketed forward at llleera, full speed ahead.
She quickly jumped out of the way, then fired three arrows in rapid succession. They impacted on Taka's underbelly, which had become exposed after he misjudged his roll and ended up on his back. Roaring in pain at the electrical projectiles, he flipped right-side up again and spat a huge wad of paralyzing saliva at Illeera. It hit her dead-on, immobilizing her, allowing Taka to roll rapidly away, towards the Barren Desert.
Illeera never expected what happened next to actually happen; the Rathalos kicked at her with a talon, freeing her from the paralysis. When she got up, she said, "You don't like what's happening any more than I do, don't you." The Flying Wyvern nodded and growled softly. Illeera didn't need to speak its language to understand. "Let's go after him." Climbing onto his back, Illeera and the Rathalos flew after Taka in hot pursuit.
Taka, still in his armadillo-like form, came to a halt in the midst of a stand of nearly dead, parched trees. He looked behind him and saw... nothing. Thank goodness, Taka thought, keeping even his thoughts to a whisper. I was bluffing, of course... But I don't want to be tempted to actually hurt her.
A shadow passed over him. Looking up, Taka saw with a thrill of both anxiety and happiness that it was Vulcan, limping through the air on his damaged wing, with Illeera perched on his back. "Damn it..." Taka said to himself, then made a speedy escape, rolling across the sandy waste more quickly than a fired Sub Shot.
So preoccupied was he that he never noticed the great Brute Wyvern closing in on the strangers to its territory, prepared to pummel them to the ground with its mighty fists...
When Vulcan landed, Illeera immediately jumped off and tried giving chase to the escaping Taka, but it was no good - he was already nearly gone. "I hope he listens to his feelings and comes back," she murmured to her wyvern companion. "If not... I don't know what I'd do without him..." A tear rolled down her cheek and the Rathalos gently butted her with its head, trying to soothe her.
Suddenly, there was a deafening roar in the distance, echoing across the desert. The Rathalos that Taka had called Vulcan bared his fearsome teeth and growled deep in his throat. Illeera paused - she recognized that roar. All she knew about it was that it belonged to a deep blue Brute Wyvern that inhabited areas with extreme temperatures. Then, all of a sudden, she saw it appear on the near horizon.The wyvern wasn't blue at all, as it turned out - it was a bright yellow. However, the slime coating its arms and horn certainly was blue, standing out immensely against its garish hide. Illeera, falling into a deep sense of terror, breathed its name; "Brachydios... The Sulfurous Brachydios..."
Moving with surprising speed, the Sulfurous Brachydios reached the girl and wyvern in no time, blue slime glistening in the sunlight. Swallowing a Cool Drink, Illeera dunked an arrow in Paralysis Coating. Wow, she thought. This Paralysis Coating is becoming something like my main strategy or something.
The Brute Wyvern lunged, slamming its massive fist onto the ground and discharging a puddle of slime. Illeera knew to watch out for the slime - soon, it would gradually go from blue to green, yellow, orange, and finally red, before exploding violently.
Dodging another fist attack, she fired her waiting arrow, instantly paralyzing the Brachydios. She began pelting it with arrows, sending countless electric shocks coursing through its body. Able to move again, the Brachydios jumped forward, jabbing its horn into the ground. Illeera barely got out of the way before a chain of explosions erupted in front of the monster.
Vulcan had seen enough. Roaring at the top of his lungs, he flew up and slammed the Brute Wyvern with his talons. Against a human, this would have been enough to pin him or her down, but all it did was cause a wound to open up in the Bracchidios's side.
Screaming in pain and anger, the Sulfurous Brachydios's slime became as yellow as its scales. It furiously began hitting the ground repeatedly, trying to demolish Illeera. A huge explosion occurred with each strike, and Illeera just barely got out of the way of each one. As the Brachydios ground to a halt, two more explosions rocked the ground as the puddles lying around finally detonated.
Even more explosions appeared as Vulcan rose into the air and spat three fireballs at the Brute Wyvern, which all crashed into it and created great bursts of flame. However, the Brachydios's heat-resistant hide blocked out the worst of the blasts.
The Sulfurous Brachydios reared up, bringing its arms up to its mouth and inhaling deeply. Vulcan narrowed his fearsome eyes, burning with determination, while Illeera's heart sank as realization dawned in it...
Swinging its arms down, the Brachydios exhaled a huge burst of yellowish dust, which flew rapidly toward the wyvern and hunter. Both knew that if they breathed in the cloud of sulphur, they would become badly intoxicated and, eventually, painfully suffocate.
Flapping his wings, Vulcan blew the cloud back at the monster. It screamed again in rage as the dust coated its hide, giving it a gritty texture. As it moved, small amounts blew off into the wind. Now it was even more dangerous - with explosive slime and now poisonous skin. It roared once, then charged forward, swinging its fists wildly...
Taka heard the sounds of battle echoing across the Barren Desert. As he looked up from the oasis from which he drank, he swore he could see small explosions in the distance, throwing up massive amounts of sand and fire. Oh God, he thought, slowly realizing what kind of trouble Vulcan and Illeera were in. Not a Sulfurous Brachydios. Even a Black Tigrex would be better.
He made up his mind then and there. He was angry, yes. His friends had caused great emotional damage to him - but wait. That wasn't right. Taka remembered that it was Relcia's denial, and the denial alone, that had driven him to such a blind fury. No one else was at fault but Relcia and - Myself. No, that isn't right either. Only I am to blame for such childish - no, monstrous - behaviour.Assuming the form of a Nibelsnarf, he silently swam through the grainy sand, towards the site of battle. Before long, he heard Illeera's shouts and Vulcan's roars. Diving under the sand so that only his eyes and nostrils poked above the surface, he continued on, more cautiously this time.
When he saw the great Brute Wyvern, he stopped for a minute. He had forgotten how terrifying the monster looked. And seeing it in action was even more spine-tingling. Shaking his colossal head, he dispelled his fear. Illeera and Vulcan needed him, and he was determined to set things right again.
The Brute Wyvern charged, swinging its slimy fists and roaring madly. Then, Taka decided the moment was right. With a great squeal, he erupted out of the sand, monstrous jaws wide open. The Sulfurous Brachydios barely had time to glance his way in shock before he clamped down with a huge crunching noise.
AAARRRGGGGHHH! screamed the Brachydios, eyes rolling from the sheer pain of the bite. Taka felt his teeth punch through its armored hide - then tasted the sulphurous dust that coated the creature's skin, and knew that he had made a fatal mistake. He instantly released his grip, squealing and growling in pain as the sulphur burned his mouth and throat.
Let this be a lesson to you, sand worm! roared the great Brute Wyvern, bleeding profusely from several dozen punctures. Drawing his arm back, it slammed its explosive-covered fist into the Leviathan's colorful stomach. There was a huge explosion and a searing flare of pain. Taka's squeal became a screech, then he collapsed on the ground, mouth open, barely hanging onto consciousness.
The Sulfurous Brachydios decided that it had enough. Stomping away, occasionally stumbling, it left the near-lifeless body of Taka, disguised as a fearsome Leviathan, to bake in the sun.
Taka woke up suddenly. He had no idea when he had slipped into unconsciousness, but he did know that someone had fed him poison while he slept. Besides the taste of sulphur, he could detect a horrid taste scouring his tongue buds. Taka swore that he had none left.
He snapped open his eyes. Illeera was crouched over him, running her hand over his hard-shelled nose. So he was still in his Nibelsnarf form. He was aware of Vulcan standing over him as well, from behind in case he panicked at the sight of a Flying Wyvern staring him down when he woke up.
"What happened?" where the first words out of his mouth. They were spoken in a low, growling hiss. Illeera jumped, then said, more relaxed, "You swallowed some of the Brachydios's poison and took a dynamite fist to the stomach. We had to give you several Potions, as well as make you eat a... um..." Lowering her voice to just over a whisper, she mumbled, "... A Potent Cloth."
Gagging, Taka thrashed around, trying to get onto his feet. Ugh, nasty! he thought, disgusted and retching inwardly. Makes sense, though... Potent Cloths are used to cure intoxication caused by substances such as Brachydios dust. But I never thought I'd have to EAT one!
Taka slowly calmed down. He lowered his gaze to look at Illeera. "Thank you," he said gratefully. "If it weren't for you - and possibly Vulcan - I'd be dead." Relaxing as he finally noticed that he was once again spending time with his best friend, he slowly reverted to his human form.
Immediately, Illeera rushed forward and hugged Taka tightly. "I'm so glad I have you back," she whispered, voice cracking as she began to cry. I'm simply glad that you've accepted the company of your friend again, growled Vulcan, relieved.
Illeera let go of Taka and he stumbled slightly. "Do you think it's time to make up with our other friends?" she inquired. When Taka looked reluctantly at Vulcan, the wyvern assured him, Don't worry. I'll be at Magma Mountain whenever you need me. I'll teach myself how to fly, if neccessary. The Rathalos took off, staggering a little as his injured wing gave a sharp sting of pain.
Taka looked at Illeera, grinning now that his friend was finally back with him. "Sure," he said happily. His mood suddenly went from happy to almost sullen. "I just hope they forgive me when they realize what I've done..."
To be Continued...