Disclaimer: Monster Hunter is copyright Capcom. Most of the characters in this story are mine. Kai and Kei belong to SG-Kai. Razor belongs to ultimatemh.

Edited by: Hoenn Master96 (I should have been putting this here for quite a few chapters, it just never occurred to me to do so...)

It was a struggle for Levin to wake up the next morning. As nice as it had been sleeping in a bed rather than the back of a wagon, getting used to a bed that wasn't his was always a struggle. Even with Ellie lying next to him, he'd had trouble nodding off. But when light began to filter through the room's window as the sun began to rise, he forced himself out of bed in order to get a jump on the day. The next week was likely to be a rough one, chasing after some runaway lights, with only the challenge of leading a good number of Lost out of the area as the final reward.

At least with the developments his relationship with Ellie had given them the opportunity to share a room, which appealed to his sense of thriftiness. Noi had paid them well, but without the constant hunts they'd gone on before meeting Pugnax, he and Ellie had hit a bit of a low point when it came to how much money they had in their wallets. Maybe once this mission was over they'd be able to go out and be normal monster hunters again. Though, with the way they were growing increasingly famous (or infamous, as some people considered them), Levin wondered whether or not they'd be able to get back to normal hunting anytime soon. Maybe one of the other Lost hunters would make some sort of ruckus, drawing the attention away from them, or maybe their fifteen minutes of fame would wear out quickly. Hopefully so.

Ellie woke up as Levin was pulling his blue-grey boots on, wearing some terrible bedhead and blinking painfully at the rays of sun peeking through the window blinds. The huntress had never been much of a morning person, and had grumbled quite nastily at having to get up so early that day, but knowing what the goal of the mission was proved to be enough of a motivator to get her out of bed and suiting up in good time. After making certain they both had their satchels filled with the necessities, as well as a few extra goods they'd brought along for the long mission, the two left the room, heading back to the bar of the inn. Kai and Kei were waiting for them when they came in, as was Kerry. Levin glanced in surprise at the bowgunner's weapon: it was some red mess of parts that he hadn't seen before, with materials made from other red beast that wasn't the Rathalos; an Agnaktor, perhaps? Harker didn't seem to be there yet, which was odd; Levin knew that the long sword user had a tendency to be up and moving before anyone else in their little hunting group.

"Good morning," Ellie greeted the others, sliding into the seat next to them. "Where's Harker at?"

"Morning, dears," Kerry grinned. "Harker is… well, he's trying to make his notebooks fireproof last I heard, though I'm not sure exactly he's going to make paper not burn. I don't think we'll be going all that deep into the Volcano for him to worry that much about it, but… well, he's intent, and despite my efforts, I couldn't convince him to stop or to leave the notes behind."

"We're kind of trying to get out of here quickly…" Kai said. "Why won't he just leave the notes behind? What does he expect to find out there that's worth studying and writing down?"

"With him? Anything," Kerry sighed. "Maybe… he'll find some of the moss that the Uragaans eat and want to sit down for an hour or so to study it. Maybe something else. It's always hard to tell with him."

"So will he be ready anytime soon?" Kei asked.

"Maybe… it's hard to tell," Kerry replied worriedly. "Usually, I can convince him to get back on track, but… sometimes he's just really stubborn about something. I think this is one of those times, I'm afraid, so… sorry. It might be a good hour or more before he can be dragged away from his work."

"Damn it," Kei muttered. Then she sighed and grinned. "Oh, well. Maybe that'll give me and my brother here enough time to find someone in town that sells herbs in this town. Too many people out there that sell those potions, but… nothing quite as simple and workable as herbs. Maybe this time, my idiot sibling here can avoid taking a beating enough so the pair of us can avoid using up so much of them…"

"I'm sorry," the horn user replied sarcastically. "Remind me again, who was the one that thought it would be a good idea to try and block an Uragaan's chin with her face? The speed and damage of a long sword is fine and good, but you can't exactly block an earthquake with it, now can you, dear sister?"

"At least I make sure to take care of my weapon! As I recall, you got your bagpipe a touch too close to the lava during that fight, and the thing nearly burst into flame! A support hunter's not very helpful when his tools are in cinders!"

"Oh, please! Remember that Gigginox mission you forced me to go on with you? Instead of catching it off guard by charging in with a full assault, you wanted to sneak up on it! How did you forget that the damn thing can see in the dark?"

"What! You're the one who tried to blind it with a flash bomb! The things don't have eyes! How do you expect-"

Levin flinched as Ellie nudged him with her elbow, tilting her head towards the door. "Let's get out of here," she said quietly. "I kind of want to explore a little while we're still in town. Maybe there's someone in town who can make a bowgun for me or something."

"Yeah, sure," Levin nodded. "It looks like we've got some time to burn, anyway."

While the two siblings continued to bicker between themselves, Levin and Ellie quickly slunk out of their seats, and worked their way out of the bar. Kerry seemed to be the only one that noticed, but she simply grinned at the pair of them as they walked out, perfectly content to wait at the inn for Harker to finish doing… whatever it was he was doing.

Levin hadn't really had a chance to properly explore the town when they'd first arrived; he was glad for the chance to do so, considering that this city was heavy center of smithy designs, specifically the designs ores found in the Volcano area provided. Though, with all the smiths that had popped up in the area, it was no real surprise that if there was anywhere besides Loc Lac where you could find someone, anyone, that would be able to mold and work with whatever metals you had on you, it would likely be here. At least, that's what the switch axe user had heard from the caravan drivers he'd traveled with on the way down here.

The town seemed shaped very… hive-like. That was the best way that Levin could describe the place. The roads twisted and turned in hexagons, squares, and other shapes as the two Lost hunters worked their way through the town, looking at the shops and signs that littered the area. It was like the concept had been shrunk down to a half or a third of its original size. Four or five or six shops would be clustered together on a single small plot of land, and small roads would circle around them all, winding and weaving through the dozens upon dozens of clusters. It didn't seem to follow a decent pattern like the other cities and towns the hunters had seen; Boma Village had been designed in the circular pattern that was for safety reasons, and Loc Lac and Orage Dell had been designed in the crisscross pattern that seemed to still be popular after all these years, though Orage's system had their roads at angles rather than in lines moving north-south and east-west. Levin imagined that, if he could see Frost Town from the sky, it really would look like a honeycomb, with small roads etching out lines between the mismatched land areas. It seemed to work well, though; with so many smiths in town, the ones that clustered together in the city, most that were on the same plot of land could simply share a chimney stack wedged in the center of the area. As they walked, he and Ellie talked about what they saw sitting on display, as well as what they wanted to see.

"Maybe I can look for someone that can work with switch axes while I'm here…" Levin said as they passed another shop displaying the weapons. He hadn't seen many stores displaying the volatile weapons since he arrived in town, which didn't surprise him, considering their relatively new design, as well as the dangers the weapons possessed.

"Already?" Ellie asked in exasperation. "You've only had the one you have now for just over a month, and that's made from Lagi materials! Do you really need something new already?"

"Just keeping my options open," Levin shrugged. "I mean, it's not like I really have the materials to make a decent one right now, anyway. I… think I might have what I need for a low-level one, that I can build up into something nice eventually, but it's not like I'm going to be replacing my weapon anytime soon. I'm just… window shopping, I guess."

"Well, you better not think about doing anything more than that," Ellie muttered. "If the switch axes I've seen advertised are any indication, we'll need to take down some really nasty beasties for you to get something that compares to your Lagi one."

"Yeah, I saw that," Levin replied sullenly. "The lowest level one above the base design is made from Barroth materials, and, well… I haven't really been enthusiastic about going after one of those since our last run-in with one of them."

"Ah. Right," Ellie sighed. "We're gonna need to get a mission one of these days and get rid of that little issue…"

"No kidding," Levin nodded. "Let's see, besides that… there's a Barioth design, an Agnaktor design, and let's not forget to mention that one guy who swore he could make something really good out of Ceadeus materials or Jhen Mohran goods, though for the life of me, I couldn't guess how he'd get Mohran materials. Most of the goods off of dead Jhens sinks to the bottom of the sandsea from what I've heard."

"What about that really shiny one I saw advertised?"

"The crystal one? Yeah, I need a lot of materials from underwater for that one, and I've… never been fond of underwater mining. I mean, I've taken out a Royal or two in the ocean, but what they were asking for was in the Flooded Forest, and while I'm okay going toe to toe with Lagiacrus and Gobul on land, I'm… less comfortable about messing with them underwater."

"Ah, good point…"

As they walked, they continued to look around, taking note of the various weapons smiths put on display at their shops. There were several weapon types up for show that were less than common in Loc Lac, and though the hunters glanced at them curiously, they really didn't spare them much more than a once-over. Neither of them had the desire to try out a new weapon while they were so busy with Guild work. However, the pair of them did find themselves pausing at one shop that caught the pair's attention. Rather than being manned by a more common-looking smith like an old, wizened-looking Wyvernian, or Felynes, or even Shakalaka, this shop was manned (figuratively speaking) by an older human woman.

She was well into her middle-age, with shoulder length dark brown hair and eyes of similar color. She was wearing unique clothes that weren't exactly common for the Volcano area, from what Levin had seen, but he thought that the baggy clothes belied a fairly strong body. A smith herself, perhaps? The front of her shop didn't have many things on display; a couple long swords, one or two normal swords, a few other random weapons. But there was a bowgun in the middle of the display that caught Levin and Ellie's eyes: It was old, and actually didn't seem like a bowgun at all… actually, it looked to Levin like an old rifle from the time of the Lost… or a blunderbuss of some kind. Ellie seemed drawn to the weapon, and strode over the shop, with Levin tailing behind.

"Heading out to the Volcano, are you?" the woman behind the counter asked in a motherly voice as they approached. "You look a little young, and a little green to be four star hunters. You here with some higher ranked friends, or are you here on special Guild business?"

"Oh, uh, a little of both, actually," Ellie replied. "The Guild has us here on a mission they want us on to complete, but we needed to work with some higher ranked hunters for them to allow us to come here. How'd you know?"

The woman smiled in amusement as she leaned back in her chair and looked at the two of them. "Oh, I've been here a long time. You learn to be able to spot ability and potential when you work as a smith long enough. Some of the truly powerful weapons you can make for people can only really be wielded by the strongest, most dedicated hunters. Anyone too weak or lacking focus, and the power of the weapon can come back and bite the hunter with some nasty backlash. It happens quite often when you see a father or mentor give their son or student a weapon that they can't control." At this, her voice seemed to gain a slight edge, but it quickly vanished when she continued. "So don't be surprised that I can tell that you're not as tough as you're supposed to be, being here in the Volcano area."

The woman's eyes turned back to Levin, and lingered on the switch axe across his back. "For example… that weapon of yours. The switch axe is a very dangerous sort of weapon, not something any smith would build for just any rookie hunter. There's just too much energy flowing through them to just hand them out to anyone. Same goes for long swords, like my son's spare here," she said, pointing to a green- and red-scaled long sword hanging over the back door for the shop, "and even some of the more powerful great swords. Only a lax or greedy smith sends out a hunter with a weapon they aren't sure they can control, and I do my best to be neither."

"What kind of weapons do you make?" Ellie asked, and the woman grinned again.

"Long swords, mainly. I spend a lot of time experimenting with the ores and other metals that come out of the Volcano hunting grounds, and a few other rare ores from all over the place." Then the woman picked up and held forward the old 'bowgun'. "I've also worked with a couple of the archaeologists in the area, and have got pretty proficient at repairing the ancient, beat up weapons hunters bring in every now and then. So, if you find any nice weapon remains, bring them back here. I might be able to something good with them. They're kind of fickle, though, and since they don't really have the variability that other bowguns have, most hunters don't care that much for them. They've got some kick for how much they weigh though."

"Oh, alright," Levin replied. "I mean, I don't think we'll exactly have the time to be looking for such things, considering what the Guild has us chasing after, but… well, if we find something, we'll come back."

"Good to hear," the woman grinned. "Business has been a bit slow recently. Not many people want someone who isn't Wyvernian building them weapons, anyway, not with so many of them around with professional level smithy skills. I'll admit, I'm not the best at weapon building, and I may not have as wide a range as some of the other smiths out there, but there are a few things I can do that not many others can. Heck, I've trained under a few of the master smiths that call this city home. I'm not so bold as to claim to match their skills or anything like that, but still…"

As the two hunters nodded, the woman gave them an odd look. "You two are Lost, aren't you?"

"How'd you tell?" Ellie asked. "I didn't think any Lost had been up here. Er… yet."

The woman grinned at the words. "Not many, that's for sure, but I've seen one or two around. What are the two of your names, if I may ask?"

"I'm Ellie," the sword and shield user introduced herself. "This is my hunting partner, Levin. It's nice to meet you, miss…?"

"Call me Monique," the woman replied. "I think I may have heard of the two of you. Some sort of fuss raised in the Tundra, I think? News takes a while to travel here from the north. Something about an altercation with another hunter, and more about helping out a bunch of Lost that popped up in the area?"

"Um… something like that," Levin replied. "It was a little more complicated than that, but… well…"

"Oh, don't tell me," Monique said, waving her hand dismissingly. "I'll hear the story eventually, and I'm sure the tale will be far more interesting after it's been filtered through a good hundred or so people. Then we'll see what sort of story it's become by then. Trust me, between my son and my husband telling me hunting tales… well, more so my husband. That man loved to tell a good story. My boy was a bit more serious about the stories he told me; he never really elaborated on his tales all that much, but then again, I don't like to hear about the dangerous stuff he's gone through. Anywya, between the two of them, I've figured out how to ferret out the truth in stories that you hunters like to tell. I'm sure I'll be able to figure out what happened after hearing the story from one of the hunters that come through the area. When you come back from whatever you two are doing for the Guild, come tell me the real story of what happened. And if I like what I hear, I may give you a discount should you have something you want me to make or appraise."

"That's the first time I think someone's been so quick to be nice to us after learning we're Lost," Levin said, surprised. "Especially with all the, uh, rumors that have spread about us."

"Well, I have my reasons," the woman said with another smile. "Like I said, I've seen a few Lost, and none of them seemed to be too bad. Besides, I don't feel it's fair to treat people poorly just because there's a bit of a reputation swirling around them."

"Well, thanks, anyway," Levin nodded. "Hopefully the people in Loc Lac will be as generous as you are one day."

"Keep your chin up, young man," the smith grinned. "I'm sure things will turn around sooner or later."

"Levin! Ellie! We're ready to go!" Kei appeared around the corner, eyes landing on the hunters as she came into sight and grinning at them. "It took a while, but me and Kai finally found a place that sold herbs instead of potions. Pretty cheap, too. It was owned by this… earthy sort of guy that called them 'natural remedies' or something. I think he might have been a Lost…"

"Sounds about right," Levin muttered, and Monique laughed next to them.

"That's Kent. One of the, hmm, three Lost that live in town. Came to town a year or so ago saying that Loc Lac was too much of a 'prison of big brother' for his tastes, and traveled here in hopes of promoting some utopian system he was trying to create. Sounds like bunk to me, but he's gotten good and finding rare plants and herbs in the region, so people tolerate him."

"Huh, weird," Kei replied, looking confused. "Anyway, come on you two! Harker finished doing… whatever it was he was doing, and Kerry managed to drag him out of his room. Everyone else is ready by the town gates. We're going to head out towards the hunting ground as soon as we're all there."

"Alright, alright," Ellie replied, beginning to follow after the other huntress, while Monique waved goodbye to the pair of them. However, before they got too far, the sword and shield user abruptly turned, a concerned look on her face. Levin nearly fell onto his backside at the motion, caught completely by surprise. "Wait! Before we go: Monique, why is this place called Frost Town? I haven't had the chance to ask anyone yet, and it'll bother me if I don't know."

The smith blinked in surprise at the question, but laughed a moment later. "Because it snows here," she said simply, still chuckling. All three hunters blinked in surprise at the words, looking between each other in confusion, while Monique shook her head in amusement. "Well, to be honest, it's more like falling ice shards rather than actual snowflakes, which is odd, but people here don't really call much attention to it. This far south, you'll be hard pressed to find anything lower than a mountain peak that has ever seen a flake of snow touch the ground. But somehow or another, here in Frost Town, we'll get a foot or two every few years or so. Nobody knows why. But if you talk to anyone in town about it, they'll all give you a different reason as to why it snows here; they love to make up stories about the whole thing. Some of them even say it's because of me; I'm one of the only smiths in town that can properly work with some of the rarer Tundra metals."

"That's it?" Levin asked, flabbergasted. "It snows here?"

"If you can find any other village near the Volcano that's even seen a single flake, I'll be shocked," Monique replied. "I'm pretty sure this is the only village south of the desert where anyone owns a coat, gloves, or a scarf, simply because of the cold weather. Trust me, it's reason enough. I can't for the life of me figure why it snows here, but it does, and it happens often enough for people to remember it."

"I get that, but… I don't know, I was just expecting something more."

"Well, if you're really disappointed, just ask someone else in town. They'll tell you the same thing, but they'll have a story attached to it, one that they'll swear is the honest truth."


"Alright, come on you two," Kei told them, motioning towards the other end of town. "You can talk to her again, once… once the mission is over. For now, we should get moving. Who knows how long this mission will take? I want to get started as soon as we can."

"Okay, okay," Ellie nodded, following after the other huntress. Monique waved at them as they walked away, towards the southern gate of the city.

Now, the northern gate they had come into the town through was a relatively lax entryway, with large, heavy wooden doors barricading the way in with a couple guards on duty. But the southern gate, however, which was used primarily for hunters heading out to the Volcano, was far more elaborate and solid. The doors were still wooden, but two metal portcullises could be dropped down on either side of the wooden frame. At the same time, nearly a dozen guards stood on duty at the gate, at least two of them appearing to be trained and experienced hunters, watching the lands that lay beyond warily. And for good reason it seemed; beyond the gates, the land darkened from the ash and clouds that lingered overhead, and gained an eternal red tint around it. Grass still seemed to grow in the area, as proven by the grazing Aptonoth in the distance, but it was scarce. As the hunter siblings led the group out of the gate, Levin felt as though he could practically hear the roars and howls of the massive monsters that dwelled in the dangerous realm.

The area surrounding the base of the Volcano was about what Levin had expected of it. The whole area was rocky and smooth, mostly consisting of large rock flats that spread across miles of land. Most of the stone that made up the crust of the earth was normal stone, but a lot of ground that they covered was igneous, remains of lava that had passed through the area at one time or another. Somehow or another, there were actually the remains of trees sprouting up through the random patches of dirt that dotted the land, though most of them were pretty thoroughly dead, with those that were still alive were clinging to life with only the very peaks of them having any leaves. Levin wasn't surprised; with the massive blanket of ash clouds covering the entire area, there was hardly any sunlight filtering down to the earth.

Word of the blue lights said that the mysterious glow had last been seen on the western side of the hunting grounds earlier that day, working its way through the spacious basalt caverns that lined the edges of the mountain itself. So, that's where the hunters would be headed. It was a long trek, and would likely take them a whole day to get there, though; the Volcano hunting ground was enormous, and tricky to cross, with hills and bumps and other pain in the butt terrain. Luckily for them, there weren't all that many dangerous creatures that lurked on the exterior of the volcano; everything nasty stayed inside where the lava flowed. The most dangerous thing Levin saw as they worked their way west was a herd of Rhenoplos, but the herbivores seemed more concerned with chewing on the random patches of grass that they could find then trying to push the hunters out of their territory.

As they trekked, the four hunting partners took the time to get to know the two siblings that Stergo had found for them to work with. Apparently the pair of them had gotten into hunting in order to support their family, specifically their mother, who had some rather nasty hospital bills to deal with. That explained their tendency to purchase herbs instead of potions; they considered Guild-mandated potions to be too expensive, preferring natural healing substances over alchemical drinks. Of course, Harker had spent a good twenty or thirty minutes after that going on about how the pair of them could learn to make their own potions if they felt like it, that he knew enough about alchemy himself that he could teach them to replicate the Guild's formula, though he admitted that after experimenting for a while there was still a forty percent chance that the solution would end 'disastrously', and coming from Harker, that really meant something.

From what Levin could tell, the pair of them seemed to be a solid pair of hunters, though both admitted that they really didn't care for hunting with anyone if the other wasn't with them. Levin could relate; after spending so long working with Ellie as a partner, he felt he'd be hard-pressed to work with anyone else. Well, he wouldn't mind working with Harker or Kerry if Ellie wasn't around for some reason, since he'd gotten to know them pretty well, but he imagined he'd still feel a little lonely about it. He recalled how rough it had been when Ellie was injured and he'd been hunting with Pugnax.

Other than that, the hunters spent their time just talking as they moved on towards their destination, telling stories of their experiences as hunters and their prouder moments. Kai and Kei had some good tales to tell, but Levin was a little caught off guard by the standards and rules that the pair of them set for themselves. For some reason, the siblings set themselves time limits on their missions, and if they couldn't meet the time limit, they'd return to the Guild rep or Loc Lac and abandon the mission. Levin couldn't figure why they'd do something like that, but he figured that it wasn't his business to question it.

Kerry was very quiet as the group of them traveled, despite Harker's attempts at pulling the bowgunner into conversation. Every time the six of them began to travel close to one of the caverns leading into the Volcano's interior, she became increasingly fidgety, nervous about the thought of going into the Volcano exterior. Levin wondered what exactly had happened here to make the woman so nervous about being in the area, but supposed it wasn't his place to ask.

By the end of the day, the hunters had finally made it to the western side of the hunting grounds. They were still a couple miles off from where the blue lights had last been seen, but the sun was going down and the six of them had spent the entire day trekking across the rugged terrain, and they all could use a bit of a break. Fortunately, Kai and Kei knew of an under-hang close by where they could stay the night, a warm place that was away from the Rhenoplos feeding paths, and the overhang was low enough to keep out any Raths or other flying creatures that might pass close by. The only real threat that remained this far from the center of the Volcano was the chance of a vagrant Uragaan popping up, but they'd hear it coming long before it arrived. The area was small, but had plenty of room for them all to be inside. With a large opening, the space dipped down near the center of the cavern, near to where a thick, but old and dead tree sprang up from the earth, twisting upwards towards a small opening in the roof where the last dregs of sunlight filtered through.

"This place should provide us safety for the night," Kai told them. "With luck, the rumors of the lights' location won't be too old for us not to be able to find a trail of some kind tomorrow morning. Or, you know, maybe the lights will actually head towards us or something."

"I think that's giving our luck too much credit, though," Ellie replied.

Suddenly, a loud snapping sound caught the hunters' attention, and their hands went to their weapons. However, rather than the growl of a monster, or the snapping of teeth, the hunters were surprised when the sound was followed instead by a yelp of shock, which came from above them, rather than from around them like they'd suspected. Levin looked up in surprise as a human shape abruptly dropped out of the tree they sat under, and quickly dove out of the way right as the shape crashed into the ground where he'd been standing only moments before.

As Levin tumbled out of the way, he managed to get a good look at the… person who had just dropped out of the trees. The person was a man, as far as Levin could tell, and was a hunter as well, if his armor was any sort of indication, though Levin didn't recognize the make of the design. Some monster he'd never seen, perhaps. It was a deep, dark blue colored design made with thin, polished scales of some sort. A jagged helmet covered the man's head as well, a jagged, pointy design made of the same creature with two small bangles hanging down from the back of the neck. And stretched across his back was a large, dark longbow, lined with dark blue feathers that seemed to be the same color as his armor. The other hunters relaxed a bit at knowing that it wasn't a monster that had caught them off guard, right as the man moaned in pain, and rolled himself over back onto his feet.

"Oh, that hurt," the hunter muttered. Levin cocked his head at the words; the man had an odd accent that he didn't recognize. He thought he'd heard quite a bit while he'd been in Loc Lac, but… was he a foreigner of some kind? "All those years in the Great Forest and I still fall out of trees… stupid Rath. Why can't it just come to ground already?"

"Are you okay?" Kai asked the man. The hunter jumped in surprise, glancing around at the six hunters surrounding him, surprised at their appearance. "That was quite the fall!"

"Oh, jeez! I didn't realize anyone was down here," the man replied. "Sorry… Um, I didn't fall on anyone, did I? Wish I could say that's never happened before, but…"

"No, we're all fine," Ellie told him. Then she glanced up the tree, taking note of the branches that had broken or cracked on the man's way down the tree. "What were you doing up there?"

"Looking for Rath signs," the man replied, pushing himself to his feet and brushing himself off. "I was out hunting that tiny Uragaan that that merchant's daughter wanted, but couldn't bring myself to kill the thing. I didn't want to come back from the hunt empty handed, so I decided to try and see if I could find a Rath I'd heard was in the area."

"Wait, what do you mean you couldn't bring yourself to kill the Uragaan?" Kei asked. "I'd heard the thing was small, but that shouldn't have stopped people from trying to take it out. How small was it?"

The hunter laughed at the question. "Oh, wow, I don't think you'll believe me unless you see it yourself. The thing couldn't have stood taller than five and a half feet tall, and was only about thirteen or fourteen feet long. I mistook it for a Rhenoplos the first time I saw it myself. I just couldn't bring myself to attack something so unique. Though, if I had to think about it…"

"Wait," Harker cut in. "Don't zoologists believe that Uragaan feed off the lichen and moss found in rocks? By that logic, an Uragaan would be far better off being small, considering the amount of food it would need to upkeep its large size?"

"You'd think so," the hunter replied. "But somehow the larger Uragaans just keep getting fed somehow. Some scientists suspect that the beasts actually feed off the ores and minerals that the moss and lichens grow on, consuming all of it rather than just allowing the stones to pass through its body. It's a pleasant idea, and it would make some sense, considering the beasts' size but…"

"No, that might actually work quite well!" Harker said excitedly. "Even despite ores' atomic construction, they're still constructed of all the necessary vitamins and minerals necessary to keep something alive! You'd just need to have the knowledge and experience to know which ones to eat, and Uragaans should have that if hereditary knowledge means anything at all. That and a stomach which is capable of digesting such solid foods…"

"No, that could be possible!" the archer exclaimed. "This is a beast that's capable of rolling through lava and chewing through rock we're talking about, not to mention its body produces several gasses, many of which are flammable. I don't see why it wouldn't be possible for a beast like that to have a stomach which could pull the minerals such a beast needs from the rocks it chews up!"

"Ah! That would actually explain the flammable gases, now that I think about it," Harker said eagerly. "Several of the ores in this vicinity of the world could be mixed together to make a potent explosive or incendiary, so that surely must mean that the creature has the digestive capabilities to break down some of the minerals in the rocks it eats! And if that's the case, then surely it must mean that it's capable of breaking down other rock types as well! I wonder what sort of acids and muscles are required for such things…"

"Harker," Kerry suddenly cut in, shaking her head.

"Ah, yes," Harker said sheepishly. "Seems I got off on a bit of a tangent. But I am surprised! It is so rare for me to find another man with the same interest in the inner workings of monster biology and chemistry as me! Especially one who is not a member of the Lost."

"Well, it's always been a bit of a hobby for me," the archer replied. "Oh, but I just realized that I haven't introduced myself!" With a slight flourish, the man pulled off his helmet, revealing a very young, lean face, and bowed to the other six hunters. "I am called Razor, and it is a pleasure to meet you all. I come from the Great Forest area to the far east of Loc Lac."

"It's nice to meet you… eh, Razor. My name is Harker," the long sword user said with a grin. He paused for a moment as the other hunters introduced themselves as well, before speaking again. "Is that your real name? Forgive me, but it seems odd, even for a foreigner."

The archer grinned slyly. "I said it was what I was called, not that it was my name. But I prefer it that way. Though I am not a blade master hunter, the name appeals to me, so I'll keep using it as long as I'm in the area."

"So you're from the Great Forest?" Kai asked. "That's quite far from here. What brought you this far from your homeland?"

"Adventure, as it is what brings most other hunters to Loc Lac," Razor replied. "Also, I hold an interest in learning about different monsters, and there are only so many near where I lived, so I traveled west in hopes of finding more interesting monsters to see. And to fight them, of course. But if I may ask… from what I've seen, the Guild generally keeps hunting teams in groups of four or less, and yet there are six of you. Are you in two groups of three, or are you all together? And if you are, may I ask why? It seems odd for such a collection to all be together. "

The hunters looked at each other and nodded. This could be the opportunity they were hoping for, collecting some reinforcements for their mission. Kerry quickly stepped forward to speak. In short order, the bowgunner explained to the man the reason for so many of them to be in the area at the same time, to search for the Lost. Razor seemed a bit out of the loop with current events in Loc Lac, but nodded in acceptance at the words. He asked questions now and then, but took the story seriously all the same. It took a few minutes for the woman to go over everything, but eventually she covered the whole story.

"And you see, we were hoping to gather more help while we were in town," Kerry was saying as she wrapped the story up. "But… most of the other hunters were on these Uragaan mission requests that have popped up recently, so we haven't been able to get anyone else to help us on this mission, and the Tundra work was rough with even five hunters…"

"And you're hoping to gather up whatever hunters you run across on your path to help you," Razor finished for her.

"Yes, pretty much."

"Well then, sign me up."

The hunters stood in surprise for a long moment before Levin finally spoke. "Wait, just like that?"

"Sure, why not?" the archer replied. "I'm not doing anything better right now, and people need help. Why would I hesitate?"

"That's very generous of you," Kerry said. "Thank you for your generosity."

"Of course, my dear," Razor replied. Then the man grinned slyly and slunk several feet closer to the bowgunner. "Though… if you really felt appreciative, I wouldn't mind if you'd reward me personally. Perhaps a date with you?"

"But... what?" Kerry sputtered, reddening.

"I don't go back to Loc Lac all that often, admittedly," the archer continued, "but I do know of a few pretty good spots to take a pretty lady. How about it? I promise it will be a wonderful night."

"What!" Kerry gasped, sputtering in surprise. Her eyes darted over to glance at Harker; the long sword user was wearing a surprisingly sour expression on his face. "I don't… um, I don't think... No thank you."

"Are you sure? I'm sure you'll have fun. Unless… you're in a relationship with someone already?"

"No! I mean, no, I'm not, but-"

"Ah, then you have your eye on someone already, clearly. I apologize for my eagerness my dear."

"No, wait! I'm-"

"No need to say any more, Miss Kerrigan. But if things don't work out between you and your interested person, don't hesitate to look me up."

"Um… thank you? I think?"

"Enough flirting there, Razor," Kei told the archer. "We should get rested up for tomorrow. If we can manage to find the source of these blue lights that have been seem in the area, we may have to put some serious effort into chasing them down. They're moving somehow, but we're not sure how or why, and they may be able to move fairly quickly, so running might something that takes up a good portion of our day tomorrow."

"I'll take first watch," Harker volunteered, his normal enthusiasm quickly returning. "I'd like to take a look at this tree while we're here, anyway. I'm curious as to how well such plants grow with such little sunlight and water…"

"Very well," Kai said. "Wake me up for second watch then. Let's get our camp set up so we can eat and get to bed as quickly as we can."

With so many hunters in the group, it only took the seven of them just over half an hour to have collected everything they needed to set up camp, with a small fire in the middle. After that, they quickly ate the rations they'd picked up, then spent the rest of the evening talking. Despite Harker's initial apparent unwillingness to speak with Razor anymore, the long sword user eventually opened up again, enjoying talking with the other hunter, especially after learning how much the archer was interested in monster ecology just like he was. After a few minutes together, the two hunters were exchanging information back and forth between each other, shooting data they'd accumulated back and forth so quickly that the other five in the room were having trouble trying to keep up with the conversation at all.

Kai and Kei spent their time talking with Levin, Ellie, and Kerry during their time getting ready to go to sleep, telling more stories of their time as hunters, though most of the stories to sibling hunters told tended to involve the pair of them mocking each other relentlessly about their mistakes. It was all in good fun though, and reminded Levin of the stories that he heard the older hunters telling each other when they were in the mood, all jokes and pointing out the flaws they made and blatantly telling the parts of the stories that the storytellers tried to skip past themselves.

Though the hunters were enjoying themselves, Levin found himself growing increasingly weary as the darkness set in. With a word to the others, the switch axe user made his way over to one of the corners of the room, leaning against one of the rocks and settling in to sleep. He was surprised at how warm the stones he sat on were, likely a result of the churning magma that was pooled deep in the earth below. Much to his pleasure, not long after he left the campfire, Ellie came over to sit next to him, lying against him as the two of them grew tired. The two of them talked shortly, but their weariness soon overcame them, and the two of them dozed off, the warmth seeping up from the earth lulling them to slumber.

Levin gasped painfully, sitting up and trying desperately to inhale. Heat seared into his lungs, however, as he tried to breathe, cooking into his body and drying his mouth out instantly. He realized that the rest of his body was burning up as well, a searing, burning pain that rolled across his entire body. He struggled to his feet, trying desperately to get into some shade or someplace cooler. However, as he got to his feet and looked around, a wave of despair washed through him as his hopes of escaping and cooling off were dashed.

He was still at the Volcano… somewhere in the area, at least. He stood, alone, on a large flat section of land. The heat of the area was intense, but how could it be otherwise? A massive, surging lava fall poured over a tall incline only a few dozen yards away from him, hundreds of yards of thick, melted stone pooling into a massive lake of molten magma. The pinnacle of a volcano loomed in the background, spitting massive, glowing chunks of rock into the sky constantly, and feeding the lava flow as it continued to erupt. Even the ground itself seeped with heat. Lines of boiling magma crept through cracks in the stone floor, heating the entire area and making the very earth around him glow with a painful heat.

But the area wasn't empty at all. The ruins of dozens of machines lay scattered across the edges of the area. Shards of broken metal lay fallen to the ground, ruined remains of flying machines of every type Levin could imagine. Most were the remains of what looked like the airships he'd seen floating around Loc Lac, shaped as though they were designed to sail the ocean, but with long metal propellers to push them through the air; the balloons and rope lines used to keep the large flotillas aloft had long since burned away, as had whatever wooden hull the ships had possessed, leaving only the iron linings behind. Other ships covered the ground as well, some Levin recognized from his time in this world, and others he didn't know at all. However, something that disturbed Levin the most was that he recognized some of the flying machine designs far more than he wanted to; jets and helicopter remains lay ruined off in one corner of the area, the machines worn and melted from the centuries simply sitting there in the boiling heat.

Levin looked around desperately, searching for something to use to cool himself off, someplace to hide himself from the heat. Even now he could feel the skin on his body blistering and burning from the intense heat. But for the life of him, he couldn't find a single place of refuge in the area. However, he caught sight of the edge of the cliff face; maybe he could climb down, anything to get away from this damnable heat! He hurried towards the drop off, desperate to get away from the heat before it consumed him. Even as he ran, he could feel the hot ground seeping through the soles of his shoes, burning his feet.

However, as he ran towards the cliff, a blast of heat suddenly erupted from all sides. A blast of magma shot into the sky at every point around him, and a wave of ash erupted into the sky, blotting out any view he had of the surrounding area. The wave of ash rushed towards him, and the hunter stopped, raising a hand to protect his mouth and nose from the oncoming rush of ash. However, before the blanket of darkness reached him, the smog seemed to run into a wall, screeching to a halt only a few dozen yards from him, blotting out the area surrounding him in a large circle, encompassing nearly all the flat ground below the lava fall. Levin looked around desperately, searching for some sign of escape, some hole in the circling wall surrounding him where he could escape.

It's been a while, boy.

Levin spun around, eyes darting around in fear as the voice pounded into his skull. Even as he turned, however, he caught sight of a massive wave of white tear through the ash towards him. He didn't even have time to dodge before the white mass smashed into him, pushing him to the ground. He gasped in shock as frigid cold slammed him down onto his back, a creeping pain that bit into him as the skin on his body began to freeze, ice spreading quickly across his body and pinning him to the red-hot rock below him. Even as the ice continued to cover him, Levin could still feel the burning sensation of the magma seeping up from the ground below him. He was burning and freezing at the same time, and couldn't find a way to escape at all or dull the pain. He realized, however, that somehow or another, neither the searing heat of the rocks below him, nor the biting pain of the ice, were seeping into his shoulder and upper arm for some reason; Levin clung desperately to the soothing feeling, hoping that it wouldn't disappear.

Now I can't have you moving around on me, boy. You've proven to be quite the restless hunter when I speak to you, never listening when I speak, only trying to attack me. And while I appreciate your enthusiasm, I am not it the greatest mood to deal with your little whims. Don't worry boy, you'll get your chance to fight me one day, so long as you keep that fire of fury burning in your soul.

Levin struggled against the ice that held him to the ground, trying to escape as his skin boiled and froze. But with every effort he made, the ice seemed to pull him down harder. The warmth on his shoulder seemed to fight back against the ice, and even warded off the searing heat, but it wasn't enough to fight off the pain the Alatreon was throwing at him. As he twisted and pushed against the ice, his eyes caught sight of a massive, winged shape strolling through the wall of ash surrounding the area around him, wading through the pool of lava, before the shape actually settled itself down in the molten magma.

Do you like my collection? The voice asked, amused with itself. Hundreds of years of your kind foolishly throwing themselves at me, firing their best weapons at me, hoping that their efforts would be enough to finish me off. As you can see, I have survived many attempts at killing me, and here I remain, whole and unharmed. I've even kept some trophies of the more amusing and impressive attempts here. So I wonder, how will you try to do anything at all, so weak and frail as you are?

"I'll do it, you bastard," Levin hissed. "I'll kill you, Alatreon."

Levin heard a deep, angry growl roll across the area, and a loud smashing sound followed soon after. A splash of magma leapt out of the ash where the creature's shadow sat, showing that the beast had slapped the pool in frustration. You will not refer to me as such, boy! That name is the creation of you humans, and I will not allow you to use a name that you weak little insects created! You will treat me with the respect I deserve!

"Make me, Alatreon!"

A howl of anger bellowed out from the creature, pounding into the hunter's skull as the beast roared furiously. Levin's teeth rattled in his head at the sound, but he ignored it. Eventually, the roar stopped, and Levin could hear the Alatreon growling furiously at him. For a while, Levin thought the creature was going to punish him somehow for his actions, but after a minute or two, the sound of sour laughter rattled through his head.

Good, boy. Very good: Trying to infuriate me. I suppose it would be too much of me to expect you to show me respect and reverence, considering the rage and hatred I've made effort to foster in you. It would be… quite the waste for you to just shrink away in cowardice after all this time. No, for all the effort and rage you've put into hunting me, I want to make certain that you find me in the end, so that I can crush you properly, and you can truly feel despair, knowing that even at your best, I am still the greater.

"I'll enjoy mounting your head above the Guild hall in Loc Lac once I've ripped it from your body, Alatreon," Levin growled.

A deep hissing was cut short beyond the veil of smoke. Big talk, boy. But I am immortal, eternal, and all-powerful. You have trouble taking down the wyverns you humans refer to as Rathians. What makes you think you'll stand a chance against me? And though I understand you're indignant to show me respect, you will learn to hold your tongue, boy.

If anything, the blaze of the rocks below him and the chill of the ice seemed to grow more intense. Levin bit back the pain, trying to avoid howling out. Don't forget, boy, that I hold the lives of your family in my control, and their fates hinge on my whims. Do you truly wish to infuriate me further than you should?

"Screw you."

A moment of silence as Levin fought back against the pain, and the creature began to laugh again, though there was an edge to it. You're lucky I'm feeling generous, boy. You're simply too amusing to kill right now, and having incentive seems to motivate you humans quite well, so I won't shatter your hopes for recovering your family quite yet.

You've become quite… efficient at irritating me, boy. The voice had a note of irritation in it once again, and the amusement in the voice seemed forced. I sent that Lagiacrus that I had thrall over to... motivate you further to come for me. However, it seems my attempt at relieving you of this woman of yours, the one you… hmph, love, foolish emotion though it may be, was admittedly premature of me. I did not allow the Lagiacrus enough time to recover from the wounds the pair of you inflicted upon it, not to mention its retained sanity was in shambles. But I was in no small part enraged at its defeat, especially considering that it failed to both destroy that fragile little village of yours, as well as letting that mate of yours live as well. Despite the beast dragging your mate underwater, it failed to drown her! She even shoved her arm down the beast's throat, and it didn't take her arm with it!

The entire incident left me completely livid! The Alatreon's voice began to seethe with obvious rage, and the pain searing through Levin grew even greater. That beast is lauded as one of the most dangerous, terrifying beasts in the world, and it couldn't even take down two weak little humans! He was an embarrassment to his species!

"You were reckless and arrogant, stupid beast!" The heat of the rocks under Levin flared up as the Alatreon's anger spiked, but the hunter gritted his teeth and kept shouting. "You underestimated us! You sent a half-dead monster after us, thinking we would just fall underneath it! You look down on humans, but we can outwit you, foolish creature! You call yourself all-powerful , but you couldn't even kill one girl, one half-dead, half-drowned hunter who didn't even have a weapon! You act like you are the supreme creature, but you're not! You're just another monster, just like the rest! And like all the others, I will find you, and I will kill you, ALATRE-"

SILENCE HUMAN! The creature's voice bellowed out from shadows, and a lance of deep red and black energy lanced out of the ash wall, ripping across the ground before slamming into the hunter and tearing through the ice. The power tore through him like electricity, tendrils of black energy leaping off of his body. Levin had never felt pain like this before, and could only just barely keep from crying out. He wouldn't give the Alatreon the satisfaction! Even as the energy blazed through him, the black beast continued to rage. I was tempted to come down to that puny village myself and wipe it out completely, pitiful human! And I would have reduced all of it, all you love to blackened cinders! I would've razed the ground, so for all eternity, nothing bigger than a bug could hope to exist there!

Then the energy ceased, cutting off as quickly as it had begun. Levin was left gasping for air on the ground. He couldn't even feel the heat of the rocks anymore, the pain and ache of the terrible energy had wounded him so much… Had that been the dragon element? He'd never seen such a terrible power before…

You should be grateful to me, boy. The voice was low, filled with barely contained fury. My desire to… foster you into a decent plaything was all that kept me from wiping everything you know away. Instead, I chose to vent my frustrations elsewhere. It took nearly ten human villages wiped off the face of the planet before I cooled my head enough to stop and see what you were up to again. I was quite impressed, seeing you in Loc Lac, and somehow that delicious rage that once showed such promise had swelled up again! But to my utter disappointment, your little infraction in the snowy realms made your anger fade again! So disappointing! Something in you has changed, boy, and I am not pleased by it.

A low, hungry growl echoed across the massive lava pits, and Levin squirmed to look around as a deep thumping sound boomed closer and closer to where he stood. His eyes leapt to the massive shape hidden in the ash; but the Alatreon hadn't moved at all! And this shape, it was… enormous, and bipedal. And… was it possibly bigger than the Alatreon? No, it was easily twice, if not three times the black beast's size? But how could that be? What kind of beast could be so frighteningly huge? A chilling laughter echoed through Levin's mind as the creature noticed where his attention lay.

Scared of shadows, boy? I suppose I've never mentioned my… minion here. A more loyal, enthusiastic ally I could never ask for. In your human terms, I suppose she would be called my second-in-command. I never expected a female of her kind to grow quite so large, and I expected her to take a fair amount of effort to sway into my service. However, it only took a few simple promises for her to join me willingly, and none of that effort I put into working the Lagiacrus of yours into my control. I was tempted to send my soldier here off to finish off your village for me, but she had… other work to accomplish for me at the time. Perhaps I'll send her to meet you one day, to see how truly strong you've become, but for now, I have… other surprises prepared for you.

"What? What are you-"

You'll find out soon enough, human. But remember what I sent against you last time, boy. Let's see if you can keep your mate alive this time. It won't be a half-dead, maddened creature this time.

"No! No! I won't let you-"

There is nothing you can say or do to stop me, human. Enjoy watching this love of yours die, boy. Goodbye… for now. Why not see him off, my companion?

Cruel laughter ripped through Levin's head as a bellowing roar ripped through the ash and smoke, coming from the massive shadow. The shape turned towards him, and Levin scrambled away from it as it lumbered towards him, but before he could move, another wave of ice leapt forward and pinned him to the ground again. Once again, though, the ice failed to contain his shoulder, and the hunter was able to free his arm, using it to try and free himself from the rest of the ice. The entire wall of ash seemed to swoop in on him as the massive creature rushed towards him, the shape seeming to blend with the smoke itself until it seemed the entire wall of ash was trying to attack him. And then the enormous mouth of a monster emerged from the smoke, its giant teeth shining in the light of the magma and swaths of gluttonous drool dripping from its maw. Levin quickly raised his block the creature's fangs-

-and woke up gasping, clutching his chest in terror. He glanced around frantically, his memory of where he was slowly coming back to him. That's right… he was with Ellie and the others, out on a mission to look for Lost in the Volcano area. Kai was up for his turn at watch sitting near the fire, looking back and forth between the crackling flames and the darkness of the lands outside the outcropping. Ellie was leaning against Levin, sleeping and breathing softly as she slept.

His heart was still pounding like a jackhammer at the moment; he needed to get some fresh air. He cautiously slid his shoulder out from underneath Ellie's head, carefully leaning her back against the rock. Kai gave him an odd look as the switch axe user made his way out of the campsite, but telling the man he needed to get some air seemed to be enough for the horn user to let him by without questioning him too much.

And it was a good thing that he didn't. The moment that the switch axe user had gotten to his feet, the aggressive whisper in the back of his head began raging furiously, shouting constant obscenities through his skull. Each word was pounded through his mind, making the hunter wince with every syllable. Levin's efforts to push the voice down wasn't working all that well either; the raging voice just kept forcing its way back, demanding that he find and kill the beast, as he always had before. With the noise the whisper was making, Levin even wished the other whisper would appear, if only to help push down the other.

You've got to find it! It hides, it lurks, but you can hunt it, find it, kill it! Erase it from existence!

"I don't… don't know where it is," Levin grumbled painfully.

Don't you? The voice hissed. Don't you remember? The beast is a fool! A prideful, monstrous abomination that must be wiped off the face of the earth, but a fool nonetheless! It flaunts its nest, its hovel, before you! Its mistake will destroy it!

An image from the dream flashed through his mind: a volcano… the Alatreon had shown itself at the pinnacle of a volcano, somewhere. It had claimed the place as… a trophy room or something. Did that mean that he frequented the place often? Or did he make the place his home? Or… or was it all an illusion, a fiction of reality that the creature had invented in order to mock him with it? Levin glanced up, looking towards the peak of the Volcano; thick, swirling ash covered most of the mountain's peak, showing very little beyond what lay two-thirds up the mountain. Large waves of lava swelled down from the peak, but other than that, there was little to no hints as to what lay waiting at the very peak of the mountain.

"It's… up there?" Where else could it be; a mountain with a mysterious, eternal ash cloud, where only the most experienced hunters can travel? Over a hunting ground where hunters were killed often, and it was almost expected for several lives to be lost on a monthly basis in the area. Where best for a dangerous monster to hide then where no one would be surprised to see someone die if they traveled there?

Now you see. It waits there! It must be! You must climb! You must get to the top of the peak and face this beast, and slaughter it! Bury it in the mountain it claimed as its home, let the realm it claimed as its own swallow it up! It deserves the full measure of your fury! Vengeance must be yours for the crimes it has committed! Blood for blood, life for life! The lives it has taken must be paid for in full!

"Yes… and my family!" Levin growled. The effect of the voice's influence was beginning to seep into him; he could feel his mind beginning to twist into the aggressive whisper's way of thinking. It always happened when one voice or the other began to gain dominance in his mind, but no matter how much Levin hated that it happened, when it did happen there was little to nothing he could do to stop it if he didn't manage to push the voice out. He just became a replica of the whisper. "I've got to get my family back! If I destroy the beast… I'll get them back! I'll rip the beast to pieces if that's what it takes!"

At that moment, much to Levin's surprise, the effects of the aggressive whisper's dominance vanished. A wave of weariness washed over the man, as the voice cried out in anger and… despair?

You fool! Do you even know why you fight? Blood for blood! Vengeance is all that there is for us! It is all that remains! The death of the beast is all that matters! It is the only purpose we have left!

"Wait what?" What did the voice mean? Vengeance was all that remained for him? But he had to rescue his family! The beast still held them in his thrall! "What do you mean? I can't just leave my family behind!"

All that remains is vengeance! the voice roared in reply. Why don't you remember? It's all that has meaning for us!

"Then tell me what you mean!" How could this… whisper remember something that he couldn't? What was it that he was supposed to know?

No! With blazing intensity, the whisper's influence surged back into full force, attempting to twist his mind to its way of thinking. The force of the influence dropped the hunter to his knees. All that matters is revenge! Memories… memories don't matter! Slaughter the beast! Burn it to ash! Killing it is everything!

Levin winced as the force of the whisper's influence tried to wedge itself into his mind. Feelings of hatred and violence began to seethe through his thoughts, surging through to the surface. He tried to push the voice down, but the rage continued to grow inside of him. He couldn't allow himself to be consumed by this voice's control again! It had happened after Ellie had been injured by the Barroth, and it had nearly destroyed him. He couldn't let that happen again!

But the voice's control was powerful right now, so soon after speaking with the Alatreon. Screams of fury and bloodlust filled his skull as the voice raged. Find it! Kill it! Tear it in half! It needs to suffer! It needs to know the greatest pain! Find it! Kill it! Kill it! KILL IT!

"Levin? Are you out here?"

Levin gasped for breath at the words. It was Ellie's voice, echoing out from the campsite. The whisper raged in anger at the interruption, and tried to press harder to gain influence over the switch axe user, but at the sound of Ellie's voice, the gentler whisper swept into Levin's head, pushing against the aggressive one. The other voice never said anything, but simply pressed against the raging voice's influence. It wasn't much, but it was enough for Levin to gather enough strength to force both of the whispers out of his head. Well, not entirely out of his head, but the aggressive whisper was reduced to little more than a haunting echo in the back of his mind, compared to the howling voice before. Still panting from the strain of pushing down the voices, Levin managed to push himself back to his feet. But even as he got himself upright, he turned and saw his partner looking at him worriedly. She didn't seem surprised at his condition, much to his dismay.

"You… had dreams about it again, didn't you?" she asked. "The Alatreon. It's taunting you again, isn't it?"

Levin nodded after a moment. "Yeah… I heard it again. Don't… don't worry about it, though. I'm doing better now. I'm not… I'm not going to lose it like I did before."

"What… what did it say? What did it tell you?"

Levin shook his head. The fight against the whisper, not to mention the nightmare, had left him drained. He sighed, sitting down on the remains of a fallen tree. "Nothing really important or anything," he lied. "He just… felt like mocking me, I guess."

Ellie frowned at the words. "Is that all?"

Levin paused for a moment. "He… may have said something about the Lagiacrus that attacked Boma. He… said that he was the one that compelled the creature to attack our village. And the boat we were on when we were coming back from Echo Village. He told me that, since we managed to kill it without letting Boma get destroyed, he… got angry, and wiped out several other villages to curb his anger."

Ellie winced at the implications. "That's terrible…Was there… anything else?"

Besides the knowledge that the creature wanted Ellie specifically dead? Besides the threat that the creature was planning to send… something after them again? Besides the beast showing off some… massive, terrible creature that could swallow him and Ellie whole without effort? Besides the possibility that the creature had given away some place it frequented? Levin shook his head. "No. Nothing else."

Ellie gave Levin a pointed look of worry and… disappointment? After a moment, the huntress walked over and stood in front of Levin, before looking up into the sky. Levin followed her gaze; despite being night, the sky was quite bright, or rather, the ash and clouds that coated the sky were well-lit by the lava that swept down the sides of the mountain.

"Do you think… there's anything up there at the top?"

Levin was silent for a moment. "No, not really."

Pain suddenly tore through Levin's jaw, and the next thing he knew, he was on his back, blinking back stars that were dancing in his eyes. He rubbed his jaw as he pushed himself back into a sitting position, trying to work the soreness out of it. He realized that Ellie was glaring at him angrily, her fist clenched in front of her as she rubbed it gingerly. Her eyes were… misty, though, holding back tears.

"You… hit me?"

"Don't lie to me!" his beloved shouted angrily. "You think I can't see what you're doing, trying to hide things from me? You've always been hiding things from me like this, always trying to keep your pain and fears from me! Why can't you just trust me?"

"I do trust you!"

"Obviously not! Otherwise you'd tell me everything about these dreams of yours! About your worries, or your fears! If you don't trust me with your fears, how am I supposed to trust you with mine? How am I supposed to tell you that, every time you have one of those dreams…" The huntress stopped midsentence, and Levin leaned forward.

"What? What happens to you when I dream about… the Alatreon?"

"Why should I tell you?" Ellie snapped. "You don't seem to be telling me everything, why shouldn't you get the same treatment?"

"Because I… because I'm afraid for you, Ellie," Levin sighed, defeated. The anger faded a little from Ellie's face, but she kept a stern expression, waiting for him to continue. "There's so much wrong with me, Ellie. The creature… it wants to kill you, just because I care about you. Not to mention my mind is slowly going increasingly insane. If I told you everything that's been happening to me… I'm afraid you'd be too frightened by me to want to stay with me."

The two were silent for a long moment before Ellie turned and sat down next to him. "Levin, I love you. But let me make something clear: If I didn't run off after you first told me you were having these dreams in the first place, I'm certainly not going to run off if things get just a little bit weirder."

"And… what about if I should lose control of myself again, like after you were hurt by the Barroth? What if I get so deep that I can't come back to normal?"

"You brought yourself back once before, Levin. You're strong enough to do it again, and I'll help you if I can."


"Levin, please," Ellie cut him off, desperation filling her voice. "Just tell me what's going on. I want to be able to trust you, and I want to do everything I can to help you, but the only way I can help you is if you tell me what's wrong. Please."

Levin sighed and looked at the ground. "Alright, you win, Ellie. I tell you what I saw. I'll tell you everything."

Ellie sat patiently, listening as Levin told her everything he knew, every thought and vision and fear he'd felt during the nightmares he'd had with the Alatreon. He told her about the creature's desire to single out her, in order to enrage him, as well as the creature's story about being able to control other monsters, as well as the massive creature that served it. He told her about the monster's threat, to send… something to attack them, something terrible, sometime soon.

Then he told her about the whispers, the two voices that had appeared in his mind after the first nightmare the Alatreon had sent him. How they fought for control over his emotions and desires, how they constantly argued and bickered, they were constantly overwhelming his thoughts with their own wants. He told her how they had slowly begun changing, growing more intelligent and more persuasive and more powerful, becoming an even greater threat at trying to overcome him. And finally he told her how they seemed to know… something that he didn't know, that they refused to tell him for some reason or another, and how, even though he didn't know what they were or where they had come from, he couldn't help but fear that they really did know something important that he had to find out.

Ellie sat quietly for what seemed like forever as Levin finished speaking, simply absorbing what the hunter told her. Levin had been worried about how she would respond at first, but she didn't seem to show any fear or hesitance when he told her about the two whispers that flittered through his head on a regular basis. Rather, she seemed more worried for him than anything else.

"I wish you'd told me about this earlier, Levin," she said quietly. "Why did you keep it from me?"

"I'm slowly going more and more insane, Ellie. People always say that the Lost are all mad, but I really set the standard. Voices in my head that aren't mine, a legendary elder dragon taunting me in nightmares… Honestly, if you didn't know me, would you want to have anything to do with me at all? I feel more and more like I'm just pretending to be sane, rather than fighting against madness."

"Then I guess we're both going insane, aren't we?"

Levin looked at Ellie in surprise as a scared look crossed the huntress' face. "What do you…"

"I think… I think I'm able to hear the Alatreon's voice, too."

"What do you-"

"Last night, when I was asleep, I dreamed… it was just a normal dream, but halfway through, things seemed to become… blurry. I felt hot, so hot it felt like I was burning. Then I heard… a voice, a dark, terrible voice pounding in my head. I… couldn't make out many of the words, but… it kept referring to someone as 'boy'. The longer the dream went on, I began to see… someplace. It was exactly like the place you described to me, a place at the top of a Volcano, but before I could tell what was going on, the dream stopped, but I don't know why. I think… that's when you woke up."

Levin stared in shock. It couldn't be! Was the Alatreon… starting to haunt Ellie as well? Why? Why would it try to do that? It said it wanted her dead, so why would it try talking to her? But no, Ellie said that she thought it was talking to him… had she overheard their conversation somehow? How had…

"It isn't the first time I'd heard the voice either." A pained look covered Ellie's face, showing how shaken she was by the whole thing.

"What do you mean?" Levin asked.

"I remember… During the dream, I thought I recognized the sound of the… creature's voice. After I woke up in the cave, and found you gone, I remembered where I'd heard it before. I'd heard… laughing, of the same voice, back in the caves around Echo Village, while I was on guard duty. I'd thought… I'd thought it was just the wind or something, but after hearing the voice last night, I'm certain it had to be the same one I'd heard before. I heard it again after the ship had been sunk, and we were walking back to Boma, right before we were attacked by some monsters. I was so caught off guard at the time that I thought it was just my imagination, but thinking back on it now… it must have been the same one."

"But… how? Why?"

"I don't know! It's just… been happening! I can't explain it, but… it scares me. How do you put up with it, Levin? To me, it's like a noisy dream, but if even half of what you've told me it was like for you is real… it's terrible."

"At least you don't have… other problems to deal with," Levin said. "I wonder, though… if you're able to hear the thing's voice… is anyone else able to as well? And why? Or how?"

"I couldn't say," Ellie sighed. "I mean, you could ask Harker about what he thinks, but… I think that we should probably prepare for whatever it is that is supposed to be coming for us. Whatever it is… it might be worse than that Lagiacrus. And then there's the possibility of having to help more Lost while we're here."

"We'll… we'll figure something out, somehow. I don't know how, but… I swear, things will be all right."

"Right," Ellie nodded. A bit more confidence was coming back into her expression and some of the fear and worry fading a little. "Just promise to not keep any more of this secret from me, okay? I've told you that I'll do whatever it takes to help you bring down the Alatreon. We won't be able to do that if you keep hiding things like this from me. Next time I find out you're keeping things from me, I'll beat you senseless. Got it?"

Levin nodded. Somehow or another, the conversation had turned around, and he was thankful for it. He never liked it when Ellie was angry at him. He was still worried about these dreams, sure; more so now that he knew it was… contagious or something like it. But if others could have these dreams as well, it meant that they were… real, not just some twisted delusion of his. And though the thought that a monster was forcing its way into his dreams was a terrifying idea, maybe, just maybe it meant that there was a better chance for this madness of his to disappear once the thing was dead. There wasn't anything guaranteeing it, but maybe there was a chance.

"Got it."

"Does anyone know what's at the top of the Volcano?"

Kai and Kei blinked in surprise at the question Levin asked as the hunters left the camp the next morning. "Nothing special," Kai replied. "Just the top of the mountain. There have been a lot of expeditions going up there over the years, people trying to figure out how the clouds stay in one place. I mean, many of them don't come back, but that's just part of the danger of the area. But lots of people have gone up and come back, and not really seen anything worth mentioning. Just a whole lotta ash and smoke and not much else."

"Really?" Levin asked, disappointed. He had been so certain… Ellie looked disappointed as well, glancing up at the sky in frustration.

"I've actually climbed up there myself," Razor said, earning a few stunned looks from the others. "It's true! I mean, I only saw the south side of course, but I managed to go as high as I could without bursting into flame. I imagine it'd be quite the view if it weren't for all the smoke. Lots of lava up there, too. Big pools of it, just building up. Makes me wonder exactly how deep the magma goes to spill this much of it out onto the surface."

"What's wrong with the north side of the mountain?" Ellie asked.

"It's impassable," Razor replied. "No footholds, no ledges, no nothing at all. Even Rathalos don't really go up the slope, because there's nothing for them to perch on up there. There might be one or two places to land, but it'd be near impossible to get to."

"I see," Levin nodded. Maybe he'd been wrong after all… but how many other volcanos were there in the country that could appeal to an elder dragon? Or, maybe it really had all been an illusion like he'd feared it might be. Maybe when he got back to Loc Lac, he'd look for a map to see where all the volcanos in the country were. "So where exactly are we going today?"

"Further south," Kei replied. "There are some paths connecting down that way that the lights were seen traveling through. Hopefully we'll catch sight of them without running into anything too nasty. Uragaan tend to use the crevices when they battle each other, or as they search for ores to eat, but we should be able to avoid them pretty well, considering how much noise they make."

"That's good," Kerry said quietly. The bowgunner had a worried expression on her face. "Uragaan are… nasty, destructive creatures. I'd prefer it if we didn't run the risk of coming across one."

"We should be fine," Kai guaranteed her. "And even if one does show up, there are seven of us. Even with three rookies, we should be able to easily overpower it."

"You say that now…" Kerry muttered.

The path they chose leading them south took them into a series of tunnels that burrowed several dozen yards underground. The seven of them had torn off a couple dead branches in order to create a few torches, but they ended up not needing them; a long lava stream trailed next to the thin pathway that led through the earth, winding alongside the seven of them as a constant reminder as where they were.

Halfway through the caves, though, the hunters came across something that caught the Losts' eyes: buried deep within the earth, at least several dozen yards below the surface, dozens of houses were cut into the very walls of the cavern. Paths and staircases leading up to second levels curved up the stone sides of the path, allowing travel to second and third-floor apartments. Detailed hieroglyphs covered every square inch of the walls, detailing… stories, daily life, politics. Levin couldn't really tell what they meant, though there were several odd pictures of monsters mixed in the bunch. Several that caught the switch axe user's attention were of monsters in some large circular object… a cage of some sort, perhaps? Maybe the civilization that came between the Lost's and now had arena battles as well, or something like it.

Other than that, the area seemed fairly cluttered, surprisingly enough. Most of the ruins that Levin had seen during his times as a hunter had been picked clean, either by hunters or monsters or natural causes. But somehow the place was filled with… junk. Well, it very well might have had value to someone who knew what half of it was for, but to Levin it all just looked like piles of scrap metal. He could recognize a couple things, though. Pulleys and wheels and levers and cogs and… lots of things. Kerry had to hold onto Harker's collar to keep the man from plastering himself to the walls and floor and studying anything and everything he laid eyes on.

"Oh, what's this?" Ellie suddenly exclaimed, hurrying over to one of the piles of metal. The other hunters paused in surprise at the outburst, but followed close behind the sword and shield user as she began tossing aside scrap.

A few moments later, the huntress leaned over, grabbing ahold of a larger hunk of metal and pulling. With a grunt of strain, whatever she'd been holding onto came loose, and she wrenched a large… rifle out of the scrap pile. Or at least, that's what Levin thought it looked like; it couldn't very well be that much else, unless the civilization that made it had an odd penchant for design. A long, metallic barrel pointed out the front, and was connected perfectly to a long metallic stone, tinted a scaly green from age, with a powerful-looking rifle scope mounted to the top on the weapon. The trigger for the weapon was very similar to most other bowguns, but the ammunition cartridge was magazine-fed rather than a chamber like most bowguns. But to say the least, the weapon was in terrible condition, and that was being generous.

"Um, dear?" Kerry said. "Why are you picking that up?"

"It's a relic!" Ellie replied excitedly. "I met a smith in Frost Town that told me that she could refurbish old weapons like this. I've had my eye out for one since we left the town in the first place."

"I don't think you're going to be able to have that… weapon fixed up," Kei said. "I've seen smiths turn down just repairing dented weapons, claiming they're hopeless to fix. The state that that thing's in… well, I wouldn't use it as a paper weight."

"Besides, aren't we in a bit of a hurry right now?" her brother asked. "We've kind of got to get after those blue lights right now."

"Then let's go," Ellie replied indignantly, hoisting the weapon up under her arm and walking back to the group. "I'll just carry this with me."

"I don't think you can-"

"I can still keep up," Ellie huffed. "This thing won't slow me down. Besides, I've been meaning to get a new bowgun for a long while now. What better opportunity than now, huh?"

"You… ah, fine, whatever," Kai grumbled, shaking his head in frustration. "But if you start slowing us down because of this, I'm throwing that damn thing off of a cliff, got it?"

"Yeah, yeah," Ellie replied, grinning and shifting the old metal thing under her arm. The other hunters gave the huntress a disbelieving look, but continued on through the cave, choosing to let her do as she wanted.

"Aren't we feeling stubborn today," Levin said, sliding up next to his beloved.

"Yeah, maybe a little bit," Ellie admitted. "But I really need a new bowgun, and it might be a long time before another opportunity to get one arises, with all the hassles we've been going through recently. I mean, yes, I'll drop this thing into a pool of lava the first sign that it's keeping me from helping out any Lost we need to help, but if I can get away with it, I want to try and keep this and get it back to town for refurbishment."

"…Well, fine. Fair enough. Just don't look for sympathy if that pile of rust blows up in your hands."

"Says the man whose weapon will vaporize him if the phial breaks," Ellie replied with a smirk.

"Erm… good point. Carry on, then."

The group continued on through the caverns, eventually reaching an exit leading back out into daylight. The seven hunters followed Kai and Kei's lead through a large crevice that worked its way through the stone landscape that spread out across the southern side of the hunting grounds. Levin had traveled through narrow paths before, but something about these particular crevices seemed especially menacing to him, what with the shear stone walls without any vegetation, the rolling ash and smoke blotting out the sun, and the deep, monotonous rumbling of the volcano churning constantly as background noise. Not to mention that each and every rumble that made the rocky ground shake even a little made the hunters flinch, worried that some monster was coming their way.

It was getting late in the morning when the hunters first managed to catch sight of their target. As they were coming out into one intersection where several dozen pathways connected, Kei suddenly shouted, pointing at one of the paths heading back east. "There! Look!" The hunters were at a high point in the area, and could see a longer distance than before. From around the corner, off in the distance a good several miles away, a bright blue light flared up, sending up bright dancing shadows high against the walls of the massive stone cliff faces that leapt up on each side of the footpath. As quickly as they could, the hunters took off in the direction of where the light had been seen, working swiftly but cautiously through the thin crevice. But even as they rushed to catch the light, they could see the bright color fading from the horizon, the closer and closer they got to the source. Finally, after thirty minutes, the hunters managed to get to the area where they'd seen the lights flash into the sky, and the seven of them were shocked by what they saw.

It was a small valley, with a miniscule pond pooled right in the center of the area. Other than that, there weren't really any notable features of the area, since the tall rock and basalt walls were completely bare. However, at one of the far edges of the area was a sign that… something had been in the area. A bloody red mess, the remains of an Aptonoth and maybe a Kelbi as well, lay smashed and shredded apart, plastered against the wall. Several carrion birds were ripping into the remains of the bodies, perfectly content to devour what they could while no larger predators were around. Huge burn marks coated the ground around the bodies as well, blackening several hundred square feet of ground.

"What the hell happened here?" Ellie asked.

"It looks like a Rathalos went through here…" Kai replied, walking over to the remains and studying them. "Though, there's a lot more fire damage for one single beast, and it's pretty wide spread… Not to mention that these bodies are way more torn apart than Raths tend to leave their food."

"Maybe it was an Uragaan," Razor suggested. "Those gas attacks of theirs tend to leave rather large burn marks on the ground. But they're… well, they aren't carnivores, so I can't think of a decent reason for one of them to make such a mess of these herbivores. Maybe they got between a pair of them fighting over territory or a mate or something?"

"Possibly," Kei nodded. "But then, what would an Uragaan have to do with the blue lights? What would… anything that could do this kind of damage have to do with the blue crystals or whatever?"

"Perhaps…" Harker muttered, earning the other six hunters' attention. "Well, it's just a thought, but if Uragaan are known for collecting ores and other minerals on their backs… couldn't it be possible for one of them to have attached, perhaps, some of the blue crystals to its back?"

"Is that… possible?" Levin asked.

"It should be," Razor nodded. "The Uragaan use a trick to attach explosive stones to their bodies, where they roll around in lava and let it harden in order to affix various stones to their backs."

Harker frowned in thought. "I suppose it's… theoretically possible that an Uragaan found some of the Lost's crystals and thought it might, I don't know, attract a mate. It's an interesting prospect to contemplate, but it leaves us with two rather imposing issues: firstly, that we'll have to go through an Uragaan in order to help some of the Lost, and two, that other crystals may be located near or closer to moving lava. And if my recollection of the luminescence and size of the Lost crystals we saw in the Tundra is any indication, this Uragaan could be carrying up to… three dozen of them on its back. Neither predicament is very appealing."

"No kidding," Ellie muttered.

"I really don't like this…" Kerry groaned. "Uragaans are… not very lucky creatures, not when I'm around…"

"We don't really have much choice in the matter, though," Kei shrugged. "We'll need to help these Lost one way or another, even if it does mean going up against an Uragaan covered in crystals."

"How can we figure out which way... whatever was carrying the blue lights went off too?" Ellie asked.

"Oh! Leave that to me!" Razor said. Without another word, the hunter hurried over to one of the towering walls that stretched up the sides of the area, and began shimmying up the sides of the cliff. It was a good hundred or so feet nearly straight up, but the man was up to the top in a matter of a few minutes. Once at the top, the archer stood as tall as he could, craning his neck and scouring the area in search of some sign of what they were looking for. It took him a couple minutes of searching; for a long while, Levin was certain that they'd lost sight of the lights. However, Razor suddenly began motioning ecstatically nearly directly south. "There! There're more of the lights flaring up that way!"

Almost as fast as the man had climbed to the top of the cliff, he was back down again, and the seven were heading south again. Several intersecting paths made traveling in the direction the archer had seen the lights in challenging to navigate, but luckily there were enough that a new path in the right direction would pop up soon enough. Though navigation wasn't really necessary, it turned out; several monsters seemed to have met the same fate as the two herbivores they'd found earlier. All were torn apart, very messily and supposedly without reason. They looked as though they might have been eaten, or had bites taken out of them, but with all the carrion and scavengers picking at the pieces, it was hard for any of the hunters to be certain.

It took them the better part of an hour to find the place where Razor swore he'd seen the blue lights, and the scene there was stranger than the one before. The location was a cross section of several paths, providing a lot of space, but the entire floor of the area was coated in fresh burn marks and soot. The remains of a large Aptonoth were in the center of the area, once again almost completely removed of the flesh off its bones. This time, however, the flames that had burnt the creature had seared it nearly all the way through the bone. None of the more experienced hunters liked the look of that; neither Rathalos' nor Uragaans had flames powerful enough to do such a thorough job burning through the body of an Aptonoth, leaving the hunters even more confused than they had been before.

Once the group had surveyed the area the best they could, regretfully finding nothing else they could use to figure out what exactly they were chasing, Razor once again shimmied up the nearest wall, working his way to the top and scouring the land in search of more signs of the blue lights. When the man worked his way back down, he told them he'd seen something he thought might be the lights off to the west, but he wasn't certain. Without anything else to be certain of, though, the hunters had no choice but to head in that direction, hoping to find something.

Their next path sent them leaping across large rock flats, broken and torn by time and seismic activity, making a landscape that was very broken and abrupt. They ended up coming out near a small stream that fed a small pond; small was being generous, to be honest. The stream would take a good five minutes to fill up a water bottle. There were a few Kelbi trying to drink there, lapping up what little there was to offer. There were signs that whatever had been laying down the burn marks had been in this area as well, but it was only a small stretch of ash that lined a corner of the area, with a couple Kelbi limbs scattered around the area.

"We're too far behind," Kai grumbled in frustration, scouring a small map he'd brought along, tracing their path. "If the Kelbi over there are willing to take a drink with the remains of one of their herd mates so close, whatever made a mess of it in the first place must be long gone by now. We'll need to move faster if we're going to catch up with… whatever it is."

"Give me a moment, and I'll see if I can catch sight of it again," Razor volunteered. Kai nodded, and a moment later the archer was scurrying up the high stone walls to get a better view of the surroundings. The other hunters waited patiently as the man scoured the area, searching for some sighting of the blue lights. However, as the man shimmied down the rocks again, he had a disappointed expression on his face. "I couldn't see any sign of the lights, or any large monster signs. Sorry about that."

"It's not your fault," Kai sighed. "But it looks like we might be a bit stuck if we've lost track of the lights…"

"Well, what if we tried to get ahead of it?" Kei suggested, earning an odd look from her brother. "No, hear me out. We've been following the lights southwest for the most part, right? And nobody's seen the lights leave the Volcano hunting grounds either. So maybe… maybe we can cut it off in the middle. If we keep heading east from here, maybe we'll be able to catch sight of it or something."

"It's worth trying," Kerry agreed. "There's really nothing to lose since we've lost sight of our target."

"Alright, fine," the horn user nodded. "If nothing else, there's a hunter's camp that way. We can see if anyone's there; maybe someone's seen the lights elsewhere."

The journey east led the hunters into yet another series of caves that twisted and turned through the stone and basalt. The journey proved to be a bit harder this time, with no magma to light their way, and the path they took was harsh and steep, and the seven hunters were forced to take their time or risk harming themselves. There was a small stream that twisted its way next to the path for a while, though, allowing the hunters a place to catch some fish for lunch. Rations were well and good, but tasted bland after a while, and Razor proved to be an adept fisherman, plucking out nearly a dozen fish for them to eat in a matter of a quarter hour, which was quite impressive.

In late afternoon, the hunters finally managed to pass through the rough and rocky caves, and finally entered into a more serene, relaxing sort of area. Coming out of the rock flats, they entered a small, bowl-shaped valley. There wasn't much grass in the area; most of the ground was still purely flat, smooth rock. But there was still enough green in the area for a herd of almost a dozen small- to medium-sized Aptonoth and a few Kelbi to graze peacefully in the area. There were even a few stringy trees sprouting up from the few dirt patches, picked clean of their lower-hanging leaves by the herbivores as they lounged around, nibbling at the food they could find in the area.

A couple things in the valley caught the hunters' eyes, though. At the very center of the valley, for one, a massive rock pillar sprouted straight out of the earth. The enormous stone mass was a good twelve feet thick at the thinnest point. At the very peak, the stone mass branched off into a T-shape, widening out to the sides. Long, sinuous vines hung down from the top, crawling down the side of the pillar, giving some more color to the area.

But what really caught the hunters' attentions wasn't the stone pillar, but rather, the massive stone archways that spread across the far side of the area. The towering structures stretched to the sky, holding up a long stone something-or-other that stretched across the skyline and continued on from north to south as far as Levin could see. The… pathway, or whatever it was, at the top of the archways, couldn't have been much wider than a few yards, but seemed to be more solidly built than most of the things Levin had seen built in the world. There were some sort of specks falling from the top of the walkway, though, Levin could just make them out. Water droplets, he thought.

"An aqueduct?" Harker asked, excited. "Is that what that is?"

"Yes, actually," Kai said. "Good eye. One of the older civilizations built it to carry water from the south of here all the way around to the northern side of the volcano. The city or town that it was supposed to travel to is long gone these days, but the aqueduct they built is still pulling water all these miles to where the city once lay. There's a lake where the city was back in those days, with a lot of geysers shooting up thanks to the volcano, buts it's really murky and dark from all the ash. The creatures that live in the area don't seem to mind that much, though."

"Fascinating!" the long sword user exclaimed. "It must be quite well designed to have survived the years and monsters so well!"

"It really was," the horn user replied. "A lot of people from the towns north of the hunting grounds have made efforts to try and extend the aqueduct all the way to where the towns lay, hoping to use it for themselves, but… well, the monsters in the area really did their work dissuading the architects from getting all that much work done, so the plans kind of fell through."

"What happened to the city that used to be at the end of the aqueduct?" Levin asked.

"No one's really sure, actually," Kei told him. "It was an older city, one that was supposed to be really advanced for its time or something. Archaeologists said that they were part of a group of people that left huge stone carvings across the entire world."

"Me and Levin have seen one of those before," Ellie said. "There's a giant wall of monster pictures plastered up on a cliff wall a little ways south of Boma Village."

"Right, there's a lot of those walls all over the place," Kei said. "They're a really big bit of confusion for researchers all over the place. Lots of people have tried to translate the walls, but nobody's really been all that successful yet. But from what people have found out, they were apparently trying to resurrect the technology and power of the older civilizations… maybe the one you Lost came from. From what they've found, they were getting pretty good at doing it, too."

"But something went wrong," Kai continued. "From what the archaeologists have found from the city to the north of here, some really nasty volcanic eruption or something pulled the entire city under the earth, destroying it completely. At least, that's what people think happened. I mean, it could've been an elder dragon or something, but… well, even the worst monsters leave behind remains of some kind. There weren't any ruins left of the city or anything, it was just… gone. The only reason people know it was even there is because there were so many roads and the aqueduct leading to the same place."

"How very strange," Razor muttered. "There are similar structures of the sort where I come from. There's a story people tell about them that has become a bit of a popular story back home."

"What's that?" Harker asked.

"Well, the story goes that the people that came between the Lost and now were trying to create some plan that would be used to completely wipe out all the monsters in the world," the archer told them. "Legend has it that the monsters… learned what the people were planning, and rebelled for the sakes of their own lives, assaulting the humans all at once and wiping them out. Back home, it's a story that's told in order to teach would-be hunters about keeping balance with nature, but… well, people have been telling that story for generations, so I've always wondered to myself exactly how accurate the stories really are."

"Well, they always say that all good stories are based in truth," Kai said. "So maybe there's something that…"

"Wait! Be quiet!" Kerry suddenly hissed, glancing around. The hunters froze at the words, turning their heads to the sides, looking and listening for whatever the bowgunner had heard. For a moment, all they could hear was the grunting and baying of the herbivores that were grazing in the field. But after a few moments, Levin began to hear something, a deep, powerful thumping sound, one he'd heard several times before.

A rush of wind and a deep rumbling roared past the hunters as a massive shadow soared over them, the deep thrumming of wing beats pounding into their skulls as the dark shape swooped over them. Levin turned to follow the massive shape, and gaped in shock at the sight. Over the seven hunters hovered the most massive Rathian he'd ever seen in his life, almost a half again as big as the one he'd seen nearly burn down the flooded forest. Countless wounds scoured the creature's body, and dozens of points on it had shattered plates and scales, where clear signs of the monster's battle prowess hung like medals on the creature's body. With a couple more flaps of the monster's wings, the Rathian hovered over the massive stone pillar that jutted out of the center of the valley, before dropping down to settle onto the landmark. The weight of the massive creature shook the pillar with a jarring thump that even made the ground under the hunters shake a little, and sent pebbles and clouds of dust toppling down from above.

"A Rathian?" Kei gasped. "But… they're not supposed to come to this area! It's supposed to be too dangerous here for them!"

"Look at it!" Kai replied. "Does it look like danger matters that much to it? Just don't move! We're not here to deal with it, so just leave it alone!"

The hunters instinctively reached for their weapons, readying themselves for battle against this most monstrous of Rathians. However, even as their weapons were drawn, the beast's eyes snapped to glare at them, and Levin felt his blood freeze in his veins. This monster was… powerful and old. Even with seven of them there, the look this creature gave to him felt as though fighting it was certain doom. It had seen other hunters, had faced them in battle, and was strong enough and experienced enough to have lived to this day. What chance did these newcomers here have, even with their greater numbers? The other hunters were just as tense as Levin was, being able to sense the strength of the monster as it stared down at them.

The beast continued to glare at them for several moments, before snorting in disinterest and turning away from them. Its eyes darted to the Aptonoth and Kelbi herds as the herbivores were still trying to funnel out of the few paths that left the area. Its eyes swayed back and forth through the herd, until its eyes seemed to rest on an exceptionally large Aptonoth that was a little bit behind the rest of the pack, lagging behind as it tried to escape the wyvern above them. A soft gurgling sound could be heard as the creature opened its mouth, the clear sign of the monster preparing breathe a blast of flame. However, as the glow of fire began swell in the back of the Rathian's throat, Levin couldn't help but gape in shock, before a blast of flame jetted out of the creature's gullet.

The Rathian's flame was a bright, powerful blue. As the blaze seared out of the beast's mouth, it shot down from the sky like a lance, tearing into the Aptonoth it had aimed at with brutal force, burning through the creature's skin as though it was nothing, sending the herbivore tumbling to the ground dead before it could even cry out in pain. The others of the herd scattered as the blast had struck their fellow herd member, and didn't even spare a second glance as they continued to run, trying their best to get away from the massive wyvern.

Once the Aptonoth was sufficiently cooked, the bright blaze finally cut to a halt. The remains of the body had a familiar appearance to it, blackened to near ash, with the thinner parts of its body reduced to cinders and even the bones were burnt through. However, even though the fire had cut to a halt, bright blue flames remained eating at the grass around the corpse and licking from the burnt body of the herbivore. It took quite a few seconds for the bright flames to finally cool down enough to turn back from the blue color to the brighter yellow and orange color. With a satisfied snort, the massive Rathian pushed off the tall stone pillar, slowly gliding down from its height before landing right on top of the burnt corpse. The impact of the monster dropping down onto the ground once again shook the earth below the hunters, giving credit to the beast's massive bulk. Without giving a second glance to the hunters, the massive Rathian began ripping into the downed Aptonoth, tearing massive chunks out of the beast's flank with its fangs, consuming the beast in bites that would've fed each of the hunters by themselves. The hunters could see how the other bodies had been so thoroughly destroyed; each bite was shredding the body into a bloody mess.

"Don't move, and keep calm!" Kai hissed quietly. "It doesn't… it doesn't look like it's out to get us. Maybe it'll ignore us. Keep a hand on your weapons, but don't attack, and maybe it'll just leave us alone."

"Blue flames, though," Razor muttered. "It seems we've found our traveling blue lights."

"So we have," Kai agreed quietly. "Let's just hope we don't have to experience them for ourselves."

"I wonder what sort of flame sac the creature must have to produce such high-intensity flames," Harker asked curiously. Much to the shock of the other hunters, the long sword user began to walk forward towards the eating creature. "Perhaps the sac is smaller, or the flammable fluid is purer… I wonder if I could extract it without damaging it. To eat so much food… of course! You'd need to eat as much to produce such a powerful flame and keep such a large body active…"

"Don't!" Levin yelped quickly, grabbing at Harker's shoulder and pulling him back. Kerry had gotten the same idea, reaching forward and grabbing onto the man's other arm. "Don't do it. The last thing we need is for you to get something like that riled up. Leave it be for now."

The long sword user groaned in disappointment, but stopped where he stood, continuing to eyeball the Rathian longingly, clearly wanting nothing more than to… experiment. It was a good thing they'd stopped him, though, because a few moments later, the Rathian finished tearing into the Aptonoth it had cooked, and turned its head to give a poignant look at the hunters. It kept its gaze on them for another moment or two, making certain they didn't want to cause any trouble, before unfolding its wings and pushing itself up into the sky. The seven hunters breathed a collective sigh of relief as the wyvern slowly gained height, looking around in search of the direction it wanted to go.

You didn't think I'd let this pass so easily, did you, boy? Prepare yourself! This time I will take her from you, and you will truly know pain!

Levin winced as the voice blasted through his skull, followed by sinister laughter, making his ears ring from the volume. He quickly shot a worried look to Ellie, and found the huntress rubbing her own ears as though they were buzzing as well. Damn it, not now!

"I'm sorry, what did you say? You shouldn't mumble Levin, I couldn't make out a word of what you said." The switch axe user turned in shock at the words, and found the long sword user looking at him oddly, while Kerry was rubbing her own ear in irritation as well. "Do you need some medicine? Your voice sounds a bit off, my friend."

"Wait, you heard that?" Levin gasped.

"You mumble, so not all of it," Harker replied, sticking a finger in his ear and trying to clean it out. "Odd that you should choose to call me 'boy', though, considering I'm older than you."

"But how did-"

A high-pitched whistling sound piercing through his mind, as well as a screeching howl of pain cut Levin off mid-sentence forcing the hunter to cover his ears to soften the sound. The roar was immediately followed by a loud thump and the earth shaking underneath the hunters. Levin turned to look, and saw the Rathian crumpled on the ground from dropping nearly four stories out of the sky. The beast was writhing in pain on the ground, rubbing its skull against the dirt and clawing at it horns, as though trying to remove… something from its head. Levin felt his heart sink; he'd seen these effects before on the Lagiacrus he and Ellie had fought and killed in Boma.

With a howl of anger, the creature let loose an enormous blast of flame as it pushed itself back up onto its feet. The hunters were forced to dive away as the massive wave of fire swept across the grass and stone, the bright blue blaze searing around the area like a tsunami. Only Ellie was capable of blocking the attack, but even she was unwilling to risk trying to fight back against the flames, and dove away from the creature as the fire swept towards them. Even from the distance the Rathian was at, the force of the creature's strength allowed the wyvern to throw her flames the forty yards of distance between herself and where the hunters stood.

Finally, the flames cut off, and the Rathian clawed the ground menacingly, glaring at the hunters. Levin heard a clattering sound, and turned to see the ancient weapon that Ellie had picked up clattering across the ground into a corner as the sword and shield user drew her weapon. The other hunters were following suit as well, readying their weapons as the wyvern stared them down. The creature glared at them for a moment, but for a brief second, rather than trying to attack, the monster tried to turn away, apparently not wanting to deal with the hunters, but once again, the painful whistling sound ripped through Levin's mind and the Rathian yelped in pain before turning to face the seven hunters once again a look of anger and frustration in its expression.

"Get ready!" Kai shouted as the monster clawed the ground. The next moment, the creature charged, tearing across the ground towards them, and the hunters moved away, bracing themselves to attack as soon as the opportunity arose.

But even as the creature charged, its mouth opened, and fire leapt from its mouth, spreading towards them as it rushed towards them. Levin yelped in surprise as the creature continued to barrel towards them, flame leaping ahead of it like a blazing cannonball. The entire group was forced to dive far out of the way to avoid getting caught by the swath of fire that threatened to envelop them. And the wyvern's reflexes were sharp as well; the Rathian managed to screech to a halt only a few sparse yards past where the hunters had been standing before spinning abruptly to face them once again.

Levin couldn't help but be awed as he looked up at the beast, now that the creature was so close. He'd known that the Rathian was massive just by comparing it to the Aptonoth it had eaten, but standing next to it now really put the thing into perspective. With the beast so close, he could tell that the monster was truly massive; he only stood up to the creature's ankles, for goodness sake! Even the Rathalos he'd seen at the last mating dance hadn't been quite as large as this one! As the monster stamped the ground menacingly, the ground even shook underneath him, ratting the stones and pebbles that lay across the earth. Then the beast craned its neck and a moment later, unleashed a powerful, skull-rattling roar that forced the hunters to wince in pain.

However, even as the creature's roar began to fade away, the crack of a bowgun firing and the twang of an arrow being released could just barely be heard as Kerry and Razor recovered first, both of them far enough away to not be quite as affected as the rest of them. The archer was quick, shooting off multiple arrows in a matter of seconds, while the bowgunner swiftly began firing off her most powerful rounds, pelting the monster with heavy explosives right off the bat. However, the arrows, while some of them did connect to the creature's soft spots, were mostly deflected by the wyvern's thick scales, and the Rathian hardly seemed to feel the detonations of the incendiary rounds at all, shaking them off and glaring at the two ranged hunters in irritation. That's all the monster seemed to consider the seven of them as: an irritation. With a snap of its head, the Rathian snapped its mouth open, firing a blazing blue fireball towards Razor, followed quickly by another shot fired off at Kerry, forcing the two hunters to dive away from the attacks. As the wyvern focused on the two ranged hunters, the other five hunters rushed forward to attack the creature themselves. Ellie took the lead, a look of determination on her face; no surprise there, considering her personal issues with the wyverns. Kei and Harker were close behind, their long swords allowing them far more mobility than Levin and Kai, who tailed along behind the rest of them. The Rathian lowered its head menacingly as the hunters approached, growling savagely.

As Ellie closed in, the Rathian suddenly snapped in a circle, bringing its thick spiny tail around, tearing the bladed end across the ground and kicking up a wave of dust in the process. Levin expected Ellie to pull up and stop as the tail ripped across the ground in front of her, but instead, the sword and shield user put on a burst of speed, and slid instead dashed forward and dove, sliding right underneath the tail instead and planting herself right underneath the creature's belly. As the Rathian slowed her spin, Ellie pushed herself upright again and slashed at the base of the wyvern's tail; however, the effort proved to be rather in vain, as the creature's thick scales, hardened by time, deflected most of the strikes to do little damage. It caught the wyvern's attentions, though, and the beast twisted its head around to try and see her, and stamped its feet trying to catch her underneath.

Though the aggressive attempts at getting at Ellie were unsuccessful, it gave the other four blade-masters time to close in on the beast, and both Harker and Kei were able to begin attacking at the creature with their long swords, while Levin went to help Ellie with the monster's poisonous tail. Kai kept his distance from the beast as it twisted around, snapping irritably at the hunters, only stepping in to take a powerful swing at the creature every now and then. Kerry and Razor continued to pelt the creature from a distance, the archer nailing it with a continuous stream of arrows and the bowgunner reverting to smaller diameter ammunition in an attempt to break some of the beast's thick scales.

Finally, the Rathian howled in aggravated fury, swinging its wings and tail around at the hunters, forcing them to pull back to avoid getting caught by the creature's talons and spines. However, even as they tried to push back forward to continue attacking, blue flames licked from the back of the monster's throat. But rather than spewing blue-hot flames at the hunters themselves, the Rathian tilted its head to aim at the ground before unleashing the blaze; the fires seared outwards from the impact zone, spreading outwards and covering everything within thirty yards of the center with the bright flames, forcing the hunters to leap back even further from the creature. Levin found himself gasping for breath as the intense flames washed across the earth; damn it all, even back away from the fire, the heat seemed to be boiling hot even from dozens of yards away.

Suddenly, a loud, warbling sound echoed across the battlefield. Immediately, Levin felt a sense of… comfort filling him up. The sweltering heat of the Rathian's flames seemed to fade away, replaced by a simple feeling of… coolness. He knew better, but with the soothing feeling filling his body, he felt as though he could've walked straight into the Rathian's flames and not even felt the blaze. He glanced over for the source of the sound and caught sight of Kai blowing into the mouthpiece of his hunting horn, clearly the source of the sudden comfort.

"Keep fighting!" he shouted, removing his mouth from the horn and turning to face the creature again.

"How?" his sister snapped back. "We can barely break through its scales at all! Even the Cluster rounds aren't doing a thing! We should try and run! We weren't hired to take down a Rathian!"

Levin winced as the high-pitched whistling sound howled into his mind again. The bright flames cut off abruptly as the Rathian howled in pain and frustration, before the creature turned to look behind the hunters. Levin realized that it was looking at the cave they'd entered the area from. The monster cocked its head back for a moment, before unleashing a massive blue fireball that seared through the air and smashed into the stone wall above the cavern entrance, throwing a cascade of stone and shrapnel down from above with a thunderous wave of sound. Only moments later, the entire cavern entrance had been covered in a pile of boulders and stone, cutting off their best means of escape in a matter of moments.

"Looks like we really don't have that much of a choice anymore…" Kai muttered.

"Fine by me," Ellie growled, brandishing her weapon at the wyvern as it turned back to face the hunters again.

"Take it slow, then!" the hunting horn user barked to the others. "Give me some time, and I'll be able to get a few more songs out to help of take this thing down. Until then…" But before the man could finish, Ellie took off towards the monster, blade at the ready. "Damn it! What is she doing?"

"She's got some… issues with Raths," Levin explained quickly, charging after the sword and shield user.

"Oh, damn it all… fine! Just try and stay alive as long as you can, and I'll do my best to support you guys from here. Try and wear it down first! The last thing we need is more of that damn blue fire!"

Levin rushed forward to help Ellie attack the wyvern as the creature snapped at her, smashing its snout into her shield and knocking the huntress back. Despite the five blade masters circling the Rathian and looking for an opening in her defense, as well as the two ranged hunters picking at the beast from afar, the wyvern was light on her feet, and quick to counter any attempts the hunters made at putting some solid damage on her. Each time Levin tried to press forward to swing at the beast, a wing or its tail seemed to fly out of nowhere and smash him back, or worse, cut through his defenses and gouge a good piece out of his armor or, worse still, him. He got a couple hits off on the beast's tail, shattering a couple of the thick scales that lined the beast's body, but nothing substantial.

None of the other close range hunters seemed to be dodging the attacks all that much better, either. Levin couldn't understand how the Rathian was managing to do so well against them; an experienced monster keeping up with four hunters was one thing, but five melee attackers and two ranged shooters, and the wyvern was still nearly getting the better of them? Levin would have thought the two siblings would be able to press the beast harder, but the creature could keep up with even them, pressing them back when they came in to attack as well. And the Rathian's thick scales seemed to be absorbing most of the bowgun shells and arrows that Kerry and Razor were putting downrange as well. And the blazing blue fire wasn't helping things, either. Ellie had tried to block a fireball with her shield, but the pure heat of the powerful blaze was more than enough to send the huntress scurrying away after the blast detonated across the flat of her shield, forcing her to remove it and shake it off to get rid of the heat it had picked up.

Ellie's ferocity was noticeable when fighting the Rathian. Levin could tell immediately that the sword and shield user had almost immediately gone into her 'hyper-focused' condition, or whatever she called it, and was pressing herself at the monster more frequently and more aggressively than any of the other hunters. Each strike seemed to strike a weak spot as well, or slid through the cracks of the Rathian's multitude of scales, leaving bright stains of blood on the woman's blade. However, the blade was small, and despite the damage Ellie was managing to do, it wasn't deep enough to do more than make the wyvern angry.

The one that seemed to be doing the best, surprisingly enough, was Harker. The man's speed allowed him to move in on the creature and dodge its attacks with surprising ability. While the other hunters were having trouble breaking through the Rathian's defenses, the long sword user seemed to just slip through them like water through fingers. His weapon wasn't as strong as Levin's or Kei's, but the speed at which he managed to strike out at the creature was enough to deal far more damage than the other hunters were. And somehow, the coordination between him and Kerry seemed to come more prominently into play; as scales and plates fell from the long sword user's blows, shells seemed to appear out of nowhere, piercing into the newly opened weak points. After a few successful strikes, Razor seemed to realize the possibilities available, and the soft spots began getting pelted with arrows as well as Pierce and other shots.

But the Rathian was catching on, and the beast began to focus on Harker more than the other hunters. The long sword user began getting pushed away as the Rathian chased him a little, and focused more flames in his direction. Neither was very good for the man, considering his weapon's general inability to defend with it. The man's speed was enough to keep him away from the monster's charges and physical attacks, but with the beast's complete focus on him, it was wearing him out quickly. Enough, in fact, that as a gust of flame tore past the man and he dodged away from it, the Rathian was able to leap forward and twist around, catching the madman by smashing him broadside with its tail and sending him skidding across the stone and grass. Levin heard Kerry cry out in terror, but a moment later, the long sword user was struggling back to his feet, waving at the bowgunner to show he was all right.

But his bluff faded immediately as his feet gave out from underneath him, and Harker dropped to his knees, clutching his chest in pain. The Rathian growled victoriously at the fallen hunter, pawing the ground. Both Kei and Ellie rushed forward, trying to pull the monster's attentions away from the other long sword user before it could decide to go after the injured hunter, but the wyvern cocked its head back, inhaling deeply, and a moment later, bellowed out another of its powerful roars.

Levin's hands went instinctively to his ears to block out the sound, but paused as the sound of Kai's hunting horn reached his ears first. As the Rathian's roar bellowed out, the sound seemed to dim in Levin's ears, fading out slowly until it sounded more like a loud shout rather than an earth-shaking roar. Levin could still feel the noise vibrating through his body, but it didn't hurt his ears nearly as much as it did before. Kerry was hurrying over to Harker as the hunting horn user's song ended, and Kai began motioning frantically towards the Rathian.

Sure enough, the Rathian was still roaring, expecting the hunters to be deafened by the sound. Levin charged at the beast as it bellowed, sprinting right towards the creature's underbelly and swinging his sword mode weapon in sword mode up at the wyvern's flank. It was a definitely satisfying feeling as the blade of his weapon smashed though the Rathian's scales and tore into the creature's body. The Rathian howled in surprise and pain at the sudden strike, not having expected to be attacked during its roar. The other hunters were on it as well, taking advantage of the opportunity provided them and tearing into the creature.

Kerry was still seeing to Harker, but Razor was pelting the Rathian with seemingly countless arrows, aiming for all the broken plates and scales, and leaving dozens of shafts poking out of the monster's body. Kai had dragged his hunting horn over to the beast and was doing work on the Rathian's legs, while his sister rushed over to help Levin try and lop the jagged green tail off the wyvern's hindquarters. Ellie, however, was pressing her luck, charging headfirst towards the monster's head and cutting into the monster's skull and throat. The monster tried to re-gather its bearings, but the sudden rush of attacking that the hunters made the creature flinch repeatedly as the attacks continued. The Rathian tried to turn and bite into Ellie, but the huntress twisted around and smashed her shield headlong into the beast's face. The impact was enough to practically stun the monster, and the jagged Gobul spikes that were lodged into the flat of the shield wedged themselves into the monster's face as well. The onslaught against both the monster's face, as well as the other hunters' work on the wyvern's leg and tail were enough to keep the Rathian stumbling back in pain, trying to recover itself.

The sound of the hunting horn rang out again as Kai pulled away from the fight for a third time, and suddenly Levin felt as though his physical strength had increased twofold. With a surge of ferocity, the switch axe user continued to tear into the Rathian's tail, with Kei helping him along. Sprays of blood and chunks of muscle began to cover the ground more and more as the pair of them ripped into the stumbling beast's tail, getting closer and closer to lobbing the thing off the monster completely. For the first time since the fight began, Levin felt as though they might be able to finish this monster off without getting worked over too much.

But suddenly, a piercing pain ripped through his gut. The switch axe user glanced down, realizing that there was a jagged spine wedged under his arm into his side. Somehow the Rathian had twisted its tail around completely underneath itself, and had caught the hunter right in between the gaps of his armor. Immediately, a sickening, dizzying feeling filled the hunter as the venomous poison tipping the spines began to seep into his bloodstream. The next thing Levin knew, the tail snapped away, and Levin was yanked off his feet and thrown across the ground as the spine was ripped out of his side, leaving a trail of blood on the stone and grass as he slid to a halt.

Kei was the only one to see the injury, and shouted his name, but a moment later the Rathian's wing swung down to only a mere few feet off the ground, before pulling up again and catching the long sword user in the chest and tossing her across the ground as well, with a few spikes wedged into her arm as well. Now her brother had noticed from her cry of pain, but the next moment after that the creature's wing swooped around, and a powerful gust of wind sent the hunting horn user sliding backwards, leaving only Ellie up close and personal with the wyvern.

And the sword and shield user hadn't even noticed that the other hunters had been taken out, due to her hyper-focus. She still danced around the wyvern's head as the Rathian snapped at her, sword flashing at the beast's neck while her shield bashed relentlessly against the monster's skull. Levin tried to push himself to his feet and call out to her, warning her, but a blast of pain shot through him, and the poison left him nauseous, and he dropped to his knees again, gasping for air. The next moment, the wyvern, now only needing to focus on Ellie, leapt back away from the sword and shield user, eyeing her deviously. Ellie chased after it, single-mindedly wanting to kill the wyvern.

She only managed to stop when Kerry shouted at her in warning, from across the field of battle. The huntress stopped, confused, looking around the Rathian, only now realizing that she was the only one around still fighting against the wyvern. Right at that moment, the Rathian cocked its head back, the familiar, dangerous gurgling sound emitting from the back of its throat. But as the sound continued, rather than just the back of the wyvern's throat, the creature's whole mouth was soon filled with billowing, blue-hot flames that swelled down the sides of the monster's jaw.

"Ellie!" Kerry cried out. "Get away from it! Now!" Ellie was only still for a moment before dashing to the side, trying to get out of the way. The Rathian twisted its head to follow her, but with it gathering its flames, it couldn't quite keep up, and with a howl of rage, the wyvern's head flew forward and the flames jetted out of its maw.

But what flew from the Rathian's throat seemed a massive, rolling wave of powerful fireballs. As the flames smashed into the earth, a wave of powerful explosions blasted into the sky, tailing after the huntress as she ran, ripping through the stone and dirt and upending both. The sword and shield user could hear the wave of destruction following her, and while she was running, tried to twist to the side, holding her shield up in a desperate attempt to block the eruptions that tailed after her. Levin watched in terror as the flames roared after her, coming ever closer. As the distance closed, though, the explosions began to lose momentum, and for a moment it seemed that the huntress might be able to escape the cascading flames. But Ellie had begun running too late, and a moment later a fireball caught the earth only a few scant feet behind Ellie's stride, and the detonation caught her in the back, flames washing over her and sending her flying forward, flames licking off her armor as she tumbled across the rocky ground.

Levin yelled the woman's name in terror as she lay there for a moment, as the Rathian roared in satisfaction. Large craters littered the earth between the Rathian and where Ellie lay, blue flames licking up from the earth, even on pure stone. And the stone was glowing from the heat, heated by the powerful flames to a bright glowing red. But the creature's eyes narrowed as the sword and shield user slowly pushed herself awkwardly to her knees, trying to get back up and fighting again. The wyvern clawed the ground, preparing to charge the huntress before she could recover. Levin quickly scrambled for his item pouch, quickly pulling out and uncorking a potion and downing it as quickly as he could. Even before the effects of the drug kicked in, he was pushing himself upright again and charging across the field towards the Rathian; he couldn't afford to drink an antidote, not yet. The poison dragged him down, made it hard to breathe, and blurred his vision, making it hard to run, but he pressed on. As the wyvern prepared to lunge, Levin swung his weapon up from below the creature, crashing his sword into the Rathian's chest and wedging the point of the blade between two of the monster's plates, making the creature flinch back in pain. Then he reached up, quickly smashing the large release button that Umbre had warned him about using; but if now wasn't the time to use it, he didn't know what was.

Immediately, energy began pouring through the blade to the tip of the weapon. Normally in the switch axe's 'sword mode' energy flowed through the edge of the blade constantly, but upon hitting the release valve, the weapon's energy flow was drastically increased, allowing a massive amount of energy to swell to the tip of the blade, surging out of the point of the weapon and into the very flesh of the monster. The Rathian howled in pain as tens of thousands of volts of electricity seared into its chest and tried to get away, but Levin pressed forward, making sure to keep the weapon's tip wedged into the wyvern's body. He had to keep pressing; the weapon would soon unleash its power. The wyvern continued to squirm, though, writhing around and trying to sink its teeth or spikes into the switch axe user, but each twist only dug the blade further into it. After a few seconds, the searing blue light of the energy pealing from the phial reached its maximum, and Levin felt some mechanisms, safety features and contingency valves, activating.

The switch axe shook in his hands as a massive wave of energy surged to the tip of the weapon, swelling into a single point at the end. The glow continued to increase, until finally the energy gathered burst free, erupting outwards in a massive detonation, ripping through scale and flesh on the Rathian's chest and searing the body beneath burnt black. The blast sent the switch axe flying backwards as well, and with Levin clinging tightly to the grip, the hunters was nearly thrown off his feet as he held tight to the weapon. He managed to keep himself upright, though it was close with the weapon automatically shifting back to its 'axe mode' as well.

But though Levin had hoped that the explosive energy would be enough to critically injure the Rathian, and it had managed to leave a massive wound in the side of the monster, the wyvern didn't seem to be crippled at all, or even limping at all. Rather, as the monster turned to face the switch axe use, the only thing that he could see on the monster's face was rage. Levin yelped in surprise as the creature swung around, swinging its tail at the hunter. He leapt backwards, just barely keeping out of the monsters range, but as his feet hit the ground, a wave of nausea washed over him, and he lost his balance, tumbling onto his back as his vision swam. He gripped his waist, putting pressure on the wound as it began to throb painfully. Blue light began to fill up in the back of the Rathian's throat as it glared at him, preparing to send a wave of flame at him.

But before the flames leapt from the monster's mouth, an arrow flew in from the side, smashing into the side of the Rathian's face and planting itself between two of the creature's plates just under the monster's cheekbones. A fraction of a second later, Kei suddenly rushed forward from the side, her long sword swiping out and cutting into the Rathian's face right next to where the arrow had landed. The Rathian reared back in pain as the jet of fire flew from its mouth, firing into the air rather than at the switch axe user.

Levin forced himself back to his feet, using his weapon as a crutch as Kai appeared next to him, grabbing him and helping him hurry away from the Rathian as it twisted around to rage at his sister. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah… ow! Okay, not exactly. I think I may have been poisoned."

"Right… well, drink a potion and give me a second, and I'll see what I can do about that." The pair of hunters reached one of the far walls of the battlefield and the horn user set Levin down on a rock. As Levin pulled out a potion bottle, Kai reached into his own pouch and removed a long wooden object; a hunter's flute, Levin realized. He'd never really used any of those before. But as he drank down his potion, Kai blew a quick tune through the flute, and a moment later the nauseous feeling from the poison began to fade a little. The feeling lingered, but as the man's song ended, Levin had to admit he was feeling better. "It's not much," Kai told him, "and it's not as effective as an actual liquid antidote, but this flute should encourage your body to fight harder against the poison, and you'll feel better pretty soon."

Levin nodded in understanding as he pushed himself to his feet. He was still a little dizzy, and his vision wasn't clearing very quickly, but he could feel himself getting better, and was sure that he could keep fighting… He dropped to his knees as pain shot from his side again. He'd fight once he got that damn wound in his side patched up… In the meantime, the other six hunters were putting up a hell of a fight again, having gotten the time to recover. Even Harker was moving in on the wyvern again, long sword flashing dangerously in the light. Ellie and Kerry were back on their feet as well, the sword swinger trying to go after the Rathian's underbelly while Kerry was firing rounds at the wyvern's wings.

But the Rathian had realized the dangers of trying to take so many of them on at once, and as they charged, the wyvern spun around, tearing the tip of its bladed tail across the stone and sending up a wave of sparks at the hunters. As the group pulled away from the spray of bright sparks, the Rathian spread its wings, and pushed itself into the air, carrying itself up into the sky several dozen yards above the hunters' heads with only a few quick beats of its wings.

"Shoot it down!" Kei called out, sheathing her blade and diving out of the way as the Rathian swept down to nip at her. "Blow it out of the sky!"

"I can't!" Kerry replied. "I'm out of explosive rounds! All I can do is pick at it!"

"Damn it!" The long sword user cursed. But both Kerry and Razor kept firing at the flying beast, running in to get a better shot before pulling back to reload. The arrows and shots weren't doing as much damage as the incendiary rounds had been, but Razor was letting his arrows fly with such shocking speed that Levin was surprised that his bow could take the strain. Even the Rathian was getting frustrated as feathered plumes began sprouting from the gaps in its scales.

As Razor rushed forward to fire, though, the Rathian swooped in, and with a powerful thrust of its wings, completely flipped in the air, sending its tail swooping up from below. The archer yelped in surprise, leaping to the side as the spines of the tail just barely grazed the sleeves of his armor. Immediately, though, the Rathian spun around in the air, then dipped even lower before a powerful flap allowed the wyvern to pull off yet another flip. This time, however, with the monster so close to the ground, the long spines on the edges of the Rathian's tail skimmed the rocky earth, once again picking up a wave of sparks, and sending them flying at the archer. Razor was nimble enough to pull out of the tail's way, but not out of the way of the spray of sparks, which caught hold on parts of the man's armor, bursting into small flames that the man had to run off to put out.

Kerry was still keeping close, though, constantly pelting the Rathian with shot after shot of ammunition, and the other hunters were waiting patiently nearby, hoping that the next shot would be enough to bring the Rathian down. However, as the bowgunner fired a series of Pierce rounds at the beast, the Rathian quickly turned, pushing itself back from the incoming shots and out of range. Kerry was following close after though, with the other hunters tailing behind. However, as the hunters approached, the wyvern caught them off guard as blue light seared from its throat, and a thick blaze of blue flame burst out, cascading to the ground and smashing into the stone floor between the hunters and the hovering monster.

The hunters chasing the Rathian were forced to jump away as the wave of flame washed over the earth, rolling across the ground towards them. Somehow or another, the Rathian continued to spew bright blue flames for nearly thirty seconds, pressing forward flap after flap, foot after foot. But eventually the flames cut out, and the creature dropped to the ground again, breathing heavily. But as Ellie and Kei pushed forward to attack again, the two suddenly stumbled back, as though the both of them had been pushed back by one of the Rathian's gusts of wind. Levin frowned in confusion; the wyvern hadn't moved at all! What had hit them?

That's when he looked at the ground where the Rathian was standing, and he realized that a massive chunk of the ground surrounding the wyvern, in the area where the monster had sprayed its massive wave of flame, the rocky ground was red-hot, glowing bright from the pure heat of the flames that had been washing over it only moments ago. When the hunters tried to push forward, the intense heat radiating from the glowing rock repelled them, proving too hot for them to pass. And the Rathian seemed to know it as well, a wide grin appearing to spread across the wyvern's face. To cap it all off, the Rathian was standing in the dead center of the blazing area, completely unaffected by the heat.

A second later, the Rathian cocked its head back again, and once again a blaze of flame burst from the creature's mouth. But the fires weren't aimed at the hunters at all; rather, the Rathian sent the flames off to the side of the valley, slamming the flames against the far wall of the area. The wyvern kept the inferno going for a moment, before slowly beginning to turn its head, sending the flame on a path across the valley in a curved line. Levin was confused about what exactly the Rathian was doing, before Kai suddenly cursed, grabbing Levin by the coat and dragging him towards the other hunters and shouting desperately at them.

"It's cutting us off! It's trying to trap us in!"

Levin blinked in surprise at the words, before turning to look at the Rathian again, and his heart sank in fear. Sure enough, the Rathian was leading its powerful blaze in a semi-circular path around the hunters, cutting a red-hot line across the rocky terrain that was effectively cutting off the seven hunters from any of the possible escape routes they could use if things turned for the worse. As the other hunters began to realize this, the group of them tried to make a break around the outside of the Rathian's path. But the wyvern caught on, and to all of their surprise, the monster actually increased the speed and intensity of its flames, and a swathe of fire cut across their path, sending a blazing wall of blue fire leaping to the sky as the Rathian effectively cut off the entire group from escape. The wyvern continued to shoot flames at the earth, waving its head back and forth a couple times over the ground for certainty, before the flames finally cut off. The Rathian was breathing heavily, but the growl in released as it returned its gaze to the hunters was victorious and downright assured.

"Kerry, Razor," Kai muttered worriedly, "it should be out of the stamina it needs to use its flames after all that. We don't have much room to maneuver here. If you can do as much damage as you possibly can before it gets too close…"

Suddenly, the Rathian's head snapped forward, and a huge blue fireball flew from the creature's mouth, soaring through the air and smashing into the base of one of the aqueduct pillars, several dozen yards over the hunters' head. Kai gaped in shock as the blue flames licked up at the sky from the impact zone, and a cold growling sound emitted from the Rathian's throat that sounded eerily like laughter.

"Or not," Kei groaned. "Guess it's just… gonna pick us off from the center of its little oven, where we can't get to it."

"Wait…" The group turned to face Kerry at the sound of the bowgunner's quiet words. The woman was staring up at the aqueduct, a thoughtful look visible through her helmet. Then her hands flew to her pouch, and she began tossing items of all types out of her satchel, letting them fall to the ground as she searched for… something. Then she pulled out a… bone, and… a fish? Levin frowned in confusion. Why would she…?

The Rathian's roar caught his attention as the monster howled victoriously. As the hunters prepared themselves, the beast began striding towards them, almost casually, walking across the red-hot stones like it was nothing. Levin still felt sick to his stomach from the lingering effects of the poison, but he still pulled his switch axe from its sheathe, switching the weapon into a sword. Maybe the creature would get close enough for him to set off an energy explosion again… though he didn't think the phials he had held enough charge.

As the creature approached, Razor pulled his bow taut with an arrow. He didn't seem to have that many left. "Maybe I can hit it in the eye or something," he told the others. "If it can't aim, it might flail close enough for you melee hunters to hit it… just give me a try…"

"Everyone! Move to the sides of the valley!" Kerry suddenly called out. The other six hunters looked at her uncertainly as the woman began messing with her weapon, trying to work… something, but a gurgling sound gave warning to the hunters just in time for them to realize that the Rathian was preparing more waves of blue flame. Levin found himself swaying as Ellie grabbed ahold of his shoulder, pulling him towards the rock walls that lined the edges of the area. The two had to dive as a wave of flames ripped past them, nearly catching them alight and separating them from the other five. The beast roared in amusement, though, and began to chase after them, tailing them and trying to pin them to the walls, more of its searing blaze gushing up from its gullet.

But as the Rathian charged across the red-hot earth, Kerry quickly shoved a round into the chamber and snapped her bowgun up, aiming it up at the aqueduct that trailed across the northern side of the valley. Her bowgun bucked wildly as she pulled the trigger, and a massive shell flew through the air right towards one of the tall pillars holding the whole thing up. The shot's aim was true, and the round connected right at the peak of one of the column, above where the Rathian's fireball had struck. There was a second of wait as the fuse inside ran down, and then the round detonated, sending a wave of stone shrapnel clattering down the side of the wall and taking a chunk out of the pillar that cut almost all the way through it. Several more flaming orbs leapt out from the explosion, colliding with other parts of the column before blowing up as well, blasting even more chunks out of the stone. A loud, creaking groan echoed across the valley for a long moment, before the pillar finally gave way, collapsing in on itself and tumbling down to the ground.

The aqueduct itself somehow managed to remain standing for a moment or two longer, slowly beginning to sag in the middle where the pillar had been taken out. The stone waterway began to buck and sway back and forth as the rushing water contained inside shook the stone path, more and more until Levin wondered how it was still in one piece. Then a rupture tore across the side, and a blast of water burst out of the edges of the aqueduct, just a second before the entire line of stone between the pillars before and after the one Kerry had destroyed collapsed, sending a cascade of water careening down into the valley.

Levin quickly scrambled against the rock wall as the water rushed past him and Ellie, nearly knocking him off his feet even as he clung tight to the stone. He was shocked at how much water the aqueduct had held; he'd assumed water enough for a large stream, but this… this was almost worth calling a river of water! The other hunters were far enough away that they were able to avoid the onslaught of water, but still had to leap back as the cascade rushed past. Even the Rathian's flame wall cut off in surprise as the water rushed down the slope towards it.

"What are you doing?" Kei shouted at Kerry. "Trying to get it wet or something? If that kind of thing worked, every hunter would carry a bucket of water with them when hunting these things!"

"Maybe she thinks it'll be less aggressive after a bath or something," Kai said over the deluge. "Though I don't see how-"

But right as the hunter was talking, the rush of water finally reached the Rathian, sweeping over the red-hot rocks that the creature stood upon. The instant the cool water touched the steaming rocks, the earth seemed to erupt, blasts of steam exploding into the sky as the rocks themselves, rapidly cooled by the water, blast apart into pieces, sending shrapnel and other massive shards of rock blasting upwards from the earth. The Rathian howled in pain and shock as the water rushed underneath her, making the same thing happen right under her chest, sending shards of sharp stone shooting straight up into her underbelly and shattering dozens of the thick scales and plates that coated her body.

The Rathian staggered back in pain as stones ripped into its body and wings from below, white blasts of steam jetted up into the air around it. The creature waved its wings wildly, trying to back away from the shattering earth, desperately beating its wings and trying to get airborne and away. However, the rush of water was fast-moving, and with every pained step the creature took back, the deluge tailed right below it, gushing over the stones of the valley. And with it, almost the entire valley floor visibly glowing from the heat of the Rathian's blue flames, every inch of the ground that the water touched cracked and shattered, sending even more shrapnel up into the Rathian.

Levin gasped in relief as the initial onslaught of the water finally died away; the aqueduct was still churning out a large creek's worth of water from the high pillar where the collapse of the pillar hadn't reached. But he could move now, which was better than nothing. Pulling back from the wall, he shook himself off a bit, stumbling a bit from the nausea. Ellie appeared at his side, a worried look on her face, but he grinned encouragingly and turned back towards the field, grabbing the hilt of his blade.

The battlefield seemed a completely different place now. Where the place had once been a calm-looking rock flat with scattered grass patches spread around, the field now seemed like a crater of destruction. A blanket of thick white steam coated the earth, cutting off any visibility further than a dozen yards or so. The earth itself was torn and splintered, as though an earthquake had gone through and shattered everything in sight. Most of the water had washed away or burst into steam, but several craters that had been made when the water had washed over the area were filled with water, quite often set to boiling as well. Levin could hear Kerry and Harker calling out his and Ellie's names, but though he couldn't see the Rathian through the fog, a pained groaning could be heard clearly above the hissing steam, holding his attention. But Ellie tensed next to him. The switch axe user quickly followed her gaze, and quickly pulled his weapon out as the Rathian's massive shadow appeared from the haze, stumbling towards where the pair of them stood. Ellie held her shield out defensively, preparing for any fireballs the creature might shoot at them as the blurry shape slowly began to clear.

But the monster that appeared from the mist was not the same beast that had been forced to attack them. The Rathian, once massive and indomitable, now was broken and wounded nearly beyond recognition. Nearly all the scales and plates that had lined the creature's underbelly had been shattered completely or entirely removed from the wyvern's body, and the dark, strong flesh and muscle that lay underneath had been seared and charred, despite the monster's natural resistance to heat. The monster's wings had been shredded, with large, gaping holes leaving almost only the frames of the wings behind. Many of the horns and spines that had lined the creature's head were broken off as well, and several of the wyvern's teeth had been dislodged from the monster's jaw as well.

But the beast, somehow, still had a fire in its eyes (and its throat) as it eyed the hunters dangerously. Even with the weariness and pain in its eyes, it still gave off a dominant expression. It was certain that it was going to come out victorious in the battle against them, one way or another. And if it couldn't… well, it seemed damned sure that it was going to do as much damage to them as it could possibly manage. It still growled menacingly at them, clearly ready to keep fighting them, despite its injuries. Levin swung his weapon forward, quickly activating the weapon's sword mode. There wasn't much attack energy left in his phials, but there should be enough left for a few good swings… if the Rathian would let him get close enough to hit her with them. His vision was still swimming a little from the poison; the antidote horn's effects still hadn't flushed his system of all the Rathian's venom. But he could still fight; all he needed to do was…

Suddenly Ellie reached back, planting her palm on his chest and shoving gently. With his injuries, as well as the lingering effects of the poison, the switch axe user tumbled backwards almost too easily, landing on his backside on the wet ground with his weapon clattering down next to him.

"What… Ellie, what are you-?"

"I'm going to take care of this, okay?" She replied with a determined grin. A wild but nervous look was in her eyes as she unsheathed her weapon and aimed it at the wyvern. "I wanna finish this one off myself."

"Are you crazy? You can't just-"

"Sure I can. As for being crazy, I'm a Lost, remember? And it's weakened right now; I know I can do it! This is just… something I have to do for myself Levin. It may be stupid, but it's something I need to do. Besides, I'm the one with a shield here, and you're not exactly in the best condition to be doing much of anything right now. So just… leave finishing it off to me."

"I can't just let you… wait, Ellie!" Before Levin could stop her, the huntress bolted away, running straight towards where the Rathian stood waiting. "Damn it!"

The huntress charged headlong at the Rathian as the creature roared in reply. Levin could hear the worried shouts of the other hunters at the sound, and he called out to them, trying to get their attentions and to get them to hurry. But Ellie was already within battle range of the beast. The Rathian lunged forwards, twisting her head and snapping at the sword and shield user. The huntress reacted quickly, though, swinging her shield around and smacking the monster's head to the side. The tactic might not have worked earlier, but as Ellie had said, the beast was weakened and far easier to beat back.

Ellie lunged forward as the Rathian shook its head in confusion, striking her sword against the monster's skull, smashing against the broken scales and tearing into the beast's flesh. The wyvern howled in pain, stumbling backwards, but Ellie continued her attack, slashing wildly as the Rathian pulled away further into the fog. Levin forced himself to his feet to follow. Even with the threat of the battle, even though the poison was still hitting him hard, he had to keep his eyes on Ellie.

The Rathian swung its wings and struck as quickly as it could, clearly surprised at the sudden aggression of the sword and shield user, and trying to beat her back to recover. But Ellie was relentless, a determined and increasingly confident grin growing across her face as she continued to pelt the monster with numerous sword strikes across the face and neck. The Rathian even tried to fire a stream of flame at the huntress, but a strike from Ellie made the creature flinch again, and all that sputtered out of the wyvern's mouth was a trickle of flame barely enough to light a campfire.

Eventually, though, the Rathian ducked out of the way of one of Ellie's strikes, and with a quick step the beast leapt back several yards, immediately cocking its head back to fire a volley of flames and the huntress. Ellie pulled her shield up to block, but still charged at the creature's face, knowing her chances of dodging were slim. Levin yelled as the creature's head snapped forward and flames leapt from the monsters mouth. But shockingly, the burst of fire only leapt about two feet from the monster's maw, only barely grazing the edges of Ellie's shield as she plowed forward, smashing her shield into the wyvern's snout yet again. The Rathian howled in fury and frustration, snapping forward to snap at Ellie, trying to sink its teeth into her.

But Ellie had momentum going now, and her blade snapped up, cutting across the wyvern's face. The Rathian's head bobbed as the creature stumbled, its head sinking lower to the ground. The huntress leapt forward as the Rathian's head skimmed the earth, shocking Levin by spring-boarding off the monster's snout and leaping onto the top of its head, twisting around the front again, as though she was riding the beast. The Rathian roared in fury, twisting its head around and bucking around, trying to dislodge the huntress from on top of it. As it writhed and snapped, Ellie swung her shield down again, smashing it against the top of the wyvern's skull, stunning the Rathian for a moment. As the monster swayed and staggered, Ellie pulled her sword above her head, clutching the hilt with both hands, and when the Rathian swung up again, the huntress swung the weapon down, sinking it right into the gap between two shattered scales at the peak of the wyvern's forehead.

The Rathian howled in pain as the blade sank into its skull, and began flailing wildly. But the motions only made its situation worse as the blade wiggled and wedged its way further into the monster's skull. The screams of the creature became desperate, and its motions increasingly wild, and a moment later Ellie was flung from the monster's head, and sent tumbling across the ground. Levin hurried over to her as the Rathian continued to flail and sway, screaming in pain. Short jets of flame shot from its mouth as it swayed and twisted around, swinging its wings around trying to dislodge the sword that remained wedged into its skull. But the blade wouldn't come out, and the creature's motions rapidly became increasingly weak and awkward, until finally the wyvern's legs gave out from underneath it, and the monster dropped to the ground, its wings crumbling beneath it.

The two hunters watched in awe as the Rathian's life force slowly drained away. Even in its death throes the monster managed to turn its head to face the two Lost, glaring at them defiantly and trying one last time to send a blaze of blue flame at them. It managed to send a spear of fire at them, though it was only about seven feet long, getting nowhere near the pair of them at all. As the flames fizzled out, for the first time since the start of the battle, a defeated look covered the creature's face, and the monster's head dropped to the earth, and its eyes glazed over as it finally died.

The two hunters were silent for a moment, before Ellie pushed herself back up to her feet, and walked over to the fallen monster, with Levin close behind. The sword and shield user stared at the dead monster as it lay there, standing silent for a long moment, before reaching down and grasping the hilt of her blade, still wedged into the beast's skull. With a couple quick tugs, the huntress pulled the weapon free, holding the blade up and studying the blood that coated the thing before shaking it off.

"Holy crap…" Levin turned as the other five hunters appeared out of the steam, hurrying towards them. Kai was in the lead, and as he stopped in front of the two hunters he gazed in surprise at the sight of the dead monster.

"Are you all right, dear?" Kerry asked worriedly, hurrying over to Ellie.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Ellie replied, grinning at the bowgunner encouragingly. "I think Levin's in worse condition than I am right now. Still fighting off the effects of the poison, I think."

"I'll see to that," Harker said eagerly, hurrying over to Levin's side. "I'd keep motionless if I were you, my friend. I'll have you in peak condition momentarily. This shouldn't be too invasive…"

"I don't feel comfortable right now…" Levin muttered.

"Did you… you finished it off?" Kei asked, looking down at the remains of the wyvern, kicking the edge of the monster's head uncertainly.

"It was weakened," Levin replied, wincing as Harker wrapped a tight group of bandages around his waist. He frowned irritably at his beloved, earning a sheepish look. "Miss Ellie here saw fit to see to the end of the Rathian on her own, much to my great displeasure."

"I regret nothing!"

"Don't be foolish, dear," Kerry snapped, smacking the sword and shield user in the back of the head lightly. "You should've waited until the rest of us got here. I am very proud of you for finishing the thing off by yourself, but it was very risky of you to try and take on the thing by yourself, even if it was weak. You know what they say about creatures that are backed into corners…"

"Where were you guys anyway?" Levin asked. "I was calling out to you guys for a while."

Kerry sighed in frustration. "We tried to get over here faster, but… well, when the water hit the ground, it ruptured the earth pretty badly between us and you, and some of the remains of the aqueduct created a pretty nasty barricade as well, and it took some time to get around."

"Speaking of which," Razor cut in, "if I may ask, Kerrigan, how exactly did you manage to blow up the aqueduct as you did? It was quite a brilliant plan, if I do say so myself."

"Yeah, how did you do that?" Ellie asked excitedly. "I thought you'd said you didn't have any more incendiary rounds left after the . Did you find one buried in your pouch or something?"

"Ah, err, well, I didn't actually," Kerry replied sheepishly.

"What? But… you blew up the aqueduct," Kei said. "You must've had some ammo in your pouch somewhere."

"No, I didn't," the bowgunner said. "Really: I, um… I just… made the shot myself, actually."

"Really?" Harker asked, interest lighting up his face. "During the battle? I didn't see you playing around with such things beforehand… How did you do it? What did you use? And how did you think to use the water to break the stone below the Rathian to fight back?"

"I'm quite curious as well," Razor said. "To make ammunition during a fight… quite risky. I've heard of some hunters that take gunpowder and shells along to make extra explosives during battles, but it's pushing the borders of safety."

Kerry reddened a little at the attention and scratched her head in embarrassment. "Well, err… I thought that spreading water across the ground might… well, react like it did, because of something Harker told me once. I mean, I didn't think it would be quite so explosive, but… Harker told me once about what happened when something cold touched something really hot, thermo… thermo-something-or-other, and since the ground was really hot from the Rathian's flames, and the water was right there, so… I just gave it a try, and it worked, I guess."

"Ah, brilliant!" Harker replied excitedly. "Of course that would work! The natural heat of the crust here in the volcano area, mixed with the heat of the Rathian's flames… yes, of course the rock would become hot enough for such a plan to work! I should've thought of it myself! Wonderful thinking, Lady Kerrigan!"

"It… it wasn't that great," Kerry muttered, embarrassed, but clearly pleased with the praise. "I was just acting out something you taught me… if I hadn't learned all those things from you, I wouldn't have known what to do."

"Ah, you belittle yourself, my dear," Harker said. "You've always been a sharp hunter from what I've seen, I have no doubt you would've figured something out. But what about the Cluster round you fired off? While it's quite impressive that you made another explosive round on the fly during a fight, I don't recall you brining along any empty shells or gunpowder or anything else of the like… So how did you manage to create such a powerful shell?"

"Erm, well, it was actually a guess," Kerry replied sheepishly. "When we were fishing back at the stream, I managed to catch a couple Scatterfish while we were fishing for our lunch earlier. I, um, I remembered something that an older hunter told me once; he mentioned that he'd seen a Scatterfish nibbling on rocks and powders in the area around here, and when he'd accidently hit one with a rock it had gone up in flames. And also, I remembered how you said that some rocks and powders in the area could be mixed together to make explosives, like the Uragaans do. So, um, I kept the stomachs and guts of some of the ones I caught. I thought that I could… could look into it and tell you what I found."

"You… wanted to experiment on the Scatterfish?" Harker asked, stunned.

"A little bit," Kerry replied quietly. "You always seem so excited by the tests you run, so I thought about giving it a try myself. Then the Rathian attacked, and I started to run low on ammunition, so I thought that, since I had something that might explode, it was worth a try. I didn't have any empty shells though… but during the fight, I, um, managed to find a couple bones off that Aptonoth's corpse that I thought I might be able to use as shells, so I picked one up and shoved the Scatterfish guts inside. I was worried it wouldn't fire easily, but it actually came out of the barrel a lot more smoothly than I thought it would."

"You… just like that?" Harker said, his jaw dropping a little. Levin snickered at the long sword user's face; he'd never seen the man look so flabbergasted before. "All this time you've been hassling me about my dangerous experiments, and you, on the fly, put an untested, unmeasured, likely unstable round inside of your bowgun, simply hoping it turned out well?"

"Yes, well… erm, I know it probably wasn't one of the most intelligent things I've ever done…" the bowgunner replied sheepishly. Then her face lit up excitedly, and a broad, ecstatic grin covering her face. "But, my gosh! That feeling when it worked, when the plan I concocted actually came through! I've never felt so excited, so accomplished about something! And the feeling that something I made, something I created myself actually worked exactly as I wanted it to, if not better! It's no wonder you enjoy experimenting with monster goods so much! The satisfaction upon success was amazing!"

Harker grinned awkwardly at the words, though he was clearly pleased at what he was hearing. "Well, I'm glad you feel that way, Lady Kerrigan. Though, if you'd like…"

"Can I help you the next time you do an experiment on something?"

For the first time since Levin had met the man, Harker was actually left speechless. His jaw was moving on its hinges, but no sounds were leaving his mouth. "You… want to help me? With my experiments? Really?"

"Yes! Of course! It was so… fascinating, having something like that work as well as it did! I want… I want to try other things like it! You always seem to be so excited about what you work on, and maybe… maybe I'd like it just as much! So… maybe you could let me help you? And you could try and teach me more about all that science-y stuff you talk about. I mean, it might take me a while to figure things out, but I really want to learn more and try these things that you do! So… err, would that work? Could you teach me things so that I could help you with your work?"

Harker stood silent for a moment, eyes wide and mouth gaping in shock. Then the next moment he rushed towards Kerry, grabbing the bowgunner by the shoulders and making the woman yelp in surprise, and before she could do anything else, Harker pulled her towards him and kissed her passionately. For a moment, Kerry had a stunned expression on her face. Then it melted away as the woman closed her eyes and began to return the favor, wrapping her arms around the taller man's head and pulling him closer.

It was almost a minute before Kai coughed notably. Kerry squeaked in mortification and the sound, quickly pulling away from the long sword user, her face reddening deeply. Harker had a whimsical grim plastered across his face as the woman pulled away, but even with so many people looking on, he didn't seem to be embarrassed or remorseful at all. Levin noticed that Ellie had an excited grin plastered across her own face, clearly happy with how things had developed.

"Hmm. Perhaps that was a bit abrupt of me," Harker said simply, though he was still grinning slyly. "But anyway, you asked if I would be willing to teach you what I know, so that we could work together, yes? If that's what you'd like, then I'd be perfectly delighted to do so, Lady Kerrigan. It would be pleasure to have you as a partner both in the field and in the lab. Though, as you already know, my experiments do have a tendency to… react violently. If such danger is acceptable to you, then I'm perfectly content with having you as a partner, my dear."

"That's… that's good to hear," Kerry replied, still beet red, but grinning a little now as well. "I, um, I look forward to working with you, and learning as much as I can."

Razor giggled wickedly at the words, grinning at the two hunters. "And with all that time alone together in whatever you two use as a laboratory, there'll be plenty of time for the both of you to pursue more… interesting and intimate activities, I have no doubt." The archer laughed loudly at the bowgunner began to fidget in embarrassment at the words.

"Well, now that our work here is done," Kei said, interrupting, "we should probably return to Frost Town with our report. I've never… I've never seen a Rathian that could breathe blue flames, so the Guild will probably still show an interest in what we've found, even if it's not a group of Lost we found."

"It's probably for the better that we didn't find any Lost," Kai said. "No offense, but with the fuss people are raising over the Lost back in Loc Lac, it's probably a good thing we didn't find any more of them here. If what you guys told us is any indication, we'd just have to have the one we found set down in Frost Town. It's a nice enough place, but it's a commercial town. I'm not sure how well they'd take with who knows how many Lost popping up needing housing and food."

"You're right," Levin nodded. "It probably is for the best. The way people treat the Lost in Loc Lac… I'd hate have them being treated just as poorly here too."

"No kidding," Kai replied. "Well, let's hurry up and get back. Grab that… old thing you found, Ellie. It's a long haul back to Frost Town from here. Hopefully you don't get tired dragging that thing back with you."

"What about the Rathian?" Ellie asked, looking over at the corpse of the dead wyvern with a greedy expression on her face. Levin didn't blame her; she'd finally had the opportunity to take down one of the monsters that had haunted her dreams. It wasn't a Rathalos, but still… "We didn't exactly come out here to take it down, so…"

"Take what you want," the female long sword user replied. "The Guild will be surprised enough that there was a Rathian in the area in the first place, so I don't think the environmentalists that keep track of the Volcano will really mind us killing it. The old girl took a beating, so I'm not sure how many materials we'll be able to get. But you should be able to get enough for… something. Maybe an armor set or something; that monster is big enough to get quite a few nice things. Go to town, you guys."

Needing no more motivation, Ellie turned and bolted towards the downed body of the Rathian, her hunter's knife already leaping from its sheathe in preparation of carving into the monster. Levin followed close behind, really wanting a piece of the rewards just as much as Ellie did. He caught up to her, and knelt down next to her right as the huntress was peeling away a surprisingly well-preserved green plate from the wyvern's hide.

"So how's it feel?" he asked, pulling his own knife out to begin peeling off scales and plates of his own. The other hunters were working over the creature as well, trying to find good materials that they could take off the beast. "Finally taking out one of the Raths?"

His partner grinned widely. "It feels good. I feel… I feel like I could do anything right now! I've always disliked Raths. They've always… haunted me. And the fact that I managed to take one down is… exhilarating! I mean, it'd feel even better if I managed to take it down all by myself, but I'm not about to let my reach exceed my grasp or anything."

"Don't want to bite off more than you can chew?"

"Exactly," Ellie replied, cutting off the needle-like spikes lining the beast's wings. "I realize that I wouldn't have been able to do this on my own or anything. Maybe one day, though… But at the same time, it's all leaving me wanting… more. It's really not enough for me."

"What do you mean?"

"Well… though I've never cared much for either of the Raths, the Rathian isn't really the monster that gives me nightmares. When I have bad dreams… it's not the green one I see. I don't think taking this particular wyvern down is going to make the dreams I have stop. No… no, I don't think I'll really be content until I manage to take down a Rathalos. Think you'll be willing to stick around long enough to help me out when the opportunity arises?"

"I think so," Levin grinned. "There are a few certain things I find enjoyable about your company, Miss Ellie. Besides… I have my own monster to look for and hunt down, my dear. Though, I wouldn't blame you for keeping out of my affairs when it comes to that. It's not exactly the easiest thing to go after, and I don't think I'll be getting any help from the locals. If they figure out that I'm seriously planning to go after the thing…"

"They won't," Ellie said quickly, shushing him. She sent a worried expression over to the siblings and Razor. Kerry and Harker they trusted, but… locals had a tendency to be jumpy about the Alatreon. Even Kerry seemed a bit edgy about the subject when they brought it up, but her loyalty to Harker and them was enough to keep her on their side. "We'll find some way to go after the beast, without the Guild or Loc Lac stopping us, and we'll – both of us, and Harker and Kerry if they'll help – take down the Alatreon. Somehow. You're helping me with the monster that haunts me, and I intend to return the favor."

"Thanks, Ellie," Levin said, smiling.

"Of course. Now, keep carving! You're not going to have the materials to make anything nice if you let the others take everything good!"

"Ah! Right you are, Miss Ellie!" Levin laughed, before returning to his carving enthusiastically. They'd have problems to deal with in the future. Even if this mission didn't result in more Lost being displaced somewhere unknown, Stergo might call on them again if the need arose, and they'd need to be ready to rise to the challenge. But that was the future. For now, they'd managed to succeed in surviving against and defeating a powerful monster, and deserved a moment to celebrate their victory and reap their rewards.

"This is to be discreet. I don't want people associating this with any person or party. I just want general discontent, is that clear?"

"Of course, sir. We know what we're doing."

Zhanin eyed the man in front of him shrewdly. He had the appearance of a normal, happy man, middle-class by his clothes. But he was supposed to be one of the best political agitators in the city: 'Supposed to be' being the key phrase. Zhanin didn't know his name; didn't want to know it either. It was better that way. "I certainly hope so, considering how much I'm paying you. Remember-"

"Go around to bars and inns and shops and everywhere there's people, making a drunken fuss about the Lost," the man interrupted, rolling his eyes. "We lost our jobs because of them, they stole our family heirlooms, one tried to stab me for no reason, anything we can think up. And no mentioning what should or shouldn't be done, or which politicians are in the right or wrong. You just want us to rile people up. Trust me, I know how to play this game. I've done it before."

"I just wish I could see how well," Zhanin growled. "Is your work really working? Things don't seem to be going my way from what I've seen…"

"Oh, it's going just fine," the man grinned. "Nothing but complaints to be heard about the Lost in the North District anyway. But if you could see the other districts… there's definitely some rumbling discontent just waiting to make its way to the surface everywhere else in the city. Just give it time, and trust that I know what I'm doing. A few more months, maybe less than that, and things will boil over, I'm sure."

"You'd better be right," Zhanin said with a glare.

"I am," the man replied with a grin. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go get my boys busy. There's a lot of town to cover, you know."

Zhanin sat back in his chair with a frown on his face as the man walked out the door with a smile, grinning and stopping to chat with his receptionist. What an irritating fellow. Zhanin hoped he was as good at his work as he advertised. He better be, for his own sake.

The councilman turned, gazing out the broad window behind him down into the city. He always did enjoy this view. It made him feel so very high in the sky. A couple of birds fluttered by the window, darting this way and that, and for a moment, Zhanin felt a twinge of jealousy. He wished his life were so simple as theirs, their cares only extending as far as the next good breeze… but no. He had far too much work to accomplish, far too many things that needed checked on or seeing to. And all of it making sure that the Lost were removed from the city, or worse.

He turned back to his paperwork, but had trouble focusing on the work as he shifted through the notes and documents. It was a cool day in Loc Lac today, which meant it was only warm outside. His office was very comfortable right now, though, and his seat was just as relaxing. He had to keep working, he had so much to do… yet he felt his eyes drooping, even as he picked up another document to study.

It was too strenuous leaning over the work like this, he decided, and leaned back in his chair a little. The words on the paper were too blurry, he realized. He quickly set the paper down, reaching up to rub his eyes, but decided against it; his eyes had been very tired recently, better to not agitate them. Maybe blinking a few times would clear his vision a little…

A knock at the door and Zhanin opened his eyes. Had he dozed off? No matter; the councilman quickly got to his feet and straightened his suit, making sure he looked his best. The men who came and demanded his attention always took such great measures to look as prim and proper as they possibly could, but then, it seemed that everyone that lived in the northern district did everything they could to look better than everyone else. Zhanin sighed. Why didn't he become the representative of the western district like he'd wanted to?

"Come in, the door's open," he called out. The door swung open quickly, and the councilman blinked in surprise; his supporters were usually very cool and collected with their actions. Rather than one of the men that normally came in, pushing their agendas on him, it was a grinning young man that came through the door.

"Prettying yourself up for me, father? Has this district rubbed off of you so much? Are you going to speak to me in flowery language as well? I wonder how the others back home would've reacted to seeing you this way, especially considering the penchant for foul language you used to have."

Zhanin smiled at the boy, his son Salem before hurrying over to the young man and embracing him. The boy resembled his mother more than anything. Short stature, soft blonde hair and kind brown eyes. Nothing like him, but Zhanin would never complain. "It's good to see you, son. How's life going for you?"

"Oh, well enough, well enough," Salem replied. As the two parted, the son turned to look at the window, before quickly striding over to the view. "Sweet mercy, father, this is quite the view. I can't believe you actually got an office this nice. A place like this, you must've had to beat back the other interested parties with a stick."

"It was what I really wanted," Zhanin replied, joining his son by the window. "I've always enjoyed heights. It just makes me feel so… free, like I have no duties or responsibilities to deal with, but… well, of course it's a pipe dream, but I plan to enjoy it while I'm here."

"You were never meant for politics, father," the young man said, shaking his head. "For the life of me, I swore that you'd end up retiring from your work as a merchant and take up a life as the captain of an airship. Do you know how easy it is for me to imagine you just becoming the pilot of a transport or personnel carrier, and spending the remainder of your golden years just flying around the sky, offering cheap flights to anyone just for the excuse to travel places you've never been before."

"You have no right to complain to me about this whole thing, my boy. After all it was your idea for me to get into this line of work. You know how much I dislike politics. And to act as councilman for the northern district of Loc Lac, no less… gah, the men and women who live in this district make such outrageous demands. You'd think I was here simply to make sure that absolutely everything went their way, and damned be the rest of the city."

"They're all wealthy merchants or nobles, and nine out of ten of them were born with silver spoons shoved up their backsides," Salem laughed. "Did you expect anything less? I imagine they expected you to cater to their whims, especially considering you're a fairly well-to-do merchant yourself back home. And the whole time, you're actually here to enact your evil, diabolical schemes."

"Your diabolical schemes," Zhanin reminded him. "It was your mad idea for me to do this in the first place."

"I didn't expect you to actually do it! I suggested – just once, mind you – that if someone with good intentions had the influence to become the representative of one of Loc Lac's wealthier districts, they could use their power to siphon money from the wealthy classes to help the poorer districts. I didn't think anyone, much less my own father, would be crazy enough to actually make an effort to do such a thing. Just think: you could very well be lauded as a hero to the people in a few short years if you keep up what you're doing."

Zhanin laughed at the words. "Oh, please. Even if the proposals I make were to go through, which will take some time in the first place, considering the friction they'd receive, no one would consider lauding me as a hero. Politicians aren't considered to be saviors of anything like that. No, I'll be in a footnote somewhere in the council library. You'll be a greater hero than me, my boy. After all, there is no man in the city that doesn't praise a doctor, especially one as charitable as you."

"I wouldn't call it charitable," Salem replied sheepishly. "I'm just doing my job."

"Working in the South District, charging your patients half what other doctors request for their services, if anything at all, while promoting the growth of the district and requesting support for the downtrodden there from the middle class?" Zhanin asked with a grin. "Sounds rather charitable to me. The people there love you, I heard. Your mother… your mother would've been proud if she could see you now."

"Thanks, father. I'm just trying to help people," the young man shrugged. He turned back to the window then, and a rather concerned expression crossed his face. "By the way, father… have you heard anything about recent events in the South District?"

"Some things," Zhanin replied. "Not much from that area of town makes its way this far north in the city. A few odd rumors and reports on crime rates, but other than that, very little. Why?"

"Have you heard about the collection of wanderers they found out in the desert?"

"The, ah, oddly-dressed people that showed up begging for aid and protection? I haven't heard much… rumor has it they're madmen that spent too much time out in the sun. Some of the tales I've heard has them out to be cultists of some sort, though I'm not sure how that conclusion came up. Old Marco volunteered to take them in and provide them housing and food, I'd heard."

"Yes, exactly. They've taken up residence in the South District, not that far from my clinic. Marco actually hired me to take care of them and see to their health. I've been spending quite some time with them. What I've seen is… well, distressing to say the least."

"What; are the rumors true?" Zhanin asked, shocked. "Cultists? Madmen?"

"No, not at all!" Salem replied, shaking his head. "Well, not exactly. They are… less than stable, mentally, from what I've seen. But I don't think it's their fault! It seems to me that their… madness, I suppose it could be said, is a result of stress, or traumatic incidents of some kind. Whatever happened to them, I think it damaged them badly. I'm trying to help them, but… well, it's hard to get a solid answer out of them, and they all seem to be babbling nonsense and jumping at anything and everything they see. They're even afraid of the Felynes that bring them food if you can believe it!"


"Yes, it's so strange. Whatever happened to them must've been… terrible. But… I've made it my goal to help them, one way or another. Figure out what exactly happened to them. Maybe I can help them, somehow."

Zhanin grinned. "Not charitable, huh?"

Salem smiled and laughed. "Well, maybe a little bit. Anyway, try to catch a break one of these days and stop by my clinic. I don't think anyone believes me when I tell them you're my father."

"You take after your mother too much," Zhanin laughed. "Besides, the son of a fairly well-made man, working for nothing as a doctor in the poorest area of town? I hardly believe it myself."

"Well, people will figure it out eventually," Salem said. "So I heard there's a pretty good restaurant opening up down the-"


Zhanin blinked and rubbed his eyes. He'd been awake too long these days. There had been a sudden resurgence of those wanderers that had shown up in the desert a few weeks ago. More had popped up in the rainforests to the south of Loc Lac, a much greater number of them than the first wave, and the council had been jumping through hoops to try and provide for them. Several requests for 'suggested aid' from those living in the North District had raised a real fuss, and many of the more influential men in the district had shown up at Zhanin's office, demanding he do something about them.

So Zhanin's life had been a bit hectic the last couple days to say the least. He had been planning to take a weekend off one of these days, but… well, that plan had been thrown out the window. He hoped Salem was doing well, though. He'd said that he was the one looking after the wanderers and trying to help them, but… there had been several hundred new ones showing up to take up residence in the South District. Would he have to look after them all? He wondered how well the people down there were holding up with all the new people showing up at their doorstep. More rumors had filtered in about the wanderers, mostly about their apparent insanity and fears. They'd taken on some sort of nickname recently… the Lost, or something like that. Well, whatever they were, they were leaving Zhanin with no small amount of paperwork to deal with.

Zhanin glanced up at the sound of voices outside his office door. He shot a quick glance out the window; the sun was just below the horizon. It was very late in the day, and he should've gone home a long time ago. He sighed irritably. This councilmember nonsense was a bigger pain in the backside than he'd thought it would be… but who would be coming to see him this late at night? Most likely another wealthy noble or merchant, coming to puff out his chest and demand that the taxes to help the wanderers be removed, or at least reduced. At least Zhanin had gotten practice at respectfully telling people 'No'.

But the knock on the door was… hesitant if anything, definitely not the dignified rapping of one of higher class. Zhanin shouted out, allowing his visitor entry, and cocked his head in surprise when a man dressed in casual cottons, hardly what he'd expect to see in this side of town. A messenger, perhaps? Not one belonging to one of the nobles or merchants, that was clear; they dressed their couriers almost as nicely as they dressed themselves.

"Mr. Zhanin?" the man said quietly, removing his hat. The councilman noticed that the man was fidgeting quite a bit, and his hands were gripping his hat quite tightly between them.

"Yes, that's me," Zhanin replied, getting to his feet.

"I have… ah… um, well. I have a question, sir," the man muttered.

"What's that?" Zhanin didn't like how this man was acting.

"I'm from the South District, sir," the man said. "Um, got injured a while back, broke my leg during work. Got treated by a good doctor, though. Fixed me right up, and hardly cost me a thing. Doctor… Doctor Salem. When I asked, he told me you were his father. It seemed a bit odd to me, but… well, is he your boy?"

"Yes, he is," Zhanin replied. "Why? What's wrong? Is he hurt?"

The man grimaced, and his clutch on his hat grew tighter. Zhanin felt a cold feeling crawl through his chest. "He, ah, he was the head doctor in charge of the… well, folks have been calling them the Lost recently. He was, um, looking after a few of the scared ones, the folk that weren't all that right in the head, you know? Some of them weren't, well, completely in control. Prone to, ah, outbursts of sorts, fearful things, you see, and-"

"Tell me what happened!" Zhanin snapped, making the man jump. The man was silent for a moment, before speaking quietly.

"One of the men that your son was treating, he… he had a breakdown, or something. Thought… thought there were monsters, or something, trying to kill him. He… he grabbed one of the medical tools your son had with him, some sharp thing, and… and…" Silence filled the room, cutting like a knife. "I'm… I'm sorry for your loss, Mr. Zhanin. He… he was a good man, and, um…"

"Get out."

The man looked up at the words, confusion on his face. "Sir?"

"Get out!" Zhanin bellowed. He grabbed the first thing he could see, an old glass jar filled with writing utensils and threw it at the man. It missed, smashing harmlessly against the wall, but the man still jumped and paled. "Get out!"

"Yes sir! Right away!" In a flash the man was at the door, ducking as the councilman hurled an iron paperweight at him, leaving a large dent in the door as the man slammed the door behind him.

At the sound of the door shutting, Zhanin collapsed, sobbing. "No. No no no no no…"

He'd been injured before in his life. Life as a merchant had been rife with dangers. Broken legs, broken arms. Once he'd even had a rather foul run in a Barroth when he was traveling through the desert, that had kept him hospitalized for the better part of a year. But this pain, this biting, gnawing pain… it was as though he was being consumed from the inside out. He had thought he could never suffer greater pain, not after his wife had died, but this… he had never wished before to die, but now, he wanted nothing more than for his life to end, for this wrenching, horrible pain to cease!

His son! Why? Why Salem? Why not him? Why?

He didn't know how long he lay there, crumpled next to his desk. The sun might've risen and fell again for all he noticed. The only thing he noticed was how, over time, the aching, devouring pain began to change. It cooled, but still burned. It was soft like a wound, but iron-hard. The misery remained, but was eaten away, devoured up by a hungry, desperate emotion.

Rage! Seething and hot! And a ravenous desire for vengeance, gnawing at his soul!

The Lost! They were to blame! They'd taken everything, all that mattered to him, away from him, and crushed it! They would suffer! He would make sure of it, even if it took him until his last dying breath! He would make them all know the same misery that he'd felt for all this time! He would-

With a start, Zhanin woke up, sitting straight in his chair.

Dreaming. He'd been dreaming again, of that same fateful day. It was all he ever dreamed about. He reached up, touching his face, realizing that tears had been falling, and damp stains dotted the papers across his desk. He sighed, leaning back in his chair. He'd have to replace them with fresh ones. How irritating.

He closed his eyes again, though, feeling his way into his heart and feelings. It was still there, that burning hatred and hungry lust for revenge, just as bright and hot as it had been that first day, and hard as steel. He would show no softness, no compassion. He would not bend or break. He had work to do, and he would see it through, to his dying day. One way or another.

The Lost would pay for what they'd done, for what they'd taken away from him. He would make sure of it.

Author's Note: Please Review! I… may have ganked Ellie's finishing move there from Skyrim… maybe. The MH series could really use some. Also, a chapter ending on a downer. Can't remember if I've done that before. And man, oh man, did this chapter take some time to get written! The action-y parts flew by, but the bits in between just kind of plodded along. But I now have two psycho mad scientists! Excellent! My story also keeps getting compared by readers to certain aspects of the Roman Empire. Not sure how I feel about this, but I'm kind of enjoying it, especially after hearing the entire "History of Rome Podcast" a few months ago.

I'm getting a little psyched ever since Nintendo announced the Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate game for the Wii U, that's backwards compatible with the 3DS. Anyone who's read these ANs before know that I've never been a big fan of modern handhelds, but the idea of being able to play a game on the Wii U against someone on a 3DS is pretty awesome. Here's hoping it's just as fun as Tri.

After posting chapter 7 on DA, I remembered the website "I Write Like," which was mentioned in the AN of that chapter. I felt that my writing style had changed since then, after 24 more chapters, so I gave it another run with chapter 31 as a base… and got Tolstoy again. I'm going to have to read one of his books and see what all the fuss is about one of these days. War and Peace is a quick read, right? Right?

I'm perpetually surprised by how much my story has changed over the time I've spent writing it. Though I've said before that the story have a clear outline, it's actually very vague and allows quite a bit of maneuvering. The story was supposed to be quite a bit more like other MH stories, with the main point of chapters being similar to the others: monster is here, go kill it, odd things happen that further the story. But as it went on, the focus became more and more about the Lost trying to get along, with the monster hunts making it more difficult to do so. I can't say I'm displeased about the changes, either.

Reading: Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan
Playing: BF3, Dragon Age: Origins, Minecraft: Tekkit, Final Fantasy VII (BEST. GAME. EVER.), Black Mesa, Final Fantasy XII
Listening: CAKE, Fun, Avenged Sevenfold, Hat Chat Podcast, The Sporkful Podcast, Barenaked Ladies, The Darkness, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mumford and Sons