The Brilliant Darkness

Disclaimer: Monster Hunter is copyright Capcom. Most of the characters in this story are mine. Many characters belong to others, as stated in previous chapters.

Edited by: Hoenn Master96

"You said, 'It is the truth that gives you the proper despair, so you do not become conceited.' So just as you said, I will give you despair." – Truth, Fullmetal Alchemist

Beyond the thin crevice, the rocky terrain opened up. A wide rock flat awaited them as the sky opened up above the hunters once more, and in a moment Levin recognized where they were. He'd seen it plenty of times before, after all, when the Alatreon had sent nightmares into his dreams at night.

This was it, the elder dragon's nest.

It was a wide, flat area, surprisingly so considering the jagged terrain of the path the hunters had taken simply to reach this place, though several pools of churning lava dotted the terrain, glowing brightly from the heat, with thin stone walkways weaving between them. Walls of magma flowed freely down from the pinnacle of the volcano on both sides of their entryway, draining under the rocky platform they stood on. Mixed with several more protruding rock faces which burst up from the earth around them, they made a towering wall to the left and right that would be impossible to pass through. In stark contrast, the far side of the area was a near-sheer drop off, as the rocky precipice gave way once more to a wide river of magma that continued down the mountain. Levin could see why the Alatreon had never been found before; aside from the thin crevice they'd passed through, there was no way in or out of the Alatreon's hideaway, save for flying in directly.

The area was not completely empty and desolate. Scattered about the rock flat were the ruins of several dozen machines and weapons, ripped apart and devastated by time and the Alatreon's talons. Old broken things, varying in size and advancement in technology. Levin could recognize some machines which could only have been something the Lost had built in the prime of their civilization, before the Alatreon had wiped them out or put them away in the blue crystals. Other things around… Levin couldn't guess at their use or how they worked. They could only be the weapons the Meridians had tried to defeat the beast with, judging from the pale white material they were made from, as seemed to be preferred by the civilization. How effective had they been, Levin wondered?

The beast itself was standing on the far side of the area. It looked as bad as it had earlier, its wings torn and ragged, its scales and plates broken, and barely-healed scars covering whatever flesh and hide had been exposed to attack. It looked weary as well, beyond exhausted to the point of near collapse. Levin wasn't sure how often elder dragons needed to stop and eat, but the beast's belly seemed shallower than it had been, as though the beast had not even been able to eat since before its assault on Loc Lac. And the beast's elements… to say the Alatreon's ability to exert control over its powers was falling to pieces would be an understatement. Lightning, white, red, and black, danced along the elder dragon's body. Flames and icy mist steamed from the beast's mouth, and each jolt from one element to the next made the Alatreon flinch in frustration and weariness.

But what caught the hunters' attention was not just the beast, but what the Alatreon stood next to. Sprouting out from within the lava-falls off to the right side of the area, a massive, glimmering blue crystal was growing out of the earth, pushing through the churning magma and sprouting upwards like a blooming flower. It was not small, not in the slightest. The base itself was already thirty yards long, and it was spreading even wider the more it grew. The eerie blue light which swelled from within the structure blossomed powerful and bright from the stone, radiant in its hue, mixing with the fiery red and yellow lights from the lava surrounding it to create an unnatural blend of colors that speckled the Alatreon's nest. Bolts of dragon element occasionally lanced out from the Alatreon's horns, the energy surging over the crystals, encouraging the growth of the blue stones somehow, as each bolt made the crystals glow brightly.

The hunters looked between each other cautiously, uncertain how to approach. Did the beast know they were there? Was there still a chance at a surprise attack? But that plan was immediately denied as the Alatreon's gaze turned towards them slightly, its piercing red and yellow eye staring directly at them. The beast's expression was filled with anger and hatred, of course… but there was also an incalculable weariness in the creature's eyes, a tiredness it had not felt in countless years.

So you're here. You're actually here… The beast's deep voice rolled through their minds, the shaking of the earth inside their skulls. Even the beast's mental tone was worn. The creatures I sent to stop you failed… I should have known. You managed to kill she who would consume all things, what hope did they have?

But then… you are not all here are you? The Alatreon's tone became taunting and cruel. You left your comrades behind… as what? A distraction? A roadblock? Do you think they can win against such beasts in so few numbers? The devourer was truly my greatest and most powerful asset, but do not think that all else which dwell upon this peak are merely shadows in comparison to her. The other humans will not walk away from their fighting unscathed… if they manage to walk away at all. Do you think the dark one will show mercy? Do you think the volatile one will hesitate to reduce a human to ashes? How many of your 'friends' have you sentenced to death, allowing them to challenge my most prized of puppets with only-

"What is that for?" Levin shouted, interrupting the Alatreon and motioning to the blue crystal that continued to grow out of the ground. "What are you trying to accomplish with so much of the blue crystal?"

Now the Alatreon's gaze turned directly towards them, it's hateful red and yellow boring into the hunters in irritation at being cut off. The creature's voice was hissed venom in their minds. You did this to me! I am wounded! I am scarred! My wings, so wide and powerful, are torn and shredded! This should not be! I am supposed to be invincible and indomitable! It was the will of fate! But now… now… now this! These wounds, these tears, these scars! It's an abomination, an aberration on destiny itself! And it's all because of you!

I can feel them now… the hunters are vying for my blood. Those on this mountain and those around the world. News of my weakened state is spreading, I know it. But I will not let them bring me down! I will not give them the satisfaction! I am weak and battered… but I will heal, and I will remind these pathetic humans who come for me what sort of creature they dare to challenge! I will seal myself away within this crystal, bury myself within the fires of this mountain, and recover from the wounds I have received from you! It may take months. It may take years. But time… you humans cower and quake at the flow of time, and the passing of days. But time! Time is of no concern to me! I am eternal! Be it years, decades, or centuries, I can wait for these imperfections you have wrought to vanish!

And when the time comes that by body has healed, and I have once again grown strong and powerful, I will wreak a vengeance unlike any before upon humanity! Your species will relearn what it means to fear me, even if I have to wipe humanity out to near extinction once more! The massive blue crystal flared brightly at the Alatreon's words, its eerie glow swelling at the elder dragon's enthusiasm. I have reduced you pathetic creatures to oblivion four times in the history of your species' existence, erasing all sign of your expansion and technology. What is a fifth time to watch you weak beings crawl upon the earth as insects?

"I think the circumstances have changed since the last time you laid waste to this world, Alatreon!" Harker shouted, and the elder dragon's attention turned menacingly towards the long sword user. "Things have changed, have they not, dragon? Four times, you say you've reduced humanity to but a fraction of their former number? Tell me, during any of those times, have you found yourself running from those who would hunt you? How many times have you found yourself bloodied and battered in your final hiding spot? How many times have found yourself with your wings in tatters? How many times have you challenged humanity with your own power falling apart at the seams?"

The Alatreon growled angrily at the words, but didn't retort. Pale lightning sparked violently between the beast's twisted horns, and jolts danced along the creature's body. For a moment, the elder dragon strained itself, and the wild element faded a little. The beast returned its attention to Harker, seething for a moment, before directing its gaze concernedly back to the growing crystal. The blue stone was up to the Alatreon's belly, perhaps a third complete, but at the rate it was growing, it would be complete in perhaps an hour or so. Another bolt of dragon element leapt from the beast's horns, cascading across the surface of the crystal and making the blue stone flare brightly.

"Ask yourself, dragon! How many times have you challenged humanity, declaring yourself superior, when in your heart you know that you're just as painfully mortal as the rest of us? How many times have you challenged us with the fear of death?"

Dark dragon energy flared to life all across the Alatreon, dancing along the elder dragon's body as the beast hissed furiously, and the creature spun about, turning to face the humans. Fools! Weak, pathetic humans! I am weakened, and I am wounded; this I will admit! But even in such a condition, do you really think just the four of you are enough to slay me? Do you think you have any hope of victory without that metal weapon on that flying machine of yours? I may be battered, but there is strength left in me to reduce the lot of you to ash! And make no mistake, when you are begging me for mercy, I will take the time to savor your deaths, each and every one!

The Alatreon reared back, unleashing its head-splitting screech into the air. The hunters winced in pain from the intensity of the howl, and the earth below them shivered from the force of the creature's roar. The elder dragon smashed down into the earth again, splintering the rocky earth below it, and cracks spider-webbed across the arena, the shaking earth collapsing in several places. Gushes of lava burst up from below, spraying into the sky and splashing the earth around it with steaming magma.

"Get ready!" Kerry shouted, and the others nodded, bracing themselves.

The Alatreon growled viciously at them, its eyes narrowing furiously on the four of them as they drew their weapons. Lightning danced along its horns, and bursts of flame swelled around its fangs. Dark energy bloomed across the beast's body, spiraling around it, and the elder dragon lurched towards them, charging the hunters and screeching. The hunters dove out of the way as sparks of dragon energy jumped out from the Alatreon as it blazed past them.

Levin rolled to his feet as the elder dragon rushed past him, spinning about in preparation to charge the beast before it could attack them again. Harker was doing the same, sweeping around to take the black beast from the other side, and Levin could hear Ellie and Kerry cocking their bowguns, preparing to fire. But the Alatreon twisted its head around sharply, even before it had skidded to a halt, and flames bloomed in the back of the creature's throat. With a screech from the Alatreon, a massive fireball erupted from the beast's maw, tearing through the air towards him. Levin yelped in fear, leaping backwards as the fiery sphere bore down on him. The fireball smashed into the ground not ten feet in front of him, detonating in a fiery blast which sent a pillar of flames blazing into the sky. A shock wave and blast of heat smashed into his chest, throwing him back and pulling a cry of pain from the switch axe user as he crashed into the stone earth.

Harker continued to sweep around the beast, before darting in towards the creature, his long sword flashing brightly as he hurried to attack the elder dragon. But as quickly as the beast had attacked Levin, it struck out at Harker just as quickly, snapping about and launching a barrage of ice spears towards the long sword user. Harker yelped fearfully as the frigid spears pierced the earth around him, one getting close enough to scrape against his bracers, leaving a pale gash against the metal. Several more pale lances flew towards the man, and Harker was forced to dash away or risk being impaled.

The sound of bowgun fire roared over where the fireball had detonated, and the Alatreon hissed viciously as Dragon rounds and Pierce rounds punctured into its hide. Its eyes darted towards Ellie and Kerry, who had both spread out from each other, firing on the elder dragon from a distance. But the Alatreon howled furiously, and its horns became alight with pale blue electricity. The beast swung its head, and a cascade of lightning bolts dropped from the sky, ripping apart the earth around both of the bowgunners and sending them running for their lives, just barely managing to stay out from under the cascade of electricity it flung at them.

The beast looked down on the hunters as they struggled to get back into a position to attack, its eyes ablaze. Dragon element began to spiral around its body once more. Do you see now? Have you realized the futility of your efforts? This is my power! This is the strength of an elder dragon! This is the destructive force that brought humanity low four times in the past! Do you think I am weak? Do you think I will simply fall to you because you have wounded me? I am master of the elements; they are mine to wield as I wish, and I will force them to heed me if I must! I am the blazing black dragon! I am the brilliant darkness!

Again the creature reared, releasing another ear-splitting screech, and lightning danced along its horns. Dark dragon element lashed out from the beast, crashing down into the rocks around it and smashing apart the earth. No more playing! No more toying with you feeble creatures! Come, humans! Come at me, blades brandished, as so many before you have, and meet the same miserable death you humans deserve!

The sky above them churned as the clouds of smoke shifted at the cries of the elder dragon, and cracks of thunder rolled through the skies as lightning jumped just beyond their vision. Bolts of lightning came crashing down around the battlefield, and the creature charged again. And the hunters rushed to meet the black dragon, beginning the final battle in earnest.

The world was covered in a pale white haze, or at least it was as far as Jino was concerned. He could barely see ten yards away before the thick white smoke which surrounded him made anything beyond completely invisible to him. He stood low to the ground in a ready crouch, listening to his surroundings carefully and watching the shifting fog. Occasionally there was a flash of dark energy, a bolt of dragon element that shone through the thick haze around him, accompanied by the furious growling of the Zinogre and the stamping of the beast's claws and the creature charged around the area in search of the hunters.

It was Nox's work, the haze around him, and for it Jino was immensely thankful. The short sword user had dropped a smoke bomb not long ago. Jino wasn't sure if all smoke bombs produced this much haze - he scarcely used them himself - or if the Baggi-armored hunter had received some 'help' from Harker in his creation of the bomb. But either way, they were certainly effective.

Despite there being four of them battling the Zinogre, the creature was quickly overwhelming them. Though he had skill in fighting the creatures, none of the others shared his experience with the creatures, and even he was having trouble with the beast. The creature's dragon element was absolutely debilitating, far more dangerous than the lightning element other Zinogres wielded. And despite the beast's absolutely massive size compared to other Zinogres, the dark creature didn't seem to have lost any of its speed and dexterity in exchange, coming at them with devastating agility and mobility. And it certainly didn't help that the Alatreon's 'compulsion', or whatever Levin had called it, seemed to have driven the beast into a perpetual enraged state, and the Zinogre had been assaulting the four hunters with a ferocity that could have matched the rage of the World Eater they'd fought back in Boma Village…

They'd found themselves almost completely overwhelmed in a matter of minutes. Soon after the other seven hunters had escaped through the crevice in the stone wall, all four of them had been inflicted with dragonblight and were forced into defensive measures just to keep from being crushed under the creature's powerful blows. Every time they managed to get close enough to the beast to properly attack it, the beast almost immediately began calling down bolts of dragon element, akin to lightning strikes, which force them back. Tenebris had been the only one capable of taking a proper offense, having the range offered with her bowgun, but even that was proving not to be enough, especially with the Zinogre's strange ability to have those dragon element orbs it could make hone in on them and chase them down. At least the beast didn't have the ability to make the orbs turn once it had launched them… or at least it hadn't revealed that it could yet.

The smoke bomb had been set off a few minutes ago, when Nox had been nearly pinned against a rock wall by the beast. The short sword wielder had panicked as the ZInogre smashed against his shield with its powerful claws, sending cascades of dragon energy blasting over the shield and dancing through his armor, all while denting the shield more and more with each consecutive blow. The other hunters were trying to catch up with him to pull the beast's attention away, but they weren't moving quickly enough, and the Zinogre was too intent on its prey. But when the creature paused to gather its strength, preparing to crush the hunter with one powerful blow, Nox had scrambled to pull something, anything out of his pouch he could use to save himself, a flash bomb or a trap or something, and had thrown down the first thing he'd gotten his hands of.

The smoke bomb had gone off with a sound like a gust of wind, and spread across the battleground just as quickly. Jino admitted he'd let out a yelp when the rush of white smoke had swept over him, blinding him temporarily from the sudden change of light. But the Zinogre had howled in surprise at the activation of the bomb, flailing a bit before growling angrily and resuming its attack on Nox. But the hunter had long since scampered away from the beast, putting distance between himself and the creature. The Zinogre had bellowed in rage at the loss of its prey, and charged off after him, blindly rushing around in search of the hunters.

But it had yet to find them so far, at least, not unless they'd let it. The smoke continued to linger, and was so thick that the beast couldn't find them at all, but at the same time they had trouble finding the beast as well. They caught sight of it sliding through the haze every now and then, and occasionally braved an attempt at ambushing the beast through the fog. Jino had seen burn marks and a couple new wounds on the beast the last time he'd tried, and had managed to break one of the spines which sprouted from the creature's wrist with his hammer. But he'd been forced to pull back and hide in the smoke again when the beast had retaliated, not giving him the time to do any real damage.

So that was where they found themselves now, playing a dangerous game, sliding through the lingering smoke, hoping they would be able to spot the Zinogre through the haze before it spotted them.

There was a clattering of stone behind him, and Jino cursed, spinning about and bringing his hammer to bear, expecting the worst. But it was only Tenebris, slinking through the fog with Nox trailing close behind. The huntress paused fearfully at the sight of the hunter preparing to draw his hammer on her, but Jino sighed in frustration, putting the weapon back where it came from. "You should be more careful! Damn near took a swing at you two when I heard you come up behind me."

"Well it's not like we knew we were sneaking up on you," Tenebris replied tersely. "We didn't even know you were there until we were right on top of you, thanks to this fog, and we've got to keep quiet so the Zinogre doesn't hear us."

Nox grimaced at the words, a guilty look on his face. "This smoke is more trouble than it's worth… We're just as likely to jump each other as we are the Zinogre. Damn it, I shouldn't have used it in the first place…"

"No, you did the right thing," Jino told him comfortingly. "Anything else and the beast might have made short work of you. We'll just need to try and use this smoke to our favor… it would be easier if we could track the beast through this haze, but we'll make due. All we need is one good chance to use this smoke to ambush the beast."

"Have either of you seen Miller recently?" Tenebris asked quietly.

"I think he tried to take off the Zinogre's tail earlier," Nox replied. "There's a nice chunk sliced out of it the last I saw of the creature, but I think it only pissed the thing off further. Pretty sure Miller ducked over to the rock wall once the Zinogre recovered, but…" The short sword wielder looked around uncertainly, though there was nothing to see but smoke. "I couldn't say where exactly that is relative to where we are now."

The hunters went quiet at the sound of heavy footsteps nearby, and they looked around tensely in search of the Zinogre. The beast's low growling rolled across the rocks, though none of them could get a clear direction where it was coming from. The sound seemed to come from everywhere around them…

There was a glimmer through the smoke, and the hunters braced themselves. But it wasn't the Zinogre that came through the fog, but several small, flitting spots of light. The three were still wary, however, as the lights glowed in the red and black color of dragon element. But they were just so small… However, they were slowly coming towards them, darting around through the air in random directions. The lights were almost on top of them when the hunters realized it was a small cluster of the bugs they'd seen flying around the Zinogre earlier. Nox gasped in recognition.

"Dracophage Bugs," he whispered, as the bugs fluttered through the air around them. "You see them every so often in the Tundra, but they're very rare. They eat the Dragonfell Berries you find up there, so they're able to generate dragon element. I guess that's where all the creature's power is coming from… it must have thousands crawling along its back. They sell for a lot, too… jeez, how much money would we make if we managed to collect all of the bugs that thing has on its back?"

"Now's not the time, Nox," Tenebris chided. "Let's focus on killing the Zinogre andthe Alatreon before anything else!"

The low growling of the Zinogre caught the hunters' attention again, far closer than before, and the bulky shape of the creature passed by, a shadow through the smoky haze. Bolts of dragon element lanced around the area where the creature walked. The hunters crouched lower to the ground, bracing themselves. Tenebris made a few quick hand signals to the others. There was no pre-determined meaning to her waving hands, but the other two understood well enough: this was a prime opportunity to surprise attack the beast, and they needed to capitalize on it. The three of them tensed, preparing themselves as the Zinogre's path brought it closer, little by little…


"Ow! Dammit!" Nox hissed under his breath. The other hunters looked sharply at the sword and shield user, but the man was trying to wave off a Dracophage Bug darting around his head. "Get away from me you little-" The bug dipped close though, and a long spark of dragon element jumped from the insect, zapping Nox's Baggi-armor braces and sending tendrils of dark energy dancing along his armor.

A powerful roar thundered across the rock flat, and a massive collection of dragon orbs ripped through the smokescreen, flying directly towards Nox where he crouched. The hunter yelped in fright, diving out of the way as the energy spheres seared past him, some of them crashing into the ground around him and erupting in a burst of dark energy. A moment later, the Zinogre came barreling through the smoke, its eyes blazing with fury as jolts of dark energy lanced along its spine. It caught sight of Tenebris through the haze first, as the bowgunner had been closer to the beast than Nox had, and adjusted its course to charge towards the huntress. She scrambled to move out of the way in time, but the beast had the complete drop on them and was sprinting at her full speed, and would be on top of the huntress in a moment or two.

But there was a furious bellow from the side, and Miller dashed through the haze on the Zinogre's right, swinging his great sword down towards the creature. The Zinogre was so focused on Tenebris that the beast didn't even see the blade, and the dark blue great sword cleaved into the creature's shoulder. The beast howled in shock and agony as the blade shredded its flesh, and the force of the blow knocked the creature off of its feet, tumbling across the earth. But the Zinogre was upright in a flash, howling furiously at the wound it had been given, as dragon element flared wildly along its back.

"Run!" Jino shouted to the others. "We've lost our chance for now! Head into the fog and hide again!"

The hunters found themselves running away from the beast yet again, dodging and diving out of the way as dozens of dragon element orbs seared through the air after them, smashing into the rocks around them and blasting apart the terrain. The Zinogre howled furiously behind them, and Jino could hear the beast rushing through the fog, trying to run down the hunters. But Miller's blow on the creature's shoulder had hampered its speed, even if only slightly, and the hunters were quickly able to duck out of the Zinogre's sight, vanishing into the smoke again as the creature roared in frustration behind them. Jino found himself bunkered down behind a small boulder with Miller while the Zinogre rampaged somewhere nearby, thunderous bolts of dragon element smashing apart the earth around it. He didn't know where Tenebris and Nox had gotten to, but the Zinogre sounded furious and agitated, so it was likely it hadn't managed to catch any of them.

"Alright, we've lost it for the moment," Jino murmured, wiping his forehead of sweat. He could feel the lingering effects of Kai's heat-resistance song beginning to wear off, so he pulled a Cool Drink from his pack and downed it quickly. "Damn… how did it manage to find us so easily through the smoke? Its sense of smell shouldn't be that good, not with all the brimstone this Volcano's been pumping out… and these smoke bombs are supposed to dull our scents."

"It might have better senses than we think," Miller replied. "Or else it has some other way of tracking us."

"Like what?" Jino asked. "Its ears shouldn't be able to hear us well with the Volcano constantly erupting like it is, so what other way could it-" The hammer wielder was abruptly cut off, however, as another of the Dracophage Bugs flitted through the air between the two hunters. The bug hovered close to Miller, and the great sword user swatted at it irritably. But he missed, and a spark of dark energy jumped between them, and the blue-armored hunter winced painfully.

The Zinogre's roar bellowed across the area, and the beast footsteps thundered towards them. The dark creature erupted through the smoke, eyes glowing angrily as it bore down on them, and dragon element surging along its body as it prepared to assault them. The hunters dove out of the way as the beast lunged, and its talon-lined claw smashed into the earth between them, sending an eruption of dark energy skyward. Almost immediately it swept around, lunging towards Miller for a couple steps, before twisting into a spiral, sweeping its wide tail towards the great sword wielder. The hunter barely managed to swing his blade around, bracing himself in a defensive stance before the broad tail smashed into him, sending him skidding back across the obsidian floor. The Zinogre howled at the two hunters, dragon energy flaring across its back as the small insects which dwelled on it danced through the air.

"It's the bugs!" Miller hissed. For a moment Jino didn't understand, but he winced as one of the Dracophage Bugs flew close to him, and a spark of dragon element jumped between them, alighting across his shoulder. The Zinogre's pointed ears twitched at the sound, the beast's attention jumping from Miller back to the hammer user, and the creature growled menacingly. Then Jino understood what had happened.

"It's using the bugs!" he shouted across the rock flats, hoping the other two would hear and be warned. "It's using the Dracophage Bugs to track us! If they shock you, it will know where you are!"

But looking up, his heart sank. He had been so concerned with trying to hide from the Zinogre in the smokescreen, he hadn't been paying close enough attention to the skies above him: the air over them was positively filled with the red and black bugs. Hundreds of them were darting around the air above them, sparks of dragon element jumping between them when they got close. And they were diving down into the smoke where the hunters were hiding. Even now, Jino watched as a pair of the bugs dove down into the haze some thirty or so yards away, and a moment later, he spotted a spark of dark energy jump from the bug through the smoke, followed by the sound of Nox cursing. The Zinogre's head turned sharply towards the light, but it quickly returned its attention back to the hunter in front of it.

"Damn it all…" Jino muttered, unslinging his hammer. They'd lost their advantage over the creature. Now all they could do was hope they could somehow manage to survive the creature's strength with their own power and skill… and no small amount of luck.

A rattling hiss rolled across the rocky terrain, and Richard tensed. He couldn't tell exactly where the sound was coming from, not with all the echoing and the roar of the volcano dulling the sounds, but the beast was close, he could tell that much. The exact distance was uncertain, and he dared not risk looking around the corner, for fear the creature would catch sight of him. At least, not yet…

The long sword wielder stood with his back against a tall obsidian column, a twisted, bulbous shape which jutted up from the earth. There were dozens more around him however, like the skeletal remains of a forest turned to stone. He wasn't alone here though; he knew that, aside from himself and the mysterious blue beast which had ambushed them in the underground cavern, the twins Kai and Kei were somewhere nearby as well, hiding behind the obsidian pillars like he was.

They'd been forced to pull out of the underground chamber they'd initially met the beast in. It had been necessary to retreat: the beast was simply too dangerous a monster to battle directly, especially in a wide open space, and the creature's constant assault of explosive blasts had exacerbated the already failing integrity of the cavern. Rocks and boulders had begun to fall from the ceiling after only a few minutes of battle. The hunters had needed to scramble away when one of the dislodged slabs of stone unleashed a torrent of magma from above, right into the center of the chamber, after which they'd had no choice but to retreat. They just didn't have the resistance to lava the blue creature had, chasing after them straight through the river of magma it had unleashed, and though Richard's Rathalos armor was heat-resistant, the intensity of molten lava was simply too much.

They'd been forced to run from the beast as it continued to trail behind them, unleashing waves of devastation with its slime-coated arms and horn. They'd continued to run until they'd left the underground, finding themselves out in the open and running between the towering obsidian pillars the landscape had created. Thankfully they'd managed to leave the blue beast far enough behind that they'd had time to catch their breath and hide themselves in the pillars. But the beast had caught up with them quickly enough, and they'd been playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse ever since.

A deep footstep and a low, rattling growl caught Richard's attention, and this time it was close. He could hear the clattering of pebbles shifting around as the beast loped about… it had to be nearby, perhaps even on the other side of the pillar he stood up against. He took a deep breath and forced himself to stay calm: he'd have to attack soon, but he'd need to know the others were ready as well. He looked around, braving the side of the column as much as he could without risking being seen by the blue creature, wherever it was. A glint of dark-colored steel caught his attention some two dozen yards away, poking around the side of another of the columns. Kei's long sword, he assumed. The huntress was ready, now he only had to hope her brother was ready and waiting to do his part in this little scheme.

A dark shadow crept around the side of the column, and Richard froze, reaching for his long sword. The low rumbling of the blue beast could be heard clearly on the other side of the obsidian pillar now, and even the sniffs from the creature's snout could be heard as the beast searched for them. Above him, the glowing tip of the brute's slime-coated horn came into view, and the beast began growling in anticipation, sensing its prey was near.

But as the creature took a step forward, there was a sudden blaring sound from behind the beast. The creature yowled in fright, twisting its head around, anticipating an attack. But there was nothing there, or at least nothing close; several dozen yards away, the beast could see the end of Kai's hunting horn sticking out from around the corner of one of the columns. Richard swept around the side of the pillar, rushing the creature while it was distracted. He could feel the effects of the song Kai was playing washing over him, making him feel as though his strength was growing with every note. It made him feel like he could cut right through the monster's thick armor. He obviously couldn't, unfortunately. The blue beast's thick plating seemed almost impermeable, even with his blade being as sharp as it was and Kei's blade being bolstered by World Eater materials. But that was to be expected from a creature's whose primary method of attack was covering itself with explosive slime and throwing itself at its opponents in what would be a suicidal assault for a less-armored creature.

It didn't stop Richard from trying though. With the blaring cacophony Kai was unleashing, the blue beast didn't realize Richard was charging it until the last second, but by then the hunter was already lashing out with his long sword, releasing a battle cry heard even over Kai's tumultuous music. Sparks flew as his blade slashed against the creature's thick legs, and the beast squealed in surprise as anger as some of the blue scales shattered from the blows, tinkling to the ground in broken shards. The creature hissed angrily, swinging a glowing arm down towards Richard, but the hunter leapt back, pulling out of the blast range, though the force of the shock wave still made him stagger.

Before the creature could capitalize on Richard's stumbling, however, it yelped in pain and surprise again, a clash of steel signaling that Kei had rushed the beast from the rear, her own long sword slashing out against the back of the creature's knees, where the plating was weaker. A spray of blood splattered across the hot ground as the blade cut through scale and hide, steaming as it struck the earth, and the blue beast spun about again to attack the huntress. But by then Kei had already pushed away, and when the creature's pounder came down, it struck nothing but rock. Richard lunged at the beast again, trying to slash at it while it was distracted, but the creature heard him coming, and swung its tail around, trying to bludgeon the hunter with the jagged edges of the club at the end, forcing the hunter to step back again.

The two hunters continued to perform a deadly dance around the beast, lunging and attacking when its attention turned towards the other, cutting out at the scarce gaps in the monster's armor. It was a challenge, with threat of explosives from the creature's front, and risk of taking a hit from the deadly clubbed tail in the back. But with the obsidian pillars around them, the beast was having trouble moving around, considering its size, and kept bumping up against the pillars or catching its tail on a protrusion, giving the hunters ample time to attack.

Eventually, however, the creature grew enraged, and the slime across its body flared, shifting to its more volatile yellow coloring. With a screech of fury, the creature swung about, smashing its pounders into the earth, pushing the hunters back further and further away, before swinging its head down and piercing its horn into the earth. The rocks around the beast began to splinter and crack, shattering from below as an eerie yellow glow swelled up from under the surface.

"Run!" Kei shouted, and the two hunters turned and bolted as the fracturing of the earth began to spread. A moment later, the stone behind them, churning with the blue beast's slime, detonated. A massive wave of fire ripped through the rocky terrain, upturning stone and boulders and sending them flying through the air. The hunters cried out in pain as stones and boulders smashed into them from behind, and the wave of heat and smoke pressed against them, even as they ran. Diving to the side, the pair of them hid behind one of the obsidian pillars, as more stones and jets of flame roared past. Both hunters winced in pain as the roar of the explosions began to die away, the stones and fires they'd been struck with having left their marks on their armor and bodies.

They sat quietly for a moment, letting the noise settle. They heard the blue creature hiss angrily, howling and stamping its feet furiously. The creature began to move around, agitation clear in its cries as it searched for them. But the hunters kept quiet as the beast moved through the pillars, scouring the area, but incapable of finding them. The pair shifted around the side of the column as the beast came close, but it passed them by without catching wind of them, continuing on in its search.

"Damn it, are we even doing anything to it?" Kei grumbled irritably, a tone of fear in her voice. "We've ambushed it like this… what, three times now? And it feels like we're not doing anything!"

"We must be doing something," Richard reasoned, breathing hard but keeping quiet to avoid being heard. "We've succeeded in making it angry. If we weren't hurting it, I doubt it would be nearly as agitated as it is."

"That's not exactly comforting…" the huntress replied, rubbing her ribs where one of the upheaved rocks had caught her in the side. She reached reluctantly for a potion, but before she could open her pouch, the soft, soothing sound of a flute began to flutter between the rocks. The hunters heard the blue beast hiss and growl at the noise, but from the uncertain shuffling they heard, the beast couldn't seem to figure out where it was coming from. And with each note played, both hunters felt as though their wounds were healing, and their pain was fading.

"Health flutes…" Richard muttered, impressed. "Quite useful… not many people can play such things so effectively. Your brother really has a talent for musical weaponry."

"Don't get used to it," Kei replied. "Health flutes are nice and all, but they're not much better for you than potions. And they're terribly fragile; you play a single wrong note, and the integrity of the flute ruptures and it breaks. Kai's skilled at keeping that from happening, but even he can't always hit the notes right." The music cut off, and the blue creature howled angrily at the disappearance of the sound. Kei shifted uncomfortably where she stood. "We should hurry up and get back to fighting. It's going to find Kai soon if we don't get its attention."

"Agreed," Richard replied determinedly. "Those songs are the only thing giving us the strength to break that monster's armor. It would be easier if we'd been able to buy Demondrugs in Boma… shame they didn't have any for purchase or the materials to make any. We can't afford to lose the horn's power, and we certainly can't afford to lose your brother." The hunter glanced around the side of the pillar, and caught sight of the blue creature sliding between more about thirty yards away. "Think you can keep up the current plan, or do you want to switch places?"

"I'll loop around the back of the thing again," Kei hissed quietly. "I'll make a lot less noise than you in all that clanking armor!"

Richard snorted in amusement at the jab. "Fair enough, but be careful, and don't let it see you! If it hones in on you with this sort of plan, it'll be hard for us to come to your aid, even with your brother blaring distraction noise all over the place."

"Don't worry about me. I can be sneaky! Or at least, more so than you." With that, the huntress skittered off, dashing between the pillars, doing her best to keep out of the beast's sight or hearing. The huntress had been right: she was far quieter in her Jaggi armor than Richard could have been in his Rathalos plating, even with all the Deviljho hide and scales used to bolster her armor.

Richard closed the distance to the blue beast more cautiously, wincing every time his armor clanked against itself, pausing to make sure the creature hadn't heard him. The monster was getting agitated again, and was proving hard to keep up with, even if the beast had trouble moving through the obsidian pillars surrounding them.

But before the hunters could initiate another surprise attack on the blue creature, the beast howled in delight, and charged off in a direction opposite of where Richard was hiding. There was a yelp of fright, followed immediately by a sudden blast, one of the beast's explosions. From the side, the long sword user spotted Kai sprinting through the columns, diving between the towering structures as the blue beast chased after him, smashing apart the earth with powerful strikes from its pounders as it lunged after the hunting horn wielder. As the creature closed in on the hunter, Kai swung about, twisting his horn at the beast in a wide arc, smashing the bulk of the weapon against the side of the beast's face. The blue creature staggered, its eyes glazing for a moment, but they narrowed again on the hunter, and the monster screeched in rage, pulling back its arms and preparing to strike the hunter again.

"Get away from him!" The creature paused at the sound of Kei's voice behind it, just long enough for the huntress to rush up from behind the beast and lash out at its tail, gouging a long, bloody slice along the appendage. The blue beast hissed in pain, and smashed the club into the ground, kicking up a spray of stone shrapnel from the earth, making Kai wince as shards of obsidian clattered across her face. The beast snapped its tail to the side, trying to slam its jagged club against the huntress, but Kei backed away before the spiked appendage could wound her. There was a clattering of stone, and the blue beast's attention turned back to Kai, only to hiss in fury when it found the hunting horn wielder had used the chance to bolt, getting away from the explosive creature.

Richard took the chance to rush the beast as its rage again focused on Kei, the huntress pulling away from the creature to try and disappear behind the rocks. However, the blue creature caught sight of him before he could surprise it, and it faltered, glaring dangerously at the long sword user. The blue creature hissed venomously as its eyes darted between him and Kei, who had placed herself into a defensive stance. Richard could see the beast's eyes become cold, calculating. It was realizing its predicament; the hunters could move through the pillars far more easily than it could. They could outpace it and outlast it here in this place. Richard's eyes narrowed worriedly. He couldn't let the beast have the time to adapt to its situation! Inhaling sharply, the long sword user bellowed a roar of challenge at the blue brute, before sprinting directly towards the creature. The beast's eyes widened in surprise, caught off guard by the sudden assault, taking a stunned couple steps backwards. Richard closed the distance fast; he had to make sure the beast didn't have time to adjust its tactics! He just needed to make sure to avoid the beast's pounders if it had the cognizance to counter him, and Richard could-

But as he closed in on the monster, the beast's eyes narrowed menacingly. Richard was still a good dozen yards away when the creature swung its slime-coated arm back, far too early for it to strike out at the hunter. Richard had plenty of time to slide to a halt before the beast could bring its fist down. However, rather than dropping its fist to the ground as had been expected, the beast swept its arm to the side, smashing its pounder into one of the nearby columns. Richard winced as a small shockwave buffeted his armor as the slime detonated, and his Rathalos plating clinked as shrapnel bounced off him. The blue beast was still eyeing him expectantly, no longer stunned but anticipating. But why had the beast done what it had?

His answer came a moment later when the area echoed with a low, crumbling, groaning sound. Pops and crunches filled the air as the base of the column the beast had just struck began to splinter, and a moment later the entire base of the pillar cracked around the entire circumference, and the whole thing began to tilt and lean. The column was coming down! And it was coming down right where Richard was standing.

"Move!" he heard Kai yell from behind him. Richard was already moving, and leapt out of the way, only barely rolling out from under the massive pillar at it smashed into the earth behind him, fracturing the obsidian rocks. The twins hurried towards him as he coughed fitfully, the dust from the debris seeping into his armor.

"Are you alright?" Kei asked worriedly, and Richard nodded quickly.

"I'm fine!" he said, clearing his throat. "Now run! We have to get away, quickly! We need to spread out again! The monster is trying to-"

But he was cut off as a low rattling hiss emanated across the rocks, and the three hunters turned fearfully. The blue beast's head slid over the top of the fallen pillar as the beast leapt on top of it, its eyes burning red and its forearms coated in a fresh layer of saliva. With a howl the beast lunged at them, smashing its pounder down into the rocks next to them, blasting a hole into the earth and sending the three of them flying back. The hunters scrambled desperately back to their feet, rushing to pull out their weapons and spread out before the beast could attack them again. But before they could move, the beast pivoted on one of its arms, sweeping itself nimbly over to the bases of another pair of columns, and with two quick swings of its arms, detonated two more explosions. Both pillars of stone collapsed almost immediately, forcing the hunters to dive out of the way, or risk getting crushed beneath.

The earth shook as the two columns smashed into the earth below. As the dust settled, however, the hunters found themselves trapped. The pillars had both fallen nearly parallel to one another, and the trio were left in the center of an abruptly made narrow path, with at least thirty yards to the opening on one end, and the enraged blue monster on the other. The creature glared wickedly at them, and pulled its pounders up to its face, coating them in another fresh layer of saliva.

"Run!" Kai shouted, and the hunters turned to sprint the other direction, towards the painfully distant opening on the far end, as the beast screeched, swinging its arms down charging after them with a terrible drum beat of explosions.

Levin dove out of the way as the Alatreon's talons came down on him. The beast's claws sparked with surging electricity, and sent up shoots of lightning into the sky as they pierced the earth. The elder dragon's talons struck with so much force, they punctured the earth they battled on, tearing a searing hole into the stone from which a tall gush of magma leapt forth. Levin winced as drops of lava splashed against his armor, hissing venomously against the plating. He was glad the armor had been bolstered by the World Eater's scales and hide; he wasn't sure the Rathian materials alone would have been enough to ward off the blistering heat of the magma.

Levin wished he could counter the beast somehow, lashing out with his weapon, but the black dragon had shocked them all by showing it still had the strength and endurance to fly, and for the last ten minutes the elder dragon had been hovering several yards over the battleground. Even with the full length of his switch axe Levin could only hit the Alatreon's tail or the tips of the beast's hind legs, and the beast's tail was almost completely armored, untainted by dragon shots due to it being such a small target compared to the rest of the creature.

The Alatreon reeled as several rounds of Pellet shot pelted its face, forcing it to sweep back, lowering its head so the thick horns on its head would take the brunt of the damage instead of risking wounding its eyes. Levin and Harker rushed forwards at the opportunity, lunging for the black beast's dangling legs while the creature was distracted. But the beast was not to be so easily assaulted, and even with its eyes closed, pale mist swelled up in its mouth, before spraying out in a hissing white haze which coated the earth around it in a thick white barrier of jagged ice, forcing the blade wielding hunters to pull back or risk trying to leap over the dangerous frozen wall.

The hunters had been battling the elder dragon for nearly fifteen minutes now, and they'd been on the defensive almost the entire time. The creature hadn't been entirely inaccurate when it had said the four of them would not be enough to defeat it in battle. The beast had somehow reigned in its control over the elements it wielded, though the power was dampened compared to before. With only four of them, the creature was able to focus on all of them individually, even in its damaged state. It was slower than before, and had lost a lot of the sharpness in its attacks, but it was still pushing the hunters to their limits just trying to keep up.

The blasting of bowgun fire rang out, and rounds began to smash into the elder dragon from both sides. From the creature's right, Kerry was keeping her distance and assaulting the elder dragon with a constant spray of Dragon shots and Pellet shots, as well as the occasional explosive round. And from the creature's left, Ellie fired on the creature with her weapon's powerful Pierce rounds. The pair of bowgunners had been positively vital during the course of the battle, and not simply because Levin and Harker were having trouble fighting the beast with their limited melee attacks. The Alatreon's scales and plates had hardened and meshed back together since their battle in Loc Lac, and even when Levin and Harker managed to get close enough to attack the creature, the beast's body was completely impermeable, save for where their previous fighting with the elder dragon had already shattered or broken off the beast's plating.

The Alatreon howled furiously, turning its attention to Kerry as lightning danced along its horns, and with a sweep of its head, the creature sent a cascade of lightning ripping across the battleground, blasting apart the earth as it went. Kerry scrambled to dive out of the way, leaping to the side just as the assault ripped through the earth past her. Red-hot stones smashed against her armor, making the huntress cry out in pain, her armor not nearly as resistant to heat as Levin's. But still the bowgunner pressed on, refusing to hold still as the elder dragon flew towards her. As the Alatreon swept close to her, the beast swung its tail around towards the huntress, the appendage cracking like a whip as it snapped out at her. The jagged spines which lined the creature's tail ripped through the stones below it in a wide arc, and likely would have shredded terrible gashes through the thick Diablos armor the huntress wore now, had she not leapt back out of range, pulling her bowgun up to block the spray of shrapnel thrown at her.

White mist swelled in the Alatreon's maw as Kerry staggered, but before the creature could launch a spray of ice spears down onto the huntress, there was a clash of steel from behind the beast, and the elder dragon squealed in surprise. The beast turned to find Harker swinging his long sword at its tail, and though he wasn't getting much leverage against the appendage, with most of the scales still whole and undamaged, the Deviljho materials which bolstered the blade were giving him the ability to slice into the tail, even if it was a slow process. The Alatreon screeched furiously, twisting around and lashing its tail at the long sword user, but Harker was the fastest of the hunters, and was able to nimbly slide out of range before the spines could cut into him.

"We can't keep this up." Levin turned as Ellie approached him, wiping the sweat from her brow and reloading her bowgun. The huntress' armor was easily the best at withstanding the heat of the volcano, and she actually managed to stave off the Alatreon's fire blasts and dragon energy rather well. But the beast's lightning was positively devastating to her when it hit, as much as it was to Levin. Searing burn wounds lined the huntress' side, where she'd been hit while standing too close to one of the lightning strikes. The wound needed patching, but like the rest of the hunters she had to keep fighting, ignoring their injuries for now in favor for the numbing effects of potions. "It's like Loc Lac all over again; we just can't keep fighting the Alatreon if it's going to stay airborne like this! Kerry and I can't do this with just the two of us… we'll run out of ammo before we kill it at this rate."

"If you've got a way to get it earthbound again, I'd be happy to hear it," Levin muttered. "We don't exactly have a Dragonator to hit it with this time, and even if Harker has any more of those custom flash bombs of his, the Alatreon's gotten wise to that sort of thing."

Ellie frowned worriedly at the words. "Then what can we do? Wait until it gets tired again? It flew all the way here from Boma in the condition it's in, and now it's trying to kill us. I don't think we'll be able to wear it out or outlast it like we are."

"I don't know…" Levin shook his head. "Just… just keep shooting at its wings when you can. Maybe you two can do enough damage to throw it off or some-"

"Look out!" Harker called from across the battleground, and the pair looked up in shock to see the Alatreon spin around in the air, before sweeping low to the ground and rushing towards them like a missile across the rocks. The pair dove away from each other, and the elder dragon ripped through the air past them at such speeds that a blast of wind smashed into both of them, knocking the pair onto their backs. Both of them scrambled to get back to their feet, dashing away from the elder dragon in opposite directions just as the beast snapped its head around, spraying a blast of icy mist down at them. Jagged spikes of ice sprouted up from the earth like nails, unfettered by the heat of the Volcano and shining bright and deadly along the ground, another hindrance for the hunters to be wary of.

Do not take your eyes off of me, humans! The Alatreon's voice boomed, thunder in their skulls. What do you think you can accomplish, huddled together like you are? Do you think you can concoct some tactic, some strategy to defeat me, to bring me low? There is nothing you can do to stop your ending, now! You have no grand weapon, no legion of hunters to call to your aid! There are only you four, facing me! So keep your eyes open, hunters! Keep them always on me, or else your deaths will come all the quicker, and I have time yet to make you suffer before I kill you all!

The creature screeched again, its powerful roar ripping across the battlefield, and the hunters clutched their heads in pain at the piercing sound. The Alatreon reared back, then unleashed an assault of ice spears down onto the hunters, and the four of them only barely managed to shake themselves free from the pain of the creature's roar fast enough to dive out of the way as the frozen spears smashed into the earth, splintering the rocks apart. The Alatreon howled excitedly, freezing mist licking its lips, before it unleashed another torrent of frigid air down at the ground, flying in Harker's direction. The long sword wielder yelped in fear, turning about and sprinting away to avoid becoming enveloped in the freezing beam.

Levin found himself standing near to Kerry, the two of them needing to watch their steps. They'd ended up running near to one of the ruined piles of destroyed war machines the Alatreon had piled up, and shrapnel and ruined metal parts were scattered around below them, half buried in ash. The bowgunner continued to fire on the Alatreon, trying to pull the elder dragon's attention from Harker as the long sword wielder scrambled to keep from being blasted by the ice beam. Two heavy Pierce rounds smashed into the creature's jaw, making the beast's aim waver. The ice beam swept to the side, rushing over one of the lava pits which boiled up in the battlefield. There was an eruption of steam which blasted into the air, and the Alatreon howled in surprise as it was enveloped in a small white cloud of haze.

"Nice shot," Levin muttered, and Kerry nodded thankfully. "I don't suppose you have a plan to get it out of the air once and for all, do you?"

"No," Kerry sighed regretfully. "I've been trying to hit its wings, but they're moving too much for me to get a solid shot. I can't risk using incendiaries; I only have so many heavy rounds to use. And any smaller rounds I have just aren't doing enough damage to have enough of an effect, especially considering it can't feel pain." The huntress grimaced fearfully. "I've calculated it out: at this rate, our only hope of victory will be if the Alatreon's body gives out under the stress it's been under before we do. But if it doesn't feel any pain, it's impossible to guess when, or even if that will happen before… before it overruns us."

Levin cursed sourly. "Damn it…" The bowgunner nodded at the silent disdain for their situation. Though Kerry was by far the most experienced hunter among the four of them, even she was not without damage. The Alatreon seemed to favor launching fireballs at her, thanks to the distance she kept from the beast, and her left arm in particular was coated in soot and burn marks. But she, like all of them, had no choice but to keep fighting and hope for the best. "Do you think we could-"

But before Levin could finish his thought, the Alatreon bellowed in rage, beating its wings in a flurry and sweeping out of the fog cloud. Levin yelped in fear as he realized the elder dragon was tearing through the air straight towards him and Kerry. The pair of hunters leapt back as the Alatreon unleashed a cluster of ice spears down on them, piercing the stone around them in a wide arc. There was a terrible screeching sound as one of the frigid lances tore across Kerry's bowgun, shearing a jagged line through the thick Agnaktor materials, before doing the same to the pale Barioth scales which made up the huntress' greaves. Kerry cried out in pain, dropping to her knees as a gush of blood poured from the gash cut into her armor, seeping over the coating of frost left behind by the spear.

Levin instinctively reached out to help her, but the Alatreon almost immediately unleashed another volley of ice spears towards him, and this time he wasn't quick enough to dodge out of the way. A sharp, frigid pain bit into his right shoulder as the frozen lance clipped his arm, and biting cold seeped into his body through the wound as frost blossomed across his arm. He stumbled back in pain as the rest of the ice spears crashed into the earth around him, splitting apart the rocks and rising out of the battleground like crystal teeth of some terrible beast.

His armor felt loose now, and looking at his shoulder, Levin realized the blow from the frozen lance had knocked off his pauldron completely, and the connections between his rerebraces and chest plate were coming unhinged. In the back of his mind, he remembered what Richard had told him: the armor would only remain intact for a couple weeks at the most before the joints of the makeshift armor would start to fall apart. Levin cursed; how long had it been since Silph and Richard had refurbished his armor with the World Eater materials? How much time did he have left?

Lightning sparked between the horns of the Alatreon as the beast howled at the pair of hunters, and Levin and Kerry backed away fearfully, tensing against their wounds, preparing to dodge out of the way of the beast's next attack. But before any of them could move, there was a deep groaning sound from the earth below them, and a shivering crumbling rolled across the battleground. Levin yelped in shock when the ground he stood on shifted below his feet, dipping slightly. Even the Alatreon seemed confused for a moment at what had happened.

But it became clear soon enough. Looking around, Levin realized the Alatreon's attacks had pushed him and Kerry back, uncomfortably close to the edge of the battleground, where the rock flat abruptly cut off , dropping several feet down and into a swirling river of magma. The splintering sound returned, and the earth below them shivered once more. Several of the ice spears began to shake where they stood, and some toppled over from the holes they'd pierced into the rocks. A wide, jagged crack ripped through the earth between the ice spears, tearing apart the rocks as it splintered between the frozen lances. Again, the rock flat under Levin and Kerry shifted, and the earth beneath them groaned as the crack split apart wider, spreading several inches apart and dipping a whole two inches lower than the rest of the battleground before the shifting stopped. Now the crack spread in a wide semicircle around Levin and Kerry, wrapping around a wide swath of the battlefield, from the edge of the rock flat around to the base of one of the ancient Meridian machines, half-buried in the rock.

The Alatreon growled low under its breath as it eyed the unstable ground beneath the hunters, and lightning danced along its horns. Levin's heart sank, as he realized what the elder dragon was planning, and both he and Kerry scrambled forward, desperate to get off of the loosened platform. But Kerry stumbled, hissing in pain due to the injury to her leg, and Levin instinctively stopped, turning to help her up. But the pause was long enough for the Alatreon to take action, and voltage blazed through the creature's talons, and the elder dragon swept down, smashing its claws into the crack. A blast of lightning ripped through the crack, and Levin nearly lost his footing as the rock slab tilted backwards, breaking loose from the battleground.

For a horrible second, Levin and Kerry were in freefall, their hearts floating up into their throats as the rock plummeted downwards, neither of them having the capacity to cry out or scream. But the fall was only a few scant feet, before the rock platform jolted to an abrupt halt and twisted to the side. Levin cried out in pain as his feet were twisted out from under him and he was slammed shoulder-first into the rocks. He found himself tumbling painfully, skidding along the obsidian as the platform tilted to a wildly crooked angle. He could hear Kerry struggling against the toppling earth like he was, and both of them struggled to stop themselves before they could fall off the side.

Through some stroke of luck, Levin managed to grasp hold of a stone jutting up from the earth, stopping himself from sliding even further. Kerry was forced to pull out her hunter's knife and slam it into the obsidian below them, nearly snapping the blade and denting it beyond repair, but she managed to keep herself from sliding any further. Both hunters struggled to pull themselves back to their feet, fighting against the steep terrain. Levin dared a look backwards, and shivered fearfully at the sight: the rock slab the Alatreon had loosed from the battleground was partially sunk into the lava, and Levin and Kerry had only managed to stop themselves from sliding into the magma flow a scant couple yards from where the rock dipped into the lava river.

Levin was shocked the slab hadn't simply fallen completely into the lava, and it wasn't until he looked up that he realized why they hadn't. The crack in the earth had broken off all the way over to one of the old machines the Alatreon kept as a trophy, half-buried in the stone. Some large chunk, perhaps a wing of one of the Meridian machines, had snapped off from the main body, and was embedded into the slab he and Kerry were stranded on. Cords and wires connected the two, straining against the weight of the slab but somehow holding out and keeping the platform from sliding completely into the lava.

A low growling rolled over the rocks, and the two hunters looked up fearfully to see the Alatreon looking down on them in frustration, clearly irate that the pair hadn't fallen completely into the lava as it had no doubt hoped. But the beast glanced over towards the broken remnants of the Meridian weapon, and lightning began to dance along its horns once more as it prepared to break them loose and finish the job once and for all. But before it could do so, the sound of bowgun fire erupted across the battlefield, and a heavy round smashed into the Alatreon's back before detonating in a wave of explosions across the creature's wings. Levin couldn't see over the ledge above him, but he could hear Ellie shouting furiously, spitting curses at the creature as more bowgun fire echoed over them. The beast howled in frustration, spinning around, and launching a searing fireball in the direction where the bowgun fire seemed to be coming from, and there was a powerful explosion from somewhere beyond, but more blasts kept coming, Pierce rounds and Flame rounds smashing against the beast's chest and neck. A few moments later, the Alatreon howled in frustration, before sweeping through the air towards its new target, leaving Levin and Kerry to their fates.

A groan from the Meridian machine pulled the two hunters' attention away from the leaving Alatreon, as the pale white weapon strained against the weight of the stone slab. Two of the wires keeping the slab from falling into the lava abruptly snapped, and the small platform jolted wildly, another few inches of obsidian sliding into the magma below.

"Run!" Levin cried, sweeping a hand under Kerry's shoulder and helping her limp up the side of the steep incline. The bowgunner gasped painfully with each step she took on her wounded leg, but kept pace with Levin, just as desperate to escape the lava as he was. The only way off of the platform was straight for the remains of the Meridian machine, and both hunters dashed up the incline towards it as quickly as they could. Every few feet, another of the wires snapped, and the slab dipped another few inches.

The two hunters just barely made it to the base of the Meridian object as the last of the wires snapped free, and the rock slab dropped, splashing into the lava river below and spraying a wave of molten magma up against the base of the machine. Levin and Kerry scrambled up the side of the pale object as the wave of lava crashed into the base of the machine under them. The magma hissed and boiled, and the machine groaned, shifting slightly as it slowly began to slide into the pool of lava as well. The hunters panicked for a moment, but a few seconds later the Meridian machine stopped sliding, settling into a sturdy position once more, and leaving Levin and Kerry gasping in relief.

"That was a little too close," the bowgunner sighed, toppling backwards into a sitting position. She winced for a moment, clutching her leg in pain. Levin quickly reached for his pouch, pulling out a roll of bandages as the huntress retrieved a potion bottle from her own pouch. Levin quickly wrapped the wound, and though his treatment was nowhere near as good as what Kerry could do, the two of them were both pressed for time, and had to move quickly to make do with what they could get away with.

A powerful detonation ripped across the battlefield, however, pulling the attention of the two hunters back to the elder dragon. The Alatreon was unleashing a volley of fireballs after Ellie and Harker, and enormous columns of flame were blazing into the sky. The hunters were managing to keep out of the elder dragon's attack range, but they were running out of space to run with more and more craters created by the Alatreon to dodge around.

"We need to get back there and help!" Kerry said sharply, rushing to leap off the side of the white machine and back to the fight.

But before either of the hunters could get off the Meridian machine and rejoin the battle, the white object they stood on hissed wildly, jets of pale steam hissing out from the sides of the machine. Kerry yelped in surprise as a panel on the side of the Meridian object was pushed inward as she stepped on it, and she scrambled off of it as the machine, somehow still functional, hissed to life. A hatch, completely invisible until it began to swing open, lifted up a couple feet away, and with a groan and screech of ancient cogs, a worn, slightly-blackened object lifted up from within the machine. There were several snapping sounds, followed by another release of steam as the object latched into place, and the Meridian object was silent once more, only now with a strange new weapon protruding from the top of the machine.

It was a ballistae launcher of some kind, like a massive stationary bowgun, Levin could tell that much. He'd seen similar designs on the hulls of the dragonships that sailed out into the sandsea, though this one… Levin couldn't tell whether the machine in front of him was more or less advanced than the ones which were used to hunt the Jhen Mohran. It was certainly made of the same pale white, mysterious materials the Meridians seemed to favor, but it didn't seem to fire ballistae like Levin would have thought. There was some massive steel spear protruding out from the front of the weapon, but it seemed bulky, and was covered in dozens of large, backwards-facing spikes along the side compared to the smaller ammunition other launchers fired. And to top it all off, there was a reel of thick wire or cords latched to the side of the weapon, though its purpose baffled Levin.

"What is this? Some kind of weapon?" he asked.

"I don't know," Kerry murmured uncertainly. "I mean… I suppose if it was attached to this Meridian thing, it was probably meant to be used against the Alatreon."

"Can we use it?" Levin asked hopefully, though Kerry's expression was doubtful.

"Maybe? I can't imagine how it would possibly work… do you think you could shoot it?"

"Don't look at me!" Levin said quickly. "I'm a terrible shot! I couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from the inside!"

Kerry frowned thoughtfully, looking down at the machine. "Harker's better with these sorts of things than I am… Maybe… maybe like this?" she muttered, twisting a handle on the side of the machine. There was a short hiss, and another blast of steam jetted from the side of the object. Kerry's eyes widened in surprise as the taut bowstrings groaned under the strain of their age.

"Look out!" Ellie's voice cried out from the other side of the battlefield, and the two hunters looked up. The Alatreon had caught sight of them, realizing what they were trying to accomplish on the old machines. Beating its wings, the creature swept low to the ground and seared through the air towards them, lightning jumping across its horns as it charged them.

Levin and Kerry yelped in fright, but the bowgunner rushed to the controls of the weapon, grabbing hold of the machine's trigger and swinging the thing about to point towards the approaching elder dragon. It took a precious couple seconds for the huntress to bring the weapon to bear, time enough for the Alatreon to get dangerously close. The beast screeched as it swept up on them, the intensity of the voltage in its horns flaring as it prepared to rip through them. Levin lurched forward, intent on delaying the beast long enough for Kerry to finish priming the weapon.

But before he could take two steps, there was a squeak of rusty metal and a loud hissing sound. Scarcely two feet to his right, a massive metal lance harpoon shot past him. Levin cried out in pain as a thick, coiling cord thicker than his thumb snapped against his back, cracking against his Rathian plating and throwing him to the ground. The cord, made of thickly wrapped metal strings, was tied rigidly to the end of the harpoon which had been fired, and twirled behind the soaring lance, lashing side to side as it rocketed through the air. Levin grimaced, keeping himself low to the ground as the whipping cord lashed over his head.

The sound of machinery activating could be heard coming from several other directions. Twisting his head to the side, Levin realized several of the other ancient Meridian machines had fired harpoons as well, somehow still sending signals to each other over the countless years. Several other machines had apparently been loaded with harpoons as well, hidden inside dark holes in the sides of the hulls, connected by heavy cords as the one Kerry had fired was. And all of them had somehow been able to coordinate with each other, aiming in the same direction as the harpoon Kerry had fired. The spears shot through the air towards the elder dragon, and the Alatreon had enough time to screech in surprise before the harpoons struck it. Levin didn't know how effective the ancient weapons would have been in their original state; some of them clanged harmlessly off the creature's thick scales, sailing off in random directions with their cords trailing behind them. But now the Alatreon was wounded, and countless scales and plates had been weakened and broken off, leaving swaths of exposed hide for the harpoons to pierce.

No less than five of the harpoons fired from the Meridian machines punctured the Alatreon's flesh, lodging themselves deep in the creature's hide. Three of them tore through the already-damaged remains of the elder dragon's wings, the heavy metal spears swinging around and lodging into the thicker part of the wings. The Alatreon screeched in fury and dismay, swooping to a halt in the air, hovering several yards above the ground, writhing around and trying to dislodge the harpoons from its body. The cords attached to the harpoons whipped around as the spears they were attached to swung about, and Levin winced as the thick ropes cracked against the ground around him, tearing through the earth and stone.

But there was more hissing from the machines from which the harpoons had been fired, and the cords began to be reeled in. In a second the lines were taut, and the elder dragon screeched in horror as its wings were dragged down, restrained by the cords. The beast hovered for only a moment more, trying to keep itself aloft, but could no longer continue to hover, and the Alatreon dropped out of the sky. With a tumultuous crash, the elder dragon struck the ground, its wings and legs collapsing underneath it.

No! No! What is this! Release me! Now! But the machines continued to hiss and groan, and the thick cords kept reeling in, straining against the Alatreon as the beast lashed around on the ground, but pulling the beast closer and closer, inch by inch.

As Levin struggled to push himself to his feet again, he spotted Ellie rushing towards the fallen elder dragon as it flailed on the ground, trying to get a foothold. But the thick cords stringing out from the ballistae held strong to the beast's body, tugging at the beast's wings and holding it down. But even with the Alatreon thrashing about, Ellie continued to press forward, getting as close as she dared before swinging her bowgun out and taking aim, directly at the elder dragon's tangled wings. There was a trio of blasts from the huntress' weapon, and three heavy rounds smashed into the Alatreon's wings. There was a pause as the fuses on the incendiaries hissed away, and then a cacophony of explosions ripped across the elder dragon's wings.

The Alatreon yowled in rage, and its thrashing began to grow even more frenzied. Ellie was forced to pull away from the enraged elder dragon as its flailing smashed apart the earth close to her. Kerry yelped in fright as the strength of the Alatreon made the remains of the machine she stood on begin to shiver and break free from the earth, the internal mechanisms straining and screaming. The Alatreon finally managed to find a foothold, and swung itself back to its feet. Its wings were twisted around and pulled low to the ground, with the harpoons still piercing their webbing. But the elder dragon screeched furiously, and pulled against the cords which bound it. The earth burying the Meridian machines fractured, and Kerry was forced to jump off of the ancient weapon when one of the Alatreon's lurches abruptly ripped the metal object from the earth, yanking it into the air and clattering towards it. With a screech of rage, the beast's talons glowed bright as the elder dragon brought them down on the machine, shredding through the pale metal and reducing the object to shreds in a matter of seconds. Then the beast began lashing out at the cords and lines which still swung wildly from the its wings, snapping about with each motion the elder dragon made. The Alatreon couldn't dislodge the harpoons imbedded in its flesh, but soon the cords had been sheared away until they were but short tassels which hung from the end of the hooks.

As the Alatreon finished its work, freeing itself from the binding of the ballistae, and cutting short the cords, the beast paused in its work to gather itself. The elder dragon looked positively devastated now. The ballistae stood out against the beast's dark hide and scales, gleaming brightly against the glow of the volcano as they grew coated in the creature's dark blood. Its wings, while they had been formerly damaged and torn, were now practically nonexistent, with only the phalanges of the wings remaining. The webbing was almost completely gone now, with rare lingering tatters of the hide remaining, thanks to the explosive rounds Ellie had detonated across them. The wings stretched and wiggled around, a disturbing sight, like gnarled, broken fingers trying to function properly.

The Alatreon didn't realize what had been done to it, however, and stretched its wings wide, beating them powerfully. It took a couple steps forward as it prepared to take off, but its wings could no longer carry it, and the Alatreon stumbled, yowling in surprise when it didn't go airborne as it thought it would and nearly toppling to the ground. The beast shook its head as it steadied itself, before looking over its shoulder in confusion. Its gaze froze when it looked upon the tatters of its wings, and the appendages twitched and waved awkwardly as the elder dragon moved them around.

No… no! No! No! What have you done? What have you done to me?! My wings… my beautiful wings! The elder dragon spun about where it stood, trying to get a better view of the appendages as the ruined wings twitched and flexed. The beast seemed to be in denial, as though it didn't believe what it saw was real, and was trying desperately to find its real wings, whole and undamaged. A crooked laughter rolled over the battleground, and the Alatreon's eyes darted around, before landing on Harker.

"Your wings are in ruins, dragon," Harker giggled madly. "All the centuries hiding yourself away in crystal won't fix that, I imagine. Just think: should we be defeated and you put yourself to sleep to recover, when you set out to destroy humanity like you claim, you'll have to do it walking."

The elder dragon gasped at the words, its breathing growing heavy and ragged. But it soon glared furiously at Harker, flames licking across the beast's fangs. How dare you! How dare you do this to me! The flames grew in intensity, and the elder dragon's head snapped out, launching a fireball towards the long sword wielder. Harker leapt back quickly, wincing and holding his arms up to block his face as the fireball detonated, erupting in a wave of fire and heat which sent him skidding backwards. With a screech, the Alatreon rushed towards him, stampeding through the flames.

But rather than running, the long sword user swept to the side, pulling his blade from its sheath and swinging it around, placing himself in a defensive stance and ready to strike at the beast as it came. The Alatreon lunged at Harker, lashing out blindly in its rage, its fangs and tusks glittering in the red light of the Volcano. Harker swept his blade up, swinging it into a thrusting motion at the elder dragon's face. There was a clash of steel as the flat side of his sword struck against the Alatreon's right tusk, and the elder dragon's maw opened wide as the beast prepared to sink its fangs into the long sword user's body. Levin heard Kerry cry out in horror as the elder dragon's jagged fangs bore down on Harker.

But as quickly as the Alatreon was going, the beast froze in mid-stride, skittering to a halt only a couple feet away from Harker. Icy mist hissed from the Alatreon's mouth with each breath, coating Harker's armor with a light layer of frost. The elder dragon was so close, but the beast wasn't attacking the hunter. Levin didn't understand; why had the Alatreon stopped? The elder dragon's eye opened wide in horror, and one of the beast's legs actually stepped back away from Harker. Levin hurried over to his friend, desperate to make sure Harker was alright, and to learn what he'd done to stop the Alatreon, freezing the beast in its tracks. But as he curved around to the other side of the elder dragon, Levin stopped in his own tracks.

Harker's blade had pierced the Alatreon's right eye. The elder dragon's red-and-yellow pupil had been cut clean in half, Harker's steel sword thrust directly through the center. The Alatreon's expression began to shift, a look of disbelief coating its expression.

What… what is this? What's going on? What have you done to me?!

"It doesn't hurt, does it?" Harker asked mockingly, and the Alatreon's breaths began to come in sharp gasps. Even with such an inhuman face, Levin could feel the horror crawling through the elder dragon's expression as the blade twisted deeper into the beast's eye socket, and dark red blood began to seep from the wound. "Your eye is gone forever. I have taken it from you. And you can't even feel it's gone, can you?"

Harker pressed closer to the elder dragon, his blade cutting further into the Alatreon's skull, making a spray of blood pour out from the wound. The elder dragon actually quailed as the blade dug further inside of its skull, and stepped back fearfully. But Harker followed the creature closely, making sure to keep the point of his blade inside the beast's eye socket.

"Some people call you a god, Alatreon. Most call you a demon. You are indeed powerful, but I know you are neither of those things. However, the people of this world are superstitious when it comes to creatures like you, and I doubt the mythos you've built for yourself will fade, even if we kill you. People will still fear you and speak your name in horror when they tell tales of your crimes. If nothing else, be proud of your legacy, dragon: you will be remembered forever as the monster which terrorized the world for eons. You will become immortal, in memory if not physically, and will be remembered as the demon you made yourself to be."

Harker smirked up at the creature, a twisted expression on the face of the mad hunter. Even the Alatreon shivered from the look it was receiving. "But then, if that is the case, I will be forever known as the man who blinded the world's most terrible demon! I would like to be remembered for my scientific research… but I suppose beggars can't be choosers. Now let's take that other eye, Alatreon!"

With a sharp motion, Harker yanked the tip of the blade from the Alatreon's right eye, and a dark spray of blood splashed across the hot rocks, hissing and steaming from the heat of the Volcano. The elder dragon reeled in dismay as its blood gushed from the wound and pooled down its face, seeping into its mouth and over its tongue. Its eyes darted back and forth wildly, as the beast tried desperately to see through the eye now sliced in two. The beast shook its head in horror, denial and disbelief in its expression, and the elder dragon forced its eyelid to close to keep from bleeding out more. But the beast's remaining eye shot back up as Harker's blade flashed in the light of the magma, the hunter swinging his sword around to thrust his blade into the elder dragon's other eye. The Alatreon screeched in horror as the point of the long sword shot forward, the steel tip of the blade curving around the beast's tusk towards the black dragon's remaining eye.

Had the beast remained still only a heartbeat more, Harker's blade would have sunk into the elder dragon's other eye, blinding it fully. But instinct took over for the beast, and the creature's head dipped lower and twisted to the side. With a clang and a loud screeching, Harker's blade clashed against the Alatreon's jagged horns, the spines of the protrusions scratching against the flat of the hunter's weapon. The beast's head snapped back upright, its wide horns catching the weapon between the spikes which lined them and wedging the blade between them. Harker yelped in shock as his long sword was yanked clean out of his hands.

The Alatreon shook its head wildly, screeching and howling as the blade clattered about between its horns. With a pronounced swing of its head, the Alatreon shook the blade loose, and Harker's blade was sent flying through the air, before falling back down towards the elder dragon. The beast's head dipped forward, and the creature's jagged fangs and tusks snapped down on the metal blade right in the middle. The weapon groaned agonizingly as the Alatreon's dire maw strained against the sword, and the curved blade slowly began to bend. Then the long sword shattered, the blade splitting apart, the hilt falling to the ground as the length of the weapon was flung away. It clattered a couple times along the earth below it, before the blade skittered off the side of the rocks and fell into a pool of lava. It hissed and steamed for a few moments before the heat of the magma overwhelmed it, and the integrity of the weapon vanished, melting into liquid steel and sweeping away with the lava.

Harker could only look on in horror as his weapon melted into nothingness, with only the hilt and half-foot of steel remaining intact, along with a few useless shards lying broken on the ground nearby. The Alatreon watched the blade long enough to know it was gone, before returning its attention to Harker. The long sword user took a fearful step backwards as the elder dragon's gaze bore down on him, seething hatred filling the beast's eyes at the loss on its eye. Fire blazed around the creature's maw as it hissed in rage, before lunging towards the hunter, its fangs opening wide.

Harker panicked, scrambling backwards, fumbling with his pouch and trying desperately to pull out something he could use to repel the beast. He managed to pull out some object, but never got the chance to use it. As the mad hunter pulled his arm back to throw whatever he'd retrieved, the Alatreon's fangs enveloped Harker's arm, before snapping down fiercely. There was a screeching sound as the dark dragon's fangs cut against the hunter's armor, and a spray of blood as the jagged tusks punctured through the scale plating. With a twisting motion, the Alatreon pulled Harker off of his feet and slammed the hunter into the ground. The iron cylinder Harker had been holding came loose from his hand, clattering uselessly to the ground and rolling into a nearby lava pool. The Alatreon ground its teeth against Harker's armor, gnashing them together. Blood poured down Harker's arm, coating the hunter's chest and face as his eyes widened in horror. Harker screamed in pain as the creature's fangs ripped into him, tearing through his arm.

Lightning began to surge through the Alatreon's body, collecting in the beast's talons, and the elder dragon brought up its foreleg, intent on smashing it into the pinned hunter.

"Get to the cavern! We can't take any more of this!"

Tenebris' voice echoed across the battlefield, easily heard by the others, even over the rumbling of the Volcano and the howling of the Zinogre. Jino grimaced at the words, but couldn't argue against them. His body was aching from the hits he'd taken during the battle, his armor sparking from the dragonblight he'd been inflicted with, and his hammer was showing the wear from his fighting with the creature. None of the other hunters were doing much better either; all of them were struggling against the dark Zinogre, and the beast itself was hardly slowing down at all, despite the gashes and wounds the hunters had managed to inflict on it.

The smoke bomb cloud had finally worn off not long ago, but little had changed about the fight. The clouds above them churned, the power of the Alatreon making the ash and smoke swirl dangerously over them. But now the clouds flashed with dark bolts of lightning, dancing across the sky over them. The Zinogre had been blazing with dragon energy so long that the sky had begun collecting the element, filling the air with charged power. Even the stones around them sparked with dark energy, lances of the dangerous element snapping between them, especially in the small craters where the Zinogre's charged talons had blasted apart the earth. The atmosphere around them was so thick with latent energy from the element that bolts of dragon element dropped from the sky around the Zinogre, even when the beast was doing nothing more than striding around, preparing to attack the hunters again.

The beast itself had only gotten more dangerous as time went on, or perhaps it just wasn't wearing out like the hunters were. The creature's fury seemed boundless, and such inscrutable rage only fueled it on, making it tireless and constantly attacking the hunters. The battlefield was pockmarked with countless craters from the Zinogre's deadly attacks, and not one of the hunters could say their armor was undamaged from the beast's powerful strikes. Jino's own potion supply was running low, and he knew if the creature didn't let up soon, there'd be nothing to stop it from completely crushing them all. But it was impossible to tell whether the creature was anywhere close to defeat, so despite everything they'd done, they had no choice but to try and escape, or be overrun by the fury of the dark Zinogre.

Miller and Nox were already pulling away from the creature at the sound of Tenebris' shout, trying to distance themselves from the Zinogre so they could make a break for it when the chance arose. They already had an escape route planned: the path the other seven hunters had escaped through was cut off now, but there were several other paths cutting into the rock wall they could use, ones the Zinogre was far too large to squeeze through after them. Miller had managed to scout out one of the caves when the Zinogre's attention had been off of him some time ago, and found one that was sure to lead further up the path to where the rest of the hunters had gone. The trouble was hoping they'd be able to make it through the cave without the Zinogre catching them, or worse, blocking off their escape completely. The beast's blasts of dragon element had not just devastated the battlefield, but tons upon tons of stone had been blasted off of the cliff face, piling up along the base.

The Zinogre seemed to sense their desires as the hunters tried to pull closer to their intended escape path, and eyed the four of them untrustingly. Feeling what they might be trying to accomplish, the dark beast began to circle around the four of them, bolts of black lightning falling from the sky around it as the Dracophage Bugs spiraled and twisted through the air. Jino cursed. They couldn't let the beast get between them and the cave!

But the sound of bowgun fire pulled the Zinogre's attention to Tenebris, and the beast tensed. But it wasn't fast enough to dodge out of the way before a pair of rounds smashed against its face. The dark beast yowled in surprised and anger as the rounds burst upon impact, shaking its head as a deep red fluid covered its snout and jaw. They were Tranq rounds, Jino realized. The shots wouldn't affect the beast as it was now, Jino knew; the Zinogre just wasn't weak enough. However, though the Tranq shots weren't enough to knock the creature out completely, they were certainly enough to make the beast stumble, shaking its head to try and wave off the noxious fumes the rounds had released upon impact.

"Now's our chance!" the bowgunner cried. "Run for it!"

The Zinogre bellowed angrily as the four hunters turned and sprinted for the cave entrance. It tried to lumber after them immediately, but the effects of the Tranq shots, though minimal, were enough to stagger the beast for a few moments, forcing the creature to pause long enough for the tranquilizing effects to wear off, which gave the hunters a few scant moments to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the beast. But it wasn't much over ten seconds before the Zinogre howled again, and the powerful strides of the beast could be heard behind them as the dark creature lurched after them, intent on running them down. But the hunters had gained enough ground by now that they were going to make it to the wall before the Zinogre could catch up to them. Miller was first through the narrow hole in the wall, vanishing into the darkness of the crevice. Tenebris and Jino were next through the gap in the wall, and the clanking of Nox's armor signaled that the short sword wielder was tailing them closely, and the Zinogre howled furiously behind them.

But not ten steps into the opening, the four hunters slid to a horrified halt. They'd entered the wrong cave! The cavern they'd run into was only thirty yards long, before the path was abruptly cut off by a sheer rock wall, completely blocking them off from passing through. The Zinogre's assault must have knocked loose rocks from the cliff face and blocked the path they'd intended to take! The hunters stood, dumbfounded, before realization kicked in and the four of them turned, desperate to get back out into the open. But a low, guttural rumbling and a monstrous shadow stopped them where they stood.

The Zinogre growled viciously as it strode through the gap into the thin crevice. Its wide shoulders scraped against the walls of the narrow area, and jolts of black and red lightning lanced from its back and crawled across the rocks. The creature bared its fangs wickedly, its intent clear. It knew it had them now, and there was no room for the hunters to escape it, and nowhere for them to hide. Dragon energy began to surge down the creature's arms, collecting in the talons and spines lining the beast's claws, and the beast's head dipped low to the ground as it prepared to lunge at them.

But there was a flash of metal, and a wide, disk-shaped object spun through the air before flying into the Zinogre's mouth. The beast's first instinct was to snap its mouth shut on the object, but a moment later the beast yelped in shock and pain as the object burst to life, and tens of thousands of volts of electricity began to surge through the object. A shock trap! Jino and Tenebris turned in surprise, and realized it was Noxramus who had thrown the object. Not only that, but the Baggi-armored hunter had another couple traps pulled out of his pouch, another shock trap and a bulkier pitfall trap.

"Get back from it!" he cried, twisting the activator dial on the pitfall trap and tossing it at the Zinogre. Both Jino and Tenebris pulled out of the way as the trap activated in the air, spindly rods and metal stakes twirling around as the internal mechanisms unraveled from within. The trap struck the beast in the chest, and the rods flailed wildly, trying to find dirt or earth to puncture, but failing and wrapping tightly around the Zinogre's body as the net began to unravel from within, twisting around the creature and snagging itself up on the beast's numerous spines and spikes.

"Now's your chance! Get it while it's down, all of you!" Nox shouted. "I'll keep throwing traps at it! Kill it before I run out!"

The other hunters leapt at the words as trap after trap flew over their heads, landing and activating on the Zinogre and keeping the beast in a perpetual state of forced immobility. Tenebris' hands flew as she loaded and reloaded every shot she could get her hands on into her bowgun short of incendiary rounds, firing upon the beast in a constant drumbeat of blasts, hitting the Zinogre with Pierce, Flaming, Pellet, and anything else she could shoot without bringing down the ceiling on top of them. Jino and Miller rushed the beast's claws, and with powerful blows, the two hunters smashed their weapons into the creature's legs and chest. The Zinogre howled in agony through the paralyzing effects of Nox's shock traps, but somehow managed to stay standing despite the onslaught of attacks it was receiving from three different hunters. The beast tried to break free of the effects of the traps, but soon the creature was positively covered in ropes and cords from the pitfall traps which had been tossed onto it.

"I'm out!" Nox cried a long minute later. Almost a dozen traps had been thrown at the beast, and the hunters had been assaulting the creature for just as long. But somehow the Zinogre was still standing. The charge from Nox's last shock trap fizzled and popped as the charge of the machine seeped away to nothing. Immediately the dragon energy along the Zinogre's spine blazed to life again, with even greater intensity than ever before, and the beast bellowed a furious roar which made the cavern shiver, pebbles clattering to the floor from the ceiling. But the wires and nets of the pitfall traps still wound tightly around the beast's body, binding it in one place, though the dragon energy roaring across the creature's spine was searing through the ropes quickly, and the nets were coming loose.

But on Miller's side of the creature, the great sword user growled in frustration, and pulled his blade back, gathering his strength. From behind, Tenebris turned her aim, firing a pair of Pierce rounds at the Zinogre's leg. The shots struck the beast just over its elbow, puncturing the scales and hide, and the dark creature winced in pain. With a roar of effort, Miller swung his sword over his head, smashing the heavy weapon down onto the Zinogre's paw. There was a loud cracking, and the creature's spines and talons splintered. The Zinogre screeched in pain, and its foreleg buckled, the creature toppling to the ground. The mechanisms of the pitfall traps whirred to life again, the nets wrapping around the fallen beast even tighter than before. The beast wailed in frustration, struggling against the nets, but fallen over as it was, it was having trouble getting leverage against its bindings.

It was an opportunity for Jino. The beast's head, too high above the ground for him to strike when the Zinogre was standing upright, was now low enough to the ground for the hammer wielder to assault. If he could only manage to knock out the creature… Without hesitating any longer the hunter rushed the beast's head, gathering his strength to attack the Zinogre. With a powerful yell, the older hunter swung his gun-hammer up and dropped it down onto the beast's skull with as much force as he could muster.

But as the hammer come down, the Zinogre twisted its head around, fighting against the nets wrapped around its head. It opened its muzzle as the hammer dropped down on it, and clamped its fangs down around the head of the weapon, stopping the hammer with only the power of its jaw. However, the beast couldn't stop the triggering of the gun-hammer, and the weapon fired, unloading one of its heavy rounds directly into the creature's mouth. The Zinogre squealed in agony as the fire round erupted, searing its tongue and blazing into its throat. But the beast refused to relinquish its grip on the weapon it bit down on, and its fangs screeched as they sliced against the steel of the weapon.

Jino cursed, pulling against the weapon, but the Zinogre had clamped down hard, refusing to release the hammer and biting down with even more strength, its fangs beginning to puncture into the steel. There was a wrenching groan, and the metal of the gun-hammer began to bend and warp under the power of the Zinogre's fangs, the revolver's barrels being crushed. Jino balked at the sight, and desperately reached forward, grasping the firing pin of the gun-hammer and pulling it back, before slamming it down again. The weapon fired, unleashing another blast of flame into the Zinogre's mouth, making the creature whine in pain, but still the beast refused to release the weapon.

The Zinogre's eyes bored into the hunter's, and the beast reared its head back, and the hammer was ripped from Jino's grip. The Zinogre immediately snapped its head down, and there was a terrible tearing sound as the beast's remaining horn tore into Jino's Deviljho-hide armor. There was a spray of blood as the horn punctured the skin, and the hammer wielder stumbled in pain. "I'm alright!" he shouted as the others rushed to his aid. The Deviljho materials had managed to keep the wound from being too much worse than superficial. It hurt like hell, but not enough that he couldn't pull away from the Zinogre before the beast could lash out at him again.

The dark beast growled viciously, before swinging its head to throw the hammer in its mouth away. But the weapon refused to move. The Zinogre seemed baffled, shaking its head wildly trying to dislodge the shredded metal object from its mouth, but its fangs had punctured deep into the massive hammer, and now were stuck, lodged deep into the steel weapon. The creature began to wail desperately, lashing around trying to get the heavy, metal revolver out of its mouth. The beast beat the weapon against the rock wall next to it, trying to smash it apart. And it was succeeding; the steel hammer was denting and bending further with each blow against the rock wall, pieces of it falling to the ground around the creature.

"Run!" Tenebris shouted, pointing to the exit of the cave. "Now's our chance to get out!" The Zinogre blocked a better portion of the entrance into the small crevice, but with the beast smashing Jino's hammer against the wall, a gap wide enough for the hunters to rush through had opened up on one side of the beast. Jino was first through, at the urging of the others, due to his injury and loss of weapon. It was close, but the older hunter was able to sweep around the side of the dark beast without getting caught by the creature's flailing.

However, as the hammer wielder dashed out of the cave and back into the open, the Zinogre's tail brushed against him. It wasn't enough to hurt Jino, but it caught the beast's attention, and the dark creature craned its head around, the battered remains of the hammer still dangling from its mouth. The beast's eyes widened in realization, and its struggling grew even more violent and desperate to break free from the nets trapping it. The other hunters hurried to try and slide past the beast before it could block off their means of escape. Nox and Tenebris were the next to try and cut through the gap and get through, but the Zinogre howled viciously, wrenching its uninjured foreleg out from the net and trying to smash it down on the pair, desperate to keep any of the other hunters from escaping.

But as the Zinogre twisted around, its free arm trying to smash down on Tenebris and Nox, Miller rushed around the back of the creature. With a grunt of effort, he swung his great sword around, pointing the blade down towards the ground. With a roar, the hunter drove the blade down, and the tip of the massive weapon punctured through the Zinogre's broad tail, piercing straight through the appendage and cutting through the other side. The blow had enough force that it kept dropping and cleaved the rocks below it, staking itself and the Zinogre's tail into the earth below.

The dark creature howled in agony, snapping its head around and trying to sink its fangs into the great sword user, but Miller was already moving away from the beast. The hunter leapt over the dark beast's staked tail, ducking out of the way of the Zinogre's fangs and rushing for the exit behind the other three. The creature bellowed in rage and lurched after them, pushing itself along with only one hind leg and foreleg. But the beast yelped in surprise as it was abruptly snapped to a halt, falling flat on its chest as its tail snagged against the jagged edges of the great sword staking it to the ground, and held firm, not letting the Zinogre move from where it stood.

The creature bayed in fury, and the dragon energy along its spine blazed in intensity. Massive orbs of the dark element burst forth from the beast's fur, blazing out of the cavern after the hunters, forcing them to dive out of the way of the oncoming assault. Miller, acting instinctively, reached for the hilt of his weapon to block with the wide blade, before remembering he no longer had the great sword with him. The hunter winced, raising his arms in hopes of protecting himself, but before one of the dragon orbs honing in on him could strike, Nox dove in front of the blue-armored hunter, blocking the blow with his shield, though the force of the impact slammed the short sword wielder back, knocking both hunters to the ground. The Zinogre continued to bellow, a barrage of the dark orbs searing from its body and roaring through the air towards the hunters. But with each sphere that shot out of the cavern, smashing apart the earth around them, just as many smashed into the roof of the hollow and blasted apart the rocks above the beast. Stones and rubble began to fall down onto the Zinogre from above, but the creature, so enveloped in its rage, failed to notice.

There was a loud, rupturing noise, and a massive fracture splintered up the side of the rock wall over the cave. A dull rumbling began to shake the earth around the hunters as the Zinogre's perpetual onslaught of dragon energy continued to tear apart the ceiling of the cavern it was pinned inside. Enormous boulders and slabs of stone began to break off from the towering wall, smashing apart on the obsidian rocks below. More and more began to break off with each detonation of dragon energy the Zinogre unleashed, both within and without the cave, but still the dark beast persisted in launching the black orbs, its fury overwhelming it and compelling it to persist until the hunters were dead.

Then a particularly large and jagged boulder was dislodged from the ceiling of the cave, plummeting down towards the raging creature. There was a sickening crunch, and a spray of blood coated the earth as the tip of the boulder hewed into the back of the Zinogre's neck, the jagged edge tearing through the beast's flesh and scales, an obsidian guillotine. The Zinogre's eyes popped open in agony, but its short scream of pain was cut short as the boulder severed its throat, and a spray of blood poured from the beast's mouth. The jagged edge didn't cut all the way through, however, lodging itself in the beast's spine and neck before tilting over and slamming against the wall.

Almost instantly, there was a flash of red light from across the creature's back, and the Dracophage Bugs living in the beast's fur scattered. A haze of black and red lights rushed from the cave in a wave of sparks and dragon energy, spiraling into the air and away from the battlefield. The Zinogre coughed once more, spraying blood against the hot rocks beneath it, and its eyes faded and closed. The creature was dead. As time passed, the groaning and crumbling of the rock wall slowly began to cease, and the stability of the rocks returned once more, leaving the body of the Zinogre beneath it half-buried in a pile of rubble, as the beast's blood coated the debris in a slick red sheet.

Jino sighed in relief, dropping to the ground to sit and catch his breath, his shoulder flaring as the pain from his injury blazed to life again. The other three shared his sentiment, kneeling down to rest and recover from their fight. But before the four hunters could begin treating themselves, a low rumbling sound rolled over the obsidian rock flat, even over the constant erupting of the Volcano. The noise was deep and dangerous sounding, and the hunters looked about fearfully.

"Now what? Another monster?" Miller muttered worriedly. The group wasn't ready for something else to assault them, not with Jino's hammer destroyed, and Miller's great sword buried under tons and tons of stone, staked into the Zinogre's tail. Nox was still wounded from the battle, and Tenebris' ammo pouch was definitely looking light… Nonetheless, whatever it was, it was getting closer, and fast, and the hunters braced themselves, preparing for the worst.

"Go… go! Keep running!" Kei shouted to the others. "It's still following us!"

The three hunters ran around the corner, their hearts seizing for a moment as they slid a little too close for comfort to the edge of the cliff. A rattling hiss followed them, accompanied by thumping footsteps and the crumbling of stones. Richard spared a glance back, catching sight of the blue beast lurching around the corner they had just passed, one of its feet stamping dangerously close to the edge of the cliff and breaking off a chunk of rock, sending the rubble careening over the side. The creature had even less space to maneuver than the hunters did on the narrow ledge, but still chased after them tenaciously.

The hunters had been forced to retreat again. The blue creature's rampaging had only gotten worse once it devised the tactic to try and drop the obsidian pillars on top of them, or at the very least using the fallen columns as barriers to pen them in. The beast was simply too fast and too aggressive for them to counter in their condition, at least so long as the creature was able to launch itself over the fallen pillars to escape their attacks. Had they a fourth hunter to aid them in the fight, perhaps the tides might have turned, but with only three of them against such an aggressive, volatile creature, they simply couldn't win as they were. A stroke of luck had granted them an opportunity to escape, when one of the blue beast's strikes blasted a hole through one of the fallen pillars, opening the path which led back to where they'd been attacked by the dark Zinogre. The hunters had little choice but to take it, hoping they could have a chance to recover.

But they'd underestimated the tenacity of the monster. The path was thin, barely a few yards wide, but the beast still tailed after them, its torso and shoulder grating against the rock wall as it lurched after them, and its toes wrapped over the edge of the cliff. Patches of green slime stuck to the walls as the monster's pounders rubbed against them, and small bangs and the clattering of shrapnel tailed behind them as the goop detonated, sending chunks of the rock wall falling over the edge into the lava below. The creature's determination to obliterate them was nearly suicidal; the drop over the edge of the cliff was nearly eighty yards straight down, and the only cushioning at the bottom was the slightly softer magma, which was hardly any better than the protrusions of jagged rocks. Neither hunter nor monster would survive the drop if any of them fell. So the hunters continued to run. The ledge they stood on gave barely enough room for the three of them to safely travel, much less space to effectively battle such an aggressive, devastating monster.

The three hunters scrambled around the next corner, this one far sharper than any of the ones before, and Kai yelped in fear as the hunting horn wielder nearly slid over the edge of the cliff. But Kei managed to grab hold of her brother's armor, yanking him back onto the path before he could topple over the side. But despite the close call, the hunters couldn't afford to pause their running to catch their breath, with the blue beast so close behind, and continued to run. The path curved sharply in towards the center of the mountain, a deep crag cutting into the side of the cliff and creating a shallow horseshoe shape in the path.

The hunters were halfway around the loop before the blue brute passed the corner behind them, hissing furiously as the edge of the path crumbled under its weight, and debris tore loose from the cliff as its shoulder grazed the wall and its swinging tail smashed against it behind the beast. The creature was moving slower now, finally realizing the precarious nature of the path it chased them along, but the beast still had yet to give up, and the glowing slime along its horn and pounders flared as the creature glared at them across the chasm hatefully.

"Don't look at it, just go!" Richard shouted to the twins, as the pair slowed down, bringing up his arms and pushing on their backs to try and compel them to keep up their pace. The looping path would swing them around, carrying them closer to the beast as it curved along the edge of the cliff. "It can't hit us with its explosions from across this gap, if what we've seen is the extent of its abilities." The twins looked at each other doubtfully, but pressed on, running along the path.

The creature's hissing grew louder as they approached the bend in the path. The beast had yet to move from the corner it had followed them around, continuing to eye the hunters from where it stood as they followed the thin path. They were getting closer to the bend in the path, where the gap across the crag was its narrowest, and the blue beast stood on the far side. But even then the creature was a good forty yards across from them, hissing angrily at them. The monster's hissing shifted to a low growl, and the beast cautiously took a few steps back, its head twisting around to look behind it as it backed itself up warily.

"It's retreating!" Kai gasped thankfully, as the blue brute worked its way backwards.

"Somehow I doubt that," Richard panted. "Monsters up here don't just give up, and this one is definitely one of the most tenacious I've ever come across."

But before any of the hunters could spare a moment to feel any relief, the creature's eyes abruptly snapped back to the hunters, and the blue beast hissed threateningly. With no other warning, the creature lurched forward, charging headfirst towards the ledge in front of it at top speed, ignoring the perilous cliff in front of it. However, before the creature could plummet over the side, the beast tensed, sliding to a near halt right at the edge, its talons twisting over the side as the monster crouched slightly, before launching itself through the air like a rocket. The hunters yelped in fear, skidding to a halt just before the blue brute slammed into the cliff wall not ten yards in front of them, its feet crashing into the path before them.

The creature twisted its body around, pulling its pounders from the wall where they had been impaled, and turned to face them, hissing venomously at the hunters as the slime along its horns flared to a volatile yellow color. The beast brought its pounders up to its mouth, snaking its sinuous tongue across them, and the slime swelled across them. The hunters backed away from the beast, their hands going to the hilts of their weapons. All the running they'd done, all the distance they'd put between themselves and the beast chasing them, all their effort was undone in an instant thanks to a loop in the path and the creature's obnoxious leaping ability.

The creature lurched towards them instantly, swinging one of its pounders down to attack the hunters and smashing it into the path below them. There was little for the three to do but leap back and out of the way of the strike as the blow erupted, blasting apart rock and stone. The hunters were barraged with debris and shrapnel forcing them all further back from the beast. How were they supposed to attack the creature like this? There was so little room along the path that, with the weapons they possessed, only one of them would be able to attack the beast at a time, and with the explosive attacks the creature wielded, a frontal assault by any of them would be near suicide, especially in such tight conditions.

The blue beast hissed excitedly as it closed in on them, but before it could swing its pounders at the hunters a second time, the creature paused as a low groaning caught its attention. From below the creature, a chunk of the path shifted. The blast zone, where the creature had struck with its explosive punch, abruptly broke off from the path, a whole chunk of the ledge breaking away from the cliff side and plummeting down to the jagged rocks and lava below. The creature hissed warily, clearly having not anticipated this sort of danger that it presented to itself.

Richard braced himself, pushing past the twins and preparing to lunge and attack the creature if the opportunity presented itself, but Kai beat him to the punch. Before the blue beast could finish contemplating the threat its explosions presented to the terrain, the hunting horn wielder bellowed a challenging roar, pressing past Richard and his sister and lunging straight towards the monster. The abrupt charge was so surprising, the blue brute hesitated in shock, stunned that the hunters had actually attacked it in a method other than a surprise attack, long enough for the hunter to close the distance and swing his hunting horn up towards the beast's head.

There was a loud crack as the base of the hunting horn smashed into the creature's jaw, and the blue beast staggered back in pain, shaking its head, half-stunned from the blow. Kai charged again, intent on smashing his weapon against the monster's skull a second time, but the beast recovered too quickly, and with a hiss of fury, the creature swung a pounder down, meeting the base of the hunting horn mid-air and slammed the weapon into the ground, nearly twisting Kai off of his feet at the abrupt change in momentum. Thankfully, the creature's pounders didn't create an explosion upon impact, but as the beast glared down at Kai, hissing venomously at the hunter, slime oozed down onto the weapon from the pounders, layering the hunting horn in a gooey sheen of sickly green.

"Get back!" Richard shouted, rushing the monster and swinging his long sword down towards the beast's head. The creature hissed angrily, but took several quick steps backwards and out of the weapons range as the blade came down. Kai pulled himself upright, nodding thankfully to Richard, but looked down fearfully at his hunting horn. The slime almost completely coated the base of the weapon, and already the substance was beginning to shift colors from green to yellow, growing increasingly volatile with every passing moment.

"Your weapon or your life!' Richard yelled as he pressed his attack.

"Get rid of it!" Kei shouted, rushing forward. "It's going to blow up! You can't-"

The huntress' words were cut short as the blue brute hissed angrily at them, before recoating its pounders with another fresh layer of saliva. Richard and Kei pushed forward, pulling out their blades and trying to intimidate the creature into pulling away even further, but the beast could no longer be incensed, and the monster lumbered towards them, already pulling its arm back in preparation to strike at them with its volatile explosions.

But as the blue brute pulled its arm backwards, Kai rushed the creature a second time, pushing past Richard and his sister. Kei screamed her brother's name in horror, but the hunting horn user swept up below the creature, even as the glob of slime on his hunting horn began to emit a terrible red color. He swung his weapon around, and smashed the core of his weapon into the monster's skull. The impact of the hunting horn struck right as the slime detonated. With a thunderous blast, the end of the weapon blasted apart, shattering the weapon completely and blowing Kai backwards, skidding across the stone path as his armor smoked from the heat of the explosion. Kei rushed to his side as he tried to struggle to his feet, dragging him back as the blasted remains of his weapon clattered across the path around them.

The blue beast, however, had its head slammed up against the rock wall from the force of the explosion, squealing in pain. It stumbled for a moment, struggling to regain its balance and nearly sliding over the side. But in its struggles, the beast pressed its pounders and glowing horn against the wall next to it and across the ledge under it, trailing thick lines of glowing slime across the cliff face and ledge. The creature shook its head, pushing off the effects of its rattled skull away, and returned its attention to the hunters, hissing viciously at them. But it failed to realize it had coated the wall and ledge with slime. The volatile goop steamed and hissed as its colors shifted, and the beast finally realized what it had done as the hunters retreated slightly and the slime turned its final, dangerous red.

The slime detonated, splintering rocks and stone, ripping apart the rock wall around the beast. The cliff face groaned dangerously as long cracks tore up the side, before the integrity of the stone gave out, and entire sheets of obsidian began to break loose from the wall. The creature screeched as the cliff face and ledge it stood on was blasted apart, tons upon tons of rock and obsidian cascading down on top of it as the path it stood on collapsed underneath it. The three hunters scrambled away as the breaking of the ledge began to spread, the path falling apart behind them. Both Kei and Richard were forced to grab hold of Kai and drag him along, the hunting horn wielder still injured and stunned from the explosion of his weapon.

But the creature screamed furiously, lurching towards them, desperate to get to the trio before everything it stood out gave out from underneath it. With each step, it was barraged with falling stones and boulders, and the precipice beneath it collapsed, but the creature was still able to gain ground on them, getting closer and closer to them and beginning to outrun the crumbling ledge.

But not fast enough. Before the beast could rush to safety, the cracking of the path splintered out, loosening a particularly wide slab of rock from the wall. The creature wailed as the last dozen yards of foothold dropped out beneath it, and the beast began to plummet towards the rugged rocks below. But the beast refused to die without a fight, and with one last lurch, launched itself through the air towards the path where the collapse had cut off. It was almost too short, and its chest slammed into the jagged edge of the path, and its feet scrambled to push itself back up while its small claws grappled with the stone ledge, trying to keep itself from falling.

"Knock it off!" Richard bellowed, sweeping his long sword from its sheath and lunging at the beast. Kai stumbled back against the wall, but Kei followed suit, unsheathing her own blade, and the two long sword wielders lashed out at the blue brute, clashing their swords against the creature's pounders, trying to dislodge the beast from the cliff face. The beast squealed in pain and frustration, swinging its horn at the pair and trying to knock them away from it as it struggled to pull itself up onto the ledge again. But it couldn't find a foothold below, and the weight of the beast was causing the ledge to give way. The beast wasn't managing to pull itself up, but neither was it falling quickly enough, and the creature's struggling was coating the ledge in more and more green slime, slowly changing colors. If it didn't fall soon, the slime or the beast's weight could bring down the entire ledge.

Richard swept his blade low, driving it under the creature's pounders. The sword screeched as it sliced against the rocks, but the tip of the blade pierced into the blue brute's talons underneath, and the creature squealed in pain as the weapon drove against its claws, cutting deep into the lightly armored digits and hissing as the freezing effect of the blade bit into its flesh. With a painful tearing sound, the beast's grip loosened, and the creature's arm ripped loose from the ledge, swinging backwards and under it. Now the beast was only holding on with a single arm and the precarious grip its legs could get on the wall below, and Richard turned towards the other pounder to help Kei remove the blue brute's last hold on the side of the cliff. But before he could swing his blade down under the creature's other pounder, the blue beast summoned the last vestiges of its strength and lurched forward towards him and Kerry. With a sweep of its arm, the creature slammed its pounder into Richard's side.

Through some stroke of luck, the beast's arm was nearly depleted of the slime which usually coated the appendage, but there was still some of the substance lingering at the tip of the pounder. There was a thunderous blast, and Richard felt pain rupture through him as his world jolted to the side. The blast sent him flying back from the ledge, before slamming into the cliff wall behind him and toppling to the ground, gasping in pain as his side burned painfully. His long sword clattered to the ground next to him as he struggled to push himself to his feet and regain his senses.

He heard Kei howl furiously from where she stood next to the beast, and there was a symphony of clashing steel as the huntress slashed into the blue beast's pounder with her long sword. Richard looked up blearily as the huntress assaulted the beast, as the creature clutched desperately to the side of the cliff, desperately trying to wave off the long sword wielder with its glowing horn. Kei's blade sent up sparks as the huntress assaulted the creature though, and the Jaggi-armored hunter lashed out at the beast's face as well as its pounder, making the creature hiss fearfully with every strike which clashed against the scales close to its eyes. But a shout from Kai sent the huntress' attention to the ground below her, where the creature's slime had coated the edge of the path where the blue brute clutched tightly, and the volatile substance was shifting colors, changing from a cautionary yellow to a dangerous red. With a yelp, the huntress leapt backwards, just as the slime detonated, ripping apart the rocks of the ledge, including the section of the path which the blue beast clung to.

There was a blood-curdling screech as the beast fell, howling in horror as it plummeted down to the rocks below. Then the screaming cut to an abrupt halt with a sickening crunch, followed by a nauseating hissing coming from below. The hunters looked at each other nervously for a long moment, waiting and listening. The beast had been so brutal and tough, so tenacious and stubborn, they were still half-convinced it wasn't dead yet. But Kei was bold enough to step forward, walking cautiously towards the ledge, with Kai and Richard close behind, clutching their injuries in grimacing pain. Richard was forced to use his sword as a crutch to keep himself from toppling over and Kai still clearly a bit dazed.

Looking over the side of the cliff, the fate of the beast was clear: the creature was dead. The blue-plated monster has struck hard against the rocks below, and its thick plating had been shattered upon impact, unable to beat the force of gravity. Its organs must have ruptured and its bones broken from the fall as well, as there was an unsettling amount of blood which poured through gaping wounds across the beast's body, trickling down the rocks and into the magma around it, where it hissed away into steam. The creature's tongue hung limply against the rocks under it, and the green slime coating its pounders and horn began to slide off the creature's body, mixing with the blood and fizzling away in the lava.

There was a collective sigh of relief from the three hunters, and the group pulled away from the edge of the cliff. A moment later though, Richard grimaced and stumbled where he stood, falling backwards as he clutched his side in pain, with his sword clattering to the ground beside him. He dropped to the ground, leaning against the cliff face. The blast wound he'd taken was festering badly, and despite his Rathalos armor's resistance to heat and fire, the explosion left a deep, blackened dent, and several cracks in his armor around it. Kei rushed over to him immediately, pulling out potions and bandages from her pouch. Kai leaned against the wall himself, the lingering stresses from the detonation of his hunting horn forcing him to pause and recover.

"Don't worry… I'm fine," Richard muttered, before looking up with a smirk at Kei. "Looks like my clanking mess of an armor set has its uses, eh?" he muttered, then began coughing wetly before beginning the process of removing his faulds and cuirass. Something underneath rubbed the wounded flesh below the wrong way, however, and he hissed in pain. "Perhaps… perhaps I'm worse than I thought. Just give me a moment and I'll be…" But another sharp bite of pain lanced through his side, and Richard felt his vision grow dark, and a moment later the hunter passed out.

"You stay away from him!"

The Alatreon's eye darted around in surprise at the sudden outburst, its lightning-imbued talons pausing in the air over Harker's pinned body. But the beast failed to realize the sound was coming from its right, where Kerry lunged towards the elder dragon. The huntress swung her bowgun around, and with a loud smack, smashed the butt of her weapon into the Alatreon's skull, right at the base of the creature's twisted horns. The huntress was positively seething, and her blow struck with such force, that a rough, ugly crack split across the side of the beast's right horn. The elder dragon reeled back in shock, screeching in rage, as Harker's arm slid loose from the beast's fangs. His vambraces were rent and torn, and blood was pouring from his arms. He scrambled back, his legs buckling under him as he clutched the wounded appendage and pushing himself away from the elder dragon.

The Alatreon shook its head as its remaining eye struggled to regain its focus from the force of the blow. It hissed viciously, turning to face the bowgunner, fire in its breath. But the motion was awkward, as the beast was still unaccustomed to the loss of its eye, and could barely see the huntress from its current stance. The elder dragon was forced to spin its entire body about to get a clear view of the huntress, and fire blazed from the depths of its gullet as it prepared to engulf Kerry in flames. But its eye widened in shock upon realizing Kerry had her bowgun pointed directly at the beast's face, and the tip of the weapon was glowing brightly, and was beginning to shiver from the intensity of the power it was gathering.

With a thunderous detonation, the bowgun fired, unleashing the full force of a Wyvernfire round into the Alatreon's face. A concussive blast ripped across the beast's face, and the beast howled as it reeled from the force of the round. There was a loud, cracking sound, and the Alatreon's horn splintered, breaking apart along the fracture it had received earlier, and the horn flew off the elder dragon's crown completely. The broken horn flew through the air, before clattering to the ground a dozen yards away.

The Alatreon reeled from the blast, staggering backwards and shaking its head to ward off the ash and flames which licked its skull. The beast howled furiously, turning its head back to glare at the bowgunner. Lightning began to jolt along the beast's remaining horn for a moment, as the elder dragon prepared to lash out at Kerry. But before the beast could launch a wave of lightning at the huntress, one of the bolts flew wild. The Alatreon screeched in shock as several lightning strikes crashed down into the ground only a few feet from it. Lightning still surged wildly along the elder dragon's remaining horn as more bolts fell from the sky, out of the Alatreon's control, and Levin finally realized what had happened: the elder dragon could not control the lightning element without both of its horns.

As the beast reeled in incomprehension, Kerry used the chance to rush to Harker's side and help the hunter to his feet. The long sword wielder was shakily trying to patch his wounds with bandages, and several empty potion bottles littered the ground next to him. But Kerry hurriedly dragged him away, desperate to get the hunter away from the beast before the Alatreon could recover its wits and come for them again.

But as the Alatreon's eyes darted around, trying to figure out what was happening, its gaze landed on the broken remains of its horn. The beast stared in stunned silence at the ruined remains, unable to comprehend the damage it had taken, just as it had upon seeing the damage which had been wreaked upon its wings. This time however, the beast recovered from its incredulity far faster than before, and an intense, seething rage covered the creature's expression. Flames blazed along its fangs as the beast reared, screeching furiously to the sky. The earth shivered below them from the force of the howl, and several weakened pockets of loose rock collapsed, dropping down into the lava river swirling under the battleground, sending small geysers of magma splashing into the air around the beast.

When the beast's roar cut off, it immediately slammed down to the ground, and dragon energy began to swirl around the creature's body, bolts of dark energy spiking out and ripping apart the ground around it. With a howl, the elder dragon charged, tearing across the battleground towards Kerry and Harker. Kerry shrieked in fear, nearly swinging Harker up in her arms before sprinting away from the oncoming beast, desperate to get herself and her beloved away from the elder dragon. The beast was enraged and unencumbered, however, and was quick to close the distance between itself and the hunters. Levin shouted at the beast, charging the creature, and he could hear Ellie firing her bowgun at the elder dragon, both of them desperately trying to save their friends.

But a flash of metal lit up in front of the Alatreon's face, a gleaming cylindrical tube which the Alatreon's eye darted to in surprise. Levin realized Harker's hand was extended, and his hunting pouch was opened, even as Kerry clutched his shoulders, dragging him away. The Alatreon's eye widened in fear, and the flash bomb went off. It wasn't one of Harker's personally-made flash bombs, thankfully, but so close to the Alatreon's eye, the elder dragon squealed as the eruption of light blazed into its skull, blinding the beast. The beast toppled backwards, reeling and shaking its head in fury as it thrashed about, trying to trample on the two hunters. Kerry desperately pulled Harker away, trying to get him away from the beast before the creature could recover from the temporary blindness.

Levin roared furiously as he charged the beast's legs, and the Alatreon paused, its head twisting around in search of the source of the noise. It gave Levin time to rush up to the beast, before swinging out with his weapon and smashing the axe against the elder dragon's legs. The creature howled furiously, its head swinging around, trying to find the source of what was attacking it, but without its ability to feel pain, all it knew was that its legs were being knocked around. The creature lashed out, sweeping its claws out and whipping its tail, but could not connect as Levin ducked under the beast. Ellie fired on the beast from afar as well, Pierce rounds puncturing into the elder dragon's hide along its torso and neck, shattering weakened scales and sending sprays of dark blood splattering across the hot stones.

But the Alatreon screeched, and a wave of dark energy churned through the dragon's body, swelling over the creature's hind and lancing out. A bolt of dragon element snapped out from the Alatreon's body, smashing into Levin's chest and making him cry out in pain as he was thrown across the ground, out from under the elder dragon. He slid to a halt several dozen yards away, clutching his chest in agony as sparks of the element jumped across his armor. He found himself being pulled to his feet and force-fed a potion by Ellie, who had worriedly rushed to his side. Meanwhile, the Alatreon was shaking its head, trying to stave off the lingering effects of the flash bomb. Its eye snapped open, and immediately the red and yellow orb darted over to Levin and Ellie as the huntress helped him to his feet. The temporary blindness was gone now. Flames blazed along the beast's fangs as the elder dragon growled viciously, and the beast tensed, preparing to charge them, but before it took a step, its eye widened in realization, and the black beast immediately began to search around.

No! No, not you! Where are they?! Eye-taker! Horn-breaker! Where are they?! I will burn them! I will torment them! They will suffer like none have before for what they have done! The elder dragon's eyes darted around, frantically searching, before its gaze landed on Kerry and Harker. Kerry had managed to drag Harker over to the growing blue crystal. She was actively trying to avoid touching the pale stone, and had attempted to carry the long sword user to the far side of the stone and out of sight. But she had simply not moved quickly enough, and the Alatreon's eyes bored in on them. With a screech, the elder dragon charged towards them, thundering across the battleground, its body surging with dragon element and icy mist swelling in its throat.

"No!" Ellie screamed, dashing towards the beast. Levin tailed close after, but wasn't sure what they could accomplish. They were on the far side of the beast, and the Alatreon was already curving around the towering blue crystal towards Harker and Kerry. Short of running fast enough to get under the creature, they'd never make it in time. But Ellie wasn't rushing directly towards the Alatreon; rather, she was charging intentionally towards the beast's hind legs and tail. The huntress suddenly dipped towards the earth, and for a moment, Levin thought she had tripped. But she swept upright again, and he realized she had dropped low to the ground to grab the shattered remains of Harker's long sword hilt, before leaping forward again and charging the Alatreon's tail.

The thick, scaled appendage was waving in anticipation as the elder dragon closed in on Harker and Kerry, swaying close to the base of the glowing blue crystal. Ellie leapt towards the swinging appendage, pulling the hilt of the blade back and slamming it down onto the black tail. There was a sickly puncturing sound and a spray of blood, and the jagged remains of the blade punctured into the flesh of the tail, piercing straight through it before bursting out the other side. Ellie's momentum kept her going, and she slammed against the side of the blue crystal, the hilt of the long sword jamming into her shoulder and knocking her flat on her back.

But there was a sharp cracking noise, and as Ellie toppled backwards, the hilt of the sword and the remnants of the blade attached to it remaining where they were. Levin was stunned; the broken blade had actually managed to pierce the shell of the blue crystal, and the Alatreon's tail was pinned to the side of the glowing gemstone. The crystal began to envelop the beast, crooked tendrils extending from the base and wrapping slowly around the appendage, trying to draw the beast in.

The Alatreon lunged at the two hunters ahead of it, fangs snapping hungrily, before jolting to a halt. A spray of the dragon's saliva splattered across Harker and Kerry's armors, the pair of them yelping in fear, and the beast howled in confusion and frustration as it snapped its fangs at them, trying to sink its teeth into the two. It was surprised that it was incapable of reaching either of the hunters for a moment, its talons scraping against the ground desperately, trying to drag itself towards them but unable to move at all.

Then it realized something was wrong, and its head spun about sharply. The beast howled furiously, yanking furiously on its tail, trying to pull it free from the grasp of the blue crystal. But the gemstone continued to cling to the beast, tendrils of the mysterious substance growing up and around the creature's tail, trying to pull the elder dragon in.

No! No! Not now! Not yet! It's not ready yet! The creature wailed, desperately trying to pull itself loose of the crystal but the glowing gemstone had already encompassed most of the tail's tip, covering the entire broken sword in a sheen of pale blue stone. The creature's struggling made the entire crystal shake where it stood, and the rocks around the glowing stone began to shift, as though any moment the beast would dislodge the crystal entirely.

Levin made sure Kerry had time to drag Harker away from the elder dragon before rushing towards the beast himself and swinging his weapon out. The Alatreon saw him approaching, however, and pale mist began to swell in the back of the beast's throat. But Levin heard the sound of Ellie reloading her bowgun, and before the elder dragon could fire its ice spears at him, a volley of Pierce rounds flew through the air, smashing into the Alatreon's face and neck, forcing the beast to flinch back, and giving Levin the ability to charge. The creature's legs were smashing the earth around them wildly, leaving Levin no opportunity to attack them, so the hunter leapt towards the elder dragon's tail.

The jagged spines of his switch axe cut shallow lines into the Alatreon's tail as he hacked into the beast's appendage. The elder dragon's tail had not suffered an assault from as many dragon rounds as the rest of the beast had, so many of the scales which lined it were still solid and tightly meshed together. But Levin's switch axe, though not releasing dragon energy in its axe form, was now lined with the jagged talons and fangs of the World Eater, which managed to rip into the cracks between the scales, peeling them off and shredding through the black hide beneath. The Alatreon howled in fury, trying to swing around to stop Levin from tearing into its tail, but was unable to turn at all. Desperately, the elder dragon began to tug wildly on the appendage, trying to forcibly pull its tail free from the crystal, harder and harder until the entire crystal was rocking back and forth, about to break loose from the earth.

Levin barely realized this at the moment, however. Something inside of his had come undone in his mind. With the Alatreon in front of him, the creature which had tormented him and countless others for so long, pinned down and open to attack, the hunter flew into his attacks with an unrelenting fervor. He lashed out with blow after blow, hacking into the Alatreon's tail over and over with his switch axe, shattering plates and scales and hewing into the beast's flesh. Dark blood sprayed out, splattering across the hot stones with every cut, all while the elder dragon struggled to pull itself free, yanking against the grasping tendrils of the blue crystal.

But the beast wasn't quick enough. With one final cleave against the Alatreon's tail, there was a terrible ripping sound. Hide and marrow tore apart, and the weapon hewed through the serpentine appendage, completely severing off several yards of the elder dragon's long tail. The Alatreon screeched in surprise as it toppled forwards, stumbling at the abrupt freedom it had gained and toppling to the ground in a heap a few dozen yards away. Meanwhile, the tail, now unattached, was slowly pulled in by the blue crystal, as though it was being consumed. In a few moments, the severed appendage was devoured by the glowing stone, vanishing into the hazy depths of the opaque material. The Alatreon squealed and reeled on the stone floor, trying to get back to its feet, but it didn't take too long for the creature to realize that something was amiss. The black beast wrenched its head around, and gaped in horror at the ragged remains of its tail. The beast screeched furiously, writhing around as it struggled to push itself back to its feet.

But Levin rushed the beast again, charging directly at the Alatreon's head as the beast tried to scramble back upright. The monster screeched furiously at him, trying to twist its head around to face him before he could reach it, flames growing in the back of the elder dragon's throat. But before the fire could blaze from the creature's mouth, a bowgun round smashed into the side of the Alatreon's head, bursting apart in a flash of black and red energy which surged across the elder dragon's head. The creature howled, its eyes darting over to glare at Kerry, where the huntress had propped Harker up against a nearby wall as she reloaded her bowgun, readying it to fire again. The flames blazed to life once more in the beast's mouth, this time aiming at Kerry and Harker. But again a bowgun round smashed into it, this time fired from Ellie, a powerful Pierce round which crashed into the elder dragon's other horn. There was a loud crack as the round connected, and the horn splintered, a wide crack cutting jaggedly up the side of the beast's proud horn.

Out of instinct, Levin activated the dragon phial on his switch axe. The weapon hissed as the internal mechanisms churned, transforming the blade from its axe form to its sword form. A lance of dark energy coursed through the weapon, and Levin choked down a cry of pain as it jolted into his gauntlets. But he was already in the motions of attacking and pressed forward. With a crack, Levin smashed the blade of his switch axe into the side of the Alatreon's skull, and a blast of dragon element blazed from the weapon, searing across the elder dragon's hide and scales. The Alatreon reeled from the blow, hissing furiously as scales loosened and shattered, clattering to the ground below it.

The dark element blazed through the weapon with every swing of the switch axe, bursting against the Alatreon's skull with every strike. However, jolts of the dragon energy lanced right back at Levin with each attack as well, the dark element searing into his armor and biting into his flesh, but Levin pressed on through the pain, continuing to assault the elder dragon, despite the dark bolts lashing back at him. Again and again he smashed his weapon into the Alatreon's face, shattering scales and fangs and cutting into the beast's hide. Then, with one exceptionally powerful swing, Levin's blade came down on the long, crooked crack which lined the Alatreon's remaining horn. With a pronounced splintering sound, the elder dragon's second horn shattered, splitting across the side at a crooked angle. A wide swath of the jagged protrusion broke off completely, clattering to the rocks below and skittering away, before sliding over the edge of the rocks and into one of the lava pools which boiled up from below.

The Alatreon howled furiously at this final insult, and a short gust of flame blazed from the creature's gullet. Levin grimaced, wincing back as the fire smacked against his chest and a wave of heat washed over him. The fire was gone in an instant, only a short burst. Though Levin's Rathian armor deflected a majority of the attack, it still made Levin stumble for an instant, long enough for the Alatreon to recover and push itself upright. With a howl, the elder dragon lunged at him, smashing the remains of its horn against Levin's chest and flinging him to the ground. Levin panicked, and swept his switch axe up to try and defend himself as the elder dragon leapt towards him, but the beast's talons came down, slamming into the weapon and pressing down its weight onto Levin, making the hunter gasp in pain from the pressure.

No more of this! The Alatreon's voice pounded into his skull, shrill and furious. No more! I will suffer no more of this! My wings, ruined! My tail, severed! My beautiful, terrible horns, broken! Now you die! Levin paled as dragon element began to swell around the elder dragon's body. He pushed against the Alatreon's claws, trying to break free, but the elder dragon had him thoroughly pinned.

The thundering of a bowgun firing erupted to the creature's right however, and Levin twisted his head, spotting Ellie charging the Alatreon from the side. The elder dragon twisted its eye in its socket, unable to see the huntress coming, but refused to face away from of Levin as the dragon element continued to swirl around its body, even as several heavy rounds smashed into its side, detonating in waves of fire across the beast's torso. One round clipped the elder dragon's neck, however, and the beast flinched, giving Levin slight reprieve from the weight of the beast pressing down on him. He was unable to pull himself free from the beast's weight, but he was able to yank his switch axe out from under the Alatreon's paw. The blade was still in its sword mode, dark energy churning along the length of the blade and hilt, but Levin pushed through the pain of the red voltage, swinging his blade awkwardly against the Alatreon's ankles. The beast hissed furiously, however, and before Levin could get over a few strikes into the creature, the Alatreon's head dipped low towards him, its fangs clamping down viciously over the base of the weapon, as well as over the hilt and most of Levin's arm.

Levin screamed in pain as the beast's fangs gnawed against his armor, puncturing the Rathian scales and World Eater reinforcement, and tearing at the armor. But the base of the switch axe was far thicker than Levin's arm, and the Alatreon's fangs were only able to cut shallow lines into Levin's flesh, painful though they were, as the other side of its jaw ground viciously against the core of the weapon. The elder dragon gnashed its teeth harshly against the crystalline blade, biting into the inner mechanisms, intent on ripping the weapon to shreds as it had done to Harker's, and Levin's arm along with it. But in its struggle to destroy the blade, one of its tusks struck hard against the cracked dragon phial at the core of the weapon.

There was a terrible screech which ripped across the battlefield, needles digging into the minds of the hunters and even the Alatreon, as the phial splintered, webs of cracks splitting across the container. A massive, powerful jolt of dragon element ripped through the weapon, smashing into the Alatreon's skull and physically blasting the elder dragon's head backwards. The beast was nearly knocked off of its feet from the force of the blow, stumbling backwards as sparks of dark energy coursed across its face. Levin was thrown backwards as well, his grip on the weapon's hilt yanking him across the rocky earth. He struggled to his feet painfully, holding tight to his switch axe's hilt as the blade's emergency mechanisms clicked to life, automatically snapping the weapon back to its axe form.

Levin looked down fearfully at his weapon's core, afraid of what he'd see. Somehow the dragon phial was still holding together, but the Alatreon's fangs had cracked the container to even worse condition than it had been before. Nearly half of the glass was cracked now, and the volatile energy that coursed at the core of the phial was churning wildly, sparks of energy jumping over the container, even as the weapon returned to its dormant axe form. Licks of black flames were flicking out through the cracks as well, small wicks of fire that came and went in an instant.

But another thing caught his eye a moment later, and his eyes widened in horror: the armor that had covered his arm was gone! His bare arm was littered in bite wounds from the Alatreon's fangs, trails of blood sliding down his arm and dripping to the ground. His gauntlet was still there, but all the armor from the shoulder down was completely gone, leaving nothing behind but ragged scraps of Rathian hide hanging from his pauldron. He realized the poor reinforcement from the World Eater materials had finally given out; a serrated line cut cleanly around his arm just below his shoulder, were several Deviljho scales dangled loosely, barely clinging to the Rathian hide they'd been knitted together with. His eyes darted around in search for the lost armor, before landing on the Alatreon. The elder dragon was still staggered from the blast of dragon element it had taken, shaking its head, and Levin spotted the torn remains of his armor dangling from the beast's fangs.

Ellie and Kerry were still firing on the beast however, striking the creature with Dragon and Pierce rounds from both sides. They were aiming for the Alatreon's neck and head where they could, and dark streaks of blood trailed down the elder dragon's face from the countless wounds in had taken from bowgun and blade alike. The beast's attention darted back and forth between the two, trying to decide which to go after, but in its maddened state, each blow it received from one huntress pulled its attention away from the other, forcing it into a state of perpetual indecisiveness.

But Ellie had pressed too close. The huntress had pushed forward, intent on firing upon the elder dragon from a shorter range in hopes of hitting the Alatreon's weak points with greater accuracy. But the black beast soon realized this, and the huntress kept the creature's attention, rather than losing it when Kerry next fired on it. Lightning surged along the elder dragon's horns, lashing wildly out of control, but the Alatreon managed to pull some small level of control over the element, and a surge of the energy coursed down the creature's body and into the beast's talons. With a quick turn, the Alatreon twisted around towards the huntress, swinging its talons out at her. There was a sickening crunch and a flash of lightning, and the elder dragon's talons smashed into the huntress' side. The charged talons tore into the silver plating, puncturing through the thick scales, before the electricity erupted, and the huntress was thrown to the ground, her eyes widening in agony as blood sprayed from the wound.

"No!" Levin wailed, rushing over to the downed huntress as Ellie struggled to stand, clutching her side painfully as blood gushed from the wound. Already her face was growing pale from the injury as she tried to push herself away from the Alatreon. The elder dragon took a few menacing steps towards the huntress, before its gaze landed on Levin, rushing to Ellie's aid. The beast growled viciously, and flames began to swell in the back of the elder dragon's mouth as the beast prepared to launch another fireball which would envelop them both.

But before the fireball could be unleashed, the sound of Kerry's bowgun firing could be heard, and a heavy round smashed into the side of the Alatreon's head, lodging itself just under where the dragon's horns met its skull. The fire continued to swell in the creature's gullet, however, the beast unfazed, until the round detonated. The Alatreon squealed as the flames enveloped its skull, and the blast sent the creature's serpentine head reeling, swinging towards the ground. The fireball was still growing inside the Alatreon's gullet, however, and as the beast's skull was forced down, the blazing orb was released, and it was a short path before the fireball struck the earth directly under the Alatreon, erupting in a pillar of fire which wrapped around the elder dragon.

As the Alatreon was howling in horror, however, Levin had reached Ellie, and was desperately trying to haul the huntress to her feet, wrapping a supporting arm around her waist to support her. Ellie winced painfully as his grip rubbed too close to her injury, and a slick layer of blood coated Levin's gauntlets as he was forced to do so anyway to keep the huntress from falling to her knees in agony. Ellie tried to give Levin an encouraging smile, attempting to show she was still in fighting shape, but her pained expression and struggle to keep standing belied her true condition, and Levin knew he had to get her out of this fight, and Harker too for that matter. Neither he nor Kerry could keep fighting if they had to support and defend their respective loved ones.

But as the Alatreon strode from the crater it had enveloped itself inside, there was something different and terrible in the creature's eye. Its madness and frustration had boiled over, and this last insult, Kerry's act of forcing the beast into essentially attacking itself, had driven it over the edge, and there seemed to be nothing left in but rage and the desire to destroy. The beast's voice thundered in the hunters' skulls, its eye darted between the four of them. Levin shivered at the beast's expression; there was clear madness in the elder dragon's eye. Enough! I will suffer no more of this! I will destroy you all! I will destroy all of humanity! I will annihilate you pathetic creatures, even if I must reduce this entire mountain to rubble!

White haze swarmed around the elder dragon's mouth, and with a sweep of its head the creature sprayed a wide swatch of ice towards the hunters, forcing them back as jagged frozen spikes shot up from the impact zone, forming a deadly semicircular barrier which cut the hunters off from approaching the Alatreon. The elder dragon tensed, gathering its strength, before rearing its head and howling furiously, unleashing a torrent of ice into the sky above them. The white beam pierced through the clouds above, and the swirling ash and smoke began to swirl with pale white mist, spiraling outwards and covering the battlefield around them. Levin tensed fearfully; this was the same attack the Alatreon had used to crash the airship!

Sure enough, a few moments later, white spears of ice began to plummet from the skies, crashing into the earth around them without rhyme or reason. Levin scrambled to pull Ellie away from the falling objects, but there was no predicting where or when the ice lances would fall, and he was forced to swing his head up and down, trying to keep an eye on the sky above him while watching his feet to make sure he wasn't about to charge headfirst into a pool of lava. Ellie tried to help him, attempting to keep moving under her own power, but every time she tried, she gasped, clutching her abdomen in agony. Kerry had managed to find a shallow alcove against one of the far walls, bracing herself and Harker fearfully against the rocks as the frozen lances smashed against the nearby ground and cliff wall above them.

One after another the ice spears fell, puncturing into the stone of the battleground and splintering the earth. Ellie and Kerry both tried to pull out their bowguns, desperate to fire on the beast and get the elder dragon to stop its onslaught, but Ellie was in too much pain, and Kerry was too focused on protecting Harker for either of them to accurately fire on the creature.

Levin was wearing out quickly. The alcove Kerry and Harker were occupying was too shallow for him to drag Ellie over to safely, and the rain of ice spears seemed almost endless as they continued to fall. Along with that, the earth around him was starting to fracture and break apart. Like the stone slab the Alatreon had broken apart when it had cornered him and Kerry earlier, the frozen spears were breaking through the obsidian rock flat, and wide, unstable cracks were spreading around the entire battlefield, turning the whole area into a dangerous spider web. Not only that, but the lava river flowing just below the surface of the battleground was shifting the separated rock slabs, tilting the surface of the Alatreon's nest and making it increasingly difficult for Levin to traverse as crooked ledges sprouted up from the ground around him. And with the ice spears continuing to fall, forcing him to dodge those as well, he was quickly running himself ragged trying to keep himself and Ellie safe.

But as before, the Alatreon's control of the falling ice twisted away. After what felt like an eternity, there was a fizzling sound which burst from the elder dragon's throat. The hissing ice mist shooting from the Alatreon's gullet abruptly snapped to a halt, replaced with a jet of flame which seared into the sky instead. The elder dragon howled in frustration, swinging its head down and shaking its skull, trying to rein in the power it was unleashing. Levin yelled in horror as a wave of flames bore down on him, and he threw himself and Ellie to the ground behind one of the jagged rocky crags the ice rain had unearthed. Ellie cried out in pain as the both of them slammed against the ground, but Levin pulled her close the rocks, wincing as the inferno the Alatreon was unleashing roared over their heads, searing heat washing over them.

Several seconds later, the Alatreon managed to rein in control over the flames, and the fire ceased blazing from the creature's mouth. With a shake of its head, the elder dragon scowled across the battlefield at the hunters. Its nest, once smooth and flat, though littered with the broken remains of its 'trophies', was now covered with hundreds of ice spears, which had left rending cracks spread around the area. Several slabs of rock were coming unhinged as well, huge chunks of stone slipping downwards into the lava river below. The Alatreon reared back, unleashing a powerful screech which seemed to split the skulls of the hunters. The earth below them shook and trembled, and the jagged cracks began to split apart even further beneath them as the earth rent apart from the force of the creature's howl. Levin stumbled as the slab he stood upon cracked in half, and he leapt back, yanking Ellie with him in fear as a gush of magma sprouted up through the gap, boiling rock spraying towards him.

The Alatreon dropped down again, slamming its talon-lined claws into the earth below it. The cracks in the rock flat around it abruptly fractured, and nearly the entire battlefield around them fell apart. The earth groaned, and shoots of magma burst into the air around them. Levin gasped as the stone beneath his feet abruptly tilted wildly, one side dipping downwards as lava gushed up from below, swallowing the slab of obsidian up. The switch axe user scrambled up the side, pulling Ellie desperately along with him, lava hissing at their feet as the chunk of rock dropped out from under them, and he dove, leaping from the edge of the rock slab just before the whole thing dipped under the magma.

Again the Alatreon reared, and smashed its talons down a second time. Levin heard Harker and Kerry yelping in fear as well. The entire battlefield around them was coming apart under them, collapsing from the force of the Alatreon's blows and being consumed in magma. And the elder dragon was still raging, smashing apart the land around it. The entire Sacred Land quaked from the force of the Alatreon's rage.

"We need to run!" Kerry cried, and Levin nodded, spinning about. The thin gap leading back to the Meridian camp they'd come from was a good fifty yards away over uneven, broken ground, and the terrain was getting worse by the second. Sparing only a moment to tighten his grip around Ellie's torso, Levin began sprinting towards the gap, as Kerry did the same with Harker several yards to his right.

The Alatreon, however, would not allow them to leave so easily. Upon seeing them attempting an escape, the elder dragon screeched in fury and charged after them, dragon element coursing across its body. Kerry yelped in horror as the beast began to curve in her and Harker's direction, and she swung about, awkwardly bringing her bowgun to bear, keeping one arm firmly wrapped around Harker. But before the huntress could fire on the beast, white mist swelled in the Alatreon's throat, and the creature fired an ice spear almost immediately at her. Kerry just barely managed to pull herself out of the way of the attack, keeping the frozen lance from piercing her through the chest, but she was not able to save her bowgun. There was a low crunching sound as the ice spear struck almost directly in the center of the bowgun, and the weapon splintered, fracturing into two and clattering to the ground, useless.

Even as Kerry stared at her ruined bowgun, dumbfounded, the Alatreon continued to charge, lumbering ever closer to her and Harker. But Harker, gathering some unknown strength despite his injuries, struggled to try and reach into his pouch to grab something, anything he could use to delay the Alatreon. But the elder dragon had seen enough of the long sword wielder's concocted devices, and howled viciously, lunging directly at the hunter. At the last moment, Kerry realized how close the elder dragon was, and pulled Harker back, trying to get him away from the Alatreon's oncoming fangs.

The Alatreon's lunge fell short, and the beast's fangs failed to clamp down on Harker. However, the elder dragon's jaw instead snapped shut around Harker's pouch, and when the creature pulled back, the satchel snapped loose from the hunter's belt. The beast chomped down on the pouch, aggressively ripping into it before realizing it had failed to grab hold of the hunter. The beast's eyes flared furiously, and fire began to swell up in the back of the creature's throat, as the Alatreon prepared to unleash another fireball at the hunters.

However, as the flames swept into the beast's maw, they struck Harker's pouch, which still rolled around on top of the Alatreon's tongue. The mad hunter must have had far more in the satchel than he'd been willing to use, because as soon as the flames swept over it, the pouch erupted, detonating in a flash of blinding light and smoke. The world seemed to vanish into nothing as whatever Harker had concocted and brought with him flared brightly, numerous blasts and bangs detonated as the Alatreon squealed in shock. Waves of predominantly green-colored smoke burst out from the elder dragon's mouth as well, washing over the battlefield and sweeping over the hunters as they continued to run. For a moment they were lost, the world vanishing around them in green haze, but Levin and Kerry pressed forward, refusing to stop, and soon enough the rock wall rose up before them, with the thin gap opening up, a dark cut through the wall.

Behind them, the detonations and bangs slowly began to die away. The hunters rushed into the thin gap as the earth began to shake once more, the furious screeching of the Alatreon blazing to life again as the beast raged, unable to find them and smashing the earth apart in its frustration.

The hunters scrambled through the thin gap, Levin dragging Ellie along just as Kerry carried Harker. The earth shivered and shook as the Alatreon rampaged behind them, stones beginning to dislodge from the walls on either side of them as they struggled through the thin opening, and a frightening groaning sound began to quake through the rocks. It felt like an eternity, with rocks pelting them from above and the ground shaking as though the earth would collapse in on itself below them. But somehow they managed to make it through, tumbling out of the gap and into the small Meridian camp. The small area was safe from the Alatreon's raging, for now at least, even though the thin gap behind them was still shaking and rocks continued to dislodge from the wall.

Both Ellie and Harker were in declining condition, each of them growing paler with each passing moment. Harker was by far the worse off of the two, the blood loss from his arm weakening him drastically, so much so it looked as though the long sword user had passed out during the course of their flight, though Ellie was getting bad as well, the thick talon wounds on her side seeping with blood. Levin and Kerry hurried to find a safe place to lay them down, before scurrying to treat their wounds.

Kerry may have had some skill in medicine, but Levin was not practiced at treating battlefield wounds, at least nothing to this extent. He struggled to get Ellie's chest piece off, first of all. The punctures in the armor, burned by lightning, were jagged and bent, and he needed to get it off. Though it was a slow process; he couldn't help but freeze every time his beloved gasped in pain when something rubbed the wounds the wrong way, looking down at her worriedly and pausing in his work. But eventually he managed to get the armor plating off of her, though he quailed at the sight of Ellie's injuries. The beast's talons had shredded through the armor as though it was nothing, and four wide talon wounds pierced into the huntress' side, bleeding profusely despite the terrible burns surrounding the wounds thanks to the lighting which had coated the Alatreon's claws when it had attacked.

To his credit, Levin did his best to patch and cover the injuries, using every scrap of gauze and bandages he still had available in his pouch. The work was messy, and though he managed to cover the wound, blood still seeped out from around the patching he'd done. Levin fumbled through his pouch desperately, searching for something, anything he could use to save Ellie, to stop the bleeding. But his potions were gone, used up during the battle or broken in the Alatreon's nest when they'd been forced to run from the Alatreon. All of Kerry's medical supplies were going to treat Harker, and everything Harker would have had went up in flames when the Alatreon had obliterated his pouch and everything in it. There was nothing! Not a single thing he could use to-

He caught sight of something, some small yellow glimmer in the bottom of his pouch. It was a vial of fluid, but for a moment he didn't recognize it, unable to recall what it was or why it was in his possession. Then he remembered: the foreign potion he'd stolen from Farren! The man that had helped him escape had forced the red potion down his throat, but Levin had kept the yellow one and forgotten about it completely. But he certainly hadn't forgotten what Farren had told him the potion was capable of. As quickly as he could, he pulled the vial from his pouch. He immediately realized the glass was cracked, and for a moment, he felt his heart freeze in his chest. But the small bottle wasn't leaking, not yet, and the fluid inside seemed to be unchanged. He supposed he would've been more shocked if the small bottle had managed to survive everything he'd gone through since escaping the Gullet without a scratch.

But now wasn't the time for thoughts like that, as carefully as he could manage, he uncorked the bottle, trying to do his best to avoid damaging the bottle at all. He leaned Ellie's head back, and slowly poured the yellow fluid down the huntress' throat. She coughed slightly, but reflex had her slowly swallowing the potions drop by drop, and a few moments later her expression became less pained, and the bleeding around her abdomen and leg began to peter out, the fluid's strange, mystic properties cinching the wounds closed somehow. He wanted to make her drink the whole thing. He wanted to be sure she'd be fine… but he knew Harker had suffered wounds just as bad, if not worse than hers, and Kerry wasn't looking so well off either…

"Take this," he gasped hoarsely, holding out the bottle to Kerry. The huntress looked up in confusion at the bottle, uncertain what it was, but Levin urged her on, pressing her to use it. In her desperation, the huntress snatched it out of his hands. Levin had intended for the bowgunner to split the remainder between herself and Harker, but without any hesitation, the huntress immediately poured the entirety of the vial into Harker's mouth, making sure every drop of it was swallowed by the long sword user. Harker grimaced and coughed as the fluid drained down his throat, and Kerry looked down at him worriedly, but the effects of the potion were almost immediate, and the hunter's gaunt face began to slowly recover its color, and the bleeding along his arm and shoulder began to recede.

"Ugh… Levin?" Levin's eyes darted back to Ellie as the huntress' eyes opened, looking for all the world as though she was on her deathbed. She looked around wearily, having trouble focusing, but soon realizing where they were. "The camp? When did we… the Alatreon… did we…"

"It's not dead yet," Levin told her miserably. "It started destroying its own nest. We had to run…"

"Oh…" Ellie nodded, and her eyebrows furrowed in frustration. She struggled to sit up, despite Levin's protests. "We can't stop though… We can't… We have to keep fighting."

Levin frowned miserably at the words, but nodded in agreement. "Yes… we do."

But what were they supposed to do? How were they supposed to stop the Alatreon? The beast had nearly prepared its crystal to hide itself away in, and they had no way of fighting against the creature! The other hunters were still off fighting the monsters they'd stayed back to fight, assuming they were still alive, and hoping they'd arrive in time was something they couldn't afford to do. Kerry's bowgun had been blasted in two, and Harker's long sword tossed away into the magma. Ellie's bowgun was still usable, but the huntress herself seemed liable to be overwhelmed and pass out from so much as a passing breeze, and was far from battle-ready. Levin was the only one whose weapon was still able to be used and had the capability to fight, though his armor was half-destroyed. But even then the Alatreon had cracked and shattered most of the bladed edges, and the sword mode of the blade was completely unusable, now that the integrity of the dragon phial had been devastated even further due to the Alatreon's fangs. Any more damage to the energy container would just as likely-

Levin paused, looking at the ruined remains of his switch axe as Ellie struggled sit upright. The sound of the Alatreon's raging could be heard behind them, but it was slowly subsiding. The groaning and cracking of the thin archway was growing ever louder, however. If they didn't do something soon, the opening would collapse, and they would be cut off from the Alatreon, and the beast could hide itself away inside of its massive blue crystal and sleep away the years until it was healed and ready to ravage the world with its rage-fueled power once more. They couldn't let that happen…

A cold, aching feeling welled up inside Levin's chest. He pulled his attention away from the broken remains of his weapon and back to Ellie. His beloved had managed to pull herself up against the rock wall now, and was taking ragged breaths and clutching her abdomen painfully. The effects of the yellow potion were startlingly powerful, but Ellie's wounds weren't healing quickly enough to get back into the fight in time. Nonetheless, the huntress was working to pull medical supplies from her pouch so she could patch her wounds a little bit better than Levin's slipshod attempt.

"We can't stop yet…" Ellie muttered, partially to herself, wrapping the gauze around her abdomen. "I still have ammo, and my bowgun's still in one piece. There's still a chance. There's still a chance for us to win. We just… we just need a plan of some kind. Maybe… maybe what we did to the Lagiacrus. Remember Levin? I shoved my ammo pouch into the Lagi's mouth and blew it up from the inside. Maybe that would work against the Alatreon too? It's got to… We can… we can do it, we just have to…"

"Ellie…" Levin whispered quietly. It was just barely audible over the rumbling of the Volcano, and the raging of the Alatreon behind them, but Ellie still heard him and looked up. Their eyes met as she frowned in confusion, clearly worried about the look on his face.

"Levin? What-"

Before she could say another word, however, Levin leaned forward and kissed her. It was soft, and quick, but to Levin, it was everything he could manage to convey in that short moment. He pulled away a second later, Ellie still looking at him in confusion, and he lowered his eyes sadly.

"I love you Ellie. More than anything in the world. I just… wanted you to know that. And… I'm sorry."

Ellie sat frozen, worry and confusion clear in her face. "Levin, what are you-" But before she could say another word, Levin leapt to his feet, quickly spinning about and rushing towards the thin gap leading back to the Alatreon's nest. Behind him, he could hear Ellie screaming in horror, realizing what he meant to do. "Levin, no! Stop! Please!"

But Levin pressed on, ignoring her pained cries and pushed into the gap in the wall. He heard Kerry begin to shout as well, and might have heard the redheaded bowgunner leap to her feet to try and stop him, but she was too late to do so. Rocks were still falling from the walls above, and several smashed against his shoulders and helmet as he rushed through, nearly stunning him, but he kept going. The rocks above him groaned and splintered, and the narrow path began to collapse in on itself. Levin struggled to get through before the gap was closed off completely, dodging falling rocks where he could and pressing through despite those that struck him. He could still hear Ellie's miserable cries behind him… but the gap was widening, opening up to the battleground before him, and he pressed on. He had already made his choice; whether it was right or wrong, he couldn't go back on it now.

The beast's nest was almost completely obliterated now. Most of the rocky terrain had been upheaved by the Alatreon's fit of fury and swept away, and only a hundred or so square yards of standing space now remained. The rest had been pulled into the lava flow and dragged under the magma or down the mountain. It seemed a miracle there was still enough land for Levin to even stand on.

The sound of clattering behind him drew his attention. Several rocks were still toppling down from above in the gap through the rocks behind him. The tremors causing the collapse had subsided for now, but not before the thin path had been nearly completely blocked off with stone and rubble. Levin had just barely made it through before an onslaught of stone had cascaded down from above, nearly burying him under its weight. He'd gotten through just in time, though he had his fair share of bruises and wounds from the effort. He had little doubt that a stray rock had cracked his shoulder during the journey. But he couldn't stop now. He had a job to do, and it was something he wouldn't lay on anyone's shoulders but his own.

The Alatreon was still where it had stood when Levin and the others had run away from it, but its rage had subsided, its tantrum finished. It was limping slowly over to the blue crystal it was building. But now… now the beast looked even worse than it had before. All four of the elements it wielded darted uncontrollably around it, control lost once more. Lightning sparked and popped along the shattered remains of its horns; each gasping breath the creature exhaled switched back and forth between fire and ice; dragon element surged along the beast's body. But there was no rhyme or reason to the elemental power. The creature, with all its wounds, and so close to madness itself, had lost control of the immense power it had once wielded freely. The elder dragon was growing increasingly unstable… Levin feared the creature's own strength would soon rip it apart at the seams.

But… there was a chance it wouldn't. There was a chance the Alatreon would recover, would be able to reign in its power and heal its wounds with time. The massive blue crystal the Alatreon was building for itself was still growing in the back of the creature's nest, and Levin could tell it was nearing completion; it was nearly big enough for the Alatreon to enter, and soon the elder dragon would be able to step inside and hide itself away until it was it fighting condition once more. And that was something Levin wouldn't allow. The creature had to die. It had to die now… and it had to die no matter what the cost.

How? The creature's voice was strained, uncomprehending and fearful. It knew Levin was there. It knew Levin was alone. How did you do this to me, human? How have you managed to damage me so much? For millennia I have existed, unmatched and untouched! And then… then you! Then you came and ruined it all! What are you?

"It wasn't just me," Levin replied, struggling as he strode towards the beast. The ground around him and the dragon was broken and unsteady, and the wounds along his leg made it a challenge to traverse the terrain. "It was all of us. Ellie… Harker and Kerry. Richard, Kai, Kei, Tenebris, Noxramus, Miller, and Jino. Marcus, Calvert, Joshua, and even Silas! Marshall, Orson, and even Filcher!

"Do you really think I could have done all this by myself? I didn't barrage you with Dragon Rounds! I couldn't protect the people of Loc Lac! I was last to join the battle in the Tower Square! I didn't build the flying dragonship! I didn't strike you with the Dragonator! I can't fly an airship! I couldn't do a thing against the World Eater! I did none of those things! It was my friends, my comrades, and all of the Lost and everyone else who fought back against you in Loc Lac! Countless others who have fought against you, now and over the centuries! We all fought against you, together! It wasn't just me! It was everyone you've wronged and threatened and hurt!

"And you… there's only just you! You're by yourself, nobody to rely on, not even the monsters you enslave and force to fight! Even the World Eater was just a tool to you! That's why you lost! It was you against everyone! Against all of humanity!"

No… no, that can't be it! The Alatreon's eyes snapped towards Levin, and the force of the elements dancing across it grew in intensity. Humans… humans are weak and pathetic! They shouldn't be able to scratch me! I have fought armies, slain countless hunters seeking my blood! No, it has to be you! It has to be! I had control! I had power! This world was mine to reign over until you came! What are you?!

"I'm… only human," Levin said quietly. "Some frail creature you decided to toy with and torment. That's all I ever was. But you never thought that was enough… not enough to beat you. But it's all I needed. It's all humanity ever needed to overcome you."

No! No, there's something more! There has to be! You… you're something else, something greater! That's the only way you could have beaten me! The Alatreon twisted towards Levin, fury and hatred in its eyes. Levin shook his head in dismay, but the elder dragon ignored it. You have something! Some hidden power I didn't know about! That's the only explanation! That's the only way you could have won! I… I will have that power! I will take this strength you have! I will make it mine, and I will be greater! I will consume you, and your power will belong to me! I will eat you! I will devour you whole, human! And when I release myself from the crystal, I will bring endless suffering to all of humanity! The Alatreon reared back, screeching a roar to the sky. Levin groaned in agony as the sound pierced his skull. The terrain shivered around him, and the rocky earth split and shattered as the Alatreon's howl fractured it, making geysers of magma puncture even more holes into the terrain.

Before Levin could even recover from the creature's howl, the Alatreon was charging towards him, its mouth gaping open, preparing to snap down on him and keep its promise to consume him. But the beast, even in its rage, was finally wearing down, its body beginning to fail it, and had lost much of the speed and dexterity it had possessed. Levin just barely managed to swing his switch axe around in time, smashing the blade of his weapon against the elder dragon's skull, knocking the beast's aim off just enough that only the creature's tusks managed to nick Levin, grazing against his shoulder as the beast rushed past him. But while the beast's fangs missed their mark, the rest of the Alatreon was still charging, hardly losing momentum even when the weapon struck it, and Levin cried out in pain as the elder dragon's foreleg clipped him, smashing the hunter backwards and driving him to the ground.

In a flash, the beast was on top of him, its fangs snapping viciously as the Alatreon tried to snap its jaw around the hunter. Flames and ice licked the lips of the elder dragon as the beast tried to devour Levin, completely out of the Alatreon's control, delirium twisting through the creature's eyes. Levin scrambled to push himself out from under the beast, but the Alatreon was too quick and deranged to be dissuaded. In his struggle to escape, Levin kicked out at the creature, slamming his greaves into the Alatreon's snout. But the elder dragon was unperturbed, and with a howl, the Alatreon twisted its head around and clamped its fangs down onto Levin's right leg. Levin screamed in agony as the beast's fangs tore through the Rathian scale plating, ripping into his flesh.

Before the elder dragon could fully rip Levin's leg from his body, however, Levin managed to pull his switch axe around, swinging an awkward blow at the Alatreon's skull. The strike was off-balanced and painfully inaccurate, hitting the beast against where its scales were still whole and sturdy. But the blow landed just above the Alatreon's tusk, clashing against the beast's scales and sending a spray of sparks up towards the elder dragon's eye. Immediately the black beast howled in horror, reeling backwards in fear of losing its only remaining eye and shaking its head to rid itself of the sparks.

Levin struggled to his feet, but nearly dropped to his knees again as the pain in his leg spiked. He cursed, looking down; blood poured from the bite wounds that wrapped around his leg, painting his greaves in red, but what worried him was that another segment of his armor had been torn away by the Alatreon's fangs. This time better part of the Rathian armor which had covered his right leg had been ripped apart, a clean line between where the Deviljho parts connected to each other severing around the side just over the knee, leaving only dangling scraps of Rathian hide waving in the hot wind around him. Damn it all, why hadn't Silph done a better job patching his armor?

But he glumly supposed it didn't matter, not with what he had planned. As the Alatreon continued to struggle, Levin rushed over to the stone wall behind him. He limped all the way, until he stood next to the blue crystal, which glowed brightly and continued to grow ever so slowly. Levin planted himself a few yards in front of the azure gem, preparing himself. If the Alatreon charged him now, the beast couldn't go full speed, not without running the risk of crashing headlong into the crystal, and at slower speeds, Levin could be more accurate. Admittedly, with the elder dragon as maddened as it was now, there was a chance the beast would still charge at him with no care of consequence… but that was a risk Levin had to take.

"You wanted to eat me, then come on!" Levin roared. "Eat me! I'm right here! Could you not stomach me once you'd gotten a taste? Are your eyes bigger than your stomach, dragon? Or should I say 'eye'?"

The elder dragon screeched furiously, its eye blazing with fury and madness. Again the Alatreon charged, and Levin braced himself; the beast was going slower than before, as he'd hoped, wary of smashing the crystal! He might actually get this to work! Levin swung his switch axe around, holding it in a thrusting position, and as the black beast grew close, he tripped the activation lever, and the dragon phial burst to life once more. Steam hissed from the weapon as the blade shifted to its sword mode, and dragon element jolted along the switch axe from the broken phial, making Levin wince in pain as the energy seared him. The Alatreon was still bearing down on him, however, and the beast's maw opened wide as it lunged. At that moment Levin thrust his blade forward, piercing its straight into the jaw of the elder dragon.

The Alatreon screeched, sliding to an abrupt halt as the jagged barbs of the switch axe's blade bit into the flesh of the beast's maw, shattering the creature's fangs, tearing flesh from the roof of its mouth, and gouging into its tongue. Levin twisted the blade, wrenching it even tighter into the elder dragon's maw and prying the beast's mouth open. The Alatreon snapped into head to the side, trying to free the blade from where it was lodged, and Levin was swung about along with it, smashing again and again across the glowing crystal the Alatreon had pressed him up against. The hunter cried out in pain, but refused to release the hilt of his weapon, even as the jagged edges of the blue stone tore against his armor and piercing his exposed flesh.

But Levin was smashed into the hot stone below him as the Alatreon's legs gave out from underneath it. He could feel the blue crystal behind him fluctuating, the growth of the stone trying to latch hold of his armor, but Levin pulled away quickly; he couldn't allow himself to get sucked into the crystal, not now. The elder dragon dropped to its knees painfully, groaning as its wounds overwhelmed it, its inability to feel pain no longer keeping it moving, and struggling gasps heaved from the creature's mouth, spraying a mist of the Alatreon's dark blood onto Levin. Levin was gasping himself; his whole body was in pain, battered and beaten from being tossed about by the creature, but somehow his palms still clutched the hilt of his switch axe.

The elder dragon heaved, tugging on the blade wedged in its mouth, trying to free itself, but it was to no avail. It couldn't even gather the strength to overpower Levin anymore, and the hunter's grip on the hilt of the blade kept the beast's head low. No! Damn you! Release me! Release me now! The crystal… the crystal! I have to get inside! I can't die!

But Levin ignored the creature's screams and pushed himself to his feet. The Alatreon was struggling to stand as well, but its body was no longer listening to its commands. Levin's left hand continued to grasp firmly to the hilt of his switch axe, and as he glared into the Alatreon's eye, as his right hand reached forward and pulled the release on the switch axe's dragon phial.

A terrible, penetrating screeching sound ripped through the battleground as the dragon phial activated its energy stores. The power seared through the glass tube, pulsing at the cracks as the volatile energy within surged through the shattered gaps, and pure dragon element jumped from the phial, lancing out and smashing into the earth around Levin and the Alatreon. The phial shook violently within its container as the deadly energy tried to break free of the container which held it, threatening to shatter the glass completely with every passing second. Levin screamed in pain as red and black bolts of energy shot through the hilt of the weapon, searing into his flesh and charring his armor.

But with as much of the dragon element streaking through the cracks in the phial and back through the hilt, so much more of the energy was roaring through the blade of the switch axe, erupting through the tubes and conduits and blasting out into the Alatreon's mouth. The very weapon itself was splintering apart from the sheer force of energy bursting forth from the phial, tearing through the elder dragon's flesh and bone and searing the elder dragon alive. A horrified scream ripped through Levin's mind as the dragon element coursed through the Alatreon's mouth and head.

No! No! Stop! Stop this! What is this? What are you doing to me? What is this feeling? Is this pain? It hurts! Oh, mercy it hurts! Please! Please stop! I don't want this!

But the safeties of the phial were gone, smashed to pieces by the World Eater and the fangs of the Alatreon, and the phial was continuing to pump out more and more of the energy. With every passing second, more of the dragon energy was pouring into the Alatreon's maw and skull. And the Alatreon's screams continued to grow more and more pained and desperate, until the creature's very screeches were little more than agonized howling from a creature that had not felt true pain in countless years.

But it wasn't enough. Not nearly enough. The dragon phial was bursting at the seams, tearing itself and the switch axe apart from the sheer force it was unleashing, but there wasn't enough being released. Not yet. The Alatreon could still survive this. Levin had to do more. And he already knew how. The dragon phial was supposed to be unbreakable by anything short of an elder dragon or something equivalent in power, but in the state the phial was in right now… Levin reached forward with his right hand, into the Alatreon's maw, and grasped hold of the phial.

The hunter had to bite off a scream as the searing dragon element blazed into his flesh through the cracks in the phial. He could feel his skin burning away with each passing second, and watched in horror as the black energy blackened his flesh and charred his fingers. Bolts of dragon element lanced out through the cracks in the phial, tearing jagged lines through the flesh on Levin's arm, and smashing against his armor. But he had to ignore the pain and press through it. He steeled himself, and squeezed down on the phial with his bare hands.

He had been right; he could feel the phial beginning to splinter even further, even under his own dwindling strength. The phial began to release even more energy than it had been before, and black jets of flame began to blaze from the cracks in the phial. Levin could feel the energy burning holes through his hand, and the pain was so intense he knew he was likely to pass out soon. But he had to press on! He was so close! He could feel the phial crumbling! He could hear the Alatreon screaming in agony!

Argh! Please! Stop! It hurts so much! Please, I beg you! Spare me! I don't want to die! Please! Something! Anything! Save me, please!

Levin winced as the Alatreon's mental bond burst to life in his mind as the elder dragon reached out desperately, trying to find some sort of monster that would be able to save its life. Rathalos, Agnaktor, Uragaan, and more. Even the smaller beasts, Rhenoplos and Uroktor, and even Bnahabra and Aptonoth. Levin watched as the Alatreon screeched desperately, trying to find some living creature that it could summon to its aid. But there were none close by, none that were anywhere near enough to help.

But Levin's attention went somewhere else. He realized the Alatreon's bond also let him see all of the humans who were in the Sacred Land as well. All the hunters and those aboard the airship… Levin could sense them all. Though wounded and weary, one and all, they were all still alive somehow… that was good to know. But his attention went to those who were closest to him, to those who were in the camp just below the Alatreon's nest.

Harker was slipping in and out of consciousness. Levin's closest friend, the tall, lanky hunter who was madder than any other person he'd met, lay wounded on the ground, gasping in pain. His arm was coated in countless layers of bandages and gauze, but still there were dots of red seeping through the wrappings. Under his short, messy blonde hair, his face was gaunt and pale, and the thin goggles he used to see had thin cracks cutting across them. Even in near unconsciousness though, the hunter looked as though he was muttering wearily, talkative to the last.

Kerry was kneeling nearby. The huntress, one of the most beautiful that Levin had ever met, looked weary beyond belief. She seemed the least damaged out of them all, but her soft grey eyes were haunted and sad, and her long red hair, braided tightly and trailing down her back, had been badly burned during the battle. She had always been one of the most compassionate and motherly people Levin had ever known, and seeing her friends, as well as the man she loved, in such broken condition had to be heartbreaking for such a caring person. Levin hoped she didn't blame herself for any of this; he knew how much the huntress feared her 'curse' and the damage she worried it would cause to those she loved.

Then Levin's attention focused on Ellie, the woman he loved. He could clearly see her through the bond. Her dark brown hair was matted with sweat, dirt, and thin trails of blood, and though once tied back, it had fallen loose during the fighting and now trailed against her shoulders. Her vibrant green eyes were now bloodshot, and tears poured from her eyes. The wound along her side was growing agitated, as the huntress was standing near the blocked off path leading to the Alatreon's nest, clawing at the stones and trying to force her way through, despite her chest plate lying on the ground several yards away. He could feel her emotions, the pain and fear, and the terrible, miserable sadness and desperation going through her. Levin regretted leaving her behind like that… but he couldn't let her die. He wouldn't allow it as long as he had the power to do so. At least she would live through all this.

On impulse he brushed his consciousness against hers, and suddenly they could see each other. Ellie's eyes widened in realization, and Levin knew she could see what he intended to do. He could feel her arguments, everything she would say to dissuade him, every argument she had to counter his decisions. But there was no turning back for him, not right now, no matter what Ellie tried to say. Even through the bond, Levin could feel his hand burning away, and it reminded him he still had to do what he had come there to do. He opened his mouth to speak to her, before the end…

But the bond cut off as the Alatreon's strength began to fade. The elder dragon was gasping and wheezing in pain from the dragon element burning into its skull. The creature's voice was gone; the beast didn't even have the strength to speak with Levin through the bond anymore, and could only send a feeling of fear and pleading. But Levin was growing weak as well. He would have to finish this before his strength gave out for good.

He looked up at the Alatreon's face, into the beast's remaining eye. There was so much emotion there, for a monster. Desperation, pain, fear, horror; and as the Alatreon stared back at Levin, there was an immense pleading in the beast's eyes, begging Levin to let it live, begging for its life to be spared. But the elder dragon would not survive this, not after everything it had done, not after everything it had promised to do. Levin closed his eyes for a moment, remembering the image he'd seen of Ellie, how beautiful she'd looked to him, even covered in blood and ash, and so fearful and pleading. It was a nice image to think about now, though he wished she could have been happy and calm. He opened his eyes again and looked the Alatreon in the eye one last time.

"Goodbye," he said quietly, before using the last of his strength and squeezing down on the dragon phial.

The phial shattered.

The dragon energy roared free of its container immediately, growing from a searing jet of flame blazing into the Alatreon's gullet into a tsunami of unrelenting fury, washing over the elder dragon in a massive blast of energy. The Alatreon screamed in agony, the bond opening up between them once more, a mind-rending shriek which ripped across the battleground, and perhaps even the entire mountain, as the dragon energy washed over it and through it.

The elder dragon's head and face were seared and charred by the element almost immediately, as the dragon element boiled and burned through the Alatreon's skull. Almost immediately, the dragon flames blazed through the elder dragon's eyes, reducing the red orbs to cinders instantly before black fire blazed from the creature's sockets, all while the creature continued to writhe in agony. The dragon energy surged down into the creature's gullet as well in a massive cascade of energy. The Alatreon's body began to glow as the deep energy coursed through its body, incinerating its innards and boiling it alive from the inside out. More of the dragon element gushed out of the creature's body through the beast's numerous wounds, burning the Alatreon's hide as jets of the energy blazed from the beast's body. Soon the creature's body was coated in its own layer of dragon element, as the World Eater had, though this one was searing the Alatreon alive.

But even now, the Alatreon refused to die, and continued to screech in pain as the dragon energy razed its body. However, its belly and chest began to expand from within it, even as the intensity of the flame jets bursting from the Alatreon's body grew more ferocious. Even through the pain the creature was already suffering, the elder dragon's cries and screams grew even more pained. There was a terrible, sickening ripping sound, and the Alatreon's chest and belly were torn apart, split down the middle like a cut piece of leather. An inferno of dragon element poured from the massive wound which had been ripped across the Alatreon's body, smashing into the earth below and washing over the rocks, charring the very stones from the heat and energy. There was no blood or innards that fell from the Alatreon's body; there was only the dragon element.

Finally, the Alatreon's screaming and howling faded, as dragon element continued to blaze from its pores. The beast's body stiffened for but a moment longer, and then the creature grew slack. The bond, that terrible connection Levin had with the elder dragon for so long, vanished like smoke in the wind. There was a feeling of emptiness that followed, and Levin realized the bond had been severed for good. The Alatreon's head drooped, the shattered horns of the beast scraping against Levin's armor, and the elder dragon collapsed, finally dead.

Then the dragon element lashed backwards. The mechanisms inside the switch axe had initially directed most of the raging inferno of dragon element into the Alatreon's body, but the weapon had suffered enough, and the crystalline structure of the weapon tore itself apart, allowing the power of the dragon phial to blaze free, ripping out of the Alatreon's mouth in a rush of pure black energy.

Time slowed down for Levin as he watched the massive wave of dragon energy crawl through the air towards him. There was no pain, just like Umbre had promised. It was almost… interesting to watch. His right hand was already burnt and blackened from the force of the dragon element, and his arm was in little better condition, but now the pure energy was literally tearing him apart. It was a slow process, almost relaxing in its arduous nature. As the black flames washed over him, Levin watched as it broke him apart, piece by piece, atom by atom. It was as though he was made of sand, falling apart as the flames touched him, into little grains which swirled away into the blackness of the dragon element, before the energy devoured even the specks into non-existence.

The black flames continued to eat away at his outstretched arm, devouring flesh and bone and incinerating it into nothingness. His hand was gone quickly, already blackened and charred from the burning earlier, but the flames continued to cover him, pushing on to consume his wrist, then his forearm, then his elbow, then his bicep. His arm had simply… vanished into the dark flames, dissolving away into nothingness.

Levin had seen enough. There was no point in watching the rest. He had known it would come to this from the second he reentered the battleground, and had accepted what would happen along with it. The dragon flames would destroy him in an instant, and it would all be over.

He closed his eyes, picturing Ellie's face in his mind, and let the dragon element wash over him.

"Damn it all, keep flying! I don't care if it's the fires of Hell itself below us, we have to get up there!"

"I do be knowin' that!" Captain Marcus snapped viciously as Silas glowered at him.

"This ship's hardly in any shape to fly right now," Calvert told the man. "There are more holes in the helm than I'd dream of flying with otherwise, and the blimp is held together with thread and hopeful wishing. Not to mention the heat and weather of the Sacred Land are not being gentle with us right now! We're going as fast as we can, so shut up and keep out of the way!"

"An' one o' ya get these damn fool injured hunters below deck!" Marcus bellowed, making several crewmen jump. Nobody made a move to do as they were ordered, however, and Marcus cursed viciously, before turning his attention back to his flying. Despite his orders, the seven hunters the airship had managed to recover so far refused to relocate themselves below deck, and none of the crewmen felt enthusiastic enough to try and make them at the moment, even those hunters who were exceptionally wounded.

The balloon had been repaired in fair time, though not nearly as quickly as anyone aboard had hoped it would, and the ship had taken off almost as soon as possible, taking only enough time to dislodge the Dragonator lance from the machinery which held it, before flying off in search of the hunters who had braved the dangers of the Sacred Land. The massive weapon had pierced a stone wall when they'd crashed, and there was simply no removing it, so they'd done the only thing they could: detached the weapon entirely and carried on without it. The entire crew had seen the flashes of black lightning and heard thunderous explosions on the horizon as they'd taken flight, but they had little choice but to charge after them, in hopes of providing some sort of aid to the hunters.

They recovered Jino, Tenebris, Noxramus, and Miller first, finding the hunters gathered together on a large rock flat, recovering next to a large rock slide. The crew had been horrified at the sight of the half-buried body of the creature, which Jino had called the 'Zinogre', and the condition of the hunters and how two of them were lacking their weapons, but that made little difference to the hunters. The beast was dead now, and the hunters enthusiastically encouraged the crew of the ship to hurry and press on so they could aid the rest of the hunters in the battle against the Alatreon. With little choice, they'd done just that, regaining altitude and pressing further up the mountain.

They'd nearly missed Richard, Kai and Kei. The three were huddled together on a narrow path overhanging a tall, harrowing drop. Likely they would never have found the trio at all if one of the crew hadn't caught sight of the bloody remains of some massive blue beast at the bottom of the cliff, broken and dead from the long fall. Kei had managed to catch the airship's attention by throwing several smoke bombs off the ledge, catching the crew's attention. It had taken some careful flying on Marcus' part to swing the airship close enough to the cliff to recover the hunters without tearing the blimp against the jagged stone, and they'd had to be extremely cautious in getting Richard aboard. The longsword user was barely conscious and badly wounded, and seemed to be heavily doped on potions to fight a massive blast wound which covered the right side of his body.

Few of the hunters were in fighting condition anymore. The crew had treated them to the best of their abilities, but there was little they could do for some of them without a real doctor on board. Richard was the worst off, having taken a direct hit from the explosive creature they'd described fighting and suffered several broken ribs from the attack.

Miller, Jino, and Kai had all lost their weapons, and both Jino and Kai were suffering from wounds they'd received fighting their respective monster opponents. Tenebris, Nox, and Kei were the only ones in fighting form anymore, though Nox seemed to be suffering rather badly from Dragonblight. He'd apparently acted as defender for most of the battle with the Zinogre, suffering numerous hits of dragon element with his shield to defend the others. Tenebris was battered, but was ready to go once she'd scavenged more ammunition from below deck, and Kei had been spared from much damage, though she was extremely exhausted from her battle and their attempt at fleeing from the beast.

But all of the seven hunters, battle-ready or not, refused to be taken below deck to recover. Every last one demanded to remain on deck as the airship pressed on, heading closer and closer to where the Alatreon's nest awaited. Already they could hear the raging of the beast in battle as they pressed further up the mountain. They'd been horrified when a blast of ice in the distance had coated the sky in white tendrils, as it had when the airship had been knocked out of the sky, but this time the effect of the ice storm seemed to have been centralized, and they could only watch in fear as the storm raged over the Alatreon's nest. The ice rain had ended not too long ago, perhaps only ten minutes, and the engines were roaring at full tilt, trying to get the ship there in time, but just didn't seem to be getting there quickly enough for any of them. They could hear the Alatreon raging, even from their distance, though that was hardly any comfort. But they were finally closing in now, getting close to the Alatreon's nest for certain. A pale blue glow was growing just over the next rock wall, and the airship was closing in on it.

"I can see a camp down there!" Tenebris called from the bow of the ship, pointing down just below the outcropping. "I think there are people there!"

"How many?" Richard rasped desperately, grunting from pain from the strain on his ribs. "Are they all there? All four of them?"

"I don't know," the huntress replied, squinting. "It's too far away… we have to get down there to try and-"

A deep, apocalyptic explosion abruptly ripped across the Sacred Land, and the world grew darker around them. A heavy shockwave smashed against the side of the ship, and almost everyone on deck was knocked off their feet, sent tumbling across the deck. Several of the crew members were nearly thrown off the side, down into the magma flows below them, had their lines not held or their fellow crewmen grabbed hold of them, keeping them aboard. Marcus was cursing, spinning the wheel frantically and trying to regain control of the ship. It was nearly a minute of stressful panic on the ship before Marcus managed to regain control of the airship, leveling out and turning the ship back towards the camp Tenebris had caught sight of. Those on deck pushed themselves back to their feet painfully, but were stunned to silence by what they saw on the horizon.

On the far side of the rock outcropping was a massive tower of deep black smoke and ash, rolling skyward in a terrible mushroom cloud. Deep red and black flames rolled through the smoke, and bolts of dark energy coursed throughout, sometimes lashing out and striking nearby rock formations. As the flames and ash climbed up over the very peak of the mountain, the dark cloud began to spread outwards, widening over the Sacred Land. Deep red flames continued to roll through the ash, giving the entire eruption a horrifying, demonic feel, as black and red bolts of lightning lanced down from the cloud, smashing apart stone and earth wherever they struck.

Marcus was the first to recover, shouting orders to the crew as terrible winds crashed against the side of the ship. Several of the hunters yelped in surprise as a sinister black mist spread over the deck. When the mist licked against their armor, dark energy jumped across their metal plating, making the hunters dodge away as clouds and swells of the mist washed across the deck.

"Dragon energy…" Jino murmured fearfully. "What the blazes was that?"

"I doubt the Alatreon could muster the power to concoct an explosion like that in the condition it was in…" Miller replied thoughtfully. "An enraged monster is a fearful thing, but something like that is far beyond what's to be expected. It's certainly never shown such power, even during its raid on Loc Lac…"

"Does that really matter right now?" Kei asked irately. "We need to get down there and help our friends! We can worry about whatever made that explosion later!"

"The lass be right!" Marcus shouted. "Any fool what be stayin' on deck, brace yerselves! We be headin' down there through hell or high water!"

The Captain spun the wheel, sweeping the ship into a downward arc, dropping towards the cliffs below in the direction of the camp Tenebris had spotted. Rough, devastating winds buffeted the ship as it swept lower, and the air grew hot and sickly. Dragon energy filled the air, churning around them like static, invisible but dangerous, and the hunters cursed occasionally as their armors sporadically sparked with the dark element. But Marcus pressed them on, down further towards the base of the rock outcropping, where the camp was slowly coming into view.

It was rough flying however, even worse now with the turbulence battering them from the explosion rising up into the sky so close to them. The airship weaved closer and closer to the outcropping, but with every few feet they got closer to the campsite, the rushing of winds and the turbulence around them only grew worse. And the dragon element, thick in the air, certainly wasn't improving things, making sparks of the dark element jump across any metal surface on the ship with increasing frequency the longer time went on. Marcus' cursing at the helm grew ever more frequent, and it appeared pulling the airship close to the camp would be impossible in these conditions.

But a chill wind suddenly pushed across the side of the airship, rippling the cloth of the blimp and making the hunters blink in surprise. Their eye lifted skyward, and they realized the barrier of ash and smoke which encircled the peak of the Volcano was churning and pulsing oddly. Currents of ash were twisting about in strange, unnatural patterns which didn't match the flow patterns it had been following previously. It fluctuated wildly, as though whatever power had been binding it together was wavering.

With a shiver akin to a sigh of relief, the ash barrier vanished. The clouds fell apart, the warm winds of the south pressing through the barrier and dissipating it. It a matter of seconds, the smoke was carried off, opening up the sky above them and clearing the view down the side of the mountain down into the flatlands below. There was a rush as the cool wind blowing in from the desert to the north which swept the remnants of the ash clouds across the peak on the mountain, making those aboard the ship blink painfully as several wisps swept over their eyes. But now the skies were clear, the stars above them glittering brightly alongside the glowing moon. Only the ash and smoke still billowing out from the peak of the mountain and the blast zone just beyond the rock wall in front of them continued to churn into the sky, but the southeastern wind carried it all away, safely away from the surrounding terrain.

In a short few moments, the air had become infinitely easier to fly through, and nearly all of the turbulence surrounding them vanished. With nothing more barring his way, Marcus swept the ship low, lowering down until the ship was hovering just over the tip of the rocky overhang of the campground. Shouts from the crew bounced off the rocks as those on deck leapt from the ship, hoisting hawsers and tying the ship down to sturdy rocks to keep the flying machine in place. The engines grew quieter as they were revved down, and there was a clattering of the gangplank as the wooden boards were swung quickly into place, allowing descent from the ship for the hunters. Tenebris, Nox, and Kei were the only hunters who left the ship, being the only ones healthy enough and armed enough for battle. The others were forced to stay behind, watching from the deck as the three trekked into the camp, with several wary crewmen following behind them.

It didn't take long for them to reach the hunters, after ascertaining the camp was relatively safe for now. They reached Harker first; the long sword wielder was unconscious, his face pale and one arm completely wrapped in bandages. His breathing was slightly strained, but he didn't seem to be on death's door as it had been feared.

Ellie and Kerry however… Ellie was on the far side of the campsite, kneeling on the ground near a pile of rubble, sobbing quietly in short gasps, as though she had no more breath in her to do anything more. She was wearing only her underclothes from the waist up, her Silver Rathalos chest plate strewn to the side. Winding bandages and gauze wrapped around her torso and waist, spotted with dark blood. Kerry was next to her, her arms wrapped tightly around the other huntress, though to those watching it seemed both an act of comfort and one of restraining. The reason became clear enough upon inspection: Ellie's fists were battered, blood pouring freely from the cuts and gashes that were torn into the skin on her hands. And in front of them, where a pile of rocks had completely closed off a thin gap in the rock wall, splatters and specks of blood were splashed across the stones, as well as covering numerous rocks littering the ground around the gap.

Kerry looked up wearily at the hunters and crew as they approached. Her own eyes were red and tear-stained, but she nodded to them as they approached, motioning to the huntress in her arms. No questions were asked of her, not yet, and without a word the crewmen who had come off the ship quickly gathered Ellie up. The huntress put up a minor fight, demanding they let go, saying she needed to get through the crevice, but she was utterly fatigued, and it proved little matter for several crewmen to gather her up and carry her up the gangplank and onto the ship. Kerry watched them take her for a moment, before standing up once more and walking over to Harker, where one of the crewmen was pouring several potions down the hunter's throat.

"Three," Nox muttered quietly, looking between the hunters. The word was simple, but painfully heavy. "Only three hunters here… Where's Levin? Where-"

"He went back in." The hunters turned at the rasping, weary voice. Kerry was looking up at them from beside Harker, her face tear-stained and blotchy with dried blood. She sniffled, rubbing her nose and looking back at them despairingly. "He went back in by himself to finish off the Alatreon. That explosion… the phial on his switch axe was damaged. He must… he must have intentionally broken it. He must have known what would happen… but he still…" The huntress went silent, and a cold quiet filled the campsite. The sound was only broken by the choked sobbing of Ellie as the huntress was carried below deck by the crew of the ship. Kerry looked bleakly towards the sound. "It's just… it's just like the Veggie Elder told her…"

"What do you mean?" Tenebris asked fearfully, and Kerry looked at the other huntress miserably.

"The Veggie Elder… he told her that Levin would leave her to die. And he did… but not in the way we thought. He left her… to die."

"And… and the Alatreon?" Tenebris asked, looking up at the towering smoke cloud which rose from just beyond the rock wall. But Kerry shook her head despairingly.

"I don't know," she whispered hoarsely. "I just… I don't…"

"Leave the poor girl alone," Calvert said sternly, striding down the plank. "They've been through enough. Just get them below deck for now. We've got… other things to accomplish for now. One last mission to finish."

The hunters and crew in the camp nodded solemnly at the words, and made to get Kerrigan and Harker onto the ship. In a couple short minutes, the hunters were carefully carried aboard, both of them taken below deck to have their injuries seen to and treated. But the rest of the crew had other concerns. Barking orders at the crew, Marcus cast them off, and the engines rolled to life. Though they flew cautiously, swinging wide and around the side of the rock wall, rather than over it. They dared not fly too high, not if there was a chance at the Alatreon still being alive.

"You sure you three are up for this?" Jino asked. Tenebris, Noxramus, and Kai all nodded solemnly at the query. Jino frowned and shook his head in frustration, grimacing and rubbing his shoulder as the injury flared. "Damn it all… young hunters like yourselves shouldn't be doing this all on your own… I'm the old dog here, if anyone's going to risk it all, it should be me. Damn, if I hadn't lost my weapon…"

"How do you think I feel?" Kai muttered worriedly. "My sister's going off to fight the Alatreon and all I can do is stand here uselessly…"

"We have to make certain it's dead," Tenebris replied sternly. "If there's even a chance the Alatreon's alive, we have to be sure of it." Those on deck looked at each other uncomfortably at the words. To think the Alatreon would still be alive after so much… but the elder dragon had been immortal to them up until a couple months ago. Imagining the beast dead was a challenge for almost all of them.

But Kei nodded enthusiastically at the words, and smiled encouragingly at her twin. "Don't worry Kai… I'm sure after everything we've done to the Alatreon, if it is still alive, it will just be cleanup for us three."

Nox nodded solemnly at the words. "And if the dragon is dead, then… at the very least, maybe there's a chance Levin is alive… Maybe, through some miracle… We have to at least try, don't we? We should at least check…"

"I'm going as well." The hunters turned in surprise at the voice, and Silas stepped forward, an adamant expression on his face. The man had a rookie's light bowgun strung across his back, and a satchel of ammunition around his waist, though he wore no armor. The hunters looked at each other in confusion, but before they could say a word, the man raised a hand. "I'm sick of sitting on the sidelines for all this, even if it means I have to take up one of these damnable hunters' weapons. I doubt I'll be much use in a fight… But if the Alatreon is dead, I'd like to see it with my own two eyes. And besides… if a Lost was the one to slay the beast once and for all, I wish to ensure his survival. Our people cannot afford to lose such a vital persona." Still the hunters were uncertain, but Silas scowled at them. "I'm not making a request! If you're going in, then I am as well."

The hunters looked at each other dubiously, but several of the crewmen were encouraged by the words. Silas seemed shocked as several of the crew slapped him on the back enthusiastically, rekindled respect in their eyes. Tenebris looked openly ready to argue, but with the crew shouting and cheering on their employer, she couldn't get a word in.

"Fine!" Tenebris groaned. "But don't get in our way if things go sour!"

"Oh, you needn't worry about that, huntress," Silas growled, and the pair glared irately at each other before Tenebris turned back to stare in the direction they flew.

It didn't take long for the airship to loop around the side of the rock wall, and the battleground on the other side came into view. There was little to see, however. As far as those on deck could tell, there was little to see, save for a thin strip of land which looped around the edge of the area, creating a wide crescent arc of obsidian. The far end of the Alatreon's nest was out of sight, however, as thick, rolling clouds churned into the sky in front of them, blocking their view completely of anything that lay beyond them. The ship slowed to a halt as close as it could to the edge of the battleground, setting down and throwing the gangplank over the side, at the very tip of the rock flat. Those heading down into the nest looked around nervously, before gathering their courage and setting off.

Tenebris and Nox were the first hunters off of the ship and out into the rock flat beyond, followed by Kei and Silas. There was little to see at first as they pressed deeper, looping wide around the lava pits and dancing cautiously around the unstable rocks under them; ash and dust coated the entire arena, lingering from the explosion, and there was hardly anywhere they could go which wasn't overrun with lava or broken away and swept down the mountain. Dark flames, lingering dragon element, licked up across the rocks around them, burning from some unknown fuel, and lingering sparks of black lightning jumped around the landscape, searing the rocks and stone. The hunters looked around fearfully, searching for some path they could take to figure out what had happened. But another light breeze kicked up, flowing across the rocks, pushing away the smoke.

Their hearts sank at the sight uncovered before them. A massive, smoking crater had been blasted into the side of the Volcano. Rock and stone had been uprooted, and magma thrown back from the force of the detonation. Now a wide, curved hole at least eighty yards wide sat against the far side of the arena, dropping several yards down into the earth. Rocks and boulders lined the crater, like wicked teeth of some sinister jaw, tightly bound together and keeping the flow of lava on the far side from pouring in. For a long minute, no one moved, too stunned by the sight to brave themselves any further. Kei was the first to continue, pressing towards the edge of the massive blast zone and looking in, and soon the others followed, emboldened enough to press on.

It was hard to see what lie in wait at the core of the hole. Despite the new wind brushing the side of the mountain, the center of the crater still smoked with the same intensity of the Volcano itself, sending ash clouds billowing up towards the peak. But whatever was down there was cooling off, starting to become visible. Only two things could be seen through the gaps in the smoke, however. The first was a wide, blue crystal, at least five yards tall, which appeared to be steaming slightly. The whole thing had been blasted to pieces by the force of the explosion, and only a few chunks of large size remained. There was barely any glow from within the gemstones, they all appeared faded and dead, and the entire thing was fracturing apart into pieces even as they watched, shards and fragments clattering to the earth around its base and piling up along the sides.

The second was the still-smoking body of the Alatreon. The beast was a horror to look at now, it's flesh cooking from the heat and steam rising from its twisted and misshapen form. Its boiled body was something few could bear to look at. But look they did, at the ruined remains of the elder dragon with had so haunted their species. And for so long, they couldn't bear to look away.

The only sign of anything else in the ruined remains was the smoking hilt of a weapon, jutting crookedly from the mouth of the Alatreon's corpse.

"What are you waiting for?" Silas asked harshly, snapping them out of their reverie. They looked at him, confused, and he growled angrily. "Levin, you fools! We're supposed to be searching for him! So get down there and find him!" Silas barked at the hunters. But the three of them hesitated, looking between themselves hopelessly.

"That blast was more powerful than anything I've seen before," Nox said solemnly, his voice low and emotionless. "It boiled the Alatreon alive. What chance did Le… what chance does a hunter have of surviving such a thing?"

Silence covered the group, broken only by the churning of the engines behind them and the roar of the Volcano. Looks of misery and hopelessness covered the faces of the hunters. Silas shook his head. "I don't care about that. Look for him anyway. Just in case. You owe him. This country owes him that much for what he's done! So go! At least look! And if you can't find him…" The man grew silent, looking between the hunters. "If you can't do that… at least find something for us to bury."

"Despair for the conceited… this is the end you wished for." - Truth, Fullmetal Alchemist

Author's Note: Please Review! I hope some of you get the context for the quotes at the start and end of the chapter… Anyway, look forward to the next chapter.

Well, for those of you who haven't heard yet, MH4 is finally getting a western release! Capcom plans to release Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate in western countries sometime in early 2015. At the rate my writing is going, The Lost Civilization should be complete sometime in March or early April, so I'll have a good year to rest from writing before the next game comes out. If I ever get around to writing a sequel, it would likely occur after playing 4U and having time to develop a more cohesive story. Also, I've been watching a few videos of the MH Online Beta, and sweet mercy, those graphics are stunning. I hope that the console and handheld MH games will have graphics like that in the generation after 4.

Reading: Horimiya by Hero, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Itou-san by Aki Eda, Ava's Demon by Michelle Czajkowski, Kyoukai Senjou no Rinbo by Tottori Sakyuu, Dogs: Bullets and Carnage by Miwa Shirow, Maoyuu Maou Yuusha by Touno Mamare
Playing: Pokemon X, Bravely Default
Listening: Radical Face, Joshua Radin, Beirut, Blind Guardian, Revolutions Podcast, History of Rome Podcast, Mika, Relient K
Watching: .hack/SIGN