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. Edgar belongs to A Jack Frost Guy, (you didn't think I forgot, did you?).

Edited by: Hoenn Master96

Music and cheering filled the streets of Loc Lac as the moon rose full and bright over the desert city at night. Every main street in the city was lit brightly with high-burning oil lamps and bonfires, making the hunting city positively glow with a wonderful brightness which could be seen for miles outside the towering walls surrounding it.

It had been only two and a half short months since the Alatreon had attacked the city, and everywhere you looked, you could see lingering destruction. But nearly every soul, save a scarce few, was out in the streets, celebrating the death of the Alatreon, the fell creature which had tormented the country and every living being within it for as long as history could remember.

Even after such devastation and death from the creature's attack, there seemed to be no room in anyone's heart for anything but joy and mirth. Makeshift food stalls were erected over the remains of destroyed buildings, streamers and flags were hung from tilting structures, and torches lit the streets, even as rubble and debris were swept aside for people to pass through. Music filled the streets, as everyone who could play an instrument seemed to have taken them up. Even the most rookie musician was doing their best to bring joy to those who could hear them, and if they were not so good, there was nothing but kind words of encouragement from those listening.

Even with food being rationed as it was during the recovery, food stores had been opened up and offered to the public for use during the celebration. Everywhere you went, you were sure not to be too far from a stall selling sweets, or a bonfire over which a massive slab of meat was turning, the delicious smells wafting all over the city. And the alcohol was flowing freely to those who desired it. It wasn't uncommon for a raucous chorus of drunken songs to fill the air from a dozen different directions in a dozen different off-key tones.

The Alatreon itself, or rather its corpse, was presented for all to see in the Loc Lac square, placed up against the remains of the Tower and spread out on the earth for anyone to look at. It had spent the day being paraded around the city, through the streets and pathways with enough room for it to be carried through. The Guild had sent a collection of ships to recover the body and bring it back to the city as soon as news of the beast's demise had reached the ears of Loc Lac.

The creature's wings, while torn and ripped, were spread wide across the stone. The beast's torso was blown out from the force the detonating dragon phial had blasted through it, but there was no gore or blood on the beast's body; the pure heat and energy of the phial, as well as the heat of the volcano, had seared away all of that, leaving behind an emptied ribcage and outer body, along with the charred hide and scales which had been spared from the blast.

And the creature's head was the greatest sight of them all. Somehow or another, despite the beast's horns being broken, its eyes being burned away, and the rest of the torment the creature had suffered, the beast's head was nearly whole. The elder dragon's glittering scales shimmered in the light of the fires, and even the shattered remains of the beast's horns seemed to glow under the pale moon. But though the creature's head remained in good condition, there was a glaring sign of the battle it had fought: a twisted switch axe remained, wedged into the beast's mouth. The crystalline structure was shattered and destroyed, but the heat and energy released when the dragon phial had erupted had melted the material, and the jagged ore shards had been welded into the beast's upper and lower jaw, prying the creature's maw open.

People looked upon the remains of the black beast that they had so feared in awe and amazement. Some looked on also in disgust and revulsion as well. The elder dragon was not exactly a pretty sight to behold now, its flesh burned and distorted from the detonation of the dragon phial. And the clear view into its emptied-out ribcage was not a sight for weak stomachs. But nearly everyone in the city dared a thorough look at the beast which had so terrorized their lives and devastated their city. And none regretted seeing the beast, no matter how repulsive it may have been.

There were dozens of Guild guards and representatives surrounding the body of the Alatreon, of course, making sure nobody could get close to the creature. There were some shouts of disdain from the curious, but the greedy, hungry looks in the eyes of many hunters, and the way their hands instinctively reached for the carving knives at their belts, was reason enough to keep the beast's body out of reach. There was word going around the Guild was planning to dissect the remains sooner or later and make a thorough study of it, though many people wanted at least the elder dragon's head mounted somewhere they all could see it.

But that was speculation for another day. For now, it was time to celebrate the death of the creature so gaudily presented, and the end of the reign of terror it had on them.

Of course, the celebration would end, sooner or later. Everyone knew it, and everyone feared it. Soon enough, life would resume, and harsh issues, both old and new, would boil back up to the surface. There were dead to tend to and find amongst the rubble, wounds to heal from, and lives to rebuild. There were food stores to keep track of, and countless injured filled the hospitals and medical buildings in the city. There were hunters who would need reprimanded for cowering when the Alatreon had attacked, leaving the Lost and other civilians to fight back in their stead.

There was still disdain for the Lost within the hearts of those who felt wronged by them, and there was still disdain for the locals within the hearts of the Lost for how they had been treated. Through the partying and joy, the toasts and laughing, there were many who knew, when the celebrations died away, those who they sang and laughed with would be their enemy again as the sun rose.

But for now, all that was pushed aside. The Alatreon, the most dangerous monster the country of Theron had ever known, was dead, and that was all that mattered! They were finally free of the demon's threat! Until the sun rose, they would shout their joy to the heavens, and let all their other worries fly away into the wind.

A soft wind blew through the city of Loc Lac, one of gentle warmth, not the regular sweltering heat which tended to be felt in the hot desert city. It was as though a comforting hand was caressing the city itself, soothing the aching wounds remaining after the Alatreon attack.

The celebrations were over; now the city was focused on rebuilding itself again. Buildings, new and clean, were rising slowly up from the ashes of the destroyed ones, and those that could be saved were being patched up to the best of the builders' abilities. There were, of course, some things not able to be saved, no matter the skill of the artisans. The Loc Lac Tower, an enormous symbol of the city, remained toppled where it lay, its base the only remaining feature at the center of Loc Lac. Already, chunks of it were being dragged away from its long impact zone, off to wherever they could be used.

As the wind swept through the city, it passed last through the Northeast District. It was a scarcely used district, one less traveled than the rest for common use. But its importance to the city was unmatched compared to the others, for it was where Loc Lac's graveyard lay. There were some houses in the area, but very few, and mostly reserved for those who cared for the cemetery that lay sprawled across so many hills and mounds.

It was beautiful land, compared to the rest of Loc Lac. Those who cared for the earth and the gravestones took their jobs more seriously than any other worker in the city. Lush green grass coated the hills, a spectacle to see here in the middle of the dry desert, and even flowers of a thousand colors bloomed here among the bodies of the dead. The graves were kept pristine as well, from the large mausoleums to the smallest of headstones, a work of love by those who cared for the fallen and those who respected the work of the deceased.

Most of those who were buried in the cemetery were hunters. There were civilians with graves there as well, of course, those who had lived in Loc Lac all their lives, and called it their home, but for the most part the tombs were filled with the bodies of those who had worked for the Guild, and had fallen in the line of duty. Mostly it was those who had no home to return to or family to whom to return the remains. It was a common enough theme to hear when someone was buried here: a family slain by monsters and a life dedicated to their destruction, a mysterious wanderer who would not reveal his past, or someone who just had never had a family and no will or testament to say where they wanted to be buried. It was a common enough story among hunters for some reason. But the Guild was ready for such things. Those whose pasts could not be uncovered, or had no families to claim them, were buried here, along with thousands of others who had died just like them, and given all of the respect afforded for someone who had died in the line of duty. It was the least the Guild could do for them after having asked so much.

Unfortunately, the work of the gravediggers and landscapers had been at an all-time high in the last couple of months. There had been thousands killed in Loc Lac during the riots and subsequent Alatreon attacks, and countless new graves had been dug and filled in that time. Some families had even been required to dig the graves and carve the headstones themselves with how many needed to be laid to rest here, the gravediggers themselves being overworked to the point of exhaustion. But none complained at the work. The people of the city realized the struggle that must have been undergone in recent days.

As such, it wasn't uncommon to see small groups of people in the cemetery, walking somberly through the headstones in search of the grave of their loved ones, or walking away from those which had just been buried. So nobody looked twice at a pair of men standing near one of the farthest graves, one pressed up against the towering stone walls of Loc Lac. If someone had looked twice, they would have realized the men were an important pair: Farrell, the reinstated councilman of the East District, and Jonathan, the head of the Investigatory Squad.

The grave before them was nearly blank, unmarked with names or dates. It simply read, 'Be At Peace', with no flourish and no sign of special treatment. A chisel in Farrell's hand, as well as the dust and stone shards which clung to his pants, showed he had been the one to write the words himself. His hands were worn and injured, several bandages wrapping around them as he stared down at the headstone, but his face showed no signs of pain, just sorrow.

He glanced at the gravestones nearby. There were only two others placed this far into the cemetery, such a walk from the beaten path. More would spring up soon though, Farrell had no doubt, considering the number of bodies which still had yet to be recovered and buried. The graves were far more flowery and decorated than the one he had made, certainly, with intricate carvings sprawled across the stone. The first read simply, 'Here lies Aurora, beloved mother and wife.' The second… 'Here lies Salem, beloved son.'

Farrell shook his head and sighed, looking back at the unmarked grave before him, clutching the chisel in his hand. "Do you think this will be enough?"

Next to him, Jonathan nodded. "People won't find it. They won't suspect it's his. He was never a man to go on about his personal life anyway, and even if he was, knowing his personality and business dealings, anyone who comes looking for his grave will be searching for one far more impressive than this one. His body will be at rest, I'm sure of it."

"Good," Farrell murmured. "The man's suffered enough, I think. I imagine people will think him a monster as the years go by… but I hope he'll at least find peace in death."

Jonathan shifted where he stood. "Of course, it will be us who mark him as a monster."

Farrell nodded. "It is… necessary to do so. For the city to recover, the people of Loc Lac must know the full extent of what he did to incite the city against the Lost. The lies, the rumors, the criminal acts and underhanded deeds… We must reveal all. It will not completely repair the rift created between Loc Lac and the Lost, considering all the damage done by them during the riots, but it will encourage people to try… Are you sure you managed to get all of it?"

"As much as I could," Jonathan replied coolly. "Of course, much was destroyed during the riots. The Lost did their level best to burn his office to the ground, and the Alatreon's attack certainly did nothing to help the process. But if you could say anything of the man's habits, he was meticulous. He kept obsessive track of everything he did and everyone he hired for his activities. We found papers hidden away documenting almost everything he did. Every zenni he paid was recorded and counted, and even the less-than-savory men he hired were researched. He has the names and locations of everyone he hired to do his dirty work. If we even had half the information he kept, we could incriminate ninety percent of the men who worked for him, and his own crimes against the city and the Lost would be… innumerable."

Farrell frowned, concerned. "Everything? Why write down everything he'd done illegally if he thought he was doing the noble thing?"

"Perhaps he just wasn't a notably intelligent criminal," Jonathan mused. Farrell glared at him, and the I.S. leader sighed. "Or… perhaps… somewhere inside he knew what he was doing was wrong, and wanted to make sure that if he failed, the men who helped him were punished as well. But I try not to ascribe to such flowery thoughts. I take no pleasure in empathizing with criminals."

Farrell nodded, turning back to the headstone. "And our would-be assassins?"

Jonathan grinned. "There's more information on them than anyone else. It seems even he had reservations about going to such lengths. It doesn't forgive that he did so, of course. But yes, the men will receive convictions without a doubt, under the full force of the law."

"And they're still alive to be punished, correct?"

"They're breathing, if that's what you're asking. That innkeeper wasn't gentle with them when she caught them, but they still live. I'm not sure how long they'll stay that way, however. A lot of Lost have heard about what they've done by now, and there's ample fear of some of them taking vigilante action on the men, giving them their alleged 'just desserts' for what they did. We don't have many guards to spare, but we'll try and keep them alive long enough to see conviction. After that… no promises."

"Well, that's enough for now. We must do our best to keep the law in order, especially now with everything as it is." The man paused for a moment, thinking deeply. "As for keeping order… how is the city doing in general? I've had my hands full with the recovery effort. Tell me… tell me how the Lost are faring. The barricade is gone now, but how are things between them and the rest of the city?"

Jonathan shrugged. "Tense, though not as terrible as before. The perception of the Lost is… distorted and confusing these days. People aren't sure how to view them. Of course, the Lost are helping in the rebuilding efforts, and they seem to be efficient designers when it comes to structures, but quite a few are adamantly refusing their services. Many are no less angry than they were before, and some are more so thanks to what was destroyed and the people killed during the riots, before the Alatreon arrived. At the same time, there is a… respect and appreciation for the Lost in the city as well. For every Lost who destroyed and killed during the riots, there was another around trying to rescue and save lives. It was the Lost who struck the first and final blow against the Alatreon here in Loc Lac after all. That much is hard to deny, with that dragon shot barrage from the Hive, and that Lost-designed airship which badly wounded the creature. And it was a Lost who slew the beast in the end…"

Farrell nodded in acceptance of the words. He'd heard the stories of what had happened during the Alatreon's attack, the rumors and hearsay, as well as the stories of heroism and sacrifice. The I.S. leader sighed behind him. "There is still a lot of uncertainty between the Therians and the Lost. I suppose it's something which can only be washed away with time and effort on both sides. Hopefully, this time there won't be people out to sabotage our efforts to create unity. But things are looking up, especially after this whole 'exodus' started."

"Exodus?" Farrell asked curiously.

"You haven't heard about that?" Jonathan asked, surprised. "You've been busier than I thought. How to explain this… From what I've been able to gather from the Lost, when the Alatreon died, or perhaps earlier, there was something - I don't know how to describe it - unchained inside of them, so they claim. Something holding them back was let loose. Something ignited within them. Before the riots, the Lost would cluster together, binding themselves to each other, but now… Now they're leaving. The Lost are leaving Loc Lac."

Farrell spun about, shocked. "Leaving? All of them?"

"Not all of them, and not all at once," Jonathan replied quickly, shaking his head. "But… at least a quarter of them have left the city already in the last couple of weeks, and over half of them are expected to be gone within the month. From what people are reporting, almost seventy-five percent of the Lost in Loc Lac are planning or contemplating leaving the city, branching out and going… somewhere. Everywhere. It's not a group effort or anything. The Lost just… want to go out into the world."

"So they're just… leaving?"

"Gathering up their belongings and hopping on the next sandship out of the city… in simpler terms. North, south, east, west. They're going in every direction in small groups. Some are rallying together into parties of fifty or so to band together as they journey for a new home, but it's the same idea. They just want out. I'm no politician, but I imagine the disdain for the Lost will drop in Loc Lac quickly enough once this 'exodus' has been seen through."

"Indeed," Farrell murmured thoughtfully. "The greatest issues with the Lost in Loc Lac have always been their madness and their numbers… The first was never something which could be dealt with, but the second… If the Lost begin to spread out, then indeed public opinion of them may rise. No longer a desperate mob, but a spread out collection of wayfarers… yes, that should improve the opinion of the Lost dramatically. And the number of Lost applying for becoming hunters' apprentices has skyrocketed as well… perhaps things might not be so bad after all. Times will be rough for a few years yet, but… I suppose there's still hope things will clear up."

"With luck," Jonathan replied. "I don't imagine it will go quite that smoothly."

"Neither do I," Farrell admitted.

"Well at least it looks as though our country won't be the only one which needs to worry about the Lost anymore."

"You mean Gahiji?" Farrell asked. Their neighboring country to the east had been reporting incidents similar to the Lost awakenings recently. Apparently Lost had been appearing in their forests as well, though these spoke a different language by the sound of things. "Perhaps we should send some advisors to them, give them some tips on how to deal with the Lost without incident."

"Then we'll need to send some to the Minegarde region as well," Jonathan replied. "They've been getting their fair share across the ocean. Again, they were speaking a different language than our own Lost, and people are having trouble interpreting. But a number of them appeared near Castle Schrade and needed to be evacuated."

"Damn," Farrell muttered, shaking his head. He'd heard horror stories about that area… "There's a mess I'm glad we don't need to deal with ourselves."

"There is one last matter that must be seen to," Jonathan told Farren. "There is little doubt numerous rumors have managed to leave Loc Lac and travel about the country. An official pronouncement of what occurred must be given."

"I'll trust your judgment in the matter of what information to offer the public," Farrell replied. "But… When reports of the occurrences here go out to the rest of the country, try… write it as an effort of cooperation which saved the city and slew the Alatreon. Make it known that the Lost ingenuity and courage were just as necessary as the strength and determination of our own. A Lost airship struck the great blow against the Alatreon, but the Captain and his first mates were Therian, and orchestrated the chasing down of the beast. The dragon shot barrage was done by the Lost, but it was led by a Therian hunter. It was both Lost and Therian hunters that dogged the Alatreon to its nest in the Sacred Land, and though the final blow came from one of the Lost, it couldn't have been done without the work of the people of Theron."

"As you like," Jonathan replied.

The two stood in silence over the gravestone for several more minutes. Then Farrell sighed, stepping away from the grave. "I suppose… I suppose there's too much to do these days spend time standing around like this, isn't there?"

"I couldn't say," Jonathan replied, looking over the cemetery grounds. There were a number of other groups in the area, standing around their own tombstones and speaking quietly to each other. "It seems that a lot of people in town think there is good reason to take time out of their days for such a purpose. Who's to say what the value of such a thing is, or how much time you should offer?"

"I suppose you're right. But there seems to be much to do, and so many people seeking answers for problems. And you can't solve all of them, but you have to do your best anyway."

"We can't make everyone happy."

"No, we can't…" Farrell replied sadly. "But we can try. That's why the council exists. Come on now, Jonathan. There is still much work to do."

As the two walked away, the warm wind curled around the tombstones in the cemetery for a moment longer, then swept upwards and over the walls of Loc Lac, off to carry on to other places and other lands.

Stergo winced as another stack of papers slammed down onto his desk. The Guild Master groaned miserably as he stared down yet another addition to the seemingly endless pile of paperwork which had been stacking up slowly but surely the last couple of weeks. When would it all end?

"More trade and pricing information for the wood and stone being imported for the reconstruction," his new assistant, Laura, informed him. "Also, it looks like we'll need to find other avenues of receiving food for the city. The southern sandsea ports have sent us nearly everything they possibly can without dipping into their own food stores."

"Of course… damn it all," Stergo muttered sourly. "Why am I doing this again? I'm supposed to be overseeing the hunters of the city, not the recovery. This kind of nonsense should be the council's job, not mine…"

"Well, if you hadn't been so quick to start throwing around orders after you were released from prison, you might not be in this position. Though admittedly, the council was flailing about quite a bit during the aftermath, so you really didn't have much choice… I'll see what I can do to get this foisted off of your back and onto theirs if I can, but considering public opinion of the council is still sketchy, I wouldn't get my hopes up if I were you."

Stergo sighed, rubbing his temples in frustration at the amount of work he'd have to do. How did he manage to get suckered back into working like this again?

If he was honest, the time he'd spent locked away in one of the Guild's prison cells had been almost relaxing for him, compared to the stress of dealing with all the messes which had been cropping up in recent months thanks to the Lost, the Alatreon… and everything else. 'Almost' being the key word there. Stergo had almost been resigned to his fate when the Guild soldiers burst through his door, demanding his arrest and charging him with conspiracy and abuse of power. He would welcome the chance to relieve himself of the duties that were his to deal with as the Guild Master for the country of Theron.

However, he couldn't escape his fears and worries. He knew everything would fall apart at the seams the moment he was tossed into jail. Everything he'd done to try and prevent chaos would be all for nothing, and Loc Lac would descend into havoc. Days and days passed as Stergo sat in his cell, slowly going mad from fear of what would happen if he wasn't around to assuage the damage. He didn't need to hear the whispering of the guards, the worried looks between the overseers, to know things were going down the drain in the city. But news didn't exactly travel to the jail in a timely fashion. The prison, wedged out on the exterior wall of the city, was almost completely unaware when the Lost rioted through Loc Lac, when the Alatreon attacked, and the subsequent fallout of the beast's assault. But the entire city felt it when the Loc Lac tower had fallen, shaking the earth with enough force to make every prisoner in the jail wonder if the city had actually been struck by an earthquake. Stergo was the only one to wager a guess at what had happened, though he was fearful to admit it.

It was almost two days later, when everyone in the prison, both guard and guarded alike, were near panic over what had happened, when a Guild sandship approached the dock of the jail. Now it was known for certain something bad had happened, as the sandship they'd sailed up in looked half-burned and held together with glue and hopeful wishes. A collection of despondent Guild men and women appeared, appealing for the release of Stergo, begging for help in getting the city back under control. The city was in ruins, and decent leadership was hard to come by. Stergo nearly chose to stay where he was out of spite, as several of those who came for him had been the same ones that had called for his imprisonment. But he knew how much they needed him, and he knew it was his responsibility to clean up this mess. After all, it was partially his fault such devastation had occurred in the first place…

And the city really was devastated when Stergo returned from the prison. The old Wyvernian almost didn't recognize it, the destruction was so critical. And the Loc Lac Tower: destroyed completely! Broken at the base and laying across the north side of the city! And hearing everything which had happened within the city while he had been imprisoned left Stergo feeling worn out before he'd even begun his work: The Loc Lac council had been released from wherever they had been kept during Zhanin's usurping, but were having trouble getting control over the situation, considering how people in the city viewed them.

But this was a hunting city, and Stergo was the Guild Master, in memory if not actuality. Even with the crimes he had committed and the accusations he had received, almost half the population were hunters or working for the Guild, and people flocked to him and followed his commands when he started giving them. It took days, but soon enough the anarchy of the city was fading, and the recovery effort was in full swing. People were being organized, food stores were being gathered up and rationed, search parties for survivors were being sent into the rubble, and medical treatment for the wounded was being sent around as quickly as possible. And people were regaining confidence in the Loc Lac council again. Say what you would about Stergo, his decisions and poor choices, but he did know how to take control of a situation, especially here in Loc Lac.

Along with the Stergo's work in making sure the city was recovering and not descending into anarchy as he'd feared, the man also spent countless hours trying to gather aid from the outlying villages and cities at edge of the desert. Getting into contact with them took effort, as the Alatreon had obliterated almost every sandship the city had available, so they were forced to send the slow airships they had available or wait for sandships which had left before the attack to return. But eventually, word on Loc Lac's condition spread, and aid began to come in from outside, much to the relief of everyone within the walls of the city.

It took a strenuous two weeks for the Guild Master to restore relative peace and civility in Loc Lac, and to make sure the city was stable and really beginning to recover. It took that long to get people living off the streets and into makeshift shelters, and organizing their food stores so nobody would starve, and soon enough people began to work their way back into regularity of daily life, though things were obviously not the same as they used to be. Of course, there was still tension between the Therians and the Lost which remained, but there seemed to be an unspoken agreement to refrain from acting uncivil until the city was back to normal. Either way, Stergo had other worries.

He needed to find out what had happened to the hunters who had gone and chased after the wounded Alatreon.

News trickled into the city over the next couple weeks after that, more rumor and hearsay than anything else, and nothing concrete or even slightly believable. But a ragged report arrived from Orage Dell, some unfathomable story received about an attack on a seaside village by a Deviljho of mountainous proportions. Stergo was still mulling over the report, trying to make sense of it, when, three and a half weeks after the Alatreon's attack, the airship which had warded off the beast with a mounted Dragonator lance returned, flying over the walls of the city towards the tower square. The ship looked battered and beaten and singed like nothing Stergo had seen before. It was in bad condition, and nearly crashed when it came to land in the square.

And when those aboard managed to disembark the ship…

"We've gotten more complaints from the hunters we've put a hunting ban on," Laura said, pulling Stergo's attention back to the present. The woman was an assistant who Jonathan had introduced him to during the mayhem of getting everything sorted the last few weeks. Stergo didn't know where the man had found her, or why they knew each other, but she was competent enough, and seemed to know a good bit about working through the city's bureaucracy, which was useful. And she made a good replacement for Stergo's previous assistant, who had been hospitalized during the Alatreon's attack. Laura pointed over to several boxes filled with papers off in the corner of the room. "A lot of hunters are asking for appeals on your decision to ban them from hunting for six months."

"Well they should'a thought of that before they decided hiding from the Alatreon was a better idea than fighting to protect their city!" Stergo snapped irritably. "Damn it all, an elder dragon lays siege to Theron's prime hunting city, and barely a handful of them even try to fight back against it! We had more civilians battling the beast than hunters, even if most of them were Lost! Were it up to me, such shameful and cowardly behavior would warrant them a permanent ban from hunting!"

"And a lot of the city seems to agree with you, considering how many people lost their lives, homes, and well-being in the attack. However, considering the number of hunters such a ban would affect-"

"We'd likely have more riots on our hands if I did. I know, I know." Almost half of the hunters in the city - those who had survived the attack, at least - had been put on a mandatory leave of absence due to their refusal to fight the Alatreon. If Stergo put them out of a job for their actions, they were in enough numbers that they'd likely revolt against the decision. Even the six-month ban had been pushing things, but this kind of cowardice couldn't simply be let go. "Nonetheless, their requests are all denied. If you get any more paperwork from anyone on the issue, send them to the smithies and have them burned. We've been low on fuel for the forges during the reconstruction, and we can't spare any wood since it's all being used for housing, so we might as well use it for something good other than wasted effort."

"Very well, sir," Laura replied with a nod, before flipping through more papers. "Let's see, what else… we're going to need to send out more requests for hunting master volunteers."

Stergo grimaced at the words. "More Lost looking for work in the Guild?"

"Indeed. It was a Lost that finished off the Alatreon, after all, and a Lost airship which chased it out of the city. The rest of their people are… inspired to seek occupation in similar work as well. You should be happy; all these Lost are bolstering the numbers of hunters which were lost during the Alatreon's attack. We'll need all we can get, or else we'll need to ask for Gahin hunters for aid, and you know how hard that is."

"Yes, yes, I know…" Stergo grumbled. "Too bad they're all rookies and can't fight anything nastier than a Jaggi… But it's getting tricky finding people willing to teach them, especially with so many higher-ranked hunters being called on to fill the gaps left behind by the deceased. So how many is it today? Have the numbers dropped at all?"

"Not in the slightest," Laura replied. "There are sixty new requests for apprenticeship today, as opposed to yesterday's fifty-three. It looks as though any Lost who aren't heading out on this 'exodus' are going to be asking for an apprenticeship sooner or later."

"Ah, dammit all…" While there were a good number of hunters willing to take on apprentices in the city, especially after the death of the Alatreon and the improving outlook on the Lost, they were running short… He'd have to send requests to other hunting outposts and villages in hopes of finding people willing to take up the mantle. Maybe Tanzia? The port town was picking up in popularity in recent years. The Guild master there, a loud, obnoxious Wyvernian half Stergo's age, had been requesting recruits; how fresh of rookies could Stergo get away with sending to the port? "Send letters to Polgara in Orage Dell, O'aka in Tanzia Port, and Rosen in Frost Town. Tell them we're sending them more hunters to do with what they will, but we're sending apprentices for them to find masters for as well."

Laura grimaced. "That might not go over well. Polgara never seems to mind, but O'aka and Rosen might not like that. Especially Rosen… the Volcano area isn't exactly kind to rookies."

Stergo frowned. "Hmph. Wait, now, here's a thought. How about this: all those hunters out asking for me to repeal my ban on their hunting, we'll give them an ultimatum. If they want to hunt again, they have to relocate to one of the other cities or villages, and they must take on a Lost apprentice until they pass the hunter's exam or quit. And no running their apprentices ragged to force them into quitting!"

Laura paused in thought for a moment. "That… well, that will solve one problem, but I don't think the hunters will like it. I think they'll want to kill something more dangerous than Great Jaggis and Qurupecos…"

"Well that's the choice I'm giving them. They either teach a new hunter to fight weaker monsters, or they can sit on their butts for six months waiting for their bans to lift. That's a long time to not be getting paid in a town like this, especially during the recovery effort. Some of them might actually have to help with the rebuilding to pay for rent… ha! Two birds with one stone! That'll teach them to try and sit out an attack on the city while civilians go out and fight!"

"You're walking a short path to getting yourself thrown out of office again," Laura noted with a grin, and Stergo laughed.

"Bah, they'd be doing me a favor! I need to retire anyway."

"At a time like this?" Laura asked. "I think times are a little busy for you to even be thinking about going into retirement. Besides, who would they replace you with? You've had this job for decades."

"There must be someone willing to put up with all of this nonsense… Hmm, well I'll have to start looking around for a replacement in my spare time." In truth, Stergo had been contemplating retirement for over a decade now, but the stress of this work was finally bearing down on him. At least he wouldn't have to worry about Alatreon watches or cutting off hunting areas because of the elder dragon, and entire villages and towns wouldn't be devastated by the creature anymore, with no opportunities for revenge. The Guild Master shook his head. No use thinking about that now; he had far too much to do to trust this work to anyone else.

"Anything else?" he asked sarcastically. "Some other form I need to sign in a thousand places?"

"Well there's this," Laura replied quickly, holding out another stack of papers. Stergo groaned miserably. "Oh, don't worry sir; I think you'll find this one quite important."

"What is it?" the Wyvernian snapped, snatching the papers away and looking at the first few pages.

"It's Jonathan's full report about this 'Gullet' place we were informed of. He's gathered all the information he could from his sources, and he thinks he has more than enough to begin a raid on the place, and arrest all those involved."

Stergo whistled, rifling through the papers. If there was one thing that had infuriated him most about the last month, it was discovering the existence of this 'Gullet'. So many terrible crimes done under the Guild's nose, and by members of the Guild! Just a glance at some of what was written made the Guild master seethe. The place couldn't be wiped out quickly enough. "Where do I sign, and how long before the I.S. can begin?"

"Sign at the bottom of the last page. Jonathan knows how much you dislike needless bureaucracy. As for when the raid starts…" Laura glanced out the window, taking note of the sun's location. "I'd say about an hour ago. So sign it quickly. We don't want any loose ends, now do we?"

Stergo smirked, scribbling his name on the last page. "No, we do not."

Near the remains of the Loc Lac tower, the sound of cursing and shouting could be heard rolling through the streets. Repairs of the devastation caused by the Alatreon had yet to reach this side of town, as most of the city's repair efforts were being focused on housing and making sure everyone was well-fed and participating in the recovery. So, most of the Guild buildings and warehouses were being ignored for the moment, save for when whatever was inside was being scavenged for use to fix up the city.

However, there was a commotion to be found, just to the west of the Tower base. A crowd had gathered around the half-destroyed remains of one of the Guild's older warehouses, where a large number of Guild soldiers had gathered. The civilians nearby were whispering to each other, trying to figure out what was going on as large numbers of the armed men continued to march in and out of the ruined structure. For each soldier who pressed through the debris into the shadowy remains of the building, one or two would emerge from the building, dragging along another person with them from who knew where. Rumors ran wild among the onlookers, trying to figure out what was going on. Who were these people the Guild was pulling from the wreckage, seemingly from nowhere? Where had they come from, and why were they being arrested? None of the Guild men and women were giving answers, so speculation swelled.

It was strange for the crowd to watch the vast differences between those who were pulled out into the sun by the guards. At first the Guild soldiers were only dragging out men and women who looked like scientists and researchers by their clothes, as well as (oddly enough) other armed men in different uniforms. There were signs that there had been scuffles between the Guild guards and those who had been dragged out, and most of the scientists and researchers were shouting all kinds of profanities and oaths, swearing they had no right to be arrested, and the soldiers would be punished for their actions. The guards who were brought out seemed to have resigned themselves to their fates, however.

But not long after a good number of researchers and guards had been dragged to the surface, a whole new collection of men and women began to be brought out into the sunlight, and these people were far different from those who had been brought out before them. These people seemed more like prisoners than anything else, and many of them cried out in pain under the light of the sun, like they hadn't seen the sky in who knew how long. At the sight of them, a whole new wave of whispers and rumors began to spread through the crowd nearby. Most of those who were being led out now bore countless wounds and injuries, and a majority of them appeared close to death, as the soldiers carrying them out rushed to see them treated. And most shocking of all, there were numerous Guild soldiers who were leaving the warehouse whose expressions were gaunt and horrified at whatever they'd seen inside, only adding fuel to the fire of the onlookers' curiosity.

Several dozen yards away from the entrance to the warehouse, two pairs of eyes watched the events unfolding from inside a small covered wagon, as the place known as the Gullet was quickly and efficiently overwhelmed and occupied by Guild soldiers.

"We're making excellent time," Jonathan noted. The man stood just outside the wagon, speaking quietly to the pair within the wagon. "If our estimates are correct, we've managed to clear out over seventy-five percent of the Gullet of its occupants by now. At this rate, we will have gathered up all those involved by sundown. It seems the information you've offered us was highly accurate, Miss Felicia."

"You're only gathering the researchers," the huntress grumbled sourly. "None of the ringleaders are in there!"

"We are aware of this," Jonathan replied curtly. "You are not the only informant we've managed to pull information from. At this moment, several small squads of soldiers are being deployed around the city to gather up the controllers of the Gullet from their homes and offices. Upon collecting them, they will be questioned on the names of their collaborators, and soon we will have rounded up all those involved. Or at least, all those who still live. It would seem at least three of the men and women you've named met an unfortunate end during the Alatreon's attack."

"Better than they deserve…" Felicia growled.

"Perhaps, but we must maintain control of the legal course, especially in times like this. Make no mistake; all those involved will face the full punishment of the law. Stergo is less than pleased such crimes have been conducted under his nose, and he will be showing little mercy towards those who made the Gullet what it is."

"What about the council members who were in on it?" Rowan asked bluntly.

Jonathan grumbled under his breath at the question. From the information he'd gathered, it seemed Zhanin had not been the only council member who'd had a hand in the work of the Gullet. At least two more had been active participants in the goings-on of that terrible place, much to Jonathan's chagrin, and there was still a chance more would be uncovered after their interrogations.

"They will be punished as well," Jonathan assured the two hunters. "It will be kept quiet, however, at least for a year or so. With three of the Loc Lac Council taking part in such a heinous organization, if news of it got out, public faith in the council would vanish, and we can't afford that in such a tumultuous time. They will be… quietly removed from public spotlight, to serve out their sentences somewhere they won't be seen or heard from. Not until everything settles down, at least."

The three sat in silence for some time, watching as the Guild guards continued their work in cleaning out the Gullet. It was an arduous process, and even Felicia seemed surprised at how many researchers and hired guards were being led out of the structure in shackles. Soon, however, the line of soldiers coming out of the Gullet accompanied by captives they'd taken within the walls began to dwindle, showing they were nearing the point of having completely cleaned out those who had taken part in the Gullet and all of its crimes. They likely hadn't caught everybody, not yet, but they had a lot of witnesses and people to interrogate. They'd mop up the rest eventually.

But across the street, Felicia caught sight of a familiar face. He was standing under a banister, which held high a wobbling wooden overhang in front of an old item shop. The shop was in poor condition, the back half of it mostly collapsed due to the Alatreon's attack, but the store owner was still trying to pass off his wares to pedestrians, and getting decent business all things considered. The man Felicia had spotted was looking over the goods casually, but Felicia could tell he couldn't care less about the knick-knacks in front of him; his real attention was on the ruined remains of the warehouse, and the Guild soldiers who were dragging away the scientists and researchers who had once been a part of everything within. He was a shorter man, built strong despite his stature, with a clean face and short blonde hair. He was trying to pull off a curious expression, like a passerby wondering what was going on, but he was failing horribly. His expression was dark and thunderous as he watched researchers being dragged away from the ruined warehouse one after the other.

She knew the man well. It was her father, Nero, the man who had kept the Gullet hidden since its creation so long ago. It had been several years since she'd last seen him, but little had changed of the man.

She reached forward in the wagon and tapped Jonathan on the shoulder through the flap. The man gave her a questioning look, and she pointed quickly to where her father stood. Jonathan nodded and motioned to a couple of the soldiers nearby, and the men quickly moved in on the man. Nero seemed shocked as the men approached him, and Felicia could hear the man growling angrily as he was grabbed and brought over to the wagon. The huntress pulled away from the opening, fearful. After all this time, she couldn't bring herself to face the man. Rowan wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close in an attempt to comfort her.

"What is the meaning of this?" they heard the man snapping angrily as the guards pulled him towards Jonathan. "Why are you doing this to me? I have done nothing wrong! I don't even know what's going on here!"

"So you claim," Jonathan replied, stepping away from the wagon. "However, we have received a testimony claiming you to be a high-standing participant in a particular organization which has conducted illegal actions within the city of Loc Lac. You are charged with a long list of crimes, but we can save those for later, I think. For now, you will accompany us-"

"Hold on!" Nero snapped, cutting the I.S. leader. "What do you mean 'testimony'? Who would claim I had anything to do with this? There is no proof of that!"

"There is proof enough."

"I demand to know who it was! I am a man of high standing in this city, a well-respected entrepreneur! I refuse to accept this nonsense without knowing what I've been accused of and by who!"

Nero and Jonathan continued to argue for some time, with the businessman demanding to know who had accused him and the I.S. leader adamantly refusing to give away the information. However, Felicia began to shiver with every word spat from Nero's mouth, every harsh, demanding order the man gave to Jonathan. Rowan looked down on her worriedly, but could do little to aid her or comfort her as Nero's words grew harsher and angrier with each passing moment.

But then something inside the huntress seemed to snap, and Felicia leapt to her feet, her eyes blazing furiously. "You want to know who testified against you?!" Felicia roared, pushing through the wagon flap and storming towards Jonathan and Nero. "I did, you disgusting, lying pile of filth!"

Nero eyes opened wide at the sight of Felicia approaching, his face switching from anger to one of supreme shock, his mouth hanging open limply. It was short lived, however, and soon his expression had reverted back to anger, a blazing fury erupting inside of him at the sight of her. "You? Felicia? Why? How could you do this to me?"

"Why do you think I did it?" Felicia snapped back. "It's disgusting and horrible, everything you've done! Did you really think, when you showed me your work, that I'd be just like you, that I'd see it as just some acceptable avenue to make money? Did you really think I'd be as sick and twisted as you are? Did you really think, just because you're my father, that I'd hide this forever? I kept all this secret for over five years, and that was five years too long! I had hoped you'd give up this disgusting work, but obviously I was wrong! That's why I told the Guild everything I knew about the Gullet, and everything you'd done to support it!"

"You useless, traitorous little bitch!" Nero barked furiously. "To think I ever thought of you as my daughter! I should have gotten rid of you after you burned down my warehouses! I don't care if I spend eternity in prison, I will find a way to make you pay for this! I hope you spent the rest of your life suffering, you worthless-"

The man's words were cut off abruptly as a massive fist smashed into the man's jaw. A splintering sound echoed off the walls as the man's jaw fractured, and the merchant lord dropped to the ground, wailing in pain, and spitting slurred curses as blood dripped from his mouth. Felicia looked up in shock as Rowan pulled back his fist, shaking his hand painfully.

"Ah… that kind of hurt. I'm not used to fighting with my fists…" Upon realizing Felicia was staring at him, he lowered his eyes sheepishly. "Sorry. He just… um, he was making me mad, so…"

Nero was pushing himself to his feet by now, and turned on the pair of hunters again, spitting curses through the blood trailing from his mouth. But his broken jaw made the man nearly incomprehensible, and both Felicia and Rowan stared at him blankly as the man continued to tirade pointlessly. Eventually, Jonathan sighed, motioning to the Guild guards.

"Take him and see him treated. We'll not be able to get any information out of him if he's talking like that the whole time." The men nodded and dragged Nero away, the man still raving and cursing unintelligibly. "It wasn't exactly necessary for you to break his jaw, you know… but I'll let it slide. A week or two being unable to talk might make him more outgoing with the information we want once he can form words again. Besides, I suppose one good punch is the least of the punishments he deserves, though I'm sure it won't be the worst he receives before everything's said and done."

The man looked markedly at Felicia. "You are aware your father will be rightly punished for his crimes, and I cannot guarantee we can save him from the vigilante rage which may arise due to them? While we are keeping quiet about the part played by the council members, your father will not have the same courtesy. Not many of those who were held captive in the Gullet had families or loved ones, but there are some, and they will not be pleased when they hear the full extent of the truth."

"I don't care," the huntress grumbled quietly. "He had his chances to repent for what he'd done… and it's obvious he's not sorry for his crimes, just angry he got caught. He should get what he deserves."

Jonathan nodded at the callous words. "As you say. We'll see to it he receives just that. We'll also make certain those threats he's made against you are not brought to fruition either. It would set a bad precedent…"

Several shouts from the Guild soldiers began to echo from the inside of the building, and it seemed the scouring of the Gullet was wrapping up. Jonathan nodded contentedly. "Now, I suppose we've gathered all the information we need from the both of you, but I'll ask you remain in Loc Lac for a few days more, in case we need to ask any more questions of you. Aside from that… you're free to go. You have been acquitted for the arson sentence you were tried with in exchange for your information, considering the circumstances. Thank you for your assistance in this case, as it has proven quite invaluable. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to finish tidying up this little scene. Farewell."

The two hunters watched as the leader of the Investigatory Squad strode away from them, off to do whatever it was which required his attention next. Both of them sighed in relief, glad this whole ordeal was done and over with, at least as far as they were concerned. But once they were alone, Rowan's head drooped low.

"Sorry," the large man muttered, and Felicia looked at him in confusion. "I hit your father, and I shouldn't have. At the least, if someone hit him, it should have been you, not me."

Felicia's jaw hung open for a moment in shock. Then she laughed quietly, and Rowan looked at her, frowning in confusion. "Jeez, you really are a soft-hearted idiot, you know that? You don't have to apologize for clocking my old man, Rowan. I admit… I would've enjoyed slugging him myself, but I think I prefer it this way. You can hit harder than me after all. It probably hurt him more, and mercy knows the bastard deserves a worse beating than I can dish out."

Rowan smiled at the words. "Then… I'm glad to be of help." His eyes grew thoughtful, however. "So… what are we going to do now? We've almost done all we can to help the Guild take down the Gullet and all that. What are we supposed to do next?"

"I don't… I don't really know," Felicia admitted. "I've spent years thinking about coming back here and confronting my father about… everything. I always thought… always hoped I would come back and he would be… I don't know, forgiving or repentant or something. That's what I'd always hoped… but I guess I always knew if I came back, he'd be like he was before: cruel and unforgiving."

The huntress sighed wearily, then leaned forward, resting her head against Rowan's chest. She got some small pleasure, feeling the large man tense at the contact, knowing she was doing something she would normally never do. But Rowan accepted it quickly enough, wrapping her arms around her comfortingly.

"It's better this way…" she murmured quietly. "I knew it would come to this, I think. I don't… I don't want anything else to do with that man anymore. I just… I just want to get away from all this. Do you think that's possible?"

"I'm sure we'll be fine," Rowan assured her gently. "We'll give the Guild everything they need, and we can be on our way. Then all we'll need to worry about is-"

"There y' are, y' lazy brats!"

"Oh, no…" Felicia groaned miserably at the familiar voice which lashed out at them, and Rowan visibly winced next to her. Both of them turned, expecting the worst.

A light rapping brought Marco's attention up from the pile of papers he had his lap. He blinked in surprise at the sight of his visitors, Lynn and her new adopted son Logan hovering behind her. Marco smiled at the pair, glad to see a couple of friendly faces for the first time in what felt like far too long.

"Vell, vell, look at hyu. Folk vould herdly tink hyu'd been near schtabbed to death, hyu look so healty, hey?"

Marco smirked wryly as the innkeeper pushed her way through the door, Logan trailing close behind. The woman was dressed like usual, adorned in practical work clothes and trousers, with numerous decorative bangles decorating her arms and adoring the long braid trailing down her back. But Logan, though accompanied by the stuffed Gobul toy he usually had, had a couple new additions. Hanging off the back of his pants, Logan had slung a rather large hunter's knife, large and heavy enough that the blade could have been a short sword for such a young boy. And while he kept a tight grip on his stuffed Gobul, under his other arm was a rather thick Guild book, a hunter's guide to monster by the looks of it. He'd seen its like before, under the arms of boys and girls Logan's age: a sure sign the child was determined to become a hunter once they were able.

"Go read you book sveetie," Lynn told the boy, patting him on the head. "Gimme zum time to talk to Marco, hokay?"

"Hokay mama," Logan said with a nod, before walking over to the other side of the room, his Gobul toy in tow, before planting himself in the corner and flipping through the book, looking at the pictures in the book, eyes wide with curiosity.

Marco raised an eyebrow at the words. "He's picking up your accent, I see."

Lynn sighed. "Hy guess so. He's been doink dat here und dere for de last few veeks. Hy don't know vedder to schtop it or chust let him do vat he vants, hey? Hy don't rilly kare eidder vay, but …"

"I'd let him be if I were you," Marco said with a smile. "It just means you've impressed yourself on him. I've never had children of my own, of course, but I don't see the harm in letting him endear himself to you by trying to talk like you. As far as I can see, it just means he really has acknowledged you as his mother now."

Lynn huffed noncommittally at the words. But Marco could see the innkeeper brighten a bit at the words. Despite Lynn's rugged and violent outward exterior, the woman seemed to enjoy the concept of being a mother to Logan. Marco smirked at the thought; he hoped Logan knew what he was getting himself into, becoming Lynn's adoptive son…

"I am surprised you brought him here, though," Marco noted. "Hospitals are not exactly the most exciting place for children to go. You could have left him back at the Oasis, couldn't you? There isn't a man or woman who frequents that place who doesn't know the wrath you'd bring down on them if he got hurt."

Lynn scoffed at the words. "He, leaf him vith doze drunks? Dat's de last tink Hy need right now, hey? Since doze kids keelled de Alatreon, hall de rest uf de hunters hef been doink iz drinkink demselves schtupeed, puffink der chests, braggink for hall dey're vorth und tryink to kompare demselves vith de boys und gurls vat vent after de elder dragon. Dey see de vuns vo killed it, de vuns braff enough to chase after de beast, und measure demselves up against dem. Schtart tinkink tings like, 'if dey kould do it, vy not me?', und talkink demselves up like dey vere de vuns vo killed de tink. Und de rest, de vuns vat got banned for kowerink durink de attack? Dey're even vorse, sittink around kursink de Guild und schtartink fights vith hennyone vat schtill hes de ability to go on hunts."

"Sounds like an eventful few weeks," Marco laughed.

"Ho, hyu don't even know. Hy've been knockink so mhenny heads left und right Hy'm surprised Hy hefn't vorn my fist down to a schtump yet. De Oasis vas schpared durink de attack, so Hy volunteered to take pipple in durink de recovery. Uf kourse, zum uf de more poncy hunters vere less ten pleased dey hed to shere rooms to make schpace for odder folk. Took zum beatinks dere to persuade dem… but Hy keep hevink to pull my punches."

"Pulling punches? That's not like you."

"Ja, vell… de hospitals are rilly full dese days. Not enough room in dem to fix de schtupeed pipple vat tick me uff, hey?"

"How… altruistic of you."

"Hy'll hef hyu know Hy'm de pinnacle uf kindness. Chust ask de folks vo drink at de Oasis. Dey'll tell hyu de same… or else." Lynn grinned viciously, and Marco couldn't help but laugh. "By de vay, Hy see hyu're not so schtuttery as before, are hyu? Kind uf veird hearink hyu talkink klean ven hyu're not angry or drunk."

"I attribute it to the lack of stress I've been feeling since I've been here," Marco replied, motioning dramatically around the bland hospital room. "It's not the most comfortable place to be, but people haven't been throwing their problems at me like they have been. Well, there's all this," he said, motioning to the papers littering his bed. "But that's nothing compared to before. I suppose if there's one good thing about being here, it's that I'm not expected to do too much work. Most of the other council members, and Stergo, are picking up the slack for the most part. The recovery is a city-wide issue, not just something delegated to one particular district. So I've had a bit of time to relax here, which seems to have at least pushed down my stutter a little. And most of all, though it may sound callous, I finally don't need to worry about Zhanin's schemes coming around to make a mess of things…"

Marco's words petered to a halt as Lynn's expression grew morose at the name of the late councilman. She seemed torn, somewhere between anger and a sort of solemn guilt. "You shouldn't blame yourself you know," he said quietly, but the innkeeper looked at him and grinned sadly.

"Kan't tink uf hennyone else to blame. Herd to say it's not my fault, ven Hy vas de vun vo schoved de knife into his chest, hey?"

"Has anyone… approached you about it?" Marco asked worriedly.

"Pipple know Hy deed it," Lynn replied. "Hy'm pretty sure de vole city knows… but pipple chust aren't talkink about it. Hy keep ekspectink Guild men to bust into de Oasis vun uf dese days und arrest me, but it chust never heppens."

"A lot of things which happened before and during the riots are being… overlooked these days," Marco told her, trying to sound comforting. "If you tried to arrest everyone who committed a crime during that time, you'd likely put half of the city behind bars, and that's not just including the Lost. And Zhanin… these days his reputation isn't exactly shining brightly, especially with those reports Farrell's been releasing to the public on his work against the Lost. Not to mention, stories about what happened at the Oasis have gotten around; people know well enough you acted defensively. They know you were trying to save Logan. I imagine… you certainly won't be lauded for what you done, but there won't be many people in Loc Lac who will accuse you for what happened."

Lynn sighed, shaking her head. "Hy didn't vant to kill him, hyu know…"

"I know you didn't. But it happened, and people don't blame you for it. Don't let yourself think you absolutely have to be punished for what you've done. You fought to protect someone you cared about. You're a good person, Lynn, and people know that… no matter how many times you've beaten them senseless and thrown them out of your bar."

Lynn snorted out a small laugh smiled, a look of amusement in her eyes. "He, look at dis. Hall dis time Hy've been komfortink hyu und givink hyu advice over hyu problems, und now hyu're doink de same for me? Tinks are hall topsy-turvy since de Alatreon kame trough."

"It's only fair, Lynn," Marco replied with a smirk, and the innkeeper laughed.

"He, maybe so. Hy do like to make sure pipple repay der debts to me, tough dat usually only applies to pipple vith bar tabs, hey?" Lynn chuckled at the thought. Marco was glad the innkeeper's mood had improved. Despite her loud and violent personality, Marco knew it had to have hit the woman just as hard at having killed a man as it would any other person, and it was good to see her slowly getting over it now. The woman looked around the small, empty room. "So… hyu gotten henny odder visitors besides me und Logan, or are de doctors de only vuns keepink hyu komphenny?"

"Oh, I've had visitors, certainly," Marco sighed. "People asking me to solve their problems by signing things that will get them out of obligations they no longer want to fulfil, considering the devastation of the city, or worse, people trying to trick me into signing something I shouldn't so they can capitalize on all the chaos of the recovery…"

"Hyu didn' sign hennyddink hyu schouldn' hef, deed hyu?" Lynn asked, but Marco shook his head.

"Oh, not at all. If there's one good thing Zhanin did for me, he made me very careful about signing things. Honestly, all these people trying to trick me with small print and hidden subcontracts… Zhanin was far more subtle about these things. Compared to the things he threw at me, it feels as though these people aren't trying at all."

Lynn chuckled. "Hyu're not eksactly de same man hyu vere ven de Lost schtarted poppink up, are hyu? Hyu're actually a respectable kind uf guy now, hey?" The innkeeper paused for a moment before continuing. "Hyu heard dey're gunna be electink a new kouncil member to replace hyu?" Lynn asked cautiously, and Marco laughed.

"Oh, yes, indeed I have. I tell you, I never thought being kicked out of office would come as good news, but after the last couple years of stress this office has given me, I'm glad to be rid of the pressure. I imagine I'll have to help ease in whatever unfortunate soul gets the 'privilege' of being the next South District representative, but at least they'll be making all the decisions, not me. After that, I'm taking the fastest ship back home to the north. It's quieter up there…"

Lynn sighed in relief. "He, dat's goot to hear, hey? Hy vas vorried dis vole time dat Hy'd hef to try und make hyu feel betta about de vole tink or zumddink… tell hyu schtuff like dey're vorried for you health or zum odder tink like dat. De Lost, dey tink hyu've done enough for dem. Hyu gaff you fair shere uf blood, sveat, und tears… heh, more blood ten odder kouncil members hef, hey? Hyu get to retire early because dey like hyu so much.."

"So who are they getting to do it? Do they know who they want yet?"

"De Lost vanted to vote in de nekst kouncil member," Lynn explained with a smirk. "Votink's alvays kind uf messy in dis town, but Hy'm sure dey'll make it vork, hey? De Kouncil didn' seem to mind too much ven de Lost suggested it… hope dey hain't tinkink dey'll get zumone to push around again. Hy don' envy de poor fool dey get to vork de job, tough. Dey might hef to force dem into de job, like how dey got hyu in de uffice, hey? Suckered into doink de job nobody else vanted."

"Yes, that particular process needs work," Marco muttered. "I didn't even want the job, and the next day I found I had it… it's amazing how easily they throw the job on people, whether they apply or not. Someone's going to have to change up the laws on that someday."

"Vell, it's not hyu job hennymore, hey?" Lynn smirked. "Leaff it to de nekst onlucky tvit vat gets de job, ja?"

"I imagine whoever it is will come running to you for help when they need it just as often as I did," Marco noted. "You were always better at figuring out what the best course of action was than me."

"It's easy to figure out vat de pipple uf a district really need ven hyu're gettink dem drunk. Lots uf kouncil members only help de pipple dat hef de most influence or de loudest voices in der districts, but hyu get to hear hall de real problems ven hyu're behind de bar uf a tavern. Und advice? He! Dat doesn't bodder me. Hy kan giff de poor fool advice chust as easily as Hy kan get him drunk to vash avay de schtress. Tough de latter von't be as free as de former, Hy ken tell hyu dat, hey?"

There was a light rapping on the door to the room, and a moment later it opened. A Guild representative, wearing the signature red attire, strode into the room, carrying a small stack of papers under his arm. Marco sighed in frustration, fearing another stack of work he'd need to do, and Lynn shot a glare in the man's direction, but through the Guild worker flinched at the look, he pressed on.

"Don't worry, sir," the man said reassuringly. "This isn't work for you. It's just a report on the South District's voting results. We thought you'd like to know."

"They're done already?" Marco asked, surprised. "I thought they only started tallying votes a few days ago."

"Yes, well, it was a quick process," the Guild man admitted. "A lot of people in the South District chose to refuse voting, considering many of them were planning on leaving the city soon. The whole 'exodus' thing, you know. As such, only about a quarter of the district showed up to vote, but they all seemed ready to go. As such, it took no more than a couple days for the votes to come in."

"Vell, dat's a relief, isn't it?" Lynn grinned. "De faster de nekst onlucky tvit gets pulled into de uffice, de qvicker hyu kan retire, hey? So who iz it, den? Who'd de Lost vote for in de end?"

"It was a ninety-four percent landslide, a city record," the man replied with a smirk. "Congratulations, Miss Lynn, on your election. We'll expect you in the office on Monday at sunrise, and look forward to seeing what you can do." And without another word, the man quickly tossed the pile of papers onto Lynn's lap and immediately bolted from the room.

The innkeeper blinked in stunned shock for several moments, staring down at the papers in her lap and slowly working over what the man had said. The silence was broken almost a minute later when Logan grinned up at his mother. "Congratulations, mama!"

"Vait… vait, vat? Vat? Vat! Hold on a minute! Come back here, hyu coward!" Lynn roared, leaping to her feet. "Dey can'… Hy don'… Hy'm not… Vat chust heppened?"

"Unlucky twit, indeed," Marco laughed from his bed, and Lynn shot the man a withering glare. Marco had little doubt if looks could kill, he'd have burst to flames on the spot, but even so he couldn't help but chuckle. "It would appear as though you've been voted to the prestigious position of Loc Lac Council member by the people of the South District. I'm sure the council didn't expect this when they allowed the Lost to vote in the next district representative. They'll never see this coming… ha! I wouldn't miss this for the world!"

"But… but Hy… Hy'm no politician! How de hell em Hy supposed to be a kouncil member? Hy'll do a terrible job!"

"As if I was any better?" Marco asked, and Lynn glowered at him, unable to argue back. "Don't worry too much. I'll be around to help, and I'm sure Stergo will be more than willing to assist you, too. There's sure to be some willing Lost you could hire as your aides. There's sure to be some in the business of politics, rather than wanting to become a hunter. Maybe I'll refrain from retiring back home for a year or two, if only to see what kind of havoc you raise as a council member. Oh, and may I be the first… well, third I suppose, to say congratulations on your election, Councilwoman Lynn."

"Oh, schut op." Lynn growled, slouching into her chair.

"Come on, now, dear. There's no need to fret so much over me. I'm recovering just fine, and I know my limits."

Monique scowled at her husband. "You say that, but how long do you think I've been married to you? I know how restless you hunters get, and I know what type of man you are, too. If I don't keep an eye on you, you'll go and do something foolish, thinking you're back to your old self again, when you're clearly not."

Richard Sr. winced at the words. "Now Monique, don't you think you're being a bit harsh?"

"I don't know," the woman replied. "Am I? You tell me, and be completely honest."

The old hunter chuckled sheepishly. "Perhaps you're right, my love." Then the smile faded from his face. "Then again… perhaps you're not."

An immense sense of worry washed over Monique at her husband's tone. Melancholy wasn't something she was used to hearing in her husband's tone. In fact, she hardly recalled the last time she'd heard it at all in the man's voice. "Richard, what's wrong?"

The man sighed, a painful sound to Monique's ears. "It's just… I don't… I fear that, perhaps… perhaps I can't hunt anymore."

"What are you talking about?" Monique asked fearfully. "You've been a hunter since as long as I've known you. You saved my life in the Flooded Forest all those years ago. Why would you give it up now? You're not… I thought the doctors said you'd fully recover after your time in… in that place."

The middle-aged hunter smiled sadly. "Perhaps physically, my dear, but…" He reached a hand up and tapped a finger to his temple. "Not mentally. While my body might be capable of battling monsters, I fear my mind will not allow me to do so anymore. And it's because of Malefica."

"I don't understand."

The man sighed. "When the Alatreon attacked, I was awake, remember? And I went for my sword. My hunter's instincts kicked in naturally, and I was ready to take up arms and fight the creature."

"Yes, it was a foolish move in your condition," Monique chastised kindly. "But your good sense got the better of you and you chose not to fight."

Richard shook his head at the words though. "No… not at all. The moment I touched the hilt of my weapon, I just… I remembered Malefica. I did… I did many terrible things… I never told you what I was forced to do in that place to stay alive, my love, and as long as I live, I hope to never have to. If I had been forced to fight only monsters in that sinister arena… But what happened to me there… I cannot say, but it haunts me what I did, with my own hands, holding a blade like that one. All those crimes, those terrible sins… they all came flooding back the moment I touched the hilt of my blade, and I… I just couldn't bring myself to hold it."

"It wasn't your fault," Monique told him sternly. "You can't… you shouldn't blame or punish yourself for what you were forced to do there!"

"Whether or not I should, my love… I do. I cannot help it. Hunting is… hunting was my life, since I was a boy, but… no more. Not again. The memories… the memories just hurt too much."

"What about your apprentices?" Monique asked worriedly. "You're their hunting master!"

"I used to be, but not anymore," Richard replied, shaking his head wearily. "What could I teach them after all that's happened to us? How am I supposed to be a teacher to them after everything we've suffered? I can hardly handle what's happened myself! I cannot even hold my own blade. Natalie… poor Natalie… She will never hunt again with her wounds. And Kimberly has changed so much. She may have a chance to recover from what happened to us. She's still young, and may come to terms with what's happened better than I. They were spared from the worst, being young and inexperienced, even with their popularity. But us older hunters were spared from nothing. The nightmares the most skilled of us were forced to undergo… There is nothing more I can do for them but hope they can find some happiness in life, despite everything they've gone through."

"You can't just give up. Not like this…"

"I'm not giving up, Monique. But I can't keep going like I used to. Perhaps I will be able to come to terms with what I went through somehow… someday. Perhaps I will even find it in me to wield a blade and hunt again. But it won't be easy, and it won't be soon."

Monique looked down on her husband, sighing dolefully. She sat down next to him, leaning close and wrapping an arm around him. "Don't worry dear. Just take your time. I'll be right here, helping you every step of the way until you're back to your old self."

Richard Sr. smiled. "Thank you, my love."

There was a loud, abrupt knocking at the door to the hotel room, an urgent, rough sound. The married couple pulled apart reluctantly, and Monique gave an irritated look at the door. There was the sound of harried arguing coming from behind the door, though the sounds were muffled and dull. Monique thought she could recognize one of the voices, though the loudest of them was certainly unfamiliar. The smith got to her feet to head over to the door, but before she could take a step, the door was shoved open, a trio of people pushing into the room.

Or rather, one person pushed into the room, with two people dragging along behind. The two following the first were none other than Felicia and Rowan, all armored up again and looking for the world like chastised pups. The first man to enter was an old Wyvernian. A very, very old Wyvernian, older than any Monique had ever seen before in her life, and that was coming from a woman who had spent a better portion of her life living in Frost Town, where a good quarter of the smiths were Wyvernian, and all of them far older than any human by several generations. His hair was white with age, though covered in a thin layer of soot. He wore thick leather clothing, materials made for working the forge, and looked for all the world like he'd just strode out from a smithy. But he moved quickly, far more spry than a being his age would be expected to. Without a word, he walked over to Monique, looking her up and down appraisingly, though from his expression, he didn't seem impressed.

"So you're her, huh? This Monique I asked these two fools to go bring to me? You don't look like much to me. Kind of disappointing." Monique heard her husband growl threateningly behind her, and both Felicia and Rowan looked nervous about it all. She heard her husband push himself to his feet, but before he could say anything, the Wyvernian spoke again. "Show me your hands, lass."

"Excuse me?" the smith asked, surprised. "I don't know what you want from me, but-"

"Just hold 'em out for me," the Wyvernian interrupted. "I ain't done figuring out whether you're worth my time or not."

"Now hold on a minute-!" her husband snapped irritably, but before he could say another word, the Wyvernian sighed, shaking his head, and quickly took a step forward, grabbing hold on Monique's hands and pulling them down to assess them. The room was silent for a long moment, Richard Sr. growling under his breath in anger at the Wyvernian's abrupt, rude actions, and Felicia and Rowan shifting nervously where they stood at the glares he was sending around the room. After about ten seconds, the Wyvernian grumbled to himself, nodding dubiously.

"Folks' hands say a lot about 'em," the Wyvernian explained, releasing Monique's hands. "The rest of it don't impress me. Short, tall, strong, weak, male, female… I don't give a damn about what a person looks like, and honestly it's a waste of time for me. And talking's no good either; whether the blather that comes out of your mouth makes you seem smart or stupid, whether you tell the truth or lie, it's not worth it to try and sift through all that business. Like I told you, you don't look like much, not to me. But your hands? Those are impressive enough. You're a fine enough smith, I can see that in them, and you might actually be worth all this effort I've gone through to get hold of you."

Monique blinked in surprise at the words, looking at her own hands curiously at the Wyvernian's appraisal. "Who… who exactly are you?"

The Wyvernian smirked at the question. "I've got a fair number of names, depending on who you ask, and most of them aren't complementary. I imagine your husband there is biting off a few choice ones, but I doubt they'd be anything I haven't heard before. But if you just want the one I prefer, my name is Shinra."

"The famous smith?" Monique gasped. She should have known; Felicia and Rowan stood behind the Wyvernian, and they'd both claimed to have been employed by the well-known artisan.

But at the same time, she grew wary. Both of the hunters, as well as the Guild representative who had interrogated them before the Alatreon attack, had declared Shinra was a man who cared very little about the rules of law, and often pushed the boundaries of what was legal. And he had given the two hunters the order to essentially kidnap her if she had refused to leave Frost Town with them… That certainly seemed to be at the forefront of her husband's mind at the moment, as her husband's irate growling seemed to grow more fierce at the Wyvernian's name. Shinra didn't seem to notice or care about the elder hunter's anger, however, and focused his attention on Monique.

"Famous, eh? I couldn't care less about that nonsense. Mercy knows a fair number of folk consider me more infamous than anything else. But it gets me the materials I need for my work, and keeps some of the busybodies out of my way, so I suppose it simplifies things."

"So… what exactly do you want with me?" Monique asked.

"Did these fool hunters of mine not tell you?" Shinra growled irritably, turning to glare at the pair behind him out of the corner of his eye. The two shivered under the Wyvernian's withering expression, and the old creature harrumphed in disdain, turning back to Monique. "I suppose I did tell them to keep quiet about it… bah. Well, I suppose it doesn't matter. I want you to help me design a weapon, and I'm willing to pay you well for the work."

"You… you want me to help you make a weapon? That's all?" Monique asked in confusion. Her husband's anger seemed to have faded a little as well at the request. The old Wyvernian, one of the most famous smiths ever, certainly the most renowned in the country, needed her help just to make a weapon?

"Why?" she asked abruptly, and Shinra raised an eyebrow. "I mean, what could I possibly help you with? If even half the stories the other smiths in Frost Town tell about you are true, what could I possibly contribute? I'm a fair smith, I'll admit that, and I specialize in refurbishing old artifacts… but what help could I be to you?"

Shinra grimaced and frowned. He looked irritated, though more at himself than anyone else. "A lot of people come to me when they want to mold the rarer materials they've gathered into something worthwhile, something other smiths just aren't skilled enough to work. Just recently, some lass sought me out, wanting me to make some Silver Rathalos armor for a friend of hers… there was some story behind it, but I didn't really listen. I'm being modest when I say I'm the best smith in this country. I can make the best weapons and armor out of the best materials, and damn it all if every decent smith and hunter worth their salt knows it.

"But what I take pride in more than anything else when it comes to my work is what I've done to introduce more weapon types to the hunters of the country. I was the one who perfected the design of the long swords you see so often in this country these days. Took me years to figure out how to make use of that 'Spirit power' or whatever it was called. And it was I who redesigned bowguns to allow the customization of the stock, frame, and barrel. Though… it seems a lot of hunters and smiths are doing away with that system in recent years, favoring a single-piece bowgun… lazy, unimaginative fools." Shinra puffed his chest proudly at the words. "That's what I'm trying to do now, girlie. I'm trying to bring the designs of foreign hunting weapons here to Theron. And right now, I'm working on recreating the hunting horn."

"Hunting horns?" Richard Sr. asked, his expression souring again. "Is that all? That doesn't sound like such a big issue that you'd need to essentially kidnap my wife to do it."

"Oh, really?" Shinra scoffed. "Hunting horns, while you certainly see them around here and there, are definitely not common in this country. Do you know how many smiths there are in Theron who can put together a working hunting horn? Four! Only four, and they're not even good at it! If you want a decent hunting horn made, you'd need to go to one of the cities on the Gahiji border, and if you want one made with exceptional materials, you'd need permission to go deep into Gahiji or sail all the way to Minegarde! And none of them are sharing their secrets on making the weapons, savoring their monopoly on the market! I've only seen maybe two dozen hunters hoisting those around in this country over course of my life. And I guarantee you, it's been a very long life.

"Like I said, I'm trying to introduce more weapons to the country for hunters to use! And I'm starting with the hunting horn, that damnable weapon the Gahiji smiths have held over our heads for so long. Once I've mastered that, made a few different types for reference, I'll spread the design instructions on how to create them to other smiths through the country, until there isn't a stranglehold on the design of them anymore, and hunters won't have to go abroad to get a decent one made."

"It sounds like you've got all of this planned out already," Richard Sr. noted. "Why exactly do you need my wife to accompany you and help you make these weapons?"

"I don't like asking for other folks' expertise, I'll say that much," Shinra admitted. "Too many cooks spoil the broth, they say, and I say two cooks is one cook to many for me. However, I am loathe to admit the finer details of my work are eluding me. I'm one of, if not the best weapon and armor smith in this country, but music… musical instruments confound me! I simply cannot make these damnable hunting horns work the way they're supposed to! The tuning and shaping of the instruments is something I can't get right, and the music unleashed when I test them is more likely to leave the hunter paralyzed on the ground as it will making them stronger!

"That's why I need you," the Wyvernian snapped, pointing sharply at Monique. "I've tried to pick the brains of some of the hunting horn smiths you find in the border towns, but they're a closed-mouth bunch of stubborn fools. Couldn't get a word out of them, so I had to do everything myself, studying the weapons I managed to collect for research. But it's not enough. The work's going too slowly. So as much as I hate to say it, I need someone to help me figure out what's wrong with my works."

"So… you only need me long enough to help you figure out how to… tune a hunting horn?" Monique asked.

"Yep. That's the short of it, girlie," Shinra replied, nodding fervently. "Then I'll pay you, and you can go."

"Once the design of the hunting horn is finished, I can leave? Just like that? After everything you've done to get me?"

"Of course! Hell, I'd toss you out the door myself. I told you, I don't like working with others; I like my solitary work." But the Wyvernian paused, putting on a thoughtful expression. "However… there are a few other weapons I've been tinkering with, trying to develop properly from what I've gleaned from foreign weapons I've collected. If you prove competent enough to help me finish my work developing the hunting horn, I might consider keeping you on for a while longer to get your thoughts on the rest as well. Don't get your hopes up though; chances are you'll just rile me up and I'll throw you out before it's all said and done. So what do you say, girlie? Yay or nay? Good pay, decent work, and it shouldn't take more than a couple months with good fortune. How about it?"

Monique frowned in thought, torn over the decision. On the one hand, she had to admit this was an opportunity few smiths would ever get the chance to take. Shinra was certainly the most skilled and respected smith in the country. To have the chance to see what sorts of skills one could learn from the old Wyvernian was something any smith would jump at immediately. His end goal was encouraging as well, promoting the spread of more hunting weapons through the country, not to mention Monique was intrigued at the thought of designing a hunting horn. And the pay… Shinra was easily offering about as much money as she earned in a year, and that was certainly nothing to scoff at. But on the other hand, the Wyvernian was sour, crude, and abrupt in everything he said and did, and had pretty much guaranteed he'd toss her out if she irritated him. He had also essentially given his underlings orders to kidnap her if she didn't come willingly. And aside from all of Shinra's personality flaws and bad decisions, Monique had her husband and son to worry about, and she couldn't just rush off on some personal desire to see a legendary smith at work.

She sighed, coming to a decision. She would have to turn Shinra down. She simply had too much to worry about now to afford the time to accept the Wyvernian's offer. But before she could speak, her husband spoke up.

"You should do it, my dear."

"What?" Monique gasped. "But-"

"I know what you're thinking. In your own words, how long do you think I've been married to you? I can tell you don't want to do this for… a myriad of reasons. But you don't need to worry about me, and you don't need to worry about our son. We can take care of ourselves. This is a big opportunity for you, and not one to be missed, no matter what may worry you… even if the old codger deserves a swift punch to the jaw."

"But still…"

"In fact, if you accept, I plan go with you," the older hunter continued, shooting an untrusting look in Shinra's direction. The Wyvernian met the look with an amused expression. "I still don't trust this bastard, no matter if he's some famous smith or whatever he claims to be. Considering what he's done, I'm not about to trust him a single whit to taking you off to wherever he's going. I may not be… quite as battle ready as I once was, but I want to be there in case this old fool tries something like he did before. I'm sure if he pushes me wrong, I'll be more than willing to knock some sense into him."

Shinra smirked at the words. "Ha, you can certainly try, lad. I may just be a smith, and an ancient one at that, but if you come at me, you'll find yourself in for a tougher fight than you think." The old Wyvernian looked back at Monique. "You can bring this brash lad along with you. I don't really care either way. But my rules apply to him, too. If either of you tick me off too much, or waste too much of my time, I'm kicking you both out."

Monique looked worriedly at her husband. "Are you sure about this, Richard? I mean, you are still recovering."

"I'm fine," Richard Sr. replied adamantly. "It's not as though I'm planning to go out hunting or anything, and I've been cooped up in this hospital for far too long. And besides, accompanying my lovely wife on some adventure, even a small one, is sure to help me get my mind off of… other things."

"I see… well, that's a good reason, isn't it?" Monique said, a faint blush dusting her cheeks as she smiled. She turned back to Shinra, who was tapping his foot impatiently by now. "Very well, Shinra. I'll accept your offer."

"Finally!" the old Wyvernian sighed. "I've spent far too long on this little journey, having to find you and pick up these two fools behind me," he said, motioning to Felicia and Rowan. "But that's enough time wasted! Come on, the two of you. We leave immediately. The next sandship out of town leaves in a few hours, and I want to be on it."

"Wait, what?" Richard Sr. gasped. "We're leaving so soon?"

"I'm sorry, but I need to find my baggage," Monique said quickly. "It got lost somewhere in the city during the riots and Alatreon attack. And my husband has no clothes or traveling goods either, so I'm afraid we can't just-"

"Nonsense!" Shinra snapped, interrupting her. "You don't have clothes? Buy some. Sundries? Same thing. I have no time to waste waiting for you two to toddle about in search of what you need for the journey, and certainly none to wait for you to go back to your hometowns. Buy what you need here in Loc Lac, and I'll foot the bill. I want you at my workshop as soon as feasibly possible!"

Monique and her husband shared a shocked look. "But sir," Richard Sr. said, "we couldn't possibly ask you to-"

"You ain't asking me, I'm telling you: I'm buying what you need and we're going," Shinra replied quickly. "Boy, I have more money than I know what to do with, and all the contacts in the world to get me the materials and goods I need for my work. I have a collection of faithful employees who are… occasionally competent, and all the reputation a man of my occupation could ask for. But look at me, the both of you. I'm old as dirt! Just ask these two fools here, they'll tell you the same. I'm a wealthy, powerful, respected man, but there's one thing in the world I don't have nearly enough of, and that's time! I absolutely despise the wasting of time! I've only got so many years left in these old bones of mine, and so much more I want to do with my work. So I don't give a damn about the cost of things, because for me, time is the most valuable commodity available to me right now. I've spent long enough traveling here, finding these two idiotic employees of mine, and searching you out. So I'm telling the two of you again: go get whatever you need, whatever the cost, and I'll pay for it so we can go already!"

"No, wait, our son is in town too," Monique replied. "We can't just leave without-"

"Bring him along, I don't care," Shinra said quickly. "Or send him off wherever he wants to go! Like I said, none of that matters to me, as long as we can leave on the next ship out of Loc Lac and back to my workshop."

The married couple looked at each other with concern, before Monique spoke up again. "Well… okay, fine. But above all else we absolutely cannot leave without telling our son first. Even if we miss the ship."

"Bah, fine," Shinra muttered. "Best hope he shows up soon."

"He should be back quickly enough," Richard Sr. replied. "He just went to speak with some friends of his, and should return shortly."

"The faster the better," Shinra muttered. Then he waved at the two hunters behind him. "Come on you two fools. Let's find some food while we wait. Hopefully there's still some decent food stalls open in this wreckage of a city…"

As the trio made their way out the door, Monique looked at her husband worriedly. "Are you really sure about this? What about Kimberly and Natalie?"

"They'll manage on their own well enough," Richard Sr. replied somberly. "I'll say my farewells to them before we go… But like I said, I can do nothing else for them, not as I am. They're wise enough to make their own decisions - and mistakes - and learn from them. They… they survived Malefica. I'm sure they will do well enough, whatever paths they choose for themselves."

"Here for another visit, Miss Natalie? Shouldn't you still be in your room? You're still recovering, after all."

Nat smiled at the doctor as she made her way down the hall. "I'm fine," she replied. "The wounds don't hurt anymore. And I can't sit still after all. I thought you'd be used to that, being a hunters' hospital."

"Not after wounds like you've taken," the doctor replied poignantly, glancing down at her. "That's… that's a convenient enough invention the Lost have provided us. So simple… you'd think we'd have thought it up before."

Nat nodded and looked down. She first saw her legs, of course, or what was left of them, at least. There was no recovering those. They were completely gone below the knees, like before, and there would be no returning them. The doctors had managed to stop the bleeding like the Coliseum doctors hadn't, stabilized her, and kept her from getting infected. Since then she'd spent time recovering and getting her strength back. The doctors thought she'd be depressed or in denial or one of those other 'stages' things. But she'd had her time to grieve her loss, and she'd used it helping to bring down Malefica, though her memory of it was vague…

That had left her plenty of time during her recovery for her to go absolutely stir-crazy. Thankfully, a couple of the Lost doctors had volunteered their help during the post-riot recovery, putting together something she could use to get around: a rather aptly-named contraption called a wheelchair. Honestly, it was a simple design, but it had just never occurred to any of the locals until the Lost offered up the idea. Now she and other paraplegics could positively fly around the hospital once they'd gotten used to the movement, provided they didn't run into any obstacles like stairs. It helped her have the ability to get around to other things that concerned her. With another smile at the doctor, she rolled into the room behind him.

"He's not doing much better than he was yesterday, if you're wondering," the doctor said, following her into the room. "His wounds are patching quickly enough, though his injury was certainly nothing to scoff at. He'll need some more time to recover."

"That's alright," Nat replied. "I can keep him company."

"Yes, well, that's a good thing," the doctor said. "Your presence seems to be good for him. Were you a friend of his before he was infirmed?"

Nat shook her head. "Not exactly. We were… acquaintances, though."

"Well, whatever you were, I hope you'll keep coming to see him. He'll be out of this place before you know it. And we could really use the room these days, I tell you… Anyway, I must be getting back to my rounds. Have a nice talk, Miss Natalie."

"Thank you," Nat replied, rolling towards the bed.

Lying, or rather, sitting in the bed was a blonde haired man, a couple inches taller than Nat used to be, staring out the window towards the sunlit city. He was about the same age as her, but… his eyes seemed to show far more years than what they should, though Nat imagined that people said the same about her these days. He was mostly uninjured, but many bandages wrapped around his chest and gut, covering a wound which once lay below.

Micah finally glanced over at Nat, and stared at her for a moment before smiling slightly. "You're here again."

"I am," Nat replied.

"Won't Kimberly be mad at you?" he asked, a fearful look filling his eyes.

"Probably. But I felt like coming anyway."

Micah nodded, accepting the answer and turning to look back out the window again. "They're really fixing Loc Lac quickly, aren't they?"

"The entire city is working to return it to its former glory, and make it even better," Nat replied, looking out the window with him. Several tall buildings were being constructing, towering structures Nat never imagined could be made by man. "The Loc Lac Tower will probably never be reconstructed… but I suppose people don't really care about that. But people are really coming together to rebuild. It's amazing, if you ask me. The Therians are in awe of how quickly the Lost were able to be able to turn around and fight the Alatreon, and the Lost… something inside of them was, I don't know, relieved from them when the Alatreon died."

"That's good to hear. It's nice to know things are getting better for people. I… I can't say I feel any different myself, though. I just feel… hollow."

Nat simply nodded and continued to stare out the window. The two sat in silence for a long time, saying nothing and just watching the day go by. Nat wasn't sure how much time had passed, but eventually Micah turned to look at her, a concerned look on his face.

"Can I ask you something, Natalie?"

"Yes, you can."

"Who am I?" Micah asked. Nat could see his hands beginning to shake, grip tightening on the blankets covering him. "To you, I mean. Who am I to you?"

Nat didn't answer quickly. "Nothing, really."

"There must be something," Micah replied. "Why else would you come and visit me?"

Nat turned and met his eyes. "You still don't remember anything?"

A miserable look crossed Micah's eyes. "Nothing. I don't remember anything. Who I am, where I'm from, how I got here to this… this… hunter's world. Nothing about this… 'Lost' thing, or any of the politics. I don't remember anything. I'm an empty shell. I just… am."

"Nothing at all?" Nat asked. "No new memories have popped up?"

"Nothing I can use," Micah replied, shaking his head. "Nothing that helps me, just small flashes. A face, a smell, a familiar feeling… something I fear, something I hate. Something that makes me happy or sad, occasional feelings of familiarity. But mostly… nothing."

Nat nodded in understanding. Micah had woken up a couple weeks ago. The wound Moloch had given him had left him unconscious for a long time, and when he had woken up, he was… empty. He had no memory of who he was or what he had done. The doctors said incredibly stressful situations could result in amnesia, which was what he seemed to have developed. Ellie had visited Nat a couple times and told her what had happened between Micah and Moloch, so Nat had little doubt where the stress had come from. Countless crimes committed in the name of a man you thought of as a father, only to be betrayed by him and find your life was a lie? That sounded stressful enough to Nat.

Nat didn't know why she'd asked Stephan to save him. She could've… should've left him to die in a pool of his own blood after all he'd done to her, to Kim, to Master Richard, to everyone who had fallen victim to the Crimson Coliseum. But… his last words to her, that he had nothing left, had struck something inside her. She'd asked Stephan to have his ugly red armor removed and him be brought along with the others escaping the prisons. She hadn't known how she'd react to him when he'd woken up, either. Would she accuse him? Did she want someone to have to place blame for their suffering upon? She didn't know.

What she hadn't expected was, when Micah had woken up, he had looked right at her and asked her who she was. Then he'd asked if she knew who he was. Now she was… honestly, she didn't know what she was doing.

"You must know something," Micah said quietly.

"I must? Why is that?"

"The way you look at me. The… the way you act around me. The reason you visit me. No one else visits me."

Nat shrugged. "Maybe I just thought you were lonely."

"You told me my name!"

"Maybe you just told me it when we were coming to Loc Lac."

"And that's another thing!" Micah gasped, his voice raising. "Why was I at this… this Malefica? What was I doing there? Why was I injured? Why were you there with me?"

"I've told you why I was there."

"Yes, you were captured and made a… a twisted circus act. But why was I there too? I'm not a hunter! I mean, I don't think I am… What was I to you? Why are you coming to see me?"

"You're not anything to me right now."

"I'm not… I'm not anything to anybody," Micah said quietly. "Not… not right now. But… but I was something before, wasn't I? What was I to you? An acquaintance? A friend? An ally? A partner? A lover?"

Nat continued to stare at him flatly, not saying a word.

"Was I… an enemy?" Micah asked. "I've seen… I've seen the way Kimberly looks at me. She hates me, and I don't even know why. What did I do? Why did I do it?"

"Does it matter?"

Micah looked up at Nat's words. "I don't… I don't know. It should. But… but I don't know." Nat cocked her head a little as Micah continued. "I don't want to remember. If I was… if I caused so many people pain, I don't want to remember. But I don't know who I was. I want to know, but… if there's a chance I was someone I don't want to be…"

"You are who you are."

"But I don't know who that is," Micah whispered. "I don't… I don't know if I want to remember who I am or not."

"So be who you want to be, memories or not," Nat said. Micah blinked and looked at her. "That's what everyone else does."

Micah gazed at her, confusion and fear in his eyes. "I… I don't know…"

From out in the hall, there was a clattering sound, followed by angry cursing, and Micah cringed in fear. Nat sighed and grumbled in frustration. "That was a lot faster than I thought it would be."

"I don't… She still doesn't like me, does she?" Micah asked fearfully as Kim burst through the door and stormed into the room.

"Not really," Nat sighed as Kim stomped towards her. The redhead sent a withering glare at Micah, and the man recoiled in fear as though physically struck. She opened her mouth, ready to shout at him, and Micah braced himself as though she was going to actually attack him. But Kim hesitated, before closing her mouth irritably and looking towards the door. An attendant stood just outside, giving her a warning look. Nat rolled her eyes; the doctors and nurses had given her friend tongue-lashings several times now for raising a commotion in the hospital.

She continued to glare daggers at Micah, rolling curses across her tongue, just loud enough for the man to hear. With seething disdain, the huntress grabbed hold of the handles of Nat's wheelchair, spinning her around and pushing her to the far corner of the room, before spinning her about and scowling irritably at her friend.

"Why do you keep doing this?" Kim snapped, hissing angrily. Her tone was biting, but she kept her voice quiet enough so Micah couldn't overhear. "He was one of them! He deserves to spend the rest of his life rotting in prison! What do we owe him?"

"Our lives," Nat replied simply. "If it wasn't for him-"

"So he opened the doors for us," Kim cut her off. "Kerry would have gotten them all open eventually. He just saved us some time! That doesn't change the fact he didn't free us earlier. He captured other hunters besides us, and led them to that hell hole. He was killing other hunters, and probably civilians too! Guild workers have been asking around about what went on at the Coliseum, but you haven't said anything at all to them about this jackass! It would take all of ten seconds to call a guard and tell them about his involvement, and have him carted off to prison for the rest of his natural born life! Why are you dawdling, and worse, making me keep quiet too?"

"Because… well… I don't know why," Nat admitted, and Kim cursed in frustration.

It was true; Nat could've had Micah arrested at any time, memory loss or not. Several times during her recovery, Nat had been questioned by men the Guild had sent to investigate Moloch's organization. A word from her, and Micah would have been hauled off to prison, even before he was finished recovering. But Nat hadn't given him away. She'd even asked Kim and Stephan to keep their silence about Micah's identity as well. Stephan had been uncertain, but accepted the issue in the end.

Kim however… her friend was obviously having a hard time holding back from declaring Micah's past to the next person she passed in the hall. Even the slightest mention of Malefica set her off, though not without good reason. The huntress was in such poor standing with the orderlies here due to her having gone off on tirades at Micah several times, insulting him and talking down to him with a passionate fury unlike anything Nat had seen before. It explained why the former Malefica lieutenant showed such abject fear around her. But somehow she'd refrained from giving away any information about Micah's past to him or anyone else, caving to Nat's admittedly selfish request. There was speculation growing as to why Kim had such a foul disposition towards Micah, but so far none of them had landed too close to the truth. Nat had to admit, her favorite was the rumor claiming Kim was a jilted lover of Micah's. She found that one surprisingly amusing; needless to say, Kim did not.

It was lucky someone else hadn't found out about Micah at all, either. Hell, Master Richard's son had even visited her and Kim several times in the last couple weeks. He'd been captured and imprisoned in the Coliseum too, and would recognize the former Malefica hunter. He seemed level-headed and down to earth from what Nat had seen, but she remembered what he looked like when he was out for blood in the battle against the Malafica guards. If he'd caught sight of Micah, he likely would have summoned the guards immediately. But so far, Micah was safe.

And Nat still didn't know why she was protecting him.

"He's a monster," Kim growled, "just like the rest of those bastards who worked there. Why are you protecting him?"

"Yes, he was a monster," Nat agreed. "But… he was made that way. Ever since I heard his story, about how he got caught up working for Moloch, I couldn't help but wonder... if I were under similar circumstances as him, would I have done the same? Would I have become a criminal to show loyalty to someone who had saved my life?

"Do you remember when we were young, when Master Richard saved our caravan? After that, we dedicated ourselves to becoming hunters, hoping to become his apprentices when we were old and strong enough? But… what if Master Richard hadn't been the kind, noble hunter he actually was? What if he'd been a poacher or something else? Would we still have followed him, feeling indebted to him as our savior and role model? How easy would it have been for us to fall into the same life of crime, if our teacher was one?"

Kim gaped in horror at the words, but seemed to have trouble figuring out how to respond. "It's not… it's not the same story. We wouldn't have-"

"I don't know that," Nat interjected. "I can't be certain. What about Stephan? He was hired to be a guard for the Coliseum, but didn't know what the job entailed when he signed on. Once he joined the organization though, he found himself in a place he couldn't escape, not without a plan, and not without consequences. He might have been killed if it that escape plan hadn't come through. Micah… I feel like he was trapped in the same way, but right from the start, when his mother was burned. The second Moloch entered his life, when he paid for his mother's recovery, Micah was trapped, but not by fear. He was trapped by his honor, his debt to Moloch."

Kim shook her head. "A pitiable past doesn't condone the crimes someone has committed. And it sure as hell doesn't absolve them!"

"I know!" Nat gasped, and Kim pulled away in surprise. "I know. I just… I know the crimes he committed must be paid for. But I don't think prison is the best way to do it. He's not… I'm just curious, I think. I want to see what kind of man he is without Moloch's influence on him. At the moment, he's just… an empty shell. A clean slate. There's nothing inside of him but who he originally was, before Moloch, before the Coliseum. I want to see what he does with himself. Call it… call it a curiosity I want to satisfy."

Kim crossed her arms and turned to glare at Micah again. Even across the room, the man withered under her gaze. "I don't like it. It's not… it's not enough. We were tormented. We had to… we had to kill other hunters. You lost your legs! It's not enough!"

"I understand," Nat replied, and Kim frowned. "I thought… I want… I… I don't know what I want. I don't know what to do, or whether it's right or wrong, or if I'm being stupid and foolish. I just… I'm doing what I think I should do. I want to help him. I want to spare him. I want… I want to see what happens. But… if you don't think he's suffered enough for his crimes, if you think he should be sent to prison… go ahead and tell the guards outside about his involvement with the Coliseum. I won't argue, and I won't try to defend him. I'll leave it to you."

Kim's eyes widened excitedly at the prospect, and for a moment it looked as though the huntress would immediately dash off in search of a Guild soldier to rat out Micah. But before she took a step, she paused, her expression torn. She looked frantically back and forth between the door and Nat for almost a full minute, muttering to herself under her breath and shooting occasional cold glares in Micah's direction. Her expression grew increasingly conflicted and agonized, until finally the huntress cursed violently, loud enough that a doctor looked in on them, glaring at her in frustration. But Kim ignored the man, looking down at Nat with a defeated expression.

"Fine! Fine, I'll let him go, only for now. But you better know what you're doing," Kim growled, though Nat shook her head.

"Honestly, I really don't."

Kim groaned in dismay at the admission, but stalked out of the room, sending one last black look in Micah's direction, making the man flinch. Then she was gone, off to sulk no doubt, or try to think up another argument she could use against Micah's case. Nat sighed in relief though. Honestly, she had thought Kim was going to take her up on the offer to denounce Micah and expel his past to the world. But she hadn't, through some small miracle, choosing to accept Nat's choice. Hopefully it wouldn't be the wrong one…

"Sorry about that," Nat said, rolling herself back over to the edge of Micah's bed. The man nodded, his eyes still warily on the door, as though he expected Kim to come roaring back into the room and rant at him like she'd intended to.

"It's… it's fine. I just wish I knew what I'd done to make her so angry. I wish I knew what I could do to make it up to her."

Nat couldn't help but look down at the stubby remains of her legs for a moment, but was able to look up before Micah caught it. There was only one kind of repayment Kim would want, and it wasn't something easy to pay. "Don't worry about it," she told him. "Just leave her be for now, and she'll cool off. All she needs is some time, and maybe she'll come to like you."

"Do you really think that?" Micah asked wryly.

Nat shrugged uncertainly. "Well… maybe. It might take a few months. Or years. Or decades." Micah's head hung at the words, and Nat leaned forward, patting his shoulder encouragingly. "Like I said, just give it time. It's all you can really do."

"I suppose so…"

The two talked quietly to each other for some time as the sun began to dip lower to the horizon. There was no rhyme or reason to what they discussed; they simply said what came to mind, bits and pieces of small talk which continued to carry on through the day. Eventually though, the pair of them ran out of things to talk about, and they sat in silence, listening to the dwindling sound of construction through the window, as workers began to call it a day, returning to their homes.

"Have you ever been to Orage Dell?" Nat suddenly asked. Micah gave her a strange look before shaking his head.

"I can't say I have… Literally, I can't. I don't remember."

Nat smiled at him. "It's a nice place, a hunting town on the coast. Kind of rowdy, but I guess that's common for hunting towns. Nice and warm there, too. I think you'd like it." She leaned back in her wheelchair, an amused smirk crossing her face. "The old folks there, they have a saying: the ocean has no memory."

"How fitting… A warm place with no memory," Micah sighed, looking out the window. The two sat in silence for several moments more, then Micah looked back at Nat, a small smile ghosting the edge of his lips. "You make it sound like an invitation."

"Nothing of the sort," Nat replied quickly. "However, the city is my home, and I'm planning on going back there as soon as I'm recovered enough to travel. If you should choose to go there… well, at least you'll know somebody. Ah, two somebodies, I guess; Kim lives there too."

Micah winced at the huntress' name. "Can't have the sweet without the sour, huh?"

"I'm afraid not," Nat laughed gently. "Though I'd be careful saying that around Kim. I'm not sure which would make her angrier, you calling her 'sour' or you calling me 'sweet'."

"I'll keep that in mind," Micah muttered. "As for your suggestion, it certainly has its appeals… I'll think about it. Maybe going there will help me remember my past… remember who I am…"

Nat nodded, looking back out the window. "Or maybe going there will help you realize your past doesn't define who you are. Maybe you'll choose to let your actions from here on in define you, rather than anything else."

Micah looked at Nat, surprise in his eyes. He gazed at her intently, trying to determine what she was thinking, trying to figure out what she knew that he didn't. But Nat met his gaze unwaveringly, not letting herself give anything away, until eventually the man sighed in defeat, returning his gaze to the window. "Maybe you're right…"

"Don't rush yourself," Nat told him, leaning back and looking out the window as well. "You have all the time in the world to decide who you are, and in the end, it's nobody's decision but yours."

A raucous round of laughter filled the Dual Horn Oasis as Richard pushed his way into the bar of the inn. It was a nice sound to hear after so long.

He'd spent the last few days finally filling out all the paperwork and reports he'd had backed up; he'd needed to give his full story on everything which had happened with Malefica, and more recently, what had occurred in the Sacred Land during their chase of the Alatreon. He was supposed to have done it upon returning from Malefica in the first place, but with the temporary arrest of Stergo, the social unrest, and the Alatreon's attack, he had never quite gotten around to it. But now that was over, and he could finally get back to his personal life. His father was supposed to be released from the hospital soon enough, and he was looking forward to returning to his life back in Frost Town. He'd even received a letter from back home detailing a peculiar Rathian that used a different color fire than usual…

But first, he'd decided to catch up with his friends. He'd hardly seen any of them in the time since they'd returned, and he hoped to be able to catch up before life and duty pulled them apart again. Fortunately, it seemed he'd come at an opportune time; it seemed most of the hunters he'd traveled with were here. Kai, Kei, and Noxramus were up near the bar, wildly telling stories to the hunters and civilians sitting around them, likely another rendition of the battles they fought in the Sacred Land, and against the World Eater. Tenebris and Jino were there as well, but had receded from the center of attention and had placed themselves in a small booth off to the side. He knew the hunters who had fought the Alatreon in the Sacred Land were still recovering in the hospital, so the only hunter who wasn't there was Miller. With a shrug to himself, the long sword wielder made his way toward Jino and Tenebris, and the pair smiled to him as he approached.

"Well, well, look who it is. Where have you been this last month?" Tenebris asked. "We've hardly seen hide or hair of you since we got back from the Sacred Land."

Richard chuckled and shook his head. "The Guild has kept me busy since returning to Loc Lac. I've hardly even had enough time to even see my mother and father since coming back from the Sacred Land. I needed time to heal, as we all did, but even in the hospital Jonathan and Stergo had me filing reports and giving a full disclosure of what happened on that mountain, even though I wasn't involved in the final battle against the Alatreon. Then there was the mess with the World Eater in Boma Village… But it seems like I've finally gotten a chance for a break at last. I just thought I'd stop by really quickly and see how the rest of you were faring before heading back to the hospital."

"Well, I'm fine," Jino replied with a smirk. "I wasn't that badly hurt in the Sacred Land, though I'm out of a weapon now. Looks as though I won't be hunting for a while, either. Most of the smiths in town are too busy working on the recovery effort to waste time on making a hammer for a battered old hunter like me."

"Oh, please," Tenebris scoffed. "Considering our participation in the hunt of the Alatreon, we've all got notable reputations now; there isn't a person in this city who doesn't know our names. In my opinion, it's getting a little uncomfortable having people recognize me on the street. Let's face it, Jino, any smith you asked to make you a weapon would do it in a heartbeat if they knew who you were."

The older hunter chuckled sheepishly. "I suppose you caught me. Truth be told, I figure the smiths really do have better things to be doing now than catering to the desires of an old hunter, no matter how 'famous' he might be. Besides, I'm always telling folks I'm retired, I might as well act like it for once. For a little while at least…"

Richard grinned at the banter. Another round of laughter caught his attention from over by the bar, where Kai, Kei, and Nox were continuing their stories, obviously adding quite a bit more flair than their tales really had, to be able to pull such amusement from their audience. "I see those three are doing just fine."

"Oh, yes," Jino agreed. "Those three seem to thrive in this fame we seem to have garnered from our participation in the Alatreon hunt. This is likely the twentieth time today they've told their sides of the story to those who come in to hear them, and they haven't even gotten going yet. You should hear Kai and Kei when they really get going. Those two are quite the storytellers, and they're quite good at working with each other to weave a tale. If hunting doesn't work out for them, they've certainly got a future in storytelling."

"Their exaggerations are getting a little out of hand though," Tenebris muttered. "Last night, Nox got a little drunk, and was going on about how he personally shoved a dozen pitfall traps down the Zinogre's throat and made it… 'pop' from the inside."

"He also got a little grabby when he got a little drunk, as I recall," Jino replied with a smirk.

"He also got a little punched!" Tenebris growled, though her cheeks tinted pink at the words.

"I was wondering where that bruise on his face came from," Richard observed in amusement, and Tenebris grumbled to herself sourly. Then the long sword wielder looked around curiously. "Where's Miller? I haven't seen him since we returned to Loc Lac."

Tenebris sighed at the question. "He left the city a couple days ago. He never seemed comfortable with the crowds and the attention he was receiving, so he decided to head back to his home country. I guess he never really intended to stay in Theron forever… but he said he planned to return to make sure any Lost that popped up back home would be treated better than they were here."

"Too bad," Richard replied regretfully. "I would have liked to see him off. He was from Minegarde, wasn't he?"

"Seems right," Jino replied, taking another drink from his mug. "That armor of his… Shogun Ceanataur, I think, is certainly native to that region for the most part. It's likely he's from that part of the world. Never managed to get the full story out of him, though. He's was tight-lipped one, right to the end."

Their attention abruptly turned to the bar as a rather loud bang erupted from the crowd, and Kai and Noxramus were sent flying over the counter. There was a singe mark on the top of one of the countertops, and Tenebris groaned. Richard frowned in confusion at the sight and Tenebris explained.

"Kei still has a few phials of green goop the Guild collected from the Brach… dang it, I have a hard time pronouncing it. Brachydios? Why does the Guild feel the need to give monsters these weird names? Why can't they keep it simple, like Jaggis, Baggis, and Barroth? And why'd they get to name it anyway? You and the twins were the ones who killed it; that should give you three naming rights over it. I mean, at least 'Stygian Zinogre' kind of fits that monstrosity Jino and I fought."

"It doesn't really matter to me all that much," Richard shrugged. "If more of those things start coming out of the Sacred Land and claiming territory in the Volcano hunting grounds, all I'll be calling them is 'trouble'."

Tenebris chuckled at the words. "Fair enough. Anyway, Kei has some of that slime around and she keeps giving demonstrations of what it can do to hunters who ask to see. She's learned to keep away from it when it goes off, but clearly Kai and Nox haven't quite figured that out yet. At least the innkeeper isn't here to scold them… that woman's nasty when she's angry."

"How did they get away with keeping that? If even half of what Stergo and Jonathan told me is true, they've been jealously guarding whatever they managed to gather up of those monsters, trying to dissect them so they can figure out what exactly they are. Even a small bottle of that slime seems like something they wouldn't let go without letting their researchers tear into it."

"I'm not exactly sure," Jino admitted. "I'm quite certain they didn't have time to gather up a bottle of the stuff during the battle in the Sacred Land. Chances are, they managed to cajole one of the crewmen on Silas' airship to knick a bottle for them when the Guild sent them off to gather up the bodies of the monsters. The men aboard that ship have their own level of renown now, though certainly not as much as the man who employs them."

"I'm not pleased with how popular Silas is becoming," Tenebris muttered. "The man's a veritable jackass, but the people in the city love him."

"It can't be helped," Richard replied. "Despite his character flaws, he did coordinate the design and use of that flying dragonship of his, and it was thanks to that the Alatreon was defeated. The Dragonator managed to hit the elder dragon twice after all, and did incalculable damage to the creature. Not only that, but his ship, despite its damage, is getting food and supplies to Loc Lac from the outer ports at record speed, and with all the destruction the city's gone through, it's a real boon that Loc Lac needs. I read the reports: that ship of his is getting food and medicine to Loc Lac at twice the speed of any other ship."

"Doesn't make the man any more likable," Jino said with a shrug. "Every time I go check up on Joshua, the man's just basking in the praise people are giving him. He's going to try and use that to his own profit, I just know it, and it's not going to end well for those who have issues with him."

"With luck people will figure him out quick enough," Tenebris said. "His crew may have lost some of the adoration they have for him while they were in Boma, but he's got control of a lot of smart and inventive people back in Nastre. The only way he'll stop causing trouble is if someone pulls his influence over them out from under his feet."

"Think you could do it?" Jino asked, but Tenebris shook her head.

"No, the scientists and mechanics he's rounded up don't like me at all, thanks to him. They'd need to find someone who would be willing to give them orders, and someone they could respect more than even Silas, though I can't imagine who'd be able to pull that off. But not someone like Silas, or this mess would just continue."

"An alpha leader of some kind, you think?" Richard asked.

"Yeah… someone who commands even greater respect from those weirdoes than Silas does. They seem to cluster around enigmatic people out there." Tenebris shook her head. "I guess that's something to worry about later. Silas hasn't garnered too much popularity quite yet, so I'll just keep an eye on him for now. Hopefully his plan to create a fleet of Lost airships will take longer than he thinks, and he'll lose all this pull he's been gaining before he can get himself and the Lost in trouble. Besides, I'll be heading back to Nastre anyway here soon. The hunting business is picking up in the west again, with Loc Lac's Guild in a bit of a mess right now. A lot of hunt requests are going elsewhere, since people aren't sure whether Loc Lac can handle everything anymore."

Richard frowned. "You're right… I guess I've received a few letters from the Frost Town Guild master. With the Alatreon dead, there are a lot of nasty beasts making their way into the area from the Sacred Land. Not many, not yet, but without the elder dragon holding them back, they're sure to venture out in search of greater territories to claim as their own. It'll be a few years before Loc Lac returns to the hunting city it once was, if ever. It probably doesn't help a good chunk of the population is leaving, either."

"About that… what do you think about all this 'exodus' stuff?" Tenebris asked cautiously. "Aren't you one of the Lost yourself?"

Richard looked surprised at the inquiry. "How did you.. Never mind. Well, I suppose you could say that, in a sense of it. I never considered myself as such when I was younger, not until the Lost started appearing in large numbers here in Loc Lac. My mother is one of the Lost, and my father's a native of Theron, so I suppose I'd be mixed blood. Though, that didn't mean anything when my mother was the only Lost in Frost Town. Then there's the question of what makes a Lost one of the Lost. Is it blood? Heritage? Way of thinking? Do you have to be have lived in the era when the Lost conquered the world? I never slept in one of those glowing blue crystals I've heard about, so if that's the case, I'm not one of the Lost at all…" The long sword user shook his head. "I suppose lineage will probably be the deciding factor for most people, at least for a few generations, so I'll just say I'm one of them, then. Either way, whether I'm defined as a Lost or not, I'm on their side of things at the end of it all.

"As for the exodus… it's probably for the best. I've got a place I call home down south, and I'm happy there. Hunting life lets me travel around when I feel like it, but I don't have this sense of wanderlust the Lost seem to have suddenly garnered. But it'll be good to have the Lost spreading out. Having them all in one place was a strain, and things weren't handled well here in Loc Lac. Maybe they'll build towns for themselves, or just gather up in other cities rather than all here in the South District. I guess we'll just have to see."

"I'm sure things will turn out fine enough," Jino said contentedly, taking another drink from his mug. "The Lost are a sturdy group of people, despite what most Therians initially thought, and as long as nobody tries to rein them in like before, I'm sure things will turn out well enough. As for people like Silas… I suppose there are men like him no matter what your nationality or lineage is. People will get wise about him sooner or later."

Tenebris nodded in agreement. She supposed the man was right. Things would clear up sooner or later. With public view of the Lost improving like it was, the Lost would find it easier to adapt themselves to the world around them, rather than actively isolating themselves as a separate entity. If the Lost were going to survive in the world, so different than how it was where they came from, they were going to have to integrate themselves into society, rather than detaching themselves from it.

"Hey! Hey Mr. Jino!" The hunters turned at the sound, as a scrawny boy with messy blonde hair scampered up the side of their table, before stopping at the edge and looking up expectantly at Jino. "Can you tell me a hunting story? The one you told yesterday was really good. Do you have any more like that one?"

"Well, why don't you go listen to their story?" Jino replied with a smile, motioning to the three hunters gesturing wildly to the crowd over by the bar. But the boy frowned in frustration.

"I've heard them tell that story ten times already. They keep changing it every time they tell it too! It's getting boring, and I want to hear something different now. Don't you have any good stories to tell like you did yesterday?"

Jino chuckled at the words. "To think there would come a day when a little boy didn't want to hear a story about hunters felling an elder dragon, no matter how many times he'd heard it before! Well, sorry my boy, but I'm not quite up for storytelling right now. Maybe I'll feel up for it in another hour or so. Why don't you ask me again then, and we'll see whether I'm up for it?" The boy began to pout sullenly though, and Jino smirked at him. The old hammer wielder put on a thoughtful expression. "You know… I do happen to recall a rather dangerous battle against an Lagiacrus I fought a few years back… Why don't you give me a little time to recall all the exciting details while you go gather up your friends who want to hear it too? I'm sure I'll have a good story concocted by the time you get back."

Immediately the boy's eyes widened in excitement, and a wide grin spread across his face. Without another word, the boy turned and dashed away, rushing out of the bar in search of friends to bring back with him. Jino laughed at the sight, and the other two hunters smirked in amusement.

"Who's the boy?" Richard asked curiously.

"Edgar, a lad who's been asking for stories about hunting from me every day since we got back to Loc Lac," Jino replied with a smile. "I suppose I seem to be the one with the most tales to tell from all of us who hunted the elder dragon. And maybe he's right. I've somehow been able to think up a different hunt to tell him about almost every day for the last month now. He has the look of a child who will want to try and become a hunter himself one day. He certainly spends a lot of time around them, from what I've seen."

Tenebris grinned. "Maybe you could take him as an apprentice. You always say you're retired, maybe you could teach him how to be a hunter once he's a little older."

Jino chuckled. "Ha, maybe so… but I've still got a few years of 'retirement' left in me. Besides, I don't think I'm the type to be a hunting master. I've got too much wanderlust in me to settle in one place long enough to teach a newbie how to hunt properly. Hopefully he'll find someone else to teach him once he's matured a bit. Maybe one of you two will take him up on it."

"Don't look at me," Tenebris replied. "You think you've got wanderlust, I'm sure I'm just as bad as you, if not worse. Save for the stint I have in Nastre, I haven't stayed in the same place for longer than a couple months since I first became a hunter. Besides, Nox and I have decided to team up on a few hunts together up in the north. What about you, Richard?"

The long sword user leaned back in his seat thoughtfully. "Well… maybe. I've never really thought about that kind of thing before now. I suppose I don't really lean towards traveling around like most other hunters do, since I tend to stay around the Volcano hunting grounds for the most part with my work as a ranger, but that's not the safest place for a hunting apprenticeship. The Guild has me and the other permanent hunters in the area and myself running around a lot, considering the danger of the area, but I suppose I'd have the time to train an apprentice or two once I get a bit more experience, and I can't deny the benefits of having another hunter to help out…"

But admittedly, Richard had other things on his mind as well. He'd had the chance to meet his father's apprentices for the first time since escaping Malefica, and both were far different than Richard remembered. Nat was crippled of course, her legs gone below the knees; she seemed to have settled into a mild melancholia, but was trying to remain optimistic about her situation, which was relieving. Kim however… the huntress had been spared physical debilitation, but her personality had suffered a great blow from her time in Malefica. Richard had been surprisingly fond of her (perhaps even being a small crush he recalled his father teasing him over) when they'd met during the girls' apprenticeship, enjoying her vibrant and outgoing personality, but now Kim had become short-tempered and bitter, a drastic change from her former self.

Richard feared for her. Her emotions had become erratic from what he'd seen, and he was afraid the huntress was only a few missteps from losing control. He wasn't sure what would happen if she slipped, though. Becoming a true criminal seemed unlikely, considering her clear hatred for Malefica and everything it stood for. But there were stories of hunters taking vigilante action against poachers, and the forests of the west had more than their fair share; if Kim was to turn her frustrations on them… He'd need to discuss it further with his father, but he planned to visit them in Orage Dell when the chance arose and see what he could do to help her recover. Hopefully he would find that Nat's presence would be enough to calm the huntress, but…

"Well, don't hurry yourself," Jino told him, pulling Richard back to the present with a jolt. "Unlike some of us, you're still young. You've got plenty of life ahead of you to figure out what to do with yourself, and whether you want to try your hand at taking an apprentice."

The table was quiet for a moment as a raucous laugh came from over at the bar. Kai, Kei, and Nox seemed to be telling another rendition of their battles in the Sacred Land again, and those around them seemed perfectly content to hear a new version. Tenebris smirked in amusement as Nox went off on a clearly elaborate exaggeration of his own role in fighting the Stygian Zinogre. But her smile faded a moment later as a thoughtful expression crossed her face. Richard and Jino both caught the look and frowned as well.

"I've been busy…" Richard said quietly. "I haven't had much time in the last few weeks to visit the hospital except to see my mother and father, and my father's apprentices. Has there been any news?"

Tenebris sighed and shook her head. "All the hospitals have been packed since the Alatreon attack, so it's hard to get in there with so many people coming and going… but I managed to find the time to visit yesterday morning. Kerry's doing well enough, but her leg injury is recovering slower than the doctors thought it should. They think there might have been something special about the Alatreon's ice spears which make the healing process slow down. Harker's worse off than her; they nearly had to remove his arm thanks to those bite marks, and he's still having trouble breathing with all his broken ribs. But they should be able to recover soon enough." The huntress paused, sadness in her eyes. "Ellie's hands and abdomen are healing slowly… but she's been despondent since we returned. I couldn't get a single word out of her."

Richard frowned sadly. "And what about-" But Tenebris shook her head, and the long sword user sighed. "I guess not every story of heroes has a really happy ending, does it?"

Jino shook his head. "I've listened to countless tales during my life of hunters going up against impossible odds and coming out on top. I suppose it's far more encouraging when the tellers take out the parts of the story nobody wants to hear."

"Or at least, when they leave them in, they make it sound noble and encouraging," Tenebris agreed. "I guess you don't really think about how it feels to those close to those involved."

Richard looked out the nearby window, watching as several people rode by in wagons, hauling off lumber and stone off to use in the rebuilding effort. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, bristling the short beard he'd grown since the whole mess started. "Everything has a cost, I suppose. Taking down an elder dragon wouldn't come without a price."

"Some would say the price paid was worth the cost," Jino noted.

"That's true… but it certainly doesn't make me feel better," Richard replied. The man was quiet for a moment longer, and then he sighed and pushed himself to his feet. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go see my mother and father, and see how they're doing. I'll look in on Ellie if I can and see how she's doing for myself, if I can. I'll see you two around."

The other two hunters nodded as the long sword user walked away, heading out the door and into the street. He sighed again and began heading south towards the hospital. He hoped things would improve soon and wipe away the sinking feeling he and the others were feeling. But there was so little he could do on his own… all he could do was hope for the best. Maybe that would be enough…


Who's there?

Ah, you're conscious. Or… you're subconscious. That's… well, that's something.

Who are you?

No one of importance. Not right now, at least. How do you feel?

It hurts.

What does?


That's… vague. But I suppose that's just the way you are, from what little I've seen.

Your voice sounds familiar.

We've met before. Once. I helped you out of a sticky situation.


Why did I help you? That's a good question. Just a feeling I guess. Something told me I should. Call it… intuition. Or call it a gamble. Either one works, really.

What… what situation did you save me from?

You don't remember?

I… I don't remember much of anything right now.

Well, it's not important. What is important is this: what are you going to do now?

I don't… I don't know. I'm so… so tired. Everything hurts. I just want to rest… I want the pain to end.

Are you sure?


Are you sure you want to… end?

I'm so tired…

You don't want to keep living? Isn't there anything out there to keep you going?

I don't… remember… Wait. The Alatreon is dead. It's gone… Isn't it?

Yes, it's dead. They paraded the corpse through town. Rather gaudy if you ask me, but I suppose I'm a biased opinion.

Good… good. I got it. I got my revenge. I saved… I saved…

Saved who?

Ellie… I saved her. She… the Alatreon won't… won't be able to hurt her. It won't be able to hurt any of the Lost. Not anymore…

That's what you care about?

Yes… she'll live. I've gotten my revenge. That's all I need.

But is that all you want?


Isn't there anything more you desire? 'Need' leaves room for very little. 'Want' can encompass quite a bit more. You said saving her life is all you need. But what do you want?

I want… I want to be with her. I don't… I want to stay with her. I want to have more time with her. I want to have a life with her, without all this danger and fear.

So what's stopping you?

I'm just… I'm just so tired. So hurt. I just want to rest…

If you rest now, you will lose any time you could have with her.

I'm sure she'll be sad if you… end.

I don't want her to be sad. I want… I want her to be happy.

With you?

With me.

Would you like to get what you want?


Well that settles it then.

Settles what?

You can't rest yet.

Why not?

Haven't you been paying attention? If you rest now, you won't be able to be with her anymore. So… wake up, boy.


It'd be nice to hear some enthusiasm, you know.


Well, it just doesn't instill much confidence if you don't-

Why are you telling me this? Why are you helping me?

Oh, that? Hmm. Well, I guess you won't really remember all this, so I suppose it's fine if I tell you. The truth is… I have a feeling about something. Another bit of intuition, another gamble. I think I need something from you, and I can't get it if you 'rest'.

What is it you want from me?

Not much, really.


Oh, you're a curious one, aren't you? I suppose I can't fault you for that. Fine, I'll tell you. What I need from you is… well…


Your blood.

The light was blinding. For a moment or two, Levin couldn't see. He was in a hospital, clearly. Hospitals were the only places in the world with ceilings like that. The glare from the sun outside was glowing brightly off of the sterile white surfaces with a healthy yellow and orange glow, though it still hurt to look at, especially in his condition.

"Huh. I'm alive. That's… that's good."

He was surprised he was alive, that was certain. He was tired, and weak, but his memories of the battle with the Alatreon were coming back. He couldn't imagine how he'd managed to survive the breaking of the dragon phial. He was certain the explosion would kill him instantly; Umbre had pretty much promised him such when he'd first gotten his weapon. And the blast had obliterated the Alatreon, Levin remembered that much. So why was he still alive? He supposed it didn't matter. A stroke of luck, or the fates deeming him worthy of living, he didn't know what, but he guessed he shouldn't complain.

But even though he was still alive, he still could feel pain. Every bone and muscle in his body seemed to be aching terribly from his wounds. And he did have a lot of wounds. Despite somehow surviving the explosion of the dragon phial, he certainly hadn't gotten off scot-free. Even looking down a little bit, he could see most of his torso was covered in bandages and gauze, and he could feel even more of them wrapping around his neck and head. They seemed to be covering the majority of the right side of his body, though his left side certainly hadn't been spared injury. His flesh seemed to burn under the bandages, and it felt as though his body had been lit on fire and cooked.

It hurt to move much at all. Every breath ached, and even trying to look around hurt to attempt. But he'd forgotten how much bandages itched. And they were itching something fierce. If only he could… reach… damn it, he could hardly move his arm at all. Maybe he was tied down… he felt numb, so it was possible, and he just wasn't feeling them. He leaned his head forward a little and looked down. Maybe if he could see the knot, he could…

His arm was gone.

He stared, not really comprehending what he was seeing for a moment. His right arm should have been there, lying next to him, but it just… wasn't. But that… where was… His eyes looked up, searching. Finally he caught sight of bandages, wrapping tightly around his wound. It was just a stub, a small bump below his shoulder covered in white gauze. His shoulder was wiggling a little as his brain was still sending orders for his arm to itch the scratch. But the arm wasn't there. Levin's heart began to pound, and his eyes darted around wildly. That's when his eyes caught sight of more bandages. More.

His right leg wasn't there either. Bandages were wrapped tightly, wrapping around his leg. Halfway to his knee, the leg just ended. Levin tried to wiggle his foot, but the leg stump just sort of twitched and wiggled a bit. He realized how hard it was to see what he was doing. He had to strain himself to see his wounds. Gah, there were too many bandages covering his head, he couldn't even see out of one eye! He awkwardly raised his good arm, trying to push the gauze and bandages off of his face. But during the motion he pressed his fingers against the bandages. There was no pressure, no resistance from under them, and no feeling of pain or irritation from his right eye. The eye was gone. There was nothing under the bandages left he could see with.

An arm. A leg. An eye. He'd lost one of each. The blast from the shattering dragon phial had taken all three of them. His heart began to pound in his chest as horror crept through him. He began to struggle against the bindings holding him, trying to free himself, trying to do… something. This couldn't be true. He couldn't have lost all those parts of himself. He had to still be dreaming!

Pain bit into his body, all around his torso and neck, and he bit back a scream as his flesh began to burn painfully. Splotches of red began to soak through the thick gauze and bandages wrapping around his body, and he clutched painfully at his chest. The flesh below felt tender and bruised. He felt… burned. He remembered the fury of the dragon element from within the switch axe's phial bursting free and washing over him. He could remember how the pure energy had seared his flesh before he'd lost consciousness. How badly had the energy hurt him? How much of his body had been seared and boiled by the deadly element? How was he still alive? How could he continue to live under these conditions?

A soft whimper caught his ear, and Levin looked down. For the first time, he realized someone was there, leaning against the side of the bed. It was Ellie, battered and bruised with her own injuries, but sleeping quietly against the edge of his bed. Her hands lay beneath her head, serving as a makeshift pillow, but both were wrapped in slings and bandages. Her arms had several bandages wrapping around them as well, and Levin could make out more wrapping around her torso beneath the loose hospital gown she wore.

Levin felt his heartbeat slowing down as he looked at her. He reached forward, brushing a lock of hair out of his beloved's face so he could see her more clearly, and she sighed quietly in her sleep. Levin lowered his hand, grasping one of hers in his own, and smiled as her fingers squeezed against his palm. She was alive and… whole. She was safe. And he was… alive to see it. He felt tears welling up in his remaining eye as an unbelievable sense of relief began to overwhelm him. He had been so worried for her, in the Sacred Land, hoping against hope she would survive the reaction from the breaking dragon phial. But she was safe, and he was alive! The wounds… the wounds didn't seem to matter so much anymore.

He felt a quiet laugh well up from inside him, and he looked down again at his missing limbs, wiggling the stubs a little. Two limbs and an eye, and a body covered in burns for Ellie's safety, his life, and the death of the Alatreon? That seemed like a fair price, one he could… and would, live with.

A stifled yawn came from his right as Ellie began to stir. Levin looked back down at her as she began to wake up, her grip on Levin's hand tightening as her eyes open. She blinked a couple times, and squeezed Levin's hand, then sat up. She looked miserable for a moment, and then looked at his face. There was a moment where she had a blank look on her features, before realizing he was awake and looking at her. She gasped in surprise, and he grinned wearily.

"Good morning," he said in a gravelly voice. His voice hurt… but then, he hadn't used it in who knew how long. "Or is it afternoon? I really can't tell."

"Levin? You… are you really-?"

"So it seems…" He carefully reached up, brushing a hand across her face. "Ellie… I…"

"You… you idiot!" Ellie suddenly cried, punching Levin's chest. "You damn, stupid fool! What the hell were you trying to do, running off to die like that? Why would you throw your life away?" Levin groaned in pain with each successive blow from the huntress. He could feel his healing bones straining from the abuse, and his burn wounds screamed from the strikes. But he endured it. He knew he deserved every ounce of punishment his beloved could dish out at him for what he had done.

But the pain began to grow weaker over time, and Levin realized Ellie's blows were wilting in strength. Tears were streaming down her face as the huntress began to fall apart in front him, her cursing at him slowly devolving into pained sobs. Finally, the beating ceased, and Ellie's fingers instead clutched desperately to Levin's hand, squeezing tightly and holding on as though he would vanish into thin air if she didn't.

"Why did you leave?" she whispered weakly. "Why would you leave me behind like that? Why didn't you trust me enough to help you? Why… why did you have to do all of this by yourself?"

"I'm sorry…" Levin said quietly. "I knew… I thought I was walking to my death. I couldn't ask you to die with me. I couldn't… I wanted you to live, even if I… If you lived, then nothing else mattered to me. I believed that… I still believe that. I was selfish, and cowardly. I love you, Ellie, and I was afraid of you dying… and I couldn't let that happen if I could stop it, even if it meant leaving you behind. I'm so sorry, Ellie, but I…"

"You're a fool," the huntress moaned, lowering herself down and burying her face into his chest. "You're a damn fool…"

Levin nodded. "I know. I know. I'm sorry… Ellie, if there's anything I can do to make it up to you, I promise I-"

"No, Levin, you don't… I don't care anymore," Ellie said, wiping the tears from her eyes. "I mean… I'm not… I'm not angry, Levin, I just… I was so afraid Levin, when I thought you were dead. I was so angry and miserable and… When I learned they'd found you in the crater…" A smile bloomed under her tear-stained cheeks. She leaned forward, pressing her lips against his in a gentle, emotional kiss, before pulling away again. "I don't care, Levin. You've done plenty. You're alive! I don't… the rest of it doesn't matter. I love you, Levin. As long as you're alive, I don't need-"

"Well, well. It seems we've returned with wonderful timing."

Levin looked towards the door, as Harker and Kerry strode into the room. Or rather, Harker strode into the room, with Kerry slinging her arm gingerly over his shoulder. The huntress had a number of bandages wrapping around her leg, and was hopping along on one foot. At the same time, Harker had one arm in a full-sleeve cast, hung in a sling, and numerous bandages wrapping around his chest. But both were positively beaming in excitement at the sight of Levin alive and awake, and almost immediately the pair had dragged themselves over to the bed and were looking down on him excitedly.

"Ha! I knew you'd pull through my friend," Harker pronounced excitedly, though Levin could see that his friend was just barely holding back tears of his own. "The other doctors could say what they want, but I knew you come out in the end."

"Don't lie, dear," Kerry chided gently, before smiling at Levin. "Harker was worried sick for you… we all were, Ellie worst of all, of course. The doctors claimed you were getting worse… that you would die within the week after we brought you back. You managed to hold on… but you weren't getting better. We've been waiting two months already, and had started to think you might never wake up-"

"Two months… how am I alive?" Levin asked abruptly, then grimaced at what he'd said. "I don't… I mean, I can't say how happy I am I'm alive, but… how? The dragon phial… the explosion should have killed me. I was… I had accepted that, but now…" Ellie squeezed his hand tightly at the words.

"It was because of the Alatreon you managed to survive," Harker replied. Clearly Levin had a foul look on his face at the words, because the long sword user raised his hands, and Levin let the man continue. "This is mere conjecture, my friend, so I cannot guarantee the accuracy. But when you shattered your dragon phial, a good portion of the energy went into the Alatreon, as would be expected considering the beast was practically eating your switch axe. However, when the backlash of the energy release came back at you, the intensity of the energy should very well have killed you and left nothing behind… which is what I speculate happened to your arm and leg, and perhaps your eye as well."

"But the Alatreon's head was in the way of the blast," Kerry continued. "An elder dragon's body is incredibly durable, especially its skull. After all, most of its body is still being shown off over at the remains of the Loc Lac Tower. What we think happened, is when the Alatreon died, its head and horns fell between you and the core of the dragon phial, so most of the dragon element which would have hit you was absorbed by the beast's skull." The huntress looked sadly at the stubbed remains of his arm and leg, though. "But… I suppose if a body part was not in the path the Alatreon's skull obstructed, there wouldn't have been any reprieve from the full force of the explosion."

"But… I don't…" Levin sputtered weakly. "Even with all that… it shouldn't have been enough to save me…"

"That wasn't all though," Harker told him, smiling. "When Tenebris, Nox, and Kei went in the crater to look for you… or perhaps your corpse, they instead found you inside the crystal the Alatreon was growing. Or rather, the remains of it; the whole thing was breaking apart by the time they got there. Dragon element is what makes the crystals 'activate', remember? And a lot of it will make the crystals rather… ah, let's call it 'gluttonous', as we saw during our battle with the Silver Rathalos. When your phial detonated, the dragon energy must have charged the crystal, because it grabbed hold of you and swept you inside when you were pushed up against it. It kept you safe inside until the blast had subsided. The energy must have been too much for it, however, because it started to break down almost immediately. But it was long enough to pull you in and save you from the explosion.

"I find it rather entertaining, myself," Harker said with a smile. "The blue crystals, the bane of the Lost's existence and the source of much frustration and despair, were the very things which saved your life in the end. Even more, it was the crystal the Alatreon created to save its own life, which ended up saving yours instead. So, it could be said the Alatreon, despite its best efforts otherwise, ended up saving your life, Levin. And I find that endlessly amusing."

"A shame it wasn't faster though," Kerry noted, motioning to the bandages wrapping around Levin's body. "Most of the right side of your body was burned by the element before you were fully inside the crystal. I fear those are scars you'll retain forever, not to speak of the limbs you lost as well…"

Levin looked down at the stubby remains of his arm and leg, wiggling them a little bit. "I suppose this means my hunting career's over…" The others looked at him sadly, but he gave them a small smile. "No, it's alright. I'm grateful I got away with this much. Being alive is… more than I ever would have asked for. If it means I have to find something to do with myself which only requires one arm and leg… I can accept that. It's a fair trade… for everything."

"Well, I suppose I'm going to be joining you in the realm of the unemployed then," Harker stated. Levin looked at him in surprise, and his friend motioned his his right arm. "Though I had the fortune of retaining my arm, it would seem having an elder dragon gnawing on a limb is rather detrimental to your health. I may not have lost the limb in the end, but… well, the chances of me being able to use the arm again with any sort of decent strength is highly unlikely. From what the doctors have told me, it would seem I will be lucky to be able to write again with this arm within my natural lifetime, and hunting is completely out of the question. I gave it a look myself as well, of course… but it would seem my own prognosis was little better than theirs. It will take some time for me to recover basic strength through physical therapy, so I fear hunting will be out of my occupational range. Or, at least, hunting for the Guild will be out of my range…"

"Harker…" Kerry growled irritably.

"...By which I mean, of course I wouldn't dream of doing any illegal hunting without the Guild's approval to sate my curiosity!" Harker sputtered, backpedaling quickly as Kerry glared at him. "Actually, I had always hoped to join one of the scientific organizations in the city… When I first arrived in Loc Lac, my heritage as one of the Lost kept me from joining any of the research circles, but perhaps now that my name is particularly well-known, I might be able to use that to my advantage. I had hoped they would one day accept me due to my skill and dedication to the art, but…"

"Beggars can't be choosers?" Ellie asked, and Harker smirked.


"At least you and Kerry can keep hunting," Levin said to Ellie, a wistful tone in his voice, and Ellie smiled sadly down at him.

"Actually…" Kerry said quietly. "I was thinking of retiring from hunting too."

Levin and Ellie both looked up in surprise, though Harker seemed nonplussed by the news, nodded expectantly at the words. "Really?" Ellie asked, stunned. "Why? I thought you'd been hunting your whole life? Why would you quit?"

"Well, I wouldn't really quit…" Kerry replied quietly. "I don't think I'd officially retire from the Guild, and I'd keep my license active just in case. But before I met you three, before I met Harker specifically… You remember the reputation I had before then, remember?"

Levin and Ellie nodded. "The 'Companion Killer', right?" Levin muttered, and Kerry nodded. "But that's a load of drivel, just some hokum conjured up by superstitious hunters, right? We're still alive and… okay, maybe now isn't the best example, but…"

Kerry shook her head. "Nonetheless, it's something which has haunted me my whole hunting career. And I know it's real… I still remember what I did, what I could do to people in Malefica, and the feeling of dread I had when I nearly lost Harker during the Alatreon attack. I can't… I can't subject myself to it any longer. Even if it's nothing, just superstition, it's real enough to me, and I want nothing more to do with it. I'll keep my license, in case the need to hunt arises, but unless it's absolutely necessary, I'm done.

"Besides," Kerry said, her voice softening as she smiled to the others, "even… even if the curse isn't real, just a string of bad luck, my only hunting experience outside my apprenticeship is either by myself, or with you three. I became a hunter to follow in my father's footsteps, but after my hunting master was wounded, I was almost always alone… until I met you three. And even despite all the trouble we went through, I can't think of a time in my life I've been happier, traveling around and experiencing life with all of you, none of you judging me for my reputation, and even when you did learn of the curse, none of you caring. I mean, I'm sure I'd love hunting, just Ellie and me… but if I can't have that same feeling, without Harker with me or without both of you, hunting would just feel… bland and dull.

"So from here on in, I'll stick with Harker. Maybe it doesn't look like it to either of you, but I've had a lot of fun being Harker's assistant in his experiments. Besides," Kerry said with a smirk, "someone needs to keep him in line, and I'm perfectly happy doing that with my life."

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Harker replied with a grin of his own. "Though, my dear, you belittle yourself, continuing to call yourself my assistant. I've seen with my own eyes the brilliance in the tests you've conducted yourself. And they are far less inclined towards… ah, ignition than my own attempts. Though, considering my performance history, that may not mean much. Please, Lady Kerrigan, if you truly wish to remain by my side, consider yourself nothing less than my partner."

Kerry smiled brightly at the words, though Ellie giggled. "Geez, all that prim and proper speaking of yours makes it sound like a proposal."

Kerry paled slightly as the idea tumbled through her head, before a deep blush crossed her face, and the huntress began to sputter unintelligibly. Harker however blinked in surprise at the words, but grinned thoughtfully. "I suppose they do at that… In that case, I suppose I'll leave any meaning behind my words, hidden or otherwise, for the dear Lady Kerrigan to interpret for herself. I have little doubt that, however she chooses to decipher what I said, it will be the truth."

Kerry gasped at the words, her mouth hanging open in shock. Both Levin and Ellie looked on in stunned silence at the words as well, but Harker simply grinned, raising an eyebrow questioningly at Kerry. Then a wide, blissful smile split across the huntress' face, and Kerry practically leapt forward, pulling Harker into a fierce, passionate kiss, nearly toppling the pair to the floor.

"Jeez, get a room, you two," Levin chuckled as the embrace lingered. Kerry blushed slightly at the words, pulling away, but Harker smirked wickedly.

"Don't tempt me, my friend. My doctors have advised both of us against strenuous physical activity. But then… I have never been one to follow orders to the letter…" Kerry's face positively bloomed a deep crimson at the words, and Harker laughed, amused.

"Oh, stop," Ellie groaned with a smirk. "You're going to break the poor girl if you keep this up."

"I'm sure I could fix her if that happened. I've been dabbling in psychology a bit, and could always use a test subject-"

"Oh, no you don't!" Kerry growled, smiling as she lunged at the madman, and Harker laughed, pulling out of the way.

Levin chuckled at the sight, ignoring the throbbing in his chest from the laughter. He'd missed this: the simple banter between them, without worry of threats or danger. It wouldn't be like it used to, with everything which had changed, but he could live with that. He could live with the way things were, and enjoy it. He looked up at Ellie as the huntress scooted closer to him, and she looked down on him, a content smile gracing her lips as Harker and Kerry continued to laugh and bicker behind her.

"I love you, Levin," Ellie said quietly. "Don't ever leave me like that again."

Levin smiled, leaning forward and kissing his beloved. "I love you too, Ellie, and I promise I will stay with you as long as I live, no matter what."

In a small alley not far away, a strange pair of people stood next to each other, speaking quietly, unheard over the sounds of construction which continued to go through the city of Loc Lac. One was far shorter than the other, a shrunken, aged Wyvernian older than any other in known existence, carrying a pack larger than himself across his back. The other was a stout man wearing worn leather clothing, though several beautiful blue and purple gemstones adorned numerous bangles around his wrists and the necklace he wore.

"You're playing a dangerous game, interfering with things as you are," the Veggie Elder murmured softly, shaking his head with a worried expression. The stout man chuckled.

"That's hardly the case. I'm playing the same game you are, old timer. I'm merely playing it by different rules. And I'm playing it to win."

"There is no 'game'. There are no winners and losers when it comes to a person's fate," the old Wyvernian snapped. "And you can't change the rules. Nobody can escape fate; neither the frailest infant, nor the most powerful king, nor… the most powerful of dragons. All meet their intended destiny in the end, no matter how they try to avoid it. Fate is predetermined. Fate grasps us all quite tightly, and none can escape it."

The bearded man smirked wickedly. "Oh really, Elder? None can? Not even Levin? Not even… Harker?"

The Veggie Elder's face grew concerned and worried at the name. "Harker… that man… I don't… a person like that is a…"

"Was he not supposed to die? Was he not supposed to be killed during the attack on Loc Lac? You seemed so certain of it before, and yet he lives."

"I was so sure of it," the Wyvernian muttered. "That boy… he is cacophony in the song of fate. He is chaos incarnate. His presence throws the winds of fate into a frenzy, just by existing! And Levin… he was not supposed to reawaken from his coma, not nearly so soon. It should have been years, not a scant couple of months! And that's not even taking into account your interference in the Gullet…"

"You've lectured me numerous times about what I did in the Gullet, and it's been droll from the first. I'm well aware of what changed between what you were certain would happen and what actually occurred. Shall I list them? Had I not interfered and spoken with Levin, he would not have thought to lash out mentally against the Alatreon, and the Lost wouldn't have been riled up into counterattacking, and far more people would have died… You've told me many times that far more people survived this whole ordeal than they should have. But is that necessarily wrong? Perhaps fate isn't so clear cut as you seem to think, Wyvernian.

"For example… 'He will leave you to die'? That's a depressing thing to announce, no matter how you interpret it! Have you no sense of tact in you, Elder, giving such cold words to a young girl in love? And in the end, it ended up meaning, 'He will leave you with the intent of dying', with no guarantee on death! Even you were shocked to hear of his survival - Don't you deny it! - and I didn't even 'interfere' in the Sacred Land! That was entirely the hunters' work! And if that 'fate' you cling to can be twisted into something hopeful, perhaps all the terrible fates you seem to see can be turned for the better."

The Veggie Elder sighed despairingly at the words. "Time will tell. There is still much in the future which has yet to unfold. I may have misunderstood their fates this time, but I will not be so brash in my assessments again. Though the hunters may have survived the slaying of the Alatreon, the future is still uncertain. And as for you," the Wyvernian muttered with a scowl at the stout man, "you will find your interferences will not always turn out positively like you always seem to think they will."

"Sounds like excuses to me," the bearded man laughed. "And is it wrong to hope for a happy ending to a story? And I'm not really interfering, Elder, I'm merely… nudging those involved in directions which better suit my tastes. And if my nudging changes their fate, even just a little… well, I suppose that says something about how binding your 'fate' truly is."

The Veggie Elder glared at the man. "Destiny should not be played with. This 'nudging' of yours could just as soon turn sour for us as it would act in our favor. It could doom us far more easily than it would save us!"

"Well then, at least the future will be surprising, won't it?" the man replied, pushing himself to his feet and stretching. "I don't like the idea of fate and predetermination shackling me. I prefer a sour end I never saw coming to an sweet end I'd known would come for years. Living is much more interesting that way."

"Whose side are you on?"

The bearded man smirked at the abrupt question and looked up at the bright window where he knew Levin, his lover, and his friends were. "Would you believe me if I said I was on theirs?"

"Not for a moment," the Wyvernian replied quickly, and the man laughed.

"Oh, good. I was hoping you weren't that stupid. Well, if you want to know what I'm up to, you'll just have to wait and see, now won't you? Perhaps you'll enjoy the ride as much as I do, seeing how far 'fate' can be pushed before unraveling completely."

"I highly doubt it…" the Veggie Elder replied sourly.

"Excuse me…"

Levin looked up from his book, some overly wordy thing Harker had loaned him, propped awkwardly against his remaining leg. It was night time now, and the moon had risen. Levin had spent hours being checked and examined by numerous doctors, now that he was conscious once more. But there'd been a bit of a commotion, once word began to spread that he was alive and awake once more. Apparently a good number of people had made attempts to get into the hospital to speak with him, and from his bed he had heard a large crowd gathering and talking excitedly with each other. It seemed they were all calling for him to make an appearance of some sort, to show himself as the 'hero of Loc Lac, slayer of dragons', or some nonsense. Levin didn't know how to feel about all of it; he'd received mild fame during his hunting career, and no small amount of infamy before the Lost riots. But to hear so many people outside shouting and cheering for him… it just felt uncomfortable.

Thankfully the doctors and orderlies had managed to keep the masses back, keeping his room empty save for those he let in. He'd been encouraged to get some sleep, but he'd been doing so for a weeks now. So he'd been trying to distract himself with a book, propped up awkwardly with his left hand. Even menial tasks seemed challenging now with only one hand… But he had been interrupted, and was surprised at who he saw at the door.

"Farren? What are you doing here?"

The Guild researcher shrugged, setting a large satchel on the ground next to him. "My part in the recovery. I am a doctor, after all, and with all the wounded, it's best that anyone who has the ability use it to help."

Levin nodded. The man looked… worn was the best word for it. He looked as though he had aged years over the course of the last couple months or so. His long hair had spots of gray in it, and his serious face had aging lines far beyond the years of a man his age. Levin glanced nervously at the door. Ellie was out trying to scavenge some sort of meal besides hospital food for the two of them, and said she'd try and visit Harker and Kerry if she could. There also didn't seem to be any Guild workers in the hallway either. Rather, the hallway seemed dead quiet at the moment.

The man caught his expression and shook his head. "I'm not here to… hurt you, if that's what you're worried about."

"Really?" Levin asked skeptically, and Farren nodded.

"I simply did not wish to be found out by someone who might recognize me, thus my… innocuous timing. I'm here… I'm here to make amends, before I head out to… to my former home. I've… since resigned from my position in the Guild. And I have also… informed certain people within the Guild of the things done within the Gullet."

Levin blinked in surprise. "You did? That's… that's good. I think."

"Secretly, of course. I can't let myself be captured by the town guards… not yet, at least," Farren grinned tiredly, but his expression sank, and he stared solemnly at the ground. "What you told me… it struck home a bit more than I thought it would. You were right. I doubt… I doubt my sister would approve of the work I have done, and I doubt she will forgive me when I tell her of it… assuming she still lives."

Levin nodded. "I'm sure she does. If your sister was half the hunter you remember her being, I'm sure she pulled through, one way or another."

Farren smiled gently at Levin's attempt at comforting him. "Once the recovery effort has quieted down a little, I plan to leave Loc Lac. I will… I will probably go visit my sister in our hometown, and confess my sins to her. After that… well. I suppose I'll just have to see. Likely I will need to seek penance in some way or another for what I've done. How I will manage that… I cannot guess."

Levin nodded as the man got to his feet. "I guess… I guess I wish you luck then."

"Thank you," Farren nodded. Then he looked down at the bag he had brought in and paused. His voice became low. "There is just one last thing I have to do here in Loc Lac. Something I must do, though it may… it may add to my sins."

Levin felt a shiver go up his spine. "What's that?" he asked.

Farren shook his head. "A couple days ago I met a woman here in the hospital… some Lost woman who was seeing to her husband's and son's recovery. Our discussion led to her work, and she told me she was a smith, among other things. In passing, she mentioned she had learned to work with certain rare materials few other smiths possessed the knowledge to work. I asked her of her secrets out of mild curiosity and a desire to keep the conversation going. She acknowledged that I was not a smith, and likely wouldn't understand most of what she told me, but she let me in on some knowledge which I actually did desire."

"Which was?" Levin asked, and Farren looked at him, a sad but determined look in his eye.

"She told me the secret to working Dark Metal." Levin felt his blood run cold at the words. "I see you remember my… study of it under the Loc Lac tower. Such a thing would be hard to forget, I wager… The time I spent with you down there, I always wondered why the sample we'd collected from Hearth acted so oddly around you. Now I know. The woman enlightened me on how the ore is tamed. There is a certain stipulation to molding Dark Metal which leads it to become pliable and reactive. The method has its faults though. The Dark Metal forms a sort of bond to its owner, and will react violently to those its owner does not approve of. Apparently the woman made a rather nasty blade of the material for her son. That is the… common desire of those who gather Dark Metal, so it's rare for the ore to be imagined in any other use.

"It's one of the faults of the smithing profession: for the most part they only see the offensive or defensive capabilities of the materials hunters collect out in the wilds. Besides, the smelting of the Dark Metal in the forge terribly damages its potential, though most smiths and artisans view that as a fair exchange for creating a weapon so dangerous. During my own experiments, I hoped to discover another use for the metal besides weaponizing it. Though the ore had already been tainted by its bond with you, I was able to make some discoveries I imagine few others, if any have found." The researcher's eyes lit up as he spoke, excitement at his research filling his expression. "I realized the Dark Metal is a material which reacts not to simply the will of the smith who molds it, but also the desires of the one with whom the bond had been formed! Though its consciousness is primitive and minimal, it understands the need of the one it connects to, and desires to fill their requests. It seeks to please them and aid them, to bond with them and form a symbiotic union with them, though such a bond can be… hazardous. It is an existence which strives to fulfill… necessity."

The man's words grew cold again at the final word, and he stared intently at Levin. "I imagine you've heard enough about necessity during your time in the Gullet, Levin. Though my methods were obviously terrible and cruel, the results have proven to be promising and hopeful. The process I have developed to mold the Dark Metal is risky, but not without its possible benefits."

"And what process is that?" Levin asked, trying to sit up a little straighter. Farren stared straight at him.

"Blood," he replied darkly. "The metal much be soaked in the blood of the one it will be used for. That is the secret the smith passed on to me. That is why it reacted so differently to you, why it shifted and molded at your touch. It has tasted of your blood. In the ice caves of the north, after mining it, you were wounded, and your blood fed the Dark Metal. Now it reacts to you, and only to you."

Farren stooped down, and Levin saw the man pull a pair of thick gloves from his pockets. The next moment, he had unzipped the bag, and reached inside. When he stood up again, he was holding it: the Dark Metal they had mined in the north. It was… different again, wiry and twisted. It seemed more… alive than before. Protruding spikes and strange shapes were emerging from the shape.

Immediately Levin began to struggle, but the latches across his chest and leg were still bound tight. All he had left was his arm, but that wasn't enough. "What are you going to do with it?" he asked, trying to break loose of his bindings.

Farren didn't seem concerned with his struggles. "I've worked the Metal a bit recently. I've been trying to… give it shape. It's tasted your blood, so it's somewhat malleable, but… it's not enough. Not nearly. It needs more. It craves it. It cannot take the shape it needs yet, not until more blood has been given."

"No! You can't!" Levin shouted, trying to tear loose of his binds. "Why are you doing this? I thought you said-"

"I may have been somewhat… premature, saying I didn't come to hurt you," Farren said. He slowly began to walk towards Levin, coming around to his right side. "I didn't want to, certainly. But… I must do this. I must complete my work, and doing so likely will hurt you. Forgive me, but… this process may kill you. I did not wish this to happen."

"You can stop! You don't have to add to your crimes! You can leave! You can just walk away!" Levin cried. He had stopped struggling. He couldn't break loose in time. He had to try and convince Farren…

"I can't stop, not now, not when the answer is so close," Farren replied. He was standing over Levin now, looking down at him with sadness and guilt in his eyes. "I have sought too long for this, since the day I left my home, and words cannot sway me. I hope this does not kill you, though I cannot be certain it won't. If you die… know my own death will likely not be far behind. This will be my last crime, no matter what the consequences are."

The mass of Dark Metal seemed to writhe and come to life in Farren's hands as he lowered it towards Levin. The former hunter watched in fear as the substance grew closer, reaching out, trying to latch onto him, desperate for the source of the blood it sought.

"We'll start here," Farren said, nodding to the stump of his right arm. "The wound is relatively fresh, and the Metal will be quick to find blood. And it will be more convenient for my end goal. Once again, I ask your forgiveness, though I don't expect to receive it."

"No, wait! Farren-"

Levin's words were cut off as Farren swung the Dark Metal down and touched it to the bandages around the remains of Levin's arm. Immediately a cold feeling swept through Levin's body. The Dark Metal suddenly swarmed to life as well, dancing black tendrils and thorns rising from the mass and twisting towards the wound, tearing through the gauze towards the raw flesh beneath. A moment later, the cold black substance ripped through skin and pierced into Levin's body.

Levin screamed in pain as the Metal tore into him, and his vision went black.

Author's Note: Please Review! I'm a big fan of Karen Eiffel's way of thinking about writing… on certain issues.

Well then. Did you all think this would be the last chapter? Epilogue is done and will be released soon. See you then.

Playing: Pokemon X, Bravely Default
Listening: Sevendust, Coal Chamber, Iron & Wine, New Found Glory, Destroyer, Groove Armada, Koufax, Crit Juice, Joshua Radin, Radical Face, Queen, History of Rome Podcast, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Watching: Kill la Kill