Symphony of the Forsaken
Chapter 1: Encounter
The only good thing about fighting is avoiding it.
Among massive trees, the heavy footfall of metal boots rang loudly. The source of the sound, a young man, walked closely along a trodden dirt path. The young man was suited in a heavy, composite suit of armor, a mixture of chainmail and plate. He held his helmet in his arms and a large pack on his back. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he trudged onward. In his tow was a single feline weighed down by a satchel-lie case which stirred the dirt behind it. The cat made soft purring noises in tune with its footsteps. The man's countenance was light; his enthusiasm evident in his mannerisms. The scent of water permeated the air, signaling that the campsite was nearby. He looked ahead, but showed little interest in the forest surrounding him; for this was the "safe zone" and as thus he would never assume that danger was here. His attention lay only on a clearing immediately next to a riverbank. This region was a meeting of two distinct environments, and was deemed "Forrest & Hills"
A woman entered the clearing. Unlike the man, she was unencumbered. She looked around quickly, but failed to notice the man through the trees through which he saw her. She then began to walk to the bank of the broad river and sat down. She let the foamy white water flow over her leggings, cleansing them of grime, while she pondered the scenery and waited for her assistance. The sky was a gentle blue with searing sunlight pouring down from the break in the coverage of the trees. This converted the mild temperature of the forest into a jungle-like atmosphere: humid, sweltering, and a haven for insects. The cold, flowing water, however, was a refreshing relief from the unpleasant atmosphere. The bank of the river was covered in white sand, a perfect representation of nature's beauty despite being somewhat spoiled by few rocks and floral debris; the majority of which would clear when the river would overflow. The surrounding trees were of several deciduous species, mostly redwood, and the grass was sparse. It was a textbook representation of a Forest & Hills scene. The kind painters would attempt to capture.
As the man approached, the woman stood; she was outfitted in a light, chainmail raiment with several steel plates attached and blue scales woven into the links. The woman turned as she heard the sound of footsteps, spotting the man entering the clearing. She made a wave-of-the-hand gesture which he seconded. Having already received copies of each other's guild cards, they recognized each other instantly.
"Angel is it?" the man questioned.
"Yes, and I gather that you're Blake," responded Angel.
The man put on his helmet and latched it in place; as he did, Angel stood and said, "We should set up and head out."
"Help me set this up," he commanded Angel, signaling the satchel his feline had been carrying.
Together they built a temporary camp in the clearing. Each gathered rations, first-aid, whetstones, and a map. Blake then gestured to his feline to help him untie the pack on his back. The cloth fell to the ground, revealing an enormous, iron sword.
"Are you ready yet," he asked Angel, "These bugs are going wild and I want to leave before any Vespoids show up."
Angel was sharpening her sword, a crimson blade with a concave structure and a rough texture. She also carried with her an azure shield. It overlapped her hand and had three red projections along the rim that were fashioned to resemble claws.
"Yes," she said as she too holstered her weapon, "what are we hunting?"
"We're hunting a Kut-Ku, juvenile," he explained, "Part of some preemptory population control business."
"That's not something I've ever heard of," Angel mentioned.
"Yeah well somebody already moped up the parents, but merchants swear up and down that they've seen a big-beak, razor-eared bird wyvern. And they think it'll be aggressive when it matures, 'cause it's already been attacked by humans," continued Blake.
"At any rate, this shouldn't be difficult," Angel interrupted.
"Of course," commented Blake; his bravado a ploy for his anxiety.
This would be his first hunt without the observation of his mentor; it was also his first large monster hunt. He worried about seeming inadequate, especially in front of a woman. He signaled that it was time to advance downstream and they moved quietly through the thick brush near the trees, looking for tracks of a bird wyvern. As they neared a bend in the river, a deafening wail echoed from beyond the trees. It quaked the forest and immobilized the hunters. The fauna of the area hurried from the direction of the scream, and from the trees emerged an unusually large Kut-Ku that sprinted to the bank of the river opposite of the hunters.
"So much for juvenile," said Angel.
"Oh, this is MUCH better than juvenile," exclaimed Blake, drawing his sword.
Just as he readied his sword at his hip, however, a golden mass erupted from the already trampled trees. A Rathian, queen of earth, colored an abnormal gold rushed at the Kut-Ku bowling it over into the river. The Kut-Ku struggled helplessly until it was able to dig its claws into the riverbed, preventing itself from being swept away by the current. The Kut-Ku was too disoriented to retaliate. As it yelped and flailed its head about the Rathian crouched, bearing its fangs. It then rocketed into the air, bludgeoning the Kut-Ku with its tail and ripping through its skull; a magnificent display, the Rathian's signature. The brutalized Kut-Ku spewed fire from its maw and its blood ran red through the river till it finally went limp. Were it not for the Kut-Ku's claws being dug deeply into the riverbed, his corpse would have been carried away by the river. The Rathian dragged the corpse onto the river bank and roared victoriously. Responding to the roar, three rath whelps emerged from the brush behind their mother.
She tore through the Kut-Ku's stomach to allow her brood to feed. The hunters watched the feeding cautiously.
Angel broke the silence, "That's odd, don't raths feed their young in their nest?"
"Well I guess she wants them to see her hunt," Blake commented, "They look old enough."
"Don't you think it could just be territorial instincts?"
"No, then it wouldn't have its young with it"
"Regardless, do you think we could still get a reward?"
"Not without proof that the Kut-Ku's dead. How about we wait till they're done?"
"I don't think we could pull that off. They'll probably notice us if we don't leave before long"
"I've got it," Blake exclaimed, "let's catch one of the whelps while the mother's not looking!"
"I'm sorry, what?"
"We should catch one of those whelps."
"What," Angel yelled, struggling to keep her voice low, "that's far too dangerous!"
"Yeah, well what in this world isn't?" Blake said, trying to sound insightful.
"That's not the point. We'd all get killed."
"We could cross that flotsam over there and sneak around through the brush till we're behind them," Blake argued as he pointed to a makeshift bridge of debris in the river that looked as though it could be washed away at any moment.
"That wouldn't work, the Rathian would see us," Angel reasoned, "Besides, we don't have a permit to hunt rath whelps, and they haven't done anything wrong."
"Preemptive measures right? We'll capture it, and the guild will pardon us," Blake argued.
"You'd risk an attack by a Rathian?"
"Listen," Blake said with conviction, "my mentor has always told me not to turn down an opportunity when it presents itself."
"This is no opportunity! The Rathian would just kill you."
"If one fears death, death will find them first," Blake said as he inched toward the flotsam.
"I take it that line is from your tool mentor, huh?" Angel said standoffishly.
"Don't talk bad about my mentor," Blake screamed!
The Rathian turned its head in head in his direction, seeing the glare from his helmet, clearly visible through the brush. Blake's outburst had set the Rathian into action. She leapt into the air, gliding over the river. The pressure created by her passing pinned the hunters to the ground and she skid to a stop behind them. Both hunters knew that retreat was impossible now.
"Our best bet is to trip it up when it charges, and then we can get away," Blake said, "So just hold your ground for as long as you can."
The hunters waited apprehensively, seconds seeming like minutes, as the Rathian turned slowly, aware that they were incapable of harming her. She moved like lightning, rushing at the hunters; driven by the instinctive bloodlust that drives beasts and her maternal duty to protect her young. Blake stood, his sword lay flat against him in an attempt to cover as much of his body as possible. As he watched the Rathian charge towards him he was overcome by a suspicion that the Rathian was charging not at Angel or him, but past them. The Rathian's talons knocked his breath out of him, but his sword protected him from her claws. She forced all her weight upon him, pushing him to the ground.
As Blake lay helpless, Angel struggled to hold the Rathian back. The Rathian's talon was caught on Angel's shield, and it would take little more than a push to throw the Rathian off balance, but Angel's strength refused her. She was overpowered by the weight of the Rathian, and was forced to kneel, holding her shield, all that was blocking the Rathian's talon from crashing down on her, feebly above her head. Seeing Angel's plight, Blake shifted his sword, tilting the Rathian's weight away from Angel. Angel felt her burden lessen and thrust her shield upward ferociously, causing the Rathian to lose her footing
Blake felt his ribs crunch as the Rathian fell upon him; his consciousness was fading. The Rathian was far too heavy for him to lift, and he was too worn to do little more than squirm. His only hope was to use his sword as a lever to lift the Rathian enough for him to escape, but the Rathian's struggling to stand made that near impossible. Blake would not give up, he struggled to wedge his sword into the ground, screaming from the pain it caused his broken ribcage. When he achieved a firm enough dig he pushed with what strength he had left, trying to elevate the Rathian just enough for him to roll out. He saw rays of light spill in from the outside, but they were soon blocked by a shadow: the shadow of Angel, who was trying to hold the Rathian up so Blake could escape. While the gap was still open, Blake rolled from under the Rathian and made every effort possible to get on his feet. He heard the thud of the Rathian hitting the ground and knew it wouldn't be much longer before she regained her balance. Shambling as he tried to stand, Blake fell back to the ground; he saw the Rathian charging at him. He blocked his vision with his arms, but no hit came. Through his arms he saw the Rathian flying over him, headed to the other side of the river.
There her whelps were being ambushed by a pack of Velociprey; two had already been killed, and the third was surrounded. The Rathian rained fire down upon the Velociprey pack and landed next to her remaining whelp. She sheltered the whelp under her wing and occupied an intimidating stance. The Velociprey's vicious leader slowly walked from the brush; he was accompanied by five other Velociprey. The Rathian spewed a huge fireball that was aimed at the Velocidrome, but he jumped aside, leaving the fireball to barrel through the forest – the fireball then sparked away when it collided with a tree, which over the years have become flame retardant.
Angel's voice called Blake's attention back to his immediate surroundings, "We have to get out of here!"
Blake's body would allow him no greater privilege than crawling, so Angel supported him as they fled to the forest, going deep enough to drown out the sound of the nearby fight.
Among the tall grass and massive trees Angel lay Blake down. Blake could feel bruises encompassing his body, and he was aware of his broken ribs. He wanted to just stay still in the soft, leafy grass, but he knew his wounds needed attention. He fumbled at the latches of his armor and shrugged it off, leaving him with only an arming doublet. Angel collected her first-aid kit and passed it to Blake. He opened his doublet, revealing his blotchy, bruised skin. Blake drew a jar of salve from the first-aid kit and collected some of it to apply to his bruises. Angel handed him a bottle containing a fragrant green liquid, "Drink this, it will dull the pain," she said. The drink smelled familiar; it was a potion, but it wasn't laced with honey like Blake was accustomed to. The drink tasted bitter, like coffee; as expected, it dulled his mouth and throat as it rolled down. Blake felt his body ease into numbness, an awkward feeling that made movement difficult, but one any hunter knew. Potions don't actually heal wounds, but are more than capable of saving lives. They can bring hunters back into action faster than treating wounds, allowing a hunter to finish his prey before it finishes him.
Enjoying his mobility, Blake stood.
"Close one, huh?" he questioned Angel.
"More than close," Angel emphatically stated.
"But that's what we signed up for," Blake responded.
"After all, a hunter risks his or her life the good of others, right?" Blake thought.
He, however, had risked his life for nothing but pure foolishness, arrogance, and carelessness, and risked both his and Angel's lives in the process.
"What's on your mind?" Angel inquired.
"Well, I just risked both of our lives trying to kill a monster that hasn't had a bounty put on it yet," Blake answered, "I'm not exactly feeling like an ideal hunter right now."
Angel simply lowered her head.
"I'll go see what's going on," she whispered.
"Be safe," Blake responded.
Angel walked into the distance.
Blake was left standing alone, surrounded by the darkness of the thick forest foliage. The phrase "safe zone" rang through his head and he was reminded of his eminent danger. Roads may be kept safe by hunters, but areas this deep in the forest could be host to herds of Bullfango, or worse, and Blake had left his sword wedged in the ground. He began to worry, knowing neither what direction the river was, nor whether Angel did either; he wondered if she had gotten lost going back to the riverbank. He pulled out his map of the region. From the camp they had come to the river and traveled downstream. Blake didn't know how far down the river Angel and he had gone, but he knew that they had stopped at a point where the river curved, and that they had kept to one side of the river – the one closest to the camp. Tracing this trail on his map, he concluded that from the riverbank they must have moved north-east into the forest. He pulled out his compass, and located south-west. As he walked south-west he heard sounds from the foliage around him.
He turned and saw Angel standing with a golden carcass slung over her shoulder. She laid it next to him and drew a de-scaled pelt from her bag. The pelt was tied into a sac; Angel unwrapped it, revealing a Kut-Ku ear and gold Rathian scales that were stored within. She tossed the ear to him and tied the pelt around the rest again, storing it in her bag.
Angel explained, "The rath left; the Velociprey must have driven her off and finished with the whelps. I brought one of the corpses, but the other was so badly damaged that I just skinned it."
"I see, they ate anything that was edible off the poor thing," Blake said.
He looked at the pitiful corpse on the ground; its guts were completely removed, leaving its ribs and spine exposed. He wondered what the other corpse looked like.
"Well, at least we're not poachers," Angel jested.
"Yeah, that's true," Blake laughed.
Blake's disappointment in himself lessened, but he knew that his mentor would disapprove of his actions. It seemed the more of his mentor's lessons he learned, the more of them he misinterpreted. He wished his mentor would speak more plainly so that he could understand, but he knew that interpreting his mentor's teachings was part of his training.
"How shameful," Blake mused to himself, "to be trained by the 'Slayer of Mountains' and misunderstand his teachings."
Already he could imagine his mentor lecturing him. His stern features, hardened by experience, wrenched in anger. His name: Paul, the slayer of the black god Akantor, he now used equipment made of the beast as a trophy.
"You never learn, do you," he yelled in his thunderous and booming voice.
"A great hunter trusts nothing but his skill and spirit; he doesn't need fancy equipment to slay a monster," Blake thought, reciting one of his mentor's sayings.
"We hunters gain power from the monsters we slay, and it is this power that keeps us alive," Said Blake's mental image of his mentor.
To Blake these two sayings seemed to contradict. If hunters didn't have power in equipment, then how could they gain power from monsters?
As Blake pondered, he was caught off-guard by Angel calling for him. Her voice drew Blake from the infinite numbness of his body.
"Thinking?" she said.
Blake stood for a minute, "Just feeling like an idiot," he responded.
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Angel said, trying to comfort him, "You just did what you thought was right."
"Right," Blake stated, "Is something that must be learned, not thought."
"Words from your mentor?"
Blake had an epiphany at that moment. Experience is the power that hunters gain from monsters; experience makes a true hunter.
"We should get going," Angel said.
"Agreed," said Blake.
The walk back to the camp was uneventful, and Angel suggested that the rest at camp before heading back to town. When they reached the camp Blake met with his feline companion; he gave him the Kut-Ku's ear and told him to report his success to the guild while they rested. They gathered under the small tent. Angel slept on a bed of leaves while Blake rested on the camps one bed. They lay there oblivious to the turmoil surrounding them.