Author's Note 10/10/12: Without spoiling much for those about to read ahead, I hope you're all excited as I am for what comes next! Anyway, in case you miss the Alsatia reference in the third paragraph, Alsatia was a place in the old country of Great Britain where thieves and never-do-wells would congregate due to a lack of authoritative presence. Kinda like Mos Eisley in Star Wars. By the way, look up the song Alsatia by Galneryus. It's pretty amazing. Join me next time for chapter 4!
Chapter Three: Convergence
Throughout the crags of the sand and sunbathed motherland of the desert canyons southwest of Bordertown and even further moreso from Allsburg crept the most insidious of creatures. Creatures with ambition akin only to devils… With influence to rival the most sick and twisted individuals bordering on fluctuating levels of delirium… And with intent on living out these malicious ambitions and influences to the fullest without regard to any who may draw breath near them in a lifetime.
What kind of sinister creatures could these be, one might wonder? What kind of villainous scum could lurk in and around the canyon walls that flood into the marshy forests and swamps? What evil lingers in these places…? Dragon? Wyvern? Something yet unknown to man? Unfortunately for man, not a single of these answers can suffice. And yet even more misfortune: The creature is man himself.
Welcome to the Outposts. The borderlands. The hive of stagnant silt and congress of boiling scorn. An outlet for all evildoers throughout the land. Minegarde's "Alsatia." It was an area known for its inhabitants and the laws that seldom governed them. It was also a place where Monster Hunters rarely showed their faces…
In older times this may have rung false. Guild presence was thin back then, but it was still there and thus Hunters were drawn to it. Besides, many rare creatures, insects, and ores were just waiting to be found around the many borders of Outposts 1 through 62. But as time passed and Guild influence moved on from this end of the foggy world to the sun soaked horizons of the East, the border regions ranging from the murkiest swamp to the blackest ocean became known as a place of evil… And a place that no sane man would ever venture without great reason.
And still tiptoeing within those laws of sanity, just barely, we find a man… A man stripped of "reason" and questionably sane. A man who would still call himself a Hunter. A man who would shout it at the tops of his lungs if he were so inclined… A man clad in the scales of the formidable Rathalos with a gargantuan sword at his back of the same make. This would be Outpost 12's latest resident. And he was one that would be eyed very closely during his stay there. Eyed by some, closer than others.
As the mysterious, young, and relatively fresh face of the Outpost made his way into a run down and damp local tavern, he felt those prying eyes closing in. They had been following him for quite a while now. And he knew that the moment he stopped for a rest they would surely make their strike. In fact, he counted on it.
"Hands on the counter now, boy'o. Right where I can see 'em," a bald, gamey imp of a man commanded the hunter while gently pointing a small knife at the seam of his armor, ready to disable a kidney. "I'd not tried anythin' funny if I were you. This here dagger's coated in a rich venom. We've been watching you for days. We know where ya eat. Where ya sleep. We even see ya talkin' to yerself, right boys?" The man laughed, egging on the two bandits on either side of him.
"Baggi saliva," the Hunter growled with a light chuckle, taking a sip of the wine he had ordered just before the men had arrived. "I can smell it. You trying to kill a man, or put him to sleep with that butter knife?"
The flustered bandit eyed the dagger for a moment then pressed it harder into the Hunter's side. "Why you–think yer clever, do ye!?"
"Also the sonics you bought off that very same merchant are faulty. Hastily made. It wouldn't surprise me if they went off at any moment in your pockets. If I were you, I'd probably make a few new contacts and get my money back from him. Assuming he hasn't skipped town already." Collective silence and deafening disbelief as all eyes in the tavern began to focus on him. "And you thought you were tracking me?"
"Heh, heh, heh… Awright then, chump. Awright. That's all very good. Very clever. But lookie who's got a dagger in yer back, eh? What say you 'bout that business?"
"I'm gonna break what few teeth you have left."
The Hunter soared. Air from the impact of the back of his fist against the bandit's face could be felt by everyone within spitting distance. The knife fell along with the thief, his back against the mud and straw, as the Hunter intercepted the next one's punch by flipping him back-first onto a soon to be broken tabletop. The two squirmed and pleaded indiscernibly while clutching at the Hunter's crimson boots in pain. The smell of blood hit the moist air lightly. The third man shook, pulling back the string of his bowgun and aiming it at the Hunter's chest.
"D–Don't move!" He shouted, voice wavering. "You'll not best me so easily, Guild dog!"
Before the last bandit could think to pull the trigger, the barrel of his gun was bent with a swift kick and his consciousness was fading after a lightning quick open palm strike to the gut. He too fell against the dirtied floor of the tavern, groaning and holding his stomach while the Hunter disassembled the rest of their weapons and gave their pieces to the bartender to hide behind the counter.
"Weapons are meant for protecting lives. Not ending them," the Hunter said to the three men as they managed to crawl their way out. "Good lord, is everyone here as stupid as these three?" He whispered, reclaiming his seat at the counter.
"J–Just about," the middle aged man responded, happily refilling the Hunter's drink free of charge. "That was sure a masterful display of combat. What's your name, Hunter? We don't get too many folk like you around the Outlands."
"Berek," he said with a small cough, savoring the rich wine. "Just Berek."
Everyone heard it. And now, everyone knew it. The name of the man who had bested the oppressive forces of the Outpost without breaking a sweat. Because while such a wretched hive was known for that which it harbored most, there were also some denizens that weren't making their home there on their own accord. Some being born into a poor, debt ridden families with no other choice. So seeing such a display as this… to say the least, heightened a few spirits.
"Making a mess already?" A voice came from the tavern entrance. "You just got here, my boy."
Berek turned and faced the inquisitor, already aware of what he'd find. "I suppose so," he said with a light smile, placing some zenny on the counter and making his way to the exit. "I'm glad you made an effort to find me. It greatly saved me the trouble of seeking you out."
"Oh? And what would a gallant Hunter want with an old man like me?"
Berek motioned for the two of them to walk outside together. The man had no qualms. It had been nearly a half year since the two had last seen each other. This man acted as a pseudo-friend to the disconnected and lone soldier of darkness, Berek… the one who made a pact with the Crimson Fatalis. And Berek allowed it to be this way because he knew no harm would come of it… Not like it would if he sought out his "true" friends from long ago.
"I received a gift not too long ago," the man said, leading Berek to his shabby home under the guise of mist and moonlight. "It was rather unexpected. I wasn't quite sure what to think after finding it placed near the fire pit of my old home, at the Outpost where we first met. But in the end I decided to bring it with me after moving here. After all, it was mine to begin with… Still…"
"It was stained by the blood of many innocent lives," Berek told him. "The Scythe of Menace. But it was your son's. And despite what feelings you may hold towards him in this day and age, he was still your son. And that makes you the best candidate to bear his sins after death."
"Yes," the man agreed, opening the door to his home. "I suppose you're right. Please, come in."
Berek dismounted the greatsword Siegmund from his back and leaned it against the wall, embracing the weightlessness as he sat next to the already roaring fire. It had been a long time since he had removed the blade and he had the shoulder sores to prove it. It seemed that he was always on the move, always traveling these days… as if he were trying to escape his own shadow.
"Tea?" The old man asked, holding a boiling kettle in front of Berek's face.
"I've never accepted your tea before, old man."
"I figure one of these days I'll coax you," the man smiled as he poured himself a cup, adding a tinge of whiskey. "Now. What business do you have with me today?"
Berek reached for the Siegmund, a monstrous, powerful weapon imbued with the frightening power of a pure and radiant Rathalos ruby. He ran his fingers among its many scars and deep nicks, pruning it by the firelight. "It seems I am in need of your handiwork, blacksmith."
"Ah," the bald and tired old man sighed, applying his spectacles to take a closer look. "A magnificent weapon. It's seen better days, but the bone may be reworked and the hilt straps tightened. Although, it'd likely be better if you found yourself a newer weapon after all these years. Don't you agree, Hunter?"
"This one suits me."
"You mean it reminds you of the past?"
"Don't," Berek warned him, feeling agitated by the simplest of jeers. "Don't start this again, smith. This one suits me. That's all. Can you fix it?"
"Yes, of course. But I can't promise you it'll be of great use much longer. The Golem Blades series of greatswords are meant to be unbreakable, you know? Known for their raw power and indelible structure over grace. Though you always manage to bring this poor soul to me as if it were eroded to its last leg. What do you do out there, split mountains?"
"Heh, something like that."
"You'd be better off bringing it to someone more suited to the task. Not an old hermit such as myself. Why not visit one of the great cities and see if perhaps a new branch of evolution has been opened up for the sword after all this time? Those fools in the desert always have new, Guild certified inventions to be exploited before the popularity rises. You're always on the move. Perhaps you should rest there for a while."
Berek held his tongue, entranced by the flames between him and the man who had already begun work on his blade. The man knew the reason why Berek avoided the cities. And he knew the reason why his advice would not even be considered. The room grew darker as a transcendent force began to watch over the both of them from afar. Berek felt it. He knew it well…
"This blade has never seen the blood of a man. Not like that one," the blacksmith noted, scraping the bone with his tools while pointing to the scythe leaned against the wall behind him. "And yet you reek of it. I wonder… Do you kill men with your bare hands to spare the blade?"
"I have yet to kill a man, smith. I can assure you that. I don't see that ever happening."
"And yet… you long for it?"
"Why do you test my patience this day, old man? Is it because I left the scythe at your home six months ago? Did it burn you that deeply? Or have you simply lost your senses over the years?"
"I'm… I'm sorry," the man apologized, continuing his work. "It's just that I see it in your eyes… The same look that he had all those years ago. Just after my wife had been taken by the flames…"
"I'm not like him. I am not your Shinu."
"Do you hate him still?"
"A man could never hate his son… Not even after the crimes that mine has committed. Wherever he is now I pray that he's content and at peace with what he has done in the afterlife. It was not his fault for the way that the world treated him as a child… But it was his responsibility to deal with the anger and spite. Instead of making the same mistake that I almost made before him…"
"The cult," Berek said. "You attempted to summon the Fatalis as well?"
"Yes… Long before my son was born into this world. I was young and I was stupid. I craved power. And in an attempt to rise up amongst my peers, I sought out that creature high atop the ancient tower in the West. And to no avail. I never found it, ignoring the location of both the Crimson Calamity and the Legendary Black Dragon. For me, it was the White Ancestor or none at all. And to this day I am grateful that I never found him. Or else I fear that I may have strayed down a much darker… much more grotesque path. One such as yours."
"I keep my path well lit. You of all people should know that by now. You're the only constant figure I've kept in contact with over these past two years. For better or for worse. I'll never descend into the darkness that dissolved Shinu…"
"The boy was already dark," the man corrected him, placing the hefty blade into a mechanical compress. "But you've already heard that story and I've never been fond of retelling it. I still remember how you were back then when you came to me searching for answers. Full of fire and determination. And even then I could tell… that it was all for the girl."
"Right, right. Press down on this," the man beckoned Berek to the compress' handle. "I'm afraid I've grown weaker than since we last met. You can take care of this part. How is she, by the way?"
"Who?" Berek avoided the question while operating the machine.
"She's alive. That's enough to satisfy me."
"If you continue to lie to yourself that hate will grow, Hunter. And with the flames at your back… it will transform into something much, much worse."
"I already told you," Berek grunted, pulling out his newly restored sword. "My path is well lit. The beast has no influence over me. We hardly interact with one another."
The man poured yet another cup of tea and added more whiskey. He could hear the lies beneath every word the boy spoke. It was as if he had become so accustomed to the falsities he had woven around himself that he was actually beginning to believe in them. The dragon's presence was strong… The demon was nearby. The entirety of the village could feel it. They only knew not what it was.
"What about what she desires?" The man spoke up finally, ignoring the Hunter's threats. After all, he was a disturbed and tired old man. What more could ail him this late in his life? Berek bit his lip, fastening the blade back into its holster upon his back. He had grown considerably large over the years, but the blade still remained colossal in appearance.
"She is no longer the woman I once loved… And yet there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of her…" Berek admitted. He began to feel something claw at his consciousness. "But every thought that comes into my mind is defiled by it."
"Shinu was the same way. That is how he forgot to love."
"Yet still… It's out of my power. There is nothing I can do to stop it. Every day is a struggle… Every day the beast attempts to infiltrate my mind… Cloud my sense of morality… Make me do things I don't want to do… Just earlier I had to restrain myself from tearing those men in half and feeding him their pieces," he said, reaching for his aching head. "That is why I must remain out here. That's why I have to keep moving."
"And that's why you're still able to stand there and have this conversation with me," the man smiled tenderly. "Because you're double the man that Shinu ever was. What you have tethered to you now is an evil far more intrusive and ferocious than the one that my son unleashed into the world years ago. And if I would be so bold, I'd say you are the only man that could tame it in this way."
"Tame it?" Berek snarled, struggling to keep his sense as the beast drew closer. "You have no idea… It is its own master. The only reason why he hasn't already reduced this place to ash is because he enjoys his freedom. And he knows that if he gives in to the carnage that governs his soul… that I will forfeit my life and send him back to his slumber."
Berek's words ate away at the man as he sat next to the fire, feeling chilled and faint as he spoke. It was as if he was channeling the devil himself… Whatever the Hunter was managing to keep at bay, it was something that would cripple a lesser man. And the blacksmith knew this.
"I offer you my services and my good tidings, for that is all I can do to aid you in your quest, good Hunter. Although your sin was foolish, I feel that in your situation I would have likely done the same… If it were my wife, I mean. I would have made a pact with any damned beast to bring her back. And one more thing…" The man stated, looking away as Berek turned to face him. "I offer my sincerest apology."
"It was Shinu's stroke that killed your father. It was his doing that ended the lives of thousands of people… It was he who did this to you and the one you suffer for. And it was me who brought him into this world. And for that, I sincerely apologize."
"Ha, ha, you're too sentimental, old man. Don't waste your apologies on me. Just stay alive for the next time I bring this back to you," Berek said, knocking on the flat side of his blade. "Lest I'm forced to venture into someplace more populated and consult a real smithy."
"You should," the man encouraged him. "You should pay her a visit I mean…"
Berek waved him off, stepping out into the heavily misted darkness. The air was rank and stunk of poor irrigation. Here the people were grief stricken and the land reflected that. But the population was anything but dense and the atmosphere was something that Berek thrived upon. To the untrained eye, he looked to be a Hunter of exceptional ability, meaning his coin purse was likely weighty. And this was something that Berek counted on.
It brought forth more incidents like the one at the tavern only moments ago. And it helped him to serve as an outlet for the rage that dwelled inside of him. The boy was always quick tempered. Even at this moment he could recall the time when he nearly beat Magnus' brother, Argus, into a pulp after insulting his long since deceased father. And then he was but a fledgling Hunter. Still, the rage and power that culminated inside of him now… It was unlike anything he had ever felt before. It was something that if he didn't keep under control, would get out of hand and put entire communities at risk.
Shortly after making his way out of the Outpost limits, he assembled his thoughts on higher ground. He liked to up high where the wind was less foul and he could look down on those below. He could look down on a world that now seemed so small and vague after seeing through the eyes of an ancient.
The foulness of the air had left, but was soon replaced by another smell. It was slight. Perhaps most wouldn't even notice it. The smell of wildflowers. Even Berek's heightened senses had only just now been able to recognize it. But he knew of what caused the smell and how long it had been chasing him for some time now… It was a smell that he had run into more than enough times to be able to recall.
"You," he growled at the cliff top, staring off into the marsh below without bothering to face his stalker. "How long are you going to follow me before making your move? I thought you bunch prided yourselves on the swiftness of your duties."
"Keh, keh!" The voice cackled, almost innocently. There sat a fit and slender girl perched on the rocks above Berek's head. She was robed in tight cloths of black and laid herself out provocatively after being found out by her quarry. "Oh, Mr. Crimson, you're no fun. You always skip the foreplay."
"Young girls shouldn't talk like that. Your smell gave you away. Like flowers…"
"'Tis the stink of passion. A passion I hold for you. Besides," she squeaked, shuffling into yet another suggestive pose. "I'm no killer. You know that, Mr. Crimson. I am but a ranger. Not an assassin like my brothers and sisters. I would never do any harm to you." Her voice remained muffled by the cloth wrapped around her face to ensure that her pale skin would not expose her while under the blanket of night. This was her hunting ground. The night was her cradle.
"You've followed me since before those bandits began tailing me two days ago. Why the dedication? I thought I was marked off of Affliction's list after the fiasco at Black Lake."
"But you are, darling! I only wished to pay you a visit. Oh! Pay a visit… Pay a visit… Isn't that what the old man said? For you to 'pay her a visit'? To whom, I wonder? A girl? We've been together for almost two years now… I can't believe you've managed to hide her from me after all this time."
"Shut your mouth before I shut it for your No. 88," he spit.
"Ah! You remembered my name! My number! I am overjoyed! But my lord… Whatever will I do about this mystery mistress you have implanted at some corner of Minegarde…? I simply can't bear the thought of sharing you with someone else… However can I win you over?" She asked, lowering herself stealthily behind her prey. She put her arms around his waist. Her breath caressed the bareness of his neck. "Perhaps there is something I can do for you that she can't?"
He attempted to push her away, only to feel the tip of a stray cloth end with his hand as she gracefully and silently slunk back into the cover of darkness. "What is this about, No. 88? Answer me. Affliction doesn't send the best of their scouts to seduce bounty targets. What is it that you came here to tell me?"
"Eighty-Eight is my name,
A knife in the dark to end the game,
The Devil's blood flows through my veins,
To ensure you'll never see the light again…
Eighty-Eight is my name."
"Cutthroats, the lot of you. You take pride in killing humans. It's disgusting."
"Keh, keh! I have placed my mark on you, swordsman," she squealed in pleasure while tasting the tip of a silver knife. Berek felt for his waist. He was bleeding, but just barely. She had penetrated his defenses… "Delicious. Your blood is so pure…"
"Know that Affliction has no list. Our contracts are bound in blood and coin. And it seems that although you were placed far from our agent's clutches, someone has paid thrice the last amount to see you dead. Be warned, swordsman. My brothers and sisters will come for you… No. 47 has already begun chanting your name in his sleep… He is obsessed with ending your life. Perhaps that is why I visited you today. To give you fair warning… Because my kin are not those to be taken lightly. I'll see you again on the second night of the full moon. Until then, try to do well on your own, Mr. Crimson. I'd hate to see you go running off to your little harlot without me, wherever you may be hiding her!"
Berek grit his teeth and grinded the heel of his greaves into the dirt, feeling powerless in the wake of the greatest assassination force in all of Minegarde: Affliction. A group unknown to many, whose members are stripped of their past names and past lives and associated only with a number thereafter. The numbers serve as ranks to justify the best assassin's from the rest. No. 88 was already a formidable opponent, being able to sneak a drop of his blood without him knowing… If Berek was to be hunted by a number as low as 47… He would surely have to use severe caution.
There was a glow in the distance that caught his eye as he tended to the slight wound on his side. It was a faint glow, but it was easy enough to see. It resembled magma flows. Like a hellish web of flames. The glow wavered between a hot red to a searing white, dancing alongside Berek's heartbeat.
"Don't," he said, buckling his tasset while staring off into the distance, confronting the glow. He was no longer afraid of it… "Don't kill her. We may need her in the future. She isn't a bad girl… She's just young and confused."
The glow faded and sought refuge amongst the trees, heeding Berek's words. The Crimson Fatalis craved death and destruction. It was simply in its nature. If it weren't for the Hunter's word, the creature would have surely killed the young assassin without hesitation. Although even now it was hard to tell if the demon would comply.
"Evelyn…" He sighed into the wind, reaching for his heart, perhaps relying on the gales to take his words to her, halfway across the land. "What would you have to say about the kind of life that I lead… now that you're gone…?
Author's Note: And we have our main character back! So, let's go over the new characters thus far: Velaria Duchess, the Guild's newest general and bodacious vixen, Bane of Magnus, and No. 88 (Number Eighty-Eight), the young and promiscuous assassin who has an unnatural obsession with Berek, who she calls "Mr. Crimson" due to his red armor. Wonder if she'd still call him that if she found out what he was hiding… Leave a review and let me know what you think of the story so far!