“Saph! Let's go!”
Sapphire rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she sat up lazily. Stretching out, the girl of silken sky-blue locks shook off the last remnants of the night before by running a simple bone brush through her hair. Staring at the gear stacked neatly in the corner of the Inn's small room, she reached down and shouldered her pack.
Outside in the hallway, Gen was tapping his foot impatiently. Wroggi skins hemmed into a fine jacket and chaps rode loosely on his frame, a bowgun tucked over his shoulder.
“Are you seriously going to be late for your first delivery request? Gods girl, I hand-picked this job for you because you had the stamina for running! Let's get a move on!”
“I'm ready. Let's just get this over with.” With that, both hunters left the Inn, making their way to the Guild.
To say that Sapphire could run was an understatement. The girl had more than the stamina for it, as any male hunter would gladly point out. Her frame was thin but muscular, and her long legs accentuated her abilities even further. The slender wrappings of her Jaggi armor were almost fit to bursting at the seams from her calf muscles.
“So, what's this delivery again? A couple of eggs,” she asked.
Gen nodded. “Some high and mighty Princess is playing the part of conservationist. Says we've been hunting the wyverns into 'endangered status'.” He made air-quotes as he spoke the last part. Then he scoffed. “Can't kill 'em fast enough if you ask me.”
Sapphire stopped in her tracks, almost causing a passing merchant to bowl her over.
“Wait. You didn't say anything about wyverns, Gen. What are we talking about here? Qurupeco?”
Gen chuckled as he patted his gun.
“Don't worry Saph. It's nothing I can't handle. I'll be providing a distraction for you, just in case any of the beasties decide to show up. We're shipping out to the Deserted Islands outside of Moga. Highly unlikely we'll run into anything too dangerous.”
“Don't play me, you bastard. I've heard of some of the things that live out there. Rumor has it that a Lagiacrus was spotted recently. If there's one of those around, that island chain is probably hiding a lot more than that.”
“Lord above, Sapphire; you'd think you've never seen a monster before.” Gen laughed. “Relax girl. I've got your back. That's why I'm going with you, remember? I am your mentor. You'd have to face the big boys sooner or later if you wanted to make it anywhere in this world.”
As the two continued on, a sinking feeling settled into Sapphire's stomach.
Gods, she was barely a Rank One Hunter, and Gen was planning on having her poach wyvern eggs? Even if it was a Guild Quest, did he really think she was ready for it? Gear made from the hide of six Great Jaggi kills and an advanced Bone Blade were not likely to cut it if they ran across that stray 'Crus. Even Gen with his Rathling Gun wouldn't do much to a monster like that without having serious trouble.
Saph tried to shake her jitters. It was just another quest. Climb to the peaks, nab some 'Peco eggs, make it back to the camp and bolt before anything grew wise. That wouldn't be hard. Pecos were notoriously predictable in their attacks. They telegraphed their movements with abandon. That and it wasn't hard to see one coming, being the bright and noisy birds that they were.
By the time they'd reached the Guild, an Aptonoth had been tacked and saddled. The cart with their camping supplies and extra gear had been trussed up. The Felynes entrusted by the Guild to pull their collective cans out of the fire if it got too hot were suited up and ready to go. All that was left was to board the sand-ship, cross the Endless Sandsea to the shore, transfer their gear to the fishing skiffs that came and went from Moga Village, and get to it.
Night had fallen with a vengeance before they'd even reached the island. It left them to haul their equipment across the island chain to Moga's Hunting Camp in the dark. Fortunately, the base camp was always set up and awaiting hunters, just in case. The village was notorious for having minor monster problems and a severe lack of capable hunters. One would've thought the Guild would've ordered them to pull out by now, but if they had, the villagers were either too stupid or stubborn to follow orders.
Once their camp was made, Gen and Saph meandered down the main path from the head island to the bridge connecting it to the village. They checked in with the Guild Liaison there; a rather bright and bubbly girl if Saph had ever met one. They paid their respects to the village Chief and his son before hitting up the local kitchen and vendor for one or two last minute necessities.
The sun was rising as they made their way back to the hunting camp. The ocean crashed mercilessly against the beachhead in the distance, causing wakes to lull into the bay that the camp rested on.
“You know, this is actually a rather pretty place, once you get past the annoyance of it all.” Gen mused to himself as they sat watching the sunrise. “It reminds me of my days hunting up in the mountains around Pokke.”
“Where's that,” Saph asked.
“It's in the mountains to the north. Cold enough that you can't go anywhere without a nice, hot drink in a thermos to keep you warm. Even through the Popo Hide clothing they make there, the wind will take the strength right out of you.”
Saph scoffed. “Doesn't sound like a nice place. Sounds way too cold for me.”
Gen shook his head.
“There are few things like waking up in Pokke's Guild Hall, looking out the window, and watching the sun glimmer off the peaks. The snowcaps sparkle like diamonds and the winds sing through the mountain range. It's beautiful in its own way.” Gen stared off into the glistening waves with an almost nostalgic look on his face.
Sapphire stood up and began to sharpen her blade. It didn't hurt to be prepared, after all. Her belt was fit with two kinds of restorative potions, a bag of sliced chips she'd had imported from the Tanzian Port, two energy drinks and a flash bang or two. Just enough to get her through the quest. The chips were more of a snack in case she couldn't find anything edible, however unlikely it was...but they also had this uncanny ability to make her feel better in bad situations.
She opened the leather satchel and popped a few in her mouth. Their spicy flavor bit into her tastebuds, but it served to wake her up and motivate her.
Two eggs. That's all they needed to bring back. She would carry one, Gen would carry the other. If worst came to worst, Gen would drop his and take up the defensive, and Saph would scurry back for it after delivering hers. Securing her blade and uncorking the first of her energy drinks, Saph downed the contents of the bottle before tossing it back into the pile of supplies they'd stacked nearby.
It was time to go.
Gen and Sapphire made their way out into the island proper, covering a vast expansive field just near the shore in less than half an hour. They made it into the wooded interior with little trouble. Nothing but a few stray wild Aptonoth and a colony of Altaroth impeded their progress. The Aptonoth had young, and it had been hard to keep from spooking them. The bugs though, they decided it was better to leave the humans alone. Even though one was big enough to tackle a hunter and start tearing into them, the Altaroth usually kept to themselves unless provoked, thankfully.
Taking a short break by a stream running from a small cascading waterfall near the end of a gully, Saph surveyed their surroundings. She knew Gen would be watching her, making sure she was remembering her situation awareness training. The path had been pretty straight forward. Cross the plains, scale the first few hills, pass into the gully and that would bring them where they were. Saph nodded. She knew the trail back so far.
It was then that she heard the first echoing cries of Jaggi, coming from a cavern pass to their right. Sapphire sighed. That was all they needed now. It was bad enough they were taking wyvern eggs from a nest. No doubt mommy wyvern would be nearby. Now, there was a pack of Jaggi running around? Not only were the little buggers outright aggressive towards humans, but it was a bit of work to put one down with a Bone Blade. She nearly swore under her breath when she heard the click-clack of Gen's Rathling Gun being loaded up.
He gave her a lopsided grin.
“Careful. Got the Pelletshot staged. Don't want to catch you in the crossfire.”
She nodded. That was a bit of a relief. It'd make her job a bit easier, anyway. Wide range bursts from a bowgun should keep the spits at bay.
With their break over, the two hunters carefully made their way through the cavern pass into a small glade. It would have been a serene setting in ordinary circumstances. An almost sculpted ledge stood out shapely over a still pond that lead into a river, trickling out into the ocean. Massive rock overhangs shaded the entire glen, giving it the appearance of twilight with orange sunlight glowing faintly over their edges. Another pass lead out of the glade into another section of the island. Then, there was the path they needed to take to reach the nesting peaks.
The only thing keeping this from being a very tranquil scene was the pack of Jaggi and Jaggia, barking madly at each other and running in circles near the other exit pass. Sapphire drew her longsword and held it at the ready while Gen hoisted his bowgun to his shoulder, sighting them little monsters.
“Back slowly towards the canyon leading up to the peaks. They know we're here, but they're spooked. See how the Jaggia are cackling at the younger males? I don't see a Great Jaggi anywhere...so that means that those big girls are probably in charge...and they're afraid of something.”
Saph nodded and did as she was told, listening to Gen assess the situation. Most times, it paid to be on a quest with a veteran hunter. She was glad to have Gen along now.
Gen shrugged. “Could be. Could be an Arzuros. Who knows? Chances are, it's nothing serious. I just don't want them to decide that we're worth the trouble of pissing off whatever might be around. Let's go.”
It was a few nerve-wracking minutes as they crossed into the slightly darker shadows of the glade, making their way towards the crevasse up into the peaks. Once the Jaggi Pack was out of sight, they sheathed their weapons and began the trek up the mountain. It was noon before they caught the first signs of a nest. Atop a large, bowl-shaped plateau, Sapphire spied what they had come for.
She stopped cold as they approached the nest.
“Gen...these are too big to be Peco eggs.” She turned to him with a worried frown. “What in the name of Moran have you gotten us into?”
“Just grab one and let's go. This is what we're here for.” He motioned to an egg that was almost too large to carry.
“You expect me to be able to run while carrying that? I might make a fast walk, at best!”
“Shh!” He put a finger to her lips. “Not so loud. You don't want to let her know we're here.”
Sapphire looked at him strangely. She turned around, looking in all directions before looking up...and almost falling over backwards. There, not twenty feet above them, hanging over the edge of another shelf, was a large, broad green tail. It was covered in thick plates and spines. The spines seemed to quiver every few seconds, as though reacting to their owner's breathing. That in itself could just be heard over the rushing breezes that kicked up periodically around them.
“Is that what I think it is?!” Saph turned to grab an egg, giving Gen an incredulous look.
He only nodded; his face had taken on a rather serious expression as his gaze remained locked on the tail above them. With a free hand, he motioned back towards the pass they'd come from before picking up the egg before him. Sapphire followed suit, turning her eyes back on the green tail above once more.
Then, it hit her. She turned her head left and right, trying to spot them. To her dismay, none of the Guild Felynes could be seen anywhere. Not like that was much of a surprise. They were trained in various methods of stealth so they would remain undetected by large monsters. However, now when she knew exactly what the odds were for the hunting pair...even the small wave of a tiny paw would've been a welcome comfort. Had the cats been able to make the climb up the mountain path with their emergency cart? Gods she hoped so.
Together, the two hunters slowly backed their way to the pass, careful not to make another sound. The only things making any kind of audible disturbance were the wind...and an odd buzzing noise that she just couldn't seem to shake from her ears. It was probably the heights playing tricks on her. Sapphire had never been one for high places. Being on top of a mountain was definitely not on her list of favorite places.
As they made their way into the pass and back down the mountain, all was quiet, save for the wind and that strange buzz. If anything, the further they got from the mountain top, the worse it got. It was really beginning to bother Saph. By the time they made it back down to the shaded glen, the Jaggi pack was gone. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, that they had decided whatever was around was too much of a bother to risk sticking around. She was glad for that at least. Now if only that buzz would go away.
“Do you hear that too, Gen?” Saph asked.
“Yeah. Whatever you do, just keep going and don't turn around. If that Bnahabra feels like it's being threatened, it'll sting you quicker than you can say Jho's your uncle. Right now, it's just content to follow us...oddly enough.”
“Wait, we've got a giant bug following us?” She grimaced. “Lovely. Just lovely.”
“As long as it doesn't feel that we're invaders, it'll fly off eventually. Just keep moving away from it. Their toxin will paralyze you in an instant, and if you don't want to die from it and have little bug-babies being laid in your corpse...just take it easy and keep heading for camp.”
Saph nearly choked. “What? They lay their eggs in dead bodies?”
Gen just nodded, not deigning to say anymore.
Sapphire decided to kick it up a notch. It'd wear her down a lot faster, carrying something this big. She'd have to stop for a break or two on the way back, but if it meant getting away from the hovering horror behind her, it was worth it. This was one of the times she was not glad for Gen's experience. She could have lived the rest of her life very happily without knowing that information.
Once they crossed back into the gully, the Bnahabra decided it was safe to let them leave. Either that or it didn't want to put up with an Altaroth nest that rested beneath a large fallen log. Altaroth were well known for being able to fire a sticky substance from their abdomen that could easily gum up a flying insect's wings. From there, it'd be short work for the Altaroth to dissect that bug.
It was here too that she once again caught the faint white and brown of a Felyne tail hiding in the nearby bushes. The blue tip at the end signified it as a Guild Felyne, and not a native one. Most Felynes were rather amicable if you didn't irritate them. Even still, knowing that this one was on their side made her breath a bit easier. She slowed her pace again so Gen didn't get left too far behind. Once her mentor had caught up, the picked up a walk again and pressed forward.
“This was easier than I thought.” Sapphire noted Gen's rather flat expression. “What's wrong? You wanted it to be a bit more exciting?” She chuckled.
“No, I was hoping for you to get some more experience with a larger monster. Granted yes...in a way I'm glad we didn't have that Rathian swooping down on us. God knows I don't want you to get injured. I was just hoping we'd get a better look at it.”
Saph shook her head.
“No thanks Gen. I've seen pictures. That's about as close as I ever want to be.”
“That's not the point, Sapphire. You're going to have to fight one sooner or later. You can't stay Rank One forever...unless you plan on just being a rookie for the rest of your life.” He paused to put the egg down and take a quick breather. “If we happened upon a sleeping one, I could've at least pointed out its blind spots and weak zones for you. That way, if you met up with one while I wasn't around, you wouldn't be totally helpless.”
“Hey.” Saph scowled. “I'm not totally helpless. I slew all the Great Jaggi and Jaggi that it took to make my armor. What's more, I did it by myself. Besides, the Guild wouldn't allow me to go on a quest that was beyond my league.”
“Again, not the point.” Gen took his Rathling Gun off of his back and sat down, propping it up before her. “Do you know how I got this gun?”
Saph shrugged. “Obviously from getting into a scuffle with a Rathalos.”
“Aye, but it wasn't just one that made this gun. Fact is: the first parts for it came from a Rathalos I didn't expect to run into on a quest. That's the thing, Sapphire. It's not always going to be Great Jaggi and Royal Ludroth. One of these times, you're going to go out on a quest and something's going to surprise you. The Guild may quote its safety rules up and down, but even they can't predict the unexpected.”
“Gods Gen, you make it sound like we're going to be laid up by a Deviljho out here.”
“It can happen, Saph. Hell, it's been known to happen. Especially with 'Jho. They're so unpredictable in their movements that the Guild stopped trying to warn hunters when one would show up and just label the quest as having an 'Unstable Habitat' whenever there was even the slightest suspicion of one being in the area.”
Gen unhooked his canteen from his belt and took a long draught.
“Fact is, even something that big can sneak up on you if you're not careful. I've seen one myself, and let me tell you, I was lucky to get away with my tail intact.” He began to undo his waist-buckle. “I'm going to show you something I don't show just anyone.”
Saph was about to make a joke when he unstrapped his waist-coat and lifted up the protective shirt underneath. There, in a long arc across his stomach, was a blackened, twisted scar.
“Dragon-blight. That scar will never heal properly because of the Dragon-blight that a Deviljho can inflict with its breath weapon. They're classified as Brute-Wyverns, and most Brute-Wyverns can't use elemental breath attacks. Do yourself a favor and don't you ever let that trick you into thinking that they can't use elemental breath if you ever have the misfortune to run into one.”
Sapphire felt a knot forming in her throat as he redid his waist-coat, turning to look away. She nodded quietly.
“That right there is proof enough that the Guild and its knowledge isn't infallible. Nor are its safety rules. There's plenty good reason to follow those rules, but they won't save you from everything you come up against. That's what I'm trying to do for you. To help you along and show you that it's not all just book-learning and Bird-Wyverns. Expect the unexpected. Be ready for anything and don't let the shock take you when the day takes a turn for the worst.”
“Yeah...I know.” She nodded again, eyes to the ground. “Thanks Gen, by the way.”
There was a silence between them for a moment.
“No problem kid. Now...” Gen hoisted himself back up. “Let's get these eggs back to camp and get out of here.”
As Sapphire stood, she dusted herself off and reached around for the egg. Just as she got a good hold on it and began to set an easy pace, an ear-splitting roar shook the gully.
“Oh you have got to be kidding me.” Sapphire glared upward at the sound of beating wings as a large shadow overtook them.
“Saph, get going. Now! I've got this.” Gen grabbed his bowgun, ejected the Pellet casings and withdrew larger shells from his bag. Cluster shells. Saph's eyes widened. It was about to get serious in a few seconds. “What are you waiting for? Go!”
That was all the incentive she needed. Saph took off as fast as her legs would carry her, feeling a heavy tremor in the ground as the Rathian landed and loosed another roar of fury. That was followed up shortly by the clank of Gen's bowgun firing and three explosions as the cluster shells hit their mark.
Sapphire ran back through the gully and down the hillsides into the field below. As if things couldn't get any worse, she took a few stumbling steps before grinding to a halt. There in the large field just before the camp, the Jaggi pack from earlier was hassling the Aptonoth herd they'd passed by that morning. With another trumpeting roar from the Rathian in the gully behind her, the pack of saurian wyverns all turned their heads in her direction.
“No...no no no...” She froze in place, debating whether or not to set the egg down or just try to bolt past all of them. If she could make it back to the camp, the Guild Felynes would be able to hold them at bay with smaller bow-casters. That, however, didn't solve her more immediate problem.
One of the larger Jaggia cocked its head to the side and barked a few times, catching the attention of the others in the pack. They all turned to look at their alpha female as it squawked, hopped and barked out a few more times. Then, they all turned to look at Sapphire again.
“Son of a...” was all she managed to swear before the entire pack came running at her head-long. One was enough of an annoyance. Two or three could be dangerous. An entire pack of not only Jaggi, but the larger female Jaggia? That was going to be a serious problem. Drop the egg or make a run for it?
“Saph! Run!” came the sound of Gen's voice as a massive gust of wind overtook the hillside. With just enough time to dive out of the way, Sapphire barely managed to avoid becoming toe-jam for the Rathian as it landed exactly where she'd been standing seconds before. With a start, she'd found the truth in Gen's earlier words when she'd realized she never even heard it coming.
With dismay, she felt a gooey liquid seeping into her vest and shirt. In her leap for safety, the egg had smashed beneath her and was now covering the entire top half of her body. She tried wiping herself off, completely forgetting the moment until the Rathian's nose bumped directly into her chest.
The Rathian eyed her up cautiously and gave a wary sniff. Its pupils narrowed sharply as its head jerked back.
“Cursed girl, get out of there!”
Saph managed to find her muscles again and dove to the side as with a bellowing roar, the spot she'd just occupied a split second ago burst into flames. The heat from the blast was intense. She could swear she felt some of her hair wilting up and singeing away as she struggled desperately to get to her feet. Another roar split the air as the Rathian began thundering towards her, wings outstretched.
There was a moment where she felt gravity let go of her. In the next moment, she hit the ground hard with a sharp jolt. A huge shadow passed over head. She felt blood spatter her face. Sitting up, she found Gen lying across her with a large slash across his back. His Wroggi Coat had taken most of the damage, but there was a four inch laceration that ran up across his right shoulder. Jutting out of it was a large, pale green spine. As blood began to pool around the wound, a light colored, viscous liquid was pumping out of the spine and into the wound.
That was definitely not good. Saph wrenched it free, earning a pained cry from Gen.
“Get up, old man! We've got to get you out of here!” Saph put two fingers to her mouth and whistled to the Guild Felynes. Two came bounding across the field from seemingly no-where, dragging their cart with them. In a hurry, she loaded Gen up onto the cart and sent the cats off as quick as they'd come.
Just as she'd gotten her feet beneath her again, the shadow returned. Thankfully, the Jaggi were long gone by now. The Rathian's appearance had scared them all off. She thanked her stars for that as she drew her Bone Blade from its sheath.
Heavy, leathery wing-beats signaled the Rathian's return as it hovered over the center of the field, landing with a ground shaking boom. Taking a deep breath and steadying her nerves, Saph kept one eye on the retreating cart and one on the monster. She had to buy the Felynes time to get away with Gen.
If she were to be perfectly honest when later recounting the story of her first Rathian fight, Sapphire had soiled herself when the Rathian charged at her head-long with flaming jaws wide open. This girl was huge. She was bigger than anything Sapphire had ever gone up against before. To even call this a fight that Saph thought she could win was both stretching the truth to the breaking point...and fancifully dreaming. Still, she had to buy at least a few more minutes. If not, Gen would die from the Rathian's poison. If anyone had to die for her stupidity...might as well be her. Let the good hunters survive. That's what it was about, wasn't it? Survival of the fittest?
A stroke of luck was about the fittest she'd get, as when the Rathian was close enough, Sapphire drew back and thrust her blade forward. It skipped off of the Rathian's scaly snout. Fortunately for her though, it found the monster's eye socket and chewed in deep. The Rathian reeled back, pulling free from the meager weapon. It huffed one huge breath, threw its wings wide, and loosed a raging roar that had Saph dropping her blade to cover her ears.
In the seconds it took her to pick it back up, the Rathian had reared up again. With another bellow, it belched a series of fireballs at her. Saph dodged left and right. The first two missed. She wasn't so lucky the third time. The last fireball caught her full in the leg. Crying out in pain, she could feel the iron beneath the Jaggi scales in her boot melting. With one hand and a severe effort to keep from passing out, she reached one of the restorative potions on her belt, uncorked it with her teeth, and chugged it. It would take a few seconds to fully take effect...but she didn't have a few seconds.
The Rathian was closing in on her at a walking pace now, sure of its victory. Even as it took a few more steps, she could feel the numbing effect of the potion working on her leg, giving her some mobility back in it, if limited. Getting both legs under her, she threw the empty bottle at the monster. It bounced harmlessly off the wyvern's head.
“Come get me, you over-grown fire breathing worm!” Unsure of where this surge in her confidence came from, Sapphire squared off with the wyvern again, blade held at the ready.
As if sensing trouble, the Rathian stopped. It cocked its head quizzically.
Sapphire took a split second to check on the Felyne's progress. They had almost cleared the field. Just a few more seconds. As she turned back to the Rathian, all she saw coming at her was the spine-covered underside of the monster's tail...too fast to dodge.
Saph woke up in the Guild's infirmary two days later. Everything hurt. Nothing looked right. The entire world was out of focus. As she struggled to get her bearings, she realized she was only seeing the room around her with one eye. The other, including that entire side of her face, she realized as feeling returned with a vengeance, was covered in bandages. She reached up to touch them gingerly, feeling the soft ply of gauze and the crusted stains of blood.
As her hand drifted away from her head, she moved the blankets aside. Her left leg was similarly shrouded, sporting a splint and brace.
Pain aside, she realized she was rather numb to the situation. How had she escaped? Where was Gen? Was he safe?
Just as she was about to attempt to get up and find out those exact answer, the door to her room opened up and in walked the hunter himself. His chest was wrapped up, not unlike she was. He, though, looked much better for the wear.
“You're all right,” she asked.
“'Ian poison isn't something to be trifled with...but because of you, I made it out in one piece.” He gingerly sat down on her bed, careful not to disturb her injured leg. Lifting a hand to the side of her head, he caressed her face softly. “I wish I could say the same for you, Saph. How're you doing?”
Saph opened her mouth to reply, but found she didn't have the words.
“It's all right. That was some beating you took. I'm surprised you're awake this soon.” Gen turned away for a moment, as if to reach into the pocket of his Wroggi coat. He looked back at her again. “It's a good thing the cats got back in time. If they hadn't shown up to chase off the Rathian, we might not be having this conversation. From what I hear though, you left that beast with a mark it won't soon forget though.”
The vision of her sword piercing its eye flashed across her mind for a split second.
“That'll just make it easier to find when you're ready to go after her again.” Gen laughed lightly at that. “It always makes a hunt more interesting when there's a personal vendetta. After all, an eye for an eye, eh?” He motioned to her bandaged face before revealing what he had grabbed from his pocket.
Saph stared blankly down at an eye patch. It was decorated with sapphire studs where the straps attached, and was leather-burned with a large encircled and stylized S in the center of it. She felt herself choke up as the realization set in. Then, she felt Gen's arms wrap around her.
“Shhh, it's okay kid. You did good. Half of my students wouldn't have done nearly as well as you did at your level. I'm proud of ya. Because of you, we're both alive and safe.” As he let her go, he wiped a stray tear from her good eye. “As for the bruises and bangs...it's part and parcel with the job. You knew that when you signed up. All that's left now is to decide.”
Saph sniffed past a few more tears as she looked at him. The question was burning in her eye. As if he saw it, he replied.
“Are you going to give up and let the shock take you, now that the situation's gone South?” He held up the eye patch. “Or are you going to be ready for anything, next time?”