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Pokémon Places We Call Home

Prologue/Chapter 1
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    Prologue

    There are many legends in this world…

    ...

    A young sneasel sits at attention, wide awake as the other children have drifted on to sleep, entranced by his elder’s stories. Stories of a great bird, with wings of black and red, the ender of lives. A deity that grants them favor in the afterlife.

    The sneasel looks up to the night sky before puffing out his chest, and proudly declares that one day, he’s going to be the one to find their god.

    The elder gives him a warm chuckle and reminds him that he needs to rest if he wants to grow big and strong enough to find them.



    Some share stories of power. Others provide comfort or promise safety.

    ...

    A bidoof settles down to bed next to her younger brother. He asks their dad for a story in a chipper tone. Just one more, please?

    Their father huffs, but settles down in the straw to share the legends of the mountain. Of the great beast that slumbers there. The mountain mover, continent tower, protector of the small. He tells of his father before him, who went up the mountain in search of the great god.

    The big sister rolls her eyes and declares that those legends are for babies. But her brother’s eyes are full of stars. Her father insists the story is true, that one day, the king will reawaken, and that when he does, he’ll protect them all from the coming calamity.



    Many of these stories are nothing more than that. Legends. But the gods? Oh, the gods are very real.

    ...

    A proud ninetales sits with his mate, murmuring the stories his father used to tell him. Of a deity far to the north. A dragon that had lost its purpose. A dragon that was as empty inside as the people that followed it, that blew icy winds from the mountain tops and froze their hearts, so they might be strong enough to survive.

    His mate tells him what a horribly sad story it is, and he gives her a grunt of agreement. He hopes that they’re only tall tales.



    These gods… they may be useful to us. The life in this world is filthy, like vermin. We seek to cleanse it.

    ...

    A bisharp stands in a clearing, the pelt of a slain mamoswine draped over her shoulders. She speaks to her fellow pokemon of the teachings of their deity, of the life-giver. Of their importance. For if the forest were to quit providing life to the prey mon, then surely they would perish as well.

    She raises a hand into the air and asks for their deity's blessing.



    For our people, we will do whatever it takes. We will find these gods. We will bend them to our will. We will use their power to reshape the world.

    ...

    A litten takes his place in front of the sacred stones, sitting down between the two for his vigil, closing his eyes as he recalls the inscriptions.

    We give thanks to the Sun Devourer. We give thanks to the Moon Bringer. We ask for their blessings and we pray for their safe returns.

    He raises his head and lets out a mournful cry.



    We must succeed. I will stop at nothing to make this world ours.



    A tired torracat waits for his gods. A scarred bisharp commands her followers. A world-weary ninetales listens in horror. A stubborn bidoof gets in an argument. A terrified sneasel flees his kin, and the place he once called home.

    A ship runs ashore in an underpopulated bay, teeming with activity as the pokemon on deck get to work, putting their plans into motion.



    For me, there is no sacrifice too great.


    Chapter 1: The Stranger

    The Stranger​

    Haru’s morning routine typically started out with a slow stretch in front of her family’s hut, watching twigs and leaves float by in the river’s lazy current. She’d make her way to the water’s edge, lapping at the shallow pools created by the family dam, quenching her thirst after a long, restful night and contemplating the same old schedule she kept to every day.

    Today as she exited the hut, she found herself blinking in the mid-morning light. One by one, she stretched her legs, sniffing at the air in hopes of catching a whiff of breakfast on the breeze. Her mother had brought bread home the day before and had planned to make fresh blukberry jam this morning, a break from the usual leafy greens and a treat she eagerly awaited. She could still smell the lingering scent of berries, despite her mother having got up early to finish it in the first place.

    She continued on to the edge of the pool, slowly lapping at the water as she contemplated her day. After breakfast she would head out into the yard for her day’s work, helping her father by prepping the trees he had brought back the day before, chipping away at the branches and gnawing away at jagged cuts, cleaning the leaves from the wood and stripping the bark from the trunk. Perhaps she would head to the village around lunch time, trading her money for vegetables or a trinket or two as she listened in on the day’s news. Perhaps, if she was lucky, an expedition team would pass through, with news from some far-off village, with new stories that the village pokemon had yet to hear. Then, satisfied with her peek into the outside world, she would return home for the day to finish her chores and eat a well-earned dinner.

    The life of a bidoof was hard work, certainly, but it went by at a slow and steady pace that would make many a pokemon jealous.

    But unfortunately, for the last few months her days seemed far less normal than she would like.

    “Is that Haru?”

    “I assume so.”

    “Hey! Hey Haru! Helloooo! Good mooorrrning!”

    Haru let out a groan, tilting her head up, a scowl on her face. Of course, her morning would be interrupted by those two.

    She turned to look up the path that led to their house. Headed down the dirt and gravel path was an absol, who looked calm and composed. On her back sat a much more cheerful looking kirlia, waving down at Haru from her vantage point. The kirlia’s long hair had been bound together by thick, pink bands on either side of her head. Seeing her, Haru considered returning to bed.

    “Good morning, Shimmer, Muse,” the bidoof called out, holding back a sigh.

    The absol, Muse, carefully made her way down the bank. “Good morning, Miss Haru,” she greeted with a dip of her head. “Shimmer was hoping that your brother might be home this morning.”

    The bidoof stole a glance back towards the house. In truth, her brother was probably still asleep. And she was sure he would rather stay asleep than deal with Shimmer’s antics. “I’m afraid he’s a bit busy at the moment,” she lied.

    “Aww, and I was really hoping we could talk to him!” Shimmer pouted, shaking her head. “It’s been foreeever since we got to talk!”

    “Sorry to disappoint,” Haru responded perhaps a bit too bluntly. “Some of us have to make a day to day living. Besides, you talked to him just a couple days ago.”

    If the kirlia realized the statement was meant to be passive aggressive remark, she did not show it. “Exactly! We had been hoping he’d come with us to pick wild herbs in the forest today.” She paused for a second before a realization seemed to hit her. “Oh! Why don’t you come with us instead then! It would be fun! Besides,” she added in a teasing voice, “you could really stand to get out more.”

    “As nice as it sounds,” Haru began, trying to stay tactful, “I really have a lot of work to do. More important things.”

    “What’s more important than spending time with your future in-law?”

    “You do realize you’re not my brother’s mate, right?”

    “Yet.”

    “You’re not even dating!” The bidoof let out an indignant huff and turned away. Why did every conversation with Shimmer seem to end up like this?

    The kirlia waved a hand dismissively. “That’s beside the point. I’m sure we will eventually. So.” She paused to clasp her hands together. "Are you coming or not?”

    Haru turned back to stare down the kirlia. “I just said-”

    “I think you should go with them, dear.”

    Everyone turned their attention towards the speaker, a bibarel that had lumbered out from the hut, stretching in the morning sun. Muse dipped her head in respect to the older pokemon. “Good morning, Mrs. Saku.”

    “But Mom!” Haru began to protest.

    “No buts!” the bibarel chided. “You’ve been so busy with work lately, I say you could use a day off. Besides, I could use some more dandelion crowns, if you can still find any this late in the summer. And it’s not safe to go into the forest alone, so why not go now, while the opportunity's there?”

    “It’s not that dangerous in this part of the woods,” Haru argued. “I could take care of it myself if you really need them.”

    “But why risk it? Besides, Anu stopped by this morning - on his way back from patrol - to say he spotted signs of a wildener kangaskhan nesting not far from here. You know how territorial they can be. None of you should be facing something like that alone, should things go wrong.”

    Haru opened her mouth, but bit back a reply, and instead let out a groan. There was no winning with her mom when her mind was made up. She lowered her head. “Okay, Mom, fine.”

    Behind her, Shimmer clapped her hands once. “Great! Muse and I already have our gathering supplies, so we’ll leave once you’re ready!”

    “Just give me a moment to eat,” the bidoof responded sullenly, turning back to try to scoot past her mother by the door.

    “Have you two ate?” the bibarel asked, turning her attention to her guests. “We have day old bread and fresh blukberry jam, if you’re hungry.”

    Muse took a second to look towards her kirlia companion, who gave her an excited nod. She dipped her head to the bibarel. “We would appreciate it. Thank you for your hospitality.”

    The absol followed behind their bibarel host, lowering her head to speak quietly into Haru’s ear as she passed by. “Sorry about this,” she mumbled. “But look at the bright side. There’s always something to find or something to do in the forest.”

    “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

    *​

    Once their bellies were full of delicious bread and jam, and Muse’s back had been laden with satchels for herbs and a bundle of berries and sweets for an afternoon snack, the trio set off, following the path up the river towards the northern forest. Shimmer sat atop Muse’s back, softly stroking the absol’s mane and chatting about her plans for the evening and about her father’s plan for expanding the village daycare to add a separate, permanent nursery.

    Haru brought up the rear, ignoring the conversation entirely. Instead, she found herself lost in thought about where she’d rather be: back at home helping her dad prepare trees for carpentry. Did she enjoy getting out and exploring from time to time, or taking long walks after a stressful day? Sure! Did that mean she wanted to be out here spending time with Shimmer and just wasting her time when there was work to do? Absolutely not!

    If she was going to be out and about, she would much rather take a trip to one of the neighboring settlements, helping spread her parents’ business. Her dad’s lumber work – both felling and the finer art of carpentry – was the finest in the village (though, to be fair, her family were the only lumberjacks in the village.) And her mother’s wooden sculptures were uniquely beautiful – not that her lumberjacking was subpar. Oh, if only she could spend all day working away at processing lumber, it would make her a very happy bidoof!

    But no, she just had to be out here with one of the few pokemon she couldn’t stand to be around. Maybe her brother could try to ignore it and be nice for civility's sake, but Shimmer drove her nuts! At least Muse was nowhere near so bad. In fact, as they made their way deeper into the woods, Muse at least made an effort to try and keep the conversation away from Shimmer cooing about her brother.

    Muse had always been an interesting case, in Haru’s opinion. She had never known the details about Muse’s early life, only that she had been working and living alone in the mayor’s – Shimmer’s father’s – estate. At a younger age, she served just as a friend and companion for the kirlia. But as they grew older, she also took up the mantle of bodyguard, especially when the two ventured to a neighboring village or into the surrounding forest.

    Haru did not envy her one bit.

    “Hey Haru! What would your brother think about these flowers?”

    The bidoof snapped out of her thoughts just a little too late, accidently bumping into Muse’s legs. After a hasty apology, she turned her attention to the kirlia, only to close her eyes and take a deep breath after giving the patch of flowers a quick glance-over. “Well, I think they're nice, but the flowers won't matter to Toshi because he doesn't-”

    “-Care about the kind of flowers, he cares about me? Aw, that's so sweet of him!”

    Haru considered snapping back that no, she meant that he doesn't care about her. Not like that at least. But she held her tongue. They had been over this dozens of times the last several months, but it never did any good. Shimmer’s long-standing crush had always been annoying, but lately it had been the cause of most of the stress in her life.

    “Sure,” she finally grumbled with an edge of sarcasm. “That’s definitely why.”

    She turned away as the kirlia bent down to begin gathering up flowers, fuming. She could hear Shimmer and Muse talking behind her as Shimmer put the flowers in one of the baskets on Muse’s back. Wasn’t this trip supposed to be for gathering wild herbs and other edible plants, not the cutest flowers for a love bouquet?

    In desperate need of a distraction, she took a moment to look out for trouble, sniffing at the air. The wind carried the scents of the forest. Moist earth, wild herbs, the smell of a rattata that had ventured from its burrow. The rancid scent of some long-dead pokemon. And some scent that seemed familiar, and yet a little odd at the same time. Perhaps someone from another village had passed through recently? Nothing too out of the ordinary.

    Satisfied with her assessment for the moment, she closed her eyes and settled down in the grass to wait for the other two girls to finish what they were doing, listening to the sound of the forest around her.

    Then she heard it.

    Her head jerked up in alarm as a fierce screech sounded from somewhere beyond the trees. And a roar. The sounds of a battle raging nearby. At once she was on her feet in a defensive stance, should the combatants come barging in their direction. Muse had taken notice too, now on edge and standing in front of the kirlia. Even Shimmer, despite not having as good of hearing as her two four-legged companions, had stood up apprehensively, able to hear the ruckus in the distance. Haru shivered as her mother’s earlier warning about a kangaskhan rang in her ears.

    An anguished cry. A victorious roar. Then silence. Slowly, the sound of wildener pokemon around them returned to normal, as if nothing had happened at all. Life continued on.

    Shimmer immediately turned to her companions. “I’m going to check that out,” she announced.

    “Shimmer,” Muse responded, shaking out her fur. “I cannot advise that. It is not our place to interfere in the affairs of wildeners. The survivor may be something very territorial as well.”

    “But what if the other pokemon survived?” Haru pointed out uneasily, trying to relax as she turned to look at the absol and kirlia. “And beyond that, what if they’re not a wildener? What if they’re just some unfortunate traveler?”

    The absol seemed to consider Haru’s explanation for a moment, before finally conceding with a sigh. “Very well. We will go look. If they’re alive, we can take them back for medical attention, should they allow us to. And if they’re not… well, I’m sure Mandi will know what to do.”

    With the decision made, the trio began to move as quietly as possible through the underbrush. Muse took the lead, nearly crouching as she walked, pausing to sniff the air every once in a while. Shimmer and Haru followed closely behind on either side, Shimmer allowing her psychic powers to focus and branch out, keeping an eye out for danger from behind.

    Before long, they came across damage to the underbrush, signs of a fierce battle, of a larger pokemon coming through without care of what they destroyed. The odd smell she had noticed earlier was growing stronger, Haru realized, along with the hair-raising smell of fresh blood. They were moving along at barely a crawl now, all senses peeled for danger.

    Muse stopped in front, raising a paw to stop the other two from advancing, and sniffed at the air. A few seconds later, she lowered herself onto her belly and continued forward at almost a crawl. The two behind her did the same. Or at least, as similar as they could; neither of them were built for sneaking around the forest, after all.

    The absol tilted her head back and motioned for silence as she crawled under a bush, poking through with her nose low to the ground. Haru took note of a streak of blood on the leaves.

    Suddenly, the leader stopped, backing out of the bush with an unreadable expression. Her attention turned to the bidoof.

    “Haru, listen,” she started quietly and firmly. “There’s someone back there. They’re bloodied and unconscious, but still breathing. But… they need medical attention. Fast. I need you to go in there and bring them out. Understand?”

    Though hesitant, Haru responded by dipping her head before moving in front of the absol, who stood up straight at attention and sniffed the air, watching for danger. The bidoof crouched low to the ground and shimmied her way inside, following a trail of blood droplets past the bush and through a small thicket of thorns.

    At the far end, almost as deep as they could have gone, was the unfortunate victim. They were a sneasel, albeit smaller than the ones she usually saw around the area. And they were an absolute mess.

    She took only a second to make the assumption that he was a male, based on the size of his ear feather. Speaking of the feather, it looked as if it had been torn to shreds, and his tail feathers were not in much better shape. The tip of his ear had been sliced away, it and another nick on the side of the ear oozing blood. A nasty bite wound decorated his upper leg, the marks jagged, as if his attacker had thrown him around. And right in the middle of his back was a nasty burn. The scent of singed fur combined with the smell of blood nearly overwhelmed the poor bidoof. Several other small cuts marked him as well, though they were not nearly as bad as the bite or the burn.

    The sneasel’s breathing was labored and shallow. Haru set to work crawling through the brambles until she was right up next to him, angling her head underneath his stomach to roll him onto her back as carefully as possible. Even with him being small for a sneasel, he was still quite a bit bigger than her, his feet and front claws scraping along the ground as she practically dragged herself and the injured sneasel out into the open.

    She heard Shimmer let out a gasp as she emerged with the injured pokemon on her back before she felt him lifted up from above. As soon as the weight was off her, she stood up on her hind legs, carefully helping position him so that he was straddled across Muse’s back.

    With the stranger now set, the trio began to make their way back to the main forest path, speaking in hushed voices.

    “I’ve never seen a sneasel like him,” Shimmer whispered first, her eyes darting to the unconscious dark type.

    Now that she mentioned it, Haru realized Shimmer had a point. The sneasel’s colors were a bit off. Although his fur was fairly close to the grey she was used to - though perhaps with a bit of a more brown undertone – his bent and broken feathers were more of a mint color.

    “Neither have I,” Haru agreed. “He doesn’t smell like any of the nearby villages. Where do you think he’s from? Seadra’s Tail Island? He doesn’t smell like Ruffle though.”

    “Maybe,” Muse muttered. “Ruffle hasn’t lived in Seashoal village for a long time, so she doesn’t have as distinct of a smell. There’s a whole world beyond the Great Misty Canyon; there’s always a chance he came from there. If he survives, maybe we can find out.”

    If. That one word managed to sober the trio even more. They were back on the open path now. The absol gave one last wary look back and forth, checking for any danger on their route, then took off at a sprint, bounding into the lead.

    “I’m going on ahead,” she called back to her companions. “Shimmer, you stay with Haru and go get back to the village together. Watch each other’s backs. I want to get him back as soon as possible though, okay?”

    Haru set her face with determination and uttered a sound of agreement. She would set aside her complaints about Shimmer. For the moment. The kirlia seemed to hesitate though, running to try and catch up. “But I could teleport back and let them know what’s going on!”

    “And that would leave Haru alone in the woods,” Muse pointed out.

    “I can take care of myself, you know,” Haru interjected.

    “I’m sure you can usually, but whoever - whatever did this could still be nearby. None of us should really be alone here right now.”

    “What if I were to teleport him back?”

    “You know you still have trouble taking companions along. Just trust me, please. We have little time.”

    The kirlia hesitated again, before giving a sullen nod. “Fine, you win,” she grumbled. “But I’m so going to chew you out when we get back.”

    The absol slowly blinked back to Shimmer but said nothing more, darting off down the path.

    Haru gave the kirlia an unamused look at her response before continuing at a slower pace. Hoping, for once in her life praying that Muse would make it back in time.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 2
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    @NebulaDreams
    The prologue was really fun to write. Especilally since it doubled as building up bits about the world, as well as dropping hints about what is to come.

    @Negrek Thanks for bringing those errors to my attention. Even after multiple editing sessions, sometimes things slip right under my nose. I'll be sure to fix them next time I do a cleanup of the first chapter. I did go ahead and fix the scene break though. I swore it was there when I looked the chapter over. Oh well, it's fixed now.
    D: What's Mandi going to do with a dead-but-not-too-destroyed body??
    We'll learn about that in just a couple chapters.

    Raising a "top" was supposed to be raising a "paw." I have no clue how that one happened.

    Hmm, I hope it's not an accessory that I'm also supposed to recognize, because I totally don't, heh.
    Oh, they're just extra thick hairbands, more or less (that I totally forgot to put in the cover art, whoops!)

    Thanks for the feedback, both of you. It always helps to have things like that pointed out, since sometimes stuff like that even slips past my beta readers. With that out of the way, onward to the next chapter!


    Chapter 2: Theran Village

    Theran Village​

    Slowly, the sneasel struggled to open his eyes, his vision spinning. The first thing he noticed was the empty plain that stretched out beyond the horizon. With his vision blurred, he could not make out where the ground ended and where the sky began. Carefully, he pushed himself to his feet, steadying himself as his perception cleared.

    He looked down to his paws, and the two wicked-sharp claws that curved over either paw, flexing them experimentally. Narrowing his eyes, he turned his attention to the featureless land that spread out around him. It looked to be around sunset, a deep red tinge just barely clinging to the sky. But there was no sun, moon nor stars here. The ground seemed watery, rippling around his feet, reflecting the bit of the red light back up.

    With nothing to tell him where to go, he picked a direction and began to walk, his feet making a quiet splish-splash with every step. After some time, he could make out a small dot on the horizon. He adjusted his trajectory towards it.


    Is this a dream? The sneasel wondered quietly. Certainly, he had never seen anything like this. This couldn’t be real, could it?

    Out in the distance, the dot began to take better form. It appeared to be a small mound made of the same strange, water like material as the ground.. On it, a single, withered, leafless tree.

    He began to creep closer, aware of his exposure in the open air as he tried to make sense of what it might be or what it might mean. He took another step in the strange water. But this time, it was far deeper than he expected. The sneasel let out a startled screech as he tumbled in, engulfed by the watery depths. He thrashed and flailed as he sucked in a lungful of water, gagging as he tried to pull himself to the surface. But something seemed to grab hold of him. Dragging him deeper and deeper, his lungs filling with water…


    *​

    He gasped awake with a start, sitting up bolt upright, wheezing as if he was still drowning. No, he was okay. It was a dream. All just a dream.

    Even as he came to the realization that it had been a dream, he continued to take wheezing, labored breaths, becoming aware of sharp and throbbing pains in his body. A chill seemed cut through even his thick fur and down into his bones. As he looked himself over, he noticed white bands that wound around his stomach and back, and leg. He pressed a paw to it then quickly pulled away, wincing in pain.

    Taking in note of his surroundings, the first thing he noticed was the nest he was in, made of straw and grass woven along with twigs, and lined with a something fluffy and white, like fur but… not. The second thing he noted was the wooden ground beneath him, cut into near perfectly flat boards, something that seemed far too unnatural to him.

    The wall behind him, however, seemed normal: the wood twisted and warped as if he was inside the trunk of an old, hollowed tree. Near the domed roof, a single hole in the wall allowed light to filter inside, as well as the distant, muffled voices of more pokemon, speaking words he could not make out. Climbing up to it seemed like too difficult a task, in his condition.

    More empty nests lined the wall, with a second ring of nests looping around the center with a walk space between them. Across the room was a wooden partition. And beyond it, the single exit: a large, unnatural opening leading down a wooden tunnel.

    The sneasel tried to force himself to his feet, fighting the dizziness and nausea that the movement produced. This area was too open, and yet left him cornered at the same time. He strained his senses for any sign of danger. He needed to move. To escape. To hide. To shroud himself in the bushes or in the trees, away from the sight of any would-be predator or prey.

    Carefully, he sniffed at the air, ears listening for even the tiniest sound of movement. The voices from outside seemed distant. He could hear more voices beyond the wooden barrier, too, but could not make out the scent of what kind of pokemon they might be. The breeze through the window carried their scent away. And what little he could make out was masked by the pungent smell of berries. Lots and lots of berries.

    “Pull yourself together, Nip,” the sneasel mumbled to himself, slowly inching forward in a crouching position despite his body’s protests. “Think. You’ve been in worse situations. Just… relax.”

    He paused as he reached the opening, ear twitching, as a buzzing sound caught his attention from beyond the tunnel. Beyond the partition was another space, this one with a small raised wooden platform in the center. Beyond that, the tunnel curved out of sight at an angle. The walls beyond were made of the same unnatural boards as the floor.

    The buzzing, as it turned out, was an illumise, who came zipping around the corner a moment later, excitedly blabbering about something until they took notice of dark-type up and about. Their ramblings came to a stop. The sneasel froze, cautiously flexing his claws and baring his fangs in a pitiful threat, considering his physical condition.

    For a moment the illumise stared at the slightly larger pokemon, blinking once. And then seemingly without a care, they smiled, and spun around to buzz back down the tunnel. “Lecha!” They called out in an accent unfamiliar to the sneasel. “Your patient is awake.”

    The illumise’s reaction disarmed the sneasel, his threatening glare wilting into a confused tilt of the head, pupils still narrowed to slits. Still, he could not stop his escape attempt now. Not now that he’d been noticed. He began to move one foot at a time stumbling a bit along the way. The only ways out were either to follow the illumise back down the tunnel, or to try climbing through the hole in the wall.

    As he put weight down on one foot, a sharp pain shot through his leg.

    There would be no daring climbing escapes today.

    He managed to get past the partition before his leg gave out. He fell to the ground with a startled screech just before the illumise returned. This time, a fluffy, feathered pink and purple pokemon followed behind. An aromatisse. He bared his fangs at the two of them, letting out a low growl as a pitiful threat.

    “See,” the illumise said, gesturing towards him. “I told you they brought in a wildener.”

    The aromatisse let out a concerned chirp before placing a bundle she had brought with her to the side, then turned to chide the illumise.

    “Now, now, Twi. He’s no less deserving of help than anyone else here.”

    “I know,” the illumise, Twi, responded. “But you think they could have left us with someone who could help out if he got… violent?”

    The aromatisse sighed, shaking her head. “I know you’re young and this is your first time dealing with something like this, but not every wildener is out to get you. Many of them are quite nice, in fact. Honestly, what have your parents been teaching you?” With a firm shake, she looked down to her bundle for a moment. A pause, then she turned her head back.

    “Besides,” she added with a wink. “I’m stronger than you might think. I’m sure I can handle things should it come to that. Old Lecha still has some tricks up her sleeve yet!”

    With that out of the way, the aromatisse busied herself with the bundle she had sat down, pulling loose a knot. The fabric fell open around the contents: a couple oran berries, a sitrus berry, and another pale blue berry that Nip did not recognize, as well as a small wooden bowl. She hummed, looking over the contents, then back to the tense, sharp-clawed pokemon.

    Finally, she picked up the pale berry and tore it in half, taking one half and the sitrus berry. She passed the other half to the illumise. “Twi, I want you to use the two oran berries and the remainder of the rawst berry to make a poultice. Can you do that?”

    “Both oran berries?”

    “Yes, I don’t want to apply the rawst to the burn itself, but I’m hoping absorbing the juices into the other wounds will still help.”

    The illumise shrugged before landing on the ground. “Whatever you say.” Twi reached an appendage down to lift one of the oran berries to inspect it for a moment, then finally got to work peeling the thick skin away.

    Satisfied finally, Lecha turned her attention to the crouched sneasel staring from several steps away, eyes narrowed to slits. She began to approach slowly, and Nip responded with another growl. She held her hands up, only the berries in tow.

    “You don’t need to fear me,” she began in a soft tone like she would use to speak to a frightened child. “We do not wish to hurt you, dear. We only want to help you, if you’ll let us.”

    The sneasel’s growls quieted, but he still stayed hunched, eying her cautiously, sizing her up.

    “You seem like you went through a terrible ordeal,” she continued, taking another small, calculated step forward. “Some of the pokemon in our village found you collapsed in the forest. We just want to treat your injuries. Okay?”

    The sneasel pondered her statement for a moment. When he finally spoke, it was in a cautious, guarded tone. “This is a… village?”

    Lecha nodded slowly, taking another step towards the hunched pokemon. “That’s right. You’re in the medic hut of Theran.”

    “I have never heard of this… ‘Theran.’”

    “We’re a village by the Gorebyss River, famous for our carpentry and our oran berries!” Twi piped up from behind Lecha.

    Nip considered their words, scrunching his nose, but at least relaxed a bit for a moment, his fur lying flat.

    Encouraged by the change of demeanor, the aromatisse closed the gap between them, and offered out the two berries.

    “Here, eat these,” she said in a soft tone.

    The sneasel gave the berries a skeptical look, but eventually struck out, spearing the berries on the tip of his claws. He gave the sitrus berry a cautious nibble, sucking and licking away the small bit of juice that spurted out.

    For some time, he nibbled at the berry in the near silence of the room. But finally, the sound of buzzing made him jerk, his attention springing back to the illumise as his fur began to raise again.

    The bug had arisen from their spot across the room, buzzing across to deposit a bowl of blue pulp in front of them.

    “Thank you, Twi,” the aromatisse hummed, reaching a paw down into the pulp, inspecting it. “Will you go get some gauze from the shelf?”

    Twi buzzed in response, taking to the air. A quick zip to an indentation carved into the walls, and they returned with a white substance that reminded Nip vaguely of woven spinarak silk. The same substance that was already wrapped around his chest and leg, now that he thought about it.

    With a hum of thanks, the aromatisse scooped a pawful of the berry pulp and reached over to begin working it into the fur around the sneasel’s ear.

    The sting of the juices caught the sneasel off guard. He shrank away from the paw with a warning hiss, narrowing his eyes.

    The aromatisse seem unconcerned, however, keeping a calm composure as she slowly lowered her arm to hold it in front of Nip. “This is to help you heal, the juices have healing properties that will help with your cuts. Will you allow me to help you?”

    For a moment, he stayed stiff, eyeing the paw through narrowed eyes. But after a tense moment, he relented, lowering his head.

    The aromatisse let out a cheerful chirp as she returned to her work, spreading the pulp over the stinging wound. Then she moved down, carefully unraveling the old gauze around his leg before doing the same process there.

    For a few minutes, she worked in silence. But when the sneasel continued to stay quiet the doctor finally broke the silence.

    “So, you’re not from around you, are you, dear?” she questioned, not looking up from her work.

    “Are you from the forest?” Twi butted in. “Do you have a name?”

    Lecha shot the illumise a sharp glare for a split second before returning to her work.

    Nip glanced blankly between the two pokemon, narrowing his eyes suspiciously as he looked over to the illumise, then relaxing slightly as he returned his gaze to the aromatisse.

    “Nip,” he finally grunted. “My name is Nip.”

    Lecha hummed in response. “Nip? Okay Nip, that’s a start. Do you mind telling me what happened to you? It might help me treat your wounds better after all.”

    Another pause. “A kangaskhan,” he admitted with a bitter tone. “Got me with a fire punch in the back.”

    “Your voice is kinda funny,” Twi interjected.

    Your voice is kind of funny,” Nip hissed back.

    The doctor paused for a moment, looking at Nip curiously before closing her eyes and letting out a hum. She began to wrap the gauze around his leg. “Mhm, that makes sense. You must have gotten too close to the one nesting nearby.”

    A pause. “You could say that.”

    She bowed her head, closing her eyes. “You really should be more careful, dear. Has no one ever told you to not agitate a kangaskhan? Especially one raising an egg or a baby. I take it she’s responsible your leg and ear also?”

    He glanced down to the dressed wound and responded with a grunt. “Yeah.”

    Licking the last remains of the sitrus berry off his claws, he began nibbling on the second berry. Already, he could feel a bit of his strength returning as the berries began to do their work. He began to chew faster as his nurse stood back to look over her handiwork.

    A distant sound suddenly caught Nip’s attention. His ear-feather twitched as he sat up, straining in hopes better hearing and identifying the noise.

    “Lecha!” A voice called from down the hall. “Are you here? Are you busy?”

    The aromatisse’s ear twitched; she turned her head back towards the way she came. “I’m in the back! You can come on back here though.”

    There was the sound of shuffling in the distance, then of footsteps from a rushed, waddling gait. Finally, a plump, brown pokemon – a bidoof – came around the corner, a small satchel dragging on the ground behind her.

    “Oh, Haru,” Lecha called out, turning her attention away from the sneasel. “What are you doing back so soon? Is everything alright?”

    Haru bowed her head towards Lecha. “I’m fine. Nothing bad happened, dad is just feeling a little weak this afternoon. I was wondering if maybe I could pick up a few white herbs?”

    The aromatisse seemed to consider for a moment. “I believe I’ve only given him two this month… Okay, give me just a minute and I’ll prepare some for him. I can give him three more.”

    The bidoof quickly bobbed her head, a grin spreading across her face. “Three sounds perfect.”

    Lecha nodded again in return before pausing to wipe her paws off on the cloth she brought the bundle in. “Wait here for a moment while I go jot my patient’s information down in my books, then I'll be back with those for you.” With that, the aromatisse scurried off.

    As the bidoof waited, she caught a glance of dark fur behind where Lecha had been standing. She propped herself up on her hind legs, straining to get a better look before recognition seemed to light up in her eyes.

    “Oh, you're awake!”

    The plump pokemon waddled over with a toothy smile, sniffing at the sneasel, who recoiled as she approached with narrowes eyes.

    She paused with a tilt of her head. “What, never met a bidoof before?”

    Nip blinked a couple times in stunned silence. “No, just never one without sense of self preservation.”

    The bidoof seemed taken aback by the response at first, but quickly shook it off. “Nah, there’s nothing to fear inside the village gates. We’re safe here.” But she still backed off, regardless. “But I’m glad to see you doing alright. When we brought you in yesterday, we weren’t sure you were going to survive.”

    “Haru here was with the group that found you,” Lecha interjected as she returned from the tunnel. “You should consider yourself lucky.”

    Nip looked towards bidoof, then back to the aromatisse before turning his head away with a grunt. “All I mean is that I have never met a plant eater that wasn’t overly cautious and was so willing to put themselves in harm’s way.”

    “You aren’t exactly in any condition to cause anything harm though,” Twi buzzed. “Even if you were, Lecha would never let any harm come to Haru or anyone else here.”

    Nip opened his mouth to say something else, but nothing came out and he quickly shut it, lowering his eyes, though not before shooting the illumise a confused look. Earlier they were terrified of him, but now they were oh so confident in the aromatisse?

    “So,” Haru started, settling down a few feet away as she changed the subject. “You don’t sound like you’re from around here. Are you a forest ‘mon or other sort of wildener? Or are you from one of the other villages?”

    Stuck between staying and talking or retreating to the room of nests, Nip chose to sit down. “You keep using that term. Villiages?”

    “You know, Pokemon settlements. Places where all types of pokemon gather instead of just a single species.”

    Finally, something seemed to click with the sneasel. “Oh, you must be speaking of tribes. Yes, I come from the Half-Moon Tribe of the north.” He paused, scrunching his brow before continuing. “Are they known out here?”

    The bidoof closed her eyes and shook. “Nope. I've never heard of any village that called themselves a tribe. Let alone any called the Half Moon Tribe. Maybe… I might have heard a passerby mention a tribe in passing, but nothing comes to mind.”

    “I see…”

    “Is something the matter?”

    He scrunched his brow for a second, before perking up, his expression relaxing. “I must have come further south than I realized. You.” He raised a paw to point at Twi. “Where did you say I was, exactly?”

    “You’re in Theran village pal,” the illumise chimed in. “Home of the finest oran berries east of Mount Domo.”

    “You guys grow oran berries down here?”

    “Of course! They're delicious and make for a great food supplement for anyone traveling through the mists or across the sea.”

    “And are an invaluable part of any good medic’s first aid supplies,” Lecha interrupted, returning from the tunnel. “Does that surprise you?”

    “No, not totally,” Nip responded. “Even the youngest kits should know the values of oran and sitrus berries. I've just never heard or see anyone actively growing them. Let alone using them as food. Not when they're so hard to come by.”

    “Oh, but they grow great here, there's so many produced, that there's no reason not to use them as emergency rations. Are they rare where you come from?”

    Nip closed his eyes. “Very. A well protected bush may only yield one or two harvests in the warm season. And the bushes are few and far between. Not to mention the race to gather as much as possible up before outsiders take them for themselves.”

    “Outsiders?”

    “Pokemon that are not a member of our tribe, whether they be single mons trying to survive on their own or rival tribes trespassing on our territory.”

    “Oh!” The illumise perked up. “We call the pokemon that live in the forest ‘wildeners,’ since they live off the land and are more on the wild side, what with the usual lack of a code of honor.”

    “Some of them have morals,” Haru interjected. “Some of the forest mon are just loners that prefer the quiet of life on their own. But living alone has its downsides. There's no one to protect them if another hungry wildener thinks they look like easy prey.”

    Twi piped up. “Killing pokemon for food or for sport, instead of trying to settle in and either change their diet or work with a meal vendor? I wouldn’t call that morals.”

    A moment of awkward silence filled the room as Nip gave the bug-type a blank expression, until Lecha broke the void by clearing her throat. “Now, now,” the aromatisse started, waving a paw. “You know it’s not that simple, Twi. Besides, every loner pokemon and wildling makes their choice, you can’t force a pokemon to change the ways that their fathers and forefathers taught them.” She shook her head, adding with a mumble, “I really need to speak to your father about what he’s been telling you next time he’s in town.”

    Twi gave a grunt in response. Then their facial expression relaxed before they buzzed their wings, taking to the air, the awkward pause in the air forgotten. “Oh! I should go let the others know that Nip woke up. Shimmer and Muse would want to know, right?”

    Haru let out a groan and tilted her head up towards the ceiling. “They were over at my parents’ place when I left. Off pestering my brother, as usual. Let my mom know I’ll be back home soon, would ya?”

    “Of course!” The illumise buzzed. And then they were off, zipping down the hallway in a rush, leaving Nip, Haru, and Lecha alone in a slightly more peaceful room.

    Nip, who had been quiet during the exchange, continued to stare down the tunnel Twi had disappeared down for a moment. “You mean they don’t-” he began to mumble, before cutting himself off with a shake of his head. Carefully, he began to push himself back to his feet, finding himself with significantly more strength than he had when he had first woken up. Not that the pain had subsided.

    “I thank you both for your hospitality,” he began. “But I should take leave as well.” He began to take a step forward, still limping slightly.

    “Now hold on,” Lecha interjected. “You’re still in an uneasy condition, and in no way in shape to travel. Where do you intend to be rushing off to?”

    The sneasel paused mid step before slowly turning his head to the fairy type. How much should he share? “I am on a… spiritual journey of sorts,” he explained after a second of hesitation. “For my tribe. For myself. I really must get going.”

    “A spiritual journey you say? I can understand the desire to hurry dear, but you really must rest, at least overnight. I need to keep an eye on those wounds of yours, apply another round of medicine. You’ll never complete any trip in this condition. I find the morning you’re doing significantly better, you can leave then.”

    “And if not,” Haru added in, “you can always stay in the village for a day or two. Most of the pokemon around here would love to hear about what the norther part of the land is like. Are you from the other side of the Great Misty Canyon? Actually, you must be. All the land between here and there is charted out, and like I said, I’ve never heard of any ‘half-moon tribe’.”

    Nip tilted his head, his ear feather flicking. “A canyon? Well, yeah, I did pass through one, now that you mention it.”

    “Not many people risk passing through the canyon,” Lecha added in an impressed tone. “It's the most dangerous known mystery dungeon this side of the continent.”

    “That rift?” The sneasel scoffed. “I went through far more dangerous challenges for my coming of age.”

    “Who in their right mind other than an explorer or seasoned rescue crew would enter a mystery dungeon?” Haru questioned.

    “Are you kidding? All kits have to go through a dungeon’s mists to complete a task and earn their final spot in society!”

    “It sounds like your tribe puts value on different things than our village,” Lecha interjected. “Perhaps you two could continue your discussion over in the resting area? You need rest, after all, my dear guest.”

    “Actually…” the bidoof started, her tone drooping. “I should probably get back home.” She bowed her head slightly to Lecha. “Thank you very much for the herbs though. I’m sure my dad will make good use of them.” She then turned her attention to the sneasel. “Perhaps if you’re in better condition tomorrow, I could show you around that town? You seem like the type that would visit the local shrine, if you’re on a spiritual journey.”

    Nip closed his eyes for a moment, considering his options. He was in no condition to rush off on his own at the moment, and it certainly would not hurt to find out how things were run around this part of the land. He finally gave the rodent a nod. “It would be appreciated.”

    The bidoof gave a signature buck-toothed grin. “That would be great! I’ll see you tomorrow then!” With those parting words, the pudgy pokemon waddled on out around the corner, leaving Nip alone with the nurse.

    “Now,” Lecha started. “I can help you back to a nest, if you need me to.”

    The sneasel shook his head quickly. “No, no I’m fine.” Slowly, he pushed himself to his feet, testing his strength, then turned and began to limp back into the room he had been in just a short time before.

    “Trust me, I know how to take care of myself.”

    The aromatisse clucked her tounge. “Well, if you insist dear. Don’t push yourself too hard though. You’re safe here.”

    Reaching the nest he’d been in before, Nip settled down and closed his eyes. As he listened to Lecha leave the room, he mumbled to himself, “easy for you to say.”

    *​

    As Haru began to make the trek back home, she let her mind wander back to her meeting with the strange sneasel, only giving distracted greetings to pokemon that passed her by. A pokemon from the other side of the Misty Canyon, how rare an occasion! From what she had heard, very few explorers had ever set foot inside, let alone made it to the other side. So, even if she wasn’t interested in the exploring side of things like her brother, surely it would be worth asking Nip more about the other side, right?

    “Yoo-hoo! Haru!”

    The bidoof shook her head, clearing it as a familiar voice caught her attention. She slowed to veer off the path towards one of the nearby stands where the voice originated from. The wooden stand was painted a bright, pale yellow, though the paint was chipped and faded with age. Baskets of berries sat out both on top and in front of the stand. Also standing on top was the shop keep: a lone bellossom.

    Haru stood up on her hind legs to get a better look, placing her front paws on the shorter end of the counter. “Good evening, Ruffle. How’s the shop been?”

    “Slow today,” the bellossom said with a dismissive wave and a sigh. “Making up for yesterday’s rush, I suppose. But stationed exploration teams returning from the west should pass through in the next moon.

    “But enough about me,” Ruffle continued. “I happened to see you leaving Lecha’s. Is everything okay? How’s that sneasel doing?”

    “Oh! He woke up sometime today. He looked worse for wear, but alert. In fact, I think he was already ready to leave, not that he was well enough to. Lecha put a stop to that.”

    “Well, that’s good to hear,” Ruffle responded firmly, smoothing down her petal skirt. “When Muse came rushing through town yesterday with the poor thing on her back, Roselei and I were worried he’d already passed. It’s nice to hear otherwise. Did you happen to find out where he’s from?”

    Haru shook her head. “Nope, said something about being from some ‘tribe’ north of the canyon though.”

    The bellosom’s eyes grew wide in surprise. “That far away, really?” She paused, waiting for the bidoof to confirm before she continued. “Well, it’s a relief that he’s not a wildener sneasel at least. I’d hate for poor Tor to have even more on his plate to worry about on top of the daycare renovations and those two ghost kids he took in a few moons back.”

    “You have a good point there,” Haru agreed before pausing. “You’re from one of the barrier islands south of here, right Ruffle? What was it like, traveling here? Did you have to pass through any mystery dungeons?”

    “Indeed I am!” Ruffle responded, following with a pleased hum. “I grew up in Seashoal Village, on Seadra’s Tail Isle. There’s an entrance to an underwater mystery dungeon not far from there, but it can be sailed around, so no. Why do you ask?”

    “I was just trying to get an idea of what traveling so far would be like,” she admitted. “Especially travelling through a mystery dungeon alone. At least, I figure he traveled alone.”

    Haru paused, glancing up to the reddening sky; it would be dark soon. “Oh! I need to get these herbs home to dad. Sorry to cut things Ruffle, but I really gotta go!”

    “No worries,” the bellossom replied with a pleasant wave. “Say hello to Saku and Chipper for me, would you?”

    “Of course. Take care, Ruffle!” With that, Haru turned, scurrying back along the road home.

    *​

    Fortunately, Haru had no more interruptions on her way home, managing to get back to the river before the sun had dipped even halfway below the horizon.

    Unfortunately, Shimmer and Muse were still hanging around by the time she got home. Twi also had not returned to Lecha’s clinic yet, but Haru was less concerned about the illumise.

    Muse had taken up a spot lying by the river, watching water slowly seep through the bibarel dam, the occasional leaf floating by in the lazy current. Twi was asleep, resting against the abosl’s side. Haru dipped her head to Muse as a greeting when she passed by.

    As she entered their home, Haru was greeted by the smell of cooked potatoes and carrots and onions. Her mother had mentioned making a soup today. The bibarel in question was busy at work, carefully balancing filled bowls on her tail as she passed them out to the other occupants of the hut: her father, her brother, and Shimmer. Her dad - another bibarel - had spread himself out on the dirt floor, his eyes closed as he half-dozed. Shimmer had seated herself on the family’s single stool, which was used for guests as they had little use for it. Her brother, Toshi, a slightly smaller bidoof, sat nearby looking like he wanted to be anywhere but here.

    “Oh, there you are Haru,” Saku greeted as she held her tail up to Shimmer and Toshi. The two each took a bowl, Shimmer lifting hers with ease while Toshi carefully balanced his between chubby paws until he could get it to the floor. “I invited Shimmer and Muse to stay for dinner, and Twi too, if they want.”

    “That’s…” Don’t be rude, Haru reminded herself. “That’s great. Mom. I just got back with the herbs for Dad.”

    The other bibarel cracked open a single eye, a grin forming on his face. “Oh, thank the gods, he groaned. “I swore I could carry that log, ya know, but I guess I’m not as young as I used to be.”

    Haru backed herself out of the satchel’s strap and reached a paw inside to pull out the three herbs, then gingerly grabbed one with her teeth and carried it over to her father.

    Shimmer brought the bowl of soup up to her mouth, taking a sip before giggling. “I was just telling Toshi about how we rescued that sneasel yesterday, and how brave I was, isn’t that right, Toshi-kins?”

    “Yeah…” her brother, Toshi, began with a nervous chuckle, turning his head in an attempt to hide his discomfort with the pet name. “It sounded… awesome.”

    Shimmer opened her mouth to say something, but was interrupted when Muse entered the hut with Twi on her back, speaking in her usual even tone. “So, Twi told us that the sneasel woke up and seems to be recovering.”

    “That’s right,” Haru responded with a dip of her head while her mother continued to pass out bowls, using a wider, shallow bowl for the four-legged mon in the room. “His name is Nip, and apparently he’s from north of the Great Misty Canyon. He said he came down this way on some sort of spiritual journey, and he’s not planning to stick around for long.”

    “Well, I can understand that,” her father chipped in. “You know, your grandfather went on a pilgrimage all the way up to the peak of Mount Domo back in his youth, searching for the Tomb of Regigigas.”

    Haru resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I know, Dad. You’ve told me the story before. And he swore he caught sight of Regigigas in the swirling mists.”

    “He did!” Her father insisted. “Now, I know that no one has seen Regigigas for certain in several lifetimes. But perhaps that’s because no one’s bothered to look?”

    A frustrated grumble escaped the back of Haru’s throat. “Fewer pokemon go looking because they have more important things to do than to go off chasing legends that might not even exist!”

    “Haru. Chipper,” Saku interrupted, her tail slapping the ground impatiently. “I know you two don’t see eye to eye on these things anymore but… can we please be civil in front of our guests?”

    For a moment, Haru stared her mother down, then averted her gaze, staring down to her bowl of soup. “Sorry.”

    “Didn’t mean to start an argument…” Her father grumbled, raising a paw to sheepishly scratch at his neck fur.

    The bibarel continued to stare at her daughter for a few seconds before giving a terse grunt. “Good.” She then turned her head to Shimmer, Muse, and Twi, who had taken seats next to each other. “Sorry you three had to hear that. I hope you’ll forgive our inhospitality.”

    “It’s all fine,” the kirlia responded, dismissively waving a hand. “Father isn’t the most spiritual mon himself. But he says that it’s important to let everyone follow who they want to. It’s fortunate for some of the pokemon here, since some of those gods wouldn’t be accepted elsewhere. For example… did you know that Ruffle has a small shrine to Hoopa in her house?”

    Really?” Toshi interjected. “Hoopa? I find that kind of hard to believe.”

    “It’s true!” Shimmer insisted. “I mean, it’s not just to Hoopa. She and Roselei are also firm followers of the nature gods, but Ruffle says that Hoopa reminds her of home.”

    “Huh.” Chipper shook his head. “I don’t know a whole lot Hoopa. But I never thought I’d hear about someone worshiping it, from what I do. Especially someone as… friendly as Ruffle.”

    Shimmer brought a hand up and twirled it around her hair. “You’d be surprised. I learn all sorts of things from dad about the other pokemon in this village.”

    At that point, Haru tuned out, her mind drifting between Ruffle and Nip. She found herself wondering what kind of pilgrimage Nip was on, what kind of god he might follow. Could he be traveling down to Seadra’s Tail? Perhaps he too was a follower of Hoopa. What was Hoopa supposedly like?

    She had quit listening to the religious tales of other pokemon seasons ago, even though she knew it was probably a poor idea with how ingrained it was in many pokemon’s lives. Sure, it might hurt future working relationships, but it drove her nuts, how much some pokemon depended on the gods. Chasing down legends, putting their lives in danger for something that might not even exist! Even some expedition groups focused less on research and exploration, and more on trying to find some of these mythical pokemon.

    What a waste of time, when there was so much they still did not know about the world! So many places that needed to be charted. The fact that she had never heard of where Nip was from was proof enough of that. And who knew what was really across the sea! Everything they knew about the lands beyond were second-hand stories from aquatic pokemon, and even then, a lot of those stories clashed with each other.

    Though… Perhaps it would be worth it to learn more about Nip’s god. Not because she cared about it, per say, but because passing on new information might help build her reputation. And the more she got her name out there, the better chance she had of expanding the family business.

    Even as their guests said their goodbyes and she settled into bed for the evening, she found herself thinking about what questions she might want to ask, what she might be able to learn.

    She was going to make the most out of tomorrow.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 3
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    Edit 12/26/2019: Made some minor tweaks to the final scene based on feedback to try and make it feel more believable.

    @NebulaDreams
    I felt kind of sorry for the poor guy, seeing how he spent most of the chapter being so wary of everyone around him, not to mention, well, Twi being a bit of a rac-- I mean, tribe-ist pain the ass.
    Nip is definitely a fun character to write since he's so different from the rest of the main cast. As for Twi, I would consider them a case of "teen parroting nasty remarks from their parents," something that comes up again later down the road.

    I found this to be more of a transitional/opening chapter where not much happens, but still lays the groundwork for the rest to come after. Really, it's only just one scene, not including the dream sequence at the beginning (and our tree of foreshadowing). So in the grand scheme of things, it didn't really progress the plot that much, but I'll be looking forward to the next one in any case to see where it goes from here.
    Haha, yeah, most of my chapters end up keeping themselves to the pov of one character, outside of short scenes at the end of a chapter with one exception a few chapters down the road. On the negative side, it ends up limiting the movement of some chapters, but not often. This next chapter is really the last of the "setup" chapters before the plot really starts to kick off, so I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

    @Umbramatic
    I like the term "wildeners" to describe non-civilized Pokemon - the difference is a common enough thing in PMD and other Pokemon-POV-heavy fics but it's always fun to explore. Nip's reactions to the "civilized" Pokemon were a treat.
    Glad you're enjoying it so far! Most PMD fics I've read tend to use "ferals" to describe pokemon living in the wilderness, but I wanted to do something different and give that idea an in-universe name. It came down to wildeners and wildlings, and wildeners won out in the end.

    @Negrek
    Thanks once again for pointing out those errors! I'll keep what you pointed out in mind, for when I get around to fixing everything.

    At first I thought he was a wildener, so it's interesting that he's actually from another pokémon settlement, just a rather different sort than what they have around here. Plus some confirmation in this chapter that mystery dungeons do exist in this world, and simply aren't something that Haru and her friends would have much knowledge of or interest in. I'm guessing a lot of Nip's emphasis on self-reliance and general suspicion of outsiders is cultural, but I also wonder if he's particularly independent even for his tribe.
    In early planning for my fic, mystery dungeons didn't exist in the world, but they were added later when it made sense to add them to the lore and I found a couple of places where they could be plot-relevant, so they ended up coming back. As for Nip's suspicion, you are at least partially correct, though you'll have to wait to learn more.

    Using Twi's misconceptions was a clever way to draw out more of the worldbuilding in a natural fashion, and it's nice in that it says a lot about some of the assumptions people in the village might make without being super didactic about it. Overall you did a really nice job of getting a lot across here without a lot of pure exposition dump and illuminating character while also delivering info about the world.
    Even though there's a lot of lore to cover in my world, since I created an original PMD setting, I try really hard to not let things become an info dump and for it to be revealed naturally, so I'm glad you feel like I did well here.

    With that said, we're on to chapter 3, which is really the last set up chapter before the plot begins to unfold. Enjoy.



    Chapter 3: Customary
    “You shouldn't be putting so much stress on your leg, dear. You’re going to worsen your wound.”

    “I wasn’t born yesterday! I’m no newborn kit, exposed and mewling for the safety of a nest. I know how to take care of myself.”

    Waiting in Lecha’s reception room, Haru was beginning to have second thoughts. Despite having arrived bright and early, it seemed Nip had arisen even earlier, and was causing a heap of trouble for the poor aromatisse doctor.

    He still had a limp as he rounded the corner of the hallway into the reception room, sniffing cautiously at the air. Still, he certainly seemed better than he had the day before, his strength starting to return. His fur also looked better, groomed neatly into place with not a single piece of straw sticking to it. And despite the look of discomfort on his face, he seemed determined to stand on his own, removing his paw from the wall as he stepped into the open. Finally, he caught a glimpse of Haru, locking eyes with the smaller pokemon.

    “Oh, the bidoof from before. So, you did show up.” His voice was quiet, perhaps a bit surprised.

    For a moment, Haru was stunned into silence, disarmed by the blunt response like she had been the day before. She shook her head to clear it. No. She had promised herself now that she would get to know the strange sneasel. If nothing else, she’d do it for the possible fame, to spread her and her family’s name! Resolve set, she took a firm step forward. “Of course I did. I said I’d show you around, and I intend to keep that promise.”

    A difficult to read expression crossed his face, but he quickly shook it away. “Fine, I wouldn’t mind checking out the shrine you mentioned at least. And I could use a proper meal. Lecha only offered me vegetables and berries, and told me I needed to speak with a ‘Mandi’ if I wanted anything with meat in it.”

    Meat? Haru hesitated. As an herbivore, he always made an effort to avoid Mandi’s shop, and all the unfortunate implications that came with it. The temple as well, though for different reasons. But if she wanted to get on Nip’s good side and learn more about where he came from… “Alright, I guess I can help you with that.”

    Lecha finally appeared from the room beyond the hall, a cloth stained with berry juices in her paws. “Are you going to show our guest around town, Haru? Take it slow, would you? I’ve told him he needs to rest his leg, but since he insists on moving around, I suppose I can allow it as long as he stays nearby and rests frequently.”

    “You can’t make me stay here if I don’t want to,” Nip argued. Lecha chose not to respond to that.

    “Don’t worry, we bidoof aren’t exactly known for our speed,” Haru joked. Her comment seemed to defuse the tension. For now.

    She turned to the curtain-shrouded exit, making sure that Nip followed before making her way back into the open air. The sneasel followed close behind, blinking as he adjusted to the mid-morning light. Haru gave him a moment to gather his senses as he made his way out into the open before beginning to walk speaking as she went.

    “So, this is Theran Village’s central square. You’ll notice that there are a lot of small vendors around here. Ruffle - that’s the bellossom over there - has a stand where she sells the berries that she and Rosalei grow. The building next to it is a food shop that works with them for supplies. It’s run by a swalot, but you’d be surprised how careful he is about keeping his workspace clean. There’s a slurpuff that sets up shop around here sometimes but… it’s really just a bunch of junk. But she’ll buy some of the weirdest things from you for high prices! Don’t ask where she gets all that money, you won’t get an answer. Let’s see, what else…”

    “What about that place over there?”

    Nip had paused to point at one of the larger buildings in the square. It was a mishmash of bright colors: pink, blue, and purple. Two pokemon were hanging nearby at the moment: her father and a diggersby. They were both busying themselves, running about with lumber and dirt and metal as prepped for the days work. “Oh, that’s our nursery and daycare. They’ve been working on expanding it. Grombert - that’s the diggersby over there - and my father have been hard at work the last moon or so to get it ready, and they’re almost done. Tor, the blissey that runs it, lives there, along with a couple of orphaned mons that stay there all the time.”

    The sneasel scoffed, catching Haru off-guard. “Why would you make your nursery the brightest, most obvious place in town? Wouldn’t that attract trouble?”

    “Well…” She began, averting her gaze as she considered his question, and the relatively valid point. But soon, an answer came to her, making her respond in a firm, confident tone. “It makes the kids feel more comfortable, apparently. Tor also really likes the bright colors, not that you would know from the way he talks about it. Besides, it’s safe here, especially in the middle of the village. We only have a few guards, but they take their job very seriously. No wildener would ever dare try to break in here.

    His ear twitched, appearing unconvinced. But he dropped the matter. “So, who is this ‘Mandi’ I was told to see.”

    “Oh. Right.” Remember what you’re doing this for, Haru. “Her shop is actually a bit of a walk away from here, so, um, if you could follow me, please?” She began walking at a slow gait, making sure that the injured sneasel would be able to keep up. Though… perhaps she was dragging her feet a bit. Until they arrived though, she supposed it would be as good of time as any to learn more about him.

    “So, I know it hasn’t been very long yet,” she started, “but what do you think of the village so far?”

    “It’s… odd. You have all these… ‘buildings,’ as you call them. Weird dens that seem too big and open to be safe. And they’re so spread out. Why would you do that?”

    “I think a lot of pokemon like to have space. And with them being more spread out, it both gives larger ‘mon a way to maneuver and helps keep a fire from spreading, should one of them catch fire.”

    “I guess… But why is there no tree coverage? Or brush? I can understand a central clearing for everyone to gather in, but trees and the brush provide cover and protect from danger. Why would you settle somewhere with so little coverage?”

    “There’s no trees in the center because we cleared them out and leveled the ground so we can build on it. Same for the brush, although you’ll notice we have a few bushes and trees here and there for decoration. Why? Are things different where you come from?”

    “Oh yes. Where I come from, we build and carve our dens out of dirt and stone and bring in brush and moss and other plants to build our nests. The nursery and children’s den are built the same way, but with brambles and thorn bushes protecting the entrance. And we use harvested pelts from our hunts to line our nests and to build more mobile shelter for emergencies.”

    Haru came to a sudden stop, stiffening. Nip almost bumped into her. She turned back to look at him incredulously. “I’m sorry, did you say that you hunted other pokemon?”

    He blinked a couple times. “Of course. How else would we get the food we need?”

    “You… but you don’t need to kill for that.”

    The sneasel scoffed. “You are a plant eater, right? I wouldn’t expect you to understand. The gods blessed us with sharp claws and teeth for killing and tearing. We do what we must to survive, just as our prey does. But death is an inevitability for all living beings. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can get in Yveltal’s good graces.”

    “Who?”

    Nip looked taken aback. “Yveltal, the overseer of death and most important pokemon in the land, if you ask me and my kin. Without death, there is no rest, and pokemon would continue to multiply until there was no space left.”

    Haru blinked. “Nope, never heard of them. But… maybe I’m not the best mon to ask. If you ask me, I think too many pokemon follow the myths and legends too closely, and don’t think for themselves. Sometimes I wonder if we’d be better off forgetting them.” Nip opened his mouth to say something, but Haru shook her head and continued before he could. “But that’s beside the point. Anu is supposed to be tending to Regigigas’ shrine today, so perhaps you can ask him if he knows more about Yevetal. Or whatever their name was.”

    It occurred to Haru that she might be acting like a huge jerk. But she was still in shock, dwelling on the idea of a whole group of pokemon hunting, let alone a society, as opposed to a loosely associated group of wildeners! The idea of anyone hunting down innocent pokemon, and trying to justify it, made her blood boil. There was plenty to go around, right? Mandi’s business proved that, did it not?

    Speaking of Mandi’s business…

    “Sorry,” she said bluntly, in a tone that suggested that she was not very sorry at all. “Anyways, this is Mandi’s.”

    She stopped in front of a small, plain wooden shack. It was old, but still looked to be in good condition other than a worn paint job. Mandi probably had not spent much time worrying about that. What really sat the building apart from the others they had passed on the way, however, was the entrance. Instead of the usual open doorway, or cloth covering at best, the entrance was covered by two separate wooden doors hinged at the top. One was quite big, obviously built for larger customers, while the other one was small and looked to be made with smaller and weaker pokemon in mind. A quick glance back made it clear just how far they had walked; the town square was completely out of sight now, and the forest beyond that was barely a dot on the horizon.

    Haru led the way inside. As she pushed her way past the wooden door, the movement set off a bell, prompting a voice to call from inside, “I’ll be with you in just a minute!”

    She heard Nip quietly shuffle in behind her. The room they stepped into was surprisingly clean, if mostly empty. There was a counter at the far end with both a tall and short portion, made from carefully carved and polished stone. Above her, she could see a hole cut in the roof that light leaked through; likely an entrance for any flying types that could not easily push one of the doors open. Beyond the counter was another doorway, this one just covered by a cloth like most. There were even a couple sweet-smelling potted plants next to the counter and a couple stools and woven mats. Everything seemed relatively normal for a shop.

    Except for the smell.

    Even with plants to help mask it, and the curtain to help contain it, Haru could pick up the scent of blood and the stench of death. It made her hair stand on end. Nip, perhaps unsurprisingly, seemed rather undisturbed.

    Finally, after what felt like forever to the poor bidoof, Mandi emerged from the backroom, thankfully cleaned up.

    The bird that waddled inside was nearly four times Haru’s size, her head nearly devoid of feathers with a thick, tan, feathery collar around her neck.

    “Ah, Miss Haru!” The mandibuzz said in a cheerful voice. “Never thought I’d see you visiting my little shop. Either you’re here to help that sorry looking sneasel over there, or you’ve suddenly grown a taste for meat. What can I help you with?”

    Haru thought it best to ignore the sorry excuse for a light-hearted joke. “I am here to help the sneasel, actually. This is Nip. He’s from some far-off place and is looking for a... meal more to his tastes. We’re hoping you could help him out.”

    Mandi seemed to catch on immediately. “Of course, dear heart,” she said in a sing-song tone before turning her attention to the sneasel. “So, what kind of flavor are you in the market for? We have a couple rattata ready to go, just brought ‘em in this morning and already checked them over for disease. If you’re more a fan of the watery taste, I have a remoraid I could sell ya that Vale found a couple days back. Or I have a bit of ponyta flank left. Everything else is still being processed I’m afraid.”

    “Oh, I haven’t had fish in forever. I could go for some of the remoraid.” He paused, considering a word that stuck out in her statement. “Er… what do you mean, processed?”

    “Ah, you really must have come from somewhere far off. All the meat vendors around here are required to process any bodies they bring in and check with neighboring towns to see if any unfortunate souls are missing, so their bodies can be returned for a proper burial instead of being salvaged. Enforcer’s Union rules.”

    “Do you have no way to tell that you aren’t hunting pokemon from neighboring… villages, then?”

    “Hunt?” she squawked. “Oh, goodness! Everything we bring in is scavenged. It would be unbecoming at best to hunt others. Every pokemon that’s brought in here died of causes out of our control. They could be of something natural like old age, or something less natural like drowning or being unfortunate enough to cross a territorial wildener’s path.”

    “Do they have ways of knowing who belongs to what tribe where you’re from?” Haru asked.

    “Of course! Every tribe marks their members with something. Dyeing fur or skin with berry juices are the most common ways, but some of them use more permanent marks, like specific scars or piercings. Hunting down another tribe could start a skirmish; everyone knows better than to do that.”

    Haru looked the sneasel over. “So, what’s your mark then?”

    “We typically use half-circle markings and occasionally asymmetrical lines.” Nip shifted his weight off of his injured leg. “But, er… mine were washed off during my travels, and I haven’t bothered to reapply them.”

    The bidoof mentally stored that information away. “Interesting… but we’re getting sidetracked, sorry.”

    “It’s all fine,” Mandi said. “Now, for the next question. Do you just want that dethawed to prepare yourself? Or did you have a specific preparation in mind? I assure you, Zylar is quite skilled in all sorts of preparation techniques. He can do it as a filet or on the bone. He has equipment for grilling, frying, baking… you name it.”

    “Why would you cook perfectly good meat?”

    “To reduce the risk of contamination, dear. But I assure you, we keep everything frozen so that it lasts longer.”

    “Is it really that old?”

    “You never know with scavenged meat. Usually, it’s not that old, but we believe in playing things safe.”

    For a moment, Nip hesitated. “Fine, fine. Just dethaw it, I guess. And I guess you might as well cut out the bones if you’re going that far.”

    The mandibuzz bobbed her head cheerfully a few times. “You got it! I’ll get Zylar on it right away!” With that, the bird turned to shimmy back towards the back room, squawking out an order to whoever Zylar might have been, leaving Haru and Nip in an awkward silence.

    Nip watched the doorway that Mandi had disappeared through, and when it became obvious that she would be a while he instead hobbled over to one of the stools, looking it over for a moment before taking a seat himself. Haru followed after, choosing one of the mats.

    She was starting to feel rather uncomfortable with the whole situation. Maybe she shouldn’t have offered to give him the tour after all. Without thinking, she mumbled, “How… do you live with yourself?”

    The sneasel shot her an unamused glare. Crap. Maybe she should have worded that better. But the words were already coming out of her mouth. “Like… hunting. How do you live with yourself knowing you cut someone’s life short. You’ve cut several lives short, all for the sake of eating when you could have… I don’t know, not done that? At least I’m assuming you’re eating, and not just hunting for sport.”

    Nip was silent for several moments, staring down the Bidoof. When he finally responded his tone was cold. “No. Hunting for sport would be cruel, but there is no way that we could have sustained everyone on this ‘scavenging’ concept. Not while competing for territory with rival tribes as well.” He paused to shake his head. “Death is inevitable. And while I agree that killing for sport is wasteful and wrong, taking a life to be able to live is just the way the world works. Just as we hunt other mon to survive, other mon would kill us if it meant they would live.”

    She quickly sensed that she would get nowhere with this. So, she opted to drop the subject, turning her head. It was silent again, for a time. Hoping to brighten things up, she asked, “so, what is the climate like where you come from?”

    For a moment, he seemed to consider whether he wanted to answer. “Cold,” he finally said. “Well, cold in comparison to here, I mean. Where I come from, snow is not uncommon by this time of year. It was forested, where I lived. Live. To the north, there are mountains. We don’t travel up there - Tempest always warned that the tribe up there was even less receptive to outsiders than us.”

    “Hold on, back up please. Who’s Tempest?”

    “He was - still is, I suppose - my mentor. A majestic ninetales. He was adopted into our tribe at a young age, orphaned after his father, Snow Weaver, vanished. He never really talked about it, so I did not force the matter. He taught me much of what I know.”

    “Including how to hunt?”

    The blunt interjection earned Haru another sharp glare. She muttered a quick apology, if only because she had not meant to bring the issue back up.

    “If you must know. He taught most of my hunting skills, yes. And most of my battle skills as well. I would consider myself a seasoned fighter, and one of the better in the tribe, thanks to him.”

    Thankfully, before she could stick her foot further in her mouth, Mandi returned to the counter, this time followed by a cubone in a cloth apron, carrying a bundle wrapped in wax paper. Haru recoiled when she noticed the bloodstains on the cubone’s apron.

    Nip rose from his seat, meeting with the cubone across the short counter.

    “Your order,” the cubone said quietly. “It’s ready. Take it.”

    “Ah, thanks. Er… what’s your name, again?”

    “Zylar.”

    “Thank you then, Zylar,” the sneasel said before backing away with the package in his claws, already starting to tear into the paper.

    “Pleasure doing business with you two!” Mandi chirped. “Now, about payment… That would be ten poke for the meat, add five for the dethaw, and two for the cut… that’ll be seventeen poke.”

    Haru glanced back to the sneasel - who had paused to stare dumbfoundedly at Mandi - as it suddenly occurred to her that he probably had no money. Did they even use poke where he came from? Who knew? With a sigh, she pulled off her satchel. Fortunately, she always carried a little with her when she was around town. She dumped a few of the coins onto the counter, carefully counting out just enough for the meal. A glance back revealed that Nip had already sank his teeth into one of the slices of meat almost ravenously, without even cooking them! How weird. And kind of gross. Very gross, actually, to her.

    With a quiet thanks to the shop keep she moved to exit back the way they had come.

    Stars, please let the rest of the day go better.

    *​

    Fortunately for Haru, most of the remainder of her tour went off without a hitch. She had the opportunity to show off some of the other shops, the guards’ hut and yard where the town guard trained and where many of them stayed, and even showed him the sprawling fields of berries and vegetables at the town’s edge. Nip had seemed to be in awe of just how much food they grew there.

    But as the sun began to descend from the sky, there were still a few things left to show. Still, she had saved the temple for last, hoping that he might open up more about his home while there.

    The two were now on their way up the path towards the temple, Haru leading the way, with Nip trailing a bit behind, his limp more pronounced than it had been in the morning. She paused when he started falling too far behind.

    As he finally caught up, she spoke up. “Do you need a break? We can stop for a bit if you need to.”

    The sneasel responded with grit teeth and shook his head. “I’m. Fine,” he huffed. He glanced up the street and, noticing a building up ahead, pointed it out.

    “Is that. The place?”

    Haru turned her head to the building he was pointing at. It was more isolated than most of the village’s huts, and far bigger too. The land around it was surrounded by a carefully placed wooden fence, four uniform horizontal planks making up each section.

    “Oh, no that’s not the temple. That’s Mayor Jhorlo’s house.”

    “Is this… Mayor Jhorlo one of your village elders?”

    “Er… No. He’s just our Mayor.”

    “Oh, Mayor is his title. I see. What is a ‘mayor?’”

    “He’s sort of like… the guy in charge of making sure everything runs safely and efficiently here,” Haru explained.

    “Oh, so he is not an elder, but his function is similar to one. I understand.”

    “I… guess? Are these elders something important in your tribe?”

    “The tribe’s leadership is made up of the elders,” Nip explained. “Pokemon that have been fortunate to survive into their twilight years, that choose to impart their… wisdom. To the rest of the tribe.”

    Haru took a moment to digest that. And to digest the hesitance in his voice. “Are you okay?”

    He blinked at her a couple times. “It is nothing important, it’s fine,” he finally said. “Well, I have no need to learn about this mayor’s house. The shrine must be further ahead?”

    “O-oh. Of course.” With that, Haru took the lead again, traveling in silence for some time until another building came into view.

    This one also stood out from most of the other city architecture. While most of the houses had been built out of wood and clay, and occasionally cobbled together stones, this building was made of slabs of carefully carved stone. It was square in shape, with intricately designed pillars, depicting the stories of Regigigas that she’d heard her whole life. Stories of the titan dragging the continents and islands into place, of him forming the golems. Of the golems taking their place resting in the mountains, protecting Regigigas’ “Tomb,” the shrine supposedly somewhere deep in the peak where they slumbered. Haru could not help but have her doubts.

    Nip, on the other hand, seemed entranced by the design. By the stone building and all its art. The two made their way up the ramp leading into the building through a huge open entryway.

    The inside was lit with a combination of candles and of the luminescent plant life that many of the villagers used in their home. The building was mostly empty, save for a pair of pokemon. The first was a reserved lucario, a broom in hand, sweeping away dirt and leaves that had managed to blow in through the entrance. The second was a hawlucha, her arms crossed as she spoke quietly with the lucario. She was the first to notice the visiting pair, tilting her head up slightly to signify to the lucario that they were no longer alone. The lucario turned his head to look back towards the duo, his eyes widening slightly in surprise.

    “Haru, is that you? I never expected to see you here.”

    It seemed like that was the theme of the day. “Good afternoon, Anu, Whisper.” She nodded her head in the direction of both pokemon. “I, um, this is Nip. The sneasel we found the other day. He said he’s on some sort of spiritual journey, so I offered to show him the shrine.”

    Only then did Anu seem to notice the sneasel standing beside her. “O-oh, o-of course! Good afternoon, sir.” He paused when the hawlucha, Whisper, interrupted him, mentioning something to him quietly before taking her leave. She brushed her claws against the lucario’s shoulder before she left. Whatever she said, it seemed to fluster Anu.

    He turned his attention solely to the sneasel. “A-Anyways. So, tell me, what made you make this journey you’re on. Are you a follower of the great Regigigas? Or perhaps of his titanic creations?”

    Nip quietly shook his head. “Not directly. The name Regigigas is… vaguely familiar, though I know little more than that.”

    The lucario seemed taken aback for a moment but smiled regardless. “I suppose I should not expect much more from a foreign mon. Every part of our world has their own culture, after all. It’s to be expected that pokemon from other places would have limited information about Regigigas. So, tell me. Who do you follow?”

    “My tribe follows the legends of the trio of balance. However, Yveltal is our patron deity. Our neighboring tribes though, the ones we are friendly with, pay tribute more specifically to Zygarde and Xerneas.”

    The lucario smiled weakly. “I’m afraid I haven’t heard of them. I would love to hear more about them sometime, but I’m afraid now is not the time, as I need to finish clearing the shrine of debris before the evening patrons come in to pay their respects.”

    Now it was the sneasel’s turn to act surprised. “Really? No one down here has heard of them?”

    Anu shook his head. “I don’t know for sure, but I would be surprised. Not even the passerby explorers have ever mentioned them. Where did you say you were from?”

    “The northern mountains. On the other side of… I believe your healer called it the Great Misty Canyon?”

    The lucario let out a hum. “Oh! That would explain it. Last I heard, the Expedition Society only just started making plans for a permanent outpost on the other side. Information is… quite limited, if they haven’t been there yet. Not many explorers travel north of the canyon.

    “Regardless, you are free to stay here for a while, if you would like. We have a small room to your left for visitors that wish to pay their respects to their own deities.” Anu gestured to another large doorway to the side him, leading to another dimly lit room. Haru could make out a handful of candles on a stone slab, as well as a few other items that she couldn’t identify from here.

    “I appreciate it, thank you.” With a dip of his head, the sneasel limped past the lucario and into the room.

    In hopes of passing the time, Haru turned her attention to Anu, who had returned to sweeping. “So,” she started, “How are things with you and Whisper? I believe your egg should be close to hatching, right?”

    The lucario looked up with a surprised expression, then quickly busied himself with sweeping again, a tiny smile on his face. “We were talking about that, actually. Whisper things we have another moon or so to wait. She was heading over to check with Tor when she left.”

    Sensing how flustered Anu was, Haru just gave him a quick hum before turning her attention to the display beyond. The main statue on the shrine was of Regigigas. Unlike most everything else, his statue had been molded from bronze. Or at least coated in it. Metal could be a bit hard to come by. And metal-workers were even rarer, so getting the statue built had to have taken a lot of work and money.

    A few offerings lay at the feet of the statue. She still had no clue what Anu did with those, but she remembered them disappearing from time to time when her dad used to bring her and Toshi, back when they were younger.

    In front of the statue of Regigigas were three smaller statues of his titans, the golems of rock, ice, and steel. Unlike the first statue, these were only made of stone, though they had been painted. Or at least, they had been at one time; much of the paint that had covered them had chipped and weathered away over time, and never been replaced. Anu once told her there used to be more, but their names and appearance had been erased from history, for reasons no one knew.

    Her attention turned up to the wall behind the statues. Although there was little light to make them out with, she could see the bits of the paintings of the creation trinity, and the single egg painted in the middle. Of all the gods, those were the only ones she could believe might exist. No other explanation had come up for the creation of mystery dungeons, after all.

    Deciding to not dwell on stories and memories that would sour her mood, she began to make her way over to where Nip had gone, to see if he had finished whatever he was doing.

    He had not. As she approached the room, she could make out the outline of the sneasel in the dim light. He was sitting with his legs almost crossed, his claws in his lap. She suspected that his eyes were closed, but she could not tell from here. As she got closer, she began to make out bits and pieces of something that he was mumbling.

    “Do I disgust you, Yveltal? …I don’t know how much longer I can keep running. Yveltal, if you hold any favor for me still after what I did, let me make it someplace safe.”

    Haru backed away slowly. Perhaps it meant little. Perhaps she should not be quick to judge. But something about that sentence rubbed her the wrong way. She forced herself to calm down. It was probably nothing. She hoped.

    She waited by the entrance, ruminating on the feelings until the sneasel finally emerged, a hard to read expression on his face.

    “Thank you for waiting for me,” he mumbled.

    “No… no problem,” she said, trying to not avert her gaze. “We should… probably go back to Lecha’s, huh? It’s getting late, and she’ll probably want to apply fresh bandages.”

    He grunted an agreement before beginning to make his way back down the ramp. Haru followed behind at a slower pace, her mind dwelling on what she overheard, and what little she knew about Nip. He had said before that he was on a spiritual pilgrimage. Perhaps it had some truth to it, but what he said suggested he was running from something, or someone. And based on what Anu said, there was no knowledge of Yveltal down here, which would suggest that he was not here to find something about them. So, it raised the question.

    If he was not really on some sort of pilgrimage, what had he come all the way here for?

    *​

    Twilight was perhaps the liveliest time of day in the forest. As sleepy pokemon made their way back to their nests and shelters, out came the kricketot and kricketune, singing their evening songs. Out came the volbeat and illumise, dancing their twilight dance. And out came the nocturnal pokemon – hoothoot and sneasel, murkrow and morelull – all waking for evening activity.

    As dusk began to settle in, a particular kangaskhan was settling down in her carefully constructed shelter. Today had been quiet; no pokemon had been foolish enough to try fighting her. No threat had been stupid enough to trespass on her territory. Few would have the nerve to try fighting a kanaskhan. Fewer survived to tell the story.

    But as she tried to settle in, a sense of unease overcame her. Something was wrong. It took only a few seconds before she realized the forest around her had silent silent. No chirps, no buzzing, not even the rustle of a rattata dashing from bush to bush. She gently rubbed a paw over the egg hidden in her pouch, as if worried it would no longer be there. Slowly she stood back up, sniffing at the air, peering deep into the undergrowth.

    Suddenly, she heard something burst from the bushes behind her.

    By the time she spun around, they were already upon her.

    She felt a powerful set of jaws clamp down on her leg. She let out a howl and tried to shake the pokemon free, swinging her leg wildly. The pokemon did not let go; if anything, they bit down harder. She caught a glance of cream and black in the fading sun. She could not easily reach down to bite, so she did the next best thing she could think of to do. She took a deep breath, focusing energy into her left hand. It became alight with fire, a technique she had learned from her father. In one swift strike, she struck the jaws that had clamped down on her leg. The blow was just enough to dislodge her assailant, sending them flying in an arc when she swung her leg again.

    The other pokemon landed on their feet a short distance away, finally giving the kangaskhan a chance to look over her opponent. She was tiny, only coming up to the kangaskhan’s thigh. But just as big as her body was the massive second set of jaws that protruded from the top of her head. Besides the black and cream, a red curved design had been dyed into the fur on her chest. Another design, a spiral, had been dyed around her right arm.

    The kangaskhan let out a huff. “Try to attack me, eh?” she roared. “You ain’t any bigger than that sneasel I smashed up. You’ll crumple just as easy!”

    For a second, the mawile seemed caught off guard by the statement. But then her resolve strengthened. She dashed forward head-first.

    The kangaskhan was faster. When the mawile had almost reached her, she spun, swinging her tail in hopes of knocking her attacker off balance. It connected, tripping up the mawile and throwing off her momentum. But it did not keep her down for long. As soon as she had her balance, she dashed again, this time springing up. The kangaskhan brought her hands up defensively, protecting her chest from the brunt of the steely headbutt. Even so, despite the small pokemon’s stature, the force of the blow made her skid back a few inches, kicking up leaf litter and dust.

    By the time the mawile landed. she had already begun her next attack. As the mawile sprang again, this time with her second pair of jaws arced forward to bite the kangaskhan focused just long enough to allow her hand to become alight with flames once more. Jaw made contact with flame. The kangaskhan felt jagged teeth graze her arm, only for them to be knocked away as her fist connected. The mawile was knocked sprawling backwards, bouncing in the grass. She did not move.

    The kangaskhan let out a triumphant roar and turned her back.

    Then she felt a blow to the back of her head.

    She whipped back around. The mawile was gone.

    Another blow, this time to her flank. She tried to whip around, but the mawile was already gone again. Another blow to the head. She let out a frustrated roar, snapping at the air.

    She turned her head back. The mawile was already upon her, striking her directly in the stomach with anther headbutt, knocking her off-balance. As she desperately tried to regain keep her footing, she felt teeth snapping at her heels. She stumbled, falling back onto her back.

    The mawile was on top of her in an instant. She felt teeth sink around her neck. At any second, she expected the pokemon to rip her throat open.

    But it never came. Instead the mawile remained there, staring her down with a cold look in her eyes.

    “I had planned to kill you,” the mawile began, “but… something you said interests me.”

    The kangaskhan tried to raise a fist. The teeth sank in deeper.

    “Do not try my patience. You said something about a sneasel earlier. Tell me, what did he look like?”

    Sensing the danger, she and her unborn child were in, the kangaskhan began to stutter, fumbling over her words. “I-I- yes! The-the sneasel! He was kind of a gre- a grey brown! W-with weirdly colored feathers. Y-yeah, they weren’t red like they usually are!”

    The mawile narrowed her eyes. The jaws dug a little deeper. “And what did you do to him?”

    “He- he tried to steal my egg! S-so so I made sure he wou-wouldn’t be able to do that again, see?”

    The pressure relieved slightly. “Did he, now? Tell me, did you kill him?”

    “I-I don’t know, he tried to drag himself off but- I never saw the body, I swear! I just left him to be picked off. He might’a survived!”

    The mawile seemed to consider it for a moment before finally pulling her jaws away, only to strike at the kangaskhan’s shoulder, digging fangs in and ripping a bit of flesh away as she tore it open, making the normal-type shriek in pain.

    “Something to remember me by,” she grunted with one last look at the kangaskhan before hopping down. “If I see you again, you won’t escape with your life.”

    She began to walk away, leaving the kangaskhan to tend to her wound. She could have killed her; she had planned to in the first place. But it would have been such a waste, with only herself to feed. And besides, the kangaskhan had given her valuable information, valuable enough that she considered sparing her life a fair trade.

    Nip was nearby. And if he was alive, he could not have gotten far.
     
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    Chapter 4
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    @kintsugi
    Chapter 1 - Bidoof is a main character and we're taking her seriously! Love.
    It always makes me happy when people get excited about a serious bidoof protagonist. Bidoof deserves more love.

    yooooo is this the G/S era of shiny sneasel i'm on board
    It's actually the regular G/S sneasel, but yes, that's exactly where I got it from. I originally planned to have Ruffle, the bellossom shop-keep use the G/S coloration as well, but decided to save it for another time.

    I'll try to fix the paragraph break issues when I next comb through. I had that issue crop up in the first chapter too when I cross-posted, but I thought I caught all those.

    Regarding the meat-eating argument, that's something I'll try to cover better if I do any revisions on thich chapter, but I think it's worth mentioning that there are obligate carnivores in Theran Village, we just haven't met any yet. (There's one introduced the next chapter in fact, though it isn't talked about till later.)

    @NebulaDreams
    Cute gushing from Shimmer aside, I was a bit confused by the lack of a dialogue tag, since Haru was the one who spoke before, making me think it was her saying that.
    Ah shoot, I thought I caught all those. It used to be worse honestly. I'll clear that up when I go through to fix errors.

    Ah yes, Haru the edgy 14-year-old atheist. It did strike me as a bit odd since she believes Dialga, Palkia and Giratina (misspelled as Girintina, so you might want to change that) to be real while dismissing the other ones. Since shrines are so widespread, it's hard to think they're not real in this world, though maybe Haru hates the idea of people idolising the legendaries than the legendaries existing.
    I'll try to make that more clear if/when I get to another revision, because your thought is more what I was going for. Haru is less of an athiest and more agnostic, and just hates that everyone puts so much faith into and idolizes pokemon that might not even exist, and haven't really done anything for them.

    Sapience of wildeners is definitely something that comes up later, but for now it's supposed to be a bit blurry, especially since Haru really... doesn't know a lot about Nip. I'm interested to see how you feel about what happens in the next chapter.

    For what it's worth, I'll mention that Chapter 3 is currently the longest chapter in the story, clocking in at more than 8k words, which is longer than any other chapter, which could contribute to the pacing.

    @canisaries
    First off, thanks for the review! And thanks for the critiques, I'll try and go back to look at that stuff later when I have more time. Some things were stuff I hadn't thought about at all, and others were typos that I just didn't catch, like the dialogue tag issue.
    Alright, so, throughout the prologue and chapter, there were a couple of spots where it seemed like there was an accidental row change or lack thereof. I'm gonna assume they're indeed unintentional, but if that's not so, I have views on that as well - but taking Occam's razor here, I won't give them preemptively.
    You read it on bulbapedia, right? I forgot to fix some of the paragraph breaks that got messed up when I pasted it over there. I'll fix that asap.

    It's a bit odd that it's in present tense while the story proper seems to be in past tense, but maybe you're going for something that makes sense with future information?
    That was just a stylistic choice, though it's one I might revisit in the future.

    Gotta wonder what she sees in Haru's brother, though? Bidoof don't seem exactly hunky - though I do appreciate the humor in an individual of one of the more, ahem, appreciated mon lines have unrequited feelings for one of the goofiest ones.
    That's a story that's going to come up eventually, probably in a special episode.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to check things out! Hopefully I can get things you mentioned cleaned up soon.

    With that, on to the next chapter!

    Edit: This chapter went through major changes on 7/2/2020. About half of the chapter was rewritten to hopefully better hit the character beats I was aiming for. Enjoy.
    Chapter 4: Rash Decisions

    Rash Decisions

    Nip awoke when warm sunlight filtered down onto his nest from the window overhead. He stretched in the beams of light, letting out a silent yawn, raising his arms high above him, then sticking his legs out one at a time. As he stood up, he gave his injured leg an experimental stomp, winced, and grinned when the pain was little more a dull throb. Much of the pain had subsided in the four sunrises that had passed since he woke up in Lecha’s clinic. Perhaps he would have been healed quicker if he had not strained himself the last several days, running around the village, but the difference would have been minor.

    Much of his last few days had been spent wandering the village alone, learning more about the inner workings of the community. Many things - including food - cost “money” or required trade, unlike the communal meals of home. And what was offered to him were mostly things he couldn’t digest: Grains and vegetables, as far from his diet as they could be. He’d gotten sick when he tried to cave and eat a meal with nothing but bread and potatoes and carrots, all things he had never eaten before. But he had no money with which to purchase more meat, and Haru had insisted that he would have to find a way to make money if he wanted more. His injuries had made hunting an unlikely scenario. He had curbed his hunger on extra oran berries, but only barely. And orans wouldn’t be enough, in the long run.

    But now? Today, he felt well enough that he might just stand a chance. Today, he planned to head to the outskirts of town, to the forest that Haru had pointed out. A good meal, a good night’s rest, and then he would be on his way.

    He could not stay here forever, after all.

    He didn’t even want to stay here forever, even if he could. They were too strict. Too stuffy. Too single-minded. Too much like the things he wanted to leave behind.

    His mind wandered as he stepped out into the lobby. Haru was… okay, he supposed. She had been a bit obnoxious. But she spoke her mind more so than anyone else here. That much, he could appreciate.

    He took pause when he stepped outside. Speak of the dark one themselves.

    To his left, he noticed two bidoof standing a little way down the dirt path, conversing pointedly with each other. One he recognized to be Haru. The other, he assumed, must be her brother. He considered continuing without greeting them. But he supposed it would be rude. Afterall, she had not only been involved in his rescue, but also helped him understand how things worked in this odd little place. He should honor that.

    As he grew closer, their voices became clearer.

    “Are you sure you can’t get out of this?” He heard Haru groan.

    “Sorry,” the other bidoof replied. “Mom’s the one that said yes to Shimmer. Will you please help me with this, just come with me so I won’t be alone? I’ll make it up to you, I swear!”

    Haru raised her head to the sky and let out a huff. “Fine, but you owe me!” She turned to look at the other bidoof. “So why is Shimmer headed out to the forest again? Didn’t she bring your flowers just earlier this week?”

    He shook his head. “Nope, she never made it back with them after you guys found that sneasel. So, she decided she wanted to just take me looking herself.” He paused, looking back towards the clinic, and let out a startled yelp when he realized that the pokemon in question was standing just behind them, prompting Haru to look his way as well.

    She forced a weak smile. “Oh, Nip. Out and about again?”

    Nip blinked and let out a grunt. “Yeah. Did you guys say you were going to head into the forest? Do you mind if I join you part of the way? I need to make some preparations - I plan to leave in the morning.”

    Haru seemed to hesitate for a moment. “I mean, we’re just going out to gather wild herbs. Then again… You don’t have any money to stock up on supplies with, do you?” The sneasel shook his head in response. “Well, if you can find some of the more useful medicinal ones, Lecha might buy them off of you. Maybe you could even get yourself a bag and some travel supplies?”

    He considered for a moment. Perhaps he could get one more meal as well, without having to spend energy to hunt. Or even two, since he could keep the meat frozen. It was in no way ideal but… it might allow him to cover more ground without stopping. “You make a good point. If you are alright with it, I think I will come.”

    The other bidoof stepped forward. “Nip, right? Haru told me your name. I’m Toshi.” He glanced back to his sister with a hint of nervousness. “I wouldn’t mind if he tagged along. The more the merrier, right?”

    Nip gave an appreciative nod before moving to stand beside the duo. “Muse and Shimmer are the kirlia and absol, right? Is there a particular reason you don’t want to be alone with them?”

    “W-well,” Toshi said, nervously rubbing a paw against his face a couple times. “See… Shimmer likes me. A lot, maybe too much. I mean, she’s nice and all but… I just can’t see her that way! She’s too pushy! But mom really kind of… eggs it on, encourages her. Encourages me to hang out with her. She’s the mayor’s kid, so she’s rich and has a lot of power in the village. Muse is nice enough and kind of keeps her from being too pushy but… It’s just nice to have company so I’m not stuck talking to her the whole time, you know?”

    Nip closed his eyes and let out a hum. “I think I can understand. It can be frustrating, being forced into a relationship that neither party wants, or that only one party wants in your case, just because others think they know what’s best for you.”

    “Tell me about it. I mean, I don’t think my mom would ever actually force me to get together with Shimmer but… I don’t know, it’s all just so frustrating and hard to argue against!”

    The sneasel considered for a moment. “So, you are not forced, so much as pressured? Unfortunate, but at least you have a say in the matter.”

    “What are you even trying to say?” Haru interjected, prompting Nip to suck in a breath.

    “Oh… never mind. I suppose it wouldn’t make sense to you anyways.”

    If the two bidoof were going to say something, neither of them did. Instead, something behind Nip caught Haru’s eye. “Oh, there they are. And is that… Why is Shimmer’s dad here?”

    Nip turned to look back to the group of pokemon behind him. Walking up the path were the kirlia and absol that he expected. But in addition to the two, three other pokemon walked with them. The first was a purugly: his fur groomed neatly to perfection with a small, sparkling stone attached to a string around his neck. The other two were each purrloin, one walking on either side of the group at attention.

    “That’s her dad?” he asked, whispering his question to Haru. “Does that work?”

    “He and her mother - a gardevoir - had been together a long time, but I think she had a surrogate father.”

    “Her mom died not long after she hatched,” Toshi added in. “So, it’s just been her and Jhorlo for years.”

    Haru cut in with a curt tone. “I don’t know why he’s out here. Usually, he considers Muse more than enough protection for Shimmer.”

    The group of pokemon came to a stop a few steps away. The purrloin both sat down at the same time, but continued to stay at attention, eyes unblinking.

    Shimmer hopped down from Muse’s back, giving a friendly wave. “Hi Toshi-boo! Oh, Haru and the sneasel too! Nip right? You should have told me you wanted to make this a double date.”

    Nip, Toshi, and Haru all three did an immediate double take, looking to Shimmer and then amongst their group. Haru was the first to speak.

    “What? No, it’s nothing like that! Toshi asked me to tag along so he’d have more company, and we extended that invitation to Nip!”

    “A-and this isn’t even a single date!” Toshi added, stammering.

    Shimmer took their response all in stride. “Kidding! Oh, you are too silly, cutie-pie. But whatever you say. Anyways, my dad is here because he wanted to speak with us before we headed into the forest is all.”

    The purugly chuckled. “Indeed. I really am sorry to bother you fine folks. I just needed to speak with you before heading into the forest you see.” Nip took note of his silky-smooth voice. Something about it put his fur on end, like perhaps it was a well-practiced front.

    “I wanted to make sure you all knew to be careful, is all. Whisper came by this morning with some disturbing news, you might have heard. She said there’s reason to believe that a predator wildener has been hanging around the village. They’ve found several… er… remains around the area. All small mon, but still. Now you… five should be fine as long as you stick together, but I want you to all take extra precaution, understand? I don’t need a mess to pick up, and I’d like my daughter and her friends to stay safe.”

    His explanation and request elicited slow nods from each of the other pokemon - except the purrloin, who were still at attention. Satisfied, he let out a purring noise before turning. “Jaques. Lotte. We’re finished here. Back to the villa, okay?” He looked back towards Shimmer over his shoulder. “Take care, sweetheart!”

    The two purrloin turned in unison, walking just behind the purugly. Shimmer gave her father a wave.

    “Bye, Dad!”

    Now slightly more somber, the group turned each other.

    “A predator, huh?” Haru mumbled. “Are there any precautions we should take?”

    “Perhaps we should designate a lookout,” Muse suggested. “Who of us has the strongest senses?”

    “Probably you or Nip,” Toshi answered. “But since you’re really the muscle of the group… Nip, do you mind acting as our spotter? Do you know what that means?”

    “I was not planning to stay around the whole time but… I suppose I could,” the sneasel responded. “I have a pretty good idea of what you’re talking about. Bring up the rear, keep an eye out for trouble, especially when the rest of you are preoccupied, correct?”

    “Close enough,” Haru said. “You can either flank or bring up the rear. Normally, this level of caution wouldn’t be needed this close to town, but if Jhorlo felt the need to bring it up we should be careful.” She pointedly turned her head towards Shimmer. “Technically, we probably shouldn’t be going out there at all, if things are that bad.”

    “Oh, Dad is probably just being silly,” Shimmer said. “But if it makes you feel better, then I’m all for the extra caution.”

    On one hand, Nip could not help but feel flattered that these pokemon trusted him enough to do such an important job, and considered him skillful enough to follow through. On the other… part of him was in shock for the same reasons. Still, it would give him a chance to gather up some money, which he had quickly learned he would need if he ran into any more settlements.

    With that plan in mind, the five headed further down the road towards the line of trees in the distance.

    *****​

    Once the group entered the woods, they fell into a tight formation. Muse walked in front with Shimmer on her back, the kirlia sensing the nearby area as best as her skills allowed for danger. The bidoof siblings took up the middle. Toshi occasionally cast a cautious glance into the woods on either side of their path. Haru, on the other hand, was much surer of herself, though Nip was not entirely convinced that it wasn’t just for show.

    He brought up the rear, occasionally sniffing at the air as he listened for any sign of danger. So far the journey had been quiet. Maybe too quiet, in his opinion. But perhaps this was normal for this part of the woods?

    Still, it was hard to focus when Shimmer just kept chatting away.

    She seemed to be recounting some story from her childhood. “So, I demanded that he paint his shop pink, that it would be more becoming of him. I told that old swalot that my daddy would make him paint it pink, and that seemed to make him consider things a little. But Muse stepped in and pointed out that he couldn’t do anything until the next season, when the smeargle crew came through. And I guess by the next season I had already forgotten. Oh! That makes me think though, don’t you think it would be neat if we paint our house pink, Toshi?”

    “E-err…” the bidoof stammered, searching for any sort of response. “I’m really more of a blues and greens guy, actually.”

    “Well a dark shade of either of those could work well with pink, right? We can compromise!”

    Sensing no hope of winning, Toshi just mumbled, “I guess.”

    Nip tuned out the conversation. There was no need to let himself get distracted by such silly discussion. He turned his attention instead back to listening for trouble. He heard a rattata skittering in the underbrush, squealing about the larger, scary pokemon entrenching on their territory. He could smell that a combee had passed through here recently, carrying nectar back to their hive. Somewhere above him, a taillow flew by, letting out a chittering song as he looked for his mate. Nothing dangerous so far.

    If only he could slip away and hunt. But they were making more noise than an angry beartic. No wonder everything was running off.

    Shifting his attention back to watching for danger, he turned his head to the side. He expected to see nothing, but instead caught a glimpse of distorted air, and of a ring of trees that were not only unnatural in formation, but in color too: wavering patches weaved and swirled about, turning the green leaves red and orange. Then the distortion would shift elsewhere, leaving the leaves green once again.

    Haru caught his look, turning to look towards the distorted location. “Oh, that’s Sunglow Thicket,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s the only mystery dungeon that’s less than a day’s journey from here. That’s part of why we don’t have a rescue guild branch in town. Not enough nearby danger to need them. There are so few that get lost around here that the local guard can handle whoever does.

    Nip tilted his head. “Rescue… guild? I apologize, we don’t have anything like that where I’m from. You’ll have to elaborate.”

    The remainder of the group stopped, pausing to look at the sneasel. “Really?” Toshi questioned.

    “It makes sense they would not have a rescue guild branch,” Muse pointed out. “As far as I know, there aren’t any guild, union, or society branches on the other side of Great Misty Ravine. Do you have nothing to help those that get lost in the dungeons, though?”

    “We rarely enter a patch of distortion outside of coming of age trials,” Nip responded with a grunt, turning his attention back to sniffing at the air. “So, there would be no need to rescue outside of emergencies. Everyone is expected to know how to take care of themselves in danger, save for the kits. And they aren’t meant to leave our nesting grounds.”

    “You know, you use kind of silly words,” Shimmer cut in, holding back a giggle. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude.”

    “What, you don’t know what a nest is? I would say you all are the ones using the ‘silly’ words. I mean… what does ‘guild’ even mean?”

    Haru let out a sigh. “Sorry about Shimmer. Anyways… a guild is sort of… like a group of pokemon that band together under a certain cause and skillset and vow to look out for others? Toshi, you’re the one that’s into all the expedition and rescue stuff, help me out here.”

    “Okay,” Toshi began. “Well. Your explanation is pretty good. Down in Southern Harbor Town-”

    “Where?” Nip interjected.

    “All the way down south, it’s one of two major port towns responsible for ferrying goods up the rivers.”

    “O...kay?”

    “Anyways, Red’s Rescue Guild headquarters is there. In most towns near a major dungeon, Red - that’s the flareon that runs the place - has a guild branch set up to handle rescues. Now, this is not to be confused with the Expedition Society, which is a group of researchers that work to learn more about mystery dungeons and their containment, or the Enforcer’s Union, who specifically focus on tracking down outlaws that may be hiding in hard to reach areas or mystery dungeons. Both of those are in Eastport Town - that’s the other major harbor town.”

    “Creative name, Red,” Nip mumbled sarcastically.

    Shimmer piped up again. “Hey, you’re the one that’s named Nip. Like a little bite, you know? I don’t know if you have room to talk.”

    “If you must know, my name specifically relates to frostbite.”

    “Still a little weird, but okay. Whateeever you say.”

    Nip threw his head back, turning his attention back to their surroundings. Muse and Shimmer veered off into a patch of grass nearby, the absol digging at the roots of some plants in the soft soil. Toshi wandered a bit further away, sniffing at a nearby bush. Haru busied herself carefully picking up the plants Muse dug up with her teeth before standing on her hind legs to place them in a satchel on Muse’s back.

    Nip turned his attention away, letting his mind drift. As nice as everyone here had been, this wasn’t a place he could stay. As much as he wanted to rest, he couldn’t here. Perhaps if he went over the mountain. Maybe there, he could finally settle, even if only for a while.

    A whiff of an odd smell on the air made him turn his attention back to the present. Though he couldn’t identify the smell exactly, it reminded him of soot and ash, the remains after a fire. Yet, he hadn’t smelled anything burning. Tensing, he slowly looked around to scan his surroundings.

    The others were still preoccupied with their foraging. Well, the two bidoof and the kirlia were at least. Muse had paused and was sniffing at the air just like he had. With how preoccupied they were, it reminded him of distracted prey he would sneak up on back in his old hunting grounds.

    Something shifted the undergrowth ever so slightly. His ear twitched as he tried to home in on the sound.

    Just as he called, “Look out!” A blur of blue and cream burst from the undergrowth, dashing towards the smaller, isolated bidoof. Instinctively, he dashed forward to meet it, inhaling before spitting out small shards of ice at the creature. But it was hardly fazed.

    Toshi let out a surprised squeal, scrambling backwards into the bush. The quilava tried to follow after, swiping at Toshi as he retreated, but before it could reach him, Nip barreled into its side, delivering a jab with his claws before looping around to get on the pokemon’s back.

    The quilava cried out and twisted around, trying to reach around and bite at any part of Nip it could reach. There was a small pop, and then plumes of smoke began to pour from the vents on top of its head, obscuring Nip’s vision. He coughed, squinting his eyes shut as he dug his claws deeper into the quilava’s skin. He felt it twist beneath him, and suddenly he was on the ground, the wind knocked out of him by the quilava’s weight.

    “Let go!” the quilava hissed. “I saw him first!” It twisted around to lunge at Nip and bit down on his arm. But before it could do any more damage, the quilava was suddenly thrown off.

    Nip stood up, his vision still obscured by the smokescreen. But as the smoke began to dissipate, he could see Muse standing in front of him, her horn lowered towards the quilava with dark energy surrounding it.

    “Back off!” she barked, her maw twisted into a snarl.

    Nip heard someone step up beside him. Glancing over, he saw Shimmer, with Haru just a few steps behind.

    The quilava’s ears twisted back against its skull. Not keen on testing the odds against that many pokemon, it turned tail and fled, disappearing back into the undergrowth.

    Muse waited tensely for several heartbeats, watching and waiting, before she finally relaxed her guard. “Grab what you already harvested,” she announced. “We’re leaving.”

    Shimmer blinked, her mouth hanging open. “But… we just got here!”

    “That one was young,” Muse replied. “And not from around here. He probably came down from the mountains to hunt. His mother might still be nearby, and I don’t fancy starting a fight with a typhlosion. Do you?”

    No one could argue with that. So, with those words hanging in the air, Shimmer and Haru went back to finish gathering up the few herbs they had found. Toshi, meanwhile, sidled up beside Nip, silent for a moment.

    “Hey,” the bidoof began, shuffling his feet. “Um. Thanks. For helping me back there.”

    “Think nothing of it,” Nip replied, turning his attention back to the forest. “I was just returning the favor. It would be… unbecoming of me to not do so. You asked me to keep an eye out, so I did.”

    To that, Toshi just hummed in agreement. The two of them stood silently for the next couple of minutes, waiting for the girls to finish, then they all began the trek back towards the village.

    *****​

    At first, the group walked in a tense silence, the fear of being attacked by a typhlosion driving them to be extra careful. But as the trees began to grow further apart, heralding their approach to Theran village, they began to relax.

    Shimmer was the first to break the silence. “Musey, mister Nip, you two did great back there. Are you sure you can’t stick around for a while, Nip? I bet Whisper would love to have a strong mon like you in her guard.”

    Nip flicked his ear. Was she… offering him a position in their society? To him, a stranger? How naive. As much as he wanted to point this out, he forced himself to be polite. “Your offer is kind. But I have other obligations I must attend to.

    ”Shimmer waved a hand dismissively. “Sure, sure. But think about it when you come back through, alright? I’ll put in a good word for you if you do. I’ll have you know I can be very persuasive.”

    That sounded… not great. He wasn’t sure what she meant by “persuasion,” but he was certain he wouldn’t like it. “Thanks… but I likely won’t be passing back through. I’ll… be headed back home on a different route.”

    “Really?” Haru asked, rushing so that she could walk beside him. “Why’s that?”

    Should he tell the truth? Or a believable lie? “I am… hoping to see more of this part of the land,” he explained. “None of my kin have traveled this far south.”

    “Not even for a pilgrimage?”

    “It’s a bit of a personal pilgrimage,” Nip explained.

    “I see…” Haru turned her gaze back towards the buildings on the horizon. “We didn’t really get many herbs, did we?”

    Nip glanced back to the bags on Muse’s back. Indeed, there were only a few in the satchel.

    Haru hesitated. “Well… if you’d like, I guess I could offer you a spare bag in the morning. It’s not much but… it would give you something to carry things with at least. I’d help you with money but… I kind of already spent my spare change. Sorry.”

    Was she serious? Nip reached up to scratch the back of his neck. “That is… kind of you. I may take you up on that offer. Thanks.”

    It was bizarre to him, how willing these village mon had been to help him out. Was this the norm in this part of the world? How strange. It was, odd, but he almost felt like he could grow used to this.

    He paused, sniffing at the air as a stiff breeze rustled the leaves on the trees around them.

    And as he took in a deep breath, he caught a whiff of a strong, familiar scent that made his fur stand on end. Something different that stood out from the scents of this forest. He opened his mouth and took a deeper breath as he processed the scent. He caught the scent of earthy mud that hadn’t quite dried out, and the smell of wild razz berry bushes. But beneath that all was an all-too-familiar scent. A pokemon’s scent that still carried the faint, faded tone of pine needles and frostbitten herbs. He froze, his eyes narrowing to slits. She was here? Now?

    “Hey, Nip, are you alright?”

    Nip shook himself out of his stupor. Toshi had stopped to look back at him, his head tilted in concern. The other three had stopped as well.

    He forced his fur to lay flat as he tried to calm down and assess his options. What was he supposed to do, tell them he was being chased by a crazy pokemon? Would they believe him? What if they confronted her? Would she just attack them, too? Or would she turn them to her side? Neither outcome was good.

    “It’s… Nothing,” he finally lied. “I smelled something odd. ‘Spose I’m still worried about that typhlosion. Fire doesn’t exactly agree well with me.” Still, he didn’t wait to see how they’d react. Instead, he began to walk again, this time a bit faster, trying to not break out into a sprint.

    His explanation seemed to satisfy the others, as they all mumbled some sort of agreement. Haru continued to stare at him a bit longer than the others. But she, too, relented. He did his best to not appear relieved.

    Still, he was distracted as they made their way back to town, constantly glancing over his shoulder for a glimpse of cream and black fur. It took all of his willpower not to just bolt right there, to disappear back into the trees. But he was downwind. If she was still nearby, she likely hadn’t spotted him.

    Nip was shocked to find himself relieved when he reached the sparse and open village. But… she wouldn’t follow him here. Probably. Not during the day at least. Even she wasn’t stupid enough to attack him in the middle of a bunch of other pokemon in broad daylight.

    “You should probably get that looked at.”

    “Hm?” Muse’s words snapped him out of his thoughts. She leaned over to nose at the spot where he’d been bitten. The quilava’s vicious bite had managed to break skin, but he hadn’t thought much of it until now.

    “You have a good point,” he admitted. “I will return to your healer to recover. Thank you.”

    “Do you need us to walk you back?”

    “I will be fine, thank you.” He paused to look around until he spotted the humble medics’s hut, the small building built off of a huge, ancient stump. “Take care, you four. I… will see you in the morning, I suppose, Haru.” With that, he made his way towards the hut, eager to get out of the open.

    Lecha was not in, so he treated himself to a single oran berry – figuring she wouldn’t mind – and then returned to the nest he had been staying in. A flat object with strange scrawling had been left in his nest. He could gather that it was some sort of message but had no clue what it might mean. Quietly, he cleaned himself of the blood. But try as he might to relax, he couldn’t. Knowing that she was so close…

    “Yveltal, won’t you spare me this one more time?” he mumbled. He needed to leave. He needed to leave right now. Night would fall soon. Perhaps he could slip out under the cover of darkness?

    His stomach growled, and he was suddenly aware of just how hungry he was. He wouldn’t get far without food. But… Berries wouldn’t sustain him. Not when he needed to get as far away as he could, as quickly as possible.

    As he lay there, worrying, an idea came to him. A cruel, perhaps foolhardy idea, but an idea, nonetheless. An idea that would make certain he wouldn’t be able to come back. But it was the quickest idea he had in mind.

    He had done worse, right?

    With an uneasy feeling in his stomach, he laid down to rest and waited for nightfall.

    *****​

    Nip startled awake to visions of snapping jaws and the phantom pain of long-healed bruises. He reached over to rub his shoulder and winced when he brushed over the bite wound. With the help of Lecha and a few oran berries, it had already begun to heal. Lecha had checked on him briefly before retreating to bed, quietly commenting on how tense he was but not pressing the matter. He almost said something. Almost opened up and explained his fear. But no. Explaining the truth of his situation would only lead to more prying questions. Questions that would have surely turned her against him.

    No one back in his tribe had believed him about Umbra. Why would she? And even if she did, how would he explain everything else?

    Glancing up, he noted the moonlight peeking through the window. He rosefrom his nest, he swiftly made his way to the cabinet of herbs on the far side of the room. A few satchels hung off of wooden pegs in the wall. He chose one with a long strap that he could sling over his shoulders. The contents were dumped onto the table. In their place, he instead placed four oran berries, a heal seed, and a reviver seed. Hopefully, he would not need the seeds, but it was best to be prepared.

    He gave one last look back to the nest he had stayed in the past several days. Indecision twisted a knot in his stomach, and he questioned if this was the best way to handle things. He shook his head. No, he had already made his decision. He would live with the guilt and consequences, but he would live.

    He crept out lightly on his tiptoes, taking great care to not let the wood below him creak. The entrance room was dark and empty. A single, unused luminous orb inside a dark, tinted container provided just enough light for him to avoid stepping on anything that would have woke Lecha and alerted her of his movement. He carefully crossed this room too and pushed through the cloth exit into the night air.

    The village was much quieter at this time of night, the streets empty save for a single guard with their back turned further down the road, silhouetted only by the flame of a torch they carried in their hand. He would have to work his way around them later. One thing at a time. He paused for just a moment to sniff at the air, the fur on the back of his neck standing on end when he smelled that all too familiar scent. Umbra had been nearby. And recently. How close to the town had she gotten. If she decided to risk confronting him here…

    Either she would turn the villagers against him, or else they would be treated as little more than an obstacle.

    Neither outcome was desirable.

    He turned his back on the guard and instead made his way back towards his destination. Even in the moonlight, with his perception of color limited, he could make out the patchwork of different color values of the daycare. He moved swiftly, scurrying from hiding spot to hiding spot as he approached, praying the wind would not change and carry his scent to the guard, or else they would not notice it or find it unusual.

    The daycare was only slightly more protected than he initially thought. Bars covered the windows, more likely to keep the children in than any threats out. The front, however, only had a cloth covering like the clinic, albeit a slightly thicker and sturdier type of fabric. He pushed it aside with ease.

    Although he couldn’t make out the details, he could tell that the inside was just as garishly colored as the outside. His stomach knotted slightly in anticipation. For a moment, he considered giving up this part of the plan, and instead chancing a trip to the mandibuzz’s shop. But a growling stomach and fear of being caught by his pursuer if he waited even a moment longer egged him on. He swallowed once and steeled his resolve, then continued further in. Fortunately, and surprisingly, the floor here was just dirt. Perhaps part of the renovation? The reason did not matter. What mattered is that it would be easier to sneak across than the wooden boards.

    He sniffed at the air before taking an entryway to the left, carefully straining his senses for any sign of other pokemon. The room it led into was small and cramped, but also noticeably warmer than the first. And there in a nest, nestled in individual nests around a small dugout with a flame orb was his target: eggs.

    There were only four, none of them particularly large. The smallest could not have been bigger than his head, and the largest was no bigger than he was. He couldn’t even guess what pokemon any of them might be in the darkness. It would not matter though, would it?

    He began to reach down for one of the mid-sized eggs, his paws shaking in anticipation. But then he hesitated.

    If he took this egg, there would be no turning back. There was no telling how the villagers would react to this sort of thievery; his kin would have killed any thief they caught, but they also would not waste time hunting down a thief that escaped. For just one egg, the loss would be mourned, the nursery barricades would be strengthened, and life would move on.

    He could still back down right now. He could turn back and leave the nursery and instead target the meat shop. Surely, that would be less severe a crime?

    “Tor won’t like it if you mess with those.”

    He froze, hearing a quiet voice behind him, their tone grating in a way that sent chills down his spine. Slowly, he turned his head. A single pokemon, a small shuppet, was floating just a few feet away. A child, he thought. No real threat, but he had no time for a confrontation.

    Slowly, he began to pull a paw away from the egg, keeping his eyes on the young ghost that floated between him and the exit. “I’ll just… be on my way…” he mumbled as he started to back away.

    He tripped over one of the eggs, biting back a yelp as he fell to the ground.

    Apparently, this upset the shuppet, as he began to let out an ear-piercing screech. Nip yelped and flinched, covering his ears. “What are you doing?!” The shuppet yelled. “You’re gonna hurt the eggs!”

    Nip staggered back to his feet, turning first to the window before he remembered the bars.

    He turned back, only to see shuppet less than a claw’s length from his nose. Startled, he let out a yelp and lashed out, dark energy cutting through the shuppet’s form, throwing him backwards. He hit the wall with a startled cry and slumped, unconscious.

    Nip stared at the child, then glanced in horror down at his claws.

    What he should have done was drop everything and run. But with a thousand panicked thoughts racing through his head, he instead grabbed the egg nearest him before turning to dash out of the room. As he made his way towards the exit, he could hear sounds of movement and voices in the room just beyond.

    “Aves? Tor, where’s Aves? I can’t see him he’s not here I heard him scream!” The first voice was soft, but distressed and just as grating as the shuppet’s, its tone rising into a panic as it continued to speak.

    “Stay here,” a second voice replied monotonously. “I will go find out what is going on.”

    The sneasel burst through the flap just as the large form of a blissey appeared in the other doorway. Stealth was no longer in his favor, instead opting for speed to get as far away as possible. He made it all the way to the other side of the square before the blissey discovered what had happened and let out the call of alarm.

    “Thief!” The blissey called out, emerging from the nursery. “Egg thief!”

    Nip dove into a bush on the side of the path, clutching his prize tightly in both paws. He stayed deathly still, not daring to even breathe as the guard from before, a hawlucha, rushed past him. He waited till they got just a little way further before bursting out of his hiding place, continuing down the path. But he had emerged too soon; the sound of movement made the hawlucha spin, letting out an alarmed caw.

    “You there!” He heard the Hawlucha squawk. “Halt!”

    Nip yelped as he heard something shatter behind him. Suddenly, the whole area lit up as if it was daytime. He squeezed his eyes shut against the harsh light but dared not stop. The hawlucha must have seen him in the burst of light because he could hear it pursuing him, slowly catching up.

    Cooling the air around him as he prepared an ice attack, he sucked in a sharp breath and turned his head, exhaling a burst of frigid air, small crystals of ice forming in the stream. He did not look to see if it actually hit, instead choosing to focus on the quickly growing tree line. If he could make it into the forest, he could probably lose them.

    He chanced a glance to the left and realized with alarm there was a growing speck dashing towards him in an attempt to cut him off. It was some quadruped, running on all fours, but he couldn’t make out the details yet. He pushed himself to run faster. As the other pokemon grew closer, moonlight and the sparks dancing on their pelt revealed that his pursuer was a manectric.

    There was a flickering flash of light as electricity surged across the field. Nip let out a pained yowl as one of the arches hit him square in the back, threatening to make his limbs seize up. He stumbled.

    But perhaps the attack worked out in his favor as well. He heard a pained squawk from his pursuer as well. “Vale!” The hawlucha cried out. “Watch where you’re aiming that!”

    The manectric was nearly caught up to them now. He couldn’t get caught! Not now! Not when he was so close! He took a step forward, fighting the painful electrical spasms. Turning his head slightly, he caught sight of the Hawlucha forcing herself to her feet out of the corner of his eye. If either of them managed to catch up to him this would have been all for nothing.

    He sucked in another breath of air and forced his body to move, despite the lingering tingling numbness. Sharp chunks of ice quickly began to form on his arms, on his tail, and in his mouth as he focused, flash-freezing the moisture in the air around him. Just as the manectric entered pouncing range, sparks now dancing on its fangs, he spun, launching the shards of ice at the electric type’s face in point blank range. It let out a pained yelp, its attack thrown off as razor sharp shards of ice sliced at its muzzle.

    He spat out the shards that had formed in his mouth at the hawlucha as a quick follow up, then turned and fled once again despite the numbness in his limbs, finally reaching the trees. He was out of range of the effects of the luminous orb now, leaving him with the advantage in the cover of darkness. But the other two also knew these woods better. He could hear another pokemon rushing their way in the distance. He scrambled and stumbled amongst the underbrush, slowed down by the lingering numbness and by his soon-to-be meal. He may have gotten a head start, but they would catch up soon if he did not find somewhere to hide.

    Pushing through the undergrowth, he found himself back at the path that he had traveled with Haru and the other village pokemon earlier that day.

    An idea sprang into his head. The mystery dungeon! If he could get inside before they caught up, it would spit them out somewhere else and would provide him with short-term shelter so he could eat and treat his fresh injuries.

    He stumbled through the bushes in the darkness, desperately looking for what might be a dungeon entrance. All he needed was two trees that seemed slightly off. He could hear voices growing closer; the manectric must be tracking his scent. He was so close! So close to escape, so close to freedom.

    He strained his sense of hearing and caught note of a dead zone of sound to his right. He spun and rushed towards it as quickly as his numb limbs would carry him. The distortion of space would create a void without sound from the outside, so logically that had to be where the dungeon was.

    “There you are!”

    No! Not now! He whipped his head around, catching sight of the small, cream form of a mawile in the distance, rushing in his direction. How could she have found him at the worst possible time?

    He turned tail and fled, stumbling towards what he hoped was the entrance to the mystery dungeon. As he pushed through the point that marked where the distorted, unstable space began, he felt the shift of warm, humid, summer heat to crisp fall air. He felt leaves crunch beneath his feet and heard the sounds of his pursuers suddenly cut off.

    He was in. The sneasel let out a relieved breath and slumped to the ground, his legs giving out. The dungeon had deposited him in a small, empty clearing, perhaps three or four body lengths either way.

    His claws slipped into the bag, fumbling to find the longer form of the heal seed. Popping the green and white seed into his mouth, he let out a sigh of relief as feeling began to return to his limbs. But as the adrenaline of his daring escape died away, a realization struck him: Umbra saw him go into the dungeon. The villagers would be able to work it out. If this dungeon only had one true exit, all they had to do was wait for him to find his way back out and ambush him.

    He may have trapped himself between a waiting, angry mob and the dangerous, ever-shifting maze.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 5
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    @Adamhuarts Thanks for the review! I'm glad to hear Muse has her fans. She tends to be a character that people don't have strong feelings on. And thanks for pointing out that typo, I'll get it fixed later.


    Note: Edited 7/31/2020

    Chapter 5: Into Sunglow Thicket
    “Ah, finally a nice, normal morning.”

    Haru stretched out in the morning sun, flopping onto her belly as she let the warmth relax her tired muscles. Fir the first time in days, her morning had been free of interruption and excitement. And after any hopes of spreading her name by learning from Nip was from had been dashed by his caginess and hurry to move on, she was ready to return to her usual schedule.

    Still, there was still one loose end to tie up before she could get back to work. One thing that she needed to take care of. Nip may have failed to provide her with the fortune she had been hoping for, and she was still skeptical of his motivations, but it would only be polite to say goodbye.

    Returning into her family’s hut, she waddled over to where her mother had set out the morning’s food on a small, clay platter. An apple had been paired with a small, flat piece of bread and a few assorted nuts. She sat back on her haunches, lifted the apple between her paws, and began to gnaw away.

    Her mom, surprisingly, was nowhere to be seen. Presumably, she had left early to help her dad fell trees, to make up for her slack. Even her brother was out and about already. As bad as she felt for shirking work, she couldn’t help but appreciate the silence.

    After scarfing down the simple breakfast, she nosed her way into a small drawstring bag, letting it hang around her neck, then set out, beginning the short walk towards the village square. Yes, a quick, polite goodbye to Nip, and then she could get back to work. It was better to not burn bridges, wasn’t it?

    As she began to make her way towards the village center, however, she realized that something felt off. The road to the village had been eerily quiet so far; she hadn’t passed a single mon. The few that she saw as she neared the square moved in a hurry, speaking in hushed whispers. A knot beginning to form in her stomach, she picked up her pace as well.

    A dozen or so pokemon — about a third of the village — had already gathered, with more walking towards the commotion. Unable to see whatever was at the center, she ran up to the edge of the crowd. She caught sight of Ruffle near the edge, who waved her down and gave her a curtsey in greeting.

    “Ruffle, what’s going on?” she asked.

    The bellosom shook her head. “I don’t know. Something to do with Whisper and Vale. They came out of Lecha’s clinic early this morning looking a bit roughed up and headed straight for the daycare. Anu came rushing from the temple just a few minutes ago, too.”

    Haru opened her mouth to say something else but closed it again when she heard hushed voices nearby.

    “Look, the mayor’s coming!”

    “The mayor? Something big must of happened.”

    “Where is he? I can’t see!”

    “Haru!”

    The bidoof whipped around at the sound of her name. To her left, she could see Jhorlo making his way down the road from his manor, his face grim but his pace unrushed. Just behind him, Muse — with Shimmer on her back as usual — had veered off, heading her way at a light trot. Normally, she wouldn’t want to hear from the duo. But if anyone might be able to fill her in, it would be the mayor’s daughter.

    Muse skidded to a stop in front of her. Haru pawed at the ground nervously. “Shimmer, Muse, please tell me you have an idea of what’s going on.”

    The pair exchanged an anxious glance before turning their attention back to Haru. The fact that Shimmer of all people seemed worried only further twisted the knot in her stomach. “Nothing good I’m afraid,” Muse answered. She paused to lay down on her stomach. “Here, climb on behind Shimmer, we’ll go where we can see better.”

    But with something big enough that it had drawn this much of a crowd… Though tempted to turn down the offer, she wanted to be at the front. Something was happening here, and it was too big to not stick her nose in. She stood up on her hind paws and scrambled up onto the absol’s back.

    Muse stumbled a bit under her weight, but quickly corrected and pushed through the crowd, weaving between bodies and stepping over smaller pokemon. Recognizing Muse and Shimmer, most pokemon parted to let them pass.

    At the center of the crowd were the pokemon Ruffle had mentioned: Vale, Whisper, and Anu. In addition to the two guards and shrine attendant were the mayor and his two personal guards, Lecha, Tor — the blissey that ran the daycare — and the two young ghost pokemon that stayed with him. The shuppet of the pair seemed tired and unsteady, resting in air against the phantump’s side.

    They arrived just in time to catch Vale raising his voice at Tor. “Really? You did everything you could? You seem pretty relaxed for someone who had an egg stolen right out from under their care!”

    The blissey turned to look at him, a neutral, almost bored expression on his face. “I assure you I am oh so torn up inside.” His tone was dull, unperturbed by the manetric’s harsh words.

    “Yeah? Well you sure did a shit job of stopping the thief!”

    “I already told you, he had already left by the time I discovered the theft. I would not have woken up at all if not for Aves’ bravery.”

    At mention of his name, the shuppet meekly tried to hide himself.

    “Yeah, well that doesn’t mean—”

    “Vale!” Whisper cawed.

    The manetric flinched, turning his attention to Whisper. Up close, Haru could see that the hawlucha’s feathers were singed in spots, and her eyes hinted at exhaustion. Besides that, she also had a patched-up gash on her shoulder, and Vale had several recent cuts on his face.

    “Fellow pokemon, please,” Jhorlo started, cutting in. “I know tensions are high right now, but I am here for a reason. I need the full story. From the beginning, you know. Let’s start with this: what all was stolen, and when did the theft occur?”

    “I had a bag and a few minor supplies stolen,” Lecha began, “the most valuable of which was a single reviver seed. But that’s minor in the grand scheme of what happened last night.”

    “Agreed,” Tor said, still in his usual monotone. “I was awoken by the sound of Aves’ screech at perhaps halfway through the night. I saw someone make an exit out the door at that time but did not get a good look. I instead went to find Aves and check the egg room and discovered Aves had been knocked out and an egg stolen, at which point I called for the guard.”

    “I started running that way,” Whisper said, beginning her part of the story. “I got about halfway there and heard movement behind me. I broke a luminous orb and was able to catch sight of someone fleeing the scene, carrying—” she took a deep, steadying breath. “—carrying the egg with them. I turned to pursue the thief, and chased them out towards the forest, where Vale came in to try to help. He discharged electricity, but unfortunately I was caught in the fray, and the thief managed to get away.”

    “Do you have any clue where they went then?” Jhorlo asked.

    “Vale tried to track the path. We have good reason to believe he entered Sunglow Thicket. As far as we know, he’s still in there, but we aren’t certain.”

    The purugly let out a long breath of air, coming out as a frustrated hiss. “I suppose I should fill the crowd in, before we start making preparations to track him down. Whisper, are you sure you want to be in charge of the operation? I can let you rest if you would like, given the situation, you know.”

    The hawlucha nodded slowly. “I am positive. This has… unfortunately become personal, and I’d like to see him brought to justice myself.”

    “Very well,” the mayor replied before turning his attention to the still growing crowd. He cleared his throat loudly, bringing most of the uneasy murmurs in the crowd to a stop.

    Haru leaned forward to whisper to Shimmer. “Do they even know who the thief is?” Haru asked.

    Neither Shimmer nor Muse answered Haru, further twisting the knot in her stomach. She turned her attention back to Jhorlo.

    “Pokemon of Theran Village,” the purugly began. “This meeting brings no good news, I’m afraid. I’m sure some of you heard the commotion late last night, and others have been filled in on it by those that did. Yes, the rumors are true; last night, we had our first egg theft in many cylces. Since before I was Mayor, and before my mate was Mayor. Whisper and Anu’s egg was stolen from the nursery.” He paused, allowing the pokemon to murmur amongst themselves for several heartbeats.

    “An egg theft? Here?

    “When was the last time we had any crime this serious?”

    “Could this be a sign we’ve lost Regigigas’ favor?”

    “Now, now, dear villagers. I know this comes at a great shock, but please let me talk. There is more to discuss. Although our valiant guard gave chase, the thief was able to escape, unfortunately. However, we have been able to track him to the Sunglow Thicket. As soon as this meeting is over, we’ll be sending a few of the guard and some volunteers to go and stake out the known dungeon exits.”

    “But Jhorlo!” A villager from the back of the group called out, someone that Haru could not see. “Do we know who the culprit is?”

    “Please give me a moment, I was getting to that. Yes, thanks to witnesses and the hard work of the pursuing guards, we were able to identify the thief as none other than the sneasel that had been staying at Lecha’s clinic these last few days.”

    More voices broke out, some louder than others.

    “What?!”

    “I knew bringing an unvetted stranger into town was bad news.”

    “Was he a wildener? What did we know about him?”

    “How could this be happening? He seemed so nice!”

    “Order!” The purugly called out. “Order please!” Slowly, the cacophony of voices died away. “I know this is a lot to take in. It’s unfortunate that someone we gave such care to has betrayed us. As I said, the guard will be preparing a stakeout of Sunglow Thickets. Anyone who wants to volunteer should meet with Whisper. We will bring this thief to justice. That is all. Please disperse and go about our daily business.”

    Slowly, the crowd began to break away in small groups of pokemon talking amongst themselves in hushed whispers. Some pokemon made their way over to where Whisper stood to offer their help. Jhorlo turned his attention to Muse, Shimmer, and Haru.

    “Shimmer, dear, I have business to attend to at the villa. Will you see to it that anyone that didn’t happen to be here gets filled in on the situation?”

    “Of course, dad,” the kirlia replied with a dismissive wave. “I’ll touch base with Phoel and Numi at the post office and make sure a memo gets delivered to everyone. Would you like me to send a message out to the enforcers union also?”

    Jhorlo shook his head. “Not right now. I would like to keep this problem just village business if at all possible. We’ll reconsider it if he manages to give us the slip out of the mystery dungeon.”

    “With all respect sir,” Muse cut in, “how do you know he hasn’t already?”

    “Even a seasoned explorer would take several hours to work their way through Sunglow Thicket. By then we had at least one guard watching every exit, you see.”

    “What if he happened to have an escape orb with him?” Haru suggested.

    Jhorlo scoffed. “No one reported any orbs being stolen. Only a few medical supplies and a bag from Lecha. And with how few of us settled pokemon venture inside, it’s unlikely he’d find one. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be going. I have a lot of work to do. We have a trade shipment coming in today, as you may already know.”

    The purugly dipped his head to Shimmer, then he and his two purrloin guards began to walk back to their home.

    Haru carefully slid off Muse’s back. She opened her mouth to excuse herself, but Shimmer held a hand up, glancing back to be sure her father was gone.

    “Okay you two,” the kirlia began, “go get any exploration gear you have together. We’ll meet back at the edge of town in an hour.”

    “E-excuse me?” Haru stammered. “What on earth are you getting at?”

    Before Shimmer could answer, the call of “Haruuu!” sounded behind her. Whirling around, she saw her brother hurrying up the street as fast as his stubby legs could take him. He took a second to catch his breath. “Did you already hear?”

    Haru opened her mouth to say something but was cut off by a squeal from Shimmer.

    “Toshi-kins!” Shimmer exclaimed. “Oh, this is just perfect, now we have a full team!”

    Toshi slowed to a stop in front of Haru, tilting his head up towards the kirlia. “Huh?” he deadpanned.

    Muse turned her head back to look at the kirlia as well. “Shimmer… I think I know what you’re getting at, and I cannot advise it. We don’t know Nip’s strength.”

    “Wait,” Haru interjected. “Are you suggesting we go into the mystery dungeon and track him down ourselves?”

    “That’s exactly what I’m thinking, oh you do catch on fast! Think about it, we’re the ones that brought him here, so that makes it our problem, doesn’t it?”

    “But Shimmer,” Haru protested, “none of us are trained for battle, except Muse. Besides, they’ve got a stakeout in the works. Let the trained battlers handle it.”

    Shimmer shook her head. “And sometimes dad makes dummy decisions. I know we’re not fighters, but we still would have the upper hand in numbers.”

    “Shimmer…” The absol pawed at the ground nervously before shaking her head. “I am going to strongly advise against this. But if we must go, I would like it if Haru did accompany us, at least.”

    “W-what? Why?” Haru stammered.

    “Because, you’ve had the most interaction with Nip, and thus have the best chance of convincing him to come back without a fight.”

    Haru didn’t like this one bit. Why should she have to get dragged into this mess? “We don’t even know if he’s still there!”

    “I don’t know…” Toshi mumbled. “I think it’s worth a shot. Besides,” he added, with a bit of mischief in his eye, “wouldn’t this be a great time to make your name known, if you could help bring a criminal to justice?”

    “That’s…” Haru began, but she couldn’t come up with a satisfactory argument. He did have a point… As did Muse. “Oh… Why are you taking their side Toshi?”

    “Hey, I want to go out there and join the Rescue Guild or Expedition Society one day. I have to practice dungeon exploring at some point, and what better time to start than now?”

    Haru groaned, outmatched. Technically, she could just not go, leaving the rest of them to explore without her, but she could not bring herself to let her brother dive into danger without her. “Fine, just one attempt to find him. But make sure you bring an escape orb. I’m not risking any of our lives down there to peacefully stop an ungrateful egg thief.”

    “Aw come on, where’s your sense of adventure?” Shimmer teased. “Fine. You and your brother go get your supplies. We’ll meet you in an hour.”

    --

    “You’re better at this, Toshi. What should I grab?”

    “We mostly have heal seeds and oran berries, but if you happen to have any pecha or aspear berries, I’d bring them too.”

    “Pecha berries I get,” Haru started, pausing to grab a couple in her mouth by the stems and pull them into her bag. “There’s plenty of bug and grass wildeners around here. But why aspear? I don’t know if we even have any.”

    “Nip’s an ice type,” Toshi explained, pawing a couple of oran berries out of a basket. He knocked them over to where Haru was before retreating to his room, returning with a couple of seeds that he spat out of his mouth. “It’s possible he’s packing moves that could freeze us. Better safe than sorry. But if we don’t have any, we’ll just have to use heal seeds.”

    Haru finished placing the items in her small bag, then nosed her head through the strap, so that it was hanging around her neck. “Well, there’s not a lot of space in here, so we’ll go with what we have. Hopefully Shimmer and Muse have stuff more useful for exploration on them.”

    “They should still have stuff from yesterday. C’mon let’s get going before mom gets home and questions where we’re going.”

    “I’m going to get so chewed out for skipping work, aren’t I?” Haru grumbled, following her younger brother out the door.

    The two set off down the path, heading away from town and instead towards the path to the forest. She could see a few tired looking pokemon working their way up the path, likely the few that had been watching the exits before the meeting. A marshtomp among the group let out a yawn and began to speak with the others in his group in a hushed tone, sparing only enough time for the pair of bidoof to give a quick wave of a hand.

    A white smudge against the tree line alerted her to Muse’s location, just off the path. She adjusted her route slightly, cutting through overgrown grass and bushes to reach them faster.

    Muse had been outfitted with a bigger satchel than usual, carefully secured to her back with a couple straps. Shimmer was down from her usual perch, instead resting against Muse, playfully running fingers through her thick neck fur. “Okay, so you still have the oran berries from yesterday, and you bought a few cheri and pecha berries, an escape orb and a totter orb?”

    The absol nodded. “That is correct. I also brought a petrify wand from the villa, but it only has a few uses left in it.”

    “That’s fine, we’ll save them for emergencies.” The kirlia opened her eyes. “Oh look, there they are, finally!” A hand raised up, waving Haru and Toshi down. “Hey you two! Come on hurry up already! We’re losing daylight here!”

    Haru huffed, but picked up her pace regardless, Toshi following close behind. Once the four were together, they did a quick look over of their supplies before setting off, heading down the path into the woods. At first, Shimmer prattled on about various things, intent on offering a distraction, but eventually her small talk gave way to uneasy silence, as they grew closer to their destination. Before long, they could spot splotches of red and orange and brown amongst the greenery.

    “Do you see anyone from the village?” Toshi asked, breaking the silence.

    “Not here,” Haru responded with a shake of her head. “But as far as I know, there’s not a dungeon exit in this area. Better for us, I guess. I mean, I know we’re all adults here, but can you imagine how most of the village mon would react if they saw us headed into the dungeon, especially right now?”

    Toshi grimaced. “Eugh, fair enough. I think Mom would flip.” He went on to mimic Saku’s voice. “‘Putting yourself in danger like that?’ She’d say. ‘How could you? You worry your mother so much.’”

    Haru snickered slightly as the group made their way down a hill towards the dungeon. “Gotta love Mom. She’s great, but sometimes she just gets so pushy. She’s got it in her head that I’m going to become mates with some powerful dragon-type or something. I mean, really? Maybe I’m not ready to settle down mom, I’ve got a life ahead of me still!”

    “Um… Sis?” Toshi mumbled.

    Shimmer covered her mouth to restrain a giggle. “Wow Haru, you got some issues!”

    Haru realized she had begun to ramble, and how loud her voice had grown. “Er… Never mind. Let’s just focus on the task ahead.”

    She took the lead, making a beeline for two twisted aspen trees that marked where the distortion began. The grass here came nearly up to her nose, but in little fluctuating patches on the other side, she could see shorter grass covered in fallen red and yellow leaves. She had never been to Sunglow Thicket, but she’d been told the dungeon was trapped in a perpetual autumn, almost like it was frozen in time.

    As she stepped through the point where normal and distorted world met, she immediately noticed the drop in temperature from summer to fall air. She paused and shook, as if casting off the cold. While she had only been able to see patches from the outside, in here the trees were completely red and gold. The sound was different too. After passing through, it was as if the normal quiet chatter of forest life just dropped away, leaving only the rustle of trees in a light breeze.

    The other three followed closely behind, Toshi walking up to stand beside her and Muse and Shimmer following just behind him. She shifted her weight as she took a better look at her surroundings.

    The dungeon had deposited them in a clearing, thick brush impeding their ability to proceed in most directions. Even behind them, the way they came, there was nothing but thick undergrowth. Just to be certain, she took a moment to waddle over and try to push through, only receiving a few thorns in her face for her trouble.

    “You don’t think he’ll still be in this zone, do you?” Haru asked, turning back to the group.

    “I doubt it,” Toshi said. He pawed at the ground anxiously. “I heard the zones typically shift layouts every few hours or so and sweep out any unfortunate pokemon in the area. He would have probably tried to get to the base floor as quickly as possible — where it’s stable — so that he could rest.”

    “A good point,” Muse agreed. “Still, I think it would be best that we try to sweep every zone as carefully as possible, to make sure we don’t miss him.”

    Shimmer reached out to brush her fingers through Muse’s thick neck-fur. “Good idea Musey. You come up with the best ideas!”

    Muse lowered her head and rubbed a paw across her muzzle, though Haru could tell she was smiling.

    “Well I try to come up with reasonable solutions.”

    “Actually…” Toshi started, taking a step back towards the group. “I think we should hurry through this zone. We can spread out our search in the next zone. I’m almost certain he would have moved on by now.”

    “I feel that’s fair enough,” Muse agreed. “Let’s hurry. We’re wasting precious time the more we stand around here.”

    With an air of caution about them, the group set off, crossing the clearing with their senses peeled, as if expecting wilderners to burst from the undergrowth at any given time. The clearing narrowed into a thin path, just wide enough for them to pass through single file. Muse took the lead, head raised high and treading cautiously while the others followed close behind.

    Sunlight slowly shifted as they made slow progress, filtering through the thick, golden canopy. The longer they traveled through the narrowed pathway, the more the undergrowth felt like it was closing in, threating to swallow them up. The path twisted to and fro, leading then in a caravan around tight, blind corners to a point that Haru could not be sure they had not doubled back on their path at some point.

    But finally, the path began to widen slightly, enough that they could walk in pairs of two. Then it opened into a small clearing a bit further down the path. Muse paused, giving the following pokemon a chance to spread out behind her.

    Haru stepped forward to stand beside Muse, scanning the room for any signs of danger.

    “Hey, what’s that over there?”

    Haru turned her head to the left where Muse was pointing a paw. Across the clearing she could make out something glimmering in the sunlight.

    “I don’t know, I’m going to check it out real quick.”

    One last quick, cautious look around, and she began to rush across the floor to the glimmering object. As she got closer, she could tell that it was some sort of orb, although she could not tell what kind yet.

    “Sis, wait!”

    Haru glanced back towards her brother, slowing her gait. But before she could say something, she felt the ground shift slightly below her, and heard a soft, clicking noise.

    A powerful gust of wind whipped up beneath her. She tried to hold her ground, digging her paws into the dirt, but the gust was too much, and she was hurled into the air backwards towards her teammates where she crashed into Shimmer. She let out a pained squeal as she flopped to the round.

    Haru groaned and pushed herself to her feet, her vision blurred. The sound of beating wings turned her attention back to the orb. As her vision cleared, she saw that a fletchinder had landed in front of it, a couple of fletchlings hiding just behind it.

    “This is ours!” The fletchinder chirped. “We found it and you can’t have it!”

    Muse backed up slightly, lowering her head. “My apologies, we did not realize it belonged to someone. We are just passing through. If you would, please allow us to pass.”

    The fletchinder gave pause, looking back to the fletchlings behind him, who returned skeptical looks.

    “Really,” Haru grumbled under her breath. “Who leaves something so valuable just laying around on the ground for anyone to grab like that?”

    Although she thought she had been quiet, apparently, she was loud enough for the fletchinder to catch her words. He whipped his head back around, talons scraping at the dirt and leaves below him. “What was that?”

    “Haru,” Toshi urged in a whisper, bumping against her front right leg. “Watch what you’re saying! You never know what kind of mood a wildener is in. Especially in a dungeon!” He turned his attention back to the trio. “Oh, it was nothing! My sister is just in a rush is all. We’re looking for a sneasel that might have passed through here.”

    The fletchinder scraped at the leaves again. “A sneasel? You’re out here helping a sneasel?”

    Toshi blinked a couple times. “What? No! We were-”

    But the fletchinder was no longer listening. Both it and the two fletchlings had taken to the air now, along with the two fletchlings. Muse jumped to the side as the evolved bird dove for her head, talons outstretched.

    “Shimmer!” The dark type called out. “Get back!”

    “No way!” Shimmer called back, stepping up beside her guard. Her eyes glowed blue with psychic energy. She raised her hands up on either side, and turned her attention to the nearest fletchling, who was now diving towards her. For just a second, she squeezed her eyes shut, then pushed outwards with both hands. The same pale glow from her eyes enveloped the fletchling, seeming to stop it in its tracks.

    “Ha ha! Finally! I’m really getting good at using my psychic powers in a fight, Muse!”

    The absol grunted in response, slicing at the air with her sickle-like horn to ward off the fletchinder. “Don’t you think you should stop talking and finish the attack before it breaks free?”

    “Oh, right!” The kirlia giggled, seemingly unperturbed by the danger. She brought her arms back, then swung them to the side in an arc, sending the captured fletchling flying into a tree. It fell to the ground with a pained chirp and did not attempt to get up.

    Haru and Toshi found themselves back to back, each with a few welts coming up where the other fletchling had managed to peck at them with its beak or scratch at them with its talons, severely out speeding the two bidoofs. But when it would flutter too close to her face, Haru would snap at it with her fangs, but so far all she had managed to do was pluck a feather or two.

    “This isn’t working!” Toshi called out.

    “You think?” Haru called back.

    “I’m going to try something, cover for me!”

    Haru spun around as her brother took off, running a little way into the clearing. She chased behind him with the fletchling right on her tail. Once he had built up a decent amount of speed, he turned in an arc so that he was facing back towards the fletchling. He sprang into the air and came down curled into a ball, rolling and quickly gaining speed. Haru barely moved of the way as he came barreling past, knocking into the fletchling.

    The fletchling tumbled in air, barely managing to keep its balance. Before it could get out of range, Haru reared up on her hind legs to chomp down on its leg, pulling it down to the ground. Its wings beat against her face as it twittered in alarm, trying to peck at her face. She only bit down harder until she felt the delicate leg bone snap in her powerful jaws.

    Only then did she finally let go. As the bird tried to rise back into the air, she charged head-first, knocking into it and sending it sailing back a few feet. The small bird tumbled along the ground, coming to a stop a few feet away. Slowly, it managed to turn. Faced with her and with Toshi rolling back for another attack, the bird struggled to take to the air and fled back to the edge of the clearing, ducking down into a patch of grass.

    Toshi slowed to a stop. “That was kind of brutal. You sure you’re not a fighter?”

    Haru didn’t answer, turning her attention back towards Muse and Shimmer to see how they were faring. The absol took a blow to the side from the fletchinder, wreathed in flames. Muse grunted, skidding a few inches back from the force of the blow, but stayed on her feet. She sprang back a few more inches to put distance between herself and the bird.

    The fletchinder dove once again. Muse crouched slightly as dark energy began to swirl around her horn. The bird dove again. Just as it closed in, no more than a few inches from her face, Muse sprang up, swinging her head sideways so that the sharp tip sliced across his chest, sending him tumbling through the air. He hit the ground hard and did not rise.

    The group slowly gathered in the center of the clearing, looking over each other’s injuries. Both Toshi and Haru had a few cuts, but were otherwise fine. Muse had taken a few embers to the face, and her right flank had been singed by the flame charge. Only Shimmer had gotten out of the battle without a scrape.

    “How’s everyone faring?” Shimmer asked.

    “Pass me an oran berry,” Toshi replied. “That should keep me going for a while.”

    “I’ll take one, too,” Haru said, pawing at her bag to remove it and reach for the berries.

    “I will be fine,” Muse said. “I do not wish to slow down our pursuit.”

    Shimmer looked the absol over and frowned before approaching to place a hand on her hip. Muse scraped a paw across the ground, gritting her teeth.

    “Nonsense,” Shimmer said with a shake of her head. “You’re hurt and trying to continue with that limp will slow us down more. Let me take care of this.”

    The absol lowered her head slightly. “But I… Yes, of course, I’m sorry to have worried you, Shimmer.”

    Shimmer Giggled. “You don’t need to apologize to me Musey! Now hold still, this might feel a little weird.” The kirlia laid a hand over the absol’s flank again, taking a deep breath. Her eyes began to glow with a slight pinkish tint. A wave of pink energy expelled from her hand, then another, and another, washing and wobbling over the absol’s body. The waves continued for several heartbeats, and then faded.

    “How’s that feel?”

    Muse carefully took a step on her hind leg. “Much better.”

    At the positive response, the kirlia sprang forward to wrap her arms around Muse’s neck. “Oh, good! I hadn’t tried using that heal pulse since I got Lecha to teach me.”

    Muse chuckled weakly reaching a paw up to put just a bit of space between the two of them. “Shimmer, you’re embarrassing me.”

    “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Shimmer replied. Though she backed off regardless. “Now come on, we’re losing daylight!”

    The group gathered up their things and continued across the clearing, Haru paused to pick up the orb — a slumber orb, she thought.

    “You sure you should do that?” Toshi asked. “They’re gonna be pretty mad when they wake up.”

    “It could be useful,” Haru countered. “Besides, I’m considering it payment for our troubles. If we’d lost, they totally would have looted our stuff.”

    Toshi gave her an unconvinced look, but didn’t argue, hurrying to catch up with Muse. Haru frowned. He wasn’t mad, was he? She thought she had made a good point. But she decided not to pursue it, continuing forward.

    *****​

    “There’s the entrance to the next zone,” Toshi said. He raised a paw to point to the left, where there was a gap in the undergrowth. But instead of a path, it appeared more like an indentation, the trees just behind seeming to warp and twist at odd angles.

    By now, they’d walked through several clearings and interconnecting pathways, twisting this way and that so much that Haru wasn’t sure that they hadn’t doubled back on their path at least once. At least they didn’t run into the flechinder again. And yet…

    “This was an oddly small floor,” Shimmer mused. “But we didn’t run into Nip, so that must mean that he’s deeper in the dungeon, right?”

    “Hopefully,” Toshi agreed.

    They crossed the clearing and stepped into the small dent in the undergrowth. When they did, the world seemed to spin and the trees beyond seemed to shift away, opening into another clearing. As they stepped across the threshold, the trees beyond seemed to distort and twist and when the group turned back, there was nothing but trees and thick shrubbery behind them.

    There were two ways to exit this clearing. One to their left, and one from the top-right corner. Both seemed to curve northwards, from the bit down the paths Haru could see.

    “Let’s start with the left,” Toshi suggested, turning. “We have to start somewhere.” The group set off once again, working their way across the zone. After a while, it all seemed to blur together. Path, clearing, path, clearing, crossroads, clearing. They all seemed the same, yet different as they trekked through leaves and around bunches of bushes. A couple times, they encountered wildeners again, but none were bold enough to take them on, fleeing down the paths.

    When the search through the second floor proved fruitless, they returned to a clearing where they’d seen the distorted route onwards into the third zone.

    “Figures he would be further in,” Haru mumbled. She shook her head before addressing her teammates louder. “Hey, do you think he might have taken shelter in the stable zone already?”

    “All the way at the end?” Toshi asked. “I mean… it’s possible. But I don’t know if he would have traveled that fast.”

    “Besides,” Muse added, “we can’t risk missing him and allowing him to slip away as a result.”

    “Fair point,” Haru said “But at the same time why can’t we just—”

    She cut off as Muse suddenly stiffened, raising a paw to shush her.

    “Shh, someone’s coming,” the absol warned, lowering herself into a crouch. The others shifted to defensive stances as well, following Muse’s gaze to a path into the room with a blind corner. It wasn’t long before the rest of them heard the tell-tale crunching of leaves as some pokemon approached their position.

    “Probably just another wilderner that’ll turn tail when they see us,” Haru muttered. But as the pokemon rounded the corner, it quickly became clear that they had run into something much more dangerous.

    The pokemon on the far side of the clearing was similar in size to the two bidoof. But they were bipedal, with cream and grey fur. Some of the lighter fur had been dyed with some sort of reddish tone, a spiral design climbing one arm and a crescent design adorning their chest.

    Judging by the large second set of jaws, Haru inferred that the creature must have been a mawile. Something that, as far as Haru knew, was not native to this area, or anywhere nearby.

    The mawile seemed to notice them as she entered the clearing and noticed their defensive stances. She turned, locking eyes with Muse, and reached out an arm towards them.

    “You there!” She barked in an accent that Haru had come to recognize the last few days. “If you have seen a sneasel around and know what is good for you, then you will tell me where he is!”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 6
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    Now that November's over, I'm ready to get back to upadating here. Before we get into the story, replies to comments, of course.

    @Negrek
    As always, thanks for the feedback! I'll be certain to take what you mentioned into account when I eventually get around to another round of edits for this chapter.

    You can be a bit inconsistent with your direct-address commas.
    Yeah, I'll be honest. I totally forgot about that grammar rule until it was pointed out here. I've been trying to go back and fix it up, but I still keep missing them. Thanks for pointing that one out.

    I'm also still not convinced that kangaskhan's the most attractive prey-pokémon in the area, heh.
    Definitely fair, though I do hope to explain why the mawile would go after one eventually.

    Kind of odd to me that Nip doesn't know what a mayor is, but does seem to understand "double date."
    That is definitely a fair point. Something I will have to rework when I do edits.

    I don't really get Nip's reasoning for going for an egg here. I may have the wrong impression of the village, but I thought it wasn't that big? So going to the meat shop seems like it wouldn't have taken that much longer. All moral considerations aside, surely it's better to risk ticking off a mandibuzz and her helper, which maybe would end with you having the town watch set on you, rather than stealing someone's child which is very likely to end with basically the entire village hunting you down? I'm just not convinced that getting meat from the butcher's is going to be difficult enough, relative to breaking into the daycare, to justify targeting the daycare instead.
    You're not the first one to bring this up, which means I probably could have done a better job of depicting this: Mandi's shop was meant to be kind of out of the way, since the less carnivorous members of the village find it kind of creepy and off-putting at best, even if they understand that other pokemon are obligate carnivores. Other reasons are explored in a later chapter, so I won't say anything else there.

    I'll finish by saying I'm glad you're enjoying my depictions of dungeons. They were at least partially inspired by the Etrian Odyssey series. Something about fantastical places that feel off and unique compared to the environments around them just struck a chord with how I wanted to envision the mystery dungeons in my world when I decided to include them.

    @NebulaDreams
    ...or he could steal someone's unborn child in a facility full of people looking after it, therefore putting him in even hotter water. . Nice going, Nip.
    Nip is a lot of things. Smart is not always one of them.

    Most of what else I had to say was already covered when I spoke with you over discord or in my reply to Negrek, so I'll move along.

    @Adamhuarts
    I'm glad you like the story so far, the differing societies in particular. As for everything else you said... well, you'll have to read to find out!

    As a final note before the chapter, chapters from here on likely won't get as many edits, due to two things: for one thing, I haven't had as many reviews on more recent chapters, especially ones that break down into the nuances of a single chapter. This was also the first chapter that got beta read by two separate people, so hopefully between that and my revisions, I will have caught more errors. Enjoy!


    Chapter 6: Umbra
    "If you have seen a sneasel around, then you will tell me where he is, if you know what's good for you!"

    Haru glanced uneasily to the mawile on the far side of the clearing, then back to her companions. There was something about the mawile, about the way she carried herself, that screamed danger. Haru’s instincts told her to run. If there was a body of water nearby, perhaps she would have dived down to wait out the danger.

    Still, it seemed like she was looking for Nip as well. And if that was the case…

    Her nose twitched as she stepped forward, choosing her words carefully. "We're actually looking for a sneasel right now."

    The mawile looked her over, seeming to size up the quartet. Then she turned away, speaking over her shoulder. "So, I suspect I am on the right path. That is all I needed to know.” She raised one paw back over her shoulder. “You should turn back now. It will be dangerous ahead. He is dangerous and is not to be taken lightly."

    Haru glanced back over to her three travel companions. Shimmer had climbed down from Muse’s back, and walked forward to stand beside Haru. “With all due respect, miss scary mawile, we kinda have our own reasons for looking for him. He’s in biiiig trouble with our village, see. Maybe we should team up?”

    The mawile paused, the second jaw on the back of her head opening ever so slightly. She turned back to give Haru a dangerous look. "Is… that so? You've spoken with him, then?"

    Haru took a single, unnerved step back. "I…"

    "I take it that means you have been harboring him, then, and that is why I have not been able to find him." When none of the pokemon answered right away, she scoffed. "You best leave now; you're trying my patience. My business is with him, and I have no time for pokemon such as you that might get in the way of my goal."

    “What’s her problem?” Shimmer mubled, a pout forming on her face. “Is it just me or is she behaving kinda irrationally? I’m sensing some real anger in her.”

    “Let me handle this, Shimmer,” Muse said, stepping forward. Then she addressed the Mawile. "I'm afraid this is our business. Nip needs to be brought back to our town to have his misdeeds there addressed. He was staying there for a time, yes, but he's run off now."

    The mawile narrowed her eyes and snapped her jaws threateningly. "I do not work with mon that would harbor a bottom feeder like him. This is my final warning. Turn back and allow me to deal with my kin's problems, or I will be forced to be rid of you too."

    Haru gulped nervously. She opened her mouth to say something, but the words died in her throat. This mawile was crazy! Was she really threatening them? It was instead Toshi that stepped forward. "Sorry, but we have a way of doing things around here, and we can't let you leave until we know what's going on. You’re kind of… acting weird. How do we know you’re not help him?" Shimmer and Muse glanced to him for a moment, then - getting the idea - rushed ahead to block the exit.

    The mawile watched as the two moved into place with a flat expression, though that expression quickly soured when Shimmer and Muse stayed put. "I don’t have time for this. Out of my way.” Without warning, she dashed towards the Kirlia.

    "Here she comes!" the absol cried out, pushing Shimmer out of the way. The kirlia stumbled and fell, and the mawile’s jaws closed on nothing but a tuft of furn.

    Everyone scattered, making some space between themselves and their opponent. Missing her attack hardly phased the mawile. By the time she had landed, she was already spinning to face her opponents again.

    Muse was the first to meet her, pouncing forward with dark purple energy forming a glowing aura around her horn. The two met in the center of the clearing, Muse swinging her head to the side to slice at the mawile as she ran by, the other blocking the brunt of the blow with her steely jaws.

    As the mawile turned to pursue Muse, a small branch, glowing with psychic energy, was swung at her head. She stopped in her tracks and turned to glare at the kirlia that had tossed it at her. Deciding that she looked like a much easier target, she turned her attention to Shimmer instead. The top of her head seemed to glisten in the light as she charged.

    Caught off guard, Shimmer shrieked and let out pulses of fairy-type energy in hopes of slowing the mawile down. "EEK! No! Bad mawile, stay back!"

    "Shims!" Muse called out, running towards the kirlia. "Move! Teleport out of here!"

    "I'm not leaving you guys behind!" she called back, but she did close her eyes to focus, warping across the field at the last possible second.

    "Hold still!" The mawile called out in frustration, whirling around, only to be greeted by not one, but two bidoofs rolling - no barreling - towards her, quickly picking up speed. She only just barely sprang out of the way of one of them, the other one knocking her arm and shoulder. While the one that missed slowed to a stop to realign themselves, the other kept moving, picking up speed as they rolled in a wide arc in the field to turn back to her.

    This time, however, she was ready. She braced herself as the bidoof came speeding towards her yet again, waiting. The two made hard contact, knocking her back a few steps’ worth from the force of the blow alone. But she stood her ground. As Haru bounced back and landed, she dashed forward and raised a jaw full of razor-sharp fangs, managing to clamp down Haru's abdomen as she tried to recover.

    The bidoof let out a pained squeal, panicking and struggling in her grip. "Ouch! Let go! Guys gett’er off me!"

    "Sis!"

    The mawile turned her head towards the voice. Toshi had recovered, now running at the mawile, his face contorted in concentration. As he drew closer, water began to form and spiral around his tail.

    "Your fighting skills leave a lot to be desired," the mawile growled. With practiced motion, she swung her jaw in an arc, tossing Haru in the direction of her brother, using her as a living projectile to throw off Toshi's pursuit. The bidoof landed with a heavy thud, dazed for a moment as the world swirled around her.

    Haru felt herself being pushed up as Toshi struggled out from underneath her. She groaned and shakily pushed herself up to her feet. She could feel the sticky sensation of blood on her back and could see an oozing row of punctures along her stomach. Fortunately, the wounds seemed shallow, not that it was much of a relief.

    Toshi took a second to look her over. "Take a moment to pep yourself up. I'm getting back in there." He waited for her to huff out an agreement before turning back towards their opponent

    She sat back on her haunches to reach into her bag, fumbling for an oran berry. Once she felt her paw brush up against the thick rind of one of the life-saving berries, she pulled it loose and popped the entire thing in her mouth, spitting out the nasty, bitter rind as she fell back onto all fours and took off after her brother. By the time she caught up, the bleeding had already stopped, though the wounds were nowhere near healed yet.

    The mawile danced out of the way of a headbutt from the younger bidoof, ignoring him in favor of charging towards Muse with fists raised. The absol steeled herself for the blow, magenta energy surrounding her horn. A pink energy surrounded the mawile’s claws as she drew closer; the force of Shimmer's confusion attack did little, but did slow the mawile enough to soften her opening blow.

    At the last second, the mawile leapt into the air, coming crashing down with her arms stretched out onto Muse, sending the two of them tumbling to the ground. The absol slashed and kicked at the smaller pokemon, trying to knock her away as she grappled with Muse's thick mane, her second jaw snapping and trying to find a purchase. Most of Muse's strikes did little more than swipe uselessly through the thick fur around her legs or leave small nicks in the mawile's steely jaw.

    "Shim-" the absol cried out, only to cut off with a yelp when the mawile managed to land a punch to the jaw.

    "I'm trying!" Shimmer called back in a panic, one hand stretched out toward the struggling pair, and the other clutching her head as she tried to grab hold of the mawile again with psychic energy. "You're moving around too much, I can't get a good grip!"

    "Don't worry!" Toshi yelled as he ran past the kirlia. "I'll help out!"

    He stopped barely managing to avoid being flattened when the two rolled, exposing the mawile to his side. He raised up on his hind quarters, throwing his weight into the mawile in hopes of pulling her down, trying to bite down on her shoulder. She let out an angry screech, jabbing him in the stomach with her elbow. Still, he refused to be pushed away, managing to bite down on one of her ears.

    As soon as his back legs hit the ground, he pulled with all his might, pulling the mawile down with him. She let out an angry screech, flailing in the fallen leaves as she tried to right herself. Still, Toshi did not let go, even when she did manage to get on her feet, a determined expression on his face. The mawile breathed heavily, chest heaving as she stared the bidoof down with clenched fists.

    Haru let out a triumphant cry as she rushed over to meet and help her brother, Muse carefully climbing back to her feet behind her.

    With a pained grunt, the mawile suddenly yanked her head, pulling Toshi loose from his braced stance, He was tossed into the air when he didn’t let go to of the ear, clinging as long as he could even as it began to tear. As he flew through the air above her, she sprang up and whipped her head to the side, using her jaws like a club to knock him out of the air, slamming him into the ground. A storm of leaves blew up from the ground around where he landed just from the sheer force of the attack.

    But the mawile wasn’t finished. She landed and barely dodged out of the way of a slash from Muse, the absol's horn brushing up against fur as she stumbled backwards. Muse kept up the attack, advancing on her as she tried to spring further and further away, until she spun and clubbed her with her jaws too, sending her sprawling.

    With Muse dazed, the mawile took the opportunity to dash towards the still recovering Toshi, the bidoof struggling to get back to his feet after the brutal blow. She snapped the defenseless pokemon up in her jaws in one fluid movement. Fangs dug into Toshi’s exposed belly. He let out a shrill, pained squeal, freezing everyone in place with horrified expressions.

    "Nobody move!" the mawile shouted as she clenched her jaw. Toshi cried out as the fangs dug deeper, blood seeping around the punctures. Once she was quite certain that she had the attention of the others, her grip loosened slightly, just enough to relieve the pressure while preventing escape.

    "I would not normally resort to such cheap tactics," the mawile began, punctuated by huffed breaths, her face scrunched in anger as blood dripped down her wounded ear, "but I refuse to let you waste my time any longer. Any sudden movements and I'll snap him right in half!" To punctuate her words, she squeezed the unfortunate bidoof in her jaws again. He squealed and went limp in a desperate attempt to lessen the damage.

    Haru glanced nervously to Muse and Shimmer as the mawile began to back away towards the nearest path out of the clearing, the other two just as frozen as she was.

    Or so it seemed.

    Although Muse was just as still as she appeared, Haru could see the look of concentration on Shimmer's face. Stealing a cautious glance back to Muse, she could see the absol's bag jostling ever so slightly. She turned her gaze back to the retreating mawile, not wanting to draw attention to whatever the kirlia was doing.

    The mawile - and her bidoof hostage - were almost halfway across the clearing by the time Shimmer spoke up, her voice surprisingly clear and level, considering the situation.

    "Hey, hold on just a moment!" she called out. "Where do you think you're going with my Toshi-kins?"

    For a moment the mawile kept walking, ignoring her, but she seemed to think of something and paused. "I have no interest in harming him further, so long as you three do not get in the way of my goal. Once I am certain you're not following me, I will let him go, so that he might find his own way home."

    Haru glanced back to the kirlia for a moment, watching the psychic type flinch. Or at least, it appeared to be a flinch, but Haru had seen that expression enough times to know better. A psychic pokemon teleporting themselves was easy enough; teleporting other pokemon or items was a whole different problem. The kirlia closed her eyes, sucking in a deep breath. "Well… I suppose I can't let my dear Toshi get hurt, can I?" A pause, a beat of silence followed. Haru did her best to ignore the floating orb. Wait, was that an—

    Then Shimmer squeezed her eyes tight, clenched her hands into fists and used her psychic abilities to slam the orb down directly on the mawile's head. The glassy ball shattered at the impact, swirls of bright blue mist bursting forth and spreading out through the clearing in tendrils. Some of the tendrils only made it as far as the mawile and Toshi. Glowing, psychic energy quickly began to spread over the pokemon from where the mist made contact.

    The mawile growled, swatting at the mist only for the energy to spread even quicker. Once she was fully enveloped there was a bright flash of light, and then she was gone. Toshi fell to the ground with a pained whimper, only to disappear a few heartbeats later.

    "Oh no, that's not the totter orb!" Shimmer exclaimed. "Good going, Shimmer. Everyone get ready, looks like we're making an emergency exit."

    Muse turned to spring towards Shimmer, allowing the kirlia to grab hold of her as they were hit by the nearest tendril of psychic mist.

    "Toshi, hang tight!" Haru called out as she dashed towards the nearest tendril, tensing as psychic energy washed over her body. Then they, too, were gone in a flash of light.

    Haru had been through the sensation of teleportation a few times in her life, mostly through psychic-type children messing around in their youth. She could recall a time when a younger Shimmer had tried to teleport her away so that she could talk to Toshi alone. She’d only succeeded in accidently dropping her into the nearby river.

    An escape orb behaved like an emergency teleport, creating an escape route when the orb shattered. It felt like she was falling from a high place, only to pull up at the last second. Suddenly, she was sprawled out on the ground near where they entered the dungeon, the last undistorted place they’d been.

    “I’m never going to get used to that,” she groaned.

    It took her a moment to reorient herself as her vision returned, along with the familiar smell of tree sap and wildflowers. A few feet away Shimmer and Muse were recovering - or rather, Muse was recovering while Shimmer looked her over for injury. Figures, Shimmer would have been used to teleporting, after all.

    But she had bigger problems. Toshi? Where was he? The bidoof raised her nose up into the air, sniffing, tensing at the smell of fresh blood. She turned her head towards the scent and caught sight of her brother lying several bodylengths away, halfway beneath a bush.

    "Toshi!" she cried out, rushing towards the injured pokemon, only to stop short when she caught sight of cream fur just a few steps away. The mawile groaned as she climbed to her feet. Haru quickly moved to put herself between the hostile pokemon and her younger brother. A quick glance told her he was conscious, though in bad shape. Several deep punctures oozed blood that matted up his fur. He let out a high-pitched whine as Haru stepped into his vision.

    "Haru… my leg hurts real bad." His voice came out a hoarse whisper.

    The mawile caught sight of her a moment later. "You! What have you done?" she spat, clenching her hands into fists. She widened her stance in an attempt to appear larger and more intimidating. "We're outside the dungeon now. I've lost nearly half a day's search thanks to you! Any chance of finding a trail will be gone now!"

    Haru heard Muse and Shimmer run up behind her, taking defensive positions on either side. "Well that's just fine because you aren't going anywhere," the kirlia said in a sickeningly sweet tone. "Not after what you did to Toshi. You attacked first, after all."

    And yet… were they really in any position to make demands of the mawile? Muse looked exhausted and worse for the wear, with clumps of fur missing here and there, and shallow cuts and scratches along her flank. Shimmer was physically unscathed, but Haru imagined she was likely mentally taxed after using so much psychic energy in such a short period of time. And she wasn’t looking good, either.

    She gulped as she realized that if they got in another fight with the mawile, they would not win.

    The mawile scoffed and turned her head. "Why should I waste any more time with you? You are obviously no match for me, and the dungeon would finish you off, should you attempt to pursue."

    Haru caught sight of a grin on Shimmer's face as soon as the mawile turned away. The kirlia had something planned, that much she was certain of. "If you had just agreed to talk things out and explain why you're trailing Nip, this all could have been avoided," she pointed out, her voice wavering and exhausted.

    The mawile turned her head back for a moment, then turned away entirely, fangs snapping dangerously before she began to walk. She stopped a few paces away, however, to speak. "Because I am only concerned about what he did to my kin, not yours.”

    "But if we've both have reasons to track him down," Haru argued, "we could have worked together."

    "I do not need pokemon like you slowing me down."

    "What's that supposed to mean?" Toshi said, shakily trying to climb to his feet behind the girls, glaring daggers.

    "You are weak," the mawile replied bluntly. "And you have no knowledge of the situation at hand."

    "You don't have knowledge of our situation though," Muse pointed out, raising a paw. "We have our own reasons for tracking down that sneasel."

    "Perhaps I did not make myself clear? I do not care about your reasons. I will be going now; I have wasted enough time."

    "You'll be doing no such thing!"

    The whole lot turned their heads to look to the side, Shimmer punctuating the motion with an, "it's about time."

    Three pokemon appeared amongst the trees, rushing ahead to help surround the mawlie. Anu dashed ahead at unnatural speeds, cutting off her path. A fiery rapidash followed close behind with an espurr clinging to her back.

    The mawile turned to look to the arriving pokemon with narrowed eyes, before whipping her head back go glare dangerously at Shimmer. "You… you called for them?"

    With help having arrived, Shimmer relaxed, no longer at attention, and leaned against Muse, draping her arms over the absol's side. "That's right! We couldn't let you just go after attacking us without explanation. You'll be coming back with us to the village now. Oh, by the way, there's a leaf stuck to your shoulder."

    Shifting her gaze slightly, the mawile made note of the leaf Shimmer mentioned and shook it off, then turned her attention back to the new arrivals to size them up. "You are wasting my time," she growled. "The longer I have to spend dealing with you, the more likely it is that he will get away." Still, she made no motion to attack.

    Anu turned his attention first to Shimmer, raising a paw up to his chest, and took a deep breath to steady his speach. "Blessings from 'Gigas that you are safe, my lady. Essra filled us in on the details you sent her along the way. Th-thank you for calling for us."

    He then turned his attention to the aggressing mawile. "A-As for you… You don't have to worry about the sneasel — that is who you're looking for, I assume — getting away. We are watching every known exit of Sunglow Thicket. No one will be leaving without us noticing. But I'm afraid… I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to come with us back to Theran Village. We can't let your aggressive attack just go. Do not worry, you'll have a chance to explain yourself. If all is well, we will probably let you leave town afterwards, after passing judgement."

    The mawile turned on him with a snarl, flexing her fingers and raising her steel jaws threateningly. But still she only held her ground. A tense, silent moment passed, then she finally relaxed, if only slightly. "Fine. I will go with you for now, only because it would do me no good to waste my energy fighting. Maybe then I can convince you why it is so important for me to be out here hunting for Nip. Make it quick."

    The lucario flinched at Nips name, then paused to brush a paw against his aura sensors to calm himself. "Very well." He turned his attention to the espurr. "Ah… Essra, will you help Shimmer get Toshi situated on Muse's back? Then Muse, would you please take him to Lecha for treatment?"

    "Of course," Muse replied, bowing her head.

    "Mmm, you got it, Boss," the espurr said, waving a paw before shimmying down off of the rapidash's back. She landed on the ground hard, holding out her arms to steady herself.

    Satisfied, Anu turned his attention to Haru. "What about you? Your wounds do not seem as deep, but if needed I'm certain Romi would give you a ride back."

    Haru winced, standing up on her hind legs to get a better look at the bite marks on her stomach. Now that the rush of battle was starting to wear off, she found herself a bit weak in the legs, pain starting to take its toll. Still, her stubborn pride got in the way.

    "I'm… I'm fine," she decided, lowering herself back to the ground. "Yes, I can walk."

    Anu let out a quiet hum, raising a paw to his chin and tilting his head slightly. "Very well. Let me know if you change your mind."

    "I am going to go ahead with Toshi," Muse announced, turning her head to check up on the injured bidoof. “I’ll let the others know what happened.”

    The lucario dipped his head. "Run swift as Dialga's Messenger."

    Muse looked away, a slight, sheepish grin on her face. "Thank you for your blessing, Anu." Then she took off at a jog down the trail.

    Anu turned his attention to the remaining pokemon. Both Essra and Shimmer had seated themselves on the back of the rapidash, who took up the rear. Anu led the way, with the mawile just a bit behind him. Haru fell in line just a bit behind her, not wanting to be anywhere near those jaws, but also wanting to be able to keep an eye on her.

    "Is it really alright to pull this many pokemon from watching the exits?" Haru could not help but ask.

    "Romi and I came from separate groups, so that there's still pokemon there to watch," Anu replied, holding up a paw in the air. "I'll be sending her and Essra back after we get to town though."

    Haru hummed in response and said nothing more, instead dedicating her energy to keeping pace with the longer-legged pokemon as they made their way back to the village.

    ***​

    "Alright dear, you're free to go, but I want you to relax and do nothing strenuous for the rest of today. And tomorrow, if you can help it. Understand?"

    Haru bowed her head slightly in response to the aromatisse, holding in a frustrated sigh. "I understand Lecha, thank you."

    By the time Haru returned to town, Lecha was nearly done treating Toshi, his fur damp from being washed of blood, the wounds treated with berry pulp and bandaged, and his back-left leg carefully held in place with a splint. He drifted in and out of sleep while Lecha worked on Haru, planning to stay the night to keep his wounds tended to. Haru silently thanked the fact that Lecha had sent Twi home, making her treatment quiet and far less stressful.

    Once Lecha was finished with her, Haru left a few coins in front of the straw bed she'd been treated in, said her goodbyes to Toshi and her thanks to Lecha, and lumbered out of the clinic. She made her way towards the center of the town square, where most of the villagers had gathered.

    It seemed that she had arrived at just the right time, as Jhorlo was just beginning to speak as she pushed her way towards the front. He and his two purrloin guards stood in the center of the crowd, the mawile standing a few feet away. Shimmer, Muse, Anu and Whisper all stood in the center as well, though off to the side. Muse and the purrloin stood at attention, while the others were relaxed.

    "So, mawile," Jhorlo began, speaking loud enough for the audience to hear. "You attacked a group of pokemon from this village in Sunglow Thicket, or so I heard. Care to explain yourself?"

    "It is simple, really," the mawile responded, turning her head to address Jhorlo directly, though with enough volume to also address the crowd. "I was hunting for a sneasel, and they got in my way."

    The purugly let out a puff of air, turning his back on the mawile for a moment. "My daughter tells me that you refused to explain the situation, and that they felt they could not allow you to continue without at least that much. So why not explain now? Start with your name, if you please."

    She brought a hand up and over one eye, a frustrated sneer working its way onto her face. "You are wasting your time as much as you are wasting my own and giving that piece of dung a chance to escape!" When no one moved, her face scrunched up in anger for a moment, before she forced herself to relax. She brushed her fingers along her damaged earlobe before dropping her hand back to her side.

    "Fine. My name is Umbra. It is my understanding that your… 'village' had trouble with Nip. I do not know how many lies he may have weaved, but he and I come from the same tribe. I was sent after him to bring judgement upon him for crimes against our kin."

    The crowd around Haru broke into hushed whispers.

    "Crimes?"

    "What could one sneasel have done?"

    "Don't underestimate him, look what he did to us!"

    "Quiet, quiet all of you, please!" Jhorlo raised his voice. When even that could not settle the crowd, he yowled even louder, loud enough that some pokemon covered their sensitive ears. Only then did the chatter die down. He turned his attention back to Umbra. "Please, continue."

    The mawile raised her hands in front of her, closing her eyes. "That is all there is to it, really."

    "If you'll excuse me speaking out of line, I think we have a right to know what crime he caused," Jaques, one of Jhorlo's purrloin guards, said. "There is a big difference between petty theft or juvenile delinquency and, say, murder or stealing an egg from the nursery."

    Umbra opened one eye, peeking at the purrloin. "Your tone suggests to me that something of that sort happened here. Am I correct?"

    "Indeed, you are," Jhorlo said. He sat down and raised one paw. "This sneasel was found injured in the forest a few days ago. We nursed him back to health, you see. Last night he broke into the nursery and stole one of the eggs before taking off and fleeing into Sunglow Thicket. We have several pokemon guarding every known exit path of the dungeon, to catch him when he attempts to leave."

    "Including the entrance?"

    The purugly sat his paw back down. "Well…"

    Haru held back a snide remark, silently thinking back on how she’d asked something similar, only to be shot down.

    "I see. Very well, considering the situation, I believe it fair to tell you what happened in our tribe. You see…" She paused, lowering her head slightly. "Almost two moons ago now, Nip left the tribe in a fit of anger. That in of itself is not a crime, even if it would have been frowned upon. However… before he left, he… he attacked our nursery, destroying several eggs in the process."

    Alarmed voices broke out in the crowd.

    "He did what?!"

    "How could he do that?"

    "Only a monster would attack defenseless eggs."

    "How could we have ever let him into our village?"

    "I do not pretend to know his exact reasons," Umbra said, raising her voice over the ruckus. "We were fortunate that our nursery was well-fortified, or else we would have lost even more. However, none of that matters in the end. What matters is that he did it, and that my attempt to catch him in the dungeon was foiled." She shot a pointed glare in the direction of Shimmer and Muse.

    "Hey now!" Haru called out, ignoring the stares she drew to herself with the outburst. "That was a fight that could have been avoided if you had just explained things in the first place. For all we knew, you were there to help him escape!"

    Umbra visibly recoiled at the accusation. "You really think I would conspire with that… that… monster? What do you take me for?"

    "How are we supposed to know that? You wouldn't tell us anything!"

    "I have told you now. And now that I have explained the situation, I need to be on my way before he sneaks his way out of the dungeon."

    Jhorlo looked the mawile over for a moment. "Very well. I think we are mostly in agreement.” He paused, looking to several faces within the crowd. “You may leave on the stipulations that you do not attack any of our village pokemon again, and that once your business is finished you leave this area and do not return. I do believe that is fair, I think.” A few murmurs passed, but no one contested him.

    "Very well, I believe I can abide by those rules." She turned and made a motion to leave, but Muse stepped in front of her, bowing her head slightly.

    "With all due respect, Miss Umbra, may I offer a suggestion?" the absol asked.

    The mawile narrowed her eyes. "Make it quick."

    "If you would give us just a night's time to prepare, I am sure the pokemon of our village would be more than happy to help track down Nip. We have reasons to bring him to justice, too. And while we're preparing, we have the town guard, as well as other volunteer pokemon watching all the ways out of the dungeon."

    “Except the entrance, apparently.”

    “I can fix that,” Jhorlo announced. “I’ll have word sent to the guarding pokemon to spread out.”

    Umbra blinked once. "Why should I agree to this?"

    "There is power in numbers. And besides that, the dungeon is constantly shifting. By sending in multiple teams, we could check multiple zones at once and have a better chance of flushing him out, if nothing else. Sunglow Thicket is not a deep dungeon either, so there's no concern of stretching our numbers too thin."

    She paused for a moment, turning her head towards Jhorlo. "Apologies for speaking out of line, sir. But I wanted to get the idea out in the open for everyone to consider while I had a chance."

    "Oh no, you are quite fine, Muse," the purugly said. "I think it's a splendid idea. However, we should really be asking dear Anu and Whisper, since they're the ones leading this operation, you know."

    Anu stepped forward. "I am… hesitant. To send so many pokemon into a dungeon at once… However, it is likely our best bet."

    Whisper spoke up next, raising a wing up as she addressed the crowd. "I don’t like waiting… but you make a fair point. By the time we would be ready to mobilize, it would already be dark. Tomorrow, we can split up everyone into teams of three or four. I'll have three sets of two monitoring the exits. Other than that… the number of teams will depend on how many are willing to go."

    The hawlucha paused, bringing one set of claws up to her beak. "That said… based on what we know of the dungeon’s patterns, if he has not left by morning, he would have to be hiding out in the dungeon's stable zone. I still think it would be best if we stagger each teams entrance by a short period of time, and have each team do a quick sweep of every zone before moving on.

    "That will be all, anyone who is interested in volunteering should see me as soon as this meeting is over."

    The purugly let out a contented purr. "Very good. That will be all, I believe. You are all dismissed. Spread the word to anyone who may have missed the meeting. And Umbra, I would like a word, if you will?"

    The crowd began to disburse in small groups, most of them making their way over to Whisper. Haru began to turn and make her way back towards Lecha's to check on her brother again but stopped when she felt a paw brush lightly against her back. Muse stood just behind her, her expression unreadable, with Shimmer at her side.

    "Haru, I'd like to speak to you for a minute," Muse began, raising a paw before walking a few paces away, waiting for Haru and Shimmer to follow.

    The bidoof let out a sigh and followed. Whatever Muse wanted to talk about, she doubted she was going to like it.

    Their walk continued a little way further, until they were a good distance away from the crowd, coming to a stop under a shady tree. Muse laid down in the shade, gesturing for Haru to do the same. Shimmer took a seat next to Muse, leaning against her side.

    "Alright," Haru began, "what do you want now?"

    "I think Muse has some sort of plan in mind, don't you Musey, my friend?"

    "Indeed," the absol said with a bow of her head. "I brought up the idea of groups going in to look for Nip because… and please don't get mad about this… because I think we need to go back ourselves."

    Haru was up on her feet in an instant. "Are you crazy? Look what happened when we tried to do that today! I got hurt. Toshi got seriously injured. It'll take days for him to recover at best! You got hurt and you haven't even gone to get treatment! Obviously, none of us were up to handling a mystery dungeon. We should just leave it up to the pokemon that know what they're doing. Besides, they've got Umbra to help them. I'm sure she can take care of Nip without us."

    "Don't you find her story a bit… suspicious?" Muse asked.

    "I mean…" Haru trailed off, glancing back in the direction they'd come from. "I found it odd that she only told the story now, under scrutiny, if that's what you're talking about. But otherwise it all checks out. Her story even goes along with his actions here."

    Muse opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated, turning instead to look to Shimmer for support.

    " I'm with Muse here, Haru," the kirlia said, flipping her hair. "It's just too… odd to me. I'd like for us to go back and try and get Nip's side of the story, at least."

    Haru was baffled "Why do you care so much about his side of the story?" she huffed. "For gods sakes, he stole an egg from us Shimmer. He's probably killed Whisper and Anu's child by now. Think about it, use your head!"

    Muse closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. "We don't know that for sure. Yet. Admittedly, it probably is too late for the egg by now. But… we can always hold out hope."

    Haru turned her head to stare Muse dead in the eye. "And why are you taking Shimmer's side all of a sudden? This morning, you were suggesting it was a bad idea. You're supposed to be Shimmer's voice of reason! Besides, the main reason I even went along was because I wanted to keep an eye on Toshi. And look how that turned out!"

    "The encounter with Umbra was unfortunate, but not the norm," Muse pointed out, keeping her voice even. "Consider the fight with the fletchinder beforehand. She was in a whole different league than the normal pokemon that live in Sunglow Thicket. I think that with Umbra's appearance, the situation has changed. Besides..." She trailed off, dropping her gaze.

    Shimmer gave Muse a scrutinizing look before beginning to run her fingers through the absol's thick mane. "You had a premonition, didn't you?"

    "I… Yeah. Before the fight with Umbra. It's the first one I've had since… since before my parents died." Muse visibly sagged.

    The change in tone was just enough to make Haru's anger dissipate. "A… premonition? Now?" She hesitated, thinking back to the way Muse had been at attention while everyone else was relaxed when Umbra spoke. She had thought it was just her usual protectiveness of Shimmer, but perhaps there was a different explanation "Is that why you seemed so… on edge?"

    "It wasn't much," Muse admitted. "I don't really know what it means. I don't know why Umbra put me on edge, and yet Nip did not, despite him being the one to wrong us. Perhaps I just was not paying close enough attention. If I had, maybe… maybe I could have prevented something. I want to see if I can get Nip to tell us more before the whole of the village catches him."

    She turned her head to look at Shimmer, then back to Haru. "Tomorrow morning… I'm going back to Sunglow Thicket, whether you two come or not. I must apologize in advance, Shimmer, if this means abandoning my post."

    "Oh Musey, you know I'd never let you go alone!" Shimmer punctuated her statement with a giggle and brushed up to nuzzle the absol's cheek. Muse pulled away just slightly, caught off-guard by the sudden contact, before relaxing.

    “Why not just tell everyone? I’m sure they’d understand where you’re coming from,” Haru pointed out. “Or at least tell Jhorlo, or Anu and Whisper! They’re the ones that have a stake in this. The ones that should be handling the situation. Not us. Muse, we’re barely adults!”

    Muse dropped her gaze. “I didn’t think they’d listen.”

    Seeing the absols lack of confidence, Haru visibly deflated and finally gave the idea some thought. If it had just been a matter of catching Nip for glory's sake, or to show him mercy, she would have no problem just leaving the two to it. But this was different. Superstitious or not, she couldn’t risk not acting when Muse sensed disaster. "Fine, I'll help you. But only for the sake of the village.”

    Muse let out a relieved, breath. "Oh, thanks so much Haru, I really appreciate it. I-"

    Shimmer pat her hand against Muse's cheek, making a shushing noise. "It's time to be quiet, guys. Someone's coming."

    Haru turned to look behind her. The coast seemed clear at first, but then a group of pokemon rounded the corner. Jhorlo led the group, followed close behind by his purrloin guards. Just behind them was Umbra, her expression unreadable.

    "Ah, Shimmer, my dear daughter," the purugly began, bringing a paw up to rub behind his ear. "I'm so glad I found you. I've been talking with Umbra and wanted to let you know that I've offered her a guest room. She'll be staying with us until our resident egg thief is brought to justice. I wanted you and Muse to take her over, if you would."

    Shimmer shot a side-eyed glance over to Muse, but quickly shifted to a smile. If she was upset, she did not show it. "Oh, that sounds great, Dad!"

    She stood up, stretched, and gestured for Muse to do the same. "Sorry, Haru, we gotta go. I'll be sure to come see you and Toshi-kins in a bit, okay?"

    "Great…" the bidoof grumbled, before pepping up just a bit. "I should go check on him, speaking of, and fill him in on what happened at the meeting. Have a good evening, everyone."

    The purugly rumbled in amusement. "Tell your brother I wish him well, would you?"

    "Of. Of course." Before her mood could give away their plans, Haru turned and began to lumber off at a leisurely pace. Toshi… oh. He wouldn't be healthy enough to go along, leaving her with just Shimmer and Muse as traveling companions.

    “Gods, Haru, what have you gotten yourself into this time?”
     
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    Chapter 7
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    Please note: Chapter 4 was overhauled on 7/2/20. Due to those changes, there may be some inconsistencies in this chapter and onwards until I can get around to editing it.

    7: Scheming in the Evening

    “And so that’s the story we were given and what we plan to do about it. Crazy, right?”

    Toshi shook his whole body before stretching out in the straw bed, the action interrupted by a wince. “Wow, that’s… a lot’s happening, huh? You’re so lucky to get to go do something so important, even if it is with Shimmer.”

    Haru recoiled a bit and let out an exasperated sigh. Of course, Toshi would find excitement in something like this – chasing a criminal through a mystery dungeon - even after the nasty injury he had received in their first attempt. With that in mind, she tried to approach his statement with tact. “Toshi… I know it sounds cool to you and all, but it’s all so dangerous. I mean, look what happened to you, you could have gotten killed. I don’t like putting any trust in that mawile after what she did to you but… why should I bother helping Nip, after what he’s done here?”

    “Because it’s the right thing to do,” Toshi responded firmly. “If she went so far with us, how do you know she wouldn’t kill Nip - someone she apparently actively has a grudge against - on the spot? Justice has to be served, but it should be served fairly.”

    “I guess that’s a fair point…” Haru grumbled begrudgingly. Then she spoke up. “But even if she would go that far, I’m still not entirely convinced the danger is worth it. Especially when none of us are trained for a fight. Well, except for Muse.”

    “When I’m not sure what the right thing to do is, I sit back and think to myself ‘What would Expedition Head Blue do?’ And in this case, I think they would say that Nip’s side of the story deserves to be heard at least, even if it does end up being a big fat lie. I think most of the town guard would say the same. I think even Anu would say the same. Not sure about Whisper though, I know this must be particularly hard on her…”

    Haru grunted and scraped a paw across the wooden floorboards. “Ugh… I… Kind of hate that you’re right there, to be honest.” She paused for a moment. “To be fair… I guess I don’t really want to kill him either, not without giving him a chance to defend himself at least.

    “But!” she added quickly, stamping a foot on the ground for emphasis, “I also think Shimmer, Muse, and I going into the dungeon again is a poor idea. There’re enough town guards dealing with it. Pokemon that are actually trained to deal with troublemakers. I’ll go with them to keep an eye on them, and because I probably have the best chance getting Nip to come along quietly. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

    “If I wasn’t so beat up already, I’d go out there myself!” Toshi exclaimed, jumping back to his feet, only to whimper and sink back down into the straw. “I mean… it would be good practice. To be honest… I’ve been thinking about asking Anu or Vale to train me someday soon, to give me some practice so that I can get strong enough to join the Expedition Society or the Rescue Guild. Besides, every pokemon deserves at a second chance, even if it’s under close scrutiny.”

    Haru deflated slightly. “I know. I really do understand how you feel. You have a dream you want to chase, and this fits in with it. On the other hand, I just want to settle down and handle the family business, you know? Sure, fame and glory to put our name forward would be nice, but not at the risk of my life and everything Mom and Dad have been building up over the years. And all this mess keeps pulling me away from it. I feel like I’m having to do things for everyone else but myself, for someone I don’t even care about.”

    She stepped forward, leaning in to nuzzle against Toshi before continuing. “But… I guess you’re right. If I was able to end this without bloodshed and I don’t, and more pokemon end up getting hurt, I would feel pretty bad about it. I’ve already agreed, so I’ll do it this time. But you guys still owe me, big time.”

    The younger bidoof chuckled, nipping playfully at Haru’s ear. “Thanks sis, I’m sure you won’t regret this.”

    Haru pushed a paw up against his face and pushed him away, then circled back to settle in a nearby nest. “Now we just need to wait for Muse and Shimmer. They said they’d meet me here.”

    “No need to wait!”

    Haru groaned at the chipper voice. Of course, a quiet break was too much to ask for.

    Muse and Shimmer entered a few seconds later in usual form, with Shimmer sat atop Muse’s back.

    “Oh, Toshi, I was so worried about you!” The kirlia cried out, jumping down from Muse’s back to run over and give him a hug.

    “Ow ow ow! Shims stop, please!” Toshi paused and pawed against Shimmer, gently attempting to separate them. Fortunately, Shimmer was quick to let go and pull back, giving the bidoof room to breathe.

    “Sorry sweetheart, I was just so worried about you and glad to see that you were safe!”

    “Yeah,” he replied with an awkward laugh. “Thanks…”

    “Could we just-” Haru began, cutting off when she realized that no one was listening, Shimmer babbling on more nonsense about her love of Toshi instead, keeping everyone’s attention. She raised her voice. “Could we just please discuss the matter at hand?”

    That finally caught the kirlia’s attention. “I’m not sure what’s left to discuss? We have plenty of items leftover from today, other than the escape orb and a few oran berries that we had to use. But those are easily replaced.” She paused to brush some dust off her soft fur. “Well, the oran berries are at least. But it shouldn’t be a big deal, since we’ll be headed to the stable zone anyways. And besides, if we run into any trouble, there will be other pokemon out and about in the dungeon that can help us out!”

    “I’m not sure it’s… the best idea to rely on running across others,” Haru muttered. “But whatever.”

    “I hope I don’t hear my patients discussing running right back into the dungeon when they’re supposed to be resting.”

    Haru clamped her mouth shut as the aromatisse doctor entered the room, a shallow bowl in hand.

    “Oh no, of course not, Miss Lecha,” Shimmer said, waving her hand dismissively.

    “Hm…” Lecha stared down the kirlia for a moment, an awkward silence that seemed to stretch on forever. “Well, I suppose I should get a better look at you while you’re here, Muse. You left in such a hurry before I didn’t get a chance to examine you properly.”

    “Oh no, I’m fine,” Muse insisted. “I mean, my jaw is a little sore, but… it’s nothing serious.”

    “Nonsense. I can tell you’re exhausted; it’s written in the way you’re standing and in the clumps of missing fur. Stay right there. I’ll be with you in a moment.”

    Muse let out a sigh, slumping down into one of the nests, resigned to being checked on. “Well… While we’re waiting… I suppose we could discuss the fact that Umbra will be staying the night with us.”

    “Who?” Toshi asked.

    “The mawile.”

    Excuse me?” the bidoof squeaked, attempting to hop to his feet. The action was a poor choice, however, and he ended up sprawled out again, front legs trying to clutch his stomach in pain.

    “What did I say about sudden movements, dear?”

    Toshi whined before carefully settling himself back into the straw. “I know, I know ma’am. Sorry.”

    Lecha let out a satisfied huff and sat her bowl aside, turning her attention to Muse as she began to work through the absol’s thick fur, looking her over for wounds.

    “Anyways,” Muse said, suppressing a wince when Lecha brushed up against a nasty scrape, “taking her over to the villa was an… awkward situation, all things considered.”

    “I imagine so. Did she say anything on the way over?”

    Shimmer chimed in. “Not a word. Though I couldn’t tell if it was because she felt awkward about the situation, or if she was just being stubborn. Didn’t stop me from rambling on to her.”

    Lecha stood up straight, nudging the empty bowl in front of the absol, and walked off towards her shelves of berries and herbs.

    “I got the impression that it was both,” Muse said.

    “Sometimes I gotta wonder what’s going on in Dad’s head. Imagine if one day we found out he was involved in some cover up? How crazy would that be? My dad, in the middle of some huge conspiracy! Why-”

    “Now dear!” Lecha interrupted, calling back to the main part of the room. “That’s no way to speak about your father. Jhorlo is a good mon. He’s done a lot to keep the village safe for the last several years, ever since...” She trailed off, continuing in a quieter voice. “Well… since your mother died.”`

    “I know, I know,” the kirlia replied, waving a hand dismissively. “You’re right, it wouldn’t really be cool. It’s just interesting to think about how everyone’s lives could be different, you know? For example, imagine if Toshi wasn’t so shy; we’d already be mates!”

    Haru snorted. “Ha! As if. If Toshi wasn’t so shy, he’d have told you off more explicitly by now.”

    “That’s what you think!” Shimmer responded in a singsong voice. “You should let your brother speak for himself. Right, Toshi-kins?”

    The younger bidoof sank embarrassedly deeper into his nest. “Hah hah… yeah... Sure…”

    A moment of awkward silence followed, interrupted only when Lecha returned with a wet cloth and a sitrus berry.

    “Here,” she said, placing the berry in the bowl. “Fortunately, none of your wounds are deep. I’m going to clean them out and then you can be on your way. The sitrus berry will help with the pain and speed up recovery. Keep them clean and eat an oran berry tomorrow morning, and you should be back to normal within the next two to three days.”

    “Oh, good.” Muse paused to stifle a yawn. “I should be able to sleep well then.”

    The absol dipped her head down to scoop up and chew on the berry as silence fell on the group once more. Toshi was the one to break the silence this time.

    “By the way Shimmer,” he asked, shifting slightly. “How did you get help so fast?”

    “Oh, I improvised. That whole thing was improvising. First off, I meant to use the totter orb so we could throw her off and keep going, but I accidently grabbed the escape orb instead. So when we ended up outside, I just searched for the nearest psychic connection and told them to send help. Oh, and I said to send fire and fighting types too.”

    Muse let out a tired chuckle and closed her eyes, lowering her head to the ground. “You didn’t say it like that though, did you?”

    “Oh of course not,” Shimmer agreed. “It was more like, ‘Oh Essra, dear, is that you? My Toshi-kins got himself really hurt and a mean pokemon is threatening us. Would you send help really quick? Oh and maybe send along the nearest fire or fighting time too, that seems like a good idea. Thanks!’ It worked like a charm, don’t you think?”

    “Well enough,” Haru said, getting up to stretch. “I suppose I should head home. It’s getting dark, and we’re going to have to get up early to...” she trailed off, mindful of Lecha still being around. “Well, I’m going to have to get up early to catch up on work. I’ll see you guys later. Toshi, you staying here?”

    “Mmm, guess so,” the other bidoof said, closing his eyes. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, ‘kay?”

    “Don’t worry Toshi-kins. Everything’s going to turn out alright, and things will go back to normal soon.”

    “That’s right,” Haru said firmly, before adding under her breath, “I hope.”

    *​

    Despite his exhaustion, Nip had forced himself to keep moving throughout the night. Or at least, he suspected it was night, though he could not be certain how much time had actually passed from within the mystery dungeon. It could have been an hour, it could have been five. Fear that the dungeon would shift and sweep him out kept him moving. Fear of being followed, of being caught and hauled back, kept him looking over his shoulder. Only once he made it through the second shift and into the dungeon’s third division did he allow himself to rest for a moment.

    There, he was able to turn his attention to the egg. There, as he took a moment to rest, guilt finally had a chance to gnaw its way into his belly.

    Two ideas warred within his mind. One was of hunger. The innate need to eat to survive. Even if stealing an egg from his saviors was cruel, the ends justified the means. His mouth watered imagining his claws cracking the egg open, lapping up the golden ambrosia that leaked out.

    The other thought that held him back was reason and moral consciousness. If he were to be caught, he reasoned, he would have a better chance of surviving the encounter if the egg were still intact. In hindsight, he could have just stolen meat from the mandibuzz and cubone; he would have had enough time, even factoring in the longer walk there, and if they had caught him, he would have had the advantage against both of them. And would it not be cruel to kill a child that had a much better chance at a good life than any of those from his homelands? Even if some of the rules of the village seemed senseless, it still seemed like a better life than what he had been offered, for the most part.

    And yet, why did it matter? Another part of him pointed out. So long as he was not caught, he would never see any of these pokemon again. Why should he care about their feelings? Once he gave them the slip, he could continue south until he found the ocean, follow it around a good distance until he was certain he was untraceable, and then settle down somewhere for a quiet, solitary life where no village could tell him that his way of life was evil, and no tribe could set up arbitrary rules that locked him in misery.

    There was one ultimate question, however, that left him more conflicted than any other.

    Did eating an egg stolen from people that saved him out of the goodness of their heart make him a monster? If it did, could he live with that?



    By the time he reached the fourth division, all that remained was a lingering sense of guilt, and littered pieces of shell that would be swept away by the dungeon winds.

    *​

    The end of every dungeon is different. Every dungeon Nip knew of hosted a stable area at the end, a single area the dungeon winds would never touch. Legends in his tribe spoke of dungeons far away, where pokemon like Yveltal hid themselves away, watching the world move around them. Other legends spoke of treasures and artifacts that kept the world in balance. Sometimes those two legends intersected.

    But most dungeons were nothing like that. Most dungeons were much more ordinary, like this one. The dungeon had led him to a large, open field of tall grass that came almost up to his neck, void of undergrowth but filled with a low, thin mist that obscured the distance. Trees were sparse here, ancient oaks occasionally sticking up out of the fog like twisted sentinels.

    Though the land was mostly flat, it occasionally dipped into a crater that had long grown over with grass. As Nip carefully tread through the tall grass, taking great care to be certain he was not accidently stumbling into one of the steeper dips, he found himself wondering what ancient battle had left scars like these on the land. Were these truly a result of the time and space gods? The fact that a mystery dungeon brought him to it would suggest so. Yet he always found himself wondering how many details had been lost to time. Had other pokemon fought alongside Dialga and Palkia? Were they other legends? Or ordinary pokemon like him?

    He shook his head to clear the thought away, nervously combing his claws through his ear feather. Now was no time to be thinking about that. He instead should be focusing on more important, relevant things. Like figuring out if he was being followed.

    Could the village pokemon be laying outside in wait for him? Or had they pursued him into the dungeon? Or both, even, sending pokemon to flush him out and lead him right into an ambush? He had heard hide nor hair of pursuers since he’d entered, though he had no clue how much time had passed since his ill-planned escape. Still, the tall grass, mist, and still air of the stable division would provide him cover, so long as he stayed still, quiet, and low to the ground. With that in mind, he listened carefully as he advanced towards the center, occasionally sniffing at the air.

    Several minutes passed in near silence, only the muffled sounds of him shifting through the tall grass reaching his ears. Nip could not help but wonder if any pokemon lived in this stable zone. He had seen pokemon living throughout the dungeon, some of them attacking him. And his few excursions into mystery dungeons in the past had usually ended in populated stable pockets. Yet here? It seemed like nothing. So far at least. Perhaps there were some spaced out amongst the grass, and the fog was muffling the sound of their movements.

    As he neared what he suspected was the center, he found himself in a ring of shorter grass. At the center of the ring was the biggest crater he’d seen yet. This one, however, had long ago filled with water, creating a moderate sized pond in the center. A lone, ancient tree stood at the water’s edge, parts of its roots exposed by erosion.

    Nip glanced at the sky and across the water before cautiously inching his way towards the shore. No, no one seemed to be nearby at the moment. How fortunate, that he had found a water source. So long as he could also find food, he would be able to sustain himself down here for a while and hide until things died down.

    Satisfied that he was safe for the moment, at least, he finally approached the water’s edge, peering down into the murky depths. Unfortunately, it was not the clearest, most clean water he’d ever seen, but it seemed drinkable enough, and it would sustain him for now.

    He crouched down by the water’s edge and lean forward to lap up a few mouthfuls. Unsurprisingly, it had a slight taste of dirt. He scrunched up his nose but powered through it.

    And yet, there was something that sat him on edge. Something that felt like a little sting in the back of his head. He paused, going still as he stared out into the water. Though the water was murky and limited his vision, he could still see the ripples in the water, could still see the shadow swimming towards him.

    He scrambled back from the water’s edge just in time to avoid the snapping fangs that shot up where he had been just seconds prior. The pokemon sank back into the water, staying just enough above water level to be able to peer out and get a good look at Nip. He did much similar, edging closer to where land met water, watching cautiously.

    The aquatic pokemon was surprisingly vibrant in color. A gaudy pink made up most of their scales, but some were of blue and yellow and purple.

    “Ah, a dark type, that explains much,” the bruxish mumbled to herself. Then she spoke louder to address Nip. “A clever one you are, pulling back in just the nick of time. Tell me, what brings you to Storyteller Bruxi’s pond?”

    Nip gave the bruxish a skeptical, distrusting look. “Storyteller… Bruxi?”

    The bruxish scoffed. “Yes dear, that is my title. Bruxi. Storyteller and lore seeker of Sunglow Thicket. I also try my fins at offering psychic advice from time to time. You may relax, by the way. I don’t try to eat pokemon twice. Besides, you look much too tough to eat.”

    Nip wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or offended by that. Slowly, he managed to relax, his fur flattening out as he stood all the way up.

    “There, that’s better, isn’t it? Come closer. It’s been a while since anyone new came to visit me. How has the world been outside of these waters?”

    “Uhh…” The sneasel hesitated, rubbing his claws together. “Fine, I guess? Er… if you don’t mind me asking, how did you get down here, in that pond?” He glanced up, squinting in an attempt to make out the shore on the other side. “There doesn’t exactly seem to be a water source. And I don’t know that it rains inside dungeons. Without something like a rain dance, of course.”

    “Trying to figure out the logic of a mystery dungeon? Hah! You are a funny one. Yes. You simply must tell me your name.”

    “Nip.”

    “Well, Nip, if you really must know, there are diglet tunnels that flooded a very long time ago, that used to connect to the world outside the dungeon before they caved in. Before they caved in, I swam in here as a wee little bruxish and decided to stay for a while, but then I grew too big! Or perhaps I was dropped into the dungeon when a staraptor tried to make off with me as their meal. Which of these stories is true? Does it really matter?”

    Nip averted his gaze, hiding his frustration with the coy answer. “I suppose not, in the end. I do not plan to stay for very long anyways, so why bother?”

    “I suspected as much,” Bruxi said, her tone lofty and nonchalant as she swam just a bit closer to shore. “Only a small group of pokemon live here permanently. And most of those travel out into the rest of the dungeon to gather supplies or prey on forest mon that were foolish enough to wander inside. Perhaps you have noticed, but this dungeon – the stable zone in particular - is quite lacking in food. A few berry bushes grow here and there in this zone. And a fruit tree or two. But carnivores like you or I are far less common. This dungeon will not sustain you for long.

    “Besides,” she added with a wry, toothy grin, “I suspect there’s more to you being here than just passing through, isn’t there?”

    At once, Nip’s mood shifted from cautious to angry and apprehensive. His ear twitched and he visibly tensed, looking the bruxish over cautiously as he shifted into a defensive pose. “What is that supposed to mean? Are you working with the village pokemon? Are you just trying to stall me? Answer me!”

    Bruxi laughed, sinking lower into the water, bubbles escaping as she continued to laugh even as submerged, throwing off Nip’s defensive posture. She returned to the surface a moment later though. “Oh, good gods, no! You won’t find many down here that think fondly of that lot. They’re quite cowardly, most village mon. Only traveling into the dungeon if they absolutely have to, looking down upon the wilderner way of life, taking our possessions if we protect our territory. If you’re avoiding village pokemon, for better or for worse you’ll find a mon or two here that will defend you from them.

    “Bruxi! Bruxi!”

    The two pokemon whipped around at the high-pitched chirp sounded in the distance, still clear enough to hear, even in the fog.

    “Case in point. Why not take a moment to listen to what dear Blais has to say?”

    The call of the bruxish’s name sounded twice more before the pokemon arrived at the pond. There were three of them, all looking worse for wear. A fletchinder swooped down first, nearly losing his balance when he landed. A few feathers were bent here and there, and a few scrapes left behind dried blood. And he was absolutely filthy, dirt and dust and even a twig sticking to their feathers. Two fletchling landed shortly after the fletchinder, looking no better. The worse looking of the two fletchling leaned against the other, standing on only one leg. Its other leg hung at an awkward angle. Once they caught sight of the sneasel, they both took to the air again with shrill, panicked tweets.

    The fletchinder got one look at Nip and squawked in alarm. “You- You’re the sneasel they were looking for! What are you doing here?!”

    “Calm down, Blais,” Bruxi said in a calming voice. “The sneasel will not harm you. Please, tell us what happened. Start from the beginning, if you will.”

    You don’t know that, Nip thought to himself, though he relaxed his posture enough to appear non-threatening. A moment later, when no more sounds came from him, the two fletchling returned, landing just behind Blais, and huddled together behind him anxiously.

    Blais looked to Bruxi, then to Nip, and took a few seconds to preen anxiously. “W-well… We found one of those neat orbs recently, when we were out looking for supplies. We found a gust trap and placed it there to protect it from being stolen until we could come back for it, and then left to search for more supplies in that zone.”

    “Why not just take it with you?” Nip questioned.

    “I had to make sure we could carry any more important stuff back,” the fletchinder countered. The two fletchling behind him bobbed their heads in agreement. “Regardless of that, we’d only gotten halfway to the next field when we heard the trap go off. We raced back as fast as our wings would carry us and saw a bunch of those town pokes there, trying to take it from us! They said they were looking for a sneasel. We tried to fight them off, but there were too many of them. They knocked us all out, and when we came to, they’d already left, and they took the orb with them! I wanted that orb! It would have looked beautiful in my tree!”

    The bruxish hummed in thought. “The only one that’s come through today is the sneasel here. What pokemon were they, if you don’t mind me asking?”

    “There were two bidoof, a kirlia and one of those, umm…” Blais hesitated, trying to think of what the last one might be, making a curved motion in the air with his beak. “Four legs. They had a horn like that.”

    “An absol?” Nip suggested, a pit forming in his stomach.

    “Yeah, that’s the one!” one of the fletchlings chirped out.

    Nip’s throat felt dry. Not a mawile – not Umbra, and not just any village pokemon, but instead those four were pursuing him. Possibly among many others, for all he knew. Umbra could be in the dungeon as well, for that matter. At best, he could hope they might slow each other down.

    “What did you do to make them mad enough to chase ya in here anyways?” Blais asked in an accusatory tone, experimentally flapping his wings before wincing. “Steal an egg or something?”

    Nip visibly tensed at the accusation, an action that did not go unnoticed by the fletchinder. Blais squawked indignantly. “You totally did, didn’t you! Why I oughta chase you back out of this dungeon myself!” To punctuate his words, Blais spread out his wings in an attempt to appear more intimidating, a small gout of fire escaping the side of his beak as he squawked.

    In response, Nip crouched, a low growl sounding from the back of his throat. But before either of the combative pokemon could jump the other, they each received a spurt of water to the face.

    “I will not have fighting at my pond,” Bruxi said, her words coming out firm and dangerous. “Sneasel, you would do well to explain yourself, at least. Pokemon do not take well to egg theft around here, perhaps even less so than hunting.”

    “It’s not like I go out of my way to poach eggs,” Nip grumbled, shaking water from his fur. “In fact, I much prefer the taste of most meat over eggs. I just… was in a tight spot and thought it was the best solution, alright?”

    The fletchinder turned his back, though he did turn his head to keep one eye on the sneasel. “And why should I trust you now?”

    Nip closed his eyes and turned away slightly. “You have no real reason to. But in all honesty, it really did seem like the best solution… at the time.”

    “Whatever.” Blais’ remark was punctuated by a couple flaps of his wings. “I’m going to go get some oran berries out of the stash. And maybe see if old Chimes is around and can do something about Fleet’s leg.”

    He turned his head to stare Nip down with a glare that could penetrate the soul. “Don’t expect me to stick out my neck when they come looking for you. If they hadn’t already wronged me, I’d sell you out for a single oran berry.”

    Bruxi watched as the flying type took to the air, kicking up dust as he took off. Then she turned her attention back to Nip. “You’ll have to excuse him. He has a lot on his mind, taking care of his younger siblings.”

    “Really? Those two were his siblings?”

    “Mhmm? His parents are… well, not around anymore. Why, does this surprise you?”

    “Things are different back where I come from. There, we don’t…” Nip trailed off, his ear flicking. “Well, it probably does not matter to you. I plan to rest here, perhaps find something to eat, and then I will be on my way.”

    “Mmm, running away from your problems, yes?”

    “I’m not-” Nip started, but the bruxish cut him off with a spritz of water that barely missed his face.

    “Oh, hush darling, it’s written all over your face. I may not be able to read the mind of a dark type like you, but I know a troubled soul when I see one.”

    Nip had nothing to say to that. So, he clamped his mouth shut and instead focused on wiping as much water out of his fur as possible.

    When he failed to speak up, the bruxish turned away, swimming back a little way into the water. “You may rest here if you would like, but if you wish to eat you will either have to stick to plants, or else leave. The stable zone has a bit of a truce, of sorts. No one will bother you here, but if you try to hunt any of the pokemon here, they’ll turn on you in an instant. The rest of the dungeon is fair game though, and everyone knows it.”

    “You tried to attack me at first though,” he pointed out, eliciting a chuckle from the water type.

    “Oh, fair enough, but can you really blame me? I’m confined to this pond. Surely, I have to find food somehow, or else rely on the good will of others.” She paused, humming in thought. “It’s the price we pay to live free of the rules of villages and towns.”

    With barely a splash, the bruxish disappeared back into the murky pond waters, leaving Nip alone with his thoughts.

    He decided to claw his way up into the tree nearest the pond, claws digging into the bark as he scrambled up. From here, he was at least partially shrouded from view by leaves, and could get a better look out over the fields of grass. Although the fog still limited his vision, he could at least see further than before. Silently, he thanked Yveltal that his feathers were more of a mint-green, instead of the more common red variant; it kept him from sticking out like a sore paw.

    Here and there, he caught sight of movement now that he could see further out. A rattata running here, a bounsweet bouncing there, an ursaring flattening the grass as they lumbered through, a poochyenna playfully pounced after a butterfree in the distance. Bruxi’s parting explanation rang in his ears as he watched. Though all these pokemon were safe here, leaving for food meant risking their life. A pokemon that was a friend here could be an enemy if they crossed paths elsewhere.

    What a terribly lonely way to live, he thought.

    And yet, had he not given everything up for this? When he had left hom- when he had left his tribe in a fit of anger, he knew what he was getting into. He knew he was leaving the protection of many for a life alone, on the road, fending for no one but himself, but also with no one to stand up for him.

    He always considered himself a loner; he never expected that he would actually miss the companionship of pokemon - or at least some pokemon - that cared.

    When Nip finally drifted to sleep, he dreamt of a barren cliff of dry grass and dust, an ocean soaked crimson by the setting sun, and the ebony silhouette of a flying pokemon soaring across the dimming sky as stars began to twinkle.

    *​

    If Umbra could describe Theran Village in one word, it would be “strange.” There were a lot of things in the sleepy community that she found odd and unusual.

    She found it strange, first of all, that a bidoof and an absol would work together, fighting in one unit. Or even live in the same community, for that matter. The psychic type - kirlia, she thinks she called herself - the kirlia’s place in the food chain was harder to place, but she suspected the companionship between a kirlia and an absol would be strange too. Psychic types were relatively uncommon in her region, so her lack of familiarity was understandable, at least.

    On that note, their whole community was strange. She could not think of one tribe in which herbivores and carnivores lived in harmony with each other - or even any large groups of herbivores that banded together for that matter.

    Even the way they made their dens was strange. Instead of carefully dug out and compacted earthen tunnels or painstakingly carved caves, they built their own of stone and felled wood, with no brush and undergrowth to protect and hide the entrances, leaving their homes exposed.

    No wonder Nip had such an easy time wreaking havoc.

    The mawile stretched out in the straw bed with a yawn, situating herself on her belly, digging deeper into the herbage. She couldn’t be certain that all beds were like this, but even this was odd. She thought back to her own bed back at home. Sure, straw and twigs and reeds built up a base, but it was also carefully lined with fur and feathers to keep out the cold.

    She would love to be back there, instead of halfway across the land chasing after a pokemon as ungrateful as nip.

    But as she closed her eyes and tried to put that… that… scavenging… egg stealing… cretin out of mind, a soft scratching at the - oh what did the kirlia call it, a door? There was a scratching at the door that caught her attention and made her spring to her feet.

    “Who’s there?” she called out, voice on edge.

    “Please come out,” a voice mewed from the other side. “Mister Jhorlo would like to see you.”

    At the name of the leader of sorts around here, she relaxed, if only slightly. She took a second to brush out any stray bits of hay that might have clung to her fur, then approached the door. She pushed the wooden latch that kept it shut up, then cautiously pushed the door open.

    Two purrloin stood outside, one on each side of the door, waiting for her to exit. She edged her way out, carefully looking both ways to be certain it was not a trap. Once she was certain though, she stepped all the way out so that she was between the two of them.

    The two turned in unison, the one to her right raising a front paw. “Follow me, please,” he said, voice firm. “Jhorlo’s room is this way.”

    The lead purrloin guided her down the wood and stone den’s tunnels, and up an incline to the second level. They passed by an opening along the way, wooden boards bound together to create a place to overlook the sleepy village buildings below. And then they were back into the dim tunnels, rounding a corner until the moonlight was out of sight, coming to a stop in front of another door.

    The lead purrloin sat down on one side, bowing his head. “We have arrived.”

    The second one sat on the other side of the door and motioned in the same way. “Mister Jhorlo is waiting inside for you.”

    Umbra could not help but hesitate in the doorway, her training and caution coming back to her. Here she was, without ally in unfamiliar territory. For all she knew, she was walking into an ambush.

    Relax, she chided herself. No one here has been particularly strong. As if they could defeat me. She elected to ignore the fact that she’d avoided fighting the lucario and rapidash earlier. After all, their appearance brought the fight from four against one to seven, and even she had to hesitate at those odds.

    Now resolved, she took a confident stride through the doorway.

    Th room was much more lavishly decorated than the nice, though sparse, room she had been placed in. An opening in the back of the room allowed moonlight to filter in, lighting the room partway. For those dark corners the light did not reach, luminous moss had been placed in jars, giving the majority of the room a dim, blue-green hue. The walls had been painted a deep purple, with an occasional painted design breaking up the monotony.

    To her left, a wooden block - or perhaps a chest - rested against the wall, several old-looking trinkets neatly lined up on top. At the center of the room was a low-rising wooden platform, the top carefully sanded and glazed down into a smooth surface. Atop the table was a candle, a bowl filled with water, a well of some sort of ink or dye, and some type of parchment. On the floor on her side of the platform was a plush object made of fabric that reminded her of spinnerak silk. And on the other side sat Jhorlo, grooming down the fur along his shoulder.

    “Ah, there you are,” he began, looking up towards her. “Please, come stand across from me at the table. Or if you prefer to sit, feel free to do so on the pillow.”

    Umbra wordlessly followed the instruction, hesitating and brushing her fur before taking a seat on the plush object she suspected he was referring to. Even then, though, she stayed attentive, listening for the first thing that might sound off.

    If Jhorlo noticed her discomfort, he said nothing of it. He leaned forward to lap up a couple mouthfuls of water while waiting, then sat up straight to address the mawile.

    “Ah, apologies, I did not think to have a cup of water brought in for you. I’ll have someone bring you some to your room after we talk, is that alright?”

    Only then did Umbra realize how parched she was, having not drank since before she’d entered the mystery dungeon that morning. But thirst would show weakness, so instead she responded, “that will be fine.”

    “Good, good. Then with that out of the way, how about we get down to business, yes?”

    Wanting to appear nonchalant, Umbra reached up to scratch behind her undamaged. “Oh, of course. Though I cannot imagine what sort of business you have with me?”

    “You’ll have to refresh my memory a bit, I don’t remember if you explained all of this already. My understanding of your story is that you’re here hunting down that no good sneasel, Nip, yes? Tell me, what do you plan to do once you catch him? Be honest, if you please.”

    Umbra let out a quiet hum. How much did she need to share? “Once I catch him, I must make sure he faces justice for what he did to our kin.”

    The purugly stared her down. And then he chuckled. “Hmm hmm hm… Quite the vague answer, you’ve given me there. But your sense of justice and the village’s may not align, you see.”

    When Umbra said nothing in response to that, he stood up and began to pace along the other side of the table. “It would do you better to answer me honestly, you know. I’m actually on your side, despite what you might think. Sometimes the village pokemon can be far too soft; the fact that you walked free after your little fight is proof of that, if my daughter and her friend’s side of the story can be believed. What if they just let him go with a slap on the wrist, as they did you? I can help you get to him before they do, so that you can enact your own justice, but only if you’ll be truthful.”

    Umbra remained quiet while listening to his speech, carefully considering his words. Only when it reached an end, and he stopped to look up at her expectantly, did she speak. “I suppose you may have a point. Very well. If you must know, I was told to try and drag him back to our tribe to face judgement. However, if that was impossible, I was given permission to kill him, so long as I bring back proof of his demise. We are nearly a moon’s journey from my tribe, if one were to head directly there. I think my decision is obvious.”

    Looks like I was correct then, I suspected as much.” The purugly sat back down, voice coming out silky smooth. “In that case, I do believe I can help you out. I’ll have Jaques and Lotte accompany you. Should you get there first, you should have the chance to enact your plans. There’s just… one little catch.”

    Umbra narrowed her eyes dangerously. “Explain.”

    “Oh, I don’t think it’ll be anything major,” he added quickly. “No problem at all. My only request is that you leave the body behind. I suspect you wouldn’t want to travel with a corpse, after all, and I’m sure poor Mandi could use more stock. It’s so hard to scavenge enough food for all the carnivores in town, you see.

    “Besides,” he added, his voice rumbling with a purr, “I’ve always wondered what sneasel tastes like.”

    “Excuse me?” Umbra growled, slowly rising to her feet. “Do you have any idea how disrespectful it would be to leave a tribemate to be scavenged? Yveltal’s code says that any pokemon that’s been a friend to you should be given proper burial.”

    Jhorlo scoffed. “Like I would just scatter his bones about. What kind of pokemon do you take me for? I don’t know anything about this ‘Yveltal,’ but if it really bothers you that much, I can promise that our scavengers will bury whatever’s left once they’re done, as they always do. But even if they didn’t, do you really think he deserves that, after what he did to the pokemon of your tribe? Or is there something more you’re hiding?”

    “Of course there’s not!” she snapped, her second set of jaws clamping tightly. It took her a moment to relax after the accusation. “No, everything I’ve said thus far is truthful. I… suppose you have a good point though.”

    For a second, she swore she saw a glint of light in the purugly’s eyes. He stepped closer to the table, placing his paw in the well of ink, then pressed it firmly to the paper. Even in the dim light, she could see the bright red pawprint it left behind. He then sat back down, placing one paw next to the well. “Well. Do we have a deal then?”

    She hesitated only a moment longer. What difference did it make to her what they did to Nip? Or rather – to his body, once she had enacted revenge for her tribe. Once she killed him, he’d be out of her - and her kin’s - fur. She could take his feathers as proof and wash her hands of this whole ordeal, returning to the home she loved.

    She placed her hand into the thick ink, then pressed her palm against the parchment, next to his print. “Well, Jhorlo, I think we’ve come to an agreement.”

    The purugly let out a pleased rumble. “I must thank you for your cooperation, Umbra. I’ll have Jaques and Lotte prepare to leave with you first thing in the morning, and get you outfitted with a bag to carry your belongings. Get some rest; you have a big chase ahead of you tomorrow, and you’ll need to hurry ahead of the rest of the villagers.”

    “Of course I will, Jhorlo. I won’t let this opportunity go to waste.”
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 8
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    @NebulaDreams
    'That half witted... scruffy looking... nerf herder...' There's something about that phrase that seems a tad tsundere. Also, I find it amusing that Umbra doesn't know what a door is.
    Heh, well, I'm sure we'll learn more about her tribe's way of life sooner or later. For now, suffice to say that doors aren't exactly a thing.

    Aside from that, there wasn't much significant progression in the 'Finding Nipo' plot, and was wondering what the heck he was doing all that time. However, safe to say that was answered with the next chapter.
    Yeah, I remember worrying about this chapter when I initially posted it, since I worried it slowed down the plot too much. Glad to hear it served its purpose though.

    It kind of occurred to me that Nip probably has a lot of things going on in his head he doesn't know how to process since most of his life has been about survival and his asceticism. Like the hunger for something else is there; he just doesn't realize it yet.
    You might just be on to something 8). I'm sure we'll learn more in the coming chapters.

    And now, on to this week's chapter!
    Chapter 8: Race to the Finish

    Haru found it difficult to sleep that night, her dreams plagued by nightmares of Shimmer, Muse and herself dying in increasingly terrible ways in their attempt to catch Nip. In one particularly nasty dream, she found herself ripped apart by an angry mawile, left alone to die as the other two fought desperately to keep themselves alive.

    In some ways, it felt like it took forever for the first light of dawn to arrive, and in others it felt like it rushed by in no time at all. But as light started to peek into her window, she forced herself to her feet, shook off the stray bits of straw that clung to her fur, and lumbered out of the house as quietly as possible, making sure to grab her bag along the way. She’d replenished the oran berries they’d used the night before, but otherwise their supplies were the same.

    Shimmer and Muse were already waiting for her as she stepped outside, the absol looking almost as tired as her, while Shimmer was wide awake and as bouncy as always.

    “Got everything?” the kirlia asked in a whisper.

    “I’m good to go,” Haru answered. “Remind me why we have to leave so early, though?”

    “Because we need to get there before everyone else, silly.” As she spoke, Shimmer took a moment to look through Muse’s saddle bags, making sure everything was in place. “Especially Umbra. You know she’ll be the first one in. She seemed like she was still asleep when Muse and I left, but I doubt she still is.”

    “Right, right,” Haru mumbled, thinking once again how she very much would like to be back in bed. Or really anywhere but here, getting ready to head into Sunglow Thicket again, for that matter. “I guess we should get going then. Are people going to ask questions if they see us leaving town, though?”

    “No one is going to question me,” Shimmer assured, with a giggle. “And if they do, I’ll just tell them it’s business for dad. That’ll shut them up.”

    Haru was not totally convinced, but she supposed it was as good of an excuse as any. With that, the trio headed down the path out of town in silence, watching the sun slowly rise into the sky in front of them. Haru swore she caught a glimpse of cream fur as they neared the edge of town. One little possible glimpse was more than enough to get her moving just a bit faster.

    The race to catch Nip was on.

    *​

    Despite the discussions of the previous day, the entrance to the dungeon was just as barren as it had been before, with not a single guard watching it yet.

    “I still think that was a huge oversight,” Haru muttered as they passed through the distorted space and took a moment to reorient themselves amongst the golden-leaved trees.

    “Maybe so,” Muse agreed. “Which is why we must hurry, and keep our eyes peeled for any signs of Nip. I don’t know how often the dungeon shifts, but it’s best we move quickly. He would have to be in the stable zone by now. If he’s still here.”

    Time seemed to move at a crawl as they made their way through the first three zones, working their way amongst the twisting paths and open clearings. They only met a single wildener along the way, an oddish that took one look at the trio of pokemon and ran off, thinking better of trying to start a fight on its own.

    The fourth zone was a bit less forgiving.

    “Don’t just stand there, run!” cried Haru as she barely rolled out of the way of an ursaring’s claws. She took off, skidding on leaves, spraying them into the air in her attempt to flee.

    “An ursaring? Here? Who knew we had so many scary pokemon living this close to the village!” Shimmer’s voice came out in a shriek as she shot pulses of fairy-type energy out in the direction of the ursaring, holding tight to Muse’s thick mane as the absol fled.

    “Don’t worry about attacking it!” Muse called, looping back towards Haru. “It’s not worth the fight and you’ll just make it angrier! Grab Haru and let’s go!”

    The kirlia finally quit shrieking at the top of her lungs, the waves of energy dying away. “Oh, fine,” she agreed, sifting her attention. She held one hand out, letting it glow with blue energy as she turned her attention to the fleeing bidoof.

    Haru cried out as she felt her limbs seize up. Yet her feet began to lift from the ground. She shifted her eyes towards Shimmer, as she flew, slowly catching up to the two. Once she was close enough, Shimmer lessened the connection, holding her as tightly as she could in her arms while providing extra support with the psychic.

    All three of them together now, Muse turned tail and ran, making a beeline for the nearest path out of the clearing. “Do we have any blast seeds?” She yelled back to Shimmer.

    “Even if we do, I can’t check and keep a grip on Haru!”

    “Turn me a bit, I might be able to reach!” Haru cut in. She felt shimmer twist a little bit, so that her paws could reach into Muse’s saddlebags.

    Muse grit her teeth. “I can’t stand around and wait. Hold tight, I’m gonna run as fast as I can!”

    Haru flinched as she heard a roar behind them, the Ursaring still pursuing with more speed than she expected out of the lumbering normal-type.

    The path in front of them slowly began to veer to the left, guiding them in an arc that seemed to lead back towards the clearing they had started from. Angry roars and crashing sounds drove Muse to push herself forward. They were slowly outrunning the beast, but they couldn’t be quick enough.

    “I’ve got something!” Haru announced, her agile little paws wrapping around a stick in Muse’s bag. She pulled out the wand, gripping it for dear life as she watched for the ursaring to appear around the corner behind them.

    Muse skidded to a stop as they reentered the clearing, sending up a spray of leaves. “Which way?” She called over her shoulder.

    “Try the path to the left!” Shimmer shouted, glancing back over her shoulder nervously, expecting the brutish beast to reappear any second. “The left!”

    The absol wasted no time speeding off, feet scrabbling in the leaf litter.

    The ursaring reappeared. Haru swung the wand wildly in a panic, a wave of yellow energy expelling from the orb at the end. She watched, holding her breath, as the wave hit the ursaring square in the chest. It let out an angry roar and tried to take another step, only freeze in place, twitching as it tried to fight the wand’s effects.

    “Told you the petrify wand would be useful!” Shimmer called as they disappeared down the path she’d chosen.

    Even with the ursaring petrified, Muse did not stop, running through the twists and turns aimlessly until Shimmer spotted the distortion leading to the next zone a few clearings later. The trio let out a sigh of relief as the noise of the previous zone died away, leaving them in silence outside of Muse’s heavy breathing. She flopped onto her side, panting, unceremoniously dropping her kirlia and bidoof passengers in the process.

    “Sorry guys,” she gasped between breaths. “I just need... A minute.”

    “Look on the bright side,” Haru tried weakly, wincing as she tried roll onto her belly. “We found the next zone faster.” She stood up slowly, stretching out the aches. “And we haven’t come across any of the others yet, so we’re probably still ahead.”

    “Unless someone else had the same idea that we did,” Muse pointed out, still breathless. She rolled back onto her stomach. “Then they could be ahead of us.”

    Shimmer took a moment to carefully dust herself off, then combed her fingers through her hair. “Good points, both of you. You’re both so clever! We gotta keep going then, to catch up or stay ahead, whichever it may be!”

    The absol hummed in agreement, slowly climbing to her feet, and addressed Shimmer. “Um… Sorry, do you mind walking for a bit? I’m kind of exhausted.”

    “Of course, of course,” Shimmer said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Save your strength and all that. We should be to the last zone soon enough and we need to be in tip-top shape for that. Everyone keep an eye out!”

    The crew sat off in an apprehensive silence, making their way through the forest of perpetual autumn with their goal in mind. No one dared speak, for fear of drawing unwanted attention when so close to their goal. If Nip got away because of them, not one of them would be able to forgive themselves.

    How long they spent in the fifth zone was unclear; certainly, they were there for more than a few minutes. But it could have been an hour for all they knew, with only the passage of twisting paths and thousands of fallen leaves to say they were making any progress at all.

    But after what felt like forever, the end was in sight. Shimmer was the first to spot the distorted break in the undergrowth, at least a half dozen clearings later.

    “Ready?” Muse asked.

    The three of them looked amongst themselves, determination set on their faces, and stepped into the distortion.

    Haru waited for the vertigo to pass as she stepped through the narrow path, then took a quick, cursory look around, only to discover that she had to stand on her hind legs to see anything over the thick, tall grass.

    Unfortunately, even then she could see little, for fog kept her from seeing much further.

    The trio huddled close together, looking cautiously about for any signs of life. Muse raised her head to sniff at the air, then tilted it downwards to sniff at the ground.

    “It’s faint, but I smell something… off. Something different from the scent of these woods. Nip, possibly. Stay close and on guard, I’m going to try and track it.”

    Muse began to walk, each paw step careful, stopping to sniff the ground every moment or so to make certain she was staying on the correct path. Haru walked just behind, following the absol’s path exactly, trying to sniff out the abnormalities in the scent of damp grass and dust. Shimmer brought up the rear, her eyes glowing a soft blue as she attempted to feel for anyone around them with her psychic abilities.

    Haru’s sense of smell was, unfortunately, dampened by fog in the air, moisture clinging to her fur. “I think I hate this dungeon,” she mumbled under her breath as she pushed further through the grass, only to almost bump up against Muse’s leg.

    The absol had come to a stop just ahead, staring down into a crater just a few feet away. The other two sidled up beside her.

    “Did he go down there?” Shimmer asked.

    Muse shook her body, flinging moisture and dust into the air. “No. The path veers to the left. I was just… thinking for a moment. Legends say that the mystery dungeons are the scars of the War of the Ancient Ones. It’s…. Kind of sad, to look at it in person, and see that even hundreds… thousands of years later, scars still remain on the land.”

    Haru stared down into the hole for a moment, looking at the grass that grew thick at the bottom. Then she let out a scoff and turned away. “Who cares about some ancient battle in the past. It happened so long ago, it doesn’t really matter anymore. We should be looking to the future instead. Or the present, at least. Come on, we’re wasting time.”

    Muse turned to look at the bidoof for a moment. “I would argue it still matters, since mystery dungeons still exist, but I can’t fault you for your feelings.” She turned back and peered down into the crater for a moment longer, then let out a hum of ascent and turned, sniffing at the air again. But instead of continuing to follow the trail, she froze.

    “Musey?”

    “I think they’re here,” the absol said in a sharp whisper. “She’s here.”

    Shimmer paused for a moment, eyes glowing as she probed for other minds. “I think you’re right. Come on, we’re out of time!”

    Muse pushed forward at once, nose low to the ground once again. Haru sniffed at the air for a moment, then took off at a run after the others. She fought the urge to jump at every noise, at every rustle of grass or cry of another pokemon, expecting to be ambushed at every turn.

    The path Muse lead them on was a winding one, twisting and turning deeper into the stable zone, avoiding each crater or hole they passed. Haru followed the trail just behind, confirming that the absol was on the right path. The next few minutes passed in a tense silence, coming closer and closer to the center.

    Then finally, they were free of the grass, the scent trail leading to a small pond in the middle, mixing and mingling with scents of the forest.

    “I’m getting a drink of water,” Shimmer mumbled. “Give me just a moment.” She stepped forward to the water’s edge, lapping up a few mouthfuls of the water, scrunching up her face a moment later. ‘Tastes like dirt.”

    Haru, on the other hand, had no interest in stopping, sniffing the trail even as it moved into mud. She followed it closely at the water’s edge, until it came to a sudden stop. She was so intent on the smell, however, that she didn’t notice the tree until she had knocked her head on it. She let out a yelp, falling back onto her butt so she could try to rub her head where she’d bonked.

    Muse and Shimmer joined her a moment later.

    “Is this where the trail ends?” Shimmer asked.

    “Seems like it,” Muse reported. “Though… its possible he masked his scent.”

    “How so?”

    “Swimming in the water, caking himself in mud or… other smelly things. Either of those are a possibility.”

    “Or he’s still up there,” Haru finished. “How are we gonna find out? You and I can’t climb, Muse, and I don’t know about Shims going up by herself.”

    “Aw you really do care about me, future sister in law!” Shimmer remarked with a squeal.

    “Don’t push it,” Haru said with a growl. “I mean, you can go if you want and I won’t stop you.”

    Shimmer waved a hand dismissively. “Whatever you say, Harhar. I have an even better idea. I’m going to yell at the tree.”

    “What?”

    “You heard me!”

    “Shims wait!”

    The kirlia took a deep breath, closing her eyes as she focused and chose her words. Then she cried out in a shrill, disarming voice, “Oh Niiiip! Won’t you please come down here? We just want to talk!” As she screamed, she let out pulses of energy, aiming at the branches above.

    The leaves swayed from the force of the pulse, but at first, it seemed like nothing had happened. But a second later, as Shimmer’s energy died away, Haru caught sight of a dark form hanging from one of the higher branches: a sneasel with mint-green feathers grumbling curses under his breath.

    “Hey, I see him! Up there!” Then she turned her attention to the fugitive. “Hey! Nip! We’re serious! Come down from there peacefully, and we won’t have to fight!

    “Yeah! If you come with us, we’ll take you back to the village before Umbra can get you!” Shimmer added.

    “She probably knows you’re here by now,” Muse added, “thanks to Shimmer’s yelling.”

    “Hey, no fair Musey, don’t pin it on me.”

    “Sorry.”

    The sneasel slung himself around, so that he was balanced safely on the branch. He peered down at the trio for a very long moment as they stared back up at him.

    And then he sucked in a deep breath and exhaled, blasting them from above with air so frigid that small shards of ice began to form, sending a chill through the trio. Then he jumped, landing several yards away on his feet, immediately taking off at a run.

    “Aw, looks like we’re doing this the hard way!” Shimmer called out. “Let’s go guys!” No sooner had she taken a step, however, a blast of water from behind knocked her off her feet. She turned her head just in time to see a pink tail disappear into the depths of the water.

    “Stupid water-type!” the kirlia cried. “What’s their problem? Oh, don’t just stand there, guys; don’t let him get away!”

    Muse took off first, following the parting grass. Haru bounded after them as quickly as she could, not waiting for Shimmer to scramble back to her feet.

    Nip had the advantage of speed, but Muse had the advantage of height and being able to see where she was going over the grass, cutting corners around pitfalls to slowly gain on the sneasel, who was running practically blind.

    Haru was less lucky, being even slower than the long-legged absol. All she had to guide her were chance glimpses of Muse’s pale fur between gaps in the grass.

    Shimmer caught up with her a moment later. “He’s really moving!” she reported. “But he keeps having to readjust himself to avoid the craters. Wait- they’re both stopping up ahead! I think they’ve run into someone!”

    Haru forced herself to move faster, guided by Shimmer towards where the two had stopped. A moment later, the two burst out into a small clearing barren of grass, perhaps twice as wide as Muse was across and three times long.

    A serviper stood blocking the way, hissing angrily. Nip stood behind it, glancing anxiously back towards Muse. And beyond him were two other pokemon: a tediursa and a steenee.

    “I don’t care what he’s done,” The serviper hissed angrily, apparently in the middle of an argument with Muse. “We do not. Break. The pact.”

    “We don’t care about your stupid wildener pact,” Shimmer announced, garnering a flinch from Muse. and a warning noise from Haru. “He did a crime. We’ll be taking him back to face that, if he wants to live.”

    “The stable zone is neutral territory,” the serviper shot back. Either respect that or - if you choose to attack - we will be forced to intervene.

    A tense stand down followed as the trio sized the enemy up. If they attacked, it would give Nip a chance to slink away. The tediursa seemed anxious, and unprepared for battle. The serviper and steenee on the other hand…

    Before they had a chance to decide, however a voice called out that chilled the trio of village pokemon to their core.

    “NIP!”

    The mawile appeared a moment later, took one quick cursory glance at the two frozen sides, then set her eyes on nip and launched herself at him.

    The sneasel sprang out of the way of the snapping jaws. Immediately the six other pokemon sprang into action, the clearing breaking out into the chaos and cacophony of fighting pokemon.

    The tediursa cried out in alarm and barely avoided getting hit by Umbra on the rebound.

    The steenee sprang up and shot razor-sharp leaves at the mawile.

    Muse charged towards the serviper, dark energy accumulating on her horn.

    Shimmer gasped out in alarm as she spotted familiar faces emerging from the grass.

    “Jaques? Lotte?”

    “Shimmer?”

    “Miss Shimmer?”

    Haru hung back, trying to catch sight of who was fighting who. She caught sight of grey and green slinking out of the cloud of kicked-up dust, getting ready to disappear back into the grass.

    She sprang out of the way of a whirl of claws and scales, barely avoiding the poisonous tip of the serviper’s tail.

    “Shims! No time to explain, look!” She raised a paw to point towards the slinking sneasel, who had nearly reached the grass.

    “Throw me! Quick!”

    Shimer stared at her long enough to blink once, then Haru’s plan clicked with her. “Got it, hold tight to your bag!”

    Haru winced as she felt psychic energy surround and lift her stiffly into the air.

    “I’ll catch up as quickly as possible. Good luck!”

    By now, more pokemon living in the stable zone were appearing, jumping into the fray with little notice of who was friend or foe, drawn by the sound of battle. Before she could make any more sense of the fight, though, she was flung through the air, flying directly towards Nip.

    She let out a battle cry as she fell, crashing into his back with all forty pounds of raw bidoof power and fury, sending him sprawling to the ground. She held tight for a moment, digging paws into his back as she tried to sink her teeth into his scruff. In response he screeched and scrambled and twisted beneath her.

    But she had underestimated how long his arms were. He twisted just enough to strike at her, raking one set of razor-sharp claws against her side.

    She let out a pained squeal, her concentration broken, giving him just enough of an opening to wiggle and struggle free from under her, shoving her aside.

    As soon as he was loose, he scrambled to his feet and took off at a run again, shards of ice beginning to form in his mouth as he prepared another attack.

    Haru had no interest in letting him go. She climbed back to her feet and flew forward with all the speed she could muster. He had gotten a head start, but he hadn’t got back up to speed yet. In a last-ditch effort, she leapt, springing forward with paws outstretched, tackling him without holding back.

    Right into one of the craters.

    The two tumbled head over heels as they bounced and skidded down the steep slope, coming to a painful stop at the bottom.

    Haru groaned, shaking her head in an attempt clear the dizziness and gather her bearings. She caught sight of Nip a few feet away, also trying to climb to his feet. He coughed and spat out a few lousy ice crystals.

    “We can stop this now, you know!” Haru called out, stamping her foot as she faced him down.

    He turned his attention to the bidoof and took up a defensive pose, eyes narrowing to slits. “Yes, we could. You can let me go and then I’ll be out of your fur and you’ll never have to worry about me again. You can pretend I never existed.”

    “Don’t you try to play that with me! You stole an egg from us. Unless you still happen to have it, there’s no taking that back!”

    The sneasel crouched, dark energy forming around his claws. “We don’t have to fight. I don’t want to fight.”

    Haru shook her fur and glanced to the side. In the confrontation, her bag had been knocked loose. She darted her gaze back to the sneasel. “Then give up, because that’s the only way you’re getting out of this without one.”

    Without waiting for an answer, she raced forward with her head lowered, prepared to headbutt him.

    Only to earn a sharp pain to the side of the head as he struck first.

    She stumbled, knocked off course by the glancing blow. As she reeled, he turned tail in an attempt to flee.

    She responded by chomping down on one of his tail feathers and tugging.

    The sneasel yelped as his balance was lost and stumbled, momentum lost.

    Unfortunately, all she got for her trouble was a pulled tail-feather. She spat the feather out and charged again, knocking into him with a hard headbutt.

    Finally, she had the upper hand!

    “You again?!”

    Haru glanced up at the angry squawk above her. She caught sight of orange and blue, just in time for the flame-wreathed bird to crash into her side, knocking her back several feet.

    “Give me back my treasure!”

    She climbed back to her feet as the fletchinder took to the air again, the flames dying away. But the bird was already circling back for another attack. Even worse, Nip had taken the opportunity to attempt an escape again, already climbing halfway up the steep crater walls. And the sounds of fights in the distance still raged on.

    If he got away now, then they may never find him.

    “Ha! Did you think you could escape me that easily?”

    Haru glanced up behind her to the rim of the crater. Outlined in the mist was the form of a mawile. Umbra must have broken off from the fight when she realized Nip was gone.

    Nip paused his upwards climb, sucked in a breath, and spat shards of ice at the steel-type. Umbra responded by shielding her face with her hands, the worst of the shards either striking there or bouncing off harmlessly. As soon as he had to take a breath, the mawile took the opportunity to dash to the other side, preparing to block his escape.

    If she got to him first, it was over.

    An angry caw sounded overhead. Considering her options, time ticking down as the fletchinder dove at her again, Haru glanced to the torn bag to her side.

    The sleep orb.

    She had heard stories that orbs were less effective in stable parts of the dungeon. If ever there were a time for those stories to be false, this was one of them.

    She reached over to grab the orb.

    “Fine, if you want it so bad, come get it!”

    She dropped it right in front of her and steadied herself, waiting just a few more seconds for the fletchinder to come closer.

    Then she dashed forward to headbutt the orb, sending it flying with as much force as she could muster, shattering it against the side of the crater.

    Green powder burst forth from the orbs remains, whipping up into a cloud, spreading quickly as it ballooned out. Haru forced herself to hold her breath and hunkered down.

    The others caught in the cloud were less lucky, unprepared for the orb to take its effects.

    Nip let out an angry screech, trying to climb his way out of the cloud before the effects could take hold. But it was too late. His eyelids began to droop, his voice died in his throat, and his grip weakened. Unconscious, he tumbled back to the bottom of the hole.

    The fletchinder, similarly, was caught mid attack, hitting the ground and skidding to a stop in a half-asleep stupor.

    Even Umbra was sagging, teetering dangerously on the edge before pitching forward, falling into the pit.

    Haru let out a breath as the green mist dissipated and relaxed slightly, feeling a bit safer now that the three others aggressing pokemon were asleep. How long the artificial nap would last, however, was yet to be determined.

    And she still had another problem to deal with. Even though she may have stopped Nip’s escape, she had no way to get herself out of the crater, let alone with Nip in tow.

    She sank to the ground, legs splaying out under her as the rush of battle died away. Her wounds, however minor, were stinging, now that she had a moment to dwell on it. For one thing, her head ached, where Nip had struck it, though she was pretty sure he had not broken skin.

    She twisted her head to get a look at her side. On one side, her fur was singed, a nasty burnt smell wafting up. On the other, Nip’s claws had managed to cut, but the wounds were fortunately shallow. Two lines of red had oozed up, clumping in her fur. But she would live.

    Relieved that she was in no danger of bleeding out, she turned her attention to other important matters. She strained her ears for the sound of the other battle nearby and realized that she could no longer hear it. Had the fight ended? Who won? Had everyone moved on without her, thinking that perhaps she had run off? Surely Shimmer would have said something right?

    Unless she had been knocked out, of course. Or perhaps they had all been defeated, left at the mercy of the angry wildeners? The fleeting thought of being abandoned was enough to strike fear into the bidoof.

    Stuck as she was, Haru did the one thing she could think to do.

    “Is anyone out there?” she called out into the fog. “Help me! I’m stuck down here!”

    Several moments passed with no sound. She called out twice more. Hoping that some kind soul would help her out, even if the others had moved on.

    She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling exhausted now that the danger had passed.

    “Haru? Is that you down there?”

    Her eyes snapped open at the sound of the familiar masculine voice. Slowly, she climbed up to her feet, tilting her head up to put a face to the familiar voice.

    Anu stood at the edge of the crater, peering down inside with squinted eyes.

    What Haru should have said was “yes, it’s me.” Instead, she blurted out, “Anu? What are you doing here?”

    The lucario raised a brow. “I should be the one asking you that. You didn’t sign up to help, if I remember correctly.”

    Haru sheepishly turned her head. “Well… Shimmer and Muse were planning on going, and I didn’t feel good leaving them alone after last time.”

    Anu let out a noncommittal hum in response to that, then turned his attention to the unconscious figures resting in the base with Haru. “Is that-”

    “Nip and Umbra, yes.” She paused, slightly altering the truth in her head as she spoke. “I used a sleep orb to knock him out and Umbra got caught up in the attack.”

    “And the fletchinder?”

    “Er… the fletchinder wanted the sleep orb and attacked me for it. That’s pretty much all there is to say about him.”

    The lucario took a moment to hum in thought. “Okay, let’s get you out of there then. Give me just a moment.” He grew quiet, closing his eyes. Haru watched as the dangling aura sensors on either side of his head stiffened, raising up slightly. He took a step back from the edge and turned, walking away.

    Haru was left alone once again. She turned her attention back to the trio of sleeping figures, watching for any sign of movement.

    The mawile began to stir.

    Of course the orb’s effects wouldn’t last long down here; that was too much to ask for. She tensed, watching with bated breath as Umbra squeezed her eyes and clenched her hands. She let out a groan, slowly opening her eyes and climbing to her feet.

    “What happened?”

    Haru kept her mouth shut as the mawile began to look around, taking in the injured bidoof and the sleeping forms of the fletchinder and Nip. She turned her attention to Haru, piecing things together in her head.

    “You used an orb, didn’t you?” She grumbled. “You did not need to do that. I could have stopped his escape easily.”

    “I was still being attacked!” Haru countered. “Isn’t it better to fill two needs with one move?”

    The mawile only grunted in response, turning away from Haru to instead approach Nip again.

    “Anu will be back in a minute,” Haru blurted out. “He went back to get help to get us out of here.”

    Umbra tilted her head to look towards the top of the crater. “I suppose it would be difficult to climb out of here…” She turned, twisting so that she could scoop up Nip within her second jaw. “Guess I can just take care of this now though.”

    Haru sucked in a breath and tensed, her mind jumping to the worst possible conclusions. Umbra would kill him. She was going to kill Nip right now, in front of her. Maybe her too, for being a witness. Even if she lived, they would never get the answers. They’d never know if the egg was still around, or why he did it. They’d never know how true Umbra’s story was.

    Perhaps she was overreacting, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

    “Wait.”

    The mawile paused, turning her attention to Haru. “If you have something to say, spit it out.”

    Haru could not help but flinch at her tone, but she spoke, forcing herself to be brave and even a bit defiant in the face of a pokemon she knew could kill her.

    “There’s no need to rush into any judgement. Once we get back to the village, we’ll have a chance to get everything sorted out, and Nip will get what’s coming to him for everything he’s done.”

    The mawile tilted her head away, considering for a moment before sticking her nose up in the air. “As I’ve said before, my kin have our own way of dealing with things. He is my responsibility, and as such I will deal with him and judge him in their place.”

    Her jaw clenched, squeezing the sneasel a bit harder. Apparently, this was enough to wake him up. He jolted with a gasp, eyes opening wide. At first, he panicked, squirming and struggling in her grip, claws scraping uselessly against the steel jaws.

    “No no no no,” he began to mumble incoherently, as his strikes became more and more desperate. “I’ve made it so far. Not now not now!”

    “Oh, quit your whining, it’ll all be over soon” Umbra growled, her tone darkening as she addressed Nip. She squeezed her jaw even harder, like a vice. Nip let out a pained yelp and went limp in an attempt to keep the fangs from cutting deep. For a second, Haru thought he might be dead - or at least unconscious - but shallow, panicked breaths and the occasional twitch of his claws proved otherwise.

    “Umbra, stop,” the bidoof demanded, climbing back to her feet. “You came with the village, which means you have to use our laws.”

    “Do not make me your enemy, bidoof,” the mawile replied, narrowing her eyes. “I will deal with this brigand the way I promised to. It’s nothing personal, just what I have to do for my kin.”

    “It’s very personal!”

    Haru’s gaze quickly shifted over to Nip, his voice catching her attention. As soon as he noticed, he spoke again, words tumbling out of his mouth like a waterfall, his pitch raising in urgency the more he talked.

    “I-isn’t that right Umbra? That’s why they sent you after me isn’t it? You told them you-you wanted to deal with me yourself, right? Because it w-wasn’t enough that you ruined my life, right?”

    The mawile responded by turning to slam him against the side of the crater with a huff. “Your lies will get no sympathy from me. You ruined your own damn life.”

    Nip spat dirt out of his mouth. “That’s a lie and you know it!”

    “Can you both just shut up!” Haru called out!

    “No!” Nip and Umbra yelled in unison.

    “You expect me to be calm! Umbra’s gonna snap me in half!”

    “You expect me to be calm when Nip is telling lies to try and get you on his side?”

    “Yes, I do,” Haru growled. “I’ve had enough nonsense! I’ve been dragged out here twice in two days, to hunt down you.” She paused to angrily gesture her head towards Nip. “And then I’ve been bitten, burned, clawed at, and chased in the process. And you, Umbra! You attacked us for no good reason yesterday! Why should I trust anything you say? No. We are all going back to the village and getting an explanation. Do I make myself clear?”

    Neither of the two other pokemon said anything, instead staring blankly at the enraged bidoof.

    “That’s right, they’re over this way.”

    Haru turned her head back towards the voice. A few seconds later, Anu emerged from the fog, Shimmer’s hand in his paw and with Essra resting on his head. The espurr hopped off his head, and dove head-first into the pit, slowing her descent with psychic once she was close enough to see Haru.

    “Sorry we took so long, everyone,” she announced, dipping her head to Haru and then to Umbra. “Thank you for holding on to the criminal, Miss Umbra, let me get you back up to the top, then Anu can take over.”

    "I can hold on to him just fine!" Umbra snapped.

    "I'm sure you can miss, but if you have an issue, you have to take it up with the boss." As the espurr spoke, she brushed a paw up against Umbra. a few seconds passed before a soft blue hue overtook the mawile.

    Essra squinted her eyes shut, using a great deal of concentration to keep the steel-type within her psychic hold. She raised a single paw and, after a second, the mawile was raised into the air and up to the edge of the crater, Nip still held in her grip.

    She turned her attention to the fletchinder next, carefully raising him out of the crater and depositing him in front of Shimmer, who then took over the psychic hold.

    “Um…” Haru began, her brow furrowing. “Why are you taking him?”

    The espurr turned to look at Haru, raising a paw. “Anu said he attacked you, right?”

    “Well, yeah, but-”

    “That’s why. They’re taking in the wildeners that started the fight in for questioning. The serviper and steenee at least. The teddiursa is just a kid, and we wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of an angry mother ursaring.”

    “I guess that’s fair enough,” Haru mumbled, stiffening as she felt psychic energy grip her muscles, lifting her into the air and back up onto solid ground. Essra floated back over the edge just a moment later.

    Now that she was up close, Haru could see that Shimmer had not escaped the battle against the wildeners unscathed. There was no serious damage, but several lacerations lined her arms and torso, the small cuts staining her fur red. Otherwise, however, she looked okay.

    The group made their way back the clearing where the fight had first broken out. Several unconscious pokemon were sprawled out in the grass, and the few that were still awake were hiding in the grass on the fringes, licking at their wounds.

    Whisper had arrived by now and had gotten straight to work organizing things. The serviper had been draped over Romi’s back, the rapidash pacing anxiously back and forth. At the moment, Whisper and a roserade were helping hoist the steenee onto Vale’s back.

    Jaques, Lotte, and Muse were to the side, Jaques holding a slice of a pecha berry up against a nasty bite in Muse’s shoulder while the absol ate a second one. Besides the nasty bite, one of her eyes had swollen nearly shut. The two purrloin looked not much better, with cuts along their backs and one nasty slice along Lotte’s flank.

    The hawlucha turned her attention towards the arriving party. “Anu, there you are.” She paused, crossing her arms as she looked over Haru and Umbra. “Good, it looks like there’s no serious injury, other than Muse’s bite.

    As she locked eyes with the sneasel still in Umbra’s grip, she narrowed her eyes, before returning her attention to the roserade beside her. “Roselei,” Whisper started, her voice firm, “go help Umbra out and take the prisoner.”

    The mawile took a step back, speaking in an annoyed rumble. “Why does everyone insist on treating me like a newborn. I can take care of holding him just fine.”

    The hawlucha looked Umbra over. Out of all the pokemon that had been involved in the fight, she was the least injured, with nothing more than a few scrapes and a single cut.

    “I’m sure you can,” Whisper replied flatly. “But I still want those wounds looked at. You’ll go with the others to the infirmary to get your injuries treated. Don’t worry, we won’t be passing any judgement without you.”

    "Why don't I just take care of things myself? I don't have to follow your rules."

    "Because if you don't," Whisper said in a frustrated growl, "I'll lock you up for your attack on village Pokemon yesterday. I don't have time to deal with your tantrum."

    Umbra opened her mouth to protest but thought better of it and closed it again. “Fine. Do make it quick though.”

    The roserade approached Umbra with an unreadable expression on her face. Thick, thorny vines unraveled from underneath her flowers as she waited silently for the mawile to open her jaw. Once the teeth were just loose enough that she could slip a vine in, she snaked the vines inside with just a bit of concentration, wrapping them tightly around the sneasel so that his arms were bound to his sides. Only then did Umbra let go entirely.

    “You may want to bind his mouth, by the way,” Umbra said, turning away. “He has nasty icy wind and ice shard attacks that he might spit at you otherwise.”

    “Fair point,” Roselei agreed. The vines snaked just a bit further out, reaching up to wrap around his snout.

    “How dare you say that! You just don’t want me to ta-” The sneasel let out a yelp as thorns dug into his face, but it cut off as his mouth was forced shut, turning into a pained whine as he was dragged to his feet.

    Satisfied, Whisper turned to her mate. "There should be three more groups coming though later. Will you and Essra wait here for them to let them know we're done?"

    The lucario bowed his head. "Of course, dear. We'll meet you in the village."

    "Thank you." She turned her attention to the remainder of the Pokemon. "We will be returning to the village now. Those that are injured should go to Lecha's when we get there. The rest take the wildeners to the guard hut for questioning."

    She paused to look over to Shimmer. "I apologize, but do you mind taking the fletchinder over for us? Vale and Romi are the only ones big enough to carry him, and both of them are preoccupied."

    "Of course, I can," the kirlia said, waving a hand dismissively. The movement also caused the unconscious fletchinder to move.

    He's really out of it, Haru thought to herself as Shimmer passed her by. Weird. Both Umbra and Nip woke up pretty fast. Is he okay?

    She was jostled out of her thoughts by Whisper's voice. "Alright everyone, move out!"

    The Hawlucha leapt forward to take the lead. Romi and Vale followed next, carefully balancing the wildeners on their backs. Roselei followed next, half leading, half dragging Nip. Umbra wouldn't stray far from the sneasel, practically looming over him, despite her smaller stature.

    Shimmer and the fletchinder, Haru, Muse, Jaques, and Lotte all followed behind in a loose group at the rear. They made their way in a straight line - or as straight as they could while dodging craters - heading through the fog until they reached an area where the trees and fog seemed to grow thicker. And then they continued further still, until the fog grew so thick that Haru could barely see the pokemon in front of her.

    But then the fog began to clear, and it began to grow warmer, the crisp, cool autumn air replaced with humid summer heat. They found themselves back in the forest outside Sunglow Thicket. A small group of pokemon – a quagsire, a pidove, and flaffy – charged forward at first, ready to strike at the pokemon that exited. But once they caught sight of Whisper, they stopped short. And when they saw the captured Nip, they broke out into excited chatter, the pidove taking off back towards the village to let everyone know the good news.

    Haru spent much of the journey in silence, even as the Pokemon around her talked. Some were excited. She caught Muse asking Jaques and Lotte why they were there but did not catch the purloins' answer. The fletchinder woke up at some point, squawking obscenities as he struggled to pull loose from Shimmer’s psychic hold. A few quick strikes from the two purloin and Muse were enough to subdue him.

    But Haru’s mind was otherwise occupied. On one hand, she should be excited. They captured Nip! And soon he’d be punished and exiled or else locked up and she could put this whole mess behind her.

    But as they continued their march towards the village, she found herself dwelling on his panicked cries from back in the crater. Her mind drifted to questions she could not easily answer. If he was sent away with Umbra, would the mawile kill him? If so, should she really care? Were his panicked ramblings only words to try and garner sympathy to get himself out of trouble and get her on his side? Or was there really something fishy going on between him and Umbra?

    Whatever the answers may have been, Haru did know one thing. Lies or not, she needed to know what Nip claimed was going on with Umbra. Only then could she begin to answer those questions for herself.
     
    Chapter 9
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    @Namohysip
    Thanks for the review! Glad to see that you've been enjoying it so far and I look forward to hearing more thoughts from you in the future.
    Onto chapter 1, I noticed that here and there a few of the paragraph breaks seem to be broken incorrectly, particularly at the end of the first scene.
    Man, I thought I caught all those. I went ahead and fixed that real quick. Let me know if you catch any in the future, but I think the first chapter was the only one where I had that issue.

    Also apologies that I’m capitalizing the species name—force of habit.
    No worries! I choose not to capitalize but I think there's fair arguments for doing it either way.

    I think you need a comma after 'morning,' because it's addressing someone.
    You're right. That seems to be one of the grammar rules I have the most trouble catching. I'll try and comb through later and see if there's any more I missed.

    Another instance of commas becoming periods.
    Hm... I see what you mean. I'll try and look it over later and decide how I want to handle it.


    As a quick note, everything from this chapter and onward is the original version, as I've nearly caught up with my postings elsewhere. In fact, I only have one more chapter before we catch up! Thanks to everyone who's been dropping reviews.

    Chapter 9: Trials and Tribulations

    “Ouch! That stings!”

    Lecha clucked her tongue and shook her head as she looked over the injured bidoof. She continued to carefully wipe away dirt and grime from Haru’s cuts with a damp cloth, ignoring the bidoof as she winced and squirmed.

    “I told you not to go back to the dungeon,” Lecha chided. “And what did you do? Go back to the dungeon. You have no one to blame but yourself.”

    Haru groaned, sifting slightly in the nest. “It’s not like I wanted to be there.”

    “Yes, yes, you’ve already told me. Now hold still and let me get a look at your head there.”

    She let her gaze shift to the side as Lecha moved around her, snagging a glance of Muse out of the corner of her eye. The absol was laying down with her eyes closed, her shoulder heavily wrapped in a pecha-soaked cloth bandage. Shimmer had draped herself against the absol’s side, small pulses of healing energy passing from her hands-on occasion. Jaques and Lotte had left as soon as their treatment had finished, speaking in low voices as they headed back to meet up with Jhorlo.

    Umbra paced at the edge of the room, her minor cuts already treated with a couple oran berries from Twi. The illumise in question was on the far side of the room, humming as they worked on washing out the used rags.

    “Why is it taking so long for them to get back?” she caught the mawile grumbling. “They better not do anything without me.”

    Behind her, she heard Toshi grumble something inaudible. Her thoughts cut off as a wave of healing energy washed over her from Lecha’s palm, easing her pain and relaxing her tense muscles.

    Lecha finally stepped away from her. “Alright, dear, get yourself an oran berry from Twi, then you’re good to go, but be careful. No strenuous activity for two days. And keep those cuts clean. Understand?”

    “Are you-” Haru cut herself off with a frustrated hiss. “Fine, I understand. Nothing but stripping bark the next couple days. Got it.”

    The aromatisse gave her a pointed look. “Alright, off you go then.”

    She turned her attention to Shimmer and her guard. “Muse can leave too, so long as you don’t ride on her back, Shimmer. Give that bite time to heal. And Toshi… If you want to go out to the square to participate in the sneasel’s judgement I’ll allow it, but come straight back afterwards, understand?”

    Toshi hopped up immediately, pausing with a wince. “Finally, some fresh air! I-I mean… Y-yeah, I got it. Thanks, Lecha.”

    “You think they’re going to behead him?” Twi interjected, turning back to the rest of the pokemon in the room.

    “Excuse me?” Lecha squeaked in surprise, before growing more serious in tone. “Don’t even joke about that. Where did you ever get such an idea?”

    The illumise buzzed a few feet off the ground before landing again. “My dad once said that they used to do that, many years ago.”

    Lecha closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “That was many, many years ago. Generations ago. When the woods were wilder and pokemon were less civilized. Besides, you don’t really want to see a beheading, dear. Trust me.”

    The bug tilted their head. “Have you seen one, Lecha?”

    “Not particularly, but I have seen some nasty injuries in my years, including loss of limbs. Those are bad enough.”

    “You wouldn’t see one anyways,” Haru said. “My understanding is that the Enforcers Union are the only ones that handle executions these days. And those are only done behind closed doors.”

    She stood up slowly, satisfied with her explanation, stretched, then turned to Toshi. “Are you ready to go then?”

    Toshi carefully stepped out of the straw bed and gave himself a look over. “As I’m gonna be. I don’t really care too much to go but… I guess I want answers is all.”

    “You and me both,” Haru agreed. “Simmer, Muse, you two coming?”

    “‘Course we are! I couldn’t let my Toshi-kins go alone, now can I?”

    “I’m not alone,” the bidoof mumbled while Shimmer shook Muse awake. He made no attempt to argue, though.

    Muse lifted her head, then stood and shook, sending stray bits of hay in all directions. The motion caused pain to flare up in her shoulder. She winced, but took the lead once the pain subsided, walking beside Shimmer down the hall towards the visitor’s lobby. Haru let Toshi walk in front of her so that she could keep an eye on him, watching his slow, careful movements. As she walked through the hall into the lobby, she heard footsteps patter behind her. Stealing a glance back, she caught sight of Umbra following behind.

    “I’m not going to stand around and wait any longer, if even all of you can go,” she growled when she caught sight of Haru staring back.

    Haru elected to ignore the statement, turning her attention back to her brother as they exited the building.

    The majority of the village pokemon had already gathered just outside of the square, waiting around the small building the town guard operated out of. And yet, Nip, Roselei, and Whisper were nowhere to be seen outside.

    Umbra ran ahead of the beaten and battered group, pushing her way through the crowd to try and get into the building. Vale and Romi blocked the entrance, however, barring all pokemon from entry.

    “Move aside!” Haru caught Umbra snapping at the manetric and rapidash. “I should be involved in whatever is going on in there.” The bidoof pushed herself to walk a little faster and tried to weave between the crowd to get a better look.

    “Relax,” Vale growled. “They’re just finishing up questioning the wildeners. They’ll bring the sneasel out when they’re done so he can make his claims and face judgement.”

    Umbra grumbled but stepped back, beginning to restlessly pace again.

    Sure enough, the serviper and steenee emerged from the hut a few minutes later, flanked on either side by the quagsire and flaffy that had been waiting outside the dungeon. The fletchinder followed shortly after.

    As he looked over the crowd, the fletchinder caught sight of Haru and let out an angry squawk, opening his wings as if to attack. But a weak jolt of electricity from the flaffy stopped him.

    “Let them through,” the quagsire called out. “They’ve been cleared to visit Lecha for healing, then they’ll be returning to where they came.”

    Slowly, almost hesitantly, the crowd parted, letting the three wildeners through with distrusting looks. The steenee and serviper, in turn, did little to counteract the anger and distrust, glowering right back. The fletchinder, however, took one cautious hop before taking to the sky. “Forget this. I have family to get back to.”

    Soon, they turned the corner towards the doctor’s building out of sight, the two guards following them to make sure they went where directed.

    A few minutes of tense chatter passed, the villagers milling around anxiously as they waited for any sort of news from inside. Enough time passed that the quagsire and flaffy returned. Finally, however, their patience was rewarded.

    Roselei came out first, stretching in the afternoon sunlight before moving over to meet up with Ruffle on the side. She rubbed her flowers together, her gaze shifting anxiously to the doorway as she mumbled something about ice types. In response, Ruffle brushed her hand against one of the roserade’s flowers, pulling it down to hold onto at her side.

    Another moment passed and Anu emerged, having returned by now from the mystery dungeon. In his paws was a stack of parchment, a piece of charcoal balanced on top.

    Essra came next, her eyes glowing with psychic energy. Then he appeared.

    Nip’s claws had been bound together by a thick rope. The rope glowed with energy, dragging him backwards out of the hut as he tried to keep on feet. At his appearance, the crowd broke out into a cacophony of sound ranging from nervous whispers to jeers at the expense of the sneasel. Once he had been brought in front of Anu, Essra cut the psychic connection. Nip stumbled, trying to keep his footing. As soon as he found his balance, his ear folded back against his skull. His eyes narrowed to slits as he faced the angry crowd.

    Finally, Whisper emerged with Jhorlo beside her, the two conversing in serious, hushed voices. Haru strained, leaning forward in an attempt to catch what they were saying.

    Whisper spoke first. “You know I respect your leadership and your thoughts, but… with a trial… I more than anyone… can’t do that.”

    “I understand your hesitations,” came Jhorlo’s reply. “But… perfectly reasonable… we know that he… nothing this serious in nearly a decade… have a good reason to…”

    “Even so, that’s... responsibility. Punishment of that… handled by the Enforcers…”

    Finally, Jhorlo was close enough that she could hear his words clearly. “And we don’t have an Enforcer’s branch here. It would take far long for any to arrive. too We’ll have to make our own decisions.”

    “In that case, we’ll take a vote after we hear his story, as we usually would,” Whisper replied curtly. Then she turned away, taking a few steps to stand beside Anu. She scowled at the sneasel but said nothing more for the moment.

    Jhorlo let out a slow breath and turned to take a seat on the other side.

    Haru considered the snippets of conversation, her mind drifting back to the conversation in Lecha’s clinic. Were they actually considering an execution? On one hand, she thought for a crime this serious, it was certainly reasonable to consider it.

    But her more forgiving side still felt hesitant. Especially if Whisper of all people seemed to be against it.

    Anu stepped forward, raising a paw to call for silence in the crowd. A moment passed as the clamor died down, pokemon nudging and shushing each other into silence once they noticed the lucario. Only after everyone grew silent did he begin to speak, clearing his throat.

    “We…We have… gathered...” He hesitated, cleared his throat again, and continued, choosing his words carefully. “Apologies, I am… not the best at speaking to crowds, as you all know. I am sure you are all gathered today to bear witness to the trial and sentencing of this sneasel.”

    “We already know he’s guilty!” shouted the flaffy from the back of the crowd. “Get on with it!”

    “I understand your feelings,” Whisper said tersely, “but our laws dictate that we give accused pokemon a chance to defend themselves.”

    Anu turned his head to give Whisper a grateful glance. “Ahem, right. Let me, let us review the story so far.” He paused to look down at the parchment. “Three days ago, this sneasel, Nip, was caught in the act of egg theft and was chased out of town, fleeing into Sunglow Thicket with the egg. There are… Three crimes were known to be committed, other than evading arrest and assaulting a guard. Our e-”

    He cut off and took a deep breath. “An egg was stolen from the nursery, along with a bag and a handful of supplies from Lecha’s clinic. This bag was fortunately recovered, though the egg… He also assaulted a child in the nursery, as brave Aves tried to stop him.”

    Anu turned to address the sneasel directly. “Do you deny any of these claims?”

    “I…” Nip hesitated, eyes darting to look towards the lucario, then back to the crowd. He lowered his head slightly. “I would argue it wasn’t ‘assault,’ but rather ‘defending myself’... I… think they attacked first.”

    The lucario glanced over to Whisper with a pleading expression. She let out a sigh before stepping forward, speaking up in a much clearer voice. “So, you contest the assault?”

    “Why wouldn’t I?”

    “Fine. But what about the other accusations?”

    Nip sucked in a breath, tensing. He stayed like that for a moment, prompting the crowd to break into hushed whispers. Haru caught herself leaning forward, breath bated as she waited for how he would answer. Would he tell the truth? Or dig himself into a deeper hole.

    Finally, though, he turned his head slightly away, ear and ear feather pressing back against his skull. “I… guess not…”

    The crowd became rowdier. “See he admits it!”

    “I told you he was up to know good.”

    “That’s why I never help strangers.”

    “Oh, don’t get so high and mighty just because you’re selfish.”

    “Settle down!” Whisper barked waving a wing towards the murmuring pokemon. The crowd quickly fell silent, spooked by the lead guard’s harsh and commanding tone.

    Satisfied, she turned her attention back to the sneasel, narrowing her eyes. Her tone shifted ever so slightly, a hint of danger under the command. “I’m only going to ask this once… why?”

    Shrinking back from the fighting types thinly veiled threat, Nip gulped before replying. “Well... it just… seemed like a good idea- no, it seemed like my best option at the time.”

    “You better explain before I-” she cut herself off, steadied her tone, and started over again. “Just… Explain.”

    Nip’s gaze shifted to the mawile just a few feet away from him, eyes fixating on the dangerous set of jaws just waiting to snap him up. “I was… I was in a hurry, trying to think of the fastest way out of town that would also give me something to eat. In hindsight, perhaps I should have gone… elsewhere. But at the moment, I thought that the nursery was the closest and least guarded place I could go.”

    “And why exactly were you so keen on leaving so quickly, and from stealing – from stealing a child – from a village that had taken you in, saved your life and offered you shelter?”

    Anu stepped forward, placing a paw on the hawlucha’s shoulder. “Dear… isn’t that kind of a loaded question?”

    Whisper pulled away ever so slightly, clenching and unclenching her claws. “Well he can still answer it, can’t he?”

    Nip let out a huff of air, jerking his head in the direction of Umbra. “I think you already have that answer. Because I knew she was nearby.”

    “Let me take this one, Whisper. I know this is hard on you. It’s hard on me too. But take a second to calm down.”

    He turned his attention to Nip “So… Why were you so keen on getting away from her?”

    “Because she wants to kill me!”

    Haru, as well as a few other villagers, turned to look at Umbra. The mawile raised a hand in front of her and closed her eyes. “I only plan to carry out a reasonable punishment for the type of crime he committed,” she responded curtly. “If that means death, then so be it.”

    “A reasonable punishment? Yeah right. This has all been about your ego! You’re only here because of our personal squabble, aren’t you? That’s why they sent you of all pokemon after me!”

    “You’re reaching, Nip. And jumping to conclusions. Typical.”

    “Enough!”

    Whisper moved forward to stand between the two bickering pokemon, shooting each of them a dangerous glare. “Both of you calm down.

    She turned her attention to Nip, ignoring the look Umbra was giving her. “Let me get the story straight. Umbra claims to be tracking you down because you attacked their nursery. Is this correct?”

    A long pause stretched out as Nip stared at the hawlucha. He turned his head away a moment later. “It was… a very poor lapse of judgement. At the time, I felt like I was saving those poor souls from a life of restriction and suffering. By the time it occurred to me that there were better ways of doing that, I’d already gone through with it.”

    Uneasy murmurs broke out into the crowd. Whisper gave Anu a look and began to speak in an urgent tone.

    “What kind of monster thinks like that?” Haru heard the quagsire whisper.

    “One that’s sick in the head,” flaffy replied.

    Haru thought for a moment. She… kind of had to agree with that. Why would anyone ever think killing a pokemon was saving them? She pawed at the ground anxiously. Yet… Something didn’t seem right. There were still questions unanswered. Questions that might just make his crazy story make a bit more sense.

    “So, what made you feel that way?” She blurted out, perhaps a bit louder than she’d meant to.

    At once, everyone nearby turned their eyes to look at her, including Nip, Anu, and Whisper. Haru shrank back just a little, uneasy with the attention, and mumbled her thoughts.

    “I mean… either you had a reason for feeling that way, or you’re totally nuts.”

    The flaffy leaned in towards Haru, perplexed. “Are you trying to defend him?”

    “Of course not!” Haru paused and took a deep breath before continuing. “I just… Something doesn’t add up here. Either there’s some part of the story we’re missing, or he’s completely dangerous and immoral. And…”

    She paused, thinking back to the day she spent taking him around town. Sure, it could have all been a ruse to get on their good side and get everyone to let their guard down. But then again, there were the broken bits of prayer she overheard in the temple. Had that all been a ruse too?

    She turned her attention to Whisper for a moment. “Pardon me for speaking out of line but… I’d like to ask something.”

    The hawlucha tilted her head upwards for a moment. “I suppose we can open up the floor for questions from everyone now. Go ahead.”

    She dipped her head. “Thank you, Whisper.” She turned her attention back to Nip. “So what’s the truth? What’s your deal? When you first came here, you claimed to be on a pilgrimage. Instead you’re a fugitive on the run after a heinous crime. And yet your behavior here from before Umbra showed up doesn’t match your behavior after.”

    Realizing that she had started to ramble on, Haru finally asked her question. “What I’m trying to ask is… Why’d you do it? What made you feel like killing unhatched eggs was doing them mercy? And why are you so certain that Umbra chasing you was personal?”

    The sneasel scoffed, his expression souring. “Umbra was the beginning- the root of my falling out with the tribe. She was supposed to be my mate. Not that she ever treated me like one, let alone an equal.”

    Uneasy murmurs broke out in the crowd, pokemon wondering what this could possibly mean for the situation as a whole, or if it could be believed. As Haru turned her head to get a better look at everyone’s reaction, it seemed like the only pokemon that might be unphased by this information were Umbra and Jhorlo. The two were watching Nip, each with an unreadable expression.

    “Okay, okay, settle down!” Whisper raised her voice over the clamor, waiting for the crowd to grow quiet again. Quiet enough that everyone could hear, at least.

    She turned her attention to Umbra. “Is this true? Are you two mates?”

    “We were,” Umbra clarified. “Obviously that was considered null and void after what he did.”

    “It should have been ended a long time ago!” Nip snapped. As he continued, his voice began to waver. “How many times? How many times did you throw me out of our den because you wanted nothing to do with me? How many times did I ask the elders to reconsider our arrangement because you were too proud to, before things took a turn for the worse?”

    Nip turned his attention to the crowd. For a second, he locked eyes with Haru before addressing everyone else. “You want to know why I felt I was saving pokemon from suffering? Because of what I suffered through: seasons of struggling to better my place in the tribe before the pairing ceremony, only to be assigned a mate that hated me! Whenever I went for advice or help, saying that we failed to get along, I was told they would work things out. But they never did. And then? And then that’s not even the worst part!

    “They wanted to know why we hadn’t produced an egg. They wanted proof we weren’t infertile. And if one of us was- if I was, I refused to lose everything I worked towards in such a humiliating way. So, I decided to lose everything on my own terms: by leaving. But not before preventing the next generation from suffering the way I did.”

    Several pokemon murmured uneasily amongst themselves as Nip’s words hung in the air. Certainly, that explained a lot of his history, as well as the hostility between himself and Umbra. But was it enough reason to change how he would be judged? Even if it was an explanation for what he did to the tribe, it wasn’t an excuse. And it certainly did not excuse what he did to them.

    Muse’s voice raised above the chatter. “There’s something I would like clarified, please.”

    Most of the talking died away, pokemon turning their attention to the absol on the edge of the crowd. She shrank back nervously at the attention, but an encouraging pat from Shimmer helped her find her courage again.

    “When you talk about how badly you and Umbra got along, why did you end up with her in the first place?”

    “Yeah,” a diggersby from the back of the crowd said. “Why’d you guys even become mates if you hated each other so much?”

    Nip scowled. “I thought I made that clear. Neither of us had a choice. Mate pairings are chosen by the tribe elders based on three things: egg compatibility, expected tribe standings, and personality. The first two have the most bearing, as the reason for choosing mates for pokemon was to ensure the healthiest offspring for the survival and wellbeing of the tribe. New mates are expected to produce at least one egg by their second warm season together. Do you understand what that means?”

    “I don’t get it,” the flaffy bleated into their neighbors’ ear. “Seems overdramatic if you ask me.”

    Haru took a guess, anxiety twisting her stomach into knots. “That you two were together for two years before you, er... left?’

    Nip let out a grunt, shifting his bound arms uncomfortably. “More or less. Can you imagine what it’s like, spending so long being treated as inferior, only to be told that you’re expected to get along and produce offspring or else lose the spot in society you spent your adolescent years fighting to reach?”

    No one had anything to say to that. At most, a couple of pokemon shifted uncomfortably.

    Nip narrowed his eyes, took a deep breath, and put on his best pleading expression. “That’s why I’m begging you to let me go. I don’t want to stay around and cause any more trouble. I just want to leave and get a chance to actually live. Is there anything wrong with that?”

    Not technically, Haru thought to herself, but just letting you go after everything you’ve done? How do we know you won’t just do the same thing to the next village you come across?

    Fortunately, she didn’t have to come up with an answer, as Umbra spoke up in a sharp tone.

    “Your reasons don’t change the fact that you committed crimes!”

    Several other pokemon murmured in agreement, sending a ripple through the crowd as they discussed the matter. Anu and Whisper spoke together in hushed voices, then moved over to speak to Jhorlo. Vale and Romi both approached the group as well. Haru could not make out what they were saying with everyone else talking, but she could see that Vale in particular seemed displeased, a scowl on his face. Jhorlo looked perhaps a bit annoyed, but otherwise seemed as neutral as he had before.

    Finally, however, the group broke apart. Anu stepped forward and raised a paw for silence. When things were quiet enough that he would be heard, he spoke.

    “It is true that Nip has committed grave crimes. Not just against our community, but against another. It is my opinion that we cannot just let him go in good consciousness. That said, I personally would not feel comfortable releasing him into Umbra’s custody, with the murky knowledge we have of the situation as a whole. But it is not my decision to make. So as is tradition, we will open it up to the village to decide what to do.”

    Whisper stepped forward next. “We have come up with four ideas. We can let him go, if that seems like the best solution. We can release him to Umbra and let his punishment be handled by his tribe. We don’t have the means to jail a pokemon long-term here, so instead we could contact the enforcers branch in Oltee Village and have them pick him up and decide what to do.”

    She paused with a scowl. “Or… Due to the… situation we unearthed during this hearing, we’ve decided to offer one other option. Although I personally don’t care for this option, I will yield to the village if it is the majority. If you will it, and if he is willing, we can keep him here to undergo rehabilitation. He’d be paired with a guard at all times of the day and be locked up at night. During the day he would be expected to either work around the square to help with village improvements, or else go through education on how to be an upstanding citizen. He would only be released when he has shown through good behavior that he has changed.”

    “Whisper and I will be abstaining from the vote,” Anu announced. “We also asked Umbra to not vote earlier, both because she’s not a member of the community and because she’s involved. Anyone else who feels uncomfortable deciding can also abstain. If there’s anyone who believes his story and is in favor of letting him go, please step forward now.”

    Haru stood on her hind legs so that she could get a better look at the rest of the crowd. A couple pokemon exchanged awkward looks or hushed whispers, but none stepped forward. She looked back to Nip and noted that he’d shrank back, his ear twitching nervously, his pupils huge and round like saucers.

    “No one? Very well. Let’s… move on to the next, then. Is there anyone in favor of turning him over to Umbra?”

    More awkward glances were cast, and for a moment, it seemed like no one would step forward for this either. But then Vale stepped forward, the manetric’s snout scrunched up in a scowl.

    “Oh, to heck with it. He shouldn’t be our responsibility, and who knows what the enforcers will decide to do. Yellow’s known for being a bit too forgiving for my tastes. I say let his peers decide what to do with him.”

    A few others murmured in agreement. More pokemon stepped forward: the quagsire, the flaffy, and a vibrava, as well as Zylar - the cubone from the butcher shop - Romi, and Roselei. Jaques and Lotte stepped forward as well, the latter leaning against her brother’s shoulder to steady herself.

    Anu carefully counted out the pokemon in his head, pointing to each one as he tallied them up. “That’s… nine in favor of releasing to Umbra. Let’s move on then. Those in favor of releasing him to the enforcers?”

    Haru stepped forward, having already made up her mind. But as she glanced back, she realized that Shimmer, Muse, and Toshi – none of the people she knew best had stepped forward. Even her parents were hanging at the back of the crowd. She tilted her head, honestly surprised.

    She wasn’t alone, though. Tor, Essra, and Roselei all stepped forward, as well as a pidove, a slurpuff, a mienshao, and a swallot.

    “I don’t feel right releasing him to Umbra, with everything that has come to light,” Tor mumbled. “But I don’t feel safe leaving him around here.” A couple of the others murmured their agreements.

    “We have none in favor of releasing him, nine in favor of releasing to Umbra, and… eight in favor of releasing him to the enforcers?”

    Haru chanced a quick glance to Nip while the Lucario spoke. The sneasel appeared tense, hunched, and looked ready to bolt at the prospect of Umbra winning the vote. Wait, was he shaking?

    “Finally, would anyone in favor of rehabilitation and community service step forward.”

    Shimmer and Muse stepped forward immediately, followed shortly by Ruffle and Mandi, as well as a plusle, a buneary, a psyduck, a meowstic and a ribombee.

    Toshi hung back on the edge of the crowd. He reached a paw out like he was going to step forward, but his expression was torn.

    “Nine…” Anu brought a paw up to his face, his brow furrowed. “We have a tie then…”

    “In the event of a tie,” Whisper began, raising a wing to place it on her mate’s shoulder. “We typically have the mayor break the tie. Jhorlo, do you have an opinion on the situation.”

    The purugly stood up, a rumble in his throat. “Of course, I do,” he purred. “I believe I already talked about it with you, Whisper. I had already carefully considered the situation, and this new information does not change anything for me. If I must break a tie, then I vote to-”

    “Wait!”

    Everyone’s attention turned to the bidoof that made the outburst. Toshi waddled forward, his head held high with determination. “I’m sorry, I was struggling to decide what to vote for, or to vote at all. But I have to follow my heart, and my heart says to follow what I think Society Head Blue would say. If it’s okay, I’d like to cast my vote now.”

    Anu and Whisper shared a look, then looked to Jhorlo. The purugly looked annoyed at the interruption but yielded.

    “Very well,” Anu finally said. “You are a member of this community too, and you have a right to vote in our judgements. What is your decision?”

    “You know Blue is a big part of my inspiration, of why I want to join the rescuers or the expedition society so bad. And I believe that… Blue would want to give someone a second chance to prove themselves. That’s why I’m voting for rehabilitation.”

    The lucario blinked, taking a moment to digest the verbose explanation. “Well… We…”

    Whisper stepped forward and interrupted him, her response blunt. “We could have done without the long-winded explanation. But very well.”

    She continued, speaking in a louder voice. “That brings the vote for rehabilitation to ten. As such, the community has spoken, and the sneasel’s rehabilitation will begin tomorrow. So long as…” She paused, turning to address Nip. “Are you willing tolearn our ways and make an effort to be a better pokemon?”

    “If the alternative is going with Umbra, I’ll do anything.”

    “Very well.” Whisper turned back to the crowd. “If you would like to be involved in choosing tasks for him to work on, please meet me in the Guard’s Hut after this. Vale, would you take the sneasel back to his cell for now?”

    The manetric huffed, shaking out his fur. "Fine. Don't blame me if things go downhill though. You all remember how I voted if that happens."

    Whisper crossed her wings in front of her, giving Vale an unamused glare. "Now, Vale."

    Vale lowered his head and complied, stepping forward to push Nip back towards the hut with his snout. "Come on now, I don't have all day!"

    Nip paused and looked towards Toshi. He blinked at him once slowly, then allowed himself to be herded back into the hut.

    Once he was out of sight, the crowd began to disperse, most pokemon leaving in groups of two or three, or else heading into the hut. Jaques and Lotte moved to speak with Jhorlo. Vale emerged a moment later and joined the two. Jaques left with Vale a moment later, speaking quietly, while Lotte and Jhorlo made a beeline towards Umbra.

    Haru moved to approach her brother but was beaten there by Muse and Shimmer.

    "That was really cool there Toshi, coming in there and deciding the vote at the last second!"

    Toshi turned his face away sheepishly, rubbing at his face with a paw? "You think so? I mean, I was just trying to do what I thought was right…"

    "Of course, I do! It's the type of decisiveness I expect out of my future mate!"

    His face fell slightly. "Ha ha… yeah, sure… Could we maybe not talk about that right now though? This whole discussion we just had makes it feel really awkward at the moment."

    Muse shifted her attention away from her charge and the uncomfortable bidoof and caught sight of Haru, locking eyes with her. "Ah, there you are."

    Haru quickly closed the distance between them. Toshi and Shimmer turned their attention to her as well.

    “Hey, Haruru, what gives?” Shimmer asked in an overly cheerful voice.

    “What… gives?”

    “Yeah, why didn’t you vote with us?”

    Haru gave the kirlia a flat expression. “What, I can’t make my own decisions?”

    “Of course you can,” Muse cut in. “I think what she means is… Shimmer wants to know why you’d vote to turn him over to strangers?”

    “Because that’s the enforcer’s job? To deal with criminals?”

    “I suppose that’s true,” Muse mumbled. “But… I would have thought that you, out of everyone, would have wanted to rehabilitate him? Considering you spent the most time with him out of everyone here.”

    “Spent the most time- I spent… like… two days with him Muse. Total. Maybe a little more, but not much! And I don’t have time to run around worrying about him. I have more important things to do! I-”

    Shimmer interrupted with a giggle. “I think Haru is just taking this personally!”

    Excuse me?

    “Yeah, you feel personally betrayed that you spent time explaining how things go around here, hoping to learn stuff from him, and then he went and did a crime. Isn’t that right?”

    “No, it’s not!”

    “You say that, but I’m not so sure!” Shimmer’s voice came out in a sing-song tone. She turned away from the group, gesturing to Muse.

    “Anyways, I wanna get back to the villa before dark. Just think about it Haru, and I think you’ll find that I’m right. You know kirlia’s can sense emotion, don’t you?”

    “You sure do a lousy job of it with Toshi!” Haru snapped.

    “Sis, sis calm down. Just… let it go.”

    Haru took a long, deep breath as Shimmer and Muse began to walk away. “Fine. Come on Toshi, you need to get back to the clinic. And I want to go home. I’m sore, tired, and now I’m angry too.”

    “Look on the bright side though,” Toshi replied. “Now that Nip’s caught and everything’s been decided, things should go back to normal, right?” He paused, scrunching up his face. “Or… relatively normal at least.”

    Haru closed her eyes, considering for a moment. “You know what, you’re right. I mean, things might be a little odd around here, with everyone keeping their eyes on Nip. But at least I’ll be able to get back to my normal schedule. No more running into dungeons, no more fighting, no more getting burned by angry birds.”

    She shook out her fur, then nuzzled up against her brother. “Thanks for trying to help me feel better, bro. I know you tend to like adventure and shaking things up, so I appreciate it. C’mon, let’s get you back to Lecha’s.”

    As they began to walk away, Haru glanced one last time back at the guard hut. As much as Toshi’s words helped her feel better, she couldn’t help but let her mind drift back to Shimmer’s words. Was she taking things personally? No, that was ridiculous.

    ...Wasn’t it?

    No. It had to be ridiculous. There was absolutely no reason for her to take things personally, after all.

    *​

    If one were to follow the Gorbyss River from Theran Village downstream, they would eventually find themselves at the eastern coast. By coincidence they would also happen to find one of the oldest known settlements: Brinash Town. In years long past, it had been a tiny settlement of only a few dozen pokemon, but as the years went by, it grew to be one of the largest and most important cities in the land.

    It also happened to be the location of the Expedition Society Headquarters.

    Here, an arcanine made his way through the busy streets, rushing, yet taking great care not to mow down any of the other pokemon along the way. Several stalls called out in an attempt to catch his attention, hoping to sell wares to the obviously brave and powerful pokemon. Surely, he needed dungeneering equipment, right? If only he would stop here, they’d give him the best deal on orbs he could find in town. But he ignored every call, every offer.

    He had more important matters to attend to.

    Soon, a building familiar to him came into view. One of the few buildings in the area made of brick, it stood out amongst everything else nearby. For one thing, it was by far the largest building, and painted with vibrant colors to attract attention. But on top of that, a huge banner hung from the front, a design of a vaporeon’s face painted on it, with the words “expedition society” carefully painted underneath.

    The arcanine carefully stepped around the teams of explorers making their way out of the building, narrowly dodging a litleo that burst out in front of his shinx and meowth partners, and passing a grumpy solosis and his overly-eager frillish partner as they made their way outside. Several pokemon milled about on the ground floor, most looking over the job or announcement board.

    He ignored all of that; he hadn’t come looking for a job.

    Instead, he made his way up a ramp at the back of the room to the second floor. The library was not his destination either, so he continued on to the third.

    By this time of day, the live-in quarters were nearly silent, most pokemon having already left for their missions. He made his way down the hall, past the apprentice rooms and the normal rank rooms, until he came to a set of large double doors. Here, a pangoro blocked the way. She walked up to meet him in front of the door, a harsh frown on her face.

    “Do you have business with Society Head Blue?”

    The arcanine bowed his head. “Urgent business.”

    “I’m sorry, you’ll have to come back later. Blue left for the Great Misty Ravine three days ago. Can you leave a message?”

    The arcanine glanced to the left and then the right before leaning in. “Mago, listen. It’s me, Maneth. I’ve come with a message from Progne. If Blue isn’t here, then we need to talk.”

    The pangoro’s eyes lit up with recognition, though she continued to frown. She pushed one of the doors open. “Of course, come on in.”

    The arcanine passed the pangoro and entered the room. Blue certainly had not changed over the years; the room was in a way, both clean and cluttered. No trash or other filth could be seen in the room. And yet trinkets and baubles lined every available space.

    A moment later, Maneth heard a click behind him as the pangoro closed the door behind the two of them.

    Only then did Mago’s frown vanish, replaced by a coy smirk. “Hmph. If you came back after all these years, something must be going on. You can shed your disguise now; we’re all alone.”

    Maneth let out a huff of air and turned his head. “Can’t be too careful in my position, you know? But if it would make you feel better, fine.” A second later, the arcanine seemed to melt away, leaving a smaller black and red beast in his place. The zoroark shook out his great mane, clutching a satchel close to his body.

    “Let’s make this quick then, what are you here for?”

    “Like I said before, Progne sent me. They received a distress call from Tinny about a week ago now. Someone - or something - is chasing him.”

    The pangoro frowned and let out a grunt, stretching. She made her way to a shelf in the wall and bent down to pick up a piece of charcoal and some parchment. Though it took great effort to write with the small piece of charcoal due to how big her hands were in comparison, she began to jot down notes. “Something?”

    “That’s just it,” Maneth grumbled. “Tinny couldn’t name his attackers. He said there was a honchkrow and a girafarig, but there were also other pokemon that he didn’t recognize.”

    “How could Tinny not recognize one of Mew’s creations?” Mago asked incredulously.

    “We don’t know! He had to cut the connection before we had a chance to get his location or a description. Progne asked me to see if Blue could mobilize the Society and Red his Guild, have them keep an eye out. But they also wanted to warn them to be careful. We don’t know what these pokemon are after.”

    He paused to adjust the strap on his bag. “I came here first, but I’m headed south to Red’s guild next.”

    “Progne could always contact us directly, you know. It would be faster.”

    Maneth grumbled, scratching behind his ear. “Sure would make my job easier, but you know why they won’t do that.”

    The pangoro let out a groan, setting aside the parchment and charcoal. “I know. It’s still a pain. I’ll get someone to let Blue know he had an urgent visitor.”

    Maneth blinked and flashed a lopsided grin. “That’s a relief. Really. Anyways. I need to get going then. I have a lot of ground to cover.” He closed his eyes, concentrating, and the illusion of an arcanine filled his place once more.

    “Listen, I know this is ironic coming from me but… may the original one’s favor shine on you all.”

    Mago let out a single amused chuckle. “You’re right, that’s rich coming from you. But may it shine on you as well. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an announcement to plan out.”
     
    Bonus 1
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    @The Desert Cat
    Good to see you here! Thanks for pointing out those grammar issues. I'll spend some time fixing them sometime soon.

    I can understand people being reluctant to turn Nip over to Umbra, since she’s nuts too. I can understand them not wanting to kill Nip themselves, when there’s someone else to handle executions. I don’t know how we get from here, to a plurality of the village inviting him to stay.
    Ah, this is something I hope to cover in more detail at some point, but there were two factors at play here other than what you already pointed out: the first is that the village hasn't had something this serious in a very long time, and so some pokemon might be a bit hesitant to do something as big as an execution. The second, which hasn't really come up at all but I really should mention soon (and probably should have been mentioned within the chapter), is that the village is independent of the Enforcers, which leaves them free to carry out sentences how they want. They might be a bit hesitant to invite them in to deal with their problems.

    Did Anu and Wanderer intentionally structure the vote to split the ‘execute’ voters? They seem like the last ones who should be trying to protect Nip. Do they know that Jhorlo is up to something?
    Well, I can tell you that whisper sure didn't, though they were both hesitant to just turn him over to Umbra. I'm hoping to explore their thoughts in more detail sometime in the near future.

    Hey, I see Team Ion.
    Heh, that was a fun cameo. Most of the unnamed characters in this section, besides Ion, were old ocs of mine from back around 2011/2012. Also, the fact that Maneth was disguised as an Arcanine was meant to be a very loose shoutout to your fic characters.

    Sounds like there's some intrigue within the guild. I know Blue has been mentioned a few times, and Toshi just gave us a reminder, but do we know who Progne and Tinny are? Maybe they’ve been mentioned before. If not, a sentence or two of introduction wouldn’t hurt, here. Who are they and why does it matter?
    Ah, yeah, that was actually intentional, for reasons that might be a more obvious later. We'll see more of them a few chapters down the road. Until then, I'll leave you with this: there's hints in the name and their name and the fact that they could communicate telepathically. But beyond that, you'll have to wait and see! Thanks for the feedback.

    @canisaries
    I think I fixed all the linebreak issues. I'll work on cleaning up everything else later. Thanks for pointing those out.

    If I'd read about Nip before (outside his brief bit in the prologue and being unconscious in the first chapter), it maybe wouldn't feel as slow as I'd be more engaged to him as a character, but here we only learn of him as a character now, and he doesn't seem to have a very strong personality that would make an instant impression. The most interesting thing about him currently is his tribal background, but hearing how far away he is from his tribe, it seems that we won't be seeing that tribe in action for a while... unless another character there will soon be introduced?
    Hm... I see where you're coming from. I don't want to say too much right now due to spoilers, but I will say that there's a reason we don't see Nip beforehand that will come to light over the next few chapters. Though what you said does make me wonder if I could have expounded on it a bit more here.

    Regardless, I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying my worldbuilding, and I look forward to hearing more from you down the line.

    We're nearly caught up with off-site chapters now! But before we delve any deeper into the main story, I'm going to sidestep and post the first of what will hopefully be many bonus episodes. These aren't going to be required to understand the main story of Places We Call Home, but some of them are more tightly tied to the plot than others, and I highly recommend reading those when they come out. If a bonus episode is particularly important, I'll note it as such in the forward of that episode.

    This one, however, is not very tied in, and mostly just serves as extra information about the world, as well as the character Ruffle. This was written for a prompt in a server I'm a part of, and I hope you enjoy!


    Bonus Episode 1:
    Ruffle
    Cycle of Rejection

    There were a lot of things that Ruffle liked about living in Theran Village. It was quiet and peaceful, the pokemon were friendly, and she and her wife, Roselei, had no trouble making a living for themselves. As it was, there were few other places in the world she would want to be.

    But as she busied herself packing, the bellossom reminded herself that there were some things she preferred to keep secret from the rest of the village.

    Her room was dark, only a tiny sliver of light peeking through the cloth-covered entryway. Despite that, Ruffle scurried around in the dark, her leaves rustling as she rushed about, throwing things together in a frenzy. Yet, she could barely tell which berries she was grabbing, or if she’d picked up blast seeds or sleep seeds. Oh, this simply wouldn’t do.

    So, she hurried out into the harsh summer light, blinking for a moment as she tried to locate Roselei.

    “Dear, I’m taking the tarp down!”

    The bellossom’s call was unanswered, her roserade partner preoccupied by her work tending to the berry fields. Carefully, she climbed a ramp to the roof of their humble abode and pulled away the tarp covering that protected it from the elements.

    It also happened to reveal a moderately sized hole. Satisfied, she scurried back down the roof and returned inside. Now the room was better lit, sunlight filtering down the hole in the roof. The bellossom paused for a moment, letting her body bask in the warm light.

    A glint in the corner of her eye caught her attention, however. Turning her head, she caught sight of the small, golden ring resting above her shrine, glimmering in the sunlight. She shuffled over and reached up to run a hand along its smooth surface before reaching a bit higher to take it down.

    She’d need this for later.

    Humming, she turned and placed the ring into a small, cloth bag, securing it within an inner pocket. Now that she could see, she hurried her preparations along, digging a pecha and a cheri berry from their stores to add it to the two oran and sitrus berries already in the outer pockets. Then she went back for a pair of heal seeds and a sleep seed. She paused, hovering over the bag with an apprehensive look on her face, then turned back to pick up a single, tightly rolled-up blanket before closing it up and pulling the strings taunt.

    As one last check, she patted the outer pockets, feeling the weight and jingle of coins, before giving a satisfied hum and slinging the strap across her shoulder.

    She stepped out of the building, taking a moment to look over the rolling fields of berries, squinting until she found the roserade again.

    She took a deep breath and shouted, “Roselei! Hey, aren’t you going to come say goodbye?”

    “Hm?” The roserade looked up from her work, retracting the vine she’d been using to pluck berries from a bush. “Oh, is it that time already, Ruffle?”

    “The eclipse is in a week, dear,” Ruffle gently reminded the roserade. “I need to leave now if I’m going to make it in time.”

    Roselei sighed before putting a smile on her face. “I know, I know. I’m just going to miss you and worry about you. Make sure you send a message through psychic courier to let me know you arrived safely.”

    “Hey, no need to worry.” Ruffle reached forward to brush a nubby hand along one of Roselei’s flowers. “I’ll just be there for a couple days for the eclipse celebration, and then head right back before you know it!”

    She paused, closing her eyes and soaking up the sun - and her lover’s touch - for just a few seconds longer. “Oh, I better get going. Don’t want to keep the cart waiting. Can’t really afford to travel on my own, you know.”

    “Of course.” Roselei hesitantly pulled back, before adding in a whisper, “travel safe, and may Hoopa grant you insight on your journey.”

    *​

    Crescent Shores Beach was a much busier town than the sleepy little village Ruffle made her home in now. Unlike the charming, rustic huts that dotted the land around Theran’s center, the houses here were much more carefully planned, lined up in near-perfect rows along paved streets and divided up by sizes.

    As the mudsdale-drawn cart made its way through the residential district and towards the center of town, Ruffle shifted the bag on her back and walked over to the edge, squeezing between other passengers to peer over at the pokemon passing by, heading to and from their jobs in the mid-morning rush. As she looked ahead to the lower-level commercial district, she could see a tangled cluster of larger buildings before the landscape swept out to the actual beach.

    Somewhere in that tangle, she was supposed to get instructions for where to head next.

    Hopping down and back away from the edge of the cart, she reached back into one of her side pockets, pulling out an opened, blank envelope to look it over, carefully re-reading the letter within.

    Dearest Disciples

    As you may already know, we are expecting an eclipse shortly after the fifth full moon of the year. And as our doctrine dictates, all who are able are to meet on the day of the eclipse, to renew their vows to our dearest Hoopa.

    Estimates say that the eclipse will be best viewed from Seashoal Village this year, but we do not wish to raise trouble with the locals, nor to cause trouble by having all of us trying to cross the ocean at the same time. As such, we have begun making arrangements for private transportation to the far side of the island. If you are coming, please gather at White Sands Warehouse on the western side of Crescent Shore Beach’s commercial district, where we will give you more information.

    Cordially yours,

    Grand Master of Ceremonies

    As she read through the paper, memorizing the instructions to heart, Ruffle couldn’t help but dwell on negative thoughts, of fear of how other villagers would react, were she to tell them about this. About Hoopa.

    As she dwelled on her concerns, Ruffle felt something prickle uncomfortably in the back of her mind. She turned her head, trying to hide her worried expression, and caught sight of a hattrem staring at her. Before she could say anything though, the hattrem quickly looked away, and the uncomfortable prickling stopped.

    Slightly unnerved, Ruffle turned her attention back towards the buildings coming closer and closer, trying to place where she’d felt this feeling before. And upon failing that, she let her mind drift, thinking about home.

    *​

    The business district was even bigger than Ruffle remembered. After disembarking her ride with a polite thanks, she’d began to make her way down the wide streets, keeping to the side to avoid being trampled by larger pokemon passing by. An onix slithered by down the center, pushing a huge box of produce on wheels back towards the edge of town. Silently, she thanked herself for settling somewhere so much smaller.

    With the buildings arching high overhead, and the midday sun high in the sky as well, it was hard to get a good grasp of what direction she was going. But she could assume the onix had come from some warehouse and used that as a starting point in her search.

    Slowly, the flow of pokemon around her thinned out, most heading away from the direction she was walking. Soon the streets became more dilapidated, the buildings shifting from bright and colorful businesses to dank and dingy, run down warehouses. From that alone, she suspected she was headed in the right direction.

    She slowed down, taking the time to look at signs as she walked in hopes of spotting White Sands. She made her way down one row of warehouses, then turned and went up another. But thus far, she’d had no luck.

    On her third row, something was off.

    The air seemed just a bit different here, she realized, and it put her on edge. Walking even slower, she took the time to look around, taking greater care to watch her surroundings. But nothing jumped out at her. Soon, she found herself standing in front of an alley between two buildings, where she paused to peer down into the darkness, frowning. Still, nothing seemed to be there.

    She wasn’t quite satisfied with her search. But, unwilling to duck into some place she wasn’t supposed to be, she turned her back and began to walk away.

    But before she could take more than a step, something dropped from above and grabbed hold of her, hot pink fingers digging into her skin. . She let out a surprised squeal, struggling as she was pulled back into the shadowy alley.

    “Now!” her assailant called.

    In a panic, a flurry of petals burst from her flowers and from under her grass skirt as she tried to summon a petal blizzard. She struggled, trying to pull free during the distraction. Her attacker grunted, but only tightened their grip.

    Something conked her in the back of her head, and the last thing Ruffle saw before blacking out was a blurry flash of blue and pink.

    *​

    “Don’t you think this is a bit cruel?”

    Us, the cruel ones? I think all that time you’ve been spending in the library is making you soft.”

    “Shh-shh she’s stirring!”

    Ruffle woke to a musty smell and a dull ache in the back of her head. This certainly wasn’t home. She groaned and shifted, trying to remember what she’d last been doing, and quickly found that she couldn’t move her arms. In a panic, her eyes snapped open.

    She was in a large, dimly lit room. Windows near the ceiling provided just a little light, letting her see the tops of tall shelves with boxes on them not too far away. But the sun had nearly set, leaving only a dim orange glow in the building. As she tried to make sense of her situation, she remembered what she had been doing before, and realized that her pack was gone.

    Right. She’d been attacked. And knocked out.

    Her heart fluttered in a panic as she tried to walk, but she quickly realized that she’d been tied to a pipe against the wall, the rope acting as a short tether.

    Against her better judgement, she shouted out, “who’s there? What’s the meaning of this?”

    “What’s the meaning of this?” A voice answered in a mocking tone. “I’m the one that’s going to ask the questions around here. And I want to know what the meaning of this is.”

    Something clattered to the floor in front of her. Ruffle caught a glint of gold in the light and realized that it had to be her Hoopa ring.

    Narrowing her eyes, she refused to answer, instead looking up into the darkness. “That’s none of your business, now is it? You think you can just go and attack strangers, rummage through their belongings, and expect them to listen to your stupid demands? You have no right to ask questions of me!

    Apparently, her captor wasn’t prepared for an answer like that. There was a moment of silence, then she heard murmurings of three different pokemon.

    “What do we do, boss? She’s supposed to answer our questions!”

    “Relax, relax, it’ll all be fine.”

    “I told you handling it like this was a bad idea. Come on now.”

    She saw a small burst of flame fly through the air. A second later, a small, enclosed fire burst to life, illuminating her captors.

    Before Ruffle stood three unfamiliar pokemon.

    Well, two, technically. One of them, she recognized as the hattrem she’d seen watching her on the cart. The second pokemon was a salandit, her eyes glinting in the moonlight. The third pokemon she was less familiar with, but recognized as a morgrem after some thought.

    Ruffle stared at the trio blankly for a moment, and they stared right back. But finally, the salandit nudged the morgrem in the side. “Psst, Creek, show her the badge.”

    The morgrem, Creek, looked to the salandit with a dumbfounded expression for a moment before catching on. “Oh, I get it. Right. Good idea as always, boss.” He reached down into the bag slung across his shoulder, fumbling, until he retrieved a small object from the bag and held it out. In his hand was a round, bronze-colored badge, an indented bolt of lightning at the center.

    The salandit cleared her throat. “We’re Team Fey-Wrath of the Enforcers, and you will be answering our questions.”

    Staring down at the badge for a moment, Ruffle’s expression turned uncertain. It… did look like the badge of one of the teams of peacekeepers, but if she knew how their rankings worked, these guys were a newbie team at best. Or else they’d stolen the badge off one and were running some form of racketeering operation.

    With her misgivings in mind, her response was not friendly. “Didn’t know the enforcers had taken to harassing random civilians in the street,” she spat, trying to shift into a more comfortable position.

    “Oh, but you’re no ordinary civilian,” the salandit hissed, slinking forward before holding the ring up in the air, inspecting it. “Joy, here-” she paused as she gestured to the hattrem “-happened to pick up on your emotions and took a little listen in your brain, and just so happened to hear you thinking about a meeting of Hoopa zealots. Now, everyone can follow whatever legends they want, of course. But a meeting of followers of a chaos god can’t mean anything good.”

    “That’s…” Ruffle paused, her expression turning perplexed. “That’s what this is about?” There were things that she kept secret from most people. And this was why; not everyone was understanding of her choices.

    And yet, despite the situation, and despite the fact that she should be afraid, she stared for a moment before snickering. Then her snickers turned to full-on laughter. “Oh, my goodness, you can’t be serious right now! You, a bunch of rookie enforcers, thought you had the right to dig into my brain, made an assumption based on what I was thinking about, and then kidnapped me in hopes that I’d lead you to everyone else so you could harass them too? That’s hilarious. Now, seriously. Untie me and give me my stuff back, or I’ll have to report you to your superiors.”

    Creek hesitated, looking over to his two teammates. “That wouldn’t be a problem, right? I know this isn’t the best way to go about things, but it’s got to be better letting a dangerous Hoopa follower wander the streets, right? We aren’t gonna get in trouble with the big boss-mon for this. Right, Venna?”

    The salandit hesitated in turn. “Well… not if we prove it was for good cause. So…” She whirled back around to face Ruffle. “So why don’t you go ahead and confess already!”

    “Confess to what? I’ve done nothing wrong!”

    “Don’t think she’ll need to,” Joy called from behind. “Look what I found. She was reading this earlier, back on the cart.”

    As Ruffle looked up, she caught sight of the piece of parchment the hattrem was waving around. “That’s-”

    “Instructions as to where your little group is meeting?”

    Venna smirked, her tongue flicking out before she raced over. “Nice work, Joy.” The salandit reached up to grab the parchment and unfolded it, eyes quickly scanning the page. “Let’s move out, you two, we got a cult ritual to crash! And you!” Once again, she whipped back to face Ruffle, spitting out just a couple embers as a warning, the hot flecks fizzling out on the ground. “Stay put. We’ll come back for you when we’re done and take you over to the local enforcers branch so we can figure out what to do with you.”

    “You’re making a mistake!” Ruffle shouted, trying to summon up a burst of petals, but found her attack fizzled out before getting anywhere near what it was supposed to be.

    “We stuffed a ban seed down your throat,” Joy announced quietly, watching her attempts. “Don’t worry, it’ll wear off eventually, but by then we should have you back at the station. Just try to relax dear, your anger is giving me a headache.”

    My anger giving you a headache?” Ruffle shouted, tugging at her bonds. “You three are accusing me of something without reason! How dare you call yourself enforcers!”

    Venna scoffed. “That’s pretty rich, coming from you. Try to stay calm and don’t hurt yourself. Or not. I don’t care. We’ll be back soon enough. Busting this open should be enough to move us up a rank for sure!”

    With that, she paused for a second to put out the flames, then turned and trotted off, the two fairy-types following behind her, leaving Ruffle in near darkness.

    Ruffle sat still for a few moments, stewing in silence. Guilt ate at her as well, leaving her tense and uneasy. She had been careless, and now other pokemon might get hurt because of her.

    Not that she was willing to go down without a fight. She took a long, shaky breath to calm her nerves, then closed her eyes. The flowers on her head started to glow, taking in light as she charged a solar beam. She didn’t yet know how she was going to use that to escape, but she was certain she’d find a way.

    “Er, um… please don’t do that, miss. I don’t think the building owners would appreciate it if you destroyed any of their stock. “

    Ruffle let out a yelp, caught off guard by the new, uncomfortably grating voice. She whipped around, looking for the source, and felt something tug behind her. Turning her head, she caught sight of ghostly, cloth hands trying to undo the ropes binding her. The banette - half of his intangible body still hanging out through the wall - swore as he fumbled with the knots.

    Finally, he gave up on just untying them, looping his fingers through a couple of notes. “Now hold still, don’t want to get you with this.”

    Turning her body slightly so she could glance back, Ruffle watched as shadow coalesced around the banette’s fingers before he ripped them away, severing the ropes bonds as he did so. Slowly, she climbed to her feet, dusting her leaf skirt as she did so. “Um… Thanks…”

    “Kee,” he responded, offering out a draped hand. “Bodyguard for hire, though I’m currently contracted out, so don’t go asking. Now come on, gather up your things and let’s get out of here; my charge is eager to know that you’re alright.”

    For a second, Ruffle stared. Then she moved to collect her bag. Fortunately, none of her items had been scattered, though the trio of enforcers had taken both her letter and her ring with them.

    “The local enforcers aren’t nicest branch around, but this is low even for them,” Kee grumbled, surveying the scene with disgust. “We’ll escort you to the local branch, if you want to write a report.”

    “Thanks…” Ruffle replied slowly. “Though… I kind of need to head to my meeting first and let them know what’s going on.”

    “Ah, the ‘Hoopa’ meeting that they were talking about, I assume? I’ll see if my charge is willing.”

    The two made their way out of the building quietly, taking care to listen for the trio of enforcers, in case they were still hanging around. Once they made it outside without incident, the banette turned and floated ahead towards the far side of the warehouse, disappearing around the corner. Ruffle, after a second of hesitation, followed.

    “Hey, Gan, you still here? I’m back.”

    From behind a pile of crates, Ruffle heard the pitter-patter of feet. A second later, a piplup waddled into view, clutching a small satchel tightly to his side.

    “Everything went well, I assume?” the piplup asked.

    “Yeah. Just a couple of overzealous newbie enforcers,” Kee replied, waving a hand dismissively. “Didn’t like my odds though so I waited for them to leave before breaking her out. She wants to know if we’ll take her over to her meeting so that she can warn them about any trouble these guys might cause.”

    Gan took a second to look up at the sky. “Well, if it’s not too far, I don’t see why not.” He held out a fin towards Ruffle. “You may call me Gan, I’m an apprentice with the local merchantry, learning how to keep the local docks organized. I assume you’ve already been introduced to my associate and bodyguard, Kee?”

    “Ah, yes, thank you, Gan.” Ruffle took a little bow. “My name is Ruffle, I’m actually a berry farmer and merchant from Theran Village, if you’ve heard of us. We’re a tiny little village at the base of Mount Domo.”

    Gan’s face lit up. “Oh, I have heard of it! In fact, I’ve heard that your berries are simply divine. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Now, where were we headed, exactly?”

    “Ah, right.” Ruffle began to reach for her bag, and then remembered that the letter with directions had been taken by the trio of enforcers. “I believe it was… Beach Sands Warehouse… no, er… White Beach Warehouse? Something like that.”

    “White Sands?” Gan suggested.

    “Yeah, that’s it!”

    "Well, that's not all that far out of our way, so I don't see why not. What do you say, Kee?"

    The banette brought his arms together, letting the fabric hang in front of him. "I say you should ask what she's doing there first before just up and offering. I mean, I already know what she's doing there, but I’m not letting you go into a situation without knowing the whole story.”

    Gan waved a flipper dismissively. "I'm sure it's all fine. You worry too much! She's a fellow merchant, after all."

    For just a second, Ruffle hesitated. How would these two react? Would they react as poorly as the enforcers? Once again, she was reminded of why she kept these things secret.

    Then again, she was out in the open now. If things went bad, she'd have a chance to get away. So, she slowly let out a breath and began to explain the situation. "No, the banette’s right. You have a right to know.” A pause. “Well... See, I'm... You two know about the eclipse coming up in a couple days, right?"

    She waited for sounds or motions of agreement before continuing. "I'm... I'm a follower of Hoopa, and for us, the day of a solar eclipse like this is an important day where we're supposed to come together and renew our vows. Remind ourselves of what things we value. I was headed there when I was... accosted. And I'm worried those three might start something and that someone might get hurt... or worse."

    Kee and Gan shared a look. Kee stared at the piplup inquisitively, waiting for instructions, while Gan's expression was unreadable. After a tense moment of waiting, however, the piplup turned his head to give her a friendly look. "Well, why didn't you say so. Some of my dad's workers are over there. I'd be happy to help out. Build friendly relations and what not."

    Ruffle let out a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding. "Oh, thank you two so much. I hate to be a burden on you, so I appreciate what you're doing."

    "Think of it as a favor," Gan insisted, turning to walk past Ruffle and Kee. "Now come on, the warehouse is this way."

    *​

    The three walked quickly in near silence, their pace urgent. Gan took the lead, showing the way. Ruffle walked just a few paces behind him, keeping her bag close and her eyes peeled for danger. Kee floated to their side, occasionally dashing ahead at an intersection to be certain everything was safe.

    Though it felt like a long trip, in truth it took them perhaps ten minutes to arrive, the sun slowly setting behind them. Soon, they found themselves in front of an innocuous, brick building, a sandy-colored sign in the front announcing it as White Sands Warehouse. From a distance, nothing seemed amiss, and Ruffle was relieved to see no sign of the enforcers team. But as they drew close, she could hear loud, angry voices shouting from inside the open door. Without thought, she rushed ahead of her escorts, racing into the building.

    Inside the entry lobby, she spotted the trio of enforcers accosting the door guard: a lone combusken, standing in front of the wide doorway with narrowed eyes.

    "I already told ya," the combusken growled. "I ain’t allowed to let anyone in if they're not on the list, till they get approval from the Grand Master. My associate went to go look for 'em already for you. So, you're just gonna have to sit and wait.”

    Creek grumbled, and whipped his head around, stomping off just a few feet with his eyes closed while Venna tried to reason with the guard.

    The sound of footsteps rushing towards the door made Creek open his eyes, just in time to see Kee and Gan rushing into the doorway, where Ruffle already stood with an angry expression on her face.

    "Uh... boss?" Creek called out without taking his eyes off the trio. "We got company."

    Venna and Joy turned away from the combusken, their eyes bulging as they caught sight of Ruffle. The salandit cried out, "you... how did you get here?"

    Ruffle ignored their question. "You, guard! My name's Ruffle. I was invited and should be on the list. These three enforcers stole my ring and my letter to try and get in because they think we're going to cause trouble. You need to let everyone inside-" She cut off with a pained cry as a spattering of embers landed on her leaves, threatening to send them up in flames.

    Venna scampered forward, attempting to cut her off, but a thin jet of bubbles from Piplup knocked her off-course.

    "Kee! Defensive maneuvers!" Gan announced. The banette rushed forward to stand protectively in front of him. his hands enveloped in purple shadows as he waited for any of the other pokemon to make a move.

    The combusken let out a loud, pained squawk as Joy turned on him and brought her hands together, releasing a beam of bright, multicolored energy in his direction, catching him squarely in the chest. He was knocked sprawling back several feet. As she began to approach, however, he sprang back up and dashed for something just to the side of the doorway. With a shudder, a segmented metal door began to fall.

    "Don't worry!" he shouted. "I'll go get help. Just hold on!"

    Venna turned to look back at the sound and let out an alarmed call. "No! Don't let him get away!" But before she could give chase, she was hit with a blast of energy from behind, sent flailing through the air and landing on the ground hard.

    "That's for kidnapping me!" Ruffle announced, the light from her flowers beginning to fade. With a crash, the door slammed shut, separating the fighting pokemon from the rest of the building.

    "Sorry about dragging you two into this," Ruffle said to her two companions, already charging up another beam.

    "No need to apologize," Gan called back. "I've been wanting a good skirmish for a while!" He clapped his flippers together before shooting water into the air, sending a misty spattering all around the room, dampening the area. "What about you, Kee, having fun yet?"

    The banette grunted in response. "Less talking, more fighting." Without waiting for his two teammates to ready themselves or for the two opposing pokemon to recover, he charged, heading directly for the hattrem. With one quick swipe, he struck her across the face with his prepared shadow claw attack.

    Joy let out a cry, stumbling back several feet, bringing her hands up to cover her face. She tried to shoot off another psybeam, but it went off-course, uselessly striking the ceiling, sending a spray of bits of stone and dust down around the fighting party.

    While Kee dealt with the hattrem, Venna tried shooting another gout of embers in Ruffle's direction. But with the protective coating of water, the flames did significantly less damage to the bellossom's plant matter. Ruffle responded by shooting at her with another solar beam, the bright green-yellow light just barely grazing the salandit. She turned it slightly, managing to catch Creek off-guard. He stumbled back a few feet from the blow, trying to stay upright.

    "Who uses water sport?" the salandit complained as she shifted strategies. With speed that caught Ruffle off-guard, Venna slithered forward, racing towards her. She tried to spring out of the way but was too slow and let out a cry as she felt the salandit's fangs sink down into her shoulder.

    Instinctively, she let out a puff of spores, the yellow cloud surrounding both her and the salandit as she thrashed and tried to break free of the bite. Even as she did, she could feel her strength draining and realized with horror that the salandit managed to inject venom into her body.

    Fortunately, the puff of spores was enough to loosen Venna’s grip, giving Gan a chance to blast her off with a thick, concentrated stream of sticky bubbles. From the wound oozed a nasty mix of purple venom and a greenish, sap-like fluid. As soon as she was free, she struggled to reach into her bag, the poison quickly taking its toll on her. “C-Cover me!” she shouted back to Gan.

    The piplup took up a defensive stance behind her, shooting beams of bubbles as Venna and Creek tried to get in close again or else intercepting gunky wads of poison shot in Ruffle’s direction. At the very least, the stun spores had taken their toll out on Venna slowing both her movements and her attacks.

    There! Ruffle’s hand closed around the soft, fuzzy flesh of a pecha berry. She pulled it free and stuffed the whole thing in her mouth as quickly as possible, waiting with bated breath for the berry to take its effect.

    A cry of pain from Joy turned Ruffle’s attention away for just a split second, long enough to see the scraped and bruised hattrem fall to Kee’s shadow claw attack. The banette immediately whirled around, turning on Creek next.

    “Wait! Wait!” the morgrem cried out, holding his hands out in front of him before dropping to his knees, stealing glances at his injured teamate. “I give in I give in don’t attack!”

    The action in the room slowed to a standstill. Venna paused and hesitantly turned back to look at Creek. The glow from Ruffle’s flowers as she prepared another solar beam slowly began to fade. A stream of bubbles died in Gan’s throat. Joy carefully peeled herself off the ground.

    Kee approached the morgrem cautiously, floating just a few feet in front of him. “Is that all? Are all you enforcers really this cowardly? Attacking random pokemon and then begging forgiveness when things get tough? No wonder you have a poor reputation around here.”

    Several things happened in an instant.

    The hair hanging down Creek’s back, seemingly with a mind of its own, branched out in tendrils and struck at the banette, piercing through his cloth-like body around the shoulder. A shadowy mist escaped the wound as he stumbled back in shock.

    Creek sneered, tackling the banette with glimmers of fairy-type energy surrounding him. “Suckers.”

    Venna shot another glob of poison, this time aiming at Gan. Still in shock from Creek’s surprise attack, the piplup failed to dodge out of the way in time, taking the glob of poison directly to the face. He cried out and stumbled, trying to clear his vision.

    Ruffle had little time to prepare for Joy’s attack, the hattrem less tired out than she initially seemed. She attempted to slow her down with a puff of spores, just as she had done with Venna, but it wasn’t enough. Before she could move out of the way, she was battered to the ground with a single swing of Joy’s thick braids.

    “That’ll teach them to mess with us!” Venna called out. “Alright team, everyone take offensive measures, aim for the knock-out blow!”

    Desperate to protect herself, Ruffle attempted once again to summon forth a flurry of petals. It served as enough of a distraction to allow her to climb to her feet, but just like before, they dissipated before she had a chance to do anything with it, forcing her to just focus on dodging as Joy drove her back towards a corner. She ducked behind a small stool, buying her just enough time to drop a cloud of spores in hopes of slowing the hattrem down before having to dodge out of the way again..

    Kee fell back, dodging out of the way of another strike from Creek as he ran to intercept Venna as she rushed towards Gan. The salandit rolled out of the way of an errant stream of bubbles, then rushed forward again. In a desperate attempt to keep her away, Gan lashed out with his flippers before going in to try and peck at her eyes. He received a spattering of embers to his face for his trouble and let out a pained screech.

    What is going on in here?”

    At once, the struggles of the six pokemon screeched to a halt. Slowly everyone turned their attention to the entrance, where two pokemon stood. The first was a stern looking dewott, her hands reaching down for the shells resting on her thighs with eyes narrowed. The second was a proud and dangerous looking jolteon; she had made no aggressive movements, yet the air felt oppressive just being around her.

    Before anyone could explain why they were battling in the middle of the lobby, the warehouse door that had been shut rattled and began to rise. Before it was even half-way up, the combusken from before came rushing through, followed closely behind by a rather calm xatu.

    Nobody dared to move as the jolteon gracefully made her way inside, standing in the center of the room. “Well, is anyone going to answer? Or is Dew going to have to take you in for questioning?”

    “With all due respect,” Kee began, bringing a hand up to try and hold shut his punctured shoulder, “would you happened to be Enforcer Yellow?”

    The jolteon blinked. “I am.”

    The air seemed to grow even more oppressive as everyone stared at Yellow, realizing that they were standing in the presence of one of the most powerful pokemon in all the known lands.

    The silence did not last long, as Dew stepped forward. “What I’d like to know,” the dewott began, turning her head to stare directly at Venna, “is what one of my rookie teams is doing here, trashing a building?”

    The salandit’s pupils widened in alarm. “Miss Dew! I know this probably looks bad, but I swear it’s for good reason! See, my team uncovered a plot going on here. There’s a cult meeting here in this warehouse, getting ready to go invade Seashoal Village!

    “Really now?” Yellow asked, her voice an unnatural calm that made everyone uneasy. “What makes you so certain of that?”

    “W-well…”

    “I-it’s all in the bellossom’s letter!” Creek stuttered, pointing a finger towards Ruffle. “It said something about sneaking Hoopa followers onto the island!”

    At this, the xatu stepped forward, training his unwavering stare on the jolteon. “If I may,” he began, “I believe I can explain the situation.”

    Dew stepped forward to stand next to Yellow, her fingers pulling away from her weapons, though still staying at her side ready to grab at a moment’s notice. “Please, do.”

    “My name is Sol. I serve as both seer and grandmaster for this region of Hoopa followers, watching the celestial bodies to know what times we should meet. While it is true that we followers of Hoopa arranged to meet here, there is no foul play involved at all. In fact, we were given explicit permission to gather from the building’s owner.”

    “Ah, that would be Sir Brine, right?” Gan interrupted, only to shrink back as Yellow and Dew shot him an annoyed glare.

    “Sorry, so sorry! My apologies. I’ll be quiet now.”

    Yellow shook out her fur, a couple sparks flying off as she relaxed. “So, you have permission to gather, but why have you gathered?”

    The xatu closed his eyes. “Mmm… I have foreseen an eclipse in the coming days. As you may know, we see these days as a symbol of Hoopa’s power, so we gather somewhere where it is the strongest and renew our vows.”

    “Vows of evil!” Joy blurted out.

    “Evil?” Ruffle repeated, her eyes narrowing, her frustration shining through. “Despite what you may have been told, Hoopa is not an inherently evil pokemon. Just as much as they can be seen as the embodiment of chaos and greed, they can also represent ambition. Striving for more than this life gives you. I would have been happy to explain that, but instead of listening, you left me tied up in some warehouse under the assumption that I was evil!

    Dew turned back to look at Venna, eyes narrowed. “Is this true?”

    The salandit withered under her superior’s glare, stumbling a couple steps back. “W-well, we, uh…”

    Yellow let out a long breath, closing her eyes. “I’ve heard enough. Dew, get your rookies back to their station and give them a long talk about jumping to conclusions-”

    “-and poking around in other mon’s heads without permission!” Ruffle interrupted.

    The jolteon shot her an annoyed look. “And that.” She turned to Sol next. “I apologize for any trouble my young associates have caused you. If there’s anything within reason we can do for you, I’ll see to it.”

    “Yeah, how about you compensate me for my medical bills,” Kee grumbled, pulling the rip in his cloth a little tighter.

    Surprising everyone, Yellow let out a rumbling chuckle. “I think we can arrange that. Well then, Sol, I wish your followers well.”

    As she turned to leave, the xatu spoke up, holding a wing out.

    “Safe travels, Yellow. And remember, there are things this world isn’t ready for, things that would put you - and those that you care about - in danger. Be careful who you trust.”

    Yellow whirled back around, giving the xatu a searching look. For just a moment, Ruffle thought she looked… afraid? But the expression passed just as quickly, and she decided she must have imagined it.

    “Yes… thank you.” And then she turned and walked out of sight, leaving the remaining pokemon to disperse. Dew herded her rookies away, muttering an apology as she ushered them out the door. Kee and Gan left shortly after.

    “Do you need medical attention?” the combusken asked, approaching Ruffle.

    “She will be fine,” Sol replied for her. “Her oran berries will heal the damage just fine with a little time. Come, you two. I wish to send a group out after dark.”

    Surrounded by other pokemon like her, Ruffle was finally able to relax, letting her worries melt away as she silently thanked Kee and Gan for helping her. And as she chewed on the flesh of a fresh oran berry, she found herself thinking ahead to the coming ceremony.

    *​

    High overhead, the sun beamed down, casting its light on the clearing. Grass waved in the light breeze, tickling at Ruffle as she took her place around a circle that had been carefully carved into the ground. Here, she fumbled with the parchment that she had been given, checking the words she had written one last time before folding it and tossing it into the ring, along with everyone else.

    On it, she’d written everything she hoped to accomplish before the next eclipse. She wrote about riches and bountiful harvests, of safety and shelter.

    And she wrote about hoping for confidence, for understanding. For courage to tell everyone in the village about the beliefs she’d hidden for so long.

    Perched from a branch on a nearby tree, Sol silently watched the proceedings below, occasionally peeking back up to watch the sun, waiting for the moment to begin.

    Finally, just as before the moon began to eclipse the sun, the xatu let out a loud screech, grabbing the attention of all the pokemon around.

    “For those of us who have gathered today,” Sol began in a clearly enunciated voice, “blessings to you all. As dictated by the stories passed down about Hoopa, we gather here at the time of the eclipse to renew our vows to them. Vows of ambition, of striving for more. We write down our hopes and dreams, praying that one day, Hoopa might see them and grant them to us. By Hoopa’s power.”

    “By Hoopa’s power,” the gathered pokemon repeated back.

    With one last look to the eclipse, Sol turned his gaze back to the circle. His eyes flashed and at once all the papers disappeared, their hopes and ambitions scattering on the winds.
     
    Chapter 10
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    Good news, everyone! With this chapter, Thousand Roads is ofically caught up! From now on, everything on here will be totally new. Speaking of new, this chapter starts what I would consider a new arc of the story. Enjoy!


    Chapter 10: A Fractured Sense of Normalcy

    Century. Decade. Year. Season. Moon. Hour. Minute. Second. Most pokemon only ever moved forward in time. But for Celebi, time was his sandbox. Forwards. Backwards. Forks that peered into timelines that would never come to be. All of it twisted around him as he flew through The Passage of Time.

    "Oh, where is it where is it? Why couldn't you do this yourself Dia? Where was I supposed to go again? When? Oh, this is so boring."

    Slipping through the timestream was perhaps the easiest part of Celebi's job. The Passage of Time was his refuge, a place void of sound, a place to relax when other parts of the job could get noisy and dangerous.

    Of course, while the traveling part of their job was easy enough, landing at the right place and time was much more difficult. And influencing events without being noticed was even more difficult. What he wouldn't do to have a convenient disguise.

    He paused at one particular spot, letting pulses of light pass by him for a moment. "Right, this seems close enough, doesn't it?" As he was alone, no one answered the question. But that didn't stop him from saying, "you're right. Even if it is wrong, popping in to check won't hurt. I'll be in and out lickety-split!"

    He slowed to a stop and squeezed his eyes shut, cutting his connection with the stream to reappear at the moment he stopped.

    The sky was a deep red above him stars beginning to appear in the sky. He had entered into a clearing. In hopes of getting a better look, he took to the air.

    Something was very wrong here.

    Smoldering, fresh gouges and craters dotted the landscape. A few of them were marred with smoking corpses of unfortunate pokemon that had either fought or been caught in the crossfire. Though troubling, neither of these things were what made the air so disturbed.

    No, what bothered him was how he could feel time twisting out of shape here, bending and scrunching in ways that it shouldn't. And if he had powers over space, he was certain he'd feel that unraveling too. Soon, this place would become another one of the mystery dungeons. He hated mystery dungeons and their unnatural order, creating pockets that he couldn't just enter and that screwed with his senses. As if he wasn't disoriented enough, they had to go and bend the natural order of time out of shape!

    "No, no bad, you idiot. This is not where you want to be. Or when? What year is this? Hundreds of years in the past, at least? What time is the 'present' right now?"

    But the view of the battleground did help clear up where he was. On the positive side of things, he was at least close in space to his destination. Now he just needed to get out of here and travel through time a bit.

    Celebi placed his hands on his hips. "Okie doke. Theran Village, Theran Village… Now, when were you founded, again?"

    *​

    Though the first day of recovery had been frustrating, Haru was soon back into the swing of her normal schedule. A rest by the river, breakfast, work, lunch, work, leisure. Everything was right back where it was supposed to be.

    "Put your back into it!"

    Well, as close as it could be, all things considered.

    "I'm trying, okay!" Nip snapped. His claws were wrapped tightly around a wooden beam more than twice as long as he was tall. Grombert - the diggersby construction worker that worked with her dad - watched as he dug his feet into the ground, dragging the beam behind him one step at a time.

    Vale, the current guard on watch, jumped to his feet in an instant, sparks coursing through his fur. "Hey, watch it! No talking back!"

    Nip scrunched up his nose at the start of a snarl but stopped after thinking better of it and dropped his gaze.

    Haru let out a huff, watching the situation, and shook her head, veering slightly out of the way to walk past the other pokemon without greeting. Three days had passed now since Nip's trial, and she was more than eager to move on.

    "Hey, Haru, is that you?"

    Haru turned her head to the right towards the sound of the voice. Her father stood on his hind legs a bit down the path, draped over a debarked and half gnawed-through log.

    "There you are!" Haru called out. "I brought lunch!"

    "Oh, thank goodness, I'm starving." The bibarel stood up straight, pulling himself off the log, and then plopped down on all fours and waddled around to meet Haru halfway. "What'd you bring today?"

    "Bread with apple jam and roasted potatoes. It might be a bit cold though. Mom made it this morning before heading off to fell a few trees."

    Chip let out a hum as Haru shuffled out from the bag, then began to dig through the contents in search of the box of food.

    "Hey Chip, your girl bring any for us?"

    Chip glanced up to look at the waving diggersby before turning his attention back to Haru, who nosed his paw out of the way so that she could pull out the box herself.

    "Half of that's mine, by the way," Haru said. "There should be enough apple jam if he brought his own bread though."

    Chip glanced in the bags before calling back to Grombert, "not really, sorry! But I got some extra jam."

    Grombert grumbled something under his breath before calling out louder. "That's fine, I was going to pick up some sweet bread from Swell for lunch anyways. I don't think I need any more sugar than that!" And then he laughed, as if he had said something funny.

    The bibarel lifted a bundle out of the box with his teeth and waddled over to where the other three were. Haru considered picking up her food and leaving, but the walk to town had taken a good portion of her lunch break, and she was feeling a bit peckish already. It wouldn't hurt to eat here. So, she gathered up her own bundle and followed behind her father.

    "'S fine you didn't bring me anything," Vale huffed, lying down on his stomach. "I can't properly digest most of that stuff after all. Besides, I won't get a chance to eat till Sparks takes over, and he should be here any time now. I'll head down to Mandi's then, then Jhorlo wanted to talk to me about something. That reminds me…"

    The manectric stood up and moved a few feet back to stuff his head in a bag lying against the wall. He retrieved a small bundle from inside and unceremoniously tossed it. It audibly smacked the sneasel in the face. He let out a yelp and let go of the beam he was holding, nearly dropping it on his foot.

    "There you go, eat up. Or don't, not my problem if you starve."

    Grumbling under his breath, Nip grabbed hold of the bundle and pulled the knot loose, frowning at the contents.

    Haru stole a glance over, noting two razz berries, a nanab berry, a corked jar with water, and a small bowl. The sneasel made a face but began to nibble at the berry anyways. Vale caught sight of his expression and let out a low growl.

    "Don't even ask. I already told ya you're going have to put up with it until you get some money. You're a prisoner, not a charity case, and razz, bluk, nanab, and wepear berries have all been ruled as safe emergency food sources for obligate carnivores."

    "I think you're making that up. I've never seen, let alone heard of one of these 'bulkberries.' Besides, how do I know you're not trying to poison me? You seemed pretty ready to send me off to my death, after all?"

    Vale responded with a grumble and a roll of the head. "What good would it do me to kill you? Other than maybe getting some shut eye for once, since you're always whining my ears off? Besides, I didn't prep those for you. If you got a problem with your provisions, take it up with Whisper."

    "Oh, so the pokemon that actually has a reason to want me dead is feeding me. Got it, I feel safe eating this now. Not."

    "Eat it or don't but shut up. Or I'll make you shut up. I don't give a shit if you starve or get poisoned or whatever, so long as you give me some respect and some peace. And. Quiet."

    Nip glared at the manectric for a moment longer, before averting his gaze, turning his attention to the berries laid out in front of him.

    Chip sat down with his food as the exchange happened, watching with a curious glint in his eye. He tilted his head slightly, his tail thumping against the ground. "Er… don't you think that was a bit harsh, Vale?"

    Vale let out a huff and shook out his fur before sitting down, scratching at his neck with his hind paw. "Oh, come on, Chip. Why should I be nice to him? He stole and probably ate Whisper's egg. He killed an unborn child from our village! He should have been locked up at best, or else executed. But no, I'm stuck out here babysitting a murderer because the village voted to rehabilitate him." He paused. "No, wait, let me be more specific. I'm here because your son voted to rehabilitate him. It was tied up, and your son had to go and be the good guy."

    "Now hold on," the bibarel said, standing back up on his hind legs, "you don't know what way Jhorlo would have voted. He could have gone either way! And I don't appreciate you insulting my son like that!"

    To this, Vale let out a low growl, his claws digging into the soft dirt, and muttered something about asking Jhorlo himself. But before he could jump to his feet and do something he might regret, Grombert stepped between the two of them, pushing them back with his prehensile ears.

    "Enough! I know tensions are high, but that's no excuse to be jumping at each other's throats! Now, Chip, I sympathize with you, but Vale has a right to his opinion, and he does kind of have a point: the sneasel hasn't given us good reason to be nice.

    "Hah, see!"

    "And you, Vale," Grombert added, turning his attention to the disgruntled manectric, "insulting Toshi was absolutely uncalled for."

    "Yeah!" Haru said, stepping up. "Toshi had nothing to do with what Nip did. So, leave him out of it."

    The manectric averted his gaze. "Fine, sorry. I'm sorry for insulting Toshi. Besides, he wasn't the one to bring that thing back to the village."

    Haru stepped forward and let out a low growl. "Hey, jabbing at me instead doesn't make you look any better."

    "I didn't name any names." Vale gave Haru a pointed look before standing up to back away from Grombert, turning away afterwards before laying down with a huff. "Fine. Whatever. But don't blame me when another egg gets stolen, or someone turns up dead."

    Grombert let out a long sigh before changing the subject. "Speaking of eggs… Hey Chip, did you get to talk to Tor about our proposal yet?"

    The bidoof sat back down and began to pick at his food. "He's… hesitant. On one hand the extra security-" He cut off, catching sight of Nip staring out of the corner of his eye. "Actually, can we talk about this later? I don't know if discussing plans is the best idea right now."

    "Eh?" Grombert turned his head to look back at Nip, who quickly averted his gaze and busied himself with trying to remove the cork from the bottle of water. "That's right! Eat up! I don't want to hear you complaining about an empty stomach when we get back to work."

    Letting out a sigh he turned his attention back to Chip. "Right, good point. Maybe it isn't the best idea to have him around the nursery… but then again, they can watch him and the eggs at the same time. So…"

    Nip's ear twitched, and he opened his mouth like he was going to say something. But then he thought better of it and shut it again, turning his head away to absentmindedly nibble at one of the berries, making a face at the taste.

    Haru looked up from her food and stared at the sneasel for a moment, guilt gnawing at her stomach. As much as she hated to admit it, Vale sort of had a point. If she, Shimmer, and Muse hadn't brought Nip back, this all would have been avoided... probably. He probably would have died in the forest, meat-eating wildeners drawn by the smell of blood. But perhaps he would have survived. Perhaps he would have found the village and stolen from them anyways.

    "Do you need something else, Haru?"

    "Hm?" She tilted her head up and turned back to look at her father, who was staring at her with a concerned expression.

    "Oh, no. Not really. I was just thinking about something. I should... Probably head back anyways. I want to get a couple more trees stripped before the end of the day."

    At that, Chip chuckled. "That's my girl, always the hard worker. I know it's a ways off, but I know you'll make us proud when you take over the business one day."

    Haru hummed in response. Taking over the family business... Part of her so looked forward to it, and yet she wanted to make it into so much more, and worried about living up to that dream.

    No, now wasn't the time to worry about it. She took a moment to scarf up and gulp down the last couple bites of food. "I better get going then, I'll see you tonight, Dad. Goodbye Grombert. Goodbye Vale."

    The diggersby raised a meaty ear to signal his farewell. Vale let out a huff of air and shook his head but showed no real signs of aggression.

    She glanced over to Nip one last time as she began to walk away and caught sight of him staring at her, his pupils narrow slits. As soon as he noticed her looking at him, however, he quickly averted his gaze.

    As she made her way back towards home, Vale's harsh words rang in her head, and she found the guilt getting the better of her. And anger. Thinking about Nip, and how he'd wronged the community stung. His answers during the trial had been unsatisfying, as well.

    Her thoughts drifted back towards Shimmer's words the other day. Was she taking things personally?

    A few moments passed in silence as she made her way down the path, turning back towards the walkway to the river. And as she stewed in silence, she became certain of something.

    The only way she was going to find peace was to confront Nip directly.

    *​

    To say Umbra was upset would be an understatement.

    No, Umbra was livid. For three days now, she'd allowed herself to stew in her anger. How could these idiot villagers just up and protect Nip like that, especially after a crime as heinous as his? She had come so close to catching him, only for it to be ripped away by a sentimental bidoof!

    If that didn't frustrate her enough, now it seemed like many more of the villagers eyed her with suspicion. More often than not, it seemed like there was someone watching her, waiting for her to screw up. She hadn't even been able to slip away for some peace and quiet, or to hunt. At least Jhorlo understood her needs though; someone always came by in the morning to provide her with food.

    Until today, at least.

    The morning had come and gone without a single pokemon stopping by her room. Waiting for food to arrive, she had stuck around, trying to curb her restlessness by doing things like grooming, or reciting stories and legends from her Tribe, refreshing memories of the story, as was tradition. She even spent some time trying to think of a way to extract Nip, realizing - unfortunately - that she would have to spend some time understanding the village structure and customs to stand a chance. But still, no one came.

    Now, as late-afternoon light poured in through her window, the claws of hunger dug into her belly. Even on her travels, when was the last time she'd gone nearly a whole day without food? It had to have been at least a few winters ago.

    To say the least, she was still in a foul mood when she heard a soft scratching at the door. She responded to the sound with a grunt, not bothering to get up from the nest. The door pushed open a moment later, one of the two purrloin appearing on the other side.

    "Jhorlo would like to see you," she announced, dipping her head in greeting.

    "It is about time," the mawile grumbled, finally sitting up.

    The purrloin - Lotte, if she remembered correctly (though she cared little about remembering the name) - waited for her at the doorway, turning to begin walking down the hall once Umbra approached. The mawile followed in silence for a moment. However, there was something off, a concern that she voiced after a moment.

    "Where is the... Other one? The one that's usually with you."

    She seemed to be prepared for the question, answering nonchalantly without breaking stride. "Jaques had other obligations to attend to. He will be back in the evening."

    "I see." After that, Umbra said nothing more.

    Before they could get to their destination, however, the duo was interrupted by a pair of passing pokemon rounding the corner: a kirlia and an absol walking side by side, the kirlia chattering away. Umbra muttered a curse under her breath, unfortunately reminded of the meddling pokemon that also lived here.

    "Oh, Musey, Look!" the kirila said, pointing before waving Umbra and Lotte over. "It's out guest of honor!"

    Lotte paused to look back towards Umbra before veering off the planned path to speak with Shimmer.

    "For formalities sake, it would be best we say hello. Jhorlo will understand our tardiness."

    Muse dipped her head to the pair as they approached. Lotte came all the way up to stand just in front of Muse, her tail raised in greeting, a slight purr rumbling in her throat. Umbra, however, kept her distance.

    "Good afternoon, Lotte," Muse said, her tone warm. "How have you been?"

    "I've been well," the purrloin replied. "Work has gone surprisingly smooth the past week, all things considered."

    Muse laughed, her demeanor softening slightly. "Glad to hear it. Sorry we haven't been around as much lately. Things have been... interesting the last few weeks, as I'm sure you know."

    "Yeah," Shimmer added with a giggle. "This is, like, toootally my fault. Really though, things have been so wild lately. If it wasn't for such dire reasons, I'd say I like that things have been shook up so much!"

    Shimmer's voice was loud and overly upbeat. Maybe some could find it endearing, but to Umbra, it was a headache waiting to happen.

    Muse looked up and noticed Umbra and, upon seeing her disdained expression, adopted a curter tone to address her.

    "Ah, and Umbra. I take it your day is going well?"

    Umbra huffed in response, not answering the question. "I have more important things to do than small talk."

    "Aw, don't be like that!" Shimmer said, draping herself dramatically over Muse's back. "You're such a spoilsport. Just like Haru - but at least I like her!"

    Muse flinched ever so slightly, raising one paw as she turned back to look at her charge. "Shimmer... perhaps it would be better to at least be courteous to our guest?"

    Shimmer waved a hand dismissively in response. "Why should I? She's not being nice either?"

    "Well, it's not my place to question you but... if you want to be a great leader someday, you have to learn to be respectful, even when you don't want to be."

    "That is a good point," the kirlia said, clapping her hands together for emphasis. But before she continued, she raised a hand and held it up to Muse's mouth in a shushing gesture. "But I'm not a leader yet and I'm not going to be nice right now."

    Her serious statement aside, the teasing smile returned to her face, and she turned back to face Umbra. "So, how long are you going to stick around moping like this? A decision's already been made, so why are you still here? Go home, or something."

    Umbra's expression soured. "I will not leave without Nip. It is my duty to bring him to justice."

    "Is it really?" Shimmer said, a mischievous look in her eye. "Is it really your duty? Or do you have some other personal reason for sticking around?"

    Umbra narrowed her eyes, a scowl on her face. "It is my duty. But even if it was not, that is none of your business."

    Shimmer continued to stare at her for another long moment, the air tense. But finally, she relaxed, turning away. "Well, all I'm saying is that he's facing justice, so your really don't have any reason to stay here, you know?" Then she turned her attention away. "Come on Musey. We got better things to do."

    The absol shook out her fur and turned, nosing Shimmer back the way they came. "Of course. Whatever you wish."

    "Let us know if you need anything," Shimmer called back towards Umbra. "We'll be listening!"

    And with that, that the two disappeared around the corner, the kirlia chattering about whatever nonsensical thing came to her head.

    Something about the way she'd said her last statement unnerved Umbra. But she pushed the concerns about the vapid fairy-type out of her head and instead turned to address Lotte.

    "Is she... always like that?"

    "Pretty much," Lotte replied, reaching up a hind leg to scratch at her neck for a moment before standing and turning back to resume their walk towards Jhorlo's again. "She's got her head in the clouds most of the time, but she's smarter than you'd think. Muse helps keep her grounded though. They play well off of each other, don't you think?"

    Umbra replied with a noncommittal grunt. She cared little about what the pair did or did not do. They were not her concern.

    When she didn't respond, the purrloin faltered, shocked by her lack of care for the social niceties. But she quickly shrugged it off and moved on.

    The rest of their short trip to Jhorlo's room was spent in silence. Lotte couldn't find a good topic to start a conversation with, and Umbra had absolutely no interest in speaking. Soon, they were standing in front of the door.

    Lotte reached up to scratch at the door a couple times, then pushed it open the rest of the way.

    "I apologize for the delay, sir," she said as she entered. "We had a run-in with your daughter and spent a few moments speaking wither her.

    "That's quite alright, Lotte," Umbra heard Jhorlo say. "Thank you for explaining. You're dismissed for the evening. Miss Umbra, would you enter, please?"

    Lotte dipped her head respectfully before turning, brushing her tail against Umbra as she passed. The mawile stepped forward into the room, and the door shut behind her.

    It took her a moment to spot Jhorlo in the room. Fabric had been pulled over the opening - the window - in the back of the room, limiting the lighting to just to just a dim, afternoon glow, and whatever was lit by the glowing moss. The purugly's location was only given away by the slight glint of his eyes.

    "Good evening, Umbra," he said with a slight rumble in his voice. "I trust your day has gone well?"

    "Well enough," Umbra said in a curt tone. "Would have liked a lunch though."

    "Oh, I figured you would have been able to figure out how to get it yourself by now. You seemed so certain and confident in yourself. I apologize for overestimating you."

    The underhanded jab was not missed by Umbra. "Are you... trying to antagonize me?"

    "Only time will tell, I think," he replied, standing up. "I'll be curt with you, dear Umbra. It all depends on how well this meeting goes."

    "Do I really need to be here for all this?" A voice barked from the corner. Umbra immediately whipped around and spotted a manectric lounging on his side, a bored expression on his face.

    "Oh, please hush, Vale," Jhorlo snapped as he walked around to the front of the table. "I'll get to you eventually."

    His expression shifted to a restrained smile as he turned back to talk to Umbra. When you're in my position, there are many things you have to juggle, you see. But we're not here to talk about that, now are we? We're here to talk about you. And Nip."

    She scoffed in response, her expression souring. "I would have thought you would have the final say in any judgements, and yet he's protected now more than ever."

    "Begrudgingly," Vale interrupted from his corner.

    "Yes, yes. I Know. And who was supposed to catch him before the whole village caught up, might I ask? I told you to go ahead of the villagers for a reason, and yet you still failed. This failure is on you."

    "On me?" she growled. "How is it my fault that a bunch of meddlers ran ahead? Those two, the kirlia and the absol, your daughter and her guard, they are under your command, right? If you cannot control those idiots, I do not see how this is my fault?"

    Jhorlo rose up to his full height, his voice coming out in a hiss. "How dare you speak about my daughter that way? I don't think you understand the position you're in right now, but I suggest you watch your tongue."

    Umbra's paws clenched into fists. "Why should I? I am not beholden to follow your rules and niceties. Give me one good reason I should not call our deal off and march down to kill him right now and leave?"

    The purugly paused for a moment, looking her over. When he finally spoke, his voice came out silky smooth, instead of the previous hiss. "I can give you a few, dear Umbra. For one, if you try, you'll bring down the wrath of the whole village. Certainly, there may be a few that would sit out, feeling you did the right thing, but the majority will follow the decision that was made. And besides that, if things go wrong, there's nothing I can do to protect you."

    "I am not some kit that needs protecting though," she snarled.

    "Fine, fine. I can understand the sentiment. However... There is one other thing. Even if you succeed, if you break your contract, well... Let me just say... things won't go well for you."

    At this, Vale sat up, alert, and looked between the two squabbling pokemon. "Wait, contract?" His voice dropped to a surprised mutter. "Oh, Jhorlo, you clever bastard."

    As soon as the last word left Vale's mouth, Jhorlo spun to spit a reply at him. "I don't remember speaking to you. I suggest you hold your tongue as well."

    The manectric flinched before turning his head away, laying back down. "Of course, sorry, sir. Won't happen again."

    Satisfied, Jhorlo turned his attention back towards Umbra. "As I was saying, we made a written agreement that you would work for me to bring in Nip. And if you fail that, or if you were to leave without sharing, as per our agreement, both of those would be breaches of contract, you see. And per our contract, if you were to break it, well, I would be allowed to use lethal force. And I do not think you want that, now do you?"

    Umbra stooped slightly, adopting a defensive pose. "Is that a threat?"

    "It can be," Jhorlo replied casually, "if you don't keep your side of the deal."

    The mawile stared him down, thoughts racing through her head. How dare he treat her like this? Had this been his plan all along? Maybe he'd conspired with the village mon to sneak Nip out, and this had all been a ploy to humiliate her. "You did not. Mention. This. Before."

    Jhorlo scoffed. "Well, I figured I wouldn't have to. It was all right there in the contract you signed. I figured any clever mon would have taken the time to read it."

    At that, Umbra had to take pause. It was true that she'd signed a paper, but it had not occurred to her to try reading it at all. Even if she had, would she have been able to read it?"

    "Prove it," she growled. "Let me see this contract."

    "But of course." Jhorlo turned to reach a paw up and push a glass jar back on the desk, allowing it to illuminate a piece of parchment. As Umbra cautiously approached, she could make out her signature. But as she looked over the words, she realized with dismay that she couldn't read the writing. Her people had a very simplistic set of runes, with a handful of different print shapes and strokes representing words or concepts. Not everyone had the means to write it, but everyone was taught how to read and interpret them.

    These, on the other hand, were made up of a series of dots and lines strung together, running across and then down the page.

    "What kind of trickery is this?" Umbra growled. "This is... this is a bunch of nonsense!"

    Jhorlo's head reared back slightly, eyes glinting in surprise. "You mean to tell me that you can't read this?"

    "These are a bunch of dots, not a reasonable language! Where are your shapes? Your pawprints and footprints?"

    A silence stretched out as her question hung in the air. Then Jhorlo began to chuckle, his tone turning dark and silky again. "My, my, this is rather unfortunate, isn't it? Unfortunate for you, I mean. If you had bothered to tell me sooner, I could have done something to help you, you see. I could have explained the terms in more detail!"

    "So, what, you're just going to hold me to something I couldn't understand?"

    "Well... yes? You were the one that signed it without looking, I can't have helped if I didn't know, right?"

    Umbra had heard enough. All this nonsense, and she still wasn't any closer to dealing with Nip. "That does it," she growled. And without a second thought, she whipped around and charged Jhorlo, her skull starting to glow.

    Jhorlo seemed to anticipate this, however. Before she could strike, he stepped to the side. She sailed past harmlessly, but as she passed, she felt a sharp jab in her side.

    When she spun back around, the purugly was staring at her with a smug smile. "Goodness? Is that all you've got? Well, I wouldn't do that again, if I were you."

    His words only served to anger Umbra even more, to the point that she was practically seeing red. But before she could lash out and strike him again, a jolt of electricity struck her, sending painful spasms through her body.

    She whirled around to strike whoever had attacked her, but her jaws closed in on empty air. Momentum from the failed attack drove her forward, causing her to stumble.

    "Ah, swagger," she heard Jhorlo rumble. Was this funny to him? "A risky move, but the results speak for themselves."

    Was this anger the result of some kind of attack? No, she was already angry, this just made her angrier and threw off her perception. But maybe she could calm down, just a little. She sucked a deep breath in through her nostrils, then let it all out in a huff, relaxing slightly. Now that she wasn't in a blind rage, she could see exactly where the electrical attack had come from. Still in the corner of the room, Vale had stood up, sparks of electricity bouncing off his pelt.

    She looked between him, and then back to Jhorlo. This must have been why he was here; Jhorlo was anticipating an attack. With a grunt, Umbra turned and raced towards the manectric.

    An arc of electricity raced through the air as she drew close, slowing but not stopping her. She raced up and underneath the electric type, clamping down on his stomach with her second jaw.

    Vale let out a pained yelp, flinching as the sharp fangs dug into his stomach. He responded to the attack by whipping around to try and snap at her and, failing that, let out a powerful surge of electricity, bolts flinging out in all directions.

    The surge was much more powerful than she expected, her muscles twitching and convulsing as electricity surged through her body. For a second, she though she smelled burnt fur. Was it her own?

    But as the surge died down, she realized that her muscles still felt tensed up and unresponsive. She tried to move her arm but got little more than a twitch. Had the blow been powerful enough to paralyze her? Her? How?

    "Watch where you're flinging that electricity!" Jhorlo snapped. Use something less destructive!

    "She was biting me, get off my pace!" Vale took the opportunity to whip around, biting down into her torso to pull her off. He flung her a few feet across the room, where she landed on her stomach. With a feral growl, she slowly forced herself back to her feet and tried to face Vale again.

    But he wasn't in the corner anymore.

    Instead, he was rushing her with speed she hadn't been expecting, pouncing forward with sparks dancing in his mouth. She whipped around defensively to block the attack with her steely jaws.

    But instead of landing on her, he sailed overhead, landing just on the other side to spin around.

    She reached up to throw a punch against his jaw, causing the manectric to yelp. She tried to attack again, but her muscles seized up again at the worst possible time.

    He took the opportunity to swat at her with one hard blow from his paw, knocking her down. This time, he did not waste the opening, not giving her another chance to attack. She felt one paw slam down on her stomach and had just enough time to see his mouth burst into flame before he struck, clamping down on her shoulder.

    She felt the fangs sink into her skin, biting down not hard enough to break skin, but hard enough to hold her tight in place. But it wasn't the teeth that hurt the most. No, it was the flames. Fire rolled off around the bite in waves, scorching and burning fur and blistering skin. She let out a scream and thrashed, trying to twist around so that she could get a good bite down on his leg.

    But her struggles were growing weaker and weaker as she tired herself out. Which only served to make her angrier. Finally, she managed to hook her jaws around one paw, clamping down hard enough that he finally let go, stumbling back a couple feet.

    Slowly, she climbed back to her feet to face him again. She took a step forward, trying to ready an attack, but then stumbled and tipped forward, falling flat. He took the opportunity to limp forward again, standing nearby ready to strike, but staying away from her dangerous jaws.

    At this point, Jhorlo stepped between the two.

    "My, my. Now this is concerning," the purugly mewed in mock surprise. "Who would have thought our own Umbra would turn on us? You saw that. Right, Vale?"

    Vale grunted in response, letting out a huff of air.

    Slowly, Umbra pushed herself back to her feet, paws scraping against the wooden floor. How in Yveltal's name had she been thrown around by these two? Or really, mostly just the manectric?

    As if reading her mind, Jhorlo let out a smug, chirp-like noise before speaking. "What, surprised you had a harder time against pokemon actually trained for battle, are we? Seems for all your boastful, high and mighty air, you're not so strong after all."

    Umbra replied by letting out a growl, clenching her fists and snapping her jaws threateningly. "Shut. Up."

    "Oh, are you trying to threaten me again? I wouldn't do that if I were you, dear." He sat down, seemingly unconcerned, and began to groom his face. Between swipes of his paw, he added, "Vale has more than enough reason and permission to use lethal force on you now, you know. It would be a shame to kill you though, really. You may have broken the terms by attacking me, but I am a merciful pokemon, and would be more than willing to give you a second chance… for a price."

    With narrowed eyes, the mawile squeezed her fists again. "And why should I agree to anything now?"

    "Because if you don't, then you have no further use to me, and I'll just have Vale kill you now?"

    At that, the manectric stood up a bit straighter, pawing anxiously at the ground. "Are you sure about that, boss? I mean… wouldn't people notice if she disappeared all of the sudden?"

    "I highly doubt it," Jhorlo snapped. "There's no one here that cares enough to look into it if she disappeared. But I don't pay you to ask questions, do I? Remember your own debt, Vale."

    Umbra turned her head backwards just enough to see Vale flinch. He let out a soft whine before replying, "yes, of course. Sorry, sir."

    Satisfied, Jhorlo turned his attention back to Umbra. "So, your answer, please?"

    Umbra growled for a moment. She shouldn't have been defeated so easily. Her, defeated by these two? There had to be some foul play at work. Even so… she was in no position to fight right now.

    "Tell me your demands," she finally answered.

    A smug grin crept on to Jhorlo's face. "I'm so glad you asked. Tell me, how much have you bothered learning about the… laws and regulations about the meat industry around here?"

    "Get to the point."

    "Fine, fine. Well, suffice to say that around here, eating meat is seen as a necessary evil. But since it wouldn't do to go and accidently off someone's relative, there's a lot of… restrictions. Down here, civilized pokemon don't hunt, as you might already know. They harvest bodies of the pokemon that die in the wilds. Or at least… that's what they'd like to believe.

    "Truth is, that's just not sustainable, you see. Too many pokemon need to eat meat to live. I may be a bit underhanded, my dear, but I have no interest in seeing good pokemon starve just because of a few little rules. So, since you've already got a bit of experience in hunting, I have some interest in… recruiting you.

    "Here's what I can offer you. If you hunt for me, hunt for the town under the radar until you finish your objective, then we can just… sweep this little hiccup under the rug. So, what do you say?"

    Umbra hesitated, clenching her jaw as she looked between Jhorlo and Vale. "... And if I refuse?"

    "Well, that would be quite unfortunate. But I suppose it can't be helped. I suppose we'd either have to turn you over to the guard though, for attacking me, or else kill you right now."

    If Umbra was being honest with herself, her options were limited. Agree, or die. Agree, or let Nip go. Agree, or lose any hope of avenging her kin.

    "Fine."

    The purugly's maw twisted into a cruel, toothy style. "Excellent. I'll have Vale fill you in on the details in the morning. Pleasure doing business with you, my dear."
     
    Chapter 11
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    Review Replies! First off in general, thanks for pointing out any typos you come across. I'll fix them up next time I do a round of revisions.

    @NebulaDreams
    To break it down, first of all, I wonder where the line is blurred between eggs that are just the yolk and eggs that have still-developing Pokemon. You could apply this to the real-life thing, though I doubt that was your intention (allegory and applicability are different, after all), but it does raise the question of when is an egg considered to be a child in this world, if there is any way to tell.
    You're right that I wasn't planning for it to be an an allegory, though I'm kind of surprised no one else has brought this up.

    The trial scene was tense, as I was genuinely wondering what would happen to Nip (though if this story is going to be quite long, I wouldn't expect him to be killed off so quickly), and really felt for him as he was trying not to crack under the pressure while having his fate discussed.
    For what it's worth, current estimates put this at about 45 chapters. Could be a bit more or less though depending on how things go

    If we've already gotten the gist of Nip and Umbra's arc, then I doubt it'll linger more on that and this fic will start to move towards stuff with higher stakes.
    We'll be getting a bit more about them, but you're right that things are going to grow grander in scale as things move forward.

    I'll also mention briefly that I want to explore more with Shimmer. Hopefully she'll get some development soon enough. Also, I love the analysis you did on Nip; it was really fun to read.

    @canisaries
    Thanks for the review. You bring up a lot of valid points, although some of them I'd chalk up to creative liberties, and others to early-installment weirdness that I should probably clean up later, now that things are more cement than they initially were. I do want to briefly mention that, regarding the scavenging shop, there are some grey areas that I haven't gotten into at the point you're at and that have just begun to be touched on in more recent chapters. (particularly on supply chains and such).

    I totally understand if you don't want to continue reading, and will openly admit that my fic isn't for everyone. If you don't continue, thanks for giving it a shot anyways!

    @kintsugi
    Your dialogue exchanges sometimes go untagged -- this is technically okay since they're sort of back-solvable (idk the exact word, but it's easy enough to figure out who's saying what because there's clarification in the responding set of dialogue), but it's a little confusing going forward.
    I've had several people point this out, so that's probably something I should resolve next time I do some editing.

    I do wonder if you could condense a little further, though. The fletchling/fletchinder fight feels underwhelming compared to, for example, Nip's flight from town or the Umbra fight next chapter.
    Yeah, a lot of people have mentioned the fletchinder fight feeling a bit off. I will say that to be fair, it originally wasn't supposed to be all that important, but it's grown a bit more important as I wrote further out. I'll still give it a glance over again in a future revision and see if I can't make it a little better though.

    And to wrap this up, I'll say I'm glad that you like the fight scenes, as I have a lot of fun with them and would like to think I'm at least half-way decent at writing fights, lol.

    @Umbramatic
    Nip and Haru's dynamic is great, even when it brings up HORRIFYING MORAL DILEMMAS. Especially when it brings up HORRIFYING MORAL DILEMMAS.
    Heh, yeah, I wanted them to have verrry different worldviews and experiences.

    The CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT Legendaries and how the characters treat them is making me Speculate. That's good. Speaking of speculation, who's this mysterious Mawile? We'll have to seeeeeee...
    83c That's all. That's all I'll say on both of those points.


    Chapter 11: It's Just a Question

    Every part of Nip’s body ached.

    He was no stranger to hard work; keeping the tribe’s resting grounds clean and tidy was by no means easy. And on rare occasions, more involved hunts and tasks kept him away from the resting grounds for days. But dragging around materials more than twice his size for hours on end with only a short break in the middle? Slicing and chopping wood for so long it made his paws bleed? No, that was not normal. But it was his new routine. And now, he found himself exhausted at the end of every day.

    Somehow, he figured that was the point. Afterall, he knew far too well that an exhausted pokemon caused no trouble.

    As usual, the day’s work continued as the sun crawled its way across the sky, until it was nearly dark out.

    “Aight, I think that’s about enough for the day.”

    The diggersby’s call announced the end to the grueling work. At once, Nip breathed out a relieved sigh, sinking to the ground before flopping his back. The dirt be damned, he was already dirty; what was a bit more? By now, the shadows were long, and the sky had grown a deep orange. Scattered, puffy clouds were tinged crimson as they drifted across the sky. Some pokemon back in his tribe would consider the color an ill omen. He didn’t know whether he should, as well.

    He heard footsteps approaching and instinctually tensed, trying to sit back up. But his aching muscles protested, leaving him prone as the form of a quagsire loomed over him.

    “Are you about done moping around? I’d like to head back and lock up for the night.”

    Nip bit back a stinging retort, trying to hide his annoyance behind only the twitch of his ear. Best to not make things worse than he already had today. Rolling first onto his side, then onto his stomach, Nip peeled himself from the ground, climbing slowly to his feet.

    As they began to walk away from the daycare and back towards the guard hut, he kept his head down, not interested in seeing the stares and leers of any village pokemon that might be going about their business at this hour.

    The walk back towards the guard hut was fairly short; most places that weren’t dens – or houses, or whatever weird made-up word the villagers used for their weird shelters – were all together in a ring, taking a few minutes at most to reach, and the hut was no exception.

    He came to a stop just outside the fabric barrier, listening to the quagsire follow behind. His ear feather twitched irritably as he waited. On one hand, the whole arrangement annoyed him, spending night after night in a dank cell, curling up in a corner in hopes of keeping warm in the drafty building. How did these pokemon stand it, being in such a wide-open chamber with only one narrow exit?

    On the other hand, he couldn’t blame them for keeping him somewhere where he couldn’t run. He’d already tried finding a way out of the barred cell, striking at the metal with his claws and ice, to no avail. And it wasn’t the worst place he could be. Even if he couldn’t run, at least Umbra couldn’t get to him here.

    At least, he hoped not. If she could, well, he was like a cornered rattata.

    And that didn’t even touch on the diet he’d been given thus far. Whisper claimed that he’d eventually have money to purchase meat, but he wasn’t sure he believed that. He wasn’t sure that she wasn’t slowly starving him to death, enacting the only form of revenge the village had allowed.

    The quagsire - Slies, if he remembered the name correctly - paused just behind him, waiting for him to keep going. When he did not, Slies scoffed and reached up to pull the curtain aside. Nip let out a resigned sigh and stepped inside.

    The guard hut was one of the larger buildings, built with a second level. He had no idea what was on top, but the bottom was furnished with only a low, wooden platform, a couple of nests for the guards or any visitors to rest in, and three cells of varying sizes.

    Typically, the bottom floor was empty at this time of day, or at most might have a single guard waiting for him and his watcher to return. But tonight, someone else, someone familiar was waiting in one of the nests.

    A lump of brown fur raised up as they entered, alerted by the rustling of the fabric.

    “Eh? Haru? What are you doing here?” Slies asked. “Everything alright? I hope you haven’t been waiting here long.”

    “Long? Oh, no, no, not at-” Haru cut herself off with a yawn, blinking a few times. “Not at all. I just, er… and this might sound a bit weird I guess, but I kind of wanted to ask the, um… I wanted to ask Nip a couple questions. Is that okay?”

    “Him?” Slies tilted his head, thumping his tail against the wooden floor a couple times. “Well, I mean, I guess it’s alright, go ahead.”

    “Thanks. Of course.” But then she said nothing, just staring at Nip, then back to Slies. “Um… I know you have to keep an eye on him and all, but… do you mind giving me a minute of privacy? Maybe you could… just guard the entrance? There’s no windows or anything for him to escape through.”

    “I dunno about that Haru… What if he takes you hostage or something? That could be just as bad.”

    Nip felt almost insulted by the suggestion. “Do you really think I would do something as cowardly as that?”

    “You stole an egg,” the quagsire pointed out. “I wouldn’t put anything past you.”

    At that, Nip could only clench his teeth, his ear lying flat against his skull. He understood why they were upset, but death and cruelty were just facts of life, and he was only doing what he thought he had to for survival. How would taking Haru hostage help with that? In fact, it was more likely to get him killed.

    He didn’t air his thoughts though, not wanting to risk a blast of frigid water to the face. Or worse.

    Slies continued to give them a hard stare, but when Haru did not budge, he sighed and gave in. “Fine, Fine. Just for a few minutes though! I’ll be right outside. Give me a shout if you need me. "And you”—he turned to face Nip, thumping his heavy tail on the ground a couple times in a threatening manner—"you better be on your best behavior."

    Nip said nothing, but forced himself to relax slightly, his tail feathers twitching.

    With that, Slies brushed back past the curtain, leaving Nip and Haru alone in the room.

    At first, Haru still said nothing, her gaze shifting to the ground. Nip shifted his weight uncomfortably in the silence, watching her without a word. “Well, what is it that you needed to ask so bad?”

    “Just a second,” she said quickly. “I’m trying to figure out how to word it.” The silence stretched on for just a bit longer, before she finally sucked in a breath and answered. “I just… I don’t get it. What’s your problem?”

    He blinked. “What’s… What’s my problem?”

    “Yeah.” She looked back up. “How can you live with yourself, turning on and hurting the pokemon that took you in and saved your life? You killed someone’s child. Do you realize that? Or are you just morally bankrupt?”

    Nip scrunched his nose at the start of a snarl, her sharp words stinging. This is what she came here for? To insult him and ask questions that he had already answered? He forced his fur to lie flat before replying. “That’s… Death is inevitable. Whether it be at the hands of a hungry predator, or because your prey struck back. Or any sort of horrible accident. And at some point, you just have to accept it. You have to accept that you must kill to live, or you have to accept that the world isn’t safe, and that others might hunt you for food. Sometimes it’s both. It’s terrifying, I will admit. But it’s just the way life works.”

    Haru blinked a couple times, seemingly stunned by his response. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, he couldn’t tell. But finally, her gaze hardened. “So that’s it, you justify your actions because that’s just the way the world works? What a terrible excuse.”

    “Well, I’d like to hear what you think then. Do you really think searching for unfortunates and letting your carnivore friends eat what amounts to carrion is healthy? That it’s right? Do you really believe that it actually works that way?”

    “Yes? That’s the agreement every pokemon has to live by, to be able to live in a civilized society. They don’t hunt and kill other pokemon, and in turn, they have access to all the resources and materials living in a town provides. Simple enough.”

    “You can’t really believe that’s sustainable, do you?”

    “Why wouldn’t it be, it’s worked for all these years.”

    “How do you know though?” Nip asked, tapping his claws together. “You don’t seem like you’ve bothered keeping up with any of that. Have you ever even bothered asking and finding out?”

    “I don’t need to,” Haru insisted. “It’s written into our laws and rules. If there was something shady going on, surely someone would have done something about it by now.”

    Nip opened his mouth to say something more, but shut it, sensing that this wasn’t an argument he was going to win. Instead, he just let out a huff of air and returned back to the first subject.

    “Fine. Let me try explaining another way. I…” He trailed off, hesitating. How much was he willing to share? On one hand, he’d already spilled most of his story, and he doubted hiding anything now would matter. On the other, he was still hesitant to tell the whole story, seeing how she’d reacted thus far. There were still things about his life that he doubted she would take well. And he feared the idea of losing this last chance at life if he said the wrong thing.

    “Well? I’m waiting. And you know what, let me ask you another question while I’m at it. Why did you steal an egg, when you could have just gone a little bit further out of town and stolen from the meat shop?” Then she quickly added, “Not that I’m encouraging theft, but theft is less heinous than murder.”

    “I already answered this,” he growled, quickly growing frustrated. “I honestly thought that it was my best option. In the moment, I was concerned with getting away as quickly as possible. For all I knew, Umbra could have already reached the village and was just waiting for me to show myself.”

    “And you really think she would kill you in the middle of the village? Or at all?”

    “Yes!” Why couldn’t anyone else see Umbra for how dangerous and aggressive she was? “If it wasn’t for the guards here, she would sneak in and kill me right now, I’m sure of it. And if she had caught me alone in the village then, well, if she didn’t kill me where I stood, she’d at least drag me off into the woods and kill me there.”

    “Because of what you did in your tribe?” Haru hesitated for a moment, pawing nervously at the straw. “…I’m going to be honest Nip, based on everything you two have said, I can’t totally blame her for wanting you dead, even if I don’t agree with handling things like that.”

    Nip recoiled. Was she serious? Did she wish him dead too? He drew his paws down his face, trying to keep his emotions in check. “No. Well, yes, but also no. She wanted me dead from the moment we were paired together, because she saw herself as too valuable to be paired with a scrawny, runty sneasel for a mate.”

    He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then began to pace, his ear lying flat against his skull as he grew more and more irritated. “But she couldn’t just kill me, could she? That would just get her thrown out of the tribe instead. So, she went out of her way to make my life a walking nightmare. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be kicked out of your home on a cold winter’s night? To be forced to find shelter elsewhere as a blizzard bears down on you? To day in and day out be scared to leave home, for fear of someone taking their anger out on you? To have everyone look down on you and view you as a disappointment? Because if not, then you have no right to judge me. And if that’s all you came here to do, you might as well just leave.”

    Satisfied with his response, Nip turned and took a few steps away, turning his back towards the door. It would be so easy to knock her over and make a mad dash to freedom right now, but what good would it do him, breaking out in the middle of the square with too many pokemon still around? Umbra would just chase him down again, and he’d be back to life on the run.

    He expected Haru to turn and leave, but he never heard the sound of retreating pawsteps or of rustling fabric. When the silence stretched on for far too long for comfort, he turned to glance back, and caught sight of Haru still standing in the same spot, staring at the ground with an unreadable expression.

    “Did you have something else to gripe at me about?”

    Haru was startled out of her thoughts, jumping at the sound of his voice. She blinked once, then spoke hesitantly. “I just… I don’t get it. I can’t figure you out. You’re ungrateful and cold-hearted and act like you did nothing wrong. And yet you’re just serving your sentence like you want to change. Why haven’t you run off by now?”

    The truth? A believable lie? What difference would it make, now? “I… suppose it sort of benefits me, at the moment,” he replied before taking a seat in one of the nests, pausing to run his tongue along his shoulder, beginning his nightly grooming ritual.

    “What do you m- do you just do that in front of everyone?”

    “What, groom? Most pokemon know better than to stare. There’s no privacy here anyways.”

    “No. I mean, yes, but most pokemon just don’t groom in front of others period. Unless they’re trying to show off that they don’t see someone as a threat, or they’re really close I guess.”

    He let out a quiet huff. “Well you can view it that way if you want. Because I don’t see you as threatening at all.”

    “Hey!” Haru snapped. “Don’t forget who beat you last time!”

    “You used dungeon magics on me. I’d hardly call that a fair fight.”

    “What, the orb? If you’re upset about being beaten that way, that’s your problem, not mine.”

    Nip held back a growl. Great, now they were back to arguing again. This would get them nowhere. So, he elected to ignore her again, returning to his grooming. The silence stretched on for another few minutes before Haru spoke again.

    “Ugh, let me just… I can’t make sense of you. How is this beneficial to you?”

    “It’s simple,” Nip replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “If I’m in here under the watch of all these guards, and Umbra’s out there, then she can’t get at me without a fight. It’s not ideal, but it’s safer than trying to run off now. She can’t even attempt to kill me without everyone noticing.”

    Haru stared at him for a long time. “Okay, Nip. I could believe that, but I’m still not convinced she’s going to kill you.”

    “You don’t know her like I do. It took me more than a moon to travel from my tribe to here. Do you really think she’d go all that way back with me as a prisoner? Even if it wasn’t so far, she would have killed me anyways. She’s always been looking for an excuse to get rid of me, I know it. She was expecting someone far stronger and more prestigious than a runt that had to fight to be acknowledged as a skilled hunter.”

    As he spoke, he could see the Haru’s expression begin to shift towards one of deep concentration. “Are you… sure you’re not overreacting a little?”

    Nip let out a low hiss. “You don’t know what I went through. How many nights I spent either out in the cold, or huddled in the back, expecting Umbra to come back and lash out for existing around her. Don’t you dare tell me I’m overreacting.”

    “Surely someone would have noticed if any of this was actually happening and done something about it, right? Why didn’t you just tell someone?”

    He couldn’t help but scoff. “I did. But no, Umbra was too well-respected, no one would have believed me. The few pokemon I did tell did nothing to stop it. Tempest at least tried to provide some comfort… but he’s even more an outsider than I was. What was he supposed to do?”

    Haru open her mouth to say something, but paused, thinking. “Who was Tempest, again? I think you said his name before.”

    “My mentor. He taught me much. But he was adopted into the tribe as little more than a pup. He never would have gained much power in the tribe, and he didn’t have any when I… left.”

    He waited for a moment for Haru to reply. When she didn't, he turned his attention to smoothing out his ruffled fur. Another moment or so passed before she finally stood, shaking a couple times, tossing bits of straw that had gotten stuck to her fur in all directions before beginning to head to the exit.

    She paused halfway there. "You know I have no reason to believe you, right?"

    The statement stung more than it should have. "I don't care whether you believe me or not. I know the truth. But if you’re not going to listen… why did you bother coming in the first place?"

    Haru took another few steps, then faltered. She hesitated for a few seconds longer, not daring to look up at Nip. “You better watch yourself,” she finally warned. “They might change their sentencing if they don’t think you care about changing.” Then she disappeared through the fabric.

    Nip stared for just a bit longer, a cold pit forming in his stomach. But he forced himself to relax. He didn’t need to worry about what she thought. Whether she got the answers she was seeking, he did not know. Nor did he care. He couldn’t be bothered to care, when she obviously didn’t do the same.

    Slies entered a few heartbeats later, his mouth turned in a tired frown. "By ‘Gigas, could you two be any louder? You're luck-" He cut himself off. "Nope, not going to say it. That would probably be in poor taste."

    The quagsire's tail thumped against the ground a couple times as he headed over to an alcove on the far side of the room and reached an arm in, pulling out a ring with three bumpy bits of metal. Keys was the word Nip had learned over his last few days here.

    He begrudgingly stood up as Slies approached him, not wanting to draw his ire and take a thump from that slimy tail. Silently, he allowed the quagsire to lead him over to the mid-sized cell, a small chamber perhaps three times as wide, long, and high as he was tall. Calling the inside sparsely furnished would be an understatement; the only things in the cell were a small water trough by the bars and a messy straw bed. Bits of hay were still strewn about the floor from when he'd gone a bit stir-crazy the first night he'd been held here, but that he hadn’t bothered to gather up.

    Now behind the relative safety of the bars, he waited until he heard the sound of a click behind him before moving to settle into the nest with his back to the rest of the room. There, he finished grooming himself before settling down uneasily.

    Not that he was asleep though. No, that would take some time. For a while, he just laid there with his back to all the guards that came and went, getting ready to change shifts. Whisper approached his prison at some point, trying to get him to speak to her. Demanding it even. He didn't answer though. He never did. Because he doubted anything he could say would make her forgive him, and he didn’t see the point in trying.

    He didn't even want her forgiveness, though. Stealing eggs was just a part of a sneasel's nature. Or so he'd been told. And he felt no shame using that to his advantage, even if he would have done things differently now, now that he'd had time to think about the repercussions of his action.

    Eventually though, the sun set completely, leaving the room dimly lit by jars of luminous plants. And after a short time, one of the guards came and put most of those away, leaving only a single source of light in the room.

    Even then, Nip stayed awake for a while longer. Listening quietly for the sound of movement, particularly from outside. But all he heard was the occasional passing of footsteps, accompanied by torchlight from under the curtain doorway as a guard made the rounds.

    At some point, he sent a silent prayer to Yveltal, wondering if he’d said and done the right things.

    Only once he was totally exhausted did Nip finally drift into fitful, troubled sleep, his dreams disturbed by rough waves, flashing lightning, and frost-covered trees.

    *​

    Morning came and went in much the same way it had been for the last several days. A guard would come and rouse him by stuffing a handful of berries into a thin slat under the bars, and he'd chew with disinterest so that his stomach at least would not be growling when he left to do labor.

    Eventually, the sound of scraping claws or heavy footsteps on the wooden boards would alert him to an approaching guard, and he would get up and follow them out to help with construction, the only job that he could help with at the moment. Or at least, the only job willing to take him.

    This morning, however, there was a slight bump in the routine. Breakfast came and went as usual, and the flaffy guard came at the usual time, but as they made their way across the square to the construction zone, Nip noted several dozen wooden boxes laying along the road, filled to the brim with berries. There, Essra was busy using her psychic powers to load them up on a wooden board with wheels, the rapidash guard waiting at the end of it.

    Nip slowed down as they passed by, curiosity getting the better of him. For a second, he locked eyes with the bellossom that ran the stand. But she quickly averted her gaze to her partner, the roserade standing beside her. That pairing was something he had been curious about for a long time, but an explanation would have to wait for another day.

    “Move along, sneasel,” the flaffy bleated, poking him between the shoulder blades to get him moving. “Nothing to see here.”

    “What are they doing?” he asked.

    The flaffy snorted. “What, never seen a convoy before? They’re getting ready to trade goods with one of our southern neighbors. Don’t you have anything like that where you’re from?”

    “Not at all,” Nip replied. “Territories are heavily disputed, and it’s always each tribe looking out for themselves.”

    “Don’t know how you guys survive like that. But whatever. Now come along. We haven’t got all day.”

    And then they were off again, closing the last of the gap to the nursery construction site.

    Both Grombert and Chipper were already there, the bibarel of the pair busily gnawing away at a long, relatively thin log, working to cut it apart into manageable pieces. When he saw the pair making their way towards him, he raised a paw in greeting and paused to stretch out his back.

    "Oh, good morning you two. It's a bit colder today, don’t you think, really doing a number on these joints of mine."

    Now that he mentioned it, Nip did realize things were a bit colder. Nothing like the harsh weather of the north, but at least cool enough that he felt comfortable in his fur. His ear feather twitched in acknowledgement of the comment.

    "Y'best go talk to old Grombert and see what he wants done today. I think we're putting up the awning today. Another day or two and I'd say we'll have this job finally done.

    "Really, like this?" the flaffy asked. "You're not going to put in any security measures?"

    Chipper blinked a couple times, and then groaned, sitting back on his haunches. "That's right, I totally forgot about the gate. Grombert was working on the fence today. Guess I'll have to bring over more logs tomorrow."

    "How is this... gate supposed to protect this place?" Nip questioned.

    All eyes turned to Nip, their gazes ranging from cautious glances to dangerous glares. It took him a second to realize what their problem was.

    "No, no," he said quickly, raising up his paws in front of him defensively. "Not like that. I mean. Where I'm from, they use thorns and brambles, as well as mon-fashioned spike traps, to protect the nursery den from intruders, so that the only way you'd be able to get in is either an attack or by going through the front entrance. otherwise you just get a paw or face full of painful spikes.”

    Chipper's eyes lit up. "Oh, this works... similarly, I guess. Perhaps not as dangerous to the children. It's just a fence around the perimeter to keep people from just walking right in."

    That made... some sense, Nip supposed. Though he didn't see how that would protect from an attack from above. Something like a staraptor swooping from above would be a real threat.

    Before he had a chance to voice this concern, however, he heard a voice squeak from behind.

    "Eep! The sneasel's back!"

    He turned his head just in time to catch the retreating, spectral form of a pumpkaboo, rushing back to the safety of the daycare. Once he was safely back on the other side of the wall, he turned back to steal a glance towards Nip from the entryway. But when he saw the sneasel looking right at him, he squeaked in alarm again and disappeared inside. Every day, it was the same thing. The skittish pokemon would cry out an alarm when he saw him, and then run off.

    "Tor, the sneasel’s back! Why won't you make him go away?" he heard the child cry out.

    Then he heard the blissey's deep, monotonous voice reply quietly. "It's not my decision Myo. I just need you to be brave for a few more days. Can you do that for me?" The pumpkaboo, Myo, said nothing, so Tor continued. "Why don't you get Aves and go watch the berry cart head out of town. Wouldn't that be fun?"

    "I... guess so..."

    "Hey, earth to sneasel. Anyone in there?"

    Nip snapped back to attention as a pink paw waved in front of his face. He turned his head slightly towards the flaffy, who grunted before pointing out Grombert again.

    "I said, why don't you hurry up and get started already."

    Biting back a stinging retort, Nip lowered his head and began to walk towards the diggersby. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the pumpkaboo from before and the shuppet he'd fought during his escape leave the daycare, giving him a wide berth as they floated off towards where the boxes of berries had nearly been loaded up.

    Now standing before Grombert, he cleared his throat to catch the diggersby's attention. Grombert turned towards him, one ear holding a handful of small, uniformly shaped red rocks.

    "'Bout time you showed up," Grombert said, grumbling as he dropped the stones onto a pile of more stones. "I'll be having you work on laying bricks for the fencing today, at least till it's too high for you. Got everything you need right here." He gestured with both his left paw and left ear towards the pile of rocks, and then to a wooden trough filled with some sort of grainy, grey slop.

    Nip shivered involuntarily at the thought of dipping his paws into that mess. "What, do expect me to use my bare claws or something?"

    "Only if you break the trowel." The diggersby stooped down and picked up a flat piece of wood sticking out of the grainy mess. "It's easy enough. Lemme show you how it's done."

    Nip watched as he began to work, scrapping a thin layer of the substance, which Grombert soon explained was called "mortar" on the side of one of the stones before placing it next to another one on the ground. He did this a couple more times before starting a second row, setting up the next set of bricks so that they overlapped with the previous row. Then he finally passed the trowel off to Nip and pointed out where he wanted the bricks before finally leaving him alone with his guard, heading over to where Chipper was busy at work prepping wood.

    Despite his best efforts, Nip managed to get some of the mortar stuck to his paws as he began working, the cold, wet, grainy substance sticking to his fur in uncomfortable ways. He grumbled as he laid the bricks, fighting the urge to work carelessly.

    He had only just finished his first row of work when he was interrupted yet again, this time by Haru approaching the work area, pausing to let the berry cart pass by before crossing over to the work area.

    She didn't even acknowledge Nip as she passed, heading straight to her father, grumbling under her breath.

    "Mom said you forgot to take your herbs," Haru announced before Chipper could say anything, ducking out of her bag’s strap. "She still doesn't want Toshi up and about, walking all the way to the square yet after his injury, so she sent me instead."

    "Is that why I'm aching so bad?" the bibarel asked. "I thought it was the weather."

    "Well, it is cold," Haru agreed, "so I don't know. But please don't do this again. I had to stop what I was doing to run these all the way down here. I was nearly done cleaning the tree I was working on, too!"

    "Gods, thanks Haru, didn't mean to make you worry about me or anything," Chipper said as she pulled out a couple of white herbs, placing them on the ground in front of him. "Thanks though."

    "Don't mention it. Now if you'll excuse me, I-"

    Haru didn't finish her sentence. In the distance, there was a loud crash and a bright flash of light, followed by shouting and a blast of frigid air.

    All five pokemon turned in near unison towards the source. A gout of flame burst into the air in the distance, but the source was out of sight. Seconds later, Whisper came dashing by, heading in the direction of the fire.

    "That looks like it came from the direction of the berry cart," the flaffy announced, alarm creeping into his voice. He looked out towards the direction, then nervously back at Nip, then back towards the sound of shouts. "Stay here," he said in a warning tone, before racing off towards the source.

    That left Grombert, Chipper, Nip, and Haru, to stare at each other uneasily as shouts and the sounds of battle kicked off in the distance. Every few seconds, there would be a flash of light or a plume of fire, followed by a crash or a snap, or many other manners of attacks.

    It seemed like the sounds were slowly growing closer, however. Many of the village civilians had come out from the surrounding businesses to look at the commotion.

    A pair of ghastly figures came zipping through, making a beeline for the daycare. They dashed behind the gathered pokemon, then huddled behind Tor just beyond the doorway.

    "A scary pokemon's trying to break into town," Aves announced, huddling a bit closer to Myo.

    "Yeah! real scary! He attacked Romi when she wouldn't let him by. Wouldn't even talk to her!"

    Another blast of frigid air flowed in their direction, strong enough for ice crystals to begin forming on the tips of Nip’s fur even this far away. He paused, sniffing as the wind passed by. Another plume of smoke filled the air. Something about the smell on the wind struck Nip as off. Familiar, even. For just a few seconds, he was transported in his mind back to kithood, to a cold winters day as he followed a pokemon off into the woods surrounding their home.

    Without thinking, Nip darted off, dashing in the direction of the smoke. Behind him, he heard shouts of protest and anger, and at least one pokemon chasing him, but he ignored them.

    He wasn't trying to run away. Not right now. He just needed to know.

    It wasn't long before the scene of the battle came into view, though it seemed like the fight was nearly over by now. Four of the guards were fighting, some in better conditions than others. A thin layer of ice caked one of Whisper's wings, while the rapidash was struggling to stand, with cuts and bruises lining her body. Sparks of electricity danced off of both Vale and the flaffy's flank, neither of them looking too bad, with only a couple of scrapes and some ice crystals stuck to their fur.

    Collapsed in the center of the four was a ninetales, his blue-white fur ratty, caked in mud, and singed. He, like Romi, was struggling to climb to his feet, his breathing ragged. As he stood, Nip could see a nasty, infected wound stretching from his neck all the way down to his shoulder.

    And despite all that, despite the wound and the mud and the vague look in his eye as he stared down the village guard with a soundless snarl, Nip still recognized him. Without thought for his safety, he called out the familiar name.

    "Tempest!"
     
    Chapter 12
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    Ah, it's about time I got around to replying and updating. Classes have kept me rather busy for a while. But I finally have enough time to sit down and do replies, so here we go!

    @kintsugi
    I appreciate your input, as always!
    getting some heavy Thanos/Infinity War vibes from this section tbh
    TBH I've only seen the memes from that movie so anything like that is pure coincidence.
    Also! It's pretty rich from Haru aka "have you just tried not eating meat because killing things is barbaric" to be so nonchalant about loss of life here. I feel like the phrase "I don't really want to" is usually followed by "floss my teeth" or "eat Thai food tonight", not discussing if someone lives or dies. I sort of get what you want to do here -- Haru is young and naive and is probably just parroting things she's heard before, but this flippant approach feels inconsistent, even for her.
    If I make any major edits in the future, I want Haru to feel a bit more consistent. You're not the first person to point out her weird logic, and while some of it was intentional, not all of it was.
    In-universe it makes sense that they'd have to have this recap conversation, but from a meta perspective it's a little weird to have this talk shown to us an entire chapter later.
    Yeah, if I make any major edits in the future, I'll probably simplify this.
    ...can she even read??
    🙃 Answered later.
    This seems counter-intuitive to the pact?
    I probably could have written that better, but the point I was trying to go for was that they got so caught up in the fact that there was a fight, that they lost track of who started it.

    @Adamhuarts
    Glad to see you enjoying it! Yeah, I tackle some pretty heavy themes at times. The jury's still out as to whether I handle them gracefully. But I hope you enjoy regardless.

    @NebulaDreams
    Having said that, I was kind of underwhelmed by the execution of the chapter, mostly because of the ending since that's what it felt like it was building up to.
    Yeah, I'll agree with that. The whole thing was written on a time crunch (written for a themed monthly writing prompt), and I only had a couple of days left to wrap it up, and the ending kind of suffered as a result. If I were to go back, I'd flesh this part out.
    (always read the fine print)
    They can't read the fine print if it's in a different language.
    1584391391650.png
    (Not that Jhorlo actually knew that at the time, but he certainly outplayed her and banked on her not reading)
    Again, I'm torn, since Haru isn't supposed to be ideologically-pure to begin with while also suffering from tunnel vision in regards to her own upbringing, but her response of 'surely someone would have noticed' came across as really insensitive.
    The tunnel vision was definitely intentional, but with how many people have pointed out this scene, I do wonder if I took it a bit too far. Will think on it.

    As always, thanks to everyone who leaves a review, or even just reads in general! That view count does help boost my ego confidence by a good bit, and I appreciate it. On an unrelated note. I'm going to get around to putting threadmarks in... eventually. Though not today. Got too much to do.
    Enjoy this chapter. Hopefully the next one won't take so long to release.

    *

    Chapter 12: Frosty Feelings

    “Tempest!”

    All eyes turned to Nip the moment the name spilled out of his mouth. The looks he received varied from disdain to surprise, but that was nothing new. For a moment, under the scrutinizing looks, he worried he had been wrong, and that he was only causing trouble with a stranger that would bite him later.

    But when the ninetales eyes lit up with recognition, the feeling subsided, and Nip knew for certain that he was right.

    Ignoring a shout for him to stay where he was, Nip dashed forward towards the ninetales. But he only got a few bounds along before he faltered and stopped, overcome with feelings of anxiety and fear. Why was Tempest here? Had he, too, been sent after him? Would he defend him, or would he kill him? Perhaps neither? Fear and indecisiveness rooted him to the spot, and he instinctively shrank down, watching Tempest with wide eyes for any signs of movement.

    “I’m sorry, Whisper! He ran off and I couldn’t keep up with him!”

    Nip’s ear twitched at the voice. He turned his head slightly and caught a glimpse of Haru slowing to a stop next to Whisper, her sides heaving with effort. Nip ignored her, turning his attention back to Tempest. The ninetales in question had not stepped towards him. In fact, he had instead collapsed onto his side, though his head was lifted up to stare at Nip.

    Hesitantly, Nip began to step forward again, reaching a paw out to gingerly touch the wound on Tempest’s neck. He didn’t know how old it was, but he could tell that it had been there for a while, still not totally healed and stinking. Tempest responded to the touch by baring his teeth, making Nip flinch and shrink away at first. But when he did nothing further, nor said anything, he finally felt safe enough to relax. For the moment, at least.

    “What… Who did this to you?” Nip asked breathlessly.

    Tempest said nothing, only holding Nip’s gaze.

    Anxiety clawed at the sneasel’s belly again, though now for different reasons. Question after question flashed through his mind. Why wouldn’t he answer? Could he answer? Perhaps the injury kept him from speaking. Was it temporary or permanent? He knew Tempest knew how to take care of himself; even a wound this bad should have been better taken care of than this. So why wasn’t it?

    And what brought him here? He’d shown no real aggression towards him, and yet the likelihood of him arriving here by chance seemed impossible.

    “What are we waiting around for?” He heard Vale shout, snapping him out of his thoughts. Whipping his head around he caught sight of the manectric slinking forward, crouching low to the ground with sparks bouncing off of his bared fangs, ready to sink his teeth into whoever moved first.

    Tempest, too, turned his head, and struggled back to his feet before stumbling forward so that he was between Nip and the approaching guard. But his condition hardly let him stay on his feet.

    “Vale! Stand down!” Whisper snapped, breaking Vale’s concentration and intense gaze.

    “But-”

    “Your opponent is subdued, Vale. Disengage.”

    Vale grumbled something under his breath but relented. He stood up straight turned to take a few steps back.

    Satisfied, Whisper turned to Nip. “Ignoring the fact that you shouldn’t be here,” she began, stealing an annoyed look at the flaaffy that was supposed to be watching him, “you seem to know this strange ninetales. Explain yourself.”

    Nip looked up to Whisper, then to the rest of the pokemon surrounding him before shrinking into Tempest’s fur. He swallowed, sucking in a breath of air before answering. “Tempest is… was… is… my mentor,” he began. “He taught me… most of what I know. My fighting skills, hu… how to track something and survive in the wilderness, all of that. He offered me a chance at getting stronger when most of my… former kin were trying to steer me away from the path of a fighter.”

    Whisper looked up to the other guards, trading an uneasy glance with several of them. “Do you know why he’s here?”

    “Not at all,” Nip replied, lowering his gaze. “I haven’t seen him since…” He trailed off. Tempest would know what he did, and the entire village knew now, too. But trying to say it himself left a vile taste in his mouth.

    “...Since I left our resting grounds,” he finished.

    “We should drive him out,” Vale warned, his voice coming out in a low growl. “He might help our prisoner try to escape.” He took a threatening step towards Tempest. Nip, without thinking, moved to put himself between Tempest and the aggressive manectric, the air around him growing cold.

    Before either of them could make a move, though, Whisper stepped between the two, holding up a wing on either side. “Both of you stand down. Nip, if you so much as raise a claw at me, I’ll call a new vote and let that mawile drag you out of town, I swear to any god you hold dear.

    “And Vale, you are not in charge here. What we do with the ninetales is up to the village as a whole to decide. Not you. Do you understand me?”

    The mere thought of Umbra made Nip shiver. He forced himself to relax, the air around him returning to normal, and dropped his gaze to the ground. Vale, meanwhile, also averted his gaze, muttering a quick apology towards Whisper.

    The hawlucha growled, lowering her wings. “Glad you two could see reason.”

    Now that the sounds of battle had died away, a handful of villagers had made their way over from the square to investigate the situation. Nip watched as Whisper looked over the crowd until she locked eyes with one particular pokemon.

    “Lecha, would you please escort both Romi back to the clinic, then meet us at the guard’s hut to deal with this… ‘Tempest?’ You can treat him there. Stati,” she paused to gesture to the flaaffy, “you go with them too. Vale, I want you to fetch Jhorlo and tell him what happened, please. Then don’t come back. I can’t deal with your aggression right now. You were due for a break anyways. I’ll be taking Nip back to his holding cell for now, until we have a chance to discuss what to do.”

    Vale responded with a grunt before turning to run off. Nip felt a paw lightly press up against his back, signaling for him to move out of the way as Lecha approached Tempest, giving his wounds a quick look over. As Whisper began to lead him away, he heard the medic call out, “Twi! Twi, go make me a sitrus poultice! And bring me another sitrus berry and an energy seed.”

    Whatever happened next, Nip didn’t see due to being shepherded around the corner so that the scene was out of sight. Still, he couldn’t get thoughts of Tempest out of his mind. What did his appearance mean? He’d shown no signs of hostility towards him, but the fact that he was here couldn’t be chance. Had he followed him here? Was he, too, here to kill him? Had his moment of anger turned even those that cared about him against him?

    An anxious, guilty pit formed in his stomach. His silent questions were left unanswered as he crossed the threshold back into the guards’ hut. As much as he would rather be back with Tempest, trying to get answers and making sure his mentor was alright, he felt it best not to draw Whisper’s ire any more than he already had. But as he was locked back away and things fell quiet, his unanswered questions continued to plague his mind.

    Perhaps, with a good word from Tempest, he could convince the villagers to let him leave. But after his less-than-positive departure from the tribe, would Tempest even be willing to vouch for him? Would he be able to vouch for him, for that matter? Or had that wound taken away his ability to speak entirely?

    *​

    Shimmer found it quiet at home that day. Too quiet. Boringly quiet. Quiet in a way that made her uncomfortable. There was hardly a single emotional aura in the house, just the quiet, stewing flicker of an emotional aura that she suspected was Umbra. Sure, Muse was here too, but everything about the dark-type’s mind and emotions were an enigma, like a deep, dark void in a vibrant world.

    “Muuuusy,” she whined, draping herself dramatically over her friend and bodyguard’s back, “can’t we please go do something already?”

    The absol let out a sigh, dropping her head to rest it against one of Shimmer’s prized pillows. “As much as I would love to go somewhere, Shimmer, your father asked us to stay and keep an eye on the house.”

    Shimmer groaned. “I know that. But it’s so boring. Surely it won’t be a problem if we just go out for a quick walk around the square, or maybe to see my Toshi, right?”

    Even if she couldn’t read Muse’s emotions with her psychic powers, there were a few things Shimmer knew about her friend, and about her reactions. For one thing, she could tell from the way she tensed beneath her that her will was crumbling. Muse could never say no to her for too long.

    But to Shimmer’s surprise, Muse managed to hold her ground this time. “Not right now, she insisted. “Maybe tonight around dinner, we could go down to the square for food. But let’s stay here for now, okay? Besides, didn’t you want to keep an eye on Umbra?”

    Oh, right. Shimmer let out a huff, sliding off of Muse’s back and adjusting herself so that she was sitting and leaning against her. “I hate it when you have a point. Fiiine, guess we’ll stay here and be bored.”

    “I don’t know, don’t you think the quiet is kind of nice for a change? It seems like there’s always pokemon coming and going around here.”

    Shimmer supposed Muse had a point. Sort of. She may not have an absol’s sharp senses, but she did have psychic powers. Psychic powers that picked up on the comings and goings of most visitors. Still, she had gotten pretty good at tuning out most of it over the years, unless she felt a particularly strong spike of emotion.

    Like the anger that had come off of Umbra in waves the last couple days, since Nip had been brought back to town. She was silent for a moment, her mind dwelling on the thought, before she blurted out, “do you think we made the right decision? About Nip?”

    “Hm?” Muse didn’t raise her head. “What makes you say that, Shims?”

    “It’s just… you and I both think there’s something fishy going on, right? And it’s good to give someone a second chance and all, but… What if he doesn’t change. What if other pokemon end up getting hurt, and it’s our fault because we decided to give him a second chance. I mean, he’s already hurt two different groups of pokemon. He didn’t deny Umbra’s claims, and…” She took a deep, shuddering breath.

    “I’m afraid of having blood on my hands, Muse. And what kind of a leader to-be am I if I can’t help but second-guess myself?”

    Muse raised her head, pressing it up against Shimmer’s shoulder. “Hey, no one can be confident all the time, trust me. I’m always second-guessing my actions. It’s just the way I am.”

    “Really?” Shimmer asked with a wistful tone in her voice. “You always seem so certain, though…”

    “I have to,” Muse replied. “I have to make my decisions whole-heartedly. That’s my job as your bodyguard. And if I had followed the prophet path my mother took, I would have to appear certain so as to not make others worry. Just like you do. Look, it’s okay to have doubts, Shimmer, because I’m here to listen and confide in. That’s what friends are for, right?”

    Shimmer took a deep breath again, a smile creeping onto her face. “I guess you’re right. Thanks for trying to help me feel better, Muse. I’m just worried about what’s going to happen next, I guess. With both Nip and Umbra here, and all, and we still don’t know what your premonition was about. It’s a lot to worry about.”

    “I know.” The absol pulled her head away, dipping it as she closed her eyes. “But for now, try not to think about it. Relax. We can worry about Nip when your father gets back, and we have the free time to worry about it, right?”

    “I suppooooose. But it’s sooooo boring right now!” Cheered up a bit, Shimmer was back to her normal, bubbly mood. Was it a façade? Kind of. But considering how ugly her real feelings were, and how much disrespect she’d receive as a leader for showing that side of herself, she could bottle it up and put on a cheerful look.

    Speaking of leadership… a good leader had to be strong, right? With nothing better to do, she decided that a good use of her time would be to practice honing her powers. Both to practice and as a show of how much better she was feeling, she spent a few minutes levitating various items around her room: a few trinkets her dad had found or bought for her over the years, a couple pillows, a sundial that had gone unused for some time now, and a carefully constructed bidoof plush that she’d had to go to the next town over for. Creepy? Maybe a little. But it was as close as she had to the real thing, so she wouldn’t let anyone shame her for it.

    Soon, she had all of the inanimate objects floating in the air. She spent a moment rearranging them, but quickly grew bored. Levitating inanimate objects was easy. And there was no way she’d be able to get a grip on Muse; the dark type slipped through her psychic hold like nothing more than smoke. Only the most powerful psychics could take hold of a dark type. One day, maybe she’d be able to do it. But not yet.

    With her options for levitation exhausted, she decided to try stretching the reach of her natural senses. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and imagined first her home, then the area around it. Sensing only Umbra’s emotional aura, following behind a blank spot that she assumed was one of the purrloin siblings, and Muse’s blank spot, she took another deep breath before pushing her senses further, slowly expanding the radius as she strained, scanning for any type of emotional pulse. She was rewarded, after a few minutes, with a quick read of a pokemon hurrying by a bit of a way off. There was a slight nervous twinge to their emotional state, but nothing really out of the ordinary.

    For a moment, she considered focusing and diving into Umbra’s psyche. Maybe she could figure out how many of Nip’s claims of the mawile’s cruelty were true. But she hesitated and held back.

    Dad always told her that it was rude to read people’s minds and memories, after all.

    Instead, she continued to try and strain her senses a bit further. For her troubles, she picked up on a sudden spike of anger and frustration. She squeezed her eyes shut just a bit tighter, grunting at the sudden overwhelming emotions.

    Concerningly, as she continued to feel the emotional aura, she realized that it was moving closer, heading in their general direction, and fast.

    She broke her concentration with a pained gasp, her sense sucking back inward to her general area.

    At once, she felt Muse tense up, raising her head to look back at Shimmer.

    “Shims? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

    “Yeah, fine,” she groaned, bringing a hand up to her temples. “Just… wasn’t expecting that. Someone’s coming, and they’re not happy.”

    Muse began to stand, trying to not disturb Shimmer as she did so. “Stay here, I’ll go check it out.”

    Before Muse could leave, however, Shimmer grabbed hold of the thick fur around her neck, hoisting herself up.

    “Nope, not letting you go alone,” she announced. “I’m gonna be a leader one day, so I gotta go with you, right? Di-plo-ma-cy.”

    “Why are you saying it that way?” Muse mumbled, before realizing that not only was it a question she wouldn’t get answered, but that there were more important things to worry about. And there was no way Shimmer would back down. “Very well, but stay either behind me or on my back, please. It’s my duty to protect you. What would your father say if I let you get hurt because I was careless?”

    Shimmer started to giggle but caught herself and covered her mouth. No, she shouldn’t make fun of Muse’s seriousness, even if she did wish she’d lighten up a bit. She was just doing her job.

    Carefully, she turned the latch on her door with her psychic powers, saving Muse the trouble of trying to do so with paws - even if it was built in a way that allowed pokemon with paws to easily push it open - and ducked her head as Muse pushed her way through the door.

    Quietly, they made their way down the hall and towards the entrance, trying not to disturb Umbra as they moved to intercept whoever was coming their way. Even without extending her senses, Shimmer could feel the pokemon’s emotional aura now, burning bright with anger. Despite her better judgement, she probed just a bit further, trying to read just the surface thoughts in hopes of figuring out who was approaching, and what their intent was.

    That was an okay use of her powers, right?

    How could Whisper think this was a good idea? Allowing another one of those into the town, I swear no one thinks things through anymore!

    Shimmer pulled her probe away. “Hey, Muse, I’m pretty sure it’s just Vale. Don’t know what he needs, but it seems like it has to do with Whisper somehow. Aaaaaannnd he’s pretty ticked off.”

    Muse hummed in response, dipping her head. “Do not worry, I’m sure he means no harm to us, but I will protect you if anything goes awry.”

    Shimmer fought the urge to roll her eyes. Muse meant well, but she could be such a stick in the mud sometimes.

    The two stopped just outside the front entrance. Unlike most homes in the area, the villa had actual doors, as opposed to just a cloth covering. Dad was always worrying about keeping her safe after all. Not that he didn’t have his own secrets, as she was sure he did, but she liked to think it was more about her.

    They waited no more than a few seconds before Vale burst through the door, panting.

    He looked around wildly until he spotted the duo, and then hesitated.

    “What brings you here at this time of day?” Muse asked, only dipping her head for a greeting.

    Vale’s response came out in gasping, huffed breaths. “Whisper sent me… to speak… with Jhorlo.” He slumped forward, struggling to stay on his feet.

    Shimmer let out a thoughtful hum, then addressed Vale. “I’m afraid you’ll have to talk to me instead,” she announced. “Daddy’s off on a trip to talk with Aunty Hearty. Come on, Muse, let’s take our guest off to get a drink, don’t you think?”

    “Whatever you think is best, Shimmer. Come with us, Vale.” Dipping her head respectfully, the absol turned and began to walk. Vale sputtered in indignation for just a moment before resigning himself and following.

    “We really... don’t have time for this,” he grumbled.

    Shimmer waved her hand. “Come on, don’t be such a worrier. Whatever’s going on, it’s not going anywhere. You seem more angry than anxious, so it can’t be that bad. Let loose, it’s gonna be fine!”

    Once they were in the kitchen - a simple room with a lower counter to accommodate shorter pokemon, and a taller one perfectly suited for a gardevoir, as well as a set of cabinets that held most of the dishes and food, and a simple stovetop and oven - Shimmer climbed off Muse’s back and made herself busy pulling out a cup and two bowls. Using her psychic powers, she pulled the lid off of a moderately sized container in the corner of the room and dipped both bowls and the cup in before placing the containers of water on top of the lower counter.

    Despite his previous grumblings, Vale took a moment to greedily lap up the water before speaking.

    “A ninetales showed up today. Weirdly colored. Pale blue. Never seen anything like it. I’d think he was one of those shiny mutations you see every once in a while, but he used ice attacks, not fire. He got in the way of Romi’s cart and tried to muscle his way past, but she wouldn’t let him by, and it turned into a fight.”

    Shimmer frowned, trying to piece together what it meant. Normally, they wouldn’t come up to her dad immediately after an event like this… unless something really bad happened.

    “He didn’t kill Romi, did he?” she couldn’t help but ask.

    “Oh, gods no! That’s not the problem at all! We beat him without too much trouble. He was in horrible condition. The problem is… well, he seems like he’s somehow knows that sneasel. But he can’t – or won’t – speak. I think Whisper wanted Jhorlo there to discuss how to handle things.”

    Shimmer stole a glance over to Muse, who stared back levelly. If she knew her friend, it looked like she had the same idea. Gently, she placed the cup back on the counter. Then she slammed her hands down, slapping it open-palmed. “Well, that settles it! Looks like I’ll just have to go instead!”

    Vale gawked for a moment, blinking a couple times before he remembered his manners and shut his mouth. “You? You… you can’t be serious.”

    “‘Course I am!” Shimmer replied. “Father says I’m gonna be a leader someday, so I got to start somewhere, right? Besides, it’s not really like you have a choice. Dad won’t be back till late tonight at the earliest.”

    The grumpy manectric let out a grunt. “Fine. Just. Go on down to the guard’s hut. I believe that’s where they took him. I’ll be down there later.”

    “You’re not coming with us?” Muse asked, tilting her head in surprise.

    Vale let out a grunt. Shimmer felt a nervous flutter come off of him. “Oh, I have a detour I need to make. Something I want to check out. Besides, Whisper wanted me to calm down before I came back.”

    She felt the nervous emotion grow stronger and stronger, the longer she took to respond. She swore she saw him twitch, tremble, as if withering under her gaze.

    “Shimmer?”

    She felt Muse lightly nudge her in the side. Finally, she closed her eyes and turned away, forcing a disconcerting, sing-song voice. “Fine, fine, see you later then, Vale!”

    Shimmer took just a moment to stretch, then practically danced out of the kitchen and all the way back to her room, Muse following behind much more slowly and seriously. There, she picked up a bag and a few basic goods, including a couple berries and coins. This was her chance to show off how much she’d learned, and she couldn’t let it go to waste!

    *​

    Vale hadn’t come by first thing in the morning, and Umbra hadn’t known whether to be confused or relieved.

    Things had been quiet since the afternoon before; Lotte had guided her back to her room without a word, returning just a bit later with an oran berry, a cheri berry, and some slice of meat that she couldn’t identify.

    She stewed in her anger and frustration late into the night, until she had drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

    And now, here she was, quietly being guided away by Lotte towards the woods.

    “Vale will meet us soon,” the purrloin explained as she led the way. “He was unable to get away from guard duties today.”

    “So, what, you are just… okay with… all this?” Umbra asked, holding her arms out wide. “Whatever Jhorlo has you doing? Were you assigned to this role as a child? I thought the village did not work that way.”

    Lotte paused, looking back and tilting her head. “What? Oh, no. Not really. Jaques and I owe him our lives, though. So, we just do as we’re told and keep our noses out of his business.”

    She continued to pad along, occasionally glancing back to make sure Umbra was following.

    The duo made their way around the edge of the town center, getting a few glances as they passed by. But no one much seemed to be about. Whether that was a good thing or not was questionable at best.

    Soon they were coming up on the edge of the tree line. For just a moment, Umbra thought about the fact that she could easily kill or even just injure Lotte and get away. But leaving meant the risk of losing track of Nip. She could go right in and kill him afterwards, but there were too many witnesses, and it would leave her fighting through a crowd to escape afterwards. No. As much as she hated to, she needed to bide her time for a bit longer, watching and waiting for an opportunity to present itself. Even if it was under that loathsome purugly.

    Lotte stopped in a clearing just a short distance into the woods. She climbed up onto a fallen log and stopped, turning to lay down on it while facing Umbra, and the rest of the woods as a result.

    “It shouldn’t be long now,” she announced, her tail flicking back and forth on occasion.

    It would be so easy to just walk away right now. To disappear into the woods and never come back.

    But without proof of Nip’s end, she could not return home. Or rather, she refused to return home without making sure Nip could never come back. Without proof of his demise, she would be an outcast for her failure. And she refused to be an outcast.

    Frustrated, Umbra settle down in front of the log to wait.

    Leaves rustled in the wind as the sun slowly climbed high in the sky. She could hear the sound of prey mon scampering amongst the undergrowth around them. Not giving chase was agonizing. But then again, chasing small little rattata and sentret was not her style. Absentmindedly, she brushed a hand against her injured ear, taking a few moments to inspect it impressed with how much and how well it had healed already.

    Finally, she heard the thundering footsteps of a mon racing in their direction. Lotte must have heard it too, as she stood up with her tail raised high. Umbra also stood up. A moment later, Vale burst into the clearing, huffing.

    “We’ll have to make this quick,” he announced coming to a stop just in front of them. “We had some… trouble with the berry shipment.”

    Lotte tilted her head, but said nothing, inviting Vale to continue.

    “Another one of your lot showed up and raised havoc,” he said, turning his gaze on Umbra. “Some weird looking ninetales that Nip recognized. Ring a bell?”

    Umbra froze in place. No. It could not be him… could it? “Did… did he say his name?”

    Vale grunted in response. “Nope. Don’t think he could though. Nip called him Tempest, though. I had to run fetch someone to deal with that. Jhorlo wasn’t in so I had to send Shimmer down instead. I don’t know how long I can stick around before the others notice I’m gone So let’s get a move on already.”

    He turned and began to walk further in the woods. Umbra hesitantly followed behind. He began to explain the rules and regulations of how and where Jhorlo expected her to hunt, so as to not raise suspicion. But she was only half paying attention, her mind stuck on this new information.

    If Tempest is here…

    Her job just got even more complicated.

    *​

    The guard’s hut was a flurry of activity, with Stati – the flaaffy – keeping watch while Siles and Whisper busied themselves with work. Anu had come down to from the temple, nervously sitting cross-legged and alert next to the cell they’d placed the ninetales in for holding. The door to said cell was just slightly ajar, allowing Lecha easy access as she busied herself wiping and cutting away matted and bloodied fur so that she could get to his wounds easier.

    The ninetales himself had quit trying to fight back by now, eyes glazed over as he absentmindedly stared at Nip in the cell over. Nip himself was watching Lecha work, sitting up against the back wall, his ear and his tailfeathers twitching occasionally. Otherwise, he was completely still and didn’t even acknowledge the entrance of Shimmer and Muse.

    Whisper looked up from her work, and Shimmer felt a flash of relief course through her, only for it to be replaced with frustration when she realized Shimmer was the one that had arrived, not Jhorlo like she had expected.

    “Shimmer…” the hawlucha began, clicking her claws together. “I was… expecting some with more… I was expecting your father.”

    Blunt, very blunt. “Sorry, dad’s out of town, so I came in his place instead!”

    Whisper let out a long sigh. Shimmer didn’t miss her exasperation. “I see. I guess we can just wait and deal with this when-”

    Shimmer raised a hand and cut her off. “Nope, nope! It’s totally fine. We at least figure out what’s going on now, right? We can always figure out what to do about it when dad gets back.”

    She received an apologetic smile, and swore she felt a flash of pity. “I appreciate the offer, Shimmer, but-”

    “No, no, no. It’s fine, really!”

    “Besides,” Muse added, stepping in, “would it not be better to learn the situation now, before they have time to come up with excuses, or a good cover story?”

    At that, Whisper hesitated. Shimmer laid a hand on Muse’s back to show her thanks. Finally, the hawlucha let out a sigh. “Very well, I suppose you have a point there. I’ll tell you what we know, and then we can work things out from there.”

    The three of them gathered around the table at the center of the room, Whisper taking a seat on one side and Shimmer and Muse sitting on the other. Shimmer did her best to pay attention as the hawlucha began to explain the situation, telling her about the fight, as well as Nip’s apparent relation. About half-way through the story, however, she felt something poking at the edge of her senses. She turned her head expectantly through the doorway.

    Whisper’s words died in her throat when she noticed that Shimmer was no longer paying attention, and instead looked in the same direction. “What is it?”

    “Well if you want to know what’s going on Haruru, you should just come inside and listen.”

    There were a few seconds of silence, followed by a quiet swear, before a very embarrassed Haru waddled her way inside, taking a seat by the table without speaking or looking up.

    Whisper let out a long breath before continuing, finishing the story.

    “Well, now that we brought him here, we wanted to speak with Jhorlo, and decide how to proceed. Logically, we should hold a judgement, as he’s attacked our villagers. But we have no idea why he attacked, other than that we wouldn’t let him by, and he’s obviously in no condition to talk, let alone travel. But at the same time, I’m hesitant to keep him here, where he may break Nip out.”

    “Hm… this is quite the problem,” Shimmer agreed, forcing herself to be uncharacteristically serious. She had to think! If she were her dad, how would he handle the situation. Ideally, they’d hold a meeting and pass judgement, but it’s hard to pass judgement on someone who wouldn’t explain themselves…

    “Shimmer…” Haru began, speaking for the first time since she’d arrived. “Why don’t you just… I don’t know, use your psychic powers to poke around in his brain and see where he’s from and why he’s here?”

    Shimmer stiffened, avoiding the bidoof’s gaze. Certainly, she’d already broken her dad’s instructions once today, though not without good reason. But at the same time, it just felt… wrong to look into people’s heads, especially as deep as Haru was suggesting. A cursory glance at current thoughts was one thing, a deep dive into memories though?

    She turned her head to look back at the ninetales. Lecha had left by now, leaving a few berries at his side. He had not gotten up from where he’d been laid out, but he did seem more alert, keeping an eye on Nip while occasionally stealing glances at the rest of the pokemon. His emotions were difficult to discern, clouded by turmoil, but there was one thing she could feel radiating from him: relief.

    Nip was much harder to read, his typing leaving her only with body language to go off of. He had pulled his legs up to his chest and sat staring, not daring to look away, as if the ninetales would disappear if he did.

    “Well?” Whisper asked.

    Shimmer turned back around, and realized that everyone was staring at her, waiting for her to make a decision.

    “I, for one, think it’s a good idea. If you’re not up to it, I can always get Essra to do it,” the hawlucha added.

    She stood up quickly. Perhaps a bit too quickly, as she had to take a second to find her balance. “No, no don’t worry about it. It’s fine. It’s fiiiine. Just let me take care of things. I don’t want to have to worry about it.”

    Whisper gave her a skeptical look, then relented, settling down to wait.

    Slowly, though refusing to show hesitation, Shimmer approached the cell, taking a seat in front of it. She was no fool. The bars would hold to some level of brute-strength attacks, but they couldn’t hold either of the pokemon inside forever, should they try to escape. It was kind of nerve-wracking, to say the least, and she couldn’t help but wonder how the Enforcers dealt with it. Did they have better ways of holding pokemon?

    She heard Muse rise and approach her, laying down just behind. She let out a quiet hum, but did nothing more to acknowledge her presence, instead focusing her gaze on the ninetales.

    Breathe in. Breathe out. Her eyes drooped shut as she focused and reached out for his mind.

    Snow.

    Words and thoughts were not the first thing to come. Instead, she saw snow, a light flurry of flakes falling all around her. Around him. She was watching a memory through his eyes, she thought.

    Nip, I’m sorry. I swear I’ll get us out of this situation, and make sure no one hurts you again.

    The snow grew harder, blowing into a flurry that whited out her vision. Fractured flashes of memory danced before her eyes.

    ...

    An older ninetales, pushing him back into the bushes, telling him to stay hidden.

    ...

    He stands proud in a grassy clearing, other pokemon surrounding and watching him, nearly quivering with excitement and nervousness and anticipation.

    ...

    He’s in that same clearing again, but now his tails drag the ground tiredly. There’s a mangled body at his feet, and blood on his fur. He feels like he should feel horrified, distraught, but he just feels… empty.

    ...

    Now he’s out in the snow again, waiting for something. When will Father be back? He thinks to himself. The wind picks up, blowing flurries of snow. And then he spots a bright red feather in the distance.

    ...

    A young sneasel sits in front of him, beaming proudly as he presents the body of a rattata. He swells with pride and tells Nip what a good job he’s done.

    ...

    “Must you leave, Tempest?” The elderly Persian asks him.

    “I am sorry, I cannot call this my home any longer. I have lost everything now. My father. My mate. My… You know I was always an outsider here. I will never return to Kyurem’s people, but I must find my own path now.”



    His eyes are closed, or else it is dark, He nuzzles up to someone, to his mate, and tells her the story of Kyurem.



    “What is wrong, Nip?” he asks the sneasel. “Surely there is something the elders can do?”

    “I’m
    fine.Nip insists. There’s a flash of sadness in the vision. “I just… I have to get through to them eventually, right?”



    A flash of fangs in the moonlight. Tempest lets out a call of alarm, but it’s cut short as he’s ripped open. He falls into the grass, left to bleed out soaked in moonlight.

    Why…



    GET OUT!

    Shimmer fell back with a gasp as the ninetales struggled to his feet, his muzzle twisted into a snarl once again. Suddenly, she was quite glad she’d sat down before attempting the psychic connection..

    “Shims!” Muse cried out. She quickly rushed to stand between Shimmer and Tempest, allowing the kirlia to use her body as a way to climb to her feet. “What happened? What’s going on?”

    Shimmer swallowed slowly, trying to digest and put together all the memories she’d seen, trying to figure out what was and wasn’t important.

    “I… think he’s here as a friend of Nip’s. But there’s something that concerns me more.”

    Muse tilted her head and stared while Whisper approached to close the cell door. “What is it?”

    Even with that brief flash, the emotions in the scene were enough to give Shimmer a revelation that somehow was horrifying to her. “That wound. The one on his neck…” She trailed off, bringing a hand to rub at her temples. “That was intentional. Someone, for some reason, wanted him dead. And if he somehow survived, they didn’t want him talking.”
     
    Chapter 13
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    Here we are, coming up on another chapter. And one of the meatier ones at that, word-count wise. Before we get into review replies and the chapter itself, I want to briefly mention that I'll be taking a mini-hiatus of about a month or so to work on a different fic and on a personal project. Hopefully PWCH will return in June, but based on where events go after this, this seems like the best place to take a brief break.

    Onto replies, first to @Namohysip
    It was quite clever overall, but the fact that the holes existed to begin with was very puzzling. Namely, the fact that the nursery wasn't so guarded at all since the incident twenty years ago, to the point where a literal child was the one to spot Nip and not any form of security, still sticks out to me as a serious oversight that no rational setting would have, in my opinion.
    I'll admit that this is something I probably could have addressed sooner, but there is an in-universe reason for some of these oversights that will come up a bit later. Whether or not those will be believable, however, I guess we'll find out when they come up.

    I hope the only thing limiting Shimmer's mind reading isn't just the moral high ground, because "They didn't read the suspicious Mawile's mind because it's mean" is going to fall right up there with "why didn't they have higher security" questions above.
    So, there is definitely more going on with why Shimmer is hesitant to read minds, but that particular part won't be addressed for a while. There are also some risks involved with delving deeper into the mind, which is addressed to an extent in this chapter and I'll probably make a bit more clear if I ever do any major editing to 12.

    I'm hoping some direction will come soon there, at least more explicitly, because I think I'm missing the signals of what you as an author want to show.
    I'll openly admit that I worry I spent a little too much time on this portion of the story. But due to how entwined it becomes with later plot elements, I don't think there's a way I could have changed that without majorly restructuring the entire story. Lessons learned I suppose. Anyways, I believe I did mention on discord that things are supposed to start converging into the bigger plot soon.

    @Adamhuarts
    Haru is intentionally a little bit of an ass, though I do wonder if I take her - and other characters as well - a bit further than I should have at times. As for the whole carnivore thing, you have to remember that, for the most part, we're seeing things through Haru's eyes, and Haru isn't exactly too keen on the idea of being hunted down for food.

    The characters will grow, but due to the way laid out the plot, it just takes time. And if slow changes aren't your thing, I totally understand. Thanks for reading as far as you have, regardless!

    Before I forget, the fic has threadmarks now! I'll get to updating the main post later to reflect that. And now, on with the story.

    Chapter 13: Consequences

    *​

    Haru stumbled over her words as she tried to digest Shimmer’s statement. “What do you mean, it was intentional? Why would someone try to kill him?”

    “There could be any number of reasons,” Whisper said, looking Tempest over with a grave expression. “Shimmer, did you get any other information? Do you know who did it, or why they wanted to… silence him?”

    “I’m… not sure,” Shimmer began. “Everything was flashing so fast and-” She cut herself off, grunting as she brought a hand up to her head.

    “Are you alright?” Muse asked, turning her head back to look at Shimmer.

    “I-I’m fine. Really. Just the aftersh-shocks from withdrawing from his memory so fast. Just… give me a… mo…men…” Before she could finish, she suddenly pitched forward, going limp against Muse’s side.

    “Shimmer!” Muse’s voice was tinged with panic. When she twisted around to check on Shimmer, the unconscious kirlia fell the rest of the way to the ground with a dull thud, motionless other than her breathing.

    “Muse, please stay calm,” Anu said, standing up to approach her. “S-she probably just strained herself.” He shifted to help lift Shimmer up, raising one paw over her with his aura feelers waving before looking over to Whisper. Despite his reassuring words, Haru could tell that he was trembling, something she was sure Muse noticed, too. “Still, I think… Let’s take her upstairs to recover. Haru… ah… will you please fetch Lecha, just to be safe? You, um, you may be able to catch her. Before she gets back to her clinic.”

    Haru replied with a grunt, turning to push her way out the door as her heart pounded against her chest. She’d heard stories of psychics overexerting themselves or being seriously harmed when a deep reading went wrong. Sometimes they didn’t wake up. And as much as she hated Shimmer, she would never wish that on her.

    She reached the center of the square, looking around nervously. “Come on, Lecha, where are you?”

    *****​

    “How’s she doing, Lecha?”

    “She’ll be fine. She strained herself when the connection was cut, but she’ll recover within the next day or two. You’re lucky it wasn’t worse than it is.”

    “I’m fine, really. Stop worrying about me, everyone. Oh, this is so embarrassing. It’s just a headache.”

    Once she had fetched Lecha, the flurry of activity that followed seemed to pass in a blur. First, she had been out in the village square trying to spot the aromatisse, but now she was seated on a cushion on the second floor of the guards’ hut, waiting for Lecha to finish tending to Shimmer.

    Whisper had taken a seat in the corner of the room, drinking from a small bowl of water as she waited. Muse was much less relaxed, pacing back and forth, looking over Lecha’s shoulder any chance she got. Or she was, until the doctor had become frustrated with her and told her to back off. Now she was standing near the stairs, occasionally lifting one foot, then the other, as she anxiously waited for Lecha to finish. Amongst all the excitement, Haru felt that she probably shouldn’t be here; there really wasn’t any reason to be here now that Shimmer had been attended to.

    Oh, who was she kidding? She knew she shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t have been here at all. But she couldn’t help it! Curiosity about Tempest had gotten the better of her. After all, she rationalized, whatever happened with him would have an effect on the village. And what happened in the village would have an effect on business, especially if word got out. Jhorlo would probably want to keep all this under wrap - who would want to visit or hire services from a village that was harboring an egg thief, after all?

    Ok, they weren’t technically harboring him, they were rehabilitating him. But other villages would see it the same way, right?

    “-be off now.”

    Catching Lecha’s voice, Haru realized she had stopped paying attention at some point, getting lost in her own thoughts. Muse nearly knocked over both her and Lecha as she shoved past to get to Shimmer, nudging her back down as she tried to sit up, fretting over her in a way that reminded Haru of a concerned mother.

    Lecha sounded like she was about to say something, giving Muse a hard look, but apparently thought better of it, chuckling and shaking her head before turning to leave, quietly heading down the stairs.

    “Don’t worry us like that,” Muse said, carefully maneuvering herself so that she could rest her head beside Shimmer without poking her.

    “I’m fine, Muse. Really. Look at me.” Then Shimmer paused to look around the room, confusion clouding her look. “Actually… how did I get up here, again?”

    “I knew it. I’m going to get Lecha again. You’re still hurt.”

    “Muse,” Whisper snapped from her corner, giving the absol a hard look. “She’s going to be fine. She just needs a little time to recover, understand? Just let her rest. It’s psychic strain.”

    “But she’s never been strained like this before!” Muse insisted, her brow knit with worry.

    Haru hummed in agreement. Even though she very much preferred the subdued way Shimmer was acting, she would be upset if something actually happened to her. Voicing her thoughts would be rude, though, so she held her tongue, instead addressing Muse’s worries. “She’s also never been in a situation where she would be strained like this, has she? You heard Lecha. Give her to tomorrow. If she’s not back to her… perky self by then, then you can worry about it.”

    “I’m fine, really,” Shimmer said, reaching a hand up to pat Muse’s head. “Thank you for worrying about me. Now, um… please answer my question?”

    “I helped Muse bring you up here,” Whisper explained, standing up. “You were falling in and out of alertness after you told us something about what you saw. We sent Haru after Lecha to make sure you were okay. Anu is still watching the prisoners.”

    Shimmer took a long breath. “Ah, okay. So maybe we should talk about the big fluffy guy downstairs. What do we want to do about him?”

    Whisper blinked. “Ah, shouldn’t you rest for a bit? I mean, we can wait for your father to get back-”

    “I’ll be fine. Besides, what if business keeps him busy for a day or two? Do we want him to have to come back and deal with this mess?”

    Whisper averted her gaze. “I… guess not. If you’re really certain you’re okay, you could start by telling us what you saw.”

    As Shimmer sat up, Haru shifted so that she was more comfortable and could better pay attention. Prior to today, she’d never seen the resting area. It wasn’t very fancy; a couple of straw nests for beds and one big cushion bed – which is where Shimmer was laying – a low-laying table with cushion seats in the center, and a couple of chests full of equipment were the only furnishings.

    She was brought back to reality by Muse’s voice. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” She asked quietly, nosing Shimmer’s shoulder. “We can wait, if you want.”

    “No, it’s fine. Really. I’ll be fine. Just… give me a moment to recall things.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes to concentrate. “Everything I saw was… really fragmented, and I’m not sure I remember everything. I don’t even know if everything was important. But I remember seeing… snow. A lot of snow. What else… Oh! I saw Nip when he was young. Tempest seemed very proud in that memory. And there was a memory with an old persian. You know, one of the grey ones with the chubby cheeks? He was asking Tempest why he was leaving, and he was all like ‘I lost everything’ or something. Seemed important but the details are fuzzy. And… there was another memory about Nip where he said something was fine but… I didn’t really understand that one. And of course, the one where he was attacked. That was the last one I saw.”

    “So, he left somewhere - I’m assuming the group that he and Nip are from - on neutral terms at best? That’s definitely something to follow up on when I get Essra or her mother in here. Thank you, Shimmer.”

    Haru listened quietly to the exchange up until that point. But when Whisper mentioned Essra, she couldn’t help but interrupt. “Wait, Essra? You don’t mean you’re going to send someone into his mind again, do you? Especially after what happened to Shimmer?”

    “What choice do I have? He can’t speak to us. And asking yes and no questions will only give us part of the story. I either have to have someone dictate his directed thoughts – which is less dangerous but allows him to lie – or we have to dive into his mind again.”

    “What about just having him write his answers down?” Haru suggested. “That way, you don’t have to invade his mind, but it would be just as reliable as reading his thoughts.”

    Whisper hesitated. “That’s… I don’t think that would work, Haru. Most wildeners don’t have a writing system. We can’t rely on the idea that Nip and Tempest can write. Besides, that poses the same reliability issue as thought reading.”

    “But it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?” Haru continued stubbornly.

    “She… may have a point,” Muse pointed out quietly. “Even if it doesn’t work, isn’t it worth a shot, so no one else gets hurt?”

    Whisper looked the three of them over, and Haru could tell she was thinking about it. A frustrated look crossed her face, then she let out a huff. “Fine. We’ll try it. But if it doesn’t work, we’re going back to my plan.”

    She retreated to one of the chests in the corner of the room, shuffling through it until she found parchment, a small bowl, and a small jar of ink. Holding all of them in her hands, she headed towards the ramp down, but paused there.

    “What are you waiting for?” Haru asked.

    “Oh, that’s easy,” Shimmer replied. Haru glanced back, noting that the kirlia was on her feet, trying to climb onto Muse’s back. “She’s thinking about what she’s going to have to do about Tempest,”

    Whisper narrowed her eyes. “Are you reading my mind now?”

    “What? No, of course not! You’d feel it if I was. It’s just super obvious. We don’t have the means to keep someone captive long period, so you’ll have to make some decisions over how to handle Tempest after my dad gets back.”

    The hawlucha blinked a couple times, looking Shimmer over. “I… didn’t expect that out of you. Is it really that obvious?”

    Muse glanced to Shimmer before saying, “it kind of is, yeah.”

    “Couldn’t we just handle things the way we’re handling Nip?” Haru asked.

    “It’s… more complex than that. If he’s friendly towards Nip, then letting him stay, even under supervision, could run the risk of him helping Nip escape. He could pull a stunt like Nip did as well. And I still don’t trust Umbra, for that matter.”

    “Oh, you don’t need to worry about Umbra,” Shimmer said. “Muse and I are keeping a verrry close eye on her.”

    Haru was blunt. “That’s… not reassuring. Where is she right now?”

    Before Shimmer could say anything that certainly would have given Haru a headache, Whisper stepped in. “Can we please move on? Look. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. I’ll have to discuss it with Jhorlo and the other guards, and then bring it up to the village. But I swear, I will not let any of them hurt anyone else, understand?”

    Silence fell across the room as Whisper’s heavy words hung in the air. After a moment, Shimmer broke the silence.

    “Come on, we’re wasting daylight, aren’t we?”

    Whisper let out a grunt before turning to head down the ramp, her talons clicking on the wooden surface. Haru headed down afterward, hearing Muse question Shimmers health before following.

    Shimmer, perky as always, cheerfully let her know that she was absolutely fine, draping dramatically across her back.

    Anu was in the exact same position he had been when she had first gone up to the second floor, sitting cross-legged in front of Tempest’s cell, his head bowed, and eyes closed. His aura feelers hovered and trembled just a bit, making her assume that he was reading the room. He let out a grunt, acknowledging their arrival.

    Nip and Tempest, however, had moved. The ninetales was laying on his stomach against the cell bars, his nose poking out into the gap between his and Nip’s cell - a space about as wide as Haru was long - as he stared down the sneasel. Nip was also near the gap, laying on his stomach with his head resting on his arms, staring back at Tempest. His tail and ear feathers drooped, suggesting wariness.

    As they approached, Haru noted the odd expression - confliction, she assumed - on Tempest’s face. What it meant, she wasn’t sure. But if anyone else noticed it, they said nothing.

    Whisper came to a stop just in front of Tempest’s cell and cleared her throat, drawing the two prisoner’s attention and jolting Anu out of his meditation.

    The lucario looked around the room, settling his gaze on Shimmer. “Ah, Shimmer. You seem weak, but I’m glad to see that you’re okay. You had us all worried.”

    Shimmer waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about me! I just needed a moment.” Yet, Haru could see how tightly she was gripping Muse’s coat, and how she slightly leaned forward to stay balanced.

    “Ah, right, of course.” He turned his gaze to Whisper. “Nothing has happened since you left. They moved, but otherwise things have been totally calm.”

    Whisper gave a grunt of acknowledgement as she passed him to stand in front of Tempest’s cell. “Good. We can work out the details of how to handle judgement for his attack when Jhorlo returns, but for now…”

    She turned her attention to Tempest, looking him over with narrowed eyes. “Alright, ninetales. First, I will… apologize for the invasive method of obtaining information. But the fact of the matter is we don’t know if we can trust a word you say. We’re going to give you a chance to give us an honest answer now. But choose your words carefully, because if you lie, we won’t hesitate to turn you over to the enforcers for proper punishment.”

    Through the bars, she pushed the parchment, laying it out on the floor. After pausing to unstop the jar and pour a small amount of ink into the bowl, she passed that through, too. “Why are you here? What are your intentions? And we need to know how you were injured, as that seems to be… relevant, from what we gathered.”

    Tempest stared for a few heartbeats, looking first to Nip, then back to Whisper. Then he dragged himself to his feet, standing tall with his tails fanned out. The air grew chilly, and Haru instinctually shrank back at the threat display, poised to flee. She forced herself to appear relaxed a second later, realizing that no one else seemed fazed.

    Whisper, in particular, was completely unperturbed. “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way. You can write your answers down there, we can have a psychic read your mind and translate, or, if you refuse to cooperate, we’ll have them dive into your mind again. And I guarantee the next one won’t be so easy to expel.”

    For what felt like an agonizingly long time, Tempest stood dangerously still, the tips of his tails twitching as frost formed on the ground around his feet. But finally, he bowed his head, closed his eyes, and took a couple steps back before sitting down. Pawing at the parchment, he pulled it closer before placing a paw in the ink.

    Haru swelled with pride, giving herself a mental pat on the back. Her idea was really working! She watched intently as he drew his paw across the parchment to make a thick black streak.

    That’s odd, she thought, faltering. the orientation is all wrong. Is he going to write sideways?

    It quickly became obvious that was not the case. Instead of the standard series of dots and lines that made up the written language Haru knew, he drew three sides of a square, leaving the bottom open and placing a dot in the middle. He followed that up by triangular shape, and then two quick parallel diagonal lines.

    Haru stared down at the glyphs, her expression blank. “What’s… what’s that supposed to mean? That’s not… that’s not words.”

    Someone scoffed. Haru looked up and caught sight of Nip staring at her. He quickly averted his gaze, turning his head to look at the back wall. Then he sat up, scratching behind his ear before turning his attention to the parchment.

    “That first set of lines clearly represents the concept of safety. Protection from attack on most sides, like a sensible den. A triangle with equal sides like that can stand for help or caution. And the two lines can mean hunting or seeking. It’s a universal territorial marker. Simple, really. What were you expecting?”

    Whether he meant it or not, Nip’s tone was harsh and sounded almost accusatory, reminding her of the way he’d sounded during their argument the night before. Admittedly, she sounded that way too, but she at least had good reason, right? Was he still mad? Well that was just fine. She had been harsh, but she had the right to be, didn’t she?

    “Well it was the best solution,” she defended. “I just thought–”

    “Thought what? That we’d use the same symbols?” Nip let out a frustrated growl, cutting her off. “You’re making assumptions again. Assuming a pokemon you’ve never met is good. Assuming that they think the same way you do, and that the way you look at things is the right way. No wonder you’re so naive.”

    Haru felt an uncomfortable pit forming in her stomach, which quickly flared into fiery anger. “Excuse me?” She squeaked, marching towards Nip’s cell. “How dare you. We saved your life and you repaid us by taking one! Maybe I did make some assumptions. At least I’m not a terrible pokemon that takes advantage of others kindness. No wonder you–”

    Before she could finish her sentence, she felt paws grip her sides and drag her back. She let out a surprised squeal and instinctively struggled as Anu pulled her further away. Whisper stepped between her and the cell, banging a wing against the bars. “Will both of you shut up!”

    It took Haru a second to recover after the loud bang. She looked back to the cell and saw that Nip had scrambled backwards away from Whisper, his fur fluffed up and his pupils mere slivers. His breathing had turned rapid and shallow.

    “Both of you, stop,” the hawlucha growled, crossing her wings as she backed off. “I do not have time for petty squabbling like this. And–” she cut off, her eyes flickering to something behind Haru. Turning to look back, Shimmer was visibly swaying, steadying herself on Muse with one arm and holding her head with the other. “Too much. Too strong emotions,” Shimmer mumbled.

    Whisper took a deep breath and turned to Nip. “You need to watch your tongue, sneasel. Remember, you’re only here because the village is giving you a chance to prove that you’re going to change. But this? Heckling other pokemon does not sound very remorseful, now does it?”

    Nip, having calmed down a bit, averted his gaze, mumbling what might have been a half-hearted apology. Haru let out a satisfied huff. But before she could get too proud of herself, Whisper turned on her next. “And you, Haru. You’re not helping the situation.”

    “What did I do wrong?” Haru asked incredulously.

    “You’re antagonizing him.”

    “He antagonized me!”

    “I know. But you need to be the bigger mon and ignore him. If you can’t do that, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I don’t need a petty argument getting in the way of the investigation. Nor do I need our emotions to overwhelm Shimmer and make her pass out again. You can get the details later when we bring things up with the rest of the village.”

    “But–”

    “No buts!” Whisper stared Haru down with a narrowed gaze. “If you really want to help, then you can go fetch Essra. Or better yet, Phoel. Tell her to come over here. Looks like we’re going to need a psychic after all. And when you’re done, don’t come back.”

    Haru sputtered. Maybe she shouldn’t be here but… how did this not concern her? She helped bring Nip here in the first place. “But I–”

    “This isn’t negotiable. As head guard, this is an order, Haru. Leave.”

    Haru turned to look at Shimmer and Muse, hoping they would come to her defense. But Shimmer was looking pallid, and Muse was too preoccupied with fretting over her to even notice Haru’s gaze. Sensing this was a fight she couldn’t win, Haru finally turned towards the door, a dark expression on her face.

    “Fine,” she grumbled, making her way towards the exit. She could see when she wasn’t wanted.

    *****​

    The sun beat down on Haru, heating her fur as she trudged across the square. Knowing where Phoel would be, she made her way towards a stand near the center with a cloth canopy draped over it. Underneath, a bored looking meowstic sat, her head propped up by one paw while the other tapped away on the wooden surface. Next to her, on a perch, sat a pidove, but he took off before Haru got too close. Off to deliver a message, she suspected. Surprisingly, there was one other pokemon there: Toshi.

    Haru called out a greeting as she got closer, causing Toshi to nearly jump in surprise. “Haru? What are you doing here?”

    “Whisper sent me to fetch Phoel. Said she needs the help of a psychic to deal with the ninetales. You heard about what happened, right?”

    Toshi shuddered. “Yeah, heard he managed to rough Romi up pretty good. It feels like we can’t go even a few days without something wild happening lately, huh?”

    Haru hummed in response before turning her attention to the meowstic. “Good afternoon, Miss Phoel. You heard me, right?”

    “Loud an’ clear, boss,” Phoel said, waving a paw. “Gonna have to wait a minute though, dear. I’m waiting to hear back news from Brinash town. Heard the Expedition Society is gearing up for something, but I’m trying to find out what.”

    “Brinash Town?” Haru asked, tilting her head to the side. “Why are you asking about them? That’s several days journey from here.”

    “Well, it is one of the biggest and oldest towns around,” Toshi pointed out. He lifted a foot to paw sheepishly at his muzzle. “But to be more specific, I, ah, asked her to. I’ve been… well, I’ve been trying to listen for news about apprenticeship openings at the society.”

    Haru blinked a couple times. “Openings? Don’t tell me you’re planning on leaving?”

    “Not anytime soon!” Toshi said quickly. “I mean, well, if openings came up soon, then maybe. But they’re not really accepting newbies right now. Society head Blue is currently out on business. Apparently, he’s working on passing through the Great Misty Ravine dungeon and establishing a base on the other side! Isn’t that cool? We’ll finally be able to explore the rest of the continent and find out just what lies beyond.”

    “I mean… I guess it’s neat… but we have three whole pokemon right here that passed through there, you know. Nip, Umbra, and now that ninetales. Tempest, I think Nip called him?”

    Toshi’s face scrunched up as he considered her words. “I mean, I guess. But… that still doesn’t change the fact that there’s still so much we don’t know. Doesn’t that excite you?”

    “I prefer to stay grounded,” Haru replied. Why should I waste my time on something that’s several cycles away from being relevant to me?”

    “Are… you alright? You seem like you’re in a bit of a bad mood.”

    “Whisper made me leave because I was ‘antagonizing Nip,’ or something. Like, yeah, I got mad and started to gripe at him, but he started it! He was the one that insulted me! I think he’s just still mad about what happened last night.”

    “What… what happened last night? You were out kind of late.”

    “Oh, it was awful. I was feeling kind of torn up about the situation with Nip. You know, because I’m kinda a little bit responsible for helping bring him here. So, I decided to confront him directly and see if I could get a better answer than what he gave publicly. I mean, I actually spent some time with him, after all, so I was hoping that he would consider me trustworthy or something, I don’t know. But he just spewed the same sob-story he told the rest of the village, like we’re supposed to pity him for what might have Umbra done to him, despite what he did to us. If that even happened!”

    “I mean… Umbra didn’t deny it, did she?” Toshi pointed out quietly. But Haru didn’t acknowledge him, too deep into her rant.

    “He convinced himself that he’s safe from her hiding in that jail cell. I don’t think he’s considering changing his ways at all. I think he’s just using it for protection. If Umbra wasn’t here, he’d probably attack whoever was guarding him and try to run away.”

    “Uh… sis?”

    “Well, he started getting really angry when I pointed that out, so I reminded him that he needed to watch himself, or else they might change their mind and redo his judgement. I also pointed out that I didn’t really have a reason to trust his story.”

    “You said what?

    “And I think he’s still kind of mad about that, so he tried to goad me. Sorry, what were you saying?”

    Toshi blinked, looking his sister over. “Um… Haru? You kind of were antagonizing him.”

    “He antagonized me first, I went over this already.”

    “No, I mean last night. Were you trying to upset him? I mean, you literally told him that you thought he was lying.”

    Haru blinked. What was he getting at? “What? No, I wasn’t trying to upset him. I was just being truthful.”

    Toshi sucked in a breath, anxiously dragging a paw across the ground. “Well… you were kind of insensitive. I guess. So, can you really blame him for getting upset?”

    “Insensitive?” Haru tilted her head. “Even if I was trying to be insensitive, why should I spare his feelings?”

    “I get that but. Didn’t you notice how scared he was of Umbra. Don’t you think his story might have had just a bit of truth to it?”

    Haru averted her gaze for a second, uncertainty clouding her mind. Then she reminded herself of how cowardly he’d been, and how low he was willing to stoop. “I mean… he was probably just putting on a show. And even if he wasn’t, why should I be nice to him? He hurt our village, Toshi. And he hurt his tribe too. He had a second chance in us, and he blew it. We should have turned him over to the enforcers and been done with the situation. Or maybe we should have turned him over to Umbra, I don’t know.”

    Toshi’s mouth dropped open. “You… you don’t mean that, do you?”

    “I mean, it’s not ideal, but we’re just wasting our time with him, don’t you think? I mean, has he shown any interest in changing? Or is he just going to turn around and go hurt more pokemon the moment we say he’s free to go?”

    Shifting his weight anxiously, Toshi turned to look elsewhere. “It’s only been a few days, Haru. Give him time. Wouldn’t you want others to give you the same courtesy if you wronged them?”

    A beat of hesitation. “Sure, but why would I ever need that? It’s not like I’m going to go out and kill someone for food, or steal someone’s egg.”

    His gaze dropped to the ground. “It… doesn’t have to necessarily be that… You kinda wronged Nip, didn’t you? Maybe I’m just being a bleeding heart but… You told him that you don’t believe Umbra hurt him. Don’t you think that’s something pretty personal to open up about?”

    “Is that what this is about? Toshi, he’s given me no good reason to believe him!”

    “But Umbra didn’t deny it either, remember? What if he wasn’t lying? Think about how rude it would be to say that to his face. What if I were to tell you that I didn’t believe you were swept downstream as a kid when you told me why it took so long for you to start swimming in the river? How would that make you feel?”

    Haru opened her mouth and raised a paw as she started to respond, but hesitated, putting her paw back down and closing her mouth as she thought it over. “I would feel crummy, sure. But… no one’s forced to believe me if they don’t want to.”

    Toshi dropped his gaze. “What about when you get into arguments with Dad?”

    Arguments with Dad? Oh, right. Arguments about Regigigas, she guessed. “What about those?”

    “Well… you’re kind of wronging him, in a way, aren’t you? Every time he brings Regigigas up lately, you get in an argument with him. Don’t you think it’s a little abrasive to just brush his feelings off like that?”

    Haru didn’t like where this was going. “What’s so wrong with feeling like pokemon rely too much on gods that either don’t care about them or never existed at all?”

    “Nothing!” Toshi said quickly. “But… you’re always picking a fight over it. Don’t you think it would be better to just, I don’t know, let things be? You’re not going to change his mind by insulting him - or anyone else for that matter. You know how Dad feels about the stories about Regigigas, so why do you keep antagonizing him over it?”

    “Letting things be is kinda why Shimmer is still chasing after you, isn’t it? Besides, I just think he’s not thinking clearly! Maybe if he started putting his faith in other pokemon that are around him instead of a ‘god’ that has done nothing for him, he’d stop running himself ragged!”

    Toshi shifted uncomfortably. “Is that what all this is about? This isn’t even about Dad. Or not just about dad, is it? This is about Grandpa Catkin, isn’t it?”

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Haru said quickly, but Toshi wasn’t paying attention anymore.

    “All this time, I thought you were just doing all this for the sake of being contrary. But… no, you’re holding a grudge. You’re still upset that Grandpa died trying to find ‘Gigas, aren’t you?

    A pit started to form in Haru’s stomach. She turned her head away. “That’s… That’s not true! I just think it’s foolish to put faith in a pokemon that does nothing to help anyone.”

    “But Regigias has helped in a way, hasn’t he? He’s helped dad stay strong all these years. At least, that’s how I understand it?”

    “Even if you were right, grandpa wouldn’t be dead if it weren’t for ‘Gigas,” Haru argued. “Why are you so quick to defend a pokemon you’ve never met? Why are you so quick to defend Nip, for that matter, when all he’s done is hurt us?”

    “But he did help us. Back in the woods, remember?”

    “Um… could you two have this discussion somewhere else, please?”

    Haru and Toshi turned their attention to Phoel, who was staring at them with her claws digging into the wood.

    “Psychic couriership takes a lot of focus and energy. I don’t need these kind of distractions when I’m trying to work.”

    Both bidoof shifted uncomfortably, averting their gazes as they muttered some sort of apology.

    Satisfied, Phoel let out a huff. “Now, I need to go help Whisper. But before I go, I heard back from the network, Toshi. Whatever is going on at the society is under tight wraps. From the sound of things, even the exploration teams only have details on a need to know basis. Sorry I couldn’t help you more.”

    Toshi shifted his gaze to avoid looking at Haru. “Ah… thanks, Phoel. I appreciate it, really. Though… that’s really weird. Blue is well known for being very candid about what’s going on at the society…”

    Phoel raised her arms, so that her paws were up in front of her. “I don’t know what the deal is, boss, I just deliver the news.”

    “I know. Thanks anyways.” He turned back to look at Haru. “I should probably get back to work. Shouldn’t you, too?”

    Toshi was right. The sun was just starting to descend in the sky; Haru’s lunch break had gone way longer than planned, with all the excitement. What did she have to show for it? Whisper was angry with her, and Toshi was obviously uncomfortable with how their conversation had gone.

    “Yeah, you’re right,” she said quietly. “See you at dinner?”

    “Mhm.”

    Unnerved by his noncommittal response, but unwilling to push the matter further, Haru turned and began to trudge towards the edge of the square, making her way back towards home, before veering instead to the upstream path, towards where they felled trees. Toshi would be heading home to work on debarking, and she wasn’t totally sure she wanted to see him, still upset by his accusations. Maybe felling a tree would help her calm down.

    Still, as she passed a field of berries on her left, the sparse village homes behind her now, she couldn’t help but dwell on his comments.

    Was she really in the wrong here? Was she really being that much of an asshole? She really, honestly felt like she wasn’t.

    But some lingering uncomfortable feeling in her gut told her she couldn’t be sure.

    *****​

    Things were quiet after Whisper had sent Haru away. Anu, after briefly exchanging words with Shimmer and Muse, excused himself, returning to his duties attending to Regigigas’ shrine. He gave his mate a reassuring pat on the shoulder as he passed.

    Muse had managed to convince Shimmer to lay back down for a while and headed upstairs, where they would wait until Phoel or Essra arrived.

    Leaving Whisper alone in the room with Nip and his possible ally.

    She silently stared at Tempest for some time, scrutinizing his every detail. But eventually, she averted her gaze, nervously running her claws through the feathers on the side of her head.

    Quietly, so silent that even pokemon like Nip and Tempest had to strain to hear, she mumbled, “titans, what have we gotten into…”

    She turned away for a moment. But a scuffling sound made her whip her head back around. Nip had begun to scoot closer to the bars separating him from Tempest. But as soon as Whisper was looking at him again, he froze, his pupils wide as he stared back. She continued to stare for several seconds, then turned away again. Running her claws through her feathers again, she plucked one, winced, then slowly lowered her wing.

    “Why did I ever agree to take on this position… I thought I left all this kind of trouble behind when I settled here… Darn it, I’m not prepared for this! Gods, Volt, why’d you have to go and die on us? And Leas, why’d she have to up and disappear? She was a great leader. Better than me…”

    Her gaze drifted to the parchment, and the useless marks on it. Stupid! She knew that it was a pointless endeavor, trying to communicate with writing. And yet, she’d wasted her time with it anyways. How could she be so stupid?

    She plucked another feather. Where was Phoel? Surely, Haru should have been able to get her by now?

    A low, growl-like noise rumbled in her throat as she looked up to make eye contact with Tempest. But he was too busy staring at Nip to notice, an unreadable expression on his face.

    “Hey!” she snapped, drawing his attention. “While we wait for the psychic to arrive, I suppose I’ll gather some cursory information with yes or no answers.” She began to walk, light on her feet, towards Tempest’s cell, stopping just in front of him at attention. “Now, I want you to bow your head if the answer is yes. Understand?”

    She waited for him to perform the action before continuing. “Glad we got that settled. So, to start off… How much do you know about Nip? Do you know why he left the tribe?”

    Tempest lowered his head.

    “Then you likely know about the accusations that the mawile, Umbra, made?” Tempest’s lip curled into a soundless snarl at the mention of the name, and Whisper could feel the air growing cold again, but ignored it for the moment. “You know about what happened to the eggs in your nursery? Before you answer, I should mention that Nip here did not deny those accusations. In fact, he even explained his reasons for doing so. Horrible reasons, I might add.”

    Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Nip springing to his feet, fur bristling. He opened his mouth to say something, but only the slightest of sounds escaped before he caught himself.

    The air grew more frigid. But then Tempest glanced over to Nip and hesitated. In the end, he bowed his head again.

    “So, did you follow him here to help him?”

    He bowed his head. Whisper sucked in a sharp breath.

    “Why? Why would you help him after everything he did to your tribe? Do you have any idea what he did to ours? To our village? Do you have any idea how cruel he is? Why don’t you tell him, Nip? Tell him what you did to us.”

    She turned her attention to watch as the sneasel stood frozen, his eyes narrowing to slits. His ear and tail feathers drooped, and he said nothing. Huh, so he could feel shame for his actions. It almost made her feel pity for him. Almost.

    But he didn’t speak, so she scoffed and turned her head. “Well, since he is unwilling to answer, I will. Nip was found left for dead in the woods. A few of us villagers rescued him, bringing him back here to recover. But do you know how he repaid our kindness? By stealing and eating one of our eggs.”

    Tempest stared at her for a moment, his gaze scrutinizing, as if trying to figure out if she was being truthful. Then he turned his attention to Nip. When Nip refused to meet his gaze, his tails drooped, and he laid down in the cell. What he was feeling, she was uncertain. Nip turned and sat with his back to Tempest. Something about that really ticked her off.

    “So, now do you feel guilt?” Whisper asked Nip, looking him over. “Do you wish you could go back and change things? It’s a little late for that! Even if you really make a change to be a better mon, you can’t change what you did here, and there are going to be mon that will never accept you for that. Do you get that? Do you really feel remorse? Or do you just regret getting caught?”

    “Whisper? Is everything okay?”

    Whisper let out a gasp, whirling around to the ramp upstairs. Muse was standing at the top, looking her over with a worried expression. Whisper averted her gaze. “Sorry… Was I that loud?”

    “Loud and clear,” Muse confirmed.

    “I’m sorry. I just… this is all very personal. I… really shouldn’t be in charge of this whole operation, but… I don’t trust many others to handle things fairly. Anu is in the same situation as I am. Romi and Siles don’t have time to be involved in overseeing this. I don’t trust Vale and Stati to take care of things fairly.”

    Muse dipped her head. “I understand. Really, I do. But maybe you need to step away for a moment? Go rest. I’ll watch them.”

    “No. Phoel should be here any time now. I need to get this over with as soon as possible.”

    “It’s a good thing I’m here, then.”

    Whisper groaned, turning to spot the meowstic in the doorway. Oh, gods, had she heard that entire outburst, too? “Sorry you had to hear that.”

    “Don’t worry about it, boss. We all know you’re going through a tough time.” The meowstic lightly padded forward, reaching up to place a paw on Whisper’s side. “Sorry for the delay. I was waiting on a message. So, what did you need me for?”

    Whisper turned her head and tilted it upwards, gesturing in the direction of Tempest. “Simple mindreading, hopefully. He can’t talk, so I want you to translate his thoughts. If he’s uncooperative though… I might need you to go a bit deeper. Is that alright?”

    Phoel shifted uncomfortably. “I haven’t done anything like that in years, so I may be a little rusty but… If you need me to…”

    “I really do,” Whisper confirmed.

    “Got it. Leave this to me.” Silently, Phoel padded over to sit in front of Tempest, taking a seat on the floor. She took several deep breaths, bringing her forepaws in front of her as a gentle glow escaped from her eyes.

    “I’ve made contact,” she reported. “He’s quite insistent that I leave him alone, though.”

    Whisper turned back to Tempest. “Well, if he doesn’t want to risk the damage of a deeper dive, he better be honest, then.” She directed her attention to the ninetales. “We’ll make this quick. Are you planning to help Nip? Especially now that you know what he’s done here.”

    A moment of silence passed. Phoel frowned. “He says ‘I sincerely apologize on behalf of my… my student. He suffered much in the past and made poor decisions as a result.’”

    Was he serious? Whisper clenched and unclenched her claws. “Sorry doesn’t cut it here. This isn’t just petty theft. This is murder. He came here and he needed to follow our laws, and he should consider himself lucky to be alive.”

    There was a long pause. Phoel hesitated when she next spoke. “’Can he really be held to those laws if he did not know them?’”

    “It’s common sense!” Whisper snapped. “You don’t kill the ‘mon that saved you!”

    An uncomfortable silence followed. Tempest said nothing more. Or at least, Phoel did not pass on any more information.

    Whisper let out a long breath. “Next question. Why did you attack Romi – the rapidash – why did you attack her when you came into town?”

    “’She wouldn’t let me by.’”

    “She wouldn’t let you- that’s it? That’s your reasoning?”

    “’Yes. She wouldn’t let me by, so I used a show of strength to make her let me by.’”

    Closing her eyes, Whisper brought a claw up to scratch at her beak. She could feel a migraine coming on. “Okay. Fine. Whatever. So if that’s the case, why did you try to come into town in the first place?”

    “I’m paraphrasing his… colorful language here, but he says he was tracking Umbra. He followed an old scent into town. Smelled Nip when he got close.”

    Well, that explained something, though Whisper was shocked by how well he’d managed to track a scent. She was quite certain Umbra hadn’t left Jhorlo’s in several days. Let alone town. “You attacked someone to get into a village, on the off chance that Umbra might be here? That’s rather… impulsive. You could have told her why you were trying to get into the village and she might have let you pass.”

    “Um, Whisper,” Muse said quietly as she crept down the ramp. “I hate to be that mon, but… he kind of couldn’t. Couldn’t speak.”

    Oh, right. She really wasn’t thinking straight right now. She let out a long breath. “Fine. Just… one more question then. How were you injured.”

    “It was Umbra, obviously,” Nip grumbled under his breath.

    Whsiper whirled around to glare at him. “I don’t remember asking you.”

    “Well, for what it’s worth,” Phoel began, “the big guy says it wouldn’t surprise him if it was Umbra. But… He doesn’t know for sure. Everything happened so fast, he didn’t get a good look at his attacker. He is certain that it was a member of the tribe, though. He remembers the smell.”

    How could he not- Whisper cut off herself off. “I see… Thank you. We will… keep all of these claims in mind as we look into how to handle this precarious situation. I believe that will be all.”

    Tempest stared at Nip for a long moment before his next thought was translated. “He says…’Due to the… to the nature of what has happened here, I will defer to your judgement, so long as no more harm comes to either of us. I should have done more to help Nip before things reached this point. I’m sorry. But I will not leave, even if you ask me to. I have no reason to return to the Half-Moon Tribe. I was always an outsider, even before all this, there is nothing for me there anymore.’”

    Whisper had begun to walk away, but once Phoel spoke again, she paused. “You… would not leave? Even under threat of death?”

    “’Nip is the only of my kin I have left. Or rather, the only one I still hold any affection for. I will not leave him again.’”

    Whisper looked Tempest over, judging his conviction. “Very well. I will trust your claim. I have to wait until our Mayor, Jhorlo returns before judgement can be passed, and will keep you here until then. But I promise no harm shall come to you until then.”

    “You have my thanks, Whisper.”

    Whisper plucked a feather. “I’ve already regretted trusting Nip. Don’t make me regret trusting you, too.”

    *​

    Note: a scene was edited in this chapter on July 3rd, 2020
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 14
  • windskull

    Bidoof Fan
    Staff
    Partner
    sneasel-nip
    Hey all! Review replies will come later today, after this chapter, but I'll give a quick thanks to everyone that's dropped a review in the last... four months since I posted a chapter. Whoops! Enjoy!

    Chapter 14: Momentary Respite

    *​

    For Theran Village, the next two sunrises passed without incident. Word spread around about the strange Ninetales and whispered rumors passed between the villagers, but mostly life continued just as it had before. Even for Nip.

    Whisper, or one of the other guards, would rouse him shortly after dawn, tossing a few berries his way. Then they'd guide him over to the daycare to work on renovations, where he'd spend most of the day dragging around and cutting lumber. When the sun started to dip low in the sky, he'd be sent back to his cell with a few more berries. Both evenings, he sat against the bars as close to Tempest he could get, talking to him quietly. A couple of the guards would return to the hut when darkness settled in outside, putting away jars of moss that lit the room before retreating upstairs.

    Speaking of Tempest, the Ninetales had yet to be let out of his cell; Whisper had explained that until Jhorlo returned and they could discuss what to do, he would have to remain locked away. As far as Nip could tell, Tempest seemed mostly fine with this. Still recovering from his infected injury, he was in no condition to be out working or doing anything of the sort. That didn't stop him from becoming agitated both times Nip had been removed from his sight. Not that Nip was in any position to argue about it.

    Despite how regular the last two days had been, this morning started a bit different. He was roused, fed, and escorted to the daycare as usual. But instead of getting straight to work, he and Chipper now sat to the side next to a pile of unworked lumber, waiting, while Tor and Grombert conversed in front of the daycare. Nearby, Anu and Whisper were engaged in their own conversation, both of them occasionally stealing a glance at Nip to see if he was behaving.

    Nip shifted uncomfortably on his feet before sitting down, keeping an eye on Tor and Grombert as he tried to listen in on their conversation. In hopes of appearing nonchalant, he started to busy himself with grooming, running his tongue over the side of his forepaw before brushing it over his face. An unpleasant memory of how Haru reacted about his grooming bubbled to the surface, though, making him slowly lower his paw.

    "You say you're almost done, then?" he overheard Tor ask.

    "With everything but th' fence," Grombert confirmed. "But to finish that to your, er, specifications, I'd have to get Romi to bring in another load of bricks. Whisper says she can't afford to send a guard off till Jhorlo gets back though. Not even a part-time one. Besides that… I hate to say it, but we're running a bit low on funds. A brick wasn't exactly part of the budget, after all."

    "True," Tor replied in his usual monotone voice. "I take it you're asking for the rest of the payment now?"

    "Not the rest of it," Grombert said quickly. "Just the second third of the agreed-upon amount. The rest can come later. Though we may have to renegotiate the price, what with both the increased cost of supplies and the additional set of working paws."

    "Are you really going to pay him?" Nip caught Tor shooting him a nasty look. He quickly averted his gaze.

    "What? Of course not! But we do have to pay Whisper for lending out his labor. She's gotta pay for the expenses of feeding him somehow."

    The blissey closed his eyes. "I don't like it, but that's a fair point I suppose. Give me a moment." With that, Tor disappeared inside the vibrant building. He reappeared shortly after, carrying a small sack in one of his stubby hands. "I trust this will be enough for now?"

    Grombert grabbed the bag in one paw and jingled the coins inside. Then he held out an ear and dumped the contents out onto it, inspecting them with a scrutinizing gaze. Finally, he flashed a grin. "That will, indeed, do! I'll get this divided up and prepare an order. Thanks."

    "My pleasure." Tor turned and returned inside, while Grombert quickly returned the coins to the bag before approaching Chipper and Nip. Whisper and Anu glanced up from their conversation, and Nip quickly did his best to make it look like he hadn't been listening in.

    "Looks like we're going to have a couple days off," Grombert announced. "Let me just take care of my business with Whisper and then we can all be on our way."

    "Fine by me," Chipper said. He fell down to all fours and stretched. Nip could hear his joints crackle with each movement. "Gives me a chance to rest these old bones. What are gonna do about the sneasel, though?" He gestured his head towards Nip.

    "I'm sure I'll be fine without the work," Nip grumbled under his breath, rubbing one sore forepaw with the other. He hoped no one heard that.

    If anyone did, they didn't say anything about it. Whisper turned to address Grombert, Anu hanging a few steps behind. "He's not your responsibility to deal with. I'll take care of finding something to keep him busy. Roselei should have a field of oran bushes ready to harvest. I'm sure she could use the help. I'll talk to her about it before evening."

    Nip looked down at his claws, fighting the urge to scowl. They all talked about him like he wasn't even there, not even giving him a chance to give any input. Then again, that was kind of the point, as much as he hated to admit it. It didn't mean he had to like it. Hoping to get his mind off of that, he turned his attention back to Grombert, watching him count several little lumpy disks out of the pile. Most of them seemed to be roughly the same size, but there were a few smaller ones. He gathered up the smaller pile before pushing it towards Whisper.

    "I think this should meet our agreed-upon amount?"

    The hawlucha counted the coins one by one, then scooped up a few before passing them on to Anu. "Here, take him around the village today. Let him buy meat or whatever else he wants within reason. I'll put the rest with our current funds and figure out how to approach next week later. Bring him back around lunch time. I'll have Stati relieve you at that point so you can get back to your duties.

    Anu stared down at the coins in his paw, his brow furrowed. "Are you sure, Love?"

    At the same time, Grombert gave Whisper a quizzical look. "Why would you give him any money? This is a community service sentence, not a job."

    Whisper's feathers puffed up as she whirled around to glare at the diggersby. "I pride myself in not running our guard like the enforcers do, thank you very much," she snapped.

    Grombert stumbled a few steps back, holding up his prehensile ears defensively. "Okay, okay, sorry I asked."

    Slowly, Whisper sucked in and then let out a breath. "No, I'm sorry. I snapped at you under stress and I should do better. I need to prepare a statement before Jhorlo gets back about the Ninetales and any other things that happened since he left. Plus the aforementioned issue of trying to figure out the logistical mess of feeding him and Nip. Besides, letting Nip buy his own goods might give him a better idea of how the village functions, and may help him integrate into society if everything works out. It's not like I'm letting him buy just anything, anyways."

    She turned her attention to Nip. "I'm giving you a little time to walk around the village and do what you want with this time, so I expect you to be on your best behavior, understand? Anu will be letting me know if you don't."

    Nip held her gaze evenly and said nothing. But the way his ear swiveled back and his feathers drooped gave away his anxiety. Whisper continued to give him a meaningful stare. But when he kept quiet, she sighed and turned away, scooping up the remaining coins.

    "I'll see you later, Anu."

    As she began to walk away, Anu approached Nip. He placed the coins into a small, cloth pouch that rested against his hip before addressing the sneasel with his paws clasped together.

    "Ah, we should, um, probably discuss what you wish to do with this free time. Are you hungry? P-perhaps we should go get something to eat. I suspect you'd like to have something more to your taste than what the guard has fed you thus far, wouldn't you?"

    Without thinking about it, Nip licked his lips, his mind drifting to the past. His body itched for the exhilarating excitement of the hunt. For the rush as he stalked through the forest, pine needles squishing under his feet as he carefully sniffed the air for signs of prey, or else for the scents of those that might hunt him.

    His claws twitched slightly at the thought, but he knew that wasn't what Anu was offering him. Not with how soft these village mon were, or at least claimed to be. "I am hungry, yes," he finally said quietly.

    Anu hummed in acknowledgement, then moved so that he was standing behind Nip. "Off we go, then."

    Wordlessly, Nip turned and began to walk away from the daycare. Anu followed close behind. Nip was quite certain that he was keeping an eye on him the entire time.

    They walked in silence for a moment. But as they left the others behind, a burning question escaped Nip's mouth. "Are you planning to feed me something I can actually eat, now that you have some of this… 'poke' stuff?"

    "Hm?" Anu tilted his head but didn't stop walking. "Oh, right. I don't know how Whisper is going to handle things. It's… complicated, I'm afraid. I understand that you are an obligate carnivore. Whisper does, too. But… the meat from our village is sourced from scavenging. It doesn't leave much to spare, and as a result, we can only feed so many mouths. In times of shortages, sometimes we must do without. And I'm afraid if Whisper has to choose between feeding you, and one of the other villagers going hungry… Well, she'll at least give you berries until there's more."

    Nip stopped walking and turned to look at Anu, his gaze incredulous. "You can't really believe that, right? That all of your meat comes from scavenging."

    Anu stopped as well and stared down at him. Nip noticed the tiniest flicker of uncertainty in his gaze. Then his muzzle stiffened, and he closed his eyes. "You must remember, you are not from around here. I can't expect you to understand how we do things, but I ask that you try to understand how we handle things here. We scavenge so that we might take only what we must. Our community is small as a result, but it is peaceful."

    "I don't need to be from around here to know that's not sustainable!" Nip growled, frustration seeping into his tone. Then he flinched, realizing how heated he was sounding, and shrank back. Slowly, he sucked in and let out a breath before standing tall again. "I-I meant to say… I can't believe something like that really works. My kin only killed what we needed to survive. Yveltal's teachings told us to not let the lives we take go to waste. And yet, there is no way we could have survived on this scavenging. There wouldn't be enough to go around."

    The lucario gave Nip a scrutinizing glare. He shrank back once again, avoiding looking Anu in the eye. But before he could try and talk his way out of things, Anu sighed, placing a paw against his chest spike. "Again… Please remember this is not your homeland, things are different here. Besides, that's part of why Whisper gave you a share of the earnings: so that you might purchase your own food, so you wouldn't have to worry about whether or not we could get you some."

    Nip wanted to say, is that reason enough to leave me malnourished? But there was no point in arguing if it would only make Anu upset again. Getting into arguments led to fights. And fights against a pokemon like Anu would leave him beaten down. It wasn't worth the risk.

    They began to walk again, but before Nip could start up the path towards the meat shop, he felt a paw on his shoulder.

    "Ah… apologies, Nip, but, um. I'd like for us to stop inside this shop first." Anu lifted a paw to gesture to a tent that had been set up to the side. The tarp was colored a swirl of pale pink and white. A sign had been placed in front of it in the same unfamiliar writing that the pokemon around here seemed to use.

    "What is this place?" Nip asked.

    "Sweet's Shop," Anu explained. "She comes into town every so often and carries a lot of random stuff she finds around the area. Most of what she brings around is useless, but every once in a while she'll bring in orbs, wands, or other useful items. I hope you don't mind if we stop for a minute. Who knows, maybe you'll find a trinket you'll like?"

    Nip highly doubted that. But he was in no mood to argue, so he just let out a grunt and moved to step through the entry flap.

    A large piece of woven cloth, covered by intricate swirling designs, blanketed the ground inside. Several other smaller, similarly ornate carpets sat on top, with items on top of those. Some items were little more than a fanciful rock, though Nip did spot a couple of glassy orbs in one corner. One he recognized as an escape orb by the dim grey color with a bright light that sparked and danced deep inside. The other he didn't recognize as any particular orb, and he wasn't convinced it was an orb at all.

    "Ah-ah, customers!"

    Nip glanced up and looked to the back of the tent, movement catching his eye. From underneath a piece of cloth, a slurpuff had appeared, her fur disheveled.

    "Oh, it's Mr. Anu," the slurpuff continued as she tried to flatten down her fur. "Oh, and you must be the sneasel I've been hearing so much about. Hello!"

    She held out a paw, and Nip recoiled, noting the stickiness of some sort of berry that had matted the fur of her paw together. She stared at him for a moment, then closed her eyes and spun away, seemingly unconcerned by his reaction.

    "Well, aren't you two looking rather well today. What can I get for you? I have all sorts of wares for sale… if you have the coin." She spun back around, bringing a paw up to her mouth, and shot the two a leer for just a second before returning to her usual cheerful demeanor.

    Nip shot Anu an incredulous look. This was what he wanted to stop for? He hadn't been wrong, most of this really was junk. Not noticing or ignoring Nip's look, Anu moved to the corner of the room to inspect pile of orbs and probably-not-orbs. He had his back to Nip, but Nip could tell from the way his feelers wavered that he was still watching him. Or watching his aura, at least.

    "Ah, my good sneasel friend!"

    Nip felt a sticky paw grab hold of his hand. He yelped and jerked it away. Sweet gave him a weird look before continuing, grabbing his paw again to drag him to the other side of the tent. "You look like you've been traveling rather light. Wouldn't you like something nice and shiny to accompany you?" Carefully, she picked up what looked like a shard of crystal. On two sides, it was nearly flat, the sides ended in sharp, jagged edges.

    "I…" Nip stared at the object. It was rather shiny… but what was the point? Some part of him wanted to store it away, and some other, rational part of his mind told him that he was wasting his time.

    Anu glanced over and let out a sigh. "Um… Sweet, c-could you please not attempt to sell him broken glass? Or any sort of weapon, for that matter."

    The slurpuff glanced at Anu with a sour expression. "Aww, you're no fun." She perked back up and turned her attention to Nip, who had taken a couple steps back when she'd turned her head. She still had a hold of his paw though, keeping him trapped in the interaction.

    Dragging him to another pile, Sweet finally let go of his paw so that she could dig through a handful of scarves. When she stood back up, she held a small, drawstring bag made of a pale brown cloth. "See, isn't this perfect for you? Don't you wish you could carry things around? I have a big bag of my own!" She gestured to the corner of the room where, just as she said, there was a large bag, nearly as big as she was.

    "Um…" Nip began. She did have a point. It would be nice to have something to carry things with when he got out of here. He had initially stolen a bag for that reason. On the other hand… who knew when he'd be allowed to leave? And until Umbra gave up (something he doubted would actually happen) he was perfectly content with hiding behind the guards.

    "What do you want for it?" he finally said. Because it couldn't hurt to ask.

    Sweet shot him a goofy grin, her tongue lolling out. "Oh, I knew you'd like it. And you're such a cutie, I'll make you a great deal. I'll sell it to ya for just 80 poke. Or a jar of combee honey — I'm kind of hungry. That's a bargain you can't refuse!"

    Eighty poke? That seemed like a lot. But he had no clue what a big number was, by village standards. He glanced back to Anu uncertain of how much that would leave him with.

    Anu picked up on the unspoken question. "If you buy it, it'd leave you with twenty."

    Twenty. Nip could quantify twenty. Twenty was more than he remembered the meat costing before. But not by much. It would leave him with little more than enough for a single meal.

    "No deal. I need that money to eat."

    "Aww, that's too bad." Sweet frowned, dropping the bag back onto the cloth. "Let me know if you change your mind though. Or if you find anything neat. Like combee honey. I miiight be willing to do a trade sometime."

    After that, she turned her attention to Anu, who had picked out the escape orb and a rock with little golden flecks in it. The two exchanged money, and then Anu stepped outside, waiting for Nip to follow.

    He took one last look at the bag before trotting behind Anu, the flap closing behind him.

    ***​

    After the short detour, Anu and Nip made the trip to the meat shop in silence. And Nip was fine with that. Compared to the typical ridicule, jabs, and snide remarks from his guards, the silence was a welcome break. Or it should have been. But with Anu, in particular, the silence was somehow worse.

    The meat shop looked just as innocuous as Nip remembered it. If he hadn't already known about the food stored inside, he would not have given the old, run-down looking building a second thought.

    The sound of movement from inside made him pause just outside the door. He took a couple steps back, then, of all pokemon, Vale emerged, carrying a bundle between his teeth. He took one look at Nip and his maw twisted into a snarl. He sat the bundle down and stared at him, his eyes narrow. "Shouldn't you be doing your manual labor? "

    Anu took a deep breath, steeling his nerves. "Relax, Vale. He's been given a day off, just like you. And he's chosen to spend it in the same way you are, from the looks of things. What are you up to?"

    Vale scoffed. "Spending it like him? Feh, yeah right. I'm about to spend the afternoon with my friends. Something I doubt a mongrel like him would understand. I was just picking up something for us to eat." He tilted his head towards the package.

    Nip's nose scrunched up as his lip started to turn into a snarl, but he forced himself to be silent.

    Anu said nothing about Nip's state, instead addressing Vale with a tilt of his head. "There's no need to say something like that. Anyway, you're speaking of Jaques and Lotte, I assume."

    "Lotte at least. Hopefully Jaques will make it home in time for dinner."

    The lucario let out a hum. "Fair enough. Have a good day then, Vale."

    Vale let out a huff. "Any day I don't have to babysit a murderer is a good day in my book, Anu. I should be wishing you luck."

    "I assure you, I will survive."

    The manectric had nothing to say to that. So he picked up his bundle again and pushed past them. He brushed up against Nip as he passed, and Nip let out a quiet sharp yip when he felt a small static shock.

    "Oopfs. Sohry, my bahh." Vale mumbled around the bundle, though from the sneer on his face, Nip suspected he wasn't sorry at all. Anu said nothing as Vale passed him, but Nip was shocked to see a disapproving frown on his face.

    "Sorry about that," Anu mumbled, moving towards the doorway. "Shall we enter?"

    Anu pushed the wooden flap open, allowing Nip to enter before him. As the flap opened, Nip sucked in a breath, taking in the mouthwatering smell of food. He stepped inside. Mandi was still at the counter with a rag in her beak, using it to carefully rub off what looked like a stain of blood. When she noticed her customers, she stopped, dropping the rag.

    "Ah, well look who it is. Good to see you again, Anu. How's Whisper holding up?"

    "She's doing better," Anu replied calmly, bowing his head in greeting. "I trust business has been going well?"

    "Well as it usually does. Vale just brought something fresh in. Said he found it on his patrol route. Chased off a raticate and brought it back. Can I maybe interest you in that- oh!" She cut off suddenly, glancing down at Nip. "Oh. You're here, too. Stuck on guard duty, Anu?"

    Nip kept his gaze on the ground, avoiding Mandi's pitying glance towards Anu. "Whisper asked me to take him for a walk," Anu explained. "Gave him a bit of change from what Grombert was paying her for the help."

    "Got it got it. So… I guess you two are both looking for something to eat."

    "Indeed," Anu replied. "What were you saying you just got in?"

    "Ah, right. I have a rattata that's already been checked over and approved for sale. Vale brought in a fletchling, but it'll probably be midafternoon till I hear back on that one."

    Nip's ear twitched, and he glanced up. "I'm sorry, did you say a fletchling?"

    Mandi tilted her head. "I did. Why, does that interest you?"

    He flicked his ear and turned his head away. "No, it does not. What else do you have."

    Mandi stared at him a moment longer. "Well… I'm afraid Vale wiped out a lot of my stock, but I have some krabby meat and a bit of a serviper left? Someone brought back… most of a sawsbuck the other day, but I'm afraid I don't have much of it left. Enough for two meals, for someone of your size, probably."

    Nip considered his options for a moment. "I'll take both the sawsbuck and the serviper. As much as you could spare. Don't bother processing it this time."

    Anu raised a brow. "Isn't that a bit much for you."

    "Of course it is," Nip snapped. Then he realized how combative his tone was and took a breath to calm himself. "Half of it is for tempest. If you village mon aren't going to feed us, then I will."

    Anu flinched at his tone, but did not argue further. "Very well. I understand." He turned his attention back to Mandi. "I'll take the rattata for myself and Whisper, but we would like it prepared. It'll… be enough until you get more in."

    Mandi tilted her head before opening her beak cheerfully. "My pleasure. That's going to be twenty poke for you, anu. As for the sneasel… Fourty should be good."

    Nip tilted his head. "Why so much?"

    "Well, you are buying enough for four meals," she pointed out, "And serviper meat is more popular than you'd think. Rare enough that it costs more."

    Nip had nothing he could say to that. Anu exchanged coins with the mandibuzz, and then she disappeared into the back, calling out for her cubone assistant. Nip took a seat on one of the cushions to wait. Anu paused for a moment before sitting down beside him.

    "If… if you don't mind me asking," the lucario began quietly, "is there something about the fletchling that upset you?"

    Something about Anu's tone made Nip flinch. "It's nothing important," he muttered. "I just remember seeing a couple of fletchling when I was in the dungeon and wonder if it's one of the ones I saw, that's all. Doesn't really matter, that kind of danger is the price of living wild."

    "Anu let out a sigh. "I see. Are you troubled by it?"

    "No more than I would have been if one of my former tribe-kin had been killed when away from camp. The creators gave us teeth and claws and the need to hunt others for our food. But they also gave those pokemon that we hunt their own ways to defend themselves. It's just the way the world was created."

    "Do you ever think that it's cruel?" Anu asked.

    Nip let out a grunt. "Perhaps. But the creators must have made us like this for a reason. Besides. Though life is cruel, death frees us of these dangers and these burdens." He paused, closing his eyes as he recalled a familiar mantra from his youth. "Yveltal will take the dead under her wing and grant them eternal peace."

    "And what of those that are killed before they get to live," Anu pressed his voice raising. "What happens to those that never get to hatch? Those that die before they ever get to leave the nursery."

    Nip flinched, his ear and feather lying flat against his skull as he shrank away from Anu. The lucario noticed the movement and looked away, taking several deep, steadying breaths.

    "I… apologize. It is unbecoming to let my emotions get the better of me."

    Nip was silent for a moment, his gaze on the ground. "You of all pokemon have every right to be angry. It's only natural for a parent to mourn and want to avenge their child. So why aren't you? Why bother keeping it in?"

    Anu was quiet for a moment, taking in several deep, steadying breaths. "Believe me, N… s-sneasel,I am livid with you. I hate you. I hate you more than my own mate, even. She, at least, understands your reasoning, even if she feels it's flawed. Even if she feels so torn up inside by what you've done. But… she has an obligation to treat you fairly, to carry out the village's justice. And, as a religious leader, I have an obligation to lead by example. Following Regigigas means walking a path of peace, and that means I must put aside my anger."

    Nip was quiet for a moment. "Whisper… doesn't hate me?"

    "She wants to. But she understands what it's like being in a position like yours. Maybe not quite the same… But being alone, not knowing where to turn to? Having to make a tough choice about where you'll get your next meal? But… Ah, maybe I shouldn't be bringing this up. It is rather personal, after all."

    Nip leaned back against the wall. "She's not from around here, is she." It wasn't a question.

    Anu tensed. Then sighed. "S-sort of. She's… She used to live wild. Gave up the life of a wildener to settle down here many season-cycles ago, when she was still quite young." He smiled wistfully. "I was still a riolu pup. Lady Gratitude was still the mayor back then, and times were prosperous." His smile faded, twisting into a frown. "And then the drought happened, and all the misfortune that followed… Ah but. O-oh, I've said too much already. This isn't my story to tell. Look, here comes Mandi."

    Nip sat up straight turning his attention back to the counter. Sure enough, there was the mandibuzz, carrying two parcels in her beak. She sat them both on the counter, nudging one a little closer to the edge. "There you two go. Sorry about the wait. Xylar had to finish preparing our message about the fletchling."

    "It…" Anu took a deep breath. "It is absolutely fine, Mandi. No worries at all." He picked up the first parcel, taking a peek inside, before handing it to Nip. As Nip glanced down, he could see the meat inside had been cut, so that one couldn't tell what pokemon it had been at one point. As much of a waste of time as Nip saw it, he could understand why some pokemon would want their food prepped that way. It was a lot easier to eat when your food didn't look like your neighbor.

    "That one is mine," Anu explained. "I will exchange it with you when we return to the guards' hut. Come along now." He picked the other, slightly larger bundle up and began to walk pushing the wooden door open so that Nip could pass through.

    Just outside, Nip paused and took a deep breath. "Well… for what it's worth, Anu…" Nip hesitated. Anu gave him an expectant look.

    Just spit it out, said a voice in the back of Nip's head. Just say you regret your decision. It's not that hard. Tell him you made a poor choice. Tell him you shouldn't have betrayed their kindness!

    But Nip said none of that. Instead, he sighed, closing his eyes. "Nevermind. I'll talk to you about it another time."

    Nip pushed past Anu and silently began to walk back in the direction of the village square. But even after he had been returned to his cell, and after he had shared his food with Tempest, the words still echoed in his head. And even after the lights went out, and he had groomed himself and settled down for the night, his mind still drifted back to his conversation with Anu.

    ***​

    Umbra stewed quietly in her room, pacing back and forth in hopes of getting some of her restless aggression. After a long morning of hunting with vale, the manectric had shooed her off back to Jhorlo's villa, taking two of their three kills with him. She considered telling him to buzz off and going to attack Nip on her own. After all, how was Jhorlo supposed to stop her when he wasn't around?

    But logic had stopped her. How was she supposed to get to him in broad daylight, when he had guards watching his every move? No. She had to wait until the time was right. And as much as she longed to sink her teeth into his mangy flesh and rid herself of his nuisance once and for all, she hadn't gotten this close without a hint of patience.

    Unfortunately, patience didn't rid her of anger.

    She let out a low growl, her claws scraping against the wooden boards as she paced. How could the pokemon here defend him? They had seen for themselves how low he was willing to stoop. And now Tempest was here, too. That ratty ninetales… how was he even still alive? She swore she had done him in before she left, knowing that he would chase after Nip. Tempest had always been so quick to defend him and anything he did. If he wasn't male, she'd think he was pining after him!

    Gnashing her teeth together, she reached down to pick one of the cushions that made up her "nest", tiny claws digging into the fabric as he squeezed it. "Ngh… I don't get it… How do you keep evading me? You very existence is a blight. How could the elders slight me like this? First pairing me with… with that low rank runt. Then, with I make it clear to him and the elders that I want nothing to do with him, nothing happens! And then when I try to make the best of a bad situation, he goes and betrays all of us like that! And now I'm out here, chasing him down because he had the nerve to attack the nursery instead of just running off and dying in the woods or something!"

    Pink energy shimmered around her claws. She channeled the energy into the cushion as she squeezed, imagining it to be Nip, then threw it into the air, snapping it up with her second set of jaws before shaking it violently. Oh, how she wanted to sink her teeth into his flesh and rip him to shreds like a juicy bit of prey. It would be a suitable end for him. And yet, at the same time, she wanted to take her sweet time and make sure he suffered, after what he'd done to the tribe. And after he'd slighted her, personally. After she'd gone through all that trouble to break his spirit and turn him into a… tolerable mate.

    She slammed the cushion against the ground her jaws hitting the floor with a thud. Bits of the fluffy innards went everywhere, thrown into the air and spilling onto the floor from the sheer force of her attack. And then she stood there, huffing for breath as she glowered at the pillow's remains.

    And then a quiet scratching caught her attention. She whipped around just as the door creaked open, Lotte standing in the frame.

    The purrloin looked over the scene with a concerned expression. "Ah. Is… Is everything alright, Miss Umbra."

    Umbra felt her face heating up in embarrassment. Just how much of her tantrum had Lotte seen? She had a reputation as a poised and dignified pokemon to uphold, and she hoped that it was not tarnished by the outburst. "I am… Fine," she replied stiffly.

    Lotte stared, her expression becoming unreadable, only the twitching tip of her tail betraying any emotion. "I will take you at your word, then. How has your morning been? I take it your hunt went well?"

    "Well enough," Umbra replied with a huff, bending down to pick up the ruined cushion. "Caught a fletchling that strayed a bit too far from its home. Didn't even see me coming till it was too late. Its leg was all bent out of shape, so it wouldn't have survived long anyways. Course, cause of all your rules and regulations, Vale had to run off and get them 'processed' or whatever. Do you seriously not keep any food around here?"

    Lotte hummed, stepping inside. She began to bat at the stuffing, working it into a pile. "We keep some berries and bread, for Miss Shimmer, and sometimes Jhorlo will have Vale just bring his hunts here directly. Says it helps lower suspicion and makes sure those of us that are… looking out for the obligates of the village stay well-fed enough to do so. Like that wooper you brought home, for example."

    Umbra raised a brow. "You hunt?"

    "Not often. Usually only when I accompany Jhorlo on business. Vale does most of the work around here. At least, work of that sort. Hunting. General muscle work."

    Thinking about the manectric, Umbra scoffed. "Why does Vale even put up with Jhorlo anyways? You say you're repaying a debt, and I'm only doing this because I have to wait for the right time to… take care of Nip."

    Lotte flicked an ear. "I don't know the details. Jhorlo saw no reason to share that with me, and I don't intend to question him and bring his kindness into question. But I'm sure Vale has a good reason."

    A growl sounded from the doorway. "You know, it's kind of rude to talk about people behind their backs."

    Umbra turned her attention back to the door. Vale stood in the frame now, a bundle of some sort of paper tied together laying at his feet.

    Lotte followed Umbra's gaze. "Well, good day to you too, Vale. What brings you here?"

    He nosed the parchment a bit further into the room. "I brought lunch. Figured Jaques would be hungry when he got back. And you, Lotte. And Umbra and Jhorlo too, I guess."

    "Well, how thoughtful of you!" Lotte let out an amused purr. "Bring it on in, I'm sure Umbra is hungry, too."

    She was. A growl escaped her stomach. She'd had nothing to eat since yesterday, and the morning she and Vale had spent hunting had taken a lot out of her. Vale carried the bundle over to the center of the room, holding it in his mouth by the strings. He sat it on the floor, then Lotte made quick work of slicing it open, passing out a sliced piece of some unknown pokemon to each of them. Umbra still found it odd, that they prepared their meals in such a way, but she was in no position to complain.

    Lotte and Vale exchanged small talk while Umbra worked away at her share, tearing pieces off before swallowing them whole. This… sitting here while the other two passed the time when she could be out there finishing her duty so she could hurry up and return home, it drove her mad.

    "I cannot wait to get out of here," she growled under her breath, drawing the other two's attention.

    "What was that?" Lotte asked.

    "The sooner I take care of Nip, the sooner I can leave. All I need is a feather or something like that. I would take an eye, or something else much more concrete, but it would rot before I made it back. If only I was not run so busy doing all this hunting for Jhorlo."

    "You have plenty of time," Vale pointed out. "But… well, I think Lotte wanted to finish cleaning up in here. Why don't you walk with me, for a moment?"

    Umbra scarfed down the last of her meal. "Why should I? You have given me no reason to get along with you, outside of hunting."

    "Just do it," Vale growled, frustration seeping into his tone.

    She considered arguing further, but decided it was not worth it, and finally stood, stretching before walking ahead. Vale followed, taking the lead once they were in the hall. When they got to the end and began to take the ramp to the bottom floor, he finally spoke. "You know you're not getting out of here anytime soon, right?"

    A growl escaped Umbra's throat. "What are you getting at?"

    "That sneasel? He's gonna be locked up for moons. He's constantly under watch, too. And Jhorlo finds you too useful to let you just leave. So, to him, that sneasel's more useful alive than dead. Hate to say it, but you played right into his paws."

    "You're joking right?" Umbra deadpanned.

    "Listen, Umbra. I don't like you. At all. You're only slightly better than that sneasel in my eyes. But I can sympathize with your situation. You and I, we're in similar boats here. I've been working under Jhorlo for seasons. Hunting for him, but also doing his dirty work. And I can tell you right now, he's not planning to let you go anywhere. He's got part of the town caught up in his claws, and wool over everyone else's eyes. You make one wrong move, and it's you that'll be disappearing, not Nip. No, if you want to get rid of him, you're going to have to take matters into your own paws."

    Umbra's gut twisted. As much as she would like to argue otherwise, Vale's warning made perfect sense. "So. If you hate me so much, why bothering telling me this?"

    "I want that sneasel gone as much as you. He hurt the village. And while I don't care too much about that, I care about the fact that he's got everyone so convinced with his sob story that he's wasting the time, energy, and resources of the village. He's wasting my time."

    Vale spun around to look Umbra in the eye. "Let me cut to the chase. You and I. We're going find a way to get rid of that sneasel. That'll get you, him, and hopefully that ninetales out of my fur so the village can go back to normal, understand."

    Umbra stared at Vale for a moment, her eyes narrowed. What the manectric said made sense. But at the same time, she found it hard to trust. "And if I refuse to work with you?"

    "I hope you like working for Jhorlo until you either die of old age or a hunting injury, or else he makes you… disappear." He paused, glancing back up the hallway. "Ever notice that there's no liepard around here for Jaques and Lotte to have come from? There's a reason for that. I've been around long enough to remember their ma. I know what happened to her."

    Umbra grit her teeth. "Fine. I suppose it doesn't hurt to discuss an idea, at least. What do you have in mind?"

    "Next time we go out hunting, we'll talk. Deal?"

    "Why not talk now?"

    "I need time to figure out what Whipser's going to do with the ninetales. Once we know that, we can hash out a plan. Sound fair?"

    Umbra thought back to the last time she'd struck a deal in the village. Unlike Jhorlo, though. Vale seemed to be more brawn than brain. And on top of that, he was in a… very useful position, if she wanted to get at Nip. "Very well. Do not make me regret trusting you."

    ***​

    Are they seriously still chasing me? How rude!

    Celebi forced his wings to flutter faster. Trees whizzed past him. Occasionally, he'd graze up against the bark or smack against some leafy twigs, sending decaying leaves to the ground as he dodged and weaved through the forest in desperate hopes of escaping his pursuer. He didn't dare look back, hearing the cracks and groans as trees fell left and right, his pursuer effortlessly slicing right through them. An explosion rang in the distance, and he flinched, grasping at an arm that had become shriveled by burns, scorched almost black.

    So I overshot my time jump a little. Why does this have to happen to me? It's not faiiir!

    He yelped as wind whipped around him, a glowing crescent shape of energy flying by. Another one struck him in the back, sending him tumbling through the air. He hit the ground hard, groaning, and felt something gooey oozing down his back. He tried to flutter back to the air, but his wings wouldn't cooperate. No, if he stopped now, they would catch up. And he didn't want to find out what happened if they caught him. The carnage behind him was bad enough.

    Another distant explosion. This time he heard the pained, anguished cry of some pokemon unfortunate enough to be caught in the blast. His eyes widened in alarm, and he struggled to his feet, wincing as he put pressure on his damaged arm.

    Slowly, he brought his shaking hands up, creating an L shape in each one, holding them together to form a rectangle. He squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating, trying to pull psionic energy together. A pulse blasted forward, channeled through his hands, and a window to another time opened in front of him.

    With all the speed he could muster, Celebi stumbled forward towards the temporary portal through time.

    But just as he was about to cross the threshold, he heard a loud yell from behind. Another air cutter slammed into him, slicing into his back, and he let out a scream. His strength failed him, and he tumbled forward as the world went dark.
     
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