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Summary + Title Card + Chapter 1

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Dual Wills

Elvira had one dream: to become a mercenary at the famed Irian Guild. But as Selenia descended into tyranny, her father disappeared off the face of Ardalion, and the world began to experience unnatural events, that dream drifted further away from her.

It would take an encounter with an amnesiac, green-eyed Riolu claiming to be human for Fate’s gears to turn. The path she would walk with him would be one that would shape the course of not just their lives, but the lives of everyone on the continent of Ardalion - noble and commoner alike.





Arukonatier3reward.png


Art by spinaltapdancer3





Chapter 1
A Fateful Encounter

A Treecko stood in front of a boiling pot of stew. She watched as it bubbled, carefully watching so as not to burn the mixture, otherwise that would mean the ruin of tonight's dinner. The fire cooking the stew had always made her nervous, and still did, but she'd grown used to its heat in the many times she'd cooked at it.

In the last few weeks especially, she'd gotten used to it, owing to the dinners she'd been making. She'd had to, because the main cook of the house was out of commission.

The Treecko sighed, reminding herself of that reality once more. Her mother, a Heliolisk, should really have been the one preparing the dinner. She was an excellent cook whose meals rarely failed to be anything less than delectable. But one day, a few weeks ago, she tripped and fell awkwardly, and in the process, broke her leg.

Luckily, it wasn't serious. But even so, a number of weeks would be required to allow the Heliolisk's leg to heal.

All the while, her daughter insisted on doing more around the house and preparing the dinners while her leg recovered. Although her mother was reluctant to let her broken leg impact her, she relented in the end.

The Treecko had to admit to the tough work that went into keeping the house clean, cooking dinners and looking after her mother, all at the same time. How the Heliolisk managed it all, she had little idea. In that sense, she had respect for her for being able to juggle all of the daily tasks of the house with relative ease.

But at least, the Treecko had been able to handle tonight's dinner, as she felt the cooking had reached a good point to serve it. She took two bowls and ladled the mixture into them, before bringing them to the table.

"Mom!" she called. "Dinner's ready!"

There was a distinct shuffling noise, and then the sound of wood clicking against the floor could be heard as the Treecko's mother shuffled her way into the kitchen. A Heliolisk on wooden crutches trudged into the room, a cast present on her right leg.

"Smells great," she commented, as she took her place at the table opposite her daughter. She brought the spoon to her lips and tasted the stew. "And tastes great too. Your skills are catching up to mine, Elvira."

"No...I'm not even close to your level, Mom," Elvira, the Treecko, downplayed. "I don't get everything right. Remember last week, when I burned the soup that morning?"

"You were distracted at the time. Besides, those are basic errors that can be corrected with experience," pardoned the Heliolisk. "When I started out with cooking, I made my fair share of mistakes too. It's all to do with experience, Elvira. I didn't learn my cooking skills overnight."

"True, but…" Elvira sighed wistfully. "I doubt I'll ever be as good a cook as you, Mom. It's because...you have a passion for it that I don't have. Your ability just seems so far above my level that it feels impossible to get even close to it."

"Even so, you're not bad at it," her mother returned. "You certainly have potential to get better."

"...I don't know…I was never really into what you did, Mom." A conflicted look came into her eye, one that her mother had come to know all too well in the past while. "I always wanted to be a mercenary like Dad. But…that's not really an option anymore, is it?"

"Elvira…" The Heliolisk, whose name was Zenobia, felt for her daughter. She loved her, as any mother did. And growing up, she'd always supported Elvira's want to be a mercenary. It was a career path the Treecko had wanted to go along since she was a little girl, hearing all about the adventures her father got up to. And when he was around, he was all too willing to foster that want for her.

But for reasons beyond their control…that bridge had been burned, and the option to be a mercenary was no longer available to her. To that end, she couldn't blame her daughter for moping.

Especially when her father was such a good role model, too…

Zenobia got back to eating her stew. It was nice - proof that what she was saying to Elvira wasn't just empty words. However, her daughter was picking at her food. No doubt the conversation they'd had had brought her back into the doldrums.

Before long, Zenobia finished her meal. But Elvira had barely gotten halfway through hers.

"I'm not hungry," the Treecko announced.

"Elvira…please eat," the Heliolisk insisted.

"I'm fine, Mom." Her tone suggested she was anything but. "I just don't really have an appetite, is all."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure, Mom."

"...If you insist." Zenobia didn't have a response to that. She didn't want to badger her daughter further.

Elvira got up and took the plate from her mother. She then took her own plate and brought them and the pot to be washed up. Once that was done, she looked out the window.

"I want to go to the beach for a while," Elvira then said.

"...It's getting late," Zenobia commented. "...Alright. But don't stay out too long, will you? Night will fall soon."

"Don't worry, Mom. I'll be back before then," Elvira promised. She left the kitchen, and soon, the sound of the front door opening and closing could be heard.

Zenobia heard all of this, and sighed. She had hoped for a quiet evening reading a book in the living room, but now she had this to deal with, and it would weigh on her mind for the rest of the evening.

It hadn't been uncommon in the last while, this melancholic attitude from Elvira. However, the Heliolisk felt guilty for not being able to do much about it. That matter was simply out of her hands to deal with, and there was only so much encouragement and pep talks she could give her daughter before her words began to ring hollow.

I don't blame her at all. If I were in her shoes, I'd feel as downcast as her. Especially given all that's happened in the world…

She shook her head to get rid of those thoughts, and made her way to the living room. She sat. She sat down on one of the chairs with a footstool in front of it, and picked up a book entitled Selenia: The History of Ruslan's Domain, picking up where she had left off before dinner.

But she didn't get too far into her book before the thoughts inside her head proved too great a distraction. With a sigh, the Heliolisk put the book down and gazed over at the wall beside her.

On it was a painting depicting three figures in the evening sunset. On the right was a young Elvira. Next to her in the middle was Zenobia herself. But it was the figure on the left that the Heliolisk was gazing at wistfully.

"...If only Elvira could get out of this spell she's in…" she murmured. "She hasn't gotten over your disappearance. Neither of us have. It really hasn't been the same without you. Knowing you're missing…it breaks both our hearts." She closed her eyes, trying to fight back her emotions.

"I'm sorry, Kallias. I wish I could do more for our little girl…"





Elvira made her way to the beach. Her house was located a stone's throw from the sea, and there was an idyllic beach not far from her house. While not a large beach, it still made a good place to walk on and sheltered enough to go for a swim, if that was desired. As Elvira made her way onto it, she gazed at the sea in awe of the sight.

No matter how many times I come here, I never get used to this view, the Treecko thought to herself. The setting sun made for an impressive backdrop, colouring the sky with a mixture of different colours, from orange to red to blue to pink. Not to mention, the sound of waves crashing against the shore helped to calm Elvira. It never failed to do that. Seeing this place brought back happy memories from her childhood, of her and her parents frolicking on the sands.

Once, she recalled that the sound of the waves had been so soothing that she'd fallen asleep, and had to be carried back to the house by her father.

She could still remember his voice through memories on this beach, and the encouraging words he would say to her to bring joy into her life.

"You're getting quite good at Outlaw and Mercenary, Elvira. At this rate, you might end up matching my speed when you get older."

"...Were you holding back, Dad? You weren't going as fast as you normally were."

"Hah! You're sharp. How did you guess that?"

"It was obvious, Dad! Anyone would be able to see that you weren't going as fast as you can go! I've seen you go much faster than that!"

"...Well, the Torracat's out of the bag now. Yes, I was holding back. But look at it this way; it's good to detect when someone's holding back. In the world of the mercenary, not all outlaws are the same. They might well have a motive for their crimes."

"But...why? Why would someone be an outlaw, if they're not a bad person?"

"...It's complicated, Elvira. Some outlaws are selfish and greedy and do bad things. But others don't have a choice. If they're really poor, they won't be able to afford even the cheapest food on the market. And so they have to steal food if they want to live. The world of outlaws and criminals isn't all black and white. Of course their actions are unreasonable - it's why us mercenaries exist. But...in the future, try to put yourself in their mindset. Why are they doing this? What do they stand to gain?"

"Oh, okay…I kinda get it? Everyone has a reason for doing something."

"...Something like that. You'll get there yet, my girl. You have the fledgling heart of an Irian Guild merc within you yet."

It was one of her fondest memories with him. It had the two things that mattered to her more than anything in the world - her father, and her ambition to become a mercenary at the famed Irian Guild.

But five years ago…both had been taken from her. That fact stabbed her in the heart more than anything, and she felt tears prick at her eyes.

Where are you, Dad? Why haven't you visited us for five years? …Something's happened to you, I know it. But I can't do anything about it. All because I'm not strong enough…I mean, look at me. A Treecko, at my age? I should have evolved into a Grovyle by now. But I never kept up my training. And look what's come of it…

She looked towards the evening sun, vision blurred with tears.

I never was strong. Not good enough to be a cook like Mom, and definitely not strong enough to be even a good mercenary like Dad. …Weak…that's all I am…!

Elvira began to cry. There were periods where she tried to keep a smile on her face, but they never lasted. Since five years ago, it truly felt as though those happy days in her childhood were now firmly in the past. Now the days where she felt truly happy were few and far between, all because her two passions had been taken from her.

And it wasn't even her fault. It was because Fate had decided to deal an especially cruel hand to her. In fact, not just to her, but the whole world.

For whatever reason, in the last few years, and especially in the last year, there had been an increase in natural disasters and abnormal weather patterns. In regions where volcanoes and mountains were located, it was noted that more eruptions and earthquakes were taking place, which devastated communities in those regions.

Extreme weather events were another factor. Firstly, the storms that normally came into Selenia around the autumn were much fiercer, leading to more washouts, floods, and landslides. Then the winter had seen heavy snowfall and bitter cold sweep across the land. And following a brief respite in the spring, the first half of this summer had seen an exceptional drought take place across all of Ardalion. This had meant the drying up of wells, and water shortages all around. Luckily, Elvira lived near a town that had a lake, but her thoughts went out to those who didn't have such luxuries. Like the deserts of Alba, up north. From what little she'd heard, it had been absolute hell up there.

Thankfully, there had been some rain in the last week, so it wasn't a completely hopeless situation. The well out at the back of their house had some water in it thanks to that. But even so…it was worrying. Very worrying, indeed, that this was happening.

But why was this so? Many in society had asked this question. But no one had been able to give a definitive answer. Was some Legendary of the weather running rampant? Was it divine retribution for not paying enough tribute to the Creator? (Some religious types had proposed this notion.) Or was it just a freak couple of years, and everything would eventually go back to normal?

Alas, at this point in time, no concrete explanations for these mysteries surfaced, and so in their places filled guesses and conspiracy theories, many of them wild and unbelievable. Such was the way when people were starved of the truth.

Elvira was thinking about all of this as she walked down the beach. And unfortunately, it meant that she wasn't paying attention to the path in front of her.

Therefore, the Treecko was taken rudely out of her thoughts when she tripped over something and fell face-first into the sand. Worse still, it was as the waves flowed in, and she received a mouthful of swash as her face made contact with the soft sand.

"Urgh!" Elvira gagged, spitting out the salt water and sand. "What did I just trip over?" She turned around to look.

And what she saw made her eyes widen in shock.

She hadn't tripped over something.

She'd tripped over someone.

Laying on the shores of the beach, next to some seaweed and shells, was the body of a blue and black furred canine Pokémon.

"What? A Riolu?" Elvira uttered, hardly believing what she was seeing. Are they…alive? She went over to check the Pokémon, and listened for breathing. She need not have worried, however; the Riolu was breathing. However, it was also passed out, and unresponsive.

"Wake up," the Treecko urged, admittedly somewhat lamely. "...Wake up! Please!" She gripped the Pokémon's sides and shook it, trying to wake it up. Unfortunately, this amounted to nothing, and the Riolu was still as unconscious as it had been before.

"Oh no, oh no, oh no...What am I going to do?" Elvira panicked. "What if this Riolu needs medical attention? I don't see any injuries...but it'd be best if I brought them back to the house. Yeah, that would be best. ...Riolu!" she informed the unconscious Pokémon, disregarding the fact that they probably could not hear her. "I'm going to bring you back to my house! We'll patch you up there!"

No response. The Riolu remained inactive.

Elvira leaned down and tried to pick up the Riolu. However, the Fighting-type was bigger and heavier than her, and that option proved to be fruitless. She therefore had to resort to dragging the Pokémon behind her. It was unceremonious and inefficient, but it was the best Elvira could do, given the circumstances.

Elvira continued back to her home. All the while, her mind was ablaze with thoughts.

Just who is this Riolu? Where did they come from? Do they have loved ones? If so, where are they? Just...what happened to this Riolu before it came here?

These questions were a flurry in the young Treecko's mind as she neared her house, with the Riolu in tow.



Notes

Welcome to Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Dual Wills! This is a fanfiction that I've had on FFN and AO3 for more than a year now, but I've decided to bring it over here. It all stemmed from reading Pokémon fanfiction for a while, and over time, ideas in my head came together as to what a vision of my own Pokémon story might be like. Specifically, a Pokémon-centric story like the Mystery Dungeon series. Ideas built themselves up over time, and this is what they've culminated into. I hope you enjoy my work!

Update (10/2/23): I now have title art! Courtesy of the worthy @spinaltapdancer, who did a wonderful job!
 
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Chapter 2

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 2
Arian

Did I dream it all?

That was the first thought that came into Elvira's head when she woke up that morning. Yesterday's end had been a wild one, with her bringing the passed out Riolu back to her house. She'd had the Fighting-type laid out on the bed in their guest room, and with the help of her mother, was able to assess them medically.

Luckily, Zenobia, who was partially trained in the field, confirmed that the Riolu didn't appear to have any injuries, nor were they suffering from some kind of ailment, and would be able to make a recovery. That was a relief for Elvira; the thought of the Riolu being at death's door didn't sit well with her. As well as that, when they woke up, Elvira would be able to glean the answers to the questions that had been in her head since her discovery of them.

Heading to the kitchen, the Treecko headed to the kitchen to make that morning's breakfast. As she retrieved oats to make some porridge, she heard the familiar sound of her mother's crutches. Turning around, she saw Zenobia enter the room and sit down at the table.

"Morning, Mom," she greeted.

"Good morning, Elvira," returned the Heliolisk. "...You look rested. That's good. I feared you would be sleepless after your discovery last night."

"No. I was quite tired last night after all that running about getting medicine for the Riolu," Elvira replied. "By the way...are they okay?" she added, her expression becoming worried.

"I checked on them this morning, when I woke up," Zenobia informed. "They looked better than when you brought them in. Alas, they still haven't woken up."

"Oh…" Elvira was disappointed. She was dying to know that who that Riolu was.

"They look to be around your age," Zenobia noted. "Who knows? When they wake up, maybe you two will get along."

"Maybe so," came the Treecko's reply, as the heat from the porridge came to the boil. "Should I leave aside some porridge for them, then?"

"Of course. They'll probably be very hungry. A bit of food should do them no harm."

"Okay, Mom."

Elvira doled out the porridge into three bowls and moved two of them to the table, where she and her mother ate their breakfast. After they had finished, Elvira brought the third bowl to the guest room.

There, on the bed, lay the Riolu. They were still unconscious from yesterday. But at least they were breathing. By the looks of things, they would make a recovery.

They've been unconscious for quite a while, Elvira noted, thinking back to sunset the day before when she found the Fighting-type's body on the beach. The Grass-type put the bowl of porridge on the bedside table, and looked at the sleeping Pokémon, the questions from yesterday beginning to return to her. Who are they? Is this Riolu from around here? Or are they from somewhere else? Are they even from Ardalion?

Elvira sighed. Sadly, she could not know the answer to those queries until the Riolu rose from consciousness. In the meantime, she laid the porridge down next to him, and patiently waited for any signs of movement from the passed out canine.

A few minutes later...that was exactly what she got.

The Riolu's nose twitched at the scent of the porridge. Their ears then flicked, and with a groan, they began to wake up.

"Urgh…My head…" They sounded like a young, masculine adult, just like Zenobia predicted. A young man, then. His eyes blearily opened. "...Wh-Where am I…?" he mumbled, as their eyes adjusted to the room.

"Oh, you're awake," Elvira began, and the Riolu turned her way. "I found you washed up on the shore just outside. Good thing I found you; you might've been there for a while."

She looked at the canine, as he blinked multiple times. She was surprised to note that he seemed to be in disbelief, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. It was then that Elvira took note of his emerald green eyes. That's strange, she thought. I thought Riolu's eyes were red? At least from what I read…

It was then that he spoke again.

"...Wh-What are you? H-How can you talk?"

What? Elvira wasn't expecting those two questions. 'What' am I? Not 'who' am I? And what's this about 'talking'? It's like he's never seen Pokémon talk before…

"I'm a Treecko." Those peculiarities could wait; he had questions that needed answering. "And yes, I can talk. Just as you can. Just as all of us Pokémon can."

"...Pokémon?" The Riolu tilted his head. The word sounded foreign to him. "This…This doesn't seem real. Is this some kind of dream…?"

A dream? Oh dear…he must've hit his head hard. "This isn't a dream," she told him. "This is real life."

"But that can't be," the Riolu protested. "A gecko, just casually talking to me? Especially one that's nearly as big as me? That's impossible. There's no way this is real."

Okay, this is getting weird. Did he not hear me? "There's nothing strange about me talking to you, Riolu," Elvira replied. "We're both Pokémon, after all. We can understand one another just fine."

She hoped that was clear enough. But his reply only got even more bewildering.

"I'm a Pokémon…? No…that's not true." He sounded fearful, as if he knew the truth but didn't want to admit it. "I'm a human. I'm not a Pokémon."

A human? But they're mythical creatures…aren't they? "You are a Pokémon," Elvira insisted. "A Riolu, specifically. Just look at yourself."

"A Riolu? Wh-What's that? I'm not a Riolu, I'm a..." He broke off briefly, and brought out his right hand as if to prove otherwise. However, he froze upon seeing a black paw, with blue fur along his forearm.

"Wh-What? No! How am I…?" He looked down at the blanket, and threw it off him. However, upon seeing a blue furry body, he cried out in horror. "What the hell?! What is this?! What am I?! I'm a human, not a dog with blue fur! ...Wh-What? No, no, this can't be real!" He began to hyperventilate in panic.

"Please, calm down!" Elvira begged, feeling fairly panicked herself. "Deep breaths. You're okay. Please…don't panic."

The Riolu, though still horrified by his new look, followed her advice, and breathed in and out. After a bit, he felt calmer, though still awfully shaken.

"Were you really a human?" Elvira asked him. "Aren't humans beings that exist only in myth?"

"Myth? No! They're not mythical! They're real!" the Riolu insisted. "I'm one!" He looked down at his furry body. "Or at least, I was…"

"So you really are a human?"

"Yes!" the canine insisted. "I swear it's the truth! Please believe me! I was a human once!"

Elvira wasn't sure what to make of this. It sounded utterly ridiculous, something that she would hear only in her wildest dreams. The thought that he hit his head came back to her again.

But he didn't have any head injuries, she recalled from Zenobia's examination of him last night. As well as that, those pleading, green eyes of his didn't look like those of a liar. Despite how unbelievable it sounded…she found herself believing him. If anything, because of how unbelievable it sounded.

"Alright. I believe you," she said to him. "But how did this happen? How did you become a Pokémon?"

"Well…" The human-turned Pokémon pondered this question. A moment passed before the panicked look resurfaced again. "...I don't know. I don't know how it happened."

"You don't?"

"No…I can't remember. I can't remember a thing…" Despair crept across him.

"Oh no…" Elvira murmured. Amnesia? "Do you remember your name?"

"My name?" The Riolu pondered that question. "A name…Come on, come on…" He racked his brains searching for something, anything. But… "No…I don't know my name. I don't know who I am. Why? Why can't I remember?!" His breathing quickened again.

"Breaths, Riolu! Please…it's okay," Elvira said to him. "You're going to be fine."

"...Deep breaths…deep breaths…" the Riolu repeated, the mantra helping to calm him down. Still, the shock from the prior revelations plainly had him rattled.

"Are you alright now?" the Treecko asked.

"...Not really," the Riolu answered. "I mean…transformed into this blue dog? And I have amnesia to boot…"

"That would be overwhelming for anyone," Elvira murmured sympathetically. "I'm sorry that happened to you."

"...It's fine. It's not your fault, Treecko."

"Oh, my name's Elvira," she corrected. "Treecko is my species name. Just like how your species name is Riolu. There are more like me. …Sorry. I was so focused on you that I forgot to introduce myself."

"It's alright." The Riolu nodded in understanding. Recalling their conversation so far, he remembered something she'd said. "You said you…found me washed up? On a shore?"

"I did. You were lying unconscious on the beach near my house," Elvira informed. "Good thing I found you. You might have been left there for a while if I wasn't there."

"Can I…see?" he asked. "Can I see where I washed up? I…might remember something if I go there."

"Of course," Elvira permitted. She looked at the bedside table, though, and remembered the other reason why she came to the guest room. "Oh, but don't forget the porridge. I thought you'd be hungry."

"Porridge?" The Riolu looked over and saw the bowl. He caught the scent of it again, and his stomach growled hungrily. "Actually, I'm starving…Thanks for bringing it." He picked up the bowl, which had cooled down a bit. He tried to pick up the spoon, but then he realised he had paws instead of hands, which made gripping the spoon much harder.

"Well, this is embarrassing…" he muttered. "I might just have to eat like this." He began to tip the bowl back. "Sorry, I know it's rude…"

"It's fine." Elvira had seen his struggle to pick up the spoon. "You can go ahead."

"...Thanks." With that, the Riolu lifted the bowl back and ate his porridge that way. It was undignified and he felt embarrassed as he ate. But he didn't have a choice otherwise.

Soon, he finished. "That was good," he said, licking his lips for any remaining bits of porridge. "Thanks a bunch, Elvira." He was smiling now.

"It was no problem." Maybe a bit of food was all he needed. "I-I'm not the best at cooking. I can only really do simple stuff…and sometimes I've burned meals…"

"No, it's alright! It was fine, really," insisted the Riolu. "Thanks for making it."

"...You're welcome." I may as well take the praise. She went over and took the bowl from him. "So you want to see the beach?"

"I do."

"Right. We'll go now if you want."

The Riolu began to get out of bed. It occurred to him just how foreign his new body was. Sure, he might've been bipedal with two arms and two legs, but other strange oddities came to the fore, like the sensation of fur, as well as a tail. He got into a sitting position, before getting off the bed to stand up.

But standing upright on a Riolu's legs proved unnatural for him, and he wobbled, nearly falling back onto the bed.

"Steady," Elvira urged, rushing over to catch him.

"Thanks," Riolu replied. "Sorry, t's just...I'm not used to standing this way. A human's stance is a bit different from this one."

"I...see. Then I'll help keep you stable," offered the Treecko. She stretched out her hand, and the Riolu took it. It felt strange in his hands - no, paws.

"It must be weird," Elvira went on. "Being in your condition."

"You can say that again," muttered Riolu. "Anyway…can we go?"

"Of course." And so Elvira began to make her way out of the room, keeping the canine steady as they went.


Once the front door opened, Riolu saw the outside world for the first time. And he gazed in wonder.

It was a lovely day, and the breeze felt nice upon his fur. It was an unusual sensation to feel, but he found it to be a pleasant one. Plus, combined with the scene before him, of a sunny morning with light reflecting beautifully off the sea, along with the scene of greenery off to either side of him. Verdant grasses and viridian trees graced the Riolu's vision. He could also see a beach at the bottom of the hill on which the house stood. Undeniably, it was a sight for sore eyes.

This was what the outside of this new world looked like. And based on this first taste...it was a pleasant one, attractive in his eyes. Maybe I'll be fine here after all, he thought to himself. This world doesn't look too bad.

But even with that thought, and how nice the world looked, it was still unfamiliar, and so anxiety remained in his stomach, about being away from a world he knew, a world he was familiar with, and thrust into this world he knew nothing of in an entirely new body which he was still getting accustomed to.

A few minutes later, they reached the beach. The soft sand was a change from the dry earth they were on before - a relief to the Riolu. He breathed in, the salty air tickling his nostrils. That was also a new sensation for him - heightened sense of smell, as well as hearing. Yet more things I'll have to get used to…

"...I like this beach very much. I've a lot of fond memories of this place," Elvira told him, as they walked down the shoreline. "I often walk here when I have things on my mind. ...That's actually what I was doing yesterday evening when I found you. It was around...here," she said, stopping and pointing to a general area where some seaweed and seashells lay scattered. "Good thing I found you when I did. This end of the beach isn't well seen from the road. You might not have been rescued for some time."

"...How did I wash up here, though?" the human pondered. "What happened to me that made me end up here?"

"Hmm…" Elvira pondered that one. "A lot of beaches in Selenia, especially in the south and the west, are storm beaches, so lots of stuff tends to wash up, like driftwood and seaweed. …Maybe you're not the first person to have washed up on a Selenian beach."

"Selenia?" The Riolu cocked his head. That didn't sound familiar to him.

"...Oh, of course. You would've forgotten this world," the Treecko realised. "Selenia's the name of the country we're in now. It's on the western coast of the continent of Ardalion. There's other countries too - Alba, Dresilia, Miletos, and Eldisholm. ...Are these names ringing any bells?"

"No." As far as he was concerned, the countries Elvira had listed were mere gobbledygook to him. "I don't know any of those places."

"Oh well. It was worth a try," Elvira sighed. "...We'll go back inside. There are atlases in the living room we can look at. Maybe they'll jog your memory."

"Alright. Let's do that."

They walked back to the house, crossing a main road as they did so. Once again, the Riolu looked around him. So this is Selenia, he thought to himself. It appears to be a green and lush place, with many trees and forests and woods and the like. It doesn't appear to be somewhere that's freezing cold or boiling hot ...Doesn't seem so bad. I can get used to this. ...Hopefully.

...Was my old world like this?
He looked around at the sights before him: green fields, green trees, lots of trees, limestone rocks. It's not really this that surprises me...it's just the people. He looked over at Elvira. A world of talking creatures known as Pokémon...this will take some getting used to, alright.

They soon returned to the house. Elvira guided them to the living room, which when they entered it, was fairly normal, with four armchairs in the room, a small table beside two of these chairs, a sofa, another table, a rug laid out in the centre of the room, and a fireplace that probably brought great comfort when winter set in and the weather got cold. But what drew the human's attention was the fairly large bookcase that stood in the room as its pièce de résistance and the most luxurious item he had seen so far in the house.

"Oh hello!" a voice greeted. "I see you're awake now." Turning to see who the voice's owner was, the Riolu saw a Heliolisk sitting in an armchair, smiling warmly at him.

"...Er, hi," he returned, blinking slightly at the sight of the electric lizard.

"Hi, Mom," Elvira greeted. "I'm just showing him around our house. He's healthy enough to be walking around." She turned to the amnesiac Riolu. "This is my mom. Her species is known as Heliolisk, just so you know."

"Oh...okay." So this is Elvira's mom? the Riolu thought to himself. ...She seems nice.

"So then, Riolu," Zenobia said, making the human turn his attention back to her. "...Would you care to tell us your name?"

"...Oh. Um…" He fidgeted awkwardly about this question, knowing that the answer would be just as awkward. "...I don't remember what my name is."

"He has amnesia, Mom," Elvira elaborated. "He can't remember anything - where he's from, who his parents are, none of that. He doesn't remember a thing."

"Oh dear," remarked Zenobia sympathetically. "You poor thing...But don't worry. Until you regain your memories, you can stay with us."

"Really? Just like that? ...But we just met." The speed at which she offered him refuge surprised the Riolu. I mean, I'm grateful, but…

"I know that. But you seem trustworthy," Zenobia replied. "You seem like an innocent soul to me. I couldn't say no to someone in need. Besides…I wouldn't want to cast you out on your own. Especially given what's going on out there…"

That sounds ominous, the Riolu thought. "Well…thanks," he said, trying not to focus on that last part. "Ms…um…"

"Call me Zenobia, dear," the Heliolisk told him. "I would gladly help you more, but as you can see, my position has been compromised a bit." She gestured to her broken leg.

"Ouch," the Riolu winced. "Does it hurt?"

"At times. It should heal in a few weeks. But until then, Elvira will help you. I'll be around too, if you ever need an ear."

"Thanks. Hope you get better soon."

"Thank you…" Zenobia was about to say his name, but stopped herself when she realised she didn't have. "...Ah. I forgot you still don't know your name."

"No, I don't." The Riolu looked down sadly. "I'm sorry…"

"Don't be, Riolu. But…maybe we could think of a name for you?" suggested Elvira. "At least until you find out what your old name was."

"That's an idea," Zenobia agreed. "...What would you like for a name, Riolu?"

"Oh, um…" The Riolu, slightly disconcerted at being put on the spot like that, began racking his brains. Something that would suit him, a moniker he could go by, a name to make his place in the world…

...But after a minute of thinking, he came up short. "I can't think of anything," he told the two disappointedly.

"Take your time," advised Zenobia. "A name is a big deal. It's not something that should be hastily thought of immediately. I should know; it took Kallias and I a long while to come up with Elvira's name."

"Still…I don't want to just call you 'Riolu' all of the time," Elvira argued. "You deserve a name that makes you 'you'."

"If I'm honest, I feel this way too," her mother said.

"Yeah…I'd like a name other than my species," the human admitted, inwardly surprised at the sentence he just uttered. Species…That's weird. Talking about myself as a 'species'...

"I have a proposal," Zenobia said. She leaned over to the bookshelf, and pulled out a book. It was titled A Glossary of Ardalion's Finest: Vol. 1 (A-F). The Heliolisk handed it to Riolu.

"It's a list of famous people throughout the history of Ardalion," she explained to him. "There's bound to be a name that'll suit you."

"...Okay…" Riolu looked at the book, not sure what to make of it at first. But he sat down and opened the first few pages.

There were many names depicted in bold, followed by a short description of each of them. They were a variety of kings, queens, lords, warriors, martyrs, and saints, and the book depicted them all as lofty figures.

Acantha. Little is known of this figure, but it is known that she was the mother of Persephone, the first queen of Miletos and lover of the hero Metaxas. Supposedly, she was a widow who took over the running of her husband's lands after he died, something quite surprising for the mother, a would-be dowager queen of Miletos. Her resolution as a female leader was not forgotten by the Miletan people, and Acantha became a common name amongst women. It is still popular today, most ironically, despite Miletos's regressive attitude towards the fairer sex in nobility into a position of submission.

Achilles. The forty-third archon of Miletos, and the father of the current Miletan ruler, Archon Pyrrhus. Seen as a figure of grandeur, his thirty-three year rule was seen as indulgent in cultures of the past, with an architectural revival of the ancient Miletan style woven into the construction of new buildings. Many sites in Metaxai and other Miletan cities received a makeover in what many saw was for the better. Achilles also did well in strengthening relations with Selenia, which has a history of terseness with the Eastern Alliance, and managed to win over Tsar Lavrentiy. At the same time, he helped to promote the Eastern Alliance's bonds further. Undoubtedly, he will go down in legend as one of Miletos's finest leaders.

Aesir. One of the legendary Five Heroes who fought the Tyrant King in the twilit days of the One Kingdom of Ardalion, in the War of the Tyrant. The sight of his golden-maned nine tails immortalised him in the history books, and has since been a frequent mention in poetry. He founded the Kingdom of Eldisholm in southern Ardalion, and to this day remains its king. Since then, however, Eldisholm has become an isolated kingdom, refusing to allow outsiders to enter its borders. On a few occasions, Aesir has sought to come out of his shell and lift these restrictions, but on every occasion, his mind has been changed, and the hope of Eldisholm becoming like the rest of Ardalion remains a fantasy to this day.

Afanasiy. A ward of the Hero Ruslan, and a clever strategist that guided his lord and later tsar to many victories on the battlefield. He remained by Tsar Ruslan's side at all times, earning the title of 'Shadow of the Tsar'. Many servants beholden to House Ruslan today strive to reach a standard similar to the relationship between Afanasiy and Ruslan.

Agrippa. A general of Dresilia, and a close friend of Emperor Octavian. The bond between them was said to be as close as brothers, and Octavian trusted him enough to name him as his heir apparent. Regrettably, death took him before he could ever accede to the throne. But between his many feats as general, among which being able to establish a truce with warring Alba, a seemingly impossible feat at the time, there is no doubting the great deeds Agrippa carried out for his country.

Áine. Alba's first ever leading banríon. Under her leadership, the historic tournament of Alba, one that determines the country's new rí, became one where killing, a frequent sight before that, was now forbidden. It did not sit well with the tanistry's staunchest warriors, but she preached that temperance and the will to hold back was sometimes necessary as a ruler. Unrest broke out during her tenure and she became a short-serving ruler in the end, but the rules of the Alban tournament were forever changed by her, and to this day, her peaceful nature is fondly remembered by many Albans.

Aneirin. A historic warrior of Alba. It was under his leadership of Alba's warriors during the Ceredigonian War against Dresilia, that in the face of overwhelming odds against them, that the Albans, with the utility of guerrilla tactics against their foes, managed to run the Dresilians into a stalemate, and eventually, upon the depletion of supplies and troops through the desert heat and rough conditions, forced them into a retreat from Ceredigonia and allowed Alba to annex the province. Aneirin was hailed as a hero by his people, and Rí Taliesin was grateful to him to the point where he allowed him to marry his daughter, Lady Olwen. Upon his death, he was allowed to be buried in the Benbecule Pyramid along with his rí and spouse. He is remembered as one of Alba's finest warriors to this day.

Aonghas. The sixth rí of Alba. He is more commonly known as Aonghas Fola ('Bloody Aonghas') due to his dictatorial and autocratic reign. Suspicions of cheating by him in the tournament led to the purge of those who had surmised this idea, and when a rebellion arose to overthrow him, blood ran in rivers, even from those who took no part in it. Fear grew of his reign of terror, and therefore, conspirators led by Tánaiste Talfryn killed him by poisoning his chalice of wine. It was this crimson reign that inspired Áine to inspire with her initiatives of peace, and when she became the very next ruler of Alba, the implementation of changing the tournament ended up being widely supported by the people, who were still scarred by Aonghas's terror.

Apollo. The tenth archon of Miletos. He was noted for his achievements in building aqueducts that carried water from the fertile tributaries of the Pactolus to the northern Miletan cities that had difficulty procuring water in times of drought. Even today, many of these famous aqueducts still stand, as a testament to his finest achievement. However, other parts of his reign were not so fondly remembered, such as the failure to keep King Aesir from returning Eldisholm to isolation after he had previously decided to lift the restrictions between the island and the rest of Ardalion.

Ariadne. A queen of Miletos, and the wife of Archon Bellerophon, the twenty-first archon of Miletos. She was thought of as a caring and benevolent queen, and worked to found the Maidens of Metaxai, a charity group run by nuns who gave alms to the poor that still exists today. A number of orphans were also adopted by her, and became part of the royal family. However, some nobles were discontent with bringing commoners into the royal sphere. Conspiracy theories surround her mysterious cause of death, which, while generally seen as suddenly falling gravely ill and succumbing to that illness, some have thought to be from poisoning, schemed by a malcontent noble.


None of these names really resonated with Riolu. Most of them were the names of kings, queens and warriors, and it felt like each one had a great legacy behind their names. That, he felt, wasn't a great fit for him. He didn't want to be a pretender and take on an epithet he felt he could not live up to. Something a bit more humble, he thought to himself. Surely there was a hero who was a bit more modest than most?

He continued reading. But the very next name stuck out to him.

Arian. A saint renowned for his piety and humbleness. He was a close ally of the Five Heroes, and founded the acclaimed and historic Skalisty Monastery off Selenia's shores. He worked hard to keep the peace and sheltered many during the War of the Tyrant. His generosity was without comparison, and although he in his humble way may not have desired it, he was canonised a saint in 211. His nature of living modestly and eschewing luxury truly marks a sense of humbleness few people, if anyone, have been able to match.

There we go,
Riolu thought to himself. Finally, someone with a visible sense of humility. "Arian...Arian…" he repeated the name. Something seemed...right about it. No, not just right…

...It's fitting.


"I've found one," he announced. "'Arian.'"

"Arian? Oh, after St Arian," Elvira said. "...That's a good name."

"I agree," Zenobia seconded. "It suits you."

"Then I'll go with that," the Riolu decided. "My name is Arian. Arian…" He smiled, embracing his new name.

He got up, and handed the book back to Zenobia, who put it back on the shelf. Gazing at the bookshelf, he was suddenly reminded of why they came back to the house in the first place.

"Oh right," he recalled. "We were going to look at maps, weren't we, Elvira?"

"Yes, we were," the Treecko said. She went over to fetch a stool at the edge of the bookshelf, which allowed her to reach higher. She picked out an atlas and brought it to the table, before opening it on the first two pages.

On it was an illustration of a landmass, which on the page's top-right corner, in fancy calligraphy, read 'Ardalion'.

Ardalion was split into various countries with that same calligraphic writing penning each of their names. Within those countries also lay a name in bold, depicting the capital city of each country.

To the south-west lay the Tsardom of Selenia, with Iria as its capital.

To the north-west was the Tanistry of Alba, with its capital city being Breifne.

To the north-east lay the Dresilian Empire. Its capital was Padavonum.

To the south-east was the League of Miletos. Its capital city lay in Metaxai.

And finally, to the far south, the Kingdom of Eldisholm was situated. Gimrei was its capital.

"So this is Selenia, where we are now," Elvira told him. "It has lots of forests and green fields, and some mountains too. There's even an area of karst rock completely unique to anywhere in Ardalion called the Karstlands, located around here." She pointed to an area to Selenia's central east, not too far away from the country's eastern border and what seemed to be a dominating mountain range. "What you saw of Selenia outside there is generally what our country is like."

"...Okay." Arian nodded in understanding. "...What about the others?"

"Well...I've only left Selenia a few times, so I can't truly confirm whether these all are true or not. I'll tell you what I've heard." The Treecko pointed to Alba. "Alba's desert through and through. Very dry and arid and sandy and...all the other things a desert is. There are a number of oases, though, as well as a major river called the Istwyth, so there are spots of relief in there. The people are quite warrior-like, and speak through their fists more than words. Every twenty years they have this big tournament to decide the next ruler of the country. Fighting means everything to them.

"Dresilia has much better land than Alba or Selenia. It's hot there, but wet enough that crops grow very well there, and as a result, they've built a powerful country that can thrive on its many resources. Selenia in comparison gets too much rain for good crop growth that a powerful empire like Dresilia can be built upon. And Dresilia has a culture deeply proud of its history and heroes of the past. ...A bit too proud, sometimes. They can be quite snobbish about it, or at least from what I've heard.

"Similar to them is Miletos." Elvira's finger drew a bit further south to the aforementioned country. "They're like Dresilia; a powerful country based on fertile soil who are proud of their history and heritage. But they have mountains to the south here, near the border with Eldisholm, so they're not quite as flawless in land as Dresilia is. The two countries are allied, in fact, in a pact that dates back many, many years. They're the richest and most powerful countries in Ardalion, known as the Eastern Alliance.

"And then there's Eldisholm." Elvira pointed to the island off Ardalion's southern coast. This is...a bizarre country when it comes to climate. It has active volcanoes and volcanic storms, but yet at the same time, they also see frequent blizzards and snow. Fire and ice...seemingly coexist in this country. Apparently there's such a phenomenon as hot lava freezing over down there."

"...What? But how?" Arian questioned.

"I don't know. In fact, few do. Eldisholm's a country with a strict isolation policy, meaning that no one leaves or enters it. There's a lot of rumours about that place, and few of them are good. Rumours about cultists and Renegade worshippers down there…but we don't tend to think about them."

"Have people tried to go there?"

"They have. And they never come back," Zenobia informed. "The currents around Eldisholm sweep anyone away who dares go near it. The waters around Eldisholm are infested with swarms of feral Dragalge and Dhelmise, Pokémon that are prone to sinking ships. As a result, merchant ships daren't venture down there, going overland or around Ardalion's north coast instead."

"Oh…I see," Arian said, in understanding. "Still…that doesn't explain how I washed up…" He looked back at the map. "Where are we, exactly?"

"Here." Elvira pointed to a location near Selenia's southeast, along its southern coast.

"Hmm…that's weird," the Riolu murmured. Just how did he end up on that beach in the first place? Drifting from Eldisholm was ruled out, and the lack of merchant ships travelling made the possibility of him falling overboard unlikely as well.

"This is a big mystery," Elvira said. "A human transformed into a Riolu, and washed up on the beach outside…How did this happen?"

"Hold a minute, Elvira." Zenobia picked up on a part of that conversation. "Human? Did you say that Arian transformed into a Riolu from being a human?"

"Yes, Mom," the Treecko answered. "He kept insisting he was a human, and was genuinely shocked that he was a Riolu. ...I don't think he's lying."

"I'm not," Arian pleaded. "I know it sounds completely crazy, but…it's true. I was once human."

"I…" The Heliolisk couldn't believe what she was hearing. But the sight of the Riolu's emerald green eyes, begging her to understand, compelled her to believe. "...I understand. Well, maybe I don't, but…I believe you, Arian."

"Thanks, Zenobia…" Arian was relieved to hear that she accepted his story so easily.

"...We still don't understand how Arian ended up here, though," Elvira pointed out, steering the conversation back to the original point. "Oh, if only the Guild were still around…they'd know what to do with him." Her face then fell. "But that's not an option anymore…"

"The Guild?" Arian queried.

"...Oh, right. You wouldn't know about them," the Treecko replied. She took a breath, getting ready for her answer. "...The Irian Guild is a mercenary's guild, located in Iria, the capital of Selenia. The people they employed were some of the most renowned mercenaries and warriors from all over Ardalion. Not just from Selenia, either! Just about anyone could get in, no matter their class or position of birth! The Irian Guild helped everyone who had a problem in society, from the young to the old to the poor to the rich, and they were incredibly reliable. If you gave them a mission, chances are that it would be solved in a flash! They were brilliant! The best people in the whole country!"

The girl sounded very admiring of this so-called Irian Guild. But the way she was talking…There's a 'but' to this, isn't there? Arian thought.

"Did something happen to it?" he dared to ask.

Elvira's expression dropped in an instant, like a stone in water. She looked off to the side, with a look of extreme hurt on her face. Arian almost couldn't bear to see it.

In fact…it was like he could sense that sadness. As if it was coming to him in waves. What is this…? he found himself wondering.

"...You could say that." Zenobia was the one to answer, drawing him out of these thoughts. Turning to her, Arian could see a similarly sad expression on her face. "The Irian Guild as we used to know it is no more, unfortunately. Five years ago, in Selenia, there was a great upheaval, and our tsar was overthrown. His replacement who overthrew him…had the Guild burned down."

"What?!"

"Yes. And moreover…everyone who worked there was declared an outlaw, and bounties were put on their heads." Her expression was grim. "It's been awful for Selenia. Without the Irian Guild, many people are left hanging without help. There are the knights, but…" She shook her head with evident distaste. "They haven't proven reliable. At least not for us here in Ozerograd."

"That's…That's not good," Arian murmured. Already, he was eating his earlier thoughts about Selenia being a peaceful place.

"No, it isn't," the Heliolisk replied. "...If the Irian Guild is ever going to be properly reestablished and have a shot at returning to the height it was once at, Mitrofan - that's his name, the usurper - must be deposed of."

"But that's not likely to happen," Elvira continued. "Mitrofan's always quick to crush any rebellion, and deal with its supporters brutally. He always nips them in the bud before they can get going."

"Not to mention the problem of the leader," Zenobia brought up. "House Ruslan - the one who previously ruled over Selenia - are no more. All of their members are dead. Just who would lead Selenia after Mitrofan is overthrown?"

"Oh, I see. The new leader might be even worse than the current one," Arian noted. "Yeah, that's a problem, alright."

"But that's no reason to just sit about twiddling our thumbs while Mitrofan walks all over us!" Elvira replied, before sighing deeply. "The state Selenia's in...it can't go on. If only there was someone willing to rise up to the challenge and overthrow him...Someone heroic enough...just like…" Her voice drifted off, and a melancholy look came into her eyes.

"Like…who?" Arian wondered.

Elvira didn't reply. It looked as though she was fighting back tears.

"Elvira…" murmured Zenobia, her tone empathetic.

"I…I want to be alone right now," the gecko replied, as if she was about to burst into tears. And before anyone could say anything, she ran out of the room.

"What was all that about?" Arian asked, confused.

"...A reminder of what she's lost," Zenobia clarified mournfully. "I don't blame her. She loved her father more than anyone…"

"Her father?" Arian suddenly realised this was the first time Elvira's father had been brought up. He didn't appear to be a presence in the house, though. But given what they'd been talking about…a dark feeling grew in his chest.

At that point, he noticed the painting hung up on the living room wall. He saw the three figures, and recognised Elvira and Zenobia. But he didn't recognise the third on the left, the gecko that was bigger than the two of them. With deduction, though, the answer was obvious.

"What happened to him?" Dare I ask?

"...We do not know," was Zenobia's eventual answer. "He disappeared five years ago, and there hasn't been word from him since. ...His name was Kallias. He was a mercenary working for the Irian Guild before its fall. Elvira adored and looked up to him, and I loved him dearly."

"...Is that why Elvira was all enthusiastic when talking about the Guild?" Arian wondered.

"Yes. Kallias worked there, and was one of its finest mercenaries. It was Elvira's dream to follow in his footsteps and become a mercenary herself at the Irian Guild," Zenobia explained. "...Alas, since the overthrow five years ago, that's no longer a possibility."

"...Oh no…But what about her dad?" Arian wondered. "What happened to him?"

"...He was in Iria the day the tsar was overthrown. He had a confrontation with Mitrofan, but had to make a retreat. He came home one evening, telling us he was wanted and had to go on the run." The Heliolisk was trying to rein in her emotions as she told the story. "He told us he had a lead on Mitrofan, and planned to head for the mountains with his partner. …That was the last we saw of either of them."

"That's terrible…" the Riolu replied. "And it's been five years…with nothing at all. I'm sorry to hear that…"

"It's alright, Arian. You had no part in it. …But it's Elvira I'm most worried about," Zenobia expressed. "She's taken his loss especially hard. As well as that, the destruction of the Guild means her dreams of being a mercenary there have amounted to nothing. …I wish I could do more to help her, but with the way the world is, there's only so much I can say without it feeling trite." She looked down in shame. "I should do more. I'm her mother, after all…"

"Don't say that," Arian rejected. "You're not a bad parent, Zenobia. You only want what's best for Elvira, don't you? That's a step above the bad parents who don't care at all for their kids. And you looked after her and cared for her for the five years since everything fell apart, didn't you? You're a good mom, Zenobia. At least in my book."

"...Thank you, Arian." By the sound of it, the Heliolisk had needed a pep talk like that.

"You're welcome. …Hmm, but what about Elvira?" His thoughts drifted to the melancholy gecko. "Should I…talk to her right now? She sounded like she was about to cry when she left the room."

"...Maybe you should," Zenobia considered. "She's been like that since five years ago. She was such a happy and optimistic child growing up too…thanks to her father, no doubt. But now that he's gone, along with her dream…she hasn't been the same, to say the least. …She needs a push in the right direction, to lift her spirits. From someone she can trust that isn't me."

"Yeah…I want to help her," Arian said. "It's the right thing to do. Especially 'cause she helped me. So I should return the favour. …But I don't want to say anything risky…"

"Elvira isn't one to bear grudges," the Heliolisk told him. "Unless you outright insult her or her father, you'll be fine."

"...Right. Thanks for letting me know." Arian got up and headed for the door.

"Good luck. May Jirachi watch over you."

And with that, the Riolu left the living room. But once he was in the hallway, it occurred to him that he didn't know where Elvira's room was. Luckily, it was a fairly small, frugal home, so there weren't many places to look.

Hmm…There were a few doors along the hallway. Which one is it? He recognised the one at the far end to be the guest room, where they had come from, so he ruled that one out.

However, he was able to figure it out, when he heard movement from the second room from the door. It must be these ears, he thought. I can hear better as a Riolu. Guess that's one advantage…or a disadvantage. Whatever the situation is. …But that's not relevant now. Shelving his thoughts about that for another time, he went to the door in question and knocked.

"Elvira?" he said.

No answer immediately. Then Arian heard footsteps, before the door opened.

"Arian? What are you doing here?" Elvira asked.

"Just checking on you," he answered. "You looked like you were about to cry back there." Looking at her now, she clearly had been, if her tear-stained face and scent of salty tears were anything to go by.

"...I've been better." The Treecko sounded as bad as she looked. "...You can come in, if you want."

"Are you sure?" queried the Riolu. "I don't want to intrude if you don't want me to…"

"...No, it's fine. Really," insisted Elvira, and walked back to her bed, while Arian followed her in. Her room contained a lone bed, alongside which was a bedside table and a carpet at the bed's right-hand side. Next to the bed was a small bookcase, on which a small variety of books were perched. A window, complete with green, flower-patterned curtains, was present in the room, as was a desk located right next to it. Everything was very modest.

"...Listen, I…heard from Zenobia what happened five years ago," Arian began. "What happened to the Guild, and what happened to…your dad."

"Mom told you?" Elvira was shocked to hear this, and was about to say more, but the Riolu spoke first.

"She did. And look, maybe I don't know the full story. But…I'm sorry for what happened," he said to her. "No one should have that happen to them. Especially your dad…who Zenobia said you really loved."

"...I did love him," Elvira replied. "I loved how selfless he was. I loved just what a hero he was, but how he could still be so humble as a person and not get swept up in the fame. He'd always buy us souvenirs from the places he had missions in. When I was growing up, he'd tell me bedtime stories all about his adventures. He was a great storyteller. Inspirational. …Enough to make me want to be just like him and become a mercenary at the Irian Guild myself."

"But then…"

"Yeah…" The Treecko let out a long sigh. "The Guild was burned down, and all mercenaries were made outlaws. Well, anyone who didn't side with Mitrofan, that is. And Dad would never side with a cold-blooded murderer like him. …But right after that happened, Dad left us, and never came back…"

"Elvira…" Arian didn't have enough sympathy for the girl.

"I told myself he'd come back one day. This is my dad we're talking about! But five years later, and we haven't heard a single thing…" Elvira was getting emotional. "...I don't even care whether he's alive or dead. I just want something - anything - to give us some closure over all of this. Where is he? And what happened?" She began to sniffle, gripping her bedsheets tightly. "Why did this have to happen? Why?!"

Arian felt compelled at that point to bring the Treecko into a hug. Elvira was startled initially, but then fell into his blue fur and wept.

For her father, and her ambitions. The two things she cherished most in life…now gone, stripped from her. Without either of them…she was lost and unsure about where to go next.

"...It's alright," Arian assured. "You're okay, Elvira. You deserve to cry."

It wasn't all crying. Because the gecko had been crying before Arian entered, she had used up most of her tears. Instead, it was mostly quiet whimpers and sniffles that came out of her.

Eventually, Elvira pulled back from the embrace.

"...Thanks," she said quietly.

"You're welcome," Arian replied. "You saved me, after all. It's the least I can do. …Though I can do more," he added, an idea coming to him.

"More? Like what?"

"Just general help with stuff. You know, chores and that," the human elaborated. "You're in a sad state right now, and Zenobia's leg is broken…so I want to pitch in. I don't wanna be useless and just lay about while you do all the work."

"...Hmm…" Elvira considered his offer. "...I suppose I could use a helping hand…Why not?"

"Thanks very much! Now where do I start?" Arian asked.

"Well, there's some cleaning to do," was her answer. "And then I have to look after Mom, and change her bandages, and then there's lunch to prepare, and for that, I have to prepare the necessary berries beforehand…"

Elvira listed the chores for Arian, with him nodding and mentally noting each one. Once she was done, he left the room, ready to get started.

So eager to help, she noted, watching him go. If only more people were willing to help these days…But with the way everything is, I can't really blame them. With no Guild…all these problems are around. I wonder how long Arian's optimism is going to last, once he finds out the state of our world's problems. …Or even just the ones right on our doorstep. Why is there so much wrong with the world…?

Still…his help is appreciated.
Elvira got up from her bed, a small smile on her face. I should probably help him out.





Notes

And so we get introduced to our two heroes: Arian and Elvira. One, an amnesiac claiming to once have been a human who knows nothing of the world he woke up in, and the other, a Pokémon unsure of her future. How their story unfolds will be revealed in due time.

A number of names were dropped when Arian was choosing his name. Some of these have more relevance to the story than others, and some of them may well be only mentioned here and not brought up again. But there may be the occasional passing reference to them. And also as a small side note, the description for Agrippa is based on the real Agrippa, the famous Roman general. Others, though, only share the basis with mythology on their name alone; no more than that.

Also revealed in this chapter were each of the countries in the continent of Ardalion. We'll see them and their cultural differences as the story progresses as well. All in due time, of course.

That's all I can think of for now. Thanks for reading.

Update(16/12/22): As part of my early chapter updating, I've reworked this one. I felt in this one, there was too much being revealed, particularly in the last scene with Elvira and Arian. That stuff's been moved across Chapters 3 and 4, instead. Also, the chapter goes from Arian having his 'I'm a Pokémon!' moment to going to the beach to going to the sitting room, rather than Arian, sitting room scene 1, beach, sitting room scene 2, which felt a bit clunky in retrospect. Along with that, the usual trimming of that which I felt was unnecessary. This updated version flows better in my opinion.
 
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Chapter 3

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 3
Teamwork

Later that day...

"Mmm...tasty," remarked Zenobia, bringing the cup of tea away from her lips. "This is rather good for a first-time brew, Arian."

"Oh, it was nothing…" Arian replied. "I had Elvira watching over my shoulder the whole time. Really, if she wasn't there, I probably would have messed the whole thing up."

It was now mid-afternoon, and Arian, along with Elvira and Zenobia, were enjoying a cup of tea in the living room that the Riolu had prepared with the guidance of Elvira. He seemed to know little about preparing tea, so the Treecko guided him through the process.

She had calmed down, thankfully, from earlier. It seemed getting back into housework was all she needed. The presence of Arian, too, helped to cheer her up slightly, if only by a bit.

"Preparing a cup of tea is simple, though," Elvira pointed out. "You'll get the hang of it quickly. …By the way." The discussion about tea reminded her of something. "We're out of tea leaves, Mom."

"...Oh." Zenobia sounded disappointed. "...Oh well. I guess I'll have to wait another while until you procure more. Though that's easier said than done in these current circumstances…"

"...I'll see if I can find some," Elvira offered. "You never know."

"It's alright. I can live without tea," the Heliolisk assured. "Don't worry yourself about it, Elvira. Though if you could…even the cheap berry leaves would be okay."

"Berries, huh?" Arian noted. "They seem to be quite a staple in this world."

""They are. Berries are found just about everywhere in Ardalion," explained Elvira. "They come in all varieties and colours. You can make juice out of berries. You can use their leaves to make tea. You can even ferment them to make alcohol." She then pulled a face. "...I don't really like it, though. We only have it on special occasions in this house."

"Speaking of berries…how are we doing on them?" Zenobia wondered.

"There's still a good amount in the pantry," Elvira said. "Maybe we should have a berry stew later. Then Arian can taste a wider variety of berries and see what he thinks."

"Hm. Wouldn't mind that," the Riolu considered.

"...Anyway." Elvira got up, and gathered everyone's cups. "I'll go and wash these."

"You want help?" Arian offered.

"No thanks. I'm fine on my own," Elvira turned down, before leaving for the kitchen.

"There she goes…" Zenobia observed. "...She's always tried to be independent. Even back when she was a little girl, she tried to be more independent-minded than other children would be. I suppose it's because she had one less parent in the house. But I think it's also because of…pressure."

"Pressure?" Arian was confused. "What do you mean?"

"I've already said her father was a well-renowned mercenary. But I'm talking about well-renowned to the point that few didn't know his name. Imagine, therefore, being born to him and planning to follow the same career path as him."

"...Ohhhh," Arian said in realisation. "You think everyone'll want her to be just like her dad?"

"That's what Elvira's been thinking," Zenobia confirmed. "It's become a great fear of hers, especially with the recent events in Selenia. With everything that's happened, it's clear that people want a hero to rescue them from the clutches of Mitrofan. Some are even angry that Fernblade Kallias hasn't come out of the woodwork to save them. And with this expectation, Elvira feels the need to step up to the plate. But she's been having inadequate feelings recently."

"Really?" That, Arian hadn't considered. "Those people shouldn't expect so much…"

"I don't blame them, given the tumult of Selenia in recent years. But it's only made Elvira's anxiety worse. Coupled with the fact she hasn't evolved by now…she's been feeling down as a result of it all." The Heliolisk was looking quite down herself.

"She hasn't evolved?" Another new factor for the Riolu to consider. Coincidentally, he was reading a book on the phenomenon. "Is that…not normal?"

"I wouldn't say abnormal. Some Pokémon within their species evolve sooner than others," Zenobia explained. "I suspect Elvira's just a late bloomer. But it can create jealousy, having to evolve later than others. …On that note, how's that book you've been reading?" she brought up, seeing as how they were on the subject.

"It's…interesting. A bit hard to imagine, though." The book in question was entitled The Basic Facts of Pokémon: Vol. 6, Q-T that detailed a variety of Pokémon, of which Riolu and Treecko were included in the book in question. Elvira had recommended it to him, and he'd been reading up on the unique facets of his species. But the topic of evolution had caught his eye. "Like…do Pokémon really just change form one day?"

"They can indeed, through a variety of methods," Zenobia explained. "It's mostly a natural phenomenon, achieved through growth, age and training hard enough. Other times, it's through interaction with a certain item, like an evolutionary stone. That was how I evolved. Evolution was certainly an unusual sensation to go through, and it is an adjustment getting used to a new body. But you always feel better for it."

"So for me…" Arian looked at what the book said about his species. "To become a Lucario…I have to 'enjoy a moment of great happiness, with a partner whose bonds with me are as strong as steel'?"

"Seemingly. I don't know how every Pokémon evolves…but I do know about Lucario. They're a much talked about species. Legends speak of their aura-sensing capabilities, and how they can manipulate those into attacks."

"Really? Not gonna lie, that sounds cool," Arian said, interested. He looked at the illustration provided in the book, where next to the Riolu, there stood a similar canine Pokémon, albeit bigger and stronger. It had a cream-coloured torso with a spike at the chest, and spikes on the backs of its paws. Its feelers at the back of its head were also bigger and there were four of them instead of two like on the Riolu, and its ears were larger and more pointy.

It resembled growth to him, and it was an interesting prospect to look forward to in the future.

Though maybe let's not think that far ahead. I only woke up in this body this morning.

At that point, a bell rang. It seemed to come from the front.

"The door? I didn't plan on having any visitors…" she mumbled. She reached for her crutches, and prepared to get it.

"I'll get it," Arian said. "Your leg's still not right. You shouldn't strain it."

"...If you could get the door, that would be great. Thank you, Arian."

"No problem." And with that, Arian headed out of the room and to the front door, where he opened it.

He blinked when he saw the visitor; a small Grass-type Pokémon with green colouring, three leaves atop its head and a white face. It was an entirely new face to him, and the species was unfamiliar to him. Elvira might know, the Riolu thought to himself. But she's not here right now. I'll just have to wing it. ...Here's hoping I don't act weird.

"Er, hello. Can I help you?" he asked.

The face of the Pokémon, which was in fact a Petilil, a fact unknown to Arian, morphed into an expression of confusion. "Who are you?" she said. "A Riolu doesn't live here! A Heliolisk and a Treecko do. I'm looking for Elvira, the Treecko. Please, it's urgent."

"Right. I'll get her," Arian promised, before heading back inside. "Elvira! There's someone at the door for you!"

"There is?" Elvira's voice sounded as she came out into the hallway. "Who is it?"

"Elvira!" the Petilil called from the open front door. "There you are!"

"...Flora? What are you doing here?" Elvira asked, walking up to the front door.

"Looking for you," Flora replied. "I need your help, Elvira, and I need it now."

"Why? What's the matter?"

"It's Tamara!" cried the Petilil. "She went into Verdant Woods this morning, but she still hasn't returned, and I'm...I'm getting worried! Elvira, you have to help me! Please!"

"Verdant Woods? Oh no…Why'd she go in there?"

"She forgot her locket there yesterday, apparently," Flora answered, in a scathing manner. "Look, I warned her. But you know her; she loves that locket, enough that she won't sell it for extra coin. But she hasn't come back yet, and...and...please, Elvira, you have to find her!"

"But…surely there are others better suited to this than me?"

"They aren't listening. Not surprising, given the way town is right now," the Petilil criticised. "Everyone has their own backs to watch. They don't have time to deal with a missing Pachirisu. …But the Thorned Roses don't bother you as much, Elvira! Please, you have to! I'm no fighter, but you are!" Then she added, "You were always the strongest of the three of us…"

"But I'm not strong…" Elvira looked down at the ground.

Arian had been watching the conversation go back and forth. And gauging the Treecko's reactions, he could understand what Zenobia was getting at regarding her self-esteem. I didn't realise it was this bad, he thought. …But still. We have to do something.

"Come on, Elvira. You can do it. This is your friend we're talking about!" the Riolu encouraged. "Hell, if you want backup…then count me in! I'll help you!"

"You?" Elvira was taken aback. "But…you only woke up this morning, Arian. And you have amnesia…"

"Doesn't matter! That's not gonna stop me! And you shouldn't let your fears get the better of you, Elvira. Who cares what everyone else thinks?"

"Yeah, what he said! …Whoever you are." Flora turned her attention to Arian. "Who are you, anyway?"

"I'm Arian. I'm…" He debated his answer. "Just a drifter. But that's not important right now! We just need to go to Verdant Woods, wherever that is, and get your friend back. Simple! We'll be back before you know it."

"But Arian…you've never been in a Mystery Dungeon. You don't know how dangerous they can be…"

"A Mystery Dungeon? …What's that?"

"Wait, what?" Flora reacted, aghast. "How do you not know what a Mystery Dungeon is? Have you been living under a rock all your life or something?"

"Well, er…" Arian struggled for an answer. "...Look, Elvira's friend is the important thing here! I'll…figure out the answer on the way! Come on!" He began to make his way outside. "We won't gain anything arguing here!"

"No, Arian, wait!" Elvira called out to him. "You don't know what you're getting yourself into!" She ran outside after him, as he ran towards the road.

"...A Riolu who's never heard of Mystery Dungeons?" Flora puzzled, watching them go. "That's a new one. Even hatchlings know what Mystery Dungeons are…"

"Arian's situation is…unique," another voice cut in. The Petilil turned around, and saw Zenobia come to the door with her broken leg.

"Oh, hey, Zenobia," she greeted. "...Do you know anything about that Riolu? Who is he?"

"...Come inside," the Heliolisk offered. "I'll fill you in on the details."





"We go right here," Elvira instructed, when she and Arian arrived at a fork in the road. "Verdant Woods is a bit off the beaten track, away from the main road."

"Is it over there?" Arian asked, pointing to a series of trees further down the path they had taken.

"Yes, it is," confirmed Elvira. "And in that wood is the Mystery Dungeon itself."

"...Oh yeah...about that." The Riolu turned to her, a curious look on his face. "What exactly are these Mystery Dungeons you speak of?"

"...Mystery Dungeons..." The Treecko let out a long sigh. "How do I explain them? Mystery Dungeons are…strange places, to put it simply. Ordinary areas like forests and caves are essentially morphed into maze-like structures with multiple floors to them. And once you enter a Mystery Dungeon, there's no way out until you traverse all of the floors of the Mystery Dungeon."

"...Okay…" Arian murmured, his brow furrowed in confusion. This, Elvira spotted.

"...I know. I'm probably not explaining it the best. No one really knows how to explain them, though. They're mysteries, enigmas that can't be defined. No one really knows why they're here or what they're for. Perhaps to you, they're mystifying, but...they're a normal part of life here in Ardalion. You'll see for yourself just what they're like."

"...That'll have to be it, I guess. Seeing is believing, after all," the human-turned-Riolu replied.

The two began to walk into a more wooded area. Arian looked around him. The foliage provided some shade from the sun, which made the woods somewhat cooler than outside. But strangely enough, for whatever reason...the trees seemed huge to him. They seemed much bigger than he was used to. Maybe this world has naturally big trees? the Riolu thought to himself. Or...no, wait. I know what it is. Could it be the fact that as a Riolu, I'm just naturally small? Was I bigger than this as a human? If so, then…

Many questions bombarded the mind of the amnesiac human, a great number of which he had no answer for. But he did realise that his thoughtfulness was creating a silence from him, which he felt could create an awkwardness between him and Elvira. Arian didn't want that to happen, so he decided to divert his thoughts towards their mission.

"Are we in the Mystery Dungeon now?" he asked Elvira.

"No. We're definitely in Verdant Woods, but not the Mystery Dungeon itself. You'd know when you are," the Treecko told him. "Hmm...ah! There's the entrance."

Arian looked to where she pointed. Two trees stood dead ahead of them, their canopies hanging overhead. But between them, strangely enough...it was as if they couldn't see clearly beyond the trees. It was like the path ahead had been obfuscated by some kind of shadow.

"What is that…?" he muttered aloud.

"That's the Mystery Dungeon entrance," answered Elvira. "...Once we go in there, there's no turning back until we've reached the exit at the end. You sure you want to go in?"

"Yes." Arian had made his mind up about that. "I want to rescue your friend. Even if I have amnesia, that's not gonna stop me."

"Then let's go."

And with that, the two of them walked forward, into the shadowy woods.





Verdant Woods
1F

Arian couldn't quite describe what happened next. It was as if the moment they passed into the Mystery Dungeon, the surrounding area suddenly altered and changed into something completely different. Next thing he realised, he and Elvira were no longer in any kind of shadowy area, but in some kind of clearing that most definitely did not resemble the path on which they entered the dungeon on.

"Whoa! What?" a baffled Arian remarked. "So this is the Mystery Dungeon, is it?"

"Yes, it is," Elvira confirmed.

"...This is weird. Like, really weird. Wh-What? I mean, how does that even work? What kind of physics exist in this world to make this possible?"

"...You see what I mean when I talked about them earlier?" Elvira reminded. "You're not the first one to be confused by all of this. I was just like you when I first stumbled into my first Mystery Dungeon. It was here, actually. But luckily Dad was around, and he saved me."

"Getting out of here...Oh yeah, you did say something about no turning back, didn't you?" Out of curiosity, the Riolu looked behind him, and was amazed to see just a cover of trees behind him, no entrance to be seen. "Oh...I see what you mean..."

"Let's go, Arian," Elvira said. "The sooner we find Tamara, the better. The problem is...where exactly is she? She could be anywhere in this labyrinth...We're gonna have to search everywhere thoroughly."

Elvira headed straight down the path directly in front of them, with Arian following close behind. They were out of the 'room', and in a 'corridor', as the Riolu labelled them. So this is a Mystery Dungeon... he thought to himself, looking around him. ...It's bizarre, alright. And yet this is considered normal in this world? ...Boy, do I have a lot to get used to.

His thoughts were interrupted when Elvira called out to him.

"There's a wild Pokémon ahead, Arian," she informed him.

"Wait…wild Pokémon?"

"Yes. It's only a Caterpie. I'll deal with it."

Arian watched as Elvira dealt with the Bug-type. She struck it with her tail with Pound. The Caterpie immediately countered with Tackle, but Elvira was barely fazed, and delivered another Pound. That was enough to defeat it, and the bug lay on its side.

"This place is filled with wild Pokémon like that Caterpie there," the Treecko told Arian. "We're gonna have to be on our guard. …Can you fight, Arian?"

"...I guess. If I need to." Arian held up his paws, trying to make fist like motions with them.

"What moves do you know?" asked Elvira

"...Moves?"

"...Oh. You would've forgotten what moves you know," Elvira murmured in realisation. "They're like…special techniques Pokémon can use. Every Pokémon has the ability to use a number of different moves. They're normally dependent on the type of Pokémon you are. You're a Fighting-type, so you'll be quite capable at using physical attacks."

"I'm a...Fighting-type?" queried a puzzled Arian. "...What does that mean?"

"...Ah…" Elvira faltered briefly, realising that explaining basic concepts like moves and types was surprisingly more difficult than she would've thought. As well as that, the thought of rescuing Tamara came to her, and she cast a glance at the Dungeon's entrance.

This, Arian noticed. "...No, let's not think about it," he then decided. "Your friend's more important than me figuring out what 'types' and 'moves' are. My questions can wait."

"Are you sure?" Elvira asked.

"Yes. Besides...maybe I can learn as I go," the Riolu reasoned.

"I suppose this Dungeon is harmless enough that you won't be in too much trouble," the Treecko replied. "...Come on. Let's go."

They continued down the hallway to another room. However, a look around the room revealed no exits.

"It's a dead end," Elvira sighed. "...Well, back to where we started, I guess."

They made their way back from there. A thought came to Arian as they travelled through the labyrinth.

"What does Tamara look like?" wondered Arian, as they started down the corridor. "What species is she? Just so I know who I'm looking for."

"A Pachirisu," Elvira answered. "She's an Electric-type with blue and white fur and a big, bushy tail. Tamara's always been lively and chatty, and a great friend for most of my life. ...But she also has a tendency to rush headfirst into risky situations without calculating just how risky that situation can be. Like right now."

"...How well can she fight?" Arian asked.

"Well...good enough to hold her own," admitted Elvira. "This Mystery Dungeon isn't too difficult. This place would be too much of a handful for her. ...But that's the problem. She hasn't come back yet...and that's presumably what's gotten Flora all stressed."

"So she could be just lost?"

"...Could be. It's not uncommon. Back in the day, when the Guild was still around, a lot of the mission requests would be to rescue Pokémon who'd gotten lost in Mystery Dungeons. It was one of the many ways my dad earned his keep. Still…Tamara's not one to get lost." Elvira frowned. "I hope nothing bad's happened..."

With that ominous thought, the two continued onwards. They found their way to another room, after a long corridor with multiple twists and turns. But at that room's entrance lay a Pidgey, which caught Arian by surprise.

"Ah!" he cried, not expecting the sudden appearance of the bird Pokémon. Instinctively, he launched a self-defensive attack, and struck the Pidgey with a Quick Attack. It returned a Tackle his way, and hit Arian in the stomach. But the Riolu countered with another Quick Attack, which brought down the Pidgey.

"...Not bad, Arian," praised Elvira. "You did alright there."

"...Could have done better," the Riolu replied. "That bird got me in the stomach." A bruise lay in the spot where it had struck.

"Oh dear...Are you okay, Arian?" Elvira asked.

"I think so," Arian assessed. "It's a small injury, nothing serious. Let's keep moving."

The Treecko thought to protest, but ultimately said nothing. They walked on for another bit, the human thinking back to his encounter with the Pidgey. It occurred to him that he definitely used something foreign to him to be able to strike the Flying-type in so quick a manner.

"So...did I use a move back there?" he asked Elvira.

"Yes, you did," she told him. "By the looks of it, it was Quick Attack you used. That's a fairly basic move that most Pokémon learn. I know it too, in fact."

"I see…" Arian murmured. Armed with this new information, he and Elvira continued the search for Tamara.

The two scoured the rest of the floor for the sight of a Pachirisu, and encountered a number of wild Pokémon along the way. They were dealt with in an easy fashion that even the inexperienced Elvira and Arian, who was still getting used to using his moves, could handle.

But they encountered no sign of Tamara. And in the last room that they hadn't searched...there was, oddly enough, in the middle of a forest, a set of stairs.

"What's that doing here?" Arian questioned.

"It's how Mystery Dungeons work," explained Elvira. "There are multiple floors to each Mystery Dungeon, and each one has a similar maze-like structure to it, like what we just went through."

"Wait, so we have to explore more mazes?" Arian cried, groaning afterwards. "Great...just when we got done with that one. At this rate, it'll be nightfall by the time we find Tamara…"

"Well, we can at least say she's not on this floor," Elvira surmised. "So...up we go."

The pair started up the steps.





Verdant Woods
2F

At the top of the stairs was another forest clearing. However, no sooner had Arian stepped off the last step that the stairs suddenly vanished into thin air, and the human found himself looking at a dirt floor.

"...Okay...I guess that's a thing in Mystery Dungeons," he muttered. "And another labyrinth to explore...Say, about that. How many floors does this dungeon have?"

"...Three," the Treecko told him. "Verdant Woods is fairly tame. Some Mystery Dungeons have many times more floors than this one, and are much more dangerous."

"Well, thank goodness for that." Arian was relieved to hear that. "Imagine having to comb ten floors to find Tamara, for instance. Or twenty? Hell, maybe even a hundred!"

"Places like that do exist. There are Dungeons even my dad would never dare tread," Elvira said. "Thankfully Tamara is in here and not in those places. On that note…let's get looking."

And so they searched the labyrinth of the second floor, encountering many more narrow corridors, rooms with a number of different exits, and wild Pokémon. Again, they were taken down with relative ease, though one incident warranted mention.

It was against a wild Wurmple. At one point, it had used String Shot on Arian. The Riolu had been caught unaware, and was completely taken by surprise when the silk wrapped around his legs. Trying to move only led to him falling ungracefully onto his face.

"Agh!" he cried out, trying to get back on his feet with his hands. But he found he couldn't; it was as if the silk had stuck him to the ground. He tried desperately to free himself.

"Hold on, Arian!" Elvira called back. "Take this!" She slammed her tail against the Wurmple, which finished it off. She rushed over to her companion's side. "Oh dear...you've got yourself stuck with the Wurmple's silk."

"Urgh...it's like glue," he complained.

"No kidding," agreed the Treecko. "Wurmple silk is often used in glue around here. It's a good adhesive. ...Perhaps a little too good," she added sympathetically, looking at her partner's predicament. "Here. I'll help you out."

She knelt down and grabbed some nearby dock leaves. She then used them to grab some of the gooey silk that was wrapped around Arian's legs. Water would've aided her, but there was none nearby, so she had to make do. After some prying, Arian was finally unstuck from the ground.

"...Thanks, Elvira," he said gratuitously. "I'm sorry about that…"

"No worries. Though...your fur around your legs is still a bit sticky," she pointed out.

"...Oh God…" he muttered in annoyance when he saw that indeed, his leg fur still contained some of the gooey, sticky residue from the Wurmple's silk.

"...Nothing I can do about that, I'm afraid," Elvira apologised. "You'll need to wash that off when we get to some water."

"...Alright. Anyway...onward with the search," Arian said, taking his mind off what just happened and continuing down the corridor they were in. Elvira quickly followed after him.

But a search of the second floor yielded no Tamara. Arian and Elvira found themselves at the stairs to the next floor.

"Well, no Tamara on this floor," the former surmised. "Shall we head up?"

"Hmm...I hope we didn't miss her," Elvira hoped. "She must be further up. ...Maybe she went all the way to the grove at the end? She wouldn't be incapable of getting there…"

"Then let's go," Arian said, and started up the stairs, with Elvira following him up them.





Verdant Woods
3F

The third floor was much like the others, with the same forested look to everything. However, there was one notable difference that Arian spotted right away.

"Look!" he pointed out. "The stairs are right there. That's convenient."

"Not yet, Arian," Elvira said. "Tamara might be on this floor. Let's search it first. If she's not here, she's in the berry grove."

"...You know, something just occurred to me," Arian voiced. "Should we split up to look for her?"

"No! We shouldn't do that," denied Elvira. "This place is a maze that we could easily get lost in. The last thing we should do is split up. Not to mention, the wild Pokémon could corner us more easily if we were separate. Let's stay together, Arian. We're much stronger as a team."

"...Right. Forget I said anything," mumbled the Riolu, slightly ashamed of his poor idea. He silently followed Elvira down the corridor in front of them.

Another floor, another fruitless search. Though, in a way, it bore fruit, quite literally. A dead end was accompanied by a bush of oran berries, and Elvira picked a few, suggesting they rest for a brief spell. Arian agreed, particularly after he had received a gash from a Pidgey's Peck. The oran berries helped to heal up his wound.

"If only I brought a bag with me," Elvira realised. "Then we could pick these and have them in that berry stew I promised I'd make for dinner tonight."

"Oh yeah..." Arian recalled, remembering what had been said earlier that afternoon.

"I should've brought a bag with me, actually," the Treecko went on. "It never hurts to have a bag of essentials when traversing a Mystery Dungeon. My dad never went on a mission without one. He would always bring the bare essentials with him, such as oran berries, max elixirs, geo pebbles, iron thorns...That was stupid of me to forget," she lightly self-admonished.

"Nothing we can do about that now," Arian said. "Besides, we're on the last floor, and we're doing well. Any luck, and we'll have Tamara out of here by sundown."

"...You're right, Arian," Elvira said, smiling at his optimism. "Come on. Let's go find Tamara and get out of here." She got up and headed out of the room, with Arian following her.

They returned to the room they started in, and found the stairs that took them upward.





Verdant Woods
Grove

Questions immediately arose in Arian's head when he emerged to a location that did not look maze-like in the slightest.

"Are we out?" he asked Elvira, once she had emerged.

"...We're at the end of the dungeon," the Treecko answered. "Just ahead of us is the berry grove. It's the only place we haven't checked yet. If Tamara's anywhere, she's there."

"Well, let's go then," Arian initiated, and he and Elvira made their way down the path before them.

As they did so, Arian couldn't help but take in the natural beauty of the woodland around him. The air was clean, and there wasn't any sign of pollution anywhere. Pure, natural, nearly untouched beauty, this was. Selenia truly is a beautiful place, he thought to himself. I'd love to explore more of it, if it's like this everywhere else in the country.

At that moment, however, the peace and stillness of the alluring forest was shattered by a distressed cry.

"Get away from me, you creeps!"

Arian was ripped from his thoughts by this exclamation. "Someone's in trouble!" he said. "Was that Tamara?"

"It sounded like her," Elvira confirmed. "Come on, let's hurry!"

They hurried further in. As they got closer, they got a view of what was happening.

A Pachirisu was being confronted by two others: a Dark-type Meowth and a Deino. The latter two wore some kind of red band around their arm and foreleg, bearing the insignia of a rose and thorns. They were also speaking in confrontational tones.

"Your family hasn't been keeping up with the rent," the Meowth said. "And when that happens...prices have to be paid."

"We don't have the money!" the Pachirisu protested. "And even if we did, your rents are stupidly high! How can anyone who isn't loaded with cash pay them?!"

"Shut up!" the Deino fired back. "You don't get a say in the matter, wench! Pay up or suffer the consequences!"

"You stop right there!" commanded Arian, choosing this moment to step onto the scene. Behind him, Elvira trailed. The latter was recognised instantly by the Pachirisu.

"Ellie!" she cried out, surprised, but relieved. "You came! Please help me!"

"Don't worry, Tam! We'll deal with these guys!" Elvira called, before turning her attention to the two rogues. In an instant, her face darkened. "Well...if it isn't the Thorned Roses. Of all the people to run into…"

"And just who are you supposed to be anyway?" the Meowth questioned. "A friend of the girl, by any chance?"

"That's no concern of yours," Elvira returned coldly. "Stop harassing Tamara this instant!"

"Who do you think you are to order us about, missy?" the Deino said indignantly. "And you too." He directed this at Arian. "Don't you know who you're dealing with?"

"No, I don't," Arian replied, drawing confused looks from the two ruffians. "I've never heard of you in my life." Probably didn't before the amnesia either, I bet.

"Wait, what? You've never heard of the Thorned Roses?" the Meowth uttered. "Sheesh, do you not get out or what?"

"Tch. Probably just some trash talk," scoffed the Deino. "Don't listen to him, Bruno. This guy's probably some joker with a bag of tricks up his sleeve."

A bag of tricks? I wish, Arian internally snarked. But he held his tongue. "It doesn't matter whether I know you or not," he replied. "Harassing a girl for rent money, alone in the woods like this? Not on my watch!"

"...You think you're some big shot, do you?" the Deino scathingly said. "You wanna play the hero in times like these?"

"...Yes. Yes, I do," Arian responded unflinchingly. "Because someone has to. Selenia's in a pretty bad place now, and someone has to step up to the plate and help out the common man."

"Ha! Big talk, Riolu," disparaged Bruno, the Meowth. "But words won't save you here. Actions are what count!" He unsheathed his claws.

"...Fine then. You want actions?" Arian punched his fists together. "Then we'll give you actions. ...Come on, Elvira," he said, turning to his partner. "Let's knock some sense into these ruffians."

"...Sure." The Treecko didn't sound quite so confident, though. Regardless, she still readied herself.

Both duos gazed at each other, daring each other to make the first move. But eventually, it was Arian who walked slowly towards Bruno, before initiating with a Quick Attack and landing a hit on the Meowth.

"Argh!" the cat cried out. "You got lucky, Riolu. But that was only one hit. Take this!" He launched a Scratch at Arian, cutting the canine with his sharp claws and eliciting a wince from him.

Meanwhile, Elvira landed a Pound on the Deino. In retaliation, the dark dragon snapped back with a Bite, which narrowly grazed the gecko's side.

They mean business, Arian realised. They shouldn't be trifled with, these two. But if we fight hard enough, then...victory will be within our grasp, surely. Just got to keep at it with bringing down these two.

Bruno came at him, claws bared. He brought up his paws, and dashed forward as well.

The Scratch landed, but Arian took the hit, and punched the Meowth as hard as he could. Bruno staggered backwards, clutching where he'd been hit.

"Damn you, mutt," he hissed. He went in to try again, but Arian cut him off with a Quick Attack.

"I can do this all day!" he called to him. Indeed, that was a strange sensation - he didn't feel like he was running short on energy.

Bruno let out an annoyed snarl and went in again. Arian did the same.

He didn't land the hit exactly like a punch - it was more like a swipe. However, this was soon a new discovery for him. His claws suddenly gave off a metallic sheen, and he slashed at the Meowth harder than before.

"Agh!" he cried. "Metal Claw?"

"Metal Claw…" Arian was amazed. Another new move… He shook this thought off for now; he had a battle to win. So he moved in again, and once again, his claws turned metallic and slashed at his opponent.

"Grrr! You're really pissing me off!" growled Bruno, hissing at the wound. "Hey, Vivian! Deal with this fuck for me!"

"Kinda busy myself!" the Deino replied, before breathing a Dragon Breath at Elvira. The Treecko dodged to the side, and struck him again with Quick Attack. "Dammit! You deal with her! You're fast!"

"Urgh! Fine!" Bruno yelled. "You deal with that ball of fur!"

You're one to talk, Arian inwardly snarked. But he adjusted to the changed circumstances and found himself facing the Deino named…

"Vivian?" he asked the Deino. "Did I hear that right?"

"Yeah. And? What's it to you?" huffed Vivian.

"...You are a boy, right?"

"Oh, for the love of - Vivian is not a girl's name!" shouted the Deino, clearly annoyed. "It's unisex! How many times do I have to tell that to everyone?!"

"...Really?" the Riolu queried sceptically.

"Yes, it is!" yelled Vivian, visibly frustrated. "What would you know anyway, you stupid idiot?! You haven't even heard of the Thorned Roses! You're just a wannabe hero with ideas above his station! You don't know a damn thing! You're noth - "

He was interrupted by a Quick Attack from Arian.

"Be quiet, would you?" he remarked. "There's a story there…"

"None of your business! Now shut up!" Vivian roared. He shot forward and Tackled him with great force.

"Oof!" Arian cried, the wind knocked out of him as the Deino's Tackle pushed him to the ground, the Irate Pokémon remaining on him. "Get off me!" he yelled at the Deino, managing to push the dragon off him with a Metal Claw.

"Fuck you!" snarled Vivian, firing Dragon Breath at him. Arian couldn't dodge it in time, and felt the blast of breath.

"Ugh!" He tried to bear it, and struck back with a Quick Attack. The Deino staggered back, his Dragon Breath fizzling out.

Arian happened to take a glance at Elvira's side of the combat. She seemed to be holding her own well enough, with Bruno's irateness carrying over. This time, it was the annoyance of Elvira using Absorb to regain her energy from the wounds he dealt to her.

"You're getting on my nerves, you bitch," growled the Meowth.

"Good. It means I'm doing the right thing," Elvira riposted, before dashing forward with Quick Attack.

She stopped herself from jumping back right away, though, and managed to fire off another Absorb, draining the Meowth's energy.

"Gah!" In retaliation, Bruno used Bite on her, eliciting a cry of pain from the gecko.

"Elvira!" Arian cried. He saw the dark cat move in for another attack. "Oh no, you don't!" He ran forward to defend his partner.

He didn't notice the glowing energy coming from his right paw. As Bruno closed in on Elvira, Arian jumped forward, and slammed his paw against the cat's side. The blow felt powerful, more powerful than the attacks he had been dealing, and satisfying.

"Aaaaaaaargh !" Bruno certainly felt the power behind it, as he was thrown back by the sheer force of it. "Ow, ow, ow…"

"Whoa…What was that?" Arian murmured in wonder.

"Arian!" Elvira snapped him out of his thoughts. "Look out!"

The Riolu looked to his left to see Vivian running towards him in an enraged manner, another Dragon Breath ready to be unleashed. He was about to fire…

…But Elvira cut him off with a Quick Attack, and the Dragon Breath skewed away from its target.

"You hurt Bruno!" Vivian was visibly enraged. "You'll die, furry bastard!" He but Arian moved out of the way in time. That didn't deter Vivian, though; the dark dragon chased him down, intent on great harm.

Hmm… Arian had a thought as he ran from the dragon. Maybe...I could use his anger to my advantage.

He observed Vivian's movements. They were indeed fuelled by his anger, but in turn, Arian noticed that it was clouding his judgement and in turn, was making it harder for him to locate the human and sink his fangs into him. Yes, that's it. Act calm and rational, as opposed to his rage-filled anger. Then perceive his next move…

The Deino unleashed another Bite. However, the rage he felt from Arian's insults of his name caused him to miss his target again.

...And strike.

Arian felt a force build up within his paw. He capitalised on the opening given to him by Vivian and struck him in his side in a hit that he felt was a tad more powerful than what he had been dealing.

"Agh!" Vivian cried in pain. "What the hell? I-I can't move!" He tried to move, but collapsed to his stomach. Elvira capitalised on this with a Quick Attack, weakening him further.

"Viv!" called Bruno, who was struggling after the blow from Arian. "Shit...This ain't good. We're getting trounced...We gotta retreat."

"Retreat? N-No!" refused Vivian. "We can't face Mik like this!"

"I know. But living to fight another day's always more important," Bruno countered. "We need to get away from them."

"Grr...you'll regret this!" Vivian seethed, turning his attention to Arian and Elvira. "You're gonna regret ever making an enemy of the Thorned Roses!"

"Hey! You're not getting away!" Arian yelled, beginning to run towards them.

But at that moment, Bruno produced two spherical objects, and threw them to the ground. Smoke billowed everywhere, making Arian and Elvira cough relentlessly. When the smoke settled, the two were gone.

"Dammit!" raged Arian. "They got away…"

"...Oh well," Elvira said. "At least we managed to overcome them. I almost didn't think we'd be able to. …But you surprised me, Arian."

"Did I?"

"Yes. Especially with your Force Palm. That was the move you used near the end of that brawl," Elvira explained. "That really helped to turn the tide in our favour."

"...I guess it did." Arian looked at his paws. Guess there's a lot of power in this new body of mine. More than I would have thought…

"...Oh! Right!" Elvira suddenly remembered. "Tamara!" She looked around the grove for her friend. "Where are you?"

"I'm right here, Ellie!" The Pachirisu in question stepped out from behind a bush.

"Are you okay, Tam?" the Treecko asked, worried.

"I'm fine!" Tamara assured. "No broken bones, at least. You came at a really good time; if you'd been longer, they almost certainly would've roughed me up. Thanks so much, Ellie."

"...Don't thank me." Elvira grew solemn. "I let my fears of being inadequate get to me again, and I nearly didn't come out here. If it wasn't for Arian…" She looked to the Riolu. "...I might never have come."

"...It's fine, Ellie. It's alright to be scared in times like these," soothed the Pachirisu. " I mean, I was hesitant to come here too, but...I had to find my locket. Plus, I figured it'd be a good place to hide out from the Thorned Roses. ...But they found me anyway. Silly me thinking this was a good hiding place, huh?" she grinned sheepishly.

"Did you find the locket?"

"Sure did!" Tamara held up the item in question. "It was over there." She pointed to a distant berry bush.

"That's good to hear."

"So, Ellie…" A teasing grin came onto the electric squirrel's face. "You wanna tell me about your new boyfriend?" She gestured to Arian.

"Boyfriend?! No!" Elvira immediately rejected. "We only met this morning!"

"Just joking, Ellie. But seriously…who is he?"

"My name's Arian." The human chose to speak for his partner. "Elvira rescued me yesterday, and so I'm staying with her right now."

"You and Ellie fought really well together!" praised Tamara. "Almost like you were a real mercenary team!"

"...Mercenary team?" Elvira sounded nervous as she repeated the words.

"I don't know if we were that good," Arian voiced. "I only came as backup for Elvira, nothing more."

"But you still fought well together! And Ellie…you always said you wanted to be a merc at the Guild when we were kids," the Pachirisu went on. "Now you've got an ideal partner!"

"And Tam…you know I can't be a mercenary anymore," Elvira refuted. "The Guild's a thing of the past, and Mitrofan's intent on keeping it that way. There's no registry anymore, and the closest alternative is joining the knights. And I refuse to go down that path."

"...Hmm…" Arian pondered about this. "...Can I ask a question, Elvira?"

"What is it, Arian?"

"...Do you have to join a guild to be a mercenary? It doesn't have to be that way, does it? Like…is it possible to be a freelance mercenary, maybe?"

"Well…possibly." Elvira considered Arian's question. "It was never viewed as optimal, though, given all the connections you would have if you were a Guild member. And also…being a freelance mercenary's still not a good idea. If you were to go around claiming that in Selenia, the knights under Mitrofan would no doubt clamp down on you."

"...Well, let's not do that. We could do mercenary things and not say we're mercenaries," Arian argued. "That's a solution, isn't it?"

"Mmm…" Elvira still didn't sound sure. Then she recalled what he'd just said, and one detail stuck out to her. "Hold on a minute…'We?'"

"...Yes, us," Arian revealed. "I was thinking…is this the kind of work mercenaries do?"

"...One of the things, yes. There's also finding lost items, cornering outlaws, escorting clients, finding materials…among others," Elvira listed.

"Hmm…if that's the kind of work mercenaries do…then I'm interested," the Riolu said. "It's a way I could be useful in this world, rather than lazing around at your house doing nothing."

"Y-You don't have to look at it that way, Arian," Elvira assured him. "You're welcome to stay at my house for as long as you want."

"I know. But I want to be useful too, y'know? I don't want to be a burden," Arian expressed.

"...I suppose. But what do you mean by 'we'?" Elvira asked, backtracking to an earlier point.

"Isn't it obvious? You and I, on a mercenary team together." Arian gestured between them.

"...Wh-What?!" The Treecko had a feeling that would be what he would say, but she was still shocked all the same. "M-Me?!"

"Yes. You always wanted to be a mercenary growing up, like your mom and Tamara said," Arian reasoned. "But Zenobia's saying you've been having problems with self-esteem. About fearing high expectations of you because your dad was so famous. Being scared that you won't live up to what people expect of you."

"...H-How much did Mom tell you…?" Elvira mumbled in shock. The Riolu had hit most of her fears square on the head.

"If you're frightened of those things…if you're held back by your fears…then I'll have your back," Arian promised. "I'll be there to shoulder those burdens. I won't let anyone say anything bad about you, Elvira. …What do you say?"

Elvira didn't say anything right away. She was still stunned by Arian's offer, but was considering it. I've always wanted to help people like Dad, she thought to herself. And without the Irian Guild, and Mitrofan causing more problems…there are more people than ever in need. They could really use the help of mercenaries…like what Arian's proposing to me. I never pictured this would be how I became one, but…

Even so…is that really what I want now? In this Selenia? There's a real possibility we could be caught, and that would not end well for us. Arian's still naive to how serious the situation is in our country. If we gain a following, in the fashion of Irian Guild mercenaries…then it could very well be our undoing. We've also only done one fight together. That's not enough to say we're a dream team.


"Your offer's convincing, Arian. But…I need time to think it over, and to get an opinion from Mom," she decided to say. "There's a lot to consider."

"Oh…" Arian murmured disappointedly.

"I appreciate the offer, though," Elvira added. "Thanks for looking out for me, if nothing else."

"...You're welcome." The human looked to her, and then to Tamara. "Um, we found Tamara. Will we go?"

"No, not yet." Elvira remembered something else. "You remember how I said we'd prepare a berry stew tonight?" She gestured to the wealth of berry bushes in the grove. "No better time to pick some for it. Maybe replenish our stocks too. Tam, do you have a bag on you?"

"I do, actually." The Pachirisu produced a bag. "It was to collect goodies with. But you can have it, Ellie."

"Thanks." Elvira took the bag from her. "Oh, Arian? There's a pond in the grove. You can use it to wash off the silk on your legs."

"Oh?" Tamara looked and noticed the residue on Arian's legs. "Did a Wurmple use String Shot on you?"

"Yes." The Riolu was embarrassed to admit it. Without a word, he went off to find the pond in question.

"...Well. That happened," Tamara remarked. "He's interesting. I like him."

"...So do I," Elvira admitted. "He's grown on me. Even if I've only known him since this morning."

"How'd you two meet?"

"Well…" The Treecko considered her answer. "I know this might sounded hard to believe, but…" And so she relayed the events of yesterday and that morning to Tamara, even the more unbelievable parts, while they went around picking berries off the grove's bushes. By the end, the Pachirisu was in disbelief.

"What? Arian's…a human?"

"Yes, Tam. That's what I said."

"But that can't be! Humans don't exist! They're mythical!" Tamara replied. "And yet, Arian says he's one?"

"He didn't look like he was lying, Tam. And I doubt he's lying about his amnesia either. He doesn't look to be the lying sort."

"And he has amnesia too?" The squirrel looked sceptical. "It's oddly coincidental. I bet Flora'll pick him apart when we get back to your house."

"She will, knowing her," Elvira replied.

"Who knows? He might have a dark, secret past that you'll have to find out," Tamara joked. "He better not be faking, though. If he is lying to you, then promise to leave him immediately, alright?"

"...I'll keep that in mind." Elvira didn't think that would happen. Still…not impossible.

"I hope he isn't. Because he's a guy. That might be something to think about. Right, Ellie?" Tamara winked at her friend.

"...Oh." Elvira realised what she was getting at. "I'm not looking for him to become my boyfriend, Tam. If we do become a team, love won't have anything to do with it."

"Lame." Tamara pouted. "You're not gonna even try with him? You've been thrown a bone, Ellie! Take it before other girls snap him up!"

"I know you love romance, Tam. But not all merc teams form out of love. And this one will not, if I say yes." Elvira was about to say more, but then she saw Arian come up to them. "Did you wash the silk off?" she asked.

"As much as I could." Arian looked at his legs. "That's as good as it'll get, I think."

"We'll leave, then. This bag's just about full," Elvira informed, showing a fairly bulging bag of picked berries. "There'll definitely be enough for a stew, and more to stockpile for the next few days."

"Yeah, it's good to stock up," Tamara recommended. "Good to get these things and not have to go through the merchants."

"Oh yes…They can be a pain," Elvira replied.

"There was one we found six years ago that was mean as anything," the Pachirisu went on. "He was selling his stuff at rip-off prices. Then my dad - you know how he is - got into this massive argument with him, and before you know it…"

The conversation went on as they made their way out of Verdant Woods. Arian looked over at Elvira, listening intently to her friend's anecdote. He thought back to what she said earlier, about needing further thought on the idea of forming a partnership with him.

I hope she says yes. She's not weak. She can become a mercenary, fulfilling her dream, and I can find a path forward in this world. If we bond together as a team…we might be able to make a difference.

I will shoulder your burdens, Elvira. Please, overcome those fears….






Notes

The term 'mercenary' is essentially this story's version of 'rescue team' and 'explorer' used in previous Mystery Dungeon games. I plan to expand on the lore of the term later on in the story.

Vivian's name was an idea that came to me about a male character whose feminine-sounding and supposedly unisex name would derive mockery from others. I chose Vivian as I feel it's a unisex name that we mainly associate with women these days. Meredith was also a name that came to mind for this, but I ultimately chose Vivian in the end.

I originally wrote this chapter to be longer than this. But it was too long, so I decided to split it into two chapters; this being the first half. The other half will be next chapter.

That's all for now. See you for that other half.

Updates (16/12/22): This is among my string of early chapter updates. Among this chapter's edits were removal of a conversation about evolution's cessation, given that plot point's been thrown in the bin. Also removal of not very subtle nods towards Arian and Elvira's partnership, which is expanded upon in the next chapter. Beyond that, cutting out and restructuring redundant dialogue into something better.

I added something else: the mention of Arian not running short on energy refers to Riolu's Pokédex entries mentioning it to be a Pokémon with high stamina.
 
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Chapter 4

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 4
The Comfort of Home

"...And so that's what Electric-types are all about! Fast, fleet-footed, quick - just like lightning itself!" Tamara proudly finished, an eager grin on her face.

"...Okay, I see...So that's what Electric-types are mostly like. ...Remind me: how many types did you say there were again?" Arian asked.

"About eighteen. ...Well, eighteen discovered types at the least. We have a list of them back at home for you to remember," Elvira told him.

"I'll check it out later," Arian promised.

The journey out of the Mystery Dungeon had been one of information to the resident amnesiac. As they were leaving the grove, Arian feared having to go through the Mystery Dungeon again, but Elvira informed him that once at the grove, one could simply walk out of the woods as if the dungeon did not exist. However, to get back to the grove, one had to traverse through the Mystery Dungeon again. Luckily, they were all finished with the Dungeon, anyway.

As they got back to the main road, Arian inquired about types to Elvira. Tamara, who was aware of his amnesia, was all too happy to help explain the classifications of Pokémon to him. After some explanation, the Riolu felt he had a better grasp of the topic.

As that conversation closed, the three exited the woods, and made their way back to the road. Mostly, Elvira and Tamara talked amongst themselves, leaving Arian to observe his surroundings. The green fields, the plethora of trees, the bright blue sea - all of it, he gazed at with wonderment. The view was enhanced greatly by the sun beginning to set, casting the scenery in an alluring orange glow.

This is beautiful, he thought to himself. Nice, rustic, unspoilt...Selenia's a nice country, alright.

"Whatcha thinking about, Arian?" Tamara asked, snapping the Riolu out of his senses.

"Oh! Um...just taking in all of this scenery," Arian answered. "It's beautiful here…"

"...You think? Here's a bit par for the course, really," the Pachirisu remarked. "I mean, it is beautiful, but...there's better. This isn't really anything to write home about in my book. ...Maybe it's because I've lived in it all my life. If I was from a desert land like Alba, I'd probably call this bewitching."

"If this is stunning to you, Arian," Elvira said to him. "You'll probably gawp at most of what Ardalion has to offer. At least from what Dad told me growing up. There's a lot I haven't seen, either…"

"All the more reason for you to become a mercenary duo with Arian, Ellie!" Tamara encouraged. "You'll see lots of places!"

"Like I said, Tam: I need time to think it over at home." Elvira looked down the road. "Not far now."

It wasn't long before the trio found themselves at the small path leading to Elvira's house. They went up the path, and as they approached the house, they saw Flora and Zenobia outside, sitting on the grass and taking in the sunset. Their expressions brightened upon seeing the three of them.

"There you are!" Flora exclaimed. "I was really beginning to get worried...What took you so long?"

"Sorry about that," apologised Elvira. "We had to scour every floor of the place to look for Tamara, and it turned out she was in the grove at the end. That's why we took a while. Plus, there were also some ruffians from the Thorned Roses there, and we had a bit of a skirmish with them."

"Oh dear! Are you hurt, Elvira? Arian?" Zenobia fretted.

"A few cuts and bruises," admitted Arian. "But nothing a few oran berries can't patch up. We're fine, really."

"I also got more berries for us," Elvira said, holding up the sack she had been carrying. "I'll make a berry stew tonight with some of them, and the rest of them we can stockpile."

"Good thinking. It is nearing dinnertime," Zenobia said.

"I'll just put this bag inside. It's, er, quite heavy." Without waiting for a response, Elvira went inside.

"And she's off," Tamara said. "Always keeping herself busy...Does she rest? Is that why she hasn't come out to visit us in a while?"

"Pretty much," Flora answered. "She's been looking after her mom since she broke her leg."

"She worries a lot, and I fear it may not be healthy for her," Zenobia replied. "I'm not incapable of doing things with a broken leg. But she insists on doing everything herself. I don't blame her want to be independent, but…not if it's detrimental to her."

"She could have someone help her around the house, at least," Arian proposed.

"Yeah, like you, Arian," Tamara replied. "Oh, by the way, you two." Flora and Zenobia turned her way. "Arian and Ellie are gonna - "

"Wait, Tamara! Let's not reveal it here!" the Riolu protested. "How about…over dinner, maybe?"

"Oh! Right, sorry," the Pachirisu apologised.

"...You and Elvira are doing something together?" Flora asked. "Hmm…" She sounded sceptical.

"Flora? What's wrong?" Tamara asked.

"A bunch of things, Tam! Like the human part. Explain that." The Petilil turned that on Arian. "What's that all about?"

""Wait, what? H-How do you know that?" the Riolu said, taken aback.

"I told her while you were gone," Zenobia confessed. "She was brimming with curiosity as to just who you were, Arian."

"I was. ...And...not gonna lie, some of the stuff you said sounds a bit ridiculous," Flora admitted. "Like, being a human once? Washing up on the shore just here? Losing your memories? I mean, no offence, but it doesn't exactly sound like the most believable story."

"...It's the truth," Arian replied, sighing inwardly in acceptance that his tale did sound a tad far-fetched. "I promise I'm not lying to you. Please...it's the absolute truth," he pleaded.

His eyes begged her to believe. But Flora still wore a sceptical look on her face, not entirely sure whether to trust the amnesiac or not.

"...Come on, Flora. Why not trust him?" Tamara encouraged. "He helped Ellie all the way through the Mystery Dungeon to help save me, and fought alongside her really well against those thugs. Yeah, his story's a bit patchy. But so what? What if it is real? If it is, then we shouldn't push Arian away."

"Quite right," Zenobia agreed. "Consider his position. He doesn't have anywhere else to go, nor does he have any other contacts because of his amnesia. .Someone like that needs help, Flora. Would you really leave someone in need like that by the wayside?"

"...I...N-No, I wouldn't," agreed the Petilil. "And you did save Tamara and help Elvira, Arian. I guess…I can trust you." She still sounded unsure, though. Arian felt disappointed he couldn't fully get through to her.

However, his thoughts on this were interrupted when Elvira opened the front door.

"Arian," she requested. "How about you help me make dinner?"

"Oh, uh, sure," Arian obliged. "I'd be glad to help." He got up and followed the Treecko inside.

"...They are good partners," Tamara observed. "They'll definitely make a great tea…" She cut herself off in realisation of what she was about to say.

"Make a great…what? Team?" Flora guessed.

"Er, yeah. But that's not important!" the Pachirisu quickly replied. "You heard Arian. Wait till dinner before they reveal it."

"The two of them together?" Zenobia sounded interested. "I'd like to hear it myself. Just what could it be?"





"...I think I'm noticing a pattern with your tastes in berries, Arian," Elvira said to Arian, as the two were preparing the berry stew. As they were doing so, the Treecko decided to cut a small portion off each variety of berry for her soon-to-be mercenary partner to sample. Of the six varieties she had chosen, Arian took quite a liking to the cheri, pecha and oran berries, found the chesto and rawst berries alright, and took a dislike to the aspear berries.

"Do you?" Arian queried.

"Yes. It might only be a hunch, but I think you tend to like the spicy and sweet berries and dislike the sour and bitter ones," Elvira surmised. "So you like spicy and sweet flavours...That's one more thing to write up about you."

"...I see. Well, that's good and all, but...let's not get distracted from making the stew." Arian's attention turned back to the pot, where their stew was bubbling nicely. "It wouldn't be good if it burned."

"No, indeed. In fact…" Elvira looked into the pot. "That's pretty much ready. I'll just taste some to be sure." She took a nearby spoon, and brought the hot mixture to her lips. "...Mmm...it's nice. And definitely ready to eat. You go call the others, while I serve up here."

"Will do," Arian obliged, and left the kitchen to inform the other three of dinner being ready.

Once he'd left, Elvira couldn't help but let her mind wander. Do we make a good team? she thought to herself. Arian's dependable, and listens well. That's what you need in a partner. Hmm… She considered this in the debate in her mind about whether to accept the Riolu's offer, as she laid out five bowls of berry stew on the table..

"...Oh, this smells great!" Tamara chirped, as she came into the kitchen behind Arian, and in front of Flora and Zenobia.

"Indeed, it does," Zenobia agreed. "Elvira's cooking has been rather delicious over the past few weeks. I doubt this will be any different." She took her place at the table, along with the other four Pokémon in the room.

Immediately, Tamara picked up her spoon and took in a mouthful of stew.

"Mmm mmm mmm," she murmured. "This is tasty! Nice job, Ellie! And Arian, too," she added, making sure not to leave out the Riolu.

"It's nothing special," Elvira downplayed. "It's just a regular berry stew with what I picked in the grove in Verdant Woods."

"It's still delicious," Zenobia replied, after trying a mouthful herself. "I meant what I said yesterday, Elvira; you have good cooking skills. It's a good skill to have in life. And you've really honed that craft over the past few years. Even if you have worried yourself too much about me, to the point of doing all the housework yourself."

"It's fine, Mom. I can handle it," defended Elvira.

"But even so…you could use a helping hand. Like Arian. Or…perhaps one of your friends?" the Heliolisk suggested.

"I'd be up for it," Tamara said. "Especially, because…you know." She gestured to Arian and Elvira. "Come on, you two! Now's the time to reveal it!"

"Now this, I'm curious about. What exactly are you two planning?" Zenobia asked curiously.

"Well…" Elvira paused, considering her words. "...After rescuing Tamara from Verdant Woods, Arian proposed something to me. He wants to form a partnership with me, helping people in need, finding lost items, gathering materials…that sort of thing. Essentially, being mercenaries in all but name."

"Mercenaries?" That caught Zenobia's attention.

"Yes, Mom. And I'm torn over it. On the one hand, I want to help people, especially now that there's more people than ever that need help. And I'd be doing what Dad always wanted me to do, only without the Guild part. But on the other hand…there's a very real possibility we could be found out. As well as that…" She looked over at Arian. "...You're a good person, Arian. But we haven't done enough together as a duo to say we necessarily have good chemistry."

"...I see what you mean." The human couldn't hide the hint of disappointment in his voice. "You don't have to accept it if you don't want to. It's perfectly alright if you say no."

"I want another opinion." Elvira turned back to her mother. "What do you think of it, Mom?"

"Hmmm…" Zenobia considered what she'd been told. "This is most interesting. Mercenaries in all but name? …That could work. I do understand why you're worried, of course, Elvira. But…I think you should accept Arian's offer. To become what you want to be, and to have a partner of your own. Sometimes that's the most difficult part of starting a team. Not every team could be like your father and Melchior."

"Melchior?" That was a new name to Arian.

"Melchior was the partner of Kallias. The two of them worked together on missions, and were among the greatest of companions," Zenobia explained.

"They were amazing," Elvira continued, the shine in her eyes returning. "My dad and Melchior were two of the greatest mercenaries that Ardalion has ever seen. There are probably very few people who don't know who they are. They're that famous. They're also one of the only mercenary teams that have ever reached Grandmaster Rank, which is the greatest achievement a mercenary can ever hope to have. We still have the honours in the cellar, don't we, Mom?"

"We do. Your father was a humble man, but there were times he was willing to make an exception for an extravagant occasion," Zenobia replied. "Achieving Grandmaster Rank was one of those times. Few things rivalled the pride in his eyes when he received it. To think it's been seven years already…time does fly."

"Grandmaster Rank? What's that?" Arian wondered. "Sounds extra special."

"It is. Mercenaries operated by rank, starting with Normal Rank and ending with Master Rank. But only a few have ever achieved Grandmaster Rank. You'd have to do something super exceptional to have even half a chance at achieving it," Elvira answered.

"I see. …But that ranking system wouldn't really apply to us, though, would it? Because we'd be unofficial."

"...I suppose. But if I accepted, I wouldn't want fame and glory. If we did that, Mitrofan and his lackeys would be onto us pretty quick. Besides, helping people comes first."

"That's fine. I can live with that. …So, will you do it?" Arian asked.

"I think you should, Elvira. It would be good for you," Zenobia encouraged. "You were always ambitious growing up. I'd hate to see those dreams become unrealised. At least this way, you can still go some way towards being a mercenary. It's the spirit of the job that matters, not the title itself."

"It's not like you'll have a shortage of people to help," Flora brought up. "There's a lot of people in town that could use a helping hand or two."

"Plus…it would do wonders for your self-esteem," the Heliolisk went on. "It would help you be more confident, and you would become stronger from traversing through Mystery Dungeons, mercenary-style. Who knows? Maybe taking this on would finally allow you to evolve. I know you've been feeling down about yourself lately. But hearing praise and thanks from others would give you the boost of confidence you need for yourself."

"Yeah, come on, Ellie!" Tamara said. "You don't smile as much these days. And you were always happy as a kid, talking about your dad and how you really wanted to be come this super famous merc. Now's the time! Arian's thrown you a bone! Take it!"

"I…" Elvira still felt unsure about whether to make this leap. There was still a lot that could go wrong if she went down this path. And certainly, even debating this in her mind, those fears spoke to her loud and clear.

But hearing the encouraging words from her mother and her friends put a new perspective on it, reminding her of her childhood ambitions. She always remembered the confident look of her father, proudly regaling stories of his exploits as a mercenary to her whenever he came home. He was a happy man, Dad. Maybe…I could be happy too, if I accepted Arian's offer.

He said he'd look out for me.
She looked over at her prospective partner. I'm still unsure. Still afraid of all that's out there. But partners look out for each other. And maybe that's what I've needed all this time: someone to shoulder my burdens and listen to my troubles, who isn't just Mom.

I've needed someone else. On my own, I've just...remained paralysed by my anxiety and fear of the unknown. ...A mercenary's meant to be fearless and laugh in the face of danger, but...I...I could barely get over these simple fears of mine…

But no more.
A determined look crossed her face. I can't let this opportunity slip me by. Too many times in the past have I baulked and held myself back over my fears. But I won't let them anchor me any more. She took a deep breath, and announced her decision.

"I accept your offer, Arian."

"Oh, that's great!" the Riolu cheered. "I knew you'd say yes in the end. Your mom said that all you needed was just a push in the right direction. I had a feeling this might've been it."

"Thanks for it. Maybe that was all I needed. And thanks to you all too," Elvira said to the other three. "I'm glad to hear your feedback."

"No thanks necessary. We're glad to help," Zenobia replied. "It's only natural for a mother to want the best for her child."

"And the same for friends too!" Tamara chirped. "We want you to be happy as well, Elvira."

"And we have problems in town that need solving," Flora added. "With that brute Hinnerk and the Thorned Roses ruling the roost in Ozerograd, things haven't been easy for us in town. We could use some help in knocking them down a peg or two."

"There's that name again," Arian pointed out. "The Thorned Roses...who are they? I remember you said those two rogues we fought were a part of them, Elvira."

"I did say that," Elvira recalled. "...The Thorned Roses are the name of a gang. When Mitrofan rose to power in Selenia, it didn't take long for him to establish his control across the country. An ally of his, Hinnerk, took over Ozerograd - that's the town nearest to us, and quite a major town in Selenia - and now rules the area with an iron fist. He created this gang known as the Thorned Roses, who effectively help him to keep his power in check."

"They're a bunch of bullies, that's what!" Tamara voiced angrily. "They charge us sky-high rents in the town, far greater than the previous lord used to charge. But worse than that, there are regular cases of intimidation from them to us as we go about our daily business. You know what I mean, right, Flora?"

"...One of them checked me out one day," Flora said, her lip curled in revulsion. "Disgusting. You couldn't pay me to go out with one of them."

"I've heard more sinister things as well," Zenobia brought up. "Some people have mysteriously vanished from the public eye after confronting the Thorned Roses. In town, and in the surrounding countryside as well."

"That's right." Tamara's face grew serious. "Dad even knew a few of them. Some of them couldn't pay their rent. Other ones crossed Hinnerk personally. They just disappear, like they were never there to begin with."

"Wait, what? I was thinking they were just some gang," Arian replied, not expecting this part from Tamara. "You mean they abduct people? Do you think they…murder them?"

"...They might well do," murmured Elvira. She looked discouraged.

"Oh dear…I didn't realise," the Riolu mumbled glumly. "But…that doesn't mean we shouldn't help the townsfolk. Like Tamara said, they would appreciate any kind of help right now."

"Agreed. They come first. I hate to say it, but kicking the Thorned Roses out of town is a distant dream at the moment," Elvira admitted, downcast. "I want them gone too, but we must know our limits in what we can accomplish. We're only beginners in this, after all."

"Right." Arian looked down in disappointment.

"...Hey, come on, you two," Tamara encouraged, seeing their downcast expressions. "Don't get down in the dumps. Us townsfolk are stronger than you think. We've tolerated them for a good five years now. We can resist those brutes for a good while longer. Someday, their end will come. Don't allow them to stomp on your dreams."

"You're right, Tam," Elvira replied. "We can't let fear keep us down. That's what they'd want."

"Maybe we can get to the bottom of that mystery," Arian suggested, mind still on the mysterious vanishing of people. "If we work together, we might be able to see just what's happening underneath the surface."

"Agreed. That can't go on. We need to put a stop to them." Elvira turned to Arian, and held out her hand. "Together?"

"Together."

They shook. The handshake was a strong, confident one; and for Elvira, it brought on a great sense of relief and satisfaction. After years of hesitancy, she was ready to move on and make the first step her dad always wanted her to make.

"...Are we all finished?" Elvira suddenly asked, changing the subject back to dinner. Looking around at the table, everyone's bowl had been just about licked clean, and the pot was similarly running on empty. "Okay. I'll clean up here."

"Let me help," Arian volunteered. "You said we mightn't have enough teamwork chemistry. Let's get around to fixing that."

"...You have a point. Thanks, Arian." With that, Elvira went to the washing basin, followed by her new partner.

As they were washing the plates, Arian looked out the window.

"It's getting pretty dark out there," he noted, and indeed it was; the evening sun had mostly set, and it was now twilight. Night was soon to follow.

"Oh, it is," Elvira noted, looking out herself. "...Travelling at night's perilous. You two shouldn't go back to town tonight. Especially given what we just talked about. Stay with us instead."

"Sure!" Tamara accepted. "It's been ages since we last had a sleepover. Let's talk about girl things in your room when we're done, Ellie!"

"...I'd be up for that." A small smile crossed the Treecko's face.

"There's extra bedrolls in the guest room," Zenobia mentioned. "Arian, could you get them when you're done?"

"Sure thing," Arian said, as he finished cleaning a bowl. "I'll do it now, actually. We're pretty much done." With that, he marched off to the guest room.

"We'll wait for you, Ellie," Tamara said, before she and Flora went down to Elvira's room, leaving the Treecko and her mother alone.

""...Hey, Mom?" Elvira said.

"Yes, dear?"

"...I never thought about it until now, but...I'm very lucky." She scooched closer to her mother. "I'm lucky to be surrounded by so many helpful people. Flora, Tamara, Arian, you...you've all helped me so much today. I really don't deserve all this…"

"Hush, Elvira." Zenobia pulled her only child into a hug. "Don't think thoughts like that. Just promise me one thing. Promise me that when you become a mercenary, you never forget the kindness that can be mustered by people out of reciprocity. If you are kind to others, they will return that kindness. Your father knew this all too well."

"...Okay, Mom. I'll remember that," Elvira promised. She remained in her mother's embrace until Flora and Tamara had finished cleaning and turned to see the mother and daughter hugging one another.

"D'aww," Arian remarked. "That's cute. You two are really close, aren't you?"

"We are. And I wouldn't want it any other way," Zenobia replied. "What mother wouldn't love her daughter? Any that would treat their children cruelly have no heart."

Arian couldn't help but notice her tone to be a tad peculiar, as if she spoke from experience. He wanted to inquire, but thought better of it.

"I love you, Mom," Elvira hugged her mother tighter.

"And I love you too, Elvira." Zenobia leaned down to give her daughter a kiss. "Now then. I wouldn't keep your girls' night with Flora and Tamara waiting. I would also like to speak with Arian."

"Okay. Night, Mom!" The Treecko left the kitchen.

"Night, Elvira," Arian said to her as she left. He then turned to Zenobia. "...So, uh. What did you want to speak to me about?"

"You are to be Elvira's partner from tomorrow," the Heliolisk began. "As her mother, I want you to look after her for me. I want to be a good partner for her, to listen to her woes, to be by her side, and never to abandon her. I know my daughter well - she is of a sound mind and knows the difference between right and wrong. But she can be overly stoic, and keep silent about issues that eat away at her. ...I still remember when her father disappeared. She barely spoke a word to me in the weeks that followed, and even once her initial sadness faded, she still mostly kept her problems to herself.

"The biggest problem for her was what she's been telling you; she was conflicted about following in her father's footsteps. But she kept those issues to herself for the first few years, and it took her some time before she spoke to me in length about her inner turmoil. ...That attitude of bottling things up inside...It isn't healthy, and I fear it may carry on into her life as a mercenary."

"I see. Well, don't worry. I'll try and get her to open up more," Arian promised. "Communication's a good thing for a team to have, right? I'll work on that."

"And the same with you too, Arian," Zenobia went on. "Don't hide your own emotions from Elvira. Confide in her as you want her to confide in you. With time, hopefully Elvira will become more open and willing to share secrets with you."

"You don't have to worry, Zenobia," the Riolu said. "I'll look after Elvira for you."

""Thank you, Arian." Zenobia bent down slightly, and as best she could, pulled the amnesiac into a hug. "...I always wanted Elvira to have another companion. A sibling, to be specific. It's a shame Kallias and I could never manage another beyond her. And with him gone, Elvira's the only proper family I have left. If something happened to her, I…I don't know what I would do..."

"Don't worry. I'll keep Elvira safe. I promise," he pledged, a determined look on his face.

"...You are too kind. Elvira was truly lucky to find someone like you on that beach." Zenobia, after saying this, released her grip on the embrace with Arian. "Well, Arian, what will you do now this evening?"

"...I might go to bed," Arian replied. "Today was a long day, and I learned a lot of new things." A yawn escaped him after saying this. "Yeah...definitely a long day…"

"That's fine. I'll be reading in the sitting room if you need me," Zenobia informed. "Call if you need anything." She then headed out of the room with her crutches aiding her all the way.

Arian headed to the guest room, where he had woken up that morning. He got into the bed, and pulled the covers over him. He was tired and ready to go to sleep, but at the same time, his mind was on tomorrow.

There's a lot of bad stuff out there, by the sounds of it. These Thorned Roses and their disappearing acts, and beyond that, Mitrofan and his knights. Probably more beyond that. But…whatever struggles come to Elvira and I...we'll confront them together.

Together...as a team.


Soon, the amnesiac human was fast asleep.

Little was he aware...of the events that were to precipitate in his life in this world, beginning from tomorrow.





Notes

I originally wrote this as part of Chapter 3. But owing to its prodigious length as a result, I decided to cut it in two. And here's the second half.

Update (16/12/22): Early chapter updates. Removal of dialogue I felt was long winded, irrelevant, redundant and/or obvious and said already, and better execution of dialogue this time. Also made the Thorned Roses more sinister this time around. This, specifically, is the chapter where Elvira and Arian decide to become a team. Before, it was last chapter and that made this chapter feel mostly like filler.

That's all for now. Thanks for reading.
 
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Chapter 5

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 5
Starting Out

The next morning…

So...that's really me now.

Arian stared into the mirror located in the guest room in Elvira and Zenobia's house in contemplation.

It was not long after he woke up. But he didn't get out of bed immediately; rather, he lay under the covers for some minutes, wondering if all he had experienced yesterday was all but a dream. It did surely seem like something out of a fairy tale. Transforming into a blue-furred dog-like creature that could sense the emotions of others? Meeting magical, inhuman creatures that could talk? Being capable of techniques like turning his claws metallic and unleashing a palm attack that could paralyse his enemies? And now planning to become a mercenary of all things? It all sounded right out of the pages of a fantasy novel.

And yet he woke up in that same room again that he'd woken up in yesterday. And when he pulled back the covers...he saw that he was indeed still a Riolu.

Seeing this, he came to a conclusion.

This is no dream.

He got up after this, and looking out of the window of the guest room, he could see that daybreak hadn't been long ago. It sounded quiet in the house, and therefore Arian presumed that the other four who slept in the house last night were not yet awake.

That meant the amnesiac human had time to kill.

He considered reading a book from the bookshelf in the room, or from the much more abundant bookshelf in the sitting room. But one look at the vanity table located in the guest room made up his mind for him. Specifically, it was the mirror he wished to look at.

And so Arian walked over to the vanity table. He stood on the stool in front of it, which gave him enough height to gaze into the mirror.

A blue-and-black furred canine stared back at him.

He blinked. It blinked. He moved his right arm. It moved its left arm. He held his left paw up. It held its right paw up.

It was absurd. It was bizarre, to look into the mirror and not see a human. To not see himself. Whatever I looked like before this.

"Ah, Arian. There you are."

"Hm?" Arian looked over his shoulder. "Oh, morning, Zenobia."

"And a good morning to you too, Arian," the Heliolisk returned, crutches by her sides. "You're up early."

"I just woke up myself," Arian told her. "I haven't been awake for too long."

"Nor have I. …What are you doing?" she asked.

"Oh, I'm just…" The human looked back at the mirror. "...Still getting used to this new image of mine."

"You poor thing," Zenobia expressed sympathetically. "Being taken from your loved ones into a land where no one knows you, and to be inflicted with amnesia on top of it all...I can't be sorry enough for your situation, Arian."

"It's alright, Zenobia," Arian assured. "In fact...call me weird if you wish, but I don't really feel sad over losing my memories. Not any more, at least."

"You don't?"

"...I mean, I was a bit upset and panicked at first, but...now I'm not that torn over it. At the very least, I have a new name, and I'm going to have a job to do from today. So...my situation could definitely be worse. I'll hopefully have a firm place in this world before long."

"...I see. ...But do you not want to find out who you once were?" Zenobia wondered. "If I had amnesia, I'd think I would do anything to find that out."

"...I suppose I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious," the Riolu admitted. "Looking in the mirror now...I do wonder. What did I look like before I transformed into a Riolu? I'm racking my brains, but...I don't remember anything. ...Come to think of it, I'm not even sure I remember what a human looks like."

"You don't even remember that? ...Oh dear…" murmured Zenobia worriedly.

"I wonder, though…" Arian pondered. "...Does it really matter?"

"...What do you mean, Arian?"

"My memories...Does it matter whether I regain them or not?" the amnesiac mentioned. "Elvira said there aren't any humans in Ardalion. So by that logic, I must not have come from Ardalion in the first place. Somewhere else...a different land...maybe even a different world," he mused.

"A different world. ...Surely not, Arian. You might be overthinking this."

"...Maybe I am. But...what I want to say is that...whether I like it or not, here I am, ready to establish a new life in this world. I...could have been dealt a much worse hand. But I have some degree of power in my moves, and I have a good friend in Elvira. It's a good place to start."

"...I suppose you have a point. Though, it's strange. Your story, it almost sounds like…" Zenobia drifted off.

"Like what?"

"...Forgive me. It's probably just a coincidence," Zenobia shut down. "But I'm surprised you're so willing to embrace your new body just like that."

"...Maybe I'm silly. Maybe it's just bluster," Arian replied. "But I want to go with the flow, you know? If this is where my life is headed, into this strange world…" Arian grinned while punching his fists together. "Then bring it on."

"That is a positive way of looking at it," observed the Heliolisk. "...It's almost enviable. Some could learn a lot from you."

"Thanks, Zenobia. …I do hope I'm not being overconfident here," he said. I don't really know much about this world beyond Verdant Woods. Of course, I will know in the days ahead. But for now, it's kind of just me hoping things will work out for the best. I'm still trying to adjust to this." He pointed at the mirror. "It's still weird to think that's me."

"It must be unusual. Then again…it might be similar to evolution, where one has to get used to a new body again," Zenobia said. "How are you about walking? You seemed fine yesterday evening,."

"I'm fine for the most part," the Riolu answered. "I still have some slight difficulty, but I've mostly got the gist of it. I don't have to use Elvira as a crutch, at least," he said, recalling when he first got up yesterday.

The mention of the Treecko suddenly reminded him of her. "Speaking of Elvira, is she up yet?" he asked Zenobia.

"Not yet, I don't think," the Heliolisk replied.

"It's just…I'm feeling peckish. It is breakfast time, after all." Arian hopped down from the stool. "Hmm…maybe I could give making porridge a go."

"That would be nice of you. Shall we head to the kitchen?"

And so the two headed to the kitchen, Zenobia's crutches clicking all the way there. When they arrived, the fire was lit, and Arian prepared the porridge. Zenobia, meanwhile, prepared some berry juice and honey, which Arian mixed into the porridge.

A few minutes later, it was ready and served up. Arian sampled some of it.

""Mmm...delicious," Arian remarked, upon sampling the porridge. "I like the flavour of the juices and honey. It makes it quite sweet."

"I don't normally go for sweet options, but I felt like doing things differently this morning," Zenobia replied. I felt like treating Elvira, as a reward for finally getting over her fears. And it's also a treat to you, for helping her overcome those hurdles."

"...Thank you, Zenobia," Arian said in response, as he returned to eating his porridge.

It was nice enough that the Riolu chose to take seconds, gladly allowed by Zenobia. During the eating of his second serving, Elvira came into the room, followed by Flora and Tamara.

"Ah...the sleeping beauties arise at last," Zenobia remarked. "Good morning, Elvira. Good morning, Flora and Tamara."

"Morning, Mom. Morning, Arian," Elvira returned. "Sorry we're up so late."

"Late? We're perfectly early…" mumbled Tamara, before letting out a yawn. "It's way before my wake up time…"

"That's your loss," Flora replied critically. "Besides, it was you keeping the conversation going most of the night. You only have yourself to blame for being tired. And now your sleeping in means that we're late to breakfast. ...There's still some left, right?"

"Of course there is," Zenobia informed.

"Great." The three girls then took their places at the table. Each took a bowl of porridge and tasted it. After this, all of their faces lit up.

"This...is really good," commented Flora. "Who made this?"

"I did," Arian said. "With a little help from Zenobia."

"It's really nice! I love how sweet it is!" Tamara praised.

"Mmm. I had a feeling it was you," Elvira said, after sampling some. "Mom's porridge tastes different. I should know; I grew up with it."

"Thanks, guys." Arian felt flattered at the praise.

"So…I've a question for Zenobia," Flora asked. "Do you need to be looked after?"

"Not all the time," the Heliolisk answered.

"Well, there you go, Elvira," the Petilil said to her friend. "You don't have to be all paranoid about your mom like you were. I mean, we haven't seen each other for weeks…"

"Yeah…sorry about that," apologised Elvira. "And sorry if I've been a bit patronising in the last few weeks, Mom."

"...Don't worry about it, Elvira. It's proof you care for me. ...At least now I know how you feel when you say I'm too overbearing," she added, with a mirthful chuckle.

"Yeah," agreed Elvira. "...But you might still need help with some things. And I won't be here all the time to help you."

"And that's where we come in!" Tamara interjected. "Flora and I'll look after your mom while you're away doing merc stuff. We could even just call into her once a day to see how she's doing, and maybe stock up on supplies if you're low on any."

"Thanks, you two. Granted, we'll be staying close to home, so all this might not be necessary. Still, I appreciate it." Elvira smiled. "You're good friends, both of you."

"Aw, thanks, Ellie!"

"...Yeah. Thanks."

Soon, the pot of porridge was empty. It was left on the countertop, with Zenobia promising she would clean it later.

"So...I presume you two will be going into town, then," the Heliolisk said, looking at Arian and Elvira.

"The four of us, actually," Elvira corrected. "Flora and Tamara will be coming with us."

"Yeah, we've gotta get home," the Pachirisu added. "It's been great staying here and all, but our parents are probably worried about us. We should get back to them."

"I understand. I won't keep you for much longer, then," Zenobia said. "But before you leave, there is something I would like you to have, Elvira. And Arian, too."

"For us? ...What is it?" Elvira asked.

"Follow me," Zenobia requested, and the Riolu and Treecko did so. The Heliolisk made her way to her room, and over to the wardrobe. She reached to the top compartment, while keeping herself steady on one crutch, and pulled out an item of fabric that made Elvira gasp slightly.

Specifically...it was a bag. A bag...not unlike what an average mercenary might have.

"Is this...for us?" Elvira asked.

"...Yes, it is," Zenobia answered. "I began knitting it for you some time back, and only finished it up recently. Even if you decided not to become a mercenary, you could at the very least use it as a carrier bag for other purposes. ...I knitted a similar bag for your father, as a gift for his hatch-day many years ago. He got a great amount of use out of it."

"Yes, I remember…" Elvira stared at the bag, slightly mesmerised by it. "Thanks so much for this gift, Mom."

"No problem. And there's something else I have to give you," Zenobia went over to the vanity table in the room, and pulled out a slip of paper. Elvira took it from her, and read what was written on it.

"A cheque?" she realised. "For...1,000 Poké?"

"Consider it a starting advance," Zenobia explained. "Your father kept savings for you, when you would embark on the path to being a mercenary. There's more in the bank - but do be aware that it hasn't been topped up since your father disappeared five years ago. So be careful how you spend it."

"Dad...really did all that for me?" Elvira said, feeling a twinge of emotion in her heart. "...Oh, bless him...He's the best father in the world. You and him are the best, Mom. You're the best parents I could have hoped for…" She opened her arms and embraced her mother.

"...Thank you, sweetie." A grateful smile was present on the Heliolisk as she hugged her daughter back. "It means the world to me that you think that...no matter how many times you say it."

"Anytime, Mom." Elvira took the bag and began to walk out of the room. "We'll get to the bottom of the Thorned Roses' shenanigans. …Come on, Arian. Let's go."

"Be safe," advised Zenobia. "The Thorned Roses will be at every corner in town. Do keep your guard up when you're looking for clues."

"I'll be careful, Mom," assured Elvira. "I'll see you later."

"...Take care."

And so, the foursome left. Zenobia watched them go from the front doorstep, and waited until they disappeared into the distance. Once they did, she let out a breath she didn't realise she was holding.

I hope I haven't made a wrong decision in encouraging her at a time like this, she mused. If the Thorned Roses find out what they're up to, she'll be in a world of hurt. My dear Kallias, if you can hear me... She looked up at the blue sky to the heavens above.

...Watch over our daughter. Please keep her safe.





Meanwhile, on the road to Ozerograd, the group of four were chatting amongst themselves.

"So what's on the cards for you when you return to town?" Elvira asked her two friends.

"...Probably just check up on Mom and Dad, and help run the shop," Flora answered. "Basically going back to what I've been doing."

"What shop is it?" Arian wondered. "...Just out of curiosity."

"...It's a florist's," the Petilil replied. "It's kinda small, though, and we don't really get many customers. ...Especially now. The Thorned Roses really have slowed what little customers we've had."

"...A shame," murmured Elvira. "...Maybe we should call in sometime, and help your business."

"...That would be appreciated. Mom and Dad would like to see you too. Do come by sometime. ...Well, when you have money, of course." Flora looked over at the cheque in Elvira's hands.

"I'll pop in between clue-hunting, don't worry," the Treecko promised. "When we get to town, we'll ask around and maybe see if anyone needs help with anything a mercenary would handle."

"There'll be something," Tamara assured. "There's always something. Regular people shouldn't have to brave Mystery Dungeons for items precious to them…" She held onto her locket as she said this. "We've enough to worry about without the Thorned Roses breathing down our necks."

"How bad are they?" Arian wondered.

"...You'll see," Elvira darkly alluded. "We're not far from town. You'll see when we get into town," Elvira told him. "Speaking of which, we're not too far away. When we climb this hill, we'll look down upon it," she indicated, pointing to a small incline in front of them.

"...How about I race you up there?" the Riolu challenged, a slight grin on his face.

"...You know what? Challenge accepted," Elvira responded. "Okay, when I say go. One...two...three...go!"

The two of them sped off, both running up the hill. The sight was watched by Flora and Tamara, the latter of whom was smiling brightly at the Riolu and Treecko.

"I'm telling you. They're gonna fall for one another some day," the Pachirisu betted. "...Hey, Flora. Let's do the same!"

"No," Flora flatly denied. "We're not in a big hurry. I'm not tiring myself out for nothing."

"...Fine. Have it your way," pouted Tamara, and walked alongside her friend up the incline. When they reached the top, they came across Arian and Elvira, both panting slightly and chatting with one another about what just transpired.

"...So you won, then," Arian panted.

"Well, Treecko are known for being light and agile," Elvira replied. "That's to be expected. But I'd say if we had a longer race, you'd probably win. I read once that Riolu are very capable in regards to fitness, and usually have tons of stamina."

"...Really?" Arian looked down at his small, yet supposedly athletic body. "...I never would have guessed this body of a Riolu would be so capable…"

"Well, you are a Fighting-type. They're typically known for their physical capabilities," elaborated Elvira. "And Riolu are no exception."

"...I see." The human then looked out at the scene from the top of the hill, and the view fixated his attention. "...Also, sorry to change the subject...but wow, that view is beautiful."

The top of the hill offered a commanding view of the landscape ahead of them. Distant drumlins with forests provided an unusual yet interesting aesthetic to the Selenian landscape. Closer to them, Arian was surprised to see a lake lower down, an irregular shape of blue upon the green fields below. And some distance from the lake lay a number of buildings, which Arian could instantly pick out to be a town of some kind.

"Is that Ozerograd?" he asked.

"Yes," came Elvira's answer. "It's only a few minutes away now. Though remember: be on your guard for the Thorned Roses. ...That reminds me, I nearly forgot. We'll have to pay a toll in order to get into town."

"Oh. Do we?" Arian's shoulders slumped.

"Yes, annoyingly." Flora's contempt was plainly visible. "Squeezing bastards...They just do it to wage their superiority over us. Oh, what I wouldn't give to tear them a new one…"

"Right, Flora, we get it," Tamara interjected, as if to prevent the Petilil from ranting further. By the familiar look in the Pachirisu's eyes, they had been through this song and dance before. "Besides, there's another way into town where you don't have to pay the toll."

"Is there?" Elvira asked.

"Yes. But it's meant to be a secret," replied Tamara, in a more hushed voice. "I know where it is. Just follow me."

The four walked along the main path for a bit longer, before entering a wooded area. It was here that Tamara beckoned the others to veer off the beaten track, and through some grassy and overgrown lands. It was the kind of terrain that looked as though it would be very muddy in wet weather. But it didn't appear as though it had rained in the last while, for there was little mud, and when any of the four stepped on fallen vegetation, it would crack dryly.

At one point during the trek, Arian caught a worried look in Elvira's eyes. Hm? What's this about? Is Elvira alright? he pondered. But if the Treecko was worried, she said nothing of it, and pressed onwards, following Tamara's lead.

Eventually, they arrived at a small clearing in the woods. Elvira looked around her, but saw only trees and vegetation.

"I don't see anything," she said.

"Obviously not," Flora replied. "It wouldn't be much of a secret if it was out in the open, would it? We have to keep it secret, so the Thorned Roses don't know we're bypassing their toll payments."

"Wait, Flora, you know about it?" Elvira queried.

"Of course I do," came the Petilil's answer. "But no more questions until we get in, please. We don't want anyone overhearing us."

"...Right," Elvira acknowledged.

Meanwhile, Tamara had gone over to beside the base of one of the trees, where an amalgamation of branches and grass lay. Arian couldn't help but think at first that something was off about it. It was as if it was somehow an unnatural formation, as if the process of nature had not created it.

His suspicions were confirmed when Tamara pushed the grass back...revealing a hidden passage underground.

"See?" she pointed out to everyone.

"Oh wow," Elvira said, blinking in surprise. "I see. Does this take us into town?"

"Yep! Now come on, get in quickly," urged Tamara.

"I'm coming," Elvira said, and moved toward the passage. She allowed her friends to enter first. She held up the entrance to allow Arian to follow, but he denied it.

"Ladies first," he said. "You go ahead of me. I'll close it behind us."

"Thank you, Arian," Elvira replied, before entering the passage. The Riolu checked one last time to make sure they weren't being followed, before closing the entrance behind him, making sure none of the outside could be seen from inside. Doing so did rob what little light the passage had, though. This wasn't a problem for Arian, though; he found he could see just fine despite the darkness.

"Is it closed?" Tamara asked from the front.

"Yes," came Arian's response.

"Good. Let's go."

And so they made their way to the small, dark tunnel. The ceiling was very low, and all four had to crawl through it. It was notably dirty too, and Arian couldn't suppress a slight grimace at the dirt that was accumulating on his fur.

He had another problem too. He was the biggest of the group of four, meaning that the tunnel was slightly tight for him. While it wasn't a massive problem, there were one or two occasions on which he got stuck, and had to breathe in and wriggle to get out of it.

During the crawl, the conversation between Elvira and Flora continued.

"So...coming back to what you said earlier, Flora. How do you know of this tunnel?"

"Tam told me," Flora replied. "She said it was a good way to get to the other end of town without having to pay the toll. So I began using it only recently. It has helped when it comes to gathering berries in Verdant Woods. Normally, Tam and I would do them together."

"...How long's it been here?" Elvira wondered. "It doesn't look like an ancient passage. It looks like it was built recently."

"Yes, it was," Tamara answered. "It was built not too long ago by my dad. Jobs have been pretty light for him, and he wanted to avoid paying the toll. So he dug a tunnel to the other end of town so we could go there easier. It took a lot of work, but it's worked well for us. It's made my life much more pleasant."

"...You call crawling through a tunnel pleasant?" muttered Flora.

"Hey, would you rather waste your money and have to deal with those Thorned Roses creeps?" Tamara countered. "I know which one I'd sooner leap for."

"...I guess so," replied the Petilil. Still doesn't make me any less dirty, though."

"It's nothing that can't be washed off, Flora," Tamara said. "Now come on. Let's keep going."

They crawled onwards for what seemed like an eternity, but what was only thirty minutes at the absolute most. Eventually, they arrived at what appeared to be a wall of sorts. Only...once again, it felt different, like this wasn't part of the tunnel.

And this was subsequently proven when Tamara pushed back the lock and lifted up what was in fact a trap door. Immediately, light hit them, and all of them blinked as they got adjusted to the change in light from the dark passage.

"And here we are!" Tamara proclaimed as she got out, helping her three companions out of the tunnel.

"...Hm? Where are we?" Arian looked around him. "It looks like...a shed?" It was indeed that; they were in a small shed, where several carpentry tools such as hammers, nails, and a few saws were present. They all looked worn, as if they had gotten plenty of use in their lifetimes.

"It's the shed at the back of my house," Tamara explained. "My dad built it in here so no one could see it from overhead. In fact, there's the shovel he dug it with." She pointed to a shovel in the corner, which had leftover soil still on the metal part. "But never mind that. I need to go see my mom and dad." She took the lead and headed out into a small back garden, before knocking on the back door. "Mom! Dad! I'm home!"

The door opened, and the one who answered it happened to also be a Pachirisu.

"Oh, there you are, Tamara!" The Pachirisu, a middle-aged woman by the sound of her voice, immediately embraced her daughter. "We were worried sick about you! Where have you been all this time? Did you find the locket?"

"I did!" Tamara proudly proclaimed, showing her the locket. "It was in the grove, luckily. But it's a long story. Come on! I'll tell you and Dad all about it!"

"Of course, dear." The Pachirisu, evidently Tamara's mother, smiled at her. "...Ah, but let's not forget about your friends. Flora and...Elvira!" she exclaimed, recognising the familiar face. "Come in, all of you! We'll talk over tea."






And so it came to be that Arian, Elvira and Flora came inside and sat around the kitchen table in Tamara's house. It could hardly be called luxurious - the same could be said for the rest of the house - but it was tidy and well-kept, which did offset the plain nature of the house.

Tamara's parents introduced themselves. Her father was Desmond, a Raichu, and her mother was Lorraine, a Pachirisu not unlike her daughter. The former was a carpenter renowned for his skill throughout the town, explaining the reasoning behind the worn tools in the shed. However, the takeover of Ozerograd by the Thorned Roses had proven troubling for him, as it meant he couldn't source his materials as easily. As such, moneywise, Tamara's family weren't doing so hot right now. But they were not so badly off that they couldn't spare a cup of tea for Tamara's friends, Lorraine had insisted.

The tea in question was a brew of cheri tea. It was to Arian's liking, and the Riolu found himself drinking the whole cup quicker than everyone else.

Once they'd all sat down, Tamara regaled them with the tale of yesterday; how she'd ventured into Verdant Woods to find it, how she was accosted by the two Thorned Roses members, how they were then defeated by Arian and Elvira, how they'd made their way back to Elvira's house, how Arian and Elvira had planned to become a mercenary team, and how she and Flora stayed the night at Elvira's house at Zenobia's insistence.

"And that's it, really," Tamara concluded. "We've spent the morning getting our way back here, and...well, here we are."

"Hmm...seems you've had an active time, my girl," Desmond remarked. "Of course, I understand your decision to stay at Elvira's last night. It's just that it's easy to fear your capture by the Thorned Roses. It's a probable scenario in these times. You can't blame us for worrying."

"Indeed, dear." Lorraine's face grew dark with worry. "I don't want to see you disappear like some of the townsfolk have…"

"What's that all about, if you don't mind me asking?" Arian interrupted. "These disappearances I keep hearing about."

"Well…truth be told, we don't know much about them ourselves. No one does, really," Desmond replied. "There are certain people the Thorned Roses don't take kindly to. Mainly those who refuse to pay the rent, and those who insult Hinnerk. Or even that Seviper right-hand of his. They just…disappear. Never to be seen again."

"Oh no…" Elvira murmured worriedly. "And you said you can't pay the rent yourself?"

"It's been incredibly tough. It's kept me awake a few nights, fearing the Thorned Roses would break in and cart us off to who-knows-where." Desmond shivered, and Arian sensed the fear within him.

"That's why those rogues were after me," Tamara explained. "It's because we're not doing so well on the rent payment front. But we can't do anything about it! The rents are too damn high!"

"My family's struggling too," Flora added. "It's rare we get any customers these days. For a gang named after a flower, the Thorned Roses sure aren't interested in buying any."

"...It's a struggle for all of us these days," Lorraine said, a troubled look on her face. "The tyranny of the Thorned Roses can't go on. Someone must put a stop to them. What we need now is a hero to step in and stamp them out."

"Yes," agreed Desmond. "Someone with heroism and selflessness. Someone who wouldn't hesitate to leap into danger and beat the Thorned Roses into the ground. ...Someone like Team Marshwood. If they were here, no doubt they would be able to show the likes of Hinnerk who's boss."

"They would, wouldn't they?" Elvira murmured. Strangely, though, her voice had gone quiet, and Arian could feel the sadness emanating from her.

"Who's Team Marshwood?" he then asked.

"...Pardon?" Desmond's expression turned to a puzzled frown of disbelief. "You don't know who Team Marshwood is?"

"Er...no?" Arian replied. "Are they important?"

"Did you not tell him, Ellie?" Tamara asked.

"Maybe I didn't." Elvira took a deep breath. "Team Marshwood is, or rather, was...the name of my dad's mercenary team. His and Melchior's team."

"...Oh! I see…" Arian realised. "...So that's why you're sad about it...It's a reminder of your dad, isn't it?" As a gesture of comfort, he patted the Treecko on the back.

"Any news on his whereabouts?" Lorraine inquired. "I know it's been a while, but…"

"...No. Nothing."

"...Ah. That's a shame," Desmond said, disappointed. "...Such a great man, too. Imagine my surprise when I found out my girl had made friends with his daughter. And an even greater shock when I was invited to have dinner with the man himself. You still remember that night, dear?"

"Yes, I do," recalled Lorraine. "I was genuinely surprised by how generous and humble he was. For a world-renowned hero, he was incredibly modest, and he was lovely to talk with."

"He was, wasn't he?" Desmond reminisced. "...You're lucky to have him as a dad, Elvira. He was probably as good at being a father as he was at being a mercenary."

"Yeah, he was. He'd always tell me tales about his mercenary years growing up, and when he was out on a mission, I'd always wait eagerly for him to return. …Except now, when he still hasn't…

"Elvira…" Arian felt for his partner.

"But my dad's strong! He isn't one of the famous mercenaries in Ardalion for nothing. He's one of the only people in history to have achieved Grandmaster Rank! I've always looked up to him. And that's why...I can't truly believe he's dead. Not until I see cold, hard evidence that proves it," Elvira made clear.

"Atta girl!" praised Tamara. "I like your determination! With that attitude, you'll definitely find out what's been going on around here."

"Yeah…You definitely have shades of your dad in you," Desmond noted. "Maybe you'll become as great a merc as him!"

"No. I'm nowhere near my dad's level," Elvira answered somewhat sadly, and Arian immediately understood why. "He was truly beyond a level most people could hope to strive for...I won't reach his renown any time soon. And I don't want people thinking I will, just because my dad was Fernblade Kallias."

"Oh. I see. ...Sorry," Desmond apologised. "I'll try to avoid doing that in future."

"But Ellie, don't let that get your spirits down!" Tamara encouraged. "Just ignore anyone who says you're not living up to your dad's name. They don't know what they're talking about!"

"Thanks, Tamara," Elvira said as she finished off the rest of her tea. "Let's go out there and start searching for clues. Thanks for the tea, Desmond, Lorraine. Come on, Arian. Let's go." The two of them began making their way out, when…

"Hey! You're forgetting someone!" The two turned around, and saw a somewhat peeved Flora leap down from her seat. "I have to get home myself, remember?"

"Of course I knew that," Elvira answered. "But I thought you'd want to stay here for a little while longer."

"Well, I don't. ...No offence to you guys," she said, turning back to Tamara and her family. "But I gotta get home. My parents will be getting worried about me," Flora explained.

"That's no problem. Don't let us keep you," Lorraine urged.

"Thanks." Flora turned back to Arian and Elvira. "Well, are we going or not?"

"We are," Elvira said. "Let's go out into the streets and hopefully find some clues to this whole mystery."

And with that, the three moved to leave the house. Elvira opened the door, and she and her partner went to face the world that lay beyond the door.






Notes

Not really much to say about this chapter; just one that bridges events together. In the grand scheme of things, I think this chapter may well prove to be a minor one.

Update (16/12/22): Early chapter updates. Cutting dialogue I felt was clunky and redundant, and better executing lines of dialogue. Also Arian plays a greater part in making the breakfast, due to Zenobia's broken leg.

Something new here too - the disappearances with the townsfolk. It makes them more menacing this time around, I feel.
 
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Chapter 6

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 6
The Grip of Thorns

Ozerograd was an important town in Selenia. While it could hardly compare to some of the fancifully large towns that were present in Dresilia and Miletos, it was a sizable town by Selenian standards, and so by extension, it was regarded as an important centre in Selenian politics. When Mitrofan took over the country and instilled himself as tsar, it was one of the major centres that was captured first, with the help of Hinnerk. After the latter took over the town by deposing the local lord, he created the Thorned Roses to help him exercise his newfound power.

The town itself showed evident signs of planning being put into it, as opposed to the haphazard nature that most cities and towns found themselves in as they expanded. Perhaps Ozerograd's nature would change in the future if its population grew, but for now, its planned nature served as a surprising newness to the town.

There was a good reason for this. In olden times, Ozerograd was in fact a smaller settlement located closer to the lake nearby it, a decently-sized mere by the name of Lake Lazurny. This was convenient for locals, as it meant water could be obtained more easily. However, the storms that often came in the autumn and early winter resulted in almost annual flooding for the town. The destruction of people's livelihoods, along with a number of deaths due to drowning and exposure on a yearly basis prompted the lord of the oblast to move his town to higher ground some two hundred years ago so as to mitigate the damage done to his people. And so Ozerograd received a new look in its reconstruction, with inspiration drawn from the architecture of the Eastern countries, renowned for their architectural prowess throughout the years. The old town was left mostly abandoned, but some still chose to live there and lived their lives despite the challenges that came with it.

Elvira was telling all of this to Arian when they first laid eyes on the town. Immediately, the amnesiac human had voiced his curiosity about the town, and so Elvira filled him in, basing her knowledge on stories she'd heard over the years and books she'd read. It was something that Flora couldn't stifle a remark about.

"You listened to those stories? I'm surprised you were able to. Mr Akulov's storytelling worked better than any Hypnosis in sending me to sleep."

"Yeah, I remember that," Elvira recalled, laughing slightly at what must have been an old memory. "He wasn't that bad, Flora. He just had a tendency of getting carried away. It is an interesting topic about the town, though, how it moved to higher ground. Stuff like that's always fascinating to me."

"Well, whatever floats your boat. Or not, given where our town is now," Flora replied. "...Oh, here we are."

The group stood at a fork in the cobbled street. Down one end of the left-hand street, a shop with a colourful shopfront and bouquets of flowers placed outside it could be seen. It didn't take a detective to deduce the shop to be a florist's.

"Well, I'll leave you guys here," Flora said, beginning to make her way down that street. "Good luck on your little hunt."

"Goodbye, Flora," Elvira replied. "I'll come visit you soon, I promise."

"You should. Who knows? We might even have a job or a clue for you. Oh, and...be careful. You never know what the likes of them hear." With that word of warning, the Petilil made her way toward her home.

"And just like that…" Elvira muttered. "Back to remembering where we are."

"Mmm," Arian murmured in agreement.

From the moment he walked out of Tamara's front door, he could sense that all was not well in the town. There was an air of hostility and fear, and almost immediately, he was able to discern the cause of the discord.

There were a number of Pokémon out in the street, all wearing a red band with a thorned rose emblazoned on it on their arm, neck or foreleg. All of them wore sour expressions, and all of them watched the streets like Mandibuzz looking for prey. Any passersby felt their harsh gazes, and they made a point to get on with their business as quickly as possible.

Arian, Elvira and Flora were on the receiving end of their treatment, too. The glares that faced them were piercing, almost as if they were boring holes into their skin. It was a great discomfort that unsettled all of them, and made them watch their backs a bit more, in case they were jumped on.

That hadn't happened yet. But Arian refused to discount the possibility of an ambush by the Thorned Roses. They did not look to be the sort of people to mess with, lest one wished to escape perfectly intact.

"Still," Elvira said. "We've come this far into town. Let's start looking. We'll start in the town square and go from there."

Elvira and Arian headed in the direction of the town square. On the way there, they caught sight of more Thorned Roses members giving them the evil eye, and tried to ignore them. However, on one occasion, this wasn't enough.

"Hey! You two!" a voice shouted to them. Looking ahead of them, the duo saw a Machoke with an armband walk up to them menacingly and threateningly. "State your names!"

"Elvira!" answered the Treecko, almost like an army cadet.

"...A-Arian," replied the Riolu, rather more lamely.

"What's your business being out and about?" the Machoke interrogated.

Thankfully, Elvira knew what to say, having no doubt been grilled by these rogues on a previous occasion. "Just collecting groceries for my mom," she informed. "She's not well at the minute, you see, and I have to do all the shopping for her. Hence why we're heading to where the merchants gather."

"..." The Machoke considered what he was told. "...Go on, then. But get out of sight quickly afterward."

"Don't worry. We won't be long," the Treecko pledged, before moving on, Arian trailing her. "At least...I hope we won't be long." she muttered, after they were out of earshot of any Thorned Roses.

"Is it a problem if we take a while?" Arian wondered.

"It might not be. But if we encounter that Machoke again, then we could have a problem on our hands," Elvira insinuated. "It's better that we find something quickly. There's bound to be a clue somewhere…"

They continued down the street. As they walked down it, Arian noticed something else that was off about the town. This time, though, the evidence was present on the walls.

Graffiti adorned a number of them.

The Riolu was rather surprised by what he saw. A range of different types of graffiti adorned the walls, from artwork to messages. And in the fashion of most graffiti, many of the messages were quite blatant.

Long live Hinnerk!

Down with Ruslans!

Down with Tsars!

Death to Tsarists!


They went on. And then there was the art. One of the pictures depicted was the Thorned Roses' logo that was also present on their bands. Another one that caught his eye was the artwork of an Obstagoon. Below it read the message, 'Long live the Boss!'

Hmm...I wonder who that is? pondered Arian. After this art, however, the painted messages returned, and the human found himself reading these as he and Elvira passed them by.

Down with mercs!

All mercs are poofs!

Fuck the Guild!

Mercs can go suck -


Arian turned his head away immediately when he saw the end of the last message.

Okay...some of these are clearly not worth looking at, he mused, trying to forget what he just read. I did not need to see that. That's properly profane stuff there. This lot looks like a piece of work, alright…

"And here we are," Elvira said, snapping Arian out of his thoughts. "The main square."

The square in question was once again another sign of the planned nature of the new town of Ozerograd. It was a beautiful construction, reminiscent of the architectural patterns of various towns in eastern Ardalion. It wasn't so much a 'square' - the streets sprouted out from it in a radial pattern, and the buildings surrounding it gave the plaza a more circular shape. In the centre of it, there lay fountains, as well as what seemed to be a plinth. However, oddly enough, where there should have been a monument or a statue, nothing stood atop it.

Arian's attention was partially on the square's eye-catching design. However, he couldn't focus on it for long. This was because several Thorned Roses were around the square, patrolling the area and using their usual intimidation tactics on anyone else. It proved to be working, given the lack of regular people in the square. And even those that were there stayed promptly away from the fountains and plinth.

"Hmm…I wonder if the noticeboard still has anything on it." Elvira pointed to one of the streets directly across from them. "It used to be for posting missions for mercenaries to take. I don't know if people would be brave enough to post a mission that could potentially get them targeted by the Thorned Roses. Let's check it anyway. You never know."

This, however, did mean crossing the square filled with Thorned Roses. Arian and Elvira both braced themselves for the piercing glares as they began their stroll across the plaza. They tried to act casual, but that didn't prevent them from feeling the intimidatory gazes of the gang members they passed by.

Worse still, just when they were about to leave the square for the desired street…

"Stop right there, you two."

The voice stopped the two in their tracks. While it wasn't a commanding shout like the Machoke from before, it was a voice that was chilling enough to halt Arian and Elvira, and make them look around to see who the owner's voice belonged to.

Their question on that front was soon answered, when the sound of a snake's hiss pierced through the air, and in front of them slithered a Seviper. The scarf around his neck with the same red band indicated him to be a Thorned Rose.

"Well well well," he uttered, his voice oily, slimy and unpleasant to listen to. "Who do we have here? A Riolu and a Treecko...neither of whom are residents of this town. Whatever are you doing in our domain?"

He proved to be greatly unnerving. His voice was the same kind that could send a shiver down one's spine. Immediately, Arian and Elvira were alike in the same thought.

Please get me out of this conversation.

"We're...fetching materials for my mom," Elvira said, choosing the same excuse as she'd used earlier. However, this time, she wasn't as confident as before, due to the Seviper's unnerving presence and the leer he was giving the both of them. As such, the delivery came out a tad feeble.

"Are you now?" The grin he was giving them could only be described as a malicious one; as if he loved the treatment of this kind of intimidation.

"Y-Yes," the Treecko answered, still perturbed by the snake's presence. "Really, it's true! My mom's not well at the moment, and so I have to do the shopping for her." It of course wasn't the reason, but Elvira wasn't content with telling full-on lies. If she did, no doubt this Seviper would see through them.

"That's what they all say," came the viper's reply. "It's a brilliant excuse, isn't it? Just the way to garner sympathy. Hah! That might work on most people, but it doesn't work in this town!"

"It's true, though!" pleaded Elvira. "My mom really is - "

"Shut up, wench," the Seviper hissed. "You're in the territory of the Thorned Roses now. You should know better than to throw such sentimental crap in our faces. I certainly couldn't give a damn. After all, you do know who you face, do you not?"

"Um...no?" Arian said. "Are you a bigshot in the Thorned Roses or something?"

"Congratulations. You are correct," the Seviper replied. "I am Mikhail. The Thorned Roses' second-in-command, second only to the Boss." He licked his lips with a grin of superiority. "Did you think you could lie to my face and get away with it?"

"We're not lying," Arian insisted. "It's the truth! Get that into your serpentine brain and let us get on with our business!"

"...Oh? How interesting. We appear to have a backtalker in our midst," Mikhail observed. "Do you know what happens to those that dare to talk back to me?"

Before Arian could react, the Seviper suddenly launched towards him, and struck his tail across the Riolu's midsection, eliciting a scream of pain from the amnesiac.

"Arian!" Elvira cried.

"They get poisoned!" Mikhail cackled. "Learn your place and pick fights you'll actually win, runt. That ought to teach you never to stand up to me again. Perhaps the poison'll knock some sense into you! Keh hah hah hah!" Laughing evilly, he slithered away, proud of his handiwork.

"Arian! Are you alright?" Elvira asked, checking on her partner.

"Urgh...N-No," the Riolu answered. "I...I don't feel so great all of a sudden…" His hand went to his head, and he began panting.

"...Wait a minute." Elvira took a look at where Mikhail had struck, and his words came back to her when she saw a purplish stain amongst the bleeding wound. Immediately, she knew what it was.

"You've been poisoned!" she cried. "Oh no...and I don't have any Pecha Berries on me! Quick! We have to find a shop that sells them!"

"But...what about…?" The Riolu looked in the direction of where the noticeboard was located. He could see it, in fact, located a little down the street they were about to go down.

"Never mind that! We have to heal your poison right away, before it gets worse!" Elvira frantically informed him. "I know where to go. Do you need me to help you walk?"

"I...think I'll be alright for now," Arian responded, his voice coming out in pants. "I could be worse. Really, I can still walk."

"...Alright," Elvira permitted, as she turned and headed for another exit of the square, two exits to the right of the street with the noticeboard on it. "But don't hesitate to ask for help if you need it."

"R-Right…"

They started down the street. As they left the square, Elvira could hear snickers and bemused laughter from the Thorned Roses at what just occurred. She thought she even heard one remark, "Serves him right." The viewing of what had happened made Elvira's lips curl in anger, and she had half a mind to turn around and yell a condemning remark at them.

No, she then thought to herself. That'll only create more problems than it'll solve. Arian needs help - that's the priority right now. Choosing to block out the remarks of the gang members, she continued down into the street, with Arian trailing behind her.

Occasionally, the Riolu would let out a visible wince as the poison gradually worsened. Elvira heard this, and crossed her fingers that he wouldn't faint on the spot.

Hang in there, Arian. We'll get through this.

Eventually, the street ended in a T-junction. It was lucky that Elvira knew Ozerograd well, and thus knew where to go. She turned right, and Arian followed.

This street eventually opened out into a wider street, and where they ended up had Arian looking around in slight wonderment, despite his current condition. It looked rather major, as if it was a place of importance. A number of merchants' stalls were set up along the street, and along with that, a number of prominent buildings were also present in this area.

"This is the merchants' quarter," Elvira explained to him. "Hopefully there's a merchant selling a pecha berry or a heal seed or something to cure the poison…" She walked down the street with her partner, keeping her eyes peeled for a vendor that did sell such items.

Eventually, they found one, being run by a Sandslash and a Midnight Lycanroc.

"Hello there, young'uns," greeted the latter, a male Lycanroc. "What are you lookin' for?"

"Do you have any pecha berries or heal seeds?" Elvira immediately asked. "Please, my friend's been poisoned, and he needs to be healed! We have to heal him before it gets worse!" She looked back at Arian, who was beginning to look worse for wear. He was now unable to hide the pain he was feeling from the poison.

"Yes, we do," the Lycanroc told her, picking out a pecha berry from the merchandise. "That'll be 80 Poké, please."

Then it dawned on Elvira.

"I don't have any money!" she realised. "But I do have this cheque. I'll just go to the bank with it. Could you just hold on a minute? It's just across there, I'll be back in a jiffy. I promise I'll have your money. Until then, though - "

"Don't panic, dear," the Sandslash suddenly interjected. "You'll work yourself into a tizzy. Tell you what: take it for free. Your friend is more important than some gold."

"Are you certain, Caitríona?" the Lycanroc asked. "She'll have the money…"

"No, Conall, it's best to help these people out," Caitríona reasoned. "They're not Thorned Roses. That's reason enough to help them. Besides, it's only a pecha berry they want. We can miss 80P."

"Alright, then. Take it." Conall handed Elvira the berry.

"Thank you. Thank you so much," the Treecko said with gratitude, before handing Arian the berry. The Riolu bit into it, and quickly dug into it.

"Mmm…nice," Arian said. "I like those." Guess not all medicine tastes horrible here, huh?

"How do you feel, Arian?" the Treecko asked.

"You know, now that you mention it…yeah, I can already feel that poison going away," Arian reported, feeling slightly more confident. "I just might need a moment to fully recover." As he said this, he sat down at the kerb.

"Okay. I'll wait for you," Elvira said to him. "When you're ready, we'll go to the Klefki Bank and deposit this cheque. It's over there." She pointed to a building on the opposite side of the street to them further down.

"Excuse me," the Sandslash from before said, drawing the duo's attention. "We didn't get your names."

"Oh, of course. I'm Elvira, and this is Arian," introduced the Treecko.

"Nice to meet you. I'm Caitríona, and this is my husband, Conall," the Sandslash returned.

"Are you two from around here?" wondered the Lycanroc.

"Yes. I live just outside of town, and Arian's living with me at the minute," Elvira informed, simplifying the matter of her partner, whose situation would only provoke more questions that she didn't necessarily know the answers to. "We're in town today to...um…"

She hesitated briefly here. She knew that she should keep the truth of her and Arian's status as unofficial mercenaries on the down low, lest they be harassed by the Thorned Roses. However, she realised that these two merchants were hardly in league with the infamous gang. And a brief look around this street showed that very few Thorned Roses were in the vicinity of this street.

Elvira decided, therefore, to tell the truth.

"We're investigating the Thorned Roses," she said, in a hushed tone. "Specifically, it's about the disappearances of certain people around Ozerograd. Those that the Thorned Roses don't take kindly to. Do you two know anything about that?"

"...As a matter of fact, we do," Caitríona replied, unable to hide her surprise at the question. "Should I tell them, Conall?"

"Well…" The Lycanroc considered. "...How about this? As it so happens, there's something we need to retrieve for a certain someone. But if you do it for us, then you can get that info you want. Maybe even with a little bit of cash. Just like a merc would, eh? Whaddaya say?"

"...We accept," Elvira said, surprised at the mention of mercenaries from the wolf.

"Good on you." Conall flashed a grin at them. "The item's a Sandy Torc. It should be located in Blossoming Meadow, that Mystery Dungeon just outside the old town. It was on…what floor did she say again, Ríona?"

"It was in the grove, I think," Caitríona recalled. "That's where Lillian thinks she lost it, anyway."

"There ya go, then. Find the Sandy Torc in the grove of Blossoming Meadow," Conall said to them. "Good luck to you, kiddos."

"We'll bring it back to you," Arian replied. "But you'd better give us information in return."

"You don't have to worry about that, kid. We don't break promises," the Lycanroc returned.

"Good. Come on, Elvira, let's go," Arian said to his partner.

"Not yet," Elvira responded. "We need to get money and prepare to go out there. It's not too dangerous a place by Mystery Dungeon standards, but it never hurts to be prepared."

"Gotcha. You said this in Verdant Woods. At least we have a bag this time…" Arian's voice drifted away from the stand as he and his partner walked towards the Klefki Bank to withdraw funds from.

"So…they're tryin' to figure that mystery too, eh?" Conall's paw went to his chin.

"Yes. Just like our own folks," Caitríona murmured. "What a coincidence."

"It's gotta be fate," the Lycanroc said. "...Ya think we should tell 'em? About the whole…y'know…"

"No." The Sandslash shook her head. "Not here, anyway."

"But Ríona…you know he's looking out for more folks." Conall sounded dismayed. "They might only be young'uns, but they might well have potential. And you know he's all about the potential of his recruits."

"If we do tell them, it'll have to be in a secret sort of way. I'm not letting Lillian, Ishmael and Axel's cover be blown over this."

"Alright, Ríona, I getcha." The wolf was deep in thought. "Hmm...I'll think of a way to tell 'em when they come back. We can tell 'em with what we know about them vanishings.

"Because they deserve to know…just what's being planned."





"Blossoming Meadow's out to the north of town," Elvira explained to Arian, as they left the merchants' quarter. They turned in the cheque at the Klefki Bank, an enterprise run by the aforementioned Key Ring Pokémon, and spent a portion of the money on items for the delve into the Mystery Dungeon at Caitríona and Conall's stand. "It's not too far away, thankfully, and it's not that deep a Dungeon. With any luck, we can get it over with quickly."

"So it should be fairly easy?" Arian guessed.

"Famous last words, Arian. Remember, we're still very new at this," Elvira reminded. "Please don't overestimate your capabilities."

"Right," Arian acknowledged.

"How's your injury?"

"It's still a bit sore." Although the poison from Mikhail's Poison Tail attack had been healed up, he still felt sore where the Seviper had struck. If there were any others in the Thorned Roses as sadistic as that, then I'd much rather spend as little time in this town as possible. "But how do we get out to the north? Where's that exit?"

"Well, from here…" Elvira considered the route in her head. "...I know a way. Follow me."

"Okay," Arian agreed. "You clearly know this town better than I do, so...follow the leader, I guess."

"It's not 'follow the leader,'" Elvira corrected. "We're equal partners in this relationship, Arian. ...But I do know Ozerograd well. I used to spend hours playing on these streets when I was a kid. I know them like the back of my hand.."

"...Alright then, partner. Guide me."

Together, they walked through Ozerograd's streets. The path would've normally been a straightforward one to the northern exit of town. But Elvira chose to go a back route there, in the hope that they would encounter less Thorned Roses as a result.

The route in question took them through a number of back alleys and residential houses. Most of which, to Arian's shock, looked dilapidated and boarded up.

"What is all this…?" He looked around him. "What happened here?"

"Evictions," Elvira told him. "You've heard about the rents from Tam. This street was already a poor part of town. It appears the Thorned Roses really didn't take kindly to them." She gazed at all of the houses, a bitter look on her face.

"...Weird," Arian mentioned. "It looks abandoned. But…it's like I'm being watched." He suddenly went on edge. "Is it the Thorned Roses?"

"I don't think so," Elvira replied. "People still live in these houses. Some have boarded up their houses to reinforce against a Thorned Rose eviction, or to give the impression it's been abandoned already. Like that house there." The Treecko pointed to a house with bricks on the window, and boards over the door. It did look like an abandoned house, alright.

"That's awful…" Arian happened to look looked at the windows of one of the houses, and caught sight of a Blipbug. But once they did, the Bug-type immediately jumped and disappeared from view. "I can feel that fear. It seems to linger in this place..."

His sorrow turned to anger. "Geez, how horrible do you have to be to think it's fun to kick people out of their own home and cart them off to who knows where?"

"Very horrible, indeed," agreed Elvira. "But ranting about it within the town's walls won't do anything to help us. We need to keep going."

They kept going. But not long after having this conversation, they came across a scene.

On one of the doorsteps of the houses, Arian and Elvira spotted a Florges with red leaves. She looked middle-aged, and to the duo's concern, was weeping.

"No…No, please. What mother am I to leave her little girl behind?"

Daughter? That caught Arian's attention. Curious, he went to ask. "Excuse me, ma'am," he said to her. "Are you alright?"

The Florges sniffled for some time before looking up with tearful eyes at the Riolu and answering his question.

"No…My daughter's gone missing," she confessed. "My little girl…Her name's Iona. We were visiting the Blossoming Meadow, but we were chased by a wild Pokémon. I made it to the stairs in time, but I was separated from Iona. And now she's all alone in that place…"

"Oh no," Elvira murmured. "Is she young?"

"Yes. She's only five. She's the only family I have left, now that my husband was stolen away by those monsters. I couldn't bear to lose her too…"

"That's not good at all…" The mention of the Florges' husband reminded the two of why they were in town in the first place. "We have to find her, Arian."

"Lucky we're headed there, anyway," the Riolu said. "Don't worry, ma'am! We'll have your kid back safe and sound!"

"Oh…Oh thank you so much…Please find her!"

"We will. Come on, Elvira. Let's go!" Arian saw no point in hanging around, and made his way through the winding streets.

Eventually, the narrow street ended as a side street to a wider road. Looking to their left, Arian could see an exit to the town, marked with an arch and a portcullis.

"Is that the exit to the north?" he asked her.

"Yes, it is," came Elvira's confirmation.

"But...there's Thorned Roses there," Arian pointed out. This was true; two Pokémon guarded the entrance.

"There's no way around it," Elvira sighed. "I don't want to interact with them either. But there's no other path out of town."

"If you say so." The disappointment was clear in the Riolu's voice.

They walked towards the arch. When they approached it, the two Thorned Roses that were there immediately called out to them. They were a Krokorok and a Gligar, and both did not look the kind of Pokémon one would want to mess with.

"Hey!" the Gligar called out. "You gotta pay if you want to leave town!"

"Them's the breaks! Now hand over the moolah!" the Krokorok, who had an intriguing accent, demanded.

"I have the money. Don't worry," Elvira replied, her tone slightly snappy. She reached into her bag and dug out 100P. "There. Take it."

"Good," muttered the Krokorok, after counting the coins. "Now go. Scram!"

They didn't need to be told twice. If it meant getting away from the Thorned Roses, then Arian and Elvira were all in favour of getting away from town. They briskly made their way out of Ozerograd, and into the open countryside.

Once the town was a comfortable distance away, the human-turned Pokémon took in a breath of fresh air.

"Ahh…" he breathed. "Thank God. No more Thorned Roses to worry about out here."

"I wouldn't say that too soon," advised Elvira. "Remember yesterday? They're not just present in Ozerograd, but in the surrounding vicinity, too. Just because we're out of town doesn't mean we should drop our guard. We might even find some in Blossoming Meadow."

"Hopefully we don't," Arian wished. "Especially not Pokémon as devious as that Mikhail fellow." He shuddered at the memory of the wicked viper.

"Here's hoping. Who knows what they might do if they found an innocent little girl out here alone in the meadow?" Elvira brought up. "We should move quickly."

"Agreed."

They walked along the path for the next while. During this time, Arian took the time to look at his surroundings. And once again, they were as alluring as always. Not only was the greenery of the trees and grasses ever present, but the view also included the lake that Ozerograd had previously been built near.

"What's the name of that lake?" he asked Elvira.

"Lake Lazurny," the Treecko answered. "It's the lake that regularly flooded the old town of Ozerograd. It's also where the town still gets its water from. They have an ingenious system of channels that get water to public taps in the town, so the people can still get water as easily as they once did. It's a good thing they did that as even now, when the Thorned Roses have put tolls up to those entering and leaving town, people can still get water."

But despite her words being slightly optimistic, Arian could sense worry in her emotions. He wondered to himself if it was to do with the Thorned Roses, but...something about the way her expression made him think it was something else.

Hang on, I remember. She felt that same worry when we were crawling through the undergrowth earlier this morning. Is there a connection? Should I ask her?

"There's still people living down there in the old town," Elvira continued. "But it's a shell of what it once was. You couldn't call it a town anymore. Especially when you compare it to the new town. Ozerograd was made a lot bigger when it moved to where it is now. Few would say that was a bad thing for the place. It used to be a backwater place, but now it's more prosperous in the eyes of the tsar. ...Well, it used to be, anyway. Before all this happened…"

"...A shame...Hopefully, prosperity will return," Arian said, with some hope in his voice. However, he knew in his head such a thing would falter before reality.

"...Yeah...hopefully." Elvira, at least, carried that hope in her heart, that one day Ozerograd would live to see a day without the Thorned Roses. "...But that's for another time. For now...let's focus on the present. Let's rescue this child of the Florges."

They walked a bit further down the road. Arian looked around him in curiosity.

"So...where is this Blossoming Meadow?" he wondered.

"It's slightly off the beaten track, like Verdant Woods," Elvira informed. "But you can't miss the path for it. There's clear signage for it when we get to it. It's just before that wooded area." She pointed to a treescape ahead of them.

"Gotcha," Arian understood.

They continued on for a bit longer. Arian looked to the left, where from the road they were on, a vantage point of the lake could be seen. Curiously, though, he noted the sight of what appeared to be a small settlement down near the water's edge, and from it, a road appeared to lead away from it and towards the same wood that Blossoming Meadow was located in. Based on what he'd been told earlier, the Riolu believed he knew the answer.

"Is that the old town down there that you were talking about earlier?" he asked.

"Hm?" Elvira looked over to where the Riolu was pointing. "Yes, it is. But that area tended to flood a lot when the autumn storms came in, so they moved the town to higher ground. It doesn't quite stand up to the new Ozerograd, in my opinion. But don't say that too loud. Some of the people that live down there don't take too kindly to their settlement being compared to the new town."

"...Noted," Arian said.

Silence reigned for another while, until the duo eventually reached a small crossroads. A sign was there prior to it to tell them what was in each direction.

Iria

Ozerograd Quay, Lake Lazurny

Blossoming Meadow

"Ah, there we go!" Arian pointed out, noting the third line of the sign. "Blossoming Meadow, to the right."

"Yes. It's down this way," Elvira confirmed. She headed to the right, with Arian following closely behind. "It'll be another short walk to the Mystery Dungeon."

"Have you been here before?" Arian wondered.

"A few times. I'd visit it with Dad a few times when I was younger to hone my skills by battling the Pokémon that live in the meadow. I'd also visit it with Flora and Tamara to gather flowers for the florist's that Flora's parents run."

"I see...Well, it is called Blossoming Meadow. I'd be a tad disappointed if I didn't see any flowers."

"You won't be. This place is full of them. ...Speaking of which, there it is." Elvira pointed to a point straight ahead of them. "The Mystery Dungeon entrance."

Once again, Arian caught sight of the same unusual phenomenon he'd seen at the entrance to Verdant Woods. There was a point in the path ahead of them where it seemed to be obfuscated and unclear, even as they got close.

That is bizarre, alright. ...But it's how this world works. No choice but to get used to the workings of it.

"You ready to head in, Arian?" Elvira asked.

"...Yes, I am."

And so the two walked into the Mystery Dungeon.





Blossoming Meadow
1F

Once again, Arian found himself in the strange reality of another Mystery Dungeon. He and Elvira found themselves in a room with a number of different exits, just like in Verdant Woods.

However, this area wasn't quite as densely forested as Verdant Woods was. It was still full of trees and vegetation, but more commonly seen now were hedgerows and bushes. More than that, however, there was something abundant in the meadow…

"Flowers," remarked Arian, staring at the scenes before him in slight bewilderment. "There's flowers everywhere…in all sorts of colours..."

"Yes. It's beautiful, isn't it?" Elvira said. "I always like coming here. The sight of colourful flowers never fails to lift my spirits. ...Maybe that's why I've been so down for the last while. It's been some time since I was last here."

"A bit of a shame we have a mission here," Arian lamented. "I was thinking that if we weren't in a rush, we could stop and smell the roses...quite literally."

"Well, we do. So no time to waste. Onward we go, down that way."

The human followed Elvira down the chosen path. He was silently grateful that the paths the Mystery Dungeon had for them didn't involve running through the flower meadows. I wouldn't want to trample flowers as beautiful as these, he thought to himself. Blue, yellow, red, orange...it's so pretty! Like a kaleidoscope of colours…

"Arian! Focus!"

"Hm?" The Riolu looked over and saw Elvira battling a Cottonee. "Oh! Sorry!" Quickly, he snapped back to attention, and dashed forward with a Quick Attack at the Pokémon. The Grass-type succumbed to it quickly, and fainted.

"Thanks, Arian," Elvira said.

"Sorry!" apologised Arian. "I was too focused on the flowers, and I didn't see what was ahead..."

"Arian, it's okay. We all lose focus at some points," soothed Elvira. "It could've been worse. I would've been able to handle that Cottonee anyway.

"I'll keep my focus," promised the Riolu. "I won't get distracted by any more flowers here."

"Distracted by flowers…" murmured Elvira. "...I can already hear Flora's snarky remarks."

"That was quite embarrassing," Arian said, feeling his face burn red with humiliation. "Please forget that happened."

"You can relax. I won't say anything."

The two continued down the narrow pathways. While they were strolling, something suddenly occurred to Arian.

"Who exactly should we be looking out for?" he asked.

"Well, since it was a Florges...it's likely the child could be a Flabébé," Elvira said. But as she said this, her gaze happened upon another row of flowers, and then she suddenly stopped, as if in realisation of something. Unfortunately, Arian didn't register this, and accidentally walked right into the back of Elvira.

"Oof! S-Sorry," he apologised. "...Um, Elvira? Why did you stop?"

"...It literally just occurred to me," the Treecko said with horrified realisation. "Finding a Flabébé in here will be like finding a needle in a haystack." She turned to Arian. "A Flabébé is a little fairy that's always clinging to a flower. It's quite a small Pokémon, and so are the flowers it carries. ...So do you see the problem?" Elvira gestured to the multitude of flowers.

"Oh…" Arian uttered, realising what Elvira was getting at. "That is a problem, alright…"

"Well, there's no use complaining," Elvira said. "That won't help us find this lost child. We just have to keep looking. Besides, there's also a possibility the child isn't a Flabébé. She could be someone else, depending on who the father is. But we don't have enough facts to determine that. ...Let's just keep looking."

The duo kept on down the path they were on. Eventually, it opened to a wider room, in which there was a Silcoon and a Cutiefly. Immediately, both Pokémon turned their attention to the new arrivals.

"One each?" Arian said to Elvira.

"That's fine. I'll take the Cutiefly, you take the Silcoon," Elvira directed.

"Got it." Arian focused his attention on the cocoon. Immediately, the first thing it did was stiffen as it used Harden. The human was not fazed, and slashed the Bug-type with a Metal Claw. Curiously, he noted that all it seemed to be doing was use Harden over and over.

Well, it is a cocoon. It's not like it'll be capable of much. Arian found himself a bit more relaxed as he attacked again with Quick Attack. But still, the Silcoon would not yield. Arian attacked again, this time with Force Palm. However, this didn't appear to do much either.

"This thing is stubborn, alright," the Riolu remarked, taking a deep breath. "...Just gotta get through it." He readied another Metal Claw, and struck the cocoon.

Right after that, the Silcoon was also attacked with a Quick Attack. Looking over, Arian saw Elvira return from where she'd attacked. The sight of a downed Cutiefly explained everything.

"Silcoon are known to be quite defensive," Elvira told him. "Attacking, however, is beyond them. We just need to keep at it with our attacks. You appear to have done most of the work, at least."

"Got it. ...Wanna see who can do the quicker Quick Attack?" Arian challenged.

"Oh, you're on," Elvira accepted. Next moment, both Pokémon used Quick Attack, and struck the Silcoon. Both attacks finally managed to cause the Bug-type to fall, and it collapsed onto its side.

"That goes to me," Elvira said. "I attacked the Silcoon first."

"...Yeah...I think that does go to you," Arian agreed. "I did feel you strike slightly before me, to be honest."

"...Hm. You're too kind, Arian." A smile of slight bemusement crossed the Treecko's face. "It's not often the other side is willing to concede defeat like that."

"It's not like it's high stakes," Arian reasoned. "What would arguing about it accomplish?"

"Good point," Elvira said in agreement with the Riolu's last statement. "I'd rather not get into arguments over something as petty as that. We're barely off the ground; I wouldn't want our team to collapse before it got going."

"Nor would I. ...Let's not dwell on that thought," Arian decided. "Better to focus our minds on this mission."

"You're right. Let's continue looking for this Flabébé."

But unfortunately, a thorough search of the first floor yielded no sign of a small sprite carrying a flower. Once they were sure she was not on the floor, Arian and Elvira found themselves looking at the stairs leading to the next floor.

"How many floors are in this place?" Arian wondered.

"Four," Elvira answered. "There's a small grove at the end, just like in Verdant Woods. It's possible the child might be there, too. But let's search all the floors before we get to that."

"Well, she doesn't appear to be on this floor. Should we go up?" Arian proposed.

"Yes," Elvira agreed.

And so the two climbed the steps.





Blossoming Meadow
2F

Another new floor of hedgerows and flowers greeted them. This time, the room they started in was a narrower one with three exits to the south, west and east, with no exit to the north.

There was, however, something on the floor that caught Arian's attention.

"...Money?" he said, upon seeing some gold. "That's a coin. This is money." He picked up the coin, and examined it.

"Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you. Sometimes money can show up on the ground in Mystery Dungeons," Elvira explained. "No one knows why, or how. But no one minds." She walked over and looked at the coin her partner lifted. "...50P. Not much, but it's something. I heard other dungeons can have lots of money in them, and some are said to strike it rich by delving in and out of those Dungeons scouring the floors for coins."

"Shame this doesn't look to be one like that," Arian lamented, though with only slight disappointment. "But we'll pick it up regardless." He slipped it to Elvira, who filed it away in the coin pouch.

"Now then…" Arian returned his attention to the room. "Hmm...We should go this way." He pointed to the west path. "If the child's not here, we'll end up exploring the whole floor anyway."

"Quite right," Elvira said. "We won't stop until we've investigated every nook and cranny of this place."

Arian and Elvira walked down the corridor, looking all around the flowery hedgerows for a lost child, presumably a Flabébé. All the while, the former, who was in the lead, kept a lookout for any enemy Pokémon.

Soon, one such Pokémon came into view. As he was walking down the hallway, Arian suddenly caught sight of a black and white blur moving in front of him.

"What is that?" he murmured, squinting to see. But as it got closer, it occurred to him that it was a Pokémon. A black and white-furred raccoon with a long pink tongue, to be specific.

"A Zigzagoon," Elvira pointed out. "A few of these do live here."

The Normal and Dark-type got closer to them, with Arian readying to use a Force Palm. However, before he could unleash it, it rammed straight into him.

"Argh! Hey!" cried out Arian. However, he saw the Zigzagoon make some sort of taunting snicker, as if to goad him into a fight.

"Fine! You want a fight? Then I'll give you one!" He charged a Force Palm and struck the Zigzagoon...which caused the Pokémon to faint immediately after being hit.

"Er...wow," a bewildered Arian remarked, slightly stunned at his curb-stomp victory. "I didn't expect that."

"A Zigzagoon's biggest weakness is Fighting-type moves," Elvira explained, "Normal and Dark-types don't do so well against Fighting-types, and Zigzagoon happens to be both. Your Force Palm was clearly enough to knock it out."

"Maybe I don't know my own strength," he joked.

"...Perhaps. But remember what I said: don't overestimate yourself," Elvira advised. "Pride comes before a fall, and as your partner, it's my duty to make sure that doesn't happen to you."

"...Thanks for reminding me. Good to know I have someone like you at my back," Arian said.

"That's what partners are for," reminded the Treecko. "Now let's keep moving."

"Actually, there's something I'm curious about," Arian wondered, as they moved on. "That Zigzagoon...It reminds me a bit like that graffiti I saw back in town."

"Graffiti?" Elvira queried, before a thought came to her. "Oh...I think I see what you mean…"

"There was a bit of artwork depicting a Pokémon like that Zigzagoon," the Riolu went on. "It had the same black and white colours as it, and I remember that below it, there was a message saying, 'Long live the boss!' ...Is that Pokémon...the leader of the Thorned Roses?"

"He is. That's Hinnerk, the Thorned Roses' leader. You might have heard his name a few times now," Elvira informed. "He's an Obstagoon, who are fully evolved from Zigzagoon."

"I see…" Arian mentally noted the evolution.

"He's selfish and cruel," Elvira went on. "When Mitrofan took over Selenia, Hinnerk came down to Ozerograd and personally killed the lord who ran the oblast around the town. He declared himself the leader of Ozerograd, and to reinforce his power, he set up the Thorned Roses and used them to intimidate all of us. It's worked well for him. Five years later, he still rules over us with an iron fist." She looked sadly off to the side. "...We really have had the power to rise up stripped from us. When will this cycle end?"

"When someone stands up to him," Arian said. "Someone has to."

"That's easier said than done," Elvira replied. "Hinnerk is powerful. He isn't the leader of a gang and retainer of his power for nothing. Any form of resistance that manages to crop up in our town has its earth salted before it can sprout. ...If only we could manage a breakthrough…"

"...One day." The Riolu was still insisting on optimism. However, he realised brooding over Hinnerk wouldn't do any good. "This isn't relevant. Let's keep looking for Iona. And the torc, too."

"You're right. Let's find them."

The two kept looking high and low for the child of the Florges. They looked thoroughly throughout the floor, searching in all the flower beds for the sight of a little sprite holding a flower. They fought any wild Pokémon that came their way, all in search of the lost child.

However, they found themselves at the stairs once again, their search having borne no fruit.

"...Well, up we go, I guess," said Arian, beginning to start up the steps.

"She has to be somewhere," Elvira murmured. "We still have more floors to search. Let's go."





Blossoming Meadow
4F

Arian and Elvira scoured the third floor as thoroughly as the first two for the missing child. They battled the various wild Pokémon of the Dungeon, of which there were Cottonee, Cutiefly, Zigzagoon, Pom-Pom Oricorio, Weedle, Kakuna, Silcoon and Beautifly. All the while, they kept a lookout for the child of the Florges, presumed to be a Flabébé.

But the third floor yielded no sign of the lost Pokémon.

"One more floor to check," Arian said. "I hope Iona's here. Otherwise, we may have a problem on our hands…

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Elvira said. "Let's get to looking."

Arian led the way down the southeast exit, Elvira following behind. Once again, a multitude of flowers in a plethora of different colours greeted them on the hedgerows. Both Pokémon searched the hedgerows for a potential Flabébé, but no luck greeted them.

Before they were out of the corridor, a Pom-Pom Oricorio confronted them, dancing on its feet as it flew at Arian, striking him with a Pound.

"...You like to dance, huh?" Arian said, looking at the Dancing Pokémon. "Then let's dance." His claws turned a metallic sheen. "Let's dance with our moves!"

He lunged forward, slashing the Oricorio with Metal Claw. The bird staggered back a bit from the attack, before moving in with a Peck. The speed was quick, and unfortunately, Arian couldn't dodge out of the way in time. He was hit in the right shoulder, eliciting a cry of pain from the Riolu.

"Arian!" Elvira cried, worried for her teammate. "Hold on, I'll help you!" She dashed forward with a Quick Attack.

"Thanks, Elvira!" Arian returned, before unleashing another Metal Claw upon the Oricorio. This strike was enough, and the Dancing Pokémon fainted.

"Are you alright, Arian?" Elvira asked.

"...A bit sore. But I'll be fine," assured the Riolu. "Do you have an oran berry?"

"I do." The Treecko handed him one. "Look out for Flying-type moves like that one. ...You don't look too bad, at least. We can keep moving."

They eventually reached the end of the corridor, which opened out into a huge room with a number of different exits. A number of flower patches were present in the room, meaning more places to look for the Flabébé, if the child was indeed one.

"Well, let's start looking here," Arian said. "...Hello? Anyone here? Anyone?"

His voice echoed around the room. But no response returned to him.

"...They're not here," Elvira mournfully noted.

"Let's not jump to conclusions so quickly," Arian replied. "Let's look around. It could be possible they're trying to keep quiet in order to let the wild Pokémon not detect them."

And so they did this, scouring every flower patch for the child. But by the time they were nearing the other side of the room, there was no sign of a Flabébé or any Pokémon like that. The two were also sidetracked by combating against a Beautifly and a Cottonee that had wandered into the room, and so the focus was for a time taken off the search.

But soon they returned to it, and Arian was investigating a flowerbed over by one of the room's exits. Elvira was over by one of the other flower patches, across from him.

Hmm...no sign of any Pokémon here, he thought to himself. I wonder...does Elvira have any clues?

Then he heard it.

"...*sniffle**sniffle*..."

Hm? What's that noise?
Arian's attention was grasped by what he'd heard. Where's it coming from?

"I couldn't find anything, Arian," Elvira called from across. "Should we move on to - "

"Shh," Arian interrupted. "...Hold on a minute, Elvira."

"What is it, Arian?" she wondered. "Do you hear something?"

"I think." The Riolu closed his eyes, and listened to the sounds of the meadow. The chirping of distant Oricorio, the rustling of leaves, the gentle blow of the breeze…

"*sniffle**sniffle*"

"There it is again," murmured Arian.

"There's what again?" Elvira wondered. "I don't hear anything."

"I'm definitely hearing something. It's faint, but it almost sounds like...someone crying? I think that's what it is."

"Someone crying? The crying of a lost child, perhaps?" Elvira presumed. "Which way, Arian?"

"That way." Arian pointed to the path he was next to, the southwest path. "It's down this path." He began his walk down the corridor, with Elvira following close behind.

With his ears pricked, he caught the sound more clearly. It did indeed sound like crying, and specifically, it sounded akin to the sobs of a young girl. In other words...just who they were looking for.

"It's here," Arian said, stopping in front of a flower patch. "The crying's coming from around here. Hello? Is anyone there?"

He scanned the patch of flowers. A plethora of colours greeted him back. Red, yellow, blue, white, violet…

Wait a minute. Arian looked closer at an area where a number of yellow flowers were located. Oddly enough, though, amidst the yellow, there was one red flower that looked decidedly out of place. Not to mention, it was moving, but not with the breeze.

It was as if someone very small was holding it. Someone...like a Flabébé.

Arian and Elvira looked at each other.

Bingo. We've found her.

"Um, excuse me? Flabébé?" Elvira chose to say.

"Eek!" a small voice squealed, and the flower, along with the little fairy that held it, jumped into the air. "Please don't eat me! I taste terrible!"

"We're not here to eat you," Arian placated. "We're here to get you out of here and back to your home." He spoke a bit more tenderly, knowing he was talking to a child.

"...R-Really?" the Flabébé sniffled. Now that the two could see her clearly, it was evident from her face that the sprite had been crying. "Wh-Who are you guys?"

"I'm Elvira, and this is Arian," the former introduced. "You're Iona, right?"

"H-How do you know?"

"Your mom told us. She's worried sick about you."

"My mommy? Oh no..." Tears pricked in the Flabébé's eyes. "I don't want to make Mommy sad."

"She'll be happy when she sees you again," Arian replied, his voice still having that same softness to it. "She'll be relieved that her child's safe and sound."

"Don't worry, Iona. We'll get you out of this Dungeon," promised Elvira. "We just have to find the exit first. Stay with us, and we'll get you there. And don't worry; we're not Thorned Roses. You don't have to be scared of us."

"...Th-Thank you," Iona said, still tearful. "Mommy said I should never talk to strangers. But you guys seem alright."

"We are. Not all strangers are bad people," Arian said to her. "Some...aren't so nice, but there are people out there who will help you. Like now."

"Speaking of which, we should probably get out of here. A feral could attack at any time," Elvira warned.

"Good point," Arian accepted. "Stay by our side at all times, Iona. There's still dangerous Pokémon out there."

"...They nearly got me…" Iona recalled, shaking slightly. "That's why I hid. But...I've been stuck here for hours, and I don't know how to get out of here. Please, please help me..."

"Of course we will. Don't worry," reassured Elvira. "We'll protect you from any wild Pokémon that try to attack us."

And so it was arranged that Iona would travel between Arian and Elvira, in order to keep her safe from any attacking Pokémon. It was lucky for them that the only foe they encountered on the way to the exit was a Zigzagoon, which Arian dispatched quickly with a Force Palm.

The corridor after this, the trio spotted the stairs.

"There they are," Arian gestured, pointing to them. "Let's get out of here."

"Yes. The sooner we reunite Iona with her mother, the better," Elvira said.

And so the three went up the steps.





Blossoming Meadow
Grove

Once they reached the top of the steps, they could immediately see surroundings of a more normal nature, implying they were out of Blossoming Meadow's Mystery Dungeon.

"Finally," Arian said, breathing a sigh of relief. "Back to normal surroundings. Boy, Mystery Dungeons are weird places…"

"Yeah, you're right! They're so weird!" chirped Iona in concurrence.

"Don't look at me," Elvira said, once the gazes of the other two fell on her. "I didn't make them. And I didn't choose to put one here. ...Though, that said, once you get through the Mystery Dungeon, this is a lovely place to visit." She turned to look away from the exit, and towards the grove.

Arian blinked, in bewilderment. Just like in the Mystery Dungeon, flowers of all different colours greeted his gaze. However, because there were no narrow corridors or walls, it was a perfect field of flowers, unconstrained by the labyrinthine Mystery Dungeon.

"Wow…" the Riolu remarked, enchanted by the sight. "It's beautiful…"

"Mommy and I wanted to see this place," Iona informed. "To get away from those meanies. Because Dad's not here anymore…and Mommy didn't want me to disappear too…"

"That's so cruel," Arian replied. "How they tore apart a family like this…" He remembered their mission. "We'll find out what happened to him, Iona. Don't worry."

"You will? …Please," Iona begged. "I want Daddy back…I love him so much. Why did they take him away…?"

"We don't know. But we'll find out." Just the sight of the little fairy on the verge of tears made Elvira determined to get to the bottom of this mystery.

"Thank you…" The Flabébé then looked around the grove. "Um…can we pick flowers? I wanna make Mommy happy, because she's been so sad since Daddy was taken away…"

"Sure," Arian permitted. "In fact, there's something we need to find here too. It's the other reason we came here in the first place."

"How about I pick flowers with Iona, and you look for the torc?" suggested Elvira.

"Sounds like a plan."

And so it was arranged, with Elvira picking a small bundle of roses to carry back to town. Arian, meanwhile, hunted down the item.

A torc…That's like a neck ring in a crescent moon shape, isn't it? He peered around the grove. Just like Iona, this'll be easier said than done. So many flowers that it could be hiding under…

He needn't have worried, though. As it turned out, the Sandy Torc Conall and Caitríona were looking for was in a patch of grass where there were no flowers.

"Got it!" Arian called to the other two, holding the item up.

"Good job, Arian," Elvira commended. "Now that we have both Iona and the torc, let's head back to town."

With that, the three of them walked out of the meadow and back to the main road.





"And so we managed to beat those two Thorned Roses and save Elvira's friend," Arian was saying to Flora, relaying the events of the day before.

"Cool! You won against them?" Iona was in awe. "Go, Arian and Elvira!"

"Thanks, Iona. But then it was for a friend, and you'd do anything for friends. Wouldn't you, Elvira?"

"You would," agreed the Treecko. Her attention then directed to the road ahead of them. "...Oh. There's the edge of town. Hang on a minute." She dug into the bag of coins, searching for 100P for the toll.

"Oh, the toll," guessed Iona.

"Yeah," Elvira said, with a tone of slight annoyance.

"You paid them before when going out to the meadow, did you, Iona?" Arian wondered.

"No," Iona denied. "Me and Mommy snuck past when they weren't looking."

"Really?" The amnesiac was surprised to hear this. "Wasn't that dangerous?

"No. There was no one at the gate when me and Mommy came through," insisted Iona. "I'm telling the truth! There really was no one there!"

"Hmm…" Arian's paw went to his chin. "What could this mean?"

"...It could've just been a change of guard duty," Elvira reasoned. "It could've happened that they were in the middle of it when you came up, Iona."

"...Maybe," Arian said, thoughtfully. "But let's wonder about that later. Let's get Iona back to her home."

They walked up to the gate. Based on what the Flabébé had told them, the Riolu was hopeful that perhaps there'd be no one on the other side of the gate this time as well. Hopefully they're in the middle of a duty change. ...Please, if there is a god up there…

"Halt!"

Damn it.

The Krokorok from earlier had his claw held out. "Ya wanna come in 'ere, ya hand over the goods! " He then looked at the two again. "...Oi, ain't ya the two from before?"

"They are," the Gligar from before confirmed. "It's the same two from before. ...Along with a Flabébé."

"...Whatever," the Krokorok dismissed. "Pay up."

"...Here's the money," Elvira said, presenting the sand crocodile with 100P. "Now can we go in?"

"Go. Scram!"

"With pleasure," Arian scathingly returned, before walking into the city, with Elvira and Iona following him.

"I wouldn't say things like that, Arian," Elvira warned. "We don't want to get to get too much on their bad side. Otherwise…"

"Right." The human saw her point. "Sorry."

"Now then, Iona," Elvira asked. "Do you know where you live?"

"Hmm…" The Flabébé examined the streets, before her eyes lit up in recognition. "It's down that way." She pointed to the street on their right, which happened to be the way they came to the front of town.

"All right. Lead the way, Iona."

And so the two went down the back alley, with Iona leading the way. They went past the same miserable, boarded up houses that they'd gone by earlier, and once again, Arian got the same feeling from earlier of that ever-lingering fear. It was unsettling, and the human silently wished to himself that the search for Iona's house wouldn't take much longer.

Thankfully for him, it didn't. The Flabébé floated to one of the houses with boards on the outside.

"This is my house," she told Arian and Elvira. "Now, to let Mommy know…" She floated up to one of the timber boards, before, to the surprise of the other two, she was able to pull one slightly outwards and knock with it. And not just any knock - it was five slow knocks, carried out in such a way as if it was meant to be different to a normal knock.

There was a brief silence. But then, the door opened, and a Florges came into view.

"Hi, Mommy!" Iona greeted.

"Iona?!" cried the Florges. "Oh, thank goodness you're here! I thought you might never come home…" She embraced her daughter with relieved joy.

"Me too. I thought I'd be stuck in there," the Flabébé replied. "But these nice people saved me."

"You saved her." The Florges's attention turned to the other two Pokémon standing outside the door. "Thank you so much. Iona means the world to me. If I lost her forever, I don't know what I would do…"

"Here you go, Mommy!" Iona presented the roses to her. "I got these for you! You've been so sad since Daddy's gone, so I wanted to cheer you up!"

"Roses?" The Florges took them. "Thank you so much, Iona. I really haven't been looking after the flowers since your father was taken away. I'll cherish these."

She then turned to Arian and Elvira.

"How can I ever repay you back? I'm afraid we don't have much in the way of money, but...I can think of a gift to give you two as thanks for saving Iona. Hold on for a minute, I'll go get it."

The Florges returned into the house. A minute later, she returned with something wrapped in cloth.

"Here you go. It's nanab bread," she said, handing it to Arian. "I made it yesterday. I hope it satisfies you."

"Oh, I like nanab bread," Elvira replied, a smile crossing her face. "Of course it does. You don't have to worry about any more repayment."

"...Good. Anyway, it's getting late." Iona's mother looked up at the sky, where the evening was setting in. "It's nearing your bedtime, Iona."

"Okay, Mommy," Iona obliged.

"And that goes for you two as well," the Florges added, looking at Arian and Elvira. "Take care. The Thorned Roses don't take kindly to those out past curfew."

"Understood. Thanks for that advice," Elvira thanked. "...We should get going, Arian, and give the torc back to the merchants."

"Right. Thanks very much!" Arian said to Iona's mother.

"I bid you a safe journey," the Florges returned. "May Lunala's light guide your path."

The door closed in front of them.

"That's one thing done," the Riolu said. "Now, to return the torc…"





"Ah, you found it! Good! I knew you kids had it in ya."

Conall and Caitríona were closing down their stall for the day when Arian and Elvira approached them and gave them the Sandy Torc. Conall gazed with delight at the item, and Caitríona was looking similarly pleased.

"Thank you very much for finding this," the Sandslash said gratefully.

"Well, as promised, here's your reward." Conall reached for some funds, and gave 150P to the duo.

"Thank you." Elvira filed the money. "But don't forget that you promised us something else."

"Ah yes, of course. What we know about the disappearances." The Lycanroc considered his words. "Hate to tell ya that we don't know much either."

"What? But you said you had information!" Arian protested.

"We don't know much," Conall clarified. "Just a snippet. What apparently happens to the folks who are taken away is that they're all rounded up and taken somewhere. But where they're taken is kept strictly under wraps. The only ones that seem to know are Hinnerk and Mikhail, that Seviper right hand of his."

"Mikhail?" That name alone made Arian shiver, still remembering him from earlier in the day.

"Yup. It really is tight-lipped. Oh, and while we're at it, here's some more info," Conall added. "There aren't actually as many folks in the Thorned Roses as you'd think."

"Really?" Neither of the duo were expecting that.

"Yeah, we've noticed that, haven't we, Ríona?" Conall said to her. "It's the same people all the time doing the patrols and watching us like Braviary. And it's also what our lot have figured out too."

"So…they don't have much macho behind that intimidation, huh?" Arian was taking this into consideration.

"That doesn't mean they're not dangerous, Arian," Elvira warned. "They've kept a hold on this town for five years, and have made people disappear. We can't underestimate them even slightly."

"You have that right. We're taking a massive risk even saying these things right now," Caitríona said. "Conall, I think that's enough."

"But I'm not done yet," whined the Lycanroc. "Just one more thing, you two. Where do you live?"

"Where we live?" Elvira was somewhat sceptical. "Why do you want to know?"

"To keep in touch. In case we have any more info to give. We want to find out that mystery you two are after too."

"...Not far outside the south of town, towards Lukomoria," the Treecko revealed, after some consideration.

"Great. Thanks a bunch."

"You two should be on your way," Caitríona advised. "Curfew will be soon, and I daren't imagine what will happen if the Thorned Roses find you out past it."

"We'll be on our way, then," Elvira said. "Thanks a lot for the info, you two."

"Anytime. Hope to see you around," Conall returned.

"Bye!" Arian waved to them as they left.

The two headed off to Tamara's house, to go through the tunnel that lead to the south end of town.

"So…all in all, I'd say that day was a success," Arian summarised.

"It was. I enjoyed working with you, Arian," Elvira said, with a smile on her face.

"I did too." The Riolu found her smile infectious, and he had a grin on his face in seconds. "Let's go back to your place and tell Zenobia all about today. Today may not have been a wholly smooth ride, but it was an adventure all right."

"It was. And I did find out a few more things about you," Elvira added. "Who knew you were good with kids?"

"Yeah. I'm surprising even myself with that," Arian mused. "More stuff will come out in future, no doubt. Anyway...shall we get home?"

"Yes. Let's head."

They ended up treading the same paths they'd walked earlier that day. As they made their way back to Tamara's house, where the tunnel to the outside lay, Elvira reflected on what they'd achieved.

We have a connection now, with Caitríona and Conall. I don't know what they'll provide, but they mean well. We're still nowhere close to figuring out the mystery of those disappearances, though, other than only Hinnerk and Mikhail really know what the truth is. I guess we'll just have to dig for more clues tomorrow. Everything's going well so far. Please let this good streak last a while longer…

She looked up at the evening sky.

Are you up there, Dad? I don't know if you are or not, but if you are up there...watch over me, will you?

And if you aren't up there…then I'll find you, wherever you are.






Notes

I tried to envision Ozerograd in the style of many towns we see in medieval fantasy games. The setting for the world of Ardalion is a rustic one, just like the other Mystery Dungeon games, so I'm sticking to that model.

The last message on the graffiti was intentional, and meant to reflect graffiti language we would see in real life. But of course I would not reveal such language here, hence why Arian turned away before it could be read. I intend to keep this at a T rating, after all.

Also, Ozerograd translates to 'lake town' in Russian. As a supplementary note, Lake Lazurny was named for its colour: 'lazurnyy' means 'azure' in Russian. And Selenia is derived from the Russian 'zelenyy', meaning 'green', as a reference to the country's lush greenery that I envision it to be.

Why Russian? ...No particular reason, really. But when I was making this story, the idea came to me to use different names and etymologies for each country, its locations and the people that live there. As for what would be called Selenia, I decided to use Slavic names for the country. There'll be more examples of this naming in the other countries to come, and I'll explain them when we get to them.

There will be exceptions, though, like the fact that several characters already have had names that decidedly are not Slavic, like Flora. I look at it this way: in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 they employed a similar system of giving different accents to characters from each region. But not every character in that region necessarily has a name adhering to that dialect(e.g. not every Gormotti has a Welsh name, not every Ardainian has a Scottish name, etc. If you've played it, you probably know what I mean). Also, Mystery Dungeon names won't usually apply to this, and they'll typically have names reminiscent to Dungeons in the games.

Speaking of Mystery Dungeons, I won't cover every floor that our heroes go through from here on. Just the ones where something notable happens or an important conversation carries out on that floor.

That's all for now. Thanks for reading, and see you next time.

Updates(16/12/22): Early chapter updates. Expansion of the Thorned Roses making townsfolk disappear, as well as adding a new errand that Caitríona and Conall give to the group in exchange for info and contact information. It better rounds out the eventual connection made.
 
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Chapter 7

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 7
Intrigue

Just about every basic structure had a leader to them. Whether it was a country, fiefdom, city or town, there was always some structure of systematic hierarchy in place. A king ruled over a country. He in turn entrusted the management of land to his vassals in exchange for loyalty and allegiance. The vassals looked after the land and collected taxes from the people, thereby keeping the country functioning.

This was true in Selenia, where the tsar entrusted oblasts to smaller dynasties who administered smaller matters within them. It was a system rigidly placed with hundreds of years of precedent, one that even the new regime of Mitrofan couldn't undo. And so lands were doled out in the fashion of old, some to lords who switched allegiances from a tsarist position to him, and also to lucky individuals.

Among these individuals stood a certain Obstagoon that had become infamous among those who he presided over in the Ozerograd oblast. He hadn't been given his land; rather, he'd taken it by force by killing the previous lord and lady, taking over residence in their villa and instilling himself as the self-proclaimed leader of the area. The nature of his takeover also attracted the seedier, roguish types to his side, and he created a gang out of them, which he called the Thorned Roses. They kept his leadership intact through quashing resistance and through intimidation, violence and other shady methods.

Meanwhile, he would be the head honcho of it all, living the life of a lord and indulging in all the privileges that status brought. He spent most of his time out of town, in a villa not far from Ozerograd itself. He made sure to take full advantage of the previous lord's living conditions, guzzling exotic foods, and frequently raiding the wine cellar, usually becoming incredibly inebriated as a result of his excessive drinking.

He also had luxurious furnishings in the villa, and he had servants to obey his every word. They were Thorned Roses, of course - he wouldn't have wanted the servants of the previous lord for fear of possible reprisal by them. It would be all too easy to slip poison into his wine and kill him that way. He was one to cut out potential problems at the root, rather than let them sprout later on.

He may have been strong, but it never hurt to be prepared. Thus, he engaged in training as a pastime to keep him vigilant.

Right now, the Obstagoon was laying into training dummies down by the shoreline of Lake Lazurny. A path led from the villa down to the lake, and floodgates had been set up along the path, just in case the lake's flooding reached that high. Granted, given the recent warm weather, there was little worry of this.

The sound of splintering wood came as Hinnerk slashed the dummy to pieces with a finishing blow in Night Slash. It didn't stand a chance against the Normal and Dark-type's force, and crumbled to pieces in a pile.

He reflected on his situation, as top dog of the Thorned Roses. Even among his men, he was fearsome, and some of them had been on the receiving end of his wrath for daring to speak up to him. In some cases, they had been servants, and admittedly, that did make him slightly paranoid that they might try and kill him in some way.

Maybe it'd be better to have no one serving me in that house, he thought to himself, before dismissing that thought. Nah. We all live for a day when we don't have to work. I'm not passing up being served by servants. Honestly...that's a dream life. Who the hell would pass that opportunity up?

Two names sprung to mind. And immediately, his mood soured.

...Well, not unless you're a certain team consisting of a do-gooder mudfish and a smug gecko with a tree stuck up his ass. Honest to Arceus...what's the point in going all the way to Grandmaster Rank and not accept all the honours that come with all that fame? Who in their right mind would pass that up? It's wasted on people like them!

Hinnerk found himself growling and his teeth gnashing at the thought of the two figures that had come into his head. And I was having a pretty good day too, he thought to himself. But even when they're not here, those two bastards still manage to be the most irritating pricks to ever have walked Ardalion. Honestly...I'm gonna need another fill of wine to forget those thoughts.

With his mind made up as to what to do next, the Obstagoon made his way back up to the villa, readying himself for another plundering of the wine cellar. It may have only been around mid-morning, but Hinnerk was vexed enough by his thoughts to want to suppress them with alcohol.

He climbed the path to the top, past the floodgates. He reached the villa and was about to head inside, when…

"Ah, there you are, Boss. There was me thinking you were passed out on the canapé again from one of your drunken binges."

The Obstagoon turned around in a slight huff, and saw none other than Mikhail. And behind him were a pair of Pokémon. Specifically, Bruno and Vivian, both of whom wore an expression that wished they were anywhere but here.

This was, of course, due to Hinnerk's fearsomeness. But that image of him could not have been cultivated well enough if Mikhail wasn't the second-in-command of the Thorned Roses. He was an able strategist, whose cunning and wit enabled them to effectively gather a motley crew of misfits and ruffians and organised them into a gang that would be able to reinforce Hinnerk's power and make the people of Ozerograd cower in submission to him and the Thorned Roses. Without Mikhail, Hinnerk would not be where he was now.

But this morning, due to his sudden foul mood, the Obstagoon wished himself that the viper was elsewhere. He was in no mood to deal with him and his wily manner.

"What is it, Mikhail?" Hinnerk demanded, not making an effort to disguise his annoyance. "This better be good. If it isn't, then piss off."

"My, we're in a foul mood today, aren't we?" observed the Seviper. "But then that's what happens when you quaff alcohol like it's water on a daily basis. You wouldn't want to be known as Hinnerk the Drunken Imbecile, do you?"

"Shut up, Mikhail!" growled the Obstagoon. "Now what the hell are you here for?" His attention was then drawn to the two Pokémon behind Mikhail. "And why do you have two runts with you?"

"For one simple reason: they failed their mission." The Seviper turned to face the duo behind him. "You shouldn't have failed to apprehend that girl."

"It wasn't our fault!" protested Vivian. "We would've got her if those stupid do-gooders hadn't showed up!"

"Yeah!" Bruno seconded. "W-We're not disloyal to you, Boss, really! It was as Vivian said! It was out of our hands!"

"Honestly, do you hear that desperation, Hinnerk?" Mikhail dismissed. "It's like a herd of wild Wooloo bleating sometimes. At least come up with better excuses in front of the Boss. How pathetic, Bruno and Vivian."

"Bruno and Vivian…" Hinnerk scanned the two. "Oh yes, I remember now. The rookies that joined sometime back. The Meowth and that Deino boy with a girl's name." He snickered at this, looking at the dragon in question. "Vivian...Who the hell gave you that name in the first place? Was your voice too high-pitched to tell?"

Vivian was on the cusp of giving a retort. But he remembered who he was speaking to, and reluctantly held his tongue.

"So what did Girl's Name and the other runt fail in?" the Thorned Roses' leader asked. "Was it something serious? It better not have been." He glared at the rookies, whose fear only increased tenfold.

"Thankfully, no. They were to apprehend a girl whose family's behind on rent payments," Mikhail informed. "They had the perfect opportunity, and squandered it. He looked over at the two in acknowledgment. "Tell the Boss exactly how you failed that simple task. Any excuses, and it's straight to latrine duty."

Bruno and Vivian gulped when faced with the demanding leers of Hinnerk and Mikhail. The former swallowed his fear and spoke up.

"Two friends of the girl came along to save her," the Meowth began. "And they were a lot stronger than we thought. ...We lost to them," he admitted, embarrassed and ashamed.

"They were talking heroic crap about how they were going to help Selenia in its darkest hour. Or something like that," Vivian recalled scathingly. "That Riolu...Could he have been any more annoying? Talking like he was number one...He talked shit about the Thorned Roses, too. Said he hadn't even heard of us.

"He was weird, too. His eyes were green, even though Riolu's eyes are normally red," elaborated Bruno. "...Stupid twit. He'll get what's coming to him. That Treecko, too."

Hinnerk was half-listening to the explanation the rookies were giving him, not really caring at first. However, at Bruno's last statement, he suddenly snapped to attention.

A Treecko?

"A Riolu and a Treecko…" Mikhail murmured. "They might well be those two I encountered in the main square yesterday. That same Riolu talked back to me as well, as if he was some big shot. ...My Poison Tail showed him." He grinned evilly at the memory.

"...So that Riolu's a problem, then," Hinnerk noted. "...But I'm more curious about the Treecko. What did you glean about them?"

"...Hmm…" The Seviper racked his brains. "...I didn't notice any defining traits about the Treecko. The only thing I could say is that she was a girl around late adolescence, if I had to make an educated guess. ...I couldn't say for sure. To me, the Riolu was the greater drawer of attention of the two of them." He looked at his boss, curiosity in his eyes. "...Why do you ask? Why are you so curious about the Treecko?

"...Oh, it's just...something," Hinnerk replied. "Just a hunch, really. You two!" His raised voice made the Meowth and Deino jump. "Did you get names for them?"

"Names? Um…" Bruno racked his brains. "What was that Treecko called? Elvina? No...Elvira. Yes, it was Elvira!"

The mention of that name made Hinnerk think back. It was familiar. He'd definitely heard it being mentioned before.

Elvira…

With that name, a half-forgotten memory came back to him.





Seven years ago...

Hinnerk walked through the back streets of Iria, clutching a sack. He had been tasked to transport a valuable commodity by his overheads, and he obliged dutifully, knowing that his reward would be a lucrative one. At one point, he stopped, and looked through the small sack once more, double-checking that nothing had fallen out. That wouldn't end well for me if it did.

He continued along the alley, strutting on all fours as a Linoone. He had not yet evolved, although he was putting in hours at night time in order to potentially trigger the evolution.

It'll happen one day, he kept assuring himself.

He wasn't too much further to his destination, at least. Just another bit to go, and…


"Hah...Finally, we're out of there."

The sound of the voice made Hinnerk freeze. Especially given that he knew who that voice belonged to.


What? What the hell is Kallias doing here?! No, no, no...if he sees me, then I'm doomed! Quickly, he looked for a hiding place. But there wasn't anywhere completely foolproof, so he had to make do with some stacked beer kegs. Please don't come down this far, please don't come down this far...he silently begged.

"You're telling me," a second voice sounded out. "I never thought we'd get out of there."

Shit...Melchior's here too?

"Who would've thought it'd come to this in our lives?" Kallias's voice spoke, with slight mirth in it. "I mean, I'm grateful for the praise, but...it does wear on you when you just want to go home to the Guild. After all, I did promise Elvira I'd be home for her hatch day. I don't want to be away like last time."

"It's not for another few days, though," Melchior pointed out. "You've got time, Kallias."

"Yes, time. Time enough for the Tropius Carriers to deliver it," Kallias said. "That Dresilian merchant did promise me he'd have everything ready before then."

"Let's hope he followed through," Melchior replied. "That would be most unfortunate, if the hatch day gift arrived late."

"True. I do love my little girl." Kallias's voice spoke with tenderness. "She and Zenobia mean the world to me. And I don't want to let Elvira down like last hatch day. To think she'll be eleven already...She's growing up fast. Before you know it, she'll be apprenticing at the Guild. And I'm sure when that happens, she'll be the happiest girl in the world."

"I imagine she will," Melchior agreed. "...You're not going to give it to her right away, though, are you?"

"No, too soon," dismissed Kallias. "Not until she's a teenager, at least. But that's not too far away. Time flies, alright. My little girl will be a Grovyle before we know it. That's what it feels like these days."

"Sure does," Melchior agreed. "...Hmm...I think the coast is clear. The crowd appeared to miss us."

"Thank the gods for that," Kallias replied, relief present in his voice. "My arms ache after signing all those autographs. I just want to get back to the Guild…"

"Let's go, then," Melchior replied. Then, to the immense relief of the Linoone in the alley, the duo strolled away back into the main streets.

...Thank Arceus they didn't see me, Hinnerk thought, breathing a sigh of relief. It'd be one thing to be spotted. But by Team Marshwood of all people? I'd never live it down. Now then...once the coast is clear, time to get out of sight.

After a short wait to make sure the Sceptile and Swampert were gone, the Linoone continued down the alleyway.





It had been a close call of a moment, back then, trying to avoid detection. And frankly, it was a moment that he had dreaded on reflection, being so close to being caught by Kallias and Melchior, two individuals he loathed with a passion.

But now...it proved to highlight to him an important fact that he typically dismissed before this.

Fernblade Kallias had a daughter named Elvira. And now there was a Treecko by the name of Elvira that had defeated two of his henchmen.

...There's no way in hell that's a coincidence. I'd stake my whole claim to Ozerograd on it. ...So, like father, like daughter, eh? Typical. Just typical. Even when Kallias has disappeared off the face of the world, his spawn takes his place.

...But they're not the same,
he then thought to himself. Fernblade Kallias was in a league of his own. There's no way his kid's as powerful as he is. She's just a Treecko, after all. Which means...I may be able to reel her in.

A devilish smile appeared on the Obstagoon's lips.

"...Hinnerk?" questioned Mikhail, not knowing why his boss's foul mood had given way to a smirk.

"Change of plans, Mikhail," Hinnerk announced. "We have a Treecko to hunt."

"Do we now? Why the haste?" Mikhail wondered.

"Revenge, Mikhail." Hinnerk grinned evilly. "I've a strong hunch that Treecko is Fernblade Kallias's daughter."

"Fernblade Kallias's daughter?" The Seviper cocked his head. "You really think so?"

"I'm certain of it. If this Treecko conveniently named Elvira doesn't happen to have any relation to that smug bastard, then I'll eat carpet," Hinnerk replied. "He had a kid named Elvira, that puffed-up do-gooder. I'll be damned if it's a coincidence. And I can't think of a better way to get revenge on Fernblade Kallias by doing away with his little girl."

"A wonderful idea," Mikhail agreed, his expression taking on the same evil grin that Hinnerk was sporting. "That would be a delicious act of karma, wouldn't it?"

"Indeed, it would." Hinnerk licked his lips. "Looks like we got ourselves a wench to hunt. Scour the surrounding area for her, and when you find her, make sure to bring her back to me. But don't kill her. I want to be the one to send her to Yveltal's embrace."

"Understood. I'll get around to dispatching men to look for her." The Seviper then gestured to the two behind him. "But first of all. For your failure, you two are assigned to sewer treatment."

"Oh come on! Really?" protested Bruno. "But we told you about the girl's name!"

"Doesn't matter. You lost to her," Mikhail dismissed. "Now hop to it! Those sewers won't clean themselves!"

"Fine," accepted the Meowth reluctantly. "Vivian, let's just do it and get it over with."

"...Alright," sighed Vivian in defeat, before they turned around to leave.

"Don't worry, Hinnerk. I won't let you down," pledged Mikhail. "We'll find Fernblade Kallias's girl. And that Riolu, too. They'll make fine sacrifices." With that, the viper turned and made his way back to town with his two subordinates.

"They sure will, Mikhail," the Obstagoon grinned, as he left. "It's annoying, though. His little girl has been hiding under my nose all this time, has she? If only I'd known that sooner...Oh well. Better late than never, I suppose." He turned his back and got ready to head into the villa.

Before he entered the building, Hinnerk looked to the blue sky, up to the heavens. A taunting smile crossed his face.

That'll show you, Fernblade Kallias. After the way you ruined my life...I'd be all too happy to snuff the life from the girl that meant everything to you.


"Mmm...this is rather nice," Zenobia commented, after eating a piece of nanab bread. "It's as good as mine, I'd say."

"Oh no, I wouldn't say so," Elvira replied. "This is good, but...nothing compares to your nanab bread, Mom."

"I haven't made it in a while. Perhaps when this leg of mine heals, I'll get around to making some."

It was the morning after Arian and Elvira had returned home from their escapade in Blossoming Meadow. They regaled that day's exploits to Zenobia over dinner, and the Heliolisk congratulated them for their selflessness in jumping in to save the young Flabébé. The two Pokémon went to bed not long after, satisfied that they'd done a good day's work.

Now it was the next morning, and the three occupants of the house were eating breakfast. However, instead of preparing her own breakfast, Zenobia wished to try some of the nanab bread loaf that Arian and Elvira brought home the night prior. The two agreed, and so nanab bread was that morning's dish.

"We would need nanab berries, though," Elvira pointed out. "And that's something I haven't seen in the marketplace for a while. Because all the merchants have been scared off."

"What about someone like Conall and Caitríona?" suggested Arian. "Would they sell them?"

"They weren't selling them yesterday. Just items for Mystery Dungeon delving," the Treecko replied. "I wonder if they have any more intel for us."

"Guess we'll see when we go back into town today," Arian said.

"Going into town…" A worried look crossed Zenobia's face. "Are you sure, you two?"

"Well…" Elvira's reply faltered when she saw the concern in her mother's eyes.

"We need to figure out what's going with the Thorned Roses," Arian reasoned. "We won't be able to find out anything without going into town."

"I understand that. I really do." Zenobia's worry did not waver. "But think of yourselves as well. The fact that Arian was attacked and poisoned yesterday without provocation is only proof of the kinds of tricks the Thorned Roses will pull. If you must go into town, then please, please be careful…"

"Don't worry, Mom. We will be," Elvira assured. However, she didn't sound so confident after hearing that speech from her mother. Arian could sense the sadness and doubt in her.

She got up and went to clean up. But at that moment, knocking was heard on the front door.

"Who could that be?" wondered Zenobia.

"I'll get it," Elvira volunteered. She made her way out of the room and down the hallway.

"I'll go as well," Arian seconded, and followed Elvira. The Treecko reached the front door, and opened it.

Outside were two Pokémon. One of them was a pink, white and red insect-like Pokémon with two long scythes and a striped pattern along its legs. The other was a familiar face to the duo - a Petilil.

"Oh, hello, Flora," greeted Elvira. "And Vardan as well. …It's good to see you."

"Likewise," the other Pokémon returned. The voice of it was masculine, which was something of a surprise to Arian; their colouration did look a tad feminine to him. "It's good to see you again, Elvira. It's nice to meet your partner too." He looked over her shoulder at the Riolu just behind her. "Arian, was it? Flora told me all about you. I'm Vardan, her father. It's good to meet you."

"Oh, er, you too," returned Arian, somewhat awkwardly. He looked away slightly, and then his gaze fell on Flora. "Hi, Flora."

"You're not great at introductions, are you?" the Petilil snarked.

"Don't be rude, Flora," Vardna chastised. "You said he was "You said he had amnesia. He's likely still getting adjusted to this new reality of his." He turned back to Arian. "I'm probably the first Lurantis you've seen, I presume?"

"Yeah. I haven't seen anyone like you before," Arian confirmed. "Then again, I haven't seen much since waking up."

"Why did you come out here, Vardan?" Elvira wondered. "Flora, I understand. But why you as well?"

"Well, I came to see you and your mother," the Lurantis elaborated. "But there's another reason too, involving the two of you. Could we go in and discuss it?"

"Of course. Come on in," Elvira permitted.

And so the two visitors ended up having tea with the three residents of the house. Vardan brought some persim tea leaves, which brought another new taste to Arian's lips. He found he rather liked it. The taste wasn't a blessing on his lips - it wasn't quite that flavourful to him - but it was alright.

"So how are things going in town?" Zenobia asked, taking a sip of tea.

"Same as always," Vardan replied, giving something of a chuckle with a light hint of bitterness. "Thorned Roses everywhere, everyone being fearful of them, and therefore people tend to only go out if they absolutely have to. It's not been great for business, to say the least. But we're getting by, somehow."

"And how's Diantha?" the Heliolisk queried. "I see she couldn't be with you today."

"No. She's holding down the fort while we're out here," explained the Lurantis. "She sends her regards, though. Oh, and she hopes you get better soon as well."

"I hope so, too. It's been quite limiting," agreed Zenobia, looking down at her injured leg. "On the upside, though, I've finally been able to dig into that bookshelf and find some literature. I've been re-reading the Mystery Dungeon Tales series. My goodness, it's bringing back memories of when Kallias showed that series to me. I'm going to jump right back into it once we're done here."

"All that talk about books and stories...You really are a family of bookworms," Flora remarked.

"Yes, and proud to be one," the Heliolisk countered. "Books are a gateway to another world. A brilliant escape from a grim reality. You should read with me, Flora."

"Maybe," the Petilil deflected.

"So you'll be looking after Mom for the day," Elvira said to Flora. "But why are you here, Vardan?"

"Okay, there's a bit of a story to this one. This morning, Rosa came into our shop. And unusually for the woman, she was in a good mood. When I asked her about it, she told me that her daughter had been rescued from Blossoming Meadow by two young Pokémon. They were none other than a Riolu and a Treecko by the name of Arian and Elvira."

"...Rosa? Would she be a Florges, by any chance?" Elvira asked.

"Yes, she is. I know her well, and she and Diantha are good friends," explained the Lurantis. "Flora had already told me about Elvira forming a team with a Riolu named Arian, so it didn't take long to connect the dots. Truth be told, I was curious about this new development, so when Flora was getting ready to head out here, I decided to tag along. So you do odd jobs that mercenaries of the Guild would've done, eh?"

"Yes. That's right."

"Well, would you mind if I employed your services?" Vardan requested.

"You want to hire us?" Arian said. He hadn't expected this.

"Yes. I'll pay you, of course. Is 100P good for payment?" the Lurantis asked.

"That's alright," accepted Elvira. "As long as the job isn't super difficult, anyway."

""It shouldn't be," Vardan said. "I've wanted for the last while to go to Cyan Cove. You surely know of the pearls that are found deep within the place?"

"Yes, indeed," Zenobia replied. "Kallias fashioned a necklace out of some pearls for an anniversary present for me once."

"Funny you should bring that up, Zenobia," Vardan said, with a light chuckle at the coincidence. "I want to get something similar for Diantha. With how things are going with the Thorned Roses, I would like to get her a gift to lift her spirits."

"Oh, let me guess," presumed Arian. "You want us to find a pearl for you in Cyan Cove."

"Yes, that's it exactly," the Lurantis replied. "I'd like you to retrieve pearls from there. They're normally found in the depths of the Dungeon."

"Dungeon?" Then it clicked for Arian. "So it's a Mystery Dungeon, then."

"True. But it's a benign one. You shouldn't have much trouble with it," Vardan assured.

"He's right," Elvira seconded. "I've been there a few times. It's not too dangerous. We should be fine."

"And it's away from town," Zenobia added. "So hopefully, you won't encounter any Thorned Roses there."

"Well, let's not wait any longer, then." Arian got up from his seat. "Come on, Elvira. Let's get going."

"Okay. I'll just get the bag and then we'll go," the Treecko said. She also got up from her seat, and left the kitchen to head to her own room, where their mercenary's bag was located. Arian followed her out of the room.

"What a pair," Vardan commented. "Guess she's finally taking after her father, eh?"

"Stop doing that, Dad," Flora chastised. "I told you; Elvira doesn't want to be compared to her dad. It'll only make her feel like she's not good enough."

"But in fairness, it will be hard to separate them," Vardan countered. "If word gets out about Elvira, people will inevitably compare her to her father. It's just what people do."

"I hope they don't," Zenobia expressed. "People always raise their expectations too high, and become disappointed when they fall short. Kallias encountered a fair amount of people like that who were expecting someone grand and heroic, only for his humble self to show up to them. Elvira's right to be worried about that kind of treatment."

"Hopefully she doesn't get it too bad," Vardan wished. "I wish her and Arian all the best. I really do. Who knows? They might well be the ones to knock the Thorned Roses down a peg or two. May Jirachi watch over them, and give them good fortune for times ahead."





"We go to the left," Elvira directed, once they had reached the road outside the house.

"Hmm...I haven't been this way yet," Arian noted, as he followed his partner in her instructed direction. "What's in this direction?"

"Well, Cyan Cove is this way, of course. But this is the main road that links the two towns of Ozerograd and Lukomoria. Beyond that, it eventually leads to the Empyrean Mountains and Miletos."

"The Empyrean Mountains?" Arian asked quizzically. "What are those?"

"The Empyrean Mountains…" Elvira considered what to say. "...I'd say they're the most prominent physical feature in Ardalion. It runs down the centre of the continent, and every single country has a part of the mountain range in them. All of the continent's major rivers run from there, and act as the lifeblood of Ardalion, nourishing millions of people. And the mountains themselves are massive. They're some of the tallest mountains in the country, some mountains reaching above the clouds themselves. They're honestly dominating. We should go see them at some point."

"Ooh...I'd like to see that," the Riolu said enthusiastically.

"They are quite a sight," the Treecko agreed. "They're like a barrier between the western and eastern halves of Ardalion. It's only thanks to a few narrow passageways that we can even link them. And even then, those are fairly treacherous to trek through. I have thought, though that the Empyrean Mountains being a barrier isn't necessarily a good thing."

"What do you mean?" Arian asked.

"You wouldn't know this, Arian, but the truth is that there's a big West-East divide in Ardalion," revealed Elvira. "That is to say, there's rivalry and considerable friction between Selenia and Alba, the countries west of the Empyrean Mountains, and Dresilia and Miletos, the countries of the east. You see, the east has better land than the West, which in the past led the eastern countries to become more powerful than their Western equivalents. But this led to the east looking down on the West like they're barbaric, backward savages. And this means that the west now looks on the east like they're selfish and egotistic."

"Really? Is it that bad?" the Riolu wondered.

"Mmhm. And the Empyrean Mountains make this difference all the more real," the Treecko went on. "Once you're on the opposite side, it's easy to view it as a world different from your own. The same goes for the people. If you're not a regular traveller between the halves of Ardalion, it's easy to believe what you hear."

"So there's racism at play in this world…" Arian murmured.

"Unfortunately, yes," Elvira accepted. "But obviously not all the stereotypes are true. Dad and Melchior had requests from the east by people who knew better than to believe in rumours. The tsar was also building bridges between the east and Selenia. While it was never an alliance as such, it was pretty close to it. A shame Mitrofan had to come along and derail all that."

"Wait a minute," Arian pondered. "If the leaders of the east were good friends with the previous tsar, then why aren't they doing anything about Mitrofan?"

"There isn't the political will in the east to do anything about Mitrofan," the Treecko replied. "Even if the leaders supported Mitrofan's removal, they'd still have to get approval from their nobles, and that would be an arduous task. It's apathy more than anything that's keeping them."

"...That's terrible," replied the Riolu, partly shocked by the reason given. "Apathy? Really? But there are people suffering over this side of the mountains! They need help!"

"If it's over the other side of the mountains, then it's not their problem. That's simply how they'd view it," Elvira reasoned. "I know. It is terrible. But that's just the way it is. Plus, from what I hear, they've had their own upheavals to deal with. They'd probably have bigger things on their plate than help out a country that's been despised by most of their citizens and nobility."

"That's…" Arian tried to come up with a response, but came up with nothing. He could only walk on in silence, slightly staggered by what he had heard, about the inactivity of the east in the face of this calamity in the west. How could they be so selfish? he thought to himself.

The two walked on in silence for the next while. Arian was still lost in thought about the east-west divide Elvira told him about, while the Treecko herself had gone silent, presumably lost in her own thoughts.

Silence reigned as the two of them walked further down the road. Eventually, Arian's thoughts drifted from his previous discussion with Elvira, and to their surroundings. Once again, the day was bright and sunny, and it brought out the best in the landscape. The grass was green, a gentle breeze blew, and the sun shone brightly, casting the land in a warm glow.

"Yet another beautiful day," he remarked.

"...Mmm," was all that Elvira murmured in agreement.

That's strange, the Riolu thought to himself. Is that all Elvira has to say? He looked over at the Treecko, and noticed that she had a pensive look on her face. What's she thinking about?

"Elvira?" he asked. "Is something the matter?"

"Hm?" Elvira seemed to snap out of her thoughts. "Oh no, I'm fine. Really."

"Are you alright? You seem a bit out of it," Arian observed. "Penny for your thoughts?"

"'Penny for your thoughts?'" Elvira repeated, rather confused. "What does that mean?"

"Oh, um. 'What's on your mind?'" the Riolu said. "You haven't heard that expression before?"

"...No. Never. What is a penny?" wondered Elvira. "And what does that expression mean?"

"A penny?" Arian was surprised at this gap in knowledge from the normally knowledgeable Treecko. "It's one coin. Like one Poké. A small amount. Where it comes from…" He thought about it. "I don't know myself, actually."

"Hm. Must be a human thing," mused Elvira.

"I guess so."

"So your memories of the human world haven't been wiped completely, then?" Elvira said. "If you can recall that…"

"Some vague things come back to me, I guess. But I can't remember anything major." That was still beyond the Riolu's reach.

"It's alright. Maybe it'll come back to you in time." Elvira was about to say more, but then she saw where they were. "Oh, here we are. The road to Cyan Cove.

a Y-junction lay in front of them, with a small side road veered downhill to the right, down to a small beach. The signpost at the junction helpfully informed them of what was in each direction.

Lukomoria, Milenia Pass, Empyrean Mountains, MILETOS

Cyan Cove

"So to the right we go," Arian said.

The two walked down the hill. As they got further down, It wasn't long before they reached the rocks above the cove itself; a small inlet with. However, it was different to the beach just outside Elvira's house; this beach was more sheltered, with rocky formations all around the beach. True to its name, the sea seemed to shine a bright cyan colour in the inlet.

"Where's the Mystery Dungeon?" Arian wondered.

"It's down on the beach, near the centre of it," Elvira said, pointing to where she directed. "We'll have to climb down the rocks to get there."

"...Alright then. Shouldn't be a problem."

And indeed, it wasn't. The rocks were large, and climbing down them proved unchallenging. Occasionally, some unsteady footings were made by Arian, who hadn't climbed in his body of a Riolu before, but in the end, they both made it to the Mystery Dungeon without incident.

And right away, Arian noticed it, as he stepped onto the sand.

It was a cave. But it seemed like a dark, black abyss where no detail of the cave's insides could be made out. This being the third instance of this oddity, the Riolu knew immediately what this meant.

"So that's it, then," the human remarked. "The Mystery Dungeon. Are there really pearls in here? It looks a bit plain on the outside."

"That's because you haven't seen the inside," Elvira countered. "Never judge a book by its cover. Or in this case, never judge a cave by its entrance."

"Okay, that's at least a saying we have in the human world. The first one anyway," Arian replied. "Guess our sayings aren't so different after all."

"I guess not. ...But anyway. Let's head in and get what Vardan wants."

And with that, the duo headed in.





Cyan Cove
B1F

Once again, Arian and Elvira returned to the familiar format of the maze. However, this was a bit different for the former, due to the fact that this was his first Mystery Dungeon that was a cave. Thankfully, it wasn't dark to the point of sightlessness, and even if it was, Arian would be able to see just fine due to his good night vision as a Riolu.

"So this is Cyan Cove's Mystery Dungeon?" the Riolu said, looking around at the cave. "...Not bad. But would we really find pearls in here?"

"Yes. There's an area at the end where there's a huge deposit of them," Elvira told him. "We just need to make our way there. There's no need to scour every floor like we did the last two times."

"...Good. That takes the stress off things," Arian said, a hint of relief in his voice. "Well then...I guess we'll start looking for the stairs."

And so they started searching. A walk through the corridors and rooms revealed a cave with a seabound theme. Puddles of water were everywhere, and the scent of saltwater invaded Arian's nose. He tried hard not to sneeze.

He and Elvira rounded a corner. There, they were approached by a Roggenrola.

"A Rock-type? Oh, I do well against those!" he recalled, remembering what he'd been told about types by Elvira and Tamara two days prior. He charged a Force Palm and struck the Mantle Pokémon, staggering it. However, that was not enough to knock it out.

"Allow me to help, Arian," Elvira requested, before stepping forward and using Absorb. That did the trick, and the Roggenrola was down.

"Thanks, Elvira," Arian said gratefully.

"No problem," the Treecko replied. "Rock-types are known for being physically hardy. So don't be surprised if you don't knock them out in one hit, even with an attack like Force Palm that they're weak to."

"Right. Gotcha."

"There are plenty of Rock- and Water-types in this place. We shouldn't have too hard a time," Elvira said. "Even so, remember what I said."

"I understand, Elvira."

they continued along the path. It was fortunate for them that the stairs were in the next room.

"Would you look at that! What a pleasant surprise," Arian chirped. "They were right here waiting for us."

"Down we go, then," Elvira said, and the duo climbed down the steps.





Cyan Cove
B4F

The two made good progress through the Mystery Dungeon. The next two floors yielded little to no incidents for them, and they also picked up some more items and money that were laying on the floor. The Pokémon of the Dungeon were also no trouble; it was mostly Water- and Rock-types that went down to Elvira and Arian's attacks with ease.

The fourth floor proved a bit more troublesome for them, though. The wild Pokémon still fell easily, but the stairs proved to be elusive to find. And after a while of trudging around the labyrinth, Arian found himself wanting to take a break. He wasn't tired, but wanted an opportunity just to stop and sit down for a while.

They were making their way down another corridor. They reached the end of it, but a scan of the room it led into revealed no other exit to the room.

"Dead end," Elvira said to Arian. "Back we go."

"Wait a minute, Elvira," the Riolu requested. "Do you mind if we take a break first? I could kinda use it right now."

"Well...alright," the Treecko accepted. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt." She stepped back into the room, and sat down on the floor, next to a rock. Arian followed her into the room, and sat down opposite her. The room had a body of water in it, though a quick sniff from the Riolu found it to be saltwater, and thus not the sort of water to fill up their canteens with.

There were two canteens, and Arian took a swig from one of them. Although he was not overly thirsty, he found it a blessing to drink it at that point.

"Any reason why you asked to stop?" Elvira wondered.

"The search for the stairs is getting tedious," complained the Riolu. "Just wanted a little break before moving on."

"It can be frustrating," agreed Elvira. "We're about halfway there. A little rest wouldn't hurt. Whenever you're ready, we'll get back on the move."

"Thanks."

Arian took a bite out of an apple. As he ate it, he looked across at his partner. Elvira had partially submerged her left hand in water, and was looking into its crystal clear depths. By the looks of it, her mind was elsewhere. That reminded Arian of the conversation they'd had earlier, and he decided to tie up that loose end.

"So what was on your mind earlier?" he asked.

"Hm? What?" Elvira snapped out of her slight trance.

"Your mind's wandering. There's something bugging you," Arian pressed. "You want to tell me?"

"Well…I suppose you would have to hear it at some point." Elvira sighed as she began. "You haven't been told about the recent extreme events happening across Ardalion, have you?"

"Extreme events?" Arian shook his head. "First I've heard of them. It doesn't sound good, though."

"It isn't. Over the last few years, there's been a gradual increase in natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes," Elvira explained. "And then there's also extreme weather. In the last year alone in Selenia, the autumnal storms were much more fierce, the winter was bitter cold, and this summer, about a few weeks before you arrived, we had a heatwave and a drought."

"Really? But the weather's been nice the past two days, hasn't it?"

"Yes. Too nice, if anything. Too much sun, and not enough rain. We had some rain a few weeks ago, but it wasn't anywhere near enough. For Selenia's crops and the livelihoods of the people, it's quite worrying."

"That's not good." Immediately, Arian understood the gravity of the situation. "If there's no rain, crops can't grow, and water supplies can't be replenished."

"You've got that right. There's a well at the back of our house where we get our water from," Elvira went on. "The water level's getting worryingly low. If rain doesn't come soon, then I don't know what we're going to do." She let out another long sigh.

Oh God, that sounds bad. This is a problem that's affecting everyone…

"I really don't like talking about them," the Treecko continued gloomily. "At least we can hold out hope that the Thorned Roses and Mitrofan can be taken out by our own hands. But these events are out of our control. No one knows anything about why this is happening." She looked at the ground. "I hate being powerless like this…"

"It's alright, Elvira," Arian assured. "There has to be an explanation. There just has to be. And who knows? Maybe one day we'll find it out together."

"Maybe. …Thanks, Arian. I guess this is what a partner is for, huh? To lift the other's spirits when they're down." Elvira then rose from her position. "Are you okay to keep going, Arian?"

"Sure I am." Arian got up as well. "Come on. Let's find the exit."





Cyan Cove
Grotto

The two made it through the rest of the Mystery Dungeon without much incident. Arian could at least say now that he was getting the hang of his moves, and his Force Palm was quickly proving to be his most viable option of attack. This was something that didn't go unnoticed by Elvira, and she chose to speak up about it once they'd climbed the stairs on the sixth floor.

"Your Force Palm's quite powerful," she noted. "But my word of advice would be to not be overdependent on any one move. Your fighting style might become predictable."

"I see," Arian said. "I suppose I could use Quick Attack or Metal Claw more. Change up my attacks every once in a while. But we're at the end anyway. No more wild Pokémon to worry about."

The part of the cave they walked into had quite a large ceiling, from which a few stalactites hung. But what drew Arian's attention more was the large, cyan-coloured pool of water in front of them. One question stuck out to him, though, as he looked around.

"Where are the pearls?" he asked. "...I don't see any around."

"I know where they are," Elvira said. "Follow me." And Arian did so, following her to the edge of the water. The cyan blue water was incredibly clear, and he could see the bottom of the pond.

"Whoa," he reacted. "That's…deep."

"I know," Elvira replied. "But it's nothing I can't handle. Stay here, Arian. I'll get the pearls."

"Wait a minute. Elvira, what are you - "

Arian didn't even get a chance to finish his sentence before Elvira ran forward. Then a big splash sounded out, and next thing he knew, he saw the Treecko in the water, swimming down to the bottom.

"Elvira!" he cried out instinctively. He was about to continue, but broke himself off as he saw her movements. She was actually quite an adept swimmer, and was able to reach the pool's floor effortlessly. Then she appeared to reach out for something by one of the rocks at the bottom. After that, she then made her way back up, and surfaced again.

"Hah…!" she breathed, taking in air. "Got them...Got the pearls." She wordlessly laid out her findings, as she took in more breaths of air.

"So that's what we were looking for," Arian observed, taking in his paw a few of the pearls.

"Yeah...Vardan will be thrilled with this find," Elvira said, as she gradually regained her breath. "You could certainly make a necklace with these."

"So that's mission accomplished, then?"

"Yes. All that's left is to pack these up and head out of here."

"Cool. ...Say, you swam rather well back there," noted the Riolu, as he began to pack up the pearls.

"...Oh, I've learned over the years," Elvira told him. "My dad taught me well, and I used to practice with him back in the day, usually when he was home. 'It never hurts to learn how to swim,' he'd say. It certainly helped out today."

"That's the pearls gathered up," Arian announced. "Let's get out of here."

And so they left the Mystery Dungeon. As they walked back out to the beach and into the afternoon daylight, Arian looked back with a sense of satisfaction.

Another day, another successful mission. I just hope this streak keeps up.





"Oi!"

Evening was beginning to descend on Ozerograd. And with the beginning of the descent into evening came time for Caitríona and Conall to close up shop for the day.

However, in the midst of closing their stall, they were accosted by two Thorned Roses. But not just any two Thorned Roses.

It was a Krokorok and a Gligar.

"Hm?" Conall turned around and saw them. "Oh, hello there."

"We meet again, ya ol' mutt," the Krokorok growled. "We got us a few questions to ask ya, and yer gonna answer 'em, pronto. Got it?"

"I sure do." Strangely, he didn't sound fearful in the slightest, despite the intimidating look from the sand crocodile. "Well, Ríona, let's see what these kids have to tell us."

"Hey! Don't call us kids!" raged the Gligar. "Remember whose territory you're walking on! Don't you dare pretend you're above us Thorned Roses!"

"Sure, I understand." Again, there wasn't the slightest ounce of fear from Conall. "Now what do you adults have to question us about?"

"A bit better," mumbled the Gligar.

"These two." The Krokorok produced a poster. "Boss has us lookin' for 'em. Know anythin'?"

At the sight of the poster, Caitríona's eyes widened. Two Pokémon stood illustrated in it, and the image was a depiction of a Riolu and a Treecko. Below the artist's impression of them lay a lone word scrawled in big letters.

WANTED

"I…" Caitríona faltered, unsure of how to respond.

"A Riolu and a Treecko?" Conall observed, looking at the poster.

"Yeah...Some of our lot've been sayin' the two of ya was talkin' to 'em yesterday," the Krokorok continued. "Ain't nothin', is it? Ya wanna tell us what that's all about?"

"You know that you can drop the act, Ishmael," the Lycanroc said, with a light chuckle. "You know us. And there's no one else around to spot you."

"Dunno what yer talkin' about," growled the Krokorok. "Now tell us! Didja see these two or not?!"

"Come on. You don't need to be so aggressive." Conall flashed a teasing grin. "Remember the old days, when you were just a little Sandile, sitting on my lap and calling me Unky Boo-Boo? Oh, those were the days…"

"Oi, shaddap!" The Krokorok's face was turning red. "Didja or didn'tcha see 'em, ya ol' berk?!"

"Well now. Did you see them?" the Lycanroc wondered. "That's the bigger question here."

"We did," the Gligar answered. "They came in and out of the north end of town. On the way back, they had a little Flabébé with them."

"...Hm. Dunno what that's about. But you wanna know why they went out the north end of town?"

"Why?"

"To get this." Conall held up the Sandy Torc, which made both Thorned Roses' eyes widen in recognition. "We asked them to."

"Lill was looking for that!" the Gligar said.

"That ol' trinket? Yeah, 'swot she's missin'." The Krokorok looked closer at it. "Yup, sure was."

"Give it to her next time you see her," Caitríona requested, as Conall handed the torc to him. "That's an old clan treasure, that. I wouldn't want this crowd getting their grubby hands on it."

"Gotcha. We'll do it." The crocodile took the item.

"And while you're at it, I've a little favour to ask either you or Lillian to do tomorrow," Conall requested. "It's to do with those two, actually."

"What is it?" Axel wondered.

"Well…" The Lycanroc beckoned them closer, and in hushed tones, told them.

"...'S a good idea," the Krokorok agreed. "But we gotta tell Lill first. And the Chief, too."

"Chief…" Conall chuckled lightly at that name. "I still think it's strange you all refer to him as Chief. Sometimes it takes me a minute to realise you mean…'you-know-who'."

"'E's a Chief. 'S the way I see it. Ain't a Chief in our sense, but least 'e's a damn sight better than that plonker we got." An angry edge came into Ishmael's tone.

"You got that right, Ish." The Gligar seemed just as cross.

"Let's not think about that, Ishmael. Axel," Caitríona advised. "Just tell Lillian and him about this. And go quickly. It's getting close to curfew."

"Gotcha, Auntie Ríona," Ishmael acknowledged. "I'll be off."

"Good luck, you two," Conall wished. "Know that you have us if you need help. Or if you need a shoulder to cry on."

"Don't think I'll be needin' ya for that, Uncle." With that, Ishmael was off, Axel trailing him.

"Hey, Ish," the latter queried. "You think they're worth it?"

"Maybe. But ya know the Chief; 'e'll be stoked at any newbies comin' in," commented the Krokorok. He looked down at the wanted poster again, gazing at the two in the illustration.

Yeah, this lot might be worth pickin' up. Just wot've they got?





Notes

Updates(16/12/22):
Early chapter updates. Reframed Elvira's explanation about how the world's gone wrong in line with my retcon. Also threw in a little Ace Attorney reference here; see if you can find it.
 
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Chapter 8

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 8
Predator and Prey

The next morning…

"Hmm…this is harder than I thought it would be…"

Arian and Elvira were currently in the kitchen brainstorming. They'd just finished having breakfast, but remained at the table with a piece of paper and pencil, with a number of words written and crossed out.

This was a matter that had come up yesterday afternoon, when they returned from Cyan Cove.





Yesterday afternoon…

"Great work, you two," praised Vardan, looking at the pearls laid out on the kitchen table. "I knew I entrusted the task to the right people. As promised, here's your payment." He dug 100P out of his satchel, and handed it to them.

"Thanks, Vardan," Elvira said, before another thought came to her. "Flora said you were having money troubles. Is it really okay to be giving us money like this? We can accept payment in other forms, if that's what you'd prefer," she added, recalling the nanab bread they'd received from Rosa.

"No no, it's fine," insisted the Lurantis. "Those rents are sky high and unaffordable anyway. I'd far rather give what money we have to you than those nasty brutes."

"Well, if you say so…" the Treecko replied, taking the money and filing it away in their mercenary's bag.

"A rather intrepid duo you are. I'll remember you for the future, Team…" At that point, Vardan paused. "Hm. I never asked. What is your official team name?"

"Team name?" Arian cocked his head in puzzlement.

"Oh, um…we don't have one," Elvira confessed.

"Do you not?" The Lurantis was surprised to hear this. "I thought that was one of the first things a merc team came up with, no?"

"Well, we're not really official," Arian reasoned. "So we haven't really been asked for a name."

"We haven't even thought of one, actually." Elvira seemed disappointed at this. "We should've done that by now. How did I forget?"

"How'd you forget?" Flora said. "That's, like, one of the most important things about forming a mercenary team! You always told us that when we were kids!"


"I don't know!" Elvira cried. "I don't know how I forgot!"

"Elvira, it's alright," urged Arian. "It's just a name. It's nothing to get worked up over."

"Quite right," agreed Zenobia. "Doing good work as a mercenary is far more important than a team name."

"We could come up with something now," suggested Arian. "Better late than never, right?"

"I suppose," Elvira mumbled.

"Don't worry about it, Elvira," Vardan said. "You did well today, and that's what matters. And listen here, you two. There's something I'd like to say."


"What is it?" Arian asked.

"I'm no merc, but…I think you two should be your own team. Don't necessarily be a second Team Marshwood. Become a great team in your own right. That's what I think."

"Succeed in our own way…" Elvira repeated.

"That's a good idea," Arian agreed. "We should develop our own style to make us unique. Of course, it's good to follow in the footsteps of your dad, Elvira, but maybe not the whole way. If you know what I'm saying."

"I do, Arian. And I agree. Dad's said the same thing to me before, about being my own person and not riding on his coattails."

"Indeed. That sounds like your father, alright," Zenobia seconded, before turning to Vardan. "That's a sound piece of advice, Vardan. Thank you very much for that."

"It was no problem," Vardan replied. "Now then. I should probably be getting home."

"Oh? Will you not stay for dinner?" the Heliolisk offered.

"I'd love to, but I'd like to get home to Diantha," the Lurantis turned down. "I appreciate the offer. But I don't want to worry her."

"I understand. We won't keep you any longer then."

"Well, I guess I'll be off," Flora said.

"Take care, Flora," Elvira replied.

"Yeah, you too, Elvira. ...Oh, and come up with a team name. Hopefully not an embarrassing one."

"We'll think it over, don't you worry."

"Good. Well, come on then, Dad," the Petilil demanded, slightly impatiently. "Are we going or not?"

"We are, we are. Take care, all of you." And with that, the Grass-type duo left.

"Right," Elvira said, once they had heard the front door close. "Team names…"





The rest of that afternoon had been spent brainstorming team names. But it was more difficult than they imagined. Plus, they had to find a name that they both agreed on, as opposed to Arian's name, where the only agreement he had to have was with himself.

Not even inspiration using the same method from before helped them decide on a name. Zenobia, like before, had picked out a book of notable mercenary teams in Ardalion's history to inspire the two to come up with a name. However, in the wish to be unique, Elvira pointed out that their name probably shouldn't be a shameless copy of a team that had come before them.

Studying the names of various teams, though, did provide some ideas as to how to decide on a name. Many teams seemed to take into account aspects of each other, and then create a portmanteau based on their own characteristics. This was the case with Team Marshwood, Kallias's team; 'Marsh' signified Melchior, a Swampert, while 'Wood' signified his own Grass-type heritage.

Beyond that, there were teams that named themselves based on things they shared in common, like colour schemes, looks, personalities, or even types. Among team names they saw following this trend were Team Cerulean, an Azumarill and Dragonair duo, Team Hellhound, a trio consisting of a Houndoom, a Boltund, and a Lycanroc, and Team Fairy, a group made up of a Clefable, Mawile and Granbull. ("It's a bit uncreative, naming themselves only after their own type," Arian had commented regarding the last one.)

Some went by acronyms of each team member. However, Arian turned down the suggestion of Team A&E by Zenobia, feeling as though the initials 'A&E' somehow implied something not nice-sounding to him, at least. Also, he pointed out that acronyms could potentially be warped by more mean-spirited Pokémon into something different. Elvira saw his point, and acquiesced. They debated options for the rest of the day, before eventually tiredness encroached and the mercenary duo decided to retire for the evening.

The next morning, they went back to deliberating names, once Elvira and Arian had cleared the table. It would pass the time until Tamara arrived to look after Zenobia for the day, they decided.

At the very least, they had potential contenders for a name that Elvira had written down on a piece of paper. Arian volunteered to write at first, but quickly found out that with his new paws, any kind of writing he did was completely ineligible. That was a skill he told himself to practise when he had time.

"Hmm…" Elvira hummed, thinking deeply. "How about Team…'Grassaura?'"

"Mmm...no, not feeling it," Arian denied.

"Thought so. Just something to throw out there. Hmmm…" The Treecko lightly chewed the end of the pencil as she brainstormed. "Team…'Soul'?"

"...Not bad. But it's a bit basic," Arian responded. "Plus, I don't really see how that summarises us. I mean, there is plenty of soul between us, but I feel that'd belong better to a team of Psychic-types, for instance. Might already be taken anyway."

"Okay," Elvira accepted reluctantly. "Something that takes each other's traits into account. Team…'Auraflora'?"

"Hmm...that's actually pretty good. Write that down," suggested Arian. Elvira quickly scribbled the name down.

"So that's a maybe, then," Elvira said.

"Yeah." Arian pondered for another bit about their name. "Maybe our team name could be a representation in what we stand for. Wasn't there a name in that book called 'Team Hope?'"

"There was. They were the people that took steps to revolutionise the work of mercenaries forever in Selenia," the Treecko elaborated. "If not for them, the Irian Guild would not have become as famous as it was, and we would not have the Guild be such a pivotal part of our country. They wanted a beacon of hope, in a time of suffering for Selenia."

"Hope...I think we could be onto something with that concept. We should definitely keep it in mind. ...But I think it's time for a bit of a break. We'll come back to it later."

"...I agree with you." Elvira then looked out the window. "...Hm. It's mid-morning already. ...Strange. Why hasn't Tamara arrived yet?"

"Is she usually late?" wondered her partner.

"I wouldn't say she's the greatest of timekeepers," Elvira replied. "But Flora arrived at least an hour earlier."

"Flora and Tamara are probably two different people when it comes to being on time," Zenobia pointed out. "I wouldn't worry too much, Elvira."

"Even so…" Arian could sense the worry in Elvira in the familiar wave patterns of emotion he'd become accustomed to feeling. "I don't like this. Has something happened? Please, Arceus, I hope not…"

At that moment, they heard a knock on the door.

"Well, that was fitting timing," Arian remarked. "That's probably her now. I'll go get it." He rose from his seat and headed down the hallway, preparing to greet the Pachirisu…

Only to stop in his tracks.

"Hey! Who are you? You're not Tamara!"

And indeed, the peppy electric squirrel was not the one who knocked. It was someone else - a bipedal yellow and white-bellied Pokémon with sharp sets of claws at their hands and feet, and equally sharp quills along its back. In fact, their species looked familiar to the Riolu.

"You're a...Sandslash, right?" Arian asked.

"I am," the Pokémon replied. The sound of their voice was feminine, and as well as that, it did sound somewhat familiar to Arian. "And I can see that you're a Riolu. You wouldn't have a Treecko for a partner, would you?"

"Er, yes?" came the reply.

"Who is it, Arian?" Elvira asked, as she came up to the front door. "A Sandslash. Say, you look familiar. Have we met before?"

"This is our first meeting," the Sandslash replied.

"Actually, wait a minute," Arian brought up. "Are you related to a Sandslash named Caitríona, by any chance?"

"I am," answered the Ground-type. "My name is Lillian. I'm Caitríona and Conall's daughter."

"I think they might've mentioned you," Elvira said.

"Yes. Thanks for getting my Sandy Torc back," Lillian replied gratefully. "I was afraid I'd lost it for good."

"No problem," Arian returned. "It's what we do."

"But where's Tamara?" Elvira brought up. "Why hasn't she come?"

"I've a feeling I know why." Lillian's face darkened. "You can't stay here, you two."

"What do you mean?" Elvira demanded. "I live here! You can't just tell me I can't stay here!"

"What if I told you the Thorned Roses are on the hunt for you two, and have started to look beyond the town's perimeter?" Lillian added.

"Th-They're looking for us?" Elvira uttered, a look of panic coming into her eyes.

"They are. And sooner or later, they're going to find this house and you two in it," the Sandslash continued. "Do you see now why you can't stay?"

"We do," Arian replied, feeling fear creep into him, and a shiver going down his spine. "But what do we do instead? Run away like cowards?"

"No. I have an idea," Lillian informed them. "And I know how to go about it. But I need you two to come with me."

"Come with you?" Elvira wondered. "I don't mean to be rude, but why exactly should we trust you?"

"...I know it can be hard to trust a complete stranger like me," Lillian admitted. "But it'll all make sense once we're through with this. I promise you, this isn't a trap in any way."

"...She doesn't sound like she's lying," Arian told Elvira. "I think she's being honest."

"Mmmm…" murmured an unconvinced Elvira. "I'm not sure…"

"Elvira? Arian? Who's at the door?" Zenobia's voice called from within. Turning around, Arian saw the Heliolisk making her way to them on her crutches. "Oh, hello. Whoever might you be?"

"My name's Lillian," reintroduced the Sandslash, before her expression lit up in realisation. "You wouldn't happen to be Zenobia, Elvira's mother?"

"...I am." The Heliolisk didn't expect to hear her name called out personally. "Why do you ask?"

"I have a letter for you," replied Lillian, surprising all three Pokémon at the door.

"A letter? Why do you have a letter for Mom?" Elvira interrogated.

"I can't say," Lillian evaded, as she dug out said letter. A detail Arian noticed was that the envelope was blank and devoid of any details. "I'll only tell you that the writer of the letter wants to remain anonymous. So please keep it secret. You might know who it is from the handwriting, but please don't reveal their name. They want to keep their identity secret by all means necessary, at least for now."

"Hmm...How strange. What business would this writer have with me?" Zenobia pondered. She sat down on a chair just by the front door, and opened the letter. Arian and Elvira watched as she digested the contents of the letter.

Almost immediately, they noticed the Heliolisk's eyes widen in shock.

"By the Creator's light…" the duo heard her murmur. In her tone, Arian could detect notes of...relief and happiness? That's good, he thought to himself. At least it's not bad news.

"Who is it, Mom?" Elvira asked, after a while.

"...As much as I'd love to tell you, dear, I'm afraid I cannot tell you," Zenobia said, holding the letter away from the duo. "Even in the letter, they're imploring me to keep their name under wraps. And in this letter, their name isn't mentioned once."

"Oh…" The Treecko looked down in slight disappointment.

"I will say this much, though." Zenobia's words made her daughter look up again. "I do know who it is. It's someone we know well. It's someone who's been very dependable for us in the past." She looked at the letter again. "...Perhaps it's best if I don't say more about them. What they would like, though, is to meet the two of you."

"The two of us?" Arian said. "But how do they know about - "

"I told the Chief about you two," Lillian answered. "My parents told me about the two of you, and then I told the Chief. The Chief sent me here to tell you they want to meet with you two."

"But...we're just an amateur team," the Riolu replied, still confused. "Why would this person want to meet us in particular?"

"..." Elvira was silent, before a single thought came into her head.

This secret person...could it possibly be…?

"We should go," she suggested to Arian. "If it is who I think it is, then we should definitely meet up with them."

"Are you sure?" questioned the human. "This could be a trap."

"It's the furthest thing from a trap," Lillian rejected.

"I can also say it's no trap," Zenobia seconded. "The writing on this letter is legitimate. I'm absolutely sure of it."

"Well, if you all say so…" Arian concluded, looking at the three other agreeing parties. "...Okay then. I'm in. Let's go meet this mystery person."

"Yes. With haste," Lillian urged. "The longer we spend yapping here, the more time the Thorned Roses have to find us. We should go while the going's good."

"Alright. See you, Mom!" Elvira said, as she and Arian started out on the road with Lillian.

"Bye, Elvira. Bye, Arian," wished Zenobia, and watched as they travelled onto the main road. When they were out of sight, she closed the door behind her.

"...Goodness. What a morning to have a revelation like that," she said. The electric lizard took a look down at the letter again. Specifically, to one part of it.

I'm afraid I can't reveal who exactly I am yet. But you would know, Zenobia. After all, I gave you that vase to you as a present on your thirty-fifth hatch day.

"...How could I forget that present?" Zenobia said to herself. She travelled to the sitting room, where atop the mantelpiece, above the fireplace, that vase lay, with some daffodils in them. It was a beautiful work of pottery with an ornate design, and the Heliolisk saw it as one of the best gifts she had ever been given.

"...It's been a while, hasn't it? I imagine Elvira will be quite happy to see you again. But what have you been up to this whole time?"





"Wait a minute. Why are we heading this way?"

This was Arian's question, as Lillian directed them to head right at the crossroads outside Elvira's house, towards Ozerograd.

"Because the Chief is on the other side of Ozerograd," Lillian explained. "To get there, we must go through the town."

"But the Thorned Roses are looking for us! You were the one who insisted we couldn't stay at my house!" Elvira pointed out. "So why are we headed into the very place where the Thorned Roses rule the roost?"

"Don't worry about that," the Sandslash assured. "I have a plan for when we come to that."

"A plan? Enlighten us," Arian demanded.

"Not right away. Closer to town," Lillian returned. "I will ask you one question before we get there, though. How good are you two at acting?"

"Acting?" Elvira repeated. "Um...alright, I guess? We did a few plays in school…"

"I think I'm good at it?" Arian said, unsure of what the answer truly was. Was I fond of acting in my human life? "Why do you ask?"

"If my plan is going to work, you're going to need to act in order to fool the Thorned Roses in town," the Sandslash informed. "Being alright actors will do, hopefully. You'd be surprised how easy the wool can be pulled over the eyes of some Thorned Roses."

"Are you sure?" Arian questioned sceptically. He gazed down at his stomach, where he'd been struck and poisoned by Mikhail's Poison Tail two days prior.

"Yes," Lillian responded. "Faced with their prey, most Thorned Roses will be so caught up in the clamour that they won't know they're being tricked. I know how they act."

"And how do you know that?" the Riolu fired back. "Are you some expert on the Thorned Roses or something?"

"You could say that," the Sandslash replied. "After all, I am one."

"Wait, what?!" Arian nearly tripped over his own feet in shock, and Elvira similarly froze. "You're a Thorned Rose?!"

"In a sense, yes. But let me finish before you burst out again," Lillian requested. Both parties, about to do just that, held their tongues. "I'm a member of the Thorned Roses in disguise. The Chief sent me to infiltrate them as a spy and report on their activity in Ozerograd. ...Safe to say that I've had a lot of info to tell the Chief in the last while."

"'The Chief'?" Elvira noted. "I presume that's the person who wants to speak to us?"

"Yes," the Sandslash answered. "My real allegiances lie with him. I have no respect for Hinnerk or the Thorned Roses. All of my talk of loyalty is only empty words."

"Interesting," murmured Elvira. "All this time, I never would've assumed there was a spy in the Thorned Roses."

"Well, that's a sign I'm doing my job right then, isn't it?" Lillian replied, before her face fell slightly. "...Sometimes it hasn't been easy. Because I have to blend in with the Thorned Roses, that has meant doing things I'd never do under any circumstances. I don't like terrorising innocents. And I sure don't like kicking them out of their homes and sending off to gods know where…"

"The disappearances," Arian realised. "What do you know about them, Lillian?"

"Not much, I'm afraid," the Sandslash revealed disappointedly. "Have Mum and Dad told you already?"

"They didn't say much," Elvira recalled. "Only that Hinnerk and Mikhail were the only ones involved in it."

"That's true. But certain members are dedicated to that, and I'm not in that circle, unfortunately," Lillian lamented. "However…I did hear one interesting thing from Mikhail once."

"And that was…?"

"When one couple was being taken away, I overheard him saying that they would make a nice sacrifice."

"Sacrifice?" That word made both Arian and Elvira shiver. Suddenly, matters had gotten a lot more sinister.

"Yes. Whatever he means by that. It's not good, whatever it means. The whole shady nature and rumours of it all is what made the Chief assign us to Ozerograd and infiltrate the Thorned Roses."

"Wait, 'us'?" Arian noted. "There's more?"

"Yes, there's more." Lillian was about to go into detail on that front, but she stopped. "Oh, we're here."

They were at the top of the hill that was just before the wooded area before entering Ozerograd. The view was as beautiful as ever, accentuated by the sunny day.

"It's a nice place," the Sandslash commented. "A pity the Thorned Roses pretty much ruin it."

"We're getting close to town," Elvira brought up. "What is this plan of yours, Lillian?"

"Yes. I think it's time to put the plan into action," the Sandslash paused, considering what she was to say next.

"Put your hands behind your back, both of you," she requested. The Riolu and Treecko did so. "Alright. I hope you'll forgive me in advance for what I'm about to do…"

She went behind both of their backs, and Arian could hear her taking materials from her satchel. Then, without warning, he could feel his paws being tied up.

"I'm being tied up!" he cried in realisation. "Lillian, what is this?" He turned back to her, an unsure look in his eyes.

"It's part of the plan," the Sandslash answered. "You need to look as though you've been captured when we go into town. Then no one will suspect anything, will they?"

"Oh, I see…" Elvira said, seeing where she was going with this. "Then they'll think we are."

"Exactly," Lillian replied, as she moved over to the Grass-type and began to tie the rope in her hands. "I'll lead you into town as if you've been found and captured by me. I'll intend to lead you to Hinnerk, but at some point we'll create a diversion and throw them off in order to make it safely to the road to Iria. Beyond there's where the Chief is waiting for us."

"Okay...But what'll be the diversion'?" questioned Arian, still unsure of the plan.

"I have it covered," was the vague answer of the Sandslash. "Oh, and another thing. Because I'm a Thorned Rose, I have to blend in with them. ...I'm sorry, but I might have to get a bit rough with you two. It may not be pretty, but it has to be convincing if it's going to work." As she said this, she pulled out an armband that had become a familiar sight for Arian and Elvira: a red band with a thorned rose on it. She then tied it around her right arm.

"...I understand," Elvira accepted. "If it means meeting him, then...I'll accept."

Arian caught the look in her eye, and along with emotions of hope emanating from her, it suddenly occurred to him what she might be thinking. W-Wait a minute...could it be possible that this mystery person is…?

"So do I," he seconded, now reinforced with this knowledge.

"Excellent. Then let's go," Lillian said. "Now remember to act like you've been captured. You need a look full of despair, like you'd do anything to get out of this situation."

"Could being angry work?" suggested Arian. "That's what I was going to go for. A kind of 'You bastards! How dare you do this to me!' act."

"That works," permitted the Sandslash. "Just as long as it's convincing. That's why I asked you if you were good actors earlier. Because this plan hinges on how you act."

"I'll give my best," vowed Elvira. "And so will Arian."

"Good. Now hop to it!" ordered Lillian in an authoritative voice, foreshadowing her tone. Spurred by her words, Arian and Elvira began walking, with the Sandslash following behind them.

They walked through the wooded area. Both Arian and Elvira found their new position with their hands tied uncomfortable, but stuck with it for the sake of the act. They were walking through an area unfamiliar to Arian, due to him taking Tamara's tunnel into town.

As they got closer to the perimeter, Arian began to feel nervous. Despite the fact he wasn't actually captured, he felt as though he was. It was beginning to occur to him just how deadly the consequences could be if this plan of Lillian's went awry in any way. I'd better get this right, he thought to himself, taking a deep breath and steeling his nerves.

They approached a stone arch with a portcullis at the top. Right, Arian thought. Time to engage Angry Captive Mode.

"Halt! Who goes there?" a voice called from within the walls. Two guards stepped forward: a Croagunk and a Luxio, both wearing Thorned Roses armbands.

"Someone who struck gold," Lillian replied, a hint of pride in her voice. Of course, Arian and Elvira both knew this was fake. "Look who I found while searching east of town."

"A Riolu and a Treecko?" the Luxio said, before realising. "Ah! The two the Boss wants us to look for!"

"Yes, and I've found them," the Sandslash said, grinning all the while. "The Boss will be pleased. And it was so easy! To think, Mikhail gave us all a warning that they might be stronger than they look. Rubbish! I knocked them flat in no time at all!"

Oh, I see. She's playing it up to try and win them over. Still…Arian thought uneasily. This will mean us being punching bags, won't it?

"Atta girl," praised the Croagunk. "Hey, look at the Riolu. He has quite the look on his face," he chortled, pointing at Arian.

"Shut up," the Riolu hissed, getting into his role. "Wipe that stupid smirk off your face!"

"Ha! Oh, this is too good!" The frog booped his snout, which made Arian bare his teeth and growl at him. Ignoring him, he turned his attention to Elvira. "Oh, and look at the despair on this one's face!"

"Please," the Treecko begged. "Don't make me face Hinnerk! Please, I'll do anything! Have mercy, I beg of you!"

"Aww, how precious," taunted the Croagunk. "But we don't do mercy here!"

"Yeah, that's right!" the Luxio chimed in. "You made the boss mad, and now you're gonna get it!"

"Oh, they will," Lillian said excitedly. "Now then, I gotta get these two to him. Could you boys be darlings and let me through? Pretty please?" To add to her charm, she gave a wink to the Luxio, which did not go unnoticed by Arian.

Is that a note of flirtation I detect in her voice? the Riolu thought, trying as hard as he could to suppress his surprise. She might be having a bit too much fun with this…

"Aw, I can't say no to a pretty face like yours," the Luxio replied, getting a little bit red in the face. "Come on through, miss."

"Thank you very much," Lillian said gratefully, before she began to march forward. "Move it, you two! The Boss isn't a patient man!"

"Okay, okay, we're going!" Arian replied, acting in his best annoyed tone.

"I don't like your tone, Riolu," the Sandslash fired back, giving him a meaningful glare. "Act like that again, and you'll regret it. You're lucky the Boss wants you alive."

"..." Arian said nothing to this, as Lillian marched the two on into town. As they walked through the town, though, the Riolu immediately got the sense that the atmosphere in Ozerograd today was different than normal. It still had that same oppressive aura as yesterday, but this time he could sense something else in the air. An air that for some reason, made the human uneasy.

Whatever it is, it's a darker feeling than yesterday. It's like the fear and hostility from yesterday have become much greater. Something's happening in town. I know it.

He looked over at Elvira. She was still keeping up the act of despair. However, he noticed a slight shift in her emotions, and in her, he could sense a similar feeling of anxiety. She feels it too. Just whatever could it be?

"Hey! Look! It's the Riolu and Treecko the Boss wants!"

Voices drew his attention away from his thoughts. In front of him, a number of Thorned Roses had seen them, and were now running towards them.

"Yep! I got 'em right here!" Lillian beamed. "The Boss will be over the moon when he sees them! Where is he, exactly?"

"Dunno, actually," a Nuzleaf replied. "Haven't seen him around."

"Actually, I heard somewhere that he was gonna try and lure these two out," a Torracat brought up. "I don't think he's in town right now."

"Really?" Lillian reacted. "I see." Arian couldn't help but notice a distinct hopeful emotion emanating from her. "What about Mikhail? Is he around?"

"Haven't seen him around either," the Torracat replied. "Probably with the Boss."

"Well, let's not worry about that for now," the Sandslash said. "I'll just leave them in the jail cells. The Boss can decide what to do with them when he gets back."

"Oh, can we help?" asked the Nuzleaf.

"Thanks for the offer. But I'll be fine, really," Lillian responded. "Besides, they look like they've given up the fight already." She let out a snicker at this. "Some threat they are. Mikhail was worrying over nothing."

You could lay off a little with the insults, Lillian…

"Yeah, they're pathetic," mocked a Skwovet. "I've seen kids in town with more fight than them."

"Oh, by the way!" a Tranquill eagerly brought up. "Are you gonna take part in the evicting, Miss Lillian?"

Evicting? Arian's blood ran cold at the word. Immediately, his thoughts turned to what Flora, Tamara and Vardan all previously said about not being able to pay the exorbitant rents the Thorned Roses imposed on them.

"Evicting? Are they doing that today?" Lillian asked. Arian could partially sense her fight to keep up the act and not give away her despondence to hearing this.

"Yup! Time to kick out those suckers who ain't paying up!" the Nuzleaf said, a grin on his face. "They've started it already in town! You should join in!"

"I'll consider it," the Sandslash replied. "But I want to secure these two first. Afterwards, I might do just that."

She marched on with the two 'captives'. Arian had noticed Lillian had gone quiet, presumably from the news the two rogues had given them. The news worried him, too. Please let it not be too excessive, he prayed.

Unfortunately, he would not see this wish come to fruition. They happened to pass by Tamara's house, and came across a horrifying scene.

Desmond and Lorraine were being hauled out of their own home by two Thorned Roses, a Hitmonchan and a Graveler.

"You monsters!" Desmond was yelling. "First you take my daughter and now my home! What more do you want?!"

"Rent money! It's that simple!" the Graveler fired back. "You can't pay the money, you don't get the privilege to live here! Basic economics, man!"

"But there's no way we could pay those rents!" Lorraine protested. "You'd have to have all the money in the world just to get by!"

"Well, tough luck, then," the Hitmonchan countered. "You don't get to live here. Simple as that."

"You bastards…" Desmond seethed. His gaze then turned to the street, and at that point, he spotted Arian and Elvira being led through them by Lillian. "Elvira! Arian! No! They got you two as well!?"

"Desmond! Lorraine!" Elvira called out.

"They took Tamara!" Lorraine said, beginning to sob. "They took our sweet little girl from us! And now they're taking you away as well!"

"They took Tamara?" the Treecko repeated, horror crossing her face. "Oh no...Arian, we have to - !"

"Stop talking, Treecko!" ordered Lillian. "Keep moving!"

"B-But Lillian - "

"Did I ask you to speak?" interrupted the Sandslash, giving the Grass-type a harsh glare. "Move it! The Boss isn't a patient man!"

"...Let it go, Elvira. We've lost this fight," Arian said, in an attempt to keep up the act. He knew she wanted to go rescue her friend, but one thought reigned his decision-making: We can't blow our cover. He felt bad himself, seeing all of this. But if we try and escape now, it'll only make everything worse. "Please don't make this harder than it has to be."

"...If you say so, Arian," Elvira said reluctantly. She was about to protest, but seeing her partner's pleading look made the protest die at her lips. As well as that, she understood those last words' message: Don't give us away.

"Good. Now walk on, like the submissive little runts you are!" ordered Lillian.

Wordlessly, the duo walked on. Behind them, Desmond and Lorraine watched them go, slightly bewildered by the exchange.

"What was that?" the Raichu observed. "It's like they walked off without argument. How did Elvira listen to Arian so quickly? Something's not right here…"

"Do the Thorned Roses know no pity?" Lorraine clasped her hands. "Oh Creator, please let them find a way out. And please, let my little girl be okay…"

Meanwhile, the duo marched on, faced with several more heart-wrenching scenes of evictions. It was particularly upsetting for Elvira, who had to look away on a few occasions. Arian found them sickening to watch, as people of all ages, including women and children, were thrown out of their homes. He could also sense Lillian didn't approve of this either, if her emotions were anything to go by.

"Elvira! Arian!"

The two looked over and saw another scene that was a punch to the gut. To their right, being evicted, were Vardan and a Lilligant; the latter being Diantha, Flora's mother.

"Vardan!" Arian cried.

"Diantha!" Elvira looked into the florist's where strewn flowers lay in the wake of the Thorned Roses' ransacking of the shop. A sinking feeling developed as she realised there was someone missing. "Where's Flora?"

"Gone!" Vardan yelled. "These bastards took her away this morning!"

"No! No!" Elvira cried with anguish. "Flora and Tamara…both of them…!"

"Elvira…" Arian felt the sting of her sorrow. By now, he was considering finding out himself the truth behind the two missing girls. But he shook that off. We'll just be caught anyway. Might end up just like them… He shook off that dark thought. No. They're somewhere. We just can't deal with this right now.

"Come on, you two! Move!" Lillian demanded. Notably, her tone had lost a bit of its bite.

The duo were moved onwards. All the while, Arian's mind was ablaze with thoughts.

Are they gonna be carted off to be 'sacrificed'? His blood ran cold at the thought. All these people…Why are they doing this? Why must they be so heartless?

But they couldn't do anything if this plan was to succeed. It pained Arian to stand by and do nothing, and he knew Elvira felt the same way.

You said you hate feeling powerless, Elvira. …I feel you. I really do.

Eventually, the three ended up at the town square, where Arian and Elvira had met Mikhail. There, some Thorned Roses were stationed, though Arian couldn't help but think that there were less than last time. Must be out evicting people, he cynically thought to himself.

He had little time to brood on this thought, however, before multiple Thorned Roses spotted them, and a clamour arose amongst them.

"Hey! It's the Riolu and Treecko the Boss wants!"

"Get them! Make sure they don't get away!"

"Oh, great! We got them at last! Another set of rebels crushed!"

"Guys…" Lillian was trying to urge. "Please don't create a scene. I have to deliver them to the jail cells for the Boss."

"Aww, can't we at least give 'em a few knocks?" a Mienfoo protested. "I'd love to use the Riolu as a punching bag."

You're lucky my hands are tied, otherwise that's what I'd do to you, Arian bristled. He settled for growling at the Mienfoo.

"I'd rather not," Lillian denied. "There's a chance the Boss wouldn't want them covered in nicks, and I'm not taking the fall for that."

"...Pfft. Really?" a Sableye scoffed. "That's not the Boss at all. He wouldn't care a jot if they turned him with him with faces like they were in a boxing match. ...Come on. Let's lay into them!"

"You idiots. Don't you realise? This is exactly the kind of argument an ally of theirs would want," Lillian suddenly said, in a change of topic. Arian wasn't sure yet, but somehow he felt as if this was meaningful. "It's just the correct amount of chaos...to create a distraction."

After the Sandslash said this, everything happened at once. Out of nowhere, without any warning, smoke bombs suddenly landed in the square, and white smoke billowed everywhere. Everyone was caught off guard, and a sea of coughs erupted from the Thorned Roses, along with voices of outrage.

"Wh-What is this?!"

"An ambush?! Who would dare?!"

"Where'd it come from? Who threw those?!"

"It's those rats! That Riolu and Treecko...They're responsible for this!"

The last yell was quite wrong: Arian and Elvira were just as startled as their adversaries, and were just as caught up in the confusion as they were. As chaos ensued, they were considerably disoriented...until Arian came to a realisation.

This is what Lillian meant by diversion ...Well, now's our chance! But where is she?

At that moment, both the Riolu and Treecko felt something at their backs, where their arms were tied with rope. Suddenly, the rope had been cut in half, and a delightful realisation came to them when they found they could move their arms again.

We're free!

"Arian! Elvira! With me!" Lillian's voice called out. Then, amidst the smoke, the Sandslash's figure appeared.

"Let's go, Elvira!" Arian called out to his partner. Before she had time to respond, he took her hand in his paw and ran with her after Lillian.

"H-Hey! They're getting away!" the voice of a Thorned Rose called out. "After them!"

"But where did they go? You can't see a damn thing in this smoke!"

That was all Arian heard from them, as he and Elvira ran away from the square and followed Lillian up another street. Luckily, they were out of the smoke by this stage, and so could see each other.

"Down this way!" Lillian commanded, before going into an alleyway. The duo followed her lead and went into the alley with her. From there, their escape route became one of skirting through the alleyways. Arian prayed that the Sandslash knew the way, and they wouldn't accidentally happen upon a dead end where they could potentially be cornered by pursuers.

Thankfully, his fears were unfounded: they never went to any cul-de-sacs, and no Thorned Roses were pursuing them. Lillian's distraction had worked, and now they were but a stone's throw away from the northern exit, confirmed when the three walked onto a familiar street.

"Hang on a minute," Arian observed. "Isn't this the street Iona lives on?"

"It is," Elvira confirmed. "The Thorned Roses don't tend to patrol this street, which means that it'll be easy between here and the northern exit. ...We're nearly there. We're nearly out of Ozerograd and the Thorned Roses' clutches. But…" Her face then fell. "Tamara…and Flora"

"Don't you worry, Elvira. I'll bring them back safe and sound," vowed Lillian. "You can be sure of it."

"Y-You would?"

"Of course. After all…we need no reason to help the innocent."

"...Wait a minute." Shocked realisation crossed Elvira's face. "Those words...My dad used to say those all the time. That used to be the motto of the Irian Guild! Were you a mercenary there, Lillian?" she asked in disbelief.

"Not 'was'," Lillian corrected, with pride. "I still am." She then dug into her satchel, and brought out an item that made Elvira's eyes: a badge. "I'm Lillian, a co-member of Team Sandstream, a mercenary team working for the Irian Guild. Pleased to make your acquaintance."

"That's…That's a Guild badge." The Treecko was stupefied. "Just like what Dad had…"

"The Irian Guild?" Arian said, slightly confused. "But wasn't it burned down by Mitrofan?"

"You can't kill a mercenary's spirit," Lillian answered. "The Chief revived it, but because all mercenaries assigned to the Guild were declared outlaws, it's a secret organisation at the minute. That's why you haven't heard of us. But I assure you: the heart of the Irian Guild is still beating. We're still around."

"The Guild is still around?" The words were like heaven for Elvira to hear. "That's wonderful. Oh, blessed Arceus above, it's still here…"

"Wow." I did not expect to hear that. But if it's true, then that really does open up doors for us. "Where do we sign up?" Arian asked.

"When you meet with the Chief," Lillian told him. "Come on. Let's go meet him."

The two continued down the alleyway, after Lillian. Eventually, the alley came to an end, and once there, they only had one last step to complete to get out of town: getting through the northern gate and the guards there.

Elvira froze upon remembering this.

"There are guards," she brought up.

"...Crap," Arian said, realising the Treecko had a point. "What do we do? We've come this far. We can't give up now."

"Oh, relax, you two," Lillian assured, after peeking out onto the road. "We'll be fine. Just follow my lead and everything will be alright."

"What are you going to do, Lillian?" Elvira wondered.

"Nothing. I don't have to do anything. Nothing like back at the square. Just watch."

Confidently, the Sandslash strode out into the open. Elvira and Arian were still both apprehensive as they followed her into the open. They were somewhat confused by Lillian's apparent disposition of ease, wondering why she was so sure of herself this time.

They walked up the gate. It was the same two from two days before: a Krokorok and a Gligar.

Why is Lillian so confident about this? pondered Arian. ...I guess we'll find out what her plan is.

They approached the guards. As they got closer, the Krokorok called out to them.

"Oi! No one gets through 'ere without payin' up!" he growled.

"That's right! And especially not the lot the Boss is looking for!" the Gligar added.

Arian and Elvira tensed. Oh no, we've been spotted! The Riolu readied a battle stance, and Elvira, upon seeing him, did the same. Weirdly enough, though...Lillian didn't do the same. The reasons for this were revealed upon her opening her mouth.

"Ha ha. Very funny, Ishmael," the Sandslash said. " You can drop the act now. There aren't any Thorned Roses around to see us."

"...Yeah, ya got that right," the Krokorok replied, suddenly sounding a lot less aggressive. "This shit's gettin' old. I've been gettin' cream crackered of sayin' that every time some drongo comes through 'ere."

"Same here," seconded the Gligar. "I want out. How much longer do we have to keep doing this?"

"Not too much longer, hopefully," Lillian assured. "The Chief said to me just before I came to collect these two that it wouldn't be long at all."

"You know each other?" a puzzled Elvira asked.

"Nah, never met this lassie 'fore in my life," Ishmael dismissed, before a smirk appeared on his muzzle. "Ha! Only messin'. Course I do. Chinas, us lot. We've known each other since we were lil' 'uns."

"Um, guys?" the Gligar piped up. "I hate to break up this conversation, but...y'know, we do need to cover for you, and...we can't exactly do that if you're still here."

"Oh, of course," Lillian acknowledged. "I'll come back once these two meet up with the Chief. He'll look after them."

"Yeah, the Chief's good at looking after others," the Gligar replied, his words directed at Arian and Elvira. "You won't be in any danger when he's around."

"Yup. Yer right there, Ax. ...Dunno why 'e was so interested in ya lot, though," Ishmael said. "'Specially ya, Treecko."

"Me?" Elvira said.

"Yeah, the Chief was very curious about you, and asked a lot of questions," Lillian informed. "Of course, I couldn't answer them, 'cause I only met you today. But he seemed quite eager to meet you."

"It must be him," Elvira murmured, after hearing this. "It has to be…"

"Looks like ya might know 'im," Ishmael remarked, before giving her a smile. "Go on, lassie. 'E's waitin' for ya, down in the old town."

"Yeah, go," encouraged Axel, the Gligar. "Before the Thorned Roses come up here. We'll cover you, don't worry."

"Thank you," Elvira said to both guards gratefully. "Let's go, Arian. Let's go meet him."

The two walked out of the gate, followed by Lillian. Once they were beyond the gate and into the forested area, the Sandslash took off her Thorned Rose armband with pleasure.

"Ahh," she sighed happily. "Finally. I hate wearing that band. At least it's not much longer now, being in this stupid gang." She filed her armband away in her satchel.

"I did not see that coming," Arian murmured. "Those two guards are your friends?"

"Yes. Ishmael, the Krokorok, and Axel, the Gligar, are my closest friends. We've known them since we were hatchlings," Lillian answered. "They're also my partners in Team Sandstream."

""Team Sandstream…" Arian noted. "Is that because you're all Ground-types?" He didn't know their types off by heart, but he did detect a sandy, earthy scent off them.

"Yeah. None of us actually have Sand Stream, though," Lillian said, with a light chuckle. "We just picked the name because it sounded cool."

"A cool name…" Elvira's thoughts drifted back to that morning's debate over their name.

"Were they the ones that set off the smoke bombs?" Arian wondered.

"Yep. Axel carries some just in case. You never know when you might need a bit of misdirection," the Sandslash reasoned.

"Fair enough." Arian shrugged, seeing nothing wrong with that logic.

"Ah. Here we are. The old crossroads."

It was the same crossroads that Arian and Elvira had been to two days prior. Only, on this occasion, they would go down the left path.

The three started down the path to the old town. But they had barely left the crossroads when…

"Oh? Well, well, well...What do we have here?"

Arian and Elvira stiffened in terror. They knew that slimy, slithery voice, and all the hope they had built up vanished in an instant.

"So it's come to this, has it?" Mikhail said, as he crept from the bushes by the path and behind the trio. All three turned around to face him. "Collaborating with the duo the Boss demanded you apprehend, for one. Then you not only renounce your loyalty to the Boss, but prove yourself to be a traitorous urchin sent by your 'Chief' to spy on us."

His words were laced with rather more anger than in their last meeting. But they were aimed at Lillian, rather than Arian and Elvira.

"And if I did?" Though intimidated, the Sandslash stood her ground. "Surely the great and clever Mikhail must have suspected something? You are, after all, the grand tactician of the Thorned Roses. And yet you never saw the possibility of a traitor in your midst?"

"Some nerve you have," hissed Mikhail, displeased with Lillian's teasing. "Filthy Alban cur! You never should've crept into our gang in the first place."

"Well, as it so happens, I did," Lillian taunted, wearing a smirk of superiority. It felt satisfying to have an edge over the slippery viper for once. "Now you have to live with the consequences. And one of those will be the fall of Hinnerk's rule over Ozerograd. Mark my words."

The Seviper didn't say anything to this at first. It seemed as though Lillian's words had hit their mark. The Sandslash prepared to turn around and resume their journey down to the quay, but stopped when she heard a snicker from Mikhail.

"...Keh."

"What's so funny?" Lillian demanded.

"Keh hah hah hah hah!" cackled the Seviper. "I bet you haven't realised the trap you're walking into, have you?"

"A trap?" echoed Arian. "What trap?"

"Wouldn't you like to know, Riolu?" Mikhail deviously replied. "But I wouldn't try and escape if I were you. After all, the lives of your partner's dear friends hangs in the balance. You wouldn't dare forsake her feelings, would you?"

"My friends?" Then it occurred to Elvira. "You kidnapped Flora and Tamara! It was you who took them!"

"Indeed it was," the Seviper replied, grinning maliciously. "And unless you come to the old town, then we will have absolutely no problem disposing of them."

"You wouldn't!" cried Elvira. "If you do that, I swear I'll…!" She clenched her hand in rage.

"Ha! As if you could do anything," scoffed Mikhail. "But by all means. We'll give you a chance. Come to the old town if you want to save your friend. And that goes for you too, Little Miss Turncoat." He directed this at Lillian. "One wrong move from you and their lives are forfeit."

"Fine," Lillian seethed. "I'll come."

The three walked down the road to the old town. They couldn't turn back, as Mikhail was edging them forward, and would block any escape attempts. The thought came to Elvira to potentially attack him three-on-one, but she dismissed it; that would only worsen her friends' jeopardy. The only thing she could do right now was walk into this trap that had been set up for them.

They passed a sign reading 'Welcome to Ozerograd Quay'. It was the official name for the old town of Ozerograd, but colloquially, most people referred to it as 'the old town', or sometimes, 'the quay'.

The first part of the town was surprisingly enough, rows of berry fields which some Pokémon were working on. However, the sight of Mikhail made a number of them tense up, and work at a faster rate.

So the Thorned Roses have control here, too, Arian bitterly thought to himself. ...Honestly, when will this all stop? When will these people finally know the meaning of a normal life again?

Soon, the fields gave way to lines of houses reminiscent of a terraced street. Along with that, the street was wide, rather like a main street of a town. It was still very much reminiscent of a town, although Arian couldn't help but believe it didn't have half the grandeur of the new town of Ozerograd.

A feeling of dread was shared by him and Elvira. They were walking into a trap that they looked to have no way out of. As well as that, they were to face Hinnerk, an infamous figure of menace. Arian shivered at this. If Mikhail was devilish, his superior was likely to be far worse.

Before long, the street narrowed into a small quayside area. A number of small boats and their oars lay anchored at the water's edge. The road they were walking on also had an end that led to a wide pier. And on that pier lay three figures.

One was the imposing figure of an Obstagoon. The others were the much smaller figures of a Petilil and a Pachirisu. As they got closer, it was noted, much to Elvira's horror, that they were tied, and gags had been put over their mouths to prevent them from talking.

"They've come, Boss," Mikhail announced, slithering in front of the trio and making his way to his boss. "Like a Mothim to flame, they've come right to us."

"Good work, Mikhail," praised Hinnerk. He then turned his attention to the three behind him, and on Elvira in particular. "Well well well. If it isn't Kallias's little pride and joy. To think you were right under my nose all this time…"

"...Hinnerk," Elvira said, trying but failing to sound brave. The Obstagoon had that kind of presence. "Why have you done this? Why have you kidnapped my friendsTamara?"

"Isn't it obvious?" replied the Thorned Roses' leader. "Mercenaries have a bleeding heart for every little thing. Kallias was like that to a T. If you're anything like him, then you would come running if you'd found out I'd taken people hostage. Especially if it was one of your friends," he elaborated, an evil smirk on his face.

"You're sick!" Elvira condemned. "How can people like you live knowing all the horrible things you've done? That's not even going into all those evictions, and the people are going to rob people of a roof over their heads!"

"And you spiriting away people mysteriously too!" Arian butted in. "What are you doing to them, Hinnerk?! Where are you taking them?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" taunted Hinnerk. "I bet you wanna save them all, don't you?"

"You bet we will!"

"Hah! Look at you, so full of confidence!" The Obstagoon snickered. "Of course, you live in an airy-fairy world where justice prevails and evil's always brought to its knees. I bet your dear old daddy taught you that, and you wanna be a hero just like him, don't you?" he said to Elvira, his voice sickeningly sweet.

"That's…" Elvira, taken aback, struggled to muster a reply, realising that the Obstagoon had hit the nail on the head.

"Okay, I've noticed something already," Arian interjected. "It's not even been a minute and yet you won't stop going on about Kallias. Is there some history between you two or what?"

"...Fernblade Kallias was the bane of my existence," Hinnerk answered, his look souring at the mention of the Sceptile. "Him and Mud Bomber Melchior...It's because of the snooping of Team Marshwood seven years ago that the life I led came crashing down in an instant. If he hadn't snooped his nose into my business like he always did, then I'd be living the good life. Tenacious bastard!" he raged.

"That was because you dealt in smuggling and involved yourself in a nefarious plot!" Elvira replied, her fury growing. "You were a hardened criminal! My dad's job was to hunt down people like you and bring them to justice! And he did just that with you!"

"Hold on a minute!" Arian cut in. "You mean...your dad actually caught this guy? And he was a smuggler?"

"He did," Elvira told him. "Dad and Melchior investigated what he was involved in and were able to expose a huge plot that involved an attempted mass murder and assassination of the royal family. It was that very mission that earned them Grandmaster Rank. It's reserved only for the truly exceptional - and they rightfully earned it through that."

"Grandmaster," spat Hinnerk. "An honour wasted on men like them! Why accept that, but deny everything else? They were offered knighthoods, estates, lordships - the kind of things people would kill for! What a waste, saying no to all that glitz and glory! Honours are wasted on people like them! People like me, who would actually use such power to its fullest - they belong to us! Not them!"

"The people of Ozerograd would look at that a little differently," Lillian snarked. "Tell that to them and see how far you get."

"You - " Hinnerk stopped, realising he recognised the Sandslash. "You're one of my grunts." Realisation struck him then. "You double-crossing bitch! How dare you betray me!"

"It would seem she was planning this all along," Mikhail elaborated. "And it's not just her. She has two accomplices with her who infiltrated the Thorned Roses. And they're all beholden to someone they refer to as 'the Chief'. ...Someone who wishes to bring down the Thorned Roses, no doubt."

"You're damn right," Lillian proclaimed. "The Chief knows about all you've done here. But he knows about your activities in that plot seven years ago. All the more reason that the likes of you should be locked away forever."

"The Chief, huh?" Hinnerk growled. "A secret identity, I bet. Doesn't matter! I know exactly who your 'Chief' is!"

"Y-You do?" Arian said, panicked. Does he know? They wanted it to be a secret…Oh no, no, no...

"Of course I do," the Obstagoon replied, teeth bared in fury. "It's that bastard Kallias! That's who!"

Both Arian and Elvira stiffened in an instant. Crap! He knows! the former thought.

"Hah! It seems I'm right," said Hinnerk, noticing the duo tense up. "Who else could it be? It all makes sense now. That's why his little girl and her partner trekked all the way out here, escorted by a lackey of his. After five years of disappearing off the face of Ardalion, this is how that rat's going to return and be the hero once again, by laying waste to my gang." He curled his lips in a snarl. "That's exactly the kind of scenario he'd enact. It's too perfect. The bastard's going to do just that."

"..." Elvira said nothing, so as not to risk giving anything away. But the Thorned Roses' leader's rant gave her food for thought. Is that really his plan? That does sound like something Dad would do...

"But I know the perfect way to get revenge on him." Hinnerk's devilish grin returned once again. "Kallias is a prick who prides himself on being selfless. As long as the ones he loves are safe, that's all that matters. ...So what if his loving daughter were sent straight to hell's gates?" He grinned evilly as he shot a leer at Elvira.

"You're going to kill Elvira?" Arian assessed, gritting his teeth in anger.

"Of course! That would destroy Kallias more than anything, if his daughter were to die at my hands!" Hinnerk chortled. "It's the perfect revenge! Not defeating him, but killing his little pride and joy! What better way to crush him than by snuffing your life out?"

"That's not going to happen," Arian boldly declared, holding out his arm defensively in front of Elvira. "Not while I'm here. I won't let you kill Elvira!"

"So you're her chosen partner, are you?" Hinnerk's lips curled in disgust. "Doesn't matter. I'll kill you just the same. And you too, you traitorous wench!" he shouted at Lillian.

"You monster," Elvira said, shaking her fist. "Only a monster could talk about killing someone in as light a manner as you have. You're the very reason mercenaries live and breathe."

"You've escaped justice for too long, Hinnerk!" Lillian said to him. "But you can't run any longer!"

Hinnerk looked down at the three, all with fiery and determined looks on their faces. He wasn't impressed or even threatened by what he saw. The three before him were young, two of them barely even young adults. It was a typical example of the daredevil attitude of people their age, always rushing in without any sort of contingency plan for if things went wrong.

The sight of it was pitiable, in his eyes. And so, knowing what he knew, he did the only thing he could find it in him to do.

Laugh.

"Aha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!" he guffawed. "Hah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!" He had to hold his chest from how hard he was laughing.

"And just what exactly is so funny?" demanded Arian, feeling his anger grow at the Obstagoon's laughter.

Lillian, however, looked from Hinnerk laughing his sides off to Mikhail, who was still smiling devilishly, and to Flora and Tamara, whose eyes were full of fear. All three of these made her realise something.

They know something we don't.

"...You don't even realise it, do you?" Hinnerk said, once he'd composed himself enough. "Are you forgetting who I am?"

Where's this confidence coming from? Elvira wondered. Soon enough, she also found herself thinking the same thought as Lillian: They know something.

"You're forgetting that I'm the leader of the Thorned Roses. And whenever I want to, I can summon men on a whim to serve my every need. Like right now."

Hinnerk then clicked his claws.

"Come out, boys! It's time to play!"

And then, from the rooftops of the pierside houses behind Arian, Elvira and Lillian, a number of Thorned Roses appeared, and jumped down, landing on the pier's approach. Their appearance prevented any path of escape for the three of them. And every one of them looked geared up and ready for a fight.

All three's previously determined faces faltered once they saw what situation they were in.

"Heh." Hinnerk smirked. "And just like that, your hope withers to nothing."

"Crap. This isn't good," Arian remarked, looking around him. "We're in a bad situation here…"

"Outnumbered and with no escape route," Lillian agreed. "A right pickle, this is."

"..." Elvira felt similarly to her compatriots. Right now, it all seemed hopeless. Hinnerk had them cornered, and there was little chance of escape or victory through battling. She and Arian were only novices, and they faced a hardened criminal, his crafty tactician, and a horde of no less than six of his lackeys. Even with Lillian's help, it would be an arduous challenge, to say the least. Was victory even possible?

"I hate being powerless."

Her own words came back to her, the same ones she'd spoken to Arian the day before in Cyan Cove. It reflected her very frustrations with her own hesitance; as Selenia descended into authoritarianism and Hinnerk took over Ozerograd, she could do nothing. And she had done nothing. She had simply watched, paralysed by her indecisiveness.

Why do I have to be this way? she thought to herself. Why must I be the weak one? I vowed to become a mercenary, and even now...I've been frightened of the Thorned Roses and Hinnerk. I shouldn't be doing this. A mercenary's meant to be fearless. Images of her father flashed through her mind, his stories of returning from seemingly unwinnable matchups victorious coming back to her. He was the ultimate epitome of what a mercenary should be, in her eyes.

A mercenary's meant to bring justice to those who don't know its meaning. People like him. Her gaze fell upon Hinnerk, the very person who'd caused all of the strife in her town for the last five years.

"When will this cycle end?"

"When someone stands up to him. Someone has to."

Her conversation with Arian when they were in Blossoming Meadow was also relayed back to her. Back then, she'd had that similar hesitance, for she had cited Hinnerk's strength and the speed of his gang in putting down potential rebellions.

But now, standing in front of him, different thoughts came to her mind.

He's my enemy. Him and all of his henchmen. They've terrorised the people of Ozerograd, evicted its people from their homes, made people disappear and now he's kidnapped my best friends. And this drought of justice…it's gone on for too long. It's high time for him to be brought to his knees.

"So what's it to be?" Hinnerk said. "There's only two choices, really. Either you fight me and I kill you. Or...you could get on your knees and beg. ...Who knows? I might just take pity on you and let you live. Maybe even let you three be my personal servants. I could always use more servants for more…specialised purposes." He looked over at Elvira and Lillian specifically, and gave his lips a salacious lick.

"You're sick!" Lillian shouted, understanding all the connotations and reacting accordingly.

"Ignore him, Lillian," Elvira said. Suddenly, her voice sounded more resolute and confident. An idea had made itself known in her head, and she sought to try it out. It's risky, incredibly risky…but if it works, the odds may tilt a little more in our favour. "We don't have to listen to the words of a weakling like him."

"Weakling?" And as desired, Hinnerk took the bait. "You're calling me a weakling, you stupid girl?"

"Yes, I am," the Treecko replied, remaining calm and collected. "Look at your gang, for one thing. You have to hire all of these men to keep your power in check. Are you sure it's not just a way of compensating for your weakness?"

"You're calling me weak?" the Obstagoon growled. "Do you have any idea who you face? I'm the boss of the Thorned Roses! You should be cowering in fear before me!"

"But I'm not," Elvira pointed out. "Because I know your secret. You're not really that powerful, are you? You're just a pushover who hides behind his henchmen and creates a climate of fear to disguise the fact that you have no strength at all."

"Hey! Don't talk shit about the Boss, you bitch!" called out one Thorned Rose, an Electabuzz.

"Yeah! He overthrew the lord of this place!" piped up another, a Primeape. "Someone weak couldn't possibly do that!"

"Oh yes, they could," argued Lillian, who saw what Elvira's plan was and decided to join in. "Selenian lords aren't a strong lot. If they're crafty enough, even a weak idiot like Hinnerk would be able to sneak in and assassinate the lord. And I know for a fact that Mikhail was by his side at the time. Surely you're not denying that, are you?" she asked, aiming the question at the Seviper.

"You're bluffing," Mikhail replied, dodging the question. "Is this what you've stooped to? Realising victory is impossible, you take to hurling false insults at the Boss?" He gave an angry hiss. "Why must traitors and rebels be such a troublesome lot?"

"Oh, really? You think we're bluffing?" By this stage, Arian had understood Elvira's plan as well. "Then prove it! If you're so strong, then you should easily be able to wipe the floor with us, without any help from your men! Go on! I dare you! I double dare you, Hinnerk!"

"...Grrr...you…" the Obstagoon snarled, his teeth bared in anger. Who does this Riolu think he is? That wench sure found an irritating partner to side with. ...I could just send the men against them, but…no. All three of them...I want to make them suffer. Each and every one of them. A traitor, an irritant, and Kallias's spawn. They don't know for one minute who they're dealing with.

And if all else fails and I am somehow beaten...I do have two back-up plans in mind.
Hinnerk grinned evilly. That'd make the boldness fade from their eyes and let despair take its place.

"...So you believe I'm weak, do you?" Hinnerk said, a challenging glare in his eyes. "How about I show you just how wrong you are? I'll play along with your little game. And you three will all know what a mistake you've made in challenging me." He looked across to the Thorned Roses behind the trio. "Stand by, men. I'll handle these runts."

"Yes, Boss!" yelled one of them, a Fraxure.

"Beat them! Show 'em why you're the Boss around here!" another one, an Umbreon, seconded.

"You can do it, Boss!" encouraged another, a Golbat. "They're nothing compared to you!"

While they were doing, and Hinnerk was soaking in the acclamation of his men, Elvira leaned over to Arian.

"Listen, Arian. I know this may not be the best time, but…" Her voice dropped to a whisper as she said something to him.

"That's a good idea, Elvira," the Riolu whispered back, his eyes lighting up at her suggestion. "We'll try that when we beat him. But do you think we can win?"

"I'm really not sure," the Treecko admitted. "In fact, I don't know if we can win. ...But we have to try. As you said, someone has to stand up to him. And are you willing to lay down and surrender to someone like him?"

"No way in hell," denied Arian. "I'll fight till the end."

"And so will I," Lillian added. "We won't stand for this anymore. It's about time he was brought to his knees. And I want a slice of that pie."

"Thanks, Lillian. Glad you have our backs," Elvira responded gratefully.

"Hey! You gonna fight me or what?" Hinnerk's voice broke through their conversation. "You've had enough time for a pep talk!"

"Oh, don't worry. We were ready all this time," assured Lillian.

"Bring it on, Hinnerk!" Arian yelled. "We're going to bring you down, right here and right now!"

"This is for Ozerograd!" Elvira called. "This is for all the people who've had to live under your cruel reign.

"Tch. Look at them." Hinnerk then turned to Mikhail, who was watching the bound Tamara off to the side. "Look after the girls, Mikhail. Make sure they don't escape while we're not looking."

"With pleasure," the Seviper obliged.

"Good." The Obstagoon then turned back to the trio, and looked down on them with a sneer. "Arrogant brats. You'll know your place soon enough. You'll know the terror that is Hinnerk, leader of the Thorned Roses."





Notes

Again, another chapter that I planned to have more content in it. However, I've decided to leave what was to be the ending for this chapter for next time, where we shall see how the fight with Hinnerk turns out, along with the resolution of some other mysteries.

The team name wasn't something I forgot to mention; I intended it to be something unmentioned until now. At some point in the future, it'll be revealed. When? And what's the team name? Well…wait and see.

With Team A&E, I was intending to get across that 'A&E' means 'Accident and Emergency', and I was trying to get across a faint remembrance by Arian that he associated these two letters with that, given that he's a human.

Looking back, I find it a tad ironic that Elvira calls Hinnerk a monster and yet she's the one in the Monster egg group. Isn't it great when we write irony without realising it at first? I'm rather proud of that.

That's all for now. Thanks for reading.

Updates(16/12/22): This is part of my early chapter updates. Streamlining some dialogue, though this one less so than previously, inserting the 'Thorned Roses making people disappear' plotline. I also made Flora kidnapped as well, along with Tamara. (No idea why I didn't include her in the first place, to be honest.)

I also changed the Irian Guild's motto to 'We need no reason to help the innocent.' I felt the old one was too wordy and imprecise as to what the Guild stood for.
 
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Chapter 9

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 9
Elpis

Hinnerk considered himself to be someone who was prepared to face off any threat. The fact that he had been in this position for five long years with only a few challenges to his leadership was proof of this, and the easy putting down of those rebellions was proof of his readiness to combat threats, in his mind. It was all the better for him, as it meant his image as a tough, wily leader was cemented among the people of Ozerograd, and he could continue his life of luxury in peace.

But never had he been challenged in such a way like Elvira had done; in order to prove he wasn't a weakling. Like Mikhail, he could see they were bluffing in order to find a way out of the precarious situation they had found themselves in.

But it was the way Elvira had spoken to him - the mocking, teasing words designed to goad - that he could not turn a blind eye to. Those clever, sly strategies to get out of seemingly unwinnable situations was a tactic Team Marshwood were known for, and specifically, it was Kallias' cunning that came up with such schemes. That had to have rubbed off on the Sceptile's daughter.

And similarly hard to ignore was the challenge of Arian to prove he wasn't weak. He had never met this mysterious green-eyed freak of a Riolu before, but something about him ticked the Obstagoon off. Whether it was his odd green irises, his association with Elvira, or his arrogance in challenging him to a duel, the Riolu was proving to be quite a pest, and one he'd be all too happy to remove from the picture.

And a similar story could be had with Lillian. Traitors and backstabbers were people he couldn't stand, and should one arise in the Thorned Roses, he would demand their life become forfeit. Thus, he would gladly kill Lillian for the traitor she was.

All three proved to be a great threat to him. And so, once their duel started, he was the first one to engage in combat, making a beeline for them. Arian was the first one he went for, and lunged for him in a Submission attack.

"Ah!" Arian was caught off guard, and suffered for it, taking all the blows the Obstagoon dealt to him. It was a devastating attack in which the Riolu was greatly hurt, acquiring a number of bruises and cuts across his body.

"Arian!" cried Elvira, once she saw her partner's condition. "Take this, Hinnerk!" She used a Mega Drain on him, which she found she had learned during the trek through Cyan Cove.

However, the attack didn't phase the Obstagoon as much as she'd hoped. It did something, but Hinnerk, if anything, had garnered more pain through the recoil from his Submission attack.

"Ha! Call that an attack?" he mocked. "Should've stayed at home, girl! Not enough dolls in the house to keep you interested, is that it?"

"Shut up! You don't know anything about me!" the Treecko yelled. She charged toward him, intent on landing a Quick Attack. However…

Hinnerk, cross-armed, let loose a shout that made her flinch and stop her cold in her tracks.

"...Obstruct," Lillian observed. "...It would be only natural for an Obstagoon like Hinnerk to have such a move…"

"...Pathetic," Hinnerk scoffed at Elvira's flinching. He followed up his Obstruct with a Night Slash, and knocked Elvira back, where she landed at Arian's feet.

"Elvira! Are you alright?" the worried Riolu asked, helping her up.

"...Could be better," Elvira groaned, clutching her side where Hinnerk had struck.

"...Is that really the best you've got?" Hinnerk taunted. "What, was Kallias so focused on his mercenary work that he didn't have time to pass his skills onto his only daughter? Some parenting that is! He might've been a hero, but he sure as hell was a crap parent!"

"Don't you dare talk that way about my dad!" shouted Elvira angrily. She tried to run towards Hinnerk to attack him, but Lillian called out to her.

"Wait, Elvira!" she interjected. "This is what Hinnerk wants from you. He wants you to be all riled up and angry. Because when you're pissed off like that, it makes easier pickings for him. We did that to him, but that doesn't mean we're immune to him doing it to us. Someone as devious as Hinnerk has tricks like that up his sleeve. We have to think around this." She dug into her bag and got out two oran berries. "Take them. Let's just pretend that didn't happen, and start again."

"Thanks," Arian accepted, and he and Elvira munched on their berries, feeling their wounds begin to heal. As this happened, the Treecko pondered their strategy against Hinnerk.

How to go about this? Hmm…a one-on-one strategy wouldn't work like it did back in Verdant Woods. Hinnerk's bigger and stronger than any of us. For this battle…a team effort's needed between Arian and I. And Arian, a Fighting-type against him…might be the best shot we have.

"Those oran berries won't save you," Hinnerk said to them. "One hit and you're already grasping for them. Did you really think I'd be a pushover? Stupid idiot mercs!"

"We never thought you would be," Elvira replied. "But you're far from invincible! With me, Arian!" She ran forward and attacked with Mega Drain once again.

"You tried that already," Hinnerk ridiculed, once again barely phased by the move. "Out of tricks already, are we?"

"No," Elvira denied. "I've only just begun unleashing my 'tricks'. Besides, it's not me who you should look out for." As she said this, Arian passed her by, Force Palm at the ready.

"Take this!" he cried, moving in to strike the Obstagoon. The hit landed, and Hinnerk staggered back slightly, surprising the Riolu.

"That…did more than I expected," he remarked.

"You're more powerful against him than I am, Arian," Elvira said. "Your Fighting-type moves will give us the edge."

"...Big mistake, girl, revealing your strategies like that," Hinnerk said, recovering from Arian's blow. "Because now I know exactly who to take out." He made a dash for the Riolu, and before the Riolu could react, he tackled him to the ground once more and attacked him with Submission.

"Argh! Ouch! Stop it!" Arian's cries could be heard as Hinnerk beat him relentlessly with Submission. He tried to escape the beatings, but the Thorned Roses' boss was too strong for him to get away from.

"That's enough, Hinnerk!" Lillian yelled, and she lunged forward to initiate her own attack to turn Hinnerk's attention to her. She hit him with multiple rounds of Fury Swipes, slashing deep enough to draw blood from the Obstagoon.

"Gah! Damn traitor!" hissed Hinnerk, who ceased his attack on Arian to focus on Lillian. "What pests the likes of you are!"

"Good. That means I'm doing something right," countered the Sandslash. "Now time for you to see what I'm made of!" She made her move with Crush Claw, dealing cuts to Hinnerk that drew blood.

"You little bitch!" snarled the Obstagoon. "I'll rip you apart!" He slashed at her with a Night Slash, but Lillian saw it coming, and managed to avoid the brunt of the blow, escaping with only a small cut on her side created by Hinnerk.

However, the Thorned Roses' boss's anger had been stoked, and his focus was directed toward Lillian now. A flurry of Night Slashes were directed Lillian's way, and the Sandslash quickly found herself on the defensive, trying to block Hinnerk's attacks in order to land some of her own. But she couldn't defend them all, and some of the Obstagoon's Night Slashes landed, wounding the Sandslash.

While this was happening, Elvira regrouped with Arian and healed him with an oran berry from her own bag. She couldn't help but notice, though, the dismayed look in his eyes.

"...One attack and I'm already having to take another oran berry," he said, in what sounded like self-disappointment. "...Maybe we really are in over our heads…"

"Don't say that," chided Elvira. "He has the advantage in strength, but…" She held up her bag. "We can gain the advantage in other ways."

"Through…items?" queried Arian.

"A bag of items is a mercenary's greatest companion," the Treecko continued. "You saw just there; I can't hit Hinnerk very hard. But…with some items, I might be able to make a difference. Like with these, for instance." She took out two seeds, and picked one of them. "Take that and eat it. It's a violent seed; it'll make your attacks stronger."

"...Okay, if you say so," Arian obliged. He tentatively took the seed, and ingested it, unsure of what to expect.

But within seconds, he could feel a sudden surge of energy come to him, and he suddenly felt more confident and determined.

"Whoa! That seed has quite a kick to it," he remarked. "...What did you say it was again? A violent seed?"

"Yes. Your attacks will pack more of a punch," Elvira told him. "I forgot we had it. I really must sort out the bag when we get home. But anyway. Let's see how powerful your Force Palm is now. Go on. Lillian has him distracted. Let's not waste this opportunity. You go first, and I'll follow."

"Right," acknowledged the Riolu. "...Lillian can't hold this up forever. We should move now." He chose to attack right before Hinnerk struck the Sandslash again. As the Obstagoon raised his hand to deliver another Night Slash, Arian chose that opportunity to once again attack with a Force Palm. He struck Hinnerk as hard as he could.

"Agh! You irritating little pest!" Hinnerk raged, and swung around to strike Arian. However, the Riolu figured he would do that, and managed to move back quickly enough to avoid the strike. Hinnerk, growling in anger, diverted his attention to Arian, and moved in to attack. Perhaps if he hadn't been so focused on the human, he would've seen Elvira biting down on the seed she'd picked from the bag.

The next thing he knew, the gecko blew fiery breath at him.

"A blast seed?! Could you merc types be any more annoying?" seethed the Obstagoon, feeling the flames lick at his fur.

"Annoying? You're one to talk," countered Lillian. "Who's been the one giving hell to the people of Ozerograd? Who's been the one suppressing freedom here for the past five years? It sure as hell hasn't been us!"

"Yeah!" seconded Arian. "I've only been here a few days, and even I can see how much of a threat you are to this town's peace!"

"And as someone who lives near Ozerograd, I've seen for myself just what you and the Thorned Roses have done to it," Elvira continued. "It's terrible what you've all done to it. All the more reason to defeat you here and now!"

"Shut up!" Hinnerk barked. "Shut up before I rip your throat out, you wretch!" He attempted to run for Elvira to attack her, but both Arian and Lillian ran forward in front of her, each with their own attack at the ready.

"Oh no, you don't!" Arian shouted, and with Lillian, unleashed a dual attack of Force Palm and Crush Claw on Hinnerk that landed.

"Gahhh!" the Obstagoon cried, as he was knocked back from the attack. He looked back up at Arian and Elvira, in furious disbelief. How could the likes of them have such power behind their attacks? This traitor and this nobody of a Riolu…they don't have the power to best me. I'm the boss of the Thorned Roses! I'm the most powerful person in Ozerograd! …So…how could they have…?

Hinnerk wasn't the only one gawping in disbelief, though. His underlings that were enclosing the pier had observed the duel between their boss and his three opponents. As the latter succeeded in landing their hits on the Obstagoon, fears began to arise among

"The Boss...He's struggling," noted one of the Thorned Roses, an Umbreon. "Th-That can't be...The Boss is the strongest of us all! There's no way he'd lose to these three...right?"

"...Not if we have anything to say about it. ...Hey, Boss!" the Electabuzz from earlier called out. "Don't worry! We'll help you get rid of those three!"

"Grrr...No!" Hinnerk objected. "Don't move! I can handle these brats by myself!" However, his laboured breaths and visible wounds told a different story.

"But Boss! They're winning!" protested the Fraxure. "Please let us help you kill them!"

"...Do it," ordered Mikhail, before Hinnerk could say anything. "I'm sorry, Boss, but it's for your own good. We can't let the Thorned Roses fall, especially to these whelps."

"...Fine!" Hinnerk shouted in frustration. "I've just about had it with them anyway! Kill them! Make them suffer for their defiance!"

"Yes, Boss!" all of them called out, before getting ready to lunge on the trio.

No! Arian thought to himself. Just when we were getting the upper hand...It can't end like this! Not after Elvira came up with that brilliant plan…

But before the group of Thorned Roses could initiate combat, they were rudely interrupted by nothing other than...the detonation of smoke bombs.

Within seconds, the pier was covered in thick white smoke, just like the square in Ozerograd had been earlier. And just like before, the group of Thorned Roses were taken by surprise.

"Smoke bombs?!"

"What the hell?! Where'd they come from?"

"Are we under attack?"

"I bet it's friends of those bastards!"

"Where are they? You can't see through this smoke!"

Meanwhile, whereas Arian and Elvira had been disoriented by the smoke bombs before, this time they saw them as symbols of hope. It meant help was here to get them out of this predicament.

There was a slight problem, though, in that the smoke made it hard to see what exactly was going on. Through the smoke and uproar of the Thorned Roses, however, Arian was able to discern a few voices.

"Now, Ishmael! Throw it!"

"Gotcha! Take this, ya buncha crooks!"

Then the shattering of what seemed to be glass was heard. Strangely enough, all went quiet from the Thorned Roses henchmen kicking up a furore. Arian cocked his head in puzzlement. What could this be? Just in case, he readied himself for a potential enemy to strike. They could take advantage of this, after all.

A gust of wind suddenly blew out of the smoke. But then, to Arian's surprise, a strong wind suddenly blew the smoke away. Eventually, it cleared up enough to see what had happened.

And it was quite a sight. One that made the Riolu's eyes widen in a mixture of shock and wonderment.

All of the Thorned Roses that had reared up to attack the three of them had suddenly been frozen. But not in the sense of being encased in ice - it looked as though time had stopped for them, and they were all frozen in place, some in a pose to run, and others plainly more disoriented from the smoke. Their expressions were a mixture of outrage, confusion, and panic.

And in front of this scene lay a familiar duo: a Krokorok and a Gligar.

Lillian was the first one to speak up.

"Ishmael! Axel! You came!"

"Heh." Ishmael smirked. "Got a bit worried when ya weren't showin' up. We figured somethin' had happened, so we came down here to quite a show. Ya were doin' well, but...that lot was gonna ruin everythin'.'' He pointed to the frozen Thorned Roses. "Good thing Axel still 'ad some smoke bombs left over."

"Good thing, alright," the Gligar said. "I kept some just in case we'd need them in future. And what do you know? A perfect opportunity!" He gestured to the scene before him. "I told you Defog was useful for stuff like this, Ish!"

"...Eh, can't argue with that," agreed Ishmael. "Handy for stuff like smoke bombs."

"What did you do to them?" Arian asked, still stunned by the sight before him. "How are they...frozen like that?"

"Petrify Orb," the Krokorok answered simply. "Got it from yer folks, Lill. It freezes enemies in their tracks. They're not gonna move unless ya attack 'em. So if ya don't attack 'em, ya can keep yer focus on that tosser over there." He pointed to Hinnerk.

"Wow...thanks very much," the Riolu said, grateful for the aversion of a crisis.

"No problem," accepted Ishmael. "Now then...back to dealing with this piece of shit right here." He pointed a finger toward Hinnerk.

"...Look who's talking," spat the Obstagoon, noticing the red armband on Ishmael and the red scarf on Axel. "More traitors following the Sandslash...So you all planned to betray me, too?"

"We sure did," Axel answered. "You're the kind of people that deserve betrayal - the brutes with no remorse. I'd go into detail about all the crap you've done over the years, but they've probably done it already."

"Yeah...A crim who's done a lot of bad shit over the years and evicts people for fun? ...Exactly the kinda Pokémon a merc's gotta lock up. Ya could even say folks him, for us mercs...are our prey." A vicious smile crept across his muzzle, aiming his words at Hinnerk. But Arian and Elvira heard them too.

"Prey?" the Obstagoon scoffed. "Don't make me laugh! You merc types really are delusional idiots. All of you are! You're forgetting who you're dealing with! I'm - "

"Shut up," Ishmael cut off. "Mr Big or not, yer outnumbered five to one, and on top a' that, yer sidekick's done a runner."

"What?" Hinnerk turned to his right and indeed, the Krokorok was correct; Mikhail and Tamara had completely up and vanished. "Mikhail! Mikhail! Where the hell have you gone to?"

"That's weird...Where has he gone to?" wondered Elvira, confused by the snake's disappearance. "And...where's Tamara?" Worry sprung in her heart for her vanished friend. "Where is she?"

"Elvira…" Arian felt his partner's worry. But one look at the irate Obstagoon reminded them of their object of focus. "...I hate to say this, but we have to leave them for now. We're gaining the upper hand with Hinnerk, and we have to keep up the pressure. It won't be long before Ozerograd can say goodbye to the likes of him."

"...You're right," Elvira realised. "Now's not the time to get distracted. I'm sorry, Tamara...but we have to stick to this for now. Ozerograd's so close to freedom from this man...Please just hang on a little longer."

"We'll keep a lookout for them," Axel called. "But if you guys need help, we'll jump in."

"Yeah. ...But yer doin' alright," Ishmael commented. "I think we might be able to leave this one to Lill and the rookies."

"Wait, what?" Arian reacted, suddenly feeling rather nervous. He was hopeful for more help, but...They're just going to sit by the sidelines, while we fight Hinnerk? He's been no joke. He knew that despite their usage of the items, they weren't in infinite supply, and their bag of tricks, along with Lillian's, would eventually deplete to nothing.

At that point, Ishmael threw something his way, which he caught. Then he did the same to Elvira and Lillian, and they also caught their items. The items in question were none other than oran berries, which each fighter scarfed down immediately. Once they did, they felt a resurgence of energy as their wounds healed.

"Ya look worse for wear," the crocodile called. "That should bring ya back to full energy. Once ya are, lay into 'im like yer life depends on it! There's a lot ridin' on this, 'specially for yerselves!"

"Oh...I think I know what he's saying, Arian." Elvira's words drew Arian's attention. "They're saying that this is a chance to prove ourselves. If we manage to topple Hinnerk, then we'll have proved that we can overcome a monumental hurdle and attain a victory against all odds."

"I see...And along with that, if we win, then Ozerograd will be free from the likes of him," Arian replied, seeing her point. "It'll be our first big step forward as mercenaries. And as mercs, helping the people is our goal."

"That's right. ...So let's do what the people desire and topple this tyrant," Elvira declared. "Let's bring freedom to the people of Ozerograd!"

"...Hah! Not while I draw breath," Hinnerk objected. He was seething now, not just from his tactician's disappearing act, but also from the infuriating talk of determination from the two in front of him, the very ones he'd sent his gang out to look for. I toyed with them. ...That was a mistake. A big one. "I'll shatter those very dreams before your eyes. Ozerograd is mine, and you will not take it from me!"

"Any leader that rules poorly should earn the right to be overthrown," Lillian responded. "You fall into that category, Hinnerk. And there's no finer candidates to overthrow you than these two."

"These two'll be knocking on hell's gates before the day is out," Hinnerk growled. "I won't bow down for one second!"

"Then we'll make you bow down!" Arian shouted back. "Come on, Elvira! Let's do this!" And with that, he ran forward, intent to press forward their advantage while they had it.

However, his approach proved to be a hasty one, as Hinnerk had a counter ready. Once more, he crossed his arms and used Obstruct to deter the smaller fighter and flinch him, then followed up with Night Slash. Even though he resisted the hit, and it wasn't as hard-hitting as the Submission, Arian still found the hit to pack a punch.

But luckily, Elvira was on hand to take over from him while he regained his strength with an Oran Berry. While she found hitting him hard was proving difficult for her on her lonesome, this wasn't meant to be a hard-hitting onslaught, merely enough to keep Hinnerk distracted while Arian recovered. Using her agility to her advantage, she used Quick Attack to distract Hinnerk and draw his attention.

"Annoying little brat!" Hinnerk spat. "I'll cut you in two!" He readied a Night Slash, and swung towards Elvira…

…only for her to dodge it effortlessly.

The Obstagoon then noticed her glowing green eyes.

Detect, huh? Of course you'd be as crafty as your old man…Well then. A change of targets it is. He saw a freshly healed Arian returning to the fray, a perfect target to unleash his wrath on. And an angry mind was just what was needed when it came to using Submission.

Arian was readying his own attack, a Metal Claw, to shake things up and conserve his uses of Force Palm. But Hinnerk managed to get the drop on him, and tackled him to the ground.

"Agh! Get off me!" Arian cried, before being assaulted by the Obstagoon's punches once more. It was the third time this happened, but still he found Hinnerk's pummeling to be as unrelenting as the previous occasions.

"Arian!" Elvira shouted. She attempted to use a Mega Drain to draw Hinnerk's attention, just as Lillian had done before. However, the Obstagoon had learned from the earlier experience, and dodged out of the way. He had already dealt substantial blows to Arian; he could afford to retreat from that for now, he thought.

Meanwhile, the window was open to attack Elvira again. But Hinnerk saw her coming towards him, and an idea came to mind. I still do have that move I haven't used yet…

Elvira launched a Quick Attack once more on Hinnerk. Strangely, Hinnerk didn't move when she attacked. But he didn't cross his arms and scream in a use of Obstruct either. Lillian, who was observing the fight, frowned. What is he up to…?

Then it all became clear, once a steam-like aura emanated from Hinnerk. Before Elvira could react, he unleashed an uppercut on her that sent her flying across the pier. She landed just by the water's edge, thankfully not thrown into the lake itself.

"Elvira!" Arian screamed, running over to his teammate. Lifting her up, he could see the effects of the powerful blow; she'd been knocked unconscious, and blood trickled from her nose.

She wasn't dead, at least. But she was out of commission, and that made Arian's worry heighten.

No! We were doing so well, too… he lamented. …But now what? Lillian's here, but…without Elvira, we're down a fighter, and I'm not doing so hot either. The blows from Submission still stung him, and he felt himself beginning to get weary.

Were we…too reckless, challenging Hinnerk head-on like this? the Riolu found himself thinking. Even if we got this far…it doesn't mean anything, if we can't defeat him outright.

"Oh no, ya don't, ya piece of shit! Don't ya even think about drownin' 'em!"

Arian's attention turned to behind him. There, he could see that Ishmael and Axel had joined the fray and were fighting against Hinnerk.

"Tch. More annoyances!" the Obstagoon raged. "How dare you rats get in my way! Stand aside! Those two upstarts are mine!"

"Nope! No way in hell you're getting to them!" Axel yelled, unleashing a Fury Cutter on Hinnerk. "Knowing how you work, you're going to drown them in the lake to give them a long death!"

"What?!" cried Arian, in shock. "D-Drown us in the lake?!" That's…Of all the ways to go, that's a horrible one! He realised he was visibly shuddering at the thought. I don't want to die that way…

"Focus, Arian! Heal Elvira!"

Lillian's voice snapped him out of his fearful thoughts. He looked over at the Sandslash, only to be surprised when she threw something his way. It landed at his feet.

A…seed? Arian picked it up, and examined it. It was a normal seed, except it had what seemed like a blue-coloured stem growing out of it.

"Give it to Elvira!" Lillian called. "It's a reviver seed! It'll make her conscious again!"

"R-Really?" Arian's ears pricked in surprise. They can do that?

"Yes! But hurry!" Lillian replied, glancing worriedly at her teammates fighting Hinnerk. "We can't allow him to regain the upper hand!"

"Got it," the Riolu said. He took the seed and brought it to Elvira's mouth. It took a slight amount of effort to get her unconscious form to swallow the seed, but he managed it, and soon the seed was taken in by Elvira. Come on…Please work, he silently begged, looking over the Treecko's body for any signs of healing.

Thankfully, they did appear. But the speed at which Elvira recovered and regained consciousness was a surprise to Arian. In what seemed like no time at all, the Treecko's wounds were healed and the girl's eyes opened.

"...Arian?" Elvira mumbled. "Did you give me…a reviver seed?"

"I did," he informed her. "But worry about that later. We need to focus on keeping up the pressure on Hinnerk. We don't have far left, but…given how powerful he is, he can turn the tide at any time."

"So…the sooner we end it, the better," Elvira surmised, as she got to her feet.

"Yes…starting with moving away from the edge of the pier," Arian added, doing just that. "I do not want to be drowned by him."

"Good idea," Elvira agreed. "Now let's take the slack off Team Sandstream."

However, this declaration coincided with Hinnerk managing to remove Axel and Ishmael from his path, knocking both of them away with a few Night Slashes. With them out of his way, he charged toward the two of them, murder in his eyes.

"Oh shit!" Ishmael exclaimed. "Look out, ya two!"

"Crap!" Arian said, seeing the Obstagoon heading straight for him. He had little to no time to prepare a counterattack, and in the panic over reviving Elvira, he'd forgotten about his own condition. No! I won't fall like this…! With no time to dodge, all he could do was brace for the impact.

Hinnerk had a Night Slash ready, and attacked Arian with it. It was like an earlier instance of this; despite resisting it, Arian still found it a painful hit to take. And under normal circumstances, it probably would have been powerful enough to knock him out.

However…this didn't happen, much to both his and Hinnerk's surprise. Instead, a red glow enveloped Arian, seemingly enabling him to stay on his feet.

"...What the hell?" Hinnerk angrily remarked. "You little mutt…How are you still standing?" He attacked him again, but the same result occurred; Arian still stood.

"What?" Lillian said, just as astonished at the sight. "Is that…Endure?"

"Look at 'im," Ishmael remarked. "He's held back that bastard's attack like it was nothin'…Good on 'im. Keep it up, Arian!"

Arian didn't hear the Krokorok's words of encouragement. In truth, most of his will was going toward staying conscious. He could taste blood in his throat, his heart was beating out of his chest and he was barely hanging in there. Adrenaline, along with his usage of Endure, was the only thing keeping him going.

I have to make a difference with this, he then thought to himself. I can heal up afterwards. Hinnerk's right in front of me, and distracted by anger. …I have to make this count.

He charged a Force Palm, despite his body's protests, and summoned all of his strength to slam Hinnerk as hard as he could in the stomach.

"Agh! You little shit!"

And luckily, it worked in knocking Hinnerk back and dealing a blow to him.

In fact, it was even better than that. The Obstagoon seemed to struggle in his movements, which only stoked his ire all the greater.

"…Paralysing me with fucking Force Palm?" seethed Hinnerk. "Grrragh! You're really asking for it now, you mangy brat!" He tried to lunge forward to attack him again, but the paralysis stopped him in his tracks, and he found it gripped him too much for him to go any further.

"You paralysed him! Brilliant!" Lillian praised. "That should make things easier. Good job, Arian!"

"...Thanks," a faint Arian breathed.

Elvira noticed his weary tone and beat-up look. "Here," she said, handing the bag to him. "There's one more oran berry in there. You have it, Arian. You look like you're about to keel over."

"Only one?" Arian dug into the bag and saw that indeed, only one oran berry remained. "...Shouldn't we conserve?"

"And leave you like this?" Elvira shook her head in denial. "I can't do that to my mercenary partner. Besides, it's like I said earlier; the sooner we finish this, the better. The sooner we defeat Hinnerk…the sooner our shortage of items won't be a problem." She peered in. "...I really should've gotten more. But there's no time to worry about that now. We need to focus on defeating Hinnerk. And thanks to you…we might just be on the home stretch."

"...Yeah. Let's finish this, here and now," Arian said, confidently and with determination.

"You heard them, boys," Lillian called out to them. "Be on standby, but…I think they'll be just fine on their own."

"Yeah! You can do it, you two!" called Axel.

"Beat 'is face in!" rallied Ishmael. "Don't give 'im any chances! Remember - yer the predators, 'e's the prey!"

The encouraging words from Team Sandstream only added confidence to what was now a blazing fire of resolve. Each readied attacks - Arian with Force Palm, and Elvira with Mega Drain.

Both unleashed their attacks. Hinnerk, still hampered by paralysis, could do little to counter their attacks. Elvira's attacks were still weak, but it was Arian's Force Palms that were beginning to take their toll. And in his weakened state, that was dangerous. He tried to use Night Slash on Elvira, but a Detect from her saw her evade the attack, much to his great annoyance.

Such annoying tricksters! …Am I really going to lose to the likes of them? He looked across at them. …What are they up to now?

Elvira took another seed out of their bag, and ate it

"I forgot that we had two violent seeds," she said to Arian, as she felt the same burst of energy Arian felt earlier. "I really must keep track of the items we pick up in dungeons."

What? A violent seed? Shit…

"We should. But we'll put that aside for now. For now…let's finish him," Arian replied.

"Agreed. Let's do it. Together."

Arian charged a Force Palm. Elvira readied a Leafage.

"Go!"

They charged forward. Hinnerk saw their approach and tried to resist with an Obstruct, but once again, the paralysis from Arian's earlier Force Palm deterred him from moving.

Both attacks connected. The combination of Arian's Force Palm and a powered-up Leafage from Elvira proved to be the attack that decided it all, and the answer to Hinnerk's earlier question.

Was he going to lose to the likes of them?

"Graaaaaagh!"

…Yes, he was.

The resulting attack slugged Hinnerk enough to stagger him, and brought him to the ground. Covered in wounds and blows, the Obstagoon tried to get on his feet, but was unable to find the strength to do so.

Arian looked at the sight before him, stunned and hopeful. Did we do it? he thought. Did we...actually win?

"Did we do it? Did we...actually win?" Elvira asked, echoing her partner's thoughts. "Did we defeat the Boss of the Thorned Roses?"

"...Nrrgh...Defeated?" Hinnerk's words were disbelieving. "...No...Not by her...Not by that wench...How did I not only lose to that son of a bitch, but his spawn? ...How? I'm the leader of the Thorned Roses!"

"From the moment you set out on the course of evil, you were always destined to one day fall to the right and just," Elvira said to him.

"Shut up!" snarled the Obstagoon. "Don't the likes of you ever shut up?! You and your father are the bane of my existence! Just like him, you've brought me and my high life to ruin, you little wretch!"

"You're no victim, Hinnerk." Elvira continued in her reprimand. "You robbed the livelihoods of the people of Ozerograd. You were the worst kind of leader, and you paid the price for it."

"That's right." Arian took over. "It's about time you fell. Now Ozerograd can look to a brighter future."

"...Grrr…" Hinnerk growled. Blue and green...blue and green...it's just like them. Images of a Sceptile and Swampert duo flashed through his mind. It's exactly like then...I was defeated by them, and they lectured me about justice and crime and all that shit. But at least they were competent mercenaries. These two are mere whelps! A Treecko with her head in the clouds and a green-eyed freak of a Riolu! How could I have lost to them…?

"Bringing hope to those who don't have any, and helping those who need help the most," the Riolu continued. "That's what we stand for, Elvira and I."

Our team name...It's about time to reveal it. He thought back to just before the duel with Hinnerk. That's what she was whispering to me about. She told me the name, and when we'd defeat him was when we would reveal it. ...It's a good name. I like it very much. He turned to Elvira, and gave a slight nod to her. Say it, Elvira.

The Treecko understood what her partner meant. "That is our creed," she began. "A basic creed for any mercenary team. We will honour it fully, the two of us, as we go forward." She paused briefly, to build up to the reveal and to consider how to unveil it. Eventually, she decided to go with the straightforward approach.

"Our name...is Team Elpis," Elvira announced. "Remember it well, for that is the team that brought an end to your tyrannical reign over Ozerograd."

"That's right. Take us lightly at your peril." Arian took over, and held his left paw out to Elvira. She responded by placing her right hand on top of it, in a gesture of unity. "Never underestimate the likes of Team Elpis again."

"..." Hinnerk had no words for them. Only a snarl escaped his lips, still infuriated by his loss to the two of them.

Both members of the newly-named Team Elpis took a breath after their proclamation. Not long after this, they heard a clapping noise come from behind them. Looking back, they saw all three members of Team Sandstream give them a round of applause.

"Good show, mates!" praised Ishmael. "Pretty good dressin' down ya gave 'im. I love it when someone does that."

"You guys did amazing!" praised Axel. "Taking down the Thorned Roses' boss...That's no small feat, and yet you guys pulled it off!"

"Well...not us alone," Arian pointed out. "We never would have won if you never stepped in, or if Lillian never helped us."

"True. But you were the one who laid down the gauntlet, Elvira," Lillian returned. "I confess...back then, when those Thorned Roses cornered us, I didn't see any chance of a victory. But if you hadn't come up with that clever wording of calling Hinnerk weak, then our plans would've never gotten off the ground. So, really, most of the credit should go to you two."

"...I guess…" relented Elvira. "Still, we couldn't have done it without you."

"Maybe it's the time to start building up a friendship with you two, eh?" Lillian proposed, before another thought struck her. "Team Elpis...Interesting name. What's the inspiration?"

"Well...it's from an old Miletan myth I read about once. Elpis is a symbol of hope in it," explained Elvira. "When we were thinking of names, you suggested that we stick to a team of hope, Arian. Then the name 'Elpis' came to mind just as we confronted Hinnerk, and I rather liked it."

"It's a good name," Arian complimented. "Plus, it's also great symbolism. A symbol of hope in a land that doesn't have much of it. I mean, this whole thing in Ozerograd is just one part of all the misery in Selenia, isn't it?"

"Yer right there," Ishmael answered, a slight huff to his reply. "Sucks to say it, but this 'ole shebang wiv' 'im's just a piece of this 'ole mess that Selenia's in. We can't be cocky 'bout this win, us lot. We 'ave to make it mean somefin'."

"Still, a win's a win," Axel replied. "...But, um. First, before we get to celebrating." He pointed a pincer at Hinnerk. "What'll we do with him?"

"I say we tie him up with rope and lock him up," Lillian said. "There are cells in town to do that with."

"Good idea," Ishmael said. "There's bound to be some rope 'round here we can use. There's some over there, look." He went over to an anchoring post, where some rope lay. Thankfully, no boat was attached to it, removing any potential future inconveniences.

At this point, Arian noticed another issue. "What about them?" he said, pointing to the group of Thorned Roses, still frozen from the Petrify Orb.

"Oh. Them," Ishmael realised. "...Deal wiv 'em later. Gotta deal wiv this scumbag first. We can deal wiv 'is lackeys after." He brandished the rope as he walked towards Hinnerk. "Now come along, ya brute. We don't want any trouble!"

"Piss off!" the Obstagoon spat. "You're not locking me up! I won't accept this!" He tried to make a move to get back up, but Lillian quickly moved to pin him down, as did Arian.

"Oh no, you don't," the former denied. "You lost, plain and simple. Now stop being such a sore loser and submit! ...Help me with him, Arian," she requested, trying to put his arms behind his back so Ishmael could be in the position to tie him up. Hinnerk struggled, swore and hurled insults at the five, but it was no good. He didn't have the power to push them away.

Eventually, the knot was firmly tied, and doubly so as a precaution (Elvira pointed out that someone as crafty as Hinnerk might know how to break free from such a knot, and Ishmael saw her point).

"Right," the Krokorok declared, once the knot had been tied. "Now then - " But before he could continue, he was rudely interrupted.

"Hold it right there."

The quintet froze. They knew that voice all too well. And for Arian and Elvira, a chill crept down each of their spines.

Not him...Why now?

"How sickening," Mikhail's voice drawled. "You make your moves with such confidence, and speak of such lofty dreams. It's loathsome."

All looked over to see the Seviper by the edge of the pier. But to their horror, he was not the only one present. Along with him...were the captured Flora and Tamara, still bound and eyes wide with fear. His coils were wrapped around them.

"Flora! Tamara!" Elvira cried out.

"You asshole!" Axel raged. "Where have you been hiding?!"

"Let go of her!" demanded Arian. "Let go of them right now!"

"...In a way, though," Mikhail continued, ignoring the cries of protest from the group. "It's quite fun to hear someone speak so loftily of their dreams. ...Because it makes it all the more satisfying to bring those dreams crashing down to reality. Especially when it's the hero's actions that cause it."

"What do you mean?" Lillian demanded.

"Your smoke bombs allowed me to take cover and find a hiding place," the Seviper elaborated, a devious grin on his face. "That was your doing. And because of that…the lives of these will be snuffed like a candlelight."

His coils tightened around Flora and Tamara. In reaction to this, Hinnerk let out an evil laugh.

"Yes…" he grinned, despite his pinned down state. "Kill them, Mikhail! Make them suffer! Destroy the wills of these upstarts!"

"As you wish," obliged Mikhail.

"Don't you dare!" shouted Lillian. "Don't you even consider it!" She began to run for him. But in doing so, she left her place where she had Hinnerk pinned. The Obstagoon, seeing a chance, tried to take advantage of this. However, Axel saw this, and moved in accordingly.

"No, you don't! Stay down!" he ordered, taking Lillian's place.

The Sandslash's move was also a mistake in another way. Mikhail moved his blade-like tail to Tamara's throat in response to her run.

"One more step," he threatened. "And I'll send her straight to hell."

Lillian stopped in her tracks.

"Good. Like an obedient lackey. Like you should have been all along, you turncoat."

"Damn you, Mikhail!" blasted the Sandslash. "Taking hostage of an innocent soul like this one...How can you be so remorseless?"

"You wouldn't know. And you never will," the Seviper replied. "I am who I am. But for mercenaries like you, I am the ideal prey. However, I am well familiar with games of predator and prey, and the Thorned Roses will not become prey for the likes of you!"

He held his tail closer to Tamara's neck, which made the Electric-type's fear spike. She tried to beg him to stop, but her voice was muffled by the gag.

"How about I prove that, here and now?"

Mikhail's words were understood by his foes, who all reacted in a similar way.

"Wait! Don't!" Axel called out, suddenly panicked.

"Mik!" a furious Ishmael raged. "I'll rip ya to shreds!"

"Let go of her!" Lillian demanded, ready to break into a run once more, even though the chances of getting to Tamara before Mikhail did away with her were extremely slim, at best.

"No! This can't be happening!" Elvira yelled. "Flora! Tamara!"

"No...It can't be…" Arian mumbled. "Not when we were so close…"

He could feel his vision begin to blur, and his hearing become fuzzy and unresponsive to the outside world. One thought permeated his mind.

I failed you, Tamara.

Then, something unusual happened. Along with this thought, another voice seemed to ring in his head.

"I-I've failed everyone...Everyone's dead because I was too weak. All I could do was watch them die…Why?! Why couldn't I do anything?!"

It sounded somewhat distant. But the voice also sounded anguished and tearful, as if a great loss had affected them.

What was that? Arian wondered. What did I just hear? What was that voice? His head was full of questions regarding this sudden occurrence to him. It also struck fear into him, hearing this voice speak their words with such angst and sorrow.

However, he had little time to dwell on such thoughts, when he was snapped back to the outside world by what was going on.

Mikhail was ready and poised to kill Flora and Tamara. It seemed inevitable he would succeed in this, and they would breathe her last.

"Time to die."

He tightened his coils and raised his tail, ready to end their lives…

"I wouldn't try it, Seviper!"

Suddenly, a new voice pierced through the air. And before Mikhail could react, he suddenly became on the receiving end of a Mud Bomb.

"Agh! What in blazes?!" the snake seethed, covered in mud. On top of that, the surprise attack caused him to loosen his hold on the girls. "Who dares to attack me?!"

"Mud Bomb? And that voice..." Elvira's eyes widened in realisation. "Could it be...?"

The Treecko's hopes were confirmed in the next few moments. From the water behind the pier, a blue shape suddenly leapt out of the water and tackled Mikhail, managing to completely wrestle his control of Flora and Tamara free.

"Dear oh dear," the new arrival said, its voice a distinct masculine one. "I can't have you ruin everything at the last minute. Not after they all pulled off a splendid victory against Hinnerk. And killing not one, but two of Elvira's childhood friends? How despicable."

He had Mikhail pinned, and the snake squirmed angrily, trying to escape his grip. At one point, though, the Seviper was able to turn his head around and look at who was restraining him. Upon seeing him, though, he froze.

This was someone who Hinnerk had warned him about on a number of occasions through the Thorned Roses' reign. Someone who the Obstagoon had frequently ranted about and would be all too glad to dispose of himself.

Mikhail found himself looking into the eyes of a glaring Swampert.

"The likes of you can't be reasoned with. And the same can be said of your boss." He looked over at the group pinning Hinnerk down, with his gaze lingering on Elvira for a second longer than anyone else. But he then turned to Hinnerk, whose fury only intensified as they locked eyes.

"You!" the Thorned Roses' leader snarled. "Mud Bomber Melchior of Team Marshwood! How dare you show your face here!"

"Melchior of Team...?" Arian cocked his head, before remembering. "Oh, of course! Your dad's partner!" he exclaimed, turning to Elvira.

"Yup. That's our Chief, alright," Ishmael declared proudly. "Melchior outta Team Marshwood. Ya really can't do much better than 'im."

"Melchior…" Elvira was awestruck, and relieved. "So you were the Chief all along…"

"But hang on a minute," Arian then spoke up, slightly confused. "I thought - " However, before he could voice his thoughts, Hinnerk's voice cut through his own.

"Melchior!" he raged. "You son of a bitch! Once again, thanks to your meddling, my good life lies in ruin once again!"

"Meddling?" Melchior shook his head. "I did nothing of the sort." As he spoke, he kept one hand on the squirming Mikhail, and the other worked to untie the binds and gags on Flora and Tamara. "I didn't plan to have you taken down so easily. And I especially didn't plan on entrusting that task to Elvira and Arian over there." He nodded to the Riolu in acknowledgment, and the latter felt a slight sense of pride run through him.

Is this what it's like to be recognised as worthy by a hero? ...Thanks, Melchior. I appreciate it.

"But with aid from Team Sandstream, they managed to win the day against you. Even I can't say I saw that coming. The only time I had to jump in was just there, when Elvira's friends were in great peril." Melchior's hand had undone Flora and Tamara's gags and now undid the ropes binding them. Then, in an expert flourish, he used those same ropes to tie Mikhail's midsection to a nearby anchoring point. The Seviper hissed and growled and squirmed, but it did him no good. With that nuisance dealt with, Melchior strode forward towards the group with Flora and Tamara close behind him.

"I masterminded nothing, Hinnerk. All I did was get Lillian to guide Elvira and Arian through Ozerograd to meet me. They defeated you on their own, without my help. Serendipity, eh?" He gave a quick approving nod to Elvira, before turning back to Hinnerk. "Your downfall had nothing to do with me."

"What a load of shit!" the Obstagoon spat. "You gave these traitors an elaborate plan! You set them up to foil my trap!"

"No, he didn't," Axel denied. "That whole thing about freezing those guys in place with the petrify orb was all our plan. The Chief had nothing to do with it."

"Yup, that's the truth," Ishmael seconded. "Hmm…'s like if ya give yer lackeys room to plan, it'll be better than leavin' yer thinkin' to the bigwigs." He gestured to Mikhail and Hinnerk's tied-up states. "Look where that's got ya now, ya tyrant. Not so tip-top now, are ya?"

"Grrr…" Hinnerk seethed. "Shut up, shut up, shut up! You're just like that smug prick you call a father!" he yelled at Elvira. "The way you follow in his footsteps, the way you talk, the way you as a mercenary look at yourself like you're the centre of the world...It's every bit like that man! That man that ruined the good life I had back then!"

"Sounds like butthurt feelings to me," mocked Arian.

"And you!" Hinnerk directed his next words at the Riolu. "You little nobody...You green-eyed freak of a Riolu! Who are you to waltz into my town with her of all people as a partner? You're trying to create a second Team Marshwood, are you? You're just another upstart hopeful who thinks the world revolves around you! An attitude that seems to come a dime a dozen with you mercenary types!"

"You really don't look in the mirror often, do you?" the human replied, trying to emulate the dryness of Flora's tongue in his own. His hypocrisy is something else…

"And then there's you, Melchior," Hinnerk snarled. "You and Kallias fostered this mercenary-loving attitude in this bitch right here! You talk shit about not being involved - some liar you are! You're one to talk, anyway! Just like how I bet you did something shady with Kallias!"

"What?" The mention of her father drew Elvira's attention.

"I beg your pardon?" Melchior seemed to become rigid at these words.

"Strewth, shaddap, will ya?" Ishmael fired back. "Gettin' tired of 'im, Chief. If I gotta listen to 'is shit all the way back to town, I might just close his trap myself. Wiv' me bare claws," he added, giving the Obstagoon a threatening glare.

"Not now, Ishmael," Melchior insisted. "What are you saying about my partner, Hinnerk?"

"It's interesting that Kallias isn't here," noted the Obstagoon. "What do you have to say to that, Melchior? Everyone's clamouring for the truth, and who better to hear it from than his partner himself? So go on, tell us! The fuck happened to Kallias?"

"That's…" Melchior seemed to falter at this question. Hinnerk grinned at this, while doubt began to fester in Elvira's heart.

"Melchior?" she asked. "Do you know what happened to Dad?"

"Of course he does," Hinnerk butted in. "But he'll never tell you. After all, he was always jealous of Kallias. Weren't you?"

"You think I was jealous?" Melchior couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"Yes! I bet you offed him during the five years you've been gone!" insinuated the raccoon. "And now you can come forward as a standalone hero and hog all the glory for yourself!"

"Be quiet," Melchior demanded.

"It'd be the best way to rope in that rat's spawn, too," Hinnerk went on. "Explain it away as an accident or some shit, and she'll eat it up because you're a good, honest man who can never lie. That's what the whole fucking world sees you as!"

"Shut up." Melchior's demand was more emphatic this time.

"Or better yet, how about overthrowing Mitt and putting yourself on that throne?" Hinnerk's theories went on. "That would be the place everyone would want you to be at. You already have supporters! They'd worship you like a god! And it starts here in Ozerograd, by kicking me and the Thorned Roses out of here! So this is where it all begins, you power-hungry - "

"That's enough!"

Melchior's outburst silenced Hinnerk, and came as a shock to everyone else. Judging by the looks on everyone's faces, Arian could tell this was out of character for the mudfish.

"Stand aside, would you all?" Melchior's tone was quiet, and furious. Elvira, Arian, Axel and Ishmael all did so. "Thank you."

"Hah. Look at you," scoffed Hinnerk. "Servants who obey your every order...You and I - "

"We're nothing alike," Melchior cut off. Fury laced his every word. "Don't you compare yourself to me. A battle of morals, a battle between each other, and now a battle of followers - you've lost all three with me. There is no equal when it comes to us. None whatsoever!"

And with that, the Swampert let loose a blow to Hinnerk's neck. The Obstagoon was seething with ire one moment; the next, he was silent in unconsciousness.

"Finally, 'e shuts 'is trap," Ishmael remarked, relieved. "I was finkin' 'e was never gonna shut up. Good on ya, Chief."

"It's all I can do. He's not the kind of person that will come quietly." Melchior shook his head, "He always was rotten. Even back when he worked for the Guild."

"Wait! Hold on a minute!" Arian interrupted. "He worked for the Guild?" He looked incredulously at the unconscious Obstagoon. "Him?"

"Yes, surprisingly enough," Melchior replied. "But he wasn't a compassionate worker. He was only in the job for the money, and didn't care for his clients as a mercenary should. He was troublesome to work with and always resented the success of others. Obviously, because of his attitude, he never reached far up in the ranks, and far preferred to remain jealous rather than clean up his own act."

"So not a good person at all, then," Arian summarised. "But what's all this about a smuggling ring and a plot?"

That drew a sigh from Melchior. "Seven years ago, we discovered that Hinnerk was dealing in smuggling, and was earning considerable money for it. The people he was dealing with also had a shady plot, which if successful would've destabilised Selenia as we knew it. Kallias and I eventually confronted him, overpowered him, and sent him to be put on trial, where he was then put behind bars."

"But why is he not behind bars now?" Arian wondered. "Did he escape?"

"Seemingly," the Swampert replied. "When Tsar Kliment was killed by Mitrofan, there was a great upheaval in the capital, and chaos enveloped the city. Hinnerk, locked up in Iria's dungeons, must have used that chaos to his advantage and took the opportunity to leg it. Apparently, a number of other convicts escaped with him. No doubt a lot of them helped him form the Thorned Roses in the end. People like him." He looked over at Mikhail. "Despicable people. Some outlaws are capable of being reformed, but...he and Hinnerk are beyond reason."

"Speaking about that, Chief," Axel brought up. "What are we gonna do about them?"

"I told you already, Axel. There are jail cells in town," Lillian reminded. "We can keep them there."

"Good thing you studied the town well before we came to this point," praised Melchior. "You're able spies, all of you. You were certainly the right ones to entrust the infiltration to."

"Aw, thanks, Chief," Ishmael replied. "Anythin' to help ya. ...Oh, but, er, somethin' else." He pointed to Arian and Elvira. "Haven't ya a pair to meet?"

"Yes. Yes, I do." Melchior turned his attention to Elvira. "Sorry about all that, Elvira. I didn't mean to keep you waiting."

"It's alright, Melchior," Elvira dismissed. "We had to go through all this first. There were more important things to deal with." There was a brief pause. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"It has, indeed," the Swampert acknowledged. "Five whole years. I would've come by, but I had to go into hiding, to avoid detection from Mitrofan. And for my own sake..."

"...As long as you're safe. Mom and I were quite worried about you. After Dad had mysteriously disappeared, we thought you might have met the same fate. Thank the Creator you're alright."

"How is Zenobia?" Melchior asked.

"She's fine. But she broke her leg a few weeks ago. So I've been looking after her recently," Elvira replied.

"Oh dear, I hope she gets better soon," Melchior wished.

"Yeah. Thankfully, my friends Flora and Tamara offered to help look after her while Arian and I went out doing mercenary work," the Treecko informed. Then, the mention of her friends made her remember them. "Flora! Tamara! Are you both okay?"

"...A few cuts and bruises," the former admitted.

"But we're fine," Tamara replied. "We nearly weren't fine, but you beat down Hinnerk, and then you saved us," she said, directing the last statement at Melchior. "Thanks so much. I really did think I was gonna die…"

"Or be carted off," Flora mentioned. "Sacrificed, like what Mikhail was saying."

"Sacrificed?" Melchior queried.

"Oh yeah. Somefin' Mik was goin' on 'bout," Ishmael answered. "'Swot 'e called the folks that went poof. Sacrifices."

"It sounds sinister," Axel replied. "What do you think he means by 'sacrifices'?"

"Nothing good, that's for sure," Melchior responded. "We'll get to the bottom of this once we clear out the Thorned Roses. To think, this happened where Elvira grew up…" He shook his head in what seemed like self-admonishment.

"Hey…Chief?" Axel queried. "How do you and Elvira know each other?"

"Ah yes. Elvira and I go back," Melchior said. "Besides being a famous mercenary, my partner Fernblade Kallias was also a loving husband, and a father to an only child. She stands before you right now." He gestured to the Treecko. "Elvira is none other than Kallias's daughter."

"What?!" Ishmael and Axel cried in unison.

"...I thought that might have been the case," Lillian murmured, a stunned expression on her face. "But I thought that couldn't be right, that this random Treecko - no offence, Elvira - could really be related to the Fernblade Kallias. Funny, how the far-out guess was the correct one…"

"I've another question," Axel piped up once again. "What about Arian?"

"Arian? I haven't met him before today," Melchior replied, taking a closer look at the Riolu. "...Hm. Green eyes…how unusual. I'd like to hear the story of how you and Elvira met. But that's for another time. For now…we have quite a bit to get done here before we can rest easy." His gaze was directed at the petrified Thorned Roses. "Stand back, everyone. We must deal with them first."

Melchior then unleashed a wave of Muddy Water towards the six petrified Thorned Roses, in order to snap them out of their frozen state. Realising what this implied, Arian and Elvira both braced themselves for a fight.

"Argh! Muddy Water? Who the hell would - " one of the Thorned Roses said, before breaking off once they saw who was in front of them.

"A Swampert?" the Electabuzz from before observed, before his eyes went wide with horror. "N-No…it can't be!"

"Your boss has been defeated," Melchior announced to them. "Hinnerk has fallen to us. And with his defeat goes your last vestiges of control in this town."

"The Boss was defeated?" the Umbreon from before said, aghast, before his eyes laid upon the Obstagoon's unconscious form, surrounded by Teams Elpis and Sandstream. "No…No way…"

"No! This can't be happening!" the Golbat cried. "The Boss is the strongest of us all…How could he have lost? …You'll pay for this, you asshole!"

"You idiot!" chastised the Umbreon. "Do you realise who you're talking to? Even the Boss can't stand up to someone like him!"

"Him?" The Golbat did a double take, before gasping in alarm. "A Swampert…Is it really…?"

"M-M-M-M-Mud Bomber Melchior!" another Thorned Rose, a Zangoose, yelled in terror.

"There's no way…There's no way we can beat someone like him!" the Electabuzz protested. "Team Marshwood…They're practically invincible! Even one of them's way too strong for us!"

"That's quite right," Melchior replied. "So if you all know what's good for you, you'll dismantle the Thorned Roses and free the people of Ozerograd from your tyranny."

"You will not demand such things of us!" hissed Mikhail from where he was tied up. "The Thorned Roses will not fall because of you, Mud Bomber Melchior!"

"...Yeah!" seconded the Primeape from before,. "You're not stopping us from this, even if you are some hero! Come on, guys!" he beckoned to his comrades. "Let's kill him for what he did to the Boss!"

"Strength in numbers," said the Electabuzz. "If all six of us rush him together…then we might have a chance."

"Let's do it! Let's kick his ass!" shouted the Fraxure.

"You all want to challenge me?" Melchior said. "Very well. Bring it on!" He punched his fists together. "It's been a while since I've had a good challenge. Will you have what it takes?"

"Six on one?" Arian observed with slight worry, analysing the situation. "Can he do it?"

"Can 'e do it?" Ishmael said, with a light scoff. "'E's the Chief, mate! We wouldn't respect 'im if 'e was a wuss."

"You don't have anything to worry about, Arian," reassured Elvira. The Riolu was surprised to see not a hint of worry in her expression. "My dad and Melchior wouldn't have gotten to Grandmaster Rank if they didn't have anything to show for it. Even alone, Melchior's more than capable of handling these goons. Just watch."

"If you say so…" Arian replied, still slightly nervous.

The Primeape was the first one to launch himself at Melchior. His arms were crossed, and energy lit up his hands, indicating he was going to use Cross Chop. The Swampert watched carefully, not moving a muscle.

Much to Arian's surprise, Melchior never dodged out of the way. The Primeape's hit landed, and the Swampert took it. There was no massive knockback, though; he stood his ground firmly.

"A good hit," he commended. "But all you did was fuel my attack."

His right fist then curled around and slugged the Primeape across his form. The monkey had no time to react before Melchior's move sent him flying. He landed face-first in the cobblestones, and was subsequently knocked unconscious.

"Whoa! What was that?" Arian asked, amazed by the sight before him.

"Counter," Elvira informed him. "It returns the damage dealt to whoever uses it right back at their attacker. Melchior's a great user of it. It's been very useful for him and Dad in the past."

"I see…" the human murmured. So Melchior has moves like that at his disposal. …Maybe Elvira's right. We really don't have anything to worry about, if he's that strong.

"Th-That's…" The Electabuzz faltered briefly, but steeled himself. "You might be strong against one of us. But you can't take on five of us at once! Everyone! Let's beat his skull in and let him know just who he's dealing with!"

The group of five Thorned Roses, consisting of an Electabuzz, an Umbreon, a Fraxure, a Golbat and a Zangoose, charged at the Swampert, each with their own moves charged and ready. Again, Melchior seemed to do nothing, right up until the moment that they were about to strike.

Then, suddenly, he threw a Mud Bomb in front of his foes. Due to their close proximity, the mud succeeded in blinding them all for a moment.

"Agh!" cried out the Electabuzz, wiping mud from his eyes. "Wait a minute…What? Where's he gone to?"

In an instant, Melchior had disappeared. However, it was obvious how he had vanished, as a tunnel was visible where he once stood.

"He used Dig!" the Golbat yelled. "That coward! He's hiding from us!"

"He's under us!" the Zangoose cried out fearfully. "Careful, everyone! He could strike at any moment!"

'Any moment' turned out to not be long at all. Before any of them could react, Melchior suddenly emerged from the ground and struck the Electabuzz with an outstretched fist. The Electric-type cried in pain, before falling onto the ground, unconscious.

"Give it up," Melchior said to the Thorned Roses. "You have no chance."

"That's what you think!" the Golbat returned. "Take this!" He flew towards Melchior, with a Poison Fang ready to sink into him. Meanwhile, at the same time, the other three charged at the Swampert for another go.

Once again, Melchior waited for a good chance to attack. He waited until the Golbat swooped low enough and the three came close enough, before unleashing a wave of Muddy Water upon the four Thorned Roses. It succeeded in covering all four of them in wet, grimy mud.

"Urgh!" groaned the Fraxure feeling the mud cling to his scales. "I hate all this mud…"

"What? I'm not called Mud Bomber Melchior for nothing," the Swampert replied. "Mud is my speciality. Have some more!" He then threw another Mud Bomb, this time aiming it at the Umbreon. "And there's plenty more where that came from!"

More Mud Bombs were thrown, and very quickly, Arian could see the reason for his namesake - the sheer amount of times he used the move. But his throwing arm was superb, and just about every throw hit his opponents square on. Not to mention, he was skilfully resisting every attack that was thrown his way, and parrying seemed like second-nature to him.

With that kind of skill…it's easy to see why he's called a hero.

The Mud Bombs whittled away at the foes on the ground. Meanwhile, Melchior's Muddy Water made quick work of the Golbat, and soon he was downed, as well. The Swampert pressed home his advantage, and before long, made quick work of the Fraxure. And despite the Umbreon's natural hardiness, he couldn't resist Melchior's attacks forever, and before long, he was sent into unconsciousness as well.

There was only one Thorned Rose left: the Zangoose. His fur was caked in wet mud, and fear was written all over his face as he looked at his fallen comrades. His gaze was then drawn to Melchior's, and he squeaked at the hardened look the mudfish gave him.

"I-I surrender!" he yelled in panic. "Please don't hurt me! Please! I won't fight back! I promise!"

"...Do you swear?" Melchior asked him.

"I swear!" The Zangoose lowered his head in defeated submission. "I won't fight back! I won't! Please believe me…"

Melchior went silent, as he considered the mongoose's words.

"...Very well. I accept your surrender," he said. "But do something first."

"What is it?" the Zangoose meekly asked.

"Return to the new town and tell your comrades of what happened here," Melchior requested. "Tell them to disperse and flee the town. If they don't, then they will face the full wrath of Mud Bomber Melchior. You saw how effortlessly I swept aside these five. And I still have plenty of energy to expend in defeating your comrades, one by one if I must. Do you understand, Zangoose?"

"I-I do," the Cat Ferret Pokémon replied, quivering like a leaf.

"Then go. If the Thorned Roses aren't out of town by the time I get up there, then there will be hell to pay. Got it?"

"Y-Y-Yes!" the Zangoose cried, and within seconds, had turned around and ran for it, through the old town and back up to the new one.

When he had disappeared from sight, Melchior let out a sigh.

"I must admit that I never was one for the limelight," he said. "But it does have its perks. Being known across Ardalion as a bane of criminals would make a number of them shiver in their boots. …I do hope this works."

"Course it will!" Ishmael replied. "Ya don't give yerself enough credit, Chief. The sight of ya'd make any ol' crim run for the 'ills. Like that Zang there."

"Hmm…" Lillian, however, didn't seem to be as upbeat as Ishmael.

"Something up, Lillian?" Axel asked.

"Oh, it's just…I know that Zangoose," the Sandslash answered. "His name's Yuri, and I've been paired with him a few times. He's actually tolerable, compared to some of the people in the Thorned Roses. …Guess I just felt a bit sorry for the guy, being on the receiving end of your speech, Chief."

"Yeah…I never realised you could be so fearsome, Melchior," Elvira said. "You were always so polite around me and Mom when you and Dad would visit. I had no idea you could make someone quiver in fear like that Zangoose."

"It can't be helped," the Swampert replied. "Sometimes, to put down a gang like the Thorned Roses, you must use their own tactics against them. But given the intimidation the Thorned Roses gave to the townsfolk of Ozerograd, sometimes it's satisfying to give them a taste of their own medicine. …Kallias would've loved it."

"That reminds me," Elvira spoke up. "Melchior…you and Dad went into hiding together five years ago. But why is it only you here?" She looked around, trying to find signs of her Sceptile father. "Where is he? Where's my dad?"

Melchior seemed to grow tense at those words. It was at this moment that Arian noticed a change in his emotions.

Is that fear I sense in him? And…shame?

"Well…I…" The Swampert seemed to stall in answering the question. This did not go unnoticed by Elvira, whose own expression turned into one of worry.

"...Melchior? Did something happen to him?"

"..." Still no answer. It was perhaps lucky for him that the group's attention was soon diverted by the voices of the townsfolk.

"It's him! It's really him!"

"Mud Bomber Melchior's alive! Can you believe it?"

"Team Marshwood has returned to us!"

"O Creator, bless our souls, there's hope! There's hope at last for all of us!"

A small crowd of townsfolk were making their way to the pier's entrance. Seeing them, Melchior turned to Elvira.

"There is much to talk about," he said to her. "But now's not the time." He turned back to the crowd, who had all of their eyes on Melchior, with amazement and admiration dotting the gaze of all that were there.

"I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a Swampert enter town earlier," a middle-aged Kricketune near the front of the crowd remarked. "To think it's actually Mud Bomber Melchior in the flesh..."

"Where have you been all this time?" wondered a Quagsire.

"I'm sure you all have many questions," Melchior said to the gathered audience. "I will answer them in due time. But for now, the pressing task remains ousting the Thorned Roses from this town. We must act now, and leave those questions for later."

"Yeah, sure. We'll even help you shoo 'em out of town!" volunteered a Crawdaunt. "Even if there's some bad blood with the new town folk, the Thorned Roses are both our problems. They're a nasty bunch, kickin' us out of our own houses and bein' a great nuisance. We'd be happy to help you, Mud Bomber Melchior. …Oh, and you folks too," he added, acknowledging Teams Elpis and Sandstream. "Thanks to you, that blackheart Hinnerk was defeated. An impressive feat for youngsters like yourselves."

"Doin' wot mercs do, mate," Ishmael replied. "Folks like these two tossers 'ere - " He pointed to Hinnerk and Mikhail. " - They've 'ad long enough in the sun. Let's 'ave someone new, who ain't gonna fuck anyfin' up."

"Indeed, Ishmael. You need not wait much longer for freedom," Melchior assured the townspeople. "They'll be out of here by sundown. And if you're all willing to help, we might finish it sooner than that." He then turned to his fellow mercenaries. "You five. Take Hinnerk and bring him up to the jail cells in town."

"Got it," Axel obliged.

"Good. I'll take Mikhail." Melchior marched over to where the snake was tied up.

"You…" hissed the snake. "Mud Bomber Melchior, mark my words! This isn't over! Not for one minute! You and your band of mercenaries, and especially you, Arian and Elvira…I won't stop until I see you both dead in the dirt! You'll live to regret this! The Thorned Roses will not be forgotten! You'll - "

"Oh, put a sock in it, ya piece of shit!" Ishmael interrupted. "Axel! Give me the bag."

"Okay," agreed the Gligar. "Why do you want it?"

"This," the Krokorok declared, pulling out a seed. "This oughta shut ya up, ya scalebag." He walked towards the Seviper.

"You won't!" Mikhail yelled, struggling against his binds. "You bastard! How dare you do this to me?! You - "

Ishmael threw the seed into his mouth. By accident, the Seviper bit into it, and within a few seconds, he had succumbed to unconsciousness.

"There," the sand crocodile said in relief. "Now shush, like yer boss."

"What was that? What did you use?" Arian asked, confused as to what exactly happened.

"Sleep seed," Ishmael answered. "Eat one, and ya'll be out like a light. Good for shutting the lot like 'im up. …Ya never seen one 'fore?"

"Um…no," Arian replied truthfully. After saying this, he feared that this would prompt questions about his amnesia, and braced himself. But luckily, Elvira stepped in before Ishmael could respond.

"There are more pressing matters to attend to," she told them. "Let's attend to those before we bombard each other with questions."

"I get ya," Ishmael replied in understanding. "Questions later, just like wiv the Chief."

"Let's get going. Hopefully the Thorned Roses have got the message by now," Melchior announced. "And if they don't…then we shall bring the fight to them." He looked at his fellow mercenaries, all of whom gave nods of approval. After untying the slumbering Mikhail, Melchior led the congregation through Ozerograd Quay and up to the new town.

Near to the front were Teams Elpis and Sandstream, carrying Hinnerk between them. As they walked, one member's thoughts drifted to the earlier exchange between Elvira and Melchior, before the crowd showed up.

What could that be all about? Arian wondered. Could Melchior be hiding something? I don't want to think bad of him, but…there's definitely more to this than meets the eye.

And once again, that unanswerable question came back to him.

Just what did happen to Elvira's dad?





Notes

And here's the first prominent boss fight. I hope I wrote it well, for I must admit something. I'm not the most confident in the world when it comes to fight scenes. I'm more one for scenes of dialogue. What I found myself doing in this chapter was writing the dialogue heavy parts before writing the fight scenes. I did the same in Chapter 3, as well.

A number of moves are based on how they appear in the main series, and not necessarily how they are in the Mystery Dungeon games. Revenge, for instance. But other times, it's vice versa, like with Endure. This might be one of those instances where I take liberties, going with what I prefer to envision a move as.

I based Hinnerk's fighting style on the Pokédex entries of the Galarian Zigzagoon family's Pokédex entries, where they convey a taunting, goading way of fighting. So I meshed that in.

Also, listening to Magnus's Theme from Kid Icarus: Uprising helped me write the part of Melchior's reveal. A great theme of motivation, that.

Thanks for reading, and see you on the other side.

Update (16/12/22): This is part of my early chapter updates. I changed up Hinnerk's accusations towards Melchior. They still have a feeling of conjecture about them (that was and is the point), but I feel this was executed better this time. Other additions include Flora as a hostage alongside Tamara and the 'Thorned Roses making people disappear' plotline. Along with that, other removals and rewordings of dialogue.
 
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Chapter 10

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 10
Departure

Boy…what a day yesterday was.

This was Arian's prevailing thought as he sat with Zenobia at the kitchen table in Elvira's house. The Treecko herself was preparing a healthy breakfast of porridge with a serving of berries.

It was the morning after Hinnerk had been toppled by them and Team Sandstream, and Arian sat at the kitchen table, in slight disbelief that the events yesterday transpired as they did. He would've thought it a dream, were it not for the aches and pains that told him otherwise.

And the day hadn't ended with Hinnerk's fall. There was still much to be done regarding the rest of the Thorned Roses, and that was to be sorted out once Melchior, Team Sandstream, Team Elpis, and the group of volunteers from Ozerograd Quay marched up to the main town.

Luckily for them, the news of Hinnerk and Mikhail's defeat led to great fear and morale loss within the Thorned Roses, after the Zangoose had informed everyone of what had happened down at the old town. By the time the convoy reached the new town, most of the gang had either fled or surrendered immediately, especially upon seeing Melchior. There were a few stragglers, but they soon came to heel after being defeated by the Swampert and Team Sandstream. Team Elpis got in a few opponents to defeat as well. Once these dissidents had been rounded up, they were thrown in the jail cells along with Hinnerk and Mikhail.

The townsfolk were incredibly grateful for all of what the motley brigade did to remove the Thorned Roses from Ozerograd, and swarmed them with gifts and compliments. It took some time for the praise to relent, by which time the sun had begun to set. Elvira requested permission from Melchior for her and Arian to return home, which the Swampert gladly allowed.

"I'm not your superior yet," he had joked. "You don't have to ask permission for everything, with the position you're in now."

When they returned home, Zenobia greeted them warmly. Weary but triumphant, Arian and Elvira told her everything over a dinner cooked by the Treecko. By the end of it all, Zenobia was just as elated as the rest of the townsfolk that the Thorned Roses were gone, and was overflowing with praise for Team Elpis (a name she approved of, when Elvira told her they had solved that morning's debate). The duo went straight to bed after dinner, content with their accomplishments that day.

Now it was the next morning, and the three were conversing over what had gone down yesterday.

"It's hard to believe…" commented Zenobia. "To think, the Thorned Roses are gone, and Melchior is back…"

"I know. It feels like a dream," Arian replied. "But that happened, alright." He paused as he dug into some porridge.

"And it's great that it did," Elvira added. "I didn't expect to see Melchior again. It's been a long time. It never occurred to me that the Chief Lillian was talking about could've been him."

"Same here," the Riolu seconded. "...You know, not gonna lie…I totally thought the Chief was going to be your dad."

"Really?" Elvira was surprised to hear this. "That's what I thought too!" Her mood then dampened slightly. "I guess I raised my hopes too high, then…"

"...Oh." Arian's mood followed suit, realising the disappointment his partner probably felt.

"Cheer up, you two," Zenobia encouraged. "Even if it isn't Kallias, that doesn't mean it isn't a relief to see Melchior again. You always did think of him as an uncle of sorts."

"An uncle?" Arian queried.

"Yes…sort of," Elvira replied. "Melchior's not my uncle by blood, of course. But he's spent so long by Dad's side that he's nearly part of the family. He was always kindhearted, and always attended my hatchdays when Dad would come home to celebrate them. But whereas Dad was talkative and a cracker of jokes, Melchior was more calm and reserved. Dad said once he was glad he had him by his side, to keep him a bit more grounded."

"He's been a great friend to all of us," Zenobia continued. "He was the best 'mon when Kallias and I were married, and he's been a great source of support all these years. We would all be worse off without him."

"So a dependable ally, then," Arian said. "...That's good. We can never have too many of those."

"...Mmm…" murmured Elvira, in a somewhat doubtful tone.

"Elvira?" Zenobia frowned, puzzled over her daughter's change in mood. "...What's this, all of a sudden?"

"It's…to do with yesterday," the Treecko sighed. "When we were down at the quay, I asked Melchior if he knew where Dad was. They went away together, after all. And given how close they were…surely he knows what happened to Dad. But for some reason, he struggled to give me an answer."

"Really?" The Heliolisk's brow furrowed.

"Mmhm. I didn't bring it up last night because I didn't want to bring down the mood," Elvira explained. "I…I'm glad to see Melchior again. It's a huge relief to see he's still alive. But…" Her expression grew worried. "...I don't want to believe it, but it's almost like he's hiding something about Dad's disappearance. …Why? After being such a good friend to us…why would he hide the truth about Dad from us?"

"...Maybe he's afraid to tell it," Arian pointed out.

"Afraid to tell the truth?" Elvira said, turning to her partner. "Arian, what do you mean?"

"When you were pressing Melchior about your dad, I could feel some of his emotions," the Riolu elaborated. "The two most prevalent ones I could feel were…fear and shame."

"Fear and shame?" the Treecko repeated. "...But why? Why would Melchior feel that way?"

"Hmm…" Arian considered this. "...I'm not sure. I don't know what exactly happened that would make Melchior feel this way. But…maybe that's it. Maybe it's the truth. When it comes to the truth about revealing what really happened to your missing partner's daughter…can you blame him for feeling like that?"

"True," agreed Zenobia. "Telling a truth like that is never an easy thing. Kallias has had to inform several people of the ultimate fate of loved ones of theirs. …He told me it's the worst duty of a mercenary, to have to do that. In light of that, I can understand Melchior's reluctance."

"...But if that's true, then that's a truth he's been sitting on for five years," Elvira said. "Why didn't he tell us in that time? Why must we be kept in suspense? I've had to deal with this for five whole years…!" Her voice grew emotional. "I have to know what happened to Dad! I have a right to know! Why is Melchior keeping the truth from me?!"

"Elvira!" Arian cried out, fearing his partner would burst into tears at any moment.

The Treecko heard her partner's yell and realised she was getting worked up.

"...I'm sorry," she apologised, the light sniffling afterwards implying she had indeed been close to tears. "It's just…if anyone knows anything, it's bound to be Melchior. I just couldn't bear the thought that he could be keeping the truth from me..."

"...I don't think he means it in a bad way," Arian said. "I mean, there'd be huge red flags if Melchior was meaning to keep the truth from you. But that doesn't mean he doesn't want to tell you. I think what it might be…is that he's afraid of your potential reaction. Maybe he's afraid that you might shun him if he tells the truth."

"...You really think that?" Elvira said, cocking her head in what seemed like doubt.

"I think," Arian emphasised. "Look, you know Melchior better than I do. Maybe what I'm saying is a load of crap. And I'm not saying that he's right to keep the truth from you. Of course he should tell you. But y'know…I think we should understand things from his point of view. Also, he's also our strongest ally, and we're on a high note right now. If you are going to ask him that…maybe it should be when we're out of town? I feel now might not be the best time to bring it up. I know how you feel about your dad, but…"

"...I see what you mean," Elvira replied, though not entirely happy with this. "...I suppose I'll go with it. But I will get an answer out of him. I need to know what happened to Dad."

"...As do I," murmured Zenobia. But before she could continue that line of thought, a knock sounded on the front door.

"It seems to be every morning these days," the Heliolisk murmured. "Could one of you answer it?"

"I'll get it," Arian volunteered, and walked to the door. Opening it, he smiled warmly at the sight of a familiar face.

"Hey, Lillian!" he greeted.

"Hello, Arian," the Sandslash returned. "I presume Elvira's with you?"

"Yes, she is." The Riolu turned his head. "Elvira! Lillian's here!"

"Oh, she is?" Elvira happened to be walking up the hallway to the door. "Good morning, Lillian."

"Good morning to you too, Elvira," Lillian replied.

"So what's on the cards today?" Arian asked.

"Well…the Chief sent me to fetch you two," the Sandslash answered. "But there's a bit more to it than yesterday. …You two obviously want to join the Irian Guild, right?"

"Of course! We'd love nothing more!" Arian eagerly responded, before parking his elation. "...Why? Can we not?"

"No no, of course you can!" Lillian quickly corrected, realising the potential confusion of her question. "It's just…there's a matter the Chief's slightly concerned about regarding this."

"And that would be…?"

Lillian looked around her, as if to check that no one was listening in, before giving her answer.

"The Chief would like you to travel to our guild's secret location. But you see…it's some way away from here. If you were to go there…it would mean staying there, and being separated from your mother. That's what he's worried about; he wanted to know if you would be alright with that."

"Separated from Mom…" Elvira murmured, ruminating on this. Of course she wanted to join the Irian Guild; that was a given. But reality hit her that if she took up the offer, she probably wouldn't see her home or her mother for a while. Did she want that…?

"Go, Elvira."

"Hm?" The Treecko turned around to see Zenobia behind her. "Mom?"

"Don't worry about me. It was always your dream to be a part of the Irian Guild. The opportunity's before you. Take it, please," the Heliolisk insisted. "Flora and Tamara can look after me, if I don't look after myself. Besides…it's not as if my broken leg will last forever. The time will fly, and in a few weeks, I'll be better again. In the meantime, you follow your passion with Arian and be a mercenary."

"Okay, Mom," Elvira said, now more confident. "I will. But be safe. Even if the Thorned Roses are gone from town, that doesn't mean danger isn't around the corner."

"Don't worry. I'll be alright," assured Zenobia. "I can't do much with the way my leg is, anyway. I won't get into any dangerous scrapes that I can't handle."

"I'll miss you," the Treecko said, before embracing her mother in a hug. "I'll write to you. I don't know how often, but…the Tropius Carriers are still running. I should be able to write letters."

"Do that. We can keep in touch that way. But…if you are going to go into hiding, then we may indeed not see each other for a while. Keep yourself healthy, and don't forget the morals your father taught you."

"I won't," vowed Elvira, still clinging tight to her mother.

"Good. And Arian?" Zenobia's words drew the Riolu's attention. "...Look after Elvira, will you? Watch her as any mercenary partner would."

"I will. You have nothing to worry about, Zenobia," Arian pledged.

"...Excellent. Farewell, you two," the Heliolisk wished. "May the Creator guide your sense of justice, and watch over you."

"Goodbye, Mom," Elvira returned.

"Goodbye, Zenobia," Arian similarly responded, before adding, "Thanks for letting me stay in your home."

"It was no trouble, Arian. Now go, and be the best mercenaries you can be."

"We will!"

And with that, Team Elpis left the house, closing the door behind them.

"...Yes…please be safe, you two," Zenobia said, as she went back to the living room. She looked again of that painting of her family, and her gaze drifted to Kallias.

"...Watch over them, my husband. I know you always wanted to see Elvira go out into the world. And now it's finally happened. Our little girl has left home…"





"Your mom's really nice," Lillian complimented, as the trio walked down the road to Ozerograd. "You're really lucky, Elvira. To have one of the biggest heroes in Ardalion for a father and a really nice mother…I'm jealous!"

"Well, you're not so bad yourself, Lillian. Your parents are just as nice," Elvira returned, remembering the kindness Caitríona and Conall showed them when they met.

"True. I guess we both got lucky. …A shame not everyone can," she then added, slightly downcast.

"Mmm. I remember Dad telling me once that it's one of the ways outlaws come to be," Elvira recalled. "Bad parenting results in the fostering of a bad attitude among children that starts out as bullying on the school playground, and develops into vandalism, robbery, assault and other crimes as they become adults. It's one of many theories developed by mercenaries and lawmakers when considering problems of delinquency and crime."

"...Interesting," Lillian commented. "I think that's a good way to look at it. Some mercs say it's a good thing we have outlaws, as they essentially give us a job. But that's a load of raiméis. Mercs would still be a thing, with or without outlaws. And wouldn't it be better if we didn't have to fight outlaws? I'd feel sorry for anyone who grew up in bad circumstances. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the Thorned Roses were like that."

"...It's sad when you really think deep into it," Arian replied. "A lot of the time, it's just them being dealt a bad hand in life. I don't think criminality is something woven into them. Crime's like a drug; they'll do it once and become hooked on it. Then they do more, and more, and more…and can never get enough. Just like drugs. And then you end up with people like Hinnerk and Mikhail."

"...Huh. I never thought of it like that," the Sandslash said. "I suppose you're right. But just like with addiction…they can kick the habit, if they have the will to."

"That's right," Elvira concurred. "And we as mercs should help them become rehabilitated, if they can be redeemed. There are some like Hinnerk and Mikhail that have no hope. But not all outlaws are the same. Some have it in them to give up crime and live a normal life. …Maybe some of the Thorned Roses might realise the wrongs of what they've done and say goodbye to a life of crime," she added, though in a somewhat doubtful tone.

"Hopefully. …Boy, we got a bit off topic there, didn't we?" Lillian mused. "What were we talking about at the start?"

"Parents," the Treecko said.

"Ah, of course." Lillian's gaze then fell upon Arian. "Arian, what about you? What about your…" She faded out the question at the end in realisation. "Oh, sorry. I forgot you had amnesia…"

That news had been imparted yesterday, when Arian explained to Melchior and Team Sandstream how he and Elvira formed a mercenary team together. As a part of his conversation, he revealed his amnesia, much to the surprise of those who heard his tale. However, there were civilians in earshot, and the Riolu wasn't comfortable revealing that he was human, for fear of disbelief among them and his newfound allies.

"It's fine," Arian assured. "It's not a big deal."

"...But…aren't you curious? Wouldn't you want to know who your parents are?" Lillian queried further. "If I was in your shoes, I'd be going mad wanting to know that."

"...Well…I would like to know one day," the Riolu admitted. "But it's not my biggest priority right now. I'd sooner rather get into being a mercenary and help people out than have half my mind focused on finding out who I am all the time. Maybe I'll find out one day. But for now…we've got more important things ahead of us."

"...Good point," the Sandslash agreed. "...Maybe when you find downtime in your missions, you could use the time to start looking for clues about yourself."

"...Maybe. But where to even start? I wouldn't have the first clue where to begin looking…"

"Sorry to interrupt you, Arian," Elvira intervened. "But we're here."

The outer walls of Ozerograd came into view. Thankfully, the circumstances were more favourable this time, and all three could comfortably walk through the gates without having to put on an act of capture like last time. Instead of Thorned Roses, two regular townsfolk stood guard, in place of knights that would normally be there. Two of them, a Furfrou and a Swoobat, smiled warmly at them.

"Hey, there's our heroes of the hour!" called out the Furfrou. "Thanks for kicking those thugs out of town!"

"No problem!" Arian returned. "Just doing what's right and just."

"Good for you. You're doing the Creator's work, you mercs," praised the Swoobat. "Come on in."

"Much appreciated," Elvira replied, as they passed through the gate and into town.

Compared to yesterday, the atmosphere was far more amicable. The dark, foreboding feeling of the day before had been replaced by a much more jovial and celebratory atmosphere. And instead of the sight of people being evicted like yesterday, there were people happily waving at the trio from their homes, which they moved back into following the flight of the Thorned Roses. Unfortunately, some homes had been ransacked, and a number of valuables had been pilfered as the rogues made their getaway. It was regrettable, but at least the townsfolk still had a roof over their heads.

Eventually, the three reached the main square, where a number of townsfolk were gathered. As they got closer, Arian realised he recognised a number of them.

"There they are!" called out Flora.

"Arian! Elvira!" Tamara said.

"Hello, you two." Elvira smiled at them. "How are you doing?"

"Pretty good!" The Pachirisu beamed. "Better than yesterday, at any rate."

"You can say that again…" murmured Flora. "Those Thorned Roses left a right mess in our shop. A lot of our bouquets are ruined. So…that's annoying."

"Oh. That's…not good," Arian lamented.

"Could be worse. That's what Mom and Dad keep saying, anyway," the Petilil muttered, with a light pout. "Still…petals are such a pain to clean up…" She was about to continue, but a peppy voice cut her off.

"Look, Daddy! It's them!"

"That voice…" Arian, looking over, saw Iona coming over to them, and eagerly gesturing pointing them out to Rosa and an unfamiliar Whimsicott.

"Hello, Iona," Elvira greeted.

"Hi, Elvira and Arian!" the Flabébé cheerily said back. "Daddy, these nice people saved me when I was lost in the Meadow!"

"So you two saved my daughter…" A smile crossed the Whimsicott's face. "Thank you both, for helping her when I couldn't."

"You're…Iona's dad?" Arian asked. "But wait. Weren't you…?"

"Kidnapped by those thugs?" the Whimsicott finished. "...Yes." A dark look came into his eyes. "They accosted me a few weeks ago and threw me into the town jail because I couldn't pay the rent. I was frightened, because I'd heard what that Seviper was saying about being sacrificed…But thankfully you kicked those Thorned Roses out of town before anything could happened. You and those other kids, led by Mud Bomber Melchior…"

As if on cue, the Swamper himself showed up onto the scene. Flanking him were Ishmael and Axel.

"Oi! They've come!" Ishmael called. "Y'alright, mates, after that scrap?"

"Couldn't be better," Arian replied.

"Yes…" Elvira certainly felt a lot better. With the Thorned Roses out of town, it was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. A genuinely good feeling had come over her - something that had been few and far between in the last five years.

"That's certainly good to hear." Team Elpis drew their attention to Melchior. "I'm glad you're doing well after yesterday."

"It feels strange," Elvira murmured. "It's been ages since I've been able to walk through the town without a single Thorned Rose glaring a hole into me."

"It's great, is what it is!" Tamara piped up. "And we couldn't have done it without you!"

"Yeah!" Iona seconded. "Three cheers for Arian and Elvira!"

Cheering and applause went up amongst the crowd. Team Elpis, taking in the acclamation, felt a bit overwhelmed by it all.

But one feeling lasted among both of them.

It was good to help these people, to free them of their suffering. Now they don't have the Thorned Roses stomping over their lives anymore.

"I still can't believe that you two managed to defeat Hinnerk," Flora added, once the cheers died down a bit. "To think, all it took was two rookie mercs like you…"

"That's not true," Elvira denied. "We could never won without the help of Team Sandstream. There's no way we could've won without their help." She nodded to the Ground-type trio in acknowledgment.

"And if Melchior wasn't there, then we wouldn't be here either," Tamara added, pointing to her and Flora. "If he wasn't hiding down at the quay, we would have been killed. …Thank goodness he was there. Thanks so, so much," she professed to the Swampert.

"Don't mention it," Melchior replied. "Your safety is all that matters to me."

"Ah…so this is the great humbleness that Team Marshwood are renowned for," commented a nearby Persian. "Kind gentlemen to all they meet - barring outlaws, of course," he added with a slight snicker.

"Yeah…Bit of a shame Fernblade Kallias isn't here," another townsperson, a Leafeon, added. "...Oh well. Even one half of Team Marshwood is more than welcome help. And besides, Kallias' daughter's here. That's something, at least."

Arian suddenly realised where this conversation could head. Knowing how Elvira felt about being mentioned in the same breath as her father, he attempted to change the subject.

"So…Melchior," he asked. "What's all this about…you know…what you want from us?" He would've stated the reason explicitly, but the horde of townsfolk reminded him of their need to keep their operations covert, and so he changed tact mid-sentence.

"Ah, yes, of course," the Swampert began. "Your efforts yesterday were exemplary. They more than showed your capability as a team, in both teamwork and fighting skill. While both are still in their youth and not fully developed, I believe that with refinement, your skill could be enhanced and your potential could be unlocked. You'd be vital allies to have by our side."

"We're glad to hear it, Melchior," Elvira replied. "But…what does this have to do with what Lillian told us earlier?"

"I'm getting to that. Team Sandstream is but one of a few teams I have managed to recruit for my cause. I want you two to join the rest of them. This success here in Ozerograd…it's a great victory. But we must not rest on our laurels."

"Yes," said Elvira in agreement. "This victory here could easily be overturned by Mitrofan bringing his own forces in to take over, and then we would be back to square one. We have to make it mean something," she added, remembering what Ishmael had said down at the quay yesterday.

"So…where are the rest of the teams you've recruited?" asked Arian.

"Well, about that," the Swampert began. "I would tell you the location here, but…"

"Confidentiality," Arian interjected in understanding.

"Yes. Confidentiality," Melchior confirmed. "My humblest of apologies to you all," he said to the nearby townsfolk. "Please understand. The fewer that know, the better."

"We get ya, Melchior," replied a Crawdaunt, the same one from the day before. "It wouldn't be good if Ol' Mitt found out. Words have a way of travelin', so to speak. But if he comes knockin' here, let me tell ya, he's got another thin' comin'!"

"...You have determination, Egon. But don't let it get to your head," the Swampert advised. "You and the other volunteers need to remain vigilant on other matters, like seeing to Hinnerk and the other Thorned Roses who are locked up."

"...I'd be tempted to starve 'em to death for all they did to us," Egon muttered. "...But we'll do it. We'll see to it those snakes don't escape. I'd bet a thousand Poké they're thinkin' up somethin' to get outta there."

"...In case they do, I'll remain here for the next few days. Most likely a week, at most," Melchior declared. "There's still some more matters to investigate in town. While I stay here, I would like Team Elpis to travel to the Guild's current headquarters. As for its exact location…you'll be escorted there by Team Sandstream. They know where it is."

"Us? …Okay. Sure thing, Chief," Axel obliged.

"Great!" Lillian responded eagerly. "We'd be all too happy to, Chief. I'd love to show them around the Guild."

"Don't worry, Chief. We'll get 'em there safe as 'ouses," Ishmael vowed. "We'll do it, or my name ain't Ishmael of Team Sandstream!"

"Thank you very much, you three," Melchior complimented. "Now then…I believe that's it."

"Actually…there is something," Elvira brought up. "Melchior…can we talk? Alone?"

From the tone of her voice, the Swampert knew immediately what she wanted to speak to him about. A sigh escaped him.

"...I'll have an answer when I return to the Guild. I promise you, Elvira; I will not put it off any longer than that."

Elvira considered his offer. "...Okay. But…please. Please have an answer by then."

"...I will. I swear on my rank as Grandmaster."

"Eh? 'S all this about?" asked Ishmael, confused by the exchange.

"It's…a private matter between them," Arian decided to say. "For Elvira's sake, I'd rather not say what it's about."

"I was just about to ask that," Axel lightly grumbled.

"Well, you heard him. Let's not bring it up," Lillian said. "It's between them, not us."

"So…anyway. Will we go? Elvira?" Arian checked with the latter two. "Is everyone ready?"

"...We have to go get items first," Elvira said, after a quick look in their bag. "We'll stop by Conall and Caitríona's before we head out. Then we'll leave town."

"Come on. We'll bring ya there," Ishmael offered. "Gotta fill 'em in on what we're doin', anyways."

"...I guess we'll be off, then," Lillian said. "We'll see you whenever you come back, Chief."

"I'll see you then. Good luck!" wished Melchior, as the group of five walked down the street that led to the merchants' quarter.

Once they left, he turned back to Egon and the volunteers by the Crawdaunt's side.

"Well, there's more to be done. The town's still a long way from being cleaned of the Thorned Roses' influence," Melchior said to them. "Meanwhile, I'll keep digging about those missing people that Team Sandstream were investigating."

"...As much as I hate to say it, Melchior…" Iona's father brought up. He paused, whispering something to his wife, before she and Iona disappeared into the crowd. "I think it's a waste of time lookin' for older folks. There's me and the recent crowd thrown in, but the older lot…I think they're long gone by this stage."

"...I am aware of that." That was a growing possibility Melchior was reluctant to admit. "But that's not the most pressing question. What I want to know is…

"What happened to them to make them disappear as they did? Whatever did the Thorned Roses do?"





"So that's everything, is it?" Arian double-checked, as the fivesome stood in front of Ozerograd's northern gate. "We got our items, we said goodbye to Zenobia, you all said goodbye to Caitríona and Conall…Is that everything?"

"I believe it is," Lillian answered.

"Right, then. Let's not waste time dilly-dallyin' 'ere," Ishmael declared. "Let's go."

And so the two teams walked out of Ozerograd and into the Selenian countryside, along that same road to the old town that Arian, Elvira and Lillian had travelled the day before. The scene was much the same as the day before; the weather was bright and sunny, Lake Lazurny shone a bright azure, and it was a warm day with little to no chance of rain.

Maybe that last one isn't such a good thing, Arian thought, inwardly grimacing as he was reminded of what Elvira said to him in Cyan Cove. It's not a good idea to dwell on such thoughts. …Hmm. Maybe a change in subject would be nice.

"So where exactly is the Guild's secret location?" he asked Team Sandstream. "We're out in the open, and I don't think there's anyone around that can listen in."

"Hmm…" Ishmael looked around them. Trees dotted either side of the road as they approached the crossroads to the old town. "Let's just get past this part, then I'll tell ya."

They did so, travelling the road to Iria, as indicated by the signpost at the crossroads. Past this point, the treescape continued for a short while, before eventually, it gave way to grassy plains and rolling hills, of which a single defining road weaved through them.

"Okay…now's a good time," the Krokorok determined, after searching the surrounding area. "It's in Kamengrad."

"Kamengrad?" Arian tilted his head. "Where's that?"

"It's a town to the northeast of here," Elvira explained. "It's the main settlement in the Karstlands. …Which is a fairly rural region of Selenia filled with karst, limestone rock. It's quite a sight, and quite a unique area not just in Selenia, but in all of Ardalion. There are flora completely exclusive to the Karstlands, unusual rock formations, and even more subterranean features. I've been there a few times. It's a nice place."

"Sounds interesting," the Riolu commented.

"It's a geologist's wet dream, is what it is," Ishmael opinionated. "If yer interested in rocks, there ain't nowhere better in Ardalion to study 'em. There's an info centre and everythin' about erosion and perm…perm…shit, what's it called again? When water passes through somefin'. Whatever that's called."

"Permeability?" Elvira guessed.

"Yeah, that," the Krokorok confirmed. "...Must've done yer 'omework when ya were in school, didja?"

"Er, yes?" the Treecko replied. "...That wouldn't be a problem, would it?" A slight tone of defence entered her voice.

"Oi, I ain't teasin' ya!" assured Ishmael. "Just curious, is all. Sure wasn't like that when I was a tyke…"

"Yeah, I remember," Lillian added, with a chuckle. "You and Axel would always fall asleep when we were being taught. Unless it was about the dynamics of battle, you boys really couldn't give a damn about anything being taught to you. And when you didn't sleep, you were among the worst behaved in the class."

"That's because our tutors were so boring!" Axel complained. "I don't know how you could stay sane while they rambled on about maths or grammar or any of that boring stuff! Can you blame us for getting up to mischief?"

"'Sides, it wasn't like we laid a finger on anyone," defended Ishmael. "Our pranks were 'armless. It's not like we bullied no one. We 'ave standards, y'know!"

"Standards, eh?" Lillian said. "...And that includes punting a spitball at the archdruid?"

"Wait, what? Spitballed the archdruid?" Arian double-checked, in slight bemusement at what he was hearing.

"...W-We've learned since then," Axel murmured, in what sounded like shame at an old memory.

"Yeah…Learn from yer mistakes, innit?" Ishmael was quick to add. "We were stupid, we learned, and Ol' 'Mon Ran forgave us. 'E did 'is job. Good on 'im! And good on us for learnin'."

"...Come on. Don't leave out parts for Arian and Elvira," chastised Lillian. "Like when, for that, you two had to do a month's worth of chores for that."

"Oh no, please don't tell them that, Lillian!" begged Axel.

"Oh? But Arian and Elvira would be so interested in hearing about it…wouldn't you two?" the Sandslash asked Team Elpis.

"Er…hmm," Arian considered. On the one hand, a tale to pass the time while they travelled would be nice. But on the other, the pleading look on the Gligar's face and a similar expression on Ishmael's made him reconsider. It's just a story about their past life, he thought. It's not like I'm dying to hear it.

"...Maybe another time," he answered, to mixed reactions.

"...Phew. Thanks, Arian," a relieved Axel praised.

"Spoilsport," pouted Lillian. "Hey, Elvira, what about you? Don't you want to hear about these two getting punished?"

"I…think I'll side with Arian on this one," Elvira answered. "Better to not create divisions between us and our new allies."

"Good on ya," praised Ishmael, before turning to his partner. "Y'know, I like ya a lot, Lill, but…yer as bad as yer mum sometimes when it comes to sharin' embarrassin' stories…"

"Like mother, like daughter," the Sandslash said proudly, getting over her prior disappointment. "The other villagers did always say I was exactly like her when she was young. And they said the same about you two."

"Yep…sure got that a lot," murmured Ishmael, with similar mumblings of agreement from Axel.

Arian was admittedly a bit curious about the mention of 'villagers', and wanted to ask further about their past. However, this line of thought was halted when Elvira did.

"Here we are."

"'Here we are'?" The Riolu looked ahead of him. For a second, he thought they had arrived in Kamengrad. But as he gazed at the scene before him, he suddenly realised what he was looking at.

"A Mystery Dungeon?"

That, it seemed to be. The same opaqueness in the entrance, as seen with the previous three dungeons he'd been in, was present. But this time, given it was in broad daylight and shaded by trees or a cave's darkness, it was far more obvious on this occasion.

"It is," Elvira confirmed. "Rolling Hills. A Mystery Dungeon that lies on the road to Iria and Kamengrad."

"Let's not dawdle," Ishmael said. "Let's 'ead in. The sooner we get to Kamengrad, the better."

"Got it, Ish," Axel obliged.

And with that, the two teams headed in.





Rolling Hills
1F

Once more, Arian found himself in the enigmatic labyrinth of a Mystery Dungeon. At least it's getting familiar by now, he thought to himself. This is, what, my fourth one?

"Okay, time to find those stairs," Ishmael began. "It's a big room, this 'un. Let's explore each exit, and mark the ones we've been to. And the two of ya'll be in front explorin' each room."

"Us?" Arian asked.

"Yeah. After all, the two of ya need the experience of searchin' Dungeons," elaborated the crocodile. "We've been through plenty of 'em, but yer still startin' out."

"Don't worry, though. We'll help you out whenever you need it," Lillian reassured.

"You probably won't need our help, though," Axel added. "If I'm gonna be honest, this Dungeon's not that hard. You'd probably be just fine going through it on your own."

"Yeah, we've been through 'ere plenty of times," Ishmael elaborated. "The wild Pokémon are easy stuff for us. Ya'd be just fine. But we'll help ya out if yer 'avin' trouble."

"Good to know you have our backs," Elvira said gratefully. "Thanks very much."

"No problem," Lillian replied. "Now then…which path?"

"That one," elected Arian, picking the path nearest to them.

"Alright then." The Sandslash was at the back of the cavalcade, and on the path they were going down, she marked an X with her claws where the corridor began. "Okay. On we go. Lead the way, Arian."

The Riolu did just that. It wasn't long before the path ended in a T-junction. Arian suggested going right, and so they did.

They encountered a Gloom. Arian readied a Metal Claw, and struck the Weed Pokémon. Unfortunately, the attack didn't do as much as the Riolu hoped.

"Arian? Leave this one to me," Axel, who was behind Elvira, requested. Team Elpis obliged, wondering what the bat was going to do.

Arian was quite surprised, therefore, when Axel unleashed a duo of diagonal slashes on the took the Grass-type down in very little time.

"There," the Gligar said. "Aerial Ace saves us once again."

"Aerial Ace? …That was the move you used, right?" Arian checked.

"Yep. We bought a TM for it a while back, and it's been an asset to me ever since," Axel elaborated.

"A TM? …What's that?" the Riolu wondered.

"...Oh right. Amnesia," the Gligar reminded himself, as they continued down the corridor. "TMs stand for Technical Machines. They're discs on which certain moves are stored, like Aerial Ace. You can get more diverse moves through them rather than just the moves you learn through getting stronger."

"I…see," Arian said.

They stopped the conversation briefly as they came to another room. A quick scan of it revealed no stairs. The path ahead of them was where Arian chose to go. As she did before, Lillian marked an X at the room's exit.

"You can sometimes find TMs in Mystery Dungeons," Elvira went on to say, as the trio continued down their chosen path. "Some merchants base their whole business around selling TMs, and make quite a profit. …Do Caitríona and Conall sell them?"

"They do, if they find one," Lillian replied. "They sell for a good price. …But on the flip side, that does mean rookie teams will have to save up a bit before they can comfortably buy them. So keep that in mind before you go splashing out if you see any. They're not unaffordable, but…they can be pricey, especially the more powerful moves."

"...Okay. Got it," Arian replied.

They travelled on a bit more. A few ferals got in their way, namely a Weepinbell, a Combee and a Stufful, but with the help of Team Sandstream, Team Elpis was easily able to dispatch them. All the while, Arian was learning new things about the Pokémon he faced thanks to advice and information from his two partners. Be wary of Weepinbell's ability to inflict status conditions, male Combee couldn't evolve, and physical attacks weren't optimal against Stufful due to their Fluffy fur. They were fortunate to have the trio by their side, who knocked out the ferals with relative ease when Arian and Elvira struggled on their lonesome.

Eventually, they came to another room. And in it was the one thing they were looking for.

"The stairs!" cried Arian. "...Will we go up?"

"Yep. Ain't nothin' interestin' on this floor, least from our lookin' around," the Krokorok summarised. "Come on. Let's go."

And so the quintet ascended the stairs.





Rolling Hills
4F

The two teams continued their way through Rolling Hills. As they did, Arian and Elvira could both see the experience Team Sandstream had at dealing with Dungeons and when fighting ferals, at least in this particular Dungeon. They seemed to know their type advantages well, and dealt with the wild Pokémon efficiently. While it couldn't be called the skill of hardened veterans, they had evidently been in the mercenary business for some time to know their stuff.

Not to mention, they were amicable, and shared their findings with Team Elpis, allowing them possession of some of the money and items on the floor. They were also quick to offer advice and aid whenever Arian or Elvira made a mistake.

This was the case on the fourth floor when Arian got a face full of Sleep Powder from a wild Morelull and fell right to the ground. While Axel made quick work of it with Aerial Ace, Ishmael took to giving the Riolu a Chesto Berry, and the problem was rectified in no time at all.

"...Nnngh…What time is it…?" Arian mumbled sleepily as he woke up.

"A time when ya shouldn't be snorin' like a wild Grumpig," Ishmael replied. "Get up, mate."

"Snoring?! I do not snore!" the Riolu protested, now wide awake and infuriated by the Krokorok's dig at him.

"...Sure ya weren't."

"I don't snore! You're having me on!"

"...Okay, okay, ya got me. Just messin' with ya," the sand crocodile snickered, ruffling Arian's fur on his head and withdrawing his hand when the latter growled at him, having gotten to his feet. "Sheesh, ya ain't a Grumpig. Like a Mightyena when yer riled up."

"...I'll…probably get what you mean at some point," Arian said, still unsure about the exact species Ishmael was referring to. As well as that, he was still cross at the Krokorok, and remained that way for the rest of the floor.

"...That's why it's always good to have berries on hand for this kind of scenario," Lillian went on, choosing to gloss over the squabble between Ishmael and Arian. "Status conditions are a menace, and really hinder your ability to fight. Just take your fight with Hinnerk as an example. If he wasn't paralysed, he might've been able to make a comeback. But he was, and so he lost. Keep in mind, though…that the same could be true for you two. Being poisoned or paralysed or burned can be the decider between victory and defeat."

"...I understand," Elvira replied, recalling a similar lesson from her father when she was younger.

"Me too," Arian seconded, as they walked on, with the continued tactic of him taking up the lead.

"...Ah! There's the exit!" Ishmael said triumphantly as the group strolled into another room. "Let's go up. No point hangin' 'round this floor any longer. Come on, I wanna get movin'."

"Well, let's not delay, then," Lillian agreed, as the group headed up the steps.





Rolling Hills
Rest Floor

Arian was quite surprised at the sight that greeted him. Instead of the labyrinthine layout that would normally greet them as they climbed the final stair of a floor, he was greeted with somewhere very different to what he was expecting.

"...Are we out of the Dungeon?" he asked, looking around him. The area looked normal - no sign of any maze-like structure to it. Instead, ahead of him lay what looked like a well-travelled path - or rather, two of them. A divergence to the path lay ahead, with two distinct paths creating a Y-junction. Where the path split, a signpost lay, along with…something that made Arian blink as he tried to assess what it was.

Is that…a statue?

"No," Axel answered. "We're on what's known as a rest floor. …It's what it is; a place to rest and gather your bearings after a Mystery Dungeon that can make your head spin. There's no ferals here or anything; you can rest easy on this floor."

"Good. Because I could use one," Elvira brought up. "Can we take a rest? Even just a short one…"

"'Course!" permitted Ishmael. "Yer still gettin' into dungeon delvin'. Better take yer chance here 'fore we press on. 'Sides, we got some stuff to store, so we'll do that while you lot take a breather."

The Krokorok walked over to the peculiar statue that Arian noticed. Now that he had a closer look at it, he realised it depicted a large, bipedal creature with what looked to be a pouch at its stomach area. Curiously, Ishmael then put a few items into the pouch area, before turning back to the group.

"Ishmael?" Arian could not contain his interest. "What did you do with that statue over there?"

"Oh, that? It's a Kangaskhan Rock," the crocodile replied. "Ya find them in rest areas like this 'un. It's where ya store items ya find in Dungeons that ya don't really need. They're moved into storage, where ya can get 'em again from Kangaskhan's. That's a shop that's everywhere, so yer stuff's safe with 'em, and ya'll find it in most places."

"...Um, what?" To call Arian confused would be an understatement. "I'm sorry, but…you might have to break that down for me."

"...Tell ya what. Try it out for yerself," suggested Ishmael. "Ya got items on ya?"

"...Yes." The Riolu held up his team's bag as proof.

"Go over there and store somefin'."

"...Okay," Arian obliged, getting up and walking over to the statue. It was huge, more than seven feet tall, and towered over him. What did Ishmael call it? A…Kangaskhan Rock? Is that what it's a statue of, then? A Pokémon called Kangaskhan? Luckily, the pouch part of the statue was low enough for him to put items into. Looking into the bag, he searched for something they didn't need.

Hmm…maybe this oran berry? …We have a few. We can part ways with one. He took the berry out of the bag and placed it in the statue's pouch.

"...Nothing's happening," he remarked, after a few seconds.

"Walk away and come back to it later," Axel told him. "It'll probably shock you."

"Oi, El," Ishmael then asked Elvira. "Does it get tirin', teachin' 'im 'bout simple shit like that?"

"...Hm? Oh, erm…no, I wouldn't say that," the Treecko replied. "We all have to learn how to be a mercenary, and we all have to learn about things like Mystery Dungeons and the Kangaskhan Rocks. I'd argue that Arian's questions aren't too much different from the average beginner mercenary. I'm still learning things myself, even though Dad did teach me a few basics when he was still around." She then passed a water canteen to Arian, who sat down beside her and took a swig of the refreshing liquid.

"Still…must be a pain, losin' yer memories like that," sympathised Ishmael. "Innit, Arry?"

"...A bit. All this stuff is so strange…" Arian answered. "Even if I didn't have amnesia, I'd probably still be asking questions left and right. It's…so foreign to me."

"...Poor thing…" murmured Lillian pityingly.

"But that's why I'm so grateful to all of you for helping me become accustomed to everything," Arian thanked. "Without you all, it would be a lot harder getting used to all this. Thank you all, really."

"Hey, no problem! We're happy to help!" Axel responded. "That's what being a mercenary's all about!"

"'Sides, yer friends and workmates. We wouldn't leave ya hangin', would we? It'd go against everythin' my folks taught me," Ishmael added, before getting up from where he was sitting. "...Right, I think it's time to get movin' again. Ya need more time, or…?"

"No, we're ready," Elvira said, following suit. Arian did the same, followed by Axel and Lillian, and the quintet resumed their journey to Kamengrad.

But as they began their walk, Arian was suddenly reminded of something.

"Oh yeah! The rock!" he recalled. He walked up to the statue's pouch, only to be stupefied by what he saw.

"The oran berry! ...Where did it go?"

"...Knew ya'd be like that," Ishmael chuckled at the human's bewilderment. "It ain't gone, mate. It's been put into storage, is what's 'appened to it."

"Put into storage…?"

"Yes," Lillian confirmed. "You'll be able to get it later, at Kangaskhan Storage in Kamengrad. I know it sounds unbelievable…but it's true."

"...I'll take your word for it. If it is…that's amazing, that this rock is able to do just that…"

"Anyway…to get to Kamengrad, we're takin' this path," Ishmael directed, pointing to the right path. Now that they were closer to the signpost, Arian could see why.

Iria

Kamengrad

On we go, then.





Rolling Hills - Eastern Path
7F

And so Teams Elpis and Sandstream progressed through the second half of Rolling Hills. Following on from the previous floors, the group of five stayed together, and were able to make quick work of the ferals there, which adding to Stufful, Morelull, Gloom, Weepinbell and Combee, were also Ledian, Furret, Audino and Pineco. Arian found that he was typically favoured for any Normal-types, and did a good job at using his Force Palm to dispatch them. At least I can show them the Hinnerk fight wasn't a fluke, he thought.

It was beneficial for him, too, as he was getting more in tune with using his moves. Throughout the Dungeon, following advice from Elvira and Team Sandstream, he made sure to diversify his move usage, so as to hone Metal Claw and Quick Attack and not rely on Force Palm all the time.

He also got to try out a blast seed on a wild Ledian, loaned to him from Team Sandstream's inventory. It was quite an experience, biting into the seed, feeling the fiery hotness of the seed heat up and expelling flames from his mouth like a Charizard. The Riolu had a good giggle after that.

"That was fun!" he laughed. "I want to do it again! Do you have any more?"

"...Naw, mate," apologised Ishmael, after a quick examination of their bag. "Yer gonna 'ave to wait."

"...Bummer." Arian's disappointment was evident.

"You'll get your chance," Lillian assured. "Blast seeds are plentiful, and they sell cheaply as well."

"Really? …Well. I'll definitely be on the lookout for them."

"Heh," Ishmael chuckled. "Better watch out, El. Ya mighta just found a pyromaniac as yer partner."

"Hopefully not. I am Grass, after all," Elvira replied.

The floors were scoured for the stairs, and many items found their way into both teams' bags. Money, berries…and to Arian's delight, a blast seed on the seventh floor, which he promptly used on a wild Gloom. The Grass-type stood little chance against that, and a Bite from Ishmael finished it off.

"Don't go using those too often," Axel warned. "You might need one in a pinch."

"Okay, okay, I get your point," Arian assured. "I won't overuse those. I promise."

"...If you say so…"

The rest of the floor yielded no difficult challenges for the group. Arian was paralysed by a Weepinbell's Stun Spore at one point, but a cheri berry Elvira had picked up earlier saw that problem taken care of relatively quickly.

Before long, the group found the stairs, in a room south to where the prior incident occurred.

"There it is," Axel said. "Finally, we're finished with this place."

"Oh, this is the final floor?" Arian asked.

"Yes. Kamengrad lies just beyond here," Lillian informed.

"Great. …One step closer to the finish line," the Riolu replied. Relief came over him at the thought of finally belonging to the Guild. Now Elvira's goal - and more recently, his, too - would be realised.

Well, Irian Guild…here we come. I hope you're ready for us.





Meanwhile…

Some distance away from the rural towns of Ozerograd and Kamengrad, stood the main centre of Selenia. The tsardom's capital city, Iria, stood proud and tall on top in a prime defensive position near the coast. It began as a fortification five hundred years ago against attackers, and developed into a major centre that would become Selenia's capital.

Iria Castle was a distinctive part of the city, visible from most parts of Iria. Since the city's founding, it had been the central Selenian government's location, and all manner of laws, statutes, amendments, legislation and acts were passed and repealed within its walls. Within the castle, many a ruler was born, raised and taught.

And even when the trend was bucked in more recent years…the position of Iria Castle as the centre of government and the leader's home remained.

Right now, a servant was making his way to the throne room. He was a Marowak, though a more uncommon variant that was black and had a dark pattern on its skull. He carried the signature bone possessed by most of his own kind. But as well as that, he carried with him a scroll of paper - specifically, a report to inform his leader of.

He entered a hallway that lay before the throne room. In this room lay a number of paintings. Each depicted a past tsar of Selenia, and below each painting was a plaque dedicated to each tsar and the years they ruled for. These varied - some had lengthy reigns, while some reigns were nipped in the bud before they could get going. The species of the leaders were also diverse - few specific species were favoured, and consistency in this regard didn't last for long throughout the years.

Notably though, there was one detail missing. The second last picture, prior to the throne room's entrance and before the current leader's portrait, was absent. A blank wall lay where it should have been, and no plaque lay below it either.

The Marowak was unbothered by this, evidently used to the sight. Guards who stood in front of the throne room parted to allow him entry. The Ghost/Fire-type knocked on the door of the throne room.

"Enter!" called a voice from within. With entry granted, the Marowak opened the doors, and walked into the throne room.

The throne room was where the Marowak's leader currently was, sitting on the red-and-black throne in the room as his predecessors once did. He was an intimidating figure; a huge, Steel-type Pokémon with black and grey armour plating, and two spiked horns atop his armoured head. Sharp claws and fangs were visible, and a thick, black tail swung behind him in expectation of the news his servant was to inform him of. Along with that, his armour had a fair few gouges and scars, implying that he had been in his fair share of scraps.

He was an Aggron. A certain Aggron that had become infamous among the Selenian populace once his name was brought up.

"Master Mitrofan. I bring news," the Marowak spoke.

"Speak, Nikita," commanded Mitrofan. "What news do you bring me?"

"...Unfortunately, I do not bring you good news, Master," Nikita replied. "I have a report from Ozerograd regarding events that happened there yesterday."

"Ozerograd?" the Aggron inquired with a furrowed brow, feeling as though he knew the answer to the question already.

"...Hinnerk's been defeated, and the Thorned Roses have dispersed," the Marowak informed, reading from the scroll he carried.

"So it's finally happened." Mitrofan curled his fist "...Tch. Hinnerk was always arrogant and full of hubris. The likes of him have no place in a lordly position like he was. He belongs in hell's inner circles, that brute," he growled. "What became of him?"

"...Regarding that, my master," Nikita continued. "Hinnerk isn't dead. Rather, he's been imprisoned and locked up in the town's jail, along with other captured members of the Thorned Roses."

"I beg your pardon? Captured?" The Aggron sounded shocked to hear this. "How foolish! Do the townsfolk really believe they can restrain him? He's a dastardly criminal who'll easily find a way to escape! If he can escape the confines of the Irian dungeons, then a town jail would be child's play for the likes of him! What motive would they have, anyway? He subjugated them for five years! And yet now they baulk?"

"There's a good reason for that," Nikita responded. "The townsfolk were not behind this. If left to their own devices, they would no doubt have had him murdered. But the influence of another had a hand in this."

"Well, spit it out! Who was it?"

"It sounds unbelievable, but…" The Marowak took a breath, knowing that this would be monumental news to his master.

"...Mud Bomber Melchior has returned."

"...Melchior?" If Mitrofan wasn't focused before, he most certainly was now. The mention of the Swampert's name made him sit bolt upright with rapt attention.

"Indeed, Master Mitrofan."

"...So Melchior was the one behind it all, then…" Mitrofan contemplated. "...Unsurprising. Given their history, he'd be all too happy to defeat an old enemy again and liberate Ozerograd from his control. And in line with the mercenary's creed, he would never kill unless in self-defence. …But how strange. Melchior only? No Kallias?"

"No, Master. It was only Melchior that appeared in Ozerograd. Fernblade Kallias's whereabouts are still unknown. …But about Melchior, Master," Nikita continued, looking down at the report once again. "The report here claimed that Melchior himself did not defeat Hinnerk. It was in fact a group of self-proclaimed mercenaries influenced by him that brought Hinnerk to his knees. A group of five, to be exact."

"Mercenaries?" The word drew the Aggron's attention. "…Was any info amassed on them?"

"...Some information, yes," confirmed the Marowak. "Three of them were apparently part of a group Melchior sent to infiltrate the Thorned Roses. A Krokorok, a Gligar, and a Sandslash. Looking into it…I think it's highly plausible that's the same Team Sandstream that applied to the Guild not long before...the events of five years ago occurred," he finished, choosing his words carefully.

"...Mm, yes," Mitrofan lightly growled, as if in remembrance of a bad memory. "...Team Sandstream, hm? Yes, that would match up with the report," he murmured thoughtfully. "…No doubt they were among those in the Guild who dared to side against me. …You said there were five that defeated Hinnerk. What about the other two?"

"...The other two were harder to determine." Nikita looked back at the report. "They were natives of the town, and don't seem to have any previous experience as mercenaries. They were a Riolu and a Treecko."

"A Riolu and a Treecko?"

"Yes, Master. While we didn't find out too much about them, their names were recollected. The Riolu's name is Arian, and the Treecko's name is Elvira."

"...Arian and Elvira…" Mitrofan processed the two names. Then he stopped, when he realised something.

A Treecko named Elvira? Could it be?





Thirteen years ago…


"And here she is! My little pride and joy herself!"

"A Treecko? …I see she takes after you, then."

"Not completely. There's some traces of her mother in her, too. …Say hello, Elvira."

"..."

"Don't be shy, Elvira. I know Mitrofan looks big and scary, but he's a good man. He won't hurt you."

"Elvira, is it? It's very nice to meet you."

"...Hi."

"...A quiet one, are we?"

"Don't worry about her. She's just shy around new people. She is only five, after all. Plus, this is her first time coming to Iria. She's probably just overwhelmed by all the new sights."

"I see. …I wonder. Will she take after you in more ways than one?"

"Oh, I hope so! There's definitely an adventurous spirit in this one, if you'd believe it. She and a few of her friends snuck into Verdant Woods to explore it a while back."

"Oh my. Exploring a Mystery Dungeon at so young an age…Was she alright?"

"Of course. I found them and got them out. But her mother nearly had a heart attack when she found out. A few years was taken off her life, she keeps saying."

"As any mother would say in her place. …On that note, where is Zenobia?"

"She's meeting Paulina. Paulina's looking for advice for the wedding, and wants someone who's been through the song and dance before. …And that's why Elvira's with me. But I think she'll get bored if we stand around talking for too long. You know what children are like."

"Heh, true enough. I won't keep you, then. Oh, but before you go…have a bit of money. Get Elvira something at Slurpuff Sweets."

"Sweets?"

"Yes indeed, Elvira. Consider it a little gift from me. ..You'll accept it, won't you, Kallias?"

"...I will. It's a special few days, after all. She's entitled to a few treats. …Elvira, say thank you to Mitrofan for the money."

"...Thank you, Mit…Mitro…Mister. Misterfan?"

"Mitrofan, dear."

"Okay. Thank you, Mit-ro-fan.…Your name's weird."

"Hah! A witty tongue as well. She definitely takes after you, Kallias."

"Indeed. And I'm proud of her for it. …Come on, Elvira. Let's go get you some sweets."

"Yay! Sweets! Come on, Daddy! Where's the sweet shop?"

"...Hm. What a lovely child. …And an adventurous sort? …Hmm…We may well see her at the Guild, once she becomes old enough."






"...Group of volunteers was established in the town to clean up after the Thorned Roses, so to speak. But the potential is there for a militia…one that could rise up in rebellion against you, Master. Should we try and…"

Nikita had continued speaking as Mitrofan became lost in thought. But he drifted off when he realised the Aggron wasn't fully attentive.

"Master?"

"Hm?" Mitrofan came back to his attention. "Pardon me. I was considering something else. What were you saying, Nikita? Something about a militia?"

"...There is a possibility that the volunteers organised in Ozerograd could rise up against you, Master Mitrofan," the Marowak repeated. "Should we try and organise to break Hinnerk and the Thorned Roses out of - "

"No," Mitrofan interjected, his answer immediate and firm. "I won't ally with him any longer. He's a menace to society and no longer has a place as an ally. If he escapes, which he most likely will, I've every intention to see his demise come to fruition. …What a nuisance. Now another pocket of dissension opens up. Curse him!" Enraged, he slammed his fist on the throne's armrest.

"There's no use wallowing in regret, Master," Nikita replied. "We can only look to the future. Yes, it was regrettable that Hinnerk allied with us. But it's not like we had much of an alternative, given the people he allied with."

"You have a point, Nikita," Mitrofan said. "Let's forget about mistakes. If Ozerograd becomes a threat, I'll see to the end of any rebellion they dare to muster against me. Selenia must be ruled by someone, and I daren't have it be anyone who wishes for an olden time when the Ruslans ruled this country. A tainted bunch - that's all they are!"

"Quite right, Master." Nikita was vocal in his support. "We'll quash any dissenters. And I'll stand by your side against any who dare cross your path. Until my dying breath, I'll be with you. Name a task, and I'll see it done!"

"I appreciate your dedication, Nikita." The hardened look on the Aggron's face faded slightly. "I do have a task in mind. Prepare the training grounds. I need to keep my wits honed and think of a plan to deal with this new development."

"Consider it done, Master." And with that, Nikita headed away from the throne room, leaving Mitrofan alone with his thoughts.

Elvira…Kallias's daughter. Becoming a mercenary, just like her father. …In another reality, I would've welcomed this news. But now she'll be my enemy, backed by Melchior of all people.

His thoughts drifted to the Swampert.

He won't forget what happened five years ago. He, with his upstanding morals, would never forget it. He would understand my situation. If only he was willing to hear it out…

But five years does a lot to fester hatred. And the fact that Kallias isn't with him is strange. Could he be dead? What happened on his end, I wonder? At least it means one less personal enemy to deal with. Tch. And also one less that didn't join my side all those years ago…

It's a damned shame,
the Aggron lamented. If only events could have happened differently…then these unfortunate circumstances would not have turned out as they did.

But enough lamenting on the past,
Mitrofan thought to himself, as he rose from the throne. Nikita's right. I must press on, regardless of my previous mistakes. Perhaps a bit of dummy thrashing will put these thoughts of mine at bay. And with that, the Aggron began his walk out of the room.





Notes

Update (2/1/23):
Some refinements, namely ironing out and adjusting some dialogue. Also needed to address the 'Thorned Roses and missing people', a plot point which I added in the last batch of updates.
 
Last edited:
Chapter 11

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 11

The Irian Guild

Stone. Stone. And more stone.

Hills and mountains of grey limestone as far as the eye could see, along grassy fields filled with erratics and more stone.

These were the sights that greeted Arian as he, Elvira and Team Sandstream exited the Mystery Dungeon and into an area rather different than the undulating slopes of Rolling Hills. This was more mountainous, with the sight of the dominating Empyrean Mountains looming over the area.

These were the Karstlands. It was an area of special conservation, designated as such by the tsars of Selenia. Although the region was sparsely populated, this gave it a designation of importance, and much-needed acknowledgment after years of perceived ignorance. As well as that, worries raised by the Karstlands' inhabitants over the endangerment of rare flora were acknowledgment by Tsar Efrem some one hundred and seventy-five years ago, and he, a Roserade and a nature lover, designated the area as a nature reserve and saw to it his policies of protection were upheld. Mostly, his successors respected the laws he put in place, and surprisingly, even Mitrofan proved to be respectful to the protections of the nature reserve.

"Really?" Arian reacted when he heard this. "I didn't think he would respect something like that, based on what you've told me…"

"Yeah, s'pose it's somethin' in 'is favour," Ishmael admitted. "Still…ya look at all the other shit that's gone on durin' 'is rule, and that's only one point against lots."

"I see…" murmured the Riolu. "So he's still an enemy, then."

"True. Maybe he's not the worst person we could possibly have," Lillian conceded. "But that doesn't mean he's a good leader. …A bit of a shame, too, considering…" She trailed off at the end.

"...Considering…what?" Arian prodded.

"...Oh, nothing. Don't mind me," the Sandslash dismissed. "So anyway. The Guild's not far now. Just a bit more walking and we should be there."

"...Whereabouts is it?" wondered Elvira, looking around at the stony fields. "The old guild stood out, from what I remember. But I don't see anything resembling it around."

"That's because we're underground, remember?" Axel reminded. "If the Guild was out in the open and blatant, then Mitrofan would definitely put a stop to it. We have to remain secretive, and that means keeping a low profile."

"...I see," came the gecko's reply. "...What has it come to, that one of the most esteemed organisations in Selenia and all of Ardalion has to be reduced to hiding like this? Like common outlaws…It's almost like we've become the very thing we swore to destroy."

"Don't be like that, El," Ishmael encouraged. "Don't let Mitt's labellin' of us mercs as outlaws get ya down. We are heroes, and the folk in Kamengrad know it. Yer safe in town, I swear to ya."

"Speaking of Kamengrad…we're here," Lillian announced. And Arian and Elvira now saw the town for themselves.

Kamengrad wasn't like Ozerograd in the sense of dominating defensive walls and planned structures based on the towns of the east. Its structure was more like that of a village, though it was big enough to play host to numerous vendors and their stalls. And unlike Ozerograd when he first arrived, Arian didn't get a sense of oppression and fear, but rather a quiet, reserved atmosphere befitting a rural settlement. There certainly was no equivalent of the Thorned Roses in this town, that was for sure.

And as with what he had seen of the Karstlands so far, stone was a prevalent theme in the town. All the houses were made of it, limestone pavements had been created, some of them naturally, and a slab of stone at the entrance of town had the words 'Welcome to Kamengrad' inscribed on it.

"Seems like a nice place," Arian commented as the group walked through the town.

"Glad ya like it," Ishmael replied. "'Cause the two of ya'll be seein' a lot of this place for the next while."

"...Because we're located here, most of our clients are from the town," explained Lillian. "Of course, we ask for secrecy, and many of them are happy to comply. At least that's their way of returning the favour for doing whatever it is they want us to do."

They continued walking down the main street. Both Arian and Elvira noticed the waves and greetings given to and from Team Sandstream, as well as the odd acknowledging nods to them. Guess what Ishmael and Lillian both said are true, the Riolu thought. And this'll be our new location. …Eh, it could be worse. Flashbacks to the Thorned Roses' intimidation in Ozerograd came to the fore. A lot worse than this, alright.

They came to the town square. Beyond the pedestal marking the centre of town, Arian could see a number of merchant's stalls, not too unlike the merchant's quarter in Ozerograd where Caitríona and Conall had set up shop. The Riolu's curiosity was piqued, but before they could advance any further, Team Sandstream made a sudden divergence down a side street.

"Hey! Why are we going down here?" he asked.

"You'll see," Axel told him. "We'll show you around the merchants later. You'll need to know them in time. But for now, the Guild's more important."

"...Then why are we going down a back street?"

"Wouldn't be a secret if it was out in the open, would it?" Ishmael reasoned. "It's gotta be on the down low and kept hush-hush. That's why it's back through 'ere, and not out in the open like a posho's mansion."

"...I guess," Arian accepted.

The side street went through a number of smaller houses, and Arian was reminded of the ramshackle alleyways of Ozerograd. But the alleys of Kamengrad were tidier and more quaint, and there weren't any signs of fearful occupants watching for any evictors. It was a sign that this place hadn't been drawn into the evil embrace of something like the Thorned Roses.

From the looks of it, you wouldn't think this was part of a dictatorship. It seems so tranquil and peaceful. I guess being in a rural area like the Karstlands has its advantages in a time like this. …Maybe that's why the Guild's located here, given that it's so out of the way and all.

The back alley trekking didn't continue for long, though. After a while, the group found themselves reaching a point of interest. The alley opened out into a small plaza of sorts, and in the middle of that area was…

"...A well?" Elvira observed.

"A well," Lillian confirmed. "But a well that no one uses, really. They make use of a different one on the other side of town."

"And that's 'cause this ain't really a well," Ishmael went on. "It's a fake look, is what it is. It looks like a well, yeah. But really…that's where our guild is."

"...Down there?" Arian questioned, confused. "The Guild's…down a well?"

"I said that, didn't I?" the Krokorok retorted. "...Well, go on. See for yerself if I'm pullin' yer leg. Ya too, Elvira."

"Alright then," accepted Elvira. She and the Riolu walked forward toward the structure. It had the trappings of a typical well, with a small roof and pulley system in place, along with rope and a bucket as would be typical on a usual well. She looked down the well, and was surprised by what he saw.

A ladder was propped up against one of the walls. In fact, not just propped; it was securely fastened to the wall with what looked to be strong steel bolts.

"...The Guild's down there," Elvira said. "It has all the looks of a secret hideout."

"Well, let's not waste any more time," Arian replied. "Let's go down and see what this Guild's all about."

"Agreed. …You go first, Arian. You can see in the dark better than I can."

"Okay."

The Riolu walked over to where the ladder began. Tentatively, he put his feet on the first rung, getting a feel for the balance. Luckily, his fears were unfounded; the ladder was firmly attached to the wall, meaning there would be no danger of it being loose and wobbly, as he feared.

Even so…he made the mistake of looking down, and while he could at least see that it wasn't too far to the bottom, he couldn't help but quiver slightly. Since when was I acrophobic? he thought. I really wish I wasn't right now…

"It's okay, Arian," Lillian, who had come over with her teammates, urged. "It's not a long ladder. You'll reach the ground in no time."

"...Thanks," the Riolu said, though it didn't do much to calm his sudden nervousness. He slowly made his way down the ladder, taking breaths to calm himself as he descended. Thankfully, as Lillian said, it didn't take long for him to reach the bottom, at which point he took a long breath of relief.

"Thank God that's over," he said, relieved. Looking up, he could see Elvira coming down, followed by Team Sandstream, sans Axel, who glided down with his wings.

"You okay, Arian?" Elvira asked, noticing him taking breaths to calm himself.

"...Well, I am now," Arian confirmed. "Still…I shouldn't be. I can't be scared of an entrance like that, especially if it's the entrance to our new workplace that we'll be leaving and entering all the time," he added, slightly ashamed.

"Hey, don't be like that," soothed Axel. "It's normal to have a fear of heights. A lot of people have them, especially Fighting-types."

"'Course ya'd say that, wing boy," Ishmael quipped. "Must be nice, bein' able to fly like that."

"For the love of…I can't fly, Ishmael, and you know that!" the Gligar returned, in a tone of annoyance and a familiarity that suggested he'd heard this before, and was fed up of hearing it. "I can only glide. I mean, I wish I could fly, but…I can't. We've been through this before, Ishmael. When will you learn?"

"...It's a common topic that pushes Axel's buttons," Lillian elaborated to Arian and Elvira. "Not being able to fly is something he's a bit sore about. …Come on, boys, wrap it up," she commanded to her two comrades. "You can continue that chat another time."

"I know, I know," Ishmael replied. "Ya know me. Couldn't resist a dig at Ax there. But I getcha. Show 'em 'round first, then I can get back to teasin' my bestie."

"I won't be your 'bestie' if you keep that up much longer," Axel growled.

"I said stop, you two," Lillian sternly ordered. "Come on. Let's not keep Arian and Elvira waiting. …So sorry about them," she apologised to Arian and Elvira.

"It's fine," assured Arian. "...But as fine as that is, can we move on?"

"Of course," the Sandslash answered, and began walking forward. Axel and Ishmael, seeing her go, followed suit, and so did Team Elpis.

Both of the latter looked around them at the passage as they walked. As they got deeper in, they couldn't help but notice the lit lanterns hung on the walls, to give the passage some light. This passage seemed to be a manufactured one, rather than a naturally formed cave. It reminded Arian of the labyrinthine warrens of a Mystery Dungeon, and for a second, he thought they were going to head into one.

But this never culminated. Soon, the passage opened out, and Arian and Elvira were rather surprised by what they saw.

The area they had come to was a cavern. Several stalactites hung from the ceiling, and a number of stalagmites peppered the ground, though only really near the walls. But these were not the source of surprise for Team Elpis. Rather, it was that the cavern was settled and inhabited, and there were a few Pokémon going about with their duties in the main area.

One of these Pokémon, a four-legged canine with light brown fur and a white-furred collar and tail, noticed the new arrivals and instantly made a beeline for them.

"Ishy!" cried out the young feminine voice of the Rockruff. "You're back!" She then leapt for Ishmael, and nearly knocked him onto his back.

However, evidently the Krokorok had experienced this before, and managed to catch her in his hands.

"Good to see ya too, sis," he said to her, lowering her down to the ground. "Yer still as lively as ever, ya lil' scamp."

"Yeah, you know me, bro! I wouldn't be me if I wasn't!"

"...Sis?" Arian looked between Ishmael and the young dog. "Ishmael, you never told us you had a sister."

"Well, I do," the Krokorok clarified. "Arian, Elvira, meet Rhiannon, my lil' sis and helper 'ere at the Guild. Ya'll get used to her, don't worry."

"...What's that supposed to mean?" Rhiannon queried indignantly. "Are you saying I'm annoying? How rude!"

"...Yeah, ya've been spendin' too much time with Serafina," Ishmael retorted, noting the almost upper-class attitude in her indignance. "'Sides, I ain't wrong. Just ask Terry if ya don't believe me."

"Terran's a grumpy spoilsport! Why would you ask him?" protested Rhiannon. "He doesn't know anything about fun!"

"...Eh, can't argue with ya there. At least's that something we can both agree on."

"...Anyway…Nice to meet you, Rhiannon," greeted Elvira, choosing that moment to introduce herself to the young canine. "I'm Elvira, and this is Arian. We're looking to sign up to the Irian Guild and become mercenaries here."

"Oh, cool!" Rhiannon praised. "The more the merrier! I love seeing new faces around here all the time. I wish I could become a merc too…But I'm not old enough to be one," she added disappointedly.

"...Ah. Well, that's a bummer. But if you keep it up, you'll be a good merc some day," Arian encouraged, hoping to raise the young girl's spirits.

"...I know. I just wish that day would come sooner…" Rhiannon lightly moped. "I'm not a kid anymore. I can handle scrapes and bruises just fine!"

"Registration age is thirteen for apprentices. Yer still twelve. And even then, it's fifteen at youngest to be a full-on merc with yer own team," Ishmael reminded. "Yer close, sis. Just be patient, will ya? I've already talked to the Chief 'bout this, and he ain't got a problem with ya joinin' up. It ain't nothin' personal, sis, really."

"..." Rhiannon didn't say anything to this.

"...So…where's Aldebrand?" quizzed Axel. "Is he in the Chief's office?"

"He is," the pup answered. "Let's tell him you're back, Ishy. Oh, and that we have new people looking to join," she added, acknowledging Team Elpis, before trotting off deeper into the cavern.

"Let's follow her," Lillian suggested, and the group of five followed the Rockruff.

As they did so, Arian and Elvira got a greater look around the cavern that was the Irian Guild's new location. They could see a few openings to what seemed to be rooms designated for a variety of purposes. Decent lighting was provided via lanterns and luminous orbs, and altogether, it helped to give the place a sense of homeliness.

"It's almost like an underground village," Arian remarked.

"I agree," Elvira replied. "I was a bit worried when I heard the Guild had taken up residence in a cave, but it seems I had nothing to worry about."

"Glad ya like it. …It ain't exactly a swanky place, this," Ishmael replied. "But it's nice enough."

"The old Guild wasn't exactly 'swanky' either," Axel commented. "Mercs like us aren't exactly the type of people living in luxury. Living like that won't prepare you for the rough elements that mercs have to face on their missions."

"As a certain top-drawer moggie had to learn on her first few missions…" mused Ishmael, evidently in knowledge of a fact Arian and Elvira were unaware of.

"Don't mock Serafina for that, Ishmael," Lillian admonished. "You know she hates being called posh. And it won't earn you brownie points with her, making comments like that."

"Yeah, yeah, Mum, I hear ya," the Krokorok retorted. "...Oh, by the way, is she in, sis?" he asked Rhiannon.

"No, she and Natalie went out for a mission," the Rockruff informed. "But they'll be back this evening, I think."

"That's good to hear. Arian and Elvira will get to meet them tonight," Lillian said, before turning to the aforementioned pair to clarify what they were talking about. "...Serafina and Natalie are two other mercenaries here. You'll get to know them when they come back."

"We look forward to meeting them," Elvira replied, optimistic at the prospect of more friends and allies.

Soon, they came to a tall wooden door with a sign on it reading 'Guildmaster's Office'. Ishmael knocked on the door.

"Oi, Aldie, it's us! We're back!" he called. "And we got some new faces lookin' to sign up!"

Shuffling could be heard from inside the room. Then, the door opened.

"...Ah, Team Sandstream. Good to see you," greeted a Turtonator. His voice implied a man of middle age. "Congratulations on your success in Ozerograd. That's wonderful, that the people there no longer have to be tormented by the likes of Hinnerk and the Thorned Roses."

"It was our pleasure, Aldebrand," Lillian replied. "But credit where credit's due, we could never have done such a thing if we weren't helped by Team Elpis."

"Team Elpis?" Aldebrand queried, before his gaze fell on Arian and Elvira. "...Yes…I received the Guildmaster's letter about you two. He claims you were instrumental in bringing Hinnerk to his knees. And…" He looked over to Elvira. "...I see what he said was true. That is you, isn't it, Elvira? Kallias's daughter?"

"Yes. That's me," the Treecko confirmed.

"...Well. Let's not leave you out in the hall, then. Come into the office," the Turtonator permitted, and the fivesome did so, stepping into a fairly large, carved-out room. While the floor and walls were quite primitive, it definitely had the look of an office. An ash desk stood in the middle of the room, on which a stack of papers stood. A chair stood behind it, along with two chairs in front. Against the walls of the room, a few more chairs of varying sizes could be seen, for Pokémon of different sizes. Two presses were present as well, but all in all, for an office, it was humble - perhaps an allusion to the personality of its owner.

"So…the day finally arrives," Aldebrand observed, once all six were sitting down. "Kallias's daughter finally comes to join us. …I do apologise, though, that it has to be while the Guild is like this."

"Don't worry," Elvira assured. "You did what you had to. Don't kick yourself over what happened to the Guild."

"But it could be better than this. It doesn't even live up to its name of the Irian Guild," the Turtonator bemoaned. "I mean…We're hardly in Iria, are we? It's more the Kamengrad Guild now."

"Ain't got the same ring to it," objected Ishmael. "We're still that guild at heart. A lot of the folks with us were in the old one, like you, Aldie. Hell, we were there too! That's why the Chief's still callin' it the Irian Guild. We're not in Iria…but we're still around in spirit."

"...Of course, Ishmael," Aldebrand acknowledged. "It's just that Kallias always used to say that he couldn't wait for the day when his daughter signed up to the Guild. But then the chaos in Iria happened, and the Guild fell apart after that. Then, to top it off, Kallias himself vanished into thin air…Can you blame me for feeling downcast about this?"

"I getcha, Aldie," the Krokorok replied. "But, ya know…ain't no use dwellin' on the past. If we want any wins, we gotta look to the future. And…I reckon these two'll really help us from here."

"They will," Axel affirmed. "Sign them up, Aldebrand. We couldn't have beaten the Thorned Roses without them."

"They're great to work with," Lillian seconded. "Their heart's in the right place, and they work well together, both as a team and with other people. …Granted, they could use some fleshing out of their skill. But that's par for the course with rookies like them. If we help them become stronger, then they could become real assets to our cause."

"...I'm aware. The Guildmaster was equally as full of praise for them as you all are," Aldebrand informed. "You don't need to convince me to make them join us. His approval alone is all we need to sign someone on."

The Turtonator opened one of the desk drawers and brandished a form. He then laid it out in front of Arian and Elvira, and provided them with a pen.

"There is, of course, the creed of the mercenary, and the several rules they must live by if they are to go down this path," Aldebrand listed. "Once you swear to undertake all of those vows, you may give your team name and sign your names down at the bottom."

"...Alright. So…what do we have to swear?" Arian said, as he and Elvira looked over the document Aldebrand had given them.

The Mercenary's Creed

1. To help those in need, whoever they are, wherever they are, with whatever they request: that is the modus operandi of the mercenary.

2. The mercenary's priority, without fail, should always be the mission they have been assigned, and the client they wish to aid. Monetary gain, while a perfectly acceptable reason for becoming a mercenary, should never take precedence over the will to help those in need.

3. The mercenary must never take the life of another. The will to carry out justice will be marred should the mercenary stoop to the levels of the outlaws they pursue.

4. Capability of duty must be something the mercenary keeps in mind. They must know their limits and refrain from challenging missions greater than their rank allows. To elevate a mercenary's rank, through acceptance of missions and strengthening oneself, is ultimately a matter for their Guildmaster to decide.

5. Those who wish to join forces with another and create a mercenary team must always remember the essence of teamwork, and cooperate with their partner in their missions. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link; partners should work to galvanise their collaboration skills, make up for the weaknesses of the other and overcome any differences between them that could lead to conflict.


"...Galvanise their collaboration skills, eh?" Arian noted, upon reading the fifth entry. "Sound logic. Partners that can't cooperate with each other and have nothing in common shouldn't really be on a team together."

"Indeed," agreed Aldebrand. "It's a pity when teams break up due to differences too great to bridge. Hopefully, that doesn't happen to you two."

"Here's hoping it doesn't," wished Elvira. "Hmm…" she murmured, as she looked further down the page.

We vow to undertake the creed of the mercenary and strive to aid the citizens of Ardalion, be they noble or pauper, with their requests. Whatever that request may be, there is no mission we would not accept in the name of helping those in need.

Below this statement lay space to place signatures and write their team name.

"So all we have to do is sign our names at the bottom here?" the Treecko asked. "And then…we're a part of the Guild?"

"Yes," Aldebrand confirmed. "...In truth, were the circumstances more normal, you would have to undergo a beginner's exam. But due to how things have turned out, the process has been more streamlined. And according to the Guildmaster, your victory over Hinnerk and your completion of prior tasks more than prove your capability of teamwork and dedication towards helping those in need. He therefore feels there is no need to trial you to assess your proficiency as a mercenary."

"Great. No need for any more waiting around," Arian said eagerly. "Come on, Elvira. Let's sign our names and officially become a part of the Irian Guild!"

"...Okay." Conviction entered Elvira's voice as she picked up the pen and wrote 'Elvira' at the bottom. Then she handed the pen to Arian.

"Sign your name there," she said, indicating to the remaining blank on the form.

"Alright," the Riolu said. But when he tried to pick the pen up and grip it, he was suddenly reminded of a problem he'd experienced back at Elvira's house when they were coming up with team names.

"...Oh. Right…"

"...Is something wrong?" Aldebrand asked, somewhat confused. "Can you hold the pen?"

"...Kind of. I just need a minute," Arian replied. "...Damn paws…Can't hold a pen properly with them."

"...What?" a befuddled Axel commented. "No offence, Arian, but it's almost like you've never held a pen before. …Can you even write?"

"Well, you see...Arian's situation is…peculiar," Elvira explained, while looking to her partner with a hesitant look. The Riolu, still working to find an adequate position to rest the pen on his right paw, caught her look and understood what she was asking.

Should I reveal it?

He nodded. Tell them.

"How so?" pondered Aldebrand.

"There's…no simple way of saying this. And I know what I'm about to say may sound unbelievable…" Elvira replied, trying to predict the eventual reaction of those in the room. "But Arian…he claims that he was once a human."

As predicted, everyone's expressions morphed into ones of confusion at the Treecko's statement.

"A human?" Rhiannon said, cocking her head. "...But…I thought humans only existed in fairytales. Don't they, Ishy?"

"Yeah. …That's what I thought, anyway," her brother replied. "A human? Ya sure 'bout that, Arry?"

"...Yes," the Riolu replied.

"But I thought you had amnesia?" Axel queried. "How do you remember being a human then?"

"And why didn't you tell us this before?" Lillian added.

"I don't know how I know that I was a human once," Arian responded to Axel's question, admittedly annoyed that he couldn't produce any definitive evidence to back his claim up. "But I definitely was. I swear I'm not lying to you."

"...A human once…" murmured Aldebrand, looking down at the Riolu. "Hmmm…I'm not saying you're not lying, Arian. But…with respect, it doesn't sound like the most believable story."

"...I had a feeling you would say that," Arian replied, slight disappointment evident in his voice. "That's why I never said anything about it back in town. I was afraid people would think I was mad or something if I said I was human. I mean…it's like Aldebrand said. It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Something like that could be something that could turn away allies and give enemies useful ammo to attack me with. I'd…rather not have that, especially if I'm going to be a mercenary who helps people. I don't know if many clients would be comfortable entrusting their requests with someone who has a screw loose."

"W-We didn't mean it like that, Arian," Lillian said. "We don't think you're mad. It's just like Aldebrand said; it's not the easiest thing to believe without some sort of proof." Notably though, a tinge of guilt laced her tone after hearing Arian's reasoning. "So that's why you never said anything…"

"Well…the fact that Arian can't grip a pen properly is proof enough, isn't it?" Elvira pointed out. "Anyone in his position would easily be able to write, even a child. And yet Arian's clearly struggling…almost as if he's not used to holding a pen in this way. He'd be far more used to holding a pen in his hand like he once did as a human. Why would he be struggling with something so simple?"

"...Good point," Axel agreed. "And I mean…what does it change, really? As long as you're still helpful to us, then I don't think it really matters whether you're human or not."

"Yeah," said Ishmael in agreement. "It don't matter at all. Yer still a good friend and ally. Might be a bit weird, sayin' yer human, but…nothin' wrong with it. And I bet the Chief'll be the same."

"Does the Guildmaster know of this?" inquired Aldebrand.

"No," Arian denied. "Like I said, I didn't want to say I was human in front of Melchior, for the same reasons as before. I didn't want him to think I was a bit…daft."

"The Guildmaster's not like that," the Turtonator replied, shaking his head. "He wouldn't judge you so easily. At worst, he'll be like we are today. But I think he'll have no problem believing your story, Arian."

"...That's good to hear," the Riolu said, a bit relieved. "But still…I'd rather not parade around the fact that I'm human. I don't want to make an unnecessary target of myself. Maybe…don't keep it a complete secret, but don't go telling it to everyone you meet. I don't want 'being a human' to be the only thing I'm known for. …If you get my drift."

"I getcha, Arry," Ishmael assured. "Don't worry, we ain't gonna blab about it. Yer secret's safe with us."

"...Thanks, Ishmael."

"Ah…but if we could get back to this," Aldebrand reminded, pointing to the form. "You still haven't signed your name on the form, Arian."

"I know," Arian replied. "Just…give me a minute." He went to pick up the pen, and tried his best to hold it in his right paw. It proved more difficult than expected, to the point that he had to use his other paw to balance it enough for him to write his name on the line.

"...There," he said, after scrawling 'Arian' on the form. He grimaced when he saw his signature next to Elvira. "...Ugh. That's…not great."

"You did well," Elvira encouraged. "Messy or not, a signature's a signature. I'll handle the rest." Arian handed her the pen and she took it, writing the words, 'the founders of Team Elpis.' "And with that…we're initiated, are we?"

"Indeed, you are," Aldebrand confirmed. "But we mustn't forget the most important thing." He dug into the desk drawer and brought out two small items which he slid across the desk to the duo.

"...Badges?" noted Arian.

"Not just any badges," Elvira told him. "Mercenary's badges. These are special badges which help us on our missions. They're a great help in extracting people from Mystery Dungeons on rescue missions. …You'll see them in action when we do missions."

"...I see Kallias taught you well. You look to know their purpose already," Aldebrand replied. "I would say wear them with honour, but…for the sake of keeping us a secret, it would be best not to do that. But keep them on your person. As Elvira said, they're very useful for those who delve into Mystery Dungeons. You'll be doing that a lot as mercenaries going forward.

"But I digress. Welcome to the Irian Guild, Team Elpis," the Turtonator congratulated. "I am Aldebrand, the main cook and temporary guardian of the Irian Guild while Guildmaster Melchior is away."

"The cook? …Well, I look forward to having meals cooked by you, then," Arian returned. "I hope they're good."

"They are," Lillian replied. "Aldebrand's one of the best cooks out there. You won't be disappointed."

"Thank you very much, Lillian," the Turtonator said in response. "...Now. Rhiannon, while you're here, I'd like you to run an errand. Get the items on this list from the market for dinner tonight." He handed a slip of paper to the Rockruff, who caught it in her jaws and nodded to him, before trotting out of the room.

"And as for you four…would you kindly show Team Elpis around the Guild?"

"Sure thing, Aldie," Ishmael accepted. "Come on, then. Let's show the two of ya this lovely place and the little posse we got workin' 'ere."





"Now…I gotta be honest with ya," Ishmael said, as they walked out of the office. "The guild ain't exactly big. So don't be expectin' a castle or tons of secret tunnels or anything like that."

"...That's fine by me," Elvira approved. "The old guild wasn't that big either, and Dad preferred it that way." She chuckled as she remembered an anecdote from the past. "He once complained that Iria Castle had too many hallways, and knights getting lost in them was why they were more inefficient compared to mercenaries."

"Ha! Too right!" the Krokorok concurred. "Those stuck-up knights don't care enough for the small man. The mercs pick up that work and get the credit, and they're annoyed we get the praise? …Tch," he then spat. "No wonder they were in a tizzy when the ol' tsar bit the dust."

"...And we weren't?" Lillian pointed out. "There wasn't a single one of us who wasn't shocked to hear the tsar had been assassinated. That's not the kind of thing that happens every day, and when it does, it's meant to be a bolt from the blue. Honestly, if we weren't caught off guard, that might be a bit worrying."

"...Guess yer right. Still…" Ishmael still had a bitter look in his eyes. "If only they'd done their job properly, then Selenia wouldn't be in this mess."

"Well, let's not stew about what did and didn't happen in the past," the Sandslash said, in an attempt to divert the conversation's course. "Stick to the present, Ish. We need to show Team Elpis around the Guild."

"...Right," Ishmael replied. "...So…where to first?"

They had arrived back at the central area of the Guild. Looking around, Arian and Elvira saw multiple ways to go. Notably, though, they noticed two boards hanging up on the wall to the right, between two exits. In front of it was a desk, and behind it sat a Galvantula, who was gazing at a piece of parchment with one of its mandibles.

"Who's that over there?" Arian asked.

"That's Sifis. He manages the notice boards, and the missions we're given," Axel answered. "…Hey, Sif!" he called out to the Galvantula. "Meet the newbies who'll be joining us!"

"Hm?" Sifis looked up from the parchment. "Oh…I saw you two earlier. So you're part of our Guild now, eh? Congratulations! What are your names?"

"Arian."

"Elvira."

"Well then, Arian and Elvira," the Galvantula said. "You'll be seeing me and these two boards a lot during your time as mercs here. This board on the left here is the Job Bulletin Board, where people request us to help them with various tasks or to locate missing people. That's probably where you'll be starting. Newbies always start off with the simple, low-value requests. Then on the right, we have the Outlaw Notice Board, where the dregs of society are listed for us to hunt down and capture. Some are petty, like thieves or vandals, while others are…a bit more dangerous than that." He cast a look toward a poster of an Araquanid, with a sizeable bounty of 3,000P. "Yeah…No one's willing to touch that one. It's been up there for a while. Newbies like you wouldn't have the slightest chance against someone like him."

"The more pricey the bounty, the more dangerous they usually are as an outlaw," Lillian explained. "Either that, or the crime they've committed is treason or something as grave as that. But those would be specially requested by the nobility or the tsar, and they'd have a special kind of classification. And because of their high stakes, it was only really the experienced teams that would have a stab at them …Obviously, given our current underground status…those aren't really a thing any more."

"...I see," Arian replied. "...Hm. That's rather convenient," he then noticed. "That's the exit right there." He pointed to the nearest exit. "This is right next to the way out, so we can just pick a mission and go without much waiting around."

"Glad you noticed," Sifis said. "That was the way it was in the old Guild, and Guildmaster Melchior kept it on here. Good design and ingenuity - that's what makes us efficient here in the Irian Guild. And we intend to follow the old one's legacy every step of the way."

"Exactly as we should. ...But anyway. Let's move on," Ishmael said. "That way." He indicated to the group's right, and the fivesome walked in that direction.

"This is the mess hall, where we eat our food," Lillian said, as they walked into what looked like a dining room, with a long table and many chairs. As it had been in the office, a number of differently sized chairs lay off to the side, for Pokémon of varying sizes.

"And back there's the kitchen," Axel added. "Normally, Aldebrand would be there, or out getting food for meals. But I guess he's playing double duty now."

"...By the way, when's dinner gonna be?" Arian asked.

"Not for another bit," Ishmael told him. "It's still daytime. A bit after midday, I think."

"...So not for another while, then. …Okay then. Where to next?"

"Well, we've seen the mess hall. Now onto other places." Ishmael turned and left, followed by his fellow mercenaries. They passed by Sifis in the main area again, and went to the passage directly across from them.

Right next to that exit was a room with a wooden door. On it was a sign that read 'Infirmary'. Ishmael knocked on the door, and after a few seconds, the door was opened by a bipedal pink-and-cream furred Pokémon with bright blue eyes.

"Team Sandstream?" the Audino said. "What's wrong? Is someone injured?"

"No, there isn't," Axel responded. "We're showing new recruits around the base, that's all."

"Arian, Elvira, meet our nurse, Raya," Lillian introduced. "If you ever need medical assistance, she's the one to head to."

"...Right. We'll keep that in mind," Elvira said. "Nice to meet you, Raya."

"And you too," the Audino returned. "Now then…are you well, the two of you?"

"Hm? …Um, yes," the Treecko replied. "We're both fine, Arian and I."

"Are you certain?" Raya double-checked. "No aches or pains anywhere? No sniffles? No shivery feelings?"

"...No, none of those," Arian answered, feeling a slight reluctant irritance come over him. I know she's just checking on us, but…we don't look in any way sick, do we? "We're fine, really. Genuinely, we're both alright."

"...If you insist," the Audino conceded, though the worry had not faded from her eyes. "But the second you feel in any way off, come to me. Don't let your ailments worsen. And that goes for you three as well."

"Yes, yes, we know. We'll call ya if we're a bit iffy," Ishmael replied. "Good seein' ya. But we gotta keep showin' these two around, so if ya don't mind…" He put his claws on the door, and moved to close it.

"I understand. I won't keep you, then." Raya took the door and closed it behind her as she headed back into the infirmary.

"...Well…at least we got outta that one," the crocodile said, once they had moved away from the infirmary. "I swear, it can take forever to convince her yer alright…"

"You know she's just looking out for us," Lillian said. "Better her than someone who doesn't care for our wellbeing."

"And she seemed pretty nice," Arian added.

"True," seconded Elvira, before adding, "If a bit overbearing…"

"Tell me about it," Axel said in agreement. "The living definition of a hypochondriac…That's our Raya. But Lillian's right. Better we have someone who cares for our health obsessively than no one at all."

"Anyway…shall we move on?" the Sandslash herself said. "Onward to the dojo."

They continued travelling down the path. As they travelled down it, Arian's ears suddenly pricked, hearing a curious sound.

Is that…flowing water? …Down here?

They soon came to another notable area of the cavern. Several training dummies were laid out along the floor, and training mats lay in front of each dummy. The sound's origin was also revealed, and it was as Arian suspected; a stream was visible from the training area, and by the looks of it, ran through the cavern.

"This is the dojo," Axel said. "If you ever want to train to get stronger or let off some steam, this is the place to go."

"Or meditate," Ishmael added. "'Cause that's all our dojo master ever does."

"...Where is he, for that matter?" Lillian asked. "Where's Galen?"

"Probably where he usually is, below the waterfall," the Krokorok replied. "We'll go get 'im. Luckily, there's a path along the stream."

"Waterfall?" Elvira said curiously.

"Yeah, there's an underground waterfall in 'ere," Ishmael confirmed. "It's to do with the perma-wotsit of the Karstlands that means rivers go underground. Ya'll see it when we get there. It's just at the back of there."

They walked across the dojo and up a path. After a short walk, they came to the aforementioned waterfall. However…Arian was admittedly underwhelmed by what he saw. It wasn't a big torrent of grandeur like he imagined, but a more modest, steadier flow through the small subterranean stream.

Notably, though, he could see a humanoid figure, a Medicham specifically, meditating beneath the waterfall. His eyes were closed, shut off to the world outside him, perfectly at peace, beautifully connected with his inner thoughts, with a feeling that no rude interruptions could possibly break this still moment of -

"Oi, Galen!"

"Gah!" The Fighting-type's peaceful morphed to one of startlement, then fury. "I have made it clear to you one too many times; do not interrupt my meditation unless it's an emergency! And is it?!"

"...Nah," the Krokorok denied. "I just wanted to tell ya that we got a new team on board. They're Arian and Elvira of Team Elpis."

"...I can see that," Galen returned crossly, before his gaze turned to the two new faces. "It's good to meet you two. But I'm afraid we'll have to continue the introductions another time, because of a certain tactless reptile who dares to interrupt my meditation." He glared at Ishmael. "Begone, you."

"...Fine, fine," the crocodile accepted. "Catch ya later, grumpy-pants." And with that, he turned and left.

"That was…pretty rude," commented Arian. "Did he need to be so fierce?"

"Well, would you be pleased with someone if they woke you from your sleep for seemingly no reason?" Elvira reasoned. "I don't blame him for being angry with you, Ishmael. We could've waited to be introduced to him when he wouldn't be meditating."

"...Yeah, but then he'd be annoyed 'cause he didn't hear about the two of ya joinin'," Ishmael countered. "That's the kind of bloke he is. There's no winnin' with Galen, sometimes. That man and his meditation…"

"Still, that doesn't mean you should give him a hard time," chastised Lillian. "We all have things that irk us, and that just happens to be one of Galen's."

"...Whatever. Let's just move on."

By the path to the guildmaster's office lay a passage that descended downwards. Ishmael headed down that path, followed by his comrades. They soon came to an area with multiple wooden doors.

"And down 'ere, we got our dorms," the Krokorok elaborated. "…That's our room, there," he pointed out. "That's Team Anima's, that's Team Mindfist's, that's the Chief's, that's Aldie's, that's Sifis's, and that's Galen's. And then we've got a few spare rooms in this lot. We ain't got a problem fittin' the two of ya in."

"That's good news," Elvira replied. "We'd hate to impose by having to stay in someone else's room."

"It wouldn't matter too much," Axel dismissed. "I know Serafina wouldn't mind having to bunk with two newcomers."

"Yeah, she wouldn't mind at all," the Krokorok agreed. "But at least she'd be a better roommate than a certain little green tyke…"

"Oh, for the love of…Not this again, Ishmael," groaned Lillian. "You and Terran have been at one another's throats for ages. When will you two give it a rest?"

"When he stops bein' a pain in the arse," Ishmael said. "I'll be nice to 'im when he's nice to me. But he's a complete asshole to everyone! Watch out for 'im, Arry and El. Betcha a thousand Poké he'll treat ya like crap."

"More like you'll treat them like crap," another voice scathingly responded. "Especially with the way you're lying to them right now."

All turned in the direction of the new voice, and Arian and Elvira came across an unfamiliar face. It was a small green Pokémon with triangular black markings across its skin, red scales on its belly, and at the minute, it had a steely glare locked on Ishmael.

"A Larvitar?" Elvira said. "Wait a minute...I know you..."

"...Well, speak of the little devil himself," the Krokorok spat, glaring back at the new arrival.

"Says the shoddy croc," the Larvitar countered. "What are you up to, anyway? Pulling fast ones on the newbies, are you?"

"Like ya'd do any better," Ishmael snapped. "What about ya? Cleanin' tables 'til they're like freakin' mirrors again, are ya?"

"No, because unlike you, I'm actually being productive," snapped the Larvitar. "I've been preparing the rooms for these two, and just finished there. …Argh! I was in a good mood too! But you being here has completely spoiled it!"

"A good mood? Didn't think ya knew what that was," mocked the crocodile. "'Sides, I'm not an asshat to everyone, unlike a certain green gremlin standin' right in front of me."

"Humph!" the Larvitar expressed annoyedly. "Prat."

"Git."

"Scalebag!"

"Shortarse!"

"Ishmael! Terran! Enough, you two! Give it a rest!" Lillian shouted, getting between the two of them before it could break out into fisticuffs. "You can continue this another time, but not in front of our new arrivals! Is that the image we want to give to them?"

"He started it," the Larvitar, now known as Terran, responded, pointing at Ishmael accusingly.

"I don't care," the Sandslash replied sternly. "This isn't appropriate behaviour, especially while we're showing a new team around. It gives us a bad name. …Ishmael, go blow off some steam. We need one of you to separate."

"...Fine," the Krokorok growled. "I'll go." And with that, he left.

"...Geez. That got pretty heated," Arian commented. "I think it's best not to ask what's exactly going on between you two."

"...Maybe another time," Elvira said, betraying her curiosity to know. "But anyway…it's nice to see you again, Terran."

"...Me too, I guess," the Larvitar shrugged. However, Arian did notice his hardened expression soften a bit. Only slightly, but…

"Again?" Arian turned to his partner, noting what was said. "You two know each other?"

"Not really. We only met once," Terran replied. "She's Kallias' kid. We met for dinner once. …That's all. Not a deep connection." He then turned to the Riolu. "And you're Arian, obviously. And both of you are Team Elpis. Your room's over there, third door on the right. Nothing special about it; two beds, a desk and a bookshelf. Par for the course for mercs. …Now then. I've got more duties to do, so if you could move aside..." The group did so, and the Larvitar made his way up.

"...He does not mince words," Arian said, breaking a short silence that had developed. "I definitely didn't expect such a…blunt delivery."

"You can say that again," muttered Axel. "He doesn't like conversations, and doesn't like it when people drag out conversations either. And there's me thinking we in Team Sandstream were blunt. Honestly, Terran makes us three look like the most verbose nobles in the world."

"...You're right, Axel. He means well, but…he can be quite rude and abrasive," Lillian admitted. "...You two will just have to get used to him, I'm afraid."

"...I guess that's what Dad warned me about," Elvira then murmured. Arian noticed the expression of what seemed to be a bit of hurt.

"What your dad warned you about?" Arian inquired. "Elvira, what do you mean?"

"...It's a bit of a long story," the Treecko replied. "I'd like to see our room first. We can talk about that another time."

"...Right, if you say so."

The two walked into the room Terran had indicated earlier. Upon opening the door, they were greeted with a fairly simple room. Two bedrolls lay next to one another, and a desk lay next to the one on the right. Paper and pencils were provided for them, and two chairs lay next to the desk. On the opposite side of the room lay a small bookshelf with a few books on it.

"...Hm. Not bad," Arian remarked, as he looked around where he would be staying. "I could get used to this."

"It's a bit like ours," Axel observed. "It's pretty much the same, only ours is a bit bigger because there's three of us."

"It's not what you'd call luxurious," Lillian cautioned. "This is the standard for us mercenaries."

"...But that's fine," Elvira replied. "I didn't want an extravagant room. Part of the fear I had of joining was that I would be given special treatment and given honours of luxury I don't deserve, just because I'm related to Fernblade Kallias. I want the same as everyone else. No special treatment. …Thankfully my prayers were answered."

"So…is that everywhere in the Guild?" Arian asked.

"It is, actually. We've shown you pretty much all the important areas you need to know," Lillian answered. "But we're not done yet. There's one more thing we have to show off to you before we leave you to do your own thing."

"And that is…?" Elvira queried.

"We're going above ground for this one," Axel said. " Now…we go and tour the merchants."





"They're a lifeline to us," Lillian was saying, as she, Axel and Team Elpis emerged from the well. "Whether here or in Iria, the Guild simply would not function without the vital aid of the merchants that are allied to us."

"Might be overstatin' that a bit," Ishmael said, who had rejoined the group after his prior anger over the encounter with Terran had subsided after beating into a few dummies in Galen's dojo. "But yeah, they're a real help to us. We'd probably still work, but…it'd be a lot 'arder without 'em."

"They used to have their own shops and a street to themselves when we were back in Iria," Lillian went on. "Here, though, they don't have that luxury, given Kamengrad's smaller size. But they're travelling merchants, most of them. They're used to having to adjust for certain towns."

"Can't say I blame some of them for grumbling," Axel replied. "But just as we have to make do, so do they."

They walked while they talked, and had reached the town's square. Ahead of them was the street of merchants' stalls that Arian had seen earlier. The group made their way towards it.

"So…first up," Ishmael began, as he gestured to a tent shaped like a green chameleon that was run by two chameleons, one green and one purple, who looked just like their tent. "We've got ourselves the Kecleon Shop. They sell ya yer basic adventurin' stuff, like seeds, orbs, berries and stuff like that."

"The green Kecleon, Jacob, handles the basic necessities," Lillian elaborated. "But the purple Kecleon, Esau, handles the selling of TMs and other rare items. They're rather well known. They have a network of fellow Kecleon merchants that run across Ardalion. You'll find a Kecleon Shop in most places, and sometimes you might even find Kecleon merchants in Mystery Dungeons. They have quite a reputation across Ardalion."

"Top tip, though," Axel said, lowering his voice as a serious look came into his eyes. "Do not, whatever you do, steal from them. Trust me; don't even think about it."

"I…wasn't going to," Arian replied, somewhat confused as to the bat's sudden seriousness. "...Is there more to this? Of course, stealing's a crime, but…why are you acting that way, Axel?"

"I think I know," Elvira said. "Dad told me about this, too. …They say great misfortune befalls anyone who dares to steal from a Kecleon Shop. I don't know what exactly happens, but…Dad had the same kind of look in his eyes that Axel has now when he told me that."

"...You make them sound like some kind of evil spirit," the Riolu said. "They're not that bad, are they?"

"I'm not willin' to find out," Ishmael refused. "Even if those rumours are tosh, stealin's bad, anyway. I ain't putin' my rep on the line for somethin' like that."

"Same here," Lillian seconded. "Don't steal from the Kecleon Shop. Period. We were warned for a reason. Let's not ask questions why."

"...Okay. Point taken," Arian said, though he was admittedly still curious about the rumours about stealing from the Kecleon Shop. "...Maybe let's move on?"

"Yeah, let's do that," agreed Ishmael. His attention turned to the next stall, run by what looked like a floating keychain. "Right then. Next we've got the Klefki Bank. It's run by a nice fella called Alexei. He'll store yer cash for ya if ya've got a bit too much on ya."

"Klefki Bank? …There was a place like that in Ozerograd, wasn't there?" Arian asked Elvira.

"There was," Elvira affirmed. "Klefki Banks are like Kecleon Shops; you'll find them in most places. Not quite to the extent of Mystery Dungeons like Kecleon Shops, but they're still plentiful nonetheless."

"So a bank. …Alright. What's next?" Arian asked, looking further down the street.

"Now we have my favourite shop along here," Lillian said. "The Kangaskhan Storage." With an evident spring in her step, she headed towards the tent shaped like a Kangaskhan's head, Arian recognising it from the statue he'd seen before in Rolling Hills.

"Ah, Lillian! Good to see you!" the warm, motherly voice of the stall's owner greeted as Arian, Axel, Elvira and Ishmael walked in behind Lillian.

"Hello, Auntie," the Sandslash returned, drawing a confused look from Arian. "I've got some new people to introduce you to. These two are Arian and Elvira, and they've just joined the Irian Guild."

"Oh, how wonderful!" the Kangaskhan celebrated joyfully. "It's a pleasure to meet the two of you. Are you working together as a team?"

"...Er, yes," Arian replied, still a bit befuddled by Lillian's earlier statement. "We're Team Elpis, Elvira and I."

"What a lovely name," praised the Kangaskhan. She then noticed the queer expression on the Riolu's face. "Something wrong, dearie?"

"...N-No, I'm fine. It's just…" Arian looked to Lillian, and then back to the Kangaskhan. "...Are you two related?"

"Related?" Lillian said. Beside her, Ishmael and Axel both fought to contain what seemed to be laughter. "Oh no, not at all! We're not related."

"But…you called her Auntie," the Riolu uttered, more confused than ever.

"It's just a nickname, dearie. It's what everyone calls me," the Kangaskhan explained. "My real name's Kassandra, in case you were wondering. But you can call me Auntie too, dearie."

"...Okay, then…Auntie," Arian said, finding the word a tad strange to say for someone he probably didn't have relations with. "So you…store items here? Does it have anything to do with the Kangaskhan Rock we saw in Rolling Hills?"

"It does," Kassandra answered. "Items stored in those rocks make their way to my storage. And those items can be withdrawn later by the people who deposited them. …It's interesting that you bring up Rolling HIlls. I happened to receive an item from the rock there earlier today, with no idea who exactly it belongs to."

"Oh! That's ours, I think. It's an oran berry," Arian revealed. "I put it into the rock's pouch, and it disappeared. …Is it here?"

"Indeed it is." Kassandra broke off from the conversation to disappear into her tent. A moment later, she returned with an oran berry. "There you go."

"...It's the same one," the mystified Riolu said, as he took the berry. "But how? How does that work? How does it get transported from Rolling Hills to here?"

"Sorry, dearie. Trade secret," Kassandra apologised. "But you're free to avail of my services anytime you wish."

"...Okay then," Arian said, as he turned to leave. "It was good meeting you…Auntie."

"You too, dearie. Have a nice day!" the Kangaskhan wished, as the group walked away from her tent.

"...Now do you see why I like her so much?" Lillian asked.

"I guess," the Riolu replied. "Still, though…Auntie. That's going to take a bit of getting used to, calling her that."

"...Nothin' wrong with it," Ishmael reasoned. "'Sides, I've heard much worse nicknames people call 'emselves. At least Auntie's a reassurin' name that makes ya feel warm inside. She does have that kinda effect on ya."

"I agree," Elvira seconded. "I'll look forward to going back to her."

"No doubt you will," Lillian said. "Now…where's next?" She looked over at the next tent, and her face dropped in an instant. "...Oh. There."

"Yeah, that's…the locksmith's," Axel informed, his expression bearing a similar reluctance to the Sandslash's. "A Banette called Julius runs it. Julius's Appraisal, it's called."

"A locksmith's?" Arian inquired. "But what particular use would a locksmith's be to a mercenary?"

"Sometimes, when yer in Dungeons, ya come across small treasure boxes," Ishmael explained. "Only particular keys can unlock 'em, and where better to get one from than a locksmith? Folks like Julius'll unlock 'em for ya for some cash."

"It's a good service," Lillian said, before a peeved look crossed her face. "Bit of a shame the man himself is a bit…overzealous when it comes to his job."

"Overzealous? In what way?" Elvira asked, before her question was answered for her.

"Ah! Team Sandstream!" a sinister voice sounded from the Banette-looking tent, as the Marionette Pokémon himself stepped out from it. "Have you got any lovely boxes for me to cut open like a knife through butter? My knives have an appetite to whet, you know…" His equally eerie grin grew as he uttered these words.

"Nah, mate, we don't 'ave anythin'," Ishmael replied. "Sorry 'bout that."

"...Damnation," hissed the Banette in disappointment. "I suppose I'll have to return to the practice boxes again..." He retreated to his tent with a huff.

"...See what I mean?" Lillian said, once he was gone. "The way he talks about cutting upon treasure boxes like they're something to suck the life out of…How do you not find that creepy, Ishmael?"

"He's a good'un," the Krokorok defended. "He ain't like an outlaw. He ain't got a bad bone in his body, I promise ya. Might seem a bit freaky at first, but there ain't nothin' wrong with 'im."

"...If you insist," Elvira replied. "We'll give him the business if we find any treasure boxes." She looked back at the street before them, and the merchants they had passed. "...Is that all of them?"

"Well, not yet. One more place," Ishmael answered. "It's up a bit further, away from this lot."

They continued a bit further down the street. It was something of a surprise to Arian that from this location, the edge of town was visible. Not an overly large town, then, he mused. But then it's not like a town has to be large to be good.

"And here we are," Ishmael announced, snapping Arian's attention back to their tour. "This is the Kamengrad branch of the Tropius Carriers."

The Riolu looked at the building before them. By the looks of it, it seemed to be a post office, with the building painted green and brown to represent Tropius's colouration. Looking in through the windows, he could see a reception desk where a few customers stood in line to send parcels to friends or loved ones.

"Oh, this is good," Elvira said happily. "So this is where the Tropius Carrier branch is for here. Now I know where to go when I want to send letters back to Mom."

"Oh yeah…You did say you were going to do that," Arian replied, being reminded of what his partner had said as they were saying goodbye to Zenobia. "When are you going to write to her?"

"Soon. Not right away - maybe once we get into the routine of doing missions and have been here for a while."

"That's good for you, then," Lillian smiled. "It's always good to keep in touch with your loved ones. Especially when they're not living next door to you. …I should probably do the same with Mom and Dad. But I'll take a leaf out of Elvira's book and wait a bit before writing. We did only see them earlier today, after all."

"Well, that's all in the way of shops," Ishmael said. "But…we'll tour ya around the rest of the town as well. That way, ya get to know all the people and places to go if ya 'ave a bit of downtime."

And that was what most of the afternoon was spent on; Team Sandstream touring Team Elpis around Kamengrad. It was a quaint little town, one of stillness and serenity. And while Arian and Elvira were never referred to as new recruits for the Guild in respect to the Guild's secrecy, those that knew the truth and kept it under wraps were encouraging and wished the pair well going forward.

They were a supportive, positive people, and that brought reassurance to Team Elpis. To be around such a community could only be a good thing. They would have little fear of being sold out or betrayed here, they thought.

And so, it was with a chipper mood by evening that the two descended into the Guild. The smells of tantalising food being cooked greeted the duo as they walked into the assembly area, giving the caverns a sense of homeliness.

One thought went through Arian's head.

I made a good choice, siding with these people.





Notes

And now we get to the Guild itself, where we meet a whole host of new faces. We'll get to know them over the next few chapters, and meet some more new characters related to the Guild.

Kamengrad and the Karstlands are based in many ways on the Burren, Ireland, with the karst landscape and various aspects of the geological formations there reimagined here.

The shops are mostly based on previous Mystery Dungeon entries. I haven't included the Link Shop among them; not that it won't appear, but I intend for that duty to be Galen's, and a service within the Guild itself rather than something a merchant offers.

And Kassandra's nickname being Auntie is a reference to the Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team anime, where Kangaskhan is referred to as 'Auntie Kangaskhan.' It was an affectionate nickname that I wanted to bring in here.

That's all I can think of for now. Thanks for reading.
 
Chapter 12

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 12

Uncomfortable Truths



"...So what missions do the two of you plan to do today?"

That was the question of Serafina as Arian and Elvira were eating breakfast in the mess hall. It was the next morning, and after a lively dinner and a good night's sleep, the two newly initiated mercenaries at the Irian Guild were having breakfast with two fellow mercenaries.

The mercenaries in question were Team Anima, a pair consisting of Serafina, a Meowstic, and Natalie, a Ledian. They had met them at dinner last night, and had quickly gleaned the basics of the respective members.

Serafina was from a noble background, as detected by her silver-spoon accent. But she was honest and earnest in her will to be a mercenary, and spoke of the need to help the common citizenry of Selenia in difficult times such as they were at present, a sentiment Team Elpis shared. Beyond that, she was talkative, and was a frequent asker of questions, eager to know the details and interests of her new colleagues.

By contrast, Natalie was not like this. She was nearly the exact opposite; quiet, reserved and someone who only chimed in on the odd occasion. This was mostly seen at last night's dinner, where Serafina did most of the talking, and she really only spoke in introducing herself and when she was posed a question. Another striking difference between the pair was that while Serafina spoke with a refined, elegant accent, Natalie spoke with the accent of what Arian had later called a 'southern drawl' (much to the confusion of his partner, who chalked it up to being a 'human term'). Both girls were from the Karelia oblast, a rural region in Selenia on the west coast of Ardalion, and both had forged a strong friendship, despite their difference in class.

"Oh…we're probably going to keep it simple today, I think," Elvira answered. "We're only new, after all; it wouldn't do to overestimate our abilities."

"A wise choice," Serafina commended. "That is part of the Mercenary's Creed, after all; not overestimating what one is capable of. We are only mortal, after all. And even if we in Team Anima have attained Silver Rank, I admit that I still baulk at tougher missions."

"Which is perfectly alright," Elvira replied, after eating into a pancake topped with diced pecha berries. "Not everyone can be fearless. Some missions, even to the most seasoned of veterans, can be truly daunting. My dad's had his fair share of missions like that."

"Even Fernblade Kallias?" That was a fact that when revealed last night to her, made the Meowstic's eyes shine in admiration and excitedly ask Elvira what growing up with the hero as her father was like. Now, she reacted with surprise at what the Treecko was saying.

"Dad and Melchior were very brave when it came to taking on missions," Elvira told her. "But to say they could tackle any mission they were presented with would be wrong. Even they found there were missions that they couldn't handle. …It taught me that even the most lauded of heroes are far from invincible. Dad himself insisted I saw it that way. Even he had shortcomings from time to time."

"A fair point," agreed Serafina. "But regarding your own capabilities, I would personally think the two of you would be able for missions beyond what Normal Rank offers. Being able to defeat Hinnerk, the leader of the Thorned Roses…that is no small feat. A sterling achievement, to be sure."

"Yeah," piped up Natalie. "Couldn't imagine doin' anythin' like that…"

"It was hardly easy, though," Arian pointed out. "And it wasn't like we set out that morning with the intent to defeat him."

"That does not downplay your accomplishment," Serafina returned. "...But I am now fully curious. How did the pair of you, with Team Sandstream's aid, manage to triumph over the boss of the Thorned Roses?"

"...That's quite a story," Elvira replied, just as she finished the end of her breakfast. "And as much as I would love to tell it to you here…I wouldn't like to leave today's mission waiting. …Another time, perhaps."

"...Of course," the noblewoman accepted. "I look forward to hearing that tale when you want to tell it. Oh, and good luck with today!" she wished, as Team Elpis got to their feet with their trays in hand.

Arian and Elvira gave the trays to Aldebrand, who returned them to the kitchen to be washed and cleaned. They then went to the main hub, where Sifis was sorting through mission requests, as he was the day prior. He turned around when he saw the duo approach.

"Hey, you two," he greeted. "What do you feel like taking on today?"

"Hmm…" Elvira looked between the two boards. "...I don't feel like taking on outlaws today. I feel more like doing a mission request. Does that suit you, Arian?

"Sure," the Riolu accepted. "Now then…what do we have for us in Normal Rank?"

"...Well, there's a few," the Galvantula informed. "Most of them are what you'd expect - lost items and hunts for treasure. But there's one that came in just this morning. This one here." He reached for the piece of parchment in question, and unstuck it from the board, before placing it on the desk in front of him.

"Let's see…" Elvira looked it over.



My wife Gráinne (Flygon) went to Scree Canyon yesterday to collect herbs for medicine, but she hasn't returned yet. I implore you, Irian Guild - please find her!

- Diarmuid (Gliscor)
- Location: Scree Canyon (5F)
- Reward: 100P


"Hmm…The reward is 100P," Elvira noted. "And…it claims that this Gráinne they want us to find is on the fifth floor of the Dungeon."

"Sounds easy enough," observed Arian. "Alright, we'll do it."

"Good. Take the leaflet with you," Sifis instructed, handing the pair the parchment. "Scree Canyon…that's not too far from here. It's marked on your map where exactly it is."

The Guild had provided Team Elpis with a map of Selenia, and upon taking it out, Elvira saw it marked on the map, near the tsardom's eastern fringe and in the foothills of the Empyrean Mountains.

"True, that isn't far from here," Elvira remarked, noting the Dungeon's short enough distance from Kamengrad. "We might even get to knock out another mission today, depending on how quickly we get this one done."

"Well, let's not waste any more time, then," Arian said with feeling. "Come on, Elvira! Let's head out!"

"You've got some spunk, kid. I like that," complimented Sifis. "...Go on then, Elvira. Follow your partner."

"...Very well," Elvira replied, finding herself unable to suppress a smile at her partner's exuberance.

A good choice of partner, indeed.





"...Whoa…Those mountains are huge…"

After stocking up on items at the Kecleon Shop in Kamengrad, Arian and Elvira set out to the Empyrean Mountains. But while they were visible from Kamengrad, the former never truly realised how dominating the mountain range was until they came up close to it.

"Certainly, they're huge. The biggest mountains Ardalion has to offer," Elvira told him. "Some of these mountains' summits reach above the clouds themselves. And because they're so high up, they're capped with snow all year round. Even now, despite this dry spell we've been having this summer."

"Oh yeah…because temperatures decrease the higher up you go," Arian stated, remembering a fact about altitude and temperature.

"I don't like the cold," admitted Elvira. "I'm more one for warmer weather. And I know what I said about this drought in Selenia. But…this kind of weather with more rain would be perfect. It would be a lot better than a Selenian winter, where snow covers everything and it's bitterly cold."

"Is that what winter's like here?" Arian asked.

"Yes, and Grass-types like me fare poorly in the snow," the Treecko answered. "You'll be fine. Your fur will keep you warm."

"...Hm. Didn't realise that," the Riolu muttered, looking over his furry body. "...What an unusual thing to have, fur."

"Humans don't have fur, do they?" Elvira wondered.

"Plainly not, otherwise I wouldn't be feeling this strange about my fur," Arian responded. "It's really odd having it. Like a second skin, of sorts. …But I suppose, like just about everything in this world, it's another thing I have to get used to."

"On that note, Arian…how are you getting used to everything?" asked his partner. "...Do you feel as though you're getting there?"

"...I suppose," Arian replied, after pondering his answer for a short while. "I guess…some things have come more easily than others. And there are some things I still find hard to get over. Like all the different Pokémon of this world, and just how strange it is to be talking to them…Is there an encyclopaedia or something that tells me all about the different species of Pokémon there are? Because genuinely, it may be hard to keep track of them all…"

"...There might be something back at the Guild," Elvira answered. "I do see your plight, especially for someone like you. It can make your head spin, to keep track of every species out there. It would be helpful for you to know the specifics of some species, at least, so you know what to watch out for if we ever encounter one."

"That's something for when we get back, then," Arian decided. "But then I also have to learn how to write properly. And then I want to improve my moves with Galen. Oh, and then there's needing to learn more about myself as a Riolu, and just what I'm capable of…"

"Take your time," Elvira recommended. "Pace yourself, and do things one at a time. Don't fluster yourself thinking about everything all at once. It'll only seem more daunting that way."

"...Good advice. Thanks for that," Arian said. "...Good thing I have you as my partner, eh?"

"...At least that's a thought we both have in common," Elvira replied, smiling at her partner. She was about to go on further, but then she looked forward on the path along them, and stopped. "...Ah. Here we are."

"The entrance to Scree Canyon…" Arian looked before him at what he saw, and the familiar opaqueness of a Mystery Dungeon's entrance could be seen. "Are we ready to enter?"

"...We are. Let's go in."



Scree Canyon

1F



"Hmm…Which way to go?"

Arian posed that question as he and Elvira found themselves in the labyrinth of a Mystery Dungeon again. This one was different from the previous four Dungeons they had been in, in that rocky, craggy terrain made up the ground, and rock walls with visible strata made up the walls of the rooms and corridors.

"Let's go that way." Elvira pointed to a nearby exit.

"Alright," agreed Arian. As they started down the path, he suddenly realised something. "...But let's take a leaf out of Lillian's book." With his foot, he marked an X in the dirt by the corridor's beginning.

"Oh, of course," Elvira said, seeing what her partner did. "We must get used to doing that. Practice what we learn from others."

"It'll become second nature in time," Arian responded. "Now…let's find that exit."

It didn't take too long to find one. After dealing with a Geodude speedily, and wandering through two corridors and a room, they happened upon the stairs, and walked up them.



Scree Canyon

3F



"So on what floor was it again? The Pokémon we're looking for?" Arian asked, as the duo climbed the steps into the third floor.

"The fifth floor," Elvira answered. "Not yet, in other words. At least we don't have to scour each floor like we did for Iona and Tamara. Official missions are able to determine the exact locations of where the Pokémon in need are. We need only search the floor they say it's on."

"That's a relief," replied Arian, who admittedly wasn't looking forward to the thought of searching every nook and cranny of the mazes of yet another Mystery Dungeon.

The room they were in was a small one, with only two exits. One of them was taken, and marked accordingly.

Along the corridor, there were no encounters, but as they entered the next room, Arian saw an approaching Misdreavus.

"Hmm…Some kind of ghost, huh?" he observed. Ghost-types…My Force Palm won't work against it, nor will Quick Attack. But…I do have another trick up my sleeve for instances like this. "Hang on, Elvira. I got this," he said, and readied a Metal Claw, slashing the Misdreavus. This provoked an angry cry from the feral Pokémon, which then retaliated with its own attack: a bright yellow ray that encircled the Riolu.

"Huh? What was…" Arian broke off, as he suddenly began to feel dizzy. Then his vision began to swim and blur, and everything soon became a daze. What's happening? No…I can't fall unconscious. Not now…

At that moment, the image of the Misdreavus appeared before him, cackling with laughter at him.

"Gah! Stay away!" he yelled out. By instinct, he slashed at the ghost with Metal Claw again, hoping that would do it in. But instead…

"Agh! Arian! Snap out of it!" Elvira's voice sounded, and Arian could detect the pain in her voice.

"Elvira?!" the Riolu cried out, alarmed. "Where are you?" In his dazed state, he couldn't see where the gecko was, or anything coherent for that matter. Everything's a blur…

"You're confused, Arian!" the Treecko called back. "Hang on! Take this while I deal with the Misdreavus!"

At that point, something with a soft texture to it was shoved in his face. Arian didn't know exactly what it was, but by instinct, he bit into it…and was surprised by the taste.

A berry…? Hang on, I've tasted this before...

Then it happened. Suddenly, the blurry vision and dizziness began to fade, and the human found his vision returning to normal. As it did, he caught sight of Elvira looking at him worriedly. Behind her, he spotted the sight of the Misdreavus in question fallen.

"Are you alright, Arian?" the Treecko asked. "Don't worry about the Misdreavus. I dealt with it."

"I…think so," Arian replied. "Urgh…What happened? What did that Pokémon do to me…?"

"It used Confuse Ray on you," Elvira explained. "That makes you dazed in confusion. Persim berries can be used to cure such dizziness."

As she spoke, though, Arian couldn't but notice that her voice was slightly laboured, as if she were hurt in some way. His eyes, focused once again, now had a clear view of his partner. And he then noticed the wound on her midsection.

"Elvira! Are you okay?" he said. "What happened to you? That…That wasn't something that Ghost-type did to you, was it?"

"...No, it wasn't," the Treecko admitted. "You were confused at the time, Arian, and…it wasn't your fault, really," she added.

"Not my fault? What do you mean…" Arian trailed off, as he realised with horror what her words meant. "...I…I did that to you? When I was dizzy…I hurt you?"

"It's alright, Arian. Nothing I can't fix with an oran berry," Elvira assured, taking out the aforementioned item and munching on it.

"But I hit you!" Arian protested. "Even if it was out of my control…you were hurt because of me. …I'm so sorry, Elvira! I should've been more careful around that Pokémon…"

"Arian, please! It wasn't your fault," Elvira tried to persuade. "The wound's all healed up now. Please don't think about it anymore. What's done is done. Let's move on, and forget about that little mishap."

But despite Elvira's words, Arian's thoughts kept coming back to him. The idea that he could hurt his partner like that scared him more than anything. He had no idea confusion could make him confused enough to strike his own teammate.

"What was that you gave me?" he asked. "That berry that made me see straight again."

"A persim berry," Elvira answered. "I got one at the market, just in case. …I guess I was right to do that, because we did need it. It cures you of confusion like you were in. That Misdreavus used Confuse Ray on you. It's fairly common for Ghost-types to know it, so watch out if you ever come across one."

"Right," noted Arian. I need to know more about the specifics of some more of what I'm facing. Because if I keep going blind into situations like this, it's going to lead to trouble. Honestly, to think I'm facing problems like this right after I defeated Hinnerk…was that just dumb luck, beating him?

No,
he denied. I defeated Hinnerk because I had allies by my side. Elvira and Team Sandstream. I still have them now, as well as a whole guild to help me out with my problems and what I need to know. With friends at my side, I can overcome anything.

He then inwardly cringed at that thought.

Okay, maybe not quite anything. …But they can do a lot to help me. That's the point. I can't be afraid of being mocked because I don't know basic things. The Guild are my friends. If I need help…I need only ask them.

"Arian?" Elvira's voice drew him away from his thoughts.

"Oh, sorry," he apologised. "A bit lost in thought, that's all. Let's move on."

And so the pair resumed their search for the exit.



Scree Canyon

5F



"It's this floor," Elvira said, as the pair ascended to the fifth floor of the Dungeon. "This is where the Pokémon in question is." She looked at the parchment once again. "A Flygon by the name of Gráinne…hmm…"

"And a Flygon is…?" Arian queried.

"A Flygon is a green Ground/Dragon-type with wings and a long tail," Elvira described. "It has large red eyes and looks a bit like a Bug-type. That's what we're looking out for."

"I…see," the Riolu processed. "You probably have a better idea of what to look for than I do. But I'll do my best to keep a good lookout for what you said."

"Flygon are quite big, too. It's not like we'd be searching for a needle in a haystack like we were with Iona," Elvira added. "This should be easy, hopefully."

"Let's hope it is," Arian replied, with confidence.

The duo began their search, scanning all the rooms and corridors they went through for the Flygon. They took down any Pokémon that stood in their way, and picked up any stray items they found in each room.

Among the latter was a curious blue treasure box that neither of them could open.

"Hmm…Where's the key for this?" Arian pondered. "Maybe it's somewhere else on this floor?"

"Key…" Then it clicked for Elvira. "No. We take this to Julius' Appraisal. He'll get it open for us."

"Oh yeah…" Arian realised, thinking back to the tour of the merchants the day before. "...Still…Julius, of all people?" He still remembered the unnerving smile and his overenthusiasm of the Banette, and wasn't sure whether to put his trust in the ghost.

"...He might be a bit too passionate," agreed Elvira. "But he's probably good at his craft. And Ishmael says he's a good man, so…I think that's proof enough he can be trusted."

"...We'll worry about that later," Arian replied dismissively, handing his partner the box to file away in their bag. "The Flygon's more important for now."

They resumed their search for the Mystic Pokémon. And luckily for them, they didn't have to look for too long to find her. She was in a large room, looking around with worry written on her face.

"That's her," Elvira said. "No doubt about it. …Excuse me!" she called out to the dragon.

"Who's there?" came the response. Then the Flygon's eyes caught sight of the duo. "You…You're not wild Pokémon, are you?"

"No. We're mercenaries for the Irian Guild," the Treecko answered. "Is your name Gráinne, by any chance?"

"Yes. That's me," the Flygon confirmed. "...I suppose Diarmuid must have sent a mission request to the Guild. Thank the heavens he did. I was starting to go stir-crazy in this blasted maze."

"He did," Arian said. "That was the requester's name."

"He's my husband," Gráinne explained. "He comes off as gruff and no-nonsense, but he's a sweetheart, really. He cares very much for me, and he worries whenever I'm gone for too long. …Sometimes a bit too much. But that caring attitude is why I love him."

"Let's take you back to him, then," Elvira proposed. "Just a minute…" She rummaged around in her bag, before bringing out the team badges…much to Arian's confusion.

"Elvira, why did you take out our badges?" he asked, puzzled.

"...It's better to show you than to try and explain it," the gecko answered, before turning back to Gráinne. "Put your hand to the badge, and you'll be teleported out of the Dungeon."

"Okay." Gráinne did as instructed. What happened was something that struck alarm in Arian. One minute the Flygon was there, the next…she had disappeared.

"Where's she gone?" he asked worriedly.

"Outside the Dungeon," Elvira answered calmly. "Don't panic, Arian; she'll be fine. Now...it's time to exit ourselves." She held up the badge. "Just touch it, and we'll be out of here."

"...If you say so…" Arian said, unsure of what was to happen. He, along with his partner, both touched their respective badges…and suddenly a bright flash of light occurred that forced Arian to shut his eyes.

But when he opened them again…he found himself in the surroundings of the foothills of the Empyrean Mountains, with the dominating peaks looming overhead. What ticked it off for him was the distinctly un-labyrinthine appearance of everything.

"Told you," Elvira said, a victorious look on her face.

"...We're out?" Arian asked, looking around him in amazement. "...But how? How did those badges get us out of there? I never knew they could teleport us out of Dungeons! …But how does that work?"

"...How they work doesn't matter," the Treecko decided to say. "What matters is that they are of help to us, in ways like this. It's customary for mercenaries to do this after finishing a mission in the Dungeon they were in. What, would you prefer to tread through the rest of the Dungeon instead?"

"...I guess not," the Riolu admitted. "...It's good to have them, then. A few unanswered questions about how they work, but…maybe I should stop asking questions." He turned his attention to Gráinne, who he saw was nearby. "So…um. I know this might sound like a stupid question, but what now?"

"We escort her back to the client in question," Elvira answered. "...Where exactly would Diarmuid, your husband, be at this time, Gráinne?"

"Oh, in his shop, most likely," Gráinne replied. "We run an apothecary's, just outside Kamengrad. That's where we live, the two of us. It's just off this road, in fact, along a little boreen."

"Hmm…We might've passed by an apothecary's, actually," Elvira recalled. "There was a sign for one on the road to the Empyrean Mountains."

"That's it. It's down a small side road. I'll point it out when we get there."

But as it turned out, the Flygon did not even need to do that. At the point where the side road in question began and the sign for the apothecary's was located, Arian and Elvira caught sight of a Gliscor coming up the side road.

"Ah! That's Diarmuid!" Gráinne said excitedly. "Diarmuid! I'm over here!" The Gliscor turned his head, and once he saw the group, his worried expression immediately shifted to one of relief when he saw the group.

"Gráinne! There you are!" he called out. But hearing his voice sparked curiosity within Arian. Somehow, it sounded familiar…and as well as that, the Gliscor himself was a new sight for the Riolu. But his bat-like shape, with sharp pincers and fangs, and a bluish-purple colouration sparked Arian's curiosity. HmmI wonder…

"I was getting worried," Diarmuid said, once he had caught up to the group of three. "You were gone since yesterday evening, and I…I was afraid something had happened to you."

"It wasn't anything too serious, dear," Gráinne assured. "I just had a bit of an unlucky run, that's all. The exits kept taking a long time to find, and those Misdreavus were ever so mischievous with their uses of Hypnosis and Confuse Ray. I was also tired, and combined with the uses of Hypnosis, I managed to fall into a deep sleep. When I woke up again, it was morning. It just wasn't my day, I suppose."

"...Not all visits to Dungeons go smoothly," Diarmuid murmured. "Even for those we regularly delve into. I'm just glad you're safe. And…" He turned to Arian and Elvira. "...I thank you for going into Scree Canyon to rescue Gráinne. I can't allow such kindness to go unpaid." He dug out 100P for the duo, and gave it to them.

"Thank you very much," Elvira said. "We're always happy to help, as mercenaries of the Irian Guild."

"That reminds me," Gráinne said. "We never asked your names."

"I'm Arian, and this is Elvira," the Riolu introduced, choosing to be the one to introduce them for once. "And the two of us make up Team Elpis." He allowed a small hint of pride to enter his voice. "This is our first mission, actually, now that we're officially part of the Guild."

"...Heh. Glad to be the first stepping stone on your journey," Diarmuid replied. "The Irian Guild's becoming a bit more lively now. Especially now that Ishmael, Axel and Lilian are home."

"Oh, isn't that great news?" Gráinne celebrated. "I was so worried for them, stuck in Ozerograd like that. …But they're back safe and sound. I couldn't bear it if anything happened to them…"

"...Do you know Team Sandstream?" Elvira asked.

"Actually, speaking of which," Arian interjected, before the couple could respond. "Um, Diarmuid? You wouldn't happen to be related to Axel by any chance, would you? It's just that you look so similar to him…"

"Related to Axel? …Of course I am," the Gliscor answered. "I'm the boy's father."

"And I'm his mother," Gráinne added.

"His mom and dad? …Hm. I had a feeling that was the case," murmured Arian. "Guess I was right on the money."

"Gligar evolve into Gliscor," Elvira told him. "I thought that might have been the case as well. ...Quite astute of you to notice, Arian."

"It appears you know my son," observed Diarmuid. "Then again, as part of the Guild, you would know him. …I'm surprised it wasn't him taking on this mission. That boy of mine better not have been sleeping in again…"

"I think Team Sandstream may have left early for a mission," Elvira recalled. "They weren't at breakfast this morning, so it might've been that."

"...Hmm." The stern look on the Gliscor's face softened. "At least he's keeping busy. He and Ishmael were always boisterous and got up to mischief when they were young ones. Good job Lillian's there to keep them in line."

"If you see them, tell them we send our regards," Gráinne said.

"We will," Elvira promised. "Stay safe, you two."

"We hope to see you again," Diarmuid said with hope. "Come stop by our shop sometime, if you wish."

"We'll think about it," Arian said. "Bye, you two!"

With that, Team Elpis continued down the road back to town, while Diarmuid and Gráinne went down the road to their shop.

"Axel's parents…Who would have thought it?" Arian said. "Wait till Team Sandstream hears about this."

"You do sometimes make connections like that in mercenary work," Elvira pointed out. "It's not uncommon for family of guild members to ask a favour of the Guild. …Who knows? Maybe Mom will make a request one of these days. When she's better, hopefully…"

"How do you think she's getting on?" Arian wondered, as they neared the town's edge. As buildings came into view, he suddenly realised something as he caught eyes with one of them. "Actually, there's an idea. If you want to find out how she is…then send her a letter."

Elvira looked over, and saw the Tropius Carriers building. She was then reminded of what she said yesterday, of writing a letter to her mother once they'd settled in.

"...I said I'd do it later this week, but…I might write it a bit sooner than that," the Treecko decided. "I don't want to keep Mom in suspense for too long."

"Maybe you could get started when we get back to the Guild?" suggested Arian.

"...Maybe I will," was Elvira's reply. "Come on. Let's get back there so I can begin."





A few days later…



"Come back soon!" called the Tropius that ran the Kamengrad branch of the Tropius Carriers.

"We will!" Elvira called back. "Make sure that letter gets to my mother!"

"I'll see to it, otherwise my name isn't Yasen, leader of the Kamengrad Tropius Carriers!" returned the Tropius, as the duo closed the door.

"...Enthusiasm sure comes in spades with merchants, don't they?" Arian commented, as they walked down the street back to the stalls.

"They have to be enthusiastic to pitch their business," Elvira reasoned. "If they can't do that, the money will dry up and they'll go hungry."

"That's fair," accepted Arian. "Oh, and speaking of enthusiastic merchants…" His eyes looked over at Julius' Appraisal. "...We never did get around to getting that box unlocked, did we?"

"We didn't," Elvira confirmed. "We have it on us…I guess now's as good a time as any." She started towards the stall, and Arian followed. Julius happened to be whetting a dagger when he caught sight of the duo heading for his stall.

"Ah! Customers!" the Banette expressed. "Welcome to my beautiful house of knives. However might I serve you? Any lovely treasure boxes for me to dice the locks off?"

"...We do," Arian said, trying his best to ignore the expectant and sinistrous glint in the merchant's eye. Elvira took out the box in question, and took out the money required to pay.

"Good, good! Brilliant, brilliant!" Julius said in acclamation. "I'll have this lock diced apart like a Weavile's claws to butter!" He brandished his dagger. "This will be a cinch!"

The Banette plunged his dagger into the keyhole. With a few twists, he managed to crank the box open, much to the duo's surprise.

"Wow...that was quick," commented Arian.

"As it should be," Julius grinned. "The Guild don't request my services for nothing, you know. ...The reward in there is yours for the taking." He turned the box around for the team to see.

"...Money," Elvira noted.

"Typical of a treasure box," Arian remarked. "Might as well take it. Or…store it in Klefki Bank?"

"That sounds better," Elvira agreed. "We'll do that. Keep it for a rainy day, perhaps. …Thanks very much with this, Julius."

"No problem," the Banette replied proudly. "If you ever find any more treasure boxes…then you know who to call for."

"...Right, Elvira. Let's get back to the Guild," suggested Arian, as the two left Julius behind. The Riolu, despite seeing his skill at his craft, still felt uncomfortable around the Banette. "I want to get back to practising my writing."

"...You are improving," noted Elvira, recalling her partner's activity in this regard. He was beginning to get the hang of holding a pen, and would practice writing in the evening in their room. This, he coupled with his studies of Pokémon through books that had been given to him, and sometimes combined them in an effort to drill the information deeper into his brain.

"It still isn't great, though," Arian lamented. "My handwriting still looks really bad. Honestly…when will it get better?"

"With practice and effort," the Treecko encouraged. "Don't worry, Arian. Your writing skills will improve with time."

"...I guess so. Still...I wish that time would come faster..."

The two continued their trek to the Guild, and reached the well. Arian's previous fears about the height had lessened, though every once in a while he did get slightly nervous about descending into the Guild. It didn't greatly impede anything, though; the Riolu merely saw it as a small snag to overcome. Nothing more than that.

When they reached the Guild's main area, however, something was plainly afoot. Every member of the Guild was gathered there, plainly as an audience to something.

"What's going on?" asked Elvira to the gathered crowd.

"Oh, you're back!" Lillian cried. "Just in time, too."

"Why? What for?" Arian queried.

"The Chief's back," Ishmael informed. "And he's got some news for us about what's gone on with 'im."

"He's just gone to the office to prepare some things," Axel elaborated. "He'll be out in a sec."

"We should get to the front. That way, we have a good view," Elvira advised Arian.

"Agreed." Arian could see her point; he wasn't able to see the front at all, due to the fact that most of the guild members were taller than the two of them. They walked around the side of Aldebrand, the tallest of all the Guild, who acknowledged their presence, before they both stood at the front, near to Terran (who, unlike Aldebrand, ignored them) and Rhiannon, along with two others he hadn't seen before: a grey dinosaur-looking Pokémon with blue markings on its skull and back, and a lilac-furred quadruped with a red gem on its forehead.

"So you're the new recruits that everyone speaks of," observed the latter, an Espeon. "I don't believe we've been introduced. I am Isaac, one of the two members of Team Mindfist. A pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"And I'm Lex!" pronounced the other, a Cranidos. "Good to meet you. Hey, if you ever want a sparring match sometime, just ask me! I'm up for one anytime!"

"...Hmm…I might just take you up on that," Arian considered. "I could use some skill-honing myself."

"Great!" Lex celebrated. "How about later on, if you're not busy?"

"Maybe. We'll see."

"Quiet, you two," Galen interrupted. "The Guildmaster's come back."

And indeed he had. Team Elpis saw the Swampert once again as he came out from the path to the office. As he got ready to address the Guild, he caught eyes with them, and gave a nod of acknowledgement to them.

"Thank you for all gathering here," Melchior began. "Thank you all for keeping the Guild intact while I was away. It was reassuring to know that you all kept things in order, and our mercenaries continued to fulfil their requests in our never-ending quest to help the people. And on top of that, I am pleased to hear that our new recruits, Team Elpis, are settling in well, and that we have all given them a warm welcome. I am grateful to you all, truly, for an astute performance during my absence.

"But that is not the reason why I have called you all here today. I called you here to inform you of recent developments in Ozerograd while I was there, and how the town has shaped since the removal of the Thorned Roses. …Of course, it could not have been done without the combined efforts of Team Elpis and Team Sandstream, and I would like to once again thank them for overcoming the daunting challenge laid before them."

A round of applause greeted the two teams. Both teams felt honoured at the praise.

"...What about Ozerograd?" Elvira asked, once it had died down. "How is the town?"

"I am happy to report that everything is going well," Melchior informed. "The organisation of the volunteers has helped to keep the town stable despite the absence of a leader. I stayed there to help keep things in order, and to ensure that it would remain that way upon my departure. Just about all traces of the Thorned Roses are gone from the town; all of their graffiti has been cleaned away, and all of the evicted townsfolk have been returned safely to their homes. The town has definitely become much cheerier as a result of the volunteers' effort. It is a safe haven…for now. But…whether it will remain that way is another story. And I fear that on the horizon lies a dark cloud that will wash away that peace."

"What do you mean?" Arian asked. "What dark cloud?"

"I refer to Mitrofan," the Guildmaster answered. "Obviously, the news of the Thorned Roses' defeat reached him in Iria. A few days later, envoys from him were sent to Ozerograd to make an offer to the people there. To them, they offered an alliance, and an assurance that the days of the Thorned Roses would be no more."

Murmurs arose amid the guild members. Arian heard a few remarks, but the one that stood out to him was behind him, where Ishmael whispered to his teammates, "Betcha it's a scam."

Hmm…based on what I've heard, I'd be inclined to believe him.

"What did they say?" Elvira asked. "Did they accept the offer?"

"...There was divided opinion over it," Melchior revealed. "Many haven't forgotten the prior partnership between Hinnerk and Mitrofan that allowed Hinnerk to remain as the leader of Ozerograd for five long years. They expressed that to the envoy. But…on the other hand, many of the townsfolk are tired of constant oppression. Anything, to them, is better than the five years they experienced. They would be satisfied with peace of some form, even if it was the likes of Mitrofan orchestrating that peace."

"But Mitrofan's a tyrant too, isn't he?" Arian asked, putting up his paw as he spoke as a polite gesture. "Why would they settle for being led by him?"

"A good point. But..the truth is that some view him as a lesser of two evils," Melchior elaborated. "Some think he wouldn't be half as oppressive as Hinnerk. As long as they do not oppose his rule, he will allow the people to carry out their business as usual. That was what the envoys promised. And that, for some of the townsfolk…would be perfectly fine."

"So what was decided?" Aldebrand asked.

"...It was a difficult choice," Melchior replied. "I was tempted to advise them to reject any notion of working with him. But...a number of townsfolk voiced their fears of potential retribution should they do so. Between them and those who were all for opposing Mitrofan…I decided to come to a compromise, and advise them to negotiate terms with Mitrofan with the hope of striking a deal in favour of Ozerograd's citizens. It wasn't long after this that I left for here. With luck, they may be able to strike a favourable deal."

"...Do they know you were there, Guildmaster?" Galen inquired.

"They did," confirmed the Swampert. "But I never showed my face to them. How do I know they weren't trying to apprehend me and present me to Mitrofan? Most collectively agreed that I shouldn't show my face to the envoys, and so it was arranged that I would remain out of sight while the envoys were in town. In order to leave town, I made sure to lay low, and I was lucky enough to not be followed."

"...So your approach was a pragmatic one, then," surmised the Medicham. "Mitrofan is our enemy, at the end of the day. But…we must think of the people, too. For the short term, at least, this may be the wiser move."

"Um, Chief, can I ask a question?" Lillian asked, raising her right claws.

Arian couldn't help but notice something at this point. When the Sandslash said the word, 'Chief', he couldn't help but notice an annoyed huff from Terran. What's his problem? wondered the Riolu.

"What about Hinnerk? And the Thorned Roses we rounded up?" she queried. "What about them?"

"...They are currently still locked behind bars," Melchior answered. "Nearly all of them resent their current circumstances. It's proven to be trying, keeping them in line. …On more than one occasion, some wondered why we were keeping them alive. But I stood my ground. Mercenaries do not kill, even in circumstances like this. Thus, they remain living, but imprisoned. Of course…there is little doubt that they will attempt an escape at some point in the future. The volunteers have vowed to remain vigilant should they try such a thing. I will also return to them in time, to see how things have progressed in Ozerograd.

"That is all I have to say. You are dismissed."

The guild members took this as an opportunity to return to their respective areas: Aldebrand to the kitchen, along with Terran and Rhiannon, Galen to the dojo, Raya to the infirmary, and Sifis to the mission boards. Teams Sandstream and Anima returned to their dormitories, while Team Mindfist followed Galen to the dojo.

That left Team Elpis alone. Arian turned to Elvira, and was about to ask her what she wanted to do, but he was interrupted by Melchior calling out to them.

"Arian? Elvira? I wish to speak to the two of you. Would you come to the office?"

"...Of course," Elvira replied, and followed, with Arian doing the same. The latter saw her face light up in realisation, as if knowing what was to come. The Riolu realised it too, at that moment.

Is he going to tell us what happened to Elvira's dad?

This thought struck a note of nervosity in Arian's heart. What does he know? If it's something that he's held off for this long, and the fact that Kallias still isn't here…A dark feeling grew in his chest. Please don't let the truth be what I think it is…

They entered the office. Looking around, Arian couldn't see any visible changes; it was the same office he had entered a few days prior with Aldebrand and Team Sandstream. This time, though, it was only him and Elvira, and the Guildmaster himself was here on this occasion. The Swampert sat down behind the desk, and Team Elpis took their places on the other side.

As they did this, Melchior took a breath, as if to calm his nerves. That was the greatest emotion exuding from the Swampert, as detected by Arian: nervousness and anxiety. Like we thought; he's afraid to tell the truth. Oh dear…This doesn't bode well…

"...How are you two?" Melchior began. "I hear you are settling in well to life as mercenaries."

"...We are," Elvira answered. "We've done some missions throughout this week, and no major incidents have occurred. It hasn't been too difficult, and it's been nice to receive thanks from our clients. It really does feel like we're making a difference. Not to mention, Arian's been getting good experience for his moves and abilities."

"Yeah…" That, Arian could agree with. Slowly but surely, he was gaining more knowledge on moves through field experience and reading about them, and was getting used to exploring Mystery Dungeons in the missions he and Elvira did. On the other hand, though… "It hasn't been all smooth sailing, though. Remember what happened earlier this week?"

"Are you still brooding over the Misdreavus?" Elvira said. "I told you already, Arian; I don't blame you for what happened. You were confused at the time. Don't get in a heap about it." She turned to Melchior to explain. "A wild Misdreavus used Confuse Ray on him during a mission earlier this week, and he accidentally attacked me in his confusion."

"Ah." Melchior nodded in understanding. "I've had that happen to me before. It happens to the best of us, Arian. I wouldn't fret about it if I were you."

"...I suppose," Arian said, though it didn't fully erase his guilt over attacking his partner. To change the subject, he returned to the good parts of the week. "The Guild's been really kind and helpful to us, as well. They've given us all kinds of helpful advice for adventuring, and they've helped us feel right at home here in these new surroundings."

"That's good to hear. So all is going well with the two of you, then," the Swampert summarised.

"Yes. It is," was Elvira's reply.

A silence passed. And quickly, it became an awkward one. Everyone in the room knew exactly what was to be discussed. And everyone knew the meaning of what it would be to have those details divulged. But given the sensitivity of those details…it was understandable that the unease in the room would be thick enough to cut with a knife.

"Melchior…" Eventually, it was Elvira who spoke. "...Why have you really called us here? It can't just be to ask how things are going with us, is it?"

"...It isn't," the Guildmaster admitted. "I haven't forgotten our conversations in Ozerograd about this. I said to you on both occasions that it wasn't the time to discuss it. But…I'm not going to put it off any longer. No more procrastinating. No more stalling. The more I keep doing it, the more mistrust that will develop between the two of us, Elvira. And that's the last thing I want right now.

"What happened on the day of your father's disappearance…I'm ready to tell it."

As we thought.

"Um…before we begin, can I ask something?" Arian queried, as a thought came to him. "Should I…be here? This is a delicate matter between you two, isn't it? I don't want to make things awkward…"

"You aren't making things awkward, Arian," Elvira promised. "We're a team, remember? We always look out for one another. If what happened turns out to be…a sad truth, I want there to give me some comfort if I need it. And besides…aren't you curious to figure out what happened to Dad?"

"...I am. But…this sort of feels like your thing. …How do you feel about it, Melchior?" Arian asked the Swampert.

"I have no problem with you being here, Arian," Melchior answered. "My reasons are much the same as Elvira's; teams should be there for one another during moments like these, when uncomfortable truths have to be revealed. To shoulder one another's burdens is one of the many facets of working as a team."

"...I see what you mean," the Riolu said in understanding. "So…what did happen to Elvira's dad? Or Fernblade Kallias, as everyone calls him?"

"..." Melchior paused, wondering where to begin. "In the aftermath of the assassination of Tsar Kliment and his family, Kallias and I, along with a number of other mercenaries, were outcasts following Mitrofan's seizure of power. It would go against our creed to support he who had murdered the royal family in cold blood. In response, he declared us outlaws, and bounties were put on all our heads."

"...I remember that," Elvira said, her expression becoming bitter in remembrance. "Dad came home to us, holding a wanted poster of himself. He was desperate to move us out of the country, over to Miletos where we would be safe. But Mom wouldn't budge. She refused to go there, especially with me."

"...Why would she do that?" Arian asked, confused. "Why wouldn't she go there?"

"...I haven't told you about Miletos, have I?" Elvira said. "...I'll tell you another time. The short version is that if I were to move to Miletos, then, when I was thirteen and full of aspirations, my dreams of becoming a mercenary would've been killed stone dead by the attitudes and traditions of the people there. It might've been risky, staying here…but I can understand why Mom didn't want to move to Miletos.

"I just wish Dad agreed with her." Sadness crept into her voice. "There was a lot of arguing between them about this. They got along so well as a couple. They rarely argued at all. …Hearing them argue like they were the worst of enemies was heartbreaking. I never want to experience that again…"

"It's okay," assured Arian, giving her a comforting pat on the back. "It's in the past."

"...Thanks, Arian," Elvira said, grateful for the support. "But Melchior," she asked, going back to the topic at hand. "What was all this about 'a secret mission'?"

That drew a sigh from the Swampert. "...Mitrofan was a good man before all of this. Stern, but reasonable, just, and right-minded. What would compel him to kill the tsar and his family in so bloody a manner? Kallias and I were both intent to find this out. We wanted to unearth the cause behind his sudden change in behaviour. We tracked down eyewitnesses to what he was doing prior to the assassination, and what might have happened to warp him. We found nothing definite…but suppositions of people seemed to lead us to the Empyrean Mountains. Thus…that was where we headed."

"...Um, I have another question," piped up Arian. "Elvira, how did you know about their 'secret mission'?"

"Dad told me," Elvira elaborated. "Before he and Melchior left for that mission, he came back to see us, where he told us about their findings. He was annoyed he hadn't found anything substantial, but in his optimistic way, he held out hope that he would find something. The next morning, after breakfast, he left for the mountains." A wistful look came into her eye. "That…was the last time I saw him."

"Oh…I'm sorry to hear that," Arian offered, not sure what else to offer other than condolences.

"I met Kallias in Lukomoria," Melchior went on. "We began our trek up the mountains, to search for clues as to Mitrofan's sudden shift. But…something was off with Kallias. He mentioned having an ominous feeling of foreboding, as if something bad was going to happen. He couldn't place exactly why he felt this way, but…he was uneasy, as we went into the mountains." He looked to the side, in regret. "...Maybe I should have taken that as an initiative to turn around and go home, even if he insisted otherwise. Especially given what happened next…"

"...What happened next?" Arian queried.

"..." Melchior remained silent at first. His face was ridden with guilt and remorse, as he considered his answer. "...We were…heading for a village in the mountains, supposedly one by the name of Forynun. We had heard rumours that this fabled village existed high up in the mountains, and we hoped that it could yield the answers to our questions. If nothing else…at least it would be a good place to hide from Mitrofan's authority.

"During that trek...was when it happened."





Five years ago…



"Do you really believe this Forynun place will hold the truth about what happened to Mitrofan?" Melchior asked, as he and Kallias made their way up a rocky gradient.

"...I don't, to be honest," admitted Kallias. "But we've come this far. Now's not the time to give up."

"...You don't have to keep doing this, Kallias," the Swampert said, worried for his partner. "If you're still uneasy about doing this…then we can always retreat and do this again. It's not we're under time pressure to find it."

"I'm fine," Kallias shrugged off. "It's probably just nerves playing at me. Everything will be fine. I just have to keep telling myself that. Really, Melchior, I'm okay."

Melchior was about to ask, "Are you sure?" but chose to hold his tongue. That was the same question he'd asked over and over whenever the Sceptile's unease showed.
It's not like him to be like this, he ruminated. …What if something does happen, like he fears? I'd much prefer to quit and go home, if something ominous is on the horizon…

They continued their hike up the mountains. They weren't high enough on the mountains that they were in snowy territory, and even if they were, they would be treading on dangerous ground. Specifically, because past a certain altitude, such terrain was forbidden to be in unless they had been granted special permission from the Church, for they classed the lands there as sacred to the Creator. That was something Team Marshwood did not have, or many others for that matter. Even high-ranking nobles had difficulty obtaining permission.

Could Forynun be in that forbidden area? pondered Melchior. Mmm…I'm not fond of the idea of treading on religious ground. After becoming outcasts in Selenia, it would be a bad move to alienate the Eastern Alliance because we disobeyed the Church's protocol. Would it be worth it to find out Mitrofan's secret? Maybe not…but we'll see how far we can we reach the restricted area.

Soon, they came to a noteworthy point. High rocky slopes lay to either side of them, and a dominating gorge lay before them, with a rope bridge across it. Below the bridge, in that ravine, lay a rushing, tempestuous river.

"A bridge?" noted Kallias. "Hmm…Who made it, I wonder? Where we are isn't exactly a well-travelled route. "

"...Is it safe to cross?" Melchior looked down into the narrow valley, and immediately wished he didn't. "That's quite a drop…and that bridge doesn't exactly look the sturdiest."

"...Rope bridges never usually are," Kallias pointed out. "Not compared to stone bridges, anyway. …But it seems like it's the only way across. Besides…it's not like this is the first time over a rope bridge. Just don't look down and we'll be fine."

"..." Melchior was about to protest, but realised what his partner said about there being no other way across was probably true. Given the sheer steepness of the gorge, and the remoteness and altitude of where they were, the chances of another bridge close by upstream or even downstream were slim at best. As much as he didn't want to admit it, the rope bridge in front of them was the best way across.

"...Very well." His tone suggested great unease. "Oh, what I wouldn't give to have wings like a Pidgeot to fly across with…"

"We should only go across one at a time, so we don't put too much strain on the bridge. …I can go first, if you want," offered the Sceptile.

"No," Melchior denied. "I'll go. The sooner I cross, the sooner I won't have to worry about crossing it." He took a deep breath, and began to cross the bridge.

Kallias's statement was indeed true; the bridge showed signs of instability, with the odd creaks and groans here and there. The Swampert's unease held up, but he did his best to not look down, and with immense relief, he made it to the other side.


"Whew," he breathed. "Thank Arceus that's over."

Over at the other side, he saw Kallias begin his journey across. The Sceptile wasn't as tentative as Melchior, for he was not as frightened of heights as his partner was. He was careful, though, taking care not to shake the bridge too much, and he mostly succeeded, due to him being lighter than his partner.

He was soon halfway across the bridge. However…it was at that point that disaster struck.

Suddenly, without warning, the ground began to shake with a great and powerful force.


"An earthquake?!" Melchior cried out in alarm. "Kallias, quick! Get off the bridge!"

"I'm trying!" Kallias called back. But the tremors were swaying the bridge greatly, making it difficult to advance steadily. That wasn't to say he didn't move forward; despite the fierce shaking, he managed to get to around three-quarters of the way across. He was nearly to the other side, and was about to rejoin his partner on solid ground.

However...fate had other plans.

On the other side that they had crossed from, the quakes had destabilised the rock slopes. With the shaking intensifying, the faces began to crumble, and heavy rocks began to fall down. A fast-moving rockslide occurred, and quickly blocked the path Melchior and Kallias had come up.

But that wasn't the worst of it. In its path of destruction…the rope bridge's supports lay. And when those were quickly swept aside…the bridge had no point of anchorage for one of its sides, and subsequently gave out…while Kallias was still on it.

Melchior watched this in horror, realising what was about to happen.


"No! Kallias!"

Worse still, he could do nothing. He couldn't jump in to save his partner - he was too far away to grasp hold of and bring him to solid ground. The only thing he would accomplish would be him joining his partner in the latter's precarious situation.

Kallias tried hard to jump to his partner on the other side. But the bridge had already given out from under him, and he couldn't manage such a move with no ground on which to stand. He was in freefall, and plummeted into the river below.


"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

A piercing splash sounded, amid the rumblings of the earthquake. Melchior saw his partner disappear into the raging river below.

"No! It can't be! This can't be happening! Kallias! Kallias!"




"...No…" Elvira's eyes were wide, in disbelieving shock. "Please tell me it's not true…!"

"...I wish I could say otherwise," lamented Melchior. "But…that was the last time I saw Kallias, being swept away by that cascading river. And not just any river. The River Agrios…an infamous river that mostly flows through Miletos. A short river in its run to the sea, but a deadly one. They say if someone is swept away by its rapids, there's a high chance they'll never be seen again. Multiple people I spoke to attested to this fact, and a number had known people whose lives had been claimed by the river."

"...Dad…" Tears entered Elvira's eyes. "...Dad's gone…? S-Swept away by a river...?"

"...Hang on a minute, though," Arian said, not wanting to fully believe that all hope was lost. "Surely it's not impossible that Kallias survived? Surely not everyone who was swept away that river was lost forever?"

"...I thought that myself too, after what had happened," Melchior replied. "I refused to accept that Kallias was truly gone. But while I was lucky to be mostly unharmed by the earthquake, I was trapped by fallen rocks for some time, and it was a good few hours before I could safely extricate myself from it, and down to the river. I spent many days along that river, scouring for my partner all along it. I also visited nearby villages to gather potential witness accounts. But alas…no clues were unearthed. I've continued to search along the Agrios River in all the five years since Kallias disappeared, but still nothing. In truth, I want to believe my partner never perished in the river, and that he's still alive and well somewhere. But…" A grim look came into his eyes. "...Five years without evidence to this isn't a good sign."

"Oh…" A crestfallen expression flashed across Arian's face.

"...So that was why you said he was 'missing', when you came to inform us about him," Elvira said, emotion filling her voice. "You never truly believed he was gone. …But why, Melchior? Why did you keep what happened to yourself? Mom and I…we were worried to no end about what happened to Dad! We deserved to know!" Tears came in greater quantities now, and the Treecko began to audibly sob.

Melchior flinched at the look of hurt in her eyes. "I…didn't have the nerve to speak the truth. I was a coward, and couldn't work up the courage to inform you of what really happened. The truth that I wasn't able to save Kallias…That hurt me more than anything. At a time when my partner needed help more than any other time…I couldn't help him. I wasn't able to help him. As his mercenary partner…I failed him. And subsequently, I have failed you, Elvira, for not keeping your father safe." He bowed his head in sorrow. "I'm sorry…No amount of apologies I give you will ever be enough…"

"..." Elvira had no words for him; she only continued her sobbing.

"...There, there, Elvira," Arian comforted, patting her on the back. His attention then turned to Melchior. "...Is that why you were nervous about confessing? Were you afraid Elvira would shut you out because you couldn't save her dad?"

"...Yes," Melchior admitted. "And I wholly regret not plucking up courage sooner to tell you the full story. I made a grave mistake, and I can't apologise enough for it. But…that's why I want to work together with you now, to make up for my previous failures. If I couldn't save Kallias, I can at least keep his daughter safe."

"...Elvira, don't shut him out," Arian recommended, his voice soft in recognition of his partner's fragile state. "I'll agree he didn't handle the whole admitting the truth business well. …But he's the best ally we have right now. Surely you can forgive him for this? …If you don't, things will only become awkward between the two of you. It'll get worse the longer you leave it, just like with what Melchior had to deal with."

The Treecko didn't reply immediately. Given how shocking the revelation had been for her, it took some time before she was in a state to utter a reply.

"...I suppose," she eventually said softly, her voice shaky after her crying. Once she had composed herself enough through breaths and clearing her throat, she began again. "...My grievance is more about you withholding this, Melchior. I'm not mad that you weren't able to save Dad. By the sound of it, you couldn't do anything, given the circumstances. But you are still Dad's partner, and something like an uncle figure to me. I can forgive you, Melchior. Just…promise me you won't keep such a great secret from me again. …Please?"

"...I promise," pledged Melchior. "You have my word."

"...Thank you."

"Oh, but while we're on the subject of secrets…I'd like to ask you something, Arian." The Swampert's gaze fell on the Riolu. "Is it true what I was told about you by Aldebrand? That you claim to be a human?"

"...Yes, that's true," Arian confirmed. "I know it sounds hard to believe, but…"

"It's alright, Arian," assured the Guildmaster. "I don't think any less of you for it. I admit it is a strange claim to make, but I can see that you are a just person with morals in the right place. That's enough to see you as a good man in my books. …Regardless, I understand your reservations about being called a human, and I'll keep it to myself."

"Thanks, Melchior," the Riolu said gratefully.

"It is no problem, Arian. …And continuing with secrets…there is something I need to be honest about. But I'd rather not say it to everyone for fear of morale loss. ...Can I trust you two to keep this quiet?"

"...Of course, Melchior," Elvira promised. "What do you want to say?"

"...When Hinnerk said that I was hiding Kallias away to unleash him at a time of uprising…I wish he was correct. I'd love nothing more than Kallias to be here, and able to help me with running and building up the Guild. Without him…I don't feel as confident going forward. Of the two of us, he was the more proactive, dynamic one, whereas I was seen as the one who kept him grounded and down-to-earth. He was always grateful for that, but…the truth is that he gave me the confidence to keep him in check. I'm indebted to him for that. He was the greater half of the whole that was Team Marshwood…and without him, I fear that people will be able to see for themselves that fact."

"No, Melchior," Elvira denied. "That's not true. You're still incredibly capable in your own right!"

"...Indeed. I've done my best to try and fight as a lone unit in the past while, as opposed to what I've been doing all of these years. But…it's not the same as fighting with my partner," Melchior said downcastly.."We built quite a reputation, the two of us. But Kallias's disappearance has left a great hole in my heart, and thus it's only now that I've come out of the woodwork, alone. And now people may well be expecting me to head a revolutionary movement to overthrow Mitrofan…" He shook his head in dismay. "The Guild, I can handle. But a figurehead of rebellion? …The thought makes me uncomfortable, to say the least."

"...I get it. That can't be an easy thing to have weighing on your mind," Arian sympathised. "...But we'll still stick by your side, Melchior, whatever ends up happening. Won't we, Elvira?" he asked his partner.

"...Yes. It's what Dad would want, if he were here," Elvira seconded. "He would want us to work together. And he'd also want you to keep on going without him, Melchior. …If it's any consolation, I doubt Dad would be comfortable either, if he was in your shoes."

"...No, indeed," agreed the Swampert. "...Thank you both, for hearing me out. Those were some worries I wanted to get off my chest. But please, like I said, keep it under wraps."

"Don't worry, Melchior. Your secret's safe with us," promised the Treecko.

"...You're a good pair, the both of you," Melchior praised. "In fact, given the good work you've done this week, and even prior to joining the Guild…I think the two of you should be promoted to Bronze Rank."

"Really?" Arian's ears pricked in surprise. "Already?"

"Yes. You two deserve it, given what you've accomplished. And usually, it doesn't take a long time for new mercenary teams to climb up to Bronze Rank. It's perfectly attainable for newcomers; it's not surprising you've earned it this early. It certainly didn't take Kallias and I long to earn Bronze Rank after we became a team together. And we definitely didn't do as great a service as to dethrone a gang leader like Hinnerk before even joining a Guild. You've definitely earned the promotion."

"...Wow. Thanks, I guess," the Riolu replied. "So…what does that mean for us now?"

"It means greater rewards for the missions we complete," Elvira explained. "Also, we'll be deemed capable of taking on tougher missions, which are worth more in terms of money. …Do keep in mind, though, that climbing the ranks will be harder from here on out. It'll take a lot more effort to get us to Silver Rank."

"No problem," Arian waved off. "That's nothing we can't handle, the two of us."

"And I have no doubt you'll reach that point before long," Melchior predicted. "...But before I let you go…there's one more thing I have to give the two of you." He got up, and went over to where an adventurer's bag, presumably his, lay. He dug into it, and pulled out two items that made Elvira gasp in shock.

Specifically…two items of fabric, one blue and one green.

"...What are those?" Arian squinted to look. "Are they…scarves?"

"They are, indeed," Melchior confirmed. "Both of them were knitted by your mother, Elvira. She wanted to give them to the both of you."

"...Mom…knitted them?"

"She did. Just as she did for the two of us, back in the day," he reminisced. "...We loved them. They gave us a new look that we liked, and nearly everyone complimented us on them. …You two would benefit from a similar look, I feel. …Oh, and on that note, I already told your mother about what happened to Kallias. …She was sympathetic, saying it wasn't my fault and that Kallias wouldn't blame me for what happened. …He was lucky to have someone like her by his side…as are you, Elvira."

"...She's so kind…" Elvira sounded like she was about to cry again. "...Oh, Mom, thanks so much…"

"Here's yours." Melchior gave her the blue scarf. "And here's yours, Arian." He gave the Riolu the green scarf.

"...This is pretty nice," Arian complimented, liking the feel of the garment. "I'll try it on later."

"...What about your scarf, Melchior?" Elvira asked. "Where is it? Why aren't you wearing it?"

"...I still have it," the Swampert replied. "…As you recall, it was green, to represent the bond between Kallias and I. …However, it doesn't feel right to wear it, not when he's not by my side. That's why I simply haven't donned it. But…a day may come when I put it on again. Maybe if I need him to give me strength for a tough battle…I'll wear it once more.

"He still has a strong influence, that man. …I do hope, one day, I can see the face of my partner once again…No matter how slim the chances, I…still hold out hope that he's out there somewhere…"

"...Maybe so," Elvira said, a small tinge of hope in her voice. "...But let's not forget what we just said. He'd want us to continue on without him."

"Of course," accepted the Guildmaster. "...Well then. I believe that's all I have to say to you for now. It should be near dinnertime. I'm beginning to get hungry. Are you?"

"...Yeah," answered Arian, suddenly realising the growing empty feeling in his stomach. "I could do with some grub."

"Well, let's head, then," Melchior suggested. "If it's Aldebrand cooking, it's never a meal you want to miss. And I've missed enough of his meals this past week."

And with that, the three left the office to head for the mess hall. Mixed emotions raged in all their hearts, but all three were willing to look on the bright side of things. In a world of adversity and hardship, when mishaps had occurred…it was the least they could do.

For that was something their absent comrade would want of them. What happened to him, they knew not…but two of them did have a good feeling as to what he would want.

And keeping an optimistic view was most certainly one of them.
 
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Chapter 13

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 13

Remembering, Learning, Training



"No, Kallias. I won't do it."

"But Zenobia, don't you realise what this means? You and Elvira…you're just as in danger as I am. More so, if anything. If Mitrofan truly has gone off the deep end…then you could well be prime targets for him, just because you're related to me. It's exactly what cruel leaders do in a time like this."


"I know, Kallias. …But I'm not going to Miletos. End of story."

"...Will nothing convince you to change your mind? What about Elvira? What about her? Don't you care for your own daughter's wellbeing?"

"...All the more reason not to go to Miletos. Elvira, with the likes of them? I won't have it. I will not leave Elvira's fate in the hands of people like them."

"Come on, Zen. You know there's many people in Miletos who don't think like that. That's the whole reason you were even able to come with me and leave your old life behind. If we didn't have the backing of people like that on our side, you and I would never be where we are now."

"...Maybe. But I still think it was more your influence that had a say in things. Those attitudes in Miletos still haven't gone away and they won't go away anytime soon. I don't want to imagine the ways in which they'll try and suppress Elvira's ambitions. The amount of freedoms they'll cut from her…And more to the point, we don't know how long this will be for. A month? A year? …Will Elvira have to spend her teen years in a land of prejudice and endless curtailment? I'm sorry, Kallias, but as her mother, I can't agree to this."

"Well, what about one of the other countries? Dresilia? Alba? There's surely people who would be willing to look after you."

"...Dresilia is too alike to Miletos in its philosophy. Not as restrictive, but…I wouldn't be comfortable living there. And Alba's climate is unsuitable for someone like me with Dry Skin. Besides…think about Elvira. She's built up a great circle of friends here in Ozerograd, and isn't plagued by any kind of worries. As such, she has healthy aspirations, encouraged by you and the people around her. You would strip that away from her and kill her dreams stone dead? The people of Miletos would never approve of someone like her!"

"That's not the point, Zenobia! If she stays here, there may well just be as equal a chance her dreams may be killed stone dead, as you say! There's no Guild to begin with! All mercenaries have been declared as outlaws in Selenia. If Elvira follows in her dreams, the only place she'll end up going to is her grave! It's not safe here for the two of you! You must flee!"

"We do not know yet what will happen, Kallias! That might well be an overreaction, if we move now! Given what Miletos is like, we could well be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire!"

"You would not be doing that, Zenobia! I'm telling you, Melchior and I personally met with Mitrofan, and it's like he's a completely different man from who he once was! For us mercs to be hunted down like fugitives…how long will it be before he decides to hunt you and Elvira down? You could be killed, or worse! Yes, worse! Kidnapping you and Elvira, and using the two of you as hostages to force me to do evil - that's a very real possibility! I wouldn't put it past him! …No, not him. Not Mitrofan. That…monster that my friend has now become. …How could this have happened? Why would my good friend do this…? He, who had the upstanding morals he did…how could he have killed the tsar and his family, burned down the Guild, and declared all of us outlaws? …Why? Just why?"

"...Oh, Kallias…come here. You've been through a lot…Just let it all out. I'm here for you."

"...*sniff*...Damn it! Damn it all! Why did this have to happen?! Why?!"

The sound of anguished crying was all that could be heard after that.






"No!"

Elvira's eyes shot open in alarm. Her heart was beating speedily in panic, and she found herself breathing rapidly. But when she saw the stone ceiling of the caves she had become used to over the past while, relief came over her.

Phew. Just a dream. I'm not living in that time anymore. Just…bad memories. That's all they are. Quickly, she closed her eyes again, and tried to get back to sleep.

But to her annoyance, sleep never came. As thoughts did in these situations…they saw to it sleep was kept at bay. And so Elvira was forced to remember those times once more

Turbulence…uncertainty…what a time that was. And what I wouldn't give to forget they ever happened. I really don't want to live through that again…Mom and Dad never argued like that. And then Dad…he…

She winced, remembering her father's anguished pleas.

He really must've been in turmoil emotionally. It must have been sickening, seeing one of his best friends and companions turn into someone so ruthless and murderous. And then to disappear, just like that, without seeing that loose end tied up…Poor Dad. Poor, poor Dad…

Elvira laid there for the next while, staring at the ceiling. She was unsure of what time it was, nor did she really find herself caring to know that fact. Thoughts of pity and mourning for Kallias went through her mind, and also thoughts of what was said that night did the same.

Should we have listened to Dad? Should we have left Ozerograd? Even if it meant going back to Miletos for Mom…would it have been for the best? Especially given what came after…

Memories of Hinnerk, Mikhail and various Thorned Roses came into her head.

Would it have been better to flee before we became ensnared by their thorns?

Her mind preoccupied herself with questions like this. She never went back to sleep, but endlessly debated the scenario in her head, wondering what could have been. Despondence crept over her, and she admittedly felt like crying at times, but she resisted the tears, fearing she'd wake up her partner, who was sound asleep in his own bed.

Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity of contemplation, Elvira heard stirring from that direction. Looking over, she saw Arian let out a yawn, and rub the sleep out of his eyes. He looked over at her, and saw she was awake.

"Morning, Elvira," he began.

"...Morning," the Treecko muttered, unable to muster any kind of enthusiasm.

"...Is something wrong?" As always, the Riolu was quick to notice this. "...Oh, wait. You don't need to tell me. Is it to do with last night?"

"...Yes," she answered. Might as well tell him the whole truth. "I had a bit of a flashback last night, and…it woke me up."

"A flashback? Do you mean…like a nightmare?" Arian presumed, judging from her gloominess.

"A nightmare of sorts," confirmed Elvira. "Except it wasn't in a way, because it was exactly what happened on a night five years ago, when Dad came home after Tsar Kliment was killed."

"Hmm…" Arian thought back to what had been divulged last night. As he mulled it over, one detail stuck out to him. "Didn't you say your parents argued about leaving Selenia? 'Like the worst of enemies,' you said."

"Did I say that? …That wording might've been a bit strong, now that I think about it," Elvira self-repudiated. "But…Mom and Dad did argue about it. And…I admit that I may have listened in on what they were saying."

"...Oh." Arian's eyes widened in realisation. "Oh no…Let me guess. You heard things you shouldn't have?"

"...I did. I shouldn't have, but curiosity got the better of me. And so I listened in to try and hear what they were saying…"

And so Elvira told him all of what she recalled from the flashback. Arian listened intently, wishing to be a voice for his partner's woes when she was done. What he was hearing, though, he found it impossible to not feel sympathy for what she had been listening to. Who wouldn't feel for her? Only the heartless, that's who.

"Then the arguing died down. And then Dad…he…for the first time that I can remember, Dad was actively crying at all that was happening. …I've never seen him like that before. He was always the one that would cheer me up on days when I was off form. He was always this source of endless optimism; no matter how bad the situation was, he would never fail to find a way out. That's why I admired him so much, not just as a mercenary, but as a person. Problems simply seemed to melt before him. …To see even him broken down by all of what was happening…that only made the situation more hopeless. And hearing that my lifelong ambition now had a slim chance of coming to fruition?" Elvira looked down in despondence. "...Now that I think back on it, that might've been the moment my hesitation about becoming a mercenary began. And it stayed with me for five long years…"

"Well, that rot's ended now, hasn't it?" Arian reminded. "You're a mercenary now, in the Irian Guild. You got there in the end."

"I know. But…it's about Dad as well. He always gave me confidence and encouragement when I talked about wanting to become a mercenary. I loved him so much…" She gave a long, sad sigh. "I just wish my last days with Dad were…happier than what actually went down."

"Oh, Elvira…I'm so sorry you had to go through all that," Arian condoled. "I know everyone's said it a million times already, but I don't think it can be said enough times. You didn't deserve a loss like that." He opened his arms. "Here. You need a hug."

Before Elvira could react, the Riolu wrapped his arms around her in a comforting gesture. The Treecko was initially taken aback by the move, but accepted it nonetheless. She recognised his want to help her, and she appreciated the comfort that he gave she needed it. It was unusual, being hugged so emotionally by someone who she'd only known for a week and a half and who wasn't related to her at all.

But he didn't have to be. This was Arian, her mercenary partner. And mercenary teams always looked out for one another, whether in battle or in moments of emotional strife. She could see he was fulfilling the latter side of things quite well.

…But perhaps a little too well. After a while, she found his embrace to be rather suffocating, and his tight grip was robbing her of air.

"...Arian," she breathed, trying to communicate that she wanted out.

"...Oh! Sorry," apologised Arian, realising what she wanted, and released her from his hug at once. "I didn't mean to do that…"

"It's fine," assured Elvira. "...Arian? Can I ask you an honest question?"

"...Sure. What is it?"

"...Do you think Dad was right? Should Mom and I have evacuated Selenia five years ago? Especially given what happened to Ozerograd right after…was it the right decision to stay put? Should we have gone to Miletos instead? …I know you're maybe not the best person to ask, but…I need a second opinion on this. More than anything…"

"Hmmm…" Arian considered his partner's question. "...As much as I hate to say it, I don't know if I can truly answer your question, Elvira. Mainly because…I don't know what could've been. I don't know what Miletos is really like, so I can't truly say whether or not your mom was in the right by not bringing you there. It never happened, anyway. So why wonder about it? The way I see it, there's no point in dwelling on what could have been. The only thing we can do is look to the future. Wallowing in regret about what you did or didn't do in the past won't solve anything. …I don't blame you for doing it. We all do it at some point. But it really doesn't solve much."

"...You might be right," Elvira replied, although with a hint of reluctance.

"I will say this much, though," Arian continued. "Because you didn't leave Ozerograd, you could see exactly what was going on with your own eyes. You knew just what the Thorned Roses were doing to Ozerograd. If you'd fled to Miletos, you might not have been as aware, and therefore, you wouldn't be willing to help. And it's as your mom said; you would be cut from your friends and those you know in town. Would that be something you'd really want?"

"...No, I suppose not…"

"And there's another thing too," the Riolu added. "If you'd gone to Miletos and abandoned your house, then…you never would have found me washed up on that beach, and we'd never have met and done this thing together. Who knows where I'd be without you? …Maybe the Thorned Roses would've found me. And then I might've become one of them." He pulled a face at the thought. "Ergh…that's not a reality I want to imagine."

"Definitely not," agreed Elvira. The image of Arian wearing a Thorned Rose armband and grinning evilly conjured itself in her mind, and she mentally tried to push it away. "...I suppose you have a point. I got to meet you this way, and you were the one that helped me to put my dream back on course. …I get it. Thank Fate for the fortunes we receive, rather than curse them for our misfortunes."

"Well…not necessarily the last part," Arian replied. "My point's this, really. We just have to move forward, despite all that comes our way. Even if it's something like transforming into a Riolu, like what happened to me. Or…on a more tragic note, what Melchior told us last night. Even to a hammer blow reveal like that, we have to keep looking ahead."

"...I guess." The Treecko's voice still carried that same reluctance to accept from earlier. "...That's what Dad would probably want, too. He wouldn't want me to be moping about what happened to him. …Maybe…as much as I don't want to…it might be best to try and move on from what happened to Dad. Now I know the truth about what happened to him. …It's a hard truth to accept, but…sometimes that's just the way the world works."

"Well…If you need help, you can talk to any of us in the Guild. We all said that last night. And we mean what we say," Arian responded, thinking back to last night's dinner, after Melchior had unveiled the truth behind Kallias's disappearance. Elvira had received an outpouring of support from just about everyone in the Guild, and everyone promised her that they'd be there to comfort her if she so wished. Given the fragile emotional state the Treecko had been in, she found herself in tears at their kindness.

"I will," Elvira pledged. Before she could continue, though, she let out a yawn, and she realised at that point how tired she was. Staying up for several hours in contemplation hadn't helped her sleep any.

"You tired?" Arian asked.

"...Mmhm," murmured the Treecko. "...What time is it, anyway?"

"...Breakfast time, I think," the Riolu answered. "I can hear movement from some of the other rooms. …You know, I could always ask Aldebrand to save a bit for you, while you get some more rest. He'll understand."

"...I might do that," Elvira decided. "...Thanks, Arian. You've been a great help."

"No problem," Arian returned. "Just focus on getting on some rest. You deserve it." And with that, he got up and left the girl to catch up on the sleep she missed.

He walked towards the mess hall. Delicious smells emanated from there, which made Arian's stomach growl in hunger. Eager to taste Aldebrand's delicious cooking, he hurried himself inside, where a number of his fellow mercenaries were seated at one of the long tables. He got a tray and a bowl, received some appetising-looking porridge complete with nuts and chopped berries, informed Aldebrand about Elvira's condition and joined his comrades, sitting next to Isaac.

"Morning, Arian," greeted Lillian. "How did you sleep?"

"I slept well," the Riolu answered, as he dug into his breakfast.

"...Where's Elvira?" Axel noted. "The two of you always come out together for breakfast. …Is she alright?"

"She's fine," Arian assured. "She just needs a bit more rest. She didn't get enough sleep last night."

"...Can't blame the lassie," Ishmael replied sympathetically. "Ya would do, if ya were in 'er boots."

"Mmm…Indeed," Serafina agreed, mournfully. "To think the great Fernblade Kallias met his end in such a manner…I cannot sympathise with Elvira enough."

"Nor can I," Lillian seconded. "I don't blame her at all for breaking down in tears last night. That feeling of losing loved ones like that…It's never an easy thing to have to go through. I still have both of my parents, so I can't say I understand how Elvira feels. But I do know what it's like to lose people dear to you. And it's one of the worst feelings in the world."

"Hear, hear," Axel concurred. From his tone, and from the looks that had developed on Team Sandstream's faces, Arian couldn't help but find himself wondering if there was some history with this. He was tempted to ask, but held his tongue. Best not to get too personal. It might be a delicate topic with them.

"...Returning to the topic at hand," Isaac then interjected. "...It would be wise to not speak of Fernblade Kallias's demise outside of here. If the people caught wind of it, that would only dampen our chances and bolster Mitrofan's cause, knowing that one of his strongest adversaries has perished. It might well kill any chance of revolution we have."

"...I think that would be for the best," Arian said in agreement. "It's not exactly an easy topic to talk about, anyway. Besides…there's still a question mark over whether Kallias actually died or not. Melchior never found his body, after all."

"...With all due respect, Arian," the Espeon replied, in a doubtful tone. "This is the River Agrios we're speaking of. It's an infamous river for good reason. The swift currents, rocky riverbed, depth and quick-moving rapids all make for one of the deadliest rivers in Ardalion. Few, if any, who have fallen in have lived to tell the tale. The chances of even Fernblade Kallias surviving its flow are slim at best."

"...Tch. Way to kill confidence there, Izzy," Ishmael admonished.

"It's the truth," Isaac justified. "Deluding ourselves to it will only do us greater harm in the end. It would be a miracle if Fernblade Kallias did manage to survive. But five years have passed since he fell into the Agrios River, and not a trace of him has been seen since. …Not a promising sign, is it?"

"But..." Arian tried to protest, but the words died on his lips. He wanted to believe Kallias still lived. However, he could not deny that Isaac raised good arguments. And coupled with what Elvira had told him earlier, that maybe she was ready to begin moving on…he reluctantly found himself having to agree with Isaac's words, as he took another mouthful of breakfast.

Still…can it really end, just like that? Is that really how a great hero like Kallias met his end?

"...Can we talk 'bout somethin' else?" Natalie requested. "This is a bit heavy, all this talk 'bout Fernblade Kallias…"

"I agree," Serafina said. "It is time for a change in topic."

"...Actually, I have one," Arian brought up, keen to bring up something that had been bugging him since last night. "I've been hearing about Miletos a lot recently. But the way it's talked about by people…Is there something up with the place?"

Right after asking this question, Arian could tell there was an immediate shift in atmosphere. Looks of tension formed on the expressions of a good few of his fellow mercenaries, and the human got the feeling the answer he was about to receive was likely to be a contentious one. Oh dear…Did I ask something a little too controversial?

"Something up with Miletos?" Lillian said. "...I guess you could say that."

"...Why's that?" asked Lex. "I've never been to the place. Ise, you can tell us, can't you?"

“Certainly,” Isaac gladly accepted. “...Miletos is the strongest and most influential power in all of Ardalion. In their alliance with Dresilia, they’re near unshakeable as a power. We in Selenia could never hope to match their sheer might. Alas, that power has gone to their heads on more than a few occasions. And very often, they always lust for more like the craven they are. Most of the time, we as a nation have felt the brunt of their power-hungry ways.”

“Indeed,” Serafina took over, her lips pursed. “There was a terrible famine in Selenia that took place two hundred years ago. It devastated our country and many, many people perished. Part of that was Miletos’ fault, who did nothing to alleviate the country they’d taken over for their own gain. Their negligence strangled us as a nation, and if not for the efforts of Team Hope, Selenia may have withered altogether.”

“It caused a bitter animosity that still remains today,” Isaac went on. “You couldn’t simply forget such mistreatment, even if it was two centuries ago. But Miletos never looked back in shame. No public apology was ever given. And their current ruler will hardly kowtow to Selenia, if his actions are to be believed.”

“Who would that be? Their current ruler?” Arian asked.

“That would be Archon Pyrrhus, a vainglorious ruler who has ruled over Miletos for the past thirty years or so. If rumours are to be believed, his tyranny rivals or even exceeds that of Mitrofan. He has brought absolutism into his hands and the people live or die by his words. Some strategoi over there protested at this concentration of power. In response, he had the protesting officers executed and replaced by loyal followers of his own. Many of them are putrid, incompetent yes-mon who wouldn’t know leadership if it hit them in the face.”

“Geez…he sounds like a piece of work,” remarked Arian. “Almost like Mitrofan.”

“Both bottles an’ glasses,” Ishmael growled. “No-good fucks that wanna mess shit up for folks all ‘round. All Mets are gits, but ‘e’s a real arse, ‘e is.”

“Why did you ask that, Arian?” Isaac then said. “Amnesiac curiosity, perhaps?”

“Er, yeah. Sort of.”

That wasn’t the whole truth, but Arian didn’t want to go into detail for Elvira’s sake. I think I figured it out anyway, he thought to himself. Sounds like an awful place to be, Miletos. If Elvira moved back there with her mom and dad, that would be a bad move. She’d definitely lose a lot of freedom if she went there. …Then again, not like staying here is much better…

"Hey, forget all this doom and gloom about Miletos," Lex chimed in. "Arian, are we gonna have this spar or what?"

"Oh, right, of course," Arian said, remembering what the Cranidos had said yesterday afternoon, when they'd met for the first time. "We'll do it today. But I'd rather wait till Elvira wakes up and has something to eat first."

"Sure," Lex accepted. "The more, the merrier! It wouldn't feel right if only you were there. Since Isaac's coming as well, it'd be better if Elvira was there too."

"You're doing a good job of looking after her," Lillian complimented. "You're a good teammate, Arian."

"Well, that's what team partners are for, aren't they?" Arian reasoned. "I wouldn't be a good partner if I didn't look out for Elvira." He paused to eat up the last of his breakfast. "...Well, that's that. Guess I'll just find something to do until she wakes up."

"Any missions today, Arry?" Ishmael asked.

"No," Arian denied. "We've been doing missions for the past few days. I think we'll take a break today and hone our skills here at the Guild."

"Fair enough," the Krokorok replied. "Gotta 'ave breaks from time to time. Shame we can't stay; we got our own missions lined up today."

"As do Natalie and I," Serafina added. "We shall see you once we have completed today's tasks."

"Good luck with them," Arian wished to both teams, before returning his tray and bowls to Aldebrand to be washed. Then he returned to the main area, weighing up his options.

"Hmm…"

He looked across the hall, towards where the dojo area was.

"...Yeah. I guess I'll go there."





The dojo was quiet when Arian arrived; no one else was there. Not even Galen, the manager of the place. This wasn't uncommon, the Riolu had been told, for the Medicham usually meditated at the waterfall at the edge of his dojo, and thus usually couldn't be seen at first. Arian wanted to go and ask for permission to use the dojo, but he remembered his first encounter with him, and this made him hesitate.

Should I ask him? the Riolu pondered. Hmm…no. He recalled the way the Medicham snapped at Ishmael for interrupting his meditation. I don't want to be on the receiving end of his fury. Best not to interrupt him.

But then what? When will he be done with his meditation? That's the kind of thing that could go on forever…and I really want to scratch this itch to train that I have right now. I guess I could go back to my room…but Elvira's asleep in there, and I don't want to wake her. …What a predicament. Maybe I could just be quiet while I train? Is that feasible? …Maybe Galen won't hear me,
he thought, although doubtfully.

Arian lined himself up in front of one of the dummies. Taking a breath, he readied himself to use a Metal Claw on it. He slashed forward, and cut its torso. It wasn't a deep cut, though, which disappointed him inside.

Come on, he self-criticised. I can do better than that. He decided to up the force on his next attack, charging a Force Palm and striking it dead on in the chest. This broke the dummy's centre with a crack, and with that, it fell to pieces.

Arian winced at the noise. …Did Galen hear that? Please tell me he didn't…

"...Hm. Seems the wood on that one was a little more brittle than I thought."

"Ah!" Arian jumped at the sudden voice. Looking over at the path to the waterfall, he saw Galen standing there. "Sorry, I didn't mean to break the dummy! I didn't mean to interrupt your meditation, Galen! I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Please don't get mad at me!"

"...You don't need to apologise. That's what the dummies are there for: to be destroyed in training," a slightly bemused Galen replied. "And as it so happens, I was finished with meditation some time ago. I'd normally put up a notice telling others they were not to disturb me. I must admit, however…I've forgotten to put it up the last few times. I apologise for that."

"Yeah…I don't remember seeing any notice up when Team Sandstream were showing us around the Guild," Arian reminisced.

"I must've forgotten, then. I suppose I only have myself to blame for my behaviour when we first met." Galen bowed sorrowfully. "That explains your jumpiness around me. My apologies, Arian."

"It's okay," Arian assured. "At least you're not always like that. I'm relieved about that more than anything. …Say, are you busy right now?"

"...Not at all. If it's fighting capabilities you seek, then you're speaking to the right person," the Medicham answered, having a feeling what the Riolu was going to ask.

"Great. I was wondering…if maybe you'd be willing to give me a few pointers?" Arian requested. "You see, I read up on Medicham recently. You're a Fighting-type like I am…and you can learn Force Palm as well. I was thinking…maybe you'd know a thing or two about what I'm capable of."

"...I shall certainly guide you, if you so wish," Galen obliged. "But to do that, I would like to see you at it again with a training dummy. Only this time…" A glint came into his eye. "What's say we make this one a little more interesting?"

"...You've got something up your sleeve," Arian observed.

"Indeed, I do. Go and stand in front of one of the dummies, if you don't mind," Galen requested. Arian followed his instruction and did so. "Now…watch the power of a psychic at work!"

Galen closed his eyes, and he raised his hand. To Arian's surprise, the dummy in front of him became enshrouded in a strange pink aura, and began to physically move.

"Oh yeah…Medicham are Psychic-type," he reminded himself. He found himself fascinated by the abilities of some Psychic-types, and he'd seen Isaac psychically levitate objects for his own purposes. He was no less intrigued now…but he did realise exactly what Galen was doing. He's animating the dummy so it'll be an actual opponent against me. Hm…that's actually clever. Better than just beating up a post of wood and sandbags…

Arian shook off his amazement once he saw the dummy heading for him. Quickly, he switched to a fighting stance and got ready to launch a Metal Claw at the dummy. He slashed forward…

…But he missed, and the dummy let him feel the weight of that error with a strike to the stomach.

"Oof!" Arian cried. "Alright, take this, you hunk of junk!" He charged a Force Palm and managed to strike the dummy in around the abdomen area.

"A good hit," Galen complimented. "But that's not good enough on its own. This dummy's material is more durable than the one you destroyed before." Thrusting forward his arm, he psychically commanded the dummy to deal a punch to Arian, which landed, causing the human to stagger back in slight pain.

"...Right," he murmured. This is harder than I thought. Being beat up by a training dummy…Good thing most of my fellow mercs are out of the Guild today. That would be a bit embarrassing. …Come on, Arian. You can win this.

Arian saw another punch incoming. But this time, he dodged it, and used a Quick Attack in retaliation, aiming to strike one of the dummy's arms to disable it. This worked, and the hit was powerful enough to tear it to splinters. Now it only had one arm to work with. With that weakness now exposed, things became easier for Arian. Wanting to be a bit more fair, he targeted the chest area with a Force Palm, and landed the blow. This made an impact; a dent was made in the sandbag that made up the dummy, and sand began to leak from it.

"...Hmm," Galen murmured. To Arian's dismayed surprise, he stopped using his psychic powers to animate the dummy, and it crumpled into a ruined pile of wood and sand.

"What? Galen, why did you stop?" Arian complained, somewhat peeved that he couldn't finish the job.

"The writing was on the wall for that match. As well as that, I wish to contribute my own advice, as you wanted," Galen explained. "You did well during that. But there are some skills you need to improve on."

I should've seen this coming, the Riolu inwardly sighed. "What could I improve on?"

"Your dodging, for one," the Medicham replied. "Some of those hits were slower hits that someone of greater experience would have little trouble avoiding. To put it simply, that's something you must work on, especially given your capabilities as a Riolu. Some species of Pokémon have strong defensive capabilities, thus lessening the need to avoid attacks, but Riolu are more fragile than that. Dodging and parrying hits are two skills that would be beneficial for you to master."

"Okay…" Arian said, nodding in understanding. "Is there anything else?"

"Yes. Your Force Palm," Galen went on. "I have little doubt it's your strongest move."

"Of course." The Riolu nodded. "I use it all the time."

"And you don't use it poorly. But at the same time…there are ways to better utilise your strikes with it, to draw out more power." The Medicham took this opportunity to line up in front of one of the other dummies. "Allow me to demonstrate what I mean."

He took a breath and closed his eyes, reasserting his focus. Then his right palm lit up with the familiar glow of Force Palm that Arian had become so familiar. Realising what was to happen, the human watched intently, seeing what he could glean from this.

Galen's left hand then went behind his glowing right. He walked slowly up to the dummy, and thrust his palm forward.

"Hi-yah!"

It was a sight to behold in Arian's eyes. The physical hit landed, but what really drew Arian's attention was the short blast of white light that originated from the Medicham's glowing palm.

The dummy stood no chance, and before the power of Galen's Force Palm, it crumpled to smithereens.

"Wow…" Arian remarked. "What was that? What did you do, Galen?"

"Force Palm can be utilised in the way I demonstrated; by unleashing a short burst of energy," Galen replied. "This has a number of uses; for instance, Force Palm can become an attack with some range to it, a shortcoming for most of us Fighting-types, including you as a Riolu."

"I see…" the canine said in understanding. "...So how can I use Force Palm like that?"

"With training and dedication. And of course…meditation," Galen answered. "But before you give me your eye-rolling expression, Arian, meditation is quite important for you too, as a Riolu. For you see, not only does it aid your concentration and calm your mind…it also helps you to develop your aura."

"My…aura?" Arian cocked his head, confused. "What do you mean, Galen?"

"It is the power Riolu and Lucario are known for," Galen explained. "More so with the latter than the former. But Riolu have that power, and can use it, albeit to a lesser degree."

"...Can I?" Arian stared at his paw. "I knew I could read emotions, but…"

"That's part of it," the Medicham elaborated. "Through their aura senses, Riolu and Lucario are able to sense the emotions of others. But if tempered, their aura senses allow them to sense far more than that. Natures of others, mind reading…and even attacks. The move Aura Sphere, for instance, is a powerful attack that Lucario is able to learn, and it's seen as a main staple when we idealise Lucario."

"Aura Sphere? …That sounds nice. I wouldn't mind having a move like that to use," the Riolu said. A thought then occurred to Arian. "Do you know any other Riolu or Lucario? Maybe…they might be able to help me get to grips with what I might be capable of."

"Alas not." Galen shook his head. "Riolu and Lucario are a rare sight. Many live in isolation, far away from centres of population, and typically stay together. You would have to hunt hard to find one, and even then, you would have to convince them to teach you. And given their perceptive abilities, they would quickly be able to discern your human background, and that might lead to you being turned away by them."

"...Oh…I see," a disappointed Arian murmured in realisation.

"Not to worry," the Medicham said immediately. "I will do all within my power to help you bring out the power that lies within you. After all…I have something of a feeling about you. You were able to defeat Hinnerk, an opponent feared by many, even the most capable of warriors. And you claim to be a human. Somehow - and granted, this could be conjecture - I feel as though you being a human is what makes you special. As if it hides away some greater potential within yourself."

"...You think?" the human pondered. "I doubt it. Just because I'm a human doesn't mean I'm hiding some superpower. I'm not exactly invincible, and there's no way in hell I could have beaten Hinnerk on my own."

"But of course. No one is invincible, Arian," Galen replied. "Regardless, there are many mysteries about you, and your greater potential is one theory I believe is right on the money. …Further training is the only way to prove whether I'm right or wrong.

"But before we get to action, let's start off with meditation first, to calm yourself after that session. As I suggested earlier, it would be beneficial for you, Arian, to help you develop your aura senses. …And of course, there's no better way to rest oneself than with a period of calm through meditation," he added, as he crossed his legs in a meditative position.

Typical Galen. But…maybe he has a point, Arian realised. Maybe meditation would help me. At the very least, it couldn't hurt to give it a go.

"Sure," he agreed. "I'll do it." The human copied the position of the dojo master, sitting in a cross-legged position across from him.

"Close your eyes," Galen instructed. "Take deep breaths, and let them out slowly. Become more relaxed with each breath, and embrace the inner peace of your mind."

Arian followed the Medicham's instructions, and took breaths. Attempting to visualise the inner peace of his mind that Galen had described, he pictured a vista of pure tranquillity: a green field as far as the eye could see, with beautiful mountain scenery. The scene could not be more perfect: the sun shone, there was a calm breeze, and the air was crisp and clean…

"We really live in a beautiful place, don't we, Papa?"

"We do, my boy. Free from all the world's troubles, and surrounded by the amicable, supportive people of our village…I knew I made the right decision to stay here in the end. And thank the blessings of the Creator for it. It was his vision that saw the creation of the sheer beauty of this place. I wouldn't trade anything to be anywhere else but here. Not where I'm separated from you and your mother."

"Aw…thanks, Papa! You're the best!"

"...Thank you, my boy. …But perhaps it's time we head back to the village. I'd rather not get a search party sent for us again."

"…Mama really worries too much sometimes, doesn't she?"

"She only cares for us. That's all you could ask for in a wife, and a mother."

"Yeah. …I love Mama. And you too, Papa. You're both the greatest parents in the world."

"...And I you, my boy. You make me proud."

Arian snapped out of his trance.

What was that? What did I just hear?

"Arian?" Galen's voice drew him away from his thoughts. "Is something the matter?" The Medicham's eyes were open, and he was gazing at the canine with a questioning look.

"I…don't know," Arian replied. "I'm…not sure what just happened. But when I went into meditation and tried to create this peaceful image in my mind…I suddenly began to hear voices."

"Voices?"

"Yes. It was like…I was living through a memory. A memory of a child and his dad talking."

"A memory?" This caught Galen's attention. "Could it be…a memory from your past, perhaps?"

"...Maybe. But I'm not fully sure yet. I mean, the memory, if it is that, was a happy one, so…I'm not against the idea of it being from my past," Arian answered. "But I can't prove it. There's not much to go on."

"...Some truths do not reveal themselves immediately," was the dojo master's response. "Perhaps in time, you will have an answer for this."

"...I hope so. Because it does make me curious," the Riolu replied. He remained in his cross-legged position, deep in thought about what played out in his mind. Does it mean anything? Is it really a memory from my past, before I caught amnesia? And if so…was that really me and my dad talking?

He thought back to it. In it, there was definitely a father and a child talking. As well as that, it seemed to trigger when he imagined this idyllic landscape. Is that a clue? Did that memory take place in an area of beauty? That memory did talk about it…especially the dad. …I don't recall the voice in question. It doesn't sound familiar. And the child…

Wait a minute,
he suddenly realised. That voice…I've heard that voice before. Just where did I hear it before…?

"There he is! He's with Galen!"

"Hm?" Once again, Arian was forced out of his thoughts, as he looked to the entrance to see Lex, Isaac…and Elvira.

"Hello, Arian," the latter greeted.

"Hi, Elvira," Arian said in return. "Did you get some sleep in the end?"

"I did. I feel a bit better now," the Treecko replied. "And now I'm ready for this spar with Isaac and Lex."

"...You look as though you've had a workout already," Isaac noted, as he sniffed the air.

"Yep," Arian confirmed. "I did some training with Galen before this."

"Did you teach him anything?" Lex wondered.

"Some things. I never turn down an opportunity to train an eager student," Galen defended. "And Arian was quite keen to hone his technique. I couldn't deny that enthusiasm. …Besides, if you win, victory will be all the greater, given your opponent's advantage. Defeating tougher opponents is a vital lesson for up-and-coming mercenaries like yourselves."

"Tougher? We'll see about that," Isaac said. "Defeating Hinnerk could not have come without the help of Team Sandstream. How good are you without their help? Are we sure it wasn't merely a fluke?"

"That was not a fluke," Arian insisted defensively, despite himself wondering that same question a number of times since he had beaten the Obstagoon. "We'll prove to you our strength's the real deal. Won't we, Elvira?"

"We will," the Treecko said, with confidence. "We might not have the might or rank of some more experienced teams, but we're far from weak."

"Come on, enough talking!" Lex interjected. "More battling! Then you can prove if you're weak or not!"

"...I suppose he's right," Arian said, finding himself agreeing with the Cranidos's words. "Let's get into this."

The two teams lined up on opposite sides of each other. Galen took his place out of their way, off to the side.

"The winner will be the side who knocks out both opponents of the opposite team," the Medicham stated. "You may not use items in this battle. Victory must be determined by your own abilities, rather than your skill with using items. Now then…" He held his hands up, and clapped them together. "Begin!"

The moment he declared this, Lex charged forward. Immediately, Arian realised he was dead in his sights. Thinking quickly, he dodged out of the way, just before his adversary's attack connected. He got to his feet and readied a Force Palm to counterattack with…

…Before, all of a sudden, pink circles entered his vision, and he felt pain that caused his move to fizzle out.

"Wh-What? Agh!" It was like a force was pulling him at all ends of his body. What is this? Ow…this really hurts…

Then he looked over, and saw Isaac's gem glowing, as the latter was using Confusion on him.

Oh. Right. Isaac's a Psychic-type. That means…he's strong against me. …Oh dear. This one's gonna be an uphill battle…

But it's not unwinnable, just as Galen said. A disadvantage doesn't mean I can't win. Especially…when I have a reliable partner by my side.


It was at that moment that Elvira used Mega Drain on Isaac, and the distraction from that caused the pain to cease.

"Thanks, Elvira," Arian said. He didn't wait for a reply, though; he kept his focus on the opponent in front of him. Lex was barely phased by his miss, and just as quickly reared up again for another attack. Energy coated his skull once again, and he threw his head forward. Regrettably, Arian didn't fully dodge in time, and received a hit from the Cranidos' Headbutt.

What he was not expecting, though, was the sheer force behind the attack. Arian found himself thrown some distance away from where he had landed. He got up, dazed and shocked at what just happened.

"...What was that?!" he asked. "What did you do? …Argh. Ow," he winced, feeling the pain on his torso where his opponent had struck.

"...I used my head," Lex replied, unable to resist a grin at what he had just said. "See, Isaac! I can say smart stuff!"

"...Clever. But save your witty banter for when we're done, Lex," Isaac advised. "Cocky words and actions might only embolden them."

"...Careful, Arian," Elvira advised. "Cranidos are known for their sheer physical prowess. Even one hit from Lex is going to pack a serious punch."

"That's right," Lex said. "Understate me, and you're gonna regret it!"

"...True. Underestimate my partner at your peril," Isaac subtly corrected. "Stick to battling, Lex. It's what you do best."

"Gotcha, Ise!" obliged Lex. "Now…onto you, Elvira!" He lunged forward once again, this time revealing his fangs and ready to use Bite.

"Not likely," Elvira countered, and with the use of Detect, effortlessly dodged the dinosaur's attack.

"...Detect, hm?" Isaac observed. "...Looks like nothing can be done there for now. Let's focus our attacks on Arian instead. That way, it'll be one less opponent to deal with."

"Me?" Arian's eyes widened in horror. Both of them? Oh crap. That last hit took a lot out of me. If I get hit by their attacks, there's no way I can keep fighting! I need to keep going…

Isaac's gem glowed red, and Arian felt the pain from the Espeon's psychic power once again. But he powered through the attack, resisting it despite the increasing strain he was being put under.

"Hang on, Ise! I'll help!" Lex volunteered. "Take this!" He lunged forward with his skull poised to strike, and struck Arian with Headbutt again. "That should do it."

"...Oh, really?" Arian breathed. "Think again." A red glow surrounded him, and though he was panting heavily…he still stood.

"B-But how?" Lex was dumbfounded. "How did - " He didn't get a chance to finish his sentence before Arian slammed a Force Palm into him, pushing him away.

"Endure…" Isaac observed.

"Arian! I'll help!" Elvira called out, before using Mega Drain on Lex. The combo proved to work quite well, and after it had been dealt, the Cranidos was in similar straits to Arian, on the verge of being defeated. "There. That should even the odds a bit."

"I don't think so," Isaac shot back. He unleashed a different attack, this time one that shot star-shaped rays at his two opponents. Seeing them, Arian attempted to dodge out of the way, but the effort was futile; they chased him down and hit him anyway.

"...No…I think that's me down," he said regrettably, as he tried to get up without success. "Sorry, Elvira…"

"...No worries," Elvira returned. "I'll finish this. A team isn't defeated unless all of its members fall."

"Quite right," Galen seconded from the sidelines. "Victory is never a guarantee at a point like this. The odds may be in favour of Team Mindfist, but they must push further for victory, if they want it. And though Elvira's on her own now…that doesn't mean she's exhausted all of her strategic options."

"Duly noted," Isaac said. "Well then…what tricks do you possess on your own, Elvira? That…I would like to see."

"You won't be disappointed," Elvira promised. "Now then…I know I said it already, but let's even the odds a bit. For real this time." She focused her attention on Lex, whom she unleashed another Mega Drain on. The Cranidos was unable to avoid the attack in time, and joined Arian in having to throw in the towel.

"So that's an even playing field, you say?" the Espeon remarked. "...I wonder about that. Arian and Lex are alike in many ways - both yearn to get into the thick of things. But are you and I alike? Are you the 'brains' of Team Elpis, just as Arian seems to be your 'brawn'?"

"...You know, I really don't like labels like 'brains' or 'brawn' to describe people's fighting style," criticised Elvira. "My dad taught me that the best fighters have both at their disposal. Sharpening one edge of the blade is no good; both strategy and power have to be constantly honed if someone wants to be the best warrior they can. There's an old Miletan quote about this. …What was it again? Something about cowards and fools…"

"'The leader that separates his warriors from his tacticians will have his battles fought by fools and strategies devised by cowards,'" Isaac recited. "I'm aware. I've read my share of the works of Miletan historians. That specific quote comes from Chapter 1, line 46 of the History of the Tyrant King's War, written by Euthymios of Lefkada. …I'm surprised you know of it. And I'm glad that you do. Because I don't believe in that nonsense of brains and brawn either. Logic and strength in the one warrior…truly, the ultimate combination. But do you have both? Come. Let's find out!"

After saying this, he used Confusion. Elvira took the hit, luckily resisting it better than Arian did due to her partner's type disadvantage against Espeon. Even so, the Espeon's psychic power was made apparent through that attack alone. He and Lex…quite a powerful pair. Even without his partner, Isaac's still a force to be reckoned with. …I need to make a similar stand. I shouldn't need to rely on Arian's help all the time. There might well be a time in the future where I'll have to rely on my own strengths, rather than depend on Arian. Now's as good a time as any to start on that…by getting some of my strength back.

Elvira cast Mega Drain again. It was a slight relief to her, feeling herself regain some of her energy. It wasn't much, but it was a way to deal damage and heal herself at the same time. The latter was important, especially in a duel where no items like Oran Berries were allowed.

However, her opponent instantly struck back with a Quick Attack. The look in Isaac's eyes showed a determination that would not give in until a substantial conclusion to this spar had been reached.

"I can do that too, you know," Elvira responded, and hit back with her own Quick Attack.

"Not a unique factor," shot back Isaac. "Quick Attack is plentiful, learned by a high proportion of Pokémon. I would be disappointed if Quick Attack is all you have to offer me."

"Of course not. How about this, instead?" Elvira then got up close, and launched a Leafage attack at Isaac. At close range, the Espeon found himself unable to dodge the Treecko's flurry of leaves, and many of them dealt a number of cuts to him.

"...Not bad," Isaac panted. That was an encouraging sign for Elvira; she was wearing her opponent down, and he was getting close to giving in. "...You have skill, Elvira. You deserve praise on that front. But…our spar's not over. Not until one of us yields. And I have no will to admit defeat now!"

At that point, he suddenly turned around. Before Elvira could react, Isaac kicked his rear legs backward, and she got a face full of sand.

"Agh!" she cried, as the sand got in her eyes. "Sand-Attack?"

"Quite right," Isaac declared. "Just the move to trip you up at this point in our spar."

"Doesn't matter," Elvira breathed. "I can still defeat you!" She launched Mega Drain. However, her obfuscated vision thanks to Isaac's Sand-Attack made it for an effortless dodge from the Espeon.

"As I predicted," the psychic said. "Now to capitalise on your mistake!" His gem glowed, and Elvira was hit with Confusion once again.

Urgh…not good, the Treecko thought to herself, as she felt the Confusion wear her down. This sand's really blurring my view. At this rate, Isaac's got this in the bag. He has Swift, after all. Just one Swift might well be enough to finish me off. If I'm to win…I need to make this count.

"This should wrap things up," Isaac said. As Elvira predicted, he used Swift, and the star-shaped rays of the attack came careening toward her. It seemed inevitable that he would win…

…Unless the unmissable attack happened to miss. Which it did, much to the shock of the Espeon.

"But…oh, that's right," he realised, recalling earlier in the spar. "You know Detect…"

"...Yes, I do," Elvira replied, her eyes glowing in a familiar usage of the move. "And I'm not going to let this go to waste."

"...Hmph," Isaac huffed. "That can only keep you safe for so long."

"I know that. But it's like I said. I won't let this go to waste," the Treecko vowed. "And I know just what move to use."

The next thing Isaac knew, a Quick Attack struck him. To his annoyance, it hit him head-on, despite the Sand-Attack's effects still plaguing his opponent. And worse still for him, it felt like Elvira had put her all behind the attack, and as such, it hit harder than it normally should have. Coupled with the previous attacks, the Espeon found himself on his side, and struggled to get on all fours again.

Even he knew when to give up. And so Isaac uttered the words confirming his submission.

"I yield."

This caught Elvira by surprise. "You do?"

"Yes. I submit."

"...That decides that, then," Galen said from the sidelines. "The winner of this match is Team Elpis!"

"Elvira, you did it!" congratulated Arian, coming up to her. "You won us the victory!"

"...I merely did my best," the Treecko played down. "To be honest, I didn't think I'd manage to win the spar at some points…"

"Well, let this be known to you, Elvira," Galen said, as he walked over to them. "Never doubt your ability to claim victory. There's a reason why the saying 'clutching victory from the jaws of defeat' still holds up today. No matter how dire the battle situation may seem, it is never impossible to triumph in the face of adversity. …That goes for you too, Team Mindfist. It was a close match that could have gone either way."

"It was," agreed Lex. "And it was a good one! You're great sparring partners, the both of you! Let's do this again sometime!"

"Indeed," Isaac concurred. "I wouldn't be so sure of victory going to you, though. I'll see to devising strategies that will lead to your defeat next time."

"A good plan," Galen approved. "It would be a way to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each of your fighting styles, and how to improve upon them. I myself have spotted a few things. In the coming days, I'll teach you how to improve your fighting technique."

"We'll look forward to it," Arian replied. "...That was a good workout. But you know what? I still feel ready and raring to do stuff. …Is that strange?"

"Not at all," Isaac replied. "Riolu are known for their stamina, like most other Fighting-types. You most likely still have energy to burn."

"It should be around noon right now," Elvira said. "...We might still be able to do a mission today. …But after a short break for me. I don't have the same stamina you have, Arian."

"That's okay. I can wait," Arian accepted. "Let's go back to our room. There's more species of Pokémon I haven't read up on yet. …You're not the only one who'll be studying up on strategies, Isaac," he added, targeting his words at the Espeon. "I'm no slacker to making up plans."

"...I look forward to seeing what you come up with," Isaac returned. "I would hate to see your strategy stagnate and fail to grow beyond typical means."

"You won't be disappointed," promised the Riolu. "Later, you two!" He left the dojo, with Elvira following close behind.

"...Heh. Looks like we hit the jackpot with good sparring partners, eh, Ise?" Lex said to his partner.

"...We did. Arian and Elvira…" Isaac looked at the duo as they disappeared out of sight. "...Ones to watch, those two. Something tells me…they're not the kind of people that will fade into obscurity. I can't prove what will be, but…it's just a feeling. And one I'd put stock in."

Just what will they achieve, though? That intrigues me more than anything. Hopefully that's a question that will come to light in due time.





Notes

A bit of a filler chapter, this one, intent to show greater interaction with Galen and Team Mindfist.

The quote Isaac recites is a paraphrasing of a quote by Thucydides. Of course, given this world of fiction, a similar ancient scholar with a different name takes his place. In relation to this, the location mentioned, Lefkada, is named after a Greek island. Miletos itself is named after the ancient city of the same name in Asia Minor, and its people and places take mainly after Greek names. More on it when we get to it, though.

The movesets I use aren't based on any particular generation or game, but rather a mishmash of various generations. For instance, Lex has Bite here, which Cranidos only learns in Legends Arceus and not in any generation prior. But then he also has Headbutt, which Cranidos doesn't have in Legends Arceus. I don't obey any particular system when it comes to moves, but instead amalgamate moves from a few generations.

Update (22/1/23): I changed the dialogue when Arian asks why Miletos is bad to focus on the authoritarian nature of Archon Pyrrhus.
 
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Chapter 14

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 14

Rumours, Part 1



One morning a few days later…


"Wow…this is fascinating…"

"What is it, Arian?" Elvira asked. Looking over, she saw her partner engrossed in a book.

"I'm reading this book about the history of mercenaries in Ardalion," Arian told her, looking up from his tome. "So it was this tradition that mercenaries were hired hands for armies, and were common back in an era when wars between the nations were common. Then in Alba, this new kind of mercenary's guild was set up that did any job for the right price. But…it was literally any job, no matter what it was. They signed up for armies, but they also did small stuff, like treasure hunting, routing bandits, finding lost people…just about anything you could think of, they'd do it. Jacks-of-all-trades, really. …A bit more like what we do today."

"So you're immersing yourself into Ardalion's history, are you?" Elvira wondered.

"I am. If I'm to better adjust myself to this world, it'd be best if I know the various cultures of it," Arian reasoned. "But I found this book about the history of mercenaries, and after reading it, I'm a bit hooked."

"...What era are you on?" asked the Treecko.

"I just finished the end of the Great Selenian Famine," the Riolu answered. "...Interesting. I never knew Selenia was annexed by the Eastern Alliance two hundred years ago."

"That's true," Elvira confirmed. "It's one of the reasons why Selenia and the eastern countries have a bone to pick with one another. …Oh…so you read about Team Hope, did you?"

"Yep. They sound like real heroes," Arian answered. "They really lived up to that name, being a beacon of hope in a time of crisis. When the starving Selenian people, ridden by blight and denied help by their occupiers, needed help more than ever, an unknown trio rose up and did just that. Gamaliel, a Blaziken, Vilmantas, a Togekiss, and Tatiana, a Luxray - they all followed in the footsteps of the kind of mercenary that had been established in Alba and brought it to Selenia. They founded the Irian Guild, and built the foundations for what it later became. Through their help, they recruited other people who wanted to follow in their footsteps to their cause, and built up quite a following. They then aided Prince…" He looked back at the book, double-checking the name. "...Kaloyan in overthrowing his brother, Tsar Rihard, who was effectively a puppet of Dresilia and Miletos's regime. He then set about planning an uprising to drive the occupiers out, with Team Hope and their fellow mercenaries backing him every step of the way," he said, reading from the book directly. "And against all odds…they were successful in reclaiming this country. Selenia remains free from the Eastern Alliance's control to this day."

"It is quite a story," Elvira replied. "One of my old teachers loved to teach that era of history, and about the triumphalism of Team Hope."

"Is this the same teacher that Flora said was incredibly boring?" Arian guessed, recalling a previous conversation involving the Petilil.

"Yes," the Treecko replied, with a slight giggle in remembrance of past events with her friend. "But going back to that time. It effectively glorified mercenaries in Selenia, and got rid of that stereotype of them being bloodthirsty sellswords who'll kill anyone for the right price. If not for Team Hope's heroism, the Irian Guild would never have become as prestigious as it is today, and many more would have perished from starvation and disease. Many budding mercenaries strive to emulate the example that Team Hope created."

"...Hmm…you think maybe we could take after them a bit?" pondered the Riolu thoughtfully. "Because our name, Team Elpis, isn't too different from Team Hope. It's about being beacons of hope in a time of hardship. …That's not really too different to what Team Hope was all about, was it?"

"...I suppose not," Elvira considered. "...But on the other hand, the circumstances of hardship are different. Back then, Selenia was truly in an awful place. That was a time when people were dying in great numbers to the point that many weren't able to be buried properly. There was scarce little food, and most of what was able to be produced was sent off to the East."

"What? But…people were starving to death and dying in droves! And yet all that food that could have saved their lives was shipped off to people that already had plenty?"

"I know. Injustice at its worst. …Let's just say the Great Selenian Famine has caused a great deal of frostiness between west and east. A few tsars have tried to thaw relations, but…they've had to back down on a few occasions due to outcry from commoners and nobles alike. It's most definitely not been forgotten by Selenia, even if it is around two hundred years old at this time."

"...I'd say they have the right to be angry about it," Arian opinionated. "How could you forget something as cruel and heartless as that?"

"I don't blame you for sympathising with them," Elvira replied. "Just…don't do what some people do and label all people from the East as blackhearts. It's simply not true. Mom, Dad and Melchior are proof of that."

"Wait…" Arian processed what his partner just said. "What? You mean…Melchior, Zenobia, and Kallias…they're all from the East?"

"All from Miletos, yes," Elvira confirmed. "The short version of it all is that Dad and Melchior found that they'd have a better chance of carrying out their ideal life as mercenaries in Selenia. Around the same time, Dad met Mom, and the three of them migrated to Selenia. Dad and Melchior became a part of the Irian Guild, and once they'd found a firm home to settle in, Dad and Mom married. Not long afterward…I was born."

"...Wow…" Arian looked dumbstruck. "I…I never would have thought that Melchior and Zenobia were from another country."

"No, and that's because they've become accustomed to life here in Selenia," Elvira explained. "They're more Selenian than the Selenians themselves. And that's how they want to be seen. Dad and Melchior both felt far more at home here, and liked Selenia far more than Miletos. …And Mom…well…" she trailed off.

"...Oh right…" Arian realised, recalling a few mornings ago, when he'd comforted Elvira over this very thing. "...I suppose if what everyone said about Miletos's treatment of women is true, it's no wonder your mom feels that way. …What's the background behind it, though? …If you don't mind me asking?"

"..." Elvira paused, considering her words. "...I would tell you, but…I wouldn't be comfortable telling that exact story without Mom's approval. It's not the kind of thing she'd like being blabbed about to everyone."

"...Oh. Okay," Arian said in understanding. He was slightly disappointed to not hear the truth, but at the same time, he wanted to respect Zenobia's wishes.

"...Maybe you'll hear it one day," Elvira replied in consolation, presuming her partner's emotions on this matter. "Maybe when we visit home, sometime. When Mom's there to give approval."

"...Speaking of going places…that's what we ought to be doing," Arian announced. He folded the page corner of the book he was reading, closed it and put it near his pillow.

"Agreed," Elvira said. "...Let's go and see what missions there are."

The two walked out of their room and down to the main area. Once they reached it, they looked over at the noticeboards, and saw Serafina and Natalie browsing them. Sifis was also there, looking over more mission requests that had been sent in.

"Morning, you two," Elvira greeted. "Any missions?"

"Ah, good morning to you too, Elvira and Arian!" Serafina returned, with a curtsy. "Alas, not yet. We were still in the midst of deciding which mission to take."

At that moment, her eyes drifted over to a poster on the outlaw board. Arian noticed her gaze linger a little too long on a poster with an Araquanid on it, worth 3,000P. He'd seen that poster before when he'd first arrived, and recalled Sifis' warning of that particular outlaw being much too strong for the likes of them.

But then he sensed emotions of anger from the Meowstic, and saw her fist curl and shake. …Does she…know him? he pondered. By the looks of it…there's some history here. Should I ask about it?

"Well, that's that batch of requests done." Unfortunately for Arian, Sifis spoke up before he could. "If it's a mission you two girls are looking for, I've an ideal one for you among this lot." He grabbed one of the parchment pieces with his mandibles, and tossed it Team Anima's way. Serafina caught it.

"What does it say?" Natalie asked. Her partner cleared her throat and read from it.



Oh, heavens' woe! Cleave mine heart in twain! The most vulnerable and resistless of souls hath vanish'd from my care and sight! Beauteous Candice, a Vivillon with wings bluer than any ocean - she is who I beseech you to rescue. Seek her presence in the caves of Lapis Grotto, where, on the sixth floor, she awaits the aid of a saviour. Prithee, Guild of Iria, I implore ye: rescue this pure, innocent maiden, begone of wrongdoing, and deliver her to Karinina's Inn in Iria.

- Dio (Primarina)

- Location: Lapis Grotto (6F)

- Reward: 500P



"That's…an interesting way to word a request," commented Arian, noting the rich and sometimes archaic word choices.

"But 500P?" Natalie noted. "That ain't nothin' small. They must really want 'em back."

"Quite right," agreed Serafina. "We should take it and rescue them before they run into trouble."

"...Hang on a minute," Sifis interjected. "Before you decide and run off, there's another request here that's also got to do with Lapis Grotto. There." He gave it to Elvira, who read it aloud.



I am a musician who has need of Amplifying Crystals for a performance I wish to put on with a good friend of mine. They are commonly found in Lapis Grotto, not far from Iria. I ask that whoever accepts this request collects them and delivers them to me at Karinina's Inn in Iria.

- Khoroshev (Oranguru)

- Location: Lapis Grotto (Spring)

- Reward: 200P



"A bit less," Arian noted. "And…not quite as articulate as the last one."

"But look," Elvira pointed out. "These two missions meet in the same place when we're done with them. That's…rather convenient, actually. It would mean less time spent hunting down clients."

"...That makes things easier. …Hmm…" Arian then turned to Team Anima. "Do you two want to take these on?"

"...May I suggest an alternate solution?" Serafina proposed. "I propose we take on one mission each, and work together in the Mystery Dungeon. The total reward of both missions combined can then be divided between us. Taking into account both missions…that comes to the total of 700P. Divided in two, that makes 350P for both of our teams."

"350P?" That drew Arian's attention. That's a lot more than the average request. And we get to work together with Team Anima… "Sure, why not? I'm in."

"...So am I," Elvira seconded.

"Splendid!" Serafina celebrated. "Let us not delay, then. Let us prepare for this mission ahead."

She and Natalie then left for their room to prepare for the mission. Arian and Elvira did the same, and returned to their own room to fetch their materials.

"...I think we're alright for materials," Elvira said, checking the bag to see if they were low on anything. "Alright, Arian. Let's go."

"...No. Not yet," Arian replied. "You're forgetting something. Or rather…two things."

His gaze fell to the two scarves, one blue and one green, hung up side by side. They had been worn a few times now, usually when the two went out to go on missions. It was becoming a regular routine for them to wear their scarves, and they had received more than a few compliments regarding their new look.

"Oh, of course. How could I forget?" Elvira walked over to where Arian was taking the two of them down. He handed her the blue scarf, while he kept the green one. Both slung them around their necks, and tied them as they had.

"There. Now we're ready," Arian declared.

"...We are. Let's not keep Team Anima waiting."

And so the two walked out into the hallway.





"You two look so fetching!" praised Serafina, as she, Natalie, Arian and Elvira walked through the countryside. "Those scarves truly enhance your look!"

"I'm glad you like them," Elvira replied. "Dad and Melchior got a lot of compliments about their scarves, too. Then again…Mom did make both sets of them."

"Perhaps we should look to get scarves of our own," the Meowstic fantasised. "What say you about that, Natalie?"

"...Maybe," the Ledian replied, in her shy way. "They look nice. …Still, dunno if I'd wanna get attention 'cause of 'em…"

"...A fair point," assessed Serafina. "I was merely considering the idea of scarves becoming a uniform of sorts for mercenaries. It would give a stylish flair to our appearances. Team Sandstream would benefit from this, as would Team Mindfist!" she went on enthusiastically. "I shall see to it the idea reaches them, and I am hopeful they will take a shine to it."

"That's not a bad idea, actually," Arian expressed. "It'd let people know who we are. …What do you think, Elvira?"

"...Perhaps. But not right now," Elvira responded. "We're still outlaws at this time. We shouldn't wear outfits that will make us stand out. Then Mitrofan's allies will know who to look out for, and that wouldn't be too good at all for us."

"...I see your point." Serafina sounded dejected. "...Regrettable. But I understand what you mean, Elvira."

They continued walking along the road. Strangely for Serafina, she kept quiet for the next while, something Arian couldn't help but feel was out of character for her. Natalie's quiet disposition was more fitting for her to act this way, but her talkative partner, normally eager to gossip and chat, had little at all to speak of. For once, she was keeping her thoughts to herself, as opposed to expressing them.

Not wanting this awkward silence to persist, Arian decided to speak up.

"Is something bothering you, Serafina?" he wondered.

"...Oh, you need not worry about me, Arian. It is merely…" The Meowstic let out a long sigh. "...Reminding myself of my fugitive status now that I am a mercenary. Every time I think this…I am then reminded that it was once not this way. My father greatly respected the mercenaries of the Irian Guild, and often hired them to carry out missions for him. He even hired Team Marshwood on a few occasions."

"Your father? Oh yeah…you did say you were a noble, weren't you?" Arian recalled. "From…sorry, I don't remember the name of the place."

"Karelia," Serafina reminded. "My father was the lord of the oblast. It is a rural county, and alas, that means the knights' response to there is not as swift as it would be for other oblasts. As such, he often turned to the Irian Guild to solve Karelia's difficulties, given their good record and reliability."

"Karelia…" Elvira mulled the name over. "...Yes, I think I remember Dad telling me about that. Your father…Is he Lord Feliks, by any chance?"

"Indeed, he is. Feliks Jovanovich Dorofeyev," the Meowstic confirmed. "We are a family of four; he, my mother, my brother and I. I am Serafina Feliksovna Dorofeyeva, his daughter. …But you need not refer to me by my full name, nor even Lady Serafina, Just Serafina will do."

"Good to know you're not one of those snooty noble types who insist on proper titles for everything," Arian replied, feeling a little relieved at that.

"No, indeed. That would be too egotistical, making demands like that," Serafina said, in understanding. "As well as that, we are far from a rich noble family. In terms of the noble hierarchy in Selenia, our family is right at the bottom. We feel, therefore, that we have more in common with the commonfolk than other noble families, and so take after their customs more. …Unfortunately, this has not led to good relations with other Selenian nobles. Often, we have been on the receiving end of mockery, verbally and monetarily. The latter of which has become a significant worry within my family. My father refuses to raise taxes on the commonfolk, and so our family must bear the financial burden. We've had to live more frugally, and before all of this, I've heard talk of my family marrying me off in order to get a dowry to better stabilise their influences."

"Marrying you off? That's never good…" murmured Arian.

"...My father is aware of my worries. He has assured me that I will have a say in who will be my husband. That was what he said to me five years ago now, before all of this happened." She looked wistfully off to the side. "It truly is amazing, just how time flies…"

"...Where are your family now?" wondered Elvira. "Do they still rule over Karelia?"

"...Not my father, alas. He, like others, was vocally against the idea of supporting the reign of a murderer like Mitrofan," Serafina mourned. "We unfortunately had little choice but to flee Selenia altogether, lest we be murdered by those who supported him. My family fled to Dresilia, and that is where they remain today."

"Why are you here, then?" asked Arian. "Shouldn't you be with your family?"

"...I couldn't settle in Dresilia," Serafina admitted. "All the while I was there, I kept thinking about all those people under Mitrofan's thumb, and just how much I was to them, sitting in Dresilia doing nothing. I couldn't stay there. I had to do something. Then, one day…Melchior happened to appear in the village in which we were taking refuge. I confessed my situation to him, whereupon he told me about the underground Irian Guild he was in the midst of organising. and offered me membership. I accepted his offer, and…here I am. My family were worried, but they wished me well, and we still keep in regular correspondence with one another."

"...Quite a story," Arian remarked. "...Well then…where does Natalie fit into this? …If you don't mind me asking," he added, remembering the Ledian's reticent disposition.

"...Natalie has been my best friend since I was young," Serafina answered. "I wished to form a team, and I couldn't think of anyone I wanted more to be my partner. I therefore travelled back to Karelia, and informed Natalie of my proposition. I made it clear that she didn't have to join me in this considerably dangerous move, that she could stay with her parents and siblings if she so wished."

"But I didn't want ya to be on yer own," Natalie replied. "I've always kinda been a lone gal. But ya made time for me, and yer pa and ma forgive my kinfolk's debts. Ya helped me a lot…and I wanna help ya in return. So I came with ya, and we've been doin' this whole merc thin' for a few years now."

"So that explains how you came to the Guild, then," Elvira said. "...But may I ask how Karelia is doing at the minute?"

"...Well…it has been some time since we were there last," Serafina said. "...In all honesty…things could be worse there. Karelia is nothing like Ozerograd was. There is no wicked despot ruling the roost, and there is no gang that hangs intimidation over the people like a noose. …I cannot have enough sympathy for what Ozerograd went through. I met the Ozerograd lord's son, Dimitri, while in Selenia, and he was beside himself over what happened to his father and his domain."

"Oh yes…he was in Dresilia studying, wasn't he?" Elvira recalled. "...He's still alive. That's a relief."

"Indeed, he is. …But back to Karelia, if you do not mind," Serafina politely rerouted. "It is relatively peaceful, and…in many ways, the lives of the people have not changed much."

"Yeah," Natalie seconded. "It's 'cause most of us commonfolk aren't affected by all 'em political stuff. For us farmin' lot, it's still plowin' fields, sowin' seeds, pickin' berries, and takin' our food to market. Only big thing that changed is who we're payin' our rent to."

"And who would that be?"

"...My uncle," Serafina revealed. "Lord Rafail Jovanovich Dorofeyev. The younger brother of my father."

"...Is he a bad ruler?" Arian wondered, trying to judge the answer based on Serafina's emotions. She seemed unhappy about this last part, and he wanted to dig deeper to find out why.

"...I would not say that," the psychic cat replied. "He knows how to rule, and those beholden to him do not seem aggrieved by his rule. He is far from a despot; that, I can say for sure. And I know my uncle. He was a fair man when I was younger, and acted as an advisor to my father. He also loved the oblast in which he lived, and the people who lived there."

"...Okay. He seems alright. …So what's the problem?"

"The fact that he's where my father should be. The fact that he supports Mitrofan even now, despite the brutal murders he carried out towards Tsar Kliment, Tsarina Yelizaveta, and Prince Leonid." Serafina's tone was laced with contempt. "Uncle Rafail is effectively Mitrofan's representative in Karelia. Like a number of nobles, he was most likely been offered some sort of deal that would give him the position of the oblast's lord, and took it once a good deal was offered. Either that, or he was threatened. Threatened with execution if he didn't comply. After all, that is how Mitrofan rules. Comply with him, or you shall be sent straight into Yveltal's embrace. …It does guarantee peace. But peace brought about by fear is no peace at all," she finished, her lips pursed with silent fury. Beside her, Natalie gave a concerned look towards her partner.

"...I had a feeling it was like this," Elvira remarked. "Fear brought about by threats of compliance, and corruption through bribery and coercion…it's a sad sight, to think that this is being carried out in our very own country like this." She gave a long, downcast sigh. "...Why, Mitrofan? Why did you suddenly change like this?"

"...Actually, about that," Arian brought up. "From what you told me before, it's like your dad and Melchior knew Mitrofan personally. By the sounds of it, they seemed like they were good friends. Who was Mitrofan before all of this?"

"...Oh my," Serafina uttered. "Do you not know, Arian?"

"...Not know what?" the Riolu said, brow furrowed in confusion. "Am I missing something here?"

"...Did I not tell you?" Elvira said, in slight surprise. "Oh goodness…this will come as a bit of a shock to you, then."

"What will come as a shock? Elvira, what are you talking about?"

"...I'll just come out with it straight," the Treecko decided. "…Mitrofan was the Guildmaster of the Irian Guild five years ago."

"Oh, really?"

Then Arian did a double take.

"Wait, what?!" He was absolutely blindsided by what he just heard. "Guildmaster?! But how?! How could he be the former Guildmaster? This tinpot dictator…was the former Guildmaster? How the hell does that make sense?!"

"...I suppose you would be surprised if you knew nothing about who he was," Elvira replied. "But before everything went down five years ago, Mitrofan was the Irian Guild's Guildmaster. He earned a reputation as a capable, just man who led the Guild well and really helped to promote the Guild as virtuous and dependable, perhaps to the best it was in years. And without him…Dad and Melchior would never have become the prestigious men that they were."

"...Oh yeah…you did say Kallias and Mitrofan were friends, didn't you?" Arian recalled. "At least, before everything went down five years ago."

"They were very good friends. In fact, Dad and Melchior were among the most prominent supporters of Mitrofan while he was Guildmaster. In turn, he saw to it they were justly recognised for their valorous actions. Kallias and Melchior of Team Marshwood, with Guildmaster Mitrofan of the Irian Guild…the three of them were shining stars. They were so good that even Dresilia and Miletos, who normally abhor and slander mercenaries, gave them praise. That's quite an achievement, given how divided the two halves of Ardalion can be at times."

"Wow, really? That must have been quite an achievement," Arian remarked, surprised to be hearing all of this about the Selenian tyrant. Reminded of this current reality, his expression turned a bit more serious. "...But then I have to ask…how in the world did someone like that end up becoming…you know…?"

"...I don't know," a downcast Elvira replied. "I don't know why he's suddenly changed like this. He should be a great leader, if you think about it. He ran the Irian Guild, one of the most prestigious organisations in Selenia. And he was a mercenary himself, before he became Guildmaster. He should be charitable. He should have all the qualities that would make a fine leader. …I don't understand. Why has he been like this? What drove him to change like this?"

"...I do not know. But being the leader of the Irian Guild and being the tsar of Selenia are two different things," Serafina reasoned. "It is no easy feat ruling over this country, or any country for that matter. It wouldn't be preposterous to suggest that Mitrofan cannot handle that responsibility. But…one could make the argument that Selenia has had worse leaders. And certainly, when one looks at the reigns of Tsar Silvestr, Tsar Rihard, Ippolit the Foolhardy, and other disgraced tsars of their ilk, Mitrofan is not bad by comparison."

"But he ain't a good leader, either," Natalie piped up.

"No, indeed, Natalie. And I have no idea why he would not be either. Something tells me, however…that the answer is far from a simple one." Serafina then sighed. "Alas, at this point, we have no definite proof to back up such a claim."

"...Can we stop talkin' 'bout this?" Natalie requested. "Talkin' 'bout politics and all that makes me all glum…"

"Of course," agreed Serafina. "...And luckily for you, Natalie, we have arrived at the Mystery Dungeon in question."

The two teams looked forward at a cave, surrounded by trees in a small wooded area. By this stage, Arian was well-used to the sight of a Mystery Dungeon's entrance, and knew one when he saw one.

"Well, let's find what we're looking for in there," he said. "A missing Vivillon and some Amplifying Crystals, was it?"

"Indeed," Serafina confirmed. "Let us waste no more time, and enter."



Lapis Grotto

1F



The Dungeon was a cave not unlike Cyan Cove. Puddles of water were a constant feature, and the cave had a bluish glow to it. However, it wasn't exactly like Cyan Cove; due to the inland nature of the Dungeon, the water was fresh rather than salty, and as well as that, the water's shade was closer to a sapphire hue than cyan.

"Right, let's see." Arian scanned the room. "To our left. Let's go down that way."

"...Ya don't waste time decidin' nothin'," Natalie observed.

"That's true," Elvira agreed. "You're certainly getting quite into the role of a mercenary, Arian. You've definitely developed from when you first entered a Mystery Dungeon."

"At least it's proof I'm getting better," the Riolu replied. "...Still, doesn't mean Mystery Dungeons aren't strange as anything. They still baffle me…"

"As they do for most," Serafina reasoned. "You are not alone in thinking that, Arian. Many devote their lives to figuring out why this phenomenon exists. But I doubt we will ever receive a proper answer. Until then…we forge on, in spite of our gaps in knowledge."

"...Yeah," Arian said in agreement. "That might be the way we should go about it. …But anyway, let's go looking for the stairs."

They searched through each room thoroughly. It had become a basic routine for Arian now, for him and Elvira to hunt down the stairs in order to get through the floor in question as efficiently as possible. They typically stayed together as a unit, and picked up items whenever they saw them.

…Though Elvira felt her partner was sometimes a bit too eager to collect items. A sentiment that carried over into here, too.

"Look!" Arian pointed out, seeing a blue berry on the ground. "An oran berry. That'll be useful." He picked it up. "Huh…this one's a bit different than normal…"

"Different? …Naw, Arian, don't pick it up," Natalie warned, once the rest of them got a closer look. "That ain't an oran berry. It's an oren berry. They ain't good for ya."

"...What?" Arian was confused. "An oren berry? …Is there a difference?"

"There is, indeed," Serafina answered. "An oren berry - o-r-e-n - looks very much like an oran berry - o-r-a-n - but it is far from a safe berry to eat. It would sooner hurt you than heal your wounds. Do not eat it, Arian."

"...Hm. Well, if you say so…" Arian murmured disappointedly, throwing the oren berry away. "That sucks. Good thing you guys warned me. I might well have eaten it without knowing."

"It is a common error made by many budding mercenaries," the Meowstic replied. "Believe me - I have made that same mistake myself."

"Yup," Natalie confirmed. "I tell ya, ya were as green as a Metapod after eatin' one of 'em oren berries, back when we were wet behind the ears 'bout bein' mercs. Ya got a stern lecture from Raya after that."

"Indeed…" Serafina recalled. "When I started down this path as a mercenary, I regret to admit that I was far from a professional. Amateurish mistakes were commonplace, and were it not for the aid of Natalie, who was more experienced than me, I would almost certainly have been a goner. I lay the blame for my ineptitude at my noble heritage. Years of untapped potential bore its consequences when I started into mercenary work."

"...Ya ain't like that now," Natalie brought up. "Yer a lot better now, Serafina."

"I know, Natalie. It is thanks to your efforts, along with Galen's and Guildmaster Melchior's, that have improved my psychic powers and capabilities as a mercenary. And now I feel far more confident in my prowess," she said. "...I have come a long way from the dainty noblewoman. My family may be in for a shock when we meet each other again."

"You still act like a noble, though," Arian pointed out. "They might not be too shocked. …Then again, it's not like I know them."

"Maybe one day, you shall meet them," Serafina idealised. "After Selenia has emerged from this mess she finds herself in. …We can only hope that one day, it will happen."

"...I hope so," Arian said. Not wanting to dwell on this particular topic, he tried to think of something else to bring up. Thankfully, he was saved with the sight of what they were searching for.

"Ah, look!" Serafina pointed to the stairs. "There they are. Let us ascend."



Lapis Grotto

6F



"So a blue-winged Vivillon named Candice…She should be on this floor."

The Dungeon had passed uneventfully. The Pokémon weren't too difficult for Arian and Elvira, and they fell effortlessly before the combined efforts of them and Team Anima. Serafina and Natalie were a duo that worked well together, and Team Elpis could see signs of the long friendship the two seemed to have. They took note of their teamwork techniques in the hope to take leaves out of their book going forward regarding their own synergy with each other.

"Yes, indeed," Serafina confirmed. "That is what the request states."

"Hmm…" Arian looked at the room they had arrived in. Four exits greeted them. "I've got an idea. Why don't we split up to look for her? Hear me out before you protest - we found a rollcall orb on the last floor, we already have one in our bag, and we've established that this Dungeon's not too hard, even for only one of our teams. When we've found her, we'll use this, and then we'll be one unit again. How does that sound?" As he spoke, he took out one rollcall orb and prepared to hand it off to Serafina.

"...Very well. That sounds like a fair proposal," Serafina agreed, taking the orb from the Riolu. "We shall search down this corridor." She pointed to one of the exits on their right. "Come, Natalie. Let us begin our search."

"...Alright," the Ledian said, before following after her partner.

"Come on, Elvira." Arian started off down one of the exits on their left. "Let's go find that Vivillon."

They started off down the hallway. Both members of Team Elpis kept their eyes peeled for a blue-winged Vivillon, and listened out for any potential voices of a person who wasn't one of Team Anima.

Of course, they had to deal with their fair share of wild Pokémon - namely Tirtouga, Barboach, Basculin and Carbink. These Pokémon didn't pose a threat at all. However, there were also Golbat, and Arian spoke up once they had felled one with a blast seed.

"That's a bit of a problem we have," he noted. "Flying-types…we're both weak to them."

"...That is true," Elvira said. "...We should probably look into maybe learning some moves that counteract that."

"...True. Galen told me the same thing, when we were training yesterday," Arian replied. After their rather successful first sessions together, the human found himself coming back to the dojo, and the Medicham was all too happy to hone his skills and give him some more pointers. "He told me it's possible for Riolu to learn Thunder Punch and Ice Punch."

"That would definitely give you an edge," the Treecko said. "We should look out for those moves next time we visit Jacob and Esau's stall. …Speaking of Galen, how is your training with him going?"

"It's going well," the human answered. "My dodging's getting better, and I've learned a lot of new techniques from Galen. …Still can't quite do that cool thing with Force Palm, though."

"Give it time," Elvira recommended. "Keep at it, and you'll be able to do it eventually."

"I know, I know. I just wish I could grasp it sooner." Looking ahead of them, Arian could see the entrance to another room. "We've searched for quite a while. That Vivillon has to be somewhere…"

"...Who's there?" an unfamiliar voice spoke up. "Is someone there?" The voice was a soft feminine one, and by the sound of it, they were relieved that help had finally come.

"That could be her," Elvira said. "Let's go and have a look." The duo walked forward into the room, and happened across exactly who they were looking for: a Vivillon with blue wings and two white stripes on their upper wings.

"Are you Candice?" Arian asked. "Don't worry; we're mercenaries from the Irian Guild. We were sent here by…" He double-checked the name on the request. "Dio, to come and rescue you."

"...Dio? Oh, thank heavens…" The butterfly was more than relieved. "I was worried that no one was going to come. I overestimated just what I could accomplish…" She bowed her head in shame.

"Hey, don't feel bad," Arian tried to encourage. "You're alright now. We'll get you out of here, don't you worry."

"Before we do, Arian, we need to inform Team Anima that we found Candice," Elvira reminded. "I'll bring them over." She activated the rollcall orb, and in the blink of an eye, the duo were with them.

"Oh, you found her!" Serafina said. "Excellent work, you two. …Since you found Candice, Natalie and I shall scour for those Amplifying Crystals the other mission spoke of."

"Yeah. You do that, and we'll return to the entrance with Candice," Arian said. "Good luck, you two!" With that, he pressed on his badge, and he, Elvira and the Vivillon were transported to outside the Dungeon.

"...And we're out," Arian declared, looking around him and seeing the wood they had walked through to get here.

"Let's wait for Serafina and Natalie to be done with their mission," Elvira recommended. "Then we can go."

"...In the meantime, though…" The Riolu turned to the Vivillon. "How about we have a bit of a chat with our rescuee?"

"Um…if you wish," the blue-winged butterfly responded, with more than a hint of shyness.

"Don't be frightened," Arian assuaged, sensing her apprehension. "We're good people. Honest, hard-working mercenaries. We'll reunite you with this Dio person, once our companions are done with their job."

"...You're mercenaries?" Candice asked.

"Yes. We work for the Irian Guild," Elvira told her.

"But…I thought that had dissolved?" the Vivillon wondered. "...Then again…there were those rumours…"

"Rumours?"

"...Yes. Rumours speak of members of the now obsolete Irian Guild reforming in secret," Candice informed. "They say they're looking to get revenge on Mitrofan, their old Guildmaster, and take over Selenia once they've overthrown him."

"Take over Selenia?" Arian's brow furrowed at that. "I…don't think we'll end up going that far. I mean, Mitrofan is a terrible leader, but…"

"...That was what Dio said about it," the Vivillon replied. "I didn't believe him, but he insisted that some rumours held a hint of truth within them." She looked at the duo before her. "...I was wrong, then…I'm sorry…"

"Don't apologise. You didn't do anything wrong," Elvira said. "After all, you can't believe everything you hear. Most of the time, rumours ought to be taken with a grain of salt. …But every once in a while, they hit the nail on the head."

"...So this Dio fellow told you about us?" Arian asked, curious about the sender of the request. "Who is he, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Dio is…my guardian, of sorts," Candice answered. "He's a musician."

"A musician?"

"Yes. Specifically, he's a singer. A very talented one. When he's out there singing in front of an audience, there are few people, if anyone, that has a better singing voice than him. The audiences love him, and he loves them. He's also…quite a character." The Vivillon tittered slightly. "Maybe I don't do him enough justice. It's better if you meet him in person."

"We will, once our partners return with…whatever it was. Crystals of some kind," Arian replied, somewhat dismissive near the end.

"Amplifying Crystals, do you mean?" Candice presumed. "Like what Khoroshev wants…"

"Wait…But we never told you the name of the client," Elvira realised.

"Dio and Khoroshev are working together at the moment in a musical collaboration," the Vivillon explained. "...The music they're creating is mesmerising. It's beautiful, what they and the rest can dream up…"

"Hmm…Interesting. Perhaps the two requests were submitted to be together," Arian said thoughtfully. "I mean, Sifis did pick them up around the same time when we were deciding on our missions for today."

"How could they send the requests to your exact coordinates, though?" pondered Candice. "That is a question I must ask them when I return."

"Yeah. Whenever Serafina and Natalie are ready…" The Riolu glanced back at the Mystery Dungeon, patiently waiting for when their fellow mercs would emerge.

Luckily, they didn't have to wait much longer. Team Anima soon emerged from the Dungeon.

"We got it done," Natalie declared. "We got all 'em Amplifyin' Crystals."

"We did, indeed," Serafina seconded, while wiping her brow slightly. "...Manual labour…I may not mention this to my brother in my next letter. He would throw a fit if he heard I had done such a task."

"...So you got it done? Great," Elvira said. "Now we can head to Iria." A thought came to her as she said. "...It's only now occurred to me that I haven't visited Iria for some time. The last time I did was…more than five years ago."

"Oh my," Serafina remarked. "...Then again, with Ozerograd in the state it was, perhaps that is unsurprising."

"Better than me," Arian pointed out. "I've never been to Iria at all. This will be a first-time experience for me."

"...Well then," the Meowstic murmured. "It would appear we have to bring you up to speed on that front."

"Why? Has something happened to Iria in the years since?" pondered Elvira.

"...I could tell you. But…it may make a better answer to see it for yourself," Serafina replied. "After all…a picture tells a thousand words. And as the stronghold of Mitrofan…Iria paints quite a picture indeed."





Notes

Decided to leave it there. I planned to write a bit more, but I think I'll leave it until next time.

There are a number of names brought up in this chapter that I'm eager to speak about. But I think the explanations would make more sense in the next chapter, when we meet the characters in question.

Karelia is based on the region of the same name in Russia.

Thanks for reading, and see you on the other side.
 
Chapter 15

Arukona

Junior Trainer
Location
Ireland
Pronouns
He/him
Partners
  1. aggron
Chapter 15

Rumours, Part 2

"Whoa…that's Iria?"

Arian was the one to make this remark as he, Elvira, Serafina, Natalie and Candice stepped out of woodland and looked upon the site of the city on the hilltop before them.

"The capital city of Selenia itself," Serafina confirmed. "That is our beloved Iria, in all her flesh and glory."

The group had made their way from Lapis Grotto to the outskirts of Iria, outside the city's castle walls. It was quite a sight for Arian, who was impressed by what he saw.

"That grandeur sure fits a capital city," he remarked. "And that castle…I take it that's something major?"

"Yes, indeed," Serafina confirmed. "That is Iria Castle. It is where the tsars of Selenia have lived and ruled their country since its founding. …And…it is where Mitrofan resides today, in his despotic rule over our fair land." The cat's tone of contempt had returned.

"...Hmm…I've just had a thought," Elvira realised. "We should probably put our badges out of sight. We wouldn't want the knights to realise who we work for."

"Indeed, that would be wise," agreed Serafina. "Natalie and I did the same thing when we were meeting a client here some time back."

"Do we have to pay a toll of some kind?" Arian wondered. "The Thorned Roses had that system in place in Ozerograd."

"No, we do not," Candice replied. "The knights here do not follow that idea. But…that's not to say they are benevolent. Once we are inside Iria's walls, they will watch us like a Mandibuzz watches its prey, waiting for the moment when we engage in wrongdoing of some kind."

"So, what, be on our best behaviour, pretty much?" Arian surmised.

"Exactly. If you are peaceful and pose no threat to Mitrofan, then you are fine. But if you show signs of rebellion, then…the knights will not act kindly, to say the least."

"...Great signs of leadership there," muttered the Riolu dryly.

"No use complaining, Arian," Elvira said to her partner. "We just have to live with it. Besides, we're not here to overthrow Mitrofan. We're just here to return Candice and give the Amplifying Crystals to our clients. After that, we'll leave. In and out. It'll be like we were never here."

"Right, that's our agenda, then," Arian proclaimed. "Let's get this over with."

They marched towards the city walls, where two knights, a Durant and a Hitmonchan, stood. To Arian's surprise, they weren't wearing armour, but rather had a crest with an instinctive insignia pinned to them. So these are the knights of Selenia? Not exactly what I had in mind…but I guess this world plays by a different rulebook when it comes to knights.

"Halt! State your business!" ordered the Hitmonchan, as the quintet approached.

"We are heading to Karinina's Inn to meet with friends of ours," Serafina answered. "We shall not be long. You will no doubt see us before long."

"...Hmph. If you insist," the Durant said doubtfully. "Enter, then." He and the Hitmonchan knight stood aside, and let the group enter the city. Once they entered, Arian's eyes looked around him, taking in the sights around him.

Iria, at first sight, was far more impressive than Ozerograd. A grand long, wide cobblestone street stretched before them, and the houses on either side looked to be in pitch-perfect condition, with an architectural style to them that Arian found himself taking a liking to. Stone archways were along the street, which in turn acted like bridges under It was like Ozerograd in a lot of ways, only Iria was more grandiose.

There were many types of Pokémon too, in this populated city, some of which Arian still hadn't seen yet. He had gradually seen more varieties of Pokémon throughout his various missions he carried out with Elvira. But still, based on the looks he gave certain species they passed by, his partner could see that there were still many more species he was not yet aware of. Several passersby acknowledged the group, while others gave the Riolu strange looks for his wondrous gaze upon them.

"Don't gawk, Arian," advised Elvira. "You'll draw unnecessary attention to us."

"Oh, sorry," her partner apologised. "But…I can't help it. There's so many new Pokémon I've never seen before…"

"I sympathise with Arian here," Serafina supported. "Let it go, Elvira. Can you blame him for acting this way?"

"If I may interject," Candice piped up. "I don't follow. Why are you saying this about Arian?"

"Oh, um…" Arian found himself unsure of how to answer. Should I tell her about my amnesia? Or would that make things a lot more awkward and complicated?

"Oh, er, he don't get out much," Natalie interjected, before the human could muster a reply. "Don't worry 'bout him."

"I…see," the Vivillon said. She didn't ask any more questions, much to Arian's relief. I gotta remember to thank Natalie later, he told himself.

He was then reminded of something else. "Where is this Karinina's Inn we're headed to?" he asked.

"It's in the Merchants' Quarter," Elvira replied. "I don't remember how exactly we get there, though…"

"Don't worry," Candice assuaged. "I know the way there. Follow me."

And so the group did that, following the Vivillon's fluttering wings, as she weaved her way through the city streets and towards the aforementioned Merchants' Quarter. More well-to-do housing greeted them, but Arian's attention had diverted to something else he'd noticed.

Candice had indeed been correct about the knights watching them closely. Just like in Ozerograd, patrollers were everywhere, and observing every person with a cold, steely look, watching for any suspicious activity. It gave Arian and Elvira that same feeling of intimidation they felt when the Thorned Roses were doing the same thing in Ozerograd. Only this time, it was rather more menacing. The Thorned Roses were untrained bandits at the end of the day, whereas these were properly trained and disciplined knights. One slip up would mean an awkward explanation at best and…Arian didn't want to think what would happen in the worst case scenario. A blow to the head? A public flogging? Or…worse than that? Is execution out of the question? Given what I've heard about Mitrofan…I wouldn't put it past his forces to do such a thing.

"...What? What happened to this place? It used to be more lively than this…"

Elvira's voice drew Arian away from his thoughts, and onto the sight before them. They had come to a square of some sort, with a fountain and a marble statue at its centre. The statue in question was of a Pokémon that resembled a shooting star (not a Pokémon that Arian recalled. The canine kept a mental note to look out for that particular one when doing research next). There were a few merchants' stalls set up, and there were a number of people mulling over the wares of the merchants while the sellers themselves made pitches to try and persuade potential buyers.

But it felt like something was missing. And Arian figured out why quite quickly.

"...It's a bit quiet, isn't it?" he remarked. "For a capital city's merchant quarter, anyway."

"You are quite right," Serafina said. "It was much more bustling prior to Mitrofan's takeover. Merchants from the East would gather here to sell their products, most of which were exotic and unavailable to most Selenians. There was rarely a moment when there were not throngs of people, eager to see what unique items the merchants had on sale. I witnessed those moments with my own eyes, and to see those merchants gone from here…it is a sad sight, indeed, to see this place devoid of the energy it once possessed."

"I take it Mitrofan had something to do with them staying away from here?" Arian presumed.

"Indeed. Many of them were uneasy with selling wares in a city where an extremist tyrant ruled, and so many opted to stay away. …An understandable viewpoint. I would not either, were I they."

"Agreed," Arian concurred. "...So where is Karinina's Inn?" He looked at the buildings, trying to spot it.

"It's over here," Candice said, heading to a building with an artwork of another Pokémon, this one resembling a lantern with eyes and a violet flame burning within it (Lampent. That one, Arian recalled from his research).

Walking into the building, they could see it was a place of good upkeep, with clean floors and bright lighting. A long red carpet went from the entrance to the reception desk, where a Lampent, just like the one depicted outside, hovered. Their eyes stood to attention upon seeing the group of five approach.

"Ah, Miss Candice," their voice sounded out, a feminine one with a hint of strictness to it. "You're back…along with some others," she said, acknowledging the other four. "Are you adding more members to Dio's motley brigade?"

"N-No, Karinina, not at all," Candice denied. "These people are escorting me back to him. Where is he right now?"

"...In the ballroom, practising his songs with his fellows," Karinina answered. "I told him he could go there and do so, provided he didn't cause noise complaints like the last few times. With this lessening in business, the last thing I need is complaints. Surely that Primarina must know there is such a place as 'outside' with which to practice?"

"...I'll tell him to keep the noise down, then," the Vivillon relented meekly, something that made Arian frown. She could have easily told her that the knights outside make it impossible to practise in. But…maybe she just doesn't do well in the face of arguments.

"Follow me, everyone. Dio's this way," Candice beckoned to the group, before heading down one of the doors that led into a hallway. They passed by a number of doorways, before turning left and facing a set of two big doors. No doubt this was the ballroom, and as they got closer, the faint sounds of singing and instruments playing could be heard, most prominent of which was a piano. Right next to the door, they could hear lyrics being sung.

"I hear the words that you say

As the heavens above us turn grey

As you take the gift from our hands

It was just what the cards had planned

Of the stars and their sails

In the skies, they weave their tale

If you look, from afar

The message to all that we are

Now can you see….what I see…?"


The last line was sung with the notes stretched out to a high note that showed the singer as a very capable tenor, sustaining that note for quite a while, before eventually, they stopped. While it was muffled, Arian couldn't help but be impressed.

"Wow, he's good," he remarked.

"He is, indeed," Candice agreed. "...Now's a good time to enter, I think." She opened the double doors to the ballroom. It undoubtedly looked like a room that would host important events such as galas and dinner parties, but right then and there, given that there were no such events on, all the chairs and tables had been put to the side. A stage stood at the back of the room, though, and upon it stood a group of five. Foremost of which was an evidently marine Pokémon that resembled a sea lion, with a light-blue ponytail tied together by a string of pearls. They had a blue tail and a white body that made Arian think of a mermaid. Behind him were four others; an Oranguru by the piano, a Weavile behind a drum kit, and two Toxtricity, one Amped, and the other Low Key.

"Bravo!" the Primarina commended in a masculine tone, much to Arian's surprise, given his feminine appearance. "Applaudable! The tones of the instruments sing with solidity. Khoroshev's piano movements are as delectably melodious as ever, Iommi's playing is similarly tasteful, as is Duda's, and Portnoy's drums are beautifully consistent. Excellency taken form! Pleasure to the ears of our ancestors, acceptable to the Creator himself, even! Nectar to one's senses, I would be tempted to say!" He gestured with flair and finesse, before adopting a more downbeat expression. "…Alas, the vocals are, forsooth, imperfect, in the opinion of this ignoble chanteur."

"Vocals? Imperfect?" the one in front of the piano, an Oranguru, remarked. "Far from it. Those were pretty fine, even by your standards, Dio. Is it to do with the lyrics?"

"Nay," rejected Dio. "Your penned lyrics, Khoroshev, are that of a well-versed songsmith; no expectations fall short on that front. But…the vocal parts lack substance. …Hmm…mayhap backing vocals from one of you? Which one dost volunteer?"

"I would say yes to that," Khoroshev said, raising his hand. "...But I'd like to put this on hold while we deal with our guests."

"Guests?" Dio turned around and saw the five having entered. But, upon seeing Candice, his entire expression changed. "Candice! Oh, beauteous maiden! Innocence incarnate! Fate appears to have dealt us a lucky hand! O Creator, blessings to thee on high!" He held his flippers together. "Thank the stars above…Darkrai himself weaved fearful dark thoughts regarding thy fate that crossed my mind. Mercifully, his monstrous weavings hath been vanquished with the advent of your arrival! Ah, the light of reality! And those black, cursed thoughts, banished to impossibility!"

Okay…I now see what Candice meant, Arian thought, as he bemusedly watched the exchange before him with his equally nonplussed comrades. He certainly is colourful, this Dio fellow.

"I was fine, Dio," Candice assured. "Especially with the help of these four from the Irian Guild. They found me and escorted me here. …Oh, and they also got the Amplifying Crystals that you wanted, Khoroshev."

"They did?" the Oranguru replied. "...Wonderful. I suppose banking on those rumours proved fruitful in the end." He got up from his piano, taking a small bag with him, and walked down to the group. "A deal's a deal. Here's your money." He handed the bag to Elvira, who was nearest to him.

"Thank you," Elvira said back, as Natalie wordlessly handed the Amplifying Crystals over to the pianist. "And the other reward?" She turned to Dio.

"Memory eludes me not, dear Treecko," the singer assured. "Iommi, if you would?" he requested to the guitar player, who nodded and reached for another bag that was by the other Toxtricity's bass. He gave it to Dio, who in turn gave it to Arian.

"Unto thee," he professed.

"...Goodness, that's heavier than I'm used to," commented Arian on the bag's weight. "But hey, we're happy to help. It's our proud job as mercenaries of the Irian Guild."

"...Can I ask something, Dio? And Khoroshev?" Elvira interjected. "If you don't mind, that is."

"...The Creator invented lips for a reason," the Primarina eloquently spoke. "Speak your mind, mysterious motivated mercenary maiden of moral magnanimous mind."

His alliteration took a moment for Elvira and the group to get around. Arian, in particular, fought to keep a straight face in the wake of Dio's speech mannerisms.

"Yes, um…How did you hear of us?" the Treecko asked. "We in the Irian Guild are trying to maintain a bit of an underground presence, so we won't be detected by Mitrofan. Candice told us it was through rumours, but I want to know: where exactly did you hear that the Irian Guild was still functional?"

"...This morn, 'twas," Dio recalled. "The pressing need for Amplifying Crystals, as unbosomed by my musical compeer, coupled with the innocent maiden's act of vanishment - " He gestured to Candice. " - A great predicament faced us. But as we cerebrated, wallowed in despair's grips…a saviour arrived. He, of eminence hair and a fairy's gait, reached out. Said he, 'Write a letter to the Irian Guild and they'll solve your problems in a jiffy.' Mayhap it was worth it, thought I at the time. Thus, the requests were penned and dispatched. A few hours passed…and our prayers were answered. The tree of hearsay bore fruit on this occasion. 'Twas no putrescent subterfuge, intent to rob our precious coin! Marvellous! Truly marvellous!"

"...I guess there's scammers doing the rounds," murmured Arian. "Unsurprising, really, given the way Selenia is now…"

"The land of tsars finds itself beyond the crossroads, indeed," ruminated the Primarina. "The Ferax has been crossed, and House Ruslan, they who hath sustained Selenia's leadership for a quincentenary now, are a fallen house, burnt to ash and gone wi' the wind, whereupon the wings of death claimed them for his own. Thus, this lush and green land must muster a new dynasty, or turn to this republican ideal spoken of in some circles. …Or…does she need to, the land of tsars and shrubs?"

"...What do you mean?" questioned Serafina. Even she found herself flummoxed by how the singer weaved his words.

"...Just as the tree of hearsay bore fruit for the Irian Guild, so too it may blossom for what else hath floated on the wind. Word speaks of it on the street." The way he spoke, Dio was evidently preparing for some grand reveal. "Said they, the hoi polloi who hath been gifted the bread of the rumour mill…" He twirled around in a gesture of grandeur, before revealing what he was building up to.

"The pawn prince of Selenia and heir apparent to her lands and throne, Leonid Klimentovich Ruslan…yet lives!"

"...Prince Leonid?" Serafina uttered, shocked by what she had heard. "Prince Leonid is alive?"

"...Yea. That is the product of the rumour mill," Dio replied simply. For once.

"Where did you hear this?" Elvira was quick to ask questions. "And what proof do you have that this is true?"

"You seek proof?" To that, the Primarina could only give a shrug. "...Nay, ferned freelancer. I possess no grounds on which to stake these claims. …Such is the state of rumour and hearsay. Accompanied with salt…" He stopped mid-sentence. "...No, I shan't say more. The proverb is...something musty."

"...Oh...I think I get it," Arian said, hoping he understood the singer's most recent answer. "'Take rumours with a grain of salt'? Is that what you're talking about?"

"Verily, my hirsute hireling," Dio answered. "'Tis the gospel of the grapevines. Vindictive and cruel, some of its fruit is, to raise a man's hopes to heaven only to bring them back down into reality in a meteoric blaze. Hence, dismissal is oft the response of many to rumours. The fear of becoming that meteor crashing into reality overwhelms many a man. And so, says he, 'Nay, I shall not partake in hopeful fantasy,' and turns away.

"But the chance exists that what he sees as fantasy could very well be reality. Thus, the blame is his own for not pursuing that end. For Selenia…her citizens must decide. Pursue this possibly fictitious end, or remain in the stagnant mire she finds herself in? I am not unaware as to the plight that plagues the land of tsars. Even if Mitrofan lauded our performance to his apocryphal presence, he plays a character of disharmony, much to Selenia's detriment."

"...'Lauded' your performance?" Serafina noted. "...Did you play to Mitrofan before?"

"...We did, once," Khoroshev confirmed. "You see, me, Duda and Portnoy were once a trio of musicians, performing across Selenia, and even sometimes in Alba, Dresilia and Miletos, to noblemen and in opera houses, theatres - you name it. It did make us quite a bit of money. Gradually, we got more ambitious, and eventually began working with orchestras. It was great - the sound was fantastic, the audiences were incredibly receptive to it, and we were regarded with great acclaim. It was brilliant, and we were at quite a high point."

"Mm." Duda nodded. "Perhaps too high a point. Because when you reach the highest point you can…the only place left to go is down."

"Basically, all that hosting of orchestras and travelling with them across Ardalion cost us a huge amount of money," Portnoy explained. "That was money that we didn't have. And as a result of that…we had to sell off everything we had, including our beloved instruments." The trio's hurt expressions spelled out this being memories of miserable times. "We ended up becoming homeless as a result, and so our glory days were over, just like that."

"Goodness…" remarked Elvira. "I'm sorry to hear that. …But where does Mitrofan fall into this?"

"Prior to that, they happened upon the triad of Iommi, Candice, and I, along with our own pecuniary tribulations," Dio interjected. "We were naught but pauperised players, and playing was our practice of persuasion for the populace to provide our purse with Poké to purchase provisions. If we did not play, we could not eat. 'Twas an axiom that dictated the course of our being here in Iria. This trio, mendicant as they were - " He gestured to Khoroshev, Duda and Portnoy. " - understood our woes. I proposed an alliance in music, and assent was given. Word soon spread about our minstrelsy, and the knights carried that word into the lap of Mitrofan. One morn, approached, we were, by a leading general of the Selenian Knights, a commanding Nidoqueen, and told to follow her to the opera house.

"Mitrofan himself met us, and agnised my good friends, having been at a performance of theirs in bygone days. They conferred to him what they conferred to you. Upon hearing of their plight and mine, he proffered us an opportunity; if we could administer admiration among an audience, along with him, then the debt plaguing these three would be lifted. …To lift that cloud over their fortunes was a window of opportunity they could not spurn. And I was their willing servant in their endeavour, as was Iommi."

"Not me, though," Candice added. "I didn't have the nerve to face all of those people…"

"Worry not, Candice. Your role was not central to our performance, thus your absence did not disturb it," Dio spoke. "The concert resonated well with the audience, being blessed with the prior music of Khoroshev, Duda and Portnoy and pieces written by I, combined together to amplify the musical experience and espouse a brand new dynamism to them. 'Twas nothing short of a triumph, and Mitrofan responded in kind by purging the debts of my compeers."

"He did that…?" Elvira said, a confused look on her face. "But why? Mitrofan's been nothing but horrid from what we've heard…"

"Beats us too," Portnoy remarked. "I guess the man has his kind moments? …It's a bit of a pickle for us. Because you hear all this stuff about neglect and apathy from him over certain stuff, but then he goes and wipes our debts just like that. If he didn't do that, we'd still be tramps sleeping on the ground. …It's kinda hard, really, to call him a pile of crap. For us, at least."

"Mmm," Dio hummed in agreement. "...A man of obscure motives. Questionable, mixed…I dare say aimless on occasion. Conjecture takes form in place of the truth, and many presume his ultimate goal. I, too, imagine, but I bear no proof to corroborate my flights of fancy. …But nor do I bear proof of Prince Leonid's current supposed state of living. Such is the mystique of mystery, that fabled damsel known as 'truth'. O fair maiden of candour, when shall you reveal thy splendour to us, and free the innocent while damning the guilty…?"

The Primarina seemed to be drifting off course, conversation-wise. Arian leaned over to Elvira.

"You think maybe now would be a good time to leave?" he whispered. "We have all we need. We don't really need to stay around here anymore."

"Hmm…I guess you're right," Elvira agreed, before turning her attention to the fivesome. "I…think we'll take our leave now."

"Of course," Khoroshev replied. "You four have been very helpful. Thank you very much."

"And thank you for saving me," Candice added. "I won't forget what you did."

"It was no problem," Arian said in response. "That's our job in the Guild. Don't be afraid to call on us again if you're in need of something." He turned, making for the door with his fellow mercenaries.

"Fare ye well, soldiers of fortune!" Dio called out to them. "May the Creator watch over you. And…may, too, the truth be on your side. Lies are wicked things, as is the scourge that is oblivion. Let not either gain the upper hand against you."

"We'll…remember that," Arian said, though admittedly, he wasn't fully sure of the Primarina's words. Maybe I just need time to process it.

As they left, Dio stared in the direction of the door for a good few seconds, before Khoroshev broke through his thoughts.

"They were a nice lot, weren't they?" he commented. "...Poké for your thoughts, Dio? Something about those mercs catch your eye?"

"...'Twas as I said, my fellow player," the singer replied. "I bear no proof to corroborate suppositions. But while I do not gamble…were I such a man, I would bet a handsome amount that those hirelings may well become heroes in time. 'Tis naught more than conjecture, but…

"...A genesis may be on its way to our humble souls in this verdant land."





"Come back soon!" called the Klefki from the counter of a Klefki Bank in the Merchants' Quarter, where Teams Elpis and Anima had stored most of their financial earnings. They, of course, had divided it between each other in a fair gesture.

"So…what now?" Arian posed to his fellow mercenaries, as they were about to leave the building. "We've done all we need to do here, so…should we go back to the Guild?"

"I believe we should," Serafina concurred. "Returning to the safe haven of the Guild would be the best choice."

"Let's get goin', then," Natalie urged. "I really ain't used to the city at all. Way too many folks, and too many streets and houses…Ain't for country gals like me."

"...You never have enjoyed travelling to the bigger cities," murmured the Meowstic in sympathy. "Very well. Let us make for the gates, posthaste!"

They exited the building with optimism, having finished not one, but two successful missions in the one go. It would be an interesting tale to regale to their fellow Guild members, about the colourful personality of Dio and the sight of Iria. The tale of Mitrofan relieving the debt of Khoroshev, Duda and Portnoy, too, would be a fascinating story to have a discussion over.

However, all of that optimism vanished the moment they stepped outside the door and heard eight words that made them stop in their tracks.

"There they are! Stop right there, you four!"

They all froze, realising that the quarter had a heavy presence of knights on it. In all their eagerness to exit the city, they had completely forgotten about the knights. Given the fact that there had been no incidents on the way to Karinina's Inn, they had taken that lack of intervention for granted. And now they would pay the price for their lack of awareness.

"Hey! What's the big idea?" Arian complained. "Let us through! We haven't done anything wrong!"

"You haven't done anything wrong?" a female voice spoke up, and out stepped a Nidoqueen. Notable to Arian, though, was the way the knights stood aside for her to enter the central fray. "...Typical words of a wanted man. We in the Order of the Knights of Selenia aren't swayed by your lies. Not when we have evidence to disregard your claims!"

She then pulled out a poster, and all four mercenaries went rigid at what was depicted on it: an illustration depicting a Riolu and a Treecko, along with writing underneath it.

WANTED

Arian(Riolu) and Elvira(Treecko)

2,000P reward if BOTH are captured

1,000P reward if ONE is captured

This duo overthrew Hinnerk and the Thorned Roses in Ozerograd, and are members of an underground organisation plotting the ultimate overthrow of Mitrofan that will throw our nation into chaos. They and their comrades-in-arms are a threat to stability and must be apprehended.

"...Wait…How do you know our names?" Arian questioned. "How do you know who we are?"

"Did you really think news of Hinnerk's defeat wouldn't reach us in Iria?" the Nidoqueen replied, somewhat mocking of the human's incredulity. "Regardless of what we think about the man and his band of ruffians, there's no doubt that this could mean the start of a precedent. How long before you start dismantling the leadership of our other lords, and potentially overthrow our great leader himself? You're a threat to his leadership, and that's why you must be captured."

"Hinnerk was a tyrant that oppressed the people of Ozerograd!" Elvira said. "He was a horrible leader that unjustly usurped the leadership through murder! How Mitrofan could support someone like him is beyond me!"

"Quite right!" Serafina concurred. "And Mitrofan himself is little different, having assassinated Tsar Kliment and his whole family to seize the throne for his own gain!"

"Silence!" For whatever reason, this latest outburst had struck a nerve within the Nidoqueen, much to Arian's surprise. "Don't you dare compare Master Mitrofan to that thug Hinnerk! Unlike him, Master Mitrofan has honour and dignity! He knows how to treat his allies and servants! He's nothing like Kliment, who didn't acknowledge his smallfolk at all and only cared about getting even more friendly with his upper class halfwits who equally couldn't give a toss!" She moved forward, a snarl crossing her face. "Now come along and submit!"

"Oh hell no!" Arian objected. "Not in a million years! This way, guys!" Spotting a gap in the knights' formation, he turned that way and ran in that direction. His fellow mercenaries, of a similar mindset, followed suit.

"After them!" yelled the Nidoqueen knight. "Don't let them get away!"

"Yes, Marshal Ludmila!" obliged the other knights, before giving chase with her.

The four ran down one of the streets that led away from the Merchants' Quarter, observed by bewildered passersby. However, not far behind them was the advance of Ludmila and her fellow knights. Worse still, knights standing on guard in their position moved to block their path, providing further obstacles. Determined to get through, Serafina used Psybeam on the Combusken knight ahead of them, while Arian used Force Palm on a Vigoroth. These were not moves intended to defeat, but to push these knights aside so they could keep running. They managed to do this; however, it became apparent to the group that this was costing them.

"They're gaining!" Arian yelled, looking behind him. Indeed, the group of knights were getting closer, and at this rate, it wouldn't be long before they were caught. "We have to do something!"

"Our items!" Serafina called out. "Surely we can use them to halt their advance!"

The reminder of Ishmael using a Petrify Orb on the group of Thorned Roses back in Ozerograd came back to Arian, and he immediately turned to Elvira, who had their bag. "Elvira! Do we have a Petrify Orb?"

"...I don't think so," Elvira replied disappointedly, rummaging through their bag. "But we do have this!" She threw an orb back at the group of knights, and it shattered, over most of them.

"Gah! Mercs and their pesky items!" growled Ludmila. "What is this? Why is it suddenly harder to move!"

"A Slow Orb," Elvira explained to her partner before he could ask. "It'll buy us time. But it won't last forever, so we need to put as much distance between us and them as possible!"

"Got it! Then let's make tracks!" Arian called out, and the quartet continued running.

However, by the time they reached a relatively quiet area, it became clear to them that this wasn't a sustainable strategy, as the constant fleeing without rest was taking its toll on one of the four. Specifically...the one with a noble background.

"Hah…hah…" Serafina panted wearily. "Everyone…I…" She couldn't finish her sentence, due to her winded state.

"Serafina…" Natalie slowed. "Y'all, we gotta stop. We can't keep runnin' like this."

"...But what about the knights?" Arian pointed out. "It's like Elvira said; that Slow Orb won't last forever. And there's probably more ahead of us that'll try to intercept us. We'll be between a rock and a hard place."

"...We need to find somewhere to hide, then," the Treecko decided. "Hmm…" She looked around them. "...That side street there?"

"It'll have to do," Natalie said. "C'mon, Serafina. I'll carry ya." Her wings buzzed, and she grabbed her partner around the stomach, before flying over to where Arian and Elvira were running to.

They entered the side street, and immediately looked for a good hiding place within it, realising that there was still a good chance the group of knights could come down this way. All four pairs of eyes darted around, looking for something. An alleyway, some crates, even someone's house if necessary…

"...Where can we go?" murmured Elvira, feeling somewhat frantic in their search. "There's nowhere to hide…"

"You kids looking for something?" a voice suddenly spoke up.

The four looked over at a building that looked decidedly different from the rows of terraced houses that populated the street they were on. It resembled an old church, and had a garden out the front, where a number of flowerbeds lay and a number of children were playing.

The one who had spoken to them looked somewhat menacing, at least to Arian. He was a humanoid Pokémon with a lot of hair, to the point that it nearly covered his whole body, except for his face, torso, ears, and feet, which were all green in colour. He gave the four a questioning look, before his attention was soon drawn to Elvira, and a look of shocked realisation crossed his face.

"Um…" Arian began, before trailing off. How do we say we're running from the authorities to an average man like him? He looks exactly like the kind of person that would tear us apart if we got on his bad side…

"Excuse me, Treecko." The man spoke again. "...Is your name Elvira, by any chance?"

"...It is." Arian noticed the change in tone in Elvira's voice, and when he turned to look, he found that she was wearing a similar look of recognition as the other Pokémon. "...A Grimmsnarl…wait a minute." Her eyes then caught sight of the sign in front of the gate, which read Grimmhatt Orphanage. "...Is your name Dalibor? And do you know my dad, Kallias?"

"...I do, indeed." A warm look crossed the Grimmsnarl named Dalibor's face. "It's been a while, hasn't it? The last time I saw you was…goodness, was it really more than eight years ago? You look much more mature than you did then. Arceus, how time flies…"

Arceus? Arian pondered. That's not the first time I've heard that name…Hm. I'll have to look into that later.

"Everyone," Serafina interrupted, who had now regained her breath. "I can hear the knights coming."

"Knights? And you're running from them, you said…" Dalibor murmured, before gesturing to the building. "Go in there. Trust me, you'll be safe inside there."

"Thanks a bunch," Arian said gratefully, before making his way quickly inside the house, followed by his comrades, and to a wide-eyed audience of children.

"Don't mind them," the Grimmsnarl assured the children. "Now keep quiet while I deal with these knights." The children all dutifully nodded, and made sure to say nothing.

"You there! Citizen!" a Watchog knight said to him, with a small posse of three other knights. "Have you seen a group consisting of a Riolu, a Treecko, a Meowstic and a Ledian travelling through this area, on the run from the authorities?"

"...Quite a crowd, that," commented Dalibor. "No, it's been all quiet here. I haven't seen anyone pass along this street."

"Hmm…" The Watchog narrowed his eyes, trying to see if the other man was lying. Eventually he turned away to his fellows. "By the sound of it, I don't think they've come down this way. Back to Marshal Ludmila we go."

"Yes, sir!" saluted the knights, before they left. Once they did, Dalibor let out a sigh of relief.

"...They're gone," he said. "Good job, kids. I'll see to it you're rewarded in some way later on."

"Mr Dalibor?" asked one, a Clobbopus. "Who are those people?"

"...Well, let's find out, shall we?" the Grimmsnarl replied. "Don't worry, they're not dangerous. One of them's related to a good friend of mine." He walked back towards the building, and opened the front door to its foyer, where the four stood. However, with them was another Pokémon: a Hatterene giving him a confused look.

"Dali? Who are these strangers that have just wandered into our home?" she asked.

"...A group that I'm sure will have an interesting tale to tell," Dalibor replied. "We'll discuss that over tea. Would you mind getting some prepared for the four of them, Cornelia dear?"

"...Alright, if you insist. …But that tale had better be an interesting one."





"So…you're a mercenary now, eh?"

Teams Anima and Elpis were inside the house, drinking tea prepared by Cornelia. The Hatterene was cradling her own cup of tea and sitting next to Dalibor as the four explained their story to them, chiefly by Elvira, whose history with the Grimmsnarl was not yet clear, but it would most likely be revealed in this conversation.

One of the first things the Treecko had done once they'd sat down for conversation was pull out her mercenary's badge. Immediately, a look of recognition came into the older Pokémon's eye.

"That's right," she said. "I'm a member of the Irian Guild now, with my mercenary partner, Arian. Together, we are Team Elpis."

"Team Elpis…Hm, not bad," praised Dalibor. "How'd it come together? Arian, was it?" He looked over to the Riolu. "You a childhood friend of Elvira or something?"

"Er, no. Not exactly," Arian replied. "In fact, I only met her in the last few weeks. She helped me, and…on a dive through a Mystery Dungeon near Ozerograd, we found we worked together well. She'd told me about her troubles over becoming a mercenary, and I needed a direction to go in, so…we started an unofficial merc team together. And that became official once we met Melchior and joined the Irian Guild."

"I see, I see…" Dalibor nodded, processing the information. "...So…" He got up and marched over to the noticeboard, and came back with a poster. He laid it down, and Arian and Elvira realised it was the exact same wanted poster that Ludmila had before. "Is it true, what this says here? You…defeated Hinnerk? Just the two of you?"

"No." Elvira shook her head. "We had outside help, from other mercenaries. I can't emphasise that enough. We would never have done it on our own."

"Yeah," Arian murmured in agreement. "Much as I hate to admit it, we're still rookies in this whole merc business. …Sometimes I wonder how on earth we managed it…"

"...Well, however you managed it, that is quite an achievement," Dalibor congratulated. "Kudos, you two. That good-for-nothing was always a piece of work. Great to hear of him being knocked into the dirt, where he belongs."

"Agreed," Arian said in agreement.

"...Moving on…" Dalibor turned to Team Anima. "How about these two lassies? What's your story?"

"I am Serafina, and this is my partner and longtime friend Natalie," the Meowstic introduced. "We are Team Anima, another team within the Irian Guild that is well connected with Team Elpis. …But pay us no heed. The bulk of your conversation is with Elvira, it seems. It has nothing to do with us. We would digress if we regaled you with tales of our own exploits."

"...Whatever you say," the Grimmsnarl decided. "So you're all part of Melchior's new posse of mercs. ...I haven't seen the man in the flesh for more than seven years now. How is he? Is he doing well these days?"

"He's doing okay. At least he's in his element, working in a guild again. And he is a good Guildmaster, able to get respect from everyone and do his job well as leader. But…" Elvira sighed. "It feels too much like something's missing, seeing only him and not Dad nearby. After all these years…it's a difficult thing to have to get used to."

"...I can imagine," murmured the Grimmsnarl with more than an ounce of sympathy. "...I'm really sorry about what happened to Kallias. I'll admit when I heard the news…it was a right punch to the gut. That friend I knew for all of those years, fallen into the Agrios River…what a way to go. …It's always a reminder that even the most glorified men aren't invincible, and sometimes just how easy death can come to us. That's a lesson I've come to know all too well…"

"...I've been trying to get over it," Elvira replied, downcastly. "It's been hard. Very hard. It's not like I can just ignore the fact that Dad's possibly been dead for five whole years. But…everyone in the Guild has been very supportive and sympathetic of me. I can't thank them enough for looking out for me." She nodded to her comrades in acknowledgment.

"It's a good thing you have friends to help you out in times like that," Dalibor remarked. "They'll help you through it. …I can't imagine how Melchior would feel, though. I couldn't be there for him at a time when he was declared an outlaw and his partner was separated from him. …I guess reestablishing the Guild underground was his only coping mechanism."

"Um…can I ask something?" Arian requested. "...You seem to know about what happened to Kallias. But Melchior's barely told that story to anyone. How do you know about it? I thought you said you hadn't seen Melchior for a long time?"

"I haven't seen Melchior for seven years," Dalibor clarified. "But in the last year or so, he contacted me through letters, and we've kept in touch. Of course, though, he hides his identity in the letters, as a precaution. …Still, though, I definitely recognise his handwriting. It's definitely him. And as for how I know about Kallias…he told me about it in a letter that came three days ago. …Bit of an unwelcome surprise, that. Not like we need any more bad news these days..."

"Three days ago…oh, so it was after he told us about it," Arian said. "I guess he found the bravery to tell you about it, then. He was hesitant about telling us, afraid of what Elvira's reaction would be."

"Anyone would, I suppose," the Grimmsnarl replied. "...I think it would have been better to get in touch with you sooner, Elvira, especially over news like that. Still…what's done is done. At least he told you in the end."

"..." Elvira said nothing to this, wearing the same sad expression on her face as earlier when she was talking about getting over Kallias' supposed death. Arian, sensing his partner's discomfort, decided to change the subject.

"Can you…explain the history between you, Melchior, and Kallias?" he asked. "I…still need some gaps to be filled in. Like…were you a part of the Irian Guild once?

"I was indeed," Dalibor returned. "You see...I was an Irian Guild mercenary, more than seven years ago."

"Really?" This was certainly news to Arian, and to the onlooking Team Anima.

"Yep, sure was. I made a pretty Poké off it too, and I was pretty good. Not quite Team Marshwood's level, mind, but I did manage to reach Platinum Rank," the hirsute fairy elaborated. "That didn't matter much to me, though. I became good friends with Team Marshwood, as they rose through the ranks to become one of the most legendary merc teams in the Guild's history. Then there was also Mitrofan. Back in the day, he was actually quite an amicable fellow. He was a bit stern, but he recognised friends when he saw them. And there was no one in the Guild he was more friendly with than Team Marshwood. Their friendship goes back a long way, before even Mitrofan became Guildmaster and he was a mercenary himself. I don't know the full story behind it, but it's clear that those three had a good chemistry between them."

"Wow…I never knew that. This rabbit hole keeps getting deeper," Arian remarked. "...You seem to know a bit about Mitrofan. Would you…have any idea as to why he suddenly decided to throw all of that out the window and become a despotic dictator?"

"No, I wouldn't." Dalibor shook his head. "I wasn't here five years ago, when everything went down. I was stuck in a coma during that time."

"What?! A coma!?" the Riolu reacted.

"Oh…I remember this," Elvira recalled. "Seven years ago, you suffered a brutal attack that put you in one…"

"...I did," Dalibor replied wistfully, and the four noticed a look of hurt appear on Cornelia's face. "We had a mission, Team Marshwood and us, where we set out to investigate a nefarious plot that was bubbling in Selenia seven years ago. However, our enemies…managed to get the drop on us, and on me specifically. I bore the brunt of an ambush, and they definitely would have killed me if given enough time. Thankfully, Team Marshwood came to my rescue before that could happen. Alas…not before I landed at death's doorstep. …I still have reminders of that savage attack." He pulled back some of his vast mess of hairs to reveal a deep scar across his chest, and a number of other scars across his body.

"That's simply awful…" Serafina remarked, horrified at the Grimmsnarl's story and the physical evidence of it. "I am so sorry you had to suffer in such a brutal manner."

"...Being separated from the world was a weird one," Dalibor went on. "Especially when I woke up three years later. Hearing about the tsar being assassinated, along with his family, that Mitrofan of all people had done it, and he was now sitting on the tsar's throne, and he had dissolved the Guild and declared all mercs who didn't side with him as outlaws…I thought the doctor was having a laugh. Only when I was discharged from the infirmary did I realise that it wasn't a laugh at all. This was real."

"...Were you in danger?" Elvira wondered.

"I thought I was, to be honest," Dalibor admitted. "I was terrified, therefore, when Mitrofan himself came to the orphanage. I feared that I'd be locked up and the key would be thrown away. And most of all…I feared for the safety of Cornelia and the kids. They mean the world to me, and I couldn't bear the thought of them being in danger.

"But Mitt asked me if I intended to continue as a mercenary. I'll be honest…I had a long think about it there and then. Given what I had gone through, and the grief Cornelia and the orphans suffered through with me not there for them, plus all Guild mercenaries becoming outlaws, I…didn't see any future in the mercenary business. So I made a choice to retire as a mercenary, in order to look after the kids here with Cornelia. I felt I owed them, after being indisposed for so long."

"That's understandable," Elvira acknowledged. "If you wish to do that, then we'd have no problem with it."

"I'm glad you understand. But…here's the weird thing. …Mitt did as well," Dalibor revealed.

"...What? What do you mean?"

"As in, he accepted my decision, and no fuss was made. You would think, with this perception of him being this ruthless tyrant, that he would try and coerce me into working for him or something. But no. He…was surprisingly cordial and sympathetic during the encounter."

"...May I intervene?" Serafina requested. "I do not wish to doubt your words, but…would this not be because you pose no threat to him? That is how he rules; if you do not oppose him, then he shall not interfere with your life. Do so, however, and you will feel his wrath. From what I have seen and from what I have heard from others, this seems to be the case in Mitrofan's Selenia."

"...I didn't ignore what he'd done," Dalibor responded to that. "I asked him if it was all true, and he said it was. But he said what you said; if I didn't oppose him, then he would leave me alone. He would help me, even. To prove his point…he donated a sum of money to the orphanage there and then. And even more strangely…he's been donating fairly consistently."

"Indeed. It's been quite a lifeline," Cornelia added. "Mitrofan did the same thing while you were in a coma, Dali, and gave money to the orphanage regularly in place of what you would normally bring for us from merc missions. It's allowed us to keep this place in good condition, and none of the orphan children go hungry anymore."

"...Okay, I'm confused," Arian expressed. "So on the one hand, Mitrofan gives money to you all, forgives the debts of musicians, and…isn't a complete despot. But…on the other, he unjustly murdered the tsar, took over his position, hunts down mercs like cattle and basically enabled Hinnerk to do whatever he wished in Ozerograd. …I don't get him at all! Is he good or bad?"

"...I don't think I can answer that question," Dalibor replied. "If you asked me seven years ago whether Mitt was a good man or not, I'd say yes in a heartbeat. Now though…I'm not sure at all. It's hard to say what really drives that man. I can say one thing for sure. …A dark cloud's come over him. Whatever happened, he's not the Guildmaster Mitrofan I came to know so well over the years. He's a lot more…threatening, and prone to anger if you get on his bad side. The old Mitt was more calm and collected, and seemed to deal with any problem that came his way. The last part he still does…but in a more ruthless fashion. You will rue his punishment if you get on his bad side; hell, it'll be your last big regret. …Whatever happened to him, it must have been something serious."

"It had to have been," Elvira agreed. "Mitrofan was a good person once. He had to have changed for a reason."

"...You know, I've had a bit of a hunch for the last while," the Grimmsnarl went on. "I don't really have any evidence to back it up, but I wonder if it might be why Mitt's behaviour suddenly took a turn. I think…it has something to do with Tsar Kliment."

"Kliment? …But Mitrofan murdered him, didn't he?" Arian pointed out.

"That's beside the point. I'm wondering…if Kliment maybe did something to Mitt that drove him to kill him," Dalibor brainstormed. "Let's face it; murder's a serious matter, and regicide is one of the gravest crimes one can commit. Then there's Mitrofan, who was the Guildmaster of possibly the most prestigious guild in Ardalion, and who stuck true to his oath. …For him to break his oath and kill someone, and that person being the tsar of our country…it had to have been something monumental that caused it. Maybe…Tsar Kliment isn't as innocent as we first thought. Maybe he did an equally appalling act that caused Mitt to get revenge by killing him."

"But what did he do?" wondered Arian.

"Hmm…" The Grimmsnarl hesitated as he thought up an answer to the Riolu's question. Then his eyes lit up. "I was thinking...could it possibly have to do with - ?"

"Mr Dalibor! Please, help us!"

"Hm?" Dalibor turned his gaze to the door, where two young orphans stood: a Bulbasaur and a Litleo. "Paige and Leo? Is something the matter?"

"Yes!" Paige, the Bulbasaur, cried. "It's Rufus!"

"Why? What's up with him?" Cornelia asked. "For that matter, where is he?"

"That's the thing," Leo, the Litleo, replied. "He…He went into the Catacombs!"

"What?!" Dalibor exclaimed. "But the Catacombs are forbidden to unauthorised entry!"

"We know! And we told him that!" Paige said in response. "But he wouldn't listen! He said he was going to prove he was brave to us! And then he distracted the knights around there so he could enter!"

"We tried to warn him!" Leo added. "But…"

"He always was a rebellious soul, Rufus…" muttered Dalibor, before getting up from his seat. "...Stay here and mind the kids, dear. I'm going to rescue him."

"What?" Cornelia turned to him, a worried look in her eyes. "Dali, you can't! It's like you said; it's forbidden to enter the Catacombs. Even Mitrofan enforces that rule. You aren't on his bad side, Dali, but…if you're found out, then that might land you in hot water, and jeopardise your position with him."

"...All the same, I can't just leave Rufus all alone in that place," the Grimmsnarl protested. "He might be a bold one, but even he can't handle the Catacombs! What guardian would I be if I left one of my orphans to fend for himself in the Irian Catacombs of all places?"

"...We could go," offered Arian. "We could rescue Rufus for you."

"You four?" A doubtful look crossed Dalibor's face. "You're just as unauthorised as I am. I'm not saying you're not fit for the job, but…if my punishment for trespassing there would be bad, yours would be incredibly severe. Mercs are already reviled by Mitt - if you enter the Catacombs, you'll worsen that stain, and make any chance to prove yourself innocent even harder than it already would be."

"But…ain't that kinda beside the point?" Natalie pointed out. "We're already on the lam; if we run into Ol' Mitt, we ain't gonna be able to say we ain't a guilty bunch of folks. Arian an' Elvira are bein' hunted by 'em knights while we're talkin' here. Yer better off stayin' here while we go find this Rufus fella yer talkin' 'bout."

"...She has a point, dear," Cornelia said. "If they're offering to help, we should take them up on it. Their names are already tarnished in Mitrofan's eyes; what's a little more wrongdoing? It's better than potentially damaging relations with Mitrofan and risk losing the occasional contribution he donates to us."

"...Alright," Dalibor relented. "Please, rescue Rufus for us. He's a young Growlithe aged thirteen. He's bold and brash, and…while he's not a bad fighter for someone his age, he can overestimate what he's capable of. It's best you rescue him before he lands himself in trouble."

"Sure thing," Arian obliged.

"…Oh, before you go, take this." Cornelia reached for a nearby pamphlet and gave it to the group. "It's a map of Iria. You should be able to locate the Catacombs that way."

"Thanks very much," Elvira said to her. "Well, let's not waste any more time. Let's go and rescue Rufus."

The four left the room, the two boys from earlier sidestepping to let them pass. Dalibor watched them go, his gaze fixed specifically on Elvira.

Looks like your wish was fulfilled in the end, Kallias. …Here's hoping she can keep doing it without repercussions.





"Hmm…ah, here are the Catacombs." Serafina pointed to where the aforementioned location was. "...Alas, it is not near us. It will take some time and some amount of street crossing before we arrive," she noted disappointedly.

"That's not good," Elvira observed, looking at the map herself. "The knights are most likely still on the lookout for us. We need to be extra careful as we make our way to there."

"Understood," Arian said. He looked up and down the street outside the orphanage, which, luckily for them, was quiet. "Let's make headway. The sooner we find Rufus, the better." He said this to each of his fellow mercenaries, but one look at Natalie reminded him of earlier. "Oh, by the way, thanks for convincing Dalibor for letting us do this, Natalie. You really helped us out back there."

"Who, me?" The Ledian looked away shyly. "...I didn't do nothin'...Y'all woulda said it better than me…I was just lucky. City folk don't normally like my accent…"

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